Early Spring 1991
The air had gone misty and cold and Sarah was both soaked and shivering. But her discomfort had ceased to matter more than an hour ago.
She watched the blades slice into the water, watched well-muscled bodies lean over their oars, arms straining. Sarah could see rhythm in their movements, though she could never have mimicked the quick, efficient beat they all moved to. Not with an activity that strenuous.
"Come on, come on," she cupped her shaking hands around her mouth and shrieked, "pull smooth, Gardiner! I know you're better than that!"
Out on the water, Brent Gardiner gave no indication of having heard her.
Sarah got a glimpse of a mop of blond hair, a cloak with a feather collar, and a scarf in Merton colors. Just seeing him again made her heart beat a little faster, burned away the chill in her cheeks, leaving them hot.
She turned to look, but the figure was gone.
If he'd really been there, it just figured he'd support a shell opposing hers, she grumbled.
Lady Margaret Hall's rowers placed second, which the rest of the school seemed to view as lost. Sarah hadn't really expected them to beat out Merton, who had been fantastic this year. And if one looked at the times, they been really surprisingly close.
Sarah almost blamed the apparition of Jareth. But why would he interfere in a three-shell intra-uni stake race?
Everyone in the Hall seemed morose regardless. Gardiner and his girlfriend, Leah Cannon, settled into the kitchen of the flat they all shared with far more six packs of godawful beer than seemed strictly necessary.
It was pretty obvious they planned to drown the kitchen and their sorrows in empty beer cans and "almost won it" stories.
So she packed a weekend's worth of clothes into a bag and made her way to the train station. She tucked her Lady Margaret scarf around her neck and zipped up her jacket over it before she left. As she walked to the station — keeping up a brisk pace, her heels click click clicking on the pavement — she looped her ex-boyfriend's Kellogg scarf over her head, tucking her hair inside.
They had a direct service between Oxford and London every thirty minutes. She pulled a few handfuls of bills from an autoteller and stuffed them into her wallet, leaving only enough for the ticket out.
It was near dark when Sarah finally arrived in London. She took a moment to stretch and really wake up before giving up her seat. At least London was further south — and thus slightly warmer — than Oxford had been.
She stepped off the train and and smiled at the sense of energy that seemed to seep up from the station's floor. Oxford was lively, sure, but London itself seemed alive somehow.
Sarah stepped away from the terminal to look at the tube map and the printed schedule. Coming to London at all had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. She was reluctant to over-plan now.
So she picked the soonest train — which went to Charing Cross — and reasoned that she'd figure out a hotel or bed and breakfast when she'd explored a bit.
Charing Cross was basically heaven for a woman studying English Literature. So many bookshops, so little time. And some of them kept such odd hours. Even the ones that were closed provided some excellent window shopping.
She couldn't help but laugh at herself.
And then she stumbled onto a budiling that definitely wasn't a book shop. Sarah tilted her head.
The Leaky Cauldron.
Weird name for a pub, and even odder that it still frosted its windows. Hadn't most pubs stopped that?
She swung the door open and blinked at the strangest assortment of fashions she'd ever seen. Most of them wore long robes in varying colors. A few of them had pointy witch hats. And no few of them were staring back at her. Was this some sort of theme pub?
"Close the door if you're coming in," said the bartender in a bored tone.
She stepped fully into the pub and let the door fall closed behind her. Then, with a shrug, she made her way to the bar.
"Diagon Alley entrance is out back, if you're looking for it."
The bartender gave her a sage nod. "Ah, American. It'd be similar to your Goblin Market over in... Salem, I think?"
Sarah fought not to recoil. But all the same, she could feel her hands began to shake. "G-g-Goblin Market?!"
The bartender gave her a bland look. "Don't blame me for what you American Witches call it."
"It's Witchesabbath now anyway," a customer offered from a few feet away, also at the bar. "'pparently the goblins in America got shirty about an all-human mall calling itself after them."
"What aren't they shirty about?"
Sarah tried to imagine Jareth's goblins being 'shirty' about much of anything. And couldn't. They'd been a mischievous and occasionally mindlessly cruel but otherwise comical lot.
The bartender gave her a suspicious look. "You are here to shop, aren't you?"
"Jones, you want to show her?"
The customer heaved himself from his bar stool and into a slump. He made his way past other stools and tables. Sarah followed him to a small wooden door, and then out into a dingy courtyard.
He counted bricks away from the dustbin, then tapped a stubby little wooden stick against a brick three times.
Sarah watched as the bricks fell away to reveal a brightly-lit street.
The robed gentleman flourished his arms at the street. Still in shock, Sarah stepped through the arch and onto the new street.
"Diagon Alley," she breathed.
The wall rose up behind her. Sarah turned, but could see no way back out. She fought down instinctive panic and reminded herself that sometimes the way back was forward. And was she really going to pass up the opportunity to explore a brand new world, one that seemed to exist right alongside her everyday, ho-hum college student existence? She took a few deep breaths, then stepped away from the wall to explore the street.
"What do you mean you don't take pounds?!"
The street vendor stared at her, then gave her a lingering up-and-down look. Usually when men did that, she bristled. But this one wasn't checking her out; he was trying to place her clothing. He seemed particularly confused by her jeans — and not the fact that they were acid washed. Just that she was wearing them.
Sarah had a feeling that this conversation was about to go nowhere good. So she asked, "Is there someplace I can, I don't know, exchange my money?"
"Gringotts," the street vendor said, pointing at a white buiding in the distance.
Sarah left the cart with the delicious looking meat pies behind and headed up the street. The closer she got to Gringotts, the stranger the building looked. It wasn't quite ramshackle, exactly — but it was definitely built by goblins. Or idiots. The columns that held up its facade seemed to lean, giving the building a mismatched look. Lopsided, really. She half wondered if it was going to fall over soon.
She stopped to read the inscription on the doors, noting two goblins who looked slightly more human to her than what she assumed were their brethren in the Undergound.
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn.
She almost laughed aloud. Their King stole children, and warned people not to steal from his bank?
And then she noticed the way the gobln guards were eyeing her. When she finally returned their glances, they both immediately snapped their gazes elsewhere.
But one murmured, "Lady Williams," as she passed them into the bank.
Sarah almost turned right around to look for a way out. But she took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. Now inside, she saw several lines of people with pointy hats and long robes. Fortunately, there was a family of people dressed like her at the end of one line. She moved to stand behind them. They even had a normally-dressed young girl with them; in fact, the only thing odd about them at all was the way the adults were looking at everything around them as if dazed and the girl's almost unnaturally unruly hair.
Sarah smiled. "You don't have to worry. They're not going to swarm and eat you or anything."
The woman jumped and then turned to her. "What was that, miss?"
"I was just... trying to be reassuring. Sorry."
One of the goblin workers turned to eye her. It wasn't quite a nasty, 'get out of here,' look. But there was definitely an element of 'I know what you did and nobody's happy with you about it.'
"Oh. No, it's quite alright. Thank you for trying." The woman paused, then tilted her head and said, "An American? In Wizarding London?"
Sarah bit back the urge to say 'Well, I could be a werewolf and in Paris.' If Goblins lived above ground and some form of British government acknowledged the sovereignty of a currency other than GBP (something she'd always thought would happen on a pleasant day in hell), werewolves could very well be real. Dragons and unicorns too, for that matter.
"We're kind of like bad pennies. Just turn up everywhere," Sarah said instead. She held out a hand. "I'm Sarah Williams."
The other woman smiled and shook her hand. "Jean Granger, my husband Eugene, and our daughter, Hermione." Eugene Granger waved. Hermione turned to grace her with a smile, though she looked a little awkward.
"A pleasure to meet you. So, what brings you here?"
Eugene seemed to swell. Probably with pride. "Our daughter's been accepted into Hogwarts! The finest school for young wizards and witches in all of Britain and most of Europe!"
"Oh. Well done, then. Did they have fiendish entrance exams?" Sarah turned to give Hermione a conspiratorial wink. "Did you have to turn someone into a toad?"
"No," said the girl, quite seriously. "I just received a letter one morning saying I'm a witch, and that the Deputy Headmistress wanted to come and talk to my parents about my magical education. And now we're here to buy my school things."
Jean made a startled noise and said, "Oh, Eugene, the line is moving. Perhaps we should stop —"
"—yes, lollygagging, I know, dear. It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Williams."
"Nice meeting you," she said, bemused.
As she moved up to follow them, she heard the goblin that had been eyeing her mutter, "Maybe we would have swarmed them and eated them, Lady Williams. Bet you never thinked of that."
Some things never changed. She resisted the urge to sigh.
When she finally made it to the counter, the goblin there made a show of writing neatly in a ledger with an actual quill pen. His movements were both elaborate and precise, creating a tight, scratchy script that didn't seem to blot as badly as she would have trying to write that way. She'd tried calligraphy in high school and been terrible at it.
Then he looked up from his ledger. She knew the moment he recognized her; his eyes widened slightly and then narrowed. The 'we know who you are, we know what you did, and we're not thrilled' look appeared on his face.
But all he said was, "State your business."
So Sarah slid her photocopied pass port and Bod card over the desk. He looked at them, and then said, "Sarah Galadriel Williams?"
A nod. "If you will please follow Griphook to meet Ragnok?"
"Sure. Uh, who's Griphook?"
A goblin stepped forward from behind the counter and gave a slight bow. "I am, Lady Williams." He wore the same unwelcoming expression as all the rest.
"Right then. Lead the way."
The way turned out to be stepping into a cart that hurtled down a series of tunnels at high speed. The trip felt like an exhilarating cross between exploring a mineshaft, playing bumper cars, and a rollercoaster.
They stopped in front of an office with closed double doors. Two torches burned outside it. After a moment, the doors swung open and another goblin emerged from the office.
Sarah clambered out of the cart. Her legs wobbled as she took her first few steps, but she managed to collect herself quickly enough.
"Are you Ragnok?"
The goblin nodded, but said nothing until they had crossed the threshold of his office and he had closed the doors. Sarah blinked at what she saw; the office was decorated primarily in red and gold. Two human-sized chairs with thick red upholstery and gilt leaf decorations sat before a huge mahogany desk.
"Please sit, Lady Williams."
Sarah sat in one of the chairs. The entire office — and especially sitting in a big chair across a huge desk from a short but intimidating non-human high roller — had such an aura that she crossed her legs at the ankle and primly folded her hands in her lap.
"Please allow me to be frank, Lady Williams. You are at present... a source of conflict for the Goblin Kingdom. Until certain matters are resolved, we cannot welcome you personally." Before Sarah could ask what the hell matters he was talking about, Ragnok raised a finger. "However, due to your nature as a Champion of the Labyrinth, there are certain services we are obligated to provide."
"Certain services?" She leaned forward a little. "Is that like 'certain powers?'"
Ragnok's tone turned sharp. "Considering the circumstances, I find that jape to be in very poor taste."
The comment caught her completely by surprise. It wasn't just being told off by a goblin. It wasn't just that she was talking to a goblin banker with an office worth more than her every meagre possession in England (which seemed completely impossible for reasons obvious to anyone who had ever visited the Labyrinth). It wasn't just that he was alluding to circumstances she had no idea of. It was all of it.
And then Ragnok said, as if testing the idea, "You are unaware."
"Yes," she said. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. What certain matters need resolving? And what circumstances are you talking about?"
"I am not at liberty to allude to the matter any more specifically than I have. Suffice to say, this should be a subject of discussion for you and the Goblin King."
Fear me, love me, and I will be your slave, Jareth offered from across the years, his words tickling at the edges of her thoughts. She'd turned him down.
It had been the right decision. But she'd always wondered. He was exciting, and interesting, and a mystery she wanted to solve.
"Wait, you're telling that I'm persona non grata in your bank because I didn't marry your king when I was fifteen?"
"Lady Williams," Ragnok said, looking pained. "I can neither confirm nor deny that statement."
Which was, they obviously both knew, a 'yes.' Ragnok looked both uncomfortable with having her in his office, and massively irritated with the situation. He pulled at his collar.
Sarah decided to show a little mercy. "Right. Well, I'll discuss those 'certain matters' with Jareth as soon as I can, I promise. Talk to me about the certain services you have to provide?"
Ragnok's brows drew down at her using the Goblin King's given name. But then he seemed to write her off as human and rude and also the mean nasty woman who broke his poor king's tender heart. And he explained: "As Champion of the Labyrinth, you have access to a communal vault. You may enter it at any time by exercising your... certain powers…or simply speaking to a Gringotts teller during business hours."
"Fair enough," she said.
"Your vault has no key. Instead its door will be primed to a word or phrase of your choosing. You may establish a representative with a word or phrase of their own." Ragnok paused, then gave her a frank look. "Considering your status in the Goblin Kingdom, it would be best to do so as soon as possible. Now, for instance."
"There's really no one I could name right now," Sarah said, spreading her hands. "I'm sorry. I can see this is awkward."
"Awkward. Yes." His expression said, quite clearly, that 'awkward' wasn't the half of it. "Would you like to set your entrance key now?"
"Uhm. Yes, I would?"
He picked up a strange golden contraption — it could have been some sort of whimsical clockwork dream-bauble. Or it could have been a wiffle ball made out of golden wire — and passed it across the desk. "Simply lift that and speak into it."
Sarah picked up the golden wiffle ball and said, "Tobias Gregory Williams."
The air inside the wiffle ball turned orange and then green.
"I believe that will be all, Lady Williams. Griphook will take you to the Champions' vault." As she stood to leave, he added, "It is customary for a Champion to leave at least a small offering on each visit. Please have a pleasant stay in Wizarding London."
"Have a nice day," she replied, an automatic courtesy, and left through the double doors.
Griphook was standing by the cart still.
Her vault, it turned out, was pretty much a treasure trove worthy of Smaug. Huge golden coins lay along the floor in stacks and heaps and piles, with normal-sized silver coins and even tiny brassy ones lying around as well. There was a heap of gems. There was a conical headdress that looked like something she'd seen on photos of Egyptian walls, only made out of some white metal that glittered like a diamond.
To a just-this-side-of-broke college student, the amount of wealth on display was obscene.
Sarah lifted a hubcap-sized coin and turned to Griphook. "What's the exchange rate on these?"
"Approximately five British pounds."
There was no way. She could have sold the gold for a couple hundred dollars at least, back home.
"Right. Okay. Talk money to me, Griphook. What do all these coins mean?"
Griphook grabbed an armload full of coins and proceeded to attempt to explain the system to her. It made her head hurt — did British wizards have something against round numbers? — but something in the way Griphook talked about it made her suspect that the goblins had influenced the system.
Well, they had to keep themselves amused somehow, and it wasn't like you could build trebuchets in the middle of a shopping district.
Sarah scooped a few armfuls of coins into a sack Griphook provided, then tied the sack to one of her belt loops. Before they left, Sarah left all but what she needed for a return ticket to London on the vault's floor.
Sarah ended up shopping until well after dark. She bought as many books on 'wizarding' history as she could conceivably carry and read. And then, just for the hell of it, she bought a book of basic spells. Just to see what human magic could do.
She spent so long in the bookstore that she wound up not being in time to find some robes to wear and make herself blend in a little better.
In the end it didn't matter: when she made it back to the Leaky Cauldron and traded a few Galleons for a room key, she saw a red-headed man in clothes that looked surprisingly normal sitting at the bar. She crossed to the redhead, pointed at a seat next to him, and smiled.
"Mind if I...?"
The man gave her a startled look before shaking his head. "No, not at all. I'm Bill Weasley. And you?"
"Sarah Williams." She paused, then said, "And yes, an American in Wizarding Britain. I'm studying at Oxford, thought I'd take a trip up to London and get away from other students for a while."
"Oh, really? At Nimue, right? I've heard they can be a feisty lot."
There was some kind of school for witches at Oxford? Of course there was. They had their own money. They had their own version of London.
She was going to have to track down this Nimue college.
"Lady Margaret Hall, actually."
"I've never heard of that one."
She didn't say she'd never heard of Nimue. Instead, she said, "It's not huge. So what are you drinking?"
"This? Oh, it's Curmudgeon's Flaming Special. Not great, but it's nice enough when it's been on fire."
Sarah tilted her head, smiled, and said, "Show me."
Bill swallowed and turned to the bartender. "Tom, we'll have two Welsh Greens."
Tom nodded and plunked down two shotglasses on the table. He filled them almost to the top with a golden-orange spirit, flecked with bright red and what looked like tiny cinnamon shavings. He poured absinthe on top, watched it glisten green atop the red for a moment.
Then, with a melodramatic flourish, he dropped two sugar cubes into the shotglasses, rapped the wood of the bar, and said, "Incendio."
The sugar cubes caught fire as they sank, igniting the absinthe.
Bill pulled out a stick and pointed it both glasses, muttering something under his breath. Then he grabbed the shotglass and tipped its contents into his mouth, swallowing in one long gesture.
Sarah mimicked him. She tasted the green of the absinthe, and something a little smoky — the fire itself? — but she also tasted whiskey and cinnamon and caramellized sugar.
She slammed the shotglass back down on the bar and wanted another.
Bill turned to look at her. His eyes were sparkling with something that might have been mischief and might have been flirtation.
"Let's do another round of those. On me this time."
After their third round, Bill explained that he acquired treasure for Gringotts, and worked closely with some of the upper-level staff.
Sarah almost went to her room. But her stomach was warm and the shots were delicious. So she stayed and smiled and didn't say anything about the Labyrinth.
By round five, she felt boneless and warm, and found herself saying, "It's funny. I never even knew this little world existed until I stepped into this pub earlier."
The barkeep turned to them, looking alarmed. Even Bill looked rather drunkenly startled and the guilty.
Sarah waved her hands in the air. "No, no, no. This world I didn't know about. But did you know there's a place Underground? Not like right under us, just down somewhere else. 's where goblins come from. Met 'em when I was fifteen. I like this place a lot better. No smelly bogs or forests full of people who depa — decapit — take their heads and arms and things off. Do miss the goblins, though."
The barkeep nodded along and began to reach under the bar.
But Bill jabbed a finger at her. "How did you know about the Underground?"
"Told you. Went there when I was fifteen. I like Diagon Alley — no, no, I like Wizarding Britain a whole ton better. I wish I didn't actually have to leave it behind."
And then she realized what she'd said. Her stomach lurched as if she'd fallen off the bar stool. Then it did some sort of victory flop and climbed straight up her throat.
Sarah clapped her hands over her mouth.
And then the door opened, and in walked a man in dark colors and a feathered cloak. He had a shock of blond hair, unruly as she remembered it. Her heart beat a little faster and for a moment she could actually feel her face as her cheeks went hot again.
Sarah was torn between alpologizing and greeting him enthusisastically. She never got to decide; Jareth walked straight for her. He straddled the bar stool next to her, then rested his elbows against the bar and turned to look at her in one long, graceful movement. Her hormones thanked him. The rest of her felt floaty enough to hope he'd be merciful.
"Jareth," she said.
"Mr. Rex," said Bill.
"Will. If you don't mind, it seems Sarah and I have a few things to discuss."
Bill nodded, murmured something like 'nice meeting you' to her, and fled the bar for a booth. Unfortunately, he took the bottle of Curmudgeon's with him.
Jareth smiled. It was one of his deeply unsettling knife-edge smiles, more predatory than happy.
"Ragnar tells me there is something you wish to discuss, and in the same day, you make a wish?" His voice turned to a purr. "Are you eager to see me, then?"
She was not sober enough for this complication. Conversation. Holy shit, what kind of alcohol content was in that whiskey?
Jareth watched her for a moment, then turned to the bartender. "I'd think she's had enough."
"No." Sarah pointed a finger at him. "Oh no, no. You have no power over me. You don't get to... get to... be all not here and Underground for five years and then come in and cut me off!"
"Why, precious Sarah, have you missed me?"
She mustered every scrap of dignity it was possible to have while bonelessly drunk, looked him straight in the eye and said, "I... I'm going to my room. If you want to talk, we can talk when I'm sober."
She stood to go. She even made it four or five steps before tripping over somebody's chair and nearly ending up sprawling. She managed to right herself, grab her shopping bags, and make it to the stairs.
As she reached out for the rickety railing, she felt a warm hand at her elbow. The touch sent a warm, pleasant jolt along her arm.
Sarah half turned to find Jareth standing behind her, not that she'd expected anyone else. He raised an eyebrow, looking at once amused and irritated by her stubbornness.
"We can hardly talk later, precious thing, if you break your neck on the stairs," he said, voice quiet and tone for once not menacing or arrogant.
Sarah accepted his help up the stairs. But once she made it to her door, she unlocked it, pushed her shopping bags in, and closed it again.
"When I'm sober," she said again.
"I will return to Diagon Alley at noon tomorrow," he said. "We have much to discuss, precious thing."
He dipped his head, almost like he was about to kiss her. She felt her eyes open wide. Her feet froze to the spot as she tried to determine whether to duck inside the door, to duck to the side, to reach up with the meat of her hand and send fragments of a broken nose up into his brain —
Or whether to let him.
But he only reached down to tug her Kellogg scarf away from her hair hair with a flourish. He gave her a crooked smile she couldn't but return and tucked it into his cloak.
Something cracked. It could have been thunder; it could have been human bone.
And then he was gone.
Sarah woke to sunlight. Her head pounded, her stomach throbbed, and her throat felt raw. She fumbled her way out of her blankets and made her way to the dresser.
"God, my hair's a wreck," she said, pulling vainly at the mass of tangles. She'd let it grow out. It hit about mid-back by now; totally impractical, but she loved the way it looked and made her feel.
It really sucked that she'd been too drunk to really think about braiding or brushing it last night. This was going to take some serious conditioner and work to do anything about.
A brisk female voice replied, "Yes, dear, but you can fix that in a trice."
Sarah flung herself backward, away from the source of the voice. She went down on the edge of her bed; the impact seemed to jar every bone in her body. Even her teeth lodged quick throbs of red in protest.
"Who was that?"
"Me, dear. The mirror."
"You can talk?!"
"I think we established that already. Now, get your hair brush and come over here. We've work to do on that rat's nest."
Sarah dug through her bag and grabbed her hair brush.
"Tap it on the dresser twice and brush your hair," the mirror said.
She did it as it asked, wincing at the noise. Within moments, she wished she hadn't tried to do anything about her hair. Strangely, the brush slid easily through the tangles — if she hadn't been especially hung over, it probably would have been pleasant.
Sarah washed her face and managed not to throw up from either pain or the roiling in her gut.
Then she changed clothes, made the effort of actually unpacking, and headed downstairs.
A clock informed her that it was only nine. Nine was an ungodly hour to wake up on a Sunday, but she had an appointment at twelve.
"Breakfast," she begged Tom. "Something greasy. Easy on the throat."
Tom ended up giving her eggs and sausage with toast sopped in butter. She drank lukewarm tea with honey and smiled. That was better already. Maybe she'd even do some reading before she went shopping.
Sarah pulled the LMH scarf from around her head as she stepped into Madam Malkin's. An elegant blonde with a boy who couldn't have been more than eleven — if that — looked up from a selection of fabrics. The blonde's eyes skimmed over her, gaze taking in the well-worn scarf, the jeans, the scuffed heels.
And then she said, in a tone that was at once silvery and irritated Sarah as much as nails on a chalkboard, "Madam, I believe this one needs your help more than I."
A woman in gorgeous velvet robes, with frizzy dark hair and huge glasses, looked up. There was a pause, and then the woman shook her head. "Oh dear. Really, darling, I understand you need to blend a bit in Muggle London, but that is not the way to do it."
"Muggle Oxford, actually," she said. "I'm a student at Lady Margaret Hall."
"That's nice, dear," Madam Malkin said. Her smile was stretched tight.
Oh boy. Sarah spread her hands. "Well, Madam, looks like I'm going to need help blending in anywhere."
The other woman nodded, then grabbed several swatches of fabrics. "Come with me, please."
The fabrics Malkin had chosen were all shades of green, blue, or white. Sarah rubbed her fingers along a white fabric with deep green borders.
"Yes, that does seem to suit you," Malkin agreed. "I'd suggest white with colored borders."
There was a cleaning charm in the basic book of spells. Sarah knew better than to ask about staining or fabric care.
Instead she said, "Right. If not white, stick to jewel tones?"
"Clever girl. Now let's decide on the cut, hm?"
After a few experiments, Sarah settled on a cut that looked less monkish and more simply archaic. High waisted, with a closer fitting skirt. The sleeves, however, proved a problem.
"I like the longer, tapered sleeves," Sarah said. "But in spring and summer? It won't be so bad here, but if I go home for vaction..."
"Oh, there are always cooling charms and lighter fabrics," Malkin said with a smile. "And even the tapered sleeves don't need to touch your fingertips. I find in summer I simply drop them just above the elbow. Creates a nice bell shape, see?"
She swished her wand around, and the fabric took shape.
"I'm sold," Sarah said.
Malkin smiled. "Good lass."
By the time noon rolled around, Sarah had managed to figure out how to blend. It wasn't just a matter of clothing, she'd realized. Wizards and witches seemed to move in a different rhythm; it might have been the clothes, it might have been the certainty of magic and what it could fix. It might have just been wizarding culture.
But she'd moved through the crowd until she'd found the street rhythm, and after an hour or so she'd settled into it enough that nobody gave her a second glance. Or at least, not the kind of second glances she wanted to avoid.
Sarah was sitting outside Florian Fortescue's with a cup of coffee and a book when Jareth appeared. Yet again, she heard the cracking noise, and then Jareth's gloved hand was pulling one of the chairs away from the table.
A breeze rose up from the ground in a circle around them, ruffling his hair and her robes.
"None will notice us, so you may speak freely," Jareth said. He paused, then added, in an amused tone, "You always did have a propensity for costumes."
Sarah looked up at him, closed her book, and stowed it away in her bag. "You're not going to embarass me with that. But I appreciate the privacy. Where would you like to start?"
"Embarass you? Hardly, precious thing. The style suits you." His expression turned sour, the corners of his mouth drawing down. "First, your wish. Are you aware of what you have done?"
"In coming here, you have stepped into a world that will relinquish you even less easily than mine. Had you not said those particular words, you would have been unable to leave this world behind."
"But now I get a choice?" Sarah tilted her head and watched him close. "And are you really expecting me to walk away from all this?"
Jareth's mouth twisted again. This time it formed a rueful smile. His gaze went distant. "No, but the bargain was struck. You will have a choice."
And with that, he held out a hand. She watched mist gather there, sparkling and swirling, and then it was one of his dream-baubles.
"When you return to your cramped little flat in Oxford, a letter will come for you. If you wish to remain in this world, answer it. If you wish to escape, then break the crystal."
She reached out to take it from his hand. It was warm in her palm. She tucked it away in her bag and looked up at him. "Thank you."
Jareth gave her a satisfied-cat smile. "You thanks are unnecessary, but appreciated. As for the other matter..."
Oh, this conversation was going to be complicated. But she'd promised, and if he was what she thought he was, then he could make her life miserable for breaking a promise she'd made him. However indirectly.
So she rolled her shoulders, took a deep breath, and said, "I was fifteen."
"That's your explanation? I offered you everything, you spurned me, and I am to excuse it because 'you were fifteen?'"
"I didn't know what you were offering. I wasn't old enough to understand, and even if I'd had an inkling, I wouldn't have been old enough to give you what you were asking for."
He folded his hands together in a steeple, then looked away.
Sarah sighed. "And the petulant 'how dare I turn you down' attitude doesn't make me want to revisit that offer."
"You wish to be courted." Jareth's eyes were sharp on her, gaze intent and searching. As if he was trying to see inside her. Or just cut her to ribbons with the power of his mismatched pupils.
Sarah took a few sips of coffee while she thought about how to explain herself.
At length, she set the cup down on her saucer and said, "No. I don't want to be courted. There is no prescribed list of steps you can take, besides 'not being an ass' and 'not kidnapping my brother again.'"
Jareth drew himself up, either to offer some scathing retort or to start a haughty fit.
Before he could say anything, Sarah held up a hand, "But I'm open to re-opening negotations on this whole 'relationship' thing later. I think that's... fair."
"My least favorite word." He looked disgruntled. Well, elegantly disgruntled, and she wasn't sure how he managed that.
"Jareth. If you want something serious, we're going to need to be friends first. If you don't want something serious…" She trailed off. He wasn't stupid. "But please don't get me wrong. I do want to be friends."
"Very well," he said. Then, with a crook of a smile, he stood and extended his arm. "Come. There is one place you have not visited. It will be... enlightening."
Ollivander's Wand Shop. Sarah looked up at the sign and at the wands in the windows before turning to Jareth.
He looked impassive. There was no hint of smugness in his expression, no hint that he had found some way to humilitate her. In fact, he seemed mostly curious, and slightly tense.
"You don't seriously think...?"
"The last mortal to do so well as you in my Labyrinth was Godric Gryffindor," he said, tone quiet. "I have no need of wands, nor are my subjects permitted them. But this world requires a wand of you, and a wand you shall have."
So Sarah pushed open the door and was surprised to find no one else in the shop. She saw only a polished wood counter, a second room hidden by a curtain, and a wall full of slender rectangular boxes. After a moment, a short, balding, bespectacled man appeared out of a back room. His eyes lit first on her and he smiled.
"Welcome to Ollivander's my dear. I am Gerrick Ollivander. Have you come late to your magic?"
"I'm Sarah Williams." Sarah gave a sheepish smile. "And it's something like that, I guess. How'd you know?"
"Because I remember every wand I've ever sold, and every face I've ever sold it to. You have never set foot in this shop."
Ollivander's gaze turned to Jareth. His eyes narrowed for an instant before he turned back to Sarah. He tilted his head, considering her for a moment. A cloth measuring tape unfurled at a gesture from his wand, and began measuring along her arms. It measured from fingertip to elbow of both arms, then the space between her knuckles, then shoulder to jawline.
It was odd, but not unnerving. She tried to stand patiently while Ollivander jotted the measurements down on a scrap of parchment with a feather quill.
"I suspect vine and unicorn for you. Ah, here. Vine and unicorn tail hair, nine inches. Firm, good for transfiguration." He waved his wand at the wall behind him, then at her. A box flew from the wall behind the counter and hovered by her nose.
Sarah took the box.
"Well, go ahead and try it. Just hold it and move it through the air. No attempts at spell-work, no matter what you've seen your relatives do."
She opened the box. The wand inside was certainly pretty. Hesitantly, she ran her finger along the wood, then grasped it by the carved handle at the end.
It felt cold. Almost dead.
"Not vine then. Perhaps... no, not hazel. Nor chestnut nor ash nor yew. Rowan, perhaps?" Another box floated near her. "Ten and a half inches, flexible. Unicorn tail core. Good for charms work."
Sarah replaced the vine wand in its box and grabbed the new box. She was less hesitant this time, giving it an experimental flick.
But nothing happened.
Ollivander's looked her in the eyes for a long moment. The expression on his face told her his contemplation wasn't so much thoughtful as wary.
"Those chosen by the rowan tree," Jareth said, very quietly from the door, "are known for being impossible to suborn. You have a potential for wickedness almost as great as my own, precious thing."
"Don't start that again, Jareth."
"Perhaps you should not have revelled in your will being as strong as mine." She could hear the satisfied, darkly amused curve of his lips in his voice. He placed an odd stress on 'will' that hinted that he had really been talking about the other half of her final declaration.
It was an unsettling thought, but she dismissed it fairly easily. She'd had this argument before, the one other time she'd spoken to the Goblin King after she'd defeated his Labryinth. She'd known then and she knew now: potential was just potential. Lots of things could be other things, and not everything had to be what it had seemed. She didn't have to be perfect to be good.
Sarah ended up going through four or five more wands, their boxes piling up on the counter, before Ollivander finally said, "My dear, you are either a silver lime or sycamore if ever I've met one."
The silver lime wand was beautiful. It felt faintly warm to the touch and she hoped it would be hers.
But it lay lifeless in her grasp.
Ollivander furrowed his brow and then said. "Very well. Try this one: ten and a half inches, supple. Sycamore witth a phoenix feather core."
The wand seemed alive. Its wood was warm as another person's hand, and when she wrapped her fingers around the handle, she felt a delicous thrill run along the bone of her arm and down her spine.
She gave it an experimental swish. A trail of colored light followed its tip.
Ollivander smiled. "Try a spell now, if you please. A patronus, perhaps or — "
"Lumos," Sarah whispered.
The wand's tip lit up. It produced a ball of light, perfectly spherical and silvery in color. For a moment she was reminded of Jareth's dream baubles.
"Finite Incantatem." The light snuffed itself.
"A questing wand for a restless, seeking heart. Try not to use it for mundane tasks; sycamore wands are known to set themselves ablaze when they're bored."
Sarah left Ollivander's four galleons poorer than she'd expected to, but all in all she was thrilled. Jareth seemed amused by her excitement.
"Thank you," she said. "Without you, I probably would have just passed it by, assuming that I..."
He graced her with a crooked smile again. "You have quite the problem with assumptions, precious thing."
Another time, she might have been angry. But the way he was smiling, and happy and light as she felt, it just didn't seem worth getting angry about.
Besides, he'd been right. She was big enough to admit that.
She smiled at him. "I kind of do. But I'm not going to apologize for it; I've muddled my way through this far."
At her smile, his own widened. For once it wasn't predatory, simply pleased. His eyes crinkled at the corners, eyes narrowing like a pleased cat's.
And then she had to step aside before a small red-headed boy barreled into her. She turned instinctively, watching him careen palm-first into the window of a shop. He smushed his face up against the glass.
From behind her, a woman shouted, "Ronald Bilius Weasley you apologize to those people you almost ran into! And stop pressing your face to the glass! It's distasteful!"
Sarah only waved a hand. "Far be it from me to stand between a boy and his..." She looked at the shop's name. "Quidditch supplies."
What was Quidditch? It sounded like it could be the name of some weird Labyrinth landmark. A ditch filled with squids and octopuses, maybe. But apparently it involved broomsticks.
"I do apologize for him," the woman's voice said, from somewhere nearer. Sarah turned to find a short, stout woman with laugh lines beginning around her eyes approaching. "Molly Weasley."
"Sarah Williams. I take it that's Ronald?"
"Yes, my second youngest. And speaking of youngest, where has Ginny gone? Ron, go find your sister. Don't give me that look! Do you want to go find the twins?"
"Sorry, Mum. She's probably at Florian's or the sweet shop..." A pause. "I'll go look. Meet you back here?"
"Directly here," Molly said. "I suppose I'd better go find my other two. Nice to meet you, Miss Williams."
"It was nice to meet you, Mrs. Weasley," Sarah said.
Jareth stepped slightly closer to her and offered her his arm. She gave him a look, but he only shook his head.
She didn't take his arm, but she did step away from the curb. He steered them back toward the inn.
In the Leaky Cauldron, Sarah smiled one more time. He didn't return it, but he didn't seem tense, either.
"I'd better make my way back to Oxford, huh?" She asked it softly. "Besides, I'm sure you have goblins to kick or throw in the Bog or something."
Jareth's mouth curved as he said, "No world likes to wait."
She got the feeling he wasn't just talking about this brand new wizarding world she'd stepped into.
"Right. Then I'd better pack and hand in my key." As she turned to head up the stairs, he grabbed her by the wrist.
"Sarah. If we are to be friends, I will make you a trade."
Well, that was interesting. "Trade of what?"
"Of promises. If you will promise me to be content with adventure, and not seek out further danger, I will... offer a promise in kind." The words seemed to be painful for him to say.
"What kind of promise?"
"I will promise, if you will pay the price," he said, slowly, with an expression of distaste, "to interfere no more in your affairs than a friend might."
Oh, no wonder he was so unhappy. Sarah thought back to saying she would try to be friends. Friends did not force other friends to make painful promises they might not even be able to keep. Especially if there were awful consequences for breaking those promises.
"I'm not going to make you try to promise that. It's way too open ended. Just... try to be a friend, and not a mildly-terrifying stranger who rearranges reality to suit himself. I'll be happy with that."
There was a glint in his eye now. "You will not promise not to seek danger."
Sarah shrugged. "A questing wand for a restless heart."
He laughed. And with a thunderous noise, he vanished.
Sarah arrived home to a surprisingly clean flat. Neither Brent nor Leah was in, but at least they hadn't made a beer can fort this time.
Funny. It was hard to be angry right now; she could remember being livid at the monstrosity that had invaded her kitchen, when she'd come home to find it. Looking back on the fort, she kind of wanted to laugh. At the time, she'd shouted. It had been the only shouting match she'd ever had with her roommates.
Sarah stowed her new books under her bed and the witch robes in the back of her closet. It was time to at least pretend to be a good student.
She grabbed her annotated copy of The Yellow Wallpaper and a set of highlighters. Before she started reading, Sarah flicked her dressing table light on.
The book had been unsettling on the first read. But after reading a biography on Charlotte Gilman, it had become terrifying. And the effect wasn't lessening with exposure.
She was on her third read-through and it still got to her.
And the lecture tomorrow would be discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper.
After as much as she could stand, Sarah shut the light off and rolled over. She'd just have to put little post-its or something in her book before class.
Sarah didn't end up going to her 'Wollstonecraft, Austen, Shelley, & Gilman: Feminism Before 1900' lecture.
She was awakened just before sun up by a big barn owl tapping on her window.
Update schedule for this one will be sporadic, since I've got two other Labyrinth projects going. The HP crossover idea just wouldn't leave me alone.
The sun hadn't yet risen, but she could hear something tapping. Something hard against... glass? What the hell?
Sarah determined to ignore it. She rolled over onto her stomach, turning her sheets, comforter, and quilts into a cocoon. And then she buried her head under her pillow.
The tapping continued.
Sarah groaned something that could have been either 'go away' or 'goh Waaagh!'
The tapping did not stop. Eventually, Sarah flopped back onto her back — which was a feat, constrained as she was — and turned her head to look balefully at whatever was making that ungodly noise.
She cracked her eyes open.
And realised three things: it wasn't actually sunrise yet, the noise was coming from her window, and there was a barn owl sitting outside it.
The owl just kept on beating its beak against her window. It didn't stop to acknowledge her.
She struggled free of her blanket burrito and opened the window. The owl hopped into her room and brought the cold air with it.
One of its legs had some sort of tube container affixed. She popped it open and withdrew — a scroll. An actual parchment scroll, with a red waxen seal. Holy moly. No wonder they still used feather quills.
Maybe she should invest in a set of fountain pens.
She scratched the seal away with her thumbnail, then unrolled the letter and had to whistle. Gorgeous penmanship, gorgeous embossed school logo...
She focused and actually read the letter.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Headmaster Albus Dumbledore
(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)
Dear Miss Williams,
It is my duty to inform you that you have come to the attention to the Hogwarts Enrollment Process as a newly emergent witch. The Ministry of Magic requires all witches and wizards to undergo training at an approved school for witchcraft or wizardry, or other Ministry-approved program.
You are above the usual enrollment age of Hogwarts school, but Hogwarts believes that all who wish to learn have the right to be taught.
If you would care to pursue education and licensure of your new talent, please write back with a time and location we may meet to discuss your options. Soonest is best, but I will be available throughout the week.
Sarah searched her bag for a good ball-point pen and some paper. She scratched Minerva McGonagall's name and title at the top, then penned a quick reply.
Can you be in Diagon Alley by 16:30?
Her reply came back within two hours. By this time it was eight in the morning, and the sun had begun to warm the day.
Indeed I can. Would you care to meet me at the Rosa Lee tea shop?
So Sarah replied, on the same parchment and with the same ballpoint pen, I'll be there.
She headed down to a grocer's for cardboard boxes, which she then dutifully took back to the flat. She boxed up her books, her regular clothes, her belongings. She didn't touch the dishes in the kitchen or any of the furniture she'd brought into the flat.
Scarves, jewelry, her witchy robes all went into the dress bag she'd brought with her from the States.
She finished within an hour and half, and then sat on her stripped bed and stared.
She couldn't really say what had prompted her to do it. But now, looking at her thoroughly boxed, bagged, and labelled life, she felt better.
Everything in a compartment. Everything separated out. Her normal, ho-hum life had far more stuff than the witch life she was about to start.
But it was nice to see the distinction. To see the weight of her own history.
She smiled, then turned to her mirror and said: "Hoggle, I need you."
He was at her side in an instant. He looked around, curious, and she realized he'd only ever seen her flat when she'd still been in the process of moving in.
And that from inside the mirror.
"I'm sorry I haven't called on you much in the last few months," she said.
"I understand. The Labyrinth has to stay secret. 'sides, you think I want to talk to Abovegrounders that aren't you?"
Sarah leaned her head forward and laughed.
"You get tired of the room mates?" He looked at the boxes. "You're not moving on my — on our account, are you?"
"No," she said. "Turns out I'm a witch, Hoggle."
Hoggle looked back at her. His gaze had sharpened. "A witch, like the kind that casts spells and gads about on a broomstick?"
"That exact kind."
"You always say that."
"Well, you never are."
Guilty as charged. She shrugged. "Hey, Hoggle, there's a Goblin bank up here. I thought goblins lived in the Underground."
"Some do. Some were too smart to go around getting kicked into things whenever His Glittery Highness got bored, so he told 'em they could live up in the Above." Hoggle paused, thinking. "There was some trouble a couple hundred years back. Something about a war. I didn't hear much about it, but it had His Majesty blowing his stack. That was when the Bog got turned into a punishment and not just a landmark."
"Yeah, the Goblin Wars of the 1700's. I read about it. The wizards say goblins wanted to use wands for their magic."
"Jareth doesn't like being told he can't do something — imagine a bunch of fur brains telling him his subjects Above couldn't do something. And his subjects complained to him. He's made his peace with the wizards, but if you ask me..." Hoggle shrugged.
"Ask you what? You can't just leave the story there!"
Hoggle sighed. "I think he's just waiting for wizards to do something stupid again, and then he'll tell the Aboveground goblins to come back down."
"He can do that? They'd leave all that money and treasure and stuff and go back Underground?"
"Oh yeah. They're weird loyal to him, since he let them leave. I think they forgot how he can get. Maybe because they don't live as long Aboveground." Hoggle paused, then added, sly, "But I think they'd bring the money and treasure down with them."
In other words, Sarah realized, Jareth was all but waiting for an excuse to completely trash the wizard economy in Great Britain.
It actually wasn't that much of a surprise, now that she thought about it. Jareth was a big believer in consequences.
What was said was said. What was done was done. And just because it hadn't been meant, or because it happened two hundred years ago, didn't make it un-said or un-done.
She actually tipped her head back and laughed.
She and Hoggle talked until noon, when Sarah realized she needed to get ready. He went back to the Labyrinth. She showered, braided her hair back, and grabbed her bag of robes.
That, she took with her on the train to London.
She was in London by three in the afternoon. She changed into a set of robes in the Leaky Cauldron and waited.
At four fifteen, she asked directions of Tom, then made her way to the tea shop. She told the host that she was waiting for Minerva McGongall, but wound up being shown to a table where a prim, sharp-eyed witch awaited her.
The witch's hair was a shade of gray that hinted that it once been either a rich red or a deep, glossy auburn. Her blue eyes seemed to snap with focus, despite the lines on her face and hands.
"Madam McGonagall?" This woman was no mere 'Mrs.,' that was for sure.
"I am indeed. You are Sarah Williams?"
"Do sit, please."
Sarah sat. Once again she found herself crossing her legs at the ankles and folding her hands in her lap. Ragnok had nothing on Minerva McGonagall when it came to intimidating.
"You are from America."
McGonagall peered at her over her glasses. "And you have received no magical training, there or here?"
"I have not." Sarah swallowed.
"Well, that can't continue."
Sarah tilted her head to lift her chin. She was trying for un-cowed or unaffected. She probably just looked stubborn. "No. It can't."
McGonagall poured tea for them both. Her movements were brisk, efficient. She picked up the tongs for sugar cubes and raised an eyebrow.
"Two sugars," Sarah said, "and plenty of cream."
McGonagall, she noted, went even heavier on the cream than she did. Interesting, though probably a useless thing to know. Also kind of interesting — if nice — that McGonagall was offering cream at all; milk was more usual, Sarah was pretty sure. She'd certainly only ever been offered milk before in her three years here.
"I'm given to understand that I'm much older than your students. Thank you," she said as she accepted her cup. "I don't know enough about how your school works to offer an alternate arrangement."
McGonagall sipped her tea and gave a tightly controlled smile. "I think you suspect."
"Right. Are you going to give me some really minor staff position, like assistant to the junior under-librarian? Research assistant or something?"
"MInor, yes. But not so minor. You will of course be paid for your time. Room and board will also be provided, as it is for all students and faculty."
Sarah set her cup down and looked McGonagall in the eye. "So what did you have in mind?"
"Lecturer in Muggle Studies."
She almost laughed. And then she realized that this was not a woman given to making jokes. Certainly not jokes about her work.
"That's much less minor than I was expecting."
"Muggle Studies is an optional course, and not a particularly popular one. You'll teach the third years, who have no established curriculum." McGonagall looked at her over her glasses. It was a sharp, piercing sort of look. "Provided you lecture well, we may call on you to provide lectures in other primarily academic areas of study, grade essays, or proctor written exams."
There was a small part of Sarah that wanted to shrink back from that kind of responsibility. What did she know about teaching kids?
The rest of her wanted to jump at it. Room and board, sure, but hands-on learning to do magic with a school full of instructors and the opportunity to see what the wizarding world idea of school looked like? She imagined floating desks and libraries that stretched on forever, owls and toads and pointy hats.
Not to mention she was graduating at the end of spring. She'd booked her ceremony and everything, assuming she passed all her classes and her thesis passed muster. It'd be nice to have where she would work after graduation settled.
"Alright," she said. "Where do I sign?"
McGonagall's expression turned to one of genuine pleasure. Her eyes crinkled.
Sarah couldn't actually gauge how old the woman probably was — she'd have guessed somewhere north of sixty — but she was surprised at how lovely McGonagall was when she smiled. For an instant, a very different woman seemed to peek out of her lined face.
Sarah wrote a paper to make up for her absence from the discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper.
She traded owls every day until that Saturday, when she placed a crest-shaped talisman around her neck at 11:45.
Apparently portkeys really did only go off when they were supposed to; she had the damned thing on for fifteen minutes before she felt a strange jerk right around her belly button. She dropped onto marshy ground in an undignified — and more importantly painful — heap. She struggled to her feet, aware that she probably looked like a rumpled pile of fabric and grass stains.
A man with a long, silvery beard, half-moon glasses, and a pointy velvet hat looked thoughtfully at her from his seat on a bench.
All around her was green. She could see the glimmer of a lake off in the distance, and there was a castle some ways away.
"Sarah Williams, I take it?"
"I am. And you're..." She thought about it, took in the richness of his robes and his apparent age. "The headmaster. Albus Dumbledore, right?"
He rewarded her with a nod. "I am indeed. Come, let us see to the arrangements."
She followed him into the castle in a daze. McGonagall handled the paperwork. Dumbledore explained the nature and limits of her position and made arrangements for her lessons to begin once she'd graduated Oxford and had the time to devote.
After that, they charmed the talisman into another portkey. And she ended up flat on her butt in a park.
Sarah finished her thesis sitting at a typewriter in a brightly lit kitchen. Brent and Leah, who hadn't studied through their summers, sat around the ktichen table alternately drinking, doing their own studying, or frantically trying to figure out who would help them pay rent on the flat after Sarah left.
The flat was no longer her concern; even if it had been, either one of the Blues or somebody from LMH's crew would surely move in. And she didn't have the time to drink, much as she would have liked to. So Sarah just plugged her headphones into her Walkman and blared Bowie.
Part of her felt weird, like some kind of traitor, for writing a feminist critique of the male-dominated western literary canon while listening to Bowie.
The rest of her just enjoyed the music and refused to attach any significance to how closely Bowie's voice matched Jareth's.
The thesis passed muster. Sarah told Hoggle, Didymus, and Ludo in the mirror even before she called home. Hoggle scoffed at Sarah basically proving it was time for her to go off and take care of herself with a bunch of words on paper. Sir Didymus didn't really seem to grasp it, but he was happy for her all the same. Ludo was simply happy that she was happy.
Apparently Jareth heard, too. A white carnation appeared on her dresser, its stem still protruding from the mirror, the morning of her first exam.
The next day — and each morning several days after — she found pink carnations in much the same position.
And then came the morning of her final exam. Where the pink and white carnations had lain now lay a red carnation.
She took a little malicious joy in watching Brent's and Leah's eyes widen in a mix of jealousy and near-panic when she pinned the red carnation on and walked breezily out the door to her actual, literal, Final.
Dad, Irene, and Toby flew in for her graduation. At her high school graduation she'd worn a deep green dress underneath her cap and gown.
Today, though, it was sub-fusc all the way. White blouse and black tie all the way to black skirt and black stockings.
But since she didn't plan on wearing this particular gown — or ensemble; she missed color when she dressed like this — again she didn't mind when her father crushed her in a hug.
Irene smiled brilliantly behind the camera as the shutter clicked away. And the obvious affection between them both was sure to show in the pictures her father took.
They didn't give Sarah time to change before they went out to lunch. She unfastened the damned gown and utterly failed to give a damn at the looks people gave the loud Americans visiting their Oxford student daughter.
They were lingering over coffee that didn't quite meet Irene's taste, Sarah could tell from the way she pursed her lips just slightly after every long sip, when a shadow fell over their table.
"Sarah," a familiar voice murmured. "I don't mean to intrude, but I wanted to congratulate you."
"You're hardly intruding, young man." Her father's tone was jovial. "Please, there's a seat empty."
Sarah turned to see Jareth standing at her brother's elbow. He looked human. His hair looked mussed rather than like a wild shock of mullet. His left eye was simply brown, rather than having a larger pupil. The inhuman angles had left his face.
Sarah could practically hear Irene's 'find Sarah a good boyfriend' quest start up again.
"Dad, Irene, this is Jareth..." Sarah had to pause for a moment, trying to remember the name Jareth had used with Bill Weasley. "Rex. Jareth, meet my father, Robert Williams, my step-mother, Irene, and my little brother. Toby."
Jareth gave an archaic, courtly half bow before he seated himself. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"How do you know Sarah?"
"We met in spring a few years back." Jareth said. "She beat me out in... Well, I'd rather not say. I was a mess. But I was just burning to know more about this Sarah Williams who beat me by thirteen."
If it wouldn't have clued her family in that Jareth had just taken the truth and turned it into a stretch toy, she would have whistled. That was a very nice pack of truths that amounted to nothing true whatsoever. Well done, Jareth.
Irene took a sip of coffee and didn't purse her lips. "Did you not graduate today?"
"Oh no, not me." Jareth gave Irene and her father a scarily charming smile. "This is Sarah's big day, anyway. I really only stopped by to wish her well."
Three times, essentially, that he'd said he wished her well and didn't want to intrude or make this all about him. That, at least, wasn't him playing with words to make the truth mean a lie.
He was trying to tell her that he was trying to respect her boundaries and hadn't meant to insinuate himself into her family outing as another guest. He evidently took her agreement of friendship seriously.
After a moment's consideration, she forgave him. He was trying to be a friend, in a glittery, inhuman, faintly stalkerish way. She'd meet him halfway.
"Jareth, we actually just finished lunch," she said. "But I think there's a good ice cream shop right around here, if anybody's up for dessert?"
"Me!" Toby raised his hand in the air. "Me me me me!"
Her parents laughed.
After a thoughtful moment — in which he was probably sizing Jareth up — her father said, "Well, that's one vote. Sarah, why don't you take Toby? I've got a few things to arrange for our trip to London, and I'm sure Irene's still a little jet lagged."
"Sure. I'll drop him by your hotel around four?"
"Sounds like a plan," Irene said.
Sarah stripped the gown and thrust it away in her bag. They'd made it about a block before she hefted Toby onto her hip.
A few steps later, Toby peered up at Jareth and said, "I've seen you before."
"A very long time ago, perhaps," Jareth said.
Toby let the topic rest after that, probably for reasons of his own.
It wound up being a fun afternoon. Sarah took the opportunity to spoil her little brother; she wouldn't see him again until Christmas. If she even went back to the US then.
At some point, Toby migrated from Sarah's hip to Jareth's. Part of her panicked at the thought of the Goblin King touching her younger brother again.
But the rest of her knew that Jareth not only took their friendship seriously enough not to kidnap her little brother, but he couldn't. Toby had been won back, fair and square. Taking Toby back Underground would break that bargain.
And besides, a very mortal Goblin King holding a squirming six year old who was trying to eat chocolate ice cream made for a hilarious picture.
They let Toby run and shout the sugar away to his heart's content in a little green park. After Toby had done a few laps around the green near them, Sarah chased after him, ceasing to care if she put a run in her stockings, or if she ruined the black shoes with mud, or if play-tackling Toby to the ground got grass stains on her blouse.
When she looked up from tickling her little brother until he shrieked, Jareth was gone.
She spent a week in London with her parents before she made her way up to Scotland. She'd already packed her cardboard boxes away into a few wooden trunks, and sent them on to the school.
There was a Hogwarts carriage waiting for her in Hogsmeade.
Watching the castle come into view from the carriage was one of the more impressive things she'd ever seen. When it came to sheer strange, stark, beauty (and glitter), the Labyrinth had Hogwarts beat. But Hogwarts had a sense of majesty all its own. It seemed to perch atop the cliff above the lake as if waiting for something. Its towers were ancient, with crumbling crenellations; light glittered off the deep green, nearly black ivy that climbed one wall.
She stared at the castle — so tall, even without its four towers — and its grounds, at the black surface of the lake and the students who evidently had no classes and were studying on the grounds.
Once it reached the front steps, Sarah clambered out of the carriage to find Minerva McGonagall waiting for her. She smoothed her hands over her robes and made her way up the stairs.
McGonagall nodded once. "Excellent. You've arrived just in time to audit a Muggle Studies class, if you'd like."
Sarah thought about it. On the one hand, she had no idea where anything was. On the other, wouldn't figuring out where things were on her own be fun? Certainly less threatening than exploring the Labyrinth, but just as puzzling and strange.
"I'd love to," she said.
McGonagall's mouth curved into an approving smile for just a moment before she said, "Then follow me, Lecturer Williams. I'll need your tentative curriculum for Muggle Studies by the end of term."
"You approve those?"
"No, but I'll know whether Dumbledore will approve it or not. If it wouldn't pass his inspection, I will return it to you for correction."
McGonagall led her to a hall full of staircases. "Mind your step. The staircases move."
Sarah looked up and thought of the Escher Room and the Labyrinth's habit of re-arranging itself.
"...do the walls and doors move, too?"
"No," McGonagall replied, looking at her out of the corner of her eye.
At last, McGonagall led her to a classroom door. A few students were filing out. McGonagall and Sarah waited until the students had all trickled out — both ignoring the looks the students were giving them — and then stepped into the room.
"Professor Rowe. I believe Dumbledore spoke to you about a lecturer picking up your rising third years? This is she, Sarah Williams."
Professor Rowe was a slender man of medium height. His hair was dark and partly obscured his eyes. Sarah couldn't have guessed at his eye color.
He smiled as he stepped forward, offering his hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Lecturer Williams. I'm Cameron Rowe, but feel free to call me Cam away from the students."
"Nice to meet you too," she said, giving his hand a firm squeeze before withdrawing slightly. "Do you mind if I sit in on your next class?"
"Not at all," he said.
Rowe's next class was part of his unit on technology and covered the telephone. Sarah took a seat in the back and simply watched.
She knew she wouldn't be working with any of these students, but she watched their reactions anyway. At least they all looked to be mostly paying attention. They took copious notes, but she didn't see any hands in the air for questions.
Was that a normal wizard thing? Did they have questions at another time, or did they just not permit questions during the lecture?
"Alright," Rowe said, clapping his hands together. "Now for the practical part of today's lesson. Everybody is going to practice 'phoning' a friend. Now remember, this is just like a Floo call, but you cannot actually see your partner."
Something about his tone struck Sarah oddly. She felt her head jerk up. Something about the way he said that... As if praising a dog for figuring out something convenient, maybe?
She mulled over his words and tone throughout the rest of the class, trying to pinpoint what was bothering her. But she couldn't quite place it. Not yet, at least.
Still unsettled by something about Rowe, she didn't stop to talk shop when class ended. She simply filed out after the other students and headed for the castle's top floor, following a group of students with red and gold badges. They made their way to one of the taller towers, then disappeared behind a portrait.
Ah. That must be the Gryffindor common room. Only Gryffindors and instructors allowed in. Sarah nodded to herself, fixing a mental reference point.
The castle turned out to be enormous. She'd have loved it as a child — so many out of the way places to curl up and read. And that wasn't counting its huge, gorgeous grounds. Honestly, she loved it now.
it took her a good forty minutes to find her way back to McGonagall's office. But they were forty enjoyable minutes.
She didn't even mind when she realized that McGonagall wasn't in yet.
Instead, she turned around and went looking for Dumbledore.
She had just found a corridor she thought she vaguely remembered as leading to the Headmaster's office when someone challenged her.
"Enough! Where venturest thou so unaccompanied, lass?"
Sarah looked around. But there was no one in the hall with her.
Then again, in the Labyrinth, that wouldn't mean she was alone. So she she answered the voice.
"I'm sorry, I'm trying to find the Headmaster's office."
"And what rudeness is this, that thou lookst not to whom thou speak?"
She took a deep breath and made sure to keep her tone even. Probably best to speak formally; Didymus certainly preferred it. "And where should I look then, sir?"
"What, art thou fond? To thy right! Look thee To my portrait, lass!"
So Sarah turned dutifully to the right — and realized that a knight had been shouting at her from a portrait. She couldn't help but raise an eyebrow; he was wearing full plate. If the horse he rode had been real, she would have pitied it.
"I beg pardon for my rudness, sir." She sketched a curtsey. Not a deep one, but still deep enough to be polite. "I am Sarah Williams, and unaccustomed to this castle. To whom do I speak?"
"I am Sir Cadogan, Lady Williams." When she raised her eyes to look at him, he puffed out his chest. His horse rolled its eyes.
"Do all portraits talk as you do, sir?"
He grinned at her. "Not the landscapes. But the people, aye. In fact, we often go visiting." He pointed. She turned to look and realized that one portrait was empty.
Well, not quite empty. But the players had left their cards and drinks on the table, and all gone elsewhere.
"I see. You have my thanks, Sir Cadogan." She smiled. "An' if I would find the Headmaster's office, do I continue this hall?"
"Aye. Keep thee to this hall until thou seest gargoyles."
"...and I will know my search is over, for the gargoyles guard the entrance to his office?"
"That they do lass." He chuckled. "Perhaps not so fond after all, despite thy strange speech?"
"Oh, you call my speech strange —" she laughed. After all, she wasn't the one using early modern english in 1991. But no use telling him that, she was sure. She curtseyed again. "I thank thee, Sir Cadogan."
There was a wizard — far too old to be a student; he must be either a parent or an instructor — in dark robes waiting outside the door when she reached the gargoyles. His hair gleamed greasily in the flickering torchlight. It fell to his shoulders, looked a bit stringy.
What she really noticed — though she tried not to — was that a faint smell clung to the air around him. It was a sour, almost briny note. Not a human smell. Had he been doused in something?
He arched a brow at her. "And you are?"
His voice was surprisingly soft. But the quietness of his voice didn't erase the sense of dry mockery.
Sarah turned to him and smiled. It was a delberate gesture, forced. But being anything less than polite or friendly would make her look threatened.
"I'm Sarah Williams, the new lecturer in Muggle Studies. I don't actually start lecturing until September, but." She paused, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. …?"
"Professor." He corrected in a voice so quiet she almost had to lean in to hear him. "I am Severus Snape, Potions Master and Head of Slytherin House."
Slytherin. She thought back to Hogwarts: A History, mentally cataloguing what she knew of the House. It still seemed strange to her that children were divided up by primary personality trait — why not just assign them to dormitories by alphabetic order, or randomly? The more children mingtled and learned to deal with personalities that clashed with theirs, the better prepared they were to get along with others outside of school, right?
"I see," she said. "So is potion-making at all like chemistry?"
For a bare moment, he looked taken aback. And then he arched one brow. "Shouldn't a lecturer already know?"
The tone was smooth, its volume low. She flushed anyway, taking a step back. "Give me a break! I just found out that humans had magic a few weeks ago. Apparently I'm a late bloomer."
"Do not advertise that fact. Do not acknowledge it. Not only students but their parents will view that as a failing in an instructor at a school of witchcraft and wizardry."
"...you know, that reminds me. What's the difference?"
Another taken aback look. "The difference? Between you and a qualified professor?"
Ouch. Judging by Rowe, she was more than qualified to teach Muggle Studdies, at least — and she was damned sure she woudl teach it better than he did — but she hesitated to get into that argument. She was still unproven.
"I meant between witchcraft and wizardry. Why the distinction? Do women do some sort of different magic, or is it just an archaic holdover from a sexist worldview?"
Snape stared at her like she'd gone off about being able to juggle her own limbs. When he spoke, there was an edge to his voice. "Magic performed by women is witchcraft."
"Yes, sure, but what's the functional difference from wizardry? Why does it need a whole separate name?" Sounded like very subtle Othering to her, but she had a feeling that this hallway was not the place for Feminism 101.
Professor Snape was saved from having to answer by the door to the Headmaster's office opening. Dumbledore emerged, his eyes twinkling. "Ah, Severus, you've arrived. And I see you've met Lecturer Williams."
Snape didn't bother to conceal his distaste. "Yes."
"Good. Come in, then, both of you. I believe we have much to discuss."
McGonagall was already in Dumbledore's office. She was wearing red velvet today. Sarah wasn't sure that was her best color, but she quickly forgot all about that because there was some kind of bird perched near her.
Sarah stopped and stared. The bird was the color of fire. Its body and wings were crimson, flecked with orange and orange-red. It had a golden tail, long and elegant as any peacock's, that seemed to shimmer with heat.
"That, Miss Williams, is the phoenix Fawkes," Dumbledore said. "Please, have a seat."
She looked back up to him, then moved to sit next to McGonagall. The older witch wasn't precisely personable, but she seemed a sight more welcoming than Snape.
"Severus, I assume Sarah has informed you of her... status? And her position here?"
"Very good." Dumbledore folded his hands as he thought. "In exchagne for lecturing, we will train her to Ministry standards. In private."
"I hardly have the time to take on a private student in addition to the courses I will be teaching, Albus. Do you propose we use Time Turners?"
Dumbledore smiled. "No. I propse she concentrate on two subjects at a time and act as a teaching assistant in exchange for lessons."
McGonagall shifted in her seat. "And you propose that her first two subjects be Potions and Transfiguration?"
That got a nod from McGonagall. "Very well."
Snape, on the other hand, wasn't nearly so sanguine. "Albus, I am... less than convinced of the merits of an un-taught teaching assitant." How he managed to sound so firm when speaking just barely above a whisper, Sarah couldn't begin to understand.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Severus," McGonagall snapped. "She's old enough to grasp theory quickly. Give her a stack of books and a stack of essays; I'm sure she'll do just fine grading them."
"As you say," Snape drawled. At a stern look from Dumbledore, he subsided. "Williams, you may meet me in my office at nine tomorrow night."
"Yes, Professor Snape," she said. "Professor McGonagall?"
"Minerva." McGonagall said, firmly. "You may be my student, but you are an adult. I expect you know how to be respectful without having to resort to titles."
Sarah only nodded. "Yes, Professor — I mean Minerva. Although please, call me Sarah."
"Very well. We'll meet later on tonight. My office, half past nine?"
"I'll be there."
"Good. If that is all, Albus?" At Dumbledore's nod, Minerva stood and indicated the door. "Sarah, I'll show you to your office and quarters. And I have a map of the school for you."
Her office was just next to Cameron Rowe's. Her quarters were in the same wing of the castle as his, though she was also near Quirinus Quirrel, Septima Vector, Sybil Trelawney, Aurora Sinistra, and Rolanda Hooch.
"Sybil," Minerva said, just a touch of distaste sliding into her voice, "is across the hall from you. Septima is next door to her left, and Rolanda and Aurora are on the other side — just there," she pointed at two doors. "And Cameron and Quirinus are at the end of the hall."
"I see." It was like a very tiny neighborhood.in a very large castle.
"And your map," Minerva said, handing her a rolled up scrap of parchment.
"Thank you," Sarah said. She smiled at Minerva, then tried to open the door to her quarters.
The doorknob refused to turn.
"Um, am I going to need a key?"
"A key? No. The doors operate on passwords. Præcipio eam." The door swung open. Minerva rapped twice on it, then indicated for her to do the same.
So Sarah knocked twice on the door.
"Now give it a new password."
"Uh." She cast around in her mind for a password that wasn't the one to her Gringotts vault. Some part of her was tempted to use the words that had tickled had the edges of her mind for years — fear me, love me, and I will be your — but it was too personal. Too much hers and Jareth's.
So she said, "Valentine Evenings."
Minerva raised an eyebrow. Sarah only shook her head. There was no explaining it.
"I'll see you tonight at half past nine," Sarah said. "Thank you for all your help, Minerva."
Minerva's mouth curved into a small, satisified smile. it didn't last long, but it was lovely. "You're quite welcome, Sarah. I will see you in my office later."
Sarah stepped into her room, closed the door, and stared. She had walked into some sort of sitting room. Huge bookshelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling, excpt for the wall in which a fireplace had been built. She saw a comfortable, ancient looking couch — frankly it looked Victorian — and a few wingtip chairs. There was even a cherry wood escritoire, already stocked with quills and ink.
In one wall, there was a door that led to a private bathroom. The other hall had a door leading to a bedroom. There was a four poster bed, a floor length mirror, no closet but a wardrobe and an enormous chest of drawers.
Thick, soft rugs decorated the stone floors of the sitting and sleeping rooms. Sarah bent down, kicked off her heels, and curled her toes against the carpet. She closed her eyes, smiling, then let herself fall back onto the bed.
God, it was soft.
This was totally the life.
This was totally not the life. Sarah stared at the cardboard box full of books — marked in permanent marker as MINE rather than OFFICE OR SOMETHING — and then stared at the wall.
She'd plowed through three cardboard boxes of books. But it felt like there were far, far too many more to go.
"Quitting time, I think." She sighed, then looked down at the boxes. After a moment, she grinned.
And then she pushed the books together. She stacked a few on top of each other, then grabbed a blanket off her bed. She draped it over the boxes, looked at her handiwork, and grinned.
There! A box fort. A fort made of boxes of books. The only better place to read would be a window seat on a sunny day.
With that, she headed into the bedroom. The clock on the wall informed her that it would be dinner soon — literally: the hour hand wasn't far from an hour labelled dinner — and surveyed the wardrobe full of her witch robes. She grabbed a blue summer robe with white flowers embroidered along the sleeves and collar. She brushed her hair and braided it into a thick rope. After a moment, she crossed to her dresser, unzipped a small silk jewelry bag, and withdrew a few pins, which she slipped into the the braid.
Her very first public meal at Hogwarts. She tried to ignore how quickly her heart was beating. There was nothing to be nervous about.
So she took a deep breath, said, "Come on, feet," and left the room.
The Great Hall had a ceiling that looked like the sky. She looked up at it, watching the clouds drift, before she really took a good look around the Hall. Four long tables sat parallel to each other, with students grouped by badge at each. At the front of the Hall was a table placed peripendicular to the student tables, where the professors sat.
She arrived at the dais with the professor's table in time to see that there was a spare chair next to a woman with spiked gray hair and golden eyes. Her eyes glinted like a hawk's, and for a moment, Sarah was reminded strangely of Jareth.
Nonetheless, she smiled and made her way to the seat. Before she sat, she extended a hand. "Good evening! I'm Sarah Williams. Mind if I...?"
The golden-eyed witch had a firm, sensible handshake. "I'm Rolanda Hooch. And go ahead, it's a spare. I assume it's yours anyway."
"Thanks." Sarah smoothed her robes and sat.
"You're the new Muggle Studies lecturer?"
"I am. I don't start until September, though. For now I'm just going to be watching some of Professor Rowe's classes and building my curriculum. What do you teach here?"
"I'm the flying instructor and Quidditch referee."
There was that word again. Sarah bit down on the urge to ask what the hell Quidditch was.
Professor Snape glided in from... somewhere. She didn't think he'd come from the dungeons, but since Hogwarts liked to play with its layout almost as much as the Labyrinth, she couldn't be sure. He stalked past her, robes flaring. When she breathed in, she smelled something that was at once vinegary and nutty. Very like peanuts and pickle brine, actually.
Sarah turned her head to watch him for a moment. "What the hell was he doused in?"
Hooch only laughed. "He's a Potions Master! He's going to smell like some weird things. Just you wait until he's been skinning boomslangs."
Sarah made a face. She had no idea what a boomslang was or smelled like, but the word 'skinning' was enough to tell her it had to be supremely unpleasant.
Cameron Rowe darted in, whirled slightly, and then sat down in a chair near the two of them. "Boomslangs? Ah, explaining the horrifying smells that cling to our favorite Potions Master?"
"Favorite? He's our only Potions Master." Hooch shook her head. "Get your head in the game, Cam."
"So sorry, Rolanda."
At last, Dumbledore stepped to his own seat. He didn't sit down, however, merely looked out across the Great Hall at the students. He lifted and then lowered his hands, gesturing for quiet.
"As you may have noticed, there's a new face at the staff table. It is my pleasure to introduce Sarah Williams, who will be teaching Muggle Studies next September. She's arrived a season or so early because she fell so deeply in love with the Hogwarts grounds; I'm sure you'll all see her around the castle until the end of term."
There was polite but mostly uninterested clapping. And then Dumbledore pulled a carpetbag from beneath the table. He set it in his chair and said, his eyes twinkling with mischief, "As she is from America, Lecturer Williams has no Hogwarts House. Shall we Sort her?"
That drew a lot more excitement. Apparently everybody loved a good Sorting. And everybody wanted to see a teacher get sorted.
Dumbledore smiled, then pulled the chair back. He lifted the carpet bag from the chair, then drew a hand through the air to indicate she should sit.
Her blood began to beat in her ears. Slowly, Sarah stood from her own chair. She reflexively smoothed her robes again, then moved toward Dumbledore. Her footsteps were silent as on the stone.
The headmaster's chair seemed closer and closer, until at last she sank into it and folded her hands in her lap.
From the bag, Dumbledore removed the single ugliest hat she had ever seen. It was battered and ancient and pointy and brown, and she did not want it anywhere near her careful braid.
The hat plopped down onto her head.
Sarah schooled her face into impasivity.
My, my, what have we here, the hat murmured inside her head. She hoped it was inside her head. "So much courage, girl, bordering on recklessness." You've defied a King, confronted him, and fought your way through a labyrinth and a city. You've flung yourself head-first into a brand new world not once but three times — first with the goblins, then with Oxford, and now here. "Perhaps Gryffindor?"
Sarah, rather than reply, imagined taking her wicked potions knife and cutting the hat into thin strips, then stuffing those strips into Dumbledore's goblet. She had not asked to have her head — and, more importantly, her past — invaded. The Labyrinth was private.
Now, now, no need to be like that. I'm just doing my job. Hm, most of those tests were tests of cleverness, really, weren't they? "You love your books. Enough boxes of them in your study to make a fort, my dear?"
Okay, now she really hoped the students couldn't hear what the damned hat was saying.
She got the impression that the hat was smiling nastily. Possibly she shouldn't have threatened it.
But look at the way you analyze and over-analyze! Poor, poor Professor Snape. Your wit could take this school by storm. Yes, whatever your courage, whatever your loyalty, I don't think this will be a shock... "RAVENCLAW!"
Dumbledore whipped the hat off and smiled at her. A table full of students with blue and bronze badges burst into raucous, excited applause. At the staff table, one of the professors — tiny, with a face that reminded her of the Aboveground goblins — clapped, smiling broadly.
"Well done. Always good to have another Ravenclaw at the table," he said, eyes twinkling. "I'm Filius Flitwick, by the way."
Sarah smiled. "A pleasure to meet you."
But Flitwick's expression had turned dazed. "You're the Lady Williams of the Labyrinth?"
Sarah swallowed. "I am. But I've... mostly left all that behind, now."
His smile returned.
At the end of dinner, a tiny girl with a blue badge on her robes approached the staff table. Her steps were timid, and she kept ducking her head, or stopping and looking at the table she'd come from. A rather large group of students all invariably waved her closer to the staff table when she stopped and turned.
At last, she stood beside Sarah's chair.
"Lecturer," Sarah said, trying to keep her voice gentle. Poor thing looked like she'd faint if someone said a cross word to her. "What can I do for you, Miss...?"
"Belby. Maisie Belby," the girl said. "Erm... er... I was wondering if maybe..."
Sarah tried to give her an encouraging smile.
"Can you what?"
"Come-read-in-your-book-fort," the girl said in a breathless, high pitched rush.
Sarah thought for a few moments. She didn't actually want to unpack any more books. Posisbly ever. Ravenclaws apparently loved books.
"I'm not going to open my private rooms to students, I don't think," Sarah said. She continued, over Maisie's crestfallen look, "But I'd be happy to move my book fort to the Ravenclaw common room."
Flitwick helped her move the boxes marked "MINE" into the Ravenclaw common room. They had to answer a riddle posed by an eagle-shaped door knocker. It brought back memories of one door knocker who couldn't speak and another who couldn't hear.
Flitwick answered the riddle; she was too lost in her own memories to really listen.
"And I need you to stay open," said Flitwick.
The eagle's eyes flew back open. It posed another riddle: "I'd neither a guest nor a trespasser be. In this place I belong, that belongs also to me. What am I?"
"Home," Sarah said.
"Correct," the eagle replied. The door didn't swing shut behind them.
She and Flitwick levitated load after load of boxes. Once they were all in the common room, the door swung shut. With a flick of Flitwick's wand, the cardboard boxes all opened.
Every Ravenclaw student in the Common Room craned their necks to see the books. Sarah gestured with her and, while Flitwick gestured with his.
Books flew from the boxes — Sarah checked the titles on the ones she was levitating; not all of them were age-appropriate for the students — and zipped to the center of the common room, where they dropped into stacks. After a few moments, she and Flitwick had created a perimeter. Another few moments, and they had three particularly tall columns, with the perimeter slightly higher than it had been.
It didn't quite form the castle she was sure the students had been expecting. All in all, once one tossed a blanket over the taller columns, it would look like a tent.
But it was still definitely a book fort. Sarah packed away the books the chldren didn't need to see back into one of her cardboard boxes while Flitwick worked on charming the fort.
"There," he said after a few moments. "It won't topple even if somebody runs into it. And books can be removed, so long as other books are put back in their places."
"A living library-turned-blanket-fort." Sarah grinned. "Well done, Professor Flitwick."
He gave her an odd look, but returned the smile.
Her first lesson with McGonagall consisted mostly of reading the first year Transfiguration texts while McGonagall graded third year essays. When she'd got through the volume — thick, yes, but mostly because of the way the wizarding world bound books; the concepts were easy to grasp — she closed it with a thump.
McGonagall looked up. "Finished already?"
"The concepts weren't too challenging." Once one got over the idea that magic was real, anyway. The basic principle seemed to be one that she lived by: anything could be something else. Nothing was as it seemed, and nothing had to stay what it was.
"I don't think so. It seemed... fairly simple. Visualization and guided potential, right?"
"That is the gist of it, yes." Minerva looked at her over her glasses for a moment. "Are you ready to grade the first-year Gryffindor and Slytherin essays?"
"I think so."
"Good." Minerva waved a hand toward one of her 'in' trays before returning to the essay she'd been grading.
Sarah picked up two stacks of essays, pulled a ballpoint pen out of her robe's sleeves, and began to read.
Every so often, she would underline a false conclusion and write 'false' next to it. With the book so fresh in her mind, it was easy to evaluate what the students were saying in their essays.
And now that she was reading essays, it was easier to realize where the gaps in her understanding were. Perhaps once every few essays, Sarah would end up looking up and asking Minerva about the conclusion the student had come to.
It was strangely companionable and definitely informative.
When Sarah had set aside the last essay, Minerva gave her the tight, controlled smile that meant she'd done well. And then she set a matchstick on her desk.
"This is a basic exercise. Transfigure the matchstick into a needle."
Sarah looked down. The key was visualization and potential. So she imagined every stage of the transfiguration: turning the matchstick into glinting steel, thinning it down to needle-size, adding the point and the opening for thread.
Still visualizing, Sarah touched her wand to the match.
The steps she'd been visualizing all happened almost at once, almost simultaneously. The transition was so smooth she almost couldn't believe she'd done it.
She looked up at Minerva, who had watched with detached interest.
"Well done," Minerva said.
In some ways, the potions lesson almost went better. Potions was a science, though one that ran on rules she wasn't familiar with. Every potion, if made correctly, would take on the same characteristics and create the same effects.
Introduction To Potion-Crafting: Theory and Practice was actually pretty fascinating.
Less fascinating was Snape's attitude. He made it clear he didn't expect much of her and didn't think she should be allowed to grade even first year papers, never mind teach Muggle Studies.
Sarah found herself not regretting asking just why she had to dice her wormood leaves, rather than cutting into thin slices or just tearing them with her fingers. The question made Snape's brows hook down and his mouth furrow into the deepest frown she'd ever seen on a grown man.
But he said, voice soft and tone poisonous, "The answer is in your book, Williams. Perhaps the hat's estimation of your intellect was overly generous?"
Her cheeks burned.
She was tempted to argue that the book was an introduction, and hadn't gone into why the treatment of ingredients mattered so much. She was dealing with something that could potentially turn into acid or explode if she made a mistake; she thought she deserved to know.
But Snape's eyes seemed to drill into her and she decided it was an argument best reserved for another night.
The next morning, at breakfast, Snape dropped two thick books onto the table in front of her: Philosophy of Potion Making and An Introduction to Occlumency.
"Something you may, with enough study, be passable at," he sneered in an undertone, then swept away. His robes billowed out behind him. Sarah indulged several resentful thoughts about the likelihood of all that floating fabric getting caught in a door hinge somewhere.
The tail end of the term settled into a routine. She audited Cameron Rowe's classes two hours a week and devoted the rest of her time to either transfiguration, potions, or creating a curriculum for her Muggle Studies class. She walked down to Hogsmeade once a week to call home and introduce herself to the wide world of wizard cocktails.
Creating the curriculum took up most of her time. She had to consult Rowe's Muggle Studies text books as well as the OWL exams and prioritize. It kept her so busy she didn't have the time to read the books Snape had given her (though, strangely, he didn't seem in any rush to have them back — was this his attempt at being friendly?).
And every so often, Jareth would appear. Never in front of students — or, to her knowledge, instructors — but otherwise he wasn't particularly cautious about it. He'd appear right outside her door and walk with her onto the grounds, or would breeze into the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade and sit with her, sipping mead with his eyes heavy-lidded.
Their conversations were about all sorts of things, some of them expected, some of them strange.
One night they discussed the relative merits of federal republics — "But if everybody has a voice in who it is passing laws, isn't that just mob rule by proxy?" he'd asked, and she'd been hard-pressed to find an answer that would satisfy him — and another they'd talked about the theory of transfiguration.
"Your outlook is more of my kind than... witchly." Jareth said. He sniffed at his mead before drinking it. "Humans acknowledge the potential for metamorphosis, but only you really apply it to inanimate objects unless they're working magic on them."
"Then what's with all the talk about visualization and keeping an open mind?"
"They're trying to train themselves not to view things in fixed shapes. It doesn't often work, of course, though your McGonagall is almost fae in how she views matter. The shapeshifters usually are."
Sarah imagined Minerva's response to being called 'almost fae.' She stifled a laugh at the thought of Minerva's lips pursing and eyes narrowing in her severe, displeased expression. She could just imagine her reply now: 'There is nothing wishy-washy about transfiguration, Mr. King'
The bell above the door jangled, and Sarah turned to see Minerva McGonagall stepping in. Before she could think to hunker down or charm her hair to another color, Minerva caught sight of her. She moved briskly toward their table.
Jareth's eyes half-closed again, like a pleased cat's or a sleepy owl's.
"Minerva!" Sarah forced herself to smile. If she didn't smile, she'd look guilty, and god knew she didn't need that. "Nice to see you around. Jareth, this is the Hogwarts Transfiguration Professor, Minerva McGonagall. Minerva, this is —"
"—I know very well who that is," Minerva snapped. "Sarah, what in Merlin's name are you doing with the Goblin King?"
Sarah looked to Jareth, but his expression told her nothing. So she turned back to Minerva and said, "I've known him since I was fifteen. Is there something wrong?"
"He steals children!"
That got Jareth's attention. He looked up immediately, eyes glinting cruelly in the fire and torchlight. "No. I accept children wished away to me. I do not remove children of my own initiative."
Minerva raised an eyebrow.
Sarah had the sinking feeling that this meeting wasn't going to end well. But still, if they were friends, she couldn't let this slide.
So she said, "Minerva, he really doesn't just go and snatch babies out of their beds. I get that he can be difficult to trust — he's definitely a trickster — but... he's not actually evil."
Jareth's eyes widened for a second before he smoothed the expression away.
Minerva still looked dubious. Her eyes had sharpened on Jareth's face, and Sarah got the impression she didn't love what she saw there.
So Sarah sighed and said, "Minerva, I promise you: no Hogwarts student will ever be harmed because of my association with the Goblin King."
"You," Minerva said, "can't make that promise."
"Then I will." Jareth's didn't bother to lower his voice. His tone was almost as poisonous as Snape's. "You have my word that I will harm no student of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, nor take any child from thence that was not first wished away to me."
That seemed to satisfy Minerva. She was content to exchange pleasantries and finally move on. As she went, Sarah found she couldn't ignore the twisting squirm of guilt in her gut.
"I'm sorry," she told Jareth in an undertone. "You shouldn't have had to make that promise."
"Hardly a promise," he replied, suddenly careless. He poured himself another glass of mead. "I gave her my word I wouldn't act outside my nature."
"Well, it's still stupid you had to do that."
He gave her a lopsided smirk. "So protective, Sarah. If you continue in this friendly vein, I might grow maudlin... or worse, think you cared."
That drew a laugh from her. She shook her head in a mixture of mirth and exasperation at him.
Just a couple of weeks before the final exams was the final Quidditch match of the year. Sarah watched students and professors stream away from the castle, all headed toward a stadium with large hoops on tall poles. Part of Sarah was practically drooling with curiosity. A sport played on broomsticks! She wanted to see that in action.
But the part of her that missed her friends from the Labyrinth knew a prime opportunity to talk to Hoggle, Sir Didymus, and Ludo when she saw one.
So she smiled at Minerva as she headed back to her chambers. "I'll watch all the matches next year," she promised. She didn't miss Minerva's bemused look as she headed up the stairs to the professor's rooms.
"Hoggle," she whispered to her mirror, "Sir Didymus, Ludo. I need you."
They appeared almost immediately. Didymus was ecstatic that his Lady Sarah was now finally in a castle befitting her station; Ludo was, once again, just happy that she and their friends were happy.
Hoggle seemed deeply suspicious of any building inhabited by wizards.
She had to laugh at his disgruntled expression.
"It's alright, Hoggle," she told him. "I promise. Everything's perfectly fine."
He didn't seem satisfied, but Sir Didymus found the door to her suite.
There was a lot of running and shouting in the halls as she tried to make sure her friends didn't go in sight of the portraits. There were questions and there were questions.
Sarah gave her completed curriculum to Minerva the week before final exams. She watched the older witch's gaze zip along the parchment and wondered if that awful Hat had wanted to put her in Ravenclaw. She was obviously fiercely intelligent.
Then again, Minerva McGonagall was pretty obviously fierce in every way. Sarah found herself kind of hoping she could be at least a little bit like Minerva when she got to be... however old Minerva was. Though she could do without the apparent prejudice against goblins and fae.
After about four or five minutes, Minerva nodded. "I can see nothing Albus would take issue with. You've a rather unusual approach to the subject."
"The course is mostly for kids who want to go into the Ministry and might deal with non-magical people anyway, right? Might as well try and prep them how not to sound like they're crazy."
"But cake? Journalling?" Minerva raised an eyebrow. "Sounds very... newfangled."
What Minerva was trying to be kind and not say, Sarah knew, was 'wishy-washy.' She laughed. "Tell you what, if my students don't end up with a better grasp on technology and non-magical conversation than Cameron's, I'll take the minutes at all the staff meetings for an entire term."
Minerva pursed her lips, but her eyes glinted with concealed amusement. "That's hardly necessary. Go submit your curriculum, Sarah."
Sarah submitted her curriculum. Dumbledore read over it, then looked up with a smile.
"A unique but commendable approach," he said. There was a twinkle in his eye as he said, "And how do you intend to compare how much your students learn with Professor Rowe's?"
"I have no idea," she admitted.
Dumbledore chuckled at that. "No need to be so competitive, Miss Williams. But your enthusiasm is duly noted."
Sarah stayed out of both Snape's and Minerva's ways during final exams. She was of little use to them, and they both seemed frazzled. Well, frazzled by their standards.
Instead, she explored the grounds and spent a lot of time in Hogsmeade, trying to figure out what she was supposed to tell her parents about why Hogwarts didn't have a phone.
She was coming back from Hogsmeade one evening when she discovered the Giant Squid. At first she thought the shadow she glimpsed on the lake was just a trick of the light. But then she realized that it was moving too much, seemed too alive.
She bent down, retrieved a heavy-looking stick, and hurled it into the water.
A gray, suckered tentacle snapped out, quicker than the glint of the sun on the surface of the lake, and snapped the branch in two.
After a moment, something huge and dark and bulbous surfaced. A huge eye peered at her from just below the water.
And then it was gone, back into the lake, not even its shadow visible.
The rest of the summer was a blur of transfiguration lessons, potions lessons, and acquiring (and charming) the supplies she'd need for her classroom. She ended up buying non-magical school supplies in London.
The electronics, though, wound up being a serious pain in the ass. First she had to actually buy them — which wound up being less of an object, with the money in her Gringotts vault — and then she had to transport them to Hogwarts.
Then she had to figure out how the hell to make them work.
She was arguing with one of the suddenly non-functional ovens when Flitwick happened upon her.
"Sarah," she heard him say, stifling a laugh, "you are aware technology doesn't work at Hogwarts?"
She blew out her breath, ruffling some of the hair that had fallen in her face. "Yeah, but I know there are charms that can make them work, right?"
"There are," he replied. "May I also suggest a locking charm, so the students don't harm themselves?"
"They're ovens." What the hell could the kids do to themselves with them, beyond burn themselves? And she'd be supervising to prevent that.
"Nonetheless," he said.
Sarah gave him a ragged smile and said, "Okay. If you'd like to help me, go for it."
"I think," Flitwick said, softly, "that this is an excellent moment for a practical lesson in casting charms."
Sarah pulled her wand out. "Right."
"You are aware, theoretically, of the difference between a charm and a transfiguration?"
"Transfigurations modify the very nature of the object. Charms are temporary modifications of the object's purpose. If the object is inanimate, it's basically a surface-level spell. Right?"
Flitwick smiled. "Very good. Now, to modify an object's ability to function at Hogwarts, pay very close attention to your wandwork. It's quite a complicated motion."
Sarah tried to mimic him two or three times before she got it.
"Now, the incantation is less important, but one never wants to mispronounce an incantation. You could end up with a buffalo on your chest."
Sarah had her office and classroom completely set up by 28 August. The classroom was just a few rows of long desks, table style, with a desk in the front for her and an assortment of technology she planned to use in class, as well as a bookshelf full of textbooks on mathematics, science, history, and literature.
Her office was where she kept the books she'd marked "office," in addition to a functioning tape player (and collection of cassettes) and a record player. She'd done the charm on the record player without Flitwick's intervention; it worked intermittently, but often cut out if the needle lifted for longer than a few seconds.
On 30th August, Sarah headed into Hogsmeade and locked herself in the cubicle with the phone. She dialled the code for an international call, then called her parents's house.
"Sarah!" Irene sounded pleasantly surprised to hear from her. She obviously hadn't been calling enough; Sarah tried not to feel guilty.
"Irene, hey," she said. "How is everybody?"
"Oh, we're all doing just fine. Your father just got back from a trip to Vancouver. I'm a little jealous; I want to go."
"Isn't it freezing out there by now?"
"It'd be worth it," Irene replied. "How's the preparation for your boarding school going?"
"I've got everything done. The students get here on Sunday, and then it's going to be work, work, work straight through until Christmas."
"Please tell me you're coming home. We haven't had you over for Christmas, or even at all, really, since before you left — that's four years."
"I think I can manage it," Sarah said. "Anyway, I just... I just wanted to make sure you're clear on the phone thing. I'll call once a week, if I can. Don't panic if you don't hear from me. And if you guys have an emergency, just call this number and they'll radio for me."
"We know, we know. It's kind of hard to imagine there are parts of England that don't have phone lines."
"I'm in Scotland," Sarah said, with a fond smile. "Way, way up north. Really gorgeous, but... well, really remote, too."
"Oh! Sarah, your father wants to talk to you."
"Sure thing," Sarah said. "Put him on. Love you, Irene."
"Love you, too, dear," Irene said, a little absent, and there was a plasticky rattle as she handed off the phone. After a minute, her father's voice echoed across the speaker: "Sarah?"
"How you doing, kiddo? Are you nervous?"
"Only a little," she said, then laughed at herself. "Okay, only a lot. But I'm pretty sure they won't eat me alive or anything."
"Only ask you questions you can't answer."
"Oh, god, don't remind me. I'm going to have dozens of tiny faces staring up at me, thinking I'm an actual grown-up."
That drew a chuckle from her father. "Will you please come home sometime this year? We've missed you."
"I think I can, Dad, but I can only promise to try, okay?"
"Good enough for me. For now."
"So I hear you just got back from Vancouver?"
"Yeah, Stockton pitched a fit and I wound up overseeing a pretty big project."
"Tell that crazy man to go back to his angel collection and leave you alone."
"I'm tempted," her father admitted. "Alright, sweetheart, I should go. You take care of yourself! And call as often as you can."
"Sure thing, Dad. Tell Toby I miss him."'
September First dawned clear and bright. Sarah yawned and rolled over to look at the window. Light drifted in, brightening the motes of dust in the air.
Sarah debated breakfast and sleep. Breakfast would be delicious. Sleep would be nice. But not quite as nice as food. And she was awake now. Might as well.
Then she realized: September First. Students came today. Students!
She was ruthless with her hair when she brushed it out. She dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, then pulled a velvet black robe on. She didn't belt the robes closed, just stuffed her feet into socks and shoes and headed off toward the great hall.
She found her spot at the staff table and promptly heaped a little bit of everything she could reach onto her plate. She ignored the pumpkin juice and levitated a teapot closer to her hand. It was far, far too early for pumpkin juice — first she needed bacon and caffeine.
Sarah spent the rest of the day alternating between impatience and terror. She was in the middle of brushing her hair for the third time when someone knocked on the door to her chambers.
Sarah flung the door open to find Quirinus Quirrell standing outside. He gave her a timid smile.
"Uh, hi," she said.
"H-hello. I j-j-just thought I c-could ch-ch-check on you. Th-the very f-f-f-first day is a l-little n-n-nerveracking, isn't it?"
"A little? You must be keeping a way cooler head than I am." She gave a sheepish grin. "I'm really not that much older than the seventh years. I'm kind of scared they're going to see right through me."
"A-a-and s-say, 'Ah-ha! I see through y-your clever r-r-r-r-ruse! You're n-not really an adult'?"
"J-just d-don't let th-th-them see you sweat. They can smell f-f-f-fear."
That drew a laugh out of her, but Quirinus's eyes seemed cold and serious. Her laughter drained away, and Sarah found herself feeling awkward. She wanted him the hell away from her doorstep, actually.
So she said, "Right. Well, I... have to... wash my hair."
"G-good luck," Quirinus said.
She slammed the door shut behind him, bolted it, and tried to figure out just how a timid-seeming man with a pointy chin and a really awful stutter had freaked her out so badly.
Sarah took a fresh bath when they had just a few hours to spare before the Feast. After that, she rose, cast a drying charm on her hair, and brushed it until it hung smooth as silk and shone like glass. She didn't do anything else to it; she'd spend the rest of the term with it in hasty braids and ponytails, she was sure.
Besides, with the sheer amount of hair, leaving it loose to tumble down her back would probably make an impression.
She dressed in her nicest robes — deep green, embroidered in gold, with the long, tapered sleeves she loved — gave her hair a quick brush through one last time, and settled in to read. Her clock had gained new hours in addition to meals: class and Quidditch.
It would chime when she needed to get to the Feast.
She settled in to read the books Snape had given her at the start of summer. Private lessons with Snape were becoming more and more complicated. To be honest, she'd expected her chemistry background to help her a bit more than it did; transfiguration came much, much easier.
Snape had underlined sections and written in notes in cramped handwriting. His additions were just as fascinating as the book itself. Sarah found herself writing down questions on scratch paper, completely engrossed.
The clock chimed. She looked up, looked at the ink she'd smeared on her wrists, and sighed.
She cast a quick cleaning charm on her arms and sleeves as she headed down to the Great Hall for the feast.
Sarah smiled at the sight orf the tables all separated out once again. And not only that, but the students had gathered already; she saw smiles all around, students laughing. The scene seemed lit with a glow, but that could have been the floating candles.
She stopped short just before she reached the staff table.
Jareth was lounging in her chair. How he'd known it was hers, she had no idea. But he'd evidently figured it out and was now sprawled sideways in it, his knees slung over an armrest. As if sensing her approach, he looked up and over at her.
Sarah unclenched her fists and smoothed her robes. Now was not the time to start asking him just what the hell he thought he was doing. She mostly managed to sound pleasant, if a little confused, when she said, "Jareth. You're in my seat."
"Precious, I'm a King, remember?" He kept his tone dry and eminently reasonable. "By definition, this chair is now my throne."
Hooch looked up from her seat next to him, her golden eyes glittering with mirth. She was trying not to smile, but not only had one corner of her mouth curled up, she was dimpling.
"He's got you there, Williams."
"Yes," Sarah admitted. "Yes, he does. Hooch, do you mind scooting over a little?"
Hooch dragged her chair to the side. Sarah took a deep breath, waved her wand, and really hoped she wouldn't completely screw up conjuring herself a chair. Conjuration was just transfiguring air; just because a chair hadn't been there before didn't mean there couldn't be one now.
It worked. She grinned at Jareth, then took a seat next to him.
"Nicely done, precious thing," he murmured to her.
"You didn't leave me much choice. That's your throne now, I could hardly ask you to give it up."
His mouth quirked into a sharp smile, but his eyes were intent on hers. He opened his mouth to say something, but Dumbledore brought out his carpet bag, and Jareth made no attempt to talk over the sudden surge of noise.
This time Dumbledore set the hat on a stool in front of the staff table.
After a few moments, the main doors flew open. McGonagall strode in with a gaggle of tiny-looking children behind her. They were all dressed in simple black robes, over which they wore cloaks. No few of them looked frightened.
Next to her, Jareth tilted his head, either contemplating or angry. She got the feeling he'd never seen the Sorting. Maybe the sight of fearful children roused some fae instinct.
She reached over and let her hand fall atop his for a moment. He looked to her, evidently startled. Sarah only smiled.
"They'll be fine."
Jareth turned his gaze back to the first years. Firsties, as she'd heard other students call them.
McGonagall reached the dais and the stool. The children shuffled to a stop, staring at the hat. At least one — red-headed, strangely familiar — looked relieved.
With a brief explanation by McGonagall — and a rather ludicrous song from the Hat in question — the Sorting began. Child after child stepped up to the stool and put on the hat. Sarah cringed in sympathy at the idea of having one's thoughts looked into and rifled through.
Sarah sat up. Hadn't they met in Gringotts? Sure enough, she saw a mop of bushy, unruly brown curls. The girl's expression was an awkward blend of curious and terrified as she took her seat. She was so focused that she didn't see Sarah.
After a few moments, the Hat shouted, "GRYFFINDOR!"
The Gryffindor table burst into applause. Hermione took the hat off and made her way to sit with the Gryffindors. She flashed one look back at the Hat and the staff table, smiling.
Their eyes met. Sarah smiled back and watched Hermione's eyes widen.
But then another student took her place on the stool. Sarah watched with mild interest. None of these children would study with her for another two years, assuming she was still here two years from now.
And then Minerva called out, "Potter, Harry!"
The Great Hall went silent. Students craned their necks to see a suddenly frightened young boy with messy black hair and broken glasses move toward the stool. He seemed to drift as in a daze.
He sat down. Minerva plopped the very ugly Hat down onto his head.
Nobody said anything.
The boy sat with the Hat on his head for five full minutes. Students and professors alike awaited that Hat's verdict, as if which Hogwarts House he was sorted into would tell them something invaluable.
At last, the Hat murmured, "Well, if you're sure... better be GRYFFINDOR!"
The tension drained from the room in a trice. The Gryffindors burst into raucous cheering. A couple of them let out earsplitting whistles, while others pounded on the table.
Sarah blinked. They seemed pretty excited by the Sorting of one frightened eleven year old boy.
Jareth leaned in and pressed his mouth close to her ear. "Eleven years ago," he murmured, breath tickling her earlobes, "a wizard they all feared tried to kill him and failed, and hasn't been heard from since."
That certainly explained the excitement. She turned to look at Jareth, but he was watching intently as Potter made his way to the Gryffindor table.
"Well," said Hooch, matter-of-factly, "of course the Boy Who Lived would be a Hatstall."
"Gryffindor must be so proud," Snape said.
Minerva simply looked over at them all and smiled. Sarah had never seen a human look more like a satisfied cat. It was kind of eerie, actually.
Jareth seemed much less interested in the rest of the students who stepped up to be Sorted. She felt kind of bad about it, but she wasn't as interested either. She noted the new Ravenclaws and wondered if they would be the types, in a couple of years, to take her class. The Sorting ended with "Weasley, Ronald," running off to join the Gryffindor table.
Dumbledore made a few announcements, conveying a few messages from Filch and news about the third floor corridor on the right-hand side being off limits.
He paused for a moment, then added, "In addition, Lecturer Williams would like it known that her classes are open to all auditors. If any of you have a free period, you are welcome to listen in on her Muggle Studies classes."
And then the Feast began. Food appeared on plates — Jareth frowned; she made a mental note to ask what had made him so unhappy later — and carafes and decanters suddenly filled with juice and wine and water.
Sarah poured herself a glass of mead and then ladled food onto her plate.
"First day of class tomorrow. Are you..." Rowe began to ask from a few seat away. And then he trailed off.
It was if somebody had flicked a switch, and people who weren't Rolanda Hooch could see Jareth now. The other professors all jumped in their seats before relaxing into a merely staring at Jareth. Had he been basically invisible before?
Snape jerked away from the table and drew his wand. His arm was steady, but his gaze kept flicking from Jareth to her, as if trying to draw some sort of connection.
Jareth didn't deign to notice. He reached over for Sarah's mead, which she handed to him. His smile was still sharp.
"Goblin King," Dumbledore said. His tone held hints of both caution and humor. "What brings you to my table?"
Jareth's smile turned even sharper. Predatory. "Why, Headmaster of Hogwarts, you mean to tell me you've been hosting a Champion of my Labyrinth for an entire season, and never knew?"
"You know this creature, Headmaster?" Snape's voice was still soft. It conveyed incredulity nonetheless.
"He is no threat to us or our students, Severus," Dumbledore said, softly. "It is not in his nature to harm children. But I do wish his Champion had declared herself."
His gaze fell heavily on her.
Sarah shrugged. "I'm sorry. I didn't think it was relevant. Professor Snape, there's really no need to threaten him; do you mind...?"
Jareth laughed. "A single wizard? Threaten me? Sarah, that glorified twig is no more threatening to me than a crutch. But do sit down, Severus Snape. This farce is drawing attention from your students."
Sarah looked back to the student tables to see dozens of faces turned their way. A few were whispering to each other, possibly trying to determine the identity of the mystery adult with the wild hair.
Snape looked, too. After a moment, he put his wand away and sat back down. Dinner resumed almost as if the outburst hadn't happened.
But she felt the weight of Dumbledore's gaze on her several times throughout the Feast. And every so often, Jareth would look at her and smile as if deeply amused by a private joke. If she hadn't known how seriously he took their status as friends, she'd have been worried.
The Feast wound down gradually. Sarah watched students yawn and prefects line up by the doors to the Great Hall. She waved at the new young Ravenclaws, but made her way to the Gryffindor table. Jareth followed, though he banished her conjured chair back to nonexistence.
"Congrats on your sorting, Hermione," she said.
Hermione flushed. "Thank you, Professor Williams." After a moment, she stopped. "Wait, you're the American I met in Gringotts."
"Well, like I said. We're like bad pennies." Sarah winked. After a moment, she added, "Congratulations to you, too, Mr. Hatstall."
Potter looked up at her, seeming both startled and guilty. And overwhelmed. She noted that his plate was still full of some of the richer food offered on the table. She also noted that his wrists looked paper-thin and breakable and that he was even thin in the face.
She had a feeling she knew why Jareth had watched him so intently. Either he'd been wished away, or he'd been on the verge of wishing himself away.
"Well done to you, too, Mr. Potter. I certainly loved watching somebody confound that singing fashion victim."
He grinned at her for a fleeting moment. The way his eyes lit up was almost heartbreaking, and she resolved to see if she could get him to smile like that every day. He probably didn't trust adults, though.
"You're both a little young to take my class, but you're always welcome to sit in on a lesson. And if either of you has trouble adjusting or something, just come see me, okay? I'm here and happy to help."
Jareth chose that moment to place his hand at her elbow. Even through his gloves, his touch seemed to burn. She jumped, then turned so she could see him.
"Well done, Harry," he said. His smile was pleased, but not predatory. On the other hand, that he was smiling at and interacting with Harry was important in itself.
"Walk with me a while," he murmured. As an afterthought, he added, "Please."
"Of course," she said. She gave the kids a smile before letting Jareth lead her away.
When they were alone, she drew away from Jareth's arm. She reflexively smoothed her robes, then crossed her arms and asked, "So, was he ever wished away? Or did he ever wish himself away to you?"
"He slept in a cupboard," Jareth replied. His voice was soft, distant. "And often wished for someone to take him away."
Sarah found herself smiling sadly. "Not specific enough."
"I watched his abuse and could do nothing. He would have been happier with me."
Sarah nodded. "Would you like me to keep an eye on him?"
"Very little would please me more."
"Then I'll try and watch out for him. What kind of abuse am I looking at, here?"
"Neglect, primarily. But there are elements of emotional abuse. He's not inclined to trust adult authority." Jareth paced as he thought. "You're going to have to be careful with him."
Sarah couldn't help but smile. It was... it was good to see the Goblin King in a light other than 'terrifying stealer of baby brothers.' She was starting to receive the impression that his obligations made him view himself as an ally of neglected or abused or simply unhappy children.
"I'll be gentle with him. I'll try and make sure he understands that I'm around if he needs me, but I don't plan on pushing him."
Jareth nodded. "Yes. That is the best approach. I... thank you, Sarah. He is not one of mine, whatever else he could have been. Now, with his magic emergent, my interference in his life is limited."
"You're welcome, Jareth." She said it softly. "And thank you for coming. Even with the drama you caused, it was good to see you."
"I take it I'm being dismissed?" He raised an eyebrow.
"I have class tomorrow. I should get some sleep."
"We both know you won't actually sleep tonight." He grinned slyly at her. "You could always invite me up, and refrain from sleeping for more pleasant reasons."
"In your dreams, Goblin King." She folded her arms over her chest again.
"Worth the offer," he said, then bowed and vanished.
At three in the morning, Sarah sighed to realize he'd been right.
She was way too keyed up about teaching her first class ever to sleep.
Why did nobody point out that Gryffindors had Astronomy on Wednesdays (not Fridays!) in Philosopher's Stone?! I've gone and fixed it now, but man, I feel like an idiot.
Sarah swept into her Muggle Studies classroom just a few seconds after the students had gathered. The door closed after her, causing a pair of Ravenclaws to jump. The class's lone Slytherin looked at her with wary interest.
"Good morning," Sarah said, on her way to the board. "Welcome to your first term of Muggle Studies. In case any of you have forgotten me, I'm Lecturer Williams."
They all looked patiently at her. The Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs, and Slytherin all took out rolls of parchment and their quills. The Gryffindors watched her with unabashed curiosity.
"Right. Put that parchment up. Quills, too. We've got way too much to cover for you to be painstakingly scratching on paper. Everybody gets two spiral notebooks and some ballpoint pens."
Sarah reached under her desk and pulled out two cardboard boxes.
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "What, do you want me to levitate it to you? Come on up and get your supplies. Two spiral notebooks and a pack of pens."
The Gryffindors came up first, followed by a couple of Ravenclaws. When they'd reached inside the boxes without anybody getting their arms bitten off and withdrawn the notebooks and pens, more students moved up quickly.
"Please keep in mind that I won't accept any assignments on parchment. Use your notebook paper, okay?"
Nods all around.
"If you run out of paper, just let me know. I'll be happy to get you more."
More nods. Frankly, they were all looking at her like she was potentially dangerous and a little terrifying.
Sarah nodded. "Alright. Are we all ready to dive in?"
More nods. Students opened the notebooks, uncapped their pens — two or three managed this faster than some of the others — and looked up at her.
"Then the first thing I'm going to tell you is that we will not be using the word 'Muggle' ever again inside this classroom. This is important; write it down." Sarah turned to the board, tapping it once with her wand. As she spoke, words appeared on the board.
"The word 'Muggle' is a jargon term that creates an exaggerated sense of distance between magical and non-magical people, leading to a false dichotomy and sense of division. We'll call non-magical folk what they are: non-magical people."
Silence as the students scribbled down her words.
"Now, let's start with the key differences between non-magical and magical people, and why they don't matter..."
"Alright," Sarah said. "That's all for today. Go on, get out of here. I'll need those essays by Friday. Slip them under the door if I'm not in."
The bell rang. The students put away their new notebooks and pens. She saw several of them tuck the pens behind their ears, grinning. A few others joined into groups, talking in hushed tones.
Realizing that they were talking about what she'd said, about her methods, was a truly bizarre feeling. She wanted to lift her chin to let her pride show — and hide the worry that they thought she was nuts. Or worse, boring.
Sarah checked her watch. She didn't have another class until late afternoon. What to do with her time?
Sarah was making notes for an idea when the next class shuffled in. She looked up brightly, then waved a hand. The doors closed. Nobody jumped. Good; a less skittish class.
"Alright, everybody. I'm Lecturer Williams, and this is Muggle Studies. Go ahead and put away your parchment and quills."
Somebody raised a hand. Sarah nodded, and they asked, "Wands, too?"
"Absolutely," she replied. "Now, up here I have boxes of spiral notebooks and pens. Everybody gets two notebooks and a pack of pens. Come on up and get your things. We've got a lot to cover."
They'd asked more questions, too. Which had been fine, right up until the end of class.
A pug-nosed Ravenclaw raised her hand. She had dark blonde hair, drawn into a short, messy braid.
"Fire away, Evans," Sarah said.
"Profess — I mean Lecturer Williams. Who was that man with you at the feast last night?"
She should have known this was coming. It had been a spectacle, and kids were always on the lookout for anything that made their teachers more interesting.
Her face felt hot. She was pretty sure she'd just gone bright red. She tried to figure out what exactly to call Jareth. 'The Goblin King' would be met with incredulity. Just saying 'a friend' would start the school rumor mill (and the way she'd just gone red-faced, no teenaged girl was about to believe that Jareth was just a friend).
"Someone I've known for a long time," she said at last. "His name is Jareth."
"Why did Professor Snape draw his wand on him?"
Sarah took a deep breath and raised an eyebrow. "What would you want your professors to do, if somebody just appeared out of nowhere?"
"How'd he do that, anyway? There's no Apparating on Hogwarts grounds." This came from another student. Ryan Carrick, according to her seating chart.
"You'd have to ask him." Sarah raised her hand, palm out, to forestall further questions, "And that's all I have to say about him. From now on, you keep your questions to class-related materials, okay?"
Dutiful nods, but there was no hiding the speculative looks on their faces.
Once they were gone, Sarah sat at her desk, waved her wand at the doors — shutting them once more — and buried her head in her hands. She had zero doubt that by the end of the day, the entire school would be convinced that Jareth was some kind of very powerful wizard who was completely in love with her. She didn't even care to think about what kind of fanciful explanation would be offered for Snape drawing his wand on a non-human stranger who'd apparently appeared out of nowhere.
Problem was, five years ago, at least one of those rumors would have been almost true.
There were only forty-five minutes to dinner and Sarah had retreated to her office and her bewitched boombox (and her David Bowie mix tape) when small hands knocked on the door.
"Come on in," Sarah called.
The door opened and the face of a girl with bushy brown hair poked in. "Lecturer Williams?"
"It's after hours, Hermione, and I'm not your teacher, anyway. Call me Sarah. What can I do for you?"
"Miss Sarah," Hermione said, as if testing the words. "I heard you have notebooks and pens?"
Sarah laughed. "Do you want some? I can always get more; it wouldn't be any trouble."
At Hermione's nod, Sarah hauled out the cardboard boxes. Flitwick had been only too happy to cast the Geminio Charm on a stack of notebooks. He'd looked at the spiral notebooks curiously, as if wondering what those clever Muggles would come up with next.
That kind of attitude made her grit her teeth, but she'd see about repairing it in the next generation. Flitwick meant well enough; it wouldn't do to go off on him.
It was the same attitude, she realized, that Cameron Rowe displayed. No wonder he'd unsettled her. And she wasn't nearly as sure that Rowe meant well as she was about Flitwick.
"Here. Oh, hey. I have some graph paper. You have astronomy one night a week, right?"
"Yes, on Wednesdays. Why?"
"You don't think graph paper could be helpful charting stars and planets and whatever?" Sarah raised an eyebrow.
Hermione's eyes lit up.
Rowe was waiting for her when she made her way to the staff table. He wore an expression that trod the very fine line between 'smug' and 'supercilious,' and mostly she just wanted to wipe it off his face. She clenched her fists for an instant, then smiled.
"Cam," she said. "How was your first day of teaching?"
He gave her a toothy grin. "Oh, it went quite well, I think. How was yours?"
"I think the kids and I had some fun, and I'm pretty sure we'll have more on Wednesday."
Snape coughed. Sarah ignored him; Snape had his own ideas about teaching. She'd leave him to it. After all, she didn't have to deal with twenty or thirty children in a dungeon full of cauldrons of things that could explode if they messed up.
Quirrell volunteered, "F-f-fun c-c-c-c-can be a g-great t-t-teaching tool."
The look Snape gave him could have melted the castle walls. Wisely, Quirrell stopped talking after that.
Sarah decided, for once, to keep her head down and focus on dinner. Socializing could wait until not everybody was riding the 'first day teaching' emotional roller coaster.
She wouldn't have admitted it even on pain of death, but she actually kind of wished Jareth had been at dinner tonight.
Sarah changed into a long-sleeved shirt and jeans and headed down to the dungeons after dinner. Snape was in a moderately better mood than he had been during the meal, though he glared at her for a moment when she knocked on his office door.
"You're ready to begin, I take it?"
"Ready when you are," she said. She tried to sound more confident than she felt.
Snape raised an eyebrow. But instead of simply tapping the board to convey instructions, or telling her to turn to a particular page in her text, he handed her a scrap of parchment.
So Sarah set up her cauldron and grabbed the ingredients listed. Then, painstakingly, she began to follow the instructions.
Softly, Snape asked, "Why do the instructions specify which direction the flobberworm larvae should face when you insert them?"
Sarah looked up. There was no helping the smile that curled across her mouth. "According to the text, it's to control the introduction of secretions into the solution."
He folded his arms over his chest.
"But Philosophy of Potions suggests that focus, intent, and ritual are as much a part of potion-making as simply following directions."
Snape nodded exactly once. She'd given satisfactory answer. Sarah almost wanted to throw a party at the fact that he hadn't nastily corrected her.
Once she'd brewed the potion, Snape bottled and labelled it. He nodded with satisfaction and set it in one of his store cupboards, then turned to her.
"Have you read Introduction to Occlumency?"
Sarah continued to clear up her potions supplies. When she no longer had 'cleaning' as an excuse not to answer, she admitted, "Only the first two chapters. I've been focusing solely on potions and transfiguration."
To her surprise, Snape simply nodded and said, "Occlumency may be taught without the use of a text, but I suggest, Williams, that you read it soon. It will greatly enhance your understanding of what I wish to teach you."
"I thought you didn't trust me as a teaching assistant and didn't have time to instruct me in potions?"
Snape said nothing, only stared flatly at her.
Right. Time to stop arguing. And Occlumency did look interesting. So Sarah shrugged her shoulders and asked, "Alright. I'll read it during my first spare moment. Should I find a place to sit down?"
Snape merely indicated the door. They headed back to his office. Snape moved to his desk chair. Sarah took a seat across from him. The chair was surprisingly comfortable. She crossed her legs at the knee and looked around.
A fireplace in the far wall. Lots of rugs on the floor, lots of tapestries. She'd heard the dungeons went deep enough that they were under the lake, but there was no real sign of moisture. No sign that this was actually a dungeon, either; it looked more like a stone sub-basement.
"The key to basic Occlumency," Snape said, very softly, "is to clear the mind."
"You mean like meditation?"
He nodded. "A Leglimens will attempt to invade your thoughts. You must maintain a clear, empty mind throughout the process."
Sarah nodded back. Then she closed her eyes, trying to silence her thoughts.
She heard Snape's voice murmur, "Leglimens."
And then she wasn't alone in her head. It was a sense of pressure, like someone was squeezing down on her chest, leaving her unable to breathe. It was a skull-splitting sensation.
Sarah fought not to think, to cast words aside. She tried to imagine a blank gray slate.
"That is not an empty mind," Snape said.
She didn't care. She'd use anything and everything she had to keep him the hell out of her thoughts and memories and —
It's further than you think, Jareth said and Time is short.
Gray slate. Wordless tranquility.
The Labyrinth sparkled under an eerily golden sun. She traced markings on cobblestones in red lipstick, a gift from Irene, and was hatefully glad to ruin it.
No. Deep breath in. Clear the mind. Be empty and still.
I ask for so little, Jareth said. Just fear me, love me, do as I say —
Sarah opened her eyes and pushed herself out of the chair. She staggered away, towards the door. It was difficult to move with Snape's weight in her brain, but she managed to cling to the doorway.
After a moment, the weight was gone. Snape looked at her from his chair, eyes glinting.
It felt like being ripped open and mocked. It felt like he'd dug his hands inside her ribcage and begun tugging at viscera, poking and prodding at her lungs.
That memory had been hers. Too private even to be used to guard her private rooms.
"I'm going to get some sleep," Sarah said. Her voice came out ragged. "I'll return the book in the morning."
"One failure, and you quit? And here I thought you were the type to thirst for knowledge."
"My thoughts and memories are mine. They're private," she said, aware that she was precious close to snarling. "And I don't want you digging around in them."
"You don't realize, then."
"Realize what?" She hoped Snape would come out with it quickly. She was hurting and on the distant, shredded edge of her patience. She wasn't sure what she would do if he tried to stall her, or, God forbid, tried that awful spell again.
"Your thoughts are near incomprehensible from the outside."
"I was able to view fragments of memories, but they were hazy. Vague. Your thoughts were even more difficult to interpret." Snape paused. "Williams, I have only ever encountered one mind that operated in the same fashion as yours."
"And whose was that?"
"The Goblin King's."
That floored her. It almost distracted her from the feeling of invasion, was almost too much to process. He thought she thought like a fae? Like Jareth?
When had he even —
"You read Jareth's mind?"
"No," he said shortly. "Though I tried."
That was probably why Snape wasn't gibbering in a corner somewhere. She couldn't imagine Jareth taking kindly to someone trying to invade his privacy.
"Don't try again," Sarah warned. "With him or with me. I'll return the book in the morning."
WIth that, she turned on her heel and headed upstairs.
She made it to her chambers, shucking her shoes and socks, before the tears started to really build. She touched her hand to her mirror and said, voice thick, "Ludo, I need you."
She had a private transfiguration lesson the next day. It had come so easily over the summer that she had advanced a couple of years in her theoretical studies.
Strangely, the practice was easier than the theory.
Sarah shut the door before she turned to the Deputy Headmistress. "Good evening, Minerva."
Minerva looked up from a stack of summer essays. "Ah. Sarah. Good evening."
"How have classes been going?"
"Quite well. I think most of my new students will progress nicely." Minerva gave her a thin smile. "I saw you Conjure a chair at the Feast."
Sarah shrugged. "Well, I couldn't ask Jareth to give me my seat back. He'd decided it was his throne."
Minerva shook her head. "I see. You didn't know that Conjuration is a NEWT-level skill?"
"Really? It didn't seem that hard."
Minerva set down the essays. She laid her quill down, tip resting on a blotter, and looked long and hard at Sarah.
Sarah didn't say anything. It hadn't seemed difficult. Or at least no more difficult than any other transfiguration.
"I suggest," Minerva said at last, her tone just a touch strained, "that you study the theory before we advance any further with practical transfiguration. Go on ahead and read up until the fifth year textbooks."
Sarah nodded and went to gather spare fourth and fifth year texts from Minerva's bookshelf.
"Will that be all?" She asked, still reeling from the way Minerva had distanced herself.
"Severus has mentioned to Albus..." Minerva gave her a long look. "Severus mentioned to Albus that your mind seems to operate rather like the Goblin King's."
That was what was bothering her. Far more than Sarah's mixed-up skill at Transfiguration.
Sarah sat opposite Minerva, then leaned forward. Quietly, gently, she said, "We may think in the same language, but we don't think the same things. Any more than you think the same things as Sybill Trelawney."
That drew a faint smile from Minerva.
"Minerva, I... I probably think the way I do because I'm a Champion of the Labyrinth. I know I grew up while I ran it. It may have left its mark on me in other ways. But I swear, so far as I've ever been able to tell, I'm completely human." Sarah spread her hands. "I don't snatch children, I don't re-order time, I don't turn into an owl. I'm just me."
It made Minerva feel better. And Sarah felt better, knowing that Minerva wasn't wary or afraid of her.
So why did she resent having to swear that she wasn't fae?
The days passed in a blur. Sarah handed out some very basic non-magical textbooks and assigned the students to read them and journal. At night, she read her transfiguration texts.
September Sixth wound up engraving itself in Sarah's memory.
It started out fairly normally. Someone had left autumn flowers on her dresser, pushed halfway out of her mirror, which Sarah tucked into her braid on her way down to breakfast; the students in her morning class traded journals and books and had a very lively discussion about the merits of science versus magic — a discussion in which nobody took too patronizing a tone. The students in her afternoon class were even livelier.
After class, she took her transfigurations and potions texts down to the lake and read while sitting on the shore. She only went back in when she could no longer read without casting lumos.
Unfortunately, she'd read straight through dinner and had no chance to change into something with sleeves that didn't hang low. Not if she didn't want to be late to the private lesson with Snape.
it would be their first since she'd walked out on the Occlumency lesson. Her heart rate sped up as she descended the stairs. She trailed her hands on the stone wall, trying to make very sure she kept her balance as she went down.
The stone was cool and faintly damp against the pads of her fingers.
Snape was waiting for her when she entered his office.
He didn't look happy to see her. In fact, he rose sharply from his desk and swept away toward the potions classroom. He didn't say a word.
Snape rapped his wand against the blackboard. Instructions appeared on the board, white marks stark against black in his cramped handwriting.
"You have two hours," he said. "Come find me when you're done."
"Wear more practical sleeves next lesson," Snape added. "McGonagall would never forgive me if you set yourself on fire."
Two hours later, when Sarah handed in her completed potion, Snape nodded its acceptance. He didn't praise it — he never praised much of anything — but he did nod in satisfaction.
"I see you have failed to set yourself on fire. Congratulations, Williams; you may yet make a witch of yourself."
Sarah ground her teeth and said nothing.
He poured the potion into a few vials. As he did, he murmured, "You do at least have more skill with potions than cousin Linda ever did."
Sarah made her way back to her chambers in a daze.
Her mother hadn't always been Linda Williams. In fact, before she left Britain, she'd been, legally anyway, Eluned Carrow. Sarah had always known that; had always known that her mother had a love-hate relationship with her given name and had, in her early twenties, jumped at the chance to rename herself "Linda."
Just like she'd always known that her mother had hated the family she'd left behind. Linda had never talked about them except to say that she was glad they were in England and she was in America.
Sarah hadn't known that every pure- and half-blood wizard was somehow at least distantly related. Just as she hadn't known that Carrow was a well-known name in wizarding Britain.
She turned the final corner into what she liked to think of as her neighborhood. Jareth was leaning against the wall outside the door to her chambers.
"Valentine evenings," Sarah said, and watched Jareth's eyes widen when the door opened.
He seemed smug for a few moments after they had stepped into her rooms, but by the time the door swung shut, the smugness was gone.
"My mother is a witch," Sarah told him. Her voice sounded thin and bleak, even to her ears.
"She is." Jareth settled himself in one of her armchairs. He rested an elbow on the armrest, then rested his chin on his hand. He regarded her with an expression that could just as easily have been fascination as concern.
"She left with Jeremy Michaels two weeks after my eleventh birthday."
"My mother thought I was a failure." Sarah crossed the room to sit at his feet. She landed heavily on the rug, jarring her tailbone, but the sting of it didn't seem to matter. Not in the wake of this revelation.
Jareth slid from the chair to sit beside her. He reached for her, his hand entangling with one of hers, one arm wrapping around her shoulders. He made vague shushing noises; some distant part of her wondered where he'd picked up that trick. Wondered why he was using it right now. He seemed more the type to try to distract.
The rest of her felt like she'd been dragged away by the undertow.
"I was always so sure," Sarah whispered, "that she left because of me. Because there was something wrong with me, because I wasn't good enough, wasn't enough like her."
"Sarah, don't —"
"And I was right. I was absolutely right."
In the darkness, something chimed.
Sarah woke with a crick in her neck, no real idea where she was, and a sudden, very intense longing for her bed. Her legs ached, her head felt stuffed full of cotton, and she was pretty sure both her hip and her tailbone were beginning to bruise.
She lifted her head and looked around. The room was still dim, but in a distant corner, she saw the faint glow of the clock. Its hand almost pointed to breakfast.
When her eyes adjusted, she realized she'd fallen asleep with one cheek pillowed on Jareth's bony shoulder. Jareth himself was sprawled against the armchair with an arm wrapped around her. He had shed the armor at some point and his skin was warm through their clothing.
Which, okay. What was she wearing, and why did it not feel like the robes she'd been wearing the night before? Without turning on a light, she patted herself down to see just what she was dressed in. It turned out to be a soft tee shirt and pajama pants.
She definitely didn't remember either of them undressing. Sarah blinked, trying to make her fuzzy, tired, dehydrated brain think back. After a couple of moments, she concluded it had probably been the same magic that let Jareth change clothes eight times in ten hours.
Sarah gently disentangled herself. from him. He stirred, mumbling something sleepily, but didn't wake.
She grabbed a dark bundle of fabric from the floor, slipping it on around her shoulders. Once again, she didn't bother to really close or belt the robes. It was breakfast time; just a few days before, she'd seen the runes professor — Bathsheba something; she hadn't been in during the summer and wasn't in Sarah's 'neighborhood' of suites, so Sarah forgave herself not knowing her well — in hair curlers.
She hardly noticed how the robe tickled her cheek as she knelt to put on shoes and socks.
It wasn't until she'd already entered the Great Hall, sat down, and was pouring milk into her tea that she realized she was wearing Jareth's feathered cloak. She sighed as she ran her fingers through the feather ruff that had tickled her cheek and looked up at the drizzly, gray ceiling. Her hair was probably a rat's nest of tangles and flattened flowers.
Minerva gave her a very, very long look.
Getting up to go change at this point would only draw more attention to what she was wearing and how she looked. So Sarah finished with the milk, put it back, and stirred her tea.
She was spreading butter on her toast when her chair slid to the side and a new one appeared next to her. Jareth dropped into the conjured chair then poured himself pumpkin juice. His hair was even more unruly than usual.
Considering that his hair usually looked like someone had given a very angry mop a mullet and then shaken it around, that was saying something.
Snape looked up from a grapefruit. He turned his gaze on the two of them for a moment before he wordlessly resumed eating. Honestly, even Flitwick looked at them from the corners of his eyes for a moment before resuming his own breakfast.
In a tone that was surprisingly mild and supremely unconcerned, Minerva said, "This is a school for children."
Jareth reached for the platter of fruit, taking both a grapefruit and a cantaloupe. He wrenched the grapefruit in neat halves with his bare hands, then split the cantaloupe. After a moment, he heaped sugar on both halves of the grapefruit.
Sarah took half his grapefruit. She left him a piece of honeyed, buttery toast as a trade.
"The children won't see anything salacious or unusual in my joining Sarah for breakfast," Jareth pointed out.
"The older teens will."
"Older teens are no strangers to the idea of dalliance. Their assumptions about Sarah's actions — and mine as well — will be neither true nor harmful."
Minerva raised an eyebrow. Jareth raised an eyebrow back.
He finished his grapefruit and her toast, drained his pumpkin juice, and stood. The chair he'd conjured vanished. With a shrug that managed to be both elegant and ask the assembled staff just who they thought they were to judge the deeds of the Goblin King, he turned and strode away.
Sarah probably wouldn't have watched him go if Septima Vector hadn't asked, "What is he wearing?!"
As it was, she turned her head to watch, and privately agreed with Septima. The striped pajama pants looked almost normal, if one ignored that they clung in ways fuzzy pajama pants ought not cling, but the back of his tee shirt was incomprehensible. Emblazoned across his back was the word HATERS, just beneath which was burned a big black arrow pointing left.
"What do you think that means?" Vector asked the table.
"I have no idea," Sarah sighed.
Sarah used that day's class to introduce the history and progression of the combustion engine. Most of her students were surprised to discover that non-magical people only had cars because of trains.
"So you mean," Alan Donovan asked, gesticulating vaguely but with typical Gryffindor intensity, "that the Hogwarts Express is the great-grandfather of the modern car?"
"Five points to Gryffindor for enthusiasm," Sarah said, grinning. "But five from Gryffindor for over-simplifying."
"But trains —"
"Are very big engines," Sarah agreed. "Anybody want to talk about the key difference?"
Another Gryffindor raised her hand. "Trains are steam engines. They run on heating water. But cars are combustion engines, they run on... on... fire."
"Five back to Gryffindor. Anybody want to finish Jones's thought? It's not just fire."
"Tiny controlled explosions," said Nott, the class's lone Slytherin.
Between classes, Sarah drafted three letters to her mother. None of them got farther than So a funny thing happened to me at Charing Cross.
One letter was too light. Another started too heavily. The last she just stopped writing, suddenly, acutely aware that her mother would never answer it anyway.
So she set the letters on fire with incendio and tipped the ashes into her wastebasket.
Her afternoon class was even more full of excited children than her morning class. It was actually adorable, in a gawky, awkward thirteen-year-olds sort of way.
She enjoyed herself. And, with classes to teach and students thirsty for knowledge (or excitement, in the case of the Gryffindors), it was easy to forget about the ashes of the letters to her mother.
In fact, it was easy to forget her mother. To put the beautiful but difficult Linda Williams back in the box and tuck the box away in the back of her mind. Just like she'd been doing for years.
She was feeling pretty good about the class. Then Persephone Greengrass smiled and raised her hand.
"Um, yes. Why was Jeremy at breakfast with you today?"
Evans raised her hand, too, but before Sarah could come up with answer to Greengrass — or correct her on Jareth's name, or even call on Evans — she asked, speaking quickly, "And what did his shirt mean? Was it some sort of non-magical culture thing?"
She was not going to pinch the bridge of her nose and groan. And she wasn't going to take House points either. Yet.
So Sarah put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. "I thought we were only going to ask about things relevant to our class."
"But what did his shirt mean," Evans insisted. "I want to know!"
"Honestly, I have no idea."
"What's a hater?"
"I'm guessing someone who hate something. But with the arrow, your guess is as good as mine what he was trying to say." Sarah sighed, then snapped her fingers. "Alright, everybody rip out a sheet of notebook paper."
Twelve students all ripped paper out of their notebooks.
"Okay. Thought exercise. A non-magical person has just used a word you don't know. Write down on the paper what you would do. No using spells like Obliviate or Confundus."
"I think that's about enough time. Everybody put your pens down and trade with a neighbor."
Ballpoint pens were capped. Pieces of paper shuffled around the room.
"Alright, starting over there, we're going to read out what was written down."
There was nothing like a pop 'methods' quiz to get the students off an uncomfortable subject. Sarah made a mental note of the strategy.
After dinner and her transfiguration reading, Sarah set the books aside and headed to her mirror. She stared at it — at herself in it, pale and drawn looking, not at all like her mother had at her age — for a few moments.
And then, slowly, she reached out. She pressed her palm to the cool silver and drew in a breath.
The metal seemed to ripple under her touch.
"Jareth," Sarah said.
After a moment, she wasn't looking at her reflection. He'd placed his hand against his own mirror, leaving the impression that their palms were almost touching. Only a world and a thin layer of silver in the way.
"You wanted to talk, precious thing?" He arched an eyebrow.
"I just..." She took deep breath. There was no reason this had to be difficult. She was making this difficult all on her own. So, deep breath, open your mouth, and say what you meant to. "I just wanted to thank you for staying with me last night."
His eyes widened and his mouth curved up. His lips were thin, his face sharp. He was beautiful; she'd never denied that. But he was beautiful like one of Tolkien's elves: she could cut herself to ribbons on him.
"You are... welcome," he said. He didn't seem accustomed to being thanked.
And once again, she felt light. Warm. Happy. She wondered if it was crazy to like making him happy so much.
"Next weekend is the third year students' first Hogsmeade weekend," she said. "I've been roped into chaperoning."
"Is that so? And why are you telling me, precious thing?"
"Because I was wondering if you'd like to come with me."
"Well, I am terribly busy with important King things," he hedged. Sarah raised an eyebrow at him, which he returned. After a moment, he added, "But I suppose I can fit you into the royal schedule."
"Words cannot express my gratitude," she replied, tone dry.
Days passed. Jareth didn't leave any more flowers in her mirror, for which she was a little grateful Right now, they'd just be reminders.. She spent most of her time gathering steam for her idea, talking to students without witch or wizard parents.
Hermione usually stopped by her office in the evenings. Sarah noted that she seemed lonely and as a result had been throwing herself into her studies.
One evening, Hermione looked up abruptly from a transfiguration essay and asked, "Am I insufferable?"
"I've never seen you in class, Hermione. All I can say is I certainly don't mind having you around."
"Snape says I'm an insufferable know-it-all."
Sarah managed, somehow, not to say 'Snape is a dick.' Hogwarts professor solidarity demanded it — not to mention it would be unprofessional. Then she stopped. "Wait, wait. A Hogwarts professor is calling you names? In class?"
"Yeah. He's really mean to Harry Potter, but he's hardest on Neville Longbottom."
"I don't know any Longbottom boy."
"He keeps losing his toad at the breakfast table. Snape terrifies him."
Ah, the round-faced Gryffindor kid with the hair that was slowly darkening to brown. He seemed gawky and clumsy, but why on earth would Snape target him? Scaring him when he was around chemicals and potions would only make matters worse.
Wizards, Sarah sighed. No common sense at all.
September Twelfth was a beautiful fall day. The air tasted crisp, the morning sun made the lake glisten, and dry, crunching leaves blew across the grounds. Sarah watched through her window as the leaves drifted around.
She smiled, and picked a green-gold robe with bronze leaves embroidered along the border before she headed down to breakfast.
She didn't teach classes on Tuesdays or Thursdays, so she did more transfiguration reading. Once she got above the third year, the books got more and more interesting. She found herself writing down questions to go over with Minerva.
At one point, she heard a chime in the distance and ignored it. In fact, it wasn't until an hour or so after noon that Sarah looked up from her books. The hand on the clock had distanced itself from "luncheon" and was moving on toward "dinner".
She looked down at the list of questions, then shrugged and made her way to Minerva's office.
Minerva actually looked happy to see her. Apparently she'd been forgiven for bringing Jareth to breakfast.
"I missed you at noon," Minerva said. "Would you care for some tea?"
"Oh! Yes, please."
Yet again, Minerva offered sugar and actual cream. Sarah used the cream sparingly, but Minerva's cup looked as though she'd poured only a little tea for herself. Sarah wondered where Minerva had developed the taste.
Minerva saw her quick glance at the little white pitcher and smiled thinly. "I find I prefer it to milk, since I've become an animagus. Once you've become an animal, it never quite goes away."
"An animagus?" Sarah looked back down at her list of questions, then looked back up. "You turn into an animal?"
"Why, yes," Minerva said. "A housecat, specifically. No one told you?"
—your McGonagall is almost fae in how she views matter. The shapeshifters usually are.
At the reminder that her student spoke regularly to Jareth — and had been seen wearing his cloak at breakfast little more than a week ago — Minerva's brows drew down for a moment. But then the older witch said it aside.
"Are there any other animagi on staff?"
"Well, Rolanda Hooch is a hawk animagus."
Sarah thought back to Hooch's golden eyes and the fact that she'd seen Jareth at the Sorting Feast.
"Is that why her eyes are that color?"
"Most think that, but no. The animagus form adapts one's human shape as closely as it can, but eye color remains consistent." Minerva took a sip of her tea, and gestured to indicate Sarah. "You, for example, would be green-eyed in an animal shape, whatever it took. Even if green eyes weren't natural for that animal."
Sarah nodded, about to ask whether she would be permitted to train the skill while at Hogwarts, but a flicker outside the window caught her attention. "Minerva...?"
Minerva set down her tea and stood. They both hurried to her office window. Harry was on a broom, diving straight for the ground in pursuit of something shiny and small. When he was just a foot from the ground, he swung on his broom, stretching out a hand, and scooped up the shiny thing.
"A Delacour Dive," Minerva breathed. "Excuse me, Sarah, I believe I've found Gryffindor's Seeker."
Sarah never looked away from Harry as Minerva hurried out her office door.
What was a Seeker? Sarah watched Harry dismount his broom — she gave a ragged breath of relief — holding the shiny thing for the other students to see. After just a few moments Minerva McGonagall streamed out the castle door and onto the pitch, robes billowing as she went.
Harry looked terrified. Sarah cringed for him.
At dinner that night, Hooch ranted. "Poor boy was just in for a comedy of errors the moment he held out his hand for his broom."
"Longbottom, I assume," Sarah said. "Looked like Harry Potter did pretty well."
"Yes," Snape sneered. "A Delacour dive. Minerva's been glowing."
"And well she should!" Hooch snapped. "Can you think it? An eleven-year-old took his broom down forty feet in half as many seconds, scooped up a Rememberall, and dismounted. On the school's rickety broom! Not a single twig scraping the ground, Sarah?"
"He never touched the ground. Just dive-bombed like he wanted to die, and then swung himself to the side. I don't know a thing about brooms, but it looked gorgeous to me."
Snape made a disgruntled noise and went back to his soup.
"So what happened to Longbottom, anyway?" Bathsheba leaned forward. "Poppy, how long will he be in the hospital wing?"
Poppy Pomfrey shook her head. "Broom accidents are the worst for broken bones, I swear. It was easiest just to pull the bones out of his arm — all the way up to his shoulder blades, poor dear, so he'll be in at least overnight while they re-grow."
"Poppy!" Hooch stared at Pomfrey. "Not once in thirty years have you pulled the bones out. You've always called that quack, quick-fix mediwitchery."
"That fall ground his upper arm to dust and make no mistake, Rolanda Hooch. You should never have let that broom go up."
Pull out his what? Sarah just stared in shock. She looked down at her soup, then set aside her spoon, feeling queasy.
Snape picked up something from the fruit platter — it looked almost like a stick of cinnamon — and broke it in two with his hands.
Sarah winced at the cracking sound.
According to her alarm clock, she woke at seven on Saturday. She rose and dressed. Today, she left most of her hair loose, pulling the top layer of her hair into a braid that ran down her back and tamed the lower layers.
Jareth was waiting for her at the main stair. He had worn the feather cloak and his usual pendant, though he'd eschewed the armor for a poet shirt. Students moved past him, toward the great hall. No few of them whipped their heads back to stare as they left. A pair of Slytherin girls had stopped their progress from the dungeons, looking up with wide eyes.
Sarah couldn't blame them. They couldn't have been more than fifteen, and they probably had an impressive view from that angle.
"It's September," Sarah said. "You're either dressed too warmly or you'll get cold."
"Will I?" He raised an eyebrow.
Sarah shook her head and laughed. He was absolutely the type to use magic to stay comfortable in pursuit of style. Why had she thought he wasn't?
So she asked, "Have you eaten?"
He let the eyebrow drop. His mouth curved into a satisfied smirk. "I thought I would break my fast at Dumbledore's table."
She grinned at him and headed into the Great Hall. Snape was eating another grapefruit, probably unsugared, judging by the sour look he was giving them.
Sarah speared a couple of pieces of toast, then spread butter and honey over them. Jareth, who had been heaping a plate with berries, wordlessly stole half her toast. He smeared even more honey over it, then dusted it with powdered sugar.
In response, Sarah took half the berries from his plate. She wondered at ripe berries in September; was it the last fruit of summer? Did wizards have greenhouses? Did they charm their fruit trees into bearing off-season?
Minerva looked up from her breakfast. Her gaze lingered on Jareth eating Sarah's toast, but then she looked for a moment at Sarah, and her expression softened for an instant. Apparently, Jareth's arrival in the castle having been witnessed — and the two of them showing up for breakfast actually dressed — left her less to object to.
Sarah just smiled at her and added some sausages to her plate. Meat had been a rare treat at Oxford; it was nice to see it so often on the table at Hogwarts.
After breakfast, the Heads of Houses gathered the third and fourth years in the entrance hall. Students were separated out into groups.
Sarah found herself chaperoning a group of third year Ravenclaws. Two boys and a girl smiled shyly at her.
The fourth child was Constantia Evans.
Constantia looked between Sarah and Jareth and smiled. It was the smile of a Ravenclaw confronted with an error in the text, or a library full of books they'd never read.
They were walking to Hogsmeade. Heaven forfend they make portkeys; walking was traditional. Jareth didn't seem to mind, but Sarah had to constantly pick up the skirts of her robes to avoid the mud from a recent rain. They were only a quarter of the way there, but Sarah was already tempted to just let the skirts fall where they may and Scourgify later.
Sarah had just lifted her skirts to step across a mud puddle when Evans asked, "So how did you two meet?"
She felt her fingers loosen their grip on the heavy fabric. It dropped down past her calves, past her ankles, directly into the mud. Fantastic.
"I've known her for some time, but we only met five years ago," Jareth said. His tone was airy, but Sarah could have sworn she heard a subtle tension underneath his words. "Sarah said her right words, and called me to her."
"Right words?" Evans tilted her head.
"Oh, not just any right words. Her right words." Jareth smiled. "Her very right words."
Evans looked to Sarah. The girl had piled her hair on her head in a messy bun. Her gray eyes were wide behind her glasses. It was, Sarah suspected, a silent plea for more information.
Sarah shook her head. "I'm not telling you what they were. I'm not proud of what I did."
Evans's eyes shuttered as she filed away the new information, but she soon brightened. "And why was Jareth at the Sorting Feast?"
Sarah gave Jareth a sly grin. "Yes, why was Jareth at the Sorting Feast?"
Jareth addressed his answer to Evans. "Why, to see how Sarah was doing, of course. I thought she might be intimidated by her first Feast as an actual Lecturer."
"Kind of you," Sarah said in her very driest voice.
Jareth sighed. "You think so little of my generosity."
Carrick cut the mood in two by asking, "But how did you just appear like that? Everyone knows there's no Apparating on Hogwarts grounds."
Jareth rolled his shoulders in an eloquent shrug. "Perhaps not even Hogwarts commands a King."
Four children stared wide-eyed and gape-mouthed.
Evans managed to squeak, "You're a king?"
Carrick, once he'd closed his mouth, was a little more skeptical. It was actually rather heartening to see that wizard children wouldn't actually believe just anything. She'd wondered about that — their world was so strange, she'd been worried the children would fail to examine anything sufficiently weird enough.
"So what are you king of, then?"
Jareth's voice was matter-of-fact, but his expression hinted at sublime amusement. "The Goblins."
Carrick went quiet. They all kept walking — Sarah let her skirts drag through the mud; it wasn't like they could actually get worse now — and while Evans goggled at Jareth and his kingship and his criminally tight pants, Carrick gave every appearance of thinking hard.
At last, they passed a rickety sign. It leaned forlornly by the side of the road, its two faces spattered in mud. Forward, it pointed, led to Hogsmeade. Back led to Hogwarts.
The halfway mark.
Carrick said, "But you can't really be king of the goblins."
"I can't? That will be news to my subjects."
"But the goblins don't have a king!"
Jareth widened his eyes. "Don't they? Yet more important news for my subjects!"
Carrick looked to Sarah. Sarah just smiled.
"But the history books... and Professor Binns. They've never said anything about the goblins having a king!"
Smythe finally looked up from her conversation with Rogers. "The histories do all say that the goblins like to keep themselves to themselves. Maybe they just didn't want us to know they had a king."
"But wouldn't a king of the goblins be a goblin himself?" Carrick furrowed his brows. "It's only logical."
Sarah watched Jareth's patience fray. He changed directions and stopped still in front of Carrick. "Tell me, Ryan Carrick, would you like to be a prince?"
Carrick stared up at him. He trembled just slightly as he met the Goblin King's eyes. Jareth's irritation was plain; that the offer Jareth was making was unfriendly was also plain.
"I can give you a principality, you know. The position is open. You'll never smell quite the same, but if you want it, you have only to say the right words." Jareth's smile was sharp, predatory. His lips had thinned.
Carrick shook his head. "N-no, sir. Thank you, sir."
Jareth retreated a step, but raised an eyebrow.
"I'm sorry, your majesty?"
"Much better!" He clapped his hands together, smiling again.
They walked on. Smythe and Rogers returned to their conversation. Sarah caught a mention of the book fort, but she didn't make any particular effort to listen in.
Hogsmeade had just come into view when Evans asked, "So why were you at breakfast last week? And what did that shirt mean?"
"You are just full of questions, aren't you?" Jareth stopped walking to peer at Evans. He tilted his head at an angle that looked almost unnatural, until Sarah remembered his habit of turning into an owl. "Is there anything you don't want to know?"
Evans shook her head.
Jareth laughed. But he didn't actually say anything, and they walked down the hill to Hogsmeade.
"Meet back here at sixteen thirty," Sarah called after the children as they passed through the village gate.
The children drifted off with a dutiful chorus of agreement. Sarah watched them go — Evans, Smythe and Carrick all headed for Tomes And Scrolls; Rogers surprised her by making for the joke shop. Well, she supposed, no social child could spend all his time with books.
After a moment, Jareth turned to face her. His expression was almost flat. His lips curved up very slightly at the corners, his eyes narrowed. He looked like a predator. He looked at her like she was prey.
He offered her his arm. "Shall we, Sarah?"
Sarah smiled, but didn't take it. "I can't go walking arm-in-arm with you in front of the students, you know."
"And if the children were not here?"
She had to think about that one. They had passed the boundary of 'friends' when she'd fallen asleep crying against his shoulder. They weren't quite more than friends.
But she suspected it would be time to negotiate that soon.
"Maybe," she said, smiling up at him. "If we weren't chaperoning."
Hogsmeade itself was a charming place. It reminded her of picturesque German villages: triangular roofs, window boxes, wooden shutters, striped paint. Brown stripes were popular.
Jareth, on the other hand, didn't seem to be seeing the same thing. His brow furrowed at certain buildings — marked with plaques saying they were 'Historic.'
"What's wrong, Goblin King?"
Jareth shuddered. It wasn't the shake of a simple chill, and it didn't look like fear-trembling, either. It was a long, rolling tremor that reminded her of the time she'd seen a pony stung by a biting fly on a National Geographic video.
"When they say Historic," he spat, "they mean from the Goblin wars. They attacked my subjects for daring to want wands, for daring to demand respect from their equals, and now they make little plaques and let my subjects control their economy. Because none of them can be bothered to do their own math or ensorcel their own vaults. That's beneath them."
"From what I've seen," Sarah said slowly, "wizards think a lot of things are beneath them. And they're wrong."
"Do not teach these children to believe what their parents do."
"I won't. I want them to stop and think for themselves, not... mindlessly go through their lives sure they're above everything." She offered Jareth a smile, and then pointed toward the High Street. "Let's keep going. I want to find something I can send Toby."
That drew a smile from the Goblin King.
They ended up heading into a shop that displayed sweets in its window. Not just fancifully shaped chocolates — she saw what looked like a solid milk chocolate pomegranate; the shopkeeper had opened the window model and revealed tiny seeds made of chocolate with a white chocolate pulp — but also sugar-spun fruit, and pies, and mice that looked like they'd been spun of snow and ice. Or perhaps sugar and coconut?
A little bell jangled as she pushed the door open. Sarah drew in a deep breath and found that that shop's smell was a cacophony of sweetness. She smelled chocolate and licorice and coconut. There was the scent of something baking in a back room somewhere.
On one wall, Sarah saw blood-red suckers, what looked like clusters of roaches, and things she wasn't sure she wanted to identify. Halfway across, the gross candies gave way to actual honeycombs that drizzled delicious-looking golden honey. Another wall had the sugar-and-coconut mice, and what looked like wands made of licorice...
"This has got to be some kind of kid heaven."
"I'm sure it must be. I once had a wish-away with Droobles in his pocket." Jareth wrinkled his nose.
"Droobles Best Blowing Gum, love," said a witch in an apron with a honeycomb logo. "Leaves big bluebell bubbles all over any room it's chewed in for days."
Not a gift for Toby, then. She could trust him with the Labyrinth; even if he slipped up, he was young enough to have imaginary friends and talk about going on wild adventures. But she couldn't leave him with evidence of the wizarding world. That, her parents would be hard-pressed to deny.
"I'm looking for something to send to my younger brother. HIs parents aren't magical," Sarah said to the witch.
"Well, there's always a licorice wand, but I think they're boring. I'd say chocolate frogs, maybe — we make and charm our own; they've only got one good jump."
"Something that doesn't come alive. Or, well, look like it's alive."
"Ice mice, then. They don't do much but freeze your mouth. Rather like biting into a very hard gelato, in my opinion. They come in spearmint, arctic mint, and aurora borealis."
Sarah stared for a moment before saying, "Okay, I have to know. What does the aurora borealis taste like?"
"It's just a colder spearmint," the witch said, grinning. "His breath'll fog colors, though."
Jareth laughed. "Sarah, you must choose those. Can you imagine his face?"
She could. She could very easily imagine the delighted smile, the brightened eyes, the look of wonder. Unfortunately, she could also imagine her father's face. And Irene's. She could imagine a trip to the hospital because their son should not be breathing colorful steam.
"I think I'll have to go with plain spearmint, at least until I tell them about Hogwarts." Sarah sighed. "Can they be sent in the non-magical post, or will they melt?"
"Oh, a quick stay-fresh charm and they'll be fine."
Right. That didn't sound like magic one worked on one's armpits at all. But Sarah just smiled and selected a box of spearmint ice mice.
She was on her way to the counter when she saw the display of truffles. A sign advertised Custom Truffles! Choose your truffle, choose your filling! Three sickles for a dozen!
Sarah stopped to look at the fillings. There were the usual cremes and mousses, but they also offered liqueurs. They even offered offered a peach liqueur.
After a moment's hesitation — did she really need all things peach in her life? Did she need to go ordering something peach flavored in front of Jareth? — she looked at the truffles.
After she'd paid for the ice mice and the wizard at the counter had cast a stay fresh charm, Sarah leaned in. "Can I order some of those custom truffles?"
The wizard beamed. "I'd be delighted if you did. What'll it be for you? The dark chocolate with hazelnut creme?"
Sarah laughed and shook her head. She cast a glance over her shoulder, but Jareth had bent to his knees and was playing peekaboo with a customer's toddler.
"The white chocolate and peach liqueur," she said.
The wizard cast a puzzled glance at Jareth, who had tilted his head at an angle that would have looked more normal on a bird, but then smiled and nodded. "Of course. That's three sickles, and we can have them ready by Wednesday next. Would you like them Floo'ed?"
"You know, through the fire. A little purple dust and then poof?"
This time, Sarah's laugh was forced. "Sorry, silly me. We don't call it that in the States. I'm sorry, I just moved into an office in Hogwarts, can you Floo it there?"
"Oh yes! And if it won't go through to you, I'll just send it on to Minerva McGonagall."
"Perfect!" She slid her coins across the counter and shoved the ice mice into her bag.
Outside the shop, and back on her way to the city gate to await her students, Sarah discovered it had indeed been too much to hope that Jareth hadn't heard.
"Peaches, precious thing?" Jareth's wore a wicked smile.
"They're my favorite fruit," she replied. "Don't read into it."
"One would think you'd avoid them, if you were so ashamed of your conduct."
"I regret being a person who would wish away her baby brother. But the Labyrinth helped me learn to be a person who would never give up on Toby — or any child. I don't regret it."
That answer seemed to please Jareth. He turned in the street, walking backwards. His boots and tights seemed to repel the mud that speckled the cobblestone streets. His gaze never left her eyes.
On the walk back, her students were much more interested in talking about Hogsmeade than digging for information about Jareth. Sarah was grateful for it, honestly. She took refuge in the argument between Smythe and Rogers about whether Tomes's DADA section was larger than Flourish & Blott's.
Even Evans seemed to have abandoned the subject of the Goblin King. Instead, she was all full of excitement about the packages she'd sent home. Evidently she had a younger brother not at Hogwarts.
"He was really upset this year. I guess because he'll get his letter and come in next year. So I've sent him cockroach clusters — they're his favorites — and Fizzing Whizbees."
Sarah nodded as if she knew what Fizzing Whizbees were.
They were only halfway to the castle when Jareth took his leave.
"I told you I would pencil you in, Sarah," he said, voice soft. "And now our allotted time, regrettably, comes to a close."
Sarah almost pointed out that he could re-order time. But would a friend insist on that? Hell, would it even be fair to request that of a lover?
So she said only, "Goodbye, Jareth. Thank you for a lovely day."
He gave her a slight bow — as archaic and polite and regal as when he'd bowed to her parents — the world around her seemed to shine from the inside out — and then he was gone. Not even an over-large barn owl remained in his place.
So apparently we're back to huge chapters. This monster is basically 8k.
September slipped away. Sarah graded essays for her own class, then found herself grading increasingly difficult potions and transfiguration essays. She did a lot of reading for her private lessons; there were mornings she woke with an arm still stained with ink.
The word that Jareth was the Goblin King spread through the school, though it was generally met with the same incredulity that had been Carrick's reaction. It wound up not mattering. Jareth stayed away throughout the rest of September, though he left flowers — peach blossoms, half the time, damn him — in her mirror.
Sarah shared her truffles with Minerva and Rolanda Hooch. Minerva enjoyed them, though Sarah suspected she would have preferred a cream filling. Hooch wound up ordering her own box by Floo.
By the last week of September, she found herself regularly Scourgifying her robes the moment she left the dungeons. It didn't quite match having them laundered, but it usually removed the worst of the smells that clung to her.
Unfortunately, there was no way to get the smell out of her hair save taking a bath.
Transfiguration, at least, was turning into something very like a social hour. Sarah would grade essays, perform a practical transfiguration, and then they would spend the rest of the time talking.
On the first of October, Sarah headed into Hogsmeade. She had a plan for the Halloween Feast. Jareth could make fun of her propensity for costumes all he liked, but she was not wearing the same robe to the Halloween Feast she'd worn to the Sorting Feast.
She stepped into Gladrags and stared. The robes were... different from Malkins's. But still, she absolutely would find or commission something suitable.
Once again, a little bell jingled as she entered the shop. After a few moments, a witch in robes with an asymmetrical hemline bustled out of a backroom.
Sarah smiled. "Good afternoon. I'm Sarah Williams, and I'd like to commission some dress robes for the Hogwarts Halloween Feast."
The witch beamed. "Well, I'm Mirlinda Baum, and you've come to the right place!"
During her second lesson in the first week of October, Sarah worked on turning ash into parchment. The basic components were all there, so the spell itself was easy.
But she found herself thinking back to three burnt letters. One heavy, one light, and one she had known, as sharply and suddenly as being stabbed, that her mother would never bother to answer.
So, while Minerva tested the parchment, Sarah tried to phrase her question.
At length, she took a deep breath and asked, "Minerva, did you ever teach an Eluned Carrow? She probably liked to call herself Linda."
Minerva looked up. Her eyes sharpened on Sarah. Sarah suspected she was being evaluated, her features measured, her past statements weighed.
"I taught her some few years ago, yes. I recall she excelled in Charms, but she was no slouch at Transfiguration, either. Arithmancy, Ancient Runes, and Potions, however..."
That sounded like her mother. Creative and visual, with just enough analytical thought to be decent at Transfiguration. But not an overly academic sort.
"What House was she in?"
Minerva's lips pursed. She frowned, eyes narrowing at the memory. "She was a Gryffindor. Which I always found odd; the Carrows throw Slytherins. Why on earth are you asking about her, of all people?"
Sarah almost said, 'no reason.' But Minerva had just volunteered the truth. She owed the professor an honest answer.
"She's my mother."
"And yet you never knew you were a witch? I'd say I find that hard to believe..." Minerva trailed off, then gave her a speculative look. "Eluned always did talk about leaving England for America. From the first day she came here."
"And leaving magic to become a movie star?"
"No. That talk didn't start until her fifth year or so. I thought it was nonsense, but as you are here and from America, I assume it wasn't?"
"She's more famous for her relationship with another movie star, Jeremy Michaels. But she was popular in the late sixties, before I was born."
"How fortunate for her," Minerva said, tone so dry it was brittle. She sounded almost bitter. "Eluned escaped the earliest stages of the war and went off to America, where she was never asked to take sides."
Sarah said nothing. She hadn't had time to read an in-depth history of the war against the Dark Lord. But she wondered if his slow gathering of power had anything to do with her mother's desperation to leave.
"I should be glad one of my students escaped the war. And I am glad that she did. But we lost so many, Sarah. Many of them barely more than children. Eluned could have helped us."
Minerva shook her head. "No. There's no need for you to apologize for your mother's actions. And what's done is done. No use dwelling on what might have been."
Sarah decided not to mention that 'done is done' was one of Jareth's favorite sayings. It couldn't possibly end well.
In the second week of October, Sarah handed out children's books written by non-magical people. She'd selected them carefully to make sure there were no concepts of magic remotely compatible with the world her students lived in.
"Alright, grab a book and a composition notebook. Journal about the experience. If you feel like you're not understanding what you're reading, underline it in the text, write about it in your journal, bring it to me."
Her morning class groaned. As one, they chorused, "You're here and happy to help."
Sarah laughed. "That's right. Now, you've got some time on those — I want your journals by the last Friday of October. And remember to bring a friend next Friday; we're doing a practical that should be shared."
Eighteenth October 1991 went a delightful mix of wonderfully and terribly. As she'd instructed, the students all brought at least one friend. A few of those friends were even non-hereditary wizards and witches.
Sarah hauled in a cardboard box from her office and began laying out supplies on the front-most desk. Then she waved her wand and pulled out several ovens.
"Today, we're going to learn about following directions, and how to cook without using any magic at all. If I see a single wand out, I will take fifteen points from your House."
The students from non-magical families all grinned at the sight of boxes of cake and brownie mix that Sarah had assembled on the front row. She'd included other ingredients, as well, and mixing bowls.
"Alright, everyone. You have the entire class period to produce an edible cake."
What ensued was chaos. Sarah had to extract one hapless tag-along — brought, no doubt, because his parents weren't magical — and sit him down to keep him from doing his friend's work.
Apparently, most of these children had only ever watched their parents crack eggs with magic. Some of them had never seen food prepared at all. Food preparation, for the richer ones, was the job of 'house elves,' whatever those were.
She watched eggs crack all over the desks. Batter was stirred and sloshed everywhere. She couldn't quite keep the smile from her face, though she made sure to clean the floors, at least. Messy desks and hands and robes were one thing, but she didn't need anybody slipping on the stone floors.
Sarah looked up. Witwicky and Colson held two pans full of batter between them. Each wore a hopeful expression.
"That's when you turn the oven to the temperature it needs to be, and wait for it to get there." Sarah paused a moment, then said, "The little orange light will stop shining."
Both boys nodded, then headed to the ovens. Eventually, most of the teens had managed to pour their batter into a pan and get the pan into the oven.
Sarah was almost surprised to discover that most of the baked goods turned out perfectly edible. Young'd lost most of his batter, but Witwicky helped him pull his cake out of the oven before it could burn.
Sarah pulled the very final ingredient out of her cardboard box: canned frosting.
"Anyone who wants can frost their cakes. Remember, no magic!"
Icing went everywhere. Sarah found herself laughing as Cecille Westenra tried in vain to comb chocolate frosting from her hair. The girl eventually gave up and sucked on the ends of her braid, eyes glinting with laughter.
She took pity on Young and helped him to spread vanilla frosting all over his cake. He poured multi-colored sprinkles on top of the icing.
"There," Sarah said as class ended. "Go on, take the cakes with you. I don't care when or how you eat it — though your other professors might. Just get me the pans back by Sunday."
Word apparently spread through the school like a spark through kindling. That afternoon found her classroom packed with auditors — including Hermione, Harry Potter, his red-headed friend, and the Longbottom boy.
Sarah intercepted Seamus Finnigan and steered him away from the ovens. "Minerva tells me that you," she said, "can make pumpkin juice explode. So you put your wand up and stay in the back with the other auditors."
A few minutes later, Sarah had to intercept Hermione on her way to help Persephone Greengrass. She gently grabbed the girl by the shoulders and steered her toward the back of the classroom. "Nope. I know you know how to bake a cake. Greengrass has to learn. Go sit with Longbottom and Finnigan."
Under his breath, the Weasley boy muttered, "Just has to show everyone how to do everything."
Sarah caught his eye and arched a brow. "Five from Gryffindor for in-fighting. Don't let me catch you at that again, Weasley."
About half an hour into the challenge, Greengrass lost most of her batter when Evans accidentally knocked her bowl over. One of the auditors — a pointy-chinned blond boy with gray eyes; he could have been Evans's sharper, weaselly cousin — clapped sarcastically.
"Well done, Greengrass," the boy drawled. "You've obviously learned how to —"
Sarah caught his eyes, arched a brow, and smiled. "Eight points from Slytherin, whoever you are. If you want to keep talking, I can keep taking points."
"I'm Draco Malfoy," the boy said.
"Three more from Slytherin, which means you have lost your House eleven points in less than two minutes. I suggest you shut your mouth." The boy's mouth closed, but he cast her dark, furious glances. Sarah folded her arms over her chest. "I want my students to learn the non-magical way of doing things. I won't have any of them mocked for it."
"She's a Slytherin!"
"Then six from Slytherin for in-fighting. I don't tolerate in-House bullying in my classroom. And three more for continuing to talk. Now you've lost a nice, round twenty points."
"Well, she shouldn't have to learn it anyway. The Muggle way is stupid!"
Movement in the classroom stopped. Her students stopped talking, all eyes on her to gauge her reaction. The other auditors also stopped talking, sensing from the silence of her students that something interesting was about to happen.
Sarah took a deep breath and let it out. She felt strangely calm. Cold inside. She was angry — of course she was angry; he'd just insulted her parents and brother, not to mention the subject she taught. But stronger than the anger was a sense of sadness and exasperation.
She drew on it. And said, very calmly, "We don't use that word in this classroom. Twenty points from Slytherin for use of the word 'Muggle.'"
"You can't be serious — this is a Muggle studies —"
"Stop. Talking," she snapped. "Twenty more points for use of it again. I don't care if you say you didn't know — you chose to audit this class. It's your responsibility to ask what the classroom rules are. And an additional fifteen points for blatant disrespect of the subject."
Malfoy opened and closed his mouth. The other Slytherins in the classroom were all watching him with narrowed eyes. He'd lost them seventy-five points in the space of five minutes. They evidently didn't appreciate it.
"Now, Mr. Malfoy, you can leave my classroom gracefully, or I can remove you. But it's obviously a very bad idea for you to stay here." Sarah made a point to smile at him.
Malfoy swept out of the classroom with two hulking students following after.
Sarah moved over to Greengrass's side, then Vanished the batter still in her bowl. "Start again. You're free after this, right?"
Greengrass nodded. "Yes, Lecturer Williams."
"Then you can have a few minutes extra. But you should still have plenty of time."
Unlike the morning students, the afternoon students ended up eating their cake in the classroom. The auditors even each had a slice.
Sarah noted the way Harry smiled at something as simple as getting to eat cake. Her heart squeezed painfully. Had he never even had that?
If she ever met the people responsible for how thin he was, the shadows in his eyes, the mistrust with which he looked at adults, she was going to have a very hard time not throttling them. Was this how Jareth felt, confronted with a parent or sibling who'd wished away a child out of their own selfishness?
She patted Hermione on the shoulder, then headed to stand near Harry and the Weasley boy. When they looked up at her — the Weasley boy had icing on the corner of his mouth — Sarah grinned.
"So, can I hope to see you in your third years?"
"Dunno," said the Weasley boy, "are you going to do cake every year?"
"Probably," Sarah admitted. "This certainly seems to have worked well."
"Except for Malfoy," Harry said, tone dark. Sarah suspected a nasty history.
She shrugged, kept her tone deliberately breezy. "Well, there's always going to be someone ruining something in a school this big. I'm not going to let him drag me or my students down."
Harry opened his mouth to reply, but Evans had finally circled back around to her favorite topic. "Professor —"
"—Lecturer," Sarah corrected, sighing. It was funny; the kids who liked her seemed to forget she wasn't actually a professor. The kids who tried to look down their nose at a woman around seven years their senior all delighted in emphasizing that she was only a lecturer.
"Sorry, Lecturer. Will the Goblin King come to dinner tonight?"
Sarah blinked at Evans. "Why on earth would he do that?"
"Well, we were all making cake..."
Was it the nature of a thirteen year old to ascribe significance where there was none, in pursuit of interesting teachers, or was it the way damn near every western culture socialized girls to over-value romantic relationships? Or was this just a unique confluence of 'weird thirteen year old' and 'girl socialized to over-value romance?'
Regardless, she found herself spluttering a laugh. "Constantia Evans, you have got to give up on this thing you have about me and His Majesty. I've had this cake day planned since before I even knew Jareth would be stopping by so often. You can ask Minerva McGonagall; she proofread my curriculum."
"But you'll invite him, won't you?"
"No. He's not coming back for a visit until Halloween, probably." Sarah pointed. "And if you keep asking, I'll tell him he's got an admirer."
Weasley snorted. "The goblins don't have a king. Is she talking about the chief whatever of Gringotts?"
Sarah rolled her eyes. "You remember that guy with the crazy hair who was hanging around with me at the Sorting feast? And at breakfast last month?"
Harry nodded. Weasley looked thoughtful for a moment before he nodded as well.
"His name is Jareth and he's definitely the King of the Goblins." Sarah was tempted to say that they could ask Ryan Carrick what happened if they disagreed with Jareth on that point. Instead she said, "I know it sounds preposterous, but I promise it's true."
"So you're friends with a King?" Weasley looked torn between thinking the revelation was false and being impressed.
"We're working on it," Sarah said. She looked at the clock, then sighed. "Alright, go on. This class is long over and you have a few hours until dinner. Go and do... student things."
A week before the Halloween feast, Sarah placed her hand against her silver mirror again. The mirror rippled, tickling her palm, and then Jareth's face appeared. His mouth had quirked up at the corners. Once again, Sarah received the impression that the only thing dividing their hands was a pair of worlds and a thin layer of silver.
"We're having a feast at Halloween." Sarah grinned impishly. "I think I might be intimidated."
"Scared of a meal? I recall you being much braver than that." Jareth smirked at her. "Such a pity."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "You've caught me out, Goblin King. I'm inviting you to the Feast."
Jareth gave her a wicked grin. "I would be glad to escort you."
In the days leading up to Halloween, Sarah's potions work turned grueling. She had moved from the basics of making potions to OWL level skills, such as identifying the effects of the Moon on various ingredients — the effects of the stars were much trickier and evidently NEWT-level — and skinning her own boomslangs and other creatures.
She took to wearing old tee shirts and a pair of jeans she hated to class. And then she found herself pulling her hair into a tight bun on the top of her head.
On the Monday before Halloween, Sarah's potions lesson came before dinner. When she took her seat at the meal, Rolanda wrinkled her nose.
Sarah only gave her a rueful grin. "Sorry, Rolanda. I had to skin puffskeins."
"Good lord. What on earth is the skin of a puffskein good for?" Rowe wrinkled his nose as well.
"It's more just to get the fur out of the way so you can get at the liver," Sarah said. "They're good in a number of potions, especially at this phase of the moon, when they can be substituted for —"
"Uhlgh, peeling back the skin and reaching in for the liver," Rowe said. "Some of us were planning on eating, Sarah."
At his end of the table, Snape actually looked amused for a few moments before he went back to eating and his usual dour expression.
Thirty-first October 1991 was a Thursday. Sarah had no classes that day, so she spent the morning reading and responding to journals. After lunch, she headed to Hogsmeade.
Her first order of business was to call home.
"Sarah! You're a little early for this week," Irene said.
"I've got a free day today. Thought I'd call and wish you a happy Halloween."
Irene laughed. "It's that important a holiday up in remote Scotland?"
"We're having a special dinner tonight. I think it's because the kids can't go trick-or-treating."
"You can't send them off to take candy from strangers, so you fill them full of... what, pumpkin pie and ice cream?"
"Something like that, I think. Anyway, I know you've been hoping I could come out for Thanksgiving, but considering when Christmas vacation starts..."
"Can't take that kind of time off?"
Truth be told, she probably could have done Thanksgiving. If her parents knew about magic. It'd be easy to whip up a Portkey to her parents's house, and then another to get back to the Hogwarts grounds. She didn't have classes on Thursdays.
It was yet another reason to tell her parents. Maybe over Christmas, when she'd have been working for a term. When she could reassure them that it was safe, and that she was happy and healthy. That magic didn't have to upend their ordinary lives.
"I'm sorry, but I just don't think the Headmaster would allow it."
"Well, we'd hoped to have you," Irene said, sighing. "But honestly, Robert and I didn't really expect it. Toby will be a little disappointed. By the way, where on earth did you find that candy?"
"Oh, the Ice Mice? They're made a by a specialty shop in the village closest the school."
"They are fantastic. Toby insisted I take a bite. I've never tasted such crisp mint! Does that specialty shop grow their own or something?"
"Honestly, I have no idea. But they're a little like magic, aren't they?" Sarah forced a laugh.
"Just a little. But if you're not coming for Thanksgiving, does that mean we'll get to have you for Christmas?"
"I promise, from December Twenty-Third until after the New Year, I'll be all yours."
"For the first time in four years," Irene said, tone a touch dry. "You know, Robert was just distraught when you didn't come home that very first Christmas after you started college."
"I'm sure you cheered him right up."
"Oh, no, I was upset too. The last thing I've ever wanted for you is to be lonely, and I just didn't see how a semester in England could be nearly enough time to make the close friends you'd need."
Sarah remembered that Christmas. She'd missed home and her family with an ache sharp like physical pain. She'd spent most of Christmas Eve cuddled up with Ludo and cried at how alone she felt on Christmas morning.
And yet, even at the time, it had felt right somehow. Grown up. Like this was an important first step to being independent. It had been hard, but looking back, she felt it would be wrong — a step backward — to wish to trade that hard Christmas for comfort.
"Well, I missed you guys. But it didn't kill me."
"No, it apparently made you stronger than ever. Do you realize it's been four years since you've been back to the United States? I've got friends who are convinced you got married or something over there."
"Oh god. I'd never do that to you guys. If there's anybody in my life I want to marry, I promise, you and Dad will be the first people to know." Sarah paused for a moment, then asked, "So how has America changed since I've been gone, huh?"
"Not that much, honestly. There's an election in a year. Are you going to vote?"
Sarah opened her mouth to say, 'Of course,' and stopped. After a moment, she shook away the sense that in coming to Hogwarts, she had left both her home country and her old world behind. She was still an American; of course she would vote in a presidential election. It'd just be a little harder to stay informed.
"Of course. But you're going to have to keep me updated on the campaigns. I don't get any international news out here." Sarah looked at the time, then bit back a curse. "Oh, lord, Irene, why didn't you tell me how long we'd been on the phone?"
"Sarah, it's really not a problem."
"Well, I'm sure other people want to make phone calls around here. I'll see you at Christmas and I'll talk to you all again on Sunday. Give Dad and Toby my love."
"Of course, dear. Love you."
"Love you, too."
Sarah left the Three Broomsticks and headed over to Gladrags. Mirlinda Baum greeted her immediately, with the same bright smile as the first time they'd met.
"Right over there, love."
Sarah quickly unfastened the cloth her robes had been wrapped in to make sure she had the right ones, then smiled her approval. "Perfect. I still owe you a galleon on these, don't I?"
Mirlinda's smile spread wider.
"Right." Sarah tossed the coin onto the counter and whirled out.
Really, in her opinion, nothing made a girl feel pretty like new clothes.
Just why she wanted to feel pretty for a Halloween Feast a children's school — a Feast the Goblin King would be attending — didn't bear thinking about.
Sarah braided the very top of her hair into a crown, though she let its ends and the rest of it fall down her back. After a moment, she nodded and changed into her robes.
The deep, autumnal red — the red of a fallen leaf — was okay. It didn't make her look washed out, at least. The interwoven threads of gold livened the color up a bit.
But what she really loved about these robes was the fit. Well, the fit and the girdle. Mirlinda had tightened the robes in the bodice, then dropped the waist down to the natural waist. The final touch as a medieval-style girdle that started at the waist and fell down to the hem. The strip of fabric started out at the robe's base color, but gradually deepened until it was nearly black.
Even better, the fabric had been enchanted to feel light rather than like she was wearing a bunch of heavy brocade.
Sarah smoothed the skirts in the mirror, for a moment admiring the line of her waist, then she turned and headed out the door.
Once again, Jareth was waiting for her on the main stair. He'd worn deep red and gold as well, autumn colors that managed to avoid the stereotypical orange and black. He looked surprisingly good in red, but Sarah suspected that Jareth probably looked good in anything.
He offered her his arm. This time, she took it, smiling over at him.
He'd even dyed a streak of red into his hair.
They made their way through the Great Hall and to the staff table. Jareth conjured himself a chair again. He smiled toothily at Severus Snape, who was looking on in blatant disapproval. Evidently having just one person at his table whose mind he couldn't read was bad enough, but two — and at a Feast — was just more than he could bear without glaring.
Rolanda Hooch, bless her, was utterly unintimidated by Jareth's smugness and Snape's irritation.
"Love the hair, your majesty," she said in a dry voice.
Food appeared on plates. Once again, Jareth frowned.as it did so, but he didn't explain.
At some point, he and Sarah and Rolanda found themselves once again on the subject of transfiguration.
"Definitely, if you're going to be an animagus, birds are the best." Hooch nodded firmly. "I mean, I've always loved the sky, don't get me wrong, but birds are dead useful."
"Barn owls especially," Jareth drawled. "Sarah, you would not believe the gossip I could be privy to, if I only drudged for a day or so."
"I can't imagine you 'drudging' a day in your life, Goblin King," Sarah teased. "And I think the barn owl transformation is your schtick."
"But, if not a wise and majestic barn owl — or a fierce-eyed hawk, what would you change your shape to be?"
"Oh, I don't know. A grizzly bear or a tiger, maybe. Something big and scary and with soft, cuddly fur."
"A tiger, she says, " Jareth grumbled.
Sarah just grinned and poured him more mead. After a moment, she looked out at the student tables. Her eyes sought out Harry naturally, but then she realized that there was a bushy brown head missing from the Gryffindor table.
"I'll be right back," Sarah said, then scooted out from table. She headed toward the Gryffindors.
After a moment, she was facing Harry and Weasley. A couple of other first years were clustered nearby.
Weasley and Harry looked up at her. Weasley looked to Harry. Harry looked at Weasley. Neither answered.
A first year girl said, a touch nastily, "She's been crying in the sub-floor bathroom since Charms because someone had to go and be a great big git, Ron Weasley."
"I didn't know she heard me," Ron said.
Sarah pinched the bridge of her nose. "Do I really have to take points from Gryffindor for in-House bullying again? We've had this conversation, before, I swear!"
Both Ron and Harry looked down. Ron was shifting in his seat, his gaze on the wood grain of the Gryffindor table. Poor kid couldn't even look at his food.
Sarah sighed. "Right. I'm not taking points. But I'm going to go see if I can talk the kid out of the bathroom."
She didn't bother lifting her skirts as she stalked out of the room. Let them drag along the stone floor. She needed to focus on not clenching her fists.
Jareth watched Sarah interrogate the children near Harry. After a moment, she heaved an exasperated sigh and stalked from the room.
He tilted his head to an angle that felt more comfortable to think in. Next to him, the hawk shapechanger let out a faintly surprised hiss.
He paid her no mind. Something was wrong. There was some faint scent of sour magic on the air. But he couldn't identify it, and time — always his plaything before — seemed sullen and fixed today.
Then the doors to the Great Hall flew open and in strode the garlic-smelling man with the stutter. His pale face had gone even whiter than usual, making him look very nearly bloodless. His pale eyes were wide in his face, gaze roving wildly across the Hall.
Jareth unclenched his hands from the table and smoothed away the deep gouges his temporary claws had left.
"T-t-troll in the dungeon!" The man delivered the news at a shout — was he fear-mongering, or was he truly so deeply irrational? — and then added, more quietly, "I thought you ought to know."
With that, the stutterer fainted.
The Hall erupted into chaos. He hadn't sensed so many frightened children in one room in several hundred years. Instinct, the weight of thousands of years of obligation, demanded he do something.
"But where has Severus gone?" This from the cat shapechanger — Sarah's McGonagall.
"I have no idea, Minerva." The human-hawk looked around, but then she shook her head. "I don't see him at all."
He watched as McGonagall scanned the room. After a moment of hesitation, she turned to him. "Your Majesty. There is no one to guard the Slytherin children. Will you see them safely to a classroom here on the ground floor?"
Jareth gave her half a bow. "I will."
And then he made for the table with the children in badges of green and silver.
Harry watched as the blond man who hung about Lecturer Williams headed to the Slytherin table and began to gather the children into an almost-orderly mob. Every so often, he darted glances at the main doors, but he stayed with the Slytherins. He even led them in the opposite direction, toward the nearest classrooms.
Hadn't Lecturer Williams headed to the dungeons?
Come to think of it...
Harry grabbed Ron's arm. "I've just thought — Hermione."
"What about her?" But Ron's face was pale. He already knew. "Doesn't she have a teacher with her?"
"But they don't know about the troll."
Ron bit his lip. Harry was silent a moment, watching as his friend weighed what they both knew against the fear.
"Oh, all right," Ron finally said, voice strung tight with something Harry didn't want to admit to but felt, too. "But we can't let Percy see us."
Sarah made her way to the dungeon bathroom. She pulled a ring of keys from her left sleeve and unlocked the door. She swung the door open and swept in, not bothering to grab her key and put it back on the ring. She'd pick it up as they left.
She heard a muffled sob coming from one of the middle stalls.
No answer save another sob.
"Hermione, talk to me, please."
More inarticulate crying. Sarah sighed. Ron Weasley had really done a number. Or maybe it was isolation, homesickness, her coping mechanism only alienating everyone around her, and the ups-and-downs of childhood. If she was honest with herself, she suspected the latter.
She'd been eighteen years old when she'd left her parents and moved to Oxford, and she'd had weekly phone calls and the promise of visits, if all went well. She'd missed them so terribly it had burned.
God only knew what an eleven year old must be going through.
Sarah sighed and made her way to the stall with a crying girl behind its door. She rapped on the wood. "Come on, Hermione. If you won't talk, at least let me in."
After a long pause, the door swung inward. Sarah scooted in. When she saw Hermione's pale, blotchy face, she privately cursed every Headmaster hadn't seen or cared how utterly cut off from their parents the children without wizard parents were.
Sarah gathered the girl in her arms. "Why didn't you tell me how alone you felt, huh? There's a phone in Hogsmeade. I could have seen about getting you a phone call home."
Hermione mumbled something through her tears.
And then the door creaked open.
Sarah was about to snap and tell whoever had come down there to leave, but the person who walked in had heavy footsteps. They didn't breathe like any human she'd ever heard.
What was going on? Dread crept in ice-cold rivulets along her spine.
Just above the quiet and strangely labored breathing, she heard the door close and the soft, subtle click of a lock. Hermione slowly looked up at her, blotchy tears draining away into fear, and Sarah realized the eleven-year-old had heard it too.
Sarah scooted forward slightly so Hermione could open the stall door inward, then pushed Hermione back toward the wall and poked her head out.
What she saw did not make her happy. She wasn't sure what it was, but it was huge, had strange, craggy outcroppings on its gray skin, and it was carrying a club about the size of the Christmas tree Irene put up in their living room every year. It also stank.
"Hermione," Sarah whispered. "Get down."
Thankfully, the little Gryffindor listened to her. She flopped almost bonelessly to the ground, covering her head in her hands.
Sarah had just enough time to get down before something — probably the club — crashed into the bathroom stalls with a reverberating boom like thunder right next to her ears. Splinters and porcelain shards and chips of castle stone flew in an explosive tangle.
Hermione screamed. On any other day, the shrill noise would have set Sarah's teeth on edge and turned her stomach sour. But fear of the thing in the room with them was busily transfiguring her blood to water.
The thing roared back at them and the club lashed out again.
They crawled on their stomachs, ahead of the impact by inches. Sarah rolled away from the stalls — she needed space to move and maneuver and they definitely needed not to be hit by any castle shrapnel. And if she stayed near that rubble, her skirt was going to get caught. As it was, she had to rip off the girdle and toss it aside.
Right. She had an eleven year old to protect, a wand, and a… huge thing between them and the door. Sarah looked up. Then she looked up some more.
Slowly, the thing raised its club. Time seemed to stretch. She could see the rocky growths on the thing's skin, could see the shadows grow as the club blocked the light.
Behind it, the door opened. Sarah's strange sense of dilated time snapped as Harry Potter and his red-headed friend — the youngest Weasley, Ron — peered in.
The thing swung its arm down.
Sarah ducked away, striking her side against a sink. Pain bloomed, hot and quick. She barely had time to gasp before the thing swung at the wall.
It was instinct to dodge to the side again. She ended up half-crouched near where the stalls had been. Once again she looked up at the thing. She could hear the hiss of broken pipes leaking water, but she didn't take her eyes off it.
There was no sign of intelligence in its eyes. No sign of thought, no sign of real intent. There was anger on its face, but it looked distant to her, vague. Uncomprehending.
She wasn't going to out-strength it. She wasn't going to beat it with endurance. But she could damn well out-think it. Quite frankly, the eleven-year-old Gryffindors could probably outthink it.
"Hermione," Sarah said. "I'm going to distract it. You're going to run to the door, push the boys out, and find me some help."
Harry's green eyes fixed on her. He looked at the thing, then straightened his chin, standing a little taller. Next to him, the Ron straightened, too, planting his feet stubbornly.
And from behind her, Hermione said, voice soft but tone hard, "That's a mountain troll. I'm not leaving you behind, professor."
Once again the world seemed to resume. The thing — the troll — raised its arm. Harry surged forward. His hands gripped the outcroppings on the thing's skin and he climbed the creature, clinging to its neck.
The troll roared and shook itself, trying to peel the boy off.
She had to distract it somehow. Sarah turned to her left and picked up a piece of porcelain sink. She stepped back, drew back her arm, and threw. Years of summer softball camps served her well; the piece of sink smacked into the troll's nose, causing it to howl and stomp in pain.
The bathroom shook. She saw rubble bouncing at the impact of its feet.
"Okay, new plan! Harry and I distract it, Ron and Hermione come up with a better idea. Hermione, what kills trolls?"
That was not a fair plan. Well, life wasn't fair, and Harry was clinging to a troll with his wand stuck up its nose. The troll swatted the air behind it, still unable to grab the boy it couldn't see.
Sarah stomped on the ground and shouted, clapping her hands to get its attention. It dropped its club with a clatter and crash, then reached out to grab her. She stumbled backwards, nearly tripping from a combination of long skirt and wet floor.
"We have to hit it with something heavy!" Hermione said. She tugged on Sarah's shoulder, trying to drag her to her feet.
Sarah stood. Her movements felt slow. Her entire left side hurt.
Harry was tugging on its ears, so Sarah drew her wand and cast incendio on the fur it was wearing around one of its ankles. Fire blazed, quick and bright, and the troll shrieked. It stomped wildly, kicking stalls and rubble, swatting at its own legs to try and put out the orange flame.
"So what's the heaviest thing in here?" She asked.
Harry yelled out, "The club!"
Ron went white. "I can't hit it with that! None of us can lift it!"
Sarah cast incendio on the other legwarmer, and Hermione screamed.
The boy aimed his wand. His hand trembled, making the wand seem to jerk as he levelled it at the club. Sweat beaded on his forehead. After a moment of silence that seemed to last far, far too long, he swished, flicked, and shouted, "Wingardium Leviosa!"
Time stretched again. The troll's club began to float. It drifted higher and higher, almost lazily, above all their heads but toward the troll. Slowly, the troll turned, reaching for its club as if confused. Harry used the moment to pull his wand out of the troll's nose.
When the heaviest part of the club was several feet above the troll's face, time snapped back again and the club dropped. The crunch echoed through the bathroom.
Blood dripped from the troll's nose. The troll reeled, then collapsed forward.
Rubble jumped and the mirror rattled as the troll hit the ground.
Sarah looked to the mirror. The highly-polished metal had begun to ripple, and Hoggle's face appeared.
"Sarah?" Hogle reached out to touch the glass.
Sarah stepped back. "Hoggle, not now."
But his arm came through. And away down the hall she heard the click of approaching footsteps. When she looked back to the mirror, she saw Harry's wide eyes, half-reflected in the ripples.
She grabbed Hoggle's arm and pulled him through. Before he could speak, she clapped a hand over his mouth.
"Kids, this is going to sound crazy," she said. "But I need you not to mention him to whoever's coming. Or me, actually. I promise I'll explain later, but Hoggle can't be seen here. They might blame him for this."
A stall hung at an angle, with a porcelain toilet on the ground in front of it. It would do to hide them. She dragged Hoggle behind it and hunkered down.
In stormed — three people, from the sound of it. Minerva McGonagall's voice demanded, "What on earth were you thinking of?"
Her voice had the sharpness of a whipcrack.
When the children had no answer, Minerva continued: "You're lucky you weren't killed. Why aren't you in your dormitory?"
Silence. And then Hermione said, in a small tone, "Please, professor. They were looking for me."
"I went looking for the troll. I... I thought I could handle it. I've read all about them, you see."
Perhaps she shouldn't be approving of a student lying to a professor — to the deputy headmaster, no less — but Sarah found herself grinning at that last. It was a masterstroke. Hermione Granger's penchant for reading was well-known amongst the staff.
"If they hadn't found me," Hermione said, "I'd be dead now. Harry and Ron didn't have time to run or fetch anyone. It was about to... to... finish things... when they arrived."
Hoggle looked at Sarah and raised an eyebrow. She shook her head.
"Well, if that's the case..." Minerva sighed. Her tone was mostly exasperated, but when she spoke again, Sarah thought she heard a touch of pride. "I"m very disappointed in you, Miss Granger. I'll take five points from Gryffindor for this. Now run to your dormitory and finish the feast."
Footsteps as Hermione fled the room.
To Harry and Ron, she said, "Well. It may have been dumb luck, but not many first years could take on a twelve-foot mountain troll, lucky or no. Five points to each of you, and Dumbledore will hear of this. You may go."
Then Snape's voice murmured, "Locomotor troll."
More footsteps. Sarah stayed where she was, then let out a sigh of relief when the door slammed shut. She waited just a few seconds more, then stood and left their hiding place.
"Can you use the mirrors to travel to my rooms?"
Hoggle nodded, apparently not quite daring to speak. Sarah wondered just how angry he thought she was.
Well, she certainly wasn't happy with him. Let him think she was angry.
"Then you'd better go there. I'll be up just as soon as I've talked to the children." She stepped closer to the silver mirror. After a moment, she muttered Scourgify and aimed her wand at her soaked robes. She twined her hair up and into a loose bun, then swept out of the room, grabbing her girdle and muttering a drying charm as she went.
Might as well face the music now.
She looked at least some semblance of who she'd been at the feast by the time she reached the Gryffindor common room.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione were all standing outside the portrait. They were talking, gesticulating wildly. Sarah ducked behind a corner and watched.
After a moment, Ron reached out and slung his arm over Harry's shoulder, then over Hermione's.
Rather than jump up and down, clap, or squeal, Sarah took a deep breath.
And then she stepped out from behind the corner. She couldn't stop the smile, but at the way Ron's eyes narrowed speculatively and the way Harry watched her with outright suspicion, the smile began to die.
"I'm sorry I couldn't explain things just then, and I'm sorry I couldn't keep you out of trouble with Professor McGonagall. My reasons for being here in the castle are... complicated."
"You'd think," Hermione said, voice very soft, "that a Hogwarts professor like you could handle a troll."
"Well, I'm only a lecturer. And since now you've seen me at my worst, I might as well explain the whole thing to you. Whenever you're ready, I'll be in my chambers or my office and willing to talk." Sarah paused, then said, "My password is 'Valentine evenings.'"
With that, she spun on her heel and headed out. Part of her was terrified that telling them meant it would be all over the school. But they had made no mention of her to McGonagall when it could have saved them at least a little trouble. They had secrets of their own to keep.
Both Jareth and Hoggle were waiting for her in her rooms. Hoggle stood in front of her fire, looking positively miserable, while Jareth paced the room.
The moment Sarah had shut the door, Jareth looked toward her. His movements were sharp, sudden. Relief etched itself across his face, drained the tension from his shoulders and stance.
"Sarah," he breathed. "You're as unharmed at Hogworth said you were."
"Did you think I lied?!"
"I don't want to hear another word out of you," Jareth snapped.
"Jareth," Sarah said. "I'm alright. Really. A little tired and a little sore and a lot like I just had a heart attack, but I came out of it just fine. You should be proud of those three."
She headed to the armchair in front of her fire and sank into it gratefully. Her side had begun to throb.
"You faced down a twelve-foot mountain troll with children at your side?!" Jareth drew closer to her.
"They wouldn't leave me. And I could hardly have left them."
Jareth tugged at his hair in a gesture of exasperation. He paced across the room, fuming, for a few moments. When he reached the wall, he simply planted his foot and continued pacing. His cape didn't billow; his hair didn't ripple. It was as if Jareth had decided that her wall was his floor, and gravity agreed.
It got really surreal when Jareth started pacing on the ceiling.
He made it to another wall and walked back down, then crossed to yet another wall and back up the ceiling.
"You had one job, Hogbrat. One," Jareth snarled from the center of her ceiling before he swept his cape behind him and turned on his heel. He marched around the ceiling a few more paces. "And you are such a coward you cannot even risk your own skin for half a minute to pull your own friend and a few children away from a troll —"
A child's voice murmured, "Valentine evenings," and three children bundled into her front room. Jareth was still on the ceiling, half turned to see who the intruders were.
The trio's eyes had all widened. After a split second, Ron's face lit up, and he whispered, "Cool!"
Harry was watching in wide-eyed fascination. Hermione, if Sarah didn't miss her guess, had begun to brew something of a crush. Ron simply looked like he'd found his third best friend, and said best friend was capable of walking on ceilings.
It seemed her discussion with Jareth would have to wait. Sarah drew in a deep breath, smiled past the sting of pain, and said, "Children, may I present Jareth, King of the Goblins. Goblin King, these are Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley."
Jareth inclined his head, then dropped from the ceiling. He righted himself in midair, drifting down slowly so that his feet gently touched back onto the floor. Her floor, this time.
"How delightful to actually meet the three of you," Jareth said. His smile was sharp again.
"Are you really a king? It's not some sort of private joke?" Hermione tilted her head, eyeing his angry-mullet-mop hair.
"Miss Granger, depending on where you're talking about, I'm the king."
At that, Hermione took a step into the room. The door closed behind her, causing all three students to jump. By the time the trio turned back to face them, Jareth had conjured another armchair, in which he lounged sideways.
Ron's eyes widened. "So you're really, actually, King of the Goblins then?"
Jareth looked to Sarah. Sarah shook her head. Why it was so unbelievable to wizard children, she really wasn't sure.
"In a word," Jareth said, "yes."
"You knew my name," Harry said. He spared the words slowly, as if mulling over their implications. Or as if he were suspicious.
Jareth inspected one of his gloves. "Your name was shouted out for the school to hear at the Sorting Feast."
"But you came up and congratulated me."
"You needed it," Jareth said.
The three children all stared at him.
Sarah started to laugh, and then stopped. She pressed her hand to her side, closing her eyes for a moment. She didn't open them again until her head had stopped ringing.
"Jareth is... drawn to children," Sarah said, softly. "It's in his nature to be something like a caretaker for children who aren't healthy or happy."
Harry swallowed, but said nothing.
"In his own way, he just wants to help you. Just like I do."
That got Ron's attention back on her. "You know, speaking of helping, shouldn't you have been able to levitate that club?"
Sarah grimaced. She hadn't actually wanted to make this explanation. But she did owe to the kids.
"I should have," she agreed. "But I can't. I only found out that humans had magic this spring. I'm here teaching at Hogwarts in exchange for private lessons."
Ron gaped. "Y-you're a Muggle? Or, well, practically a Muggle?"
Sarah sighed. The deep exhalation made her wince, but she managed to say, sounding tired, "Please don't use that word with me."
"Right, sorry. But really... you didn't know magic was real?"
"I knew about goblin magic. And I even had a little bit of it that was my own. I just didn't know humans could do magic."
"So what kind of private lessons do you take?" Hermione, naturally, sounded absolutely fascinated at the idea of talking about classes. "And how do the professors have time to teach you? I thought they were very busy."
"I grade a lot of essays," Sarah said, tone dry.
Comprehension dawned on Harry's face. "So that's why you're a lecturer and not a professor. You're..."
"Halfway a student myself, but far too old to enroll in classes." Sarah paused. "You three will keep this to yourselves, won't you?"
All three students nodded dutifully.
"What about Hoggle?" Hermione asked. "Who's he, and why couldn't Professor McGonagall see him?"
Hoggle stepped forward. "I'm Hoggle."
"Hogburn has been released from one of my principalities to help keep Sarah safe," Jareth said. "But he is not human, nor known to the other staff of this school. Wizards thinking the way they do, he would have been an easy scapegoat."
"You think he would have been blamed for the troll?" Harry asked.
"Whoever was responsible will need someone else to blame. A stranger is perfect."
"That's horrible!" Hermione looked to Sarah, as if Sarah could have stopped it.
She shrugged. "Well, whoever let the troll in is horrible. I couldn't take the chance that Hoggle would be blamed for something he didn't do, so I hid him."
"Which is far better treatment than the coward deserves."
"Jareth, enough about that," Sarah said. She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Alright, you three. It's best you're not missed from your common room, and I'm a little sore from hitting that sink. If you still have questions, you can come find me sometime tomorrow, okay?"
Hermione nodded dutifully. She and Ron headed to the door without much hesitation. But Harry cast a backward glance before he swung the door shut.
Sarah sighed in relief. She looked to Hoggle. "I think His Majesty and I have a lot to discuss, Hoggle. I'm not mad at you, but I think this is your chance to escape some more scolding."
Hoggle looked between the two of them. He seemed wary, mistrustful, but he finally said, "Just... call on me again soon, Sarah." With that, he headed to the bedroom for her mirror.
When they were alone, Jareth arched an eyebrow. "You assured me you were only a little sore, precious. You're behaving a lot sore."
"It's just a bruise. Where were you, anyway? I'm sure you could have dealt with that troll for all four of us."
"Your McGonagall asked me to watch over the Slytherin children. They were frightened, and I was... unable to leave them."
Despite how sore she was, Sarah smiled. She could easily imagine him gathering them around, maybe singing to calm them. She wondered which Slytherins had liked him the most: the children like Greengrass and Nott, or the children like Malfoy.
She thought back to the House's reputation. "Jareth?"
He rested a hand against the back of her armchair. "Yes, precious?"
"Do Slytherins really grow up to be evil? Inevitably?" It was hard to credit, that a school for children could have a House actually dedicated to evil.
Jareth apparently saw her incredulity. He let go of the armchair and instead gently grasped her shoulder.
"They are treated, from the time they are eleven years old, as if everyone expects malice and cruelty of them. No one bothers to teach them why the actions of their role models are wrong, or that there is a better way. When they leave the school for summer, many return to a house built on self-importance, where they are half-abused and half-spoiled."
Sarah rested her hand on his.
Jareth's tone was thoughtful as he continued, "But does that make what they grow into evil, or simply a consequence of adults failing the children they say they try to teach?"
"At some point, though, they make a decision, don't they?" She squeezed his hand, but didn't shrug it from her shoulders. Instead, she leaned her head against his arm for a moment as she stared into the fire.
"But how can you call their decisions anything more than the product of their upbringing? They are shaped, from the first days of their lives — or their first days in this school — to be one thing. Of course they grasp the choice that fits the shape they've been molded to. No other choice has been made attractive to them. No other choice will have them."
"So I'm going to have to try hard with the Slytherin students of this year, try and get some rising third years next year..." Sarah sighed.
Jareth quirked a smile. "You are on the right track. You've made the culture you come from interesting." His smile grew, looking predatory once again. "And delicious."
Sarah laughed. "So the cake story was still making the rounds?"
"Food makes an impression. So does a sense of accomplishment — which Persephone Greengrass and Pollux Nott had."
Sarah smiled. "I'll keep that in mind."
She tried to stand. Just pushing herself up from the chair was excruciating. She couldn't stifle her gasp of pain, couldn't stop herself from sinking back down against the soft cushion.
Jareth's eyes narrowed. "Let me see this mere bruise of yours, Sarah."
"It's on my ribcage, Jareth."
"I'd gathered." Jareth drew even closer to her, half-sitting on one of the chair's arms. "Sarah. I offer as a friend to heal you. It has nothing to do with anything else that may lie between us, past or future."
Sarah looked from the fire into his face. His mouth had drawn down, creating a tight frown. His eyes were narrowed. Honestly, he looked caught somewhere between anger and anxiety.
"Alright," she said. She shifted in the chair, turning her back to him.
His hands were on her back immediately, tugging at the robe's laces. She could hear the soft pull, could feel the dress's bodice loosen. After a moment, he tugged the bodice away and helped her pull her left arm out of her sleeve.
He utterly ignored her bra. Instead, he traced one gloved finger along the bruise that had blossomed along her ribcage. It was a light touch, but it left her fighting not to shudder or gasp from the pain.
"This," he said, softly, "is rather more serious than you were admitting. Sarah, how quickly were you moving?"
"I don't know. Pretty fast, I think? I could have sworn that time was doing something weird."
Jareth said nothing. She heard the faint creak of leather and a rustle as he pulled his glove off. When he touched her again, it was with his bare hand.
"I'm given to understand this causes a chill," Jareth murmured against her hair.
It was the only warning she had before the healing started. It was more than 'a chill;' though his hand remained warm on her skin — and even her skin remained warm — something crisp and cold shivered through her. She could feel her abdominal muscles freeze and knit, felt as if her very blood had turn to ice water.
Sarah opened her mouth and let out a ragged gasp. Frost crystals puffed into the air.
And then the feeling was gone. Jareth withdrew his hand and pulled his glove back on. Sarah shrugged back onto her sleeve and laced her dress back up. She took a deep, experimental breath. Nothing hurt.
She didn't turn to face him until she had her dress laced again. When she did, she noticed that he was looking fixedly at the fire.
"Thank you, Jareth."
That drew his attention to her. Once again, he looked briefly startled at being thanked. Then his mouth curved, very slowly, into a smile. "You are more than welcome, Sarah."
She returned the smile, feeling light and warm. Everything seemed easy. "You know, we never got to really eat dinner."
"A mistake we should rectify."
Sarah gave him an impish grin. "Let's go up to the Ravenclaw Tower."
Jareth raised an eyebrow.
"They have a book fort," she said, "and besides, that's my honorary House."
Jareth gave her a skeptical look. He'd probably had about as much of children as even a child-stealing fae could stand, she supposed.
"Alright. Where do you suggest?"
Jareth tilted his head first one angle and then another as he thought, before he finally turned to her, with a predatory glint in his eyes. "Why not eat here?"
"Here? I don't think I can get meals brought to my—"
"How little you know of the workings of this place." Jareth's tone was bitter, but then he snapped his fingers. "Gurdie."
There was a loud bang, as if a broken-down old car had backfired. A little gray creature with wrinkled skin, huge eyes, and long, almost rabbity ears appeared. It was either female or liked to dress up in a toga; it wore a dress that Sarah suspected was made out of a dishcloth.
The dishcloth had the Hogwarts crest.
Sarah dropped to her knees. "Gurdie?"
Gurdie looked between Sarah and Jareth, trembling, before she dropped into a deep curtsey.
"Sarah, this is Gurdie. She's a house elf." Jareth said the word house elf as if it were something Hoggle had fished out of the bog.
Sarah nodded and tried not to stare too long at the little thing. "I take it house elves are more closely related to goblins?"
"A failed attempt at Aboveground colonization by my less intelligent subjects. They're generally considered a distinct creature by wizards, but... they're all my subjects, Sarah."
Jareth looked down at Gurdie. Gurdie kept her face turned to the ground.
"They are subservient to wizards. They dote on them; it's a touch sickening." Jareth's expression darkened. Sarah suspected that by a touch sickening he meant something closer to infuriating. "But if I called them, they, too would return Underground."
Sarah didn't mention just how easy it would be for Jareth to leave wizarding Britain in chaos. For one, he probably already knew. For another, she doubted he needed the encouragement.
"Gurdie," Jareth said, "is perhaps the single house elf with any sort of comprehensible motive. She is, for all intents and purposes, yours."
Sarah stared down at the little thing, then looked back to Jareth. She recalled all the robes that stank of potions ingredients laundered, the bed made, the linens changed. It had all been this little goblin.
"Oh. Oh, Gurdie, I'm so sorry —"
Gurdie finally looked away from the floor to look at her. In a voice that sounded like a squeaky hinge, she said, "No, no, no, mistress is not to be sorry. Gurdie is only doing what house elves is all doing."
"But I took you for granted — I didn't even think — I didn't even know —"
"Done is done," Jareth said. "But now you know. You, at least, will be considerate in your dealings with her. Their history would be fascinating, from your perspective; I suggest you look into it."
Sarah made a mental note to do just that.
"Gurdie, Sarah and I have missed the feast. We wish to dine here tonight."
"Gurdie will bring dinner for mistress and majesty," Gurdie said, and then she was gone with the same loud bang.
Jareth conjured a table, and within moments gold plates piled with food appeared.
Dinner with just the two of them turned out to be vastly different. She didn't have to censor herself from referring to the Labyrinth, or to how strange wizards seemed to her. And his mad, lopsided gaze never strayed too far from her — he made it clear she had his full attention.
She had once been caught blind and unaware in a game of dodgeball, back in high school. The ball had struck her just where her stomach met her ribcage, and she had doubled over, wheezing for breath.
Tonight, the full brunt of Jareth's focus seemed to have a similar effect. She felt both weightless and nervous. Buoyed by the interest and attraction, and sinking in the choppy, brackish knowledge of how very easily she could probably ruin the evening.
She tried not to think about that too hard, to focus on the floaty, warm feeling. At some point, dinner turned into drinks, which meant mead.
"You know, aren't you supposed to be a fan of whiskeys?" Sarah asked on their second — or was it third? — glass.
Jareth arched an eyebrow, idly swirling his glass before sniffing it. As if they hadn't both drunk away their palates by now. "And why should I be?"
"Well, you're... Sidhe, aren't you?"
"Even if I were," he said, with a crooked smile, "why should I care for whiskey?"
Sarah's stomach swooped at the terrible realization that he had just asked a question for which she had no intelligent answer. So she said, "You're not a Sidhe? But I've always thought you were fae..."
"Sarah, Sarah, Sarah. By now, you should be quite aware that I'm male." He paused, arching his brow even higher. "And if you weren't, then you're in for some rather serious disappointment."
Sarah rolled her eyes, but she leaned forward. "So if you're not Sidhe, what are you?"
"Hm, that was your only guess?" He took a sip of his mead. "Can you think of nothing older? Perhaps more continental?"
"Jareth, please not the riddle game. I've had three glasses of mead."
"Then have a fourth, and think!" He flung out an arm expansively, before reaching out to pour her another glass.
"I have no idea. A really, really old, powerful kobold?"
"A very good guess! But I'm a fae far older than that." Jareth poured himself another glass of mead, then leaned back in his chair. "Enough. If you ever need to know, I assure you I will tell you. But it's hardly relevant yet."
"Okay," Sarah said. "I can live with that. Another Goblin King mystery to add to my list."
Sarah rolled out of bed on November First — All Saint's Day — and wanted to crawl right back under the covers. Her head felt like it had been stuffed full of cotton. She was pretty sure the very center of her brain was throbbing, which meant that the rest of her head throbbed, down to her teeth.
At least she wasn't nauseated.
And this time, she'd thought to braid her hair before she fell asleep.
The weather turned wintry within a morning or two after the troll. Sarah often found herself returning to her room after breakfast to add an additional layer or get thicker socks. On Sunday, she found herself changing clothes entirely.
While most of the castle's actual rooms and towers had long been bewitched to stay comfortable temperatures, the halls, courtyards, and staircases had not. And there were honestly over a hundred staircases in the school.
She spent a lot of time shivering, and the rest of the time wishing she'd had any idea how cold it could get in remote Scotland. She'd have bought at least one thicker cloak, that was for sure.
Her potions lessons were more than a little strained. Snape moved with a limp and watched her with obvious suspicion. He hovered over her, brows furrowed and eyes narrowed, watching her every move in his dungeons with malice she hadn't seen before.
Sure, he hadn't liked her before. He certainly hadn't respected her before. Now? Now he acted like she was about to blow up the dungeon even when she was skinning boomslangs.
Minerva seemed much the same as ever, at least. During their first transfiguration lesson after the troll — Sarah graded third year essays — Minerva mentioned, very briefly, that Jareth had been helpful with the Slytherins during the troll scare. She said it in her usual mild tone, careful not to ascribe any particular significance.
But the fact that she was saying it said enough.
Sarah rubbed her feet together under the thick blanket. In the background, David Bowie's voice rang triumphantly from her boombox. Rebel, rebel — you've torn your dress. She tapped her pen in time as she scribbled notes for her students in their journals. She wrote in purple ink to distinguish herself from the house colors her students used.
You want more and you want it fast — they put you down, they say I'm wrong —
Someone knocked at her door, then opened it and stepped inside.
Sarah looked up from the journals to see Harry standing sheepishly just inside her office. He looked wary and just slightly nervous, but he'd stuck out his chin. He was trying to be stubborn or determined about something.
"Good evening, Harry. What can I do for you?" Sarah set the journal aside, to show she was giving Harry her full attention, and then paused the boombox.
"—Lecturer, Harry, and please. You're not in any of my classes and it's after school hours. You can call me Sarah."
"Sarah, then," he said, looking faintly uncomfortable. Guilt crawled into Sarah's stomach. "Is there a rule against having library books outside the school?"
She thought for a moment before saying, "It's not in the school handbook. The only rules about library books and the grounds I know of are a rule against throwing library books in the lake and a rule against loaning library books to the squid. Which I'm pretty sure amount to the same thing."
"I knew it," Harry muttered.
"Did a prefect tell you there was?"
"Professor Snape," Harry said. "He took my copy of Quidditch Through The Ages, and I wanted to read it tonight."
"Trying to take your mind off the match tomorrow?"
Harry wrinkled his nose. "Are you about to tell me I'm sure to fall off my broom and die, or that I'm sure to be brilliant because my father was?"
Sarah laughed. "Wizards and blood, I swear. Well, I do think you'll do well — but I saw you dive forty feet in twenty seconds and snatch a piece of glass out of the air before it could hit the ground."
"I wasn't dodging bludgers."
"I have no idea what those are," Sarah admitted. "I haven't had the time to learn anything about Quidditch, except it involves broomsticks."
That drew a laugh from Harry. "You sound just like Hermione."
Sarah laughed, too. "Trust me, once I have time, I'll be happy to learn everything about it. I actually really like watching school sports."
She pushed the heavy blanket aside and stretched. Then Sarah grabbed her LMH scarf, wrapping it around her head and neck, and pulled on her thick cloak. "Come on, Harry, let's go get your book back."
They hurried through the halls, then took the staircases down to the staff areas. Sarah had hoped the basements and dungeons would be warmer — after all, they didn't have windows — but apparently casting charms to keep these halls warm had never crossed anybody's mind.
Sarah knocked on the door to staff room and smiled down at Harry. There was no answer, which was odd, since there was almost always at least one person in. She blinked and knocked again. Still no answer.
Well, she was a lecturer. She was as welcome in the staff room as anyone else. So Sarah shrugged and swung the door open, then stepped in. Harry followed her after a moment.
They both stopped only a few steps in. The room was definitely not empty: Snape was in. And not only was he in, he had his robes hiked just above his knees while Filch knelt and applied some sort of salve to a series of nastily deep gouges in his leg. The skin around each puncture was inflamed and puffy.
"How are you supposed to keep your eyes on all three heads at once?" Snape was muttering to Filch.
Sarah reached out to grip Harry's shoulder. This was going to go badly.
Slowly, Snape turned his head to look at them. She saw shock cross his features for an instant, before he snarled, "Get out!"
"I just wondered if I could have my book back," Harry said. He sounded almost unaffected, like was used to be shouted at. But she thought she heard just the faintest note of fear.
"GET OUT! OUT!"
"Go on, Harry," Sarah said, pushing him toward the door. She let go his shoulders. Once he was safely gone, she turned to Snape.
She took a deep breath and worked on ignoring the way her heart thudded in her chest. She clenched her fists, then relaxed them.
When she could do so calmly, she said, "I'm going to leave you to get that treated. But do not think I'm going to forget about you inventing rules or throwing a tantrum at a student."
Then she turned on her heel and walked, very slowly, from the room. She was definitely running, but damned if she was going to let Snape think she had run from him.
Harry had vanished by the time she closed the door behind her. She sighed. It didn't occur to her until she'd returned to her office, but what was in or near this castle with three unfriendly heads and very sharp teeth?
Sarah went down to breakfast the next day bundled in two scarves. She stopped on the main stair, searching, but Jareth hadn't arrived yet. She sighed, wishing he could be at her side for the conversation she was about to have at breakfast.
She looked to the Gryffindor table and saw that Harry was pale and wasn't eating. She was half-tempted to encourage him to eat, but she had her own rather difficult morning to face. Besides, if he was about to be playing a complicated sport on a broomstick, what were the chances he'd actually keep food down?
Sarah heaped her plate with sausages, toast, and eggs. She poured herself a cup of tea and added milk.
When she'd settled her stomach with a bite of buttery, honeyed toast, she said, mildly but loudly enough for Snape to hear from his end of the table, "So, care to explain why we're inventing rules, Professor Snape?"
"No," Snape replied.
Oh, if that was the way he was going to play it. Sarah relaxed her grip on her teacup and set it down. "Let's try that again. Would you please explain to me the logic behind inventing a rule so you could take a book from an eleven year old boy?"
"I see no need to explain myself to you."
"There are other questions I could be asking," Sarah said, tone hard, "that I don't think you want asked at this table. Or ever, come to think of it. I don't mind asking them if I have to, in front of the headmaster and a group of parents if I have to."
Snape's gaze locked onto her, eyes drilling into her own in a glare that almost made her skin sizzle. She made a point to think about the wounds on his leg and his muttering to Filch, just in case he was trying to read her mind again.
"Did you honestly think for even a minute that inventing a rule just for an excuse to punish an eleven year old boy was anything but petty, unprofessional, and childish?"
Minerva eyed Harry at the Gryffindor table, bookless and unable to eat. Then she swivelled her gimlet stare to raise an eyebrow at Snape.
Snape glared at Sarah. And then he pushed himself out of his chair and swept away from the table. Despite his limp, his robes billowed, and once again Sarah imagined him getting his stupid flapping robes caught in a door somewhere.
"What on earth," Minerva asked, voice deceptively unconcerned, "was that about?"
Sarah sighed and explained, though she omitted the part about the injury. On Minerva's other side, a huge, bearded, bushy-haired man she'd only ever seen around the grounds drew down his brows.
But Minerva only said, "Curious. I'll mention it to Albus when I get the chance. Now, if you'll pardon me, I'm going to go see if Mr. Potter will eat anything."
Jareth stood waiting for her in the entrance hall. He was wearing his black armor again, though the inside of his cape was red and hemmed in gold.
"Somebody's cheering for Gryffindor," Sarah teased.
Jareth merely arched an eyebrow and offered her his arm. "Not only is Harry on their team, I knew the man personally, precious thing."
"Now that sounds like a story I'd love to hear." Sarah placed her hands on his arm, smiling up at him.
Jareth smiled toothily. He didn't seem angry, but the smile was definitely not friendly. "A gentleman never tells."
Considering that she was walking arm in arm with him like a woman out of a Victorian courtship, Sarah decided not to question just how gentlemanly he was. Besides, she'd resolved to let their adversarial encounters in the Labyrinth be bygones.
"So, care to tell me why you are not wearing Gryffindor colors?"
"I'm an honorary Ravenclaw," she pointed out. "I don't own anything in Gryffindor colors except my robes from the Halloween Feast, and those are a touch too formal for today."
Jareth gave her an inexplicable smug look.
They weren't quite at the Quidditch pitch when Hermione called, "Lecturer Williams! Over here!"
Sarah looked up to see Hermione standing with Ron and the huge man. Ron was grinning widely.
"You're going to stand with us, aren't you, Lecturer Williams?"
"But of course, Miss Granger," Jareth said for her, and began to steer them in Hermione's direction.
"Way to ask my opinion, your Majesty," Sarah muttered to him.
"I didn't need to. We both know you'd have agreed."
"Okay, and what if I wanted to sit with Filius and Rowe?"
"Sarah." His tone was flat. She half expected to hear him say don't defy me, but all he said was, "Don't be facetious."
They climbed the stands. Sarah was startled to realize how windy the pitch was. She tried to repress a shudder, though Jareth noticed — of course he noticed; he'd somehow managed to keep her on his arm as they climbed sideways up stairs — and looked at her from the corner of his eyes.
"Wouldn't they want this place not to be windy? I mean, kids on broomsticks..."
"Wizards seem to take a sink or swim approach," Jareth said. "Besides, they'll eventually be flying these brooms around Britain or over Europe. Think of this pitch as practice for crossing over an ocean."
"They're playing sports a hundred feet in the air!"
"There are adults around to catch them or slow their falls. Injury will be minimized."
"This pitch is safe as houses," the tall man assured her from the other side of Hermione. "Hooch and McGonagall won't let a thing happen to the students."
"You know, I've seen you around, but I don't think we've met."
"Rubeus Hagrid," the man said. "Keeper of the Grounds and Keys at Hogwarts."
"Sarah Williams, lecturer in Muggle Studies." She wrinkled her nose at the word muggle. "You're sure they're safe?"
"Safe as safe can be. Now watch, they're about to start."
The noise level around them rose as the two teams walked onto the pitch. Rolanda Hooch stood in the middle of the field. As the two teams reached her, the Gryffindor captain shook hands with the Slytherin captain.
"Okay, so how is this game even played?" Sarah had to shout to be heard.
Ron stared at her in horror, while Hermione untucked something from her bag. It seemed to be a sheet, on which a Gryffindor lion and the words Potter for President had been painted.
"Thanks for the help with this, Dean," Hermione said to a boy somewhere behind them in the stands.
"Happy to," the boy — apparently Dean? — replied.
"You don't know the rules of Quidditch?!" Ron squeaked.
Dean snapped, "Don't see why it's such a big deal. I'm Muggleborn, remember?"
Sarah opened her mouth, but didn't correct him. Instead she said, "So, explain it to us, Ron."
Ron opened his mouth to answer, but Rolanda shouted, "Mount your brooms!"
The students all clambered onto their broomsticks. Rolanda blew a whistle in a sharp burst, and fourteen children all pushed off the ground and into the air. As Harry and another boy rose high into the air and the Gryffindor captain flew for three goals, Rolanda opened a chest that had been sitting unnoticed at her feet. She pulled out a tiny golden thing with wings, which she tossed into the air, then tossed up a red ball.
A girl in Gryffindor colors grabbed it, to shouts from the crowd, and Rolana kicked the chest. Two big black balls zoomed out.
And the game started.
Sarah watched as three Gryffindor girls tossed the red ball around, while a pair of red-heads smacked the black balls with bats.
"Okay, what's happening here?" Sarah said again. "Somebody explain this for me and Dean."
"Right. Angelina's got the quaffle," Ron said, "that's the red ball. She and Katie Bell and Alicia are Chasers. Their job is to put the quaffle into the goals — like Alicia just did, see?"
A bell rang, and a teenaged boy shouted, "Spinnett scores! Ten points to Gryffindor!"
"Right. And then that tall boy is the goalie?"
"The Keeper," Ron said. "His job is to keep the Quaffle from going in."
"Okay, and what's with the kids with bats? They can't be allowed to hit other players with those — oh, that has to be a foul!" A Slytherin boy had smacked one of the hard-looking balls into a Gryffindor girl's back..
At the same time, Dean shouted, "Red card!"
"She'll be fine," Jareth murmured in her ear. "She didn't hit the ground."
Ron, meanwhile, asked, "What's a red card?"
"It's in football! When you foul like that, the ref shows you a red card and you have to sit out the game."
"Quidditch doesn't have that. Just penalty shots," Ron said. "And it's not a foul, that's what Beaters do."
"What? They use those bats to hit other kids with the balls?"
"Aye, mostly, except for the quaffle. They're Beaters. They handle the bludgers — the black ones," Hagrid said. "Bludgers fly around and try to mess up the game for everyone, see."
"And what's Harry do?"
"He's the Seeker," Ron said, all but glowing with pride. "It's his job to catch the Snitch — the tiny golden ball. That's a hundred fifty points to his team if he catches it, and it's the only thing that ends the game."
"The games don't have a time limit?" Sarah stared.
"Nope. If neither Seeker catches it, the game'll just keep going on. I've heard of games that lasted whole months. 's why most professional teams have reserves."
"And many referees," Jareth said, his tone darkly amused, "end up either wished away to the Labyrinth or aimlessly wandering the Sahara Desert."
He only laughed and shook his head. "No jest, Sarah. It really happens."
A gust of wind blew across the stands. Sarah leaned a little into Jareth, halfway trying to steal some warmth and halfway just trying to stay upright.
Jareth looked down at her out of the corner of his eye again. And then he withdrew his arm, disentangling them gracefully.
Sarah repressed a noise of disappointment, and tried not to wonder just why she was so disappointed at not being in physical contact with the Goblin King.
He flourished his right hand, conjuring a cloak of red and gold, which he draped over her shoulders. He inspected his handiwork for a moment before he trailed his fingers along the cloak's collar. A ruff of white feathers — identical to his — sprang up.
Sarah was too grateful for the additional warmth to care about the impression they might give students.
Jareth smirked at her, nodding once at a job well done and offering his arm again. Again, Sarah took it.
They turned back in time to watch Harry's broom lurch. Sarah's heart lurched at the sight, her stomach roiling as if she had nearly fallen a hundred feet.
Jareth stared up at the scene. His brows drew in tight, mouth hooking down.
Maybe it had been a fluke, maybe there was an air current he'd run afoul of, way up there —
The broom lurched again. Sarah found herself tightening her grip on Jareth's arm. "Jareth, is that... can you do something?"
"Two different spells are already being worked on the broom," Jareth murmured. "To add a third would be... unpredictable."
"But what about Harry? Something to keep him up there, or, I don't know, slow his fall or —"
"Yes," Jareth said. He turned his lopsided gaze on Harry, focusing intently. "That can be done."
He began to rotate his right hand, wrist rolling and fingers twitching. Mist swirled and sparkled in his glove before a spell congealed into his palm. Without taking his eyes off Harry, Jareth dropped the crystal.
Sarah could have sworn the world changed. The grass was greener, the Gryffindor robes were redder, the sun seemed brighter. The air seemed crisper, clearer.
And then it faded, and she was standing holding onto some kind of fae king with her heart thudding loudly in her chest while an eleven year old boy wrestled with a broom twenty feet above her head.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Ron and Hermione duck their heads together. The crowd was too loud for her to hear what they said, but Hermione turned around and edged her way out of the stands and down the stairs.
Sarah almost considered going after her, but when she turned and tried to pull away, Jareth shifted his arm, drawing her closer to him.
"Let her go," Jareth said into her hair. "We're of most use here."
"Jareth, maybe I could help —"
"Watch," he said, a little softer, "and be proud of her."
Above them, Harry's broom ceased to jerk. He clambered up onto it, then immediately dove for the ground. Sarah saw him clap his hands over his mouth as though he was about to be sick, but he slowed the broom just in time to roll off, onto the ground. He landed on all fours.
She and the rest of the crowd watched in confusion as Harry seemed to convulse, before finally he spat out something small and gold.
Which he immediately grabbed as it tried to fly away. He held up a small, shiny golden ball, and faced the crowd, beaming.
"The snitch," Ron said, in a mix of pride and excitement, "he's got the snitch!"
Sarah sighed her relief. But she smiled all the way out to Hagrid's hut.
The conversation in Hagrid's hut wiped the smile right off her face.
It started with: "It was Snape."
Hagrid immediately dismissed that. "Rubbish. Why would Snape want to do a thing like that?"
"But we saw him!" Ron said. "He was staring at Harry's broom and muttering."
Hermione added, "And he didn't blink the whole time Harry was fighting his broom!"
"A fall from that height," Sarah said, "would have killed Harry. Why would Professor Snape want to do that?"
Jareth looked at her for a long moment. "You're assuming he meant to kill Harry. But your McGonagall or the hawk shape-changer might have caught him. He might only have been frightened."
"You think he'd risk killing a student over a petty grudge, or a Quidditch match? I can't believe that."
Harry set his teacup down and asked, very quietly, "What if it's because I know he tried to get past the three-headed dog?"
Hagrid almost dropped his tea pot. Hermione and Ron stared at Harry. Jareth looked thoughtful.
The idea was so absurd that Sarah almost laughed. But it was no laughing matter.
"Harry, you're not the only one who knows about that. Filch and I know, too. I even blackmailed him with it at the breakfast table, and nothing's tried to kill me."
"Maybe he's biding his time. Maybe he's afraid of Jareth," Ron said. "Making Harry fall off his broom would look like an accident — maybe he's planning for you to have an accident, too."
"Oh? Like what? Here, brew this unidentified potion. If you've brewed it correctly, it should taste like licorice?"
Ron screwed up his face. It was obvious Snape couldn't actually poison her — for one, Minerva and Jareth would have quite a lot to say if he did — so Sarah simply watched him grasp for ideas. She raised an eyebrow at his extended silence.
"Maybe he'll have you make a potion with poisonous fumes," Ron said.
Oh, now this was just getting gruesome.
"That would hardly look accidental," she said. "Kids, this is irrational. Professor Snape did not try to kill Harry."
"But what about the three-headed dog?"
"Fluffy," Hagrid said, setting his tea pot back on the table with a whump, "is no concern of yours."
"That thing has a name?!" Hermione squeaked.
Ron added, "And it's Fluffy?!"
"Yeah — he's mine — bought him off a Greek chappie I met in the pub last year. I loaned him to Dumbledore to guard the —"
Harry piped in with an eager,"Yes?"
Hagrid's mouth snapped shut. Sarah found her own curiosity had been piqued; what could possibly be so valuable that Dumbledore had to have a three-headed dog guarding it? She wanted to pepper Hagrid's sudden silence with questions.
As it was, she looked to Jareth. Jareth looked back to her. HIs lips had quirked into a small smile, but his gaze drifted over to Harry and he rolled his eyes. Frankly, she agreed.
"That's top secret, that is. Don't ask me anymore."
Now it was Sarah's turn to roll her eyes. She didn't know these children very well yet, but trying to get them off the scent by calling it 'top secret' was bound to do nothing.
"But Snape tried to steal it."
"Rubbish. Snape's a Hogwarts professor; he'd do nothing of the sort."
"So then why did Professor Snape just —"
"Professor Snape," Sarah said, "did not try and kill Harry. You don't throw a tantrum like the one Snape threw yesterday, then turn around and try to murder your student. Not when McGonagall knows you've bullied him."
Harry, Ron, and Hermione all exchanged dubious looks.
"Sarah's right," Hagrid added. His voice was stern. "You're meddlin' in things that don't concern you, and it's dangerous. You forget about Fluffy and you forget whatever he's guardin'. That's between Professor Dumbledore and Nicolas Flamel —"
"Ha! There's someone called Nicolas Flamel involved, is there?" Harry grinned.
Hagrid's face twisted in a mixture of self-directed fury and sickness.
Sarah headed back up to the castle shortly after that. Jareth walked with her, at least part of the way.
She stopped before they could go within sensing distance of the Whomping Willow. Its branches were kept trimmed so that it couldn't reach the footpath, but it was impossible to carry on a conversation with the insane tree trying to kill people out of its range. Between the shrieks and whistles of its branches cutting through the air, the thud of their impact with the ground, and the creaking of the trunk as it whipped around wildly, neither of them would be able to hear themselves think.
"So what do you think happened?"
Jareth shook his head. "There were two spells at play. One to throw Harry from his broom — and likely kill him — and one to save him. Neither of us can say for certain which spell your Legilimens was casting."
"You know he's a Legilimens?!" She almost took a step backward, but the Willow began to stir. She hurriedly stepped toward Jareth.
He gave her a smile too toothy to be friendly. "He tried to gain access to my thoughts, Sarah. As he failed, I have been generous enough not to punish him for the attempt." After a moment, Jareth asked, "More importantly, how did you know of his ability?"
"He tried to teach me Occlumency," she admitted. "But that meant he had to practice Legilimency on me. I wound up... not wanting more lessons."
"You make him sound so charming." Jareth turned to look at the Willow for a moment. HIs eyes were hooded, expression unreadable. At length, he added, "For now, I will not interfere. But the situation bears watching."
Yes, it certainly did. Sarah could have tried to break the tension, tried to laugh it off — Keep this up and I'll wonder if I'm just your agent at Hogwarts, Goblin King — but nothing about this situation was funny. So she nodded and said, "I'll keep an eye on it."
"Good," Jareth said, softly. "Do hurry on to the castle before the cloak Vanishes."
"You're not coming with me?"
He only gave her a smile, a real one, and vanished.
Sarah sighed and hurried past the Whomping Willow.
So I would just like you to know that I sweated and bled tears trying to figure out how to write that Quidditch scene and the conversation with Hagrid.
Throughout the rest of November, the weather turned steadily colder. Sarah marvelled at how the students scarcely seemed to notice it. Were they too young to feel the chill crawling into their bones and sitting there, like ice in a deep well? Sarah went everywhere wrapped in scarves and a cloak.
Her Potions and Transfiguration lessons continued on. Sarah learned to Vanish what she'd Conjured. Snape was unfriendly and insulting, bordering on verbally abusive, but she hadn't really expected otherwise. Not after she'd exposed his childish behavior to Minerva (and indirectly to Dumbledore) and threatened to blackmail him.
The essays piled up — and not just hers. In the third week of November, Sarah found herself dragging essays back to her room, with the attendant books. She spent Tuesdays and Thursdays reading and responding to journals, grading the essays for Snape and Minerva.
"If you have all the basic skills," McGonagall said, one evening, "then all you need now is practice with the more complicated transfigurations."
"Is it going to be time for those wizarding tests soon?" Sarah asked. She tried to surreptitiously move closer to the fire that snapped and cracked cheerily in the hearth. But there really was no way to subtly move an armchair.
"Hm," Minerva replied. "Perhaps. Although another year to familiarize yourself with the material could only do you good. And you can hardly take the OWLS for only one subject."
"I"m not taking those with the ordinary students, am I?"
Minerva gave her a shocked look at that, before saying, "Gracious no."
Two days later, she had her third lesson with Snape since the morning of Harry's first Quidditch game. She dressed in jeans and a thick sweater and thick socks, and wrapped her LMH scarf around her head, tucking her hair into it.
She found Snape bent over a cauldron bubbling with something that looked almost like molten turquoise. The potion's top even had a pearly shine. He ladled the turquoise liquid into a few vials, which he corked and labelled.
After a moment, he looked up. "Williams."
"Professor," she said. She tugged her scarf back slightly, as if drawing back a hood, but didn't unwrap it.
His mouth thinned into a straight line. 'Today, you will work on potions identification."
—Here, brew this unidentified potion. If you've brewed it correctly, it should taste like licorice—
After a moment, he added, "First, you must brew three potions to test for components. The instructions are in your book. You have three hours; I do not expect you to successfully name what I've brewed, but you should at least identify the key ingredients to test for."
Wonderful. She was pretty sure this was NEWT level work, if not even more advanced than that.
Sarah dragged herself back to her chambers after the potions lesson. She tried not to think about the smug look on Snape's face when she'd handed in her work. Sh'ed identified three key ingredients to test for, but her third had been incorrect.
"You should have been testing for powdered moonstone," he'd said. "That is the primary cause of a pearlescent sheen in a potion."
"Obviously not mercury," he'd snapped. "That's what you tested for, and not one of the potions assigned had even a drop."
Snide, hateful, insufferable man. She swept up the stairs to her little neighborhood, too angry to feel the cold in the hallway.
"Valentine evenings," Sarah snapped at her door, which swung open.
She shrugged out of her cloak and tossed it into her armchair, ripping the scarf from her head in one harsh gesture.
She was left standing, without scarf or cloak, in her front room. It took her a moment to realize just how wildly her heart was beating, just how hard she was breathing. She unclenched her fists; Snape was Snape, and she'd obviously taken those three a little too much to heart. A hot bath might calm her down, or would at least soothe some of the chill away.
Later, ensconced in a hot bath — complete with a rainbow of bubbles; she wasn't sure when magical bubble solutions had been stocked, but if it had been Gurdie, the little house elf was a genius — Sarah looked up and had to smile. In the copper mirror across from the claw-footed tub, some of the steam appeared to be curling out of her ears.
Sarah spent Thanksgiving Day alone in her room, affixing photographs in a small volume, grading essays and, in the afternoon, responding to journals. She woke before dawn, lit her lamps, and got to work. The clock chimed both breakfast and lunch without her really noticing.
She stopped to rest her tired hand about an hour after lunch had stopped service. Her wrist was once again covered in ink and her hand had started to cramp. But at least she only had a few essays left. Then she could start on all the journals — for which she was sure her hand wouldn't thank her.
Once she got into the journals, though, she found herself completely engrossed.
Persephone Greengrass had written: Was L Frank Baum the non-magical relative of a wizard? This book seems really consistent with what a non-magical person might see of magic as performed by a family member.
Ryan Carrick wanted to know: Is it possible that Matilda was a witch? The things that happen around her read like accidental magic.
Erick Witwicky, on the other hand, had been more interested in J. R. R. Tolkien: Would it be possible to read a biography of JRRT? The commentary on The Hobbit implies that one of his primary purposes in writing the stories of Middle Earth was a chance to develop languages. Is it common for non-magical scholars to study the spread and creation of language?
Sarah made a mental note to pick up a biography of Tolkien — and maybe a very basic linguistics text, while she was at it — when she was home again.
She was so engrossed that she never heard her clock chime for dinner. The next time she looked up from her work, the sky had long darkened and her clock informed her it was an hour past dinner.
So she wrapped her head and throat in her LMH scarf, then donned her two thickest cloaks. She had just barely made it off the Hogwarts grounds before she pulled the hood of one of her cloaks up over head head.
She spent most of the walk shivering, her breath leaving clouds of fog in the air. The fog seemed to glitter under the inconstant light of the stars and the rare lamps that lit the path. Older snow crunched underfoot, but every so often she kicked around powdery clouds of it; when she did, it almost looked to her as if the fog had begun to reach the ground.
By the time she reached the Three Broomsticks, the cold had crawled into her belly, she was ravenous, and the stars burned bright in the sky above the little town. With the snow that had settled on the rooftops and walks, she might well have walked to the Santa's little village at the North Pole.
The Three Broomsticks was a blast of surreal warmth and brightness. She could feel sweat bead on her forehead, and the light hurt her eyes. The wooden tables and hardwood floor gleamed. Even the bar seemed to glisten in the rosy light of the contented, quietly snapping fire.
Candles on the walls and tables lit each corner of the room, made parties of people she didn't recognize seem to glow as if lit from within.
Sarah smiled at Rosmerta — who smiled back — and slid a coin across the counter to her. She locked herself in the cubicle with the phone.
Toby answered. His voice was young and bright and yet slightly uncertain: "Hello? This is Toby Williams."
The cold that had crept inside her seemed to warm a little. "Hey, Toby. Happy Thanksgiving!"
"Sarah!" He made one of those little kid noises of glee, and then she heard, "Mom! It's Sarah!"
"Hey, now. I want a chance to talk to you. I really miss you, you know."
"I miss you too. Thanks for the Ice Mice," he said. "Is teaching school really boring?"
"Actually, no. One of my classes baked a cake," she said. "And on Halloween, we had the scariest party ever."
"Did everybody wear scary costumes?"
"At least one guy did," Sarah said.
"Cool," Toby said. There was a murmuring Sarah couldn't decipher, and then Toby said, "Mooooo~ooooom!" After more murmuring, Toby added, "Mom wants to talk to you."
Plasticky noises, and then Irene said, "Sarah! Happy Thanksgiving!"
"Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. How have things been?"
"Well, Toby is just getting more and more excited for Christmas," Irene said, her voice warm and happy. "Your father has a thing in Kansas somewhere tomorrow and again two days after Christmas, but Stockton's let me keep him here in town for the past few months."
"Is Stockton okay? Did he hit his head, you think?"
Irene laughed. "There's no telling. Oh, my parents are in town for the weekend. Do you want to talk to them?"
"I would, but I don't have much time left. Is Dad around?"
"Sorry, honey, he's making a last minute run to the store for cranberries and yams."
Sarah snorted a laugh. "Did Grandpa Sorkin get into the cranberry sauce?"
She could practically hear Irene roll her eyes. "Worse. Aunt Irma thought she could 'improve' it."
"Please tell me she didn't pour apple jack in?"
"Some cranberry liqueur, apparently, but I'm not taking my chances with cooking that nonsense."
"The alcohol will cook out."
"Or set my stove on fire," Irene said, tartly. "Toby, Toby don't — I'm sorry, Sarah, I've got to go. Love you."
"Love you, too." She hung up the phone.
Then she headed to the bar. She pulled one of the barstools out, leaning her elbows on the shiny, polished wood. "Rosmerta, it's a family holiday back home and I haven't had a thing to eat. Any chance of a meat pie?"
"I've got a shepherd's pie," Rosmerta said. "And how about a cup of tea to warm you up? You look chilled down to your bones, girl."
The end of term crept nearer. Sometimes she imagined it looming like a huge open mouth. Sometimes it skittered toward her on eight dark legs.
It wasn't that she wasn't looking forward to the end of the term. She was certainly looking forward to going home for the first time in four years, to seeing Toby and her parents again.
She just wasn't looking forward to administering or grading exams.
Sarah had already written her exam for her class as part of her curriculum, but she found herself reading and re-reading it as the end of term drew nearer. Was it too hard? Had she given them the resources they'd need not to be stumped by these questions?
What if it was too easy? It needed to be a challenge; they needed to have accomplished something.
One night, when Hoggle was visiting, her eyes strayed once too often to her desk.
Hoggle, who had always been strangely sensitive to her moods, furrowed his brow at her. "I know you wouldn't actually rather be working right now, Sarah."
"No," she admitted.
He crossed his arms..
"I'm just.... a little nervous."
"What's there to be nervous about?"
"What if the exam's too hard, or not hard enough? Have I done a good enough job?" Sarah sighed and retreated to one of her armchairs. She adjusted it so she couldn't look at her desk.
"That's not all."
She sighed. "It's the end of the very first term I ever taught, Hoggle. I just... I just hope they liked it."
"Course they liked it," Hoggle said.
She didn't ask him how he knew.
On December Sixth, just two weeks before she was set to give her final exam, Sarah headed into Minerva's office for reasons not related to her students or her own lessons. She knocked at the door to discover Minerva calmly pouring cream into a cup of tea.
"Sarah," Minerva said, half rising from her seat. "Is something the matter?"
"I'd hoped to go home over Christmas vacation," Sarah said. "Thing is, I'm not sure what's the best way to get there. Should I just buy a plane ticket —" at Minerva's puzzled look, Sarah clarified, "an aeroplane ticket?"
Minerva set her cup down and indicated for Sarah to sit. Sarah obeyed, and Minerva lifted an empty cup and saucer in a silent offer.
"No thanks," Sarah said.
Minerva nodded, then lifted her own cup, apparently deep in thought. After a moment she said, "At some point you'll have to learn to Apparate. That much is clear to me now. You could Floo into Diagon Alley and purchase a ticket in London."
"Is that the easiest way?"
Minerva laughed. Her voice was dry, a little raspy. "Good heavens, no. The easiest way would be to Portkey straight from Hogwarts to... Well, somewhere in America."
"Like an airport?"
The other woman's eyes narrowed. She was both thinking and measuring Sarah. "You're very set on aeroplanes."
"It's what my family will expect." Sarah shrugged.
"They don't already know?"
She didn't reply.
"Very well. I understand Albus has been to a number of airports. Quite possibly he has visited one in America." With that, Minerva stood from behind her desk and crossed to her fireplace.
She opened up a can of something on her mantelpiece, then tossed glittering powder into the fire. "Albus Dumbledore."
After a moment, Professor Dumbledore's face appeared in the fire. He arched an eyebrow and asked, "Yes, Minerva?"
"Lecturer Williams has encountered a problem in her plans to return home during the Christmas holiday."
"Ah, has she now? And in what way do you think I can assist?" There was a glint in his eye, as though he already knew what Minerva was about to say.
"Could you charm a Portkey to an American airport?'
"I could create a Portkey to any of three American airports," Dumbledore replied. He looked faintly surprised. "Which would best suit her purposes?"
When had Albus Dumbledore — Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot and Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards — ever visited an American airport? Didn't wizards mostly fly on broomsticks and Apparate when they needed to go places?
Minerva turned to look to her.
Sarah stood and made her way to the fire. "Have you ever been to JFK?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. Come find me when you're ready to depart and I will be quite happy to create a Portkey for you."
Perfect. She'd Portkey into JFK, and then grab a flight from JFK to Woodrum Field.
Jareth kept his distance throughout the rest of December. He left no message through Hoggle, nor any gifts in her mirror. He seemed to recognize and respect that she was stressed.
Sarah wasn't sure if she was grateful, or if she missed him.
No, she realized the morning she paused on the main stair, looking for him, she definitely missed him. The question was only whether she missed him more than she was grateful, or vice versa.
That evening, she placed her palm against the silver mirror in her room. The mirror rippled, but Jareth's face didn't appear. Her brows furrowed.
Had he been staying away for reasons of his own? Was he sick, or hurt, or busy with wish-aways?
The mirror was still rippling. So Sarah drew in a breath, gathered her thoughts, and said, "I just... I just wanted to thank you, if you've been keeping away on purpose. I'm really stressed right now, and I appreciate that you've respected that. If that's not what's going on — well, anything I can do to help, just ask. Maybe I'm nuts for this, but I miss you."
She jerked her hand back from the mirror and turned away. Her hand felt fine, but her face was burning.
God, he was going to misinterpret that. Of course, was the conclusion he was bound to draw actually a misinterpretation?.
December Twentieth dawned snowy and cold. Sarah wore a sweater and jeans and thick socks under her robes. She left her hair long again as she headed down to breakfast.
A letter waited for her at her place. It had been written on something that was both papery and not. She ran her thumb along it, noting that the parchment had an almost leathery quality. So it was actual vellum, then. Did wizards use vellum?
She unrolled the letter and stared. In an elegant, spidery hand, someone had written:
Such a Pleasure to know my Efforts have not gone to Waste! I wish You all Good Fortune in administering your Exam and ending your Term. May your Winter Celebration be a Joyous one.
Sarah read the letter twice. Then she folded it up and tucked it into her sleeve.
After that, she surveyed the breakfast table. Today was a day for bacon and caffeine.
At least judging as an observer, the exam was a success. Nobody cried. Nobody had a breakdown and ripped the exam into tiny shreds. Nobody stood from the long desk, knocked their chair over, and fled the classroom.
When the students had all handed in their papers, she did a quick shuffle to make sure nobody had given up and drawn gruesome cartoons or something. But nobody had; on a cursory inspection, all the answers looked earnest.
Maybe she'd taught well, then, she thought. She certainly hoped so.
Evans smiled at her as she handed in her paper and left the room. Greengrass and Nott had both smiled as well. Sarah suspected she knew her top three scorers.
She smiled back, waited until the classroom was empty, and then closed the door. She took the quickest — although admittedly coldest — route to her chambers, where she stripped the robes and stuffed them in her wardrobe.
She packed the exams away in her bag — along with Christmas presents — and grabbed the winter coat she'd been wearing for the last two years. The coat was long, reaching nearly to her knees, and looked like tight-knit gray wool on the outside. Drab and second-hand, but warm: a normal, non-magical Sarah's normal, non-magical coat. She hefted her bag and inspected herself in the mirror. After a moment, she dug a gray woolen hat out of her bag and pulled it down over her hair and ears.
There. The woman staring back at her from the mirror was regular, non-magical, freshly-away-from-teaching-in-the-wilderness Sarah Williams. Nothing special about her, except pretty green eyes and an ability to find weird candy.
Best to break the news slowly, after all.
The flight from JFK to Woodrum Field was mercifully brief. Sarah pushed her way past the Liverpudlian fellow who'd so thoughtfully regaled her with his excitement to see the historical lost colony.
Sarah had smiled, nodded, and not mentioned she was from a suburb of the town they were flying into. Nor had she mentioned that the "lost colony" was actually further south — in North Carolina, in fact, not Virginia.
It'd have been a real shame to crush his enthusiasm, especially since he was already in the States.
She grabbed her bag from the carousel, hurriedly opening it to check and see that her wand had gone through safely. She felt the smooth sycamore whole and intact under her fingertips and closed her eyes in relief.
After that, she made her way to the row of pay phones.
Her father picked up on the first ring. "Williams residence, this is Robert speaking."
"Hey, Dad. Guess who's in the States again?"
"Why, it couldn't be my daughter," her father said, tone dry. "She got married in England."
Sarah laughed. "Nope. It's definitely not me."
"Are you at JFK?"
"No, I'm in Woodrum Field."
"What? When could your flight have left? How did you get through customs so quickly?"
Sarah forced a laugh. "I guess it must be magic."
"Or a lot of luck," her father said. His tone was dry again, and Sarah felt a stab in her gut at how much she'd missed his humor. "Alright, sweetheart, we can be there in half an hour to pick you up."
"I'll be sitting on the curb," she replied.
There was a lot of hugging and a lot of laughing when her family arrived. Irene's face was positively glowing, and Toby latched his arms around her waist and didn't let go. Her father's joy was a quieter thing, but his eyes glinted and he wore a small smile. He clapped his hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently.
"It's good to have you home," her father said.
Sarah smiled up at him. "It's good to be home."
She hauled her bag out to the car and shoved it in the trunk. After that, she scrambled into the back seat. Toby crawled in next to her, asking questions about how different England and Scotland were from America.
Sarah tapped her finger against her lip, pretending to think. "Well, for one, I haven't had a good cup of coffee since I graduated."
Tony wrinkled his nose, while Irene scoffed. "If what we had at your graduation lunch was the best coffee you've had in England, then you haven't had good coffee since you left America."
"But what about how they talk?"
"Lord knows I don't understand most of the village people. And one of the students — not one of mine, he's two years too young — has the thickest Irish accent I've ever heard in my life. Cannot understand a word out of him."
Her father laughed. "Let me guess, you have to get one of the older students to translate?"
"Thankfully, we don't speak much," she admitted. "I deal mostly with the third year students. Right now I've got them reading and journaling."
Her father looked at her in the rearview. "What is it you teach, anyway?"
Sarah's stomach sank low enough to play poker with her toes. She swallowed, and said, "I — well — my subject is kind of weird."
"Do tell, Sarah," Irene said as they passed an old farmhouse with a roof covered in snow.
"It's sort of a cross between history and literature. We do a lot of reading, and then do we a lot of reading about our authors."
"Didn't your classes bake a cake?" Toby tugged her sleeve.
Oh shit, oh shit. Irene raised an eyebrow.
"A cake in a reading class," her father said, tone mild. "That's a little odd."
"Somebody had a birthday," Sarah said, "and with Halloween coming up... Kind of a holiday treat."
Irene laughed. "Sounds like someone's determined to be the cool teacher."
"Are you kidding? I'm the coolest teacher in that whole school."
The entire trip only usually took half an hour — forty-five minutes today, just in case of invisible ice — but it seemed to go in stages. Sarah stared at snow-covered and icicle-bedecked telephone lines and asked questions about Irene's work in the library and Toby's part in the Christmas play. After slightly longer than usual, the car passed into the old downtown of the tiny Virginia town her parents had settled in. Its buildings were old but clean and well-tended. She caught glimpses of white wood, welcoming red brick, and snow on every roof and tree-top. The roads and sidewalks, at least, were mostly clean of the snow.
Eventually, they made it to another cluster of old buildings and older houses. It looked almost as if it could have been the main street of an entirely separate town, but it was just Old Woodrum, the original town center. Sarah knew from elementary school projects that Old Woodrum had been abandoned in the 1860's thanks to Civil War shenanigans, then re-claimed and gentrified in the 1940's.
The car pulled up to the driveway of a two-story Victorian monstrosity. Sarah watched it roll closer as they traversed the long drive. There was the oak tree with branches right outside her window. There the trellis she'd used to climb up to the roof (or down to meet her drama club hooligan friends) during high school.
Her father pulled into the garage. Sarah crawled out of the car and grabbed her bag.
"You're in your old room," Irene said as they got out of the car.
Sarah sidled her way away from the car, easing gently past a group of bicycles, a tangled garden hose, and cardboard boxes labelled in her father's illegible scrawl.
Sarah made it from the garage to the laundry room, and from there to the kitchen. It had been left in a riot of disorder: flour on the counter, the crock pot simmering, mixing bowls in the sink.
Thankfully, the overn wasn't on, so Sarah assumed whoever had been baking had put the batter in the refrigerator. Though judging from the state of the kitchen, it had probably been Irene. Her father tended to clean up in stages as he cooked — he'd always called it, with a wry smile, the 'clean up mess a before making mess b' prinicple.
She grinned a little and headed out from the kitchen into the main hall. To her left was the door into the dining room, while in front of her was an open sitting hall — her mother had insisted on the walls being knocked out when she was very young — at the far end of which was an open entrance area. The entrance hall had an arched ceiling, with shelves built in to hold the various knicknacks, none of which she could see from her present position thanks to Irene's enormous tree. The sitting hall also led straight to the main stair; Sarah adjusted her bag on her shoulder and pounded up the main stairs.
The second floor had been built around the top of the ground floor, with much of its square hallway open to the ground floor. Sarah turned left once she'd made the top step. The second door was hers.
Inside, she found a room so bleak she knew she would have pitched a fit six years ago. She'd hated people touching her things; now, almost every personal effect and item of clothing appeared to have been removed. Most likely Irene had boxed it all away and dragged it up the rickety back stair — all that was left of the old servants stairways — to the attic.
It was a little unnerving to see her presence erased so thoroughly from her old room. For a moment, Sarah wondered if she was even in the right house. Had she slept here? Lived here? Really?
But no. The old, sturdy oak branch was still just outside her window, in easy climbing distance. The furniture — dresser, desk, bed — were just as she'd left them in the summer of 1987. It was her room. It just wasn't hers anymore.
Sarah took in a deep breath and let it out. This wasn't her home anymore, and that was okay. She had a new home, for now. And once she and Hogwarts parted ways, she'd find another home in Wizarding Britain or maybe even Wizarding America.
She tossed her bag on the floor by her bed and dug out both her wand, which she tucked in to her sweater's thick sleeves. It rested surprisingly comfortably against her forearm, held in place by a pair of bracelets of knotted fabfic. Next, she grabbed the presents she'd bought. Three for each of them, all neatly wrapped in shiny paper she'd bought in Edinburgh.
Those, she carried back downstairs. This year, and probably for the last few years if some of the scratches on the round ornaments were any indication, her father and Irene had apparently thought if the tree is huge, go for understated elegance rather than throw all the shiny, brightly colored things on the big tree until you have a thirteen-foot eyesore. They had hung gold, silver, and clear glass ornaments, a few fake glass icicles, and a smidge of silvery tinsel. They hadn't gone for colored lights, either — just plain, unblinking white.
Sarah tucked her presents at the bottom, then looked around. The wallpaper was the same, but the knicknacks in the entry room had changed. She drifted toward the front door. Gone were the urns, figurines, and antiques. Instead, her father and Irene had put up photographs: wedding photographs, candids of Toby, a few of her school portraits, candid shots of her with her friends. She saw one of her father and Irene evidently coming home from a fundraiser; Irene wore a champagne-colored evening gown and small earings. It wasn't a look Sarah would have expected of her stepmother. Her father had placed his hand at the small of Irene's back, looking both familiar and protective, and Sarah wondered if Irene had suffered another seizure shortly before that fundraiser. Her father wasn't really prone to touch.
She couldn't help but grin when her eye caught another photo: her, most likely in her later high school years, climbing down the trellis in broad daylight. Her hair had just begun to really grow out, and she'd left it long and straight. The photo, though black and white, looked incredibly detailed — her hair seemed to swing with her movement, its glint almost seeming to shift in the captive afternoon sunlight.
Sarah blinked, and the motion was gone.
"You know how many times I had to nail that trellis back to the house?" Her father said from somewhere behind her.
"I'll bet you never even nailed it once," Sarah said, turning around. "Isn't it your friend Dave who fixes this house up?"
"Usually. But that trellis would always come loose right after you'd used it. I don't know how you managed never to fall."
"The fall would only have broken a few bones," she said. Her stomach clenched in a sharp, longing pang as she realized that if she'd fallen, her magic might have manifested earlier.
"One of which," her father replied, tone grim, "might have been your spine. Or your neck."
Sarah put up her hands. "Okay, you got me. I'll be more careful And I definitely won't go climbing it while it's slick from snow."
Her father rolled his eyes and sighed. After a moment, he looked back to her, a smile curling on his lips.
While her father baked and Irene opened Christmas cards, Toby wanted to hear all about Oxford as well as her remote Scottish school. Sarah tried her best, but he was seven years old. There was a limit to how well he could understand something so completely outside his reference pool.
"So it's like the highschool and the middle school and the elementary school are all one big —"
Sarah shook her head and took a sip of her cider. "No, no, no. It's more like... you know how you have Miss Pennington, and Jacob has Miss Davis, and Jacob's older brother has Mr. Morris? And sometimes your classes all compete against each other to guess the marbles in the pickle jar, or who can be quietest coming in from recess?"
Toby nodded. From what Irene had told her a month or so ago, Toby had been very upset about Miss Pennington's class losing the pickle jar challenge. Sarah was pretty sure it was the first time she'd heard of Toby being unlucky in the last six years, so no wonder he'd reacted so strongly.
"Well, imagine that all the classrooms in your school were…houses of their own, okay? And the students in those houses basically lived in little rooms tucked away in the houses, and then went to school in the houses's big rooms. That's what it's like."
Toby wrinkled his nose. Living at school was evidently the wors tthing he could think of.
They ate simply for her first night home. Sarah grabbed a pizza crust, slathered it in olive oil, and then she and Toby added toppings. Irene watched over them, laughing as Toby tried to add grapes rather than olives, and ketchup rather than tomato sauce.
"Stop trying to ruin my first dinner back home," Sarah said. She ruffled his hair.
"I'm not! It'll be good, I promise!"
He gave her a really good innocent face, looking up with very wide, very blue, very guileless eyes.
Sarah scoffed. Irene rescued their dinner by scooping away grapes and ketchup, stowing them away safely. She set olives and tomato sauce down by Toby's hands.
"Try these, Toby."
They managed not to ruin the pizza. And during dinner, Sarah found herself dodging more in-depth questions from her parents regarding Hogwarts. She was so busy weaving something close enough to the truth that she didn't feel guilty, and wouldn't feel too bad about when she finally told them the truth, that her father managed to blindside her.
"So who was that man who showed up at your graduation lunch? Irene says you've never really talked about him."
"Jareth?" Sarah tried to hide a wince. "I met him in spring a few years ago. It's complicated."
Her father raised an eyebrow. "Have you heard from him since you went to Scotland?"
"He's come by for a few visits." At her father's expression, she hastily added, "It's not like he's ever stayed the night! Dad, it's a kids school. I'm not about to get fired over — "
Irene looked between them, then asked, quickly, "So what do you and the other teachers do, cooped up in that school with the children?"
Her father's thunderous look subsided, though she suspected the Jareth conversation wasn't actually over. Sarah reached for another slice of pizza, thinking.
"Well, it's an old-style castle, so we've got basically an entire wing to ourselves. We're pretty busy with the coursework and monitoring the kids — it's basically grades six through twelve — so we're never too bored. We walk down to the village, if we have time, I guess."
"Isn't that a bit far to go for fun?" Irene shuddered. "Imagining you trapped by snow and fog in some windy castle with a bunch of stuffy British teachers and a pack of children..."
Sarah threw back her head and laughed. "Irene, you sound like me when I was fifteen. I promise, it's really not that dramatic. The village is only a few miles — it's a pretty easy walk and all downhill."
"Walking any number of miles in ice and snow sounds just awful to me," Irene replied. "But I've spent so long in the south, I guess I'm biased."
"It could be worse," Sarah pointed out, gesturing with her glass. "It could be the Overlook."
That drew a laugh from her father.
Toby stared at them all. "What's the Overlook?"
Sarah leaned down and muttered, "It's a hotel from a movie where a family got snowed in all winter and the dad went crazy."
"Cool! Can I see that movie?"
"Absolutely not," Irene said, tone suddenly brittle.
"Not until you're much older, son," her father said.
After a few moments of Toby's pleading look, Irene turned to Sarah and asked, with just a faint note of forced cheer, "So, you are staying for most of your break, right? It's been much too long for just a short visit to satisfy us."
Sarah leaned back in her chair and thought. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see an old black-and-white photograph of Grandma Williams. "Well," she said, slowly, "I don't have to be back at Hogwarts until January Fourth."
Her father dropped his glass. It hit the floor and shattered with a tinkling sound. She heard shards rebound and click across the wooden floor.
They all jerked away from the dining room table, rising or, in Toby's case, sliding sideways from their chairs. Irene braced her hands against the grain of wood for a moment, before backing away a step.
"I'll… I'll just go get the broom. Toby, stay right where you are; I don't want you stepping on glass."
But her father ignored her. His grass-green eyes were trained firmly on Sarah.
Very quietly, and without even a tremor in his tone, her father asked, "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?"
Sarah stared back at him. Her already pounding heart pounded faster, hammering hard in her chest like it wanted to escape as badly as she did. She drew in a quick breath, let it out, drew in another. Shallow.
Her, "yes," was quiet and dull, pushed out of a dry mouth.
Her father leaned away. His expression crumpled, the corners of his eyes wrinkling as his mouth curved down. He shook his head as if that would change her answer, and then asked, "But Sarah, why? Why would you bring magic back into our lives like this?"
Irene returned from the kitchen with a broom and dustpan.
"Back? Back into our lives?" Sarah asked. Her voice seemed to echo in her ear, or maybe off the dning room walls, and she was startled at how shrill it was.
"You mean you knew? You knew all about Mom, and why she left. Everybody knew except for me, right?" She rounded on Irene. "Did you know? Did Dad just happen to tell you, 'So, my ex-wife is an actual, honest-to-god, flies-on-broomsticks witch and her family is full of evil baby murderers who still buy into eugenics'?"
Irene stared at her like she'd gone crazy. Sarah wondered if she actually had gone crazy.
Quietly, her father said, "No, Sarah. I never told Irene any of Linda's secrets."
"Right, and you kept this from me because they were her secrets, right? But the fact that she was sleeping with Jeremy, that wasn't one of her secrets even before the tabloids got hold of it? The fact that she didn't fight you at all for custody — that wasn't a secret worth keeping?"
Her breath was coming faster and faster, turning even shallower. Clammy sweat began to bead on the back of her neck, on her hands. She was pretty sure her voice was up in teakettle range, but she was too angry and hurt to care.
Her father snapped, "I thought you were like me. It would only have hurt you to know that your mother was disappointed with you for something you couldn't change. You'd only have blamed yourself, you'd only have thought it was the only reason, when the divorce was so much more complicated than that."
"Really? So she left right after my eleventh birthday came and went, and no Hogwarts letter came, for some much more complicated reason?"
"Our relationship was already over." Her father's tone was flat, but he was speaking loudly enough to echo of the dining room now, too. "Between her ambitions and Jeremy, we were through. That had nothing to do with you."
"And the reason she didn't bother taking me with her," Sarah said, "didn't bother calling more than twice a year, didn't bother with cards or letters, was that I wasn't like her."
Her father looked away. "I thought you were like me," he said again, softer this time. "If you couldn't have changed it, would knowing why really have helped?"
Slowly, Sarah pulled her wand from inside her sleeve. And just as slowly, she walked around the dining room table. When she could see the shards of her father's glass, she pointed the wand in a sharp motion, pictured the glass as it had been before he'd dropped it, and murmured, "Reparo."
It was a simple enough transfiguration. All the component parts were there, remembered what they had been. They just needed a little push.
The glass re-assembled itself quickly, and Sarah bent to pick it up.
She looked away from the table, away from her father, across the rest of their smallish dining room. Irene's face had gone pale, mouth wide open. Toby was shaking, but his expression wasn't one of fear.
Silence reigned. It dragged, and stretched, and seemed to keep going and going.
At length — it couldn't have been too long, could it? But it felt like forever — she turned back to her father.
He was looking at the glass with undisguised resentment.
Sarah looked down at her wand, then tucked it back into her sleeve. She sucked in another couple of noisy, shallow breaths. She waited for her fingers and heart to steady out even a little.
"I wish," she said, and had to stop and moisten her lips. Her mouth had gone dry at those words, "I wish that the mirror in my room was a door into and out of the Underground so I could leave right now."
And then she turned and headed out of the dining room, pushing the door open. She picked up speed as she crossed the main hall, thudding up the stairs almost as quick as her heart in her ribcage. A sharp corner left, two doors, and then her old wooden door swung open and Sarah, by now half-running, reached for the floor-length mirror.
Her hand went through.
The rest of her followed quickly after.
Dear sweet surfer-chomping Leviathan have I been waiting for this one. As always, a thousand thanks to Leviathanmirror for being my pre-reader and general touchstone to sanity, and a big hearty thank you to Cheloya for her help as well.
On the other side of the mirror was a room unlike any she'd seen before in the Underground. To be fair, Sarah didn't recall much about the architecture, beyond hedge mazes, doors that talked, and glitter, but still. At no point in her journey through the Labyrinth or the Goblin City or the Castle had she seen a room like this.
It actually looked comfortable. The wall and floors were stone, but thick rugs covered the floors — all woven of a material she couldn't readily identify, all dizzying patterns of interlocking hues — and bright, eye-catching, but strangely abstract tapestries lined the bare walls. One wall seemed taken up by windows paned with heavy glass. Thick blue curtains drifted in a faint breeze. Not far from whatever mirror she was using as a door was a huge bed, covered in thick, sumptuous-looking dark fabrics and brightly colored pillows.
Against the far wall, where the natural light would concentrate, sat a desk of some well-polished wood she couldn't identify. And in the chair that matched that desk sat Jareth, with his chin in one hand, looking quizzically at her.
Part of her wanted to apologize. The rest of her was still hurt and angry and trying to process her father's resentful look, Irene's shock, what Toby's shaking had meant.
One of her feet scuffed against the floor as she fought her way free of the mirror.
His gaze seemed to hone in on her foot before he looked back up at her.
"You wished yourself a way into and out of my domain. Clever of you, but you've still a lot to learn." He grinned. "You should have been more specific, precious thing."
"You decided that my mirror would connect here, didn't you?"
He only smirked.
She was already angry. That smirk, that silence, should have made her angrier. But he didn't actually need to say anything in order to tell her exactly what he'd told her.
Jareth tilted his head. And kept tilting it, as he watched her. After a moment in which neither of them said anything, he asked, "Sarah, what brings you here? Your wish, careful though you were, brought you perilous close to being under my power again."
She couldn't quite keep the exhaustion out of her tone when she asked, "We're friends, aren't we?"
"I…yes. I believe we are."
"Then I'll never be under your power."
He raised a hand in a half salute, as if acknowledging defeat. "Well played, Sarah."
Sarah crossed a little more fully into the room, her footsteps soft on the carpets. She looked at one of the far walls again and blinked.
That abstract tapestry had been in shades of blue just a minute ago, she was sure of it. Now it was deep blue and purple?
Jareth followed her gaze, then looked back to her. His lips curved. "You thought I'd decorate in only one color?"
He stood, stretching languidly in a sequence of lithe movements her hormones thanked him for. Between a fitted shirt — his waistcoat, he'd draped over the back of his chair — and the fit of his leggings, she was pretty sure she'd seen every muscle.
"Come," he said, reaching back for his waistcoat and slipping into it as he headed for the door. "Walk with me. And tell me what could send you wishing for a door to the Underground."
Well, she'd wished for a way to get here. And she certainly wasn't ready to turn around and go back through that mirror.
With difficulty, Irene lifted her gaze from the suddenly mended glass and looked at Robert. He, too, was looking at the proof that Sarah had…had evidently inherited her mother's gift.
Only he wasn't looking at it in excitement, like Toby, or in the gray, staticky certainty that what was happening could not be real — as she had felt. No, the look on Robert's face was a complicated mix of resentment and mistrust.
Irene could only watch as Sarah turned to her father, seeking some sort of reaction. Maybe hoping for approval, or a rueful, bittersweet acceptance.
And Irene could only watch as her step-daughter fled what she found in her father's face.
They heard footsteps on the stairs, heavy and heedless, and then a door slammed open.
Irene turned to the table and picked up the glass, tapping it with her fingernail. It sounded like glass. She inspected it closely, finding no cracks, no sign that it had ever been broken.
"Don't worry, Irene. It's real enough," Robert said. His tone was bitter.
"You saw Linda do this kind of thing?"
"Not as often, once Sarah was born. For my sake, she…didn't perform magic in front of Sarah. So Sarah wouldn't ask questions, you see." Robert shook his head, then turned to stare at Irene. "No, I saw it most often from my cousins."
She set the glass back down on the table and searched her husbands face. There were lines at the corners of his eyes and on his forehead. Not quite wrinkles, but he'd start getting them soon. He'd missed a spot shaving that morning.
But, most importantly, his mouth was set in a grim line.
"Were all your family....?" She drew a little closer to him.
"What, witches and wizards? Most of them. But the most venerable house of Williams does throw its share of squibs."
"Its share of what?"
"Squibs. People like me. Their family expects them to have magic, and they don't."
Irene wasn't sure what to say in response. She reached out to place a hand on his shoulder. He didn't shrug her away, but he was tense.
Her stomach clenched. He hadn't been this tense in years. Not at home. Not with her.
There was still no sound from upstairs. Irene sighed and left the dining room. Her footsteps seemed to echo as she made her way past the living room, the Christmas tree — it was shedding needles again; she made a mental note to sweep up — and up the stairs.
She wasn't sure what she'd expected to find in Sarah's room. An actual door? A glowing mirror? Some sort of rippling, multi-colored rift in space and time, like a sci-fi movie?
But nothing had been disturbed. Sarah's duffel bag still sat at the foot of her bed. Not a pillow was out of place, not a piece of furniture shifted. Irene cautiously moved closer to the mirror and reached out.
Her hand shook as she pressed it up against the mirror — or tried to. But what should have been solid glass didn't feel solid at all. Instead, her hand passed through it. Not easily, but it wasn't too hard, like pressing her hand down into the surface of water.
"Mom? Are you going to bring her back?"
Irene jumped. She jerked away from the mirror and turned around to face the voice of her son. Toby was standing in the doorway. His gaze flicked quickly between her and the mirror. He tilted his head to one side, as if curious.
She looked back at the mirror. The thought of touching it again made her stomach churn.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," she told Toby. "But no, I don't think I'm going to go through that mirror tonight."
"Then I will," he replied, and started forward.
Irene stepped toward him, caught him by the shoulders, and gently turned him around. "No, Toby. I don't want you going through, either. We don't know what's on the other side."
"Then Sarah could be in trouble or something!"
"Sarah is a grown woman," Irene said, marching Toby out the door. She pushed in the button at the center of the doorknob to lock it and closed it behind them. It'd be easy enough to pick if they really needed to get back in — only taking a butter knife or a nail file — but it'd keep Toby out, at least. "And a witch, too. She can handle herself. You are freshly turned seven."
"But Mom —"
"No, Toby. Now let's go finish dinner and get ready for bed. Santa is watching us very closely these last few days before Christmas."
Jareth led her to a long gallery. Oil paintings lined the walls, but they weren't portraits — or at least, not the formal paintings of individuals she would have expected to find in a royal family gallery.
Sarah stared. Along one wall, she saw mostly wintry landscapes. He had three or four different paintings of snowy nights, several paintings of snow-capped mountains, and even more paintings of snowy forests.
He had lined the other wall with portraits of shadowy figures with crowns of antlers, of hunters in dark forests. She stopped at one painting — an early use of chiaroscuro, shadows cast by a fire so realistic she could have sworn the darkness crawled — and stared. In it, a weeping man cradled a young boy in his arms. The boy seemed limp, pallid even in the dim room, and other family had gathered around to weep.
"Is the boy dead?"
"Yes," Jareth said. "That's a portrait of my father. They all are, on that side."
"Did your brother die?"
Jareth looked blankly at her for a moment, then said, "Ah. You are taking things for granted again. My father does not personally appear in that portrait."
"But it's still of him?"
"Of what happens when he passes through a mortal household, yes."
"Your father is... Death?"
But Jareth only curled an enigmatic smile and said, "You haven't told me just what sent you running into my arms, Sarah."
Sarah looked back to the paintings. She took in a deep breath and sighed. "My father knew my mother was a witch, and never told me. And now he's angry that I've brought magic back into his life."
Jareth raised an eyebrow at her. "Foolish of him. Even had you walked past that ghastly little pub, your power would have shown itself eventually."
"He couldn't have known that," Sarah said, sighing. "I just hate that he never told me the truth."
The Goblin King made a noncommittal noise and offered her his arm. Sarah looked up at him, then smiled and took it.
Leaning against him was like leaning against an oak tree. She knew Jareth wasn't particularly tall — especially for a man — but for all his lack of height and knife-edge slim bones, he was sturdy.
"I find it interesting that you run to me when your parents disappoint," Jareth said. His tone was breezy.
But Sarah sensed a trap. Or perhaps not a trap, but a hook. He wasn't willing to ask, but there was an important implication there, an important commonality.
"I also run to you when I'm lonely or when I miss you," she said, keeping her tone equally light. She stopped in front of a portrait of an antlered man in a dark forest, holding onto a small blond child. She almost pointed and asked if the child was Jareth, but there were other things to be said, other questions to be asked. "And I miss you all the time. Even when I'm happy."
That he had shown her his family — or tried to, or started to — was important. She suspected it was as close as he was yet willing to come to telling her what he really was.
Sarah turned to face him. She took in a deep breath, composed her next words carefully in her head. "Jareth. I... I've missed you, when you were leaving me alone. I would walk down to breakfast and look for you. I like talking to you, I like being around you, I think about you all the time. I think..."
The enigmatic smile reappeared on his face. It was sharp, toothy, edged. Too wild and unrestrained and alien an expression to be human. It was, she was beginning to suspect, pure, mainline Jareth.
Robert was nowhere to be seen by the time Irene got Toby back downstairs. She sat him back at the table, told him to finish his dinner, and went searching for her missing husband.
She found him in his study. He had pulled his briefcase out and was looking at all the information available on the convention in Kansas he would be attending in a few days. His spine was stiff, but his hands shook just a little as he handled the paper. He'd bent his head over his work, and Irene wondered what his expression would be. Probably tight, pinched, as if trying to restrain some sort of enormous emotional reaction.
"Robert," she said, softly.
His response was to grunt, and then say, "I'm working."
"You've already read all that twice. You know exactly what you have to go in there and do. You're hiding from me, Robert, and I really need you right now."
He set the documents down. "What can I possibly do, Irene? She's gone and brought it back into my life."
"Into my life, too, Robert, only I never even knew about any of this. Please talk to me."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Robert, I just watched my step-daughter put a shattered glass back together by, by waving a pointy stick at it," Irene snapped. She was faintly aware that her pitch had risen, that her volume had risen and was rising, but she was more conscious of how fast her heart was beating, "and then turn the surface of a solid glass mirror into something a lot like water by wishing for it. You don't get to shut me out on this."
Robert stood. He pushed away from the chair, then turned to face her. "What do you want me to say? That the world is much stranger than you ever knew, and you'd probably be happier not knowing about it? That yes, magic is real — and so are dragons, unicorns, pixies, and danger? That in addition to being a miserable hag, my mother really does fly here on a broomstick?"
Irene could only stare in bleak shock. Her temples had begun to sweat. Even though she knew it was cold outside and a little drafty in her mostly comfortable Victorian home, she was starting to feel overheated. She was dimly aware that she had begun to shake. The gray, staticky feeling of unreality returned.
None of this could possibly be happening.
"Yes," she whispered, mouth dry. "That's exactly what I want you to say."
He stepped a little closer to her, but he folded his arms over his chest and looked away. "Then yes, Irene. The world is a lot stranger and a lot more dangerous than you ever knew. There are things that happen in this world that only people like Sarah can see. And not all of them are pleasant. By the way, every time you've accused my mother of being a horrible old witch, you've been right."
Irene choked on a laugh, but Robert's face stayed serious.
Robert never came to bed that night. Irene waited an hour or so, then eventually turned off her bedside light and rolled over. If he wanted to distance himself from her and Toby and Sarah, that was his prerogative. Trying to stop him or force him to reconnect would do no good.
It could have been any number of reasons, but Irene slept poorly. Her mind kept circling back to the way Robert had tensed when she'd touched him, the hurt on Sarah's face before she'd gone running to the mirror, Toby's worry that she was in trouble.
It felt like her family had fallen apart, and it had only taken one evening.
She felt groggy and slow in the morning. She checked on Toby, but he was still asleep. Downstairs, she saw that Robert had slept on the couch. He had voluntarily couched himself, rather than —
She didn't let herself think it. Instead, she walked into the kitchen and started breakfast.
Later, they ate in near-silence. Toby flung question after question at her, at his father, but she didn't know the answers and Robert only made disapproving grunts. Eventually, Robert said, "Enough, Toby. We'll talk about magic later."
"Dad since Sarah has it, do you think I'm a witch too?"
"The word is wizard," Robert said, "and I certainly hope not."
"You know, Toby," Irene said, keeping her tone gentler than her husband's. "I don't have to work today, so we can go look at the ice in the park. I seem to remember you promising to draw me three ice crystals this week, and I only have two for the fridge."
His expression brightened.
So they left his father with the dishes and crunched out into the white morning. Irene kicked up clouds of powdery snow every so often. Even after nine years, it was strange to see so much of it on the ground. She knew Virginia was far enough north — and Woodrum was far enough inland — to receive it, but in her childhood in Seattle, winters were simply rainy. When the weather had turned snowy, it had quickly become rain again, which washed it all away. She hadn't had a white Christmas until she'd left her home city.
They reached the park in good time. Irene smiled as Toby whooped and shouted, dashing all over the place. Of course all this winter weather excited him; it must be a nice change from the wet springs, the humid summers, the unmemorable autumns.
Eventually, Toby took his sketchbook and crayons out of his backpack and began to draw. He stuck his tongue out in concentration. Irene dusted off a stone park bench and withdrew a paperback from her purse. Every so often, she peeked out over the pages to make sure Toby was alright.
When Toby had finished, she helped him pack away sketchbook and crayons — after admiring his shiny blue ice crystal drawing, of course — and put away her book.
"Ready to go back home? I know I could use some cocoa, and your father might be in a better mood."
"Maybe Sarah came back!"
Irene smiled sadly. "Yes, maybe she did. I really hope so, don't you?"
"Do you think she and Dad will ever make up?" Toby reached for her, so she clasped his mittened hand in her gloved one.
"Even if they're angry with each other right now, I know they love each other very much. I'm sure everything will be fine in the end."
Irene had just kicked at another clump of loose, soft snow when she realized she had a headache. She tried to open her mouth to say something, but the world had gone hazy. She could see faint ribbons of light surrounding the shrubs and lampposts in front of her, and she couldn't move her head. She couldn't even warn Toby.
She was dimly aware of falling to her knees — air rushed by, and something cold struck her legs, but after that, the world was gone.
Jareth brought his right hand up without looking away from her eyes. Slowly, mist formed a shining crystal in his palm, which he dropped. When the world wasn't a bundle of light and color, they were standing in a garden.
"A better place for this discussion, I think," he said.
Sarah stared at the abundance of flowers. Peach blossoms, lilies, small cherry trees… Irises, crocuses, gardenias. She took a few steps away to inspect a bed of fiery orange snapdragons.
"Did your mother plant these?"
"What? No. I didn't inherit this castle, Sarah, I built it. And careful with those, they bite."
Indeed they did. Sarah jerked back, away from the suddenly hissing flowers — where had those teeth come from? — and moved closer to Jareth.
"Hard to imagine you being that interested in flowers," she teased, once she'd calmed her heart a bit.
Jareth heaved a sigh, then reached out for her shoulders. "Sarah. You seemed to have been thinking something very fascinating earlier."
"Yes," she admitted. She turned her gaze on a patch of white lilies before looking back to him. "I think we've crossed the 'friend' line, Jareth."
He tensed. She watched his expression tighten, become impassive. "Oh?"
"And…" Deep breath, Sarah. Just say it. "It's 'later.' I think it's time to renegotiate."
At that, his smile returned. It wasn't so much predatory as smug, this time. "Do you mean to say, precious Sarah, that you wish to be… more? Lovers, perhaps?"
She wrinkled her nose at the word. "That sounds like a word some flamboyant man from the seventies would use."
"Sarah, I am the most flamboyant creature you will ever meet." His grin turned wicked.
"The glitter definitely leaves an impression," she agreed. "And the pants. Did you know you've corrupted two fifteen year old Slytherin girls?"
Jareth merely raised an eyebrow. In return, she laughed, and told him what she'd seen the morning of their Hogsmeade outing. It drew a laugh from him, too.
But then he reached for her, used his thumb to tilt her face up toward him. He leaned in, whispering against her cheek You will always be my favorite corrupted innocent, Sarah and pressed his mouth to hers before she could argue that he'd hardly corrupted her.
If his skin had been warmer than hers, his mouth was searing hot. She half wondered if she would burn up. He tasted strange, and his teeth seemed sharp, and yet she didn't want to pull away. She opened her mouth wider, reached up to tangle her hands in his hair while she pressed closer to him.
Toby's voice echoed around them, booming and reverberating off the stone: I wish Sarah was here!
She watched Jareth's eyes open. His mad, lop-sided gaze was intent on her, and then he gripped her wrists. And before she could protest, before she could ask what he was about to do, they were standing on the bridge in her favorite park back in Woodrum, Virginia.
She looked around before she caught sight of Toby. He was kneeling by a figure on the ground.
Sarah ran toward them, knowing with a cold, dread certainty just what she would find.
Irene's eyes had rolled back in her head. She was convulsing. Blood dripped from a cut on her forehead.
The snow was powdery, and Irene was in thick, warm clothing, and even wearing a hat. She'd collapsed away from any obvious dangers — maybe something was hiding underneath the snow, but she didn't think so. This area was usually just grass.
If the seizure didn't last too long, then the only one in danger was Toby.
Sarah reached out for Toby, grabbed him and pulled him away, out of possible striking range. She watched Irene while she murmured against his soft, slowly-darkening hair that it was going to be okay, that Irene was going to be okay.
"But what's happening?"
"It's a seizure," Sarah said, "just like we've told you about. Don't get too close. All we can really do is make sure she doesn't hit anything else. How long has she been like this?"
"I don't know," Toby said, in a voice thick like a sob, "maybe a minute?"
"Okay. Then she's going to be fine. You know about her epilepsy, right? These sometimes happen to her. As long as it doesn't go on too long, she'll be okay."
"It feels like forever."
Sarah squeezed him. "I know, Tobes. I'm so sorry you're having to see this, and I'm even sorrier you saw even a minute alone. But I promise you, she'll be okay. I just need you not to try and touch her or stop her right now, okay?"
Jareth's gaze sharpened on her. For a moment, he looked as though he was going to point out that she had no power over whether Irene would be alright or not. But they both knew that Toby needed to hear it. Jareth didn't object.
"Jareth, do you mind putting something under her head? Your hand, a cloak, just something softer than the ground."
He looked down at Irene before simply conjuring a pillow. He knelt and placed it beneath Irene's head, then backed away again. He tilted his head at an angle that looked painful while he watched.
So Sarah held Toby away from his seizing mother and counted down the seconds, while Jareth stood guard over the three of them. A silent, wild-haired, mad-eyed sentinel.
After another minute and a half, Irene stopped moving. She lay in the snow, eyelids fluttering. Sarah let go of Toby and knelt close to her, gently pressing her fingertips to the back of her neck, feeling for swelling, before she gently lifted Irene's torso and rolled her onto her side.
Irene's eyes opened. "Toby?"
"I'm here," Toby said, softly. He reached out for his mother. She reached back; they clasped hands. Sarah fought down a bitter note of jealousy.
Sarah kept her voice soft as she asked, "Irene, do you know what year it is?"
"It's 1991. December 21st, 1991." Irene's voice was firm, though tired.
"And who's the president?"
"George Bush," Irene said. Tartly, she added, "I didn't vote for that man."
Sarah laughed. "Toby, didn't I promise she'd be alright?"
Eventually, Sarah was able to help Irene stand. She supported her stepmother as they limped their way back through the snow to the house she'd grown up in. Several times Irene stumbled, nearly taking Sarah down with her, but Sarah either caught herself or Jareth would reel them back upright with hands clenched on their shoulders.
Her father had pulled on his scarf and coat, and was evidently looking for his keys, when they walked in the door.
"Irene," he said, his tone bleak. "I was just about to..."
Irene sounded just as bleak, her voice thin from exhaustion and drawn tight as if she were angry, when she said, "I'd really just like to rest."
"Alright," Sarah replied. "Come on. Let's get you to the couch and then I'll talk to Dad, okay?"
Irene nodded, then winced. Slowly, Sarah helped her step-mother take off her coat, then supported her as she made her way into the sitting room. Irene flopped almost bonelessly onto the couch, then rolled herself onto her side. Sarah grabbed a blanket and spread it over Irene.
"I'll be back with a first aid kit in a minute," she said. She kept her voice quiet; sometimes Irene's senses were rubbed raw after a seizure.
"What, there isn't some magic spell to close this cut?"
Sarah laughed, then covered her mouth for a second, but Irene gave no sign of pain. "Sorry. I'm sure there's a spell for that, but I don't know it. I'm only learning magic right now."
Sarah left the living room. Her father and Jareth were nowhere to be seen, but Toby was hunkering down with his back against the closed front door.
Sarah knelt in front of him. "Hey, Tobes. You okay?"
He shook his head, then nodded.
"Were you scared?"
"Well, you did really well. I want to make sure you know that. You were very brave, and I'm very proud of you. Now come on, let's go get the first aid kit." Sarah stood, then reached out and pulled Toby to his feet.
Just a few moments later, she was sitting by the couch, pressing a swab of rubbing alcohol onto the cut on Irene's forehead. Toby sat next to her, looking drawn and anxious.
Irene let out a low, hissed breath, but made no other complaint.
"So what happened? Did the Robertsons put up their flashing lights on the outside of their house again?"
"It's perfectly legal to do that if they choose," Irene reminded, calmly. "No, I think it was just... time for another one."
Sarah pointed accusingly with the box of Band-Aids. "You mean your seizure threshold was lowered."
"Or I could have just been due. It wasn't triggered." Irene said it firmly, and Sarah sighed. If there was one thing she and Irene had in common, it was stubbornness. Irene wouldn't hear further arguments on the matter.
So Sarah stood and made an exaggerated stretch that left her bones popping. It drew a chuckle from Toby. "Oh, Tobes, I'm getting old." She bent to drop a kiss to the top of his head — he squirmed away, making faces — and said, "Sit with your Mom a spell, huh? I'm going to go see if I have to tear Dad and Jareth apart."
"You're going to have explain to me why he looks so different from the Jareth Rex that I met at your graduation."
Ugh. Dad, Irene, I'm dating the Goblin King. That would go over well.
She found her father in his study. Sarah stepped inside and closed the heavy wooden door behind her.
On the wall above his desk, her father had hung a map of the Roanoke River. It was a nautical map, shaded mostly by water depth and with little attention paid to the shore.
She remembered watching her father and his friend Dave affixing the bookshelves to the walls of his office. They'd cursed a lot, and pounded hammers, and constantly groaned when the little bubble in the level kept sliding around.
"You could have told me," she said, softly.
"I thought that it was all over with. God, I hoped it was. Do you know what was happening over there just ten years ago?" At her startled look, he said, "Yes, I know all about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. We Williamses here in America still get mail from the Williamses in Wizarding Britain."
"Dad... your whole family?"
"All but me, and about two others in my generation." He sighed. "Williamses breed a lot of squibs. Nobody's sure why."
Those words made it easier, somehow, to understand the resentment she'd seen on his face the night before.
Sarah moved toward him, rested a hand on his shoulder. "For what it's worth... I'm sorry. I didn't ask for magic, you know."
"I know," he sighed. "I could have handled that better, huh?"
"Well, I didn't have to storm out like a fifteen year old," she said, giving him half a grin.
"I'll take the next weird revelation much more calmly, I promise. Who was that mop-headed fellow you brought back from the... Underground?"
His words shocked a laugh out of her. "Dad! He is not mop-headed!"
Her father only raised an eyebrow at her.
"That's Jareth, the Goblin King." Sarah paused a moment, before adding — with just a touch of hesitation — "And I'm pretty sure he's my boyfriend."
"Goblin King," her father said, bleakly. "Doesn't he steal children?"
"Dad, you just promised," she warned. "And no. He accepts children wished away to him. He doesn't just snatch babies out of their cradles.
"I see," her father said, sounding dazed. "How did you two even meet?"
"Didn't we go over this when we met before? A few years ago, in spring," Jareth said, from the doorway. "She said some words, we met, she bested me in a contest."
"You're... you're that man we met in Oxford," her father, said pointing. "I didn't... you were... was that Polyjuice?"
"A mere glamor," Jareth replied. He looked between Sarah and her father before he inspected the fit of his gloves. In a bored tone, he asked "Matters all cleared up between you?"
"Yes," Sarah said. "We're... we worked it out."
Jareth looked up at that. His mouth curled up.
They ordered out for dinner. Her father called the order in to the local Italian place — the local real Italian place — and she took her old car out to get it. They'd evidently sold the car Irene drove but kept hers.
Sarah almost wondered why. But then Jareth piled into the passenger seat next to her.
"Did you know, I've never actually ridden in an automobile?"
Sarah gave him a speculative look. "But you recognized plastic?"
Jareth just gave her an enigmatic smile. He watched her fasten her seatbelt and imitated the motion, grinning at the click of the clasp locking in place. Then he played with the belt's slack, pulling it out and watching it be reeled back in. He did it a few times, eyebrows raised and the curve of his mouth hinting at an almost childish delight.
Sarah let it go until she'd got them backed out and started down the driveway. Before they reached the road, she said, "Not to command a king or anything, but with this weather, it's safest if you don't play with that."
Jareth looked over at her, raising an eyebrow. "What, will the weather attack us?"
She laughed. "No, but that belt needs to lie flat across your chest. If we go too fast and stop suddenly, it's supposed to keep you from going through the windshield or hitting your head on the dash."
And with that, she turned out onto the road and drove into the white, white evening. Jareth asked questions about very nearly everything, from why she was 'pulling those internal levers' to 'and what happens if this... tire should strike ice?'
"If it's just one tire, we'll skid a minute until it gets traction back. More than that, and we'll skid a lot, and what happens next depends on how fast we're going, whether I'm braking or speeding up, and what direction the wheels are facing."
"Much as with a coach, then."
"Yes, only faster and probably more dangerous," she agreed.
"You've obviously never seen a coach and four strike a patch of ice. Horses screaming, hooves everywhere, carriage sideways, traces tangled." He made an expression of distaste. "Very unfortunate."
She could have described a thirty-car pile-up, or asked when he'd seen a carriage wreck on ice. But his mood was already turning, and she didn't want to drag it down further. So she said, "I'm glad I haven't. At least cars have seatbelts, I guess."
"Quite," he replied.
Definitely time to improve the mood. Not that she was sure how. Sarah braked a bit once they left Old Woodrum; the town streets would definitely be kept clear of ice, but county roads and winter weather weren't a great mix.
Jareth watched the telephone poles and power lines zip by while she drove and tried to think of something to say, something happier.
A few minutes — and not as much snowy countryside as she would have liked — passed before she asked, "So what do you think Harry is doing right now?"
"Most likely," Jareth said, tone dry, "readying for bed as a free student. Or amusing himself while he tries to pretend he isn't tired."
"Lucky kid. I still have exams to grade."
Jareth chuckled at her. But the heavy silence seemed to lighten between them. That was what counted.
As they entered Woodrum, Sarah said, a little slyly, "So, I told my dad that you're my boyfriend."
Jareth looked away from the window and wrinkled his nose at the word.
"And before you tell me you're no mere boy and we're nothing as simple as friends," she said, flicking on her turn signal as she changed lanes to avoid a spill of snow on the road, "that's just what we call it when you're in a romantic relationship these days."
Jareth's mouth curved into a wicked, smug smile. "And does that mean, precious thing, that though you are nothing so simple as a girl, and we are not merely friends...?"
"Yes," she said. The sky opened up, or maybe turned itself upside down like a salt shaker, and snow drifted down around the car as if to shut out the rest of the world.
They ate dinner in the living room with Irene. Her step-mother cornered Jareth about being the man they'd met in England. Sarah hoped that the revelation about the Underground and the various non-humans inhabiting the wizarding world didn't prove too much of a shock; Irene seemed a little shaky and quiet after that moment.
She recovered enough to ask, "And are you the reason Sarah hasn't come home in four years?"
Jareth threw back his head and laughed. The sound rang off the high ceilings and wood floors, seeming to echo forever, and Sarah watched Irene shiver a bit. "No. Sarah's reasons for staying away are her own, and I had no part of them."
Eventually, her father helped Irene up the stairs to their bed, and Sarah herded Toby into getting ready for sleep, himself.
Jareth watched them go. When she headed back downstairs, she found him pacing in front of the Christmas tree. He cast long, flickering shadows as he moved. Almost as if he were pacing in front of a fire — but they hadn't lit a fire in the grate today.
He turned to her. "I do not like having matters seem so... unsettled, between us. The bounds of friendship are known to me, Sarah, but this... casual romantic attachment you speak of..." He trailed off.
Admitting that he had no real reference point was probably difficult for him. She opted for mercy. "Think of it as like a very sped up courtship, with fewer extravagances and no chaperones. One purpose of dating is to 'settle' matters."
His mouth quirked into that smug expression again. "And other purposes?"
"I think you can guess, Goblin King," she said, tone teasing.
They were both quiet a moment. She took a step toward him.
"Are you staying here tonight?"
Jareth peered at her for a very long moment. She wasn't sure what his expression meant — eyes hooded, mouth drawn, but eyebrows faintly lifted — and then he tilted his head at an extreme angle.
"Do you wish me to?"
"I'm not going to bind you with a wish. But I'd like you to."
He stepped away from the tree, away from the shadows. For an instant she was reminded of the horned man in the painting, caught emerging from drifting darkness with a child in his arms. But then Jareth caught her chin between thumb and index finger, tilting it back so she could look up at his face.
"Then kiss me, Sarah," he said, softly, "and I'll stay."
She did. This time, she stretched up to meet him, tangling her hands in his hair, while he gripped her waist in one hand and the back of her neck in the other. This time, he didn't close his eyes, and his mis-matched gaze seemed to hold her own captive. The almost bruising force of their lips meeting sent shocks down her spine, all the way to her toes. His mouth wasn't as hot as before, but the soft touch of his tongue against hers — rather than feeling foreign — made her nearly forget to breathe through her nose.
She gasped for breath when they finally separated.
"I think I like 'dating,'" Jareth said, voice too casual, too breezy, to be unaffected.
The days until Christmas slipped away. Irene recovered from her postictal depression. Toby ran around excitedly and never once referred to the Labyrinth. Her father baked like it was his new job — but he did that every Christmas. Sarah wandered around the house, sometimes grading exams in odd places, sometimes simply breezing in to chat with whomever was around.
Jareth stayed with them. He seemed to spend most of his time near Sarah, though Toby was particularly good at commandeering him. And there were moments she thought he was speaking to someone she couldn't see.
"So who were you talking to?" She asked when she caught him at it the day before Christmas Eve.
"The Fox Knight," Jareth said, pulling a face. "He's no seneschal, but he carries instructions well enough."
"Managing your kingdom from the other side of the mirror?" She folded her hands and rested her chin on them, looking up at him, unable to quite help the smile.
"I'm not merely 'managing,' precious thing. Ruling in absentia, more like."
"Of course," she said, teasing.
He raised an eyebrow. "And why should I explain myself to you again, precious thing, if you don't believe the explanation given?"
Christmas Eve dawned dry but cold. The sun cast feeble, bleak light on the landscape; Sarah was half tempted to spend the entire day half-asleep, watching the light wax and wane through her window. She considered Toby's usual means of ensuring the grown-ups around him were awake, then discarded her plan and heaved herself out of bed. She changed into a deep green sweater and jeans before she headed downstairs.
Her father seemed bound and determined to spend half the day in the kitchen and the other half of the day in the living room, watching the ridiculous collection of Christmas movies he and Irene had amassed over the years.
Irene settled onto the couch with Toby and some crochet, and the Christmas movie marathon began. Sarah curled up on the loveseat and hid a small shiver when Jareth joined her. Every so often, her father would drift in from the kitchen and settle onto the couch as if exhausted.
By three in the afternoon, they'd long finished It's A Wonderful Life and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Irene and Toby were trying to choose between Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and Year Without A Santa Claus.
So long as Jareth kept absently stroking the backs of her hands, or shifting to press slightly closer to her, Sarah didn't much care what they watched next.
Her father emerged from the kitchen with a tray in his hands.
"Irene? Toby? Let's settle that later. Christmas service starts in a couple of hours," he said from the kitchen doorway. "And my Aunt Irma and cousin Duncan will join us here for dinner after."
Sarah took a look at Jareth — he had made a passing nod to normal dress by wearing carpenter pants that could have been painted on, but had done nothing to tame his hair. She thought back to some of the more interesting stories Great Aunt Irma had told at the dinner table and almost groaned. Irma Williams was either going to try to set Jareth on fire — or she was going to try to take him home with her.
Toby sighed. "Is it just Aunt Irma? Aren't Uncle Mark and Aunt Louisa coming?"
"Not this year," her father replied. "Greg and Brad are sick this Christmas, so they're all staying home. Sorry, kiddo."
"Dad," Sarah said, "if you'd like, I can stay here and make sure everything's ready to eat when you guys get back."
"You haven't been back in four years," her father said, looking uncertain, "Are you sure you want to miss the service?"
She shrugged. "I came back to see you guys, not go to church." With a grin, she added, "I'd rather miss the annual 'compassion and charity to your fellow man should happen outside Advent' sermon than have a hungry, cranky Christmas Eve."
Her father smiled.
Once the door had closed behind her parents and brother, Jareth raised an eyebrow. "And now we have run of the house? Clever tactic."
Sarah laughed and shook her head. "No, not really. It'll be nearly seven o'clock by the time they get back, and they'll all be hungry."
"And their moods suffering in proportion, I assume?"
She only grinned at him and headed to the kitchen.
Christmas Dinner was not a disaster.
It was much, much worse.
It wasn't that the food was bad. The food was delicious. Her father had been preparing this dinner, bit by bit, for days. The glazed ham was just the right balance of sweet and meaty, the turkey had browned to perfection, the casserole was crispy and perfect. He'd baked asparagus in the oven, and she could have sworn it had soaked up turkey juices.
The problem was their guests.
Great Aunt Irma loved Jareth from first sight. Of course she did; he was weird, she was weirder, it was a match made in a Dali painting. But her son, Duncan, had taken one look at Jareth and decided he was looking at some kind of godless anarcho-whatever freak.
The idea of Jareth as an anarchist — Jareth! A reigning monarch who thought federal republics were just nicely dressed mob rule — was almost enough to send Sarah from her chair laughing. She managed to contain herself. Laughing at Duncan could only send him into one of his Things Aren't Like They Used To Be tirades.
And amusing as it would be to watch Jareth bust Duncan's bubble about 'the way things used to be' with a few sharp words and a lifted eyebrow, her parents didn't need that kind of drama.
So Sarah hid her smile behind a glass of wine, and Jareth's brows rose higher and higher before he finally turned away from Duncan. He dismissed the conversation as easily as she might have shut off a light.
Instead, he focused on Great Aunt Irma, who had evidently resurrected the argument with Irene about the cranberry liqueur in the cranberry sauce.
"I'm telling you, girl, it cooks out. Not near strong enough to catch fire," Irma said, pointing her fork at Irene.
Irene raised an eyebrow and replied, dryly, "That's what you said about the apple jack."
"That was a fluke."
"And the whiskey three years ago?"
"It's hardly my fault you don't keep a fire extinguisher around." And the crazy thing was, Irma actually believed that.
Jareth leaned forward. "Irma, Irene. I must hear about this whiskey incident."
Irene rolled her eyes, Irma laughed, and her father said, after a moment, "Great Aunt Irma decided to douse our marshmallows in whiskey before we toasted them on the fire."
"I have never seen such a mess in my life," Irene added. "All the marshmallows on fire — and not the kind of fire you just blow out — trying to melt right off their skewers and take my living room with them."
Irma waved a hand. "That's nothing next to fourth of July when I was just a girl. My brothers used to light off bottle rockets in their hands."
Jareth raised an eyebrow. "And do they still have their hands?"
"That would be telling." Irma gave him a lopsided grin.
Eventually, Duncan managed to snare Jareth once again. "And what is it you do, boy?"
If Jareth was bristling at the lack of respect, he didn't let it show. Sarah had no doubt that Duncan was going to face consequences — and sooner, not later. As it was, Jareth merely rolled his shoulders and said, "I'm not sure what you call it here, but I remove children from unsuitable homes."
"Huh. A social worker. Sounds like soft work."
"You haven't seen very many unsuitable homes, then." Jareth gave him his very sharpest, very toothiest, least friendly smile. "Or dealt with many unsuitable parents."
"And you're supposed to be the judge of that?" Duncan peered suspiciously at Jareth. "How old are you, anyway?"
"Shall we make a game of it? How old do you think I am?" Jareth smirked. "You'll never guess."
"I asked you a question." Duncan pointed.
"I noticed. I'm declining to answer."
"So," her father said, tone just a little too bright, "who wants dessert?"
They adjourned to the living room for dessert and Christmas Eve presents. Her father had baked several pies and plenty of cookies to choose from. Sarah watched as her family spread out around the living room. Irma and Duncan took the couch, while Irene and her father took the loveseat. Toby bounced between both couch and loveseat, eventually ending up on the floor.
Sarah looked to Jareth, who shrugged. She shrugged back and joined her brother.
The exchange of presents didn't begin until they were all mostly through with whatever they'd chosen for dessert. Sarah found herself relegated to the role of Christmas Present Psychopomp, passing gifts from Irma and Duncan around before finally accepting her own.
"If I'd known you were bringing your young man," Irma said, trailing off with an apologetic look to Jareth.
He waved a hand in dismissal. "You needn't trouble yourself."
"So we'll get him lots of presents next year," Toby said, and Sarah couldn't help but laugh. She ruffled her brother's hair and said, "Definitely."
Jareth's expression flickered, briefly, to surprise, before he smoothed it away into a smug look.
Toby grinned up at her before looking to their parents. "Can we open our presents now?"
Sarah unwrapped her gifts carefully, more interested in watching the others. Her father unwrapped his own gifts slowly, though from his expression, Sarah guessed he already knew what he'd gotten.
"Oh, look," her father said at last in a tone that was only thinly surprised, "drill bits. Thank you, Duncan."
"And he got me oven mitts." Irene brandished a pair of the ugliest oven mitts Sarah had ever seen at them. It was obvious that the oven mitts hadn't been intended to be ugly, but no functional item needed floral print that intense. And no floral print needed to be in eye-searing, almost neon shades of pink and green. "How sweet of you, Duncan. Thank you."
Jareth looked wide-eyed at the hideous mittens, then at the serene smile on Irene's face, and then at Sarah. He sputtered out a laugh, which he had the grace to turn into a cough. His eyes glinted in amusement.
Sarah opened hers — an envelope — and discovered a swanky-looking gift certificate for... somewhere. The calligraphy on the store's name had so many flourishes she wasn't sure she was reading it right. With any luck, it'd be international. She grinned, though she felt her smile flicker when she realized that the gift certificate was for a US dollar amount.
Even if she could find the store back in the UK, she'd have to have the certificate exchanged.
Still, she smiled up at Duncan and thanked him politely.
Jareth watched her, tilting his head, though at a more human angle.
Of all them, Toby lucked out with Duncan's gift: Duncan had bought him a Rubik's cube.
Irma, despite being a good twenty years older than Duncan, had a much sharper gift-giving sense. A book of nautical maps for Sarah's father, new golf gloves for Irene, a Batman action figure for Toby.
And for her, a mix tape.
Sarah grinned. "David Bowie, Billy Idol, the Pixies... And Nirvana!"
"You're welcome," Irma said, laughing. "Your cousin Jesse did the mixing, but I picked the music."
"You," Sarah replied, scanning over the card inside the cassette case, "have excellent taste. Can we play it now?"
Her father chuckled. "You and David Bowie. I think maybe we'd better open the presents with the little Santas on them."
Yet again, Sarah was Christmas Eve Present Psychopomp. She stopped short when she realized there were five presents with the little Santa wrapping paper.
"That last one is for Jareth," Irene said. She smiled at him and added, "I had to guess a little, but I saw no reason to leave you out."
The surprise on his face was plain. Sarah almost laughed, but it was a little sad.
Toby tore into his present, shredding wrapping paper and leaving it on the floor. Jareth was much slower, much more deliberate. He actually managed to unwrap his gift without tearing the paper even a little. He folded the paper into a neat square and set it aside.
And then he opened the rectangular box to reveal the same as they all had: red and white striped flannel pajamas.
"Mom," Toby said, a slight whine in his tone. "How come it's always pajamas on Christmas Eve?"
"Because Santa is watching us very closely in the last days before Christmas," Irene said, tone stern.
"Thanks, you two," Sarah said. "These are going to be perfect back — in Scotland."
Jareth still seemed to be recovering from shock. After a moment, he looked up and said, his mouth curving into a smile, "Yes. My thanks, as well. It is... quite a kind gesture."
Irene smiled back. "I'm glad you like them. I hope they fit alright. I'm not sure most stores size their clothes with your frame in mind."
The next morning, loud noises and a sense of bouncing woke her. Sarah rolled herself more thoroughly in her blankets, then squinched herself down in the cocoon, so she wouldn't have to see anything. When that didn't work, she rolled herself onto her stomach and flopped until her head was underneath her pillow.
All to no avail. The noise and bouncing continued. Sarah lifted her head from under her pillow — causing the pillow to rise with it — and tried to shoo away the intruder with a glare. But the intruder was Toby, and not even her blanket burrito was going to get between him and his presents.
As she slowly woke enough to look farther than the bed, she noticed Jareth leaning against the doorframe. He was wearing the flannel pajamas. Naturally, the pajama pants clung almost obscenely, though he allowed the shirt to hang loose.
She knew when to admit defeat. With a heavy sigh, she disentangled herself from her blankets, then stretched. "What time is it?"
"Early," Jareth said. "But time to be out of bed."
"Cryptic answer time, I see," Sarah groused.
Toby laughed. "I'm going downstairs! Dad says we can have pie for breakfast, since it's Christmas."
"We'll be right down." Sarah smiled indulgently as Toby ran from the room. She made her way toward Jareth, pausing to press a kiss against his cheek. "So what time is it really?"
"Time to be out of bed," he said, raising an eyebrow.
She huffed and moved past him, but he snagged her wrist and pulled her back toward him. He leaned down to kiss her. His mouth was gentle above hers, the kiss light, his hand warm around her wrist.
She found herself smiling when it was over. "Merry Christmas, Jareth."
"And to you as well, precious thing."
Sarah headed downstairs, idly sweeping her hair back over her shoulders.
Christmas breakfast was a whirlwind of coffee, apple crumb pie — the only pie left — and presents. Some of the presents even were coffee: her parents had filled her stocking with small bags of coffee beans. She, in turn, had filled their stockings with chocolates from Honeydukes.
Her parents had far outdone her: she unwrapped a french press, a bean grinder, and a very small espresso machine.
"Oh my god," she found herself saying. She was sure her face had lit up; her smile felt so wide it was almost painful. "Dad, Irene, you really, really shouldn't have."
"We can take it back," her father said, teasing despite his dry tone.
Irene smacked his forearm. "Robert! Sarah, we would have been happy to help you with your apartment, but since you're living at a school..."
"Thank you. I mean it; this is just what I needed," she said. "Go on, open yours."
She gave everyone the boring clothes presents first. Toby laughed at the assortment of weird socks, while Irene admired her painted silk scarf. Her father gave his matching painted silk tie a bemused look.
So Sarah sent Toby to fetch the other presents. Her father peeked his head over interestedly when Irene opened A Repository Of Rhyme And Riddle by Rowena Ravenclaw.
"Ravenclaw, huh?" Her father raised an eyebrow. "Didn't she found Hogwarts?"
"She was one of its Founders," Sarah said.
"Ah, that's right. Sorry, I remember more about the Proctor Institute For Young Wizards and the Bell Witches' Academy." Her father said, while opening his own gift. He stared down at the tie clip and cufflinks. "Angels?"
"Angels," she agreed.
He looked up with a wry smile. "How did you know Stockton's been on me to advertise the collection more?"
"I had no idea," she admitted. "I just thought I'd tweak your nose about your crazy boss a little. But at least those won't fall out or get lost."
Her father smiled. "Thank you, sweetheart."
Toby was ecstatic about the new Soundwave Transformer she'd found for him. He immediately pulled it out of the plastic casing and mashed his thumb on one of the buttons.
"Autobots: Inferior," the Soundwave said. "Soundwave: Superior."
Toby carried the last few presents out. Irene unwrapped a pair of dragon hide gardening gloves and laughed. "This is the year of the hand wear for me, is it?"
Her father caught one of Irene's hands and pulled it up to his mouth. He placed a kiss on the back of her hand, right by her knuckles, and Sarah's heart squeezed. She remembered the kind of marriage her parents had, before the divorce. It hadn't been as good as what lay between her father and Irene, and once again, Sarah kicked herself for ever resenting her step-mother.
"I guess we Williamses really like your hands," her father said.
"I guess you do!" Irene laughed and kissed his cheek, then said, "Well, Robert, open yours."
He unwrapped the photo album. He paged through it, taking in photos of abandoned and eerie buildings. She'd spent four years in England; plenty of time to see and shoot the sights.
"You remember how you and Mom and I used to go exploring old houses and derelict factories and stuff?" She grinned. "I thought I'd bring the tradition back when I moved away."
"Sarah," her father said, tone placid but with a subtle note of excitement thrumming through, "did you go to Tintern Abbey?"
She grinned. "Keep looking."
Her father found the two-page spread of pictures of Tintern Abbey.
Her brother dug around under the tree and unearthed the last two presents: his final present and the glass feather she'd bought Jareth.
Jareth accepted the box, looking curiously at Sarah, but Sarah snagged Toby's last present away and held the box up over his head.
"Before he opens this," she told her father and Irene, "I just want you to know that it's not going to hurt him. It's definitely unusual, but there's no need for a trip to the hospital."
And with that, she let Toby tear the wrapping off his Aurora Borealis Ice Mice. The delighted expression on his face as he breathed out glistening rainbow clouds of steam — the smile that curved along Jareth's face as he watched Toby — was sure to stick in her memory. Watching her family be happy, watching Jareth be happy, left her feeling warm and light, as if suspended.
It was the perfect mental snapshot, everything in the room lit from within, and only seemed more perfect when Jareth drew her in from behind. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed, then slowly released her. When she turned to look at him, he was smiling his smug, inscrutable owl smile.
So, I have bronchitis, I turn twenty-five on Wednesday, and this chapter was an absolute fucking monster. It is very nearly ten thousand words. On the flipside, I think we have about three chapters left after this. They will also probably be beasts.
New game is over! If all of you keep guessing I'm never going to have time to write the next chapter, heh. Jareth's father is indeed the Erlkoenig, which is both a nod to the Roommates/GND 'verse and a piece of my own personal cosmology. It's... significantly more complicated than simply being the Erlking; suffice to say, the Erlking is also a concept, and Jareth is a related ('child' ) concept. They are the idea that children sometimes die and the idea that children sometimes disappear. Those of you who guessed correctly will be informed and may make your requests in the comments. Due to planned later stories, I cannot write about any event or character introduced after the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban.
Jareth returned to the Underground the day after Christmas. The day after that, her father flew out to Kansas for a Cereal Collector Convention. He returned before the New Year with a briefcase he kept nearby, but swore up and down he hadn't seen any limited edition boxes of Lucky Charms.
A few days after the New Year — which Sarah celebrated with her parents, champagne, and watching the Ball drop — she returned to Hogwarts with a Portkey.
Hogwarts seemed even more lively than it had before she left. Everywhere she turned, she saw smiling students greeting each other and their favored professors, lugging trunks around or dashing through halls to make sure gifts had been received. It was as if the break had given them all a chance to breathe.
Sarah watched the hustle and bustle with a smile. She hadn't really given it much thought, but she was glad to be back.
Even before she headed to her room to unpack, she stopped in by the Ravenclaw common room and dropped a few books onto the ever-growing book fort. She stared at the piles and piles of books. Honestly, it looked like the Ravenclaws were trying to set up their own version of the library.
After that, she headed back to her chambers and unpacked. She'd need Filius's help with the espresso machine and the grinder — she had no problems admitting that — but it would be nice to have really good coffee again.
Gurdie was waiting for her, eyes downcast, in the center of her front room.
Sarah dropped her bag and stared at the little house elf. "Hey, Gurdie. Is something wrong?"
"Mistress is not to be carrying her own bags!" The little house elf wailed. "Mistress is not to be unpacking! These are being house elf things to do!"
Sarah stared down at the little creature. "What?"
"And what is this?!" Gurdie pulled her french press from the bag she'd carried it in. The house elf made a noise of anguish. "It is for making coffee? Why has mistress never asked Gurdie for coffee? What a disgrace is Gurdie!"
"You're hardly a disgrace! I just... you're a house elf working in a boarding school in Wizarding Scotland. I didn't expect you to know how to make coffee!"
The agonized sobbing only grew louder. After a few moments, Gurdie got herself enough under control to sniff and say, with a touch of affronted dignity, "Professor Snape is always asking his house elf for coffee. And Madam Hooch, too."
"Then clearly that was my loss," Sarah said, pole-axed. Hogwarts had coffee drinkers? But why hadn't there ever been coffee at the breakfast table, then? "I... tell you what, Gurdie. Could you please make sure my french press always has coffee in it at the breakfast table from now on?"
Gurdie beamed. "Gurdie is having the kindest, best mistress. Now mistress must be going so Gurdie can unpack her things, yes?"
The little house elf's eyes narrowed.
Sarah decided, in defense of her eardrums, not to press her luck. So she stammered out a quick, "Yes. I... really should be going. Important, Hogwarts lecturer things to do."
Outside her room, she found Quirinus Quirrell being chased out his own door. Not by a wailing house elf, but by some sort of squawking.
"W-welcome b-b-b-back, Sarah."
"Glad to be back, Quirinus," she said. "What's that noise?"
"M-m-m-my suh-sneakoscope," he replied. "I t-think m-m-my brother heh-hexed it."
Sarah almost asked what a sneakoscope was, but then she'd have to listen to Quirrell talk.
"I.. I... I c-c-c-c-couldn't h-h-help buhbuhbuh-but overhear," Quirrell said. "D-did y-you just g-g-get bullied by your house elf?"
She looked back at her own door, then gave him a sheepish grin. "Looks like I did. They really know how to handle their humans, huh?"
"As w-well a s-slave race should," Quirrell said, a touch coldly.
Sarah stopped. "Slave race?"
"Y-you didn't know? T-they're en-en-enslaved by wizards."
And Sarah realized that she hadn't looked up their history yet. Jareth had all but told her to, and she'd — had other concerns, admittedly. But still.
Quirrell evidently saw her expression. He reached out and placed one cold, pale hand on her shoulder. She was strangely reminded of a crouching spider, but then he squeezed and gave her a warm smile. "It's a b-b-bit of a sh-shock, for Muggleborns. D-don't w-worry, they like it."
Yes. That made it so much better. (It didn't, in fact, and there was that damned word again.)
Sarah just gave him a wan smile and shrugged away.
Rather than actually do any sort of important Hogwarts lecturer things — did she even have any of those? — she headed out to the lake. The air had turned an even more biting, bitter cold, but she was thoroughly wrapped in warm robes, a sweater, and her winter coat. The black skirts of her robes trailed in the snow along the shore of the lake, but she didn't much care. It was only clothing; she could scourgify it if she needed to.
Slaves. Wizards owned slaves. She'd have to call and ask her father if the wizarding families in America — if the Williamses, her own wizarding family; god, it was so strange to think — owned house elves.
Sarah dressed as carefully for the first feast back as she had for the Sorting feast. She braided her hair into a crown and slipped shiny, pearl-tipped pins into her hair. She picked a silvery white winter robe with gray lace embroidery and a short train. She didn't bother with a cloak; instead, she hurried through the halls and shivered at the sudden rush of heat back into her fingers when she made it to the Great Hall.
Jareth was seated in an ornate — and, knowing him, most likely conjured — chair next to hers. He'd worn his white feathered cloak, but beneath the cloak was his deep blue armor. He'd crossed his legs and was resting his chin on one hand. His eyes were heavy-lidded, but his gaze on her was intent, piercing.
He didn't just see her. He saw into and through her.
Sarah made her way to her seat, watched as students filed in. After a few moments, she leaned in closer to Jareth.
Out of the corner of her mouth, she asked, "Here for moral support again?"
Jareth leaned toward her as well. "Perhaps I wished only to see you again. It has been a few days." His lips pressed against the outer shell of her ear, at the very tip, as he murmured, "I quite like that style on you."
She shivered, but didn't bother hiding the smile she felt curving over her mouth. Her face felt warm.
He threw his head back and laughed.
Rolanda looked at the two of them and raised an eyebrow.
Sarah deflected by asking, "So how was your holiday, Rolanda?"
"Aurora and I went back to Wales. Visited her folk and mine, you know," Rolanda said. "Wore stupid hats at Christmas dinner. Perfectly normal Christmas."
Cam laughed and took his seat, pouring himself a glass of wine. "Except for those five minutes everything was sheep. It being Wales, and all."
"I swear I'm beginning to think you followed me about with a Disillusionment charm on," Rolanda replied, tone dry.
"Can't have," Cam laughed. "I went oop north. The wife's from Innsmouth."
Sarah stared at him. Wasn't Innsmouth a fictional town in Massachusetts? For that matter, how much further north could a human being get and live?
Cam evidently saw her confusion. "Innsmouth's a very tiny little town — not quite wizard-only, but about as remote and mostly-wizard as Godric's Hollow — on one of Orkney's northern islands. Gracey's Orcadian."
"So not a devout follower of the Great Old Ones?" Sarah joked.
But Jareth's eyes sharpened on her. His mouth turned down. And some part of Sarah not only shivered in dread, but actually made her feel too nauseated to think of eating.
'Are they real?' she mouthed.
Jareth considered for a long, long moment before at last shaking his head. "Not as written. There are old gods, Sarah, but they predate only human history, not human thought or existence."
His words drew Rolanda's attention. She looked at them with a raised brow. After a moment, when Jareth and Sarah only watched her back, without explaining — how would one explain Lovecraft, anyway? Paranoid xenophobe invented a surprisingly chilling mythos that was rapidly picked up and expanded on by unrelated people? — Rolanda shrugged.
Dumbledore clapped his hands. Food appeared on golden plates. Wine and juice filled decanters. Sarah watched it appear and found herself frowning almost as deeply as Jareth. They shared a look.
Beneath the table, where none of the students could see, Sarah reached for Jareth's hand. Just as before, his skin was warmer than hers. She smiled for him, squeezed his hand, and turned back to the rest of the table.
The next day, Sarah swept into her classroom. This time she wore a cloak. It trailed and pooled on the castle's floor, but at least it was warm. She swung the door closed behind her, and smiled when her students all merely turned to look at her.
She made her way to her desk. "Welcome back, class. I trust everybody had a good Christmas vacation?"
Witwicky raised his hand. "How do non-magical folk spend their Christmases?"
"Well, it probably depends a little bit on where they are." After a pause, Sarah said, "All right, class, I'm going to hand out your journals. I want a 'how I spent my Christmas vacation' entry by Friday — but sanitized so it could be safely shared with non-magical people."
She handed out journals — to Witwicky she also handed a basic text on linguistics — and grinned when a few of her students began to flip through them. There had been questions she couldn't answer, of course; she'd noted down that she hadn't known.
It hadn't felt as much like a threat to her authority as she thought it would. After all, admitting that wizards didn't and couldn't know everything was half of what she wanted this class to take away. They wouldn't find all the answers in their books and classes; they'd have to learn to look for answers themselves.
She let them read through for a few moments, before resting against her desk and saying, "Right, that's enough. I've got a very important announcement to make before we really dig into today's lesson."
Sarah leaned against her desk and told her afternoon class, "You're going to join with the morning class to put together an event. I've got a few options, but the point of the event is that it's something non-magical people your age do, and no part of it will involve the use of magic."
Half a dozen hands sprang into the air.
"When's it going to be?" Colson asked.
"The event will happen on the First of May. I've already cleared that day with the headmaster."
"How long do we have to decide?"
"You have two weeks. I'll leave a basket on my desk, and everyone will write their vote down and put it in the basket."
"Can we change our votes?"
"No," Sarah replied, shaking her head. "Nott?"
"What are our options?"
"You can throw a bake sale, a sock hop, or a school dance. No music off wizarding radio if you throw a dance."
Evans raised her hand. "What kind of music can we have if we do the school dance?"
"Anything appropriate for children your age," Sarah said, dryly. "This is your party."
Carrick grinned. "Does this mean you'll have to play us music by non-magical folks in class so we can decide?"
Caught in a trap. Sarah gave her students a rueful grin. "Tell you what. If 'school dance' wins in two weeks, we'll play a tape by one artist in the background of every class while you decide your theme."
On Friday night, she stacked the journals that had been handed off to her on the desk in her room, then made her way down to Minerva's office.
Minerva-the-cat was waiting for her, curled up on the couch in her rather more spacious office — Sarah's was cramped, with only an arrow-slit window, and drafty. She only didn't mind because somebody had stuck panpipes in the walls, so the draft was often musical..
Sarah slid into one of the chairs opposite Minerva's couch. She crossed her legs at the ankle, folded her hands in her lap, and regarded the cat with polite interest.
"Good evening, Minerva," she said.
The little gray cat cracked one blue eye open, then stretched. After a moment, Minerva was sitting primly on her couch with an eyebrow raised.
"And how was your holiday?"
Sarah cracked a smile. "Well, my family knows, now. And how was yours?"
"Restful," Minerva said, softly. "Now, shall we begin?"
Sarah looked around and realized that she didn't see any essays. "Are we jumping straight into the practical for this one?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Minerva dropped a few matchsticks onto the glossy cherrywood that sat between them. "Please put your wand away."
"Wait, you want me to —"
"Yes. I have my suspicions about how you've picked up Transfiguration so easily. I'd like to see you attempt it wandless."
Sarah looked down at the matchsticks. They were simple wood, topped with red sulphur. Perfectly harmless. It wasn't as if they'd catch fire or explode if she did something wrong. And even if something went wrong, Minerva could handle it.
She nodded. "Do you... want them turned into needles?"
"Yes." Minerva's gaze turned steely, watchful.
"Then how do I...?"
"The primary difference is that you do not enact the change with your wand. You may need a gesture, at first, or physical contact. But you are the conduit for the enacted spell, do you understand?"
Sarah looked down at the matchsticks. She visualized each step of the transfiguration, then took a deep breath, and silently insisted to the universe that those steps had happened.
The transfiguration didn't work. She turned the matchsticks silver and pointy, but their match heads remained, and they were far too thick and square to be needles.
"A good start," Minerva said. "Now, I want you to remind yourself of... whatever it is you're thinking when you perform more advanced transfigurations."
Sarah looked down. She took in a deep breath, reminding herself that just because those were clearly silver matchsticks didn't mean they couldn't be needles. Take nothing for granted. Anything could be something else.
After a moment, the matchsticks thinned down, and their little red tips vanished.
Minerva nodded. "As I thought."
"Your skill at transfiguration depends on your outlook. When trying to do a purely human transfiguration, you're slower." Minerva's mouth pursed into a frown. "Sarah, little as I like the thought of you... wandering about with inhuman thoughts in your head, it may be necessary for your safety."
"The War, Sarah. Albus doesn't believe it's over, and I've rarely known him to be wrong." Minerva's mouth quirked into a bitter smile. "And outside of Hogwarts, wizarding life isn't quite as safe as you might believe."
"You think that I should learn to do this... fast, wandless transfiguration as some kind of self-defense skill?"
Minerva only levitated a jar toward them. She dropped four beetles onto the table. They immediately began to crawl around. "Buttons," she said, pointing.
She returned to her rooms mentally exhausted. She hadn't expected wandless magic to be so draining. Maybe she should have. Unlike most wizarding children, she'd never performed wandless magic —
Unless she counted calling on the Goblin King at fifteen. Had that been a magical act? What about that long moment as his world and his Escher staircase streamed past her, that final simultaneous sensation of soaring and falling before she'd scooped Toby up in her arms?
Even if it was or it wasn't, she was still pretty sure the human mind wasn't meant to walk around viewing the entire world as changeable, existing in its present state only because she permitted it to do so. If that was how Jareth saw things, it certainly explained his ego.
Gurdie had left a cup of coffee on her desk, next to the stack of journals.
Sarah picked it up, sat down, and smiled. She didn't often drink coffee black — she preferred to add a dollop of chocolate syrup and a little cream — but Gurdie's was... really good.
She set the cup back on the desk and buried her head in her hands. She'd thought the Labyrinth had taught her to take nothing for granted — but it had never occurred to her that whatever had laundered her clothes, tidied her rooms, and prepared the school meals would be a small, nearly invisible army of slaves. Did the children know? Was it ever explained to them?
How did you explain that you were relying on slave labor? And how did anybody excuse it as "perfectly okay because they liked it?"
And if her place of employment relied on slave labor — where she'd signed a contract saying she would work until she'd passed the OWLS — then what was the ethical thing to do?
Saturday didn't so much dawn as rain down, gray and cold. Sarah rolled out of bed and tugged aside her curtains only to see a smoke-dark sky and the grounds being busily pounded to mud.
Gurdie had a cup of coffee waiting on her desk.
When Sarah had read the journals from her morning class, she shoved the rest away. She hadn't been able to bring herself to touch the coffee. The cup was still warm and still wafted up white steam; she wondered if that would do anything to the flavor.
She sighed and pushed her hair back from her face, tying it in a ponytail as she left her rooms. The stone corridors were no warmer than they had been earlier in winter as she made her way to the library. She was going to have to learn a warming charm, at some point — or just start wearing really thick cloaks and gloves every time she moved around the castle.
Irma Pince raised an eyebrow as Sarah pushed the library door open. Sarah headed straight for the histories and began checking for goblin histories that wouldn't be gruesome blow-by-blows of the Goblin Wars — which far outnumbered any other kind of goblin history wizards wrote.
She found only two. Sarah was pretty sure they were the dustiest volumes in the history section. Their covers had faded with age and Sarah had to disentangle them from cobwebs when she pulled them away from the shelf.
"These won't mention the Goblin King," Irma said, gaze neutral and tone studiously bored when Sarah checked them out.
Sarah gave her a wry smile. "Does anything?"
Irma thought for a moment. Her thin, pinched expression turned calculating as she hunted down information. After a brief silence, she said, slowly, "No, I don't think so."
Good. The fewer instruction manuals on how to wish children away, the better, as far as Sarah was concerned.
Sarah curled up in her bed and paged through her dusty books. The newer book was almost useless; it was a list of goblin tribes and what they were known for. Evidently Gringott was a tribe — the tribe of gold — as well as the founder of the goblin bank. That was the only remotely useful scrap of information it contained.
The second book had uneven print, too human to have come from a printing press. In fact, it looked almost like an illuminated manuscript. There were even little miniature illustrations of goblins and their weapons.
Just as Pince had warned, neither book contained any reference to a Goblin King. Neither contained any reference to an Underground, either. According to the illuminated book, the goblins sprang up as "love of silver and love of iron given shape — they are steel made flesh."
No mention of house elves. House elves, evidently, were not steel made flesh. Or perhaps they weren't enough of a threat.
After another half hour's fruitless search through the books, Sarah set them aside. She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of her bed, pressing the heels of her palms into her eyes. It didn't really make her feel more awake or readier to deal with this.
Jareth had told her to research their history. They had to be mentioned somewhere —
Probably in more exhaustive histories than she would have bought. So they wouldn't be in the Ravenclaw common room and probably not the school library.
Sarah bundled up in her warmest clothes, several scarves, and her ridiculous hat before she headed out of the castle. She pulled on her gloves before leaving her chambers.
Once again, she ran into Quirinus Quirrell in the hall.
He smiled at her. "S-Sarah! I, uh, had a k-k-k-question for you!"
Sarah nodded and put on a patient smile. "Yes?"
"Rolanda and A-A-Aurora ar-ar-are ha-aving d-d-d-drinks in H-Hogsme-eade." He paused, his mouth working soundlessly and eyes wide, as if his face were caught in a loop, before, in a rush, he added, "and I w-w-w-was w-w-wondering if y-you w-w-would j-j-j-j-join m-me in j-joining t-them?"
Her smile threatened to drain away. She pasted it back up and said, "Well, if you mean like a double date, then I'm sorry. I'm seeing someone else."
After a few awkward moments trading even more awkward apologies, they went their separate ways. And yet there was a calculating glint in Quirrell's eyes that left her faintly unnerved even as she made her way out of the castle.
In the entrance hall, Sarah took a deep breath and resolved to set her other thoughts aside. She headed for the great doors, unfurled her umbrella and stepped out onto the muddy path.
Considering it could support a giant squid, the lake was too warm and had too much of a current to really freeze over. The less-disturbed shallows had a thin layer of ice caked over them; the rain pounded down against it, droplets ricocheting every which way. Despite all the mud and rain, a scattering of snow — stubbornly clinging to its present shape, apparently — dusted the shore and crunched under her shoes.
Sarah stood on the shore, looking out at the dark water and the rain ripples off in the distance.
"Jareth," she said.
At first, he didn't answer. She stood by the lake and waited, let the rain pound down against her umbrella.
And then, when he hadn't been before, he was standing on the shore. Not just the shore: he stood with one foot on the grass and one foot on the ice. Straddling a border. Hadn't they arrived on a bridge, when Toby had wished for her?
The rain didn't touch him. It seemed to bounce off him without leaving him at all wet.
Jareth tilted his head back to look up at the sky, then looked back to her. He raised an eyebrow. "Care to explain, precious thing?"
"I wanted to see you," she said. "And I wanted to ask about the house elves."
That drew a laugh from him. It was a deep, space-taking, belly laugh that left her feeling warm. "I take it Gurdie has intimidated you into compliance, then? The Champion of the Labyrinth, afraid of her own house elf."
He strode forward at that, ducking in under her umbrella. "Then let us talk about house elves."
"What are they, really? How were they enslaved?"
"The first of them were once human," Jareth said simply. His lifted one of his hands, using it to cover the hand holding onto the umbrella. Even through his gloves and hers, his skin was warm. "They had no memory of their prior lives — it's easier for all concerned if they forget, just as they're forgotten — but something about human households... echoed inside them, I suppose you would say."
"So, what, they decided they would be slaves to humans, if that meant they could stay near them?"
"Yes and no, precious thing. They decided any price was worth paying. And the wizards offered a contract." Jareth frowned. "So long as their Ministry holds human wizards superior to all non-human thaumaturgists, house elves will be slaves."
And the Ministry, Sarah could well guess, would make sure humans were superior for as long as it possibly could. Her stomach churned.
"Can a house elf be set free?"
"I don't recommend trying. The fool creatures are devoted. They've convinced themselves they need humans to serve."
Sarah stopped walking. Jareth stopped with her. He tilted his head at an angle that, yet again, would have looked more natural on an owl.
"Sarah? Precious thing, what mischief are you plotting?"
"Nothing," she said slyly. "But what if you set a Gringotts account aside for their wages?"
"They're slaves," he replied, tone flat.
"But someday, they won't be. I'm going to make very sure of that. And they'll be deserving back pay."
"And who will pay these wages? How will you tally what was earned? It's a kind thought, Sarah, but —"
"For Gurdie at least. I can't benefit from slave labor, Jareth. It's completely wrong."
"Gurdie may not live to see freedom. Wizards are not changeable creatures."
Sarah looked up at him and set her jaw. "Then for her descendants. I insist."
Jareth shook his head, but dropped his grip on the umbrella — she accidentally lowered it, nearly smacking him in the head — before he pulled her close with one arm and placed a kiss against the top of her head. "Stubborn, precious, exhausting woman."
"You wouldn't have me any other way." She felt a slow, sly smile spread across her mouth.
He made an elegantly disgruntled noise, but said, "No. I would never change you or your restless heart."
They made their way back up to the castle. Just as the day they'd walked to Hogsmeade, Jareth's boots seemed to repel mud. Sarah wondered if maybe the man she was walking beside was a glamor, but she'd felt him, she'd slept with her head against his shoulder and felt the heat of his mouth.
They hadn't quite gained the castle doors when Jareth said, "I leave telling Gurdie of this vault entirely in your hands, Sarah."
Of course. She breathed a long-suffering sigh, but she found herself smiling at the way the corner of Jareth's lip twitched up.
Jareth conjured a chair at dinner that night. Behind the table, where the children couldn't see, he would occasionally brush his hand over hers.
Every so often, Quirrell would look over at them. Jareth seemed to make it a point to look back — he matched Quirrell gaze for gaze. Never once did he seem apologetic or cowed.
"Alright," Sarah said, after they had spent a particularly long moment staring at each other, "that's enough. The silent pissing match is over now."
Jareth's brow drew down. "You think I am in some sort of competition with that mortal?"
Sarah bit down on the response that she knew a wordless dick-measuring contest when she saw one. The thing was, Jareth probably believed that he wasn't in any sort of competition — instead, he'd see Quirrell's stare as either denunciation (and one did not denounce a king) or an attempt at confrontation (and a king did not back down from confrontation).
So instead, she said, "I think Quirrell just found out I'm not single, and I think you need to calm down. He's not hurting us by... whatever it is he thinks he's doing."
Rolanda, who had given no sign whatever of noticing the interplay between Jareth and Quirrell, threw back her head and laughed. "I knew something was different about you two."
Aurora Sinistra looked over at them all with an indulgent smile.
"Congratulations, you are approximately as perceptive as any other mortal," Jareth groused.
"And more perceptive," Snape drawled from his edge of the table, with a flicking glance toward poor Quirrell, "than Quirinus. Though I don't believe that's quite so difficult as Quirinus would like."
"Bullying again, Severus?" Minerva's tone was mild, completely free of reproach, but she turned her blue, blue eyes on the Potions Master, who looked away from them all.
He clearly remembered, just as well as Sarah and Minerva, that he'd been caught inventing rules specifically to inconvenience a particular student.
Classes passed by in a seeming blur. The day of the vote came — it was, as every other day had been since January, she could have sworn, rainy.
"Everybody have their votes in?" She asked her afternoon class while grey water pelted the windows. Sarah looked toward the leaded glass and had the unsettling feeling that the next time she saw sunlight, it would mean the school year was over and she would be bidding her students farewell.
Her students all nodded dutifully.
"Alright. Then we have..." She dumped the cauldron out, scattering scraps of paper all over her desk, and began counting. "Okay, four for bake sale. Eight for sock hop... which leaves, yes, my math isn't wrong. Twelve votes for school dance."
Sarah laughed as a few of her students cheered. She held up a hand, and they quieted enough for her to say, "All right. We'll have music in our classes so you can all decide on a theme. Those of you who want to take a leading role in organizing, talk to me after hours."
Sarah had expected Constantia Evans to want a lead role, but Evans slipped out the door. Persephone Greengrass and Ryan Carrick, however, stepped forward. Sarah nodded and smiled and wrote their names down.
She had the feeling she'd hear from Pollux Nott during the next class.
On Twenty-Third January, Sarah woke to yet another drizzly morning. She stared at herself in the mirror as she dressed. For once it wasn't just to wonder whose nose, whose cheekbones she'd inherited — both her parents were dark-haired and light eyed; her brown hair and green eyes could have come from either side — but to see if she actually looked any older.
She was twenty-two today, after all.
But there was no change. She didn't even really feel any older. So she didn't bother mentioning it to Gurdie. She didn't think Jareth knew when her birthday was, and even if he did, she doubted he attached much significance to birthdays. After all, he was at least a thousand or so years old; after a while, they'd all blur together, wouldn't they?
Because it was her birthday, she spent most of the day working on the idea she'd had the previous semester. The first step, of course, would be to identify the historical role of the witch in wizarding society. Wizarding culture seemed relatively egalitarian now, but why hadn't she seen or heard of contraceptive spells? Were married witches expected to work inside the home? What were the sexual assault statistics? Did they even tally those? Was there a wage discrepancy similar to the one in the non-magical world?
It all made for a very fascinating question, though Sarah hadn't actually answered any of them before it was time to head down to the village and call home.
In the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, Sarah found herself playing Billy Idol, Queen, Nirvana, The Pogues, Michael Jackson, and, of course, David Bowie. Her students seemed to enjoy Idol, Cobain, and Bowie; she made a mental note of that as she sketched out ideas for the themes she'd offer the students.
Pollux Nott never asked for further involvement. But then, according to Greengrass, he was focused on becoming Seeker for the Slytherin team — Terrence Higgs was seventeen and would need replacing next year.
And, in her spare moments — when she wasn't trying to figure out one bought for the King who could conjure anything — Sarah tracked down statistics and lists of influential witches.
She was busy copying down figures from one dusty tome — Criminal Charges & Convictions 1988 - 1989 — when Hermione scurried into her office. Harry and Ron slunk in after.
"Hey, you three," Sarah said. She put her pen back in the LMH mug filled with them, then used her notebook as a bookmark and closed the text. "Is something the matter?"
Hermione looked at the boys, who looked at each other. Harry didn't seem able to form words; he was pale and his hands had clenched into fists. Sarah suspected he was only a few steps from outright panic.
Ron said, "Snape is going to referee Harry's next match!"
They all stared at her expectantly.
"I can see why that might worry you," Sarah hedged. "But even if he tried to kill Harry during the last game — and I don't think he did — he's not about to try to kill Harry when he's the referee."
Harry had apparently not been panicking. Instead, he'd been building up steam: a frustrated noise seemed to propel itself from his throat, and words exploded out of him in a rush.
"But it's not like he'd even be a fair referee!"
That, Sarah reflected, was absolutely true. And frankly, the fact that Harry was even seriously considering the idea that Snape would try to kill him didn't speak well of Snape. Or the way this school ran things.
She sighed. "Alright. I'll talk to Minerva, see if I can get her to talk to Dumbledore. But I'm only a lecturer, so I can't promise you anything."
Sarah held up a hand. "I'm not about to lie to you to make you feel better, Harry. They might not listen to me. Professor Snape isn't breaking or making up any rules, so this won't be as clear cut as getting your book back."
Harry gave her a serious nod. Sarah hoped he could respect that she wasn't willing to lie to him. He still clearly had issues trusting the adults in his life; she hoped, at least, to be someone he could trust. And not only because she'd promised Jareth to keep an eye on him.
"Anything else on your minds?"
"We think we know what Fluffy's —"
"Hermione!" Ron hissed. "What if she's —"
But Harry looked at her for a long moment. His green eyes seemed to glint with something as he thought; Sarah wondered if she'd ever looked that way as a child. She suspect she hadn't until the Labyrinth.
"No," he said at last, "I think we can tell her. It's the Philosopher's Stone."
That startled her. Sarah was glad she was already sitting; her knees felt weak and unable to support her.
"The Holy Grail of historical alchemy? Turns lead into gold?" She asked. "Grants eternal life? That Philosopher's stone?"
The trio nodded.
Sarah just stared at them. "I almost can't believe it's real. But of course it would be. Three-headed dogs are real. Goblins can run banks. Why not a stone that turns lead to gold?"
Ron stared at her like she was crazy. In a prosaic tone, he asked, "What's so weird about goblins running banks?"
She brought her concerns up with Minerva during their lesson that evening, after asking about flooing into Edinburgh.
"Oh, I know he won't be fair," Minerva told her. There was an edge to her voice that made Sarah suspect she was even less pleased with the idea than Harry was. "But Albus himself has chosen to allow it. Trust me when I say he has his reasons."
"That's not going to be much comfort to Harry."
"In this case," Minerva said, in a tone that permitted no further argument, "Potter's feelings are his concern, not the staff's. He is an excellent Seeker; I am sure that even disadvantaged, he will secure a win for Gryffindor."
Rather than reply, Sarah focused on her beetles. It wasn't as easy to turn them into buttons when they were crawling around everywhere.
Valentine's Day was the first break in the clouds she'd seen since early January. It dawned bleak and gray, with light as weak as rainwater, but Sarah noted the absence of dark clouds as she scrubbed her face and tied her hair up.
She grabbed yet another pair of white robes — a wintry shade of white, given the season, but these at least were thicker and heavier. The robe was lined and bordered with burgundy and a lace-encrusted train. With the addition of a cloak and white scarves, Sarah suspected only the burgundy embroidery on her sleeves and her train would be visible.
She made her way down to the Great Hall for breakfast. She stopped on the staff table's dais.
Someone had left an envelope in front of her chair. Her chair had not only sprouted leaves and slim, short branches, but fruit — full sized fruit; the Goblin King never did anything by halves — was hanging from it.
Peaches. They hung, fat and juicy, from the branches. A gift? A taunt? She couldn't tell, but they filled the air around the table with their scent.
Sarah took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and strode forward. She felt her skirts flare around her despite the way the heavy train dragged; her sleeves and cloak billowed as she moved. Her fingers trembled as she picked up the letter.
She used one of the table knives to break the wax seal — purple wax, not red — and then withdrew vellum parchment from the envelope.
It was in the same, spidery, elegant hand, but though there were more flourishes, the spelling and capitalization were more modern.
A gift for you, precious thing. No dreams this time — you have my Word.
So the peaches were safe.
Sarah reached out for one. The fuzz of it was soft against her palm. She tested the peach with her thumb and tried not to figure out how he'd done it. Was this transfiguration? Had he planted the seeds some other time, and charmed them into bearing fruit out of season? Were they conjured?
Or was this some piece of Underground magic she would never be able to duplicate or understand?
She bit into the peach and had to close her eyes. The sudden explosion of taste was almost dizzying. She just barely grabbed a napkin in time to keep juice from dripping down her chin.
Sarah played Let's Dance all through her classes that day. Greengrass and Carrick got into a lively argument over whether they wanted an 80's glam rock themed dance — Greengrass was in support; Sarah found herself wondering if she had been one of the Slytherin girls unduly influenced — or an 80's punk themed dance.
"Why not," Sarah said, when the argument had worn her patience thin, "an Awesome Eighties dance? You can put up posters of glam and punk rock stars as examples."
"Glam and punk," Carrick asked, furrowing his brow like, for all the world, some of the music snobs she'd known in high school. As if mixing glam and punk was some sort of musical crime. (She'd have considered calling it a sartorial crime, but Jareth mixed the glam aesthetic with baroque fashions and armor, and it worked.)
Sarah rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Trust me. Glam's more flexible than you think."
Her chair still had peaches growing all over it. Evidently no one had touched them since breakfast. Jareth wasn't there, so Sarah stayed at dinner only long enough to eat. She picked and handed out a few peaches.
After that, she picked the rest, carrying them in a fold of her cloak, and hurried back to her room.
She dumped the peaches into a bowl, which she left in her front room, then took a quick bath and changed clothes. It was one of the few formal dresses she had left from her non-witchly life, packed away in one of her garment bags — black, floor length, its lower half spangled with silver beadwork.
She didn't have a pair of opera gloves. Hopefully this concert wouldn't be quite that formal.
Once she had her hair pinned up, she grabbed her sensible coat and placed her hand on her mirror.
"Jareth," she said. "I need you."
Jareth stepped through the mirror without hesitation. He seemed to be dressed casually, but he tilted his head as he looked at her. He tilted his head even further, at an owl-like angle, and then lifted one brow in a sardonic arch.
"Are we going somewhere?" His mouth quirked up.
"Well, if you'd rather we stayed in and ate peaches, we can. But Bryn Terfel is performing some obscure lieder in Edinburgh."
"And do you plan to ride a broomstick there?"
"I... planned to Floo? You know I've never flown on a broomstick."
"If you plan to stay in this world for long, you ought to learn." But Jareth gave her his toothy smile. It was friendlier than usual; his eyes glinted merrily. "But come. Take my hand, and we shall go to Edinburgh."
"You don't Floo, I take it?"
"No," he said, "and humans are fools to bother with it. Dirty, full of spinning, and the fire tastes strange. Take my hand, Sarah, and travel my way."
Sarah reached out for him. Their fingers touched. The heat of him spread over her, washing in first from her hand and along her arm, then into her heart, where it seemed radiate through her with her pulse. The world was a dizzying array of sensations: she tasted the frost on the air, could hear the smell of cloves, could see the throbbing beat of what she suspected was Jareth's heart.
And then they were standing on a well-lit street in the early dark of winter. Sarah looked around and saw street signs she didn't recognize, buildings that seemed almost as cramped as London. People moved past them in hats and thick coats, scarves wrapped around their faces and necks.
It was snowing.
Sarah took a deep breath of air so cold it felt sharp in her mouth, then let it out in a huge silvery cloud. Jareth's breath fogged even fiercer than hers did; after a moment, even his inhuman sensibilities apparently conceded to the weather and he dressed himself in a black woollen coat.
"Well, shall we find this concert hall?"
They made their way through the streets, snow turning her hair and the rest of her dress into a starfield of dark and light. Though he seemed — of course — impervious to the cold, snowflakes stuck to him and stayed, flecking his black coat with white but blending into his hair.
The concert hall turned out to be a cramped and yet beautiful square building made of limestone, with a copper cello on the facade. The cello was so tarnished that though it must have once been brassy and gold, it now looked green. The auditorium's outer walls had been lit up, making it a green-gold glow in the darkness, and against the city lights she could just barely make out the concert hall's name.
Once inside, she handed over their tickets to the usher and tried not to gawk too obviously at how gorgeous the building was inside and out. She'd managed to land tickets for, if not the best seats in the house, the best section.
The stage lights went up. The house lights dimmed. Sarah watched with interest as the musicians took their places. A man who must have been Terfel strode onto the stage, young and stocky, hair haloed by the stage lights.
He smiled at them all, thanked them for attending. He was older than than she was, but he still seemed young, almost unsure of himself, as he gave a brief history of Louis Spohr — born Ludwig — and his work. His speaking voice was pleasant, but Sarah wasn't ready to be impressed yet.
And then he began to sing.
Whether Sarah had been impressed or not ceased to matter. The sheer beauty of his voice made the sweet swell of the violin accompaniment almost meaningless.
It was like being immersed in sound. She felt almost as if she barely had time to breathe.
It took her several minutes to wonder what Jareth might think of this. When she finally looked over to Jareth, he had leaned forward in his seat, eyes intent on the singer.
For the last set, the other musicians walked off the stage — leaving only Terfel, a single violinist, and the pianist. Terfel smiled at them all, though his demeanor seemed more grave. Sarah got the feeling, from the way he timed his breaths and the way his hands clenched and unclenched at his sides, that he was readying himself for something.
"This last set," he said, almost casually, almost conversationally, "is my favorite of the sets we've been planning. Thank you for joining us, and thank you for listening."
Without further ado, the violinist and pianist launched into the next song. Sarah looked at the program, and saw Sechs Lieder für Bariton, Violin und Klavier, Op. 154. She turned to look at Jareth. He turned to look back at her, then tilted his head at an owl-like angle.
His eyes widened for a moment, but then Terfel began to sing.
Sarah closed her eyes, listening raptly. That voice could make the rest of the world almost not matter.
Three other songs passed by her — passed by them both — but on the fourth, Jareth seemed to jerk out of the trance.
Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht? the baritone sang, and Sarah shuddered. There was a translation in the program notes somewhere, but as she dug for it, Jareth gripped her arm, stilling her movements.
The song continued, varying between three parts, that she could hear. But she was sure she wasn't grasping the story. It didn't seem to matter; it was beautiful enough simply to listen. Still, as Terfel continued on, she felt chills begin to run up and down her spine.
Something strange — the Labyrinth kind of strange, the Goblin King kind of strange — was happening. She could have sworn that underneath the sounds of violin and piano, she heard the wind whispering through dry, dead leaves. The chill in her spine sank and spread into her bones. By the time Terfel sang In seinen Armen das Kind war tot, Sarah was shaking.
The next two songs only provided a brief respite. By the time the concert was over and they were all standing to clap, the chill had returned. She clung to Jareth's arm as they left, feeling light-headed and wanting nothing more than to be back at Hogwarts, or better yet, at her parents's house in America.
The audience members clustered into groups in the lobby. Jareth began to steer them out the door, and Sarah was glad to go. An auburn-haired man in a suit and tie stepped into their way for a moment. He was holding the hand of a boy with blond curls and wide green eyes.
She noted brown and gold patterns on his black vest, an antler-shaped tie clip. But Jareth didn't deign to notice him, and the man murmured something in a language she didn't speak. She looked back as they left, and saw that the man had almond-shaped eyes, the same color as Jareth's. He had Jareth's nose, too, but slightly darker skin — no resemblance to the boy clinging to him.
She didn't quite put the pieces together until she saw the crowd gathered around a boy with blond ringlets. A woman held the boy's head in her lap and sobbed.
She turned to Jareth. "Did we pass the actual Erlkoenig?"
"My father, yes," Jareth looked out on the scene. A man in a suit was now crouched by the woman's side, his arms wrapped around her shoulders. "He's much older than that simple legend, but it's a convenient shorthand."
"The Erlkoenig is your father? Why didn't you stop and talk —"
"He was here on business," Jareth said. "And don't go off about my making decisions for you, Sarah; not only is he dangerous to you, he's not nearly so friendly as I am."
Considering that Jareth had once set the Cleaners on her for saying his Labyrinth was easy, Sarah didn't want to think about what the Erlkoenig would do if she tried to rescue that boy. Still, she couldn't just ignore what she saw.
"Can I bargain with him? To give the boy back?" Or failing that, could she take the boy back?
"The boy is dead," Jareth said. His tone was bleak. "I like his business as little as you, precious thing, but done is done, and gone is gone."
They walked away in the snow, and gradually, the heat of him passed to her. She watched as snowflakes fell, white in the air, but melting the moment they touched her. And then they were standing at the threshold between her sitting room and bedroom, both pushed in too close together.
She sighed a little, then looked up at him. He was looking back down at her with an amused smile curving along his mouth. "I'm sorry, I had no idea your father would be there. Please tell me you at least enjoyed the music."
Jareth merely quirked an eyebrow before he cupped her cheek. He bent down just slightly — she stretched up onto her toes — and he whispered against her lips, "Every song, precious thing."
His mouth was soft against hers. She reached up to cup the smooth skin of his cheek, gently opening her mouth to him. He obliged her, pressing his tongue into her mouth while she let go of his cheek so she could throw her arms around his neck.
He pulled away from the kiss after a moment. His tone was smug as he murmured, "You've been eating my peaches, precious."
"You promised they were safe."
Jareth shook his head. "No, I promised you wouldn't hallucinate. I gave you no assurance of safety. You... trusted me that much?"
"I did," she said.
He gave her a crooked smile, but vanished. Sarah looked longingly at the mirror, wondering if she could call him back. But done was done, and gone was gone.
It was as if Valentine's Day had marked some meteorological turning point. The clouds began to dissipate, although the mist didn't always. She liked to look out the windows at noon, at the dazzling glitter of bright sunlight burning away the droplets that seemed suspended in the air. It left everything with a sort of glow and reminded her, however faintly, of the Labyrinth.
The day of the quidditch match Harry feared started out surprisingly bright and only looked as though it would grow brighter.
Sarah awoke at seven, braided her hair, and dressed in the same sensible robes she'd worn on the students's first trip to Hogsmeade. This set had become a bunch of 'mud clothes' in her mind. She tried to dress them up a bit with a nice cloak — one that wouldn't pool into a train — and headed out.
Quirrell stood waiting for someone at the alcove between their little neighborhood and the stairs.
He looked up as she approached. The smile he gave her was bright, though he fidgeted as if shy.
"S-s-sarah," he said, wringing his hands in a jerky motion.
She curved her lips into a patient smile that didn't show teeth; hopefully he'd get the hint. She tried to add a touch of frost to her tone when she said, "Professor Quirrell."
"Are y-y-you g-g-go-ing t-to the k-k-k-Quidi-itch m-match?" His eyes were alight with something, and despite their color, Sarah was reminded of a happy, beetle-eyed spaniel.
She had a feeling she knew what the next question would be. Plenty of men and a few women had found ways to ask it (or its many variations) from her junior year of high school.
"I am," Sarah said. "I'd planned to stand with His Majesty and a few students, but you're certainly welcome to join us."
"Ah," Quirrell said. His lips moved soundlessly for a few moments before he managed, "Nuh-nuh-No, I d-d-don't th-thi-nk that w-w-would do. I'm-m-m-m," he stopped again until he could add, softly, "s-sorry."
Sarah gave a cheerful wave. "Then I might see you at the match."
With that, she continued down the main stair. Once again, Jareth was waiting for her. Today he'd worn his red and black armor. She couldn't help but smile.
"You know, I find myself wondering," she said as she took his arm, "just what you did during Quidditch matches before I came here. Did you have such stellar attendance to all the Gryffindor matches?"
"And a good day to you, too," Jareth said, but he was smirking. "Go ahead and add that to your list of Goblin King mysteries, precious thing. Until you and young Harry were here, I spent most of my time in Hogwarts's halls unseen by all but the shape-changers and the Headmaster."
Sarah opened her mouth to ask more questions, but Hermione and Ron came pelting down the stairs. She smiled at them.
"Jareth? Lecturer Will — uh, Sarah? Are you standing with us?" Ron asked. His expression turned hopeful.
She looked to Jareth. Jareth looked at her. Their eyes met.
Jareth raised an eyebrow and offered his arm to Sarah. He didn't answer Ron until they were arm-in-arm. And then, he added with an air of both distance and fondness, "It would seem that we are."
They followed the students out the Great Hall and down the muddy path to the Quidditch pitch. Once again, Jareth's boots and clothes seemed to repel mud. Hers ended up spattered, both from her own slogging along the path and from the mud that squelched up after the students's shoes.
She was glad once she and the students had made it to the rickety, wind-blown stairs. Yet again, Jareth managed to keep her on his arm as they ascended. And yet again, she settled onto the stands in a pack of Gryffindors, close to Hermione and Ron.
"We ought to keep an eye on Snape," Ron said, just loudly enough for her to hear.
Jareth raised both brows. "You don't think the rest of the stands will do so? In my experience, the referee is often as closely watched as the players."
Sarah tried to restrain a chuckle. It came out anyway as an inelegant snort. "Yeah, god forbid the ref miss a foul."
"He tried to kill Harry. What if he tries —"
"When he's down on the field, refereeing? Where anyone can see him try? I don't think so." Sarah shook her head. "And besides, we've never proven that he has any reason to want Harry dead."
"Are you kidding? He hates Harry!"
"He hates Longbottom more," Sarah pointed out, as quietly as she could. "Has Snape tried to kill him?"
Ron squirmed, but didn't answer. Hermione looked thoughtful.
"If anything, I expect he's trying to protect Harry," Sarah said. "After all, the whole staff knows that Snape hates him. If Harry gets hurt or dies and Snape is anywhere near him at the time, he knows who we'll all turn to."
"You don't think that's the only reason," Jareth said, too quiet for Ron or Hermione to hear, as the players strode onto the field.
"No," Sarah admitted. (The team captains shook hands.) "But it's probably the only kind of reasoning Ron will listen to."
Snape, looking particularly grim and unhappy, blew the whistle. The players launched themselves on their brooms, and Snape tossed the Quaffle up — one of the Hufflepuff Chasers caught it — and kicked open the chest.
The game began in earnest just a few moments later. As he had before, Harry drifted above the game, circling. Jareth tilted his head back to watch him, and Ron was watching Snape closely, so Sarah tried to take in the game.
She hadn't thought it would be — after all, there were only six other players on each team — but keeping track of a whole game was hard. Maybe it was because they could move in three directions. As it was, the Chasers were like a flying wolf-pack, or maybe a trio of lionesses on the hunt; they flew across the field in concert, while the Beaters seemed to careen around completely randomly.
At least Keepers didn't move much. How, exactly, the boy running commentary kept track of it all was beyond Sarah. It was the visual form of cacophony.
About ten minutes and two goals in, Snape awarded Hufflepuff a penalty shot.
"Ron," Sarah said, this time loud enough for Ron to hear. "Nobody's fouled, right?"
"I don't think he's been watching the game!" Ron shouted back.
Somebody laughed unkindly. Sarah turned to see Constantia Evans's weaselly little cousin, the pointy-faced blond boy.
"Draco Malfoy, wasn't it? Something funny about your Head of House cheating?"
"It's not cheating," Draco sniffed, "if he's the referee."
Jareth's hand sought hers. Once again, his skin was fever-warm. Sarah sighed and turned back to the game. She hadn't really formed too many low opinions of the Hogwarts students, but she was pretty sure Malfoy was an obnoxious little snot. She only hoped he didn't stay that way.
In an impressive bout of acrobatics from the hunting, flying wolf-pack, Gryffindor scored two more goals.
Snape, in an impressive show of apathy or possibly hatred of his life — Sarah couldn't really see his expression, but the downturned curve of his mouth was even grimmer than before — awarded Hufflepuff another penalty shot for no apparent reason.
And then Jareth squeezed her hand. She recognized the signal for what it was: a sign to look at Harry. He'd gone into another of his spectacular dives, the nose of his broom pointed almost straight down. Even from a distance, she swore she could see his hands flex on the broomstick as he plummeted. Once again, near the ground, he swung on his broom and flung his hand out.
He was maybe a foot away from the green when he scooped up something shiny and golden.
"One hundred fifty points to Gryffindor," the commentator shouted.
That, apparently, put Gryffindor in the lead for the House Cup. Sarah watched with amusement as the Ravenclaws and Gryffindors cheered. Not even the Hufflepɵffs seemed to mind losing — not when it was clear the referee had been unfairly favoring them. In fact, only the Slytherins seemed particularly put out.
"Cheaters," Sarah pointed out to Malfoy as they filed down the rickety steps, "never prosper for long."
The boy snorted but made no other reply.
The students in red seemed to be congregating on the field, so Sarah grabbed Jareth by the hand and dragged him back inside.
They ate in her room again that night. The meal seemed almost lazy, lit by oil lamps and floating candles.
After they'd finished eating, and thus once she'd begun her second glass of wine, Sarah asked, "So your father is the Erlkoenig?"
"He's much older than that idea, but it... encompasses him, for now. He's embraced it, I suppose you could say." Jareth gave her a crooked, darkly amused smile. "He wasn't always. Once, when a tribe woke in the morning to find a child had died in the night, everyone knew the Old White Bear had stolen his breath."
She tried to imagine the auburn-haired man she'd met as an old polar bear, and couldn't. From the color of his hair to the colors he'd worn, he had seemed a creature of autumn, not winter.
"And then the true winter came, and my father loved her. Her cold helped him, you see; their breath steamed in it, and he made the steam stop. All her white stars in the black sky, endless above the white plains — she was beautiful." Jareth's gaze turned remote, as if he had turned back time in his thoughts. He seemed to be drifting away, fading, and it almost frightened her.
So she said, "Jareth. Are you talking about... about Cro-Magnon people? Your father is that old?"
He seemed to snap back into focus. His gaze sharpened on her, as mad and mismatched as usual. She smiled to see him back in the present.
"Yes," Jareth said. "At least that old."
She had started her third glass of wine when Harry's voice said, "Valentine evenings."
Jareth looked askance at her. His lifted eyebrows asked, very clearly, why she hadn't changed her password.
Sarah could only give him a sheepish shrug. And then Harry, Ron, and Hermione tumbled in. Harry and Ron were both speaking in a rush.
"Kids, kids, I don't understand —" she started to say.
Jareth held up a single hand and fixed them all with a stare. "Enough."
Sarah suspected that if he'd been addressing his goblins, he'd have shouted. But Harry was too used to being shouted at — and she got the feeling that Ron hero-worshipped Jareth a bit too much for shouting to go over well.
Jareth's tone was enough. Ron and Harry both shut their mouths, staring at the Goblin King.
"Are you seeking an audience with me, or with Sarah? Answer one at a time."
Harry and Ron looked at each other. Behind them, Hermione rolled her eyes and pushed forward.
"We wanted to see both of you," the girl said.
"And what could have you so frantic?"
"Snape is trying to get Quirrell to help him steal the Stone," Harry said, breathless. His eyes shone in a mixture of excitement and determination.
Strange, but her heart swelled almost as much as when she saw Toby. Even if he was probably wrong.
"Do you think so? What exactly did you hear?"
"Something about Hagrid's dog," Hermione said. She folded her arms over her chest and added, "And deciding where his loyalties lay."
"You're all very set on this idea that Snape is evil." She tossed the words out, conversationally. "But you're standing in a room with a child-stealing fairy tale king. And me."
The trio stared at her blankly.
So Sarah offered a thought exercise. After all, if the kids could jump at shadows, then Snape — who had proven himself irrational where Harry and Jareth were concerned — could, too.
"Did you know that I think in the same language Jareth does? Professor McGonagall spent most of an hour convinced that I was just a few steps away from being a child stealer myself, and Snape hasn't trusted me since the troll."
"You mean... you think that Snape thinks," Ron said, slowly, as if reading out a word problem, "that you want to steal the Stone."
"It's a possibility," Sarah said. "It's also possible that Snape really is trying to convince Quirrell — who, with that stutter, I wouldn't trust to cast a single spell — to help him steal it. Or maybe Snape thinks Quirrell wants it. Conversations about who's on whose side can mean a lot of different things, kids."
"But you can't be evil!" This came from Harry. It was actually... sweet. And terrifying. Not for her own sake, but for his.
Jareth threw his head back and laughed. "Ah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah. Do you remember when you viewed the world so simply?"
"It was simple, for me. I couldn't go home without Toby. Not and live with myself later," she told him. To the kids, she said, "You don't have any proof one way or another that I'm evil or not. And Snape thinks he has proof that I am. Even professors can misjudge people. You don't think it's possible you did, too?"
"You're trying to trick us into thinking it's too complicated," Hermione said. Her eyes glinted. "You want us to give up."
"I want you," Sarah replied, "to stay safe. Which means staying out of whatever's going on with that damned Stone. Whether Snape steals it or Quirrell steals it or Professor Binns possesses Nicholas Flamel and uses it to make himself a new body, you three are safest far away from it all."
"Well, I'm not going to forget about it," Harry said. "Voldemort's already tried to kill me once. What'll he do if he comes back?"
Strong sense of personal responsibility, or a burgeoning hero complex? Sarah eyed him for a moment, then looked to Jareth.
Jareth shook his head. "You've warned them, Sarah. Their choices are theirs."
His voice was bleak. Sarah wondered if he was operating on some knowledge of the future, or some sense of destiny. Or maybe that was just how fae viewed the lives of mortals.
So she pointed out, "They're eleven."
"Twelve!" Hermione pointed out. "I turned twelve in September."
Sarah levelled a glare at Jareth's smug, inscrutable owl smile. If she truly did think like a fae, maybe she could think don't encourage them really, really loud, and give him a headache.
But Jareth said only, "Your choices are yours. Make them wisely — or be bold, and rush like young lions. What is done is done, and what will be must be."
"Thank you, Jareth," she groused. "That was extremely helpful in my attempt to keep them safe."
He eyeballed his wine. "You should be thankful. Do you know how often the Goblin King gives advice?"
She had to toast to that. Jareth didn't often advise so much as issue commands. Impossible commands, too. She'd been hearing Turn back, Sarah in her dreams for years now.
The trio all looked at each other. After a while, Ron asked, voice tentative, "Does that mean that even if we try to stay out of it, we'll get sucked right back in?"
Jareth arched a brow and took a sip of his own wine.
"I think," Sarah said after a long silence, while each of the trio chewed on Jareth's words, and Jareth slumped in his chair, shedding glitter, "that it means whatever you want it to mean."
The trio nodded — Harry with the same mulish look on his face, Ron more thoughtfully, and Hermione more thoughtfully still — and turned to go. Sarah wondered just how frustrated they were with her, that she hadn't believed their theories.
Part of her wondered if maybe they were onto something. But surely Dumbledore knew his staff? Surely he wouldn't have worked, year in and year out, with a man who would betray him.
She really hoped so.
...oh, Sarah, you eternal optimist you.
Only two (maybe two and a half!) more chapters to go, and then I'll be on a little break until it's time for "Bite Hard, Lest Remembrance Come After". This fic has garnered the nickname Thing. Which I guess is better than That Gorram Fic That Ate My Brain Several Times Over And Then Spawned Sequels.
I'm sorry that this chapter has taken so long to put out; I got really discouraged at one point. And it's eleven thousand words. Next chapter should be shorter, smoother, and sooner. The chapter after that, though, I make no promises.
And now... the weather. I kid, I kid. But y'all really should go listen to Night Vale; hopefully I'll manage to keep myself from referencing it next. You also narrowly escaped a SCP Foundation reference!
Update 2014: I know it's been forever since a new piece was added! I promise, I'm working on it! I've just hit a rough spot in the next chapter, and then got blindsided by Teen Wolf (blame Cheloya). I can't make any promises as to when the next chapter will be out, but I hope I'll get to it soon.