Work came as a strange sort of relief, after two weeks at home with no company save Jareth and the occasional nosy or amiable neighbour. Sarah may or may not have patted her car’s dashboard and murmured “good girl” as the trusty little engine roared to life. That was beside the point. She was a grown woman and could talk to inanimate objects to her heart’s content, if she so pleased.
“Sarah!” the receptionist cried, waving, as the door swung shut behind you. “How was your break? Did you drink a lot of margaritas? Climb Mount Hood?”
“No, no, no, unfortunately.” Laughter bubbled up irresistibly. “No, I stayed at home and drank boxed wine and played nursemaid. An old acquaintance dropped in from out of town.”
“Oooh. An old flame?”
“Maybe. I hadn’t seen him since high school and he’s fallen on some really hard times, which is why the nursing. God, sick people are a pain in the ass.”
Amelia snickered into her sleeve. “Whiny?”
“No,” groaned Sarah, “stubborner than a whole posse of elderly billy-goats. You haven’t been letting the boss push you around too much, have you?”
“Oh, yes,” she continued in the same projecting tone Sarah had adopted, “he’s been absolutely tyrannical. The coffee must be just so, and not half a second late, and would you know he’s set up a gladiatorial arena around the copier?”
“Good thing you’re a dab hand with a mechanical pencil, then,” interjected aforementioned boss, from his time-honoured position of lurking in the doorway. Sarah grinned like an idiot. It was good to be back.
Having kept up with emails from colleagues and clients significantly cut down on the backlog of bureaucracy waiting to greet her, which only compounded the relief with which she settled in for a good solid Monday poring over her tablet, researching, bothering co-workers and, of course, consuming frightening amounts of caffeinated beverages. Vacation always turned recent returnees into novelties for a few days; she found herself swarmed with inquisitive colleagues, wanting to know how everything had gone, what was her guest like, wasn’t “staycation” the silliest term ever coined…Never, she reflected, did procrastination prove so easy as when one had no real incentive to indulge in it.
Come lunchtime, Amelia and Travis absconded with her to check out a sushi restaurant Travis had discovered in her absence. She leaned back in the booth, content to enjoy the goblin-free ambiance as he extolled the place’s culinary virtues. It did go down well – yet another nice change from two weeks of takeout and sandwiches. Funny, she thought, how spending awhile sitting around at home living off BLT’s and wearing jeans that hail back to your college days sounds absolutely terrific until you actually have to do it.
“So, Sarah, when do you get to pick your daughter up, again?”
“I…oh!” She flashed a sheepish grin at having to be startled out of her musings. “A couple more weeks. Hopefully things will be settled with Jareth by then.”
“Are you going to go pick her up over the weekend? It’s a bit of a drive, right?”
“Actually, she’s flying in. Andrew and I both have a lot going on and, according to Jo, it’s going to be awesome and she’s going to wear her Batman shirt. I guess there’s some connection between Batman and airplanes.”
“Apparently!” laughed Travis. “One of these days, I might have to have kids just so I can find out why you glow like that when we get you talking about her.”
“Want me to let you in on a secret?” She lifted an eyebrow at him, a smile lurking about the corners of her eyes. “Lean in.”
He did so, a bit trepidatiously, and she stage whispered “It’s because I survived her infancy.”
“Not a fan of babies?” snickered Amelia from the other side of the booth.
“Not really. They’re cute, I guess, but they’re really demanding and not the best conversation, y’know? My brother drove me nuts when he was that age.”
“Fair enough. She know about this friend of yours?”
Tossing back a sip of tea, she smiled into her mug at the mention of Jareth and fairness in the same sentence. “Yeah. She’s a bit cautious about the idea of him, but she’ll get over it. She’s a good kid and he claims he’s good with children, though I haven’t seen him with any since he babysat the brother.”
“Speaking of whom, any plans to visit back east?”
“Honestly, I don’t know.” She frowned, rotating her mug between steepled fingertips. That very question had been quietly waiting its turn to nag her. “I was planning on it – I’ve got Jo til May, you know? – but I hadn’t figured on taking off a couple weeks here.”
“You’ve still got a lot.” Amelia offered her an encouraging smile. “I mean, you haven’t taken much before.”
“It’s true. It’s just that I wasn’t planning on this , and it kind of makes me want to be careful, in case something else comes up.” Three weeks ago, she thought, she wouldn’t have said that. What remained in her of the frustrated fifteen-year-old cursed Jareth for that change.
She returned to a house full of sunlight and music, and found herself humming as she slung her briefcase off onto the coat hook by the door, and shucked her shoes onto the shelf beside it. They landed with the satisfying clatter that punctuates a long day out of the house, and she grinned, flexing brightly-socked toes against the tile while reflecting upon the oddity of music. She most certainly hadn’t left a house brimming with Marc Bolan’s voice.
Quiet on stockinged feet, she padded from the foyer to the living room and paused, with her hands on her hips, to survey the damage. There wasn’t any, really. He’d even put her CD’s back in order; she had to smile a little, even as she shook her head, remembering showing him last week how, exactly, one makes shiny discs produce music. At the time, she’d just put on some classical – even Underground monarchs, apparently, know Mozart.
From the stereo across the room, she looked down, over the back of the couch directly in front of her, and pulled a wry face at the thin figure mostly hidden under a blanket Karen had crocheted her years ago. Each segment was made to resemble a slice of toast; every other one bore a sunny yellow simulacrum, in soft alpaca yarn, of a pat of butter, and it went altogether very well with Jareth’s shock of pale hair. She successfully diverted the urge to ruffle it into a more productive rearrangement of the blanket to cover his left hand, which had escaped from underneath to curl forlornly around nothing.
It tried, of course, to curl around hers. Merciless in her quest for an afternoon shower and a bite to eat, she gave it a blanket instead, and he subsided with a soft mournful sound that almost undid her resolution not to muss his hair. This was Jareth, not Jocelyn. That could wait. On the way past, she straightened the cane she’d picked up for him at Goodwill a few days before – she considered hiding it, briefly, but he’d probably insist on getting up and about anyway.
By the time he awoke, she’d settled, damp and serene, into a recliner by the fireplace, and commenced losing herself in a book. Though she’d improved about staying in touch with the rest of the world while reading, she still might not have noticed, had he not woken with a start and a stifled cry. Startled in turn, she clapped the book shut and stared at him a moment while her heart slowed back to a normal rate and he slowly lowered the battered hand he’d hidden behind.
He stared at her, raw and uncomprehending, pleading; she, transfixed, stared back, until, with a ragged sigh, he went limp against the couch and remembered to breathe. Then and only then she moved, rose hastily, and crossed the room to sit beside him, taking his hand in hers. Through the leather it shook, hard, in waves. She slipped the glove off and enveloped it in both of hers until the shaking stop and his breath evened out, save for the occasional hitch of pain, loud in silence whose advent she could not remember. When had the music stopped?
“Is the upstairs stereo on the fritz again?” she asked, to interrupt the cloying quiet.
He nodded; she pressed her lips together in irritation but said nothing. Probably she should have told him not to go downstairs. It fell, logically, under “you shouldn’t be up, except to use the restroom or clean up,” but she’d begun to realise that he shared certain distressing similarities to her, including a stubborn streak comprising most of his personality. She doubted he would have listened, even if she’d said something.
The tired silence had seeped back in. Since it had already claimed him, she took it on herself to break it, albeit quietly, in case he’d gone back to sleep. It was hard to tell, with his dark thick lashes so still against his pale cheeks. Now that his breath came easier, he looked not just sleeping but dead.
“I’m surprised you chose that, for music.”
He smiled without opening his eyes.
“I like your music.”
“And how would you know?”
That weary smile unfurled into a shade of the wicked grin her adolescent self remembered as he pronounced, with relish, “Shameless eavesdropping. Interesting place, your Above.”
Annoyance stirred sluggishly at his insistent alienness.
“Not mine. If it interests you so much, why didn’t you spend more time here?”
At last, he opened his eyes, absent this time the desperation that had struck her before.
“I am king, Sarah. Who would I leave as regent?”
“I don’t know. Who did you leave in charge when you came to get me and Toby? Or while you were oh so generously badgering me in the maze? You got back and forth quickly enough.” She hoped he realised her irritation had faded to curiosity; to judge by his thoughtful pause, he did.
“Touché.” He sighed, allowing a flicker of a bitter smile. “I don’t know about monarchs Above, but Below we swear a…not an oath, but deeper and more real.” His lips pursed in irritation. “A…a geas. A binding. We are bound to our kingdoms, and cannot leave for long, nor leave our love too much elsewhere, or that bond will waste away.”
Without realizing, she’d leaned forward, one elbow on her knee, the other hand absently toying with the edge of the blanket. The talk of binding roused some empathic claustrophobia; she found herself a bit rapt.
“Leaving you free?”
“No. Leaving us hollow, and the magic which comprises the core of our kingdoms thrown off-kilter, wreaking havoc, until another suited to the position takes the geas.” Some subtle thing shifted in the sharp planes of his face. His eyes, and the shadows under them, showed very dark against his pale skin. “A king who forsakes his kingdom dies.”
“So you couldn’t spend much time Above?” she asked softly, holding on to her hands to keep them from reaching for his. His pride would turn prickly at that.
“It would have all but destroyed the Labyrinth. Perhaps it would have altogether. It is a very strange kingdom.”
“Indeed,” she managed, before snickering helplessly. After a moment, he allowed himself a bit of a grin, and Sarah relaxed a little. Perhaps she’d read too much between the lines just now. After all, his responsibility to the kingdom was crucial; concern for his own well-being went unsaid, right? “If nothing else, you’ve been around enough to pick up damn good taste in music.”
“My tastes are always superior,” he informed her, archly. At fifteen, she would have taken offense at his arrogance. At forty, she caught the flicker of mischief about the corners of his mouth, and felt an immense surge of fondness for him. Things had better work out all right, or there would be hell to pay.