It was Friday the thirteenth of December. The night was cold and clear, and there was a full moon. It was the kind of night that simply bursts with possibilities, but not always nice ones; shadows haunted every street that was remotely quiet, and cold starlight glittered ominously on the ice crystals that clung to the outline of every blade of grass and each individual tree branch. Even the dullest, most insensitive human had a vague awareness that Something was in the air and that it was imperative to tread carefully tonight.
Despite every warning that nature could muster, some humans had decided that tonight would be the perfect night to throw a party. And not just a party. It was a masquerade ball.
Humans have no sense of originality.
Girls swayed in beautiful dresses, their masks glittering in the artificial lights. Boys followed them into dark corners and whispered into their ears, hoping to snatch a kiss or two if they were lucky. People danced and laughed and gossiped. Drink flowed.
In the corner, Sarah Williams clutched a cup of hot chocolate and scowled viciously at everyone.
A tall, slim girl in a bright red dress (if such a generous term could be applied to what was mostly made up of strategically placed straps) minced over to her and tried unsuccessfully to replace the hot drink with a glass of wine.
“Babe, come and dance. C’mon, it’ll make you feel better.”
Sarah gave her an extra vicious glare from red-rimmed eyes. Alexa Knight was the kind of person who wouldn’t notice the elephant in the room if it ran a steamroller over her. She had a fixed list of priorities, and those were: 1) her looks, 2) parties, and 3) boys. Somewhere way down the list was the wellbeing of those she was gracious enough to call her ‘friends’. Sarah had the misfortune of being among these.
“I told you I didn’t wadt to cobe.”
“You just need to loosen up a bit, Sar. Charlie’s been dying to dance with you, look, he’s been checking you out all evening!” Alexa gestured towards a thin, freckled youth who was eyeing Sarah with a vaguely horrified expression. Sarah didn’t really blame him. This wasn’t a cold, it was the Evil Overlord of all colds. She’d got it just as the weather had started turning wintery and was now just about in the full throes of misery; blocked, reddened nose, bloodshot eyes, a hacking cough that made it sound like she was dying and (just to top it all off) a constant sense of nausea that just wouldn’t go away. She was still a bit hazy about how Alexa had managed to get her to the party at all. The hot chocolate had gone some way towards mollifying her, but she had categorically refused to change into anything other than an enormous, misshapen jumper and her oldest, comfiest, saggiest pair of leggings. She was well aware that she looked like something that had been left out in the rain and then brought in by somebody who had felt sorry for it. She didn’t particularly care.
“I’b here like you said I had to be. I’b dot goig to dadce,” Sarah said, as witheringly as she could without the use of some key consonants. She then slightly ruined the effect by sneezing violently.
Alexa backed away, possibly regretting her impulsive decision to ‘cheer Sarah up’ by dragging her to what had promised to be the coolest party of the year. “Can I, uh, get you anything?” she said nervously.
“I’b fide, thaks,” was the biting and blatantly untrue response. Alexa gave it up as a bad job and left Sarah to her own devices. Sarah welcomed the opportunity to sink back into wretchedness, and took another scalding sip of her hot chocolate.
Perhaps this wasn’t so bad, after all. She’d commandeered the only comfortable chair in the room — the kind of chair that partly swallows you up and shapes itself around you — and at least the party was more entertaining than the empty patch of wall at which she’d been staring back at home. She watched Charlie attempt to grope Kate Wavers and get slapped. Her scowl lessened slightly.
A little over a year ago, Sarah would have been the life and soul of the party… in her own way, that was. She would have come dressed in her laciest shirt, or perhaps in a flowing gown and a dash of Karen’s stolen lipstick. She’d have hung out ironically at the edges of the ball and waited for one of the guys to notice her (they never really did). She hadn’t had many friends back then. The Labyrinth, among many other life lessons, had taught her just how valuable a friend could be. Since defeating the Labyrinth, she had made an effort to widen her social circle, and to her own surprise, enjoyed it. She put away her waistcoats and puffy blouses, and stopped reciting poetry out loud or playing one-man scenes from her favourite books. Instead, she did what Karen called ‘normal teenager things’ like listening to loud music in her room or shopping with other girls. Discovering that there is another world beyond ours that is a lot bigger, scarier, and darker tends to have that effect on one’s life — you start appreciating the little things that make you happy. Sarah didn’t really miss magic. In fact, she rather thought her life would be better without it.
For this reason, when her gaze drifted up to the window and she saw the full moon and simultaneously remembered the date, she brushed off the little shudder and wave of goosebumps that crept across her shoulders. Sarah was done with stuff like that. No matter that once in a while her dreams would take her back down glittered corridors or endless stairs or hauntingly beautiful yet terrifying woods… no matter that these dreams always featured Someone with eyes that burned longingly into hers and spoke of betrayal and hurt and desire all at once. She had her feet firmly planted back in reality, and she intended to stay there. She shuffled a little deeper into the suffocating embrace of the chair. Was the clock striking midnight? No, no, Sarah, don’t think about it.
She took several long, calming gulps of the sweet liquid in her mug. It didn’t alleviate the stuffiness in her head or the blocked state of her nose, but it did at least taste like chocolate. Through half-closed eyes, she watched the ceremonial unmasking by those who were still wearing their ‘disguises’. Alexa was deep in conversation with Chris, the guy she’d had a crush on for six months. Charlie had found himself another girl and was making out with her with… Sarah thought sarcastically… enthusiasm, if nothing else. Someone had changed the music to something she approved of far more than the ugly, repetitive beat it had been previously. The medication she’d stuffed herself with before arriving at the party began to kick in, and she fell into a half-doze, half-trance.
Someone was standing in front of her.
She blinked and focused. A slow look of horror spread over her face.
“No. No no no. No,” she said, or tried to say. It came out more as ‘Do. Do do do. Do’.
“Hello, Sarah,” said a musical, velvety, inhuman voice.
Jareth stepped back sharply, and then slightly to the side to avoid a large and sticky puddle of some unnamed alcoholic mix. He curled his lip. Humans really were disgusting. No grace, that was their problem. They were just fundamentally clumsy. Most of them, that was.
He looked down at the girl in front of him. He had to admit that this was not how he’d pictured it happening — no, not in the least, really. When he had used a crystal to catch a glimpse of this moment, it had given him an entirely different set of circumstances. At the time he had been most grateful to the fates for their elegance and precision. The thirteen month mark after Sarah’s little adventure, when the charm that bound him and limited much of his power finally dissolved, would fall very auspiciously. There would be a full moon, and darkness, and a masquerade. (He’d appreciated that little touch.) The crystal hadn’t been much more informative, but it was all he needed to know.
But instead of Sarah coming towards him in a misty-white gown — a slightly taller, older Sarah, with those same insolent green eyes — and stopping in astonishment (red lips slightly parted and one hand to her heart), as he’d sometimes accidentally caught himself picturing, there was… this. A girl that was wearing what could only be charitably described as a sack. Her dark hair was screwed up into a bun on the top of her head, showing more of her scalp than he felt he should have to see, and she kept… sniffing. Jareth felt his resolve falter.
“Hello,” he said again. It didn’t have nearly the same effect when he had to repeat it.
Sarah continued to look like someone had hit her very hard in the side of the head with a frying pan. She sniffed again.
“Don’t you remember me?” Jareth tried, hoping that it didn’t sound as needy out loud as it did in his head.
“It’s dot you,” said Sarah loudly. “I bust have — I bust have overdosed. I’b just hallucidating.”
“You are not!” said Jareth with unwarranted sharpness. The very idea that anyone could hallucinate someone who looked like him! In desperation, he deviated from his planned dialogue, which was punctuated with drawls and grins and slightly patronising pet names. “What’s wrong with you?”
Appearing to accept, for the time being, that he was actually there, Sarah sighed. “Is’t it obvious? I’b sick.”
“But…” He was floundering. How could it possibly have gone this wrong? She didn’t even seem at all scared of him, only vaguely irritated. She was supposed to cower and be tempted all at once. For possibly the first time in his life, Jareth was at a loss.
“What are you doig here?” Sarah demanded.
He toyed with the idea of making an obscure remark like wouldn’t you like to know or granting wishes, precious but it simply didn’t seem appropriate.
“I’m here for you,” he said simply.
He wasn’t expecting much, but at least a gasp and perhaps a bit of swooning would have been nice. Instead, Sarah pulled a face that could have meant ‘I guessed as much’ or ‘Why am I not surprised’ or alternatively ‘Fair enough, I suppose’. She didn’t seem particularly outraged or flattered.
“Well?” he said, before he could stop himself.
“I mean…” said Sarah absent-mindedly, “I wouldn’t blame you if, you know, you changed your mind. I’m not really in a ‘drag me off to your Kingdom and do wicked things to me’ sort of mood.” As if to illustrate her point, she went off into a long spasm of painful coughing and spluttering. Jareth winced. She looked up at him through watering eyes. “I guess you could come back another time, if you really want.”
Jareth gritted his teeth. He couldn’t lie to himself; he was certainly disappointed at all the wasted potential for romance, and tension, and unspoken truths that lay just below the surface. But still… everything in him revolted at the idea of turning and walking away. She was his. His Sarah. He bloody well wasn’t going to give up this easily.
And… and there was something else, something that he couldn’t fight down no matter how hard he tried. Sarah looked so small and fragile, wrapped in that hideous woollen creation. She had been abandoned by the pathetic mortals she called her friends; they had left her alone at the edge of the party, with no one to care for her. She deserved far better than that. He made up his mind.
“Come with me,” he told her, holding a gloved hand out towards her.
For the rest of his very, very long life, Jareth would never forget the thrill of surprise and delight that ran over him when Sarah looked up at him steadily for a moment, and then simply obeyed him.
“So you’re telling me that magic can’t just cure anything?” Sarah turned her glass, admiring the pretty colour of the liquid inside as the candlelight shone through it. She still wasn’t sure what it was — Jareth was being cagey about it, and all she could tell was that it tasted mostly of peaches — but it had burned a fiery and warming path through the pain in her throat and was settling in a most welcome way somewhere in her middle.
From the corner where he was lounging elegantly on a chair that looked like a throne merely by merit of his presence on it, Jareth agreed. “The common cold is, surprisingly, impervious to nearly all forms of magical power. There are some scholars who argue that its effects are slightly alleviated with a potion of unicorn tears and griffin hair, but results are largely inconclusive and I would not recommend the flavour.”
“Figures,” muttered Sarah. She settled deeper into the deliciously hot bathwater. She could have sworn that it was actually soaking through her skin, targeting each chill and ache in her muscles and gently massaging them away. She should have been on her guard, tense, keeping an eye out for Jareth’s trickery. She should have been wondering what the hell she was doing in the Underground, naked and only a few feet away from the Goblin King.
Somehow, she couldn’t summon up the strength to care. The steam was already making her head feel less stuffy for the first time in what felt like weeks, and it was utter bliss. Besides, Jareth had been unexpectedly… gentlemanly. He had actually turned away when she’d got into the bath, and he wasn’t even pretending to try and get a glimpse of anything now. She got the distinct impression that he was only here to keep her company, not to ogle or make her feel uncomfortable. It was weird. It was… nice.
“So, how have things been around here since I — ahem — left?”
Jareth grinned, showing slightly pointed teeth.
“A wreck,” he said. “But I managed.”
Sarah couldn’t imagine Jareth doing anything but being flawless in everything he did.
“How are you feeling now?” he asked.
“Better, thanks.” She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this relaxed. Somewhere way, way back in the depths of her mind a small voice was screaming about predators and hypnotism and deer in headlights, but she was ignoring it. Nope: she just couldn’t be bothered to care.
“Would you like me to wash your hair?” His voice was casual… a little too casual. Sarah took a deep breath. She knew she was sailing close to the wind now. But what the hell? She’d already come this far.
She pretended to herself that her heart wasn’t exploding in her chest as he got up and walked over, discarding his gloves and rolling up his sleeves. Calm down, Sarah, jeez! He knelt behind her, placed his hands on her shoulders. Her breath caught in her throat. She heard him chuckle quietly.
“Relax, Sarah. Lie back.”
For a second Sarah was hyperaware of her blocked nose, her blotchy face, and the overwhelming grossness of her cold. Then everything disappeared as Jareth moved his fingertips in her wet hair. She fought the urge to groan out loud. It felt heavenly.
His hands were incredibly gentle and tender as he washed and rinsed her hair, occasionally massaging her temples — he seemed miraculously to know exactly where the headaches had been settling for the last couple of days. Neither of them spoke. Sarah felt, instinctively, that to say anything or even make any sudden movements would be to break a spell.
Jareth looked down at the back of Sarah’s neck. His head was a mess of whirling emotions that refused to settle down and conflicted oddly with the peace that was gradually rising through him. Part of him was wondering why he wasn’t busy taking turns to intimidate, cajole, and seduce the beautiful woman in his bath into agreeing to stay with him forever, be his Queen, blah blah blah — his usual modus operandi, so to speak. Another part was worried about Sarah’s health and keeping a constant eye on her symptoms. This part was currently noting that the flush on her cheeks didn’t look feverish, and her breathing was slightly less wheezy, which could only be a good thing. Yet another part of him was purely in awe at the fact that she was here, and that she was somehow letting him touch her — this side of him was marvelling at how smooth and white her skin was, how beautiful the curve of her slender shoulders, how captivating the fall of her heavy wet hair down her back.
The rest of him was just… happy.
It took him a while to pinpoint this and to understand it. It was such an unfamiliar sensation that he didn’t recognise it at first. He wasn’t burning with desire for her, or frustrated with her, or longing to control her, or playing games with her. He was just enjoying her company.
When had he last simply been content to enjoy the company of another? Perhaps not since his childhood, many long centuries ago — those carefree days spent playing in green meadows with his friends. He hadn’t realised how much he’d missed it, this uncomplicated warmth that came from spending time with someone he cared about.
Another day, he might have scoffed at the very idea. He had always known (or had learned very early) that to love was weak. It made you vulnerable and foolish. Much better to be in control of the situation, to be — to coin a phrase — the babe with the power… But that Jareth had never worked his hands into Sarah’s dark hair and heard her groan quietly with pleasure, had never seen her ill and yearned suddenly to protect and care for her. That Jareth, he realised suddenly with a thrill of something that could be regret and could be relief, was dead and gone, all because of this insignificant mortal girl in front of him.
He shivered, wondering how Sarah could be sitting there so calmly when this revelation had shaken him to his very core. Perhaps she truly had no idea. Or perhaps she had already guessed. He wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Are you ready to get out?” he asked, working hard to keep his voice steady.
“Um, yes.” The flush on Sarah’s cheeks deepened. He found himself panicking that it was due to her illness. This was so strange. No one had ever told him that love would turn him into a mother hen.
He got up and crossed the room to pick up one of the soft white towels that were folded by his chair. Shaking it out, he held it up for Sarah to step into. She was looking up at him uncertainly, arms folded across her chest, and he smiled.
“I won’t look — promise.” He meant it, too. Yes, love really was not what he had expected it to be.
Still, not looking was one thing. As he stared at the ground, he felt Sarah step into his arms, allowing him to wrap the towel around her body. His heart sped to a pace that couldn’t be healthy, and he let go as quickly as possible, not wanting her to notice his reaction. When he was sure she’d had enough time to tuck it sufficiently closed, he looked up again. She was watching him, a little crease between her eyebrows, green eyes narrowed slightly.
“Now what?” she asked. Her voice was definitely less hoarse than it had been, and she hadn’t sneezed for a good half hour. A warm glow of satisfaction radiated through Jareth. He was helping.
He considered her question. What was she expecting? What did he want? He didn’t want her to leave; the thought was painful to even consider. At the same time, he knew, as unquestionably as he knew now that he loved her, that he could not force her to stay. All he could do was ask, and perhaps not even that, not if it would make her unhappy. He took a deep breath.
“I was thinking perhaps a drink before you go.”
Lounging back against an enormous pile of fat, comfortable cushions, enveloped in the fluffiest, warmest, softest dressing gown she had never worn, and clutching a cup of what was supposedly hot chocolate but could only be related to hot chocolate in the same way that the sun is related to a desk lamp, Sarah gave a long and satisfied sigh. She felt indescribably better. The shivery ache that had settled into her muscles for the past few days had finally lifted, and she could breathe unimpeded for the first time in hours. She raised the mug to her lips and tasted its contents again, just to make sure. Flavours of vanilla, caramel, and chocolate floated down her throat, neither too sweet nor too strong. Definitely nothing like she’d ever had before. She didn’t think she was ever going to like human drinks again.
Jareth was sprawled on his back at the other end of the huge four-poster bed, arms behind his head, staring up at the canopy overhead. He looked more relaxed than she’d ever seen him, and it somehow made him look younger. He’d lost that terrifying aura of power and manipulativeness that had characterised him during her run of the Labyrinth. Now she could almost just see him as… well… Jareth.
They had been talking for what felt like hours. Her hair was almost dry, so it must have been a long time. She wasn’t sure how it had happened. He had asked something inane about her life — a question about friends, perhaps, or her plans for the future, she couldn’t remember and it didn’t seem important — and as though the floodgates had been opened, suddenly she was telling him everything. They had talked about her hopes, her fears, her dreams, her loves. They had talked about him, too, Sarah gradually building up a picture through the scattered hints he dropped of a proud, loyal, but lonely monarch of a kingdom that was both beautiful and terrible. She began to understand, for the first time, that he had been right. All he had ever done during her run had been for her benefit, playing the part she had expected him to play, or because he was bound to follow the rules of his realm. He was not the cruel King she had once seen him as. There was more to him than that.
They had talked until a silence fell naturally, though it was the silence of two old friends who are comfortable with one another and content to let the stillness speak for itself. Now she finished her drink, watching him over the rim of her mug, and slowly became hypnotised by the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. From this angle she could see how long his eyelashes were — longer than hers, unfairly so. They swept downwards as Jareth shifted his gaze to her, and she suddenly realised that she was so tired she could barely keep her own eyes open. The thought was… unwelcome. She was vaguely surprised to become conscious that she didn’t want to go home.
“Time to say goodnight, I think,” said Jareth lightly.
She hadn’t expected that, either. Her admittedly limited knowledge of the Goblin King would have led her to guess that she should have to fight for the right to leave the Underground; either that, or strike some kind of dangerous bargain. And yet she had trusted him, and not been proven wrong.
“I — will I see you again?” The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them. Jareth grinned his sharp-toothed grin.
“Now, Sarah, I never had you down as stupid.”
She smiled in spite of herself. “Thanks for everything.”
“Anytime.” Jareth rolled over onto one elbow, his eyes still on her. “Let me know if you need more looking after, okay?”
“Okay.” That was a deal she could strike, and happily.
He reached a hand out and touched her forehead very gently. From the spot where his fingertips touched her skin, irresistible waves of sleep washed through her. Her eyes fluttered closed. She thought she heard Jareth say, as if from afar, “Goodnight, my sweet.”
She sank into the blissful darkness and let it overwhelm her.
She was woken by a bright shaft of sunlight striking her face. She stirred sleepily and blinked, taking in the familiar outlines of her own room. Yawning, she stretched, wondering why she felt different. It struck her a few moments later, when she was more awake.
Her cold was gone.
She sat up, electrified, and only then noticed the object on her pillow. It must have been tucked under her cheek as she slept — a tiny thing, easily overlooked, insignificant unless you knew what it was: a white feather from the wings of an owl.
“I’ll be back,” she promised.