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The Man With Thistle-down Hair

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The man with thistle-down hair, defeated, returned to that chair, that window. He didn't know why, in his heart. He'd travelled so far to get away from it all, there seemed to be no reason to return.

 

To the room of sandstone walls and floors, of doors and windows that were never shut, because there was never any wood, no glass.

 

To the godforsaken twilight skies, and the hordes of childlike goblins. Somewhere out there, in the Labyrinth, she was there. She walked in the mazes, as always, through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered. He found himself wondering if there was a dance, at that moment. If she was there, her dark hair fuzzy, or straight, or black, or brown, or dyed blonde...

 

If she was wearing green, for her eyes, or purple, or pink, or red. It always changed, and he'd been swapped in and out of so many of these things that he never remembered which one he'd originally come from.

 

But right now, thanks to the intertextual exchange program, and the kindness of Jurisfiction, there was someone else wearing the awful lycra breeches and smiling at the girl's face. Because the last man with thistle down hair had become bored, with so much time on his hands and so little actual narrative visibility, and because he, the current one, had felt sick of wearing tights and seducing those women over and over again, only to fade to black.

 

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, he had the time and space to walk about in London. To spit, to whore about, to eat a steak, to drink a beer.

 

To sleep, and have it not contain dreams of unbridled lust. To wake up, piss, and fart, and sit there staring glumly at a slice of toast instead of moping, attacking, or sitting at prim Royal Feasts of American breakfast food.

 

It was wonderful, just the break he'd wanted! And he'd escaped from The Hellhole. That was what they called it, in the rest of the library. The Well of Lost Plots was even better than the limbo that he had been cast into. The IT Lab of Fandom, it was called, but not even capitalised on the plaque. The plaque was a laminated piece of plastic with printed paper inside. The Chesire cat had thought that sufficient for the nature of the place.

 

He had, of couse, as head librarian, only deigned to create it to prevent the Well and the Library itself from being over populated with shit narrative, poorly muddled and messed up metaphors, and all of the new characters that the trainee characters were turning into. Into Mary Sues.

 

Which was why he, one of the many Jareths, one of the “Bowies” as they were called by characters of real books, had applied for the mercy program. The character exchange, with the man with thistle-down hair. Who was bored and wanted some action.

 

There was probably a dance, there was always a dance. The man with thistle-down hair was dancing with her. With a Mary Sue, probably. But maybe, just maybe, with Sarah.

 

And the possibility that maybe, this time, like all those other times, until the girl showed up, it could be Sarah. Until she entered the room. But it would never be Sarah, not for him. There were too many Bowies, and too many Mary Sues. There would never be any Sarah, not for him.

 

Someone else, luck of the draw, had gotten himself a Sarah. A whole heap of them had, but not him. It had never been him.

 

 

But the thought that the thistle-down man could, against all odds, be out there, and take Sarah into his arms, smell her human body-warm soft hair, touch the inside of her wrist, it was hideous. In the last month of his first cycling through Jonathan Strange & etc, he'd been driven mad with jealousy. Because it only took a few moments, sometimes, for a reading of fanfiction. How many hundreds of times could the man have found, seduced, loved, Jareth's Sarah?

 

Jareth, the current man with thistle down hair, sat in his old chair and stared out at the twilight. He sighed, because he knew deep down that it wouldn't last, this crazy jealous hope. Probably in a few moments, just before his second time through Jonathan Strange, the real man with thistle-down hair would change his mind and say “You know, I'm sick of all this. I want to go home, already. Screw the program.”

 

And there would be no hope, not really. No jealousy, because there was never, had never, been anyone to feel jealousy over. Just a hundred faceless girls who cycled through like butterflies, in dresses of all colours, all ages. In love for a moment before they, too, left.

 

Always romance, but never love. Always winter, but never Christmas. He started, and wondered where that line had come from. Perhaps living in a book in the real library meant that instead of Mary Sues bleeding from one fic to the next, real literature, real literature, was seeping into his existence.

 

But where was it from? He had no idea, and was turning to jump back into the Library when

 

Stay where you are, and keep quiet, I don't have much time. I can't use the footnoter phones, and this keyboard is hell on my paws. I wish that there was a better way than Harvard. We have a situation, in the Library. Someone's pushed through the walls, from the real world. Not even from Thursday Next's world, but the real, human, readership, world.

I have to keep this short, but find somewhere devoid of narrative, a dark corner that I can't see, for ten mintues, and I'll get back to you. You've been promoted, from fictional character on exchange up to the lowest level of Jurisfiction. That'll give you more access to things, and mobility. I have to go now, he's taken most of us hostage, everyone who's ever been in a book, he's got a

(The Chesire Cat, Librarian, 1999)

 

Accepting without a word, Jareth turned and left the room. He returned ten minutes later, from unknown places. Although written after the event, it was considered safer to allow for a complete absence of narrative. He thought over the events as he watched the bubbles rise from the dance in the Labyrinth. The Cat was hardly ever out of control. Not like this, at least. He begged food, and treats, but never this. And to abandon the footnoterphone and subject his paws to the punishment of typing out by the Harvard reference protocols implied a very dire situation indeed.

 

So someone was in the library, taking books hostage. Was it, perhaps, Acheron Hades or one of his family? Stories of their attempts to hold power over literature were legendary throughout all the Library, even the IT labs. And what had the culprit got? A what? He sat still, and waited for quite some time for more information from the Cat. He watched the romance cycle to the fade-to-black stage, and start again. The man with thistle down hair appeared confused, but waved a greeting and moved on. Perhaps he saw the consternation that was plaguing Jareth.

 

After half of another run-through, Jareth gave up. If he didn't act now, there would be no hope for anyone. If he, whoever he was, had a  , whatever it was, and the Cat was no longer talking, it was Jareth and Jareth alone who could do something to help. He quickly grabbed a weapon; there were always glamorous rapiers lying around in the Labyrinth. Then he gingerly stepped out, not into the book again, but into the IT lab itself.

 

Standing and looking at the text on the buzzing screens, he felt strange. It was very impersonal and synthetic compared to the lovely weight and solemnitude of the Library books themselves. When he had first been there, he had run his fingertips all over their spines, exalting in the sensation.

 

But here, he would no sooner run his fingers over the screens than he would stab the sword he carried into his own foot. Silently, for as a fandom Goblin King he was highly stealthy, not to mention handsome and witty, he stole up the stairs.

 

Halfway up he realised that the awful descriptions of fanfiction had caught up with him, and he shuddered and waited a moment for the words to fade away in his mind. Or, perhaps, could retaining the illogical and exaggerated characteristics give him an edge against the intruder? Was this why he'd been the one the Cat had contacted? Perfectly placed, not in any narrative of his own at the moment, with the reality of a novel and the surreality of fanfiction?

 

Emboldened by these thoughts, he pressed silently onwards, towards the security doors that led into the Library.

 

There was nobody there, at the immigration station. No-one to stop the Mary Sues and multitudinous carbon copies of characters from books and film from storming into the Library and causing chaos.

 

He knelt beneath the desk and peered around to see through the glass door. There was a young boy standing there, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old. He was holding a book, a very familiar book, in one hand. In the other was an electric cigarette lighter. Jareth recognised it because he had once hosted a Mary Sue who had smoked.

 

He couldn't make out the cover, not quite yet. But there was just something about it that was horrifyingly familiar.

 

I mean it!” The kid yelled, he glared at the library workers, the Cat, and the members of Jurisfiction who were all, surprisingly, sitting still.

 

I mean it!! If you don't hand him over to me, then I'll burn the lot of you!”

 

Jareth crept closer behind the cover of a trolley, slowly, quietly, until he could read the title of the book as the boy waved it again.

 

What he saw made his stomach roil, and he felt so shocked and faint that he could feel his blood flow slow in his veins, drawing his strength and hope away.

 

The Eyre Affair
, by Jasper Fforde. This wasn't just any book, this was
their
book. The book of their existence. The first edition, carefully slotted away in a corner.

 

Oh, but the boy had done his research. If he wasn't threatening the life that Jareth knew, Jareth would have applauded his genius. But how, he wondered, had a boy that age gotten the idea into his head?

 

It wasn't a very round or large head, to be sure, but oh, fuck, it was very familiar. Fearing another awful revalation, Jareth simply sat back behind the trolley and tried to feel a little less shaky. His sword felt suddenly flimsy and pointless against the damage that that one flame could do.

 

Let me re-iterate!” The boy commanded, staring evenly at his hostages.

 

If you do not produce the Goblin King, I will burn you, and everything here!”

 

Oh, now? What on earth was that about? Jareth re-assessed the situation, and turned again to watch the boy, his sword discarded. There was something about those eyes...

 

Jareth realised he was over thinking things, and that nothing good could come of waiting. He stood, and cleared his throat, drawing the attention of all the assembled.

 

Ah, you do realise, precocious child, that if you are looking for a goblin king here, and if here is in the book, and you burn the book, you destroy any subsequent chances you might have had to capture him?”

 

The boy frowned, and stared at him,

 

Who are you? Sit down with the other hostages!”

 

I'm... the man with thistle-down hair. Who are you?”

 

Sit down, I said!”

 

Jareth pretended to consider it, rubbing his chin.

 

Well, if I sit down, then all you have here is hostages, and no-one who is able to stand and fulfil your demands. So I'd better stay around here, just in case you really want something other than to ignite the room that you are standing in.”

 

He walked closer, trying not to look at the book.

 

And why do you want a goblin king, anyway? And why should we hand over a fictional character to your world without even knowing your name?”

 

He frowned and stared at Jareth, thinking, stuck for a moment. His hand didn't seem to be as tight on the book. Jareth was thinking of grabbing it, and the boy's mouth was opening, he was saying,

 

My name is...”

 

When a sharp voice cut through the air, and it was so familiar and so impossibly real that for a moment Jareth thought he had just imagined it. It was just another of his dreams, intruding at a very inopportune time. But then everyone else reacted, and time seemed to slow, reorder itself, and speed up again.

 

TOBY!”

 

Shit, Sarah, I can explain, I...”

 

YOU!”

 

Her first shout was indignant, the voice of an older sister. Her second one was enraged, the shriek of a harpy. She seemed to draw upon the dramatic energy of the Library around herself, and throw it all through her voice and eyes straight at his chest. It hit him like a blow, and he could just choke out, weakly,

 

Sarah?”

 

Before Toby, for whatever reason, extinguished his lighter, and sheepishly moved towards the group of hostage Jurisfiction staff, handing the book over to one of them.

 

I... you...” Sarah seemed to be grasping helplessly at thoughts in her mind as she stood there, gaping. She seemed to have run out of energy and surety, and was standing there, staring at him.

 

Then she recovered and joined Toby talking to the Jurisfiction members. The Cat was settling himself back down at his desk. Sarah was apologising to them, because Toby had come all this way for her, really. Because she'd confessed to him about why she'd never dated. Why she'd never kissed anyone.

 

And the world was surreal, worse than it had ever felt with the Mary Sues, or in the limbo without narrative. His chest felt warm and painful, and he felt a sweet tingling in his chest that reminded him, somehow, of vomiting, though as a fictional character he'd never felt that way before.

 

His heart felt weak, and his legs nonexistent. His head was light, and he wanted to scream or hit something or just run, run, and run. Time stretched out, and he felt feverish.

 

Sarah was standing beside him, and Toby was apologising, and she was scolding him, and saying “It's time to go home now.” And they were leaving and it was now, NOW was the time to be bold, or romantic, of all the times he'd seduced and been seduced by those awful synthetic beings, all the times he'd been suave and witty, now was the only time it mattered.

 

But it was horrifying, and he could only stand there and watch as they apologised and thanked the Jurisfiction staff, and waved goodbye to the Cheshire Cat and promised to come again, next time with some of the good stuff. Oh yes.

 

And they were walking away, towards the exit. Jareth's soul felt like it was being stretched thin, as if it was dwindling like their figures, into the distance of reality.

 

And then they were standing still, and turning, and Sarah's voice broke through the fuzz that consumed his mind.

 

Oh come on, Toby, look. He doesn't want to come with us, like I said. If I had a whole world of possibilities, if I could know all those characters, all those people, I wouldn't chose to run after me, a boring, mundane librarian. I'll be okay, really I can't take him away from here. Look, it's breaking his heart.”

 

Toby looked at him, met Jareth right in the eyes, and turned back to look up at Sarah.

 

You are both idiots, you know. Complete idiots.”

 

Toby stalked over, grabbed Jareth roughly by the hand, and dragged him along until they stood beside Sarah at the door to the Library.

 

Toby pushed their hands together, and left through the doors. They stood there, feeling a bit confused, until Jareth spoke. The words felt drawn from his mouth.

 

I can't believe that you're real, and really here!”

 

She laughed, and was a little bit closer all of a sudden, their shoulders touching. She dropped her head, and watching their hands, intertwined their fingers.

 

I can't either, believe that you're real.”

 

He laughed, and squeezed her hand in his, feeling her slender fingers clasped between his own.

 

I'm not, not really.”

 

Oh.” They stared at the doors for a moment in silence.

 

Well, I suppose I can live with that. Come on, we'll be late for dinner, and we have to get you changed out of that period costume. We're meant to be visiting Toby and Dad, cos Karen's away for the weekend. I promised to bring pizza.”

 

Okay.”

 

And they stepped through the doors, and out from the narrative to reality.