Her undershirt, which had only acted as a simple barrier between her skin and the coarse dress, scarcely came down to her knees and insisted on moving around a great deal in the early morning breeze. Sarah was acutely aware of her bare legs, covered in gooseflesh by now, and of the way Jareth was apparently not wasting any time, or scruples, in memorizing those curves. He blinked lazily and contented himself by regarding Sarah's immobilized figure, floating back down into the water to await an answer.
It was at times like these that Sarah's tongue felt awkwardly thick. Before she had met the Goblin King with retorts of sharp wit, his cool, almost dismissive consideration giving her childish mission a drive.
But this wasn't the Goblin King she was dealing with. This was Jareth, the man behind the mask, and now that she had his full, albeit unwanted, attention, she wasn't sure what to do with it.
Sarah's usual ire should have flared to life by now, but something was blocking it. A strange pricking feeling of warring hurt and disgust, remembering how he had captured her vulnerable throat without any sense of remorse.
And now he was eyeing her like some common vamp.
In the next instant she was scowling, her anger too deep for words, and she had spat a generous amount of condemnation in his direction.
Jareth looked at the spittle gleaming on the bank before him.
"Not very friendly, are we?" Despite his words, he looked like he was suppressing an all-out grin.
Immediately Sarah hated his self-confidence and her own petty actions. She might as well have stuck out her tongue.
"Oh, I know," she sneered. "Since you like playing games so much, how about we see how long you can hold your breath, hmm? You go under water and I'll count to infinity."
The effect was obviously lost on Jareth, or he was choosing to ignore her, because the almost-grin remained.
"You are a strange creature, little witch," he admitted mostly to himself. "Begging for a savior one minute and damning him the next." She didn't like the look of amusement he was giving her.
She was used to the Goblin King being the prickly sort, not playful.
In those few moments of contemplation Sarah remembered her state of undress, hastily backing to the branch and wrapping the towel around her lower half, feeling ridiculous.
"You haven't saved anything yet, Jareth." Automatically she cursed herself for using his name and eliciting the grin that made his face, if it was possible, even brighter in the sun.
"No?" he laughed, and something bubbled up inside of her at the sound. Had she ever heard him laugh before? "I distinctly remember fighting off a beast last evening on your account."
"Which I smoked at the last minute," she reminded him, pointing to one of her grimy palms. Sarah allowed herself to flash him a smug victory smile. She felt rather hollow behind it.
"Perhaps," he thought aloud, dragging a few fingers over his mouth, "it was a draw?"
"No," she replied nastily, fighting the urge to plant her hands on her hips lest the towel drop, "it was not. No one asked you to follow me into the woods."
Jareth looked like he had something rather good to toss back at her, but wisely kept his own council. Instead he said, "I believe in your little recount of events, you mentioned that we met… 'again' last evening. Tell me," he went on, ignoring her twitch of mortification, "where have we met before?"
The sudden turn of conversation was like touching her hand to a live wire. There was so much danger in the truth, and it was the crux of this whole fiasco to begin with. How could she have been so stupid?
"That doesn't matter now," she very nearly growled, shakily turning to scoop up her belongings. She needed to get away, and fast. If things came right down to it, she could wash in a bucket.
His tone was too conclusive for Sarah not to turn around. Unfortunately, he seemed to have come to what might prove to be a dangerous deduction, however inaccurate.
"You do not seem particularly pleased. Perhaps we parted on less than satisfactory terms?" He was rising out of the water now and she ducked her head, not really wanting to see all of him. So far she'd done a fair job of overlooking his defined pectorals, and sculpted shoulders, and fine-boned hands, and—
So much for being blissfully ignorant.
Lucky for Sarah his torn pants were still on him, clinging wetly to a pair of chiseled hips. Despite the urge to shield the fire on her face, finding that hiding was even more embarrassing, she raised her chin defiantly and looked him square in the eye.
"Maybe we did."
How a person could be so comfortable in their own skin to walk out of the water like a god, Sarah didn't know. To look at her like they were the only two people in the world, and feel no shame, but triumph, in how someone else's eyes were examining his body…
With a drop of her stomach she snapped her eyes back to his face. It was like the tunnels all over again…
"Hmm," he returned thoughtfully. Sarah knew her gaze, appreciative or otherwise, had not escaped him. "I'm afraid you've complicated things, Miss Williams."
While some part of her was strangely affronted at the honorific, another was incensed at the accusation. Who was he to serve blame after all the things he'd done to complicate her life?
"Me?" she heard herself splutter. Just barely she kept "What about you?" from escaping afterwards.
There was a soft pitter-patter of water in the silence that followed. It ran off of his form in little rivulets, collecting in puddles and turning the soil into dark, squelching mud. "We aren't comrades, if your behavior and opinion of me are anything to go by," he continued as if he hadn't heard her outburst. "We cannot have been lovers," she heard fuzzily, "for I have never tasted a mouth so sweet."
Sarah felt her back bump lightly into the trunk of the tree the same moment she belatedly noticed that Jareth had been advancing, and she had been retreating. Her hands grabbed blindly at the rough bark, for stabilization of body or mind, she wasn't sure.
Jareth tilted his head to the side, almost innocently. The shade of the tree made the surroundings somewhat cooler, and she wondered how he wasn't freezing, dripping wet as he was.
He did not stop his advancements, though Sarah found herself alarmingly trapped by the tree, bushes, and brambles. In all likelihood her chest, fluttering a little with quick, shallow breaths, was going to explode.
When he stopped, and she stubbornly kept her mouth shut, he finished, "If all this is true, what are we to each other?"
His expression was infuriatingly neutral. There was nothing to read there now except a naked, child-like curiosity. No desperation, no fear. She understood, then, what must have happened. Unknowingly she had introduced herself not only to his present state of mind, but his obscure past as well.
And something in him remembered her.
Very, very dangerous, indeed.
Her existence was serving as an emotional tie between the two times, something foreign and yet familiar. A bridge. And there wasn't any fixing it at this point.
Jerkily she spun her back to him, the fear of discovery fresh and acute again. Sarah grabbed her dress in a fierce tug and a flash of coarse grey, and snapped, "Nothing."
"What are we to each other?" his voice echoed in her head.
Biting her lip, hard, she started trudging her way back up the bank, her shoes tucked into the crook of her arm. Her feet ached pointedly, but she wouldn't waste her time stopping to put them back on.
"This morning I was the end to your means for answers, and now you can go back to your throne and set my friends' lives straight. We're even," she flung over her shoulder, trying desperately not to run.
The grip on her elbow made her stumble and turn. Reluctantly she pivoted to face him fully, staring hard at the water beading on his collarbone. It wasn't until a few of his fingers gently took a hold of her chin, forcing her gaze to meet his own, that she dared look up.
"What are we to each other?" The words were circulating in her head ceaselessly, pivoting and barraging her from all angles.
I don't know anymore, she thought in defeat.
"I do not know what damage our past has inflicted upon you," he was saying, "or what part I had to play in it. Eventually those pieces will fall into place. But right now…" His voice had taken on an unlikely softness. Sarah wasn't sure if she liked it there or not, but she was sure that they were standing so close he was getting her wet. "Truce?"
Her look was surprised, if not outright dubious, and she searched his face for any hint of betrayal. Any glint of the game he knew how to play so well. But if his motives really were only to have some sort of anchor in this place he could no longer remember, wouldn't an alliance be to her advantage in the long run?
Jareth looked a bit shocked when Sarah thrust a hand forward to shake.
The trees seemed to rustle, adding their own chuckles, as he tilted his head back and laughed. "Are you certain," he teased, "that you would not like to seal our accord with a kiss instead?" She drew her hand back with a yank. "I don't very much care to witness the effects of your ring a second time."
Starting, she glanced down to her hand. To be sure, the iron ring was still resting on her finger, looking deceptively normal.
"Uh…" she stuttered intelligently, childishly moving her hand behind her back. "I didn't mean…"
He was walking back into the water.
"No, no," he waved amusedly over his shoulder, "that's alright." Smoothly he turned again and extended his other hand. "We'll simply have to shake with the opposite."
Sarah eyed his dripping fingers grimly for a second before stepping down to the pebbly edge where water met bank. Hesitantly she leaned forward, trying to stay as much out of the icy water as possible, and barely managed to grip the tips of his fingers. Jareth made no move to close the distance between them but pumped her hand up and down good-naturedly.
"See? Not so bad," he laughed. "In fact…" His grin was fast becoming a smirk. "Far too easy."
The Goblin King gave a mighty tug and Sarah screamed bloody murder as she fell into him. Her towel abruptly dropped, dress and shoes scattering over the surface of the river. Even though his hands caught her expertly around the waist, the extra weight was too much and she toppled, landing with a splash in the bitter water. Sarah floundered for a moment, not sure which way the air was, but two strong hands found her and pulled her upright.
"My dear, I apologize," Jareth panted with laughter, "but that was just too irresistible…" The water on his face was indistinguishable from his tears of mirth. "Oh, forgive me," he choked, but she didn't believe him for one second.
"You ch-cheating…bastard!" she shivered, her teeth chattering unpleasantly with the cold. Angrily she pushed away the dark fall of hair plastered to her face. "Truce m-my ass!" Her skin was numb as she tried to wriggle her waist from his hands, and the fingers that she pushed ineffectively against his slick, muscled chest were red and aching.
Every laugh echoed down the length of the river as he scooped her into his arms and started wading to the shore. "Here, little water witch," he said, dumping her gently on the bank. Still partially in the water, he crouched by her side to take in her rumpled form. Hurriedly Sarah stood and pulled the clinging undershirt down as far as it would go, crossing her arms over her chest. "The truce begins now," he continued quite seriously, and Sarah was alarmed to find herself a bit intimidated by his kingly tone. "As a peace offering I'll give you my towel," Jareth nodded to a large rock a few feet away, "since I so selfishly cost you your own."
A forlorn expression contorted Sarah's mouth as she looked down the river and watched her belongings bob away on the current. Then her mouth twisted again and she grabbed the towel, securing it about her small frame. Something akin to smug satisfaction graced his features at her defiant stance.
"You're welcome. I'll see you at camp, after I've finished this bath."
And then he turned, dived into the river, and did not resurface. She watched the softly undulating water for a minute, expecting him to pop up a few feet away, but he never did.
"Maybe he drowned," she muttered to herself. "Nasty trick…"
Grumbling, she began picking her way back to camp, but stopped short when her feet met uncomfortable ground. There were too many leaves and twigs and rocks poking into her delicate soles. When she turned again Sarah saw Jareth quite a ways down river, no more than a speck. Hesitantly her eyes flitted to where his boots were resting beside the rock.
The clock gave another halfhearted tick. In the shadows a figure surveyed the hand circling the face, waiting expectantly, but it refused to move again. This did not perturb him. It seemed that he had expected the hand to stop.
Of course, the resting hand was the one used primarily for counting down the days left in the bargain.
What he did not expect was for the hand counting down the seconds, delicate, fragile things that made up those precious minutes, hours, and then days, to sputter and choke.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The hand started moving anew, twitching deliberately down the numbers from thirteen, which rested at the top, clockwise to twelve, eleven, and so on.
He winced fleetingly, ever pained by his backwards clock. He loathed watching the numbers waste away, almost insolent in their task.
Reordering time was one thing, but intentionally watching it waste away? The thought bordered on blasphemous.
The cold, mechanical object reminded him of an hourglass with gears and springs. He'd thought himself so advanced in its creation, so efficient and cutting, and yet it had caused more trouble that it was worth.
But, he reasoned, what's done is done. And the ticking clock showed no more signs of slowing.