He woke to birdsong - an unfamiliar tune. Lifting his head up groggily from the pillow, Jareth ran a hand through his hair, pushing the sleep tousled strands back from his face as he squinted toward the window. On the stone sill sat a little round bird. It wasn't a species he recognized.
She proceeded to hop along the ledge, tilting her head curiously at the bedazzled coat tossed haphazardly on the back of a chair near the window. Apparently deciding shiny was just what she was looking for, she plucked at a strand, and tugged.
Jareth cocked an eyebrow. Moving slowly, he slid back the covers, the cream sheet falling over his lap as he sat up. He reached out, grasping the little bird loosely in his hand and bringing her to eye level. "You're a brazen little thing. You do you realize you're stealing from the crown?"
In answer, she pecked him in the soft flesh between his thumb and index finger, hard.
Jareth narrowed his eyes. "I'm beginning to think all Aboveground females are completely without manners." He rose, moving to the window. "You don't belong here, little one. There are things here that would not be kind to you." He opened his palm. "Go home."
He watched as the little bird swooped down, landing lightly on a tree in the castle gardens, the sway sending pale lavender petals swirling into the breeze. Stretching, he closed his eyes, the sun an orangey glow behind his lids, the warmth of it sliding across his bare skin, translucent pearl in the morning glow. He stood there a long moment, threading his fingers through his hair and clasping them behind his head, just absorbing it, letting his muscles stiff from sleep relax in the gentle heat.
Feeling more energized, he opened the wardrobe, retrieved a pair of soft gray tights, and stepped into them, pulling them up over slim, muscular thighs. He rifled through the various tops and jackets, discarding each one in turn before deciding on a plain white shirt, the ruffled neckline plunging into a deep V. He pulled it over his head, leaving the ends untucked and the neck open as he went about his morning toilet, washing away the traces of sleep and lingering dreams.
Plucking an apple from the bowl of fruit on a small table near the door, he moved back to the window, stretching out lazily on the ledge as he ate. The little bird was still flitting about the garden. She perched on the stone fence along the edge before flying up the hill to a lone tree glittering in the sunlight. It was curious that she had found her way to the Labyrinth, but not unheard of. For a human to find his way without aid was rare, but animals did not have disbelief hampering their travels and would wander between the worlds on occasion. He smirked as he rubbed absently at the soft flesh between his thumb and forefinger where she had asserted her independence. Thoughts of another who had once dared to defy him rose up like a ghost. He tried to banish that image as soon as it surfaced, but her face was not one so easily exorcised.
He felt the overwhelming urge to fly, the physicality of it a surefire way to clear his head. Intrigued by his little visitor against his better judgment, Jareth discarded the apple core and morphed into his avian form to follow.
Threading the yarn through a darning needle, Sarah pulled it through the last loop, locking the stitch into place. She bit her lip as she wove the strand through the cast off row, snipping it once she reached the end. She held up the finished scarf, admiring her handiwork – vertical stripes, heathered and soft. She let it fall to her lap with a sigh.
It was supposed to have been a Valentine's Day gift for her boyfriend – now ex-boyfriend. They had broken up a few days before the holiday and she hadn't had the heart to finish it. He had accused her of being cold, of not being affectionate enough, or of acting like she cared for him at all. The break-up wasn't entirely unexpected. They had been dating for about six months, which was about three months too long. It wasn't that she didn't care; she just didn't need him. She never felt like she needed anyone, really. She had always kept a certain degree of distance with all of the guys she'd dated. She couldn't help it if she was independent. What was wrong with that? And she couldn't help it if she was more engaged in the daydreams in her head than anything the world outside it had to offer. If other people had experienced what she had, maybe they would understand. But they hadn't, so they didn't. More than ever she felt that maybe she was better off alone.
A soft scratching broke through her mental dialogue and she looked up to the curious gaze of a little bird perched on her bedroom windowsill. He was a tiny round bird, black and white with a little crown of yellow feathers above his beady eyes. He shuffled from foot to foot, his claws making soft scritch scritch noises against the painted wood as he tilted he head, waiting.
Sarah smiled back at him. "Hello there, Your Majesty. I wasn't sure if I'd see you today." Shifting the scarf beside her on the chair, she rose slowly, picking up the small piece of yarn she'd just snipped off. Moving slowly so as not to scare him, she walked toward the windowsill, kneeling down within arm's reach. The little bird hopped further away from her on the ledge, but didn't fly away. Carefully, she placed the piece of yarn on the opposite end of the sill. "I just finished it today, so this is the last piece."
He tilted his head at her voice, shuffling indecisively before scooping it up and flying the short distance to the tree outside. Sarah stood, looking back at him through the open window. He had been coming around for a few days now, drawn by the snippets of yarn she had left out for him. On the second day he had visited, she had pulled out her dad's bird books. Her best guess was that he was a Kinglet. With a forceful flap of his wings, he took off in the direction of the cemetery, the purple strand dangling from his beak.
With nothing better to do than spend the rest of the afternoon moping about the house, Sarah shrugged into her jacket and wrapped the newly finished scarf around her neck. Grabbing her keys and a camera, she hurried out the door to follow.
It was cold outside, her breath puffing out in small clouds as she marched across the still frozen ground, patches of snow crunching underfoot. Even though it was officially Spring today, March in New York still felt very much like winter. She'd been home for nearly a week, an impromptu homecoming when her life had become too much to bear, like deadweight dragging her down. She had stayed in the house for the most part, building Lego castles with Toby, helping Karen in the kitchen, and watching the news with her dad. During the day when everyone was gone living their lives, she sat in her old room going through her teenage memories and knitting a scarf for no one in particular. She had avoided wandering out, not wanting to run into anybody she might know, or anything that might dredge up old memories she'd rather not face. Now that she was outside, she felt a longing for that old life, nostalgia tightening her throat as she slipped between the houses toward the cemetery. Everything seemed smaller and less colorful than it did in her memory.
Spotting the little bird in a tree just inside the large iron gate, she lifted the latch, closing it as she stepped inside. The cemetery was at least a hundred years old, the headstones large and elaborate, and worn with time. The bird took off again, flying toward the memorial garden tucked into the corner of the graveyard. Sarah followed, careful to step around the graves, not wanting to wake up anything that would be better off staying asleep.
She paused as the bird dived down into a thicket of bushes. The garden was overgrown now, sprawling past its intended borders and over the iron fence on the opposite side. Stepping forward carefully, she peered through the criss-cross of branches to see a small cup-shaped nest, multi-colored snippets of yarn woven though the inside along with shimmery strands of gold. She smiled as she knelt down to watch him weave his newest piece, placing her hand on a nearby tree for balance. She didn't notice the owl perched on the branch overhead.
Swooping down from the branch on silent wings, Jareth morphed into his more familiar form, landing easily, the girl kneeling in front of him still unaware of his presence. A smirk pulled at the corners of his mouth as he leaned back against the tree.
Sarah stiffened at the sound of the voice behind her, her smile fading. She knew that voice. She heard it every night in her dreams. The rush of blood was loud in her ears drowning out the soft twittering of the birds, her heart tattooing wildly in her chest, almost eagerly, like a child pulling at her in its excitement and exclaiming "Turn around, Sarah! Look! Look who's here!" While she had been hoping to avoid running into anyone she knew while she was in town, there were always exceptions.
She straightened and, taking a steadying breath, turned. In an instinctual retreat, she took a step backward when her suspicions became overwhelming reality. She just stood there, gaping at him, at a loss for words.
He raised a brow. "Not even a simple hello for an old friend? Or have you forgotten?"
"No, I…I haven't forgotten." She licked her lips, her mouth dry and the words fighting her. "Hello." Her voice sounded far away and she shook her head, tilting it and wrinkling her brow. "What are you doing here?"
"The same as you, it appears. I followed a little bird."
Her eyes flicked to the nest and back to him, her confusion written plainly on her face. "How?"
"The veil is thin here for those that can see." He looked away, paused a moment before continuing more softly. "I had thought, at one time, that maybe you…but no."
Maybe it was foolish, she knew it was foolish, but the thought of going back to the Labyrinth grabbed hold of her, made her feel…excited. Maybe even a little desperate. The more logical side of her brain clamped a hand down over the mouth of the dreamer, trying to keep her grounded, but it wasn't strong enough to keep the questions from tumbling out. "I could have gone back? How?" She looked around the graveyard, scanning it for any anomalies. "It just looks like it always has..."
"So eager to go back?" He regarded her stoically, studying her. Being the focus of his attention put a damper on the excitement threatening to bubble over. She stared back at him wondering what he saw when he looked at her.
Jareth shifted to face her, leaning his shoulder against the tree as he crossed his arms over his chest. "What would you have done, Sarah, if you had returned?"
She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans, looking down at the scuffed toes of her shoes. A mix of emotions twisted in her gut – fear, embarrassment, longing, guilt. Always the guilt. "I don't know…maybe visit my friends."
"Is that all?"
She tilted her head toward him, narrowing her eyes as she returned his scrutiny. "What would you have done if I had gone back to the Labyrinth?"
He regarded her silently for a moment, searching her eyes before speaking softly. "I'd have given you your dreams."
Her dreams. He had offered them once before, but at a price she wasn't willing to pay. She wasn't even sure what they were anymore. Well, that was a lie. She knew all too well. What would the price have been if she had gone back? Would she have been willing to pay it? Would she pay it now?
She quirked her lips, feeling a bit like she was being baited and she didn't trust herself not to bite. Things were different now, she was older and, she hoped, wiser. Time had that way of slowly filling in the details, taking the black and white picture you had of your life as a child and filling it in with shades of grey. And today was a very grey day.
Not feeling strong enough to delve into all that his statement might imply, instead of answering, Sarah turned away, kneeling in front of the nest. The birds were weaving in their newest strands, the purple yarn and a few long, thin golden threads that shimmered despite the cloudy day.
She jumped as she felt a flutter of movement against her cheek. Jareth had moved to kneel behind her, leaning over her shoulder to peer at the nest. Startled at his nearness, she twisted away, falling back onto her hands and scrambling backward a few feet, breathless and wide-eyed as she stared at him.
A smirk curled his lips. "Are you frightened of me?"
She wondered at his tone. It was almost as if he was teasing her, maybe even flirting. When he didn't move toward her, she sat up, crossing her legs Indian-style. "Is it safe to assume Toby is safe and sound at school and will stay that way?"
"Do you mean me harm?"
"Then, no. I'm not frightened." And she knew the words were true as soon as she spoke them. She wasn't frightened, not really, but…she slid him a sidelong glance. "Maybe just a little wary…"
"I see." He stood, offering her his hand with an amused smile. "And what can I do to ease your mind?"
She looked at his hand a long moment before taking it and getting to her feet. "Just…" His thumb trailed lightly over the top of her hand, and she felt something expand in her chest making her breath tight and shallow. It felt suspiciously like hope. She tilted her head, narrowing her eyes slightly as she searched his face. "Just…don't disappoint me."
"I'll try my best to live up to your expectations. I give you my word."
Sarah quirked her lips in a half-smile. "And I'll try my best to believe that that there's something trustworthy in your word."
He laughed lightly, his gloved fingers tracing softly over her skin. "Fair enough."
He had a really nice laugh. She felt herself staring, and dragged her eyes away with her hand, moving to lean against the tree. "So…the golden strands – are they from the Labyrinth?"
Jareth followed her, planting a hand against the trunk. "Yes - the Golden Willow. A tree of legend in the Underground. Would you like to hear the story?" He met her eyes, the intensity in his gaze making her feel fluttery. "I believe you were fond of stories, once upon a time."
Sarah looked down at her feet, feeling slightly unnerved at the reference to their first meeting. And maybe just a little bit embarrassed. "Sure. I could listen to a story."
He smiled, leaning backwards against the tree beside her.
"Once upon a time, long ago, upon this very hill lived a young woman."
"This hill? The one we're standing on? Here or in the Underground?"
"Is that how you listen to stories? Interrupting them before they've even begun?"
Sarah tried to hide her smile at his amused exasperation. "Sorry." She waved a hand. "Continue."
"As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted…
"Once upon a time, there was a young woman with hair like spun sunshine and eyes the color of the bluest skies. She was a farmer's daughter and spent her days working in the fields. But she was also a dreamer, and spent many an evening on top of this hill to watch the clouds drift by and lose herself in tales of magic. Though she was only mortal, she had a special magic of her own – her song.
"She would sing the tales her father brought home – tales of fairies and dragons and courtly love. So sweet was her song that the little birds would come to join in."
Sarah smiled. "Is this a Disney Princess story?"
"Do you actually want to hear the story or would you rather tell it yourself?"
Leaning her head back against the tree, she looked up into the branches, still grinning. "Sorry. Mum's the word."
He smiled in response as he continued.
"She would laugh as they played, adding their own notes to her songs, but they always kept their distance, for she was a human and not to be trusted. One evening, a crow black as night came to perch atop the scarecrow and listen to her sing. He was enchanted by her song, returning day after day, just as the sun began its slow descent to sleep. And every day he would venture closer to the young woman.
"Time passed, and the young woman became equally enchanted by the crow, coaxing him forward and singing her songs just for him. As they grew closer, she would reach out and run her fingers through his silky feathers, and he would lean into her touch. And every night as the sun set, she would place a soft kiss on his beak, a promise to return, and then race away to the shelter of her cottage.
"On the eve of the spring equinox, the crow did not come. The young woman waited and waited, lingering even as the sky grew dark. Just when she had almost lost hope she saw a flutter of movement behind the scarecrow. She moved forward only to meet the red eyes of a dark man. She had heard tales of demon that lived in the woods, horrible tales, each different but no less terrifying in their differences. Fearing this evil, she took up her bow and arrow, and aimed for his heart.
"The arrow struck true, and the being cried out, falling to the earth. The young woman rushed forward, fear of what she had done overriding the urge to flee. Kneeling down beside the man, he reached up to touch her face and said to her, 'You have my heart, even in death'. As his hand fell, he changed into a crow, the arrow piercing his heart.
"Distraught over what she had done, she collapsed to the ground, pulling the small bird to her chest. With its last ounce of strength, it turned its head against her heart, the red light blinking out of its eyes as it passed from the world.
"In her grief, the young woman took a knife to her golden hair to make a shroud, and in his heart she planted a seed that he might live again and feel the wind and the sun. Every day she would return to the hill where she had buried him in the soft earth, singing her song and watering his grave with her tears.
"Time moved on and a tree grew in its place, the leaves like the golden strands of her hair, the trunk as black the crow's feathers. And even now it remains, long after the young woman met her own lonely death - a reminder of their lost love."
"Hmm. That's a very sad story." Sarah pressed her fingers to her lips and looked up at him, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Did you just make it up?"
Jareth laughed. "You're determined not to believe a word I say." He turned to lean sideways against the tree, closer, his smile fading. "Now why would I do something like that? It has not worked out so well for me in the past."
She sobered as realization dawned. "The Labyrinth. You wrote it?"
"For you. A fairy tale for a princess. But with a fatal flaw. After all, who would believe that the young innocent girl could return the love of the villainous Goblin King?"
Sarah could feel the blush heating her cheeks and looked away. "Things aren't always what they seem."
"No." He watched her for a few minutes before speaking again. "Would you like to see it?"
His voice startled her, her brain having drifted into analysis mode. She turned her head toward him, confused. "See what?"
"The Golden Willow."
He smiled. "Magic."
Jareth placed a hand flat against the trunk of the tree. A warm gust of wind sent snow crystals scattering and she felt something shift. That's the only word she could think of to describe it. Reality just shifted. What had been a plain, boring tree only a second ago, was now a towering willow, thin strands of fibrous gold hanging down around them from branches of pitch black.
Sarah took a few steps backward to take it all in, letting the golden threads drift over her face and through her fingers. It seemed so out of place there in the graveyard with the melting snow – the golden strands shimmering in an otherworldly sunlight, and the warm breezes that stirred them swirling with the cold wind of a New York Spring. But at the same time, it seemed like it had always belonged there.
She laughed. "That's amazing!"
Jareth watched her a long moment, a curious expression on his face. "It is said that if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of wings and the soft melody of her song. Some believe that they were reunited after death, the immortal life of the tree a testament to the strength of their love."
He ran his fingers down through the golden leaves, the threads weaving together in their wake. With a slight tug, a golden scarf fell from the branch to hang loosely from his hand. He stretched it out in a familiar gesture. "I've brought you a gift." He smiled slowly. "Do you want it?"
Sarah recognized a dare when she heard one. She arched a brow, and to prove she wasn't afraid, nodded.
He closed the distance between them, reaching up to wrap the scarf around her neck. The cloth was silky and warm, like it had been left out in the sun. Despite the warmth, she shivered when his fingers brushed the back of her neck as he freed her hair. He arranged the scarf, tucking the ends through a loop across the front of her jacket. Sarah stared up at him, wondering at the odd affection in the gesture.
"The story of the Golden Willow is considered a great tragedy in the Underground. But also one of hope. So strong is the belief that the lovers were reunited that the strands are often used in bonding rituals, a symbol of a commitment to love with an open heart and without fear." He met her gaze. "Perhaps it will help you find the way, should you ever want to return."
With him standing so close, she couldn't help but notice the way the collar of his shirt fell open, the firm planes of his chest exposed. Since it appeared to be a beautiful Spring day in the Underground, he must not have thought to dress for the New York weather. Not that she was complaining. She licked her lips nervously and said the first thing that popped into her mind. "You must be cold."
He smiled, placing a finger under her chin and tilting it up slightly to search her eyes. "Under that gaze? Never."
She had thought that maybe he was flirting with her earlier, but now she had no doubt. He was definitely flirting. She felt the blush rise in her cheeks and looked down. "Well, anyway, since we're exchanging gifts…" She tugged her own scarf loose, considering the striped wool as she reached up to wrap it around his neck. In actuality, that scarf had been an almost-present for several different guys, each colored stripe representing a failed relationship. She realized at that moment that perhaps she had been knitting it for him all along. She knew now, after seeing him again, that she hadn't escaped the Labyrinth all those years ago. Not really. Her heart had never been free to give to any of the men she had dated because she had left it in the Labyrinth. She had left it with him. Sarah stilled as she felt his hands slide to settle on either side of her waist.
"Do you hear them, Sarah?"
She lifted her face toward the branches overhead, closing her eyes to listen. It was almost undetectable, like an echo from somewhere far away, but she could just make out the faint notes of a strange melody. The song was interrupted by the flutter of wings followed by a soft feminine laugh. Sarah smiled, elated. "I do! I can hear them…" When she opened her eyes, her smile fell. Over his shoulder, a yellow school bus clattered by on its way to the next stop.
"Oh, shit. Shit! Toby." Sarah pushed away. "I've got to go. He's waiting for me." She took off at a jog, feeling like the worst big sister ever.
She didn't get far before she came to a faltering stop. Shit. Maybe they had all been right. Maybe she was cold and unfeeling. Maybe she was even cruel. Damnit.
Sarah glanced over her shoulder to find Jareth leaning against the tree watching her, the Golden Willow banished to its own world. That familiar guilt came back to squeeze at her heart. And yet again, she was choosing her brother over him. Not quite the same circumstances, but still. As silly as it seemed, she could feel the tension in that graveyard, a long buried hurt brought back to life.
She turned and began walking slowly back toward the tree, holding his gaze. She had been careless and unthinking, but she refused to believe she was cruel. And she had a second chance to make things right. A new beginning.
She stopped in front of him, the toes of her shoes bumping up against his. "There's just one thing, before I go."
He arched a brow, crossing his arms over his chest, his expression blank.
She could feel a distance between them that hadn't been there only seconds before. He was shutting her out. She wasn't going to let him do it. Not after this afternoon. Not when she had begun to think…maybe. She narrowed her eyes. "You know what? You don't get to be that way with me."
"Do you want to know why?"
"I couldn't even begin to guess what goes on in that head of yours. Enlighten me." Jareth regarded her coolly, as if he didn't give a damn about what she had to say.
She fought the urge to roll her eyes, and just shook her head and smiled. Stepping closer, she searched his eyes and found the answers she was looking for. If there was ever a time to be bold, it was now.
"Because I can believe it, Jareth." She hesitated a moment before placing a hand over his heart, her other reaching up to wrap a strand of his hair around her finger. She looked up to find him watching her intently. "I can believe that the young girl could fall in love with the Goblin King."
Tugging gently on the strand of hair she had captured, she pulled his head down to hers, stretching on tiptoes to press her lips softly to his. His hand came up to brush against the side of her face as he returned her kiss, his other holding hers against his chest. When she pulled away, the ice had left his eyes replaced by something warmer, something a little more like hope. And she felt it, too.
"My promise to return." She smiled. "I'll leave my bow and arrow at home."
Disclaimer: I don't own Labyrinth. I just like to play there.
Written for The Labyrinth Club's "Spring" Contest on Deviant Art. It was actually intended as an answer to the Jan/Feb challenge in the J/DB Harem: Must include the phrases "The garden was overgrown now." and "He woke to birdsong." Must also relate to Valentine's Day, however loosely and in whatever way you wish, but does not necessarily have to be a romance.
Many thanks to Spring for beta-ing this for me!
Thanks for reading! Please, leave a contribution in the little box. :) Constructive criticism is always welcome.