A/N: Deadlines: I suck at 'em. But this was fun, even if it didn't turn out to be anything spectacular. And it's my first ever attempt at a challenge response!
Challenge: It's summer—rain, honeysuckle, a whispered secret, a life-sized unicorn...and a riding crop. A romantic interlude between the Goblin King and his lady love Sarah.
A Midsummer Night's Romance
Sarah Williams lazed on a backless, icing-blue damask fainting couch nestled under the picture window taking up the entire rear wall of her living room. Bamboo shades were pulled up to let in every available breeze. On the sill, its distended belly jutting into the air, lay a small, leather-brown goblin. It burped softly, caught the black chicken feather that flew out of its mouth, then began fanning itself lethargically.
"Hot," the little creature complained.
"Tell me about it," Sarah sighed.
Jinx—dubbed so because he had the astounding ability to either wind up in unlucky situations or cause others to do so—rolled one beady eye toward her.
"Figure of speech!" Sarah hastily said as the goblin took a deep breath. As sly as cats and smarter than one would think, they were a literal bunch, goblins, and tended to expound upon topics redundantly if given the chance.
"Want help cleaning?" Jinx asked. His head lolled to the side and he surveyed her living room. A grimace creased his face.
Sarah sighed again as she looked over the mess. Her apartment showed the remnants of a party—a party she hadn't thrown. Colorful silk streamers draped the lamps and tables, fluttered from the blades of the rotating ceiling fan. Flowers, of a kind she didn't recognize, were strewn over the hardwood floor like multi-colored polka dots.
Her friends had excitedly come from the celebrations in the Labyrinth, aglow with merriment (helped along by the slightest bit of alcohol, judging by the shine in Hoggle's eyes), and gifts for the midsummer. From Hoggle, Sarah had received a burned ball of straw. Didymus had given her an intricately folded paper boat filled with more of the exotic flowers, and Ludo had given her a pebble. She'd given the presents a curious look, then set them aside. Jinx constantly brought her scraps of things from the Labyrinth he found and, really, most of it was just junk. Not wanting to hurt her friends' feelings, though, she'd delicately placed them on an endtable before promptly forgetting about them.
Their visit was spent regaling her with stories of the festivities, which were acted out for her benefit—and amusement—by a group of six goblins. Sarah had giggled as the little creatures solemnly reenacted Didymus doing the opening ceremony—Such an honor! the noble knight had declared—riding out on a goblin-made Ambrosius and holding a flower scepter high. She'd had to dissuade them from launching each other across the room when they tried to mimic Ludo's rock throwing contest. And she'd slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle peals of laughter as they had run around, clutching their bottoms, their faces twisted in shock, as Hoggle morosely recounted how he'd burned his britches jumping over the bonfire.
Just before sunset, the three stalwart friends who had helped her through the Labyrinth stepped back through the full-length mirror in her spare bedroom. The goblins had disappeared under her couch—apparently the dark recesses under furniture were their gateway home—leaving only Jinx and a mess behind.
"I'll leave it for tomorrow," Sarah decided. "Maybe it won't be so hot." Jinx grunted, the heat making him uncharacteristically taciturn, and she smiled sympathetically. "I'll get donut holes if you help."
"Deal," Jinx said. He sat up and squashed his face against the window screen, looking out into the courtyard behind the apartment building. "You have a horse."
Sarah nodded. "Yeah, they put Lucky in yesterday," she told the goblin.
"Can I ride him?"
"If you really want," Sarah said with a chuckle; he wasn't going to get too far.
Sarah was in the heart of Derby country; from her front windows, she could see the twin spires of the racetrack. Lucky was a copper statue the city had placed in her courtyard as part of an annual art event. He wasn't as spectacular as some of the brightly painted ones downtown, but the tenants of the apartment complexes huddled around the huge courtyard had been delighted with the equine statue.
"Maybe later," Jinx sighed and listlessly flopped down on his back again.
As Sarah contemplated taking a cold shower to find some relief from the heat, the air acquired a sharp tang and electrified, as though a lightening bolt had struck directly outside her window. The hairs on her arms prickled and she swallowed the taste of ozone from her tongue.
She'd know that feeling anywhere.
The first time she'd felt it again was on a late summer night, much like this one, two years ago. She'd been laying in bed, reading and trying not to melt. The fan in her window didn't do much more than circulate the stifling heat, but her rent was a hundred bucks cheaper here than somewhere with central air.
She'd practically jumped out of her skin when the infrasonic boom had reverberated from the walls and through her bones. The book in her hand sprouted invisible wings for a short, triumphant moment before falling to the mechanics of gravity. Her lips had parted on a shocked and, she wasn't proud to admit, terrified scream.
But what was a girl to do when a flashbang of glitter went off in her room?
Childhood instinct had brought her sheet up to protect her from the man now standing at the end of her bed; a man who wasn't a man at all, but a very familiarly intimidating Goblin King.
A hot flush shivered over her skin when she met his odd gaze. She hadn't seen him since she was fifteen, hadn't heard much about him other than what his denizens occasionally let slip. And while she'd be lying if she said she never thought about meeting him again, she found this abrupt intrusion into her personal space overwhelming and a little frightening.
Surely, though, this couldn't be real. She must have fallen asleep. She glanced at the book on the floor. Perhaps Mr. Darcy, Lizzie, and zombies hadn't been the best choice of midnight literature.
Sarah looked at the Goblin King again and, capturing her bottom lip between her teeth, wondered what she should do now. Caution warred with curiosity. The latter finally won out and she pushed her blanket aside. Slowly, she crawled to the end of the bed. Rose up on her knees and reached a hand toward him. Her fingers hesitated before alighting softly on his face.
Warm velvet met her touch and she immediately jerked away. The Goblin King tilted his head to the side and some of his amusement curled his lips.
I have to be dreaming, was the only thing she could think. But he looked so real.
She reached out again, pressed her hand against his chest, not thinking about how intimate the gesture immediately became when her fingers met a slice of warm, bare skin. A rueful sigh passed through her lips when she felt the slow, steady beat under her palm.
"Nope, I've gone stark raving mad," she concluded.
"You're hardly insane, Sarah."
His voice tumbled her back into bed. No one should have a voice like that, she thought; low and gravelly, more playful than she remembered and holding a measure of growling darkness. The sound shivered through her and sent her mind reeling with deliciously wicked possibilities.
Her pulse ratcheted up. Under the guise of looking him over with a critical eye, she took a moment to breathe. His leather jacket wasn't as over the top as she remembered; the collar was still a bit high and popped, but not Bedazzled. His fine, wispy hair was a little shorter, cut in a more modern fashion, but still wild and uniquely him. He still wore gloves, which was strange given the time of year, but all in all he probably could have blended into a crowd. Maybe. Because he still had an air of Otherness about him that couldn't be ignored.
And there was the matter of his pants...
Sarah cleared her throat and raised her eyes quickly to the Goblin King's again. His grin widened. Her blush deepened.
"What...why...?" She licked her lips with a dry tongue and tried that again. "What are you doing here?"
He shrugged a shoulder as he glanced around curiously. "Mostly boredom," he said, as though it was a valid explanation for showing up unannounced in her bedroom.
A slight frown pulled Sarah's eyebrows together. "You came here and scared the hell out of me because you're...bored," she repeated, slowly.
He returned her frown, but in a way that implied he thought she might be daft. "Of course." And his tone implied it was the only reason he'd ever consider being there. "I've lost all interest in my normal diversions. As I recall, you and I..." He glanced at her from the corners of his eyes, a sly grin touching his mouth. "Well, we played a rather interesting game, long ago."
"Eleven years to the day," Sarah said. There were some things she didn't remember with picture-perfect clarity about her time in his labyrinth, but the day it happened was one she'd never forget.
A mock gleam of surprise lit up the Goblin King's face. "Really? Well, then, an anniversary," he said. A pause. And his voice went from sarcastically jovial to insidiously low. "I wonder, Sarah Williams, if you can amuse me as much now as you did then."
Sarah rose to her knees, hackles rising at the suggestion she was to be his new form of entertainment. "Amuse you? Maybe not. But I'll bet I can beat you." She returned his mocking smile with a bite of arrogant satisfaction as she added, "Again."
One corner of Jareth's mouth twitched higher. His gaze wandered from hers. Slid down. And every place it touched warmed and tingled, as though it was a palpable caress. His perusal of her was slow and thorough, memorizing every inch of exposed skin and curve of material. When his eyes finally met hers again, Sarah had to suppress a shiver at what she saw in the swirling grey-blue.
"A game I may enjoy losing, this time round."
His voice purred from his throat.
And Sarah suddenly realized kneeling in front of the Goblin King in only a tank top and low-cut panties didn't exactly make her feel as smug or bold as she was trying to appear.
Before she could do more than blush, he turned his back, giving her the chance to grab the robe hanging on the bedpost. Once it was cinched tightly around her waist, she cleared her throat uncertainly.
"Um...would you like something to drink?"
He'd been a constant in her life ever since.
A year into their reacquaintance, Sarah found herself missing Jareth if he didn't show up regularly and realized she regarded him as a friend. Six months ago, after he had lavished her with gifts for Christmas and had taken her on a spectacular sleigh ride through the Labyrinth, Sarah had figured out something that put a whole new spin on their relationship.
Jareth was trying to date her.
He went about it delicately, though, giving her gifts like they'd just been something he'd randomly stumbled upon and, on a whim, decided to bring to her. He sat and listened to her rant about work or the neighbors—or the unfairness of her insurance premiums going up when that guy had been the one to hit her!—with the air of someone who was being patiently tolerant. Occasionally, she caught him watching her and his expression hinted at something that made delicious heat race through her veins. But it was always quickly wiped away by a guileless smile and lazy suggestion that she just bog the infernal motorist.
If she stopped to ponder his actions too long, it made her head swim and her breath catch. Being pursued by a fantastical king was an overwhelming prospect. Most days, she chose not to think about it, spent her time enjoying his company. Until he did something outrageously wonderful—or simply outrageous—to make her laugh or smile. Or melt into goo when he was feeling particularly sweet, which was happening with more frequency.
He'd never appeared as theatrically as the first time, but Sarah could always taste the magic in the air when her arrived. Like now. Pushing lazily up onto an elbow, she glanced out the window. With a gasp, she sat up and pressed her nose against the screen like Jinx had, before jumping to her feet and running swiftly downstairs.
The grass was cool and wet against her bare feet as she came to a wondering halt outside. The courtyard had been set aglow. The trees were a pale blue, and the rain pinged musically from branches as delicate as blown glass. The honeysuckle twisting up the tree trunks was no longer orange; now, the trumpet-shaped flowers pulsed slowly between pink starlight and moonbow white. The misty rain refracted the soft luminescence and made it look like stardust ribboning through the grassy area.
And Lucky had been transformed. He was translucent, now, instead of dull, copper brown. Despite that, he looked more real than ever, like he'd throw his head up, stomp a hoof against the damp grass; turn toward Sarah and show her the wicked point of the horn spiraling out from between his forelock.
And on his back...
"Surprise, surprise," Sarah murmured, barely containing a smile.
The moisture in the air seemed to have no effect on Jareth's wild mane of hair. He glanced at her from the corners of his eyes, as though he'd known she was there the whole time. And maybe he had.
He sat backward on the crystal horse—unicorn, Sarah corrected—leaning gracefully against the curve of the statue's neck, one foot resting on its croup, the other leg dangling indolently along its side.
"What are you doing out here?" Sarah hissed. "Come inside. Someone will see you—and put the courtyard back in order!"
"I'm less likely to wake the neighbors with my re-decorating than you are with your shouting."
Sarah pressed her lips together—to keep a laugh or an annoyed retort suppressed, she wasn't sure. "You're impossible."
"You're lovlier than ever."
"Flattery, Goblin King," she said. The warning note in her voice trembled with amusement. And she knew he heard it when a tiny grin tugged at his mouth. "Come inside."
He pointed a black riding crop toward a bed of flowers, which promptly blossomed and shone like miniature moons, then looked at her again. His expression was neutral, but a hint of disappointment smudged through his eyes. "I worked very hard on this," he said, gesturing to encompass the vaguely square area, "and you haven't even really looked at it."
Sarah almost laughed. Monarch and Master of Time he may be, but Jareth could still act like a sullen child when he felt unappreciated or ignored. She walked slowly around the courtyard, trailing her fingers over the smooth trunks of the trees, admiring the glowing flowers, before walking to the unicorn and running her hand along its withers.
"Did you do this for me?" she asked, looking up at Jareth. When he nodded, she tilted her head to the side. "Why?"
She'd never asked him that before, never questioned the gifts or the reason she received them—she'd already figured it out. But now she wanted to hear it from him.
Jareth's eyes sparkled in the fairy light. If the query caught him off guard, it didn't show. "Our anniversary, Sarah," he said, as smooth as ever. "It's tradition to give loved ones and friends presents on anniversaries, isn't it?"
She hummed softly in the back of her throat, answered him with a smile. "It's magical," she murmured, looking over the courtyard again. She pushed away from the unicorn and lightly touched the honeysuckle with one finger. "And beautiful."
She felt Jareth's presence against her back rather than hearing him move. An electric charge shivered over her skin as he reached around her and plucked a length of the viney flowers. Deftly weaving them into a crown, he placed them on Sarah's head. When she grinned up at him, something in his face changed—not just in his eyes, but in the line of his mouth, too. He brushed the tip of a gloved finger along her jaw.
"You are beautiful," he whispered.
Sarah's heart expanded in her chest. She licked her lips and asked, "Which am I?" When Jareth cocked his head to the side questioningly, she clarified. "Am I a friend or a loved one?"
He studied her for a long moment. Whatever he read in her expression made his smile reappear. "Clever Sarah," he drawled. "Asking what you already know. My intentions were never meant to be clandestine, but I wonder when you figured them out."
Jareth drew in a breath, his eyes widening. "Last..."
"Year," Sarah finished for him. She hid a smug grin at having made the Goblin King speechless. "C'mon, Jareth, it's not like I've never dated before, and I'm not exactly naïve." His eyes flashed silver at her inference and she allowed a bit of her smile to take control of her mouth.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
Sarah shrugged, rolling her eyes up as she delicately examined her crown with a finger. Her skin was slick with rain, but it was a relief after the sweltering heat of her apartment. "I don't know," she said. When Jareth was unusually still, she looked at him again; his expression was blank, but that only meant he was upset or unhappy. Sarah felt a pang of guilt and reached out to twine her fingers through his. "If I wasn't interested, I would have told you."
He blinked at that, then furrowed his brow. "So...you remained silent about my attentions, never giving me any hint that you would accept me as a..." he groped for the appropriate word, "...boyfriend because you do like me?" he asked, as though trying to puzzle it out.
Well, when he said it that way, it made her sound ungrateful. "No," she said. "I mean, yeah, but it wasn't like that. I just thought..." She blew out a frustrated breath. Why did conversations like these with Jareth always become twisted and tangled? A drop of water fell from the overhead branches and slithered down the collar of her shirt. Sarah gasped. "Maybe we should continue this out of the—"
Soft leather convulsed around her hand and Jareth pulled her forward, into him.
The cool rain was a startling contrast to the heat of his mouth on hers. Sarah sucked in a breath through her nose, surprise making her stiffen, bringing her hands up to his chest. But he wasn't deterred by her response; an arm curved around her waist, the hand holding his riding crop came up to brace himself against the tree behind her. And his tongue teased her bottom lip, a gentle request she couldn't deny.
Hot silk slid between her lips. Delicious. He was absolutely delicious, like crisp autumn apples or smooth, dark chocolate. With a low moan, the surprise melted from her spine. Her fingers curled into the front of his shirt, found their way into the fine strands of his hair. She made a soft sound in the back of her throat, urged him closer, needing more than this, wanting more than just this.
"Sarah." Her name grated from his throat, echoing her desire as it skimmed over her lips.
"Maybe..." She had to pull in a quavering breath before finishing. "Maybe we should continue this inside," she breathed.
She was sure they didn't use the stairs to get up to her apartment, but his mouth was on hers again and they could have gone to Neptune for all the attention she was paying to such mundane details. Because he was peeling away her wet clothes, and she was pulling his gloves off with her teeth, and he was whipcord and steel covered in heated velvet under her hands...
Sarah lazed, boneless, on the fainting couch in her living room, curled into the long line of Jareth's body. The sweet scent of crushed flowers was thick the air. She languidly began to untangle the wreath of honeysuckle from her hair, grateful Jinx had disappeared.
"What have we here?"
She looked over her shoulder to find Jareth curiously examining the odds and ends her three friends had given her.
"Presents from Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus," she told him. "I'm not sure if they're important or just random things they thought to give me."
A long, pale finger touched the pebble. "This is for a wish," Jareth told her. "If there's something you want to happen in the coming year, you give your wish to the stone."
Sarah smiled. "I thought that's what I had you for."
"Still taking things for granted, I see," Jareth growled playfully, and she laughed. "This," and he touched the burned ball of straw, "is a sunwheel. It's lit on fire and rolled down a hill toward the river. If it goes out before it reaches the water, it brings good fortune. And the boat is meant to send prayers to the gods. You set it alight and cast it into the river." He considered the objects silently for a moment. "Your friends are very generous," he finally said. "To give you their wishes and prayers means they care about you very much."
Seeing the presents in a new light made Sarah treat them with more reverence. Jareth's expression became pensive as he watched her place them on the mantle of her small fireplace.
"I wonder if this means my own gifts are less...thoughtful," he mused. His voice held the lilt of a question. And his eyes turned ruefully dark. "Perhaps I should have spent more time deliberating over them."
Sarah chuckled softly. "You don't have to give me things to make me love you, Jareth. You simply have to be," she said. When his expression became perplexed, she sat down next to him again and leaned into his side. His arm automatically wrapped around her shoulders and, for a moment, she reveled in how right it all felt. "Be you, not the Goblin King or the villain or anything else. Just Jareth. That's who I love being around."
A rumble of thunder echoed the contemplative sound he made. He tucked her a little closer to him, rested his chin on her head. Sarah gazed out the window as he silently pondered what she'd told him. The courtyard still shone like a small galaxy below them.
When he spoke, his voice sounded distant, as though he was still working through what she'd said. "You used to love unicorns."
When I was twelve. But she didn't say that; she smiled and cuddled closer to him. "Of course I did," she said. "I used to love all things magical."
A pause as he considered these words, what the spaces between them meant. It was never an easy thing, having a conversation with the Goblin King. It had taken her a full year to learn the intricacies of verbally dancing with him.
"And now you don't?" And even though it was a question, a gloomy sort of decisiveness had taken hold of his voice.
He didn't wear his emotions anywhere on his face except his eyes—and when she tilted her head up, Sarah could see his heart fall within the storm. He'd jumped to a conclusion before finding out the answer. Sarah shook her head. He, of all people, should have known better than that.
And she leaned up so she could whisper something meant for him, only.
"Now, I just love one."