Shades of Gray
It was nearly midnight. A cool breeze blew in from the ocean and stirred the sand on the moonlit dunes before it made its way inland, buffeting the row of stilted houses that faced the beach in a silent, solemn row. Their faces were dark and lifeless as they sat waiting patiently for the seasons to pass until summer came once again.
Half way down the sleeping row of vacation homes, a screen door opened carefully. The resistant twang of the tension spring was loud as a gunshot in the stillness and then immediately lost in the crash of the intruding waves as the breakers hit the beach with a roar. The tide was coming in.
With a blanket wrapped around her shoulders as protection against the insistent autumn wind, Sarah Williams tiptoed carefully across the deck and leaned against the railing that looked out over the ocean.
She was shivering slightly in her makeshift wrap. It was chilly, even for early autumn, but she didn't even consider going back inside. She needed space, and a little perspective too, neither of which she was going to get while lying next to Jeff as he snored softly – sleeping the enviable sleep of the un-conflicted.
It was a full moon, or very nearly. Color was washed away by its bluish glow, leaving only varied shades of dark and light, but it shone brightly enough to cast shadows onto the salt etched wood planking of the deck. There were any number of chairs available, but she chose instead to stand, preferring to watch as the silver tipped waves reached their final destination, finishing their journey with a crescendo before they hissed away to nothing on the sandy beach.
Though she had come outside specifically to indulge in some much needed introspection, Sarah found her mind wandering as she watched the never-ending cycle playing out in front of her. It felt good to put things out of her mind for a while, even if it was just for these few minutes. There were decisions before her, choices she was going to have to make, and soon, but her mind was too unsettled to concentrate. Letting go of the burden of indecision for a time, no matter how short, was a sweet relief.
She tilted her head up into the breeze, enjoying the sensation as it tugged gently at the tendrils of hair that had escaped her clip. She closed her eyes and breathed in the salty ocean air.
A moment later she felt a tugging at her consciousness, much like the wind tugged at her hair – a subtle, but unmistakable, shift in her awareness. It had been many, many years, but she wasn't likely to ever mistake that feeling for anything other than what it was. She was actually a little surprised by how unsurprised she was.
"I'd always wondered when I would see you again," she said without turning. "Funny how it was never 'if'."
"So you admit you've thought of me?" His voice was just as she remembered it, cultured and seductive.
"People do tend to remember their most traumatic childhood memories, Jareth," she said. "I can't imagine that many who have had the misfortune to encounter you have ever forgotten you."
"Many choose to forget, Sarah…curious that you did not."
She turned to face him then, clever retort fully prepared, but it died on her lips as soon as she caught sight of him.
He was closer than she had expected for one thing.
Unconsciously, she tried to take a step back and widen the space between them only to be brought up short by the deck railing. He smirked. She flushed.
The twelve years that had passed since their last meeting hadn't left a mark on him. He was still as inhumanly beautiful as ever, painted more alien still by the cold moonlight that contoured his face with shadows. Despite the mild bite in the air, he appeared comfortable in a loose white shirt that hung open at the collar, the double-horned pendant she remembered so well shining dully in the hollow of his throat. His fine blonde hair, which was significantly shorter than it had been during their last meeting, fairly glowed in the light, the ends dancing in the breeze coming in off of the ocean.
Somehow she had never doubted that this day would come eventually. Even at fifteen she had felt deep down that she hadn't seen the last of him. She had been foolish, however, to think that he wouldn't affect her the same way now that she was an adult. He was a fairy tale, a make-believe villain that she had long since outgrown, and yet…
"Why are you here, Jareth?" She swallowed and blamed the wind for how dry her mouth had suddenly become.
"Is a social visit completely out of the question?"
"So I should just go ahead and tell you now that I've come to whisk you away to the Underground to be my queen?"
Incongruously, Sarah felt some of the tension ease out of her body. He wasn't there to intimidate or frighten her; teasing she could deal with. She snorted "Right. I'll just go pack my things, shall I?"
"It would save time in the long run," he said, looking thoughtful. "Would you prefer that I wait here while you tell Jeff the news?"
Sarah narrowed her eyes. "How do you know about Jeff?"
"How did I know you were here?" he countered, gesturing at the deserted neighborhood. "Really, Sarah. Try not to be too obtuse."
"You've been watching me," she said, unnecessarily.
"I have," he replied, with no trace of apology.
"Well, that's not creepy or anything." She turned away from him and leaned against the railing once more. "As though I don't have enough on my plate already, now you have to wander along. Your timing sucks, Jareth."
"Had I realized there was a better time, I would have chosen more appropriately." He joined her at the edge of the deck, mirroring her pose with his forearms braced against the surface of the top rail. He clasped his hands loosely together and she noted with some surprise that he wasn't wearing gloves.
"So tell me about your Jeff," Jareth said into the silence that settled between them.
"That's really none of your business."
He flapped his hand dismissively. "There's no need to be difficult, Sarah," he said. "I am not trying to ruffle your feathers. I am merely curious about what sort of man it is that has finally won your heart."
Sarah sighed and turned to face him with her arms crossed. "If I just go ahead and admit that you ruined me for all other men, will that be enough of a boost to your ego that you can leave and I can get on with my life?"
"Is that what you want? Do you truly want me to leave and let you 'get on with your life'?" He was watching her intently, strange eyes narrowed in appraisal. "What does that even mean to you?"
"What do you mean, 'what does that mean'?" Sarah was thrown. "It means what normal people mean when they say they want to get on with their lives. Letting go of the past, moving forward, day to day stuff."
"Day to day…stuff," Jareth repeated slowly, his tone dry. "It does all sound incredibly glamorous. I can see why you're looking forward to it."
Sarah started to protest and then laughed. Yeah, I guess it sounds like every girl's dream, doesn't it?" She leaned back over the rail and dug her fingers into her hair, sending her hair clip pinging across the deck. "He's going to propose tomorrow."
"I know." His voice was so quiet she barely heard him.
They stood shoulder to shoulder for a time, listening to the crash of the waves.
"Why are you here?" she asked finally.
Jareth turned to her abruptly and held out his hand. "Dance with me, Sarah."
"What? No!" She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. "Don't be absurd, Jareth. It's cold out here…and there's nowhere to dance…and there's no music. I'm not even wearing shoes."
Jareth's teeth flash in the moonlight as he smiled and reached for her hand. "At no point in all of that did I hear an 'I don't want to'. " His hand was surprisingly warm as his fingers intertwined with hers. "One song, Sarah. That is all I ask. After that, if you want me to leave you alone and let you 'get on with your life', I will do as you wish. If you never want to see me again, I will abide by your decision."
She let out an exasperated sigh which he took as agreement enough. She followed him unresisting down the steps to the moonlit swath of sand that separated the house from the shore. "I have sand between my toes."
"Resist the urge to complain, Sarah," Jareth scolded lightly, "it's most unbecoming."
"Well pardon me, Your Majesty," she said with a mocking bow, but she couldn't help smiling.
He had released her hand when they reached the sand and turned to face her. He pressed his palms together horizontally and slid them apart, revealing a small crystal sphere. He held it up with a satisfied smile. "'There's no music', she says." He spun the crystal lightly into the air where it hung like a tiny moon and began to play the gentle strains of an unfamiliar melody.
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "That's it? I expected at least a string quartet."
"And still she complains," he groused good-naturedly. His voice dropped an octave. "Come here, Sarah".
She felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill in the wind. Pushing aside her misgivings, she looped the blanket around herself like a shawl and closed the gap between them. She stopped a few feet away. "Now what?"
"Now," he took her hand and stepped into her space, "we dance."
Sarah tried not to focus on the heat of his palm against the thin cotton of her pajama pants, but found it just as hard not to focus on everything else – his hand, wrapped possessively around hers, the unique musky scent that was his alone, the warm stirring of his breath against her ear, the simple fact of his physical presence, so close after so many years, was overwhelming.
She waited for what she felt sure would be the inevitable flashback to the last time they had danced, but fluffy ballgowns and elaborate masquerade costumes couldn't possibly be farther away from the wind's chilly bite through her unsuitable clothes and the grit of the sand beneath her feet. This was a unique experience all its own. Her partner may have been the same, but everything else was different, even, and perhaps most especially, her.
He led her with effortless grace, gentle pressure on her hand and waist guiding her steps as easily as if she had followed him through this dance a thousand times before.
"You don't think I should marry him, do you?" she said finally. She had to tilt her head back to look him in the eye.
"No," he said simply, "I do not."
"Why? Why do you even care? I mean, is this just some macho, claim-staking, I-saw-her-first bullshit or what?"
To her surprise, he laughed. "Well, yes and no. I did, in point of fact, see you first, after all." He spun her lightly and then tugged her back into his arms, infinitesimally closer than she had been before. "I do not care to think of it as 'claim-staking' so much as 'convincing' however."
"Convincing?" she gave him a puzzled look. "You're trying to convince to me to what, marry you instead?"
Her flippant tone slid off of him altogether. "That's pretty much the sum of things, yes." He said.
"What?" she exclaimed. She tried to tug free of his arms. He held her gently, but firmly, in place.
"Ah-ah, Sarah," he admonished, gently. "You agreed to give me one song."
She quit attempting to pull loose and settled for glaring at him. "I don't recall actually agreeing to anything…"
"Now you're just quibbling," he said. His smile flashed in the moonlight.
"Jareth, I haven't seen you in twelve years. How do you expect me to process any of this?"
"You could always choose to skip the processing part and just agree to come with me."
She couldn't help the short burst of laughter. "Well, no one can accuse you of lacking confidence, Jareth. I'll give you that."
"I see no point in pretense," he said with a shrug, "You know who, and what, I am. There is nothing to be gained by pretending to be something else."
"Well, I certainly can't fault you for that," she said seriously and then added with a smile, "Even when what you are is ego-maniacal and completely self-interested."
Jareth arched an eyebrow and gave her an acerbic look. "Everyone is ego-maniacal to some extent, Sarah," he said. "The degree of our egotism is simply defined by the intensity of our desires." With a quick tug he pulled her towards him until their bodies were nearly flush. The hand that had warmed the curve of her hip now rode lightly against the center of her back. He tilted his head to the side and regarded her intently. "I harbor the suspicion that you know me less well than you would like to think."
They danced silently together for a few minutes. Sarah chewed her lip in thought as they moved while Jareth seemed wholly absorbed in the lilting melody that guided their way.
"You still haven't explained to me why you're here," she said finally, breaking their silence, "not really, anyway." She paused again and then continued, "You don't really expect me to run away with you…do you?"
It was a long moment before he replied. "I will strike you a bargain. I will tell you anything you want to know, about anything, if you will first answer one question for me."
Sarah looked at him suspiciously. "One question? That's it?"
"Yes," he replied. "Of course it's a specific question that I wish to ask you, not one of your own choosing." He was smiling again. She could see the glint of his pointed incisors in the moonlight.
"Ooookay…" she said, uneasily, curiosity overcoming her caution.
"It is simply this," he said, "Why are you out here with me?" All traces of humor were gone from his voice. "Why did you not simply tell me to go to hell and return to your lover's welcoming arms?"
Sarah opened her mouth to reply, and then realized she had no good answer. She thought suddenly of Jeff, asleep alone upstairs and felt a flush of guilt. "You- you said one dance," she managed at last. "One dance and then you would leave me alone for good."
"True," Jareth nodded thoughtfully. "But we're not in the Labyrinth, Sarah. This is your world. Surely you have not forgotten how we parted after our last meeting? That misguided, adolescent bid for independence that put me so succinctly in my place all those years ago? I have no power over you, remember? None that you do not willingly give to me, at least."
Sarah stopped dancing. "You're a bastard, Jareth." She said.
"I am, Sarah, I know," he said. "Both literally and figuratively." He had stopped moving, but still held her close, swaying gently to the music. "But I have waited for you all of these years and I will not easily give you up to marry a man that you do not love."
"How do you know I don't love him?" she challenged, ignoring for the moment the thrill that his words sent through her, "and for that matter, how do you know I'm going to say yes? You say I don't know you as well as I think I do, but the same could be said for you! You don't know me, Jareth! No matter how much spying you've done, it's not the same thing as knowing someone!"
"As to the first – because I have been watching you." He said calmly. "I have not much personal experience with the emotion, but I am familiar with its trappings. You care for him, certainly. You both esteem and admire him, but no matter how you try, you cannot love him."
Sarah felt the prick of hot tears behind her eyes and blinked them furiously away. "If you're so convinced that I don't love him, that I cannot love him, then I wonder why you even felt the need to come here tonight. Surely you don't think I would accept the proposal of a man I don't love?"
Jareth nodded as if he were carefully considering her words. "I admit, I had not thought it possible. I watched your relationship progress with interest, always prepared to intervene should I begin to see some indication of higher than usual regard in your manner, but I never did. You are fond of him…perhaps even to the point that you might convince yourself is 'enough', but no – you do not love him. And yet…you are here. You found the ring he intends to give you, you know he brought you here for a romantic beachfront proposal," his voice dripped with disdain, "and you came anyway. These are not the actions of a woman who intends to reject a man's proposal."
Sarah looked away, difficult with face inches from her own. "I hadn't decided yet."
His laugh was humorless. "Of course you had, my dear. You may still be wrestling with the consequences of your decision, but, you had every intention of accepting his offer of marriage and of going through with it despite your misgivings. This is not so unusual among the women of your age, but I confess, I had thought more of your fortitude."
"A wonder you're so interested in me, given my many failings," Sarah said, stung.
"There's no need to be self-depreciating," Jareth chided, "even sarcastically." He moved again, stepping back into the rhythm of the music, leaving Sarah the choice as to whether to follow or stumble. She followed. "You were a fascinating child when I met you and I knew, given time, that you would become a fascinating woman. And so you have."
"And so you're here to stake your claim?" Sarah snorted, a decidedly unladylike sound. "This strikes me as more a case of someone showing interest in one of your old, forgotten toys. You didn't want me until someone else did. Now all of a sudden…"
"You mistake my absence," he interrupted. "I have not stayed away out of negligence. Far from it. You may choose to consider it…a gift."
"Well, it's definitely been that," Sarah said cheerfully.
"Will you stop being so flippant?" he said, irritably. "As I said, you were a fascinating child when we first met – you needed to grow up and for that you needed time. That is one thing, one simple thing, that I could grant you. I have eternity at my disposal. Often I have lamented that fact…" He trailed off and then seemed to recollect himself, "That is to say, time is of no consequence to me. I have grown accustomed to the virtue of patience, though it is no particular favorite of mine. And so I waited. I gave you time to live – to experience a human life."
Sarah opened her mouth to respond and then realized she had absolutely no idea of what to say.
"Everything was black and white to you back then," he said, going on in the face of her silence. "There was only good and evil, right and wrong. You couldn't accept then that there are shades of gray."
"Is that what you are, Jareth?" She asked quietly. "A shade of gray?
"I am what I was made, Sarah," he replied softly. "I cannot change my nature. There will always be children wished away and I will always be there to take them. Right or wrong, good or evil; I cannot change that no matter how much I might wish it."
"Do you?" she said, abruptly. There was a note in her voice that she wasn't even sure she could identify.
He looked startled by the intensity in her voice. "Do I…?"
"Wish it," she said impatiently. The wind had picked up again and blew her hair across her face. She swept it out of her eyes, watching him anxiously as she waiting for his answer. "Do you wish that you could stop taking them?"
"Yes," he said simply.
"But you can't, can you? You can't ever stop?"
"No. I cannot. It is my purpose. It is the reason I exist at all. It is not a choice I am capable of making. I cannot choose to unmake myself."
Sarah nodded as though it was the answer she had expected. "Right."
They danced silently for a time, wrapped in their thoughts and the haunting melody that fell from the glowing orb.
"Come with me tonight," Jareth said eventually. "Allow me to show you my world as it is meant to be seen. There is beauty there, places you have not seen, views you cannot imagine. It is a land of magic and make-believe that no mortal has ever been given leave to explore. Let me show you my kingdom, Sarah."
Sarah looked away, giving herself a chance to collect her thoughts before she replied. "I don't know you, Jareth," She said eventually. "It's been twelve years since I last saw you and we...well, we didn't exactly part on friendly terms, did we?" She gave him a tight smile and went on before he could interject. "I'm not saying that this – you coming here tonight – doesn't change anything, but I can't just wander off and leave Jeff. I can't abandon him for a week or two and leave him wondering while you try to convince me that I can live with…gray."
Jareth's lips curled into a smile. "Time is at issue again, is it?" He spun her gracefully in time with a slight change in the music and then returned her to the circle of his arms. "Once more, that is something that I can offer you. I cannot affect the flow of time in your world, but I have no such limitation in my own. Come to the Underground with me tonight. Renew your acquaintance with your friends; explore the diamond caverns and the tunnels of Evernight. I would even be happy to serve as your guide, if you like. The east wing of the castle will be yours alone. You may, if it pleases you, join me for dinner in the evenings and we can discuss…gray. Then, at any time of your choosing, I will bring you back to this night, to the very moment of your departure. You will lose no time; there will be no 'abandonment' of your Jeff. Should you choose to return in time to accept his proposal in the morning, I will abide by your wishes."
She hesitated, and it was the hesitation that decided her. The whole situation was absurd, agreeing to go with him – with Jareth, King of the Goblins of all people – was downright crazy, but staying, staying and letting Jeff go through with his proposal, one she had no business consenting to, that was unacceptable. "Okay," she said simply, taking great delight in the surprised expression that crossed his face. She grinned. "You were expecting a bit more convincing, weren't you?"
"A bit," he agreed, bemused. "I have to say I anticipated rather more reluctance on your part. I even had the song especially commissioned in case you were…difficult."
"Specially commissioned?" she said, warily eyeing the musical globe that hovered innocently several feet off of the sand.
"It's three hours and fifty seven minutes long," he admitted with a shrug. "I have many compelling arguments to offer. Several of them are quite convincing. I wanted to ensure myself the time required to persuade you."
Sarah laughed and felt lighter than she had since she discovered the velvet box in Jeff's suitcase. "Consider me persuaded – to go with you, that is – for a visit." She sobered and regarded him seriously. "I'm not promising any more than that."
Jareth inclined his head gracefully in acknowledgement. "Of course. My offer stands. If you decide you wish to return to your world, I will bring you back to this night as if no time had passed."
"Right," Sarah nodded, "perfect. I'll visit for…awhile and then come back and decide where to go from there."
Jareth nodded, "As you wish."
Sarah looked up towards the darkened windows of the house. "I'll be right back." She said softly and not without regret. And then to Jareth she nodded.
For a time, the roar of breaking waves was the only sound on the deserted beach. As the sun began to crest the distant horizon, the screen door on the house eased open with a screech and a voice called "Sarah, are you out here?"