Plot Summary: It's a week before Christmas, and Sarah is in middle of moving into her new house when something outside the window catches her eye...
Author's Note: As you might know, I don't often write things where nobody dies and the world isn't going to hell in a handbasket. This piece was written for the labyfic community on Livejournal during last year's Winterfest,a slightly fluffy romance for the holiday season. It has not even the barest smidgen of angst, and everyone lives. Happy Holidays, everyone!
There was something in the woods behind the house.
Sarah paused in the act of slitting open the tape on a box labeled "Living room - Books". Two days of cleaning and unpacking, and the new house was still a mess. She needed a bath and a really long nap. She needed pizza. And belatedly, she realized that she also needed to put up the curtains, because if she could see the dark landscape outside, someone else could certainly see in.
Shoving aside a stack of boxes, she peered out the window, her breath fogging up the glass. It was quite possible that in her sleep and food-deprived state, Sarah was seeing things, but somehow, she didn't think she was. She squinted. Yes, there was definitely something out there, a flickering, dancing light as though someone had built a bonfire out among the trees.
"Right." Her back ached in protest. Sarah pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Right."
She stomped out of the living room banging her shin on her new Ikea coffee table on the way. Dignity forbade her to swear as she limped into the kitchen to look for a flashlight.
"I have no time for this," she said to the empty house. "Dad and Karen and Toby will be here in a week. I have to do laundry, bake a ham, put up the Christmas tree and buy everyone's presents and I don't have time for this, dammit."
The second hand on the kitchen clock ticked back, paused for a long and pointed moment, then began ticking steadily forward again. Sarah refused to acknowledge it. She grabbed the flashlight, then slammed the back door after herself, first making sure that the keys were safely stowed in her pocket.
The lawn sloped away from the house toward the wooded area at the edge of the property. A gorgeous fixer-upper, the real estate agent had promised. Historic farmhouses in such good shape were hard to find in this part of the state, and at that price, it was a steal...
Sarah slogged through knee-high drifts of snow, her parka zipped up all the way and an enormous pea-green hat with a scraggly bobble on top perched on her head. Her breath formed puffs of vapor in the cold night air, and above her the sky was clear and scattered with stars.
It took her a good fifteen minutes to reach the edge of the trees, tall Douglas firs with their branches capped in snow. The light shone just ahead, a golden glow accompanied by... was that bells? Sarah did curse this time, softly under her breath. Clambering over fallen tree trunks, she pushed her way through the pine branches and found herself in a small clearing.
"Oh, hell no."
In the clearing, the snow had receded back to reveal a lush patch of grass, and in the center of the patch was a slender green sapling. Silver bells hung from every branch, and here and there grew golden pears, round and ripe as if it were late summer instead of December.
Sarah picked one, cautiously digging her fingernail into its curved side. Sweet nectar leaked out over her hand, and she dropped it on the ground in dismay. The pear fell with a thunk and a squish, perfectly normal except for its skin, which had all the bright gleam of twenty-four carat gold.
She touched the tip of her tongue to the trickle of pear juice, preparing to hack and spit copiously if any funny business occurred. It, too, was perfectly normal. Quite nice, really. She liked pears. They seemed much more wholesome than certain other fruit. She reached up for another, intending to take it back to the house for further examination when the bells went wild, ringing merrily as something rustled in the treetop. Sarah leapt back, flashlight held at the ready to bludgeon anything that moved.
Using the end of the flashlight, she pushed aside the branches of the pear tree, ignoring the melodic tinkle of bells as she did so. A plump brown bird only slightly smaller than a chicken was perched halfway up, huddled by the trunk. Its breast was downy grey, its wings and back speckled brown. A bright eye peered down at her over a sharp beak.
Help me, it said.
Sarah nearly dropped her flashlight then. "What?"
I said 'help me', you silly girl. It's freezing out here and I'm not used to the cold. The bird shook itself pitifully, drawing its neck as close to its body as it could. I could die, you know. Then you'd have the death of a helpless, innocent creature on your conscience. How'd that be for karma?
Sarah stared at the partridge for a long while, then realized her jaw was hanging open. She shut it abruptly, breathing out slowly through her nose.
"You're... you're not him, are you." It was less a question than a statement. Sarah was reasonably sure this wasn't He Who Must Not Be Summoned, but... well, it had feathers and a beak and you could never be too sure. She'd gone so far as to give up chicken in college, troubled by the bad associations.
The partridge blinked. I have no idea who you're talking about.
Birds could not have tells, Sarah told herself firmly. Just the same, this bird was lying and she was certain of it. But not about the cold. Sarah shuddered as a clump of melting snow slid off her collar and down her neck. This truly was a night fit for neither man nor beast... nor talking bird.
"Right." She pulled off her hat and stuffed it into her coat pocket. "Can you fly? Or at least jump?"
I could do both if it will get me out of this damn tree.
The partridge tucked its legs under as it launched itself from the pear tree. It was like catching a warm, feathery football, Sarah decided. One with sharp claws that scrabbled and snagged the sleeve of her parka. She bundled it carefully into her hat, tucking the edges up around its neck. The partridge did not protest. It closed its eyes and settled down as if to sleep.
Wake me when we're home.
"Well." Sarah looked down at the bundle uncertainly. "This is turning out to be a very odd-"
The pear tree chimed once more and a single leaf fluttered down to land at her feet. After a moment's hesitation, she picked it up. It felt dry and papery between her fingers and on its surface was a single word written in graceful, golden script.
Tucking the partridge firmly under one arm, Sarah crumpled the leaf and hurled it into the undergrowth. "I don't think so," she snapped.
Another leaf fluttered to the ground.
Sarah could almost hear the rich, purring note of it. "Thirteen years," she said loudly, shaking her fist at the tree since there was no one else to rail against. "You wait thirteen years to say you're sorry?"
The next leaf was quite crowded with writing.
Thirteen years is of little consequence when you live for centuries. There was also the small matter of a goblin population in mutiny and a kingdom to rebuild. Perhaps you'll recall the cause?
Sarah scowled. He had her there. "That was just as much your fault as it was mine. It still doesn't explain why you're here now."
The next leaf managed to fall in a somewhat sarcastic manner, with even tinier writing.
I did say, 'Pax', did I not? We have unfinished business. I was under the impression (given to me by your friends, who are, granted, not without their flaws in judgment) that you would welcome a small gesture of goodwill.
"This is not a small gesture." Sarah waved at the tree, its bells still gently tinkling in the wind. "This is... I don't know what it is, but it's not small."
The next leaf simply read, Do you like it?
"I... I suppose it's nice." Sarah looked grudgingly up at the tree. Midwestern winters were a little gloomy, and it did cheer up the place. She hoped nobody could see it from the road, or she'd have a lot of explaining to do. "Yeah, it's pretty. The pears are just pears, aren't they?"
Taste one and see. The writing was swooping and seductive.
Sarah knew a challenge when she saw one, and challenges were still a weakness of hers. Despite being hampered with a reputation for talking to invisible friends in the mirror, she'd graduated college with a 3.8 GPA. Law school was no piece of cake, but she'd dealt with it. After graduation, she landed a position in the city's most prestigious law firm, to begin after the new year. All of that was nice. It didn't exactly compare to adventuring around the Underground in the company of a grumpy dwarf, a gigantic hairy beanbag with horns, and a small but fearless knight, but then, what did?
She chewed her lower lip for a minute, then turned to make her way back to the house. Decisions were best made after a good night's sleep. And as long as this was a night for magical wishes come true, maybe she could find a pizza place that would deliver all the way out to the boondocks.
One last leaf fluttered down, nestling coyly in the grass.
Until tomorrow, my Sarah.
The next day found her peeling and slicing several bushels of ripe pears. She'd tried one, of course. Just a small bite. Hours passed and nothing out of the ordinary happened, except that Karen called to confirm their flight number for next Tuesday and to ask if Sarah had a boyfriend yet. That last part might've been suspect, except that Karen always asked this question every time she called.
Sarah lifted the lid off a simmering pot and nodded appreciatively at the fragrant cloud of steam that escaped. The pears were cooking down nicely. She wouldn't even have to add much sugar, just some cinnamon and a few cloves. There'd be spiced pear butter all winter, perfect on toast or stirred into oatmeal. She couldn't help but feel a little smug, especially since she'd already bundled a trash bag full of shiny, shiny pear skins out to the garage for discreet disposal.
Nutmeg. It needs nutmeg.
The partridge hopped up to the kitchen counter, picking its way around the clutter of bowls, measuring spoons and fruit cores.
"I can't find the nutmeg," said Sarah patiently. "Anyway, I prefer cinnamon."
Suit yourself. Got anything to eat?
Partridges mostly ate bugs and seeds, Sarah had discovered. In the middle of winter, this was quite a problem. An hour's drive to town scored several dozen crickets from the pet store and some bird seed, but the partridge pecked at them half-heartedly. They weren't as flavorful as free-range insects, he complained. And the birdseed was barely adequate, containing too much millet and not enough of anything else.
Sarah looked up from her stirring. "How did you get into this mess in the first place?"
I'm a bird. You think I make my own destiny? The partridge preened itself gloomily.
"You didn't have to get involved with him, surely. He's bad news, you know." She felt almost virtuous for saying so, then remembered where her pear butter was coming from and decided to stop talking.
The partridge cocked an irritated eye at her. There wasn't any choice involved whatsoever! There I was, strolling through the winter wheat and minding my own business when a bloody great owl lands nearly on top of me. He made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Sit in this tree, he said. Look festive or else, he said. Talons like daggers! You try saying no to someone like that.
Sarah shrugged. "Fair enough."
She kept stirring slowly, watching the swirl of dusted cinnamon disappear into the bubbling mixture. The bird pecked disconsolately at a bowl of birdseed.
"You know," she began, "I don't even know your name."
Hah. Names, is it? I don't have one.
"Everyone has a name. If you don't want to tell me yours, just tell me what I should call you."
Fluffing its feathers, the partridge settled itself in a nest of shredded paper napkins between the salt and pepper shakers. What's the use? You humans couldn't pronounce it. Extending his neck slightly, he let out a soft call that sounded more like a rusty hinge than a bird. Krrrr-rrk. Krrrr-rrk.
"Kirk, then." Sarah managed to hide her smile behind the lid of the pot. "It's a good name. A very fitting one, since you've boldly flown where no partridge has flown before."
Kirk's wings twitched in the avian version of a shrug. It's as good as any, I suppose.
Sarah filled a shallow bowl of water and set it close by. "So, Kirk. Any idea of what he's up to, then?"
Insofar as it was possible for something with a beak and no lips to look smug, Kirk looked smug. Oh, you'll find out soon enough.
It could be worse, Sarah admitted. The two turtledoves had shown up just after dinner, and unlike Kirk, they weren't terribly chatty. Perfectly content to nest in a wadded-up bath towel in the laundry room, they went promptly into a warmth-induced doze, cooing softly in turns. She found it almost soothing.
The hens that arrived the next day were another matter entirely.
Sarah had no prior experience with chickens, but these were quite the stupidest creatures she'd ever had the displeasure of meeting. Oblivious and self-centered, they gossiped nonstop amongst themselves, barely deigning to notice their new surroundings except to criticize them soundly.
Où sommes-nous? C'est terrible, extrêmement primitif. Et où est le roi? Je manque ses bottes fabuleuses.
[Roughly translated from chicken-French: "Where are we? It is terrible, extremely primitive. And where is the king? I miss his fabulous boots."]
"It's a farm," said Sarah loudly above the cackling, "Chickens belong on farms. You're not supposed to live in castles, roosting on J-" she swallowed the word, "-on anyone's boots, you spoiled hussies."
The hens took little notice of her, their heads bobbing in unison as they inspected the living room and Sarah's collection of Talking Heads albums.
Zee large, ungainly creature, one of them murmured to the other, Deed eet talk? I feel such a frisson horrible up and down my back.
Sarah set down a plate of cracked corn with harder-than-necessary force, then went back to the kitchen to find her largest roasting pan. Not that she was going to use it, she told herself, but it was nice to have the option. The sound of three beaks pecking sharply at the corn trailed behind her.
Mes chéries, ce n'est past croyable! Her backside, eet eez beeg enough to shelter two dozen hatchlings...
Sarah gritted her teeth. The deep-fryer. She'd get that out too, just for good measure.
It was well after midnight by the time she'd canned all the pear butter, eaten a hasty dinner (regrettably, not chicken) and made her way back out to the woods. Snow was falling again, large, starry flakes that clung to her eyelashes and stung her cheek with icy kisses. Sarah scrubbed the sensation away with her sleeve. A very, very small part of her wanted to see what the Goblin King would manage for the swans, milkmaids and lords-a-leaping, but really, enough was enough.
The tree stood exactly where she'd left it, although the chiming of the bells were more subdued now. Snow had crept to cover the roots, and a few windfall pears gleamed like fallen suns among the white drifts.
"All right, you win. No more gifts and no more gestures, okay?"
She waited for a long time, and a leaf finally fluttered down. Sarah snatched it out of the air.
Have I your forgiveness?
"You never asked for it," she retorted. "But yes, fine. Thirteen years is a long time to hold a grudge, anyway." She hesitated, then added grudgingly, "I'm sorry, too. For the whole destruction of your city thing. I thought maybe..." Her sentence trailed off.
The pear tree stood silent.
Sarah sighed and moved beneath its branches for shelter from the falling snow. "Look, my family will be here in five days and I've got a lot to do, but... You can come in for milk and cookies. If you want to, that is."
A low voice spoke directly behind her, so close that the vibrations set her earlobe tingling. "I'd be delighted."
Sarah whirled around, fighting the urge to bring her knee up sharply as she did so. The Goblin King was clothed in deep green velvet, a cloak the color of autumn leaves draped loosely over his shoulders. Snowflakes crowned his fair hair, and his high boots were of black leather trimmed with sable-dark fur. They were indeed fabulous.
"I thought you'd never ask, Sarah." The smallest of smiles lingered on Jareth's lips. He extended a bare hand, palm up. "Shall we?"
"No more gifts?" said Sarah warningly, "And you'll get rid of the hens? Kirk and the doves can stay."
"Everything shall be as you wish... if you will accept one last gift. I've studied your mortal traditions, and I believe this one will meet with your approval."
Sarah's mind raced through the daunting possibilities, but the list was long and her brain was half-frozen. "Well?"
The Goblin King said nothing, merely tilted his chin upward. Sarah followed his gaze. Nearly hidden in the pear tree's crown was a dense growth of green leaves and drooping clusters of waxy white berries.
She held her breath for three slow counts. Mortal traditions, indeed. "That's cheating."
"That's mistletoe," corrected Jareth, as he drew her closer, "In Latin, Viscum album, the-"
Sarah was already standing on the toes of her snow boots, clutching his shoulders for balance with her lips pressed firmly against his. Jareth's mouth was unexpectedly warm and not at all hesitant. The edge of her parka had slipped up in their embrace, and he took full advantage, caressing the hollow at the small of her back. The tips of his fingers traced small circles against her skin, slowly and deliberately as though he were reading a map. Another three slow counts passed, but by Sarah's reckoning, a dozen heartbeats.
When she had to come up for air, she did not go far. They stood as closely entwined as the tendrils of mistletoe, her arms around him. Sarah breathed in the scent of him, warm and clean, with just a hint of woodsmoke. Her nose bumped against his cheekbone, and it was both awkward and utterly delightful. "Pax?"
"Oh, the time for a truce is long past," Jareth assured her, causing her to shiver as his lips brushed against her earlobe, then trailed kisses down her neck. "My terms have changed."
"Mmm." Sarah stood a little higher on her toes to allow him better access to her throat. She knew better than to ask, truly she did. But the heat of his mouth on her skin contrasted with the cold night air in a most distracting fashion. By the time his bare hands slipped beneath the edge of her parka again, Sarah's better judgement was nonexistent.
"What are you asking for, then?"
Jareth's laughter was soft as it echoed through the snowy wood. "Complete surrender."
Author's Note: Originally, the story was titled Merry Christmas (War is Over) after the song by John Lennon, but for some reason FFnet won't allow the use of parentheses in the title. *sigh*