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The Way Forward

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“The way forward is sometimes the way back.”

The last light was fading from the sky, and the words of the old Wise Man echoed in Jareth's mind as he flew on white wings over the Goblin City, then up, up to the window of his own chamber. Alighting on the ledge, Jareth reshaped the thought of his own body, letting his owl form dissolve and taking again the shape that he used most often. When his shadow on the far wall once more had the shape of a slender, tall man, Jareth stepped down from the window ledge and turned back to look over his kingdom, such as it was.

“Wise Man,” Jareth muttered, sharp teeth glinting as his lip pulled up in a snarl. “Debatable.” The drowsy old fool was almost as ancient as Jareth himself; he had been one of the first entities to coalesce here in the Underground, so many centuries ago. His name, if he'd ever had one, was lost now from the collective memory of the gabbling goblins and gawping dwarves and all the other odds and ends of semi-sentience that had stumbled into being in Jareth's domain.

However, the Wise Man's words did have meaning, Jareth reminded himself. Without question. Wisdom was his nature, prophecy was his function, the core of his limited being. Whether the meaning of his garbled proclamations was discernible, or at all useful once understood, was another matter entirely.

So when Jareth in his desperation had finally sought out the Wise Man in the hope of tearing some shred of meaning from the fool's ramblings, something that could help him regain control over himself...why under the cold stars would the doddering wretch then give Jareth the very same words he'd given the girl?

It had happened years ago, but he remembered it well. He'd watched the entirety of their exchange through his crystal. The Wise Man had given her nothing she could use, of course, and at the time Jareth had been far more interested in plotting out how he'd retrieve the ring the girl had left in payment. But now a darker significance wound its way around the memory.

Sparing half a thought to conjure a silken robe, more from habit than from any care to conceal his maleness from his scuttling servants, Jareth walked to a little table beside the great bower of a bed. In the last hours, it seemed, the undying blossoms that grew on his bedposts had crept silently over the table, creating a rich nest of vines and petals around the little coffer he'd placed there.

He pushed aside the intruding blossoms, hesitated for a long moment with his fingers on the coffer, then opened the lid. A light flared beside his head, glimmering over the little ring that lay inside, as well as the few strands of long, dark hair. He'd sent out a swarm of nixies to trail the girl at a distance as she wandered through his Labyrinth, ordering them to find and bring back every hair that could have been snagged in a twig or left in the paw of some creature who'd touched her, oh, touched her as he had never done. Jareth let his fingertips brush the shining strands, these tiny proofs of her existence, the last traces of her in his domain.

The mere contact ignited something deep in his body, and down between his legs stirred that dark longing that she awakened in him for reasons he could not understand. He let his other hand stray into the opening of his robe, trailing down his belly to touch his hardening length, that center of his desire where he'd felt no soft mouth, no sweet welcoming flesh, for what felt like a star's lifetime.

Finally, releasing himself with a sigh, he picked up the ring. He'd hungered to possess the little artifact, to own the smallness of her finger in the width of the circle, to cherish her sense of beauty in its design, to treasure the flimsy piece of metal that had once lain right against her sweet flesh. His minion had stolen the trinket from the Wise Man. Surely the old being, even addled as he was, could dimly imagine who might covet anything the girl had left behind. Was the Wise Man taking petty revenge for the theft, seeking to confuse Jareth by giving his king those same words? Or was there some mystical connection, some deeper meaning that beckoned him toward a true path?

A growl of disgust escaped his thin mouth, and Jareth slammed the coffer's lid down over the poor treasures. To think that he, the Goblin King, would stoop to beg counsel of the dotard who passed for a prophet in his domain-in-exile. He'd grown desperate indeed. Yet again Jareth cursed his fate, prisoned alone in a tiny world that lay tantalizingly close to the plane of humans, yet far, far underneath the exalted domain of Faerie where his own people held sway.

He had been alone so long that he no longer remembered the crime for which he'd been banished, nor whether his exile was ever meant to end. But it hardly mattered. He'd formed this world out of raw potential, and it would endure for as long as he did. Forever, if he could be bothered to keep on existing. He shrugged, turning away from that wearisome thought, and walked once more toward the window.

It was here in his Labyrinth that he'd deliberately awakened the girl's desire, those few years ago. He'd thrilled then to see the dark flames of lust kindle in her heart, to watch it muddle her mind and draw her into his web of dreams. He'd meant to distract her, of course, to lure her away from her goal, but then he had lost control of it all in the face of her singular will and determination.

She'd passed every test as none of the others had, emerging from the trash heap to assault his city and actually penetrate to the very core of his castle and, thus, his own heart. Suddenly helpless, frightened by his desire to possess her, he'd found himself utterly broken by her mere denial of his power. How this girl could have shaken his soul, and thus torn through the very fabric of his domain, he still could not understand.

“The way forward is sometimes the way back.” Jareth spoke the words aloud to the stars he'd hung in the firmament. Perhaps the riddle was simpler than he imagined. To move on, to resolve his obsession with the girl, he would need to retrace his steps. To walk the path he'd walked before, to find a new solution somewhere in the story's retelling.

Slowly, a smile cut across his face, narrowed his cruel predator's eyes. Her prophecy was the same as his, the meanings intimately entwined in the endless crossings of paths that made up the shared existence of every being in every world. And, Jareth decided in a flare of resolve, it was high time their two paths should cross once more.

She was anchored to his world now, by these scraps of herself that she'd left behind, and by the few bites of fruit she'd eaten here. It would be so easy to just take her. And then Jareth would show Sarah, his own Sarah, just how deep his Labyrinth could go.

***

Sarah was drifting, drowsing in the warmth of the day. The little boat made a hollow, friendly sort of sound when she set her feet on its low prow. Tipping back her head, she let her eyes drift closed under the dappled sunlight. Her book lay beside her, her place marked with a green leaf, and she'd shipped her single oar an hour ago.

“It's so like you, Sarah,” her father had said, “taking that old dory out on the lake with only one oar. You never did have both oars in the water, did you, honey?” he'd teased, with that rueful smile of his.

“And yet I've always managed just fine,” Sarah had replied with a lift of her chin. And she had. Nobody else wanted the boat with the missing oar, and she just used the single one like a paddle to get out to the middle of the lake. Where no one could bother her, or ask what her plans were now that she'd finally scraped through university. Or ask her what she was reading while she was clearly immersed. Or urge her to “just talk to” this or that young man whose best features were his steady employment and vague affability.

Sarah pushed the thought away, inhaling the warm, green smell of the lake water and resting her attention gently on the wheeze of the cicadas, here for a summer, just as she was. Then...she'd figure it out. She wasn't worried. Perhaps she'd travel. Buy a cut-rate ticket to no matter what destination, just to go and see what was there. Perhaps she'd write a little about it, see if she was any good.

Perhaps she'd seek out a man or two. Not boys, like the harmless mooning things at university. Sarah had no patience for them. Her stepmother, concerned about her lack of a boyfriend, so eager to match Sarah with a “nice one,” knew nothing of the dangerous nights she had spent in the arms of lovers who smelled of smoke and whiskey, hot metal, expensive cologne and raw lust.

Yes, Sarah thought lazily. She'd like to meet more men. Like that mechanic with the rough hands she'd picked up at a dive bar. Or the lean, graying, tattooed violinist from the rock concert, so passionate, and so poor that she'd had to buy the condoms. Or that breathtakingly tall businessman who had approached her on the sidewalk with halting words on his lips and naked hunger in his eyes. She'd refused his money and spent half the night moaning under him, under his mouth and grip and gorgeous immensity, before slipping out of the hotel room and back to her dorm without another word.

She arched her back just the slightest bit, smiling, remembering. Yes, to have a man for a single night, perfect; a good hard scratch for that itch. And then to be alone with her thoughts and her journal once more. Sometimes the men tried to give her their contact information, but Sarah wasn't interested. She could not abide men who assumed that they would keep her attention.

The little breeze caught a strand of her hair and dropped it over her face, and in the same moment, the soaking heat of the light vanished. A cloud passing over the sun, then. Maybe she'd paddle back soon, with her single oar.

But when Sarah opened her eyes, there was no more sun, no more friendly green water, no shoreline or white-painted boathouse. A vastness of mist stretched around her, without feature or color...the horizon only an idea, the water a glassy gray. A creeping panic stole into her mind as she struggled to make sense of the change.

She'd felt this before, long ago, this crippling incomprehension in the face of something impossible, nonsensical. An enchanted golden landscape stretching out before her, instead of the expected view of her own backyard. A straight, unbroken passage, terrifying in its endlessness. Falling into a dark hole with no apparent outlet. Stairs running upside down and sideways, gravity turning traitor, the world around her becoming a puzzle with no solution.

“Accept it,” she whispered, the sound dampened in the fog. She'd learned this lesson well. When what you see is utterly impossible, she reasoned, there's no point in protesting that it can't be true. Stay calm, observe the situation, and do what needs to be done.

So. It was easier this time around. There was no imminent danger that she could see. Nothing lurking below the water, but yes, she noticed a current that was tugging her dory in a certain direction. She strained to peer through the mist.

With a suddenness that made her gasp, the boat scraped up against stone. She knew there had been no landing ahead of her a moment ago, but now there was a slab of rough-hewn rock, coated at the water's edge with a slick of green, the first color she'd seen in this place. And there, an iron ring, running with rust, at the perfect height for her to tie off her boat if she so chose.

Well, of course she chose. Her heartbeat quickened; yes, she was sure now of where she was, and who must be behind all this. And it was no use being stubborn with him. She readied the rope.

Once the boat was secure, Sarah turned to see a set of steps carved deeply into the rock. Now that the steps existed, they had clearly been there for centuries. She set her shoe on the rough moss.

A tremor shook the stone as she stepped onto solid ground, a little ripple that spread outward in a faint rumble, as if the land itself were affected by her presence. Sarah paused a moment, then moved slowly on.

The mists were swiftly rising, and Sarah peered at the solitary parapet of white stone that now loomed above her, corroded with age and overgrown with the black skeletons of vines. On both sides, stretching to a featureless horizon, a white beach met gray water. No signs of life, nothing but the stone landing that led directly to a set of pristine white doors.

So, the Goblin King had taken her again. Sarah had always wondered if he might.

As she'd grown older, Sarah had thought of her few hours in the Underground less and less often. It had never occurred to Sarah to doubt the truth of what she'd experienced, and after a time she had become comfortable with the mystery, with the inexplicable nature of the forces that had drawn her into that other world. Toby remembered nothing, of course, and Sarah had never mentioned it to the little boy. She'd never felt a need.

In the first years after her adventure, she'd often called for her friends, Hoggle and Ludo and Sir Didymus, and they'd always appeared faithfully. But they would never answer her questions about their lives in the Underground; they'd always gently steered the subject back to her. And after a time, her friends appeared only in her mirror, then faintly in the reflection off a window. With each visit, they spoke less and listened more, always kindly but ever further out of reach. Now they existed only in her thoughts.

She missed them. Would she see them again if when she opened those white doors?

And what of Jareth? Why had he brought her back? Sarah narrowed blue eyes at the doors. Surely he'd appear soon to offer taunts, throw down a challenge or a set task for her, some sort of devil's bargain.

But long moments passed in stillness, broken only by the faint lapping of endless water on an infinite beach. And Jareth did not appear.

Sarah would not wait any longer for him.

With a last glance at the little boat that bobbed on the water behind her, Sarah walked toward the doors in the expectation that she'd never see the boat again, nor be able to retrace her steps. The Labyrinth changed from moment to moment, and as she'd learned well the greater part of a decade ago, the only thing to do was to accept its strangeness, and press forward. She reached out to push the white doors open.

***

Jareth bent over his gazing crystal, shaken to the core at the sight of the girl. She'd changed so much, and not nearly enough for his peace of mind. He swallowed hard, then tore his eyes away from the image and started to pace the high chamber in his agitation.

She was not reacting as expected. She'd not been properly terrified to find herself taken from her world and set down at the very edge of his domain. A little anxiety had shadowed those lovely gray eyes at first, but then she'd gone still and calm in the boat, just waiting and watching until he'd given in and willed the landing into existence.

Jareth glanced at the crystal again. Now the girl was walking confidently to the head of the landing, her hair longer than ever as it streamed out behind her. Her figure had rounded in the intervening years, adding lushness to her height, and her simple white dress left her rounded limbs exposed to his gaze. His body could not help but respond; Jareth let out a low moan.

He had planned to confront her as soon as she arrived. He'd darken the sky, conjure a great wind to make an impressive entrance, graciously allow her to cower before him. Then he'd do everything to keep her off balance, enjoying her confusion and relishing her fear. He'd threaten her with, oh, something or other. Then he'd quickly turn around and tempt her, not with toys or illusions this time, but with himself. He'd already blown her sleeping desire into a flame, changed her forever, and now he would use it to bring her finally under his iron control.

He'd move close to her, too close for propriety. Close enough to surround her in his scent. He'd let her tremble with excitement to see the glint of his eyes, his sharp teeth. And at the last, he'd touch her. He'd draw his hands along her flesh for the first time, the contact a mere preamble to the far more carnal attentions he had in mind. He'd shake her up, make her wet for him. Then he'd leave her, let her wander the Labyrinth for a while, fearing and longing for his return.

Jareth had plotted all this through long nights, alone with visions of her wondering face, her breathless submission in the face of his power. But the Underground had just responded to her touch, a tremor rippling outward from her first step onto his domain in acknowledgment of her return....What could it mean?

Seeing her now in his crystal, watching her throw open the doors and enter his Labyrinth with that bold step, Jareth swiftly reconsidered his plans to approach the girl so soon. He needed more time to watch her, to understand what magic should be wrought to bring her to heel.

“The way forward...” he muttered, drawing his silks tightly around himself and leaning down to catch her moving image once more.