Sarah doesn’t figure it out until well after it’s begun.
She blames college, where everyone (or at least it seemed like everyone at the time) went out on Friday nights. And then Saturdays, and there was always Sunday, for the truly devoted. They went out—to either a frat house or the handful of bars and clubs that didn’t bother to card. When half the class of 1992 is out at the Bop Shop, grinding to “Groove is in the Heart,” it was easy to miss, easy not to question why Sarah Williams was there with them. She had assumed they all felt that same electric current running under their skin, an unending urge for more, more, to keep losing oneself among bodies moving in time, flashing lights. She’d thought it was all just…human, youth pulsing up through her blood like sap during spring.
(Her tendency to think and speak in nature metaphors probably should have been the second clue. It wasn’t.)
So she doesn’t notice until afterwards, when her friends settle into their lives—wives, husbands, children, careers—and Sarah Williams is still going to clubs. Still chasing the thrill under her skin, the sort of high that only comes when she’s in the crowded dark, full of bodies moving to a beat. If you corner her, she can give you the whole dissertation: the rise of house music and the fall of the disco scene, particularly as it relates to EDM. Her PhD came with a mix CD. She’s written multiple articles about the sound of The Ballroom, evolving past its Berlin roots and Harlem influence. If it’s got rhythm, Sarah Williams has listened to it, has formulated strong opinions about it, and then probably argued with more than one of her friends about it, plus how weird she can get with music.
Her typical answer is to tip her chin in that imperious way she has, and say, “Dance is one of the oldest art forms humanity has. What’s weird about wanting to understand that?”
(The fact that she can make her face go strange, her eyes hard and glittering and remote in a way that makes people uncomfortable, should have been another clue.)
She truly thinks this is normal, up until she doesn’t. Until he’s there.
It’s a cold night and she’s at Xliber, moving to a very ordinary synth-pop mix—nothing too cutting edge, the DJ is pedestrian, but she can feel the bass notes reverberating up through her skin and that’s enough. She downs a shot and then moves through the slender spaces left between grinding couples, imagines herself collecting all their gathered heat, that wanting, on her fingertips as she passes.
She’s just sinking into the rhythm when she inhales, and tastes something metallic and earthen—something apart. Sarah cracks her eyes open, but there’s nothing but bodies limned in the house lights, moving in time. Still, she can taste it, crushed green and metal dropped onto her tongue like a tab.
(For all her clubbing experience, Sarah has never actually tried drugs—never felt any desire to when there was a rhythm, a driving beat, a melody, a thrum.)
(Again: she missed a lot of signs. Don’t hold it against her.)
Slowly, she comes to stand, stock still—uncharacteristic for her, in the midst of a dance floor. She’s still trying to figure out where the metallic-green-earthen taste is coming from when a hand grips her waist, spins her, forces her hands up and her fingers splayed. She is dizzy and reeling but then there’s Jareth, the same shadow that has been haunting her nightmares since she was fifteen.
His grip is much more solid than any dream could be.
Sarah has to lean in, very close, to shout in his ear: “Goblin King!” And then, because she might as well: “Well met by moonlight!”
(She really should have realized.)
When she draws away, he gives her a quizzical look, made harsher by the flashing club lights. When he leans in, he smells overwhelmingly of the green, it’s dizzying. “It is a new moon, Sarah Williams. It gives no light.”
She laughs but the sound is eaten up by the bass.
She’s not surprised the Goblin King is a good dancer. She waltzed with him in the mirror ballroom, certainly, she also remembers the way he moved. His hands, the roll of his hips when he walked. She’s been doing this long enough to know there are two types of good dancers: the innocent and the very, very experienced. Ballerinas suffer to look like they’re not suffering, as though grinding down their metatarsals is as automatic as breathing—but the uncoordinated college freshman getting drunk for the first time and losing his shit is no less beautiful, for all the difference in ability.
Jareth the Goblin King is somehow both. He dances like the ballerina, right up until he doesn’t—until the DJ shifts over to a something Sarah’s never heard before. It’s all horns, or strings, or something between them; a wet, heavy beat that makes her think of a pulse. Sap rolling up through trees. Then the Goblin King is all incoordination, and strangeness. He moves as people do not move, and bends as human limbs, bodies, are not meant to bend. She can only watch him, circle in inextricable orbit and see.
(She knows then.)
Afterwards, when the music shuts off and the lights come up, Jareth the Goblin King walks her home. By the weak light of the dawning morning, he looks more like a man than a…a whatever he actually is, though he laughs when she tells him as much.
“And you look like a girl, Sarah Williams,” he says, smirking with a mouth painted dark-blue as midnight, or maybe a bad bruise.
“I am one, yes,” she says.
“No,” he answers. “You have not been either girl nor anything like one for a long while.”
His smirking expression gives nothing away, no matter how long she stares at it. “What do you mean by that?”
“My people…” He pauses for a long time, almost a whole suburban block with its split-ranch houses and dark windows, but then the Goblin King ducks his head. Clears his throat, tries again: “My people love dancing, did you know?”
Sarah makes a soft, noncommittal noise.
“Yes,” Jareth says. “We used to take—not just children. Fiddlers and harpists and pipers, dancers, lovely girls and handsome men. We were so jealous. Jealous of music and the ability to surrender to it, to move and make more music, that way. My people can imitate, can sing songs already written, can dance a dance that has been laid out for us, but all else…”
Sarah stares ahead of her. “What does this have to do with me?”
She feels his eyes on her. “You are the only human to have ever defeated the Labyrinth,” he says, sounding astonished that she had not realized. “Did you think it left you unchanged?”
“Humans like music and enjoy dancing too,” Sarah says dryly, “that’s not proof of anything.”
But in the cold air of six A.M., her breath fogs. She’s thinking about all the stories she’s read, the fairy dances and fairy rings, twelve princesses waltzing holes into their shoes; all those otherworldly céilí and even just Jareth, gathering her in, his eyes rapacious as he spun her through a glittering masked ball.
“I don’t want it,” she murmurs.
“Too bad,” Jareth answers smoothly, a hardened certainty in his voice. It’s not cruel, just—clear, a deal already made, her name signed on a dotted line she can’t remember but is nevertheless chiseled into stone. Or something. She’s tired and mixing metaphors.
When she looks at him, he’s watching her face, undisguised interest there. “What?” she asks, taken aback.
“I’m waiting for you to tell me it isn’t fair.”
Sarah snorts. “It’s been too long for that, Goblin King. Grant that I might have found some perspective, since I was fifteen.”
They come to her front door much sooner than she anticipates—ten league boots, she thinks, and when she laughs to herself, he smiles. “Hardly ten leagues, Sarah Williams,” he answers, though she does not think she said it aloud.
“‘Up and down, up and down, I will lead them up and down’?” she asks, but he only looks bemused.
She swallows, tries again: “So what does this mean? For—why come tonight? Why come to me?”
“Those are three different questions, Sarah Williams.”
“The traditional number, right?” she asks, not quite teasing. It’s a cold morning and her fingertips are starting to tingle and go numb around the cold doorknob; it seems so commonplace, such a human sensation, that she clings to it. “Three questions, three wishes, three brothers or three sisters, three—”
The look he gives her is so full of undisguised fondness that she falls silent, suddenly tongue-tied.
“Well, then,” he sighs, and counts them on his fingers. He is still wearing the gloves she remembers, black as the quickly-fading night. “First, a hunger that will not be sated. My apologies for it. Second, a new moon is kind, and hides weakness and trespass alike. And third…”
He doesn’t touch her. But his hand makes an abortive, fluttering movement—as though to caress her cheek, before his better sense intruded. “Third,” he says lowly, “I think you know, Sarah Williams.”
“Lovers and—and madmen, have such…seething brains,” she stammers, unable to come up with anything more. His mouth curves sharply, something that a person unacquainted with him could confuse for a smile.
“Yes. Exactly,” he says. His fingertips do not brush her skin as he withdraws. “Good night, Sarah Williams. Perhaps you might save the next dance for me?”
“Perhaps,” she says. Her fingertips are cold, numbed, but the doorknob's lock digs into the flesh of her palm almost painfully as she watches him go. And then he is gone.