Life is a picnic on a precipice.
W.H. Auden


'I've been remiss. Allow me to make it up to you with a late lunch. Away from the castle. Join me at the stables at 3. A truce? Yours – J.'

Sarah's thumb brushed unconsciously against the thick parchment. The note was so emphatically him – maddening and enticing, arrogant and yet vulnerable - managing to be mercurial in barely five lines. Before she thought better of it, she sniffed the midnight rose; it's delicate but spicy scent just as contradictory and beguiling.

She immediately set the note and flower back down and glared at both accusingly for good measure. In part for not being something deliciously edible and because once again he'd set her entirely off-balance. She ought to tell him he could choke on his so-called truce after the stunts he'd pulled. And maybe throw a flower pot at him too, since that seemed to be the popular activity in the castle of late.

Ought to…

But it had been a uniquely absurd day, punctuated by uniquely absurd in-laws, which was saying a lot given everything that had happened since the wedding. More to the point she was starving, and her stomach loudly reminded her of that. Ravenously so. Standing in front of your refrigerator at midnight and eating shredded cheese out of the door kind of hungry. A glance at the clock – the castle seemed to hold no end to them - told her that she had less than fifteen minutes if she wanted to entertain whatever foolish game he was playing. Her stomach grumbled again, more vociferously this time. Feed me then kill him and bog the body, but feed me first at least.

Vanity didn't allow her to go straight to the stables however. The traipse up the cliffs-of no-end, to talk to the siren-of-no-help, had made her sweaty all over again. She'd also torn the delicate chiffon of her skirts in several places, while avoiding very confusing, but thankfully unsuccessful, goblin assassination attempts.

When she entered her new shared sleeping accommodations, her first thought was that it would be nice not to find other women in her husband's bedroom. Her second thought was reflexive horror that 'husband' had slipped so seditiously into her first thought. Her third thought was to turn tail and run.

Too late now.

Sarah held her hands up. "Oh, no. Please no more. Not today. I thought we came to an agreement where I promised to dress myself and wash my own bits, and you got to spare yourselves my horrible mortal presence. Can't you find… er, the Lady Calliope instead? I'm sure she'd love to be dressed (and then undressed again) by you lovely ladies."

The ladies in waiting exchanged glances. "His majesty insisted," one replied slowly, as though Sarah required that kind of hand-holding. "But I suppose we can skip the bathing, unless her majesty's royal vulv-"

Sarah threw her hands up defensively again. "I assure you that all areas of my person are quite clean." Then she glanced at the mantle clock, which, along with everyone and everything else, seemed to be against her. "Fine. How about some pants and a clean shirt…" Then trailed off at the array of the frothy dresses they immediately held up for her inspection. "Uhh… I'm just having lunch."

"Indeed, your majesty." The patronizing tone turned more pitying than condescending. "And we assure you these are all suitable attire for such an event."

It was hard not to think of her ill-fated fencing choices, and as much as she wanted to protest she also wanted to get to the part where someone put food in front of her and let her make a mess of herself. If that had to be wrapped in silks, so be it. Choose you battles, Sarah.

"Your way then." She swallowed back her misgivings and reluctantly perused the selection. She found herself pausing longest before a gown in a deep, dusty rose. She didn't even like pink, though this was a muted, more refined tone. But the cut was the sort of silly, impractical, and ridiculously gorgeous, thing one wore if you were trying to live out a fantasy. That kind of flowy, wispy thing you might run through a castle in… pursued by something you may or may not want to be caught by...

Her pause was apparently permission enough, and in a blink her old dress was whipped off followed by her undergarments. If they noticed her bruised derriere they didn't bat an eye. Sarah was left vainly trying to cover herself and swat away hands, intent on spritzing her with scent and dousing with her powders - only after others had given her the most humiliatingly quick and efficient wipe down. The new dress was pulled over head and fastened into place with equally remarkable speed. They took down her hair from the fraying braid, and pinned the loose waves into an artfully messy knot at the nape of her neck, into which a few roses were tucked. A delicate strand of pear-cut rubies, the sort that would have cost an obscene amount of money aboveground, was clasped around her neck. She was turned, gently but inexorably, towards the mirror for the briefest pause before being ushered out of the door.

The dress was embroidered with roses in darker hues of crimson. They cascaded down the bodice in an elegant, but strategic manner meant to disguise how sheer the layered silk was. The skirt, though full, was incredibly lightweight and bore more of the embroidered roses meant to look like they'd been scattered by the wind. The neckline, though not particularly low-cut, was of a semi-sheer fabric that thinned and faded to blend into her skin. The sleeves were little more than strings of embroidered petals draping from her shoulders like garlands.

She may have never liked pink, but the shade made her skin come alive.

On her way down to the stables, she had a moment's panic that she might be expected to ride a horse - or a bloody dragon - or god forbid a goblin - to wherever they were going and maybe she should have insisted on something practical instead. The panic multiplied tenfold when she belatedly realized they'd not bothered to provide her any undergarments save for a laughably small scrap of silk between her thighs.

Sarah turned back to rectify her wardrobe when she heard yet another clock strike the hour. For creatures who seemingly lived forever, they were unnaturally preoccupied by what time it was.

The chime was followed by the distinct sound of something equine whinnying, further cementing her fears. The image of being tossed ungracefully across the back of a horse she couldn't possible straddle, in the ridiculous dress she'd not really chosen, and wearing almost nothing beneath, made her absolutely nauseous. Despite her admiration for horses as a rather pretty animal, her only real experience with them had been a handful of riding lessons she'd begged her father for at 16. And that had largely been because Tommy Whelan, a senior at her high school, had a part-time job as a stable hand.

Oh, how he'd watched her with those soulful brown eyes when she'd first got on the deceptively taciturn horse. And oh, how those same soulful brown eyes had watched her fall back right back off over the other side into a pile of fresh manure. That had been the end of her infatuation with Tommy Whelan, and even more so with horses.

The only other experience she'd had before that was her best friend Tina's 8th birthday party. And all invited had sworn a blood pact never to speak of that terrible day again. RIP Buttercup the pony.

Her meagre personal history did not prepare her for what was currently being exercised in one of the paddocks when she rounded the bend, however. A horse so impossibly beautiful it almost hurt to look at it - tall, majestic, its coat whiter than snow and its long mane glossier than every Pantene hair commercial combined. Its only flaw, and she supposed that was subjective, was that it had twice as many legs as a horse usually came with. At that moment the beast tossed its head in her direction, as if catching that final stray thought and finding her all the more ridiculous for it.

"Handsome fellow. He knows it too." Jareth came to stand beside her, crossing his arms over the edge of pen restively.

"I know that I will somehow regret saying this, but the only eight-legged horse I've ever heard of is the one Odin rides."

"And now you can say you've met him. Sleipnir," Jareth replied, not bothering to to hide his amusement. "You missed his presentation during the gifts. It seems my uncle thought it would be terribly amusing to send me a horse that is not his as a wedding present."

"Uncle. Because of course." Sarah nodded like he was discussing something as mundane as a gravy boat. "And somehow just like that the eight-legged horse seems entirely normal compared to knowing you are related to a Norse God."

"Gods. As in all of them. Though that's hardly an accomplishment. Being related to one usually means being tied to them all, and to say the family tree is a single branch is an understatement." Then he flashed her a rueful grin. "Now you know why I said only the respectable members of the family would be introduced." He gestured at the paddock. "I shall of course return him before Odin sees fit to declare war over Loki's machinations. A pity though." His eyes slid back to hers. "He is quite unique and I am rather fond of unique things."

Somewhat undermining the intended compliment of his statement, Sleipnir chose that precise moment to take off in a run.

Run was perhaps not the best word to describe it, however.

The four extra legs made it closer to an alarming scurrying motion, not unlike a 900lbs spider scuttling across the ceiling above your head while you try to sleep.

Sarah recoiled away from the fence, and had the immediate irrational urge to swat him with a giant rolled up newspaper. "Very… ah… unique."

"Diminishes his charm just a little, doesn't it? Don't worry," Jareth assured her, having easily gleaned the direction of her thoughts, "we aren't riding him."

Sarah felt her chest deflate in relief. "Oh, thank god."

"I wouldn't. They rarely do anything worth thanking them for, and it's never wise to place oneself in their debt." At her questioning glance, he straightened. "I believe I promised to feed you."

Sarah folded her arms. "Actually you blackmailed me into being fed by promising to find me if hid."

"Why, Sarah," he grinned unrepentantly, "you almost sound disappointed it didn't come to that."

She wished she hadn't spoken. He was too close all of a sudden and his attention on her was too intense. She inhaled. And he smelled too good. Nothing like the stables that surrounded them; he'd clearly freshly bathed. Cloves, rosemary, sandalwood, crisp linens… He'd evidently already started replacing his lost wardrobe. And underlying all of that was the unique blend of masculine and magic that she'd come to associate with him.

She took a small step away under the pretense of adjusting her skirts. "You know, I don't think I'm dressed for riding. Should we just get something from the kitchens?"

A warm hand closed firmly around her elbow before she could turn away. She pulled uselessly for a moment and then looked down at it pointedly.

"You came this far, Sarah. Don't run away now." There was an earnestness free from mocking in his voice that stopped her. It was so at odds with his usual demeanor. She tugged one more time and he released her obligingly.

"I'm not." Not yet, she added to herself.

"We aren't riding anyway. Not today. But I'll take you if you want. I have plenty of horses with only four legs." And then his eyes swept her down her appreciatively. "You're dressed perfectly for what I have in mind."

Sarah snorted, suddenly feeling uncomfortable for reasons she couldn't quite place. Did he think she'd dressed her him? That bothered her. It bothered her even more that it didn't as much as it should have.

He offered her his arm, crooked at the elbow like a gentleman. She stared at it as though it were more out of place than the eight-legged hell horse spider-trotting around, no more than a few feet from them.

He was dressed casually enough, but it did nothing to relieve her. A crisp white shirt beneath a fitted waistcoat in a deep slate. Pale grey pants were tucked into black boots polished to a ridiculous shine. He wore gloves, but his shirt sleeves were rolled up to reveal lightly muscled forearms and he'd forgone a jacket. He held a riding crop casually under one arm, at odds with his promise they wouldn't be riding.

That was explained when a sleek high-perched phaeton pulled up, drawn by the same breed of unnerving beasts that had led them from the marriage ceremony. They tossed their heads fitfully, heavy feet kicking up dust into the air as they chomped at their bits; eager to be off.

Sarah placed a hand cautiously on his arm, barely registering the feel of his sun-warmed skin before she was being lifted up the high step. His hands clasped firmly around her waist in the half-second she was airborne and then it was over. She sat immediately, remembering how unceremoniously she'd been tossed into his lap last time. He hopped up after her, filling the rest of the narrow tufted seat.

True to his invitation, he clearly meant they would be away from prying eyes. No goblin grooms joined them and he took the reins from the stable hand himself, though it seemed the horses needed little guiding and almost no correction. The phaeton took off with a slight lurch, but otherwise settled into a smooth pace. The late afternoon sun was still bright, though no longer blinding, and it brought the blue-green sheen of the horses' dark coats into dazzling relief.

"They are kelpies," Jareth explained.

"Hmm?" She asked distractedly. Away from the stables and confined so closely, it was harder to ignore the heat of his body at his side.

"I said they are kelpies. Water horses. You seemed to be admiring them. Or was it something else you were admiring?"

His question sounded innocent enough but she knew she'd been found out.

"I was… them. Admiring, them." Only a partial lie. "But don't Kelpies live in water and… ah… drown people?"

"Only the annoying ones," he replied glibly, and it was difficult to tell if he was being serious. Which meant he probably was.

Sarah lapsed into silence, her eyes fixing neutrally on the stunning landscape. The castle and its ever changing labyrinth were soon replaced by the carefully manicured trees and hedgerows of the surrounding estate they'd passed on their way from the wedding, and then again into a sun-dappled lane through ornamental woods. When they came to a crossroads, Jareth pointed his crop in a direction they did not take.

"That way leads to the Goblin Market. I believe you'd claimed interest in seeing its wares." Then he winked at her. "So you don't get lost next time and end up married to anyone else."

"I…" she trailed off mutinously. He was teasing her. But it was in a playful way that was hard to get angry with, making it all the more devious. Best to ignore him.

"I'd like to show it to you," he offered when she didn't say more. "Perhaps on another day when I've not promised to feed you."

Sarah twisted her fist into her skirts, brow creasing in agitation at how charming he was being. "What is this?" she snapped in misplaced irritation. "What are you really trying to do right now?"

Jareth canted his head enough that she could see his face; all sharp lines and wild eyes that were softer than normal but less restrained. Unfettered. Perhaps even wounded. Sarah decided he'd never been more dangerous. Jareth didn't answer and she didn't press.

The phaeton crossed into an open orchard, the sunlit woods giving way to rows of smaller fruit-bearing trees. The air was rife with the scent of ripe fruit, and Sarah's stomach gave an audible gurgle. She pressed a hand to it self-consciously. Golden pears, velvet plums, apples in every colour… Small ladders disappeared into the low-slung, heavily-laden canopies, and large baskets at their base showed that it was very much a working orchard, despite it being currently deserted save for them. She wondered if that too was by design.

As the kelpies cantered through the trees, Jareth stretched an arm out and plucked a plum, taking a moment to polish it on his vest before offering it to her. She stared at his offering and then back up at him dubiously.

"Symbolism too overt for you?" The curl of his lip suggested he'd once again gleaned all her thoughts. "It's just to tide you over."

"Someone offered me a peach once," she huffed dramatically. "Turned out to be rotten. Did it come from here too?"

Catching her implication, he smiled, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I wonder what purpose drugging you would have. Why go to the effort now," he took a bite of the plum and chewed thoughtfully, "when I already have you?"

Sarah glowered at him and then defiantly pulled the fruit from his unresisting fingers. "You don't. You're not Hades and I'm not Persephone." She turned it away from where'd he'd bitten, and bit down savagely. It tasted like earth and summer and sunlight. She hummed in appreciation and finished it, studiously ignoring him the entire time. He took the fleshly core from her fingers and tossed the remains to the water horses. They snapped at it.

"Not as delicious as wayward mortals, no doubt, but even they appreciate the orchard's offerings. And unless you think I want to dance with them I suspect you are safe," he added wryly.

Sarah looked away. "I haven't been safe since I made a silly wish on a rainy night."

Jareth snorted. "If I were really Hades, and believe me there is much about that story you don't know, then I would have never let you go, Sarah." When she didn't anything, he pressed, "Are you really so afraid?"

The question caught her off guard. The second even more so.

"Do you think I would hurt you?"

"I…" she trailed off again, hating that she was at a loss for words. Especially with him. She could mention the cleaners… the bog. Rhiannon's threat to turn her into a rug…"I'm not afraid," she replied finally. "But they were dragging me towards a pit to be executed only yesterday. Because of you."

"Ah yes, that," Jareth sighed. He paused long enough she thought he might actually feel some measure of guilt. "Do you really think I would have let that happen to you?"

She stared at him incredulously but then felt her shoulders relax slightly under the solemnity of his expression.

"Perhaps not." She found she meant it. "But at the time I can't say I was confident. I'd just all but humiliated you." Then quieter, "I don't think you would mean to hurt me, no." There were so many ways she could be hurt though.

"But accidentally perhaps," he finished for her, in a strangely tight voice.

"What about the bedroom?" she asked when he said nothing more. His silence was somehow making her feel more like the villain and that wouldn't do at all. They had established their roles a long time ago. They couldn't switch now.

"Ah yes, that again." His lips twitched. "Tit for tat. Your redecorating was… certainly lurid."

She smothered a self-satisfied smile. "I can't decide if you're referring to the colour or the troll contortions on your ceiling." She was finding it hard to stay angry at him, which was in its own way infuriating.

"Does it matter?" he asked, adjusting the steeds with deft movements that made the muscles in his forearms dance.

Sarah felt a bloom of heat creep down her neck that had nothing to do with the late afternoon sun. A rut in the road sent her bumping into him, bringing her flush to his thigh for a moment. She inched away as far as the tufted leather seat would allow. His lips bowed but he didn't comment on her retreat.

"But is it really tit for tat? Redecorating is one thing. Forcing me into your bed is quite another." She was feeling rather mulish.

"I don't recall forcing you into my bed, Sarah," he replied evenly, not rising to her bait.

"Then what am I supposed to assume when you make my entire room vanish?"

"What you assume is entirely your choice. May I remind you that you are the one who insisted it was not your room to begin with? That it was someone else's? And you didn't seem particularly enamoured with it as a result."

"It was hideous, objectively speaking, even taking out its actual owner from the equation."

"Then you must admit my room is a marked improvement," Jareth agreed.

Sarah began to suspect she'd fallen into some kind of trap. "Let the record show I have not admitted to anything."

"It's possible to sleep in a bed without tearing each other's clothes off. Unless mortals are so unable to resist temptation."

Sarah pulled a face. "How funny coming from a species that seems to hump anything that walks."

"My, my, you are full of assumptions today, aren't you?" Jareth sounded more amused than insulted, which was a shame

"Fine. Maybe you don't. But let me guess… you are now going to tell me that you'll offer to sleep on the couch like a gentleman, in the hopes I won't be selfish enough to actually make you? Because I assure you, as far as I am concerned even the couch is too good for you."

He laughed outright at that. "Why would I sleep on the couch when it's my room? You may take the couch if you are so inclined. And why would you ever assume I was anything so absolutely spineless as a gentleman?"

"But you just said-"

Jareth leaned down towards her, his eyes suddenly too dark and fathoms deep. "Don't assume I lack teeth just because I choose not to bite, Sarah." His attention dropped to her lips, and for a moment she thought he might kiss her. Maybe she wanted him to. "Even if I think you might like it."

His focus returned to the road breaking the strange fluttering hold on her. She bit back the confusing swell of disappointment.

"So I may sleep wherever I choose then?" she asked coyly. Later she would blame her temerity on hunger.

A muscle ticked in his jaw but he still didn't rise. "You are not a prisoner, contrary to the martyr you might believe yourself. Sleep wherever you choose. Though I should warn you if you choose the stables, Sleipnir snores. So does Cern."

"Tempting," she replied dryly, and then because she couldn't stop herself, she added, "Though perhaps Cern would like some company."

Surprisingly there was no answering flare of jealousy as expected. Hoped for even.

"I'm afraid his bed may be otherwise occupied currently." There was a knowing inflection that suggested he knew what she'd tried. "He's being well-looked after by some scantily clad tart in the stables."

Sarah blanched, and then cleared her throat to change the subject, still determined to get the upper hand. "If I am not a prisoner then what about this?" She raised her wrist to indicate the invisible tether that bound them together.

"I am as much bound to you by it if that makes you feel better. And it is as much for your protection here as anything. Certainly until…" he trailed off. "Well, you have to admit you've had the run of the place lately."

Sarah's teeth ground. "So a longer leash but still a leash."

"I can't watch you constantly, Sarah."

"I'm not a child!" She wasn't even sure what she was most angry about anymore. "I don't need watching. And what have you been up to anyway?"

Another muscle in his cheek ticked. "You haven't liked being ignored," he replied, not answering her, but a landing a little too close to the mark.

Sarah immediately bristled.

"I really have missed you," he smoothed.

And for a moment she was strangely mollified.

"When you're not around I hardly ever hear about all of my shortcomings."

There it was.

"Which would you like?" She offered saccharinely. "Alphabetical or in order of magnitude?"

He grinned at her. "Magnitude of course, though I thought this was meant to be a truce?"

"Is it? Then may I also point out you promised to feed me and haven't, apart from one piece of very suspect fruit."

His grin widened. "Hungry?"

Such an innocent question asked by someone who was anything but. She didn't answer but watched, intrigued, as he pulled out of the orchard into a patch of taller birches and poplars. They had to duck slightly, the overhang of green-silvery leaves just narrowly missing their heads, and suggesting where they were going was little used, and a touch more wild. Jareth pulled the coach to stop with a sharp small jerk alongside a slow-moving stream. The kelpies whinnied in protest but complied, tossing their skeletal heads. He hopped down and unbridled them, cooing to them in low-spoken words and then slapping them each on their rumps to send them thundering off into the brush.

Sarah watched their departure curiously, as Jareth approached her side of the phaeton.

"Don't worry. They're off to hunt but will return whenever called. It helps relax them." He extended a hand to help her down. "I promise not to make you hunt for you lunch unless you think it would calm you down as well."

She ignored the hand, but getting out of the high perch in the ridiculously cumbersome, yet still annoyingly gorgeous, dress was its own feat. In the end she settled for propping a hand on his shoulder to try and hop down herself.

A hand caught her lower back to steady her. "How very stubborn you are." He sounded more charmed than disappointed.

"It's your fault. You dressed me today."

"Dressed you?" he scoffed. "That doesn't sound like something I would do. Quite the opposite."

"Your ladies then."

"I don't have ladies, Sarah. They were just there to protect my room from more of your unique taste in art. We walk from here." He stepped to the side and extended an elbow, winking at her provokingly. "But do let me know when you're brave enough for that truce."

Sarah stared at him suspiciously, but the warmth of late afternoon sun and the idyllic ride had seemingly mellowed her despite her best attempts to stay annoyed at him. He was right. It was a bit of a relief to be away from the castle and all of those speculative eyes, not to mention mysteriously falling flower pots. She took his arm, curling her fingers into the fine linen of his shirt. "You couldn't have just… magicked us here?"

He didn't say anything but led them along a narrow path, barely wide enough for one. A few wayward low-hanging branches threatened to slap her in the face several times, always conveniently seeming to miss him entirely. She was on the point of complaining about the whole endeavour, and pointing out that he didn't seem to have brought any lunch for them anyway, when the path widened again to reveal a small clearing on the edge of a hidden lake. A few ruins of old stone suggested something had once been built on the shore, but nature had all but taken it back.

A tall canopy of twisted branches stood upright against the edge of the tree line. Linens had been draped along it and it had been woven with wildflowers and long sprigs of ivy. Candles in glass spheres hung unlit from the wooden arches, suggesting they would be there beyond sundown. Beneath the arches, lush cushions and rugs in soft silks and wools had been strewn in studied disarray, and at the center of it was a low, round table laden with the most splendid looking food. Petit-fours stacked carefully on a three tiered tray of silver. Small pots of tartinades set next to still-steaming scones. Blancmanges made in perfect moulds. There were platters of crudités and sauces. Little sausages encased in delicate golden pastry, olives, figs and capers of every sort, ripe cheese, and tiny sandwiches with fillings Sarah couldn't begin to name. Roasted meats and smoked fish thinly sliced and artfully arranged between rounds of fresh flaky bread. Several carafes of refreshments and two fluted glasses in gold leaf finished the setting.

"Oh…" Sarah exhaled, immediately forgetting what she was about to berate him for. It was high-handed and anything but subtle, but annoyingly and infuriatingly effective nonetheless.

Sarah was still taking in the whole effect when she sank down gingerly into the blessedly soft cushions. The ride had been smooth enough, but had done little for her bruised backside. Curse Cern to Morrigan and back.

Jareth settled himself next to her.

"So is this a part of your seduction?" she challenged, though she hated how her voice hitched like she was excited by the prospect.

"Yes," he answered shamelessly. He reached across the table and filled a glass of sparkling liquid before handing it to her. "Is it working yet?"

Her heart gave a little annoying flutter she was glad he couldn't hear. She took the glass and immediately sipped to avoid answering. The bubbles danced on her tongue mockingly and then shot straight up her nose like fire. She coughed in surprise. "Ginger beer?"

"There's wine too if you prefer. And Goblin Ale, though I don't recommend more than a glass for mortals."

"No, I like it." She took another sip, more careful of her sinuses.

"I thought this way you couldn't blame it on the wine if you decide to ravish me later."

Sarah ignored his bait this time. "This all… looks amazing," she offered finally – a concession of a sort. "I don't know where to start."

"With this." He held up a delicate curl of pâté he'd prepared on a thin slice of bread. When she moved to take it from him, he pulled it just out of reach.

She pulled a face at him, but he held it out again, the cant to his head and the glint in his eyes decidedly challenging. He'd removed his gloves.

"I'm the one in danger of getting bitten. What are you afraid of I wonder? She who so bravely beat my labyrinth."

Everything, Sarah thought. And nothing. Which was just as bad. Her heart gave another flip.

She parted her lips and let him slid the morsel in, trying not to scowl at the look of approval that flashed across his face before it was masked again. She snapped her teeth down pettily, forcing him to pull his fingers back.

A melody of savoury spices exploded on her tongue, and her mouth watered for more even as she chewed and swallowed. She immediately reached for another. And then tucked in, in earnest.

Jareth followed suit, though she got the impression it was more so she wasn't eating alone and not because he was particularly interested in food.

The innocuous thought managed to sour her mood for a moment. As with anything to do with the fae, everything was in someway performative. Shallow and shiny and hollow. It served to reinforce the differences between them and how impossible all of it was. She ate to live. They ate for show. She would die and he… wouldn't. It had been an insidious thought chipping away at the back of her mind since the very beginning. One she'd been ignoring until she was looking for fresh excuses.

Nape prickling, she glanced up to see Jareth studying the maelstrom of emotions on her face.

"Sarah." He wiped his mouth on a napkin and leaned back on one elbow so he could gesture at the space. "Enjoy yourself. You were for a moment. Just then. Until you stopped yourself. At the very least enjoy that we are alone and that no one is trying to smash us together or pull us apart. No goblins, chicken armies, or meddling cousins."

She inhaled deeply, eyes fluttering closed for a moment to try and savour the peace. She'd never admit it out loud, but he was right.

Not that it was quiet exactly. But it was a different kind of sound – the sort that almost lulls you into happiness if you let it. Leaves that shimmered and seemed to shush the rest of the woods. Birds chirping and distant rustling suggesting critters in the tall grass bracketing the trees. The ripple of water on the little lake. So different from the chaos of the labyrinth.

"It is… uniquely beautiful," she allowed finally, knowing that was a paltry word to describe it.

"Very much so," Jareth agreed. She likewise knew that if she opened her eyes he'd be looking at her. She didn't.

"I used to come here as a boy to swim."

Sarah almost couldn't imagine him as one. She waited for him to say more but he didn't.

Satiated, it was easy to sink back into the lush cushions and forget the rest of the world for a blessed moment. "I could get used to this."

"Could you?" he asked pensively.

Her eyes opened. He was closer. And she wondered if he'd been about to touch her. "Well, I mean… this," she gestured vaguely at the picnic and then between them, "not that."

But the spark in his eyes had not dimmed, in fact if anything it flared.

"What? Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Because you might resent the situation, but you don't reject what I offer."

She snorted but didn't say anything. The silence stretched but it was easy and somehow natural. Which made it dangerous.

"No kangaroo courts around either," she added, breaking the moment.

His lids flickered in annoyance but didn't look particularly surprised by her comment. He sat back up and propped one arm on his knee restively. "Not going to forget that one soon, are you?"

"Well, you did almost have me executed by way of a pit of no bottom."

"Yes, you mentioned that already." He offered her a fig stuffed with a ripened cheese. "And yet how could it be an execution if there is no bottom?"

"Well I," Sarah's brow furrowed at both the absurdity and the logic of his statement, "I suppose I would have eventually died of dehydration or starvation or old age."

Jareth waved a hand in dismissal. "Surely boredom would take you first."

She picked up a grape and threw it at him. "I'm talking about my near brush with death and you're sitting there laughing at me."

He caught her hand before she could toss another one, trapping her fingers with his. "I told you I wouldn't let anything happen to you, Sarah." His eyes were dancing but his words were deceptively light for the weight they held. He transferred his hold to her wrist and brought her hand, pliant and unresisting, to his mouth. He ate the grape from her numb fingers. The movement was executed quickly and efficiently, before she could object, but there was the distinct scrape of uneven teeth against her skin, tempered by the soft sweep of a tongue. And that lingered.

He released her almost immediately, but for a moment her hand remained suspended between them, like she'd not yet noticed he'd let her go. She swallowed thickly, feeling a flush of something hot and needy thrum to life. It was too easy to imagine that tongue and those teeth somewhere else. Everywhere else. The tension between them was palpable.

She distracted herself with another sip of the spiced beer; the bubbles as electric as her pulse.

Perhaps picking up on that discomfit he eased away again and stretched lazily. "I thought you'd once dreamt of being a famous actor."

She set her glass down, feeling pleasantly full but not stuffed. The kind of sated that makes one candid. "I did once, I suppose. Childhood dreams and all that."

"The kind you grow out of…" he trailed off suggestively.

They were circling dangerous territory again. "Maybe. But more because I really only wanted to be one so I'd be closer to my mother. Once I realized that living her life would in no way replace her absence from mine, I found other interests. My own. And I guess I gave up acting." She shrugged gracefully. "Traded it for something else."

"Because it had never been your dream."

Her lip curled. "Or maybe I could never remember my lines."

Jareth's jaw slackened. "You're joking."

Sarah smothered a laugh at his bewildered expression. "Yes."

"Termagant."

"You married me. Perhaps your next one will be nicer."

"Or perhaps," his teeth glinted, "I've already got a bride and don't want another."

Sarah's laughter faltered; lulled by the banter that had dulled her defences. "We both know not really."

"That you aren't already mine or that I wouldn't like another?"

Sarah ignored him. "I'm fairly certain your loyal goblins would like another. They seem to have concocted a very creative, albeit confusing plot on my life."

"Did you redecorate their bedrooms and give away half their clothes too?" he asked dryly.

"You must admit they've never been better dressed," she countered, and then grew serious again. "This isn't real, you know."

"It feels real. Is this so terrible? If you were honest..."

Sarah waved a hand as though she could brush the question away. "And what about your dreams? Were they always to be the Goblin King?" she added quickly to ensure he couldn't flip it back on her.

His expression suggested he wouldn't let his question go forever but he answered after a moment. "Duty and dreams do not often walk together."

Sarah sat up a little more at that, curiosity piqued. "You mean… you didn't want to be Goblin King?" It was hard to imagine anyone else in his place. Though she supposed he must have been a child once. He'd said as much. A tow-haired forest child swimming in the lake. Maybe not unlike Rook.

"I mean that what I wanted played very little part in the decision." He suddenly sounded tired and not keen on the conversation.

"But couldn't you just abdicate the throne?"

"I never said I didn't want the throne. I said I had no choice in the matter. And give the throne to whom? I have no heirs."

"But surely someone in your family…" Sarah started, until Rook's words flooded back. "You didn't… did you marry me to have a… a litter?"

Jareth choked on the beer he'd unfortunately just sipped.

"I meant…" her tongue was very uncooperative. "Rook mentioned that mortals are…" she winced at having to say it, "more fertile. Apparently there are rumours that's why you are so… invested in making this work."

Jareth recovered, his eyes overly bright all of sudden. "Undoubtedly. But no, that's not the reason."

"Maybe children aren't even possible between…" she trailed off at the belated realization of what she was saying aloud.

"Oh, they are." It sounded like he was barely suppressing laughter. "I assure you that's not the reason."

It was like chumming the water but she had to know. "Then why?"

"Perhaps I am not ready to tell you that." He moved closer; shifting across the cushions like a beast about to pounce. "What would you give me if I told you?"

"What are you doing?" Sarah tensed.

"Getting bored of waiting for you to ravish me. Tempting you with a bargain." Closer still. "Or perhaps getting near enough to kiss you, since I've been waiting all day to do so."

"Oh…" she said stupidly, because nothing else helpful came to mind. "Was this elaborate picnic all so you could do that?"

"I could kiss you anytime," he replied without any trace of guile. "This was so you'd let me. Unless you would like to kiss me of course. I promise not to bite unless you ask me very nicely."

Sarah licked her lips before she knew what she was doing. "And what would you give me if I kissed you?"

Something dormant in his eyes flared to life.

Unfortunately, neither would ever know what he'd give, or if she would, because of the unmistakable sound of something bipedal approaching through the ruins by the water's edge.

Sarah startled, but it was Jareth's reaction that was most dramatic. He looked incensed by the imminent interruption and was on his feet, striding across the grass towards the shore, before Sarah processed what was happening.

"Stay here," he barked back, when she made to follow and then under his breath. "I just have a few subjects to murder." He disappeared into the bush and stone surrounding the lake.

Sarah blinked, concerned at just how very serious he sounded.

There was a startled shout, a roar of outrage, and then what sounded like wails followed by a crack; the unmistakable smell of magic in the air.

She waited. And waited a little longer before curiosity got the better of her. Picking her way carefully towards the ruins and through thick foliage that dotted the shore of the lake, she was unprepared for the incongruous sight of what greeted her. She ducked down by rote.

Jareth, standing waist deep out in the lake, scrubbing at his torso. His waistcoat was discarded on a log, and looked like as though it had been doused in green sludge.

Sarah's eyes, however, were firmly fixed on the largely transparent white shirt that molded to his finely sculpted chest and narrow waist. Water sluiced over skin and disappeared into breeches that now left virtually nothing to the imagination.

Unbidden, the memories of catching him bathing in his room arose… muscular thighs… stroking himself in the bath…

The sound of water had stopped.

Her eyes shot back to his face. The Goblin King was staring at her. He looked livid, but the anger was fading and something else was replacing it.

Sarah tried to cover her embarrassment with a cough. "What happened?"

Jareth resumed scrubbing himself. "Peas. Mushy peas happened."

"I'm sorry, what?"

"My sentiments exactly."

Sarah glanced back to the waistcoat and then at the irate Goblin King picking bits of green from his hair.

"Perhaps an assassination attempt is indeed in the works. Never have I been attacked by my own goblins. Not least with tavern-fare!"

"I'm sorry," she smothered a laugh. "But it's nice to know misery loves company. Be thankful it wasn't flower pots."

"I can't begin to think what you mean by that. No more so than their frenzied explanations that they'd run out of rice. As though that would have been preferable." He picked out another bit of green from his hair. "Well, perhaps it would have been, in fact."

"Rice?" Sarah choked on her laugh as a suspicion began to take shape. "Oh no… Please tell me you didn't kill the poor fools?"

"Not yet," Jareth replied. Just as he'd not yet found the humour in anything. "They are currently being suspended by their nose hairs over the bog. I was feeling generous." Cleaned, he eyed her and then stalked closer through the water. "Tell me more about how misery loves company."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't laugh." But of course she couldn't stop laughing. And the more she tried to stop, the harder she did. She took a step back from the edge, not liking the expression on his face.

"You find this amusing."

Sarah nodded, eying him warily. "Very." It felt good to be laughing at someone else's misfortune.

A glob of leftover peas hit Sarah squarely in the cheek.

"You're right. Misery does love company. Let's clean that up, shall we?"

Before she could run, she was unceremoniously hauled over a shoulder and he was wading back towards deeper water.

"You… threw peas at me!" Sarah wiped her cheek on his back spitefully, before the greater threat made itself apparent. "No! Don't you dare, Jareth!"

"You really should have kissed me then." He slapped her lightly on her upturned arse. "I might have felt more generous."

And then water was rushing over her head and swallowing her shriek, as he tossed her in.

Sarah rolled in the shock of cold water, her legs getting tangled in her voluminous skirts. She tried to orient herself back towards the surface and find her footing on the slippery rocks. She was an excellent swimmer normally, but she'd never tried in such a long gown. She floundered for a moment until strong arms found hers and hauled her upright.

She shot up coughing, and ready to fight. "You absolute bastard!" But her anger broke on another laugh. "I could have drowned!"

"In four feet of water?" He brushed away the residual smear of peas from her face.

"You try swimming in a dress!"

"Alright, take it off and I'll give it a try." He no longer sounded angry.

So she did the only sensible thing and splashed him. Hard.

Which meant he splashed her back. Harder.

Which meant she launched herself at him, using her weight and momentum to force him off balance backwards into the water. He caught her around the waist as they both went under again, limbs entwining when they kicked up again for air.

Jareth kept his arms around her when they surfaced. They were so close Sarah could feel the inviting warmth of his body radiating through the cool water. It was nothing to the heat reflected in his own kept flickering from the visible expanse of his chest to his face.

"I'll let you in on a little secret, Sarah." His tone was mildly sardonic. "It's alright for you to be attracted to your husband."

Sarah wanted to deny it but she was beyond those lies. She was clinging to others instead. "You're not my husband. And it doesn't matter."

"Doesn't it? I could make you want to stay." There was an intensity in those low-spoken words that skittered down her spine.

"It's not..." she began and trailed off just as quickly when his fingers skated up her ribs.

"I could convince you if you let me. If for once you didn't run away."

"I never run away," she countered by rote, though she had in fact just tried to run away. Because she hated when he called her a coward. Most especially when she was being one. "I run towards something," she added, because it was important that he never forgot her strength. That her will was stronger.

She was not scared, she was driven.

He didn't argue and instead cupped her chin, his fingers warm against her chilled skin as his brushed past her flushed cheek to card through her hair. The touch, feather light and gentle, almost distracted her from that look in his eyes. Almost. He undid her ruined coiffure, the damp locks falling loose about her shoulders.

He was suddenly far too close without demanding. It was unnerving. "Then I look forward to the day when you run towards me." His words were faintly wistful, which was perhaps the most unfair thing he could have done in the moment. A wistful Goblin King was one she didn't know how to manage. One she wasn't sure she even had defences against. It was a duel of another kind and he'd found her weak flank. He pressed his advantage, stepping into her through the water. Leaving her ample time to react. Daring her to prove herself a liar if she ran. It was a calculated move.

His hips were a breath from hers. His lips too, so that when he spoke she felt it more than heard. "Let me keep you and I'll show you why you want me to."

The ridiculous offer sent a frisson of something wicked through her. "Sounds one sided." Her voice was breathy even to her own ears. "Unfair."

"It is unfair, Sarah. You've owned me for years. I wish only to level the playing field." His fingers flexed against her back – skin to skin. His eyes dropped to her lips. "I'm going to kiss you now and I think you may have to drown me in earnest if you want to avoid it."

She did the only sensible thing and went on the attack by kissing him first. Pressing her wet body fully to his, she bumped into his nose awkwardly, and then angled her head so they fit perfectly. His hold tightened on her reflexively but he didn't move otherwise. She couldn't decide if it was because he was shocked she'd not tried to drown him, or because he wasn't as affected as she was. The latter possibility was unthinkable. She made a small hiss of protest and teased the seam of his lips with her tongue. He parted them obligingly, but still made no move. Irritated, she caught the corner of his lower lip with her teeth and tugged, as she threaded her hands into his damp hair to hold him in place.

Something snapped. Jareth growled into the kiss, deepening it like a starved man. A hand shot up to grip her nape, tilting her head back so he could better plunder the mouth. He stroked his tongue along hers, plundering her mouth, and then retreated teasingly – coaxing her to follow - only to steal her breath over again. His other hand roved across the exposed flesh of her back and then lower to cup her ass through the sodden material of her dress. She hissed at the contact with her bruised flesh, but didn't pull away. He shifted her up against him, the water buoying her, and she was immediately aware just how affected he was when something hard and long bumped against her. The thin barrier of silk and linen did nothing to disguise how much he wanted her. She felt a heady rush of power at that, followed by an even more primal pang of answering need. Instinctively she parted her legs so he could better rock into her – the friction driving her mad and making her slickly wet in a way that had nothing to do with the water.

Her hands fell from his hair to splay across the lightly corded muscles in his neck and then smooth down his chest, scraping across his nipples, delighting in his fractured draw of breath, until they found opening in his shirt and slipped within. He was wearing far too much clothing she decided, even if it now clung to him like a second skin.

He must have felt the same. The hand at her neck dropped down to find the decorative sleeve of her dress, and slid underneath to coax it off one shoulder. He repeated the same on the other arm, until the bodice was held up only by the swell of her breasts. He skated along her collarbones with the backs of his fingers, inexorably slowly and with patience belied by the rapid beat of his heart. She had no idea the hollow of her throat could be so sensitive until his open mouth found it and his tongue sucked at the water droplets. He traced their descent with the same vexing leisure.

Like he had all the time in the world to taste her. To savour...

...When she wanted to be devoured.

He kissed the tops of her breasts almost reverently, tauntingly. Avoiding touching her where she really wanted. Needed him to touch. She made a sound of protest that was part mewl and part demand.

She was unprepared, therefore, for him to shift so suddenly, dropping his head further and lifting her one-handed so he could close his lips around her nipple through her gown. Her head fell back, arms shifting to clutch at his arms so she didn't end up underwater again. He suckled hard through the silk, tongue curling around the sensitive bud.

Her breaths turned ragged when she felt the scrape of uneven teeth. His was no better, and she could feel his arousal rocking into her almost desperately. Without his usual finesse. Live a cork had finally popped from a bottle long under pressure.

She dipped a hand down his chest, smoothing across the tautness of his flat stomach until she found the feathery trail of fine hair beginning at his navel. She teased the sensitive skin lightly until he snapped and pushed her hand down onto his cock.

She didn't hesitate to stroke his length through his wet trousers, relishing the sharp gasp against her breast when she gripped him fully. She squeezed lightly and then harder, reveling in every throb. She stroked more firmly and he bucked, making a hoarse sound of need that sent another flood of slick heat directly to her cunt. He bit down on her breast, and then sucked the sting away.

She arched her back, losing her grip on him at the awkward angle. It was enough for the poor dress to finally give way. The sudden rush of air against her chilled skin, made her exposed nipple pucker tightly. His mouth slid over to lick up the underside of her newly bared breast, catching a droplet of water off the tip before it fell, before sucking the peak into his mouth fully. He groaned like she tasted better than anything that had been at the lavish spread.

The aching coil that was unfurling within her spiked and fractured. With his free hand he roughly tugged the other side of her bodice down until it pooled at her waist, and then he cupped her, thumb brushing against the flesh he'd marked with his teeth and his deft fingers stroking firmly. She craned her head to look down and her breath hitched at the sight. Sun glinted off his golden head as he worshipped her with his mouth.

Vaguely, she felt the other hand holding her up to him beneath the surface, shift in order to ruck up the skirts that swirled gently in the water between them. His mouth left her breast with a wet pop as he lifted his head to stare down at her. His eyes were so dark, and the pupils so blown with desire, she could no longer mark the differences between them.

His lips sought hers again and he sank into the kiss, like he ached to sink into her body. Like she ached for him too. When they both broke apart for air he spoke into her neck; his words pressing into her frantic pulse the way his fingers traced patterns against her inner thigh.

"Let me, Sarah." His voice was raw, demanding but also beseeching; leaving the power in her hands even though she knew that was far from his nature. She also knew if she said yes, that balance would shift again. He'd have them both naked and on her back under the silken canopy before she could change her mind. If they even made it that far. Being taken against the shore would work just as well, she thought. They could dry off on those silken pillows later and take their time. Later but not now. The tempting image it painted in her mind was so close she could almost touch it. It was real.

Perhaps feeling that sway in her - the precipice shifting beneath her feet - Jareth's fingers pressed in further, teasing against her slick folds beneath the water. "Find the right words, Sarah."


AN: No, that ending does not count as cock-blocking. That's just stopping the chapter at a potentially infuriating place but it's not cock-blocking. Put your damn pitchforks down.

I'm sorry this took so long to come out (longest chapter yet, though, if that's any consolation).

Have you figured out what the goblins are up to yet?

Next chapter (I thought it would be this one, but nope) you'll find out what exactly Jareth has been up to and it may change things… just a little. Mums the word.

Hope you are all hanging in there as we round out 2021. This is my busy time at work so I feel like a pinball machine these days. Shout out to my completely dysfunctional Labyrinth family (you know who you are) for keeping me sane and sharing in all the drama. If we didn't have daily chats, I might actually unhinge my jaw and eat someone one of these days.

Yes, I am still alive Hope all of you are well!

Credits:

Sleipnir - In Norse mythology, Sleipnir is an eight-legged horse ridden by Odin. The disturbing scurrying version of him is all due to a meme, and to PlantNerd92 (Nancy), who wanted me to include a spider-like version of Sleipnir. I think she may have originally suggested for Tanglewood, but it made so much sense here.

Big shout out to LFFL for helping me with inspo for the picnic and dress. I polled the group (like a bloody year ago) for pics of romantic picnics and gowns – that's how long this chapter has been in the making.

The wet shirt scene is 100 percent a reference to the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice (aka – the only one that matters. You can keep your limp noodle Darcy, Telcontarian).

Stay thirsty (and safe), dear readers!