"The early bird gets the worm. The early worm… gets eaten."
Norman Ralph Augustine
Sarah's cup hit the floor bounced once and broke, splashing hot coffee across her flip flops and up calves. The mug was well-used and of some obvious years, with a faded picture of Lord Baden Powell in his uniform and the words "Be Prepared" beneath.
Lying in pieces on the painted wood floor it instead read 'red – repa – Be P' which Sarah decided loosely translated to 'You are fucked beyond belief now.'
Three sharp whistled had everyone turning. Doug stood in the centre of the old dining hall, clip boards haphazardly stacked in his arms. "Attention. Attention, everyone! As you can see, the latest group of cub scouts have arrived and I have your assignments ready. Daylight is wasting, folks." He juggled the boards awkwardly. "Williams!"
Sarah, who was crouched down collecting shards of porcelain and keeping a wary eye on the doors like she expected a goblin invasion at any moment, rose.
Doug sighed. "Is that what passes for a regulation uniform?"
She glanced won at her tank and cut offs. "Uhhh…"
He gave her a disappointed look but thankfully refrained from launching into all the codes she was violating. He tapped his nose, almost dropping the boards. "Be Prepared."
Sarah looked down at the mug then out the window at the campers. One had already scaled the flagpole and was wearing the maple leaf as a cape. Two more had eaten the heads off all the flowers tastefully planted at the base. Several more were chewing on their sleeping bags experimentally.
"They must be Canadians," remarked one of the leaders scratching his head. He straightened the Stars and Stripes pin on his lapel and then ducked his head conspiratorially. "I've heard they put more than just fluoride in the water here."
The goblin in the flag had already fallen off the pole and instead decided to start chewing the support beams to the dining hall steps. His inhuman looking teeth were made all the more so by the fact he'd unhinged his jaw.
Chris chuckled well naturedly as though it was the most normal thing in the world. "Looks like we got a biter."
Sarah immediately turned to get more coffee but just as she reached the galley kitchen, Ernie shut the doors with his characteristic scowl and a finger jab at the clock.
Someone wordlessly pressed a clipboard in her hand. The names of her campers were listed in one long column.
13th Owl Pack
"You son of a B-"
"Williams! Language!" Doug gestured to the hand-painted list of rules posted on the wall. No profanity was number two, right behind dress uniforms at all times.
Sarah's shoulders hitched, but she recovered and made one last bid for sanity. She whirled to the nearest passing leader and waved the roster in their face.
"Look at these names? Don't you think that's a little strange?"
Camille craned her head back to read. "Yah, I guess so. But Sarah's not that uncommon a name." She shook her head as she moved towards the doors. "Seriously though. What's with you lately?"
When they all descended the steps of the dining hall, beady-eyed faces all looked up in unison like a pack of predators catching a scent downwind.
Despite their affectations of being normal human children – albeit possibly Canadian – such as baseball caps and t-shirts, there was no mistaking their overt goblinness. And yet not one of the other leaders looked the least bit fazed. She was alone.
She supposed she had been the one to lay the gauntlet and he had simply answered the challenge.
One by one the other leaders called out their rosters. It was disconcerting to see the motley crew of beasts answer to names like, 'Mia' and 'Gary' and 'Kimberly with an I'.
When Sarah was left alone with the remaining, who seemed to be the ugliest and most unruly of the lot, she tucked the clipboard against her side and folded her arms.
"So you must be Are, You, Ready, To, Give, Up, Now, and Sarah."
The goblins grinned toothily.
"I'm Sarah," said one in a decidedly male voice. He was by far the ugliest one, with features that looked like someone had taken all the very worst traits of a goblin and mixed them into one face. Then soundly beaten that face with a rolling pin.
"Like looking in a mirror," she remarked dryly.
"That's what he said too," Not-Sarah replied.
She scowled. "So I suppose we can drop all pretence then right? You aren't campers. You are here to cause destruction and mayhem and generally make things so awful that I concede to the king's demands, hmm?"
The campers looked momentarily taken back. They scratched their heads. Some scratched their balls. Some scratched their neighbours balls my mistake which led to a brief scuffle. "Um… yes?"
Sarah nodded and tapped her chin in thought. "And what did he promise you in return then?"
They conferred amongst themselves before not-Sarah finally spoke suspiciously. "Extra portions of goblin ale. So if you could just give up now?" he finished hopefully.
"That's not happening."
The one wearing the Canadian flag, because of course he was in her group, shoved his neighbour. "Told you she'd never give up." This provoked a shove back, which precipitated a larger brawl that included much eye gouging and nipple twisting.
Sarah stepped into the fray and pulled the two apart by the scruffs of their necks and then dropped them. "You understand of course that I can't in good conscience let you destroy this camp."
As if to punctuate that point no small amount of screaming had already started in the distance.
Sarah ignored the sounds of distress from her fellow leaders and bent to bring herself to their level. "But perhaps we can come to a little arrangement. I can be generous."
Jareth sprawled in his throne, legs stretched and ankles crossed. He rhythmically tapped one thigh with his crop while he waited, trying very hard to contain his impatience. Twenty-nine brats. Meaning one brat was missing. Find the missing brat, find the brother.
A simple solution for a simple problem. With Toby in hand there was very little miss-I-won't-take-them-back wouldn't do, he imagined. That imagining made his cock twitch again but time enough for that later.
He sat up when the doors to the throne room opened and then frowned when he saw his general was alone. "Well, Pöngö? Where is he then?"
"Sire, it seems he is harder to track down than anticipated. He must be using the Labyrinth to his advantage."
The crop stilled against a lightly muscled thigh. "Pöngö. Are you telling me that a mere human boy is somehow eluding my best trackers? That instead of trying to find his way out of a Labyrinth, he is instead using it to hide his trail?"
"And why pray tell would anyone do that, Pöngö?" His voice was deceptively soft.
The general was spared an immediate response by the arrival of some much harried looking guards.
"Sire. The ah… children thingies," began one.
"Have rounded up the Firerys," finished the second.
"They want to know what the next activity is and do they get a badge for it?" added the third in confusion.
"What? Already? That's impossible."
But as though on command, the cub scouts filed in leading a group of very angry and very intact looking Fireries.
"I can't take off my head!" groused one Firery in indignation.
"He can't take off his head!" repeated another, intent on emphasizing what a grievous injustice that was.
"We can't take off anything!" whined the rest.
One of the cubs stepped forward and pointed proudly. "I used a double hitch."
Jareth rose from his throne and approached. Upon closer inspection it became clear that the cubs had bound the appendages of all the Fireries to their bodies used rope and a series of complex looking knots.
"That's a fisherman's," pointed out another little girl.
'Trucker's. Clove-line hitch. Sheet bend. Bowline. Reef. Friendship. Overhand. Slip. Square…'
Jareth's head was swimming with the kids eager to list their handiwork.
"Enough!" he finally thundered. "Those are made up words." He pinched his brow to stem the onset of a headache and waved the irate Fireries away.
"All words are made up."
Jareth looked up in surprise. It was the pinched-faced, blond not-Toby again. He'd been the only one not particularly interested in showing off his knot-tying skills.
"So when's horseback riding then?"
The Goblin King found his mood souring further. "What are you talking about, boy?"
Simon pointed a grubby-looking finger. "That. Where are the horses?"
Jareth glanced down at the crop in his hand. "There aren't any horses here."
"Bit creepy then, isn't it," Simon crossed his arms as he addressed the elephant in the room. "Waving around a riding crop if you don't ride a horse. Makes you wonder."
You could have heard a pin drop. Once upon a time a smarter-than-average goblin had once remarked upon that very inconsistency. Long story short, he had never been seen again. Long story long was liable to give one nightmares.
The goblins looked to Jareth, then to the not-Toby creature, then back to their king.
When the Goblin King spoke, it was in a deceptively soft and dangerously calm voice. "That is really none of your business, now is it?"
Simon looked anything but cowed, perhaps even a little bored. Two of the goblins present voided their bowels.
"Is that a costume or something? Or do you dress like that all the time?" the not-Toby wrinkled his nose disdainfully. "Cause it's really weird."
Pöngö wondered what dimensions worked best for a child's sized casket.
Jareth stared at Simon. Simon stared at Jareth. Then picked his nose.
The Goblin King pressed a hand back to his forehead. "I think I may really hate her." It was a rare moment of pure, unvarnished honesty.
Simon's sour face immediately brightened in understanding. "Me too."
Sarah passed Doug and offered him a mock salute.
Doug, whose arthritis was flaring thanks to the absurd amount of accident reports - more in one day than in his 35 years of scouting combined - he'd already filled out eyed her in surprise. Fully decked out in uniform, she was being trailed by her charges in a way that might have been called orderly if you squinted. At the very least it was a far cry from the absolute chaos found throughout the rest of the camp.
Already one leader had inexplicably needed to be rescued from the bottom of the Kybo, and had, dripping in a summer's worth of shit, quite understandable quit on the spot. Canoes that had never leaked were sinking left right and centre, many with suspicious looking holes that Doug was certain were bite marks. Ernie, who had survived both Vietnam and Korea, had been found steadily sobbing outside the kitchen clutching his apron like it was a security blanket.
Archery was going no better. Doug had found one leader gagged and tied spread eagle over a target. Thankfully the campers were either excellent shots or terrible ones; he was frankly too afraid to find out which.
He supposed sometimes it took awhile for kids to settle in. He supposed sometimes kids acted out in strange ways when away from home.
At least the screaming had stopped.
Doug felt a chill settle in his marrow.
… but why had the screaming stopped?
Sarah dumped her goblins at their camp and set them up with three gallons of ice cream and four bags of jumbo marshmallows pilfered from the kitchens. She'd also found a stack of old yellowed Archie comics left behind by campers from another decade. Though most goblins were completely illiterate - and proud of it - they liked pictures just fine. Especially the ones featuring Jughead, whose ability to devour stacked platters of hamburgers made him something of a god.
She made them promise to stay put until she got back. The day was already on its way to being a scorcher and she wanted a swim in the lake before she set about sorting the other goblins out. The other leaders could certainly manage until then.
It was partly their fault anyway for dumping all the kids on her the night she'd made her imprudent wish.
Just a quick dip then.
She was humming on her way to the beach, towel slung over her shoulder and feeling rather proud of herself for quick thinking under pressure, when she stopped short and pulled the earphones out of her ears like her eyes needed back up.
Occupying her usual spot on the dock was non other than Goblin King himself.
The Goblin King in nothing but the smallest black bathing suit she had ever seen. He was stretched on his side, one elbow propping himself up as he thumbed through a book. He wore a pair of expensive looking sunglasses and his hair was wet, slicked down his head in a way she'd never seen before - sleek and molten gold in the midday sun. With his fey features, he looked like some kind of water god sunning himself. A few droplets of water, or maybe sweat, slid down his surprisingly sculpted chest. Despite being so lithe, his body was lightly corded and incredibly taut. His skin, which Sarah remembered as almost preternaturally pale, was in fact in the process of tanning an almost perfect and impossible golden brown; glistening like he'd just lightly oiled it. She spied her bottle of Hawaiian Tropics she'd left by the water the day before.
It should have been ridiculous but somehow it wasn't.
As an American, Sarah had always thought them a silly form of male swimwear. Embarrassing on most, functional for an athletic few, and otherwise likely very uncomfortable for the majority. They certainly left little to the imagination. Little not being the operative word in this case. It hadn't been a codpiece then.
The swathe of black was slung low on his narrow hips; a trail of golden hair descending from his navel and disappearing beneath the black material that strained like it was working double time to contain what was within.
A sixth sense of doom alerted her to the fact that the Goblin King was aware of her presence. His expression further indicated that he was likewise aware of the focus of her scrutiny. His lips twitched and a brow rose in the universal sign for 'My eyes are up here.'
Sarah frowned, looked away, found her eyes sliding back and then dragged them away again.
Jareth was relishing her obvious discomfort.
"Nice try," she cupped her hand and called.
He mimed not being able to hear her - no doubt a total lie - and instead went back to his book.
Just then a Scout leader ran by her and threw himself into the water - his hair most definitely on fire. He desperately dunked head; steam immediately rising from the lake and bringing with it the sulfurous aroma of burning keratin. He only stayed a moment, however, before dashing back out of the water - a gaggle of goblins dressed like fifth graders in hot pursuit. She was briefly concerned until she saw it was Fred. She waved at him brightly.
Jareth had given up pretense of reading and was watching her. When her attention slid back to him, he patted the weathered wood invitingly.
Sarah was on the point of turning back around and walking away when the old camp bell, the one reserved for dire emergencies, rang stridently for a few seconds and was abruptly cut short. She watched as it crested the treeline, sailing overhead like a missile, to land in the middle of the lake, spooking a pair of loons quite terribly.
This time the Goblin King crooked a finger at her.
Sarah dumped her towel and Discman on the sand, Sugar Ray's Fly still playing. Several aggressive strokes later and she reached the edge of the floating dock. She treaded water for several seconds, contemplating cutting the anchor line and letting him drift away, but then pulled herself up the algae coated ladder. She stood over the Goblin King, dripping in lake water and fury.
"If you don't mind, you're in my sun," he parroted back at her.
She knocked the book out of his hand with her foot, belatedly recognizing her copy of Lance of Love as it skidded off the edge to a watery grave. Truly a more dignified send off than it deserved, she thought.
Jareth sighed dramatically. "And I was just getting to the part where his 'beef bayonet', I believe it was, had risen to the occasion and was poised to batter down her 'virgin's door' to," he paused, thinking, and then snapped his fingers, "fill her moist clam with his salty brine."
He tipped his sunglasses down. "I must say, Sarah. What fascinating taste in literature you have."
She refused to be cowed. "It's not mine. I just found it here."
"Ah yes, because borrowed poorly written erotica is somehow less embarrassing," he replied sardonically.
Though standing over him gave her the illusion of power, she realized that he was using their respective positioning to peruse her sparsely clad body. She'd never actually found her other bikini top and though she was wearing a one piece it had large cut outs around her waist that emphasized and exaggerated an enviable hourglass figure. The suit was also on the thin side while the water had been on cold side.
Sarah crossed her arms over her chest and settled herself down, crossed legged, a safe distance away from him. She stared at her bottle of coconut oil pointedly.
"Would you like some?" he asked politely.
"So are the brats currently terrorizing my kingdom." He palmed the bottle. "Though this smells altogether better."
She watched as he poured a small amount, rubbed it between his hands, and smoothed it over a muscled thigh.
"And how are they?" she asked, picking at a splintered piece of wood to keep her eyes safely occupied.
"Feral as ever," he replied in a tone suggesting he knew exactly what she was doing. "Why don't we end this stand off, hmm? Just ask for them back, Sarah, and we can come to a mutually satisfying arrangement."
She looked up, expression hardening. "You can't possibly think I would agree to whatever you have in mind."
"And how are you enjoying my campers?"
She reached over and snagged her bottle back. "They're a piece of cake." If the cake was full of glass, excrement and arsenic. And worse - cherries.
Jareth merely chuckled.
It didn't help that at that moment Doug's frantic voice crackled from the loud speaker. "This is another reminder that geese are not to be ridden! They are wild animals. I repeat, campers, please stop trying to ride the gee-arghhhh-" The speaker cut off abruptly into ear-splitting feedback and then stopped altogether.
"Just fine," Sarah reiterated, her voice a little more brittle. "My money is on the geese."
"Come, come, Sarah. Is it so very hard to ask me to take them back?"
She looked away and chewed her lip. The same sun-chapped one Jareth had tasted in that brief kiss.
"I never noticed you had freckles before." His words, soft and entirely serious, were unexpected and disarming. And therefore all the more insidious.
Sarah eyed him suspiciously, feeling more than a little off-kilter. "The sun brings them out. But back to the matter at hand-"
"A face without freckles is like a sky without stars."
She scowled. "You know, that would have a lot more impact if your goblins weren't destroying this camp right now."
"I'd be feeling much more generous if your campers weren't terrorizing my kingdom right now."
"Perhaps we do need a truce then," Sarah offered cautiously. She wondered if she could actually salvage the situation and emerge unscathed; if the war could end without bloodshed. Well, further bloodshed she amended, remembering the long line outside the first aid station. They were both adults after all. And mistakes had been made on both sides.
She made the further mistake of looking at him again. He was studying her intently, his expression one she couldn't quite place and therefore couldn't quite decide if it boded well or not.
He extended his hand between them. Sarah wasn't sure if she'd ever seen him without gloves before. His fingers were long and thin, but strong-looking with pleasantly blunt nails. A musician's hands, she mused in a moment of fancy. His skin looked sun-warmed, and she was fairly certain her own hand would fit perfectly within his. She was also fairly certain he wouldn't release her again willingly. There was a dangerous sort of delicious thrill in that as they both lay on the weathered wood, bodies damp and mostly bare, and with the smell of clean water and coconut in the air between them. Her fingers twitched in anticipation.
Then the dock rocked suddenly and Sarah yelped, almost tumbling off the side. Two fully-armed goblin sentries stood on the edge of the platform beside their king looking decidedly uncomfortable and more than a little nervous.
Without turning, Jareth's expression twisted to one that was appropriately thunderous. "While I understand the loss of the bog has emboldened many of you, I can only assume there must be some terrible misunderstanding right now. Certainly you would never deliberately interrupt me right now. Not when I would ensure your death was slow and painful, only to bring you back so I could do it all over again."
The guards looked suitably quelled but they didn't immediately retreat. Silence fell while they prodded each other into speaking first.
Finally one of them cleared his throat after a particularly vicious jab to the ribs. "Uh… er… Sire? Your presence is required. There's been a… well, there's been... something. They are everywhere, sire! The Labyrinth in overrun!"
"They are children, you dim-witted scab. Horrible, precocious children certainly, and strangely fixated on earning badges, but children none...the...less. Surely even you can occupy them for an hour? Throw them in an oubliette if you have to."
"But, sire, we have tried everything! Burning them, drowning them, setting chickens on them-"
Panic suffused her and she stood, almost falling in again. "You did what to my kids?!"
"Not those nasty things!" scoffed the guard. He turned back to the king in desperation. "The caterpillars!"
Jareth stared at Sarah for a long moment as he processed the words and then vanished, taking his guards with him. It was that final sudden shift of weight that sent Sarah falling backwards into the lake.
When the Goblin King reappeared in the Labyrinth, fully dressed and feeling extra irascible, he was not prepared for what actually awaited him. Goblins were naturally prone to hyperbole, believing as they did, that tall tales were really a form of religion. But they had not exaggerated the invertebrate problem. Centuries-old hedges were picked completely clean, trees were entirely encased in cocoons, and all the walkways were appeared to be wriggling, flooded with the writing masses of fuzzy blue caterpillars. The chickens, which been treating the influx like Christmas come early, had reached their surfeit at the all-you-can-eat buffet. They sprawled in various positions of post-gorge napping. It was clear that the magic of the underground had apparently sped up the caterpillars' natural propagation rates.
Jareth had already expended a great deal of his own stores going above ground, even with Simon's assistance of a wish. The first tendrils of a headache has taken root just as Pöngö waded to his side.
"I trust you have something good to say, general, otherwise I'd suggest not saying at all just now. Don't even breathe."
"Actually yes, sire. I think you will be most pleased."
"Oh?" the king massaged his temples.
"We found the missing boy."
Jareth felt an immediate weight lift from his shoulders. In fact he felt a supreme shift of power in his favour. No more machinations. No need to play nice anymore - fitting as he wasn't feeling particularly merciful as he surveyed his ruined Labyrinth.
Sarah had just made it back to her site and was taking stock of the damage the goblins had done in her absence - all of them now passed out around the fire and sleeping off their sugar high – when Jareth appeared again, guards in tow.
He was no longer looking quite sun-kissed or declawed. Quite the contrary.
She didn't suppose his sudden reappearance boded well either. She re-wrapped her towel around herself tightly.
"Sarah." There was a bite to his voice she didn't at all like. "You really should have taken that truce when you had the chance."
This time when he snapped his fingers the boy the guards escorted out was not Simon. She recognized Toby's solemn little face right away. She felt a rush of relief followed by a sinking feeling of dread.
"You tried to hide him with your friends." Another set of guards led Ludo, Sir Didymus and Hoggle out, their heads hung low in shame. "It might have even worked had they a brain to spare between them."
"They still defeated you once," she snapped back defiantly.
Jareth's lips thinned. "Let's not waste further time. Shall we instead discuss what you'll trade to get this one back?" He lay a gauntleted hand on the boy's shoulder. "I assure you the price went up considerably in the last hour."
Sarah swallowed, her grip on her towel turning white knuckled as she chose her words.
But it was Toby who spoke next – quietly but with conviction. "I don't want to go back."
Sarah looked at Jareth. Jareth looked at Sarah.
"What?!" they said together.
AN: I am wholly ashamed I let summer go by without an update on this one! Cone of shame. I haven't forgotten about this weird little impulse fic even as I focus on Tanglewood and How to Catch a Goblin King. I hope you enjoyed – this is definitely just a low stakes fun, summer fic. And I just *had* to put Jareth in a tiny bathing suit. Have you seen Bowie in one?!
Stay safe, folks!
p.s. Kybo is a word Scouts use for outhouse.