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Tanglewood

Chapter Text

 

 "Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power."

 The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss


"Babies are THE worst."

"Uh huh."

"No seriously. You have no idea what it's like. It's… it's…"

"The worst?"

"Exactly. THE worst."

"I think you mentioned that."

"Sometimes I just wish-"

"Stop. Never wish for things you don't mean. Trust me."

"But I do wish-"

"Toby, I-"

"I do wish you still lived at home."

Sarah exhaled with a laugh. "Why, so I could help change diapers? Been there done that. And you're right. Baby brothers ARE the worst."

"You're hilarious."

"Aren't I though? Beware my rapier wit."

"I think Karen refers to it as a 'smart mouth'."

"She's not wrong. My mouth is a genius. And Karen's name is mom to you, bucko," Sarah chided gently.

"Smooth segue. You call her Karen."

"And you call her mom. Nice try. Look, I've got to go. Talk later, okay?"

"Mmhmm."

"Look at it this way, Karen can't baby you anymore."

"No, now I will suffer from middle child syndrome and end up with sociopathic tendencies."

"Help your mom and lay off the daytime TV – even on break."

"Fine… whatever."

"Later, kiddo." Sarah hung up the phone and snorted. All things considered, Toby was handling the newest addition to their family with more grace than she had in his shoes. And he was only 10. To be fair the newest addition was a bit of a "surprise" to them all, not least of all Karen who'd assumed her sudden hormonal changes were the early onset of menopause and her father who'd assumed his vasectomy had… well, worked. He joked about suing the doctor. At least they all assumed it was a joke. Hard to tell with lawyers.

Baby Max, while unexpected, was a dimpled little ball of delight and despite the wide age range of his children, Robert Williams was pretty darned happy to be a father again. He'd assumed the next babe on his knee would be a grandchild, but he'd take another son. He'd not always been the best of fathers – work demanded so much of his time – but now that he was a senior partner, he was able to delegate more. He planned to make up for lost time and he'd made that clear to all of his children, not least of all his oldest.

Sarah flicked on the coffee maker, while mentally tallying how many cups she'd had already. Fuck it - the mantra of beleaguered students everywhere. It was Saturday but that meant nothing in her world. She glanced longingly at the TV and the stack of VHS tapes next to it, then reluctantly pulled her eyes back to the dining table strewn with library books, likely overdue, and stacks of papers festively dotted with coffee rings. She'd take a dirty diaper right about now.

One last glance at the TV.

She knew Willow was still sitting in the VCR. It was due back at the video store today. It would be silly not to watch it one more time before it had to go back… Sarah determinedly sat down with her back to the living room and switched on her ghetto blaster. The angsty crooning of REM soon drown out the furtive scratches of pen on paper.

Theses. Theses are THE worst.

She should have taken that opportunity in Ireland. Another furtive glance at the TV. Or not. If binge watching TV was too much of a distraction then an adventure in a foreign country would probably completely mess up her life. She'd treat herself to a trip when it was all done and she'd successfully defended it. She'd drink too much beer, dance all night in pubs and kiss a dark-haired Irish rogue in the moonlight… in the ruins of a castle… with the sounds of the Irish Sea in the background…

"GOD DAMMIT, concentrate, Sarah!" Even her fantasy life was starting to sound contrived.

Fuck it, she thought again. She clicked the music off and began gathering up her books and notes. Half an hour later found her in the Master's section of the library, crammed into a little cubicle. She promised herself that if she could get a solid 4 hours of research done she'd give herself the rest of the day off. Maybe take a run, do a little shopping. Thai takeout for dinner.

It wasn't that her research was dry. It was a topic that held a lot of interest for her but doing the same thing every day, ad nausea - forever it seemed, could make even the most dedicated of academics go crazy. Whoever said forever was not long at all was an abject liar.

Sarah stilled, her skin prickling. She didn't often let little slip ups like that happen. In fact she did what she could to avoid them – stave off memories that were as vivid as they were confusing. She knew exactly who'd said that. The eponymous figure of girlhood fantasy. One she'd logically reduced to pure delusion. Boxed, crated and stored away, this made these occasional slip ups all the more pernicious. It was easy to deny. It was not easy to forget.

The sound of a book hitting the floor broke her reverie and Sarah turned to see the offender. Barbara, one of the library's senior librarians, was bent over trying to coax the fallen book back into her stack. Naturally she dropped them all. Some very un-librarian like words followed, coupled with murderous glares from the other Master's students who considered even sneezing to be an unconscionable transgression.

Sarah slid out of her chair to help.

"Oh, Sarah, thank you."

"No problem, Barbara," She whispered back. She'd learned right away that if you wanted your research to go smoothly you always befriended the librarians. She followed her back to her desk and sat the books down on the corner.

"I don't normally see you here on Saturdays."

"Yes, well, I needed to concentrate."

Barbara chuckled. "And how is that going?"

"Fantastically awful. Doesn't help that I'm working through some of the dullest stuff right now. Not everyone can write. And of those that can, not every one should."

"I'd be out of a job if they didn't."

"And I'd have nothing to blame my procrastination on. Point taken."

"To terrible writers then." Barbara took a sip of her coffee and gagged. "And terrible cafeteria coffee." She took another sip and then eyed it. "Actually this might have been from yesterday."
"Well, rest assured that once I graduate, my lofty degree will guarantee me a career where I will brew only the very best in caffeinated beverages."

"Oh that reminds me! THE book you requested FINALLY arrived." The older woman fumbled in her desk drawer and withdrew a set of keys. "It came in yesterday and I finished processing it this morning. Do you want to go now?"

"THE book? Oh God, yes! Just let me get my stuff." Sarah hurried over to her workstation, sweeping her texts into her over-sized bag in one motion, and catching up again with Barbara at the little used elevator. Barbara was holding the doors open.

Once inside, Barbara inserted the key into the lock beside the 5th floor button, before pressing it. It was the only elevator in the building that led to the equally little used windowless fifth floor. All the others ended at the fourth. Old architecture and budget cuts meant that that had never been changed. Sarah surmised security was also a factor.

When the doors opened again, Sarah was hit with the distinctive scent of vellum, parchment and dust. She could feel the air change of the climate controlled floor. The Rare Book Collection, read a prominent sign at the end of a short hallway, and below that a lengthy list of rules that Sarah knew were rigidly enforced. She deposited her coffee travel mug - rule number 3 - on a small table and pulled a pair of cotton gloves out of the adjacent box - rule number 2 - as Barbara unlocked the door. The room was swathed in the dim red glow from the security lights. There were no windows – sunlight was anathema to both leather and ink as old as that housed within. Barbara turned on one of the few table lamps. Sarah pulled a pad of paper and a pencil out – no pens was rule number 8 - and stowed her bag under the large oak table.

Sarah had loved this room from the moment she'd first been permitted inside as a thesis candidate. Words held power and this room was manifest. Part of Sarah always felt like a little girl allowed to use fine bone china for the first time. There was the constant fear of breaking such a delicate thing, but to be invited into this world was in and of itself an honour. She was being trusted with something precious. A little girl in an adult's world. A world of knowledge. Of magic. Looking around at the tall shelves and locked glass cases, she hoped that awe never left her.
Barbara returned and carefully laid a leather book on the table before her.

"Here you go. I'm surprised those stingy bastards let it leave their sight. It only took, what months, for the approval?"

Sarah nodded absently and ran a finger lightly across the dyed leather. She traced the embossed knot work design.

"From what I gather, a wealthy donor died and bequeathed it. And with another copy in their collection they agreed to lend it out. Quid Pro Quo, naturally."

"Naturally-"

The sound of a pager interrupted.

Barbara glanced at the number and then her eyes widened. "Oh, God dammit! I forgot about the meeting!" She flicked her watch in accusation and grimaced. "I have to run… and you know the rules. A staff member must be in the room at all times…" her eyes softened, "…but it's Saturday and we're understaffed today anyway. And I am ridiculously late and being paged by his holiness!" As if to punctuate the point the pager went off again. Barbara hesitated and then pulled something from her pocket. "I am leaving you this key. You know where to put it when you're through. This is the only key. ONLY. Key. DO. NOT. LOSE. IT. And don't bring anyone else in. Understand? Or I'll be out of a job and you won't get to graduate and nab that cushy coffee house career you're so looking forward to."

Sarah nodded, lips twitching, and accepted the holy grails of library keys, not counting the one to the staff liquor cabinet they thought none of the grad students knew about. It paid to befriend librarians.
"Don't forget the lamp. The book goes back in there," she pointed to one of the glass cases, "when you're through. Lock the door. I won't be back in today, but I'll stop in tomorrow to make sure everything is fine." Barbara emphasized the last word.

Sarah solemnly nodded again. I won't break the china, mum.

"You know how valuable that book is." Barbara opened the door and then hesitated again. "Seriously. Please. Or forget about coffee, we'll both be asking if you want fries with that."

"I promise. And thank you. Honestly!" Sarah heard the pager go off again, if possible, even more shrilly. "Run. Or you really will be looking for a new job." Sarah was on the Dean's list and as such had hob knobbed with his holiness on numerous occasions. She did not envy Barbara. Luckily Barbara was well-endowed and the Dean had both wandering eyes and a conveniently estranged wife. As a librarian, Barbara was well versed in… managing her assets.

The staccato click of heels and the faint hum of the elevator followed and then went silent, leaving only the white noise of the carefully controlled ventilation system. The desk lamp was the only real source of light, leaving the rest of the room in shadow. Barbara hadn't bothered turning on anything else. And Sarah didn't bother to either.

The university boasted a surprisingly well-stocked rare collection. Most of it had been gifted by the original family of the university's founder. It has been fleshed out by subsequent donors. And as such, the library was able to rotate the collection out and in turn borrow exquisite treasures from other collections. The security measures and the climate control were modern but the rest of the room was period preserved. The ornate shelves were solid stained oak, as were the few tables and chairs. What little of the walls was not covered in wood was painted a dark matte burgundy. The desk lamps were brass. Gleaming glass cases punctuated the room. The security lights lent everything an under glow of red. Sarah realized she had never before been alone in this room and probably never would be again. The feeling was momentous, decidedly eerie, but not entirely unwelcome. It felt like finding a secret room and being in danger of getting caught any minute. This, while unlikely, was not far from the truth. And the thrill, Sarah found, was more than a little delicious.

Her eyes dropped to the book in front of her. And oh God, what a thrilling Saturday it had turned out to be indeed.

Easing the cover open carefully, mindful of the fragile spine, Sarah forgot to breathe for a moment. The Poetic Edda, otherwise known as the Codex Regius, was in her cotton covered fingers. It was the most important source on Norse mythology in existence. She had read Hollander's translation of it, arguably the best, and even owned a copy of Cottle's translation, the oldest known English translation, but this copy was on an entirely different level. In her hands lay one of the original rebound editions from the 17th century, possibly even earlier. The fact that Iceland had lent it at all was a miracle and no doubt a bureaucratic nightmare. She could only thank her thesis advisor for that boon. An ex-pat of prestigious reputation and notable connections, he'd no doubt pulled some serious strings. Part of her felt guilty for getting to see it first, but thank God for Saturdays because she'd never learned to wait.

Bending down, she pulled out a translated copy of Sturluson's The Prose Edda, Hollander's translation of The Poetic Edda and an Old Norse to English reference dictionary from her Poppins-esque shoulder bag. She set them to the side of the manuscript. Sarah showed a natural aptitude for language and had been taking classes, with additional tutoring from her thesis adviser, since beginning her research. All of it felt like a crescendo to this moment.

An inked copy of the knot on the leather cover similarly adorned the first page. Sarah examined it more closely. The presence of the knot in and of itself was not unusual but the fact that she had never seen it replicated in any of the later or modern editions was surprising. She skimmed through Hollander's translation just to be certain. Sarah chewed her lip. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled and she rubbed them absently, adjusting her mess of hair, and glancing once more at the dark room. The silence was suddenly heavier. She couldn't even detect the thrum of the ventilation anymore, although the lack of an ear-piercing alarm suggested it was still working.

The uneven pages of the manuscript were of a texture Sarah couldn't immediately identify. Given the nature of her research she had come into contact with many types of vellum, parchment, and paper. She'd have to follow up on it later – she assumed some type of thorough dating had been done on it. Barbara would have the records somewhere for insurance purposes. The Old Norse was recognizable and the lettering incredibly well-preserved. She carefully flipped forward in the book, stopping to marvel at the clarity of the artwork throughout. Beasts and knots and gods and mortals… The printing looked to be similar to Iron Gall ink, as in the Book of Kells, although the colours were more vivid. Occasional words and even entire passages jumped out at her, assuring her that her language training had been well worth the cost and the energy. Words had power. Translation was like filtering light; it muted and dulled. This was pure and unadulterated, she thought giddily, illuminating everything.
Frig, she was such a nerd.

She paused on another page and the wayward hairs on her neck prickled again.

"That can't be right…"

She flipped back to Hollander's translation. There appeared to be an extra lay with a title she'd never seen before. Sarah dug through her bag to find an Icelandic edition and began thumbing through the copy, counting as she went. She did the same with Hollander's edition. And then meticulously began again with the ancient tome.
"Impossible…"

Her eyes skated over the leather, noting the pages - possibly vellum, studying the ink. She'd need to consult with the professor on Monday; it had to be a mistake. The idea was patently ridiculous. So it was likely just a oversight… a very old oversight? And yet… she couldn't help but wonder if she held one of the, if not the, oldest editions of The Poetic Edda in existence.
Ridiculous, Sarah!

She had no idea what possessed her to do it, especially if it was true. She'd certainly question why she did it later. Sarah peeled the cotton gloves from her fingers and dropped them on the table beside her. She knew how fragile old manuscripts were, how damaging oils from skin could be, and she knew, inexorably, that she was holding a Skaldic cultural treasure. Her fingers trembled. She could feel the blood pounding in her ears, but she had to touch it without a barrier. Just like Sleeping Beauty touched the spindle, she thought deliriously. Tolkien himself could not have resisted. There was no choice but this.
The page was cool beneath her finger tips and surprisingly smooth; the ink was raised enough that she could feel the words even as she read them. They thrummed against her skin, like a guitar string that had been plucked – the vibration working its way up her arm. Into her. The animal part of her brain kicked into control...

Take your hand away, Sarah!

She immediately noticed that the room was darker - the red glow of the security lights having gone out.

Ding...

Sarah startled – her fingers still splayed on the page; her eyes darting to the door and through its glass, the elevator.

Ding...

Just a fellow student likely. She'd forgotten to wear a watch today, but the library saw students come and go at all hours.

Ding...

The third floor was the most popular. It had cozy couches and a slew of rooms for study groups. It also housed the majority of the general collection.

Ding...

Sarah blinked, watching as goose bumps broke across the surface of her skin - her hand still frozen in its illicit act. The grad students used the 4th floor. She waited for the telltale swish of the doors.

Nothing.

The hum of the cables was louder now. Closer. Her eyes dropped to the key on the table. Only key. And then turned back to the elevator. The hallway seemed to narrow and expand in an ocular illusion.
Sarah snatched her hand off the book, clutching it to her chest guiltily – wide eyes trained on the elevator doors.

Ding...

The doors opened.

Chapter Text

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

 George Orwell


 Nothing.

Sarah exhaled in disbelief.

The fluorescent bulbs in the empty elevator flickered and buzzed.

A short circuit maybe...

And then exploded in a shower of sparks.

Sarah screamed.

The doors closed with a swish.

Silence.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…" Her words fell into rhythm with her heartbeat.

She strained her ears to hear the elevator hum as it descended and then nothing again.

The whir of the ventilation and the red glow of the security lights as they switched on.

"Jesus H. Fucking Christ!"

Her hands were shaking, her body jittery, and it came to Sarah in a rush that all she'd had today was coffee. Had she expected a tidal wave of blood? In the Overlook she was not. A janitor? She could have brazened out a convincing lie. She'd always been particularly adept at lying. Her eyes dropped to the discarded white gloves. No… that wasn't who she'd expected at all.

After 10 years with no contact, nothing extraordinary, nothing fantastical at all, a traitorous part of her - one she thought she had expunged - had imagined…

She would not say it.

On shaking legs she proceeded to turn on every desk lamp in the room until all of the shadows had been expelled. Only then did she return her attention to the book. The charm of being alone with it was lost. She had been an only child for 15 years before Toby had entered the picture. Solitude was something she prized and was the reason that she'd settled for a much smaller apartment in a less charming part of town in order to avoid a roommate. But right now the thought of being alone was choking her. It was irrational, and on a pragmatic level she knew she was being ridiculous. There was nothing in the closet; nothing under the bed. Monsters existed only when you believed in them.

…Even if you don't believe in the devil, he believes in you…

The stray thought burnt a path through her reason. The appeal of the Rare Book Room was lost for today. Sarah stowed her texts back in her bag and then turned to the Edda. It's just a book. She subconsciously wiped her hands on her jeans and then snatched up the cotton gloves, pulling them back on again. Very carefully she closed the manuscript and walked it back to its case. When the lock clicked into place, she felt a strange mixture of disappointment and relief. She would not be alone with it again.

She cast a final cursory sweep around the room to make sure there was nothing out of place – nothing for Barbara to nitpick, and then turned off each desk lamp until the room was again lit only by a red glow. Gathering her bag she headed to the door and stepped out into the low light of the hall. She locked the door and picked up her travel mug before turning towards the elevator.

She'd never cared for elevators. They were enclosing without being cozy. She didn't like the sound of the cables and she never trusted them not to fail, leaving her trapped – alone in the dark. Or worse, falling into nothing. The door to the stairwell was clearly marked as an emergency exit only, a warning that an alarm would sound upon opening, and still Sarah hesitated in front of it. Reluctantly she pushed the button and waited.

A few moments later she heard the hum as the elevator reached her floor. The doors opened. The interior was still dark and the distinct smell from the burst bulb had lingered. Glass crunched beneath her feet as she stepped in nervously and pressed the button for the 4th floor. She'd take the main set of stairs from there after dropping off the key. She supposed she ought to call facilities about the light. The doors closed, stealing the last of it.

…alone in the dark…

The hairs on her neck prickled again as the whir of the cables started. When you lose one sense, the rest overcompensate. Something danced against her back. Sarah whirled around blindly, swallowing a scream, just as the fractured bulb crackled overhead. A shower of sparks flashed to life and fell. Sarah dropped her bag and threw her arms up protectively.

The doors opened.

She dropped her arms and blinked at the sudden influx of bright artificial light. A fellow grad student passed, laden with books, and glanced at her – his bleary eyes straying to the broken glass and then moving on without comment.

Sarah snatched up her stuff, shaking off the glass and quickly stepped out. The doors swished closed behind her.

She could see through the windows that the sun was already setting. Her stomach reminded her that she'd had nothing to eat. She quickly made her way to Barbara's desk and returned the key to its proper place. She found a post-it and scrawled a quick "thanks" before sticking it to the monitor.

Sarah picked up Thai food on her way home. She'd shovelled in two bites of the Gang Garee Gai when she noticed the light on her answering machine flashing. She'd won a trip to Florida! Delete. The next message was her father asking if she wanted to come over for dinner – they were ordering take out. Her favourite. Chinese. Sarah snorted and took another bite. It had been her favourite when she was 12. She could hear Max cooing in the background and Karen scolding Toby for something. She smiled slowly before closing the container and storing it in the fridge.

She called home to let them know she was on her way. Toby answered, relayed the message to his dad and then informed Sarah that if she wanted to eat "their" food, she'd better be prepared to change some diapers. Sarah promised.

Ten minutes later she was out the door in a fresh change of clothes, with combed hair and a washed face. She'd refilled the cat's dish before slipping out. Loki was on his own tonight. Sarah's apartment was only a 20 minute drive from her childhood home. At first it had seemed silly to pay rent in the same city she already lived, but when she began to fully appreciate the demands of completing her thesis, coupled with the demands of a newborn roommate, Sarah pulled out the apartment listings in the newspaper. Robert and Karen both fully supported her desire for space and a place to study, and Robert insisted on paying for her rent. Her tuition was covered by her academic scholarships. Karen only voiced concern that she'd chosen to live alone and wondered if maybe she should get a dog. Sarah knew she didn't have the time for a dog and hadn't ever wanted to replace Merlin after he passed away anyway. A cat was the perfect compromise. Toby was resentful that she was leaving and had made his feelings on the matter emphatically clear. Those feelings were greatly tempered by the realization that he'd be upgrading to Sarah's room. He failed to convince Sarah that she should take Max when she left.

When she walked in the door, the food had already arrived. Karen was laying out the dishes on the table and Toby was breaking apart the chopsticks, mildly cursing under his breath when they broke unevenly. Which they all did. Karen was pretending not to hear. Everybody swears when they break that way. Her father and Max greeted her at the door with a kiss. Sarah dropped her purse and eagerly scooped the baby out of his arms, bouncing him as she wandered into the dining room to say hello. Max's chubby fingers curled reflexively in her hair, tugging every few seconds. No wonder Karen kept hers short.

"Wine, sweetie?"

"Yes. Please."

"Rough day?" Karen handed the glass to Sarah.

"You could say that." Sarah adjusted Max on her hip to take a sip with her free hand. "Oh, that's good. All I've had is coffee today."

"Oh, well this is much healthier then," Toby remarked with a smirk.

"Shut it, kid. How's that coke tasting?"

Toby took a dramatic slurp. "Whatever. I'm a child. I'm supposed to make irresponsible choices and look to my elders for guidance." He smiled toothily at Sarah. "I guess I'm doomed."

"Hey now, I just made a very responsible choice." She ruffled his hair affectionately. "I've just decided never to have children."

Max cooed.

"Oh, I didn't mean you, chubs. You're just perfect. " Sarah nosed him gently. "But you need to stop growing like a weed. Before I know it you'll be a mouthy little 10 year old."

Robert scooped Max out of her arms and popped him into a high chair with a bottle. Toby was already piling his plate with chicken balls coloured a red so bright, Sarah was sure they were toxic. Karen topped up her wine glass with a smile. Sarah pulled out a chair and tucked in. It wasn't Thai but it was hot and plentiful and doused in soya sauce it all tasted delicious. It felt good to be sitting around the table. She didn't make it home as often as she'd like – as often as any of them would like. Toby smiled at her with a mouth full of red goo and tried to playfully kick her under the table.

The events of the afternoon now seemed innocuous in the warm light of the dining room. Too many movies, not enough sleep, no food, bad timing…

Toby snatched an eggroll off her plate. "What? Stolen food always tastes better."

Sarah pointed a chopstick at the baby. "Never learn to talk, Max. No good ever comes of it."

She glanced over to see her father grinning. Karen noticed it too and winked at Sarah.

"So, how is the research coming?"

Sarah waved her hand dismissively. "Oh fine." She paused. "Actually I got my… er, hands on a very old manuscript today. I'm still shocked they lent it to us, but they did. I think it will really help me out of my slump."

"Slump?" Robert's brows waggled. "You know it's never too late to apply to law school."

"No, dad, Sarah would rather ask, 'one sugar or two'?"

"Hey now, it's only funny when I say it!"

Karen frowned. "Toby, don't be rude."

"But she says it!"

"And when I say it, it's funny."

"Fine!" Toby sighed dramatically. "Anyway why pay Sarah to argue, when she argues for free?"

"Pot–kettle."

"Shouldn't you have a date tonight?"

Sarah swiped his last egg roll and then licked it.

Robert laughed. "You see, I could open my own firm one day with you both at my side."

"Jokes on you. I already licked it first." Toby reached for the fortune cookies and began sliding them across the table. "We have to open them at the same time. And say 'in bed' at the end."

"Toby!" Karen squealed. "Where did you learn that?"

"I'm ten, not two. But if I blame Sarah, does she have to do the dishes?"

"I'll do them anyway, because I'm a good daughter."

"You're the only daughter. But Deal." Toby grinned and broke his cookie apart. "You will win all your arguments." 'In bed' he mouthed defiantly.

"Let me see that." Sarah reached across the table, but Toby popped it in his mouth.

"Joy is found in your home," Karen interrupted.

"In bed," Robert added suggestively.

"Gross," intoned his children.

Sarah snapped hers in two. "If you speak of the devil, you will hear the flap of his wings." She frowned. "Weird. Isn't that an Amish proverb?"

Karen nodded. "Yes, but I've heard it differently." She refilled Sarah's glass. "How did it go? Something like, 'you need not call the devil, he'll come without calling…'"

Sarah coughed.

"What?" Karen asked at the incredulous looks on her family's faces. "Did you all forget I grew up around Pennsylvania Dutch country?"

"In bed." Toby grinned.

"Huh?"

"You need not call the devil, he'll come without calling… in bed."

Sarah blinked.

"Alright, that's enough. Unless you want to go to bed right now," warned Karen. She began wiping the cereal off Max's face… off his tray… off the chair… off Robert…

Sarah stood and began to collect the plates. Toby helped without being asked for a change and followed her into the kitchen.

"God, I miss this," she sighed.

"Us?"

"No, the dishwasher." Sarah laughed at Toby's frown. "Okay, you're fine too."

They loaded it together and had the leftovers put away in minutes. Karen told Sarah she should take them home with her, much to Toby's dismay.

When they were finished, they joined their parents in the family room. Robert was watching Jeopardy while Max finished his bottle. Karen looked content but exhausted. No doubt, she'd thought sleepless nights were behind her by now. But she looked happy as she sipped on her wine.

Toby surreptitiously helped himself to another coke and motioned Sarah upstairs. Kissing Max on the forehead first, she followed him.

Toby collapsed on his bed. Sarah plopped herself down in his desk chair – formerly hers - and looked around at her old room. The wallpaper was long gone. And her bed had been dismantled to remove the canopy. Most of her childhood mementos had followed her to her apartment and what hadn't was in the attic. Only the bones remained. And Lancelot. Lancelot was tucked into the bed. She smiled at that but wisely said nothing.

"So what's up?"

"Nothing. Just bored. Mom said no to a horror movie tonight. SO lame."

"Maybe she didn't want to have to change your sheets."

"Very funny, grandma."

"Hey – I'm in my prime!"

"Yah, yah. You're a brilliant academic." Toby finger quoted. "And Max is a wittle, bitty baby. Meanwhile my cuteness factor is expired. Stocks have plummeted."

"Are you sure you're only 10?" Sarah gaped. "I thought middle child syndrome was a myth. Anyway, you'll always be an adorable and annoying baby brother to me."

"Very funny. But Max is the baby with all the power."

"Where do you come up with this stuff? Jealous?"

"Maybe."

"They say the first step is admitting you have a problem."

"Hey, I get that he's cute but he didn't keep you up all night."

"Touché."

Toby scanned the room. "Want to play Risk?"

"Meh, I should really get home and do some more work…" Sarah trailed off at the eager look on his face. "Or I could stay and hone my procrastination skills more. You're on."

Toby dug through his closet and pulled out the game. They passed Karen on the stairs as she was putting Max to bed. Sarah stole him for a moment to pepper his face with kisses and squish his chubby thighs.

When she got downstairs, Toby was already setting up the game. "Want to play for the last fortune cookie?"

"There were only four. That must be dad's."

Robert happened to walk into the room on his way to the kitchen.

Toby snatched up the cookie. "Hey dad, you forgot your cookie. Sarah was totally going to eat it."

Robert accepted the cookie and eyed the game. "Try and avoid flipping the board this time around, hmm?"

"No promises."

Robert broke the cookie and slid out the slip of paper, adjusting the glasses on his nose. "Your children will avoid upending any furniture in their quest for world domination."

"Well that's a bust," Toby laughed.

"It's better than what I actually got," his dad scoffed. "You will lose something precious." He shook his head and dropped the paper back on the table. It landed on the board amongst the armies.

Sarah stared at the paper, frowning, until Toby knocked it out of the way.

He began placing his pieces. When he was through, he dramatically steepled his fingers and narrowed his eyes. "And so the game begins."

It took three hours before they called it a draw. Out of respect for Max, they kept the shouting to a minimum, though Toby crowed victory.

"You did not win. We both won. Or we both lost. You took way too many risks and wasted too many pieces. Plus, I'm sure you cheated," Sarah added with a poke.

"Did not! We can't both win. And you have to take risks in RISK. Gah!"

Sarah's laugh morphed into a yawn. "I have to get home, kiddo."

"You could just sleep here," Toby suggested hopefully.

Sarah ruffled his hair. Toby allowed it. "I wish I could but Loki will destroy my place if I don't come home."

"You know he's just a cat, right?"

"Have you ever lived with a cat? I chose his name for a reason."

Toby sighed.

"Look, I'll be over again soon and we can have a vicious rematch to the death." She drew him into a hug, realizing yet again how tall he was getting. Without needing to bend her head, she whispered in his ear, "I'll even forget to take the leftovers."

"Now there's the sister I love."

Sarah tiptoed to her parents' bedroom and wished them good night. Karen was already asleep. Robert gave her a peck.

At the front door she told Toby to get to bed, pretending he wasn't going to watch that horror movie, and made him promise to lock the door as soon as she left. She waited until she heard the click. Her drive home was quiet and uneventful.

Loki greeted her on arrival.

"Oh, deigned to make an appearance because I fed you? How kind." He wove between her legs and then arched into her touch, sleek black fur and limpid eyes blinking.

Sarah kicked off her clothes and stepped into a blissfully steaming shower. Hands on the tile walls, she let the hot water beat against her back, trailing scorching rivulets down her body. She watched it swirl down the drain.

When she got out, she brushed her long hair. Thought again about cutting it. But then what would Max tangle his fingers in? She smiled and scooped her clothes to shove into the hamper. Two slips of paper fell from her jeans. Sarah crouched down slowly and picked them up, already knowing what they were.

Hers: "If you speak of the devil, you will hear the flap of his wings."

Her father's: "You'll lose something precious."

She fingered them both for a moment, pretending that she had accidentally put them in her pocket until she almost believed it. A glimpse in the clouded mirror reminded her that she was standing in the bathroom naked. Exposed. Vulnerable. She dropped them in the toilet and flushed, and quickly pulled on an oversized t-shirt.

She crawled into bed and cocooned herself within the duvet. She left all the lights on that night.

In the still, sudden silence of her apartment, her mind made her process what she'd felt in the elevator when she'd jumped. Before the light had sparked again.

Fingers. Fingers on her back…

Impossible.

Sarah felt the bed dip, her body freezing, but she relaxed again when she realized it was Loki settling himself at her feet. She forced herself to think of toxic red chicken balls. Karen bouncing Max. Toby plotting world domination. Her dad smiling at his children…

You will lose something precious…

…you need not call the devil, he'll come calling…

"There aren't any monsters under the bed," she whispered.

So naturally, that's when the scratching started.

Chapter Text

 I'm friends with the monster
That's under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head
You're trying to save me
Stop holding your breath

 The Monster, Eminem, featuring Rihanna


Forcing yourself to peer over the side of the bed, in the middle of the night, all alone in the dark of your empty (or not so empty) apartment is akin to jumping out of a burning plane without knowing if you have a working parachute or a dud on your back.

Those are the thoughts that would have been going through Sarah's mind if her brain had kept functioning. It didn't. She really regretted not getting a dog or a burly live-in boyfriend, because Loki was apparently inclined to act for neither.

All she knew for sure was that at some point her heart had lodged in her throat and all higher functions in her head had ceased.

"There are no monsters under the bed," she whispered again.

The sound grew louder.

…I don't need you to believe in me…

"Oh god…"

For the first time in too many years to count, she wanted to call for her mother. The same mother that had essentially abandoned her. Paralyzing fear skews the mind, even brilliant ones. And in the end, all babes remember where they first felt safe.

By sheer force of will, she pulled the covers from around her head. Fight or flight called for some kind of action either way. The room felt colder than she remembered leaving it. The skin on her face tightened and her breath, inexplicably, misted in the dim light.

Gently she rolled onto her stomach and inched towards the edge of the bed. Her knuckles bled white against the sheets. Propping her weight on her elbows, she eased her head towards the side, her damp hair falling into a curtain around her face, and held her breath.

The scratching grew louder, more persistent and closer…

Why couldn't she be like most students and just have a mattress on the floor?

Just do it, dammit. Like a band aid.

She opened her eyes slowly, one at a time, inhaled and craned her head over the edge.

The scratching stopped.

Something shuffled forward and Sarah's remaining sanity fractured.

Loki poked his head from beneath the bed. Blinked his eyes at her, stretched and batted gently at Sarah's hair.

"Oh Jesus… you little shit," Sarah exhaled. She collapsed onto her back, one hand falling to her chest in an attempt to quiet her erratic heart. Laughter bubbled out of her uncontrollably.

"Of all the days…" and that's when Sarah realized there was still a weight at her feet.

Her eyes popped back open just as all the lights went out.


Toby turned off the TV just as the movie ended. He didn't have much experience with horror movies, but he knew enough to know that it had been a thoroughly effective one. Not that he was scared. He looked around at the empty living room and mentally counted how many lights he'd have to turn off on his way upstairs. The front door was locked but he should probably check it again. Just to be safe. That was the smart thing to do. The adult thing. That second coke was a probably not a good idea. The third was definitely a mistake. The caffeine/ sugar combo was making him jittery.

A definite positive of Max's arrival was his parents' constant need for sleep. They tended to collapse when the baby went down. And when they did go down it was the deep slumber of the perennially sleep deprived. It hadn't taken him long to realize he could capitalize on that fact. He considered watching whatever he wanted to on TV to be his reward for putting up with an unasked for and sometimes unwanted baby.

His consolation for Sarah leaving.

If he'd been his father he wouldn't have let her leave… Toby suddenly very much wanted to call her.

He forced his feet to move and began to switch off the lights, trying hard not to think about the encroaching darkness; how it felt like he was being swallowed by it. The front door was still firmly locked. Not that that had helped the family in the movie, his mind reminded him spitefully. He stopped by the kitchen and flipped the timer on the coffee maker for his parents. He knew Max would have them up early. As he neared the landing, the furnace kicked on, making him jump. He told himself that he was just tired, and that was why he ran up the stairs; not because there was anything behind him. Ten year olds shouldn't be afraid of the bogey man anymore. He passed his parents' room. He could hear his father snoring. His mother too, not that he'd ever be brave (or foolish) enough to tell her. When he got to his room, he found his window open. There had been an open window in the movie too. Toby had scoffed at that part – at their foolishness. Bad things only happened if you let bad things in. He shut the window firmly. And then drew the blinds and curtains for extra measure. He pretended it was for privacy.

He got undressed quickly and changed into superhero pajamas - ones he would deny owning if anyone asked. His room was cold, not surprisingly, given his window was open, so he scooted into bed quickly. He debated leaving his night table light on. He thought long and hard about it – weighing the pros and cons. When he finally decided to pull the cord, he spied a wadded up piece of paper on the table. It was his fortune from earlier. The one he'd shoved in his mouth and then spit out later. He'd forgotten about it.

The paper was gummed together from his saliva, but as a ten year old boy, he'd touched much worse. He pulled it apart carefully, having not actually read it at the table in his haste to annoy his sister.

'Sometimes all you have to do is wish.'

Toby snorted. If that were true, he'd still be in Max's room and Sarah would be home right now. Where she belongs. Fortunes were always lame. Even with 'in bed' at the end. He tossed it back on the table. The cookies kind of sucked too. There should be Chinese Twinkies instead.

He turned the knob on his lamp and drew the blankets over his head. It was just because he was cold, he reasoned. He certainly knew that hiding under blankets was no protection. It hadn't worked out for that one girl in the movie anyway.

Not that movies were real.

They aren't, he decided emphatically, just as the music started.

Toby froze. At first he thought it was some toy from Max's room. Max had all manner of annoying toys. The music was of a tinny type. Definitely a toy, he reasoned, and waited for it to turn off. When it didn't he tried following its direction. He grabbed for Lancelot when he realized it was coming from his closet. He wanted to call for his mom, but found he lacked the capacity to speak. She'd be mad that he woke her up. He'd probably wake Max too. Then he'd have to explain about the cokes and the movie. Still – he wanted to yell for her. Or he could phone Sarah. Sarah always knew how to make things better. But the nearest phone was in his parents' room. Or worse – downstairs. He waited, hoping the music would wake his parents. Or Max. Max would get the whole house up.

If he strained his ears he could still hear the snoring. Useless baby. He pulled the covers off and swung his feet over the edge, keeping his eyes trained on the closet. He blindly reached over and turned on his lamp. When he reached the doors, he was embarrassed to find that his hands were shaking. And for a moment they mutinously refused to listen to his brain. He didn't notice that he was still holding the bear.

When he finally pulled the doors open, the muffled music grew louder and he could see slight movement on the shelf next to his cap collection. Reaching between the hats, his fingers closed around something metal. When he pulled down a music box he stared at it in confusion. A doll turning inside a mirrored carousel. He vaguely recognized it as Sarah's. She'd kept it in a trunk in her room - his room now. He'd assumed it had been hers from childhood, though he'd never seen it out anywhere. Always in the trunk he wasn't supposed to touch.

It was strangely warm in his hand, the figurine turning and turning to the slow music. Music that was disturbing for no discernible reason. Examining the doll, with its long dark hair, he had the sudden ridiculous notion that it was Sarah in the childish over-sized dress. He let it play for another moment before he flipped it over. No batteries. It was a wind up box – he forced the crank until it stopped. Probably defective. Old things usually were.

He had no easy answer for how it got in his closet though, and he possessed the mind of an imaginative 10 year old. Any ideas he did have were better left as ideas. Sarah had taken almost all of her things with her when she'd moved. Anything she'd left was in the attic…

An instant, awful shiver shot down his spine.

His need to pee was forgotten. Or maybe he'd peed himself already. He placed the music box on his desk and reached over to turn on the light to his bedroom. Only then did he open his bedroom door. Only then did he let his eyes wander out into the darkened hall and up to the ceiling.

Up to the ceiling where the attic crawl space hatch was open. All the lights went out.


Sarah bit her lip to hold back a sob. The metallic tang of blood slid across her tongue. She curled her feet up towards her body as carefully as possible. Pulling them away from whatever was on the end of her bed.

Move, Sarah. Do something! Anything!

She suddenly very much wished she'd taken Toby's offer and spent the night at home. Her body was hyper aware that her t-shirt had ridden up and was bunched around her waist. And that she was wearing nothing underneath. Her damp hair was clammy against her face and neck, prickling her over-sensitive skin uncomfortably. The darkness was absolute.

She knew her phone was on her desk. Just out of reach. When nothing happened she'd almost convinced herself it was all in her head.

And then the weight moved. She thrashed in her efforts to extricate herself from the tangle of covers, and then froze again when she felt something move against her legs. Through the down, it felt like the splayed digits of a hand – gripping lightly. She knew then that she needed to react, but shock had momentarily paralyzed her. The touch, muted by the blanket, slid towards her knee and then up her thigh 'til it settled on the jut of her hip. Leisurely, she thought wildly. It continued its path upwards, across her ribs, just skirting her breasts until it skimmed her collar bone – soft and subtle and ghosted over her pulse point. She swallowed reflexively, still frozen, when her hair was brushed away. Her eyes strained wildly in the dark, hands forming white knuckled fists at her side.

The shrill ring of a phone cut through the silence, and with that she thrust up violently - both arms swinging defensively and the scream finally tearing free from her throat.

The lights flickered back on and Sarah scanned the room wildly. Empty. She threw herself from her bed so quickly that she ended up on the floor. She scrambled to her feet, legs boneless, collapsed again. She backed into the desk painfully.

Sarah grabbed blindly for the receiver. "Hello?" she shouted.

"Sarah? It's Toby."

"Toby?" she asked in confusion, her eyes still darting about the room. "What's wrong? Is everything okay?" In the background she could hear Max wailing and she belatedly registered the shaky quality of her brother's voice.

"Um, no. I mean yes, everyone is fine. We're fine," he repeated. "How are you?"

Sarah's brows furrowed. "Toby?"

"Did you lose power? We lost power here. It's back now though, I mean."

She relaxed marginally, realized her own voice was little more than a warble. "I did. So you did too, huh? Did it scare you? It scared me."

Max had quieted and she could hear Karen saying something to Toby.

"I… er, yes," he admitted. "I, um, watched that movie I shouldn't have. And then I got… scared and the power went out…"

"So you called me to see if I was okay?" Sarah supplied smoothly. "That was sweet of you."

He laughed nervously. "Yah, pretty much. The lights going out made me scr… er, jump and I guess I woke up Max, who then woke up everyone else."

"I'm sure Karen and dad were thrilled with that."

Toby held the phone out so Sarah could hear for a moment. "Very thrilled it sounds."

"Look, sorry if I woke you up…"

"You didn't. I was awake."

"I didn't mean to scare you… You, er, sounded kinda not okay when you answered the phone."

"Don't worry about it." She looked around her room again.

"If you are scared you could come sleep here."

Sarah was sorely tempted, especially by the hopeful lilt in Toby's voice. But it would be too much to explain and it was already really late. She rubbed her forehead.

"Thanks for the offer, kiddo, but I don't think I should be driving right now. You get some sleep, huh?"

"Yah. Okay. You too. Sorry for calling. Karen, I mean mom, says it was rude."

"No worries. Call me anytime. I mean that."

"I know."

Sarah heard dial tone and immediately wished she'd kept talking to him. She reluctantly replaced the phone in the base and then cradled her temples again.

She had to be going crazy. Pushing off the desk she checked the window to make sure it was shut and locked. She padded out into the hall and did the same with the bathroom, before turning off the light and shutting the door firmly. She checked the small linen closet and then made her way to the front door. She calmed a little more when she found it still firmly locked. Dead bolt included. She checked the tiny galley kitchen, eyeing her sink full of dirty dishes distastefully before turning off the light. The similarly small dining room was empty save for the remaining work she had piled on top of the table. She checked the living room, verifying again that the few windows were locked. She pulled the curtains closed tightly and left the lights on. When she made it back to her room, Loki was curled up on her pillow. He blinked at her blearily when she yanked open her closet and checked inside. Before she could chicken out, she ducked down and checked under the bed too, closing her eyes in relief when all she found was dust bunnies. When she stood back up, her attention was drawn to the end of the bed and she stared at it for a full minute. There seemed to be an impression of… something that had settled on the end. When she tentatively put her hand on it, her mind warred with itself whether or not the spot felt warm. Sarah snatched her hand back and then whipped the duvet off the bed and slid the pillow out from under her disgruntled cat. He padded to the foot of the bed and lay back down with his back to her. He found a warm spot, her mind supplied helpfully. Sarah tugged on a pair of shorts and then returned to the living room, leaving the light on in her room when she left. She switched on the TV and pressed play on the VCR. The familiar opening bars of Willow started a few seconds later. Might as well earn that late fee. She curled up on the couch into a fetal position with her duvet and pillow and tried to focus on the screen. Her eyes kept drifting back to her bedroom.

Her mind could convince itself otherwise, using reason and logic and evidence, but her body couldn't deny the touch in the dark. Sarah shivered and a fitful sleep did not find her until well-past the credits rolling.


Across town, Toby's eyes were still open too. They'd started to burn in fact, but he didn't want to shut them. Max had finally settled again and if he listened hard enough, he could hear that his parents had too. He promised himself he'd never watch another horror movie again – even knowing it was a promise he'd likely break.

Listening to the silence of the house, he waited a few more minutes before he stole from his bed with his comforter and pillow and Lancelot. He made his way to the hall, refusing to look at the ceiling and then crept into Max's room as quietly as he could. He knew he'd be murdered if he woke the precious baby up again. He made himself a little pallet on the floor next to the crib, curling the covers over himself and Lancelot like armour, and focused on Max's soft, even exhalations.

"Don't worry, Max," Toby whispered. "I'm here."


Sarah pushed through the glass doors and yawned. She knew she looked awful. She felt awful. Sleeping on the small couch, not much bigger than a loveseat, had left her cramping in all the wrong places. She'd had awful dreams, ones she couldn't remember when she woke but had left an imprint – like a bruise that had faded but still ached. She nodded at a fellow Lit grad. The other girl looked awful too, but for all the right reasons Sarah supposed.

When she had woken that morning, her TV was still on – a blue screen with a low hum. In the final quicksilver moments between sleep and waking, all the events of the night and day settled back into place and the rationalizations began.

As a result, Sarah found herself at the library, with strong coffee in hand. It was public. Innocuous. Anonymous.

And tainted.

Sarah needed to work. She also needed to speak to Barbara.

She took the stairs to the fourth floor, her cramped legs protesting. Barbara looked up when Sarah approached.

"You!"

Sarah stilled, surprised in a half-started yawn.

"I thought we agreed that you'd follow the rules? I put my job on the line, Sarah." She hissed. "You're lucky I was going to reset all the tapes today anyway."

Sarah stared blankly until it registered. Tapes. The Rare Book Collection would naturally have surveillance cameras as part of its security. Her fingers itched guiltily.

"Oh God, Barbara, I am SO sorry. I couldn't resist! It was only for a few seconds and only one page…" She trailed off at the look of confusion on the librarian's face.

"What are you talking about?"

"…What are you talking about?

Barbara shook her head in annoyance. "Follow me."

Sarah followed the older woman into a small windowless room. Inside were various types of AV equipment. "I'm talking about this." Barbara reached over and pushed a button on a small TV.

The grainy feed dimly showed Sarah seated; her attention to the door. There was no sound. Even in the distorted tape she could see the white of the discarded gloves beside her. She side-eyed Barbara but the librarian said nothing.

The video Sarah jumped and then settled.

"There, see?"

The outline of a figure moved into the frame and stopped behind Sarah, so close it was almost touching her.

Sarah's hand flew to her mouth and trembled.

The quality and lack of lighting meant she could discern nothing other than shape. Tall and slim.

Cloaked by shadow.

She recalled the hairs prickling on her neck. They prickled again in remembrance.

She watched the screen with horror as the figure reached towards her and then paused, turning its head to the camera. The video went black.

"I don't know what happened to it from there, or what you did to the lights, but it doesn't matter as I was going to wipe…" Barbara trailed off at Sarah's white pallor.

"Sarah?"

"You… You saw it, right?" Sarah whispered, aware of how stupid her question must seem.

Barbara pursed her lips. "I saw that you weren't alone-"

Sarah mewed like a wounded animal.

"Wait… did…" Barbara studied Sarah's face. "Oh, my god, you didn't know…"

Sarah shook her head wordlessly and then found she couldn't stop shaking.

Barbara stilled her gently. "That doesn't make any sense. You had the only key. There was no one in the room when I brought you in there."

"Just books," Sarah whispered.

"Well, let's rewind further. There's an explanation somewhere." But when she pressed play again the tape showed only snow. She tried rewind and forward a few times. "Dammit, I must have hit something by accident!"

"You didn't do anything." Sarah said dully. She straightened, shouldering her bag. "I have to go, okay?"

"What? Wait," Barbara called, but Sarah was already striding out the door.

Barbara followed her and caught up to her by the stairs. "Sarah. We have to investigate," she whispered. "We have to report this. I still don't understand how this even happened."

"Report what? That you left me alone in a room I shouldn't have been in in the first place? That you had security tape and now it's blank? Forget it."

"Sarah," Barbara paused, "Are you certain you didn't let anyone in? You can tell me. Honestly I won't be mad. No harm done. I was young once too, you know…" She trailed off at the look on Sarah's face. "Okay. But we have to do something! If it wasn't you then there's a serious security issue. What if this happens to someone else?"

"It won't." Sarah began walking down the stairs. "I'll see you on Monday, okay?"

"Maybe it was just a trick of the light." Barbara chewed her lip. "It's an outdated system and there are hardly any lights in that room."

"Probably," Sarah called over her shoulder. Barbara nodded absently. Neither woman believed it.


When Toby opened the door, he was thrilled to see Sarah.

She ruffled his hair when she passed him.

"You look like crap."

"Thanks," Sarah mumbled. She eyed herself in the hall mirror and agreed. "Just came to eat all your leftover chicken balls."

Toby grinned. "Too late."

"Brat."

Robert poked his head from the landing. "Oh, Sarah. Hi, sweetie." He placed a finger over his lips. "Karen's down with Max." He eyed Toby. "Some of us didn't get much sleep last night."

Toby studied the floor.

"I'll keep it down. Just, uh, here to do some laundry."

Her dad nodded and headed back up stairs.

"You know they have places called Laundromats, right?"

"You know they have places called orphanages, right?" She poked Toby in the arm playfully. "It's where they send mouthy kids."

"Well you should have gotten rid of me when you had the chance. You don't live here anymore. So you have no power."

Sarah's grin faltered and she adjusted the basket on her hip to hide her expression.

Toby must have noticed because his face sobered too. "There's still some rice and stuff."

"I'm starving. I'll just put these in the wash." She headed to the basement stairs but then poked her head back up. "Got any superhero PJs you want me to throw in?" She waggled her brows.

Toby reddened. "Don't be surprised if a dirty diaper ends up in your wash!"

"Yours or Max's?" Sarah parried and then disappeared downstairs.

Toby scowled and then laughed. She was good. He felt a hundred times better with Sarah under the roof. Sarah was… just right. He loved his parents. He idolized his dad. He still needed his mom like all little boys do. But Sarah was somehow his. She made him feel safe.

He heard the washer kick on and moved into the kitchen to get the leftover Chinese. He was fixing her plate when she walked into the kitchen.

Sarah accepted it with a smile and popped it into the microwave. Toby snagged a bag of chips from the cupboard.

"So no work today?" he asked; mouth full.

"Not today. I'll get back at it tomorrow. Grab me the soya sauce, would you?"

Toby slid off the stool and then passed it over.

"What about you?"

Toby snorted. "Well I won't be watching the TV I'm not allowed to touch."

"That bad, huh?"

Toby shrugged and then fell silent. The chips forgotten beside him.

Sarah eyed the bag. "What's up? Just how bad was that movie?"

Toby fidgeted. "It wasn't just the movie. Not really. I don't know, I can't explain it."

Sarah swallowed another bite. "Try."

"Something… doesn't feel right. And then last night, when that stupid music started…"

Sarah stilled, her fork hovering halfway to her mouth. "Music?"

"Yah, your music. So it should really be you who can't watch Power Rangers."

"Toby, let's pretend for a moment that I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Your stupid music box started playing! It was in my closet for some reason." He glared at her accusingly. "If it was a joke, it was a dumb joke."

Sarah put her fork down. "What box, Toby?"

"The cheesy one with the girl. It's still in my room."

She gripped the edge of the table. "But I got rid of that thing when it wouldn't play anymore."

"Well it had no problem playing last night. Wait – what do you mean you got rid of it?"

"I mean I'm pretty sure it was thrown out years ago."

Toby's eyes widened. "Well it didn't. And it ended up in my closet."

Sarah pushed her half-finished plate away. "Of course it did."

"Huh?"

"Nothing. Forget about it." She leaned back and then stood up. "I'm going to get it okay?"

Toby nodded and preceded her up the stairs.

Sarah noticed that his head darted up to look at the attic and then shot back down again.

She shot him a questioning glance but he shook his head.

"Here," he said, thrusting it into her hands.

Sarah held it lightly, examining it for a moment. She had loved it for a time. And then, like so many things, it had stopped working. She pretended not to remember when the music had stopped exactly, but she knew it to the day. She turned it over and cranked the tiny shaft.

Music started.

Then Max started crying.

Toby rolled his eyes. "Now he cries!"

She heard a groan. A few moments later Karen appeared in the doorway, Max on her shoulder.

"Oh, Sarah. You look about as good as me," she said, not unkindly. "Rough night?"

"Probably better than yours," Sarah lied.

Karen smiled again. "Oh, Toby. That reminds me, you need to start thinking about what you want to bring with you. You need to start packing soon."

Toby rolled his eyes. "I dunno. Do we have to go?"

Karen pursed her lips. "Yes. We. Do. She's your grandmother and she wants to see you."

"She wants to see Max."

"Toby…"

Sarah recognized the warning note. "Hey, sounds fun to me," she supplied.

Toby regarded her mutinously. "Yes, if 8 hours in a car with a baby is fun."

"But family trip. Hotel with a pool…"

Toby folded his arms. "You aren't going."

Karen eyed Sarah sympathetically. They had navigated these waters before. Karen's mother was technically a grandmother to Sarah too but it wasn't the same. Living so far away and Sarah so grown when they became a family, she had never built up a strong relationship with Sarah, though she had always been welcoming. That had once been a weapon in Sarah's arsenal during her early teenage years. Now Sarah was better able to understand the intricacies of a blended family. Toby wasn't there yet.

"Sarah is an adult and is very busy."

Sarah nodded. "Very true. Norse gods are demanding."

Toby rolled his eyes. "She's so busy she's here eating my leftovers. You could come if you really wanted to," he added seriously.

"It sounds great and I promise. Next time."

Sarah realized she might have broken that promise once before. Toby's expression told her she had.

"There's not really room with Max's car seat," Robert added helpfully. He'd come to stand beside Karen. "Next time we'll rent a van."

"Or take two cars and you can ride with me," Sarah nodded. "Stick the olds with chubs here." She tucked the music box under her arm and scooped Max from a grateful Karen. He immediately stuffed his fists full of her hair.

Karen mouthed a 'thank you' and shuffled back into her room. Robert ruffled Toby's hair and followed her.

Sarah wandered back downstairs, making faces at Max on the way down.

Toby remained in his doorway, staring after them with an inscrutable expression.


Later that night, Toby sat on his bed with his hands clasped loosely and listened to the muffled sounds of his parents putting Max to sleep. Sarah had left a few hours earlier with her clean laundry and the music box.

Right before she'd left he'd asked her if she'd been like that with him when he was a baby. Like she was with Max. She'd paused mid bounce, Max giggling.

Not at first, she'd admitted. But later, yes. Toby had pressed her for more, but she'd said she had to go. Promised to come again soon. And that she wouldn't eat any leftovers next time.

She'd kissed Max a dozen times at the door. She'd hugged Toby once.

Toby frowned and unclasped his hands, looking around his room. Her room. His eyes lit upon the tiny slip of paper still on his nightstand.

All you have to do is wish…


Sarah drove home, with the radio playing loudly. Anything to drown out her thoughts. Nevertheless, she was aware of the music box on the seat beside her. Part of her wanted to just get rid of it, but mostly she wanted it far away from Toby.

Some memories have teeth, she thought. And oh how they'd slid into her.

…everything is dancing…

Going home had been an attempt to escape; a last chance to deny and to forget. But ten years of nothing could dissolve in an instant.

Her sanity felt shredded and her reason raw. She'd heard grad students sometimes went crazy. She felt crazy. She was crazy to be bringing that thing home with her. She stopped at the red light.

…he'll come calling…

…you will lose something precious…


 Elsewhere lips parted in a smile, teeth glinting. "Soon."

Chapter Text

Alone in the wind and the rain you left me
It's getting dark darling, too dark to see…

 Thistle & Weeds, Mumford & Sons


Sarah awoke to a pair of eyes peering back at her intently.

"Ergh, Loki!" she chuffed in exasperation. The feline was perched lightly on her chest. She rubbed him behind his ears and he arched into her touch with an instant rumbling purr.

"I don't suppose you've put the coffee on? No? Typical."

The sound of heavy rain belatedly registered and Sarah craned her neck to check the window. The blinds were drawn tightly. It had rained steadily all through night, the heavy droplets beating against the glass with a measured pace. Her last thoughts had been of a metronome in the dark.

She caught sight of the music box in her peripheral vision. It sat on her vanity where she'd left it the night before. Sarah rolled upwards in bed, unceremoniously dumping Loki to the floor. His tail twitched in irritation.

"Why now?" But it was more resignation than question.

Nothing had gone bump in the night. Her drive home had been equally uneventful; her sleep uninterrupted and dreamless. No twilight calls from Toby. But looking at it made her skittish. She hadn't known what to do with it; she'd just wanted it well away from her brother.

That night – the night she'd returned - it had stopped playing. Her father had valiantly tried, but nothing could fix it. The music had just died.

Until it played for Toby.

Sarah frowned at that. The porcelain girl in the dress stared blankly back at her, disclosing no secrets, though Sarah had told her plenty of her own over the years.

"You broke a long time ago," she whispered.

Loki meowed stridently from the kitchen; reminding her that he didn't care about her skeletons or the fact they were escaping their closet. He liked to be fed. Regularly. And she might have forgotten to feed him yesterday. And that if she didn't want to be murdered in her bed, she really ought to rectify the situation. Sarah grinned at the mundanity and padded into the kitchen to dump some kibble into his dish. She flicked the coffee maker on at the same time and then hopped in the shower while it was brewing. A little over half an hour later and she was dressed, damp hair drying, and dabbing on some make-up before the mirror in her room. She'd brought the vanity with her when she'd moved, leaving Toby her desk and bed. It was no longer spackled with newspaper clippings and photos, and she'd refinished it at some point, staining it a rich brown to match her other furniture.

Rolling her tube of lipstick, she paused – the music box reflecting back at her – and suddenly wondered if it was possible for objects to be branded by memory. If they remembered just as people did. And if she looked hard enough would she see past reflections. Past selves.

I need you…

The words suddenly irritated her mouth like a hair on the tongue. She wanted to spit them out just to be rid of them. Just to prove that they held no power.

That she held no power…

But that was precisely why she'd never spoken them. Uncertainty meant possibility. Possibility permitted belief. And more importantly it bred disbelief.

"Say your right words," she scoffed and then smiled just a touch too widely.

Sarah replaced the lid on her lipstick and stood it next to the girl in the box. She'd do something with the trinket later. It didn't matter anyway; she'd shattered her cage a long time ago.

Before she left she remembered to grab the overdue movie.

She failed to see the flashing light on her answering machine.


Sarah shook out her umbrella and knocked on the wooden door, opening it a moment later when she was bidden.

"Morning."

"Ah, Sarah. Good morning," Professor Gunnarsson replied warmly. His back was to her, watering his plants in front of the window.

Sarah lightly dropped her bag on the floor and settled into one of the chairs facing his desk, smoothing the damp hairs away from her face as she sipped her coffee. When he finished, he turned and wiped his hands on a handkerchief before sitting down in his own chair.

"I prefer to water my plants when it's raining. Gives them the impression they're outside. A little illusion never hurt anyone."

Sarah's lips twitched but she merely nodded.

"So," his shaggy brows rose and he clasped his large hands together a shade too loudly. "It's here!"

Sarah nodded again, inwardly smiling at his obvious enthusiasm.

"And? I haven't had a chance to see it myself though I heard you got your hands on it. Greedy girl."

Sarah reddened slightly but composed herself with a cough. "It was… surprising. The condition was incredible… the colours, the binding… Honestly I am shocked they lent it to us at all."

Professor Gunnarsson grinned and waggled a finger. "Never doubt my powers of persuasion. Or rather the power of money where hungry academic bureaucrats are concerned. It's the one good thing I can say for my dissolute family."

The professor, Sarah knew, was a man whose average looks and modest dress belied his pedigree. If you were skilled at reading people you might pick up that he'd been no stranger to affluence but for most observers he flew under their radar, which Sarah suspected, was something he'd carefully cultivated. Even his office was modestly decorated to everyone but those with a keen eye for expensive, first edition books most humanities professors, even tenured, would never have been able to afford.

She sometimes wondered if he treated the whole world like his plants.

Over all, Sarah quite liked him and his genial attitude more than made up for his eccentricities. He tolerated no fools – Sarah eyed the red marks scribbled across the undergraduate papers littering his desk - but was generous with those he found rapport; a boon considering his font of knowledge on Skaldic mythology. She knew where to get her bread buttered.

"The timing couldn't be better, for you I mean," Gunnarsson offered. "Your last draft was appallingly dull and lacking in any new insight."

Used to his delivery, Sarah only betrayed minor discomfort.

"Don't take it personally, dear girl. We all hit roadblocks. It can be difficult to know the way forward." He thumbed through some of the papers. "And sometimes we must go back…"

Sarah's hand twitched involuntarily, her coffee spilling onto her lap.

"… and revise our initial ideas," he continued, once he'd found the paper he was looking for. Sarah quieted and watched as he scribbled a large D on the essay and directed the unfortunate student to come and see him immediately. He eyed it distastefully before dropping it on another pile. "And sometimes we need to just scrap those ideas altogether." He adjusted his glasses. "But returning to you, do not mistake me, I believe your work thus far has potential. And I hope you'll find inspiration to write something new and worth reading."

Sarah nodded. "Speaking of new, I'd be very interested to go with you when you look at it… because I could have sworn that there was an extra lay included." She continued at his silence. "I mean I only looked at it briefly... so I could have been mistaken, but…"

"What exactly are you saying?"

"I don't know, really. Another poem? A forgery? An oversight?" Her hands gestured futilely.

Gunnarsson sat back in his chair thoughtfully. "It seems unlikely that it would have come to us in any of those scenarios."

"Right. But that's why I wanted you to see it."

He adjusted his glasses again after another moment's digestion. "And you read it?"

"No… not exactly. I didn't get the chance. There was a problem…" Sarah waved her hand dismissively when he opened his mouth. "Just with the elevator and lights. Anyway, I'm nowhere near fluent enough to do it any sort of justice."

"Of course, of course. I will take a look at it. I had planned to anyway, but now you have me intrigued. The implications of what you are saying…" he trailed off and Sarah noted his expression changed again. "If it's so, they'll want it back."

"Naturally."

"Naturally nothing! It's ours at the moment and I have no intention of sending it back anytime soon." His accent had become more pronounced. "Would you let it go so easily?"

"No." Sarah was almost surprised by how quickly the word escaped her mouth. Later she would wonder if the question was more nuanced, and if it had been a final chance at reprieve. Don't open the box. Don't bite the apple. Don't read the book.

He nodded. "Then we shall discover its secrets together, Miss Williams. Happy Monday." He stood, straightening his vest as he did. "Shall we?"

"Now?"

"And why not? These papers can wait. I've already spent more time grading them than most spent writing them."

Realizing it wasn't really a question, Sarah collected her bag and mutely followed him out the door. At his behest they used one of the underground tunnels to cross campus to the library.

The tunnels, while lacking any architectural charm, were very functional in the inclement weather and led, in their ad hoc patterns of twists and turns, to all of the major buildings on campus. The overhead fluorescent lights painted everyone a sickly shade of green and the cement walls sorely needed a new paint job. They also housed the various boiler and maintenance rooms. Sarah rolled her nose at the underlying smell of damp and mold. The morning's rain had not helped.

Various fliers for frat events and college clubs, as well as dubious phone numbers, marked the peeling walls. Epithets – some pithy, most asinine completed the window dressing. Sarah had never been a fan.

They passed several groups of students on their way; the weather sending most of the Monday-morners underground. At the end of one branch of the tunnel, Professor Gunnarsson pulled open a heavy set of metal doors and ushered Sarah through into the basement of the library. During regular hours the doors were unlocked; afterhours they required a swipe card or an active student ID. The basement of the library housed storage rooms, washrooms, a few unlucky offices and a small café – which, given the hour, was packed. The smell of fresh-baked goods made Sarah's stomach rumble.

"Did you want to stop for something?"

Sarah shook her head in embarrassment. "No, no. I'm fine. I'll get something later. Thanks though." Cold Thai food was not the breakfast of champions.

Professor Gunnarsson nodded and clicked the button for the elevator. They rode it to the fourth floor and made their way to the main desk in comfortable silence. The librarian was clicking away at her keyboard.

"Good morning, Barbara. You look fetching this morning."

"Morning, Asael. Thank you." Her eyes swung to Sarah before nodding. "And Sarah." Without being asked she pulled a key from her desk and passed it over to the professor. "Do you need me to come up?"

He gestured at her cluttered desk. "No, no. You have your hands full. We'll be fine."

At the last word, Barbara's eyes skated back to Sarah and for a pregnant pause Sarah was sure Barbara was going to say something. The older woman finally pursed her lips and nodded, returning her attention to the computer.

Sarah released her breath. The professor frowned at the exchange but said nothing, leading the way to the elevator. She tensed again when he accidently brushed against her back once inside the confined space. She rolled her shoulders in an effort to mask her reaction but he apologized nonetheless. When the doors opened on the fifth, Sarah wondered if he could hear her erratic heartbeat in the silence.

The professor pulled two pair of gloves from the box and passed one set to Sarah wordlessly, before unlocking the door. She put her coffee mug on the table and leaned her umbrella against the wall. Once inside the distinct drop in temperature made Sarah's skin prickle. She hadn't bothered to blow dry her hair, considering the rain, and the damp strands were uncomfortably clammy against her skin. She looked around the room carefully.

Professor Gunnarsson turned on several lamps and then made his way to the locked display case. She heard him suck in a breath in marked appreciation. Sarah turned the rest of the lights on before seating herself in one of the chairs. She watched his face crease in delight as he gently lifted the book free. He ran a hand along the cover and then grinned at her over his glasses. Sarah mirrored it, thinking he suddenly looked quite boyish despite his age.

He placed the book down between them, before pulling a chair beside her.

"Astounding, no?" He didn't wait for her response. He traced a finger over the knot. "And this, this is unexpected."

"I thought so too," Sarah offered eagerly. "I've never seen it associated with the Edda before."

"Perhaps a stylistic choice… or it may have been a later addition. This might have been rebound at some point." He tilted the book on its side to examine the spine. "If so whoever did it was an expert."

"The knot's inside too. May I?" Sarah took the book, telling herself that her hands were shaking in a mixture of excitement and cold, and carefully opened the cover. "See?"

"Mmmhmmm!" He lightly tapped a finger on the inked knot. "I wonder that I didn't hear about this before it was sent to us. And the parchment…" He fingered the pages and then raised it to his nose. Sarah saw his nostrils flare. "It is unusual. Not vellum, I should think. Perhaps sheep, but I don't think so either." His touched the page again. "Not skin at all, perhaps, though in that case I am surprised at the quality."

"I was thinking the ink might be Iron Gall, but the colours are almost too vivid."

He nodded in agreement and Sarah flushed with a twinge of pride.

He turned to the first lay and Sarah watched raptly as his finger skimmed the text, his lips forming the words in his native tongue soundlessly. Catching her interest, he inclined his head and then spoke:

"Brœðr munu berjask
ok at bönum verðask,
munu systrungar
sifjum spilla;"

Sarah paused, mouthing the sounds to taste their meaning.

"Brothers shall… fight and fell each other, and sisters' sons shall kinship stain."

Professor Gunnarsson nodded before skipping ahead, his finger still leading his way on the page.

"Ask veit ek standa,
heitir Yggdrasill
hár baðmr, ausinn
hvíta auri;
þaðan koma döggvar
þærs í dala falla;
stendr æ yfir grœnn
Urðar brunni."

"And ask I know, Yggdrasil its… name, with water white… is the great tree wet?" Her mind blanked. "Uh…then…"

"Thence come the dews that fall in the dales, Green by Urths well does it ever grow," he supplied smoothly. "Still, an excellent effort, my dear."

Sarah had long suspected the Professor had an eidetic memory.

"Simply marvellous." As he spoke he jotted a few notes to himself on a pad. His writing was barely legible and may have been in English or Icelandic, or some combination thereof. "I've no doubt I'll be paying for this 'favour' for years. And now…"

He placed the pencil down and carefully raised the book to better turn the pages. With a measured pace that almost frustrated Sarah, he skimmed through each lay in even succession. When he reached Hamthesmol, he slowed even more and by the time he reached the last page of the poem Sarah's fingers were twitching in expectation.

Her breath caught as he turned the page, her eyes on his face.

She watched as a series of expressions contorted his features, before they settled into a frown.

"So?" Sarah asked after a tentative pause. At some point she'd sat on her hands to contain her nerves.

The professor leaned back in his chair, one gloved hand still resting on the book lightly; his face pensive. He said something under his breath that Sarah didn't catch but which she assumed was some type of curse word because he reddened slightly when he noticed her attention.

"I have never seen this piece before."

"Really? So… it was included by mistake then?"

"No. I have never seen this piece before. Ever."

Sarah took a moment to digest. "So what does that mean?"

"I do not know. The form is in keeping with the rest but the style is slightly different and the dialect both recognizable and yet alien. I cannot even make sense of parts of it."

Sarah mouthed an 'oh'. He examined the book closely again, studying the ink and the stitching. "It doesn't appear to have been added later and the print work was done by the same hand and at the same time, I would venture."

He skimmed the words of the text. His finger pausing now and then before splaying his hands helplessly. "I have never heard mention of some of the characters in this. It speaks of magic and of powers given, of a forest, a lady; that is normal enough. But I-" he trailed off. "I don't know." He looked like a man who was rarely at a loss and was not enjoying the experience. "I must consult some old dialect texts I have. We will be compelled to notify the owners of this discovery. But not just yet I think. No. Definitely not yet."

He began copying some of the passages on his pad, his pencil flying across the paper.

"But won't that… cause trouble?"

"Undoubtedly," he answered without looking up. "But let me worry about that. That's what money and influence are for. Regardless, it was their oversight, our gain."

Sarah shifted uncomfortably. There were rules understood in academic circles.

The professor eyed her. "Don't fret. All will be well. We're bending, not breaking."

Sarah laughed nervously. "That sounds dangerously like semantics."

"My ancestors used to pillage what they wanted and burned what they couldn't take. They changed history. I use wealth and words. Again semantics. Surely you understand that the playing field is never fair?"

"Oh no, of that I am well aware."

"Good. Then we are in agreement," he said enthusiastically. "And after all, it's only a book." Sarah nodded but she suspected that they both knew that wasn't true.

"I will consult my reference books." He glanced at his watch. "And I have a phone call to make to an old, very discreet friend who might be of some assistance. I believe I can still catch him if I hurry." He stood and then looked down at Sarah.

"Would you like to remain? It will probably be several hours before I can return. I could send Barbara up."

Sarah looked around the empty room again and then rubbed the back of her neck. "No, no," she replied reluctantly. "She looked busy. And I should work on some revisions anyway." Her stomach grumbled. "Maybe eat something too."

Professor Gunnarsson nodded. "Would you mind putting this away? I need to use the facilities. I'll meet you at the elevator." He slid the key along the table to her and then gathered his things, switching off a few lights before stepping out into the hall.

Sarah watched him open one of the others doors on the floor. She adjusted her gloves and returned the book to its case – leaving it turned to the final lay. As she lowered the lid, the metal locking mechanism scraped against the skin of her wrist. Sarah hissed at the sudden, stinging pain, and watched as a fine line of blood immediately welled to the surface. Before she could react, a small bead slid down her arm and dropped onto the open page.

"Oh Fuck!" She immediately dabbed at the spot with her glove and whistled in surprise when she saw that it had left no trace. "Well, thank god." She flipped the book closed anyway, and then locked the lid. Sucking on her damaged wrist, the metallic tang was sharp in her mouth.

She grabbed her bag and turned off the rest of the lights before sliding out the door and locking it securely behind her. She dropped her stained gloves in the trash.

The professor was waiting by the elevator. Sarah hastily dropped her arm and pulled her sleeve over her wrist. Bleeding on the books was most definitely against the rules.

When the elevator doors had shut, and the whir of the cables started she remembered her umbrella. "Oh shoot, I forgot my umbrella." The doors opened to the fourth.

Gunnarsson stepped out, but he turned and braced the door. "Do you want to go get it?" He glanced at his watch. "Would you mind if I left you to it? I'm sure you can get the key back to Barbara."

Sarah waved him off. "Of course. I'll just be a minute."

The professor nodded and then winked. "And I will do a little bit of research and share whatever findings with you at our next meeting. And my door is always open to you of course."

The elevator doors shut.

Sarah inserted the key back into the panel and pressed the fifth. Her wrist throbbed and she rubbed it absently.

She hadn't made it but halfway down the hallway when she saw the light. One of the desk lamps was on in the rare book room. She frowned, certain she'd turned them all off.

Unlocking the door, she paused on the threshold. It was amazing how innocuous it had been when the professor had been with her. And how keenly alone she felt now. How clearly she remembered the video tape. She shook the feeling off and crossed the room to turn off the lamp.

"What the…"

The book was lying open to the final lay in the case. She swallowed a nervous giggle. Her wrist throbbed again. The damp hair on her neck clung like fingers. Sarah turned defensively. Nothing. Another giggle. This time more a whine.

After unlocking the case with shaking hands, she remembered she hadn't grabbed gloves. For a moment she hesitated, debating going back out to fetch a pair. What's a third time? She nudged the cover as gently as she could with the barest tips of her fingers. In that moment a droplet of red blossomed on the page, welling from within. The dark stain writhed and curled into knots, intertwining with the lettering like twisted branches of a tree. And in a blink it was gone. Sarah swallowed, eyes wide in disbelief. Pulling her sleeve over her hand she quickly flipped the book shut and locked the case, her heartbeat a wild thrum in her ears.

Her hair was heavy and cold on her neck again and she flicked at it irritably, only to brush against fingers.

Sarah screamed soundlessly, fear robbing her voice, and her body dropping and ducking even as she turned.

Nothing.

She pressed herself back against the wooden case, her knees tight against her chest and her hand still clutching her nape. Her eyes tracked every shadow.

"It's not real, it's not real, it's not real…"

"Sarah?"

"Sarah?"

Sarah swallowed and rose on unsteady legs.

Barbara stood in the doorway, a concerned look on her face.

"Here! I'm right here!"

"Oh there you are... What were you doing on the floor?"

"N-nothing… I-I tripped."

The older woman pursed her lips. "Mm. I saw Asael leave. He told me not to let anyone near that book until he said so. And then I didn't see you."

"I just came back for my umbrella. I noticed a light left on. I was just about to leave and give you back the key."

"Lucky I have two. Well come on then." Barbara reached across and switched the light off, noting Sarah's visceral quiver at the action. She followed the shaken younger woman out the door. "That silly man should never have left you alone."

"No. No it was my fault. I said I was fine. I am fine," she added at Barbara's pointed look. She passed back the key and smiled weakly.

Barbara pocketed it. "Your umbrella?"

Sarah looked around. "Oh did you grab it?"

"No. I didn't see one."

Sarah looked around again in confusion. "Oh…"

"Maybe you left it downstairs?"

"Maybe."

Barbara pressed the button for the elevator. They descended in uncomfortable silence. Sarah trailed Barbara to her desk. "Do you… could I maybe look at the video feed again?"

The librarian studied Sarah's face. "You could if it was working. It hasn't worked since yesterday. We've raised a ticket." A pause, her voice softening. "Sarah, what's going on?"

"Nothing. Nerves? I don't know… Really, it's nothing."

"Nothing? La ti da?"Sarah winced, but Barbara continued. "I'm supposed to believe that? Is it an ex-boyfriend?"

"Oh, definitely nothing like that," Sarah snorted

She pursed her lips again. "Well perhaps you should speak to someone. It doesn't have to be me."

"No really. Thank you but I'm fine. And there's nothing to talk about. I promise I won't go up there alone again. I've broken enough rules."

Barbara shot her her best librarian look.

"Honestly." And Sarah meant it in that moment.

Another young student sidled up to the desk, her arms laden with course catalogues. Sarah took the momentary distraction and headed for the stairs, waving over-enthusiastically at Barbara's concerned look.

Sarah descended to the basement. The line at the café had thinned considerably. So had the selection, but she snagged a buttery scone and a bottle of juice. Before Karen had tied on the proverbial apron strings of the homemaker, she'd been a nurse. She had drilled into Sarah, amongst other things, the need to keep blood sugars up after a shock. She'd actually treated her father after a car accident. It was how they'd first met. Even Sarah had noticed the spark, though at the time it had made her nauseous. Sarah downed them both embarrassingly quickly and felt considerably more settled with a full stomach. When she'd wiped her hands clean, she pulled an elastic from her bag and wound her long, thick hair up messily. Noticing the time she realized she'd be late for her literary theory class if she didn't hurry. The rain was still in full force and her umbrella had gone on an adventure without her.

Resigned, Sarah headed back into the tunnels.

The throngs had largely dispersed, most students having found their respective buildings or having decided to skip the rest of the day altogether. The steady deluge above meant some run off had found its way below, and a rhythmic dripping echoed throughout.

Sarah turned down an empty hall way. The smell of loamy damp increased and the fluorescent lights flickered again. It was appalling that the university didn't do something about what was very likely a health hazard. No, but the football team had new locker rooms.

She turned another corner and met a dead end. Amongst the colourful anecdotes about a rival school's mothers, someone had scrawled 'Go Back…' Sarah snorted and turned around. On the wall beside her, 'This is not the way' was written with an unsteady hand.

Sarah frowned. Too close. Far too close…

She stared in confusion at the various tunnel ways. It was a truth universally acknowledged that she was terrible with directions. The irony, of course, being that… the lights flickered. More water dripped.

Sarah heard laughter and relaxed slightly – happy not to be alone – and moved in the direction of the voices. She turned a corner into another solid wall. There were no fliers this time, only a large graffitied 'Beware!'

Sarah took a stumbling step backwards, gripping her bag so tightly that her knuckles bled white.

More laughter.

She turned and hurried towards the voices. "Hello?"

The lights buzzed and flickered overhead. She rounded another corner and shook her head violently.

'Soon it will be too late.'

The red paint was shiny… fresh. Sarah touched it lightly. Red stained her fingertips. Her wrist began to throb.

Laughter erupted. Closer. Louder. Wrong.

Sarah's chest rose and fell in shallow breaths.

"This isn't funny!" She dropped her heavy bag to her hand, readying it as a weapon if needed.

She turned in the opposite direction – a long hallway stretching out before her. It looked vaguely familiar. She tipped her head upwards, following the archaic system of pipes, trying to discern which building she was below and which she was heading towards. The Arts Hall? The Engineering Labs?

She was halfway down the tunnel when the first light went out. She heard a low spark behind her. Turning, she saw that farthest bulb had gone out. The rest flickered and buzzed. And then the next one went. A moment later the third, casting the path behind her into shadow. She didn't wait for the fourth, instead tripping into an awkward run. She listened as more followed, darkness dogging her steps. The bulb over her head flickered just as she rounded the corner and then died.

A strangled sob escaped her throat at the dead end. One last light swung lightly overhead, flickering as it illuminated the concrete wall, paint still dripping.

'Too late.'

And then it too went out.

In the still darkness the rest of her senses jolted into hyper drive. And so she felt the words against her neck even as she heard them.

"Hello Sarah."

Chapter Text

 "Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality."

 Edgar Allan Poe


 Sarah exhaled slowly and then inhaled again sharply when a familiar scent prickled her awareness. The underlying damp was still there, but interlaced was something that she hadn't smelled in ten years. With a strong enough will it's possible to deny the other senses, but scent is so intertwined with memory that it is impossible to unravel. It refuses to be denied. And so, just like that, she was undone.

Disarmed.

Sarah said nothing. It wasn't so much fear – though the strength of it was heady – as it was of being at a loss. The wordsmith didn't know what to say. Anything passing her lips would be an acknowledgement. An admission. And she'd been so careful to avoid those.

When the silence stretched, the sound of her heart a steady thrum in her ears and acutely uncomfortable with the presence at her back, she finally turned. Reaching blindly behind her she pressed herself back against the wall.

"Can you see, Sarah? Or are you as blind as a newborn animal before its eyes open?"

Her chin lifted. "I – I think you already know."

A low chuckle – closer this time. "Just as you know I can see very well in the dark."

"All predators can." She tensed, eyes darting defensively.

"Yes."

One word.

Breath against her face. Sarah could feel the smile beneath the tone.

"Did you miss me?"

It was Sarah's turn to laugh, although even to her own ears it sounded brittle and hollow.

"Such a pity. I'd hoped for a much warmer reunion."

"Really? Because I'd hoped never to have one."

He tsk'd. "Barely a dozen words said and she's already lying. And here I'd thought to find you… all grown up." The last words held an inflection that made Sarah's skin prickle again.

She wanted to ask what he wanted, but instead bit her tongue. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction. "Do you always harass girls in the dark?" she said finally.

"Girls? No." She heard a flick and then the space was infused with a low, warm light. "Better?" It wasn't. Not even remotely. He pretended to study her for the first time. "But then you're so delightfully… mature."

Sarah refused the bait and instead took the moment to return the favour. He looked unchanged in the ten years that she had. In her mind it was a mockery of her attempted denial; like remembering a dream and then finding it real. He was again cased in the unrelenting black of his armour; his angular face pale and his silvery hair wild. In that instant she was right back in the nursery as though time hadn't passed at all.

Sarah cleared her throat uncomfortably and raised her chin. "Yes. Too old for your tastes then?"

"I don't rape children," he replied dryly, "even ones on the cusp of womanhood."

"Really? Because you seemed happy enough to mess with one ten years ago. God knows what you do with the children you steal."

Instead of being angry, he merely looked bored. "I have no interest in 'messing' about with children. And I'd say you escaped the Labyrinth relatively untouched." He canted his head. "But you're hardly a girl anymore, are you? And we both know you're no longer untouched." He drummed his fingers together lightly in a move Sarah assumed was meant to draw his attention to his fine hands. When she looked back at this face his expression confirmed her assumption. It pissed her off.

"And? Did you really come here to discuss my love life? How sad."

"This conversation or your love life?"

Sarah's lips thinned.

"But no, I'm not here to discuss your proclivities. In fact, you should really thank me. I'm here to warn you."

"Warn me?" It was part scoff, part question. "You?"

"Yes, me. Confess your sins, Sarah."

"My sins? You're one to talk!"

"Are you really trying to claim the moral high ground?" He splayed his fingers in the air and smiled. It was anything but kind. "Always keep your gloves on, Sarah."

Her eyes widened and for a second she merely gaped before she collected herself again. Her wrist throbbed.

"Fine. I've said things I shouldn't have… And touched… something I shouldn't have. So?"

His smile deepened. "How wicked. Tell me more."

Sarah stiffened. Even though she knew his tactics were always meant to unsettle, she couldn't help her small reaction.

"What you've been doing is playing with things you don't understand. One would have supposed you'd have learned your lesson." Before she could stop him he grabbed her hand and raised it between them; his gloved fingers intertwining with hers. "These greedy fingers have led you astray."

Sarah reddened and tried to tug her hand back, uncomfortable with the contact that seemed far too intimate and not innocuous enough by half.

Unconcerned with her struggles, he peeled back her sleeve slowly, revealing her wrist. He raised it to his face and for a wild moment Sarah thought he meant to taste her.

"You foolish girl."

"It was… all just an accident!"

Jareth smiled at her lie and released her hand.

She cradled it to her chest. "Why are you here now? Why not… before?"

His lips twitched. "That was entirely on you. You locked yourself very well away, didn't you? I was… unable to… cross the divide until you so kindly invited me back in."

"Invited?!" Sarah could hear the outrage bleeding through her words. It subsumed the panic in an instant.

"Yes, invited. You opened the doors - that's right - plural. I merely took what was offered. I wonder what else will do the same. "

Sarah swallowed, never supposing there was more than the Goblin King to be worried about. Her mind flew back to the book.

Jareth smiled again. Wolfish now. "I'm honoured to see that I was the sole figure of your thoughts. However naively."

"Then I invite you to leave through the same damn door."

He looked amused. "Ah. But I'm afraid you have no power over me."

"You've always wanted to say that, haven't you?"

"Dreamed about it. Now tell me, Sarah, what do you dream about?"

"About never seeing you again."

"So you do dream about me. How intriguing."

"Just leave." Sarah swallowed again. "You still have no power over me."

Jareth laughed. It echoed through the tunnels wildly. More laughter followed.

"Stop it!"

Jareth's eyes dipped to her wide angry eyes, dropped further to her mouth and lingered for a moment, before he turned away back into the shadows. The spider-thin silk of his cape brushed her cheek.

Sarah swiped at her cheek in annoyance. "Why are you really here?" She hated the tremulous warble to her words.

"I told you. I'm here to help you. Consider this an olive branch. I think we both know you're out of your element once again." He held out his hand, palm up. "So, Sarah, would you like my assistance?"

She stared at it, alarmed by the overwhelming instinct to take it, before decidedly shaking her head. "Not when everything you offer comes with a price."

"Naturally. It's now just a matter of what you're willing to pay." His fingers curled teasingly.

"Nothing. I don't want anything from you."

"Oh, I think you'll find that you do. And the longer you wait the higher the cost." His hand formed a fist.

Sarah snorted. "And why would I even want your help when I defeated you?"

Jareth's mouth thinned. "So that's a no then? Are you quite sure?" He sighed. "I suppose that concludes my visit."

"W-what? That's… it?"

"Why?" He crowded her then, moving so suddenly she didn't register it until she could feel his body heat. He laid one hand on the wall beside her head; his thighs just teasing hers. "Was there something else you wished to discuss?"

Sarah's chest heaved in pure panic.

"My, my." His eyes flicked down and then back up. "We have grown up after all, haven't we?"

"Just leave!"

He inclined his head mockingly. "If you change your mind - and you will - you know the words." His smile widened at the renewed look of outrage on her face. He smoothed her damp hair behind her ear, fingering the strands for a moment as though delighted that he could touch her. He moved away reluctantly. "It's been a… peach. Give my regards to Tobias."

And then he was gone.

The overhead lights flickered back on. After a moment she could again hear the boilers and over-laying it the sounds of students chatting. When she turned around again she was no longer in a dead end and the walls were no longer slashed in red paint - replaced again with a cacophony of student ephemera.

She stood there for a full moment longer, eyes still glazed and chest painfully constricted.

She never made it to her literary theory class.


When Sarah got home she was drenched and still shaking. Kicking her wet shoes off at the door, she headed to her room and grabbed a robe. Loki wove between her feet in welcome. Sarah shooed him off and then eyed the music box still sitting on her vanity. With a whimper of disgust she knocked it into the garbage, cringing only slightly when she heard the tell-tale tinkle of broken glass.

She had already unbuttoned her blouse when she caught sight of herself in the mirror and stilled. Tugging the sides of her damp shirt together she tiptoed through her apartment and checked every room. Feeling like a fool, she draped a towel over the bathroom mirror before she undressed completely and slipped into the scalding shower. She began to scrub her skin raw. When she was finished she pulled her robe on tightly and had almost convinced herself that she was hallucinating.

She paced her apartment for the next ten minutes, chewing her lips until they too were raw. Loki watched her with limpid eyes.

"Think, Sarah!"

If he could have taken her he would have, she reasoned. So either he didn't want to or he couldn't. That logic calmed her slightly. But then why warn her? Unless he wanted to trick her into asking him for help. And the cost? Sarah didn't want to consider that… But what was his connection to the book. And what did he mean by doors? Doors to where? Sarah's mind began to reel as panic set in again.

She needed to speak to the professor. If anyone could find anything about the book's origins, it would be him. And she needed to read that last lay. They key would be in the poem. If she had opened a door she could perhaps close it again. But how to ask for Gunnarsson's help without giving too much away? He'd think she was crazy…

Unless he wouldn't. If anyone would believe her story it would her eccentric professor - the one who had arranged to get the book in the first place. An insidious thought took root. If he was not as he seemed…

Sarah shelved that worry for later. He was her only avenue at the moment. Pulling her books out of her bag, she rifled through them until she found her day planner. Flipping it open to where she'd scrawled his office number down, she picked up the phone and was on the point of dialing when she noticed the lack of dial tone. She pressed the button a few times to no effect. Following the cord down to the jack, she found it unplugged. Loki batted at the loose end playfully.

"You little bugger." She plugged it back in and then registered the answering machine blinking. Returning the receiver to its cradle, she pressed play.

"Six new messages," came the robotic voice. "First message. Today. 1:13 am."

Sarah heard the crackle of static as if someone was muffling the phone.

"Sarah? Sarah? Are you there? Please pick up! Sarah?" Dial tone.

Toby… He'd called last night. She'd slept through it because the phone had been unplugged.

Give my regards to Tobias…

"Oh, God…"

"Second message. Today. 1:18 am."

"Sarah? Sarah, are you there? It's Toby. Please pick up. I need you. I think… I think… there's someone in the house." Dial tone.

"Third message. 1:24 am."

"Sarah." Toby was whispering now and he sounded far younger than his ten years. "Call me right away when you get this. I can't wake up mum and dad." She heard a loud creaking. Toby whimpered. She could hear plaintiff crying in the background. "I'm gonna… check it out." Dial tone.

"Toby no!" Sarah cried helplessly, angered at both time and distance.

"Fourth message. 1:32 am"

"Sarah? Sarah?" More fumbling, and still the plaintiff cries in the background. "I went and got the cordless and my flashlight. I know you can't hear me, but I'm taking you with me okay?"

She could hear more background noise. Wood creaking, metal scraping on metal and then a thump. More creaking followed. It took her a moment to reason that Toby must have lowered the attic stairs and was headed up the ladder. Sarah gripped the phone so tightly she heard the plastic casing crack.

"Why did you leave, Sarah? You'd be here right now." A sniffle. "It's not fair. This is your fault…"

Silence. Breathing. Then another thump. The flashlight hitting the attic floor? A louder thump. Static. Dial tone.

Sarah could feel the blood drain from her face.

"Fifth message. 2:01am."

"Sarah? It's me… again. Sorry 'bout calling so much. Everything's… fine. I had another bad dream. I think it's the storm. I don't like the thunder. Don't tell mom and dad okay? I don't want to lose more TV privileges." A yawn. "I'm going to bed." A pause. "Sarah? When you get this… I'm sorry, okay?"

Dial tone. "End of messages."

Sarah continued to hold the phone to her ear for a few moments, before pressing the button to hang up. She didn't delete the messages.

She immediately dialed home. She had to dial twice before finally getting it right, her fingers were shaking so badly they refused to cooperate. Every ring seemed to last forever. Pick up, pick up, pick up…

"Hello?"

"Karen? Oh thank god!"

"… Sarah? Are you okay, dear? You sound upset."

"I'm okay. You? Are you okay?"

"Fine… why? Sarah, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." A weak laugh. "I just got a weird message from Toby, that's all."

"Toby?"

Sarah choked, ice spreading through her limbs as her worst fear took root. "Toby… Your son!"

Karen laughed awkwardly. "Hey now! I'm not that old. He called you?'

Sarah exhaled, slapping a hand to her forehead. "Yah… no big deal though. I'm just checking on him. "

"Well that's sweet. He's playing Nintendo next door. He's been a little off today. I don't think he wants to go on this family trip. Still mad you're not coming I'd bet. What would I know though, I'm just his mother."

Sarah swallowed thickly and nodded before realizing Karen couldn't see her.

"Right. And everyone else is okay?"

"Hmm? Oh fine. Your father's with a client this afternoon, but we're planning on leaving first thing tomorrow morning."

"That's good. I'll... call again later. To say goodbye to everyone."

"Sounds good."

Sarah hung up and then stared at the phone frowning. Finally forcing herself to stand, she turned on the coffee maker and switched the TV on for some ambient noise. She went into the still steamy bathroom to collect her sodden clothes and pulled the towel from the mirror. 'Too late' dripped on the damp surface and then faded, gone so quickly it might never have been. Sarah dropped her clothes shaking.

Give my regards to Tobias…

The words echoed in her head as she hastily dressed. Everything was coalescing in her head into the sound of an alarm. Sarah again felt a prickle of wrongness that sparked her nerves into overdrive.

"It's nothing," Sarah breathed. Toby is fine. He would have made his move if he could have. Regain control. No more slip ups going forward. Watch your words. Keep your hands to yourself. Make sure Toby is fine. Find out more about the book. Get on with your life.

This was the mantra she repeated to herself as she drove herself to her old home. She composed the cryptic warning she'd deliver to Toby, both relieved and worried that he'd be heading out of town. She couldn't watch over him, but he'd be away from her too. That would probably be safest.

The rain had stopped at some point but the sky was still overcast. When thunder struck Sarah jumped, swerving her car into oncoming traffic. She swore and pulled the car back into her lane. Relax… just relax…

She made it home without further incident and dashed into the house without knocking.

"Hello?"

"In the kitchen."

Sarah walked into the room just as Karen was preparing to head to the basement with a load of laundry. Thunder struck again.

"Hey… uh, I was in the area and thought I'd say bye in person."

"Wonderful. You can help Toby finish packing. Stay for supper? It's probably just pizza and leftovers. Cleaning out the fridge. That okay?"

"You really don't have to feed me again. I swear I can look after myself."

"Don't be silly, we know that." Thunder struck again. "Can you believe this weather?"

"I know." Sarah glanced around the kitchen and frowned. "Ridiculous."

"I'll just pop this into the washer."

"Sarah?" Toby was standing in the doorway. He smiled at her briefly but his eyes were hollow and his skin was ashen.

"Hey kiddo. Are you okay? I got your messages."

Toby glanced at the basement door wordlessly.

"Come on, let's go to your room." He nodded and led the way up the stairs. Sarah eyed the attic hatch as they passed, Toby avoided looking at it altogether. Another shiver of wrongness ran down her spine.

Once in his room Toby plopped himself on his bed. Sarah pulled out his desk chair and faced him.

"Do you want to talk about it?" She asked after a moment.

He shook his head, but his expression was one of a wounded animal in distress.

"Toby. It's me. What happened last night?"

He shuddered. "Why didn't you pick up? I called you!" The words came out in a hushed sob; uncharacteristically raw for the precocious child.

Sarah immediately moved to the bed and pulled him into her arms even though he was getting so big his barely fit comfortably anymore. "Shh, shh! It's okay. I'm sorry. I'm here now, kiddo."

"You won't believe me."

"Try me."

"Mum and dad didn't..."

"You'd be surprised at what I'll believe."

Sarah felt him hesitate. "You'll be mad at me… please don't be mad at me." The last came out as a broken whisper.

"Shh! Just tell me. Maybe I can help."

"I did something… bad. I didn't mean to… I just thought, I mean… I just said it! It came out. I didn't even think it would work. I'm so sorry! I thought it would be fun at first but then I tried to fix it. Honestly. I can't!"

Sarah could feel his body stiffen and spasm in her arms, until she felt like she was trying to control a wild animal.

"Fix what, Toby?" The feeling of wrongness assailed her again, spurred by the look of defeat in her brother's eyes.

"I wished him away, Sarah."

Sarah felt the blood drain from her face at his words. Toby saw it too, and he cringed from her in shame.

She schooled her features and then laughed. "Wait… wished who away?"

Toby's face whitened further. "Not you too. Max! I wished Max away!"

"Max?" Sarah's brow furrowed. "Is he one of your friends?"

Toby burst into tears. Toby was not a crier. Sarah used to tease him that he'd gotten out all of his crying when he was a baby and had cried himself dry. Sarah tried to hug him again, but he shook her arms off violently.

"Max was my brother. Our brother! A baby!" Toby stormed from the room, pausing only long enough for Sarah to follow, and threw open the spare room. "His crib used to be in here!"

He pushed past Sarah back into that hall and pointed to the pictures on the walls. "He used to be in some of these. See this spot?" Toby pointed to a family photo taken a few months ago. "He was right there. In mum's arms!" Karen's arms were folded restfully in her lap. Empty. Sarah remembered agreeing to sit for the photo, but the memory was hazy when she revisited it.

Toby was staring at her entreatingly. "No one remembers. No one but me, don't you see?"

Sarah looked back at the wall of pictures. Her eyes stopped on a photo taken some ten years earlier. Toby was wearing a striped sleep set, a sloppy grin on his chubby face. Karen was smiling, her dad looked goofy. And she looked like a fifteen year old sullen teenager who would make a very grave mistake less than a month later.

"You left because of Max. You said it was because you needed your own space, but it was because of him. He was always fussy and up at all hours. You should have stayed here. I needed you. And then you were always paying attention to him. And I-I…" Toby started to sob again.

"Wished him away," Sarah finished bleakly. She closed her eyes tightly and searched her memory. She could see Toby as a baby reaching for her face and then the baby changed, his face similar but different and her squeezing his thighs. And then the image faded.

"Chubbs…"

"Yes! Yes! You convinced mom and dad to name him Max. After the book!"

Sarah could see it all, but it was shrouded. Unfocused. Distorted. She'd felt that way once before.

Give my regards to Tobias…

You will lose something precious…

"That bastard!"

Toby recoiled at the venom in her voice but still clung to her arm like he was drowning. "You believe me then?"

"Oh, I believe you, Toby."

"So you remember Max?"

His tone was so hopeful, Sarah didn't have the heart to tell him that she only had a vague sense of loss. That his pain, though palpable was not hers."

"I'll get him back." Sarah hoped conviction was arsenal enough.

Just then Karen came up the stairs humming a lullaby - one she probably didn't even notice. Toby cringed and pulled Sarah back into his room, shutting the door behind them.

Sarah rubbed her temples. When she looked at Toby's tear-stained face she felt a sharp pang of shame. If she had lost, if she had failed to make it to the castle that would have been her. No one would have remembered Toby. As no one did Max. She should have warned him a long time ago.

"Toby, this is not your fault. This is his fault." And mine.

Toby stared at her glassy-eyed.

"Where did you… where did you even get the idea to wish Max away?"

Toby picked up a piece of paper and handed it to her. A fortune. His. 'All you have to do is wish…'

When she remained silent, Toby laughed awkwardly. "I am never eating Chinese again. Honestly, I didn't know they were real."

Sarah crumpled it and threw it in the garbage. "They're not." She gripped his arms. "How else, Toby? It wasn't just a cookie."

"I don't know… I just knew I could do it! Dreams? Like I heard whispers in my head that I just had to wish. And then last night… I heard something moving upstairs. I was scared. You weren't here and I couldn't reach you… there was so much thunder! I hate thunder! It was so cold. Max wouldn't stop crying and… And I-I just said it. And then everything stopped. And then… then he came. It was so dark. He took Max and… I was all alone in the attic. At first I thought I was dreaming. I ran downstairs and looked in Max's room and he was gone. So I crawled into mum's bed and no one yelled at me for waking them up… and mum hugged me like she hasn't in forever and dad ruffled my hair and it felt… so good." Toby started to choke on the words. "And wrong. All wrong! But good. Like a dream. I went to sleep and when I woke up it was still all wrong. And it wasn't a dream at all but it was too late. I'm so sorry Sarah, please don't hate me. I'm an awful brother."

"No, Toby, you're not!"

"But how could it be real? Am I crazy?"

Sarah wrapped her arms around him tightly, trying to pull the shame from his body. "Not your fault, kiddo. I'm going to fix it all, okay? Don't you worry." She pushed him away enough to see his face. "Did he offer you anything in exchange? A way to get Toby back?"

"Huh?"

"Did he?"

Toby looked at her funny. "You mean Max. You said Toby."

She stilled. "No, right, I meant Max."

"No… he didn't say anything. There was just laughter and then he was gone."

"Bastard."

"You… know who took him?"

Sarah laughed until it turned into silent, hysterical spasms. Toby looked alarmed but tried to pat her back awkwardly. A knock on the door made both siblings still.

"Toby? Oh hi, Sarah!" Robert smiled warmly. "All packed yet?"

"N-not yet, Dad. I mean almost."

"Hmmm… well hurry up. I'm going to order some pizza. Double anchovies, right?"

Sarah and Toby forced a laugh at their father's predicable joke until he left satisfied.

When they were alone again, Toby threw himself at Sarah. "I can't go tomorrow! I have to get Max back! This whole stupid trip was for him!"

"Shh! Calm down. I'll figure this out okay? Look. Let's finish throwing stuff into your suitcase and then you go downstairs. Wait for the pizza. I'll be down in a minute."

Toby nodded reluctantly and then did as he was asked,haphazardly filling his bag. Karen would later wonder why he'd packed a seersucker blazer, Bermuda shorts, three socks – none of them matching – and no underwear.

Sarah waited for Toby to reach the kitchen before she reluctantly pulled the attic hatch open and released the stairs.

She'd never liked the attic, or more accurately, it had been a love-hate relationship. For a child with a vivid imagination attics were entirely another world – filled with the potential for both good and evil. Sarah reminded herself that she was an adult, and even though she was privy to the knowledge that the bogey man did exist, she still had to act like one.

Once up she fumbled for the chain-pull for the light, the one Toby would not have been able to reach, and tugged it on. The naked bulb flickered to life. Sarah rubbed her arm and looked around.

The large space was haphazardly filled with boxes and a few scattered pieces of furniture. It was organized chaos. Christmas decorations overflowed their storage. A couple of carpets were rolled up, probably never to be unrolled again. The round attic windows cast striations of dull grey light across the floor. The air was damp, with a tinge of mold from the insulation. Karen had recently placed moth balls. Sarah's nose curled. At her feet lay a flashlight – its dim bulb still on. Sarah picked it up and scanned it around the room, imagining it through Toby's eyes, before she flicked it off.

It only took her a few moments to locate the box she was looking for. Someone had written 'Sarah' on the outside in black marker. It had once been sealed with packing tape, but it had recently been opened. Sarah pulled the flaps back. Some trinkets, part of a costume, a statue… Nothing remarkable, and nothing she wanted to dwell on right then. She rifled through them until she felt the smooth leather of a small book. Prying it free, she brushed the dust from its red cover. It felt familiar in her hand, like it belonged. Once again she found herself wondering if objects could remember…

Without opening it she tucked it into her coat. "Just in case."

Taking a final look around, she pulled the chain and made her way back downstairs. Robert, Karen and Toby were seated around the table – pizza, leftover Chinese and half a casserole were laid out before them. Someone had set her a place. Toby immediately looked to her, his expression hopeful. Sarah shook her head minutely. She could see that he had mostly pushed his food around. His eyes kept wandering to a space beside Karen. Where a high chair might sit, Sarah's mind supplied. Max.

Accepting some pizza from her dad, she refused the wine from Karen. She needed a clear head. They ate mostly in silence, Robert trying vainly to engage them, Sarah – for her part – doing her best to supply the expected answers.

"Well this is nice, right? Another dinner with all of us altogether," Karen remarked with stilted brightness.

Toby choked on his milk and before he could react further he asked to be excused, not waiting for permission.

When dinner was finished, Robert loaded the car while Sarah offered to clean up.

"No, no. I'll do it," Karen insisted.

"No, really I'll do it. You have your hands full with…" Sarah trailed off. "I don't mind. Really."

Toby popped his head in the doorway. Sarah could see that he'd scrubbed his face - hard. "I'm going to bed, okay? I'm really tired. Long day tomorrow and stuff."

"Really? Okay… if you're sure. Want me to tuck you in?"

"Mom, I'm ten…"

"Right, I forgot. Double digits. No tucking. Can I still get a kiss?"

Toby obliged and then eyed Sarah before leaving the room. Sarah followed him to the base of the stairs.

"I'm going to take care of it tonight, kiddo. When you wake up Max will be back in his crib. This will all just be a bad dream."

"I want to help." He said determinedly. "This was my fault."

"No. Absolutely not. I will handle this by myself. Trust me when I say that this is not your fault and I will fix this, I promise."

"Don't make promises you can't keep. You always do."

Sarah winced. "Sometimes it can't be helped but this time it's true. Just trust me. This is… I have to do this on my own."

"That's just dumb. You should take help when it's offered."

"It's... it's how it's done. Just go to sleep, Toby." Sarah kissed on him his forehead and lightly pushed him upstairs. "Do not… wish for anything, okay? Don't investigate any noises. Just sleep. If you get scared crawl in with mom and dad. Promise me?"

Toby stalled. "How are you going to fix this?"

Sarah swallowed. "I just will. Now go."

She waited on the landing for a moment and then found her father and step mother drinking tea.

"I'm off. Thanks for dinner."

"So soon?"

"Yah, I have some things to take care of. But have a safe drive and yes I have the number for Gran's."

Robert rose to hug his daughter. "We're only gone a week. Be good, okay?" He kissed her on her forehead.

"You know me." She hugged Karen, collected her things and made her way out the door. The sky was terribly dark and overcast; the stars and moon well-hidden. Sarah pulled her coat closed tightly and palmed the book before getting into her car.

She was almost home when she heard the movement in the backseat. Her heart thudded and she forced herself not to slam on the brakes. She pulled over as soon as it was safe and very carefully peered over the seats.

"Toby?!"

Toby half waved at her sheepishly.

"What the hell? Seriously?!"

"Sorry, I just-"

"Just what? Had to give me a heart attack. Does dad know?"

"Not exactly…"

"Not exactly! Of all the stupid… I'm turning around right now."

"NO!"

"Toby…"

"Just hear me out! I want to be there. I need to be there. For whatever you're going to do."

"No way! It's too dangerous."

"And it's not dangerous at home? By myself? You know mom and dad can't help. And what about you? Who's going to take care of you?"

Sarah sighed and gripped the steering wheel. Toby was so good at finding her weak spots. And he was right, Sarah didn't want to leave him alone. Not until she was sure he'd be safe.

"Fine," she breathed between her teeth. "But you are going to… to hide in the closet while I do it. And cover your ears. And not say a word. Got it?"

Toby nodded solemnly.

"And what if they check on you? Did you even think about their reaction?"

"They didn't notice their last son going missing." His tone was mutinous.

"Toby…" Sarah warned.

"I stuffed some clothes under my blankets, okay? They won't notice."

"You watch way too many bad movies. You realize this isn't a game, right?"

"Trust me, I know."

"I'm such an idiot," Sarah muttered and slid the car back into drive. "I'm taking you home again right after and if you can't sneak back in you're going to confess sneaking out."

"But if this all works, everything will be back to normal, right?"

"Right," Sarah returned. She just wished she believed it.

Once inside her apartment, Sarah turned on all the lights. Toby bent and scratched Loki under his chin. Loki allowed it, as though realizing the boy needed a distraction. Sarah belatedly noticed that he was wearing his superhero pajamas and smiled. He was still a child in so many ways.

She ducked into kitchen and took a few deep breaths before downing a glass of water. You can do this… again.

"You need to do you dishes." Toby was standing in the doorway, holding her cat.

Sarah rolled her eyes and led Toby into her bedroom. She motioned him to the closet.

"Stay in there. Do not, no matter what, open that door. And don't say a word. Not. One. If… if something happens, you just call mom and dad. Or run next door. Understand?"

Toby nodded wordlessly, his bright blue eyes wide. Sarah was again struck with how young and vulnerable he appeared, when he wasn't being a snot. He needed her and Sarah found that it was a lot easier to be brave when it was for someone else. She smiled then, and it wasn't forced. She ruffled his hair and then watched as he closed himself in the closet, leaving the doors open the barest crack.

Slipping her hand on the book, she sat herself at her vanity and stared into the mirror. Her pale face reflected back. Sarah smoothed her hair down, convincing herself that the actions were merely by rote.

She licked her dry lips and then parted them.

Thunder struck, as though in anticipation. Daring her. She heard Toby startle and then settle in the closet.

The book was warm in her palm. Her wrist ached.

...Say your right words…

…You know the words…

And she did.

"I wish…"

Chapter Text

I knew you were
You were gonna come to me

And here you are
But you better choose carefully
'Cause I, I'm capable of anything
Of anything
And everything…

Dark Horse, Katy Perry


"I wish…" Sarah's tongue twisted in her mouth and she stumbled over the words, her eyes darting to the reflection of the closet once more.

Sometimes very bad ideas sounded just that. They forewarned their arrival – broadcast it, so to speak in physical twinges and nervous exhalations.

And sometimes bad ideas were the only ones available.

Sarah cleared her throat. Toby had gone completely silent. She imagined him watching her with hopeful anticipation - the kind that would ebb the older he got, until he realized that she couldn't perform miracles and she wasn't invincible. She very much hoped that today was not the day.

"I… wish-" The words tangled again. "I...I… Hoggle I need you!" The words came out in a rush and so unexpectedly that even she was surprised by their arrival. In that moment of confusion, before she had a chance to speak again, the mirror began to shake, battering against the wall violently and then stilled. Hoggle appeared beside her reflection.

"H-Hoggle? Hoggle!"

The dwarf looked almost as surprised as she did and he scrutinized her for a full moment. "Sa-rah?" he asked slowly.

She smiled tremulously; her initial exuberance replaced with an awkward distance. Ten years was a long time to some.

The dwarf's pronounced brows rose in recognition. "It is you! But… but you're all grown up!"

Sarah nodded, not sure why she felt embarrassment at having become an adult.

"And you-you look the same."

Hoggle shrugged. "Why bother to change if you don't have to?"

Sarah laughed.

"Well maybe a might more worn. My knees ache now and again."

An awkward, telling silence descended.

"I… um…sorry, I haven't… called?" Sarah knew the apology to be weak.

Hoggle's head dipped. "I expect you was busy. Growing up and all."

"I was I guess." Sarah nodded slowly. "But I was also scared."

"Of him? Don't blame ya."

"Yes, but not just that. I was scared that it was all real… and… and I think I was also scared that it wasn't. If that makes sense?"

Hoggle craggy face scrunched.

"Have you ever heard of Schrodinger's Cat? No, of course you haven't…" Sarah shook her head. "Forget that… I just thought if I never asked… never called that you'd be both real and unreal, depending on what I wanted. And that would be safest. Understand?"

"'Suppose. Yah."

"It actually sounds terribly selfish now that I say it out loud. But you never called me?" It was more question than statement.

"Couldn't. I have no power. And it only works one way… or did, anyway. Word is that magicky ones can go both ways now. Don't know what changed. Not my business," he finished perfunctorily.

Sarah didn't offer to explain. "So… How are you, Hoggle?"

"Me? Same. Keeps to myself. Likes usual. Gardens to tend, fairies to kill. Usual."

Sarah smiled. "Horrible."

"It's Hoggle." He smiled back.

"And Didymus? And Ludo? Still friends with rocks?"

"Fine, fine. Didymus still guards the Bog. Insists there's no smell. Ludo still collects friends like, well, like he collects rocks."

Sarah nodded.

"I could... go get them if you want?"

"No! No... not this time."

Hoggle watched her face.

"And…um…"

"And you want to know about Him," he supplied.

Sarah waved a hand in denial. "Did you-did you get in trouble after I left?"

"Not really. He had a fine time fixing what you'd broken. What we'd broken." Hoggle paused to grin. "He was gone for a while too. And he was very… let's just say most just kept their distance. Those that did also kept their heads. But why? What's the matter, Sarah?"

"Everything. He wants something from me. I wish I… I'd like to know what."

Hoggle snorted. "I could give a good guess." He reddened. "But that's nothing new, really. Whatever it is it ain't nothing good."

"So you… so you don't know anything?" Sarah tried to keep the disappointment from her voice.

"Well he's not exactly the secret sharing type, is he? He'd never trust me again anyway."

"Right. Of course not. Silly. I'm just glad you're safe… I was also scared that you'd… that he'd… Well, I'm happy to see you Hoggle." And she meant it.

Hoggle heard the truth in her words and visibly relaxed, as though he'd been carrying a weight.

Sarah felt the weight shift to her.

"Hoggle?" She suddenly sounded like a young girl again. "I think I am going to make a very bad mistake."

"Why?"

"Because I have to. Because I never really stopped making mistakes?"

"Don't say that, Sarah. You was the best and truest friend I ever had, I mean… before-"

"I'm still your friend, Hoggle. And I don't regret anything that happened in the… the Labyrinth."

"Good. 'Cause you won fair and square."

"I know," she sighed. "The universe doesn't. Thanks for not forgetting me, Hogwart," she added ruefully.

"It's Hoggle," he rejoined in mock outrage. "And no one could forget you. No one has. Especially not him."

"I know."

"Sarah… what are you going to do?" Urgency crept into Hoggle's tone.

"I'm glad you answered. I'm glad I opened the box and it was all real. I think… I think it made me stronger. Thank you. Just wish me luck, okay."

"Wish? Sarah? Wait, what are you going to do? Don't do nothing foolish!"

"I don't have a choice, I'm afraid."

"Sarah…"

She reached out a hand and touched his reflection. "'Til next time. Bye Hoggle." He disappeared with a pitying expression of worry on his lined face.

Sarah smiled to herself and then glanced at the closet and nodded. She straightened her spine and rolled her shoulders, choosing her words carefully. No mistakes this time.

"I wish I could speak with the Goblin King here," she emphasized carefully, "right now."

Thunder struck again. The apartment shook and the lights flickered. She heard a muffled sniffle from the closet. The sky lit up violently and then darkened again.

And then nothing.

Sarah exhaled slowly and looked around the room. A mixture of shock and disappointment tickled her spine. Her eyes narrowed in sudden thought.

"Please."

"That wasn't so hard was it?"

Sarah jumped and spun in her chair. The Goblin King lazed against her window frame, his arms crossed.

His thin lips twitched at her silence – the barest glint of teeth – and then he looked around her room.

Sarah immediately felt invaded. Violated. She was acutely aware that her personal things littered the room, giving an intimate glimpse into the things she valued.

His eyes lingered on an Escher print and his lips twitched again. She got the impression he was amused.

Her attention trained to the rumpled bed and a pair of lacy underwear escaping her drawer.

Sarah exhaled through her teeth to calm her breathing, drawing his eyes back to her face. "I want my brother back."

"He's in the closet," Jareth replied dryly, without looking away.

Sarah started.

"Why don't you join us, Toby?" He smiled at the marked look of discomfort on her face. "Your sister apparently misses you."

Sarah could hear a thump and a shuffle and then the closet doors opened slowly. A white-faced Toby, looking far younger than ten years, shuffled out in wrinkled superhero pajamas.

Toby skirted the room until her came to stand slightly behind her. She could feel his hand fist into her shirt.

"Just leave him alone. He's just a boy."

"And yet he didn't run away. Give him his due."

Toby cleared his throat. "I-I'm Toby."

"Yes. We've met before."

Toby looked up into Sarah's face, questioning. Sarah nodded slightly and then looked away. "It was a long time ago."

Jareth's smile widened, his teeth glinting. "And apparently not worth telling him about. How… interesting."

"And you knew him too, Sarah?"

Sarah watched the Goblin King sharply. "Unfortunately."

"She does indeed, Toby. She made quite the impression on me. And an even bigger one on my kingdom."

"You have a kingdom? A… a real one?" Sarah could hear the interest in his voice.

"Oh yes. And it stretches farther than you can imagine. At its centre sits my castle, surrounded by my labyrinth."

"Cool!"

"Yes. It is. Although your sister didn't think so."

"Well, I wish I could I see it!"

Sarah clamped a hand on Toby's shoulder and yanked him into her.

Jareth met her eyes above his head. "I'll let that one go."

Sarah exhaled shakily and nodded with mutinous thanks.

"Perhaps one day I can give you a tour. Your sister can come too."

"No."

"Leave him alone. You've done enough, Goblin King."

"So formal? We're old friends you and I. Call me Jareth."

Sarah realized she had never called him that name. Not once. He watched her expectantly. Sarah pursed her lips. "You know why I called you," she said finally.

"Do I?" Jareth looked around her room, pausing on her double bed. "It's customary to offer your guests refreshment."

"You're not a guest."

Toby sucked in a breath. He couldn't imagine being so rude to a king. And he'd never heard his sister snipe like that at anyone.

Jareth's voice softened. "There are expectations of guests, certain rules of etiquette that both the guest and host must abide by. If I am not a guest… then said rules do not apply to me."

Sarah shrank back lightly. "Fine."

She ushered Toby ahead of her out the door, but kept a side eye on Jareth as he followed; uncomfortable with his presence at her back.

She pulled a glass out of the cupboard and half-filled it with water from the tap and then handed it to him.

"How generous," he mocked.

"At least it's not drugged," she bit back.

He silently toasted her and took a sip. He made a face, swirled the glass once and the liquid darkened to a deep red.

"Whoah! You're like Jesus!"

Sarah choked. Jareth looked amused. "Hardly anything so benign, my boy."

Sarah could see Toby struggling to discern his meaning. She moved to the living room, feeling ridiculous having the Goblin King crowded in her tiny kitchen, with her dirty dishes piled high. "So… can we discuss terms now?"

"Are you surrendering? I accept."

"Never. I want my – our – brother back."

"Yes, I believe you've said that."

"So… so give him back!"

"It's really not so simple."

"Of course it's not. It never is. So what is it? Running the Labyrinth again? Or have you gotten more creative?"

His uneven teeth glinted again. "You really don't want to test my creativity, Sarah."

"You're twisted."

"And you've lost another a baby. I don't think a career in child care is in your future."

"Then what do you want?"

"As I said before… it's a matter of what you're willing to pay."

"You're waiting for me to say anything. I won't. So just tell me what you want."

"Shouldn't I have to pay?" Toby interjected. "Since… I wished him… away. I have a piggy bank and a savings account-"

"No. Whatever the cost, I'm paying," Sarah interrupted. "Do you accept?"

"Ever the hero."

"Always the villain."

"Yes. We both just keep sliding back into our roles, don't we?" he sighed. "How tiresome."

"Well? Do you accept?"

Jareth's lips twitched. "I think you know the answer to that."

Sarah allowed a slight nod.

"So… I return your brother to you and in exchange you…" Jareth paused, his eyes flitting down her body slowly.

"I could run the Labyrinth again," Sarah offered impetuously; uncomfortable with his slow perusal.

"You could. But that is a test for a child." His eyes slid to Toby.

Sarah immediately moved in front of him. "So if not that, what then? Just name it!"

"So eager?"

"To rip the Band-Aid off."

Jareth straightened a picture frame. It was an inked drawing of a twisted forest, the branches curling and weaving high into the sky leaving everything in shadow.

"Very well then, here is my offer. And bear in mind it's as generous as it is because you called on me sooner than expected. I will return your brother to you in exchange for truthful answers to twenty questions of my choosing, asked when and where I choose." Sarah's brow furrowed. "If you fail to answer truthfully, you will forfeit. And the forfeit will also be of my choosing."

She exhaled in surprise. "That's… that's it?"

"I said I could be generous."

Sarah mulled over his wording. Toby looked at her entreatingly; his hand fisting tighter in her shirt.

She dropped a hand on his head. "And who will pay the forfeit? Certainly not Toby. And not Max either. You won't keep either of them."

He folded his arms. "You're not really in a position to bargain."

"I could refuse altogether."

"And then what of poor Max?"

"Sarah, please?!" Toby whispered desperately. Jareth smiled.

"I will pay the forfeit. But I want to know what it is."

"Yes, you will. And no, I will not tell you what it is. Those are my terms."

"Twenty questions can't be too hard anyway." Sarah said it to reassure Toby. She said it to reassure herself. Because nothing was ever as it seemed.

Toby nodded uncertainly.

"And I have to answer truthfully only, right? Not correctly? You could ask questions I don't know the answers to."

"You'll know the answers. It's whether or not you will answer them."

"But wait… you could stretch out asking them forever. That wouldn't be fair."

"Clever girl. I will ask them all within a month of your time." He held up a hand to forestall her protest. "Or faster. It will depend on how generous you leave me feeling."

Toby squeezed her hand.

"What about our lives here? My parents' live. A month is a long time… to us."

"Only you and Toby know anything is amiss." When she said nothing he added, "Take care. I'm starting to lose patience and feeling less generous as I speak. I may decide to change the terms."

Sarah held up her hands. "No don't! I agree. I agree to your terms!" She felt better and worse for having said it.

Jareth's lips curled slowly. He extended a hand to her. Sarah stared at it doubtfully and only reached out to shake it when it looked like Toby might. When their fingers connected, he twisted them and withdrew leaving Sarah holding a crystal. Before she could react, it vanished into her palm with a tingling feeling that wove up her arm. Sarah clawed her arm furiously, as though trying to excise it.

"What was that?"

"Merely an oath binding. Do calm yourself. The deal is done. And recriminations will get you nowhere."

"That was unnecessary! I'd already agreed!"

"A promise from a practiced liar's lips is not worth much. And there are other ways to bind an oath; ones that are far more… invasive. Be thankful."

Sarah believed him. "So now what?"

"Now we find your brother."

It took a moment for Sarah to process the words; to fully articulate their meaning. When the understanding settled, her skin prickled.

'What do you mean find him? You have him! He should be in your castle!"

"Why, did you think I took him? How unfortunate." His smile belied his words.

"But you said-"

"I said that it was not so simple. That I would return your brother to you. I never said I was the one to take him. And you never asked."

Sarah looked to Toby questioningly.

"I… I… it was dark. I never saw his face!"

Pieces fit together like a puzzle - his cryptic remarks; his warning about opening doors. Multiple. That Toby didn't recognize him…

Sarah shook her head. "That's not fair."

"Nothing ever is to you."

"The deal's off!"

"Then you'll… what? Find your baby brother by yourself? I didn't think so. Be thankful I've offered my assistance at all. I'm not the only one who answers the impetuous and foolish wishes of spoiled children. I am, by far, one of the more merciful. You'd do well to remember that."

Sarah sobered at the realization that Max could be with anyone. Anything. "Oh, God. Please!"

"A deal is a deal, Sarah." His voice deepened, resonating throughout the room. The air felt charged; smelled of ozone and magic. "I said I would get your brother back and I'll keep my word. I'm a formidable ally. I'm a far worse enemy. You're not a child anymore; the rules have changed. You'd much prefer me on your side."

Sarah's heart pounded in fear but she nodded. She'd been played but he was right. She was out of her league. If she'd ever had powers, she'd long forgotten them. It galled her but she needed him, for now anyway. He'd called her a practiced liar; she would flex her muscles if needed.

"Do you – do you know who has him at least?"

"I have my suspicions. I need to arrange a few things first. I will call on you tomorrow evening. Be ready then."

"Ready for what?"

"To leave."

"Leave? Where?" Sarah shook her head at the look on his face. "No, oh no, I am not going anywhere with you!"

"I beg to differ. You both are in fact. If you want your brother back, I'll need the one who made the wish."

Toby beamed. Sarah looked livid. "This was all a part of your plan wasn't it? I never really had a choice."

"You did and you made it. Now deal with the consequences. Fulfill your part and I'll fulfill mine."

Sarah squeezed her hand into a fist. The one the crystal had disappeared within. The one with the mark on her wrist.

"I can't just leave … I mean, I have classes. I have deadlines… And Toby? My parents are leaving tomorrow with him for a family vacation!"

Jareth sighed, as though the minutiae of human life bored him. He produced two crystals and spun them intricately between his fingers. Toby watched raptly, his mouth open. And then he released them to float through a window Sarah didn't remember opening. "There. Your deadlines have been moved, your absence in class will not be noted, and Toby is asleep in his bed, ready for his 'vacation' tomorrow."

Toby looked down at himself confused. Sarah was irate.

"You can't just do that!"

"I can and I did. You'd be amazed at what I can do. Changelings are very effective. Your parents won't notice a thing. Mostly."

"So cool! Could the other me do my homework too?"

"Toby!"

"Probably. But you wouldn't want it to."

"How can you just manipulate people like that?"

"Practice."

Sarah shook her head in obvious disgust.

"Would you rather I let them feel the pain of missing two sons? I can assure you that as much as they don't remember Max, they feel his absence like a hole in their pitiful mortal hearts. So I would suggest you waste no more of my time with petty human morals." He nodded at Toby and then returned his eyes to Sarah. "Until tomorrow, Sarah." And then he was gone.

Sarah sank down on the couch and held her head in her hands. Toby curled up beside her.

"I'm so sorry. This is all my fault."

"No, no it's not," she offered after a moment.

"You knew him. From a long time ago. How?"

"It was just that – a long time ago. Not worth talking about. Just know that he is not trustworthy and there is no way things are going to be simple."

"Where are we going?"

Sarah snorted. "I wish I knew."

Toby yawned.

"Come. Let's get you to bed. No sense in worrying about it tonight." She nudged Toby to his feet and shuffled him to her room. "You can bunk with me. Don't hog the covers, kay?"

Toby nodded and crawled into her bed, Sarah tucking him in. Loki jumped up and settled himself against Toby's side. The boy visibly relaxed; his hand curling into the cat's silky coat. Sarah waited until he was asleep before she left. She paced the apartment for a few minutes, her thoughts jumbled and distorted. When she'd walked her floors raw she did her dishes and then tidied her dining room table purely by rote. It took her a few moments to recognize that she only did that when she was going away for an extended time. She watered her plants next and straightened up her living room.

It was only then that she noticed the light on her answering machine was still blinking. She pressed the button.

"6 messages. 1 skipped message, 5 saved messages."

"First skipped message. Today. 6:01pm."

"Sarah? Sarah, this is Professor Gunnarsson. I apologize for calling at suppertime." Sarah could hear a heavy accent, meaning he was excited.

"I found out some information, Sarah. Something quite unusual! Something… it's difficult to explain. But I think you will want to see it. I'm headed back to take another look at the book again. I'll be in my office first thing in the morning. Come and see me straight away if you don't return this call. You'll want to hear this."

Dial tone.

The five messages she'd heard from Toby played again. Sarah listened to them all again, white faced and chilled - now knowing that her brother had been dealing with something altogether unexpected.

When they finished she deleted them all and hung up the phone. He mind would not slow, but her body was showing its exhaustion. She forced herself to take a shower to try and relax and then crawled into her bed. Once again she left the lights on in her apartment.

Toby's body heat and his rhythmic breathing, bordering on a light child-like snore, eventually lulled her to a fitful sleep.

Loki stayed between them the entire night; his lambent eyes a beacon in the darkness.


Elsewhere, beyond a twisted wood, where the branches curled and wove towards the sky - blocking all but the brightest starlight - a lone babe cried in the still night.

Strong arms rocked him indifferently. "And so it begins."


Jareth sat before a fire, a glass of wine and an open book at his side. He fingers were steepled against his mouth; his lips curled in a half-smile.

A goblin sentry stood in the doorway. Jareth turned slightly and nodded. The goblin saluted and left. Jareth returned his attention to the flames devouring the wood.

"And so it begins."


Professor Gunnarsson sat at the desk in the rare book room; his spectacles low on his nose as he read and then his eyes widened.

"Og svo byrjar það…"


Sarah awoke to a sharp elbow in her ribs. She wheezed and pushed at the offending appendage in annoyance.

"Ergh, Watch it!"

"Mpfh, 'orry," came the reply from beneath the comforter.

Sarah grinned until the last traces of sleep left her, and reality sank in again. The smile faded. She lay in bed a few moments longer, tying vainly to imagine her bed a haven. If she never left, time would not pass. Bargains would not count and debts would not be paid.

Toby's elbow intruded again.

"Alright – that's enough. Get up. I'll see what I have for breakfast."

Toby popped up from beneath the bedding. "Oh you actually have food here? I didn't think so since you're always over in our fridge." His smile then faded too. "I forgot... for a minute."

"It's okay."

Sarah turned the coffee maker on and then rifled through her cupboards. She found a box of Special K, checked the expiry date and then poured some into two bowls and set them on her clean dining room table.

"Homemade," Toby snarked, as he sat himself down.

"It's what I have. It's either that or ice cream…no don't answer that."

Toby reached for his spoon. "It's fine. Mum buys it. I actually like it."

Sarah quirked a brow.

"I do." He then proceeded to pour half the sugar bowl onto his cereal.

"My teeth hurt looking at that. That's so gross, Toby. I think you mean you like Frosted Flakes."

Toby shrugged and tucked in just as the phone rang. The siblings stilled and then laughed awkwardly. Sarah answered it.

"Hello?'

"Oh hi, Sarah. It's dad. Just heading out now. Sorry if we woke you."

"No, no, it's fine, we're both up."

A pause. "Both?"

"Oh… I-I meant me and the cat."

Silence. "Sarah, you're an adult now." She could hear the strained awkwardness in her father's voice. "I know you… might have… friends over now and again. Just be… safe, okay."

Sarah cringed but they were both spared a moment later. "Hold on, Toby wants to say goodbye. You have our number. Be good now. Love you."

Sarah's heart skipped a beat.

"Hi Sarah."

Conscious of their audience, Sarah swallowed. "Hi… Toby." She could hear her brother drop the spoon in his bowl behind her.

"Just wanted to say bye." The voice was perfect. So perfect Sarah actually turned and looked at Toby.

Don't worry; I'll take good care of mum and dad for you."

Sarah seethed, whispering into the phone viciously. "Don't you dare do anything to them!"

"Good luck," the other Toby ignored her. "You're certainly going to need it."

Click.

Sarah put the phone down violently, then checked herself when she saw Toby's questioning look.

"It's all good. Mum and Dad are leaving now. Sorry you're missing out on the trip to your grandma's."

Toby rolled his eyes. "This is way better."

"Toby, you know this is not a game, right? We can't trust the Goblin King."

"Duh! I'm not stupid. But he's going to help us get Max back, right?"

"He will. Probably. But he's going to help himself too. That's what I worry about."

"Then we'll stick together." An earnest look crossed Toby's face. "I won't let him do anything to you, Sarah." And Sarah knew he believed it.

"I know, Kiddo." She downed the rest of her coffee. "Let's get dressed okay?" They both realized the problem at the same time. "Okay, so I'll get dressed and then we'll drive home and get you clothes."

Toby nodded. "And then?"

"And then…" Sarah trailed off. "Then you'll come with me to school. I need to meet with someone." She checked the time on the stove. "Hurry up."

Toby tipped the bowl up and finished off the sugared milk while Sarah ran to her room and pulled on jeans and a shirt. She brushed her hair, tying it back into a braid and dabbed on some makeup.

When she passed the bathroom, Toby was brushing his teeth with her tooth brush. "Gwha" he asked; his mouth full.

Five minutes later they were in the car and headed to Toby's place, Sarah thankful that she always carried keys. The weather was in sharp contrast to the storm of yesterday. The sun was bright and the sky almost too vivid. Once inside the house, Sarah waited in her old room while Toby filled a bag – offering the occasional suggestion: yes - underwear, no - comic books. The entire time she couldn't shake the feeling of wrongness; the underlying chill in the air. She wandered into the empty nursery and the feeling only increased. As they were leaving, she swore she could hear movement in the attic – a soft scraping across the aged floor boards. Toby said nothing, but his hand crept into hers and they both hurried down, tripping over their own feet in their haste.

Not long after they pulled into the University student parking lot. Sarah ushered Toby up the stairs to Professor Gunnarsson's office and knocked on the heavy door.

"Come in." The voice was gruff.

Sarah opened the door. "Sir?"

"Ah, Sarah, come in. Sit." His eyes dropped to Toby in question.

"Um, this is my brother Toby. Toby, this is Professor Gunnarsson."

"Hi," Toby offered shyly.

"Hello, young Toby." Sarah noticed that the professor looked markedly tired. A moment later he pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brown. "You may sit too."

Toby sat and looked around the office with interest, his eyes covetously tracing the various Viking weapons and adornments that decorated the room.

"I did not know you had a brother."

"Oh, I thought I had mentioned him before."

"She has two actually," Toby added. "Max is a baby."

"Right, I meant two. Second marriage," Sarah offered by way of explanation.

The professor eyes flickered but he said nothing.

Sarah cleared her throat. "I got your message. I take it you found something out?"

"Yes!" He eyes swivelled to Toby again, but he pulled some papers out of a folder. "I spoke to my contact at the Árni Magnússon Institute at a most ungodly hour and I, as well as I could, translated the lay. As I said, the language and word choice was… off. Likely older than the Codex Regius in fact." He slid a single sheet over to Sarah.

Sarah saw that he had transcribed the full lay in its original form and had made notations in English beside it where he could discern its meaning.

The first stanza spoke of a warrior maiden with dark hair and eyes the colour of the great wyrm that had once felled a kingdom to rescue the blood of her kin. He had underlined several passages and added question marks. He has scrawled what looked like the "dark one" with a question mark.

Further on it told of a bargain made. And a babe lost to the seas. "A journey through…" The professor had circled, "flækja skógur" and had written "Tangled Wood?" And beside that "Yggdrasill?"

Sarah looked up. "So it's another heroic poem?"

The professor adjusted his glances. "Not exactly. What is strange are the tenses. It's almost as though it has not happened yet, and yet has."

"So a prophecy like Ragnarok?"

"Yes and no. For it does mention a reckoning of sorts. And that the mortal warrior maiden that was gifted certain powers…"

Sarah stilled.

"But it's the end that perplexes me. For in all of its telling it offers no real conclusion and instead invites the reader to take up the mantle and fulfill the rite with a blood oath."

"A blood oath?"

"Yes. Literally. It asks only the worthy to spill their blood on its page." He pointed to a spot on her page.

Sarah paled and gripped her wrist reflexively.

The professor's eyes followed her movements. "Are you quite alright? You look as though you have seen a ghost."

Sarah nodded wordlessly.

"I wonder at it being supressed. Perhaps due to superstition or fear it would be defaced? I cannot say."

Sarah skimmed the rest of the document, but her eyes blurred and the words lost all meaning.

"And it's origin? Did you find anything out?" She asked finally.

"Not precisely. But my contact did mention that he'd heard mention of it in a few rare manuscripts. But in all cases the reference had been struck out or vandalized at a later date in history, so that it was impossible to get a true sense. No studies have been done because it was believed not to exist. No one knew to look for it. All signs would then point to it being authentic. And perhaps even the original. It's likely unique in all the world."

"Does it mention anyway to undo the blood oath?"

The professor furrowed his brow. "What a strange thing to ask. But no, it does not."

Sarah nodded slowly. "Anything else I should know?"

"Nothing much more than what is on the paper. Give me more time though and I shall crack its secret like a nut. Oh, but there was one thing, funny I did not notice it yesterday when we were together. Someone wrote "And so it begins" in what looks like blood at the bottom of the last stanza. Certainly it does not match the original writing. It's very faint but an interesting addition nonetheless, no?"

Toby - who had remained silent throughout the exchange - breathed, "Creepy. Real blood?"

"Could just be unusual ink, young man. We certainly won't know until it's tested."

But Sarah knew.

Her wrist throbbed.

Like a ticking clock…

Chapter Text

You stir my soul

And whet my hunger
And weave that spell

These moonlight desires
Haunt me
They want me, they want me

Moonlight Desires, Gowan


"Sarah? Miss Williams?"

"Hmm? Pardon?"

"I asked if you were alright."

Sarah looked between the professor and Toby, both staring at her expectantly. "Oh, fine. Yes. Sorry. My mind just wandered," she added numbly, keenly aware that she failed to convince anyone.

"Ah. Well mine wandered away a long time ago and has yet to return." Gunnarsson winked at Toby, who still bore a look of concerned confusion. "I hope it's having the most marvellous adventures."

Toby smiled politely and then looked back to his sister.

"Thank you for keeping me up to date." Sarah held the papers up. "I can take these with me?"

"Yes, yes, of course. Read them at your leisure if you can discern my chicken scratch. I'm afraid I was rather excited when I made my notes."

Sarah slipped the notes into her bag and rose, motioning for Toby to follow suit.

"It's rather timely that all deadlines have been extended, no? A rather surprisingly generous decision of the administration to send our department heads on out-of-town academic conferences."

"Right... The conferences."

"So do make the most of your down time. I don't know how long I'll be able to hold onto this discovery but I'll try. For now I've asked Barbara to keep it under lock and key. We don't need any… accidental discoveries," he paused, "and do try to get some sleep. You look like you've been burning the candle at both ends." His eyes fell to Toby. "And you, my boy, I hope you have some adventures planned while you're off?"

"Oh yes!" Toby nodded excitedly, quieting only when Sarah nudged his leg.

"We should be going." Sarah smiled and then moved towards the door.

"Naturally. But, Toby, would you mind waiting outside for a moment? I have a final boring point of academia to discuss with your sister that I should take care of before I leave." He fished in his pocket for a bill. "There's a candy machine at the end of the hall that might be of interest to you." He patted his middle. "I myself find it enthralling most days."

Toby took the money with quick thanks and left the room before Sarah could protest.

She sat back down hesitantly.

"Sarah." The man clasped his hands and dipped his head, as though mulling over his words. "Barbara mentioned some… concern about you. Amongst her chief concerns was something about a video tape that went blank? Of you possibly being in some sort of trouble?"

Sarah swallowed dryly. "That was… kind of her to be concerned, but it's really none of her business and she really shouldn't have bothered you about it."

"Well, she seemed to think it was important. And may I say that you do sport a look of one chased by demons."

Sarah snorted indelicately. "It's nothing. Just some… stress in my personal life. Sorry if I've given any cause for concern."

"I'm here to help, Sarah. And not just as your advisor."

She paused. For an insane moment she felt an overwhelming desire to tell her professor everything - as though the idea of him believing her wasn't at all ridiculous. The moment passed. "That's very… generous. But this is something that I have to… work out. Myself I mean. I promise it won't interfere with my work. And I'll-I'll have it all sorted out soon. It's nothing. I'm embarrassed she mentioned it all."

The professor remained quiet for a moment; his eyes trailing to her hands which gripped her bag so tightly her fingers were white.

"I see. So it's not related to what we discovered in that book? For may I say that the mention of the text and the child seemed to… arrest you. Or perhaps I read too much in your body language? As I am doing now. Is your wrist bothering you?"

Sarah forced herself to relax under his shrewd gaze, unaware that she had gripped her wrist. "Sometimes coincidences startle you. It's normal to… read too much into stories. That's the point right? A cautionary story for children? But I realize it's just a fairy tale." She waved a hand. "Silly really."

"Silly? I've made it my life's work to believe in fairy tales. What I've found is that the real ones aren't very nice. They often teach us who to trust… and more importantly who not to."

"Are you suggesting that there's truth to these myths?"

"I'm suggesting that belief is a powerful motivator. Belief in and of itself is power. Belief fuels myth. Myth fuels belief." The professor held up a pen. "And not everyone who put ink to paper did so for the betterment of humanity."

Sarah laughed uncomfortably. "Have you jumped fields to religion? You speak like the legends about gods and monsters are true."

"Do I?" He put the pen down. "Here I thought we were merely discussing fairy tales."

Sarah blinked back the onslaught of irrational tears. "Was that it, sir? I should really check on Toby."

Gunnarsson looked like he was about to say something else but decided against it.

"If I may overstep my bounds as your advisor and speak as a silly old man, allow me to warn you not to get lost. It's possible to get so… tangled in these tales that you never truly find your way out again." He held up a hand when she went to speak again. "Permit me to become sillier still. It's tradition to give a token of luck… to someone in need." He stood and turned to unlock a case on a shelf behind him, pulling out a necklace. "Take this."

Sarah shook her head uncomfortably. "I couldn't possibly."

"I insist. It's just a trinket, really. Only of value to some and easily parted with." When Sarah shook her head again, he reached forward and pressed it into her hand. His own were warm and large. "If you must, return it to me when you've sorted out your troubles. Permit an old man his… superstitions."

The necklace, by contrast, was cold against her palm. When she unfolded her fingers it looked like an archaic knot… perhaps a stylized tree. 'Gibu Auja' was inscribed in Old Norse.

"I give good luck," Sarah murmured. She held the pendant uncertainly and then hesitantly under his watchful eye, slipped it into her pocket. "…Thanks. I'll-I'll take care of it. It looks quite old."

The professor nodded. "I told you I was a silly old man. But perhaps it will provide inspiration."

When Sarah went out into the hall she took several shallow breaths before she spied Toby mowing through a Babe Ruth like his young life depended on it.

"Ready?"

Toby obligingly fell into step with her. "Where are we going now?"

"Back home."

"To do what?"

"I don't know." Sarah's hand closed around the necklace in her pocket. "Get ready I guess."

Toby shrugged and threw out the wrapper.

"Hey Sarah!"

Sarah paused mid-step and turned, grinning in recognition when a dark-haired young man approached. "Oh… Hi Alex."

"Thought it was you. How is it going? Haven't seen you in a while."

"Work. You know how it is. Alex, this in my brother Toby. Toby, this is my friend Alex. He's in my doctorate program."

Toby held out his hand just as Alex ruffled his hair. "Hey, Buddy."

Toby's smile thinned and he patted his hair back into place. "Hello."

"So I was thinking that now that we've all got a little extension, maybe you wanted to catch a movie. Or there's that TA party on Friday?"

"Oh…I…"

"There's also that Escher exhibit at the gallery. I know you like his work."

"Well… I-"

"She's busy."

Sarah and Alex both looked to Toby in surprise. Toby shrugged.

"What he means is that I've actually got some… family things to take care of out of town. So now is not really the best time," she finished lamely.

"Oh, right. Of course." The young man forced a laugh and then winked at Toby conspiratorially. "So is that true, buddy?"

Toby winked back. "Mostly."

Alex looked embarrassed. Sarah looked somewhere between mortified and livid.

"It's a long story. Why don't I just call you when I get back and we can go grab coffee or something? On me?"

Alex recovered admirably, his grey eyes warming. "I'd like that."

"Great. So see you later." Sarah ushered Toby out the doors and into the parking lot before anything else could be said. "What was that?"

"An awkward guy trying to get a date?"

"Funny. Really funny." Sarah unlocked the car and got in.

"It was wasn't it."

"One of these days that smart mouth is going to get you into trouble."

Toby's lips quivered. They both fell silent.

Sarah gripped the steering wheel and closed her eyes. "I'm sorry. You know… you know that's not what I meant, right?"

"I know. But you're right anyway. Sorry, I just didn't like him, okay?"

Sarah laughed. "You don't even know him."

"So you like him then?"

"I… yah, I guess. I mean he's a nice guy. Certainly not hard on the eyes," she added, merely to watch Toby gag. "We've got a lot of stuff in common."

"He likes you."

Sarah flipped her hair dramatically. "Of course! Who wouldn't?"

They both laughed and then fell silent again.

"Toby, you know we're going to get Max back, right?"

"I guess."

Sarah squeezed his hand. "Want McDonald's for lunch?"

Toby grinned.

They blared Queen the entire way home and sang along at the top of their lungs.


The Goblin King leaned on his balcony and surveyed the expanse below. The structured chaos never ceased to soothe him. His thin lips were slightly bowed, suggesting the barest hint of a smile lying in wait. He picked absently at a non-existent hair on his sleeve. The change in the air was palpable and he found it hard to remain still. He ignored the presence at his back.

"You seem almost… happy." A note of disgust coloured the word. Jareth ignored it too.

"Do I? Perhaps it feels good to be… unfettered."

"It is dangerous."

"Yes."

"She is dangerous."

Jareth's lips twitched – a mixture of annoyance and amusement. "Yes. But then so am I."

A sigh. "She's not a child anymore."

"No, she isn't it." The king's teeth glinted. "And rules have changed."

His companion sighed again, as though the conversation had been played many times but the lines still needed to be spoken. "You risk much."

Jareth straightened, releasing his cold smile in full force. It was neither cruel nor kind, but teetered somewhere in between. "And she risks everything."

It was time to test his wings.


Sarah shivered and rubbed her neck. She glanced at the clock on the VCR and then back at Toby who was eating french fries and watching Legend. The Tangerine Dream soundtrack was turned up, but she welcomed the distraction. He'd raided her movie collection and burned though Ladyhawke before that.

Gunnarsson's notes were spread around her. To the side a filet o' fish sat mostly untouched. The cat was eying it covetously from across the dining room table. Gunnarsson had transcribed the entire lay in its original form and translated where he'd had the time and was able to. It was heavily punctuated with question marks and strike-throughs. There were numerous mentions of Yggdrasil and a 'tangled forest'. It wasn't clear if they were one and the same however. And Yggdrasil was described both in the traditional form of the great tree and as something else entirely. Many of his notes were only in his native language, making the deciphering more labourious for Sarah. He had underlined the word 'völundarhús' three times but then had struck each out.

Sarah dug through her bag to pull out a translation dictionary while absently taking a bite from her now cold sandwich. She stared down at it and then started to laugh - slowly at first but then uncontrollably. Toby scowled and pointedly turned up the volume further, which only made her laugh more. It felt surreal to be eating fast food, 80's music in the background, when in only a few hours he would be returning; the figure of childhood fancy. Or of nightmares. This time because she'd asked him to.

Invited him.

No, she reminded herself, she'd bargained with him. The ridiculousness of it all left a sour taste in her mouth. Or perhaps it was the fake fish. No longer hungry, she dropped it on the wrapper and pushed it across the table towards her cat.

Sarah studied the angry mark on her wrist. In desperation she'd considered destroying the book. It went against everything she'd ever believed in but… but she'd do it again in a heartbeat if it meant ending whatever she'd set in motion. The only thing that stopped her was the fear of making it worse; of losing Max forever; of Toby's unending guilt; of Karen singing lullabies to no one forever. It would break them all. She forced her eyes back to the pages. She needed to fix it. And preferably without his help.

"Völundarhús… völundarhús" Sarah skimmed through the dictionary. 'Maze'.

Or Labyrinth, her mind supplied.

Because of course. She slammed the dictionary shut.

Labyrinth.

Gunnarsson had warned her not to get lost in her work. Her story. But perhaps it was too late. Perhaps she'd never really found her way out.

Two packed bags sat in the hall. They were just of view but Sarah could feel their presence. It had been a trial to decide what to bring; what would be needed. In the end she'd repacked three times. A couple of pairs of jeans. A few shirts. Underwear. Nothing fancy. Some toiletries. Matches, because that seemed practical. A pocket knife, because again it seemed like something she should bring. The little red book, which she'd wrapped in a sweater. The necklace Gunnarsson had given her, tucked into a sock. In the other sock was a bit of twisted iron she'd pried off her balcony on a whim. She'd read far too much as a child. She'd also squeezed in as many granola bars and bottles of water as she could. They'd stopped at a convenience store on the way home. She'd had no idea if she should pack sleeping bags or what, before deciding it wasn't a camping trip. She'd settled on light jackets.

If this had been a Tolkien story someone should have given her a magical weapon by now. Something useful. Anything really.

Sarah looked down at her papers, the Icelandic and English blurring together. She'd be bringing those with her too. There was no mention of undoing any blood oath that and the professor had made no mention either.

But there were plenty of notes on devouring. Of an offering. Of bloodshed.

Max…

"Sarah?"

"Yes, kiddo?" She answered by rote.

"Movie's almost over. You missed all the last one. Come watch."

Sarah glanced down at the notes that had long ceased to have any meaning. Defeated, she stacked the papers and joined Toby on the couch. He passed her a cold french fry. She ate it by rote too.

Lily was seated at the table. Darkness had spread a feast before her - inviting her to eat. Tempting her to.

"So is she faking it or is she really going to the dark side?"

Sarah snorted and ate another fry without asking. "It's not Star Wars, Toby."

He pulled a face. "You know what I mean."

"You've already seen it. You know how it ends. Good wins. They dance, they sing. The way a story should end," she added as an afterthought.

Another face. "I know. I'm just wondering if she was like really considering it or whatever?"

"Maybe. I guess so. It's just a movie, Toby."

Sarah glanced out the window, watching the remaining light ebb.

"You're worried. Is it because of him?"

"I told you we're going to get Max back."

"I know. That's not who I meant."

"No..."

"Liar."

Sarah jumped. Toby dropped his fries on the carpet.

There was no fanfare this time, no crack of thunder, just a Goblin King looking decidedly out of place in the tiny living room.

"Jesus! Why do you do that?" Sarah looped an arm around Toby's shoulders, pretending it was for his sake.

Jareth's lips twitched. "Should I have knocked?"

Sarah cleared her throat at the ridiculous image that presented. "I wasn't sure you'd come." In truth she wasn't entirely sure he would. She found she was torn between relief and trepidation.

He smiled then. A slow curling of his lips that was in no way meant to comfort. "Still clinging to the hope that it's all a dream? I rather thought you'd had enough of those. We have a deal. Of course I came."

"Naturally," her tone acerbic.

"This is so cool," Toby interjected, completely unaffected by the rising tension in the room. "So do I get a sword or something?"

"A sword?" Jareth quirked a brow in amusement. "A sword would be of little help to you. No more so than say… a scrap of iron."

"How did you…" Sarah frowned. "It's in a lot of… books. I didn't really know what to bring. You didn't exactly give me a list."

"And did you bring it to protect yourself from me?"

"No. Is that your first question?"

"No. Is that your first lie?" Sarah whitened but Jareth continued unfazed. "You don't really need anything. Certainly not delusions of protection. But by all means bring whatever provides you your measure of comfort."

"I already packed a bag for both of us."

"How very eager of you. I half thought I'd have to drag you away kicking and screaming." Sarah detected an underlying note of disappointment in his voice that he made no effort to hide.

"I-I agreed to go with you, didn't I?"

"Yes. You did."

"And just how long will we be gone?" When he didn't answer she added, "because I am coming back. I just want to make that clear. We all are."

His eyes gleamed with amusement. "Noted."

Sarah frowned again but nodded curtly. "I'll… I'll be back in a minute." She looked to Toby and then back at the king in indecision.

Jareth looked bored. "I'll do my best not to eat him while you're gone."

Her eyes narrowed but she left them and locked herself in the bathroom.

"You wouldn't really eat me, right?" Toby asked nervously after a moment's silence.

"Certainly not. Mortal children taste absolutely horrible."

Toby's uneasy laughter trailed off at Jareth's placid expression.

"So… what's your armour made of?"

The kings lips twitched. "Children who taste horrible."


Sarah stared at her wan reflection in the mirror.

I can't believe I'm doing this.

She'd left purely on pretense. She just needed to steel herself; to strengthen her resolve. She'd felt overwhelmed, as though events were unfolding too quickly. She needed to stay composed. Poised. Honed.

"You can do this. Again." The mirror offered no words of support.

She fixed her braid and pinched some colour back into cheeks, before making her way back into the living room. She paused in the entryway and watched, lips parting slightly, as Toby brought Jareth up to speed on the storyline. A few other fantasy titles lay before them.

Only Jareth looked up when she approached. He studied her silently.

At that moment Loki wove between her feet and mewed, before blinking up at Jareth; one green eye and then the other. He padded over cautiously and arched his sable back against the king's boots. Jareth's eyes narrowed, his head tilting slightly. The cat's fur immediately spiked and with a graceful leap backwards, Loki bounded up a bookcase; his green eyes trained on the king and tail switching erratically.

"He doesn't seem to like you."

"Cats and I have never agreed."

Sarah bit her lip. "I asked my neighbour her to check on him, but I'll have to do something else with him… if we're going to be gone long?"

"He'll be fine," he answered indifferently, ignoring her obvious probe.

Sarah scowled and slid past him awkwardly to turn off the TV and VCR. She gathered up the two knapsacks, silently handing the smaller one to Toby. She gave her place a cursory glance to make sure everything was turned off and then with the uncomfortable sensation of Jareth's eyes on all of her movements, she added the notes from the table into her bag.

She turned back to Jareth reluctantly. "I'm… ready." Another lie.

Toby silently slipped his hand into hers and squeezed.

"So how do we-" The words were silenced by a swift tug at her navel and then a roiling wave of vertigo. The kindest comparison was that it was not unlike having the wind violently knocked from her. The same visceral panic flooded her senses and then as soon as it began it was over. It was nothing like the last time.

The walls of her apartment were replaced by grey stone walls and high arched ceilings. Sarah stumbled from the uncanny sensation of the world being set back to right.

They stood in the centre of the empty throne room.

"So. Friggin'. Cool." Toby breathed with all the wonder of a ten year old. He didn't appear affected by the transition.

"You could have warned me," Sarah hissed; her limbs still spasming.

"I could have." Jareth circled them slowly. "It's different for children. They're supposed to come here. They're not supposed to leave." Sarah felt the last words against her neck and turned defensively but Jareth was already relaxed in his throne. Lithe limbs stretched in an elegant sprawl.

"They aren't supposed to come back either," Sarah replied sharply.

"You always did break all the rules." He watched her above steepled fingers. "So, is it everything you remembered?" His eyes flicked to Toby as he asked the question and his lips curled at Sarah's poorly masked look of outrage.

"Yes," Sarah answered quickly, "although I really tried to not to think about it."

"A luxury."

"You've been here before?" Toby sported a look of earnest confusion.

"Indeed." Jareth shot Sarah an amused look. "Your sister left an… indelible mark on this realm. I wanted her to see that it's quite possible to come here without destroying a city."

"You destroyed a city?" Toby asked Sarah incredulously.

"Oh, she did much more than that." Something dark laced his tone and the air in the room changed enough that both siblings felt it.

"I'd do it again."

Before Jareth could reply a goblin knocked and then entered the throne room.

Toby inhaled sharply, blue eyes wide.

The sentry took in the pair, his jaw slackening when he saw Sarah. "Everything is… er… prepared your majesty."

Jareth flicked a gloved hand in dismissal.

The goblin bowed again with a final glance at Sarah before leaving.

When the heavy doors closed Sarah looked to Jareth questioningly.

"We're not all so forgiving."

She snorted but then shifted uncomfortably. She felt awkward standing in the sunken centre of the throne room, a knapsack in her hand and Toby clutching her shirt. The power balance was too acute; too deliberate. And the look of victory on Jareth's face was too raw. Sarah dropped her bag beside her and folded her arms.

"Are we finished?"

"Have we even started?"

Toby cleared his throat. "So how do we get my brother back?"

Jareth's mismatched eyes didn't leave Sarah's. "Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered."

"Stop it. You're enjoying this!"

"I'd be lying if I said the undercurrent of fear you're trying so vainly to hide wasn't delicious."

"We have a deal." Sarah wasn't sure who she was reminding.

"I believe you've mentioned that, yes."

"So then when do we start? This had better not just be a game, Jareth. I want my brother back." Sarah winced as the words left her lips. Her eyes darted between Toby and the cold king on his stone throne.

Jareth let the words hang between them before he laced his fingers together again. "We start tomorrow at dawn. Thirteen hours from now."

"Tomorrow? Why not now?"

"Trust me when I say you would not want to start in the dark. There are far worse things than goblins outside these walls."

"I don't trust you." She believed him though and the realisation irked her. "Fine. Then why bring us here now. Why not tomorrow?"

Jareth stood. "Because I can. Don't forget that." He strode down the steps, his boots clicking on the stones as sharply as his words cut through the air. "You called on me." Sarah forced herself not to retreat. "Tell me, Sarah, was it pleasant coming back? Did it feel like you were being ripped apart?"

She swallowed awkwardly. "Is that a question?"

"You'll know when it is." His voice dropped. "I could have spared you that. I didn't. This won't be like last time. You're not a child anymore and this isn't child's test anymore. The Labyrinth didn't want you back."

Sarah recoiled, surprised by the sharp sense of rejection.

Jareth read it in her face and his tone softened perceptibly. "You're here by my will. The Labyrinth bends to me. Tell me, Sarah, did you not feel differently after being here for thirteen hours? Did it not start to feel… right?" Her eyes widened. Because it had. Because she had so easily started to forget…

Jareth accepted her silence as confirmation. "You are a mortal in an immortal world. The magic touched you when you came here; left a mark that you could never see but always felt." He moved closer. "Even now you begin to feel it again. It changed you, Sarah. It's why you could never forget. You let it in. That's why you were never supposed to leave."

She let out a shaky breath.

"You'll need to let it in again if you hope to make it through this." Jareth dropped a hand on Toby's shoulder. The boy looked up nervously. "Both of you. The longer you're here, the better chance you'll have."

Sarah steeled her jaw. "We'll do what it takes."

"Of that I have no doubt."

Sarah realized they were standing uncomfortably close; Toby hovering awkwardly at her side. She took a half step back and cleared her throat. "I assume you have somewhere for us to go until tomorrow? An oubliette perhaps?" She added waspishly.

"Now, now, don't give me ideas. You fell into that yourself. I had thought to give you rooms. Never let it be said I lack in hospitality."

Sarah clasped Toby's hand. "One room is fine. We stay together. Toby goes nowhere without me."

"Careful, Sarah," his tone dry, "you'll give the boy ideas that I have designs on him." He brushed past her to the open doors. "We both know I only take what's given."

Toby looked at his sister inquiringly. Sarah steeled her eyes away and picked her bag back up, keeping his hand firmly in hers. "It's fine. Don't worry about it." Another lie. "Come on, kiddo."

They followed Jareth silently through the stone corridors. The wall sconces flared to life at each new turn, eliciting small sounds of wonder from Toby. Sarah tried vainly to account for the number of steps; the number of stairs. The castle itself made no sense architecturally and she got the distinct impression the hallways were changing behind her anyway, foiling any attempt at reason. Physics need not apply. Jareth finally stopped at the end of one corridor; the flickering flames casting his angular features into shadow. He raised a gloved hand and an ornate wooden door appeared. It creaked open.

"So cool," Toby breathed.

Jareth inclined his head mockingly. "Your dungeon."

Sarah hesitated but Toby was already pulling her into the room. Jareth followed the pair inside.

She rounded on him immediately. "The door's not going to vanish as soon as you leave will it?"

His lips curled. "Still so distrustful? I can always remain if that would make you feel more comfortable."

Sarah ignored the taunt and looked around the space. The room was spacious and well furnished. A large bed, carved out of a dark wood, occupied the centre of the room. It was hung with finely embroidered fabrics in silver and rich midnight hues. A large fire place stood opposite with dancing Fireries etched into the stone. As she watched, a spark kindled and caught; the logs quickly enveloped by bright flames. Tall bookcases flanked it, stacked high with leather tomes. Another door led to what she imagined was the facilities. Between a few well-stuffed chairs arranged before the fire was a low polished table in the same dark wood. On it stood two crystal pitchers, a pair of silver goblets, a bowl of fruit, and a small platter of bread and what looked like ripe cheeses. An armoire and an ornate writing desk were the only other pieces of furniture.

Toby had already tossed his bag haphazardly into a corner and had thrown himself onto the bed, bouncing experimentally. "Dibs on the bed."

Sarah rolled her eyes. "If you can share my single, I think we can manage with this one."

"If the room's not sufficient, I can always suggest another one."

"It's fine." Her eyes flickered to the king. He smiled with feigned innocence. Sarah looked away uncomfortably. She crossed to the far wall and pulled open the heavy drapery. Stone.

"No windows."

"Mmm. Not tonight." His tone was unapologetic.

Sarah snapped them shut again. "Why?" Though she already knew the answer.

"You could hardly expect me to let the girl who turned the world upside down have free-reign. That wouldn't be very wise."

"So it is a dungeon."

"Call it what you will, Sarah. It's as much for your protection as it is for my kingdom. We have a deal. And I'll stand by my word. You'd be wise to get some rest, safe in here, and be mindful that there are many things that go bump in the night in these parts."

Jareth moved towards the door, which again opened by itself. "I trust you'll both be comfortable. Everything you require should be here. Do get some sleep… while you can."

"And just where will you be?"

He canted his head. "Going bump in the night of course." The door closed behind him with an audible click.

Sarah swallowed thickly and watched the door for a full minute to see if it would disappear. When it didn't she pulled it open, reluctantly surprised when it complied. An empty hallway. She shut it softly and then turned the lock, feeling a hollow sort of comfort when the bolt engaged.

Toby bounced again. "But no TV."

"You watch too much TV," Sarah replied tonelessly.

Toby shrugged. "This is still way better."

"Don't get used to it. We won't be here long." She sank into one of the chairs by the fire, propping her head on her on her fist. A moment later her hand snapped close around Toby's wrist, his fingers clutching a shiny red apple.

"Hey!"

"No food, Toby. None. Do you understand?"

Toby's brow creased but he released the fruit. "Why? Is it poisoned or something?"

"Just trust me. No mistakes, okay?" When he nodded she relaxed slightly and let go of his hand. "I brought bottled water and some energy bars and stuff, but I think we should save them. Just in case. You can't be that hungry."

Toby nodded again.

Sarah forced a smile. "Don't worry about it. Just trust me." She picked up the bowl of fruit and emptied it into the fire. The bread and cheese followed. A sickly sweet smell of burnt sugars filled the room. "There. No temptation."

"Um, Sarah?" Toby indicated the bowl, full once again.

Sarah stared at it, her expression deceptively neutral. "Just. Don't. Eat. Anything."

Toby saluted and beat a hasty retreat.

She heard him pull out some PJs from his bag and the door open and close to the bathroom. A few minutes later he emerged in plain flannel. No superheroes to be found. It pained Sarah that he'd probably done so deliberately; that he'd felt the need to act grown.

He paused before the ornate wardrobe, curiosity making him pull open the doors.

"Hey check it out. Fancy. Girly." The last word dripped with disgust.

Sheer nosiness made her look. Dresses. Pants. Shirts. Night wear. Intricate items of silk, leather, and lace. Everything was clearly for a woman. Even the plainer pieces sported cuts decidedly feminine. Toby picked up a nightgown made of a shimmering fabric the colours of a starry sky; so gossamer thin it would reveal as much as it would hide. He made a gagging sound as he shoved it back in.

Sarah nodded, even as her hand moved of its own volition to touch the fabric. Softer than water. It reminded her of his cape, billowing in the night, the first night she'd met him… Sarah slammed the doors shut.

"So who are they for?"

"No one." When Toby opened his mouth, Sarah added brusquely, "None of our business."

"Maybe they're for you?"

"Toby-"

"I'm just saying! This is your room."

"This is not my room. Make no mistake; this is very much a gilded cage that we are going to leave and never see again in the morning. Okay?"

"Yah and no TV."

Sarah couldn't help but laugh at the impish grin on his face.

"Go to sleep, brat. We've dragons to slay tomorrow." His grin widened.

Sarah sincerely hoped there were no actual dragons. But she couldn't help but worry that the dragon they needed to fear was the very one they were bringing along with them.

Toby crawled into the spacious bed, pulling out a comic he'd obviously stowed along. Every so often he'd look around the room again, a look of boyish wonderment on his face. It coaxed a reluctant sigh from her.

Sarah rooted through her things, finally finding an oversized t-shirt - the name of her university stitched on the front - and slipped into the bathroom. It was conveniently equipped - a large ornate tub, no shower - with blessedly hot water running from the faucets. The sink was of a patinaed metal, shaped into some type of water lily. The mirror looked like antique polished silver. She undid her braid and shook her hair loose, running her hands through the long waves to detangle it. Once changed she brushed her teeth, rinsing her mouth with cool water. It tasted clean and pure but she was careful to spit it all out anyway.

She padded back out to the bedroom, checked on Toby, and then perused the bookshelves. Most of the titles were unfamiliar, some in languages she could not read, but she pulled out a few out to skim. She curled herself back into the arm and dragged her bag closer so she could pull out her notes. Once more she defiantly tossed each piece of fruit into the fire and watched them burn. As expected the bowl refilled itself – the new fruit as ripe and succulent as ever. Curious, she un-stoppered one of the decanters and sniffed. Wine of some sort and delicately spiced. Her mouth automatically watered. She immediately corked the bottle again, licking suddenly parched lips.

"Not happening," she whispered to the silent room and cracked open her copy of the Eddas randomly.

"Eleven apples, all of gold,

Here will I give thee, Gerth,
To buy thy troth that Freyr shall be
Deemed to be dearest to you"…

"I will not take at any man's wish
These eleven apples ever;
Nor shall Freyr and I one dwelling find
So long as we two live."…

Ithunn's. Apples for immortal life. Forbidden fruit in a forbidden realm.

…You'll need to let it in again…

A bark of laughter escaped her throat, which she choked back – head turning to see Toby – but he had already fallen asleep, his mouth open slightly and a hand still clutching his comic. He hadn't been sleeping well either.

Her eyes returned to the page.

"Often to me has a month seemed less
Than now half a night of desire." …

She craned her neck back, head sinking into the plush upholstery, eyes falling shut.

Back in the Labyrinth.

What the hell have I done?


Sarah sat up with a jerk, her eyes flying open and arms belatedly scrambling to catch the papers and books that threatened to spill from her lap. Her body felt cramped and she realized that she must have dosed off at some point. Her immediate reaction was to panic. The fire had dimmed, enough that Sarah shivered in the coolness of the shadows; skin prickling to awareness. Toby's measured breathing punctuated the silence – the even familiar tempo soothing her nerves. Nothing had stolen him away in the darkness. Yet. Without a window it was impossible to tell what time it was, although it did not feel like she had slept for long; her limbs were restless and her thoughts fractured by an uneasy sleep. The first time she had been in the Labyrinth thirteen hours had flown by in a panic. Now… now she worried that thirteen hours might never end.

Sarah carefully set the papers on the side table and stretched, rubbing circulation back into her cramped legs. By the dying light she could see that the door still stood. Opportunity overcame fear and before she could second guess herself she found herself pulling it open slowly. When no alarm sounded and no goblin sentries descended, she opened it enough to peak into the darkened hallway.

Nothing.

Sarah chewed her lip on the threshold. Taking a final glance over her shoulder at Toby she slipped into the hall, easing the door closed behind her. The thick carpet had been lush beneath her feet, the cold stone floor made her toes curl. The nearest sconces glowed. Keeping one had on the wall she slowly made her way down the hallway. She told herself she'd only go as far as a window and then return. This could be her only chance, she reasoned. She would not be coming back after all, she promised. And she was wholly unequipped to deny the childish fission of delight at defying him, even in something so minute. When she came to the end of the doorless corridor, she looked both ways. Right or left, her mind taunted. Hurry, hurray, you haven't got all night. She chose right – keeping her hand pressed firmly to the stones. The end of the hallway appeared to be an alcove, hung with heavy fabrics.

Half-expecting the curtains to reveal a solid wall, she let out a soft exhalation of surprise when they parted to reveal an arched window. The clear sky was fully dark and the moon still high. Beneath the stars was a maddening expanse of twisted pathways that was so achingly familiar Sarah's heart fully skipped a beat.

It truly was beautiful in its chaos. She could almost imagine it a living thing that furled its branches like a tree. With each bend, magic thrummed through its veins. And somewhere in the recesses of her adult mind, a child's voice whispered, but then you always knew it was real.

A light breeze feathered through her hair and brought with it, the scents from below. She'd forgotten what the Labyrinth had smelled like, and yet in that instant it all came back. Clay, earth, the loamy smell of moss and... magic. Something undefinable that teased the senses and tickled the tongue like an exotic spice. Sarah took a deep breath and then stilled. Something underlying it was... wrong. Not a smell but a sense. Unease began to fester in the pit of her stomach. Her next breath misted, though it was not particularly cold. When her eyes scanned the darkness she could not shake the thought that while she was looking out, something was looking right back in.

Her wrist throbbed so suddenly that Sarah pulled her hand to chest as though burned. Wonder bled to panic; a familiar ache to pain.

Toby.

Sarah dragged the drapes shut, backing away shakily and then turned on her heel. Her bare feet scraped against the stone as she ran. When she turned down the corridor her fear erupted in a choked sob.

The door was gone.

Sarah felt the wall with desperate fingers, banging fists against the stone futilely.

"Toby? Toby!" Even to her own ears she sounded like a wounded, keening animal.

"Oh fuck."

"Well, well, what have we here?"

Sarah rounded; eyes still wild. Her chest was heaving in fractured breaths, even as she felt the residual terror begin to ebb. It was replaced with relief – coloured by blossoming anger.

"The door," she said stupidly. Not sure whether or not it was a question or a statement.

A pale brow arched.

Sarah felt her jaw clench involuntarily. "It's gone."

"Yes, well I had rather thought I'd left you on the other side of it." Amusement laced his tone, but his mismatched eyes were hard, almost cold, and his expression guarded.

Though not dressed for bed, he was more casual than she'd ever seen him. He wore only a fine linen shirt, open to the waist. His strange torque against his white chest. Grey pants hugged his lithe frame and soft boots in a similar colour were his only other adornments. Sarah fought the urge to fidget, her eyes dipping to the pale expanse of his skin before returning to his face. She tipped her head in what she hoped was defiance. "I went for a walk."

Jareth merely stared at her. Though he should have appeared less imposing so unfettered – his dark armour gone – Sarah found the lack as disconcerting, if not more so. There was only skin and eyes too otherworldly to be human. The stray thought crossed her mind that she was seeing only Jareth, without the artifice of the Goblin King. She should have been relieved. She wasn't.

"Yes, a walk," she repeated at his continued silence. "But now I'm done. Walking that is. And should get back to Toby and to get some sleep."

When his eyes flicked down to her bare legs and rose again leisurely with a decided lack of shame, she belatedly realized she was dressed only in a loose t-shirt and a pair of underwear just barely covered by a few inches of cotton. She felt the blush creep down her neck, beneath her collar.

Jareth traced its path, pausing at the betraying pulse point in her neck.

Sarah motioned with hand. "So could you make the door reappear?"

He merely smiled; uneven teeth glinting.

…Things that go bump in the night...

Without meaning to she took a defensive step backwards. "We have a bargain."

He tracked her retreat but didn't move. "We do indeed."

Despite the space between them she could feel the warmth radiating off his skin. Her own felt hyper-aware. The sconces were dim and it suddenly felt far too intimate in the enclosed space. She was certain she could hear her own heartbeat. She wondered if he could too.

"I need to get back to Toby."

"The boy is perfectly safe."

"Sarah shook her head. "You can't keep us apart."

"I'm not trying to. You're the one that left him and went for… a walk, was it?" She had the grace to wince. "Strange. I wonder what you'd hoped to find."

"It was just a walk. Don't treat me like a child."

Jareth took a step forward. "I have no intention of treating you like a child, Sarah."

"No, you said I was guest." She emphasized the word as though it could manifest the distance she'd lost.

"Yes."

"And you offered your help. Which I reluctantly accepted. Conditionally. I left foolish childhood fantasies behind and I don't expect you'll play fair. You want something out of this and provided it doesn't affect me or my family, I don't really care what it is. So let's speak plainly."

"As adults?" She got the distinct impression he wanted to laugh at her.

"Yes. When this is over I fully intend to go back to my adult life and forget about all of this."

Another smile. "Liar."

"Tainted peaches don't work on me anymore."

"Then you would have nothing to fear, would you?"

It occurred to her that they were veering down a dangerous path and he was deliberately trying to rattle her. "The door. We have a bargain."

He grasped her wrist, bringing it up between them before she deflect. He still wore gloves and she found herself thankful for the soft leather separating their skin. "Our bargain." His thumb brushed against her palm – where his crystal had disappeared. "You seems so eager to remind me. Shall I ask my first question?"

"N-now?" Sarah took another step back. He didn't release her hand and it occurred to her that were dancing again. Her bare thighs brushed the cold stone behind her.

"Yes, now."

Sarah squared her shoulders. "Fine." She tugged against his grip ineffectively.

He considered her for a moment, his thumb still brushing distracting circles against her palm. When he finally spoke, his voice had dipped lower still.

"I wonder if you ever regretted giving up her dreams." Another light stroke of his thumb. "Lay awake and imagined what could have been." His tone was almost lulling and his eyes on hers. "Is there a part of you that wished you'd lost?"

The question surprised her as though she'd been waiting for something else entirely. A riddle. A trap. Nothing so open. She opened her mouth to offer a scathing reply, but his thumb had stilled on her palm. His expression was again guarded, but his body held a predatory stillness that Sarah instinctively recognized.

He was daring her to lie.

She licked her suddenly dry lips. The answer welled from within; buried so deep she'd almost forgotten it existed. Pretended it didn't. She wondered if the question wasn't deeper after all. Unwilling to release, she bit her lip until the pain forced them to part.

"Yes."

One word.

Dragged from a reluctant tongue and directed at his chest. She hoped her tone conveyed indifference. She'd aimed for dismissive. Regardless, she did not want to see his expression at that moment; and was more afraid of what he'd read in hers.

She realized he'd released her hand and she flexed her fingers reflexively. Without seeming to move, he was suddenly close enough that one of his legs brushed again hers. Panicking, Sarah forced her eyes back to his. They gleamed in the darkness. His expression wasn't gloating, but there was something… something indefinable just below the surface that made her skin prickle again and panic well anew.

"So? Now ask me if I'd do anything different?" She added hurriedly, eager to quash whatever victory he'd stolen from her admission.

His lids lowered. "Ah. I think I'll save my next question for another time. As you said… it's late."

"It means nothing, you know. You wasted a question. And I'll give you a free answer." She heard her voice crack. "I wouldn't make a different choice. And just because a stupid little girl went home and stupidly wondered 'what if' means nothing."

"No. It wouldn't." He rested a hand on the wall beside her head. "But my question was 'is' there a part of you. And as you've reminded me you're no longer a child." Sarah's eyes flew to his face. "Don't fret, you didn't lie."

His thigh brushed hers this time, and the slight contact made Sarah startle. She told herself it was only the cold stone at her back. "I-I answered your question. Now the door! Please." The final word was more demanding than pleading. Desperate.

Jareth's head dipped; his mouth almost brushing her ear and his breath fanning her cheek. "I've always loved it when you beg, Sarah."

When she took an unsteady breath, her breasts brushed against his hard chest – her shirt the only barrier between them. She could feel her nipples tighten at the contact and an echoing quiver pooled in the pit of her stomach. She felt his sharp intake of breath at her body's betrayal, even as his gloved hand curled into a fist against the wall beside her head.

She recoiled, from her own reaction as much as his.

"Perhaps I should ask my next question..."

She shook her head mutely.

His hand dropped to her hip, dancing just at the hem of her shirt. Her breath caught again in her throat, paralyzed by a heady shiver of fear and anticipation. But he merely opened the door that had at some point appeared at her back. The sudden change caused her to awkwardly stumble backwards into the room. He didn't follow. When she righted herself, she crossed her arms over her chest defensively.

He propped a hand on the open doorway, his eyes staying on her face, despite the fact that her stance had raised her t-shirt a few key inches. "It's not yet morning. Sleep. Oh and I wouldn't go wandering again. You might not like who finds you next." He paused on her lips. "I was… generous. I won't be again."

The door shut.

Sarah's knees wobbled and she sank back against the arm chair. She pressed a shaking hand against her heated face.

Too easy… too easy, she berated herself. I won't let him do that again.

Toby stirred in bed, and Sarah jumped in shame before quelling the foolish emotion. She darted to the bathroom and quickly splashed cold water on her face, not daring to look at her own reflection; not wanting to see what looked back at her. When she crawled into the soft bed she tucked Toby into her side – the way she used to pull Lancelot against her as child. He stirred again but did not wake.

Forcing all thoughts from her mind and refusing to replay the night's events, she closed her eyes and began reciting the Eddas by rote until she fell into a fitful sleep.

Beneath the lush bed linens, already warmed by her brother's body heat, she did not notice the faint breeze that should not have been. And against the inexorable pull of sleep, she did not notice the curtains on the formerly missing window begin to stir.

Chapter Text

 Off to a time and place now
Lost on our imagination

Where the wild are strong
And the strong are the darkest ones
And you're the darkest one
Oh you're the darkest one
And if that's what you want

Oh then you're the darkest one...

The Darkest One, Tragically Hip


…A babe's cry…

…Knife stabbing down in the dark, Sarah jerking under the force of it. Blood blossoms and wells around the blade, before sliding down bare skin...

…Pain, so much pain – vicious and bright - and then the slow knell of death as the last strands of life ebb away with the red…


Sarah woke with the instinctual apprehension that something was in the room with her. She jerked upright; her mind fractured with a fading nightmare whose strands had left an indelible mark. Toby tossed fitfully at her side, as though he too could sense something near but had not yet shed the yoke of dreams.

The room was fully dark, fire banked, and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust. Her breath misted. Even almost blind, she caught the movement by the wall when the heavy curtains stirred; between the folds a window where one should not have been. From across the room she could tell it was wrong. The edges were jagged, like a hole made by force not design.

Sarah swallowed, breath misting again. Her hand clutched Toby's pajamas. He whimpered, still not free from the bonds of sleep.

The drapery at the foot of the large bed shifted next and a moment later the undeniable feel of a mattress dipping under pressure.

Sarah snatched her knees to her chest.

"Jareth?" Her voice sounded small. Hollow.

A child lost in the dark.


The Goblin King reclined on a leather chaise longue, having forgone his bed. The chaise was positioned near his balcony and on certain evenings he preferred the open air and the canopy of stars when he sought rest. He liked the sounds of night; they spoke to him in a language that was wholly his. Not bothering to change, he'd merely shucked his boots and pulled his shirt tails free. He had no need of covers, the air always bent to his will. The moonlight reflected off the planes of a lithe chest and a finely angled face, highlighting the features which would always mark his otherworldliness.

A cup of something dark and strong perched on a small table and beside it lay his discarded gloves. He slept only lightly, lashes fanning his face, though even goblin kings dream from time to time. If Sarah had seen him she would have been surprised at how innocent – almost young – he looked in sleep. It was, he would admit, another deception for he was neither.

In the space between sleep and dreams where the mind can still master, he was once again in the candlelit corridor with her – the one who had so obligingly grown up and shucked the trappings of forbidden youth. Her green eyes, those guileless windows to her soul, were casting him the same look they had mere hours before; full of panic, confusion, and just beneath that the first taste of something like desire. He'd just pulled the confession from her lips. The first of many. The answer he'd long suspected and had always wanted to hear. And when his hand hovered at her hip this time it did not open the door, setting her away, safe inside a room with her smart-mouthed brother. Instead his fingers teased at the edge of the ridiculous shirt she'd worn, skimming the soft skin of her upper thigh. Instead of pushing away, he'd leaned in, his leg falling between hers –parting them obligingly. Against his chest, he'd feel those full breasts press. No, definitely not a child anymore. How easily it would be to slide his hand under the shirt. It would improve upon the floor he decided. At some point he'd have lost the gloves, exploring the smoothness of her skin with no restrictions this time. The dip of her hip, the ripple of her ribs, and the feel of a firm breast, nipple hardening against his thumb. Her thighs would press against his – welcoming and hinting at the warm heat nestled at their juncture, guarded by nothing more than a scrap of lace. Her breath would catch and he'd feel it in her throat against his other hand. How easily he could have leaned in and tasted it with his tongue.

No, he had been very generous indeed.

He did not think he would be so next time. Sarah was right not to trust him, though he would have preferred it. It would be easier in the end. She would come to realize she'd made a very dangerous bargain indeed.

Jareth…

His name, so soft it was more a feeling than a word, roused him from his musings. His eyes snapped open – one light and one dark. He felt her mounting terror at the same time that he felt the other; the presence that should not be. Rage suffused his being, and the waves of it sent the cup and table crashing to the floor. The wine stained the carpet like blood - blood he was itching to spill.

There were rules.

His rules. In his castle his will alone was supreme.

When he stood, threads of something dark and ethereal spread around him like a swirling cloak. They roiled and built until they unfurled with a snap like unholy wings. With vicious satisfaction he felt the answering rage as the other was expelled.

Not yet.

Those with magic felt the tremor throughout his lands and shuddered in response. Those without carried on in blessed ignorance.

The thing in the dark would retreat but the Goblin King would not sleep again that night.


In the next breath the presence was gone, as though torn away. Warmth suffused her skin and Toby settled beside her. Perhaps sensing her need, the fire flickered back to life and the sconces lit to a muted glow. Her eyes confirmed her solitude, but still she pulled back the covers to slide from the bed and scan the room. It was empty and when she parted the curtains they revealed a solid stone wall. She tapped against it experimentally and then shook her head. Whatever she'd been dreaming had already slipped away, leaving only threads of something dark and unsettling.

She wondered if she'd merely dreamed it all – like a waking nightmare. Reason told her she could no longer dismiss anything. And so, despite Jareth's mocking, she pulled on soft pants and retrieved the bit of iron; after a slight hesitation, the professor's amulet too. She clutched both in her hand when she crawled back into back, nestling Toby once again into the crook of her arm. The low lights obligingly remained lit and though Sarah doubted she would sleep again, she could sit vigil through the night. A nagging thought reassured her that she could call and he would come.

It didn't occur to her to question that she'd already decided it had not been him in the dark.


Sarah woke for the third time to an unpleasantly damp tickle in her ear. Blinking her eyes open she was met with Toby's grinning face and a belated realization that his finger was wiggling in the shell of her ear.

"Ah! Gross! A wet willy? Really?" She slapped his hand away, rubbing the blanket against her head. Toby erupted into gleeful laughter at the look of disgust on her face. "How old are you?"

"Old enough to know what works."

"You'd better hope I fall asleep first tonight, buddy." With the talk of another night, Sarah sobered, remembering where she was and why. She sat up in bed, Toby still chuckling, and surveyed the room. In the castle. Beyond the Goblin city. She let out a long breath – almost a whistle – and seriously considered burying herself under the covers until it all went away. That had never worked for exams; she wasn't sure why it would work now.

She slapped Toby's hand away again when he made a second assault and took a deep breath - the smell of coffee; rich, dark, hot… and decidedly fresh. Turning her head she saw that a fine china cup sat atop a tray on the side table beside the bed. Next to it was a pot of thick cream and a bowl full of sugar cubes – the kind her grandmother had always kept and which she'd always stolen - gran obligingly always looking away. Her mouth watered faster than Pavlov's dog. Coffee in bed no less.

She looked across to see a tall glass of juice next to Toby and beside that a tray of pastries; rich fillings just escaping, lightly dusted in sugar and more than enough for two. Toby had already spotted it and looked back to Sarah pleadingly. When she shook her head no, he clasped his hands together in supplication.

"No! Water and breakfast bars are in my bag."

Grumbling, Toby hopped out of bed and began through rooting her pack – deliberately strewing her clothes out onto the floor in the process. Sarah looked back at the coffee and took another punishing inhalation, before pushing the tray to the far side of the table. Nothing had ever felt so difficult. She'd needed that after the night she'd had. Heat suffused her face at the memory. She was clearly not equipped to deal with him as an adult. And she very much needed to be one.

"Oh and brush your teeth when you're done. You didn't last night."

"Ugh – you brought my toothbrush?" Toby whined. "That is so lame."

"So are cavities."

Sarah got out of bed and snagged a bar from the bag. Normally she didn't mind that brand. It had protein and dark chocolate to mask the fibre. That morning it tasted like sawdust. Sarah uncapped a bottle of water to wash it down. When this was all over, she was going to eat the biggest, greasiest fry up ever and drink the biggest pot of French-pressed coffee she could at that expensive breakfast joint around the corner. She could taste it already. The rest of the breakfast bar killed it a moment later.

Toby was still staring forlornly at the buttery confections. He crumpled his wrapper and glared at Sarah. "Thanks for breakfast. You're a great cook."

"Shut it, kid. Get dressed."

Mumbling under his breath he complied. Without being asked he even put his pajamas into his bag and stalked into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

Sarah grabbed a change of clothes and followed suit when Toby was done. Wondering when next she'd get the chance, she did a quick wash in the tub before getting dressed. She tied her hair back into a braid again; the damp stands around her face curling. She'd chosen jeans and a simple, fitted button-up long sleeve shirt in a sage green colour. She'd pulled a light jacket from her bag as well. When she returned to the bedroom to slide on her suede boots, the door to the room opened. Both siblings froze, but when no one entered they exchanged a look.

"I suppose we're supposed to go to him?" Sarah shrugged. She shoved the rest of their gear back into the bags, did a quick glance around the room and then ushered Toby out the door.

The hallway was brightly lit and they followed the lights, which seemed intent on leading them on their way through a series of twists and turns. Up staircases and down and up once again, with an utter lack of logic until they arrived at a set of open doors. Inside the room was centered a long stone table. It was stacked with platters of food: steaming sausages, thick-cut bacon, a roasted haunch of ham, boiled eggs, mountains of sliced fresh fruit, clotted cream, and pastries and scones in more varieties than Sarah had ever seen. A silver urn of coffee unmistakably steamed, coupled with a jug of fresh milk and more pitchers of frothy juice. Jareth was seated at the far head of the table. He was dressed simply, a linen shirt and embroidered vest. He considered them above a china cup poised at his lips.

Sarah's jaw clicked shut. "Now you're just being cruel."

"Good morning to you too." A smirk, hidden again by the cup. "Won't you join me?" Sarah noticed that there were two more chairs set on either side of him. "Apologies for starting without you."

Toby immediately took a seat, dropping his bag beside him. Sarah, feeling awkward standing in the doorway under his scrutiny, reluctantly took the other chair.

"Actually we're not hungry," she said, her eyes boring into Toby's.

"What a pity. All this food will go to waste."

"Give it to the goblins."

His lips curled. "Actually they prefer to eat… other things."

Toby's stomach chose that moment to grumble.

"It rather looks like the boy here is still hungry. Aren't you, Toby?"

Toby looked back and forth between his sister and the king. "Um… well… er… no, thank you. I'm … fine." He crossed his arms and directed an accusing look at his sister.

"Pity," the king repeated and took a bite of what looked like pain au chocolat. Sarah couldn't help but stare. She'd never seen him eat before, never really considered that he did. He did it so fastidiously, and even though the bun looked delectably flaky, not a single crumb fell. The tip of his tongue swept along his lower lip to catch a bit of chocolate. His eyes slid to hers, abruptly reminding Sarah that she was openly staring.

"Are you sure you don't want some?" He held the pastry out towards her solicitously. "You look... enraptured. They really are quite fresh." His tongue swept his lip again.

"N-no. Thank you."

The king took a sip of his coffee. Sarah noted, without meaning to, that he liked it with cream.

"One might assume you think what I am offering you is somehow tainted, but that would be rude," he sipped again, "considering we are allies. No, that can't be it. Especially after I so freely partook in your home as a guest when you could have poisoned me."

"Didn't think of it."

He ignored her volley. "So therefore I can only assume you aren't lying and you are indeed, not hungry."

"We ate. Sarah packed granola bars and water," Toby supplied. She couldn't decide if he was being helpful or ratting her out.

"How… industrious of you."

Sarah refused to be cowed. "I've read enough to know that this sort of food doesn't really work out well for mortals. Especially when offered by kings of said underworld."

Jareth grinned then, setting the cup down. "So you fancy yourself... Persephone, is it? How presumptuous. I had no idea you had your sights set on a crown."

Sarah reddened immediately, willing the ground to open up and swallow her for giving him so easy an opening. When it didn't she looked at him incredulously.

He winked. "I read too."

"You know that's… not what I meant… exactly. You can hardly blame me though considering the last time."

Jareth rolled his fingers and a crystal appeared. He curled them again and it was a peach. "Sometimes fruit is just fruit." He took a bite, his eyes on Sarah. The peach looked ripe, perfect really – summer in a little sphere. A lone trickle of juice slid slowly down his chin.

Arrested, Sarah followed its descent. She knew he was deliberately trying to rattle her with calculated words and artful affectation. Whatever game he'd started in the hallway was not over.

A snippet from a bachelor's course in literature wove its way into her head:

"She suck'd and suck'd and suck'd the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore…
What peaches with a velvet nap…"

She forced herself to look away. "Actually I don't really care for peaches. Half the time they're rotten and you can never really tell until it's too late."

Jareth dabbed his chin. A pointed glance taunted her. Liar.

"Did you know that it's customary for allies to break bread together before a journey? As a sign of peace. Proof of trust between companions."

Sarah shot him a withering glance before reaching over, eyes trained on him, and selected a roll. She gingerly snapped it two and dropped both halves onto her empty plate. "There. Bread broken."

Toby, who'd been following their exchange with a ten year old's confusion, let out a sudden whistle of excitement and his chair scraped back, breaking the tension. He'd just discovered the curtains on both walls obscured large open windows. He ran to one in awe.

"I've never - NEVER - seen anything like this… and I've been to Disney World!"

Jareth rose and joined him at the window. Sarah wiped her hands on a linen napkin and then pinched the bridge of her nose.

"How do you ever find your way in there? People must get lost a lot."

"People? Almost all of them."

"Who finds them then?"

"Why do you assume anyone finds them?"

Toby frowned, surveying the Labyrinth that stretched in all directions, seemingly without end. "Well how do they get out again then?"

"Why do you assume they do?"

Toby opened his mouth and then closed it, looking back with new eyes. "… Still pretty cool though."

Jareth inclined his head and patted the boy on the shoulder. "Indeed."

"So…" Toby cleared his throat. "Is-is Max lost somewhere in there?"

Sarah's head swivelled to Jareth's. He stared right back. "If it were that easy, your sister and I would have made a very different bargain." He looked back to the window. "No, Toby. Your brother is far from here, beyond my Labyrinth and beyond where I can see." Sarah wondered just how far those owlish eyes could spy. "But I have… ways and I know where he was taken. Together we'll get him back."

Toby smiled, relief brightening his features. "And then we can all go home."

Jareth returned the smile but said nothing.

Sarah stood too, impatience colouring her tone. "So bread has been broken. We've stayed the thirteen hours – at least I can only assume. When do we leave?"

Jareth turned to look at her. "Now."

The room disappeared and the same sense of vertigo returned. It was not as gut wrenching as before, but Sarah could feel the protein bar churn in her stomach. They were standing on a hill top at the outskirts of the Labyrinth. The barren shrubs and dusty landscape reminded her of her first visit, no doubt chosen deliberately.

"We didn't have to go through the Labyrinth?" Disappointment tinged Toby's voice.

"I thought you were afraid of getting lost."

"But you'd know the way."

"Mmm, yes. The idea of the king lost in his own Labyrinth is rather ridiculous isn't it?"

Sarah snorted. "I'd pay to see it happen."

He raised a brow. "Then you'd pay dearly."

It occurred to Sarah that they were suddenly having an altogether different conversation and wisdom dictated she not antagonize him further. She'd never learned to properly play the wallflower but she was willing to try until safe in her world again. She didn't want to think about after…

"So which way?" she asked finally. The unspoken, because I will follow you, hung between them. It was the largest olive branch she was willing to give him.

Without breaking eye contact he swung his arm behind him and pointed into the distance. She had no idea if it was west or east, or even if directions like that applied in the Underground. Both Toby and Sarah followed the direction of his gloved hand. It was decidedly not the way Sarah would have chosen. Despite the fact that the sun was newly risen and the sky was awash in carmine hues, behind Jareth lay an impossible darkness. Not clouds or storms per se, but more like the landscape had bled the sky dry. Sarah saw what looked like a wooded border in the distance; an unnatural divide rising from the flat dusty plain with its glittery red soil.

Not that any of it mattered. Max was somewhere that way. Even just saying his name was like trying to hold onto something transient. It had only been a few days but she realized she could no longer remember what colour his eyes were - blue like Toby's or green like hers? It was Toby who kept reminding her, whether outright or through his palpable guilt. And she admitted that she was as much invested in severing whatever tie she'd created to that book, as she was in retrieving what was taken. A sudden wash of shame dowsed her grumbling. Max was slipping away because he was meant to. Just like Toby would have if she'd failed. She looked at Jareth with muted horror, ashamed again that a part of her, however minute, had ever wished she'd lost. Even more ashamed that he now knew.

Toby tugged on her hand and she stopped the narcissistic self-flagellation. It wouldn't get them anywhere. Max, she repeated one more time, just to keep the name on her tongue.

We're going to where the wild things are to bring you home.

The siblings fell into an easy gait behind the king. She belatedly noticed that he'd changed clothes again. The cape and armour were gone, but he was no longer so casual. He wore a long ornate jacket, all abstract angles in dark textured leather. His pants were charcoal and his boots were made of a similar leather. His shirt was likewise dark. Not as foreboding, maybe, but still all hard edges. Regal. Powerful. She wondered if he'd be walking had they not been with him. He carried nothing save a sort of short staff, perhaps a sceptre – its claws clutching a crystal sphere.

Feeling her eyes on his back, Jareth turned his head without breaking stride. Sarah was reminded of an owl.

Before he could say something she remarked, "You're not bringing anything."

"I've got the pair of you. Anything else I need, I'll call for. And when I can't I'll take."

He didn't say it particularly threateningly but nonetheless she'd hate to have something he wanted.

Toby grumbled, "Must be nice." He adjusted his bag with another pointed look at his sister.

The Goblin King laughed. "I told her you needed nothing."

Sarah ignored them both, her eyes trained on the darkness they approached. "It doesn't seem to be getting any closer?"

"Tired already?"

Sarah grimaced. "No… just wondering. Couldn't you just," she snapped her fingers instead of saying it, "...us there?"

"Not there I can't. Not with you two mortals in tow. Were it to work," he paused, mulling the thought over, "it would not be pleasant for you. And I rather thought you enjoyed walks."

Even though his face was turned away, Sarah registered the taunt lacing his tone. Apparently she was the only one willing to offer a truce. So be it.

Sarah fell into silence but allowed Toby to pull up beside the king. Jareth glanced down at the boy but didn't say a word. Sarah remained content to bring up the rear. Eventually she just watched their feet. There was not much to see. It looked like they were crossing an arid desert, except the colours were all wrong. The land dipped and flowed in either direction. She turned only once to look back at the fading Labyrinth and the castle beyond the Goblin City. She raised a hand and waved slightly, thinking of Didymus, and Ludo, and Hoggle. Despite her misgivings she felt an acute pang of regret that she likely wouldn't see them again. She doubted Jareth would be so generous… not without demanding something in return. If Jareth caught her small gesture he said nothing.

"Whoah." Toby's exclamation made Sarah look up.

Before them lay a wide spindly thicket – barring their way like a wall. The branches were mere brambles but they sprouted wicked looking thorns. Sparse foliage dotted their limbs and what remained was well-withered. The whole thing reminded her of bones.

"What is this place?"

"It has no name. It is merely… a borderland. This marks one edge of my realm."

Toby tilted his head. "So who owns it?"

"No one. It is nothing… A buffer between worlds."

Toby's mouth dropped open. "Like as in planets? Like in Space?"

Jareth sighed. "Mortals." But decided to indulge the boy. "Consider climbing a tree. We're merely moving from one branch to the next."

Sarah's brow furrowed at his metaphor.

At the entrance to the thicket, Jareth paused, his eyes on both of them. "This is your last chance to turn back. I don't expect you to, noble as you are," the mocking was back, "but I'd be remiss if I didn't warn you."

"Turn back before it's too late!" Sarah mimicked. She could mock too.

Jareth's lips twitched. "It's already too late."

Hook line and sink her. Sarah shook her head resolutely. "We have to get Max back."

That conviction did not stop Sarah from shuddering when they crossed into the gnarled mess. The air changed as quickly as a switch; like the odd sensation of calm before a storm - when everything is charged. When it didn't relent, it felt, Sarah decided, like being stuck in limbo.

Movement drew her eye. Something skittered through the falling leaves behind her. And then again to her right, just out of sight. Whatever they were, they seemed to be running away. Scattering. But Sarah could feel eyes on her - too many – well-hidden but watchful.

Hungry, her mind suggested. And she got the impression that they were conveying that hunger to her.

Craving…

Embarrassed, she felt a disturbing yearning coil in her stomach, her skin prickling to awareness and she couldn't help the fleeting memory of Jareth's thigh against hers. A musky odour made her nose wrinkle. Reddish eyes blinked at her and then disappeared, reappearing somewhere else before disappearing again. Like cat and mouse.

Sarah thought she saw a long tail switch.

"So hungry…"

"Tasty…"

And this time she was certain she'd heard it, not just felt it. The sensation coiled around her legs, slowing her; shadowing the want in her core.

She fought against the inclination and closed the distance between her and the Goblin King so quickly that she tripped into him.

"Goblins?" she asked breathlessly, as he righted her with a hand to her elbow.

He shook his head. "Wasted things that belong in neither world. They pick off unlucky travellers." He eyed her. "Ones who are vulnerable anyway. They have no place in my lands and so claim the inbetween."

Sarah brushed too closely to a bush and snagged her sleeve on a lethal looking thorn. She struggled to unhook herself.

"But… what are they?"

Jareth deftly released her. "Nothing that needs naming. They won't come any closer. Not with me here."

"And if you weren't here?"

He considered her carefully. "You wouldn't be." He eyed her torn sleeve. "Have a care not to shed blood in this place."

Sarah found she had nothing to say in response; she knew she hated how easily he reminded her that she was helpless. "Toby, stay close." It was a pointless order as he was already practically glued to the king.

"Oh, the boy is fine. They are not interested in him."

Sarah processed the obvious implication. "Point taken."

Jareth laughed then and it was free of any mocking. He wondered if Sarah would have been so calm had she realized just what their presence meant. He decided not to elucidate. He'd save it for a time when he could thoroughly enjoy the fallout.

When another of the creatures hovered closely just out of sight, he loosed a warning spark of magic. The yowl made both of the siblings jump. The message, though not lethal, was well driven home. Mine.

The thicket eventually thinned and with it the air changed again; salt and damp and the unmistakable sounds of waves. The thorns gave way to a rocky shoreline butted against a wide blue sea. The sky was still fully dark, but now it hung with a canopy stars reflecting into the endless sea below.

"Wow," Sarah breathed, halting in her steps. Toby beamed from ear to ear. "This was… unexpected."

Jareth quirked a brow. "And what did you expect?"

Before Sarah could answer Toby was scrambling over the rocks, running towards the water.

Jareth and Sarah followed, stopping again on the pebbled beach.

Sarah looked up and down the barren coast. "So what now?"

"We wait."

"For what?"

"Not what. Whom."

Puzzled, she looked again in all directions. She was on the point of demanding further explanation when she heard the unmistakable crackle of a fire.

Turning, she spied a man on his haunches stoking a small beach fire. He was dressed in a large voluminous cloak. His gaunt face was bearded and generally non-descript aside from being well weather worn. His hair was thick and peppered grey, but he did not look particularly old. He paid no notice to any of them.

Sarah looked to Jareth inquiringly.

Jareth reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold coin and without giving notice flipped it to the man at the fire. The man deftly caught it with one hand; his other still stoking the fire.

Only after he'd bitten it did he address them. "Passage for three?"

"Safe passage for three," Jareth amended.

The other man grunted once and seemingly satisfied with the flames, rose.

"Passage where and in wh…" Sarah trailed off at the boat that had appeared behind them. It was made of black wood – so dark it looked burnt - and was carved with intricate knots and designs, with some sort of sea dog at the helm. It was longer than a row boat but did not look much sturdier. Toby was already delightedly inspecting it.

"We're going to cross the sea… in that?" Sarah demanded incredulously.

"The sea is the passage. So it's that or swim and I wouldn't recommend it."

The other man grunted again, although it may have been a laugh.

Sarah made her way to the side of the boat before hesitating again. Toby was already scrambling in over the other side and parked himself on the front seat.

Jareth followed and settled leisurely in the middle. He eyed Sarah expectantly.

"But how far is it? You can't be serious."

He simply patted the seat beside him. She ignored his expression and resignedly stepped inside. She'd barely gotten her foot over the side when the skiff pushed off with great force, sending her sprawling across the Goblin King's lap. Mortified, she tried to right herself. With a hand on her elbow he settled her beside him and blessedly refrained from offering a comment besides the telling twitch of his lips.

The cloaked man had joined them at some point and stood in the rear. He'd pulled the wide hood over his head, casting his face completely into shadow, and slid a long gnarled pole in the water. He stirred the sea like he'd stoked the fire. Once well out into the swells, he pulled the coin from his pocket and dropped it over the side.

Sarah watched him curiously.

The water lapped against the boat gently and despite only the pole, the shore soon faded into nothing more than a thin line until it disappeared altogether.

Toby was draped over the bow, one hand dipping into the water to make ripples.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you. You'll wake the waves."

Toby giggled but trailed off at the serious look on Jareth's face.

Sarah frowned.

"It's their mother I'd worry about. Though I suppose he's only but half a man and not worth the effort."

It was the first time the cloaked man had spoken since the shore. She noticed his voice was deep, rumbling like thunder, and yet strangely lilted.

Her frown deepened.

Toby, looking back and forth between the two men, snatched his back and rubbed it dry on his jeans.

"Who is he?" Sarah whispered to Jareth, aware she was probably being rude.

"He goes by many names. It really depends on who does the calling. Call him a ferryman or a fire-stoker, it's all the same. Doesn't really matter, you mortals never really get it wholly right. Just parts here and there, borrowed and refashioned to fit your own ideas."

Sarah processed his words – the library of her mind flipping through old tales and legends.

"Eldir," Sarah whispered. Or Charon.

Jareth merely smiled and the ferryman said nothing save a slight tilt of his hood that was neither confirmation nor refutation.

"And what did you mean by wake the waves?"

"Oh, I think you've already guessed."

It can't be real. But she knew it could. Ægir's daughters - if that was his name – the nine waves. And his wife Rán.

The boat rocked violently a moment later, and Sarah fought the instinct to grip Jareth's arm.

He sighed. "Too late."

The boat rocked again and when Sarah peered over the edge nervously, she saw red spreading in the water, bubbling up like blood through the surf.

A moment later a pale hand, the skin a mottled white, gripped the inside of the boat next to Sarah. The long thin fingers were webbed and tipped with claws – purplish, grey and vicious looking. Another followed. Sarah slid back into Jareth; firm against her back. She reached a hand for Toby. The ferryman looked unconcerned, never ceasing his steady stirring motions.

A head then rose, its hair blood-red with long tendrils coiling around pale arms and spilling into the boat like seaweed. The torso of a woman followed, pulling up and leaning into the small craft. Her eyes were the changing colours of the sea and her lips a purplish grey – like something that lived in the dark deep depths. Her features were fine, almost beautiful, if not frightening in their otherness. She was also decidedly naked. The rest of her skin was the same translucent mottle, and here and there gave a shimmer of scales as droplets of salt water slid down in rivulets. Her breasts were smooth and perfectly rounded; darkly peaked and jutting. A few strands of hair crossed her chest like bloody slashes. She eyed the contents of the boat with interest.

"Goblin King." The voice melodious and low. Lulling. She smiled and Sarah noted that her teeth were thin and pointed – fish-like.

She felt Jareth incline his head behind her.

The woman looked to a cowering Toby and back to Sarah with surprise. "And two mortals? Both alive. What interesting company you keep. Or are they a snack for mother?"

"He paid their safe passage," the boatman interjected.

The sea-woman scowled, her eyes darkening like a storm and when she spoke next, her voice was more a serpent's hiss. "Don't forget your place, servant."

The boatman ignored the threat.

"You never visit anymore, Goblin King." Her voice had dropped again, almost seductively. "I do so miss your visits." She dropped a hand to her breast and stroked her nipple playfully with claw-tipped fingers.

Sarah pushed Toby's head away, though he'd already turned, his face beet red. Sarah also averted her eyes, imagining her own face mirrored his, though by embarrassment or anger she wasn't sure.

"Do give my best to your sisters," Jareth offered wryly. His own attention was fixed on the warring expressions crossing Sarah's face as she directed her gaze at the horizon.

The red-head pouted prettily, somewhat ruined by her teeth. Her dark eyes flicked to Sarah. "Your loss. Mortals are ever so fragile. Especially where you're going."

When Jareth said nothing more, she directed him a final look of heat and slipped beneath the waves. Sarah caught a glimpse of long legs and the curve of a hip before she disappeared below. Her feet were finned.

Sarah swallowed and slid away from the Goblin King at her side. She looked to Toby who seemed to be recovering. She wasn't naïve enough to think that was the first pair of tits Toby had ever seen – he watched far too many horror movies for that - nor was she a prude enough to feel that nudity was necessarily a bad thing, but she still felt like she was unable to spare him things not meant for him and that it would only get worse the further they went. He'll come back changed, she thought. Innocence lost. And she couldn't help but think it was all her fault.

"That was so not the little mermaid," Toby offered glibly, catching Sarah's concerned expression.

Jareth snorted. "No, not a mermaid. I warned you not to wake the waves. Be thankful only one of them rose."

"She seemed to know you very well."

"She and her sisters are a… diverting bunch. Especially all together."

Sarah was certain he was trying to bait; coax her into asking more so he could shock her – or worse incite her to reveal something.

Instead she shrugged. "To each their own." She wrinkled her nose. "She smelled like fish."

The Goblin King barked with laughter and even the ferryman's shoulders seemed to rock with mirth. "I shall have to tell her than when next I see her."

They lapsed into silence. The waves remained steady and no more were forthcoming, but the chill in the air had deepened, not Sarah thought, without intention. She felt it keenly through her light jacket. By contrast, unnatural warmth radiated off the figure at her side. She refused to move any closer, instead folding her arms around herself in a huddle. Despite the cold, the lulling motion of the water made her eyes droop, and she caught her head dipping twice. It seemed paramount to stay awake and alert. So naturally it surprised her when the boat rocked forward, having landed, and she found her head pressed against the leather shoulder of the Goblin King. Her whole left side was comfortably warm and she had the phantom sensation that he'd draped an arm across her back until recently. She reeled upright and furtively wiped the saliva from her mouth.

Refusing to acknowledge she'd fallen asleep, she turned and surveyed the land at her back. It was another rocky shore, very similar to the one they'd left. The relentless darkness had abated and the sky over the land was grey, clashing into midnight where the shore and sea met.

Jareth rose and effortlessly exited the small boat. He helped Toby down and then extended a hand to Sarah. She ignored it and stood, only to sit back down again; her legs completely jelly. Rubbing her thighs she stood again, wobbled, and then took the hand with a mumble that might have passed for thanks. Once on shore she immediately released it.

"You know she'll tell her father. Payment will be much higher on the return." The ferryman had already pushed the boat back into the sea.

Jareth looked unconcerned. "I have my ways."

The ferryman nodded.

Sarah watched, fascinated, as the skiff pushed out 20 or so feet and then was swallowed by a large swell – the horizon once again unbroken.

"What did he mean payment will be higher?"

Jareth rested a hand on Toby's shoulder. "He means that mortals aren't meant to cross between realms. They certainly aren't meant to do it more than once."

"But we will be able to get back, right?" You're not going to abandon us was left unspoken.

"I have no intention of leaving you here." He started walking inland. "And as you know, I've never much cared for rules that aren't mine."

Toby eagerly scrambled after him, leaving Sarah to bring up the rear again.

The shore, unlike the previous, had a much steeper incline and crossing the sharp rocks was more laborious. Only Jareth seemed completely at ease, gracefully navigating a steep path without difficulty. Sarah's way on the other hand was punctuated with poorly swallowed curses. When she finally reached the top, her thighs burned and she was winded.

Her remaining breath was stolen by what awaited them over the ridge.

A forest unlike one that she'd ever seen.

The trees were tall and imposing, with trunks an ashen grey, some as dark as pitch. Their roots were mostly exposed, great creeping things - like gnarled fingers that had clawed for purchase into the ground. Their branches stretched high towards the sky, twisting and weaving with their neighbours' like complex knot work. The leaves were sparse and of a deep blood red colour.

Toby, less winded than Sarah, was similarly awe-struck. His head craned up towards the sky.

Jareth had stopped before an opening between two large trees. It looked like the forest was waiting to swallow them all.

Sarah and Toby reluctantly followed, halting just at the edge of the treeline.

"What is this place?" And do we really need to go in there.

Jareth nodded slowly and tipped his hand in invitation.

"Enter the Tanglewood."

Chapter Text

 

Somewhere deep in the dark
A howling beast hears us talk.
I dare you to close your eyes.
And see all the colours in disguise.

Running into the night…

Yellow Light, Of Monster and Men

And I run from wolves
Breathing heavily
At my feet
And I run rom wolves
Tearing into me
Without teeth…

Haunt me in my sleep…

Wolves Without Teeth, Of Monster and Men


‘Enter the Tanglewood.’

The words sounded in Sarah’s mind like a knell.  She was not naïve enough to trust either the invitation or the figure issuing it.  But she had no choice.

Max.  For Max. 

She glanced at Toby; his face hopeful and resolute.  And for him.  Perhaps more so.

A final look at the sea – now grey and calm; seemingly without end – and then back at Jareth with his arm still raised towards the dark wood and eyes like fathoms deep.  It felt like she was being asked to step off the edge of a cliff and trust that she would not break.  If she went in there would be no turning back. 

She had no way of knowing that it was already too late.  She’d leapt already.  Going forward now was mere formality.

And Jareth was watching her fall.

“I’m thirsty.”

Toby’s partial question, partial whine brought Sarah back.  She stared at him blankly.

“Thir-sty,” Toby repeated; the whine crossing to rude.

“Right.”  Sarah dug through her bag and pulled out an open bottle of water.  She took a few measured sips of water and then handed the bottle to Toby.  “Have it all.”

He drank greedily but stopped before finishing it.  He wiped the top on his sleeve and held it towards Jareth.  Both the Goblin King and Sarah looked surprised; their eyes meeting over his head.

The king’s lips twitched. “Courteous,” he eyed Sarah again, “but unnecessary.  And I think you’ll find your sister does not approve.  Manners never were her strong point.”

Sarah, who had been boring a hole into the back of Toby’s head, had the grace to blush. 

Toby sensed her stare and ignored it.  He held it out resolutely.  “I’m offering.  And Sarah doesn’t mind, does she?”

Sarah tried to look indifferent. “Just don’t waste it.”

 Judas. She wished she’d taken a larger sip.

Jareth accepted the water, with a nod to Toby, and raised it towards his lips but at the last moment deftly held the bottle to Sarah’s mouth.  The top brushed her lip and she jerked back, knocking the bottle away in shock.  Jareth let it fall and spill its contents across the rocks. 

At her look of outrage, he brushed his thumb across her lip, catching the lone bead of water, and sucked the leather dry.  “Wouldn’t want to waste it.”

Sarah’s temper replaced the burn in her legs but she refused to be baited further.  Adjusting the straps on her bag, she strode past them both and entered the wood. 

As soon as she crossed the threshold, the first thing she noticed was the quiet.  Gone was the steady rhythm of the sea, the lapping of wave against stone - as though all sound had been consumed by the tall, black trees.  The preternatural quiet made the hair on her neck, still slick with salt air, stand on end.  Nothing rustled, nothing moved – every crimson leaf in its place.  Thin striations of golden light stabbed down from the forest canopy like lances and were as still as glass. Her steps slowed.  There was a path, but the gnarled roots of the large trees made walking precarious.  Their twisted limbs curled and knotted out of the earth, so that the forest looked more woven than grown. 

A flurry of wings flapped overhead, too loud in the silence, and when she looked up she was blinded by the light.  She stumbled sideways, her bravado draining.  She stopped and turned expectantly, blinking.  Toby and Jareth were nowhere to be seen.  She’d only gone in a few dozen feet, but she could no longer see the path behind her nor any break in the trees. The branches were as tightly linked as cold-pressed iron. 

Sarah laughed nervously as she looked around.  “Toby,” she called.  The forest was silent.  She tried again, her voice cracking.  “Toby!”

When she turned around again, the way forward was gone.  She pressed her hands against the branches, then snatched them back and touched it again tentatively.  The wood was cool and hard, harder than any wood she’d ever felt, but beneath the bark was a strange thrum.  She could feel it resonate beneath her skin, like a great, steady pulse.  And she within its bones.  Sarah kicked at the wall of wood - the frustration feeling all too familiar.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Jareth emerged a few feet away, his hand resting lightly on Toby’s shoulder. 

Sarah pulled Toby towards her in annoyance. “Why, will I wake the trees too?”

“They are always awake.”  From somewhere high above wood creaked and echoed; too loud again in the silence.

Sarah licked her dry lips.  “I couldn’t find you.” 

Hands on her shoulders, Jareth turned her gently.   His mouth at her ear.  “Don’t stray from the path.”

It lay before her.

“It wasn’t there a moment ago.”  She was more annoyed than surprised.  Another pang of memory.

Jareth brushed by her. “It’s always there for those who see.”  Toby trailed after him, matching his gait.  “Don’t fall behind.”

Sarah glanced behind her.  The way back was gone.


 They walked in near silence for close to an hour, Toby occasionally remarking on something of interest to a ten year old – Jareth either indulging him with a response or ignoring him altogether.  Toby did not seem to mind either way.

Sarah, keeping pace, traded several vicious barbs in her head though her lips remained sealed.  Speaking aloud would be a mistake.  Resist temptation.  Deny. Ignore.  Rinse. Repeat.

Still, she silently urged Toby to continue his prattling.  Annoyance by proxy. 

“It all looks the same.”

“It’s not.”

“But it does though.  How do you know where we are going?”

“I simply do.”  His tone was clipped.

“It’s kind of boring though.”

“How unimaginative.”

“Actually, I have an overactive imagination!” Toby parroted his mother tone.

“A family trait.” It did not sound like a compliment.

Sarah bristled, bit her lip, and avoided stumbling on yet another root.

“Are we there yet?” 

Atta boy.  Sarah grinned at the almost imperceptible tensing of the Goblin King’s shoulders.    She ticked the column for team Williams. 

Quiet words, barely heard.  “I would have wished him away too.” 

Sarah failed to avoid the next root.  Toby’s brow furrowed.  The power shifted again.

Their eyes met.   “Don’t.” 

An unspoken threat hung as heavy as the canopy overhead.

Toby lapsed into silence and a long while passed before Sarah finally spoke again. 

“Why won’t you tell us where we are going?”  She was careful to keep it neutral, almost indifferent – though it wasn’t.  “Wouldn’t it be better if I,” she glanced at Toby, “we were prepared for… whatever lies ahead?”

“Better for whom?”

Sarah’s expression soured.  “We have a deal.”

“And that wasn’t part of it, or are you changing the terms now?  If we change the terms then we change the forfeit.”

“I don’t even know the forfeit!”

“And that was surprisingly foolish of you.”  He glanced back.  “Don’t fall behind.”

Unable to stop herself, she peered over her shoulder.  It was dark behind them – unnaturally so – as though shadows licked at their heels.  In the stillness a few red leaves silently fell, twisting and turning, before staining the ground red. She quickened her pace and did not look back again.

At some point, Toby fished a protein bar from his bag and ate it.  He didn’t ask and Sarah didn’t protest.  Toby’s expression was sour too and she suspected that the adventure was already wearing thin.  He occasionally glanced between her and Jareth.  Sarah couldn’t help wonder what conclusions he had drawn.  Was drawing still.

The unending wood was wearing on her too.  It was not the Labyrinth, though the black trees, with their great creeping roots, were as chaotic as his maze had ever been.  It felt different.  Thirteen hours were up and the clock was still ticking. The stakes were unknown and the magic too potent.  Jareth told her she had to let it in. Like a drug.  She glanced at his back.  Heady.  Addictive.  Dangerous. 

‘Let it in.’

Another connotation to be drawn.

…Her back pressed against a door… his hands on her thighs…

The memory made her skin prickle uncomfortably.  Sarah dropped her eyes.  Come on feet.  But they had betrayed her too and begun to ache, suggesting she should have chosen different boots.

Her wrist ached too.  

A stone had somehow wormed its way into her boot and that she couldn’t ignore.  Blowing out her frustration, Sarah propped herself on a large root. The packsack landed at her feet.

“I need a break.”

The Goblin King raised a brow. “So soon? However did you win?” But he stopped nonetheless and leaned against a tree, folding his arms. 

Scowling, Sarah tugged the boot from her foot and shook it until an irritatingly small rock fell out. 

Toby, who’d slid to the ground at her feet, picked the stone up and tossed it into the brush, mirroring her mood.

He grunted when something snapped him in the back of the head a moment later.  Shooting Sarah an annoyed look, he rubbed the offending spot and began to toy with some branches on the ground, first piling them and layering them like Lincoln Logs until they vaguely resembled a little house.  

When Jareth noticed the boy’s creation, he pinched the bridge of his nose.

Toby, catching Jareth’s reaction, was on the point of destroying it when something small, vaguely grey, and incredibly fast hopped over his leg and crawled into the rudimentary enclosure.  He yelped, sounding very much like a ten year old, and shot back into Sarah – knocking her, still one boot in hand, off balance and onto the ground with a thud.

“What the-,” Sarah swallowed the rest of the curse at the look on Toby’s face.  She followed his eyes to the pile of branches and then scooted back further, dragging Toby with her. 

Jareth watched it all with a sort of weary amusement.

“What… what is it?”  Toby finally asked; eyes trained on the little house. 

“Harmless.”

Toby slid a finger forward.

“Mostly.”

Toby snatched it back. 

The creature, aware it was being discussed, exited the pile of sticks and examined the trio with strangely lambent eyes.  Its shape and features were roughly humanoid, despite its size.  Its skin was pale, almost ashen, and it wore a sort of tunic cut from deep green cloth. Its eyes flickered when it saw Jareth, but it inclined its head, and then studied the siblings with keen interest.

“Some might call it an elf.” Jareth offered, his tone suggesting he would call it something else altogether.

Toby, raised on a healthy dose of Tolkien and fantasy thanks to his sister, eyed the thing with disbelief. “An elf?”

“Disappointing, I know.  Tiresome pests at best.”

“Says the king of goblins?” Sarah challenged.

Toby held out a finger again tentatively. “Let me guess, another thing that has several names.”

The creature slapped Toby away.  “I have one name, whether over hill or under it.  ONE name, my own.  It’s mine to use and not yours to know.  ” The creature snorted. “And I am not an it.”

 “It talks!  I mean, I mean…” Toby looked it up and down questioningly. “He, um, talks?”

The creature did not correct him.

“Um, well, hello.”  Toby still looked nervous but excitement had replaced his sullen expression.

“It’s not very good, is it?”

A look of confusion.  “What isn’t?”

“The house, twit.  Not sturdy at all.”  The creature kicked at a stick and the whole thing collapsed. “Nope.  No good.”

 “Oh… well, I didn’t really build it for –“

“Some invitation. More an insult, really.  I’ve seen better ones built by daft brats with no arms.” 

“Invitation?”

The creature shot the boy a withering look and muttered something too low to hear and properly nasty.

Sarah’s eyes widened and she whispered, “Huldufólk”

The creature cocked its head.  Toby looked confused. 

 Sarah continued excitedly.  “It – I mean he – I think… it’s a hidden person!” 

The creature scratched its head and looked back to Toby.  “Dim, is she? Do I look hidden to you, boy?”

Toby shook his head politely. 

“Well… I meant that’s… there are legends about Huldufólk – or hidden people.  There are… books written about them.”  A touch more defensively now.  “People in Iceland still build little houses for them.  Out of… superstition I guess.”

The creature sniffed again.  “Not superstition.  Respect!  And they,” he addressed Toby, “know enough not to throw rocks.” 

“They say they can take on many different forms.”

“Can you?” Toby asked, excitement making his voice sound all the more boyish.

The elf’s face split into a wide grin - a row of wicked looking teeth glinted and something flickered within its lambent eyes. “Indeed we can.” It stepped back and beckoned.  “Come, boy.  Would you like to see?”

Toby took an eager step towards it.  “There are more of you?”

 “Oh yes.  Many.  Just through the trees.” His voice was melodic, lilting. “This way now.”

Another step.

“Really?”

“Oh all around you.”

And another one.

“Toby.”  The words, though quietly spoken, cleared the fog.

Sarah turned, having almost forgotten the king at her back.  He was still leaning against a tree, arms folded restively, but his eyes were trained on the creature.  When she turned back, she was surprised to realize Toby had gotten so far away from her.

The creature stilled, eyed the king, and then genuflected.  “Another time.  Another time.”

“No.  Not another time either.” 

 “We have as much right here, Goblin King.”  The last was almost spat, all deference gone, but it darted further into the trees when Jareth uncrossed his arms.  “Don’t threaten us! The farther you go, the more you wane.”   It poked its head around the other side of a trunk.  “Fair is fair.  If not the boy, then perhaps the girl?” Its eyes darted flashed between Sarah and the king, considering. “No, no, I see now.  Not here.  Not this hill.”  It tasted the air, “Ripe, yes, ripe. We can ensure.”   

A look of outrage spread across Sarah’s face.

It tasted it again and its grin widened.  “Oh, but something else there.  Tainted.”

Jareth took a step towards it.

“Feast or famine.” It escaped into the woods, cackling, “Feast or famine!”

Toby shivered. 

“Rest time is over.”  The Goblin King, his face again a mask, ground his boot into the ruined house and turned back towards the path.  They followed in silence. 

It was several minutes before Toby spoke.  “So what would it… have done?”  

A long pause.  Sarah thought he would not answer.

“It would have taken you away.”

“Yes, but would… would it have hurt me? Or Sarah?”

Another pause.  “Not precisely.”

“Oh…  So why were you so mad?

A gloved hand patted Toby’s head.  “Because you were not his to take.”

Sarah bristled.  “Ignore him.  I’m sure they are not all bad.”

“Don’t believe everything you read in a book, Sarah.” 

“They can supposedly be helpful.”

A pale brow arched.  “Like fairies grant wishes?” 

Sarah mirrored it.  “You sound just like Hoggle.”

Jareth pressed a gloved fist to his chest.  “How you wound, you cruel thing.”  He eyed her speculatively.  “And how is Hogwart?  How he must have missed you those long years.”

Misstep.  Recover.  Parry.

“And I him.  He’s very dear to me.”

“Really? I’ve always found him highly forgettable.” 

Sarah winced.

“And replaceable.”

 “Ah, but you haven’t.”  Check.

Yet. I can be generous.”

Sarah snorted, but her laugh was genuine and it scared her into old habits and old barbs.

“I’m surprised you disliked that… little thing. You share the same interest in taking things that aren’t yours.” 

“Yes, I suppose I could have let it take Toby, but I didn’t think you had any brothers left to spare.”  Sarah winced again.  “Perhaps I need not be so generous next time.”  And mate.

Green eyes met blue then looked away, silence stretched and then finally, “Thank you.”  Quietly spoken, more than a touch begrudgingly, and it was unclear who was more surprised by it.

Jareth’s lips parted then closed.  He inclined his head.

“Even if I don’t trust your motives.  And I don’t,” she added quickly.

The Goblin King smiled.

Though the unsettling notion of being watched remained, the forest returned to its preternatural silence.  The fractured light from the canopy above slowly began to dim.  Coupled with the weariness of limbs it was the only indication that time had passed at all.  The trees continued, unending, in all directions – terrible and beautiful at the same time. It was impossible to mark how far they’d come and there was no indication how far they had left.   With the dying light, the temperature had begun to cool as well, and Sarah could feel a chill settle in her bones.  The strange thrum of the forest had deepened too.  It was pervasive and unsettling.  As though things were only now coming alive. 

It was harder going too.  The gnarled roots caught at their feet and clothing like great spindly fingers.  The path ahead was losing to the dark.  Sarah pulled a small flashlight from her pack.  It flared to life, flickered and died immediately, though she had been sure to replace the batteries before packing it.   Without glancing back, Jareth twisted his fingers and half a dozen crystals appeared overheard.  Light filled from within and then spilled over, casting a silvery glow beneath.   Toby mouthed a ‘wow’.   They were ethereal and other worldly and the magic held a warm familiarity.  Sarah thought them beautiful, and strangely comforting, though she wouldn’t admit it aloud.  They held the dark at bay.

An hour further and Toby, looking peaked, no longer plied the Goblin King with any more questions.  The only sound that crossed his lips was the occasional whimper.   Sarah shared his pain, and so they sported matching expressions of relief when they finally drew to a halt in a small, circular clearing, surrounding by tall rough-hewn rock.

 “You will rest here for the night.”

Sarah gaped in disbelief.  “For the night? But we have to keep going!”  She glanced at Toby and spoke lowly.  “Max is all alone.”

But he wasn’t.  And that was her real, unspoken fear.

“Your dedication is… as singular as ever, but no.  You will rest.  The boy is ready to collapse and you are not far behind him.  You’ll both be quite useless to me tomorrow without sleep.  You in particular had little last night.”  He didn’t bother to sound remorseful.

Sarah was on the point of protesting further, but Toby sank to the ground with an audible groan.  He hadn’t complained once in the last few hours.  Chewing her lip, Sarah let her pack fall beside him.  He pulled it towards him wordlessly and laid his head on it. 

Palming a pack of matches from her pocket, Sarah began to collect what wood she could find on the forest floor. 

Jareth watched her for a moment.  “Don’t.”

“We need heat.”

Before she could strike a match, Jareth stopped her hands.  “These trees do not take kindly to flame.” A wave of his fingers and there was a good-sized fire a few feet from her attempt, seemingly burning from nothing. 

She didn’t thank him, but she warmed her hands nonetheless. 

Toby scooted closer, still resting his head on Sarah’s bag.  Sarah replaced the bag with her thigh and pulled another water bottle out.  When she glanced above them she almost dropped it.

Stars.  More stars than she’d ever seen.  She was so used to the woven canopy of black wood and red leaf; she hadn’t been prepared for the burst of clear sky over the enclosure.  Every shade of indigo and midnight hue swirled together like an artist’s palette.  It was exquisite and she motioned to Toby to look up as well. 

“Best camping trip ever,” he breathed.

For a long moment they just took it in and then pointed out the constellations they knew, enjoying the spark of familiarity.  So many of them.  Too many for the time of year, as though all seasons had converged and the skies had been drawn together towards one point. 

Sarah eventually dug some trail mix out after and opened the pack in front of Toby.

Toby’s hand rose, hesitated and then fell.  “Max must be hungry by now.  He eats all the time at home.  The little porker…”  He trailed off.  Sarah could feel the tension in his body. 

“I-I’m sure he’s fine, kiddo.  Magic… and all that,” she finished lamely.  She looked to Jareth but he offered no words of comfort or condemnation.  “Just eat.  You need to eat something,” she finished helplessly.

“If I need to eat so does he.”  But he ate a handful sideways and then started coughing.  Sarah pressed the bottle of water into his hand.

Toby pushed the bag away.  “Did you bring marshmallows?”

A half-smile and ruffled hair.  “’Fraid not.”

“Worst camping trip ever.”  Some levity had returned to his voice.

Jareth had been watching them from beneath hooded lids.  He’d taken a seat against a large rock, his long legs stretched before him and crossed at the ankles.  He should have looked out of place, but instead he looked entirely in his element.  And far too pristine, Sarah thought jealously.  She looked away, irritated by the uncomfortable sensation of cooled sweat across skin, dirt, and fly away hairs stuck to her face.  She felt hungry, tired and, uncertain.

“I would have brought more stuff had I known this would be… more than a day?”  It ended on a question she knew would not be answered.  She prodded the uneven ground.  “Like a sleeping bag for one.”

Mismatched eyes through flame. “I can make you more comfortable if you wish.” 

She snorted softly.  “Oh, and what would it cost me?”

“Your gratitude?” He mocked.  “Your pride?”

Love me.  Fear me.  And I will be your slave.

“Everything has a price.”

“And what’s yours?”

She stilled at the quiet question, the bottle of water half way to her lips.  She swallowed dryly.

“It’s not one of those.” His lips twitched at the look on her face. 

Sarah felt her shoulders relax and she took a larger sip of water.  Afraid she didn’t have an answer.  More afraid she did.

“I was not lying when I said I would provide whatever you need.  And I’d ask nothing in return.” He added with the same cool amusement.   “You don’t have to suffer.  The boy doesn’t either.”

“We’re fine.” A firm answer but she eyed her bag.  For now. 

“Why deny the boy because you’re afraid?”

“I’m not afraid.”  They both knew it was a lie. 

His smile deepened.  “I know your fear, Sarah.  You ate my offering before and… you were allowed to leave in the end.”

She frowned at his wording.  “And it was rotten.  I beat you.”

The flames crackled and hissed and then quieted again.

“Doesn’t matter.”  Sarah stroked her fingers through her brother’s hair. “He hasn’t and I plan to keep it that way.”

“Hasn’t he?”  

Fingers stopped.  “What did you say?”

“Thirteen hours is a long time for a babe to go without mother’s milk.” At Sarah’s panicked look, he added, “The boy hears nothing.”

“Toby?”  Sarah poked gently.  Nothing, save the even rise and fall of his chest.  “Did you do something to him?”

“Yes, I made him walk all day,” Jareth replied dryly.  “The boy fell asleep all by himself.  As he does nightly no doubt.   But he will not wake from that deep sleep until morning.”

“Don’t…”

“Don’t what?  Ensure he gets the rest his very mortal little body needs?  Come, come, Sarah.  That’s cruel.  Even for you.”

Sarah’s hands clenched.  “Do you plan to do the same thing to me?”

Jareth said nothing.

“Well don’t.”  Sarah pulled a blanket around Toby.  She transferred his head back to her bag and rubbed her now numb thigh. 

Despite the warm fire, she could still feel the tendrils of the cold dark all around them.  Her body was shot, but her imagination was still roaring, clawing at the edges her conscious.  “I don’t think I could sleep anyway.”

 “Nothing will harm you here.”

“Because you’re more terrifying?”

“Likely.  But also because this is… hallowed ground.  See those stones?”  Sarah eyed the large rocks that surrounded them.  “They are known as the Watchers.  None who wish harm to those in their circle may cross them.”

Sarah examined the jagged black rocks in the dim light.  They almost looked like cairn stones and she half imagined they had faint faces.  She caught eyes pointedly.  “And what if that wishes us harm is already within the circle?”

“If you are planning to try and kill me in my sleep, then I suggest you make the first blow count,” he offered wryly, and Sarah couldn’t help a snort of laughter.

“No, but really,” she challenged again.  “What then?”

Eyes blazed in the dark.  “Why then it would already be too late.”

Sarah looked away.  She sipped her water and ate another handful of mix before closing the bag – not feeling particularly hungry.

“I hadn’t thought of Max… needing to eat.”  Guilt tinged her tone and she reasoned that sheer exhaustion had made her desperate enough to confess her sins to the devil.  He offered no absolution.

With no other words spoken, Sarah stretched out behind Toby, using his pack and a shirt as a pillow and closed her eyes.  She opened them a moment later.  Though she could no longer see the Goblin King, she could feel his eyes on her.

“Will you sleep too?” And then another thought. “Do you even sleep?”

More amusement.  “I sleep.  But not tonight.”

She nodded and closed her eyes, strangely comforted.   Eyes opened again.  “You aren’t just going to sit there and watch me all night are you?”

“Why, would you prefer I do something to you instead?” His tone was teasing, but Sarah’s skin prickled to awareness at the underlying current. 

She ignored the bait and was on the point of falling asleep when he spoke again. 

“Why have you not told the boy what happened 10 years ago?”

Her eyes shot open and she raised herself on her arm enough that she could see him in the dark.  They stared across the flames - two faces half in shadow. 

“I’m tired,” she said finally and lay back down.

“Answer the question, Sarah.”   Or end it now was writ between.

Sarah pressed a hand to her forehead and then sat up angrily.  “Why?  Why waste a question on something so trivial?”

“Why not answer something so trivial?”  He’d slung an arm across a propped knee.  Gloved fingers flexed.  “Besides, I rather thought you were too tired for my other questions tonight.” 

Sarah frowned, looked away, and then ran a hand through her hair.  “I don’t know,” she said finally.  “I never spoke to anyone about it.”  A weak laugh.  “I’d half convinced myself it didn’t happen.” 

Jareth said nothing.

“But it did, didn’t it?”  Quieter now.  “All of it.  Toby was just a baby.  I decided he wouldn’t remember and if I could forget, why should he need to know at all.  Know that his foolish sister wished him away.  Selfish sister.”  She amended, refusing to look at him.

Still he said nothing. 

Her nerves felt raw and guilt and anger vied for control.  She suddenly hated the smug look she imagined on his face. 

“Wished him away to someone far worse than I ever was!”  Sarah lay down again, her back to the fire this time.  “Then she won him back and tore the whole kingdom down.  It was her story to keep or share.  To the victor goes the spoils,” she said quietly. “The end.” Only it wasn’t. And they both knew it. 

She waited for his snide retort.  None came. 

Sarah sniffed, “You won’t tell him, will you?”

“I won’t have to.”  He said finally; neither threat nor promise. 

Sarah stared up at the night sky.

I move the stars for no one…

Sarah wanted to tear them all down.

When her eyes opened again, it was even darker than before.  Too dark.  She shivered uncomfortably.  The fog of sleep gave way to unease when she realized the fire was out.  Unease to panic when she realized she was alone.

She sprang to her feet.  “No, no, no, no! Damnit!” 

A thousand possibilities bottlenecked in her mind and rendered her useless.  She spun helplessly.  “Toby!”  The woods swallowed the sound almost as soon as it left her lips.  She turned around and called again.  Nothing. 

Sarah’s heart skipped when something snapped in the darkness.  Her breath misted.  “Toby?”

She was half afraid something would answer. 

And then light.  Faint at first. Moving slowly between the trees. White.  Floating.  Flickering.  Jareth’s crystals.

A sigh of relief.  Then panic again as they moved further away.  “Wait!”

She hurried towards them only to snag her jacket on one of the standing stones.  Tugging at it wildly, Sarah screamed when the rock began to move.

 “Hush now, tiny mortal,” rumbled a deep, gravelly voice as though the earth itself was moved to speak.

“Yes, hush girl, else we decide to break our long fast,” came another voice, as deep as the one before. 

Even in the darkness, Sarah could see that the black cairn stones were not volcanic ash, but great sitting giants made of rock.  The one nearest her held the leather of her jacket between two thick fingers.  Sarah dropped her hands. 

“It has been ages since I ate a sweet tender man,” said another, sounding wistful.

“This one’s a girl.”

“Same difference, stupid.”

One sighed deeply.  “I don’t even remember the taste.”

“Like chicken, I think.”

“No, that’s chicken, idiot.”

“How ‘bout we compare.”

The sound of rocks heaving forward.  “Girl, you haven’t got a chicken with you by any chance?”

Sarah pulled wildly at her coat.

“Calm child, we do not take flesh anymore,” rumbled the one holding her.  “Not since ours turned to stone.  Not since our first sun.”

“But we could grind her bones just for fun,” suggested another hopefully.

 “Enough.  We watch; we do not eat.”

“Not fair,” grumbled the third. “It’s been such a long time.”

Sarah was strangely reminded of the false alarms in the tunnels beneath the Labyrinth.  The thought was fleeting; the orbs were almost out of sight.

“I don’t have time for this! I have to go!  They’re leaving!”

The stone giant did not let go.  “Stay within our circle, girl.  We are the Watchers.   It is not safe in the woods tonight.”

Sarah struggled in earnest now, feeling the jacket begin to tear.  “Let me go!”

The stone fingers immediately parted and Sarah tumbled to the ground just outside of the circle. 

“Foolish child.”

“Come back,” called one.  But Sarah was already on her feet and running through the wood.

“Too late. Too late.”

“He will be mad.”

“Pity about the girl.” 

And then they spoke no more.

The roots, which had been a nuisance during the day, were lethal in the dark.  Sarah fell half a dozen times, her shins bruising and clothing tearing.

 “Toby! Wait damnit! Answer me!”  But no matter how fast she ran, she could not reach the light.  They moved too fast and too far until she’d lost all sense of direction.  

And then they flickered out altogether. 

Alone in the blackness.  She could no longer see anything at all.

“Toby?” she breathed.

Something shifted and creaked, like old wood rending and snapping, and then the lights appeared again. Far to her right.  Sarah made for them blindly.  In the back of her mind, buried beneath the fear and panic, was a keen, confused disappointment.  He’d taken Toby.

And left her.  

‘Don’t believe everything you read in a book…’

Lies bound in red.

And out they went again. 

Then a flicker to her left.  Farther away still. 

“What game is this?” she hissed, fear creeping up her spine to further fuel her anger.   “Please!”  It was half command, half supplication.

The light flickered out again.

It was cold.  So very cold.

“Stop this right now!”

Silence and then a thunder so loud she flung her hands to her ears.  It sounded like the great trees were falling all around her.

Lights flickered to life less than ten feet before her.  Relief sizzled to the surface and then boiled away.  They were not crystals at all. 

Strange, stark flames. 

They seemed to both burned and freeze with a too bright light. Sarah began to shiver uncontrollably.

And then they burned a path directly for her. 

Sarah scrambled backwards, caught her ankle on a limb and fell hard on her back, the wind knocking from her lungs.  Her hair, spread around her in a wave, snagged in the roots and held fast, pinning her to the ground. The strange fire coalesced and then split into a ring around her.  The ring parted and a figure cloaked in shadow entered and tilted its head, considering.  Sarah could feel a sort of cold amusement.  And beneath that a hungry triumph.  The figure reached for her, long fingers enclosing around her wrist. Searing pain blossomed.   The other hand slid towards her neck, but as it brushed back the collar of her shirt, it released her suddenly.  The sound inhuman fury shocked Sarah’s burning lungs into filling with relief. 

“No!”  Only a croak.  But gloved hands gripped her and hauled her to her feet effortlessly.

“Why did you leave the circle!” The Goblin King hissed, his face a mix of anger and something else altogether.

Sarah stared at him wild-eyed, and then around her.

Trees.  Just trees.

It was still the dead of night but the pervasive dark had returned to the deep cover of night.  

Jareth shook her roughly; his jaw hard set. 

Sarah pushed at his hands, but his grip was implacable.  “I-I was following you!” she finally managed.  “I woke up and you were gone.  All gone! And then I saw your lights… but they weren’t yours – they weren’t lights at all!  Why did you leave?”  Sarah pushed against his hands again.  “And you took Toby!”  Her voice rose in accusation.

“We never left.” 

“We didn’t!”  Toby’s small voice cut in.  Sarah looked down at him, until then unnoticed.  His face was white.  Worry and fear were etched into his features and only now beginning to fade.  She looked back to Jareth and he nodded.

“He-he woke me up because you were missing.”  Toby looked between them and then shuddered.  “He was so angry! And he,” Toby lowered his voice conspiratorially, “even y-yelled at the rocks.  Then we went looking for you, but we couldn’t find you.”

“That’s impossible…”

“And yet here we are.” Jareth’s voice was even now, but his eyes were still too focused. 

“I don’t understand.” Sarah pressed a hand to her forehead. “Was I dreaming?”

But the evidence was now before her face.  Bruises encircled her wrist like a brand.  Her clothes were ruined as well; her shirt in tatters.  Sarah pulled her ruined jacked tighter.

Jareth’s hands still gripped her and when she met his eyes again, she got the wild idea he was about to draw her into his arms.  His fingers flexed on her shoulders.  And then Toby tugged against her waist in a sloppy hug and nothing more was said.  Without releasing her completely, Jareth made way for the boy.  After a moment, he slid one hand down to her lower back to lead her back to the clearing.  She was still so cold and his hand was so very warm, even through the layers.  With his other he directed Toby and they walked in silence back to the circle. Sarah was surprised to see how far she’d apparently gone. The fire was still burning and the rocks were nothing more than rock… unless perhaps you turned your head a little that way.    

Sarah almost wanted to protest when Jareth finally let he go.  His hand lingered for a touch too long, fingers curling against her spine, and then moved away completely.  Sarah moved closer to the fire and splayed her hands.  She lightly traced the marks on her wrist and then pulled her torn sleeve over them.  She’d deal with her clothes tomorrow.  Adrenaline had given way to exhaustion.  She felt a blanket fall about her shoulders.  Toby smiled at her crookedly.  She tugged him down with her to the ground so she could tuck the blanket around them both. 

Jareth returned to his spot by the fire.  He still looked far too pristine, but there was now a trace of weariness about his eyes, as though he too was spent.  Toby had already begun to snore softly and his body had gone limp.  Sarah carefully manoeuvered them so they were both lying down, close to the fire.  The flames were so different than those in the dark.

She shuddered.  “Will it happen again?” Please don’t let it.

“Not tonight.  Sleep.”  I won’t.

And whether by her body’s bidding or his, she felt the first waves of sleep begin to draw her under.  This time she didn’t protest.  The last thing she remembered was a flash of white wing.

From the trees above, a lone owl kept watch through the night; its hunter’s eyes trained on something in the deep dark. 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

'Cause they will run you down,
Down til the dark
Yes they will run you down,
Down til you fall
And way down we go…

Way Down We Go, Kaleo 


Sarah and Toby slept on. Jareth had not once closed his eyes through the night and though he had not needed it, he could feel a weariness begin to lick at his bones. It was to be expected; price to be paid and all that. Still. The night had afforded him time to reflect.

And to watch.

She looked rather peaceful in sleep. Almost innocent. And he could see the pale shadow of the girl she'd once been, beneath the woman she'd become. He supposed that she might look like that every morning. And every morning after. It roused thoughts that were… complicated. Conflicting.

Denied for ten years, he savoured the opportunity. Her mouth was slack and her darkly fringed lids were still; he knew she did not dream. Another unasked for gift that would receive neither recognition nor thanks. He'd surprised himself with his generosity and for a moment wondered if he was softening. He shook the vile thought away.

He glanced over at the boy – more endearing than he'd expected - and then back to Sarah. He'd thought that she'd wanted him to draw her into his arms last night. Her face had been quite unusually open. But his rage had been too potent and he hadn't trusted himself to be kind. Or moreover not to do more than hold her. Push her and the Sarah he knew would run. It didn't matter that there was nowhere left to go, he much preferred when she stood and fought.

A rueful smile then.

Truthfully, he'd enjoy the chase too.


When next Sarah woke the stars were gone and for a wild, sleep addled moment, she wondered if she succeeded in tearing them all down. The sky was too bright thought and she was too warm. The light was once again that strange molten gold and it took a minute to process where she was and whom she was with and where they lay.

It was morning - still early - she guessed. Despite sleeping on the hard ground she didn't feel stiff at all, and though the fire was gone, she was cocooned by the most delicious warmth. The desire to just fall back asleep tugged at her until something furry tickled her face and made her shoot upwards. Her limbs were bound, and she panicked until she realized it was only some type of covering. She disentangled herself and shook it off. It was a fur-lined cloak. The cloth was thick and rich and made of a deep moss green finely embroidered with silver knot work. The fur was a dark ivory with even darker wisps of sable speckling it like an egg. She brushed it hesitantly and then curled her fingers into the plush. Softer than silk and warmer than sunlight. She snatched her hand back when she felt eyes upon her.

"I assure you it's quite dead," he offered dryly. "It won't bite."

There was no denying where it had come from. Wordlessly she folded it tidily and set it away from her. Perhaps her hand lingered first. Toby was still softly dozing, so Sarah rose to wake him, but sank back down when her ankle screamed in protest. With the pain came the belated remembrance of the lights in the dark. The marks on her wrist had faded but were still visible. Cold fire burning. Hands reaching for her neck. She touched her collarbone and her finger brushed something metal. She fingered the chain from the necklace she'd forgotten she wore. The token the professor had given her. She was on the point of pulling it free to examine it, but felt his eyes tracking her movement. She let it fall back down.

With some effort she stood and found as long as she avoided putting pressure on her foot she could move without pain. Sarah tested that threshold experimentally.

After several beats he sighed. "Let me see it."

"It's fine."

"A lie."

She flashed defiance. "I'll be fine."

"And another one. You layer them rather like cake."

Rustling alerted Sarah to the fact that Toby had awoken. He blinked at them with bleary eyes and sleep tousled hair. "Cake? Oh, what's wrong?"

"Your sister is hurt and far too stubborn to admit it."

Toby looked to Sarah questioningly.

"It's nothing, kiddo. Really. Just my ankle is a bit… stiff this morning."

Toby looked back to Jareth. "But you can fix her, right?"

"That is the question."

"Very funny." Sarah collected her bag and took a shuffling step towards the trees. "Time is wasting."

"Come, come, Sarah. You cannot walk for any length in your condition. You'll be quite useless to us before long." He pretended to assess her. "And while I could carry you," Sarah bristled, "I suspect you'd object to that arrangement too."

"Sarah," Toby urged. "We need you. Max needs you."

Game. Point. Match.

Sarah glanced between the earnest expression and the smug one and then huffed over to a rock, trying hard not to think about their exchange the night before. She extended her injured foot and began to remove her boot. She winced as she pulled it free and again more sharply when she removed the sock.

Her ankle was red and swollen and though she knew it wasn't broken, it was probably a decent strain.

Jareth gracefully crouched at her feet. The leather of his gloves was cool and velvety soft against her skin when he finally touched her gently. He slowly pulled her pant leg back, one hand cradling her heel, the other sliding up her calve. Sarah felt her breath hitch and she fidgeted to cover it, watching him with owlish eyes.

He tsk'd lightly, but enough that she felt his breath ghost against her leg.

"It's really not necessary."

His long fingers drew patterns on her skin. "The stoic martyr never did suit you."

"Neither did the damsel in distress."

The fingers stilled and then moved again. "No. Not that either," he agreed, catching her eyes.

"Do you always wear gloves?" Sarah blinked at Toby's sudden intrusion. He peered over Jareth's shoulder.

Jareth's lips merely twitched. "Always. Don't you like them?" He curled his thin fingers around Sarah's ankle, his thumb rubbing a pattern against her bone.

Toby nodded. "They look pretty badass."

"Toby!" and "We'll have to get you a pair then" collided in midair.

"Wait, what about when you pee?" Sarah choked back laughter at Toby's bluntness, even as the Goblin King's shoulders stiffened.

"What? Oh! Maybe you don't pee. Sarah said you weren't human. But I've seen you eat, so-"

"Suffice it to say," Jareth cut him off midstream, "there are some things that should remain mysteries. But yes, I've been known to remove should I really want to touch something. There." He released her foot, though his fingers still idly traced patterns on her skin.

Sarah looked down, the ankle no longer red, and flexed it experimentally – trying very hard not to think about Jareth taking his gloves off. Perhaps slowly…

"So do you-"

"Enough questions, Toby!" Sarah's words cut sharply. "We need to keep moving, right?" She quickly pulled her sock and boot back on. When she stood, she added a quiet, "Thank you."

The Goblin King rose too, still standing a shade too close. "I did warn you about midnight walks." He fingered her torn shirt. Sarah glanced down. Her jeans were ripped in several places but her shirt was in the worst shape. Buttons were missing, revealing a slash of stomach and a fair of amount of everything else.

Sarah swatted his hand away and picked up her bag protectively. "I'll be right back, Toby. I assume I can leave him here safely?"

"Or I could save you the trouble."

"I think I can manage to dress myself," she replied stiffly, her mind flickering for a moment to a silvery ball gown. Moving towards the cover of trees she hesitated and then snatched up the folded cloak too, muttering something about showers.

Toby watched her retreat and then turned back to Jareth with surprising shrewdness. "You like my sister."

The Goblin King's lips curled. "Like is perhaps not the word." But he inclined his head, inviting the boy to continue.

A nod. "Thought so… I like her too," he paused, "but why do you like her?"

"That is a long story; one that is far too complicated for right now. And parts of it aren't for young ears."

A belated look of comprehension crossed his face. "Gross!"

Jareth's lips twitched again. "Does it bother you that I 'like' her?"

"I dunno…" And then a fierce look suffused Toby's face. "But you should know that she's mine. She was mine first. Before," the ferocity bled to guilt, "Max. And before you."

"Is that so?" Amusement laced his tone. "I admire your conviction. However, Sarah is under the impression that she is her own. I very much plan to disabuse her of that. Perhaps you'd like to be of assistance?"

Toby mulled the king's offer. Adults often dismissed him or at best deflected. Even Sarah. Rarely were they honest. Jareth had not told him it was none of his business. That mattered, Toby found. A lot.

"I don't think Sarah would like it if I helped you behind her back. She doesn't…er, trust you."

"And do you?"

Toby fidgeted. His child-bred desire to be blunt warred with the manners his parents had carefully cultivated. "I… I don't know." He wanted to and Jareth could see that. Use that.

"Wise boy. But you like me." It was not a question.

Toby nodded honestly.

Jareth ruffled his hair until the blond locks, a bit in need of a cut, splayed wildly. "We're old friends you and I."

Toby smiled though it faltered into a frown for a moment. "How old are you?"

A blue eye glinted. "Older than you think."

"Oh. Karen – I mean mom - calls older men who chase younger women cradle robbers."

Laughter echoed in the silent woods. "Oh my boy, you have no idea."


Once Sarah felt she'd gone a reasonable distance and assured she was alone, she removed her jacket and replaced it with the cloak. It was voluminous enough that she could remove all of her clothes beneath the cover of its folds. It felt a bit ridiculous and juvenile - like a shy teen in gym class – but getting undressed in a preternatural forest was a novel experience.

Her movements were quick and perfunctory, but the repeated sensation of fur brushing against her bare skin had it prickling to awareness. She stilled, her ruined clothing at her feet and the fresh ones in her hands. The silky strands teased her breasts like finger tips dancing across them. Tracing patterns. The thought sent a shiver through her core and it settled between her thighs with an unexpected throb.

It was ridiculous to feel anything close to it, given the timing. If anything she was entirely vulnerable. Exposed. Instead she felt bold. Powerful even, like some sort of woodland witch.

Or a queen, whispered an insidious voice.

Cloaked in fur and magic.

Before she'd registered her intention, she'd dropped her clothes and cupped her breasts beneath the cloak, sliding her thumbs across her nipples. Yes, powerful. Another answering throb between her thighs.

She was like Freya. Gods would fall at her feet. It was a giddy, almost intoxicating thought.

She'd once volunteered as a nude model for a friend's art class in her first year of university. It seemed like the sort of thing a free-thinking and confident woman would do at her liberal college. It was something her beautiful Bohemian mother would have done. She had certainly done edgy "artistic" nude spreads for magazines in Europe. Her prudish father had tried to keep them from her, but she'd found out about them soon enough at school. Guys had wondered aloud if she looked as good naked. Some had asked. It stopped bothering her eventually and she stopped thinking about it.

Years later when she'd arrived at the art class, she'd been ready to drop the robe and be as confident and beautiful. And then her hands had frozen. On the wall was a framed black and white photograph of that very mother, naked and draped across Jeremy's lap in a pose that was both provocative and vulnerable. The expectant faces in the room blurred. They would laugh. She could already hear it in her head. Laughter at her naivety. And suddenly she was in the ballroom again and just as out of place. Sarah had croaked out an incoherent apology and fled.

But her hands weren't frozen now and she found the memory no longer had any bite. She was punch-drunk or sleep addled or perhaps it had been too long. She had most certainly lost her mind.

It didn't matter.

She allowed the fur to brush over more of her; imagined letting the cloak fall open as she did. Her hands trailed down her stomach. Perhaps they were not her hands at all and perhaps, just for a moment, they would ease…

A twig snapped behind her.

The sound cut through the haze immediately. Sarah snatched her hand away and clutched the cloak closed reflexively. She turned carefully, willing her face to cool.

Jareth watched her silently.

"It's rude to sneak up on someone." They both knew he'd snapped the twig intentionally.

"I was rather doing my best not to startle you." He took a step towards her. "But you were taking so long." Keeping her eyes on his face, Sarah tried to subtlety toe her clothes under the cloak. Hoping he hadn't noticed. Another step closer and his boot came to rest on her jeans. "I thought perhaps you needed my assistance after all."

"I'm fine." Her voice was a little too high to be believable, even to her own ears. "I just need another minute."

"Are you certain?" He idly fingered the fur trimming. "I think you look rather perfect. The colour is the same shade as your eyes."

His knee dipped forward, just brushing the part in her cloak. If she wasn't clutching it closed, it would have fallen open. For a brazen moment she considered letting it, if only to shock him. He always seemed to have the upper hand and he always expected her retreat. She shook the insane thought away. Focus, Sarah.

"You're not thinking about my eyes right now."

"Neither are you," he countered.

Her bravado fled and Sarah craned backwards. "I. need. a. minute. "

Jareth merely stared at her, his hand still hovering on the fur. Finally he stepped away. "A minute. This time."

Cursing her complete lapse in judgment, she dressed and balled the cloak under her arm roughly before returning to the clearing.

Toby glanced up when she emerged between the stones and then back to Jareth. She missed the look of understanding that passed between them. Discarding the lovely cloak on the ground, she repacked her bag.


They had not left the cairn stones long behind before Sarah began to hear what sounded like drizzle. A few moments later she felt the first cool drops of moisture against her skin. It had been more than a day since she'd properly bathed and it was fine enough to just be refreshing. She turned her face into it.

Toby gasped.

Sarah's eyes widened as rivulets of crimson slid down his shocked face. She wiped her own. Her hands came away red.

The forest was bleeding.

The red rained down from above as though the leaves were shedding their colour like paint from a canvas. When a droplet met her tongue, she wiped at her mouth, half expecting the distinctive metallic tang of blood.

Instead sweetness.

Like that of too ripe fruit. She finished scrubbing her mouth and looked to Jareth questioningly. He was completely unmarked. Aggravatingly so.

"Harmless."

Sarah frowned, naturally disbelieving, and shook her arms out like an angry, freshly bathed cat.

"Consider it the forest's morning ritual. A daily rebirth as it were."

Toby, who'd just been through health class and had heard too much about his brother's delivery, screwed his face up in disgust.

But just as soon as it had started the light rain slowed and then stopped altogether. The beads of red that clung to forest floor of tangled black roots soaked into the thirsty wood.

"How easy for you to say when you don't look like a horror movie," seethed Sarah, as she wrung out her hair.

In the next breath, she could feel it seep into her skin too, as though leeched by her very bones. A strange soothing sensation hummed through her veins and with it the unmistakable tingle of magic. Her nerves were dancing. She exchanged a panicked look with Toby and then viciously clawed at her skin as though she could excise it.

"Curious," Jareth remarked and he gingerly lifted a few strands of her now dry hair, letting them slide through his fingers. "I had wondered what it would do to mortals."

Sarah mouthed bastard and slapped his hand away. He held on just long enough for it to sting. "You said you wanted a shower."

She mouthed it again but Jareth was already walking on. Toby tugged her behind, still scratching at his own skin.

They walked for another hour or so and apart from the morning's surprise it was beginning to look like it would be another day of endless trees. Sarah never thought there could be anything as infuriating as the Labyrinth with its entire disregard for order and rule, but she was mistaken. At least with the Labyrinth she'd felt as though it was a series of tests with decisions to be made. Right and wrong. Left or right. In the woods she was blindly following. Even Toby had given up his ill-conceived attempt at playing I Spy. Is it tree? Yes. Is it a tree? Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

She picked at her tingling skin again.

Toby, catching her expression, caught her hand and said in a mock-scared voice, "Sarah, what about the R.O.U.S.s?"

After a beat Sarah straightened and scoffed,"Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist."

On cue Toby pretended to attack her, snarling with all the ferocity of a thoroughly bored and imaginative ten year old.

Sarah squealed as she tried to keep walking and hold the 'rat' at arm's length. She caught Jareth's raised brows eyes above Toby's head and sobered. "It's from a movie."

"A great movie," Toby amended.

"Yes. Your brother has told me of your penchant for fantasy."

Sarah shot Toby an accusing glance. He shrugged in response.

"Lots of people like them."

"Full of damsels in distress rescued by shining, noble heroes?"

Catching the mockery in his tone, Sarah bristled. "Sure that's one type of story. Not all of them though. There are plenty where the heroine saves the day. I can deconstruct the tropes for you if you like, list all the clichés, wax poetic about the hero's journey, but basically it's entertainment. Some better than others. At most a well-crafted story and at least just an escape from reality."

"The reality you are so desperate to return to?" he countered wryly.

Recognizing they were treading into dangerous territory she ignored the question.

"Sarah usually finds the heroes boring. She likes the villains," Toby supplied helpfully.

At his sister's look he immediately held up his hands. "Get back, witch!"

Sarah's lips twitched. "I'm not a witch, I'm your sister!"

Toby sighed, "So much worse. I think I'd rather deal with an R.O.U.S."

As though on cue something moved in the forest undergrowth. A flash of russet tail and the skittering sound of claws scraping on wood, before whatever it was disappeared high into the trees.

"Ah!" screamed Toby, practically jumping onto Jareth. "I take it back! I take it back!"

"Be still, boy." The Goblin King shook him off with only mild irritation. "If it wanted to eat you it would have done so already."

Toby swallowed. "So what did it want?"

"Not everything is about you. Despite what your sister may have led you to believe. This forest keeps its own council. Long before you and long after."

Toby nodded, not fully understanding but feeling properly chastised.

Sarah swallowed shakily, her own hand against the pounding of her heart. She squeezed Toby reassuringly.

"Perhaps if you explained anything, he wouldn't be so scared." We wouldn't be so scared.

"Or perhaps he'd be more." There was no laughter in his voice this time.

They resumed walking. Without breaking pace Sarah opened her bag and dug out her papers. She glanced at the remaining food and water, somehow less than she expected, but didn't feel any inclination to eat. She idly wondered if Toby had eaten anything for breakfast even as began scanning the notes.

"Do you think you'll find the way to your brother in there?"

"I think it's the only way I might get any answers," Sarah offered pointedly.

"What little faith you have in me, Sarah."

"If by little you mean none, then yes."

"How you wound, you cruel thing."

She caught his eye. "If only I had that power."

"If only you weren't so blind."

Something in his voice made her conviction waver.

The forest followed suit. Everything shifted and reset itself, like an image going out of focus and then clearing. The sensation was unsettling and both Toby and Sarah felt their legs momentarily give out. Jareth looked unaffected save for a slight exhalation of what might have been discomfort.

Sarah put a steadying hand on a gnarled root and then snatched it back when the tree moved.

No… slithered.

And then uncoiled, untangling itself from within the knots.

The forest floor undulated and rippled, while roots snapped and re-wove, until a great serpent like creature rose before them. Its large gleaming scales were as black as the midnight wood in which it was entangled. Its angular head was fringed with long dark wisps, as jagged and furled as the roots. They splayed like a lion's mane. Above its sharply defined snout, lambent eyes - iridescent and reflective as a prism - considered them unblinking from a great height. Within their depths crimson flames flickered to life and when its great jaw parted, heat washed over Sarah's face, bringing with it the cloying smell of ash. Of fire.

Sarah's stomach roiled even as it spoke.

"Who disturbs my sleep?" The voice was deep and low, and thrummed not unlike the wood in which it was tangled. "Who stinks of rot?"

Sarah took a cautionary step backwards; Toby, clinging ghost white against her leg, followed. Here be the dragons, she breathed. Terrible and beautiful. The great Wyrm of all good sagas and she without a sword.

Something landed heavily down behind her and she saw that its great body stretched farther and longer than even she'd imagined. It had coiled around the surrounding trees, leaving no way forward or back.

Sarah and Toby edged towards Jareth.

The serpent tracked them. "Ah, so the King of Goblins crosses the threshold. Did it singe its white feathers?"

Toby fidgeted then and the eyes trained back to him like the viper it resembled. "And here's the rot. You bring me dead food?"

Dead? Sarah mouthed, even as it occurred to her 'food' was of more pressing concern.

The Wyrm weaved and bobbed like a clock's pendulum. "Dead now or dying later. Makes no matter. It is the same."

Toby squeaked nervously, "But we aren't dying." Then a desperate whisper to Jareth, "Are we?"

It weaved again, steady and hypnotic. "You are mortals. You've been dying since the moment you were born." Toby's brow furrowed, but it directed its attention back to the Goblin King and voiced its displeasure. "I do not eat dead things."

"Then it's a good thing I did not bring them here to be eaten." The familiar wryness in his tone comforted Sarah and she calmed slightly. "Though you were not always so discerning, were you."

The Wyrm hissed, expelling a noxious cloud of ash. "My palate has refined, unlike yours it seems. If not for judgement then why dare bring them, king of low? What good are they but for eating or swiving?" It considered the pair again. "I did not think your taste ran to boys. Do you plan to fuck the one and eat the other?"

Toby's eyes widened at the crassness, now understanding swiving, even as Sarah's hands clamped over his ears. Jareth snorted indelicately.

"We've come to get my brother back," Sarah supplied with a measure of both fear and awe.

The serpent seemed to vibrate and it took a moment for her to realize it was laughing. That it had been laughing for a while.

"I ate my brothers before they hatched. Much simpler. But if that is your foolish quest, girl, so be it. It is surely not his."

Jareth met her eyes but offered neither confirmation nor denial. Sarah's hands curled reflexively. Helplessly.

"I'm well aware… but then perhaps you'll help me, oh great…dra…wy… one."

The Wyrm cocked his head, its fringe furling, and Sarah got the impression it was waiting for more.

At a loss, she awkwardly dropped her to knees.

For a beat the three stared at her incredulously.

"Is she… is she serious?" The serpent asked Jareth finally.

"Seriously asking for your assistance?" A thin brow arched. "It would appear so."

The great Wyrm vibrated again. "Oh no," it protested. "I have no dealings with mortals anymore. I offered but a measly fruit to a mortal once and was smeared for it for ever after. Didn't really even offer it. Tempted? Bah!" He scoffed. "Try just suggesting the stupid, starving thing should bloody feed itself. A mercy really and what did I get in return? Millennia of bad press." It considered Sarah. "Though you wear a good deal more clothes these days, I'd imagine you're just as useless. Nay, I will not make that mistake again. I gnaw on wood not bones. So good day to you."

Sarah, who'd been rising in embarrassment, sank back down heavily and stared up incredulously. "You mean you're… and…"

Jareth didn't bother to hide his amusement. "I told you mortals never get it right."

The great head bobbed in agreement. "I was innocently maligned."

"Innocently?" the king scoffed. "Well that's perhaps a touch far."

"Semantics," it hissed right back. "They are all the same. Bringing rot and misfortune wherever they tread. A cousin once helped a simple-minded fool find her way and in thanks the twit destroyed a kingdom. She nearly wiped out his home in the effort. What thanks! From what I know his poor wife was never the same." It bobbed at Jareth. "As you well know."

Jareth inclined his head in agreement. "Very tiresome."

Sarah eyes widened further and she motioned an inch with her fingers. "Blue hair? Cousin?"

The Wyrm towered upwards, displaying its great size. "Distant."

But in the next instant the fire behind its eyes blazed and faster than a lightning strike it leveled its great head with hers. Every breath fanned her hair outwards like a bellows; the heat blistering her face red.

"And so must you be the same she." All levity fled, leaving only dragon flame and serpent cunning. Its eyes were hypnotic and try as she might she couldn't look away. Distantly she heard Toby keen.

And then it blinked and rounded back to Jareth.

"So the loose mouthed tree rat didn't lie and another wager lost to that feathered ass." It rounded on Jareth. "I thought you wiser than this. What game do you play, Goblin King?"

He held his gloved hands wide. "They seek their brother and I am their guide. We keep our own council, Old friend."

The last words were clipped and if Jareth was intimidated by the great beast, Sarah couldn't tell. She was still quivering from the intensity of its stare and her skin burned as though singed.

The Wyrm idled from side to side for a moment, casting them in shadow with each pass. It was hard to tell if it was angered or rattled. The Goblin King tracked it indifferently.

"We will be watching," it hissed finally. With surprising dexterity it uncoiled itself from around their clearing.

"As always," intoned the king. He looked upwards and inclined his head briefly, before clasping Sarah's wrist to pull her away. When she looked back the forest behind them was still and the great Wyrm was already lost to the tangle.

Sarah stumbled behind, eyes glassy, and glanced unseeing at the papers still crumpled in her hand.

"Was that Nidhogg? That was Nidhogg wasn't it?"

She felt his shrug. "A name. One of many."

"Then the 'tree rat' and the 'feathered ass' are...?"

"Equally nosy? Watching right now? Yes to both."

Sarah processed the information. Toby tugged on her sleeve but she mouthed 'later'.

"And… and when he said he gave a fruit to a mortal once…"

This time she felt his laughter.

"Dear god…"

"Rather the opposite or so your story goes. How quickly you knelt before him."

Sarah tugged her hand free in annoyance. "Not the worst I've ever asked for help."

Jareth's lips curled.

"And is he really related to-"

"On his mother's side I think. We all have a black sheep in the family."

Sarah couldn't tell if he was being irreverent or not, and despite feeling depleted and angry, she laughed. Toby laughed too, understanding none of it, but starting to feel left out.

"This is all… very overwhelming." Excitement tinged her voice and underlying that something akin to fear. Foundations were crumbling. "You have to understand, I thought they were all just stories."

"Just stories," he mocked. "And here I thought you always sincerely believed what you read."

His words were soft but their barb pierced deeply.

Sarah rubbed her eyes. "So what IS your game? Since we keep 'our own council?"

"What makes you think 'our' was referring to you?" His eyes lit on Toby and then away. A glance just long enough to sow the seeds of discord.

"You ruin everything," she hissed.

His reaction was small - only a slight tightening of his jaw that might have been missed. It wasn't. "I might say the same of you."

"You-"

"We're upsetting the boy." Jareth reached out and ruffled Toby's hair affectionately. It was more upsetting an action than if he'd slapped her.

She roughly pulled a confused looking Toby into her. "You're not his father."

Jareth laughed coldly. "And you're not his mother." Her lips parted, prepared to deny, but he pressed on. "Admit it. You love that he needs you. That he turns to you. A small part, one you've buried so deep you think you can ignore it, is thrilled every time he chooses you over his own mother." A gloved finger pressed to her chest. "Inside, you still want all the focus on you."

Nerves frayed, Sarah pushed him. It was childish and immature, and she'd have cause to regret it later, but in the moment her visceral reaction was deeply satisfying. He'd clearly not been expecting her loss of control and, like a cornered animal, she'd had more strength than she'd expected. He stumbled backwards, his feet catching the roots and only by inherent grace managed to remain upright.

"Sarah-" Toby pleaded, confused and concerned.

"I need a minute." Her voice was still vicious, but the ire was directed at Jareth. Softer then. "Just give me a minute." And she backed away into the wood. The Goblin King watched her retreat, his hand resting lightly on Toby's shoulder - either comforting or restraining, it didn't matter; both fueled her anger. And he knew.

She had no intention of going far, certainly not enough to court danger. She needed a reprieve from mercurial goblin kings with their wicked tongues full of words meant to beguile and harm. Lies.

And truths.

Insidious self-doubt churned in her stomach until she collapsed against a tree and breathed unsteadily. She dropped the sack at her feet, papers still clutched in her hand, wishing for a moment that she could just drop it all. Forget about them all. Reset her carefully constructed world that had seemingly been unravelled in just a few days. Play with her toys and her costumes.

And it was all his fault. Again.

Which him though?

Self-doubt coupled with guilt. And what of her mistakes? What webs was he weaving for Toby now that she'd succumbed to self-pity. When had she'd decided it was ever okay to leave them alone? She wiped angry tears away.

Her thoughts still fractured, she was on the point of returning when a comforting hand landed on her shoulder. Another brushed her damp cheek and tipped her chin up to meet green eyes.

"Mom?" She breathed.

Her mother smiled then – a kind and gentle one that warmed the greens golden. The hands that cupped her face were soft. A mother's hands. Sarah hadn't felt those hands on her face for so long. Too long. Her skin prickled with childhood remembrance and thirsted for their touch.

"But how?" she whispered, even as she knew it was impossible. That it was a cruel trick and that if she had any wisdom whatsoever she'd run or scream.

"You needed me." The voice, long honed on the stage, was melodic and even. Sarah hadn't heard it without the barrier of a telephone for more than a year. It was pure music.

"I've always needed you." Accusation was there, but yearning too, and Sarah covered her mother's hands with her own to hold them in place.

"I'm here now," she hummed and pulled Sarah's head towards her breast.

At the last moment Sarah resisted. "But how?"

"Don't you know that you're special, Sarah? You have such power, my child. You brought me here." And Sarah did know. Had always known. She was special. She was meant for so much more; more than even her successful beautiful mother. She'd known before the red book. Before even him. Everyone would love her. No one would ever leave her. Everyone would know her power.

Nodding, as though she agreed with all of Sarah's wild and unspoken thoughts, she pulled Sarah's head back to cradle on her chest. "They don't understand how special. But they will."

Even the smell was so right. Learned in the cradle and remembered to the grave. Mother.

Her skin was so soft and she was so warm and she needed more of it. Sarah curled her arms around her mother's back, pressing them together tightly. She felt her mother smile against her head and it was bliss.

Everything was going to be better… even as her fingers seemed to tangle in her mother's long hair. Hair that was somehow too rough and too stiff. And her hands seemed to sink into her mother's back and become ensnared further.

Sarah tried pulling back to no avail. Her mother shushed her softly, her voice still melodic and soothing.

With mounting panic Sarah realized they were sinking too, or the earth was rising to meet them. Her legs felt rooted to the ground and the smell, so distinct to her mother, was mixing with that of wood and loam. Her mother was pressed too tightly to her; she could not decide where she began and where she ended.

Sarah opened her mouth to scream but her mother, no longer looking motherly at all, was there instead, pressing her lips so tightly to Sarah's that even her breathe was stolen. Teeth, too sharp and too jagged, scraped against her lips as a tongue slid into her mouth in a parody of a lover's kiss. Sarah gagged.

In that moment, three things happened: Her wrist began to ache, something burned against her chest, and the creature that had been her mother was torn away from her. Sarah fell to her knees painfully, coughs wracking her body until she thought she might vomit. Her hands and wrists were welted with bright red lines and her lips stung fiercely. The air around them was charged.

The creature that had been her mother had shed its visage and instead stared balefully at her from beneath long, pale tresses that pooled on the forest floor. Berries and leaves were woven through the strands. Other than her long hair, she was naked. She was still beautiful, too much so to be human, but her hands and feet were all wrong. Spindly and long, the skin gave way to what looked like dark wizened bark. It grinned at Sarah with a mouth that was black and empty. Sarah recoiled.

The smile faded to a scowl when it turned to the silent Goblin King. He was encased in his black armor. Cold fury burned in his eyes, and the creature skittered away brokenly, with a sound like scraping wood. It cowered, enough that Sarah could see the creature's back was completely hollow like a dead, rotted log filled with jagged thorns.

The creature canted its head between them, abject fear for one and naked hunger for the other.

"We get so few," it pleaded. The voice was still melodic in its cadence but it too now was hollowed and entirely devoid of anything human. "She was lost and pained and her thoughts called to us." It turned to look at her again, hunger perhaps overriding fear. "Come to me, child, and I will make it all go away. You can be so much more than this to us. Special. Like you've always wanted."

But whatever compulsion Sarah had felt before was gone, leaving only revulsion.

Seeing her disgust, the creature pressed. "He'll just use you. Not love you like I can. Better than the mother who abandoned you. You won't like where you're going. Down, down into the heart. You're safer here with us." It began to crawl disjointedly towards her, limbs cracking like snapping wood.

"Enough." The command in Jareth's voice was cold and when he moved towards it with obvious menace, it screeched and shot backwards. The ground parted beneath it, roots spreading open to pull the creature down like some paroxysm of unbirth. At the last second it shot Sarah a vicious look and with an impossibly long reach snatched her bag, dragging it towards the pit.

"No!" Sarah dove forward and grabbed for the straps desperately. The creature smiled and pulled both the bag and Sarah towards the chasm with surprising strength. Sarah felt Toby throw himself onto her legs and for a moment they were all falling until she was swept upwards, hands empty, and pressed against a very solid and obviously livid body.

"You stupid girl!"

The creature howled with loss. With inhuman rage it tore the bag to shreds and slid down between the deep roots. Clothes, food, and water flew into the air and were likewise swallowed. Sarah flailed in Jareth's arms until he deliberately dropped her with a curse. She landed with a thud and immediately clawed at the roots and dirt, desperately snatching for her scant possessions.

"No, no, no, no!" She grabbed for a bottle of water, teetering on the precipice. A booted foot nudged it off the edge.

Sarah looked up at him murderously.

"What a pity," his voice was still cold. The roots snapped shut, like teeth colliding.

A moment later a chunk of broken iron shot up as though coughed out. Jareth dextrously caught it midair and then pointedly dropped it beside a still seething Sarah. He stepped away and hauled Toby to his feet and brushed him off.

"That was very foolish, boy. I expected more of you even if your sister is determined to find every possible way to get herself killed."

Toby, looking rather contrite and decidedly rattled, whispered loyally, "She was just trying to save our things."

"At the expense of her life." He eyed her. "How cheaply sold."

"It wasn't her fault." Toby's tone suggested it was as much of a question.

"No," he offered quietly. "No I suppose it wasn't."

Sarah expelled a breath she didn't know she'd been holding and pushed herself off the ground. As she did, her hand brushed leather and she saw that the red book she'd forgotten she'd packed had somehow survived. She tucked it into the waist of her jeans as she rose and collected her crumpled notes, folding them into her jacket pocket.

"Sarah, she-it- looked like your mom," started Toby carefully.

"It wasn't," Jareth replied. "It might have been anyone that fit the need. Forest sprites are cunning."

Sarah waved a hand. "I was a fool. I knew it wasn't real." She wasn't ready to be absolved by him anymore than she was prepared to ask forgiveness, but she'd made a stupid mistake and she'd be more vigilant going forward.

She wiped her mouth, her lips still stinging and her tongue tasting of wood and spit. "Toby, do you have any water left?"

Toby dug through his bag until he found a half-filled bottle. He handed it over apologetically. "That's it." Sarah turned her back, rinsed her mouth and spit, before carefully closing it and returning it to him.

She glared at Jareth. "What a pity indeed."

She made to brush past him, but he stalled her. His hand landing hotly on her hip. "For someone who so desperately wants to do everything yourself you seem to keep finding ways to play the damsel in distress."

Sarah swallowed. She hadn't thanked him. "And do you think if you keep coming to my rescue, I'll mistake you for a hero?"

"I should hope not, Sarah." His breath fanned her neck. "I have it on excellent authority you prefer villains." He released her hip but let his hand skim across her back beneath her shirt as she moved away.


An uneasy silence settled. One of many. Sarah realized that was how it would always be. Either burning insults or cold indifference. Mercurial as his nature. Perhaps hers as well. After another hour, she decided that like Robert Frost she preferred the fire.

The light had begun to fade again and with it the ambient heat. Toby shivered.

"Have you eaten, kiddo?"

"Not hungry," he yawned.

With the fading light, the fine hairs begin to prickle on her neck. She'd never been afraid of the dark but here, in the deep woods, she could feel it rising behind them like a tide. Jareth had not provided any lights to guide their way and as much as she wanted that small comfort, half hoping Toby would ask, she would not beg. She hurried to keep pace with the king, slipping her hand into Toby's. He didn't protest. The long day's events had begun to weigh on her and she found herself pining for a bed.

As though echoing her thoughts, Toby asked, "Are we going to sleep with watchers again?"

Jareth shook his head. "There are none near here."

"Then where?" Toby asked, exhaustion and fear coating his voice.

Jareth glanced down at his wan face and then to Sarah's guarded one. "Not far.

And it wasn't. Ahead of them, nestled between the shadowy trees, was a sort of small stone cottage. Toby looked relieved. Around the single door were carved ruins of some sort. Sarah studied them. "Is it safe here?"

"As safe as can be found in these parts." Jareth's voice sounded strained. He opened the door and ushered them in. It was larger than it appeared from the outside, but simple. Furs lined much of the floor and a wide fire place took up one wall. A low bed covered in more furs dominated one side of the room. A solid carved high backed wood chair wrapped in leather sat before the hearth.

The fire sparked to life invitingly. It was far more comfortable than Sarah had thought to find anywhere in the midst of the Tanglewood. Toby dropped his bag on the floor gratefully and collapsed onto the bed without being bidden. The mattress was plush and clean.

Jareth closed the door behind them and the unmistakable sound a bolt catching followed. Sarah, looking around once more, removed her jacket and sank onto the edge of the bed beside Toby.

The Goblin King settled silently in the chair and crossed his long legs towards the fire. Before she could speak, he offered with a wave, "You and the boy will share the bed tonight."

Sarah, ignoring the command, managed a low, "Thanks". Unable to do more she peeled her boots off and stretched out beside Toby with a groan, curling her arm behind her head.

"Tell me a story, Sarah?" A small hand tugged at her sleeve.

"Really? You need sleep, kiddo." She did too.

"Come on… just one," he paused. "Like how did you know that the dragon snake thing was called Nid.. Nid something?"

"Nidhogg. It's-he's a part of Norse mythology," she sighed tiredly but already giving in. "People used to believe that he gnawed on the roots of the great world tree, Yggdrasil. The Vikings also believed that he was a horrific monster who would eat the corpses of people judged to be deserving. Bad."

"Bad how?"

"Oh, like, i dunno murderers and cheaters and liars. People who went back on their word. That was considered one of the worst things you could so in Viking society – break an oath. Anyway, they believed that he might eventually unleash the beast caged beneath the great tree."

"What kind of beast?" Toby sounded both intrigued and terrified.

"Scholars don't really know for sure. Anyway, that's not important. He lives at the base of the tree and a squirrel called Ratatoskr runs up and down the trunk sharing gossip," Sarah ignored Jareth's snort, "between the serpent and the great eagle above. It goes something like,

Ratatosk is the squirrel who there shall run
On the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
From above the words of the eagle he bears,
And tells them to Nidhogg beneath."

Toby breathed deeply. "Cool. I used to think your stuff was kind of boring when you talked about it, except for the bloodshed stuff, but it's way cooler now knowing it's real."

Sarah smiled weakly. "Yah. Cool."

"Can't wait to tell the kids at school!"

Sarah's smile fell. "Ah, Toby, you can't tell anyone. They won't believe you anyway. You certainly can't tell mom or dad." She tried for humour. "They'd never let me babysit." Another snort from the fire ignored, Sarah chewed her lip. "Think of it like a secret. All of it."

Toby propped his head up and motioned. "Even him?"

Jareth winked at the boy. "Oh, especially me. Right, Sarah?"

Sarah ignored him. "Go to sleep, Toby."

"How about another story?"

"Yes, Sarah, how about another story?" Sarah looked over when she heard pages turning.

Jareth, no longer looking quite so tired, was thumbing through a familiar red book. Her hand immediately fell to her waist.

"That's mine."

"Hmmm. And I'm sure you don't need it to tell its tale. You know the lines so well."

"Give it back."

"How did it go? Once upon a time there was a beautiful young girl whose stepmother always made her stay home with the baby. The baby was a spoiled child. He wanted everything for himself and the girl was practically a slave. But what no one knew was the Goblin King had-"

"Stop!"

"Stop?" he asked, turning another page. "But we're really just getting to the best part."

"Are you the Goblin King in the story?" Toby asked curiously, his eyes on Sarah.

"The same," Jareth smiled, his teeth glinting. Even at rest, he somehow made the simple chair look like a throne.

"Go to sleep, Toby. It's just a silly story and the ending is a happy one. The bad guy loses."

"Oh. But who's the bad guy?" Toby asked.

Sarah looked at her brother sharply.

Jareth laughed then and the sound filled the small dwelling. "What a bright boy you are."

"Go to sleep, Toby," Sarah repeated, her tone now brittle. She turned towards Jareth. "I want it back."

He held the book out. "In exchange for what's around your pretty neck."

Sarah automatically pressed a protective hand to her chest.

Jareth's lids dipped. "Go to sleep, Toby." And he did.

Sarah tucked the furs over him and then turned tiredly to the figure in the chair. "Just give it back."

"Later perhaps." Jareth tucked the book into his jacket. "Unless you want to come and retrieve it."

Sarah shook her head.

"Then we talk."

"I'd rather sleep."

"Later too. For now I have questions."

Sarah's lips thinned. "Each one will cost you. I'm keeping a running tab."

"Then I shall have to make them count." Jareth steepled his fingers, his eyes on the flames. "What were you wearing under the cloak when I startled you in the woods this morning?"

Sarah's lips parted and then shut. She was relieved that most of the cottage lay in shadow. It occurred to her then that perhaps he prefered the fire too.

"I think you already know and so you've wasted a question trying to embarrass me. It won't work. I was obviously there to change and so the truth is nothing."

"Then I have another." Jareth's fingers drummed against one another rhythmically. His voice was low and even. "What were you doing just as I so rudely interrupted?"

Sarah choked. "Obv-obviously I was changing." Her words trailed into a nervous laugh.

The long fingers stilled. "What did you tell the boy, oath breakers are the worst offenders? So you forfeit?"

She swallowed.

"I'll ask again. What were you doing, Sarah?"

Chapter Text

 

 

So hard to hold on to my dreams
It isn't always what it seems
When you're face to face with me
You're like a dagger
And stick me in the heart
And taste the blood from my blade.

If I close my eyes forever, will it all remain unchanged?
If I close my eyes forever, will it all remain the same?

Close My Eyes Forever,Lita Ford and Ozzy Osbourne


 Sarah swallowed again. Her mouth had gone dry and so it hurt. As much as she expected the worst the question had caught her off guard. As he always managed to do.

He knew.

There was no other reason to ask. He just wanted to hear her say it. Everything between them was always in some measure nothing more than a means to break her.

Let me rule you…

And now he wanted her pride. He wanted her to just hand it to him. She felt deprave - caught red handed, even though she was an adult and it was natural. At least in better, more private circumstances. It was not even something she'd ever really done, but in the woods the desire had been sudden... impulsive... foolish. Fueled by all the things she'd tried to deny. Until he'd forced himself back into her world. And then dragged her into his. And she'd let him. Shame washed over her.

Sarah nudged Toby, hoping he would wake. He wouldn't.

"Sarah…" There was a warning in his voice.

She glared at the side of his head and cleared her throat brokenly. "You're wasting another question."

"Perhaps. But the fact that you do not want to answer suggests it's not a waste at all." He was still looking at the fire, his face limned by low light. He was all angles and sharp lines. Nothing soft. Nothing human. The flames refracted on his boots.

Sarah sat up then, unwilling to continue the conversation lying down. It was already too intimate and too invasive. Even without his eyes on her.

A low chuckle, almost a hum, greeted her protracted silence. "You could show me if you'd rather not say."

Oh, he knew. She wished she was dreaming. "I… it was a moment of weakness."

"How unusual for you," his tone taunted. "What kind of 'weakness'?"

"Why are you doing this?" Fury made her voice crack.

"Stop deflecting."

She picked at the furs around her. "I… can't be sure exactly what happened. It's really not a big deal."

"And yet you will not say. You're dancing close to forfeit, Sarah."

"I know why you're doing this! It was nothing. Nothing!" she snapped. "I needed… I… had a need. It happens. The fur was soft and it felt… nice," she dropped the furs in her hands as though they were tainted. "So I enjoyed it… for a moment."

One finger tapped on the arm of the chair like a clock ticking.

"And so… so I enjoyed the feel of my hands on my own body." Her words spilled out in a rush, followed by an equally furious heat in her cheeks. "It was very brief. It was nothing!"

When he remained silent, she added quickly, "As I said I don't know what came over me. It was stupid and I was tired and it sometimes happens to mortals. Thank you for making this as painful as possible," she finished acidly, "but really, it's nothing more than… an innate biological drive."

For several beats neither spoke. When Sarah finally looked up he was watching her.

"A… drive," he mulled, as though he was tasting the word. "A need." He repeated, and seemed to like it better. "One I so cruelly interrupted." His voice was suddenly too low and too close despite the distance. Like a rumbling in her ears. He wasn't teasing anymore and it was so much worse. "Tell me, Sarah. Did you cup your breasts? Did your fingers dip between your thighs to try and ease the ache?"

"Are those more questions?" She croaked in anger. "Are you quite through humiliating me?"

"No," he paused, and it wasn't immediately clear what question he was answering. "I'll just imagine it if you'd rather not say."

She exhaled noisily. "It's really none of your business and doesn't concern you at all. It doesn't matter, it meant nothing and it certainly won't happen again."

"If you say," he hummed. "I do have one final question though." She folded her arms impatiently and cocked her head in annoyance. "Feel free to count it," he added sardonically.

His fingers drummed on the arm of the chair and then they stopped. "Whose hands were you imagining touching you?"

Her brow furrowed and then tightened when the question finally registered. She threw off the furs violently and stood. "Stop this! Why are you doing this?"

"Whose hands?" he repeated, his voice still liquid mercury.

Sarah paced by the bed for a moment, tugging at her hair. She almost wanted to forfeit if only to deny him the victory. But it would be at the cost of the war.

She finally stilled, arms dropping helplessly to her sides. "Yours."

Silence greeted her admission. Enough that she thought he might not have heard her, despite being sure she'd half shouted it. She'd expected him to gloat or demean her.

"As I said," she added, her words trailing into one another. "I was tired and… stressed, perhaps affected by magic. I wasn't thinking… you... convenient," she mumbled. "It-it might have been anyone in different circumstances. An old boyfriend… Anyone! It really doesn't matter."

It mattered though. And they both knew it.

Wordlessly he held out the red book.

She stared at it for a long moment and then walked forward to snatch it. His hand caught her wrist before she could retreat; cool fingers curling around her burning skin. If he pulled even slightly she'd end up in his lap.

And then he released her.

Sarah stumbled back, tucking the book against her chest like a barrier. She still expected him to leer or to gloat or to somehow shame her further were that were even possible. She was as certain she'd try to kill him if he did.

"I hate you," she said quietly. It was a truth as well.

"Go to sleep, Sarah."

She stared at him for another minute. "It means nothing."

She turned and slid onto the far side of Toby, placing him between them, and pulled the furs around herself like cocoon. She hated how they felt. Angry tears welled in her eyes and it took the last of her strength to hold them in; she wouldn't give him the satisfaction. When sleep finally came, far sooner than expected, her last thoughts were that she would find a way to see him fall all over again.


Jareth's released the arms of the chair. The wood groaned in relief.

He exhaled slowly and unfolded his long legs stiffly. Small price to pay he supposed blithely. His decision had been impulsive but it had reaped rewards. He shifted again uncomfortably. He produced a goblet and sipped deeply. Wine to dull the ache.

It was so much easier when she was off balance. Unravelled and undone. When driven to distraction she acted rashly. And he was always fascinated to see what she'd do.

When he'd come across her in the wood, he'd had a sense of what had almost been - as though the very air was charged with possibility. And he'd caught her expression before she'd schooled her face. He found he very much wanted to see that look again. Raw and open and vulnerable. But powerful. Frighteningly so. It reminded him of that final meeting, when he'd offered everything; when she'd undone everything.

Then it had flushed rose-hewn with embarrassment and he'd lost all doubt. He'd been awed for a moment – realizing again that she had really grown up. That she wasn't too young to keep anymore. And that maybe he did very much want to keep her. On his terms.

A woman stood before him; one no longer on the cusp. One who had come into her own. For a wild moment he'd wanted nothing more than part the cloak and see how far the blush went down.

He indulged in the thought of her spread bare on the ground; pale skin against the fur beneath her back. The red leaves falling and tangling in her long dark hair. Her face that raw mixture of bold invitation and soft exhalations.

And oh those cruel green eyes. They'd bring him to kneel at her feet. It was a picture that would make any proud man fall. The forest had certainly seen such rites before.

But she shuttered herself immediately. Distrust had filled her face. And fear.

He could work with the one but not the other. Even the roof above their heads had not been met without suspicion. His wise little Sarah. It has cost him too but he'd receive no thanks.

And all walls have cracks. When he'd found the red book it suggested that the unsure girl she'd been was still there too. She was not as inured to him as she'd pretend. Perhaps she even planned to destroy him again. Both were appetizing possibilities.

He'd half expected her to forfeit and the possibility had almost disappointed him. Almost. Then she'd answered, each word dragged from her lips if only to deny him the game.

And like before her words had undone him.

'Yours'…

Mine.

What a savage victory. And how fitting the place, when he was finally free of constraints.

She should be thankful that he hadn't pulled her into his lap and showed her that his kind could be driven too. He'd have like to see her shock before he stopped her protests with his mouth. And then he would show her just what his fingers could do. Remove every stitch until her body was bathed in firelight. He'd trace the shadows that danced against her skin. First with his hands and then his mouth. Perhaps his teeth so he'd could leave a trail of where'd he'd been. One she couldn't deny.

A light snore from Toby reminded him that for now it was a pyrrhic victory. She was lucky he was there or he'd remedy his forbearance. Peel the furs away like skin from a fruit.

Instead he would spend the night in the chair. Spent in every way save the one that mattered. Yet another denial that would go without thanks. He must be feeling magnanimous.

'Yours'…

He'd just have to get rid of the boy.

As planned.

Jareth smiled then.


She was in the ballroom again and everything was dancing. Grotesque goblin masks leered at her. She pushed her way through the bodies but they picked and pulled at her oversized dress. Fabric ripped. Beads clattered on the floor. Fingernails raked her skin until she was all but naked.

Their jeers were deafening. She tried to cover herself in vain - to hide - even as she was pushed face to face with him. A luscious redhead purred on his shoulder and as before he shook the woman off to draw her into his arms.

Into steps they'd danced before.

But now she was exposed and his smile was far crueler. With one hand he pinched her chin and for a moment she thought he was going kiss her, and that it was not going to be kind.

Instead he laughed and that hurt far more. He pushed her away roughly and she landed on the floor. Hard.

The sound of glass breaking and dancers screaming. Everything was falling.

She landed naked amongst black trees and twisted roots. And from those roots the dark rose like smoke, coiling towards her.

She ran.

Branches tore at her bare skin, peeling it until she bled.


From outside the door in the still of the night came a steady banging at the door.

Thump…

Thump…

Thump…

Only Jareth reacted. The markings around the door had sparked to life.

The Goblin King pinched his brow in irritation. A flick of his fingers produced a second glass.

The pounding continued until he sighed and rose. He kicked a log into the fire, creating an explosion of sparks and turned towards the door.


 A rush of air and the ground swallowed her.

She startled awake. The cottage was quiet save for the crackle of fire and Toby's heavy breathing.

From across the room fingers drummed on the arm of the chair.

They were not Jareth's. Somehow she knew.

The fingers stilled.

Before she could scream she was falling again.

A baby's cry.

The flash of a knife.

Red leaves rained down.

She tried to scream but they filled her mouth.


Sarah's eyes opened at the sound of the door closing. Her mouth was wet and she tasted blood. She'd bitten her tongue. Jareth, his back to her, had his hand pressed against the latch. He pushed away after a moment and returned to the chair.


 A babe cried in the dark.


 The next time she woke her face flushed with a heady mixture of remembered embarrassment and rage. It was impossible to face him again and feel any measure of power. She hated him but herself more.

She wasn't a foolish girl anymore. Not a doe-eyed innocent confused by pretty words. She'd felt the pull young love. She'd forged relationships and lost them just as quickly. When she'd made the bargain, it had been impulsive but she'd steeled herself for games. She didn't imagine she had any secrets much worth keeping. Any bargain was dangerous, but it had felt like a small price to pay for his help when she'd had no other options. She'd expected his manipulations but held fast to the knowledge she'd beaten him before. She would again, she thought.

Just play nice and bide my time.

When she reluctantly removed the covers smothering her, Toby's profile greeted her. He was thumbing through the red book.

"Toby," she exhaled sharply.

He held up a finger.

Every fiber in her being screamed at her to snatch the book away.

He side-eyed her and then shrugged, almost apologetically as though he were caught reading her diary. In a way he was. "It was digging into my stomach."

Sarah studied his face for any indication of what he was thinking.

He finally closed the book, his young face thoughtful. "Is this like your favourite book? You brought it with you and told me not to bring any comics."

Sarah cleared her throat awkwardly. "It's… it was important to me. In a way."

Toby nodded as though it was explanation enough. "It was a pretty good story, I guess. I've read better. The ending was… weird though. I mean she won but it wasn't like a… real happy ending though, right? And I'm still not sure who the bad guy was." He swung to look at the chair, as though expecting a comment. Silence.

"Toby-"

He turned back. "Well, I mean he took the baby but only because she asked him, right?"

Sarah cleared her throat again, lips thinning. "Right."

"But then she got the baby back again. So that was good."

Sarah nodded slowly.

"I wished Max away. So that means I can get him back too, right?" He sounded hopeful.

Sarah took Toby's hand. "We will."

Toby glanced back towards the fire. "I guess he does sleep sometimes. I wonder what time it is." He rose, leaving the book on the bed. Sarah tucked it into her chest but then panicked when she saw him moving towards the door.

"Stop! Toby, don't open it! We should… wait. Until he says," she whispered, surprised at her own reaction. He mind was fuzzy with half remembered scenes.

Toby shrugged and moved towards the fire, now all but dying. He cleared his throat loudly. Nothing. With an unsteady hand he touched Jareth's shoulder.

When the king did not stir, Sarah approached.

Jareth's face was still; his marked eyes shuttered. The thin lips were slightly parted, enough that she could tell he was sleeping deeply.

Watching him its own intimate invasion.

His normally angular features were just as sharp in sleep, but there was an overall softness that was unexpected. His hands lay slack on his thighs, fingers splayed.

Toby waved a hand in front of Jareth's face then turned to Sarah with an impish smile.

"Maybe you need to kiss him?" Toby ducked behind the chair to avoid a swat. "Like snow white or sleeping beauty? Like he's enchanted or something."

"Toby…"

He held his hands up in mock surrender. "I'm just saying!"

Unmatched eyes opened and they lit, unfocused, on the siblings for a moment. The fire went out with a hiss and the room was suddenly much colder.

Sarah and Toby both sobered immediately.

"Planning to slit my throat in my sleep?" His tone suggested levity, but there was something else beneath. He stretched, ignoring Toby's gawping face and Sarah's pallid one. Whatever tiredness he'd shown the night before had apparently gone. He looked polished and poised.

Sarah, at a loss for a comb or a change of clothes, returned to the edge of the bed and vainly finger combed the snarls in her hair. Toby, indifferent to morning ablutions, pulled his last change of clothes from the bag.

"You should eat something, kiddo."

"I'm not that hungry."

"But you haven't eaten since…" Sarah frowned, her fingers slowing, "yesterday?" She was unsure when she'd last eaten either. She'd intended to skip this morning to make up for the lost bag but she felt no pang of hunger anyway. Not even the caffeine withdrawal she should be feeling by now. As with most academics she was practically sustained by it alone. "Strange." Her frown deepened.

After wiping her face with the barest amount of water, she pulled her boots back on with reluctance. More for sanity's sake than feet, she couldn't abide another day of walking beneath endless trees. "How much farther?"

She'd expected silence so was surprised when he spoke. "Not long. We'll find out today one way or the other." He volunteered no further details but Sarah clung to to the hope of 'not long'. It conveyed her desperation.

Toby, now dressed, took a small bite of trail mix - pointedly while Sarah was watching – chewed woodenly and then stuffed it back in his bag. Sarah added the red book and then pulled on her own jacket, patting the pocket to make sure her notes were still there. She kept her eyes averted from Jareth as much possible, assuming he'd allude to last night's confession at the slightest provocation. She planned to avoid any further altercations until she managed to reclaim some ground. Or they all died horribly. Whichever came first.

Part of her wished he'd just do it but he barely spared her a look. There was no offer of clean clothes and no barbs about her messy hair. No mention of last night at all. As though he'd decided to play nice or had forgotten.

The door opened and bathed them in the amber glow. Jareth waited on the sill expectantly. Sarah offered to carry the bag, but Toby mimed 'as if' and stepped out.

As she crossed the threshold, a flash of green caught her eye. She faltered. The cloak hung by the door at eye level.

He had not forgotten.

The door closed behind her and she felt his presence at her back. Sarah bit her tongue and joined Toby.


Jareth took the lead. Though they'd both fallen silent, Toby and Sarah had more spring in their step, buoyed by the thought that they were getting closer. That it would soon end. For Sarah, finding Max meant closing the doors. All of them. An end to it.

The thought made Sarah think of her friends with a familiar pang. She was happy for Toby's company, but she suddenly missed the trio quite sorely. They'd been allies as well as friends. They certainly hadn't been a child to protect. She winced, her thoughts treading too close to unkind. In truth, she was as much a dependent as Toby was in the woods. If anything she'd already proven more foolish and inept than her ten year old brother. She needed to re-find the Sarah that had routed a goblin army, not the one shamed by a king.

"How do you think the… er the other me, is doing with Mom and Dad?"

"Hmm," Sarah asked.

"I was just wondering what the other Toby – I mean fake me - was doing. Like I wonder if Mom and Dad notice anything different."

Her parents had been so far from her mind the question took her by surprise. "Oh… I'm sure it's fine."


 "Toby! Toby! Get down this instant! Robert, he's doing it again." Karen pulled her husband into the kitchen and motioned towards their son.

Toby waved at his father from atop the refrigerator. He was emptying a box of dried pasta into his mouth and crunching loudly – broken noodles flying about like shrapnel. After chewing for a minute, he spat them out and dumped the rest of the box on the floor. He instead grabbed a dusty bowl of wax fruit and took a large bite of one. To the astonishment of his parents he took a second.

Toby's grandmother peered at the display from her den. She had a hand pressed to her heart, concerned her pacemaker was malfunctioning and this was god's way of taking her.

Her cat, unfortunately, took that moment to enter through the kitchen kitty door. Toby's eyes, catching the movement, widened and then honed. With a toothy wide grin and to the sound of his mother shrieking, he vaulted off the top of the fridge and leapt in hot pursuit of the poor feline.

After a moment's shock, Robert lunged after Toby with a bellow. Karen collapsed into a chair and considered calling the family doctor to set up an appointment for when they got home. She wondered if it was early puberty.

Toby's grandmother did something she hadn't done in years: she fished out a set of rosary beads and poured herself a gin and tonic - well before noon.


"Just fine," Sarah repeated. "Don't worry." Toby nodded slowly.

It soon became apparent that they'd missed the forest's morning's ritual. She was thankful for the respite even if it meant they'd lost time, after all there wasn't ticking clock this time. Until the realization hit. Max had been gone for more than three days.

She was so lost in her thoughts that she almost didn't notice when the trees gave way to a small clearing, in the centre of which was a small little lake, not much bigger than a marsh or pond. It was the only water they had seen since crossing the sea. The surrounding tree roots stretched to the water's edge, sank beneath the surface, and then rose back upwards towards the sky - creating an almost arched bower over the still water. It was almost cathedral like.

Toby skipped towards the shore and then whistled. "It must be deep. You can't see the bottom."

Sarah joined him. Though very clear, it was indeed very dark. As though the basin sank right through the earth. The surface of the water was as calm as glass and in it her reflection stared back. And then it rippled. For a moment she was younger. It rippled again and she was older. Toby too seemed transfixed, touching his chin and cheeks. She wanted to dip her face into it. Instead she drew Toby back.

Jareth had settled himself against a trunk. He watched them idly, his staff tapping against his boots rhythmically.

When he didn't do or say anything, Sarah finally broke. "Are we waiting for something?"

"Not something, someone." He offered nothing else.

Annoyed, but intrigued, Sarah settled herself on a root a comfortable distance away. Several minutes passed. "And they'll find us?" She glanced around again at the otherwise nondescript woods.

"If they choose."

She frowned. "And when should we expect them?"

"Never and always." Sarah shot him a withering glance. He ignored it. "Are you feeling restless again?"

Sarah was saved from answering by a soft tinkling sound – almost like a wind chime. Whatever it was was getting closer.

Jareth stood, his hands smoothing his jacket.

Through the trees three cloaked figures emerged in a procession. They wore long robes of many fabrics, adorned all over with coins - almost like mummers. Each carried a large silver pitcher. They were preceded by a small goblin carrying a wooden staff. From its apex a white light shone brightly.

The three figures entered the clearing and bent at the water's edge. They filled their pitchers from the marsh and only when they were fully filled did they acknowledge they were not alone. The goblin eyed them indifferently. When it realized its masters had stopped it sat down and began picking its nose.

Jareth bowed. The figures dipped their heads in acknowledgement and set the water at their feet. They drew back their hoods and Sarah was surprised to see they appeared like mortal women save for a strip of fabric across each of their eyes. The first figure was a young girl in her first bloom of youth. The second was a grown woman, softly curved and glowing. The third's face was as lined and care-worn as any crone in a story book.

With their hoods drawn back, Sarah could see that they were bound together by their long sable hair. It was chaotically woven into interlocking braids.

"You seek our aid," spoke the woman. Her voice was rich and warm. "How bold to come into the heart."

"It has been a long time," agreed the maiden, "since you have visited us here." Her voice was lilted and high, almost child-like save for an underlying quality that was altogether but.

"And such bad luck, when I'm too old to care," wheezed the crone. Her hands pulled at her face in annoyance. With something akin to horror, Sarah realized that their faces were sewn on. A row of neat stitches ran the profile of their faces. The crone picked at a loose thread. "How this one itches so. 'Tis time to trade."

"Not for another 87 moons as well you know."

"She always tries to cut short her turns!" agreed the girl.

"Oh, your turn comes!" snapped the crone. "You should be thankful you'll finally grow some tits again!"

The girl clutched her flat chest protectively. "Better no tits than ones that brush my knees!"

The woman held up her hand. "Sisters! Cease your bickering. It pains my ears. And we have guests. The web weaver brings mortals in our midst."

The girl took a step towards Toby and touched his cheek softly. They looked of an age but toby shivered involuntarily at her approach.

"We don't see them here." She seemed to examine him. "I was at your birth, child... and yet... did we not cut yours but 12 moons ago?"

"Not yet, sister. Not yet."

The coins on their cloaks shimmered when they laughed, speckling Toby's face with dancing lights. Sarah's hand fell to her brother's shoulder protectively.

The crone canted her head. "Nor yours, despite the frays."

Jareth who'd remained silent, finally spoke. "We seek your aid in finding another mortal. A baby brother who was taken."

The three figures laughed, the coins jangling again. "You think because we are blind we do not see, fallen king?"

"You play the hero now."

"But you wear more faces than we do, my boy."

Jareth inclined his head, but she saw him tense.

"You are bold to come when we can bring such pain. As well you know."

"And such kindness," countered the king.

"That too, though they always forget the one for the other."

"It's lucky we enjoy you and the games you play. Sometimes even we cannot see your ends."

"But how can you se-" Sarah pressed a hand over Toby's mouth, muffling his words.

"Sometimes death," nodded one.

"Sometimes rebirth," nodded another, as though it mattered little which.

Jareth inclined his head. "In your honour, of course."

"Bah," croaked the crone, but her tone was amused. "It is always for your own gain, but we like your cheek."

"You used to bring such delightful gifts," the girl added coyly. She turned to the goblin who'd apparently fallen asleep while chewing on the staff. She kicked him awake. "Some better than others." It smiled boldly back through a mouthful of splinters.

"And I've not forgotten this time, lady." Jareth produced a crystal and rolled it across his fingertips enticingly. "Your favourite. Such sweet dreams these. Of every sort. Do you want it?"

The three figures moved forward in unison as though transfixed. Jareth spun it just out of reach. "For the babe?"

"For your ends of there's?" the old woman cackled. "Choices, choices." But she too reached for the crystal with naked avarice on her face.

Jareth deftly spun it out reach. "Come now. Only I dare bring you gifts."

"The rest are cowards," agreed the old woman, but then she nodded towards Toby and Sarah. "Perhaps they have payment in kind?"

Sarah shook her head. "I don't have any money."

"We don't need money," she scoffed, jangling her dress loudly. "The dead give theirs freely."

"Then we have nothing-"

"Except your face," mused the woman. "It is pretty in its way. I've perhaps worn better but it has a charm."

Sarah recoiled, her hand automatically creeping to her cheek.

"It's not ripe for picking," interjected the girl. She canted her head. "And I don't care for the colour. Faces we have a plenty and there will always be more to be had when we bore of these. I want his gift. As promised."

Jareth smiled fully then. He sent the crystal spinning once more, pretending to consider whom to give the orb. He finally dropped it in the maiden's outstretched hands. She snatched it close to her before her sisters could reach. When she opened her hand she held two eyes that looked as though they were was carved from pure light. She pulled the gauze from her face eagerly, revealing two black, hollow sockets. She popped them in like marbles and then moaned in pure delight.

"It's wonderful," she breathed.

"Is it? Then you must share." Her sisters crowded her hungrily.

"You greedy brat, you've had your turn!"

The girl held them off protectively. "Mine first. You'll have them when I'm done and not before."

"So we shall."

"Or we'll not trade our face til you bore of silly childish things and yours rots away to your old one."

"And the babe?" repeated Jareth.

The three figures nodded absently. "As agreed." Together they touched the staff and the orb flashed brightly, blinding Toby and Sarah for a moment.

When they opened their eyes it was as though a veil had been lifted.

Surrounding them in all directions were glowing threads in every colour - zigzagging between the trees seemingly without end. They crossed and looped and converged into the orb like a spool. Neither Toby nor Sarah could move they were so hemmed in, and from their centres two glowing strands joined the rest.

The sisters plucked at the threads like a musician playing an instrument.

"Beautiful aren't they? So fragile." Jareth brushed the one stemming from Sarah. He curled it around his finger and then released it. Sarah was half scared to breathe.

The crone held a dark stone blade, and as she felt along, she cut a few. One here. One there. Each time she did the glowing thread sparked and burnt away.

"They all pay the price eventually." She waved her blade. "Would you like to cut one, boy?"

Toby swallowed and shook his head.

The crone laughed, the coins dancing again, and cut another with an indifferent swipe. Sarah winced with every snick.

"Ah, here it is. The one you seek," cooed the woman. She held up a deep red one, spun with faint gold.

The maiden dropped her own threads and moved closer. "How curious…" She turned and looked at Jareth, her glass eyes keen. "What a game you must play and with such pieces."

When the crone too approached, blade still in hand, Sarah shot forward with half remembered fragments… a knife flashing down in the dark… a baby crying…. "Don't!" she begged.

The old woman clucked. "Not mine to cut. No coin today." Instead she took Sarah's trembling hand and closed it around the thread. "Hold on tight now, girl."

The orb flashed again and the rest of the threads vanished, leaving the lone strand stretching from Sarah's closed hand and disappearing deep into the woods.

Toby waved his arms around experimentally, touching his chest and feeling the empty air.

Sarah stared down at her closed fist. It thrummed in her palm like a pulse.

"Our thanks," Jareth offered.

But the three ignored them all. They picked up their urns and moved back into the forest, tipping them onto the hungry, thirsty roots as they went.

Sarah watched them leave. "This will lead us to Max? Like crumbs through the forest?"

Jareth nodded. "Until it fades, but yes, long enough to bring us near."

"Because you didn't know the way." Her voice hitched in accusation.

"I knew enough to bring us here and what to offer in return," he replied. "You know who they are, Sarah."

She gave a slight nod. "And why you were so un-characteristically kind."

"But who are they?" Toby asked. "Why didn't they have eyes? Did they have an accident?"

Jareth laughed. "Accident? No. They cut them from their own heads because they saw too much and wanted to be free."

Toby mouthed a wide eyed 'oh'. "I could swear they were looking right at me."

Jareth patted his head. "So they were. They see what matters. And they learned a long time ago that no one is free."

Toby struggled to process it all. "But how can they still see? And what were all those threads? Was their water magic too? And-"

Jareth held a hand up. "So many questions. Ask your sister. She needs the practice."

Sarah ignored her brother's tug and the taunting words. "So you offered them dreams. Whose?"

"Does it matter? They never sleep, Sarah. They desire most what you take for granted. Escape. Everything that isn't and will never be." His lips curled. "Sadly, it won't last. They will break them or lose them. As always. And one day they will fade as dreams do."

"Your gifts are smoke and mirrors." There was a bleakness in her tone.

He matched it. "Not all. Not the ones that matter."

"But why only one?" demanded Toby, his face still puzzled. "There were three. It's hardly fair."

"That's the point. It wouldn't suit his ends if they didn't need him," Sarah replied acerbically.

"Not everyone gets exactly what they desire," countered Jareth. "And it's never fair. For anyone."

Sarah turned away, wrapping the cord firmly around her wrist. "If this won't last then we should hurry."

Jareth inclined his head. "As my lady commands."


They made their way through the woods with Sarah in the lead. The thread seemed to shorten on its own, staying taut to her wrist no matter how much ground they covered. She could feel its steady hum against her skin. Max.

As the day passed it became reassuring in its way, spurring Sarah to walk faster. Come on, feet. I can do this. Again. Toby and Jareth kept a quiet pace at her heels.

She didn't notice it start to fade until the day's light had begun to dim as well. Nothing lay ahead but more trees. She quickened her pace, her fingers curling reflexively tighter around the thread. Toby, seeing her panic, drew alongside her and wrapped his own smaller hand around the thread, as though he could help save it by will alone.

And then they started to run.

The steady pulse of the thread had begun to soften as well, slowing until she could barely feel it. When it finally ebbed to nothing, she gave a muffled sob and stared bereft at her empty hands. Toby bent over and breathed heavily at her side. Her muscles burned but all she could think was that they should have run faster. Cooled sweat slid down her back. Her messy hair was plastered to her neck and face.

"We should have started running sooner," she sniffed. Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes until one escaped and slid down her cheek.

A leather clad finger wiped it away, lightly tipped her chin up.

Before them stood large imposing stone doors. They rested in a stone arch way but were connected to nothing. No wall, no building. Nothing. Cairn stones surrounded both them and the doors between. Runes and symbols, some Sarah recognized, were deeply etched into every surface. The doors themselves were carved into an archaic depiction of a tree – the roots mirroring the branches in their knot work, so that there was no beginning and no end.

She turned to look up at Jareth. He was gone.

In his place stood the Goblin King encase in midnight armour and wraithlike cape. It lifted in the wind.

When she looked at his face her skin damp chilled and the fine hairs prickled on her neck.

His expression was victorious.

Feeling her stare, he grinned. "Oh Sarah, you should have started running a long time ago."

Chapter Text

 

 

I could corrupt you in a heartbeat
You think you're so special
Think you're so sweet

What are you trying
Don't even tempt me

Soon you'll be crying
And wishing you dreamt me

  Corrupt, Depeche Mode


 

Sarah didn't have time to fully process the implication of his words, nor that she should perhaps run, before the wind howled with preternatural fury. It came from all directions at once, whipping her unbound hair into a stinging frenzy around her face. In the otherwise silent woods it roared like a wild beast gnashing its teeth.

And then the sound of heavy hooves hitting earth rumbled, drawing towards them at an alarming rate. Whatever approached was very large and the trees cracked and whined in protest.

Until it all stopped, like a stopper going back into a bottle.

Trembling, Sarah pulled the tangled hair from her face and spit it from her mouth to see four men surrounding them, standing just outside the cairn stones like four points on a compass.

Each wore a broad mantle of deep red hide across armoured bodies. They were bound with a silver torque in the shape of a bleeding heart. Their auburn hair dusted their necks in rope-like locks and was adorned with gleaming beads. On their heads large antlers protruded from their helmets and spread towards the sky. Their faces were hard set and their dark eyes were flint-like and assessing.

Jareth returned their stare with equal coldness, and then his lips bowed into a cool smile.

"I thought I smelled a foul wind." Sarah tensed even as the four men did the same. "What a dramatic entrance. I hope it was not for our sake."

"That is the quite the charge coming from you," one sneered.

"Yes, but when I do it I do it with style," Jareth quipped.

"We did not believe the tree rat, nor the winged beast, that you would ever dare," another said. His voice was gravelly and his hand rested prominently on the pommel of something beneath his cloak.

"And Nid only laughed," added his brother. "I now see the joke. Who would believe you'd dare enter the Heart."

"Not you, Dainn," Jareth replied dryly. "But even a halfwit might have expected me."

"I'll happily wipe the smile from your face," warned his brother. His hand also gripped the hilt of something and it flexed eagerly.

But the third stayed his brothers. "How did you find the door?" The incredulity in his voice suggested that should have been an impossibility.

Jareth turned his head. "That hardly matters. Here I am. And I intend to open it."

"Then you full know we will stop you," he replied. He lacked the ire of his brothers, and instead sounded resigned.

Jareth laughed and spread his hands invitation. "I invite you to try." Jareth's cloak swirled in the windless wood like darkness falling. Sarah felt the very air crackle.

The four men paused and they exchanged a glance, assessing the king and then landing on Sarah and Toby with suspicion. "Who are the spares?"

"No one of consequence and none of your concern. Now open the door or I shall."

"You order us?" They exchanged another glance. The wind began to rise again. "By the beating of our hearts, it will never open for you!"

Jareth arched a brow. "You think not? When it has so many times before?"

"Not for an age," snapped one as though exasperated. "It was shut to you, King of Goblins." The last was said derisively. "Forever."

"Forever wasn't long at all is seems. And I think you'll find it will open now. I have business within, and you," he glanced around the circle with disgust, "have bark to chew."

"Let me end him!" demanded the youngest. He drew back the hide to draw a great sword.

The elder shook his head. "If only it were that easy." He eyed the trio again. "The sisters led you here. It can be the only way. But why?"

"You should try charm instead of force. Perhaps you would not fear them so."

The young buck laughed. "Fear? Those old hags have finally lost it if they helped you."

Jareth's lips twitched. "I shall relay your regards to them next I visit. Perhaps they'd even find a use for your face." The man's throat gave a betraying bob. "Indeed. As much as I would love to continue this little chat," his tone clearly implied the opposite, "we must be on our way." He motioned to Sarah. "Open the door, Sarah."

Sarah stared at him and then back at the men, who seemed just as surprised by the request.

"Uh…," she looked askance at the door, and then again at the men who now were all focused on her. "I'd… rather not."

"For Max."

But looking at his face she did not quite believe him. She glanced again at the men, who'd all drawn their weapons. She did not think they'd have any problems ending her. "Why can't you?"

Jareth lids dipped so that she couldn't decide if he was amused or annoyed. Perhaps both. "Don't you want to save your brother?"

The elder hart skirted the edge of the stone. "Woman, whatever he has promised you, do not believe his lies. He is no friend to you."

"Perhaps we can be of service, lady," his twin offered, hand outstretched. "There is no corner we cannot reach."

Sarah chewed her lip and then exchanged a look with Toby. "Well…" Their faces were incredibly earnest and Sarah got the strong impression that they were not lying. But better the devil you know and Jareth had saved her twice, nobly or not. And it occurred to her that for the first time that he seemed to need her. She had power over him.

And she liked it.

"Where does the door lead?"

"Sarah… Max is somewhere on the other side. You waste time."

"But where? Do you actually know?"

Jareth's jaw ticked. "I know how to find him."

"And why is that? If you didn't take him as you say."

Jareth remained silent.

"Did you have something to do with his disappearance?"

"Touch the door, Sarah." He words were clipped.

"Why can't you?" She volleyed back. "Why does it have to be me? Did you have something to do with Max?"

But Jareth had apparently reached his limit and had no interest in bargaining. He turned viciously. "Who would you save, Sarah? Toby or Max?"

She blinked at him, even as she felt the pull to answer or to forfeit – stronger than ever before. His machinations angered her. "What?" Her head shook. "Why are you even asking that?"

"You can save only one. Toby or Max? One dies and one lives. Answer the question or touch the door."

Sarah felt Toby's eyes on her.

"So you forfeit then?"

"No!" she yelled. "Damn it." She shot him an equally vicious, brittle look and approached the doors. The four harts watched her warily, their faces a mix of confusion and suspicion. She lightly pressed her hands against the door and then yanked them back. "There!"

Though she'd already stepped away the brief contact had apparently been enough and the carved tree glowed a molten red. She felt an answering warmth in her own body, the strongest in her chest and wrist.

The doors parted with a groan.

By the time the wind began to scream, Jareth had ushered them through.

"I'm sure this utter failure will not be counted against you," he called to the brothers over the din. The doors closed behind them.

In the woods four massive harts stomped their hooves in frenzied anger, their antlers gouged the ground in deep gashes, and then just as suddenly they were away. North, South, East, and West. Faster than the wind that trailed them.

It had begun. 


Once the doors closed all light was swallowed and all sound too. The ground gave way as though the earth tilted and had tipped them off an edge. There was a sudden rush, then a tug like a coiled rope going taut, and the smell of salt air as everything fell away.

When everything settled and righted again they were standing on a small hilltop in a bright sunny meadow. The sky was a dazzling azure blue. Sarah had almost forgotten it could be any colour other than yellow. The tall verdant grasses rolled lightly in the breeze and it felt like the most halcyon day of summer. The tangled woods were gone, replaced by a lone apple tree and a small stone cottage next to it that looked like it belonged in a painting.

Jareth has his had around Sarah's wrist while his other gripped Toby's shirt. The boy looked shell-shocked. The goblin king's eyed still shone brightly.

Too brightly, she realized, like he was feverish. When she pulled away, he faltered and she automatically dipped back to take his weight. Toby did the same. He was heavier than he looked. Belatedly she noticed that he was back to wearing his simple clothes, his goblin armour vanishing like a broken illusion.

"What's wrong?" she demanded, as much afraid for them as she was for him.

"I seem to have over-done myself," he managed on a weak laugh, but his face was too pale. "All will be well soon."

Sarah was not feeling her best either - her stomach clenched painfully and her legs wobbled. She faltered under his weight and only just managed to awkwardly bring him to ground, herself half caught under his torso and his head pillowed on her lap.

"An apple, boy."

Toby blinked at him in confusion.

Sarah looked up at the tree above them and jerked her head at the gilded fruit. Toby quickly plucked one and passed it to Sarah. She took it and then holding it awkwardly held it towards Jareth.

"You must enjoy this role-reversal," he managed as he took a bite.

"I'd enjoy it more if I knew what the hell was going on." She watched the muscles in his jaw work as he chewed. His eyes closed.

She stared at him and then began to panic, but his chest rose and fell beneath his shirt evenly as though he only slept. She looked up at Toby who merely shook his head.

The sunlight highlighted the colours in hair and without meaning to, she touched it tentatively. She was surprised to find it so soft, despite the wildness. Like feather down.

She froze when she realized Jareth was watching her slyly beneath lowered lids. His smile widened at her obvious embarrassment.

"Don't stop on my account, Sarah. You have my permission to touch me wherever you wish," he offered, humour dancing in his eyes. "I'd only insist that you grant me the same freedom."

"Not likely," Sarah snorted and tried to push him off of her.

Jareth stood easily and pulled her to her feet in one deft moment, keeping her hands caged within his. "Permission was only a formality really." He dipped his head and pressed his lips against hers. The shock stilled her and though it was an entirely chaste kiss, she found she couldn't breathe. It was over before it began, but it was long enough that later she would remember little details - his hair teasing her face, his lips that firm but surprisingly soft, her inhalation of surprise that parted her lips enough that she could taste the tang of ripe apples on him. He pulled back before she could push him away and looked around, as though none of it had even happened.

Sarah scrambled back, a scowl replacing the shock. Jareth took another bite of apple and then rolled it along his fingers until it vanished.

The door to the cottage opened and a young woman emerged. Her sable hair was bound in two long thick braids; the same dark colour as her eyes. Her simple dress was the shade of a stormy sea, and it was half tucked into a looped belt at her waist. She wore laced brown leather pants beneath and tall leather boots. A simple golden circlet adorned her head, along with a smudge of dirt - perhaps earth, across her cheek. Her lips were parted in a smile.

The dark eyes lit on Toby kindly. "And who do we have here? Who dares to pluck my apples before they are even full ripe?"

Toby coloured and then pointed at Jareth. "He made me do it."

"Guilty as always." Jareth strode forwards and soundly kissed her even as she sucked in a breath of surprise. When he pulled back, he mused. "You look as lovely as the harvest."

"You think to pay me for thievery in kind words?" But she didn't seem angry, in fact tears were pooling. "Dare I welcome you back?"

"Who could ever tell you no? But I'd imagine welcome is not the word to use."

Her eyes fell to Sarah, pausing, and then back to Toby. "I've heard much in bits and pieces. Whispers in the wind." Her lips suggested she found it amusing. "I can therefore only imagine the true story." Her face sobered. "But I prefer simpler seeds than those of discord. I think I'd rather not know." She touched his face. "You look so different. Colder. I did not think to see you-", her voice hitched.

"But I am here."

"And are you well?"

"Because of you, yes." He inhaled deeply, as though savouring the air and flexed his hands. "I feel quite… myself again."

"And your… companions? Dare I ask of them?"

"You can, though you won't care for the answer."

"Perhaps." Her eyes lit on Sarah again, long enough that Sarah began to shift uncomfortably under the steady-eyed gaze. She was acutely aware that she was sweaty and dirty and her jacket looked like it had lost a fight with the cleaners. The fact that she was suddenly conscious of these things bothered her even more.

The young woman looked back to Jareth. "And will you stay?" She touched his face again. "You are all welcome. It has been so long." There was a naked yearning in her voice that made Sarah want to leave them to their reunion.

Jareth covered the woman's hand with his own. "Not now. But when I am finished we will have all the time ever after."

"And yet despite those honeyed words I fear that look in your eyes. As I always have. For what it means… and for what you will do."

"Were it anyone but you I'd say your fear is justified." His eyes were hard, but his lips remained a smile. "Don't fret over me. I have no intention of falling."

"I'd dissuade you if I could..."

"But you are too wise for wasted words," he finished glibly. He squeezed her hand. "We must be on our way." He released her but rubbed the dirt from her face softly before stepping away. "You know I will return."

"I will hold you to that." And there was iron in her words.

"As I said, none have ever dared say no to you." Jareth stared at her a moment and then bowed, before ushering Sarah and Toby away down the hill.

The woman watched them go, her hand a fist against her heart as though she were just holding herself back. "Are you happy?" she called when they were almost out of earshot - an impulsive thought that had escaped.

Jareth paused, his hands still lightly pressed against the siblings' backs, and then called back. "I rather think I will be." Long fingers splayed. 


The small smile stayed etched on Jareth's face even as they left the cottage behind.

Sarah wasn't sure if she particularly cared for a smiling Goblin King, but she followed regardless, allowing her hand to skim the soft grass - tickling her palms. The sun was refreshingly warm on her face with no trees to blot it out, and she'd almost forgotten how normal a sky could be.

She wanted to ask about the woman. The one he'd kissed when she could still taste his apple on her lips.

There had been an intimacy in the way they'd looked at one other. As though they'd been separated for a long time and couldn't bear to part again. An insidiously familiar feeling unfurled in her stomach.

It was checked only by her anger. He'd forced her hand yet again. He'd known she would not answer – could not answer such a terrible question. She hadn't had one, hadn't wanted one, but she was more afraid she`d find one if she allowed herself time enough to think.

Beneath that lay the deeper worry. Why would he think to ask that at all?

"Was that your wife?"

Toby's question startled Sarah and her hand closed around the grass reflexively, the blades slicing her palm.

Jareth eyed the boy without breaking stride. "There is no Goblin Queen."

"Then your girlfriend?" Toby returned the king's stare unflinchingly.

"Girlfriend?" Jareth repeated as though he'd never heard the word and then his lips twitched. "She is not mine, if that is your question. Why, are you looking for a wife?"

Toby sputtered and then pulled a face. "What? Gross! You just seemed happy to see her. Plus you kissed her."

"Is a kiss all it takes to claim ownership?"

Toby shrugged with childlike indifference. "You usually only kiss people you love."

"Mmm," Jareth offered, neither an agreement nor denial. "And what does a boy of your age know of love?"

Toby straightened his shoulders. "I know people want it. I know it happens all the time. In movies. In old people like my parents," he rhymed off. "Even Sarah has a boyfriend. Well sort of. There's a guy who'd like to be her boyfriend. And she likes him too I think." He shrugged again. "So love. Or like anyway."

"Oh?" Jareth's response was deceptively light.

Toby nodded, happy to know something about Sarah the Goblin King didn't already. "Going to go for coffee when she gets back. And coffee always means something more, right?" Toby added innocently.

"Does it?"

"Toby…" Sarah said warningly.

"Uh huh," her brother continued undaunted. "He's… um, nice."

"Nice." Jareth repeated, as though the word was just as foreign.

"Well nicer than the last one. He was an ass-"

"Toby!"

"He made her cry."

"Impossible!" the king scoffed.

"Oh he did! So she got rid of him. Then she made him cry," Toby finished with brotherly relish.

"That sounds more like it."

"See dad liked him. Law school." Toby waved a hand as though that explained it all. "Even started talking to mum about saving for a wedding. Mum was all grandchildren, blah, blah, blah!" Toby conveyed how dull he'd found it all. "This was before Max, when mum was all about babies," he added helpfully.

Sarah stared at the back of her brother's head incredulously.

"How fascinating," Jareth offered. "And what's the lucky young man's name?"

But Sarah had drawn forward and covered Toby's open mouth with her hand. She kept it there even when Toby tried licking her palm in retaliation. "He doesn't know anything. Not worth discussing anyway."

"What a pity."

Sarah ignored his dry jab. "Change of subject." Sarah released Toby and wiped her palm on her jeans. "What was all of that about? Why did you make me open the door?"

Jareth kept walking.

"Where are we? And what happened to you?"

"I'd much rather discuss the not worth discussing part."

Sarah ignored him again. "The apple… those were Idunn's apples, weren't they? So that woman, who inexplicably seemed pleased to see you, was Idunn?"

"That's a name I haven't heard in a long time. Not what I'd call her but for your sake, yes." His lips twitched. "And she's always had a soft spot for villains."

"You're not actually going to actually answer any of my questions are you?"

"I thought I was being rather generous. If you'd wanted to ask the questions you should have made a different bargain."

"You're such a bast-"

"Sarah!" Toby admonished with ill-concealed glee.

Sarah rolled her too tight shoulders in irritation. The sun was warming her face, but her skin was prickling uncomfortably with dried sweat and she felt altogether jittery. The feeling was only getting worse.

"Damn you," she hissed beneath her breath.

"Many have tried but it never seems to take. Ah…"

The grasses dipped down a small incline to the edge of wide stream. It cut across the meadow like a jagged scar. A weathered, cobbled stone bridge arched over it, marking the only apparent way across. The water beneath was clear but fast moving. When they reached the edge of the bridge, a dark-furred shape darted out from beneath it and barred the way, rather ineffectively given his diminutive size.

"Halt," it cried shrilly and brandished a spear no longer than a kitchen knife. In fact it might have been one. "None may pass here!"

It was a goblin, though it more closely resembled the end of a chimney sweeper's broom with a very long thin nose. It was wearing an odd assortment of clothes, like it had once raided a clothes line but had had little idea how any of the articles should have been worn. A sock, with a large hole in the heel, was its cap.

When it noticed the king, its red eyes widened in recognition and it bowed clumsily – the sock flopping over into the dirt.

"My most biggest and biggestest of apologies, your majesty! I didn't recognize you where you shouldn't be. Please don't bog us!" it squealed and curled itself into a ball. Only after nothing immediately happened and it remembered that the bog was nowhere near, it straightened and adjusted the ancient looking bloomers that formed its waistcoat.

"I won't bog you, Skub," Jareth replied benevolently. "You've been doing a very important job of guarding your bridge, haven't you?"

The puff ball nodded eagerly. "And the lady. And watching and listening and keeping all the secrets."

The Goblin King reached forward and scratched what might have been an ear. "And a fine job you've done."

The goblin preened under the praise and began to purr like a cat in delight. A cat that had been run over. More than once.

"And I will see that you're handsomely rewarded for your efforts."

The goblin, still purring and genuflecting as the king passed, only stopped when Toby and Sarah tried to follow. It hissed and spit, its red eyes gleaming and the kitchen knife flashing. "Halt!"

"No, no, Skub. They are friends. Do let them cross."

The goblin faltered. "But sire… they've paid no toll." His bottom lip began to tremble. "You said none but you may cross if they don't pay a price. You said, sire! You said it's my job."

"Ah yes. And so it is, Skub. Rules are rules, Sarah."

The goblin's eyes widened to saucers. "Sarah? The girl who ate the peach and sacked the castle?" The knife flashed again. "Shall I drown her, sire? A few holes and I can do it quick! Or slow… slow is better still!"

Sarah bristled at the king's laughter.

"Tempting. But I don't think that will be necessary, Skub." The goblin's expression begged to differ but the knife reluctantly disappeared back into his fur.

"I'd rather just get wet." Sarah eyed the stream, but knew that as with anything magic, it was not what it seemed. "What's the toll?"

The goblin snickered in delight. "The price to pass is as clear as glass, the secret you conceal you must now reveal."

"What kind of secret?" Toby asked doubtfully. "That's a stupid price. It doesn't even look that deep." But as soon as he approached the edge, the water churned violently and began to rise towards his feet like a snake striking. Sarah tugged him back.

"Okay not stupid," Toby swallowed. "Not stupid! A secret is simple enough." He began to think.

"It could be simple or harder still, for the price paid is against your will." The goblin grinned widely, revealing a surprising row of very sharp teeth. Without warning it reached for Toby and grasped his hand.

Almost instantly Toby's lips parted as though by rote. "It would be easier if Max had never been born."

The goblin nodded, as though satisfied and released him.

Toby clamped a hand over his mouth and looked to Sarah, pale faced. "I don't… I mean…I couldn't stop it!

Sarah squeezed his shoulder. "Shh! It's okay. It's normal. We all… think bad things sometimes." She glared at Jareth over his head.

"It's only sometimes. I swear! And not anymore. Not really! I love him. I do! Ah - you wouldn't think anything so bad," Toby replied quietly even as the goblin reached for Sarah's hand.

She kept her hand away. "No. He's already taken enough of my secrets." She met the goblin king's eyes unflinchingly across the bridge. "If he wants another one, it will cost him. I think he needs me to cross anyway."

"That's not fair," Toby whined, then chewed his lip like he was ashamed he'd said it. "Sorry," he whispered.

Jareth met stare and then inclined his head. "She's right, of course. They're already mine to take. Let her pass and I'll make her pay later."

But the goblin looked like he agreed with Toby and his lip began to tremble again, this time large tears welled in his eyes, dampening the fur of his face. A moment later a long drop of snot slid from his nose, which he then sucked up and back in with a noisy sniffle. "But Skub has failed in his most trusted duty!"

Sarah sighed. "What is your duty? To make everyone pay a price?"

The goblin nodded on a hiccup.

Sarah padded her jacket and felt in her pockets, finally pulling out a half-eaten granola bar she'd forgotten about. She was about to stuff it back in when the goblin sniffed the air.

"Is that… is that chocolate?" it asked reverently.

"Er… yes. Do you want it?"

The goblin sniffed again and then sighed. The disjointed purring sound started again, this time even stronger.

Sarah smiled. "How about I'll give it to you and you let me pass? A price will have been paid, right? And it's against my will as I love chocolate."

"Skub does love chocolate too…"

Sarah dangled it enticingly until the goblin, now freely drooling, snatched it and stuffed it into his mouth, wrapper and all. It swallowed loudly and then licked its fingers.

Sarah carefully pulled Toby around the creature and onto the bridge.

Jareth clapped slowly. "Is that how you so easily ensnared my subjects to your wiles? He'll be your slave for life now."

Sarah held up her hands. "You should get better goblins then. It was a piece of cake."


 

As soon as they'd crossed to the other side, the world tilted again, and abruptly fell away. The same dizzying sensation of falling, perhaps more muted than before, made her stomach roil until everything righted itself again.

When her senses cleared, they were standing outside another set of gates. These were surrounded by a high wall that stretched in every direction. The sky was the saturated hues of a vivid sunset. Torches lit the upper rim of the wall in measured intervals, painting the air with wisps of ash.

Sarah pressed a hand to her head. "I will never get used to that."

Unlike before, no one rushed to stop them at the gates. In fact the gates opened quite unbidden, to allow a belled horse and cart to exit. The driver, covered in a thick cloak, and bright cap, barely acknowledged their presence above a slight nod, before clicking his tongue at his steed. Between the parted doors, a bustling marketplace lay, its occupants all as equally unconcerned with their arrival. Sarah and Toby followed Jareth inside.

Stalls selling fine cloths and kettles and bottles of various sizes were haphazardly stacked beside one another on ontop of one another as well. The hiss and crackle of cooking fires warred with the rolling hum of voices haggling over prices. Somewhere someone played a lively song on a stringed instrument. Men and woman and beast alike strolled amongst the shops, wearing all manner of bright dresses and cloaks, some armed and others almost bare; some looking almost human, others anything but. Silvery-skinned elves ducked between them and Sarah heard the fluttering of wings as tiny fairies buzzed, their bodies glowing like fireflies in the fading light. A blacksmith banged on an anvil, filling the air with sparks as colourful as fireworks.

She was reminded of a renaissance faire her mother had once taken her to, on one of the few occasions she'd come to visit for any length of time. Sarah had been enraptured, further still when her mother's famous lover had bought her the long white gown she'd fancied. The one she'd worn in the park to rehearse lines so many times it had started to dul, ever reading from a little red book she'd bought at the same place. But this time the pageantry was real - the masks anything but and the magic more than glitter dust.

Toby stared around slack-jawed, his stolen secret forgotten in wonder. A glowing fairy buzzed around his face and he reached a hand upwards, until Sarah pulled it back, shaking her head.

The smell of roasted meat and spices teased her nose and Sarah felt her head swim for a moment, as it had in the orchard.

"Apples and quinces… plump unpeck'd cherries… bloom-down-cheek'd peaches… come buy, come buy!"

Sarah's eyes strayed to a stall of bright ripe fruit - every sort imaginable and some beyond. Two goblins called their wares with voices far fairer than their faces. "A sweet plum for the sweeter lady," one beckoned in honeyed tones.

"Not today," Jareth replied, his hand at Sarah's elbow. "They are not needed here." The goblin's eyes widened at the king and then he shared a gleefully toothy grin with his fellow merchant. One winked back at Sarah boldly.

Somewhere near a baby cried, and Sarah spun, her eyes scouring the throngs. A dwarven woman in a nearby stall nursed a plump baby into sleep at her breast.

Sarah turned back dejectedly. Toby's mirrored her in disappointment.

Some passerby gave them curious glances, others ignored them all together.

"What is this place," Sarah asked, surprised when Jareth actually answered, his hand still cupping her elbow lightly as they walked.

"The crossroads. Where all paths meet and all door lead." He eyed her wan face. "Come." He turned, passing a stall purporting to sell eggs for all manner of beast, and led them to a door at the base low stone building. A hanging sign r was carved into rune like characters Sarah couldn't read, but the image of what looked like a dragon on a spit suggested it was a tavern. When they entered, Sarah was proven correct. Patrons as varied as the market filled the tables, some eating and drinking, others playing games. The buzz of chatter was a steady hum, punctuated by the occasional bray of laughter. Someone played a type of flute off key. Dwarves delivered platters of food and passed along foamy mugs of ale – the slightly sour tang of hops permeating the air. Some type of creature was roasting in the large stone fire place. A few faces glanced their way, earning them a few brows raised, but Jareth ushered them to the back of the room before much curiosity was peaked. A very stout dwarf, his hair and beard adorned in many golden beads, greeted him at the base of a set of stairs.

The dwarf eyed the pair but did not so much as raise a shaggy brow. Though he did not bow to Jareth, when he spoke it was obvious he knew to whom. "A room, sire? More?"

"No titles tonight, old friend. Adjoining, but with one door and but one key. No windows. A fire lit in all and beds as needed. The usual fare," Jareth waved a hand. "Payment in full."

The dwarf stroked his beard and nodded once. "Done." Without another word he led them up the stairs. At the top was an impossibly long hallway with but one door.

"A full house," Jareth remarked.

The dwarf grunted an acknowledgement as he unlocked the sole door from a heavy ring of what looked like over a hundred keys in all sizes. Once the door clicked open, he removed the key and handed it to the goblin king.

Jareth pushed the door inward and ushered Sarah and Toby inside.

"Welcome back," the dwarf offered by way of parting. Jareth locked the door and tucked the key into his shirt.

The room was lit by a pleasant glow from candles and a well burning fire. A small plush couch was set before the fire, with a low table before it. The floors were lined in thick carpets and the walls hung with equally rich tapestries, broken up only by two more doors. Anything that could be was gilded.

The centrepiece of the room, however, was a table laden with more food than seemed possible for it's size. Jareth's early morning spread look meagre by comparison. Two candelabras shed an inviting glow over the crisp roast duck and the tureen of some type of thick steaming stew. Glazed figs and olives perched beside perfectly browned loaves of fresh rye bread. A salted roast of some sort sat beside a platter of delicately flaked fish smothered in a creamy sauce. Platters of cheese and pots of clotted creams were interspersed with richly roasted vegetables and beautifully sliced ripe fruit. Tortes and delicately puffed pastries accompanied by small crocks of honey and chocolate vied for attention. Brim filled pitchers of wine, ale, milk, and water took up any remaining space. Gilt plates, cutlery, and goblets enough for three were set invitingly.

Looking at the spread, Sarah felt the same lightheaded sensation make her legs wobble.

Toby approached the table with ill-concealed greed.

"Do help yourself, Toby."

"Don't."

Toby paused, torn between them.

"Come now, Sarah. It has been a trying few days on the boy. On you both," Jareth added saccharinely. "Are you really going to deny him a well-earned meal because you'd rather spite me?" He seated himself at the head of the table and idly motioned towards the other chairs. "When was the last time he actually ate?"

Sarah's brow furrowed and with it returned the same nagging feeling of wrongness. Toby's responding shrug of ignorance was no more helpful.

She fished in his bag 'til she pulled out the paltry remains of their supplies. "Here. If you want something eat this, Toby. You can have it all. I should have been making sure you ate."

Toby shrugged again. "I just wasn't hungry, I guess. I'm not… even sure I am now, really, but this looks so good." He sank into one of the chairs and reached for a leg of duck and a generous hunk of bread without being bidden again.

Jareth smiled at him indulgently, ruffling his hair, before looking back to Sarah pointedly.

Panic had fully settled. "But that's the point, Toby. We should have been hungry. And thirsty. And everything else other than just tired. It must be this place that's affecting us." She chewed her cheek in indecision. "We must... not need to eat while we're here." She looked to Jareth. "I'm guessing if we haven't even been hungry we won't starve."

"Not yet. But I imagine you're already uncomfortably hungry. Or would be if I hadn't been so generous."

"Generous?" Sarah cocked her head. "Wait, what have you done?"

"Nothing deserving of that look, I assure you. Come now, Sarah, your little picnic of nuts and berries would not have lasted long enough and I think you know that. You seemed so determined not to eat, I made certain you wouldn't miss it."

The episodes of light headedness finally made sense. "You took away our hunger."

"For a time. Now, allow me to sate it." Jareth motioned to the chair again.

"How dare you! I knew something was wrong. We did NOT ask for that."

"No. Consider it a gift with no expectation of return. Of course you were always so ungrateful of my gifts." He poured himself a goblet of wine and sipped. "And you are right that you didn't ask for it. Very well then."

Almost instantly a crippling cramp gnawed at Sarah's stomach. Her hands pressed to her side as her head throbbed. Through the haze, she caught Toby's startled expression.

Jareth watched her above the rim of his glass. "I gather it's rather unpleasant. But I imagine you'll still draw the inevitable out as long as possible."

The hunger and thirst of the last few days had caught up to her in a single beat. She couldn't stop a whimper of pain as she into the chair.

"Hungry, Sarah?"

Her stomach took that moment to grumble. She turned her face away and ignored him.

"Allow me to feed you then."

"I'm not hungry enough to accept anything from you. I'd starve first."

"Oh eventually maybe. But I doubt you'd let yourself. That would be the coward's way out. I can wait until you can't. So the question becomes why suffer needlessly?"

"You mean why delay the inevitable?" She wasn't certain they were still speaking of food.

Jareth grinned.

"Because I don't like to be backed into a corner. Or manipulated. Or blackmailed or coerced or any of the other things you're so good at. So no, I don't want it."

"As I said. I can wait."

Sarah glared at him and mutely shook her head, her eyes straying to Toby.

Jareth caught her look. "I see no need to make the child suffer because you want to martyr yourself. He can choose for himself, can't he?" But he had. Toby's plate was already cleared, a smear of thick drippings on his chin. Sarah cast him a disappointed look and then turned worried eyes to Jareth.

"I assure you a crust of bread won't seal his fate, and," he added pointedly, "I already mentioned it wouldn't be the first time."

Toby, morosely avoiding his sister's stare, was already reaching for more. "Eat, Sarah," he whispered pleadingly. "It's just food."

She unscrewed the cap of the remaining water and downed it. It burned her parched throat and hit her empty stomach with a painful clench, but her throbbing head began to dull.

Sarah stared at the food balefully, her body still jittery and off balance and her mind too starved to focus properly.

"I can make it go away again… if you'd only ask, Sarah. Or," he motioned towards the feast. "You can end the pain yourself. I'm not the villain, Sarah. It's your choice."

She knew she was being foolish but it was difficult to feel so manipulated.

Toby had started on a third helping. His smile faltered. "It's really good."

Sarah watched him lick his lips with despair. "It's okay. It's my fault."

Toby swallowed, not quite looking at her. "For wishing me away?"

"W-what?" She looked at the king.

"He didn't tell me, if that's what you think. I figured it out myself, I'm not stupid." There wasn't accusation in his voice, but it wavered enough to betray more than he showed on his face.

"I…" she trailed off helplessly.

"I read that book Sarah and I know you've been here… well there before. And I've listened enough to you guys talk. You guys aren't subtle."

Jareth snorted.

"I… don't know what to say. Sorry," Sarah finished lamely. She had wondered if he'd worked it out, but Toby hadn't said anything else about the book. "If I could have taken it back," she added when he said nothing more.

"I know," Toby said bitterly. "But we don't get to take it back, do we? How come you didn't tell me?" There was the accusation, Sarah thought. "I thought I was broken or wrong somehow when I… I did it to Max. But apparently it runs in the family."

Jareth snorted again.

Sarah worried her hands in her lap. "I should have. I realize that now. But I wanted to protect you… from knowing too much about… this," she motioned helplessly. And him, she added wordlessly. "I thought this was all over." Toby just stared at her. "And… and I was ashamed. I was spoiled and selfish and silly."

Toby nodded slowly. "So that's what I am too then. Thought so."

Sarah reached across the table. "No way! You're still a child. You didn't know what you were doing. Totally different story."

Toby scoffed, "So you knew?"

"Well…I…no-"

"She's right, Toby. She was different. Too young to keep, too old to turn. She was a foolish, spoiled girl, but she was as surprised as you when it worked. She immediately tried to take her words back. To take you back. And when I refused, she solved my Labyrinth, enslaved my subjects, beat my… rather ineffectual army, stormed the castle, and turned the world upside down to win you back. She gave up her dreams. For you." Sarah gaped at him. "Now I do think you've every right to be upset, Toby. She robbed you of a very magical and exciting life as my protégé."

Toby couldn't stop a small laugh. "Would you have turned me into a goblin?"

Jareth winked. "Only when I got bored of you."

Toby looked back to Sarah. "I want to get Max back, right? You know that. Even if…"

"Even if younger brothers can be annoying? I know, Toby. There is nothing wrong with you."

"Do you regret it? Getting me back I mean? Especially now that I did… that to Max," he whispered.

"Never. I'd do it all over again right now. Scouts honour."

He sank into his chair as though finally relaxing. In that moment Sarah realized that this was what Toby had secretly worried he'd hear from the revelation at the bridge. That she'd always regretted getting him back. That he'd been holding onto since he'd figured it out.

"Allow me to forewarn the goblins," Jareth added dryly.

Sarah stared at him and then laughed – the slow building, eventually unstoppable kind that is born from stress and exhaustion.

Wiping her eyes, Sarah caught Toby in a yaw, his hand on his now distended stomach. Her own groaned in jealousy.

"Do you want to go to bed?"

Toby protested. "You're always sending me to bed when things get uncomfortable."

"Go to bed, Toby," Jareth drawled. Toby rose. "There are two beds through there," he indicated one of the doors with a finger. "Sarah," he added when Sarah rose to accompany her brother, "I don't think you're quite tired yet, are you?"

Sarah frowned at the command masquerading as a question.

"You're not a prisoner here. You can run and hide in your room," his teeth gleamed, "play with your toys and your costumes. But I thought you were made of sterner mettle and I suspect," his finger traced the rim of his goblet, "you'll rise to the occasion."

The gauntlet at her feet.


She joined Toby in the bedroom, giving only a cursory glance at the space. Similar in decor to the main room, it included two generously sized beds, a nightstand, and blessedly well-equipped facilities through an adjoining door.

Toby had already crawled into bed, his eyes heavy, having paused only to kick off his shoes. Sarah tucked him in and he allowed it. Apart from staring at her for a long moment, he said nothing more and closed his eyes.

"I am sorry, Toby," she spoke after a minute – the words halting and disjointed. "I should have told you. I was just afraid… well, it doesn't matter. I have always wanted you as a brother. And all of this is not your fault. It's mine. Just know that we'll make this right. If I could do it alone, think about what we'll do together." Toby's lips quivered but he didn't say anything and his eyes remained closed. "Goodnight, kiddo," Sarah smoothed his brow. "I'll be back shortly."

The water from the overhead copper shower was blessedly hot – on that cusp of pleasure pain. The heat and drumming beads soothed her aching muscles. For a long time she just stood, head tilted into the cascade, and let the last few days burn away. When she finally wrapped herself in a fluffy towel she could almost claim herself human again. Her stomach reminded her she sadly was. She had very mortal needs.

She knew if she opened the wardrobe she'd probably find beautifully clean clothes, but she reluctantly put on a clean-ish blouse and, after shaking them out, her jeans again. She left her boots off, her bare toes curling into the plush rugs.

Delaying as long as she could, repacking their bags and straightening the covers unnecessarily on both beds, she combed her hair and finally opened the door.

Jareth was still seated at the table like he'd known she'd return. His plate held an assortment of food but he wasn't eating, his fingers were steepled beneath his chin.

Sarah sat down across from, allowing the silence to stretch to the verge of uncomfortable before speaking. "Thank you. For that. For what you said to Toby. You… I guess you didn't have to."

Jareth said nothing for a moment and then inclined his head. "It was the truth in as much as anything ever is. And we all play our parts."

At her furrowed brow he took a sip of wine and considered her. "I wonder if it ever occurred to you that without me you would have been the villain of your story. The girl who cruelly wished away her helpless baby brother to the goblins. The babe rescued by the handsome king."

Sarah scoffed.

"If I hadn't offered you a way to reclaim him," he continued undaunted, "that would have been the end of the tale. As it has been so many times. What's said is said, after all. Oh I suppose Toby would have made a fine goblin and the ending would have been as happy as not. But instead you became the noble knight, sacrificing your dreams to win him back. It would almost pull at the heart strings – those ones so easily snipped - unless one recalled that you wished him in the first place. Turning yourself into the hero was quite a feat of maneuvering. Almost goblin like in its rapacity."

Sarah stared at him incredulously. "And I suppose you want a thank you?"

"You're welcome," he replied cordially.

"Are you honestly arguing that you weren't a villain?"

"Honestly? Hardly. I'm just pointing out that you were one too and I'm not sure why you feel guilty about it. The story could have easily been about a king granting the wishes of a young girl, only to have the girl thanklessly destroy his city and turn his world upside down. After all, aren't we all the heroes of our own story, Sarah?"

Their eyes sparred across the table.

Jareth looked away first. "I've never pretended to be a hero, Sarah, and I'll make no apologies for that. I defer to your skill at playing so many parts."

"I was still a child in many ways." She leveled a hard look. "In all the ways that mattered."

"Yes, too old to turn… too young to keep." His flicked over her face. Unspoken was the implied 'not anymore'.

Sarah looked away then, uncomfortable with the truths masquerading as lies. With his brand of storytelling. Uncomfortable that he wasn't wholly wrong.

"Don't look so glum, precious. I'm not saying this to hurt you. I'd rather we came to a better understanding of one another. I admire your cruelty, Sarah. And I admire how much you try to repress it. How you try to be so good and are. At times. I even admire stubbornly loyal you can be to those you love. I-"

A knock at the door ended whatever else he was going to say. Jareth rose, dropping his napkin on the table. He pulled the key out and unlocked the door.

Whomever was behind it, Sarah couldn't see. Jareth nodded and then glanced at her, a wry tilt to his head. "I'll be back shortly. Feel free to eat as much as you like while I'm gone. I'll pretend not to notice." The lock clicked.

Sarah glared at the door and then at the still-perfectly hot food. Her stomach was cramping again, hadn't stopped, reminding her relief was but a hand away.

She thought about dumping the contents of the table into the fire or onto the floor in an act of petulant defiance. That would only amuse him.

And it would be a shocking waste of good food.

She closed her eyes and rubbed her throbbing temple for a moment, then swore under her breath and reached for the nearest platter.

When the first mouthful reached her stomach it hurt.

It was also pure ecstasy.

Every flavour was somehow too intense and yet perfectly balanced. The duck was juicy, its skin richly crackled and well-seasoned. The bread was oven-warm, the strong taste of rye pairing with the sharpness of the well-aged cheese. After a few hurried mouthfuls, she forced herself to slow and pause. She'd heard eating too much and too quickly after fasting could make you sick. But she felt nothing, no ill effects of any kind, nothing save the desire to eat more. And more.

Persephone at six seeds. Sarah would devour the orchard.

She heard his approach with enough time to wipe her face, but forced herself not to hide her actions. When the door opened she steeled herself for the gloating and the smug reprisals, but she took another, less ravenous bite.

Jareth sat down gingerly, propping one arm on the back of his chair. "How do you find the fare? Everything to your liking?"

Sarah nodded without looking at him, pretending like there was nothing behind his words.

Jareth leaned forward and hooked a finger into the lid of a pot. "Do try the stew. It's one of my favourites."

She stared at the hand and then inclined her head. The bowl to her right immediately filled. She took a small taste. The broth was rich with flavour – some she recognized and some entirely new. The meat, perhaps lamb, perhaps some other hapless creature, was tender and equally flavourful, as though it had been cooked slowly with care over many hours.

"Good?"

She nodded again.

"You'll find it pairs well with the wine." Her glass filled with a vibrant golden liquid. She sniffed it and then took a sip.

Fermented berries and the sweet notes honey tempered the distinctive hoppy taste of ale. "It does. Is it poisoned?" She couldn't help herself.

"I hardly want you dead, Sarah."

She paused above the rim, "Drugged then?" but there was humour in her tone.

"Touché." He took a sip from his own. "It's just wine. I suppose you'll get drunk if you drink enough of it."

Sarah set her glass down. "Why do you do it?"

Jareth raised a brow.

"Why do you eat if you don't have to? Why all this artifice?"

Jareth laughed, "Why do anything pleasurable?" He held his glass up to the flame. "I don't have to drink it. I'm not being forced by thirst. I simply want to. It tastes much better that way. And I hunger for things the same as you, Sarah."

Their eyes met across the table.

And then Jareth picked up a fork began eating. After a moment, Sarah returned to it as well. And they fell into the comfortable silence that comes with eating a delicious supper, with a truce between sometimes enemies and uneasy allies. She stamped down the periodic incredulity at willingly sharing a meal with the Goblin King. One who seemed rather too pleased with the turn of events.

When she finally felt stuffed, she dabbed her mouth with a napkin and sat back. The entire orchard indeed.

"Finished?"

"Beyond." The table cleared saved for the wine and a carafe of what smelled like fresh coffee. "I could almost get used to this."

"Could you?" he asked softly.

Sarah shook her head. "Don't read more into that than it's nice to get what you want with little effort for a change. Food."

"Mmm, I can only imagine. Coffee?" he asked solicitously.

She reached for the cup and then paused. "This means nothing."

Jareth pretended to consider the cup. "It's just coffee," he agreed. "Though you and Toby seem to differ on that."

Sarah rolled her eyes. "He's ten."

"And yet has shown a refreshing amount of wisdom for a mortal."

"Ouch." But then she couldn't stop another small lilt of laughter. Jareth grinned.

Sarah smoothed the damp hair from her face and considered him, amusement still rolling her tone. "You're very good at turning my own words against me."

Jareth canted his head. "Not quite good enough."

Sarah looked away and took a sip. The coffee was velvet on the tongue – with just the right curl of sweetness.

"So is this a truce?" she asked more soberly.

A brow arched. "Were we at war?"

"Aren't we always?"

"I thought we were two old friends sharing a pleasant meal… or were," he added pointedly.

She sat straighter in her chair, alarmed at how comfortable she felt. Was feeling. "I know we need you. And I don't want to… fight you at every turn." Sarah felt the weight of his gaze. "So I suppose we are allies. For now. I just hope," she motioned at the table between them, "you don't think this means I trust you."

"Don't you?"

Sarah looked askance.

You may not trust my intentions, but you've lowered your guard as much as one can."

"Excuse me?"

"How many times have you slept in my presence?"

Sarah sputtered, "I really had no choice in the matter. And what are you implying? That you could have done something?"

Jareth leaned back. "Could have? Yes. Had I been the villain you paint me." He smiled wolfishly at her. "But I think you recognize that distinction. So yes, on some level you trust me, Sarah. Protest if it makes you feel better."

Sarah pushed herself away from the table and stood, as though to put more distance between them and the complacent lull the supper had left her in. His words, while true, rankled, and she wished she could discern his aim. "What is this?"

"Just coffee." He took a sip.

"You can't be implying-"

"Hardly something so benign. But there is something strangely intimate about sharing a meal. Breaking bread. I told you we would."

"I can assure you this was about hunger, nothing more." But it wasn't. Everything was meant to tempt. Entrap.

"Hunger that I sated. Again. Trust."

"I trust that you'll betray me."

"Perhaps. But I do enjoy turning your world upside down."

Sarah tossed her napkin down and moved to the fire. When she turned around again, he was elegantly sprawled at one end of the sofa.

"Is making me uncomfortable something else you want to do?" she parroted.

"I'd much prefer you were comfortable," he patted the seat beside him.

"Now I am tired."

"Liar." He patted the sofa again. More wine awaited her on the small table.

"I should check on Toby."

"The boy is sleeping. Sit. Or I can continue to wonder how sheer your blouse gets by firelight."

She sat.

Sarah turned, deciding to instead get a chair from the table, which had conveniently vanished. When she looked back at him he looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh.

"Thorough."

"Always."

His arm was stretched across the back the sofa, long fingers close enough they could almost brush her shoulder. His legs were crossed towards her and she could see the glint of his sigil against the pale skin of his chest beneath his shirt. Belatedly, she realized he must have refreshed himself as well. He looked casual and relaxed. Almost happy. It had quite the opposite effect on her.

"Who was at the door?" she asked by way of distraction.

"Our host." The surprise at his forthright answer must have shown on her face because he grinned. "Dwarves are very particular about their guests. He was merely checking to see if everything was to our satisfaction."

She suspected it wasn't the full truth but it was the most information he'd ever offered. "Who were the men who tried to stop us? And what did they mean when they said you shouldn't have been able to get here?"

"The Harts?" he laughed. "Guardians of the wood. The title is more impressive than the job. More bleat than buster and barely a brain to share between them."

Sarah raised a brow. "I wonder what they'd say about you. Why shouldn't you have been able to find the door? Why did I have to open it?"

"Events long passed limited by abilities in some areas. It's a rather long story."

"I like stories."

He poured her another glass of wine. "You do, don't you. Even ones not meant to be read."

Sarah ignored the jab and accepted the glass.

"What happened to you? I know you were just bluffing to the guards. And I remember that woman," Sarah added distastefully, "said something about you fading. You were getting weaker but you hid it. Except making that shelter last night was too much. And keeping Toby and I feeling fine. You couldn't have lasted much longer. But you wanted those guards to think you were fine. You weren't fine though. Until you ate the apple."

"You are a cunning thing aren't you?" Jareth said quietly.

"Why couldn't you open the door?"

"I think I preferred it when your mind was dull with hunger. You have an awful lot of questions this evening."

"Always. You just seem to be answering them for a change."

"Yes, rather unfairly too. I had to make a bargain to get anything out of you. What do I get for this?" Sarah began to protest but he continued. "You do like it to be fair, don't you?"

"I don't think you ever really play fairly. And I think I'd only end up losing. No more bargains with goblin kings."

"I'd never demand anything you're not willing to pay." He studied her face, her cheeks flushed from the wine, her eyes bright from the fire and her lips parted ever so slightly. "I'll answer one question of yours in exchange for a simple kiss."

Sarah choked on her wine. Then took another sip because the fire was suddenly too hot. "You don't actually expect me to agree to that, do you?"

"Any question." Like a cat toying with a mouse. "I didn't take you for a coward."

Sarah took another sip. She'd be a fool to say no. She'd be a fool to say yes. "Just a kiss?"

"Just a kiss."

Sarah licked her dry lips and then sighed. She put the glass down a little too loudly. Just a kiss. "Fine. Do it." Her heart was thumping in her chest and she suddenly felt the years strip away, like she'd become an unsure teenager again. When nothing happened, she opened the eyes she hadn't even realized she closed. He was unmoved from his end of the sofa. She looked at him quizzically.

"A kiss. From you."

"What? You didn't specify."

"No I didn't. I didn't specify where either. You really should get better at this." When she moved to protest again, he tsk'd, "I would have thought you'd prefer it this way. You'll have complete control. I'll be at your mercy. That's something you've wanted, isn't it?"

Sarah's fingers twitched on her knees. "Hard to call it control when I'm being forced into it."

"No one is forcing you to do anything, I think." He canted his head. "Do you want to kiss me, Sarah?"

In her palm, she could feel the question tingle. He was counting it, she realized, because he wanted to know the answer. If he'd asked 30 minutes before she might have honestly answered no. But in that moment – in the firelight, away from the bleakness of the wood, with the wine and food filling her belly and, as he said, the control in her hands… yes.

Yes.

Rather than answer, she leaned over and quickly pressed her lips against his. She'd misjudged the distance so the effort was awkward and rather ungainly. Less meaningful than even the brief peck in the orchard. Their noses bumped and her hands ended up on his chest, rather than on the arm of the sofa as intended. She'd landed at the corner of his mouth, almost on his chin. It was anything but graceful and she felt like an ungainly girl rather than the experienced woman she knew herself to be.

Embarrassed, she recovered quickly, and angled her head to a better position.

Before, so briefly, he'd tasted of apples. Now he tasted like spiced wine and coffee and something uniquely him.

His lips were firm against hers and his chest surprisingly warm – almost hot. Her fingers splayed past the edge of his shirt against bare skin. One of her legs lay between his.

Technically she'd satisfied the agreement and had almost pulled back, when the realization that he was more amused than anything else struck. Perhaps even bored. It rankled.

Kissing him, she reasoned, should be worth it.

She pressed harder, using her lips like she would her words. She let her teeth scrape flesh then teased it with the barest lick of her tongue.

She felt his intake of breath and his chest dip suddenly beneath her hand. He was no longer amused.

She back moved to the corner of his mouth, this time with deliberation to allow her tongue to trace the seam and dip within tauntingly. Teasing. Fingers instantly threaded into her hair at the nape of her neck while his other hand landed heavily on her hip and gripped. She gently tugged his lip with her teeth and he made a sound that echoed between her thighs. She did it again, this time more forcefully, and this time he groaned - almost a growl - meeting her with equal measure. He kissed liked he was ravenous. She wasn't sure if she wanted to be devoured or devour. His heart thumped steadily beneath her hand, her fingers curling against warm flesh. She liked him better when he wasn't talking, she thought wildly, so she continued to steal his breath, her tongue now freely exploring his mouth.

It was only the realization that she was now flush against him, all of him, his hand pressing her into him, and that it felt … entirely right, that she pulled back. For a moment she felt a tilt, his muscles tensing as though he were about to reverse their positions and sink into her, but he stilled. She pushed off his chest until there was space again between them.

Jareth's hands balled against his thighs. When she glanced at him warily, his eyes were dark beneath his lids and he did nothing to hide what he thought of her retreat.

She took another sip of wine and tried to focus. She wanted to run away. Parts of her body still hummed another suggestion. But she had only one question and she'd been entirely foolish long enough.

She could ask if he'd had a hand in taking Max, but to what purpose? She could ask where Max was but she suspected he'd been at least partially honest with her already on that point. She could ask about the woman or why he'd been unable to open the door.

She still tasted him on her lips.

Gloved fingers teased her shoulder lightly, as though to coax her back.

Or set her off her game.

When she glanced at him again, his expression was still openly hungry. But beneath that was the same triumph she had seen at the doors when he'd asked her to make an impossible choice. Or as he'd watched her fill her face with goblin fruits - like he'd gained more by her admission that she could glean from him. Like she'd already lost and the rest was all for show.

You should have started running a long time ago…

"Will we be able to go home again? To our home," she added pointedly.

The fingers stilled and then resumed tracing patterns on her skin.

"Yes."

The word shocked her with relief and she released the breath she hadn't known she'd been holding.

And then she tensed.

He felt the change and smiled. "You recognize the distinction don't you? Able? Yes. The food won't hold you here. But you should have asked if I had any intention of letting you go."

Chapter Text

I took a little journey to the unknown
And I come back changed, I can feel it in my bones
I fucked with the forces that our eyes can't see
Now the darkness got a hold on me
Holy darkness got a hold on me

Meet me in the woods, Lord Huron


Sarah shifted her shoulder so that he could no longer touch her. His fingers fell away reluctantly.

"If you think that revelation shocked me, I'm sorry to disappoint you." Her voice was stronger than she felt, and for that she was grateful. "I expected nothing less. All I needed to know was that nothing is inevitable and," Sarah paused, turning cool green eyes towards him, "to remind me that you'll fail. Again. Once I've gotten what I want."

Jareth considered her and then leaned forward; his eyes still warm and altogether intense. "Do you really want to go home?"

The air in the room had changed.

"Is that another question?"

Jareth studied her face before leaning back again. "Not yet."

She exhaled. "Then I think I've had more than enough for the night." Sarah rose quickly, but Jareth stood too, blocking her path.

"Running away again?" He cupped her face, fingers tracing her jawline. The touch was light, almost probing, and in complete contrast to the headier desire still clear on his face. The gentleness was somehow worse. It only reminded her that for a moment she'd held all the power between them. And he was daring her to take it back again. "We've only had a taste."

"I'm not running anywhere." It was only partially a lie. "I'm just regrouping." She lifted her jaw out of his hand. "And a taste was enough." A full one this time.

"It will never be enough, Sarah. That's the point." There was a raw quality to his words that suggested he himself was not quite composed.

"I'm sure you'll find more women 'to taste', with or without silly bargains before this is all over." Her lips pursed. "I'm not even the only one today."

Jareth's eyes glazed and then he chuckled. "Is that jealousy?" His smile was almost feline. "I think I rather enjoy you jealous."

Sarah shook her head, refusing to be baited anymore in one night. "It's not. It's a reminder not to fall 'for your honeyed words'. In fact, she can have you. To the victor go the spoils."

"I'll hold you to that."

Before he could say anything else, she ducked around him and into the bedroom. She collapsed against the closed door, pretending her legs had not forgotten how to work.

She pressed a cool hand to her cheek. Her face was aflame; skin dancing. Fingers brushed her mouth, before threading through her hair in frustration. A lifetime ago, in a crystal ballroom, she'd been worried he was going to kiss her. And hopeful, if she were being honest. The possibility had both thrilled her and terrified her young self. At the time she'd never been kissed and it felt overdue – Karen's words always stinging in her mind. How special that her first would be the Goblin King - a creature born of magic and fantasy. She'd be different than any other girl. Special. She'd known it would have mattered if he kissed her. That it would have meant something.

He hadn't because she'd remembered.

Or perhaps he wouldn't have anyway.

Instead, ten years had passed and she'd experienced many kisses - and more - until the joining of lips kiss meaning anything was nothing more than youthful fancy.

But…

It had still mattered. He was still the Goblin King and she still housed that lost girl. Only somewhere along the way, in growing up the rules had ceased to matter.

She wasn't sure what to do with a Goblin King that was no longer constrained.

Her body thrummed in a way that suggested it knew even if her mind denied. And that was far more dangerous. Because he'd felt right beneath her and his reaction to her had shown that she'd held power too. He wanted her… but he also wanted her to want him.

Sarah allowed herself a half smile as she pulled the key from her sleeve to examine it. It certainly made him careless.


Jareth's hands fisted at his side and then he laughed. At himself, the situation… he wasn't sure.

Allowing her to walk away had been harder than he thought. And particularly generous of him. Unfortunately dragging her back kicking and screaming would not have the desired effect either. He wanted her on his terms.

The apple was still coursing through his body, making his nerves sing. And yet all he could taste was Sarah. Sarah who hadn't been scared of him. Or too young. Or too innocent to know better. Sarah, who in that perfect moment, had openly wanted him too.

He was achingly hard. And would be for a while, he mused wryly.

As uncomfortable a night as it would be, he realized he would give quite a lot to have that back. To turn those cruel eyes warm again. And that kind of weakness was dangerous. Having her under his power again had been enough; the lure of provoking her out of cool indifference. But it wasn't anymore.

Because the girl had gotten further under his skin than even he'd suspected possible.

No… not a girl anymore. Everything had changed.

His hand ghosted over his lip. She'd left a mark. She always did.

He looked forward to repaying her in kind.

Because in the end, all he could focus on was that she'd kissed him like she meant it. That sealed her fate.

When he stripped down in the other room and discovered the missing key, he wasn't even truly angry.

It only made him want her more.


A babe cried in the dark. A cool voice hushed, 'soon'.

Above ground the other Toby's eyes opened. He started laughing, louder and louder still. Karen and Robert exchanged nervous glances.


"You have weird hair."

A shirtless Goblin King briefly acknowledged the boy's reflection in his mirror. "As do you."

"Do not. Mine's normal." Toby smoothed his golden head uneasily. "And I just got it cut."

Jareth dried his face on a towel. "Blame it on your hairdresser. I could bog him for you."

"Sarah did it."

"The offer stands."

Toby messed his hair self-consciously.

When he'd woken the room had been dark and Sarah was still snoring, not that she'd ever admit it in the morning. He'd crept out of bed and into the main room. The fire was still going, but the room was empty. The other door, the one to the King's chamber, was slightly open and there had been light within.

"What's a bog anyway?"

Jareth dropped the towel and considered the boy. "Don't you knock?"

Toby blushed and then rallied. "Do you?"

"Never."

Toby thought he should maybe leave, but the king didn't look particularly annoyed.

"I thought you'd just magic," Toby waved his hand at the king's morning ablutions, "like everything."

Jareth grinned. "I'm quite capable of dressing myself." He eyed Toby's superhero pyjamas. "Like you presumably."

"Still," the boy picked at the bottles on the dresser, "it'd be so much easier not to have to do that stuff. Like clean your room. Or homework."

Jareth watched him. "Yes, those do sound rather boring."

"So how come you don't?"

"Do you always ask so many questions before breakfast?"

Toby shrugged. "I'm just saying that if I had any powers I'd do cool things."

Jareth raised a brow. "Like homework?" He produced a crystal and rolled it over one hand than onto the other and back again. Another joined it and then a third.

Toby watched him avidly. "How do you do that?"

"Practice." His deft hands paused long enough to throw one to Toby.

The boy caught it awkwardly and then palmed the weight with reverence. "Is it just a… a crystal?"

Jareth's lips bowed as Toby tried to manipulate it and almost dropped it. "Perhaps. Or perhaps it can be anything you want it to be." He gripped Toby's fingers so that the ball rolled across them, then tilted his hand so that it rolled back again. He did several times before letting go. Toby managed it alone and whistled a note of wonder.

Within the crystal, an image began to form of the Goblin King sitting in his throne with a baby on his lap. The baby cooed and giggled at the goblin subjects, clapping chubby hands.

"Is… is that me?" the boy breathed. "Was that real?"

"And if you turn it this way..." Jareth gently adjusted his hands again, the smooth glass rolling against Toby's skin. Toby saw himself, or an older likeness thereof, dressed in leather and silk, his blonde hair longer and tied back at his neck. He was expertly manipulating one crystal after another, each of them rolling off his fingers into the air like bubbles to disappear. That Toby was laughing wildly. Jareth's smile widened a fraction at the starlight building in Toby's eyes. "Practice."

That was how Sarah found them. Toby rolling a crystal from one hand to the other, and back again, each pass a little less awkward than the last and his face screwed up in concentration; Jareth looking on almost fondly. Like a parody of a father teaching his son to play catch.

Something seized in Sarah's chest, even as something else unfurled. "Toby!"

The crystal fell, vanishing just before it hit the floor. Toby had the grace to look guilty. Jareth did not.

"I… um…"

Sarah stood rooted in the doorway, looking extremely unimpressed and just a little bit frazzled. She was only wearing a t-shirt, her hands keeping it pulled down as far as possible on her bare legs. "My clothes seemed to have disappeared."

"Funny," Jareth remarked dryly, "so did the key to the room."

"Oh? Maybe you should take better care of your things."

Keen eyes narrowed on bare thighs. "You'll find I'm very good at keeping what's mine. Alas I was distracted. His eyes returned to her face. "I'll be more mindful of wandering hands next time."

"I wouldn't worry about a next time. My clothes?"

"Wandered off too, I suppose. How annoying."

"I'd like them back."

"No doubt. But I'm certain you'll find anything you need in the wardrobe." His eyes returned pointedly to her shapely bare legs. "Don't rush to change on my account."

Sarah shot him a withering look. She was nonetheless thankful for Toby's presence between them. It was hard not to notice the rumpled bed behind him, as though he'd spent a restless night. More so that he wasn't wearing a shirt and didn't seem at all bothered by that. Meaning that he'd been undressed. As she was mostly undressed. And they were standing there, not fully dressed together… in a bedroom. And it was suddenly very hard to keep her eyes on his face and not on the pleasingly lean lines of his lithe body. Despite being rather angry. Which she was.

Jareth's grinned again, as though he'd followed every thought.

Sarah scowled at him, though the impact was muted by her efforts to keep herself covered. She looked at Toby and then backed out of the room, tugging her shirt down, and escaped into the other bedroom.

Jareth tracked her retreat and then his eyes fell to Toby, expression cooling. "What will we do with you…?"


Pulling open the wardrobe, Sarah found an array of surprisingly practical clothing. There were no ball gowns and no starlit negligées. Still angry at his machinations, she finally pulled out a serviceable pair of pants. They were soft and supple leather, almost buttery to the touch. They looked like something she'd find in his closet and they fit like a second skin. She found a tunic style shirt, not unlike a finely made peasant blouse, and pulled it on as well. The fabric was thick, but soft, and embroidered in fine silver threads like filigree. A thick leather belt cinched the shirt at her waist comfortably. As she tucked her pendant beneath the laced collar, her fingers stilled on the etched design. She'd felt that before. She pulled it off again and examined it, Gunnarsson's words only half remembered. The knot-work that had so closely resembled a tree matched the one on the door that had brought them here. The one she'd opened.

Her mind began whirring with possibilities – all of them fractured with doubt and spawning suspicions. A token for safe travels from her professor. The same professor who'd arranged for the book in the first place. The book which had started all of this...

And Jareth, she thought panicking, had asked what was around her neck. It couldn't be coincidence.

She palmed the necklace a few more times distrustfully, worrying her lip before she tied it on again and slipped it back into her shirt. She laced the collar closed overtop it. The key she tucked into the waist of her pants, cool metal pressing against bone.

When she emerged both Toby and Jareth were seated at the table. Once again it was laden with food enough to feed a goblin army. Toby was already gorging himself. Jareth was waiting for her like the gentleman she knew he really wasn't.

His eyes roved over her with interest. She ignored him and sat, unfolding a crisp napkin onto her lap.

"No protests this morning?" He couldn't resist. "Even just for show?"

She poured herself some coffee. "What would be the point anymore?"

"How refreshing to hear you say that."

She ignored him again and reached for some of the perfectly browned fat sausages and a crock of soft boiled eggs. Her eyes fell to Toby as she cracked the top. He was dressed in a similar fashion. "Oh. Did your clothes go missing too?"

Toby stuffed an entire pastry in his mouth, the cream and berries escaping his lips at the corners. "Nope. I just asked for them. No sword, but cool, right?" he preened.

"Mmm." She levelled a withering look at the Goblin King. "You must be satisfied."

"Not remotely. But it's a start."

Silence settled as they all ate, only disturbed again when Toby cleared his throat between bites. "Well… This is nice."

Sarah blinked at him owlishly.

"Breakfast. Clean clothes. No more trees," he ticked them off his fingers, "Nothing trying to kill us."

Sarah coughed coffee into her napkin. Jareth grinned.

Toby looked between them. "See? Nice. It's almost just like ho…" he trailed off, catching Sarah's eye and finished lamely, "it's nice."

The smile on Jareth's face widened just a fraction. Enough to make Sarah bristle again. She poured her frustration into mangling her sausage beyond recognition with her knife.

When they'd finished eating, the table once again cleared. Sarah had to admit she felt much better with a full stomach and another seemingly dreamless night. Until she felt guilty again for enjoying the comfort.

"What time is it?"

"Does it matter?" Jareth was relaxed in his chair and looked content not to move.

"Yes? We should get started, shouldn't we?"

"Are you always so impatient?" he observed her lazily. "I thought you said you could get used to this."

"Maybe. But we need to find Max." Her eyes skirted Toby. "It's been a lot longer than thirteen hours."

"Well it's a shame the key to the door went missing then."

Sarah placed her napkin on the table. "Perhaps it's not missing at all. Perhaps you just need to ask where it is. By my count you have 14 questions left. You'd only need to use one," she finished sweetly.

Jareth's lips twitched. "An interesting strategy, but there are far more efficient ways. And I thought you were ever so impatient to rescue the baby."

She nodded. "You're impatient too, I think. For what, I'm not sure yet. But I'm guessing this means as much to you. I think I can wait."

"But can Max?"

Sarah swallowed and then steeled her expression. "I'll have to assume yes."

She'd canted her head in that defiant way that Jareth had always found maddeningly appealing.

"As I'm so impatient, I should probably just search for it. Especially as I've narrowed the location, I know you wouldn't leave it anywhere so it must still be on your person."

Sarah leaned away. "It would be faster just to ask."

"But not nearly as fun." Jareth drummed fingers on the table. "And I do plan on being thorough."

Sarah jerked her head towards Toby, who was doing his best to pretend he wasn't listening while obviously absorbing every word.

Jareth tsk'd, "What would you do without the boy as a crutch, I wonder?"

"It's only one question."

"It's only one brother." Another uneven grin. "But that's right. You can't afford to lose another."

Her mouth twisted. She was losing control of the conversation and she didn't like it. "What are you implying?"

Jareth sighed, fingers stilling. "Where are you hiding the key, Sarah?"

An exhale. "It's right here." She patted the hip of her pants and mentally ticked off one less question; one step nearer the end.

"Mmm, the second place I would have looked." She wouldn't dare ask him the first.

He tipped his head expectantly.

She told herself she couldn't help it. "Now ask if you can have it."

Those mismatched eyes narrowed. "Sarah," he said with a sibilant hiss. "Now you're pushing your luck."

"Only now? Maybe." She canted her head again to hide her swallow. "But I have to take any opportunity."

It was that look that did it.

"As do I." Jareth rose in a fluid motion.

Sarah mirrored him by rote, skirting the chair so that it was between them. "What do you think you're doing?"

He approached her slowly, like he had all the time in the world. "Taking the opportunity."

Her eyes fell to Toby. He was conveniently asleep at the table.

Jareth grinned wolfishly at her look of ill-concealed panic. Sarah took a step back, and then another, but forced herself to stop before her back hit the wall and hold her ground. "Stop! You never play fair."

"I can't with you," he answered honestly. "And I rather think you like the game." He was so close that his breath fanned her face. Though she was by no means short, she still had to tilt her head up just enough, as though they were about to kiss. He noticed it too, his eyes dropping to her lips. It would be so easy for either of them to move just a fraction. Like he was daring her to. And if she wouldn't rise, he would fall.

Sarah jerked the key from her pocket and held it up.

His eyes stayed on her mouth even as his hand closed over hers. "Coward."

"You have 13 questions left." She tugged at her hand.

"Which means you have 13 answers left to give and having wasted one, I mean to make the rest count." He released her, but there was a warning in his eyes that he was going to raise the stakes.

So was she. "Before we go. I want you to answer another question. Honestly."

"I've been generous, Sarah. Another answer will cost you more than a kiss. And we don't have the time."

She pulled a face. "I'm not paying something outrageous for a question."

"You don't even know the price. Eventually you'll have to decide what you will pay for the answer. Everything has a cost. Especially here."

When she didn't say anything else, Jareth snapped his fingers.

Toby yawned, blinking bleary eyes at them sheepishly.

"Weird." At Jareth's expectant look, he ran to grab their remaining bag, now far lighter without clothes or food.

When Jareth unlocked the door to the hallway, it had shortened dramatically, though theirs was still the only door visible.

Sarah brushed a tentative hand along the wall.

"You won't see any other doors unless the occupant wills it. Privacy is a prized possession and dwarves are skilled craftsmen at providing it."

"Convenient if you don't want to be found," she remarked keenly.

"Precisely."

The tavern was much quieter when they descended the stairs, with only a handful of patrons still loitering. Some looked like they hadn't moved for the night, and appeared worse the wear for it. Others were enjoying hearty breakfasts. Several eyes glanced up but none seemed to care - even less so than the evening before. Sarah was rather thankful for the anonymity.

It wouldn't, of course, last.

Their Dwarven host was polishing glasses at the bar when they passed. He nodded his head to the king but offered no other parting farewell. Sarah suspected that the bar could be on fire, and the man wouldn't bother to raise a bushy brow.

Outside, the market was still thriving, though it too had quieted. There was no music playing and the anvils were quiet. It would have looked almost normal, had it not been for the smattering of otherworldly creatures who occupied themselves with the goods and wares.

The clear sky was those early morning hues of gilded pinks and silvery blues. In that air were the unseen tendrils of magic. They crackled against Sarah's skin like static electricity in a way she hadn't felt before. Not since…

Jareth had told her that she'd need to let the magic in. She scratched at her hands without even realizing it.

Catching her movements Jareth remarked quietly, "You'll get used to it." His words lacked any trace of smugness, but Sarah didn't care. She didn't want to get used to it. Not when every concession was a step further into a labyrinth with no hope of finding her way out again.

No, not a labyrinth… a tangled forest with roots she couldn't even see.

A merchant tried to lure Toby to his stall with the promise of an egg that would hatch into a dragon. Toby was already digging through his pockets for anything resembling payment but Jareth tugged him along.

"Hats! New and old! Loud and quiet!" An audible sigh. "Mostly loud." A thin, spindly looking merchant gestured jerkily at the array of unusual hats in his stall – all of which bore heads of various sizes and features. Most of them were talking loudly over one another, with a few offering the seller points on how he could improve his pitch.

Catching Sarah's eye, the merchant immediately straightened his waistcoat. "A hat for you, miss? I see you have an eye for quality."

"No… thank you. I've just seen a similar one before I think…," she eyed Jareth. "Somewhere else."

"Ah ha!" The merchant was smiling broadly now. He snatched the nearest one and held it out. "Then you know the quality. You want one for your own? Make your friends jealous?" He added hopefully.

"Pathetic," the hat remarked rudely and then with a wink at Toby it bit the merchant's thumb.

The man yelped and sucked the throbbing digit into his mouth bitterly. "This one is half price. Make me an offer," he mumbled while juggling the offending in one hand to keep its snapping teeth away from his other fingers. "Any offer."

Toby frowned. "Why would anyone want a hat that bites?"

"Well… they don't all bite. A few don't even have teeth."

A nearby hat rolled its eyes. "He's terrible at this." Several other hats bobbed in agreement.

The merchant scowled at them over his shoulder. "Shut it."

"Do they all talk?" Toby asked.

"Endlessly." Then he seemed to remember himself. "Ah, but… what better than a hat that talks, boy?"

"One that doesn't?" Sarah offered dryly. Jareth snorted delicately.

"He really isn't very good at this," Toby whispered.

The hats, many of which had excellent hearing, crowed in laughter.

"The worst," a wildly feathered one in the back agreed helpfully.

"No, it's okay. It's true," the merchant sniffed. "I inherited the shop from my dad, may his soul roast in hellfire," he muttered under his breath. "The hats were his creation. Had no choice but to take over after he died." He add at Sarah's sympathetic look, "In a most tragic accident."

"How awful," she replied politely.

The merchant nodded gravelly. "Eaten." Toby's eyes widened a fraction. "By his hat." The boy smothered a laugh.

"It wasn't an accident!" howled one particularly large hat. It then burped dramatically. The other hats rocked in laughter again.

"Quiet you lot, or I'll stitch your mouths shut!" The merchant ran a hand through his thinning hair and then smiled beatifically. "So how many can I wrap up for you?"

"Um, no thank you, actually. We're not buying anything today." Sarah pulled Toby away. The merchant sighed and nodded, as though quite used to that response.

As they continued through the stalls, no one else paid them much interest aside from a lone raven perched atop a high wall. Its eyes tracked their movements with avian interest. Black claws curled and sank into the stone like knives.

Jareth turned, catching its eyes. The bird's feathers ruffled. The Goblin King looked away before Sarah noticed.

The bird watched them for a few moments longer before taking to the air on silent wing. It was joined by another mid-flight, two dark shapes coiling in the sky, before they disappeared from sight.

Sarah found that the crossroads, as the king had referred to them, were in fact just that. They lay like a point converging – bringing together creatures of all design and direction, and in turn leading in all directions like spokes on a wheel. Or points on a star. Set into the outer walls were all manner of doors. Jareth led them to one similar in design to the one they'd arrived through. Unlike before no one tried to stop them and the door, as though expecting them, opened with no resistance. They were through before Sarah could even think to ask.

Other than a gentle tug at her core, the passage was smooth and almost unnoticeable.

Until the wind hit Sarah's cheek with a stinging slap of cold. She blinked at the white flakes filtering her sight and tickling her face in a steady fall.

They were once again in a tangled wood, only this time cloaked in the deepest winter.

Her breath misted out in a white puff of frost. "More trees."

Where once there had been crimson and gold, there was now endless white. Each branch looked like it was preserved in the finest glass, refracting in the light like thousands of tiny prisms. No longer silent, the branches cracked in the cold and icicles tinkled like wind chimes. It was beautiful in its bleakness.

The sudden fear that they were somehow back at the start drove a fission of fear more frigid than winter down her spine. She looked to Jareth in mounting horror.

"Trust me," he replied astutely. His clothes were now covered by a thick fur mantle in every shade of black and grey. With his wild hair, almost silver in the brightness of winter, he looked like some kind of winter king. It suited him, she realized. A moment later, she began to shiver.

When he reached for her she almost flinched, but his fingers barely brushed her, instead deftly clasping a fur mantle about her shoulders. A betraying tick in his mouth was the only indication he was taking a particular enjoyment. It was, she realized almost immediately, the same green cloak. Apart from a frown and a reddening cheek she could blame on the cold, she accepted the warmth without protest. When he stepped back she saw that Toby was similarly encased.

Even with the cloak she now understood why he'd been in no hurry to leave the comfort of their heated room. The snow was thick and surprisingly deep when the crust broke. Jareth seemed to have little difficulty navigating a path, while Sarah and Toby struggled not to sink.

They progressed in silence, Sarah and Toby's laboured breath coming out in huffs like a trail of breadcrumbs. Jareth never broke stride; his expression shrouded.

Having bitten her lip for what felt like long enough, Sarah was on the point of complaining when a decent sized snowball slammed into the back of her head and exploded in a spray of white.

She stilled and then turned slowly in disbelief. Toby, whose face was plastered with a refreshingly wide grin, laughed and then yelped and ducked when he recognized her expression. He dodged the first two but caught the third full in the face.

Jareth opened his mouth and then closed it, instead leaning against a tree to watch them patiently for a moment. Innocent children at play, he thought, though not unkindly. Sarah, who was now also laughing, was using her superior strength to make sure her surprisingly accurate shots stung just enough. They were just happy, he realized. Nothing more. They probably looked like this often above. Jareth felt a momentary tinge of something close to jealousy for that innocence. Toby's blonde hair was almost entirely doused in snow. As fair as it had been ten years before.

Jareth liked the boy, he'd come to realize. There was an openness to him, rather different from his sister, that was hard to dislike. Yet he was also shrewd and almost wise beyond his years. He'd accepted their shared history with surprising calmness. Yes. As much as he was a distraction, Jareth liked him. Something altogether foreign began to churn in Jareth's stomach and he flinched when he recognized it. But it was forgotten again when Sarah caught his eye. She'd paused in her antics and was looking at him; her hair, now wild and slightly damp from the snow, was black against the white backdrop. Her cheeks were flushed red from exertion and the green of the cloak was mirrored in the brightness of her eyes. She might have been a forest sprite. No… a woodland queen, as before, only missing a crown of holly. And she was looking right back at him with nothing but laughter in her eyes and an easy smile on her lips.

He sucked in a breath, exhaling again in his own cloud of white. He was taken aback by how a moment so simple was altogether powerful. How ephemeral it would be. And he knew, suddenly and without a doubt, that he would always remember it. It stoked something else in him that was wholly pure and long forgotten. The feeling was almost unpleasant in its intensity.

His expression must have been unguarded for her smile wavered. And then the look was gone, as was the moment, when a snowball struck home; her attention diverted back to Toby.

Without turning his head, Jareth deftly dodged the one Toby dared send. The boy dropped his second with nothing more than a warning look.

Which, of course, made Sarah's volley all the more impressive. Jareth wiped the snow from his eyes and trained them on the smirking woman. Her smiled was not so innocent now. Toby clapped. Inclining his head, Jareth did as well, and then the branches above both Sarah and Toby released their burdens in a syncronicity of cold.

Sarah squealed while Toby gave a joyous protestation. He shook his head out in a way that jarringly reminded Sarah of Merlin. She sobered and brushed the snow from her hands. Catching her expression, Toby did the same. It had all lasted no more than a few minutes. A distraction all the same.

Relegated again to their own thoughts, they fell back into silent step and they didn't stop until Jareth led them to the base of a large gnarled tree in a small clearing. A deep crevice ran straight through the centre, like a hollowed oak that had been pried apart. It was tall and wide enough to pass within. Toby examined the opening with interest.

Sarah shivered, despite the warmth of the fur. Like the tendrils of magic she'd felt in the crossroads, more tugged at her here – stronger and colder. She recoiled, her wrist beginning to itch - reminding her she had her own debt to clear.

A slight wind rose from within the dark hollow and rolled Toby's hair. When it hit Sarah's face it was like ice.

"Tell me we're not going in there." She clutched the cloak tighter around herself, an inexplicable panic fully seizing her. She looked again to Jareth when he didn't answer, but his eyes were on the tree. She now wasn't sure if they were waiting for something to come out instead. It was the same feeling she'd had in th castle, only this time she was looking in as something else stared out. Sarah shook her head again. "Toby come here. Get away."

Toby glanced back at her in confusion, clearly unaffected by anything in the air, and then to the king.

Jareth met his eyes, before his lids flickered to Sarah. He didn't mock her for her fear nor issue threats. No demands. "It's the only way," he said simply.

There was something in his voice that Sarah was slow to recognize, and when she did, much later, it would be too late.

She shook her head again and beckoned for Toby, holding out her hand. Jareth nodded once, as though in understanding.

And then he calmly reached over and pushed Toby in.

Sarah screamed. Jareth whispered something to the hollow. And Toby said nothing at all.

The last thing she saw was his frightened little face swallowed by the dark.

 

Chapter Text

I... I am a man on fire
You... a violent desire

Dangerous Night, Thirty Seconds to Mars


Karen, who'd been in that deep state of sleep where the dreams were so vivid you wake physically exhausted, opened her eyes in fear.

Her son was standing beside her, his body pressed against the bed and his face shadow. He was watching her silently. For how long she couldn't guess.

She sucked in sharply and then exhaled uneasily, relief replacing the fear, though not as thoroughly as it should have.

"Toby? What's wrong? Bad dream?"

Toby grinned and Karen was struck by the notion that he had far too many teeth.

"Nothing's wrong, mother." His voice was saccharine, but beneath the sugar was something less sweet and barely restrained. "Did you have a bad dream?"

"....What?" Karen blinked, her body still sleep dazed but prickling into an uncomfortable awareness. She stared at him a beat. "I... think I did, actually." Her hand curled against her chest instinctively. "I... lost something... torn away... You...you were gone." She seemed to remember herself and rubbed her eyes. Worn by his strange behaviour over the last few days, she found herself rather irritated. "Go back to sleep, Toby. It's nothing."

The real Toby might have been stung by her tone. This Toby was amused.

"You're right mother, it is nothing." There was something almost patronizing in his voice that spiked her irritation further. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere now. Not ever." He pressed a cool kiss against her cheek, those same too-many-teeth grazing her clammy skin. He then half-danced out of the room. She could hear him giggling in the hallway. Karen listened for a moment, a frown etching more lines in her face.

The ephemeral sense of loss was now a physical pang - like a blade to her heart.

Robert snored on beside her.


Thousands of miles away, the acclaimed actress Linda Williams was in the middle of the opening night performance of a brand new play at the Globe Theatre in London.

She trailed off in the middle of a particularly dramatic line that had held the audience rapt.

Her relatively green co-star began to panic, furtively whispering the words under her breath.

All Linda could do was mouth 'Sarah...'


Sarah's scream ended in a guttural wail that was more animal than human. All she could hear was blood rushing to her ears. All she could see was the void where Toby had stood.

I lost him. Again.

All at once her body remembered how to move. She lunged at the Goblin King, ungainly in the snow but, he'd consider later, rather exquisite in her rage. He didn't bother to avoid the blow; perhaps he even allowed it which only enraged her more. His cheek blossomed a satisfying red almost instantly.

Sarah's mother had imparted few life lessons of note to her before she'd left, but one had been that although a punch will cause more pain a slap is always more personal. It conveys disgust like a fist never can. Sarah faced him for a moment, eyes unseeing and panting angry bursts of air. Later she'd wonder if she was actually more upset at herself for being lulled into a sense of ease - into that almost-but-not-quite-trust where looks in the snow meant something.

Before he did more than blink slowly, she was gone. Jareth didn't try to stop her. He watched with hooded eyes as one hand clutched the curving wood and then, like ten years before, she let go to save a brother.

No helping hands slowed her fall. None offered a choice up or down, forwards or backwards. No stair cases fell apart in victorious destruction. She had wanted to do anything but jump, the fear had been so palpable.

She was simply falling into nothing. Somehow neither moving up nor down. A darkness so empty than not even monsters could hide. And somehow that was far more terrifying. Every irrational childhood fear, suppressed, forgotten or conquered rose to fill the void... diving off a dock into the black, unknown waters of a lake, the night her mother left, impervious to her tears and pleading, the death of Merlin on that cold vet's table - by a needle she'd paid for, the old furnace turning on, waking her from sleep, the ceiling hatch outside her old bedroom door...

And then something took hold of her, like a fist closing shut, and everything stopped.


For a moment Jareth was alone in the white, still wood. Something like a smile ghosted across his face and then vanished just as quickly. He didn't have the luxury of time to gloat. He could feel what followed him even now. Hooves in the snow. He wasn't concerned. It would be too late.

It was hard not to applaud her bravery, especially from something so decidedly breakable. He'd known gods that lacked the stones to do what she'd done thus far. The boy too, had something of her mettle. Bravery was rare and so often brash. So easy to exploit.

He hadn't decided what to do if she'd resisted. If she'd not been bound by the bonds of blood.

He should have felt satisfaction that she'd been so uncharacteristically compliant, but his mind kept flashing to the look she'd given him not half an hour before.

She'd given him many looks with many meanings in their brief interactions. But it had been a first from her.

A first for him, as well, and it had gripped him in a way that had been as unexpected as it had been deep.

Not quite trust but something that dared shared its world. An openness so bare of artifice that it was as new and pure as a seed. His instinct had been to seize that look, to swallow it whole, so that it couldn't be taken back.

Because she would take it back.

He almost - almost - wished he hadn't seen it. He was not sure he could coax that look back, and everything that it teased. Promised.

Even he knew some things could not be stolen.

For a wild moment he would have bartered anything to see its return. Instead he traced her path in the snow to the curving elm. He braced himself as he walked. The pain would be severe. They never made it easy. But he'd been hurt before, and he'd be hurt again.

So would they.

She would want to hurt him too.

When the burning started he was still thinking of her look.

The flames were intense, as though they wanted consume him and leave nothing left. His teeth came down hard on his tongue, and he tasted the iron salt of blood. Blades and flayed him bare like he was nothing more than ripe fruit.

He dared them to do their worst. They obliged.

When it finally stopped, he was laughing.

The boy stood a few feet away, clutching his arms to his chest. He was looking at Jareth with a conflicting look of relief and horror - the absurdity of which only made the Goblin King laugh harder.

So the boy made it unharmed. He'd been certain he would. Mostly.

The Goblin king realized he must look more animal than man. It was not far off.

Jareth wiped a trickle of blood from his chin and then feigned a smile.

Toby looked unconvinced, his thin arms hugging tighter.

"T-that was awful. It was so dark." There was an accusation in his tone that irritated the king; his skin still on fire.

His smile evened. "Where is that brave, boastful boy from this morning?"

Toby's back straightened almost immediately and he affected an unconvincing shrug. "Yah. It wasn't that bad I guess. But I did well, right?"

Jareth nodded smoothly, his irritation ebbing along with the pain. "Very well." And then his smile faded altogether, as he finally looked around.

Irritation was replaced by rage and then worse, a sharper spike of fear.

When the king looked back, Toby's face whitened and he stepped back.

"Where is your sister?" the king asked through teeth.


Sarah gasped for breath, falling to her knees on the ground. Darkness still surrounded her, save for the sliver of a dim light above her.

It was not an oubliette.

It took her a moment to recognize that she was kneeling at the base of a set of wooden stairs. Another moment to digest that they were the same attic stairs from her home. In every other direction there was nothing. Not mere darkness, but the absolute absence of anything. She could feel it in her bones.

And then the stairs.

Something moved above.

"Toby?" Her eyes following the sound up the rungs. When no answer came, she pulled herself to her feet and started climbing, her limbs trembling but determined. She'd always hated those stairs. What child possessed of a vivid imagination wouldn't? They had not improved with adulthood. Less so now with location.

Reaching the top, she saw the familiar shapes of old furniture and boxes in the low light from the naked bulb above.

The sound was louder. Closer.

"Toby?" she called again, her voice too small for her own ears. Even as the words took shape she knew it wasn't him.

The sound stopped. Silence and then a scuttling, shuffling like dry leaves shifting on pavement. Clamping a hand against her mouth, she forced herself to stand still, poised on the edge.

The other sound stilled as well. Sarah exhaled through her fingers. It was enough.

A figure emerged from the shadows. It was child-sized, but moved in a wholly disjointed way, like it had been broken in every way that mattered. With each step came the sound of dead wood splintering. Old bones breaking.

When it entered the light Sarah could see that it was made entirely of wooden shards pieced together like a puzzle. They were ill-fitted, like an impatient hand had just smashed it into being. With each step pieces chafed against one another. Some fell away altogether.

The creature watched her from deep hollows where eyes might have been. Then the wooden child turned away and began to shake again in deep racking sobs that rendered it somehow more pitiful than horrific.

When Sarah's pulse settled she cleared her throat. "Are... are you okay?"

"Broken." Its voice cracked as though it had long fallen out of use or had never spoken before. "Don't you see?" It shook its head, more pieces falling. "No one ever sees."

"I see you."

The head snapped back up with a crack. "You do?" There was a sudden eagerness in its movement - a palpable hunger that set Sarah back on edge. "You will fix me?"

Sarah wasn't sure if it was a question or a command. "I-I don't think so." She looked again at the boxes, so clearly from her home. "This is just a dream. It has to be." The words lacked belief. "We can't be here. This isn't real." She nudged a box with her foot and her old jewellery box - the one Toby had found and she had taken home - rolled out towards the creature. The tinny music beginning to play.

The creature picked it up, studying the dancing figurine and then Sarah. "You were dancing. This was you. Are you real? " The child-like question was belied by the sudden grip that caged Sarah's arm. "What are you? What is this place?"

Sarah recoiled from its touch. "I don't know!" She looked around wildly. "Where's Toby? Did you do something to him?"

"I felt you," the figure continued. "You were scared. You were thinking of this place. You can fix me."

"Please I need to find him. He's a boy... like me. He fell too. He's probably scared." Sarah tried to pry the hand off her desperately. Pieces splintered beneath her fingers.

"You're scared."

"Of course I am! But I don't know how to fix you." Another tug and more wood fell away. "Oh god. I'm sorry!" She bent awkwardly, her armed still caged, and picked up a piece and tried to fit it back into place. "I can't. See? I'm making it worse. I'll get help. Someone else, okay? He can help you. He has magic. Just let me go!"

"Fix me." The voice was losing its coherence again.

Sarah struggled in earnest, blaming him, magic, and all the creatures who wielded it, but also damning herself for ever touching that cursed book. It was the source of all her problems and had yet to prove it her salvation. She could see it lying there it its protected glass - where she should have let it be.

Almost immediately the fingers released her. It canted its head.

Sarah.

She felt her name more than heard it, and then felt another tug at her navel.

The creature must have felt it too because it tensed, almost flinching, but not retreating. "You can't go back. And you won't like where you're going."

The last thing she saw before she was dragged back down the stairs and into the dark was the puzzle child placing a finger against its lips and mouthing 'shh.' Then the light went out.


Sarah hit the ground hard this time, the breath knocking out of her. When she could breathe again she rolled over and wretched up breakfast. Wiping her mouth with a shaking hand, she lay on her back a moment collecting herself as her stomach settled. Stark silver-grey trees surrounded her, like bright marble sepulchres against an indigo sky. Above her crested a canopy of bare woven limbs. In the day it might have been almost beautiful. By dusk it looked like a cage of bone.

She rolled to her feet and picked up the bag. Another hollowed tree - a mirror to the one that had swallowed her stood behind. The sinewy shape of a body in ash.

Toby was standing a few paces away, waiting; pale but seemingly unharmed.

Relief flooded her senses.

She moved towards him but stilled when she saw Jareth. Something raw and unfettered crossed his face when he finally noticed her and he took a sudden step forward before he stopped, his expression clearing. "Where-", he closed his mouth and instead lightly ruffled Toby's hair.

Sarah tracked the movement, her eyes returning to his. "Why?"

His jaw flexed before he spoke. "Would you have gone willingly?"

Sarah said nothing. Neither needed an answer.

"I know you felt it, Sarah. You cheated me of one question, why waste another? Toby understood, didn't you, boy?" He smirked at Toby's apologetic look.

"Toby?"

"He understood that time is short. And," his gloved fingers threaded through the boy's hair again," you'd do just about anything to save your brother, wouldn't you?" When she lurched forward he held up a warning finger. "I gave you one. I'm not feeling particularly generous enough to allow another. The stakes are higher than a mere girl and her brother."

Sarah collected herself. She wasn't a fool. The acrid taste of bile reminded her she wasn't invincible either. When she'd composed herself she forced an even tone to her voice. "That's probably the first honest thing you've said. You could have asked. I don't like being manipulated."

"Neither do I. Don't think to your use your wiles on me, Sarah. While I'd appreciate the effort, you'd fail in the end. I'd hate for you to feel embarrassed."

She looked confused for a moment, and then stung until it occurred to her she was not the only one uncertain and that was another kind of power. She shook her head. "One of these days, you're going to realize that you're your own worst enemy."

"Says the girl with the ready hand."

"And the right words, remember?" Her eyes trailed to his cheek. "If you give me another reason, the next time I'll make sure it lasts longer."

"Threats?"

Sarah held out her wrist. "Forgive me. The stakes are far higher than a mere goblin king."

Jareth reached out as though he would touch her but instead opened his hand in invitation. "A truce then. We've made it this far together."

Sarah withdrew hers and snorted. "You just threw my brother down a tree."

"Barely a nudge. And none the worse for wear, right boy?"

Toby nodded, though his expression suggested he wouldn't relish a repeat.

The Goblin King's hand still stretched between them in invitation. "We can both win, Sarah."

His offer was as unsettling as it was tempting. As though, after everything, she was making a deal with the devil. The sobering truth was she already had.

Toby was nodding at her encouragingly - another prick to her pride - as though he hadn't just been hurled into an abyss. Traitorous brat.

She placed her hand in his nonetheless. As his fingers laced around hers, an expression Sarah couldn't name crossed his face again.

He tucked her arm beneath his as though he were a gentleman and she a lady.

The woven limbs of trees met stone, snaking through the rock like veins until both were indistinguishable. It curved into an entrance - a hall so high the largest giant could enter without bending. Sarah could feel the increasing pull of magic in the air like a pulse. Even Toby twitched at the charge.

At the top of the arch, a lone raven perched. Waiting. Watching. It was so still that at first Sarah thought it a carving. Jareth's mouth hardened.

"I assume you came to do more than watch."

For a moment the raven did nothing and then it spread its wings, feathers splaying, and a man took its place before them in the space of a blink.

He was dressed in shades black, the collar of his fitted coat arched and jagged like a winged cowl. His face was starkly handsome, almost beautiful - pale and angular. His hair was paler still. Blue eyes limned by kohl.

Jareth's expression was shuttered.

"Aren't you going to introduce us?" the raven's voice was smooth and coolly amused. Uneasily familiar.

"I hardly think that necessary." Jareth's was colder still.

"Not necessary but polite." There was a note of rebuke in his tone.

"You're not here to stop me."

The man inclined his head.

"I learned that was an impossibility a long time ago." When he looked at Jareth there was something in his eyes she almost recognized. "I wished to see you. Alone. Before."

Jareth's head cocked.

"They cannot see. Not when I don't want." The man studied Jareth silently. "Your power has grown," the raven said softly.

Jareth's voice, though not quite kind, had lost some edge as well. "It has been an age."

The raven's eyes dropped to Sarah, lingering on the cloak and then returned to the Goblin King. "You risk-"

"Everything." Jareth's words were clipped and pointed.

Sarah saw a flash of anger cross the raven's features, perhaps sadness. "We're being rude to your..." a pale brow raised.

Jareth ignored him.

"I'm Toby. That's Sarah."

"He knows," Jareth remarked dryly, only mildly annoyed by the boy's precocious bouts.

"So are you brothers?"

The raven smiled briefly. "Nothing so benign. You may call me," he paused as though deciding on a single name, "Tyr".

"Like the god," She hadn't meant to speak.

"Very like," Tyr answered, eyes bright and familiar.

She looked between the dark figures, so alike in look and demeanor. Her eyes fell to a sigil on the raven's collar. A twin to the amulet around Jareth's neck. Not brothers.

"Father," she breathed, surprised again by the temerity of her own mouth. Jareth stiffened at the word but did not deny.

Tyr looked at her with renewed interest. "Did he steal you away?" His tone was wry but it wasn't clear if he was joking. He laughed outright at her frown.

"No... We're here by our own will."

"Of course you are," he offered smoothly. "But are you sure?"

His amusement at her expense, so much like Jareth's, rankled. "I'm never sure," she countered. "I don't think you'd do anything to help us if we were."

This time Jareth laughed.

"Hardly," Tyr agreed.

Sarah was certain that was the truth, so she affected a shrug. "I didn't think so."

His mood shifted again, as mercurial as his son's. "I like your fire."

"Don't take it as a compliment," Jareth offered wanly. "It generally doesn't work out for mortals he takes a liking to."

Tyr's eyes narrowed sharply. "I came to say I won't be there." It must have meant something to Jareth because he visibly softened.

Oblivious and tired of the conversation he couldn't follow, Toby piped up excitedly. "So then are you a Goblin King too?"

"Nothing so benign."

"No," Jareth agreed, and even Toby sensed he'd perhaps asked too much.

"We have our different mantles to bear."

"Some more than others," the Goblin King agreed without humour.

Their conversation was half-buried and latent with wild emotions Sarah could almost taste but not name. She wanted to retreat and leave them their privacy but Jareth's hand was still a vice around her arm.

"I am not your enemy," the raven promised.

The owl said nothing in return.

"You've come far." It might have been a compliment. Tyr's eyes dropped to the hand holding Sarah fast, and then returned to his face. "You saw her," he said after a moment. It was as much a question.

Sarah felt Jareth's hesitation. "I did."

"And did she..." Tyr took a step back and searched his son's face. "I won't stop you. I can't stop them either."

"You never could." The words were measured, even soft, but Tyr recoiled as though slapped.

"I would it had been different." A pause, his words dropping even lower. "I did not think you would come back. You were free in your way."

"Was I?" Jareth's lips twisted. "I certainly will be."

Tyr touched Jareth's shoulder for a moment and closed his eyes. Sarah looked away, embarrassed, keenly aware that she was witnessing something deeply personal. Even Toby kept silent.

Finally Tyr stepped aside. He looked like he might say more but instead he inclined his head. "Welcome home." He eyed Sarah and Toby briefly, and she thought she saw something like pity in his face. "Welcome to the Vale." A flurry of sable feathers and he was gone.

Before Sarah or Toby could break the silence, Jareth tugged them through the archway into the grand circular hall. It was bright compared to the dusk outside. The high ceiling was a dome of the purest polished silver. The torches danced in its surface. Surrounding the room in a circle were thirteen high stone seats. Or, Sarah thought, eyes lifting again to the mirrored surface above, the face of a thirteen hour clock.

She swallowed reflexively and turned, pale faced to the Goblin King, who'd finally released her.

The Vale. Thirteen thrones in a bright hall. Valhalla.

"Are we dead?" It came out as a whisper. Accusation lent it voice.

Toby's eyes widened at her question.

The Goblin King's lips twitched and she thought she might slap him again if he laughed at her. "Do you imagine yourself a brave warrior who died in battle?"

Sarah shook her head numbly, remembering the void. Death was the absence of life. Heaven the light after dark. "I don't know anything anymore. I think if what I've ever read is true, no living mortal has been here before."

"Don't believe everything you read, Sarah. It is always written by the victors."

"That didn't answer my question."

"You're not dead," he relented, evidently done toying with her. "And you're not the first mortal to be brought to this hallowed hall."

Sarah nodded slightly. Until another question rose. "And did that mortal ever go home again?"

She half expected him not to answer but he regarded her frankly, gauging her reaction. "No. No, she did not."

Other than a flicker of lids she didn't react. "And will we go home again?"

He didn't answer. Instead he rolled his fingers and a flame appeared. He considered it a moment and then lit the large brazier that dominated the centre of the room. He relaxed when it caught, as though he'd been doubtful.

Sarah instinctively looked to the ceiling. As she did, each chair was taken one by one until they were all filled save one.

Beautiful creatures, male and female, resplendent in furs and finery looked down. Some appeared archaic warriors others wore more modern, expensive fitted suits. Most wore various looks of displeasure and wariness. Jareth genuflected with a mocking bow.

Sarah heard stirrings of dissent.

"So. The bastard dares return," one finally spoke, louder than the rest. He looked every bit the warrior, down to a scar that crossed one eye. The other voices quieted.

Jareth straightened, impervious to the cold greeting. "Hardly unexpected. Your welcome party was as useless as ever."

"You're insolence knows no bounds, boy."

"Unsurprising given whose blood flows through my veins."

There were more murmurs from above. More hard stares. Sarah felt the appraising eyes stake deep.

"You dare bring mortals into our midst. You."

"The blood runs deep, uncle." The last was more invective than endearment.

"What game do you play?"

"The kind you most adore. One with winners," he looked around the room with deliberate measure, "and losers."

More couched words and hushed tones passed between the thrones.

"And these mortals?" asked a strikingly beautiful woman, her long coiled hair more gilded than the purest gold. "What are they to you?"

"They are my guests. But call them what you will."

"A skinny girl and a boy barely big enough for britches. They are easily dispatched," suggested a deep voice. Its broad owner looked every bit the seasoned warrior and more than happy to oblige.

Jareth turned a glare of challenge in his eyes. "As I said, they are mine."

The word skated across Sarah's skin this time.

The first stayed a hand. "No blood shall be shed here."

The warrior looked like he begged to differ, but was silenced with a look.

"You weren't to leave, king of the Goblins," another said. There were a few snickers.

"Things change. Doors opened." The snickers faded. "I broke no rules. It is my right."

"Yes," the older man agreed in reflective tones. "We felt it too. Why are you here?"

"Many reasons. I'm not the only one to break his leash." Jareth's eyes flickered to a dark-haired figure. "A mortal child was taken."

There were more looks exchanged and the air in the room, despite the bright flames, grew colder. Sarah drew the cloak around her shoulders.

"What is the child to us? We do not have it." Her face fell in disappointment and she looked to Jareth sharply. If he'd dragged her there for nothing, if it had all been a ruse...

The murder must have shown in her expression and the dark-haired figure, more modernly dressed then the rest, laughed from atop his throne. "Your mortal looks ready to bite."

"She always looks like that," Jareth replied dryly.

"Why are you here?"

"For now let's say the child. And later perhaps we will talk of more."

"You waste our time then. We already told you it is not here and likely dead by now," the warrior replied. "If it's not it wishes it was." Toby whimpered, his face fracturing. Sarah shook her head minutely. "Tell her to make another," he added callously, a dismissive wave adding insult. "That's all they do is breed." He eyed Jareth critically. "But then you know that."

"The child's not here but it will be soon. By the next waning moon."

Sarah's wrist began to ache and she gripped it.

Seeing her reaction, one of the twelve stepped off the throne in a fluid step that put him beside Sarah in an instant. Without asking, he seized her wrist and pulled the sleeve back. His grey eyes then probed her face. He finally turned and faced his brethren. "Impossible."

"We destroyed them all," another voice protested. There was a hum of agreement.

Jareth let them froth and then smiled. "Not all apparently."

A woman shook her head incredulously. "What have you done?"

"Waited," he bit back immediately.

"How?" asked another.

"You clipped my wings and then you forgot. That was a mistake. Time is a fickle thing and power grows unchecked."

"We should have drowned you as a babe," spat another.

"You likely tried. Another failure at your feet."

"It's not too late."

Jareth didn't flinch. "You won't now for the same reason you didn't then." He eyed the empty throne deliberately.

"You could have accepted your fate. We were generous." Jareth snorted at the word. "We won't be again." The scarred man sounded more tired than angry. More resolute than determined.

The Goblin King inclined his head, eyes crueler than Sarah had ever seen them. "Neither will I."

The dark-haired man clapped slowly until he had the attention of the room. "Well spoken." Unlike the rest, he looked almost delighted by the exchange. "As much as I enjoy a good execution, he has returned by right and is deserving of a welcome. The fates allowed. The brazier lit. Nothing to be done until all the players show up. And I don't know about you but all this posturing has made me hungry," he finished blithely.

There were more murmurs of dissent, and some of agreement until the elder held up a hand.

"For once that silver tongue speaks the truth. Without thirteen we cannot vote. A somewhat convenient fact. A feast then," he nodded at Jareth. "As the fates allow."

The thrones emptied one by one, like candles being snuffed.

When they were alone again, Sarah sagged unsteadily, not realizing she'd been mostly holding her breath. The events of the last few hours had taken a toll and she felt ready to crack. Even Jareth seemed to retreat though his eyes were still over bright and glittering.

He ruffled Toby's hair affectionately. Something of a habit, Sarah would think later.

"He was... they are..."

Jareth smiled. "How did you enjoy your brush with the gods, Sarah? You barely cowered at all." He added affably.

"What have you dragged us into?" she whispered.

"Nothing you can't handle, but come, you look like you're about to wilt."

She stared at him. "To a feast? After that? With them? They wanted to kill you. To kill us!"

"Some of them," he agreed.

"This is absurd! I don't want to eat, I just want my brother back."

"Yes, you've made that clear." He took her arm. A moment later they were in another room. A palatial space, lit by a central, circular hearth. It made the inn look like meagre offerings. Elegant furniture in clean lines filled the space. The ceilings were high and arched with thick weathered timber that made it look like the ribs of a ship.

Jareth walked to a table and poured himself a drink. Looking at Sarah he poured another and pressed it into her hand.

She took it without protest and sank into a round back chair. She unclasped the cloak and took a sip. Bitter but clean it washed the lingering taste of bile from her mouth. She didn't comment when he gave another to Toby. The boy looked disbelieving and then awed. He took a tentative sip, made a face and then took another, grinning.

Getting her brother drunk would be the least awful thing she'd allowed to happen so far.

"So they didn't want you here but now they are throwing you a party?" Toby asked, his face scrunched in disbelief.

Jareth chuckled. "Something like that."

"That's weird."

"Undoubtedly. But they never say no to feasts and fuc-" he trailed off at Sarah's warning look. "Fun."

"Can I come?"

"No."

"Why not?"

A long suffering sigh. "Because I don't want you there? Be thankful I haven't gotten rid of you entirely." Toby laughed. Sarah did not. "Besides you're too young for," another look at Sarah, "that kind of fun."

"If I'm too young, so is Sarah. If they have 'seen the ages pass' they must be really, really old."

Sarah took a sip, trying not to laugh. "Actually I agree. I'm too young I think."

"What kind of fun?"

Jareth shot Toby a quelling look. "Dancing." It didn't work.

"Are you going to dance with her? She's not very good."

"Thanks, Toby. No, we won't be dancing. We danced before and it didn't end very well for him if I recall."

"Have we?" The quiet words made Sarah frown at him. "You danced with a fantasy. Nothing more than a shadow." He twirled his glass. "A little girl on the cusp of adulthood dreaming of what could be."

Her mouth clicked shut and she felt a rise of embarrassment. He didn't look like he was lying. It was somehow so much worse if it hadn't been real.

"Sounds boring anyway," Toby said with a shrug.

The ensuing silence was only broken by the crackle of fire. If Sarah closed her eyes, she could pretend they were at home and none of it was real. She must have fallen asleep because she jerked awake. It was the kind of startled awareness that comes with an unplanned sleep. Toby had evidently fallen asleep too, his body curled into a low-backed sofa.

Jareth, if he'd ever slept too, was awake. He must have taken her cup at some point otherwise she'd be wearing it.

"Your brother handles his drink about as well as you. Don't worry, he drank only a little more than you."

"Thank god I'm not a mother," Sarah replied ruefully.

"Oh I don't think you're doing that poorly."

"Other than wishing him away, never telling him about it until history repeated itself, and now dragging him," she motioned vaguely, "here. Where, to name one thing, we've nearly been eaten."

"More than once."

"Thank you so much. More than once, all the while probably in even more danger than I can even imagine."

"Undoubtedly."

Sarah scowled at him. "Thank you. I think I've made my point."

"And yet the boy lives."

Sarah pulled a face. "Small victories."

"Is that what you want? Motherhood," he added when she looked blank.

"I don't know. Not now," she said emphatically. "But maybe one day I'll want that."

"With the boy Toby mentioned. The one so eager to take you for coffee." There was a soft precision to Jareth's words that set Sarah on edge. "Or another with an easy smile who promises to grow old with you?"

Sarah stared at him. "So did I miss the feast?"

His lips twitched at her deflection but allowed it. "Not yet. It's early still. You apparently needed your rest."

Sarah rolled the stiffness out of her shoulders.

"Where did you go when you went through the tree?" She looked at him, uncomprehending for a moment. "Before you came here."

Her eyes phased and then focused with understanding. That's why he'd looked so relieved to see her. Something had happened that he hadn't expected. Hadn't anticipated. She feigned surprise.

"I don't know what you mean."

"Sarah." She felt the tell-tale pull a moment later and scowled at him.

"I don't know." It was honest but not enough. "There was nothing and then there was a light. And stairs. It was my attic but not. There was a... thing. Someone. But it was broken and wanted me to fix it. I didn't know how. I felt my name called and it was over." The hold released. "Satisfied?"

"Not remotely."

"Good," she offered evenly. "Because neither am I." At his look, she continued. "This is a lot to process."

His lips twitched. "Naturally."

"So they are gods. Norse gods."

"You might call them that. They are old. Older than you. They have many names in many places. The Norse were perhaps the closest the mortals ever got to getting something right."

"You called one uncle."

His amusement deepened but there was an edge in his voice. "I did."

"And your father... so you..." She trailed off at the knowing look in his face and then looked away. More than a king. "This is a lot to process," she said again.

"Don't worry, I don't expect you to fall to your knees in worship."

"Hardly," she replied as quickly. Her thoughts still falling into place. "But then... If the Norse were mostly right... I've never read about you...not..." she trailed off again.

His expression sobered. "It's time to dress, Sarah."

"I don't want to go. They didn't seem too happy to find a mortal in their midst."

Jareth rose. "I wasn't asking. Neither were they. They prize pageantry as much as bloodshed."

She thought of Max. Her visions of a baby in the dark. A knife. Blood. "This all feels wrong."

"We have no choice but to wait."

"I don't think I will be welcome." She didn't relish those cold stares again either.

"Their eyes will be on me."

She made no effort to move.

"Are you really going to run and hide now? I thought you'd relish the chance to see what you've been so diligently to studying. What you are so eager to return to." His words taunted.

"I didn't know they were real. They were just stories."

He looked at her keenly. "They are never just stories, Sarah. You know that." When she still didn't move he leaned towards her, his gloved hands falling with deliberation provocation onto the arms of her chair. His words were deceptively soft. "You can get dressed or I can dress you. I'll leave you the choice. I know which I would prefer."

She swallowed back the small part of herself that wanted to challenge him to try. Just to see what he'd do, she reasoned. Instead she rose, him retreating just enough that she stepped into the semblance of an embrace. He smiled at her submission; disappointment in his eyes.

She looked around the room questioningly. He nodded towards a door. Once inside, door locked, she was thankful for the isolation. Even creatures of magic were creatures of comfort. The water that poured from the overhead silver spout was hot and streamed in a heavy cascade. She hesitated only a moment before stripping and stepping eagerly into the steam. It was a sensation she recognized and her chilled skin, despite the fire, absorbed the heat with hunger. After standing in it for as long as she dared, she washed her hair. When she reluctantly stepped out, only because she knew he'd eventually just drag her out, her skin was almost pruned. She wrapped a large towel about her body and another about her hair.

There was no surprise to the finery waiting for her. There was a trace to see that she was afforded choice. They were all sleekly beautiful creations. The first dress she touched was of the softest midnight silk, the bodice high and fitted with long slim sleeves of sheer lace. The skirt was full but not outlandish. Not fit for running away. Not that she had anywhere to run.

The second dress was a deep grey blue that reminded her of the sea. By contrast to the first it had a deep, plunging neckline. The rest fell in soft drapes like a Grecian gown. It was embellished by traces of finely wrought burnished gold embroidery.

The third had caught her eye immediately. A pale, almost iridescent fabric fitted to the waist with full fitted sleeves. The skirt was long and slim, made up of gossamer thin layers that gave it depth. Most striking were the twisting black lines that contrasted against the light, almost white fabric. They snaked up the dress like dark tangled tree branches against a winter sky.

Another hesitation and then she pulled it on carefully, realizing as she did that she hadn't been given anything to wear to beneath. When she peered in the long mirror, she saw that the top was so sheer it blended with her skin tone, looking as the though the dress has been poured on her and the branches lay directly on her skin. It gradually deepened in colour so that she nothing was exposed. The high neckline cut across her collar bones. The skirt, which fell naturally away from her hips coiled around her legs with every movement like liquid. The back, in contrast to the front was cut away to her waist.

It was gorgeous and daring and provocative. Her fingers traced the branches that splayed across her body. She wanted to take it off. She wanted to keep it on forever.

She combed out her damp hair and then pinned it up loosely at her neck. Nothing elaborate. The dress needed nothing more. The stark shades of the dress made her green eyes vivid.

The amulet sat against her breastbone and she fingered it for a moment before deciding it couldn't be hidden. She dropped it in her bag. She wasn't sure it had done much for her anyway.

When she stepped out of the room, the Goblin King was waiting for her.

"Perhaps I lied. Their eyes will be on you."

The words were low and unspoiled by any mocking. Something unfurled and warmed inside.

Jareth was dressed in complimentary shades of gleaming black and silver. His pants were slim and fitted. His jacket was likewise cut perfectly to his lithe frame, a fitted vest beneath. It could almost pass for modern if it hadn't held a shimmer of stardust when it caught the light. His shirt was a stark white with an elegantly, but simply styled silver collar in silver that hugged his neck. His eyes were dark.

She thought she should say something complimentary back but her tongue was thick in her mouth. He read it in her face instead and his teeth glinted in a half smile.

"Toby?"

"Still sleeping." He sighed, "By his own will."

Sarah bit her lip. "I don't want to leave him alone."

"He's safer here. But by all means bring him if you must. It might be enlightening. I'm sure I saw my first orgy by his age."

"Perhaps I am too young."

"Too breakable, but surely not too innocent."

He tugged her out the door before she could protest, and just as suddenly she was in the centre of a lavish party. The room was well lit by braziers and tall candles, the tables laden with food and drink. It was as lavish as any dream.

Far more than the twelve gods and goddesses she'd encountered earlier filled the hall. There were stout dwarves decked in jewels, tall elves, their appearances shimmering into other faces at will, and creatures more wild still. More than a few eyes turned at their quiet arrival. A wariness still in some face, but drink and festivity had lightened the mood with laughter and music filling the space between Most seemed inclined to allow them space.

Like before the dress was a motley mix unrestricted by style or time. Seeing her expression, Jareth leaned to her ear. "Did you think to find them all in furs and armour, Sarah? They wear what pleases them at any moment and sometimes nothing at all."

Sarah was reminded that she wasn't wearing anything beneath the dress.

"You look like you're going to eat her."

Jareth drew back slowly, his eyes on Sarah as her addressed the new voice. "I might."

The dark haired god from the throne room considered them with wry amusement, a glass of something in his hand. Like Jareth, he was tall and slim - lacking the bulk of some of the others males in the room. His face was pointed but handsome. Thick black hair that brushed his collar in almost curls.

"An uncle of worst repute, Sarah. You've no doubt guessed who he is."

The god's green eyes, so much more vivid than her own, flashed with speculative interest. His whole demeanor bespoke a deep intellect and a deeper sense of wit. "Have you? Rare these days."

"Yes," Jareth mused. "I believe she named her cat after you."

Sharp eyes narrowed. Sarah felt her face flush. "He's... ah very smart. Sleek black fur... very handsome..." The flush spread, the dress doing little to hide it. She could feel Jareth practically vibrating with amusement at her side.

"For a cat," Jareth supplied.

"And does he like to play?" Loki asked, ignoring his nephew.

"I suppose... he likes chasing mice," Sarah finished weakly.

"I very much enjoy playing games. As does my nephew. I wonder how long you'll last." He was gone before she could answer.

Sarah exhaled and then turned accusingly to Jareth. "You didn't have to tell him about my cat."

"Oh, but I did."

"He seems one of the least likely to want you dead."

"He always seems that way and then you find a knife in your back, Sarah."

Sarah stared at him.

"We have a mutual respect." He snagged two glasses from a passing tray and handed one to her. "Black sheep do flock together."

Sarah took a fortifying sip. It was crisp and sweet. "Your uncle is Loki." She took another sip and then another.

"Yes. Hungry?" He led her to a table, his hand brushing against her lower back as she sat.

"It explains so much." Despite feeling so vulnerable, she was ready to eat, her stomach empty. The drink and food was plentiful. Amongst the fare silver trenchers held golden apples, as gleaming and perfect as they'd been in the orchard. She picked one up and rolled it in her hand. It looked temptingly ripe.

Feeling Jareth's eyes on her, she slid it back deliberately.

"Harvested every full moon."

Sarah looked around.

Jareth's lids flickered for a moment. "She has her reasons to stay away." His expression suggested he would share nothing more.

She was midway through her plate when the goddess with the flaxen hair sank gracefully into the seat opposite, her eyes on Jareth.

"Enjoying yourself?"

"How kind of you to ask," his tone belied his words.

"A lavish feast for the prodigal son."

Jareth's brow rose. "I believe in that story, the son wandered off on his own."

The goddess waved a hand dismissively and turned clear eyes on Sarah.

"I hear you know of us, little mortal." The question though pointed, was not unkind. "Is that why you're here?"

Sarah hesitated. "Some...yes."

"But you aren't a believer." She tapped a slim finger on her cheek.

"No... I mean you're myths and legends. I didn't think it was real."

The goddess sighed. "Relegated to stories." Then she eyed Jareth slyly. "Some of us anyway. "And are you not honoured to be here?"

"Yes." Sarah paused and then looked around thoughtfully. "Only the worthy are supposedly welcomed and yet I don't see any others?"

"And you won't. None living."

"They believed the best warriors were chosen after death."

The goddess laughed softly. "We have no lasting use for mortals, dead or living."

"So it was a lie."

"It was vanity. There can be no lie when there is no promise. Men have always believed they were more special than they are."

"They fought in your name. They worshipped you."

The goddess ruffled the sleek falcon feathers that accented the neckline of her gown. "They did many things in our name. While we welcomed the worship, all that matters is they believed."

"And then they died."

"As you always do." It was said without cruelty, but without pity either. An ageless indifference. "We gave them hope and still do in old places. Perhaps influenced here and there."

"Influenced? Is that how you made yourself the goddess of beauty?"

Jareth didn't bother to hide his grin.

The goddess eyed her and Jareth respectively. "Like father like son. So what did he promise you?"

Sarah didn't answer.

"Hmm. He'll bring you nothing but heartache, child. Enjoy the feast." She slid away with a bored look on her exquisite face.

Sarah turned to Jareth, her empty glass dangling in her hand and canted her head. "Freya then?... Aunt? Sister? Girlfriend?"

The Goblin King snorted and refilled it. "Dance with me, Sarah, before that tongue gets the better of you." Sarah scanned the room. Some already danced. "No peaches. No dream this time." The words were slow to penetrate and when they did she stared at his proffered hand.

There was a challenge in his eyes that Sarah found compelling. She took his hand before she'd really decided. As though he could read the hesitation on her face, as soon as their fingers met, he pulled her into step. His other hand fell to her waist, bare to the touch of the smooth leather of his fingers.

"Let me lead, Sarah," he laughed softly after a moment.

With a few steps more, she relaxed enough to follow.

They were closer than they'd been ten years before. No frothy confection of silk between them. She could feel the press of his body along hers where they touched and the shadow and heat where they didn't.

She remembered then that she'd been afraid he was going to kiss her. Hopeful too. She'd never been kissed before and her pragmatic mind had decided he'd know how to do it properly unlike the boys too scared to ask her out. She'd been so confused by a ball she didn't understand but wholly desired.

Something deeper than that sensation, tempered by experience and age, slid along her spine.

He smelled good, the thought as fleeting as it was dangerous. Masculine but different. That hint of something other that reminded her he was so much more. Her chin brushed his shoulder and she fought a ridiculous urge to draw the scent in deeper.

The wine had clearly gone to her head. If she could have seen his face, a curl of his lips betrayed her struggle.

A moment later she felt fingers skate across her ribs, just missing her breasts. Not quite touching but close enough to intimate that he could have had he dared. That he might dare soon.

"What are you thinking?"

"Is that a question?"

"Some call it polite conversation."

Sarah looked around the room. Some of the revellers were barely clothed. Bared breasts and stroking hands. A different kind of dance. The clash of steel and laughter suggested others had found another kind of blood sport. She returned his stare, distracted by the fingers that circled lower on her back until they brushed beneath the edge of silk.

She looked around. "I think they are beautiful monsters. Even Vikings could be taught to waltz; doesn't mean they didn't still adhere to barbaric practices. Pageantry you said."

"If civility is just a veneer then you should really cling to that illusion. It's likely the only thing saving you from more savage inclinations."

Sarah missed a step. A deft hand corrected her. "Is that a threat?"

"A suggestion," his breath stirred the hair at her neck.

"You're trying to cause a scene. Toying with mortals doesn't seem to be popular." The Norse, unlike other pantheons, didn't have tales of gods seducing mortals.

"I have already caused a scene." He sounded unapologetic. "And who says I'm toying. We're both adult enough to know what I want. Now the question becomes what do you want?"

Even if it had been a question, Sarah was not sure she had an answer. "I know you want many things. I want my brother back, I know that," she finally answered.

A hand closed around her neck gently, palm cupping, long fingers threading into coil of hair at her nape. His lips were far too close. "And what would you give me to get your brother back?"

Sarah paused but answered before she felt the compulsion. It was a question she had expected from the start. Before there was a need to answer.

"Anything." She didn't dare drop her gaze. It was a challenge as much as an admission. And she'd conceded enough already not to play the damsel again. She had known from the beginning he had no intention of letting her go and she had also always known that forfeiting would cost a dire price. His question only emboldened her.

Jareth smiled slowly, a lazy one that didn't quite reach calculating eyes.

"You already knew that. You've wasted another question."

"Not a waste to hear you say it. And I didn't know, not with certainty. Not everyone is so noble." She wasn't sure it was a compliment.

"I'd hate you for it." The 'it' was left to the ether.

"I haven't asked anything of you." The yet as undefined.

"But you will."

He didn't answer. He didn't have to.

And then he kissed her.


Chapter Text

This will be the last time
This will be the last time
This will be the last time
You take me

First Defeat , Noah Gundersen


The kiss was feather-light and somehow unexpected. It teased instead of devoured - very different from the awkward turned hungry one she'd traded him in the inn. It was more than the perfunctory peck he'd given her in the orchard too, and it took Sarah by surprise in a way it shouldn't have. As he always did.

His breath was warm against hers, a contrast to the cool leather splayed against the bare skin of her lower back. She wasn't sure if they were even dancing anymore. The music still played - a pulsing, almost liquid rhythm that seemed to move as suggestively as his hands and lips. It was interrupted only by bouts of laughter and the more primal sound of bodies deeply entwined.

It made her keenly aware of where they were. Keenly aware of who watched. Keenly aware that Jareth was more than willing to sacrifice anything to get what he wanted.

She pulled back, his lips sliding to the corner of her mouth and then away. For a moment those hands tightened on her, like he was undecided about allowing the retreat, but then they loosened and a lazy smile formed.

"Running away?" His tone suggested he'd relish the challenge.

"Regaining my feet," Sarah offered coolly. "We may have a truce, but you haven't been honest with me. You've known all along who has Max. Which makes me wonder how this mystery person got him in the first place. You may not have taken him but I am not naïve enough to think your hands are in anyway clean."

"My hands are far cleaner than any others you're likely to find in this room."

Sarah snorted, ignoring the fact that his fingers were still drawing tantalizing patterns on her sensitive skin. "No doubt. Yet you brought Toby and I right into the middle of whatever twisted family reunion this is. You all keep reminding me that we don't belong here. That we are so very breakable."

"I have no intention of breaking you, Sarah."

"I have no intention of being broken."

Jareth smiled again, just as lazily, his eyes returning to her lips. "But you are running away. Keep doing it I'll start to suspect you want me to give chase."

Sarah glanced around the room, laden with tension both sexual and otherwise, and hissed, "Perhaps I just don't feel like being mauled in public."

A soft chuckle followed. "They are far too occupied with their own conquests to care about mine. And the mauling has barely begun."

She glanced up sharply. "Is that what I am? A conquest?"

His eyes were dark and almost hooded. "I'm not sure what you are." There was an unexpected ring of truth in the words that drew a soft exhalation from her. "But if you're asking if I'd like to have you right now, then the answer is yes," he intoned against her ear, so that she felt the words as well as heard them "I've been thinking of peeling that dress off of you since I first saw you in it. And if I thought you wouldn't put up much of fight, I'd do it right now." He grinned at her slight jerk of apprehension and she felt that too. "If I'd wanted to force you, Sarah, I would have already. I think you already know that. Not that I haven't entertained the thought. Not least when I found you in the forest, clothed in nothing but a cloak. Or again when you admitted what you'd been on the cusp of doing. A stroke to my ego and a stroke to your… well I suppose I so rudely interrupted that part. But if we are talking of savage inclinations, we should probably start with mine that the first night in my castle. You can't imagine what it felt like to have you there. In my world. With no rules to play by."

Sarah vaguely registered that his fingers teased along edge of her dress, the tips almost brushing the cleft of her ass. At some point he'd deftly manoeuvered them off the floor and into the recesses. His words were melting into her skin as smoothly as the wine and food lulled her mind. She made a note not to drink anymore.

"So when you ask if I want to conquer you, I'd say it's only fair after you've done the same to me. There are a great many things I want, some as you've easily guessed, have nothing to do with you whatsoever. But right now, in this moment, I want nothing more than to slip a hand beneath your skirt to find you bare and wet and ready. And that has everything to do with you."

Sarah shivered at his raw, almost coarse words, their honesty all the more compelling. It had nothing to do with fear. When he kissed her again she met him half way. This time there was nothing soft or teasing about it. Her teeth scraped and tugged his lips, even as his tongue delved to explore hers. She pressed against him willingly, swallowing the rational part of her mind that warned the path ahead led to danger. Delicious heady danger.

She registered that his hand had fully slipped inside her dress and was palming a bare cheek, his finger dangerously close to discovering the truth of his words. She didn't care. In fact she had to quell the urge not to push herself into those fingers… and only then because she was still distantly aware of where they were. How easily he'd slip inside. She squirmed and his tips brushed her folds. He groaned against her mouth, his other hand snaking up her ribs towards her breast.

It was foolish. It would end in betrayal but she wanted him in that moment. No longer as a girl but as a woman. In a way she hadn't any other man she'd wanted. A mad culmination of everything she'd been feeling and fighting since he'd returned. She understood that if she let him, he'd take her right there. And she'd take him too, she thought darkly, a hand curling round his neck to draw him closer. She'd have power over him again. Her other hand clutched at his shirt and then began to work its way down toward the hardness that pressed against her stomach. She very much wanted to make him groan again.

A loudly cleared throat returned her to sanity. Jareth was slower to react and when he did, he looked anything but amused. For a brief moment, a look of pure rage crossed his features before he schooled his expression.

"As much as I hate to interrupt," drawled Loki, "actually that's a lie, I rather love ruining others' fun - I do wonder if you're not rubbing too much salt in the wound. Death by a thousand cuts or have you forgotten everything I've ever taught you?"

"I'm only thinking of one death in particular right now."

"No doubt. But I'm also of the suspicion that you would have retreated to a more a secluded setting had you wanted to entirely avoid interruptions. Also muffles the screams more." He directed a wink to Sarah. "Of course alone you couldn't flaunt a mortal in their faces."

Sarah looked sideways at Jareth incredulously. She moved to step away but his hand was still snagged inside her dress, now clamped about her hips.

"Ah yes, as much as he no doubt found you delectable, and I'm not blaming him, you do look entirely ready to eat, I'm certain his actions were also performative. For someone who so rarely shares his private trysts, he had no qualms about having you against a wall before all soot and sundry." Loki's eyes travelled her form, lingering on her breasts, prominent against the thin bodice of the dress. "Not that I think you were protesting much."

Sarah choked back a wave of revulsion. When she scanned the room she noted that though the other revelries continued more than one pair of eyes was trained on them. Close by a man, an immortal Sarah reminded herself, was thrusting wildly into his willing partner. Her gown was pulled down, his mouth on her neck and hand palming her breasts roughly. Like Jareth might have done to her. The woman caught Sarah's eye, her head bouncing against the stone with every stroke and bit her lip against wicked laugh.

Sarah looked away sobering. She got the impression that after Loki had greeted them and left, he'd never stopped watching. Her head buzzed.

"Don't take it too hard, I've no doubt he would have enjoyed it. And I, for one," he gestured, "would have certainly enjoyed the show. How better to annoy the pantheon than by bringing a mortal who is," he winked again, "not quite what she seems, and have her right there before them. Why, history is almost repeating itself."

Jareth looked deceptively calm. Loki looked delighted and entirely in his element.

Sarah ran a shaking hand through her hair and realized that at some point, Jareth had ruined her knot. The stark reality of where she was and what was at stake was as effective as a cold shower. "I suppose it's a good thing you stopped… this then."

"Oh I didn't do it for your sake, you sweet little tidbit. If circumstances were different, I might have waited my turn." She felt Jareth stiffen beside her. "When my hot-blooded, and now ever-so-jealous, nephew cools long enough to reflect, he'll realize the wisdom of my words. Keep the waves at bay until you are ready to drown them. I'm sure he can have you later, though I imagine the challenge will be a degree or two harder now. Especially as the effects of the food wear off… Oh," Loki feigned surprised concern, "did he fail to mention the food and drink at these feasts are always laced with a little… shall we say, spice? Considering what it does to us, I can't imagine how it must affect a mortal. An accidental oversight, I'm sure. Good evening then." He bowed mockingly and disappeared back into the fold, no doubt to watch the fallout from the shadows.

Sarah felt her face flush hot with anger and she tried pulling away but his fingers bit into her skin.

"You are entitled to be angry, not to make a scene. If you run away now you won't find me very nice when I find you."

She removed his hand from her dress but he snared her wrist. "Not very nice like drugging me? Trying to… to fuck me in front of your… your family!" Mortification rose as heady as her anger. She barely registered that he'd returned them to their rooms with little more than a wave. When he finally released her, she whirled away from him in disgust.

"Drugged is an overstatement. The essence is extracted from a beast which feeds on cravings. The desire has to be present for any effect. The more potent the desire the more likely to be felt." At her look of horror he added coolly, "It can't breed what isn't there in the first place, Sarah."

She looked away stiffly. "I'm still not in my right mind."

"You encountered them the first day too – through the thorns. They tracked you. I made sure they kept their distance."

She knew he was making a point but she refused to acknowledge it. "You could have warned me about the food. Why?"

"I could have. Long lives tend to dull the senses. It's a game to them. I wasn't sure Odin even still used it at these feasts until I tasted it. And then, I'll admit, I was curious what it would do."

Sarah's hands balled into fists until her knuckles bled white. "And if Loki hadn't interrupted?"

Jareth gave her a closed look that was answer enough.

"I knew you were just using me. You really are all monsters."

With a quick step he was before her. "Don't think for a second that I don't actually want you, Sarah." Haven't wanted you for a long time. His voice was uncharacteristically raw and unfettered by deception. "Now that I've had a taste of your desire more than ever. But I am nothing like them. I allowed revenge to cloud my judgement." To ruin what might have been.

Through the haze of her hurt and anger, she could tell she'd struck a nerve. She filed it away for later. "You can't imagine that I would want you now."

"No, I'd rather think not." A trace of bitterness edged his tone. "I am nothing if not persistent though. I can wait." His eyes still held feral cast they'd had in the hall. "As my uncle so helpfully noted I have never liked to share." His hand ghosted her chin before she pulled away again. "Certainly not you. Never you."

Conflicting emotions made Sarah rock unsteadily. "I need to go bed. It's been a long day. I assume the effects of… this will fade?"

He studied her cold face. "I'd suspect they already are."

"Why me?" she asked after a pregnant silence.

For a moment she thought he wouldn't answer, but then perhaps in an act of uncharacteristic contrition, he spoke. "There is no one answer, Sarah. Not one that will satisfy you, I think. I'm not certain I know myself. The easy one is that you caught my attention. And you haven't let it go."

"I thought you were nothing more than a character in a little red story book. A fantasy. I didn't know you were real."

"But you believed."

Sarah nodded, shaken. She turned to walk away.

"I have a question. Count it if you must, as I'd wager you are not feeling generous now." Her expression confirmed it. "Why did you have me fall in love with you?"

Sarah blinked at him in confusion, the words slow to penetrate, slower still to register. "What do you mean – made you? It was in the book. The Goblin King had fallen in love with the girl. I read it enough times to know."

Jareth shook his head. "That part was never in the book."

Sarah stared at him incredulously. "That's not possible. I memorized all the lines. Remembered them when I needed them," she added pointedly.

"You said them yes. Believed it too. I once watched you practicing in the park." At Sarah's look of surprise, he offered. "I knew you would eventually call me. I could feel it. I just didn't know why."

Sarah shook her head mutinously. "I can prove it to you. I brought it." She dashed into the bedroom and dug through the remaining bag haphazardly.

Jareth was waiting for her when she finally returned, lounged on a sofa with long legs crossed. His look of patient confidence was grating.

"Here it is." Habeas Corpus, she thought.

A wry smile added insult to injury. "I see you packed only the essentials."

"Laugh now, but I'm not wrong." A frisson of doubt crept up her spine nonetheless at the look in his eyes.

"And what do I win when you're proven wrong?"

The doubt intensified. She brushed it off. "Nothing. I've played enough games with you for night, I think." She moved to the fire and flipped it open, eyes scanning. Her brow furrowed a moment later and she flipped more pages and then back again. She closed the book and turned it in her hand, looking for the familiar scratches and wear closely. She opened it again and examined the pages, looking for any cut marks, but the rest of the words were still there. She could feel Jareth's eyes on her the entire time, and knew anything more was just stalling.

When she finally looked up, his face was deceptively blank.

"It's a trick. You've done something to it."

Lips twitched. "I have not."

"Then something or someone else did something to it."

"The book is unaltered."

Sarah tried to remember the last time she'd read it. Not since that night she eventually owned. She thought back to Toby's recent reading of it in the shack. He'd not once mentioned the love bit. Something he'd have teased her about given the opportunity. To be fair, he was likely still processing that she'd once wished him away.

She looked down at the book again, as though really seeing it for the first time.

"It was so long ago. I don't know," she croaked. She jerked up again. "Does that mean I forfeit."

"Not yet," he said with calculated precision. "Not if it's the truth. But there is always more to 'I don't know'."

"I was young," she continued finally. "A bit lonely. My mother had left. I resented my father and hated my stepmother. Toby… was an unwanted annoyance. It's typical of teenagers to consider themselves the centre of the universe and to wish themselves as something more. Boys my age were just boys… and not very nice. I suppose I liked the idea of," she eyed him and then looked away, "a magical being interested in me."

"And so you had the Goblin King fall in love with you and give you special powers."

Sarah stiffened in embarrassment. "Something like that I guess. It's ridiculous now but I suppose I felt it added to the story."

"And you believed it."

"I did." For a time.

"But you didn't have yourself fall in love in turn."

Sarah looked up.

The Goblin King's lips twisted. "How cruel."

"I was a child."

"Almost. Just as cruel. Too old to turn, too young to keep."

Sarah gestured wildly. "You keep saying that. It was make believe. I didn't make you fall in love with me." There was a hint of a question in her tone that Sarah wished she could take back.

"No," he said slowly, eliciting an unexpected pang she equally wished she could ignore. "But I was… intrigued by the idea. By this slip of a mortal girl, completely normal in every way, who wanted nothing more than power over me without offering any in return. That desire was something I could well understand."

She shook her head. "I don't think your kind is capable of love." Even Sarah knew it was a waspish thing to say, born of wounded pride.

"Perhaps not the romanticized kind, no. But I'd argue not many mortals are either. We understand desire and power and how the two are woven together. We covet. We align. There are other kinds of love."

"Like sibling love. Like parents who want their children back," Sarah parried softly. She almost couldn't remember what Max looked like anymore. Her parents had forgotten him completely.

"Yes," Jareth replied, equally as soft. "There is that kind too."

Sarah stared down at the book and then frowned. "How did this even come to my possession?" She vaguely remembered her mother's lover buying it for her at a fair. She'd been entranced by the cover and he'd been keen to buy her happiness with trinkets.

"I haven't a clue." It was only a partial lie.

She stared at him sourly. "So did my answer suffice?"

"For now. Though I think you learned more than I did." As she turned to leave he added, "I'd ask you more questions but I don't think I'd like the answers tonight. Sleep well, Sarah."


After the door shut the Goblin King leaned back and stared at the fire, his expression fracturing.

He reflected on the evening with mixed emotions. There was satisfaction in the wary looks he'd received. Satisfaction in having made it. He could, of course, have hoped for a better ending to the night. He wasn't even entirely angry with his uncle. It would be like being mad at a knife for cutting. And perhaps there had been some wisdom in not playing his hand too soon.

That said, it made for a cold bed. Had he whisked them back to the rooms as initially intended, he might have been curled around her now. Or more likely still buried deep inside her. He hadn't planned to have her in the hall, as intriguing as the prospect was. He wanted her to himself. Planned so anyway. She might have still regretted it in the morning, he wasn't fool enough to think she trusted him, but he'd use his hands and teeth and tongue to disavow her of any doubt. The bottom line was that he hadn't lied. She'd wanted him too. She'd been oh so willing. Despite everything uncertain between them. And after having his hands on her he'd only wanted her more fiercely. It had been wise not to tell her that her dress had lost a lot of its opacity as she'd stood before the firelight; he'd needled her enough for one night. He'd need to make amends, at least in appearance. There were other more pressing and long outstanding debts to collect.

Since the first he'd decided he'd at least like a taste. And even casual sex implied some sort of binding. She wasn't far off when she'd mentioned conquer. He couldn't quite recall when that sense of conquest had turned into the notion to keep. He was now deciding how best to do that.

A knock at the door interrupted his darker musings. The party would still be going, perhaps livelier since his absence. He waved a hand and it opened. He sighed, unsurprised, when he saw who it was.

"Come to tear a strip?" The words were clipped but not unkind. Since the night on the balcony he'd expected another visit.

The god chuckled. "I've tried that, it never worked." He settled himself in a chair. "You made it. Against all odds."

"Mmm, despite your worry."

"I wasn't worried. Not on my behalf anyway. More concerned about the fallout should you have failed."

"You never did care for women's tears."

"That's not entirely true. I sometimes enjoy causing them."

Jareth rolled his eyes. "With pretty words and long laments."

"We all have our talents." The god drew serious. "Was it terrible? The passage?"

Jareth flexed his hands. "Creatively terrible. No, no creative. Predictably painful. But no lasting effects. Shadow and mirror magic. They should have had Silvertongue ply his hand if they'd wanted more than phantom cuts. I knew they'd try to make me turn back. They failed. You missed the party." He changed the subject abruptly.

His companion poured himself a drink, allowing the turn. "Oh I stopped in," he gave a low rumble after a sip. "Long enough to see you haven't changed your ways." He glanced around, one auburn brow rising. "I half expected to be interrupting something. Quite the show you were prepared to put on."

"Nothing they haven't seen before," Jareth offered dryly.

"Don't be unkind. Your blame is misplaced."

"As is your concern."

A long suffering sigh. Jareth had heard it many times. "You're so like him."

Jareth had heard that too. "I don't thank you for the compliment."

"You're like her also."

Jareth swallowed, jaw setting.

"I wasn't wrong when I warned you that she was dangerous. If anything, tonight has proven that."

"I haven't forgotten your words."

"Yet you deal in deception couched in dulcet tones."

Jareth snorted, "Poetic if contrived. I learned from the best."

The god read the unspoken cue and drained his glass. "You won't believe me but I have done my best. I'm sure I failed at times. It wasn't easy on anyone." Jareth's glacial look made him falter as he stood. "Well… regardless, welcome back. You know I wish you luck… watch your step lest innocents fall in your wake."

There was enough sincerity in the words that Jareth grinned. "For all your warnings, I have always wondered how a captivating little red book against all odds made it to her realm."

A brief but answering smile followed. "I have no idea what you mean." The door shut quietly a few beats later.

Jareth waited a few more moments and then turned. "You can come out now, Sarah. Didn't anyone tell you it's not polite to eavesdrop? Advantageous perhaps but not polite."

Sarah paused in the crack of the doorway, as though undecided whether to own her act. Eventually she opened it and stepped. Jareth glanced at her long enough to see that she's changed out of the dress and was wearing a nightgown - no doubt provided by the room - in a ridiculous virginal white. It would look less ridiculous discarded on the floor, he decided. But that time had passed it seemed.

She didn't bother to apologize. He didn't expect one. Nor did he seem in the mood to talk. The flames cast long shadows on his face until he barely looked human. Sarah reminded herself he wasn't. He did look almost maudlin. As angry as she was, she rather insanely wanted to comfort him.

He read the pity in her face. "Unless you're planning to comfort me by getting under me or on top of me - really I have no preference at this moment - I'd go back to bed, Sarah." He levelled a pointed look. "Lest I forget that thin veneer of civility." His crude words were sharp - meant to chase her away – but held an element of truth. It was the latter that had her closing her door with a decided click. Locking it too.

He laughed at the sound – a cruel mocking bark that consumed everything else hiding beneath.

Run away, Sarah. Time is short.


Sarah was running, running so fast her legs were cramping and lungs burning. Every step was torture but she pushed on, unwilling to stop. Unwilling to concede defeat yet.

A baby was crying. And then she was falling. A weight at her back crushing her to the ground.

A hot breath snarled in her ear, "This will be the last time."

She cried and pushed him off, her hands slick and sliding. She looked down to see them coated in blood.

And then she looked up.


"Please pass the eggs."

"Not if you insist on eating with your mouth open."

Toby scowled but shut his mouth. "You sound like my mother," he muttered after swallowing.

Jareth handed over the dish. "With you and Sarah to contend with? I've no doubt she was a saint."

"Hey!"

"Mouth closed, boy, lest I seal it shut for the duration of breakfast."

Sarah watched the scene from the doorway. Once again she'd awoken alone, mind cloudy, and panicked at Toby's absence. Emotions had been so high she hadn't looked for, much less thought about him, the night before.

She wasn't sure how she felt that it was commonplace to wake to the sight before her. Toby opened his egg-filled mouth to say 'good morning', caught the sharp look from the Goblin King, and closed it again immediately. Sarah slid into her chair, brushing her hair behind her ear. Somehow the requisite 'next morning awkwardness' was worse without the sex.

Toby looked between them, careful to swallow fully again before speaking. "So… how was the party?"

Sarah looked at the Goblin King. He looked at Sarah.

'Fine' and 'disappointing' collided across the breakfast dishes.

"Sounds… fun," Toby offered politely.

"It was rather boring." Jareth tapped his own egg, shattering the shell. "Nothing memorable."

Sarah poured herself a cup of tea, her head pounding too much for coffee. "The food was terrible." She glanced at the king. "The company somehow worse."

Jareth clucked his tongue, mischief alight in his eyes. "Indeed, the wine went to her head and your sister couldn't keep her hands to herself."

Sarah gaped.

Toby did too. "She hit you?" He looked at her in disbelief. "You hit him? Really?" He turned back at Jareth. "One time she got drunk at a party-"

"Toby!"

"And I'm not supposed to know about that because I'm just a kid. The end." He focused on his juice.

Sarah glanced down at her own cup but did little more than grip it. Her plate remained empty.

"It's all perfectly untouched," Jareth offered snidely.

Sarah narrowed her eyes but then took a sip.

"Concerned about your restraint? Afraid to… hit me again?"

She ignored the provocation and served herself some fruit.

"Just don't eat with your mouth open. I think he didn't sleep well or something," Toby whispered helpfully.

Jareth's lips curled ever so slightly.

The rest of the breakfast continued in silence.

When they were finished the meal, Sarah rose and stretched. She was wearing fitted black leggings and a lanky asymmetrical shirt in a dark teal. There'd been a selection of clothes set out for her that were decidedly human. She wasn't sure if it was the room catering to her whims or another act of contrition on his part. Either way she appreciated the concession.

Toby also almost looked like himself as well, if more stylishly dressed for a boy his age. Clearly Jareth was having an influence. She wasn't sure how she felt about that.

"What happens next?" she asked finally.

"I'd imagine we get a summons…" he canted his head, "oh, about now." Sarah and Toby heard nothing. "Apparently alone today." He looked undecided for a moment, eyeing Sarah and Toby in turn. "I could defy them," he mused aloud. Perhaps Loki's words had resonated because a moment later he straightened and then addressed them. "I'd tell you not to wander but I doubt either of you would listen. I could eliminate the door, but I likewise don't want to contend with your thorns later." He directed a pointed look at Sarah. "I'll consider this a test of trust." She wasn't sure if he meant hers or his. "Don't go far. You should be safe, but should you cross anyone don't trust their honeyed words. Don't eat anything you're offered. I'll be occupied so try not to find yourself in need of rescue." His tone implied it a distinct possibility. "And don't bother trying to escape."

Sarah fought the urge to retort that all of his warnings could be about him as well.

"Don't worry. I have no intention of running away. You said Max would be here soon," she squeezed Toby's shoulder reassuringly. "I'm not going anywhere without him."

Jareth returned her look evenly, his voice neither kind nor cruel. "I expected nothing less. Though I'm not worried, I just don't want the bother. Your opportunity to run away is long over."


Professor Gunnarsson pulled on the cotton gloves slowly. He yawned loudly, in no hurry to move faster than absolutely required. He didn't much care for mornings. Anything before 9 was a crime against nature. Still, it was best to make the most of time away from classes.

He adjusted his spectacles and prepared to open the case in the rare book collection, his eyes focused on the content and then widened.

"Barbara!" he bellowed a moment later.

Less than thirty minutes later he was onto the fourth phone number. The first two had been out of service. When a man's voice answered he closed his eyes in relief.

"Hello? Hello is this Mr. Williams?" It was a cellphone and the reception was poor. Silly new, fangled devices.

"Yes, who is this please?" The voice was distracted. He could hear a woman scolding someone in the background and then loud boyish laughter.

"I'm Professor Gunnarsson, your daughter's thesis advisor."

A long pause. "I'm sorry, who's this? This is a private line, how did you get this number?"

"I found it in my records as an emergency number. I'm sorry to disturb you on your private line. I'm trying to get a hold of Sarah. It's… important. Would she be with you? Or would you have a forwarding number?"

Another pause. Even longer. "I think you have the wrong number. I don't have a daughter. Sarah or otherwise. Have a nice day."

The line went dead.

Barbara looked at the expression on the professor's face, her own pinching with concern. "What is it? What's happened? Who's Sarah?"


Sarah was running, running so fast her legs were cramping and lungs burning. Every step was torture but she pushed on, unwilling to stop. Unwilling to concede defeat yet.

She felt a weight strike her leg, causing her to fumble, the momentum carrying her over into an ungainly sprawl on the soft earth.

Panting hard, she looked at the stick that lay beside her and then up at the victorious smirking face. "You nasty little cheat."

"You're it!" Toby crowed.

Sarah stood, still huffing for breath. "When did you get so fast?"

"Junior track, you lazy book worm."

"Reading improves the mind."

"Doesn't help you much in tag, though."

After leaving their room, Toby and Sarah had explored their accommodations. Many of the doors they passed were locked. Those that were open seemed to be mostly storage. One door had led to a courtyard with lush grass and a verdant garden. It was designed almost like a mini hedge maze, but there was nothing ominous about it and, like the corridors they'd encountered, it appeared to be empty. The sky was blue and clear and the siblings explored the space for a bit, Sarah stopping to finger the odd leaf or petal. Then Toby had slapped her hard in the back and yelled, "You're it." She stared at his retreating form in disbelief. His bark of joy was infectious though and a welcome distraction. Looking around to see if anyone watched, she chased him though the shrubs and beds until she'd caught him round the waist – spinning him briefly, despite his weight and gangly height. He'd be bigger than her soon. Soon he wouldn't want her around anymore. Then she'd only have… He struggled in her grip. She let him go and then took off laughing, swallowing the morose thought.

She'd eluded him for a while but his pursuit had been relentless. "This is tag, not Dodge ball." She motioned towards the offending stick.

Toby shrugged, flashing her a devious smile. "I improvised."

"You are so not allowed to hang out with him anymore!" She ruffled his hair and then stopped. "Toby, about the tree… the one that brought us here." He sobered. "What did you see… when you passed through I mean?"

"Nothing? It was cold and…. Just nothing. And then I was here."

Sarah nodded, far from settled by his answer. "Must have been scary."

"Yah. But he'd warned me it would be dark." He shrugged again. "Nothing bad happened really."

Sarah chose her next words carefully. "It was good of him to warn you. Since it must have still been scary knowing he was going to push you... even to play a trick on me. Brave of you to play along."

"It was kinda. I was brave." Toby frowned. "But it wasn't a trick. I'm not that mean. He said we had to go through willingly. That you wouldn't go. That as mortals get older, they get more scared and that if I wanted to see Max I had to go through. I knew you were afraid of heights. I said I could maybe jump first to show you it wasn't scary and that I'd tell you, but he thought you'd try to stop me if you knew. He suggested you'd do anything to rescue me, without a second thought. If you thought I was in danger, you'd jump for sure. And you did." He smiled warmly. "And he was right because it worked."

Sarah winced at the pride in his voice. "But what worked Toby?"

Toby shrugged. "It? I dunno. We're here aren't we? And speaking of it…" He slugged her and ran off again.

Sarah rolled her eyes, her brow marred by lines, but took off after him dutifully. She rounded a leafy corner straight into the arms of a man.

Stifling a curse, she recognized that it was Tyr. His hands gripped her firmly, his own face mirroring surprise.

"Oh! Sorry," she said by rote. "I thought we were alone." She was suddenly embarrassed she'd been caught in a child's game.

"You're never alone here," he replied dryly, but he looked amused.

Sarah fidgeted to let him know he still held her. He released her obligingly. In the sunlight he looked less stark then he had at dusk. He was still dressed in black, the cowl present like a collar of thorns, but his hair reflected the light and his blue eyes, though rimmed did not look unkind. It was impossible not to see Jareth in his face.

They were all beautiful in their otherworldly way. She was glad she hadn't met them as a teenager – when her hormones would have made her blush at the slightest provocation.

"Are we…" She was about to ask if they weren't supposed to be there.

"It's fine. This garden has forgotten laughter."

The silence stretched a beat too long.

"You weren't at the feast?" She dearly hoped the answer was no.

"I thought my absence was better served elsewhere." There was a glint in his eye that suggested he knew full well why she'd asked.

"I… Jareth's in an audience with… someone."

"I know. I'm rather surprised to see you out. Does he know you're running about or did you give him the slip? I thought him better skilled than that."

"No… he decided to be generous I suppose."

Tyr laughed, the glint returning. "How uncharacteristic of him. He must be trying to make amends for something." He started walking and Sarah fell into step.

"Is it true that you're the god of war and strife?"

"Amongst other things. Are you in love with my son?"

Sarah gaped at him. Right for the kill. God of war indeed. "No," she answered finally when she realized he was awaiting a response.

He eyed her shrewdly. "You wouldn't be the first mortal. Nor the first… but I'll take you at your word." For now was implied. "I wonder how much he has told you."

"Not much at all."

"Predictable. Wise."

Sarah was reminded of the conversation she'd overheard the evening before. She wanted to echo that Jareth was very like him, that it was apparent even in so brief a time but she didn't dare, even as she suspected the reception would be entirely different.

Her tongue would not be caged however. "Were you the one who loved a mortal once?"

The question caught him off guard, and she thought if he'd been in Raven form his feathers would have bristled. He looked both angry and amused at her temerity. "Once."

Sarah nodded. "But not anymore."

He eyed her sideways. "No."

"And… Jareth's mother?"

Those pale eyes flickered. "Is not here."

"Passed away?" she asked softly, shocked at her own boldness but unable to stop.

"Is not here… now."

Sarah exhaled. "So not… a mortal?"

"No, not a mortal." He turned on her suddenly. "You are a bold thing aren't you? Is that why he wants you? I had wondered for a moment, if the boy was yours or his – or both. But you're not warming his bed, I gather. Yet anyway."

It took Sarah a minute to follow. "He's my brother."

"Both of you touched by his magic though."

"Once. Yes."

"Still."

Sarah deflected. "I just want my brother back." An element of truth.

"He's here in the garden."

Sarah was so arrested by the similarities she simply gaped for a moment. "My other brother, I mean. I'm only here because I've come to get him back."

"Liar," he laughed, for he could see too.

"You're a raven. Jareth implied you act as… Odin's spy?"

Tyr didn't deny it.

"The myths name Huginn and Muninn as being that, not Tyr the god of war."

"Then the myths butchered their names. And I had a disagreement with one." A darker emotion edged his tone.

"What sort of disagreement?"

The war god snorted. "The sort where Muin is now dead and I fulfill his role in penance." He didn't sound in the least penitent.

"So you were enemies?"

"We were brothers. Born of the same mother."

Sarah sucked in a sharp breath.

He eyed her blandly. "Have mortals grown so soft? I have brothers enough to spare, one dying is not a great loss. He's not the only god to die by my hand."

Tread lightly Sarah. "And if Loki is Jareth's uncle… he's-"

"Adopted." Tyr turned on her again. "You do know quite a lot about us, even where you falter."

"I… studied you. I mean I just happen to study Norse mythology. In university. I'm still processing all of this," she added honestly.

"No doubt. You just happen to study it," he repeated. "How convenient."

"I chose it," she replied, noting the inflection. "I was studying literature and mythology, a touch of anthropology. I was offered a fantastic chance to study under one of the greats. It just made sense."

"Naturally. You'd be a fool to turn it down."

Sarah frowned. "Naturally. But I almost studied Celtic mythology."

"Ah, another race that almost got it right." An uneven smile curled his lips. "I have a soft spot for the Celts, even when the Nords slaughtered them in my name. How could I not when they named the otherworld after me."

Sarah gaped at him. "Not Tír na nÓg?"

"That's it. I did say I was the god of many things."

"You're answering all of my questions," she remarked after another fraught pause. "He doesn't. Why?"

"The resemblance only goes so far. And there is no reason to lie." Sarah offered a slight smile. "Where would you go even if you knew the whole truth?" .

Her smile faltered, tone sharpening. "The resemblance is deeper than you think."

Tyr laughed, "Don't take offence, sweetling. I've long forgotten how to talk to mortals. Even rather fetching ones. I have to assume you're of greater significance to him than a passing pretty face though. Why else would Jareth have you arriving wearing the mantle of his house. Protection certainly, against darker threats. But that could have been served another way. A wordless warning perhaps." Tyr brushed Sarah's cheek. He wasn't wearing gloves and his long fingers were cool. "Not to touch. Or perhaps meaning more."

Sarah drew away. "I didn't know."

"But he knew. I knew." His pale eyes were intense. Almost haunted. "The last one to wear that cloak was his mother. She liked anything green."

Sarah swallowed thickly, still trying to digest everything. "I've… certainly learned a lot in this garden."

Tyr looked around, his face still tight. He plucked a flower from a nearby bush and twirled it in his fingers deftly, the movement so similar to his son's. He tucked it behind Sarah's ear as though by rote. "This place has witnessed many sights, and guards secrets in each root and petal."

"Poetic."

Tyr's face fractured. "That I am not the god of." His head suddenly canted. "Your brother is listening."

Toby peered round a corner, his expression pinched. She'd forgotten their game; felt shame for forgetting him too, albeit briefly. She mouthed a 'sorry'.

"I'll leave you now though I imagine not for long. I don't think I'll be able to avoid any more… events. And I've meddled enough." He flashed her a devastating smile, not looking in the least apologetic. Loki's brother indeed.

When he'd gone, Toby joined her. "He kind of scares me."

Sarah nodded. "He probably should. They all should." At his perplexed look, she bent. "Don't trust them, Toby. Not even Jareth okay? I mean… don't say that! Don't tell him I said that or anything. We need him. Just… going forward speak to me first."

Toby pulled a face. "He doesn't want to hurt me or you, Sarah."

She stiffened at his faith. "I… know. I certainly don't think he does anyway. He wants to hurt others though. And we might just get hurt in the process."

"He's told me all about magic. About the things you can do here. Sounds pretty awesome… maybe after we get Max again-"

"Toby!" She shook him gently. "Don't you want to see mum and dad again? I do."

Toby's face screwed up. "Oh right… I sort of forgot about them."

Sarah winced. "Well don't. And if you want to see them again remember them, and… don't trust his honeyed words."

"That's what he said!"

"Yes. And he's one of them."

Toby shook his head. "I don't think he is."

Sarah couldn't disagree. Their game was forgotten.


Jareth strolled down the corridor. He could have just appeared but that was expected. Walking meant he could make them wait. And so he walked. Slowly.

When he finally arrived, having taken a particularly circuitous route, he was surprised to see his audience was to be with Odin alone. Whatever was to be said was meant for few ears. So be it.

The god was waiting for him, looking rather impatient. It brought a twisted smile to the king's lips. Odin caught the smile and frowned further, bluntly indicating a seat opposite him. Jareth lounged back in the - likely by design - uncomfortable chair; one polished booted foot perched on the edge of a table.

Odin stared at the boy sourly and considered yet again that the whelp had far too much of his father in him, for all his other stains. Age had not improved him. He stared at the foot pointedly, his blue eye flickering.

Jareth raised a brow and the boot remained. He was rather fascinated by the god's inability or unwillingness to conceal his emotions. It made riling him all the easier, if less fun for the lack of challenge. He was mercurial, something Jareth could appreciate, but to an almost impressive degree. Jareth chose to consider him little better than fickle. Equal parts the grim warrior and almost-effeminate lover of often terrible poetry. He liked to consider himself honourable and noble, but he was just as keen to cause strife if it suited his gain. Or if he was bored. And for all his worldly knowledge he was also a consummate snob. Odin's dark eye, scarred above the brow and below, narrowed. He claimed he'd sacrificed it for wisdom, the blue iris swelling black as it absorbed all the secrets of the universe. And there was certainly no denying the breadth of his knowledge. Jareth, whose own eyes were similarly mismatched, suspected it was nothing more than an accident of creation. Odin had certainly resented seeing his unique trait reflected in someone else.

The god accepted a drink from an attendant and sat back. None was offered to the king. Odin's fine robes were a sumptuous mix of fur, feather, and gold - the entire effect archaic and almost gaudy. His armour was gleaming, having not seen an actual battle in centuries. The look was purposeful, however. Odin was showcasing his power. His brute strength was on display; his power, his prestige… and more importantly his pedigree. He was shorter than Tyr, but stockier; handsome in a different kind of way. He kept his appearance noticeably older by design. White peppered the auburn of his thick hair. He'd fashioned himself the All-father, both in tale and truth, even over his own brothers. The father of the gods. The father of all. Power absolute. He took care to the look the part.

Echoing that were his Valkyries – the only others present - keeping silent sentinel in the shadows. They were the infamous warrior maidens, though there was nothing maid-like about them. Jareth had long suspected they'd all shared Odin' bed at one time or another, by choice or not. He knew they shared each others'. Regardless of their proclivities they cared more for blood sport than the bed kind. Distantly related to the Norns, they took an almost primal delight in deciding the fate of fallen warriors; sometimes felling them themselves if fancy struck. Above all they abhorred failure.

Recalling the distinct flap of winged mounts closing in on him in the snow-covered forest, Jareth winked at them.

He turned back to Odin. "Surely you didn't summon me here to glower? Nor to show off your dazzling ensemble."

Odin drained his glass and set it down hard enough to rattle. Then his face cleared, breaking for a moment. "Why did you come? Why couldn't you accept your fate?"

The question, so unexpected and free from hate, took Jareth by surprise. He studied the older man's face and after finding nothing recognizable he frowned. "You know why."

Odin sat back, his own brow furrowing.

"Don't tell me you're surprised. I have no doubt that the all-seeing father knew exactly when the doors opened. We've blood enough alike that you knew I would come."

Mention of the blood-tie had once been a thorn. "I suspected, yes. You surprised me though." Jareth recognized he was being given a rare compliment. "Even away your magic grew. You've more of your father in you than just a face. What? Even after this long there is no love lost?"

The Goblin King declined to answer.

"It could have been worse. We showed mercy considering."

"Mercy?" Jareth eyed the guards. "What's worse? Kill everyone and let your pets choose?"

"A kingdom, yours alone to command."

"A title meant in jest, ripe for mockery, with little more than mindless goblin for subjects. The Goblin King. Don't pretend it wasn't a yoke. One meant as a warning to others."

"And look what you made of it!" Another rare compliment that had Jareth wondering exactly what hand was being played by the wily god.

"It's wise to befriend dwarves. They can build just about anything."

"You've struck fear. That's power."

The words were honed like a blade. "But it was a place to forget."

Odin had the grace not to deny and for a moment he looked nothing more than tired. "You didn't lack for companionship or sport."

"As long as I stayed forgotten. Unnamed."

Another long pause. "Don't think I didn't… sometimes wonder… If the right choices had been made."

It was as close to a concession as Jareth would ever receive. He didn't buy it. "Why do you really want to speak with me, uncle?" Jareth would never call him all-father. Odin didn't expect it.

"Whatever… measures I took to stop you are over. You are here… again. By right if not desire. I have no doubt help was provided along the way," his tone suggested annoyance, "but I respect your efforts. In many ways I was blind. There were things I didn't see and still don't." Odin folded his hands; for a moment looking younger and far more powerful despite his seeming bout of humility. "Consider this, Jareth Tyrsson. You could stay and reclaim your birth right."

The king forced himself not to react. Honeyed words indeed.

"Take their place in the hall. Let old wounds heal. Learn real power. Forgo your purpose and achieve your ends in other ways." He made it sound easy. Odin was nothing if not charismatic. The gods followed him. Mortals had once fallen at his feet in worship. They'd sacrificed in his name. "And forget about the mortal." It was the first time Odin had mentioned Sarah, though he'd certainly been at the feast. Neither had he missed the cloak. "Mistakes were made. Prices paid. Don't make the same."

Jareth sat up and leaned forward. "A tempting offer." It was an honest answer. "Your faith in my forgiveness is as surprising as it is sure to be misplaced." At Odin's look of anger, Jareth stayed him with a hand as he rose. "I will consider your words. But I ask you to consider this in turn, uncle." He indicated the silent Valkyries. "I now know you can feel fear. And recall that I am not the only beast you caged. Not the only one now free. He's coming."

Odin shook his head in disgust. "You'll get them all killed, boy."

"Maybe. But I am no longer a boy and it wouldn't be the first innocent blood spilled by the whim of the gods. Nor the first sacrificed."

Odin was left staring at an empty chair.


The twists and turns of the garden were almost Labyrinth-tine, but it was more playful than confusing. Despite a few wrong turns they made it out and back inside without further ado.

"What now?" Toby asked.

"I don't know. More exploring? He didn't say we couldn't. In fact he encouraged it really."

"I think he actually said he couldn't stop us and even if he could he didn't want to listen to whining."

Sarah blinked at her brother incredulously.

"He was mostly talking about you," Toby added with a grin.

"You're the worst, did you know that?"

"Actually I'm a bit hungry."

"We'd better go back to the room then. Maybe there will be food there or he'll be back. He said not to eat anything elsewhere."

Toby nodded. "Hopefully there will be pizza. Like Viking pizza!"

"'Viking pizza' would probably be covered in brined fish."

Toby's face conveyed his disgust. "Okay, non-fish pizza and then more exploring."

When they arrived back to their rooms, Jareth was still away. Sarah left Toby for a moment to get her things from the bedroom. Given what she'd recently learned she should try more than ever to make sense of her notes. She clutched her wrist automatically. She'd somehow started this and she'd just as somehow finish it. At the very least more knowledge meant more to bargain with. His absence gave her the opportunity without interruption. Distraction. She grabbed the bag and turned it on over on the floor, emptying the remaining contents. She picked up her notes, hand brushing something smooth underneath. Her eyes swivelled to the little red book that lay on the bed from the night before. When she looked down and recognized what she'd touched she sat back hard. Somehow the book was in her bag. The one that had started it all. She stared at it warily, like an animal about to strike. It of course did nothing.

The trinket Gunnarsson had given her was caught atop the embossed cover. She'd dropped it in the bag the night before.

Toby called her from the other room and she startled back to awareness. "Just a minute!"

Staring at it again she finally reached forward, picking it up in shaking hands. After opening it carefully she fanned through the lays, tracing the elegantly inked script until she reached the last - the one that should not be. The one she couldn't decipher. And then her eyes focused as though seeing a picture once a puzzle had been put together.

She could read… everything.


 

Chapter Text

Part XVI

I loved and I loved and I lost you
I loved and I loved and I lost you
I loved and I loved and I lost you

And it hurts like hell

Hurts Like Hell, Fleurie


When Jareth left Odin's council he was unsurprised to see the two Valkyries standing sentry.

"You mean to do it, Goblin King?" the taller asked without pretense of greeting. Her sigil marked her as Baudihillie - infamous in battle and a favourite of Odin's for her ability to ferry the very best warriors to their death. Her companion, Jareth recognized with a glance, was her sister Fimmilena. Softer spoken, she was once renowned as the "Giver of Freedom". That freedom was found at the end of a blade. He'd always held a certain fondness for her. As a green youth she'd introduced him to a different kind of freedom in the warmth of her bed. Skilled with her hands in every kind of death. Despite their shared history, he knew she'd have happily dispatched him had she had the chance in the woods.

He inclined his head in deference to the Alaisagae. It was their due. They were the only Valkyries to achieve renown beyond the Norse lands. "My intentions certainly precede me."

The pair exchanged a meaningful glance. "We will not stop you now."

"Mmm, your master already said as much."

"Odin is ever a bender of words," Fimm replied carefully.

Jareth offered a sharp laugh. "And a bender of worlds but all things come to an end."

"We will not help you and we will not stop you." The Goblin King had lived long enough to know that sometimes doing nothing was doing everything. It was more promise than he'd thought to have. Unlike a god's, a shield-maiden's vow was inviolate. "And we will also ferry your soul if necessary."

Both warning and promise.

"I don't intend to die."

Baudi's teeth were white and even. "None ever do."

"Who bends words now?" Fimm queried.

Jareth said nothing more, merely inclining his head in parting.


Sarah sank back on her calves to read, food and brother entirely forgotten. It was as though the words, so indecipherable before, had shed their shell entirely - eager to be consumed.

Of Ymir's flesh the earth was fashioned,
And of his sweat the sea;
Crags of his bones, trees of his hair,
And of his skull the sky.
Then of his brows the blithe gods made
Midgard for sons of men;

Sarah immediately recognized the standard opening passage from other lays.

Beloved of the Odin and Tyr,
the Norsemen of Midgard proved their mettle in battle,
sanctified in the blood of their enemies.

The slain were offered in tribute

To the brothers of war of strife.
The mightiest souls ferried beyond the sea
by shield-maidens fair.

And lo, the conquered lands of Midgard
fell before them in glorious destruction.

On one such day, the Norsemen had offered yet again
the mightiest sons of Eire in tribute to the gods.

The lamentations of their women
the choir of their death.
For they sought the secrets of the Arainn Mhor
in the barrows and the hollows.
The good people would not speak,
and the halls would not open.

But lo, a lone maiden would not cry,
nor rent her hair,
nor call for mercy that would not come.

On the craggy shore, she stepped into the roiling water
and made a cut upon her hand
so that her blood met the salt of the sea.

She called to the sisters three
and all those beyond Odin's reach
and asked to make a bargain.
For she knew the gods' names
and the right words to say.

She was beget when a Norseman
stole a wild woman of the rock for his own.
Her father spun stories by the fire,
her mother whispered secrets of the hill folk by her bed.

The maid, fair of face and fair of form,
with warring bloods in her veins
dared asked for the dread unspoken.
She was her mother's child.
In a clear voice, the maiden called for the death of Odin and Tyr
so the bloodshed would end.
The first time a mortal asked for the death of a god.

She would then share the hill folk secrets with the gods
so they could free their yoke.
Her blood was proof of her vow.

But it so happened that Tyr heard her call first.
Surprised at a mortal's boldness,
he sought to fell the maiden with his blade...

Inis Mor, circa eleventh century

...The girl felt the shift in the air, despite the steady winds whipping her hair against her face in stinging lashes. It was enough to chill her further; the cold sea water having long numbed her legs.

She turned expecting death, but it was not the fates answering her call. Instead she beheld the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Silvery hair and pale blue eyes were rimmed in black. Tall and thin compared to her island brethren, he was nonetheless dressed as a warrior. His dark mantle was marred by battle. One gloved hand rested lightly on a hilt.

She realized with a dry swallow that he was no man and death had come after all.

Dark eyes raised back to his face. "You are here to kill me."

The god didn't immediately speak for it was not a question. His arm was stayed by the lack of the fear in her voice. "You called for my death. It is only fair."

The young woman turned fully, the sodden skirts weighing heavily round her legs. She examined his face. "You are Tyr, and not Odin I think."

"And you are not afraid to die."

"I am only disappointed that my time was short and you shall live on."

Tyr canted his head. "Even warriors who dream of Valhalla are afraid to die. Who are you, maiden, that you dare call for the death of not one god but two?"

"I am nobody. And my death will come regardless. By blade or in the birthing bed, or as a bent crone who one day sleeps and never wakes." Her black eyes flashed. "My land is burning and you lit the flame."

Tyr shrugged indifferently. "Tis mortal men who burn it not I."

"As an offering in your name," she countered evenly.

Pale eyes narrowed. "Why do you not cower, girl? Beg or plead? Are you soft in the head?"

"Why do you not strike? Are you too soft of body?"

For once the god was struck speechless.

The girl smiled briefly. "I played my hand and failed. I know I will not get another chance. I could not take up the blade as warrior but I will die on my feet nonetheless."

"I could show mercy..."

"You won't."

Tyr did not deny it, but still his weapon remained sheathed.

Instead he studied her face - she was pretty in her way, with surprisingly dark eyes and clear skin lightly tanned by the sun. Her many layers disguised her form. Though young in face, she was clearly a woman grown. Her hands were brown and earth stained, the blunt nails blackened. A similar smudge stained her cheek.

"You are no murderer. You toil in the ground."

The words betrayed no judgement, merely a sense of indifference. She folded her hands into her skirts self-consciously. "But you are."

"There is no life without death. I merely cull the herd. Mortals breed like rabbits. So very breakable but plentiful enough to spare. Do you not pull weeds when they choke your garden?"

She stared back boldly. "And kill the ravens that meddle with the crops."

His lips twitched at that. He pulled a dagger from his belt and deftly flipped it thrice before tossing it at her feet.

"I am feeling generous today." He spread those same hands wide. "Do as you wish, little god-killer."

It was the girl's turn to look surprised. She stared at the blade gleaming in the shallow water, then picked it up in disbelief. "You mean to trick me."

"That is my brother's purview. Don't keep me waiting lest I change my mind."

The girl palmed the blade, its weight chafing against her cut. Her skirts sucked at her shins as she moved back onto shore.

Tyr grinned wolfishly at her approach. "The question is are you faster than a god?"

A shake of dark hair. "You'll strike me down faster."

"Perhaps, but will you still try?"

"If I am to die anyways, then yes." She eyed his sword as she took a slow step forward.

Tyr smirked and then uncoupled his blade, letting it fall heavily to the pebbled ground. "There. Satisfied?"

"Not remotely. I am still no warrior."

He eyed her up and down provokingly. "Perhaps it will come naturally. Every woman knows how to sheathe a blade."

The girl tightened her grip, and shifted her weight. She took another slow step forward and then lunged. Tyr laughed, easily avoiding the clumsy attempt, and reached for her. The girl twisted with surprising speed, bringing the blade to his ribs with an equally swift stroke.

She was her father's daughter.

It was only a glancing blow, the girl having never tried to gut anything more than a fish or rabbit. Tyr jerked in shock nonetheless. He knocked the blade from her hand easily and took them both down onto the craggy shore.

The girl felt fear for the first time.  Still she did not beg.

She was her mother's daughter.

"You underestimated me." She wanted him to know; to make it clear before she died.

Tyr's silence was his agreement. He felt the softness of her form beneath him - a foil for the fierceness of her eyes. Her wildly beating heart was her only betrayal. How easily he could snap her neck.

He didn't.

The gods do not mix with the children of Ask and Embla, certainly not as they did with the giants and elves of the other realms. No more will a decent man will lie with a lesser beast even if the parts fit.

Tyr was intrigued. His dealings with mortals had only ever been in death. And yet he suddenly very wanted to see what she would do, before the Norns eventually cut her cord.

Though a maid by choice, the girl was no fool and she recognized the look in his eyes. God or no. She had seen it in the eyes of the island men. Had seen it in her father. Had seen it in the lochmen who burned their village. Gods were no different.

"So you seek to sheath your sword in other ways," she accused him boldly. "How base."

He wanted to deny it but didn't. She smelled of salt and earth. Life itself.

The girl jerked beneath him to indicate her discomfort. He rolled and drew her to her feet. "I won't deny that you have snared my interest. I came to kill you but now I wonder."

He reached to stroke her face, but she ducked aside.

"I will not dally with the gods." She turned away, still feeling his eyes on her back, and hurried towards the craggy hills.

Tyr watched her leave, and then bent to retrieve the fallen blade. It was tinged red with blood. He felt his ribs in surprise, his fingers coming away wet. She'd left her mark after all. He'd not thought that possible.

He decided he wanted to leave one too.

The girl was not entirely surprised to find him in the doorway of her hut, though her heart still flipped at his imposing presence. The small stone dwelling was filled with the scents of drying herbs, loam, and ash. She studiously ignored him as she stoked the fire to life and set some water on the hearth.

"Will you kill me now?" She asked finally, her hands beginning to expertly strip leaves from stems.

"Not yet, I think," he remarked just as casually. "You live alone?"

"By choice."

"So you have no man."

A flicker of lash. "By choice. I've seen enough women die bringing the life into the world that the men stuck in them." She eyed him again. "But as you said, no life without death."

He inclined his head.

"None to miss you then."

Her hands faltered before continuing their work faster. "Does it matter? Who weeps for the mouse in the dead of night?" She snorted derisively. "Certainly not the owl."

"I doubt you really think yourself a mouse."

"You think me one."

"Perhaps." He lapsed into silence, instead studying her modest home. Studying her as well.

Unused to the attention she finally snapped. "If you aren't going to kill me why are you still here?"

"I haven't decided why."

"Whether to kill me or..."

"To keep you," he answered honestly.

Her hands froze again and then transferred the herbs to the now roiling water she'd collected from fire. "To keep a mouse as a pet."

"I think we've both concluded you aren't that. But as I said, I am not decided." He didn't add because it just wasn't done. Or that he was just as likely to grow bored of her and cast her aside, perhaps finally kill her later. He wasn't cruel by intent but by nature. The owl didn't kill when it wasn't hungry.  But it always ate eventually.

He wanted her regardelss. The first mortal who'd called for his blood and tried to pay with her own. The first who did not kneel.

Tyr picked at a pastry she'd made earlier and she slapped his hand away. They both stilled in shock. A pale brow arched. "You would deny me?"

"In all things," she replied evenly. "And yet what does it matter to a being who takes instead of asks?" She poured the hot drink into two rough-hewn cups and passed one to him.

He accepted it gingerly.

She thought of her great warrior father who'd put down his sword long enough to plant his seed. Two daughters on his stolen wild wife. He'd eventually grown angry at the woman he claimed would not give him sons. One day he'd left for a raid and never returned. Or so her wild mother had said. Her mother of the old ways.

Her mother who had raised the girls alone, far from any settlements - where Christianity hadn't bleached the soil. She'd taught the girls the lore. How to bring life in ways her father had only ended it. Until one evening her too strange mother had gone into the woods and never returned. Just gone. By beast or man or perhaps the other things that dwelled in the hollows.

The girl closed her eyes in painful memory. "This land has only known bloodshed. I had an older sister once... she was taken in a raid by the animals who call themselves men. Your men. They took her in their ships. I've no doubt she's now dead. Or wishes she were."

"And they left you?"

"I hid in the nettles, too afraid to act. My skin burned and I swore never again."

The god offered neither pity nor remorse. The girl was thankful for the lack. Together they raised their cups to their lips.

It was finely-spiced and had a distinct sweetness that was not unpleasant to the god. The warmth was welcome against the salt cold air. Tyr wondered again at how such fragile mortals lived in the harsh climes. "So defiant, and yet you make me an offering. Like every mortal." He almost sounded disappointed in her. "It is always in your nature to kneel."

The girl lowered her own cup, just as his head began swim unpleasantly.

He frowned a moment later when his legs began to tremble and the ground rose to meet him swiftly. The cup clattered to the floor, the liquid soaking into the packed soil.

She set her own vessel down on the table. It was still full.

Tyr forced himself up onto one gauntleted arm and snared her skirt before she could move away.

"You surprise me again. Foolish," he hissed. She wasn't sure if he meant him or her gambit.

Her gambit which had worked all odds. A mixture of Jay Thrush.

She was her mother's daughter.

The girl tugged back on her skirts. "You underestimated me."

He laughed hoarsely, his breath short. "Indeed." His vision was swimming but he forced himself to stay awake. "What is your name?"

"Why?" She pulled again before reaching for the dagger at his belt. He didn't stop her.

"I think I've decided."

She cut her skirts free.

"Your name," he demanded, left clutching the scrap of fabric.

She gripped the dagger, as though readying her hand. "Idunn," she finally whispered.

He was gone before she could do more. She exhaled shakily and then tucked the dagger into her belt.


It was a year and a day before Idunn saw him again. She'd taken the precaution to move to another part of the island, fearing the poison had not been enough. The nearby monastery, though she wasn't Christian, was an extra wager of protection. The silent monks made beautiful tomes from dawn to dusk. She traded them the very best plants to make their dyes in return for other wares she needed. It was a companionable isolation.

Idunn was shucking oysters when he appeared.

Her fingers faltered on the blade - the same she'd kept after stabbing him. Without a word she wiped it on her skirts and held it hilt-side out to him.

"I'm not here for that. I told you I decided."

She calmly went back to her work. "To kill me?" Though they both knew that wasn't it. "I thought you'd forgotten." She smiled up at him, the picture of graciousness. "Would you like something to drink?"

His pale eyes flickered. "I've learned my lesson."

"Have you? Yet here you are."

He settled on a stone near her. "And have you learned yours, dýrmætur?"

She tensed at the strange term of endearment. "My name is-"

"Idunn. I have not forgotten. Do you prefer, rud lómhar?"

Idunn looked away, focusing on the shells piled in her skirt. "I prefer to be left in peace."

"And have you been?"

There was something in his tone that made her look up again. She studied his face in mounting disbelief.

"You-" she trailed off. "But Brian Boru-"

"Was lucky." They both knew luck had nothing to do it with it.

"Why?" The oysters were all but forgotten. They clattered to the earth as she stood.

Tyr grinned. "Because I can. Because a girl once called to the gods to strike a bargain. I fulfilled that bargain."

"You live."

"No thanks to you," he laughed. You wanted peace for your people. I gave it. The bargain was fulfilled."

He said it like it was nothing. Like he'd woken up and just decided to end two hundred years of bloodshed on a whim.

But it hadn't been just a whim and his expression echoed that.

"You come for payment," she stated hollowly. She didn't thank him.

"Payment is owed, mouse. A blood vow is inviolate."

Idunn ignored the barb and nodded solemnly. "You want the secrets of the Tuatha Dé."

No reply save for the intensity of over bright eyes.

Idunn twitched nervously. "...the... the bargain is only partially fulfilled. You and Odin live." Tyr raised a brow, unable to supress another grin at her continued audacity. "And since you didn't oblige me by dying last time, and I doubt you will now, I will only give you some secrets."

"Perhaps I'll only grant some peace then," he warned.

"What does the god of war even want with the underground magic?"

"The god of war wants nothing with it, actually. The bargain changed, as you so generously pointed out, therefore so too has the payment." When she blanched, he smiled, almost coyly. "I told you I decided, little god-killer." He took a careful step forward, his body tensing like he expected her to run.

Instead she surprised him yet again, as she was wont to do. The blade pressed into the tender skin of her neck.

Tyr stilled. "Slow, Idunn. What is this sudden childishness?"

"You will not take me alive."

"Does someone who called for peace now wish for bloodshed?"

"I will not be your pet." She thought of her lost sister. She thought of her wild mother who'd so longed to be free. "I will not be taken."

Tyr's lips twitched. His hand turned over in invitation. "Then will you come?"

Idunn faltered. "Why?"

"Because I want you." There was no artifice in his voice. "And I think... I think you could want me. I can show you things, things you've never seen before. Things your mortal eyes could only dream."

The blade faltered. "If not a pet then as your whore?"

"As a lover," he corrected, taking a slow step forward. "No rape. And no danger of the child bed. Only pleasure. In all things." His eyes dropped to her mouth. "Mine and yours. The gift of experience. Do you want it?"

"And when you tire of me? What then."

Another step. "Perhaps I won't."

"I will grow old and die."

"Then you needn't worry about me tiring." And another. "Don't you ever wonder if that secret you reach for in the night, your fingers slick and buried deep, is so much bigger?"

His words caught her off guard, her face flaming in embarrassment. It was just enough. He snared her wrist and twisted the knife away. Before she could protest, he slanted his mouth over hers. His lips were gentle but insistent, allowing her time to adjust but not enough freedom to break away.

She tasted like the salt of the sea and a sweetness that was her own. His tongue slid along the seam of her lips until she parted them. She was both so soft and so unyielding in his arms. Tyr had always liked a challenge. His teeth grazed her tongue teasingly and he felt her gentle huff of surprise.

And then she bit him. Hard.

He jerked back in shock. "You bit me."

"Only because you were going to bite me! I felt your teeth. You were tasting me!"

Tyr could do nothing but laugh. In a way he hadn't laughed since Loki had shorn Sif's prized hair. He cleared his throat at her increasingly brittle expression. "Fair. Fair. I was tasting you. But not to eat. Not in that way."

Idunn still looked uncertain. Her eyes going to his lips. "But your teeth..."

"Are you really so innocent?" he asked incredulously. He had little knowledge of virgins. "To tease. Not to hurt only to excite."

"I know what swiving is." And she did. She didn't know much about pleasure though, save for her own explorations. She knew it existed, but she'd certainly never see it between the men and women she encountered. And when she had it had been hurried. Less mouths and more cocks. She touched her mouth thoughtfully. "Here?"

"For one." His eyes roved over her neck and down her chest, pausing on the swell wrapped in linens, lower still to the apex of her thighs, skirts damp with the day's briny catch. "And other places, 'til you are shaking in pleasure. You can use yours too."

Idunn felt something in her flip in a slippery way she understood but couldn't quite grasp. "Why," she asked finally, thinking of her late father. "If not for sons?"

"Because I want you."

"But why?"

"I don't know," he answered honestly. He held his hand out again. "Come with me and we'll both find out."

Idunn felt that same feeling unfurl a bit more. So like the one she'd sometimes get at night in the cover of her bed.

But her mother had warned of her men's promises.

"No." She rocked back on her heels, prepared to run if necessary.

Tyr considered her, taking measure of her gait and then sighed. "Fine."

He brushed past her into the house.

Idunn looked after him in shock and then followed, picking up the dagger on the way. "What are you doing now?"

Tyr didn't answer at first, merely looked around in distaste. A few flicks of his wrist and the interior began to change.

The earthen floor became polished stone. Idunn yelped in surprise, dancing like it had burned her feet. The bed expanded and filled with furs and fine fabrics. The stools became high backed chairs set at a table laden with food. The small hearth roared into a healthy fire that would repel even the worst frost. Even a book shelf appeared, filled with tomes Idunn knew were more precious than gold.

"What-" Idunn gaped at the drastic changes.

"Better," Tyr replied. He unclipped his sword and hung it above the bed. A memory of her father doing that whenever he was home made her tense.

"Why?"

"If I am to stay here, I can't very well live in squalor."

Idunn blinked. "Live here?"

He made a sound of agreement.

Idunn blinked again. She looked around the room again in disbelief. "I don't recall even inviting you in."

"Gods don't wait for invitations." He settled himself in one of the chairs and poured himself a glass of wine. He poured one for her and held it out. "I can promise this isn't poisoned."

They stared at one another before Idunn tucked the knife into her belt and accepted it.

Tyr's lips twitched. "I see you're staying armed."

"As you said, gods don't wait for invitations."

Idunn was not one to let free food go to waste, so she hesitated only a moment before reaching for the capon. Words her mother had whispered stayed her hand. "If I eat or drink anything, it means nothing right?"

"All food from here," he demurred. But his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

The fare was better than anything she'd ever eaten. Exotic flavours in every measure. Tyr picked at it only lightly, his eyes on her throughout the meal. Finally sated, she licked even her fingers clean, unwilling to let even a trace go to waste.

Catching his expression, part disgust part a different sort of interest altogether, Idunn scowled. "What?"

"I'm wondering if you're half animal after all." Knowing she wouldn't understand, he added truthfully. "I'm also imagining what else you could lick clean."

"I was hungry," she replied defensively. "And you spoiled my oysters. Now I'm tired."

Tyr laughed. "That's because you ate like a frost giant."

"You should go now."

"Not until you come with me."

"No."

"I've never lost a battle, you know."

Idunn snorted. "I'm sure magic makes up for any lack of skill." She moved away from the table and poked at the new bed like she thought it might bite. Feeling his eyes on her, she turned warningly. "I sleep alone."

He nodded. "For now."

Keeping her back to him, she shed only her outer layer, and then slid beneath the fur. Her eyes kept tracking back to him warily. "Don't you have somewhere important to be?"

"I'm where I want to be." His lips curled ruefully. "Well, not quite. But I'll respect your wishes." The earlier 'for now' echoed.

Idunn turned her back to him, sliding the dagger beneath the pillow.


They continued like that for more than a week. Idunn trying to ignore him and continue about her life, Tyr doing everything to get in her way. She tilled her garden daily, more verdant than any the harsh island would ever see, only to have him remark on the dirt she'd managed to always track on her face. It made her want to lash out, fling stones at him like some mad woman, but she knew he'd only enjoy the provocation.

A few times he'd disappeared for a period. She'd taste the relief of his absence only to have it spoiled by his return.

One day she'd be shucking oysters and he'd stared at her in such a way she'd found herself warming... only to have him remark with a curled nose that she smelled like fish. She told herself that when she slipped away to the shore to bathe it was only because she preferred to be clean, and not because of his words.

She was bent over, hands sluicing cold sea water over her skin and under shift, when she felt the hair prickle on her neck.

He was watching her again. She straightened, aware the cold air and water made her nipples prominent through her shirt. And knowing that her skin was pricked with gooseflesh as much from his scrutiny as the chill. She refused to cower.

Tyr had never seen that much of her before. She was thinner than her many layers suggested, her body used to harsh work. Her breasts were high and well-shaped if not large, and almost visible though the damp fabric. Her narrow hips still flared invitingly.

The brazen look of desire on his face only made Idunn shiver more.

And then he surprised her for a change.

The god began to strip his clothes. Her mouth dropped further open at each discarded layer, until he was standing on the shore in nothing at all. He paused only long enough, as though letting her look her fill, before wading into the water with long measured strides.

She tried not to stare, realizing she not only smelled like a fish but now resembled one. She'd seen men nude before certainly, but none that looked like him. None that were so lithe and lean and perfect made. Each muscle was defined and honed, but not bulked, as though his power was so latent it didn't need outward artifice. His chest was smooth like a woman's, but there was nothing womanish about him. Her eyes dropped further, no, definitely not a woman. He was soft, not like a beast in rut, but still most definitely male. She looked away when she caught his smirk before he dove beneath the grey waves.

She waited.

And waited more.

She turned in place, scanning the unbroken waters.

Perhaps gods didn't need breathe. Her heart began thudding in her chest.

And then firm arms wrapped around her legs and pulled. She screamed, sucking in a lungful of water as she was dragged under.

This was it.

He'd finally decided to end her. But the hands released and she bobbed to the surface, choking out briny water.

Laughter rolled nearby.

She glared at him, still coughing hoarsely. "You're lucky I can swim."

"That looked more like drowning to me."

Forgetting her resolution she lunged for him. He easily captured her wrists and tugged her under again with him. This time she was prepared and the icy lick of the water only made her heart skip. Their bodies bumped against each other; her breasts scraping along his chest and his thigh weaving between hers beneath the surface.

She felt another telling flip in her belly.

Idunn broke the surface to breathe and watched him warily. His movements in the water were graceful and powerful. He used long even strokes, as though swimming was as natural as walking for him. She treaded along with him. He seemed so harmless in the water. Playful almost.  The god of war. He who brings death.

Tyr dove down. He broke the surface behind her a moment later to startle her. She spun and planted her palms on his shoulders, intending to push him under in retaliation. Instead he ducked his head and pressed warm lips to her neck, his tongue darting out to taste her salt-brined skin. Her hands fluttered and faltered.

His teeth scraped her ear, tugging on the lobe gently. His breathe was even hotter against her chilled flesh.

To entice he'd said.

Her blunt nails dug into his shoulders. One of his arms wrapped around her waist, tugging her through the water until their bodies met. Her rough spun shift had risen and bunched around her waist in the current. When his hips brushed against hers she realized he was no longer soft, despite the frigid waters. The head of his cock bobbed against her folds for a moment and she jerked, half in fear and half in curiosity.

She shoved him away then.

His arm tightened for a moment. Just enough to remind her that he needn't let her go. But he did. She scrambled back onto shore, shivering, and tugging her sodden shift down.

He watched her from the water, only his pale blue eyes visible above the surface.


It was another five days before she tried to poison him again.

Not finding thrush she tried foxglove this time. The taste was easier to mask anyway. He still provided all the food, so she'd slipped it into his stew. It had no effect. And judging by his expression he'd known the entire the time. The look he'd given her was part pity, part disappointment. She wasn't sure which rankled more.

Another evening by the fire, she watched him take a book and begin reading. Catching her sudden interest, he held the tome up so she could see. The embossed page was exquisite, as intricate as anything she'd seen the monks working on.

"What do you think?"

"Beautiful."

He nodded. "And the story?"

Idunn said nothing.

"Do you know how to read?"

A hesitation and then a shake so slight it might have gone unnoticed.

The god's mouth curled. "Would you like to?"

Her mother had known how to read. She'd started teaching her daughters but they'd all run out of time. And after her mother had disappeared, the opportunity had been lost forever.

Idunn knew Tyr was dangling a carrot. She also knew she was a starved hare.

Not all of his words were barbed either, she decided. He admired her ability to grow even the most fragile life in the most barren of soil. When she found a rock she couldn't move, he moved it faster than she could blink. She found the time to make patterns in the bed, swirls and twists and little mazes pleasing to the eye. She made him sift the earth with his hands, until his were as brown and imperfect as hers. He let her. The god of death bringing life.  Their fingers threaded together in the soil, like roots tangling.

The first of things that should not be.

Those easy scowls became slow reluctant smiles.

Apart from reading, he also taught her to play games. One evening a board appeared between them with carved stones for players - a purple king and blue and red soldiers. It was all strategy, he explained patiently. The small number of blue soldiers had to defend the king from the larger invading red army. He offered her the choice of which to play. Thinking the sheer numbers meant an easy victory, she'd chosen red.

And lost.

Resoundingly.

Not so easy to beat the god of war.

He never mocked her for her failures and she was nothing if not an apt student. She'd already read every book he'd provided. She never managed a win but she'd made him sit up once or twice, his uncanny eyes narrowing as she manoeuvred him into a corner. And she found herself watching him more and more.

Enough to notice that his absences grew longer and more frequent. And that he no longer asked her to come with him either. After one particularly long period she wondered if he'd finally lost interest altogether. Rather than relief she felt a pang that was impossible to ignore. She hadn't been able to stifle the grin when he came back.

He'd looked like a starving man finally presented with a meal.


When the first frosts came and the fire roared to keep the home warmed, she pulled back the furs and finally bid him sleep beside her, careful to note that it was for sleep only. He said nothing at her concession, merely shucking his shirt and sliding underneath. Despite their distance she woke with a heavy arm across her middle, and her body flush with his heat.

Flush and wanting.

One evening, when she'd gathered snow to wash with, he watched her heating the small pot on the fire. Instead a great stone tub appeared, filled to the brim with perfectly steaming water. She'd rocked back in awe and then danced fingers across the surface. It was a luxury she'd never imagined.

He'd inclined his head and left. Clothes scattered and she felt the bliss of a warm bath for the first time in her life. He'd even provided exotic smelling soap. She'd lathered every part she could reach, relishing in the feel of her own slick hands against her breasts and between her thighs.

Somewhere in her mind his half remembered words of advice surfaced. Wars were won through many small victories.

The water never cooled but the door eventually opened again. She turned her head, eyes catching his in the dim light.

She imagined she balanced on the tip of a blade.  Which way to fall?

"Would you like me to wash you back?"

He hadn't really touched her apart from brushes on the hands and the twisting of limbs in the bed since that day in the sea. When it had been too cold to swim but they had anyway.

Unable to speak, she nodded. She leaned forward, clutching her knees to her chest. A moment later firm hands smoothed down her spine.

She'd never been touched quite like that before. So gently and so purposefully. Her eyes slid closed on a stifled sigh.

Bathed by a god.

Hands used to killing kneaded her tender flesh instead. A lone finger brushed the cleft of her ass and she jerked in awareness. Hands skated down her ribs, brushing the undersides of her breasts until her breathing turned ragged.

She could hear him breathing too.

Idunn let her knees sink into the water, knowing that from his vantage he would see her clearly.

"All done," he said roughly, his hands leaving her. Over her shoulder she saw him fetch a towel and then hold it open. Perhaps daring her.

She was her mother's daughter.

Idunn stood, the water sliding down her skin in long steaming streaks, her body limned by firelight. She stepped out and turned fully, relishing his sharp intake of breath and the way his too blue eyes glowed as they traced every curve.

He slid the cloth around her back, using the open sides to tug her closer, and looked down. She let him. The way he'd let her by the sea.

"You're beautiful, Idunn. I want you more than I've ever desired any victory in battle. Will you let me have you?"

"I want you too," she breathed.  She did. Her pruned hands folded into his shirt. "Tonight," she added, making it clear it was a truce and no conciliation.

"Tonight," he agreed before pressing his lips to her mouth hungrily. The towel dropped completely. His hands found her breasts and palmed their slick weight, his thumbs rolling over her peaked nipples.

Her hands fisted tighter in his shirt, her body beginning to chase something more.

As he manoeuvred them to the bed, he shucked his own clothes until he too was bare - this cock reaching between them. When her back hit the sheets, his hands left her breasts, replaced instead with his hot mouth and the faintest sting of teeth. Free, one hand traced a teasing path down her stomach, before tangling in the dark curls between her thighs. When one finger found her secret spot as she'd come to think of it, sliding her slickness over it, she rocketed back - shocked to find it was so different when someone else touched her.

There was no part of her that his hands and mouth did not explore and taste, until she was a quivering mess, keening like the animal he'd once accused her of being. She kicked away the furs, her body too hot by far. His dextrous fingers brought her to the peak and then over. He'd swallowed her broken cries with his mouth.

She'd bitten his lip so hard he bled. He'd chuckled, wiping it away indifferently. "The second time you've made me bleed."

Still shivery from her release, she tensed when he nudged between her folds with his cock.

He caressed her face reverently, his other hand spreading her thighs. "Only pleasure." 

And when he slid home in one slow but inexorable thrust, she'd agreed.

It was strange to be so filled. Impaled really. Almost painful, the invasion was both too much and somehow right. Like a perfect stitch in fabric.

He let her adjust, a hand sliding between them to tease her back to distraction, before he began to move. Sliding in and out of her, his mouth sucking hungrily on her breasts and neck, as his fingers worked between them. When she instinctually hooked her legs behind his back, deepening the angle, he'd hissed in pleasure against her skin, whispering sweet things she didn't understand. His other hand cupped her face and slid a thumb into her mouth.

His pace became more frantic, his hips knocking in hers almost roughly. When she pushed at his shoulders, whimpering as her body coiled tighter, he pinned her hands to the bed, his fingers threading with hers.  As they had in the soil.

When he came, his beautiful face fractured in violent pleasure. Her eyes shot open to watch a god come undone as he spilled inside her. Panting, his pale hair slick with sweat, he used his fingers to bring her over the edge again a few moments later.

He rolled to the side, drawing her into him while his hand cupped her ass to keep them joined.

"My Idunn," he murmured against her hair.

"Tonight," she reminded him breathlessly, too overwhelmed by feelings to speak more. By the desire to be his. For him to be hers too. No wonder women risked the childbed.


She'd lied of course.

Every night she pulled him back into her bed. Their bed as she came to think of it. Eager to taste him too. An apt pupil in all ways. And she showed him things too. The way she wanted to be touched. That she could be as ruthless and hungry.

Only pleasure, he'd said.

He'd lied too it seemed.

Gods and their promises.

Her monthly courses stopped.

She was no fool, she knew what that meant. Impossible he said. No union between a god and mortal could be.  Had ever been. But her belly began to swell in defiance and he paled in realization he'd been wrong.

After her recriminations, she calmly told him that she knew the right plants to make it go away. She done so for a few of the village women once or twice. The ones who survived the raids of years before. Or sometimes a mother with too many mouths to feed already.

Tyr watched her crush the herbs into a bowl. As he'd watched her do the day they met. Her face was placid but her hand shook as she raised it to her mouth. He knocked it away before it touched her lips.

"Are you mad?" She protested, and yet was half relieved.

"It... are you sure?" He reached to touch her stomach, but she slapped him away.

"What is it even? God or man? Or worse?"

"I do not know. It's ours I guess," he whispered. "I did not think-"

"You did not think at all. You promised. I trusted you."

He shook his head in helpless apology.

She burst into ugly tears at his expression, first hitting him and then collapsing against him when he enfolded her in his arms. "I don't want to die."  Idunn was finally afraid.

He shushed her, his arms curling possessively. "As though I would ever let that happen."

The god of death bringing life instead.

A new leaf.

In a bed already made.

Neither saw the raven that took up roost in the nearby woods.

Tyr asked again for her to come with him. She shook her head and would not be swayed.

As winter woke to summer and the long nights shortened, Tyr brought her a golden apple one evening. Idunn looked at it curiously.

"Eat it," he bid, pressing the ripe fruit to her mouth.

A flurry of feathers and then the door burst open. An older man, with the same piercing blue eye, filled the door way.

"You whoreson's fool," he growled. His eyes lit on the apple. "Was her quim so tight you forgot your fucking wits?"

A raven lit perched on his shoulder and cocked his head.

Tyr rose smoothly. "This is no concern of yours," his eyes narrowed on the bird, "or your rat."

"No concern of mine? You cavort with a mortal," Odin spat the word, "and fill her with your halfbreed child and it is no concern of mine?" A thick finger pointed. "I should have known when the god of war suddenly put down his sword. I just didn't think it was to get your cock wet in the gutter."

Tyr's eyes flashed. "Leave, brother. Else I take my blade up again."

Odin snarled. "You threaten the All-father over a bit of skirt?" He seethed but then seemingly forced his tone down. "You know she will die eventually anyway. Let it be now before the halfbreed takes a breath. If it will even live at all."

Tyr motioned behind him. "Take a bite, Idunn. Now!"

Idunn faltered, her eyes darting to the god that stood between her and the one so keen to end her.

She did. The flesh was tart and sharp.

Odin lunged but Tyr knocked him away with a deft move, brining an arm beneath his chin. "Tis too late, brother. She is mine now."

Odin ducked and swivelled, bringing his great sword to Tyr's throat. "You make me forget I ever liked you, little brother."

Idunn backed away from both, the dagger held protectively over her stomach. Odin's eyes narrowed on it. "Do you think to threaten me, girl? I am a god. You are nothing."

She was her mother's daughter.

"I cut him once, I will cut you as easily. Gods bleed red too it seems."

Odin blanched, his expression faltering. The great sword lowered. "Does she speak the truth?"

Tyr nodded. "A glancing blow, but it left its mark."

"Impossible." Odin paced before slamming a hand on the table. "Then you are twice the fool I thought you. A glancing blow from a weak woman not but what of deeper cuts? What think you will happen if mortals find they can harm us? No more tributes. What is a god who can die? We will diminish, our power stolen."

Odin paced. "It is as the three spake. To think it may come to pass." He looked at Tyr again. "You bring us death." His eyes fell to the woman and he nodded to himself. "The apple will fade. She comes with us and never returns. The secret ends in this house."

Tyr nodded immediately. Idunn shrieked in protest but it was too late. The world spun and everything melted away until they were in a gleaming hall of silver. Idunn doubled over and threw up, her heavy body tingling.


Tyr settled her into lavish apartments, whispering honeyed promises she no longer trusted. The gleaming halls were colder than the stares.

He gave her a garden so that she could brown her hands again, but she was not happy and she grew cold too. Enraged by what had been wrought, he killed the raven that betrayed them as an offering. She turned away at the blood of his brother staining his hands. Odin was not pleased at the loss, but Tyr was too powerful to end so easily.

It was not long after that her quickening came and a pale babe came screaming into the world. Idunn did not die, as was her fear.

And the child was no monster, as was theirs.

Not yet.

For a time she warmed again, finding love in curled fists and coos.

And the apple did not fade either.  Quite the opposite.

Odin paced his halls anew with worries.

One night the babe went missing while they slept. Idunn awoke in screams. The god of war raged. They found the babe, naked and afraid, on a stone slab. Odin stood above him as he prepared to slit its tiny throat.

Before even Tyr could intervene, the Norns appeared. For the sisters had heard her call, those years passed, and they answered in their own time.

Their stitched faces were solemn. Odin's hand faltered. The eldest whispered words to the old god and his face cracked, the blade falling from his hand altogether.

It was enough, and Idunn snatched back her infant and fled. She found the sacred tree which bore the golden fruit, her baby tied to her body as she began her work.

She was her mother's daughter.

The wild woman of the woods who knew the Tuatha Dé's secrets though they had long since gone underground. Her mother who locals whispered was of the Morrigan's line.

The golden tree began to die. The fruit withered.

And with them the gods did too, their beauty fading and strength waning. Idunn would starve them all until they were nothing.  All of them.

Odin himself finally begged her to relent.

"They are my apples now," Idunn replied calmly. "What will you trade?"

He offered her everything in his power until he finally promised safety to her child and freedom from his yoke. Freedom from any god's yoke. Tyr watched silently.

Idunn worked the tree back to life until it would only bloom to her hand. Power over life. Power over death too.

A power so great that Odin was forced to give her the thirteenth seat at his high council.

The boy grew into a mischievous gangly youth. His mother chased him in the twists of her garden. His father taught him how to outwit his foes in game and battle.

The young man delighted in disrupting all order and balance. His pranks were almost as cunning as those of his dark-haired uncle. He was mercurial and wily and beautiful. His powers grew as well, under the watchful scarred eye of his distant uncle, into those of a god. Jareth Tyrsson.

Until one day pranks went too far.

Odin's most cherished golden son Baldr had crossed him as a rival. In payment Jareth had slipped thrush into his wine, having long heard the amusing tale of how it had made his great father so sick. A prank, nothing more.

Unlike Tyr, however, young Baldr was not yet grown in strength. The golden god died in agony.

The All-father was devastated and would have rent the young man limb from limb if Tyr had not stayed him with a reminder of his bargain. Tyr wrestled him into private council. Odin called for Jareth to be banished. Let him go underground, to that realm between realms - the one that was and was not. Never to cross their stronghold again. Barred until the end of all.

The vote had been mixed. For he was still a god's son, with Aesir blood, regardless of his mother's taint. And even then, Idunn had become something more. Some lamented that it had been a terrible accident. Loki dared even deem it a happy one, claiming Baldr had been a terrible bore.

When it came time for Tyr to cast his vote, he'd silently raised a hand in yay. It was enough.

Jareth was god no more, but king in the underground - the realm between realms - with only otherworldly beast and goblin for companion. The king of the unwanted. The wished away.

Idunn had tried to follow, but the bargain of his safety kept her anchored to the tree. She never forgave Tyr for his betrayal, her heart now frozen to him.

The newly crowned Goblin King, alone and bitter, refashioned his strange land to his own design. His powers grew, yoked only by the barriers set against him.

Great Odin forbade his very mention, struck his name away so that even the mortals would not know what might have been or how he came to be. Golden Baldr's end was attributed to the trickster, one more sin amongst the litany.

But Idunn was not finished and she had not forgotten.

Using the dyes she learned to make for the monks and the words she'd learned at Tyr's side, she set her words to the living paper.

To be awoken by a blood offering that would undo all that was done. Idunn made sure her completed work made it to the monks who collected the tales of the gods...

...And lo, let it be known that any blood
touched by magic spilled on these pages
will be bound to the blade
Her hand shall open the doors
The terrors will be unleashed

And so it begins


Sarah's hands faltered in fear, the book and necklace tumbling to the floor. Perhaps it was the strange current in the air. Or that her wrist throbbed suddenly.

When she picked the book back up again the words had fallen back into the illegible scrawl.

"No! No!" she pleaded. There was more left unread on the page. "Please!"

A frisson of something skittered down her spine. A preternatural awareness that bespoke pure fear.

The same fear she'd felt in her bed. And again in the tangled wood.

How long has she been reading? Toby had wanted something to eat. She'd told him to wait. She looked to the door. "Toby?"

Nothing but the silence that should not be.

And then the distinct cry of a baby.

Max.

Sarah rose unsteadily, her knees stiff from kneeling and stumbled to the door. The door knob was like ice.

A cloaked figure waited in the middle of the dim room, a baby cradled indifferently in his arms.

Her heart thudded wildly as the tiny face looked her way and small arms reached for her in recognition, the cry turning even more plaintive.

Max.

"Sarah," the figure greeted, words so cold they sliced into her ears like frostbite. "Alone. At last."