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Lucky 13

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It was thirteen years to the day, and Sarah couldn’t sleep.

Her insomnia had become a yearly ritual ever since the night she’d made a stupid wish and almost lost her little brother.  When she was younger, she would sneak into Toby’s room and face the balcony with her back to the wall, baseball bat in hand.  She knew it would do nothing against him, but something about the cold steel between her sweating palms made her feel safer.  Though not enough to send her back to bed until the following dawn.

She didn't live at home anymore, so now she was alone.  She'd called Toby that afternoon, would call him again the next morning.  He'd be a brat about it, same as she had been, but that was fine.  It was better that he didn't remember, didn't understand the skittering fear she couldn't lay down.

Now she was alone in her apartment.  She had the bat at her side, but she did not hold on.  She considered that much a personal triumph.  Perhaps next year she wouldn't need it at all.

(As if she hadn't thought that every year.)

She knew this was ridiculous.  Beyond ridiculous.  Two years shy of thirty and a childhood nightmare commanded her. 

But that was the trouble, wasn’t it?  Nightmares didn’t scare her.  Dreams had always been easy for her to forget.  It was reality she wanted to run away from.  And for all the Labyrinth had felt like a dream, it had been real.  She'd never doubted that.  Some days, especially this day, it felt like it was the only real thing that had ever happened to her.

Sarah felt her chest tighten at the sound of her grandfather clock chime.

Thirteen times.

She closed her eyes.

“I knew you’d come,” Sarah said, her hands curling into fists at her sides.  “I wasn’t sure when, but I always knew.”

“Didn’t you want me to come?” he asked, making her insides stretch.  His voice sounded just like she remembered: nightshade and broken promises.

“Just like I wanted you to make me miserable.”

She could feel, or at least vividly picture, his lips twisting into that smile.  She almost wanted to see it, the slash of a knife across a beautiful portrait.  But she didn’t dare.  Somehow, she’d always known that if they met again, she wasn’t going to see him.  She had no interest in hearing about her cruel eyes again.

“It was all for you,” he reminded her.

“No, it wasn’t,” Sarah snapped, amazed and yet not at all surprised that he still clung to that.  “It was always for you.  You enjoyed tormenting me.”

He sighed.  “Thirty seconds and already you’re being overly dramatic.”

“I am not--"

“We went over this,” he interrupted effortlessly.  “You asked me to take the babe.  Everything else happened according to your design.”

Sarah shivered, wishing that the air conditioning in her apartment wasn’t broken so that she could blame the chill.  She had always known this, but hearing it like that made her skin crawl - made her want to tear it off to stop the feeling.  “Why are you here?”

He made a mournful noise, almost like a cat’s meow.  “No more small talk?  Pity.  You’re such a stunning conversationalist.”

“Just tell me,” she demanded, lifting her chin in defiance.  She he hated the gesture.  And her defiance.

"Won't you even look at me?" he purred.  She pictured claws sinking into her flesh.  He'd spin her blood into rubies, hang them from spider's silk, and wind them tight around her throat.  A collar, a choker.  A leash.

"No."

“Fine,” he said, practically growling.  From cat to lion in the space of a thought.

He cleared his throat, regaining his composure.  “I must say I’m embarrassed to admit this….”

Sarah wished that she could raise an eyebrow.  She would have loved to effortlessly question the idea that he had any sense of shame.

“I seem to be suffering from a case of extremely bad luck,” he muttered regretfully.

“Bad luck?  That’s what brought you back?”  She had no idea why she felt so insulted.  After all, what had she expected?  An apology?  A monkey's paw?  Gilded shackles?

“Do not trivialize it.”  His voice cracked like a whip.  “It’s not broken mirrors and black cats I’m talking about.”

“You opened an umbrella indoors then?” she asked, feeling bold.

“I am watching my people die!” he raged, making her jump.  “This is not a child’s game, Sarah.  This is the Labyrinth collapsing – the Underground caving in.”

Sarah’s heart twisted and her stomach clenched.  Instantly, she thought of Sir Didymus, Ludo, Hoggle.  Her hands began to shake.  She wanted to ask about them, but she didn’t trust his words.  Not even ones this grave.  “What do you mean?”

“Everything is falling.  My walls decay and crumble.  Diseases sweep through my realm – plagues.  And now we’re caught up in this… damn war over nothing and losing.  Badly.”

Sarah almost felt sorry for him.  Listening to him, she almost believed that he cared for his people, that the losses hurt.  But in her heart, in the shadows that she didn’t let anyone see, she knew him.  “They want your head.”

He glared; she could feel his look bright and searing her flesh.  And he called her eyes cruel.  “I believe at the moment they want to defenestrate me, not kill me.  I would make a handsome trophy.  But who knows?  Goblins are fickle.”

Sarah was struck by the image of him being pushed out of a window, flailing inelegantly as gravity took over.  It was almost funny, and then his body hit the ground.

“Isn’t there something you can do?” she asked, realizing belatedly that it was an outrageously stupid question.

Surprisingly, he didn’t point that out.  “At first I thought it was hopeless, and I began to arrange it so that I at least died beautifully--"

She couldn’t resist scoffing.

“But then I realized something,” he said slowly in his aristocratically disdained tone.

Just to be maddening, he didn’t go on.  “What?” she asked, hating her curiosity.

“It began thirteen years ago today.”

Sarah’s tangled heart dropped to her feet, and the rest of her nearly dropped to the floor.  She pressed her palms to the wall, leaning for support.  It was all that kept her upright as her world broke apart, just like the one hidden beneath her feet.

“But,” she faltered. “I didn’t--"

“You bested me,” he said, his resentment reaching out for her, making her bones grow cold.  “What you said proved that I was not invincible.  And the principle upon which the Labyrinth was founded, that I was all-powerful, shattered.”

His arrogance would have infuriated her had there not been more pressing matters.  Namely, that he had to be lying to her.  Surely there was nothing wrong, and even if there was she couldn’t have been the cause.  These were her friends, people she loved.  Someone else would have come to her before this.  She could just picture Hoggle's unimpressed face, could hear what he would have said: “Sarah, we’re in deep shit.”  And then…

And then what?

“You’re expecting me to fix this,” Sarah said, cursing the quake in her voice.

“Yes.”

“How?”

But really, she already knew. 

“Come back with me.”  Just like before, it was not a request.  Nor was it a command.  It was an expectation, as though he could not fathom her refusing.

“No!” she shouted, fighting to keep her eyes closed.  She would not look.  “I can't believe you!  All this time, and you still--"

“It’s the only way,” he interrupted, pretending to be sorry, sympathy feigned and mocking her.  “You defied me in my Labyrinth, and the magic unraveled.  You submit to my will there, and it can be mended.”

“And I can be destroyed!”

“So hysterical,” he sighed. “I’m not going to kill you, Sarah.”

“You'd just cage me.”

“I learned to enjoy my cage.  Why shouldn't you?”

Her cheeks flamed.  “Your people are supposedly dying, and you make a last effort to catch me?  I don’t believe you.  I won’t believe you.”

“Sarah, this isn’t a trick.  I swear to you, I know my world.  I know its boundaries and its foundations, and I know why it collapses.  You.  It needs you, and without you, the Labyrinth is dust and ash.”  He paused.  “Your friends with it.”

There it was.  The implicit threat, now explicit.  “Don’t bring them into this.”

“I am not delusional, Sarah. I know they are the only reason you would ever return.”

“If they’re in trouble, they can come to me.”

“If they could come, they would have.”

She screwed her eyes shut tighter.  Anger and panic and despair threatened to overwhelm her.  “What have you done?”

“Kept them safe as long as I could.”

He was lying.  Of course he was lying.  He hadn’t told the truth a day in his life, not when it meant he wouldn’t get his way.  He just wanted her there, under his thumb, proof to his world that no one could rule him.  If something was wrong, her friends were dead already, or else they would have found her sooner.  More likely nothing was wrong and he simply felt like trapping her on this particular anniversary.

“Sarah, I am telling the truth.”  His desperation would have sounded believable on anyone else.  “We will all die if you do not come.”

“I’m not going with you,” Sarah said, her voice tight.

She would not submit.  He would not bind her.  Never again.

“Sarah--"

“No,” she repeated. “Not this time.  I’m not a child anymore, and you will not hurt me again.”

She'd refused three times.  That would be enough.  Surely that would be enough, and he would leave.

“Sarah,” he hissed.  “Please.”

Had he ever said that before?

It didn't matter.

She should have known what it would take to make him leave her.  The words that had shattered him, not his Labyrinth.

“You have no power over me.”

She heard something splinter, and that of all things scared her into opening her eyes.  Before she could turn away, she saw him.

Standing not in front of the mirror but in the mirror, now half-shattered in its frame, was the Goblin King.  But had she not been speaking to him these past minutes, she might not have known him.  His hair was thinning and grey, wrinkles splitting his once ageless skin like the cracks in her mirror.  He was still proud, still tall, still so much of what he had been… But he was old and hardship was his mask now.

And he only had one cruel eye, staring from within.

The room spun.  She stumbled forward, her hands gripping the mirror's frame.  “It's a trick,” she insisted, believing it less and less.

“Is it?”  He began to turn.  “It doesn't matter.  Your decision is made now.  We are both bound to it.”

“But I didn’t--"

“You’re free, just like you always wanted.”  He bowed shallowly, and something glittered beneath his one remaining eye.  It might have been a tear.  “You have nothing more to fear from me.”

“Wait,” she called, reaching out.  “Jareth!”

But he was gone, and the glass was solid.  The broken edges cut her palms.  She bled.

Her blood did not turn into rubies.

He was no longer there to fashion a leash or a cage.

Soon, she believed (and of course she believed him now, when it was too late, because there were some lessons she'd never learned, or else she'd learned them too well), he would be gone.  Dust and ash and less than that.  He would be a shadow in her memory, Toby's forgotten nightmare, a fairy story no one thought to tell.

But she was free.

Lucky her.