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Thirteen Hours

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It was thirteen hours in every eight thousand, seven hundred and sixty. One half-day a year, by the Labyrinth's counting. Thirteen hours in which she was plucked from her own world and carried, all unwilling, to another, to survive as she could until the magic sent her back, and another eight thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven hours were hers to do with as she pleased.

In the beginning, for the first year, two years, three, it was an intrusion, a reminder, a curse. Unforgivable, she thought. A direct defiance of all she had won by her triumph. For three years, she ranted and cursed, and he said nothing. He looked at her, he watched her fury, and said not a thing.

"You have no power over me!" she said. "You can't do this to me!" she said. "Damn you, Jareth, let me go!"

And not once, never once, an answer. There was something in his silence, those three years, something she did not understand at all, and it seemed to be more than either of them could bear. He stopped appearing to her, after the third. He hid himself away, wherever Goblin Kings hide within their own realms, and eventually she stopped cursing him.

If only, she thought, because there was no-one there to curse, and she was old enough now that cursing the air, even in a magic realm, seemed a little too childish even for her.

The years passed. Steady and unceasing, in both the World and the Labyrinth, and as they passed, in his absence and his silence, she grew older. Stranger, perhaps, maybe even a little wiser. She became a woman more than a child and, under the Labyrinth's tutelage, a warrior more than dreamer, though always that too as well. She learned to fight, she learned to live, she learned to love. That last was not the Labyrinth's gift. Not at first. A gift of her waking life, and if it wasn't so permanent as the Labyrinth or her childish dreams might once have promised her, neither was it a cheap or unworthy gift. Her loves were brief, but they were beautiful, and she enjoyed them while they came, and released them gladly when they left.

And then one day, a decade since last she'd seen him, thirteen years into the Labyrinth's grasp, he came again. Jareth. In her thirteen hours, he came to her once more, and watched her again with that strange silence. And this time, she understood it some little bit, and spoke to him without a curse.

"You have no power over me," she said, quieter and happier, with a small smile that did not strike at him. "You really don't, do you? You can no more keep me away than keep me here, can you?"

He blinked, mismatched eyes shuttering in some surprise, and finally, finally, after all those years, he spoke to her once more.

"... No," he said, with a black little smile, a darkling amusement. "I cannot. I did not win that right, Sarah. And it is one that must be won."

She smiled at him. Openly, without artifice or fear, and again he blinked before her. Again he flinched, almost, a little bit. She smiled, and sat herself on a stone bench in the shade of the hedge maze, and patted the seat beside her.

"Tell me why I'm here," she offered, or ordered, or a little bit of both. He huffed, glanced sideways with a spark of something angry, but he came to her, and he sat beside her, and he did answer. She laughed at him, elbowed him lightly for his petulance in a way she never could have done before, and there was almost more amazement than anger in his answer.

"You won," he said, without looking at her, though fencing lightly with his elbow against hers. "You won freedom from me, for yourself and your brother. I have no power over you. That is as true now as it was then. But Sarah ... you did not refuse the Labyrinth's power." Sarah blinked, falling still, and he turned to face her with something dark and very ancient in his eyes. "You did not renounce her, Sarah. And she does not easily release what she has claimed. For thirteen hours, you were hers, and for thirteen hours you will be ever again, unless you fight and win your freedom once more, and this time think more carefully who you renounce."

There was something in the way he said it. As though he'd wanted it to be cold, wanted it to be sneering, but it had come out almost longing instead, and very tired. A surrender, where there should have been a challenge, and almost an amusement because of it. She stared at him, for a thoughtful second, and then:

"Do you want that?" she asked, and she remembered that he'd thought her cruel, once, and looked now like he thought it again. "Do you want me to be free, and never trouble you again?"

He looked away, and he laughed, hard and bright and truly, genuinely joyous. He laughed, and she looked at him, and he answered.

"Oh, Sarah. The choice is yours. Don't look to someone else to make it now. You're better than that, are you not?"

It was her turn to be silent, then. For a moment, while she studied him and she thought. For far less time than three years or thirteen. She'd always been more decisive than him, she thought, and let herself smile a little because of it.

"She won you, didn't she," she murmured, just looking at him, looking out from him to the hedge maze and the stone maze and the layered winding of the Labyrinth around them. To the magic and the terror, to the world that had snared her against her will, and perhaps had done the same to someone else before her.

She looked to the Labyrinth that had snared a Queen, and wondered how long ago it had first snared a King. Jareth let himself sigh, a knot coming undone inside him, and leaned against her in the endless sunlight. Rueful, tired, and amused.

"Yes," he said, with a flutter of his hand like a bow to the realm around them. "Yes she did. Many years ago now, Sarah, but win me she did."

"Did you ever try to be free of her? When it was your turn. Did you try to renounce her?"

He paused, and he smiled in the silence, and he did not answer her. Maybe he didn't have to, she thought. The smile reached into his eyes, deep and real and true, and maybe he didn't need to answer at all.

"Don't hide from me anymore," she whispered to him, with an elbow to his ribs to point it gently home. "If I am to be won like you were before me, the least you could do is keep me company through it. I think we're both a little old now to spend a decade sulking in our rooms, don't you?"

"... No," he said, with calm affront, but she caught the shining of him. She caught the surge of joy and greed and happiness in his eyes, and she didn't mind at all that he flew from her even as he said it. He vanished in a fall of feathers, with a snide and affronted hoot to say goodbye to her. He hid himself away from her in a huff of happy anger once more, and it was ... it was perfect. It was good, and constant, and perfect, and for a second she wanted nothing more than to curse him and complain bitterly into nothing but the air. Not in earnest, but in honour. For a thirteen-year anniversary, and for many more to come.

She was too old and too grown up to curse the air, and he was too old and too regal to hide in his room. They were, they were, of course they were. Only truth in the Labyrinth. Words had power, here.

"Thirteen hours," she murmured, grinning softly to herself. "Thirteen hours a year. I think we can work with that, don't you?"

A bell tolled out across the Labyrinth, the echoing chimes of a clock, and while she sat in endless sunlight, Sarah wondered if that was the Labyrinth's answer, or its King's.

And she wondered, too, if it made a difference either way.