The Fairest One of All

1: Stepmother

Soundtrack for Chapter 1:

The Sound of Music: "Sixteen Going on Seventeen"
Bjork: "Bachelorette"

"He is the tender butcher who showed me how the price of flesh is love; skin the rabbit, he says! Off come all my clothes."

Sarah Williams pinned her book between her upthrust knee and one idle finger and stared at the snow-covered landscape outside the passenger-car window. She was going to visit her mother for Christmas. She knew she was supposed to be excited; she knew this was a special treat. But instead of excitement, she felt a mild dread that only got stronger the closer she got to her destination. Perhaps it was just her period coming on. Or perhaps it was her reading material. She turned the book to look at the cover. A woman in a white tower raised her hands to the heavens in desperation. The rough sea below was made of blood. The Bloody Chamber, read the title, cursive script like slashes in skin. Yes, it could be the book, or PMS, but she wondered if probably wasn't plain guilt. She was going on vacation just when her family needed her.

"Aunt Bub's had a mild scare." Irene had informed her, two days before Christmas. Aunt Bub was Irene's aunt, not Sarah's, but Sarah liked her. She gave Sarah free range of her library on family visits to Vermont, and Bub's library contained some real hum-dingers, books which scandalized and delighted Sarah. In fact the book she had now, a gory slim volume full of sexified fairy-tales, was one of Aunt Bub's.

Aunt Bub had had a mild stroke, and Irene wanted to take her home from the hospital and tend her herself. "When are we going?" Sarah had asked, wondering what fresh hell this would wreak on her life and plans, and at the same time, worried.

"There's no we, Sarah. Robert will need to stay here with the baby," Irene said, as if Toby were still an infant and not walking and talking—and screaming—with all of an almost-two-year-old's half-baked competence. "And I'll have my hands full with Bub. You'd just be in the way. We want you to go visit your mother a few days earlier than we'd originally planned. This afternoon, actually."

"What?" she'd replied, head spinning with this abrupt change of fortune. "So soon?" It was her mother's year to have her for Christmas. Two years ago she had been just as glad to be away from an extremely pregnant and aggravating Irene. When she had returned, the only Christmas present she had received from Irene was a squalling newborn sibling who ate everybody's attention up until there was nothing left for her. It had been like being a ghost. Nobody saw her; everybody saw the baby. It had been the biggest disruption of her life, as bad and worse than her parents' divorce. She was afraid something terrible would happen if she left home again—that Aunt Bub would unexpectedly die or something—and Sarah would be completely forgotten again, perhaps this time for good.

Obviously Irene had expected a more enthusiastic response, and she pounced on Sarah's apparent truculence like a cat on a mouse. "Oh, honestly, Sarah!" with that little flutter of frustration in her voice. Sarah knew that flutter—it was the overture Irene played when she was gearing up for a fight with her stepdaughter. "I thought you'd be happier about it. You see her so rarely, and she always spoils you rotten." Irene turned to the lists she was writing at the kitchen table, lists of groceries, lists of meals to prepare, lists of feeding times and naptimes, as if her dad was just a taller, more capable child. "She ought to, you worship the ground she walks on. Your vanity table is practically a shrine."

"That's not fair!" Sarah said, the words out of her mouth before she even considered them. But it was unfair, it was! The only picture now on her mirror was personal, her mother and herself and Merlin. She'd taken down all the other pictures of Linda, all the press clippings and posters and playbills almost six months ago, after the Labyrinth… not really sure why she'd done it, but doing it anyway. She no longer spent Sundays poring over the society and entertainment pages for articles that mentioned her mother's latest social and theatrical conquests, no longer really cared as much about maintaining what Irene occasionally referred to, in acid tone, as 'The Linda Williams Bible.' No, it wasn't fair. "You don't know what you're talking about. You never give me any credit for—"

A dark blot appeared on the paper of the lists, and then another. Irene gave a quiet sniff. Her big blue eyes, so like Toby's, were moist.

Without consciously thinking about it, Sarah realized two things immediately: Irene was terribly worried about Aunt Bub, and she'd prefer to fight with her stepdaughter than to worry any more. "I'm sorry I snapped at you," she said, even though she knew damn well it was Irene who ought to be apologizing. "Irene, I'm sorry. Please, do you want me to stay here?" She had the weird impulse to try to hug her stepmother, but couldn't bring herself to do it. Irene was so brittle in this moment that too much warmth would shatter her. Instead, she pulled a length of paper towel from the dispenser and handed it over.

"Robert thought you should stay, but I want you to go. Someone in this family ought to have a merry Christmas." Irene pressed the paper towel to her face, her voice almost a whisper.

"That was really nice of you," Sarah said, and Irene uncovered her face and stared at her, testing the landscape for sarcasm. Well, Sarah knew she deserved that, if not right now then for any number of nasty things she'd done and said to her stepmother in the past. It was Irene who closed the distance between them, taking Sarah's hand and patting it with teary and mascara-sticky fingers.

"You're right, Sarah. I haven't given you enough credit. You've been trying hard, but I'm always afraid you'll get bored with being a grownup and snap at me. That's not fair of me."

Sarah's mouth gaped open, shocked. Irene gave her one of her wicked little smiles as her tears dried up, the type of smile she turned on her father when she was happy. Sarah had never been given that smile before. It made Irene look… nice. It made her look like Toby. "My, she's speechless. That's a first. Go pack, Sarah. Your train leaves at twelve-thirty." She patted Sarah's hand again. "Thank you."

"I wish there was something I could do for you," Sarah said.

"Sweet girl. Come back in a good mood," Irene said dryly, tucking the smile away, crumpling the paper towel in her hand. "Enjoy yourself."

As the train rounded the bend into Grand Central, Sarah realized she'd been spaced out for almost the entire journey. She also realized that her boots didn't match. She sighed and collected her things as the conductor began blaring names, transfers, and timetables in a slurred boom. The crowd moved, taking her with it.

"S. WILLIAMS" read the rectangular card in the hands of the driver at the pickup lane. He deposited her heavy suitcase in the trunk and her scruffy-looking backpack into the seat next to her. The contrast between the glowing leather and the patched canvas made something clear to her for the first time. Her mother was filthy rich. She wondered what it might be like, to have so much money that you could toss it away on a rented car and a driver in New York City, land of cabs and subways, when your daughter came to visit. The driver said nothing beyond confirming their destination, and he drove her through Manhattan in almost complete silence. She was glad for his silence; she didn't want to talk and she didn't want to hear anyone else talk either. Perhaps the best thing about money was the ability to have things your way, Sarah considered, testing out the idea. To have the power to decide when and how and under what conditions you would live your life. She wondered what it would feel like, to have that kind of power.

The whole city was celebrating the Christmas season. Lampposts and shopfronts and caged trees passed, captured by nets of lights, bursting with glaring green-and-red-and-gold cheer. Anticipation was heavy in the air, anticipation for good things. So why did she feel so bad? She wished she could buy off her own feelings. Could money buy relief? Perhaps that was what shrinks were for. She cracked her window and let the scents of dirty snow and hot bread and oily running engines waft in on the cold air. The buildings were like walls, and passages between them offering only more walls. The city was a labyrinth, and she'd never get out. Her breath came faster, and she had to put her head between her knees to keep from hyperventilating.

"You okay, Miss Williams?" the driver asked, his voice shocking her out of her path of thought.

"I'm okay, but I think I might throw up," she croaked.

"Ain't no room to pull over in this city," the driver said mildly. "There's a carsick bag in the side pocket there. Use it if you have to, try not to get any on the leather." He turned his head to stare back at her at a red light, his face surprisingly kind. "Or you can pinch your upper lip. Sometimes that helps keep it down."

"Okay. Sorry." She pinched her lip hard, and the pain made her head clear. She felt fine again, just in time to arrive at her mother's building. She signed for the fare, added a ten dollar tip without thinking about it, doing what her mother might do, paying the driver for his personal concern, his lifting of her suitcase. "Thank-you, miss!" he said, clearly pleased.

"It's nothing," she said. It wasn't her money; it was her mother's. Her mother was paying for everything. Still, she was glad she could use that power to make someone feel good.

After scrutinizing her ID in a way that would have been insulting if she'd had the energy to care, the doorman handed her an envelope with a note and the two keys she needed to access her mother's residence. One was for the front door, one was for the elevator.

She read the note in the elevator, with a pang of disappointment. The note read: "Dearest darling, I'm so happy to have you with me for such a nice long visit. News of your arrival was a bit sudden, so I'll be out until 6 PM, and then we'll all have a nice dinner. J. is at home and will take care of you if you need anything. There is a present waiting in your room. Don't wait until Christmas to open it."

She stepped through the elevator into the foyer that serviced two apartments on the nineteenth floor. Like the city streets, these halls had been decked in utter splendor, in a winter wonderland color scheme of pale silver and white and crystal beading. She caught her reflection in the wide mirror above the French sideboard. She looked pale. Her upper lip was red from the pinching, and her hair was black and frothy as city slush. Sarah smoothed it down almost without thinking. Her hair had a tendency to fluff and curl at the tips, "Something you get from your father, darling," Linda always said fondly, but Sarah always felt it as a rebuke. Linda's hair was as straight as a sheet.

She idly picked up one of the blown-glass ornaments artfully jumbled together in a bowl, blue, silver, translucent. The one in her hand was clear as ice. With the cap hidden in her palm, it looked almost exactly like… one of the Goblin King's crystals.

She shivered once, violently, not completely from cold although this foyer was ice-cold. What she wanted now, more than anything, was to go home, where things were shabby but known, where she knew exactly who she was and where she fit, and where she wasn't a visitor.

Get a grip, she told herself. Dad's looking after Toby, Irene's looking after Bub, and Mom is looking after you. That's the way it is. You can go home in… forty-eight hours if you have to, but you can't ditch your mom for Christmas! You can't just disappear on her. Sarah sighed and put the crystal bauble down, back into its bowl, wishing she had Merlin with her.

Silence reigned over the glacial sea of her mother's penthouse as she opened the door and stepped inside. "Jeremy? Hello?"

There was no answer. She set her luggage down on the tile. Linda's home was palatial, but it always had the quality of a picture from a hotel brochure or a film set, anonymous and expensive. Take down the framed pictures and art from the broad walls and anyone could live here, really. She closed her eyes. She could smell the Christmas tree, its resinous reality embraced and enhanced by other smells, Christmas smells—cinnamon, cloves, the grapey reek of red wine—and something else, something that she couldn't quite name. She trailed her hand against the silver-flocked wallpaper, letting her nose lead her around the corner in to the living room, and opened her eyes. There was the tree, as she had expected, dominating the corner against the high French windows, green and gorgeous with ornaments and lights. Two sequined stockings hung against the mantle of the dark fireplace.

"Hello?" she called again. "Jeremy, are you home?" She caught sight of a blond head poking up above one of the swayback chairs. She rounded the perimeter of the room. Was he sick? Sleeping? "Jeremy? Are you okay? For Pete's sake, why aren't you answering me?"

"You weren't using the right name," an unforgettable voice drawled, stroking a ceramic carafe that steamed with the aroma of mulled wine. "So I chose not to answer." She took a step back, not willing to believe it. He stood and turned himself to face her, and he seemed to be ten feet tall, twenty, a hundred feet tall, filling up the room entire, filling up her life again.

"Hallo, Sarah," said the Goblin King.

Author's Notes:

The epigraph given is taken from "Erl-King" by Angela Carter, from her Bloody Chamber book.

This story is inspired by multiple sources, among them Tanith Lee's White As Snow, American Horror Story: Coven, Subtilior's sublime and inimitable "Erlkönig," Jalen Strix's "The Beast Within," and Frances Osgood's "A Wish Unspoken."

Thanks are due also to Shadow131 and TheRealEatsShootsAndLeaves, who are helping to edit, guide, and sharpen my plot and prose.

I give fair warning: this story will contain elements of violence, sexuality, an underage Sarah, politically incorrect depictions of witchcraft, Dark!Jareth, cussin, and general wicked skullduggery. An uncensored version will shortly appear on AO3, under the same title, same author.

Finally, while I know that some of you have been waiting very patiently for updates on other stories, I know that you know when the plotbunnies start jumping on your head, you can't stop them until you write something. Blame this on the bunnies.