Karen shrieked as she came face to face with a curious mere-dragon. He fluttered his wings with studied innocence and pretended the meeting was pure coincidence.

"Meet Blot,"Sarah said sourly. Then, in warning,"and his brothers Blight and Blemish."

Karen whimpered slightly as two more mere-dragons dashed toward them, jewel-toned wings arched high and glowing softly in the sunlight.

Her own personal mere-dragon was presently back in the Goblin Kingdom anxiously awaiting the hatching of his third brood of children. He had, however, generously directed his eldest sons to track her down and keep her company. She still wasn't exactly certain how they had known how to find her. Luckily they jumped the Barrier after Jareth threw the dome around the Embassy grounds.

Jareth had forcibly teleported them back to the Goblin Kingdom three times before admitting defeat. They ignored the Barrier as if it didn't exist and acted as if it were all a big game of hide and seek. At least they seemed willing to stay inside Embassy grounds. And the local rat population had all but disappeared.

Unlike goblins who tended to scream and run away, the children adored them. The parents were less thrilled. Sarah had seen more than one parent close his eyes and count backwards from one hundred when a child shrieked and ran past, a mere in snarling pursuit. On the upside, accidental magic that would have killed the family cat just caused the mere-dragon to sneeze.

"Sarah..."Karen said hesitantly," I'm sorry."

Sarah paused in her scratching of Blight's eye ridges and gave her stepmother a sidelong look. She could not interpret the look on Karen's face. To be honest, she wasn't sure how to interpret the expression that was probably on her own face.

"I..."Karen twisted her hands awkwardly. "We both said some things we didn't mean."

They had meant every word. That was why it had hurt so much.

"I know you would never hurt Toby," Karen said finally.

"Not intentionally, you mean,"Sarah heard herself say.

Karen flushed, but it was only partly embarrassment. "Well what did you expect? All I knew was that one day you were this normal teenager interested in make-up and boys. Then you weren't. I thought... "

Karen cut herself off abruptly.

Her stepmother avoided her curious look and stared across the blackened landscape, her mouth tightening. Sarah followed her gaze, then blinked as the familiar landscape seemed to leap out at her with startling focus. It was abruptly both unfamiliar and chaotic, with strange people and strange colors and for one dizzying moment, she felt disconnected. As if she had taken a half step back from reality and stood outside her own life, peering in.

Sarah had seen only the possibilities ahead of her. Now, looking at it through her stepmother's eyes, she saw bleak and barren soil surrounded by gray skies and rock. Industrial plants squatted black and sullen against the skyline while gulls shrieked and fought over a half-acre of garbage the trucks had dumped that morning. Eventually, the trucks would be able to back up to a large shaft and empty the garbage into a large underground cavern. The dwarves were sketching plans for a series of interconnected caves where the garbage could be safely recycled into component elements, but before they could begin, the Embassy had to sink its roots first.

For the next few weeks, it was an eyesore she couldn't explain.

"I told myself I'd kill him if I ever found out who he was."

Err...what?

Sarah stared blankly at Karen, trying to process what she had just said.

Karen turned to face her, face tight and eyes hard. "I even had it all planned."

The image of her stepmother facing Jareth with a gun in her hand should have been funny. But it wasn't.

"Karen..."

"Your eyes were so disdainful, when you looked at the boys. And the men..." Karen grimaced as Sarah stared at her with dawning horror. "It just about killed me to see the way you started watching the men. I thought you had been ..."

Sarah raised both hands and scrubbed them wearily across her face, knowing exactly what her stepmother had thought.

"Jareth never touched me."

Not that way at least. But Sarah wasn't certain what to say. He might not be guilty of that particular crime, but he hadn't been innocent either. Beneath the pretty costumes and polite distance, there had been a leashed sensuality she had understood just enough to fear. She certainly hadn't understood the potential starting to flower within herself.

"Then what the hell did he do, Sarah? Because it was contempt I saw. And hatred. Jesus, Sarah. You hated them. What did he do to make you hate them so badly?"

Sarah's smile twisted slightly. "He offered me my dreams."

Then took them away.

Karen looked at her with blank incomprehension.

It was strange, waiting for the anger. It may have finally released her, but she had lived with it for so long, she was almost afraid to test the wounds it had left behind. It had never been about what Jareth had done to her, it had been the possibilities implicit in that dance. The Labyrinth...

If he had never used the Mirror Blade, never looked at her with wants and needs a fifteen-year old couldn't answer, she likely would have left the Labyrinth a little older and a little wiser. The Goblin King would have become a footnote to her childhood, a warning to be absolutely certain she knew what she wanted before she articulated her desires. She hadn't meant for the goblins to take Toby, but she had meant the words. And something had been listening.

Words had power, once spoken. The power to wound or deceive. The power to motivate and cause things to happen. Words had a reality of their own, when wishes and wants were acknowledged. Pebbles creating ripples in the sea of perception. Change then, became inevitable. Action, the child of perception . But while words had the power to motivate action, the caster was powerless to control the shape of those actions once the stone had left the hand. The intent of the caster mattered little to the ripples.

Only the fact they had been thrown.

"I am a Child of Fire,"Sarah said slowly, and for the first time she was beginning to accept what that meant. "When they first told me, I thought that the Labyrinth made me this way. Shaped me into something different. But this is who I am. Take away the dragon, take away the magic, and it will still be what I am. And Jareth..." Sarah's mouth twisted ruefully as she used the right words with no hope they would be understood. "He's a Child of Air. "

Incomprehension gave way to anger.

"That doesn't explain anything,"Karen snapped.

"Unfortunately,"Sarah said softly,"It does."

Even now, she wasn't certain whether her early dreams had shaped the Labyrinth or whether the Labyrinth had shown her just enough of its true nature for her to sculpt puppets in the shape of Fireys and dolls with the face of the Goblin King. Even then, had some instinct, some knowledge, seeped through from the land? Because she had dreamed he loved her and that had not been written in the book. She had dreamed of kings and castles and happily ever after. It had taken her years to realize that she hadn't wanted the goblins to take Toby...

She had wanted Jareth to come for her.

To rescue her. To make everything terrible in her life go away. Instead, the reality he had shown her was that she had to save herself. And it had been a good lesson to learn. Would have been a good lesson, even if that had been all there had been. It would have hurt, to pack him away with her childhood dreams and her toys, but most of those dreams had never really been about Jareth anyway. She would have lost her imaginary Goblin King, but gained a new strength, a new understanding of herself in the process. She'd have mourned, but for childhood dreams, not a woman's desires.

Until the dance, her knowledge of sex had been as naive as it had been theoretical. The uncertainty over the changes in her body, the heady mix of shame and power that had been emerging as she realized the effect her new shape had on the boys around her. The anticipation of joining the adult world as well as the relief that came from knowing it wasn't time to cross that line...not quite yet.

That dance had shown her that the innocent power she held could be turned against her. Not in terms of physical violence, but in terms of being betrayed by her own needs. Her fatal flaw. That her need for adulation and approval and desire might lead her to sacrifice her own principals. Sacrifice Toby. All for the implied promises she had found in Jareth's arms.

It had been a sober warning.

It was hard to say now what had been the Mirror Blade, and what had been the Victorian morality play that was the Labyrinth peeking through the curtains. She suspected she was supposed to have recognized the knife-edge of her own sexuality. She was supposed to have been repulsed by the blatant and carnal appetites of the dancers around her. She was supposed to recognize the power that Jareth could hold over her - if she gave it to him. But...

But.

She would never know for certain.

And if that had been the only other lesson the Labyrinth had taught her, it still would not have been enough to earn her hatred. That had been reserved for something else. Something she hadn't truly understood until she stood with Jareth as they raised a dome of power over the Embassy. There had been no way for her to understand. No way for her to know. She wasn't even certain Jareth understood what she had lost to the Mirror Blade. He had been raised in a world of magic. He had always been able to put a name to the emptiness gnawing inside.

She hadn't even known she was grieving.

"The Mirror Blade is magic,"Sarah said, her throat tightening."It didn't care that I was a child. It didn't care that I didn't know what it meant to be a Child of Fire. It didn't care about anything other than the fact that I was Jareth's weakness and he was mine. To understand that, we had to truly see each other, and so it showed us. Everything we could possibly be to each other, reflected in a single dance. But I didn't know that. How could I possibly have known any of that? All I knew..." The pain in her chest increased and she sucked in several deep breaths as her throat seemed to constrict. "All I knew was that I did the right thing and part of me never stopped screaming."

"Sarah..."

She jerked around to see Jareth watching her warily from twenty feet away. Karen glared at him belligerently but was clearly at a loss as to what she wanted to say.

Jareth ducked his head and gave Sarah a sidelong look. "The land was concerned,"he said.

Guessing that was an explanation for his presence, Sarah nodded shortly. Jareth stepped forward cautiously, and while part of her rejoiced that he finally seemed to understand what his actions had cost her, another part hurt to see him so cautious with her. She watched as he acknowledged her stepmother with a stiff bow. From the set of his jaw he would have preferred to ignore her altogether, but even the Goblin King was not so foolish.

Karen just eyed him suspiciously.

Given that her stepmother was hardly one to keep silent when she had an opinion, Sarah decided it had to be the hair. Or the clothes.Jareth was wearing his dragon armour and while Sarah found it undeniably sexy, it also emphasized his alien features. No doubt Karen would have an opinion once she got over the shock.

Jareth stopped just beyond arm's reach. Sarah opened her mouth to ask him...something. She wasn't sure what. Inexplicably - especially given that both of them were wearing armour - she found herself taking the two quick steps needed to close the distance between them.Jareth froze as her arms tightened around him. The plate on his chest was hard against her cheek and his hair brushed her face as he tilted his head forward in concern.

"I don't want to want you this badly,"she heard herself say.

As strange as the physical impulse startled her, his reaction confused her further. Instead of pulling away, he sighed softly and relaxed. The tension drained from his frame and the hands that had been resting uncertainly against her back slid to a more secure grip. The muscles in his arms tightened, pulling her snugly against him, armour and all.

"It is the price we pay for the joy,"he said somberly. "It is the price of magic."

"The bitter truth,"she quoted, somewhat resentfully.

"My weakness,"Jareth agreed softly. Then he raised his hands to her face and tilted her jaw upwards. "And my strength,"he said fiercely. "Never think that it is solely because you are a Child of Fire. The Fire brings compatibility, yes. This we would have, regardless of personality. But it is your choices that earn my respect, your honour that brings you my sword, and your heart that wins you my love. Fire, alone, has little power over me."

She heard his voice in memory, and felt again the temptation he had offered.

"Ask me again,"she said quietly.

Jareth went still against her, and when she looked up at him, he seemed confused. But Sarah was listening to something deeper than memory. Something that had always known the words she should have spoken.

"Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to you..."

The Land shivered beneath her feet. Beneath the Land, she sensed the Labyrinth and Jareth's expression altered as it joined with the Land and reached for Despair. Something...unfolded. Knowledge and words. Ancient words, lost somewhere beyond time, beyond Despair. Something the Land had once known and was determined to know again. She sensed joy, and ruthless will, and a loneliness beyond human understanding.

These words, written in a child's book, had once meant something else entirely.

"...to claim what is mine by Law."

Jareth's eyes were wide and gold and his fingers trembled against her face as the full power of the Labyrinth swept through them. Joyous, triumphant, and awake.

Sarah didn't recognize her own voice when it emerged.

"Ask, Goblin King,"the Land demanded.

Jareth swallowed sharply, and feathers shivered their way through his hair. But it wasn't fear, and there was no hesitation in his face when he met silvered eyes with his own.

"Child of Fire,"he said quietly,"I offer you Air. Champion, I offer you a King. Your Kingdom to mine, Land and Crown together, equal and as great. Sarah..."he hesitated, and when he spoke again, his voice was rough,"stay with me, shield and sword, no rule between us, no Law but love."

For the first time in over a decade, she truly felt as if she smiled. She stared into alien features and grinned a dragon's toothy triumph. Her hands reached to claim her prize and she wasn't letting go. Ever. Nor did Jareth seem inclined to protest the claiming. His feral gaze was demanding as he waited for her to respond, and the Land had always known her answer.

"Yes," she said.

And even Despair smiled.