Sarah and the Goblin King

Chapter 1

Once Upon a Time...

There should be a legal limit to bad luck, Robert Williams decided as he slammed the door to his car shut, his face lined with frustration and age that hadn't been so obvious a few years ago. Then again, life had a way of throwing unexpected curve balls at one, and since 1996, the Williams family had seen more than their fair share.

Many of his colleagues at the time had sworn it was a streak of bad luck.

His daughter, however, stated that it was probably something more akin to a curse. Then again, his Sarah was always a little different. Up until she was fifteen, she'd been an inconsolable brat, and then one day, seemingly out of the blue, she changed. She began to take an interest in her brother, in her step-mother, in life.

That day had been nearly fourteen years ago now, on September seventeenth. Since then, on that night, Sarah would disappear into her room for a long time, until she would eventually return to the family, looking quiet, thoughtful.

Eventually, she went off to school, working towards a degree in Library sciences, working part time to pay of her student loans as she attended school full time. She never finished her degree. The final year she was in college was the year the family started having all of their problems. Countless law suits sent their family into the negative, and Sarah returned the money for the final year to the lenders, promising to pay off the rest of the loan as quickly as possible.

Sarah Williams returned to her broken family, finding her father nearly hopeless, steeping himself in alcohol, her step-mother on anti-depressants, and Toby very angry about why he couldn't have the expensive toy he wanted for Christmas.

That was when Robert Williams became aware of how much his daughter had changed from the petulant brat she'd been in the early years of her adolescence.

She came home, and took on two jobs, paying off her student loans and creditors who were demanding money from him. She came home and made sure that Toby did his homework. When they lost the house, she helped pack what they could bring along and took the things that didn't have sentimental value to a pawn shop.

She became the strength that supported the family as he tried to get his feet back underneath him.

They moved out of the suburbs, farther into the country, and he eventually became a district attorney, rather than the defense lawyer he had been. The streak of bad luck seemed to be easing up, he even was requested to oversee the defense of a high profile case, which easily could have put them back into the green.

That had been why he had driven back into the city this week. Karen had been thrilled, quietly asking that he bring her back some pretty bauble and Toby had demanded the latest video game. Only Sarah had been reserved, pleased with the seeming good luck, but had asked for nothing. He had prompted her, asked what she thought she might want.

She'd given him a faint, wistful smile, and said that she would like a new book. Something unique, that she hadn't already read.

It was so her, that he couldn't object. It was just a part of her nature. Maybe a first edition Peter Pan would be available in the bookstore near the police station.

Unfortunately, this case was distressingly similar to the last case he had defended, and so, upon listening to the facts from the man, he asked the hard question. If the man was guilty or if he was innocent. The man laughed and said that he'd done it, and enjoyed it. That's why he was hiring the best defense attorney.

Robert had walked out of the room then and there, refusing to serve as his lawyer. He'd headed home without the baubles for his wife or the game for his son. He'd searched for a book that his daughter might not have, since hers was the least expensive request, but he could find nothing. So, empty handed and broken hearted, he went to his car and left the city.

The freak snowstorm had caught him unawares, so steeped was he in his own misery. He caught a slippery patch and his car went off the rode, hit a tree, and the trusty old station wagon promptly died. Which led to where he was currently, trudging through the snow, wrapped in a coat that wasn't thick enough to defend against the chill, wondering if this was how his saga would end. He would freeze to death out here in the snow, leaving his family penniless and alone.

Still, he wondered if it wasn't better to die out here, rather than return and face the disappointment on their faces.

He'd walked for what felt like forever, when a light caught his eye. He smiled grimly, thinking that it was the light at the end of the tunnel of death, and began to follow it through the trees. However, what he found instead was a tall wrought iron gate with large lanterns on either side. The gates swung open as though in welcome, causing him to jump in fear before he moved slowly past them.

The drive was surprisingly completely clear of snow, and the sky seemed stuck at an orange shade of dusk. Trees heavy with peaches and blossoms lined the driveway. Somehow, someway, despite the fierce winter outside these gates, within was the warmth and peace of a mild summer. At the end of the drive was a large manor house, something that reminded him of a castle from the Victorian era.

"I must be dreaming..." he mused quietly. "Or dead already..."

The walk up the drive wasn't long at all, even in spite of his aching feet, and when he reached the front door, it swung open much as the gates had, inviting him within. He stepped within and paused as the door shut behind him. A shiver worked through his body and he realized he was chilled nearly to the bone. He chaffed his arms with his hands, hoping to use friction to create warmth in them.

As he moved further within, still not entirely certain that he wasn't dreaming, the warm glow of a fire caught his attention and the emanating warmth drew him towards it. The room was lavishly decorated, with thick carpets, cozy looking chairs, and a huge fireplace – complete with a cheerfully roaring fire.

He wasted little time shrugging out of his soaked coat, letting it fall where it may. He climbed into the chair closest to the fire, still shivering uncontrollably. A blanket tucked around him and he froze, eyes searching for whomever might have placed it on him.

The room was still empty save himself.

Well, he decided. That was creepy as hell.

Still, he wasn't about to balk in the face of who or whatever had chosen to permit his entry into this grand home. It took quite awhile for him to overcome his fear, but eventually, he relaxed enough to doze in the comfortable chair.

He must have slept for quite awhile, because once he woke, the world outside the room was quite dark, the sky hazy and slightly purple through the window. He discovered himself much more well rested and the cold seemed to be nothing more than a bitter memory. He rose from the chair, deciding that it shouldn't cause any harm to do a little exploring.

For the first time in ages, Robert Williams was reminded of his childhood, of exploring the forest behind his families home in Maine. It was a little adventure, a dream come true. He wondered briefly if this was how Sarah had always felt as she play-acted in the park near their old family home. His bright-eyed daughter, who had helped them so much.

The sheer amount of wealth around him was amazing, and he would be lying to say that it did not cause the faintest twinge of envy that the unknown person who lived here had so much, while he and his family had so little remaining. The vast home was everything he could ever want for his own family and he wished that he could meet his host to ask permission to take just a fraction of the riches he found with him in order to return his family to it's former state.

It was an unnerving place, however, and he couldn't imagine living there himself. It was so vast, so great, yet seemed so dreadfully empty. He knew, however, that it was occupied. Besides the strange event with the blanket, there was also the fact that almost everywhere he went he could feel a steady gaze upon him, felt a presence in every room. He also often heard giggling coming from nearby, around corners, however when he pursued the noise, he found nothing at all.

Finally, he came upon a great dining room and he found an impressive spread of food before him. Glancing around for his host, he jumped to see a chair pulled away from the table by invisible hands. Once again, the invitation was obvious. He sat down and food served itself on a plate that he could only assume was made of gold.

What a silly thing to make a plate out of, Robert thought, even as he lifted the first bite to his mouth. Don't these people know that gold is poisonous when ingested?

Regardless, Robert ate heartily, choking on every mouthful from the guilty knowledge that his family could not share in such a meal and were likely eating whatever Sarah and Karen managed to throw together on the small amount of money that remained for groceries after bills were paid each month.

After he had eaten his fill, he resumed his exploration of the great manor. Eventually, his inspection took him to the second floor, where he found a room with a pair of pajamas already laid out over the bed. He pondered the wisdom of sleeping in this mysterious place, where someone obviously must live and he was, frankly, trespassing. His body was exhausted and eventually won the battle with his mind.

He stripped from his own clothing, laying them neatly in a chair as he did at home, though the chair was much finer than anything that graced his house these days. He slipped into the pajamas and turned in time to see the blankets apparently draw themselves back. Again, an invitation he could not ignore. "Whatever benevolent creature that is looking over me right now, I thank you," Robert said quietly. He climbed into the bed and had one more thought as he drifted off into his dreams.

He only hoped his families luck was as good.

.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.

He woke the next day – well rested and in remarkably good spirits – to the sound of water running in an adjoining room and rose from the bed to investigate the noise. He found a bathroom more extravagant than even Karen could dream up, and couldn't resist shedding the pajama and slipping into the shower. He took his time getting cleaned up, finding towels had been set silently upon the vanity within the bathroom. He dried himself and returned to the bedroom, finding his clothes had been laundered at some point during the evening and were hanging on a hanger with the same care that his wife would use.

He fingered his blazer, his face becoming a bit melancholy. If only he could take just one or two things home with him, just a few things to ease the burden on his family. Had he taken that case, even to save his family, he would have compromised his morals, and he knew that he wouldn't be able to look at any of them in the face for a long, long time. With a heavy sigh, he began to dress, deciding to go in search of his elusive host, if for no other reason, to thank him for his hospitality.

He was searching high and low when he found a vast library, filled from top to bottom with books. He wandered the room, awed of the collection. His daughter would be so at home in this place, he thought smiling faintly. He wandered the titles pulling out a few and browsing them. Finally, he happened upon a book of Celtic Faery Lore, told in such a way even his own logical brain could almost believe it. He couldn't believe what a find this was. He knew for certain that his daughter would adore it.

Slowly, he sat upon a chair, flipping through the pages. After everything his host had already done for him, he doubted that the man would begrudge him a book to give his daughter, especially with such a large collection. And Sarah would love it so dearly. She would treasure it. He stood, slipping the book into the large pocket of his coat as he left the room.

He continued wandering, however he never found the mysterious host, nor any other hint of a human being. He still felt the eyes upon him wherever he went, still heard those strange noises that sounded like giggles and laughter. Finally, he gave up looking. If he dawdled too much longer, his family would worry for him, and he didn't want that. So he began heading for the front door of the castle.

He had scarcely taken one foot outside the door when they slammed shut at his back and there was an almost thunderous flapping of what sounded like wings. A surge of fear hit the man and he backed into the closed doors as he was dive-bombed by a barn owl.

While his mind was busy trying to process what on earth a nocturnal creature was doing out in daylight, feathers turned into fabric and hair, and Robert found himself looking into the face of a furiously pissed off man. That face was odd. It was strange, feral, like someone who was putting on a mask that wasn't quite right. On that face was a look that screamed of pain and suffering that would soon be brought upon him.

Now, Robert Williams was no coward, but in the face of that anger, he couldn't help but shrink away.

"I allow you into my home," the man began, his wild blond hair becoming streaked with darkness. "I shower you with hospitality...and how do you repay my generosity?!" The house seemed to shudder in the face of the man's anger and Robert could only stare in disbelief as even the man's clothing became dark and foreboding. "By stealing from me..."

There was such loathing in the creature's voice as he condemned Robert that the mortal man found himself trembling in fear. "I truly meant no insult-"

"It matters not! You steal, so you shall suffer the consequences of your actions. Eye for an eye and all that..."

Grief filled the man as he watched the man lift a hand, a perfectly spherical crystal forming upon it and he remembered his thoughts the day before, how his family would be left alone, with no one to take care of them, leaving Sarah to struggle for the rest of her life to dig the family out of the hole he put them in. "Please, sir," he spoke softly. "I meant no harm. My own foolishness and arrogance put me in this situation, and I beg your pardon." Once again, he was reminded that the reason that he had always been such a good lawyer was because he could speak convincingly. Much like when his daughter told her tales, he could make people want to believe him. His daughter...

He whispered a mental apology to her for dragging her into this. "My family is barely making ends meet, and I am the primary source of income. The only reason we are able to afford food is because my daughter works two jobs to provide for that. My funds are drained between bills and countless law suits filed against me. I took the book as a present for her. My wife and son asked for useless things, things that they would toss aside within weeks, but my daughter...she treasures books. It was all she asked for, and she has done so much for our family that I wanted to get it for her, even if I had to steal to do it."

Shrewd eyes regarded him. "A daughter," he repeated, obviously disbelieving.

Robert pulled out his wallet, his hands shaking as he did so. He flipped it open to a picture of his family, thrusting it before the man in front of him. The picture was old, taken shortly before his daughter had left for college. "My daughter, Sarah. She is the only reason the family hasn't fallen apart yet. She works hard, trying to help support us, but it's not enough by itself. She sacrificed her future to save her family, and I wanted to bring her something nice."

"Silence," the man said, his voice oddly rough. "I will spare your life on one condition, thief. You may return home for one week. You have until then to convince this daughter of yours to come here and take your place. If you do not, I will extract my punishment from you at the end of that week." He turned, preparing to leave, only to briefly pause. "Consider it a curse upon you. Take the book to your daughter. Since you claim she will treasure it, hope she treasures you as much."

Robert felt grief grip him as he realized what was being asked of him. His life for Sarah's. His head hung. "How could I possibly send my daughter here as sacrifice?! Just so I might live a few years longer?! You must be joking!"

The man – or whatever he was – looked moderately annoyed with him and rolled his eyes. "Don't be such a fool. You said your family needs you. I will punish your daughter, however I'm not a monster. Her punishment will be weighed by her courage as well as the fact that she is a woman." Something in those mis-matched eyes did not give Robert Williams any comfort, however and he wondered if perhaps this punishment would truly be fair.

Still...Robert straightened, although he could still feel fear clawing at his belly. "I will not trick her and I will not force her. If she says no, I will return and you may extract whatever punishment you see fit." He fisted his hands at his thighs and Robert saw the briefest flash of temper before something else shone in those eyes. A sort of tired, exasperated amusement.

When the man spoke once again, he averted his gaze, a faint smirk pulling at his lips. "Brave words. I cannot complain, however. It would be vastly disappointing if she didn't come of her own choice..." Then, the man seemed to disappear as a barn owl flew away through the air. Moments after it was gone, an echo of the man's voice reached his ears. "Don't forget your promise, Robert Williams. I shall hold you to it..."

Slowly, Robert slid down the wall, his stomach twisting violently and his breath hitched as the first hysterical sob left him. He fisted his hands and pressed them against his eyes, wondering what on earth he was going to do.

.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.

Sarah paced the floor while her step mother and half brother slept on the couch under the blanket she'd placed over them ages ago. She wasn't at all surprised when they finally gave into the sweet pull of sleep around two thirty in the morning, but until her father walked through the door, she wouldn't be able to.

He was late.

Robert Williams was something of the predictable sort, even now, with his life in chaos. He always walked out the door in the morning at seven o'clock and walked back in at six. He was stable, constant. The only time she'd ever seen him chaotic in her life was just after the family realized it was going under and she'd returned from school to help them.

It was the only time she'd ever seen the man cry. He'd been so worried about all of them, Toby especially. The boy still wasn't old enough to fully grasp what was going on, and since they had lost all their money, the boy had grown petulant about not being able to get the toys he wanted. He'd mourned the knowledge that it was unlikely he would be able to put the boy through college, which started in only a few more years.

Sarah had listened quietly while her father poured out his woes and when he was done and had begun simply sobbing into his hands, she reached out and took his. "I understand that it hurts, dad, but what good are you doing Toby locked away in here crying with a bottle in your hand? If you want to do right by them, you have to stop pitying yourself and you need to get back to work."

After that, it was like a light went on in him, and he started energetically trying to save what they could. He had to sit down with her younger brother and have a long talk about what sentimental value was and how things with monetary value could eventually be bought back.

Sarah had helped the unhappy boy pack his toys, his unused games, clothing that no longer fit, away in boxes, listening to him blame his father for all of his woes. It was a painfully familiar tune. She just gave him a sad smile and told him that their father was trying their best, and so was she. Rather than getting angry about not being able to have a bunch of stuff he didn't use or really want, maybe he should think about getting a paper route so that he could have extra pocket money to buy things for himself.

Karen had been outraged at the suggestion, but Sarah pointed out that having to earn money for himself might show the child how difficult it was for Robert right now. Karen, chastened herself, began to mournfully box up designer purses, watches, jewelery, and clothing. Sarah herself went into her room, barely changed from when she was fifteen, and began boxing up things that didn't have sentimental value. Periodically, she'd call upon Hoggle, Sir Didymus and Ludo, just so that she could drop the facade of being strong.

Several times she wept bitterly into their shoulders, not really certain what they were going to do. The law suits were piling up and it seemed every judge saw fit to find in favor of the accusers. One case had broken her father's streak, and it seemed to her that their family had been cursed due to it. One man who promised he was innocent, who her father truly believed was innocent, and it turned out in the middle of the trial that evidence existed that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was guilty.

Families of victims who never got closure because her father was such a good defense attorney began filing civil suits against him, one after another, until the family finally buckled under the weight. His firm 'letting him go' was the final straw that sent the family into the ditch she'd found them in. It was very fortunate that she was such a great actress, otherwise they would know how much it really hurt her to stop her degree when she was so close to finishing.

Still, she loved her family, and now, four years since then, she realized that it was a sacrifice worth making. Toby was turning into a more responsible young man, rather than being angry and petulant about not getting exactly what he wanted for Christmas or birthdays, he scrimped and saved from his paper route so that he could occasionally give his mother a present to thank her for taking care of the house, the chores, and even him. Karen still sometimes had trouble shouldering the burden and Sarah knew that she appreciated every attempt that her son made.

Karen, much like Toby, had been born into a wealthy family, so she never really knew the hardship of being poor. She always said that if someone was poor, they should go get a better job, not knowing that sometimes that was impossible. It wasn't until the long-time housewife tried to get a job of her own that she realized that things like that were fluid and difficult to maintain, especially when they pulled you away from the home that you had always struggled to keep. After six months, the woman decided that she could not be super mom and quit her job, in favor of staying home and doing what she knew best.

Sarah didn't begrudge her decision. Karen did not know retail, she didn't know secretarial, but she knew how to run a household, and that in itself was a full time job with a teenager and a husband.

So Sarah herself worked two jobs, one as a secretary, the other during evenings as a bartender, pulling in lower wages than could make the family comfortable with the leeches that were constantly bleeding their funds dry. She was often exhausted, sometimes afraid to drive home at night for fear that she would fall asleep. She also had to drive away stalkers that tried to follow her from her job at the local bar.

She got to know the bouncer, Bill, rather well, since he walked her to her car most evenings.

Her father didn't like her second job, didn't like the hours that she had to work, but sometimes, one didn't have a choice of profession. Sometimes, you had to just take what you could get.

Her thoughts, having returned to her father once more, began to fret again. He'd told them, "around midnight on Saturday," but here it was eight o'clock, and her father was still not home.

Karen and Toby had long since fallen into an exhausted sleep on the couch, but not her. She knew she wouldn't sleep soundly until she knew that everything was okay. Sarah glanced towards her brother and step-mother, seeing that their blanket had slumped to the floor. She scooped it up and covered them with it carefully. Bleary blue eyes opened, looking up at her in confusion.

"Dad?" Toby mumbled.

"It's okay, he'll be home soon," she whispered softly. "Go back to sleep."

He shook his head stubbornly, his wild hair falling in front of his eyes. "I'll stay up with you..." he said as he struggled into a more upright position. "What time is it?"

Sarah glanced at clock on the stove and gave him a weary smile. "Almost nine now."

Those blue eyes seemed to look right through her. Her baby brother often saw more than he let on to the adults in their lives. "You haven't slept."

She sat down, put her head in her hands. "I can't. I tried for awhile, but I keep worrying..."

"About dad?"

She gave him a small smile. "And us."

He inclined his head, as though he didn't understand. It was such an owlish movement that a shiver crawled up her back. Right there, with his brow raised in confusion, head cocked to the side and his hair so wild, he reminded her of a night fourteen years ago, of a man she'd be hard pressed to forget. She suppressed the shiver of fear and the worry that had remained all these years that maybe her brother had not come away from the particular event fully unchanged.

After a long moment, she responded to his unspoken question. "I still have college loans to pay off. Neither of my jobs are enough to support us, and together they still don't even come close. Dad's accounts are bled nearly dry because of all the civil suits. If anything happened to him..." she shook her head.

She saw the understanding dawn on her brother's face. He reached forward, placing a hand on hers, his blue eyes worried. She knew he could see the strain that helping support the family had put upon her over the past four years. She turned her hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze, not meeting his gaze, keeping her calm mask plastered in place.

She wasn't sure when she became so good at hiding her feelings. One day she was dealing with her at the time steady boyfriend, letting him slobber on her neck and she realized that she didn't feel...anything. No excitement, no warm tingle. She had been completely in control of herself.

After that, she noticed that she wore masks around other people, people she loved, people from school and work, even her closest family. The only people who saw her without the mask were her friends from the Labyrinth, because they noticed every time she was wearing one. Especially Hoggle. She also knew that on the anniversary of her trip through the Labyrinth, she couldn't fake her emotions. That night, she would crawl into her bed, and pull out the worn red leather book from the drawer she'd since kept it in. She would read the book from cover to cover in the time she was sequestered away from the world.

Her father told her she always looked a little lost in thought those evenings when she'd finally emerge. In all honesty, she usually was. Her mind would race along the path of what could have been. It wasn't until later that she really knew what had been said, after she'd spoken to Hoggle about a week later and learned that the King had locked himself away in the Esher room for days.

She hadn't really asked about him since. She was honestly something of a coward, and was afraid to know how the life of the Goblin King might have gone. Still, she often wondered: was he married, had he fallen in love with one of his own kind. What had happened to the Goblin King of her youth?

She had cared for him, there was no point in denying that. In her own way, she probably had even loved him, which was why she had never asked. She didn't think she could face the pain of knowing that he had moved on. After all, while she had periodically dated a few boys, none of the relationships were particularly serious. Her mind always returned to the ethereal beauty of the creature named Jareth, and she knew that he had spoiled her for all mortal men.

It wasn't so much his looks. His face had revealed age and wisdom, yet he had seemed young and childish and spoiled as well. He had always seemed to be ageless, constantly riding the flow of time. In her parents' bedroom, he had appeared to be a villain, then in the tunnels he came to her as a flirt. When she danced in his arms in the crystal ballroom, he had been Prince Charming.

However he may have seemed during those first two encounters, it were the last two that stood out in her mind the most.

Him facing her in the Escher room, looking taunting and cold, but now she could remember a desperation in his eyes. Then, when the world had turned upside down, he looked so tired. His face seemed almost lined with age, his words and eyes sincere. His voice had been so gentle.

She had, of course, told herself that it was simply a ploy, the last desperate move in the game before checkmate. In hindsight, however...

"You look sad, Sarah."

She startled out of her thoughts, her eyes jerking towards her little brother. She realized that she'd been so engrossed in thought that her mask had slipped and she hurriedly covered the sadness she felt with a smile for Toby. "Maybe a little," she admitted, then stood, moving into the kitchen and pulling down the tea kettle.

She had just finished making a few cups of tea when she heard the key scrape in the lock and She bolted from the kitchen, waiting behind her brother's chair as the door swung open, revealing her weary and war torn looking father. "Daddy..." she whispered, moving swiftly around the chair and hugging him tightly. A moment later, she broke the embrace and whacked him on the arm. "We were worried!"

His father lifted his face, looking tired and bleak, and she felt a strange fear grip her. "Daddy...?"

He staggered past her, collapsing into a chair and reaching into the bag he had taken with him, pulling out a book that he handed towards her. "Your book, Sarah. Although you can't possibly know what it will cost us."

Fear grabbed her and she dropped to her knees. Her hands mechanically reached forward and took the book. "Daddy, what are you talking about?" Her father's blue eyes lifted to her and she saw every line that age had etched onto his skin, which was so like her own. He heaved a sigh, and tilted his head back, as Toby came towards him and looked from one to the other in confusion.

"Dad?"

Moments later, Karen stirred and she threw her arms around Robert Williams before he could really answer their confusion. She began rambling off questions of where he had been, what had happened while he was away in town and Robert seemed to sink into a depression of sorts. After a long moment, he began to speak.

"The man I was to defend was guilty," he began, his voice thick with despair. "The case was painfully similar to the one that...started this mess we're in so I refused to take it. The man was very angry. It is funny, how despite our fall, I'm still considered the best defense attorney. He threatened me, but I walked out. I truly hope he is found guilty. If I could prosecute him, I would." He shook his head, and his eyes took on a faraway look.

"I was depressed, I was worried, and I was distracted. I hit some black ice and the car went off the road. It died, and I decided to walk. I knew I couldn't be far from a rest stop or something. However...I found a mansion surrounded by trees, surrounded by wrought iron gates. Within, I was waited on by servants I could not see, guest to a host who did not make himself known.

"I should have just thanked my host and left, tried to make my way home through the snow, but I just had to go try to find him. The place was fantastic, like a mixing place between something out of a faery tale and reality. However, in the process of my exploration, I offended the creature who resides there..."

This story brought flickers of memory to Sarah, was like a tale she quite remembered reading as a child and her heart squeezed. "You stole something...something for a daughter."

Every pair of eyes fixated on her. Sarah held the book in her lap, looking up at her father, suddenly seeing where this little story of his was going. Slowly, Robert nodded. "There were so many, I didn't see the harm in taking just one for the daughter who had done so much for the family. So I took one." He shivered faintly. "That was when my host made himself known. He was more animal than man. I'm not certain he really was human. His features were feral, wild, like an...ill-fitting mask. I don't know how to explain it."

Karen gave him a skeptical look, the only one in the house who seemed to not quite believe what Robert was saying to them. Her lips tightened into a pursed look and she rested a hand on her husband's arm gently. "Robert, are you sure you didn't just...dream it?"

Robert tore his arm away. "Dammit, if I had dreamed it, I wouldn't be this scared. It was...too real to be a dream. I'm not going crazy, and I'm not a fool. He was standing before me as solid and real as any of you are now!"

La Belle et le Bete...

The name of the story came to her quite suddenly and she stood, moving away from her family, cradling the book to her chest. She knew without hearing what else was going to be said. She went back into the kitchen and poured a fourth cup of tea, then brought the tray out.

Toby and Karen looked worried and confused. Karen was still quietly asking her husband if there was even the barest possibility that he had made some sort of mistake. Robert continued to say that he hadn't. Toby, however, seemed to be the only one to notice how quiet Sarah had become, how introspective, watching her quietly, his blue eyes bright with worry.

Once everyone had dressed theirs, she took a long sip, wondering what to say in response to the story. "In school, I often heard people talking about fiction emulating life or life emulating fiction. A long time ago, a Frenchwoman wrote a tale about a merchants daughter who asks that her father, who was going away to recover the family fortune, to return with a single rose." She saw recognition flash in her brother's eyes and he would have spoken if she had not plowed ahead. "His creditors had taken the ship to pay for his debts, and so he made to return home, as destitute as when he had left. Along the way, he got lost and found his way to a place where, despite the cold winter beyond, was caught in a permanent summer...

"He was waited upon by servants that he could not see, guest to an unknown host. He was well fed, kept very warm, until the next day, when he began to wander the castle and indulged himself by imagining that all this was meant for him and his family. However, he had to return home to his family, and as he finally set about trying to find the stables, he happened upon a rose bush. He remembered his daughter's words and harvested a single, perfect rose.

"A great and terrible noise came from behind him and he turned, terrified to find a horrible beast standing there. The beast, furious at the theft, demanded that the merchant pay for it with his life. The merchant, desperate and fearing for his family, begged to be spared, and explained all of his woes. The beast told the frightened man that he had one month to convince one of his daughters to return in his place or his life was forfeit..."

As she reached that point, Robert shook his head. "Seven days. He said that if I hadn't returned by the end of the week, I would die on the seventh day...

"How can he find you?!" Karen gasped in fear. "And in seven days at that?!"

Toby looked towards Sarah, who still looked upon them with a look of calm and gentleness that didn't reflect the fear she felt swirling inside of her.

"The merchant returned home, his heart heavier now with the sentence of death upon him. Upon returning, he gave his daughter her gift and told the family what had happened. Two of the sisters blamed her wish. Her brothers plotted to kill the beast. However, the youngest daughter stated that since it was her fault that such a fate awaited her father, she would return to the castle in his stead."

Robert exploded up from the sofa. "No, Sarah. I would rather die. The things he allowed me to take will be enough to provide for you and the others. I am not going to allow that thing hurt my daughter-"

Karen also spoke, her eyes bright with worry. "Sarah, you have no way of knowing what that man might do to you! You are putting your faith in a fairy tale!"

She looked towards him. "You guys can't stop me and you can't change my mind. Toby is nearly fifteen now, Karen doesn't need my help anymore. Dad, you are the one the family needs right now, and I will not let you sacrifice yourself when there's another option. Maybe when I get there, the story will diverge from Madame le Villeneuve's. However, you are too important to the family for me to let you go back to die."

She saw her brother stand and she moved towards him, hugging the younger boy gently. "Sarah, that story...The girl falls in love with the beast-"

"That'll be quite impossible for me," Sarah said softly, smiling at her little brother. "My heart was stolen fourteen years ago."

.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.

To Be Continued...

.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.o0o.

AN: Somehow, I don't think this is going to be as simple as Sarah seems to think it will...

I considered several things before settling on a book to replace the rose from the original tale. Another thing I considered was a peach. It being a growing item, it seemed a good replacement for roses, and I thought that Jareth might have some manner of attachment to them after the event earlier. With the book, there is a sentimental reason he gets his britches in a bunch over it. I'll get into that later, though...