Her skin prickled, like the pinch of a thousand tiny leeches. The cold latched on, feeding on her warmth, burying deep into the marrow of her bones to wait for spring. Trees cracked under the weight of snowfall, the loud snap splintering her nerves. Sarah tugged irritably at the collar of her coat, pulling it snug around her neck, and then tripped over a fallen branch.
Cursing under her breath, she took a step forward only to realize she was caught; ligneous claws, dead and rawboned, grasped at the laces of her sneaker. She wanted to take it as some kind of divine sign she should stop right now, go home and forget about this whole thing. She looked up, spotting her brother weaving through the trees in a flash of teal ahead of her, "MARLEAU" stretching across his shoulders in large block letters; she sighed.
Bending down, she freed the branch and tossed it aside. She called out as she scrambled to catch up. "Hey! Toby! Wait up!"
Toby paused to look back at her, shrugging his bag more securely onto his shoulder. "Geez, Sarah. Why do you always have to be so slow?"
"I'm not slow! I was caught by a stupid branch. Why are you in such a hurry?"
Toby rolled his eyes and resumed his march. "Just come on."
Sarah fell into step behind him. She knew he came out here often with his friends for pick-up games and who knew what else. It was his own private wooded wonderland. Or at least that's how she liked to imagine it. She didn't know if adolescent boys thought about things like that.
He was growing up so fast. Too fast. He was almost as tall as she was, broad-shouldered and slim. His blond hair stuck out in jagged spikes above the collar of his jersey, and she wondered idly when he started using mousse.
But he was still her little brother.
"I don't think this is such a good idea."
"Whaddaya mean? It's great. There's no way I'm gonna lose."
"I'm not so sure about that. He doesn't exactly play by the rules."
Toby glanced back at her. "That's why you're coming."
She gripped the insides of her pockets to counterbalance the dread seizing her lungs. "What?"
"He said he'd agree to the challenge as long as you came along to make sure everything was fair."
Sarah stopped mid-stride, her mind pulling her in two directions at once. Even though Toby wouldn't have recognized the taunt, she did. Her gut twisted, and she struggled to push down the rising panic.
There was a more pressing issue.
"Toby." She ran after him, stumbling. "You actually talked with Jar—with the Goblin King?"
Sarah grabbed his elbow, stopping him and turning him to face her. "I can't let you do this. You don't understand. Why don't you let me handle it? Maybe I can—"
Toby yanked his arm away. "I don't need my big sister standing up for me all the time. I'm not some stupid kid. It's embarrassing."
"I'm tired of it, Sarah." His shoulders sagged, his equipment bag falling into the snow with a soft fwump. "I'm tired of being grounded all the time. I'm tired of getting in trouble at school and with Mom. I'm tired of goblins messing with my stuff and making problems. I didn't ask for them to show up, and I'm gonna make it stop."
"I know that, but—"
"It's your fault they're here." Accusation flared in his baby blues. "You owe me."
Years of guilt crashed over her and she reached out, gripping his forearm. "I know, Toby. Okay? I know. I said I was sorry, didn't I? I didn't mean for any of this to happen. But...this isn't the way. Just let me—"
"What's done is done."
The words fell heavy as the wind whipped through the canopy, picking up snow that sparkled like crystal in the threaded sunlight. It pulled at the wisps of his hair and Sarah sucked in a breath at the unwelcome déjà vu. He reminded her so much of...
Sarah closed her eyes, shutting off the image, and when she opened them, he was...just Toby. Just her dopey kid brother looking back at her like she was gum on the bottom of his shoe.
He picked up his bag and sent her another disparaging look. "Stop being such a whiny baby, Sarah."
And if that wasn't the icing on this piece of crap cake... If her little brother, fourteen years her junior, was calling her a "whiny baby," things were bad.
"Okay, Toby." Sarah sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "This is your thing, and I'm going to shut up and be here for you." Strolling up beside him, she whacked him hard upside the head.
"Ow! Hey!" Toby rubbed the back of his head and glared. "What'd you do that for?"
She pointed a finger between his eyes. "If I do this, I don't ever want to hear 'You owe me' ever again. Got it? I was fifteen and did one stupid thing. You do loads of stupid things. You can't hold it over my head forever."
"Fine. Geez. Just watch the hair, dorkhead. It was perfect before you went and messed it up."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "You think the goblins are going to care about your hair?"
"Pff. Like you didn't spend an hour in front of the mirror before we left."
"Ugh!" Sarah pulled his hands away and fluffed his hair back to its former carelessly windblown glory. "There. Satisfied?" She didn't wait for an answer. Instead, she stepped behind him and shoved. "Let's just go, already! It's cold and I just want to get this over with and go home."
He stumbled forward and turned back to glare at her before resuming the hike with a shake of his head. "I don't know what you're so scared of, anyway. It's not like he's Freddy Krueger or something."
No. Not like Freddy Krueger. Sarah buried her chin in the soft cup of her scarf and plodded after him. Jareth's were a very different sort of dream.
It wasn't long before they came to a break in the trees. Toby stepped through first, holding the branch aside for Sarah to follow. Ice stretched out to either side of them, smoothed to a frosted iridescence, and short goal boxes made of woven twine stood sentinel at both ends. Snowpack marked the edges of the rink on three sides, the farthest set off from the trees by a low brick wall. Globes of spun ice hung from branches, cradling fireflies flickering in the early twilight like captured stars, and fairies flitted from tree to tree. On the rink, three familiar figures stood out against the unrelenting white, and Sarah felt the knot of tension in her stomach loosen. Sir Didymus was correcting Hoggle's hold on his hockey stick while Ludo looked on. Four goblins, in a mishmash of mottled camouflage, huddled on the opposite side.
"Wicked," Toby said.
"Young Master Tobias..."
The cool baritone slinked low and heavy from the forest behind her. Sarah's head snapped up just in time to see Jareth, King of the Goblins, step out from the shadow of the canopy. He looked much as she remembered—dark and light, feral and controlled, beautiful and terrifying. She felt that knot in her stomach tighten again as he moved toward them, his gait graceful and commanding.
Without sparing her a glance, Jareth stepped in front of her brother and gave a short bow with a sweep of his cape. "Welcome to the game."
Toby grinned at him. "Hey, Jareth!"
Sarah kept quiet as she watched the exchange, sinking into the fluffy cover of her coat in an attempt to be as small and inconspicuous as possible. She didn't miss the shine of unbridled admiration in Toby's eyes as he looked up at her former nemesis. It bothered her.
Jareth ruffled his hair, smiling down at him. "Is everything to your specifications?"
Sarah huffed silently. How was it fair Jareth could mess up his hair and she couldn't?
"Yeah, it's great!" Toby said, still grinning like an idiot.
Jareth crossed his arms over his chest. "Run along, then. I believe your teammates are awaiting your leadership."
Toby scampered off down the hill, his equipment bag bumping along behind him. Sarah kept her eyes trained on the rink, Jareth turning in a swirl of black in her peripheral vision. He remained silent as he watched Toby join his subjects on the ice.
She was hyper-aware of his presence next to her. It pricked at her, memories and thoughts and feelings rushing out through all the tiny, intangible holes in her defenses, sucking the air out of her and making her feel light-headed. He seemed almost...magnetic. She felt this pull, as if everything around him ached to touch him, to bend to his will. But at the same time, he seemed to radiate some kind of strange energy. Was it magic? Power? Something else? Whatever it was, it made her anxious.
She didn't remember feeling this way before. When she was fifteen, there was that initial fear, but then she was over it and she was all "We're off to the Goblin City to defeat the wizard!" This time was different, weird. He didn't seem menacing, not in that evil villain sort of way, but he set her on edge. The last time she had seen him, spoken to him, they hadn't exactly been on the same side. The lines were a little blurred now, and she wasn't sure what they were to each other, what role she was supposed to play.
What she did know was he wanted her to be here, had made sure she'd be here. He'd agreed to this ridiculous challenge on the condition she come along.
The question was, why?
Shoving her hands deeper in her pockets, Sarah took a replenishing breath, the scent of pine and earth grounding her. She pushed the air into her cheeks, swishing it from side to side as she debated the answer, and whether she really wanted to know, then blew it out in a puff of a pout. He apparently wasn't going to give her any hints.
"What are you up to, Goblin King?" she finally asked.
He chuckled lightly, and she felt it, pitched just right to send tremors skipping along under her skin. It irked her, as did the realization she'd just lost round one.
His amusement settled into an iniquitous smile and she wondered if his teeth were as sharp as they looked.
"So suspicious, Sarah," he drawled as he crossed one arm over his chest, the other propped as he traced a knuckle back and forth across his bottom lip, his gaze still fixed on the scene below them. "That was cute, what you did just there with your mouth."
Sarah tilted her head toward him. Did he just use the word "cute"? Okay, ignore that. She climbed back on track. "I have every reason to be suspicious."
"Is that so?"
"You know it is."
"This isn't my doing. Toby approached me. I'm merely..." he gestured vaguely at the rink, "...setting the scene. Though, I do enjoy a good game."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"Believe what you want. You will anyway." He moved past her, his cape trailing after him.
As if realizing she hadn't budged from the top of her soapbox, he paused without turning around. "Coming?" he asked, then added, "After all, what ever would we do without your incontestable sense of fair play?" And with that gauntlet thrown, he resumed his confident stride down the hill.
Like a few taunting words were enough to make her tuck tail and fall in line.
Sarah pressed her lips together, hesitated, sighed dramatically, then shuffled reluctantly after him. She'd go, but not because he wanted her to. It was strategy. She had to look out for Toby. Keep your enemies closer, and all that.
Jareth led them to a small clearing on the far side of the brick wall. A large half-oak, thick and gnarled, twisted up regally from the earth, dominating the space. The other, less magnificent, trees huddled a few feet away, in fear or awe, she wasn't sure. The oak trembled at his approach. It caved in on itself, the trunk folding into a flat half-circle, branches spearing out around it like a jagged crown. Jareth sprawled into it and fixed his gaze on her.
She stopped and stared back at him, trying to remember if his eyes had always been that intense, that soul-searching.
Conjuring a crystal, he flipped it back and forth lazily over his fingers. Smiled. And then, those eyes that had nailed her in place seemed to suck her in, like black holes, swirling dark and ravenous. They devoured her, licking up her figure in long, deliberate strokes, lapping her up, consuming her inch by inch. His tongue touched along the points of his teeth as if he could actually taste her. He took his fill, and he took it slowly.
"Would you like to sit..." his eyes finally deigned to meet hers, "...Sarah?"
She felt overheated, flushed. Her skin hummed and blood rushed in her ears; she could feel the warmth of it coloring her cheeks. Her coat was stifling and she wanted to rip it open, but clenched her fists instead. Despite her layers of clothing, he had seen her. He had peeled them away, slipped beneath and delved deep, seemed to caress pieces of her soul, all because it suited him. She felt exposed. She felt vulnerable.
It pissed her off. It was so typically male, thinking he could unnerve her by ogling her and bossing her around. She smacked the unwelcome feelings aside and narrowed her eyes. "Had enough?"
The devil slid into his smile. "If that's an offer—"
He raised a brow. "What a pity." The crystal stopped, balanced precariously on the tips of his fingers, then fell, hurtling toward the snow beside him. Instead of sinking or popping as she expected, it seemed to fade as it touched the ground. Bare vines sprouted from the earth, twisting and weaving into something somewhat resembling a chair. A red rose budded and bloomed on top.
Sarah had been quiet as she watched it morph, but the rose seemed to mock her, waving merrily at her in the breeze. "I'm not sitting in that thing." She pointed at it accusingly. "It has thorns, doesn't it? And if it pricks me, I'll fall comatose into some kind of LSD-laced dream. Or it will grab me and drag me down into an oubliette. Or—"
Jareth interrupted her spew of conspiracy theories with a rumbling laugh. "Such an imagination you have." He tilted his head, amused. "It's only a chair, Sarah. Nothing more."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Sure it is."
Smirking, he settled further back in his makeshift throne, propping a booted foot on one of the spiked outcroppings. "You don't trust me."
It wasn't a question, but it had the essence of a question. Like he wanted her to list all the reasons she didn't trust him. And while she knew he was taunting her, playing with her, that if she did answer she'd just be some kind of an amusement for his twisted sense of humor...there was that pinch of dare. It hung in the air, and she could taste the tang of it on her tongue, and she was going to do it anyway.
Because screw his games. She had things to say.
She opened her mouth to tell him just where he could stuff his stupid chair, but was cut-off before she could even get started.
She turned around just as Ambrosius slid to a stop on the other side of the brick wall, Sir Didymus swaying jauntily on top. He bowed from his seat in the saddle.
"Sir Didymus." Sarah smiled and curtsied, pushing away all thoughts of Jareth to focus on her friend. "How lovely to see you, good sir."
"And thee, my lady." He looked her over, worry knitting his brows. "Thou art warm enough?"
"Oh, yes. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
His ears drooped. "If thou art sure..."
Sarah touched his nose in a familiar gesture. "I'm sure."
Sarah looked up to find Ludo waving at her. Toby was sitting nearby lacing up his skates. Hoggle started to wave as well, then let his hand drop, scratching his head. He kicked at the ice bashfully and almost lost his footing, flailing wildly until Ludo caught him in a bear hug. Hoggle batted at him until he let go.
Sarah stifled her laugh with a grin, and waved. "Hi, guys! I'll be cheering for you!" She looked back at Sir Didymus. "And, see? You have a game to think about. Toby's counting on you."
He seemed to rally, sitting up taller on his shaggy steed. "Ah, yes! The game!" Then his whiskers fell. Nudging the sheep dog with his heels, he mumbled, "Forward, Ambrosius." They sidled closer to the wall and he looked up at her with wide eyes. "My lady?"
Sarah bent down, leaning forward on her elbows. "Yes?"
"If I may...a small favor, to carry with me into battle?"
"Oh. Hmm." Sarah patted her pockets, feeling only her keys, and looked around. Her eyes fell on the rose. She glanced at Jareth as she walked toward it, seeing his eyes narrow as she plucked it unceremoniously from its sylvan tower. Lifting her chin, she trekked back to Sir Didymus and handed it to him with a flourish. "I wish you the best of luck, my brave knight."
"My lady." He accepted it with a bow. Tucking the rose into his cap, he brandished his hockey stick. "We shall defeat these rascally goblins for you, fair maiden, and fight for the right as one!" And with a battle cry, he took off to join his teammates, Ambrosius paddling easily across the ice.
"Such a touching reunion." The words were so dry she was surprised the snow didn't sublimate right then and there.
She glanced at Jareth over her shoulder. "You know what? If you're just going to make fun of my friends, I'll go watch the game from the other side of the rink." She looked away. "And anyway, you'll be singing a different tune when they win."
"Care to make a wager?"
"Come now, Sarah. So little faith in your brother's abilities?"
"Fine." She turned to face him, leaning back against the wall and crossing her arms. "What are the stakes?"
"Slave for a day," Toby said as he slammed into the wall behind her, making her jump. He grinned at Jareth as he slumped onto the brick. "That's what we always bet on."
Jareth returned his smile, eyes glittering. "Done."
Sarah gaped, sputtered, and then recovered. "No. What? Toby! Do you realize what you've done?"
"What?" He shot her a puzzled look. "It's not like he's going to win. And think of all the cool things he can do. He's got magic."
Jareth conjured another crystal, twirling it back and forth over his fingertips. He turned his grin on her and winked. "Magic."
"Maybe he can even poof you up one of those big TVs."
"Toby," Sarah started, pulling her gaze away from Jareth to the kid she was going to kill later, only to find him distracted. On the ice, a small squat goblin with wild white hair, who reminded her vaguely of Madam Mim with his chicken feather skirt, was sashaying in a circle, his hands clasped up beside his face as he batted his eyelashes. He made a full round, stopped, then stuck out his tongue.
Toby glared over his shoulder. "That stupid Bug. I'll show him he can't mess with Toby Williams and get away with it." He skated off with a vengeance.
Sarah watched him go. Damn that damn kid! If she didn't know better, she'd think he'd done it on purpose. Slave for a day... This was bad. Bad, bad, bad. If he won…
She couldn't think about that now.
Taking a calming breath, she shifted her gaze back to Jareth, donning what she hoped was a confident expression. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing here, but Toby's right. You're not going to win."
He smiled indulgently at her. "I guess we'll see, won't we?"
He didn't seem at all concerned. That worried her. She turned and focused on the rink. They had to win this game.
After touching base with his teammates, Toby skated toward the center of the rink, Hoggle, Sir Didymus and Ludo taking up positions behind him. An antique clock hanging from a nearby tree began chiming out the hour. Toby lowered his stick, bent in ready position, and beckoned his opponent with a curl of his fingers. Bug skated up, three of his brethren fanning out in his wake. He stopped in front of Toby, mimicking his stance as they glared at each other. A fairy hovered above the pair, struggling with the weight of the puck, and when the clock struck its final note, she dropped it. There was a mad scramble, Toby ultimately winning the face-off, feinting left and slipping past him on the right.
What the goblins lacked in talent and training, they made up for in speed and sneakiness. In an instant Toby was surrounded. They circled him, cackling and jeering, a tall lanky goblin sweeping in to steal the puck just as Hoggle and Sir Didymus reached the circle. The goblin took off in a break away toward the goal box, Ludo gazing at him curiously as he flew past. Toby scrambled after him, kicking up ice. Just as the goblin slid within scoring distance, a cardinal swooped across his path.
"Ooooh...pretty..." The puck forgotten, he watched the bird land in a nearby tree, tripping over the goal box and tumbling head over heels into the snow bank. Toby laughed as he sped in to snag the puck and race back in the other direction.
The puck changed hands a few more times, and Sarah tried to concentrate on the game. It was difficult, what with the persistent feel of eyes tickling along her spine. She slid Jareth a sideways glance. "Stop it."
"Stop staring at me. Wasn't it you that said 'I do enjoy a good game'?" She did her best impression of insufferably arrogant goblin monarchs.
A slow smirk curled his lips. "Mmm. Yes." He drew the word out like a hiss. It reminded her of the snake. She had been afraid of snakes. He had known that, somehow.
But she wasn't afraid anymore. Toby had seen to that.
Sarah looked back toward the rink. "You're not even watching."
She turned her head to look at him quizzically, but a commotion on the ice snared her attention. Toby had the puck, Hoggle pulling up the rear and Sir Didymus barking madly as he charged across the rink to cut-off his pursuers. Toby circled behind the goal box, aimed and scored.
Sarah cheered, jumping up and down and clapping her mittened hands. Toby pumped his fist in the air and skated toward her, coming to a sideways stop with a spray of ice. He was grinning from ear-to-ear.
"Did you see it, Jareth? Did you see me score?"
Jareth smiled and nodded. "Well done, Toby. Well done."
Sarah frowned, watching as Toby took off again. Well...that stung just a little bit. He was her brother, damn it.
Toby retrieved the puck, setting up center rink with Bug. Three clacks of their sticks, and this time it was Bug who won the face-off. Sir Didymus quickly relieved him of it and took off toward the other end of the rink. He made it halfway before he was swarmed by goblins. They launched themselves from the ice, clinging to Ambrosius' fur, sliding down to hang from his tail like some twisted version of Whip It. Ambrosius howled pitifully while Sir Didymus tried to fight them off with his stick.
Toby raced after them calling, "Foul! Foul! Sarah!"
Taking up the mantle of Queen of All That Was Fair and Good, Sarah turned to the Goblin King and pointed toward the offense. "They can't do that."
Jareth leaned forward to assess the situation. "Really? I believe they just did."
She planted her hands on her hips. "You wanted me here to make sure things were fair and—"
He waved vaguely in her direction to shush her and fixed his gaze on his unruly goblins. "Enough."
While not loud, his voice carried just enough threat that the goblins let go, sailing swiftly into the wall. Having gotten a hold of the puck at some point in the chaos, a rather bulbous, stocky goblin with a large underbite slammed hard into the wall, the impact knocking the puck out of his hand and up into the air. He passed out spread eagle on the ice, the puck falling down into his gaping maw. He swallowed and burped.
Toby glided over and nudged the goblin with his skate. "Oi! Jareth! We need another puck!"
Sarah jumped at the feel of a warm body behind her. She tried to sidestep, but he grabbed her hand. She turned panicked eyes on her captor as she yanked to free it. "What are you—?"
"Shhhh..." Jareth smiled. "I promise this won't hurt." He removed her mitten, one gloved hand sliding up to cup hers. He held it up in front of her, his other hand moving to rest on the brick wall, trapping her in place. Warmth built in her palm, tiny effervescent bubbles rising up through her fingers. She gasped as they all seemed to pop along her fingertips, the energy they held swirling into a crystal balanced on the curve of her fingers.
He leaned over her shoulder and whispered, "Now, blow."
Soft wisps of hair teased along the side of her face, and his breath skimmed warm against her ear. Sarah swallowed thickly and resisted the urge to sink into him. Instead, she fixed her gaze on the crystal...and blew. Riding on the current of her command, it floated out over the rink, hovered above Toby and Bug, then popped. A puck clattered to the ice.
Play resumed and Jareth stepped back. Sarah ran her thumb across the pads of her fingers, traces of glitter glistening in the faint light. She curled her hand into a loose fist and shoved it in her pocket. With a determined lift of her chin, she turned her attention back to the game.
Toby had the puck. Dodging a goblin, he passed it back to Hoggle and skated toward the goal box, Sir Didymus flanking on the other side. Hoggle pushed off to follow, but was yanked backwards. He dropped his stick, barely managing to stay on his feet as he batted at the fairies pulling at his hair and clothes. His skate caught the puck, kicking it forward.
"Get orff me, you—!" He let out a muffled cry as they all pulled at once, sending him into a spin.
Toby picked up the unintentional pass, but snapped his head around at Hoggle's shout. "Hey! Cut it out! No fairies allowed!" he yelled, racing off to his friend's rescue. Bug passed him in the opposite direction, scooping up the puck and circling back toward the goal box. Toby had just reached Hoggle when the goblin flew past him from behind.
"Oh. Crap!" His friend forgotten, Toby scrambled after Bug. He wasn't quick enough. Bug aimed and scored just as the clock chimed the fifteen minute period.
Sarah pushed up from the wall she had been leaning on, looking longingly at her friends at the far end of the rink as they retreated to the sidelines for a quick break. Sir Didymus growled menacingly at the fairies still fluttering around Hoggle while Toby passed around a bottle of water. Ambrosius padded into the snow and rolled over on his back in a shameless plea for a belly rub. Ludo obliged. On the opposite end of the rink, the goblins plopped down to the ice in unison, sending up a cloud of black feathers. All four of them sneezed.
"A tied score," Jareth mused behind her. "Worried?"
"No," she denied. "Are you?"
"Not in the least."
Sarah turned to lean back against the wall. She studied him a moment before speaking. "Why did Toby call you?"
"Is that not obvious?"
Sarah sighed irritably and gestured to the rink behind her. "Obviously, the game. But...why? I mean, I know the goblins have been a bit more troublesome than usual, but Toby always liked the goblins. I don't understand what happened, what changed. He's been very closed-mouthed about the whole thing."
Jareth settled back in his throne, crossing his hands over his stomach. "Well, it seems the goblins have grown a bit jealous. Toby's growing up, developing new...interests. I'm afraid they've been acting out to regain his attention. When he called for me, Toby had reached the end of his patience."
Sarah tilted her head. "New interests?"
He smiled. "I believe there was a young girl involved."
"A girl?" Since when was Toby interested in girls?
"Something about a hockey game. The girl was in attendance, and the goblins, in a fit of pique, tied his laces together causing him to trip at a pivotal moment. He was quite upset and demanded a challenge. If he wins, the goblins have to keep their distance unless specifically invited."
"Oh," she said, shoving her hands in her pockets.
Why hadn't Toby told her about this? He always told her everything. And why, of all people, did he have to confide in Jareth? Hadn't she warned him over and over again to never, ever, under any circumstances, call on the Goblin King?
She was going to have to talk to Toby about this later. And he was going to confide in her, damn it. She didn't run the Labyrinth to rescue him, only to be replaced by the jerk who made her run it in the first place.
She snuck a glance at Jareth, who was watching her intently, then turned back toward the rink. Maybe "jerk" was a little harsh... He had been really nice to Toby. Or so it seemed.
The players resumed their positions, Toby cuing Jareth to start the clock. Again, a fairy took charge of the puck, dropping it on the final chime.
The puck changed sides several times as the minutes counted down. After a near miss by the tallest goblin, Toby signaled to his team and raced to pick up the puck, circling back to charge down the ice.
Crossing goblin-side, he passed the puck back to Sir Didymus, who passed it to Hoggle, who sent it back to Sir Didymus, who had taken up position behind Ludo at center rink. Ambrosius padded his feet as they held their post, his doggie tongue lolling happily as Ludo reached out to pat him.
Three goblins rushed them, and Toby called out. "Hey, Ludo!"
"Huh?" Ludo turned his massive bulk at the sound of his name, his hockey stick swinging around just in time to catch the defensive line. All three goblins were swept aside, tipping off the end of the stick to topple into a heap against the wall. Toby convulsed with laughter, sinking to one knee on the ice.
Sir Didymus leaned forward in his saddle, gripping his hockey stick. "Now go, Ambrosius!" At his command, the sheep dog leapt forward, fluffy feet spinning before he found his stride. Just as they reached Ludo, Sir Didymus yelled, "Down!" and in the most graceful of belly flops, Ambrosius let his feet slip out from under him and slid tummy-to-ice through Ludo's legs toward the goal box. As they came within shooting distance, Sir Didymus took aim and scored.
Toby let out a whoop as Sir Didymus hooked the box with his stick, boomeranging around to the main rink. "Up, Ambrosius, up!" Just as easily as he had let them slide out, Ambrosius pulled his legs beneath him and took off in a run, tail wagging as his rider held up his stick in victory. "Ha-ha ha-ha! Tallyho! Ha-ha ha-ha!"
Sarah laughed and cheered from the sidelines. She felt a surge of victory. They were ahead. Toby was right. There was no way they were going to lose, even if the goblins were a bunch of rotten cheats.
"How 'bout the score now, Goblin King?" she tossed over her shoulder with a flick of her hair. "Worried?"
"I win either way, precious." The words slid like silk along her skin as leather clad fingers brushed the side of her neck. Sarah jumped and spun to face him. When had he moved? How had he gotten so close without her noticing? She took a step away from him.
Why did he keep touching her?
He matched her retreat. "You see, Sarah, it was never about Toby. Yes, the goblins wanted him. They still do, apparently. And Toby is handling them marvelously. All on his own." He tilted his head with a small smile. "Wouldn't you agree?"
Sarah took another step back, wary about this new thread of conversation and the predatory gleam in his eye. "Yes...he is."
"And while he is a charming little chap, it's not Toby I want."
Sarah swallowed. "What do you mean?"
"The game, the Labyrinth, I played, just as you did. As I must. But..." His eyes dropped, slipped over her figure, and she shivered as the wind picked up behind her. "I found myself playing for something much more intriguing."
He took another step toward her—
"Something foolishly brave..."
Sarah stumbled back into a tree and held up a hand. He glanced down, a smirk curling his lips. He moved closer. She snatched her hand back, because if she hadn't it would be pressed against his chest.
Jareth's smile turned sharp as he caught her eyes. "Something deliciously defiant."
Snow swirled around them, curling in on itself to create a spinning vortex of white. It muffled the sounds of game play and blocked her view of the rink, and she was very much aware she was alone with the Goblin King. She wasn't entirely sure how she felt about that.
She flattened against the tree behind her. "The game's over. I won."
He raised a brow. "Is it now?"
She searched his eyes for a long moment. "Why?" she finally asked. "Why, after all these years?"
"You're asking me about time? Time means nothing to me, Sarah. And yet..." he caged her, his hands resting on the trees to either side of her, "...timing is everything.
"But, Sarah, this time," his voice dropped low as he bent down to eye level, "this time there is no baby brother to rescue. This game, yours and mine, it's personal. One might even say...intimate."
"Intimate," she repeated softly.
"Though, I should warn you, in the interest of being fair, you are quite right in not trusting me." He smiled. "I don't intend to play by the rules."
She blinked and then narrowed her eyes. He had been eavesdropping on her conversation with Toby. "You were listening. In the woods."
He shrugged. "When I come up in conversation..."
She suddenly wondered about all the other times he might have been listening. Times when she... Her brain scrambled to analyze every conversation she'd had over the last decade. What had she said about him? What had he heard? What did he—?
He interrupted her momentary flight of panic. "Surely you're not afraid? Not the young woman who defeated my Labyrinth?"
She tilted her head, studying him. There was that dare again. She knew she should be worried that he seemed to know her so well, but there was a small, yet persistent, part of her that was...intrigued he knew just which buttons to press.
She arched a brow. "No. I'm not afraid of you."
"Well, then." He leaned closer, a smirk flirting about his lips as his eyes searched hers. "Play with me, Sarah."
The distant chime of a clock broke through the snowy haze. She heard Toby's voice: "Sarah! Jareth! We won! We won!"
A muscle flexed in Jareth's jaw as his smile faded, but he didn't move. Sarah opened her mouth to say something, but snapped it shut. She didn't know what to say. The cheering grew louder, and she hastily ducked under his arm, snow drifting to the ground around her as the wind died. Hopping up on the wall, she slid down to the ice, making her way carefully over to her friends.
Finishing his victory lap, Toby came to a sharp stop in front of Bug, showering him in ice. "Eat ice, bogbreath."
Bug sneezed, lost his footing, and plopped to the rink bottom-first, his feathered skirt fanning out around him. He crossed his arms and puffed out his cheeks in a pout. "Smeg," he grumbled with a little huff.
Sarah hugged each of her friends in turn, laughing when Ludo picked her up and swung her in a wide circle. Toby joined them, giving high fives to each of his teammates.
Sarah ruffled his hair. "Good job, kid."
He grinned back at her. "Yeah, I rock."
A slow clap broke through their merriment. Sarah looked up to see Jareth walking toward them. He had removed his gloves.
"Well played, Toby."
"Thanks, Jareth!" Toby rubbed the back of his neck, a nervous gesture she recognized. "Um...Jareth?"
"The rink...can you leave it?"
Jareth tilted his head, giving him an appraising once-over. "It takes a great deal of magic to maintain and protect something such as this."
Toby's face fell. "Okay. I get it—"
"However," Jareth interrupted, "I will, under one condition."
Her brother's face lit up. "What condition?"
"Under the condition that you organize and train an Underground Hockey League." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Are you up to the challenge?"
Toby's eyes seemed to bug out of his head. "That's so awesome! Totally!"
Jareth smiled and ruffled his hair again. "We have an accord then."
Toby skated over to her. "Did you hear, Sarah? I'm going to coach an Underground Hockey League! How cool is that?"
Sarah looked up at Jareth, held his gaze for a moment, then smiled at Toby. "Pizza?"
"Yeah! Come on, guys! Pizza!"
Toby rounded up their friends and they began the trek back through the woods. Sarah moved to follow.
"Sarah," Jareth called after her.
She paused. Damn it. She was really hoping he'd forget. "Yes?"
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
"I believe we have a debt to settle."
She turned to face him. He stood a few feet away from her, his hair whipping in the wind. She felt alone with him there on the ice, like it was the final confrontation all over again. "What if I don't want it?" she asked. "What if I release you from your debt?"
A smile crept across his lips. "You don't want to do that."
Okay. Maybe she didn't. Maybe she was a little curious. Maybe she was...intrigued by the possibilities. But even if she could admit that to herself, it didn't mean she wasn't completely freaked out about it. Part of her wanted to drag Toby and her friends along to supervise, and another part, the single twenty-something woman part, was screaming, "Are you out of your mind? You can actually see him, right?" Either way, she needed time to think, to plan, to...clean her house. There was no way she was letting him inside until it was spotless, and she had the chance to hide...things.
Sarah sagged, tucking her chin and looking up at him from under her lashes. "Okay, Goblin King. Next Saturday. Ten a.m." She paused, then added, "You know where I live."
Which he did. And she knew that he knew that she knew that. She had seen him from time to time, perched outside her window. He had been keeping tabs on her. She had always wondered why.
"Excellent," he said, walking toward her. Just as he reached her side, he paused. "In case it wasn't clear, I intend to win and I play for keeps." He leaned in closer, his breath fanning over her ear. "And, Sarah...call me Jareth, hmm?" His shoulder brushed hers as he passed, two fingers slipping beneath the band of her mitten. She sucked in a breath as they stroked lightly up the inside of her wrist. Her own fingers curled at the feel of his skin against hers, her lashes drifting downwards.
And then they were gone. Her eyes popped open and she turned quickly, only to find an empty ice rink.
She wrapped a hand around her wrist and hugged it to her chest. Scanning the barren landscape one last time, she took a shuddering breath and let it out slowly before turning to head toward the trees.
Toby had won his game, but hers seemed to be just beginning. And this time...would it be such a bad thing to lose?
Written for The Labyrinth Fic Exchange on LiveJournal. (Linked on my homepage, which is linked on my profile. Great stories over there - check them out!) Many, many thanks to cu-kid for beta-ing this for me! If you have not read her fics, I feel sad for you. She's fantastic!
Disclaimer: Labyrinth (c) Henson & Co
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