"I'm dying." Áine Hollington muttered as she lay in the patch of long grass in the garden of her uncle's house. She wasn't lying. Ever since she had begun living with her uncle when her parents died five years ago, Áine had felt herself being slowly but surely broken, the spirit crushed out of her. Every day, a little more of her creative inspiration faded away, leaving her feeling empty and useless. Áine was a girl who needed freedom and creative outlets like she needed to breathe – or even more sometimes – but her uncle was an old-school man, stuck in a bygone age of cold, strict schoolrooms where teachers could clip a misbehaving student about the ear, and he believed that such methods were the only way to deal with young people. Thus, Áine had more than once felt the brunt of Michael Hollington's frustration at her daydreaming.
It wasn't that Michael didn't love his niece – he did, in his own way – but he felt that his brother had rather let his daughter run wild, and considered it his duty to reel her back in again. Days that had once been spent in play and make-believe were now traded for hours of studying. Michael had been a psychiatrist before he retired, meaning he knew just how to go about breaking Áine's fierce spirit. He wanted his niece to follow in his medical footsteps and become a doctor herself, but Áine had other ideas. Like the queen of fairies she had been named for, she wanted nothing more dearly than to be free, to dream and dance and believe in everything. Often, hours slipped by for her without Áine noticing as her imagination took her to a place far beyond the mortal world. To the world of Jareth, the Goblin King.
On her ninth birthday, Áine's mother, Sarah, presented her with a small, leather-bound book called Labyrinth. Sarah had told her daughter it had been hers as a child, and she wanted Áine to have it now. Áine had read the story and been instantly fascinated with the Goblin King. Jareth seemed amazing, with those magical powers, and being a king, so Áine had never really understood why the girl in the story hadn't stayed with him and become queen.
Until, that is, Áine's parents had died when she was twelve years old, and she had been placed in her uncle's care, who had seemed to the girl like a prison warden. Áine had pleaded to be allowed to stay with her much younger – and, in her opinion, cooler – uncle on her mother's side, Toby, but there had been a few problems. Toby wouldn't have minded taking his niece in, but his girlfriend had other ideas…
The point was, from the moment Áine had known just how valuable freedom was, and when she read Labyrinth again, she noted that at the end, Jareth hinted that the girl who had gone after her brother would be short on that precious commodity. She wouldn't have whatever she wanted, because she wouldn't be free – she would be under the Goblin King's rule. Áine still thought that if she were faced with the offer though, she'd go the other way and stay in the Goblin Kingdom. Jareth had been willing to do anything for the girl. Absolutely anything. Maybe, just maybe, if she asked, he would have given her absolute freedom…
But back in the present, Áine was stuck in a monotonous life. Her only escape was the odd few hours she got free when her uncle went out to go and do… whatever it was her uncle did. Usually, Áine spent this time as far away from the house as possible, but today the clouds were grey and it seemed like a storm was on the way. She really didn't want to get caught in the rain. So she was laid in the grass, trying to dredge up the will to go on.
"I can't see what the big problem is with wanting to be artistic." Áine carried on moodily. She often spoke to herself – she was the only person who understood herself. "So what if I like dreaming? At least my imagination is interesting. Unlike my life."
"Then why stay?" A male voice floated through the garden, sounding somewhere between exasperated and amused. Áine scrabbled up and looked around frantically, her oceanic blue eyes searching for the owner of the voice.
"Who's there?" She called, sounding much braver than she felt as a cold breeze started up, whipping her dark brown hair around her face. Yet no matter how much she looked, there was no man to be seen. Just as Áine was on the verge of running back into the house, a familiar shape flew into her line of sight and settled in an apple tree. Áine's face broke into a wide grin.
"Ashes!" The brunette exclaimed, walking over to the tree, in which a barn owl was perched. "Hey, I was wondering when you were going to show up."
The barn owl, named thus because of its ash-white feathers, hooted disdainfully, as if to tell Áine that it would arrive when it wanted to, and not a moment sooner. She giggled for the first time all day.
"Okay, okay, I get it, you have more important things to do than sit in this tree and listen to me moan." Áine replied. "But I'm glad you came, because I thought of something earlier." Áine walked back to where she had been laid on the grass and retrieved Labyrinth – she had been reading it to pass the time – and went back over to the tree, opening the book to an illustration of a white owl at a window. "See this, Ashes? That's Jareth, the Goblin King, in his barn owl form. You kind of look like him you know. Wouldn't that be something, huh? Áine Hollington, certified good-for-nothing dreamer talking to the King of the Goblins."
Áine sighed and flicked through the pages of the book aimlessly.
"Sometimes, Ashes, I just… I just wish it was all real. I mean, sure, Jareth was more than a little freaky—" Áine broke off as the owl gave an indignant hoot. "In a good way, I mean. Anyway, he was weird, but then again everyone was in the Goblin Kingdom. Maybe I wouldn't be so out of place there."
Ashes gave another hoot, softer this time. Áine smiled thinly. The owl's emotions always seemed so attuned to her own. However, at that moment, the heavens opened and rain came pouring down. Áine gave a small shriek, and then cursed, trying to shield her book from getting wet.
"Damn rain!" She yelled aimlessly, and then glanced at Ashes. "Did you do this so you don't have to listen to me anymore? I wouldn't blame you if you did, and I wouldn't put it past you to do this either."
With that, Áine turned and ran inside the house, trying not to get much wetter than she already was. As soon as she was safely inside, and away from the windows that looked out over the garden, the owl gave another soft hoot, and changed into a tall man, his blonde hair styled into a mullet, his clothes looking like they belonged in a fairy tale, and his eyes mismatched – one blue and one brown. As he surveyed the house, Jareth tutted softly.
"It's worse than I thought. She's even ceasing to believe in the story. Such a waste." He commented to himself. "Just like her mother, and she's trapped in a place like this, every free thought crushed…" The Goblin King shook his head, a smirk forming on his lips. "Well, I'll have to do something about this, won't I?"
Of course, technically, Jareth was forbidden by the laws that governed the lives of the magical beings that inhabited the world of the Fae to interfere with the life of a mortal unless he or she called on one of said beings for help. In this case, Áine would have to summon the goblins to take her away from her home before Jareth could step in… but a little rule-bending never hurt anyone, especially if he was just intending to give her a push in the right direction. Áine reminded the king endlessly of Sarah, not just because of the obvious physical resemblance, but also because of her outspokenness against life's unfairness, her dreams, and – up until recently – her belief in the world of magic. Like mother like daughter… but maybe there could be one key difference between the two…
Jareth cut off that train of thought before it could even form fully. He had just ascertained that his interest in the girl's affairs was simple curiosity. Perhaps a little pity, too. But nothing else, certainly not what he had felt for Sarah. The Goblin King's mismatched eyes fluttered closed as he recalled the final moments before Sarah left the Labyrinth. He had offered her everything, promised her the sky if she desired it, done everything in his power to convince her to stay, even bordering on begging… but Sarah had been right. He had no power over her. Every decision she had made had been under her own power.
Unbeknownst to Sarah – or, indeed, anyone else – Jareth had followed her life closely after she left him. Though it had caused the King unspeakable pain to see Sarah living her life, falling in love, he had persevered, determined that should Sarah ever have need of him, he would be with her in a moment. However, she never did. Until her death, Sarah had lived a happy life, occasionally visited by the friends she had made in his kingdom – Jareth had been tempted to punish them for visiting Sarah when he himself was unable to, but had refrained with the thought that his maturity on this point would help Sarah in the long run. Jareth had tried to save Sarah in the brief period she was in hospital after the fatal car crash, but not even his powers were great enough to bring back a person so close to death as she was. Disgusted with himself, the Goblin King had been about to retreat back to the safety of his kingdom, when, impossibly, amazingly, Sarah regained consciousness for one precious minute.
"Jareth?" Sarah's voice had held not even the faintest note of surprise. It was as if she had always expected this. Jareth had crouched beside the bed of the woman he still loved after all these years, speechless. It was a good thing he didn't interrupt; it was obvious Sarah was only strong enough to say what she had to say once. "You probably… hate me… but…" Sarah's eyes slid shut for a moment, and Jareth leant forwards, his eyes full of pain, convinced that Sarah was already dead, but a moment later those beautiful green eyes opened again. Jareth shook his head before she could go on, answering the comment.
"Never." The word was barely audible.
"Then… do me a favour…" Sarah broke off to give a small chuckle, though Jareth had no idea what at. A moment later the brunette was serious again. "I'm dying. Nick's probably dead. Will… will you… keep an eye… on Áine?"
"What do you think I've been doing the past twelve years?" Jareth muttered. "I don't know, all this and not a single 'it's not fair'. I'm disappointed." This elicited another chuckle from the dying woman, this one much weaker. Jareth's eyes fluttered closed briefly, as if he was in pain, which he was. It was obvious Sarah had perhaps minutes left, if not less.
"Wish… wish…" Sarah murmured. "Wish I'd stayed."
"In the Labyrinth?" Jareth couldn't quite believe what he was hearing. Sarah nodded weakly.
"I was stupid… forgive me?"
Jareth didn't answer. Instead, he leant over Sarah, and melded their lips together in their first and last kiss.
He had felt the exact moment Sarah's life had ended. In the world of the Fae, to take someone's last breath was the ultimate act of love, and that was what Jareth had done by kissing Sarah. She gave him her last breath in that moment of bliss, and even had Jareth not already promised to do so, he would have been bound by rites older than time itself to watch over Sarah's daughter. When he broke the kiss, a single tear fell down Jareth's cheek, and he cradled Sarah's body awkwardly in his arms, pressing a chaste kiss to her forehead.