It was in the garden that he first realized it. Amid bowers of hydrangeas that would never wilt, Jareth stood very still and felt the hydrangeas endure. He felt it quite distinctly, like a breeze that blows forever with the same strength in the same direction. He felt himself, and how still he was standing. And Jareth understood that he was going to die.
He tilted his head back and laughed for a long time.
You have to yield a certain amount of ground in order to offer yourself wholly to another person, no matter what you ask for in trade. You have to, by necessity, surrender part of who you were in order to change for someone else. When you tailor your soul to fit a need, you're not guaranteed back the parts you trimmed off. You're not guaranteed that the need will last.
How could he not change, in the face of all that shining human will? When his heroine required a villain, how could he not fill the role? It felt as though he had been waiting his entire life to fill it. He had played it to the hilt, an adversary pulled right from her fairy stories. He had played it with fervor and delight, had been ruthless and cunning, determined with all his strength to win. And then, like any fine villain, he had fallen.
What happens to a storybook character when the story is finished?
He only went back to the gardens once or twice after that. His appearances in the throne room, too, became more and more sporadic, and then stopped altogether. Instead he stayed inside the castle, never leaving, seldom being seen by his subjects. He roamed among the rooms, seeking out the oldest and sturdiest things and the things that most reeked of magic, and laying his hand on them.
Often he simply stood in the middle of some echoing corridor, with his eyes closed as though he were listening to a beautiful bit of distant music. His hands would be open by his sides, and he would wear one of the small, ironic smiles that suited his mouth so well. It was intoxicating, the feeling of the life passing from him, the essentiality seeping away unnoticed by the eternal, indifferent castle stones.
The goblins did not notice either. They, too, were eternal in their way—flimsy creatures, nameless and numberless and cackling, filling up the corners like dust balls, hard to say from where. And though none of their misshapen little faces were ever alike, they were none of them much different, so that they were always the same goblins through the days and nights and years and centuries and millennia. Jareth, now, was a wisp, a thing that would fade and not be renewed.
He dropped away and they filled in the hole he had left.
Eventually the infinity of the place got to be too much for him. It reached the point where it was hard to catch his breath sometimes, with all that forever bearing down. He had enough magic in him for one more flight. He took it. He folded himself up into an origami of white feathers and, with no bags to pack and no one to inform of his departure, simply soared out of the window, like a sick animal going into the wilderness to find its deathbed.
His wings gave up on an Aboveground city street, in front of an old but respectable apartment building. The landscape was made of metal and cement—nothing green, nothing that could renew itself. And all around him were human lives, short and intense and beautiful as fireworks.
Jareth closed his eyes and breathed deeply. If dying alone had been thrilling, dying to an accompaniment of death was doubly so. He was rushing through the hourglass with a million million other grains of sand. It was delicious. This was what he wanted; this was a fitting end for the storybook. Languishing on a shelf would never suffice. Gathering layers of dust and despair, replaying old scenes and second-guessing choices, knocking over furniture and menacing the shadows in the corners—that would never do.
No, this was exactly right. He sat down in the middle of the sidewalk and closed his eyes. Then he flickered into a spot in the corner of the eye, a trick of the light over a hot sidewalk, and, with the daily life of the street hurrying unnoticing around him, the Goblin King settled in to listen to himself decay.
Leaves fell, and then snow. It fell evenly under his crossed legs, and was neither crushed nor melted by the vapor of his almost-presence. He, however, melted steadily. Externally, Jareth remained looking the same as he had when he sat down (or he would have if anyone could have seen him). Inside him, bits and connections broke down and confused themselves. Once he suddenly remembered, with absolute clarity, the pattern of cracks in the ceiling above his castle bed. Then he just as suddenly forgot, and could not recall it again, no matter how he tried. Another time, he began, without any reason or warning, to weep. On a third occasion, he very plainly caught the scent of hydrangeas.
He stopped noticing when or whether the snow fell or melted. He was not afraid.
What happens to a character in a storybook that is pulled, half-charred, from the fire?
Of course it was her. When he heard that voice behind him, it lifted his heart with involuntary gladness just before all his peace shattered.
Did she know, could she realize that she spoke with the same voice as she'd used to strike him down?
He said nothing. He did not open his eyes.
"What are you doing here, Jareth?"
It was a calm, recitative voice, that of someone who was willing to begin something because she knew how it would end. He understood what that was like, so he did not grudge her the tone, despite how it cut.
"I am dying," he answered in the voice of wry sincerity she expected from him, even though he had forgotten that she'd asked a question. "And it is very rude of you to interrupt, Sarah." He did not intend to say her name; it said itself.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she snapped. The calmness had, in the space of a moment, thinned considerably. Jareth could feel her willing him to turn around. He resisted.
"It is supposed to mean exactly what it doesmean, which is exactly what it says," he replied acidly, like one who understood many things and was not obligated to give any explanation. It had been a long time since the last melting of the snow, and the sun outside his eyelids was bright, but he shivered with cold. "Run along, Sarah." Her name again.
"I'm not a child anymore, Jareth. Don't treat me like one."
Why did they keep saying one another's names? But the words almost made him laugh. No, not a child. Hadn't he seen to that? Hadn't that been the point of the whole exercise?
"I didn't say you were," he said airily. He wanted to say Please go away, but she did not expect 'please' from his lips, would not understand it.
"What do you want?"
Jareth opened his eyes. It was ridiculous, this dance of questions and answers. It was a script. He could not manage scripts and roles anymore; the bottom had fallen out of the place where he had once kept them. He rose to his feet and turned finally to face her.
"What do I want?" he burst. "What am I doing here? I could ask it of you just as easily! Once again you seek me out and then act as though it is I who have imposed myself upon you. What makes you so certain you are part of my business here or anywhere else?"
Her eyes flashed. "Don't play stupid," she spat. Her face was so distorted with fury that it took him a few moments to notice that it was different—it was longer, less cherub-cheeked, and he did not tower over her as much as he used to do. No, he thought, she was not a child. Sarah flung a pointing finger at the building behind her. "That's my apartment building! You show up one day sitting on the sidewalk in front of where I live and tell me you're dying and try to pretend you had no idea?"
The corners of his lips curled slowly upward. He turned his eyes up to the great, gray face of the building.
Of course, he thought. He said it out loud. "Of course." He laughed then, a hollow, clanging peal, as bitter as wormwood.