Fat drops land in the flannel, shading the material dark in lopsided splotches. Arabella lets them fall, refuses to smear the silvery tracks across her cheeks, as she commits the sight of her daughter to memory.
Her daughter, swaddled in soft nightclothes, nestled in a blanket-lined drawer for a crib.
"I love you," she whispers, throat swollen almost closed with grief. "I can't give you…I don't know if this will work. I hope—" Her fingers close on a thin leather-bound book, the binding creaking against the force of her grip. "I'm only a squib. I don't know if it's magic. I don't know if it will work."
Even so, she pushes herself to her feet, book still in hand, and turns to the window. The wind howls outside, precursor to a storm, and she throws open the curtains, then the window.
Her room – tiny, almost barren save her bed and the drawer-crib and the dresser it had been pulled from – is instantly cold, goosebumps forming on her arms.
The pages slither between her fingers, scraping against one another as she turns them, her feet backing her against her bed; the bindings pop and complain as if new, but she knows it's not. It's seen many hands, hands that weren't hers, if only because it was found at a second-hand book sale, and a remnant at that.
It healed itself of the few tears she'd shed upon it, the fewer tears she'd given its pages.
Her eyes steal back to her child, fussing now in the cold despite the swaddling. "I wish the Goblin King would come and take you away." A heaving sob takes her before she can finish with a choked, "right now."
Thunder rolls in the distance; a giggle floats through the air and she forces herself not to react, her muscles not to flinch.
She'd expected a response. Hoped for it.
Lightning turns the room to a blue-white haze.
The dresser drawer-crib is empty when her vision clears, and she bows her head in silent thanks before turning to acknowledge the owl-shaped shadow that had stretched across the floor.
Her spine stiffens and she raises her chin at the admonition in her name. "Your majesty."
"You certainly didn't wait long, did you?"
"And you shall have long enough to win her—"
She doesn't let him finish. "I will not."
Jareth's eyes narrow. "You wish your child away to me, and you will not win her back? Is your confidence in your own abilities that poor?"
"I will not run your Labyrinth, your majesty. My daughter is freely given to you. A gift, with my blessing."
Two steps brings Jareth halfway across the floor; close enough to loom, but not to crowd. Not quite. "You abandon your responsibility so swiftly."
"Responsibility, your majesty? Just what responsibility do I have as a mother, hmm?" The question fades to a rasp of a whisper. "To love my child, and I do. To offer her the best life I possibly can - which I have." Heat wells again at the corner of her eyes, spills over to paint her lips with the salt of grief.
"By giving her to me?" The words are just as harsh as her own had been, almost predatory. "You do know what I do with infants wished away."
"You turn them into goblins, your majesty," and she can't suppress the sob, the lurch of her heart. One hand presses itself into the cotton of her nightgown over her breastbone.
"And you don't care."
Even in the washed out gloom, she can see the glitter of rage in his eyes, the sudden paleness in his skin a high contrast to the flush of his cheeks. "I care. I care a lot." She lifts her chin in defiance and glares at him with all the courage she can muster - for her daughter. "I'm counting on it," she hisses.
Jareth goes stiff with shock, the angled slashes of eyebrows going almost vertical.
"My daughter," she starts in a low tone, throat tight, "will never know the beauty of a rainbow. Never splash in mud puddles. She will never learn her ABCs, or bring me a frog from the lake in the park. She'll never fall in love, or have children of her own." She pauses for breath; Jareth remains silent. "I am a squib, your majesty. I have no magic of my own. What ties I have to the wizarding world are broken or frayed, but I still know of it. I still have access to it. I can still go to St. Mungo's for treatment. I had my daughter there."
There is a flash of -- something in Jareth's eyes, a minute flinch, as if he suspects what's coming.
"They thought I was asleep, that I couldn't hear. There were...complications. For her. They stabilized her first, there wasn't a choice to do anything else, but once they found. Once they discovered why she wasn't responding, she was nothing but a burden to them. They said they would have let her die if they'd known first, that--that--" Her throat closes on the words. "She's my daughter," she manages. "I can't love her enough to keep her healthy, or safe. I can't love her enough to put food in her mouth, or a roof over our heads, or keep some well-meaning doctor from putting her to sleep like an animal to save me the trouble. All I can do is love her enough to let her go to someone who can."
The anger in his eyes has faded under the weight of understanding. What's left seems to be no longer aimed at her, at least.
"Do you want me to beg, your majesty?"
"I am not kind, Arabella," Jareth starts, rage quelled, a storm swiftly past.
She doesn't let him continue, though she sees the tensing of his mouth in displeasure at it. "The book was quite clear, your majesty. You protect those in your domain, even you have rules you must follow, and woe be unto thee who dares harm a child in your care," and the last is most important, the part that dared her try.
"I am not kind," he says again, suddenly too close; one gloved hand cradles her jaw, his thumb tilting her chin. "But I am not without compassion. Too few who wish away their child do so for the child's benefit."
"Then you--" The implication in his admission makes her shake, relief even of a maybe turning her muscles watery.
"She will be neither human nor able to return to you, Arabella," he says gently.
"As long as she has a chance to be happy."
"So long as I am King, she will live a life of music and mayhem, laughter and joy. You have my word."
There is a strong hand at her elbow, a welcome support as she struggles to remain upright; she nods a silent thanks as she gets her knees back under control.
Jareth takes a step back, and a clear crystal sphere appears in his hand, dancing between his fingers. "As for your gift--"
"I do not wish anything of you. You cannot give me my dreams."
"Of course not, your dreams involve your daughter," and there is an undeniable sympathy in his expression. Not pity. Never pity. "But there are rules I must follow, and I cannot accept a gift of a child without giving you equal value in return."
"Then let me be the only one who remembers," she asks, shutting her eyes so that new tears stripe her cheeks. "Let me remember her--"
"Your memories you may keep, but the others' would have been mine without your asking." The crystal floats along the edge of his hand as he taps his chin with the other. "Hmm. Your wish was for her, not for yourself. And I am in my right to make things - well, not easy, perhaps, but easier. Try this:
"For three nights - and the remainder of this - you will sleep without dreams, without disturbance -- do not protest, Arabella, allow me this much -- and on the fourth day," the crystal comes to a halt and goes opaque, shifting slightly in shape to a peach, too green to be edible. "On the fourth day, this will be ripe, and you may eat it before bed, or not. Should you choose to eat of it, you may dream of your child for that night, and see what becomes of her."
Arabella cannot stop the sob that escapes; even a glimpse of her daughter would be a blessing.
"After that?" He shrugs, a graceful, inhuman gesture. "Should there be anything else you would ask?"
"Take care of her. Tell her her mother loves her." Her heart beats wild in her chest, a caged bird. "Let me keep the book."
"I am afraid you cannot keep--"
"Not forever, your majesty, but it found its way to me. Somehow. I needed it, and it found me. Let me help it find someone else. I'm sure you have some way of retrieving it if I die without passing it on."
The smile Jareth gives her is mostly mockery. "Such courage you have, to argue with the King of Goblins. And over such a little thing."
"Please, your majesty. All I have of her is memories. Memories and a book that found me when she wasn't safe."
"And you will pass it on, when it is needed, hmm? If I let you keep it, and some other infant is wished away out of jealousy or anger or frustration - any reason other than for the child's welfare--"
Arabella flinches, jerks back as he's suddenly far too close for comfort.
"You will be the one to run my Labyrinth. You will not get to say no."
"Done, your majesty."
The room turns blue-white from the open window; a deep roll of thunder follows swiftly after.
She's alone in the room when it fades, book still clenched in one hand. The peach rests on the dresser.
The remainder of the night - now morning - passes as Jareth had promised, as do the following three: in sleep deep and dreamless. On the fourth, she eats the peach.
The book remains on the dresser, moves to a place of pride in her bookshelves as she moves through life. She reads it twice a year, once on her only child's birthday, once on the night she wished her to safety.