The wind wrecked her umbrella as soon as she stepped through the sliding doors, sending a spray of cold water onto her face. Sarah groaned—it was the second one she’d destroyed in the space of a week.
Next to her, Mari opened up a much larger and more expensive-looking umbrella, gesturing for Sarah to join her underneath it. “You really need to get a decent umbrella,” she said. “We’ve got at least another month of this shit.”
“Don’t remind me,” Sarah muttered, barely able to hear her own voice over the downpour. She held on to Mari’s elbow as they walked toward the Poplar convenience store on the other side of the intersection, knowing from experience that the Lawson on the first floor of the office building would have a line out the door.
“I really need to start bringing my own lunch,” Sarah said, wincing as she felt rain water seeping through her less-than-waterproof shoes.
“Umbrella, decent rain boots, and then maybe you can start cooking,” Mari laughed. “Bring some for me, too.”
“I thought your husband made you lunch every day.”
“Yeah, I think that was a newlywed thing, he’s not doing it much anymore.”
They stepped inside Poplar, where as usual the blast of the air conditioner made Sarah worry that she might get pneumonia if she stayed inside too long. She brushed the water droplets off her jacket and glanced over the familiar offerings: ready-made pasta dishes, yogurt with fruit, soy sauce-boiled eggs.
Mari had already grabbed a cabbage salad and a yogurt. “Going for your usual?”
“I don’t always get the fried chicken.”
“No, just like three or four times a week.” Mari was running her fingers over colorful boxes of animal-shaped cookies. “I need something sweet…vanilla cookies shaped like koalas, chocolates shaped like palm trees, or—holy shit.”
Sarah’s hand paused as she reached for a seaweed salad that she knew she wouldn’t have ended up choosing. “What?”
Mari held up a bright pink plastic package. “Okay, I know I’ve said this like ten times since I got here last year, but this is officially the craziest thing I have seen in a convenience store—it’s a freaking peach sandwich.”
Sarah grabbed the package out of Mari’s outstretched hand to see that yes, it appeared to contain a white bread sandwich. Though she couldn’t read the packaging very well, there were indeed images of peaches on the outside.
“It must be, like, jam, right?” she said. “They wouldn’t just slice a bunch of peaches and put them in a sandwich.”
“Oh ye of little faith.” Mari started to rip open the package.
“Hey, we should probably pay first—“
“Yeah, yeah, we gotta try this thing, don’t worry, I’ll take the blame if the teenage boy behind the counter gets pissy.” Mari tore off a chunk of soft bread and held it out to Sarah. “You first.”
Sarah paused. She’d never liked peaches. Rather, she’d suddenly stopped liking peaches when she was fifteen, and she couldn’t quite remember why. They were a lot of things that had happened around the age of fifteen that tickled the edges of her memory now…strange dreams, things in her mirror that shouldn’t have been there.
Now, though, she felt a sort of tingling in her lips and the tips of her fingers as she looked at the bizarre bit of foodstuff in Mari’s hand. Half of her wanted to run in the opposite direction. The other half of her—the half that was definitely winning—was craving a taste.
Before she could stop herself—and the alarm bells that had suddenly started ringing very loudly in her head—she grabbed the chunk of sweet-smelling bread from Mari’s hand and popped it into her mouth.
“How is it?” Mari asked.
Sarah shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Tastes…” She blinked as Mari’s face blurred slightly. “…strange.”
The sounds of activity in the convenience store grew fainter, and Mari’s face grew blurrier, and then Sarah felt herself falling, falling for much longer than it should have taken her to hit the ground…
…and then she was sitting on a stone bench surrounded by high stone walls and an ornate fountain, one wall covered in an elaborate network of vines and flowers that was currently being trimmed by—
Her old friend jumped at least a foot off the ground, his ever-present collection of baubles rattling. When he turned around his mouth fell open.
“SARAH?!! What in the name o’ hairbrained—“
His eyes slowly narrowed and he crossed his arms. Sarah had the uncanny sensation of being stared down by a parent or teacher.
“Sarah, did you eat a peach?!!”
Sarah tried to simultaneously make sense of the fact that she was 1) no longer in a heavily air-conditioned convenience store but outside, in a place with a strangely yellow sky, that smelled utterly alien and yet very familiar, and 2) dealing with a cascade of memories that had moved from the edge of her consciousness to its dead center.
Also the fact that she was probably losing her mind.
Hoggle sighed and set his pruning shears on another nearby bench. “You don’ remember it, do ya? That happens after a while, I heard.”
“No…” Sarah shook her head. “It’s all coming back, it was just gone for a long time, I—my God, how the hell did I get here? I didn’t wish for anything!”
“No, you didn’t but—look, we’d best get you out of here before he—“
“Before I what?”
Sarah froze. Hoggle winced.
She knew the general outline of what she’d see before she turned her head, though a few of the details still surprised her. He hadn’t aged, but he seemed smaller than she remembered, though still imposing, just on a more human level. He wore black and grey, a mix of leather and what looked like silk or linen, overlapping textures and edges that clung to him like a second skin. When she saw him, the rest of her memories tumbled into place.
Hoggle was avoiding both of their gazes and seemed fascinated by his pruning shears. Sarah wanted to ask him what he’d meant about her eating a peach, but she was interrupted.
“Patience does pay off, it seems,” Jareth murmured, gazing at her with a mixture of smugness and barely-contained glee.
Sarah clenched her fists at her sides. “Why the hell am I here?”
“Sarah, Sarah. You read plenty of fairy stories—didn’t they warn you about eating the fairy food?”
She glanced at Hoggle. “What’s he talking about?”
Hoggle threw up his hands. “It were a thing he did, sometimes, maybe just cause he were bored, I dunno, makin’ links between this world and yours—“
“But you, precious, have always had a remarkable gift for self-preservation.” The King laced and unlaced his gloved fingers, clearly enjoying her confusion.
Sarah shook her head. “This doesn’t make any—“
“Dammit, Sarah, it was peaches.” Hoggle stamped his foot. “You ate one here, and he magicked it so that if you ever ate one in your world, you’d be pulled back here. But you’re a smart one, so somethin’ in your gut told you never to eat peaches, at least till now, goblins know why…”
Sarah felt dizzy. She recalled years of meals and snacks and parties, sure that at least once she must have been offered—and accepted—something that contained peaches. But no—something had kept her from eating them, every time.
“So why now? Why did I suddenly eat one now?”
Hoggle shrugged. “Maybe you lost your senses for a bit, heard it happens to human girls—“
“Or maybe…” The King crossed the short distance between them very slowly, and Sarah forced herself not to back away. He didn’t tower over her the way he used to, though he still radiated a kind of power that she knew she probably shouldn’t mess with. “Maybe you wanted to come back.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. His skin was so smooth, and she found herself wanting to touch it…something that she certainly hadn’t wanted all those years ago…or had she?
“Really?” she said, crossing her arms. “And why would I want to come back here?”
Jareth’s eyes gleamed. “Maybe you missed your friends,” he whispered. “And me.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t my friend?”
He smirked and reached out to trail a finger down her cheek. “You know I wasn’t.”
Hoggle cleared his throat. “Sarah, I’m thinkin’ this isn’t—“
“Calm yourself, Higgle. It’ll wear off in a minute or two.”
Sarah blinked. “It will?”
Jareth sighed. “Yes, there’s some accuracy to that “you have no power over me” that you’re so fond of uttering. Can you blame me for wanting to indulge in the tiny bit of power that I DO have?”
“You’re saying that you waited nine years for me to take a bite of a peach so that you could—what, see me for like five minutes?”
He frowned. Hoggle gave a very theatrical eyeroll and returned to the wall of flowers, muttering something about things never changing.
“When you put it that way it sounds like a monumental waste of time,” Jareth finally said.
“Actually…” Sarah sighed, replaying her last few dates in her mind—the older guy with the very nice apartment who’d bought her a pair of knee-high boots and then vanished completely, the guy from Wisconsin who wouldn’t shut up about how dating Japanese women was so much better than dating foreign women, the accountant who’d showed up for coffee looking like he hadn’t bathed in a week.
She shrugged. “At least you made an effort.”
Jareth’s face betrayed genuine surprise. His eyes softened.
Hoggle threw up his hands again. “Seriously? You do remember the baby-stealin’ and the Cleaners and the bog and the—“
Sarah leaned down to give Hoggle a hug. He flinched, but then he hugged her back, still muttering.
“You watch out for yourself, missy,” he said, pointing a thick finger in her direction as he picked up his gardening tools and headed into the maze.
“I will,” she called after him.
Jareth sighed. “I really should have made good on my promise to throw him head-first into the bog.”
“He’s my friend, and you’re a prick.”
He smiled. “Is this how we spend our brief moment together, then? Insulting each other?”
She smiled back and realized she was genuinely enjoying herself. “Works for me.”
His smile widened—clearly she wasn’t the only one enjoying this. Tentatively, she reached out and touched his face. His skin was warm and it seemed to tingle.
She could still taste peaches in her mouth when she kissed him.
He froze only for a second, and then he seemed to melt into her, his lips opening and tasting her as she tasted him. Heat and electricity spread from her mouth to the tips of her fingers and toes, and she reached out to pull him tighter against her, and for a moment the only thing in her world was the taste of his tongue, the smell of his hair and skin, the faint sounds of his clothing shifting against her, the feel of his hands gripping her waist, and the faint sound of water from the fountain a few feet away.
When she finally pulled away she heard him moan softly. His eyes were glimmering, his breath quick.
She smirked at him. “Was that better?”
He closed his eyes and ran his tongue over his lips. “Delicious.”
Sarah opened her eyes and watched as the blurred image of Mari’s face slowly came into focus in front of her. She felt the artificial chill of the air conditioning on her cheeks. A wisp of a memory tugged at the edge of her consciousness, but it was gone as quickly as it had arrived.
“Jesus, is there LSD in that sandwich? You went loopy for a second,” Mari laughed.
Sarah smiled. “Don’t know.” She pressed her lips together. “Weird, my mouth is tingling.”
“Right, that’s all the endorsement I need.” Mari tore off a hunk of the open sandwich that she still held and popped it in her mouth. “You want another one?”
“Sure.” Sarah took the pink package that Mari offered and noticed that there seemed to be a whole selection of peach-flavored snacks on the shelf, with a sign that she couldn’t read that probably said something about seasonal specialties. She grabbed a peach-flavored granola bar from the bottom shelf.
“Wow, you’re really going all in on the eat-the-seasonal-fruit thing, huh?” Mari said, placing the half-open sandwich package on the counter in front of the slightly confused-looking cashier.
“Yeah,” Sarah said quietly. Mingled with the peach flavor in her mouth was another taste that she couldn’t quite place. “When in Rome.”