Sarah groaned at the sight of the bottle Mari held out in front of her, for once able to read the label that clearly said “Peach Sangria.” Not that the large image of a peach wouldn’t have tipped her off.
“Feeling adventurous?” her friend said.
Sarah forced herself to smile. “Maybe.”
In reality, she had developed a bit of peach paranoia.
Sure, peaches were in season (she was quickly learning that everything had a season here and that everything was done according to season), but still, she seemed to be surrounded by peaches much more than the average person.
It was like they were following her.
Since that random day when she and Mari had bought the peach sandwich at Poplar there had been too many peach-related incidents to be coincidence. Two separate coworkers had come back from vacation with peach-flavored sweet souvenirs—one a cookie, the other a sort of gelatin in a plastic cup. She’d remembered that she was never supposed to say no when someone offered her a souvenir from abroad, so she’d smiled and said thank you…and then tossed both of them in her desk drawer.
There were, of course, the sandwich and the granola bar that she’d bought at the convenience store that she’d taken home but then suddenly been reluctant to eat. She’d thrown them in the trash and then found them on her kitchen table the next morning. Spooked, she’d carried them to a nearby convenience store garbage can, ignoring the glare of a staff member who saw her throwing them in.
There were massive posters for new peach-flavored frozen drinks at three different coffee shops. Peach ice cream in the grocery store. Little “peach babydoll” keychains in a shopping mall that she went to with Mari.
She’d gone on yet another mediocre date with a yoga instructor from New Zealand that had ended with both of them back at her very small apartment, where her hopes for better-than-average sex (he was a yoga instructor, after all) had mostly been dashed. Before heading out to catch the last train he’d offered her a stick of peach-flavored gum.
He never texted her again, and she didn’t mind.
Finally, when she was ordering lunch at Soup Stock and the cashier asked in overly polite language if she’d like to try their new peach smoothie, Sarah shocked herself by blurting out “Momo wa iya da!”, though she never remembered learning how to say “I hate peaches” in Japanese. The poor girl behind the counter looked so startled that she found herself apologizing profusely.
Jesus, Sarah, it’s just fruit. Get a grip.
She’d never liked peaches…or at least she thought she hadn’t, until she’d tried that peach sandwich, which she thought she’d liked…and Mari said something funny had happened to her when she ate it, though she had no memory of that, just little wisps of memory that eating it had been good, but also bad, somehow, to the point that she now found herself equally driven to avoid peaches and consume them at all costs.
Which was why she wasn’t at all shocked to be offered peach sangria when she went over to Mari’s for dinner.
Mari and her husband Will had what she’d come to think of as a “grown-up” Tokyo apartment, meaning that it wasn’t a studio, was large enough to fit more than one person comfortably, and had furniture like a sofa and dining room table. Unlike her own apartment, which was and had…none of those things. She liked to joke that it was convenient, because on Sunday morning she could reach the refrigerator from her bedding on the floor.
Will was making something that smelled meaty and delicious while Mari whipped up a salad and Sarah eyed the bottle in her hands. “I’d really rather not—“
“Oh, come on, maybe this time you’ll see pink elephants.”
“Pink elephants?” Will glanced up from whatever he was stirring on the stove. “What are you talking about?”
“Apparently peaches have an…interesting effect on Sarah,” Mari said, uncorking the bottle and pouring some sangria into a wine glass. “Or at least peach sandwiches do.”
She held out the glass, but when Sarah continued to look uncomfortable, she put it on the counter. “Hey, no pressure. We’ve got soda, beer…”
As Mari glanced into the fridge and called out more drink names, Sarah again felt that strange buzzing sensation that she’d felt before…the sense that she really should NOT drink the peach wine, and the equally powerful sense that she wanted to drink the peach wine, caution be damned…
And before she could stop herself she had grabbed not the glass but the bottle of sangria and was taking a hearty swig while Will and Mari gaped at her.
She quickly put the bottle on the counter, not wanting to drop it if she suddenly fainted or felt dizzy. Mari laughed.
“Uh…is this like heroin? You need a more powerful hit each time?”
Sarah shrugged. “Maybe.”
Will shook his head and started pouring meat, sauce, and rice into bowls. “Whatever’s supposed to happen, I hope it doesn’t hurt your appetite.”
Nothing was happening, though. Sarah’s nerves were tensed like a cat ready to spring, her senses darting about for the first sign of dizziness or not-quite-there-ness.
After a minute or so of waiting, she felt like an idiot.
“Okay, sorry, that was dumb,” she said, picking up the glass of sangria from the counter and carrying it to her place at the table. “Tastes good, though, so might as well—“
And then she felt as if someone had grabbed her bellybutton and pulled it through her back, as her entire body seemed to curl in on itself and hurtle at great speed sideways this time, not down…
…and then she slammed into a brick wall and gave a yelp of pain.
She looked around to see that she was in a stone-walled corridor lit with sconces at regular intervals that made strange shadows flicker all around her. The man leaning against a wall in front of her, clad in leather trousers and a billowing, cream-colored shirt, looked only slightly surprised to see her.
“Sorry,” he said as she rubbed her bruised shoulder. “Haven’t got this down to a science yet.”
The memories came back much more quickly this time—everything that had happened during her first trip through the labyrinth, and everything that had happened much more recently, including that tingling sensation in her lips that now seemed to be affecting the rest of her.
He tasted so good.
“How long do we have?” she asked.
He blinked. “Lovely to see you again as well, Sarah, it’s been—“
“How long do we have?”
Jareth made a show of counting on his fingers. “As I said, it isn’t down to a science, but I do believe I’ve managed to tweak the formula so that you’ll be here for slightly longer than you were last—“
She pinned him against the wall and kissed him roughly, relishing the taste of his mouth, the taste that she realized had lingered long after the flavor of peaches had gone. He didn’t freeze this time, only gripped her waist with one hand and a handful of her hair with the other, running his fingers through it and then gripping her neck to keep her mouth locked with his.
Her hands were quickly unfastening the ties in the front of his shirt. “Peach cakes, peach drinks, peach fucking sangria.” She tossed his shirt on the floor and kissed his chest, which was just as smooth as she’d imagined it would be. “You couldn’t have just called?”
He was unbuttoning the buttons on her top with equal speed. “Precious, in all your time in the labyrinth,” he kissed her again and yanked her shirt over her head, “do you ever recall seeing a telephone?”
“Whatever.” She bit his ear. “I think you just like to turn everything into a production.”
He bit her neck, and she felt him smile when she gasped. “If I’d known you were so eager—“
“Right, less talking, time’s limited,” she said, enjoying that rare feeling that for once, maybe, the sex was going to be very much worth the trouble.
She trailed a hand down his chest toward his trousers and he chuckled. “You’re a wanton one, aren’t you,” he said between feverish kisses over her neck.
She pulled back slightly. “Yeah. If you want some wide-eyed virgin I’m sure you know where you can—“
He stopped her with another kiss, his tongue pushing forcefully into her mouth. He gripped the hand that hovered over his belt and pushed it lower.
“Virgins are wildly overrated,” he growled, swiftly unfastening and removing her bra. “Besides, I can think of other ways to make you wide-eyed.”
She smiled, gripping him through his trousers. “I think you’re all talk,” she whispered, even as his hands on her breasts were making it very difficult not to moan.
His other hand moved lower. “If it’s a fight you want, precious,” he said, trailing his lips, teeth, and tongue across her chest until she finally gasped, “you know I’ll play to win.”
He whirled her around and pressed her up against the stone wall, pulling her legs up to wrap around his waist. She reveled in his casual strength, the easy way that he held her up and the feeling, strangely titillating, that he could break her if he wanted to…
…and then she began to feel insubstantial, feel her mind and her senses stretching back toward another space and time. She groaned.
“Dammit, we need more time.”
Lighting-fast, he produced a crystal that immediately morphed into an elegant-looking fountain pen. He grabbed her hand and a laser-thin line of ink seemed to shoot from the pen onto her palm, rapidly tracing a series of looping lines of script that burned and tickled at the same time.
“What in the world are you—“
He kissed her one more time as she felt herself and everything around her begin to fade, his lips right next to her ear as he whispered,
“Come back to me.”
“Sarah? Sarah, are you back?”
Sarah blinked several times and the room slowly came into focus around her. Her body felt flushed with heat, as if she’d been exercising. Or…
“Yeah, I’m…huh. Did it happen again?”
“Yeah.” Mari and Will were standing on either side of her, looking mildly concerned. “You were out of it for longer this time, like ten or fifteen seconds.”
“You might want to get checked out by a doctor,” Will said, motioning for her to sit down. “Might be an allergy, who knows.”
“Yeah.” Sarah sat down in front of a plate of delicious-looking food. “For the time being I guess I’ll just avoid peaches.”
But this time, despite still not having a clear memory of what had happened, she had the distinct feeling that she should eat peaches. Lots of them. And very soon.
She caught the last train home to her apartment, stumbling in the door drunk on non-peach wine and cocktails. She pulled her bedding out of her closet and tossed it on the floor, falling asleep almost instantly on top of the lumpy pile without bothering to change into her pajamas.
She woke up several hours later with a dry throat and a mild headache. She rolled over just far enough to open the fridge door and pull out a plastic bottle of some sort of hydrating hangover-curing drink that Mari swore by, downing half of it in a few gulps.
It wasn’t until she was undressing to get in the shower that she looked down at her hand and screamed.