Sarah wasn't sixteen anymore.
Well, to be fair—there was a word she still cringed at—she wasn't a lot of things anymore. She wasn't a student, she wasn't naive, and if she'd once been a dreamer, well, you'd have never known it if you looked at her now.
She was an office worker, still, at age twenty-eight, despite a business degree. Business, mind you, but she had minored in drama. Her last bit of childish rebellion before adult life set in. Not that it mattered; she'd never been good enough to make a career out of it.
And she had been an office worker since she graduated six years ago. There wasn't much growth for a woman, not with the business world being what it was, not unless you lived and breathed the job, and were ruthless enough to eliminate your competition.
Sarah found herself lacking.
Which was why, yet again, she was in her boss's office, being lectured.
"Close the door, Sarah." Tom's words were heavy with disappointment as soon as Sarah stepped into his office. "You know why you're here, don't you."
Sarah nodded. "Yes, sir."
To think I'd once been offered to become queen. She wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or cry. I can't even manage a filing cabinet, so how would I have ruled a whole country?
She reminded herself, as she'd done before, that thinking of him would get her nowhere.
"I'm sure this has been difficult for you." Tom's words were sympathetic, but his tone was anything but. "You lost your mother earlier this year, if I recall correctly."
Since Tom didn't like being interrupted, Sarah nodded again.
"And you took a little time off for the funeral," Tom added, and then held up a hand. "Not that, I'm compelled to remind you per our HR guidelines, there was anything wrong with taking time off to go to the funeral and sort out your mother's affairs, of course. But Sarah, it was right in the middle of tax season, and we really needed your help. A whole week was really more than necessary, don't you think?"
She didn't think so. She worked in Maryland, cold, dreary Maryland, but her mother had lived in sunny California. Frankly, she'd been astonished that she'd been able to sell or ship her mother's stuff in less than a week between the funeral, the travel time, and her stepmother's constant phone calls to "check if Sarah was alright."
But she held her tongue. Midas and Sons had been the only company to offer her a job, and she couldn't afford to lose it. She had rent to pay, a cat to feed, and bills that never seemed to disappear.
So, she apologized, but kept her answer short. Tom didn't like rambling women or crying women, or women who didn't know when to listen.
"You're having trouble at work lately, too." Tom sighed loudly. "Fortunately, Sharon has agreed to help you. Don't waste the opportunity."
Sharon was an old widow, probably the oldest employee in the company. But she was friendly, and constantly brought in food for her fellow workers, and she knew the job. If anyone could help Sarah out of her rut, it would be Sharon.
Sarah tried to look suitably grateful, and pretended she didn't notice Tom leering at her breasts as he told her to find Sharon and get back to work.
Jareth sprawled on his throne, tossing a crystal up in the air before catching it, and then throwing it again.
Sarah was bored, and through their connection that had formed after she'd bested him, he was bored as well.
Sure, he could always go antagonize a dragon or something, but as the years Aboveground continued to pass, he'd slowly lost interest.
Why hadn't she called for him if she was so terribly bored?
He caught the crystal and gripped it tightly. The Sarah he'd known, the one he'd been so close to loving—and if it had crossed over into love, true love, he'd never noticed—would never have allowed herself to become awash with the boredom with humanity.
She'd given up her friends, given up her dreams, and given into monotony.
There had to be something he could do, even if he hadn't been summoned. But what?
He twirled the crystal in his hand absentmindedly as he thought.
Perhaps Sarah needed to remember what she'd given up. Perhaps if he brought her here, she'd give in.
But then he soured. Bringing Sarah to the Labyrinth hadn't worked the first time. He needed to try something else. Something to show Sarah what it was like to live with magic again.
He smirked. If bringing her here hadn't worked, then he'd bring the magic to her.
In the blink of an eye, he vanished from his castle.
Two weeks later, and thanks to Sharon's firm but kind guidance, Sarah wasn't the best at her job, but she no longer was the worst, either. Tom had even pulled her into his office that morning to congratulate her on keeping her job.
He'd also insinuated there were other ways to ensure she continued to grow with the company, but Sarah wasn't a fool. Tom was known for making passes at women and then, once satisfied, moving on without concern. She wasn't going to become his next throw-away.
Sarah had left his office feeling like she'd been covered in slime.
"He's a bit behind the times, you know." Sharon nodded at Tom's closed door as she set a piece of carrot cake down in front of Sarah. "But he'll soon have competition here at the office, mark my words. I saw the new boy they're hiring, and oh, let me tell you if I was even twenty years younger, I'd be tempted!"
Sarah laughed despite herself. "Thanks for the cake and for the help, Sharon."
"Oh don't thank me." Sharon brushed off her words with an idle wave. "We girls have to stick together. Now eat, dear, you're getting too thin as it is. And if my carrot cake can't better your mood, well, then I simply have to stop cooking."
Sharon ignored Sarah's thanks for the second time, and headed off to her own desk. As Sarah sorted the documents for mailing, she took sporadic bites of the cake, and just as Sharon had suggested, her earlier distaste had all but vanished.
The new boy Sharon had referred to appeared in the office that Friday, and Sarah had to admit she understood Sharon's temptation.
He was probably around Sarah's age, but it was hard to tell. He managed to pull off masculinity and femininity both without shame, in a way that didn't seem to scream gay. His eyes were lined with thin eyeliner, but no eyeshadow, and if he bronzed or wore blush, it was impossible to know for certain. His lips glossed a shiny hue that seemed to beg for a kiss, but she had the feeling that he did more of the kissing than begging.
And his blond hair, carefully slicked into a style that managed to be both conservative, but daring, rested against his shoulders. It was carefully tucked behind one ear to show off two small studded piercings.
In short: he looked more like a musician than an office worker, despite his white buttoned shirt, solid blue tie, and black dress slacks.
She blushed when their eyes met and he caught her ogling. Instead of saying anything, Sarah opted to look down at her work.
But the new worker apparently didn't intend to allow Sarah any retreat. A hand was thrust in front of her vision, and she followed it to see his smiling face.
"Hello, Sarah," he greeted her. His voice was a purr that seemed familiar, but Sarah couldn't place it. "I'm Leon, and I look forward to working with you."
Sarah took his hand and shook it. She didn't ask how he knew her name; she assumed Sharon or one of the others had told him. "It's nice to meet you, Leon."
She tried to pull her hand away, but Leon didn't let go.
He smirked at her, and suddenly, Sarah had the vision of sitting in a field of wildflowers in summer, despite the fact that it was winter in Maryland, and they were due for a blizzard in a few days. But she swore she could feel the sun on her skin—and a soft kiss on her lips.
She gaped, and his smirk widened as though he knew what she'd felt.
This time, when she pulled her hand away, Leon didn't stop her.
He simply took up the empty desk at the end of the row next to her, and got to work.