coley_merrin: (Butterfly)
[personal profile] coley_merrin
Title: The Cell
Pairing: Zhou Mi/fem!Kyuhyun
Rating: R
Genre: AU, sexswap

Summary: Kyuhyun dreams of a life she has never experienced, and of a man who makes her question everything she knows.


Kyuhyun smiled up at him. She didn’t even know his name, but she knew what he was to her in the way he smiled back, in the affection that sparked in his eyes when she leaned into him.

Her husband.

“You can feel her kicking,” she said, taking his hand and pressing it to her stomach. She traced his fingers, long and sturdy, until she felt the telltale thump inside her. “See?”

“I felt it,” he confirmed. “You’re sure the baby’s a girl now?”

Kyuhyun wasn’t sure how she knew, only that she did. There was no mystical connection to the life inside her, but the knowledge went deep. Together, they had made a daughter.

“I’m sure.”

It seemed like his whole body squeezed against her in delight. “Oh. Kuixian. Then we’ll need to think of a name.”

But there were still some months to go. Still, his delight delighted her. And she stared out the balcony at the village, the trees that separated their higher home from it just barely obscuring the closest edge.

The view was—


Kyuhyun woke with a start, the desk under her skidding several inches as she tried to fight the vertigo that plagued her. The dream. The dream was so real that she was reaching for the hand of the man who had been standing against her, to steady her.

But it was when her hand dropped to her abdomen that she got the hardest jolt.

And she realized where she was. In her literature class, with several of her classmates giving her concerned looks.

“Sick,” she mumbled, grabbing her notebook and pen and her bag and fighting her way through the forest of desks to get to freedom.

The door closed loudly behind her as she stumbled into the hallway, arm over her stomach. There was no rise there, no rounded curve, or movement. The child in her dream wasn’t there, had never been there. She had never been pregnant in her life. And yet it had felt so real. There was a strange emptiness to go with the lack of warmth from the man against her. She’d smelled the hint of pine, roasting meat.

Her longest relationship had ended over a year ago, and she had never seen the man in her dream.

“No more late nights, Cho Kyuhyun,” she told herself. “Maybe no chocolate before sleeping either.”

She stood there long enough to get her bearings. She had the hysterical thought that maybe it was her mind trying to tell her something, that she was pregnant somehow. Her body bleeding three days later told her a different tale.

She blamed it on PMS. Hormones. Biological clock ticking. That was kind of screwy, because she was 22, and she’d never had thoughts of being desperate to start a family.

See also: not having a boyfriend. She didn’t even have a crush.


Kyuhyun’s body ached. It was not all of the pleasant ache of hard work, there was some genuinely painful pangs. But for what she had just done, what she had just accomplished, she was exhilarated.

The same man sat on the bed beside her, admiring the swaddled child in her arms.

“She looks like you,” he said, the grin fit to break his face.

“She has your eyes,” Kyuhyun countered. “And your ears.”

His lips pressed to the baby’s forehead, whose sleeping face did not even once flutter. Coming into the world was a hard job, she thought. For both of them.

Kyuhyun relaxed utterly, as he stretched out beside her on the bed. It was the bed their daughter had been born on, the bed she had been conceived in, and he was near her. All she had wanted in the height of her pain was to hold his hand, to have him tell her that all would be all right.

“We should name her after me, then,” he teased, kissing Kyuhyun’s cheek as well.

A fission of panic bubbled through her. She did know his name. He was her husband. She— “What if I don’t know your name?”

He growled against her in mock frustration, and she laughed, the sound breathy and weak.

“Like this. Zhou Mi. Zhou Mi,” he said, pitching his voice higher and not at all like hers.

“Zhou Mi. Zhou Mi,” She said, her voice as low as it could go.

“Kuixian,” he sputtered in protest, laughing against her neck.

Kyuhyun hummed, rocking the baby in her arms and thinking. “Zhou Mi,” she said, feeling his name so right on her lips, in her heart. “I think I know what we should call her.”


The blast of her alarm, static and then some upbeat pop radio, had Kyuhyun jerking awake.

The sunlight through her window, the tinny, cheerful singing voices.

“Zhou Mi,” she said out loud, and all but flung herself out of bed.

There were no listings for Zhou Mi in her city. There were no Zhou Mis in any database she could find. Online sites listed several, but none resembled him. Image searches, news searches, searching all possible combinations of his name. Nothing.

Kyuhyun laughed, her head falling back on her computer chair.

“A gorgeous figment of my imagination, father of my imaginary child.”

The ache she felt was all in her mind, she thought, shaking her head. Her body had not changed, and she had not given birth overnight. Yet the discomfort was there, almost so she could have believed it.

But Kyuhyun waited until her heart had slowed, the curious disappointment of knowing that the dream had only been a dream. It would have been too easy, and yet it was something she wasn’t certain she was ready for. But the dream stayed with her, and she wondered what it meant. Books full of dreams and their meanings merely made her confused.


It felt like a dream of every breath, curling. It was early spring, or maybe late fall, by the chill in the air, and she ran trying to see something ahead of her. A door, an entrance, on a city street. Cars passed in silence, not a horn or a squeal of brakes. The barrier between sidewalk and road seemed to ripple, making her move toward the buildings almost in vertigo. Ahead of her, a man turned, his face solemn, but his lips curved as he saw her. On his wrist, a yellow band, and she almost reached without thought. Twenty feet. Ten.

He turned from her.

“Stop! Wait! I have questions—”


When Kyuhyun could see her own frown in the subway window, she knew that things had begun to get to her. It was a strange kind of worry that stayed with her, as though she was going to see someone familiar on the street. Searching the faces of tall men for familiar features, familiar walk. It was as though if she turned her head just slow enough she would see him out of the corner of her eye. Zhou Mi, the enigma. She wanted to ask how he knew her, and then felt ridiculous for the thought because she knew that he didn’t. He. It. Figment of her imagination.

Figment of—

The station announcement through off her thought process, but nothing as much as the arm that came into view, the bright yellow wristband against skin. He was tall, turned away from her as the doors slid open. She didn’t fight her way down, making the journey through people to the closest exit and then standing tall to see where the man had gone.

“Sir! Wait. Sir!”

The arm she grasped was warm, and real, but not the right one. The yellow wristband mocked her, and so did the unfamiliar face.

“I’m sorry. Where did you get that wristband?”

He stared at her as though she were insane. “It’s from the gym I go to.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” she said, and let him go. The name of the gym was burned into her mind as she raced to where her phone would work. A quick search told her that the gym had one location, two stops away.


“Zhou Mi. He’s Chinese. Very tall! His nose is straight. He’s—“ Beautiful. Has a lovely voice.

The attendant stared at her in concern. No matter how much she had tried to compose herself, she still sounded out of breath and desperate.

“I’m sorry, miss. I really can’t divulge member information. I don’t know of a member like the one you’re describing, though.”

“He has a wristband from this gym,” she said, hoping to jog his memory.

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry.”

She barely stopped herself from asking when a coworker of his might be working, in case Zhou Mi came in at a different time of day. If they thought she was some stalker, she would have an even harder time getting answers.

But she looked up at movement, gasped, when she saw a familiar face. He was shrugging into a dark jacket, collar unbuttoned and hair a bit damp. Around his wrist was the yellow wristband, just like she’d seen. Her mouth went dry, waiting for him to look at her. He didn’t, and she reached out for him.

“Zhou Mi, I…”

Her words trailed away as her hand went right through his arm, as if he wasn’t there. There was no sound of a door opening, no movement to the outside. He was just…gone.

She whirled, turning to the wary attendant. “The man that was just here. Did you see him?”

“No one’s come in this room since you did,” the attendant said, eyeing her. “Miss, I think you need to leave now.”

Yes, she thought she did.

Her mind was buzzing, heart beating in her ears as she made it onto the street. She even looked around, to see if a familiar figure was walking, if he had disappeared some other way. She’d been so convinced he’d been real. She was losing her mind. She’d just hallucinated something in broad daylight. Not a dream. She wasn’t taking any drugs that would explain it.

Or perhaps being too tired was what brought it on. Her obsessive search, mulling things, turning them over and over in her mind. Maybe she’d seen the tall man with the yellow wristband that she’d seen today before. Her mind had given him a face, a voice.

That was the cruelest reality of all.


At a touch to his arm, Zhou Mi gasped awake.

“Kuixian,” he said, reaching out to the side of the bed.

It was empty.


Time passed, and the dreams faded. Kyuhyun did not jump at every yellow wristband that, for a time, seemed to be on every man’s wrist. But she passed classes, discussed her strange dreams with her friends over dinners and study sessions, and began to reason things away. Synapses firing, creating some future life, maybe. Aside from how the dreams had felt, so real as though she was being torn away from something, as though her real life was the dream. But she wasn’t living in some kind of science fiction movie. All she had of Zhou Mi was a few dreams, impressions, a vision. For her life, she had years of relationships and memories.

The guys she met weren’t interesting to her. Not because they weren’t attractive, or because they were horrible people, but there was no spark. The thing was, she wasn’t really looking either, and her friends weren’t pushing her. Her parents definitely weren’t. But there was something unsettled that she couldn’t explain. It wasn’t that she was unhappy, and more that she felt driven. There were no regrets that she wanted to have. So, she lived. Enjoyed the things she was eating, read for pleasure, spent time with her friends and her laptop. Things that could not be replaced, and that she could not help but enjoy to the fullest.

Kyuhyun had heard all kinds of cliches. Once she stopped looking, things would happen. If she only worked hard and tried hard, things would happen. But no one went about their life expecting the unexpected. She went to the grocery store expecting to buy meat, and vegetables, and the really-terrible-for-her cereal that she wasn’t giving up unless the company went out of business.

The hand basket she carried was starting to cut into her fingers as she turned down the aisle with the vinegars and condiments. She skirted a woman, smiling at the child in the cart as she passed. Her main focus was on the bottle she could already see, calculating the price for the different sizes on the fly.

The flash of yellow almost escaped her attention, a glint just out of focus until she saw the wristband. The arm.

The face.

Kyuhyun didn’t stumble, gasp, or even freeze. But what she did do was stare, never taking her eyes off of the man as she tilted her head for a better look. Maybe she had not had a dream in months, but that face was so familiar to her. It was Zhou Mi. Someone who looked like him, at the very least.

Or, it was some sort of vision, as the time in the gym had been.

“Excuse me,” she said, and he looked toward her.

His eyes. His cheekbones. They were the same. A hint of a smile began to play out on his face, tightening in the corners of his mouth, his eyes.


Kyuhyun tried for words, shocked to hear him speak. It was a scenario that had played out in her head a million times at night when she was trying to sleep. The things she’d say, or do. The times in which he recognized her, opened his arms, and there had to be no words at all. And the longer the silence spun, the more her brain froze up, mouth moving but no sound coming out.

Of course, until he began to speak himself.

“I don’t—“ “I—“

“You just—“ “Maybe—“

They both stopped, laughed. Wordlessly, he gestured at her, indicating she should go ahead.

“Sorry, I just saw,” she said, stopping herself before she rambled on. “You looked very familiar to me. Your wristband.”

“Oh? Oh! It’s for my gym. I joined a couple of weeks ago.”

She’d dreamed of it six months earlier.

“Maybe we’ve seen each other on the streets?” he suggested, taking a step closer to her.

Kyuhyun’s grip on the basket seemed to double in tightness. When she’d reached to touch him before, he’d disappeared. It was a silly fear, without grounds in reality.

“Maybe,” she agreed, because it was the only logical thing to infer. “I’m Kyuhyun.”

His mouth curved again. “I’m Zhou Mi.”

Of course, then her knees went a little weak. Of all the things she could think to say, they failed her. “I feel like I know you.” sounded so strange. The last thing she wanted to do was come off as someone inherently creepy, and yet there were too many things she was feeling.

And she nearly jumped out of her skin as his cell phone rang.

“Sorry, just a moment,” he said, answering it. He spoke into it, his voice urgent, and she couldn’t understand his words. That was fine, though, because it gave her time to think, even if that time was being used to watch his face. It was fascinating to her. Almost like some kind of fantastical creature come to life, even if she knew in her head that he was just a man.

In Kyuhyun’s head was a debate she’d never yet had with herself, wondering if he’d find it too forward if she asked him for coffee.

“Sorry,” he said to her again, nodding. And he turned, his basket on the floor, and walked away.

For a moment it was like a dream, standing frozen in the same spot with her grocery basket in hand. A package of chicken warming, lettuce in a little bag.

And then she ran. Logic caught her at the end of the aisle, and she dropped the basket. She couldn’t pay and chase after a man at the same time, and his head had just disappeared out of the front entrance of the grocery store. There wasn’t even a modicum of guilt that chased after her as she pushed open the glass entry and onto the street.

She thought she’d seen him go left, and pivoted, but the street was almost empty. No familiar line of shoulders, no man talking on his phone. No taxis speeding away. To the right was almost the same, and her fingers curled in purse strap. It wasn’t possible, not again. Like seeing an echo of something that hadn’t been meant to be there.

A shiver wracked her body as she stepped forward, eyes on a piece of paper lying on the sidewalk. It was a business card, tiny and unassuming underfoot.

Zhou Mi.

She reached for it, fingertips over smooth paper, as though she were reading it wrong, her eyes playing tricks on her.

At footsteps behind her, her head rose. Maybe he’d come back.

All Kyuhyun remembered was the pain of the blow, and she was unconscious before she hit the sidewalk.


Kyuhyun woke to the scent of wood smoke, like a memory of her childhood, visiting her great-grandparents where they still lived. If a head could grumble, hers was doing so, aching beyond measure as she tried to hold herself still. That wasn’t truly working, because someone with gentle hands was stroking her hair, jostling her head ever so slightly. Her fingertips traced the cloth under them, rough and unfamiliar, and nausea rose in her as she opened her eyes.

The room was starkly white and shadowed, a fire lit in a hearth on one wall, and nothing else. Her breath bottled up as she realized how unfamiliar it all was, grasping at the hand that was touching her and staring up.

“Kuixian, you’re awake,” Zhou Mi said, and Kyuhyun made some inhuman noise.

She was holding his hand, but nothing else seemed right. He wasn’t wearing what he had been in the store. The slim blue shirt and dark pants were gone, replaced by some kind of old-fashioned burgundy jacket crossed over his chest. He was looking at her with such concern that for a moment she didn’t realize what he’d said.

“What did you call me?”

Zhou Mi’s eyes went wide. “What? Kuixian. Your name.”

Like he’d called her in the dreams. Not the polite, distant man in the store, but the man who’d held their child. Then she really wanted to be sick. Another dream, maybe. But she hurt.

“Where am I?”

“My cell.”

“Cell?” she croaked, horrified by the sound of her own voice, even as he helped her to sit up. She’d been on some kind of bed, covered in blue linen, and she followed the line of his arm toward the furthest wall. Or, something like a wall perhaps.

“Yes,” he said softly. “They wanted me where I could see what they did to the village. It was punishment worse than whippings.”

There was such anger, sorrow in his voice. She focused on that instead of her swimming head as she walked with him to see. There were trees, a village. Smoke, rising above thatched houses, milling animals. Some buildings burned, others were in tatters.

“Where is this place?” she whispered, half to herself. It was no modern city. Even places deep in the countryside had modernized past what she was seeing. Even the sky seemed unfamiliar, a darker blue than she was used to.

Zhou Mi hadn’t seemed to have heard her though, touching her shoulder. “I can hardly believe you’re here. They wouldn’t let me see you, or even ask of you. I haven’t seen you in... It feels like months, but it’s been only weeks. Are you well? Where have they been keeping you? Have they hurt you?”

His words made her head ache, question after question as she leaned into him more and more. At her sound of distress, he guided her back to the bed, sitting beside her.


“My head. I was hit? I think I was hit. I woke up here. I live in Seoul. I’ve dreamed of you.”

It didn’t matter then what he thought of her. If he thought her ill. Again, he gently stroked her hair, holding her.

“Seoul? I told them they could not keep my wife from me,” he said. “I’m so sorry I didn’t protect you.”


He held her until the pain began to fade, until she breathed in, and knew his scent. The only thing she knew was that she was not his wife. She couldn’t be. And yet, the dream. Zhou Mi, holding the child.


The baby. The name burst out of her, a painful curl in her chest as she nearly looked around as though a baby’s cry would echo off the walls.

Zhou Mi held her tighter. “Was she with you?”

Kyuhyun shook her head, and bit her lip to hold back tears born wholly of confusion. He took them for something else entirely, soothing her, assuring her.

“We’ll find her. Kuixian, as long as we’re together, we’ll find her.”

Her head was swimming, and she clutched him tighter, listening to him breathe.

And when her eyes opened, it was to the ceiling of a hospital room.

“How are you feeling, dear?” a woman asked her. A nurse, with a kind face, not getting too close, but looking at her with concern.

“My head,” Kyuhyun said.

“Yes. The doctor has cleared us to give you something to help with the pain. It looks like you took quite a spill. We’ll test you for concussion, and you’ve been asleep for several hours. I’ll let him know you’re awake.”

“There was a man,” Kyuhyun blurted, before the nurse could leave.

“A man hit you?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know.”

Zhou Mi. He hadn’t been there in the hospital room, that was for certain. A vivid dream while unconscious, perhaps. But when she stared at her hand, she could feel his skin, smell his sweat and the scent of smoke.

Kyuhyun had spent a very long time being confused. But right then she was more certain than she had ever been. And she knew that meeting Zhou Mi had not been just a dream.


It took almost five days for the headache to really leave, another two before the doctor was convinced she didn’t need monitoring. At that point, Kyuhyun wasn’t sure if the headache had been from the hit, or from the stress of wondering what the hell was going on. She’d had dreams, nightmares, ones she’d woken up from wondering if they’d been real. She knew the feeling of clutching her blankets in the night and slowly reassuring herself it had all been in her head. But she’d never had a dream like that. One of her first trips had been back to that gym, and she bought one of those yellow wristbands, a gift for a friend who was a member there, she said. It sat on her desk, and it mocked her as she worked on her math homework. She’d seen Zhou Mi once, as almost illusion, once in the grocery store. Once in the vision, or whatever it had been, before she’d woken in the hospital. She didn’t dream of him at night, though sometimes she dreamed of a fire burning, the scent of smoke and the crackle of just-damp wood. Shadows.

There had been no mountains to distinguish, no landmarks from Zhou Mi’s cell.

“I’ve heard of senioritis but this is a new one,” Kyuhyun muttered, shoving the bracelet away from where she’d been fondling it. It was just a piece of rubber, not something imbued with memories.

She’d even given Zhou Mi’s name to a friend who liked doing research, genealogy.

“I know you love dramas, but what’s this? Planning on going back in time and wooing someone?” she was asked.

She was just being proactive. If she could cross off all possibilities, she could move them aside in her mind. It was harder to imagine that she’d just conjured a name, a face, out of a history book or movie. But if she didn’t look, then it felt like she was just accepting it, and that was the worst out of all the possibilities.

But Kyuhyun didn’t let it rule her. She went to dinner with her friends, she studied, and went to class. She looked at cute guys, and watched TV. It was normal. It felt so close to normal, except those flashes she’d get, just remembering Zhou Mi’s surprise, or the way he’d smiled. She shook it off like an accidental spray of water, determined not to let it overtake everything. And hitching up her book bag onto her shoulder, she stepped over the threshold of the subway car.

And nearly stumbled straight into a fireplace.

She shrieked, hands braced on the hard brick as her bag thudded down. A foot away from her nose, flamed leapt, and she pushed herself up, gasping. The smoking village, the bed. Zhou Mi, staring at her as though she’d not only almost fallen into the fireplace, but maybe dropped out of it.

“Kuixian? No.”

Zhou Mi sounded just as disbelieving as she was. It wasn’t possible. She’d been awake. She’d been reaching for a handhold on the subway car, and her knees hurt from the floor. And all she could smell was burning wood, and there was a man who did not grab her in love, but gripped her arms hard, almost shaking her as though testing if she would just break apart and disappear.

“My Kuixian, they tell me she is dead. My wife. My daughter. That she has been, that they have been deceiving me to win my cooperation. Please—”

Her hand on his face stopped him in his rush of words, and it nearly made her pause as well because she didn’t realize she had reached for him. She could see the truth of all he had spoken on his face. His eyes were red as though he had been crying, but the set of his jaw and angle of his eyebrows spoke of anger.

“Do you think they’re telling you the truth?”

“Why would they lie? Why are you here? A trick they devised to distract me. An impostor.”

With every word his grip was tighter, until Kyuhyun gasped. “Zhou Mi!” She would do anything to show him she was not, to show him he had reason to hope. His face was regret, as his hands gentled. Hurting her would not bring his answers. And she shrieked, “Ow!” The gentlest squeeze of his hand over her shoulder seared through her, the pain turning her stomach as she twisted away from his hold.

And he let her go immediately, pulling his hands back. “Forgive me. I didn’t think I held that hard. I’m sorry!”

But he seemed shocked, concerned with how she was covering her shoulder, how she was breathing as the pain faded. But she couldn’t even begin to pull the cloth away from where it had hurt, because he was over her almost immediately, doing that for her, pulling her hair away and baring the pinkened skin. Kyuhyun could just barely see it, craning her head around, but she could feel it, the barely raised lines, the shine of a burn long healed.

“What is that?” she asked.

“When we were married,” Zhou Mi almost breathed. “We were marked, the marks of our families. Bound for a lifetime. That…that is my mark.”

“You married me, and then burned me?” Kyuhyun asked. And he laughed a bit, his finger gentle there on the edge of it, not surprised by the fact that she was skeptical.

“Yes. It’s an old tradition, but we have ways of dulling the pain almost immediately after. But look.” Zhou Mi turned, tugging down his own collar so that she could see the mark on the back of his own shoulder. It felt much like hers did, the shape of her last name permanently seared into him.

“I’ve never had this mark on me before. And it hurt, like I was being burned right then,” she told him.

“Maybe…maybe a memory?” he wondered.

And more than wondered: he hoped. She wondered if it was an illusion, like the Zhou Mi she had seen in the gym, the one she had talked to in the grocery store. Letting Zhou Mi hold her then felt like it was comforting him more than it was her, because all she had was confusion. There was still a healing knot on her head from being hit, and then a long-healed scar she had never seen before. If she’d been able to know any one thing, she’d thought she’d known her body, but that wasn’t true any more either. She didn’t know if she shared his hope, and the possibility of it staggered her. If she was his wife, she belonged there. She’d gotten along on thinking she was some kind of doppelgänger, some kind alternate world she was breaking through into. They were not dreams, not visions, not hallucinations. Zhou Mi, who smelled of wood smoke and man, was solid and real against her, holding her like he was her anchor. She was Cho Kyuhyun, and she lived a stop away from her university, and she loved to eat. Zhou Mi’s wife had borne him a child, had lived above the village that still stood and struggled despite the occasional smoldering hut.

The burn scar could be nothing, or everything, but until she knew, she had to wonder.

“Why are you being kept here?” she asked, winding her fingers tighter in the cloth at his side. “What are you to the village, that they want you to see its destruction?”

“I lead it. We lead it, my advisors and I, this area and town and several more like it. So did my father, and his father. Not the oldest son, but the one willing and best to look after the people, and see that all are well,” Zhou Mi said. “To show me it like that, burning, it’s to taunt me of a task I have failed.”

“But why? Is there wealth here?”

Zhou Mi nodded, his cheek brushing against here. “Yes, though not in the way you might think. It is the land that is valued, and the possibility of expanding that to the next town, and the next. I am one man, so this mountain, this valley, it let me do all I could for them. But to take my place, they could exploit that power. But they should have hurt me, not my family, and not the people.”

She exhaled because of his frustration, and realized he was something like a prince, who oversaw an area and heard the will of his people, and advised them through troubled times. Then his wife would have been at his side, helping, bearing his heir for a new generation.

“What keeps you here in this cell?” she wondered, lifting her head from his shoulder.

“It is magic, like I have never seen,” Zhou Mi said. “Here, I will show you.”

He tucked her hand in his, leading her to the wall that was open, overlooking the village.

“Magic,” she said, doubtful.

Zhou Mi picked up a stick, just a piece of kindling, and slowly pushed it out toward the barrier. She expected some kind of spark, some kind of fuzzy feedback like on a screen - not the hiss and sizzle of flame that started at the tip of the wood and raced up along it. She gasped, and Zhou Mi dropped it to the tile, kicking it toward the hearth so it could burn without danger.

“And that was just a stick,” Zhou Mi said. It was easy to imagine what it would to do cloth, to skin. She shuddered, and looked back over his shoulder to the barrier at the door as well. It couldn’t be seen through, but if it was the same…

“The chimney?” she wondered.

Zhou Mi shook his head. “Only if my body was as slim as my legs. As time has passed, I have checked the wall, the floors for signs of weakness. I didn’t dare at first because it wasn’t my safety they threatened.”

His wife. His daughter.

“I wish I could give you answers. I wish I knew why I look like her, why I have this scar, why I have these memories.”

The skin around the scar was no longer pink, but the scar of the burn was there. When she turned her head to look, so did he. She knew what they were both thinking. The mark wasn’t new, and it, of all things, was tangible and real. But she did not remember him, or the life he remembered. She’d never had a child. Surely she would know that.

“Maybe there are more memories,” he said, searching her face. “Maybe they’ve been hidden from you. From us. If you stay here, maybe we’ll remember together.”

It was too much, to look at his hope, to look at the fire even, or his barren cell.

“I want to know why,” she said.

No matter what the answer was, she wanted to know.

“Kuixian, you can’t—“

It was like plunging into water, the touch of Zhou Mi’s hand on her arm fading as the sound of his voice went muffled, distorted.

Kyuhyun gasped as she almost tilted into an older lady’s lap, apologizing, her face flaming as she tried to control her bag and move away as far as possible. They’d think she was drunk. A fierce shiver rocked her as she stared up at the flashing station name. It was the same station she’d boarded at. She’d never left, and yet she’d been with Zhou Mi for much longer than it took the doors to close. The whole trade shuddered as it began to move, and Kyuhyun lifted her hand to feel the back of her shoulder.

The scar, the lines of Zhou Mi’s name that he said had come from their wedding day, were still burned into her skin.


One of the first things that Kyuhyun did, just to test her own mind, was show her shoulder to someone. Kyuhyun couldn’t decide on any of her friends, numbers that she scrolled through her phone for. The faces were familiar, but none made her want to call. In the end she chose a girl in one of her classes, someone she’d spoken to a few times and exchanged notes with. She’d probably been there when Kyuhyun had had her first little breakdown of a dream. It took a little maneuvering, because she couldn’t just rip down her shirt and order someone to tell her what they saw. Working scars into the conversation wasn’t the hardest thing she’d ever done, but she felt like she was trying to shovel it in with a spatula, obvious and distracting. But it got her what she wanted.

“Something like this old scar I have.”

She was clucked at, nearly poked at as her classmate leaned over. “That’s so weird. It’s like you were marked with someone’s name. When did that happen?”

Not a figment of her imagination then. Yes, marked as property of a man who existed in some alternate world, or in the past, or whatever it was. Alternate world made more sense, since they didn’t exactly have magicians running around. And even if someone from the past would’ve thought their electronics were magic, there were explanations for that. But there weren’t invisible walls that set things on fire.

“I don’t know, really. I don’t remember much about it. Maybe it’s a mark of someone who’s my destiny.”

“Looking for your prince?” the girl teased. “I guess if you find someone to date with that character in their name, you’ll have to keep them. Fate.”

“Fate,” Kyuhyun agreed, laughing.

Fate. It followed her home, through the book she was reading for class, through dinner, and staring at herself in the mirror as she brushed her teeth. It was the same her, same eyes, same hair, same teeth. If she wasn’t some reincarnation, then maybe an alternate version of Zhou Mi’s wife. She’d been born a few miles away, she’d gone to school, had friends. She had memories of a life. She’d fallen off her bike once, and scratched her first car with a bag, and she could recite her identification number. She had a number in her cell phone for her parents, and she dialed it, needing to hear their voice. All she got was an automated answer inviting her to leave a message and a call back number. She couldn’t remember their address, and it wasn’t saved in her phone. But she knew how to get there, knew the bus, and the subway numbers. As long as she knew how to get there, it didn’t matter.

“Now I’m truly losing it,” she said. They were just out. Their phone was off. She never called very much anyway, too independent.

But the gnawing in the pit of her stomach had Kyuhyun heaping an extra blanket on her bed, needing the comfort of it as she tried to rationalize everything. Everything was normal. Tomorrow, she’d go hug her mother, and things would be okay. Her mother loved her, brushing her hair by the fire, laughing with her, linking arms with her as they walked through the forest and showing her the best places to find mushrooms. She could almost feel the material of her mother’s skirts, the child cradled in her arms. Yina. Her baby. The smile faded from her lips, as she slipped deeper into sleep.

It was the cold that woke her. And when she reached for the blankets, there weren’t any, just a smooth surface against her fingers. Smooth and cold. And the room was not dark, like she kept her room to sleep in, but lit by a faint glow, a flicker.

“No,” Kyuhyun breathed, rolling herself up onto her knees and taking stock of where she was. Oh, she knew where she was. Ahead of her was the barrier that separated Zhou Mi from what was outside, and Kyuhyun put her hand on the wall to steady herself as she stood. She listened, and after a moment of straining— there. Even, slow breaths. Beneath the blankets, she could make out Zhou Mi’s form, completely unaware that his prison had been invaded. It meant she had two options. One, she made her way immediately to the fire and warmed up while hoping to wake up in her nice warm bed as soon as was possible. And two was waking Zhou Mi up immediately so that he could…he could…

She didn’t know what. Keep her company at the very least. She almost snorted wondering if maybe she had to talk to Zhou Mi somehow in order to go back, because that was ridiculous. But sitting alone when there could be information to glean from Zhou Mi - any information - was equally ridiculous. It could hurt him, too. But when she asked herself if he would want to know or not, if he deserved to know or not, then she knew he did.

She almost danced over to the edge of the bed on the chilly floor, reaching to nudge at his shoulder.

“Zhou Mi. Zhou Mi, wake up.” There was a sharp inhale, Zhou Mi utterly still as he woke, as he tried to sort out dreams from reality. “Zhou Mi, I’m here again. Are you awake?”

“I’m awake,” he said, pushing himself up. “What—“

Kyuhyun had the sense to be embarrassed, when she saw Zhou Mi’s gaze sweep down her body. The ragged, saggy tank top and short, soft shorts she wore were hardly her normal clothes.

“I’d been sleeping,” she said. “It’s cold in here.”

“Go to the fire,” he urged her, and she did, crouching down until he came to her, holding a blanket up in front of the fire for a moment before draping it around her shoulders. It was warm, and the heat soothed her, and she tucked it under herself, settling herself on it as Zhou Mi sat beside her, wrapped in another blanket.

“I didn’t expect you to be back again,” Zhou Mi said. “You just disappeared, like you’d never been here. I thought I might be imagining you. Like I just wanted you here so badly, or being alone here is ruining my mind.”

It sounded so strange, him doubting himself as she had been doubting, that she almost wanted to laugh.

“I was here. Unless we’re both imagining this. I have a life. I’m taking classes, studying for tests. It’s just so unreal.”

“You study? You— Kuixian, she always wanted to learn. I was always bringing books because my advisors didn’t think that it was proper.” And Zhou Mi stopped, almost sniffed in indignation. “She had— has. Has. She has more intelligence than a dozen of them combined.”

“I know she appreciated that.”

Zhou Mi laughed a bit. “It was her way of showing them up. Even if she was a woman, they envied her control, her status.”

Even if they hadn’t been directed at her, she knew those looks from men, the ones that questioned how someone had gotten there, what right they had to stand in their place. Zhou Mi’s wife would have chosen, or had been chosen, to marry him. She had done nothing, maybe, but to have been born into a good family, or catch the eye of a powerful man. And yet, if she had had Zhou Mi’s ear, his trust, that would have been something incredibly different.

“And if they envied hers, then they must have envied yours even more,” Kyuhyun mused. “Do you know who it was who locked you in here?”

“I wish I did. I understand what you mean, and there was one man I wish I had done something about. But all I have seen are underlings. It would do me no good to know. I wouldn’t have any option to do something about it.”

“So you do think there was at least one who could have done this? Would they have hurt the village, your wife and child, and locked you away? Maybe someone hated you, or you sent someone away who resented you.”

Her own little detective drama. She knew it didn’t make any difference. If he couldn’t get out, he couldn’t fight back, so if it was any one of them or all of them, it didn’t truly matter. Imagining his enemy or knowing, there wasn’t anything he could do besides stew in his own anger and worry.

“No. No one I sent away, not in several years. No one I saw so much as taking a second glance at Kyuhyun. The baby, they would have… The fact that she is a girl may have saved her. A boy certainly would have not survived. And Kyuhyun, she… I made myself sick worrying what could be happening to her.”

His voice was strained, and his fingers tentative as he took her hand. If it soothed him, she could not stop him. But yes, so many horrible things could have happened, beyond all of their control.

“At least you know one thing,” Kyuhyun said, and he looked to her. “I can’t imagine I just look like her, so you know…you know she’s still fighting.”

Unless she was dead. That though passed her mind too, and his as they looked at each other. But he nodded, squeezing her hand. Even that little bit of hope, that belief that his wife was standing strong could give him what he needed to fight a little longer. She adjusted herself, baring her toes under the blanket edge to catch a little more of the fire’s warmth, and she wondered for a moment why he tilted his head and stared so intently. Until she realized.

“Oh. It’s paint,” she said, almost wanting to curl her toes under but keeping them still. It wasn’t anything elaborate, just a pinkish orange gloss over the nails. Her fingernails matched it, and that was easier for him to see, to touch.

Zhou Mi hesitated, before his next question. “For a man?”

“What? No! For me. It’s just… It’s fun.”

A man. She tried to imagine dating, trying to get to know someone while being haunted by a man who was both sorrow and quick smiles at her answer. She didn’t know what to do with his relief, or her own. It wasn’t like she was saving herself for him, or something ridiculous like that. Her life was just too complicated to add more, to keep secrets so large if something else happened. As soon as she figured herself out again, then maybe she could think about adding someone else.

She tried to imagine someone looking at her like Zhou Mi did, not when he stared at her like she was a puzzle or like she’d disappear. But like he was right then.

“It’s nice. It looks nice,” Zhou Mi said, and the stroke of his thumb over her fingers was almost too intimate, not used to a man admiring her quite that way. And yet, he wasn’t seeing in it on her, but someone else. And he touched his forehead, shaking his head and looking to her. “Tell me about what you study. Please.”

It was a good distraction, and she blew out a breath of relief. It was easy to talk about the history books she had, the mathematics, the literature. Zhou Mi named a dozen books or stories she’d never heard of, until the last. He got her water, watched her face as she talked about it, as he did. It was the story of a journey, tigers, and danger. It was in a book of compiled stories, one she knew the cover of, and how overpriced it had been in a store. It wasn’t some repressed memory coming through.

“They fought a tiger with their bare hands,” she mused. “I don’t have to do that in my world. I saw a man who looks like you, though. Had I told you that? Once he seemed to disappear, and once I actually spoke to him. But when I tried to follow, I was injured. That was the first night I woke here.”

“Then could there be a version of me in your world? One of each of us, in each place?”

“Maybe that’s part of what I need to do. To find him. Or maybe not, since I’d been injured. If he is you, if you’re the same person, then maybe he has answers. Do you dream of a world that is strange to you?”

Zhou Mi shook his head. “I dream in fragments. I dream of my family, of walking along long roads, of climbing but never being able to escape. Most of my dreams are shadows. Sometimes I hear your voice. It wakes me, but most times I wake to silence.”

And to sorrow.

“I wonder what would happen if the people keeping you captive found me here.”

“I’ve worried about that,” Zhou Mi said, and Kyuhyun hated the way his face hardened. “They wouldn’t take you again. Not while I live.”

She did not correct him, that it was not “again” but for the first time. But that broke their conversation entirely, lapsing into thought as Zhou Mi fed the fire another piece of wood and reached for her hand again. The way he cradled her hand in both of his made her shiver, which made him think she was cold, stretching out their hands a little further toward the fire. Maybe that was a good thing, because she was realizing the predicament it put her in as well. She had gone to him again. If he was trapped there, and if she could not leave, then she was stuck in that same prison as well - until someone found her, or until Zhou Mi could escape.

“You don’t like the silence,” she realized, as he hummed low in his throat.

He startled, as though she had poked him, but he smiled also. “No. I was used to being surrounded by people, by noise. I thought, if they were dead, if I was alone. There was only one way out.”

He looked to the barrier that in daylight would reveal the village, and she followed his thoughts. The fire it had caused, when Zhou Mi had put a stick to it, would have made it easy to fling himself through it. And that would have been his end.

But Zhou Mi shook his head before she could say anything. “But even alone, there are people who depend on me, and even if it takes… No matter how long it takes. Forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive. You’re upset, and…and grieving,” she said, frowning at him. She was the one who didn’t have answers, who didn’t have a way to put his mind at rest so that at least, if all there was was for him to grieve and move on, that he could do that. She thought he was a ghost, but she had to be even more of one to him, taunting him. She did not shiver, or hiss as Zhou Mi turned her hand and spread it. The pad of his thumb traced over her palm, and she wondered what he saw there. She didn’t even know what she saw there, what a palm reader would.

“Kuixian,” he said, his thumb rubbing against her skin again. “This scar.”

“What scar?” she asked, and leaned in. It was a thin line, silvery, running parallel to the natural lines across her skin. It was like looking at the hand of a stranger.

“It was a knife, while cutting meat,” he said. “It slipped, and I wrapped it myself, stopped it from bleeding and kissed it. Do you know it?”

“No. I’ve never… I’ve never seen it until you turned my hand over.”

He’d turned her hand, rubbed against her skin as though pushing away a disguise, like some concealer had been there, covering up what was true. Unless it was another kind of lie.

“But that’s not possible,” she said. “I’m not from here. Something didn’t just restore me back to factory settings. And you don’t even know what that means!”

“If they took your memories, if they just put you—“

“Where I come from isn’t like here. You can’t even imagine how different it is. People don’t live in huts. There are machines that fly. Almost no one uses fire. Magic created these barriers, you said, but can it really create a different world?”

“But you’re here now,” Zhou Mi insisted, like her whole other life just didn’t exist for him. “You have her scars.”

“What’s another one? Another mark on her skin that she wasn’t born with.”

Zhou Mi actually paused, cataloguing what he knew of his wife.

“The inside of her ankle,” he said, and she bared hers. The skin there was smooth and unmarked. Also, a few days unshaven, but she couldn’t be concerned with that as he made a sound. “No, it was there. A line, straight across from a branch that scratched her.”

“But there’s nothing there,” Kyuhyun told him, and she even rubbed against the skin herself as though that would reveal some scar she couldn’t remember.

“But it was there. Maybe it had healed,” he said. He reached, and when she didn’t move, he ran his finger tips down over the skin. “I don’t understand, I—“

There was a faint dark mark. Not a scar, but a mark like a wound healing, no wider than his fingertips. She blinked, as he turned her ankle to see better, and there it was, running along almost the whole side, the dark mark that hadn’t been there moments before. It didn’t rub away when she touched it, didn’t hurt as the brand had. It was just there, like the scar on her hand. And that was when she looked to Zhou Mi, grasping for explanations.

“Are you magic?” Kyuhyun asked, and Zhou Mi shook his head.

“No! I mean, yes, but not very. I have very low levels of absorbing pain and healing, but I can’t create a wound. Create one that’s already healing? Or transfer scars.”

“Even if you want it to be there badly enough?” she pressed.

“No. No. The brand on your shoulder, that appeared, and I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t make this.”

She repeated to herself, how impossible it was, until she realized that Zhou Mi was nearly shaking. It wasn’t difficult to lean into him, to let him put his arms around her after she had wrapped the blanket a little tighter around herself, to breathe against his chest as he whispered things to her that she could not understand.

But what Kyuhyun leaned against wasn’t warm, not like Zhou Mi was. They were the pillows on her bed, and she was on top of the sheets, blankets, and just starting to get chilly. She turned the switch on the lamp and examined her hand. A scar, there on her palm. And a healing mark, on the inside of her ankle.

And outside of her window, five stories down, was Seoul, fast asleep.


Part two

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January 2017


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