coley_merrin: (Butterfly music)
[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.



***

The barista had stared at Kyuhyun like she had lost her mind, ordering a cold tea when it was blowing snow. She didn’t know why she had even, poking at the beveled bottom edge and watching little bubbles on the inside float to the surface. It had been something to do, something good and familiar, and uncomplicated. She got drinks, and went to… She went to movies, and restaurants, and she knew the keys of her laptop better than she knew her own fingers. It had been a week, full of days, since she had seen Zhou Mi last. The mark on her ankle was still there, maybe still fading a little though she couldn’t tell much difference even with the pictures she took. Her body wasn’t supposed to be a crime scene that she had to check for evidence. And she definitely wasn’t supposed to have to wait, feeling like she was only half living while waiting, fearing, hoping she was going to see Zhou Mi again and find out more about what was happening. To him, to her, it didn’t matter any more because it was so convoluted. It made her angry, packing up her books and throwing away the rest of her drink. She wound on her gloves, her scarf, and burrowed in as she trudged into the snow.

If she just knew when it would happen, that would help. How. How she ended up going there, seeing Zhou Mi, or how she came back only a moment later in the same place. She edged to the side, dodging a woman lumbering down the street. She gave a startled little squeak when she stopped short up against a man in her path.

“I’m sorry, I’m so—“

Over his shoulder, trees.

And Kyuhyun looked up to see Zhou Mi staring down at her.

“Kuixian?” he asked, like she’d just…

She’d just appeared. Kyuhyun shuddered, pulling the scarf down from around her face and breathing the warmer air of Zhou Mi’s cell. Outside, in the trees she saw, snow was filtering down but where she was, she hadn’t expected.

“How did you get here?” he asked, rubbing his hand along the soft material of her coat, at least until she started shrugging out of it, way too hot in the heated room. Her gloves, her bag, her coat, they all fell in a heap as she stared down at the little puddle her boots were making on the floor. Wet from the snow that as melting off of them.

“I was just walking, and I stepped aside to avoid someone. She was making a habit of that, losing herself while traveling. But Zhou Mi looked good, if tired. He looked less devastated than he had the last time, and curious, playing with the cuff of her fuzzy sweater. At least she was dressed that time.

“This is nice. I’ve been thinking, since you were here. I was missing being able to talk to you,” he said.

To her, but the person he spoke of was his wife. She was merely a stand-in, and she was okay with that for a time anyway. He looked at her and saw hope, wanted to believe that his wife was still alive, somewhere, whether it was in her or in the next room over. He drew her in, holding her, just holding her against him as he breathed. They both jerked at a sound, but it was just the popping of wood in the fireplace, and he laughed against her hair.

“I’m sorry. I’m worried, now. They have been coming to see me more, recently. I feel…” Zhou Mi shook his head, his arms tightening around her for a moment. “It feels like they’re worried, but I’m not sure about what. They check and they double check the security of this prison, and they ask me over and over if I think you are dead. I’ve cried for them already, but it has begun making me angry instead. The way they taunt.”

“Do you think they know about me coming here?” she wondered.

“I don’t know. It’s easier to act distressed since your visits. But it’s difficult to play their games.”

Kyuhyun propped her chin on his shoulder and considered for a moment. They were suspicious, worried, prodding, and that did not bode well.

“You have to be cautious,” she warned. “If they think they are not controlling you, maybe keeping you locked away will be more trouble than killing you would be.”

“If they had been able to, I think they would have already. They can wait for my death but little else. Still, keeping me beaten down would mean less worry for them. When we were married, the protection of my blood was passed to—“

Zhou Mi’s words stumbled to a halt, and Kyuhyun gripped his forearms as he tugged her back to steady herself.

“To you! My father was a deeply suspicious man, having overcome several coups as a military leader. He is the one who wove this magic into our family line, and only one of my blood or the mate of my body can be protected by it. Our blood mingled the day of our wedding. They said… They said they had broken the magic protecting you and killed you. But if that was true, then they would have killed me, too. Because the magic in you is no different, no less strong.”

“Unless they need you alive or some other reason,” she said. There were always possibilities, but he shrugged those off, focused instead on his revelation.

“And Yina, she was protected at the moment of her first breath. There have to be people around that are still loyal to us. I wonder…if they were told we were dead. If they think we abandoned them or betrayed them.”

They both looked toward the trees, where the smoke of the burning village had been.

“Life is more than this, if you can get out of here,” she told him. Even if he had to start his life anew, it was worth it.

“Kuixian.”

He looked more like a lost child, then, one desperately in need of answers and sleep. What answers she wanted to know were less important then. The fact that she knew that her life was in danger just by being there faded just a little, too. She didn’t know what to make of the magic, so even if they couldn’t kill her, if she was truly protected, that didn’t mean they couldn’t hurt her. She entertained again the idea that she was truly Zhou Mi’s wife, that her memories had been replaced. Something fantastical to explain the visions and occurrences that led to her waking in strange beds, and soothing a man by stroking his hair - a man she had never met in her life before everything that had happened. She’d seen him, spoken to him in Seoul, but those felt like strange, pale comparisons. The Zhou Mi in front of her was fighting the urge to jump out of his skin with the want to do something about his situation, fingers tightening, lips moving, as though he could keep himself from it.

She wondered if sleep would be kinder to him than his reality. His prison.

“Kuixian,” he said again, his fingers catching at a lock of her hair and lifting to brush her cheek. “Darling. My darling. I’ve missed you so much.”

She covered his hand with hers, holding it there against her face, and she closed her eyes, absorbing the warmth of it. But even if she could not see it, she could imagine Zhou Mi’s grief, his need to know, his need for her to be real. She was, in many ways. He could see her, touch her. He protected her, even not knowing if she was his wife. When he said her name, she heard his anguish, his love.

“Xiao Mimi,” Kyuhyun murmured, and her throat tightened on the words, as tears welled in his eyes. And she squeaked, startled, when he pulled her closer, searching her face greedily.

“You— My Kyuhyun, my Kuixian calls me that,” he said.

She thought of her visions, her dreams, of a time she would have heard it, a time she would have heard the Kyuhyun of his life say it. But she hadn’t watched his Kuixian in those dreams, she had been her.

“I’ve never— I didn’t know,” she stumbled out. “What does that mean?”

Zhou Mi shook his head, as much at a loss as she was. If she stared at him long enough, his hope in it would just start to bleed right through her. And she couldn’t just stay there, give him hope, when they both weren’t sure if his wife was out there right then, waiting to be rescued, trying to escape to find him just as diligently as Zhou Mi was.

If Kyuhyun was his wife, but not, as her visions of him in her world had been, perhaps there was a way for her to leave. Outside of the room he was imprisoned in, perhaps there were answers. As she was, she was only a source of more questions, fears, and probably pain. The door would burn her, he said, when he had warned her. As a prison, it was effective, as all the exits would cause unimaginable pain and potentially death. By her estimation, she could be terribly injured, or be sent back to her own world as she had been before. Or more fantastically, she could pass without problem. There was a man in pain, a man she at the very least cared about as a human being. There was a missing woman. A missing child, one she had vivid memories of. So it wasn’t for Zhou Mi alone that she pulled on her coat and picked up her bag. It was nonchalance, like she was inspecting the door for curiosity’s sake. Zhou Mi’s captors came through it, somehow. So that meant that here had to be a way. If she passed through unscathed, her only goal would be to remain unseen. She reached with her fingertips, holding her breath and half closing her eyes.

“Kuixian, no!”

Her head turned just in time to see Zhou Mi reaching for her - as her hand passed the barrier.

The fire swept over her, or at least that was what it looked like, red and gold and heat. Every inch of her skin prickled, like gooseflesh crossed with static electricity.

She shrieked, tripping over the doorstop and onto the ground. Her hands stung, her knees, as she gasped and listened. Tires on pavement. Wind. Music faintly in the background. She’d fallen from one door and out another, onto a sidewalk. Behind her, her book bag, in some kind of heap, like it had followed her out—

Through a door.

Kyuhyun stumbled to her feet, touching the glass door, pulling on the handle. Locked. The building was unmarked, a cafe beside it. There were no windows, nothing inside through the door that she could see. Shadows, and a floor, and flickering light just out of sight. And when she looked around, she realized she was just down the street from when she had stumbled into Zhou Mi’s room not an hour before. She wondered if she’d just disappeared from where she’d been walking, edging along the buildings and wondering just what she was going to do.

Kyuhyun had a picture of the door and building, and she hiked back to the nearest subway through the snow. Perhaps there was a way to get back through, once she’d rested and thought about what had happened. There had to be a way out of Zhou Mi’s prison, not just for her but for him. And knowing what she did, if he did not have memory of her, she wondered if the person she saw in Seoul was Zhou Mi at all. If that was true, she had to be cautious. She was no longer searching for her dream man.

She was trying to save him.

***

Trying to unlock hidden memories through meditation was a total bust. Kyuhyun’s mind kept skipping and trying to focus on herself, on Zhou Mi’s face, on the brand on her shoulder, all she had were the memories she already had, the ones she wasn’t even sure of. And she didn’t have years or even weeks to become some kind of a master. It wasn’t all interesting crime scene work like she was in some kind of tech show, and there weren’t any books she could consult. She started looking up ways to neutralize magical force fields and blood magic and got a lot of role playing games and fantasy books. She could’ve found out instantly how to rebuild a small motor, but nothing that could have actually helped Zhou Mi.

Or herself. Because helping Zhou Mi was great, a wonderful goal and not in the least selfless, because she came back with all that drive and all that motivation, and it felt like the whole world stopped around her when she heard a child crying. It only felt like she started breathing again when she spotted the little boy clinging to his mother and crossing the street away from her. Not a child that was alone, or a child abandoned. Not the daughter that Kyuhyun saw sometimes, the one who was almost assuredly cut off from both of her parents. Even if Yina could not be killed as Zhou Mi hoped, there were so many ways to endanger a child, stunt her emotionally. That child was the innocent victim in all of it. Zhou Mi and his wife, they had been adults, leaders.

Kyuhyun wandered the places she had been when she had seen Zhou Mi. The grocery store, though she questioned if that had been him. The gym and the ghostly figure. The subway, where she had seemed to have fallen through and met him. But the subway had no further answers for her. She tried different cars, different trains.

“No,” she said, and her boots clattered on the non-slip surface of the subway car. She tried to turn back, to get out before the train started, but she bumped into a man, and the doors closed. No, it had worked before. She went in through the same door, from the same platform. Nothing had changed, but it hadn’t taken her to Zhou Mi. There had been no catalyst, perhaps. But what catalyst that could have been, she didn’t know. She’d been sleeping, or unconscious or not even thinking of Zhou Mi. It had been an anomaly, and there was nothing about the place that she could even fathom would make a difference.

It was research that drew her to the library, a home of books that at least gave her the pretend feeling that she was finding information. It wasn’t as though there was some practical guide to magic there, some history book of Zhou Mi’s land that would give her a clue. She wanted some long forgotten map to fall out of a history book, some scholar to come up beside her and regale her of times long ago.

Maybe there was a painting of Zhou Mi somewhere, in a land where his type of magic didn’t exist. It was wishful thinking, the research librarian, on hearing the titles that Kyuhyun remembered from her talk of literature with Zhou Mi turned up nothing. But he had known one story she had read, and that book she checked out, a compilation of others from the same author but also the same time period. It was a connection, somewhere to start.

Kyuhyun stopped, swayed as she reached the far side of the library. Ahead of her, a busy street, to the right, the stairs going down to the subway. The air was cool, bracingly so, but her face tingled in the aftermath of a warm gust of air. An exhaust vent, maybe, except that when she inhaled, it was the scent of wood smoke that rushed through her, and her eyes blurred, unfocused, seeing in front of her a fireplace, the fire dancing on a hand-split log. It was as though if she walked forward, she could warm her hands by that fire, turning her head as she had been to smile at Zhou Mi and press him for answers. Zhou Mi’s fireplace. She reached for it, ready to step through, and felt her shoulder being caught, the warmth fading as she was spun around.

The man wore a coat just as she did, but it was his face that had her struggles stopping.

“Zhou Mi.”

He smiled, or the muscles in his face did anyway. It was no expression she had ever seen.

“Yes, I am Zhou Mi. Be careful,” he told her. “Don’t get too close. The fire burns.”

He’d seen it, too?

“What do you—“

The words died in her throat as a cold hand shoved her back. His hand was large and it pressed against her throat easily, turning breaths into chokes as she struggled and shoved at him. His other hand pressed with it, and his eyes gleamed as he watched her struggle.

“The fire burns,” he said again, and that wasn’t Zhou Mi’s voice, or Zhou Mi’s expression. Her face was flushing, her ears ringing, and she took her last shot, her last chance, pulling him closer and jamming her knee up until he was grunting, falling under her shoving hands. She took a breath, the cold air burning her throat and lungs and her eyes streaming but she could breathe. She ran. She ran so far, and so long, that she at first did not know where she was, looking around to find a landmark. Anything. She was two stations away from the door she had fallen out of, and it was madness to think she could somehow go back that way. Madness to think she’d come out the door to begin with. She shook, her face hidden in her hood and against her bag as she stood near the subway car door and felt it rattle and sway.

But still she scanned her card and ran from the subway station, and tried not to shake, to cry. The stairs were no match for her, her breath rushing out and her throat aching as she forced herself up and up. She was gasping, horrified by how far she still had to go, but every pounding step was with purpose. She didn’t care if she looked possessed, sprinting down a relatively busy stretch of sidewalk.

The door was there, just as it had been in her memory. It stood out no more than any other door, had changed in not even the slightest way.

Except that when her hand closed around the handle and pulled, it opened for her. And when she staggered toward the flickering light, her whole body flushed and tingled. The room she fell to her knees in was half lit by fire, half by lamp light, and Zhou Mi rose from the bed in dark silk.

“Kuixian!”

And she reached for him.

She thought better of it in the next moments, as he pulled her up and almost against him, and the image of him - not-him from her reality - swept over her.

“Can’t—“

“Here,” he said, helping her to the bed. “Sit. Lie down. Catch your breath. Kuixian. Oh. Your neck.”

“I’m okay,” she protested, although she wasn’t sure of that. She could breathe, at least. “Please just. Let me breathe.”

“I’ll get you water,” he decided, and paced away to do just that. It allowed her a moment to gather herself, not only from the trauma, but from the surprise of being there at all. Perhaps her will had propelled her through the door. Or maybe something else.

She accepted the silver cup from him, drinking gratefully as he tried not to hover.

“There is a version of you in my world,” she said finally, touching her neck, tense like she would have to run again. “I— He tried to kill me. He gave me your name, and wrapped his hands around my neck.”

“Kuixian.”

In only her name there was so much horror, so much concern that it had her curling her hands tight to keep her emotions in control. He knelt on the floor, extending one hand so slowly to rest beside hers on the mattress.

“I know we wondered of him being me in some other time, but I cannot think of a place or time where I would hurt you.”

“If you were controlled?”

“Or perhaps someone fashioned to look like me?” Zhou Mi said. “There is magic that can do that. If you exist there, were taken there, perhaps they were able to—“

His words trailed off, his breathing hard as he seemed to stare holes into the blanket. Of all the dreams she’d had, not one of them had been of Zhou Mi being cruel. The feelings she’d experienced in the dreams, over their meetings, had been admiration, attraction. A feeling that she had once loved him more than she really could even imagine. She had never once been afraid.

She covered his hand with hers, a barest touch, and he looked up at her with such anger and regret.

“If I could leave this cell, I would protect you.”

“I’d enjoy watching you learn everything new about my world,” she mused. “But…I know.”

“May I?” he asked, and she saw his intent in the way he was preparing to move. And yes, yes she wanted that, needed that.

“Please.”

He met her eyes, mysterious and yet still somehow well-known, and rose. But as he loomed over her, and then sat beside her so she could press against his chest, she did not fear him. His touch was so gentle on her back, her side, but his arms were strong. It gave her time to think, breathing his scent, feeling his heartbeat begin to slow as his head pressed a little closer to hers. The man had looked so much like Zhou Mi, had sounded like Zhou Mi. She touched her throat, sore to the touch.

“Is my throat bruised?” she asked, tilting her head back so he could see.

“It’s darker than when you appeared,” Zhou Mi said. “Why?”

The idea was still forming, as she pressed her face against his neck. Zhou Mi, but not. A man she could not tell apart.

“I have that mark between worlds. The brand, the scars, the injuries,” she said, her fingers curling tight in his shirt.

“Yes?” he answered.

“Would it not be also true for you? If that is you, then you would bear the brand, and the scars. If it were magic, would that be true?”

The fingers tracing an inch square of her spine stilled as he thought. Somehow, she could almost hear her thoughts racing into him.

“No. It would be my build, my face. Things that are intrinsically me. After birth, though, I changed. Those are unique me alone. He would not bear the brand. But you could not know that unless he bared his body to you— Oh.” Zhou Mi eased her back, eyes determined. “But if I were marked where you could see, you would know it was not me. Not a vision, but untrue. My face.”

Zhou Mi pushed himself onto his feet, and Kyuhyun grabbed for him, stopping him not two steps further.

“Not your face,” she said, horrified.

“To keep you safe—“

“It only needs to be somewhere he won’t have covered. Your arm. Your hand.”

“He could wear gloves,” Zhou Mi said, the set of his jaw stubborn.

“He could wear a mask,” she countered. “Not your face.”

He would have hacked at himself with a knife, or burned himself with a stick if he’d been allowed to act at will. She stared at him with exasperated affection. She didn’t want an ugly scar there to remind her of whatever horrors were happening. There had to be a better way to accomplish it.

“If only we could put my name there also,” she said.

And he stared at her as though she’d said something brilliant.

“We can! Kuixian, we can. The brand made for our wedding, it’s in my trunk. It was all I had left of you before I was brought here.”

She stayed close to his side as he unearthed it, felt the solid iron and traced the lines of the first character of her name. But it wasn’t until after he’d taken it from her, and heated it in the fire that she truly understood what it meant.

“Perhaps there’s another way. I’ll identify him another way. You don’t have to hurt yourself.”

“Don’t watch,” he told her.

And in the end she had to look away, but he had not been able to muffle the hiss of pain. The metal had not had to be so very hot to mark his skin, and she was glad of that. But she was in his arms as he rested his hand in a pail of cool water to dull the pain.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Anything to keep you safe,” he breathed against her hair.

Yes. The woman he loved, that was true. No, she could not even have doubted that. For his wife, he had marked his own skin, would have again had she been the woman he’d been waiting for. For her, to him she both was and was not that woman. And yet still he was willing to cause himself pain if it meant even a chance - not even a guarantee - of protecting her.

“Would he have been able to kill me? With the magic that you gave your wife?”

Zhou Mi shook his head. “I don’t know. It doesn’t prevent harm. But it would have preserved the spark in you even if he would have thought you had died. If he had done more.”

“He warned me. It felt like he was warning me away from you. I saw your fire, like some kind of a vision, but I felt the heat of it as though if I reached, I would be here with you. He kept me from coming to you. He told me… The fire burns. Not to get close.”

“It’s as though they’re afraid of something,” Zhou Mi said, moving his hand a little deeper into the cold water.

“Afraid of me remembering you?”

She had said it, not him, but his cheek rubbed against her hair as they both considered the possibility. If she didn’t remember, then she would no longer look for Zhou Mi. If she didn’t want to find him, she wouldn’t try to discover more about him and his world. She hadn’t done anything different than usual, but she’d found the book. They’d look at it, before she left. Maybe there was something there that she wasn’t even aware of yet.

“His balls will be sore a while,” Kyuhyun muttered, even the feeling of swallowing paining her. “I kneed him to get away.”

“Good. Maybe that will keep him away from you.”

Though they both knew that if Kyuhyun’s life was what he sought, or the will to keep her away from Zhou Mi, that something so small wouldn’t stop him.

But even the book was unhelpful, because as it was written, Zhou Mi couldn’t read it. It made Kyuhyun skim it, summarizing as Zhou Mi shook his head as she listed story after story. He’d known just the one, and even the language of that could have been something repeated from a different time or different language.

“It’s sad,” she said. “A story of a woman cut off from her family and unable to go home.”

“She does go home, though,” Zhou Mi said.

“Not in this version. She grows old, alone, only dreaming of them. She never sees them again.”

“That is a terrible ending. Does someone want you giving up?” Zhou Mi demanded.

“That’s not possible. The book was written years ago.”

“The one story that we both know, and your version is sad?”

“There are many stories where different versions have been passed down,” Kyuhyun argued. “Stories change from their origins. If someone heard the story of what was happening to me, they’d get me to a doctor. Not only dreaming now, or showing up here, but starting to see things, too.”

“What do you mean? You saw the fire, saw it almost as some sort of doorway. You’re not just seeing things.”

Kyuhyun exhaled. “Sometimes, I just want my life back.”

“Which one?” Zhou Mi asked, and she couldn’t look at him, shaking her head. “You know what I hope, Kuixian. I thought you were some kind of ghost brought back to taunt me, and I thought you were a lie, and that you were dead. Every time you come to me I believe more and more. You have the marks of a life the woman I married lived. You know things that only she could know. There is someone in your world who looks like me who is desperate to keep you from looking for me, who wants you to think I’m a monster, and why?”

Kyuhyun swallowed hard, the tightness in her throat from the tears she was trying to hold back only making it ache more.

“When he hurt me, my only thought was to get to you. To come here, to find you. I felt like I was losing my mind, and I wanted to save you. But why? If I’m—”

Her voice broke and Zhou Mi leaned his forehead against hers, letting her cry, his breath as equally ragged as hers was.

“This is not the home I made for you, beloved. But this only feels like a prison when you leave me.”

How horrible that her world, the world she knew as her only home was more dangerous, more cruel and impossible to understand than Zhou Mi’s prison cell. But he sat with her until her breathing calmed, until the trickle of tears on his own cheeks had dried.

“I will continue to try to find a link in my world,” she said, wrestling tissues out of her bag and trying to not look ridiculous wiping her nose while Zhou Mi was watching her. That she even cared worried her.

“If that is what you were doing today, then it’s dangerous,” Zhou Mi said. “Maybe you should not.”

“If I can’t, then who will?” she demanded. “You are confined to this place. And if there is someone out there who thinks I shouldn’t, then I must be doing the right thing. Maybe there is something in this book, a way to break down the shield, a way to get you out. A way to find my way here when I need to.”

And what she didn’t say was, maybe even a way to stay.

She looked at the dark pink mark on Zhou Mi’s hand. They’d done all they could. But she couldn’t give up, because that meant accepting things as they were, some half life of feeling wrong in both places - not fully Zhou Mi’s wife, and not fully the woman she’d thought she’d been in her own world.

It felt right, when she decided she’d hidden away long enough. But picking up her things and getting ready to leave should have had her worried, and instead it was Zhou Mi who hovered, sliding his hand along her coat sleeve.

“Are you sure? You can stay. You can have my bed. We can talk more.”

She would be safe there, he meant. He could know she was safe, because he could see her and touch her.

“I can’t help you from in here,” she said, staring from wall to cell wall. “There’s an answer out there, somewhere. I’ll keep myself safe.”

She’d buy some pepper spray. She’d buy a knife. She’d stop using the subway. Zhou Mi pulled her against his chest, hugging her and huffing into her hair.

“I never could tell you what to do.”

“Would you marry someone you could just boss around?”

“No,” Zhou Mi agreed, and Kyuhyun breathed into Zhou Mi’s shoulder, staying still as his hand lifted, tentative, stroking her hair. Did she kiss his cheek or would it be weird. Too weird, she thought. Too much, maybe. She didn’t want him to misunderstand, and the hug between them was just that. A comfort, and maybe Zhou Mi’s way of trying to imbue her with his protection and both rewrite and relive the memory of holding his wife.

“Have one of those waiting for me when I get back,” she joked, bumping her fist against his chest.

And he smiled when he took her meaning, nodding. “Always.”

Her hand slid to his, tightening on it as they both looked to the door barrier that she had both left from, and fallen through.

“Do you still worry if I’ll burn when I go through there?”

Zhou Mi shook his head, and then nodded once. “I can’t help myself. It’s not safe out there, but it’s not here either. And I know I would’ve seen the flames the last time if it had hurt you. You just sort of sparkled and then disappeared.”

“A life goal I never knew I had,” Kyuhyun said, imagining it. It sounded close to what it had felt like, too, only without the tripping and falling. “I wish I could see it.”

“When will you be back?”

That, neither of them knew.

***

The coffee was supposed to wake Kyuhyun up, an essay that was growing increasingly unimportant to her moldering in her bag. That was bad for a number of reasons, because she felt like if she stopped focusing on her life, then Zhou Mi’s world was all that mattered. It worried her, in a way, repeating facts about her own life as she ran her fingertips over the brand on her shoulder. She hadn’t just dreamed that. But her classes at that point were the only thing that felt normal, and if completing an essay on ocean shipping routes was what she needed to do, then that was what she needed to do. It wasn’t going to help her help Zhou Mi, but it was going to keep her centered at least.

A series of snowflakes blasted into her cheek as she stepped out onto the sidewalk. Winter was going to keep her on her toes, one way or another, but the to-go cup was warm despite it. It was halfway to her stop when she heard the singing, a lull of a tune on a soft voice. A street performer, maybe, someone struggling to stay warm while hoping for people to notice, to care. She looked for him, frowning when she realized no one else was stopping, no one listening to the song. No one else was drawn to it, too caught up in their lives and where they were going. The air seemed to shimmer, people passing her, unaware, as she pressed a hand against the cold wall. But there was no man there sitting in the falling snow and hoping for people to notice. Instead she saw long sleeves, cloth being pressed and folded by familiar hands. Zhou Mi’s hands. And her whole body jolted at the bright pink scar of a burn there above his thumb. He was so close, and she almost leaped forward.

Snow no longer fell on her, and people kept walking even as the sound of them faded and the singing echoed around her like she was in a hollow before she emerged, somehow, on the other side.

The wind and the echo halted, and heat rushed over her as she stopped, gasping. She was no longer on the street, but in Zhou Mi’s cell with the fire burning to her left and Zhou Mi stared at her where he’d been folding something. She’d seen him. She’d heard him from her world. At least Zhou Mi didn’t just blink at her like it was commonplace to see a woman appear in his room.

“Kuixian!”

Zhou Mi stepped toward her before pausing and then closing the gap. He’d remembered, she thought, carefully holding her cup as she hugged him back. He smelled ever so faintly of wood and smoke, and the cloying dampness that pervaded the room even with the fire. But he also smelled of him, and the scent of it was as comforting as that of cooking rice. But it was not entirely comfort, and that realizing had her pushing back, smiling up at him.

And realizing, she wasn’t the only one smelling things, as he looked toward the cup she held. Oh. Her coffee.

“What is that?” he asked, tilting his head and inhaling as though trying to place the scent.

“A hazelnut latte. Coffee,” she clarified, though it did not real good since he still had the look of one who didn’t know what she was talking about. “It’s a drink. It’s good. Bitter, but good. Want to try it?”

It wasn’t too hot to drink any more, so she didn’t have to warn him of that. But she did take the lid off, letting him half a look at the light brown liquid. If they were right, she’d already swapped some genetics with him, so him drinking out of her cup wasn’t a big deal.

“I see,” he said, though it didn’t seem like he saw at all. Still, he took the cup and tilted it, cautious. And his face did something fascinating, when he took his first sip. It was a part of a grimace, but one that was thoughtful as he moved his lips. “It is bitter, but it is…”

He was searching for a word, but it clearly wasn’t coming to him as he looked down into the cup. But she nodded, giving him the go-ahead when he asked with a look if he could try another sip.

“You can have the rest of it,” she told him.

She didn’t think she needed the caffeine any more. He seemed more pleased with his next taste, though still cautious. And his face lit up, holding up a hand like she would disappear before his thought completed. He took something from the table, turning back to her.

“I have something for you. I saved this from the food they brought me,” Zhou Mi said, offering her the piece of cloth and the little baked good on it. “I saved it every day, hoping you would be here.”

“And when I wasn’t?” Kyuhyun asked, looking up for it.

Zhou Mi shrugged. “Extra for my next breakfast,” he said.

That made her laugh a little, but food was food, and this wasn’t Hades and some kind of pomegranate seed. What looked like some kind of biscuit was actually sweet, some kind of fruit pureed into the baking that kept it from being cloying.

“How did you know…” she started, before trailing off. How did Zhou Mi know she had a sweet tooth? Probably because his wife had had one. Had one. Still, she shed her coat and her bag, settling beside him on a blanket not far from the fire. “Oh. I heard you singing.”

“It fills the space,” Zhou Mi said. “It makes me lighter.”

“The strange thing is that I didn’t just hear you when I got here,” Kyuhyun clarified. “I was walking in my world, and I heard you. You remember when I had seen your fire? Like it was some kind of portal. I was somewhere else entirely, and I heard you singing. And it was like the air parted, and I could see you, too, standing and smoothing cloth with your hands. I saw the brand.”

Zhou Mi touched it, his fingertips sliding over the still-healing skin. “You could see me from your world?”

“As clear as if you were in front of me. But no one else could see you. They were walking past me, past you, like nothing was happening. Before with the fire, when he stopped me I saw through this portal just like what happened tonight. Only this time, I walked through it and no one stopped me.”

“That person who doesn’t want you here,” Zhou Mi mused.

“But there are other portals, other doors. In my sleep, the doorway here that I have fallen through and gone back through. It never leads to anywhere but here, but so many places in my world. I’d been thinking about doing my homework. I’d just needed that normalcy, and then here I am again.”

“I’m glad you are. I’m glad, because we can think this through together,” Zhou Mi said, frowning so fiercely that she might have been concerned if she hadn’t begun to know him better. “If only the person you saw looked of himself and not of me, then we could see if it was someone I could recognize.”

“Was there anyone angry with you when you married?”

Zhou Mi thought, but even then he was shaking his head. “No. You nor I knew of any other suitors, and we had been meant for each other for some time before we wed. No. It is not someone in a jealous haze who would keep you from me.”

“But you thought before that maybe they were trying to keep me from you, from remembering you.”

“You were remembering before you came here, though. Before I ever touched you. Before you brought your…coffee.”

Kyuhyun laughed, staring down at the crumbs left on the cloth. “At least there was no one trying to kill me this time. I did buy something to protect myself with, in case. I wasn’t thinking of finding you, so they wouldn’t have known. That sounds too fantastic.”

“Yes. How would they know your thoughts, or what books you read, or where you go?” Zhou Mi said, frowning. “Even with magic, they could not see into you. Your mind is your own. And you would notice if there was one of me following you, surely.”

“I could hardly not notice, as tall as you are.”

He smirked a bit at her at that, still thoughtful. “But I’m glad it wasn’t danger that brought you.”

Not overt, anyway. As long as Zhou Mi was in his cell, there was danger. But there was so much possibility, too, when she stared at the mark on his hand and nearly reached to feel the brand on her shoulder as well.

"Why don't you talk about her more to me?" Kyuhyun wondered, realizing that they spoke of her, of him, of almost everything but his relationship with his wife. He actually swallowed, turning to her and abandoning the paper cup to wrap her hand in his. His voice was low, and urgent, like he was willing her to understand.

"I want to. All the time I want to bring up memories and see if they spark in you or tell you of something I loved of her. But what if they made you doubt yourself or created false memories? It feels wrong, still. But I—“

It almost choked him up, and she had let herself forget in her confusion and her quest, just how badly he was affected to see her and have her not be all he was hoping for. No, that wasn’t fair. He was glad to see her, and she thought not only just for the possibilities she carried with her. They were partners, of a sort, protecting each other.

“If I stay here long enough, would a portal just open back up to my world?” she wondered.

“Would you stay long enough to risk it?”

Maybe she’d swapped back and forth between her world and his long enough, but it was a feeling that told her that she couldn’t stay much longer. The time she had there was finite, and he did not question her on it, merely holding out an arm and pressing his cheek against the top of her when she leaned into him. He smelled of coffee, which was ridiculous and soothing all at once.

“I’ll come back,” Kyuhyun told.

It was a tug, almost a feeling of foreboding, that had her gathering her things. She listened for sounds from the hallway, but there were none, and she tugged her hair out from under her coat, getting herself ready to leave the pleasant warmth and plunge back into the city’s chill. And that wasn’t just because she was leaving a man who seemed to like holding onto her.

But he wasn’t alone in that, because when she was ready, she got close to the door’s barrier and turned back, pressing against him and letting that long hug be their goodbye and whatever words they had stored up until the next time. But it was true, that Zhou Mi barely spoke to her of his life, of his wife, his memories, keeping them bottled up with fear and hope. But there was one thing that she did want to know, one thing she didn’t think that would be crossing the line to ask him of it. She half suspected, but she also yearned to know.

“What’s the one thing you miss the most?” Kyuhyun asked, her voice almost hushed for how close they were.

Zhou Mi’s lips parted before he faltered. Maybe a million things ran through his mind, or a handful. But it didn’t matter as he shook his head. “Everything,” he said.

The smile that touched his face as he said it, as he considered her, had her eyes stinging.

“I’ll be back soon,” she said, and wasn’t afraid that it could be untrue. She knew she would be back. The barrier fizzed over her skin, leaving her standing on the stoop with her breath leaving white clouds ahead of her as she wiped the tears from her cheeks.

***

It was a specific sort of sweep, starting the glass door outside of the coffee shop and then to the wall by the library, and the street where Kyuhyun had heard Zhou Mi singing. She was looking for clues, something that connected them. Anything, really, including a portal opening up again. There was certainly no connection to her bed, and the subway car that she’d disappeared through wasn’t even on a line that connected everything. In other words, the only thing she could tell that connected everything was that she had been there, and so had Zhou Mi. Kyuhyun saw different places of his room, appeared at different times, and in different parts of it. She’d been lying in her bed and wondering if Zhou Mi was sleeping, too, and it was the strangest thought. But when she went out, not just when she was checking those places or using her student card to get into the history museum, she felt like she was being watched. It was prickles of paranoia that had her gritting her teeth and clutching her pepper spray, but there was no familiar tall head in the crowd, and there were no artifacts that spoke to her of Zhou Mi.

The only thing Kyuhyun found that day that reminded her of Zhou Mi was the coffee that she bought, feeling the lingering warmth of it in her hand and her belly as she stared at a text from her mother.

“Make sure your grades aren’t slipping. You need to focus on your school and not on other things.”

But her mother didn’t pick up when Kyuhyun called her, and the picture of her smiling between her parents only made her spine tighter.

“Mom, when you get this message, call me back. Please, we haven’t talked in…” When. Weeks. Months? “Are you using this number any more? Please call me back.”

The phone beeped as she hung up, and she stared at the contact information. She knew her parents, of course. Her father liked his tea on misty evenings, sitting on cushions her mother had made herself as he recounted teaching that day.

But that didn’t make sense, because the woman in the photo had never sewn in her life, and she had never sat with her father in firelight, watching the sun die behind the mountains.

The memories she had were not from the city. But beside her father, she remembered a symbol. It had been something embroidered on one of Zhou Mi’s robes. The crest of his family. Her father taught at the school of Zhou Mi’s family. Her family wasn’t some mockery who never kept in touch, something that was just a pretty picture on her phone.

“Thank you, Mama,” she murmured, and stepped out into the brisk wind and falling snow. It was a connection, a real one, and she intended to find more, even as the smile on her face faded when she saw Zhou Mi’s.

It was not a portal, not like the others, but a flesh and blood man standing in front of her with a yellow band on his wrist.

“Kyuhyun,” he said, and the word seemed strange from his mouth. It was not how Zhou Mi called her. He reached for her, and between his thumb and forefinger, there was no brand.

It was Zhou Mi’s smile, but it was not Zhou Mi.

And he shrieked as the pepper spray hit his eyes. It gave her the ability to avoid his hand, and run. She’d careened only three, four steps around a corner before a hand closing on her arm made her shoulder scream, turning back and trying to bowl him over, trying to discharge any remaining spray All she did was made him grip her arm harder, and her other arm was grasped, pulled.

She fought it, trying to lash out to her left and gasped because it was Zhou Mi’s face. Zhou Mi in front of her, Zhou Mi to the side of her. The man in front of her, his eyes were clear, no sign of being sprayed, and another man stood against her side, and another.

“Going somewhere?” she heard, and it was behind her, beside her. Not two, but four men with the same build, the same face. When she tried to scream, they gagged her, and as she fought their hold, they tied her legs, and then her arms behind her back. It wasn’t Zhou Mi, not her Zhou Mi, not the one she wanted. She had to remember that he wasn’t the one who hurt her.

The drive was endless, almost suffocating under a blanket in the back of a van. And then, when she was sweating and dizzy, it was only one Zhou Mi who pulled her into the freezing cold. They untied her arms only long enough to strip her of her coat, and then two men with the same face and build and smile dragged her up, out of the sight of the road, past trees that she could barely see through her tears and her pleading.

She grunted in pain as she rolled down a short embankment, landing on her side and trying to clear her nose of fluffy snow.

“Rest well, princess,” she heard. Zhou Mi’s voice, but not at all like him.

The cold seared through her sweater and jeans to her heated skin, spreading along her ribs, her thigh, soaking where she had rolled. She grunted, trying to look to where they had been, but they were gone, and her wrists were raw already from working the bonds in the van.

They meant for her to freeze to death, and she gasped in breaths, her heart banging against her ribs as she tried to think. Crying only made it harder to breathe, and she blinked away tears and falling snow as she tried to gather herself. She couldn’t roll uphill, but maybe she could crawl. She tried to get on her knees, tried to propel herself like some kind of human snake, and her knees slid on the slick leaves under the snow. Even that had her gasping for air, her lungs aching in the cold as it surrounded her like a living thing, and trying to use her knees again, her boots to get purchase. She got a good foot of progress like that.

And she began to shiver, her hair tangling wet around her face and neck as anger and the will to live propelled her to keep trying. If she could just get up this hill, she could roll, and hopefully get the attention of a passing car. She didn’t call the tears of desperation, but they came anyway burning her cheeks as she scraped her knees over rocks, dragging her shoulder and chest through the snow. It felt like she’d moved miles, but when she looked back - and she knew she shouldn’t have - she’d barely gone the length of her own body and just as much to go.

The cold was endless, and she struggled up again, putting all her energy to move up and not sideways. If she rolled back down, she knew she’d never make it back up again. Up, another push. Up, a strangled grunt and several inches gained. Up, and her knee slid but as she stayed still, she didn’t move, not forward, not back. Snow was falling harder, blanketing her in a fine layer as she struggled, and pushed, and stared toward the tree that was her goal. The flat. If she could just get there.

Her teeth were chattering when she lifted her head above the hill’s slope, when she looked toward where she could be saved. She’d gotten there. She could see the road. She pushed herself above the edge of the the hill and lay on her side, shivering, soaking, her skin numb and smarting with cold. She would just wait for a minute, just a minute. She’d get her breath back, her energy. It felt like her joints were frozen, when she tried again, her fingers, her toes, her ears burning. It hurt, every bone in her arms protesting as she tried to roll past a tree, gasping and shuddering as snow continued to pelt her. One more tree. One more.

Kyuhyun rested her cheek against the bark of it, and it felt warm against her face. Her skin didn’t burn any more. It felt like she could barely feel the roughness of it, and her shudders began to wane. If she just closed her eyes a minute, she could get herself under control, be able to move again. Sleeping was giving in, but her eyes felt so heavy, and the cold surrounded her so entirely.

The next tree was so far away, and it would hurt so much to get there.

The sound of tires, an engine, roused her from her indecision, her breath steaming out as she tried to shout, tried to roll and got halfway to the next tree, sobbing as the car kept going. She was never going to get there. No one was going to see her. No one was going to make it back to Zhou Mi to save him, to save Yina. He’d thought his wife was dead, but there she was, alive. She was trying for him. He’d married her the day of the full moon, bowed to her in his glory. He’d taken her hand, accepted her above all others, to be his, to have him as her own. Zhou Mi. Zhou Mi, whose smile had been brighter than the sun, that day, and he had whispered to her the name he would call her for all of their time together. He’d given her the protection of his blood and his body. He’d sworn to her. He’d sworn.

Kyuhyun didn’t notice when the shivers stopped, didn’t feel the snow that fell upon her face. She didn’t feel the hands that grasped at her, that cut her bonds, and freed her mouth. She wasn’t aware of the heater cranked to high, or the arms that carried her to the glass door beside a little coffee shop, or of being set inside it, cold, and so pale she was nearly as white as the snow she had been in.

***

Part three

***

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