There are more than twelve worlds of course, but here in the valley she can almost count the pools on her fingers, and some of them are still dark. Yerim shakes her hair to shed the water that isn’t really wet, disappearing into the air rather than flying out in droplets like it should if it obeyed the laws of matter.
It doesn’t. The sky flashes white, the grass purple before her hair settles back. The taste in her mouth is sweet, the sound of the bell still ringing in her ears.
Where was I? she wonders, trying to retrace her thoughts. Her skin runs with the phantom coolness of water, real water, droplets running down her skin as she emerged from the surface of a pool. Laughter. There’s a name on the tip of her tongue when she’s startled by a flash of light, something shining in her eyes. She squints, raising a hand to shade her gaze. There’s a figure on the hill, partially hidden by a copse of trees.
“Hey!” she calls, waving. The flash of light crosses her line of sight again, the sound of wind rushing in her ears along with the branches of the trees on the hill though the valley is still. Yerim blinks. When she looks for the figure again, it’s gone.
The blades of grass tickle the soles of her bare feet, almost sharp as she runs up the hill. The wind, so loud from her previous vantage point, is deceptively still now. Yerim pauses at the edge of the small wood, and lets her eyes adjust to the shadowy world beneath the canopy. It’s faint, but deeper in the trees she can hear the sound of something moving through the underbrush. The bark of the tree trunks is cool beneath her fingertips as she trails her hand along the path, memorizing the patterns of the forest.
The trill of a bird rings out from somewhere to her right, obscured by the trees. The sound is bright, almost like the ringing of bells and that, more than the sound itself, causes Yerim to deviate into the underbrush. She only sees the flickering of red feathers for a moment though, before the ground beneath her feet disappears and her reflection flies up from the silvery surface of an unexpected pool. The taste on her mouth is both bitter and sweet in turns, strongly green as she crashes down and then up as she breaks the surface of a bathtub.
Brown eyes meet hers, wide and wet, and her legs are tangled up in someone else’s as she blinks and brushes something out of her face. It’s dark and hard to see in the distant lights, but the smell of crushed roses is unmistakable.
“What—?” a voice splutters, cracking on the vowel. Fingers graze the side of her arm, but Yerim is quicker. Her fingers close around a water-slippery wrist, curling into a better grip before she pulls the stranger forward.
The boy’s—man’s?—face is pale, smeared with shifting swathes of colour from the city lights in the distance. He blinks, eyelashes blinking back droplets of water. Yerim’s thought swirl through her head and she wonders where she is. Before she has a chance to open her mouth, the wailing cry of a siren swells, humming through the air, before fading away into the low rumble of traffic that she now notices hangs in the air.
She shivers, stepping out of the bathtub, the water that’s soaked into her clothes now sluicing off onto the cement floor.
“Hi,” she says. The boy’s face wrinkles in confusion, eyes dark in the red flashing lights. A stream of water slips out of his hair and rolls off his brow bone. The ridiculousness of the situation swims up, the last drop too many as the surface tension breaks and the glass overflows. Yerim’s chin quivers for a moment, before she breaks into a bright peal of laughter.
“What—where—?” he sputters.
A shout rings from across the echoing space of the unfinished storey of the skyscraper. Yerim glances around, eyes darting from the sky to the cement to the water swishing in the tub. Her fingers are raking through the ripples, scooping up rose petals before her brain has quite caught up with the action.
“Here,” she says, and stuffs some in the boy’s mouth before filling her own. The water swallows them up before she has a chance to pull him down beneath the surface. Fingers tighten around hers, the bite of nails sharp against her skin as she holds her breath.
The sky swirls as gravity reverses and they fall out of the pool and onto the brambled bank.
“As I was saying,” Yerim continues, brushing the water from her dry clothes, “I’m Yerim. Who are you?” The taste on her tongue is sharply sweet but her mouth is empty.
The boy is gazing around with wide eyes, but he’s here, so he must belong in some way. His clothes are still dripping, the water running down towards the mirror-surface of the pool without being absorbed into the ground. It doesn’t belong here.
“I’m Dojoon,” he says, then runs his tongue over his teeth, likely surprised that the rose petals have vanished.
“They were the key,” Yerim says. Perhaps it will jog his memory. “The roses.”
Dojoon doesn’t seem to be listening though. “I feel like I’ve seen this place before,” he says. He blinks, slowly, as though testing that the trees surrounding them will still be here when he opens his eyes again.
“It’s real,” Yerim assures him, stepping further up the bank and glancing around. The red bird trills again from somewhere further amidst the trees. It’s hidden from view, but she can trace the direction. “It’s just not the same kind of real as the city we were just in.”
From the rustling behind her, she can tell Dojoon is following behind. “I’ve heard that sound before,” he says after they’ve progressed a bit farther between the trees. “It was a bell though, and I don’t remember if it was real or a dream.”
“Sometimes it can be both,” Yerim says, shrugging. There’s a flash of red beyond the next clump of trees, the sound of wings flapping and wind rustling the leaves. Dojoon doesn’t reply, just keeps following her lead.