It starts with a kitten in a window.
A fluffy silver tabby kitten is standing on its hind legs, holding itself against the glass in a pet shop far from where Wooyoung normally ventures. The pink pad of its paw is pressed gently onto the glass, and Wooyoung is immediately convinced. He finds himself inside the pet store, requesting the required adoption papers. As he starts signing away, the sales clerk convinces him to get a belled collar for the kitten. Any pet should have a collar to show that it has an owner, after all. The sales clerk throws in a personalized name tag that he can engrave for Wooyoung in no time. Wooyoung just needs to give the kitten a name.
The sales clerk puts the collar on the kitten as Wooyoung continues to flip through the contract. Without reading any of the fine print, he scribbles his name onto every highlighted line on every page of the seemingly endless stack. It doesn’t occur to him at the moment, but later he wonders if this is really an appropriate amount of papers to be signing for a simple pet adoption.
If he weren’t in such a hurry to get the tabby into its new home, maybe he would have noticed something off in the fine print.
As he signs his name on the final page, he notices how loudly the clock is ticking. Putting his pen down and shaking off his cramped hand, he looks behind the counter at the polished dark grandfather clock. The pendulum swings and swings, a metronome fixed to a set speed. It swings without pause, again and again. Back and forth. Left to right to left to right. One second, two seconds, three seconds. The clock is steady when the room starts spinning, but Wooyoung’s gaze is still fixed on the pendulum, unable to break his focus. His surroundings fade out and the clock is the only constant in his field of vision. The pendulum swings and the clock ticks, ticks, ticks, tocks, and then, a reverberating bell comes from the clock, shaking Wooyoung and resetting his senses. He snaps out of whatever daze he was trapped in, but when he does, he realizes that something is a little… different.
He blinks several times, rubbing his eyes and blinking again. Something is very different in that he is no longer in a pet store of any sort, nor is he anywhere he recognizes immediately. It’s almost as if he started dreaming mid-consciousness. Or perhaps, he had been dreaming the whole time and he is now in a new segment of his dream.
Wooyoung observes his surroundings. He is standing in some sort of town square that has warm-hued brick walkways. A subtle smell of cotton candy and salt fills the air. Shadows walk under his feet, but there are no bodies that claim these shadows. There is no one around, but somehow there is a muffled static noise upon the emptiness. He can’t tell whether he is really alone or not. He is not quite sure where he is, and he doesn’t recall how he got here either. He is almost tempted to call it a ghost town if the shadows didn’t seem so alive.
Taking a step forward, he looks at the ground, minding his step. He avoids the shadows knowing that if he were a shadow, he wouldn’t appreciate being stepped on. As he takes a closer look at the brick road, he notices that the orange tint is shuffling to a yellow one, and it’s not because the angle of the light hits it differently at different angles. When he stands still, the color is shifting, and he is intrigued enough to crouch down. He runs his hand over the brick, which is surprisingly soft and warm to the touch. He imagines he wouldn’t mind falling if such a soft ground were to break his fall.
The sweet scent of peonies draws close as the subtle chime of a bell rings near his ear, and a playful voice says, “Oh yes, the ground is very interesting compared to the one in your world, isn’t it?”
Wooyoung, startled, falls on his rear. After being surrounded by only shadows, he hadn’t been expecting a tangible body to be so close so suddenly. He looks up to the company but stammers a slur of indistinguishable words when he sees that the person almost entirely naked from the waist up save for a belled collar on his neck. Before he can take a good look, he shields his eyes with his hands while shouting, “You indecent person!”
There’s a high giggle that echoes across the town square, making it seem as though there was a crowd of people giggling at him. Wooyoung is too flustered to do anything but to hide his face.
“If I’m not human, do I really count as a person?”
There’s something incredibly jarring about that statement. In the glance that Wooyoung took before, the person in front of him was most definitely human, but now he has his doubts. Maybe Wooyoung covered his eyes before he could see anything other than human qualities, or maybe this person only physically appears human. Or maybe Wooyoung is being tricked. He wonders if he should look, but his thumping heart is holding him back. No other words are exchanged for quite some time, and Wooyoung ends up swallowing his bashfulness to take a peek through his fingers. To his surprise, the person in front of him is fully clothed. He has on a tight black jumpsuit that covers almost every part of him up until his neck. His face looks quite human. He has a sharp gaze, and his hair is black with streaks of red. His eyes are a bright gray, which are extremely uncommon, but not unheard of. Wooyoung finds himself lost in them, almost willing to throw away the rest of his time to keep this one small moment. He thinks that if he blinks, it’s game over, but then he thinks, what game were they even playing?
He wonders if he had been hallucinating before, or if this person is just really good at changing clothes. He could be an experienced magician for all Wooyoung knew.
However, setting aside the strangeness of where Wooyoung might be or what this person may or may not have been wearing a few moments ago, there’s something more striking that catches Wooyoung’s attention. On the stranger’s head is a pair of fluffy grey cat ears, alert and focused on Wooyoung. A gray tail swings nonchalantly behind the stranger.
Wooyoung supposes he should ask first, but he is entirely compelled to touch the ears to confirm that they are real. It’s a very bizarre sight, after all, and he can’t help his curiosity. Before his hand reaches them, though, the stranger grabs Wooyoung’s wrist and comes very close, their faces a breath’s width away, locking in eye contact. Wooyoung can hear him purr.
The person grins widely, his eyes squinting in complement. He scoffs through his nose and his expression is of a predator that has captured its prey.
“How very bold of you to try to touch my ears in public! That’s one of my pleasure spots, you know. If you want to give them a rub, why don’t you come on over to my private residence, and then I can show you all my pleasure spots,” the stranger teases.
Wooyoung frees his wrist and promptly stands up, ignoring the heat rising on his face.
“No, that’s alright, I should be on my way home now.”
He turns on his heels and starts walking away, but he is soon faced with the realization that he doesn’t know where “home” is. He doesn’t know where this is, either.
Reluctantly, he turns back to the stranger, who looks as though he was waiting for Wooyoung to come back. A coy smirk is painted on his face.
“Where are we?” Wooyoung whispers.
The gray tail swishes in amusement. The stranger tilts his head.
“We,” he stretches his arms wide as if to display the city with them, “are in Wonderland.”
Wooyoung doesn’t know of any city by that name, but he doesn’t know of any city that looks like this, either. When he looks around, the buildings he saw before had changed their shapes. They have become rounder, some of them taller and some of them shorter. He looks up and blinks at the peculiar blue sun, its rays coming down on the land like waves. He doesn’t know anywhere like this, and so he accepts San’s answer.
“I feel as though I am very far from home, but I don’t know how I got here and I don’t know how to leave. I don’t suppose you would know, would you?”
The stranger walks closer, his tail swinging in the same rhythm as his steps. “Why my home is your home, don’t you know?”
He stretches out his neck, and Wooyoung’s attention is brought to the collar that decorates it. He knows he has seen that collar from somewhere before, but it takes a moment for him to recognize the collar that he bought for the kitten he had just adopted. Upon a closer look, he sees that there is a name tag dangling by the bell. The name tag reads San , just as Wooyoung had requested the sales clerk.
“Yes?” San purrs again.
“Are you perhaps the San I know?”
“I would hope so. I would be very sad if you knew any other San.”
Wooyoung watches as San’s ears move as if they are scoping the area. They are certainly real, and they are certainly attached to San’s head. Same with that gray tail.
“What are you?” Wooyoung asks instinctively.
San pouts, his ears and tail dropping along with the corners of his mouth. “Can’t you tell? I’m a cat!” He wiggles his ears as a demonstration. “I’m called the Cheshire Cat around here, not that I come from Cheshire.”
Wooyoung is surely dreaming, but somehow, he doesn’t think he can wake up anytime soon. He can question the ears all he wants, but he doesn’t think he will ever get an answer he understands. Instead, he directs his questions to a more urgent one. “How can I escape from here?”
“You just got here, and yet you want to leave already? That makes me sad, Wooyoung,” San wraps his tail on Wooyoung’s chin. “Won’t you at least stay for some tea?”
The tail tickles, but Wooyoung holds in the urge to shake the tail away. He’s unfortunately become somewhat enamored with the cat now that he is looking at him more closely. San’s features are certainly feline, but without the ears and the tail, Wooyoung would undoubtedly mistake him for a human. A charming one, might he add. But when had Wooyoung told him his name?
“Tea does sound nice, but I must find my way home.”
Then, San quickly says in a low voice as if he doesn’t want Wooyoung to catch it, “To return home you must win the game.”
“Oh,” San exclaims as if avoiding the answer, “here comes Hongjoong!”
Wooyoung turns just in time for his chest to become a cushion for the person running into it. He falls on his rear again, and he scrunches his face as it’s tickled once again by fur. This time, the fur is stark white.
“Oh dear, excuse me, sir, I apologize for running into you. I am running late, you see, very very late, so I must have failed to see you in front of me. Please do forgive me, kind sir. I must be on my way, sir.”
Hongjoong, for the most part, looks like any other person would. He has soft facial features with a sprinkling of freckles, strawberry lips, and a head of peach-colored hair. His frame is small, built more for speed than power. A feature of interest is the pair of white bunny ears drooping from his head, the tips of them reaching his hips. The soft-looking ears are heavily lined with silver hoops and studs. It might be a wild guess, considering Hongjoong is only the second person Wooyoung has run into in this bizarre world, but Wooyoung has a strong feeling that Hongjoong isn’t human. In fact, Wooyoung thinks he’s already starting to catch on to the pattern.
“You’re a rabbit, aren’t you?”
Hongjoong stands up and pats the dust away from his coat, then takes off his dirtied gloves. He puts them away and pulls out a fresh pair, white as new, and puts them on with care. A pocket watch dangles at his side until he scoops it up, polishes the face, and puts it where it belongs in his breast pocket. The word that comes to Wooyoung’s mind as he watches Hongjoong is “tidy.”
“Of course, I am. And you are…” Hongjoong pauses, his expression contorting in confusion, “no, it can’t be,” he trails, his eyes scanning up and down Wooyoung’s body. “Alice?”
Wooyoung had heard better guesses than that, but he supposes its better than the “Leonard” he had once received. He has always had something against that name, and his negative feelings for it became worse when someone called him by it.
“No, actually, my name is Wooyoung. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”
Hongjoong furiously shakes his head. The hoops decorating his ears jingle softly.
“No, no, you are Alice, you cannot fool me.”
Wooyoung frowns. “I believe I just told you that my name is Wooyoung, not Alice.”
Hongjoong shakes his head, this time waving his hands in front of him for added emphasis. “No, no, I am not asking for your name. You are human, are you not?”
Wooyoung reluctantly nods, unsure of the flow of logic in their conversation. He wants to ask San what it all means, but when he turns his head, San is nowhere to be found. He swears he hears a hint of San’s giggle.
He picks himself off the ground and pats his clothes, and then notices Hongjoong with his head tilted downward, hand on his chin, deep in thought. Hongjoong mutters loudly enough for Wooyoung to catch what he is saying. He hears the tail end of “Alice shouldn’t be here right now,” and after some thought, he decides to break Hongjoong’s self chatting session.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but do you happen to know how I can get out of here?”
Hongjoong jumps at the sudden question, and Wooyoung feels a little guilty. Rabbits are timid creatures, after all. He should have asked a little more gently.
“You see, I am not sure how I got here, but I want to go back home. Would you be able to help me?”
Hongjoong scrunches his nose and starts tapping his foot. “That’s odd. That is very very odd. It isn’t time for Alice to come into this world yet. Not until autumn. Yet, you say you don’t know how you got in? That is very odd, indeed.”
Wooyoung scratches the back of his head. Hongjoong had an excellent ability to avoid questions. Wooyoung doubts that it’s on purpose, but he would appreciate an explanation.
“Um, if you don’t mind, I would love to get home before long.”
“Before long?” Hongjoong pulls out his pocket watch, then jumps when he sees the time. “Oh! I’m late! I must get to the Queen before long. I must go soon, I must make it before long!”
For having a smaller frame, Hongjoong is quick on his feet, and Wooyoung breaks a bit of sweat just to follow him. He doesn’t want to leave Hongjoong’s side until he gets a few answers, as right now, Hongjoong is the only person who can help him. Hongjoong is muttering about the time to himself as he walks speedily across town. Everywhere they pass, Wooyoung notices that there is not a soul in sight. He looks down at their feet and notices that the shadows avoid them like fish avoid predators. Peculiar.
Wooyoung doesn’t want to be rude, but he must get home, so as he keeps two steps behind him, he shouts, “Dear Rabbit, can you help me?”
Hongjoong halts so suddenly that Wooyoung almost runs right into him.
“Oh, yes, Alice is here!”
“Wooyoung, actually, but never mind that, will you help me return home?”
Hongjoong purses his lips.
“You seem to be quite confused, Alice. Your name may be Wooyoung, but as you are a human, you are Alice! That is the role assigned to you as a human who has come to Wonderland. You are Alice, in Wonderland. So, you see, Wooyoung, you are Alice.”
Wooyoung waits for the information to sink in. He doesn't quite understand, but he is willing to follow along with it as long as Hongjoong can tell him what he really wants to know.
"Okay, I am Alice. You've convinced me. Now, if you would be so kind, please tell me how I can leave Wonderland."
Hongjoong puts his hands on his hips and tats his tongue. “How did you enter Wonderland without knowing any of the rules? Don’t you know? You cannot leave Wonderland until you win a duel against the Queen of Hearts.”
“The Queen of Hearts?” Wooyoung echoes.
“Yes, the Queen of Hearts. You must battle the Queen of Hearts and win the game. But first, you must meet the Game Master to request entry into the game. Yes, you must request entry in order to participate.”
“Who is the Game Master?”
A gloved finger is waved.
“The Game Master! He is the one who overlooks all the participants playing in the games!”
Wooyoung looks around and sees that they are the only two tangible bodies around. The shadows are still lurking around their feet, but he doesn’t think they would be considered participants.
“All the participants? Would that just be you and me?”
Hongjoong sighs deeply, “Do you really not know the rules of Wonderland? Only Alice can participate in the game.”
“Then, are there other humans here now?”
Hongjoong shakes his head. His earrings jingle again. “Of course, not, there can only be one participant at a time . One Alice may participate in the game per autumn. Only one. One Alice may follow me into Wonderland to participate.”
Wooyoung looks into the lush green forest, then up into the sky ornamented with a blue sun. The light is gentle, but it is indeed warm.
“Autumn? It seems quite warm for autumn.”
“Yes, because it is summer! Alice should not be in Wonderland in the summer! That is why I ask, how did you get in here, Alice? Alice should not be in Wonderland until autumn! This is against the rules, you know? If you break the rules, the Queen may behead you if he wishes.”
“Oh my,” Wooyoung squeaks.
“So you had better be careful, Alice. Be sure to follow the rules of Wonderland or you will surely be beheaded!”
“You keep going on about all these rules. What exactly do you mean by the rules? Who is following them? Who is enforcing them?”
“The rules! They are the rules of Wonderland laid out by the Queen himself! All the creatures of Wonderland must abide or it’s off with your head! Your head, I tell you!”
Wooyoung waits patiently. “Where exactly can I find these rules? Will knowing the rules allow me to return home?
The White Rabbit clears his throat. “To properly hear the rules, you must go to the Game Master. When you go to the Game Master, you must listen to all the rules and then request entry to the game. Only after properly entering the game do you have the opportunity to leave whence you came.”
Wooyoung nods along, listening intently. It sounds very simple, but at the same time very confusing. He tries to piece together the floating pieces. “I think I understand. So, I need to first go to the Game Master. Where can I find him?”
Hongjoong takes a look at his watch, then announces, “If we want to see the Game Master, we must go now. I am already very late, but his residence is on the way to my appointment. We must leave, hurry!”
Hongjoong turns to flee like prey on the escape. Hongjoong must be very kind, Wooyoung thinks, for him to be so desperate to hurriedly reach the Game Master. The sooner Wooyoung meets him, the sooner he can go home. However, Hongjoong’s pace is not at all leisurely. Wooyoung must not blink, or he may lose the trail. They turn on the streets, go up a few flights, and through winding corridors, hurrying and hurrying through what seems like an impossible maze. Wooyoung is panting when he wipes his brow, wishing Wonderland was not so large.
If he isn’t seeing things, the roads suddenly seem to turn narrow. Hongjoong turns into an alleyway, but the entrance closes on Wooyoung and he is left with his face planting into the warm wall. He falls back but catches himself, soon finding himself running back up to the wall. He knocks on it, but the resulting sound sounds like a mumble. He bangs on it, which produces a bit more of a yelling sound. He accompanies the noise with his own yells.
“Mr. Rabbit! White Rabbit, Hongjoong! It seems I’ve been separated from you, please come back! Hongjoong!”
He continues to bang the wall despite the lack of a response. He wonders how long it would be until the Rabbit notices and turns back for him.
“It’s impolite to yell out someone’s name in public.”
Wooyoung’s body snaps around. He can smell the dainty scent of peonies, but he can’t find the source of the voice or the scent anywhere. He thinks he’s gone mad. He shuts his eyes tight, shaking his head to put his senses back in place, but he feels no change. He yells, hoping that the recipient of his call would be able to hear him.
San’s high-pitched giggle was never such a relieving sound. Wooyoung was not alone anymore.
“Open your eyes, silly. What kind of cat do you take me for?”
San is standing with his arms akimbo, his lips are curved in a smirk, and his tail is swinging back and forth with the steady rhythm of a grandfather clock. His collar remains on his neck as before, the nametag reflecting the sun’s blue glare. He has on a long-sleeved black and white striped crop top, the hem of it just covering his belly button. When he makes a movement with his arms, a piece of jewelry flashes where his belly button is. He has on loose shorts with thin chains hanging on his side, and underneath the shorts are garters holding up a pair of black and white striped thigh highs. Like an unfinished thought, there are no shoes to complete the look.
Considering the soft ground, Wooyoung figures that shoes aren’t necessary for Wonderland. He looks at his feet as he considers taking off his combat boots, as they do feel rather stuffy. Then again, he thinks he would prefer his boots to the feel of an unusual sensation of a heated floor.
“So,” San breaks the near-silence—the muffled static noise hadn’t gone anywhere—“I see you’re all alone. I guess the Rabbit was too quick for you, huh? I knew that would happen. Don’t worry, it’s hard to keep up with that guy. He’s used to running around everywhere since he’s always late all the time. You know, if he got that watch of his fixed, he wouldn’t be so late all the time.”
Wooyoung doesn’t understand why San had left him alone with Hongjoong if he knew Wooyoung would lose him. He tilts his head trying to wrap his head around it. He pouts when he can’t find an answer by himself.
“Why did you leave me?”
San looks like he breaks inside. One moment, he is standing proud and tall, and the next he is hunched over with Wooyoung’s face in his hands, shushing him. He wipes the tears that Wooyoung isn’t crying.
“Oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head, my dear Wooyoung. I had some errands to run, you see? As much as I would love to stay by your side, I have a role to play in this world. The Queen’s orders. I think you and I would both be upset if I were beheaded from disobeying the Queen, wouldn’t you agree?”
It’s true. Wooyoung would be upset if his precious kitten were beheaded. It would be a shame for many reasons, and for the fact that Wooyoung had just adopted him.
Wooyoung nods and before he knows it, San’s arm is slung over his shoulder and they are walking in the direction opposite from where Wooyoung was headed before. If they continue their current route, it seems they will run soon enter a forest.
“Um, San? Where are we going?”
San hums as he walks with a bounce in his steps. “You need to see the Game Master, do you not?”
Wooyoung looks back at the town.
“Yes, but my instincts tell me the Game Master’s residence is the other way.”
That high-pitched giggle resonates on the street and reverberates in Wooyoung’s chest. It’s a charming giggle, he notices as he clenches his shirt at his chest.
“We are not going to the Game Master’s residence. We are going elsewhere. Into the forest! That’s where we will find the All-knowing Butterfly.”
This is the first time Wooyoung hears anything about a butterfly.
“Why would we need to see a butterfly?”
“We are not seeing just any butterfly, my dear. We are seeing the All-knowing Butterfly. You see, only a few people are allowed to see the Game Master. There’s the Queen, of course, and the White Rabbit. Alice is an exception, but Alice is only allowed into the Game Master’s residence if and only if they are following the White Rabbit into it. Wonderland rules.”
Wooyoung draws in the air with his finger to keep track as San tells him these rules.
“Why are there such rules in place? Wouldn’t it be much simpler if anyone can visit the Game Master when they please?”
“The Game Master is a busy man, sweet Wooyoung. Time doesn’t run by itself, you know. Someone has to run it, and in Wonderland, that someone is the Seonghwa. As it might sound, running time is a very dreary and exhausting job, and the fewer people disturb him, the more smoothly he can do his work.”
Wooyoung nods along. Of course, that makes complete sense. How could he even think that someone taking care of Wonderland’s time would have so much of it on their hands?
“So,” San continues, “since you can no longer get in through the White Rabbit route, we are off to see the All-knowing Butterfly to find out if there is another way we can see the Game Master. If anyone would know, it would be he, as he knows all. We must enter you into the game before it’s too late.”
Wooyoung’s step screech to a halt. He counts in his head how long it had been since he arrived, but he doesn’t know how to count the hours or minutes or days or weeks. Time is a loss in this new world, and when the time of day seems to have a mind of its own, he can’t figure out how to keep track. How long has it been and how much longer does he have?
“Too late, you say? What happens if it is too late for me to enter the game?”
San impishly clasps his mouth. “Oops, that was supposed to be a secret,” he sings as if he doesn’t regret saying it at all. He acts as if it’s not something to be concerned about, but unfortunately, the contents of his speech do, in fact, arouse concern.
“What do you mean by that, San?”
San pivots on his foot and twirls in a circle around Wooyoung. He bends himself at the waist to keep balance as he sways.
“Don’t worry, my love, I’ll make sure you get to the Game Master in time. If push comes to shove, I can always harass him so that time will loosen enough for you to squeeze in. And I’ll help you win, also. That’s a given, of course.”
Wooyoung pouts at the response. “I’m still worried.”
San holds Wooyoung’s face with both hands, bringing Wooyoung nearer and nearer until he’s close enough for San to plant a kiss on his forehead. He goes up on his toes to do so.
“I’m the one the brought you here, of course, I do whatever it takes for you to win.”
So that means that Wooyoung hadn’t lost his way into Wonderland. That explains why Wooyoung still can’t recall how he ended up here, but that’s only one missing piece of the puzzle found.
“You brought me here? Why would you do that?”
San grabs Wooyoung’s hand, clasping it tightly and interlocking their fingers before he starts leading the way. “That’s a secret for now. I’ll tell you when it’s time.”
“And when is that?”
San places a finger on his grin.
“That’s also a secret. Anyway, we are on a very important mission, and that is to find the All-knowing Butterfly.”
Mist sprays at Wooyoung’s ankles, and his attention is now turned to his feet. They are no longer on a path on the warm brick but are now trailing along a fuschia-colored grassy area. Trees cave in like they are guiding them to where they need to go, bending to make an arch as Wooyoung and San pass by underneath. Pink prisms bloom at the trees’ roots, and mushrooms with sparkling pink caps are everywhere Wooyoung turns. They look delectable, and Wooyoung wonders if something so pretty could possibly be poisonous. He tears off a small piece of a nearby mushroom cap, but the piece explodes in a puff of pink glitter with an enchanting melody
Wooyoung stares at his hand that is dusted with shimmering pink. “San, I think the mushrooms are singing.”
“Nonsense,” replies San, “those voices of flowers. Mushrooms only sing on nights when the moon is full.”
Wooyoung looks up to see the sunlight rising beyond the trees, brightening the sky bit by bit. How strange, as Wooyoung remembers it being daytime just before.
“Did the nightfall come already? I think I may have missed it. “
“San finally looks back at him and uses his free hand to stroke Wooyoung’s face. “Of course it hasn’t, the sun has yet to set. Everyone knows the sun must set before the night falls.”
Of course. That’s only common knowledge.
“Where are we going, anyway? I thought we were meeting someone.”
“Oh, the All-knowing Butterfly hates the town. Don’t worry, the trees will lead us to him one day or another. Sometimes they like to play tricks, but they might be nice for Alice.”
Wooyoung is starting to get used to that name. He feels the name start to warm up to him, but in the end, he still prefers his own.
There is a small white-picket fence that surrounds a yard beginning to come into view. A lovely aroma of black tea reaches Wooyoung, as does noisy chatter. As the two get closer, a large and messy dinner table comes into view, and a man sits at the head.
“Why, hello there!” the man greeted. He stands up and prances toward them, and Wooyoung notices that the man is all alone. Wooyoung was very sure he heard chatter, but who could this man have been talking to?
Wooyoung can hear San groan subtly. Wooyoung squeezes their joint hands.
“Hello, Mingi. Lovely to see you, but we are on our way to a very important business.”
Mingi is slightly out of breath when he finally reaches them. He is wearing a satin green suit and a satin green masquerade mask. His plump lips are pulled to a grin, and he waves with his gloved hand. The gloves are satin and green, of course. A green jewel dangles from one ear and green studs line the other. His majestic (green) top-hat makes him seem impossibly tall, but when Mingi takes off his hat to give a curtsy, Wooyoung sees that even without the hat, he is quite tall. Mingi skillfully spins his hat before putting it back on his head, then promptly snakes behind Wooyoung and San and pushes them inside the fenced yard.
“How could I be so rude as to not invite in my guests? Especially when it has been so long since I last had guests. I have acquired the finest quality black tea and I have been dying to share. Please, please, have a seat!”
Mingi pulls out two chairs and Wooyoung sits in one. There is something about this yard that seems as if it is immune to time. Wooyoung notices that there are no dancing flowers in the fenced-in area, but as if to make up for it, Mingi is extra animated. San remains standing.
“Hatter, if you will excuse us, we have somewhere to be.”
Mingi is already pouring three cups of steaming hot tea. He pushes around random objects on the tables until he finds a saucer for each teacup. They’re mismatched, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “You can always go to that somewhere some other time. It’s tea time, we must have tea! It will be the most delightful tea party.”
He shuffles back to his guests and haphazardly places a cup in front of each of them, chirping, “Enjoy!” as he does. Some tea spills onto the silk tablecloth, making a stain that blends in with several others. He then takes his own cup and holds it firmly, pinky out, and raises it.
“In honor of my guests, the Cheshire Cat and… oh? Why if it isn’t Alice!”
Wooyoung’s eyes go wide. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met before.”
“Of course not, I’ve never seen you in my life! But you are Alice, are you not?”
The cup in front of Wooyoung is in perfect condition. Polished and new. The teacups are probably the only objects that are cared for so well. There are unsorted papers with tea stains, pens without caps, an assortment of hats, mirrors with at least a crack or two, a desk lamp with dried frosting plastered on it, books with worn pages, an umbrella with a spine sticking out, and several clocks of various styles all tuned to different times. None of them are ticking. There's a platter of finger sandwiches and pastries balancing on a pile of books. Wooyoung is tempted to reach for one, but he doesn’t want to be rude.
“Well, that’s what I’ve been told.”
Wooyoung keeps one hand in his lap. The other is still linked to San, who is looking beyond the yard, presumably in the direction that they are supposed to be headed.
“Of course you are, you’re human, so you have to be!”
He stills, his eyes scanning Mingi’s body for any signs of something that isn’t human. He searches and searches until he notices Mingi’s flushed cheeks. Mingi puts his gloved hands on his shoulders.
“Oh my, Alice, aren’t you a bold one. You’re making me feel positively undressed!”
Wooyoung waves his free hand at the misunderstanding. “Ah, my apologies, Mingi, but are you not human, as well?”
Mingi almost spits out his tea. “Me?” he asks, hands exaggeratedly pointed at himself. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Wooyoung glances at Mingi again, but more subtly this time. He still doesn’t see how Mingi could be anything but human. “If you aren’t human, what are you?”
Mingi’s laugh bellows. It’s deep and hearty, and Mingi shakes so much that tea is spilling onto his hands. The gloves seep up the hot liquid, but Mingi doesn’t seem to notice, let alone mind. Wooyoung wonders if he should be concerned.
“Why, I am a werewolf. My form changes during nights of a full moon. I may look human, but rest assured, Alice, there are no humans in Wonderland, aside from one, and only one person.”
Wooyoung nods. Mingi must mean Alice, which at this point, is Wooyoung. That would explain why everyone can tell he is Alice.”
“How is it that others can tell that you aren’t human? I certainly don’t see it.”
Mingi bellows again. “I don’t have the scent of a human. I can’t fool anyone in Wonderland, except perhaps a foreigner like you. Never mind, that. It’s time for the cake! Someone bring out the cake!”
He claps his hands but then stops. “Oh, would you look at that? We already have a cake, no need to bring one in!”
On top of the mess on the table stands a large eight-tiered cake. Green frosting is slathered onto it messily, and the top three tiers are slouching in one direction in danger of falling.
He grins. “In celebration of my guests, we must have cake! And tea, of course.” His teacup is empty and before anyone can protest, he is already brewing another pot. “Seconds, anyone?”
San’s cup is untouched and steam is still rising from it. Wooyoung has a few sips of his, but nowhere near enough to want a refill.
“It’s a lovely time for tea, isn’t it?” Mingi asks without looking at anyone in particular.
“We must go, Hatter.” San nearly growls. “We have pressing matters to attend.”
Half of the cake finally topples, part of it splattering onto the table, and the rest of it onto the floor. What a shame, Wooyoung thinks. While the frosting wasn’t cleanly spread, the cake itself looked quite moist and delicious. He dips his finger in the smashed cake on the table and plops it in his mouth. It has a very sweet salted-caramel taste. He sips on his tea to combat some of its sweetness.
“Nonsense,” Mingi yells, “nothing could possibly be more pressing than a tea party! We can have a tea party for as long as you would like! In fact, we can have a tea party all day! That sounds lovely, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Wooyoung,” San calls softly, wrapping his tail around Wooyoung’s neck.
He forgot how soft the tail is, but somehow he feels flustered about it being around his neck. San may be wearing a collar showing the world that he belongs to Wooyoung, but right now, Wooyoung feels as though he belongs to San. It brings him out of his disconnection to time. He suddenly remembers their mission to get to the Game Master. He wouldn’t be able to leave Wonderland otherwise.
However, he starts to think that Wonderland isn’t so bad.
Wooyoung looks up. “Thank you for your hospitality, Mingi, but I’m afraid San is right. We must take our leave. See, the sun is setting and we haven’t even accomplished our goal for the day.”
Another layer of the cake topples over.
“Is there really no way you could stay? Is it the tea? Do you prefer another kind? I have a large collection of tea, and if black doesn’t suit your tastes, I can easily brew something else.”
Wooyoung stands up, conveying his intent to leave. “This has really been a splendid party, but it is time for us to go.”
“It’ll be a party of one, then. I hope to see you again, Cheshire, Alice. Goodbye for now!”
He waves them off and starts chattering again. Wooyoung thinks he sees shadows lurking around Mingi, but Mingi looks absolutely delighted. Wooyoung doesn’t feel as bad leaving him behind. Before long, the eccentric yard disappears from their view, and San is once again leading the way. This time, their hands aren’t clasped, and Wooyoung feels a bit empty. San’s touch was so comforting before, and even though San is right there beside him, he feels so apart. He watches as San’s tail swings with each step.
“What a madman, that Hatter,” San grumbles. “That Mingi has no sense of urgency.”
“Why is it that you call him by his occupation? If he is a werewolf, why do you not call him werewolf?”
“The Hatter is simply his role in Wonderland, so that is what he is called.”
Again with the roles. Is Wonderland really so structured that everyone has a role to play? Wooyoung ponders over his own role. If he is Alice in Wonderland, what is he in his world? Does he really have a role?
“So then, does Mingi make hats for a living? Is that really such a significant role to have a title?”
“All roles are significant, no matter how small they may seem. One could argue that the Game Master has the most significant role of them all, but what would the Game Master be without its participants? Or the Queen of Hearts without anyone to rule over? Wonderland cannot be Wonderland without all of its role-players.”
“So Mingi is the Hatter of Wonderland.”
“Exactly, you catch on quickly,” San says as he takes Wooyoung’s hand. The warmth in San’s hand makes Wooyoung feel whole again. He wonders if this is a side-effect of the roles they were playing.
“Why is it you call him mad? He seemed energetic, surely, but mad seems like a stretch.”
San shakes his head.
“He’s mad because, for whatever reason, he is absolutely convinced that I thoroughly enjoy his tea parties, but I would really much rather be doing something else. Anything else. The trees are well-aware of that, and yet they led us to them. They are being mischievous today. This is why I tend not to come into the forest.”
Wooyoung hums in understanding. The flowers followed along before starting a melody of their own. He watches as they bend their stems to a contagious rhythm, as more and more of them follow along. They don’t have faces, but they are clearly smiling. Clearly, until it’s not.
There is a distracting iridescent haze that obstructs his view, and the flowers seem to disappear into it. The haze is so thick that he can no longer make out the trees that were supposed to be guiding them.
He hadn’t realized that San had stopped walking, so he bumps into him and nearly falls. San’s tail supports Wooyoung from behind, breaking his fall.
“Wing pollen,” San explains. “It means the All-knowing Butterfly is near. We should move carefully, the haze will only get thicker from here. Stay close to me.”
Wooyoung sticks to San like gum as they tread more carefully. The grass seems to hold more moisture, as Wooyoung’s legs are much colder from the exposure. A sweet smell fills the air as the haze thickens. There’s humming in the distance, but it’s of a different timbre than the flowers’ voices. It’s deep and reverberating, and Wooyoung can’t quite get a hold of the rhythm. The voices are jumbled together, but the noise as a whole is not unpleasant to listen to. On the contrary, it’s quite pleasant, and Wooyoung can imagine it lulling him to sleep.
There is something bright in the colorful haze. Something bright and golden that reminds him of the sun in his world. When they get closer, the haze thins out, revealing a large golden mushroom that emits a golden light. On top of the mushroom is a person posed in the most delicately poised manner, with absolutely exquisite butterfly wings stretching behind him, spreading iridescent haze with every slow flap. The large wings are not only magnificent in size, but also appearance. They look like masterfully structured stained glass mosaics prominent in the most superb of churches, elegant and beautiful, but the butterfly himself is also of incomparable ethereal beauty. His skin is shimmering glass and his eyes are the deepest obsidian. On his left temple is a pearly pink scale in the shape of a fleur-de-lis, glistening with every subtle turn of his head. Surely, it’s a sign of his greatness. His lips are a soft velvet that has the most delicate shine, and when the butterfly sighs, Wooyoung cannot help but do the same, only in a more dreamy manner.
There is nothing Wooyoung can even begin to say that he feels is worthy enough for the butterfly to hear.
San seems to be immune to such a feeling, as he calls the butterfly by name. “Yeosang.”
Yeosang’s wings pause as Yeosang looks down from his mushroom throne. “I’ve been expecting you, Chesire and Alice. Or, would you prefer San and Wooyoung?”
Wooyoung thinks that’s the first time anyone in Wonderland has referred to him by his given name and not his role, with the exception of San, who only calls him by his name.
“How did you know we were coming? And how did you know my name? Are you psychic?”
When the Butterfly chuckles, Wooyoung realizes he could have asked San that last question. The question is out there now, so there is no hiding from it, no matter how silly it may be. There are many things about Wonderland that he still can’t understand, after all.
“Psychic? No. I may know many things, Alice, but the future is something no one can know for sure. As for everything else, the trees tell me everything I wish to know. I provide their contentment, and they provide me with information. It is an equal trade.”
San whispers in Wooyoung’s ear, “It’s the wing pollen. The trees can’t get enough of it.”
“So,” Yeosang continues, “you wish to know how to get to the Game Master without the White Rabbit?”
Wooyoung nods. “Is there any other way? I must request entry into the game.”
Yeosang folds his hands, exuding an aura of patience. “I know of a way, but,” he twiddles his thumbs slowly like he’s turning a spindle to rope something out of Wooyoung, “the information comes for a price.”
Wooyoung swallows his spit. He keeps himself steady. “What is it you seek in exchange?”
Wing pollen spreads as Yeosang flaps his wings with gusto.
“Information for information. I may know many things, but I cannot know all. What I want to know, Alice, is what is in your heart.”
Wooyoung points to his chest. “My heart?”
Yeosang closes his eyes with a nod.
“The Queen of Hearts doesn’t hold such a title without a reason. He has, in his treasury, a collection of all the hearts of all the creatures in Wonderland. In other words, no one in Wonderland carries a heart, with the exception of two. One is the Queen himself, and the other is you, Alice.”
When he opens them again, his pupils reflect a similar mosaic to his wings, dazzling and in every way. As mesmerizingly curious as his eyes are, Wooyoung thinks he prefers the way San’s gray eyes brighten up when they catch each other’s gaze.
“Are you telling me you want my heart?”
Yeosang chuckles softly. “I could never ask for anything so dear. All I want is to know your heart, Alice. It’s not very often I meet a creature that still has one, you see.”
“And how do you suppose you will get to know it? I can’t ask for it to come out of my chest. How will you get to know it without talking to it?”
“I will simply ask you a question, and you must answer with your heart. Mind you, your heart may have a different opinion than you think you do.”
It sounds simple, just like everything else does. Wooyoung chooses not to delve into the hidden complexity of the process. “Ask away, All-knowing Butterfly. I will answer you with my heart.”
Yeosang’s eyes lock onto Wooyoung’s and as intimidated as he thinks he is, his shoulders relax and he feels quite pleasant all around.
“Heart of Alice, what is it that you desire most?”
Wooyoung thinks the answer is easy. He wants to go home. It’s the goal he had been working toward all day, and it’s the only thing on his mind. He wants to leave this strange place in the comfort of his own world, as objectively uninteresting as it may be. He opens his mouth to supply the Butterfly with this knowledge, but the words that come out of his mouth hold a different shape than he imagined they would.
“I want to stay by San’s side.”
Unwillingly, Wooyoung’s eyes go wide. Yeosang smiles. “Not the answer you were expecting, was it?”
San is suddenly squeezing Wooyoung’s hand a little too tightly, and when Wooyoung turns to look, San’s head is down and his expression is hidden, and his ears are flat against his head. His tail has no life to it, limp and low. Wooyoung can’t get a read on him and his heart starts to pound from the dreaded thought that maybe his heart should have stayed quiet. Maybe he should have kept his heart buried in his chest and suffocated it with stubbornness, refusing to let it see light. He trembles in fear, the shakiness reaching his damp palms, squeezing back just as hard.
“I’m so glad, Wooyoung,” San utters with a voice unlike his own. It’s a low whisper. “I’m so glad you feel the same way. Did you know, I brought you to Wonderland because I wanted to be with you?”
Wooyoung’s grip loosens, but the trembling is still there. His heart gushes warmth through his body as if nagging at his mind that it had been right the whole time. There’s a kind of still tranquil ecstasy that runs down Wooyoung’s body, and there’s a mild idea tugging the back of his mind suggesting that Wonderland might be a bad place to stay. But alas, he cannot stay. He has another world he belongs in, and to it, he must return.
He looks back up at the Butterfly. “You have your answer. You have my heart’s secrets. Now, please, tell me Mr. All-knowing Butterfly, how can I get to the Game Master?”
Yeosang blinks, and his stained glass eyes turn back into midnight. “Very well, I am satisfied with your answer, so I will tell you what you wish to know. The Game Master resides in the clock tower that stands in the very center of the town. To get in without admission through the White Rabbit, you must first find the keyhole on the side of the clock tower that faces the Castle of Hearts. You must offer the keyhole something that belongs to you. That something must be a part of you. The keyhole will then allow you in.”
San tilts his head.
“Everything of mine belongs to Wooyoung. What can I possibly offer to the keyhole for permission to enter?”
Yeosang waves a finger. “The rules only apply to Alice. Since creatures of Wonderland do not belong to themselves, it is impossible for them to enter the clock tower. I’m afraid that Alice must enter on his own.”
The air seems to get heavy, weighing down San’s ears and tail. His grip on Wooyoung’s hand loosens as well. “There is no other way?”
Yeosang shakes his head. “I’m afraid not, Chesire. I’m sorry I cannot help any further.”
“It’s quite alright, All-knowing Butterfly. You’ve helped plenty. I guess that this means it is time for us to take our leave.”
Yeosang starts flapping his wings again, distributing more wing pollen. “I will request the trees to lead you the correct way out.”
San lowers his head in gratitude. He starts for the direction that the trees are leading, but Wooyoung is holding him back. “Wooyoung?”
Wooyoung’s feet are anchored at the spot. He lets the wing pollen polish his skin as it brushes him by and he is left with a pleasant feeling washing over him. The ground starts to waver like ocean waves, and the pink mushrooms start to fade into different colors. The grass is singing along with the trees and it starts to rain down gentle crystals. He feels himself starting to sink, the ground swallowing his ankles. He thinks the mist is transforming into birds, dancing around him. They burst in wet fireworks, leaving behind a purple haze.
Wooyoung lazily looks at San, who looks so absolutely lovely under the iridescent haze of the wing pollen. “Can’t we stay here, San? I’m feeling quite nice.”
“You must not succumb to the wing pollen, Wooyoung. We must leave now.”
San’s speech is sounding less like words and more like meows. Is Wooyoung waking up from his dream now?
“I don’t think I want to leave. Be a good little kitten and stay here with me.”
San begins to claw at Wooyoung’s arm. He doesn’t bare his nails, so there’s no pain or blood. Actually, it’s a warm tingling feeling that rushes down his body. Wooyoung strokes San’s ears. “Let’s feel pleasant together.”
San looks agitated and Wooyoung is in too much of a high to wonder why. He hears a huff as the grip on Wooyoung’s hand tightens momentarily before San lets go of him completely.
Wooyoung is about to protest, but San’s ears pull back and Wooyoung’s face is pulled forward, and before Wooyoung has time to register what is happening, their lips are sealed together. The water birds stop midair and fall to the ground with an animated splash, and instead of wet fireworks in the air, there is fire running in Wooyoung’s veins. His skin is cold but his chest is burning hot, and the heaviness of his heart pulls him back to his senses. The ground is sturdy and his feet are only barely sunken in the grass as the forest becomes a more solid shape again. His sense of touch is heightened and he feels every wave of goosebumps racing up his body. His back straightens, but soon his shoulders relax, and he closes his eyes on reflex. His hands reach out to San’s waist, his fingers gently dancing on his skin following a nervous habit until he gains the confidence to keep them firmly in place. They draw themselves closer to each other as Wooyoung’s hand slides behind San, settling on the curve of his back. San’s hands are shaking as they brush along Wooyoung’s jaw, and when he finally parts, he looks just about as breathless as Wooyoung feels.
Wooyoung can’t help but think that while the forest in Wonderland is pretty, but San is much, much prettier. There’s something about San that glows, and as dazzling and magical as the forest is, it cannot even begin to compare to the wonders that lie in San’s blown pupils.
“Thank you,” he blurts out. He doesn’t think about why he says it, but when he does, he realizes that he’s grateful to San for a lot of reasons. He is grateful that he brought Wooyoung back to his senses, sure, but in a sense that may not make sense, he is grateful to San for bringing him to this strange world.
San smiles in acceptance. “Let us head for our next destination, my treasure.”
They leave a different way from where they came, hands held tightly with fingers interlocked as if to declare that both had claimed the other and that neither are planning on ever letting go. Wooyoung looks over his shoulder to see Yeosang wave goodbye, and he manages to throw back a meek wave of his own, turning back quickly to hide the blush creeping up to his face. He supposes that the Butterfly would have heard the news eventually anyway. The trees seem to be quite the gossipers.
The transition from the forest into town is much faster than last time since the trees lead them in a direct route, and when the ground starts looking more orange than blue, San whispers in relief that he is glad they didn’t run into that hatter again. He can only handle so much of his madness in one waking period.
Purple stars paint the sky and Wooyoung stops keeping track of the time of day. Time doesn’t run like he’s used to, and it’s easier just to let the sun and stars come and go as they please. How many days has he been here? Does it only count for one if he hasn’t felt the need to sleep yet? Do they really count as days if this is a dream?
But is it a dream? Wooyoung finds himself asking himself often, and the more he answers that it is, the less he wishes it were so.
Amidst the darkness, the clock tower, with all four faces of the clock glowing in gold, really stands out at night. It's tall enough to be a constant compass, as Wooyoung can see it no matter how deep in town they go. The streets aren't made easy for an outsider to navigate, but luckily he has San either way. Their hands are still linked, and Wooyoung squeezes San's hand to make sure he's still there.
He squeezes, but as if San’s hand had never been there in the first place, Wooyoung's hand closes into the air. He closes his eyes and counts to three in the hopes that when he opens them again, San will be in front of him with his playful smile. His heart drops when he opens his eyes and he finds himself feeling lost even when he knows exactly where he should go.
“San,” he calls, wondering if the cat would hear it. “San.”
It hasn’t been long, but he misses his cat dearly.
He knows that San wouldn’t have been able to enter the clock tower with him, but he wishes that San might have accompanied him for just a few steps longer. San had disappeared so seamlessly that Wooyoung is almost convinced that he has been alone all along. It makes as much sense as everything else in Wonderland seem to, which is not at all. He wonders if he has gone mad. He wouldn’t be surprised if he had.
No, Wooyoung argues with himself. He isn’t mad. Not yet, at least.
Drawing a breath, he looks up at the clock tower. It's calling for him in the way that Wooyoung trusts that San will find his way back to him.
The town is a maze, but Wooyoung strides on like he has a map of it etched in his mind. The clock tower draws closer as he doesn’t let it leave his sight, and when night turns into sunset, he reaches the gates of the clock tower. On each side of the entrance stands a guard standing tall, cloaked in red. Wooyoung looks at their faces, and strangely, they look very much the same.
As he tries to pass through to get to the clock tower, they each tilt their long staffs, marking an X where Wooyoung had tried to go through. They are blocking his path without even giving him a glance. Wooyoung sighs.
“Excuse me, sirs, but I would like to enter the clock tower. I must meet with the Game Master, you see.”
The first guard steps forward until Wooyoung has to crane his neck to see his face. He wonders what the guard has to be so tall for.
“We are very sorry, but we cannot allow anyone to enter. The Game Master does not accept visitors until autumn.”
Of course, it isn’t going to be easy.
“It may not be autumn, but I must see the Game Master. I would like to request entry to the game.”
The guards look at each other, then the second guard comes close, and Wooyoung finds himself looking up at them both. Upon a closer look, they aren’t just extremely similar. They look exactly the same. From clothing, their black guard-hat, and red coat, to their black knee-high boots, to their large hands, and all the way to their mellow faces. They seem to be carbon copies of one another.
The first guard clears his throat. “Only Alice is allowed to request entry to the game.”
Strange. Very strange. Up until now, every being that Wooyoung had run into could tell immediately that he was human. Why is it that these guards don’t seem to know? It might have to do with the curious fact that their eyes seem to be shaded. Wooyoung can’t tell if they have eyes at all.
“Well, sirs, if I may, I am Alice. Therefore, I would like to enter the clock tower to see the Game Master and request entry to the game!”
He almost stomps his foot in frustration, but he wouldn’t want to hurt the soft ground.
The guards look at each other again, but for a much longer period of time. It’s like they’re communicating by eye contact—if they have eyes to communicate with—though neither is making any sort of motion. Perhaps Wonderland folk have the power of telepathy? Or maybe the guards, considering they seem to be the same being, are able to share their thoughts with each other?
The first guard turns back to Wooyoung.
“The rules do say that Alice is allowed to enter. It just happens that Alice always comes during autumn.”
The second guard nods in agreement. “The Game Master will not be expecting you, so please do take care upon entering.”
They unblock his path and return to their original positions, looking forward as if Wooyoung is no longer there.
Wooyoung dips his head as he passes the guards, and his next task is to find the keyhole.
The clock tower is much taller up close, and when Wooyoung looks up to search for the top, he can’t see it. It stretches endlessly up to the sky as serpents fly around it. Their scales shower lightly as shimmering dust that disappears as they land on Wooyoung’s palms. He closes his hands into fists as he finds the determination to look for the keyhole that the All-knowing Butterfly had informed him about.
Fourteen rounds around the tower later and Wooyoung starts to feel that either he is either extremely blind to the keyhole, or he has the wrong clock tower. The second option is obviously the less likely scenario, as this seems to be the only clock tower, but Wooyoung is a foreigner to Wonderland. What does he know? He makes yet another round, inspecting the wall high and low, laying his hands on the walls for any keyhole-shaped dips he might not be able to spot with his eyes. Again, no luck. It’s night, and Wooyoung wonders how long he’s been there. Not that the time of day is any sort of reliable way to tell time.
Speaking of, just then, the clock tower strikes its bell and the sound of it reverberates as it passes through Wooyoung’s body. It strikes six times. Wooyoung has no idea what relevance each strike has to do with time, nor does he really have the desire to ponder it, because right after the sixth and final strike, he notices a light coming from the wall of the tower. He scampers to the source of the light and almost drops to his knees in relief when he sees that its a small keyhole.
He drops to his knees anyway, since the keyhole is on the bad of the wall, and he tries to look through it. He thinks he can see a long dinner table, but it’s not a clear picture. He has to get in. What was it that the All-knowing Butterly said was the key to get in?
Wooyoung shuts his eyes, calling his recent memories to surface.
“You must offer the keyhole something that belongs to you. That something must be a part of you. The keyhole will then allow you in.”
What could he possibly offer to the keyhole that would let him in?
Before he thinks for too long, surprisingly, the keyhole starts to get bigger and bigger, the light from inside the tower illuminating the night. When it becomes rage enough for Wooyoung to go through, he put one foot in, hesitating when he realizes he still doesn’t know why the keyhole is letting him in. He doesn’t have long to ponder the thought, because the keyhole just as quickly begins to shrink, and Wooyoung launches himself into the tower in panic. He lands on his hands and knees in a way that knocks the breath out of him.
He takes a few moments to calm his pounding heart before getting up, patting away the shimmer from his knees. He scans the room in search of the Game Master that he had been trying so hard to meet, but he finds himself greeting a long dinner table with silverware and plates set up, but not food. He wonders if he should sit, but if so, where? It's a much different atmosphere than when he met the Hatter. Much quieter, too.
Wooyoung looks back to the keyhole, which has completely disappeared without a trace. He doesn’t see any way out, so it must be in his best interest to sit down and wait for the Game Master to arrive. He pulls out the chair and takes a seat, and looks around.
Still, not a single soul aside from himself is present.
He sees something on the wall by the staircase. It’s a rather obnoxiously large arrow with nothing written on it. Looking up at the winding staircase, Wooyoung feels a minuscule shard of dread when his instincts tell him that he’s supposed to climb that. The shard digs deeper in his gut when the arrow lights up as if to signal that his thoughts were correct.
He starts his long journey upward.
Wooyoung’s been traveling for quite some time and surprisingly, he isn’t the slightest bit tired. He wonders if it’s because this is a dream. He looks up and he still can’t see the top, but when he looks down below, he can’t see the ground either. He has come a long way, but he has so much farther to go. He wonders how much time will pass until he reaches the top. He passes by a window, but when he tries to look outside, he doesn’t see the scene the expects to see. Instead of the outside of the clock tower, he sees a flowery meadow that looks like a dream. If Wonderland is Wooyoung’s dream, the flowery meadow must be someone else’s. He treads onward, and when he finds another window, he is curious as to what kind of dream it will be. He peers through the glass, and there is a large chessboard with pieces as large as he is. A game is in progress, but Wooyoung isn’t adept enough in chess to know which side is winning. He moves on.
He places a hand on his stomach when it growls. He hasn’t eaten this entire time, of course, he’s bound to get hungry. He looks up again, his stomach protesting when he still can’t see the top. He looks at the brick wall and his mouth starts to water. It looks quite appetizing at this time, and Wooyoung reaches to pull out a brick. It comes out as a soft loaf of bread and Wooyoung devours it quickly. Without missing a beat in his steps, he pulls out another loaf and eats that, too.
After eating two whole loaves of bread, Wooyoung’s throat feels dry, and he thinks of how positively wonderful it would be if he were to have a beverage of some sort.
And as if the tower could hear his thoughts, Wooyoung sees a shelf as he continues to ascend the dreadful flight of stairs. Miraculously, on the shelf is a petite, delicately shaped glass bottle with a pink hue. In the glass bottle is some liquid, and when Wooyoung pops open the cork, a fruity fragrance drifts out. It’s a perfectly refreshing scent for Wooyoung’s parched throat, and before long, he downs the entire contents. He places the empty bottle back on the shelf as he continues to trek upward.
Suddenly, he starts to feel very drowsy. He looks through the next window he passes and sees nothing but soft, inviting clouds, and he wants to dive in and take a nap. It must have been hours since he started his journey up the stairs, and he knows he is not anywhere near the top. But the drowsiness is hitting him with a strength he can’t fight, and a wave of panic bubbles up when he thinks that perhaps the glass bottle from earlier might have contained poison.
Wooyoung can’t fight the sleep any longer and he falls to his knees. His surroundings sway left and right until he no longer feels the stairs supporting him and instead feels a wind of resistance.
Ah, Wooyoung is falling now. What a waste, he thinks, as he closes his eyes and surrenders his consciousness as dawn breaks through a passing window.
He wakes up completely unharmed. He sits up and checks himself. No bones were broken, and as far as he can tell, he has no bruises or scratches on his body. He wonders if he had imagined the fall, but when he sees shattered glass to his side, he recognizes the pink hue. It was what remains from the glass bottle he drank from.
“Alice,” a voice calls.
Wooyoung stirs. He is quite comfortable where he is, and he can’t be bothered getting up. He wants to rest for a few more minutes. Even a few more seconds would be enough.
“Alice, it is time for you to get up.”
Wooyoung’s blood starts to rush as he sits up with a bolt, eyes shot open when he realizes that he hasn’t woken up from this dream yet. He is still Alice, not Wooyoung, which means that he has yet to escape from this world. Time is running out.
A polished man stands tall before him, adjusting his cufflinks as Wooyoung stares him down. Slim silver bangles on his wrist rustle as he does so and Wooyoung notices a watch fastened snugly on the other wrist. He wonders if there’s really a point to wearing a watch in this world, but then again, a clock tower stands in the center of this town, so maybe it’s not so strange. Although considering what Wonderland has shown him so far, nothing could really be considered strange anymore.
The man is surely the Game Master, Seonghwa. Other than the black bunny ears that are erect above his head, the man is extremely familiar. The air around him is different from Wooyoung remembers—he is much more poised and diaper with his fitted three-piece gray suit—but Wooyoung is absolutely sure that he’s seen this man before. It takes him some thinking for him to realize that it isn’t from this world that he has seen him.
“You’re that salesperson at the pet store, aren’t you?”
Wooyoung’s tone of voice is accusing, but not in an overly blunt kind of way. He uses a calm tone as he accepts that there is nothing at this point that can shock him anymore.
“I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. You’re here to participate in the game, I suppose?”
Wooyoung nods. “I hear that a summer Alice is rare.”
Seonghwa shakes his head. “It is not just rare, it has never happened before! Alice has only ever come during autumn, and yet, here you are, Alice, in Wonderland when it is summer! What a strange event, if I do say so myself. But never mind that. As Alice, you have the right to right to request entry into the game.”
Finally. It seems to have been an incredibly long journey to get to this starting point.
“I would like that.”
Seonghwa nods once. “Then, I shall begin. Please keep in mind that these rules may be simple, but they are the rules. It is only proper procedure for me to explain to you the rules.”
Wooyoung keeps eye contact with Seonghwa to signal that he is following along. Seonghwa continues.
“To gain the right to leave Wonderland, Alice must defeat the Queen of Hearts in a duel. The duel will be of the Queen’s choice. The only restriction of the game is that it must not happen during the Queen’s favorite time of day, which is currently dawn. The Queen has the right to behead anyone who dares summon a challenge during dawn, so it’s best you keep that in mind.
“If Alice loses the game, then Alice must forfeit their humanity and stay in Wonderland as a creature of Wonderland. Alice must surrender their time to the Queen, and then the Queen will assign Alice a new name and role. If Alice wins the game, Alice may choose to return from whence they came.”
“Choose to return? Well, why would I choose not to?”
Seonghwa clears his throat, sending a quick glare as if to warn Wooyoung not to interrupt him again. “If Alice wins the game and chooses to stay in Wonderland, Alice will become the new Queen. Do you understand the rules thus far?”
“Yes,” Wooyoung replies curtly.
“The duel will be a battle with partners. The Queen’s partner will be the Ace of Guards, while Alice’s partner can be of Alice’s choosing. We will summon your partner here, into the clock tower, and to do so, you must call out your partner’s name. Ah, their roles do not count, so you are aware. You must say their name.”
Wooyoung considers. “Would it happen to be against the rules if I ask that you be my partner?”
Seonghwa raises a brow, adjusting the placement of the watch on his wrist. “Why, I suppose not, but do consider that in order to have me as your partner, you must call out my name, and, well, I haven’t exactly given it to you, now have I? You wouldn’t want to choose me, I am far too busy with my duties to participate in the game.”
Wooyoung stills. Seonghwa’s right. He hadn’t given him his name, and yet, Wooyoung knows it. He knows Seonghwa’s name, and when he thinks back, he knows the names of all of the creatures of Wonderland that he has met. Had a single one of them introduced themselves with their name and not just their role?
There is Hongjoong the White Rabbit, Mingi the Hatter, Yeosang the All-knowing Butterfly, and Seonghwa the Game Master, but when Wooyoung thinks back to it, none of them had given him their names. It’s as if someone, knowing the rules of the game, had been secretly helping him prepare for the game this whole time.
A smile spreads across his face when he realizes what has been happening, and Wooyoung immediately knows who he wants as a partner. He had known as soon as the Game Master told him the rule because it’s easy when he considers that there is only one creature of Wonderland that he trusts with his entire being.
“I want San as my partner for the game.”
“Cheshire?” Seonghwa’s brows raise slightly as he folds his arms. “That’s an unusual one, indeed. But then again, you are quite the unusual Alice.”
“Is that so?”
“Why, the last time we had an unusual Alice was when the current Queen was an Alice. But there is no time for stories. Let us call upon your partner.”
There’s light spilling from a large door that stands in the middle of the clock tower. Nothing supports it, yet it stands firm. When it opens, Wooyoung feels his breath leave his lungs as he sighs dreamily. Wasting no time, he leaps forward with his arms wide open, embracing San’s neck and letting their cheeks brush as he holds him close, close, closer, and melts when he feels San’s arms steady on his back. He takes in a big breath of soft peonies. Oh, how he missed his dearly beloved cat.
“Why me?” San asks in a whisper.
Wooyoung draws back, arms still clasped around San’s neck, and gazes into those dazzling, gray eyes, and responds simply. “There is no one else I would rather play the game with.”
San tilts his head with a purr. “Then, I had better not disappoint you, my darling.”
With San leading the way, they easily reach the Castle of Hearts in good time, but even knowing that their time is limited, Wooyoung wants to take a stroll in the garden of red roses when he sees it beyond the castle gates.
Two extremely familiar figures guard the gate. If this were the world Wooyoung knew, he would think they were the same guards that protected the clock tower. Knowing that there is still much of Wonderland for him to discover, Wooyoung knows that these two guards, as identical as they appeared to the guards at the clock tower, are two entirely different individuals. Upon a closer look at their uniforms, Wooyoung sees that they have different identities as well. The guards at the clock tower had a four of spades and a nine of clubs embroidered on their shoulders. These here guards have a two of hearts and a five of hearts respectively. Their roles, Wooyoung supposes.
The Two of Hearts speaks up. “Do you have business with the Queen?”
Wooyoung draws a breath, ready to announce his right to challenge the Queen, but San suddenly squeezes his hand.
“No,” the cat claims, “we were just wondering if the Queen would kindly permit us to access the Maze of Roses.”
The Five of Hearts chimes in. “The Maze of Roses exists for the exclusive use by the Queen and only the Queen. You cannot enter.”
“Then, may we be permitted to have tea outside of the castle gates with the Maze in sight?”
The Two of Hearts and Five of Hearts nod at each other. “There are no rules against it. You have permission.”
“Great,” San purrs and he whisks Wooyoung away by the hand. There is a dainty white circular table right outside the gates, a teapot and two teacups and saucers rest atop it.
“Shall we have some tea?” San suggests.
The view of the garden beyond the gates is not quite what Wooyoung imagined, but it’s lovely nonetheless. He has never seen such luscious velvety red roses anywhere. Even the leaves are vividly green and absolutely plush. The deep flavor of the tea suits such a view that it could be a painting. The colors glow against the dark, and when Wooyoung looks up to the orange sky, he sees the purple stars begin to fade as gentle blue light starts to wash over the land. It’s dawn, the Queen’s favorite time of day.
Wooyoung doesn’t mind the delay, though. He feels reassured with San by his side. He knows San will do his best to help Wooyoung win the game, which means once it’s a different time of day and Wooyoung properly challenges the Queen, it will truly be the beginning of the end of his time in Wonderland.
“I am curious, however,” Wooyoung starts, his gaze still on the magnificent garden on roses, “I have faith that you will do your very best to help me win the game, but then, if you did not want me to be in Wonderland forever, why did you bring me here to risk that?”
San takes a sip of his tea as his tail swings behind him steadily. He draws an ear back as he puts his teacup down on his saucer.
“I brought you here because I wanted to show you my hometown,” he says.
Wooyoung lightly grasps his teacup, letting it warm his fingers. He hums, wondering if San’s answer was a logical one.
“Normally,” San continues, “only the White Rabbit has the ability to bring Alice to Wonderland, but you see I was quite fond of you. I am sure you can imagine how delighted I was when you signed the papers to come to Wonderland.”
“Papers?” Wooyoung interrupts, not sure where San was going with this strange tangent.
“The papers! You signed the waiver, accepting the terms to come to Wonderland. I wasn’t sure if you would, considering the risk, but I am so happy that you decided to do so. Look, we can be together like this now because of it.”
He reaches over to hook a finger onto Wooyoung’s, pulling Wooyoung’s hand toward him.
Between the teacup and San, the teacup is much hotter, but Woooyoung feels more warmth from San’s touch than a simple container for his drink. He understands San’s sentiments. Regardless of the risk, he wanted to spend time together. It more than makes sense. Except for the papers. What was it about papers?
“Oh,” Wooyoung suddenly yelps, “the pet store! You mean the adoption papers?”
He recalls hastily pasting on his signature and initials on page after page and if he were agreeing to much more than adopting a kitten, it would make sense why there were so many pages.
San tilts his head to the side. “I guess that might have been what they were called.”
Wooyoung laughs. Of course, he doesn’t remember signing off to any of this, because they were simply adoption papers. No one ever reads the fine print for those things. Wooyoung could have been selling his heart to the black market for all he knew. Or maybe, in a way, that is exactly what he did.
“Say, San, I’m the one who gave you your name, right? When I signed the papers.”
“Mhmm, you are. Don’t you remember giving it to me?”
Wooyoung nods his head. “But then, what was your name before all this?”
San smiles. “I didn’t have one. I was just Cheshire. I’m only San because you gave me that name.”
Wooyoung looks up to the sky, where a gentle blue sun illuminates the land and leaves a soft sensation on the skin. He feels a sense of tranquility.
“Are you ready to challenge the queen, my dear San?”
The walls that line the halls of the Castle of Hearts it just like one might expect of a castle with that title. They are a royal red with a satin finish and lined with frames of hearts, hearts, and more hearts. They are beautiful, red crystal hearts, each aligned carefully. Light shines onto them and bounces back a dark ruby, and when Wooyoung takes a closer look, he sees that the crystal hearts are beating. There’s no flesh or blood, but the crystal hearts are alive. But whom do they belong to?
Wooyoung turned to the Eight of Hearts that is leading them to the queen’s throne.
“Are these, perhaps, the hearts of…”
The Eight of Hearts doesn’t look back. “They are the hearts of the creatures of Wonderland. We have all given our time to the queen, and with our time are our hearts.”
There was not a single creature of Wonderland that carried their own heart. Wooyoung looks at San, and a tinge of sadness stings his own heart. He scans the walls, wondering if he could find San’s.
“Mine isn’t there,” San whispers. “I am a bit of an exception, you see. My heart is elsewhere.”
Wooyoung glances at San’s chest, but San shakes his head at that.
“I do not have my heart, my darling Wooyoung.” His lips curl upward. “You do.”
“Me?” Wooyoung almost stops in his tracks. He pats himself down in case he could find it hidden in some pocket that he had been unaware of. “Where?”
San chuckles lowly. “How should I know? It is in your possession, not mine. I have no objections, however, for I wish with every part of my being for you to possess my heart.”
Wooyoung looks down, but he holds out his hand, and San takes it, giving in return the reassurance that Wooyoung craves. Ah, how sweet it is, the warmth that envelopes him with a small squeeze of his hand.
A grand blood-red door opens in a viscous motion, and the Eight of Hearts warns them, “Behold, the Queen of Hearts. Remember to keep your heads low, else you may be beheaded before the game officially begins.”
Wooyoung swallows his nerves and keeps his head low, letting San lead him by the hand. He can feel a daunting presence in the room and it almost feels like he is trudging through thick air in the few meters it takes to reach the Queen. He keeps his eyes on the floor but his heart rate is flying through the roof. He is in front of the ruler of Wonderland. He is about to risk the life he knows to challenge him. This is quite an important event, and he can't help the beads of sweat that start to line his brow.
“Hmm, Alice at this time of year is highly unusual,” a sturdy voice says. “But no matter. I always enjoy a good game. Raise your head, young Alice.”
He does as he is told. His eyes settle on the most regal sight he will ever know. He expects to see a throne elevated on a platform, and in a way, that’s exactly what he sees. But rather than a platform, there is a wide obsidian staircase beyond him. The throne room he is in doesn’t have walls but has a definite end. He’s in a different realm. He’s in the shadows. It’s like he’s in a dream as if he hasn’t been in one this entire time. There are no boundaries. It’s emptiness and a staircase, in which the queen sits on a throne at the very top. He’s far but seems impossibly close at the same time. His presence fills the boundless space, and Wooyoung cannot utter a single sound.
Sitting on the majestic throne crafted of the deepest garnet is a man, sturdy in every aspect of the word. He sits tall and poised, dressed in a satin red vest accented with a black stripe at all of the seams. Underneath he wears a black button-up with the sleeves rolled up. His arms lay on the armrests of the throne and the fit of his clothing is snug enough for the curves of his firm body to show. His trousers are short and his legs are crossed in the perfect position to display the strength in his legs. His fingers are decorated with a few chunky gold and ruby rings, and on his wrist is a slender gold chain. On top of his head is a golden crown, humble in size when compared to his other accessories. On his chest rests a large pendant, and upon closer inspection, the pendant is a beating ruby heart. It must be a heart that belongs to a creature of Wonderland. To which creature it belongs to, Wooyoung has no means to distinguish.
An Ace of Hearts stands behind him, and while this guard seems almost identical to every other guard that Wooyoung has met thus far, this one has one feature that is quite different from the rest. His eyes aren’t shaded. Wooyoung can see the guard’s shining bright eyes quite clearly. It seems this guard is somehow superior to the others.
The Queen of Hearts speaks. “Your name, Alice?”
Wooyoung looks to San first, who nods silently.
“My name is Wooyoung, Your Majesty.”
The queen smiles wickedly. “Wooyoung, is it? You have quite some spine challenging Queen Jongho during an odd season.”
Wooyoung turns to San to whisper, “Queen Jongho?”
“That’s the Queen’s name. There is no reason for the Queen of Hearts to hide His Majesty’s name, so this Queen has decided to refer to His Majesty’s self with His Majesty’s name.”
“My Queen,” Wooyoung replies, “I apologize for challenging you at such an odd time of year, but the current situation has happened due to my carelessness. Please do forgive me, Your Highness.”
The Queen huffs. “Luckily for you, Queen Jongho happens to be in a good mood. Queen Jongho does not forecast any beheading today. So, if you are ready, shall we begin the game?”
Wooyoung nods, taking one quick peek at San, relief washing over him when he sees that San still looks as confident as ever.
“If I may, Your Highness, I do have a question of curiosity. May I?”
The Queen nods. “You may.”
“The heart in the pendant, does it belong to Your Majesty?”
The Queen bellows with a laugh a hearty as his body is sturdy. “Of course not! For Queen Jongho is human, and Queen Jongho’s heart still resides in Queen Jongho’s chest. This heart only belongs to Queen Jongho’s most trusted creature in all of Wonderland, who has vowed to protect me with the time he has given up to Queen Jongho.”
Wooyoung glances at the Ace of Hearts behind the Queen. The guard tilts his head downward in a sort of miniature bow.
“I am Yunho, the Ace. As I am always selected as the Queen’s partner, there is no reason to withhold my name, either.”
“You have eyes,” Wooyoung blurts out before he can stop himself.
Yunho chuckles, his shoulders bouncing gently. “My role is to protect the Queen, of course, I must have eyes.”
And so, it must be Yunho’s heart in the Queen’s pendant. The Queen owns the hearts of all of the creatures in Wonderland, except for San’s, it seems, which is supposedly in Wooyoung’s possession. But Wooyoung still does not know where he would have put such an important thing.
He finds himself sitting at the top of the staircase, where the Queen and the Ace are. There is a small, black, square table in front of him, and San sits across from him. The Queen and the Ace sit across from each other. They are no longer on a staircase. They are sitting on chairs—the Queen still sits on a throne—that are floating in the shadows. Wooyoung doesn’t mind their new environment. The fewer distractions there are in his surroundings, the more he can concentrate on the game. But what is the game, exactly? There is a deck of cards in the center of the table, which Yunho picks up to start shuffling.
“The game of choice will me Spades. Do you have any knowledge of how to play it?”
Spades. It is a card game that even exists in Wooyoung’s world. It is a game with rules that are easy to catch on, and simple enough that there are never any disputes about what is fair and what isn’t. It is quite a civil game, considering all the card games that might end in fractured friendships.
There are four rounds so that each player has a chance to deal the cards. The Ace of Hearts deals first, and as the first round is important for setting the pace for the rest of the game, Wooyoung feels relieved when he and San win the first round. He feels elated, really, until he deals the next round and ends up losing the round far sooner than he and San had won the first. He starts to feel a bit of pressure, knowing that he must win the next two rounds in order to win the overall game without any complications that a draw might make. The Queen will deal next. As he shuffles the cards, Wooyoung thinks he hears the rumbling beat of a drum getting louder and faster, and his body warms up in response. And then he remembers that he still has his own heart.
Wooyoung closes his eyes and hears San whisper.
“Breathe, my dear. We will be okay.”
He opens his eyes, and San is smiling at him differently from his usual fearless smile. It is a reassuring smile and one that Wooyoung doesn’t know he needs until the moment he sees it. He lets out the air ballooned up inside him. He hears the sound of his chest deflating, and he feels much more focused. He is ready for the final two rounds.
After the Queen deals, they play the third round. Wooyoung almost loses his ground when The round comes close to expending the deck, but Wooyoung manages to snap his team a much-needed win.
Then, there is only the final round left.
It’s San’s turn to deal, and if Wooyoung’s sense of time isn’t too muddled considering how much of it he has spent in Wonderland, he thinks San is taking an unusually long time shuffling the cards. Wooyoung sees him smile, but it’s forced. San is nervous, and this time, Wooyoung wants to be the one to comfort him.
“San,” he starts, not minding his volume. The Queen and the Ace would be able to hear him regardless of how quiet he would have tried to be. “San, look at me.”
San falters, dropping a few cards on the table before slowly raising his gaze to me Wooyoung’s. His ears are pulled back and his eyes are widened.
“San,” Wooyoung says calmly, “I believe you. If we lose, well, I wouldn’t mind staying in Wonderland if it means I can stay here with you.”
San drops the deck, the cards falling from his grip in slow motion and remaining suspended in the air, spreading out and expanding their reach. Wooyoung hears something shatter, and he is very positive that it’s San’s heart, though he still does not know where in his possession it is kept.
Jongho clears his throat and the cards freeze before scurrying back to San’s hands. With the harsh slap of each card returning to his palm, San looks like he has regained his focus. There’s a glint in his eyes that Wooyoung recognizes and he knows that San has found his footing again.
They manage to win the round, which leaves the final round in which the Ace deals.
“With a game like this,” Wooyoung suddenly wonders, “how often is the role of the Queen of Hearts given to a new person?”
The game is most definitely one that relies on strategy, but it is also one that requires an immense amount of luck. A good hand can guarantee the round, hence the rule that each player must deal the cards once. Still, with a game that tips more on the scale of luck, the role of the Queen of Hearts must change frequently, must it not?
“Well,” Yungho ponders while rubbing his chin. “Alice typically challenges the queen during autumn. I am sure you are aware that you are here at a very strange time of the year?”
Wooyoung nods, twiddling his fingers on the edge of his hand of cards. “Why, yes, I have been told that quite a number of times by now.”
“Yes, and,” Yunho continues, “well, how long has it been since the last time we had autumn?”
A familiar swish of San’s tail turns Wooyoung’s attention to the cat. “If I remember correctly, I would say it was about eight seasons ago. It has been quite a while since autumn has come to visit Wonderland.”
Wooyoung puts down his head, defeated. He should have known that Wonderland defied any logic when it comes to time. However, it seems to be fair when it comes to distributing luck. When Wooyoung looks at his hand and counts the number of turns they have left, he is feeling extremely optimistic. So optimistic, in fact, that it seems he missed the timing of his win. He is smiling at San when the shadows surrounding them melt into nothingness, and the Queen and the Ace are in the distance waving goodbye. His chair no longer has a hold on anything and falls, and Wooyoung starts falling along with it.
He hears something winding up, as he falls down, further and further down a hole in which seems to stretch on for some time. The walls glow an aurora of different colors, and when he reaches for it, his hand contacts pink clouds. He wonders what he is doing there and why he is falling.
Looking up to all of the darkness, he spots a small keyhole in the center, glowing with gold light. The keyhole gets closer, falling with him until it is close enough for him to see through it. He sees a warm-hued town and detects static noise. He has seen this exact scene before, but when was it? Ah, yes, it was when he first came to Wonderland. It was where he met San. San? That’s the name of the cat he had just adopted.
Then he watches through the keyhole as if it is through his own mind, but whose memories is he watching? The adventures of someone, perhaps himself, meeting the roles of the creatures of Wonderland play at an accelerated pace, playing back faster and faster until the keyhole is expended and disappears into nothingness. He is back to being alone, falling like a feather in a mysterious endless abyss. He feels like he has been emptied. He closes his eyes to try to make himself feel whole again.
A keyhole? What was it that he had offered the keyhole at the clock tower to have permission to enter? He doesn’t remember.
He doesn’t know who is there to hear it, but he asks a question that needs to escape from his tongue. “Will I get to see you again?”
He doesn’t hear it with his ears, but rather, it’s as if someone is speaking to him inside of his thoughts. “Whatever do you mean, my treasure? You signed the papers.”
“And... you’re all set! Thank you for adopting. I’m sure you and San will get along great.”
Wooyoung blinks. He looks at the grandfather clock behind the counter that tells him a few minutes had passed since he signed the last of the sickeningly large pile of papers, but somehow, he feels a bit drained as if a lot more time had passed than what actually did. Maybe monotonously signing initial after initial tired him out more than he had expected. But alas, San is finally his. He smiles as he lifts San’s nametag up to let the light reflect off of it. A small chime echoes from the bell.
He carries San in a carrier, but San keeps meowing unhappily, and frankly, it upsets Wooyoung. San’s cries hurt Wooyoung so much that, although he was advised not to let San out of the carrier until he got home, Wooyoung can’t stand the pain. They still have a half an hour of commute by walking before they reach home, and San would surely become too stressed out by then.
Wooyoung is confident that he can keep a hold of San for a bit. The little guy deserves some fresh air.
He doesn’t even get San into his arms before the kitten bolts out, leaving Wooyoung with his heart on the ground. Wooyoung feels extremely light as he dashes for his kitten before anything bad happens to it, abandoning the carrier for now.
He almost comes crashing into a stranger, who calmly picks up San. Wooyoung is heaving, hands on his knees, and looks up a bit too high. The sun glares and renders him momentarily blinded. Has the sun always been so bright?
Catching his breath, he manages to stand up straight. He thinks he smells peonies off the stranger’s shoulders.
Wooyoung blinks out his blind spot and he sees San curled up in this stranger’s arms. But this stranger doesn’t feel so strange. Somehow, he feels like he knows him.
“San,” Wooyoung breathes out in relief, reaching out to reclaim his runaway kitten.
“Oh my,” the stranger mutters. “Have we met?”
Wooyoung is sure they hadn’t met, but he can’t promise it. He knows that this is their first encounter, but at the same time, he thinks that it can't possibly be.
“I’m Wooyoung,” he responds.
The stranger hums, cradling the kitten gently. “I can’t tell you how or why, but I think I knew that.”
Wooyoung knows he can’t just let this stranger by. Not when he feels something more to their encounter than chance. The influence of a dream? Perhaps. But maybe there is a little something more than that. He wants to know more.
“Would you perhaps like some tea?”
In the back of his mind, he can recall the dream he had, but with every recollection, he loses a little bit of it. It’s regrettable when he felt a calling there, but as he looks into the eyes of San—the person, not the cat—he is inclined to believe that the dream came to an end for the sake of a new beginning.