The mid-afternoon breeze sweeps through the fields, ruffling the grass in the valley below. Three girls appear at the top of a green hill, dashing down into the clearing with the wind right behind them.
Two of the girls are decked in pink dresses with bows in their black hair, but the third is wearing a blue sundress, white-blond hair free of any form of decoration. She’s running and laughing, as the two dark-haired girls try to catch up to her, barely at her heels.
“Stop… Jia… stop!” yells one of the girls. “I caught you hiding there! You can’t… You can’t just run away!”
“But I am!” the blond-haired girl laughs, looking behind her and throwing them a grin.
“That’s not fair!” shouts the other. “She beat you fair and square, Jia!”
Jia giggles and glances to them again. “I didn’t think you liked to kiss ass, Fei!” she teases. “What, is there something you want to tell Suzy?”
Fei nearly stops and sends Jia a contemptuous look, her cheeks flushing red with embarrassment. “That was mean!” she says, now going after her faster than ever.
Jia laughs again and calls, “Don’t let your knickers get caught in a bunch—”
“Watch out!” shouts Suzy.
Jia turns back to the front, but a second too late, as her foot slips on a rock in the middle of her path. Then suddenly she’s flying through the air, dangling helplessly as her body is pushed forward by some invisible force behind her. She’s about to close her eyes to brace herself for impact—when a small hole in the ground suddenly catches her eye.
It’s on a little grassy mound, barely covered up by a log, but still large and visible and wide enough for her to fit inside. Curious, Jia tilts her head, observing it… she hadn’t seen it before. What could possibly be inside?
Then the unknown force is pushing her harder than ever and she finds herself being forced headfirst into the hole… she squeezes her eyes shut, waiting to be met with a face full of dirt and grass…
...and then she's falling…
There’s a rabbit.
He’s wearing a petticoat. A large watch is hanging from his wrist as well, though it’s much too dark to tell what time it is. The rabbit’s eyes are red and staring at her intently.
She’s sure she must be dreaming. Rabbits don’t wear petticoats, much less wristwatches. Jia rubs her eyes, pinches her arm and wills herself to wake up.
The rabbit’s still standing there.
He doesn’t make a move to step closer to her, much less say anything; so Jia takes the time to take in her surroundings. The rest of the cavern (which apparently she’s in) is dark, so it’s a wonder how she can see the rabbit in great detail anyways. But when she looks up, she sees a faint white hole in the distance. That must be where the light is coming from. That must be where she had come from.
Jia looks at the rabbit again.
“Hello,” she says, because it’s the polite thing to do.
She stands up and pats down her dress, brushing any dirt or stains aside; astonishingly, though, her dress is as clean and smooth as ever. She looks back to the rabbit, whose whiskers are twitching in anticipation.
Perhaps he hadn’t heard her? She tries again.
“Hello, how do you do?” she calls out to him.
“You!” he suddenly squeaks.
Taken aback, Jia stops moving. “Me?”
“You don’t belong here!”
The rabbit’s ears flick upward for a millisecond, as he continues to stare at her, gaze glossy and fixed. It reminds Jia of herself when she’s at one of her lessons—but no, she mustn’t think about her lessons right now, she must figure out where she is.
“Excuse me?” she says to him. She must have heard him wrong.
“You don’t belong here!” the rabbit repeats. His eyes suddenly turn wide, frantic. “You don’t belong here!”
Jia merely stares at him for a few more seconds, before huffing and turning away. “Well then,” she says, glancing back at him. “If I don’t belong here, would you mind telling me where exactly I am?”
But before the rabbit can open his tiny white mouth to speak again, another figure enters through the shadows. The figure is a bit bigger, around Jia’s height. From the light in the distance, Jia can see that it’s a black-haired girl.
The rabbit stops moving at the new presence. The girl grins to Jia upon catching sight of her; the girl’s lips are astonishingly bright red.
“Sorry,” she says, walking toward the rabbit. “Was my pet bothering you? He does that a lot.”
She bends down to pick him up. The rabbit trembles slightly in her arms, as if he would pay every arm and leg to get away from her. The girl rolls her eyes, noticing, and drops him back down on the ground.
“Creepy little fucker, isn’t he?” she says to Jia.
She kicks the rabbit from behind. The rabbit yelps. The girl chuckles.
“Come on, you dumbshit, let’s go,” she says to the rabbit, and then starts walking off into the darkness.
The rabbit turns around and looks at Jia for one last time; then after a second, he’s disappeared as well.
Jia stares at the spot where they had been, mouth open in surprise. Then suddenly she calls out, “Wait, where am I?”
But the girl and the rabbit have disappeared. Jia is alone now.
It takes Jia several seconds to regain her composure, before she decides that she can’t stand around in here forever. So after a moment, she walks to the space where the girl and her pet had gone, hoping that maybe she’ll run into them again.
But this thought stops suddenly when she makes her way past her shadows, and finds herself in the middle of a forest. The forest pauses as well, as if noticing her presence. And Jia takes the time to, once again, look around.
Trees are scattered everywhere, branches and vines encircling them. Faintly, Jia can see a little path ahead where an apparent clearing has been made, although it may just be a natural coincidence. The animals and plants are all whispering to each other—about me, Jia thinks as she makes her way past a growling shrub. They don’t seem to be plotting against her, though. They actually seem to be more afraid of her than she is of them.
With this idea and a newfound confidence in mind, she makes her way along her observed path. The animals are all glaring at her, though they don’t make any move to attack her. However, they don’t seem to be normal animals—Jia peers down and squints at one sitting beneath a leaf off the path.
It appears to be a frog, but second glance and Jia can tell that it’s not a frog at all. Well, technically. Its hind legs are certainly of a frog’s, though its green face seems more brown close-up, and two little horns are sticking out of its head. Jia realizes what it is at once.
“A bullfrog,” she says aloud.
Startled, the bullfrog leaps up, swells, and then bounds off through the grass and the trees. Jia gazes after it thoughtfully, before continuing on her way.
The sound of a melody catches her ear soon afterwards. Jia glances around, to see a small garden on the edge of the wood. Normally, she would have wondered what a garden is doing in the forest—but she’d already seen a talking rabbit and a literal bullfrog, so it doesn’t catch her too off-guard. Interested, she walks over to the garden; she’s always liked flowers.
It doesn’t take her long before she realizes that the flowers in the garden are singing, an orchestra of a cappella voices. The roses are in one corner, the tulips in another: none of them seem to be paying too much attention to her, caught up in their song. Jia watches with a slightly dazed look on her face, enraptured by the song.
When it seems to be over, Jia can’t help but to call out, “You sound lovely!” They deserve to know, she thinks. Flowers always deserve attention and praise.
But when the flowers turn around and see her, they shriek immediately. “Weed!” they call out. “Large, scandalous weed—not here, not here, not for us!” They attempt to run around and duck out of sight—which is sort of ridiculous, Jia thinks, as they’re pretty much attached to their roots.
Sighing and feeling a little less enthusiastic, Jia continues on.
She ends up on a beach. That is, the beach had appeared out of nowhere, though when Jia turns around she still sees the trees behind her, as if they’re still in the middle of the forest. She speculates on this for a little, before deciding that this clearly isn’t a normal place and she shouldn’t question the geography of the land—if a beach wants to be here, it can be here, and Jia isn’t one to stop it.
She walks along the shore, wondering how long the beach stretches out. She doesn’t cover too much distance until suddenly, she spots two figures prancing at the edge of the water, far, far away. Surprised, she runs toward them, calling out, “Hello!” As she approaches, she realizes that one of the figures is a large walrus, the other a man.
Jia runs as fast as she can; the walrus and the man hadn’t seemed to have noticed her. But before she can open her mouth to speak again, two more figures appear right in front of her, and she ricochets right off of them.
Picking herself up from the sand and rubbing her ribs, Jia gets up to see that two large identical boys have blocked her path. Their collars are tucked up, their rice-bowl shaped hats red, and they’re staring at Jia like she’s a large, seven-eyed purple dinosaur.
“Hello,” Jia says cautiously, approaching them slowly.
“Hello!” says the boy on the right.
“How do you do!” chirps the other.
Jia continues eyeing them warily. “I don’t suppose you can tell me where I am,” she says.
“You shouldn’t be here!” says the boy on the right.
“You don’t belong here!” adds the boy on the left.
Jia sighs. “So I’ve heard,” she murmurs under her breath. Then she says to the boys, “Perhaps you can tell me how to get out—?”
“We don’t tell anything!” says the boy on the right.
“We never tell nothing!” says the boy on the left.
“We don’t tell nobody anything!”
“We tell nothing to nobody!”
“We hardly ever never tell nobody nothing!”
“We tell everybody barely never nothing, no!”
“We don’t tell nobody nothing but anything.”
“We tell nobody anything and nothing, never.”
“It’s tell nobody nothing—”
“No, it’s not tell anybody anything—”
At this point, Jia’s head is hurting and she tunes the boys out before glancing around. But nothing’s changed, and, as usual, Jia feels utterly and completely lost. She briefly wonders if Suzy and Fei are worried about her, although they rarely do; she’s always been able to go about her business by herself.
But she feels a bit scared, anyways.
“Thank you!” she says loudly to the two boys, who are too busy bickering to notice her. Sighing once again, she turns around and heads off in a different direction. Those two boys should be grateful, she thinks. She had thanked them when they had done absolutely nothing to help her. Or maybe they had done anything but never nothing—her head hurts again, so she shoves these thoughts to the back of her mind.
By the time she decides to rest, her feet are sore and aching. After all, she had probably walked more kilometers than she had ever walked at a time in her entire life, and had gawked at everything she’d encountered on her way through the forest. And after seeing a large old woman chase after a baby, and then seeing the baby turn into a pig, Jia knows that she should probably stop before she loses her head. Out of all the curious (and curiouser) things she’d seen, this had probably startled her the most.
The moment she sits down on a nearby rock, someone speaks from up in a tree.
“Giving up now, are you?” says a sly voice.
Jia doesn’t bother looking up, and instead stares at the dirty ground beneath her feet. “I’m not giving up, I just need some time to rest,” she says.
“But you’re giving up for now.”
Jia glances upward to see a lone smile perched on a tree branch; she blinks, and suddenly a cat appears behind it. It takes a while for Jia to realize that he’s the owner of this smile, and his mouth stretches wider the longer Jia stares at him.
“I’m sure I’m not giving up,” she finally says. Her eyes rake over the Cat’s purple-striped fur. “And who are you, anyways?”
“A Cat,” the Cat replies, and Jia snorts; the Cat looks at her scornfully above his grin and continues on. “Cheshire, to be precise, although I am the only Cat in this forest for it to matter.”
“I’m Jia,” says Jia in an attempt to be civil. She bows her head in a slight curtsy, from sitting down. The Cat eyes her.
“Strange little one, are you?” he finally says.
“I’m not strange!” says Jia indignantly; she shouldn’t have tried to be polite.
The Cat smirks. “You’re rather normal,” he says.
“I’m not normal either!” Jia shouts, for being called normal is being called not special, and Jia believes that she’s certainly special in some sense.
The Cat’s grin grows wider. “Make up your mind then, are you normal or not?” he says.
A thought suddenly occurs to Jia, and her defiant stare is replaced by a thoughtful one. “You… You can speak, can you?” she says dumbly.
“The last time I checked,” the Cat says, his eyes glowing with amusement, “I could sing as well. Though I’m not sure if you’d like to hear that.”
“I was wondering,” Jia says, ignoring this statement, “if you could tell me where exactly I am. Or what way I should take.”
“You should take your way,” the Cat says helpfully. And when he sees the glare on Jia’s face, he adds, “Of course, there are many ways through this forest. There is my way, a fool’s way—which is to say your way—and his or her way. But I do heavily recommend the Queen’s way. It is rather fetching.”
“And which way would that be?” Jia asks, pointedly ignoring the Cat’s ruse about her being a fool.
“That way, of course.” The Cat points further into the forest. “You’ll have to get through the Mad Hatter’s house, first.”
“The Mad Hatter?” Jia asks blankly, looking to where the Cat’s paw had indicated. Far off, she can see a cottage in a small clearing of the wood.
She turns to speak to the Cat again—but the Cat is dematerializing, disappearing into the air. Quickly, she shouts, “Wait, wait! Don’t go! I still don’t know where I am!”
“You’re in this world, of course,” says a voice by her left ear; Jia spins around to see the Cat floating right behind her. “It’s not your world, and you don’t belong here. But perhaps you’ll be of some use.”
“Some use?” Jia stares at the Cat, stunned; but he only winks before slowly fading away again. His body and his stripes leave him, and his face is the last to go—and then nothing more is left of him, except for his wide, shimmering smile.
Jia trudges through the wood. She’s probably being stupid, taking advice from a talking cat of all things—but it’s the only thing she has, she reminds herself. Besides, it’s not like he’d lead her into any danger, or else she’d squash him to death by sitting on his fat stomach.
She finally makes her way in between two trees before she’s at the cottage the Cat had indicated earlier. The cottage looks like any other old cottage she would have seen back in her own world, but before she can fully examine the house, she hears a loud noise coming from the back. Startled, Jia jumps and glances around, wondering what it is.
Carefully, she makes her way around the side of the house, listening intently for any threatening noises. It’s after a moment when she finally realizes that noise is actually singing. Even more curious now, she peeks around the corner to the backyard.
A large long table is placed directly behind the house, covered up with a pink tablecloth, and is lined with plates and kettles and silverware and food. All of the dishes are clanging merrily along with the beat, as a man in a large top hat and a human-sized Hare sing.
“Happy unbirthday to me!
Happy unbirthday to you!
We’re as dandy as we can be
To us, happy unbirthday three!”
“Um.” Jia attempts to clear her throat. But neither the Hare nor the Hatter seem to be paying any attention. “Excuse me,” she says loudly.
Everything suddenly falls silent. Then a kettle hoots in response.
The Hatter shushes the kettle and turns to Jia. “Who might you be?” he asks suspiciously.
“I was, um,” Jia starts, but then movement at the end of the table suddenly catches her eye. Someone else is there. And that someone else is coming towards her.
As the person approaches, Jia realizes she’s looking at a girl… a very familiar girl… with short black hair and bright red lips…
“You’re the girl from the tunnel,” says the girl, grinning at Jia. Her teeth are shockingly white.
Jia nods absently. “And so are you.”
The girl holds out her hand, still grinning. “I’m Min.”
Min tilts her head to the side and observes her. “Lost, are you?”
“How can you tell?” says Jia, her eyes widening.
“I can always tell,” Min says smugly. “You’re definitely not from here, too. You smell it.” She sniffs the air precariously. Jia tries to catch a whiff of her body as well, wondering if she’s giving off some sort of strange odor.
“Oh, don’t worry,” says Min, as if reading her mind. “It’s not terrible at all. It’s actually quite nice.”
“Oh. Well thanks,” says Jia.
The Hatter, who had been watching this exchange with the Hare, can’t seem to contain himself any longer and suddenly blurts, “Come celebrate with us!”
Jia glances around to the pots and pans clanging around, hooting approval at the Hatter’s words, and she smiles a bit. “Okay,” she says, and the pots clang jovially, even louder. “What are you all celebrating?”
“Unbirthdays!” The Hare grins. “It’s all three of ours—” and he points to the Hatter, Min and himself “—and it’s only reasonable to celebrate.”
Jia glances around to the three faces beaming at her. “What’s an unbirthday?”
The Hare falls over. The Hatter gasps. Min smirks.
“Why, a non-birthday of course,” she says to Jia. “Is it yours too? It’d be delightful if it was.” The light dances in her eyes.
Slightly dazed, Jia nods and stares at Min’s face. She hears the Hatter and the Hare cheer zealously behind her, but her gaze is focused on Min’s dark eyes, her pale milky skin and her bold red lips. She’s suddenly aware of the little space between the two of them.
Then Min breaks it, turning to the Hare and saying, “Oh, Hare, have you seen the Dormouse lately? I have an unbirthday present to give him.”
“I dunno,” the Hare says, shrugging. “Maybe he’s in one of the kettles.” He indicates the pots on the table, and his eyes glint, perhaps in excitement with the idea of smashing them all open.
But Min is quicker; she grabs the nearest kettle—a large gold one—pops the top open, and shakes it rapidly, letting out a loud clattering noise from inside. Jia looks on in trepidation as Min continues shaking the kettle around, and then turns it over, releasing something small, grey and furry from the top.
The Dormouse lifts its head and looks around, lidded eyes half-open. “Huh? Is it over?”
“Not nearly, my friend!” the Hatter says with a beam, scooping the little creature up. The Dormouse yawns into the Hatter’s hand, and then curls up in his palm, promptly falling asleep.
“Here, gives this to him when he wakes up,” says Min, pulling out a small box from out of nowhere. Jia looks at curiously as the Hare takes it, greed in his eyes. Min slaps his hand swiftly. “And don’t you dare think about opening it.”
“Okay, okay,” says the Hare. He glances to the Dormouse again. “He’s not much of the party type,” he whispers to Jia, and Min giggles. Jia glances to Min, and manages to force a smile on her own face, though she’s not quite sure what’s amusing about the situation.
“Well, are we just going to stand here like ducks all day?” the Hatter says suddenly, toppling the Dormouse into a nearby teacup and looking over at them. “Come! We must have something to eat!”
“I’m not very hungry,” Jia says truthfully, but while the Hare says, “Don’t be stupid!” and the Hatter beckons them over, Min merely grabs onto Jia’s wrist and leads her down the table.
“Here,” she says, shoving her into a seat before taking the chair next to her. “You should try the pound cake.”
Jia blinks. “Pound cake?”
“You know.” Min rolls her eyes. “Surely you know what pound cake is.”
“Well, yeah,” Jia manages to splutter out, “bu-but it’s only for the rich.”
“And what? We’re not rich?” the Hatter says indignantly.
“We are very rich indeed!” the Hare adds.
“Rich in wealth!”
“Rich in power!”
“Rich in character!”
“Rich in taste!”
“I’d like to know how you know that,” Jia mutters under her breath, and she hears Min snicker.
“Well come on then, try some,” says Min, scooping up a piece of a large brown cake and dropping it on a plate in front of Jia.
Jia looks at it warily, but when Min nudges her and says, “Go on,” she can’t help but oblige. Gingerly, she picks up a fork that seems to have appeared out of nowhere and digs into the cake. It tastes warm and sweet in her mouth, thick against her teeth, and Jia quickly swallows for a forkful of more. But as she continues eating the cake, she notices something odd: each piece seems to be getting a little bit heavier and heavier, until, it seems as though the last piece has the density of a bowling ball.
After staring at her piece of cake bemusedly, she glances up—only to see that the Hare, the Hatter and Min are all staring at her intently.
“Well?” says the Hatter.
“How was it?” asks the Hare.
“Do you like it?” says Min.
“It’s good,” Jia replies, “but a bit odd. Why is this last piece so heavy?” She lifts up her plate as if testing it, and is surprised when she feels like she’s lifting up thirty times its weight.
Min snorts and rolls her eyes. “Because it’s pound cake, duh. It’s supposed to weigh a pound.”
“A pound!” the Hatter says excitedly. “A pound cake weighs a pound!”
“Never more or less,” the Hare chimes in.
“No matter how much you eat—”
“—no matter how big the slice—”
“—it’s never a quarter or a half pound—”
“—just always a pound cake—”
As they continue to chatter on, Min turns to Jia. Her eyes glint..
“Forgive them,” she says. “They’re a bit mad.”
“Mad?” Jia echoes.
Min nods, and then sighs as she looks around. The Hare and the Hatter have stopped blabbering and started bickering. Min watches on with mild interest, before turning to Jia again.
“You never told me where you were from.”
A little startled at the accusatory tone, Jia hesitates for a moment. but when she tries to speak, she has no idea what to say. “I… I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where you’re from?” Min, of all things, chuckles. “That’s rather unfortunate. Where are you going, then?”
“I…” Jia pauses again, and Min sends her a look that says don’t tell me you don’t know that either. Determined to prove her wrong, Jia stammers, “Well—Well, the Cat said that I should take the Queen’s way—”
“The Queen? You mean the Red Queen, right?” Min says immediately. “The Queen of Hearts.”
“…sure,” says Jia, looking at her warily.
But then Min beams. “Great! I know how to get there. You must need to go to the palace. It only makes sense.”
“Yes,” Jia finds herself saying suddenly. “It does.”
They sit there silently for a few more minutes, with Jia wondering what exactly they’re doing and why they’re not moving yet. The forest seems to be as still as ever, though the Hare and the Hatter have moved on from having conversations about nonsense to prodding the Dormouse awake. With nothing else better to do, Jia turns to Min once more, a question on the tip of her tongue.
“I… I’ve been seeing things all day. Here,” she clarifies at the bemused expression on Min’s face. “Is this normal?”
“Well,” says Min very practically, “I’d be concerned if you couldn’t see anything, you know.” She chuckles.
“That’s not what I meant,” Jia says impatiently. “I mean, the strangest things—like illusions, hallucinations, just things I don’t think are… are real.”
“Well that’s concerning,” says Min in a pleasant tone. “Because everything here is real. It’s okay if you’re crazy though. We’re all a little mad here.”
The wan grin that spreads across her face makes Jia feel a bit uncomfortable, and she fidgets in her seat nervously. Min takes this silent opportunity to press her palm to Jia’s forehead, making Jia feel like her skin is on fire. Then Min withdraws her hand, and then without warning, suddenly kisses Jia’s cheek.
“You’re cute,” says Min, smiling. And before Jia can even formulate a proper response in her head, Min grabs her hand and says, “Let’s go to the Red Castle.”
“What is this place?” Jia asks as she steps around an old tree.
Min is concentrating on hopping over a large rock. She glances at Jia. “Home,” she answers, before leaping and landing on the other side of the boulder.
Jia’s breath catches in her throat as she watches Min’s black hair brushes against Min’s cheeks. She finally finds the words to speak.
“Yes, but what exactly is home?”
“You don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?” Min’s red lips curl. She looks back ahead. “Home is different for everyone. This, to me, is home.”
Jia is a little bit thrown off by Min’s answer. But either Min doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, because then suddenly she grabs Jia’s hand and runs fast, faster than the speed of light. Jia feels like she’s left her body behind as the wind rips around them, and everything turns to a blur.
It’s the strangest thing Jia’s ever seen. One moment she’s walking at a steady pace—the next, it’s almost like she’s flying. She can barely see what’s going on at the side, like looking out the window of a fast-speeding train, with Min as the conductor and their legs as the wheels. Jia does her best to try to trust Min with where she’s going with this, although a slight feeling of fear overtakes her. She does her best to ignore it though, and instead attempts to talk to Min.
“How… do you…” Jia gasps out. But Min doesn’t turn around, apparently not hearing her. As Jia gets dragged around she can feel herself getting more and more weary by the second.
Not up for collapsing, she tries to wrench herself out of Min’s grasp; but Min’s hand is so tight that she barely lets up at all. Jia then tries to get Min’s attention, but Min is too busy dashing through the forest to care, and Jia can’t be bothered to try to let go for now. Finally, after much struggling, Jia digs her fingers so deep into Min’s palms that she regrets it for a second, in case she draws blood.
Min must’ve felt it, though, because she stops in a clearing, scaring the gathered animals away. Letting out a shriek of laughter, she turns around to Jia, who is hanging back, bent over and trying to catch her breath.
“Wasn’t that fun?” Min beams. “Got it from Mother. Pity she can’t do it anymore, though.”
Min must be inhuman, because Jia can barely speak, much less breathe, and doubts she ever will again judging from the pain on her sides. Min merely walks around and sits on a log.
“All ready, Your Highness?” she says with a smirk when she sees Jia getting up again.
Jia attempts to glower, although it’s rather difficult to do when Min is looking at her like that. Min suddenly hops off the log and puts her chin on Jia’s shoulder, lips close to her cheek. Her arms wrap around Jia’s body, and she lets out a small purr, nuzzling Jia like a cat. Jia freezes.
“You do smell good,” Min says right into her ear.
She pulls away and grins at Jia. The blue birds flee from the tree above them.
Min leads her to a wooden building at the edge of the forest. It looks rather homey and not at all out-of-place against the messy shrubbery on the side; but when Min opens the door without bothering to knock, or at least peer inside, Jia feels wary. Is this Min’s house? And what are they doing here?
Min turns around briefly to see Jia still standing in the doorway. An amused expression flickers across her face. “What are you doing still standing there? Don’t worry, just follow me.”
Jia hesitates again, but when she sees the honesty in Min’s eyes, she decides that she can trust her. So she steps on the wooden porch at the doorway, and enters.
The house doesn’t seem like a house at all from the inside.It contains a single room, the room that Jia and Min are standing in, shelves lining the walls and a singular table standing at the far end. Pieces of cotton are tucked between each floorboard, messy and scattered about. Random things are littered all across the shelves and various pieces of paper with numbers hastily scribbled upon them lay in front of each item. Jia suddenly realizes that this isn’t a home—it’s a store.
“What are we doing here?” she wonders aloud.
Min doesn’t bother to answer her. Instead, she browses around the shelves. Again, Jia wonders if she lives here, though she’d imagine that Min would live in some glorious mansion rather than a dusty room like this.
“Are you sure we’re allowed to be here?” Jia asks, more directly at Min this time.
Min ignores her again. She picks up a pair of two long metal rods on a shelf and examines them carefully. Then she turns around to Jia, the rods still in her hand, and hands one to her.
“Here,” she says. “We’ll need these.”
Jia turns the rod overto see that it looks remarkably like a knitting needle. Probably what it is, she realizes.
“For what?” she asks.
Min sends her an incriminating look. “For rowing.”
“Yeah. Across the creek.”
Min sighs exasperatedly at Jia’s apprehensive look. “That—” she impatiently grabs a hold of Jia’s shoulders and turns her around “—creek.”
Jia blinks, and is completely baffled. They’re suddenly in a small wooden rowboat, trailing along a stream of water. Tree branches and leaves are dangling in their faces, covering up the sky so well that the sun is barely peeking out from above.
“How did we—” she starts, but stops when she sees that Min isn’t paying any attention to her; her eyes glow as she stares down at the water below them.
“It’s been a while since I’ve last been here,” Min says absently. She turns to Jia and grins. “What do you think?”
“It’s…” Jia looks around again. The trees no longer seem afraid of her: rather, they seem to be embracing her, like their master. The grass beneath them is rustling contentedly, and through the bushes, Jia can see little animals peeking out to stare at them. Even the fish in the water are hovering near to the surface as if dying to touch them.
“Amazing,” finishes Jia. She concludes that this must have something to do with Min’s presence. After all, Jia would join them if she could.
Min chuckles and moves the oar in her hand—wait, oar?—and puts it into the water. Then she looks at Jia and says, “Well, you should help row too.”
“But I don’t have—” Jia stops again when she realizes that something large and wooden is in her own hand. Incredulously, she looks down and sees that she is indeed holding an oar. The knitting needle seems to have disappeared.
Min chuckles again, probably at her baffled expression. “Well come on then,” she says, nodding her head towards the creek. “Let’s get a move on.”
The two girls row through the creek silently, aside from the paddle of the oars being slowly lifted up and out of the water. Jia manages to clumsily fasten the middle of her oar on the side so that it stays mostly in place, while she can roll the handle end in a circular motion. Min seems to be enjoying herself, Jia notices as she glances to the side. Jia’s eyes linger on her far too long, but Min doesn’t seem to be noticing: she hums softly under her breath while taking in the rest of the forest. So Jia looks around for a third time, trying to see what Min is seeing.
She must be so used to this place that she loves it, Jia thinks as she glances to the trees and the stream. Jia can’t imagine getting used to this place; it’s way too chaotic for her. But it’s probably what Min likes, probably what Min is like. The prospect doesn’t make Jia falter, though—actually, she’s intrigued to know what Min’s like. She’s intrigued to know Min.
Jia’s gaze drifts to the stream again, where the fish are bobbing near the edge. She hears a noise at her side, and turns to see Min bending down close to the water, whispering something—something to the fish. Jia watches in awe although she figures she shouldn’t be too surprised. Jia tries to decipher what Min is saying, but cannot understand a thing.
They continue to row until they arrive at a little pool at the end. Min moves them closer to the edge, and Jia blinks: she’s definitely not imagining the fish and the frogs sitting at the river banks, exchanging money.. But Min pays no attention to them, as she tugs Jia out of the boat and onto the grass.
“Well that was fun,” Min says cheerfully. “And I think you might be a little hungry now. That pound cake hadn’t been very filling, had it?”
“It was all right,” says Jia, although her stomach does indeed rumble at the mention of food. To cover the embarrassed blush rising over her cheeks, she glances around. “What can we eat then?”
“I’m sure a pine apple tree is somewhere around here. I remember them being in this part of the wood.” Curiously, Min glances around, examining the trunks of some trees and roots. Finally, she stops in front of one which looks remarkably like a Christmas tree, and beams, plucking a bright pink fruit from a branch.
“Here,” she says, sticking her hand out to Jia.
Jia eyes the fruit warily.
“Oh come on,” Min laughs. “It’s just a pine apple.”
“It doesn’t… look like one,” says Jia.
“Does your world have pine apples?” Min asks interestedly. But before Jia can answer, she shoves it into her palm and urges, “Eat it,” before taking one for herself and biting it with her pearl teeth.
Still rather cagey, although at this point she’s learning to let her guard down around Min, she lifts the apple up to her hesitant lips and then sinks her teeth into the skin. It’s rather hard, but the juice flows into her mouth, sweet and slightly minty. Jia bites off another piece, chews, then swallows.
Min looks at her. “Good. You like it.” She grins and leans over, surprising Jia with a kiss on her cheek, brief but still there. Then Min resumes speaking, as if she hadn’t stopped. “The rest of the forest’s food is shit, anyways,” she says. “And the crab apples are so not worth catching.”
“Really?” says Jia, eating her pine apple with a little more enthusiasm at Min’s words.
Min nods and leans against a nearby tree. “Really. The forest fruit may be nice, but it’s nothing in comparison to the food in town.”
Jia continues eating her apple thoughtfully, nodding at this concept. Then a thought strikes her, and she turns to Min.
“Where do you live?” she asks after swallowing a bit more of apple. “I mean, surely you don’t live here, do you?”
“Of course not,” Min scoffs, taking one last bite of her own apple before tossing it aside. “You expect me to live in the wild? But don’t worry about it. You’ll find out soon enough.”
Jia continues eating as Min watches her. She wonders what Min tastes like.
When she’s done, Min grabs onto her, causing the apple core to fall from her hand; and Jia is swept off her feet once more.
They don’t get very far when they come to a large clearing in the middle of the forest. It sort of reminds Jia of home, aside from bluegrass billowing in the breeze. Min laughs and runs toward the middle as fast as she can, flopping onto the cerulean sea of crass. Jia sits down beside her, cautiously.
“That’s where we’re going,” Min says with a beam, pointing upwards. At first Jia thinks she’s pointing to the sky, until she notices the angle of Min’s finger and follows her gaze. She gasps; a large red and white castle is far off in the distance, high towers hidden by oval-shaped clouds. It’s like from a fairy tale, and Jia wouldn’t be too surprised if it is. She takes a deep breath, feeling something like a balloon rise in her stomach.
“Like it?” Min grins. Then she tugs at Jia’s hand, pulling her down on the grass next to her and says, “Oh, you’re so cute.” She leans over to peck Jia on the cheek. A waft of minty apples and blooming flowers drifts under Jia’s nose.
“Tell me about your world again,” whispers Min in Jia’s ear, lips dangerously close to her skin. Jia can feel the heat prickling off of her, but it’s a nice sort of heat: heat that she doesn’t want to leave.
Jia stares at the cotton clouds floating above them across the blue sky. “My world… is different,” she starts. “A lot different. It’s boring, it’s big, and it’s empty. You wouldn’t like it.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” Jia sighs. “It’s probably far too boring for you, not exciting enough… I wish I could live in a world like this with you, exploring, having adventures, doing anything… everything…
“But I suppose it’s not too bad, either. My parents are always nice, and I have friends, like Fei and Suzy. We play a lot together. And I have lessons, even though sometimes they can be really annoying. The adults can be kind of stupid sometimes, but it’s alright. There are some who are really nice. I can’t wait to be an adult.” Jia lets out a wistful breath. “Then when I’m an adult, I can do whatever I want… explore, see the world… with no one to tell me what to do. When I was younger, I’ve always wanted to be a princess…”
“Yeah, but,” Min suddenly interrupts. “You grew out of that, didn’t you?”
Jia frowns. “I suppose.”
“And,” says Min, getting up from the grass and looking down at Jia, “in this world, no one wants to be an adult. You must be crazy if you do. Everyone wants to be a child! Adults are boring.”
“But they can do anything,” Jia insists.
Min shakes her head. “Not here,” she says. “Here, adults and children can do whatever they want—though adults barely do anything.” She scoffs. “Like you said, they’re really stupid.”
“Well.” Jia frowns again. “Yes.”
“Besides,” says Min, “children can even boss adults around! Tell them to do what they want! In the palace, at least. I don’t know about the peasants. But at least the filthy adults know a thing or two before even thinking about telling a child what to do!”
“What do the children ask them to do?”
“Oh, you know.” Min waves her hand. “Clean their rooms, take their showers, go to lessons—not that we have many, anyways.” She chuckles.
“They can really take your baths for you?” Jia asks, wide-eyed. She’s never really liked baths.
“Of course,” scoffs Min. “Sounds a hell lot better than your place, doesn’t it?”
Jia stares back at the sky. “I guess…” she says. “But it… it’s my home.”
Min, however, doesn’t hear her response. Instead, she rustles around and suddenly appears in Jia’s line of vision, her hand stretched out. Her hair sweeps in the wind, dark against the blues and whites serenely drifting above them.
“Come on,” says Min, catching hold of Jia’s wrist and tugging her up. Her lips brush against the skin of Jia’s cheek. “We should get going.”
It’s not much longer after they’ve started walking back through the forest, when Jia’s stomach suddenly makes a gurgling noise. Embarrassed, she tries to cover it up. She knows that they had just eaten those apples before going into the field, but—her stomach makes another loud noise and her cheeks flush.
Min turns to her, eyes glittering in amusement. “Hungry again?” she says. “It’s okay. Pine apples aren’t that filling, anyways. Here. I’ll try to find you something.”
She bends down and starts picking at the forest grounds, moving leaves and twigs aside. Finally, after a few minutes of searching, she gets back up, holding something small in her hands.
“Here,” she says, breaking off a piece and handing it to Jia. “Eat it.”
Jia glances at Min’s other hand, which is holding something that looks like a mushroom. The mushroom has a large chunk torn off from the head, though: the chunk that Min is offering to her. Jia takes it and eyes it carefully.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asks.
Min glances to her from tearing off her own piece. “Of course I’m sure. It’s completely safe.”
“But why can’t we eat…” Jia looks around and points to a different mushroom, which looks oddly like a tree stump, but also more safe. “That?”
“That? Are you kidding? The toads will get furious.” Min grabs the piece from Jia’s hand and waves it in her face. “Honestly, you’d think I was trying to poison you or something.”
“Well—N-no, of course not!” Jia splutters, snatching the mushroom back. “I just—Is this going to fill me up?”
“Of course,” says Min, scoffing. “Once you eat it, that is. Cheers.”
And without warning, she takes Jia’s hand and shoves the mushroom piece into her mouth, and Jia swallows instinctively. Then a small rumbling noise starts in her stomach, growing louder and louder in her ears. Jia squeezes her eyes shut, waiting for the inevitable to happen.
The rumbling suddenly stops, and Jia feels a poke at her side.
“You can open your eyes now.”
Jia opens her eyes and gasps in amazement. The trees are all towering above them, shadows cast as far as they can see. The leaves are as large as they are, scattered, barely reaching the top of their heads. The ground is more vast than ever, and the stump-like mushroom a few centimeters away now looks like a stool of some sort.
“We shrunk!” says Min’s cheerful voice, and Jia swivels her head to see Min standing next to her, about the same height.
“Yes,” says Jia, “we did, but I don’t see the point—”
“Are you full now?”
“I—Oh! Yes!” Delighted, Jia pats her stomach. Even if her body had shrunk, it’s evident that the mushroom piece hadn’t. Jia suddenly feels a wave of gratitude wash over her, and turns to Min.
“I think we should go that way,” says Min, tapping her chin and not noticing Jia. She points between a couple of trees a few meters away. “Yeah. Carriage… desert… castle. Let’s go!”
With a joyful shriek, Min grabs her hand and starts sprinting across the forest. They run even faster now, grass, dirt and leaves whipping behind them in a cloud of dust. Jia feels like she’s going to fall behind at any moment, though,, and the only thing keeping them together is the link of their hands.
“Why… are we… going… so fast?” she manages to gasp out. “And how…?”
Min turns and sends a smile that makes Jia feel warm on the inside. “It takes a lot of practice,” says Min. “But don’t worry about it. I’ll teach you one day, Jia.”
Jia relishes in the sound of her name on Min’s lips; but only for a second because then they stop. Jia sends Min a questioning look—she certainly doesn’t look tired at all—but then a sudden rush of air hits her in the face and Jia inhales sharply.
Min sends her another small smirk and wordlessly kisses her on the cheek. But the moment is quickly ruined when they hear a deep voice behind them.
“Who… are… YOU?”
Jia and Min turn around to see a large periwinkle caterpillar perched on a grey pebble. He’s holding a large, smoking stem, and is staring down at Min and Jia like they’re a couple of the strangest pests he’s ever seen.
Min grabs Jia’s hand and glares the Caterpillar down. “It’s none of your business,” she says rudely.
The Caterpillar glances at their clasped hands, and then at their faces. His gaze lingers on Jia’s for too long, but he stays silent.
Finally, Min snaps. “Well, who are you?”.
“If your business is yours, then my business is mine,” the Caterpillar answers simply.
Min scowls. “Fine. Whatever. We don’t care, anyways. Let’s go.”
She swiftly drops Jia’s hand and turns away, pushing through some brambles and disappearing behind them. Jia goes to follow her, but stops when she suddenly feels something heavy on her shoulder.
She turns back around to see the Caterpillar standing mere millimeters away (that is, if caterpillars can stand), his stem slung over her shoulder. He leans down and whispers harshly into her ear,
“You don’t belong here. This isn’t your place.”
Stunned, Jia says, “What—”
“Are you coming?” Min’s voice says suddenly. There’s a slight rustle of leaves, and then Min appears through the thicket. Her eyes narrow at the Caterpillar and Jia’s close position.
“Oh, fuck off,” she says, going over to them and hitting the Caterpillar in the face with the stem. The Caterpillar backs off in slight, but sends Jia one last look before slinking off into the bushes.
Min rolls her eyes and then looks at Jia once more, who still seems rather bemused. “Well, are you coming or not? I swear, you inhaled too much of that old thing’s smoke.”
Jia shakes herself out of her daze and turns to Min. She nods slightly. “Yeah. We can go.”
As they make their way back through the forest, she tries to get the Caterpillar’s words out of her head.
[----- CUT / PART TWO STARTS HERE -----]
“What happened to your rabbit?” says Jia.
Min glances to her while stepping over a tree root. “What rabbit?”
“You know. The white one.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” says Min, staring at her.
“The white rabbit! You said he was your pet!” Jia says exasperatedly.
Min frowns. “When was this?”
“When- When I first came here! When we first met!” says Jia. “I fell in a hole and I saw a rabbit, and then you came out of nowhere and said he was your pet and then you walked away, and—”
“I told you you were crazy,” Min says cheekily, kissing Jia again. “Now come on! We’re almost there!”
“But—” Jia starts to protest; but then stops when she suddenly sees a small carriage made of leaves and twigs appear out of nowhere. She rubs her eyes and blinks to see if she’s just imagining things—but of course, she’s never imagined things, and she wonders where the carriage has come from.
“This will take us to the Red Castle,” explains Min, tugging her into the cart. She pulls her inside and settles onto a bench, before moving over to make room for Jia. Jia sits down next to her and glances around. It’s all green, with light through the thin ceiling, and shadows dancing on the leafy ground.
“You’ve been in this thing before?” she asks Min, who is amusing herself by prodding the other passenger in the car, a worm who happens to light up each time Min touches it.
Min nods enthusiastically. “Yeah! We just go through the Insect House, then a few more stops, and then we’re there!” She points out the window in the front. “See those? Those are dragonflies. They pull some of the carriages.”
Jia peers out the window. A large, scaly lizard with rather fly-like wings is dragging the cart along, looking utterly bored. Another carriage passing by them, made up of red leaves, has a pair of rocking horses in the front, leaves protruding from their backs as well.
“Horseflies,” murmurs Jia.
Min turns to her and grins. “Yes! How did you know?” she says. “And there—” she points through the entrance of the carriage and indicates a few more bugs in the distance “—are the butterflies. And houseflies! I like the houseflies best. Mostly because they have no eyes and it’s funny to see them run into things.” She giggles.
“Wow,” Jia breathes, reveling at the sight. Min’s loving words ring in her ears, cradling every word like they’re all her own.
She turns to Min and sees Min smiling at her. Jia can’t help but smile back, especially when Min’s mouth meets her flushing cheeks once again. Min’s taste lingers at the tip of her tongue.
It feels like something magical, something unreal.
Soon enough, they arrive at the castle. Jia can see the palace beyond the gate, but she can’t make it out quite clearly; it seems sort of fuzzy, like the rest of her memories.
“Well?” says Min, holding her hand out to her to guide them through. “What are you waiting for?”
“We’re kind of…” Jia indicates both of their bodies, emphasizing their smallness in comparison to the large walls looming in front of them.
“Oh right, I forgot,” says Min, grinning. “You’d think I’d get used to it by now.”
She rummages through her dress pockets before a little vial slips out, but catches it before it lands. With astonishingly quick and delicate movements, she pops open the cork, drops a bit of whatever liquid is inside into her mouth, and then hands it to Jia. “Drink up.”
Jia takes the bottle and examines it in her hands. A small purple label is on the glass, reading “drink me”. Feeling wary but undeterred—after all, everything Min had given her so far today had been safe—she mimics Min’s motions and suddenly finds herself shooting straight up.
When she glances around, she sees that Min is looking at her, amused. They’re both now at a normal height for the gate, although it’s still rather tall and beyond their reach.
“That always gives me the strangest feelings,” Min says thoughtfully. She takes the glass vial from Jia and puts it back in her dress pocket, and then walks toward the castle gates.
“Why didn’t we take that earlier?” Jia asks, running to catch up with her. “You know, after we had gotten small.”
“Well, you wouldn’t be full, would you?” Min sends her a contemptuous look, and pushes the black gates aside. “Come on. There are people I want you to meet.”
They step down the gravel pathway leading up to the large wooden doors of the palace. To the side, Jia can see rose bushes on the bright green grass, looking dry and untouched. The roses are red, all up to a group of men who are standing on the side with metal buckets in one hand, red-coated paint in the other. Jia glances ahead, and realizes that the remaining flowers are all white. She’s not sure whether she wants to join them or laugh at them.
Min seems to have noticed as well when she glances to the side. She scowls. “Goddammit. Not again.” Grabbing Jia’s hand, she marches down the stone pathway to the castle doors, with Jia still marveling at everything she can lay her eyes upon.
The castle is much bigger in person, as Jia realizes when she casts her gaze up high. The shortest red tower seems to be thousands of meters above her, and the highest tower, a million. They’re made of a whitish grey stone, although the tower roofs are all a scarlet red. They remind Jia of Min’s lips.
Jia shakes this silly thought out of her mind.
When they approach the door, Jia expects Min to knock; instead, Min shoves the door aside like it weighs nothing and stomps on ahead. Jia’s rather reluctant to go inside—after all, she’s never been here before—but she doesn’t dare to pull herself out of Min’s grip, so she allows herself to be dragged inside.
And inside is a large, intimidating room. The grey walls are cold and hard, deflecting all heat and making Jia shiver, a little. The floor is of the same stone and shade. However, a long red carpet starting from the door entrance slithers all the way to the end of the room, where it pools and holds a large golden throne, along with several smaller thrones and a tiny golden table.
Jia stares at the woman on the largest throne. The woman is wearing a regal red and black dress, although it seems rather baggy on her; she looks tired, old, much too weak to be a queen of any sort. Yet the large golden crown on her head does not lie, and the red heart in the middle looks like a drop of blood.
The Queen looks up as soon as she hears the two girls enter the hall. Her face brightens up by a fraction.
“Mother,” Min says, unceremoniously dropping Jia’s hand and glowering at the Queen—her mother, Jia realizes with a start. “The men are painting the roses red again.”
Unlike Min, the Queen doesn’t seem bothered at all. She sighs, looking more tired than ever, and shuffling a deck of cards in her hand (they’re all hearts, Jia notices), she says, “Again? Don’t they know it’ll contaminate them?”
“Who cares if it’ll contaminate, you know that they were supposed to have bought the red roses!” Min sneers. “God, Mother, if you don’t care, I might as well be Queen already.”
“You know you’re not of age yet.” The Queen sighs again. Then her eyes slowly drift to Min’s side, landing on Jia. “Who’s this?”
“What? Oh.” Min glances at Jia. “My friend.”
“What’s her name?” the Queen asks interestedly, leaning in so close to Jia’s face that Jia shifts around uncomfortably.
“Jia,” says Min. She grabs her hand and squeezes it. Cocoons explode inside of Jia’s stomach.
The Queen stares at her for a few moments, and then looks back at Min. At first, Jia’s afraid that the Queen will say something rude—but then the Queen sighs for a third time and rests back in her throne, eyes drooping in the slightest.
“I used to have friends,” she says wistfully. “And your father… I wish he would come back…”
The Queen slumps even further down in her throne. Her crown topples slightly.
Min rolls her eyes. “Don’t be such a drama queen, Mother,” she says. “Is there anything we can eat?”
The Queen waves her hand to the small gold table at the side. Not saying anything further to her mother, Min goes over to the table, with Jia following along. Jia sees that there are several biscuits sitting on a golden tray, and her stomach rumbles slightly.
“Here. I know you’re hungry,” says Min, handing Jia a biscuit before getting one herself. “And don’t listen to what my mom says. She’s never had a friend.”
“Oh.” Jia takes a bite out of her biscuit, suddenly no longer hungry.
“Ugh, that damned knave probably stole the tarts again,” says Min, glaring at the biscuit tray and then eyeing her own food. “The tarts are so much better.”
“What happened with your father?” Jia can’t help asking as she watches Min settle on the carpet. She sits down next to her..
Chewing noisily, Min shrugs and crosses her legs. “Left her. My mother, that is. He was sort of sick of all her… violence.”
“Violence?” repeats Jia. She glances to the Queen again, who is still lazily sitting in her throne, position unchanging.
“Yeah. Well, she wasn’t like that before my father left,” says Min, waving her hand in her mother’s direction. “After he left, she completely just fell apart. Totally immature, in my opinion.” She scoffs and bites into her biscuit, and then talks while still chewing. “She used to be a total bitch, but at least she was respectable. Now she’s just pathetic. I still think I’m more of a queen than she is. I should take over now.”
“What does she mean you’re not of age?” asks Jia interestedly. “I thought children and adults have the same rights.”
To her surprise, Min flushes a bright red. “Not in hierarchy, though,” she says, pointedly avoiding Jia’s gaze and looking away. “I still have a few years to go. But then I’ll be the best damn queen this town has ever had.”
“Why… Why won’t your father come back?” Jia holds her breath, afraid that this question may be going too far.
But Min doesn’t seem to care.
“Violence. I told you, remember?” she says. “Yes, the Queen’s usually violent by nature… but now she’s stopped with all of her executions. Doesn’t have the heart for it, she claims.” Min looks at Jia and rolls her eyes. “But I think she’s only trying to get my father back, and that’s never going to happen. I’d say that a bit of beheading would do her good right now.”
Jia’s eyes widen in horror. “Beheading?” she squeaks.
But Min merely ignores her and finishes her food, and then grabs Jia’s hand and leads them out of the hall, the red carpet still dusted with their crumbs.
They walk through the dark corridors of the castle, hands still clasped together. Jia feels compelled to be scared, and she is; but only a little.
She glances at Min, who seems to know where they’re going. “Do you spend a lot of time in the castle?” she asks her.
Min looks at her through the darkness. “I guess,” she says. “I mean, not like there’s much to do around here. Sure, there are a lot of rooms,” and she indicates the red doors on the sides, “but after having an adventure over and over again, it all just gets boring, you know?”
“Yeah,” says Jia even though she has no idea what she’s talking about.
They continue on in silence. Light flickers down at them from a glass window above, but then Min pulls them into another dark hall.
“That’s the Buttery,” says Min. “And the Bottlery.” She points to a few more doors in the shadows. “I can show you my room, if you’d like.”
“And who’s this?” says a voice.
Min spins around, Jia swiveling with her, and they both turn to see a man approaching them from a lightened hallway. His figure isn’t easy to make out, though Jia imagines that he’d be rectangle-shaped. In the dark, she can make out the number 10 on the left breast of his white, heart-decorated suit.
“I’m Jia,” she says without hesitation, sticking out her hand. “How do you do?”
“Jia!” Min hisses, but the man merely ignores Min and shakes Jia’s hand, smiling broadly.
“Pleasure to meet you, my lady,” the man greets, and then bends down and sweeps his lips over Jia’s hand. Min positively growls. Jia notices that his lips aren’t as smooth as Min’s.
“Nice to meet you too,” she says cheerfully, attempting to seem oblivious to Min fuming beside her.
“And you, Mistress Min?” the man says, turning to her and offering his palm out, as if to take her hand and kiss it as well.
Min ignores the gesture, and merely glowers up at the ceiling. “I’m great,” she says dismissively. “Jia, let’s go—”
“You two ladies shouldn’t be dressed in such drab clothes,” the man continues on as they turn to leave. Jia stops, making Min reluctantly stay behind as well.
The man eyes them both up and down, unfazed by this change of heart. “Especially you,” he adds to Jia, gaze fixated on a large stain at the front of her blue dress. “Your clothes are horrendous.”
“I know,” Jia says, blushing.
A snarl suddenly sounds in the back of Min’s throat. “We don’t need new clothes,” she says, seething. “We’re perfectly fine the way we are. Come on, Jia.”
She jerks her head to the side, indicating that they should go. Jia looks torn. She has always wanted to be a princess…
“Do you have dresses?” she can’t help but hastily ask the man.
The man beams. “Of course! Hundreds and hundreds of dresses, more than you could ever imagine!”
Excited, Jia turns to Min—but her face falls when she sees that Min now has her arms crossed and her eyes are silently blazing in anger.
“Oh, I’m sorry Min,” she says hurriedly, running over to her. “I mean—I guess, we don’t have to, if you don’t want to—”
“No, we can,” Min says shortly.
Jia, if possible, looks even more crestfallen. “But- But you don’t seem like you want to do it at all, and—and, well, if dresses aren’t really your thing and I don’t want to pressure you into doing anythingyou don’t want to do—”
“You’re not pressuring me into doing anything.”
“But—” Jia bites her lip and looks at Min. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t want to annoy you,” Jia says quietly.
Min’s expression softens, and then suddenly she smiles. “You’re not annoying me,” she says to Jia, unfolding her arms and taking one of Jia’s hands. Her palm feels more real than ever. “Really. You know how I feel.” She brushes aside a stray blond hair and kisses Jia on the cheek, and Jia giggles. “We can go try on the dresses. I’m sure you’ll look stunning in yours.”
And with this, she leads them down through the dark halls, the man slithering behind them like an invisible voyeur.
Min is beautiful. The white walls of the room are dull in comparison as her skin shines bright, short black hair tucked behind small ears, red lips bold like blood. Jia shivers unconsciously as she watches Min drift into her room and flop onto the large, satin-curtained bed.
“Ah. Feels like home, doesn’t it?” she says, grinning and looking at Jia through her eyelashes.
Jia blushes as she feels Min’s eyes scan her up and down. “Yeah,” she breathes, trying not to watch Min’s every movement.
Instead, she glances around at her surroundings, finally taking in what Min had called home. It’s oddly neat and tidy: nothing like Min. The bed sheets are a dark, dull sort of red, matching the crimson hangings and curtain at the large open window. Jia glances outside; it’s still bright, making Jia wonder if she’s been here for only a day. Her gaze sweeps to the far wall, which is covered by a large, single mirror.
Jia walks over and looks into it, mouth turning downward at her reflection. The red fabric on her body simply hangs there, like a bag, trying to find her nonexistent curves and widening her hips too much. A thin sleeve slides off her shoulder; she doesn’t bother fixing it. Jia sees that her face is pasty and her hair is like straw and her dark eyes speak nothing but shameful fear.
She sees Min get up from the bed and come over to her, winding her arms around Jia’s torso. Jia tenses, but moves no further. Min smirks and releases her, shifting a little until she’s standing at her side. Their arms brush slightly. Her fingers absentmindedly fix Jia’s dress strap.
“You look gorgeous,” Jia murmurs, because Min does.
Min’s black eyes glitter in approval as she cocks her head to the side, examining her tight red-and-black dress, hugging her in all the right places. Her lip curls.
“Thanks,” she says, looking to Jia again. “You do too.”
Jia looks at herself again.
“I don’t see it,” she whispers.
She hadn’t meant for Min to hear. She hadn’t meant for anyone to hear at all. The walls could have had eyes and wouldn’t have seen her moving lips. The furniture could have had ears and wouldn’t have heard her tiny voice. Even the mirror, standing mere centimeters away from her mouth, couldn’t have felt her breath against its face.
But Min hears. And Min turns to her. And Min wraps her arms around her once more and presses her forehead against hers and her eyes grow dark with clouds and she says, “Let me help you with that.” And then, and then all of a sudden her mouth is on Jia’s and her hands are on either side of her face and she’s kissing her, sucking all the life out of her. And Jia kisses her back and her lips fall open and their tongues entangle and their teeth clash and their come together, come together as one.
Min breaks apart to breathe and grins at Jia; Jia grins back. She catches a glimpse of someone in the mirror. A brilliant blond stranger in a cherry red dress is smirking back at her, cheeks flushed pink in pleasure. Jia beams back. The stranger’s smirk, if possible, gets bigger.
“Come on,” Min giggles, pulling her towards the bed.
Jia giggles as well, and the two fall onto the mattress in a heap of breaths and kisses.
This isn’t her bed.
Jia doesn’t want to get up, though. The bed is large and cozy, albeit a tad too cold for comfort. She opens her eyes to a slight darkness, and wriggles her body beneath the blankets, wondering whose bed this is—when suddenly her bare arm brushes against another’s.
She becomes aware of the fact that she’s completely naked, and so is the body next to her.
Jia rolls over.
A familiar face stares back.
“Hi,” whispers Min.
Jia has urge to shout in surprise; but strangely, a peace overcomes her and she allows herself to stay beneath the sheets.
“Hi,” she whispers back.
Min’s mouth curves, a little. She leans in to kiss Jia on the nose. Jia can feel her skin tingling afterwards.
“You know what I love?” says Min in a hushed voice.
Jia shakes her head.
The word hangs still in the air, before slowly drifting away in front of them, crumbling to dust. Neither of them move or speak; they lay there in the silence, staring at each other, through the dusky blues flitting into the room. There isn’t even a slight breeze or a single movement from outside or anywhere else. Nothing changes and the world is still, and their gazes are locked into each other, refusing company from the rest of the universe. Even such things as small as their breathing goes quiet, almost until they disappear. Time freezes in the one silent moment they have together.
Then Min gets up from the bed.
She gracefully slides off the mattress and starts walking around the room, ignoring the pile of dresses on the floor. “Come on,” she says, not turning around to Jia who is watching her bare form. “We should get dressed.”
Jia nods numbly, staring at Min’s body, at all her skin and very little hairs. She suddenly feels exposed in the bed, and is aware of the heat between her thighs.
Once Min has a new dress on—a silky red pouf—she walks over to Jia and tugs her away from the bed and to her wardrobe. “I’ll find something for you to wear,” she says, sending her a reassuring glance. She drops her hand and Jia feels alone as Min browses through her clothes, searching for another dress.
It doesn’t take Min long and soon Jia finds herself donned in a pale red dress, which Min remarks, “Looks fucking fantastic on you.” Jia isn’t sure about this: it feels too tight and there are places where it hurts, a little. But she trusts Min’s judgment so she passes this off without a word, and decides that it’s probably only because it’s Min’s dress and they’re not exactly the same size.
They walk out of the room, out of the halls, out of the castle. Once they’re outside, Jia’s astonished to see that the sky is dark; it must have turned night when they had been sleeping. Altering her sense of time, she tries to make out of she’s only been here for one day, or many, many sunlit days. How long had they been asleep? How long had they been awake? How long have they been out of the castle? And why does the moon look like it’s smiling at her?
“Min,” she says as they walk along the now grassy path—they’re suddenly back in the forest again, and Jia doesn’t quite recall getting here.
“Yeah?” says Min, stepping over a bramble and turning her head.
“How… How long had we slept?” says Jia, asking the first question on her mind. Then she would know how long the day had been. Maybe. Unless it had changed from day to night while they were sleeping. Jia doesn’t even recall being tremendously tired when she and Min had flopped onto the bed shortly after they were finished—she blushes at the memory.
Min raises her eyebrows. “All day, probably,” she says. “Maybe a few.”
“A few days?” Panic rises in Jia’s chest. “How long is a day, then? It feels so much shorter. Or longer.” She glances at Min, a fearful look in her eye. “I-I don’t understand.”
“Oh, calm down Jia,” says Min, patting her on the back. “A day is just as long as any other day. Though, in the summers we tend to take our days longer here, and the nights are shorter.”
Hearing Min’s confident tone makes Jia feel a little better, although she’s baffled at this explanation. “Well, so do we,” she says almost defiantly. “In my world, I mean. The nights are shorter for a longer time, and the sun usually doesn’t set until eight o’clock—”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Min interrupts, carelessly waving her hand in Jia’s face. “I mean, we have a few nights at a time, and then several days. In winter it’s the opposite, and in March, sometimes we have two nights and other times we have two days.”
“Like now?” asks Jia.
Min laughs. “Well it’s not March now, is it?”
Jia doesn’t know what to make of this statement, but she doesn’t have much time to think; Min suddenly grabs her hand and jumps over a log, before turning around and grinning.
“Let’s go,” she says.
They make their way deeper into the wood, and while Jia tries to make sense of her surroundings, Min leads them along, making a way through the bushes and trees. Deeper and deeper they go, until it’s all dark and Jia can no longer see the sky, and finds herself trying to make sense of the figures in the shadows. Faintly, she can make out Min’s face.
“Here,” Min says, stopping all of a sudden into a small clearing. A small pool of moonlight spills out between a few leaves, illuminating a small cottage Jia hadn’t noticed before.
“Here?” she says to Min, looking at her confusedly.
Min nods, and then heads towards the cottage’s front door. Still bemused, and more lost than ever, Jia follows her. The cottage looks like any old cottage, with a small wisp of smoke coming from a chimney made of bricks and stone. Jia wonders what she and Min are doing here.
Without even bothering to knock, Min opens the cottage door and steps inside. Rather stunned and wondering if this is like the other house they had been in before, Jia peers through the doorway. But it looks like any other house, with a few shelves against the walls, and a kitchen far inside. Jia shifts from foot to foot near the doorstep, not going inside.
Min seems to have noticed this. She turns around and gives Jia a look. “Well? Come on then.”
“But.” Jia moves around uncomfortably. “This isn’t ours, is it.” It’s not a question. “And shouldn’t you have knocked?”
Min scoffs. “Why would I knock on the door of an empty house when I know no one’s going to answer? Come in.”
Her feet obey these words even though Jia’s still reluctant to join her. But she can’t help but look around a bit more, anyways. It seems as though they’ve stepped in the dining room; there’s a long, cherry red wooden table in the middle of the room, standing on a large navy blue carpet. A few shelves and cabinets hold trophies and delicate pieces of china. The house seems comfortable enough, but Jia’s still wondering what they’re doing, and why Min had decided to bring them here. She wonders who this house belongs to.
She enters the kitchen, where Min is looking around at the shelves, picking up various bottles of liquid. Min glances at Jia as she comes in, and then beckons her over.
“What are you doing?” Jia asks, walking over to her and noticing the glass vial in her hands. It reads “drink me”, although it’s not the same one that Min had given her the previous day. This one is blue.
“Looking around.” Min puts the blue bottle back on the shelf and grabs another one. This time, it’s orange. Min turns it over and examines the potion inside, and then hands it to Jia.
“Here. Drink this.”
“W-What?” says Jia. “Why? I don’t—I don’t even know what it is!”
“Because I said so,” says Min patiently. “And I know what it is. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you.”
Jia eyes the bottle carefully. “But—how do you know that?”
“I just know,” says Min. “Don’t be such a pussy. You trust me, don’t you?”
Her words come out with a bit more force than Jia’s prepared for; Min stares at her and Jia feels scrutinized, like a little bug. But Jia does trust her—she trusts Min more than anything. So she takes the bottle from her hand and, popping the cork out, starts drinking the orange liquid.
It doesn’t taste as all as she had expected. It’s warm and sweet and slippery, running down her throat without hesitation. Eagerly, Jia tips her bottle back even further so that more and more of the liquid spills out into her mouth, and she feels it splash along her tongue and the roof of her mouth and it tastes like honey. Closing her eyes, she enjoys as much of the taste as she can.
And when Min notices her over-enthusiasm for the drink, her eyes widen and she shouts, “Slow down!” and Jia doesn’t even notice. She doesn’t stop drinking until she suddenly feels a pair of hands on hers and Min is pulling the bottle away from her, and Jia feels a bit dazed.
“Well,” says Min, looking through the glass at the empty bottle. “That certainly might have been too much. How do you feel?” She glances at Jia.
“Fine,” says Jia, shrugging. Then she lets out a large burp. Giggling, she claps a hand over her mouth in embarrassment. “Oops, sorry—”
She stops talking when she suddenly feels a tingling sensation at the soles of her feet. Her feet tingle and tingle, until the feeling rises from her toes to her knees and her legs. And then to her hips and her chest and her neck and her head, and then it’s all over her body and she’s not quite sure what’s going on.
And then she looks down.
The ground seems to be pushing beneath her; either that or her entire face is being lifted up. Strangely, though, she doesn’t feel like she’s moving—although, that might be because her feet are still firm on the ground. But her feet and her dress and her everything is growing, and she’s growing and growing until suddenly her head bursts through the roof—I should have ducked, Jia thinks—and the floorboards nearly give way to her now giant weight. She gets taller and taller as the world gets smaller and smaller until her head is high up in the clouds.
When she’s sure she’s finally stopped, she gets the sense to look up. The moon seems so much closer now. The stars, too. Though, when she lifts her arm up, she still can’t quite touch the sky.
Jia looks down again, to see Min beaming at her, teeth glinting in the moonlight. “Well,” says Min’s voice, oddly clear in her ear even though she’s about fifty feet away from her. “That’s certainly not what I had in mind. But there’s no such thing as too big, right?”
Jia nods faintly, and Min’s grin grows wider. “Come on, pick me up,” she instructs.
Jia frowns, a bit hesitant. “What—”
A rattling noise comes from the front door.
She stops and they both freeze in their spots, not knowing what to do. From up high, Jia can see a small, lizard-shaped figure, fumbling with the doorknob and then walking in, muttering to himself and completely oblivious to the wreckage around him. He walks through the front hall and the dining room, throwing things aside and not paying attention to the fact that the table he had just flung his keys on had collapsed under the additional weight, and that the glass window on his left side is completely shattered. It’s only when he walks into the kitchen and sees Jia’s big, black, buckled shoe, that he finally looks up.
And his eyes nearly bulge out of his eye sockets.
“GIANT!” he shrieks. “GIANT! THERE’S A GIANT IN MY HOUSE AND- GIAAAANTTTT!”
His voice isn’t actually that loud, Jia figures as she watches the little slimy reptile hop up and down next to her foot. She resists the urge to squish it.
The lizard darts around and spots Min.
“AND YOU! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THIS GIANT AND WHY ARE YOU IN MY HOUSE? WHY ARE YOU IN MY HOUSE AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH IT, WHAT BUSINESS DO YOU HAVE BEING IN MY LIVING SPACE AND WRECKING MY THINGS, AND—”
“Run! Jia, run!” Min yells at Jia, her voice still louder than the lizard’s.
Jia, still shocked in her place, merely blinks down at the both of them. “What?”
“Why are you just standing there, Jia? Pick me up and run! RUN!”
Almost instinctively, Jia bends down and scoops Min up in her palm, and then starts sprinting away from the house, her large long legs carrying her across the forest. In the distance, she can hear the lizard’s voice slowly get fainter; but she doesn’t stop running. Her elbows skim the tops of trees and her hips crash into the trunks and she runs and runs and runs to the edge of the sky, with Min’s laughter ringing in her too-large ears.
Jia finally comes to a stop when she runs out of breath, and then pauses in the middle of the neverending forest, still panting slightly. She looks down in her palm where Min is sitting, grinning against the night.
“Brilliant,” says Min. “I think we lost him. That was fun, wasn’t it?”
Jia’s pretty sure they lost him a while ago, but she nods and pants a little bit more. It had been fun, running with nothing pushing against her, feeling the breeze ruffle her eyelashes. All of a sudden, Jia feels free. Jia is invincible.
“Come on, we better find a clearer place to sit before you scare all the birds out of their nests.” Min chuckles and gazes into the distance, among the vast seas of green. “Do you see a field anywhere nearby?”
Jia looks around too. It’s fascinating to see everything from up high, like her eyes are the stars in the sky. She can see everything in the land beyond; in the distance, she’s pretty sure she can make out the castle. She glances to the other side, and spots a small patch of yellow.
“There,” she says confidently, pointing in the direction. “I’m pretty sure that’s one.”
“Great,” Min says enthusiastically, and settles on Jia’s palm as Jia strides over to the field. Min seems to be enjoying this as much as Jia is, and this makes Jia happy.
They stop among the yellow grass and Jia sets Min down, before sitting down herself, the grass crumpling under her weight. She looks over and sees that Min is grinning, though Jia can’t be sure if she’s grinning at her, or herself.
“I love living here,” says Min, looking up to the moon. “This world, everything is so perfect. You never know if you’re going to get in trouble or have an adventure the next second. Or maybe both.”
Jia’s breath hitches in her throat. “Yeah.”
Min settles down a little and looks at her. “I like being with you,” she says. The words ring in her ears. “I like you, Jia. You know that, right?”
It sounds different, though. Hearing Min say it. Jia isn’t sure if she likes it.
“Yes.” Min sighs. “Of course you know. Do you like me too, Jia?”
Jia nods vigorously. “Yes!” she says. What a ludicrous question to ask. Of course she likes Min.
Min glances at her hand. “Pick me up again, Jia?” she says.
Jia picks her up.
“Now bring me close to your face,” says Min. Slowly, Jia brings her palm to her face until her own fingers are nearly cupping her cheeks. She looks down and sees in the corner of her eye that Min is kneeling, her face only centimeters from hers.
“Closer… closer…” Min moves herself onto Jia’s fingers until she’s nearly touching Jia herself, and then she is Her small fingers brush against the skin of Jia’s cheek, and Jia almost blushes. She can feel a faint wetness linger on her cheek, and then suddenly Min’s voice is saying, “Okay, you can bring me down now.”
Jia brings her down. Min speaks nothing of the matter, so Jia doesn’t either, even though questions are already clouding in her mind. Min settles back onto the grass, her arms around her knees and her gaze cast up, back to the diamonds in the sky.
Jia watches as the moonlight illuminates every sharp angle on Min’s body. Her heart stutters. She wonders if she’s allowed to sit here all day, staring at the way Min contrasts with the night, looking more beautiful than the sky itself. This certainly wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a lifetime, even here. So as long as she has Min.
“Hey,” says Jia suddenly, a thought overwhelming her. “Since you love this place so much… do you know everything that goes around? Like, everything?”
Min turns to her and laughs. “Everything? Not even close. But I’m used to this world.” She sighs and stretches out her legs, settling back on her hands. “It’s a wonderful place, really. I just take whatever happens and make it up as I go along. That’s really how you’re supposed to live, anyways.” She chuckles.
“But I just… I can’t imagine really living here,” Jia replies honestly. “It’s just—it’s hard.”
“But you already are. Living here, I mean.” Min’s eyes glow in amusement. “Don’t worry, Jia. There aren’t any rules here. And you have me.”
“Yeah,” says Jia, relaying on her previous thought.
“Hey.” Min turns to Jia, looking her straight in the eye. “You’ll stay here forever, right? With me?”
Jia stops breathing for a moment and glances back up at the night sky. The moon seems to be mocking her, twinkling and saying, Well, aren’t you going to answer? In her peripheral vision, she can see Min watching her, waiting for her expected response. So Jia gives it to her.
“Yes,” she says; and Min looks at the moon as well, smiling.
After what feels like forever, something prickles at the side of Jia’s foot. She glances down to see Min standing at the base of her ankle, holding a large stick.
“Let’s go,” she says.
“Okay.” Jia waits for Min to jump off before she stands up, brushing the dirt and grass from her dress.
“Here. You’ll probably want to come back down to size, too.” Min pulls out two small pieces of what appears to be mushroom heads, and hands them to Jia. “I found these in the lizard guy’s house. Knew you’d probably need them sooner or later.”
Jia takes the stolen mushrooms from Min’s tiny palms and puts them in her mouth, swallowing them instantly. Almost immediately afterward, she finds herself shrinking as the trees get taller and taller and her feet get smaller and smaller. Once she stops, she looks back up to see Min grinning.
“Well let’s go, if you’re done,” says Min, leaning in. Her mouth brushes the spot where it had been before, almost in a possessive manner. Then she takes Jia’s hand, fingers grasped nimble and tight, cool and familiar. Jia allows herself to be pulled away by the strong hold fastened around her palm, and wonders how long this moment will last.
“Where are we going now?” she asks, wondering if they even have a final destination—not that they’ve ever had one before.
Min turns around to her, laughter in her eyes.
“The Jabberwocky! We’re going to see the Jabberwocky!” she says. Her voice echoes in the shadows between the trees.
A chill runs up Jia’s spine, but quickly goes away when her eyes catch sight of the dark wood around them. She swears she’d just seen—but it can’t be, because it’s dark. You can’t see anything in the dark, can you? And even though she can barely make out Min’s figure, it certainly isn’t very bright.
But then Jia sees the flash of teeth again, and feels every obligation to stop. Min hadn’t seemed to notice, though, so Jia doesn’t bother. But she glances around again, eyes searching for the thing she had seen before, the brief flash of light she knows she hadn’t imagined.
A crescent smile is on her left; then on her right, she hears a voice whisper, “You don’t belong here.” Startled, she turns to her other side. A bright purple cat is perched on her shoulder.
“You!” Jia breathes. “You, what are you doing here—”
“Jia?” Min’s voice asks concernedly, and Jia snaps. She turns to see that Min is looking back to her. Jia glances to her shoulder again. The Cat is gone.
“I-I’m fine,” says Jia, a little shaken.
Min’s eyebrows furrow in worry. “You sure?”
Nonplussed but finding her voice again, Jia nods a bit more defiantly. “Yeah. I’m sure. Don’t worry about me.”
“All right,” says Min, and then they continue on through the wood.
It isn’t long before Jia finds herself blinking at the sudden appearance of light. When she looks up, she sees that a faint ball is glowing in the sky—the sun, maybe, although she doesn’t quite recall it being there before. Dark grey clouds barely cover it up, though Jia can see everything around her clearly.
“Look!” Min says gleefully, indicating the land before them. “We’re here!”
Jia looks around. They’re standing on a large, black and white tiled floor—sort of like a chess board, Jia thinks to herself as she gazes around. The tiles are cracked and dusty, as if no one’s been here for ages. In the distance, she’s pretty sure she can make out a palace, though whether or not it’s the Red Castle she can’t be quite sure. The air around them is still and silent. Jia suddenly feels cold.
“Isn’t it awesome?” Min’s voice breaks her out of her spell. Jia suddenly finds that she wants to get out of here as fast as she can, and that they need to leave. Now.
“I…” she starts, but stops when she sees Min step out in front of her, observing the skies thoughtfully. Another smile drifts across her face, and she turns to Jia, index finger in front of her own lips.
“Shh,” says Min, grinning. “Wait for it.”
Jia doesn’t know what they’re waiting for; she doesn’t even know if she wants to see it. But Min turns back to the grey clouds barely covering up the faint bright sun, and Jia can’t just leave her. She can’t. Even if she wants to.
But she doesn’t have too long to think, when suddenly a screech pierces the air. Jia’s eyes go straight up to where Min is watching. A faint shadow is among the clouds, even darker against the dirty grey, moving around, like a large bird. But something about this shadow tells Jia that it’s not a bird, that it’s something much bigger, much faster, much worse. Ever part of her body wants to get out of there as quick as possible, but she finds herself rooted to the spot, unable to move.
The shriek sounds again, shattering against the quiet. Jia looks back down to Min. Min has moved to the center of the board, among the dustiest and dirtiest black and white tiles, directly below the creature’s flight. Jia wants to yell out to her to move, to get out of the way, to go!—but her breath gets caught in her throat and for the first time, she loses all will to fight.
Then something snaps inside of her. Min has glanced away and turned around. She’s staring at her, and there’s something unreadable in her eyes, something that Jia is afraid of. And as she continues watching her, the screeches from the creature above get louder and louder, and suddenly they’re both in a whirlwind of dirt and dust.
The wind is strangely silent, though when Min opens her mouth to say something, Jia can’t hear a thing. “What?” Jia yells, straining her voice and hoping that Min will hear her.
“Isn’t this amazing?” Min shouts back. She laughs and grasps onto Jia as they stand their way through the tornado.
Jia doesn’t answer. Instead, she points up and says loudly, “What is that?”
Min’s eyes sparkle even more and her face breaks out into a wide grin, as she says, “The Jabberwocky, of course!” There’s something about the way that she says the creature’s name that sends shivers all over Jia’s body, even though she’s cold already.
“Look!” Min shouts, cutting her off again. Jia lifts her gaze up, to where the clouds are getting darker and darker, and then suddenly the clouds part and she can see what it is.
Hovering above them, about fifty meters off the ground, is a large scaly dragon, with a long serpentine neck and almost bulging eyes. Its wings are wide and leathery, but its face is ugly and skull-like, scarred with years and years of grime. It’s looking down at them, down at Min and Jia, circling around them and flying faster toward the ground with its mouth wide open and teeth bared, and—
Before the creature can do so much as to snatch them up, Jia grabs Min’s hand and tears her out of the tornado. She runs, runs as fast as she can, pulling Min along with her and fleeing back into the forest.
“Are you insane?!”
Jia throws Min’s hand down and turns on her, fear and anger raging in her eyes.
“We could have gotten killed!” she shrieks. “We could have died, we could have gotten eaten—What were you thinking, leading us there? Staying there!”
To her furious surprise, Min just laughs. She laughs and laughs—although she stops when she sees the look on Jia’s face.
“Oh come on,” she says, still chuckling a bit. “Live a little, you know? Wasn’t that fun?”
“Fun? Fun? You think it’s fun, almost being eaten alive, being torn apart limb from limb—”
“Oh, don’t be such a drama queen.” Min waves her hand at her. “The Jabberwocky’s harmless.”
“Harmless? You think it looked harmless when it looked at us like we were its afternoon snack? snaps Jia. “We—You got us into this mess! We nearly died because of you!”
“So it’s my fault now,” says Min, the twitch in her lip gone. She glares at Jia.
Jia glares back.
“Yes, it is! Because you’re the one who wanted us to go there, and if it wasn’t for me, we would be inside that—that thing’s stomach right now, but instead we’re actually alive and not dead!”
Min stares at her for a long time. Then she sighs, and reaches out for Jia’s hand. Jia pulls back.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” says Min, looking at her long and hard. “I just didn’t think that you’d be that scared, you know—I mean, I would never—”
“Of course I was scared,” says Jia furiously, feeling the anger bubble inside of her again. “When you—when we’re both put in danger like that, of course I’d be scared!”
“I told you, I get it,” Min says patiently. She even cracks a small smile when she reaches for Jia’s hand again. This time, Jia doesn’t protest. Min strokes the top of her palm, running her small fingers along her skin.
Jia stiffens, but does nothing more.
“Oh, come here,” says Min, and her grip fastens around Jia’s wrist and she pulls her towards her. Her lips meet Jia’s and Jia does her best to protest, but when a tongue sweeps over her bottom lip, she can’t help but give in. They stand there, kissing, for a few heavenly minutes.
Min pulls away. “I told you, I get it,” she says softly. “I’d never put you in danger like that. Trust me, okay?”
“Y-Yeah,” Jia manages to stutter out. Her teeth fall together. “Okay.”
Min smiles. “Good. Now come; we have places to be.”
They end up in a tree. Jia can feel the roughness of the branch beneath her, and shifts slightly. Min is on the other side, back against the tree, legs stretched out in front of her. Occasionally she’ll grab an acorn from the branch above them, toss it around in her hand, and then chuck it at the ground. Jia watches her, mesmerized.
Min sighs again after throwing another acorn, and rests her head against the tree trunk behind her. Jia’s eyes go from Min’s torso, down to her legs as white as sheet, and then to her feet. It’s then for the first time when Jia realizes that Min is not wearing any shoes.
“It’s nice here, don’t you think?” says Min, breaking her out of her thoughts. “I like climbing trees. You can see the sunrise from here.”
“Can you?” says Jia, and peers through some leaves on the tree next to them. A faint ray of light shines through the branches.
“Yeah,” says Min. “And it’s quiet, too. Peaceful. Away from all the noise, all the world.”
Jia is silent as she tries to absorb Min’s words. It’s sort of like when they had been in bed. Except now, Jia can hear something crumbling away and she doesn’t know what it is.
Min turns to face her. “Come here,” she says.
Hesitantly, Jia moves a bit on the tree branch.
Min brings her hand up, and her fingers trace the details on Jia’s face. They run down her thin nose, stroke along her jaw, grip around her chin—then her mouth moves forward and she’s kissing Jia, steadily. Jia shivers a little; but the pleasure is only momentary, because then Min moves away, a satisfied smile on.
“We’re going to have so much fun later,” she says, leaning back against the tree. “Maybe one day I’ll show you the mountains.”
“Th-The mountains?” says Jia, touching her lips absently.
“Yeah. The mountains.” A dream look passes over Min’s face. “Where there are dragons… wyverns… the fiercest animals in the world. Greatest creatures you can ever imagine.”
Jia watches her every movement.
“What… What else will you show me, one day?” she asks. A knot tightens in her stomach.
“Oh, everything,” says Min. “From dragons, to swordfish, to tap dancing.”
“Yes, tap dancing,” Min says in all seriousness.
Jia stares at her, not sure if it’d be appropriate if she laughed.
Min rolls her head to the side, scraping the tree bark slightly. She closes her eyes.
“We’ll do everything together,” she murmurs. “We’ll do anything and everything. We’ll have all the time in the world.”
“All the time?” whispers Jia.
Min opens an eye and smiles.
“All of it.”
[----- CUT / PART THREE STARTS HERE ----]
“We’re close to the White Palace,” says Min as they step over a brook. “Do you want to go there now?”
They’re back on the ground, soil firm beneath their feet, though Jia still feels like she’s floating. She’d probably spent too much time in that tree.
“Sure,” says Jia, moving her way around the water bend. “What’s the White Palace?”
Min’s expression darkens. “It’s the other side of this land. My mother rules the West, and the Queen of the White Palace rules the East. There used to be an alliance, but then a war broke out… and the power was split.”
“Oh.” Jia frowns. This certainly doesn’t sound like the peaceful land she’d always thought this place was.
“It’s not that bad, really. Though,” Min continues, “it’s a lot different, and there’s a lot more peasants.” Her mouth curls with disgust. “Actually, the Palace consists of the Village and the castle—waste of space, in my opinion. Plus, the Queen’s ugly and a total bitch.”
“Is she?” says Jia.
Min nods petulantly and shrugs when she looks at Jia again. “But we can still go there, since you seem to want to see it so much.”
“I-I didn’t,” says Jia, “I never said—you’re the one who brought it up!”
“Did I?” Min smiles wanly. “Come on. It’s not far from here.”
They make their way out of the forest and onto a gravel road, one that leads far off in the distance. Min points to what seems to be a lumpy mountain among the clouds. “That’s the Palace,” she says. The White Palace, from what Jia can tell, is stark bright and covered in snow, making everything around it seem even whiter. The sky above them is not the blue Jia is so used to, but instead a pearly calming color, soft above them.
“Is that the Village?” asks Jia, pointing to where she can see some people and perhaps a few houses down in the valley below the mountain. Min nods.
“Yeah. The Village actually isn’t too bad,” she says. Tthough with all the peasants running around, you’d expect it to be covered in shit.” She rolls her eyes. “They do have croquet, though, which makes up for it.”
“Croquet?” Jia says blankly; but Min doesn’t give her any time to think as she grabs her wrist and tugs her down to the small town.
Their journey there is minimal and smooth, although Jia feels like the world is stopping and working in slow motion now. As she tries to adjust her eyes to the sudden light all around, as opposed to the dark forest at night, her brain attempts to make sense of all that’s happening. Of all that’s already happened. She can’t quite recall everything, and even as she tries to look back on the night, it seems so far behind when it’s morning already. Jia wonders when it had turned morning. When she had first seen the sun after the night. Had it been when they were in the tree? Or maybe it was when they were with the Jabberwocky… Jia shivers. The sun shouldn’t come up with the Jabberwocky; it would make no sense. Maybe the sun had already been up while they were in the forest, after they had escaped from the lizard… but the moon had been fresh and full at the time… Jia shakes her head, and pries through her memories.
“Jia?” Min turns to her. Her eyes glimmer in concern. “You all right?”
“I’m fine,” mumbles Jia, although remembering things is becoming harder and harder. She can barely remember anything from yesterday, only mere outlines and traces of what had happened. And perhaps that housefly had just been her imagination…
“Well good, ‘cause we’re here!” says Min, and Jia’s forced to push away her thoughts and focus on Min. Jia looks around: there are horses and carriages carrying people back and forth across the Village. All the buildings and houses are as shockingly white as the palace up in the mountains. People are shouting and yelling, but there’s a definite smile in each of their voices, and it’s nothing like the Red Castle.
Down the street, there’s a larger, whiter carriage, lead by two larger, whiter horses, with larger and whiter knights. Sitting in the open carriage is a beautiful woman, with a crown made of pearls and a necklace made of diamonds. Her dress seems to shimmer in the morning sun as she stands up and waves at the villagers, a broad smile on her face. It’s evident that she’s the Queen; Jia frowns a little and reflects on Min’s previous words.
“Hey Min,” she says, turning a little. “Didn’t you say that the queen was—”
“Let’s go to the center of town!” interrupts Min. Not even paying attention, she grabs Jia’s hand and pushes through crowds and crowds of people on the cobblestone streets, away from where the White Queen had been. She leads them further into town, until they’re surrounded by even more people than before.
Min nudges Jia’s body and nods to the front. “Look!” she shouts.
Jia isn’t sure what they’re supposed to be looking at, though deafening cheers and screams are roaring in her ears. She glances to Min, to see that Min is grinning at whatever’s in front of them. So Jia pushes people aside, trying to figure out what exactly people are so excited about. Finally, she just stands up on her tip-toes and looks over two short peasants in front of her, watching the scene from above.
A large Unicorn is at one side of crowd, while a mangy old Lion is standing idly at the other. The Unicorn thrashes around, evidently trying to find an opening for him to attack; to Jia’s surprise, not only does the Lion look rather tired, but bored as well. From this, Jia can conclude that the Lion is winning, even though he doesn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight.
Then suddenly, the Unicorn charges headfirst for the Lion. Jia gasps along with the crowd—but it’s not much of a surprise when the Lion merely steps to the side, and the Unicorn almost runs into an old woman instead.
“Awesome, isn’t it?” says Min’s voice by her ear. “Best thing in this town. Aside from the croquet, of course.”
“What is croquet, anyways?” Jia asks, turning to her as the people cheer again.
Min grins. “You don’t know what croquet is? I’ll show you. It’s a little farther off town, but completely worth it.”
She shoves her way back through the crowd and Jia struggles to follow her. Only when they manage to avoid the masses does Min stop again, and turns to make sure that Jia has followed her. Then she smiles and kisses Jia lightly on the cheek, saying, “You look like I just fucked you.”
Jia blushes a bright red, and adjusts her tousled yellow hair. “Th-Thanks,” she stutters, although she’s not entirely sure if that had been a compliment. Changing the subject, she says hastily, “What were they fighting over, anyways?”
“Oh, plum cake,” says Min offhandedly. “They’re the King’s. The Lion and the Unicorn, I mean. Well, the plum cake is too,” she adds.
“Ah.” Jia nods, still trying to digest these words. “So, croquet?”
“Right, of course!” With a happiness that Jia had never seen before, Min runs down the street, not even bothering to hold Jia’s hand. Jia sprints after her, but stops quickly when she sees Min stride over to a park in the middle of town.
It’s mostly just a large patch of grass, about half an acre wide. Trees are planted here and there, and along with them are small ruts sticking up from the ground (probably for playing croquet.) Jia assumes that the park is manmade. She looks around for Min, and spots her over with some men, next to a rack of upside-down flamingos and balled up hedgehogs.
She starts walking toward her when the sound of a shout stops her; peering closer, she realizes that Min is arguing with one of the men. Curious, Jia leans in a bit more to listen to their conversation.
“What do you mean, I’m just a child?” Min snarls at the man. “You’re just a filthy old peasant; you’re the one who doesn’t deserve to play here!”
“For your information,” the man says haughtily, “I am not a peasant. I am an archbishop, and—”
“Oh, archbishop, right.” Min rolls her eyes. “That’s just what they call snooty old peasants like you who think they’re better than everyone else when they’re not. The only people who deserve to play an ounce of croquet are people of royal blood.”
“And you are of royal blood?” The archbishop’s eyebrows go so far up that they almost disappear into his hairline. Jia stifles a giggle.
Min’s cheeks turn pink. “Of course I am of royal blood! I am the Red Queen’s daughter, and I say that I can play croquet whenever I want!”
“Well you are of no matter to us.” The archbishop waves his hand and turns away, refusing to look at her any longer. “You cannot play croquet, Red Queen’s daughter. Go, run off and play with your little friends.”
He laughs with the other men with him. Min’s eyes darken, as she watches them, like she’s going to attack. Jia stops breathing for a moment—but then suddenly Min spins around and starts stomping towards her, looking like she’s trying very hard not to lose her temper any further.
“Who the fuck does he think he is!” she explodes once they’re out of earshot. Min grabs Jia’s hand and yanks her out of the park, ignoring Jia’s tiny squeak. “Archbishop. That’s just a fancy name for a poor, low-down piece of trash! I bet he can’t even play croquet! I’d kick his ass! And then he’ll just be another self-righteous asshole who doesn’t deserve to live, and no one will care about him anymore. He doesn’t even deserve to be talking to me. I’ll make him one of my servants and have him clean my shoes every day. Who’s an archbishop now?”
They stop in the middle of the path. Min breathes heavily. Jia hesitantly looks at her, and gently touches her arm.
“Min? Are you—Are you feeling okay?” she asks.
Min shuts her lips firmly, evidently trying to prevent herself from screaming. Then she glances to Jia and says through gritted teeth, “Yes, I’m fine.”
“Is there any way I can help you?” Jia says softly.
Min seems to have an inner battle with herself for a moment, and then looks at Jia again. “Let’s just go somewhere. I don’t care where. Anywhere. I’m just sick of people treating me like I’m a baby.” She spits the word out like it’s poison.
Jia takes her hand and inclines her head to a small nod. “O-Okay,” she says, and then leads them away.
They stop at a stone wall at the edge of town. After buying pound cake from a nearby market, Min hands a slice to Jia before settling down on the ground. Jia slides down next to her, relieved to rest her sore feet.
They eat in silence.
Then a hacking noise comes from above. Jia thinks at first she’s imagining it—but when she’s pretty sure she’s heard a very loud and exaggerated cough come from above for the the third time, she looks finally looks up.
Sitting above them on the wall is a large white egg (or at least, that’s what it appears to be), with long white legs dangling off the edge. Half of the egg’s body—shell, rather—is docked in a green outfit, while a cravat is fastened neatly around his waist. He’s looking down at them expectantly, almost desperately, eyes watering.
“Is there something you need?” Jia asks politely.
At the sound of Jia’s voice, Min looks up: first at her, then to where Jia is staring. Her eyes narrow at the sight of the egg.
“I—” The egg’s eyes dart nervously between the two girls. He licks his lips. “That looks mighty delicious.”
“What? Oh.” Jia looks down at the cake in her hands. “Do you want some, then?”
The egg nods eagerly.
Min bends her head down and leans into Jia. “What do you think you’re doing?” she hisses. “You can’t just offer food to people in the street!”
“Yes, but he looks hungry, doesn’t he?”
Jia holds up her slice of pound cake to the egg, and in one swift motion, he swipes it out of her hand, tosses it into his mouth and gobbles it up, and then smacks his lips together.
“Mm, that hits the spot,” he says, licking the crumbs from his fingers. “Where are you girls heading?” He peers down beneath his hand.
Jia opens her mouth to answer, but Min quickly says, “That’s none of your business.” She shoves the rest of her own cake into her mouth, swallows, and then gets up and says to Jia, “Come on, we’re leaving.”
“I—but wait!” the egg shouts indignantly.
Min regards him coldly as she starts walking away. When she realizes that Jia’s not following her, she spins around and glares.
“Well? Aren’t you coming?” she snaps.
“Yeah, but—” Jia glances up at the egg, who again is looking back and forth between them. “He said he wanted us to wait.”
“So?” Min snorts and reaches out to grab Jia’s wrist. “Come on. We don’t have time for this.”
Min lets go of her.“You’re saying that you’d rather spend time with a talking inanimate object instead of me?”
“No! That’s not what I meant at all! I just think—”
“You’re going to listen to someone you’ve given some of your food to, but not someone whom you’ve spent the past days with? Someone you’ve kissed? Someone who knows you more than you know yourself?”
Min’s eyes glow with fury. Jia recoils.
“Min, I just—I just thought—”
Both girls spin around at the sound, to see large white shards scattered below the wall where the egg had sat, even though the egg isn’t in sight. Among the shards is a large green cravat; but there isn’t a single trace of clothing with them. Come to think of it, the shards sort of look like parts of a broken egg shell.
The king’s men rush over and jump off their horses, starting to put the pieces back together again..
Min sniffs. “Good riddance,” she says from Jia’s side. “Come on, we better get going.”
And Jia follows her, feeling like she’s leaving something behind.
It seems like each adventure is slowly fading away, from journey to journey, dissolving into the air. Jia struggles to keep herself in the moment—only, she doesn’t even know what the moment is. Maybe this is all just a dream. Maybe one day she’ll wake up and remember everything that’s never happened to her.
But not today. Because today she’s on a briny beach, sitting on the sand next to Min, listening to a large old Turtle sing. What seems to be a Gryphon is sitting on a boulder next to the Turtle, watching him intently.
When the Turtle finishes warbling, Min and Jia clap politely. The Gryphon flaps its feathery wings, cawing appreciatively.
The Turtle beams and bows his head. “Thank you, thank you, thank you very much.”
“You sounded horrible,” says the Gryphon, smiling. (That is, if Gryphons can smile.)
“I know. Are you up for another one?” says the Turtle.
“Sing the Ode that I wrote!” says the Gryphon.
“But that one is terrible,” says the Turtle, batting his head playfully against the Gryphon’s body.
The Gryphon frowns. ‘I like to think that that one is quite lovely myself, thank you very much.”
“Well I’m not going to sing it.”
“The lyrics are nonsense! Why would you skin a sheep?”
“Because their skin is quite lovely!”
“That’s shear my old friend—you shear a sheep.”
“You can skin a sheep too!”
While the two animals continue arguining, Jia moves closer to Min. “Where are we?” she whispers.
Min frowns at her. “You mean you forget? We’re on a beach, of course. I brought you here to listen to the Mock Turtle’s tales.”
“Oh.” Jia searches through her head, trying to recall any of this being mentioned to her. She finds nothing.
Min merely laughs and leans over to kiss her on the cheek. “You’re cute when you’re confused,” she says, grinning widely.
The Turtle and the Gryphon pause and turn to them.
“Aw, isn’t that sweet?” the Gryphon croons.
“Makes me wish I had a mate myself,” the Turtle says wistfully.
“Thanks, you guys,” says Min, getting up and dusting her dress off. She gazes at them, not looking fazed at all. “It was nice talking to you. Jia and I will be going now.”
“Ohohoho,” says the Gryphon. “Are you now? You girls feel safe, going through the forest alone?”
“Of course. I’ve got Jia with me.” Min grins and tugs at Jia’s wrist. “Come on. We should get going now.” She starts leading them away.
“Wait—Wait, but where are we going?” asks Jia, running after her.
The Turtle and the Gryphon laugh.
“Look at how lost she is,” crows the Gryphon.
“Are you sure you can trust her to come with you?” the Turtle says to Min, chuckling.
“I trust her,” says Min, pulling on Jia’s hand. “Even when she’s crazy most of the time.”
She and the two animals laugh. The Gryphon peers down at Jia.
“Tell me, dear girl, do you know where you are now? Where you come from?”
Jia furrows her eyebrows in concentration, trying to block out everything else in her head, where nonsense is swimming about. She tries and tries to remember, to remember where everything is, where all of this had started, when everything had happened: she goes through each memory, each dream. In the very back of her mind, though, she can see a long dark tunnel, with a faint bright hole in the distance; but the rest of it is all dark, empty.
“I don’t… I don’t know,” she whispers.
The Turtle howls with laughter.
Min, however, just snorts and rolls her eyes. “You guys are fucking insane,” she says to the two animals. Then she turns to Jia. “Want to go back to the castle?” Min asks gently.
Jia nods numbly, still searching. “Yeah,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Days and nights pass, though Jia doesn’t know this for sure by the way her mind is stilted slightly. Min leads her into places, through alleys, in between trees and thrushes and buildings. Jia follows her with an open mind and an empty heart, turning right and left and left and right until she doesn’t know if she’s right or wrong anymore. They keep running and running, not long enough for Min to make a crude remark, not short enough for Jia to remember—but does she want to remember anyways? The world whizzes past them like a thought in the breeze, and Jia holds her hand out to catches it. She misses.
They finally end up in a large polished room, though Jia doesn’t quite remember how they had gotten here. She tries to focus at the matter at hand; except the matter at hand is that she doesn’t have her head on straight and she doesn’t know how to fix it.
Min’s eyes meeting hers for the first time in a while suddenly stop her mess of thoughts, and Jia holds onto her gaze, trying to find something in them. But Min merely says, “You’ve been quiet an awful lot, Jia. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m—” Jia clears her throat, finding her voice. “I’m all right.”
Min shrugs. “Okay,” she says. “I trust you. Now come on, follow me.” She goes to the curtain at the end of the room.
“Where are we going?” says Jia as she follows her, watching as Min pulls back the curtain.
Min glances to her. “The castle, of course,” she says. “The Red Castle. We always pass through this room whenever we go in or out.”
“We-We do?” Jia doesn’t remember coming here before. She doesn’t remember at all.
“Yes,” Min says patiently. “Now help me move this curtain, it’s always so heavy.”
She and Jia push the purple velvet aside until there’s a slight opening between the fabric, which they slip through. The other side, to Jia’s disappointment, is exactly the same. The only difference between the two rooms is a glass table in the corner, and a small golden door on the far wall.
Min runs over to it, with Jia trailing behind, still lost in her thoughts. Min rattles the doorknob, until it suddenly lets out a loud sneeze and shouts, “Well that won’t do you a lot of good!”
“Open up!” Min says to the door. “Come on, let us through!”
“No,” the doorknob says sullenly, apparently a bit offended at Min’s ruthlessness. “Squeezing my nose isn’t going to help, you know.”
“Goddammit,” curses Min. She spins around and starts pacing the black-and-white floor. “Stupid fucker… help me, Jia!”
Jia, who’d just realized that they’re standing on a chessboard, jerks up. “Yeah?” she says.
“Help me find a key,” says Min.
“I still won’t let you through!” shouts the doorknob, but neither of them listens. Jia runs to the table she had seen earlier, while Min studies the grounds.
A small golden key lays on the table top. Jia blinks for a moment to make sure she’s not hallucinating. Then, gingerly, she picks it up from the glass surface and holds it for a second. She’d expected that the key would morph into something, or at least sprout and grow wings; but other than being a little heavier than size would suggest, it seems to be completely ordinary.
After a moment of contemplation, Jia calls across the room, “Min, I… I think I found it!”
Min walks over to her and beams when she sees the key in Jia’s hand. “Yes! That’s it!” She grabs it and fiddles it into the hole on the doorjamb. The doorknob makes an odd sound like it’s being choked, but Min pays no attention. After a brief click!, the door swings open, and a small breeze flutters through the room.
“Let’s go!” Min says cheerfully.
Jia dubiously glances between them. “Aren’t we a little too big?” she says, eyeing the doorway which only comes up to their waists.
Min laughs lightly. “Oh yes. I forgot.” She pulls out a small blue vial from her dress pocket and hands it to Jia. “Here. This will make us smaller.”
Jia feels a bit skeptical, but takes the vial from her anyways. After squeezing three drops of the liquid in her mouth, she hands it to Min, who does the same. Both of the girls shrink at an alarming rate, but it’s over as soon as it had started.
Min smiles at her and takes her hand, before leading them into whatever’s beyond the door. And what is beyond the door is, as far as Jia can tell, a desert. It doesn’t seem to be anything more, even though Jia had expected something more interesting, something more exciting. For a moment, though, she swears she sees a raven sitting on a writing desk—but then it disappears, and she wonders if it had been just a figment of her imagination, and if she’s merely hallucinating.
But I can’t be hallucinating, she says to herself in her mind. Because Min had said that everything here is real. But Min had also said that Jia’s also a little crazy, which Jia isn’t sure if she should believe, too. But she should trust Min, right? Min knows what to do. Min knows everything here. Min knows where they’re going. Or at least, nags another part of Jia’s brain, so she claims.
Jia shushes this part of her mind. Why should she doubt Min? Min has all the answers, Min comforts her—she likes Jia. She wouldn’t lie to Jia. Min knows where they’re going, and even if she doesn’t, she knows how to get them out of trouble. Sure, she had led them to the Jabberwocky—but that had just been a poor judgment of safety in her part, and Jia isn’t going to start blaming her for that now. Everyone makes mistakes, and Min makes them too. It doesn’t mean that Jia should think of her any less.
They walk on for a good while in silence, with Min occasionally humming under her breath and Jia observing the land around them. It’s all desolate, abandoned. The air is dry and thick with heat, though not thick enough to make her thirsty at all. But she’s in a desert—she should feel thirsty, right? Maybe Jia is just losing her head. Min wouldn’t like that.
Jia strains her eyes as she looks around. Nothing seems to have changed in the desert; they hadn’t seen a single cactus, or at least some sort of strange desert animal that this place would have. Jia wonders if they really had passed through that polished room and this desert every time they had come in—and out—of the castle. Surely she’d remember. But as she searches through her mind, no memories come to her—no memories between the Insect House and the Main Hall, no memories between leaving the Castle and staring at the night sky. She frowns to herself a little and wonders where they’re going, anyways. How are they supposed to find the Castle in a place like this?
Squinting into the distance, Jia tries to perhaps find a door or maybe a large figure waiting for them ahead. But there’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. All there is is the white, white sky and the invisible sun beating down on their necks, and suddenly Jia’s head feels even lighter than before. Where are they? Which direction are they walking in? What if they’re just going in circles, going absolutely nowhere, or maybe have been veered off course, or are even just going back to that annoying talking door? Jia’s hands grow clammy as she thinks more and more—they don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, and Min looks completely carefree, like she’s barely paying attention to where they’re walking. All of a sudden, a strange panic overcomes Jia as she turns to Min, fear rising in her throat.
But then she pauses and stops herself, urging her body and mind to calm down. Min knows where she’s going. Jia had told herself this earlier. Of course Min knows where they’re going; she always does. Why should Jia doubt her now? Min will lead them somewhere safe, and then they’ll be together at another place, content and happy. But the paranoia nags at the back of Jia’s mind, so when Min turns to her expectantly, she asks her question anyways.
“Hey, do you know where we’re going?” she asks in the most casual voice she can muster.
“Nope,” says Min cheerfully.
A chill runs up Jia’s spine, and suddenly she feels cold even in this blazing weather.
“N-No?” she says, and her voice is quiet, to her immense surprise. “What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?” Min scoffs. “I mean, no. I don’t know where we’re going.”
A lead block settles in Jia’s stomach. Min doesn’t know where they’re going. Min doesn’t know where she’s leading them. Min doesn’t know—Min doesn’t know anything.
Min doesn’t know.
Jia stops suddenly, dropping Min’s hand. Min turns around and stares at her, eyebrows raised.
“What?” she says, seemingly annoyed.
“Isn’t this your castle?” Jia’s voice sounds too loud for her ears. “Isn’t this your home? Shouldn’t you know where you’re going?”
“Well,” says Min. “Yes.”
“Then why don’t you?!” Jia all but shrieks.
Alarmed, Min walks over to her. “Whoa, calm down,” she says, putting her hands up in self-defense. “You weren’t like this when we first came here.”
“That’s because I can’t remember when we first came here!” Jia shouts, sounding nearly hysterical. “I can’t remember—I can’t remember anything, anything we did, anything we said, all that we- all that we experienced—”
“Are you all right?” Min says concernedly, leaning down and looking deep into Jia’s eyes.
Jia nearly explodes in that moment. “Oh yes, I’m fine!” she yells sarcastically, tearing her gaze away. “I’m just great and fine and dandy—no, I’m not fucking fine!” The curse word comes out of her lips strangely, like something foreign. “I’m not okay at all! Do you see—Do you see where we are? We’re in nothing! Nothing! We’re in the middle of nowhere, because you—you have no idea where we’re going and we’re not going anywhere and we’re utterly and completely lost, and we’re hopeless, an-and it’s all your f-fault!”
She’s crying at this point, collapsed on the hot stand, tears streaming down her face. Min kneels down beside her and rests a small hand on Jia’s wrist, trying to make eye contact.
“Jia—” she starts.
“Don’t!” Jia pulls her hand away. “Don’t you see? I’m scared, Min! I’m scared! I’m scared that we’re lost, and I’m scared that we’ll be stuck here forever, and I-I’m scared that I’ll never go back home! There’s nothing we can do—we’ll just be in this desert for the rest of our lives and we’ll die here and be buried in the sand, and- and no one’s going to come and no one’s going to kn-know and I c-can’t—” She blubbers into her palm and tries to wipe her tears away, but they spill even more furiously, splashing around her and scorching the hardened sand underneath her legs.
Min’s soft voice says, “Oh—Oh Jia, don’t be like this.”
“Come on, Jia.”
A hand touches her own. Jia is cautious in taking it, but when she feels the warm hand turn over small in her palm, she grasps onto it. The hand helps her up, and leads her away, in a direction that Jia can hardly make out. Jia continues crying softly and sniffling into her hand, eyes blurred from seeing anything clearly beyond her own wrist. But she doesn’t care—all she wants is to get out of here, now, leave and be gone.
They walk a little longer before Jia feels the sand turn into hard stone beneath her feet. She glances up and looks through her eyelashes, to see that they’re in the Main Hall of the Red Castle. Min is looking at her, still worried. Jia’s insides turn cold at the sight.
“Are you all right now?” Min asks gently.
Jia pushes back the tears still threatening to spill from behind her eyes. “I want to go home,” she says. It comes out a bit quiet, but she knows that Min will be able to hear it.
Min blinks, and then leans her head in as if she hadn’t heard correctly. But her eyes as wide as saucers give herself away. “What?” she says.
“I said, I want to go home.”
Min stares at her for a good ten seconds. Then her expression hardens.
“You can’t,” she says.
“I can,” says Jia. “Now tell me how to get home.”
Min clenches her jaw and her eyes narrow. “No.”
Jia looks into her eyes and sees that there’s something there, something unreadable. “Well fine,” she says fiercely. “I’ll just go figure it out myself.”
She turns on her heel and storms out the hall, to the left corridor where she and Min had gone her first time. When she hears footsteps following her, her hands curl into fists at her sides. From behind, she can hear Min call, “You won’t figure it out!”
“I will!” she shouts back. The footsteps quicken, and Jia walks even faster, faster and faster until she breaks out into a run. She can hear Min running too; somehow this knowledge pushes her to run even harder.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” yells Min. “Running away from me like this? Being the scaredy cat that you’ve always been?”
“I’m not the scared one; you are!” shouts Jia. “You’ve always been scared, of what you knew was right, of what the world is supposed to be—finding comfort in things you know that can always be changed!”
Min is silent at these words, though Jia can hear that she’s gaining speed. Then Min’s voice finally yells, “At least I know who I am! You don’t even know—Poor little Jia, always looking to other people for comfort, faking your own sanity—What am I now, a forgotten security blanket?”
Jia refuses to turn around, although she can feel the tears swelling up inside her already. She charges through the endless maze of halls, lights flickering from the shadowed corridors, sunlight seeping through the glass windows above.
“What happened to staying here forever?” screams Min. “With me! What happened to me?”
Jia tries to pound these words out of her head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Min’s sardonic laughter rings through the next corridor. “Do I, Jia? I don’t know what I’m talking about? If I didn’t, then why did you listen to me—why did you stay with me?”
They run from hall to hall, through dark and light.
“I DON’T KNOW!” yells Jia, and tries to find somewhere to go, anywhere—but she’s faced with another blank wall so she just keeps on running, running and running.
“LIKE HELL YOU DON’T!” shrieks Min, sounding near deranged. “WHEREAS I, I KNEW WHAT TO DO, I KNEW WHAT TO SAY—I KNEW YOU, JIA! I KNEW EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU! I THOUGHT YOU TRUSTED ME!”
“HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO TRUST YOU IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW WHAT YOU WERE DOING HALF THE TIME?!”
Their voices echo off the walls, reverberating with each footstep.
“GET BACK HERE!” Min screams, just as Jia turns a corner and spots a door. She runs towards it and tears it open, not knowing what to expect.
To her great surprise, she’s back in Min’s bedroom—even though she doesn’t know how she had gotten here. She stops in her tracks and gazes around. The room is as still and white as ever, completely undisturbed. Jia stares at it all like she’s seen them efore, in a dream.
Footsteps sound near the doorway. Jia spins around to see Min leaning against the door frame, breathing heavily and watching her. Min seems as shocked as she is.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she growls.
Her voice seems to trigger something inside Jia, and she turns away. She has to leave, she has to escape from Min—she runs, desperately trying to find her way home.
“Get back!” shouts Min from behind her, and the chase starts once more.
And Jia pays no heed to her words, but instead looks straight ahead—her eyes widen when she sees her own reflection staring back. Then she blurs for a moment; she sees something in the distance…
Min’s panicked voice cries, “Wait, Jia, don’t—!” but Jia blocks her voice out. She closes her eyes as she continues to run, and braces herself for impact, for pain, for nothing…
“Jia, what are you—”
is all she hears before her body makes contact with the mirror, with herself—and everything turns black. In the distance, she can hear a crash, a shatter, a voice continuously shouting through the darkness, “Jia! Jia! Jia!”
…and then she's falling…
“Jia! Jia! Jia!”
A hand slaps her hard across the face. Jia opens her eyes to see two blurry figures above her, staring down at her.
“Should we get some help?” says a voice worriedly.
“I-I’m fine,” Jia murmurs, shaking and rubbing her head. She glances back up to see two familiar faces staring down at her, concerned.
“Are you sure?” says Suzy. “You look really pale—Well, paler than usual.”
“I’m fine,” repeats Jia, this time with a bit more confidence. She falters when she sees where she is.
“What happened?” she asks.
“You hit your head on a log and passed out,” says Fei, indicating something behind Jia’s head. Jia turns around and sees a log resting on a small grassy mound. Nothing else seems to have changed.
“I told you, I’m fine,” she says.
When she turns back to her friends, she sees a strange expression on Suzy’s face.
“What’s that?” says Suzy, reaching out to touch Jia’s cheek.
“What’s what?” Jia lifts up her own hands to feel her face as well..
Suzy frowns and pulls back. “There—There’s red stuff.”
“Oh.” Jia touches her other cheek. “Must be blood from the fall, or something.”
“No, it’s not.” Fei leans in to examine her. “It looks like lipstick.”
All of a sudden, memories wash over Jia like a bucket of ice cold water. Memories of Min… memories of a castle… memories of a Cat… memories of a world forgotten…
“Does it? That’s what I thought,” says Suzy, looking pleased as she glances at Fei.
Fei nods. “Yeah. Didn’t know you wore make up, Jia.” She giggles. “Come on, we should probably go see if supper is ready.”
“Yeah! I wonder if my mom made us smoked chicken…”
As the two girls run off, Jia glances around. It all looks the same, the way it’s always been. The tree across from her, the hill on the side, the sun standing still in the sky.
She moves off the mound again, and pushes away the log. She isn’t too surprised when she sees a small hole behind it. “That wasn’t very funny, you know,” she says to the hole. “And I really thought that all of that did happen.”
She’s about to turn away when something in the cavern catches her eye: something glinting, bright. At first she thinks it’s nothing; but the second flash of white is unmistakable, like a wide, wide smile. Jia waits for a moment, for another response, for anything else—but nothing else comes.
Yet, as she turns around, she swears she catches a glimpse of a pair of shining black eyes staring up at her, so real that they make the world around them look fake.