The handkerchief is Ji Mong's.
Go Ha Jin barely notices it through her tears, but the proffered hand lingers next to her shoulder, and she finally turns, hoping for a miracle. She isn't sure what she expects to see: her Fourth Prince in full Goreyo regalia? It's an absurd idea, really, but no less absurd than a modern woman traveling back in time hundreds of years, by drowning, no less, so she harbors some secret hope.
However, her expectant eyes meet the half-sheepish, half-sympathetic eyes of Ji Mong. Once a homeless man, sharing her pains next to a fateful lake, then a Court Astronomer, giving her advice in the little ways he could, and now a makeup mogul, of all people. Ha Jin knows he of all people (a fellow time-traveler!) should know and understand her pain, but it doesn't stop her face from falling when she sees him.
He smiles sadly, a silent apology for not being her prince, and gestures for her to take the handkerchief.
After her tears are dried and Ha Jin feels as if she can finally think rationally, they talk about Goreyo and time-traveling over quiet cups of tea. Ji Mong skillfully dances around the topic of 'him', and after an awkward pause and a shared faked laugh, she avoids the topic of Crown Prince Mu.
Ha Jin remembers his tears of anguish after King Hyejong's murder and silently berates herself. She was not the only one to have loved and lost in that time. And even though the gentle King died many years before her own (Hae Soo's) death, time didn't heal all wounds. Ji Mong, with his too-bright smiles is proof of that, as is her reflection in the window with its tear-stained eyes and twice-broken heart. But they are together now, sharing the burdens of their sorrows even as they shy away from them, and this, to her, is comfort, if not a solution.
'A solution....' the words tease her hopeful heart, and she looks up from her nearly empty tea cup, meeting Ji Mong's gaze with renewed energy. He is the time-traveling master, after all, a title she created for her in lighter times, and he must have some solution to bring those lighter times back. She says as much aloud, leaving out the part about him being a time-traveling master.
"If I'd know some way to go back, or even bring him- them- here, I would have," he replies somberly, shaking his head. Ha Jin slumps back in her chair, the last dregs of her tea sloshing in time to her movement. The tea is a feeble relic of her past life, and now is the only familiar link between her time and his. Its scent, a comfort only seconds before, now stings her eyes with pricks that reach her heart.
'I will not cry,' she tells herself, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply, tightening her grip on her teacup.
"So there's no hope at all?" Ha Jin asks at last. Ji Mong, who has been silently watching her reaction, nods slowly. A minute passes as he seems to struggle for words.
"In a way, you're right. There's no way right now to do anything. We can't change history, can't go back in time again. But just because we can't now, you know, doesn't mean we can't find another way sometime." He leans forward, carefully patting her on the shoulder.
"You have a new life now, Lady Hae Soo. You should act a little more grateful about it, you know. Don't worry so much. Just don't give up!"
With those last words of encouragement, he smiles sadly and excuses himself, leaving Ha Jin alone with her sadness. Her memories.
'Don't run away.' Her prince’s voice echoes through her mind, and she exhales. He's right. They're both right.
Just like that time so long ago, when she had been forced into the palace, she has been dealt a new hand in life by the universe, and it is up to her to figure out what she can do with them. It's useless to be hung up on a miracle that will never happen, after all. Go Ha Jin's life has been given back to her, by some strange twist of fate, and it would be a an insult to Hae Soo's memory, to Court Lady Oh and Myung Hee Unnie if Ha Jin spends the rest of her original life caught up in the past. She will move forward, if not onward.
Six months pass in the blink of an eye as Ha Jin adapts to the world she used to call her own. Hae Soo begins to fade, her memory failing her as Ha Jin tries to forget. She tries to live a normal life, for the people she left behind in Goreyo and the people here in the modern world she has been reunited with. At first, it seems as if she can do it. She can live on for them, and let both pasts mix freely.
Once, a bottle of nail polish falls to the ground and breaks, earning Ha Jin a shard of glass in her thumb and a scolding from her boss. She absorbs the stern words silently, bowing her head where she would have previously snapped back. After all, there’s kindness in her boss’ eyes, and the gently chiding words feel a little like home. And as she scrubs the red stain into a pale shade of pink, she can acutely feel the change inside of her between Ha Jin before and after Hae Soo. Just like the white tile floor that will now forever bear the stain of the nail polish, her heart is permanently marked by all the hearts she managed to touch as Hae Soo.
The change of course, is small. It shows itself in the littlest of things: a certain reverence she now shows towards her parents, a loving smile she gives her younger brother, the now easy acceptance of chores she used to complain about, and a strange, but marked refusal of her friends' attempts to set her up on blind dates. Her parents attribute the change to her coma and think of it as her maturing late. Her friends, knowing somewhat better, attribute the change to the betrayal of her best friend and boyfriend, and think of it as her strong recovery. Her brother doesn't think much of it, too young and previously too distant to mark a distinct change in his older sister's personality.
Instead, he takes it as an opportunity to become closer to who he now calls ‘Super Reliable Ha Jin-noona’, a nickname she smiles at with a slight twinge in her chest. He's all playful grins and awkward edges, like a younger her in some ways, and as she ruffles his hair, dodging his swat, she thinks if she had let herself, perhaps Eun would have been easy to love. Not that she loves her brother like that, of course, but it is in his pranks and easy smiles, his world full of video games, that she thinks she finally sees what Lady Soon Deok saw in Eun’s carefree, bratty spirit.
It’s innocence. A bright, happy innocence that envelops him, and she wishes she hadn’t missed it before, but now that she sees it, she hopes it will never fade.
After she’d woken up, Ha Jin had heard whispers about them, the two she once wanted to forget: her old best friend and her ex. She still wants to forget them, or at least how their relationships with her ended so terribly. But it’s still the same Seoul, even two years and six months after her accident and she meets them again. It's almost laughable to her how seeing each of them still causes some small twinge in her chest. Her first love, and her first lost. The pain is still there, despite her days of despair and epic burning passion in Goreyo. After all, she never really forgot them, just as she will never forget him.
Even epic love cannot erase the scars of first heartbreak.
One day, the chimes on the entrance to the makeup salon jangle (for some reason, the sound is harsh and discordant to her ears), and in steps the young woman Ha Jin wanted to see least, whether before, after, or during her time as Hae Soo. It's by coincidence, or perhaps it is the universe’s way of shaking its head at her, sighing, and giving her another chance, yet again, after she was so quick to give up on everything after she was first betrayed.
Either way, a slow, sinking feeling settles in the pit of her stomach, and the ever-present ache in her heart intensifies as their eyes meet and widen. Ha Jin’s brush clatters to the floor for all the wrong reasons, and she nearly takes a step back into the shelves. The other makeup girl looks at the two of them, eyes wide, but Ha Jin reassures her with a small, tight nod of her head. She has to do this.
Ha Jin braces herself, mentally and physically, for the insults to come, the blows to be rained upon her face, but they don’t come. Instead, she blinks, and her old friend’s eyes, So Hyun’s eyes are filling with tears.
“Ha Jin. Go Ha Jin. You are her, aren’t you?” She asks, trembling.
Ha Jin has had her fill of abuses slung at her by the ones she once loved, whichever world or body she’s in, and is always ready to counter it (she’s a twenty-first century woman after all, though that’s not quite right anymore), but she still is unused to apologies. So when So Hyun breaks down in front of her, Ha Jin’s not-quite-so-closed-off heart breaks for her, for the friendship they had.
"Sorry, I'm so sorry, Ha Jin," she sobs, and Ha Jin's heart breaks a little more as she remembers Chae Ryung, another little sister who she'd lost to betrayal for another man, always a man who didn’t deserve them or their unyielding love. She wonders if all the best friends in all of her lives will be separated from her by men, and the thought is almost enough to break her. Almost. And yet, she remembers the happy times, times of smiles, laughter, and shared secrets, and this time, she decides (on a heart still regretting past decisions) the laughter is worth the pain; she can bear the betrayal once again if it means she can see her friend smile again someday.
In between sniffles, tissues, and more tears (from the both of them), So Hyun tells her everything. She’d heard about Ha Jin saving the young boy, going into a coma for him, and that had been the last straw for her in her already-deteriorating relationship with their now-common ex.
“He didn’t care at all,” So Hyun repeats as Ha Jin hollowly stares. “Even when I told him it was all our fault, and that we should at least go to visit you in the hospital.”
The younger woman looks up at Ha Jin, and smiles through her tears, a fire in her eyes.
“He didn’t care at all, so I dumped him.”
And the venom in her voice is enough to give Ha Jin the courage to reach out and hug her, laughing through tears over the other girl’s shoulder.
‘It’s alright. Everything will be alright.’
Ha Jin whispers the words for both of them, but mostly for herself, and she hopes that somewhere, a serving girl turned court lady is smiling brightly down at them, for the second chance Hae Soo gave So Hyun that she never had the chance to be given.
‘It’s alright, it’s alright. I forgive you.’
Her boss scolds her, telling both younger women that the makeup store is no therapy clinic, but there’s a smile on her face that softens her sharp words and smoothens her frown lines. The next time So Hyun timidly pokes her head through the store’s entrance, she is taken by the hand by the older woman and led over, quietly, but firmly, to Ha Jin’s station. There’s a warning in her cool grey eyes that So Hyun nods nervously to: Don’t hurt her again.
It’s a broken friendship, perhaps on the mend now. Somehow she feels the words of comfort she spoke will come true. It will be alright in the end.
Meeting her ex is far less easy.
This time it is pouring rain outside, and she loses the sound of the chimes amidst a clap of thunder. When she's flinched back a suitable distance, and opens her eyes, once again Ha Jin's makeup brush falls out of her hands, this time, most definitely for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the thunder and rain is the universe's way of reminding her, none-too-kindly, that it is time to firmly close her heart to another unfaithful man, though he’s unfaithful in a different way from the prince who abandoned her. She doesn't need the universe's prodding to meet his wide-eyed, near horrified stare with a cool glare, taken straight from her boss’ lectures. So Hyun’s spite-filled words and tears fill Ha Jin’s heart and fuel her as she draws herself up under his stare.
“H-Ha Jin-ah,” he stammers after a second of silence (it's only awkward for him), a hundred emotions flying across his face before he finally settles on a properly remorseful expression.
“Out,” she says crisply, before he says another word, all of the feelings she never laid bare to the Eighth Prince poured into that single word.
'You left me.’
'You promised you’d never hurt me.’
‘You said you loved me, but it was all too easy for you to throw that love away.’
The shock drains from her ex’s face, making way for a flood of rage, but she's already turning away from him, like she should have turned away from the Eighth Prince after he left her to die. It's almost shocking how similar the two are, now that she thinks about it.
He's shouting behind her now, words that she's sure she'd fallen for before with the Eighth Prince, but she's done, done with them both, and a reckless thought drifts across her mind, that the next man to disturb their makeup haven had better be him and no one else, but she quickly pushes it down as she makes her way to the back room. The other employees, her boss (really, Ha Jin should be calling her Ms. Jang by now), and So Hyun form a warm, comforting wall at her back, and she can hear him spluttering in rage as he is firmly escorted from the store by a woman of all people. Ha Jin almost laughs as she sneaks a glance over her shoulder to see her boss giving him the sternest talking-to she's ever seen.
It isn't until she makes it to the quiet safety of her home that she finally breaks down and cries- for everything she's lost, for everything she couldn't see the first time. As much as she hates him, she knows, just like last time, throwing away her feelings for the Eighth Prince (this time, it's final, she swears) is what allows her to finally realize what she’s been missing this whole time.
That night, wrapped in her blanket, sobbing and wishing for stars and the warmth of someone long gone, Ha Jin begins to dream. The memories engulf her, filling her with one sharp, painful desire: she wants to see him, no, she needs to see him. She needs him.
Everything crescendos to one clear resounding note: she cannot turn away from the time she lived as Hae Soo. She cannot turn away from the truth of him.
Ha Jin dreams. Memories run rampant through her brain, and the emptiness she’d been shoving down and away is finally given a face, a name. His name.
In her dreams, she meets him again, or she never died, or she travelled back to find him, but whatever the circumstances, they’re together, they’re happy (it makes her think that in every universe but this one they’re destined for a happy ending, because if they were to have a happy ending here, wouldn’t it already have happened?). Her nightmares aren’t as frequent, and she’s not sure which are the real nightmares (she wakes up crying either way, and her ‘dreams’ hurt her heart more, for what could have been), but in the ones she calls nightmares, his face is accusatory, disbelieving; the last argument they had playing over and over again. His mouth moves, but all she can hear is the hollow words of her letter to him, sent in a world where they’d never reconciled, but at least she’d had hope. Here, all she has is her memories of happiness, and the bitter taste of lost love.
No, that’s wrong. Here, she has friends, family, her job and her coworkers, all of which she isn’t sure she wants to lose again. But she’s selfish, oh so selfish, and though she’s made herself a new cake here, she’d rather have two, her future and him, no ‘or’ involved.
She had thought she was moving on, able to remember the past with a sad smile, to live on, but she can't. Hae Soo had come to terms with her fate, resignedly determined to forget it all, the smiles, heartbreak, and pain. However, Ha Jin finds she can't let her past go. She can't let him go. Not again. She'd been wrong. To love and lose that love was better than never knowing him at all, never loving him at all.
"I don't want to forget you," she says into the night, words come too slow, too late. They cannot bring her back in time to be with him again. They cannot erase the mistakes of the past. If only she had a second chance.
In the darkness, in the small space between dreams, she begins to build a prayer tower of her own, of memories, broken promises, and wishes. She lays down each stone carefully in her mind's eye, each hope and foolish thought forming a single prayer.
'Bring him back to me, as more than a memory, as more than a dream.'
Every night, she adds a new wish to her shrine to him, and she waits there, clutching memories of an expectant heart, a bright day, and his pin close to her chest, reliving a bittersweet moment before being pulled into the crush of her world of dreams. It’s not as if she expects anything to ever happen, but she can’t help but try, nursing the desperate flame of hope in her chest.
Weeks burn into months, and life goes on, as normal as it can be for Ha Jin, whose dark circles and tired smiles raise questions from everyone: her friends, her parents, Ms. Jang, and even her normally oblivious little brother. She fends them off until their persistent worrying dies down into concerned looks and the occasional gifts of vitamins, nutritional snacks, and energy drinks. She’s selfish, selfish and greedy, she thinks, because even with their love, she feels she doesn’t have enough. She lets their love slip through her fingers as she grasps for the long-lost, the unattainable, and the stability of the life she carved for herself in the twenty-first century wavers.
As the third month of waiting crumbles into ash (she wonders, is this what he felt when she left him?) she finds she can no longer successfully cover up her dark circles with makeup, which for her, is an achievement, she supposes. Her parents see, like they see everything, and after conferring with Ms. Jang (Ha Jin feels betrayed as she sees the three of them talking, they’ve been conspiring against her), they tell her that they’ve decided to send her to a psychiatrist. She should be surprised. It’s uncommon, and for them all to decide it, even her traditional father, her condition must be serious.
Ha Jin pouts to her friends, but she knows that behind their sympathetic smiles and comforting hugs, they agree with the decision. That alone would have been enough to change her mind, but she’s not trying to fight, she pouts only because she thinks it is the normal thing to do. She goes without much complaint.
She’s waiting in the lobby of the clinic when she sees Ji Mong again, his nose in a book. After her gaze remains on him for a second longer than a gaze of a stranger’s would, he looks up.
“Lady Hae Soo,” he says, and there’s an ironic twist to his mouth. He takes in her appearance, or rather, her lack of care for her appearance, and nods. He knows. He understands. So she takes a seat next to him. He casts an unreadable glance at her, and puts down his book.
“It doesn’t get easier,” he says without preamble. “It never does.”
“Then what do we do?”
“We try. Try our best to move on.”
“But what if the best isn’t enough?” Her voice is a near whisper, but loud enough that Ji Mong can hear the quiet despair in it. He shakes his head (he always seems to be shaking his head around her), and rests a hand on her shoulder. It isn’t much, but it’s the best comfort he can give her, this time-travelling woman who’s lost too much in only two lifetimes. He wishes he could say more, say something positive, but a bright-eyed young man has poked his head out and is calling her name, and all he can do is say a final word of advice as she disappears into the psychiatrist’s office.
“Don’t look for a miracle that won’t happen!” he calls after her, but from the resolute set of her shoulders, he knows she won’t listen. Ji Mong sighs, shaking his head again, and picking up his book once more.
Behind its well-worn pages, he risks a smile. 'If it’s them, maybe a miracle will happen,' he thinks, glancing up at the office’s sign. The psychiatrist’s name is Myung Hee.
She follows the man down the softly lit hallway, and finds, even with Ji Mong’s pessimistic words, she can breathe easily here. The nurse, introducing himself as Joon Hyung, part-time psychology grad student, part time musician, has a carefree smile and an easy laugh. It’s almost enough for her to regret her restless dreams, her fixation on an unchangeable past and to make her want to check a mirror for the first time in weeks. Almost. As they chatter together, waiting for the psychiatrist, she sees a part of herself reflected in him, in the way his eyes darken when she prods him to tell her more about his crush (somehow, the conversation turned to that, but she’s not sure how). All he says is, ‘she’s the reason I’m here,’ and like that, their conversation is over.
She is saved from an awkward, silence-breaking comment by the door opening. At the sound, his eyes swing to the woman framed in the doorway, and Ha Jin understands. She knows what it’s like to love someone you can never be with, and she’s about to offer to take him out for a drink later when her psychiatrist introduces herself.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Go Ha Jin. I’m Dr. Kim Myung Hee.”
Ha Jin breaks down and tells her everything. Well, almost everything, excluding the parts where she time traveled, because that seems to be too crazy, even for a psychiatrist. Dr. Myung Hee listens calmly, a thoughtful look on her face while Joon Hyung quietly moves in and out of the room. After a long pause, she speaks, and it’s no miracle, despite the fact that the psychiatrist herself is living, breathing proof of a miracle.
She prescribes patience, patience and sleep pills, and Ha Jin wants to leap from her seat and shake her until answers fall from her lips, but it’s her cousin, it’s Unnie, even if the older woman doesn’t know, doesn’t remember. Instead, she smiles politely, standing to leave. She thanks the psychiatrist, silently cursing the gods and Ji Mong for getting her hopes up. It’s useless. A miracle will never come.
But as she picks up her purse, the other woman stops her, pressing something small and thin into her palm.
It’s a hairpin.
No, it’s solid hope itself. Before Ha Jin can say another word (she’s frozen, staring at the older woman in shock), she’s ushered out into the lobby. Ji Mong is gone, but she barely notices. The taxi ride back is a shell-shocked daze, and she barely remembers opening the door to her own apartment.
Only after pulling out an instant ramen packet does she realize it’s late, past nine, and somewhere along the line, she’d already eaten. Shrugging slightly, she pushes her bangs out of tired eyes and falls into the comfort of her bed, still clutching the hairpin.
Back in her world of dreams, slowly, she places the last stone on her tower. It’s the last night, the last time, she promises herself. Tomorrow, she’ll give up on her hopeless dream in order to live on. But, tonight she still wants to try one last time, wait one last night.
She’d loved him. He’d loved her. But she’d never said it. They had been happy. But she’d left, even if she’d never even thought about beginning to hate, and he had ended up all alone, more broken than he had started.
And with those memories fresh in her mind, the pain of their ending (no, parting, she can’t let herself believe their end is like that) ripping through her heart, she makes one last selfish wish. She wishes Gwangjong alive again.
The pouring rain lessens to a drizzle as Ha Jin steps out of the makeup store, umbrella in hand. For a second she lingers in the doorway, pushing down the now-familiar rush of emotions the rain brings. Then she’s off with a shake of her head, a quick wave at the worried frown of Ms. Jang.
Her umbrella swings lightly from a strap on her wrist, and she glances down at it at a stoplight. Gifted to her by So Hyun, it’s a light cream shade, pale pink outlines of flowers traced onto it. They’re supposed to be peonies, So Hyun had said, watching Ha Jin expectantly. Do you like it?
Ha Jin’s smile had frozen on her face, turning to a cheerful mask as her heart had wrenched. Perhaps it had been a sign from the universe.
Perhaps it is now, when the umbrella flies off her wrist and forward, rolling to a stop across the street, miraculously untouched by the passing traffic. She squints, and through the gaps between speeding cars, she sees, beside the umbrella’s unopened bud, a pair of black shoes. Feet.
The body accompanying the feet stoops to retrieve the fallen umbrella.
The light of the crosswalk turns green, and suddenly, time starts again. Ha Jin lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
The crowd flows past her onto the wet asphalt, but she’s frozen on the curb, even as fat drops of rain begin to fall once again. Among the field of suddenly bloomed flowers, she sees her peony umbrella, standing tall and proud as it moves through the crush of people, towards her.
A single figure stands on the pavement before her, face obscured by the two umbrellas he carries.
It’s already ‘he’ in her mind. It has to be him.
She covers her eyes. She can’t bear to look, to be disappointed again, again, but this is the moment she’s been waiting for, the second chance she’s been hoping for. Slowly, slowly she lowers her hands as he closes his own umbrella (it’s understated, a simple black with silver lining).
Look at me. Don’t pass me by like this.
Their eyes meet, and they stand there for an eternity of ragged breathing, eyes roving, taking in each other’s souls. As always, you’re beautiful, she tries to say, but the words come out as a loud, jagged sob, and tears begin to slide down her rain-slick cheeks. A larger, more fragile question lodges itself in the most painful crevasse of her heart, and more sobs follow the first.
'She left him. He shouldn’t love her,' she thinks.
The sound of her sobs jolts him awake as if he were dreaming with eyes open, because in all of his dreams, he’s the one who’s first to cry, the first to break down and confess to her all over again, even if it’s a nightmare, and she doesn’t remember him. But she’s here in front of him, and it’s real, it’s real.
If it’s a dream, he doesn’t ever want to wake up.
He tries a step forward, and stumbles, the peony umbrella falling from numb fingers.
A single name drops from his lips, almost instinctively.
A thousand feelings, a thousand questions are bundled into that name (her name), but Ha Jin is lost in him, she’s a comet tugged back into orbit as she passes across the sun, the tide pulling away from familiarity when the moon is on high.
He’s known, yet unknown to her. Familiar, safe, yet untried, untouched.
It doesn’t stop her from moving towards him, and she’s so caught up in the moment, in everything about him- the sweep of carefully styled black hair over a single eye, the speckles of rain dotting his suit, something she’d never dreamed of seeing him wear (it’s a lie, she has: she’s imagined this scene a thousand times over in her head but seeing it with her own two eyes is almost enough to make her heart burst with emotion)- that she doesn’t notice him moving towards her as well, until they’re in each other’s arms, his heart against hers, his warmth enveloping her.
She kisses him first, an apology, an ‘I love you,’ and one last prayer all wrapped into the gentle, hesitant touch of her lips to his.
Do you still love me? Look into my eyes and tell me, please.
His fingers tangle in her hair, and she almost opens her eyes to look at him questioningly, but she feels the cool caress of his thumb across her cheek, and then his lips press warm against hers, in answer (but it’s not like he needed to answer to begin with, because they both know; he’s here, she’s here, and that is answer enough for them both).
She gasps against his mouth, and he feels more hot tears burn across his palms, but he's helpless to stop them, because he's crying too. She says something over and over through her tears, and his ears barely pick it up through the sound of their heartbeats.
"You're here," she whispers. "You're here."
He can't reply. His heart, swelling with emotions he forgot he had, chokes him up.
"Soo-yah," he manages before embracing her again, burying his face in her hair as sobs overtake him.
She smiles softly down at his sleeping form, running her fingers through his hair, tracing constellations on his head as if the stars could light his future brightly enough that the shadows of his past would fade. He pulls her closer, murmuring a quiet 'Soo-yah,' into her hair, and she smiles, resting her head on his chest.
Her wish was granted. It would be foolish of her to question it.
It doesn't matter how or why he's here with her. He's here now, they're together, and the thought alone is enough to make everything alright. Apologies, explanations, and forgiveness will come soon. For now, she is content to lie next to him, feeling his warmth, hearing his heartbeat intertwine with hers.
Perhaps the universe had fought against fate for them so that their souls would finally be together.
Ha Jin likes to think it did. Casting a fond look at the hairpin on her nightstand, she smiles. Or perhaps it was her.
As she closes her eyes next to him, she sends a silent 'thank you' to the stars.