"...Okay, so. Did you get to find out what your ■■ was?"
"Not yet. However, at this point, I think it no longer matters whether I get to learn it or…."
That was what he said to Han Sooyoung. Yet now, drowning in silent anticipation as each the 'Kim Dokja Company' prepared themselves for the moment Han Sooyoung opened the door, Yoo Joonghyuk couldn't help but think back on his own words. If they were allowed to hope –– if he was allowed to hope, then maybe, he could ask Kim Dokja his final remaining question.
Yoo Joonghyuk looks at his companions. At Shin Yoosung and Lee Gilyoung unconsciously holding onto each other with shaking hands. At Yoo Sangah with a grounding touch on their shoulders even as her eyes trembled with fragile caution. At Lee Jihye clenching and unclenching her fists as if wanting the assurance of her weapons in hand. And at Han Sooyoung, who met his eyes, asking for reassurance and permission without words. Yoo Joonghyuk did not feel like he could give her this assurance. Not when feelings that he did not want to think about –– not yet –– lodge themselves in his throat and the visceral knowledge of his own hands trembling in their pockets running underneath his skin. He could only steel himself and mutely nod. He dares not read the message in front of his eyes.
Han Sooyoung will be the one to open the door. She deserves this, as the one who fought so hard for Kim Dokja, bringing forth another regression for the sake of bringing his body back; as the one who tirelessly compiled all their memories for so many years.
Yoo Joonghyuk... he has waited for thousands of years, days and months and seasons unwritten from history in pursuit of this moment. He has waited for one hundred years, traveling from worldline to worldline on his own desperate pilgrimage. Yoo Joonghyuk could wait a few minutes longer, he would wait for their companions to go first.
The light comes first. It blinds them all like the first day of the scenarios as the subway car emerges from a dark tunnel to face a ruined world. It's blinding in its warmth and the loud bang of the door hitting the doorframe is almost forgotten as they all squint to find the one they love. A breeze whips through an open window, throwing pages of manuscripts and edges of curtains dancing through the room, the written story of 'Kim Dokja Company' intermingling with the fables that they're created together.
The first one to break into a run is Shin Yoosung, tears streaming down her cheeks even as a beautiful smile spreads across her face. Lee Gilyoung follows her shortly, not one to be left behind even now.
[Great fable, 'Demon World's Spring' is rejoicing in the gathering of its members!]
Next is Yoo Sangah, who quietly gasps before breaking into a run. She stops a few steps before the silhouette against the windows, an aborted sound coming from her lips before she too, wipes her eyes. Even as her legs tremble, her expression is alight with relief and joy.
" –– Dojka-ssi…."
[Great fable, 'Torch that Swallowed the Myth' is announcing its revival to the world!]
Lee Jihye is already crying where she stands, her cheeks red and blotchy as she shouts.
"Ahjussi you've really gone too far this time!!"
She's already running before she finishes the sentence.
[Great fable, 'Season of Light and Darkness' is smiling with great happiness.]
Han Sooyoung looks at Yoo Joonghyuk one last time, feet still rooted in place even as her eyes gleam. She looks like a woman at peace, Yoo Joonghyuk thinks. As if she had finally shed a great weight from those thin shoulders and came to a final determination. Yoo Joonghyuk does the last thing he can for her, and pushes lightly against her back. Han Sooyoung stumbles, but regains her confidence before long.
"Oi, Kim Dokja, you bastard –—!"
[Great fable, 'Liberators of the Forgotten Ones' is cheering in a loud voice!]
The rest of their companions catch up with them. Jung Heewon, Lee Hyunsung –– even Lee Seolhwa and Aileen have managed to reach this room. Each one reacts in their own way, sharp gasps and wet sobs bursting through the air as they take in the view before them. Yoo Joonghyuk nods at each of them, stepping aside to let them through.
He meets eyes with Lee Seolhwa; they share a silent understanding at the divergence in their paths, but both are content. She smiles at him, and Yoo Joonghyuk feels a wry smile of his own form.
[Great fable without a name is singing its greatest masterpiece.]
And at the center of the room, surrounded by the shouts and hugs and tears of their companions, is Kim Dokja. It is the Kim Dokja that they love, hale and whole as the day they stepped off that damned subway and left him behind.
He stands tall and proud in his adult form, the same unfortunate smile on his face as he hugs Shin Yoosung and Lee Gilyoung while trying to avoid Han Sooyoung's half-hearted punches. Lee Hyunsung is crying again, while Jung Heewon joins Han Sooyoung in yelling as if her words weren't choked with genuine bone-deep relief.
Yoo Joonghyuk observes throughout it all, his chest warm as he watches their companions and he relishes in the ability to finally just watch instead of do.
It's almost enough to ignore the message in front of his eyes.
[You are approaching your ■■.]
He almost wants to laugh. It's almost as if the system had absorbed Kim Dokja's personality with how bad the timing is. Just as Yoo Joonghyuk told Han Sooyoung that he no longer wishes to pursue the ■■, it appears.
It's a fitting end in many ways, Yoo Joonghyuk thinks. Their long journey has finally come to its last stop. The scenarios have been cleared, Kim Dokja has returned, their companions are safe and alive . Truly, they have reached the end.
Yoo Joonghyuk is not afraid. It isn't like the aimless desolation that corroded his mind during the two years following the 1865th regression, nor was it the restless loss that churned his stomach after the 1864th turn, nor was it the endless anguish and resentment of the 'Secretive Plotter'. No, this time, Yoo Joonghyuk is calm.
He steps into the room and meets eyes with the man who gave him purpose. A man that he hates beyond any other, and a man that has saved him more than any other.
"... Yoo Joonghyuk." Kim Dokja's lips are twisted awkwardly the same familiar way they do when he's not saying everything he wants to say.
"Kim Dokja." Even now, Yoo Joonghyuk has no idea what he’s thinking.
Kim Dokja opens his mouth. Closes it. Frowns. Opens his mouth again –– closes it again. Their companions hang onto the anticipation with bated breath, even Shin Yoosung and Lee Gilyoung stop bickering.
The tension is quickly broken, however. "Damn… it's even scarier when you look so composed, you bastard." Kim Dokja does not have a serious bone in his body when it comes to dealing with his own matters, and he deflates as if giving up. Their companions part around Kim Dokja as he comes to stand in front of Yoo Joonghyuk, and the two of them watch each other in silence.
Yoo Joonghyuk is acutely aware of how Kim Dokja's eyes trace the new scars on his face, flickering with surprise at the streaks of grey in Yoo Joonghyuk's hair. It doesn't burn as he expected it to. It feels familiar – welcome – and Yoo Joonghyuk recognizes it as the same gaze that has been with him, always looking at only him, throughout every life and every scenario.
He, too, looks at Kim Dokja, quietly committing it to memory, free of any filtering.
Kim Dokja's eyes are lively and clear, his eyelashes long and dark against the pale of his skin and the cut of his cheekbones. Kim Dokja is both ordinary and beautiful. This is the face he has fought through 1864 regressions to see.
"How much do you remember, Yoo Joonghyuk?"
"Only bits and pieces. Enough, maybe."
It's a cryptic conversation, and their companions all suck in harsh breaths at the next distinctive ping .
[‘0th Turn’s Memories’ (1/2) requirements met. Information about your Sponsor will be released.]
[Your Sponsor is ‘Demon King of Salvation’.]
"Hyung, when did you start sponsoring this sooty bastard?"
"Kim Dokja, how dare you steal my incarnation!"
Yoo Joonghyuk glares at Han Sooyoung with as much force as he can muster. She stares just back at him with a shit-eating grin. They had already cut off the Sponsor Contract during the ride back, prior to everyone flooring it to the hospital.
"What? I can't believe you cheated on me, Joonghyuk-ah." Kim Dokja bites his lip and shakes with the effort to suppress his laughter, trying and failing horribly to keep his face blank.
"Wait, am I the only one confused?" Lee Hyunsung says. "How can Dokja-ssi be Joonghyuk-ssi's sponsor when Dokja-ssi has only appeared in this regression?"
"Ah, that would be quite a long story. Would everyone like to listen?" Kim Dokja's look is warmer now; more genuine and present, his eyes lingering on each person in the room as if he were doing his own share of committing things to memory. "I won't lie to you all. Not anymore."
It is Yoo Sangah who steps up. "Though the truth of your words would need to be confirmed later… I think everyone would like to know the full story, Dokja-ssi."
Kim Dokja nods, the wry twist of his lips saying he hadn't expected anything less. His Status settles over the room, heavy and familiar.
[Great fable, 'World of Zero' has begun its storytelling.]
"Don't hate me too much at the end of this. It's partially your fault too." Even as he says this, Kim Dokja's eyes say that he was already blaming himself. Yoo Joonghyuk just nods. There are many things he wishes he could tell Kim Dokja, but he is not a writer, even with the stigma from Han Sooyoung, and he doubts that whatever words he could muster would be what Kim Dokja wants. Every attempt at communication from Yoo Joonghyuk has resulted in them crossing swords up until now.
So he says nothing as he and Kim Dokja and their companions watch the world of the 0th turn.
It was a world as close to perfection as possible.
A world where the constellation that loved him gave him everything, sacrificed parts of himself to save Yoo Joonghyuk again and again.
"What an idiot." Yoo Joonghyuk says. He can see Kim Dokja flinch from the corner of his periphery. Kim Dokja was a fool for indulging him so much, and he was a fool for agreeing to something like that.
[Great fable, 'Hellscape of Eternity' is reacting to the great fable 'World of Zero'!]
[Great fable, 'Hellscape of Eternity' has finally recovered its missing piece.]
[Great fable, 'Hellscape of Eternity' and great fable, 'World of Zero' are telling their stories together.]
"Tell me, you fool. If I continue to regress, will I ever get to meet you again?"
"Demon King of Salvation. I shall pray that you may continue to exist somewhere, too."
Yoo Joonghyuk finds Kim Dokja's eyes once again. The man stares at him in shock, but Yoo Joonghyuk cannot stop the smile that spreads across his face.
"I made it, 'Demon King of Salvation'." True to the words of his sponsor, it took 1864 regressions to make it to the end of the scenarios. 1864 lifetimes bathed in blood and hate and despair, just for this. He thinks that it’s the first time in all of his lifetimes that he’s ever felt this sense of anticipation. And when he laughs, it’s half indescribably exhausted and half exhilarated.
"I'm here, you bastard. I can finally see you, Kim Dokja."
Kim Dokja gapes, hands flailing like his squid form. "Wait, you don't ー you don't hate me?"
"Do you want me to?" He knows that Kim Dokja is not the type to take forgiveness and affection easily. The man would rather be hated in the process of saving others than loved and share his burden. Asking Kim Dokja directly rarely yields a full answer, but it feels right, somehow. This is not a conversation that can be had through riddles.
“Who knows?” Kim Dokja’s eyes are wavering even as he forces as much bravado as he can. “I did curse you with arguably the worst stigma ever.”
“Because I asked for it.”
There were three questions that Yoo Joonghyuk had in his first life. Who he was, why he was born, and when he would be able to meet his mysterious sponsor. In learning about ‘Ways of Survival’, his questions were answered in the worst ways. He was Yoo Joonghyuk, created in a fictional world to clear the scenarios and dance on a stage for the cruel amusement of sadistic constellations. Not born, created. And through the ‘Secretive Plotter’ – the original Yoo Joonghyuk – he was able to witness the epilogue, beyond the original ending. Thus, there was only one question that he could possibly ask and only one goal left to see through.
“Answer me this, Kim Dokja. You are the ‘Demon King of Salvation’, the ‘Most Ancient Dream’, and the sole reader of my life.” Yoo Joonghyuk takes a step forward. One after another, bridging the final gap between the last, long forgotten destination. “You are my ‘Comrade in Life and Death’. The one who knows me better than I know myself.
“Tell me. What should I do from now on?”
A regressor who has stopped regressing. An existence that exists to clear scenarios in a world without scenarios. After hundreds of thousands of years, Yoo Joonghyuk has lost the meaning of what it means to be happy. Just as Kim Dokja has been dreaming the most ancient dream in the form of ‘Ways of Survival’, Yoo Joonghyuk who was born from ‘Ways of Survival’ has been dreaming a long waking nightmare.
What is 0 in the face of 1864? His first life as a professional gamer feels vague and ephemeral, more similar to a fleeting sense of deja-vu than anything else. The feeling of a mouse in his hand is foreign compared to the hilt of his sword, and playing games again was strange when he’s spent more time directly on a battlefield than maneuvering through a simulated one. Guide me one last time, Kim Dokja. Finish what we have started.
Kim Dokja is quiet. It’s impossible to tell what he’s really thinking, though Yoo Joonghyuk is partially convinced that he was either providing commentary on Yoo Joonghyuk’s gray hairs or turning over the irony of the situation. It’s not lost on Yoo Joonghyuk either. He’s spent so much time and energy proving that he was not just a character — almost killing Kim Dokja in the process — yet now that he was truly free, he’s come back to ask what to do.
Just as Yoo Joonghyuk is resolving himself to stare Kim Dokja down until he answers, he hears a sigh and something smacks him on the head faster than he could react. It’s a familiar sensation, and Yoo Joonghyuk silently adds that to his tally of things to get revenge on Kim Dokja for.
“Ya, Yoo Joonghyuk, you stupid sunfish. I didn’t get to read the epilogue either! There’s a limit to the ‘Most Ancient Dream’ too, you know.” Kim Dokja ruffles Yoo Joonghyuk’s hair, before sliding his hand down to run his fingers over the jagged scars below. “This is my epilogue as much as it is yours.
“I’ll see the end of this life with you, Joonghyuk-ah. As long as it takes for you to find your answers.”
Somehow, that was the answer he was hoping for. Not a true ending, but the promise of tomorrow and something to strive for. It feels like the vice that has settled over his heart ever since they recovered Kim Dokja’s unconscious body from the subway has released, and he can breathe easy again. Yoo Joonghyuk closes his eyes and places a hand over the one on his cheek. Thank you, Kim Dokja .
[‘0th Turn’s Memories’ (2/2) requirements met. Your memories of the 0th turn will be restored.]
The memories feel much like listening to ‘World of Zero,’ except there is a bone deep knowing that goes beyond just hearing a story. These are his experiences as well, and they merge into the larger stream of recollections seamlessly. The last ping comes and Yoo Joonghyuk does not expect much from it —
[Your ■■ is epilogue.]
As Kim Dokja watches, shocked to the core and amazed at this smiling, laughing, affectionate Yoo Joonghyuk, Yoo Joonghyuk goes stiff, his face going through a variety of constipated-looking expressions before squeezing out his name. Kim Dokja wonders if Yoo Joonghyuk has finally decided to kill him now that they’ve gotten their emotions out of the way. They were doing so well, and he just came back to life, too….
“Kim Dokja. What is your ■■?”
“Huh? Ah,” Kim Dokja stutters, “didn’t it change when everyone brought me off the subway? My ■■ is epilogue.”
Yoo Joonghyuk looks at him with the empty eyes of a man who had just been told the earth was flat.
“... Is it possible for two people to have the same ■■?” Yoo Joonghyuk mutters.
There is a long silence before the room erupts into chaos.
“Okay, let me get this straight.” Jung Heewon is massaging her forehead, already looking like she wants nothing more than to just go home and take a stress nap. Han Sooyoung snorts.
“Sure. As straight as it can get, at least.”
Jung Heewon’s lips twitch, but she carries on valiantly. “While Dokja-ssi was on the train as the ‘Most Ancient Dream’, he went to Joonghyuk-ssi’s first life and became his sponsor. With Dokja-ssi’s information, Joonghyuk-ssi reached the end of scenarios with minimal loss and society quickly rebuilt itself.”
“Yes?” Kim Dokja squeaks. The pressure in the room is overbearing from the murderous gazes of the rest of the ‘Kim Dokja Company’, crowded around the bed where both he and Yoo Joonghyuk were forced to sit for an impromptu interrogation. Lee Seolhwa and Aileen have already excused themselves after making sure Kim Dokja was in stable condition.
“Then Master had a bout of existential doubt and decided that regression was a good idea??” Yoo Joonghyuk nods. Lee Jihye screams. “ Master why would you do that?! ”
“I needed to know,” he says. Yoo Joonghyuk is resolute in his declaration as he is with everything else. It was the same as when he and Han Sooyoung forged ahead with their group regression plan, and the same when he left to travel the worldlines without looking back. That is the type of man Yoo Joonghyuk is.
As always, it is Yoo Sangah who asks the difficult questions with that gentle tone of hers. “Joonghyuk-ssi. Do you regret it?” Knowing what Yoo Joonghyuk has been through, everyone nods. Whatever his answer is, they will understand.
Yoo Joonghyuk looks down at his hands, at the myriad of scars crisscrossing the flesh as records of all the lives he’s lived and the battles he’d fought with tooth and nail and everything in between. It’s hard to put into words.
“I… It’s regrettable how many people have died,” he settles on. There are no ways to describe the horror, and he doubts that even Kim Dokja with all his insight will ever understand what it means to regress. The others are sympathetic. Though they do not understand regression, they understand war and loss, and they understand the feeling and losing your loved ones again and again. Sometimes, even by their own hands. Kim Dokja is really something, to traumatize these people in so many different ways within just one turn.
It’s more of what he doesn’t say than what he does say, and Kim Dokja stares at Yoo Joonghyuk with wide eyes from the corner of his periphery. Shin Yoosung’s eyes are still red, but her cheeks are dry and her words are steady when she speaks. It hurts Yoo Joonghyuk to look at her at times, a sharp pain in his chest with knowing that in many turns, he had extinguished her life without hesitation.
“Even if I have to share Ahjussi with Joonghyuk-ahjussi, I’m glad that we’re both Ahjussi’s incarnations.” She puts her hand over Yoo Joonghyuk’s, small and warm but no less powerful. “Because Joonghyuk-ahjussi is strong, and will protect Ahjussi when I’m not there.” He turns his hand over to rest palm to palm with her’s, and Yoo Joonghyuk thinks that this is what penance feels like. He nods and accepts her unspoken request.
Kim Dokja grabs Shin Yoosung’s other hand and makes a mild joke about protecting himself, to which Han Sooyoung and Jung Heewon loudly threaten to lock him up again while Yoo Sangah provides support with her trademark threatening smile behind them. He falters quickly, and the conversation devolves into everyone catching Kim Dokja up on what he’s missed. He laughs and smiles amidst the commotion, their companions gathered around him as if to confirm his physical presence. Shin Yoosung and Lee Gilyoung by his sides, Han Sooyoung draping herself over him from behind. Yoo Sangah leans against the arm he has around Lee Gilyoung and Lee Jihye leans towards him at her position beside Yoo Joonghyuk. Lee Hyunsung and Jung Heewon sit on their own chairs before him, legs tangled with Kim Dokja’s own.
There is a tacit agreement not to talk about the scenarios or about Kim Dokja's time as the 'Most Ancient Dream.' After all, there will be time to unravel their hardships together at a later point. Right now, they're celebrating the miraculous reunion of their nebula after many painful years.
Yoo Joonghyuk watches Kim Dokja, brilliant and beautiful in his full disastrous glory, and allows himself to smile, the chatter of their companions lulling his heart into their soothing rhythm.
“I can’t believe both of these idiots just fell asleep just like that,” Han Sooyoung complains loudly, both she and Yoo Sangah breathing heavy from dragging Yoo Joonghyuk’s +60kg of pure muscle onto Kim Dokja’s hospital bed. “Why the hell is he still so fit? Isn’t Yoo Joonghyuk old now ー how come he’s still so good looking?”
“We should be understanding,” Yoo Sangah chuckles, straightening out Kim Dokja’s posture. “Both of them have been through a lot today.”
“We’ve been through a lot too! My manuscript is scattered everywhere and I even pulled an all-nighter to finish the last chapter!” For all her complaining, Han Sooyoung’s irritation is half-hearted, and she waits for Yoo Sangah to finish her inspection of the two unconscious men.
“So how many years; for each of them?”
“For Joonghyuk-ssi, it’s been over one hundred years.” Han Sooyoung nods. That’s within expectation. Rather, it’s impressive that he managed to finish his task within just one hundred years at all. “For Dokja-ssi, however…” Yoo Sangah frowns, her eyes carrying the sadness of both Kim Dokja’s friend as well as Sakyamuni’s successor. “For Dokja-ssi, it’s been well over 21,000 years, Sooyoung-ah. He’s very weak right now.”
Han Sooyoung's expression is difficult to read, a chaotic mix of worry, exasperation, and guilt. "Kim Dokja is an idiot."
However lackluster, that was all she could think of the say at the moment. Yoo Sangah nods, making her way towards the door. The others have already left, but not before promising each other to meet up again tomorrow to discuss moving plans.
"Let's go Sooyoung-ah. Let them get their rest. After all," she says, determination already burning in the depths of her eyes. "We have work to do."
Han Sooyoung smirks, the wheels in her mind already visibly turning. "We do. I think I can recall a certain welcome back party that’s been on pause for two years."
“What do you think about Dokja-ssi and Joonghyuk-ssi having the same ■■?”
“They should get married already and save us all from more suffering. Did you hear what Kim Dokja said earlier??” Han Sooyoung drops her voice mockingly. “‘I’ll see the end of this life with you, Joonghyuk-ah.’ Disgusting.” Yoo Sangah just laughs, and the sound of the two women talking fade the sunset as they head back to the large house that would become their new home.
Back in Kim Dokja’s hospital bed, two men lie next to each other, unconsciously curling together as the cool afternoon breeze ruffles their hair. Tomorrow will bring a new day – the first step to their epilogue, perhaps – but for now, it is time to rest.