There was no going back to the Blue House, obviously. It was too...it didn’t really matter what it was! Bong-hwan just wasn’t going back. Time for bigger and better things!
Look, he wouldn’t recommend getting thrown off a balcony in general, but if you happened to be in a position where there really wasn’t another choice, it did at least lead to a very generous exit package. Besides, he was a great fucking chef. Why should only a handful of people get to enjoy his exquisite cooking skills?
He took that extremely obscene amount of please don’t sue us guilt money, and invested that into a new restaurant. In a highly trendy location, of course, with all the latest cooking tools a person could dream of wanting, and a brand new staff he could (lovingly) terrorize.
“What’s the concept? Food that would blow the mind of a Joseon citizen,” he told all the reporters writing up pieces in their annoying food blogs. “Next question.”
The trouble with life handing you what you’ve always wanted was it was very difficult to risk losing it again. So-yong had died over this, once. Or at least she had tried to. But Cheoljong wasn't holding her hands. Cheoljong wasn’t coming to visit her. Cheoljong didn’t love her.
And as much as So-yong wanted to hold onto this, to bask in the affection of the man she had loved for so long, who’s child she was now carrying, she couldn’t lie to him anymore. He had been hurt too often by others' deceptions and selfish desires, and she couldn’t stand herself if she did the same.
And then again, because it was impossible to be completely selfless in this, sooner or later he would realize, as much as he could, and he would start to hold himself apart from her then. She might as well make the separation happen on her own terms.
“It’s me, your majesty. So-yong.” Her hands trembled, even clutched together in front of her, hidden beneath the fabric.
She had insisted upon meeting in his rooms that night, and he had just laughed at the awkward forcefulness of her request. When she arrived he was already dressed down for the evening, obviously expecting her to stay. She only walked in far enough that those out by the door wouldn’t be able to hear.
“I know, my queen.” His voice was fond in the all too familiar way, where he was humoring her in spite of not understanding what she was trying to communicate. Familiar like the sensations from a recurring dream. He had never spoken like that to her.
“No, you don’t understand.” She took a deep breath, as though that could possibly calm the storm inside of her, and continued, “I’m not who I was before. I’m not from the future.”
Cheoljong laughed, still infuriatingly just as fond. “I know that,” he said.
“Stop it,” she snapped. “Listen to me. Please.”
“I’m not,” and oh, her voice caught on that, tears suddenly creeping up on her unexpectedly. She had thought she’d be able to get through this calmly. She’d practiced so many times before coming here.
Cheoljang naturally moved towards her, worry furrowing his brow. She reached up and pushed him away with both arms. If he came any closer she might not be able to continue. She wiped away the tears that had dared to well up in her eyes as though they had personally offended her.
"It wasn’t me who sat here and taught you those things from the future,” she said, setting her gaze firmly on Cheoljong’s face. She wasn’t going to run away anymore.
“It wasn’t me who saved your banquet, or me who went to go find you on the mountain when my family tried to kill you. I didn’t exchange accidental love notes with you, or spend our first night together. None of it was me, not from the day I woke up after drowning until the day you retook your throne.”
Cheoljong’s face went very carefully blank, a horrible guarded look she had never wanted to see from him again. She took another deep breath, and pressed on.
“He tried to tell you, time and again. You never listened. And now he’s gone.”
“What are you saying, my queen?” Cheoljong asked calmly. “Are you feeling unwell? I can have the doctored summoned --”
“Take a closer look at the stone by the lake. And then if you want, we can talk more. No matter what, I’ll always be here for you, your majesty. I do -- I love you. And I’m sorry.”
His parents begged him to move apartments, or at least for the love of god stop going swimming in that pool, because it made them deeply worried about his mental health.
“I’m a grown ass man, and I can have whatever hobbies I want,” he told them in return. “See you next week.”
As much as they nagged and worried he knew they loved that he took the time to visit them now. Before, he used to go months without ever checking in on them, much less updating them about his life. So they wouldn’t do anything more dramatic than nag. And if he always went out of his way to make sure they knew he hadn’t stopped swimming, and still went out on his balcony most nights, well, it was possible in a sick way he’d grown used to nagging.
So-yong didn’t see the king the next day. Or the day after that. Or for several more days after that. Hong Yeon and Court Lady Choi did an exceptionally poor job of pretending that they found that totally normal, and nothing to be concerned about at all.
“He is the king, after all, I’m sure he’s very busy,” Hong Yeon said while brushing her hair. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Completely normal.”
“Of course,” So-yong agreed, keeping her voice mild.
“Why don’t we go to the kitchens?” Court Lady Choi suggested. “Perhaps that might help take your mind off things. Not that there’s anything to be worried about!”
None of them were prepared for the laughter that erupted from So-yong then, not even So-yong herself. She laughed and laughed, and then she laughed while she cried, and then she just cried, sobbing into Hong Yeon’s sleeve as though there was some solace to be found there. Some part of her mind distantly watched, as Court Lady Choi and Hong Yeon fretted dreadfully, wondering if something was wrong, wondering if they should call the doctor.
So-yong thought ruefully that she was somehow doing a poorer job of being herself than Bong-hwan had in some ways. She shouldn’t so frequently seem to need medical attention just over this. There had to be an end to the grief over this somewhere. He’d taken inhabiting her body in stride, and she could barely muddle through being herself without worrying other people anymore.
“No,” she said, later, far too much later, when she’d finally calmed down. “I don’t think I’ll be going to the kitchens again.”
The thing he was most grateful for, sometimes, was that he’d never felt the baby kick.
When Cheoljong finally appeared, more than a week later, it was far after it was decent for him to be moving around in the palace, and certainly too late to show up in her room without warning. He hovered near the door, uncertain around her in a way he’d never been.
“I apologize for the lateness of the hour. And also for making you wait so long, my queen. I wanted to make sure I was ready to talk to you, before I came.” Cheoljong looked young, heartbreakingly so, as he did now and then, and for a moment So-yong wondered if she had been wrong to put this on him. If maybe their relationship dying a slow and quiet death would have been better.
“Why did you write that name?” he asked.
It was So-yong’s turn to be underdressed for this conversation, sitting on her bed and not offering for him to come sit beside her. He’d probably say no.
“I should start at the beginning,” she said, side stepping the question for now. “That night I went into the water.”
Bong-hwan hadn’t necessarily been a “reader” in the past, per se. When the opportunity called for it, of course, he was perfectly capable of getting through a book. It just wasn’t his first move when he was bored. But somehow, accidentally, he’d managed to accrue what could only be described as a small library’s quantity of books over the last several months.
It was possible that maybe every time he walked by a bookstore, or in the vicinity of a part of town he knew had a bookstore, or he was out for some other reason but didn’t want to go home yet because his apartment seemed a little emptier than it did before, he ended up buying a book about Cheoljong. Because there were a lot now. Way more than about any other historical figure in Korea, actually. Endless recounts of his reign and his rise to power, trying to explain how he could have possibly accomplished what he did, or why he might have done it -- none of them ever totally right, of course. Because it was him, the answer was him! Not shockingly, no one guessed correctly that Cheoljong’s wife had been a time traveling man from the 21st century at the exact right moment in his life.
And that was just the boring stuff. People wrote novels about him! Action packed political thrillers, sad speculative fiction delving into his childhood, sweeping romance novels that all missed the mark completely on what Cheoljong was actually like when he was in love. (Those novels usually ended up with copious notes on them, because they weren’t even remotely right about what Cheoljong looked like while he was sleeping, much less on things that were actually important)
If he’d had any friends, someone probably would have raised the red flag on this behavior. But his life hadn’t changed quite that much. His phone contact list was still one) women whose names he barely remembered; two) the absolutely necessary coworkers; and three) his parents.
He had deleted all the dating apps off his phone, though.
So-yong rested her hands on her stomach, asking the tiny life inside for a little bit of strength to get through this.
“There was a man in the water with me,” she began slowly. “And when we -- touched, something went wrong. For a while I thought perhaps I had died. There was just nothing but darkness around me.
“But then I started hearing things. People talking in such a strange manner, using all kinds of words I couldn’t understand. They kept talking to me, trying to get me to react to them, or to open my eyes. And they kept calling me...that.” She paused for a moment there. Cheoljong said nothing, his face giving nothing away.
“I slowly started figuring out what had happened,” she continued. “That he and I had switched bodies. I think -- I think he was pretty badly injured. That’s why I had been lost in darkness so long. I couldn’t wake up yet because his body wasn’t ready then.”
Something flickered across Cheoljong’s face then -- worry, maybe. But still he was silent, so she didn’t stop.
“It was strange to feel so helpless in someone else’s body like that. And stranger still to wake up again in my own, but still not be in control. Like a very long dream. I don’t know why I came back, after he suffered the Sigwol state. Or why he left completely later. I just know that after I was shot, suddenly, out of nowhere, I was back in control of myself again.”
So-yong hesitated for a moment. There was something else she felt Cheoljong should know but she worried it might be cruel to tell him. Maybe better to let him ask, if he wanted to know.
No. She didn’t want any secrets, or any cause for doubt between them ever again.
“He wanted to stay with you,” she said, nearly whispering, like it would hurt less if it was harder to hear. “He really, really wanted to. I’m sorry that I’m not him anymore.”
“My queen,” Cheoljong said softly, interrupting for the first time. “You don’t need to apologize for being yourself.”
He took a deep breath of his own, and said, “I have one question, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” she hurried to assure him.
“Is he...Is he--” Cheoljong tried to ask, trailing off, his meaning clear anyway.
“I don’t know,” So-yong admitted. Cheolong came and sat beside her, then, taking her hands in his more tenderly than she deserved.
“Thank you,” he said. “For telling me.”
Bong-hwan was a normal 21st century dude, so he wasn’t in the habit of picking up for unknown callers. However, since he was in the middle of a round of press for his restaurant opening, he couldn’t afford to be choosy lest he offend some food critic mortality and risk getting anything less than the five stars his restaurant deserved.
“Jang Bong-hwan? This is the Director of the National Archives. I was wondering if I could ask you come visit us at your convenience. There’s something I’d like to show you.”
What the fuck? Bong-hwan pulled the phone away from his ear, staring at the number again like it would have a better explanation.
“If this is a prank, I’m too busy--” he said with maximum annoyance, a second later.
“No, no,” the man on the other end of the line hurried to assure him. “I’m completely serious. I got your number from a friend at the Blue House. I’m very, very interested in you coming to the National Archives. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” Cheoljong said, squeezing her hands a little tighter, “For how I treated you before. I couldn’t see the sadness I was causing you over my own need for revenge.”
“Your majesty,” So-yong said, almost knocking his hands away in shock. “No, you needn’t-”
“No,” Cheolong said, shaking his head. “I do. What kind of king would I be after everything if I couldn’t admit my mistakes to my own wife? Besides, after the courage it took for you to tell me this, the least I can do is acknowledge how I hurt you.”
“I’d like to get to know you, my queen,” he continued, still gentle. “The real you.”
So-yong took a breath, shakily, and replied, “I’d like that. That’s all I ever wanted.”
The Director -- Park Minho, he said -- met him in the public lobby, and then led him back into rooms definitely reserved for people with several doctorates and thoroughly vetted research grants.
“I apologize for how odd this must seem,” Director Park said as they walked through more and more doors. This would be a great way to get murdered for real, Bong-hwan thought to himself. No one would find his body here for several decades at least. Maybe he should have vetted the Director’s connections to the Blue House more thoroughly.
“To be frank, after I happened to see you on TV, I couldn’t believe it, so I just had to see you in person. I’m hoping you can help me with what is, honestly speaking, the greatest mystery of my career.”
“Sure, sure,” Bong-hwan said. “I’m really not sure how I can be of help to you though. History isn’t really my speciality. Is it some kind of ancient recipe you need decoded, or something like that?”
“Not exactly,” the Director said cryptically. He opened yet another door, then said, “Wait here a moment.”
The room was dimly lit, and there was one lone table in the middle, the kind Bong-hwan had only seen in films where people steal important historical documents. Cases that seemed to be crafted from metal designed to withstand the apocalypse and locks that didn’t seem to match up to that level of security lined the walls. The Director opened one such case in the back of the room, and delicately removed a small document encased in glass.
“This has been in our collection for many, many years,” he said, bringing it over to the table. “It’s from the original archives of King Cheoljo, and said to have been with him when he died. Please, come look.”
Bong-hwan joined the Director at the table, and found himself staring into his own face on a faded and well worn piece of parchment.
“We’ve never been able to identify this man,” the Director said, staring a little too intently at Bong-hwan’s face. “He was clearly of great importance to King Cheoljo -- look, there’s a message on the other side. We believe, based on other writings we still have, that it’s in the King’s own handwriting, though that has also always been baffling in it’s anachronistic nature too. I’m wondering if perhaps you might be the key to this particular mystery. Did any of your ancestors happen to work in the palace back then?”
Please be well. I’m all-in, forever.
“You bastard,” Bong-hwan swore. Tears cascaded down his face in an unsightly river of grief, shocking the Director.
“I’m sorry,” he blubbered. “I just love -- I really love -- I just love historical artifacts so much.”
So-yong squeezed Cheoljong’s hands back, just for a moment, before pulling away. She went over to her desk, and pulled a piece of paper out from amongst her things. It wasn’t hidden, exactly, so much as strategically placed so no one would ever accidentally find it.
Fine, it was extremely strategically placed because it would cause a massive scandal that she just didn’t have the patience for if anyone even caught a glimpse of it.
“Here,” she said, returning to the bed, shoving it indelicately at him. “It’s just something I drew. I’m not very good at it, so don’t be mean. I have many other skills you know!”
Cheoljong held the paper like it was either the most precious item in the world, or like it was the most dangerous thing he’d ever seen.
“What,” he struggled to say. He cleared his throat once, twice, again.
“It’s him,” So-yong said, finding it her turn to speak particularly gently. “Jang Bong-hwan. I thought you might like to know.”
“Careful,” she yelped, when he started crying, tears dropping onto the picture one after another, grabbing the portrait out of his hands. “I don’t have time to draw you another one.”
“Thank you,” he wept, not bothering to wipe away any of the tears as they continued to fall. “Thank you.”
So-yong placed the picture down beside the bed, and then took a moment to gather up both her nerves and the king into her arms.
“It’s okay,” she said, lowering his head onto her shoulder. “You can cry. I won’t be offended.”
“Thank you,” he said again, mindlessly repeating it over and over as his tears soaked through her clothes. “Thank you.”
“It’s okay,” she said, patting his head. “We’ll be okay.”
She supposed one day history would prove her right or wrong in that regard.
Well, Bong-hwan was not going to be invited back to the National Archives any time soon. But the Director had been kind enough to print him out a couple photocopies of the picture, though he had made him pay for the folder in the gift shop -- which fair enough, he’d seen more of Bong-hwan’s snot that any stranger really should have to. He wasn’t sure the Director had bought that he had no idea what the picture was about, but since he’d done a fantastic job of seeming both difficult and unreliable he wasn’t really expecting to get hassled by any other historians again.
One of the photocopies went into his bedside table drawer, tucked away safely in a folder between the best of the Cheoljong inspired books. The other he hung up at his new restaurant, behind the bar where guests could see it if they really looked, but not so obvious that it would detract from the overall decor. The employees who were brave enough to talk about it all relentlessly mocked him.
“I’m all-in, forever? Come on boss, I know you think you’re all that, but isn’t that a bit much?”
“Shut the fuck up,” he told them all with a smile.
Outside, as they opened up for lunch service, the sign invited passersby to come and dine at Bong-hwan’s new restaurant, All In.
++ Postscript ++
“Boss, someone’s asking to see the chef,” Ha-rin said, sticking her head through the doors. She’d been his first hire, because he needed someone who didn’t take other people’s shit to run the dining room, and she had a fouler attitude than he did most days.
“Tell them thanks for the compliments, but no can do,” Bong-hwan shouted back. “I don’t know if they’ve noticed, but we’re a little busy tonight.”
“He says he’ll wait, so whenever you’re free he’ll be out there. You deal with him!” she shouted back, immediately losing all patience.
“Then tell him he has to keep ordering. No one sits at a table free all night, because I’ll be done when we close!” He had a list of main courses to finish a mile long in front of him, and no desire to interact with an entitled diner who thought he was owed the chef’s presence.
“What the fuck do you think I told him,” she sneered.
“Good girl! Now get the fuck out,” Bong-hwan said, cheerfully flpping her off. The rest of the dinner rush came and went in a flurry of cooking and the pure sense of regret that filled Bong-hwan on truly busy nights. Why, why did he give up cooking exclusively for world leaders to chase the relentless slog of cooking for the ungrateful public instead?
“Boss,” Ha-rin said, bursting through the kitchen, once things had finally quieted down, “please for Christ’s sake go meet that guy. He won’t leave, and I want to close the dining room.”
“Fine, fine!” Bong-hwan said, throwing his hands up in defeat. “I assume he’s the asshole who’s the only one still sitting out there.”
“Right in one,” Ha-rin agreed.
The man was sitting at a table by the window -- he had taken a window table all night? the nerve of some people -- his back to the kitchen.
Bong-hwan stalked across the dining room, grinding his teeth together, as he tried to remember that even assholes like this were taken seriously when they left bad reviews online. The man didn’t give any indication that he heard someone walking towards him, lazily flipping through a book in front of him.
“I’m Chef Jang Bong-hwan,” he said as he reached the table, hoping to get through the interaction as fast as humanly possible. The man looked up from his book, and smiled.
“Long time no see,” Cheoljong said.