Bong Hwan gasps on the ground and, ignoring the intense pain wracking his body, he reaches out his hand towards the king.
He can feel his vision turn blurry and suddenly he feels as if his body is being split into two, as if he exists in two separate planes of existence all at once. One part of him lies on a hospital bed as the machines around him start beeping wildly while another part of him coughs up blood as he tries to grab onto the clothes of a Joseon king. His king.
Am I going back? Fear the likes of which he has never felt before seizes his heart. No! Why now of all times?
How many times had he jumped into that lake and wished he could find his way back to the twenty-first century? Fate had laughed at him. So he had forced himself to change, to adapt to the life of a woman, to navigate this bloodthirsty palace that ate people up alive, to become the wife of a man he was slowly coming to know, understand, and care for.
Please. He begs whatever deity threw him into this place to let him stay. After I see that he's alive. Just let me make sure he's okay. Please!
Tears roll down his face and he can barely breathe. A sharp pain comes from his stomach and he screams. The baby. Their baby.
The one Bong Hwan had talked to everyday when the King had disappeared and reassured that everything was going to be okay. The one he painstakingly wrote a letter to, leaving behind instructions for his child's future.
"Hey, kid. You listening in there?" He had said one day when he couldn't fall asleep and caressed his growing stomach. It was funny—he had been absolutely horrified at the idea of being pregnant, but the more days went by, the more attached he was to the little brat growing inside of him. "I don't know much about being a mother. Hell, even a father. But know this: I'll do my damndest to protect you."
But he can't protect anyone now. Not even himself.
He manages to tremblingly touch Cheoljong's limp hand before everything goes dark.
When he opens his eyes again, he finds himself submerged in familiar water with an identical face staring at him with an unreadable expression.
So Yong. Chills go down his spine as he starts sinking and the Joseon girl watches on coldly, making no move to help him.
"Help," he tries to say, but only bubbles come out of his mouth.
I should let you die. A voice speaks in his mind and he recognizes it. He has heard that gentle, sweet voice coming out from him all too often in this new, unfamiliar world.
Only there is nothing gentle about the voice now.
I should let you sink to the bottom of this lake and return back to your own world. You don't belong here, in this body, in this life that was supposed to be mine.
It feels like a punch to the gut, but it's true. He knows it is. In the beginning, he considered this life hell on earth, a place of unknowns that he desperately tried to escape from. When had he started to think of it as his home? Maybe it was when he made friends with Hong Yeon and Court Lady Choi, or taken over the kitchen and started a friendly rivalry with the pompous royal chef there. Maybe it was when he proudly proclaimed to Cheoljong that he was someone who would never take the losing side, so if he sided with him, victory was assured. Maybe he had already been committed to a future by the king's side even then.
Have you been here all this time? He asks in his mind and So Yong slowly swims towards him. Just watching and not doing anything?
I had no choice. Her eyes are empty, soulless. When I jumped into the lake that night, I died. Somehow, when you entered my body I found an anchor for my soul to stay and watch. Watch you live my life as I had never been able to.
He's torn between comforting her and defending himself. Ultimately, he decides to skip straight to the point. Will you be taking it back then?
The girl swims closer and reaches out a hand to caress his face. For a second, he thinks that she's going to kiss him just like that first time in the pool. Her hands are so cold, colder even than the chilly waters that surround them.
It is no longer mine to take. She smiles then—a small, lonely smile.
I lived all of my life thinking I was myself, but that was not true. There was not a single thing that was not a lie; I was a puppet in my family's hands. If I go back, should I resign myself to repeat that fate, to living in your shadow? Waking up every day to the knowledge that the person the king looks at with love in his eyes is me and yet not me?
The king doesn't love m—
Bong Hwan is about to retort, but the words won't come. Deep inside, maybe he's always known and that's why he tried so hard to resist the feelings sprouting within him. Feelings that belonged to Bong Hwan alone.
Do you love him? So Yong asks.
He wants to laugh, feeling a mixture of bitterness and exhilaration at finally being able to admit the truth. I do.
But what's the point of admitting it now when he's about to go back to his own body? When he'll never see Cheoljong make silly faces to try and cheer him up again... When he'll never spend another night telling the King stories of the future and happily watching his jaw drop at yet another unbelievably outlandish, modern concept...When he'll never be able to add another term to the Queen's Dictionary, that silly, inaccurate book Cheoljong insists on keeping—
Then go back. So Yong says and his mind comes to an abrupt stop.
What? He splutters. Then what about you?
I refuse to spend another second of my life living a lie. She raises her chin proudly and for a moment, all he can think is: "This is what a Queen looks like." Regal and unrelenting, proud and dignified; nothing like the cowering, broken girl in his memories of her.
You would have been an amazing queen. He laments.
Gentle laughter fills his mind. I should hope not—
I never want to be a helpless girl again. In my next life, I wish to be reborn as a simple person. Someone with control over my own life.
She leans in and kisses him. Bong Hwan jolts in surprise and tries to move away, but an unknown force keeps him in place.
Slowly, he realizes that there is nothing romantic about it. It feels like a ritual of sorts, like deja vu, as if he's back in that pool in his own world where everything had started, and wading between the crossroads of space and time.
Take care of him. Love him, So Yong whispers. As I was never able to.
Bong Hwan opens his eyes and almost laughs in relief when he feels the sharp ache of the bullet wound. He never thought a day would ever come when he would be grateful for pain, but it is living proof that he's back, back to Joseon and Cheoljong and—
Cheoljong! He glances at the man lying unconscious in front of him and pushes back all the thoughts what So Yong told him to the back of his mind. Cryptic conversations with ghosts could wait.
He had a king and a dynasty to save.
"And then there are great big machines that carry hundreds of people and fly in the air like metal birds—"
"Like birds?" His four year old daughter scrunches up her nose in confusion. "So people can fly in the sky?"
"Stop asking dumb questions!" His son, now six years old and very much used to Bong Hwan's wild stories, has no patience for his little sister.
"Tsk!" Bong Hwan holds up a finger warningly. "What did I say about you two getting along?"
The young crown prince grumbles and sulkily apologizes.
"I don't believe it!" His daughter says suddenly, crossing her arms. "People can't go to the sky!"
"You don't know anything," the young boy mocks his sister. "Mother is from the future and over there anything is possible!"
The young girl's eyes grow wide. "Really?"
Bong Hwan strikes a dramatic pose. "Of course! Your mother is super cool."
The girl eyes him skeptically and scampers off to her father who has been listening attentively at the side the whole time.
"Is it true?"
"Of course," the king says, with a grave expression on his face. "But this is a royal secret of the utmost importance! Can my little princess keep it safe?"
The young girl puffs her chest up proudly. "I can be super cool too!"
The king almost breaks his facade and laughs out loud, but manages to keep his expression under control.
"Ahem," he coughs into his hand and hides his smile. "Please continue the tale my Queen."
Bong Hwan glares at him. "Aren't you a bit too old for bedtime stories?"
Cheoljong clutches his chest in shock. "Too old!? Why, I could never be too old to hear such glorious words of wisdom and prophecy." Both of the children start giggling and he continues on with a very solemn tone: "And it is my royal duty to wait and escort my Queen to our royal chambers."
"Gah!" Bong Hwan grabs a beautifully embroidered pillow and throws it at him. "Stop flirting in front of the kids!"
Cheoljong smoothly catches the pillow and places it on the mattress. "Now, now. It's time to go to bed. Would you not agree, children?"
"But I want to hear more about the flying bird!" The young girl whines.
"Me too!" The boy nods his head in agreement with his sister for once.
Cheoljong gives them what Bong Hwan likes to call "The Kingly Glare" and both kids shut up.
However, their daughter has inherited her mother's sneaky nature and cleverly snuggles up to Cheoljong. "But father, I'm not sleepy."
"Mmm," Bong Hwan follows suit and uses his husband as a human pillow. "I'm not sleepy either."
But I am hungry, he closes his eyes and wonders if he can make a midnight visit to the royal kitchens for a bowl of ramen.
"I'm not sleepy either!" His son cuddles against Bong Hwan's chest and yawns loudly. "Not even a little!"
The king allows his wife and children to rest against him for a little while, watching them fondly, but reason ultimately prevails.
"Off to bed!" He commands sternly and all three startle awake. His voice signals the maids waiting outside the room to usher themselves in and start preparing the children for night.
The children reluctantly get into bed and allow their father to gently smooth the quilt over them.
"Good night," Bong Hwan kisses both of his kids on the forehead. "Don't worry, tomorrow I'll tell you even more exciting stories about flying to the moon."
"The moon!" Both children squeal in unison and Cheoljong drags him out before he can start rambling again.
"Don't think I don't know the real reason you're always there for the kids' storytime," he says later as he lets down his hair and gets ready for bed. "After all these years, you're still so curious about the future. I've told you everything I know!"
"It does not matter. I like to listen to you talk," Cheoljong says and Bong Hwan's heart skips a beat.
Damn that man and his surprisingly smooth lines.
Sometimes, Bong Hwan wonders if Cheoljong really and truly believes everything he's said about being from the future. He always takes the little lessons they have so very seriously, trying to apply as many modern principles of ethics and politics and science that can better the lives of the common people as he can. It's like he's never had a shred of doubt that what Bong Hwan tells him is the truth.
So much trust from a person is humbling.
Bong Hwan rolls over to his side and turns his back to the king.
"What if I was a man in the future before I came to this body?" Bong Hwan asks hesitantly. "What would you think?"
"A man…" He seems to be seriously considering the question. "Is he as crazy as you? As great at cooking? As awful at manners?"
"Yes, yes, and yes." Bong Hwan can't help but get annoyed at the lackluster response to the question that took so much courage to ask. "The man from the future is me and I am that man!"
Cheoljong lets out a low laugh and gets out of bed, rummages around, and finally returns with a book in his hand.
Bong Hwan stares at the well worn cover of the Queen's Dictionary with complicated emotions in his heart.
"What does that say?" Cheoljong points to a phrase on the page.
"All in," he replies, confused.
"And remind me again what that means."
He rolls his eyes but plays along. "To put all of your eggs in one basket."
"Precisely," the king holds his arms out wide with a dramatic swish of his sleeves. "And I have gambled everything on you. All in. Whether you were a man or a woman in the future makes no difference-you can't escape now. Take responsibility for me."
Bong Hwan gapes at him. "Why are you making me out to be such a rogue? And hey! Responsibility for what?"
The king pulls him against his body and kisses him fiercely.
"For my life," he says against his lips.
Bong Hwan curses his shamelessness but doesn't forget to kiss him back.
"My Queen," Cheoljong rests his forehead against Bong Hwan's and pants slightly. "I think the royal nursery is looking a little empty. Don't you think our daughter would love a little sister?"
"Empty my ass!" He grumbles. "We already have two little monsters. Do you want to drive me crazy?"
"You have put so much effort into driving me mad and all good things must be returned," Cheoljong says seriously. "A monarch must be fair."
But soon there is no more room for talking.
Hundreds of years in the future, a man lying on a hospital bed opens his eyes.
"A new beginning," So Yong whispers to herself.