Won-beom had been plagued by strange dreams as long as he could remember. His family -- well, his older brothers at least -- liked to joke that he clearly wished he’d been born into a different branch of the family, since he’d woken up so often thinking he was king when they were young.
His family could be forgiven for making light of the dreams, he supposed, since he’d long since stopped discussing them. There was no good way to explain that he was sure that his dreams weren’t so much dreams as memories.
His great-grandfather had been the king, and so in spite of the incredibly high number of relatives that would have to die for it to matter, Won-beom was technically in the line of succession. As such, growing up there was always some function that his parents had to attend -- a charity for the arts, or the restoration of some historic building, or some general retiring after a lifetime of service to the Republic -- as members of the royal family and Won-beom was not exempt from going and learning how to play nice with the upper echelons of society.
“Darling, I know you don’t love these sorts of events, but could you at least try to make your laugh sound a little more genuine?” his mother implored him.
“What’s the point of giving money to a school that already has billions of won?” Won-beom asked, slouching back father into the seat, staring out the car window.
“Education is the foundational pillar of society,” his father scolded him. “Why wouldn’t we want to support a school?”
“But they don’t need our help,” Won-beom muttered, mostly to the window. “Why don’t we ever go to events that are actually doing something good?”
He was standing next to a lake, waiting for someone. There was a rock that someone had carved some words into, and he crouched down to look at them closer.
I came for no reason, and am leaving for no reason.
He frowned. How could they say that? They’d changed his life forever. They’d saved him. They’d loved him. How could they say it was all for no reason?
He found that his hand was tracing over the letters to something on the rock he couldn’t read. What was it that was still hidden from him?
And come to think of it, who was he waiting for, and why did he feel like he would wait there forever until he saw them again?
All three of his older brothers joined the military after college, since as soon Won-sik announced his intention to become an officer, it was only natural that Won-woo and Won-hae would follow. Won-beom didn’t see the value in doing the same. As far as he was concerned the troubles at home were far more pressing than any perceived threats from abroad, and he didn’t measure the value of his life using whatever dick measuring contest fueled his brothers to make most of their decisions.
So he did his mandatory service, and then set about getting dual degrees in social work and business, interning where he could, and building out his network for after he graduated. His family had the money, but he needed the skillset and the right minds to help build and sustain the organization he was planning.
He’d taken a hard look at the country he was living in, and the one thing he truly couldn’t understand was why anyone was allowed to be without a home. What was the point of all his money if he couldn't do something about that?
When he turned nineteen, he woke up that morning sure someone had come to take him away to a terrible place, and that he would never be safe again.
Neither Jae-won nor Min-kyu had meant to go into work regarding homelessness prevention. Jae-won was an engineering major because he wanted to get into a field that promised him good money and an easy life. Min-kyu was studying to be a lawyer, because his father was a lawyer and someone had to take over the family business.
The way Jae-won told the story, Won-beom joining the taekwondo club was the worst day of his life.
“He pretended to be an innocent underclassman looking for a couple good seniors to take him under their wing, and then bam! Next thing I know I’m out there on the street handing out pamphlets asking people to come to some fundraiser he’d organized on campus. I was led astray, I tell you! Don’t trust a good looking face, that’s my advice if you want to live a happy life.”
His friends forced him to go on a camping trip -- “if for no other reason than the only way to get away from my desk is to pry you away from yours,” Jae-won said as though Won-beom was some evil tyrant.
“We’ll get to see stars!” Jae-won continued, a little manically. “You know, those things that are supposedly out at night, if you’re ever allowed to leave your office and be outside then.”
“The first year is the most crucial to the success of any business, charity or not,” Won-beom retorted. “If you have free time, then you’re doing something wrong.”
“There won’t be anyone left to run your charity at this rate,” Min-kyu said mildly. “Even you need to rest every now and then.”
“Fine! Fine, we can go,” Won-beom caved, because if even Min-kyu was against him he didn’t stand a chance.
Won-beom would never give Jae-won the satisfaction of telling him, but the mountains were beautiful, and the fresh air let him breathe deeper than he had in months. He felt like he gained half an inch back, every single part of his spine popping as he stretched out and reached out to things that weren’t on his desk.
“Now this is the life,” Jae-won said at night, while they were all sitting around the campfire, beers open and meat grilling.
“It’s all right,” Min-kyu said, purely to watch Jae-won splutter in indignation.
Won-beom leaned back in his chair, taking in the stars Jae-won had spoken so fondly of earlier. There was something profound in taking in the expanse of the universe, and remembering he was such a small part of everything. He wasn't alone; the weight of the world wasn’t his to take on.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, a flash of light streaked across the sky. Then another, then another.
“Meteor shower,” Won-beom said, over the squabbling that was still happening near him.
“Ah! Hurry -- make a wish!” Jae-won said, switching gears easily. “I wish that from now on I’ll be given real weekends off, and not like half a day every four months.”
Someone else in his memory chanted “Make a wish! Make a wish! Make a wish!” and he found that all he wanted was to be with her again, no matter what that looked like. What else could he wish for but to meet her in the next life?
“My queen,” Won-beom murmured, as the last of the lights faded from the sky.
“Hmm? What was that?” Jae-won asked. Won-beom looked at him, but didn’t see him, the person he’d been waiting to see all this time now clearly visible before his eyes.
He smiled and said, “Come find me then, Cheonjollie”
He vaguely heard Min-kyu and Jae-won calling out his name as the world dissolved around him completely.
His mother asked to meet for coffee, and even though he knew it wasn’t just to catch up, he agreed. He’d been a bad son, rarely calling, going back home even less frequently than he called. It was easy to blame work -- always more to be done, always more people to help.
It was easy, but it was also a lie.
His mother barely waited for their drinks to arrive before she put down a marriage candidate packet in front of him.
“There’s more to life than work, darling,” she said. “Lately you’ve seemed…”
He would never be able to explain to her why he’d never simply be the Won-beom she remembered.
“I’m fine,” Won-beom dismissed, gently pushing the folder back towards her. “Thank you, but I won’t meet her. I have no intention of being married off to someone.”
Not when he finally knew who he was looking for. Not when there was a chance he was out there, somewhere.
Jang Bong-hwan’s picture was as carefully hidden from the Head Eunuch as the military strategy books had been in the past. Cheoljong didn’t often take it out to look at it, afraid of what would happen if he held it too often. The paper was already wearing around the edges, despite his best efforts. Viewing the portrait came to be an activity reserved only for very special occasions.
Today was such an occasion.
“Come here, son,” he said. Myeong-bok was already more comfortable in all the royal quarters than Cheolong would ever be. He moved through his father’s chambers with the confidence of a prince born and raised in the palace.
Sometimes, when Cheolong wasn’t being careful, he found himself wondering if that confidence was the product of something else, too. Someone else.
“What is it, Father?” Myeong-bok asked, coming to sit beside Cheolong, his posture so proper it would make his tutors weep with pleasure. There was no small amount of So-yong in him either.
“Since you’re ten now, there’s something I’d like to show you,” Cheoljong said. “You may not understand everything now, and that’s okay. But I think it’s time to introduce you to Jang Bong-hwan.”
A new restaurant opened up around the corner, but since they didn’t deliver it took Won-beom several months to notice.
“Why are you like this?” Jae-won asked, throwing his hands up in despair. “The biggest restaurant opening all year, within spitting distance of where you spend roughly all your waking hours, and today you’re wondering why there’s a line outside?”
“It’s just a restaurant,” Won-beom protested, knowing he sounded defensive but unable to stop himself when Jae-won was like that.
“Just a restaurant,” Jae-won repeated, clearly disgusted. “Only you would call All In just a restaurant.”
“Well what’s so special about it?” Won-beom snapped. “Are they donating food to us, or are they just another restaurant out there to boost some chef’s ego?”
“First of all, yes, actually, they do donate food to us every week, because unlike you the owner was capable of looking up the businesses around him,” Jae-won said, in that incredibly frustrating tone he took when he knew something Won-beom didn’t, “And two, surely even you have heard about Jang Bong-hwan.”
“What did you say?”
“Jang Bong-hwan? Former Blue House chef almost murdered over exposing a corrupt food purchasing scheme there? Oh come on, I’m begging you to read news not related to homeless initiatives in Seoul just once. Please, just once. It would make my life so much less miserable.”
“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.”
Bong-hwan somehow, miraculously, had a copy of what Cheoljo had written, what he’d written, hung up behind the bar in his restaurant. The tension that had wound itself around his heart released slightly -- Bong-hwan remembered, at least. He had to.
The hostess -- Lee Ha-rin, she said -- left him at the table, promising his server would right over. Won-beom smiled, and thanked her politely. He was in no rush. He’d either been waiting his whole life, or over 150 years for this reunion. A few more hours was nothing.
It would be a lie if he said the taste of the food, when it came, was familiar. But all the same he marveled at the craft of it, and his server didn’t seem surprised when he asked to see the chef to give his compliments.
“I’m sorry,” Ha-rin said, reappearing without his server a few minutes later, “the Chef is incredibly busy tonight. We’re happy to pass along your compliments, of course, but I don’t think he’ll be able to come out to meet you.”
“That’s okay,” Won-beom said easily. “I’m fine waiting. However long it takes.”
Ha-rin was clearly well trained, because nothing about her expression changed. Won-beom had been around people being insincere about their feelings all his life, though, and he knew she wanted nothing better than for him to drop dead.
“I’m sorry, but if you want to keep the table, you will have to order more food,” she explained.
“Of course. I’m in the mood for dessert anyway. Bring me whatever you think is best.” Won-beom did his best to not laugh, because he completely understood how terrible he was being, and normally he would absolutely never make such a ridiculous request. But it was just so funny to be so obviously added to someone’s Shit List.
Ha-rin nodded, still the height of professionalism in spite of the aura of hatred emanating off her.
“We’ll get something started for you, then,” she said. “And I’ll let the Chef know.”
It was silly, but he’d brought one of those harlequin romance type novels about the sordid love story between Cheoljo and his wife to help pass the time. He thought perhaps Bong-hwan would enjoy the joke, even if a few other diners had given him strange looks as they passed by.
Several hours after he’d arrived, the rest of the dining room had cleared out. It was impossible to not hear the loud footsteps approaching him, but he didn’t turn around, pretending to be engrossed in the novel. He could play the part of an entitled rich lord, for a moment. If there was even the slightest chance that he could scare off Bong-hwan, he wasn’t willing to risk it.
He flipped through the pages, waiting, until someone was finally standing right behind him.
“I’m Chef Jang Bong-hwan.” And it was. His voice wasn’t the same, of course, but at the same time, it was exactly how Won-beom remembered. Nothing had changed.
Won-beom looked up from his book, and smiled.
“Long time no see,” he said.
Bong-hwan looked at him for a moment, then his legs seemed to give out and he fell to his knees.
“Bong-hwan,” Won-beom said, automatically reaching out. Bong-hwan held out a hand to stop Won-beom from touching him.
“How do you look the same?” Bong-hwan wondered aloud. “No -- wait. That’s not right. You just look fucking creepily similiar. Nose isn’t quite the same, though.”
“Some really dominant genes run in my family?” Won-beom offered.
“Stop talking,” Bong-hwan snapped. “What the fuck is this? You just show up in my restaurant, and hog a table all night?”
“I’m sorry?” Won-beom half asked, a little taken aback.
“You should be,” Bong-hwan said, his eyes wide and more than a little crazy. “This is a window table. Prime real estate, buddy. And you’re just here. You can’t be here.”
“No, don’t say anything,” he continued, when Won-beom opened his mouth to say something. Say anything to try to corral this moment into something closer to the meaningful reconnection Won-beom had been picturing.
Bong-hwan seemed to find a shred of sanity, and said abruptly, “Give me your phone.”
Won-beom didn’t even question it, holding out his phone for Bong-hwan to take.
“Unlock it, you idiot,” Bong-hwan sighed. Once done, Bong-hwan took the phone, and quickly accomplished whatever it was he was after.
“My number,” Bong-hwan explained, handing it back. “I’ll text you my address. Meet me there in an hour. Don’t be late.”
And then just as swiftly as he had appeared, Bong-hwan got up and went back to the kitchen, leaving Won-beom not sure what had happened, entirely, but feeling like perhaps he had gone wrong somewhere. He just wasn’t sure how.
Won-beom lingered awkwardly outside the apartment complex for long enough that he started worrying someone might call the police to report his suspicious activity. He couldn’t go home, and he certainly couldn’t go back to the office where, god forbid, he could run into Jae-won or Min-kyu who would definitely notice how weird he was acting. So he just waited, hoping Bong-hwan was actually going to show up in an hour.
In the end, Bong-hwan showed up after only forty-three minutes, huffing and red in the face like he’d run the whole way from the restaurant.
Won-beom couldn’t help himself, when Bong-hwan showed up looking like such a mess. His laugh echoed through the streets far too loud for how late it was at night.
“What’s so funny?” Bong-hwan demanded, his scowl just as cute as Won-beom remembered.
“Did you miss me that much?” he asked, still chuckling.
“Shut up,” Bong-hwan said, his scowl deepening. But Won-beom could see the tips of his ears reddening all the same.
“Are you coming or what?” he asked a second later, jabbing his finger towards the building.
“Of course,” Won-beom replied.
The inside of the apartment was the peak of modern decor. Minimalist but in a way that screamed wealth -- except the wall of the living room lined with book cases, completely incongruous in the way the books were shoved in haphazardly, too many to fit comfortably, and many of them clearly well loved. Won-beom could make out the titles on a couple, before Bong-hwan shuffled him into the kitchen and away from the evidence. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to hurt his face smiling so much.
“Want something to drink?” Bong-hwan asked, once he’d directed Won-beom successfully into a chair.
“No, thank you.”
“Well, that makes one of us,” Bong-hwan said, pulling a bottle of soju out of the fridge. He grabbed a pair of glasses out of the cabinet all the same. He took a seat at the table, across from Won-beom, and poured out some for both of them, pushing the second glass towards Won-beom. Won-beom took the cup in his hand, but didn’t drink, even as Bong-hwan downed his.
“I’m sorry,” Bong-hwan said, looking everywhere in the room except at Won-beom. “For earlier. I wasn’t prepared. I -- I never thought I’d see you again.”
“I know how that feels,” Won-beom said. Bong-hwan looked at him then, face stricken like he’d just realized something terrible.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I wasn’t thinking. What’s a year compared to a whole life, right? Or I guess, life and a half? ”
“Hopefully not,” Won-beom said. “I’d like to think I’ll live longer than 50.”
“Oh god,” Bong-hwan moaned. “You’re an infant. You only look mostly like you and you’re a child.”
“Who knew I was in love with an older man this whole time,” Won-beom said, his heart threatening to burst with affection as Bong-hwan groaned even louder.
“Let me apologize in advance,” Won-beom continued. “I know we have a lot to discuss, but, there’s something I need to do first.”
Bong-hwan looked confused as Won-beom stood, and crossed over to the other side of the table. Won-beom reached over, then, cupping Bong-hwan’s face between his hands. Bong-hwan didn’t move, but his breaths got more shallow, Won-beom’s own nerves reflected back at him on Bong-hwan’s face.
“I’ve missed you,” Won-beom said simply, and then he leaned in and pressed their lips together. There was none of the hesitation from Bong-hwan like there had been in the past. He surged forwards, chasing Won-beom’s lips with his own, his hands wrapping around Won-beom’s waist to pull him closer.
“I’ve missed you, too,” Bong-hwan said a moment later, their foreheads still touching, like now that the dam had been broken they couldn’t bear to let each other go again. Tears welled up in the corner of his eyes, and Won-beom’s heart broke a little. He reached up to wipe them away.
“Please don’t cry, Jang Bong-hwan,” he said. “I love you too much to survive that.”
“I love you, too,” Bong-hwan replied, immediately, urgently, like there was a chance Won-beom didn’t know that.
“I know,” Won-beom assured him. “I saw what you hung up in the restaurant.”
This time, it wasn’t just Bong-hwan’s ears that turned red.
“Shut up,” he said, smacking Won-beom’s shoulder in a way that was so intensely familiar, but with more force than it had had in the past. “You’re the one who kept a picture of me all those years and wrote such a sappy thing. I mean -- how could I not -- you were dead it was the least I -- shut up, it was a historical artifact.”
“Thank you,” Won-beom said, leaning down again, and against Bong-hwan’s lips he whispered, “my queen.”
Bong-hwan didn’t wait for Won-beom to tease him further. Won-beom rather hoped this was the beginning of Bong-hwan kissing him first quite a lot.
“It’s me, your majesty. So-yong.”
The thing was, Cheoljong knew exactly what she was trying to say. How could he not notice the way she was so cautious around him now? So polite?
“I’m a healthy man who lives in the Republic of Korea two hundred years from now,” his queen had already told him.
He knew exactly what So-yong was saying, but he didn’t want to hear it. After all, that would mean admitting he’d lost the person most important to him in pursuit of his goals. And that he wasn’t ready to face. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
“Nice book, by the way,” Bong-hwan said, much later. “I have some recommendations if that’s the kind of thing you’re into.”