After his grand escape from the hospital, Jang Bong-hwan ignores the calls from the detectives for three days, instead focusing his time researching infinitely more important things, like the details of Cheoljong’s reign and his accomplishments, time-slips and time travel, past lives and reincarnation.
The detectives drag him back to give his testimony on Day Four. He tells them exactly whatever they want to hear—he’s gotten good at those sorts of things by now, thanks to the Grand Queen Dowager—and heads right back into his research.
On the internet, most people who have faced something similar think that they briefly visited their past lives or their ancestor’s lives. Bong-hwan doesn’t think he could possibly be Kim So-yong in a past life. Despite sharing a body and memories, they are too different, their souls too separate. And he certainly hopes that he’s not some long-lost descendant of the Joseon line.
On Day Five, he finally finds the website of a mystic claiming to be able to commune with the past, who has a hundred percent approval rating amongst all the other people claiming to have experienced the past. The Bong-hwan he was before would have scoffed at such bullshit before but the person he is now has learnt a thing or two about faith. He books an appointment in 5 minutes.
On Day Six, he stands in front of the little shop tucked into a dark street alley and finally takes a moment to think .
There are a million and one reasons that he should not be doing this. Television and the internet and the air conditioners. Fine wine and finer women. Toilets that aren’t pots or literal shitholes dug into the ground.
The return of his...dragon.
And yet, Bong-hwan thinks, looking at the door to the mystic’s shop, here he is.
Curse Cheoljong. Everything was his fault.
He pauses, hand on the handle of the door, taking a moment to steel himself. Then he walks back the way he came and doesn’t enter the shop.
The thing is. The thing is.
He shouldn’t want to go back. He has everything he ever wanted back in his life. The problem of that scumbag Han is solved, his reputation is clear, Korea is apparently in much better shape than it was when he was last here and, most importantly of all, he has his own body back. So then...what’s the problem?
It couldn’t be just about Cheoljong, could it?
Blackout. That’s the word he used when they were reunited. The palace, without Cheoljong, was an oppressive place. Dark everywhere without his bright red robes, his bemused smile, his teasing and his eagerness to learn more about Bong-hwan’s world.
And now? In Bong-hwan’s brightly lit apartment in the middle of Seoul?
He places a hand on his chest. There’s a persistent ache there, just behind his ribcage. An absence, as if someone has carved a hole into his heart and taken away something very precious.
No, no, that’s far too dramatic.
Like heartburn, Bong-hwan decides instead. It feels like a constant heartburn.
That’s another word he could have taught Cheoljong. Another word to add to the Queen’s Dictionary.
He sighs. No. He did his best and Cheoljong survived. Cheoljong was venerated by history, a good king and a good husband. He should leave it at that.
Bong-hwan wakes up at 3 am in the morning, feverish and sweaty, the phantom sensations of warm hands wrapped around his body, the hot whisper of ‘My Queen’ in his ear and the ache between his legs for something that no longer exists.
He considers filling up the bathtub and holding his head underneath but discards that thought. He’s not keen on potentially endangering his life again. Instead, Bong-hwan drags himself out of bed, opens his laptop and books himself another appointment with the mystic.
In the morning, Bong-hwan wakes up groggy and tired and takes a piss standing up. He remembers that he can’t do that, in the Joseon era, in Kim So-yong’s body. He remembers that if he goes back, he will be in a body that is changing, growing, feeding another life. And after that, it will be a body that bleeds monthly, aches differently.
He doesn’t go to the appointment on Day Eight either.
The problem is Bong-hwan wants to tell someone, anyone about his situation and ask them for advice but he has no one. He was close friends with no one in modern day Korea, no one came to visit when he was in a coma. And he has grown so very accustomed to looking over his shoulder to see encouraging and exasperated faces. People that would move the earth for him, take a sword to the gut for him. Even more surprising is that he would take a bullet for them in return, without even thinking about it.
There are no records of Court Lady Choi or the maid Hong Yeon. They weren’t important enough apparently, for the annals of history to remember. He doesn’t know what became of the cook or Kim Hwan, who’d been so taken with his maid. He doesn’t know if their baby, a prince according to the internet, ever read the diary Bong-hwan left for him.
Bong-hwan doesn’t know if Cheoljong ever realized that Kim So-yong and Jang Bong-hwan were different people.
Bong-hwan won’t ever know for certain. That’s okay, he tells himself. That’s okay. What he got from his stint back in time, the affection, the friends, the love, is more than enough.
Except it’s not.
This time, when Bong-hwan dreams, it’s of Cheoljong and the Queen, and he immediately knows that it’s not a memory of himself that he’s seeing. She sits more primly and properly than he has ever managed to, back straight, arms folded. It’s Kim So-yong.
And sitting across her is...Cheoljong.
He watches, detached, as tears spill from her eyes, as Cheoljong leans closer and closer, placing his hands tenderly on her cheeks, wiping them away.
Something white-hot and painful erupts in his chest. The sudden jealousy burns like a supernova.
That’s his King. His Cheoljong. And he knows the pain So-yong went through in her life, he sympathizes really, but that still didn’t change the fact that Cheoljong is Bong-hwan’s King.
He can’t stand it, not even a minute more of watching Cheoljong be affectionate with another woman. He pinches himself on the arm, forces himself to wake up again.
This time, when he makes the appointment, his cell phone rings.
“If you don’t show up this time, you bastard—” a furious female voice yells through the speaker.
“Don’t worry,” Bong-hwan tells her calmly, heart in his throat. “This time, I’m all in.”
He never has been that good at thinking things through anyway.
When the mystic starts the seance, the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is Kim So-yong sitting in a room full of smoke.
She smiles at him, delicate, beautiful and queenly but there's a wry edge to it nonetheless. “I have been waiting for you,” she says. “You are a very stubborn man.”
The part of him that was incensed at her for last night’s dream melts away immediately, as he remembers everything this woman has suffered, trapped in the netherworld or her own body or wherever she was.
“Sorry,” he apologizes, uncharacteristically ashamed.
So-yong shakes her head. “It’s alright, it’s one of your more endearing qualities, the King has told me. One I wish I’d had more of. I could have stubbornly clung to life and worked harder to gain his trust. Instead I chose to give up.”
Bong-hwan’s heart jumps into his throat. “Is he—”
“He is waiting for you,” So-yong says. Then, placing a hand on her stomach, she continues. “Your family is waiting.”
Bong-hwan frowns. “What about you?” he asks. “What will happen to you?”
“I cannot be you,” she replies. “I have pondered it greatly. I cannot be the Queen the reformation of this Kingdom needs. And I am tired of always pretending to be someone I am not.”
“But where will you go?”
“Well, if you will not be using that body,” So-yong gestures to him and gives him a sly wink, “someone might as well make use of it.”
He can’t help but laugh. “Looks like we both taught each other something.”
“Yes,” she agrees warmly. “I will not let myself go so easily this time.”
She starts walking forward in confident strides and Bong-hwan certainly can’t let her outdo him. They meet in the middle of the smoky room. Bong-hwan closes his eyes as their hands touch and—
Bong-hwan wakes up to a larger, warmer hand gripping his own. Before he opens his eyes, he takes stock of his surroundings. Bedding on the floor and hard pillows. A quilt on top of him. The familiar smells of wood and incense that permeated the palace walls.
He squeezes the grip on his hand.
Bong-hwan opens his eyes to see Cheoljong looking down at him. The moment their eyes meet, Cheoljong relaxes, the tension draining out of his shoulders. The grip on Bong-hwan’s hand shifts. Cheoljong lifts the hand to his lips and places a gentle kiss on top of it. “My Queen,” he repeats, this time a confirmation.
Bong-hwan swallows. “So you know? You could tell that she—that I—that it wasn’t me?”
“A woman like you could never come from Joseon,” Cheoljong answers with a cheeky grin. “Isn’t that what you told me? Truly, you are one in a million, my Queen.”
“Bastard,” he huffs, struggling with the emotion welling up in his chest. “Now, I’m stuck here forever. I hope you’re happy.”
“Immeasurably so,” he replies and places another kiss across Bong-hwan’s knuckles. “All in on me?”
“All in,” Bong-hwan agrees. All in for Days Ten, Eleven, Twelve and every other day afterwards. He places his other hand on the back of Cheoljong’s neck and pulls him down until their lips are almost touching. “So you better make it worth my while.”
“I will spend the rest of my life making it so,” Cheoljong swears, the stupidly earnest man, and Bong-hwan can’t stand it anymore.
He kisses his king at last. It feels like coming home.