On the 217th door he opened, he was pretty much ready to collapse on the long stretch of sand he's traversed over a thousand times. It was perpetually a combination of sunrise and sunset in this place — the sky was colored pink with a tinge of orange, reminiscent of the cotton candy he loved as a child but Lady Noh always prohibited him from indulging in. Uncle Buyeong always snuck it in for him. He smiled at the memory of his late uncle.
"You can never know what will happen in life. But if there is a place you want to reach, even if your life may be at risk, that is fate. The footsteps you take by risking your whole life is what's fate."
Those were some of the last words they had exchanged atop the rocks in the early dawn by the beach, the waves relentless in their strength and depth. At the time, he kept thinking how guilty he felt for resenting his destiny. Why did he have to be King? Why did he have to be an orphan King? Why did his own blood have to be the ones to force him into becoming one?
These thoughts have circled his head for the past 25 years. Each uncertainty felt bitter, leaving an acidic after-taste in his tongue that couldn't be washed out by the most expensive wine in the kingdom. But he had a glass anyway. Then he would take out his most beloved possession, one that wasn't given to him by virtue of being King, one that he took of his own accord, battling life or death in the small body of an 8-year-old boy.
Lieutenant Jeong Tae Eul's identification card.
He used to talk to that inanimate object like it was his closest friend. Though of course he'd never say that out loud. He loved his best friend, Jo Yeong, but he also knew his Unbreakable Sword was sworn to protect His Majesty's life first and become his friend second. There were plenty of moments where he just needed to be alone, but not completely alone, and so he talked to her.
He imagined what she would say, what her voice would sound like, what her mannerisms would be. If she would laugh at his poor jokes, or act shy around him, or be a steady confidante and source of comfort like her ID card has been. He knew it wasn't fair — or mentally healthy — to pine over someone over their belongings. He was pretty sure it was an early sign of depression, but this was how he coped for 25 years.
As he urged Maximus faster, with every step of the horse's hooves, his heart felt heavier. It felt like it was filling up with lead and rocks and every heavy matter he could conjure up in his head. He didn't understand the feeling, but he felt a part of this oddly beating thing in his chest pull towards a particular direction. With his other parallel travel, he always moved within the axis of time and space, to make sure that his timeline and the timeline of the parallel world he was visiting was in sync. It would make sense to do that so he doesn't accidentally go to a world where Jeong Tae Eul hasn't been born yet, or has already passed. There's not enough time to waste.
This time, though, both his heart and his gut tugged him towards a particular door. His uncle's words came back to him again. The footsteps you take by risking your whole life is what's fate. He was a man of science, but there were some things that even the infinite numbers couldn't explain. So on he urged his white horse towards whatever awaited on the other side of that obelisk.
The moment Maximus came to a halt amidst the bamboo forest, he tried to get his bearings. Traveling like this was taking its toll on his body, though he was most definitely still in his prime, he thought it would be safe to say he was allowed to feel tired after jumping from one universe to another.
It was spring. That was the first thing he took note of when he exited the forest. Cherry blossoms were in full bloom and some littered the ground and the benches lined along the park. He checked his watch and it read 4:22PM, grabbed a nearby newspaper and saw the date. It was April of the year 2009. He quickly did the math in his head, Tae Eul would be 19 years old in this world. Still in high school, so there would be a high chance she was still living with her dad above the Taekwondo Center.
He already knew this was his Tae Eul, even before laying his eyes on her. Still, when he stopped in his tracks a few feet away from view, his chest constricted painfully. There she was, sitting by the window, her mid-length hair grown up to her waist and stick-straight, too. He loved that hair, no matter what disarray it was in. He used to muss it up just to mess with her but would always put it back in place because if he didn't, she'd leave it like that the entire day. She didn't care much about her physical appearance, and that made her all the more beautiful to him.
She was wearing her Taekwondo uniform, the black belt she inherited from her mother hanging from her waist. She had both feet up by the window, those long strands blowing in the air. He could almost hear her humming, she did that when she was most relaxed. He knew it was her because she kept fussing with her hair, almost like she was itching to gather it and wrap it in a hair tie. He just also knew, as the heavy feeling in his chest magically eased a hundred fold. No one else could do that except for one Lieutenant Jeong Tae Eul. Something was off though, she didn't look all the way relaxed, not the way he knew her body. Almost like... she was posing.
Then he saw it. A bunch of adolescent boys wearing school uniforms were walking down the street. From their perspective, they could see her in full view from the window. Was that... Kang Sin Jae? Why, yes it was. As the others moved forward, the young man stopped dead in his tracks and stared up unabashedly at Tae Eul.
Lee Gon felt an unfamiliar heat settle in his gut. Before he could stop himself, he had already walked forward towards the future detective still currently debating whether he should go up to the center or not. The king let out a heavy sigh before calling out to the young man, "Go ahead, go up to the center and ask for lessons. She's a good teacher."
Before Sin Jae could reply, he had already moved to the back of the building and up the fire escape. He knew this place like the back of his hand because of the number of times he had to sneak up here. Sometimes it was because he was too tired to travel back to his world or any other place for the night, other times... He smiled at the memory. Tae Eul sneaking him back here to take him up to her room and do some research for their team up on a particular case. Late at night. It was a very, very urgent case, you see.
As he turned to the right, he saw a room full of rowdy kids in their tiny Taekwondo outfits. As he peeked inside, careful not to draw attention and keep hidden in the hallway, he saw her at the head of the room. Commanding, confident, in-control. That was what made her amazing at her job — or her would-be job that was ten years into the future. She was teaching the kids the proper form to dwi chagi or kick backwards. As she moved, her limbs flowed with the rest of her body, graceful and swift. The giant bag she kicked stood no chance.
"Aideul, listen up," she called out to around ten to fifteen kids all varying in age and size, "kicking is easy, it's landing back on your feet for another move that's hard." She continued to demonstrate how to land nimbly on the soles of one's feet while explaining how the muscle movement worked. Kids, being the kids they are, paid little to no attention to her careful instructions but instead started practicing on each other.
One particular kid, a little boy with a bowl cut and a determined scowl on his face, came up to the other side of the sand bag and started kicking before Tae Eul could notice and stop him. The moment the kid kicked up, Gon already knew he would end up landing badly on his backside. And thwump he went. Followed by a loud, keening sound that soon turned into full sobs as the other kids laughed and pointed.
"Alright, everyone, go take fifteen minutes to use the bathroom or drink water," she tried to pacify the kids. Then she went to the crying boy. As she dipped low and went on her knees so that she could be eye level with the kid, Lee Gon tried his very best not to strain his head further in to hear their conversation. He had never seen Tae Eul around a kid before, so he didn't know what she would be like. A noona? An ahjumma? Concerned, indifferent, ready to hand out tough love?
He couldn't hear anything over the ruckus the other kids were making but his eyes were glued to the two figures on the floor, the larger one had her head bent at an angle where she was trying to get the small one to look at her. Then one hand came up and she smoothed down his hair. Then she offered up her hand to the kid and he took it with little to no hesitancy. Of course, he thought idly to himself, she would be gentle but also fierce. In everything she did, she always was. Always so full of love, yet so full of passion and strength.
He missed her. So much. He wanted to come up with some eloquent analogy of coming home to warm soup at the end of a cold winter day, but he simply couldn't. Words were wonderful, but sometimes they lacked the ability to express one's hurt and joy. And that was what he was feeling at the moment — both such immense pain and happiness all at once. He saw her again, his Tae Eul, but she didn't see him. She didn't see him.
• • •
Twenty-two long minutes. That's how long the Queen Lieutenant has been looking for her black belt in the gigantic walk-in closet — no, walk-in rooms — she shared with her husband.
"Jagiya," she asked the tall figure currently pulling on a light-colored dress shirt beside her, "Have you seen—"
"Your black belt? I already laid it out on the sink with your uniform while you were in the shower." Of course he did, because he always seemed to know what she needed even before she did. She placed a quick kiss on his shoulder on her way back to the bathroom.
As she dressed in comfortable leggings and a thin, cotton shirt before pulling on her white Taekwondo uniform, Lee Gon's handsome face appeared in the mirror behind her. They stared at each other for a moment, then two, until both their faces broke into a wide smile with just the right amount of flirting.
They still did this, three years after exchanging their eternal love in front of God and their people. Still took the time to just look at each other and mute the noise around them, cocooning themselves in a bubble no one but them can burst when they're ready. It sometimes made the Royal Guards uncomfortable, Captain Jo Yeong, most especially, but they'd learned not to interfere because they just got ignored anyway.
He came to stand directly behind her, reached over to take the black belt, and wrapped it firmly around her waist, tying it off to secure her white robe. Then he placed both hands back on her waist again and rested his chin on her shoulder.
"I saw you like this once," he murmured low, almost too low, she wouldn't have made out his words had his lips not been so close to her ear, "Just once though. I've always wanted to see you again in this uniform. It suits you."
She turned her head slightly as he straightened back up, allowing her body to lean into his warm one, chasing away the last shivers from the shower they took together. "You did? When?"
He opened his mouth, hesitated for a beat, "When I went back to see you in 2009," he finally said a bit sheepishly.
"You what?" She turned to fully face him now, "When? Where? What was I doing? What were you doing? Why didn't you come to me like you did before when I was five and twenty-seven?"
He interrupted her tirade the best way he knew how, and the way only he could, with those luscious lips on top of hers. Honey. Sun-laved honey, a hint of mint from his favorite toothpaste because yes, even royals had preferred hygiene products, a rumbling in her stomach, one that would usually mean she was hungry, but not for food. A slip of tongue, a nick of teeth, then inevitably, quiet laughter bubbling up in between these drugging kisses.
"Okay, but you still have to tell me what you saw in 2009, though," she pretended to pout but he kissed that quickly away too. After a couple more minutes of roaming hands and panting breaths, they finally broke away. Well, she did, because they had this little thing called a Kingdom to run, so she had to be the responsible adult Queen that she definitely was. After one more kiss.
"Wait, wait," he stepped back but still kept one arm tightly around her, "The kids are waiting for their seonsaengnim. We can't keep them waiting for long or Yeong will barge in here again and nag both our asses."
"He'll bring Seung Ah with him, too," she laughed but disentangled herself from him and fixed her hair. Again. He exited the bathroom and told her he'd wait for her in the main hall so they could walk together to the receiving area where the kids were. She faced the mirror and flushed some more at her... thoroughly loved look. She needed to pull herself together. She was about to teach mixed martial arts to kids, for God's sake. This was downright scandalous and their parents would have a coronary if they saw their Queen in this state of disarray.
After freshening up and making sure she looked a lot more decent, they headed hand in hand to the receiving room where around ten to fifteen kids in varying age and height. Training mats were laid out evenly across the room and makeshift punching bags hung around. Their parents stood to the sides, craning their necks at the arrival of their King and Queen.
After making proper introductions, she stood at the head of the room and addressed the kids, "Chinggudeul, are you ready to have fun today?" The kids roared in excitement but soon settled down after reprimanding looks from their parents. She simply smiled at them. They were kids, of course they'd be loud.
Then one kid raised her hand, she had a cute bowl cut and that glint of defiance in her eyes the Queen knew all too from seeing in her own reflection, "Mamanim, why are you teaching us instead of Pyeha? You're a girl and girls shouldn't fight." Gasps echoed in the room, but before the event's host or anyone else could interject, she merely smiled indulgently at the little girl.
"Can you keep a secret," she pretended to bow down and whisper to the child, knowing full well she was wearing a lapel microphone and everything was being recorded, "Pyeha is not very good at fighting. I beat him every time. That's why Captain Jo Yeong suggested I teach you instead."
She shot Yeong who was standing a little to her left a quick glance, suppressing her smile when his eyes rounded in alarm. He's really getting beheaded soon, whether by my husband or his fiance, who knew, she mused.
Then the said loser in combat cleared his throat, always commanding attention. She almost rolled her eyes. "That's not entirely true," he started, but the crowd had already begun throwing fits of giggles and amused looks at him, "It's just that she's a detective and my wife, so it wouldn't do anyone any good, especially me, if I beat her when sparring."
Now even the Royal Guards looked bemused, their usual stoic expressions hidden by dark sunglasses have shifted, making the mood lighter. Everyone knew the King and Queen were insanely in love with each other and this "bickering" was only to amuse their citizens. And the children currently scratching their heads at their monarchs' dramatics.
The rest of their lesson proceeded that way, some kid would ask a random question in the middle of Her Majesty breaking a fall so she'd get up and address the question patiently. Yes, I learned mixed martial arts at a young age like you. Yes, I also like the color pink. Yes, the punching bag can't cry because it doesn't have a heart. Uh, yes, some babies do come from woven baskets left on the Han River until someone comes upon them.
After a few hours, the class finally ended and the kids and their parents thanked Their Majesties for their time and patience. She and Gon made a graceful exit, well, as graceful as she could with sweat-matted hair around her face, smelling a bit ripe. She headed straight to their bathroom to shower again while he went to the kitchen to make them dinner. He always insisted on cooking when he could, "So we won't need to bother the staff to taste our food, and I get you all to myself," he once reasoned out.
After her shower, she made her way to the pantry and already, her stomach grumbled. She was famished. Steak and rice, she could smell it from the entryway. She entered and there he was, in all his kitchen apron glory, setting up the table with utensils before he placed a steaming rice bowl on each plate mat.
"Perfect timing," he smiled up at her, just a hint of teeth and dimple, "Come sit and let's eat. You must be hungry."
"Yes," she replied excitedly, "But while we're eating you to tell me what happened in 2009."
He agreed and proceeded to tell her everything that happened on that one spring day, not much different from the one they had today. He told her of how much he longed to go to her, but couldn't because he'd lose more time and that would mean further delaying of going back to her, his Tae Eul. It would mean delaying that glorious moment outside the Taekwondo Center one winter night, when he gave her the magic lilies and told her he loved her more than anything.
She understood his choice, respected him for it. The glaze in his eyes made her chest ache something fierce. He had to have been so lonely, she thought. If it were her, had she been tasked with opening every door in the universe to find her Lee Gon, she couldn't picture how she could survive it.
Seeing so many versions of him, none with a hint of recognition or acknowledgment of their history or their love. It would have broken something in her, to do that a hundred times over. But he did — because it was her, it was them. He would do anything to protect their love. She knew that now, had known for a while, but this little story of his filled up her heart to the point of almost bursting.
She took his hand mid-meal and conversation, placed it on top of her wildly beating heart, looked him straight in the eye, "Should we only live for today, then?"
He smiled back at her, the words ringing so familiar, it was even a part of their wedding vows: To love tirelessly. "And forever."