(I shall go, I shall go,
I shall go with my lord
Following for a thousand li
I shall go for even ten thousand more)
"동지달 기나긴 밤을 한 허리를 버혀 내여
춘풍 이불 아래 서리허리 넣었다가
어른 님 오신 날 밤이여드란 구비구비 펴리라."
(I will divide this long November night
and coil by coil
lay it under a warm spring blanket
and roll by roll
when my frozen love returns
I will unfold it to the night.)
2009, Seoul, South Korea
It is one of the few times that when they meet, they’re both practically children. Joohyun has just turned nineteen and is steered toward a training room, music bouncing against the hallway walls. She hesitates for a moment before she opens the door, staring at rows of young girls in baggy clothes and sneakers. They’re all ready to put on artificial smiles and dance their youth away.
Joohyun pauses as she starts to pull her training bag off her shoulder. There is a girl standing off to the side, chatting with a small group as she stretches. She stands suddenly and Joohyun can just make out her profile.
She finds she can’t quite make herself move, transfixed as Seulgi throws her head back in uproarious laughter. Joohyun thinks of the years that have passed, insignificant like sand gathering at the bottom of an hourglass. Has the clock started, she wonders, on the end of her time with Seulgi for this lifetime?
Her staring must be obvious because suddenly Seulgi’s eyes are on her and Joohyun fixates on the other girl’s face. Will she remember this time? After nearly two thousand years will she remember at last and end this endless cycle of death and rebirth?
Joohyun swallows, clenching her jaw as she tries to pull her face back into a neutral expression.
“You’re a new trainee, right? I haven’t seen you here before.”
Seulgi smiles and Joohyun feels her eyes water at the unbridled kindness. It’s a little cruel, Joohyun thinks, that after she’s started to expect nothing more than a passing interaction between them in every lifetime, this Seulgi seeks her out with childish happiness. There is a memory Joohyun holds preciously to her chest of Seulgi smiling just like this too many lifetimes ago. She recalls vaguely returning that smile with just as much brightness.
But now Joohyun’s lightness is replaced with the crushing burden of two thousand years of life.
“My name’s Kang Seulgi. It’s nice to meet you.”
Joohyun returns Seulgi’s bow and pauses for a moment to just look at Seulgi. They’ve had countless first meetings but each one is special to Joohyun. She can’t help but savor every single time Seulgi looks her right in the eye and they openly acknowledge each other.
“Bae Joohyun. Nice to meet you.”
Seulgi smiles again before turning away to go back to her friends and Joohyun just stares at her back. Joohyun hates herself for not being able to immediately look away. She spends the rest of the time before practice starts alone in a bathroom stall, trying to calm her breathing and not let the tears in her eyes fall.
523 AD, Dalgubeol, Silla
Joohyun draws back the curtain of her palanquin, feeling the warmth of the sun tickle her cheeks.
“How much further until we reach the temple gates of Yugasa?”
“Soon my lady,” replies one of her servants from behind the litter. She squints outside, seeing the colorful lanterns hung up above the swooping eaves of the large temple in the distance. With a sigh she sits back in her seat, letting the curtain close. After getting permission from her husband, a low-level bureaucrat, she and a handful of servants had embarked for Yugasa Temple to see the festivities for Seokgatansinil, the birthday of Gautama Buddha.
It has been interesting for Joohyun to see with the flow of time the rise and fall of the gods of the Mu in favor of this new Buddha that has entrenched itself so strongly in the kingdom she has been born into. She wonders in her next life if she must return, what new religion will have entered the hearts and minds of Silla’s people.
Suddenly the palanquin lurches, jolting Joohyun forward. She flings out a hand to steady herself against the wooden interior of her litter.
“What is happening?” she practically shouts, reaching for her curtain in irritation. It is then she hears steel against sword sheath. A few lives ago, the sound had been as familiar to her as breathing when she’d lived with her father, a renowned general. But now, with her soft hands and body frail from childbirth, Joohyun would be powerless to stop the blows of any sword.
“They’re bandits, my Lady!”
Joohyun clenches her jaw as she slowly reaches for a small knife that she hides in the pocket of one of her sleeves. Even if she is practically powerless in this life, she’d be damned if she’d be completely vulnerable.
“We wish to escort you safely for the rest of your journey to Yugasa.”
Joohyun snaps back the curtain and gestures an impatient hand for a servant to come to her side. Peeking from her window, she can see a figure clothed in black on a large dark horse with an unsheathed sword in one hand. A few other figures skulk in the shadows at the edge of the road. This is what Joohyun gets for encouraging her servants to take a back road to reach the temple a little early.
“Tell this person that we do not require safe passage as the temple is not even a ri away. We should be more than fine to arrive safely.”
The servant deeply bows at Joohyun’s words and rushes toward the rider, conveying her message. The cloaked figure raises their head and Joohyun can just make out skeptical dark eyes.
“My lady, you may be unaware, but the passage is more treacherous than you can imagine. We insist on putting our lives on the line to ensure your safety.”
Her servant scurries back to Joohyun and conveys the words that she already heard so clearly.
“And what does this person want in exchange for such a chivalrous act?”
Joohyun arches an eyebrow at the direct reply, the rider not even waiting for her servant to convey the message.
“You directly address me despite my bone rank?”
“The urgency of the situation demands brevity, my Lady.”
The servant glances between the two of them nervously, stuffing her hands into her wide sleeves.
“Come closer,” Joohyun says, exposing a pale hand with a lazy gesture. The rider complies easily, spurring the horse forward until the great beast is side by side with Joohyun’s raised palanquin. The rider dismounts, gripping the reins of the horse with one hand and clutching the pommel of the now sheathed short sword with the other. The servant nervously wrings her hands at how close the rider gets to Joohyun’s open window.
“Do we have an agreement, my Lady?”
Joohyun frowns as she squints at the rider. Off the horse, she can see how small and lithe the person is.
“If you show me your face, I will agree to your proposition. I cannot comfortably be escorted by a faceless bandit.”
The rider shrugs a shoulder and carefully tugs down the black cloth, exposing their face.
The ache of seeing Seulgi is familiar for Joohyun but not yet painful. She cannot help the smile that curls at her mouth at the sight of the other woman. Seulgi of course is oblivious, frowning at the obvious happiness now on Joohyun’s face.
“Do we have an agreement?” Seulgi mutters as she quickly tugs the cloth back up over her face.
“Only if you promise to ride by my side and chat with me the whole ride over.”
“M-my Lady, it is unseemly for a woman of your station to be conversing with such a low-level commoner!”
Seulgi glares over her shoulder at the comment and Joohyun cannot help the giggle that tumbles from her lips. She tries to muffle it into her embroidered sleeve.
“It is fine. We have enough gold for compensation for our kind escorts.”
“My husband trusts me to know when to use the gold we have. Especially when it concerns my well-being”
Joohyun’s tone clearly leaves little room for argument and the servant quiets, bowing her head deeply.
“Are you satisfied?” Joohyun asks, meeting Seulgi’s eyes hungrily. The other woman glances over toward the shadowy figures up ahead, giving them an affirmative gesture.
“More than satisfied, my Lady.”
“Continue forward then,” Joohyun orders the servants carrying her palanquin and the litter begins to move again. She glances out the window to see Seulgi easily climb on top of her horse and keep an easy pace by Joohyun’s side.
“It is not often I am asked to stay by a lady’s side when doing such an escort,” Seulgi comments easily from her position on her horse.
“Does it scandalize you?”
“No. It is just… I suppose I haven’t met a lady quite like yourself.”
“Maybe you have met me before,” Joohyun murmurs and their eyes meet in the warmth of the spring day. Even though Joohyun cannot see Seulgi’s face, she knows the other woman’s mouth would be pulled down in a pensive frown.
“I think I would remember if I met a woman such as yourself, my Lady.”
“Maybe you’re just forgetful.” Those words have a bit more bitterness than Joohyun had intended. Although it has been interesting, being able to recall her past lives over the past five hundred years, there is a loneliness in this existence. But at least, more often than not, Seulgi has been by her side in some form or another.
“I would never forget someone like you.”
“You flatter me,” Joohyun murmurs, and they share a smile. She peeks out at the blooms of fallen flowers littering the dirt path, crunching under feet and hoofs like snow. There is a strange peace in this chance meeting, Joohyun thinks. She will remember this for the both of them. So that when Seulgi remembers her in their next life, Joohyun can remind her of this time together.
Do you remember, my love, when you traveled with me for a single li? And we stared at each other in the warmth of sunshine and the scent of crushed cherry blossoms?
“I hope we meet again,” Joohyun murmurs as she sees the temple before them. Their reunion has ended. She can faintly hear the sound of coins jangling from her servant’s sleeve.
Seulgi just laughs and Joohyun’s eyes flutter closed at the familiar sound.
“I will be sure to try to escort you again, my Lady.”
“Will you promise to find me again?”
Seulgi pauses at the gravity of Joohyun’s request, brows furrowed in confusion. But as Joohyun holds her gaze steady, she simply shrugs a shoulder.
“I will try my best, my Lady.”
The words are enough for Joohyun in this lifetime and she drops her hand and lets the image of Seulgi, bathed in spring sunshine, disappear behind the curtain.
2010, Seoul, South Korea
Joohyun glances idly at her phone, seeing a text message from her mother on the screen. She sighs quietly as she types a quick reply with one-hand. Keeping up the appearance of being a faithful daughter has been hard since Joohyun had remembered her past lives at barely thirteen. What connection does she truly have to this woman that she has known for twenty years? It pales in comparison to the connection she has with Seul-
She sends the message before raising her head. It’s Seulgi, nervously rocking on her feet as she stands in front of Joohyun.
“I was um… I was wondering if you wanted to get something to eat with me?”
“Don’t you have to go to cram school after this?”
Seulgi’s eyes widen in surprise, as if she is shocked that Joohyun pays attention to her schedule. It’s sweet. Joohyun had almost forgotten that Seulgi was capable of childish wide-eyed naivete. It’s been nearly two thousand years since she last saw it.
“I normally do. But it got cancelled for midterms this week.”
“Shouldn’t you be studying then?”
Seulgi flushes. Most people would be intimidated by the line of questioning. Joohyun can see a bit of that in the way Seulgi shifts on her feet. But there also is a set of dogged determination to her shoulders. Is seeking me out really worth your time if you’ll just forget me again? Joohyun wonders.
“I want to have dinner with you. If you want to.”
Joohyun blinks, observing the stubborn set of Seulgi’s jaw. The familiar image softens Joohyun enough to smile a little.
“Are you sure?” she asks gently. “You live about an hour away, right?”
“I-I do but we can get something quick!”
Joohyun pauses at the comment. It certainly is tempting, having Seulgi personally ask to get a meal together. But is it worth it to get close to this Seulgi when they’ll inevitably be torn apart?
Her answer of course is made for her when the other girl swallows loudly, face pinching as she clearly seems to start to regret her decision of asking Joohyun to dinner. If there is one weakness Joohyun has, it is being unable to deny Seulgi anything.
“Okay. Where should we go?”
Seulgi’s shoulders relax as she watches with wide eyes as Joohyun picks up her gym bag and tilts her head inquisitively.
“Um, well what’s your favorite food?”
“Oh, I like that too! There’s a nice ahjumma that has a stall a few blocks away. It’s right next to the subway line that I can take home.”
“Sure, let’s do that then.”
Seulgi smiles in relief and they exit the practice room together. They walk single file down the long halls to avoid congesting the busy flow of dancers and trainees rushing around. Joohyun doesn’t even realize she has a hand gently resting against Seulgi’s back until the other girl glances behind her curiously. She presses her hand more firmly between Seulgi’s shoulder blades, steering her toward the elevator.
They both lean against the back of the elevator, waiting during the slow ascent up to the main floor. Joohyun stares at their warped reflections in the door. Seulgi’s mouth is slightly open as she stares up at the floor number at the top of the elevator, silently counting along.
“Counting won’t make us get there faster,” Joohyun says, failing to keep a teasing tone from her voice.
“Oh, sorry, Unnie. Was it annoying?”
“It’s fine. I thought it was cute.”
Joohyun can’t quite fight the smile on her face at Seulgi’s slack-jawed look in response to the comment. Thankfully the elevator doors slide open and she steps forward first, walking quickly out of the lobby and into the cool spring evening. Joohyun pauses as Seulgi catches up to her. It’s strange, she thinks, to see Seulgi outside of training in that tiny basement practice room. Outside in sweaty gym clothes with her bangs still plastered to her forehead, she looks more her age. Not some idol in training.
Joohyun stops herself from thinking about her Seulgi who at this age had been fiercely trying to train with Joohyun’s father despite his countless objections. There is a similar passion that they both share, and it makes Joohyun feel sick.
“Lead the way,” Joohyun says smoothly as Seulgi blinks up at her in uncertainty.
“Uh, yeah right!”
Joohyun reaches for Seulgi’s arm as she starts walking, making the younger girl pause.
“What? You don’t like it? I hold my little sister’s arm all the time.”
“Oh… yeah it’s okay. I just don’t normally… I have a brother, so I’m not used to it.”
Joohyun hums in acknowledgement but keeps holding on to the inside of Seulgi’s arm. Even through her long-sleeved shirt, she can feel her warmth. They keep walking like that, Seulgi occasionally turning to stare down at Joohyun’s firm hand when they pause at crosswalks.
“Do you like school?” Joohyun suddenly asks, hearing her Daegu satoori pitching her question even higher.
“Oh, yeah. I go to an art’s high school.”
“Are there a lot of trainees there?”
“I recognize a few. But most of my classmates don’t know I’m an SM trainee.”
Joohyun’s eyebrows arch in surprise but Seulgi ignores her gaze, instead carefully dragging them to a rusty cart right in front of a gaping subway exit. Even though Joohyun is older, Seulgi is the one who gently tucks Joohyun away from the throngs of commuters rushing past them.
“Um, excuse me.”
The two middle schoolers eating their food from paper cups don’t even glance their way as they scoot down the standing counter of the cart.
“Could we have two ddeokbokki and one set of kimmari?”
“And one fish cake skewer, please,” Joohyun chimes in with a smile at the weathered middle-aged woman nodding along to their order.
Seulgi starts to grope around the pocket wallet attached to the lanyard around her neck but Joohyun is quicker, thrusting a 10000 won bill at the woman before Seulgi can even manage to pull out any money.
“Unnie, I was the one who invited you to eat with me.”
“Right. But I’m the unnie so I should pay. You’re still a student.”
Seulgi grumbles under her breath as they wait for Joohyun’s change before shifting down the counter to wait for their food. They both silently watch their plastic covered bowls being filled with piping hot plump rice cakes and steaming red sauce. Joohyun carefully takes the bowls and places them in front of Seulgi and herself.
“Thanks, Unnie. I’ll buy for you next time.”
Joohyun just nods and spears a rice cake with her toothpick. She watches for a moment as Seulgi begins to eat, eagerly bending down so that her face can be closer to her bowl of food. Without thinking, Joohyun reaches a hand out and catches a strand of hair that had been about to fall into a glob of red sauce.
“Do you want a hair tie?” Joohyun asks when Seulgi jerks at the contact. She silently nods, cheeks stuffed with food, as Joohyun hands her a black elastic from her wrist.
“Thanks,” Seulgi mumbles behind a hand, face flushing. Joohyun just smiles once before turning to her food. They finish their meal in silence, squeezing closer together when a businessman sidles up to the counter. Their shoulders brush and Joohyun can’t quite fight the way her mouth is curling upward.
“Do you want the first bite of the kimmari?”
“You can start, there’s four.”
Seulgi doesn’t wait and happily dips the first small deep-fried seaweed roll into the ddeokbokki sauce.
“Is it good?”
“Mmhmm. Do you like the food, Unnie?”
Joohyun could say something honest. Like yes, the food is good but what’s making her more happy is sharing something as mundane as a meal with Seulgi on an easy spring day. And there is no threat of a swift and abrupt end to this encounter. They’ll go their separate ways for the evening, but they’ll still see each other for practice tomorrow.
“I do. We should do this again sometime.”
Seulgi nods enthusiastically, eyes bright and smile wide.
Joohyun is helpless to do anything but return that smile with a small grin of her own.
Maybe this is why she’s been cursed to be reborn. She always wants what she clearly cannot have.
And if her two thousand years of lives has taught her anything, Joohyun can never have Seulgi.
1088, Huangzhou, Northern Song
Joohyun marvels at the sight of the young artist bent over the dirt near the fire, carefully sketching something with the pointed end of a stick. The firelight bathes her cheeks in a warm glow as the tip of her tongue peeks out of the corner of her mouth.
“I thought you said you were a painter,” Joohyun says as she unceremoniously squats down next to the artist, causing her jerk up in surprise. She can see that whatever had been sketched is unrecognizable.
“I-I am,” Seulgi mutters petulantly, taking a bare hand and wiping the dirt into a blank slate.
“Hmm,” Joohyun teases reaching out and tapping her finger against the end of the stick. “This is one strange looking brush, painter.”
Seulgi sighs in exasperation at the old joke as she continues to ignore Joohyun, instead focusing on sketching something again. Joohyun just watches the other girl, tracing her profile in the firelight. It’d been a while since Joohyun had seen her. A kingdom had fallen and a new dynasty had risen since she’d seen Seulgi last. They’d been comrades then, working toward the destruction of the kingdom of Baekje. Their meeting had been briefer than Joohyun would have liked, less than a year of reconnaissance within the capital city of Sabi, before Silla’s army brought Baekje to its knees. Seulgi unfortunately hadn’t made it out unscathed from the sacking of the capital and Joohyun had stayed by her side, holding her bloody wound together with choked promises of meeting in another lifetime.
And now Seulgi is in front of her again, this time an assistant to a prominent painter interested in capturing the beauty of Suzhou for the eyes of King Seonjong’s court. Joohyun is simply the daughter of a trader, learning the established route from Goryeo all the way to the kingdoms to the west. The past few months have been kinder than Joohyun has deserved, being able to be with Seulgi every day on their journey. No fear of the other girl disappearing as quickly as she’d appeared.
Seulgi had tolerated Joohyun’s enthusiasm to be around her with patience, quietly letting her peer at her books on painting techniques and style. They’d spent countless nights sitting in silence as Seulgi had sketched and Joohyun had watched, sitting under a sky that had chased the stars away with dredges of purpling dawn.
“Hopefully I will be able to find good brushes tomorrow when we arrive at Hangzhou. Some of the brushes we brought got ruined by that rainstorm from a few days ago.”
“Mm, tomorrow. How do you feel, to finally be free of me?”
“It will be nice to not have to worry about someone constantly watching me sketch over my shoulder. Painter Tak already does that enough.”
Joohyun hums as she leans her cheek against her arms. She doesn’t want to have to follow the trade caravan further west. She wants to stay by Seulgi’s side and follow her down to Suzhou to see the beautiful canals and the sprawling gardens.
“Since it is our last night together, can I ask you a question?”
Seulgi nods slowly as she begins to sketch again, delicate strokes against the soft dirt.
“Would you want to remember your previous life after you’re reincarnated?”
“Reincarnation? You never struck me as religious.”
“You never asked.”
Seulgi pauses in her sketch, brow furrowing.
“Sometimes I…” Her expression flickers and she seems to mull something over for a while before she turn and looks at Joohyun. She shivers at the intense gaze.
“I do not think I would,” Seulgi says at last, turning back to work on her sketch in the dirt.
“I think that if I remembered my past life, I would waste my current one trying to fix all my past mistakes.”
“What if… what if the past life was the perfect one and all the lives after were the mistakes?”
Joohyun hates how her voice trembles at the end of the question, too raw for the reasonable hypothetical conversation that they’re having.
“If your past life was perfect then you would not be reincarnated,” Seulgi says simply, finishing a stroke with a flick of her wrist.
“I am not so sure,” Joohyun whispers into her arms, staring into the crackling fire. She can pretend that the smoke is what makes her eyes burn.
“If things had been perfect, the cycle would have stopped.”
There is a lull where they sit in familiar silence, Joohyun clutching her legs hard enough to make herself not cry and Seulgi sketching into the dirt.
“Maybe we will meet each other again. In our next lives.”
Joohyun’s mouth trembles at the casual way Seulgi says the words, not knowing how they weigh down on Joohyun’s shoulders like a crushing boulder.
“I thought you said you do not want someone staring at you when you paint.”
“Well perhaps in our next life you will do it in a less annoying way.”
“Or we will be painting together.”
Seulgi scoffs at the suggestion but there’s a smile curling her mouth as she pulls her hand back, satisfied with her work. Silently Joohyun scoots closer to the other woman until they’re shoulder to shoulder. Despite being captured by a stick in loose dirt, the likeness of several sweeping mountain peaks is unmistakable. Joohyun makes an approving sound as she turns to share a small grin with Seulgi.
“One day I hope to see your paintings on real paper.”
“As a woman, I would not be able to present them to the king like Painter Tak will.”
“Someday then. Maybe not in this life.”
“Will you be able to recognize them? How can you tell my art style from sketches in the dirt?”
Joohyun scoffs and reaches out, gripping the other woman’s hand still holding the stick.
“Do you have such little faith in me that I would not be able to recognize what this hand has done?”
Seulgi shifts until her face is so close that Joohyun can count her eyelashes.
“But have you really been only looking at my drawings the whole time you’ve been watching me?”
Seulgi makes a skeptical noise before rising to her feet, leaving Joohyun staring up at her.
“We should sleep before it gets too late. Painter Tak already has started giving me instructions for all the supplies I will need to buy once we arrive.”
“You rest. I want to stay awake for a little while longer.”
“Alright. If I am not able to give a proper goodbye tomorrow, I suppose I should say it now.”
Joohyun chokes down the desperate plea to not say goodbye. To stay just this once and not leave her like Seulgi has time after time.
Instead, she swallows down her words and gives the other woman a playful smile.
“Maybe in our next life you can properly teach me how to sketch something. So that I will not be staring at you so much as you work.”
“I promise I will. Wait for me until then.”
Joohyun cannot quite hide her tears as she turns away to stare at the fire before them.
2012, Seoul, South Korea
“Do you think it’ll happen, Unnie?” Seulgi asks Joohyun quietly, gazing out at the vast expanse of the Han River in front of them. They’ve been eating ice cream on a lazy spring day, chatting on and off about the grueling training they’ve endured as they stroll along the crowded trail.
“That we’ll debut?” Joohyun is almost amused at the question. We’ve raised and burned down dynasties together. Shouldn’t becoming idols pale in comparison?
“Yeah, Unnie. I just… I’m scared that it won’t work out and I don’t know what else I could do. Being a singer is really all I want.”
“You’re young, Seulgi-yah. You could do anything.”
“Like what, Unnie?”
Joohyun hums as she carefully sucks on the last of her red bean ice cream. She’d seen Seulgi as a wide array of things over the years. What couldn’t Kang Seulgi be?
“You can be anything you want, Seulgi-yah. Including an idol.”
Seulgi glances at Joohyun then and they share a smile.
“All that matters is you believe in me, Unnie.”
“I will always believe in you. And I will always be by your side,” Joohyun murmurs quietly, not quite able to look the other girl in the eye. It happens so often, these moments where she feels so overwhelmed that Seulgi is right next to her, a constant that she sees every day for hours on end. It is a vast improvement from her last life, bleeding out near the Busan parameter as the gunshots of a civil war waged around her. A nurse had attempted to stop the bleeding and Joohyun likes to think it was Seulgi. There is a comfort in dying in the hands of the person she loves most. So much better than the countless times when she died alone.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Seulgi confesses quietly, teeth chewing on her bottom lip in concentration. They rarely say things like this to each other. Even though Joohyun is practically brimming over with thousands of different love confessions, she tamps them down with determination. Seulgi seems to prefer to operate similarly, her gratitude apparent in frequent smiles and a tolerance for the way Joohyun’s hands gravitate to her arms and shoulders.
“I’ll stay with you until the very end. I promise.”
“You sound like you’re my lieutenant at my side during a war,” Seulgi teases with a giggle.
Joohyun thinks of the countless times she has been by Seulgi’s side as the peninsula had been rocked by siege after siege across the centuries. Ironically, she is parroting the words that Seulgi had whispered in her ear as Joohyun had wheezed against her collar, choking on her own blood and the helplessness of their inevitable demise.
“Isn’t this war, in a way?”
Seulgi pauses then, giving Joohyun a long contemplative look. Joohyun sees the darkness of doubt flash in Seulgi’s eyes and it makes her feel a little nostalgic at the sight.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I don’t debut,” she says honestly. “But I don’t want to hurt anyone. Even if I have to wait for a long time, I want to get on the stage in my own way. Through hard work and my own talent.”
“I’m not sure war can ever be so clean.”
“Then maybe this isn’t a war. Maybe it’s… more complicated than that?”
Joohyun hums as she stares at her clean popsicle stick contemplatively. There is a kindness to this Seulgi that is not completely familiar. But perhaps until this lifetime, Seulgi has been unable to completely give in to the compassion and kindness so innate within her. So many times Joohyun has seen her forced into hard choices for her survival or for the sake of those she needed to protect. Now at least she can be truly kind.
But for Joohyun, she doubts there is anything that remains of her from her old life but her tether to Seulgi. Always Seulgi. There is nothing that repeats over these countless lifetimes but her. So could Joohyun be blamed for wanting to be by her side, to cling to this potentially singular opportunity of happiness after so many premature partings?
“Maybe. I hope that you won’t have to make any hard decisions though. For your sake.”
Seulgi shrugs a shoulder as she looks out over the river, biting at the last of her ice cream. For a moment Joohyun stares unabashedly, trying to hold this moment to her chest like the precious memory it is. Every day is so fragile with Seulgi. These past few years have been so lucky but they would end wouldn’t they?
And then Joohyun would be alone again.
1458, Daegu, Joseon
Joohyun waits patiently in her private room, spreading out her thick tomes of scholarly books. Here in the gibang house she isn’t a noblewoman trying to escape the boredom of daily life. She is a young lord studying for the civil service exam.
“We have a treat for you tonight, my Lord,” giggles Joohyun’s usual courtesan.
“Oh?” Joohyun pauses in her skimming, adjusting the brand-new glasses that came from a trading convoy from the Ming earlier that month.
“Yes, she is from Hanseong. She trained at the royal court for a few years.”
“What must she have done to get herself sequestered off to the provinces?” muses Joohyun with a wry smile. She adjusts the stiff gat on her head, keeping up her scholarly façade.
The courtesan simply rolls her eyes as she reaches forward to pour Joohyun another cup of rice liquor.
“As this gibang’s favorite customer, we thought we could let you be her first patron here. At the right price of course.”
“Always about money with you,” Joohyun teases wryly as she adjusts the unfamiliar glasses on her face.
The gisaeng opens her mouth for a retort but is interrupted by a gentle rap at the door.
“Would you like a look at her, my Lord?”
“Does this mean you tire of me? Want to shove me off to some other gisaeng?”
The woman laughs, covering her red-painted mouth with a delicate hand.
The door slides open and in walks a gisaeng adorned with jade pins in a stylish updo, sparkling golden rings on her fingers, and ornaments hanging from her collar. The wide sleeves of the new gisaeng’s plum-colored top cover her hands which stay properly clasped in front of her. She raises her head slightly and Joohyun’s smile freezes on her face.
“What do you think, my Lord? Would you want to hear her play a few songs?”
Joohyun swallows, forcing herself to look away from the woman standing in front of her.
“If she’s a gisaeng fit for the king’s court, I wouldn’t want to impose on time that could be spent with more important patrons.”
“I do not mind, my Lord.”
Joohyun slightly turns her head at the words. Every time she hears her voice it’s simultaneously a new thrill of excitement and a strange comfort. In this lifetime, Seulgi’s voice is quiet and trained. The years of being groomed to be a high-class gisaeng have given her a feminine grace that Joohyun isn’t completely familiar with. For so long Seulgi has been at her side as her protector, her equal, her comrade. Never as this beautiful flower with painted lips and eyes lined dark with kohl.
“Would you mind entertaining this yangban’s son for an evening?” Joohyun asks quietly. She studies the practiced curl of Seulgi’s mouth at the question, remembering faintly the lifetimes ago when that mouth had pressed against Joohyun’s, soft and insistent.
“It would be my pleasure. I have been told you are a loyal customer at this gibang.”
Joohyun’s usual courtesan smiles at the banter between the two of them and rises, gesturing outside for a servant girl to come in. Joohyun glances over as the girl carefully steps over the threshold of the door with a shiny gayageum in her hands.
“Please sit,” Joohyun murmurs roughly, slipping off her glasses and gesturing toward the floor cushions. Seulgi inclines her head in thanks and seems to float down onto the ground like a butterfly landing on a flower. The servant girl carefully places the instrument in Seulgi’s lap and she adjusts it carefully with hands that almost seem to caress the burnished wood.
“Do you have a name I should call you by?”
Seulgi tinkers with the gayageum for a few moments, brow furrowed in concentration as she pulls a few mournful sounds from the strings before settling into a serene smile.
“I have been given the name the Paulownia Blossom from Hanseong.”
Joohyun hums thoughtfully at the name before moving her stack of books to the floor of her short table. She arranges her small pitcher of rice liquor next to her porcelain cup carefully so that she can see Seulgi without any obstruction. Taking a long drink from her cup, she gestures for Seulgi to play.
It does not surprise Joohyun that Seulgi’s music is beautiful. Everything the other girl has tried to excel in has always seemed to be a huge success. She thinks fondly of their first life together and Seulgi stubbornly holding a sword in her hand as Joohyun had watched her spar with her father. That furrow of absolute concentration and passion is identical to this Seulgi stroking the strings of her instrument with the finesse of a master.
“How many years have you studied the gayageum?” Joohyun asks quietly as she pours herself another drink.
“As soon as I could walk, I tried to get a gayageum into my lap, my Lord.”
“It sounds like it.”
Seulgi just tilts her head slightly to meet Joohyun’s gaze. The gesture makes Joohyun’s heart pound loudly in her ears.
“Are you studying for the civil service exam, my Lord?”
Joohyun has another cup of liquor halfway to her lips at the question. She pauses and glances over at her pile of books. A moment of envy fills her. With the passing of every year in this dynasty it seems the noose of her sex tightens around her, preventing any pursuit outside of being a housewife. She thinks fondly of the years in Goryeo and Silla when she had been able to be so much more.
“Yes,” she lies, knowing that to Seulgi she looks like the perfect picture of a rich son of some nobleman.
“And so you spend your time studying for the exam at this gibang?”
“I enjoy studying while listening to beautiful music.”
“And yet I haven’t seen you look at a book once since I’ve entered this room.”
Joohyun stares for a long moment, transfixed by Seulgi’s long fingers plucking delicately at the gayageum strings. She doesn’t have an answer, feeling a flush warming her cheeks. She can tell Seulgi is smiling.
“Do you ever feel the fatigue of an existence that doesn’t seem to end?” slurs Joohyun into the heel of her palm. The alcohol has definitely caught up to her now. She chances a glance at the other woman who simply bows her head as she teases another beautiful sound from her instrument.
“Is that a riddle, my Lord?”
“Mm. Or a genuine question that desperately seeks a real answer.”
Seulgi’s mouth twitches and she meets Joohyun’s half-lidded gaze with a wry smile.
“I may be a little young to feel the fatigue of a long existence, but I suppose sometimes I feel the edge of an ancient exhaustion when I fall asleep. Perhaps a life from a time long ago?”
Joohyun’s eyes are hungry the next moment they meet Seulgi’s. She feels a pang in her stomach for some shred of recognition in the other woman’s gaze as she leans forward over her instrument, pulling a delicately mournful tune from its taut strings. Joohyun’s stare must be burdensome because after a moment Seulgi ducks her head, shifting to better watch her hands moving along her gayageum.
“I think I know what you mean,” Joohyun murmurs quietly. She thinks of the memories burned behind her eyelids of a kingdom now buried under ash and dirt. Of a steady warmth holding her close and whispering softly into her hair with words from a language now dead.
The gayageum’s last mournful note fades into nothingness as they look at each other again. Joohyun’s throat burns with the longing that fills her chest at the sight of Seulgi in front of her, at last. But of course Seulgi only sees her as some strange noble lord asking for a night of song and company. Joohyun is an insignificant stranger in this lifetime.
“Sometimes, I think I have a dream or two of my former life,” Joohyun murmurs with a fake lightness as she examines her small porcelain cup on the table in front of her. She tries not to look at Seulgi as she reaches for the liquor flask and pours herself a glass.
“What do you see, in these dreams of your former life?”
Joohyun pauses at the genuine curiosity in Seulgi’s tone but she doesn’t dare to hope. Instead, she gulps down the small cup of rice liquor with a shudder, screwing her eyes shut at the slight burn.
“I dream… of a maiden from a kingdom forgotten by the annals of our history books. And of a love carved in the bones of dead poets whose songs fill the ears of an audience long dead.”
“A tragedy then. I suppose you must have suffered greatly to be given such a lavish life now, my Lord.”
“You come to me in fine silks as a man who has enough to be able to afford the most expensive gisaeng at this gibang. What more could you want for?”
Joohyun’s hands shake as she meets Seulgi’s eyes and struggles to not look away from the innocent naivete.
“What more could I want for?” Joohyun repeats bitterly, reaching for another pour of rice liquor.
“Let me.” Joohyun pauses, raising her head to see Seulgi gently shift to rest her gayageum on her plush sitting cushion. With the trained grace of a gisaeng, she moves towards Joohyun’s seat at the front of her room. The hanbok leaves much to the imagination with its bell skirt and loose-fitting wide sleeves but Joohyun can still see Seulgi’s lithe shape in the black and maroon silks.
Seulgi reaches forward and delicately takes the neck of the flask from Joohyun’s hand, carefully pouring a perfect cup of wine for the other woman. After gently placing the ivory colored porcelain next to Joohyun’s free hand, she begins to pull back but Joohyun grabs her wrist unthinkingly.
It’s been nearly two lifetimes since Joohyun has touched Seulgi like this, so close that she can count the dark lashes framing her wide brown eyes. Her skin is warm and soft and Joohyun runs a thumb along the inside of Seulgi’s wrist, making them both shiver. The want is cloyingly sweet in her mouth, almost clouding her judgement with the delirious notion that Seulgi is leaning forward as well with the beginning of permission on her lips.
Joohyun’s mouth is dry as she stares at Seulgi, gaze a little shaky from the alcohol. She lets them both live in this moment for another second just so that she can commit this to memory. And then she lets go.
“You may leave. Your gayageum is worthy of all the talk I’ve heard.”
Seulgi nods slowly, eyes wide as she blinks.
“But you paid for much longer than the time that we’ve spent together.”
“I am afraid if you stay longer, I may do something I will regret.” Joohyun cannot keep the sadness from her voice as she grabs her refilled cup and gulps down the burning liquid. She barely gives Seulgi a glance as a maid scurries in and helps Seulgi carry the large wooden instrument out of the room.
There is a moment where Seulgi pauses in the door frame, one hand gripping the fragile rice paper on the sliding door. She angles her head just so, her silhouette framed by the soft glow of the lanterns and candlelight. Joohyun greedily takes in the sight, forcing herself to not beg for Seulgi to stay.
“Goodnight,” Seulgi whispers, the door sliding behind her.
“Goodnight,” Joohyun replies to an empty room.
She does not visit the gibang again for the rest of this lifetime.
2014, Seoul, South Korea
Joohyun pauses and her head snaps to Sooyoung who’s panting, trying to steady herself after the mistake she made on the choreography.
“Turn off the music,” Joohyun snaps without looking behind her. She sees Seulgi scurry toward the stereo and quickly press a button. The room fills with the sounds of all of them trying to catch their breaths.
Joohyun leans on her knees, squeezing her eyes shut as she desperately tries to clamp down on the frustration and exhaustion threatening to overwhelm her. They’d gone straight from debuting with “Happiness” to getting thrown into doing a new song within a few months. The dieting, pressure, and new choreography have clearly taken a toll on everyone. Being called SM’s newest cover-up group certainly hasn’t helped things either.
Throughout her many lifetimes, being a kpop girl group leader may be one of the hardest things Joohyun has ever had to do.
“Unnie, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t need sorry, Sooyoung, I need better. That’s the third time you’ve messed up this step in the past hour.”
Joohyun raises her head when she doesn’t get an answer, staring up at Sooyoung with her hands still on her knees. She tries to ignore the way Seulgi is frowning at her and Seungwan’s shoulders tense.
“Have you been listening to me? I said I don’t need sorry! If you could just get the choreography right, we could go home!”
“I’m trying, Unnie! But you’ve been pushing us for the past three hours. We should have eaten ages ago!”
“Is stuffing your face really all you can think about right now when we have a performance in a few days?”
She sees tears fill Sooyoung’s eyes and the flash of regret is immediate. But before she can say anything the other girl is out the door, covering her eyes with her hands. Joohyun sighs as she stares after Sooyoung.
“I’ll… I’ll go check on her?” Seungwan asks nervously toward Joohyun who is still resting on her knees.
“You can do whatever the hell you want, Seungwan.”
The other girl flinches and hurries out the door.
Joohyun drops her head and stares at her feet, dreading Seulgi’s reaction. She knows that Seulgi is so much better at being gentle, carefully correcting mistakes with kind suggestions and an endless amount of patience. Joohyun has seen it in too many lifetimes to count. But her? She’s the driver who pushes Seulgi along to get to the heart of whatever they need to do. Even if there are costs. Even if Joohyun has to die for them to get to where they need to go.
Seulgi doesn’t know it, but Joohyun has sacrificed countless lives to give the other girl what she wanted. A saved kingdom. A bag of gold. An empty promise. Joohyun knows what needs to be done to get them to this new goal for this life. Even if she has to make her members cry every once in a while.
She can hear Seulgi’s sigh before she sees the other girl’s sneakers in her line of sight.
“Just say it. ‘Unnie, that was mean. Unnie, you should be nicer; she’s only nineteen. Unnie, you’re horrible.’”
“Is that what you think I’d say to you?”
“It’s what you should say.”
“I don’t scold people that know what they did wrong.”
Joohyun scoffs and finally lifts her head to see Seulgi looking down at her with a slight smile.
“You’ve been really stressed. I should have helped you more. I know that the managers have been putting a lot of pressure on you with everything that’s happening right now at the company.”
“None of that really matters. We’ve been trained to sing and dance for so many years. If we can’t do that well, we’ll just be useless.”
“Unnie, you can’t think that.”
“Isn’t that all we’re supposed to be good for?” snaps Joohyun, practically baring her teeth at Seulgi who looks like she’s been struck.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re too young to understand, Seulgi-yah. This is all you’ve wanted to do your whole life. But I’ve lived outside of this bubble. To the company, our worth is our weight, our looks, and our popularity. If we can’t give them that, then we aren’t valuable to SM. And if we aren’t valuable-”
“You almost sound like you hate this, Unnie. I thought you said that this was your dream. That you wanted to debut just as much as I did.”
Joohyun rises to stand to her full height and sees Seulgi is looking at her like she’s a stranger. Was this ever truly her dream, she wonders idly. She knows that the reason she’d even taken the audition all the way to Seoul had been due to an off-handed comment that a pansori singing Seulgi from the 18th century had made to her about living forever through the sound of her voice. And then she’d seen Seulgi in that training room all those years ago and the rest was-
Joohyun just stares at Seulgi and knows that despite how hard this life is on the both of them, she wouldn’t think twice about doing the same thing all over again. Seulgi will always forget Joohyun but Joohyun is doomed to always love Seulgi.
“I’m sorry. I was being… I lost my temper. I’m just tired, I think.”
Seulgi swallows at the lie but remains silent, seeming to understand that she shouldn’t push Joohyun right now. That it would tear at the carefully sewn fabric that has bound them so tightly together over the years. A single fray wouldn’t do. Especially during the first year of Red Velvet’s promotions.
“Unnie, you know you can depend on me, right? We promised that we’d always be there for each other.”
Joohyun forces down a wave of anger. She’s hungry and tired and it would be so easy to just completely snap and scream at Seulgi that this is all her fault. That it has to be her fault because why the hell is she stuck repeating her life over and over across time and the only constant is that she sees her stupid beautiful face. Seulgi must be her tormentor from hell assigned to forever dangle a peace of mind in front of her but never give Joohyun the end to this wretched cycle of death and rebirth.
“Do you promise?”
Seulgi gazes at Joohyun in concern. She feels so weak and raw in this moment as tears blur her vision. She can’t help the words that escape her mouth.
“Do you promise that you’ll still stay with me? No matter how hard this gets?”
Joohyun sniffles as she tries to wipe desperately at her eyes. She feels Seulgi’s warmth in front of her before a tentative arm wraps around her middle. When she leans into the other woman’s shoulder, she realizes that Seulgi has gotten taller. Joohyun breathes shakily against the side of Seulgi’s neck as she is fully enveloped in a hug.
“I promise, Unnie. I’ll always be with you.”
She nods and tries to really believe that what Seulgi is saying is true. That this isn’t a lie and maybe this time things would be different.
1921, Shanghai, Republic of China
Joohyun exhales, the cigarette smoke wreathing around her face. She tips her head back as she lets her eyes close. The action relaxes her enough to stop the trembling in her fingers.
“He’s dead,” Seulgi confirms. Joohyun makes a disappointed noise as she takes another drag from her cigarette.
“Would you like to check the body?”
Joohyun glances over her shoulder, taking in Seulgi in ragged men’s clothes with a blood stain on her cheek. There is an exhausted set to her shoulders as she looks up at Joohyun in clear frustration.
“Never mind then. I’ll need to write a missive to my contact with the Presbyterian Church based in Pyeongyang. It seems that one of our promising informants is dead.”
“Murdered, most likely,” Seulgi corrects. She stands and walks to Joohyun’s side. Silently, Joohyun opens her carton of cigarettes still in her hand and the other woman takes one.
“We’re supposed to be all working together to get Japan out of our country. Not murdering each other.”
Seulgi chuckles at the surliness in Joohyun’s voice as she sticks out the unlit cigarette between her lips expectantly. Joohyun ignores the familiar fondness for Seulgi, schooling her expression as she raises her lighter and helps the other woman.
“You always take them from me.”
“I am a poor fighter for the resistance, my Lady. I simply cannot afford cigarettes with my salary.”
Joohyun scoffs as she reaches for the other woman’s face and wipes at the almost dried splotch of blood with a thumb. Seulgi’s eyes widen but she leans against the contact, trusting Joohyun.
They’ve known each other on and off for the past two years. Seulgi had been a young fighter for the Righteous Army, trained during the tail end of the annexation of the Korean Empire to the Japanese Empire and the murder of the last of the Korean monarchy. Joohyun had been brought up in a household rife with revolutionary sentiment as the daughter of a newly appointed member of the provisional government in Shanghai. They’d met on occasion when the provisional government required inside information on the happenings on the Korean Peninsula.
This is the first time that Joohyun has been alone with Seulgi for longer than a brief smoke break. It has been so long since they’ve worked side by side on a cause together, ironically the last time being the Imjin War in which Toyotomi’s soldiers had attempted to invade Joseon for six years. Joohyun can still taste the salt in the air from when she and Seulgi had hidden in a boat, waiting in the cover of darkness to get a message to Admiral Yi. Seulgi had wrapped an arm around her from behind to keep her warm and Joohyun had melted into her touch.
“My Lady?” Joohyun asks with an arched eyebrow as Seulgi takes a step back, grinning a little.
“You’re the daughter of one of the leaders of our country’s government. How else should I address you?”
“The days of the caste system are over. I may come from a yangban family, but my title hardly matters in all this chaos.”
“Mm. Is that why you cut your hair in the Western style?”
Joohyun pauses, raising her free hand to touch the curl of her hair that nearly touches her shoulders.
“The times change and I with it, I suppose. Is it unbecoming?”
“It suits you,” Seulgi says simply, leaning her back against the wall as cigarette smoke trickles from her fingers. Joohyun silently gives Seulgi a similar compliment, admiring the way the dark slacks and brown coat hang from her figure. Her hair is tucked into a low-brimmed gray hat but she can see the tease of a few dark curls framing her forehead.
“Should we do something about the body?” Joohyun asks, pointing a thumb at the scene behind her.
“Not unless you’d like to get thrown into jail. I doubt there’s a way we can report this without getting blamed.”
“It’s a shame. He was loyal to the cause.”
“It’s probably what killed him.”
Joohyun and Seulgi trade tired looks before taking drags from their cigarettes. When Joohyun’s is almost all done, she strides to the open window of the tiny apartment and simply lets the stub drop to the ground below.
“We should get going. I should send out my message before it gets too late.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“Oh?” Joohyun asks as she heads out the door, Seulgi just a step behind her.
“I need to return to Manchukuo for business for the Resistance. I’ll walk you to your residence and then be on my way to the train station.”
“You’ll already be going back? Is it safe?”
The two of them walk single file down the tight hallway and Joohyun relaxes at the press of Seulgi’s warm hand between her should blades. They descend a spindly staircase in near darkness.
“There appears to be potential for further activity after the fighting at Qingshanli. I expect to be sent to Vladivostok at some point.”
“Didn’t you say you hated the cold?”
“You remember that?”
Joohyun can hear the smile curl the end of Seulgi’s question as the hand on her back presses firmly against her.
“How could I forget?”
“Remembering what some low-level fighter for the Resistance says is unexpected coming from the daughter of such an important leader of our government.”
“I suppose I am full of surprises.”
Seulgi just laughs as they finally reach the ground floor. Before Joohyun can open the door, Seulgi walks ahead, a hand on the concealed gun at her hip as she presses an ear against the cracked wood. She frowns suddenly and Joohyun is violently shoved back as the door is flung open.
Joohyun’s blinks rapidly from her spot on the floor, seeing Seulgi wrestling with at least three men that have broken into the apartment building. They haven’t seemed to notice her yet, too busy avoiding Seulgi’s furious jabs.
The pistol Joohyun pulls from her pocket is small but she hopes that it can prove to be more of a distraction than a weapon. She fires the gun into the air, startling the three goons just long enough for Seulgi to snap the butt of her own gun against one man’s temple and viciously throw another man to the ground with a loud crack. The third man attempts to advance on Seulgi as she wrestles on the ground but Joohyun keeps her arm steady as she pulls the trigger again. Seulgi’s head snaps up to see him crumple to the ground.
“Thanks,” she says from her position on top of the last surviving man, writhing underneath her with big hands. Seulgi patiently keeps her position with her grip on his neck, riding out the desperate scrabbling. Joohyun shakily makes it to Seulgi’s side and looks down at the man whose eyes flutter closed. The other woman continues to hold on for a bit longer, muscles tensing with the strain. The sight makes Joohyun swallow and she moves away to examine the two other men. The man Seulgi had hit with her pistol has so much blood coming from his nose and ears that being alive is out of the question.
“He’s dead,” Seulgi wheezes out, rising on shaky knees.
“Are you hurt?” Joohyun asks quietly, hands raised as if to examine Seulgi. The other woman shrugs, gesturing instead for her to go outside.
“We need to get out of here. Clearly someone leaked something and this place is no longer safe.”
Joohyun sighs as she’s led out of the building by Seulgi, the two of them easily blending into the crowd of people flooding the busy streets of an early evening in Shanghai.
“Did you recognize those men?” Joohyun asks as they zig zag off the main road to a crowded market. Seulgi simply grips her arm and silently shakes her head.
“But the way they fight makes me think they weren’t Japanese. This new government has only been established for 2 years and we already have traitors trying to bring it down.”
“Will you still go to Manchukuo?”
Seulgi carefully steers them to the side of a street cart, arching a curious eyebrow at the obvious concern heavy in Joohyun’s voice.
“Do you worry about me? Wouldn’t you be happy to have your cigarettes not stolen?”
Joohyun shakily exhales as she lets herself look at Seulgi without the usual veneer of composed apathy. She tries to let the thousands of years of love, concern, and desperation show on her face as she clutches at the other woman’s ratty brown sleeve.
“My lady,” Seulgi murmurs, “the most important thing to me is our country’s independence. It takes precedence over my life.”
“Does it have to?” whispers Joohyun, not even pretending to hide how thick her words are with tears.
“Yes, it does. And it should be the most important thing to you, too. We will last maybe fifty to sixty years. But the legacy of the work we do will last long past our lifetime. Maybe extending beyond this life and into the next.”
Joohyun laughs at Seulgi’s words as she wipes at her eyes with a handkerchief in her pocket. How could there be anything more important than Seulgi?
“I apologize for being emotional. I suppose what happened earlier… frightened me.”
“It’s alright. It’s not often you see four dead men in one day.”
“I suppose so.”
Joohyun silently reaches forward and dabs at the specks of blood on the side of Seulgi’s face, almost hidden by the brim of her hat. The other woman ducks her head, sliding her own hand over Joohyun’s as she stills the soft cotton against her face.
The moment is heavy as Seulgi leans against Joohyun’s hand and looks at her with fluttering eyes. The want aching in her chest is painfully familiar to Joohyun, so familiar in fact that it almost feels like she has always been reduced to this feeling of everlasting yearning. She desperately carves this memory into her heart, another precious thing that will be kept in her eternal ledger of all the moments where she has fallen more in love with Seulgi.
“I hope to see you again someday. Hopefully back in a liberated Korea.”
Joohyun’s smile is sad as she pulls her hand away, leaving her handkerchief in the other woman’s grip. She could say so many things, repeats of the variations of Perhaps, my love, if fate is willing, I will see you for a glimpse in the next lifetime.
And so, she says the one thing she has never said out loud. The one thing she wishes she could say to finally free her from all this wanting and waiting.
“I will see you again. And it will be for far longer than this lifetime.”
2019, Seoul, South Korea
Joohyun sits alone in the Red Velvet dorm, two empty bottles of unflavored soju in front of her. She pours herself another shot from a new bottle, hands trembling a little. She already can feel the alcohol numbing her senses, drowning out the ache of a familiar pain. At least there is some temporary relief in this, taking shot after shot of soju while slowly eating a cup of ramyeon.
She takes a quick gulp of her soju, relishing the burn in her throat as she closes her eyes and lets the warmth crowd out any thoughts. That had been the reason she’d desperately grabbed a handful of soju bottles from the convenience store near their dorm in the first place. She chuckles as she recalls the expression of the clerk, shocked at the number of bottles she’d bought by herself.
She is still laughing when she hears the chiming of the front door opening and closing. Joohyun glances at the microwave, frowning at the time. 21:47. No one is supposed to be home yet.
“Hey, I’m…. back.”
Joohyun tilts her head, squinting at the front door. Even though she is drunk and all the lights are off in the apartment, Seulgi’s silhouette is unmistakable. She frowns as she turns away and starts to pour herself another drink.
“Oh, you’re back.”
“Unnie, are you… drinking alone?”
Joohyun takes another shot, exhaling through her teeth at the sting in her throat. She can see Seulgi standing next to her out of the corner of her eye, observing the spread on the table.
“You didn’t want to call someone to drink with you?”
“Everyone is gone,” Joohyun says simply, reaching to pour again. Seulgi stops her and as she raises the compact green bottle, the image flickers and for a moment the other woman is in a deep purple hanbok, the hallway light illuminating her figure underneath the layers of petticoats and fine fabric. When Joohyun blinks again it’s just Kang Seulgi in a rumpled blue button down and dark pants.
“I’ll drink with you then. You shouldn’t be doing this alone on a Friday night.”
There is a light gentleness to Seulgi’s words that hides the slight concern Joohyun can hear in her voice. That concern has grown over the past few months with glances and careful touches. But of course, Seulgi never says anything. She just tamps down on the words sitting on the tip of her tongue, letting the agony of her ignorance eat at her with every passing moment.
At least that’s what Joohyun hopes.
“You don’t like unflavored soju.”
“But you do,” Seulgi says simply as she pours for Joohyun. She sighs and closes her eyes for a moment.
“My Lady, I have poured your drink.”
Joohyun nearly jumps as her eyes open but it’s not the right Seulgi that she sees in front of her. The other woman is staring at her with her usual concern lining her face.
“Unnie, do you want to go to bed instead of drinking more?”
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that question? You’re the one who was gone for most of the day. Aren’t you tired from seeing people?”
There is a bite to Joohyun’s words that she normally can hide while sober. But this night feels strange to her, an equilibrium of past and present. She can feel her old manners from past lives trickling into the way she delicately holds her shot glass like it is a small porcelain cup filled by the Paulwonia Blossom of Hanseung.
“Were you… were you lonely today?” Seulgi asks quietly. The question makes Joohyun pause.
“Aren’t I lonely every day?”
“If you don’t like my answer, you shouldn’t have asked me that question.”
Joohyun reaches for the soju bottle again but Seulgi’s warm hand stills her wrist. As Joohyun stares at Seulgi’s hand she sees her sleeves flicker from a modern light blue cuff to a wide sleeve of deep green with golden embroidery. Thoughtlessly, she reaches forward and grips the golden thread in her fingers, tenderly feeling the small indentations that Joohyun had painstakingly sewn under dim candlelight.
Joohyun blinks and the moment is gone again.
“Are you mad at me?”
Joohyun arches an eyebrow at Seulgi like the answer should be obvious.
“Because you always leave me.”
Her voice is strangely level despite the thousands of years and despair that fill each word.
“What do you mean?”
Joohyun just shakes her head and takes back her hand.
“Why do you… why do you always have to leave? And you never ever remember.”
“Remember what, Unnie?”
Joohyun feels such anger choking her throat that she cannot speak, instead turning away from Seulgi and staring into the darkness of their dorm lounge.
“I don’t… I don’t really understand what you’re talking about. But, Unnie, I do think about you. Even when I’m with my friends. I’ll see things sometimes that remind me of you. I really,” Seulgi pauses, her face scrunching in a clumsy effort to say things that she’s clearly never thought she needed to say out loud.
Joohyun says nothing as Seulgi moves from her seat across from her to Joohyun’s side, forcing her to look at the other woman. There is a gentle patience on Seulgi’s face and Joohyun knows if she wanted to, she could make Seulgi wait for her on her knees like this for hours.
“You think I’m jealous that you’re spending time with other people?”
“Isn’t that what you’re saying?”
Joohyun smiles at the confusion on Seulgi’s face.
“It’s my fault for speaking about something you couldn’t understand. Normally I would say I’m sorry, but I don’t think I should be sorry for these feelings. Forgive me for that, just this once.”
“It’s burdensome, right?”
Seulgi says nothing staring at her with conflict obviously on her face.
Joohyun simply laughs, resting the side of her face on her fist as she looks down at the other woman. She closes her eyes for a moment, trying to express her thousands of years of loneliness and disappointment to the person at the center of it all.
“It’s burdensome for me, too. Sometimes, you know, Seulgi-yah, I think about what would have happened if I hadn’t met you this time. How different our lives may have been. Maybe even happier. Maybe… every time we meet it means that we’re both destined to end up…”
Her eyes open and Seulgi’s gaze is so intense that it stills the stream of words from Joohyun’s lips. For a moment.
Seulgi looks away, trying to hide the way her face contorts in obvious hurt. They both do nothing, sitting in the words that Joohyun cannot bring herself to regret.
After the silence stretches between them for a while, Seulgi turns back to look at Joohyun
“Do I really make you unhappy, Unnie? You know I consider you so important to me. You’re like my family.”
Joohyun’s mouth quirks into a smile and she leans forward, cupping Seulgi’s cheeks with her hands. She presses their foreheads together and as their noses brush, she feels something warm unfurl in her chest.
What I feel for you is so heavy on my heart that there are days where I wish I wasn’t born.
But even Joohyun, succumbing to the drunken allure of unfiltered confessions, cannot fight her instinct to protect Seulgi’s heart at all costs. So, she says another truth instead.
“I know that I could drink a hundred bottles of soju but I would still remember how I feel for you.”
Seulgi’s eyes are so piercing as Joohyun’s heart pounds heavily in her chest. She starts to drop her hands but Seulgi grips her wrists gently, tilting her head until their noses are brushing.
“Do you drink because you’re afraid to want this?” Seulgi asks, her breath warm against the bow of Joohyun’s mouth.
“If I do?”
“Do you really think that you’re alone in this wanting?”
Seulgi’s grip on Joohyun’s wrists tightens slightly and it is instinctual, this gravity between them that pulls them together. But Joohyun must pause for a moment, this thing between them so charged that one wrong move could destroy everything.
And then the front door beeps open.
“We’re back! Joohyun-unnie we got you that ice cream you like.”
Seulgi drops her hands and rises quickly, moving to collect the empty soju bottles like nothing had happened. Which. Typical. Joohyun stays still, however, hunched forward in her seat with her back to the conversation happening behind her. She clenches and unclenches her hands, savoring the warmth of Seulgi’s face. She hasn’t done that in quite a long time. Joohyun puts her face in her hands and breathes deeply.
“Oh, Unnie, are you okay?”
“Ah, Joohyun-unnie isn’t feeling that well right now. You and Yerim can go wash up; I’ll put this away.”
“Um, sure. Joohyun-unnie, I’ll see you tomorrow morning!”
Joohyun barely acknowledges them as she keeps still, hearing Sooyoung and Yerim walk away. There is a rustle of a plastic bag and the sound of the freezer opening and closing. And then a warm hand gently squeezes Joohyun’s shoulder.
“You should go to bed.”
“What if I want to stay here?” Joohyun mumbles stubbornly through her hands.
“Then I’ll sleep right at your feet.”
Joohyun’s mouth twitches at the thought that Seulgi seems to know just how to get her to do what she wants. Threaten to make Seulgi even a little uncomfortable or unhappy and Joohyun would bend over backwards to accommodate.
Joohyun sits back and looks up at Seulgi whose face is illuminated by the kitchen lights. It is childish as Joohyun reaches her arms up almost jokingly waiting for the other woman to hoist her onto her feet. Just as she starts to drop her arms, Seulgi leans forward and pulls Joohyun gently upward. It ends up being a little awkward, Joohyun’s arms pressed against Seulgi’s chest, but Joohyun lets herself have a moment where she relaxes, pressing her face against the warmth of Seulgi’s neck.
“Seulgi-yah,” she whispers thickly, the alcohol making her tears fall easily.
Seulgi says nothing in reply, simply holding her tighter.
They somehow make it back to Joohyun’s bedroom. Joohyun washes up in the adjacent bathroom, rebuffing Seulgi’s offer to stay by her side. But when she returns to her bedroom the other woman is there, on her back with a face slack with sleep.
Joohyun is still clumsy from the alcohol, fumbling with her lights as she practically falls into bed. She twists under the covers, getting comfortable. For a moment there is silence. And then Seulgi snores quietly. Joohyun’s mouth quirks a little as she turns onto her side, staring at the other woman’s profile. Joohyun is unrestrained as she leans forward, her lips almost touching the soft curls of hair framing Seulgi’s temple. She opens her mouth as her secrets, loose on her tongue from the alcohol, beg to be set free.
“I think I’ve forgotten how to stop chasing after you, Seulgi-yah. It’s the only constant in all my lifetimes, you know. But maybe that was the lesson I should have been learning all along. That I can’t chase after someone who wears the face of my most beloved memory.”
Joohyun pauses as she leans back and examines Seulgi’s slack face, mouth slightly open in a snore. She gentle reaches out and runs her knuckles along the curve of the other woman’s soft cheek, tracing the line of moonlight cutting across her pale skin like an old scar.
But how can I stop when I’ve been by your side in some form or another for two thousand years? What sort of existence can I possibly have without you?
As if hearing Joohyun’s words, Seulgi turns into her touch, nuzzling her hand. Joohyun feels her eyes well with tears and for once she gives into the ache in her chest. With a tenderness she conceals in the daylight, she leans forward and replaces her hand with trembling lips on the apple of Seulgi’s cheek.
It is the ghost of kisses from another life when the dynasties of Joseon, Goryeo, and Silla were dreams in a far-off future. But Joohyun savors this single kiss because it is one of the few times where she is comforted by the fact that the only thing that can end this moment is themselves. No war knocks on their country’s doorstep. No cruel twist of fate will immediately wrench them apart.
The moment ends and Joohyun shifts, curling more fully into Seulgi’s side and wrapping an arm around the other woman’s waist. As she starts to fall into the realm of sleep, she thinks, or perhaps she dreams, that a hand reaches up to hold her arm gently in place, threading Seulgi and Joohyun together.
47 BCE- 37 BCE Gaseobwon, Eastern Buyeo
37 BCE-28 BCE, Jolbon, Koguryeo
Recalling this memory is like looking at a beloved book from childhood. The pages are so worn, the spine so cracked, that some of the words blur from the fondness of recollection. Is there an irony, Joohyun wonders, in trying to remember something so much that it fades away?
But there are things that Joohyun will always remember. In her first life she is the daughter of a general from the kingdom of Eastern Buyeo. One day her father brings home a young boy whose village has been pillaged by marauding Okjeo soldiers to the north. That boy sits on his knees for days, not eating or sleeping, in front of her father’s room. He begs Joohyun’s father to train him to hold a sword. So that one day he can be someone who can strike down those who had murdered his family.
After the boy had collapsed from his efforts, Joohyun’s father finally agrees.
The boy is a fixture in Joohyun’s life after this. Always nearby holding a wooden staff and hitting some sort of thatch target. Always running errands with her father, obediently at his side. Whenever they look at each other, he smiles at her. And Joohyun finds herself smiling back.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” Joohyun asks one day, sitting next to the boy as he wraps his bleeding blisters with practiced hands.
“I’m used to it,” he simply says, ducking his head as he tries to tear the white cloth with his teeth. Joohyun watches him struggle for a little while before sighing and slapping his face away from the bandage. He seems chastened as he holds out his hand and Joohyun pulls a small knife from the belt cinching her robes. She easily rips the fabric in two, grinning triumphantly at the boy.
They become fast friends.
And years pass.
One day Joohyun walks into the boy’s room unannounced and sees him covering his chest with long white bandages. That day the boy becomes a girl. A girl named Seulgi.
“Your father would kill me if he learns the truth,” Seulgi whispers with teary eyes, clutching the hem of Joohyun’s skirts.
“Then he will not learn of it,” Joohyun says simply.
And they become closer friends.
Here the memories fade, so fondly recalled. The years of peace when all Joohyun knows is her full home with Seulgi at her side. A kind smile encouraging her to talk. A companion on adventures out to the crowded marketplace. A warm hand at her elbow to steer her to safety.
“What will you do when you find the people who burned down your village?” Joohyun asks once, sprawled out in a very unlady-like manner at her home’s garden pavilion. She watches Seulgi who glances over her shoulder, sweat dark against the band covering her forehead. It is the last time she recalls being alone with Seulgi before she is told it is improper for a young woman to be alone with a man.
“Kill them,” Seulgi says simply, turning back to her straw target.
“And after that?”
“I have not thought about it.”
“Is there anything you would want to do? Once you’ve avenged them?”
“As long as I am by my Lady’s side, I think I will be content.”
Joohyun feels so happy at the words that she nearly forgets about listening to the rest of the conversation.
As the years continue to pass, the darkness of politics and power struggles in the palace arise. Seulgi becomes loyal to a young prince, hated by his adopted siblings for being the king’s favorite concubine’s son. She tells Joohyun of his dream to unite the scattered kingdoms of Buyeo and the southern tribes. And to free Buyeo from Okjeo to the north.
The year Seulgi is to be sent on her first military campaign, her father brings them both to his room for a serious proposition.
“I have treated you like the son I have never had,” he says gravely to Seulgi whose head is bowed.
“And I know you care for him,” he says to Joohyun who looks at her father in surprise, realizing where he seems to be leading them.
“We have consulted a priestess at the shrine and she says this match would be most fortuitous. One of great benefit to you both.”
They glance at each other in shock before looking away.
“Marriage?” Joohyun tastes the word in her mouth once they are alone. Or as alone as they can be with a nosy escort a few paces behind Joohyun and Seulgi.
“I will convince him to not go forward with this, my Lady. Do not worry.”
“Why would I be worried?”
“Because I am…” Seulgi pauses, frowning as she glances over her shoulder. The servant gives them both a curious glance.
“I am aware,” Joohyun says simply, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“So, we must both oppose the marriage. Your father is kind and will listen to us both if we ask him to reconsider.”
“And if I have no interest in opposing this marriage?”
Joohyun pauses and looks at Seulgi. They are no longer children and she realizes she has to tilt her head back ever so slightly to look up at the other woman. Joohyun cannot say she isn’t pleased by the way her dark blue robes hang off her body, her sleeves tied tightly to her wrists for easy mobility.
“I have no interest in opposing this marriage. Do you?”
“I could not give you… children,” Seulgi chokes. “And, it is not fair to have you bound to me when I only live to seek the end to the lives of those who burned down my village.”
Seulgi’s eyes are so dark as she stares at Joohyun, the pain of loss and revenge thick in her voice.
“I want to marry you anyway. Do you still wish to oppose?”
Seulgi ducks her head, eyes wide in clear disbelief.
“Why would you agree to marry me?”
And Joohyun smiles, not realizing that she is beginning to fall in love with the other woman.
“Because I enjoy your company. And I think you enjoy mine just as much. Shall we enjoy each other together for as long as time allows?”
“Until I must fulfill my fate?” Seulgi asks grimly.
“Until you must fulfill your fate,” acquiesces Joohyun.
They are wed shortly after and less than a month later Seulgi is off on a dark horse riding away at the prince’s side.
Joohyun cannot exactly remember the moment the deep friendship transforms into love. But she recalls the shape of it, in that empty bedroom, staring out the window at night as moonlight spills onto her long dark hair. With her head buried in her arms she aches with the yearning to see Seulgi again.
And so when Seulgi returns to her, dirty but triumphant she tells her. She is so young and naïve that she doesn’t even think the other girl could reject her girlish confession. Because Joohyun has eyes and has seen way Seulgi stares at her when she pretends to not be looking.
Great tragedies are the stories that have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. So of course, with the stars as their witness, when Joohyun kisses Seulgi she receives only a breathless laugh and a hand eagerly threading through her hair. It is then that Joohyun decides that Seulgi tastes like starlight.
This is the part of her life she can barely recall, rubbed raw by the sheer frequency of Joohyun’s fond recollection. Stolen kisses and warm hands teasing Joohyun’s loose hair on peaceful mornings. Gentle words traded over shared meals, her family looking on happily at Joohyun’s marriage.
Has a love like theirs ever existed, Joohyun wonders deliriously. It is twilight and Seulgi kisses her against the ticklish skin of her neck, hands gently braced against her waist. As Joohyun tilts her head back, trying not to make a sound as Seulgi’s mouth sucks deliciously against her skin, she can’t help the peal of laughter that escapes her lips.
“Hmm?” Seulgi asks teasingly, still absentmindedly peppering kisses along Joohyun’s throat.
“I am… so happy.”
Seulgi pauses at the words, pulling back slightly to meet Joohyun’s eyes. And the answering smile makes Joohyun’s heart swell until she feels tears nearly trickle down her cheeks.
But then it all shifts.
The princes attempt to usurp the youngest prince’s title, claiming he is guilty of treason for coveting the king’s throne. All his followers, including Seulgi, are lumped together by guilt of association.
Joohyun watches, speechless, as Seulgi gets on her knees before her and begs to ask her father to annul their marriage to protect her family. And to let them part and never see each other again. So that Seulgi can follow this prince to the north to ensure his survival.
Joohyun’s chest heaves, shocked that she even has to try to persuade Seulgi that leaving her in Buyeo is not an option.
“You would think to leave me here? To abandon me after telling me how much you love me?”
The other woman frowns before dropping her head. Seulgi is rarely ever vulnerable, constantly forced to put on a performance as a man, as a soldier, as a husband. But here in their bedchamber with her chest bindings loosened and hair down, she looks more like the person Joohyun knows she wishes she could be.
Seulgi pauses, swallowing as she mulls over her words carefully. And Joohyun tries to be patient. It is a skill that she will learn can come in handy thousands of years down the line.
“I… I would burn down kingdoms for you in any other lifetime. But in this one, I must go for the Prince. And all I can ask of you is to forget me.”
“Why would I forget you when I want nothing more than to be by your side?”
“Because it is dangerous. And I would never ask you to abandon your duty to your family for me.”
“Then you do not know me at all, if you think that duty would rule over my love for you.”
Seulgi’s face goes slack, disbelief apparent on her face.
“I-I could never… I would never be able to do that.”
Joohyun simply laughs, her tears clinging to her eyelashes but stubbornly not falling, as she presses herself against Seulgi’s front. She curls into the other woman’s warmth and she does not have to wait long for firm arms to hold her closer.
“I would never ask you to choose between love and duty. Because we both know the decision you would ultimately make.”
“I… you must know how ardently I care for you. That-”
Joohyun simply shushes the other woman because despite how deeply they care for each other, she knows this is the one limitation. Seulgi will always be bound by her duty, a yoke on her shoulders. Joohyun feels that to an extent but nothing can compare to what she would do for Seulgi.
“I will go with you. Because we are married and it is what I want.”
“But your family. Your kingdom. Your life.”
“You are my life. You are my family. And whatever kingdom you serve, I will serve also.” Joohyun pulls back slightly from Seulgi’s embrace, reaching up to cup the other woman’s cheeks in her hands. Seulgi just looks at her with shining eyes, her face twisted in pure conflict.
“I could never ask this of you.”
“You cannot ask for something that I freely give.”
“Please, don’t act like doing this… with me… it is no simple request.”
Joohyun just brushes her mouth against Seulgi’s, finally feeling the tension leave the other woman’s shoulders. The kiss tastes of salt, she thinks, as she chases the warmth of Seulgi’s lips. Seulgi’s hands tangle in Joohyun’s long black hair, pulling her desperately closer.
When they leave Eastern Buyeo, they say their good-byes to Joohyun’s family, bowing to the ground. Joohyun’s father does not even open his door to see them out. She wonders if it is a kindness to himself, to start to forget the love he has for his beloved daughter and son-in-law.
Together they flee to the new kingdom of Koguryeo, founded by Seulgi’s prince. The prince takes a second wife, the daughter of a Jolben chief with a sharpness to her that makes Joohyun wary. Joohyun helps the new queen when she can, engaging with the new ministers on matters of diplomacy with the neighboring tribes. The young kingdom needs allies with the alliance of Han and Buyeo heavily weighing on the longevity of the new king’s rule.
The tasks of building a new kingdom keep them both very busy. Long stretches of time separate them. And every time they are reunited, Joohyun can feel like she can breathe again.
“Seulgi-yah,” Joohyun whispers against Seulgi’s mouth. The other woman whimpers as she tightens her hands in Seulgi’s dark hair. It has been so long since they’ve seen each other. Joohyun has spent so many nights sitting next to her window, bathing in moonlight as she falls asleep waiting.
“Have you been safe?” Seulgi asks, pressing her tightly into a warm hug.
“Nothing feels safe without you here, by my side.”
Seulgi pulls back at the words, trembling with the weight of the confession. She reaches up and brushes a thumb just underneath Joohyun’s eye, collecting the tears welling in beautiful long eyelashes with the utmost care. Seulgi sighs as she presses their forehead together, breath shuddering against Joohyun’s lips and Joohyun to commit this moment to memory. She doesn’t think she ever wants to forget any of these precious moments with Seulgi.
Although their marriage is not perfect, Joohyun is comforted in knowing that if she waits long enough Seulgi will return to her. The years pass in this way, in the ebbs and flows of farewells and welcomes homes.
Until a plague ravages the kingdom of Koguryeo. And no one is spared. Including Joohyun.
They separate the sick from the healthy to contain the spread of the illness. Joohyun waits patiently for Seulgi as exhaustion weakens her and the sickens reduces her breathes to hacking coughs. Despite the pain of living, Joohyun’s patience is rewarded when she hears a commotion in the courtyard as she attempts to fitfully nap.
“General, please! She is not well; you cannot see her!”
“What do you mean?”
“She is… she is very sick. The plague has nearly run its course. We received permission for you to come here so that you can say your last farewell.”
Joohyun’s eyes widen as she watches a familiar silhouette press against the thin paper door panel. She weakly rises from her place on the floor, slowly crawling so that she can be nearby Seulgi, even like this. Joohyun reaches a shaky hand out and rests her hand against the place where the other woman’s shoulder is. She can just feel a hint of phantom warmth seep into her fingers.
“You should not come here again,” she says weakly, her voice practically a whisper.
“You would deny me the right to see my wife?” comes a gruff reply.
“I could not live with myself if I got you sick.”
“But then at least I could hold you.”
Joohyun laughs a little, wincing as her breath morphs into a painful cough. She can see Seulgi’s profile point toward her at the sound.
“The king wishes for me to go north again. To settle a dispute with the Okjeo.”
“And then you can finally fulfill your duty to your village.”
“I told him no. That I wanted to tend to my sick wife.”
Joohyun frowns, wishing she could see Seulgi’s face as she watches the other woman lean her head against the door again. There is something almost child-like to the gesture, this great fighter with slumped shoulders craning to press her face against her dying wife.
“When I… after the sickness runs its course,” Joohyun says gently, knowing that the vague words are a kindness for Seulgi, “you have to take care of yourself.”
“Please I beg of you, do not talk like this.”
“You skip meals when you work too hard. And you forget to sharpen your sword if I do not remind you.”
Joohyun stares at Seulgi’s silhouette, pressing so hard against the door she worries it may break.
“You should leave now. And please do not come back.”
She watches Seulgi with her head in her hands, clearly rubbing at her eyes. The sight makes Joohyun’s heart ache. But after a long moment the other woman gives a heaving shuddering sigh and rises to her feet.
“Will you wait for me… when you go to that place that I cannot follow?”
Joohyun smiles as she leans back, exhaustion seeping into her bones from the exertion of talking for so long.
“I will wait for you for as long as it takes. Until you find me again.”
In this life, for the first and last time, Joohyun leaves Seulgi first.
2020, Seoul, South Korea
Joohyun unwraps her scarf from her neck, placing her bag on top of the shoe closet. The front door hums closed.
Everything had been a mess with how 2019 ended and the start of the year hasn’t seemed much better. Apparently, she and Seulgi are being asked by management to go into a meeting later in the week. Something about work in the interim of Red Velvet being inactive for the next few months of Seungwan’s recovery.
Joohyun grabs her bag and trots over to the kitchen table, piling her things in a chair before getting ready to make dinner. Sooyoung and Yerim are both out visiting family and Seulgi is apparently out on one of her solo walks. She quickly dials a number and lets it go to speaker as she rummages around.
“Seulgi-yah, I’m making dinner right now. Are you nearby the dorm?”
I’m on my way back.
“Can you run by the store and grab a leek? I need it for the sujebi.”
Sure, Unnie. Anything else?
Joohyun’s mouth curls at the patient voice on the other end of the call.
Unnie, you have a lot of money why are you making me buy you-
“See you soon!”
Joohyun turns off the phone and goes back to preparing the broth for the soup she has planned. She fills a pot with water and after plopping in a sachet of anchovy and seaweed stock, busies herself with preparing the dough. There is a relaxing mindlessness to cooking that she hasn’t really appreciated much until her current life. Up until this point, cooking or being confined to the kitchen felt like something she’d been forced to do out of an expectation for her role as a woman.
She hesitates to call cooking her new hobby but the classes she takes sometimes at a nearby cooking academy give her something to think about outside the stress of her work. Joohyun isn’t exactly a chef but the foods she’s been testing on her members have gotten positive reactions. Seulgi’s even started cooking as well although those experiments in the kitchen have been a little less successful.
It’s a shame, she thinks, that this life will inevitably end. Perhaps she has started to grow attached to the people and her work more than she should. Usually everyone around her but Seulgi are replacements for a family whose faces and names she can barely recall. At least except her father, that proud general from Eastern Buyeo who had resisted looking back at her as she’d fled the capital with Seulgi.
He’d been milling outside a restaurant that Red Velvet had been entering, smoking a cigarette. Joohyun stopped walking when she saw him. She had stared so obviously that her manager started to drag her by her arm, but the man glanced up and when they made eye contact, he smiled.
Joohyun spent the whole dinner crying in the bathroom, mourning the loss of someone she’d never thought she’d see again. Even if to him he was just seeing some pretty idol that his grandchildren enjoy, to her it was finally getting to say goodbye to the face of the last of her family that she truly remembered.
After that, Joohyun had returned to Daegu for a few days, sitting in her parent’s house to quietly watch them with her sister. And she had realized. This may not be a perfect life, but it certainly is one of her better ones.
Joohyun finishes chopping the zucchini, carrots, and onions with finality. The sizes are not exactly uniform but Seulgi won’t mind. She stirs the boiling pot, tasting the salty broth experimentally. Satisfied, she begins putting the vegetables in the water along with garlic, soy sauce, and mirin. Just as she moves to check the dough for the sujebi in the refrigerator, the front door chimes.
“Unnie, I’m back.”
“Oh, Seulgi-yah, you came?”
Joohyun glances over her shoulder to see Seulgi holding a plastic bag with a large leek sticking out. She raises her other hand and Joohyun hears a tell-tale clank of glass.
“Kang Seulgi, did you buy soju?”
“You said you wanted a surprise, Unnie.”
Joohyun squints at the other woman who simply pulls out three bottles of soju on the kitchen table. Joohyun cannot help but recall how familiar the sight is to her last disastrous drinking session by herself. The phantom warmth of Seulgi’s cheeks in Joohyun’s hands make her quickly grab the bottles and put them in the refrigerator.
“We’ll have them with dinner. Go wash up. I think dinner should be ready in less than half an hour.”
“Okay, Unnie, I’ll be right out.”
Joohyun turns away, exhaling as she tightly grips the countertop in front of her. After being together with Seulgi for nearly 11 years, Joohyun wonders if she can live separately from the other woman. She has come to accept that her feelings could never be acted on. But she cannot fathom a life where she lives without Seulgi being a constant in her work and private life. What kind of world would it be where Seulgi isn’t by her side to greet her with a tired good morning and a sleepy good night?
Joohyun jumps as Seulgi rushes to her side, quickly lowering the heat on the pot that has barely started to boil over. The other woman gives her a concerned glance before smiling tentatively.
Joohyun tilts her head as she lets her eyes linger a little longer on Seulgi’s mouth, her jaw. Then she shrugs, going back to washing the leek Seulgi bought.
“I found another cat today.”
“Mm, I took a picture. I’ll show you once you’re done.”
Joohyun nods along as she takes her chef’s knife and neatly cuts up the leek.
“Seulgi-yah, get me the dough? It’s in the fridge.”
The soft sound of some new foreign indie artist plays from Seulgi’s phone as she hurries over to grab what Joohyun wants.
“This looks much better than what I made.”
“It’s not even cooked yet.”
“But you can tell! Look at how springy the dough is.” Joohyun watches with a small smile as Seulgi pulls a small piece of dough and flattens it into a disk.
“We can put the dough in now, right, Unnie?”
“I’ll do this. Why don’t you sit down for a little bit?”
“Can I trust you to not make the disks too thick?”
“Unnie,” Seulgi sighs out tiredly. Joohyun just laughs as she squeezes behind Seulgi to sit at the kitchen table. Her foot taps along to the beat of the song playing from Seulgi’ s phone as she watches the other woman’s back.
“It wasn’t too cold today for your walk, right?”
“No, Unnie. It was perfect. Didn’t you go outside today, too?”
“I didn’t go far. I just went to pick up something.”
Seulgi looks at her curiously as Joohyun reaches for her bag and pulls out the sleeve of a record.
“You said you couldn’t find this one, right? It came in today, so the owner of that shop you go to called me.”
Seulgi pauses, sticky dough in her hands. For a moment, she seems like she’s about to reach over and grab the record but then she remembers what she’s doing.
“You remembered me mentioning it a month ago?”
“I did,” Joohyun says simply as she stares at the worn edges of the record sleeve. The title of the record is in glossy yellow English letters. She traces them with her finger.
Joohyun glances up and realizes that Seulgi is standing right in front of her. She smiles a little uncertainly as Seulgi just stares down at her with an inscrutable expression on her face.
“You really do care about me, don’t you?”
“We’ve known each other for a long time. Was there ever any doubt?”
Joohyun rises from her seat, ready to start to pour in the leek and peppers. She brushes past Seulgi’s front as she starts stirring at the food. She tastes one of the floury disks, deeming it the right texture for eating. She pours in the last of the vegetables and then starts looking for the sesame oil.
“Here,” Seulgi says simply, already sliding the bottle towards Joohyun.
With the final ingredient in the pot, Joohyun stirs around the mixture delicately before scooping a spoonful of broth.
“Seulgi-yah, try this.”
The other woman easily presses against Joohyun’s side, bending down slightly to try.
“Mm! This is great, Unnie.”
Joohyun hums, content as she turns off the stove and gestures for Seulgi to grab the bowls. They silently divide their duties, Seulgi setting the table and Joohyun bringing the pot over to rest on a trivet.
“Should I get the soju, Unnie?”
“You really want to drink tonight, Kang Seulgi? I don’t know how much fun I can be though.”
Seulgi just scoffs as she rises to open the fridge, shutting the door with her hip as she grabs two bottles.
“Do you plan on drinking so quickly that you want to have two out?”
Seulgi just laughs a little, not answering the question as she grabs the shot glasses from a shelf.
“I’ll pour, Unnie.”
Joohyun just nods along, tasting her soup with a pleased sigh.
“Maybe after we retire, I’ll be a chef like Yuri-sunbaenim.”
“That won’t be for a long time, Unnie.”
“I’ll try to work part-time for you if you decide to open a restaurant.”
Joohyun arches an eyebrow at Seulgi skeptically but the other woman isn’t really paying attention, instead raising her shot glass expectantly.
“Already?” Joohyun asks but complies, throwing back her shot of soju with barely a wince. Her eyes widen a little at the sight of Seulgi already pouring another glass.
“What’s gotten into you today?”
“I… well.” Seulgi shrugs nervously and lifts her glass before gulping down her shot.
“Trying to get drunk on a weekday?”
“Maybe,” Seulgi mumbles sheepishly, already pouring a third shot.
Joohyun sighs and grabs the bottle, pouring for her.
“This is the last one before you finish at least half of your soup, alright? I don’t want the cleaning lady to have to clean up your mess.”
They cheers before returning to quietly finishing their soup.
“Is there something happening today? You only drink like this when you’re nervous.”
“I’m uh a little nervous I guess.”
Seulgi meets Joohyun’s eyes for a long moment before looking away. Joohyun frowns.
“Unnie, can I tell you something?”
Seulgi glances down, studying the table for a moment before gazing at Joohyun.
“I can’t stop thinking about that night, Unnie.”
“When… when you were drunk, and I came home early.”
Joohyun frowns, watching the way Seulgi’s eyes dart down to the half empty bottle of soju.
“I just. Don’t you ever think about it too?”
“Seulgi-yah, it’s been nearly a year since that happened. Why do you suddenly care?”
The shock on Seulgi’s face almost makes Joohyun feel sorry. Almost.
“Unnie, I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Does that… does that upset you?”
Joohyun sits back in her chair, looking down at her hands.
“If you can’t stop thinking about that night, then you remember what I said to you.”
“Then you know that the reason I was even drinking in the first place was because of my feelings for you.”
Seulgi’s face twitches but Joohyun feels strangely calm. She has lived for nearly two thousand years, but this has never happened before. There is something comforting in a lack of predictability at long last.
“Unnie, I…” Seulgi swallows, hunching her shoulders with such strain that Joohyun can tell that she’s quivering. After a long moment, she looks up with desperate eyes.
Joohyun sighs. She leans over and grabs the soju bottle, pouring herself a shot.
“If you want to say what I think you do, you have to say it. I’m tired of waiting for you.”
Joohyun just shrugs, swallowing her shot before collecting their bowls of finished soup. She walks to the trash and dumps the food waste into its yellow bag. Just as she turns on the sink, she feels warm arms wrap around her from behind. Joohyun feels herself relax into Seulgi’s warmth. It is an unbreakable habit, so familiar that her body responds without a second thought.
“I’ve always tried to be perfect, you know. For the group. And being perfect meant I couldn’t act on… what I feel for you. For a long time, Unnie, I thought that it was my duty to suffer in silence. But I… I can’t stop thinking about you.”
Joohyun sighs before turning off the tap. Tentatively she raises her hand and cups Seulgi’s cheek. The corners of her mouth lift when the other woman leans into her touch.
“You can have both, Seulgi-yah. You can have me, and you can have this career. It wouldn’t be easy but… it would be worth it, I think.”
The grip around Joohyun’s waist tightens and she leans further into Seulgi’s warmth. Is this a trick, Joohyun wonder absently. After two thousand years of searching she gets to hear the words she has wanted so desperately.
“Love and duty… can I ever have both?”
Joohyun closes her eyes, the words familiar from a conversation long ago.
“I don’t know if it’s possible. But wouldn’t you like to try?”
Seulgi holds Joohyun tighter and they just stand there. The moment before jumping over the edge.
And then Seulgi’s hands drop to Joohyun’s hips and Joohyun turns around to look up at Seulgi. The other woman’s eyes are red but she’s smiling a little nervously. Joohyun reaches up and runs a thumb along Seulgi’s soft cheek.
Seulgi presses a tentative kiss against the heel of Joohyun’s hand.
“Unnie, can I kiss you?”
“Didn’t you do that just now?”
“A real kiss.”
“A real kiss?”
Seulgi tugs Joohyun closer and she sighs into the other woman’s mouth. It is strange that a gesture she had done for years two millennia ago still feels familiar. She sighs and threads her hands through Seulgi’s hair, trying to press herself even closer. She needs to memorize the taste she has all but forgotten after years and lifetimes of waiting.
They pull apart for a moment and when their eyes meet, the smiles they share makes Joohyun feel incredibly warm. She can’t help the laugh that bubbles from her mouth as she nuzzles her forehead against Seulgi’s. She feels the other woman gently hold her face and she easily rests a hand over Seulgi’s, looking into her eyes. Joohyun watches something spreading on Seulgi’s face, an emotion that she has been seeking out for two thousand years.
Joohyun opens her mouth to ask a question that she has never had satisfactorily answered.
Seulgi recalls someone once saying that there is truth in dreams. She doesn’t know if that’s true. Usually her dreams are stressful and humorously removed from reality, last minute dance evaluations that she isn’t prepared for or going onstage in only her underwear.
But then there are the dreams that smell of strange perfumes and steel. Almost like a memory. Which is impossible of course. When has Seulgi ever held a sword?
Every time she wakes from these dreams, trying to remember them feels like trying to catch a fish with her bare hands. But there are snippets that she does catch.
A beautiful woman standing at her side, loving her so much that her chest aches with just how much she loves her back.
The yoke of an ancient duty, making her body practically ache with the burden of a new kingdom in icy snow.
The pain of a wound and the worry not for her own safety but for the danger of not being able to see that woman she loves so dearly ever again.
(“sometimes i-” a past her whispers, chasing a memory that is doomed to disappear in the ash of the ancient time it is mired in.
and that beautiful specter whose face haunts her dreams simply smiles sadly in reply.)
She doesn’t know why the dreams bother her so much. Why when she wakes up with her heart pounding in her chest, she feels desperation so violently that her teeth ache.
The dreams only get worse when she meets Joohyun.
What was once grainy microfiche in black and white becomes splashes of color. Long pieces of moving dialogue. Textures of lush furs and soft skin.
Seulgi will be napping in the van after a terribly long event and be lulled into the colors and words from a language she shouldn’t be able to recognize. And when she wakes, startled by Joohyun who is gently squeezing her shoulder, eyebrows furrowed in concern, she cannot help but gasp because isn’t her face so familiar she needs to remember just this once that Joohyun is-
But then Joohyun will smile, a little confused at whatever face Seulgi is giving her, and she will relax, letting the ghost of these thoughts fade away into oblivion.
The dreams vary over the years. Riding a horse over a desolate battlefield. Shooting an arrow with a laughing prince by her side. Whispering into that woman’s warm neck into the early tendrils of dawn’s light. Each time she dreams she finds herself staring at Joohyun, struggling to remember why her face is so important.
And every time she stares, the other woman just looks back at her, smiling that smile of hers that is just a little sad.
And then after the night, Joohyun had pressed drunkenly against Seulgi and nearly kissed her, she has the same dream over and over. She does not dream every night. But whenever she dreams it is this sequence, always reducing her to tears.
She is in a land covered with ice and snow. Her furs and armor are heavy on her chest and shoulders. A sword is in her hand, crimson with blood.
A line of men are before her, the majority cut through by her sword. One is left and she feels unbearable hatred well in her chest. Her breath wreathes around her face as she pants, ready to finish the man who gave the order that started everything.
“General,” she hears off to the side. But she ignores it, raising her sword and swinging down with such ferocity that she staggers forward, falling to a knee. The spray of blood hits her face, blinding her temporarily. Just long enough that the man she has sliced through uses the last of his strength to impale her with a dagger concealed at his waist.
Seulgi sinks further into the snow, the wound in her side aching. She hears the men under her command shout out in surprise as she buries her sword into the ground, watching as her lieutenant cuts the man’s throat. Instantly she feels peace, her shoulders relaxing a little as she grips the pommel of her sword. Her village has been avenged.
“We need to get the general to a physician!” someone shouts. But Seulgi can barely hear them with the exhaustion and the cold seeping deep into her bones. Her hands loosen and she falls to the side, the snow stinging her cheek. Seulgi feels the phantom touch of familiar hands cradle her head in her lap.
“Joo…Joo…” she whispers through bloody teeth. Whose name is she trying to say, she wonders as everything starts to blur even more. Seulgi hears a voice and she realizes as her eyes flutter closed that it is her own.
Oh heaven, may I in one lifetime, forsake duty for love? And let me have her again. In a time and place where the bounds of duty will never constrain us.
(“Do you remember me?”
A smile. Tears. Another kiss.
“How could I ever forget?”)