I always wondered, in all the years I spent alone, what I would have done when she finally came back to me.
Would I hug her? Kiss her? What would my first words be?
I always waited for her. Since the moment I dragged myself to the Heaven’s Gate, finding the frozen body of Lord Deok Seong, I knew she crossed that Gate, probably trying to run away from him. And I knew she would try to come back.
Time flows differently in and out the Gate, I remembered that.
How much time did I spend in Heaven, when I met her? And how much time was it here, when I came back?
So, I waited. Maybe she would cross the Gate in Heaven right away, but it could be not right away for me, here.
It took five years. And now she’s here, in my arms. I’m still holding her, right next to my heart, just enjoying the feeling of having her close. I never want to let her go again.
She adjusts in my arms and her locks brush my hands, making me smile.
Her hair… the first thing I noticed when I took her hat off was that her hair was longer.
How much time was it for her? How much time did she spend away from me? Trying to find me again?
I followed the length of her hair down to her shoulder, and when she leaned on my hand my heart skipped a beat. I needed to hold her. I needed to feel her close.
I can’t describe the pain when she started crying, when she uttered how many times she had tried to get back to me. My Imja, what happened to you? Were you in danger? Were you hurt? Why couldn’t I be by your side, to protect you? Why did you have to go through all this?
She’s strong, I always knew it. I always believed she would come back. I was prepared to wait for her forever, if necessary.
What I wasn’t prepared to face was the pain of knowing she was alone, fighting a war she shouldn’t have had to fight, to be by my side. I’m the warrior, I’m the one trained to fight. That’s my job, not hers.
When I made her sit down, my fingers suddenly felt empty. I needed to touch her again, to feel she was real, that she really was there with me. As my fingers slid across her hair, I could feel my heart calming down bit by bit, like the simple warmth of her body next to mine was enough to set my mind at ease.
But then, she started crying again. It was so anguished… full of pain, of sorrow. She was desperate because she made me wait, because she couldn’t come sooner.
That’s over now! I wanted to tell her. We’re together, and nothing else matters!
But I knew it would be a lie. It does matter. It will always matter. What we went through, it will leave scars. A longing heart that was hurt so much, takes time to heal. I know it will be a long time before I can trust to leave her behind, knowing she’ll still be there when I come back. I know I’ll never want to leave her out of my sight, fearing she’ll disappear again.
And I know it will take a while to convince her it didn’t matter how much time she took to come back… that she never really left my heart, she never really left me alone.
All these years, I was surrounded by her. The jars with the antidote, her clothes, the small yellow mums… the bottle with her medicine. The comb she used. I kept everything she ever touched, to be reminded of her.
There were times where I would wake up at night, wondering if she was only a beautiful, long dream… but then I just needed to turn my head to see something that belonged to her. No, she was real. She existed. She was just far away, right now, but she would come back.
Isn’t it weird how life can make you change? I’m the warrior, I’m the one who leaves people behind, going to war. I’m the one who should return home, finding my wife waiting for me. But for all these years, I was the one waiting.
I often wondered what I would have done if somehow I found the Heaven’s Gate still open when I managed to crawl there, after barely surviving. My instinct would have been to jump in, to go looking for her. To take action. I was forced to wait, something I never did. Wait and trust her. My strong, stubborn Imja. The woman I want to see smiling for the rest of my life.
I hugged her again, this time with strength. Holding her close wasn’t enough anymore, I needed to feel her in my arms. And I needed to see her smile. Enough of tears. Enough of pain. I would protect her against anything and anyone. I would do anything to prevent new tears. My woman had to smile.
I freeze for a moment, with her in my arms, when I hear footsteps quickly coming towards us. We’re still leaning against the tree and she’s smiling at me, after telling me she’ll never leave my side again. Those words… I needed to hear them more than I could imagine. I knew she was back to stay, and yet I had to ask it anyway. I knew she wanted to be with me, I knew she needed me as much as I needed her. But was she ready to stay? My world is dangerous and she often paid the price for being at my side. Was she willing to go through all that again and again?
Because I know it… my life will never be easy. I’m the Commanding General. I’m the right hand of the King, his most trusted man. There will always be wars to fight, against Yuan, Japan, everyone… I’ll always be in danger. And her, as my wife, won’t have it easy either.
I held my breath waiting for her answer. I really don’t know what I would have done had she answered no. What if she wanted to go back to her world? If she wanted me to follow her?
But then she smiled, cupping my face and the touch of her light fingers made my heart beat faster and just want to close my eyes and live in that moment forever.
Kissing her was almost more than I could endure. I never wanted so much to hold someone, to keep her by my side forever. I swear, if someone tries to take her away from me again, I’ll turn the world apart, I’ll burn it to the very roots to bring her back.
You’ll never leave me again Imja. I won’t allow it.
The footsteps approaches and I raise my eyes, never loosening my hold on her. She heard them too and she turns around in my arms, one hand closed on mine.
The shocked expression in Dae Man’s eyes and the loud noise of the lunch he was bringing me falling to the ground, makes me almost laugh. My Wudalchi were very close to me in these lonely years. When I returned alone to the Palace, nobody dared to ask me any questions. They just stood there around me, heads bowed, grieving my loss with me. The raisin tea… they kept making it every day, just like she taught them. And it was our daily ritual, every evening: we would gather together, drinking her tea and wishing her back, still feeling her laughter in our barracks or her cheering on the training grounds.
I think it was their presence, their silent support that kept me sane, that kept me hoping. Sometimes I overheard them talking between themselves… saying how much they missed their High Physician, saying the barracks weren’t the same without her, trusting that she would be back soon… there was a time when I heard Deok Man, Choong Suk and Dae Man threatening anyone who would dare to say she would never be back.
“The High Physician is a strong woman, a stubborn one. Nothing can stop her.” they proudly declared, like they were talking of their own mother.
And in a way, that’s true. My Wudalchi are my kids, they always were. They are my new family. And my Imja is part of that family now, in their eyes. Part of us. Part of me.
Dae Man is trying hard to say something, his tongue refusing to pronounce the words. His eyes are wide, full of tears, he can’t stop smiling. I look down at my Imja and I smile, raising up and taking her with me. She wants to go and hug him, I know, but I simply can’t let go of her hand. Not yet.
So I smile as well.
“Dae Man,” I say, “go back to the inn and alert the Commander. Ask around for a monk as well.” I look at her and her eyes are just shining in happiness while she tightens her grip on my hand. Yes Imja, this is what I want to see for the rest of my life, when I look at you. “We’re going to need him.”
And after watching my faithful Wudalchi running as fast as he can back to the inn, I turn to the reason of my life.
“Are you ready?” I ask her softly, gently squeezing her hand in mine. Are you ready Imja? Are you ready to begin the rest of our lives? It won’t be easy, I know that. But I’ll protect you. I’ll stay by your side forever. I’ll never leave you alone.
“Let’s go. Together.” She answers me, a beaming smile on her lips.
And then we take that first step, side by side, holding hands. There will be other steps. We will stumble and fall on the ground. We will run and we will even step back at times. But as long as you’re holding my hand, Imja, I just know… everything will be alright.
This is just the beginning.