"I can't believe you," Yoon Myung Joo did not mean to sound as annoyed as she really was deep inside, but she cannot help but do so, "You have been given a month to prepare, and you never took the time to buy her a gift days before your wedding day?"
Yoo Si Jin did not mind her bickering behind him at all, but he did feel conciliatory and guilty. What he did was not right just as much as it was not wrong, but he ought to have done this before even anyone could notice, especially someone so meticulous like Yoon Myung Joo.
A month was indeed given, however it was not utilized solely for marriage preparations. During those days, he drudged away in his office, writing and sorting and compiling important documents for the next war minister. It was his form of service to the government, and at the same time he treated it as his own escapism from missing Kang Mo Yeon.
While Myung Joo was nastily arguing her side behind him as they walked down the main street, Si Jin recounted a conversation he had with the princess at the end of their simple night—back when they were walking down the well-lit streets during the Samjinnal, and the cool, crisp wind made his fingers slid involuntarily through the spaces in between her own delicate fingers as they talked; it was profound how a simple strolling on a quiet road could feel as though he was falling from the sky, letting go of every bit of anxiety and reservation he had. All he had to hold onto was her.
And clearly, that sufficed.
"I think I'm going to miss you," the princess spoke to Si Jin as they entered discreetly in the tall gates of the palace that night. The soldiers who were on guard that night still had their heads down at Si Jin's presence, that despite being their former leader, he still was given the same respect and deference. She also somehow figured Si Jin was going to walk her much further towards her little house inside Gyeongbokgung even before they could walk further the tall gates. He was not going to end the night that way; he wanted a conversation, hence the continued walk to her chambers, "I do all the time,"
"But we won't miss each other soon,"
"When we're married," She felt his moist palm pressing on her own as he squeezed her hand, "We won't,"
They walked further with comfortable silence. They crept quietly when they walked near Geunjeongjeon Hall, and tried to avoid the court ladies' quarters because they were too loud. And just as soon as they arrived at her own structure at the palace, an idea zapped the innermost parts of her mind.
"Can I miss you again?"
Miss me again? "Sure...if that's a good thing." Yoo Si Jin looked towards the garden right in front of him and then back at her, "Is it a good thing?"
Mo Yeon laughed, adjusting the hem of the jangot she wore over her head, "It is! Let's give ourselves a month,"
She nodded, "One month for preparations, but we can't see each other. No communication. No visits. No letters. It's a challenge," She heard him sigh at that, and even if it was dark and she could only see half of his face with the pale moonlight, Mo Yeon could tell he didn't quite like her idea.
“A challenge? Is there something to win when we accomplish this?”
“No. It’s just a challenge I am imposing,”
"I don't think I can hold on and wait for you one month more," Si Jin groaned.
"You've done it for twenty years, you're probably excellent at waiting,"
"Just because I'm good at it doesn't mean I want any more of it," Si Jin was looking down at both their clasped hands, "You don't want to wait, really. You know that. You wanted to see me after my three-month disappearance, right? You've been asking me the whole time about when we're tying the knot—"
"And I've found my answer when," Mo Yeon grabbed him by his waist and pressed herself fiercely against him. She pulled him too close that Si Jin's desperate attempts to keep his lower region at a safe distance was a failure; his ungovernable parts were already made known to her.
She looked up on him with a knowing glint in her eyes.
"Look," He gave up. It doesn't hurt to tell the truth about his lust, "I'm a man too. You can't judge me for feeling this way,"
"Byuntae," Mo Yeon sneered at the feeling of him getting hard-on in between them, but she never kept her distance anyway. Si Jin looked cute when teased after all—his lip-biting, his eyes averting her, his hands nervously holding her shoulders as though it was his first time having hands and he was not sure where to put them—all these were too precious to let loose. Sometimes she wondered if this happened more than once while they were together.
It must have been difficult for him. But nonetheless, she made her decision.
"One month, my dearest Yoo Si Jin-ssi," She looked at his eyes, and it occurred to her she said it too lovingly towards him, like a doting mother, "This is a whole different way of missing each other, because I know you're here. It's no longer filled with sorrow, but it is of great anticipation. That we'll be together after all. It's going to be different this time,"
He let out an impressed smile; at least she was happy with whatever plan she had in mind for both of them. If she was happy with it, then Si Jin can't ask for anything more.
"It'll be in a month. I'll tell my father about this, and you'll tell yours, and we'll wait with eager longing and yearning until the day comes when nothing is going to keep us apart," She continued, "You love missions, don't you? It's a mission before I'm making you my husband,"
Si Jin admired how she was slowly gaining her confidence—something far off from who she was the first time he met her. She was finally back on her feet, and he felt delighted with it.
"I will gladly take that mission, if that is what you want me to do," He nodded finally, still trying to keep her away from his stiffness.
"Arasso," He was sweating bullets, "You can let go of me now,"
"I love teasing you," She grinned, hugging him tighter.
"Please don't do that,"
"I will miss you,"
"I will miss you too,"
After one long kiss, and a few stupid-looking smiles, they finally said their goodbyes for the night. Si Jin walked away and sighed and tried to figure out a way to keep his nerves down. He could've done the deed with her at that very moment but he wasn't raised that way. He respected her.
And so he took her challenge in mind and waited for a month, confirming their wedding date amongst the two clans, keeping himself busy with wedding preparations and at the same time with the slow transfer of important and confidential files to the new war minister.
Above all, he thought of Kang Mo Yeon. He thought of her more than anything but being a man of his word, he never attempted to visit her. Yoo Si Jin also wanted to experience this kind of new way of missing each other, as she had suggested. And as days went by, he came to realize she was right about it: it was unexplainably distinct from when he was fed with the knowledge of her being dead for two long decades. It was different from being apart from her for three long months. It was nothing compared to that.
Missing her was oddly never about loneliness this time around; it was stronger when he missed her in his bliss. He was ecstatic as each day passed by and somehow the anticipation of something big helped Si Jin take care of himself before the wedding; never had he been this faithful in keeping his health in check. He took medicine when he needed to. He slept when he needed to. He took one bag of medicinal herbs after another (the ones his father gave him but he stashed on one place at his office) until he ran out and he asked for more. He conversed with his father when the latter wanted to speak, and despite them being a tad bit awkward, they manage to get by with re-establishing the tarnished relationship.
He did the things he'd normally and naturally do on a daily basis, thinking that it would somehow make a month seem short, because he did miss her badly. Yoo Si Jin also had spared enough time, if not most of it, imagining her—what she was doing, what she was wearing, or if she was even wearing anything at that moment. He wished she imagined him just as much, if not more.
All these things he endured for a month, and all these he had also accomplished, but as soon as he was living in the day before his wedding, he realized he forgot to do something he should've done first.
How could a groom forget about buying his very own bride a wedding gift?
This thought he had when he woke up in the morning explains now why he suddenly called Yoon Myung Joo out from her work at the Royal Infirmary. Now, they found themselves in the middle of the capital, looking for a gift that suited best for his bride.
"I'm not supposed to help you on this," Myung Joo stomped, however Yoo Si Jin was not paying attention just as he always have not ever since she began to whine. "Do you even hear me? I'm not supposed to help you on this!"
"You have to, after the many things I did for you to get you and your man together,"
"Yoo Si Jin, you're only picking a gift. Isn't that too easy?"
"If you think it's 'too easy', then you could at least lend me a hand than whine with your mouth," Si Jin turned towards her and gave her a clever grin. He got her this time; he knew she was too kind and pure to resist his request.
"Just give her a hairpin," Myung Joo snorted.
"Too basic. And besides, she already owns one,"
"It's a hairpin or nothing at all," Myung Joo pointed it out, as though she was trying to say something obvious, "Wait a second, what did you just say? She owned one before marriage?"
"I thought you knew, but yes she does,"
"Was she a widow?"
"Ani. Her late mother gave it to her," Si Jin replied nonchalantly while looking at a few items presented by a local merchant they passed by, "It was the only thing that kept her memory as the princess intact, somehow,"
"It's a long story,"
Hearing him cut the conversation made her instantly understand it was something rather confidential. Myung Joo could tell, being surrounded by men from the governing class herself; she had a royal soldier, an ex-war minister, and a father keeping different secrets from her altogether, and though she felt peeved not knowing something, she was convinced they kept her from a lot of information with their best intentions.
"I don't know if the princess could put up with your secretive, mysterious character though," Myung Joo had to say her thoughts; she figured he deserved to hear that.
"Speaking of the princess," Si Jin paused walking and asked all of a sudden, the pang of nostalgia and longing for her seeping within him, "How is she?"
"She told me about the challenge she gave you, and also how stupid she felt for that. She wanted to give it up,"
"She thought of giving up on the last day? That's so much like her,"
"She realized she was wasting her time being alone when she knew you both had so little time,"
"I'm glad she cares," He gave Myung Joo a simple smile.
A part of Yoon Myung Joo was relieved to see Yoo Si Jin act light and cool, but a bigger part was worried of it as well. How could he be so calm, when things were no longer going to be how it normally would be from here?
"Yoo Si Jin,"
"Yes?" He answered without looking at her.
She moved to his side once he'd finished glancing over another set of items brought by a merchant passing by, and it did get his attention, "You gave up positions. You've cut connections and even severed arrangements. You didn't want commitments because you didn't want to hurt anyone. Why are you acting the opposite of how you dealt things before?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You're acting differently. You're not like this," Myung Joo said in calmy despite her curiosity, "The ‘you’ that I knew wouldn't want a marriage,"
"Are you not in favor of my marriage with the princess?" He asked innocently.
"I am in favor. I'm even glad this long-overdue wedding is happening,"
"Then what's to make a fuss of?"
"Aren't you supposed to be saying things like cutting the betrothal? You act that way,"
"Why should I act that way?"
"Because...you're dying, aren't you?" She didn't mean to sound rude and insensitive, but that was the truth of the matter, and he knew that too, "Isn't that the reason why you've kept on shunning people away before? You wanted to make temporary what you felt for her back when you took her in your house. You maintained your distance back when she was delivered safely in the palace,"
Upon hearing these words, Yoo Si Jin's hand slowly put the merchant's item back down on the velvet tray, and after politely dismissing the kind merchant, he faced the woman talking to him.
"Aren’t we all dying, Yoon Myung Joo-ssi? We are, but in a different pace," It crossed her out that he was talking about this in a normal disposition, as though death had nothing held towards him, "Mine’s shorter than yours, but it won’t stop me from accepting happiness when it has been offered to me,"
"But, this is just too sudden to change, isn't it?"
"She willingly gave herself to me, with the uncertainty presented before her, and who am I to reject it further? And what’s all this? I thought I called you out from work just to help me with a gift,”
"Too bad you called a curious woman like me out from her workplace. I just wanted to know what changed,"
"I changed. A lot. Even I am surprised," Si Jin quipped. He could not judge Myung Joo for being so inquisitive. She was always the curious one, and the type of woman who needed the whole list of explanations before giving her support.
It was a crowd they were in, but nonetheless, he told Myung Joo what she had to know.
"Okay, here is what happened. I told her everything. I never hid the ugly truth from her. I gave her the choice to leave me or not, and I tried to convince her to set herself free but still, she chose to stay," He recounted the conversation he shared with her during the morning he arrived from the Northern Boundaries.
Even Lady Yoon was surprised, though she figured it was a certain act the princess would do, "Did she?"
"I would have been fine with whatever choice she made, but hearing her say that she still wants to be with someone who could possibly hurt her than to be with no one at all...I don't know. It made me realize I have been thinking about her safety, without taking her happiness in consideration," Si Jin continued as they walked further in the midst of the downtown hubbub, "I don't care what happens anymore, but I'd rather make her happy that see her lonely even as I'm still living. That's my resolve, and I do strongly believe Kang Mo Yeon would prefer it this way,"
"You'll end up breaking her heart, you do realize that?"
"Aish, Myung Joo. Don't all lovers do?" He crossed his arms, "Only the people you love have the capacity to tear you up. But they mold it back again. If not in a better form,"
She could see the truth of what he said, but it somehow seemed amusing coming from someone so composed and serious like him—or did she just see this other side of him now, "You've been really deep with your thoughts lately,"
"Though I’ve been unsure even with this decision, maybe. I have been spending lots of time reading poetry," Si Jin sighed, "I don't do much anymore. I'm already retired. I write almost everyday,"
"Don't lie. I heard you're busy sorting files for Seo Dae Young-ssi,"
"I do it at home," He pointed out.
"And I don't think you would be just sitting around doing nothing once you and the princess are together,"
He looked behind his shoulder towards her, "What are you talking about?"
"You can't resist her," she teasingly said, "You're a man, and you'll always have that tinge of lust in you,"
He rolled his eyes at the truth of her statement, remembering how hard he was when he last saw Mo Yeon. "You wretched woman,"
Although he did have a question at the back of his head.
"You...about that..." He couldn't help it.
He crossed his arms, "Is it risky? On my end? You have to be honest,"
"Which is risky?"
"You know..." Si Jin had that pressing question, but he couldn't get it out. Myung Joo already knew exactly what he was talking about, however she didn't feel like helping him with it.
"What is it?"
"Is it..." Aish. Meolla. I don't care anymore, "...okay for me to have...um, make love with the princess?" He looked as though the words he spoke were bitter-tasting and awful; Myung Joo was the least-preferred person to talk to about these things, but she knew his condition well, being a physician herself.
The need to know was just so dire he had to ask her on-the-spot.
"Is it possible there's going to be a problem on the process? If yes, would there be a big chance it could happen? Like fainting? Falling unconscious?" Si Jin asked, "Ya. Don't grin like that. I'm serious,"
She chortled, "That would be so unromantic,"
Falling unconscious while hovered over her? It sure is unromantic, he shook the thought out of his mind, "You have to be honest. If I can't do it, then it's fine," Though it wasn't really fine at all. He looked serious, and Myung Joo knew this was a very unfortunate predicament—and fatal at that—so she had to refrain from grinning mockingly towards him.
"Have you experienced any problems during the past month?"
Her brow arched, "The truth,"
"Myung Joo-ssi, the only problem I have is that I still do not have a gift for my bride. Nothing else," He pointed to his chest, where his heart was underneath, "This guy's doing well. Really, really well. It beats weirdly, but it never stops. Isn't that enough?"
She studied Si Jin, placing a hand on his cheek, "You seem to be in good shape, and since you claim you haven't been experiencing any difficulty lately, so I guess you could...do it, you know,"
He looked delighted, "Jinja?"
"But you have to keep it steady. Speed up gradually when it happens. You know what, this conversation's getting uncomfortable. Do I have to keep going?" She shrugged at him, but Si Jin gave her an encouraging look, as if he was telling her it was fine imagining him and the princess in the whole, steamy process of lovemaking. "For heaven's sake, Yoo Si Jin. Let me stop talking,"
"You're my physician. You have to give me the go signal,"
"I'm your friend. More importantly I am a woman; why should you talk about this in front of me?"
"You're healthy enough to do it. Happy?" She squirmed in annoyance, and it made him wonder if she said that because it was true or if it was just out of her frustration he'd let her shut up. When he asked her, she shot back at him, "I'm serious!"
"Thanks. That's the best thing to hear," He made a cocky grin as he patted her shoulder. In just seconds, Myung Joo observed Si Jin's dark eyes avert from her towards another merchant walking behind her. "Wait a second," He whispered before heading to the man and carefully perused the ornaments and pieces of jewelry on his tray.
She watched as he held up a pair of rings, made of gold and jade, tied together in a single knot. Si Jin looked seemingly interested with the item; it was slightly thick in size—twice the regular thickness of a woman's ring, but the gap in between seemed like it would fit Mo Yeon's fingers. He hadn't been holding her hand and wrapping his fingers between the gaps of her delicate ones for nothing. "This'll fit," He smirked with a convinced expression.
"For a bride, Naeuri?" The merchant asked him, and Si Jin cocked his head sideways in wonder. Double-rings aren't handcrafted for men, no? He shrugged at the merchant's statement, but nonetheless, he nodded politely.
"That's what you have in mind?" Myung Joo looked over the man, who began to pay the older one and get the two beautiful pieces of jewelry in his hands.
"She's the one I have in mind," He pointed out, "And the thought of her brought me to decide that this'll be my present. Now that I'm through, do you want me to take you back at the palace gates?"
She rolled her eyes. "That's it?" Wah. I guess I've helped a lot,"
"Oh, you did."
Myung Joo didn't let Yoo Si Jin her to the palace anymore; she insisted she was a strong woman who didn't need any assistance from men with just walking. Yoo Si Jin respected that and just walked home with the golden-jade rings in tow, while the lady travelled back to the palace.
But of course, she wouldn’t hesitate it if it was Seo Dae Young whom she was with.
When she arrived at the palace, curiosity piqued her on what the princess was busy with wedding preparations, and so she dashed to Princess Jeonghyeon's little lair at the palace, but doesn't find her there. "Excuse me," Myung Joo called one of the princess' servants nearby, "Have you seen Jeonghyeon-gongju?"
"She went to the library to read,"
"I see. Thank you," Myung Joo bowed down and strolled the aidle leading to the royal library. Mo Yeon doesn't go to lots of places in the palace other than the garden, the library and the infirmary, so it was very easy for anybody to locate her inside.
True enough, Myung Joo found her leaning on one shelf in the library. She was reading a book intently, and she only had realized Myung Joo was around when the latter began to speak, "Reading on your last day as a young maiden, Your Highness?"
The princess jolted and turned behind her to meet the woman, "Lady Yoon,"
"What's that you're reading?" At first, peeking over to see the thin-sized book was difficult, since Mo Yeon tried to conceal its cover pages to the other lady, "Is it that's why you're not making me read it?"
"No, it's not that," Mo Yeon flushed pink, still making a hopeless attempt to hide the book between the thick fabrics of her maroon-colored frock, "Yoon Myung Joo-ssi, shouldn't you be working at the infirmary?"
"I should be, if it were not for your groom-to-be," Myung Joo saw Mo Yeon's eyes sparkle in hope when she heard her refer to Si Jin. "I caught your attention, haven't I?"
"You were with him?" There was an eerie vibe in her, as though she radiated envy and misery. It was understandable for Lady Yoon, since she had not seen, heard nor touched Si Jin for one long month, "How is he?"
"High-spirited, if I may say. He's longing to see you again," Myung Joo studied the melancholy on Mo Yeon's face. Her hands relaxed from its stiff grip on the book and her dress, and little by little, it had revealed the covers of the book she had been reading. It looked new and fresh from the print, as though Kang Mo Yeon was the first to hold the book with her gentle hands.
The Annals of Joseon War Ministers: Yoo Si Jin
She had been reading the records he had put toget