Author's Notes: May your holidays be filled with the love and warmth of those you hold dear to you, and may the new year bring health, happiness, and good fortune to all. I hope that we are able to meet again in the year 2013 :) Constructive Criticism is always welcomed. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: I do not own "Faith" or her characters, I simply fell in love with them along the way.
Choi Young had known more than his fair share of times of fear. He couldn't always recall every single moment anymore, so many overlapped in battle, but there were always a distinct few that would forever remain burned into his memory. Horrors that produced unwilling nightmares when he let his guard down and forgot to watch his steps.
He would never forget the day that his teacher was murdered in front of his eyes by a worthless, coward of a human being no more fitting of the title "King" than he was a man.
Nor would his memory ever erase the morning he discovered his betrothed's body swinging from a tree, having chosen to exchange her life to erase her guilt and shame with her own hand rather than letting the two of them fight through her anguish together.
The sharp memories of the days when Eun Soo had been poisoned and at death's door could still steal his breath away, leaving his fingers tingling to wrap themselves around the bastard who had done the deed and managed to slip past his grasp, still lurking out in the dark corners of the world somewhere.
He remembered the night Eun Soo had then insisted that she drink poison to counter the effects of the other poison already swimming through her body, and he was powerless to do more than sit by and watch. Only to be pulled away from her side at the most delicate moment and to come back and find her missing, taken by their deranged and obsessed enemy who's only thought of concern was of his own.
The years Imja were gone had planted the seedling of fear of being alone, of being separated from her for that long ever again. He had to go for weeks, sometimes months without her now during campaigns, but there were constant letters to keep them connected instantly this time. And the weeks and months were nothing compared to those four years when all he had was hope, faith, trust, and the knowledge that others' memories of her assured him that she had not just been a dream his mind had conjured up for him.
When his wife had gone through labor with their first daughter, Choi Young had once more feared for her life. The chances of her surviving childbirth were akin to him surviving a battle. They would always fight their hardest to live and get back to one another, but no one knew what fate truly had in store for them.
The second time his wife had gone through labor with their second daughter had not lessened his fears any from the previous experience, though they were diminished in duration as the second birth had only been a few hours compared to the first's that had lasted a night and half a day.
With fatherhood too had come new fears: fears for his children, to protect them from the world and anything that might harm them whether it was a sharp corner of a table, a stray dog, a random stranger on the street, or a funny looking vegetable at the market.
But none of them compared to the fear he had had when his wife became pregnant for the third time, and three and a half months through her pregnancy he had awoken to the smell of blood.
Choi Young thought he'd been lost in nightmares of previous battles again. His ears full of the moans of the dying and the rich, coppery tang of blood suffusing the ground they fought upon. Normally, to rid himself of such dreams he would awaken and hold his wife close, breathing in her scent and allowing it to relax him, to remind him that all was safe and sound as he lay in their bed at home.
But this night was different.
This night when he awoke, the sounds of moaning didn't diminish and the smell of blood seemed to linger in the air, growing stronger by the minute.
Choi Young stirred himself from his dreams; the sounds of someone in pain making him sit up in a flash once they had fully registered in his mind. His eyes darted around the room, his senses alert for the danger he felt. His eyes met with nothing but the shadows of night and familiar objects.
He shook the remnants of his imaginings away, finally letting his mind catch up with what his ears were trying to tell him as he realized that the sounds he had heard were much closer than he had originally thought. Choi Young looked over at his wife to see her forehead dampened with sweat and stirring restlessly in her sleep. Another moan of muted pain escaped from her and he sighed.
Eun Soo was still known to occasionally lapse into her nightmares from her first journey into his time. The same nightmares he had of her, she relived herself at night. They used to come much more frequently but after the first few months of her waking up in the dead of night to call out, "Are you there?" and he was able to answer her and soothe her worries, they had lessened until they had all but vanished. After their second daughter was born, Choi Young had begun to hope that they were gone for good. Apparently, he was mistaken.
"Imja," he whispered softly, leaning over to shake her shoulder. "Wake up, it's just a nightmare."
When she didn't answer his call he frowned, and moved his other hand to shift closer to her so as to shake her with a little more force in the hopes of disrupting her bad dreams. But as his hand shifted across the space between him and settled into the bedding beneath them, he froze.
A jolt went through his heart as fingers met with something warm and damp. Hardly daring to breathe, Choi Young moved his hand in front of his face, dread overshadowing all other thoughts. What met his eyes brought back all the horrors of all his worst fears as the metallic tang filled his nose.
With a deft, rapid movement he flung their covers aside to see that the dark stain had already suffused most of the bedding on her side and still seemed to be growing.
Terrified, his hands now immediately sought to wake her up, desperate now to assure himself that she was alive. "Imja! Imja, wake up!"
With another groan, Eun Soo blurrily opened her eyes to her husband's petrified face. "What is it?" She asked, her thoughts in a haze.
"Blood! There's blood everywhere!"
It took a moment for Eun Soo to comprehend what her husband was saying, but as his words sunk in her eyes widened in horror. She bolted up in bed, her hand immediately going to her pregnancy bump as her eyes flitted to all the evidence around her. She had one moment of perfect doctoral clarity in which her mind supplied the answer for her in a clean, scientific explanation. It vanished in the next instant like smoke vapor in the wind as she collapsed into tears and unrelenting sobs.
Now thoroughly confused and alarmed, Choi Young stared at his wife trying to discern an explanation between her sobs and moans of pain.
He looked up when he heard shuffling at their doors to meet the sight of their five and two and a half-year old daughters. All of the commotion and shouting had obviously woken them up.
"Daddy? What's wrong with Mommy?" His eldest asked, her voice laced with fear. The youngest stood by her sister's side, her eyes wide in her quiet face.
"Jae Hwa!" Choi Young directed as his eldest looked at him in rigid fear. "Go get your Aunt –now! Tell her something is wrong with your mother."
Jae Hwa took off like a shot down the hallway, leaving her sister to cling to the doorway, too scared to enter but too terrified to leave.
Lady Choi had always been a light sleeper. It came with her job. She'd be dead otherwise.
So at the first sound of running feet outside her doorway, Lady Choi was instantly awake, but remained as still as if she were asleep her body tensed for the intruder. As her door flung open, she already had slipped her hand underneath her pillow, her fingers instantly tightening around the knife she hid there.
It was with a start that she recognized her great-niece standing just inside her door, tears streaming down her face.
Years of long training and hard-honed instincts had her out from underneath her sheets in a flash, her feet already carrying her halfway across the room before her mind had made the decision to move.
"What is it Jae Hwa? What's wrong?" She bent down to place her hands on the five-year-old's shoulders, feeling the trembling begin at her touch.
At once Jae Hwa burst into full-fledged tears. "I think Mommy's dying."
It was always said around the palace that Lady Choi knew everything that occurred within its walls, that no secret was ever safe from her. With her vast amount of knowledge she was never surprised, already well-informed and with several plans already laid in place to direct the inner workings of the palace in the smoothest fashion possible.
But for this one night alone, Lady Choi stood still in shock. Fear froze her limbs for a fraction of a moment before sense caught up to her and she leapt to her feet, throwing questions at her great-niece as she prepared herself.
"Hyun Ae and me were s-sleeping," Jae Hwa sobbed. "A-and then we heard Daddy yelling. We were scared so w-we r-ran in and Mommy was crying and Daddy was s-scared and he told me to get you."
"What was your father yelling about?"
Jae Hwa sniffed loudly, trying to rub her arm across her face through her tears. "H-he was y-yelling about bl-blood."
Lady Choi absorbed the information, scooped up her great-niece from the floor, and ran down the hall already fully-dressed, calling for people as she ran.
Within moments she had the palace hopping as people were sent to fetch those that she needed the most and sent others with messages to inform those who needed to be told.
Lady Choi swung around the corner and through the still wide-open door to find a miniature scene of chaos reigning. Her youngest great-niece was clinging to her mother's sleeve, bawling. Her nephew's face had lost all color in his terror as he tried to glean any comprehensible answer from his wife who sat in a small pool of blood that now stained everything, his hands slick with it as he tried to gently pry her hands away from her face. Eun Soo was no help as she only pressed her palms further into her face, sobbing.
Lady Choi set Jae Hwa on the ground and marched over to the bedside, gently tugging Hyun Ae away and snapping at her nephew to take his daughters and leave the room immediately.
Only long years of listening to his aunt's advice made him leave his wife's side as he slid off the bed, his eyes still glued to her as she tried to stifle her moans. He was so fixated on her, his heart pounding wildly in his chest that he didn't even feel his eldest tugging on his clothes. Nor did he hear her pleas for comfort.
"What's wrong with Mommy? Is she going to be okay?" Jae Hwa looked to her father for reassurance as her younger sister sat on the floor in front of them in a puddle of her own tears.
Lady Choi who had been doing her best to soothe Eun Soo was pulled from her ministrations as her ears heard her nephew's shaky voice.
"She's not injured. I couldn't find any wounds on her, but the blood…"
Lady Choi looked over her shoulder to see his body beginning to tremble from adrenaline and the override of emotions. She frowned.
"She wouldn't tell me what's wrong. She woke up, saw the blood and clutched her stomach before she started crying… I can't get her to stop." His eyes were wide with fear, though his expression was oddly blank, as if seeing nothing but the sight of his wife in his head.
Lady Choi looked back to the High Doctor and pieced together Choi Young's shaky explanation with the evidence she saw before her. "It's the baby," she stated flatly, almost to herself as understanding coursed through her.
"What do I do?" Choi Young's voice was quiet, almost a plea.
Lady Choi spun on her heel and scooped up Hyun Ae from the floor, placing her in her father's arms, his arms automatically catching her weight and holding her tightly to him as she buried her crying face in his shoulder.
"Take them and get them out of here. They shouldn't be seeing this," Lady Choi ordered. She shooed them out the door, one hand on his shoulder, the other on Jae Hwa's back. "I will send someone with information as soon as we have it," she assured him as the doctor shoved past them in a mad scramble, his clothes haphazardly on.
Choi Young stood outside his own bedroom door, bewildered, staring at his Aunt as her lips hardened into a thin line, even as her eyes softened.
"She's losing the baby," she spoke gently but honestly. Her eyes flitted to a spot behind his shoulder and Choi Young turned slightly to see Dae Man standing just behind him. "Inform the King and Queen of the situation, I'm sure they will want to hear it from us first instead of a servant later."
With a quick nod, and a last look at his general, Dae Man flew down the hallway before vaulting over a low railing and disappearing around the corner and into the night's shadows.
"Go and wait," Lady Choi told her nephew a little more sternly this time before snapping the doors shut in his face.
King Gong Min looked over at his beloved wife as her fingers interlaced with his. He turned fully to look at her, uncertainty racing across his features as they halted in front of the door. Queen No Gook tenderly squeezed his fingers, sending him her strength through their connected hands before nodding. Together they opened the doors and entered the small room.
They halted abruptly at what met their eyes.
Choi Young stood still as a statue, his eyes seeing nothing before him, obviously lost in a replay of his memories, his face as white as a sheet. His youngest was still held in his arms, crying loudly into his neck as the oldest had her face buried in his leg, her small shoulders wracking evenly with her sobs.
It was clear that Choi Young was at his wit's end.
Immediately Queen No Gook hurried into the room and lifted the youngest from Choi Young's arms, hugging the little girl close and tracing soothing circles on her back with her hand. She took a moment to gently place a hand on his eldest's shoulder and tenderly guide her away and over to her side.
Her eyes met her husband's and they seemed to communicate without words.
"Go," King Gong Min said quietly, turning to his general.
When Choi Young didn't respond, the king placed a firm hand on his general's shoulder, breaking into his general's thoughts momentarily. With almost a lost look, Choi Young's eyes finally focused on the King and Queen before him.
"Go to your wife," King Gong Min repeated.
"We'll look after your daughters," Queen No Gook assured him when his eyes traveled over to her.
With a muted nod he almost tripped out the door in his haste, but not without a reluctant look back at his children.
Queen No Gook sighed softly before settling herself down on a small sofa, gathering Hyun Ae to her chest and encouraging Jae Hwa to sit beside her and snuggle into her side. She looked up after a moment to see her husband staring at the door where he had last seen his general.
"What is it?" she called softly.
"I've never seen him like that before," he answered just as quietly.
She turned to the empty doorway for a moment before looking back at her husband. "They'll be okay."
"How can you be so sure?"
She hugged Jae Hwa closer to her side before she answered. "When I lost ours…"
King Gong Min frowned in concern, looking at his wife as her eyes studied the two little ones clinging to her with a look of absolute longing.
"Having you there… That was what mattered. I never would have made it through without you." Her eyes met his tenderly, even as pain from the memory still echoed faintly behind her irises. "The agony of the loss of a child," she closed her eyes briefly at the anguish. "It's unbearable, worse than any physical pain that can be rendered. Only having the love of your life there to guide you through it, to share in that grief as you struggle through it together…only then can you begin to heal from it and move forward."
King Gong Min sat next to his wife's unoccupied side and placed a warm, comforting hand on her knee. He sighed deeply. "I just feel so helpless. I wish there were more we could do for them."
Queen No Gook's smile was filled with empathy. "I know. They've done so much for us. Watching their children for now is the least we can do."
"Watch and wait," he inhaled deeply, settling himself in for a long night, his eyes never leaving his beloved wife's as the two tried to gain some sense of peace to the little ones in their care.
Choi Young's posture was still rigid with stress as the doctor finished cleaning his hands.
"Your wife will need bed rest for a couple of weeks," the doctor was telling him. "I'm not sure what caused the loss, but her body and mind now need to heal. Make sure she gets plenty of sleep, and peace and quiet when she is awake. Do not let her strain her body unnecessarily."
Choi Young nodded mutely, listening to the doctor's continued advice but his eyes were focused on the crumpled figure of his wife, her face still coursing with tears as she lay in their bed.
His aunt had already cleared the room of all the physical evidence of the event with an efficiency that spoke of her long years of handling emergency situations with little to no notice. She had already removed all of the bedding and replaced it with fresh ones. The blood and tear stained ones were probably already being burned as he stood there. Lady Choi had even managed to convince Eun Soo to allow her to sponge-bathe her and change her into new clothes. She had then had windows thrown open and incense burned to clear out and cover any of the remaining scent of blood that could possibly linger in the air.
To anyone who had bothered to look, it would appear that nothing eventful had taken place in that room at all only hours before. Some small part of his brain acknowledged his aunt's efforts and was both amazed and intensely grateful, but the larger part of him was still completely focused on his wife. He hadn't felt so helpless in years.
Choi Young was a man of action, always ready to spring upon a new plan to attain the results he wanted or needed. But everything had already been taken care of for him now, and what was left to him now was to handle something almost completely out of his experience. He had no plan. No idea how to begin. He had no idea what it felt like to carry a child…or to lose one.
Sure, he had felt a great sympathy for his wife during her pregnancies but he would never be able to truly relate to her in that experience. He had shared his burden of it in every way, shape, and form that he could, but he would never know what it felt like to have someone growing inside you. To feel that life take shape and know how entirely it depended on you to keep it growing, keep him or her alive. And then to feel that life slip away…
In a way, he realized with a sudden understanding, he could empathize with his wife. He knew exactly what it felt like to hold someone so dear to you in your protection, and then watch their life slip right through your fingers. Watch as their breath stilled in the air and feel the pounding of their heart cease in your hands.
He frowned at the thought. It was a feeling that he had hoped Imja would never have to experience in her life. He watched his wife as she buried her face in her pillow, trying to hide her grief from the world. He made a tentative step toward her then held himself back.
Would she want his presence right now? Or did she want to be alone? His heart skipped a beat in his chest. Would she push him away right now if he tried? He didn't know what he would do if she did. He needed to do something.
Choi Young felt a small pressure above his elbow and he looked over to see his aunt, her hand resting on his arm, looking up at him with eyes that held understanding and sympathy. She looked over at Eun Soo and his eyes followed.
"The Queen once confided in me that only her husband's presence helped her manage the pain," she told him quietly, in the calm voice she always seemed to have. "I will clear the room for a while to give you two some peace."
He looked back at his aunt. "Jae Hwa and Hyun Ae –"
"We'll continue to look after them until you send for them."
She squeezed his arm briefly, her eyes meeting his and he swore he saw tears shining there. "I'm sorry," she whispered before glancing once more at their High Doctor and making a swift exit. All those left in the room followed her out immediately, Lady Choi firmly shutting the door behind her when the last had stepped through the doorway.
As silence settled into the room, Choi Young crossed the room swiftly, lifting the covers from over his wife and sliding in behind her. Tentatively he reached out and touched her back with his warm hand. When she began to shake under his fingertips but made no move to shift away from his touch, he leaned over and covered her body with his own, cocooning her in his warmth and protection.
Her shoulders began to tremble before she was sobbing again, tears coursing down her cheeks.
"I'm sorry," she whispered between gasps. "I lost her. I'm so sorry."
Her words sent a pain lancing through his heart and he shifted her until she was facing him, hugging her tightly to his chest as she clung to his frame in despair and longing.
Choi Young didn't know where the words came from, or if he was even saying the right things, but his words soothed her until the sleeping draught she had been given finally relaxed her exhausted limbs into a deep, healing slumber. Choi Young didn't leave her side once.
Late that afternoon, when Eun Soo awoke, he hesitantly asked if she wanted their daughters to come back or if she preferred that they stay with the Queen or his aunt until she felt up to company again.
Eun Soo grasped his arm tightly, something fierce and almost desperate in her eyes. "Please, I want them here."
Eun Soo nodded, her face lined with exhaustion and grief but her gaze burned with energy. He studied her expression for a long moment before finally agreeing. He knew the doctor had recommended peace and quiet, and two little ones under the age of six were anything but, but he had also suggested the comfort of family when she was ready.
Choi Young had someone send for their daughters, unwilling and a bit fearful to leave his wife's side for any length of time just yet.
They heard the little scampering of feet long before they saw them. Choi Young slid out from underneath the covers a little reluctantly, only doing so because he knew that he needed to be the one to let their children inside, that after the events of the night before, they would be too afraid to open the doors on their own.
As he pulled the doors open, his eyes met with two pairs of wide-set eyes their faces pale and uncertain. He realized with a pang how terrified they must have been and cursed his shortcomings for not being able to take care of them properly himself. His entire being had been sucked into a deep, strangling fear and he had been unable to think of anything other than his wife's survival.
He bent down to their level and held open his arms, relishing in the comfort of their minimal weight as they all but flung themselves into their father's arms and held tight. He hugged them both to him for a long moment, feeling his world finally begin to center again before letting them go.
They looked over his shoulders at their mother.
"Is Mommy okay?" Jae Hwa asked quietly, her tone wavering.
Choi Young ruffled her hair affectionately. "Your mother was very sick," he told them seriously. "It's going to take a long time for her to feel better again. I'm going to need the two of you to be extra good and help me with her. Can you do that?"
Jae Hwa, her expression suddenly serious, nodded gravely as if ready to take on this massive responsibly single-handedly. Choi Young couldn't help the small tug at his lips at her determination. Hyun Ae nodded too, her eyes wide, not entirely understanding what had happened but knew that it was bad and needed to be good again.
"Good," Choi Young smiled softly at his daughters before ruffling their hair and standing. "Go see your mother; she's been waiting for you."
Jae Hwa and Hyun Ae paused for a moment, looking at their father with just the slightest bit of nervous anticipation before racing across the floor to their parents' bed.
Eun Soo immediately reached over to help pull her youngest on to the bed with her when Hyun Ae struggled, her older sister climbed efficiently up on her own and crawled across the bed until she was on her mother's other side.
Eun Soo cradled them both to her tightly. "My babies," she whispered and kissed them both lovingly on the forehead. "My sweet girls. I'm sorry I scared you."
Hyun Ae snuggled immediately into her mother's hold, curled up around her to embrace the comfort and protection she so desperately needed from her mother. Jae Hwa took a moment to pat down her mother's form, diligent in her search before looking back at Eun Soo.
"Are you okay now Mommy?" She frowned, giving her mother a look that said she had better be honest with her.
Eun Soo felt a small smile crack her face for the first time that day. "I will be," she promised her daughter, her hand trailing through her eldest's long, dark auburn hair.
Choi Young watched as his oldest daughter studied her for a long moment before nodding to herself and snuggling in next to her mother, clutching her mother as if she'd never let her out of her sight again. Eun Soo squeezed her daughters close to her, her eyes shut in pain briefly, but when she opened them again she was smiling softly at her husband. He smiled tenderly back before sitting down on the edge of the bed and watching over his family as they healed.
The doctor had warned them that every woman reacted differently to the loss of a child. It was important to be aware of her moods and be sensitive about her feelings. He had warned that she might want to be left alone for a while, that she might not be able to bear seeing her own children at first, that company could make her depressed, that she might not want to talk about it right away but to be ready for when she did, but not to pressure her into talking about the miscarriage if she didn't want to.
Eun Soo had taken Choi Young by surprise when she defied every expectation that the doctor had warned him about. But when Choi Young thought about it later, when hadn't Eun Soo taken him by surprise? True, the miscarriage had quieted her for a while, but not once did she ever lose her zeal for life. From the time he had first known her, she had all but sparked with a zest for living each day to its fullest, to never regret a single wasted moment. Even when things had become dark in his world, as she was surrounded by blood, the dying, the fighting and the treachery that came with a new king on the throne, she had still managed to fight through the overwhelming sensations and liven up the lives around her with laughter.
He knew this, knew how vital life was to her, because she had suffused that feeling back into his own soul. And so he should have known just how much more fiercely she would cling to that passion for life after the loss of their child.
Eun Soo never wanted to be alone; she welcomed anyone and everyone into her space, taking comfort in the everyday chatter of the palace life and seeming to light up from within whenever anyone came to visit. She also never seemed to want to let their daughters out of her sight for too long. Hyun Ae had always seemed like she would be permanently attached to her mother's hip anyways, but even Jae Hwa with her fierce independence hovered around her mother like a bee to a flower – and buzzing with just as much energy.
Even though the doctor had recommended peace and quiet, Eun Soo seemed to flourish more under hustle and bustle and the noise of everyday living. Even at night, if Choi Young wasn't already there, their daughters could be found snuggled up close to her in bed, all three fast asleep in the land of dreams. Choi Young briefly wondered if he would ever get to be alone with his wife again and shook his head in amusement at the thought. He was too happy to see her smiling face as she healed to truly care or dwell far on the thought.
The Queen visited nearly every day, something Choi Young was extremely grateful for and very humbled by. Suribang sent all the best healing herbs they could find and visited when they could steal the chance. While the King didn't visit very often, he made his concern known in other ways – making sure that Choi Young's duties wouldn't take him from his wife's side for longer than a day, always able to return by nightfall at the longest.
The only thing that concerned Choi Young now was that Eun Soo never seemed to want to discuss the miscarriage with him. He knew she talked about it with the Queen and his aunt. He knew that if their daughters asked she explained it as simply as she could to appease their curiosity and concern until they moved past the event themselves and once satisfied, stopped asking altogether. But for the life of him, he couldn't understand why she wouldn't speak of it with him. She always looked to him for comfort, for strength, for laughter, and for being held close, but she grew silent if he brought the subject up himself. He never tried to force her to talk about it, but he still grew both curious and slightly frustrated about it nonetheless.
Finally, when he couldn't take it anymore, he brought it up as gently and tactfully as he could when they had a rare moment alone.
She was silent for so long that he was afraid he had pushed her too far too fast. But then she looked up at him, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just – I failed you."
Choi Young looked at her, bewildered. "Failed me?"
Eun Soo brought her hands up in front of her face to hide her tears, but he could hear her muffled voice through her fingers. "I couldn't protect your child."
Shocked beyond words, Choi Young couldn't even fathom where she had come up with this ludicrous idea. "What?" he finally managed to sputter out. "Imja, I don't understand – how – why?"
"I lost her!" she cried. "I didn't keep her safe. I must have done something wrong. It's my fault –"
Choi Young was by her side in an instant; his arms wrapped around her shoulders tightly as understanding dawned.
"Imja," he soothed. "This wasn't your fault. You heard the doctor; we don't know how or why it happened."
"But I must have done something!" Eun Soo insisted, her arms hands now clutching at the front of his clothing. "Miscarriages don't usually just happen that far into pregnancy!"
Choi Young's answer was to hold her even tighter. "The heavens wanted her to grace them with her beautiful spirit," he told her, searching desperately for an answer and feeling that the words rang with a chord of truth for him, even as he spoke with no preconceived plan. He felt her still slightly under his words. He was unsure why his wife was referring to their child as a female when it had been too early to know but followed her example nonetheless. "She was needed more there." He waited silently as he felt Eun Soo's tears subsiding as what he said seemed to sink into her.
"Do you think so?" Her voice was quiet, a plea, wanting to believe his explanation too.
Choi Young turned to kiss her temple tenderly before letting her go slightly to meet her eyes which shone with an almost desperate hope. He nodded, letting the tiniest of smiles grace his face. "I believe Imja's child was so breath-taking in spirit and heart already that the heavens couldn't stand to let her go. They needed her more than we did."
Eun Soo's eyes shone with tears unshed, their gaze burning with a fierce love for her husband. "She was your child too," she insisted stubbornly.
Choi Young laughed softly, kissing her forehead. "She must have been more you than me if they wanted her in heaven so soon. If she were more like me, they would have let her stick around longer to give me grief for years to come – something I'd deserve for everything I've done in my life."
Eun Soo frowned slightly at his self-depreciating thoughts. "If she were more like you," she mumbled loud enough so he could hear her. "Then she would have been beautiful."
He sputtered at her words. "You think I'm beautiful?" An eyebrow went up at the ridiculous comment.
Eun Soo nodded seriously, shifting up onto her knees and sliding her arms around his neck. "You," she kissed his cheek. "Are the most beautiful person," she kissed his other cheek. "I have ever met," she finished, kissing his lips. She pulled back to watch his astonished gaze as hers looked at him with all the love in her heart. "You have the most beautiful, stubborn, honest, caring heart or soul I've ever seen in a person," she explained before leaning in for a lingering kiss. "If the heavens wanted her so soon so badly, then she must have been exactly like her father." Tears welled up in her eyes as she smiled at him tenderly. "Because they know there is no way I'm giving you back to them any time soon."
Choi Young felt humbled by her words, even as a fierce strength of love raced through his veins. He met her lips with his once more, but this time they didn't surface for air until they were both left breathless and gasping.
Gently, slowly, Choi Young lowered her back until she met with the soft bedding beneath them and he let his eyes rove over her beautiful, translucent face, losing himself in her warm, loving eyes and reached out to let his hand skim through her fiery hair before tracing his fingers across her cheeks and lips.
"Are you sure you're ready?" He whispered softly. He would rather kill himself than hurt her in any fashion.
Eun Soo's answer was to let her hands trace along the contours of his back, before sliding to his arms and settling on his chest. With only the slightest of hesitations she let her fingers glide beneath his clothing, shifting it aside and letting her hands rest on the bare skin right above his heart.
He hovered over her, watching her intently for any sign, letting her take things as far as she was ready for. Never pushing, never cajoling. He felt a tingle like electricity, like his Ki, race across his skin from where her warm hand lay over his heart. Still he watched her as her other hand moved to circle behind his head and rest softly at the nape of his neck. Her eyes met his, her eyes steady and sure.
"Please." She pulled his head to hers slowly and their lips met once again.
Choi Young let his weight slowly rest atop her body as hands touched and explored tentatively, almost shyly in a sort of re-discovery. Something had changed slightly between them, even as nearly everything had stayed the same.
The change was good. Something deeper. Something more profound - surpassing the love that they had previously had for each other into something even more powerful and eternal than they could have imagined before.
Their passion built slowly, letting the flame grow hotter and more all-consuming as they took the time to explore and build upon these new depths until desire and need crested into a white-hot blaze that over took them completely. They didn't know how long they were under its spell, nor did they care. Their shared loss had left a space so deep in their hearts that only the joining of two souls could even begin to ease the pain of the cavity left behind.
They made love often, as the grief finally began to subside and time passed steadily forward.
Eun Soo healed and bounced back with as much fervor as she had ever had; only sinking into terror briefly when she discovered she was pregnant for the fourth time later that spring. Choi Young did everything in his power to calm her and reason her through it, deciding to keep this expectancy quiet until Eun Soo was ready.
When they hit the four month mark, both Eun Soo and Choi Young let out a quiet breath of relief, having passed the stage of the last pregnancy. Together they finally announced Eun Soo's expectancy now that they felt the danger had passed. Within a few short weeks, she wouldn't be able to hide her condition any longer anyways. Anyone with eyes would be able to tell she was expecting.
Looking back on it later, Choi Young had to wonder how much they drove everyone around them crazy with how careful the couple was with Eun Soo's last pregnancy. Their caution had to have driven everyone mad at times, but everyone had taken it all in stride and good grace, with nary a word or comment directed toward the pair. Though, he was positive there had been more than a few good-humored grumbles and eye rolls when the couple was out of sight and hearing.
It was at six months that Eun Soo gave a gasp one brilliant autumn afternoon that had Choi Young's veins fill with instant dread. His head snapped toward the sound to see his wife clutching at her stomach, her eyes growing bright with tears.
Fear pierced through his heart. "Imja, what is it?! Are you okay? Is the baby okay?" He was at her side in an instant, worried hands fluttering over her shoulders and down her arms, checking for any obvious signs but finding none no matter how desperately he searched.
Eun Soo grabbed one his wrists and placed it over her swollen belly, holding it against the firm, warm spot and watching him intently.
Confused, Choi Young was about to ask again about what was happening when he felt a sudden, sharp movement beneath his palm. His eyes riveted to his hand in astonishment.
"The baby is kicking," Eun Soo's smile was bright with her unshed tears.
Choi Young looked at her, almost desperately, afraid to hope. "That's good, right?"
Eun Soo could do no more than nod rapidly before throwing her arms around his neck and holding him as close as her belly would allow. Choi Young kissed her temple, her cheek, and then her lips before embracing her solidly. He rested his forehead against hers with the deepest sigh of relief, feeling like he had been holding his breath for the past six months and was finally able to let some of his fear go.
Until two months later, however, when Choi Young awoke in the dead of night to his wife gasping in pain.
In a panic, Choi Young flung the covers aside and was standing at his wife's side of the bed in a flash. Fear coursed over his body once again as Eun Soo struggled to sit up under her eight month belly, pain darting across her features as her arms immediately circled her middle.
"What is it?" He asked, dread laced through every word.
"It's time," she hissed through her teeth.
"Time?! Time for what?" Choi Young couldn't think straight through his anxiety.
"The baby is coming," she grit through the contraction holding sway over her body.
"Now?!" Choi Young's body froze in disbelief, his eyes widening in alarm. "But it's still too early; you're supposed to have another month!"
Eun Soo's eyes were squeezed shut through the last of the contraction, her fingers balled into the sheets before she finally looked up at her husband who gaped at her in shock and uncertainty. "Well, like it or not, your child wants to be born now."
Having heard their father's loud voice of astonishment and panic, their daughters were suddenly in the doorway. The situation too akin to the previous time their mother was pregnant and anxiety weighed heavily over their now seven and five-year-old shoulders.
"Papa, is Mama okay?" Jae Hwa asked, her brows knit in worry.
Hyun Ae hurried over to her mother's side and began stroking her mother's arm in an effort to ease her pain away.
"Jae Hwa," Eun Soo started, seeing her eldest in the doorway. "Go wake your aunt." She grit her teeth against the next contraction. "Tell her the baby is coming and he or she is not going to wait long!"
Jae Hwa was off like a shot down the hallway as Choi Young fluttered helplessly by, unsure of what to do. He finally settled for sitting next to his wife, one hand attempting to trace soothing circles across her back, while the other he gave to her to squeeze as the pain wracked her body.
Choi Young winced in pain as his wife's hand tightened like a vice around his fingers. Despite what others might think of her small frame, his wife had plenty of strength in her. If he wasn't careful, she would end up snapping one of his fingers. He already couldn't feel his hand for want of a blood circulation.
In a flurry of movement, Lady Choi darted into the room, a team of female attendants following on her heels. Jae Hwa stood at the door, peering in uneasily.
"Take the girls," Lady Choi barked at her nephew.
Choi Young felt himself relax just the slightest at her curt tone, one that spoke of control and knowledge. Part of his mind knew this tone, knew that she had everything in hand, that she had been through this process before and needed him out of the way. He knew that this was a woman's place. He knew that no man was allowed to be here, especially one like him – one that had to take lives to protect them, staining his hands with crimson death. All the same, it hadn't been any easier to leave his wife during her first two births, but after the miscarriage, it was doubly difficult.
Reluctantly he turned to leave before his aunt would bodily shoo him out the door. "Hyun Ae," he called as he backed out of the room, his gaze intent on his wife who was attempting to breathe steadily past another contraction.
Hyun Ae's dark, wavy hair swished rapidly across her face, her jaw set stubbornly. It was difficult to ply her away from her mother at the best of times; Choi Young suspected that now would be worse.
"She can stay," Eun Soo managed, her eyes screwed up from the pain.
Lady Choi frowned at the High Doctor but saved her consul. She knew it would turn into a fight if they tried to move the littlest one, and knew too that Eun Soo couldn't be distracted with that right now. She shrugged to herself; the child was female and had shown a rapt attention to the medical ward in the palace already, perhaps she would be alright. Lady Choi nodded at her nephew before he paused in the doorframe; his hand resting on his oldest's head of dark red hair.
"Imja?" he called quietly, his tone only something Eun Soo recognized.
When she was able to catch her breath as the contraction faded her eyes met his and she smiled grimly. "I'll be alright," she assured him. "I promise."
Letting out a deep sigh of acknowledgement and reluctance, he attempted a smile back and nodded before leading their daughter out of the room and closing the doors tightly behind them before traveling down the hall to the closest room in allowable distance to wait.
Alerted to the coming birth, the King and Queen who were just as concerned as Choi Young were quickly dressed and silently joined the vigil in the small, but comfortable room. Various Woodalchi flitted in and out of the room as their duties allowed, keeping an eye on their general. Dae Man, however, was a solid presence, refusing to leave the room or his general for any reason short of an emergency. Choi Young couldn't help but smile at their firm offer of silent support.
Everyone was so still and quiet, all eyes trained on the fire that crackled merrily in the room. No one spoke. Only Jae Hwa darted about with typical seven-year-old restless energy.
The King and Queen's hands were laced together discreetly, sending quiet glances at each other every so often. Squeezing each other's fingers in silent support as the hours dragged on.
Night passed and the early glow of dawn began to fill the horizon. Jae Hwa peeked through the shuttered window before throwing them open with a bang that startled the entire room, making all its occupants jump at the noise.
"Jae Hwa," Choi Young called, half scolding, half amused.
Jae Hwa's dark red hair twirled around her face as she turned to face her father in excitement, her breath clouding from the sudden cold air. "Papa! It's snowing!" she called excitedly.
The room's occupants stood and joined the animated girl at the window to look out in wonder and peace at the first snowfall of the year. The large, heavy flakes drifted almost lazily as they danced about in the air. The sight was soothing, one that entranced its watchers and brought them slowly out of their worries to enjoy the tranquility of the moment instead.
Choi Young stood just behind his daughter, his arms wrapped fully around her little shoulders and held her tight as she bounced enthusiastically on the balls of her feet. He couldn't help but smile, grateful for the distraction.
Everyone heard the quiet click of the door, but few turned, too used to the coming and goings of many occupants over the last eight hours. It wasn't until a very familiar cough echoed in the room that Choi Young turned around with a start.
Lady Choi stood in the doorway, her features as stoic as ever, her hands folded neatly in front of her. With a bow at the King and Queen, she entered as calmly as if she were strolling through the garden.
Choi Young felt his heart skip a beat as adrenaline rushed through his veins, anticipation filling the room so absolutely he could almost taste it on his tongue. He stood still, his hands braced on Jae Hwa's shoulders as they watched his aunt in trepidation.
Lady Choi met her nephew's eyes and held them for a long moment, until Choi Young felt blood begin to drain from his face.
"What happened?" He asked, sterner than he meant. Jae Hwa went absolutely still under his hands.
Ever so slowly Lady Choi allowed her features to relax into a small smile before bowing her head forward slightly and answering her nephew. "Your wife and son are both healthy and well. They are recovering from the night steadily and strongly."
As the information penetrated the room's occupants, smiles and excited looks were exchanged. No one spoke a word as they all turned to Choi Young who seemed to have been turned into a statue, unblinking.
Jae Hwa looked up at her father in question. "Mama had a boy? Does that mean I have a brother now?"
Lady Choi smiled at her great-niece. "Yes, it does," she answered for her nephew who seemed incapable of speech.
"Can we go see Mama now?" Jae Hwa looked back at her father and frowned when he still didn't respond.
Lady Choi held out a hand to her great-niece in answer. With another frown, Jae Hwa firmly took her father's hand in hers and tugged until he followed her silently.
Grins were exchanged behind his back as their unfaltering general stumbled after his seven-year-old daughter like a toy on a string.
King Gong Min and Queen No Gook squeezed each other's hands tightly, exchanging excited and relieved smiles as their general walked haltingly out of the room. The Woodalchi rushed off to tell their comrades and spread the news. Dae Man raced off to inform the Suribang.
Meanwhile, Choi Young continued to follow falteringly behind his daughter, seemingly unable to gain control of his limbs. Said daughter began to throw worried glances back over her shoulder as she guided her father along.
Lady Choi opened the wooden door and bowed aside, allowing husband and daughter to enter as Lady Choi made a quick signal to have the room clear out momentarily to give the family a minute or two of peace. She shut the doors behind the last person firmly, planting herself outside with a firm stance. Only when she was alone in the hallway did she allow a broad smile to grace her face as she clapped her hands together in expression of her excitement and relief. She knew they had several long weeks to go still – 100 days to be exact – before they would be allowed to celebrate the life of this child, but she rather felt that after all the worrying that they had been doing was finally at its end.
Choi Young and Jae Hwa entered the room to find Eun Soo sitting propped up in bed, a little bundle of blankets clutched in her tired arms, Hyun Ae sitting next to her mother and watching the little person wrapped inside the material with rapt attention. Jae Hwa looked up to find her father's gaze fixated on the little trio and with a sigh dragged him forward until they were standing in front of her mother.
"Mama, is that our new brother?" Jae Hwa asked, her neck straining in curiosity as she stood on her tiptoes to try and peek.
Eun Soo smiled softly and nodded, pulling down a corner of the blanket to allow her daughter to see. Jae Hwa used her mother's arm for leverage as she stared at the small, pink face of her new baby brother.
"He's so small," she commented in a soft voice.
Eun Soo smiled at her daughter.
Hyun Ae looked up from the baby to look up at father who had yet to make a move. Her head tilted to the side in curiosity as she studied him. "Daddy? Are you okay?"
Eun Soo looked up, her brows knitting together in concern. "Dae Jang?"
At the sound of her voice, he sat heavily on the edge of their bed.
"I think we broke him," Jae Hwa whispered conspiratorially with her sister. Hyun Ae nodded in agreement.
Eun Soo too now studied her husband with a critical eye. "Jae Hwa, come sit next to your sister, please."
Jae Hwa obediently clambered on top of the bed and snuggled in next to her sister. Eun Soo turned to her daughters with a soft smile. "Would you like to hold your brother for me?"
"Yeah!" Excited eyes lit up their faces.
"And do you think you can watch him for a minute while I talk to your father?"
Eager heads bounced up and down rapidly.
Carefully Eun Soo arranged her son in her daughters' laps, instructing them on how to hold him and what to be mindful of. The girls took the responsibility with full understanding and awe as they lost themselves in their new duty, excited at the chance to prove that this privilege was a good decision by their mother. She eyed them critically for a moment before with a nod to herself she turned to her husband.
"Dae Jang," she called softly, reaching her hand out to him.
As if he had been waiting for this cue, Choi Young shifted until he was sitting on Eun Soo's free side, the one closest to the edge of the bed. She shook her head and scooted until there was room enough for him to sit behind her.
"I'm tired," she explained promptly. "I want to lean against you."
Without words, Choi Young did as he was asked and slid in behind her. Eun Soo pulled his arms in front and then around her securely before leaning back into his warm, strong chest. As she let out a long sigh of contentment and allowed herself to relax fully into him, his arms slowly tightened around her middle until he was hugging her tightly to him, his forehead dropping down onto her shoulder to hide his face.
Eun Soo reached up behind her to run her fingers through his hair in comfort without a word, her other hand resting against his interlaced ones and hanging on to him securely.
Jae Hwa looked over at her parents and studied them with a small frown of worry. "Is Daddy okay?"
"Your Papa is fine," Eun Soo assured them as Hyun Ae looked up at her sister's comment. "He's just really tired."
"Oh! He's sleeping?" Jae Hwa asked in a loud whisper.
"Hmmmm," Eun Soo answered noncommittally.
Hyun Ae held up a finger to her lips in a silent signal to her sister to keep quiet.
Eun Soo watched them with a small smile for a moment, checking on the baby at the same time before turning her head slightly so that her lips were even with her husband's ear.
"I'm alright Dae Jang," she soothed, softly, so that only he could hear. "He's alright. We're all alright. I promise."
His response was to hug her to him tighter. Eun Soo would have been lying if the move didn't cause her some discomfort. Being in labor for nine hours was no small ordeal, but she kept completely silent on the matter. She knew he needed this. Hell, she needed this. They all did.
She kissed his head tenderly, allowing him to feel with his own body the steady rise and fall of her chest, and the even beat of her heart next to his. Every vital sign showing that she was alive and well.
When his body trembled slightly and her shoulder grew damp with something hot and wet, she didn't comment. She just continued to hold him to her, her own eyes watering as she soaked in his presence and allowed her to settle any lingering worries or fears until she was completely sated and relaxed.
"I love you Dae Jang," she whispered softly.
His answer was to take a deep, steading breath and finally lift his head to kiss her temple gently. "Imja," he whispered almost reverently into her ear.
Eun Soo turned her head to meet hit eyes before he kissed her soundly. When he pulled back, her lips followed his, unwilling to part just yet, but halted when she heard the soft knock at the door.
Lady Choi bustled back in when Eun Soo called to her. She then paused for a moment as she approached the bed, noting the family's positions and her nephew's bloodshot eyes. "If you need a longer moment…" she trailed off, looking down at her hands discreetly to give them privacy.
Eun Soo smiled and held her husband closer when he tried to extract himself from his hold on her. "Not at all," she answered. "I felt slightly chilled when the doors opened; it feels cold enough to snow out there." She looked back up at her husband, his eyes looking at her in open amazement as she saved his face even from his aunt. "This guy was practically radiating heat. Why use a blanket when I can use him?"
Lady Choi felt her lips quirk up in the faintest of smiles. She had caught the look on her punk nephew's face at his wife's easy explanations, but refrained from commenting further on the matter. "Yes," she agreed. "He has to be good for something once in a while."
"Mama!" Jae Hwa's voice broke in excitedly. "It is snowing outside!"
"It is?" Hyun Ae's thrilled voice questioned her sister.
"Is it now?" Eun Soo asked, her face all smiles as she squeezed her husband's arms back in answer to his brief tightening of his hold on her, a silent exchange that spoke more than words ever could.
"Yes," Lady Choi answered. "The first snowfall of the year."
Eun Soo's eyes danced excitedly, even as she felt her energy levels beginning to drop rapidly, adrenaline from the birth and the events immediately following starting to drain out of her as everything settled back into place. "I can't wait to go out and play in it!" she directed to her daughters as they eagerly began talking of building snowmen with their father, creating snow angels with their mother, and how exactly they could rope as many of the Woodalchi as possible into a snowball fight.
"Those rascals are always ready to fool around whenever they get the chance," Lady Choi eagerly entered the conversation. "I can't imagine where they learn it from." Her lips quirked up but she pointedly kept her gaze averted from her nephew and his wife.
Eun Soo sighed happily as Lady Choi joined the little duo in conversation. She leaned back into her husband's solid support. She felt his lips next to ears, speaking so only she could hear them as female attendants scattered around the room straightening up, preparing Eun Soo's warm bath and clean linens.
"Imja," he whispered. "Thank you…"
Those three words spoke more than they could ever say. They expressed all of his deep and humble gratitude for every moment of their lives together.
Choi Young had lived through many tragic events in his life, events that had threatened to drown him in fear. Fear of ever getting too close to another again, lest he experience the same intense and excruciating pain of loss once more. Fear of living his life as fully as possible lest it be ripped out right from under him like a rug in a street performer's trick. Fear of never having a wife, someone he could love so completely and share every minute detail of his very being with unreservedly. Fear of the responsibility of having a family, of raising them wrong or teaching them the wrong things. Fear of losing any of that should he, by some miracle, gain it.
When Eun Soo had entered his life – it had been no picnic. In many ways he had gained new fears that had replaced the old, confirmed them, or simply added to them. But in more ways than he could ever count, he was intensely grateful and humbled by all the things she had brought to his life.
Love, passion, caring, understanding, laughter – he was able to live again. A gift that he felt could never be repaid in full.
He had been content with just her in his life, in his arms, in his heart. Then she had given him two beautiful daughters and now also a son. And each time she had managed to battle through the fight of delivery to return to him.
There were no words that could confess the full depth of gratitude and veneration he felt for her – his wife, his soul mate, his Imja.
So he settled for "thank you," knowing she would somehow understand all that he couldn't say in that mysterious way of hers. Knowing too that she would feel everything he wished to communicate so profoundly in her heart – just as he did with her.
With his simple message, Eun Soo smiled brightly, her eyes shining as she gripped his arms to her tightly in response.
Protected in a warm cocoon of their own making, the small family inside continued to embrace the new day with the vitality and respect for life they knew all too well as the first snow of the season continued to fall gracefully outside. The white crystals blanketed the earth, protecting it from the harsh temper of winter in much the same way that a loved one's arms helped to protect against the fears and nightmares of the world. Both sheltered life in a fierce, vital grip, allowing those lives they shielded to grow and flourish with abandon – without fear to hold them back.