Side Story 17. Playing With Fire

Seol Jihu formed many new relationships in Paradise. In the Neutral Zone alone, he made acquaintances with Salvatore Leorda, Tong Chai, Hao Win, the nameless Priest, and so on.

He kept in touch with some of them but lost contact with the others. Sometimes he wondered how they were doing, in the same way that he wondered how the friends he made online when he was little were doing.

‘Who was our tutorial guide again…? Ah, that’s right. Han. I wonder what he’s up to.’

Immersed in the memories of the past, Seol Jihu walked through the evening streets.

It didn’t take him long to reach his destination. He saw many familiar faces, some of which he had seen recently, and others a while back. There were still 10 minutes left until they were supposed to meet, but everyone was already here.

“Orabeo-nim! Over here!”

Yi Seol-Ah, dressed in a yellow puffer jacket, waved her arm at Seol Jihu. Next to her stood her brother, Yi Sungjin.

“He’s here?”

A woman wearing an ivory duffle coat and a navy scarf turned around.

“Where…. Woah!”

The woman, Shin Sang-Ah, smiled brightly when she saw Seol Jihu.

“Look at your face! It’s all bright and happy now!”

Hyun Sangmin lowered his sunglasses slightly and waved his arm. Even the way he wore his green baseball cap backward was the same.

And then, there was Yun Seora. Dressed in a gray trench coat, she looked more mature than usual. When their eyes met, she smiled shyly and waved at him. Seol Jihu waved back. For some reason, he felt a little shy, too.

“Seems like it was just yesterday that we met each other in that assembly hall! It feels a little weird to be meeting like this.”

With a playful grin, Hyun Sangmin held out his hand.

“Kyak! Picture! Can I take a picture with you?”

Shin Sang-Ah pointed her phone at Seol Jihu and made a big fuss as if she had just met a celebrity.

Although Seol Jihu had been seeing the Yi siblings and Yun Seora regularly, this was his first time meeting Shin Sang-Ah and Hyun Sangmin since they parted ways in the Neutral Zone. They exchanged greetings and caught up on each other’s lives.

“Come on now! We should really get going! We’ve got a ton of time on our hands, so you better save the good stories for the toasts!”

‘Unless you enjoy standing here and slowly freezing to death,’ Hyun Sangmin joked.

“You said you already booked a place? Some place run by one of us?”

“Yeah. It’s a pork belly restaurant. The prices are good, and the food is decent.”

“Keu! I love me some pork belly! With a glass of soju, of course!”

“Soju sounds great, but….”

Seol Jihu glanced at Yi Seol-Ah and Yi Sungjin. He remembered that one of them was still a minor.

“Ah, I’m fine with just a soft drink.”

“Who cares!”

Yi Sungjin, being as smart as he was, tried to reassure the adults, but his words were cut short by his sister.

“One glass of soju isn’t going to kill him. Am I wrong?”

“Well, no, but….”

“Come on, Orabeo-nim! I know you’ve been in our shoes before. You probably had your first soju when you were in middle school or high school, too.”

‘Right? Right?’ Yi Seol-Ah asked, poking Seol Jihu in the ribcage with her elbow. Seol Jihu said nothing—because she was right. He was sixteen when he drank soju for the first time without his parents knowing.

“…Fine. But not too much, okay?”

Seol Jihu let out a sigh.

“It’s decided then! Everyone, don’t even think about going home before midnight! We’ll drink ’til we drop!”

Hyun Sangmin shouted confidently and pushed Seol Jihu.

“Look at that. You guys are right on time. Come on in.”

When they arrived at the pork belly restaurant, Phi Sora welcomed them. She told them she had already finished setting the table and insisted that they leave the food and the drink to her. They agreed to her suggestion and settled in their seats before delving into a lively conversation.

“Anyway, Miss Shin Sang-Ah, you were stationed in the same city as me, weren't you?”

“Yes, I was a member of the affiliated organization.”

“It’s strange we haven’t run into each other….”

“Mm. The truth is I really wanted to see you, but…. How should I put this? I felt a little… overwhelmed?”

Shin Sang-Ah cupped her cheeks in her palms and shook her head.

“That makes sense. I mean, look at how far you’ve drifted away from us.”

Hyun Sangmin chimed in.

“Remember how, toward the end of the war, even the big shots were walking on eggshells around you, waiting for days just to talk to you? So, of course, ordinary people like us couldn’t just charge in there and demand to meet you.”

Part of Seol Jihu wanted to tell them they shouldn’t have cared about any of that, but the other part understood why they made that decision. In the end, Seol Jihu simply nodded.

“Don’t be upset. I couldn’t participate in the fortress war because my Level was too low, but I did participate in the final war.”

Hyun Sangmin said triumphantly, tapping his chest with a fist.

“You have nothing on me! I even took part in the fortress war.”

Shin Sang-Ah retorted, and Hyun Sangmin clicked his tongue.

“Hang on, now. I haven’t told you about my brilliant performance during the defense of Smell and Haramahee yet.”

“Wait a minute. Smell? Haramahee? What are you talking about?”

“Smell is the synonym for you-know-what, and Harama-hee, because I can’t say the last syllable. Jeez, do I really have to explain them one by one?”

“What! You can’t seriously be thinking that’s funny?”

Shin Sang-Ah asked in a slightly mocking tone. Hyun Sangmin’s face fell.

“Well then, how do you say it?”

“I say, Haramarkung! And Evang! My way’s better.”

“That’s even weirder. What’s with Evang? Do you think you’re Patamon or somethin’? I say Iva is way better. You know, replace the e with i.”

“Ah! I hate it!”

Waving a hand, Shin Sang-Ah broke into laughter.

Seol Jihu, who was about to recommend Sangramark for Haramark and Love Bar for Eva, quietly shut his mouth.

“Hold on~ Fire coming through~”

While Shin Sang-Ah and Hyun Sangmin continued to argue over whose method was better, Phi Sora loaded coal into the grill and brought the meat.

The quality of the meat was superb. It was thick and pink with beautiful marbling. But Phi Sora didn’t stop at being a waitress. She grilled the meat herself and even offered them bean paste stew, ramen, and all kinds of drinks for free.

“I love you, Unni!”

Shin Sang-Ah gave Phi Sora a thumbs-up.

“Hmph, but this is nothing. Eat up, everyone.”

Phi Sora raised her chin proudly.

“Hey, pretty face, I think we’ve met before…. Are you up for a date with—”

“No, thank you.”

She cut Hyun Sangmin off immediately.

“Hmph! Well, it does look like you made an effort, so good job.”

Yi Seol-Ah chirped, and Phi Sora frowned at her.

“Hey, you, don’t get all cocky with me. And, although I’m sure you two already know this, I’m gonna say it anyway for the record. No. Alcohol. For. You.”

Phi Sora gestured at Yi Seol-Ah and Yi Sungjin with the tongs in her hand.

“But why? I’m twenty now.”

With a smug expression, Yi Seol-Ah put a hand on her waist.

“Really? Well then, you can drink, but not Yi Sungjin.”

“Oh, come on. Orabeo-nim said he could!”

“Nope, he can’t. I’m the owner of this restaurant. I ain’t selling.”

“Cheapskate!”

“It can’t be helped. They said businesses deemed to promote underage drinking could be subjected to censorship…. I’m kidding. The real reason is that it’s the end of the year, and police raids are more common.”

“…Who were you talking to just now?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t know.”

Phi Sora answered, cutting up the pork belly with scissors.

The atmosphere remained lively even after the small arguments. The meat was delicious, the vegetables were fresh, and the people were great. It was only natural since all of them liked and respected each other.

“That’s right. Can you tell us your story now?”

Hyun Sangmin asked, raising his glass to his lips after a toast.

“My story?”

“Yup, because quite frankly, neither I nor Elephant Sang-Ah over here have much to talk about. But, you do.”

“Who are you calling Elephant Sang-Ah?”[1]

Shin Sang-Ah fumed.

Phi Sora, who had been listening to their conversation as she flipped the pork bellies, quickly lowered her head.

“Hak!”

She broke into laughter.

“Hey, don’t get me wrong! I’m not laughing because it’s funny! I’m laughing because it’s absurd! Elephant Sang-Ah…!”

‘Hak! Hak!’ Phi Sora cackled.

Shin Sang-Ah grabbed Hyun Sangmin by the collar and shook him.

“What?”

“I’m gonna kill you!”

“But, you’re curious, too.”

“How is this even related to…. I mean, yeah, I am.”

Shin Sang-Ah turned her gaze back to Seol Jihu, her eyes gleaming with curiosity.

“Mm…. I just don’t know where to start. It’s a very long story.”

Seol Jihu fidgeted with his glass.

“Come on, don’t be shy. We’ve got all the time in the world! We’ll see it through.”

“Can you tell me about your first day in Evang? I’m dying to know why you did what you did!”

A light flickered in Shin Sang-Ah’s eyes as she hurriedly took out a small notebook and a pen from her pocket. She looked almost like a journalist now.

“Oh, I can tell you about that night. It still gets me frustrated after all this time.”

Phi Sora joined the conversation, and it wasn't long until she took charge of the group.

“Okay, so here we are at our new home, right? We’re all pretty excited and looking around the building when suddenly this guy shows up in the middle of the night, and….”

She wasn’t called Big Sis for nothing. Phi Sora was a natural entertainer. She knew how to tell a story. Thanks to her, everyone enjoyed their time.

Of course, talking wasn’t the only thing they did. Everyone ate to their hearts’ content before getting up to take a break from food.

“I’ll pay for the first round!”

“Alright! I’ll take the second round, then!”

Their next stop was karaoke.

“Don’t~! Call me~! Cruel womaannn~!”

Starting with Phi Sora, everyone took turns singing.

“Digestion finished! Let’s move on to the third round!”

“Go, go, go! Even if you can’t eat it, GO!”

The night continued without an end in sight. They had a lot to talk about, and Seol Jihu’s story was long like he said it would be. He tried to be as concise as possible, but it still lasted until the fifth round.

“I worked so hard, but I was still framed…. Sometimes I wondered why I had to suffer so much….”

“….”

“It was hard…. I’m a human too, you know…. It’s been hard…. I wanted to quit many times, but… but….”

Seol Jihu smiled bitterly and raised his empty glass. Someone refilled his glass with soju. This, someone, was Yun Seora, judging from the color of her clothes.

“Ah. Thank you.”

Seol Jihu raised his head and blinked in succession.

He didn’t know this until now, but the room was a mess.

“Uuaaah, uuaaaah….”

Hyun Sangmin lay sprawled on the floor, breathing heavily.

“Hey, heyyyyyy…. I-I can’t…. I can’t do this anymore…. I feel like I’m dying…. I…. I gotta get home….”

Hyun Sangmin managed to escape, his legs shaking under him. He was the first to leave, even though he was the one who suggested that they drink ’til they drop.

Shin Sang-Ah put her head on the table and stopped moving. Her notebook, which she had filled with fervent zeal just hours earlier, was now completely wet with drool.

These two were the better ones.

“POW!”

Yi Seol-Ah punched Seol Jihu in the ribs and twisted her fist in place. She kept calling it a ‘Screw Punch’.

“You’re drunk, Seol-Ah.”

Yi Seol-Ah paused abruptly.

She looked at Seol Jihu with forlorn eyes.

“…But I—”

“Stop.”

Phi Sora covered Yi Seol-Ah’s mouth with her palm.

“Don’t do it…. Seriously… don’t.”

“Eup? Eup, eup!”

“I said, don’t… do it!”

“Eeeeuuup… ueeeeeek!”

The vomit from Yi Seol-Ah’s mouth soaked Phi Sora’s palm.

Phi Sora screamed in horror.

“…I’m sorry.”

Yi Sungjin, probably the only sober one remaining, apologized on his sister’s behalf.

“I think we better get going now before Noona makes more mistakes….”

“Blechh…. Pow! Oh! Barf! Punch~!”

Yi Sungjin dragged Yi Seol-Ah away, who was now punching her brother and throwing up at the same time.

Seol Jihu shook his head and turned his eyes forward.

Opposite him was Yun Seora, who was staring at him with a flushed face.

“I’m surprised you’re fine, Miss Yun Seora…. Are you a big drinker…?”

“Whaat?”

Maybe she’s not fine. Seol Jihu thought. Her voice sounds too high.

“I dunnnooo…. It’s bitter, and it doesn’t taste very goood….”

“Yeah…?”

“But you… look like a big drinker, Mister….”

Seol Jihu smirked.

“Well, for me… this stuff is basically like juice….”

“Reeeally…?”

“To a man who’s been through so many hardships like me…. The bitter taste of alcohol only feels sweet….”

Seol Jihu emptied his glass in one swallow.

“Keu…! You shouldn’t drink like me, Miss Yun Seora…. It’s bad for your health….”

The moment he said so, he flinched. Yun Seora was no longer sitting across from him. Instead, she was sitting next to him, staring at him, with his hand in hers.

“Why are you so sad…?”

“W-Wait….”

“Tell meee…. I’ll lend you a shoulderrr….”

Her eyes, burning with a dangerous passion, gazed at Seol Jihu.

“Ah~ We should really go home now.”

Phi Sora smacked her lips and got up from her seat.

“NO! TELL ME!”

Yun Seora threw a tantrum.

“TELL ME NOW!!”

Seol Jihu and Phi Sora each grabbed one of Yun Seora’s arms and dragged her outside. She remained unfettered even while Phi Sora was catching a cab.

“Ya! Seol!”

Suddenly, she pointed a finger at Seol Jihu.

“Yaseol! Jihu! Ahahahaha!”

Then she began to roll on the ground laughing.

“Yaseol Jihu! Did you get that? Yaseol Jihu! Zzz….”

“….”

“Ya! Seol!”

“….”

“Answer me!”

“…Yes….”

“Jihu! Yaseol, Jihu! Uhehehe!”

Seol Jihu was able to get Yun Seora into a cab only after letting her call him ‘Yaseol Jihu’ about seven more times.

“You never know what people are really like… until you’ve seen them drunk, you know?”

Phi Sora clicked her tongue, but she also looked pretty drunk.

“You, on the other hand…. You’re holding out well….”

“I can hold my liquor….”

“Liar~ I can tell you’re totally wasted~”

“So are you, Miss Phi Sora….”

“Nope! I’m not drunk! Not… at… all.”

Phi Sora smacked Seol Jihu on the shoulder twice before pulling him towards her, saying it was still too early to part ways and that they should shoot for another round.

“It’ll be like rinsing your mouth~”

“But where….?”

“At the convenience store, dummy! Come onnnn…. It’ll be quick. Okay?”

“So, we’re drinking outside now…?”

“You wanna freeze to death? My place is just nearby~”

Phi Sora bought a few bottles of soju from the convenience store and led the way.

Seol Jihu seemed less than convinced.

“I think you’re already drunk….”

“I told you I’m not! Or could it be… you’re running away because you’re scared I’m gonna beat you?”

“Haha…. So you’re doing it again…. Watch out, or you’re gonna end up crying again….”

“What? Fine. Let’s do this. Let’s go. You are so dead, dear.”

Phi Sora staggered down the street, waving the bag in her hand in a circle.

Her place was smaller than he’d expected. It was a room of about 40 square meters, but it had everything a person needed. They slumped down on the ground and took soju and snacks out of the bag.

“Sooo…. What were you gonna say earlier…?”

“Wha…?”

“Earlier…. You said you wanted to quit… but…?”

Phi Sora tilted her head.

“But….”

Seol Jihu raised the paper cup to his mouth and continued.

“But… I was able to carry on… thanks to my comrades….”

“….”

“If it weren’t for them… I would’ve fallen a long time ago…. And I’m indebted to them….”

Seol Jihu’s face turned serious.

Phi Sora’s face also fell.

“You too… Miss Phi Sora….”

“Ah… Come on~”

Phi Sora turned her head and waved a hand.

“Jeez~ You know I don’t like cheesy….”

“But, I really mean it….”

Seol Jihu wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I haven’t told you this, but… back then… I was so touched… when you stayed silent in front of that bastard….”

“Who? Ah! You mean that bastard, that vampire bastard? When he almost killed me?”

“Yes, then… I… realized how loyal you could be…. I didn’t like you very much at first, you see….”

“Ha! As if I wasn’t!”

Phi Sora let out a chuckle.

“But now… I admit that you aren’t too bad! You’re always looking for boobs, and you’re a child, and I sometimes think you have a split personality…. But! You aren’t too bad. I can acknowledge that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Jeez! Now can we talk about something else? Something more fun and exciting? You’re making the soju taste bad…. Ugh, why is it so damn hot in here!?”

Phi Sora took off her coat and threw it on the floor. Then she took off her pants, saying she felt too stuffy. Wearing nothing but a white dress shirt, she looked undeniably sexy.

“Something more fun….”

The tip of Seol Jihu’s mouth slanted upward.

“Ah. Did you know that you’re supposed to call me Oppa…?”

“Ang?”

“Remember…? That ramen bet from before…?”

“Ah! That!”

Phi Sora laughed.

“Come on! Aren’t we comrades? Can’t you go easy on me?”

“A bet is a bet….”

“See, this is what I don’t like about you. You’re so strict, and narrow-minded, and….”

“B. E. T.”

“Ah! Fine, fine! I’ll do it! Oppaaaa~!”

Phi Sora jumped into Seol Jihu’s arms.

“Jihu Oppaang~ Am I pretty? Am I? Am I?”

She rubbed her face against Seol Jihu’s chest.

“Of course you are…. You’re even prettier now than usual….”

With a giggle, Seol Jihu stroked Phi Sora’s hair. His eyes had already lost their focus, and his tongue was tripping. Both of them were not in their right mind.

“But last time you said I was ugly!”

“When did I say that…? That was a lie…. You’re the prettiest, Sora….”

“Reeeally…? What’s so pretty about meee…?”

Phi Sora’s breath smelled of alcohol.

Seol Jihu also released the breath that he had been holding in.

“How can you not be pretty….”

Seol Jihu tilted his head slightly backward and patted Phi Sora on the back.

“You might complain… but you always follow my command… and you’re always putting your life on the line for our cause….”

“….”

“Really… you’ve done so well….”

“….”

“Thank you….”

Phi Sora, who had been listening in silence, pressed her head to Seol Jihu’s chest.

“…Idiot.”

She muttered in a small voice.

“That’s not what I asked….”

And then….

“….”

“….”

Silence descended.

Phi Sora breathed quietly in Seol Jihu’s arms.

Seol Jihu gently stroked Phi Sora’s back, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

Then, all of a sudden, Phi Sora slowly raised her head.

Seol Jihu lowered his.

Two pairs of eyes, entirely out of focus, looked into each other.

Their heated gazes met, locked, and entangled, with still many hours left until sunrise.


1. Sang-Ah means elephant tusk.

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