Side Story 43. Denouement

It was no secret that humans were forgetful beings.

It would be a tragedy if one could distinctly recall everything they had seen or experienced. In such cases, one is sure to drown in their past.

Sometimes, people have to forget in order to move forward.

Therefore, oblivion was a blessing, and it was also essential to humans.

Paradise was no exception.

Years had passed since the war ended, and everyone was living in harmony, abiding by the rules laid out in the Half Century Treaty.

Of course, it was still too early to say that Paradise had forgotten its past.

Those born after the war were exceptions, but many who had been exposed to the cruelty of the war, however short, still suffered from the trauma.

But one thing was for sure: they were getting better.

As time went by, the faces of those who struggled to survive the Parasites’ oppression and those who had lost their will to live, regained the color they had lost.

The couple walking down the street, each holding their child’s hand, could not seem happier.

Their faces were full of hope for the future.

It was clear to anyone who saw those faces that the Parasites were already fading from their memory.

But it wasn’t just the Parasites.

The hero who saved Paradise was also slowly disappearing from everyone’s memory.

His name would forever be recorded in history, but… it couldn’t be helped.

Such was the fate of all war heroes.

They are born in turbulent times and disappear when peace returns.

To be forgotten—Seol Jihu had no problem with it.

In fact, he was thoroughly content with the phenomenon. The fact that people were forgetting him meant that Paradise was peaceful.

It was around this time that Seol Jihu made a decision.

Like everyone else, the situation around him had changed since the end of the war.

He resigned from his post as Valhalla’s representative, opened the restaurant of his dreams, and found a girlfriend—or rather, girlfriends—who wanted to be with him forever.

It was time for Seol Jihu to prepare for a new future.

But before that, there was one more thing he had to do.

He was hesitant to carry it out, however.

‘Everything’s going well…. Do I have to tell them?’

He’d been pondering for days. He went to Seo Yuhui for advice and also consulted Phi Sora.

In the end, he decided that he should tell at least one person.

Fortunately, the opportunity came sooner than he had expected.

A few days later was his benefactor’s birthday.

—Happy birthday to you~ Happy birthday to you~

Under the dark night sky, the birthday song merrily resounded in the candle-lit garden.

—Happy birthday, Dear Flone~ Happy birthday to you~

—Huuuuuuuuuu!

Flone inhaled and exhaled a deep breath.

All the candles went out at once.

—Woahhhh!

Clap clap!

Firecrackers went off all around her as cheers and applause filled the garden.

[Phew. That was tough! I’ve never been so nervous before blowing candles! Why are there so many of them?]

Flone let out a sigh of relief and clicked her tongue.

There were more than 500 candles on the enormous cake.

“Allow me to explain.”

Yui, Kazuki’s sister, stepped forward.

“In our world, it is traditional for the number of candles to match the age of the individual whose birthday it is. Flone, you’re over 500 years old, so—”

[Irayaaa!]

Flone stabbed her fist at Yui without giving her a chance to finish.

And Yui was flung through the air beyond the garden walls.

[How rude! You can’t talk about a lady’s age so openly! Let’s keep it civil, all right?]

Flone grunted softly and shook her hands like she was throwing off dust.

It was then.

“An opening!”

Hoshino Urara, who had been patiently waiting for a chance to strike, suddenly grabbed a fistful of cake and lunged toward Flone.

[Hrm?]

“Beware! The Cake Attack!”

Flone quickly opened her mouth.

It stretched wider than twice the size of the cake.

“Ueh!?”

Hoshino Urara screamed at the bizarre sight and the piece of cake that she threw passed through Flone’s mouth and fell to the ground.

Surprisingly, as soon as it touched the soil, it turned to ashes.

[Mm! This is yummy! I think Earth’s cakes are sweeter and softer than our own. Can I have some more?]

Flone turned around, chewing the bite in her mouth.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Please don’t kill me!”

When she saw Hoshino Urara lying flat on the ground, begging her to spare her life, Flone opened her eyes wide.

[What’s wrong?]

Wry chuckles escaped the bystanders.

They knew she was a good evil spirit, but she was still terrifying at times.

“Come on, that’s enough. We should probably get to the presents now.”

Flone’s eyes sparkled with delight at the word ‘presents’.

The attendees took turns handing Flone presents.

“Happy birthday, Flone. I was wondering what I should get you, then I thought, why not give her something to commemorate the day we pulled a con together?”

[Oh! A title deed! Can I move my tomb here?]

Starting with Kim Hannah….

“Happy birthday. My present is quite ordinary….”

[Wow! A giant, white, stuffed bunny that looks like Seol Jihu! Thanks! I’m going to sleep with him tonight!]

Seo Yuhui….

“Miss Flone. Happy birthday. Are you interested in cryptocurrency mining by any chance?”

[Mm? What’s this? A graphics card? It looks used….]

…Followed by Maria and the others.

“Yo! This is from me!”

[Die.]

Hugo gave Flone lingerie and was beaten just enough not to die.

“Hey, don’t discriminate! You were delighted when Seol gave you one!”

Hugo shouted desperately, but nobody listened.

Finally, it was Seol Jihu’s turn.

“Flone, happy birthday.”

Seol Jihu gave her his present with a shy smile.

“I couldn’t have come this far without you. I’ll always be grateful.”

[Come on, I could say the same to you. Anyway… what is this?]

Flone looked at Seol Jihu’s present with confused eyes.

If her eyes weren't playing tricks on her, it looked like a piece of flesh or tentacle.

“It’s a divinity.”

[?]

“A customer paid with that instead of money. I asked Gula-nim about it, and she said that it used to be a part of a Heaven-rank 8 god, so it contains divinity.”

[Wow! Seriously?]

“Yes. And you can use it however you want, Flone. I'm sure you can exchange it for an enormous amount of contribution points at the temple.”

This meant she could make a Divine Wish to become a human or even a god.

Flone’s face brightened in an instant.

It was the best present she could have ever received.

[Thank you! Seriously, thank you so much! I’ll make good use of it!]

Flone happily kissed Seol Jihu on the cheek.

With an awkward smile, Seol Jihu slowly pulled his head back because he noticed that Seo Yuhui and Phi Sora were getting uncomfortable.

The party began promptly.

Delicious food and fragrant wines were placed on the tables.

Everyone ate, drank, and chatted to their hearts’ content.

After a while, Kim Hannah stepped outside to escape the endless parade of drinking games.

She strolled around the garden, occasionally taking a sip of wine from the glass in her hand.

“…Hm?”

Suddenly, she felt a gaze fall on her.

When she turned around, she saw Seol Jihu standing awkwardly nearby.

“What? Do you need something? Are you in trouble again?”

Asked Kim Hannah, tilting her glass to him.

Seol Jihu smiled bitterly.

He hadn’t said anything yet, but Kim Hannah already seemed to know what he was thinking.

“I’m not in any trouble.”

Seol Jihu took the glass from Kim Hannah’s hand and poured more wine.

“How’s everything?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“I mean Valhalla.”

“…What’s going on? It’s rare for you to show interest.”

Kim Hannah’s eyes widened.

She asked again in a slightly lower voice.

“Could it be that you’re thinking of coming back?”

“No. It’s actually the exact opposite.”

Surprise and confusion crossed Kim Hannah’s face. She wondered if she’d heard him right.

“Oh, I’m not retiring.”

Seol Jihu quickly waved his hand.

“It’s just that… I think I’ll stay on Earth for a while.”

“Why?”

“Mm… how should I explain this? You know about my situation, right?”

Kim Hannah glanced to the side.

She chuckled as she realized Seo Yuhui and Phi Sora were glaring at her with intensity.

“One’s missing, huh?”

She nodded and remarked teasingly.

“I guess you’re the head of a family now. Or should I say, three families?”

“Don’t tease me.”

“Sorry, sorry. So you decided to focus on family? Is that why you’re going back?”

“Well, not necessarily….”

Seol Jihu continued after a brief pause.

“I think it’s time I told them.”

Kim Hannah’s face fell.

After a moment of silence, her eyes widened, and her jaw fell open.

“Wait, you can’t possibly be thinking about—”

“No, you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking.”

“Hold on. I thought there was no more Neutral Zone?”

“I already looked into it. They’re willing to reopen it via request. But of course, I’ll have to pay some contribution points for it.”

“Really?”

Kim Hannah tilted her head, playing with the glass in her hand.

“Still, that aside… I’m just not sure if you should tell them.”

“…”

“The choice is yours, of course, but…. Your circumstances are a bit special, and you know that.”

“Right.”

Seol Jihu smacked his lips.

“It’s like I tricked them again, in a way….”

“In the worst-case scenario, your family might think you betrayed them again.”

“Still.”

Seol Jihu’s voice tightened.

“I think I said this before, but it’s not like I did anything wrong.”

“Right.”

“I didn’t gamble or do drugs. I think I did best with what I could. The result wasn’t bad, either.”

“…”

“I’m… tired of lying and being lied to. I want to be honest with my family, at least.”

Kim Hannah stared at Seol Jihu in silence.

“How long have you been thinking about this?”

“Ever since the incident with Jinhee.”

“That’s right. I remember your sister was pretty great. Good, bring her here. Hurry!”

“Hey.”

“I’m just kidding.”

Laughing, Kim Hannah turned the glass in her fingers.

“All right. You’ve already made your decision, so be it. But don’t think this will be easy. You’ll have to be extremely careful.”

“I know.”

Seol Jihu nodded.

“Honestly, I almost went to see them the very day I decided to tell them the truth.”

Kim Hannah almost threw her glass at him….

“But Yuhui stopped me. So I thought about it, and there’s really no reason to hurry.”

But his next remark managed to calm her down.

“So, how are you going to proceed with this? Tell me about your plan. I’m curious.”

“I’m going to introduce Yuhui to my family. That will be the first course of action.”

“Good thinking. And then?”

“After that, I’m going to give them some time… set a date for the wedding, and then…. I’m going to talk to my brother.”

“Your brother?”

“Yeah. He tends to be the most accepting.”

Kim Hannah let out a small exclamation of amazement.

“You’re planning to talk to them one by one to minimize their shock.”

“Yes. And, if everything goes well, he could help me speak to the rest of the family as well.”

“Not bad. And you are keeping your parents for last?”

“Probably? I’m still thinking about whether I should group them together or talk to them individually. I’m also considering putting Jinhee off till the end.”

“Yeah, do spend some time thinking about the proper order. I agree that your brother should be first.”

“Right?”

“Yes. I always tell you this, but—don’t rush. This especially requires patience and endurance…. It’ll naturally take time.”

Kim Hannah finally realized what had been bugging Seol Jihu.

Until now, Seol Jihu spent most of his time in Paradise. He visited Earth once or maybe twice a month.

But things would be different from now on. He would spend more time on Earth to sort things out with his family and prepare for his wedding.

After organizing her thoughts, Kim Hannah scoffed all of a sudden.

“Is this why you asked me that question earlier?”

“Hmm?”

“You asked me how Valhalla was doing. Are you worried that we’ll fall behind while you’re away?”

“Well….”

Seol Jihu averted his eyes.

Kim Hannah lifted her chin.

“Hey. Did you know that we’ve been on a roll lately?”

“Yeah?”

“Not as much as your restaurant, of course, but we are Paradise’s number one organization.”

Ever since Kim Hannah became the representative, Valhalla had been thriving both in Paradise and on Earth, even more than it did when Seol Jihu was the representative.

Of course, considering the difference in situation and circumstances, Kim Hannah’s management skills could not be said to be dramatically superior to Seol Jihu’s. Still, it was true that the numbers were better.

“While we’re on the topic, I’ll let you in on a secret: something big is going to happen soon in Paradise.”

“Something big?”

“You know how it’s practically impossible to find ruins in places other than unexplored regions these days?”

Kim Hannah continued in a whisper.

“Well, we found it not long ago.”

“What?”

“The final ruins of the Empire.”

“The Empire? Final ruins?”

“Yup. As you already know, the imperial territory was purified ages ago, and reconstruction is underway. And—one of the construction staff discovered ruins inside the old imperial palace.”

Kim Hannah began to speak faster, and Seol Jihu tilted his head.

“Really? Why hadn’t they found it until now?”

“Apparently, it was very deep beneath the surface. It was like the basement of a basement, and the way down is extremely complicated, too. The construction worker tried to reach the bottom, but it seemed impossible, so he gave up and returned to the surface to sell us the information.”

“And?”

“I immediately dispatched Team 1 to the scene so that they could capture it if it were real. I was skeptical at first, but….”

“It was real.”

“And there’s more.”

Kim Hannah’s lips curved into a smile.

“According to Marcel Ghionea… they discovered some traces at the site.”

“Traces?”

“Prepare to be blown away. They were traces left behind by the Parasite Queen.”

Seol Jihu’s eyes narrowed.

Suddenly, he was getting a bad feeling about this.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Parasite Queen is alive.”

“What then?”

“Well, it looks like the Parasite Queen tended to the place herself.”

A place specifically cared for by the Parasite Queen.

Seol Jihu bit his lower lip.

“The fact that Team 1 is here at the party…. Does that mean the search is already complete?”

“No, not yet. As you already know, Marcel is an excellent sniper, but searching isn’t his specialty. He said he retreated because there were too many uncertain factors. I bought the information, of course, and we’re planning to revisit the site in a couple of days with more people.”

“That’s great.”

“Don’t look down on us. They may not be you, but they’re still strong.”

Kim Hannah finally took a sip of the wine she had poured earlier.

“What I’m trying to say is—don’t worry. We’re doing fine without you, so you focus on your life.”

She was right. An organization is made up of many people; one person’s absence is hardly noticeable. He knew that much.

However….

Seol Jihu looked at Kim Hannah and hesitated for quite a while.

Should he tell her, or should he keep quiet?

After much deliberation, he chose the latter.

He stepped down a long time ago and repeatedly turned down requests to return to Valhalla. He really had no justification for interfering with their business at this point.

Moreover, he was not so dense as to have missed the true meaning hidden behind Kim Hannah’s words.

“…That’s great.”

In the end, Seol Jihu smiled.

“I was looking to give you advice, but I don’t think you need my help. You and the others are doing just fine.”

“Advice? Well, well. Aren’t you a big boy now?”

“I am.”

“You’re still 100 years too early.”

Kim Hannah poked Seol Jihu on the side and giggled.

“Here, let’s make a toast. To our respective lives.”

Seol Jihu shrugged and lifted his glass into the air.

They clinked glasses, then gulped the wine down quickly.

“Keuu! You know, it’s nice to be able to talk like this. We haven’t done this in a while.”

Kim Hannah waved the wine bottle in her hand with a bright smile.

“Let’s head down to my office and have another drink. What do you say?”

“No.”

It was then that Seo Yuhui slid herself between the two of them.

“Jihu isn’t supposed to drink too much. Right?”

“Um, yeah.”

Seo Yuhui linked her arm with his, and Seol Jihu nodded quickly.

“Oh my, aren’t you guys lovely. But give it a rest, all right? You’re making me jealous.”

Kim Hannah winked with a smile.

But her face immediately stiffened after she turned around. She smacked her lips, feeling sorry for herself for missing her chance.

The party finally came to an end.

People were sprawled out drunk on the ground, and Flone had fallen asleep hugging her presents with the happiest smile on her face.

Phi Sora told Seol Jihu that she wanted to sleep in the Valhalla building, so he headed for the temple with Seo Yuhui.

Seol Jihu was silent throughout the walk.

He seemed lost in thought.

“Jihu.”

Seo Yuhui, who had been quietly observing him, finally found the courage to ask.

“Are you mad at me for stopping you earlier?”

“Hmm? Oh, no.”

Seol Jihu shook his head.

He was actually thinking about his chat with Kim Hannah.

‘The final ruins of the Empire…. A place specifically cared for by the Parasite Queen….’

The thought of it was getting on his nerves for some reason.

The ruins sounded too dangerous to get near, but it also couldn’t be left alone forever. But Kim Hannah said she was proceeding with caution, so what could he have possibly said?

‘What if I use a Divine Wish, and….’

But Seol Jihu quickly shook off the thought.

He knew that would offend the members of the expedition team and also Kim Hannah.

‘Still…. Should I have told her?’

There was something he wanted to tell Kim Hannah.

Some things are invisible from behind the desk.

Sometimes a representative needs to go out on the field to examine and assess the problem herself.

But he just couldn’t say it in the end. Kim Hannah was a noncombatant and much better at business than he was.

Deep in thought, he soon arrived at the warp gate.

Seol Jihu let out a sigh.

“…Are they gonna be okay…?”

It was then that Seo Yuhui realized what Seol Jihu was worried about.

It wasn’t surprising to her that Seol Jihu was hesitant to leave.

He had devoted so much of his time to saving Paradise.

Leaving behind the fruit of his hard work couldn’t be easy.

“It’ll be okay.”

Seo Yuhui whispered in a soft voice.

“Everything’s over and Paradise is so much stronger now.”

“…”

“And it’s not like we’re leaving forever. Once everything works out with your family….”

“…You’re right.”

Seol Jihu managed to nod.

Was the reason for his hesitation due to the ominous premonition, or simply because he didn’t want to leave his friends?

Without knowing the answer, he turned around.

The view of Paradise reflected in his eyes….

“…”

…looked surprisingly dark and cold today.

“…Let’s go.”

Seo Yuhui grabbed and pulled lightly on Seol Jihu’s arm.

Seol Jihu’s eyes remained fixed on Paradise until the moment he stepped into the warp gate.

Soon, the gate swallowed his entire body, and the pair disappeared completely.

This was the day Seol Jihu left Paradise.

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