Chapter 97. Great Fortune Within Hardship

The youth’s brain found it difficult to accept that the woman in front of him was Yun Seora. Seol Jihu carefully examined her delicate facial features, which reminded him of a sculpture from the Renaissance.

His first impression of Yun Seora was that she was an arrogant, prudish city girl. But after he saved her from Kang Seok during the Tutorial and lived with her in the Neutral Zone, he found out that she had a warm, puppy-like personality as well.

Her eyebrows were still perked up like a mischievous cat, and the shape of her eyes still gave off a cold aura, but her gaze was so obviously yearning for him that he began to wonder if she came back home after years of hard labor overseas.

“Jihu-nim?”

He barely managed to hold himself back from choking on air. She must have called him since he wasn’t saying anything, but ‘nim’? Nim!?

Yun Seora must have seen his look of shock as she muttered carefully.

“Um, did you tell me a fake name?”

She had the wrong idea. The problem was with how she addressed him. Seol Jihu shook his head strongly.

“No, you got the name right. But, um, addressing me as ‘nim’ is a bit….”

Being the smart girl that she was, Yun Seora quickly realized that he was embarrassed about being called ‘nim’.

“Ah… then.”

She tilted her head slightly before opening her mouth.

“Jihu Oppa?”

‘…Mm.’

Oppa. He never imagined a simple word could hold such destructive power. He realized that the same word could have different nuance and flavor depending on who said it.

‘It’s better than nim at least….’

Once he deactivated Nine Eyes, he finally understood the cause of the sense of incongruity he was getting from her. It was her outfit.

Leopard-print sunglasses hung above her milky forehead. A lacy, navy-blue tweed dress encapsulated her slim figure, a maroon leather belt outlined her waistline, a small diamond earring sparkled on her left earlobe, and a thin, 20 denier polka-dot stockings adorned her legs….

Even at a glance, her clothes were yelling, ‘I’m the daughter of a rich family.’ As Seol Jihu had only seen her in loose hoodies or a set of armor, he could only feel unfamiliar with Yun Seora in her carefully chosen outfit.

‘Right, she was the youngest daughter of Sinyoung….’

It was then that Seol Jihu realized Yun Seora looked anxious. It’s been a long time since they last met. Seeing how he criticized the way she addressed him and has said nothing since, she couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Seol Jihu was annoyed for being forced to come when he didn’t want to.

Of course, it would be a lie to say that Seol Jihu wasn’t annoyed, but the moment he found out that Yun Seora was the one who wanted to see him, the ill-feeling in his heart disappeared like melting snow.

Although Yun Seora was affiliated with Sinyoung, she was also a good friend who has been with him through joy and sorrow. Moreover, Kim Hannah called her the sole ‘ally’ who could protect him from Yun Seohui’s hands, and the Golden Commandment was the proof.

Knowing this, Seol Jihu was able to smile.

“I’m surprised.”

Yun Seora’s eyes widened.

“I didn’t think it would be you, Miss Yun Seora.”

Her worried complexion finally softened, and a smile emerged on her face.

“Um… if it’s okay with you….”

Yun Seora grabbed Seol Jihu’s hand tightly and turned to look at the sliding door.

“Of course.”

He entered the room without hesitation. The only thing he couldn’t understand was why she sat next to him when there was a seat right across from him. She was even on her knees like a prim lady.

The way she stared at him affectionately from the beginning to end reminded him of a chihuahua begging to be patted. Seol Jihu found this whole thing a bit troublesome.

What should he say?

‘Have you been well?’ felt a bit too simple. ‘Why did you call me?’ felt too formal and business-like. As Seol Jihu wrecked his brain to come up with the right words, Yun Seora began the conversation.

“I’m sorry for calling you here on such short notice. Did any problems come up on your way here?”

“No, not at all.”

Her cautious, apologetic tone immediately made Seol Jihu shake his hands in denial.

“I was just a bit surprised. I didn’t expect to see Miss Yun Seora, and….”

When he blurred the end of his speech, Yun Seora fixed her posture with her knees still touching the floor. In essence, she overlapped her hands together and placed them on her lap.

Should I say it or not? Seol Jihu could practically read her thoughts as her nervousness increased. Soon, she opened her mouth in a serious tone.

“I heard you were coming to Sinyoung.”

Seol Jihu’s uncomfortable smile quickly disappeared and a serious expression took its place.

“I also heard you were planning to go someplace else but was forced by Yun Seohui pressuring Director Kim.”

He felt a bit strange hearing how she addressed her older sister like a complete stranger, but he kept silent and continued to hear her out.

“I’ll be straight with you. Please apply to the department I’m in charge of.”

Seol Jihu dropped his jaw and went, “Ah.” What Kim Hannah told him yesterday flashed in his mind.

“Has the fake employment matter been decided already? The details, I mean.”

“No, nothing is set in stone at the moment.”

Yun Seora shook her head, while Seol Jihu nodded his. He began to understand why Kim Hannah was gloating so much last time they met.

Although Seol Jihu’s employment to Sinyoung was only in name, as he would be their official employee by document records, he would need to be associated with a department. There was, of course, a high chance that this department would be Yun Seohui’s.

In other words, using the excuse of providing a secure environment, Yun Seohui would obtain a point of contact with him. She could easily ask him to show his face every once in a while or summon him by mentioning a mandatory company dinner. There were dozens of ways she could go about this.

Yun Seora must have been the trump card Kim Hannah took out to prevent this. By spreading the rumor of Seol Jihu joining Sinyoung, she had resulted in Yun Seora making a move.

Yun Seora had perfect justification for doing so as well. Since she received such a big help during her time in the Neutral Zone, who could say anything if she said she wanted to pay back her debts?

‘So this is what she meant by barking up the wrong tree.’

He discovered the missing pieces of the puzzle, but he still asked just to be sure.

“Is there something I need to do if I enter Miss Yun Seora’s department? Or a rule to follow, even.”

“No, I can promise you there will be nothing like that.”

Yun Seora replied firmly as if she had been waiting for this question. Her nervous demeanor clearly signaled how much she was waiting for an answer.

“Okay, then that works with me.”

A flower bloomed on Yun Seora’s face. Seeing the look of relief spreading on her face, Seol Jihu now became positive of something. That expression was one that said ‘I protected him’ rather than ‘I did it’.

‘Looks like I’ll have one thing less to worry about.’

The problem that had been bothering him from the corner of his mind was taken care of thanks to Yun Seora’s intervention. In a way, he was lucky. The favor he did for her during his time in the Neutral Zone had returned to him as an unexpected fortune.

At that moment, several dishes came in. Seol Jihu stared at the luxurious food and widened his eyes. There was just too much.

“I figured you haven’t eaten yet….”

Yun Seora clasped her hands together and spoke bashfully.

“I wasn’t sure what you’d like, so I prepared a little bit of everything….”

Crabmeat soup glistening in a tasty light, mouth-watering fried pork belly in soy sauce, parboiled bean sprouts, large grilled abalones, and more…. All sorts of savory and flavorful aroma stung his nose, making him dizzy.

He couldn’t take his eyes off the dishes as he asked while drooling.

“Can I… eat all this?”

The moment he heard the words, “Of course”, he picked up his chopsticks. He was the type of person who lost his mind in front of a tasty dish, so he concentrated on eating.

After watching him for a while with a satisfied grin, Yun Seora began to recommend some to him, saying, “Try this”. She didn’t forget to constantly refill his cup with water and remind him to eat slower.

After eating whatever he was given for a long time, he suddenly snapped out of his entranced state.

“Ah, Miss Yun Seora, you should eat….”

He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence with “too”. All the plates on the table were wiped clean. When he looked up in a daze, he could see Yun Seora with her eyes closed tight and one hand over her mouth. She was clearly holding in her laughter.

‘Aaaaaah.’

He screamed internally, unable to endure the sense of embarrassment rising up inside him. On the other hand, he felt like this was the first time he saw Yun Seora laugh. Then again, who wouldn’t find it funny if someone asked to eat together after devouring everything?

“Don’t worry. There’s still some left.”

Yun Seora suppressed her laughter and began to eat the leftovers. Even as Seol Jihu was trembling from shame, he couldn’t help but find Yun Seora’s small, nibbling mouth cute.

“I heard the news.”

Seemingly trying to save the nervous trainwreck in front of her, Yun Seora brought up another topic. It was, of course, about Paradise. They began to chat about all kinds of things.

One thing that surprised Seol Jihu was how Yun Seora knew everything about his achievements. But Kim Hannah also knew about his major achievements, and since they were acquaintances from the Neutral Zone, he understood why she might have been interested.

Once his thoughts reached here, he wondered how Shin Sang-Ah and Hyun Sangmin were doing and asked if she knew anything about them.

“I have no idea.”

Yun Seora gave a cut-throat response. Noticing Seol Jihu’s dazed expression, she went ‘Ah’ before hurriedly adding more detail.

“But I did hear about Seol-Ah. Apparently, her talent as an Archer is excellent. It’s looking like she will reach Level 2 in a few months.”

After asking about his old friends from the Neutral Zone….

“Me? I’m a Level 2 Berserker. N-No… I’m not that amazing. It’s not like I leveled up through my own accomplishments like you, Oppa.”

He asked about Yun Seora. Since he had time on his hand, he was deeply engrossed in the conversation. He found it both fun and interesting. When he first met Yun Seora, he never imagined they would be meeting outside of Paradise like this.

After drinking an expensive tea to keep his mouth fresh, Seol Jihu finally left the VIP room with Yun Seora. By then, they had already spent two hours talking inside. Seol Jihu walked a step ahead to pay for the meal, but he felt a bit guilty once he found out that the meal had already been paid for.

“I’ll pay for our meal next time.”

Seol Jihu vowed to treat her to a tasty meal to wash away today’s shame. However, Yun Seora flinched when she heard what he said.

“Really?”

Hearing her high-pitched tone, cold sweat went down Seol Jihu’s back. Yun Seora had laughed about the matter before, but he couldn’t help but think she was angry about it inside.

After hesitating for a moment, Yun Seora took out her cellphone and stared at it fixedly.

“Then… can I call you again?”

“Of course.”

Seol Jihu nodded his head immediately. After exchanging their numbers, the two of them left the restaurant. The sky was already dark, showing just how long they talked inside.

On the parking lot outside, the man who drove him here was waiting with his car. Seol Jihu insisted on taking a taxi home, but he found himself in the back seat of the sedan before he noticed what happened.

An awkward air filled the atmosphere. Yun Seora was chatty back when it was just the two of them, but she remained silent perhaps because there was someone else with them.

Huff, huff- He could only hear her soft breaths.

Tk. Suddenly, he felt something hit his forearm.

‘Hm?’

When he rolled his eyes to the side, he saw Yun Seora leaning on his shoulder with her eyes closed.

“Miss Yun Seora?”

When he moved his arm out of the way, she fell and ended up with her head on his lap. When he nudged her to wake her up, Yun Seora grabbed his hand abruptly and covered her eyes with it.

“Mmnn.” She whimpered softly, seemingly content.

“….”

He wasn’t sure if she was doing this in her sleep, but he was taken aback by how bold she was acting.

“Seol Jihu-nim.”

At that moment, the driver called his name.

“Do you enjoy driving around at night?”

Seol Jihu blinked repeatedly at his seemingly random question.

“I know a good place to drive around at this time of night. Watching the night scenery while driving slowly brings a whole new meaning to life. You won’t regret it.”

When Seol Jihu kept staring at him in a daze, the man let out a bitter smile.

“It’s been a while since Young Lady didn’t throw a…. No, it’s been a while since she fell asleep peacefully. So please.”

Only then did Seol Jihu understand what he meant.

“Are you related to that place?”

“Of course.”

“I’d be happy to so long as I have someone to talk to.”

“I will duly oblige.”

The man changed course and asked with a grin.

“I’m asking just out of concern, but you don’t happen to swing that way, would you?”

“I’ll get off.”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

The two men laughed wordlessly.

*

Seol Jihu made a new friend. To be honest, her social standing was too high for him to consider her a friend, but he decided not to think about all that. What mattered was that they shared a secret they couldn’t tell others about.

The biggest change in Seol Jihu’s life was that he started to look at his phone more often. In the past, never mind looking at it, he hated having it with him. More often than not, he had his phone off and refused to look at it.

But after he made a friend from Paradise, he began to carry his phone with him. Currently, he was reading a martial arts book about qi circulation. From what he could tell, the concept of qi was extremely similar to mana.

‘Qi circulation refers to the movement of internal energy along one’s meridians. It soothes the mind and the heart, while also….’

He was studying arduously when a light flickered on his phone screen. A message was shown on his notification bar. He unlocked his phone with a smile.

[It was great seeing how you gobbled them up so voraciously. I’m glad you liked them.]

It hasn’t been long since they last exchanged messages, yet another one came. Ever since Yun Seora messaged him in the morning, the periodic messages have been going back and forth non-stop.

[I’m going to need a chance to redeem myself. What do you like?]

[I’m fine with anything. I’m not really a picky eater.]

Fine with anything. That was the trickiest type to deal with.

Seol Jihu tapped on the phone’s keyboard with a blooming smile on his face.

[Anything? Mm, I’ve never heard of a dish like that. It doesn’t show up on the internet either.]

[….]

Seeing Yun Seora’s reply, he laughed in his heart.

[I’m kidding. There’s actually something I really like. I want to treat you to it.]

[Really? What is it?]

[Have you tried Kwangdong Ssanghwa-tang from the convenience store? If you put it in the microwave and drink it when it’s warm, it’s really good for relaxing your body.]

[I hate you.]

[Haha, I’m just joking. Anyways, give it a thought and let me know. It’s fine even if it’s expensive.]

After the brief conversation, Seol Jihu went back to studying while being satisfied with his own jokes. Now that he thought about it, it had been a long time since he last laughed so hard on Earth.

Of course, that didn’t mean his desire to go back to Paradise lessened. In fact, this desire grew stronger every time he made progress in his studies. After all, he still had no one around him on Earth.

Kim Hannah was busy with work, and he couldn’t just text Yun Seora all day. The sense of loneliness and isolation was especially great after chatting and laughing with Yun Seora.

The feeling of solitude and bitterness that visited him before sleep was unbearably painful. Once he was reminded of these feelings, Seol Jihu quickened his pace. The earlier he finished studying, the earlier he could return to Paradise.

Ssk, ssk!

His writing speed hastened.

*

‘Let’s go back.’

Exactly ten days had passed since Seol Jihu’s return to Earth. Kim Hannah was surprised by how long he stayed on Earth and quickly permitted him to go. She emphasized that he was ‘going’ to Paradise, not ‘returning’, but Seol Jihu didn’t care either way.

Perhaps because of Yun Seora, he was a bit more at ease compared to last time when he was practically chased away to Paradise.

‘Six packs of cigarettes, sandbags, toiletry, clothes, sneakers, notebook….’

After packing everything he wanted to bring into a large shopping bag, he took out a small, palm-sized piece of paper. Suddenly, he spotted his phone, which was connected to the charger.

Yun Seora had not contacted him since that day. After staring at it for a moment, Seol Jihu ripped the paper in half without hesitation.

Chwack! Along with a ripping sound, brilliant light filled his vision.

*

He finally returned to Paradise.

“Uwaaaaah.”

After leaving the temple, Seol Jihu stretched hard and watched countless Earthlings going in and out of the temple. Once his eyes turned to the dilapidated buildings of the city, vitality slowly emerged in his eyes.

Like its nickname, ‘Crime City’, Haramark was messy and decadent. However, it was also filled with a mysterious vigor and an electrifying virility.

The heaviness suppressing his chest slowly disappeared. With light steps, Seol Jihu hopped down the stairs to the temple. As he looked around the city in excitement, he noticed something strange.

‘?’

The overall atmosphere of the city was rather grave. Rather than somber or dark, it was the opposite. Almost as if an incredibly elastic spring was pushed down to the limit, a current of excitement waiting to erupt filled the air.

‘Did something happen?’

Seol Jihu found a small group of people muttering about something with a serious face. He couldn’t help but feel a little excited.

He brought his animated body to Carpe Diem’s building, but the office was completely empty. There wasn’t any trace of anyone having visited it either.

‘Are they not here yet?’

The difference in time between Earth and Paradise was 1 to 3. In other words, the ten days he spent on Earth was equivalent to thirty days in Paradise.

He thought he would have been the last one to come, so no one being here was quite a surprise.

‘I’m sure they’ll be here soon.’

He unpacked his things and took out a cigarette. After plopping down on the couch, he blew out a puff of smoke. Now that he was home, he felt alive.

Of course, he had no intention of just sitting around and doing nothing. He did not spend ten days on Earth just to relax in Paradise.

Seol Jihu fell in thought as he continued smoking. He thought back to what Dylan said. That an expedition or an exploration wasn’t over just because one came back. That one could only get stronger by reflecting on even the tiniest details and putting in the effort to decrease future mistakes.

Since Seol Jihu fully agreed with this sentiment, he slowly reminisced about the previous incident.

“….”

Not long afterwards, a bitter smile surfaced on his face. No matter how much he thought about it, he could only thank Lady Luck for helping him escape.

Destroying the laboratory and making it to the Forest of Denial? It was all thanks to the Federation’s secret weapon, Thunder, and their members’ ability to fly.

Managing to survive after the Parasites caught up? That was thanks to the Forest of Denial’s ghost saintess.

Of course, it wasn’t that he contributed nothing. But what if this didn’t happen? What if that didn’t happen? Once he eliminated the elements of coincidence, he could see the reality crystal clear.

If he were alone, he never would have made it back alive.

In truth, that was something he didn’t even need to think about. He had already thought the same thing over and over again during his escape.

If I was stronger. If only I had more strength.

‘I can’t keep going being drunk on my accomplishments in the Neutral Zone.’

Although he was the top dog among the newbies of the Neutral Zone, that no longer mattered once he was in Paradise. He could simply go outside now and find a random passerby who was stronger than him.

Just like Cinzia said, the difference between the two areas was the same as heaven and earth. In the end, there was only one conclusion.

‘I need to get stronger.’

Then what did he need to do to get stronger?

Seol Jihu’s eyes flickered with light. He clenched his fists and raised them up high.

‘It’s time for some real training.’

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