Side Story 18
Since he didn't share his memories with them, Jin-Woo had not thought of the possibility of it happening, but the truth was, there were a few other people who were still connected to the higher beings on Earth.
And, out of them all, one person was quite lucky enough to have physical contact with Jin-Woo, who was a higher being himself.
A certain early morning.
"Son? What's the matter?"
His son emerging from the room having just woken up looked like he was about to break down and cry, so Seong Il-Hwan reached out and gently grasped the boy's shoulders, only to be greeted by the spectacle of a different past playing right before his eyes.
It happened in the briefest of the brief moments that didn't even last a blink, but that was more than enough to tell the tale spanning several years that felt as long as eternity itself.
- I wanted to see you. Always.
- I wouldn't have minded talking to you for a little bit longer, but….
- I'm sorry for not being a good father to you.
His final moments that caused his heart to tumble to the pit of his stomach flashed past his eyes. Then, the time wound back and the memories of how the present came to be played out in a panorama being played backwards.
The one and only tool of God that could cause a phenomenon like this, the 'Chalice of Rebirth'. Seong Il-Hwan knew of the artefact's existence through the memories of the Rulers, and after looking at the boy's current facial expression, he instantly realised that his son must've had reached some kind of a deal with the higher beings.
Indeed, Jin-Woo had decided to carry the weight, the cost, of the deal all by himself, regardless of how heavy it was. Seong Il-Hwan had to bite down on his lower lip in order to suppress his emotions and prevent them from bursting forth right then.
His efforts must've not been in vain, because Jin-Woo wiped away the tears threatening to break out and formed a smile.
"....I must've had a nightmare."
At that moment, Seong Il-Hwan saw the powerful determination flicker for a blink of an eye on his son's face.
But even then, no, even when Jin-Woo left behind a single note and disappeared from this world, he couldn't even guess just what kind of 'promise' his son had made with the Rulers.
"....I'd never imagined that promise was to defeat the entirety of the Army of the Chaos World all by himself."
Seol Il-Hwan recalled that very day and let out a helpless chuckle.
What if he got to find out about his son's deal before the boy jumped into the gap between dimensions and disappeared? Would he have stopped Jin-Woo, or for the sake of the world, let the kid leave?
"Still, hasn't he beautifully taken care of it?"
The envoy of the Rulers sitting on the opposite side of him smiled refreshingly.
Seong Il-Hwan had his lips firmly shut now, but he nodded his head regardless. Thanks to Jin-Woo's sacrifice, this world was spared from the horrifying war that was supposed to tear through this planet.
But, when he thought about the terrible suffering his son must've gone through during those years, Seong Il-Hwan just couldn't bring himself to smile anymore.
It had been almost one year since Jin-Woo returned from the gap between dimensions.
His hesitating voice was drowned out by the gently-flowing background music of the cafe they were in. The Ruler's envoy sipped the half-remaining coffee with his straw as he unhurriedly waited for Seong Il-Hwan to continue on.
"What was my son's decision?"
"The Shadow Sovereign has...."
The envoy discovered the traces of nervousness flit past Seong Il-Hwan's face and formed a thin smile.
"....Chosen to stay in this world. He said that every minute and every second spent in this world is precious to him."
Seong Il-Hwan inwardly spat out a lengthy sigh of relief.
The envoy emptied out his cup and silently placed it back on the table. He had to remain in this world until Jin-Woo made up his mind, but that role came to an end yesterday.
Which meant that it was time to leave. Seong Il-Hwan would be the very last guest he'd entertain before leaving this world for good.
Maybe that was the reason? Although he wasn't really the talkative type, he wanted to converse for just a bit longer today.
"Are you planning to continue deceiving Shadow Sovereign-nim.... no, your son?"
"That's what he wants, no one remembering the past. So, yes."
If what Jin-Woo wanted was the normal, regular family life, then as his father, Seong Il-Hwan was fully committed to continuing the charade until the end of time itself.
"I see. Like father, like son."
The envoy smirked and nodded his head before raising his gaze a little higher.
"Once I leave, the Rulers will no longer interfere with this world."
"Which means, this really is the end. With this world...."
The envoy scanned the interior of the cafe and spoke with an emotional voice.
"It has been fun. Truly. To be honest, right up until the Shadow Sovereign-nim made his triumphant return, I had been waiting with bated breath on what destiny had in store for us."
The envoy held back slightly and didn't mention that even the Rulers didn't expect to see Jin-Woo succeed in his quest. Well, there was no reason to pour a bucket of cold water on this emotional farewell, was there?
Just before he bade his farewell and stood up to leave, the envoy addressed his guest once more.
"The Rulers express their unreserved gratitude towards not just Shadow Sovereign, but to you as well, Seong Il-Hwan-nim."
It was unknown whether a result like this would've been achieved without his help. He fought for the sake of the Rulers, and he even suggested that the higher beings cooperate with the Shadow Sovereign, too. Indeed, his role had been great.
The Rulers had decided as thus, and they prepared a small gift for him in return.
"By any chance, is there something we can help you with?"
When considering that the Rulers possessed incredible powers as well as various 'tools of God', this was akin to them saying, "We will grant any wish you have."
However, Seong Il-Hwan shook his head almost immediately.
"I have none....."
But, that made sense. The envoy could understand where he was coming from. There was an existence on the level of a god living as family right next to him, so what was the point of voicing his wishes here?
The envoy bowed his head slightly and got ready to stand up, but then, Seong Il-Hwan belatedly said something else.
The envoy stopped and settled back down on the chair again.
"Is there something else....?"
Seong Il-Hwan pondered for a bit and spoke up with some difficulty.
"My memories…. Is it possible for you to erase my memories of the previous timeline?"
"Yes, it's possible, but why would you choose to do so....?"
"Well, it's unimaginably hard to keep pretending in front of a son with an amazing perception, you see."
Seong Il-Hwan smirked once he was done. Again, like father, like son – his grinning face was almost a dead-ringer for Jin-Woo's.
Seong Il-Hwan lowered his gaze and fell into thought for a bit again, before continuing on with his words slowly.
"I also wish to become a regular dad who worries about his son's welfare."
He wanted to return to being just a simple father who felt anxious about his son possibly coming back home injured in some way, and a father who sighed in disappointment at his son's exam results – a man who worried about his 'regular' son, in other words.
"To me, Jin-Woo isn't the Shadow Sovereign, but a precious son, you see."
That was Seong Il-Hwan's small wish.
If that was his reasoning, then it'd be no problem. The envoy smiled gently and granted Seong Il-Hwan's wish.
"Once you exit from this cafe, all memories of the previous timeline will completely be erased from your mind."
As the envoy began performing the magic spell on Seong Il-Hwan, he whispered a goodbye so small that no one could hear it properly.
"You won't remember this, but still... I pray that you get to live a fulfilling life."
Time continued to tick by.
On a certain cold winter morning.
The alarm set for six in the morning went off without a hitch and Seong Il-Hwan shot up from his 'sleep'. His wife woke up at the same time, too, and stared straight at him.
"What about Jin-Woo?"
"Yes, what happened to him?"
The couple quickly checked the time and breathed a collective sigh of relief after realising that it was still only six in the morning.
"Dear, what should we do? Should we go and wake Jin-Woo up?"
"No, there's still some time left until the beginning of the CSAT, so I think it should be fine to let him rest for a little while longer."
"You're right. I can always drive him to the exam location with my car, anyway."
"At seven…. Let's wake him up around seven, Dear."
Seong Il-Hwan nodded his head at his wife's suggestion.
The couple anxiously waited for the needles of the clock to hit seven and when the fated time came, they rushed out of their bedroom to slam the door to Jin-Woo's room wide open.
"S-son, you know that today is the CSAT day, right?"
"Son, as your father, I can take you there, you know?"
Their son seemed to have woken up not too long ago. He replied with a chuckle.
"I'll get ready to leave now."
After confirming that Jin-Woo left his room, Seong Il-Hwan hurriedly threw on his clothes and reached out to grab the car keys, only for his gaze to be stolen by the key ring – a gift from his son.
When he looked at this seemingly-handmade keyring shaped like a white-coloured castle with a black flag on top, a wide grin formed on his lips.
The weather was beautifully clear and crisp; it was a refreshing morning as the early rays of the sun gently seeped into the world.
The evening of the 24th of December.
Jin-Woo was walking on a street filled with the festive atmosphere of Christmas. He could easily spot the smiling faces of movie stars or top athletes proudly on display on the electronic advertising boards hung here and there.
'The streets have changed a lot.'
Whenever Jin-Woo recalled the time when the streets used to be dominated by the faces of top-ranked Hunters, he still felt a bit awkward and disjointed.
But then, he spotted an advertising poster for a certain sports drink and broke out into a gentle chuckle. A rather familiar face was on it, that was why.
Just how many people lost their hair to stress while trying to take that one photo of her making a natural-looking expression?
'The idol of the athletic world, is it....?'
Indeed, Cha Hae-In's smile on the poster was good enough to be called on the level of an idol.
She drew attention with her stunning achievements on the track, and eventually, the mass media caught onto her shining star as well. In a bid to boost the popularity of the track sports, the athletics organisation pleaded with her and this was the end result.
'She never stepped in front of a camera even when she was a rank S Hunter, but now, she must perform the role of one of the most popular sportswomen in the country....'
This future wouldn't have come about if he hadn't healed her ankle back then; a satisfied grin formed on Jin-Woo's face. She might be having a bit of a hard time trying to get used to the cameras, but it'd only get better with time.
Still smiling, Jin-Woo resumed his walk towards the meeting area.
He took a look around himself without thinking too much about it and discovered many young couples and their colourful clothing filling up the streets.
'Yup, I definitely am an examinee who recently finished his CSAT. Look how plainly dressed I am.'
Jin-Woo lightly tutted at his rather plain-looking clothes and sought out the nearest clothing store. With the time being what it was, the shops were all closed, but from the get-go, he wasn't planning to buy something, anyway.
Jin-Woo stopped walking in front of a mannequin kitted out in the coolest outfit inside the shop window.
The pitch-black smoke enveloped Jin-Woo's figure for a brief moment and his outfit had changed to the exact same thing as that mannequin's. He examined his new look through the reflection on the shop's window before asking his Shadow Soldiers.
"What do you think?"
Fangs, having developed an intense interest in all things fashion-related from some time ago, hurriedly replied first, maybe fearing that someone else might steal his limelight.
[You look amazing, my liege.]
Jin-Woo's steps became a touch cheerier than before and they helped him arrive at the place of his appointment in the proverbial blink of an eye.
Surrounding a massive Christmas tree installed in the middle of a plaza were many people searching and waiting for their companions to arrive.
Even though many of them were nervously glancing at their watches, the looks of happiness still could be gleaned from their expressions regardless, perhaps because today was Christmas Eve.
Unlike them, though, Jin-Woo was staring into the heavens above since he had more than enough leeway compared to them.
There were all sorts of ambient noises made by people walking on the streets, but Jin-Woo still could accurately distinguish the footsteps that mattered to him.
'…..3, 2, 1.'
Just as that 'kid' arrived near his back, he turned around to greet her.
"Hey. You came."
Hae-In was planning to take Jin-Woo by surprise, but could only sneakily lower her arms, looking a bit disappointed.
"Oppa, it's like you've got eyes behind your back, you know?"
She seemed just a bit despondent, which was rather adorable as well, so he broke out into a soft grin. Hae-In pulled up the hood on her top to avoid the attention of the passersby, like how Jin-Woo used to do.
"Should we take a walk for a while?"
Jin-Woo's suggestion was met by Hae-In's brightly smiling face. She even nodded her head to emphasize her agreement, too.
As the two of them walked, they chose the less populated path whenever they came across a crossroad. Meanwhile, Hae-In's eyes were growing really large after listening to Jin-Woo's CSAT result.
"You got such a great score, yet you wanna go to that university? But, why?"
"Well, the fees are completely paid for by the scholarship, plus they are adding on the opportunity for me to study abroad, as well. Besides, there is this person I just have to meet in that place, you see."
It was at that point that her ears perked up.
"Wait, that person isn't a woman, is it?"
Her eyes narrowed to a slit, but Jin-Woo found her expression really adorable so he decided to string her along for a bit.
"Mmm, who knows."
Her cheeks immediately puffed up.
To Jin-Woo, seeing her express her emotions so freely like this – something she didn't do back when both of them were adults – proved to be a different but still wonderfully joyous occasion to behold.
Something fell gently from the sky and landed on the tip of his nose, followed soon after by wet coldness melting on his skin.
It was a snowflake.
He raised his head up to look and white specks began falling gently from the blackened sky. A White Christmas was coming, it seemed.
He silently stared at the falling snow only to recall the sight of settling grey ash after he defeated the Dragon Emperor. Ash as white as snow – no, snowflakes as light as ash silently descended on the land.
"Oppa? What are you thinking about?"
Jin-Woo smiled softly and tried to gloss over it.
Well, it wasn't as if he could tell her that, while he was looking at the snow falling from the evening sky a day before Christmas, he was busy recalling probably the most dangerous enemy he had to fight in his entire life, now could he?
Hae-In formed a broad grin after listening to Jin-Woo's reply, then she brought up something out of the blue.
"Oppa, do you remember our promise?"
"The one about you promising to answer everything when I win in a race."
"Yeah, I do."
Hae-In promptly pointed towards one of the trees lining up along the street.
"Well, why don't we make a bet, then? Let's see who will arrive there first."
Jin-Woo couldn't help but chuckle after hearing her sudden challenge and asked her a question.
"What is it that you'd like to ask me?"
"What you're thinking about sometimes, whether it's a girl or a guy you want to meet in that university, and also...."
"....Also, about the time we met before that athletic preliminaries took place."
Jin-Woo readily agreed to it and took his hands out from his pockets. The end result wouldn't be affected just because he kept his hands there, but still, he wanted to show her that he was taking this challenge quite seriously.
Hae-In had been staying a step away from his position until then, but suddenly walked in very close to wrap her scarf around his neck before asking him for a small favour in a whisper.
"Oppa, if you like me, don't move from this spot."
While he was getting flustered by this development, Hae-In began walking slowly towards the tree in question while looking straight at him. As for Jin-Woo himself, he couldn't hold back his laughter after realising that his defeat had been set in stone from the get-go.
In the end, Hae-In succeeded in touching the tree first, and she lightly jumped in the air to announce her victory.
Meanwhile, his Shadow Soldiers watching the two lovers' competition with a great deal of anticipation and excitement began jumping up and down themselves in happiness as well.
[Heee-ya~, our liege has lost!]
[Wow, there are times when our liege will lose a challenge with so much at stake, too!]
[My liege, you did it wrong!]
[Kkiiieehhk-!! Oh, my kinggg! It's not too late, so please get going now!!]
Jin-Woo was left stupefied and chuckled again while scratching the side of his head. He took a glance around the street and approached the tree as well.
Thankfully, he couldn't spot a single soul on this particular stretch of road, all due to the fact that they sought out only those paths with little foot traffic.
"Well, I won, right?"
Hae-In was waiting for his reply with an excited expression clearly etched on her face. Jin-Woo stopped before her smile and issued a dignified order to his Shadow Soldiers.
'Shadows? Every one of you, close your eyes.'
While the soldiers were rightly feeling frustrated….
….Jin-Woo slowly brought his lips closer and gently locked them with Hae-In's.
The white snowflakes continued to fall silently from the sky.
< chapter="" 261=""> Fin.