61 – Fated Demise – 1
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The situation was simple. But that made it all the more dire.

Parasites were encroaching on the entire human territory from all sides. In response, the kingdoms were running a draft call. And not just High Rankers. Every Earthling was to fight.

As for what we were going to do...

Sora wasn't an official member of Carpe Diem, so she was free to do her own thing. And, while giving me a long gaze, she left the headquarters for parts unknown.

Yuhui was the same. Since she wasn't part of our team, she left after getting a rough sketch of what was going on and asking me to warp her to Scheherazade. As she left, she told me to be careful and also that she would send some more useful things my way as soon as she could.

That left Carpe Diem.

I stared at my team... No, at my friends and said, "I'm going to fight. That's what I want to do. But I also know that this is bad. This is an unprecedented time... and we don't know the reason behind the Parasites' actions. So, if anyone wants out, this is the time."

Chohong scoffed. "Dumbass. Do you think we'd run away at a time like this?"

Hugo nodded. "Yeah, Bro. Besides, if you're out there flexing, I gotta stand there too so I don't look bad, right?"

Ghio let out a faint smile. "Even if to the depths of hell... I will follow you, Leader."

Flone gave a vigorous nod. "Right! I'm coming along too! I've gotta make sure Jihu doesn't go too far! ...And to drag back his spirit if he dies!"

Ian laughed and said, "Yes. That would be ideal... Though hopefully it won't come to that."

Seol-Ah looked a bit scared, but resolve entered her eyes as she looked at me. "We're going to be fighting monsters... So this is what Oppa meant. But... I won't back out now!"

Sungjin nodded, his dark eyes sharp. The lanky teenager from before had been transformed into a heroic warrior after the training from hell and his resolve matched his new appearance. "Like Mister Ghio said... if Hyung is going into hell, I'm coming with."

Maldong sighed. "...I still think it's too early. For all of us. But..." He stared at Sungjin and Seol-Ah and said, "...I suppose this is the best we can do."

I swept my gaze around at everyone again and then nodded. "Since it's like this... and since you're all resolved... Here." I swept my hand out. As I did, a flurry of items appeared in front of everyone. Capes, woven with countless protection magic and healing spells. After that, empty mana weapons emerged.

Ian, Chohong, and Flone were familiar with them, so they immediately grabbed them. But the others weren't.

Ghio looked at me and said, "Leader. What are these?"

"Insurance. This team might be called Carpe Diem, but remember, you only live once in this world. And I'm going to do everything I can to ensure you all stay alive."

Maldong grabbed the cape and put it on. After that, he grabbed the abstract mana weapon, watching with fascination as it turned into a dark mahogany cane. Or at least, something that looked like one. "I see..." He whipped it into the air, letting out a loud 'crack' and golden light. "So you could do something like this too. But..." He looked at me and said, "Jihu-"

I shook my head. "It's fine. If everyone stays alive, I'll bear the consequences."

xxx

A flurry of activity.

Everyone had their own preparations to make before the confrontation.

I sent off everyone to get used to their new equipment while I dealt with the administrative stuff.

Which there was a lot of, especially now with this current situation.

I had a sense that my friends had a lot to say to me. Especially with giving them such valuable equipment... but I didn't have time for that.

It was still dangerous. Even after all of that, I only managed to change everyone's color to yellow. It had disappeared back in the mountains, but now that we were in the thick of it, the color wouldn't fade.

A fact I saw more as I went around Haramark and saw all the crimson and black lights surrounding people.

But I ignored them.

There were more important things to deal with.

xxx

"Hm?" Muto looked up from a thick tome and adjusted a pair of gold rimmed glasses. Looking up from his work, his eyes widened and a warm smile appeared on his face. "Jihu. It's been a while."

Ian glanced over from a table nearby and blinked. "Leader? What are you doing here?"

I walked over and took a look around.

The two old men were alone in a research lab beneath the royal palace. Off to the side, I could see people flitting in and out, but they looked preoccupied. However, the area around Ian and Muto was isolated.

Good.

I reached into my bag and pulled out some items I took from my storage in the temple, as well as some other items that I thought could be useful and placed them on the table.

When Muto saw them, his eyes widened in shock. "These are...?"

Ian's eyes widened as well and he ran over. After ruffling through the items, he looked at me and said, "Jihu. What *are* these?" His gaze was full of awe and shock. Enough to forget to call me by another name.

"Insurance." I looked up at Muto and said, "I hate to ask this of you... but I'm going to need to rely on you a lot in the near future, Mister Muto. This is to help draw you out of retirement... and to show the might of the Empire once more."

Arbor Muto. The sole surviving mage from the Duchy of Delphinion with knowledge of the Empire's advanced magic research.

In order to pull him back to his full strength, I made an elixir to fully restore his youth as well as enhance his attributes. And furthermore...

I stared at his figure, at the golden threads of karma binding us... and then I used it. Atma Refinement.

Violet light overlapped the gold, like a royal armament...

And then Muto's eyes widened. "This...?" He blinked and then he stared at me, eyes filled with awe. "Jihu... What are you?"

"Just someone trying to save the world. And someone who can't do it alone."

After that, I looked at Ian and used Atma Refinement on him as well.

Ian blinked, and then his eyes widened as well before narrowing. He muttered and said, "I see. So that's how..." He shook his head and then looked at me, a serious expression on his face. "Jihu. I don't know what miraculous ability you just used, and I won't ask. But... if you're going this far... Do you know what will happen next? The reason behind these events?"

I was silent.

"...I see." Ian sighed. "So it's like that. If the situation's that dire that even you intend to go all out..." He glanced at the items I handed over and nodded. "Alright. Since you've dragged me through the threshold, this old man will put in the work to make up for it."

"...Sorry."

Ian chuckled. "It's fine. I would have liked to figure it out myself... but I'll just have to make up for it by using the path you laid out well." He picked up a bottle on the table and stared at it. "And figure out the homework you gave me."

Muto looked at me and then picked up a bottle of glittering liquid in front of him. After observing my face for a while, he nodded. "Fine. If the rising star still needs this old flame... I'll step up to the role laid out for me as well." Uncorking the elixir, he quickly brought it to his mouth and drained it.

The effect was instantaneous. The white hair on his body vanished, replaced with an ethereal green hue. At the same time, his beard dissolved, revealing a handsome and sharp young face. Cracks echoed as the joints worn down by time regenerated and as his rusted magic circuits were reforged.

Muto let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, an electric pair of emerald eyes stared back at me. "Do not be reckless."

I nodded. "That's why I'm laying out the cards. And thanks again."

Muto sighed and picked up his tome. "Thank me by surviving this trial and helping me and Mister Like'em Tiddies afterwards."

Ian shuddered and said, "Could you stop that? It's one thing to hear it from a guy that looked my age, but from a young'un like you-"

"I don't want to hear that from the old pervert who used it as his alias to begin with."

Seeing the two were bantering again, I nodded and left.

That was one problem sorted. Next...

xxx

Carpe Diem HQ. The backyard, where Sungjin was sparring with Sora and Seol-Ah was sparring with Ghio. An intense and furious training that made them not notice even as I walked over to Maldong.

The old man fiddled with his new walking stick and then glanced over at me. "So you're planning to go all out this time, huh?"

"Yeah." I stared at my friends who were still wreathed in yellow light and nodded. "I have to."

"You don't." Maldong turned to look at me and said, "Even if you have the capacity to take the lead doesn't mean you must. The death penalty is no joke. And to risk ruining the life you have on Earth for this..."

I smiled and said, "Thank you for your concern, Coach. But I know what I'm doing and the risks involved. Which is why..." I handed him a bag.

Maldong blinked and looked inside. When he did, his eyes widened. "These are...?"

"More insurance. Divine elixirs, competence, anti-evil mana attribute herbs... You'll know what to do with them better than me. So please, use them well and ensure everyone is prepared."

Maldong took the bag. But then he stared at me. Really stared at me.

I stared back.

After a while, he sighed. "...So you're resolved then."

I gave a faint smile and said, "I'd like to think that I'll make it out of this fine... but I think we both know why the Parasites are acting up."

Maldong tightened his grip on the bag, his hands starting to tremble. "Jihu- No. Leader. You are not allowed to die. Understand? Paradise... We still need you."

I patted his shoulder and said, "It's fine. I'm not clocking out just yet, you know? But... just in case, I'm leaving it to you." I stared at him again and used Atma Refinement in full, drawing out as much power as I could muster.

Almost immediately, I felt my energy drain. Since I used it a few times already, using it again on Maldong was pushing my limits.

But it was necessary, so I pushed through.

Maldong froze, eyes widening as he realized my intent. "Jihu-"

I focused and finished the refinement. The moment I did, I felt Maldong's aura increase. Did I force a level up...? I didn't know, but I knew that it would help.

I smiled and staggered away. Waving my hand, I said, "I'll entrust Carpe Diem back to you, Kingmaker. Don't let me down."

"Jihu!"

I drew out energy from my blade, forcibly refilling my mana, and then warped away.

xxx

A dingy building in the middle of Haramark.

Hao lit a cigarette and then pulled another one out. "Want one, Bro?"

"I'm fine."

"Mm." He took a long breath from the cigarette stick and then tossed it aside, squashing it beneath his foot. "Fine. Then let's get down to business. Since you showed up in my home, I'm taking it to mean this isn't just to hang out."

I nodded and then placed a bag on the table.

Hao raised an eyebrow and then looked inside. When he saw the glittering mana weapon there as well as the dozen divine elixirs, his eyes widened. "Bro-"

I smiled. "Can't have my sworn brother dying on me in the upcoming battle now, can I? Besides, since you've been even busier than me, you've probably been slacking on your training. This will help you catch up a bit, you know?"

"...I think that giving me a dozen divine elixirs is going to do more than 'catch me up', Bro." He closed the bag and then frowned. "Where did you even get all of these?"

"Trade secret. And it's fine. Better to be a bit ahead now than regret being behind later, right?"

Hao sighed and said, "You really are a one of a kind guy, Bro."

"Of course. And so are you, so don't drop dead. Alright? If you do, I'm heading back to Earth and dragging your ass back here."

Hao chuckled and said, "In that case, I'll make a note to try and break the records in the Tutorial. But on a more serious note..." He stared at me and said, "Are you worried?"

"...About what?"

Hao frowned and then said, "Hey. Give me your contact info, Bro."

I smiled. "What? You that worried about me?"

"Of course I am. Who wouldn't when their brother has the look of a man determined to throw his life away? I've seen that too many times to ignore it, you know."

"Tch."

Of course. He would see through me. Even so...

"I'll be fine. But if you're that worried... here." I slid my business card over to him.

Hao nodded and then gestured for one of his men to come over. "Send a message to this from my phone."

The man nodded and walked off.

I blinked and then let out a wry smile.

Hao nodded. "Well... if that's all, should we get going?"

"Hm?" I frowned and said, "To where?"

Hao grinned and said, "Where else? To see Bro's princess and work out the strategy plan."

"...She's not my princess. But you're right. I guess it's about time to go talk with Teresa."

"Keep telling yourself that, Bro. Now come on. She sent a message earlier to the important people to meet up in the palace."

"Eh?" I blinked and said, "First I'm hearing about this..."

"Because you've been running around like a headless chicken doing god knows what. Now, let's go."

xxx

"Yo. We late?" Hao waved at everyone as we walked into the makeshift conference room at the royal palace.

I followed in after him and sighed. "That's taking it a bit too casual, isn't it, Hao?"

"Nah. It'll be fine, Bro. You're the star of this show anyway, right?"

I sighed and took a look around.

After entering the palace, we were led to a makeshift conference room in the back. Said conference room was basically just the previous formal dining room with a long table to seat all the guests. Though, those guests right now were here for a different reason than mere hospitality.

I noticed a lot of familiar faces around. Cinzia, Claire, Kazuki, Teresa... my friends were there. But there were others too that I didn't know as well or that I didn't know at all.

I could see that blonde female knight we rescued from the fortress a while back... Erica or something. There were also a few other people that I could only assume were High Rankers since they were involved in this strategy meeting.

Hao walked over to the table and took an empty seat next to Kazuki.

I would have liked to do the same and sit next to him, but the only open seat left was beside Teresa and Claire. One that I had to walk across the entire table to sit down at.

For a split second, I considered just pulling out a chair from thin air and sitting down... but since those two had left one open, I walked over and sat down.

And when I did...

"Pft." Cinzia held back a laugh.

"Haah." Kazuki sighed.

"..." Claire blushed and turned her gaze.

"...Honestly." Teresa muttered and then shook her head.

...Was I not supposed to sit here...?

Before I could dwell on it, Teresa cleared her throat and said, "As I was saying, the Parasites are marching because the Federation lost their influence over the region bordering us. Since Tigol Fortress fell, there is no longer a buffer to prevent the Parasites' march." To emphasize her points, she gestured towards a giant map on the wall showing the geography of the various territories.

I frowned.

That was reasonable... but I felt that it also didn't explain everything.

Even if that was true, it was also true that the Parasites could have advanced at any time. Tigol Fortress had fallen a while ago, if I remembered my information correctly. The information packet I usually got in the morning made a big deal out of that a few weeks ago.

But the Parasites were only attacking now... and paired with my 'color' and my recent actions... There was only one reason why.

Teresa turned her gaze away from the map and said, "This time, the Parasites have raised an army of unprecedented scale. There are only two explanations for that. The first is that they want to put pressure on us. The second..." Teresa faltered, as if not wanting to think about that situation.

In her hesitation, Cinzia spoke up instead. "The second is they want to get rid of us this time. Completely."

Teresa gave a slow nod. "That's right. And if that's the case-"

A man at the end of the table narrowed his eyes and said, "Haramark will be their first target. Isn't that right, Princess?"

Hao narrowed his eyes and said, "Hey buddy. Watch your mouth."

The man scoffed. "Why? It's true, isn't it?" He turned his gaze to Teresa and pointed at her. "Because you spent all of those resources working on Arden Valley to build a stronghold, they're obviously coming for us first! If you hadn't-"

"Oi." I narrowed my eyes and released my killing intent. "Shut the hell up."

The man flinched and then stood up, glaring at me. "Why should I? What, is 'Haramark's Hero' going to-"

"I'm the one who provided the funding for constructing the fortress and reinforcement. So if you've got any problems with it, lay it out." I stood up as well and then placed my foot on the table, leaning towards him. After letting out a smirk, I said, "I'll be more than happy to answer complaints. Of course, if you do, be prepared. Because I ran out of fucks to give a long time ago for people like you who intend to run away when the going gets tough." And to emphasize my words, I focused Impending Demise on him.

"Grk." The man stumbled back, his eyes wide in fear.

Cinzia laughed. "Seems like the kid is all grown up now... Although." She turned to me and said, "I wasn't aware that you were the Princess's mysterious investor."

It was a pointed response. Probing on the surface, but in actuality, Cinzia was giving me an opportunity.

Right. People still didn't take me seriously. And she knew that this wasn't the time for that. No, that my assistance was vital, and people needed to be aware of that.

So...

I waved my hand, conjuring a bag of platinum coins and tossed it on the table, letting them spill out.

Gasps filled the room.

"Those coins... Platinum?!"

"Did he just-? That's a Dimensional Pocket! Then...?!"

"A Unique Ranker?! But that's impossible! Wasn't he just a level two?!"

I waved my hand again, making the coins vanish, and turned towards Cinzia. "That satisfy your curiosity?"

She chuckled. "More than enough, kid."

The atmosphere turned tense. About half the High Rankers that were present stared at me with awe and wonder. The other half though... there was clear fear in their eyes. Fear and doubt at who I was and how I could do that.

But before things got too far, Kazuki spoke up. Turning to Teresa, he said, "Princess. If I might ask, do you know how the Federation is doing?"

Teresa blinked, caught off guard at being suddenly addressed. And then her expression dimmed and she said, "They're still dead-set on trying to recapture Tigol Fortress."

Cinzia smiled. "Then there's a silver lining. It's unlikely that the Seven Armies will appear if those guys are still fighting all out."

Seeing the conversation flow back to normal, I sat back down and went over the situation.

The Seven Armies... Those were the elite forces under the Parasite Queen's personal supervision. Each one was led by a Parasite General who had the divinity of the previous Seven Virtue gods, diametrically set against the Seven Sins that summoned Earthlings and were protecting Paradise at the moment.

The Federation... should be the Fallen Angels that the Martial God guy kicked out of Heaven as well as the remnants of the other races like the dragons, dwarves, and fairies that used to be in Paradise.

I tapped my fingers on the table, lost in thought.

The meeting continued, but it didn't get much further. We could hypothesize about how and why the Parasites would attack all day, but that didn't change the end result of what we had to do: prepare for an all-out attack.

With that decided, the High Rankers filtered out until it was just me and Teresa. Since Hao and I arrived late, she wanted to inform me of what I missed. Because of that, she led me to the reception room.

But...

"I don't know what to do, Jihu." She sat on a chair and lowered her face, covering them in her hands. "I never expected a situation like this to happen... Was it really because of my dream of making Arden Valley a fortress? Did the Parasite Queen finally decide to end it because of that?"

I walked over and materialized a chair before sitting in front of her. "It's not your fault, Princess."

"Isn't it?" She looked up at me, her cheeks covered in tears. "Every time. Every time I try to reach out for something, the world keeps pushing me back down. This time too...!"

"Then you should let people hold you up." I smiled and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ears. "Didn't I tell you already? You're a strong princess, but you should let people help you as well."

Teresa laughed, but her hopeless gaze didn't change. "Who can help me this time? Even you... This time it's the entire Parasite army. I... don't know what to do anymore... The Earthlings are running away from the Draft and we already have everyone we can muster. Even then, it's far from enough! At this rate-"

I patted her head and said, "You worry too much, Princess. Though... I guess if my dear princess is that concerned, as her hero, I have to make her feel reassured, right?"

Teresa froze and looked up at me. "Jihu...?"

I reached to my side and took off my sword. The trusty companion that I always had with me and that had drawn in countless energy sources since I left the Neutral Zone. A blade that I was sure wouldn't lose out to any legendary weapon that existed. "Here." I picked up her right hand and gently pressed the hilt of my sword into it, making sure to resonate it with her mana so she could use it.

And the moment that happened, her eyes grew wide. Probably because she could feel the boundless energy stored within it.

Teresa quickly shook her head and tried to hand it back. Her shoulders trembled and she said, "Jihu. I can't take this! You-"

"I'll feel a lot better knowing it's around to keep you safe. The magic inside of it will help you out a lot in a pinch. Besides, I have other things to use now."

My sword was handy, but I had gone beyond the point to where my power was limited by the weapon I used. Besides, I could always make another mana sword in a pinch.

Teresa's pink eyes shook and then she wiped away her tears. After that, determination welled up in her gaze and she said, "Jihu."

I smiled back and said, "Yes?"

"Marry me."

A stern resolve... But I could see through it.

I placed my hand under her chin and stared into her eyes. "I told you last time already. Don't sell yourself short, Princess. The Teresa Hussey I know should stand strong on the battlefield and triumph over it all, not rush ahead out of desperation. Got it?"

"But..." She bit her lips and said, "What if-"

I placed my finger on her lips.

Teresa's eyes widened.

I shook my head and said, "Don't say it. And if you're that worried... Just don't die. As long as you're alive, there'll be another chance. And when we win... When you're standing triumphant with the first ever victory against the Parasites, then you can say how worried you were. Got it?"

"Jihu-"

I stood up. "That's what your hero wants, Princess. You won't refuse my request, will you?"

Teresa stared at me and then slowly nodded. "Fine. Fine! I'll... I'll make sure to stay alive." She looked at the glowing emerald sword I gave her and said, "I'll use this and make sure to tear through those stupid Parasites and stand proud like you want me to. But Jihu. You, too...!"

"Well, that's it from me."

Her eyes widened. "Wait! I'm not-"

I smiled and gave her a small wave. "I'll be seeing you, Princess. Let's continue our fairytale after the war, alright?"

With that said... and seeing the yellow around her body finally vanish with my words, I warped away.

There was still more to do.

xxx

The Temple of Luxuria in Haramark. Maria's room.

The young blonde priestess looked up at me from her bed, a strange mix of emotions in her eyes. "Oppa..." She glanced at the bag of coins and items on her table and said, "...Are you for real?"

I nodded. "We need a Priestess on our team for this. And you're the only one I can trust... but I feel bad about pushing you. Still, this is the only way I can repay you."

A modified replica of the Proof of Castitas that could store an unlimited number of holy spells. A full defensive robe that worked like Flone's intangibility, automatically firing when she would be dealt a lethal blow to dodge it. A bracelet that would absorb any magic spell sent her way and empower her own healing spells.

And a bag filled with gold coins, numbering at least a couple hundred. More than enough for her to be squared away for a life of luxury.

Paired with the two artifacts I gave her before, it would turn Maria into a mobile healing tank.

She should know that. And from her personality, she would gladly take it.

Or so I thought. But instead...

Maria slowly shook her head and said, "That's not what I meant."

I frowned and said, "Did you want some more? Or are you worried about the transfer to Earth? Because if it's that, I can wire money too-"

"Not that you idiot!" She walked over and then pulled my shirt down before headbutting me.

I blinked, staring at the suddenly close blue eyes. "W-What?"

"Idiot! Dumbass! Stupid!" She headbutted me each time before shoving me back and crossing her arms. "Why the hell do you think I only want money?!"

"...You don't?"

Maria froze and then said, "I do! But what do you take me for, a gold digger?! Even I have a conscience! And this...!" She pointed at the items and said, "Are you crazy? I'm not even a level five Priestess! I can't even use these properly, and you're still giving them to me!"

"That's because I trust you and believe in you. Also... If you hadn't done the Ceremony for Seora, you would have been one by now, wouldn't you? Besides, I still haven't repaid you yet for that-"

"Dumbass!" She walked over and smacked my head. "You did that a thousand times over already!"

"I did?"

"Argh!" Maria shook her head and then stomped around her room, picking random things up.

I blinked and said, "Er... What are you doing?"

"Packing!"

"Packing?"

"YES! PACKING!" She glared at me and said, "Because Oppa is obviously going to run off and do something stupid if I'm not around. You're just too damned nice, and I'm not going to let someone take advantage of you like that!"

"...Eh?"

She tossed a few more things into a bag and then grabbed the one I left on her table. Swinging both over her shoulder, she walked over and dragged me out of the room by the hand. "Let's go!"

"...Go where?"

"Where else?! To Carpe Diem! If I'm going to join, I need to be introduced to everyone, don't I?"

"Wait, you're joining?!"

"...Why the fuck are you so stupid when it comes to times like this and smart every other time?! Argh! I hate you! I should never have gotten involved with you! Dammit! All of this because I wanted a free meal back in the Neutral Zone! Fuck! Shit!"

"..."

I let out a wry smile and followed after her.

Still... After a bit, that wry smile turned into sharp frown.

Because the faint red threads that had been around Maria suddenly turned into thick crimson ropes.

...Goddammit.

xxx

"...And that's how we have a new member of our team."

Maria let out an innocent bright smile and lowered her head. "It's my pleasure to join Carpe Diem! Please, take care of me!"

Chohong choked and said, "The fuck? Did Oppa drop a platinum egg or something to get you to join?"

Maria's brow twitched and she let out a strained smile. "I just want Oppa to be safe. That's all."

Back in the lobby of Carpe Diem HQ. Since Maria wanted to join, I gathered everyone for a team meeting.

Well, everyone except for Ian. He and Muto were hard at work doing last minute preparations on an important trump card, so he couldn't show up.

Ghio stared at Maria and nodded. "That's fortunate. I had been concerned about the lack of a Priest in our party." He looked to me and said, "While Leader is able to heal, knowing that we have another one on hand is a great relief."

Maldong hummed, carefully staring at Maria. "I agree. And to have one so close to level five as well..." He looked back at me and said, "You've been preparing well."

I shrugged. "It just happened."

Flone glanced over from reading through a thick tome and said, "Well, as long as the mouthy Priestess does her work well."

"Mouthy Priestess?!" Maria narrowed her eyes.

Flone smiled back.

Seol-Ah looked at Maria and said, "Well, I'm happy to see Miss Maria again!" She smiled and said, "Let's get along!"

Sungjin nodded as well. "We'll make sure to not put you through that trouble again, Miss Maria."

Maldong waved his hand and said, "You two can catch up with Miss Maria later. For now..." He stared at Maria, his eyes flashing with light. "...I don't suppose you would be interested in a bit of training, Miss Maria?"

"Eh?" Maria blinked and then her eyes lit up. "Training? With Master Maldong? Of course I'm interested!"

Hugo suddenly sat up from relaxing in the corner. He glanced at Maria and muttered, "She's screwed."

Maldong glanced over at Hugo and said, "Excellent. Thank you for volunteering, Hugo. We needed to work on your endurance anyway."

His eyes widened. "W-Wait a minute. Gramps-"

I coughed. "Well, I have more preparations to do." I looked at Maldong and said, "I'll leave the arrangements to you, Coach."

He nodded.

Hugo panicked and jumped out of his seat. Turning towards me, he said, "B-Bro! Wait! Take me with-!"

I waved and then warped away.

xxx

A café back on Earth. The usual one I used to meet Kim Hannah.

After arranging to get some lunch together, I arrived a bit early and sat down to relax while checking my phone for messages.

"Seora, Jinhee, Mom, Dad..."

I read through the messages and responded to them while I waited.

My family was just checking up on me... Well, Jinhee was ranting about how annoying it was to get a proper job and that she was planning to get into light novel writing instead for a while to see how that went.

Anyway, mostly the usual.

Although Seora's messages...

[Hi, Oppa~! Are you still busy over there?]

[Let me know when you're free! I still have the sushi restaurant reserved!]

[I hope you're doing well, Oppa!]

"...She doesn't get her sister at all, does she?" I stared at the messages still marked with 'Yun Seohui' with my Insight and then dismissed them. Instead, I looked at the messages from a new number.

[Oppa! This is Seora! Please, don't respond to my previous texts! Whatever that person has been saying, it's not me!]

A message that was filled with panic.

Seeing that, I texted her back.

[I figured that was the case. And no worries. I know who 'that' person is.]

I sent that message and instantly got a response.

[Oh thank god! I'm sorry, Oppa! I didn't think she would move so suddenly!]

[It's fine. And I'll come grab you for a proper chat next time. I'm a bit busy right now.]

[I heard... Please, Oppa. Be careful. If something were to happen to you]

The message cut off. Was she fumbling for words?

Either way, I smiled and texted back.

[Then I'll be in your care, Boss.]

[Stop that! It's weird!]

I chuckled.

"Well, you're in a good mood."

I slipped my phone in my pocket and looked up.

Hannah sat down in the booth across from me, smiling. "I was wondering if you'd call me, but I didn't think you'd want to talk here."

I stared at Hannah's outfit, a casual white dress shirt and black skirt, and said, "And I didn't think you'd show up like this was a date."

"It's not? My bad. I'll dress more formally next time." She smiled.

I rolled my eyes.

A waitress came over to take our orders, sandwiches for the both of us, and then left some cups of water.

Hannah took a sip of the water and then said, "So I'm guessing you have no intention of avoiding it, Partner Jihu."

I nodded. "That's right."

"And so this is a contingency plan. In the worst case scenario... you want me to bring you back."

I smiled and said, "You know me too well, Partner."

"Of course. No one else could put up with the bullshit you drag them into."

I coughed.

Hannah swirled her cup around and said, "Aren't you afraid? The penalty there isn't a joke." She paused. "Wait..."

I smiled. "To other people. But for me..."

"It doesn't exist. I keep forgetting..." She sighed. But then she turned serious. "But if that's the case... are you going all out then?"

"I have to."

"...A lot is going to change if you do." Hannah put her glass down and said, "Once you do this, I won't be able to protect you anymore. No one will."

"I know. But it's time."

Hannah stared at me for a long time and then sighed. "You're a crazy son of a bitch. You know that?"

"Hey. My mom is great. If anything, I'm just plain crazy."

"...I pity your future wife."

"You and apparently everyone else I know."

Hannah rolled her eyes. "Well... Alright. I'll make the arrangements in the worst case. But in case something does happen... How do you want me to handle here?"

I shrugged. "I'll leave that up to you."

"Tch. Leaving me with the hard stuff again, huh?"

"Only because I believe in you."

"...You're damned lucky I like you, Jihu. If you were anyone else... ANYONE..."

I chuckled. "Then I'm glad that you're my partner, Hannah. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Hannah stared at me and then blushed, averting her gaze. She reached out and punched my arm before saying, "Shameless flirt. Keep that to yourself."

I laughed and then focused. "Anyway... Onto other things. For the big project coming up... Do you have anyone you could introduce me to so that I can help my princess? My team is going to tip the scales, but every bit helps, you know?"

"Hm... I'll see what I can do and send them your way."

"Thanks. Love you, Hannah."

"Again, keep that to yourself, you shameless flirt."

"...But I put a ring on you like you asked, didn't I?"

"JIHU!"

I laughed.

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