A fancy private booth in a high-rise building. One with a large window showing the cityscape beneath the clear blue sky. It was the high class sushi restaurant that Seohui kept referring to in the texts she sent me with Seora's number.
Sitting across from me, Seohui let out a soft and beautiful smile, idly twirling a straw around a glass of iced water.
Considering the fact that she was a genuine beauty, and paired with the intimate settings, it was a scene that should have been relaxing. After all, who wouldn't enjoy what was objectively a date with a high-class beauty?
But that was only objectively, and only because they would be missing context.
I sipped on my own glass of water and carefully observed Yun Seohui.
We had already made our orders, so all that was left to do was to wait. But that led to a strangely tense atmosphere.
-Yun Seohui. Seora's older sister... Half-sister at that. The one who was currently in charge of Sinyoung and who pulled the strings all over Paradise. Someone who was an artificial human, unable to truly feel emotions and who acted on cold logic. And also a terrifying person that almost led to Seol's downfall... as well as a person who actively moved against Seora in seeking aid during the recent battle in Paradise.
Rationally irrational. A woman who couldn't be judged by normal standards, but one who had the keen intellect, power, and experience to do and get whatever she wanted. Someone who could be the greatest ally or the worst foe.
And to me... I wasn't sure.
Even now, Yun Seohui shone in a dazzling array of light- No, even more than before. Red, yellow, orange, blue, indigo, violet, gold, crimson... As if a chameleon that could adapt to any surrounding, her colors kept shifting, even to my gaze.
Seohui set down her glass and smiled. "Am I that beautiful, Mister Jihu? I would have thought a man like you would be used to beauties by now."
I set my own glass down and smiled. "I am, but I'm not the sort of person to pass up a chance to admire beauty, you know?"
"Oh? I'm flattered then." Seohui smiled and said, "Not many people dare to say that to my face."
"Well, what do you expect an admirer to say when face to face with their goddess, right?"
"Hoh?" Seohui raised an eyebrow and said, "Then should I take you being so irreverent to mean you don't see me as a goddess?"
"Mm..." I mulled over my words and nodded. "Yeah. Despite everything, you're still human, you know? And... Well, I'm personally not very fond of gods, so it's probably better that you aren't one, right?"
Seohui laughed, an elegant and musical sound. "I suppose you made that quite apparent with your recent actions on that side, haven't you?"
Silence. On the outside, it must have seemed a comfortable one. But in reality, it was tense.
I could practically see the gears turning in Seohui's head, trying to pick apart my words and actions.
While she did, I stared at her as well. Specifically, at the colors that kept popping in and out of existence.
...Dammit, this was stressful.
As if reading my thoughts, the waiter took the time to return with our orders.
With a professional bow, the man placed down a colorful array of sushi in front of me. Fatty tuna sashimi, salmon, roe... basically, all the super expensive items that you would expect to see in a high-class sushi restaurant.
As for Seohui... there was only a spread of thinly sliced white fish meat. Seemingly innocuous, but far from it.
The waiter gave another bow and then departed, leaving us alone.
When he did, Seohui glanced at my food and shook her head. "Men really do eat quite a lot, don't they?"
"Well, if I'm being treated with such generosity, it'd be rude to brush it off by ordering something simple, right? Though I have to say..." I glanced at Seohui's sashimi and said, "You like to live dangerously, don't you? That's fugu, isn't it?"
Seohui smiled and picked up a pair of chopsticks. After that, she delicately grabbed a slice of the fugu meat and dipped it in soy sauce. "I do enjoy a bit of a thrill in life. It tends to be so boring when everything is predictable, is it not?" Saying that, she placed the slice of fugu in her mouth, making a show of chewing it in front of me.
I ignored her and picked up my own pair of chopsticks before grabbing a slice of fatty tuna. It was good, as expected of high class ingredients. But I didn't have much peace of mind to enjoy it considering my company.
...What the heck was she doing here anyway? Was she tracking me this entire time, or was our meeting really a coincidence?
That was still bothering me.
I knew for a fact that I hadn't been followed or observed. While it was possible that my actions in healing Seol-Ah and Sungjin's mother triggered some red flags, her appearance was still too fast for that to be the case. Not only that, but I had been wandering in the middle of Seoul during a packed time of day.
To meet me despite all of that... I didn't know what was scarier: her planning everything, or this really being a coincidence.
Seohui smiled and said, "My. You seem troubled now, Mister Jihu."
I nodded and grabbed another piece of tuna. "Yeah. I'm just worried about what would happen if Seora's big sister dropped dead in front of me from food poisoning."
Seohui laughed. But it was a different laugh from the one she did before. Slightly awkward, off-key.
Seohui must have realized it was off as well since she quickly schooled her expression with a smile and said, "My apologies. It's just... refreshing to hear genuine concern. Especially in relation to being Seora's big sister..." Her smile changed a bit, turning a bit stiff as she looked at me. "You really are different from my expectations, aren't you, Mister Jihu?"
I shrugged. "I tend to defy a lot of people's expectations. Ah, and you can just call me Jihu. Since you're Seora's big sister, it's a bit awkward to keep going by formalities, right?"
Seohui gave me a long stare and then nodded. "Of course, Jihu. Then feel free to simply call me Seohui." She paused and then laughed again. "Seohui... Yes, I suppose it'd be fine for someone like you to call me that."
"Seohui." I nodded. "Got it."
...And I also got the sense that she wasn't mentally stable. Though she faked it well enough, there was definitely something loose up there.
"In any case..." Seohui smiled and shifted her gaze down to my body. "I had heard that you were heavily injured from your recent adventure. I'm pleasantly surprised to see you up and about already. It may be a bit rude of me to ask, but did Master Maldong have a role to play in it?"
Ah, there it was. The probing that I was expecting.
I laughed and said, "It's not what you're thinking, I'm sure. While Coach did help me out a bit in rehabilitation, I was already going to heal up from my wounds regardless. I've got a fairly unique physique, you see?"
"Hoh?" Seohui looked impressed and said, "I suppose that explains your triumphant return after destroying the Parasite breeding facility a few months back then?"
"Yep. It takes a lot to keep me down. But enough about me." I picked up a piece of salmon and lightly dipped it in soy sauce. After that, I glanced at Seohui and said, "I'm surprised you're here. After recent events on the other side, I would have thought someone as important as you would be busy."
Seohui laughed. But it was back to the musical and carefully practiced laughter. With that, she smiled and said, "Oh, I am *quite* busy. You caused quite a bit of a stir with your recent exploits."
"Mm. That tends to happen when you go around killing gods."
Seohui blinked, caught off guard. She quickly recovered though and said, "You really are different from my expectations, Jihu."
"You said that already, but I guess I should be flattered that I'm impressive enough to make a beauty like yourself stumble over your words." I paused. "Though I'd appreciate if you don't tell Seora that. She'll probably get jealous."
She giggled. Like, actually, full-on girlish giggle.
Seohui did as well. And then she cleared her throat, a faint blush on her face. "Ah. Pardon me." She tilted her head, confusion in her eyes. "...It seems that I'm in an unexpectedly good mood."
I was just as confused as she was. But I plastered a smile on my face and said, "Yeah, I tend to have that effect on women, I hear."
Seohui's shoulders trembled slightly, like she was going to break out into a giggling fit again. This time though, she suppressed it, managing to turn it into just a calm smile. "Well now, I can see why you called yourself Vain, Jihu."
"Mmhm. At least I'm self-aware, right?"
"Indeed." Seohui smiled and then started fiddling with her hair.
And not on purpose either.
But more importantly...
'Well. I guess this is a solution too, huh...?'
...The other colors had started fading away, leaving only violet, indigo, gold, and crimson threads.
At that time, a soft chime echoed.
"Hm?" I pulled out my phone, wondering if someone had texted me. But it turned out to be Seohui's phone instead.
The black-haired beauty stared at her phone and sighed. "It seems like play time is over." Saying that, she quickly stood up.
I glanced at her and said, "Leaving already?"
Seohui smiled. That same slightly stiff smile that was different from the elegant one that she usually wore. But a genuine one that revealed the awkward girl beneath instead of that practiced elegant beauty the world knew. "It was a pleasure, Jihu. However, it seems my lovely sister is quite put out with me, so I'll be leaving first. But please, take your time." With that, she walked over to the elevator down. After calling it and walking inside, she gave me one last wave before vanishing behind the closing doors.
And the moment she did, another door slammed open. The one leading to the emergency staircase down the building.
"Unni!" Seora ran into the room and looked around. "I thought I told you-!" She paused when she saw me sitting there alone. "E-Eh? Oppa?"
Seeing her standing there with wide eyes while her fashionable clothes were drenched in sweat from running up the stairs... and paired with the tense situation I was just in, I couldn't help it.
Yun Seohui closed her eyes and placed her hand over her chest, marveling at her still racing heart. As she did, she muttered, "How strange."
It was odd. Very, very, very odd.
Seol Jihu was completely different from her expectations. From his actions, she had been expecting him to be humble and noble. After all, thousands had seen how he stepped forward without hesitation to face the Army Commanders even without reinforcements.
And yet he was anything but.
"Vain, was it?" Seohui muttered the fake name that he gave her when they first met and nodded.
Yes. Seol Jihu... Jihu was quite vain. Self-absorbed, excessively self-confident, and a shameless flirt.
On a superficial level, it was like a second Sung Shihyun. That magic swordsman had been much the same. In fact, the parallels were striking.
Gifted with magic, but choosing the sword. Gathering beauties all around him... Even managing to draw in both the Daughter of Luxuria and the Sacred Empress.
But there was a difference.
Sung Shihyun had been excessively self-confident, but he had also been arrogant. Believing himself to be the center of his own story, the 'protagonist', that guy had been easily led around by Seohui's actions.
But Jihu wasn't like that.
He was confident, yes. But it was a different confidence from Sung Shihyun.
That man had used his confidence to cover up for insecurities. Using his strength and talent as self-validation, Sung Shihyun took his role to believe that he was 'chosen' as the hero.
"A hero... Is this the difference between a real and a fake?"
Both of them had overcome adversity. But where Sung Shihyun had used his successes to fuel his ego, that didn't seem to be the case with Jihu. Instead, he seemed to be tempered by his trials. A calm white heat instead of the blazing flames that had been Sung Shihyun. No, like a sun, radiating warmth and power.
Once again, Seohui found her heart racing. She glanced up at the floor display and stared at the penthouse marking. The floor where Jihu should still be waiting... And no doubt entertaining her brash younger sister.
And that was another thing too. For Jihu to have charmed Seohui's younger sister as well as that foxy Kim Hannah into his staunch allies that were willing to stand directly against her...
He was terrifying. A man that could change the hearts of those he came across and inspire them to stand at his side. A man who charged headfirst into the impossible situations and cleaved a path to the future.
A man who defied causality itself.
But more importantly...
Seohui took a deep breath and then lowered her hand, giving up on calming her racing heartbeat.
...He was a man that she couldn't read and who made her react in ways that she shouldn't react.
A threat. A clear threat. A variable that she couldn't allow to exist.
...Seohui found herself thinking.
"...Would you be able to save even me, Hero?"
Lost in thought, Seohui mumbled words that even she didn't understand. But before she could think about them, a chime echoed. The elevator arriving on the ground floor.
Seohui schooled her expression and then walked out of the elevator. Immediately, a group of men in suits stepped forward to greet her, bowing their heads.
"Greetings First Lady!"
She stared at them all and subconsciously recalled Jihu's words.
'Well, what do you expect an admirer to say when face to face with their goddess, right?'
Seohui crinkled her nose and then walked off. "We're heading back."
Seohui ignored the men around her. Instead, she turned her thoughts to Paradise.
She hadn't lied to Jihu. She was indeed busy dealing with the aftermath of his actions.
And most importantly...
'Sorry, Parasite Unni. But you aren't taking this one from me.'