Seonhwa's coffee shop. The one downtown near four universities.
After making the call, I hailed a taxi and had the driver take me there instead of going there right away. Mostly because I needed the time to think.
Yoo Seonhwa. Seol's girlfriend... Ex-girlfriend. The one who he hurt so much, and yet also the one he helped so much. A beautiful and kind young woman whose life had been so intricately woven with his that he fell apart when she left.
And the woman who I was going to talk to.
I stepped out of the taxi door after giving the driver a large tip and then stood in front of the building.
It was around three. Still business hours. Despite that fact, the café was closed, the business sign flipped around with a small note of apology.
The lights inside were turned off and the tables were empty.
Well, almost empty.
There was still one person inside. A beautiful young woman with light brown hair wearing a waitress uniform.
Was it because she didn't have time to change? Or were her thoughts so preoccupied it didn't cross her mind?
I noticed a few people walking past and staring at the closed coffee shop with a sigh. Mostly guys.
But that didn't matter.
I glanced at my phone, staring at the last message I got from Seonhwa.
[Do you have time to talk? If you do, could you come by the cafe again when you're free? I... want to clear things up between us.]
Clear things up.
...Could we even do that?
I lowered my phone and looked up into the café.
At the same time, Seonhwa did the same and caught my eyes.
Surprise, happiness, and then guilt.
I sighed and walked over to the door.
Seonhwa did the same.
When I arrived, I heard a soft click. The door unlocking. And then it opened.
A soft chime echoed, the bell ringing to signal the door opening. And then Seonhwa's soft voice echoed. "You came."
I nodded. "I promised, didn't I?"
"You did." A short response, followed by an awkward silence. But then Seonhwa stepped back and said, "Come in. It's a bit weird to be just talking at the door, right?" After saying that, she turned around and walked inside.
I followed after her.
The door closed, making the bell ring one more time. And then it was quiet, only the sounds of mine and Seonhwa's footsteps echoing in the empty coffee shop.
Seonhwa locked the door and then made her way towards the table. But she paused and looked at me. "Have you eaten already?"
It was a casual question. Just pleasantries... At least, it seemed to be.
But I could smell it in the air. The smell of freshly cooked meals... a nostalgic scent of all the dishes that Seonhwa used to make for me before everything went downhill.
No, not 'me'. Seol.
I stared at Seonhwa's expectant gaze and then smiled. "I'm always happy to eat your cooking."
She smiled back and said, "Wait right there then. I'll be right back."
After saying that, she walked back into the kitchen.
I sat down at the table and then rubbed my face. "Jihu, you bastard."
This wasn't helping. Not only that, but I was here with Seonhwa while Flone was waiting for me back at home.
And I knew exactly how both girls felt for me. Not to mention the other girls that I had met since arriving in Paradise...
The sound of running water. Dishes and silverware being arranged and sorted. And then Seonhwa returned with a tray of entrees.
Rice, braised short ribs, soy sauce braised quail eggs, kimchi pancake, bulgogi, and vegetable for bibimbap. That, and some freshly brewed tea.
A nostalgic assortment of food. What Seonhwa always cooked for me- For Seol in the past.
Seonhwa sat down and laid out a pair of plates before handing me a spoon. "I didn't know if you would actually show up... but I made your favorites just in case."
Seonhwa shook her head. "It's fine. And help yourself." She smiled and said, "I know how messy you can be with your favorites, so don't feel the need to hold back on my part."
I nodded and then scooped myself some rice.
Seonhwa did the same.
For a while, there was nothing but the sound of us eating. The clatter of spoons striking plates, gentle scrapes of forks grabbing the braised ribs...
Silence. It should have been comfortable. After all, we had done this countless times before in the past. But...
"...Do you not like it?" Seonhwa looked at me, her brown eyes rounded with sadness.
"...It's good. But..." I sighed. "It's just not the same."
Right. That was the problem.
A small part of me relished this scenario. Being together with Seonhwa again, eating the nostalgic food that she carefully prepared for me, hearing her soft and concerned voice. And seeing that face, I felt the urge to reach out and hold her close. To apologize and say that everything will be fine.
Except that would be a lie. Because those weren't 'my' feelings. Not Jihu's. Instead, they were just remnants of the past. The emotions and sentiments that this body had even after I had taken over.
"...I thought so." Seonhwa sighed and set her spoon down. She picked up her cup of tea and took a long sip. After that, she let out a crooked smile and said, "We really can't go back to how we were, can we?"
I didn't respond.
Seonhwa sighed again and then nodded. "Fine." It was a look of resignation. But also one of determination.
She looked up at me and said, "Jihu. I want to give you my answer."
I blinked. "Answer? To what?"
"To what you said last summer. Do you remember?"
I paused, trying to recall my memories. And then I did. .
Back at the very beginning when I first arrived here. After heading back home, I ran into her at my apartment. And at the end of that meeting...
I don't want to see you for a year... and I don't want you to see me for a year. A person like myself doesn't deserve to be associated with you. But after that... Well, if you still really want me then, I'll accept it.
I was quiet and then said, "One year... Has it been that long already?"
Seonhwa nodded. "It has. And do you remember your promise?"
"...I do. But Seonhwa..."
The last time we met on Earth, she said that she wouldn't give me up. But now, after all of this...
Seonhwa shook her head and gave me a sad smile and said, "It's fine. I know it now. The Jihu I loved doesn't exist anymore. My little Pipster... won't ever come back."
It was impossible, after all. Seol and I were similar. But we were also different. And even if we weren't, after all that had happened... It would be impossible for that mischievous guy to come back.
I looked at Seonhwa and said, "So you decided to move on then."
It made sense. After all, she had loved Seol that much. Even if I looked the same, spoke the same... I wasn't the same. Knowing that the one she loved would never return... it made sense to move on.
She nodded. "I did. So..." She closed her eyes and then quietly muttered, "Goodbye, Jihu."
I saw it. The moment she said those words, a frayed crimson thread floating around Seonhwa snapped, dissolving into the void.
At the same time, I felt a small pang of heartache. Grief for something that could never return.
But that wasn't me. Not anymore.
Instead, it was the last bit of attachment that 'Seol' had here.
...I still didn't know how I came to take his place, but with that, the last bit of his lingering regrets from before I arrived vanished.
It felt bittersweet. Even so, I ignored that feeling and picked up my tea to take a long sip. Setting the cup back down on the table, I looked up at Seonhwa and said, "I guess this is it, then?"
Seonhwa opened her eyes and nodded. "It is." She smiled, a carefree smile free of worry or regrets. No lingering emotions or traces of hesitation.
Facing that expression, I felt a burden lift from my shoulders. At the same time, the faint bit of guilt left in me from being 'Seol' vanished. With that, I smiled back at Seonhwa and held out my hand. "In that case... let's start over. Hi. I'm Jihu, free lancer and man of various talents. You?"
Seonhwa laughed and took my hand. "It's nice to meet you, Jihu. I'm Seonhwa. And... I'm sorry to have bothered you so much."
After that, we sat back down across from each other.
It was still a bit awkward. After all, saying that we'd start over was one thing, doing it was something else considering our shared history. Even so, watching her, and seeing that she was being sincere about her words and actions, I frowned. "...You know, you reacted a lot different than how I thought you would. After last time, I thought... Well, I thought you'd cling onto me until the bitter end."
It was the natural reaction. She and Seol had been seriously in love. And it was one born from years of care and affection... Not to mention that they had even taken that next step together too. It was to the extent that marriage was obvious... And even after everything collapsed, Seonhwa still did her best to try and hold everything together.
A deep and long devotion.
So for her to be able to give up on me like this...
Seonhwa nodded. "I know. I surprised myself too. But..." She let out a deep and pained sigh. "It's complicated. Anyway." She looked at me and said, "Let me know when you're going back, alright? I can't really help you with anything here anymore, but if it's that place, I can at least fight with you."
I blinked. "...You're coming back? As yourself, or-"
"Obviously as the Sacred Empress." She frowned and pointed her fork at me. "A certain someone did the impossible and now has the entire world staring at his every action. It'll be bad if he doesn't have a strong supporter by his side when things go wrong."
"That doesn't mean you have to come back."
Seonhwa had already gotten out of that world and was living a normal life. And before I came back, she was already starting on her own life. So to drag her back in like this...
Seonhwa shook her head. "We might not be together anymore, Jihu... but we're still family, you know? Besides, I'm pretty sure Jinhee would yell at me if she knew I was letting her beloved Oppa run off on his own into danger again."
I sighed. "That's true..."
"Right?" Seonhwa nodded. "So let's finish eating our food... and then you can tell me about all the other girls you've met since dumping me."
"...Do you have to put it like that?"
"Am I wrong?"