The Encounter (5)
“Still, nothing's cooler than being the winner,” said Kang Jin-Ho.
Park Yu-Min must've heard him because his hand movement grew faster and faster.
– Ohhh! Park Yu-Min! Park Yu-Min is furiously storming in! Yes, he's going all out! Uwaaaah!!! That incredible control! Park Yu-Min! Park Yu-Minnnn! We are about to witness the birth of a new champion! Park Yu-Min!! GG! Yes, oh yes! GG! 
The commentator's voice rang loudly in the tournament venue as the fireworks and confetti exploded everywhere.
“Kkyaaaaaah! Yu-Min won! He won, Jin-Ho!” Han Se-Yeon cried out in elation.
He did it.” Kang Jin-Ho grinned deeply.
For some reason, he felt proud of that boy.
When did he ever feel this way before? Feeling happy and proud about someone else? The commotion on the stage eventually calmed down enough for the winner's interview to be conducted.
Han Se-Yeon nudged Kang Jin-Ho's side.
“Look, Yu-Min's crying again.”
Kang Jin-Ho tutted softly.
“This moment will be recorded for posterity, so for him to show his weak side like this…”
The smiling interviewer began asking Park Yu-Min.
– Mister Park Yu-Min! You're the champion! Congratulations! Is there anyone you'd like to thank and share this joyous occasion with?
Park Yu-Min replied with a slightly tearful voice.
– First of all, I'd like to thank my teammates who trained with me and patiently helped me reach this far.
And then, the team director who must've lost a lot of sleep because of me.
And I'd like to thank the orphanage's director who looked after me all these years, and my kind siblings back in the orphanage, too! And, and…
And my friends who encouraged me to become a pro gamer! I'd like to thank all my friends who are here!
– Your friends, you say?
– Yes! Jin-Hoooo! I kept my promise, okay!
Kang Jin-Ho burst into laughter.
“Looks like he's gone out of control, then.”
For some reason, though, Han Se-Yeon was pouting unhappily.
Kang Jin-Ho glanced at her and asked with a cocked eyebrow, “What's the matter this time?”
She sourly replied, “He thanked everyone…
Her eyes narrowed to slits.
“I'm gonna kill him when he gets here.”
He won, after all.”
I'll only kill him halfway…”
Kang Jin-Ho helplessly shook his head.
“I guess being half-dead won't dampen the celebration.”
Park Yu-Min finally became a champion.
Kang Jin-Ho couldn't stop smiling at that knowledge as the celebration continued on the stage.
He chuckled and murmured to himself.
And just like that, time continued to flow…
…While leaving behind many memories from many events.
“To our Jin-Ho's painless enlistment!” Jeong In-Gyu raised his glass for a toast.
“To our Jin-Ho!”
Kang Jin-Ho also raised his own glass and clinked glasses with his friends.
Then, he placed the glass down on the table.
Jeong In-Gyu tilted his head.
“Dude, why aren't you drinking your booze?”
“It doesn't taste good,” Kang Jin-Ho replied disinterestedly.
Jeong In-Gyu looked stunned.
“Huh? Who drinks because of the booze's flavor?”
“What then?” Kang Jin-Ho raised an eyebrow while cocking his head slightly.
“You drink to get wasted, obviously!”
Kang Jin-Ho relaxedly nodded away.
“And that's why I don't feel like drinking…”
Jeong In-Gyu looked even more lost now.
“I don't get it, dude.”
Park Yu-Min came to his rescue.
“Jin-Ho won't get drunk even if he drinks ten times more than us, you know.
So, drinking to get wasted isn't applicable for him.”
“Jin-Ho, I didn't know you were that good with booze.”
“You have no idea, In-Gyu.” Park Yu-Min sagely nodded.
“That's what it was…”
Oh Min-Jae, who had been silently observing this exchange from the other side of the table, suddenly spoke up, “By the way, who invited In-Gyu here?”
A different friend replied to him, “No one did.
He just sniffed out free booze somehow and decided to show up.”
“What the hell, you disloyal jerks?! How can you leave me out of Jin-Ho's going away get-together when there's booze involved?!”
Oh Min-Jae tutted loudly.
“Well, you're an examinee repeating a year, that's why.”
“Are you saying that an examinee isn't a human in your eyes?! Man, you're making me cry here.” Jeong In-Gyu retorted humorously, prompting everyone at the party to burst into loud laughter.
Booze began to flow freely.
Most of the conversation consisted of catching up on how everyone had been doing in the past half-year, as well as some rumors they heard about regarding life in the South Korean army.
The get-together went on for hours, but…
Han Se-Yeon didn't say a single thing.
“Guys, let's call it a night,” said Park Yu-Min to break up the party.
Predictably, voices of protest rose up.
“We have a student repeating a year with us, and I gotta manage my health for the upcoming tournament, too.”
“Man, that's unfortunate.”
Park Yu-Min glanced at Kang Jin-Ho.
“Come on, let's go home.”
Kang Jin-Ho nodded, then got up without any hesitation.
“Right, let's go.”
He saw no point in dithering about since he didn't come here to drink booze but to meet his friends after not seeing them for a long while.
Park Yu-Min looked around at his friends around the table and spoke, “I'll pay for the drinks, everyone.”
“Ohhhh! As expected of a career man!”
“That's the dignity of a pro!”
“No, wait! It's the spirit of the champion!”
Park Yu-Min began blushing when his friends rowdily cheered him on.
“W-Wait, that's not…”
Fine, I say! As long as you pick up the tab, we're all good!”
While making an embarrassed but happy expression, Park Yu-Min headed to the bar's counter.
Kang Jin-Ho and his friends filed out of the joint and continued to chat for a little while longer on the sidewalk before going their ways one by one.
“Jin-Ho, I'm going first.” Park Yu-Min grinned and waved his hand.
Kang Jin-Ho nodded.
“Want me to give you a ride?”
But you should take Se-Yeon home, though.”
Kang Jin-Ho slightly tilted his head.
“I'll catch a taxi, so don't worry about me.”
“Sure…” Kang Jin-Ho watched Park Yu-Min leave, then turned his attention to Han Se-Yeon.
“Let's go, too.”
“Okay,” Han Se-Yeon replied briefly and followed him in utter silence as they headed to her home.
Fortunately, she didn't throw a tantrum like the last time, which made Kang Jin-Ho rather thankful.
After a while, she finally broke her silence and said, “Jin-Ho.
When did you apply?”
Kang Jin-Ho shrugged his shoulders.
“It hasn't been that long.”
“And you haven't said anything to me?”
“That's just like you, isn't it?” Han Se-Yeon quietly muttered.
Rather than disappointment and hurt, her tone sounded curt and unfriendly.
Kang Jin-Ho kept his mouth shut, knowing that she wasn't looking for a reply from him.
They continued to walk down the streets covered in the darkness of the night without saying anything else.
She did glance at him a couple of times but she still chose to say nothing.
They walked in silence like this and, before long, they arrived in front of her home.
Han Se-Yeon sighed.
“You can go now.”
Kang Jin-Ho nodded.
“And be safe during your enlistment, too.”
“Come back in one piece, okay?”
Han Se-Yeon wordlessly stared at Kang Jin-Ho, then frowned deeply.
“Don't you have anything else to say other than 'Got it', 'I will' and what not?!”
“Didn't you just come clean out of the blue and say you enlisted a few days ago?! Do you really think it’s okay that you didn’t tell me about it earlier?! And all you can say right now is 'I got it?’ That you will? It's alright? Don't you know any other words?!” Han Se-Yeon's voice grew louder and angrier.
“I can't do this anymore! I'm so sick of it!”
Unfortunately for her, Kang Jin-Ho had no idea why she was acting this way.
“What's gotten into you?”
“What's gotten into me?! Did you really just ask me that?! Wait, that's right! You wouldn't get it.
You don't get it and that's why you asked me that dumb question! You aren't the type to ask about something you already know, after all!”
Kang Jin-Ho groaned softly.
There must be some kind of an evil phantom lurking in front of Han Se-Yeon's house since she would start behaving weirdly whenever they get here.
“You're drunk, Se-Yeon.
Go inside and try to get some rest.
I'm going now.”
Han Se-Yeon coldly glared at him.
“I didn't touch a single drop.”
“I'm too tired of this.
Have a nice day.
I'll stop too, so you do whatever you want from now on.
Get drafted, emigrate, I don't care anymore.” Han Se-Yeon spat those words out and turned around fast enough to generate a gush of cold wind.
Kang Jin-Ho wordlessly watched her storm toward the entrance.
But she stopped just before it, then said her final goodbye.
“Enjoy your life.
For some reason, hearing her say that left a bitter taste in Kang Jin-Ho's mouth.
He faltered, then called out to her.
“Han Se-Yeon, wait.”
“What is it?”
“I don't understand why you're so angry at me, but can you forgive me? I'd like to apologize.”
Han Se-Yeon's face turned bright red.
“You’re apologizing when you don't even know why?!”
“You're angry at me, after all.”
“Don't you understand that what you're doing is making things even worse?!” Han Se-Yeon forcefully wiped the corners of her eyes.
“You're just unbelievable, you know that? Yeah, unbelievable! Why do you want to make me feel this miserable?”
She breathed heavily.
Her panting gradually weakened, and she finally muttered in a sorrowful voice, “I like you, Jin-Ho.”
“I like you.
From way back…”
Kang Jin-Ho quietly replied, “Yeah, I like you, too.”
Han Se-Yeon slowly nodded.
“Yeah, I know.
You like me, like how you like Yu-Min, In-Gyu, Tae-Ho, and Min-Jae.
I knew all that, but I still like you.
No, I liked you.
I think I can't deal with you anymore.”
Kang Jin-Ho clamped his mouth shut, unable to think of something to say.
What should he do in a situation like this?
“I've always hung around near you, but you never paid me much attention, and…
And I'm tired of doing that.
I want to find someone who likes me back, so I don't have to go through this again.”
Go and join the army.
I'll be gone from your sight from now on.
I won't bother you anymore.”
Kang Jin-Ho sighed.
This felt wrong.
“Be safe, okay? Stay healthy, too.
Don't get injured or get sick,” said Han Se-Yeon with a forced bright smile.
“It's been fun, Jin-Ho.
But it's fine now, so, bye.”
She opened the front gate and slipped inside.
The metal gate closed with a soft click behind her.
Kang Jin-Ho could only stare at that scene in silence.
For some reason…
it felt so bitter.
Bitter and lonesome, too.
He lost a friend just now.
At least he could tell that much.
That must be why he felt frustrated and bitter.
Maybe his anger level was rising up.
his emotions were trying to rush to his head.
It all felt so…
What was this emotion? He hadn't felt an emotion like this in such a long time.
It must've been…
A long, long time ago in the past, even before Zhongyuan…
He must've felt this emotion for a brief period of time back then.
'…Too late, aren't I?'
Indeed, he was too late to notice it.
A bitter grin slowly formed on his face.
No, much too late.”
Kang Jin-Ho turned around to leave, a rueful expression was frozen on his face.
In a way, this was good for him.
It was good that he had finally recognized this emotion welling up inside him.
He could have lived the rest of his new life totally oblivious to it, but now, he knew and recognized it, so what a relief it was…
'Even though it's too late…'
Kang Jin-Ho slowly trudged away.
From now, he…
A shrill cry hit him from behind.
“Hey, you dummy!”
“Uh?” Kang Jin-Ho let out a loud gasp unbeknownst to himself.
He had been too wrapped up in his emotions that he failed to notice the presence of other people around him.
That would have been unimaginable in the past.
“How can you be walking away like that?!”
Han Se-Yeon pushed the front gate open and was walking back toward him.
Kang Jin-Ho faltered.
“But, you told me to leave…?”
“So, you decided to actually leave?! Just like that? When someone pours their heart out, you're supposed to cling on to the gate and beg and apologize in a flood of tears, you know? Don't you know that that's the only way to spare me the humiliation?!”
“I-Is that so?” Kang Jin-Ho stood there in confusion.
While he dithered about, she strode quickly to his location and glared sharply at him.
“Stay still, got it?”
Han Se-Yeon suddenly slapped him on the face.
She then cocked an eyebrow.
“You didn't dodge that?”
“You told me to stay still, didn't you?”
“Did it hurt?”
“But, I wanted to hurt you, though?” Han Se-Yeon spat out a groan.
“Urgh, who am I kidding? I'm the idiot and the fool here, anyway.
Just why did I…
With this guy…”
Kang Jin-Ho felt lost and speechless.
He still didn't know what it was, but his gut told him that he had made a grave mistake somewhere.
Han Se-Yeon glared at him again.
“Be still, okay?”
Kang Jin-Ho slightly cocked an eyebrow but he stood tall without moving.
Noticing that he wasn't moving, Han Se-Yeon sneaked closer and hugged him.
“…Mm?” She tried to go on her tiptoes a couple of times before frowning a little.
“H-Hey, come down a little, will you?”
Just bend your knees or something!”
Kang Jin-Ho unknowingly bent his knees a little.
“A little bit more.”
“Just do it, will ya?!”
Kang Jin-Ho groaned and lowered himself a lot more.
When he did, Han Se-Yeon brought her face to his and kissed him on the lips.
This feeling, it…
How should he describe it? Kang Jin-Ho decided to stop thinking for now.
His gut told him that now wasn't the time for that.
A little while later, Han Se-Yeon broke off the kiss and stepped back.
“You can go now.”
“However, if you call Yu-Min first and not me during your first vacation, I'm gonna chase you down to the depths of hell and kick your butt.”
Kang Jin-Ho nodded.
He smiled wryly.
“Yes, I'll call you first.”
Han Se-Yeon nodded, then hugged him again.
“Have fun, you dummy.”
Han Se-Yeon kissed him lightly on his lips, then hurriedly ran back into her home with her face bright pink.
Kang Jin-Ho slowly touched his lips.
'What a strange feeling this is…'
Indeed, there was a strange feeling swirling in him right now.
So strange—in fact—that it was indescribable.
He glanced at the front gate, sensing that Han Se-Yeon's figure was still there.
She was leaning against the other side of the gate, quietly sobbing away.
“I'm sorry,” Kang Jin-Ho murmured, then he turned around to leave.
He instinctively realized that he should not linger any longer.
“Hey, Kang Jin-Ho!” A loud voice called out to him from the other side of the gate.
He glanced behind him.
“What is it?”
“I'm gonna ditch you and find a new guy, you dummy!”
Kang Jin-Ho chuckled softly at her yell.
Seriously, this girl…
She remained a handful until the end, didn't she? He walked away as the unexplainable feeling continued to swirl in his heart.
He could have used his movement technique to get home much quicker but he didn't feel like doing that right now.
For the first time in a while, Kang Jin-Ho walked alone on the streets under the stillness of the night, quietly reflecting on himself.
'Have I changed?'
Compared to when he returned to the modern era, yes, he had changed.
Quite a lot, in fact.
He acknowledged it.
'Am I at peace?'
Compared to his past, yes, his new life was filled with enjoyable things.
He might get angry sometimes and even get sad, but his life right now was definitely peaceful.
This was the life he had been longing for.
'…However, am I happy?'
He still hadn't found the answer to this question.
One thing was for certain, though—he was inching closer to the 'happiness' he had been wishing for.
He was sure about this.
'In that case, what a relief.'
What a relief that he could return to the modern era.
What a relief it was that he could escape from that hell.
What a relief…
that he could finally live the life he had been dreaming about.
'Just like this…'
He wished for the future to be like this.
Unchanging, and that it would remain the same—the same as now.
Kang Jin-Ho smiled quietly.
A smile that…
looked just a little tragic and a little rueful at the same time.
It seemed that the time wasn't quite right yet.
Perhaps he still needed a little more time.
Unfortunately, there would come a time for him to accept his situation whether he liked it or not.
Just like now…
The reality he had been ignoring until now began to creep closer.
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