Side Story 17

9. I’m going there to meet you right now (3)

The ‘impulse’.

An overwhelming impulse, that’s what Kim Cheol felt; this powerful impulse, strong enough to nearly blow his reasoning away, almost completely swallowed him up.

‘But….. But how come I…..’

Why did he want to kneel down in front of a kid that he’d never seen before, a student from the same year, but from another school?

In that brief moment, if he didn’t force his ankles and calves to be still with all his might, then he would’ve shown a pretty disgraceful sight to everyone.

Way too close for comfort, indeed.

Kim Cheol couldn’t describe this situation in any other way. Still, he managed to overcome it somehow and wiped the cold sweat pooling on his forehead with the back of his hand.

It was at that moment that a really plausible theory popped up in his head.

‘Could it be that…. I’m scared by a dude from the same year as me?’

If it was not that, then how else could he explain away this current situation where his breathing quickened up suddenly and he wanted to avert his gaze while all strength drained out of his legs, as soon he met his opponent’s eyes?

Too bad, Kim Cheol simply couldn’t accept reality as it was.

‘Don’t make me laugh!!’

By relying on his superior physique surpassing that of high schoolers, as well as physical strength that matched his size, Kim Cheol enjoyed incredible prominence during his middle school days. Yet here he was, getting scared by another kid in the same age bracket?

Such a thing was not possible. No, more than that, such a thing could not be allowed to happen.

“H-hey, Cheol-ah? What’s wrong?”

“You feeling okay, my man?”

The seniors began showing concern for his well-being, and as his reply, veins bulged in Kim Cheol’s throat as he roared out.

“Nothing’s wrong, seniors!!”

‘That’s right, there’s nothing wrong with me!’

Kim Cheol convinced himself of this fact and powerfully nodded his head.

‘Right, I was suffering from a simple dizzy spell because I didn’t have a fulfilling breakfast. That must be it.’

In order to prove right the theory that he just cooked up on the spot, Kim Cheol slowly raised his head and stared straight at the freshman of the opposing school.

Although possessing a pretty well-trained physique, the first-year high school kid standing there was like a stalk of straw compared to himself. Finally regaining some sort of leeway now, a grin floated up on Kim Cheol’s lips.

Smirk.

‘….I knew it.’

Getting scared by a kid that might get knocked out in one punch from him? What an absurd thing that was.

Kim Cheol straightened his slightly hunched figure as the unbridled confidence from earlier on returned to his face.

The members of the Hwaseong Tech High’s track team were feeling worried from the sudden changes Kim Cheol was going through, but they regained their smiles after confirming that their ace had returned to how he was.

“Dayum, you surprised me there.”

“I’m telling you, our ace freshman really knows how to command attention.”

The seniors patted his shoulder to encourage him, and Kim Cheol replied with a confident smile before fixing his gaze back on Jin-Woo.

‘What a disgrace, why did a dizzy spell have to happen at the same time as looking into that guy’s eyes…?’

Kim Cheol began thinking that he needed to return this ill-timed disgrace he suffered back to his opponent tenfold somehow. The best method to overturn an embarrassing situation was to suppress the other’s spirit.

‘…….’

Only now did he notice that, even though he was glaring at the kid, this fellow first-year was being insolent by standing upright and shooting a glare right back.

Not once did Kim Cheol let a moron like that walk away in one piece until now.

“Hey, you.”

He lowered his voice and pointed to the rear of the athletic field with his chin.

“I’ve got something to say to you, so follow me to over there for a sec.”

Oh, ohh-!

While the members of the Hwaseong Tech High’s track team whistled in excitement at their junior’s spirited display, Jin-Woo’s seniors were hurriedly blocking him from disinterestedly following after Kim Cheol.

“Jin-Woo! Listen to me, you mustn’t commit murder!”

“You ain’t thinking of spilling someone’s blood on the day of the competition, right?? You gotta hold it in.”

“That’s right, let’s just think of it as saving a poor soul today and let that kid be.”

Jin-Woo chuckled and gently shook off the hands of his seniors.

“Don’t worry, seniors. I’m sure nothing will happen over there.”

The seniors tried to confirm the safety of his ‘opponent’ once more.

“Really? There really won’t be anything bad happening to that kid, right?”

“We’re choosing to believe you.”

“That friend over there, he’s definitely walking back here on his own two feet, right?”

Jin-Woo smiled brightly in order to put the worries of his seniors to rest and quickly walked over in the direction Kim Cheol had disappeared to.

‘…..’

The captain of Hwaseong’s track team, Joh Gi-Seok, watched all of this unfold from the side and formed a disbelieving expression before walking up closer to his rivals.

“You guys…. You all being serious right now?”

Choi Tae-Woong sneaked a glimpse at Joh Gi-Seok’s face before shifting his gaze back in the direction where Jin-Woo had gone off to and spoke up in a worried tone of voice.

“Don’t talk to me, man. I’m feeling really conflicted right now.”

Choi Tae-Woong had been watching Jin-Woo’s monster-like motor reflexes from a close vantage point, so all he could do now was to fervently pray for that fella named Kim Cheol to not try anything funny for his sake.

***

While walking after Kim Cheol, Jin-Woo’s anticipation grew just a tiny bit. Could it be that this kid also regained the memories of the past, too?

If that was the case, how would human ‘Kim Cheol’, and not the Shadow Soldier ‘Iron’, react to the memories of those days?

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like Kim Cheol had called him over here to discuss their past, judging from the light in the kid’s eyes as he turned around.

The high school kid’s murderous eyes were now looking down on Jin-Woo.

“What, just because I’m wearing a school uniform while standing on the same field as you, you think I’m a pushover?”

Kim Cheol was getting riled up here, but well, the sight of him being agitated like this reminded Jin-Woo of him losing his crap back inside the Red Gate, which caused an unplanned smirk to break out in response.

Sure, he did get annoyed back then, but now, weren’t they all his cherished memories? Too bad, though, Kim Cheol didn’t remember a single thing from those days, and Jin-Woo’s smile didn’t go down all that well with him.

“You son of a b*tch!”

Kim Cheol’s rough hands reached out and grabbed Jin-Woo’s collars in an instant. When that happened, there was a chorus of ‘Waaaah-!!’ breaking out from his shadow, made by the Shadow Soldiers cheering out loudly.

[Yes, Iron is returning to us!]

[Welcome back, Iron!]

[My liege, entrust this lost sheep to me. I, Bellion, swear to re-educate him properly and ensure an event like this will never happen again….]

‘……’

It seemed that there was a real need to teach his Shadow Soldiers about the ways of the modern world. Jin-Woo inwardly tutted and stared deeply into Kim Cheol’s eyes.

Without a doubt, someone was challenging him right now, but maybe because the fond memories of the days when this kid was a loyal Shadow Soldier, Jin-Woo just couldn’t bring himself to despise him.

No, rather than that, he grew real curious about whether Kim Cheol would regain all the lost memories if they came in physical contact here.

The burly high school kid sensed something strange from Jin-Woo’s eyes and inadvertently swallowed dry saliva.

‘What’s going on….?’

If this was in the past, he’d not give a d*mn about being disqualified from the track competition and have thrown a punch by now, since the other guy was seemingly making fun of him.

But, rather than emotions of anger or even the desire to settle the score, a different kind of feeling, thicker and purer than anything else, began to wiggle violently from the deepest part of his chest.

And as Kim Cheol stood there conflicted on what to do next, Jin-Woo slowly and cautiously grasped the boy’s wrist right then.

The ends of his fingers touched Kim Cheol’s skin.

When that happened….

“Uh….??”

Tears began flooding out from the boy’s eyes.

He didn’t know why he was crying all of a sudden, yet the tears didn’t want to stop falling down. Soon, all strength abandoned his legs and he plopped down to the ground.

“B-but, why….?”

Kim Cheol looked up at Jin-Woo.

He was searching for an answer, but all he got in return was a rueful smile from the mysterious boy, instead.

‘If the Sovereign’s memories weren’t shared in the past, then the memories won’t come back even if we make physical contact, huh?’

Unless… he restored the memories forcibly, that was.

Jin-Woo recalled the faces of people he shared his memories with, in the now-erased past.

‘Association President Woo Jin-Cheol, and….’

….And, Madam Norma Selner.

He thought about the distinct possibility that she might have also regained the memories from the erased timeline, and while wondering about that, he turned around to leave.

He no longer had any business with ‘Iron’, no, ‘Kim Cheol’. Because… the kid was living as a ‘human’, and not as a Shadow Soldier, now.

But then, the boy on his knees called out to Jin-Woo and stopped him in his tracks.

“H-hang on….. Wait.”

Kim Cheol wiped his eyes with his hands and hurriedly stood back up. His tears might have stopped, but his nose was still beet-red, but not caring about that, he squarely met Jin-Woo’s gaze shifting back at him so he could speak, his voice choked up with thick emotion.

“This, is this…. what they call love?”

He was being swept up by the sudden torrent of powerful emotions that he had never experienced before. Although he was deeply mistaken about what his feelings were, he was dead serious right now as he had ever been in his life.

“…”

Jin-Woo stared at the boy for a long while in an utter daze, feeling like he’s been struck hard in the back of his head. Eventually, a lengthy groan escaped from his mouth.

“….This won’t do.”

Indeed, he couldn’t let some poor kid live the rest of his life confused about his sexual orientation like this, now could he? When Jin-Woo walked closer, Kim Cheol’s cheeks blushed beet red like a maiden in love.

Unfortunately…

Snap!

All signs of cognition and emotion were wiped from the boy’s face along with the sound of fingers snapping. Kim Cheol’s eyes lost focus and became blurry. Jin-Woo stood in front of him and began inserting new memories to replace the old one.

“Okay, so…. You tried to provoke me, but then found out, coincidentally, that I was the son of your father’s friend’s friend’s friend and that’s how we got to resolve our differences.”

Kim Cheol dazedly nodded his head.

“Oh, and also….”

For a brief moment there, Jin-Woo recalled back to when the kid was still ‘Iron’ and was crying his eyes out as they were about to say goodbye, right before the Chalice of Rebirth was to be used. A thin smile floated up on his lips and he continued on.

“From here onwards, you gotta stop behaving like a bad person, alright? You were one of the guys who fought to protect this world, so be proud of yourself, man.”

“…..Yes, sir.”

After hearing a hushed, soft reply leaking out of Kim Cheol’s lips, Jin-Woo finally undid the hypnosis and let the boy be.

Snap.

“Uh…. Eh?”

Kim Cheol regained his consciousness and stayed rooted in his spot for a little while, utterly confused, only to belatedly discover Jin-Woo’s distancing back over yonder.

As if he was separating again from a friend he met after a long time, Jin-Woo waved his hand in a genial manner.

“Hey, see you again next time!”

“Uh…. O-okay.”

Feeling bewildered by this situation, Kim Cheol waved his hand and smiled along awkwardly as well.

‘Nice.’

Jin-Woo turned away from the kid’s direction, a happy grin forming on his face now. The unexpected encounter with an old comrade had come to a successful conclusion, but it was now time to search for that girl in earnest.

With excellent timing, he heard the announcement reverberating throughout the athletics field.

– The preliminaries for the middle school participants will begin shortly. All athletes, please report to the competitor’s area.

Somewhere at the far back of the athletics field, which was quiet and sparsely populated.

A young girl managed to get to the shade of a tree with some difficulty and plopped down on her butt there. Her shaking hands reached down to take off one of her shoes and her sock. Her swollen ankle testified as to what her current situation was.

She lightly bit her lower lips and glared at her ankle, before squeezing her eyes shut and leaning against the tree’s sturdy trunk.

What a blunder it was.

Her shoulder was shoved away by another runner right next to her and that caused her to stumble ungainly during the race. She somehow managed to pass the first round of preliminaries even with this fairly heavy injury, but now….

Now, it was clearly asking for too much to compete again with her leg being like this.

‘I’m furious….’

Indeed, she was.

This might be the last time she competed as a middle schooler, and so, she didn’t want to end the day with an injury.

That was why….

‘That’s why… I should just carry on.’

This was a line of thought that could only be cooked up by the head of an immature middle schooler, who still hadn’t shed the mindset of a child yet.

And it was the role of the adults to stop such a child from going down the wrong path since the dawn of time itself.

“You want to hide your injury?”

The girl flinched grandly after hearing the voice of a male student, walking out from behind the tree, that she failed to detect earlier. This mysterious male student didn’t look at her, but instead, stared into the distance.

“Even though a certain someone competed in that condition, hurt her ankle even more and had to spend over a year to recuperate, but still ended up as a third-rate athlete and could only regret the decision she made today?”

The male student shifted his gaze back to the girl with her wide-open eyes and formed a refreshing grin.

“I was talking about a person that I know, actually.”

Here was a strange guy telling her a strange tale. But the girl, Cha Hae-In, didn’t immediately run away from here and instead, chose to observe the boy for a bit longer.

‘Isn’t he an athlete….? A high schooler, right?’

She could detect a hint of this nice scent coming from the male student for some reason.

As for the identity of that scent, the ‘smell’ of the purest Mana leaking out of Jin-Woo, as well as her possessing a unique constitution that allowed her to sniff out Mana, she’d get to learn about them much, much later on.

As Hae-In grew more flustered by the second, Jin-Woo crouched near her and carefully placed his hand on her swollen ankle.

“Ah….”

She flinched again for a moment there but didn’t resist him all that much, either. And when his hand left her skin, her ankle was completely healed.

She raised up her shocked eyes and stared at Jin-Woo.

“Run without any regrets. You only have one shot, right?”

She shone so brightly as a rank S Hunter fighting against monster threats, but today, her sweating figure under the bright sunlight would shine just as wonderfully.

Jin-Woo smiled and tried to stand back up, only for his wrist to be grasped in a hurry by Hae-In.

“W-wait a minute.”

“…..?”

Could it be that a change occurred with the contact they made just now? Now facing off against Jin-Woo’s curiosity-laden gaze, Hae-In’s face flushed just a little.

“Excuse me, we…. Have we met somewhere before?”

She had to work up so much of her courage just to ask that simple-enough question that even her neck had turned beet-red by the time she was done asking it.

“Let’s run.”

“Eh?”

Hae-In visibly grew confused, but Jin-Woo maintained his grin.

“If you run against me and ever win, then I’ll tell you everything.”

“…..I saw you compete, oppa. I saw you coming in at first place in every preliminary race you entered.”

Jin-Woo smirked and stood back up.

“I’ll take that answer as you giving up.”

But then…

“I-if that’s the case!”

Cha Hae-In worked up her courage once more and made a suggestion.

“The record for the preliminaries about to take place in a bit…. How about you telling me the truth when I break that? Even if it’s not right now?”

Jin-Woo’s head lowered and did his best to suppress his chuckles.

‘Whether she’s younger or older, she’s still so pure.’

While briefly entertaining the idea of breaking the world record for the under-18 track event today, he nodded his head, a warm smile filling up his face.

“Alright, deal.”

Having successfully changed the condition of the bet, Hae-In formed a sunny smile as well.

‘Well, you ain’t going to be smiling later, though.’

Jin-Woo turned around and left her side for the athletics field while continuing to suppress his chuckles from breaking out.

On that day.

Under the bright spring sunlight, the world record for high school male athletes was shattered in what was supposed to be yet another ordinary preliminary race meet.

And the track team Jin-Woo was a part of defeated their rival Hwaseong Tech High on their way to achieving their goal of an overall first place finish.

< Chapter 260 > Fin.

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