Jin-Woo spends what feels like an eternity sinking, falling, drowning, in an endless void that sees him, knows him, and then… consumes him.
He does not gaze into the abyss, and the abyss does not gaze into him. His death is not a gentle sacrifice. The abyss devours him instead, his offering of flesh and blood and bone, of life and heart and soul, willingly, violently, defiantly given, and in return, when it spits him back out and lets him go, Jin-Woo wakes with the heartbeats of galaxies in his ears and the pulse of stars in his veins and the entire cosmos seeped into his marrow.
He reawakens, and he is still Sung Jin-Woo, but he is also not.
He reawakens, and he is no longer human.
He reawakens, and he is more than the world will ever understand.
Jin-Woo says nothing as the two men from the Hunters Association's Monitoring Division begin packing up, all previous interest gone after the results came back to declare Jin-Woo an E-rank still. They remain polite throughout at least, civil if perfunctory, so Jin-Woo returns the courtesy and doesn't mention the additional words he hears, the distant pity and passing derision that echo the truth their mouths don't speak.
I guess trash is trash, through and through, one of them thinks, and Jin-Woo has to hide a smile - one with far too many teeth - because it's funny, the way a kitten puffing up with aggression might be funny, because he can sense the life in each of them, and it would be so, so easy to reach out and just… extinguish them.
He doesn't, of course. There's no point to it. He waits for them to leave instead, listens to the click of the door, and then he turns his focus on himself instead, on his arms and legs and hands and feet, on pale skin and brittle bones, all so deceptively fragile compared to the entity now housed within them. Compared to him.
What he is now - he doesn't think he could put into words, if asked, doesn't think there are words for his kind, not in any human language. What he does know though is that he is something Other now, something that barely fits into this human-shaped shell he wears, something both very old and very young all at once, with the knowledge of the universe - of the cracks in-between and the spaces beyond - on his tongue, behind his eyelids, in every breath he takes, but also with the name Sung Jin-Woo and everything that entails, built on a mere twenty-four years of humanity and then newly born again from the depths of the starless void.
Jin-Woo smiles again, this time with no one to hide the sharpness of it from. He flexes his fingers, feels the very fabric of space and time bend around him, and he makes a mental note to be careful, because if he isn't, he thinks he might accidentally rip the whole planet apart. He'd survive it, but he also has a very vulnerable sister who most definitely wouldn't.
And speaking of whom…
The door slams open once more, and Jin-Ah bursts in, all loud anger and lectures that do nothing to hide the worry underneath. She isn't afraid of him, but he knows that's only because she doesn't know what her brother's turned into. Still, he thinks he likes it this way, wants to keep her like this - bold and fearless and free to live her life on her own terms. He'd barely been able to eke out enough money for her, before his transformation (Evolution? Destruction? Resurrection?), but he's more than strong enough now to ensure both her safety and livelihood, and the very thought of it satisfies the part of him that still holds his few emotional attachments close.
So long as he lives, Jin-Ah will be able to do whatever she pleases. As for their mother… well. There are millions upon billions of dimensions overlapping and bisecting and folded around each other - even if he can't find a cure for her in his own world, there's bound to be one in another. Their mother will be fine too; it's just a matter of time.
Over the next few weeks, it feels a little like he's learning to walk and run all over again. It's not that he's forgotten how, but to remain tucked into this tiny little human vessel and still imitate all its functions and reactions properly without bursting at the seams definitely takes some getting used to.
He exercises a lot more these days. It helps him adjust. In-between, he also slips away into other worlds, with threats entertaining enough to occupy his time since - in his own dimension - human laws dictate that he isn't qualified to deal with any Dungeons higher than a C-rank. He'll have to find a way to work around that, if for no other reason than to earn a better source of legal income, but for now, soloing unofficial Dungeons on his own is good enough.
For Jin-Woo, crossing from one dimension to another is just a matter of knowing where to find the gaps. He sees the rifts between worlds when he looks, which is really all Gates are - portals torn through time and space when too much chaotic energy has built up in just the wrong way, enough for even humans to see and interact with, enough for creatures less powerful than Jin-Woo's kind to breach them.
Jin-Woo doesn't need to wait for actual Gates to appear. He never quite knows where he'll end up, but he does know how to get there, and how to get back. He learns how to harness his newfound powers even while in his human form, and he's pleased with his particular affinity for the shadows. He tears through hostile world after hostile world, bares teeth and opens eyes and eats those who get in his way, and he comes back with enough loot to let his whole family live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
He knows better than to pawn it all off right away of course. But for the first time in his life, he no longer needs to keep one anxious eye on Jin-Ah's school tuition or college savings or their mother's hospital fees, and while he doesn't (can't?) feel anything like relief the way he thinks his old self would have, he does get something like gratification.
He brings back weapons and elixirs and other interesting artifacts too. He doesn't need them, but it's probably a good idea to become proficient with at least a few different types of weaponry, and one can never be too prepared. He's almost certainly stronger than anything found on earth, but most major threats these days aren't from earth anymore, are they?
Even as the creature - the monster - he is now, this is perhaps the biggest difference between himself and others of his kind. He was not born into power, never granted the absolute confidence of true horrors, or even the unmatched superiority of the A-rank and S-rank hunters who rose to stand above everyone else of their species. Jin-Woo is not like the former or the latter. He will never forget what it was like to be helpless, to be weak, to be nothing.
He will never forget, and that will be another piece of armour in his much expanded arsenal.
Jin-Ah isn't stupid. She knows her brother came back… different, knows it in the way the shadows at his feet don't quite match up with the light anymore, knows it in the occasional one-too-many-eyes and far-too-many-teeth she glimpses out of the corner of her eye, knows it in the chill that runs down her spine and raises the hair at her nape when she doesn't notice him entering the room but can somehow sense it all the same.
So she knows that the brother who'd come back from an S-rank Dungeon hidden inside a D-rank isn't the same one she'd waved out the door that day, knows it like she knows her own name.
She just doesn't care. She's only ever asked one thing of her brother - come back alive. And he had. He'd come back, he'd survived, and maybe he's quieter now, and colder, and on occasion, he smells like blood and smoke and ice and night, but he also asks about her day and remembers to buy her favourite snacks, his hugs still feel the same and he still puts her first.
He's still her big brother in all the ways that matter, the brother who promised he wouldn't leave her like Mom and Dad and kept that promise. For that, she can accept anything else.
Jin-Woo does - eventually - need to get noticed though. Even if he doesn't sell it all at once, sooner or later, someone is going to notice that he has a steady supply of rare items that can only be found in high-rank Dungeons, which no E-rank hunter should feasibly have access to. So he can't stay an E-rank, but in order to get tested again (he's fairly certain he can manipulate the measurement device this time, or if nothing else, he could just break the thing by overloading it), he has to have a good enough reason.
He may not be human any longer, but since he's decided to - mostly - live as a human, he should at least try to work within their bounds.
Fortunately, the threads of fate are easy enough to manipulate when he can see the humans stained in blood, the ones with too much arrogance and too much ignorance, the ones Jin-Woo knows are marked for an early grave, and so it takes no effort at all to ensure he's in the right place at the right time to join these people on lower-levelled raids, no effort at all either to peel back his human guise, just a little, just enough, to let them taste fear.
The thing about humans like Hwang Dong-Suk, like Kang Tae-Shik - even when they're confronted with a threat like Jin-Woo, a threat that some primal part of them knows down to their bones that they cannot defeat and their hindbrain screams at them to run, to hide, to beg for mercy, they'll ignore it all the same.
It isn't strength, Jin-Woo doesn't think. It's just… ignorance. Arrogance. And the human race's unfathomable capacity for disregarding the things they don't want to look too closely at. Not until it's far too late.
Hwang Dong-Suk and his whole party dies.
Kang Tae-Shik goes the same way.
Jin-Woo devours them all in the aftermath - the essence of them, the last breath in their lungs, the desperate heat in their veins, the fading light in their eyes - and for the first time since he was born anew, he finally feels full.
Jin-Ho is pretty sure his new… colleague? Business partner? Friend??? Mostly just sees him as some kind of pet.
As self-deprecating as it sounds, Jin-Ho is actually okay with that. He is well aware that if Sung Jin-Woo chooses to, he could kill Jin-Ho with both hands tied behind his back and blindfolded, but he also believes that the other hunter won't attack unless he attacks first, and Jin-Ho's not the smartest cookie in the box but he isn't an idiot either. He's not going to go out of his way to provoke this kind of person.
He thinks maybe Jin-Woo might be a False Ranker, but there's something about that that just doesn't add up, something about the way Jin-Woo smiles, always just left of normal, or the way he stares too long at nothing, or the way his shadow is sometimes not even remotely human-shaped - definitely too many limbs - when Jin-Ho catches a glimpse of it in his peripheral, but always is again when he looks at it head-on.
That's usually around the time Jin-Ho stops thinking about it at all because it's none of his business and it makes his head hurt, and also for someone possibly breaking the law and possibly being something not entirely human, Jin-Woo doesn't seem like a bad sort. If nothing else, he saved Jin-Ho's life, and even if he looks at Jin-Ho most of the time like he's being entertained by a puppy that's learned how to dance, he never mocks Jin-Ho for being weak, never tells him to shut up because he has a tendency to babble, and he even listened to Jin-Ho's business proposal seriously (and then even agreed to it!). That's already far better treatment than Jin-Ho has ever received from half his own family.
He's self-aware enough to know that he isn't a very good hunter, no matter what equipment he buys or how confident he tries to be. He's still just a D-rank after all. He also knows that his personality can be annoying, and while he has a degree in business and he's always received decent grades, compared to his older brother, he's really only average. He isn't super strong, or super smart, and sure, he has money, but that's something he was born into. On his own, he knows he's nothing special.
But Jin-Woo never seems to register any of that, or at least it doesn't seem to bother him. Even when he agreed to continue working together, Jin-Ho could tell that it was the prospect of being able to raid more Dungeons on his own that appealed to him rather than the zeroes on the paycheck Jin-Ho offered. For a hunter of Jin-Woo's caliber, he has no real need to put up with Jin-Ho if he doesn't want to, so the fact that he's going to anyway means a lot to Jin-Ho.
Jin-Woo doesn't treat Jin-Ho like he's lesser, and that's what Jin-Ho likes best about him.
So, whether or not he's breaking the law, and even if he's just being kind and indulging Jin-Ho's ambitions, and yes he's really very scary in a fight - Jin-Ho doesn't care about any of that. Jin-Woo's the first person who's ever voluntarily wanted to be around him, and Jin-Ho is never going to forget that.
The first time Jin-Chul has the conscious thought that he might have made a mistake, it's right after he gets the report that Hwang Dong-Suk and his whole party was killed in a C-rank Dungeon, and only a D-rank and E-rank made it back out alive. Or rather, only a D-rank and Sung Jin-Woo made it back out alive. He has nothing concrete to go on, and the measurement device had very clearly proven beyond a doubt that Sung Jin-Woo was still an E-rank hunter, but… it sticks with him, all the same.
He knows how Hwang Dong-Suk operated, he's heard the rumours even if he has very little solid proof, but like many issues when it comes to high-rank hunters or hunters with connections to high-rank hunters, there isn't much that the Monitoring Division can do about it, not in this day and age when those with the most power are the ones who make the real rules. So all Jin-Chul can do is turn a blind eye, hope the casualty rate won't get too high one day, and try not to think about how this sort of thing bothers him less these days than it used to.
None of that changes the fact that he knows how weaker hunters that Hwang Dong-Suk takes along on his raids usually end up, nor does it change the fact that an E-rank hunter who'd mysteriously survived a Double Dungeon that eleven out of sixteen other stronger hunters had died in just weeks ago had somehow turned the tables on Hwang Dong-Suk, and it sets off all sorts of alarm bells in Jin-Chul's head, never mind the fallout when Hwang Dong-Su gets word of this.
He knows, logically speaking, that there probably isn't anything more to it than luck. Sung Jin-Woo and the D-ranker had probably ran away early on, and Hwang Dong-Suk and his team had simply been just a bit too careless. That kind of scenario makes the most sense.
Jin-Chul doesn't think he overlooked anything regarding Sung Jin-Woo - he'd followed all proper procedures, and the mana detector was about as high-class as one could get. There's no way it could've suddenly become faulty. So he doesn't think he overlooked anything or made a too-hasty dismissal, but… he can admit that he isn't certain, especially after this incident.
To be fair, when Jin-Chul had gone to assess Sung Jin-Woo, he’d just barely put a dent in the godforsaken paperwork that that clusterfuck of a Double Dungeon had generated, he hadn’t even laid eyes on his own bed in three days, and he’d finished off his third cup of coffee that morning alone in the vain hopes of staving off a throbbing headache before getting the news that the last of the survivors had finally woken up. He’d hoped that there might be at least one bright point to look forward to in this whole mess so he’d set his paperwork aside and thrown on a less wrinkled suit and tie to go visit Sung Jin-Woo. Perhaps the Double Dungeon hadn't just resulted in death and trauma all around, and Korea could definitely do with another high-rank hunter. But in the end, that had been a complete waste of time too. Not only had there been no reawakened hunter, said hunter was also the weakest E-rank Jin-Chul had ever met.
To be even fairer though, none of that was an excuse to ignore the niggling suspicion that he'd missed… something when he'd walked out of Sung Jin-Woo's hospital room that day. But he'd been tired, and the suspicion had been negligible, and in the end, it had been easy to put it out of his mind.
Right up until Hwang Dong-Suk's case crosses his desk, and then, just a week later, before Jin-Chul even has time to investigate properly, the news of Kang Tae-Shik's death reaches his ears, killed on a raid that - once again - Sung Jin-Woo joined.
Jin-Chul can brush off an anomaly once, a coincidence twice. But three times and he'd have to be a special brand of stupid to ignore it once again. He knows Kang Tae-Shik's reputation even better than Hwang Dong-Suk's, knows that even he can't control the man's actions most of the time, but so long as the psychopath kept his unsanctioned assassinations to the prisoners serving part of their sentences by participating in raids, he was willing to look the other way.
It seems though that Kang Tae-Shik had finally gone too far, which isn't exactly a surprise. It's just that Jin-Chul had never expected the man would meet his end on such a routine C-rank Dungeon raid.
Then he hears the name Sung Jin-Woo, and he knows - even with evidence to the contrary - that he has overlooked something major.
So, he goes personally this time. He needs to make sure the surviving hunters are compensated anyway, and just the thought of this latest incident hitting the news makes him grimace. Hunters in general already dislike the Monitoring Division, and Kang Tae-Shik's matter isn't going to make them look any better.
But, that's for later. For now, he arrives at the site of the Dungeon and makes his way over to the survivors, almost missing Sung Jin-Woo entirely because he's… different. Jin-Chul expects wide eyes and a baby face, almost too young to pass for the adult he is. Instead, he gets half a moment to digest a taller build and a laidback stance before their eyes meet, and-
And his breath catches, his voice withers in his throat, and between one blink and the next, with that keen-eyed stare bearing down on him and a shrieking sense of something vast and gargantuan looming dark and predatory over him, it feels like he can't even breathe, like someone has forced him underwater in the middle of winter and the ice of it has reached into his very lungs to rob the air from them, so suddenly that he can't even struggle.
It's a second that lasts an eternity, and for the first time in his life, he truly feels what it's like to be prey. Even S-rank hunters have never managed to make him feel so utterly insignificant, so utterly small.
And then he blinks and blinks and blinks again, and it takes everything he has not to double-over and gasp for breath, everything he has not to back away. He takes shaky stock of his surroundings, and he doesn't understand how nobody else seems to register the terrible wrongness right in front of them.
He almost can't bear to look at Sung Jin-Woo again, the very idea of it feels like razor-sharp fangs snapping shut around his throat, but he sets his jaw and he looks, and this time, there is only a young man, dark-haired and dark-eyed, watching him with a detached sort of amusement lurking in the curl of his lips. He makes no threatening motions, doesn't even move, and he looks perfectly human and largely harmless.
But Jin-Chul blinks once more, and in that split fraction of a moment when the world goes dark behind his eyelids, he can sense the yawning abyss where Sung Jin-Woo stands, and it almost feels like he might fall right into it.
Jin-Chul keeps his hands in his pockets so no one sees the way they tremble. He offers his apologies for their troubles and parrots words of monetary reparations that he forgets as soon as they're out. He listens to the explanation Song Chi-Yul gives about the events that took place in the Dungeon and knows it to be false, because Kang Tae-Shik would never have fallen to a one-armed hunter and a healer who can't hold up under pressure.
But against someone like Sung Jin-Woo, against whatever he is now, whatever Jin-Chul had so thoroughly missed all those weeks ago, Kang Tae-Shik wouldn't have stood a chance. Jin-Chul doesn't know what's going on, doesn't know what has happened to Sung Jin-Woo, but he is very clear about this one thing - getting on the wrong side of this man is akin to throwing one's life away.
At least Sung Jin-Woo seems to want to keep… whatever he's hiding under wraps, and even Song Chi-Yul and Lee Ju-Hee seem oblivious, so whatever really happened in the Dungeon probably hadn't been too entirely out of the ordinary. Sung Jin-Woo doesn't bring it up, so Woo Jin-Chul keeps his mouth shut too. He doesn't have the faintest clue what to say about it anyway.
He still has responsibilities though, and he cares enough about that to pull Sung Jin-Woo aside for a private word, even if every instinct in him rebels against it. He shoves it down, grits his teeth, and does it anyway.
"The S-rank hunter Hwang Dong-Su will come after you," He warns him, although even as he says it, he feels a little foolish. Hwang Dong-Su might be S-rank, but would even an S-rank be able to do anything to Sung Jin-Woo? Still, Sung Jin-Woo should at least be informed. "His older brother died on a raid that you and that D-rank survived. To him, it won't matter who was at fault or what really happened. He will not let either of you go."
He pauses, swallows the fear creeping up on him again, and studies Sung Jin-Woo's expression carefully. There is no worry in it, barely any interest, but he is listening. Something in Jin-Chul knows that that's a miracle in and of itself, and it is somehow equal parts astonishing and terrifying.
It is a terrible thing, he thinks, even though he doesn't know how he knows, to have the attention of whatever is wearing Sung Jin-Woo's skin.
He breathes through it, hands clenching into fists in his pockets, standing his ground.
He almost jumps when Sung Jin-Woo laughs, brief and quiet and… startlingly appreciative. Startlingly normal too.
"You're pretty impressive," Sung Jin-Woo tells him, and Jin-Chul… Jin-Chul has no idea how to react to that. What exactly about him is impressive here? If anything, it's downright embarrassing how much he wants to run away, and he's fairly certain Sung Jin-Woo can tell. If asked why he's so afraid, Jin-Chul wouldn't be able to explain it, wouldn't have the words for it. But the knowledge is there now, and Jin-Chul can't unknow it anymore.
He doesn't know how to respond, but thankfully, Sung Jin-Woo doesn't seem to expect a reply anyway.
"I'll keep an eye out," Sung Jin-Woo says, already turning away. "Thanks for the heads-up."
He leaves, and Jin-Chul does not call him back. Instead, he sees the other two hunters off, makes sure cleanup is well underway, and then gets back into his car.
"Should we continue monitoring Sung Jin-Woo?" One of his agents asks.
Jin-Chul almost wants to laugh. His hands still haven't stopped shaking, and there's a chill in his bones that refuses to leave. "No. Keep an ear out for any raids involving him, but otherwise, leave him alone."
He hasn't survived this long by having poor self-preservation instincts. He doesn't need proof or explanations or words to know that interfering in Sung Jin-Woo's business will only result in blood and body bags. Or worse.
It's probably time to report to the Chairman though. How that report will go… well. Jin-Chul will figure that out after a hot shower and a bottle of whiskey.
Woo Jin-Chul is an interesting human. Jin-Woo hadn't taken much notice of him during their first meeting beyond noting his job and conduct and the general air of exhaustion that had hung over him like a cloud. This time was different; this time Jin-Woo actually paid attention. The energy Woo Jin-Chul gave off placed him at a solid A-rank, almost S-rank, and he moved with the grace of someone comfortable in his own skin and sure of his place in the world. He'd directed his agents with calm, precise orders, and none had hesitated to obey.
Most impressive of all though was how he reacted when Jin-Woo had peeled back a layer of his human guise and shown him the monster behind it. Not all, not even half - he knew humans wouldn't be able to stand that. But out of a vague sense of curiosity, he'd shown him the same flash of HUNGERBLOODLUSTDARKNESSETERNITY that he'd hammered both Hwang Dong-Suk and Kang Tae-Shik with - the former had been reduced to gibbering fear, and the latter's mind had collapsed almost instantly; Woo Jin-Chul had mentally reeled back, then dug in his metaphorical heels and snarled right back like terror was something that had to be beaten down through sheer will alone.
He was the first human - first being - that Jin-Woo has come across since his rebirth who hadn't broken under the weight of Jin-Woo's true form. He's aware that both Jin-Ah and Jin-Ho have seen something of what he really is, but only ever shadows, echoes, reflections wrapped in mist and starlight, watered down and sandpapered of all their sharp and savage edges.
He hadn't given Jin-Chul the same courtesy, the same mercy, but in return, Jin-Chul had given him something even better.
Jin-Woo thinks he'll keep an eye on this one from now on. Humans with the courage and resolve to look him in the eye are far and few in-between, and Jin-Woo finds he's rather partial to such fascinating individuals.
He goes back to soloing Dungeons, official and not so official. Some are more interesting than others, mostly because of what he discovers. Or rather, what discovers him.
There are a lot of things that live in the shadows, in the silence of the unknown and the stillness before oblivion, things that can bear the weight of his species, things that see his power and are naturally drawn to it instead of repulsed by it. Most of the time, Jin-Woo doesn't much care for them - has no use for deadweight - but on occasion, he meets some who aren't as strong as he is but also intrigue him enough for him to bring along.
Igris, one such being tells him, a guardian spirit of dusk and twilight clad in the garb of a knight and with the temperament to match. In the aftermath of a Dungeon that Jin-Woo sweeps through - a desolate world ruled by a tyrant whom Jin-Woo disposes of - the shadow-knight presents his name like a sacrifice, reverence on bended knee, and with it Jin-Woo can taste the strength and loyalty offered right alongside it.
Jin-Woo smiles, equal parts curious and thoughtful, and smiles wider still when Igris doesn't so much as twitch upon being accepted into the dark of Jin-Woo's soul, forever bound until he dies or the universe burns. He needs no army, but he likes the flavour of Igris' devotion, and there's nothing to stop him from keeping the knight by his side.
Igris is his first. He will not be the last.
Sometimes, Jin-Woo thinks he probably spoils Jin-Ah too much, to the point where she seems to have no sense of danger whatsoever, or at the very least, she doesn't see any problem with dumping her little dropout friend in his care.
"What exactly do you expect me to do about her?" Jin-Woo enquires, a little amused, mostly exasperated.
"Just talk her out of dropping out of school!" Jin-Ah pleads. "She's obsessed with becoming a hunter now but she's not trained at all. Can't you take her along on a raid? If she sees how dangerous it is, maybe she'll reconsider."
"And if she dies?" Jin-Woo asks dryly.
Jin-Ah rolls her eyes, and yeah, he's probably spoiled her a bit too much lately.
"You'll be there to keep her safe," She tells him without any of the stress and anxiety she used to have when Jin-Woo set off to join yet another raid.
"Will I?" He murmurs in bland tones. Han Song-I means nothing to him after all.
Jin-Ah sets her hands on her hips and levels a look full of conviction on him. "You're much stronger now, Oppa." There is no doubt in her voice. "And Song-I is my best friend."
Jin-Woo sighs. Well, there is that. Jin-Ah's known that girl for half her life.
"One raid," He says. "I'm not a babysitting service. And don't blame me if she comes back traumatized."
Jin-Ah beams, completely disregarding the last part like she thinks he's joking.
Jin-Woo sighs again. Well, he already has a C-rank Dungeon lined up for tomorrow. For an E-rank hunter, it should be difficult enough to scare her a bit, but not enough to kill her so long as Jin-Woo is there.
It'll be fine, and more importantly, it won't be too far out of his way to accomplish.
Twenty-four hours later and Jin-Woo is stranded alongside Hang Song-I and twelve White Tiger Guild members in the confines of a Red Gate. It makes him wonder if he'd somehow gained the ability to challenge the universe.
It's not like he can't get out. He can feel the crackling barrier of the Red Gate sizzling at the edges of his senses, so simply stepping between this world and earth the way he usually does is no longer possible. But he could always brute strength it, smash right through like a hammer on glass, and he'd be perfectly fine.
This world though, this Dungeon, would collapse in his wake, and he's not actually sure if he can take humans with him without tearing them apart too. They're such a fragile species, it sometimes amazes Jin-Woo that he was ever one of them at all.
So in the end, he stays, only half-listening to the Tanker cull the weak from his pack and leave with the relatively stronger hunters to confront the Dungeon boss. He's more interested in the half-melted arrow in his hand that he'd snagged out of the air, fired by an Ice Elf.
Hyakki aren't uncommon monsters, although they usually only show up in worlds with sub-zero temperatures and at least a B-rank level of Gate energy. This Dungeon was supposed to be a C-rank. It had felt like a C-rank to him too.
Which means someone had managed to trick his senses. His senses.
There's no monster in the universe that can do that. No monster, except another of his own kind.
He scans the horizon, the snowy treetops. Part of him wants to go hunting, wants it with a hunger and excitement that he's never felt before. What would it feel like to fight a creature like himself? How would he fare in a battle to the death?
But, no, he'd promised Jin-Ah to look after her friend, and the other humans left behind are practically shivering in their boots from the cold and the encroaching danger. He cares even less about what happens to them, but he'd agreed to go on this raid with the White Tiger Guild. There'd been no formal contract between them, but the implication is still there, and Jin-Woo has no particular reason to refute it. That Tanker who'd abandoned half his guild members deserves what’s coming to him - he may be an A-rank but he's nowhere near Woo Jin-Chul's level, and even Woo Jin-Chul wouldn't stand a chance against the entity that had triggered a Red Gate - but it would probably be in bad taste for Jin-Woo to leave the others to hang when he wouldn't even have to do that much to ensure their safety. So long as they do what he says and don't wander off on their own, he doesn't see a problem with making sure they'll be okay too.
First order of business is food, fire, and shelter though - humans can't go without either, but they're easy enough to get. His affinity leans towards the dark, the void, the empty space between stars and the infinite seconds right before first light. But a flame is a basic staple of life, easy enough to call into being, easier still to keep it burning, and he shuffles the humans around it before heading off to hunt for food. The Ice Bears are easy enough to track down - half the time, they come to him instead of the other way around, and it's child's play to rip their throats out before skinning them for their pelts and then cutting the meat down to edible size. He even lets Igris out to play, and when the soul of an Ice Bear he cuts down won't stop gamboling after his heels like a giant puppy, he relents and takes it under his wing as well.
"Aren't you going to eat, Oppa?" Han Song-I asks once, sometime on the second day they're trapped in the Dungeon.
Jin-Woo shrugs without looking away from the dull grey of the sky and the steadily falling snow. The temperature's dropped even further, but the fire keeps it at bay, and the makeshift roof and coats and blankets they've made out of wood and fur are more than enough to keep everyone alive.
"I'm not that hungry," He tells the girl, which isn't exactly a lie. He's not particularly hungry for bear meat.
He has a much larger meal in mind, and when he listens to the howl of the wind and hears the blood-tainted laughter carried on its wings, he knows he's not the only one to think it.
Jin-Chul would like it to be known that he did not become an A-rank hunter and the head of the Korean Hunters Association's Monitoring Division just to play as Hwang Dong-Su's unpaid chauffeur. But he also doesn't trust the volatile bastard with any of his men, so here he is, picking up the hunter from the airport like there's nowhere else he'd rather be, all while listening to the implied threats to Sung Jin-Woo's person.
It's a good thing Jin-Chul's always had a knack for maintaining a straight face. Otherwise, he would've laughed by now, and then he'd probably be killed.
The aura that S-rank hunters give off is nothing to scoff at, but it's been a long time since he was last intimidated by it. Unless they pull out all the stops and are directly trying to crush him with the pressure, Jin-Chul wouldn't even break a sweat in an S-rank battle anymore, let alone outside of that.
But that just makes the difference that much more obvious. Hwang Dong-Su's presence alone does not scare him, even though Jin-Chul knows full well that if it comes down to a serious fight, even if he's fairly confident he could at least do a bit of damage first, he would still ultimately lose.
Sung Jin-Woo on the other hand… well. Jin-Chul still hasn't seen him in action, but he hasn't forgotten what being in his presence - his real presence - felt like, and Jin-Chul is equally certain that if Sung Jin-Woo ever wants to kill him, he'd be dead before he even realized what was happening.
(He hasn't forgotten the taste of fear and the sensation of standing before something too big and too powerful to comprehend, but perversely, he can't find it in himself to want to forget either.)
It's almost a relief to find out Sung Jin-Woo is trapped beyond a Red Gate when they arrive at the site of the supposed C-rank Dungeon. He doesn't doubt that Sung Jin-Woo will come back alive, but like this, even Hwang Dong-Su can't get to him, and if Jin-Chul can subtly chivvy the man onto a return flight straight back to America before Sung Jin-Woo gets back, Korea might even be spared the fallout of a clash between these two titans. Sure, Jin-Chul would bet his entire life savings on Sung Jin-Woo's victory, but who knows how many casualties and property damage would pile up in its wake. And if that happens, three guesses who'd have to be in charge of dealing with the resulting paperwork.
Of course, just because Sung Jin-Woo isn't around doesn't mean there aren't other problems to deal with. Jin-Chul has never understood why almost all S-ranks have such short tempers, although he supposes he can give Baek Yoon-Ho some slack in this case - Hwang Dong-Su has never been anyone's idea of a reasonable conversationalist.
So Jin-Chul steps in and braces himself for broken bones, because he can't not when half of Seoul would be destroyed if an S-rank fight breaks out. He's fortunate - and surprised - that they both pull back their strength at the last second. His suit is completely ruined, but at least he only comes out of it with a few bruises.
Well, that, and his bones feel like they might rattle apart anyway even if they weren't shattered, but… only for a moment. His breath catches when he sees a formless black silhouette slide up his arms - so black it swallows the light of the Gate behind him, black as the starless void he dreams of now, black as the shadows that let him float peacefully inside it every time he goes to sleep - before disappearing just as quickly, but once it's gone, he doesn't hurt anymore.
"You're pretty impressive," Sung Jin-Woo had said, and Jin-Chul still doesn't understand why, but for the first time, he wonders if it means he's somehow earned himself the approval of the scariest monster he's ever met.
It's a dizzying thought. Definitely a daunting one. Borderline horrifying.
(If some - clearly insane - part of him is also inexplicably pleased, Jin-Chul very determinedly does not think about it.)
He blinks, breathes, and settles back in the present. Nobody seems to have noticed anything, not the darkness that had slithered up his arms, not his moment of distraction, and Jin-Chul decides that's for the best. He doesn't know what to think of Sung Jin-Woo's… magic? Healing him? So he simply doesn't. He doesn't have nearly enough alcohol - on hand or at home - to deal with this latest revelation.
Instead, he tells Hwang Dong-Su of his initial assessment of Sung Jin-Woo and lies to the man's face about his opinion of the E-rank hunter's capabilities. When Hwang Dong-Su agrees and directs the blame at Yoojin Construction, Jin-Chul doesn't hesitate to throw them under the bus. A corporation would be harder for Hwang Dong-Su to target, but - as Jin-Chul expected - the man also has far less interest in waging war against some lofty business fuelled by old money. It works out.
Sung Jin-Woo doesn't need Jin-Chul's protection, but Jin-Chul finds himself protecting him anyway.
The paperwork, he reminds himself, would be hell. And at the end of the day, Sung Jin-Woo is still a Korean citizen and hunter, while Hwang Dong-Su is not. It's no hardship at all for Jin-Chul to pick a side.
He looks back once, right before getting back in the car with Hwang Dong-Su. The Red Gate buzzes ominously, all that energy bound together at the mouth like a dam. Baek Yoon-Ho stands in front of it, still looking irritated even though his beast transformation has receded.
Their eyes meet. Jin-Chul looks away first, unperturbed, but he thinks the guild master might have sensed something anyway because his frown only deepens in response, and he doesn't turn away until Jin-Chul's car is out of sight.
Jin-Chul puts it out of his mind. He wouldn't say he knows Baek Yoon-Ho well, but he's worked with him enough times to know the man is neither stupid nor overly cocky. He also has better instincts than most, so hopefully, he'll know better than to push Sung Jin-Woo too far.
Still, even if everything goes right, if Sung Jin-Woo chooses to… test Baek Yoon-Ho the same way he had tested Jin-Chul, the man isn't likely to come out the other side entirely unaffected either.
Jin-Chul wishes him luck. He's going to need it.
Jin-Woo senses it when Woo Jin-Chul is attacked. It's nothing life-threatening, but he feels the jarring pain shudder through the man and then up along the thread-thin connection between them anyway. Without much thought, he sends a pulse of his own magic back, satisfied when the pain fades. He'd tagged Woo Jin-Chul's shadow with a piece - just a small one - of his consciousness, just enough to let him know if the man's condition falls below acceptable, and it doesn't seem like he was wrong to do so. He wonders what happened, but nothing else pings off his radar, so the threat must've been taken care of.
Jin-Woo is glad. He can't have Woo Jin-Chul kicking the bucket this soon after meeting him. He hasn't had nearly enough fun with him yet.
Since it's not urgent though, Jin-Woo can just check up on him later, just to be sure. For now, there's still the current situation to deal with. It's been almost a week of increasing boredom, and now there's an idiot Tanker at his feet, one who has an ego so big he'd take his failings out on his own comrades rather than the blow to his pride.
I might've cracked his skull, Jin-Woo thinks idly, flexing the hand he'd used to slap the Tanker into the snow. He'd already held back most of his strength, but the Tanker isn't one of his humans, and Jin-Woo doesn't actually care if the man dies.
Ah well. At least one good thing came out of this. Even an idiot can be useful once in a while, if only as bait. Jin-Woo turns, a smirk pulling at his lips as a frozen gust of wind snaps at his throat like the fangs of a beast.
"You've kept me waiting," He calls out, letting his own power rise. "Why don't you show yourself already? Isn't playing with small-fry dull?"
He ignores the gasps and squeaks of fear from behind him as a whole host of Hyakki reveal themselves, but only one of them interests him, sat upon a demon horse, folded into the skin of an Ice Elf but radiating the energy of an abyssal terror, one that aligns closely to Jin-Woo's own origins but with a flair for the cold and the deep, born from hoarfrost and snow in the dead of midnight winters and nurtured in the suffocating depths of a thousand ocean floors.
BARUKA, the universe whispers even as the Ice Elf grins back at him with the same delight and hunger Jin-Woo feels. The air - the world - ripples around them like it might crack with one wrong breath, and it very well might. More than anything else, this is the reason Jin-Woo has taught himself to fight in human form - for creatures like him, like them, it is not so easy to move within or between the delicate weave of time and space while in their true bodies. It is not that they can't do it, but that in doing so, they would destroy whatever world they wish to enter, and then there wouldn't be any point to it at all.
World-devourers. Galaxy-eaters. There are many epithets for their kind, but all are similarly christened, and for good reason. To most species and most places, simply existing with them is akin to a giant trying to pick up a wineglass without crushing it, or a dragon trying to pick up a butterfly without killing it. The thing is though, they live long lives, eons of time that would be terribly monotonous if they don't find their own entertainment, and they can't do that if they annihilate their own fun before they can even play. So they shrink themselves down to size and cram their foundation and form and power into vessels that won't automatically rupture the world around them, and they wear those vessels until they get bored or they break the world anyway, accidentally or otherwise. And then they move on to the next, and the next, and the next, and this is their lives.
Baruka has been playing for a while here, Jin-Woo can tell. They wouldn't mind if this is to be the final game that shreds this world apart. But Jin-Woo has humans to return to their home, which means he's going to have to strike hard and strike fast and kill this creature before it decides to shed its mortal flesh.
"Han Song-I," Jin-Woo calls back without taking his eyes off the Ice Elf. "And the rest of you. Move back to the treeline. If it gets too much, close your eyes and cover your ears."
That's all the warning he can be bothered to give them. A split second later, he disappears, and a fraction of a second after that, he barrels into Baruka with Igris and Tank on either side of him to take care of the regular Hyakki, and the battle is on.
The first clash with Baruka - his dagger against theirs - cuts through the air in a shriek of metal, but it also echoes, enough to rattle the trees around them. The next collision is even worse, and coupled with the flash of jagged teeth and frost-bound eyes threatening to burst through the Ice Elf's face, it's enough to send the humans behind Jin-Woo to their knees as their ears bleed and their eyes bulge and they gag for breath that won't come.
Faster. He has to be faster.
They are evenly matched, he thinks. This is a world of darkness and ice, both their elements thriving. Baruka is older, but that makes them arrogant, makes them underestimate Jin-Woo, and that will be their undoing.
He speeds up, mana seething under his skin as he flings himself at the Ice Elf. For a while, Baruka matches him blow for blow, each of them slowly peeling back layer after layer of control, until reality is warping around them, the storm turned to frozen starlight while the snow-covered ground bleeds the black of barren wastelands.
Baruka is no longer smiling though, not when Jin-Woo is gradually overwhelming him. The Ice Elf sneers, leaps back for a breather, and Jin-Woo senses it a breath of a moment before it happens, the teeth-grating scream of the whole world fracturing as Baruka splits apart-
-and chokes as Jin-Woo plunges his dagger into their chest, straight into the core of them, and then he lets his shadows unfurl, lets them surge, and they don't hesitate to lunge and feast. He cleaves Baruka apart and consumes them, swallowing them whole until even the last spark of them winks out with a last wailing cry of rage and desperation.
When Jin-Woo comes back to himself, the world is quiet once more. Igris and Tank are just finishing up. The snow is stained green with Hyakki blood, and there are enough corpses to fill a graveyard. Only Baruka's Ice Elf body is missing, thoroughly obliterated from the fight.
He turns. The humans are all curled up on the ground, shivering from everything but the cold, eyes glazed over from the sight of something beyond their comprehension.
But. They're alive. Or, well, most of them. The Tanker is very obviously dead, collapsed in the snow with his sword still in one hand, angled in a way that Jin-Woo thinks means he must've tried to attack him. Jin-Woo hadn't even noticed, and the pressure of the battle must've killed the Tanker the moment he got too close.
Ah well. Not his problem. Or at least it shouldn't be his problem, but this guy is… very persistent. His soul is still hovering on the physical plane, stubborn and single-minded. It's not trying to attack Jin-Woo anymore, but it also refuses to move on. Jin-Woo can feel it nudging against his senses, tenacious as a dog with a bone, and Jin-Woo just… does not want to deal with it right now.
You deal with it, He tells Igris, who looks as long-suffering as Jin-Woo feels but obediently scoops up the soul and disappears with it back into the refuge of Jin-Woo's shadows, with Tank at his heels.
Finally alone again, Jin-Woo tilts his head back instead and breathes. He tastes the ice of Baruka's lifeblood as it settles in his lungs, feels the chill of their essence merging with his soul. Some part of him is thrilled, high on the exhilaration of conquering a god of the abyss. His power has grown, and his dominion has expanded. He is full in a way one can only be after a favourite meal.
And yet, a part of him mourns too. It's not quite sorrow, not quite grief. But there's a sense of discordance when he closes his eyes and feels the hole in the cosmos left behind in the wake of Baruka's death, and with it comes a distant sort of melancholy.
Jin-Woo does not regret it. He would do it again in a heartbeat. Life and death and all the chaos in-between comes hand in hand with every species in the universe, and none knows that better than his kind.
So he does not regret it. But he knows this is one death he will not forget, because it is a form of respect that - if and when he dies one day at the hands of one of his brethren - will be granted to him in turn. The least he can do is remember.
Imagine you are standing in a brightly lit room, so bright it's as if a thousand winter suns are shining down on you, filling every corner and crevice and crack. And then, abruptly, all the lights go out, and in that single deafening moment afterwards, you can see and hear and feel absolutely nothing.
When Baruka dies, it is - Jin-Woo thinks - a little like that, and somewhere in the universe, a piece of it goes silent forever.
Yoon-Ho has never liked being patient. He's learned it over the years because he's had to, but waiting will never be his strong suit. And possessing the instincts of a tiger hardly helps.
Hwang Dong-Su's presence alone had riled him right up. Yoon-Ho was already worried about his guild members trapped behind the Red Gate; the last thing he needed was someone as vile as Hwang Dong-Su trampling all over his territory and threatening his guild members outside the Red Gate.
Thank god for Woo Jin-Chul. The man is the most level-headed and efficient high-ranking hunter he's ever met, with the ability to manage even the worst personalities without getting killed by a temper tantrum. Even Hwang Dong-Su doesn't seem immune to the man's innate calming effect. Anyone else with the balls to get in front of the crazy S-rank like that probably would've been torn in half. If Woo Jin-Chul wasn't already Go Gun-Hee's most trusted right-hand, Yoon-Ho would give quite a lot to get him into the White Tiger Guild.
The whole incident does bring up something interesting though.
Sung Jin-Woo. Yoon-Ho has heard that name far too many times in the past seven hours. It would be one thing if it was just An Sang-Min - he's brought in plenty of recruits with huge potential, so while Yoon-Ho is inclined to have a good opinion of Sung Jin-Woo's strength despite being an E-rank, it's also not something special enough to warrant a particular amount of attention right this instant.
Of course, then Hwang Dong-Su shows up, and Yoon-Ho sees the way An Sang-Min plays Sung Jin-Woo down like he wants to keep the psychopath off the E-ranker's scent. Even then though, Yoon-Ho could've brushed it off. After all, nobody likes having their potential recruits getting poached. Or killed, in this case.
But then there is Woo Jin-Chul, and nothing he said was a lie - Yoon-Ho would've smelled it. But that was the sticking point. Woo Jin-Chul tells Hwang Dong-Su that he was the first to suspect Sung Jin-Woo of reawakening - truth. He says he went to assess him himself, with the best mana detector anyone could get their hands on, and confirmed him to still be an E-rank two months ago - truth. He says that there is no possible way for E-rank Hunter Sung Jin-Woo to wipe out an entire attack force - truth.
But when Hwang Dong-Su himself brings up Yoojin Construction as the main culprit, Woo Jin-Chul… does not confirm it. He simply circumvents the entire statement by making a conclusion off Hwang Dong-Su's conjecture - because you say Yoojin Construction must be the culprit, then there is no reason to blame Sung Jin-Woo.
Not once does Woo Jin-Chul ever say outright - Sung Jin-Woo was not responsible for your brother's death. Sung Jin-Woo is not a reawakened hunter. Sung Jin-Woo is still an E-rank now.
Hwang Dong-Su misses it, but Yoon-Ho does not. He doesn't know Woo Jin-Chul well, but he does know that the man has always had a straightforward character. He's quiet, and doesn't share information easily, but when he does, he tells it as it is. The way he spun circles around the subject might as well have been a blaring neon sign pointing straight at Sung Jin-Woo.
The whole issue makes Yoon-Ho curious, but he knows better than to show it before Hwang Dong-Su leaves. Someone who's earned even the notoriously impartial Woo Jin-Chul's protection has to be something special, but even if he wasn't, Yoon-Ho would pick literally anyone over Hwang Dong-Su any day of the week. Besides, since Sung Jin-Woo is someone his own guild's best scout has set his sights on, it's only logical to shield him from outsiders anyway.
The Red Gate is still his top priority though, and when the ominous glow finally dies and the Gate reopens, all thoughts of Sung Jin-Woo take a backseat as he starts counting heads.
In the end, only three make it back, one B-rank and two C-ranks. It's a terrible blow to their guild - nine hunters gone, just like that, on a raid that should've been nothing more than a training session. And of those who've come back, they look… well, physically, they look fine. No frostbite, no hunger. Clearly, they found some means to survive the weather and stave off starvation.
But they look… pale. Shaken. Grateful to be home, relieved to be alive, but it's obvious something has frightened them enough for it to linger. They may be low-rank hunters, but they still have training. Simply witnessing monsters - even a boss-level one - shouldn't have affected them to this point, especially when they've survived without so much as a scratch on them.
The Gate closes, and to the side, "Let's go," A man who must be the infamous Sung Jin-Woo is saying to the girl he'd brought along, "I'll drive you home."
Yoon-Ho reacts before he can think better of it. Even if he thought about it first, he'd still make the same move. In that moment, he can't sense anything dangerous from Sung Jin-Woo.
Years later, he still won't understand how he didn't get his whole arm ripped off for his gall.
"Hold it," He says, reaching out to plant a heavy hand on Sung Jin-Woo's shoulder. "Let's talk for a bit."
His hand is deflected, and that surprises him enough to stall him for a moment.
"I'm tired," comes the flat reply. "If you have something to ask, go ask your guild members."
Yoon-Ho almost snarls, temper spiking as exhaustion and injured pride and the grating sense of failing nine of his own people all converge together into something that makes him want to lash out. His hand snaps out once more to force the other man to a halt, and his magic flares with an unmistakeable threat. "That wasn't a request. I am Baek Yoon-Ho, the master of the White Tiger Guild. We have lost nine guild members from this incident. As the master, shouldn't I be allowed to ask some questions?"
But right after that, something in the air goes… still, and all the hair on the back of Baek Yoon-Ho's neck abruptly stand on end. His next breath stutters in his throat, like he can't get enough oxygen, and then he finds himself at the end of a single pair of eyes.
It's like the lights have suddenly gone out. He knows, even then, that they haven't, but Sung Jin-Woo stares at him, eyes glowing blue-white and so cold they feel like they've frozen him solid from the inside-out, and for a moment that feels like it might never stop, it's the only thing he can see. Like the rest of the world has disappeared, and only him and those eyes - watching him, seeing him, unblinking and eternal - remain.
"So what?" Sung Jin-Woo speaks, but his voice is cannon-fire in Yoon-Ho's head, and the only reason he doesn't keel over from the pain is because he's still frozen in place. "I saved the remaining three people. If you're the master, shouldn't you thank me first? "
Yoon-Ho doesn't answer right away. He can't, but even if he could, he wouldn't know what to say. He's held there, in limbo, everything so loud it's painful, his pulse pounding in his ears and what feels like his whole life resting in the palm of this- this-
What is this guy? He thinks, and even that's hard to do, as if even his thoughts have claws shoved right through them, pinning them in place like half-dead prey still thrashing around in the vain hopes of escaping alive. He can't be human. This is beyond S-rank. What is he?
-Sung Jin-Woo blinks.
Yoon-Ho's next breath comes like the first gasp of air after too much time underwater. He jerks back, flinches back, and doesn't even have the mind to care about what that might look like to the rest of his guild. His hand feels like it's burning from where it was curled around Sung Jin-Woo's shoulder, and some distant part of him can't believe he isn't dead.
It takes far too many seconds to register the ache in his neck and realize his instincts have taken over, that he's trying to bare his throat and duck his head at the same time, anything to appease the monster in front of him. He barely manages to swallow the mortifying whine creeping up his throat, and the silence that follows is thunderous as he works to muster enough strength to pry his jaws apart again.
"I was being difficult," He finally croaks, and he wants nothing more than to look away, back away, run away, but god-fucking-damnit he's still an S-rank hunter with enough battles under his belt to hold his head up high, and he isn't going to flee like a coward.
Besides, somehow, he gets the feeling that if he backs down now, backs down and- and grovels the way his instincts are screaming at him to, he might- he would lose all the respect he could possibly gain tonight.
Not from his guild, although he supposes that might be a concern. But no, what he wants is Sung Jin-Woo's respect, or short of that, at least something above complete and utter dismissal. And that's- Yoon-Ho doesn't know if he wants it for his guild's safety or his own safety or something else entirely, but he is certain that he wants it, needs it, knows intuitively that that's the best path available to him right this moment and he isn't ever going to get another chance at it if he doesn't take it now, even if walking this path feels like it might just kill him dead.
He inhales, exhales, careful and measured, and then he meets that terrible gaze and continues, "You're right. I apologize. I was too hasty." He dips his head the way he would to a hunter very obviously stronger than himself, to someone worthy of both caution and deference, and it still feels too stiff to pass for normal, but at least he can do it and not feel too much like his throat might get ripped out. "Thank you for looking after my guild."
One beat, two, and then that terrifying pressure finally recedes. Yoon-Ho feels almost light-headed from the release, but he stays on his feet and doesn't budge more than he already has, and when he looks at Sung Jin-Woo this time, there is no accompanying headache, nor the excruciating urge to gouge his own eyes out.
He breathes though, in and out and in again, and everything smells like the coldest of winters. He continues breathing anyway, even though a part of him wants to stop. He breathes with the knowledge that every breath he takes is one more breath permitted by Sung Jin-Woo.
Sung Jin-Woo hums a noncommittal note. He still doesn't look particularly… approachable, but most of the ice previously freezing over his expression has disappeared. More importantly, he definitely looks more man than… whatever he is behind it.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," He says, milder now, without that nails-on-chalkboard edge shrieking in Yoon-Ho's ears. The man huffs out a breath and slouches back a little, like a predator deciding that it isn't hungry after all but remaining ever-watchful even as a languid disinterest takes over. His eyes linger though, on Yoon-Ho's face, as if searching for something only he'd be able to see.
If he finds it, he doesn't say. Instead, another second passes, and then it's over. Sung Jin-Woo turns away, gestures at a nearby van with his chin, and leaves with the girl in tow.
Yoon-Ho doesn't move until the taillights are out of sight, and even then, he keeps his muscles locked because he's pretty sure that if he relaxes, he'll fall right back on his ass. He turns instead to face his guild. The ones who hadn't entered the Red Gate with Sung Jin-Woo - even An Sang-Min - look confused. But the ones who had…
They look at him with the same cocktail of dread and relief currently sitting heavy in his gut, and Yoon-Ho hadn't missed the way none of them could quite look directly at Sung Jin-Woo, even as they'd huddled behind him when they'd emerged from the portal. Afraid to get too close, but just as afraid to stray too far, and even now, all three of them stare in the direction that the van had taken with a sense of loss about them, like they don't quite know what to do with themselves anymore.
Yoon-Ho grimaces, then motions for the blankets and hot drinks to be passed around. It takes a few minutes, but eventually, his three surviving guild members are checked over - no injuries whatsoever - and they finally look more settled.
Yoon-Ho can't wait anymore. "What the hell happened in that Dungeon?"
Later, back in his office, long past work hours with dawn just around the corner, Yoon-Ho slumps back in his desk chair, loosens his tie, and just focuses on … being alive, for a while. There is so much to do - paperwork for this clusterfuck, letters of condolences to the families, the press release he's going to have to make once the incident leaks out - the list goes on. He's probably not getting any sleep for at least the rest of this week.
Some days, he genuinely wonders if he was in his right mind when he decided to lead his own guild.
He sighs. He should get to work. But all he can think about is… well, who else?
He'd listened to all three of his guild members' accounts of what had happened in the week they'd spent behind the Red Gate - how they'd been ambushed by Hyakki, how Kim Chul had cut his losses and abandoned his weaker teammates, only to come back later, defeated and delirious and halfway to deranged, and how Sung Jin-Woo had single-handedly kept them safe the entire time.
"It was basically a camping trip," Yoon Gi-Joong had admitted, looking slightly guilty. "Hunter Sung didn't even let the Ice Bears get close."
"Up until the end," Park Hee-Jin had said, pressing one hand to her forehead as if thinking about it gave her a headache. "The boss monster- It was- It was nothing I've ever come across before. Definitely S-rank. Hunter Sung fought it while his two Summons took care of the other Ice Elves. And he won."
She'd stopped there, frowning, and that look was back, mirrored by the other two - equal parts dread and relief, with an extra dose of bewilderment on top, as if the fight they'd witnessed had been something straight out of their nightmares but they knew they were lucky to have seen it through, to have survived it. Lucky, but at the same time-
"What was the battle like?" Yoon-Ho had asked them. "What kind of magic did Sung Jin-Woo use?"
And not a single one had been able to tell him. They could remember that there had been a fight, and that the magical energy both parties had been throwing around had been enough to nearly flatten them, that they had very much feared for their lives and not just because there’d been an S-rank monster in the vicinity. But what exactly had happened in that fight, they couldn't say.
They could remember it, but at the same time, it was as if the very memory of it was beyond their ability to reproduce in words.
Yoon-Ho heaves another sigh, scrubs a hand over his face, and then reaches for his phone to scroll through his contacts. It's a bit rude, considering the time, but he remembers the way Woo Jin-Chul had looked at him earlier before he'd left with Hwang Dong-Su, remembers too all the things he had carefully not said, and Yoon-Ho highly doubts the man is asleep, or would mind the call if he is.
Even if he does mind, too bad. Yoon-Ho isn't going through this mindfuck alone.
Woo Jin-Chul picks up after only one ring. "Guild Master Baek."
Yoon-Ho releases a ragged bark of laughter that - on hindsight - probably sounded more like a snarl. "Chief Woo." He doesn't bother beating around the bush. "Is that man even human anymore?"
He'd heard about the Double Dungeon disaster a few months ago. He hadn't paid much attention to it at the time, but he'd pulled up all the public incident reports he could find over the past half-hour and read them all until he'd felt like his eyes were going to bleed. Nothing had really stood out - just an extra dangerous Dungeon that had cost the lives of over half the raid team, and while unfortunate, it wasn't anything special. Society as a whole has gotten better about measuring the mana output of Gates, but mistakes happen, someone somewhere fucks up, accidentally or otherwise for one reason or another, and an unprepared team is slaughtered as a result. It's not exactly common anymore, but it does happen.
Exhibit A: today's - yesterday's - Red Gate.
He'd looked up as much information as he could find on Sung Jin-Woo as well, but all of it is very obviously obsolete. Hell, the guy's picture on file barely shares any similarities with the man who'd come back out of the Red Gate earlier. A haircut and a change of clothes can only do so much. The rest - the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he presented himself - it was as if the Sung Jin-Woo he'd met was a completely different person from the Sung Jin-Woo on paper, the one who'd entered the Double Dungeon and might very well have never left it, not really.
Woo Jin-Chul at least has the decency not to play dumb. Yoon-Ho doesn't think he has the tolerance to take anymore bullshit tonight. Today. Whatever.
"Does it matter?" Woo Jin-Chul counters, and there's little inflection in his voice, as usual, but Yoon-Ho picks up a rueful sort of amusement anyway. "Even if a monster has replaced him, do you think any of us can do anything about it?"
No. It almost rankles, but no, there's nothing they can do about it. Yoon-Ho has met strong monsters before, monsters that were tough to beat, monsters he couldn't beat, even monsters that radiated so much magical energy that he could barely stand in their presence.
But at least he could stand. It's one of the things that separates an S-rank from the masses - the fact that they can face an S-rank monster without collapsing due to proximity, even if they might not be able to defeat it on their own.
But Sung Jin-Woo. It almost feels like half a dream now, but even if they never meet again, Yoon-Ho will never forget the feeling of those eyes focused on him, that presence bearing down on him, his life hanging by a thread that Sung Jin-Woo could sever on a whim.
Yoon-Ho can stand in front of S-rank monsters. But he knows, he knows that the only reason he'd managed to stay on his feet in front of Sung Jin-Woo at all was because Sung Jin-Woo had allowed it. He knows that if the man had wanted him to kneel, he would've knelt, just as he knows that if he'd wanted him dead, Yoon-Ho would've slit his own throat without a second thought, and he would've done it gladly.
Sung Jin-Woo is not a monster any of them can kill, and maybe it's because Yoon-Ho has the additional instincts of an animal, but personally, he has no desire to try to kill him either. Sung Jin-Woo holds no particular enmity towards the White Tiger Guild - Yoon-Ho has managed to ensure that much, even after his own blunder earlier. He could tell that Sung Jin-Woo had forgiven it, and so there would be no further repercussions.
Maybe Sung Jin-Woo has been replaced by a monster. But if so, this monster is intelligent and powerful and - most importantly - doesn't care for killing humans without provocation. Yoon-Ho can work with that. He has no reason to oppose an Alpha so clearly beyond his skill level when they're perfectly willing to mind their own business. When it comes down to it, there is no reason why they cannot coexist peacefully.
We call S-rank hunters 'calamities'," Woo Jin-Chul remarks after a long moment of silence passes. "But I do not believe I have ever truly understood the meaning of that word until I met Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim."
Calamity. Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. A calamity that could bring about the end of the world with thoughtless ease, but one they should all be very, very thankful for because at least this calamity seems partial to keeping the world intact.
Calm, unless provoked. Yoon-Ho is going to make it his life's mission to make sure he and his guild never does anything to provoke him. They can't afford the fallout. Other people might call it cowardice. Yoon-Ho calls it self-preservation and common fucking sense. Other people can fuck right off.
"You've met him too," Yoon-Ho says gruffly. "Did you fight him?"
Woo Jin-Chul actually scoffs this time. "I would die if I fought him." He states it like a fact, and one he's unashamed by. "No, I've just had a few interactions with him, that's all. The first time was to measure his magical energy after he woke up from the Double Dungeon. He really was still an E-rank back then. Or maybe he somehow tricked the detector; I wouldn't be surprised. The second time was after… well, did you hear about Kang Tae-Shik?"
"I heard he died in a Dungeon, after he went off the rails," Yoon-Ho offers. He'd stumbled on the report earlier but had set it aside since it didn't seem directly related to his search. He opens it now on his computer and gives it a skim. "…Killed by a C-rank? Kang Tae-Shik? On a raid Sung Jin-Woo was also part of?"
"That's the story I was told," Woo Jin-Chul confirms. "And since it's the story Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim corroborated with, it's the one I'll tell anybody who asks."
Yoon-Ho snorts but doesn't comment. He'd probably do the same thing in the agent's position. "You met him again though. For real that time."
"…Yes." Woo Jin-Chul sighs. "He deliberately showed me, I think, just for a moment. I'm still not sure why. But now I know the kind of damage he can do if he really wanted to, which means I know better than to treat him with anything less than the full courtesies reserved for national-level hunters." He pauses. "Since you're still alive, I'm presuming you didn't do anything too… impulsive?"
"You could've given me more of a heads-up," Yoon-Ho snaps at that. "What was wrong with Hwang Dong-Su anyway? Sung Jin-Woo killed his brother?"
"Probably," Woo Jin-Chul admits easily enough. "You know Hwang Dong-Suk's reputation as well as I do. What are the odds that a C-rank monster killed him and his entire team but let a D-rank and an E-rank escape? The same D-rank and E-rank that Hwang Dong-Suk would've been planning to kill?" Another pause ensues, shorter this time, before he tacks on, "SKS-5428."
Not for the first time, Yoon-Ho wonders if the Association's Chief Inspector gained mind-reading powers with his awakening. It does make things easier though. He stops scrolling and types the file number into the search bar instead, and the corresponding report pops up. "…No wonder Hwang Dong-Su wants his head on a platter. He's still a fool."
"Yes," Woo Jin-Chul agrees. "But he hasn't met him like we have."
"You didn't bother to warn him either," Yoon-Ho points out, smirking despite everything.
"He wouldn't have listened anyway," Woo Jin-Chul says dismissively. "But if they do get into a fight one day, I would prefer it not take place in this country."
That's fair. Let Hwang Dong-Su get himself killed on American soil instead. With luck, that country is big enough that it might not even topple any cities. "Where is he now?"
"Hotel," Woo Jin-Chul says succinctly. "He'll be on the 10am flight back to the States. If you could keep this Red Gate incident under wraps for that long, I would appreciate it."
Yoon-Ho grunts an affirmative. All his guild members are already under orders to keep their mouths shut about Sung Jin-Woo. And while Yoon-Ho wouldn't hesitate to break Hwang Dong-Su's face on his fist, he can admit that a straight-up fight between two S-ranks would cause more problems than momentary satisfaction would be worth. God only knows how much worse it would be if Sung Jin-Woo was the one kicking Hwang Dong-Su's ass. Even if it would be very gratifying to watch.
"Will he be Korea's tenth S-rank hunter?" Yoon-Ho asks abruptly. "He's obviously beyond an S-rank, but…"
"It would depend on whether or not Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim wants to get himself re-evaluated again," Woo Jin-Chul replies. "I think he will. Remaining an E-rank has few benefits in the long run. But it will ultimately be up to him."
Yoon-Ho makes a noise of acknowledgement. "Could you let me know when he shows up at the Association?"
"…If I see him, I'll give you a call," Woo Jin-Chul promises. "But I do hope you aren't planning to recruit him, Master Baek."
Yoon-Ho snorts. "Am I suicidal? That guy won't bow to anyone."
An Sang-Min had asked the same thing. And on one hand, getting Sung Jin-Woo into the White Tiger Guild would make them stronger than any other guild in the world. On the other, there's just no way Sung Jin-Woo would ever take orders from anyone. Trying to force him into it anyway would not only be an exercise in futility but also a good way to get killed faster.
It's a somewhat bitter pill to swallow, but Yoon-Ho doesn't regret telling An Sang-Min to drop the matter. At least this way, the possibility of brokering an alliance or at least maintaining a decent working relationship in the future remains.
Over the phone, Woo Jin-Chul hums a note of wry agreement, only for it to cut off sharply, like he'd been muted halfway. Yoon-Ho frowns. "Chief Woo? Is something wrong?"
"…No," Woo Jin-Chul says, a second later than strictly necessary, enough to give away the lie to Yoon-Ho's ears. "I just remembered I have other business to attend to, so if that's all…?"
Yoon-Ho frowns harder. They aren't friends, aren't fellow guild members, their respective organizations aren't even allied, they can't be. They're colleagues at best, but Yoon-Ho respects this man, and maybe it's because he's still a bit wired from last night's events, but his mind immediately jumps to the worst scenarios, and what kind of hunter would he be if he just hung up now?
"Master Baek," Woo Jin-Chul interjects before Yoon-Ho can decide on what to say. His voice lilts with something like assurance, a touch warmer than his typical impassivity. "There really is nothing wrong. I will give you a call when Hwang Dong-Su has boarded his flight."
That's… a little less than six hours from now, give or take.
"Fine," Yoon-Ho grumbles. He's not worried. But it would be a shame if something happens to the only agent in the Monitoring Division that he can stand. "I'll make sure the press doesn't get wind of the Red Gate before that but you better call as soon as that bastard's gone. I can't promise to hold off those vultures any longer than that."
"Understood," Woo Jin-Chul replies, and they both hang up without another word.
Yoon-Ho puts his phone down, looks at the paperwork waiting for his attention, then picks his phone back up before climbing to his feet. He wants a shower and a change of clothes and something to eat before diving back into this mess.
And since paperwork is the last thing he wants to do, he supposes it also wouldn't hurt to kill an extra ten minutes by calling that snake bastard and making sure he won't do anything stupid once word gets around that there's a new S-rank hunter in Korea. Choi Jong-In's a real asshole, but life would be infinitely more boring if that pyromaniac wasn't around anymore to bitch at him every other week.
Jin-Woo drops off Han Song-I before driving himself home. He's pulling into the driveway when he remembers that he was going to check up on Woo Jin-Chul.
He feels… jittery. Like he's had too much sugar, or too much caffeine, although maybe that's not a comparison he can make since neither would have any effect on him anymore even if he downs them by the gallon.
But that doesn't change the fact that there's power buzzing under his skin and ice in his veins and that lingering disconcerting sensation of feeling something missing in the black of the universe. The last is the worst, even if he's slowly adjusting, or it's slowly disappearing. But it's difficult to ignore, like an itch, or a pulled muscle, amplified by a hundred, and it's irritating enough that he'd almost lost his temper at the hunter from earlier.
Baek Yoon-Ho, he recalls, the guild master of the White Tiger Guild. S-rank. Pushy, but at least he wasn't an idiot and knew to back off the moment he'd caught on to the otherness behind Jin-Woo's eyes. The man wasn't entirely ordinary either, not with the way he'd ridden out the brunt of Jin-Woo's inadvertent outburst and still stood his ground to the end.
Another human like Woo Jin-Chul, with that same peculiar spark of defiance and strength and indomitable spirit. Jin-Woo thinks he might have to keep an eye on this one too, but… not tonight, not now.
It takes him a minute of really examining himself before he realizes why he's so restless - he's tired. Not so tired that he couldn't go another round with something like Baruka right this instant, but he can feel it tugging at him nonetheless, underneath the power-rush he's also feeling, and the sheer contradiction of it just makes everything worse.
He's starting to understand why his kind don't perceive emotion the same way humans do, the same way his own human self once did and a part of him apparently still does. They're just not built for it.
But he was human first, and some of it… clings.
He takes a deep breath, then lets it out slowly. He's still sitting in the car, but Jin-Ah hasn't come out, and the house is dark, so at least the noise hasn't woken her. He should go in himself and get some sleep and give everything the time it needs to settle.
But the desire to go see Woo Jin-Chul needles at him too, and he suspects he won't be getting any rest until he satisfies that urge.
Fine. Woo Jin-Chul first. Then home, then bed.
It doesn't even occur to him that he should probably take the car like a normal person. He blinks, shifts, and suddenly he's standing in a corner of a spacious apartment, cloaked in shadows and more pitch and night than flesh and blood. For a moment, he forgets how many eyes he should open and how many limbs he should show, and the temporary lapse is enough to thicken the darkness in every corner of the room. It's not a difference that should be discernable to the human eye, but to Jin-Woo, he might as well have accidentally set off a flashbang with his arrival.
The light above the kitchen island is switched on, and below it, Woo Jin-Chul is leaning against the counter with a glass of water in one hand and his phone in the other, talking to someone in quiet tones. He’s still in a dress shirt and suit pants, like he’s just gotten home and hasn’t had time to change, but he’s ditched the sunglasses and jacket and tie, and he’s barefoot.
The second Jin-Woo arrives, or maybe a second after that when he hasn’t quite managed to reel in his presence, the man freezes like a statue. Another breath, and Jin-Woo gets himself under control. It wasn’t even that major a slip, not enough to hurt anyone, and reined in again before he could even damage the apartment, but Woo Jin-Chul seems to sense it anyway, or at least sense something off, even if he doesn't know what.
Or maybe he does. The man hangs up and stares unseeingly down at his water glass for a few seconds before finally, slowly, turning around. Jin-Woo knows he can't see him, but his eyes flare violet and bright anyway as they dart from one patch of shadow to the next. It makes Jin-Woo wonder if perhaps the thread of magic he'd tagged Woo Jin-Chul with is a little more two-sided than he'd intended, especially after he'd brought it out of dormancy by using it to heal him earlier.
Well, it doesn't really matter in the end. Even if Woo Jin-Chul can sense him nearby, he can't find him, let alone do anything else. The man looks fine, Jin-Woo decides. Feels fine too - no internal or external injuries to speak of. He catches sight of a suit jacket and shirt tossed over the back of a chair and spots the shredded remains of the sleeves. He wonders what happened, but honestly, he doesn't actually care that much. Woo Jin-Chul's alive, and that's good enough for Jin-Woo.
He prepares to leave, more than ready to retire for the night, or what little is left of it, when Woo Jin-Chul of all people calls him back. In a manner of speaking.
"Would you like some tea?" The man offers in so even a tone that you'd think he offered drinks to thin air every day. His eyes have returned to their usual brown. "Or is there something in particular I can help you with?"
Jin-Woo stops. Turns back. Watches as Woo Jin-Chul calmly puts the kettle on and even opens a cabinet for some teabags and mugs. He can hear the frantic beat of his heart though, fast enough to indicate nervousness, not fast enough for fear.
He's moving before he realizes it, slips from the corner to the kitchen to perch on the tabletop, not quite sitting because he isn't solid enough at the moment to sit, but close enough to pass for it even as his form flickers in and out of focus.
Like this, he's only two feet away from Woo Jin-Chul now.
"You're strange," He remarks, and if he had enough control over his human mouth right now, he'd smile at the way Woo Jin-Chul stiffens, almost jumps, back muscles going tight beneath his shirt, and then just as quickly relaxing again, deliberate and determined.
The man turns, eyes widening at the sight of Jin-Woo. Jin-Woo isn't quite sure what he looks like at the moment - human-shaped, at least, with all the right numbers of body parts in mostly the right places, but that's about all he's sure of. It shouldn't be too terrible though since Woo Jin-Chul doesn't react beyond staring for a bit longer than he probably would otherwise, although that could just as well be attributed to having Jin-Woo's uninvited presence in his house at all.
"Am I?" Woo Jin-Chul says faintly instead. He's tense, no matter how hard he's trying to hide it, but nowhere near as tense as most other people would be in his position.
Jin-Woo grins at him, flashing more teeth than is probably wise, but again, Woo Jin-Chul only clenches his jaw briefly before crossing his arms, hip against the stove, and not moving an inch.
Jin-Woo's grin widens, and he can feel the hunger in it. "Most people would be pissing themselves right about now. Or running away. Or fainting. You never do that."
He pauses, noting the way Woo Jin-Chul's eyes are squinting a little like he's hiding a wince. Jin-Woo sighs but also puts some extra energy into binding his vocal cords back down to human-normal. It wouldn't do to burst the man's eardrums.
"Would doing any of that save me if you decided to kill me?" Woo Jin-Chul counters, so logically that it loops right over to hilarious, as if logic has ever been able to rule a human's instincts. Still, Jin-Woo can't deny that it seems to anchor Woo Jin-Chul at least, with the way he uses it to override his first reflexes when confronted with Jin-Woo. Even now, his mana flutters like wings around him, defensive but stubbornly kept at bay, and he meets Jin-Woo's gaze without wavering even though everything in him must be screaming at him to look away.
He's like stone, Jin-Woo thinks. If he was like Jin-Woo, he'd be a creature given form in the hearts of mountains and the silence of tombs, and no matter how fierce the gales may beat against the former or how loud the dead may clamour in the latter, they would remain, timeworn and tempered perhaps, but rooted in unyielding bedrock all the way through.
"No," Jin-Woo says freely, because it's nothing Woo Jin-Chul isn't already aware of, and nothing he can't accept head-on as he has everything else of Jin-Woo so far.
And as if on cue, Woo Jin-Chul shrugs like his point has been proven, and while the movement doesn't look entirely natural, it's graceful enough to smooth over any awkward edges.
It makes Jin-Woo laugh, short and echoing a bit in a way it probably shouldn't, but at least it's modulated for human ears. "It's alright," He grins again. "I don't want to kill you. You're too strange."
Woo Jin-Chul's eyebrows go up, and Jin-Woo can tell he doesn't understand. Still, after a moment of pensive contemplation, the man says cautiously, "Then, I shall endeavour to continue being… strange."
Jin-Woo finds that pretty amusing too. He highly doubts he's going to lose interest in humans like Woo Jin-Chul anytime soon, but even if he does, it's not like he'll kill them all, not unless they do something truly stupid like go after his sister. At most, he'll just leave them alone, if only because he wouldn't want to put in the effort to interact with them anymore. They might actually prefer that.
He doesn't explain as much. Woo Jin-Chul can figure it out for himself. Or not.
The kettle whistles, and Woo Jin-Chul only hesitates briefly before turning around again to prepare the tea.
Jin-Woo thinks the man would say, if asked, Whether or not I keep you in my line of sight wouldn't make a difference either if you decide to kill me, would it?
No, it wouldn't, but it's fascinating, because difference or no, one option still feels like the safer one by far, and yet time and time again, Woo Jin-Chul never picks safe. For such a careful, logical man, he is simultaneously terribly reckless too. But maybe contradictions like this are part of what makes humans human.
(Jin-Woo can't say for sure. Maybe he knew once, but if he did, he's forgotten it.)
It hurts nothing to move again, from the island to the counter by the stove, just within Woo Jin-Chul's peripheral, shadows splashing in his wake. Woo Jin-Chul doesn't look up, and Jin-Woo doesn't say anything, but he does see a little more of the rigidity leak out of the agent's shoulders.
The silence lingers until a mug of tea is placed next to his… well, where his thigh would be if he were solid. The tea smells nice, piping hot and fragrant, and Jin-Woo weighs that against the troublesome effort of folding himself down some more. It wins by a hair, so with a sigh, he concentrates on his human form and forces himself into filling all the right spaces again.
Shadows still lick across the back of his knuckles and along his jawline and through his hair, but overall, judging by how confined he feels again, he's a lot closer now than he was a minute ago. Good enough.
He picks up the tea. Wraps five-fingered hands around it. Makes sure he doesn't accidentally ice it over.
Baruka was a lot. The best meal he's ever had, but it's definitely taking time to digest.
"So," Woo Jin-Chul says, breaking the silence. He's sipping at his own tea, watching Jin-Woo. "Was there something you wanted? I'm assuming you were the one who cleared the Red Gate."
Jin-Woo hums something tuneless and vaguely confirming. "It was pretty fun."
Fun, but it also drove home the fact that he needs to get stronger. Easy enough to forget when he's on a planet he could disintegrate just by breathing too hard, surrounded by people he could crush just by losing his temper. If Baruka hadn't underestimated him, the outcome of their fight might've gone very differently.
Still, a victory is a victory. He'll just have to be more prepared next time. He definitely hadn't expected to meet one of his own kind so soon.
"Was the boss monster beyond a standard S-rank?" Woo Jin-Chul asks abruptly, and when Jin-Woo glances at him, he clarifies, "I cannot imagine an S-rank monster giving you any difficulties." He pauses a beat, then adds, "But if it wasn't difficult, then it probably wouldn't have been fun."
Jin-Woo stares, unblinking, until Woo Jin-Chul's mana is practically bristling, and his expression has gone stiff. Then he smirks and turns back to his tea. "You're not wrong. Nothing I couldn't handle, but it was stronger than I expected any monster to be, going in."
"…Is that why you aren't quite…" Woo Jin-Chul trails off, but the fact that he'd brought it up at all draws Jin-Woo's attention right back to him again. Woo Jin-Chul twitches but doesn't take the question back.
Reckless. So reckless. But Jin-Woo doesn't dislike it.
"It took a little more out of me than I thought it would," He admits easily enough. "Especially since I had to be careful not to kill the kid I brought along. Oh, and those White Tiger members too, I guess." He brings up a hand, flexing it, watching it glaze over with frost before his shadows chase it away again. "I'll be fine with some sleep."
He looks up then, and smiles, quick and sharp, all arctic nights and frostbite, less a threat and more a reminder of what could happen if someone crosses him, fresh off a tough battle or not. Woo Jin-Chul flinches back, and Jin-Woo drops the smile. He thinks he got his point across.
For a while after that, even Woo Jin-Chul stays silent, draining his mug of tea and pouring himself another. The apartment does feel a bit colder, unfortunately. Jin-Woo should probably go.
Of course, that's when Woo Jin-Chul speaks up again, like there's something inside him that just can't help prodding for answers. "You didn't say - why you came here. Was there something else about the Red Gate you wanted to ask about?"
Jin-Woo makes a sound in the negative. "I didn't come here for that."
Jin-Woo frowns at him this time, because for someone as quick on the uptake as Woo Jin-Chul, shouldn't it be obvious? "I came to check on you. You were injured earlier, weren't you?"
That of all things seems to render Woo Jin-Chul speechless. He doesn't immediately reply, and he has the oddest expression on his face now, one that Jin-Woo can't quite read.
Fear is easy. So are anger and joy and sorrow. Base uncomplicated emotions have the tendency to echo out into the universe like ripples in a pond, so they aren't hard to pick out. It's the nuances in-between that take more work, and Jin-Woo isn't nearly invested enough to try and figure out this one. He gets a face-full of shock, but there's a lot more underneath it that Jin-Woo can't be bothered with right now.
So he downs the rest of his tea instead before setting the mug in the sink. "Thanks for the tea. I'm leaving now."
He hadn't meant to stay in the first place.
A thought occurs to him, making him pause, and then he pushes off the counter. Two swift steps forward puts him level with Woo Jin-Chul, and he has a hand over the other man's eyes before he can react. His other hand comes up and catches the tea mug just as Woo Jin-Chul startles and drops it.
And then… he just doesn't move. Doesn't leap back, doesn't lash out. A burst of anxiety from him all but hits the roof but he simply braces himself and waits, and maybe this man isn't so logical after all. Jin-Woo honestly can't tell.
"Didn't anyone teach you not to look directly at the sun?" He asks in bland tones. "This is sort of the same thing, you know. Stare too long and you might blind yourself if I slip."
He sets the mug on the counter and removes his hand. Woo Jin-Chul has gone wide-eyed again, but when Jin-Woo steps back, he still doesn't hesitate to meet his gaze.
Jin-Woo sighs. There's no helping some people, sometimes. But he thinks he understands why now, at least with Woo Jin-Chul in particular. This close, it's blatantly clear what's driving him most, what pushes him past the fear and caution and self-preservation instincts - it's curiosity.
"I'm leaving," Jin-Woo repeats, thoroughly exasperated. "Don't get hurt again."
He doesn't wait for a reply, and between one breath and the next, he's back in front of his own house, with dawn creeping up over the horizon.
He stretches, yawns, lets himself inside. He checks on Jin-Ah on his way to the bathroom, then rolls into bed after a quick shower. He doesn't bother checking the dozen-odd text messages Jin-Ho has left on his phone. Half of them are undoubtedly memes.
Sleep first. Everything else can wait.
Jin-Chul does not move for a good five minutes after Sung Jin-Woo leaves, and even when he does, he goes through the motions of rinsing the mugs on autopilot. His mind is very much still on the frankly bizarre late-night - early-morning? - encounter in his own kitchen.
Jin-Chul isn't sure if Sung Jin-Woo knows how much he'd given away in their conversation, or if all his words were calculated to manipulate Jin-Chul into perceiving him in a certain way. Jin-Chul doesn't think so. What would even be the point? When you have as much power as Sung Jin-Woo does at his fingertips, there's no need to care about others' opinions.
So Jin-Chul is inclined to take everything Sung Jin-Woo had said at face-value, and the whole exchange had been… informative. He'd half-thought he was going to die the moment he'd sensed that singularly unique presence in his apartment, that he'd somehow offended the other man to the point where he'd tracked Jin-Chul to his residence straight out of exiting the Red Gate.
But, no, that hadn't been it. Even before Sung Jin-Woo had revealed himself, and after Jin-Chul had worked through the initial bone-chilling sensation of ice in his lungs, he'd realized that he couldn't feel any killing intent at all.
Sung Jin-Woo felt like death and darkness and the warning tug of an undertow threatening to drown him. But he'd never felt like a knife between the ribs or a noose drawn tight around his neck, and maybe there isn't that much of a difference between the two, but Jin-Chul had taken it and ran with it anyway.
He doesn't know what had prompted him to offer Sung Jin-Woo a drink. Insanity, maybe. The same insanity that had made him stand his ground the first time Sung Jin-Woo had looked at him and let him see. But it was out before he could think better of it, and then Sung Jin-Woo had appeared, looking vaguely entertained but distinctively not-human.
It's not as if Jin-Chul wasn't already aware on some level - most levels - that Sung Jin-Woo was no longer entirely human, if at all. He hadn't needed Baek Yoon-Ho bringing it up to figure out that much. But so far, the man had done a good enough job at faking all the right parts.
When he'd materialized on the kitchen island, it was as if he couldn't even be bothered to take a stab at pretending. Oh, he was still largely human-shaped. But half his body was more shadow than not, sliding in and out of reality in a way that almost gave Jin-Chul a migraine. Even his voice had reverberated in a way that left Jin-Chul's ears ringing.
Except then Sung Jin-Woo had seemed to notice what was happening, and the… otherness in his voice had stopped. He'd called Jin-Chul strange, of all things, which Jin-Chul honestly doesn't get. What does that even mean? He's about as normal as people come. He's an A-rank hunter, sure, one of the strongest in existence, but he's also never going to make it to S-rank, and compared to other people, he knows he doesn't really stand out. Part of that is his job - he wouldn't make a very good right-hand for the Chairman if he attracted too much attention - but he's also self-aware enough to acknowledge that he just doesn't have the kind of innate bearing that guild masters and powerful hunters were born with even before Dungeons started became the norm. His personality isn't particularly charismatic, his nature isn't a particularly sociable one, and he doesn't particularly enjoy being in the spotlight. He's made it to where he is more because he has good administrative and diplomatic skills, and less because he awakened as an A-rank or because he had any grand ambitions in life. More than once, for all that his subordinates respect him, he's overheard them describe him as boring, amongst other similar descriptors. With all that in mind, there are plenty of hunters who are far more remarkable than him, in both strength and character.
And yet, as far as Jin-Chul knows, he was the first person Sung Jin-Woo had shown… some of what he is to, for reasons Jin-Chul still isn't entirely certain of. Even Baek Yoon-Ho had only seen it because he had - predictably - been too headstrong, demanded more than he should have, and gotten smacked for it, fortunately not literally.
But Sung Jin-Woo could've left Jin-Chul entirely ignorant, and he hadn't. Objectively speaking, letting the head of the department in charge of enforcing the law on hunters know that there's something very off about you isn't exactly smart, and Sung Jin-Woo had already proven that he could hide it from Jin-Chul if he really wanted to. There's nothing Jin-Chul can do about it even if he wants to, but concealing it would still be less of an inconvenience than revealing it, and judging by what Jin-Chul has observed, Sung Jin-Woo very much prefers as few inconveniences as possible. But he'd shown him instead, and then he hadn't leveraged any special accommodations from the Association, and even tonight, he'd gone out of his way to come here but he hadn't asked for anything from Jin-Chul.
On the contrary, he'd just come to check on him. Because he'd been injured.
Jin-Chul still has no idea how to take that. He hadn't even known that that was what this visit was about until the end. He'd poured the man the promised tea, they'd talked some more, and all told, if not for the shadows constantly shifting around the man, the whole fifteen-minute encounter would've seemed entirely normal.
For a being of untold power and terror, Sung Jin-Woo is surprisingly mellow. Hell, most S-ranks have more of a temper than he'd shown. And less courtesy too. It was surreal.
Of course, it wasn't just the way Sung Jin-Woo had acted that's thrown Jin-Chul off. The things he'd said in response to the questions Jin-Chul had been allowed to receive the answers to - they'd actually been… reassuring.
"I had to be careful not to kill the kid I brought along. Oh, and those White Tiger members too, I guess."
If someone like Hwang Dong-Su had said something like that, Jin-Chul would've checked his coffee for hallucinogens. That Sung Jin-Woo would care about something like that is… yes, it is very reassuring. The way he'd said it, the tone - Jin-Chul could tell that he didn't particularly care about them on a personal level. But the fact that he'd brought someone along on the raid and so had felt enough of a sense of responsibility to her that he would prioritize her safety, and then had even felt something similar to the White Tiger hunters enough to extend the same duty of care to them - it's all so unexpected, but also very much not unwelcome.
Sung Jin-Woo has lines he won't cross, self-made rules he won't break. That's already more than Jin-Chul can say for a lot of S-rank hunters he's both met and heard of.
There's nothing any of them can do if Sung Jin-Woo decides to go on a rampage. At least if an S-rank hunter throws a tantrum, another S-rank hunter would be able to stop them, even if the fallout would be devastating. There's no one on earth who can stop Sung Jin-Woo if he lets loose, so the fact that Sung Jin-Woo can check himself is a miracle in and of itself.
God help anyone stupid enough to trample over those lines though. Which reminds Jin-Chul - it is… almost five in the morning, he needs to be up again in two hours to drive Hwang Dong-Su back to the airport, and he's going to get that S-rank hunter on that plane, on time, if it's the last thing he does. Seoul can't afford Hwang Dong-Su's stupidity, and Jin-Chul has never been the sort to rely on divine intervention.
But that gives him two hours of sleep, and that's… something. Two hours of downtime before cleanup for the Red Gate case lands on his desk, and that'll be the rest of his week.
He sighs, dries his hands, and heads for his bedroom. He grabs the ruins of his shirt and suit jacket on the way past, and his attention snags on the sleeves, or lack thereof.
"I came to check on you. You were injured earlier, weren't you?"
"Don't get hurt again."
It's a mortifying experience, to feel the heat rising in his cheeks. His one saving grace is that Sung Jin-Woo is already gone. With a huff, Jin-Chul sweeps down the hall, dumps the clothes in a bag to be thrown out later, and heads for bed.
He doesn't know why Sung Jin-Woo thinks he's "strange", and he certainly doesn't know why that seems to matter enough to grant him the man's… partiality? He has done exactly nothing for Sung Jin-Woo, and even in their first meeting, while polite, as his job dictates he be with almost everyone he interacts with, Jin-Chul can admit that he'd been too tired and too irritated to put any sincere effort into making that politeness even marginally authentic, especially after the detector had declared Sung Jin-Woo an E-rank.
So if anything, it should've been far more likely for Sung Jin-Woo to ignore him at best and strike him dead on the spot at worst. He'd done neither, and now here they were, sharing tea in the early hours of dawn as if the entire situation isn't downright ludicrous. But Jin-Chul also isn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He's under no illusions about how much control no one has over Sung Jin-Woo, and Jin-Chul doesn't want it anyway, not when the very thought of it feels a bit too much like blasphemy.
(Controlling Sung Jin-Woo would be like trying to bind a natural disaster, or command the turn of the ocean's tide, or trigger the death of a star - to reach out and capture something beautiful and terrifying and utterly sublime, and be destroyed for the audacity of attempting an act as damning as it is impossible.)
He doesn't want that, but this - to have the favourable regard of a calamity in human skin, even if he doesn't know how he earned it, is still something he's determined to keep.
(And if a part of him feels that same increasingly frequent whisper of pleasure at being singled out and protected, just a little, well, nobody except himself needs to know that.
He falls asleep within seconds after he closes his eyes, sinking almost eagerly into familiar oblivion.
He thinks he should probably be concerned.
But he also thinks concern is for those who aren't aware that they're already too far in to escape, and Jin-Chul has always known, to some degree or another - all his exits swung shut the day he saw the monster behind the human and forgot to look away.)
Life returns to normal, or as normal as it ever gets these days. Jin-Woo meets up with Jin-Ho, solos raids in his spare time, makes sure Jin-Ah is taken care of, and visits their mother every now and then to study the illness that plagues her.
Eternal Sleep is… weird, now that he can feel it. Every living thing has mana inside them; it's just that for humans, some have too little to ever awaken as a hunter, even after Gates began to appear on earth, thereby causing the mana in humans to react. Eternal Sleep siphons their mana away, which - since humans need mana to survive as much as they need their own blood - also ends up literally leeching their life away. Those with large enough amounts of mana to awaken more or less have an in-built defense system - their mana is active enough to fight off any outside intrusions. It's why Eternal Sleep only targets unawakened humans - those with no defense system are naturally the easiest prey.
What Jin-Woo can't figure out is what is siphoning the mana away. Where is the mana going to? He can See it, the web-like tendrils rooted in his mother's soul, insidious as poison, feeding on her magical energy faster than she can produce it, but he doesn't know where it's all going.
Something is blocking him, and considering what he is, there aren't that many things out there that can hide from him.
He's hesitant to brute-force it, because a soul is a delicate thing when it's still attached to a body, but he has a feeling he might have to. He puts it off for now because his mother still has time. Maybe he'll be able to find a way around the problem.
Eternal Sleep and unofficial Dungeon runs aside, there isn't much else for Jin-Woo to occupy himself with as a human. He starts thinking about getting his hunter rank re-evaluated, if only so he'd have the full benefits of an S-rank hunter. He doesn't need it, but S-ranks have access to authenticated Gates, and if Jin-Woo can go on those raids, that would mean finally getting a legal paycheck.
He won't be joining a guild though, that's for sure. He knows that Baek Yoon-Ho knows better than to offer now, but the same can't be said for South Korea's other guild masters. He supposes it's not that big a deal when it comes down to it - terrifying them all into leaving him alone is always an option, even if he'd rather they just do that of their own accord.
Maybe he can just form his own guild. It would stonewall any recruitment offers and give him the freedom to purchase exclusive rights to Gates from the Association. Although, he'll need to read up on all the laws for that since he's pretty sure he won't be able to get away with just himself as the only member. Jin-Ho might be interested. Jin-Woo can ask later.
But, re-evaluation and a new license comes first. He thinks he can just go to the Association and pay for a retest - they should give him one since he's fairly certain the one at the hospital after the Double Dungeon hadn't been added to his record - but if he's going to do that, he might as well visit his favourite hunter at the same time.
It's only been a couple weeks since he'd last seen Woo Jin-Chul, but these days, he's as constant a presence in the wings of Jin-Woo's consciousness as Jin-Ah and their mom and Jin-Ho are. Even Jin-Woo's not sure why - Woo Jin-Chul is fun to be around, but in reality, they'd only really interacted three times, and never for very long.
But a few days after his detour to the agent's apartment, he'd received an email with the official Red Gate investigation report attached, and a short message from Woo Jin-Chul himself blithely asking if that was the version of events Jin-Woo remembered. Said report hadn't included more than a passing mention of him, simply 'an E-rank added to the White Tiger training party for raid experience'.
Jin-Woo had sent back an affirmative, then decided that was certainly not enough of a thank-you and had popped off to a few other countries for an hour before dropping off a wide variety of expensive tea leaves and coffee beans on Woo Jin-Chul's kitchen table for him to try. He'd spotted the collection of tea mugs and state-of-the-art coffee machine the first time around. The day after that, he'd ducked in again after Woo Jin-Chul had left for work, just a bit curious about whether or not the man had liked his gift.
There'd been a newly opened bag of coffee beans tucked neatly to one side on the counter, as well as a post-it note left on the coffee machine, with two simple words scrawled elegantly across it: Thank you.
Jin-Woo had left with the note, feeling oddly pleased with himself for the rest of the day.
They'd both been busy for the week and change after that. From what Jin-Woo had seen, Woo Jin-Chul is almost always swamped with paperwork, cleaning up after guilds and hunters alike after something goes wrong, or honestly, even after everything goes right. It looks terribly annoying to deal with, and Jin-Woo thinks being a hunter on the field would be far more enjoyable for the man, but maybe Woo Jin-Chul prefers this type of work. To each their own.
Jin-Woo himself isn't even on the planet for most of a week. He tells Jin-Ah that he's leaving for a training trip, and then spends the next six days sweeping through another world, all smoke and desert and dust in every direction, but interspersed with castles infested with demons, all at war with each other. Even with their numbers and remaining in his human form, Jin-Woo dispatches them all with relative ease within the first two days. He stays anyway, not for the armies that fold like paper as he tears through them but for the scent of flames in the air, singing like the seething heat of a star, and burning brighter and brighter the closer he gets.
The name BARAN reaches Jin-Woo's ears like ashes on the wind, clogging his throat and stinging his eyes and bringing to mind the offerings burnt for the dead. Long before he sees them, he knows he has once again met his match, and the thrill of it - triumph on one side and death on the other - drives him onward, up and up and up through the blood-seared skies until the crackle of blinding flames are suddenly surging across their makeshift battlefield, ready to swallow him whole.
Jin-Woo knows he is at a distinct disadvantage this time. In a world of fire and light, ice and darkness have little space to breathe. But he is more than his power, more than this world, and this time, he doesn't even need to hold back the way he had with Baruka.
He can feel reality splinter around him as his real form rips through his human guise and unfurls, spilling ice and night across the skyline like the surface of barren moons. He hears the blistering rasp of Baran's laughter lick across his skin like whips of flame, and the world fractures some more in response to his pain. Jin-Woo pushes through though, grasps tight to the uncompromising core of frozen planets and submerges himself in the airless eternity of far-flung black holes.
Baran tastes of untameable wildfires and overcooked flesh and the silent finality of cremated remains. They are rage and bloodshed set alight, ravaging everything in its path with brutal abandon and unquenchable thirst. They fling themselves against Jin-Woo with the single-minded force of battering rams and missiles, determined to leave nothing behind as it gluts itself on its own incinerated carnage.
But Jin-Woo's rebirth has entrenched him in the End Of All Things, in the Eternal and the Damned, in the Oblivion Where All Life Ceases To Be. He is still coming into his own, but there is no limit to his self, not when he is the monster that waits at the gates where all things that are granted life must eventually pay their toll.
Even fire burns itself out eventually, and Jin-Woo is timeless. There is no instance beyond his reach.
Four days later, the world of scorched land and blackened skies are cleaved asunder and collapsing into the schisms of space. And above and below and all around, Jin-Woo is there to consume it all - the sweltering heat of enduring summers, the suffocating smog of erupting volcanoes, and the everlasting flames of a true Devourer, slain at last at Jin-Woo's feet.
Jin-Woo saunters back to earth, feeling positively serene and inordinately lazy. He hadn't exactly planned to confront another of his own kind so soon after Baruka, but then he'd stepped through that random Gate, caught a whiff of Baran, and just couldn't help himself.
He still bears the marks of that battle, but the elation from his hard-earned victory is glorious. And as a bonus, the soul of Baran's dragon mount has even followed him home. Kaisel nests in his shadows now, hovering large and long and possessive, a hearth-warm shade to guard his back from now on.
All in all, this raid was a smashing success.
Jin-Ah isn't home yet, with school still in session, which is fortunate because he's too exhausted to heal his injuries, and he smells distinctly of smoke. The house is a mess though, which makes him sigh, but he also rolls up his sleeves and starts gathering up the garbage and putting the dishes in the dishwasher. One of these days, he should probably run his sister through all the life-essential household chores, just to make sure she can actually do them. She can't spend all her time studying.
At least she can cook and didn't eat takeout all week. The fridge is largely depleted of the groceries he'd bought before he'd left on his trip, so he makes a mental note to go shopping soon.
It takes less than an hour to clean everything up. It helps that he remembers he has extra hands these days, although Igris vacuuming the living room floor will never not be funny. The White Guild tanker - who's somehow still around and apparently hadn't gotten on Igris' last nerve - gets to take out the garbage, and for a large bear with only paws at its disposal, Tank is surprisingly adept at nudging books back onto their shelves, each one held delicately between its claws.
Once that's done, Jin-Woo showers, changes, and then collapses into his desk chair in a sprawl of limbs and shadows. He's tired, but it's not the sort of tired that lends itself to slumber this time. He thinks again of that re-evaluation he needs to take, and then his gaze flicks to the post-it stuck to the bottom of his computer screen.
He'd kept it on a whim. If asked why… well. It was written for him, after all. Does he need a reason to keep what's his?
The note serves to remind him of something else anyway, and a twist of his wrist opens an anchored pocket dimension that drops an item he'd brought back from the world he'd just left. And left broken. It's an earring, amethyst crystal glinting in the palm of his hand, created from a sliver of Baran's heart and forged in the purgatory of Jin-Woo's newly inherited flames.
It reminds him of Woo Jin-Chul's mana, purple dusk-light dipped in salt and sea. The earring reflects that, an amaranthine brilliance painted across a canvas of shifting waves, all of it condensed into a single diamond clasped in a thin spiraling coil of gold. It's a delicate-looking thing, and it doesn't glow so brightly that it would attract unwanted attention. But it has enough magic woven inside it to shred apart anything below S-rank. If pressed, it would probably even provide decent protection against most S-ranks, be they hunters or monsters, just long enough to give its owner a short window of opportunity to escape. And as a final advantage, a spark of Woo Jin-Chul's mana is all it would take to bond the earring to the agent and prevent anyone else from taking it and using it for themselves.
As for what Woo Jin-Chul will be able to do with it once his mana twines with it… well, even Jin-Woo can't say for sure, but giving a human the power of two world-eaters - even just a fraction of a fraction of them - is bound to have interesting results.
He'd brought back similar gifts for Jin-Ah and Jin-Ho, a necklace for the former and a bracelet for the latter, extra protection that they might never need but would be good to have on hand anyway, just in case Jin-Woo can't get to them right away. And humans do that, don't they? When they go on trips, they return with presents. And his are even useful.
He could simply leave the earring at Woo Jin-Chul’s apartment, but the man might need an explanation, and Jin-Woo has to get that re-evaluation done anyway. He barely needs to focus to feel the steady pulse of Woo Jin-Chul’s life signature moving around in the direction of his workplace. He can kill two birds with one stone if he goes to the Association right now.
…First though, he should probably cover up the more visible burns Baran had so generously left on him.
Jin-Chul is having a slow day. He'd managed eight full hours of uninterrupted sleep, he'd left his house early enough to avoid the morning rush hour, the new brand of coffee he'd opened was perfection in a travel mug, he'd reached his office without a single person flagging him down to solve some filing mishap or documentation disaster for them, not a single guild or raid party in all of South Korea had blown something up or started a fight or died overnight, and - last but not least - he'd cleared all his paperwork for the day by lunchtime.
A slow day is a great day.
Now he's just on standby, in case any emergencies crop up, but if he's lucky, he'll be able to clock out by six. He can barely remember the last time he could leave work that early.
So of course, he should've known better than to jinx it.
He supposes as far as troublesome circumstances go, there are worse things than getting accosted by the Hunters Guild's Choi Jong-In, and all the man wants is some information. Too bad it's information Jin-Chul has little intention of sharing.
Everything seems to come back to Sung Jin-Woo these days, although maybe that's just Jin-Chul. He's taken to keeping some discreet tabs on the man, probably more closely than is wise, but if Sung Jin-Woo knows, he hasn't gutted Jin-Chul for it yet, and if he doesn't, then it doesn't hurt anyone. It isn't anything too invasive anyway - he just wants to be notified first when Sung Jin-Woo goes on a raid, or if another hunter decides to take an unhealthy interest in Sung Jin-Woo yet again. He can admit that it's mostly out of a personal desire to stay informed. Sung Jin-Woo doesn't have that hair-trigger temper that a lot of powerful hunters possess, so Jin-Chul in turn has tentatively decided to worry less about the man's interactions with other people.
(It's almost funny, actually. What does it say about their society that Jin-Chul trusts a reality-breaking monster to take an insult with more restraint than he would most humans who have S-rank levels of power at their disposal?)
It's been quiet, anyway. As far as he's aware, Sung Jin-Woo hasn't gone on any raids since the Red Gate incident, and no other hunters or guilds have spotted him out and about.
Of course, that's not to say he hasn't been around. There was that… gift??? Of teas and coffees left in Jin-Chul's apartment almost two weeks ago, half of which couldn't even be purchased in the country. Jin-Chul had no idea why Sung Jin-Woo had given them to him - he still doesn't - but… well, he'd liked the gift too much to refuse, so he'd left a thank-you note instead, feeling more than a little ridiculous the entire time, right up until he'd gone home that same evening and found the note missing.
(He doesn't know what game he's playing, or what game Sung Jin-Woo wants to play. But it feels a lot like he's a thousand feet in the air and flying ever higher on wings that might be made of wax. And one day, someday, Sung Jin-Woo might even tell him the answer, or Jin-Chul will find out all on his own, right as they melt, and he falls.)
Aside from that though, there hasn't been any word from him since. To be fair, Jin-Chul's been busy with his own workload, with little time to spare for anything else, but sometimes, when he makes it home for a handful of hours of sleep, he half-expects Sung Jin-Woo to drop by again, as sudden and heart-stopping as the first time.
He doesn't, and Jin-Chul tries not to think about why that bothers him. He doesn't think his sanity could take it.
It's not as if Sung Jin-Woo isn't there though. He hasn't been anywhere that Jin-Chul - or apparently anybody else - has been able to lay eyes on him, but at the very peripherals of Jin-Chul's awareness, no matter where he goes or what he's doing, he can sense something hovering there, a pool of darkness nestled somewhere beyond regular human perception. He can't tell where Sung Jin-Woo is, but he can tell he is very much alive. And on occasion, when Jin-Chul closes his eyes and concentrates, he can just make out the piercing glow of Sung Jin-Woo's eyes, the hypnotizing ripples of his many shifting shadows, and the looming silhouette of something with fangs and wings and too many limbs to count.
He can never look for more than a few minutes. Or at the very least, he can never force himself to look for more than a few minutes, because after a while, it somehow starts feeling like he's teetering on the brink of a bottomless drop, and like he might fall right in if he lingers there too long.
So he doesn't linger, and he doesn't think about what might be waiting for him if he ever does.
(Doesn't think either, about how flimsy that if feels at times.)
But the fact stands - Jin-Chul knows Sung Jin-Woo is alive, and if he isn't well, then there's no hope for humanity. But he doesn't know much else, so he certainly doesn't appreciate the subtle interrogation Choi Jong-In has dragged him away from his lunch for, except he's an S-rank and a guild master and he's been fairly polite so far, so Jin-Chul can't even fault him for anything.
It's not that he dislikes the man. As far as S-ranks hunters go, Choi Jong-In's one of the better ones. But getting questions about the Red Gate incident - the cleanup of which he'd just wrapped up last weekend - isn't what he'd consider a good time, especially since every answer he's giving is literally written in either the report available to the public or the case file available to hunters with high enough clearance - which Guild Master Choi definitely has.
Besides, if Baek Yoon-Ho hasn't already told the man everything he could about Sung Jin-Woo, Jin-Chul will eat his own tie. All Choi Jong-In is doing right now is fishing for more details than Baek Yoon-Ho could give him. Why he thinks Jin-Chul would be willing to disclose them is beyond him. Even the specifics that he'd chosen to tell Baek Yoon-Ho had simply been because the man had glimpsed what Sung Jin-Woo truly was. It had been equal parts warning and nothing Baek Yoon-Ho wouldn't have been able to piece together himself sooner or later.
Choi Jong-In is different. For all that he's been told, he does not know. He cannot know - cannot fathom - unless he sees for himself.
At last, after yet another blandly vague response on Jin-Chul's part, Choi Jong-In sighs and finally relents. "Very well, I understand. You are rather fond of this Sung Jin-Woo, aren't you, Chief Woo?"
For the first time since this tedious conversation began, Jin-Chul stiffens ever-so-slightly. "Fond? I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
Choi Jong-In smiles a little, gentle enough to hide the bite behind it from most people. "You should know Master Baek has already impressed the… uniqueness of this hunter to me. You could at least corroborate what you told him, but I haven't heard a single answer that I wouldn't be able to find in the archives."
"Since Master Baek has already told you," Jin-Chul volleys back flatly. "I see no reason to repeat myself."
"And yet you've been repeating the official reports to me for the past ten minutes."
"Those were the answers your questions called for. Did you expect me to refuse, Guild Master Choi?"
They stare at each other for a moment, their little give-and-take now at an impasse.
It isn't really a matter of whether or not Jin-Chul is fond of Sung Jin-Woo. Objectively speaking, he'd have to be crazy to feel anything approaching fondness. He's just being careful. Sung Jin-Woo doesn't want a spotlight following him around, and it costs Jin-Chul nothing to help that along.
Still, that's hardly the issue here. Jin-Chul isn't usually in the habit of divulging classified information about individual hunters to other people anyway, even if those people happen to be S-rank hunters. Admittedly, he's done it before, on occasion, for all five of the country's top guilds - confirming rumours or relaying small details not available to most, things that he technically shouldn't pass on but also don't truly hurt anyone beyond giving certain hunters an edge or a leg-up in the recruitment department, just as a personal favour, because they do good work and it even all but guarantees a decent career for the new hunters that the big guilds scoop up. Most of all though, it also ensures that no one guild gets too powerful compared to the others, and it's one of the few discreet ways for the Monitoring Division to keep one hand on the steering wheel of a vehicle constantly threatening to cut its own brakes or explode.
Jin-Chul would have to be crazy to be fond of Sung Jin-Woo, but he'd have to have actual brain damage before he lets a single guild get their hands on that man. Or force said man to turn his ire on an overly greedy guild.
Choi Jong-In finally sighs again. He looks more amused than annoyed as he waves a dismissive hand. "Never mind then. Like Master Baek, I'm sure I'll meet him for myself sooner or later."
Jin-Chul narrows his eyes. "If you are looking to recruit him, I would advise against it."
Something like exasperated puzzlement edges into Choi Jong-In's smile. "Relax, Chief Woo. The overgrown cat has already warned me against such an action. Multiple times. I will keep them in mind."
But not I will not recruit him. Jin-Chul suppresses a sigh. Well, you can't say he didn't try. Anyway, it is Choi Jong-In. He may not have Baek Yoon-Ho's instincts, but he does have the best sense for magical energy, and he's smart. Hopefully, that will be enough to hold his tongue if and when they meet. Sung Jin-Woo has proven that murder isn't his first impulse anyway. Even if Choi Jong-In oversteps, it should be fine. Just one more person to share the secret with, that's all.
"Then if that's all," He starts, only to snap his mouth shut as a very familiar chill crests over the courtyard, rustling the bushes and rattling the chain-link fence nearby.
Speak of the devil and he shall appear.
It's followed by something new, a meandering kind of warmth that rolls in like a heatwave, relentless but indolent. It brings to mind the slumber of a dragon, a living furnace temporarily sated, and harmless right up until it wakes up or you wake it.
Jin-Chul whirls around, and even he can't tell in that moment whether it's fear or something else he feels when he catches sight of Sung Jin-Woo strolling towards him, gaze turned upwards to take in the buildings and foliage on either side. As soon as Jin-Chul spots him though, he glances back, expression unreadable but one corner of his mouth ticking up in a faint brief smile.
He approaches, all silent gliding footsteps and the there-not-there flash of eight mantled wings arching from his back, and Jin-Chul can't help searching for them even after they fade away again, elusive as mist. Some distant part of him - the part that wants to curl up and cower - whispers that that's wrong, that it's not a reaction that makes sense, but it's easy to ignore when the rest of him urges him forward on the memories of a dawn-tinted conversation and the cool consuming touch of twilight shadows humming against his mana and sinking into his lungs and painting brushstrokes across his skin.
"Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim," He greets. Two more steps and they're level. "I wasn't expecting you today."
Sung Jin-Woo shrugs loosely, a languidness about him that reminds Jin-Chul of that night in his kitchen. "I came to get re-evaluated." Another quicksilver smile flits across his face, this time accompanied by a flash of teeth sharp enough to tear through space. "And I wanted to see you."
Jin-Chul fights down an embarrassing flush and finds himself asking instead, "Is my apartment no longer suitable for that?"
Sung Jin-Woo's eyebrows go up, and then… he laughs. It doesn't last long, just a chuckle, pitched low with surprise, but it's genuine, and surprisingly human, and Jin-Chul can't look away.
"I've been busy the past week," Sung Jin-Woo reveals. "Training trip. I shouldn't be away for that long again though, so I can drop by occasionally if you don't mind." His head tips to one side, considering. His expression isn't quite apologetic, but there is something slightly sheepish about it, like he's only just come to a realization that should've been obvious. "I wasn't thinking last time. It was a bit forward of me. Sorry."
Jin-Chul blinks, then makes a quietly amused sound of his own. Sung Jin-Woo had definitely been more… other than human that night, so he supposes it makes sense that his human proprieties had taken a backseat. As far as retaining a sense of decorum goes though, Jin-Chul far prefers unexpected house calls over - say - feuds breaking out because some S-rank had their ego bruised.
"I did invite you to stay," Jin-Chul reminds him, because Sung Jin-Woo hadn't actually shown himself until he'd offered him a drink. "You can come by anytime."
The man is already haunting his dreams, which should be a lot more unsettling than it is, but Jin-Chul is long past the point of mustering up any kind of apprehension over it. He might as well go all-in.
Besides, he likes the response he gets in return, the way Sung Jin-Woo watches him, eyes burning with more than mana and glowing that much brighter as the rest of him seems to get darker, midday sunshine curving around him as if the dark of his hair and his clothes and his shadows are swallowing up the very light itself.
"I'll remember that," Sung Jin-Woo finally says, and Jin-Chul supposes it's fitting that it sounds equal parts threat and promise. It's softened a beat later though by another smile, slyer and just a bit smug as the man takes his hands out of his pockets, bringing one of them up between them. "But since I caught you here, I might as well give it to you now."
An earring drops from his hand, dangling between thumb and forefinger. The diamond-shaped crystal glitters under the sunlight in shades that range from lilac to wine, delicately multifaceted and polished to perfection. And all of that pales in comparison to the sheer amount of mana radiating from the stone. Mana that feels a lot like the kind Sung Jin-Woo wields.
Jin-Chul gapes. "Where did you-"
"Training trip," Sung Jin-Woo says, like he'd just gone for a walk and picked it up at the corner store. "Just consider it loot."
Jin-Chul looks from Sung Jin-Woo to the earring and then back to Sung Jin-Woo. "There is no possible way you could've found this from any Dungeon below S-rank, but there hasn't been any new S-rank Gates in South Korea in the past week. There hasn't been any in the past three months."
Sung Jin-Woo merely shrugs. "Yeah, don't worry about it, it's not a problem."
…Did… Did Sung Jin-Woo stumble on a hidden S-rank Gate and… and decide to go ahead and solo-raid it himself?
Jin-Chul knows Sung Jin-Woo is strong. He knows that, even if he still hasn't seen the man fight, knows he's the kind of powerful that Jin-Chul cannot truly comprehend even now. And maybe that's why this still shocks him. S-rank Dungeons usually require the top hunters of at least two guilds to take care of, and they never come back without at least a handful of casualties. If it's a particularly tough S-rank Dungeon, like Jeju Island, they could throw elite hunters at it all damn day and the only difference would be a rising body count.
For Sung Jin-Woo to raid one all on his own and come back still upright and walking is… incomprehensible.
And yet here he is, upright and walking and holding out a loot item that most hunters would literally kill for. Even if they don't want it for themselves, it would sell for millions on the market.
"Are you… giving this to me?" Jin-Chul asks in a daze.
"Yeah," Sung Jin-Woo says, light and easy even as he holds the earring a little higher. "It reminded me of your mana. I think it would sync pretty well together. You just need to add a bit of your magic to it, and it'll bond to you and no one else. It should give you an extra boost and protection if you ever need it, but you'd have to work out the specifics on your own."
He stops there, expression turning expectant, like he isn't handing over a priceless piece of equipment for free. For no reason whatsoever.
"Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim," Jin-Chul says as steadily as he can. "I cannot accept this."
Sung Jin-Woo blinks at him. "Why not? I don't have any use for it." He pauses, pensive. "Although I guess I should've asked first if you had your ears pierced. Of if you want to get them pierced-"
"I do," Jin-Chul interjects. "Did." He gives himself a mental shake so that he'd stop sounding like a stuttering buffoon. "I mean I had them pierced when I was younger, I just fell out of the habit of wearing any jewelry. But that doesn't matter. If you don't want to keep it, you should at least sell it-"
"I'm not that desperate for money," Sung Jin-Woo says in absently amused tones, his attention clearly set on examining how the earring looks next to Jin-Chul. "And this really isn't the sort of thing that should go to the highest bidder."
He stops and looks squarely at Jin-Chul again, and Jin-Chul's next breath hitches in his throat as that foxfire gaze catches his own, intent and focused, and out of his peripheral, a hundred more of those same eyes blink and peer at him, like faerie lights in the dark.
Jin-Chul's mouth goes dry.
"If you don't want it, that's fine," Sung Jin-Woo tells him at normal fit-for-human volumes, but there's an echo of a second voice, or perhaps his true voice, layered underneath. "But I'd like you to have it. I wouldn't offer if I didn't."
Jin-Chul doesn't know what to say. "I- Why? "
Sung Jin-Woo cocks his head, oddly animal. "I told you - you're strange."
Jin-Chul can't help but laugh. It comes out too breathless, weighted with too much disbelief, but he can't help it - he really has no clue what kind of criteria sheet Sung Jin-Woo is reading from.
"You are," Sung Jin-Woo insists. "You're not afraid of me."
"Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim," Jin-Chul says, because he feels like this is a point he has to get across no matter what. "I can assure you, I am very afraid of you."
Sung Jin-Woo just laughs, and this time, it is far less human, overlapped by the indistinct voices of burning stars, and for a moment, Jin-Chul forgets himself and strains his ears instead, trying to pick out each one. He thinks they might be singing. He wonders what stars sing about.
When the voices ebb and he blinks back into the present, Sung Jin-Woo is smiling at him knowingly. "You're less afraid than you think you are. And way more curious than you are afraid."
Jin-Chul opens his mouth. Then closes it.
Sung Jin-Woo smirks and tilts the earring at him. "It's mine, so I get to decide who to give it to, and I want to give it to you. Yes or no?"
Jin-Chul has no words. No hunter in the world could - hand to heart - say they don't want an item like this and actually mean it. But whether or not they deserve it is a different matter. Jin-Chul has had no part in the raid this earring came from, and he still has done nothing for Sung Jin-Woo. Accepting something like this anyway is just… shameless and gauche.
But, "I think," Sung Jin-Woo presses once more, eyes gleaming, mouth curled into something full of teeth and mischief, voice a coaxing, drugging croon. "It would look good on you."
If Jin-Chul had any less self-control, he would've spluttered. As it is, he folds like wet paper instead.
"I do not need it," He finally manages to say. "And I do not understand why you would want to give it to me. But if you truly wish to, then I will treasure it well."
And Sung Jin-Woo hums, wholly satisfied, and before Jin-Chul can react, the man leans forward, close - too close, fangs against his throat, claws nettled over his collarbones, but not biting, not ripping, just resting there, possessive and appeased - and brushes his hair back before cool fingers deftly attach the earring to his left earlobe.
"You take fear by the throat and stare it down until it bows," Sung Jin-Woo murmurs, so quietly even Jin-Chul can barely hear it, especially with the whisper-shriek of metalfeathernightmare wings in the background. "Why would I want to give the heart of a Devourer to anyone else?"
Jin-Chul does not move, not even to breathe. The implications of what Sung Jin-Woo has just told him make him dizzy.
(He's free-falling into an abyss with no end in sight.)
Sung Jin-Woo's touch is light and careful, and he only lingers long enough to cup a hand behind the earring for a moment, as if admiring the way it looks on Jin-Chul. And then he pulls back, and Jin-Chul twitches after him before catching himself again. His pulse thuds in his ears, and his own hands tremble at his sides, and it's definitely not from fear this time.
(He has no idea what he's doing.)
"Try bonding with it," Sung Jin-Woo prompts, eyes alight with interest.
Jin-Chul inhales a shaky breath, and then pushes a spark of his own mana into the swirling vortex of magical energy in the earring. Items like this typically add power to any abilities that utilize mana, and even when inert, the wearer would feel an increase in their mana stores.
He expects something like that, but at a higher level, considering the grade of this item. He does not expect the flood of magic that rushes through him like a tidal wave, surging through his body from head to toe as it fuses with his own mana before flaring outwards, all that energy with nowhere to go. He's dimly aware of cement cracking under his feet and shredded leaves fluttering to the ground, but most of his focus is turned inward instead, breathing through the turbulent deluge of his mana, reining it in almost instinctively as he remembers what it was like the first time he'd awakened and felt mana for the first time, radiant in its intensity but settling under his command and becoming something reliable and enduring.
This is the same, when it comes down to it. There's suddenly so much of it, but Jin-Chul's mana has always been… calm, for lack of a better word. Disciplined and stable. Perhaps it would've been different if he'd gained an affinity for fire or water or wind, but there's a reason he's a hand-to-hand specialist, solid and efficient in every blow he deals, backed by a steadfast strength that's always felt of earth and rock and root.
When he opens his eyes again, the world is still once more, and his mana has smoothed out and gone quiet again. He feels it though, ready to come to his aid at a moment's notice, and so much stronger than it was before.
He stares down at his hands for several seconds.
I don't think I'm an A-rank anymore, he thinks with a stunned sort of incredulity. He can feel the barely-there weight of the earring, now fully bonded to him, except its magic has become his own, it's no longer just a boost, and he knows, somehow, that even if the earring was destroyed, the power he'd received would remain with him.
He looks up. Sung Jin-Woo is grinning at him, just a touch too wild to pass for civilized, something thrilled and hungry lurking behind his eyes. "Ah. So that's what it does."
"…You realize," Jin-Chul croaks hoarsely, still feeling a bit like he's been whacked around the head. "That if I hadn't been able to control it, it would probably have killed me."
Sung Jin-Woo scoffs. "Control comes easily to you - I could tell that the first time we met. But if you really couldn't handle it, I wouldn't have let it kill you." He pauses and smiles, slow and deliberate. "You handled it just fine though. Congratulations, Chief Woo. It looks like I won't be the only one re-evaluated today."
Jin-Chul stares at him, then at his hands again, and then he has to rest them on his thighs for a moment, half bent over with slightly hysterical laughter.
And he'd thought today was a slow day.
The scrape of a shoe against the ground catches his attention, and he finally manages to regather some semblance of dignity as he straightens up again. Belatedly, even as he turns and Sung Jin-Woo's gaze shifts to look past his shoulder, Jin-Chul realizes that he'd completely forgotten about Choi Jong-In.
He'd forgotten the moment Sung Jin-Woo had appeared.
Choi Jong-In is staring at them both with a horrified sort of fascination on his face. His expression is a cross between frozen alarm and a hazy sort of awareness, as if he still doesn't quite know what kind of beast Sung Jin-Woo is because Sung Jin-Woo hasn't shown him, but he'd sensed something anyway, and it was enough to shake him.
Well, at least Jin-Chul won't have to worry about a guild master getting murdered or dying of heart failure today.
The silence stretches. Sung Jin-Woo doesn't seem inclined to speak, watching the Hunters Guild's master the way a cat might watch a mouse that it's not particularly hungry enough to catch. Choi Jong-In doesn't speak either; he doesn't seem to know what to say.
Jin-Chul clears his throat. "Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim, you might recognize the master of the Hunters Guild, Choi Jong-In."
Sung Jin-Woo hums noncommittally, nodding politely but otherwise indifferent. He does rake a critical eye over the other man though before remarking almost offhandedly, "Fire magic, right?"
Choi Jong-In's gaze never wavers from Sung Jin-Woo, even though it feels like he might've wanted to glance at Jin-Chul for some kind of indication on how to proceed. But he watches Sung Jin-Woo instead, almost unblinking, like he knows he's the biggest threat in the vicinity and his survival instincts won't allow for anything less than this degree of vigilance.
"Yes," The guild master says after another tense hush passes. He pauses, lips thinning. "…You as well?"
Sung Jin-Woo smiles, and Choi Jong-In shudders almost imperceptibly, left foot twitching back half a step.
"Amongst other things," Sung Jin-Woo says mildly. His smile widens. "You have good senses, Master Choi."
This time, Choi Jong-In is the one to nod, carefully polite, carefully guarded.
Jin-Chul looks between them and then makes the executive decision that he isn't touching whatever this is with a ten-foot pole. He catches Sung Jin-Woo's attention instead, internally preening when simply turning to face Sung Jin-Woo again draws those eyes back to him almost instantly.
"Since you are here for the re-evaluation, I can accompany you," He offers. A bemused smile tugs at his own mouth. "It seems I now need to make a trip over there as well."
Sung Jin-Woo inclines his head, far more laidback this time. "We can go together."
And so they do. There's a moment there when Choi Jong-In looks torn between fleeing and following, both options awkward, but then Jin-Chul remembers his promise to Baek Yoon-Ho, and after mentioning it to Sung Jin-Woo who actually rolls his eyes before waving a careless hand, he texts the White Tiger Guild Master a heads-up, to which he immediately gets, <Okay thanks, I'll make sure the snake bastard stays clear.>
Which is of course far too late a sentiment, but it does give Choi Jong-In a more graceful out when Jin-Chul tells Baek Yoon-Ho as much, and Baek Yoon-Ho immediately calls Choi Jong-In to yell at him.
"Are they always like this?" Sung Jin-Woo enquires as they head towards Building B with Choi Jong-In trailing after them, looking positively long-suffering as his cell phone squawks into his ear. He's still keeping a subtle eye on Sung Jin-Woo, but with all of them heading in one direction and no longer at a standstill, it no longer feels quite as tense between them.
"Always," Jin-Chul confirms with feeling. He's pretty sure they used to date, or at least fuck. He's doubly sure he wants nothing to do with their drama.
Sung Jin-Woo huffs a breath of laughter, and like this, it almost feels like Jin-Chul isn't walking beside a creature that could kill him with a thought. But maybe it isn't just that either. Not anymore. Sung Jin-Woo wants him alive and even seems to enjoy his company, and it's probably terribly foolish of him, but Jin-Chul thinks he's starting to believe it, even though he still doesn't quite understand why.
But it's hard to be afraid when the evidence of a calamity's favour is a physical weight on his ear.
Later, in the testing centre, the black crystal of the mana detector quakes under Sung Jin-Woo's hand like it might shatter into constellations, and the employees cry out in response to the way the whole room seems to convulse and threaten to tear the cosmos asunder, all while the computer flashes an unmistakeable ERROR warning.
Choi Jong-In steps up to stand beside Jin-Chul. Jin-Chul is the calmest in the room, Sung Jin-Woo aside, but Choi Jong-In comes an admirable second, almost entirely composed again if not for the rigidity in his shoulders and the hands Jin-Chul can tell are clenched in his pockets.
"You are compromised, Chief Woo," The guild master mutters, eyes riveted on Sung Jin-Woo even now.
Jin-Chul says nothing because he's not so far gone that he isn't fully aware of that himself. He doesn't know if it was Sung Jin-Woo who made him like this, or if there was always something wrong with him, or if it's some mad combination of the two, but he thinks it doesn't much matter anymore either.
There's no going back, not from this, not since he saw exactly what Sung Jin-Woo had become and still invited him in.
Perhaps most damning of all though is the fact that he doesn't want to go back either.
"You take fear by the throat and stare it down until it bows."
Sung Jin-Woo made it sound special, but the truth of even that is simple - Jin-Chul has never known how to deal with fear any other way.
Fear is the monster that never tires when you run. The only way to live is to confront it. The only way out is through.
If that makes him crazy, if that makes him compromised, then so be it. It is far too late to save him.