Kang Jin-Ho couldn't bring himself to ask.
But, if he did ask for more clarification...
He feared the answer would be something he was thinking of.
The heavy, trembling panting coming from the other side of the line seemed to be crushing him.
Kang Jin-Ho quietly spoke, “What's her condition”
He had to say something, knowing he couldn't maintain this silence forever.
- It's really bad, Jin-Ho.
“...I see.” Kang Jin-Ho didn't ask any further.
He could already estimate so many things from Park Yu-Min's brief reply.
One of those things was that Sister Yi's matter wasn't over yet.
And that he had no time to meander like this.
“Okay, got it.”
- I thought you should know, too.
“You made the right call.
Wait for me for a little while longer.” Kang Jin-Ho ended the call there and took a deep breath.
He then turned his head toward the administration clerk manning the desk nearby.
“Sergeant Lee Myeong-Chan, sir”
“Yeah What is it”
“Is it possible for me to get my leave now”
“Mm Your leave”
“Let me see.
Hold on…” Sergeant Lee Myeong-Chan opened the list of scheduled leaves, perused it, then frowned deeply.
“Well, it's not impossible.
It's still stuck in the approval stage, though.
If you want your leave now, you'll need a convincing reason.
Do you have one”
“Sir, an acquaintance is sick.”
Lee Myeong-Chan shook his head.
“That alone isn't good enough.
We aren't even talking about your direct family member, after all.
How urgent is your situation”
“I need to go home as soon as possible, preferably right now, sir,” Kang Jin-Ho replied as a hint of urgency crept into his voice.
“Even if you have a good reason, submitting a report to the HQ, getting the necessary approval, and adjusting the schedule will still take around a week, Jin-Ho.
Should I try to schedule your leave then”
One week It wouldn't be strange to learn that everything was over by then.
Kang Jin-Ho shook his head.
It'll be too late.”
Unfortunately, this is out of my control.
Not even the Battery Commander can help you on this one.”
Thank you for your time.” Kang Jin-Ho bowed slightly before exiting the office.
He stood in front of the administration office building, silently mulling his next move.
However, he changed his mind and headed to the nearest smoking area.
He pulled out a cigarette while a plan formed in his mind.
'Now isn't the time to stick to principles.'
Kang Jin-Ho would normally be reluctant to bend the rules and intervene if this was any other situation.
However, his gut feeling said he would be rendered powerless and unable to do anything if he tried to stick to the rules this time.
He sucked in a lungful of smoke, then stubbed the cigarette out.
He headed to the nearest available phone booth and called a familiar number.
“Hello, Mister Gyu-Min.
It's Kang Jin-Ho.”
- Good to hear from you.
I guessed it might be you after checking out the area code.
What can I help you with
“I need to get my leave earlier than scheduled, Mister Gyu-Min.”
- ...Your leave
I've earned some time off from the military.
However, I need to cash it in as soon as possible, and I can't do that from here.”
Jo Gyu-Min kept silent for a bit to organize his thoughts before replying in a serious voice.
- I see.
I understand, Mister Jin-Ho.
Jo Gyu-Min quickly noticed how stiff Kang Jin-Ho's voice sounded.
This young man normally held an extreme dislike of doing things in an irregular manner, yet he still made a call like this.
That could only mean the situation was more urgent than Jo Gyu-Min thought.
- This isn't a matter I can do something about, Mister Jin-Ho.
I'll get the chairman's approval for you.
“It doesn't matter what the method is as long as it's done quickly.
- Of course.
The call ended there, and Kang Jin-Ho exited the booth.
He glared up at the heavens.
His teeth began gritting all on their own.
Even though he had tried so hard, it seemed his actions had all been in vain.
The sense of powerlessness seeped into every fiber of Kang Jin-Ho's body, making him briefly stagger.
He stumbled toward the nearby bench in the smoking area and collapsed on it.
His body slowly sunk deep into the hard wooden beams.
How long had it been since he last felt this way—so tired and weary
Things happened at a frighteningly quick pace.
The Battery Commander nearly fell out of his chair after receiving the call from the HQ, and he urgently summoned Kang Jin-Ho to his office for an explanation.
After learning that Kang Jin-Ho wasn't asking for a new leave but simply to change the schedule, the Battery Commander sighed in relief and began complaining to the Private 1st Class.
“I'd like you to discuss things like this with me first before you call someone.
Sure, you might find the Division Commander in another base easier to talk to than your own battery commander right next to you.
However, do think about how a sudden call from the Division Commander could drastically shorten my lifespan, okay”
Kang Jin-Ho stood firm and replied, “My apologies, sir.
I did not think that far ahead.”
In any case, the higher-ups want you outside pronto, so that's what we're gonna do.
When do you want to leave"
“Right now, sir.”
Go and pack your stuff.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Kang Jin-Ho changed his clothes, quickly finished submitting his report, and stepped beyond the base's guardhouse.
Even though he was moving as quickly as possible, the sun had already started to set beyond the horizon.
The familiar figure of Jo Gyu-Min and his car were waiting just outside the guardhouse.
Now wasn't the time to ask how or why he was here, though.
Kang Jin-Ho climbed into the passenger seat and urged Jo Gyu-Min to start the vehicle.
“Where should I take you, Mister Jin-Ho” Jo Gyu-Min asked while turning the ignition on.
Kang Jin-Ho replied, his expression remaining stiff.
“For now, please head to Seoul.
As for the exact destination, I'll have to confirm first.”
He then used Jo Gyu-Min's phone to call Park Yu-Min to ask where they had to go.
After confirming the destination, Jo Gyu-Min cautiously asked, “May I ask what's going on”
Kang Jin-Ho shook his head.
“I'm not completely sure yet.
I only heard that the orphanage director Sister Yi's condition has deteriorated.”
“...The director” Jo Gyu-Min adjusted his sunglasses.
“I was under the impression that she had made a full recovery…”
“I also don't know what happened.”
Jo Gyu-Min quietly bit down on his lip.
He was the one responsible for the management of Sister Yi's operation and post-surgery recovery process after Kang Jin-Ho’s return to the army.
It hadn't been that long since he had a chat with the department head in charge of Sister Yi's care, and he had even received assurance that she only had to visit the hospital regularly and focus on getting the anti-cancer treatment, but this...
If her condition suddenly got worse for some reason, Jo Gyu-Min would have to answer for this turn of events.
“It seems that I have to hurry, then.”
Kang Jin-Ho didn't respond and simply continued to stare outside the car's window.
He badly wanted to jump out of this car and start sprinting to Seoul right now.
However, it would become very challenging to keep running on foot once he reached the outskirts of Seoul, so he had to be patient for now.
Kang Jin-Ho squeezed his knee tightly and closed his eyes.
The car stopped in front of the hospital's front entrance.
Kang Jin-Ho was about to jump out, but Jo Gyu-Min quickly stopped him.
“Wait, Mister Jin-Ho.
Let's go in together.”
“I think my presence will make it easier to arrange a meeting with the department head.
And it'll speed up the process.
That's why please wait for me.”
“I see.” Kang Jin-Ho nodded, realizing that Jo Gyu-Min had a point here.
He sighed deeply and began to ponder.
'...Since when did I get this impatient'
Wasn't he acting impatiently right now Far too impatiently, to boot!
“...It was merely a facade, huh.”
Jo Gyu-Min tilted his head.
“...It's nothing.” Kang Jin-Ho shook his head, then quietly chewed on his lips.
While living as the Heavenly Crimson Demon Emperor, he thought he had become blasé about life itself.
Even during his final moments, he remained aloof about it, didn't he Now that he thought about it, though...
Maybe, a part of him had always perceived his life in Zhongyuan as not 'real.’ That had to be it; otherwise, it made no sense for him to get this anxious about a mere acquaintance, someone who wasn't even his family member.
Kang Jin-Ho called Park Yu-Min on the phone again.
“Where are you”
- I'm in the hospital.
“In that case, come to the front entrance.”
A short while later, Park Yu-Min and his haggard face stepped outside the elevator.
Kang Jin-Ho waved his hand at him and waited until his friend got closer before asking, “...When did her condition start to deteriorate”
“A few days ago.
Her condition got worse from then...”
Kang Jin-Ho almost blurted out, “You should've taken her to a hospital right away,” but he managed to hold himself back and clenched his fists instead.
This was not Park Yu-Min's fault.
The doctor said Sister Yi's condition had improved to a point where they could simply rely on anti-cancer treatments, and she would still make a full recovery.
In that case, it was unrealistic to expect Park Yu-Min to consider every little possibility and prepare beforehand.
Besides, didn't Kang Jin-Ho keep pushing his friend to rejoin his gaming team as soon as possible
Maybe, this wouldn't have happened if Kang Jin-Ho had stayed behind for longer in the orphanage and paid more attention to Sister Yi's condition.
In other words, all of this was...
That was such an obvious conclusion.
However, he wasn't blaming himself.
However, anybody with inside knowledge would start pointing fingers in Kang Jin-Ho's direction—saying that his arrogance had given birth to this situation.
Jo Gyu-Min reached out and grasped Kang Jin-Ho's shoulder.
“For now, we should speak to the department head first.”
The road to the doctor's office seemed so arduously long and unending.
Kang Jin-Ho didn't want to hear the doctor's words, but he also knew he had to listen.
While feeling like a prisoner on his way to the courtroom to hear his death sentence verdict, Kang Jin-Ho silently trudged forward.
He stepped inside the doctor's office and was greeted by Department Head Kang Chun-Sik with a sweaty, anxious face.
Kang Jin-Ho sat on a chair on the opposite side of the doctor and waited for the report.
Kang Chun-Sik coughed to clear his throat first.
“...I, uh, I'm not sure how to convey my condolences, everyone.”
“Please tell us the diagnosis only, Doctor.”
When Kang Chun-Sik heard Kang Jin-Ho's stiff, unfriendly voice, he began to sweat even more.
After performing the gastrectomy, we eliminated most of the patient's tumorous growths.
Although some minor growths remained in nearby cells, we as doctors believed that there was no need to resort to invasive procedures, and available anti-cancer treatments should be more than sufficient enough to heal her, sir.”
Kang Jin-Ho didn't say anything and waited for the report to continue.
The department head wiped his forehead.
“Unfortunately, her tumors suddenly spread far faster than we had anticipated.
And it has basically spread to the rest of her body.”
“So, what is your prognosis, Doctor” Kang Jin-Ho asked in a low voice.
Kang Chun-Sik daubed away more cold sweat, then sighed at length.
Eventually, he spoke of the truth that had to be said, “My apologies, but there's no hope.”
Kang Jin-Ho squeezed his eyes shut.
“As a doctor, I'm deeply ashamed to give you this news, sirs.”
Without saying anything, Kang Jin-Ho got up.
His rage began boiling even though he knew the doctor in front of him had no fault.
He had no choice but to leave; otherwise, he might end up saying some terrible things he would regret later.
When Kang Jin-Ho wordlessly exited the office, Jo Gyu-Min and Park Yu-Min also followed suit.
The three of them eventually walked out of the hospital itself.
Kang Jin-Ho immediately pulled out a cigarette and lit it up.
Park Yu-Min covered his face and quietly murmured.
It's all my fault.”
“No, it isn't.” Kang Jin-Ho firmly shook his head.
“If only I've been paying more attention...!”
“Don't beat yourself up.
You know there's nothing you could've done, anyway.”
“If anyone's to blame, blame me.” Kang Jin-Ho sucked in a lungful of cigarette smoke.
He should have continued to keep an eye on this matter.
Indeed, it was his style to continue forging ahead after starting something, and he would never let up until he had reached the end, even if it meant he would have to break some rules and go beyond the boundaries of acceptable means.
If he had stayed longer and helped with Sister Yi's treatment, wouldn't the situation be different than that of today
Kang Jin-Ho sucked in another deep breath, causing the cigarette's embers to burn crimson.
As a distant, numb expression formed on his face, he addressed his friend, “Let's go to her room.
I should at least say hello.”
His steps felt so much heavier than before.
“...You've come, Jin-Ho,” said Sister Yi.
As for Kang Jin-Ho, he couldn't say anything.
He couldn't think of anything to say.
This was not the first time he had watched an acquaintance die before his eyes.
However, the deaths he had witnessed until now were either sudden accidents or combat-related, where the victims didn't even have enough time to scream.
Not once had he ever experienced seeing an acquaintance gradually wither away like this.
And Sister Yi's complexion that words like 'wane' or 'gaunt' couldn't even adequately describe robbed Kang Jin-Ho of his ability to think properly.
Just what was he supposed to say or do in this kind of situation
Park Yu-Min got closer to the bed.
“Director, Jin-Ho got his leave to come to see you.”
It's so wonderful to see you again, Jin-Ho.” Sister Yi extended her hand.
“Please come closer.
Let me hold your hand for a second.”
Kang Jin-Ho wordlessly approached the bed and carefully held Sister Yi's hand.
It was cold.
The uncaring fact that the person before his eyes was dying felt so much starker and real as he held this skin-and-bones hand with almost no semblance of body heat left in it.
Sister Yi smiled at him.
“Did I make you come here in a rush”
Your duties in the military must be difficult, yet I made you worry about some old lady, too.”
“I'm grateful that you came to see me like this, Jin-Ho.”
Kang Jin-Ho didn’t know what to say again, and he could only chew his lips.
That was because he had sensed it.
He sent in a little bit of his qi into Sister Yi's body through her hand, but it got swiftly repelled by the dark, poisonous energy completely filling up her body.
With this, he knew—there was literally nothing he could do.
Kang Jin-Ho was not God.
He did not possess the ability to pull back a person on the brink of death and restore their life.
As such, his head slowly sunk.
Sister Yi saw his lowered head, then addressed Park Yu-Min, “Can you give us a minute, Yu-Min I'd like to say something to Jin-Ho.”
I'll be right outside.” Park Yu-Min staggered out of the doorway, and the room was blanketed in an eerie silence.
“...Jin-Ho” Sister Yi quietly called out to Kang Jin-Ho.