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Life as an E-ranker wasn’t easy.

He was constantly beaten up and broken down physically – not to mention mentally – and in the end the profit he made from it was barely enough to survive sometimes. If Sung Jin-Woo didn’t have to worry about bills so much, didn’t have to take care of his sister, he was sure even an E-ranker like himself could have lived comfortably.

Still, his circumstances were what they were, and he’d continue to do his best despite the difficulties. There was only so much he could do, and this was just how things had to be and there was no changing it.

It was worth it.

There was nothing that could make him consider trading away those ‘problems’ to live comfortably. If it wasn’t with his sister and making sure his mom was cared for… was it really living?

It was always a relief, however, when after leaving a Gate he heard his phone ping with missed messages and calls. Jin-Ah always rambled at him and complained about her classmates being silly, but she’d never done anything like beg him to come home safe. He was relieved to have such an understanding little sister who let him shoulder the burden of their finances as best he could, without her worry as well.

With one eye swollen shut, he smiled despite the ache in his jaw, because this time his sister had sent a video message. The harried looking Kwak Yong-Saeng was in the background in the familiar panic of a deadline quickly approaching as Jin-Ah bemoaned her teenage existence. His sister zoomed in on his friend’s zombie-like expression and muttered about his ability to forgo blinking for long periods of time when in front of a screen.

He’d taken off the blue light filter on his screen again, it looked like.

There was another message, this time with money attached asking for food, because Yong-Saeng had nearly starved on another writing binge and could Jin-Woo please save him from himself. Again.

Smiling wider, he sent back a message in return.

E-forerrandboy: This is only junk food.

He received an immediate irate ping, the bubble popping up like Yong-Saeng had just been waiting for him to comment on the list.

Glassesarecool: Did I ask for your opinion?!

E-forerrandboy: Did you even pick up your vitamins?

Glassesarecool: … Heyyyy, Jin-Woo, my friend

Ping!

CASH RECIEVED!

Huffing despite the ache in his rubs and the heaviness of his lungs, he answered.

E-forerrandboy: I’ll take that as a no

His body might hurt, and he might only have a few measly E-rank crystals to sell, but he felt light when he knew that there were people waiting for him. The worst of his visible injuries were healed so that he wasn’t a frightful sight walking down the street, but the pain in his bones and muscles stayed. That was alright though, physical pain was something that he was used to at this point, much easier to deal with than the weight of the people that depended on him.

He bowed to the others on his way out and made note of the groceries he could buy with the money that his friend had sent him. And the vitamins that he knew that the man never remembered to pick up while Jin-Woo was gone.

Sung Jin-Woo knew that other people might call how he and his neighbor had taken to a strange almost coparenting style… peculiar. They might say that Jin-Woo was taking advantage of Yong-Saeng’s generosity and kindness as a successful novelist, but it was more give and take than that. Mostly because they’d been friends before his mother had fallen ill, and when she’d been awake, she’d constantly sent food over to Yong-Saeng similarly.

Starving artist really was a concept that he hadn’t thought was real until he’d met Yong-Saeng.

At the time, she hadn’t accepted the monetary compensation that Yong-Saeng had offered, but Jin-Woo didn’t have the grace to do that. Didn’t have the luxury. It wasn’t like he was using the money to buy himself food, he wasn’t pocketing the change and secreting it away as he’d heard other personal shoppers tended to do. This wasn’t for Jin-Woo, even if they all ended up eating together more often than not.

Because otherwise Yong-Saeng forgot to eat anything until he was on the verge of passing out and his anemia was no joke. That and his vitamin D deficiency made him a risk to himself when he got distracted.

That kind of singlemindedness was dangerous normally, but if Jin-Ah and Jin-Woo being there for dinner five days out of the week helped… Well. Jin-Woo couldn’t say that he hated it.

Being an E-ranker was hard.

But it was worth it, for things like this. Knowing that every time he stepped out of a Gate, no matter how battered he was, there were messages and thoughts waiting for him. That people anticipated his return for more than just profit.

Jin-Woo knew that there were other Hunters out there who were treated like cash cows despite their low ranks, and he was lucky enough to be cared for without the desire for his ability to bring in funds.

“I’m back!”

“Oh, oppa!” Jin-Ah’s head popped around the corner, and she beamed at him in casual clothes, her hair pulled back with a clip. “You brought groceries!”

The girl turned away from him with a wave to look at the TV again before deciding to turn it off as he made his way into the kitchen. Jin-Ah meandered over towards Yong-Saeng where he was hunched over his keyboard in a familiar attempt to pry him away from it. In the light of the screen the older man looked washed out and frail, the hollows of his bones standing out more starkly.

Honestly.

How was it that Jin-Ah managed to fend for herself just fine when Jin-Woo was gone, but a man two years older than him couldn’t remember to feed himself?

“Ooooi, glasses-bro,” she shook the writer by the shoulders lightly and the click-clack of the keyboard slowed as his brain rattled in his skull. “Oppa brought back food. So you don’t die like a wilted maiden in a drama.”

“…. So cliché,” was muttered in return before the man turned around slowly, having deliberately saved his file. Witnessing one mental breakdown at a lost chapter was enough, thanks. “Love sickness doesn’t exist.”

Watching a grown man cry was… sort of something that Jin-Woo was used to at this point, but that was usually when maiming was involved. It was a different sort of pain to see his best friend break down because he’d lost five thousands words of work that he’d spent the last week perfecting to pay the rent.

“Yeah, yeah. So you say.”

Behind slightly crooked frames – they had been bent by falling asleep at his desk one too many times – pale yellow eyes regarded him, rings of sleepless bruises carved into eyebags. It looked like Yong-Saeng’s lips were more bitten than usual, a raw spot in the center of his bottom lip which meant that he was running more behind schedule than usual. He probably had voicemails from his manager on his machine and had sat staring at the phone ignoring it hoping she would go away.

When he stood, it was something of a process in making sure that his blood didn’t rush from his head and send him toppling. Like a particularly willowy tree, was Yong-Saeng, the kind that didn’t look safe for climbing either because the branches would break or you’d get splinters.

Kwak Yong-Saeng was two years Jin-Woo’s elder, and he had severe anemia that impacted him relatively little if he took care of himself. As it was, the man was the worst at self-care, and yet he tended to nag at Jin-Woo to take more breaks from Dungeons and spend time relaxing. The only time the novelist seemed to relax himself was when he was trying to force Jin-Woo to do so, and it was frustrating even as it was endearing.

Despite his somewhat worrying appearance, Yong-Saeng was something of a worrier. It was strangely soothing to have someone even he was stronger than who wanted to take care of him in a way. Even Jin-Ah could kick Yong-Saeng’s ass, and she wasn’t particularly sporty, no more than the average girl her age.

He never told his irritable friend Yong-Saeng that one of Jin-Woo’s few hobbies was reading his web novels, because then he’d never hear the end of it. It wasn’t like he got to do it often, but it was still more than a little embarrassing considering he knew the author.

Even his older works were very good, even if it was plain to see how he had matured as a writer over the years.

“What did you get this time? I know you didn’t get more than half of what I had on the list, you never do. It better not be fried chicken,” Yong-Saeng was taller than Jin-Woo by a good handful of centimeters, but he was also unhealthily thin much of the time. “Jin-Ah had chicken last night, don’t let her fool you.”

“Hey! I would never!”

Pulling out the vegetables for the sides, Jin-Woo smiled past the lingering ache in his face, warmed by the way that his sister huffed and puffed, even as Yong-Saeng endured fondly. They shared a glance as the older of them seated himself at the counter, giving thanks as Jin-Woo settled a vitamin water in front of him. Judging by his pallor, it wouldn’t be strange if Yong-Saeng was also dehydrated and had forgotten to refill the water bottle he kept at the desk.

Jin-Ah had school and wasn’t the adult between the two of them, despite her ability to remember to feed herself, and so didn’t always think about how forgetful Yong-Saeng could be.

“I thought we could have Samgyeopsal tonight!” he smiled at the two of them. “We could all use a treat, don’t you think?”

“Oooh! Oppa went all out!”

“Can always count on Jin-Woo’s cooking ability,” Yong-Saeng agreed easily, twisting slightly to crack his back in a way that made Jin-Woo wince in sympathy. “He could make a fortune on it if people cared about home cooking anymore.”

Yes, that wasn’t embarrassing at all, thank you.

“Jin-Ah, how did that report go?”

As she filled him in, he prepared ingredients quickly and easily, feeling his aches soften and ease with the familiar warmth that surrounded them. Whatever Jin-Woo set down in front of Yong-Saeng was consumed almost thoughtlessly, although he was thanked each time. Soon enough, the tantalizing scent of pork belly filled the flat and everyone’s stomach was rumbling, even the ridiculous beast that was Yong-Saeng’s rarely heeded gut.

“There’s another conference coming up next week,” the novelist spoke when Jin-Ah ran off to answer a call from her friend. “If you can’t make it, I’ll clear my schedule.”

Looking up from turning the meat on the little grill, Jin-Woo watched more hair slide loose from the bun that held Yong-Saeng’s rarely cared for hair back. His friend was slowly picking at the salad that had been set in front of him, and his eyes, while tired, were perfectly clear.

That meant that he wasn’t thinking out loud, but rather having an actual conversation.

“You don’t have to rush to get another chapter done early,” pressing his lips together, he felt his cheeks burn a little with the embarrassment mixed with affection roiling in his chest. “I have enough for the next payments, so I can at least wait until after the teacher conference to go through another Gate.”

Oh, right.

“Hey, I have your recording!” eyeing the meat, he deemed it safe enough to step away from for a moment to rifle through his bag. “I don’t know how much it caught, but I hope it helps.”

“Jin-Woo, you are a gift,” Yong-Saeng spoke seriously as he stared down at the GoPro with avarice in his eyes, not at all caring about the ichor that stained it in the plastic bag. “I’m going to make so much premium content with this you don’t even know.

It wasn’t as if images from within Gates were rare, it was simply that most people didn’t think to do anything more than take pictures. And usually, people were only interested in the media that came out with the higher ranked Gates, not the E-ranks that Jin-Woo had access too. In fact, there weren’t even any legal repercussions for anything C ranked or under, because the content wasn’t considered ‘exceptional’ enough.

What Yong-Saeng meant by premium content, however, wasn’t in using the video itself.

It was as material for his writing.

Sure, he kept all of the files – even the really bad ones from when he’d first asked Jin-Woo – to take the camera with him, but he wasn’t selling those. He was using the videos to get a better understanding of what the inside of the Gates looked like, as well as the monsters.

Although he didn’t want to be conceited, he liked to think that was part of the reason that Yong-Saeng’s current forerunning series was so popular. Apparently, a lot of Hunters followed it for the realistic scenery as well as the attitude that the characters themselves portrayed. Kwak Yong-Saeng’s manager was always going on about how he should drop his pseudonym and go out to meet some of his fans, but Yong-Saeng didn’t want to.

He generally called high rank Hunters assholes on power trips and with delusions of grandeur and that would not go over well. Honestly, it wasn’t as if Jin-Woo disagreed with him, especially considering his own circumstances and how he was treated by other Hunters, but… Well, he’d never have the courage to say it himself, and he tried not to encourage his frailer friend into doing reckless things.

Little did they know that most of the much beloved – and reviled – characters were based on various individuals that the ‘Weakest Hunter ever’ had dealt with. That all those awesome sights were built from blurry images of Gates and dungeons that no one had considered worth it.

He… Jin-Woo also didn’t have the courage to ask other things, not as he was.

The protagonist of the novel, he seemed… well, he was…

Yes, Jin-Woo didn’t think he could ask if the main character, who was kind and caring, most notable for his compassion instead of overwhelming strength, was based on him.

He might die from embarrassment.

The thing was, was that the rank of the protagonist was never stated in the novel, which was part of the reason that people continued to follow it. For the mystery of ‘just how strong’ the main character was in regards to the difficulties he’d faced time and time again and generally defeated with wits alone. For Jin-Woo, it was that that made him think that the main character was based off of him, more than anything else.

All the other novels out there had S rank heroes or something else ridiculous, but Yong-Saeng’s wasn’t like that. More often than not, the protagonist didn’t win alone, and not with power but with cunning, and sometimes it was retreating for stronger forces that gained victory.

Sometimes there weren’t fights as the focus, and just something suspiciously like the more tame dungeons that Jin-Woo had been in. Flowers and figurines he’d spent time admiring, or even the architecture.

“Have you had your iron supplements today?” asking to distract himself, he dished out their food as Jin-Ah blitzed into the kitchen again. “The pork should help, but you need to keep your iron levels up.”

“… Did I?”

“No, glasses-bro forgot to take them this morning. I know because the bottle is still on the counter where I left it before I went to class!”

“Ah, oops.”

“Oops? Hey, Yong-Saeng this is almost empty! Have you called the pharmacy for a refill?”

“… um… no?”

“Oppa, he’s useless, what do you expect from him?” the girl shook her head sadly as she took a bite of her dinner. “We’ll just have to take care of him forever.”

“Well,” the novelist leaned his chin onto his fist as if thoughtful, tired but content. “It’s not as if I mind being taken care of by Jin-Woo.”

Fed and warm and healing, with two out of three of his most important people around him, Jin-Woo could say that he didn’t mind being the ‘Weakest Hunter Ever’. Not when he had a home to come back to and people he could lean on when times were tough.

“Really, he’s like a hardworking husband and a housewife at the same time,” Yong-Saeng continued, likely just to make Jin-Woo glare at him. “I’d be a trophy spouse.”

“Hah!” Jin-Ah pointed a finger threateningly at Yong-Saeng. “If anyone’s trophy worthy in this little fantasy world or yours, it’s oppa, not you! He might not be handsome, but he’s at least not a walking skeleton!”

“Oi, Jin-Ah…”

It didn’t matter how much he got beaten up or ground down, Sung Jin-Woo wanted to live and come home, no matter what it took.

~*~

In general, Yong-Saeng could say that he didn’t have a high opinion of Hunters and the society that had built up around the Awakened.

If there was one thing that had only been emphasized by the changes in the world since the first appearances of Gates and Awakenings, it was that Might makes Right. This was a fucking joke, of course, but the idiots who made it above D-rank tended to think in this way and immediately lost any kind of common decency.

The chaos after the initial Incident was… it was entirely horrifying, honestly. Anarchy, chaos, rioting. Until outright order and the new status quo had been set up, panic had led the masses, and while it worked, this system, it was still inherently flawed.

Might didn’t make Right.

But money did talk.

So Yong-Saeng had absolutely no sympathy for the people who were inconvenienced by the fact that Sung Jin-Woo didn’t die in that double dungeon. He stood before the Hunter’s Association with all of the power and prestige that came to his name and told them to fuck off. At least until after a doctor had spoken with Yong-Saeng, as his emergency contact.

He didn’t know anything about a ReAwakening or anything, but he did know that the footage that he’d managed to recover in the belongings given to him had been… well, it hadn’t been good. The things at the end before the camera had run out of battery were the kind of broken that didn’t seem quite right, but Yong-Saeng didn’t know what could have caused it. Of course, the camera had been damaged and lot footage before, but that had been from something physical; this was almost like a glitch in an internet connection.

Still, the next time he saw that asshole who’d left Jin-Woo to die, he was going to kick him straight in the nuts and then sue him for all he was worth.

“You can wait outside,” he spoke to the one who’d introduced himself politely, Woo Jin-Chul, and ignored the other one. “Until I explain the situation to Jin-Woo. He’s probably very confused and he doesn’t need your bullshit on top of that.”

“Of course, Mister Kwak. It’s not our intention to distress Mister Sung. Please, take the time you need.”

“Don’t worry,” he bit out, feeling vaguely lightheaded as Jin-Ah answered his text with relief that her brother was awake again. She was on her way; she’d cry quite demonstratively on the Association people, if necessary, cathartic and useful. A win-win. “You’ll get to do your fancy test when I’m done speaking with the man who nearly died.”

“… yes Mister Kwak. Thank you.”

Fucking Awakened assholes, he thought uncharitably as he turned and entered the hospital room he’d barred them from with his admittedly pathetic body. Ae-Cha is going to murder me if I get killed in a pissing match before I’m done with this novel.

His manager was a terrifying woman, and he’d gladly take getting smashed through a building by some OP bastard over her wrath.

She guilted him, too much like the disappointed mother he no longer had.

“Yong-Saeng, what’s going on?”

Seating himself slowly next to the bed, he released a heavy breath as he stared at Jin-Woo’s unmarked face, trying to connect the dots himself.

“You went into a double dungeon. Do you remember?”

“Double…? It wasn’t a nightmare?” Jin-Woo looked down at his hands before his gaze drifted to his feet. “I thought I was going to die. How did this happen?”

“I’m not sure,” I also don’t want those Association assholes to hear my theories where they’re no doubt listening in. “But you’re alive, and that’s all that really matters in the end.”

For a long moment he considered telling Jin-Woo how fucking worried he’d been when he’d gotten the call, how he’d made himself sick with worry and how Jin-Ah had cried on the way to the hospital. He thought about telling him that the people who’d left him there hadn’t visited once and that some people had said that Jin-Woo should have died because the others had. He thought about reaching out to take Jin-Woo’s hand in his own to make sure that he was real, that he was alive.

He didn’t.

“There’s some Association people here who want to examine you because of the state they found you in. Are you okay with that?”

“Association? Examine?”

“They were talking about something called a ReAwakening, but that sounds fishy, honestly. If they bad touch you don’t hesitate to scream like a small child and I’ll come down on them with a legal team that’d make god cry.”

“B-Bad touch?! Yong-Saeng!”

“What?”

Yong-Saeng couldn’t protect him from Dungeons or monsters, but he could sure as hell make sure that his uselessly heavy bank account did something for him. For him and Jin-Ah and Mama Sung who had been gone so very long.

That was something that they had in common, despite their many differences, Jin-Woo and Yong-Saeng.

They’d do anything for their little bruised family, even if it meant a personal setback.

Chapter Text

There was sand in the hospital room.

“Jin-Woo what the fuck.”

Wide eyes turned towards him where the E-ranker was sitting on the bed with his hands hovering in the air like he was messing with a touch screen. He looked a little battered and there were bruises around his eyes like he hadn’t slept for days, which was ridiculous considering Yong-Saeng had seen him just the day before.

“Uh,” was the oh-so intelligent answer to his question. “Um…”

Yong-Saeng wasn’t an idiot, so he noted the way that Jin-Woo’s eyes flickered back towards where his hands had been hanging, only to shove said hands into his lap.

This… well.

“What are you looking at?” he asked after a few awkward moments, stepping forward to seat himself in his now customary bedside chair. “And don’t even think of lying to me.”

Jin-Woo had never been a very competent liar when it came to the people it cared about, and the younger man knew it. It was why he tended towards faultless honesty rather than trying to finagle his face into something that wasn’t a clear indicator of his thoughts.

While the E-ranker clearly struggled with himself, deliberating on what he should say – could say, Yong-Saeng pulled out his phone and scrolled to a certain downloaded video file. He glanced up over the frames of his glasses and watched Jin-Woo swallow thickly and press his lips together in the kind of grimace that meant he couldn’t find words.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he finally took pity on his friend. “But don’t try to lie to me.”

Instead of waiting for Jin-Woo to wrap his head around that, he handed him his phone, and gestured for him to hit play.

The sound was low, but at this point Yong-Saeng had watched it enough times and finagled the audio through several cleaners, to know it by heart. He really was going to have to get his legal team on the backs of a few of those other Hunters, but contrary to what he was originally going to do, some of them didn’t deserve his full fury.

Unfortunate. He had been hoping to work through his emotions via spite, but he’d have to do it another way instead.

At the end of the video, where things had gotten really fucking weird, there was this sound that he couldn’t quite quantify. It was like a bell and a gong and a subwoofer all at the same time, and it made him feel like his bones were vibrating strangely.

When Jin-Woo heard it, he flinched, eyes wide.

There was a blur of something on the screen, a spill of blue smeared like watercolor, and the sight of it had the E-ranker glancing up to open air again. His friend’s hands were shaking where they held the phone as the screen went black on timeout, and he dropped it down into his blanket covered lap. There was a flicker of that trauma, that far off gaze that Yong-Saeng had gotten used to over the years the other man had been working as a Hunter.

This was worse, of course, because Yong-Saeng was almost positive that this time, as opposed to all the other near misses and lucky breaks, Jin-Woo had actually died.

“… I don’t know what’s happening,” was admitted quietly after several long moments where they sat in silence. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Those shaking hands gripped the ankle of the foot that had been removed in the video and somehow grown back without the aid of a Healer. Without any thought – because why would he? This was his best friend, practically his family – Yong-Saeng moved to sit on the thin hospital bed next to Jin-Woo. A comforting line of heat that was a reminder of all the times that they’d squished onto the couch together with Jin-Ah to watch stupid dramas.

“Okay. So, it doesn’t make sense,” he agreed. Because Yong-Saeng might be a fiction and fantasy writer, but there were still things in this world that couldn’t be thought up by human comprehension. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”

Jin-Woo bit his lip and glanced up at ‘nothing’ again, before he swallowed, and his expression firmed. That exhausted face turned to look at him with determination, and Yong-Saeng felt some of the nervous worry in his chest ease. It was the instinct to be on edge when Jin-Woo was, and now that his friend had made a decision on what he was going to do, he could let that anxiety go.

They’d figure it out.

Just as they had been for years.

“So, this is really going to sound crazy, but –”

Jin-Woo was right.

It sounded completely fucking nuts, and if anyone else was trying to sell him such a bullshit anime trope kind of deal like this, he’d laugh them into the grave. As it was, this was Jin-Woo, who couldn’t even play a card game without shiftily glancing off in odd directions as if that would save him from having a shitty poker face. This was Jin-Woo, who was looking at him earnestly with nerves and edges of fear and remembered horrors, trusting Yong-Saeng to believe him.

So believe him he did.

Even if he was a writer, that didn’t mean he could see all the angles of whatever magic bullshit his best friend had gotten himself caught up in. He’d obviously passed some sort of test – or failed it in the right now – and how he had a ‘System’ which handed out missions. If he didn’t complete these missions, then he would be delivered to a penalty area for a requisite amount of time.

A desert plane full of monster bugs or whatever.

Which explained the sand but was also ridiculous because what kind of overkill was that.

Why not deduct point, not go immediately into a death trap scenario. What kind of fucking trial period was that? The worst kind of game was the one that didn’t go over the rules first and you lost the second you missed a skill check!

Yong-Saeng would not buy this game, not with a System like that.

Fucking – and yet somehow Jin-Woo was stuck with it, when he was supposed to be safe from the majority of the weird-ass bullshit that went on in the world these days. Yes, he got hurt in Gates, and yes he’d nearly died a few times, but he’d never had to actually be the main attraction before and…

Sure, he’d always thought of Jin-Woo as something of a protagonist personality, but he’d never actually wanted his best friend to end up with more complications.

This, whatever this was, was definitely a complication.

All protagonists had tragedy either ahead of or behind them, and there was always room for both when it came to aspiring writers.

He didn’t want that, for Jin-Woo.

They didn’t always get what they wanted, however. Both of them knew that very well, considering they co-raised a teenager together for the past few years in an unfair world.

“Alright,” grabbing his phone from Jin-Woo’s lap while ignoring the yelp he received, he started up his notes app. “Alright. Here’s what we’re going to do for now.”

This was just going to be a tentative workplan until they had more to go on. Also, writing things down helped Yong-Saeng process without frothing at the mouth in rage about how it doesn’t work like that.

Because apparently, now it did work like that.

“I’m going to fulfill my daily mission,” Jin-Woo started for him, looking concerned about the thought of not doing so. Which was fair.

It wasn’t Yong-Saeng who had been chased by monsters for several hours with no way of knowing if he’d live or not. If the penalty would actually kill him or just simulate death, considering the whole System thing had regenerated a whole ass body part when it had been… uploaded into him.

God, just the thought made his stomach cramp roughly. Jin-Woo had almost died again without leaving the fucking hospital to do it.

“Yep. Do your daily missions, work on your levels and plan out things as they come up. We’ll record your stats and stuff as you level up and figure out good configurations, alright?”

“Like a… like a character build?”

Well, in a way. But also, like, not at all because he was a real fucking person, and this wasn’t actually a game or a novel they were plotting out but Jin-Woo’s goddamned life now –

It. It was close enough but, Yong-Saeng shied away from putting that like of label on someone who was such an intrinsic part of his life.

“Not so much. Not like in a game or in a novel, anyway. You’re already a character, we’ll just have to allocate points or rewards –” if those exist. “– to adhere to your fighting style. Well rounded is good, but we need to know what effects leveling up will have on you, physically and mentally as well.”

“Right. I don’t want to mess around with my intelligence stats and become brain dead or something,” Jin-Woo laughed awkwardly, but that was honest consternation there. “And if I overload strength, will I look like a bodybuilder? Not really my style.”

For a brief moment they both pictured Jin-Woo’s baby face on top of the body of someone oiled up and veiny, in one of those speedos. The image flexed and vague nausea slid in their stomachs, perfectly on the same wavelength. Both of them got a little green around the gills and grimaced at one another, as if it were each other’s fault.

“Gross.”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Anyway,” waving away that awful image, Yong-Saeng bit his lip thoughtfully and pushed his glasses up his nose a little, looking at his notes as he tapped them out. “It’s a good thing that you haven’t had any leveling up going on yet, because this way we can put off the Association getting in your business again. Hunters don’t change power levels, as a rule, so we’re going to have to hide this.”

Something vaguely hysterical in the back of his head where he shoved all of the not-panicking he was going to do when he got home, Yong-Saeng wondered if it was even possible to hide this. People would surely notice that E-rank Hunter Sung Jin-Woo wasn’t a doormat, if it even succeeded in changing him outside of his missions. Right?

… Well, he didn’t count on most people noticing – most people were fucking morons – but the Association itself would pick up on it, right?

“What if – what if I get as strong as an S-rank?” even as he was saying it, Yong-Saeng could tell that Jin-Woo didn’t quite believe it himself. “That’s what – that’s what these kinds of games are about right? And novels like this generally include becoming like, boss level or something?”

Yong-Saeng had met one S-rank Hunter in his life, and that didn’t even count because they’d passed each other in an airport. Still, Choi Jong-In had had a certain kind of presence to him that drew the eye, a weight to his gaze that was unforgettable even if you were beneath his notice.

The thought of Jin-Woo getting anywhere near that powerful was unbelievable, even with weird mission and System bullshit.

It didn’t bare thinking about.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Which was unlikely to happen, so, probably never.

“Can we… can we not tell Jin-Ah?” Jin-Woo grimaced when Yong-Saeng glanced at him. “It’s no different than how you don’t show her the videos from the dungeons, right? She knows I do dangerous stuff; I just don’t want her to know exactly what kind of stuff.”

“As much as I love Jin-Ah, she would not believe that you’ve become a ‘Player’ in some kind of weird dimensional game,” he stated flatly. “Even if I were willing to show her that video, she just doesn’t have the scope to think outside of the normal. Especially not when it comes to you.”

“Hey! Jin-Ah believes me all the time!”

“No, Jin-Ah is just a better liar than you are. Everyone is. Toddlers are. Dogs are better at lying than you are.”

“Shut up.”

They shoved at each other a little, and just as always, Jin-Woo kept his strength in check. Even an E-rank Hunter was strong enough to damage a normal person, especially one as twiggy as Kwak Yong-Saeng.

That wasn’t even going into what he could potentially do if leveling up was actually an option. What the fuck.

Why was this their lives now?

Maybe this is all a fever dream and he’d wake up any moment with the knowledge that he’d eaten spoiled leftovers and Jin-Ah was going to laugh at him while he threw up. Maybe he was the one in the hospital, and this was going to be an omake in a chapter he’ll write in the future.

He can already see it now: So guess what readers? I had the weirdest, most unrealistic dream!

Yeah, no.

A pointy elbow in his not at all padded ribs had him wincing and scowling at his best friend even as he rubbed the spot. The bane of his existence was Jin-Woo and his pointy limbs, which hurt no matter how in control of his strength he was.

This was going to be a disaster.

“You’re going to need to do so much training if you get stronger, Jin-Woo,” the words were despairing. “You remember what it was like when you first awakened.”

“I’m sorry about the microwave door, alright? It’s been years. Let it go.

“The settings were perfect! I knew exactly how long I needed to reheat things in it!”

“It was ten years old!”

“That means you get to rip the door off of it with your freakish strength?!”

They shoved each other again, and this time Yong-Saeng nearly fell off the bed, huffing with narrowed eyes as Jin-Woo grabbed him to keep him upright. Playfighting like this, and a familiar argument of past grievances was enough for them to get their equilibrium back.

The writer glanced down at a notification on his phone and made a face at the message from his manager.

Ugh.

“Okay,” he agreed, jumping back on topic. “We won’t tell Jin-Ah. I wasn’t planning on it anyway, unless it became something we couldn’t hide anymore, anyway.”

He was honestly hoping that nothing came of this weird mission thing and System, but considering all the tropes out there, he knew that was unlikely. Something had chosen Jin-Woo as a ‘Player’, whatever that meant, and that meant that his already difficult life of fighting to take care of his mother and sister was going to get even more-so.

“Thanks, Yong-Saeng. It’s just…”

“No, I get it. Jin-Ah’s great, but she’s still a kid. We’ll take care of it, and her. Don’t worry.”

He knocked their shoulders together.

“I’ve got your back, Jin-Woo.”

The Hunter ran his hand over his face for a long moment before turning to give Yong-Saeng a tired but honest smile.

“Same.”

They’d figure it out.

~*~

Daily missions were a pain in the ass, but at least it wasn’t getting chased by monsters in an endless desert.

Jin-Woo could agree with that, despite all the other weird shit that had been happening involving this System business. And the horrifying nightmares that involved dying in the double dungeon and this being entirely an end-of-life dream. That he was still bleeding out with that grinning face standing over him like the grim reaper, just waiting to pulp him completely.

Usually, Jin-Ah’s whining demands and Yong-Saeng’s cranky texts reminded him that death wouldn’t be nearly as annoying, and he was relieved. Sometimes he just went through the motions, because if this did make him stronger, if he could level up, then he’d be able to protect them all better.

He’d noticed a difference, though, as the days passed, and he completed those irritating daily missions. Working out more than he’d ever thought to before, knowing then that even if he did, he wouldn’t get stronger for it. Not as an E-rank loser and his barely there mana. Now that he could however, there were changes that he wasn’t sure what to do about, and even Yong-Saeng was looking considerably more contemplative as the days went by.

Was it… no, it was definitely weird that he was improving so quickly like this.

He really was leveling up.

Jin-Woo was determined to squash the horror-terror at what he might be leveling up for, because it wouldn’t help anyone if he panicked. He’d gotten very good at mastering his fear responses as the years went by as the weakest Hunter ever, and he wasn’t about to give up the ghost on that hard won control. Especially when he was facing monsters stronger than he’d ever come across before, with that suspicious yawning something that no doubt would come back to bite him in the future.

The System kept assigning him missions, and eventually, it started to give him Dungeons. The Gates they came from weren’t quite Gates, and no one else could see them.

Yong-Saeng’s GoPro still worked in them just the same, there was just this sound behind everything, some kind of feedback, that made the both of them wince. When they watched them after Jin-Woo returned, he’d rub at his chest in irritation and Yong-Saeng would stare unblinkingly at the screen. One of his hands would be over his mouth as he concentrated, obscuring his expression, but the E-ranker – did he count now as an E-rank, after leveling up – knew he was concerned.

The fact was, was that Jin-Woo was getting hurt a lot more in these Dungeons, these missions, than he ever had in even the C-rank Gates he’d been in.

Sure, he was getting weapons and stuff, but he was still – still getting pretty torn up. Health potions and gear gained aside; Jin-Woo’s pain tolerance felt like it was going up with his levels as well.

And – and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

Jin-Woo wasn’t sure how to feel about most things these days, but at least he knew that he could protect his family better. That Jin-Ah was still doing well in school and Yong-Saeng would help him deal with all of this System bullshit as it came. Mom was still in the Eternal Sleep, but she was safe and cared for, and that was really all he could hope for, at this point.

He was just glad he wasn’t alone with this.