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    “I like you, Sunbae. I like…Sunbae I still like you too. Even though I tried hard not to think about you, to forget you, I couldn’t because…”

    “…”

    “I like you so much…”

    “…”

    It occurred to me that if a mermaid came up on land to confess their feelings, this is what it might sound like. Though phrasing it properly was useless, I tried my best to speak in a humanlike voice. I also spoke earnestly to convey my sincerity.

    “Back then, Sunbae, back then. I’m really sorry I broke my promise…”

    At that, Sunbae smiled with an awkward expression. Did he smile? Maybe not. No, he did smile. Suddenly I wanted to say more, to pour out everything. To tell him what happened to me when he was gone. But then I grew confused.

    Did I…come down? Where is this place? Did I…come down? It seems like it’s been a while since I came down. Is this a dream right now? Then where did the dream start? My unsteady center of gravity crumbled completely. The sound of crunching leaves and ragged breaths came from me.

    It’s hard to breathe. My fingertips were shaking as if my lungs were going to explode. At the end of my blurry focus, I felt like someone was grabbing my forearm even though there was clearly no one there, and I got goosebumps. I  flinched and remembered being in his arms and hugged him tighter.

    I gasped and stared at the wallpaper before dropping my gaze. Starting from the back of my hand and forearm, I saw his shoulders and back drenched in blood. Dazed, I pinched the bridge of my nose and furrowed my brow. Sweat dripped profusely as my head burned with fever. My head, my head…

    “Ah, I…my head.”

    “Seo Seung-won. Stop. Don’t talk.”

    “My head. But Sunbae, I think something’s wrong with my head… My body too…everything feels wrong… How long will this last?”

    Just yearning for the first love that ended in regret twists my guts and thunders in my head. The smell of blood stung my nose, and my vision became dizzy. My body ached as much as my heart did. How long will this go on? Everything seemed so distant, and yet…

    I blinked vacantly and then went limp, rubbing my cheek against his long, sturdy neck. The feel of skin on skin was soothing. The scent too, everything was comforting.

    “Sunbae, I’m in pain…”

    “Still? Should you take some more medicine?”

    “I haven’t taken any medicine…”

    My eyes closed briefly, but the soft feel of the blanket startled me, and I lifted my head.

    “Sunbae, where are you going?”

    “Seo Seung-won, stay still. Don’t move.”

    “I want to go with you, too.”

    I hurriedly stretched out my hands, and he stretched out both hands towards me. His movements to restrain me were reflexively swift. Just as our hands connected, unable to control my body, I toppled over. Fortunately, his hand grabbed my shoulder before I fell, so I didn’t hit my head.

    Flailing around, I burrowed into his arms. Ah, I wanted to call his name, but I couldn’t. If he thinks I’ve forgotten it, he’ll be deeply disappointed again, so I didn’t even have the courage to try. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I felt guilty.

    “You almost fell. Lay down. I’ll be back soon.”

    “No, I don’t want to.”

    “You just said you’d listen, right?”

    “… But.”

    What if you don’t come back? What if Sunbae doesn’t return this time? Then this really will be the last time. This time is…My tightly shut eyes grew damp. Unable to hold back, I dampened his shoulder with tears. I knew there was no “this time” or anything, it was all empty words. Ah, how foolish to wish this sweet dream could last forever.

    “Sunbae.”

    “Yeah. I won’t go. I’ll stay right here.”

    “You can go. You can go, but if you’re going…”

    “Yeah.”

    “If…Sunbae, if you’re going to leave, at least give me…your number, Sunbae. Tell me your number before you go.”

    So I can find you, even if you don’t come to me.

    In my hot, hazy state of mind, I clung desperately to something as trivial as getting his contact info. Even knowing this was a dream, my earnest desire burst forth. Whether it was by coincidence or any other means, I just wanted to see him one more time.

    There were no bad memories of the time we spent together, only regrets. I couldn’t forget him because I just missed him so much. I teared up, recalling those gone days.

    Ah, days that will never come again.

    ***

    I took a deep breath and quietly woke up. I stared blankly at the ceiling and covered my eyes with my forearm. Whether I truly have brain issues or not, I can’t seem to stop having these bizarre dreams no matter where I sleep. That said, it’s strange to repeatedly dream such vivid nightmares about him in particular.

    …Come to think of it, I really did like you a lot, Sunbae.

    But seriously, how do I start crying the moment I open my mouth, even in a dream? I sighed and made a resolve. I’m sorry, but I have to break up with him quickly. As cruel as it sounds, it seems best for both of us. I can barely handle my own heart right now, let alone a relationship.

    Rubbing my weary eyes, I felt something soft and fuzzy.

    “…?”

    It wasn’t skin but fur, and I wondered when I had turned into a monkey. As I raised my hand, I saw not my palm but a piece of ivory-colored cloth. What is this? What the…? Before I could ponder further, a rich floral scent tickled my nose. I turned my head to follow the scent, but from the opposite side, I heard the sliding door open. It was Tae Seong-je. He came into the room carrying a bed tray loaded with something.

    “You’re awake already.”

    I kept my mouth shut as I watched the person approaching me with one step at a time. He wore casual clothing yet seemed to glow. Compared to yesterday, the person looked a bit…well…more…ah, did he get a haircut? His hair length seems different.

    “I, uh, ugh!”

    He placed the tray on the bed and sat close by. I tried to speak but my throat felt terrible.

    “Don’t talk.”

    As I coughed, he leaned in, placing a hand on my forehead and feeling my neck with his other hand. Soon, with a soft splashing sound, a refreshing coolness enveloped me.

    “You had a high fever in the middle of the night, and your condition worsened. Don’t speak and rest for now.”

    I listened blankly and furrowed my brows at his pinpointing me. I was used to sudden illnesses, and high fevers weren’t new either. But…

    Judging by how clean and fresh I felt despite sweating, it seemed this man had tended to me all night. Unbelievable. I didn’t want to trouble him, yet ended up causing such an imposition.

    “Drink this. It’s good for your throat.”

    Without thinking, I took the cup he offered. I just happened to be thirsty. Only after I finished drinking did I realize that what I was holding was not the glass, but Tae Seong-je’s hand. This felt like some sweet romantic moment. No, he should have let go once giving me the cup instead of hand-feeding me.

    Feeling my face heat up with embarrassment and guilt pricking at me. I thought about how I had dreamt of Sunbae and realized I still hadn’t moved on. The timing couldn’t be worse, making the guilt almost unbearable. Groaning in anguish, he brushed aside my sweat-damp hair.

    “Even if you’re tired, eat something. It’s already past lunchtime.”

    I must have slept in quite late for it to be lunchtime already… But I was supposed to go to the hospital. I said I’d go in the morning… Shouldn’t I still go? Both for myself and for him, the hospital was the top priority, so his casual demeanor has me a bit flustered.

    As if reading my thoughts, he calmly explained:

    “I had you undergo a few basic tests while you were sleeping.”

    His nonchalant attitude suggesting no major issues, both yesterday and today, is somewhat unsettling yet also reassuring. But what tests did they run while I was out? I vaguely remember seeing the doctor in my sleep, so I guess that’s that. I raised my hands, questioning why they were wrapped.

    “What’s this for?”

    “Just in case.”

    What? Before I could even react with confusion, he firmly pressed his lips against my forehead. I stood there dazed as he abruptly pulled back. Ah, this guy really! Unexpectedly, he withdrew without much further reaction. His calm, almost carefree attitude was so startling that I was left feeling flustered.

    “In case you scratched your eyes while I wasn’t looking. Tying you up seemed a bit much.”

    “Tying? Ah, ack, keuk.”

    “I told you not to speak.”

    The calm person handing me water now seemed like a completely different person from yesterday. His appearance was unmistakable, but his demeanor had changed dramatically overnight, becoming not just composed but entirely collected. I glanced at him as he waited patiently and quietly finished the drink.

    “…”

    Staring at the soft, fluffy cloth, I covered my eyes with it. Ah, what about him that was ‘composed’? Up close, his eyes look a bit red. Seems like he cried. Probably because of me.  Not even an hour ago, I had planned to break up with him, thinking it would be better for us to part ways quickly, more so for his sake than mine.

    But not now. Today doesn’t seem to be the day. I sighed and rubbed my swollen eyes, only to have my cheek grabbed and my head turned. When I pulled my hand away, my gaze met his piercing eyes, and I lowered my gaze. Egg porridge. The sight of food suddenly made me feel hungry. The savory smell and golden color stimulated my appetite.

    Whoa. Before I knew it, I was scraping the bottom of the bowl with a spoon held awkwardly in my bandaged hand. Did I have a beggar inside me? I was shocked at how unseemly I must have looked. I wanted to hide in a hole out of embarrassment. Finishing the bowl in mere seconds, I discreetly set the spoon down, feeling ashamed.

    Embarrassed, I tried to casually set the spoon down, but Tae Seong-je spoke up softly when he noticed.

    “Come in.”

    No sooner had he uttered those words than the sliding door opened. Startled, I looked over to see two men carrying in a large table, carefully setting it down on the floor. To my surprise, it was laden with all kinds of porridges. Regardless, he calmly collected my empty bowl and replaced it with a beef porridge.

    “You shouldn’t overeat, but you need to gain some weight, so eat up.”

    He said this as he swapped out the side dishes I hadn’t touched from eating too hurriedly, replacing them with fresh ones. Did he think I didn’t eat them because I didn’t like them?

    “…”

    Looking silently at the delicious-smelling porridge, I waved my hand at him, signaling to release my hands so I could eat. No, don’t hold my hand.

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