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    #012

    In contrast, Yu Hae-na, her face hardened, quickly stopped Baek Seung-woo from touching Ha-gyeom.

    “Step back.”

    Engulfed in the swirling energy, Ha-gyeom was oblivious to Baek Seung-woo’s presence or Yu Hae-na’s voice.

    Having witnessed the effects of energy not through data but with their own eyes, Yu Hae-na and Baek Seung-woo were too shocked to express their surprise.

    When Baek Seung-woo stepped back, Ha-gyeom’s energy ripple shrank back to the size of his hand. Despite his exertion, Yu Hae-na eventually had to wake him.

    As a minor, Ha-gyeom couldn’t perform or give guiding, and he had never displayed his energy in front of Baek Seung-woo, so he was unaware of his own changes.

    “Alright, that’s enough for now.”

    Opening his eyes, Ha-gyeom saw no energy ripple. He looked down at the blood staining his training uniform and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. The blood wouldn’t stop, and Yu Hae-na helped stem the flow with a clean cloth.

    “It’s good to grasp the technique quickly, but this is a problem. The internal injuries aren’t severe, so it should be fine. I’ll take you to the infirmary for treatment, then you can go back to your room.”

    Ha-gyeom nodded bravely. Nosebleeds were a common occurrence. Baek Seung-woo was here as an observer, so it wasn’t surprising that he wouldn’t be the one taking care of him.

    Seeing Baek Seung-woo standing in the distance, awkwardly rubbing his jaw, was enough. It was embarrassing to be an incapable guide in his eyes.

    “I can go to the infirmary by myself. I’ll go ahead!”

    Once again, Ha-gyeom planned to make a quick escape. Before Yu Hae-na could reach out, he used his trained strength to quickly dash out of the training room.

    The aftereffects of the internal injuries were significant, but the thought of receiving comfort from Baek Seung-woo was far more unbearable.

    “Shin Ha-gyeom!”

    However, he didn’t get far before Baek Seung-woo caught up to him. As an esper, his speed was incomparable to that of a guide, making the outcome inevitable.

    Baek Seung-woo grabbed Ha-gyeom’s ear and pulled him back.

    “Where are you sneaking off to?”

    Ha-gyeom stiffened at his touch. Despite just touching his ear, the sensation reverberated through his entire body.

    Ha-gyeom tilted his head back to look up at Baek Seung-woo. Seeing the blood-streaked face, Baek Seung-woo asked with concern.

    “Are you okay? Why do you keep avoiding me?”

    “I’m not avoiding you. When did I ever?”

    Given their shared room, avoiding him completely was impossible. Ha-gyeom only wished to avoid him during working hours, which seemed a bit unfair.

    “Stop lying. Look at you. You’re bleeding.”

    “It happens all the time….”

    “Then you’ve been hiding it again.”

    “It’s not like that….”

    The reason I want to avoid you is…

    Because my heart races as if my chest is right beside my ear. My face turns uncontrollably red, tears well up for no reason, and I can’t concentrate because your face keeps popping into my mind all day….

    As Baek Seung-woo leaned closer to inspect the bloodstains, Ha-gyeom licked his dry lips. Every time Seung-woo’s firm fingers brushed against his delicate skin, a fever surged through his body, making him flinch as if electrified.

    Though Ha-gyeom couldn’t quite grasp what it was, he instinctively knew that the emotions he was feeling were inappropriate. Feeling such thirst in the presence of someone who was like an older brother was clearly abnormal.

    Ha-gyeom felt a deep sadness. The more he received cold stares from passersby, the clearer certain things became.

    “Hey, hyung….”

    “What?”

    Seung-woo’s eyes, which had been fixated on his nose, met Ha-gyeom’s gaze. Ha-gyeom, staring into the clear, dark pupils, spoke.

    “I think I should stay in the guides’ dormitory from now on.”

    It felt as though not saying those words would make him an incredibly bad person. Setting boundaries while his feelings were just a vague intuition was more of an instinct than anything else.

    To Ha-gyeom’s surprise, Baek Seung-woo asked calmly.

    “Why?”

    Numerous reasons came to mind, but only a few could be spoken aloud. Ha-gyeom carefully chose his words.

    “I’m tired of what the trainees say.”

    “…Tired?”

    “And I feel bad for burdening you all the time.”

    Baek Seung-woo narrowed his eyes. He carefully wiped Ha-gyeom’s upper lip with his sleeve, then straightened with an unreadable expression.

    Ha-gyeom suddenly realized that where he once reached only to Baek Seung-woo’s waist, he now nearly reached his shoulder.

    “Are you serious?”

    “…Yes.”

    While Ha-gyeom’s eyes trembled and blinked repeatedly, Baek Seung-woo’s eyes remained steady. After a brief contemplation, he spoke.

    “You’ve never been a burden to me. I know you’re not saying this because you feel like you’re a burden.”

    How much did he suspect? The thought barely formed before Baek Seung-woo patted Ha-gyeom’s head.

    “It’s commendable that you’ve decided this on your own, but I hope it’s not because of what others think.”

    “Humans are social animals. It’s strange not to care about others’ opinions.”

    Ha-gyeom mumbled, avoiding Baek Seung-woo’s gaze. His body felt feverish, and he couldn’t focus on Baek Seung-woo’s reaction. He hoped that, even if he couldn’t hide his flushed cheeks, he could at least conceal his heart’s frantic beating.

    “I’ll talk to the dorm supervisor. Don’t rush it.”

    Withdrawing his hand, Baek Seung-woo spoke evenly. Seeing his calm demeanor reassured Ha-gyeom that he had made the right decision. He might regret it when he lay down to sleep tonight, but for now, it felt right.

    “Let’s go to the infirmary first.”

    Baek Seung-woo’s voice was as usual. Ha-gyeom nodded and followed him, feeling dazed.

    The back that led the way seemed as vast as the sky. Watching it, Ha-gyeom found himself thinking differently than he had as a child, when he had often ridden on that back.

    Setting aside his improper feelings.

    He wondered if his difficulty understanding Baek Seung-woo’s feelings was due to his own youth or because Baek Seung-woo was adept at hiding them.



    3. The Second Disappearance


    Bang, bang, bang!

    The loud knocking on the door woke up Ha-gyeom. He reflexively got up and left the bed, just as another harsh knock echoed through the room.

    “What’s going on…?”

    When he opened the door, he was faced with none other than Seok Ji-ho. Frowning at what he assumed was another one of Ji-ho’s pranks in the middle of the night, Ha-gyeom saw Ji-ho grinning and whispering while fully armed.

    “Change of plans. We’re moving out right now.”

    According to several meetings, the mission was scheduled for three days later. Ha-gyeom tilted his head in confusion and asked again.

    “What?”

    “Didn’t you hear? We’ve been ordered to gear up and gather at the back gate of the center.”

    Suddenly, Ha-gyeom snapped to attention. His face lit up just as much as Ji-ho’s, who was already brimming with excitement.

    “Really?”

    “Of course. You think I’d joke about orders?”

    If Ji-ho were joking, Ha-gyeom thought, he’d beat him up. He quickly stood in front of his combat gear. Ever since the first mission was set, he’d been ready to jump into action at any moment.

    At most, they’d have about five minutes, so Ha-gyeom needed to change as fast as possible. He quickly took off his T-shirt, which he wore as pajamas, and put on his combat uniform. While he strapped on his holster and put on his bulletproof vest, Ji-ho checked the nameplate on the door.

    Team Leader Baek Seungwoo

    “They say he threw a fit in the hallway, lying down and crying. Seriously, the center head is too soft. Letting a trainee throw a tantrum without any shame.”

    Ji-ho clicked his tongue in disapproval. Ha-gyeom fastened his belt without paying him any mind.

    “So, what are you going to do about it?”

    “Well, nothing… Just saying, Guide Shin Ha-gyeom is really impressive…”

    Ha-gyeom grabbed his rifle and left the room.

    As he shoved Ji-ho’s shoulder standing in front, Ji-ho finally came to his senses and started walking ahead. Ha-gyeom checked his wristwatch and then began to run after him.

    “So why are you the leader among Jang Gi-jun, me, and you?”

    “Team Leader Yang said the leader should be talkative and strong.”

    Jang Gi-jun hardly spoke except when eating or drinking, and Ji-ho was definitely stronger than him, so it made sense if those were the criteria.

    “Since when was that decided?”

    “15 minutes ago. Why? Don’t like it?”

    “What’s there to like or dislike? If Team Leader Yang decided, we follow.”

    Ji-ho’s shoulder bumped into Ha-gyeom’s, making him stagger. No matter how much he trained, he couldn’t match the physical strength of an esper.

    When they reached the ground floor, bickering and punching Ji-ho’s firm shoulder, Lee Do-seon glanced them up and down.

    “Seems like you two have time to mess around?”

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