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    “Uh, yeah…”

    After a while, I remembered that the name my stepbrother was desperately calling was my name. I answered too late and almost bit my tongue.  It was such a foolish response – ‘Oh, yes’ – I was utterly ashamed as my fleeting rationality came rushing back.

    Now that I’ve come to my senses, I feel burdened. I’ve never hugged like this before, not even with a friend, or even with my parents or younger brother, but this person hugs me so naturally and naturally. That feels really strange.

    I don’t even remember, but let’s say we are really good stepbrothers. Even so, not now. I can’t say that I really miss someone who I don’t even remember calling my brother. The close distance was also very uncomfortable, so I couldn’t bear it anymore and pushed my stepbrother’s shoulder away.

    “Excuse me, but…”

    It was the first time I properly faced him.

    “…”

    This guy is really handsome. I was struck speechless by a kind of fresh shock I’d never felt before. I had thought he wouldn’t be bad-looking based on his silhouette and atmosphere alone. But that was before I’d seen his face, and my first impression had been fear. Now, seeing his face…

    Even though his constricted pupils were unsettling, his well-defined features were too handsome for that to be a flaw. No, it actually made him look more striking. I calmed down from the deep shock. Grandmother, how am I supposed to resemble him?

    Without realizing it, I observed him with a scrutinizing gaze.  Perhaps I never cared about people’s faces because I had never seen someone like this before. Anyway, I almost blurted out my honest thoughts, but the awkwardness came first. I straightened my stiff arms to put distance between us again.

    “Please don’t suddenly hug me like that.”

    “…Don’t do that.”

    “Why, why are you like this?”

    The distance abruptly closed as he tightly pulled me into another embrace, almost making me lose my balance. Our faces brushed close together, making my face flush. Being so close, I could feel his breath, warmth, and scent easily. What? What’s this? What’s going on? Uh, is it okay for brothers to do this?

    “Excuse me, excuse me. Don’t do this.”

    “Seung-won, please… If you act like this, I really can’t take it.”

    “No, no.”

    “Don’t avoid me. It was all my fault…”

    As he buried his head in the crook of my neck, I grabbed his broad shoulders and struggled, but then froze. No, this is too much for stepbrothers… Disturbed, I hurriedly protested. But apart from the hypothesis that he was my stepbrother when our eyes met, I had no other explanation for this strange atmosphere.

    “Well, it seems you and grandmother discussed everything. …You heard everything, right?”

    I asked just in case, but seeing him slightly nod, it appeared he knew everything and was still acting this way. No, then isn’t this inappropriate? He wouldn’t let me go at all, and I couldn’t straighten my collapsed knees, so I ended up clinging to him in an awkward posture as I grabbed his neck.

    Wanting to confirm, I looked him directly in the eyes and asked again.

    “You know I don’t have any memories, right?”

    I shifted my gaze to his ear. I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye. As I stared at the ear with only the remnants of a piercing hole, he said he knew.

    “…”

    If he knows, I wish he would have kept an appropriate distance out of consideration… As he clung to me again, I sighed and embraced him back. But why am I caressing this person’s head? Feeling bewildered and embarrassed, I scratched the back of my neck and withdrew my hand.

    If the situation wasn’t so dire, or if his features were just a bit less perfect, I would’ve told him to back off. But since neither was the case, I decided to bear with it for a bit.

    In that moment, he took my hand. He then brought it to his face and buried it there. Why did even this feel so natural? This is too close. I was suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue. I found myself missing my younger sister. Shouldn’t there be an appropriate distance between family members? I’m unfamiliar with this kind of closeness.

    “This winter.”

    He abruptly spoke up.

    “It’s fortunate this winter is warm.”

    Winter… It felt strange to see someone leaning against me and barely able to breathe. He gripped my hand tightly like a lifeline and held me like I was his… I know well that neither my father nor mother would grieve for me being gone to this extent. My sister would likely be distressed, but I don’t understand why this person is so anguished.

    Not having memories hadn’t been that uncomfortable until now… For the first time, I wished I could regain them. Were we really that close? How could that be possible? This was bewildering now. After blankly staring at the shadows under my stepbrother’s eyes, I slowly turned my head.

    “Huh?”

    I could see the mountain I had come down from. The mountain, once covered with colorful leaves, was now bare branches. In that disorienting, alienating moment, the hazy thoughts in my head seemed to burst like a deflating balloon.

    Why has time suddenly passed so quickly? Why has the season changed? Despite the setting sun, I was rendered speechless seeing the distinct winter mountain. The foliage had definitely been lush before.

    Had I spent not just days but months in that house?

    …Was it really just three days that I was out of my mind with a fever?

    I released my stepbrother’s hand and felt my own cheek. The rough, haggard skin was lukewarm. Despite existing like this, it felt so distant. It seems like a sense of reality that I didn’t know I had lost has returned. Dizzy and flustered, I held my forehead and frowned. My stepbrother was even quicker to assess my condition.

    “What’s wrong? Does your head hurt?”

    “No, I’m just a little dizzy…”

    Ugh. I urgently bent over and had a bout of dry heaving. Remembering having coughed up blood several times in the mountains, I hurriedly stood up. But as I tried to get some distance, my stepbrother held me firmly and made me sit on his lap. Doing this could soil both our clothes.

    It was mortifying having to lean my head and body against his chest. I squirmed trying to break free, but at the same time, I was so dizzy that I quickly gave up. I covered my eyes and tried to calm down, but I wondered if I might be dreaming. I had a thought.

    It made sense since I’ve had dreams every single day without fail after regaining consciousness. It was like that from the start. What if this was all a dream? The others’ faces were indistinct without visible expressions, yet felt more realistic. Here, everything was visible but had an oddly disconnected feeling…

    Both dreams and reality were so intertwined that I couldn’t tell them apart anymore. Perhaps that’s why I was often told to keep a tight grip on reality. To hold onto a detached sense of reality and keep my feet on the ground.

    At that moment, I felt strands of hair touch my fingers. Lowering my hand from my eyes, I gently grasped the hair.

    “….”

    Hair that had grown long enough to be tied up a little. It seemed like it had grown quite a bit from what I remembered. Suddenly, I thought, ‘Am I really in my right mind? Am I just believing that I’m okay?’ It was strange to be fine after bleeding so much from my head. I was suddenly filled with fear.

    “I… how long has it been…”

    I couldn’t tell how much time had passed, so I stuttered to speak, and the hand covering the back of my hand tightened its grip. His hand comes into view later. I only just noticed his hand. It had many scars and wounds. They were barely visible in the fading light but still looked ghastly. Staring intently at the protruding tendons and the healed yet painful-looking scars, wondering what could have caused them, he spoke.

    “I thought you committed su*c*de.”

    Startled by the disturbing word, I straightened up. The hand that had been gently caressing my waist withdrew for a moment, only to pull me closer again. Anyway, where did that suicidal comment come from? I rapidly blinked, while in contrast, his eyelids moved slowly as if tired.

    Ah, this person… he really does look exhausted. Without realizing it, I covered my stepbrother’s eyes. Far from being flustered, he seemed pleased by my touch, nuzzling his cheek into my hand and letting out a languid sigh.

    “No matter how hard I looked, you were nowhere to be found…nobody had seen you, so…”

    “…”

    “I just wanted to find your body, at least… I wanted to see you, even if just a body…I searched every valley but they said you weren’t there…I looked everywhere you could possibly be..”

    I began to doubt if the person who had seemed so strong earlier, and the person who was so foolishly digging into my arms were the same person. It sapped my strength, seeing how different he was from my first impression, but honestly it also made me feel sympathetic. He seemed to be seeking solace in my embrace, and the fact that he was just happy to have found me was both touching and pitiable.

    “I even looked in places where someone might want to end their life…”

    “No, where would you find someone who tries harder at life than me? I would never commit su*c*de.”

    “That’s right. Don’t. You mustn’t. If you d1e, I’ll d1e too, so don’t.”

    For step-siblings, this feels a bit too close? I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of past we shared. He raised his head and rested his forehead against mine. The close proximity made me tense again, and I lowered my gaze.

    “Thank you for being alive.”

    “Uh… sure…”

    “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

    “Not particularly, nothing major…”

    “Your head.”

    Ah, from the way he’s talking, it seems grandma must have told him everything.

    “It’s still throbbing a bit.”

    “Haa… As soon as we arrive, let’s get you checked out.”

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