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    “Why again?”

    “I just remembered that you were always this kind of kid.”

    Why… why did the atmosphere suddenly get so sentimental? Did I say something weird? No, I didn’t. I felt like I was walking on eggshells, and it was starting to give me indigestion. I decided I had to change the subject.

    “Actually, it’s kind of fascinating.”

    “…What is?”

    “I thought my parents were the kind of couple where it wouldn’t be that odd if they divorced, but I also felt they absolutely wouldn’t because of others’ perceptions. But seeing they did, I guess life really is unpredictable.”

    “…”

    I should be able to say that much, right? I probably did say that much before? Even if not, what does it matter?

    “I’m with my dad, right?”

    Neither of them would ever give up one of us, but if they had to choose, my dad would pick me and my mom would pick my sister.

    At that point, the intermittent tapping sound that had ceased resumed, in a faster tempo than before. After furtively glancing around, I slowly turned to gaze out the window. Surely he’s not actually ignoring me over there? Well, I did want that, but he’s really doing whatever he pleases. Still, I’m satisfied the wistful air has dissipated.

    The tapping stopped abruptly as he spoke up.

    “…Who exactly did you think I was when you came with me?”

    “Huh? You’re my brother, right?”

    “Specifically?”

    “My stepbrother?”

    “Ha.”

    I turned my head towards him with a puzzled expression. It was too dark to see his expression clearly, but I got the sense he was utterly dumbfounded right now.

    “Ha. Ha ha, seriously. What are you talking about?”

    “…You are not?”

    “Of course not.”

    The man’s laugh, which had been heavy with sarcasm, now sounded light and relieved. It was like he found the whole thing absurdly funny. I hadn’t noticed, but he’d been tense this whole time. I could feel the tension leave him. In any case, his reaction suggests my assumption about us being stepbrothers was mistaken. Yet for some reason, it doesn’t feel unpleasant to hear him laughing despite the embarrassment.

    “I just thought it was because grandmother said my eldest brother was coming.”

    “I did kind of take you away without any explanation, so I can see how you’d think that. Anyway, you really need to stop blindly believing everything people say.”

    I was about to protest that I didn’t believe everything I heard, but then we entered a tunnel. The orange glow on his face made him look genuinely amused, and I was glad he was laughing. His eyes glinted unusually bright. Transfixed by his glistening irises and lashes reflecting the light, I suddenly realized – this guy has dimples

    “Stepbrother, my foot.”

    I could tolerate it because he looked happy, but wasn’t he laughing a bit too long? His laughter didn’t die down even after we left the tunnel, making my cheeks burn.

    “Aren’t you laughing a bit too much?”

    “What can I do if it’s funny? I mean, if you really were my stepbrother…”

    Whether unable to finish because he was stifling more laughter, or because he swallowed whatever he couldn’t say, the silence dragged on. The mood turned strange in an instant. I should have just let him laugh. While I was feeling that regret, he spoke abruptly.

    “You haven’t changed at all.”

    Even the tunnel we passed through was an old mountain valley. Early evening with no moon visible. A quiet road with only dark mountains and trees swaying faintly. Not even a boring song playing, so every breath and slight movement was amplified in the car. And there was the unchanged person and the person who had changed. The gap between us was huge and couldn’t be bridged immediately.

    I have so many questions I want to ask. But just as much, it feels awkward to initiate conversation, so my lips remain sealed. For some inexplicable reason, while I feel sorry for him, I also want to keep my distance more. I said it because it felt like he was getting closer every time I spoke to him. Still, I felt like I had to make sure I was clear, so I cleared my throat and prayed.

    “So, what exactly is the relationship between you and I…”

    “What? You and I?”

    “No, I mean, you, Mr. Tae Seong-je, and I…”

    “Mr. Tae Seong-je?”

    His incredulous tone made me scratch the back of my neck awkwardly as I corrected myself.

    “Well, uh, hyung and I…”

    He didn’t correct me, so I figured I was right. I felt proud for a moment because I thought I had found the right answer. Of course, as soon as I recalled what I was trying to ask, my expression turned conflicted again.

    “So…what kind of relationship do we have?”

    Not family, but close enough to rush over in an instant.

    Close enough to naturally have physical contact and kiss.

    Close enough to say each other’s names with affection in our eyes.

    “It’s exactly what you think.”

    “Are we dating?”

    “Yeah. Lovers.”

    “Ah, I figured. Wow, this is crazy.”

    Even knowing it was rude with him right there, I wildly ruffled my hair. What does it matter if I look even more disheveled? Well, I had a hunch it was that kind of relationship, the only one of its kind, but the confirmation is maddening.

    Maybe because I couldn’t even say it out loud myself, my head hurt even more. Maybe we’re just dating for a short while… no, if we’re dating, we’re dating. The atmosphere made it clear that it wasn’t just a fling. Tormented by my confusion, I buried my face in my hands.

    “…Why do you dislike it so much? Do you dislike me?”

    “No? Of course not.”

    He sounded hurt and shocked, so I shook my head quickly. Not that I liked him either, but I didn’t dislike him. Groaning, I let out a long sigh.

    “It’s because of me. I’m sorry. It’s just…I can’t believe I was such a fickle person. I’m just disappointed in myself.”

    “What, because of your first love?”

    I jumped in surprise, my knees hitting the dashboard.

    “What, did I tell you about my senior?”

    What the hell. Did I blab about my messed-up first love? My heart pounds from the shock. I could never even mention it at school about liking a third-year senior, yet I told my own lover all about it? Was I that desperate for something to talk about?

    Still, a lover. And a male one at that. I had always thought I might like someone other than my senior someday. Even though it was an unforgettable first love, after he graduated and I graduated two years later, I hadn’t seen him again.

    So it wouldn’t have been strange at all if time passed and I met someone else. That love and those memories were already past tales.

    Just…just that because I liked that senior so much, really liked him a whole lot, no matter how much time went by and I claimed to have moved on, I at least thought I wouldn’t see anyone for a few years.

    But here we are. And he’s way older too.

    The word ‘lover’ feels discomfiting rather than endearing in its unfamiliarity. I stole another sidelong glance. Sure, I figured a guy might come along someday. No matter how much of a guy my first love was, it was just that senior who was special.

    I played with my scarred hands and bit the soft flesh inside my mouth. As I was touching my bare skin, a large hand came down on top of me and stopped me.

    “Since you haven’t said it with your own mouth, don’t do it.”

    “Lie.”

    A voice in my mind blurted out. But it’s clearly a lie. Then how does he know? As if he could see right through my mind, he speaks affectionately from beyond the darkness.

    “It would be stranger if I didn’t know.”

    “Why is it strange that you, no, hyung don’t know?”

    “Well…”

    He started to explain but then stopped. Puzzled, I stared intently at his shadowed profile. The outline is as good as a sculpture’s.

    “Ah…I see. This must sound crazy. Is this what it’s like when positions are reversed?”

    He rubbed his lips in discomfort, but I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, so I got annoyed again. Would it be selfish of me to wish he wouldn’t say things I didn’t understand? Was I getting a little sensitive because I was worried my stomach would start growling soon? I poured the remaining water into my mouth.

    On the intermittently lit street, there was finally a shop in sight. A meat restaurant, it seems. Only then did I realize it had been quite a while since I last ate meat.

    “Let’s eat there.”

    “…There?”

    “Park in front. There’s plenty of space.”

    The fact that there were so many parking spaces at this time meant that there weren’t that many customers, but I was looking forward to it. How long has it been since I ate meat?

    “There might be better places. Let’s just drive around once and decide.”

    “If we’re going to eat, it’s better to eat quickly and get going. Let’s eat here.”

    “It doesn’t seem like a very good place though.”

    “How can meat not taste good?”

    “The quality differs.”

    “What does quality matter when I’m hungry? As long as it tastes good. Pull over here quickly.”

    I wasn’t actually that hungry, but I insisted. I didn’t like the feeling of an empty stomach and wanted to eat something quickly. I was determined to eat until I was full. I didn’t know how much money was on my card, but I would eat as much as I could.

    Just as I was about to get out of the car, I belatedly realized that I was barefoot. I had left behind my sneakers and the indoor slippers I had borrowed at grandmother’s house. As I hesitated, the door opened and my body was lifted up.

    “Hey, just give me some shoes. Don’t you have any slippers?”

    This guy has really been acting so presumptuous from the start!

    Fortunately, as expected, the store was empty for dinner time. Thanks to this, I felt less embarrassed. The person who seemed to be the owner glanced at us once, then again at the black vehicle idling outside, but readily showed us to a table inside.

    There were four tables in a row in the room, and there were two fans that looked like they were broken.  It was clean, but he didn’t seem too pleased. As soon as Tae Seong-je put me down on the cushion, he started trying to persuade me again.

    “Instead of here, there might be a better place.”

    “It all tastes the same once you eat it.”

    “If we’re going to eat, let’s go eat beef.”

    “As long as you’re full, it doesn’t matter what you put in your mouth.”

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