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    #016

    Ha-gyeom’s eyes widened. Given his background, he wouldn’t have been surprised to be excluded from the Zone 0 operation, but a solo mission?

    “A solo mission?”

    “Yes. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to assign a separate mission to someone who has just finished training…”

    Kim Hye-jeong pressed her temples as if she had a headache.

    “But you’re the right person for this. Just because someone has a lot of experience doesn’t mean they can handle every operation.”

    Ha-gyeom couldn’t quite understand her words. His confusion grew when he heard her sigh deeply. A solo mission in an operation that typically involved team coordination? It didn’t seem like a task for a rookie like him.

    “…What exactly is this solo mission?”

    Other trainees might have been terrified at the prospect, but not Ha-gyeom. He had been eagerly awaiting a mission in Zone 0 and had a clear purpose.

    “Infiltration.”

    Kim Hye-jeong’s eyes turned sharp. Ha-gyeom, who had been leaning back in his chair, straightened up.

    “Infiltration… Are you saying you want me to infiltrate Zone 0?”

    “Exactly. And the best way to do that is to be left behind during this operation.”

    An intentional abandonment.

    She wanted him to deliberately become a hostage to the enemies in Zone 0.

    Even though there were already many agents from the Center, including Zone 0, working undercover to gather information and preempt crime plans, most of them were civilians. Having a capable person could draw too much attention and become a target easily.

    “There’s no immediate rescue plan. This means that once you go in, we don’t know when or if you’ll be able to return to the Center.”

    Ha-gyeom’s heart began to race at the unexpected proposal. He knew he didn’t have the skills or experience for such a critical task… But as Kim Hye-jeong said, not all missions required combat ability.

    For a moment, Kim Hye-jeong and Ha-gyeom stared at each other. The moment felt like an eternity. Ha-gyeom was the first to speak.

    “Why me?”

    Kim Hye-jeong folded her arms and took her time before answering. Instead of answering, she asked,

    “Will you do it?”

    Ha-gyeom didn’t hesitate for even a second.

    “Of course, I will.”

    “Are you confident?”

    “Even if I’m not, you’re not going to let me back out, right?”

    While Kim Hye-jeong had her softer moments, she wasn’t the type to joke in serious situations. Ha-gyeom knew this, too.

    “If you’re telling me about this despite my low rank as a guide, it must be extremely important.”

    “Exactly.”

    Ha-gyeom had a million questions. Why was she entrusting such a secret mission to someone like him, someone she often considered unreliable? This was something Ha-gyeom could hardly imagine.

    However, it was true that he had been waiting for an operation in Zone 0. No one knew as much about that place as he did, even if he hadn’t openly shared his knowledge. Infiltration was actually an opportunity, not just a mission. He didn’t think long before asking,

    “So, what exactly is this mission?”

    “Well…”

    Being left behind and completing a solo mission involved high risks. Especially if he had no idea when he might return to the Center.

    Even if they had a perfect plan, the uncertainty made it nerve-wracking. Kim Hye-jeong, unusually hesitant, finally spoke up after a long pause.

    “The details of the mission are classified.”

    “What? You want me to carry out my mission without even knowing what it is?”

    “Believe it or not, it’s for your own safety.”

    Ha-gyeom narrowed his eyes. Kim Hye-jeong massaged her stiff neck and continued.

    “Infiltration requires high-level skills. Do you think a rookie like you can keep a mission secret and maintain your cover in front of the enemy? Training is just training. There’s no guarantee you won’t fail in a real situation.”

    “Are you afraid I might be tortured and spill information?”

    “No, it’s that if your cover is that of an unfortunate guide who got left behind, sticking to that role is simpler and safer.”

    It wasn’t entirely wrong, but it was confusing. It felt like being thrown alive in front of a predator.

    “Do you have a grudge against me? Can’t stand to see me die peacefully, is that it?”

    “Shin Ha-gyeom, you’re an S-class guide in terms of energy. Your issue is that you can’t fully utilize your abilities due to the lack of a matching Esper. The Center considers you a valuable asset.”

    “……”

    “Do you think I want to send you on a suicide mission? There’s a special reason it has to be you.”

    Ha-gyeom couldn’t argue with her conviction. She didn’t seem to like it either, judging by the way she rubbed her forehead. As the head of the Center, she wouldn’t assign him a nonsensical mission after knowing him for so many years. Ha-gyeom steeled himself.

    “Leaving aside the details, what do I need to do?”

    He had many questions but stopped pressing. If it was something only he could do, there wouldn’t be a second option.

    “The first objective is to fall behind during the operation and enter Zone 0. That shouldn’t be too hard. Once they know you’re a guide with S-class energy, they’ll be eager to capture you.”

    “Then I…”

    “You just need to give them an opportunity to capture you.”

    “No one else knows about this solo mission, not even my teammates?”

    “This mission is known only to you and me. Even the team leader isn’t aware.”

    Ha-gyeom’s eyes gleamed. A mission known only to him and Kim Hye-jeong felt special. It was an opportunity to prove his worth, especially in Zone 0.

    And if he could track down Baek Seung-woo…

    There was no reason to hesitate. With determination in his voice, Ha-gyeom asked,

    “If I succeed in infiltrating, what’s the next objective?”

    Kim Hye-jeong took a deep breath. She leaned in closer to Ha-gyeom.

    “Survive.”

    “……”

    “Your main task is to stay alive until a rescue opportunity arises. Don’t resist, don’t try to gather information, just survive. Whatever you find there will only be useful if you live to use it.”

    Even though her words seemed irresponsible, her eyes showed a rare certainty. Ha-gyeom trusted her eyes, if not her words.

    “Is that really all?”

    “That’s all. Once you enter Zone 0, you’ll know what to do.”

    “So, I just need to do what’s given to me?”

    Kim Hye-jeong nodded. She glanced around and added in a whisper,

    “Don’t trust anyone. Not even yourself.”

    Ha-gyeom couldn’t understand her cryptic words. Even though her eyes now looked at him with a mix of concern and hope, he wasn’t bothered. Whether he was ten years older or not, he knew she would look at him the same way.

    “I hope your trauma therapy went well.”

    Ha-gyeom responded with a bright smile.

    “You may not know, but I’ve been ready to return to Zone 0 for a long time.”

    “……”

    “So, prepare to retract that ridiculous death sentence when I find my brother and return.”

    Ha-gyeom stood up with resolve. Kim Hye-jeong, smiling wryly, crossed her arms. Her meaningful gaze didn’t offer any questions or answers, but Ha-gyeom put his chair back in place without meeting her eyes.

    “If I say I hope so too.”

    “……”

    “Would you believe me?”

    Just as Ha-gyeom was about to leave the office, Kim Hye-jeong spoke in an indifferent tone. Ha-gyeom had never doubted her.

    “I believe you. I know how much you care about your Hyung…”

    Responding in a similarly gruff manner, Kim Hye-jeong remained silent for a moment. Ha-gyeom, peeking through the blinds to observe the people outside, added,

    “The team members and the Center staff all think I was called in because of Seung-woo’s room issue… So, the tantrum I’m about to throw is part of the mission…”

    “What did you say, you little…?”

    Before Kim Hye-jeong could start scolding him, Ha-gyeom darted out of the office and began his protest by lying sprawled out in the hallway.

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