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    036

    Thunk!

    “Argh!”

    With a deafening crash, the table flipped over. The scattered drugs sprawled across the floor, and Park Ha screamed while the woman opened her eyes wide in silent shock.

    The table was not something that could be easily flipped. It was heavy, not like a dining table. Although it wasn’t surprising for an esper to have such strength, Ha-gyeom was stunned because he had never seen Baek Sa use his power like this.

    “Fuck! Could you at least give a warning? I almost fell over in surprise, damn it.”

    Park Ha’s whining seemed to momentarily put an edge on Baek Sa’s expression. While no one was hurt, the unexpected action nearly gave Ha-gyeom a heart attack.

    “Crazy bastard, indeed. Ha ha ha!”

    Ignoring Park Ha’s loud laughter, Ha-gyeom looked up at Baek Sa, who stood from his seat.

    “I’ll give you thirty minutes. Gather with a clear mind.”

    Baek Sa’s voice was calm despite his recent aggressive action. The veins on the back of his hand, gripping his hip, stood out prominently.

    Ha-gyeom got up from the sofa and followed Baek Sa to the table with the whiteboard, distancing himself from the bad air around Park Ha. Sitting at the table, he watched Baek Sa’s displeased expression.

    Baek Sa’s look seemed to prompt Ha-gyeom to speak, so he tentatively asked,

    “Did you… like the guide named Ah-rang?”

    It was a deeply honest and innocent question that Ha-gyeom had kept to himself.

    Given Park Ha’s taunt and Baek Sa’s reaction, it was natural to wonder if there was something special between them. Although he didn’t intend to provoke Baek Sa, Ha-gyeom suspected the question might sour the atmosphere further.

    However, Ha-gyeom couldn’t mask his earnest curiosity. He truly wanted to know.

    “If I liked her, I would have saved her.”

    Baek Sa’s cold reply caused Ha-gyeom’s eyes to tremble involuntarily.

    He didn’t like her. And he didn’t save her.

    Whatever their past was, Ha-gyeom believed that the current Baek Sa would follow the leaders’ commands without question. Yet, the fact that Baek Sa still entertained a personal scenario where he could “like” someone was surprising.

    Unable to hold back, Ha-gyeom added,

    “Do I really look like her?”

    Baek Sa’s once cold eyes turned into an annoyed glare. Leaning forward with both hands on the table, he replied firmly,

    “Not. At. All.”

    It was the answer Ha-gyeom wanted to hear. Staring up at Baek Sa’s lips forming each word, Ha-gyeom’s heart still raced, despite the other’s indifferent attitude.

    “Why do you ask such things?”

    Baek Sa asked with a furrowed brow. Ha-gyeom could have made up an excuse, but he didn’t.

    “I want to know.”

    He was willing to do anything to understand what had happened during the five years they had been apart.

    “Why?”

    “That’s because…”

    Before Ha-gyeom could finish, the woman with the tangled curls approached the table, tying her hair back.

    “If you were coming, you should have given a heads-up.”

    Though her speech was still slurred, there was a hint of life in her eyes. But Baek Sa didn’t seem satisfied. She wore a baggy T-shirt that exposed the needle marks on her arms.

    “Yeo Jin-joo.”

    “Then I would have stopped earlier.”

    Yeo Jin-joo looked troubled. As Park Ha approached and placed a hand on Ha-gyeom’s shoulder, Ha-gyeom said,

    “I understand you have important business, but…”

    “Get your hand off me.”

    Ha-gyeom warned, touching his knife sheath with his left hand and his gun holster with his right. Park Ha, realizing the gravity of the situation, removed his hand somewhat awkwardly and glanced at the entrance.

    “Anyway, it’s not our fault…”

    Before Park Ha could finish, the entrance grew noisy. Baek Sa straightened up, folding his arms. Ha-gyeom, who couldn’t predict what would happen next, was surprised to see four civilians entering.

    The sight left him speechless.

    Among the four half-naked men and women, at least two seemed utterly terrified.

    Drugs and prostitution. They were involved in everything. The S-rank ability users, lacking any sense of duty and indulging in hedonism like the leaders, were not a pleasant sight.

    While two of the individuals seemed accustomed to the situation, the other two were clearly dragged there against their will. Some civilians might offer their bodies willingly to survive, but most were coerced.

    Knowing that many crossed between different zones to engage in such activities, Ha-gyeom felt a chill run down his spine. These people could also become resources for obtaining what they wanted.

    “Send them back.”

    Baek Sa ordered. If Baek Sa hadn’t spoken, Ha-gyeom would have been the one to reprimand them.

    “A mission briefing?”

    Yeo Jin-joo asked, but Baek Sa didn’t respond. Realizing what was going on, Yeo Jin-joo quietly took her seat, while Park Ha waved dismissively at the prostitutes.

    “Just leave already?”

    “Yeah, go!”

    The two reluctant ones showed their displeasure, while the other two seemed relieved. As they disappeared from view without resistance, Park Ha tried to pull out the chair next to Ha-gyeom.

    Bang!

    Before his hand even touched the backrest, Ha-gyeom kicked the chair away with all his might. The chair clattered to the floor, and Park Ha, glaring incredulously at Ha-gyeom, burst out angrily.

    “What the hell are you doing?!”

    “Giving you the seat of honor.”

    Ha-gyeom extended his hand, indicating the farthest seat. His eyes glinted with a warning, ready to stab if necessary, making Baek Sa grab Park Ha by the collar and sit him down.

    “Act your age. Stop making a fool of yourself in front of the kid.”

    Baek Sa himself was treating Ha-gyeom like a kid, flipping the table like it was nothing. Ha-gyeom found the contradiction odd but kept quiet, satisfied that Park Ha was subdued.

    A cold silence settled over the table, induced by Baek Sa’s disdainful gaze. With one newcomer and two others high on drugs, it was understandable.

    Ha-gyeom found it frustrating that Baek Sa didn’t reprimand the addicts. His silence seemed to tacitly endorse their behavior.

    “We’re heading out soon.”

    Baek Sa placed a map on the table. His finger pointed to the west coast, specifically the old Incheon Airport area. Having focused solely on Zone 0 while at the center, the ‘outside’ was unfamiliar territory for Ha-gyeom.

    “Not again?”

    Park Ha asked, sounding exasperated. Not knowing what Baek Sa or Park Ha meant, Ha-gyeom looked puzzled.

    “Sick of these scavenging missions.”

    Yeo Jin-joo added, while Park Ha raised his voice,

    “Using S-rank abilities for this is a total waste!”

    If it was a scavenging mission, did they mean collecting valuable resources from contaminated areas?

    Unwilling to blurt out something stupid, Ha-gyeom observed the situation. Baek Sa leaned forward and said,

    “There’s something interesting about this one.”

    “What is it?”

    “An anomaly.”

    In the current era, anomalies were typically related to monsters. Hearing this, Park Ha and Yeo Jin-joo’s eyes gleamed with challenge. As ability users, it was natural for them to relish opportunities to showcase their powers.

    “Are there lots of monsters?”

    “If it’s just another dozen or so, it’s not even fun.”

    Yeo Jin-joo couldn’t hide her curiosity, and Park Ha seemed reluctant about a mundane mission. Baek Sa straightened up and crossed his arms.

    “It’ll be enough to blow off some steam, so be well-prepared. Remember, the official mission is scavenging, not hunting. And…”

    Baek Sa’s eyes turned to Ha-gyeom. Even though Ha-gyeom’s experience with monsters was limited to a few encounters near the center, Baek Sa wouldn’t know the specifics, so there was no need to be intimidated.

    “He’s coming with us.”

    Yeo Jin-joo and Park Ha’s eyes also shifted to Ha-gyeom. As Yeo Jin-joo examined Ha-gyeom’s profile, Park Ha slammed the table and said,

    “If you pull any tricks because you’re from the center… I’ll cut your throat before you can even breathe.”

    It was something an esper could definitely do. Cutting only the throat? They might as well tear him limb from limb.

    Ha-gyeom didn’t respond, instead looking up at Baek Sa. Unlike Baek Seung-woo, Baek Sa wouldn’t tolerate any whining. Baek Sa just regarded Park Ha and Yeo Jin-joo with a disdainful look.

    “If he gets hurt, you can kiss your heads goodbye.”

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