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    “What brings you here?”

    Jae-chan continued the questioning.

    “Does there have to be a reason? I call whenever I want, and I visit whenever I want.”

    Well. Jae-chan tilted his head. Since his regression, he has neither visited his home nor contacted his mother. Conversely, it was the first time his mother had sought him out, both before and after his regression.

    What could it be? What change could have driven his mother to come here?

    “…Do you know where Ji-eun is?”

    His mother then whispered in a shrill voice. She was looking for his younger sister, Gu Ji-eun.

    Could it be that in the past timeline, his aunt wasn’t on the examination committee? Jae-chan wondered but replied,

    “I guess you haven’t contacted Aunt yet. She should be available now.”

    After that, his mother fumbled in her small handbag for her phone.

    “Oh, Ji-eun.” She brightened as she got through to his aunt and left the emergency center without looking back.

    Left alone, Jae-chan leaned against the station for a while. Hearing his mother’s voice after a long time gave him a headache.

    “Is she really your mother?”

    Song Se-in approached him before he knew it and asked softly. Even Hae-sol, usually indifferent to gossip, was oddly attentive.

    “Yeah.”

    “Wow, she looks really young.”

    Song Se-in was impressed. She had thought the senior resembled her quite a bit, but to think it was his real mother.

    “That… Isn’t she cold?”

    Then Nam Hae-sol interjected awkwardly. She was referring to Esper Gu Ji-young’s long dress and thin shawl. It was something Jae-chan was also somewhat concerned about.

    “She always has a driver with her, so she should be fine.”

    “Wow. That’s definitely a golden spoon life.”

    Song Se-in clasped her hands together. Jae-chan thought that this girl was now saying it to his face, but he felt too tired to respond and just kept his mouth shut. However, as Song Se-in continued to make a fuss by banging on the station desk, he decided to just leave.

    “Go do your work.”

    “Huh? Wait a minute.”

    Song Se-in grabbed him.

    “Actually, I came because I needed something from you, senior.”

    “What is it?”

    “There will be a new guide welcoming ceremony in a month. Please set our dress code. Because it was a victory ceremony, we decided to dress in matching clothes.”

    More precisely, Song Se-in had unilaterally insisted on it herself. Until recently, she had matched with Han Myeong-gyu, but somehow that guy had become quiet recently and stopped agreeing. At times like this, she had to borrow the senior’s hand.

    Meanwhile, Jae-chan’s face became ashen. A welcome party for new guides?

    Seeing Jae-chan’s somehow stuck expression, Song Se-in wondered if the grilled short ribs from lunch had gotten lodged in the senior’s throat. Nam Hae-sol’s face also turned worried in response.

    “Mint color. Very light mint color.”

    Jae-chan, who had been frozen, suddenly blurted out. Song Se-in protested.

    “Mint color? Senior, are you serious? Isn’t that too difficult?”

    “If you don’t like it, don’t follow it. Dress codes and such don’t mean anything.”

    Jae-chan shook his head in confusion as he answered dismissively. The mint-colored dress Nam Hae-sol wore at the new Guides welcome party around this time was a gift from Woo-jin. But the current Guide Nam Hae-sol doesn’t have Go Woo-jin.

    What will she wear?

    A strange sense of responsibility to make her wear the same thing as in the past surged from within. Jae-chan vividly recalled the light-colored dress that fell to Nam Hae-sol’s knees and its petal-like layered hem.

    Could he find the exact same one? As a new focus emerged, the sharp headache caused by his mother became blurry and dissipated.

    *

    Contrary to Woo-jin and Jae-chan’s expectations of occasionally seeing each other on weekends after returning to Zone Z, the two lovers faced an unexpected separation.

    This was due to a lockdown order specifically imposed on the town.

    The dispatched unit was collaborating with the American Union in operations when they encountered a cyber-terrorist organization based in Zone Z. They experienced unexpected difficulties against the group, which mainly used ransomware, leading to military orders equivalent to a wartime situation.

    Jae-chan, who had regressed, also remembered this incident. However, he didn’t pay much attention to it because it was later revealed to be an excessive crackdown by the government.

    It could be seen as similar to the explosives burial incident, but unlike the former, it was an incident in which the context was clearly revealed. It was not recorded separately because it was a case that was concluded due to the government’s negligence without any suspicion of who was responsible.

    Jae-chan never thought this would affect his relationship with Woo-jin.

    -So it looks like I still can’t come this weekend

    In mid-December, during a phone call squeezed into lunch time, Jae-chan swallowed his disappointment at Woo-jin’s voice. And Woo-jin was equally upset.

    -Should I overuse my ability? I could say I need you as my guide

    How desperate must he be to make such an illegal(?) suggestion? Jae-chan laughed at Woo-jin’s sorrowful voice.

    However, with the serious situation of a lockdown imposed on the entire Zone Z, it went against his conscience to cross military boundaries just because they missed each other. Unless Woo-jin’s wave stability inevitably dropped.

    “Isn’t there any official use for your ability? The press releases were unusually dramatic for Tempo Black level.”

    -Well. Maybe because they’re a hacking specialist group, they’re quite tame on the physical side.”

    Woo-jin elaborated that non-combat Espers were more likely to use their abilities in software-related ways.

    “Then what about your wavelength stability?”

    Jae-chan asked with a glimmer of hope. He was hoping they could break through the lockdown under the pretext of maintaining the condition of an S-class Esper with lowered stability.

    After hesitating, Woo-jin answered.

    -I guess we were stuck together a bit too much last weekend.

    “… Yeah?”

    -My condition is exceptionally good

    “….”

    -…

    “…”

    A soft question followed in Jae-chan’s ears, who was left speechless.

    -Should I break the measuring device?

    Although he knew it was a joke from the slight laughter mixed in at the end, Jae-chan touched his flushed forehead and answered, “No.”

    -So, it looks like we really have to wait until the New Year to see each other.

    Woo-jin sighed as he mentioned the end date of the operation.

    The disappointed couple, who had just started dating and were missing each other, ended their call a few minutes later. Jae-chan found his face, reflected in the now darkened screen, flushed as red as a red apple.

    He returned to the office with a face even hotter than his phone. Trying to gather his thoughts, he opened the laptop he had brought separately. There was something bothering him during his conversation with Woo-jin.

    He intended to look into the ransomware terrorist group incident and the events that preceded it. The excessive crackdown itself was concerning.

    Jae-chan hoped it was not another hidden agenda from the government. Jae-chan became a conspiracy theorist and spent the rest of his lunch break digging into news articles on the portal.

    *

    Time flew by and the new year dawned. In the 580th year of the Total Reign, Seon Jae-chan turned twenty-three, and it was already his third year since regression.

    As usual at this time of year, personnel appointment notices were posted on the busy bulletin board in the Guide Bureau. People who were already waiting for various news were thrown into a commotion by the content, which could be said to be unconventional.

    “Team leader Han Tae-hoon from Team 1 is now the Guide Bureau Director?”

    “Isn’t he too young?”

    “He’s apparently the youngest head ever.”

    Meanwhile, Seon Jae-chan was in the guide’s break room, watching TV with a pile of belongings beside him, ignoring the murmurs of guides from other teams. On the screen, the President’s New Year’s speech was being rebroadcast.

    -We are facing an era filled with generational conflict more than ever before. With the new year, the government aims to make a leap towards a younger generation

    Making Han Tae-hoon the Head of the Guide Bureau was perhaps a sign of the government’s intention to reach a younger era, as they stated. Although it was the same timing and flow as in the past, Jae-chan felt uneasy. While Han Taehoon had indeed stood against Black Swan until the end, seeing him rapidly climbing the promotion ladder made it seem like he might be in cahoots with the government.

    There was much to say about the actions of the current government, which was little more than a puppet of the President. He suddenly remembered the articles he had looked up in December while talking to Woo-jin on the phone. The reports were strangely coinciding with the cyber-terrorist group incident.

    [Bulk drug packages found near the river, turn out to be a new type of drug]

    [Despite promises of harsh punishment for drug distribution… Signs of mass drug trafficking detected]

    [Drug trafficking investigation neglected… Police suspected of “turning a blind eye”]

    It could be speculation, but if it was a coincidence, it was a remarkably well-timed one. A week after that, when the terrorist group incident had brought about a nationwide uproar, he tried to access the articles again, a popup stating “This article has been deleted due to circumstances of the press”.

    They were really playing dirty. Frowning, Jae-chan abruptly turned off the TV and stood up.

    Today was the day Woo-jin was returning from Zone Z after three weeks.

    Perhaps the government had finished its shady cleanup, as the concentrated media coverage on the hacking terror had quieted down since the New Year, and the lockdown order had been lifted. Jae-chan gathered the shopping bags he had left beside him and stood up.

    Perhaps because what he was carrying was so eye-catching, he attracted quite a few glances even as he chose to leave the building through less crowded areas.

    As he waited at the back entrance of the Guide Bureau at the appointed time, a familiar convertible glided to a stop in front of Jae-chan.

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