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    *

    The ‘New Guide Welcoming Ceremony’ hosted by the Guide Bureau was held on a larger scale than the previous years by renting a banquet hall at a nearby hotel. This was intended to showcase Han Tae-hoon’s appointment as the new Director. Invitations were distributed more liberally than before, with team leaders, influential figures within the center, and families of guides who passed the promotion exam all expected to attend.

    So, on the day of the event, in the lobby of the Central Hotel in District 1. Song Se-in, waiting with Han Myeong-gyu and Choi Kang-man for the unusually late Nam Hae-sol, widened her eyes at the sight of Seon Jae-chan arriving on time.

    “What? Senior, are you going in dressed like that?”

    He had been so considerate to them, even providing hair salon and makeup shop gift vouchers, saying it was a secret from other teams. Yet the senior himself looked the same as usual. His clear face without any makeup and his fluffy hair.

    In particular, the outfit was a bit unusual. Today, the senior was dressed entirely in black from head to toe; while the black long coat was one thing, no one expected him to show up in a turtleneck covering his neck.

    “You’re the main characters, not me. Where’s the other one gone?”

    As Jae-chan casually responded while looking for Hae-sol, she arrived.

    “Sunbae! Everyone…!”

    Nam Hae-sol, holding a white clutch bag, approached with quick steps.

    She looked dazzlingly beautiful today wearing the dress Jae-chan gifted her. People heading to the banquet hall couldn’t help but glance at her. Her newly cut hair swayed freshly at her ears.

    The apprentices were equally surprised by their classmate’s transformation. Among them, Han Myeong-gyu, mouth agape, muttered “…light mint color?” while looking back and forth between Nam Hae-sol and Seon Jae-chan. It was the color the senior had recommended when Song Se-in had proposed coordinating dress codes, though that plan had fallen through.

    Meanwhile, Jae-chan, surprised by Hae-sol’s even more beautiful appearance than before, suddenly felt relieved.

    He recalled the conversation he had with Woo-jin before parting in front of the dormitory yesterday.

    ‘You might not be able to come to the welcome ceremony tomorrow?’

    ‘…Yeah. A mission came up.’

    Woo-jin added an apology in his characteristically calm tone. But Jae-chan actually thought it was an opportunity.

    ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s fine, I’ll just come to where you are. Leave me a message.’

    ‘What about you?’

    ‘Huh?’

    ‘Are you going to the welcome ceremony?’

    ‘I’m their senior mentor, so. Well, I just need to show my face briefly.’

    Still, Woo-jin seemed somewhat reluctant, so Jae-chan insisted firmly.

    ‘Let me come pick you up for once too. Okay?’

    As he held Woo-jin’s sleeve and gently shook it, Woo-jin, who had been watching silently, embraced him warmly. After that, the two stayed in the dark emergency exit of the building and shared a passionate kiss for a long time. Although Woo-jin kissed him a bit roughly, uncharacteristically biting here and there on his ear and chin, Jae-chan took it as Woo-jin’s agreement.

    That guy probably won’t come.

    So he won’t see Nam Hae-sol looking like this either.

    Jae-chan felt relieved as he pulled up the collar of his sweater that kept seeming to slip down. He was conscious of the marks left from Woo-jin’s particularly persistent behavior yesterday.

    Then Jae-chan suddenly noticed something strange. Nam Hae-sol and Han Myeong-gyu’s expressions looked sour as if something had happened in a short period of time.

    “Sunbae, by any chance, Nam Hae-sol’s dr-“

    Just as Han Myeong-gyu began to speak, Nam Hae-sol suddenly reached from behind and covered his mouth. Han Myeong-gyu’s eyes crinkled above his now-askew glasses.

    “It’s nothing. Let’s go quickly!”

    Hurry! Nam Hae-sol, still covering Han Myeong-gyu’s mouth, urged them on.

    What’s going on? Jae-chan raised his eyebrows and thought that he would have to ask Song Se-in or Choi Kang-man later. They followed the crowd and headed to the banquet hall. As they were passing through people poured out of the elevator:

    Bzzt, a vibration from his pocket made Jae-chan stop.

    “You go ahead.”

    Since it was a call from his aunt who had been transferred to District 5, Jae-chan immediately accepted the call and glanced toward the entrance.

    The apprentices looked confused and headed to the venue first. Only Nam Hae-sol looked back at Jae-chan from time to time.

    As soon as the apprentices entered, Jae-chan began running back outside the way he had come.

    *

    To summarize his aunt’s phone call, it was as follows.

    -Jae-chan, your mom has been a little strange lately. She asked me to help her get a divorce…

    -I haven’t been able to contact her since the day before yesterday. I’m in District 5 now, so I can’t go.

    She asked him to check on his mother’s well-being if possible. Since it was his aunt’s request, he naturally accepted and immediately left the hotel, got into a taxi, and headed to his family home located on private property in the northern part of District 1.

    “Oh my. Is this some kind of park? Or maybe a corporate training center?”

    The taxi driver asked, pointing at the winding road stretching inside and the dense trees rising on both sides, as he stopped in front of the iron gate.

    “Yes, something like that.”

    Jae-chan paid the fare and got out. Normally, he would have driven in, but he sent the taxi away in case the gate wouldn’t open.

    As expected, there was no response when he rang the doorbell. Jae-chan examined the CCTV cameras installed high on both sides and the unresponsive speaker before calling his father after a long time.

    He bowed his head deeply while listening to the ongoing dial tone. Just as Jae-chan was closely examining the lock on the iron gate through the gap:

    Beep-. With a short electronic sound, the gates opened on both sides.

    “…”

    Jae-chan walked slowly as he cautiously surveyed the place he had considered his home for over 20 years.

    The mansion, boasting a massive 25,000 square meters, was built by his father in his youth with his own money to live up to his reputation as a Union hero.

    Befitting the long-time residence of a Union Hero, the mansion was enormous with an indoor area alone reaching about 4,000 square meters. The main building alone had over ten bedrooms and bathrooms, and the annexes included separate Esper training grounds and research facilities.

    The garden was full of old evergreen trees. Jae-chan passed by a small lake managed by the company Nam Myeong-sung used to belong to, and a golf fairway with grass withered due to winter, before reaching the entrance. An unfamiliar employee was waiting to greet him.

    “This way, please.”

    The place he was directly led to was a traditionally decorated reception room, contrary to the exterior.

    It seemed they were treating him as a guest. Jae-chan crossed his legs indifferently, not touching the jujube tea and snacks that were served as if they had been prepared in advance. After waiting for a while, the reception room door opened again.

    “What brings you here?”

    His father entered, dressed in casual clothes. As Jae-chan also didn’t want to talk for long, he immediately stated his purpose.

    “I came to see my mother.”

    “…”

    Seon Min-yeol’s brow furrowed.

    It was the first time Jae-chan had asked to see his mother. His mother didn’t like him as a son, and Jae-chan too often creaked like a broken robot in front of his mother.

    “A son might want to see his mother sometimes, right?”

    “Your mother is out.”

    “Is that so? She hasn’t been reachable for days.”

    Jae-chan quoted his aunt’s words. His father’s expression was still unreadable. However, his complexion was a bit darker than usual. He seemed unable to focus his gaze as if his judgment was impaired.

    “Then I’ll just go to my room briefly. There’s something I need.”

    Further confrontation seemed pointless. As Jae-chan stood up, making an excuse to look around the house:

    “Wait. Stay put.”

    His father, who hadn’t even sat down, covered his tired face with his hand. He spoke as if in a trance.

    “You want to see your mother, is that it? Secretary Jeon.”

    It seemed he might let him see her. Watching his father call the secretary on his phone, Jae-chan decided to wait and see what would happen.

    The door opened, and what arrived was half a dozen burly men led by his father’s secretary.

    What kind of situation is this?

    For a moment, Jae-chan was dumbfounded when he saw the bodyguards wearing in-ears and black suits. He moved before he could think, immediately standing up from the sofa and distancing himself from the guards while pulling out his phone. He called Go Woo-jin at lightning speed. It was thought that Woo-jin would be more reliable than the Northern Police Department that his father might have reached out to. However-

    [Out of service area.]

    Since when?

    Jae-chan looked at his cell phone and was bewildered again. Even if this was a sudden decision, he should have checked his phone intermittently while heading into enemy territory. Acknowledging the new lesson learned thanks to his father, he asked:

    “Are you planning to lock me up too? Like Mother?”

    “Watch your words. You are in no position to speak so recklessly.”

    “I’m not so sure about that. You’re being irrational. If I become unreachable too, Grandfather will step in.”

    Jae-chan shrugged and mentioned his maternal grandfather, Gu Hee-gon, instead of his aunt, in anticipation of his father’s next move. If Jae-chan also went out of contact, his aunt wouldn’t hesitate to seek help from the family.

    “Stay locked up for a few days. That should be enough for your mother to come to her senses.”

    With everything giving him a headache, Seon Min-yeol turned his head away as if avoiding reality.

    “And if not?”

    His stubborn son kept arguing back even as he was being dragged away by the security guards, but Seon Min-yeol didn’t bother to respond. Jae-chan was escorted to the second floor with his shoulders and arms roughly held.

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