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    But Yeowhi was resolute. He insisted on calling Ryubeom either ‘benefactor’ or ‘young master,’ and Ryubeom, glancing around, sighed.

    “By any chance, how old are you…?”

    “I’m older than you, young master.”

    Judging by appearance alone, Yeowhi looked to be in his mid to late twenties, early thirties at most. However, with beast-people, it was hard to determine age by appearance alone, and it was common for them to live over a hundred years. The elders of the tiger clan were several hundred years old, after all.

    Ryubeom was suddenly struck by his own behavior. He had spoken too casually to someone who was likely older and more mature than him. Had the family’s disdainful attitude toward foxes rubbed off on him? Flustered, Ryubeom stammered.

    “Oh, then I shouldn’t speak informally. I mean, I shouldn’t speak informally to you.”

    However, Yeowhi firmly shook his head.

    “No. You can address me as Yeowhi comfortably. If I use honorifics as part of repaying your kindness, would that make it easier?”

    “But…”

    “You said it wasn’t a big deal, but you saved my life. If you hadn’t helped, I would have been caught by the pursuing tiger.”

    Yeowhi’s rounded smile made Ryubeom’s lips move silently. It was hard to argue against such a pleasant smile. Perhaps that smile was the reason he kept getting tongue-tied. Whether it was out of guilt for his earlier rudeness or because he felt enchanted, he couldn’t tell.

    Sensing Ryubeom’s hesitation, Yeowhi joked.

    “If you don’t treat me comfortably, I’ll keep calling you ‘benefactor.’”

    “No, please, not that title.”

    “Do you like it, benefactor?”

    “No, I got it. Please, just stop…”

    Ryubeom finally nodded, feeling embarrassed. He wasn’t used to such an awkward situation, and the conversation itself felt bizarre. He had intended to be polite, but now he was being urged to speak informally.

    Yeowhi’s kind face made it seem like he was being treated with utmost care, but Ryubeom couldn’t shake the feeling of being swept along. Just as he was trying to convince himself it was a misunderstanding, Yeowhi suddenly grabbed his hand.

    “This hand… how did it get like this?”

    Yeowhi worriedly observed the wounds on Ryubeom’s hand. There were broken nails and numerous scratches all over his knuckles. Especially, there was a long, swollen cut that had recently formed on his palm, making Yeowhi furrow his brows.

    “This is… we should treat it quickly.”

    Ryubeom tried to pull his hand away, but Yeowhi firmly held onto him and led him. Ryubeom couldn’t help but feel flustered. The wounds were from yesterday in the mountains; he had fallen while chasing a fox. So, it felt ironic and uncomfortable that Yeowhi was offering to treat the wounds.

    Yet, at the same time, he felt oddly emotional. Although the wounds had worsened due to rolling in the wind on the mountain, the initial injury had occurred during yesterday’s midday proficiency test. Cheon Youngdo, who disliked him, had relentlessly attacked his hand, causing an injury right at the start. Because of the uncomfortable hand, he received failing grades in all subsequent subjects, and he ended up aggravating the injury by forcing himself through the exams.

    No one considered such circumstances, nor did they care about the wounds. To Cheon Ryubeom, these injuries were just a byproduct of inadequacy. Even if they weren’t injuries from training, no one in the family cared where Ryubeom got injured. They would only disdainfully consider it pathetic if it tarnished the family’s honor.

    That’s why Ryubeom couldn’t push Yeowhi away now. Even though he was a beast-man proficient in martial arts and could easily escape from a fox if he wanted to, he couldn’t easily shake off the warmth in his hands.

    “Why did you let it get this bad without treating it?”

    Yeowhi’s voice, filled with concern as if he were sad, sounded strange. Ryubeom didn’t resist any further and quietly watched Yeowhi treat the wounds.

    Unlike Ryubeom’s calloused hand, Yeowhi’s hand was soft. The long, slender fingers displayed a perfect figure, and for a moment, Ryubeom forgot the situation and marveled at his hand. His fingers were truly beautiful.

    Every time his white hand moved, the veins and knuckles that could be glimpsed momentarily resembled a painting.

    “It’s a bit embarrassing to see you staring at my hand so enthusiastically.”

    “Oh, no, it’s just…”

    Ryubeom was startled by Yeowhi’s gentle voice. Without realizing it, bandages had been neatly wrapped around his hand.

    Blushing slightly, Ryubeom was about to awkwardly express his gratitude when suddenly…

    Bang! The door opened with a loud noise.

    “If you come to Korea, you should say you’ve come…!”

    Ryubeom’s gaze shifted towards the figure who forcefully opened the door. The man, carrying a large box, had a bright chestnut-colored crew cut and round, slightly immature-looking eyes behind glasses. But what caught Ryubeom’s attention more than his appearance was his aura.

    He was a fox-man.

    Just then, he seemed to have sensed the tiger’s presence inside the house as his pupils dilated. Even though beast-men couldn’t immediately recognize each other’s species upon meeting, the presence of a tiger-man was particularly strong and distinct.

    The man seemed shocked to come across a tiger in an unexpected place, his mouth gaping open, before suddenly inhaling sharply and trembling slightly.

    “Ah…!”

    Was meeting a tiger really that surprising? Or perhaps, in that instant of encountering an intruder, his aura unknowingly sharpened in defense. Ryubeom cleared his throat awkwardly, trying to control his aura.

    For some reason, the fox-man’s gaze seemed slightly off.

    But soon, with a guarded expression, the fox-man turned back to Ryubeom and asked, “Wh-why is a tiger here…?”

    “The benefactor who saved us last night on Yeonggok Peak. Ease off the guard.”

    Yeowhi explained firmly, then turned to Ryubeom with a gentle smile. It was a distinctly different kind of warmth compared to when he first saw the beast-man at the door.

    “Master, this is… Gool. He’s the only one in our family who helps us.”

    Ryubeom sighed briefly as he glanced at Gool. He happened to have both hands full, carrying boxes and a large parcel. So, was he here to help with the move after just moving in?

    While Ryubeom pondered, the little foxes inside the house burst out excitedly.

    “Wow, it’s Goo-goo!”

    “Goo-goo!”

    “Hey, kids, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me Goo-goo?”

    “But you’re Goo-goo!”

    The little ones greeted him with bright faces, seemingly quite familiar with him. They ran around noisily, with even their ears and tails wagging in excitement.

    When beast-men with poor anthropomorphism felt intense emotions, they often revealed their ears and tails. Being overly happy, sad, or angry were typical examples. In fact, Ryubeom himself, until a few years ago, couldn’t control his anthropomorphism properly and his tail would often pop out, resulting in severe scolding from his family each time.

    But here, neither Yeowhi nor Gool scolded the kids. Ryubeom silently gazed at Geumo’s fluffy tail. He had heard stories about ordinary beast-men freely showing their animal forms. However, having grown up in a tiger family that strictly enforced maintaining anthropomorphism, the current scene felt too unfamiliar to Ryubeom.

    Suddenly, a phrase he had heard before flashed through his mind.

    “Even such a guy will be seen as a tiger; how embarrassing.”

    “Master? Your expression suddenly turned sour…”

    Just before sinking into deep contemplation, Yeowhi’s voice reached him. His gentle and affectionate voice, though it gently lifted Ryubeom from dark thoughts, also caused a significant sense of dissonance.

    Yeowhi’s voice was distinctly different from the reproachful tones Ryubeom was accustomed to hearing. Moreover, this place itself, this hospitable environment, felt unfamiliar to him.

    The misplaced curiosity he had felt since deciding to come here now made Ryubeom increasingly uneasy. Was it a sense of committing a wrong, or a fear of no longer being able to bear such looks?

    Ryubeom hesitated, then glanced briefly at the door.

    “I, I think I should go now.”

    “Huh? I wanted to treat you to a meal…”

    “No, no, it’s fine. Something just came up.”

    As he hurriedly nodded, his hand was grabbed again. Whether it was because Yeowhi noticed Ryubeom’s unhappy expression or out of concern reflected in Yeowhi’s eyes, Ryubeom felt his heart pounding even more anxiously.

    “Well, then, let’s definitely do it next time…”

    “No, it’s okay. Since I’ve already had my hand treated, I’m good to go. I’ll be off now.”

    Ryubeom forcefully pulled his hand away from Yeowhi’s grasp and dashed out without even properly greeting the little foxes standing at the door.

    Until he left the neighborhood like that, Ryubeom was tormented by a nauseous feeling.

    His stomach churned.

    ***

    I need to keep my distance from the fox. No, I shouldn’t meet them anymore.

    Returning to his attic room, Ryubeom made a resolution while wondering if the scent of the fox might linger, so he washed his body again. Intentionally dousing himself with cold water, he aimed to quell his bewildering emotions.

    The worry about the little foxes’ condition was unfounded, and the adult fox appeared fine too. Yeowhi had insisted on repaying his kindness, but since his hand had already been treated, Ryubeom considered the debt paid. In fact, he felt overwhelmed by the overflowing kindness.

    On the way home, Ryubeom deleted Yeowhi’s contact information. He hadn’t even saved it in the first place, but out of anxiety about being discovered, he deleted all call records and messages as well. Since the leaves were completely withered, there was no way he would remember that number. Throughout this process, Ryubeom behaved as if he were being chased by someone.

    He didn’t want to get used to kindness. To make a fuss over receiving kindness just once seemed unreasonable, especially since it was the only kindness he had received. So, he felt a sense of rejection.

    He didn’t want any basis for comparison. He was afraid of the stark contrast that was so prominent in his life. If he unconsciously compared, he would long for what was good. That would make it even more difficult for him to endure.

    The looks Ryubeom received in his daily life were completely different from those of the foxes.

    “We must ensure that no disturbances arise at this gathering.”

    That evening, the leaders and elders of the tiger clan walked to the center of Seoul.

    Famous beast clans often held gatherings to foster relationships with influential humans, as it was a culture established when humans and beasts began living together. However, gatherings of the tiger clan were somewhat special.

    Tigers held significant meaning in this land, so humans desired to receive ‘blessings’ from tiger-beasts. It was a well-known belief among humans that receiving a tiger’s blessing would dispel misfortune, bring blessings, and attract power and wealth.

    So, when humans held such gatherings, they often handed over bags to the elders, although they didn’t know exactly what was exchanged. All Ryubeom knew was that the focus of this meeting was a famous figure in the political world, a human so eminent that even the clan leader personally walked with them.

    All immediate family members of the clan attended such important meetings. The intention was for the descendants to build rapport with humans in advance and naturally integrate into human society later on. Ryubeom also attended the meeting, but his position was different from that of his cousins.

    Standing outside a traditional Korean restaurant with tiled roofs, Ryubeom stood with the security guards.

    “Do it properly. Be prepared to be expelled from the clan if any issues arise at this gathering.”

    “Yes.”

    Ryubeom nodded in response. It was a comment directed specifically at him among the many security guards. He knew that such comments revealed his position within the clan, but he didn’t show any particular reaction. He pretended not to hear the faint chuckle from the guard standing next to him.

    A few minutes later, tigers descended from the cars that arrived one by one. The humans had arrived early and were waiting inside the restaurant, while the tigers arrived precisely on time.

    As one of the elders passed by Ryubeom, he clicked his tongue lightly.

    “So small, tsk.”

    Half of the guards protecting the place today were humans, and the other half were beasts. They were all large and sturdy. However, Ryubeom was the smallest among them and didn’t even match the average size of the tiger clan.

    Ryubeom was a hybrid of tiger beast and human.

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