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    2. Shadow 2 (Part 5)

    After hanging up the phone, Cheon Sejoo stubbed out his cigarette and went to search for Ehwagak’s manager. It was because Chae Beomjun had asked him to fetch some side dishes from her as a favor.

    Ah, Manager Cheon.”

    He soon spotted the manager near the kitchen. She was carrying bundles of side dishes in both hands. It seems like she had just finished packing up the items Chae Beomjun had requested just in time.

    “Let me carry that.”

    Cheon Sejoo reached out and took the side dishes from her hands. Han Jiwon gave him a knowing smile as she handed them over. Sejoo, understanding the meaning behind her gaze, averted his eyes. As someone whose body did not respond to women, he had no choice but to politely ignore her. Han Jiwon chuckled softly, as if she expected this would happen, and brought up Kim Hyunkyung.

    Ms. Hyunkyung is doing well in her job. I didn’t expect it, but she seems to have a lot of experience working in the kitchen.”

    Han Jiwon mentioned Kwon Sejin’s mother with a sympathetic expression. Cheon Sejoo could also understand Han Jiwon’s feelings. Despite looking pale, Kim Hyunkyung’s face was so beautiful that her haggardness added to her charm. Just by looking at her, she didn’t seem like someone who had lived a hard life. Han Jiwon let out a small sigh and continued speaking with a regretful face.

    “And since working in the hall pays much better than the kitchen, Ms. Hyunkyung wants to work in the hall. But you know too, Manager Cheon. All sorts of scumbags come and go here.”

    “That’s true.”

    To work as a manager at a place like Ehwagak, it seemed one couldn’t manage with just an ordinary personality. Hearing the word “scumbags” from the usually well-behaved Manager Han Jiwon made Cheon Sejoo suppress a smile and nod in agreement.

    “Ms. Hyunkyung will be in trouble as soon as she starts serving in the hall. Rather than getting caught up with those guys, it’s better for her to work in the kitchen.”

    Ehwagak was a place where various influential figures from political and financial circles gathered. All kinds of people came and went, making backdoor deals, and among them, it was rare to find someone with a decent character. Even though Ehwagak tried to protect its employees, there were limits to that, so for those without any backing, it was best to stay out of sight. Cheon Sejoo agreed with this sentiment and looked back at Han Jiwon.

    “Then, Manager, you should also move to the kitchen.”

    Han Jiwon’s eyes widened at his joke, and she burst into laughter. Cheon Sejoo laughed along with her and chatted a bit more. They intended to pass the time until the promised hour would come.

    After about thirty minutes spending the time like that, Cheon Sejoo, who had loaded the side dishes into his car, returned to the dormitory just as the time was up. Both Kwon Sejin and Kim Hyunkyung were already outside.

    Cheon Sejoo walked toward them at a slower pace than usual. The sight of the mother and son, who looked so much alike, caught his eye immediately. Kim Hyunkyung was stroking Sejin’s cheek, trying to soothe him, while Sejin, with a sullen face, was shaking his head.

    You wanted to see her so much, but now you’re acting like you don’t care….

    Cheon Sejoo approached them with a somewhat nagging thought in his mind. Just as he was about to gesture to Kwon Sejin to go, Kim Hyunkyung approached him first and grabbed his hand.

    “Sir.”

    “…Yes?”

    Her hands, wrapping around the back of his hand, were warm. The unfamiliar yet familiar title brought back memories. Sir—a title he had forgotten—left Cheon Sejoo momentarily unable to shake off the hand of Kim Hyunkyung, who was a head shorter than him, and his face turned to one of confusion. Kim Hyunkyung, holding his hand tightly, smiled gently and spoke.

    “Since he was young, I’ve taught Sejin to cook and clean well. The kid might be a bit rude, but despite how he speaks like that, he’s very affectionate and takes good care of people.”

    “Ah, yes…”

    He couldn’t understand why she was saying this all of a sudden. He wanted to pull his hand away, but his arm wouldn’t move. Swallowing his confusion, Cheon Sejoo slowly nodded. Seeing this, Kim Hyunkyung continued speaking.

    “Even though he looks frail, he’s healthy and rarely gets sick. He’s good at running errands, and you don’t need to give him money for doing chores. You don’t need to provide heating or air conditioning either. Even though he says he doesn’t like it, he listens well, so you won’t have to worry about him.”

    “……”

    From those words of reassurance, Cheon Sejoo had a vague, very vague understanding of what she was trying to convey. He frowned and kept his mouth shut. The more his expression hardened, the tighter Kim Hyunkyung’s grip on his hand became. With such a desperate and earnest attitude, she finally smiled and made her request.

    “So, until I can leave here… could you please take care of Sejin?”

    Cheon Sejoo felt a faint tremble in her voice. He looked down at Kim Hyunkyung, who bowed her head before him, her lips trembling.

    A woman several years older than him, with her neck flushed red with shame, was suppressing her embarrassment and pleading with Cheon Sejoo. Begging him to please take care of her son, who had nowhere else to go….

    Previously, Sejin had told Cheon Sejoo, when asked about his future plans, that everything would be resolved once he found his mother. But now, it was clear that such optimism was unfounded.

    What could she possibly do?

    She couldn’t leave Ehwagak, nor could she contact the outside world, so strictly speaking, Kim Hyunkyung’s situation was worse than Kwon Sejin’s. Therefore, she had no choice but to bow her head down to a man she barely knew and plead, treating him as her last lifeline. Hoping him to have pity on her son, who had nowhere else to go….

    “……”

    But how can I…

    Cheon Sejoo, feeling the discomfort rising within him, couldn’t say a word. From a distance, Sejin, who had been watching them, saw his expression and approached with a frown. Sejin grabbed his mother’s arm, who was bowing her head, and pulled her away.

    “Stop it, Mom.”

    “Stay out of this, Kwon Se-jin!”

    However, Kim Hyunkyung shook him off and gripped Cheon Sejoo’s hand even tighter. As if making a vow, she muttered that she might never meet him again once they left now.

    Through her conversation with her son, she realized that this meeting could not have happened without Cheon Sejoo. Kim Hyunkyung knew that for her to continue seeing her son, Kwon Sejin could not go anywhere other than Cheon Sejoo’s house. That was why. For her son’s sake, she had no choice but to shamelessly bow her head down to a man who looked much younger than her.

    “Please… just for two years, no, until he becomes an adult. If you keep him, I’ll repay your kindness when I get out.”

    The image of the woman abandoning her pride and bending her waist was seared into his memory. The desperation of a mother struggling not to lose her child struck Cheon Sejoo’s heart like lightning. He almost heard something shattering inside him.

    “Please, sir…”

    But he intended to kick Kwon Sejin out of his house once today’s meeting was over. He had already abandoned the idea of handing him over to an orphanage, and he had never thought of taking in a young man like him. Feeling troubled, he frowned and looked at Kwon Sejin. Meeting his gaze, Sejin bit his lip. Then, with a stronger grip, he pulled Kim Hyunkyung away from Cheon Sejoo.

    “I said stop!”

    At Sejin’s fierce shout and firm grip, Kim Hyunkyung was finally pulled away, and Cheon Sejoo took the opportunity to escape the situation. His head was throbbing. Rubbing his forehead against the persistent headache, he pretended not to hear her pleading voice asking him to wait a moment longer.

    Returning to the parking lot, Cheon Sejoo perched on the hood of his car and lit a cigarette. As he inhaled the acrid smoke, he quietly sorted out his thoughts.

    …In fact, taking in an extra mouth to feed at home wasn’t that difficult. He did need someone to help with the housework. The house was too big for one person to manage, and Cheon Sejoo struggled to keep the living room, bedroom, and kitchen clean. He usually got side dishes from Moon Sunhyuk or ordered food, but he was thoroughly tired of both.

    No, that’s not right. Cheon who had been thinking that far, shook his head and sighed. It made more sense to hire someone rather than take in a young boy. Feeling frustrated, he undid another button on his shirt and turned his head toward where the wind was blowing.

    At the end of September, the wind blowing through Ehwagak, nestled in the mountains, was chilly. Despite the intense sunlight, the wind was cold enough to give him goosebumps on the back of his neck. Cheon Sejoo repeated the same thought in his mind.

    It’s none of my business.

    Nevertheless, the image of Kim Hyunkyung bowing her head in shame would not leave his mind. Blaming his own weak mind, Cheon Sejoo continuously rubbed one side of his forehead with the hand holding the cigarette.

    Since vowing to become Shin Gyoyeon’s dog, Cheon Sejoo had to abandon himself. The Cheon Sejoo who was weak to children, the one who softened around women, the one who easily opened his heart out of sympathy, the one who tried hard to save lives—all had to be killed by his own hands. Yet no matter how many times he tried to kill these parts of himself, they resurfaced like weeds over time.

    Cheon Sejoo had covered himself with many masks to hide his true nature, but there were always faces that pierced through them all. During moments like this, he deeply realized that people don’t change easily.

    However, he couldn’t ignore that single bit of sympathy, and bringing Kwon Sejin into his home would trouble him greatly. Whether it was a housekeeper or a cleaner, bringing Sejin into his home meant that Cheon Sejoo would have to take some responsibility for him. Struggling to even take care of himself, taking responsibility for someone else was out of the question.

    “Haah…”

    D*mn it. I shouldn’t have helped him in the first place….

    Muttering curses under his breath out of frustration, Cheon Sejoo suddenly heard the sound of gravel crunching and turned his head. He saw Kwon Sejin, his eyes red like a rabbit’s, walking toward the car with a determined expression. Cheon Sejoo glanced around in front of the staff dormitory. There was no sign of Kim Hyunkyung, who had apparently gone inside.

    “……”

    Kwon Sejin approached silently and climbed into the passenger seat without saying anything to Cheon Sejoo. As Cheon Sejoo opened the door to the driver’s seat, Sejin at the same time, raised his hand and wiped his tear-filled eyes with his sleeve.

    The black hoodie Sejin wore was slightly wet from where the tears had soaked in. Noticing this as he started the car, Cheon Sejoo frowned. The mother and son pair both made him uncomfortable.

    “Where to?”

    However, Cheon Sejoo tried hard to ignore that discomfort. When he asked in a deliberately nonchalant voice, Sejin responded curtly, as if he hadn’t expected any concern.

    “Please drop me off near your company.”

    His tone, as if he expected nothing more from him, made Cheon Sejoo inexplicably annoyed. Kwon Sejin was the one who had caused all the trouble for Kim Hyunkyung and Cheon Sejoo, yet he himself seemed indifferent. Sighing, Cheon Sejoo silently stepped on the accelerator. They passed through Gyeonggi Province, entered Seoul, crossed the Han River, and headed toward Gangnam without exchanging a single word.

    After a long while, a cold silence passed, and the car stopped in front of Shinsa Capital. Sejin held the door handle as if silently asking for the door to be unlocked. Just as Kwon Sejin was about to get out without saying anything, Cheon Sejoo eventually spoke first.

    “Hey. Don’t you have anything to say to me?”

    At those words, Sejin, who had been staring outside the window while holding the door handle, turned his head. His face showed clear signs of annoyance. He bit his lip, glared at Cheon Sejoo with a sullen expression, then soon turned away his head again and muttered.

    “… Thank you for helping me.”

    That’s not what I meant…

    A sudden frustration rose within him. It felt like there was something more he needed to hear. Cheon Sejoo stared at Kwon Sejin. His small lips were moving as if he had more to say. However, Sejin ultimately gave up on opening his mouth. He just nodded as if that was all he had to say and opened the passenger door.

    “Is that really all you have to say?”

    In the end, Cheon Sejoo grabbed him. Asking that made him feel like he was the one pathetically begging for a chance to help him. He wondered who really needed help here.

    However, Sejin merely frowned at Cheon Sejoo’s question. As if wondering what more he wanted to hear, Sejin gave him an annoyed look, got out of the car, and walked away.

    That was the end of it. Sejin disappeared down the alley without even looking back. His attitude was cold enough to make Kim Hyunkyung’s request seem meaningless.

    Thus, Cheon Sejoo thought Kwon Sejin must have some plan. He assumed there must be a way for Sejin to manage well enough not to worry Kim Hyunkyung.

    However, he realized within less than a week that this was not the case.

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