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    2. Shadow 2 (Part 1)

    That man had gone and caused trouble again.

    Kwon Sejin clenched his fists as he recalled the last time he had seen his father. He should have broken his legs instead of just punching his face. No, he should have just killed him. If he had, none of this would have happened…

    In the midst of belated regret, Sejin made a vow. If that person ever appeared in front of him again, he would do whatever it took to end his life and put an end to it.

    Kwon Sejin had no choice but to stay at the Shinsa Capital building. He had nowhere else to go.

    After his mother was taken, he returned home to find it completely empty. The landlord had yelled at him not to come back, saying that gangsters had taken the deposit. All he had left was the transportation card in his pocket, which only even had 4,000 won on it. To make matters worse, Sejin had no relatives or friends to ask for a place to stay for even a night.

    The only thing Sejin could do in that situation was to meet his mother. He didn’t know where to sleep, whether to go to school, or whether to work for money. There was only one person who could answer these questions for him. Other than his mother, there was no other ‘proper’ adult who could guide him on what he should do.

    Thus, Sejin waited in that hallway for four days.

    On the first day, he asked the men who had dragged his mother away to let him see her. What he got in return was a burst of ridiculous laughter. But Sejin didn’t back down. He sat in the hallway leading to their office as if he was protesting, shouting for them to let him see his mother whenever they passed by. He got no response. He was hungry. That’s how the first day passed.

    On the second day, one of the gangsters offered him some leftover bread, which he ignored, thinking they were treating him like a beggar. In response, the men began to intentionally intimidate him, acting as if they were going to hit him every time they passed by.

    Sejin wanted to shout at them to get lost, but he kept his mouth shut, fearing they might actually hit him. It wasn’t the fear of getting hurt that silenced him, it was the fear of paying hospital bills. So, he had no choice but to crouch down, enduring silently.

    As time passed, his hunger turned into suffering. Drinking water from the restroom tap, Sejin regretted rejecting the bread, and that regret made him feel even more miserable.

    On the third day, the hunger was more bearable than on the second day, but he no longer had the strength to shout for his mother. Sejin sat hunched in the hallway, glaring at the men as they passed by. By then, they didn’t even look at him. He wondered if he would die before he ever saw his mother, feeling a chilling sense of disregard.

    Then on the fourth day, a man finally responded to his unreasonable requests.

    The man’s presence was felt even before he appeared.

    Even though Sejin was in the hallway, he heard a loud greeting from outside the building. Someone important must be coming, Sejin thought, imagining a middle-aged man with a potbelly and a menacing face. He resolved to shout and demand to see his mother when the man appeared. He couldn’t miss this opportunity.

    However, when the footsteps finally approached, the man who appeared before Sejin was tall and handsome, like someone out of a noir film. The man’s cold gaze swept over him, and Sejin couldn’t bring himself to speak. He just watched in a daze as the man walked away.

    It wasn’t until the man got into the elevator that Sejin snapped back to reality. He thought, Surely, that can’t be him. If he had any sense, someone that handsome wouldn’t be working as a loan shark. If Sejin looked like that, he would have become a celebrity right away and make a fortune.

    Unfortunately, the elevator stopped on the third floor where Shinsa Capital was located. Later, the bald loan shark who appeared asked Sejin not to cause any trouble because “the boss” had arrived. Clearly, the handsome man was the bald man’s superior.

    Sejin cursed himself for judging people based on their appearance. In a split second, he had assumed that someone so good-looking couldn’t be a bad person, which now felt utterly foolish.

    While he was inwardly cursing himself, the man reappeared before him.

    “Get up,” the man said. He looked like a handsome actor from an old Hong Kong movie. From the ID card the man handed him, Sejin learned the man’s name but immediately assumed the ID was fake. It was because he didn’t hesitate to hand it over and because the name fit him so perfectly that it felt so strange, like a fake name.

    How could he trust a man who looked like a gangster and carried a fake ID?

    But Sejin had no other choice. He had waited for four days, and this was the first man to mention his mother. So, despite knowing the man had ulterior motives, Sejin had to follow him.

    There was a brief moment of regret when the man tried to harass him under the pretense of fastening his seatbelt when they got in the car. But the man seemed different from the others. He appeared to have the power to help Sejin. Even the men at the entrance of the building bowed to him. So, despite the man’s annoying threats, Sejin didn’t jump out of the car. He needed to meet his mother.

    This man was Sejin’s only lifeline.

    The man’s house which was pretending to be nice to him and had hidden motives was incredibly large. It was the kind of place that made Sejin think he lived well off other people’s misery. It disgusted him, so he decided to act a little more shamelessly. The man’s wealth had come from people like him, so he thought it didn’t matter and felt justified in taking advantage.

    After eating the seolleongtang the man had ordered, Sejin felt dirty and headed to the bathroom. He confirmed there were enough towels for several days and undressed. Underneath his hoodie was a school uniform shirt with a blue name tag that read “Kwon Sejin” from East Seoul Boys High School.

    “Are you really a girl?”

    Sejin had dodged the man’s question for a reason. After all, the man seemed to be a pervert who liked young girls. His lecherous gaze as he looked Sejin up and down gave him away. Sejin planned to use this misunderstanding to his advantage. He hated being mistaken for a girl, but if it helped him meet his mother, he would tolerate it all.

    But what if he found out that he was a man later? Would the man beat him up?

    Sejin thought about this as he washed his hair, which he had grown out with an excuse to his mother because he didn’t want to waste money at the barbershop.

    The man’s hands on the steering wheel were large and covered in small scars. Getting hit by those hands would surely hurt. It would hurt much more than being hit by that wretched man he didn’t want to call father. Sejin resolved to hide the fact that he was a boy as much as possible while he washed his body.

    While washing up, Sejin hand-washed his underwear and shirt. He made sure to hang them discreetly inside the shower booth where the man couldn’t see. Although it felt unpleasant, he put his uniform pants back on and pulled his hoodie over them. The hoodie was even dirtier, but he couldn’t wash it. Without the hoodie, the thin shirt would make it obvious he was a boy as he doesn’t have a breast, unlike girls.

    After cleaning up, Sejin felt a wave of fatigue wash over him. Despite wanting to stay awake, worrying about his mother’s whereabouts and condition, he couldn’t fight the overwhelming sleepiness that slowly crept on him. Sejin leaned against the bed and soon fell asleep sitting on the floor.

    “Can I come in?”

    It was much later when Sejin woke up to a voice. The once bright room was now enveloped in darkness. Realizing he had slept until evening, Sejin quickly stood up and pulled his hoodie tightly over his head. He pulled the drawstring to tie a ribbon at his neck and bent his head low to hide his adam’s apple.

    “I’m coming in.”

    The thug-like man didn’t wait for a response before opening the door and entering. Sejin was unaware that the man had been knocking for ten minutes. He was only acutely aware that the man, who mistook him for a young girl, was coming into his room late at night.

    With nothing to use as a weapon, Sejin gripped a pillow tightly and sat on the edge of the bed, watching the man intently without blinking. The man was wearing a loose white T-shirt and loose gray pants, similar to before. His lean legs and firm chest showed through the thin fabric, an appearance that seemed intentionally provocative. It was disgusting.

    As Sejin frowned, the man glanced around the room as if inspecting it, then extended something toward him. Curious, Sejin looked and saw a paper bag. Inside were items wrapped in plastic.

    “Clothes and underwear… things like that. You probably don’t have any clothes to change into.”

    “…”

    Kwon Sejin raised his eyes and stared at the man. The man’s face, shadowed by the dim light, had features so beautiful that it was almost enviable. His handsome face, combined with his cold expression, would make anyone grateful to receive such a gesture. Sejin, momentarily entranced, accepted the bag before snapping out of it.

    His mother had always said that handsome men were worth their looks. His terrible father was a prime example of this. Reminding himself that the actor-like man before him was a loan shark who had taken in a helpless young girl, Sejin spoke.

    “Thank you.”

    Maybe, just maybe, the man was genuinely trying to help him out of pure goodwill. But Sejin didn’t believe the world was that kind. The man surely had an ulterior motive.

    It was already suspicious that the man tolerated his constant informal speech without reprimand. If he didn’t want anything, Sejin would have already been beaten several times over. As Sejin stewed in these thoughts and gradually became more wary, the man asked.

    “What do you want for dinner? Do you have something you would like? Should I just order chicken?”

    “…Anything is fine.”

    Sejin lowered his head, avoiding the man’s gaze, feeling a bitter laugh rise within him. Did the man think he could win him over with chicken? As if anyone would fall for that nowadays.

    “Alright, I’ll order anything then. Come out when I call you.”

    With a nod, the man turned and left without hesitation. The thin T-shirt clung to his back, faintly revealing the outline of a tattoo. As he grabbed the doorknob and turned it, the long tail of a black stripe moved over his prominent shoulder blades. Typical gangster, showing off his tattoos like that.

    Sejin scoffed and opened the paper bag. Despite the man’s intentions, he was grateful. He had been feeling uncomfortable in the clothes he’d worn for days.

    “…”

    However, the gratitude quickly faded. Pulling out the packaged clothes, Sejin scowled.

    The man had bought a long-sleeved nightgown with a strange cartoon character on it. Moreover, it didn’t look like it would fit at all. Seeing the size ‘170’ on the packaging, Sejin tossed the clothes to the floor.

    “Is he an idiot?”

    170 was a size that would fit for children. Buying clothes for elementary school students… At this age, at this height, does it make sense to think that size fits? Did he think the ‘170’ referred to height?

    Annoyed, Sejin rummaged through the bag, hoping to find a T-shirt. Soon, he found some packaged underwear, but it was equally useless as even those were not things he would wear. The panties had cute lace trims and little bows in pink, yellow, and light purple. The beige bra had hearts on it.

    Sejin, unable to bear it any longer, threw the items to the floor.

    It was all trash. Cursing inwardly, he pushed the nightgown and underwear aside. Wearing the clothes he’d had on for days seemed better.

    Sejin, who was feeling depressed, sat on the floor with his back against the bed and crouched down, lost in thought.

    Could this pervert really help him meet his mother? Was someone with such twisted thoughts capable of fulfilling his request?

    Doubt surged, but he had no choice. Since this man was the only one who had mentioned his mother, so he had to hold on to hope. Sejin sighed and rested his chin in his hand. The past two days had been so draining that he hadn’t even thought much. Now, after putting some food in his stomach and getting some sleep, he began to feel a sense of suffocation and restlessness.

    He wondered what Ewhagak was and what his mother was doing.

    Was she starving like him? Was the work hard?

    He also wondered what he should do next. But no matter how much he thought, he had no answers.

    It would have been nice if he could at least hear her voice, but his cell phone wasn’t receiving or sending calls, and his mother’s cell phone, which he had called several times from a public phone, was also turned off. It was a bleak situation. Frustrated and filled with natural resentment, Sejin buried his face in his hands, his small lips muttering harsh curses.

    After a long while, he heard a knock and the man’s voice.

    “Come out to eat dinner.”

    Shamelessly, the mention of food made him feel hungry all of a sudden. He sighed and got up from his spot. Following the man into the living room, he saw two boxes of chicken on the table where they had eaten seolleongtang earlier.

    The sweet and spicy aroma made his mouth water. He swallowed his saliva and approached the sofa as if in a trance. While he sat down, the man went to the kitchen and returned with microwaved instant rice.

    “Do you want rice?”

    Sejin nodded quickly, and the man placed one of the rice packs in front of him. It must be hot, so he held it by the side and even removed the plastic wrap for him. He then took out the wrapped chopsticks and handed it to him and then poured a cola into his cup. Sejin watched the man’s indifferent face as he took care of him, and then he quickly turned his gaze away.

    There was no need to be grateful for this. The men from Shinsa Capital had taken his mother away with a contract she had never signed. As their superior, this man was no different from the others—perhaps even worse.

    So, this is all disgusting hypocrisy and pretense. With that thought, Sejin opened his mouth and began to eat. While he was there, he planned to take full advantage of the man. The chicken was delicious.

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