Before Minah had another word to say, Jiyong balled the apron up and threw it to her face. Fortunately, it was made of soft cloth, so it really didn't hurt her. She yelped and caught the apron with her two hands, surprised how Jiyong showed absolutely no mercy.
"You're working. Now." He crossed his arms. "Get in that uniform, and work."
"No. You can't make me."
"Are you stupid? Of course I can't make you work."
"I'm not working."
"You will work."
"I'm not your slave."
"Are you mocking me or do you not have eyes? Of course I know that you're not a slave."
"You can't force me to work."
"Boy, you sure are stubborn, huh?" Jiyong concluded. How do I get her to work? Man, I was teamed up with a troublesome teen.
"I'm not stubborn. I just like to be treated like a human being," Minah responded.
"You mean you want to be treated like a queen?"
Minah widened her eyes a bit. "A-A queen? N-No. That's no place for a girl like me."
"Then you can work, right?" Jiyong stepped closer to her, but Minah stepped back. He smirked, satisfied with her reaction. "Come on. Let's go."
When Jiyong opened the door, the two were distracted from their conversation to the clear window. Their focus was on Jiho who was standing outside of the convenience store, alone. Jiyong couldn't see Jiho's three friends anywhere; Jiho was completely isolated from his friends. However, the little boy was clearly not alone.
In front of Jiho stood Chanyeol and a few more faces that Jiyong didn't quite recognize. He squinted his eyes, frowning, displeased at the sight of a tough group of boys ganging up against one lone wolf. It was clear that Jiho was ready to fight, but it was even more clear that Jiho was going to be completely annihilated.
Chanyeol, on the other hand, seemed furious. His eyes showed hostility, like a mad man who wanted to avenge something. Blue veins appeared all over Chanyeol's balled fist, showing how much infuriation he had stored in his hand. Jiyong watched Chanyeol move his lips, and he could hear the barely audible yells coming through the shaking window pane.
Though Jiyong was more surprised to see Jieun standing nervously behind Chanyeol. It was hard to see her face, as she was wearing a large, black hood, but it was evident that she was terrified from the tense situation.
"Jiho…" Minah whispered, staring at the blond boy who was stepping up his game. Before Jiho had the chance to pull his sleeves up, Chanyeol spat at him and swung his fist. Minah gasped, almost mimicking Jieun's reaction.
Jiho was on the ground, his eyes wide and his face obviously in pain. With one hand comforting his sore belly, Jiho raised his other hand and threw an infuriated punch. However, one of Chanyeol's little friends managed to pull Chanyeol back, causing Jiho to miss his target. Behind the single teenager, another of Chanyeol's friend pushed up, causing Jiho to stumble over his own feet and collide against the ground. The poor boy had his palms scraped against the concrete in order to save himself from falling on his face. Jiho slowly got up, but he was pushed to the ground with one kick by a girl, who was also Chanyeol's friend.
Jiyong couldn't believe his eyes. Here he was, standing safely inside the store, watching someone he knew get beaten up by a gang of annoying high school students. What was he supposed to do?
What can I do? he wondered to himself.
"We have to call the cops," Minah told him. "In this type of situation, you just have to call the cops."
"No," Jiyong said quietly. "Just…Just resume."
Minah widened her eyes. "Resume? You mean continue working?"
"Yeah, just ignore the scene," Jiyong replied with a shaky voice.
"What? How could you say that! Someone is being beaten up out there!"
"Weren't you hanging with that group earlier? Aren't they your friends?" Jiyong pointed out. "For now, I can't do anything. I'm pretty sure someone else in the neighborhood called the cops…"
"At this time? We're the only one in the neighborhood who opens this late!"
"Even if we call the cops, he's still going to get hu—"
Jiyong stopped and widened his eyes when he saw Jiho coughing up blood. He felt his heart stop, as if he was just about to receive a heart attack. He watched Jiho crawl on the ground, trying to escape from the gang's wrath. However, Chanyeol's friends grabbed Jiho's arms, preventing him from escaping the deadly circle. When he saw Chanyeol mouth something to Jieun, she cautiously handed him a wooden bat. He could tell that Jieun was hesitant, but when Chanyeol turned his head to her, she only pushed the bat firmly in his hands. With a proud smirk and some final words, Chanyeol raised the weapon in the air.
Out of instinct, Jiyong jumped over the counter and swung the door open, flying in to defend Jiho from the attack.
"BASTARDS!" Jiyong screamed. Before the bat landed on Jiho's head, Jiyong pushed Chanyeol out of the way with his own body, throwing the two against the fenced wall. Unfortunately, Jiyong was the one who had to hit the wall, but he was satisfied to know that Jiho wasn't hurt.
"What the heck? Get off of me!" Chanyeol shouted. "Guys! Get him off of me!"
Two friends dropped Jiho's right arm and ran over to help Chanyeol. However, Jiyong kept a firm grip on Chanyeol's shoulder, making it harder for his friends to pull him away.
"Listen, brat," Jiyong hissed. "You think that you're king? You think that you can do whatever you please? Well, I get a lesson or two to teach you—" Jiyong turned to Chanyeol's friends, who tried to pry him off of the teen. "Damn it! Stop touching me!" Jiyong shot them a dark glare, causing Chanyeol's friends to slowly back away. He turned his attention back to Chanyeol. "You want to be king? Go ahead! Be a king, a tyrant—do whatever you want for I care! But this?" Jiyong brought his forehead against Chanyeol's. "If I dare to see you beat up anyone I know like this, don't be surprised to find yourself dead the next morning." He looked up at all of Chanyeol's friend with a blood-thirsty look in his eyes. "That goes for all of you! Every single damn one of you! If you touch this man again, I will make sure that you will never laugh and smile like you guys are doing now! If you still think this is funny, then wait until karma gets you! And if you don't believe in karma, then heck, you better believe that I'll be there in place of it."
Jiyong stared at everyone, who was frozen in fear. He panted hard, obviously ready to pounce on another guy despite the fact that he was tired from yelling at them so much.
To his surprise, the girl who kicked Jiho earlier to the ground broke into tears. She let out a cry, wailing, then ran away, overwhelmed with terrified emotions. Another girl followed, followed by two more guys. Eventually, all of Chanyeol's friends began to ran away. Chanyeol managed to pry himself off of Jiyong, and leaving the bat, he escaped with his friends. He left without saying a word, obviously humiliated and scared.
"A…Are you okay?" Jieun asked Jiyong quietly. It took him a second longer to realize that Chanyeol had left his girlfriend, which Jiyong thought was a bit funny. He chuckled quietly, and nodded his head as a big smile crawled upon his lips.
"Oh gosh…Oh man! That was hilarious!" Jiyong exclaimed, laughing.
"Are you hurt?" Jieun asked him, worried. "Did you hit your head?"
"I scratched my back, but that's all," Jiyong said. He looked around, and noticed Jiho staring at him with eyes that he couldn't quite read. He wasn't sure if Jiho was glaring at him, or if he was trying to say "thank you" silently. "Help me get him into the store."
"Y-Yes," Jieun stuttered, walking over to Jiho. She dragged him along the snow, and fortunately for her, Minah came out, holding the door for her. Jiyong followed behind them, walking into the store last.
The girls walked into the employee's room, helping Jiho lay down on the couch. Jiyong went ahead and pulled out a first-aid kit that was attached to the wall. He walked over to the group, pulled out three chairs for the girls and for him to sit, and dropped the kit on the table.
"So…Do any of you guys know how to do any of this?" Jiyong asked. He looked at Jiho. "Jiho, do you need to go to the hospital?"
"I'm…good," Jiho said in a hoarse voice. He coughed, and blood trickled down from the corner of his lips.
"It looks like he has a few severe scratches," Jieun said, staring at the palm of his hand.
"How do you stop him from bleeding?" Minah asked.
"Here, I can take care of this…" Jieun's voice trailed off as she looked up and saw Jiyong get up from the stool. "Where are you going?"
He blinked his eyes. "I still have work. I can trust you stay here, right?"
"It's okay. If you need me, I'll be behind the counter," Jiyong said. Just before he left the room, he glanced behind him, watching Minah flinch every time Jieun applied alcohol to Jiho's wounds. "Um, Minah?"
"Y-Yes?" Minah asked nervously.
"I believe that you're needed outside," Jiyong said, gesturing his chin to the door.
"I'll be outside," he reported, walking out. He smiled when he heard foot steps shuffle behind him. He straightened his shirt, and walked behind the counter. With a deep breath, he inhaled loudly and exhaled, clearing out his thoughts and continuing his job throughout the night.
When the rays broke the night sky, Jiyong's eyes slowly peeled opened. His nose had detected a scent of toasty eggs and some rice, just like the ones Jieun made when she had stayed at his home. He thought that he was dreaming, but when he thought about what had happened last night, there was no reason for him to think that everything was just a dream. He quickly sat up, only to find Jiho and Minah still sleeping, while Jieun had gotten up early to make breakfast for their aching bellies.
Jiyong quietly rubbed his eyes, trying to think about what had happened last night. Last night, after he had closed the store, he remembered trying to bring Jiho to the hospital, but Jiho kept insisting to stay at his house. He also remembered how Jieun asked him if he could stay over since she could help Jiho's wounds and she had nowhere else to go (after all, her boyfriend did ditch her just a while back). He didn't know why Minah wanted to tag along, but he supposed that she joined in because she didn't trust Jiyong, especially since he would be in charge of a girl and an injured boy. He remembered hesitating, not wanting to bring the kids over, but when Minah called her parents and already told them that she would be having a sleep over, they left her in his care.
So, while giving Jiho a piggy back ride and having Jieun and Minah tag behind him, he had brought three kids to his small home.
"Good morning," Jieun whispered, noticing that the older man was awake.
Jiyong rubbed the nape of his neck and drowsily stared at the girl standing nearby him. "Morning. What's all this?"
"Breakfast. I figured that you guys would be hungry when you wake up. This time, I actually used some supplies from your fridge. I left some money on the counter to repay you for the ingredients I used," Jieun said, pointing to the cash sitting on the corner of the counter.
"You don't really have to do that," Jiyong said. But thanks anyway.
"Did you sleep well? You looked like you had a nightmare," Jieun told him.
Nightmare? Jiyong thought hard, but he couldn't quite remember if he dreamt something or not. He did feel cold sweat staining the back of his shirt, but he assumed that it was from the heat from the floor.
He shook his head, while Jieun just nodded her head. She placed a perfect circular fried egg on a plate, and handed it for Jiyong to grab. He got up on his two feet, carefully walked over the two other's sprawled arms and legs, and managed to arrive in the kitchen with just two or three large steps. He grabbed his plate, and went over to the rice cooker to scoop out some rice on his plate.
"So when does school start for you?" Jiyong asked, leaning against the wall. He wasn't going to sit back down, especially since the two could kick him unconsciously.
"Um, it starts at eight, but then I arrive school at around five."
"Five? Why so early?"
"I have to do some tasks at school, so I go there early," Jieun said.
"When do students usually go to school?"
"Maybe six? Some of them still arrive at five like me, except they just study."
"Do you go to school with your boyfriend?"
"No…I go earlier alone. He knows that I head straight to school and sometimes straight back."
"Do you make his breakfast and lunch like this?"
"Yes. I've been doing all the cooking. He used to like my food, but now he's tired of eating the same thing."
"Have you cooked something different?"
"Yes, but he says that I don't cook with fresh ingredients, which is weird cause I always buy the food the night before or in rare occasions, early in the morning."
"So what does he want you to do?"
"Stop making the food."
"Do you like cooking?"
"I guess. It's fun to watch people eat my food," Jieun answered.
For quite some time, it was mostly Jiyong asking the questions while Jieun took the time to answer them. Jiyong didn't feel like it was a problem, but he did realize that his questions seemed to bother her. He could tell that she tried to be vague with her answers, but then Jiyong managed to get some little detail from her answers.
After a while of talking, Minah got up. For a second, she looked confused and scared, wondering what she was doing in such an unfamiliar room. She first saw Jiyong, and almost screamed until she recognized Jieun. As if she thought Jiyong was going to do something to her, Minah glared at him and wrapped herself around with the blanket.
"Uh, morning," Jiyong said, unsure if it was okay for him to greet her or not.
"Did you do anything to me last night?" Minah asked quickly.
Jiyong widened his eyes. "What? I—"
"I'm pretty sure you did—"
"Kid, I don't know—"
"—If you did, I will call the co—"
"Minah," Jieun interrupted them. Minah turned around to Jieun and closed her mouth, hesitating to talk to her. "Here. Have something to eat."
Minah kept quiet, and she continued to stare at Jieun. "You're Chanyeol's girlfriend, right? The introvert?"
"Hmph. You don't seem as all as he says you are," Minah told her.
"W-What does he say?" Jieun asked curiously, her voice getting smaller by the second.
"He says that you're perfect and you do whatever he wants you to do. He says that you two don't need to talk anymore to understand how the other partner is feeling. He says that just with one glance, you guys understand each other." Minah kept quiet. "He also says that you're a delinquent and fight a lot."
"A-A delinquent?" Jieun repeated.
Of course no word is needed for them. It's basically the boyfriend glaring at the girlfriend and the girlfriend understanding the message. He only needs words to force her to do something. A delinquent? He's probably using that to cover up the truth of why she has bruises on her face, Jiyong thought, realizing that Minah now saw Jieun's bruised eye.
"There's no way that Jieun's a delinquent," another voice said.
The three looked over to Jiho, who was slowly rising from the floor. The boy had an extremely bad morning hair, but everyone kept quiet. He glanced over at Minah, who was startled and looked down at her hands. Then, he looked at Jieun, who was still holding a plate of food in her hands.
"Can I take that?" Jiho asked.
"O-Of course," Jieun said, nodding her head as she went over to give Jiho the food.
"Thanks," he replied, taking the plate and the pair of chopsticks she handed up.
Jiyong looked down at his plate, and noticed that he was done eating. He walked over to put them in the sink, where Jieun stood next to him. She was just about to offer to put it away from him, but he managed to swipe away his plate to show that he was going to do his own task alone.
After putting his plate away in the sink, he looked over and leaned against the counter, staring at Jiho, who was eating, and Minah, who was receiving her food from Jieun.
"So when are you two planning to go to school?" Jiyong asked.
"When Jieun goes," Jiho told him.
"Then you literally leave in thirty minutes," Jiyong said.
"I-I'll go when everyone else goes!" Minah managed to say.
"It's the same for you, too. You guys have to hurry and eat," Jiyong said, turning around to wash the dishes.
Minah pouted, but then looked at the meal. Her stomach growled loudly, and she blushed. She looked at the food once more, then handed it to Jieun in an apologetic manner.
"Sorry, but I'm on a diet," Minah said quietly. "I skip breakfast. I only eat at lunch."
"How about dinner?" Jiyong asked, raising his voice so that she could hear him through the runny water. He slipped on some rubber gloves and grabbed a sponge, ready to rinse and soap the plate.
"I don't eat dinner, either."
"Is that a healthy diet? I had a friend who was on a diet, but she ate everything early; she had three meals a day, and she exercised a lot. I think it was around two-hundred jump ropes daily?" Jiyong paused, then glanced at Minah. "Well, I'm not a diet expert, so I can't say much."
No one said a word for the next ten minutes. Jiho quickly finished up his breakfast, and gave the plate to Jiyong. Minah, seeing this, quickly got up on her feet to grab her bag. The three went to the door, slipping on their shoes, ready to head to school. Jiyong watched them, quickly finishing up the remaining plates. When he was done cleaning, the girls and the boy were ready to leave. They respectfully bowed at him.
"Have a fun day," Jiyong told them. He saw all of their little bodies flinch at his encouragement. Without another word, they disappeared, ready to head back to school.
Jiyong heaved a heavy sigh, then locked the door. He looked around the room, seeing the messy blankets and pillows laying all over the floor. He had a lot of time before work started, and he was kind of glad waking up at such an early time. With the mess the kids made, it would take forever him to clean up!
As Jiyong got to work, he remembered how Jieun mentioned about if he had a nightmare. He thought long and hard on her question, wondering if he could possibly remember a nightmare. Of course, he couldn't remember all of it at once, but little bits of flashes popped into his head.
He dreamt of three birds again, except this time they were all in a cage. He forgot what exactly happened, but he remembered how helpless these birds were. He wasn't sure if he helped the birds or not, but he knew that he dreamt about his previous lifestyle…
He stopped himself before he could remember any more. Nightmare or not, he didn't want to deal with such a tough memory.
After all, he promised to never remember the past. To Kwon Jiyong, the past was just a joke.
* * *
It was six in the evening, and students flocked into the store, purchasing snacks or their early dinner. Some came to buy some magazine, while others took their time to flip through the pages. The manager took care of those who spent their luxurious time reading magazines instead of purchasing them, so Jiyong had it easy today. All he had to deal with were any troublesome students who made a mess in the shop.
However, there was a peeved atmosphere when Jiyong was working. He noticed the same three delinquents—Kyungsoo, Wonshik, and Changshik—staring at Minah, who was finally taking responsibility and working alongside Jiyong. She was dead embarrassed about her situation, especially since a lot of people from her school noticed her quickly. Some of them came over to tease her, but she would only brush it off, saying that she needed the experience or some other excuse.
At first, Jiyong thought that the boys had some kind of crush on Minah. They way that their eyes didn't shift one bit from Minah made him think that they were examining her or having strange thoughts about her. It took him a while to understand that they were glaring at her, despising her for being so close to their admirable "king". Jiyong wondered if their gazes were bothering her, but she didn't seem to care too much about it.
It had been at least an hour since Minah was working, and she still wouldn't get comfortable. She stood behind the counter, stiff and still, unable to do anything except watch Jiyong take the orders. It was clear that she was nervous, but Jiyong didn't know how to ease up the tense atmosphere. He tried to chat with her, but Minah would only glare at him, disliking the fact that she was being pitied. So, he kept quiet, waiting for Minah to do something other than standing still and watching him work.
"Hey! Criminal Devil!" the manager finally hollered. "I told you to work your hours!"
"I am!" Minah protested.
No, you aren't, Jiyong thought, clicking his tongue.
"We have two registers: one for Jiyong, and one for you. Use it! He taught you how to use it yesterday, right?" the manager asked.
"I know, but it's hard!" Minah complained. "There's too many buttons!"
"You literally need to press this button to open the register, and these buttons to calculate the cash," Jiyong said, showing her the ropes.
Minah shot him a glare. "I know that!"
"If you know it, then work!" Manager Kim shouted.
"Geez! That old man doesn't know anything. He's just mean and grumpy to teenagers. I hope he suffers later in life," Minah muttered, taking over the register like she was told to.
"Now, now. Manager Kim might not like teenagers, but he has his reasons for that. You can't judge someone like that without knowing that they've been through," Jiyong said. "If I remember, he has a son who's just about to be a teen."
"Oh, that's going to be one heck of a world for him. I pity his son," Minah said.
Jiyong chuckled and glanced at his watch. By now, Jiho would be running into the store, shouting at the boys that it was time to go to cram school. However, he didn't see Jiho anywhere.
He must be running late or something, Jiyong thought, watching the boys build a tower with some chopsticks.
After a minute passed by, they heard a group of students enter the shop. Minah and Jiyong looked up, and they were deliberately surprised to see Chanyeol and his friends. Chanyeol looked at the counter, where Minah and Jiyong were standing. Fortunately for Minah, she was fast enough to duck behind the counter, hiding from her friends.
Oh heck no, Jiyong thought, biting his tongue. What do I do with this guy now?
He was alarmed to see Chanyeol look away, his face pale just from the sight of Jiyong. A smirk unconsciously formed on Jiyong's lip, signaling that he was victorious over the teen. It seemed as if his other friends were struck with fear when they saw him, too. They kept looking away, acting awfully awkward while grabbing the items they wanted.
Jiyong looked down to his side, where Minah curled herself into a ball. "Shouldn't you get up and work?"
"No, no!" Minah whispered. "I do not exist, okay? I am not working here!"
"Is it because your friends are here? Oh, come on. They got you into this mess. They told you to shoplift. Are you really going to hide from them?" he asked her.
"Yes! There is no way that I'm going to have them look at me like this!"
"Jiho! Dude, what happened?" Wonshik cried. Jiyong looked over to the entrance and saw Jiho with more scratches. He stared at Chanyeol, who quickly dropped his bag of potato chips and raised his trembling hands.
"I didn't do it! I didn't do it!" Chanyeol cried out, grabbing the attention from everyone. When Jiyong continued to stare (in his defense, he was just staring; it wasn't an intimidating glare or anything), his friends jumped in to defend Chanyeol.
"He didn't do it! We swear!" one of Chanyeol's friend claimed.
"Yes! He was with us all the time! We didn't beat him up!" another of his friend added.
I didn't accuse you guys of anything yet, Jiyong pointed out in his mind. Still, he remained quiet until one of Chanyeol's female friend began to burst into tears. She went on her knees, folding her hands as if she was praying to him.
"He didn't do it! He didn't hurt him! We swear!" she wailed.
The manager looked up at Jiyong, who only shrugged his shoulders. He walked over to the employee, then firmly put his hand on his shoulder.
"Jiyong, you have no idea how proud I am. You really know how to deal with kids. This—" The manager turned around and pointed at the crying group of friends. "—is a beautiful sight. Well done!"
"But manager, I—"
"They didn't do anything," Jiho finally said. "I was with Jieun and she saw a cat on the tree. I went to save it but it ended up scratching my face. Then I fell off the tree and when I told Jieun that it had a collar around her neck, she went off to chase it. I tried to follow, but then I lost her and I found myself back at this store."
"Hold up. You were with Jieun? Why?" Kyungsoo asked, helping Jiho sit down on a chair.
"I asked if we could walk home and she said that we could." Jiho looked at Jiyong. "Of course, we were going to stop by at your house."
"My house? Kid, I'm not home until it's almost midnight," Jiyong said.
"Well, you better go now. She might be waiting…and it's snowing."
* * *
After receiving permission from his manager, Jiyong was able to run back home. The dark gray clouds covered the sky, touching every corner and inch of the world above. Soft snow sprinkled to the ground, but it hurt Jiyong's skin when he ran against the falling fluff. He panted hard; wearing a thick coat while running in the thick snow was quite difficult. His legs heaved up and down, his foot unable to meet the surface anymore.
What on earth was Jieun thinking? If anything, she could've came to the store. Heck, that would've been a lot more convenient for him!
The wind howled, almost screaming at his thoughts. A blast of cold hit his face, causing Jiyong to shiver in the freeze. His home wasn't too far from the store, but he didn't know why it felt like he was walking for nearly an hour. Perhaps it was because he was tired of walking, or maybe it was because he was slightly annoyed at Jieun for making such a decision.
By coincidence, a blanket of snow fell from a tree above as if nature was telling him to cool down. The cold pile of snow almost froze his head, but he managed to quickly brush off the white particles off his brown hair. Just like how he cleaned up his hair, he cleaned up his act and found himself standing at his apartment.
The apartment he lived in had doors outside of the building, like a run-down motel. There were two stories; he was on the second floor. At the front of his door, he spotted a familiar person rolled up into a little ball, playing with something on her lap. Jiyong sighed and blew his short bangs to the side. He walked up the stairs, his shoes crunching against the thin layer of snow on the open stairs. This seemed to have caught the girl's attention; she looked up from her lap with a rather surprised look.
"Don't you have work?" Jieun asked.
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