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Boy By the Sea

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The day that Jeongguk’s life changes, irrevocably so, starts no different than every other day.

His own fault really, answering a call at 5:28 in the morning, as the first sight of dawn creeps onto the horizon. The grogginess evaporates the second he hears the abrasive edge in Yoongi’s voice.

“The west coast office fucked up again.”

Jeongguk pushes himself up with one arm to peek at the clock by the bed.

“Bunch of idiots! I told them last year that they were too greedy not to cut their losses back then. Fuck.”

“Hyung…” Jeongguk rubs his brows. 

From the bedroom window, he can see the hint of gold in the sky, painting it brighter and waking up the city from the slumber.

Yoongi’s voice is icy but picking up in pace “...what kind of fucked up luck, I bumped into their VP after he drank all night. Omalas Corp is to be acquired by a bigger firm, announcement on Monday. It’s gotta be fixed discreetly before market opening on Monday. Jeongguk, NOW. I'm already driving to the office, gonna fucking rip-”

“Hyung!” Jeongguk raises his voice. He sits up and clears his throat before continuing, slowly but with resolution, “hyung, I'll fix it. Trust me.”

He can hear Yoongi’s breaths at the other end of the phone, ragged and fuming with exasperation. A long pause, then a grumble that vibrates through the phone, “I know, you’re the only one that could clean this up without getting us into more shit. Call me later.” Click, he's gone.

Jeongguk cards through his hair and visualizes the shorter jogging trail for the morning, as the familiar sensation of stress slithers up his skin, jolting awake all his senses.

Definitely more effective than a cup of coffee. He sits by the edge of the bed and types up a text to Jimin.

 

 

------

 

 


6:32AM, near midtown Manhattan.

Jeongguk sets down the manila folder he’s been haphazardly flipping through, and glances out the car window. Not a single tourist or loiter in sight, instead, a thin dusting of white snow has built up overnight, covering up all the grimes and sharp angles of the metropolis, putting the city in a serene, if temporary, trance. Every time they cross an intersection, the clamor of the scattered traffic reverberates down the street, and twinkling lights peek through on trees and building fronts. It's early December and to his reluctance, Christmas is in the air.

The outline of his cufflink is smooth against his finger pads. Jeongguk shifts his gaze back into the car, onto the familiar figure in front of him in the driver’s seat. With one hand tapping rhythmically on the steering wheel, Jimin is humming to the pop tunes drifting out of the car radio. Eight years, Jeongguk is used to people coming in and out of his life, playing their part and departing as intended, but there is comfort in having at least one constant figure in his life. Like a silent sentinel protecting his solitude, sometimes, the outline of Jimin’s back in the driver’s seat is the only human presence he can tolerate after an especially gruelling day.

“Ugh, sorry Mr, Jeon, the garbage bags are everywhere on the street again.” Jimin’s low voice pipes up apologetically, as the car parks in front of a towering glass and steel building on Lexington. Their eyes meet in the rear view mirror and Jungkook nods, “It’s ok, pick me up around noon?”

“Will do.”

The friendly glint in Jimin’s eyes warms his thought, as he steps out carefully between the overflowing black bags piled up on the sidewalk. Manhattan, a city that's in no shortage of small humbling moments, even for the privileged.

Jeongguk walk briskly towards the front entrance, mind already on overdrive and planning out the steps. Dumping off stocks discreetly while avoiding insider trade accusations requires finesse and connections, almost an art of its own kind. Stretching his neck to the sides, he starts making a list of contacts to call.

Out of the corner of his eye, a dark figure is huddled in the back alley around the corner. It’s unassuming, shrouded by the tendrils of pale steam rising from the underground metro. Jeongguk instinctively tightens the opening of his wool coat and turns to look away, but the figure suddenly looks up, unabashed. Their eyes lock, Jeongguk frowns.

C’mon, focus.

He blinks but strides slow down. The morning chill hits his skin, and Christmas lights twinkle in his peripheral between the bare tree branches.

Sometimes, at the most unlikely moment, an opportunity presents itself, beckoning for a tiny step away from routine, into the unknown.

Jeongguk is never able to explain exactly what happens at that moment. He sighs, and against his better judgment, changes course and walks towards the huddled figure. The unmistakable stench of booze and filth hit him first and makes him flinch.

He’s young, probably in his teens, shivering and mumbling to himself, half delirious. His clothes are flimsy and of little use in the icy morning air, and the grimy jeans are already soaked through as dirty slushes of snow melt under him.

The kid stares at him and mumbles, dull glimmer fading in and out of his hooded eyes. He shivers, but tilts his head up defiantly.

Of the thousands of nameless faces Jeongguk has seen in the city, he is unsure why this one stands out to him, jarring but daring him to take another look. He pulls out of his wallet and retracts a few bills, “The Mainchance drop in centre is down the street, go get a cot there, you won't last long here in this weather.”

As he bends down to place the money by the figure’s feet, a gaunt hand suddenly reaches out and grabs him by the arm, making him wince. The burning gaze bores into him, voice sharp and hissing, “You think we are so different, you and I? You think a few bills can change my life?”

Jeongguk pulls away, but the hand refuses to let go, fingers digging hard into his arm, hot breath grazing his face as the man pulls himself up towards him, “Nobody can help me, you understand? There's nothing left.” His eyes dim and dip down, and Jeongguk feels a stir. Something familiar to the tone of that voice, something forgotten on the recess of his own mind.

His throat dries, words dangle at the tip of his tongue but do not drop. He rips his arm away, and stares at the hooded figure that has now retracted back to his own delirious state. Jeongguk eventually makes his way back towards the entrance of the building, thoughts muddled. 

 

Hours later, in the safety of his office, Jeongguk leans against the floor-to-ceiling window, and catches a glimpse of the huddled figure by the corner of the building. He scrunches his nose, and with some hesitation, picks up his phone to text Jimin.

There's a homeless kid dying outside the building.

A moment later the reply flashes on the phone screen:

Ok.

He pictures a confused Jimin mumbling out loud, and chuckles inwardly.

Can you take him to a drop in centre please?

A few hours later, Jeongguk is immersed in dissecting the terms and conditions of a lengthy contract when Jimin texts back.

He didn't want to go to the drop in centre. I left him at a motel on the north end with some takeout food.

 

------

 

 

In the dark, the living room is expansive and sparse, all the modern lines and hard edges dulled by the night. A large industry style steel lamp casts a soft ember glow over the cold soapstone kitchen island. Piles of documents are sorted in order and neatly arranged in a row. Jeongguk, in a thickly starched white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, sifts through the paperwork while mulling over a long email.

He's long found that a few hours of work after dinner helps him sleep better, a recap of the day of sorts, when he focuses on drafting longer documents that require a bit more finesse, sometimes over a sip of scotch.

Victoria always hated it, “You make having money look like the most exhausting thing in the world”, she would scoff and roll her pretty eyes. And Jeongguk always smiled back at her, eye apologetic and softly reminded her of some social event of the night that she could escape to, alone.

She was probably right. Managing wealth is indeed much more boring than what people believe it to be, but it's what he's good at, what he's poured all his time and energy into perfecting, in lieu of hobbies and other passions that seem to have eluded him over the years. He's heard of the rumors in the industry, that he has the golden touch. Any private equity investment he's even worked on - from high tech to entertainment - seems to always flourish and prosper. When he was younger, he use to be anxious about having to prove himself, alone in front of the executive board of his company, or the judgmental eyes of some senior studio head, but he learned to channel his anxiety and use it to push himself to be more meticulous than anyone else.

There's no such thing as a golden touch, just a hollow catchphrase tossed around during small talks. People love a success story, the countless failed efforts are usually conveniently forgotten and left behind.

His hand on the keyboard slows, as he tries in vain to curb all the scattered thoughts. Victoria’s sympathetic smile flashes across his mind stubbornly.

What now, Gukkie. You wanted the divorce, you always get what you want in the end. What now.

He looks up and soaks in the solitude, and can no longer ignore the trigger of all the random thoughts. The tiny hairline crack on his otherwise mundane day. Jeongguk reaches for his phone.

Which motel did you drop him off at?

Jimin responds almost immediately - If you really want to go, I should take you. I strongly recommend it.

Jimin turns out to be right, as usual. The car zooms pass the dim streets of Washington Heights, before stopping at an old worn out motel with an empty parking lot saved for one really beat up car. Jeongguk gestures for Jimin to stay in the car and half expects the heavy sigh that follows, “alright, that's the room I put him in. He's too weak to hurt you anyways, just holler if you need anything, ok?”

Jeongguk leans in to pat him on the shoulder reassuringly, and whispers a thanks before stepping out.

The door to the room is unlocked, and opens with a creak. A dark figure is curled up in the corner of the bed, like some wounded animal, taking up a surprisingly small space on the otherwise empty bed. There was no response to his entrance. Jeongguk hesitates but decides to turn on the lamp by the bedside. He walks over to the other side of the bed, the kid’s face is just as gaunt and grimy as he remembers, with knotted brows and pursed lips. Just when he thought about leaving him be, the kid opens his eyes, “I figured it was you.”

Jeongguk struggles to respond.

Those eyes, icy and in pain, take another look at him and close, “whatever you want, just be done with it and leave, ok?”

The words irritate him, making him feel irrationally uneasy. Jungkook looks at him for a moment before finally drawing a breath and speaking with a stern tone, “I don't want anything from you, the room is already paid for, get some rest, and try not to die while you are here.”

No response. The eyes are shut tight, and hands clenching into fists. The smell of booze lingers in the air.

As he turns off the lamp and takes leave, he notices the shoulder of the huddled figure trembling. With a heavy sigh, Jeongguk reaches over slowly and pulls up the ragged blanket that has been haphazardly kicked to the side, and covers up the figure on the bed.

As he closes the door behind him, he can faintly make out the silhouette of Jimin standing by the car in the distance. The neon sign of the motel flickers, and the air is chilly and jolts him wide awake. The darkest hour before the dawn has yet to arrive.

 

------

 

 

Next day, Jeongguk remains at the office all day until after dinner, only allowing himself to leave after one last call with Yoongi. Everything is settled discreetly - the funds have be reinvested into multiple outlets that are more stable, and all the notifications to investors and media have been drafted and set up, ready for market opening on Monday.

The weight on his shoulders finally lifts, and he steps into the car as Jimin dials down the volume of the radio.

“Hey! The Knicks’ game just started.” The casual smile makes the corner of Jeongguk’s lips curl up for the first time in the day.

“Yeah? Did you bet anything this time?”

“Nah, already lost too much last time, Solar almost killed me.” Jimin’s grin turns sheepish, as he turns around and starts the car.

Jeongguk listens to Jimin chatter away excitedly about the stats, and absently glances over the crowds of people outside the car. Tourists, loiters, people getting off work or rushing to a restaurant, all blending into a kaleidoscopic blur under the midtown bright lights, “...and did you see that last three pointer from Carmelo-”

Jeongguk cuts Jimin off mid-sentence, not taking his eyes off the street, “Do you know how that kid is doing?”

A pause, but Jimin eventually responds, “I checked up on him like you asked. He didn’t looking ok this morning.”

“Really?”

“He was burning up, and couldn’t talk much. I called doctor Wu for advice and he popped by during lunch for a bit…”

Jeongguk is relieved at the mention of doctor Wu, “and?”

“He said, as I had guessed, that this kid had some serious health issues. Needs to be hospitalized and checked thoroughly. Also, he's obviously going through withdraw - alcohol, drugs, you name it. So he probably needs rehab to not fall back into the same situation again.”

Jimin stalls before speaking again cautiously, “Mr. Jeon, it's not my place to say anything, but this kid is trouble. You've been more than kind, I can just keep an eye on him until he leaves, prolly in a few days.”

Jeongguk hums, fingers fidgeting with the cufflink. He remains quiet for the rest of the ride. The sense of irritation sticks with him, however, long after he gets home. By the time he finally gives in and goes for a ride alone, the sky is already dark, blurring all the looming clouds into shades of black.

Jeongguk knocks on the motel room door, half expecting not getting a response, but it creaks open, and he sees the petite pale face peeking out.

“You again.” A nonchalant smile, the boy lets him in. He's cleaned himself up, soft black hair drooping over his eyes. As the boy slowly walks towards the bed and sits down, his breath turns erratic, back hunched.

“What’s your name?” Jeongguk asks.

Silence. His head is hung low, fingers playing with the strings on his sweatpants.

“It’s just for registration with the doctor, Jimin said you didn't have any ID on you-”

His words are interrupted by a low voice tinged with thinly concealed iciness, “What do you want from me anyways? I'll be gone today, I promise.”

Jeongguk shifts his body, trying to keep his voice calm but stern, “I want to help you. You know you’ll die out there, right? The doctor said it would take days just to understand how badly you’ve fucked up your body.”

“Why would you help me, heh? What is this anyways?” The boy looks up and straight into his eyes. He looks so young, and on edge, like an animal warily eyeing a predator in his line of sight. Slowly a distorted smirk appears at the corner of his lips, making Jeongguk frown, “lemme guess, you like it young and messed up, don't you.”

Jeongguk purses his lips, and turns to face the door.

“That's right, get the fuck out, take your kinks somewhere else.” The tone in the boy’s voice is sinister, yet there’s a tremble to the words.

Jeongguk can feel the anger simmering within him.

Just walk away, get out of here and forget all about it. He's obviously not worth the effort.

But to his surprise, the words burst out before he can stop himself, “What a waste, your youth, your life… You think anyone would even want to touch you? Seen yourself in the mirror lately? A thank you would've been enough, but who am I to teach you manners. How many people did you push away so you can be miserable all by yourself. What a waste of life you are…”

He trails off, letting the unfinished sentences linger in the room.

The boy’s dark eyes look impassively through him. Something in his gaze, fierce and unflinching, pierces into Jeongguk’s mind. The air in the room is stagnant. The worn out furniture, stained walls and fraying carpet, it all suddenly makes him feel irritatingly out of place. Jeongguk pads out of the door, slamming it behind him and not daring to look back.

Drawing a deep breath of the cold air, he types up a text to Jimin:

Can you make sure the kid is gone by tomorrow? Thanks.

The artificial light of the phone screen stubbornly stays on next to him as he drives away, before it finally dims and fades away.

 

------

 

 

He’s running again. The fog around him is dense and cold, shifting and swirling, a jumble of grey and tainted white. He tries to sprint, going harder and faster, pushing his muscles until they are tense and sore, but the fog is everywhere, all consuming and with no end in sight. He tries to look for objects and structures in the distance, a horizon, a change in lighting, anything to go to. But there's never anything, it's just him, running in the fog, unable to remember how he started and not knowing what the final destination is. It all feels futile - the harder he hits the pavement under his feet, the more lost he feels.

Jeongguk yells but his voice is swallowed up by the fog, muffled, like the state of his mind. Panic surges up in his heart until it deafens him, and with a violent twitch, he wakes up from the dream.

His eyes adjust to the darkness of his room, as he gasps for air and tries to calm his heartbeat. The clock beside his bed reads 5:34am.

It’s been the same dream for years, probably since boarding school, although he can't be sure. Sometimes it goes away for weeks or months, but when he's tired, when life becomes a blur and it takes a bit more effort to keep going, the dream would come back, haunting him at night after he passes out from fatigue.

Sometimes the singed edges of the dream world would blur into real life in the morning, like today, as he starts his daily morning jog and has to shake off the swirls of fog that seemingly permeates out of his pores. No matter, Jeongguk knows it will all go away soon, pushed to the corner of his mind and ignored. His days are usually far too demanding to dwell on a dream anyways.

By the time he gets back home, Jimin calls, “Morning boss, I'm on my way. Just dropped the kid off at the drop in center in Washington Heights. It's done, he's gone for good.”

Jeongguk stays silent. Just as he is about to hang up, Jimin's voice pipes up again, this time a little hesitant, “One thing though…”

“What is it?”

“He didn't question anything when I dropped him off. But as I was leaving, he grabbed me and told me his name.”

Jimin’s voice is soft but comes through the phone clearly, “Kim Taehyung. He said to please make sure you hear his name.”

He hums, not responding to Jimin directly.

“Yeah... Oh and he also asked for your name. I told him, I hope you don't mind.” Jimin hesitates, then adds, “And he might've mumbled a thank you.”

Jeongguk pauses before hanging up. Fragments of memory bubble up on his mind. It's from decades ago, of the chilliness of the empty boarding school dorm room the night before Christmas, and watching his breath escape his lips as thin tendrils of vapor. He was 13 or 14, drifting in and out of high fever, while realizing unmistakably, that he did this all to himself, pushing the world away determinedly to nib off some childish dependency he had on other people. And that small nagging thought buried deep down inside, that no matter how lonely he deemed life to be, it would've still been nice if someone was around just for a moment or two. 

Jeongguk has learned to trust his instinct over the years, but this time, he's not so sure.

The drop in centre is bigger than he expected, vast hallway filled with people loittering on the floor, some sleeping, some sitting and holding onto their bits of belongings. Something lingers in the stagnant air, a messy and desperate energy that he tries to brush aside. Jeongguk’s polished shoes click on the tiled floor rhythmically as he walks, occasionally pausing as he examines a face before moving on. He finally spots the boy in a corner in the back, eyes closed, curled up on the tiled floor. All he has with him is a small bottle of medicine clutched between his bony fingers, probably from Jimin. When Jeongguk stops in front of him, he opens his eyes wearily, those familiar wide eyes with the color of burnt ember, no more bitterness, no more resentment, just hollow and with a glint of vulnerability.

Jeongguk bends down, and whispers gently, “Taehyung.”

There was no response, just a weary nod, as Taehyung’s shoulders droop slightly.

Jeongguk hopes he's not making a terrible mistake.