(Originally posted 25 May 2014 on tumblr)
Eun-sang went straight home after work on Wednesday and hopped in the shower. After a long day of staring at dates and names and combing through newspaper archives, all she really wanted to do was change into her pajamas and spend a quiet evening watching television with her mother. Instead, she had to prepare for an evening out in a society she had almost entirely abandoned two years ago. This event with Hyo-shin was going to be far different than the parties Bo-na or Mega Entertainment threw—there would be far fewer idols for one, and the potential for a great deal more scrutiny aimed her way for another.
She wondered just how many articles she and Hyo-shin would end up in. He wouldn’t have made this offer if he wasn’t prepared to handle them, and Eun-sang had perfected a bland smile and pleasant no comment that she could parrot ad nauseam. Still, she decided it would be best to wear flats to work for the next week so she could push her way through any potential mobs of reporters.
(It shouldn’t be mobs. Hyo-shin was the son of the current and grandson of the former attorney general, but he had kept a low profile after the army. The only way it could get out of hand was if someone tried to stir up trouble by speculating if a supposed relationship between her and Hyo-shin would drive a wedge between him and Tan.
She probably should text Tan and Won after the party and give them a warning, just in case.)
Her mother knocked on the bathroom door while Eun-sang was busy pinning her hair in place. She checked in the mirror to make sure her bathrobe was still tied shut before she called out, “Come in.”
Hee-nam stepped inside. Her brow was slightly furrowed, and she didn’t smile back when she met Eun-sang’s eyes in the mirror. I picked up the dress from the dry cleaner, she signed, her hands moving slower than normal so Eun-sang could translate the reflection properly. It’s in your closet.
But Hee-nam wasn’t done talking. Where are you going that you need to wear that dress and have your hair done up like that?
“An awards ceremony.”
I thought the Mega Entertainment event was next week.
Eun-sang didn’t cringe, precisely, though she had hoped her mother would get the dates wrong. She didn’t want to lie, but she really didn’t want to encourage her mother on her favorite subject as of late, either. But Eun-sang also knew it would be worse if her mother had to drag all of the answers out of her.
“I’m going to the Ministry of Justice’s annual recognition ceremony—”
“—yes, I’m going with Hyo-shin sunbae. And it’s for work, Mom. It’s not a date!”
Her protest did nothing to dampen the speculation evident on Hee-nam’s face. I’ll pick out a better dress for you.
“The dress is fine. It’s the one I want to wear.”
It’s not as pretty as the others, and you ought to look your best.
Eun-sang turned around so she could face her mother directly. “I don’t want to stick out, Mom. This really is for work. I’m doing some investigating for my boss, and Hyo-shin sunbae volunteered to help me out.”
You’re certain that’s all this is? He flirts with you whenever he is here.
“If we’re going by that, then the one he’s actually interested in is Tan,” Eun-sang pointed out. She tried not to sound annoyed or exasperated—her mother had the best intentions—even though her mother’s silent comments whenever Hyo-shin came over had been getting less subtle with every passing week. “But the most important thing is that I’m not interested in him like that at all.”
Hee-nam’s signs were slow and deliberate. I thought that maybe, with Tan…
Eun-sang smiled gently and gave her mom a kiss on the cheek. “Tan wouldn’t stop me if I actually liked sunbae, I promise.”
Young-do was one of the last guests to arrive at the Plaza Hotel, which suited him, considering the occasion. Ever since his father’s conviction and sentencing, he’d received a cooler reception from people engaged in law—particularly from Myung-soo’s parents. He suspected that if Myung-soo had been smart enough to actually work as a lawyer, his parents would have forced an end to their friendship. It was an amusing bit of hypocrisy for defense attorneys, especially since there was plenty about Young-do’s past to object to outside his father’s transgressions.
Like his behavior toward Eun-sang, Hyo-shin, Joon-young, or dozens of his middle school and high school classmates. While his hangover from last night’s drinking had faded by noon, the self-destructive restlessness that had driven him to drink had plagued him all day long. Not even an extra-long session on the judo mat had been able to dissipate it. It was going to make smiling and being polite this evening a difficult task.
Don’t call me again.
I’m the one who isn’t good enough for her.
Young-do let the driver open his door even though there were no photographers waiting outside to snap pictures of the attendees. There would probably be just a handful of them inside along with an equally small number of reporters. The Ministry of Justice’s self-congratulatory award ceremony might be prestigious in the right circles, but it wouldn’t translate into many page views or papers sold for the general populace. With any luck, there wouldn’t be any mention of his attendance at all.
Sang-joong was waiting for him just outside the open ballroom doors. His vice president greeted him politely, and the two of them made their way to a back corner table. The room was filled with well-dressed men and women, talking quietly amongst themselves at their eight-person tables. Each table was just far enough away from its neighbors that it was difficult to overhear anyone else’s conversations, not that anyone would be talking much during the actual awards ceremony itself.
Normally, Young-do might have considered his seating arrangement an insult, but it wasn’t as if he wanted to draw attention to himself by claiming a seat closer to the front. He was here to meet with a single prosecutor; he wasn’t here to be seen or be fawned over. If he could have avoided coming, he would have, but Prosecutor Im Joon-hyuk was one of the many people being honored tonight. It would be one thing to disappear from the after party for a few moments for a private conversation with the heir to Zeus Hotel; it would be another if the man of the hour never showed up.
Young-do had timed his arrival well—he was barely able to exchange names with his table companions before the main lights dimmed and spotlights illuminated the far-off stage. The buzz of conversation was swallowed up by a round of applause, which stopped when an unfamiliar middle-aged man stepped in front of the podium.
“On behalf of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Korea, I welcome all of you to the seventieth annual—”
It didn’t take long for Young-do to tune the stranger out. He had a lifetime of experience putting on a politely interested expression while his thoughts were elsewhere, and it was a skill he didn’t even have to put much effort into. There were more important things that needed his attention.
The waitstaff emerged from the perimeter of the ballroom and began depositing food and drink in front of each of the attendees while the man at the front droned on and on about the importance of the awards and how much of an honor it was and how impressive the award winners’ records were. Young-do’s table was one of the last to be served, so he took the opportunity to survey beyond his immediate surroundings.
None of the four men or two women at his table were of any consequence. The highest any of them ranked were assistants to prosecutors—important prosecutors, but still underlings. It was unlikely Young-do would need their help to gain access to anyone important, and even if he did, they would be handled by Sang-joong. The table to the right was equally unpromising, as were the ones directly ahead and on the diagonal.
The evening settled into a tedious pattern. The waitstaff whisked plates of food off and on the tables and silently refilled glasses. A variety of gray-haired men and women blathered on about various people’s noteworthy accomplishments. Every time one of the award winners was announced, a spotlight illuminated the winner’s table and followed him or her to the stage. Then the man or woman gave a self-important speech about justice and humility and serving the people of the country and a host of other lies.
As if anyone here really thought justice could withstand the insidious power of money. If it could, Choi Dong-wook wouldn’t be a free man for another two years. Policy changes in the Ministry of Justice that benefited the guilty didn’t happen on their own, not under this president or in the current political climate.
Just after the Amaretto-flavored crème brulee was served, Sang-joong leaned over. “Prosecutor Im is next,” he murmured.
Young-do looked up from his food so he was ready when the spotlight illuminated a table toward the middle of the room. But what caught his attention was not the man who stood up from the table amidst the crowd’s applause—it was two of his dining companions.
Lee Hyo-shin and Cha Eun-sang.
They had both turned their heads toward the prosecutor when he stood up, which was the only reason Young-do could identify them now in profile. He had half expected to spot Hyo-shin in attendance, but Young-do’s plan had been to keep his distance and leave as soon as he was finished with Joon-hyuk. After yesterday morning, avoidance had seemed like the best plan for the foreseeable future.
(After the way Hyo-shin’s expression had gone from surprised to viciously satisfied as he told Rachel about their shared past, there was no chance he would ever accept an apology. Young-do knew better than to even try, even if he were ready to offer one.)
The spotlight was only on the table for a few seconds before it followed Prosecutor Im up to the stage, but it was long enough for Young-do to pick out a few details. Eun-sang had her hair swept up into a deceptively simple, elegant knot, and her black dress was short-sleeved and had a shallow back v-neck that highlighted her smooth skin. She was smiling, a gentle, carefree smile, one that Young-do had only ever dreamed she would use on him. Just as the light left the table, she leaned over toward Hyo-shin, and whatever she said made Hyo-shin turn back to face her. Then the light was gone, and Young-do lost the details to the dark.
Eun-sang could not have come to a place like this on her own, and even if she had somehow gained an independent invitation, she would have been seated toward the fringes, not next to the son of the attorney general. Hyo-shin must have invited her, yet only yesterday he had claimed to want a second date with Rachel. Their sunbae might not have meant to manipulate Young-do with his outdated information, but the way he had approached Rachel couldn’t have been sincere. If he had invited Eun-sang before running into Rachel, then that meant Rachel hadn’t been anything more than an opportunity; if he had invited Eun-sang after breakfast yesterday, then that meant his interest in Rachel had only been shallow.
It wasn’t as if Hyo-shin’s choice of dinner guest was going to go unnoticed by his parents or whoever else mattered in this crowd. Eun-sang’s presence was a statement, even if Young-do wasn’t sure what it was Hyo-shin was trying to say.
The ceremony dragged on for another thirty-seven minutes. When Young-do wasn’t checking his watch, he was watching the middle of the room and the vague silhouettes that were Hyo-shin and Eun-sang. Every now and then one would lean in toward the other—it was usually, but not always, Hyo-shin—probably to whisper some sort of commentary on the current speech or speaker. Young-do had to remind himself more than once to relax his hands.
After the final round of applause, the lights came up, and the attendees were ushered into an adjacent room where they could enjoy cocktails and mingle in a cozier atmosphere. Young-do lost sight of Hyo-shin and Eun-sang in the crowd, but Sang-joong stayed right at his elbow.
“Watch the prosecutor,” Young-do told his vice president in an undertone. “I’d like to leave as soon as possible. Text me when he’s available to meet.”
Sang-joong split off from Young-do after a moment, in search of an inconspicuous way to end up near Prosecutor Im. Young-do took a glass of champagne from the first tray that passed by him and retreated to an out-of-the-way corner that gave him a substantial view of the room. He leaned against the wall and glared at anyone who glanced his way. Between his positioning and his body language, it ought to be clear that he wasn’t interested in any casual socializing. He was rewarded by being ignored by everyone, including the waitstaff.
It didn’t take long for him to find Eun-sang again. She and Hyo-shin had also retreated to the edges of the room, though not as aggressively as Young-do. No, their solitude was a more intimate one, with the two of them standing so close their shoulders almost touched. The heels Eun-sang was wearing meant that Hyo-shin only had to lean down slightly to murmur in her ear. They weren’t always whispering; most of the time they kept up an easy, comfortable conversation. That’s what Young-do assumed, at least, based on the way they smiled at each other or muffled laughter behind their hands.
The most unsettling part of it all was that Young-do couldn’t remember Eun-sang ever smiling at Tan the way she was smiling at Hyo-shin.
A sick sort of despair settled into Young-do’s chest, and it quickly morphed into a heady mix of anger and disgust. When Hyo-shin had Eun-sang looking at him like that, how could he possibly want to spend time with Rachel? With any other woman?
When one of the servers passed by too closely, Hyo-shin placed his free hand at the small of Eun-sang’s back and guided her out of harm’s way.
Young-do finished his champagne, pushed away from the wall, and foisted the empty glass on the closest server. It only took a few seconds to stride over to the pair, though he did them the favor and didn’t speak until he was close enough that no one else would overhear. “What would Rachel think if she saw you right now, sunbae?”
A vicious sort of satisfaction welled up inside him at the way Hyo-shin tensed before turning to face him. His smile had frozen, and his hand dropped away from Eun-sang’s back.
Eun-sang, for her part, didn’t mask her surprise. She looked up at him with wide eyes and barely parted lips, caught between one word and the next.
For a moment, Young-do regretted confronting Hyo-shin in front of her like this. It was too late to back out now, and it wouldn’t be the first time his attempt to protect her ended up hurting her, too.
“Should I tell her not to worry about your second date?” He didn’t try to suppress his predatory grin.
But Eun-sang’s surprise didn’t turn to hurt or anger—if anything, she looked a little confused. She turned her attention to Hyo-shin and reached out to rest her fingertips on his forearm. “You had a first date with Rachel?”
“It was more of an awkward threesome,” Hyo-shin said. If Eun-sang’s gesture had been an attempt to get Hyo-shin to look at her, it had failed. His smile was gone entirely now, and his voice was low and cold. “I’m not interested in a second round right now.”
“Why not, sunbae? Do you have something to hide from Eun-sang?”
She stepped in between them, cutting off whatever retort Hyo-shin had been readying. “Don’t use me to pick a fight with him, Young-do,” she said.
Hearing her say his name like that—disappointed, hurt—nearly made him recoil. Was she really that infatuated with Hyo-shin that she wouldn’t listen to the warning he was trying to give her? It had been hard enough, watching her love Tan in high school, and harder still whenever he noticed her heading straight into potential disaster. Tan had been so certain that love could conquer everything that it hadn’t occurred to him to arm her for the conflicts facing them.
“Maybe he deserves to get some sense knocked into him.”
Hyo-shin raised his half-filled champagne glass in a mocking salute. “I’m certain my parents would agree with you. I doubt they’d thank you for doing so in public, and it probably isn’t the best strategy for you, either.”
“You think this is about strategy?”
“I think your presence at this event is strategy. I think this—” he gestured to the three of them “—is some misguided attempt at payback for yesterday, though I have no idea why when you and Rachel were the ones in the wrong.”
If Eun-sang hadn’t put herself between them, Young-do might have grabbed Hyo-shin by his lapels. By the way Hyo-shin was smirking, he clearly thought so as well.
“What happened yesterday?” Eun-sang asked.
Hyo-shin stepped forward so he was level with her. “Nothing you’d be surprised to hear. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten what an awful person Young-do can be.”
“That’s enough, sunbae.” Eun-sang was obviously angry now—he could tell by the way she held her hands stiff at her sides when she turned to face Hyo-shin—and that anger colored her next words. “I’m not going to let you use me to score points, either.”
The hostility in Hyo-shin’s face softened when he looked to Eun-sang. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“You had better be more than sorry,” Eun-sang said. She rounded on Young-do next. “I’m working right now, so if you have to fight sunbae, do it later, all right?”
Young-do hesitated as the pieces started to fall into place. Eun-sang had already known about his father’s potential release from prison, just like Hyo-shin. If she really was the Cha Eun-sang that worked at YBS, then her appearance at this event with Hyo-shin—
His phone buzzed with an incoming text, and he fished it out of his breast pocket automatically. The text was from Sang-joong: Room 1205 in four minutes.
Young-do was too tangled up to be grateful for the timely interruption. He kept a tight grip on his emotions—there was business he needed to take care of. “I have work, too. Shall we continue our conversation later?”
“Whenever you need to be taught, your sunbae is willing to spend some time with you,” Hyo-shin said, his voice just a touch too sharp to be polite or pleasant. It was almost refreshing to hear that threatening tone again, if only because it was familiar ground. “Be sure to clear your schedule.”