(Originally posted 10 Aug 2014 on tumblr)
Young-do ground out his last cigarette butt on his balcony railing and then tossed it over the edge and onto the night street below. He hoped it hit one of the reporters or photographers or VJs lurking at the base of the hotel, but between the wind and the dark and the distance to the ground it was impossible to tell.
Smoking was a habit he had mostly kicked after the army—his mother hated the smell, almost to the point of nausea—but he always kept a few packs and a lighter in his hotel suite for the days he needed to let off some stress and a judo mat was inconvenient.
He ought to head back down to his office. Vice President Kwon was supposed to be waiting for him there with another mountain of challenges to tackle and the small cadre of lawyers they were certain weren’t loyal to Dong-wook. They had been slammed with inquiries from board members and stock holders in addition to the media. The only notable, and therefore ominous, silence had been from Pyo Sook-ja. Young-do had only taken a break so he could finally shower and change into fresh clothing. And chain smoke his way through the rest of a pack, apparently. He ought to call the concierge desk and have someone get him more since three cigarettes weren’t enough to settle him.
To be fair, it wasn’t as if there were enough cigarettes in the world to do that. Not right now.
He ought to return Rachel’s phone call. She had left him a message, offering him what help she could provide, though her hands were relatively tied. Esther, after all, was still in control of RS International, and there were only so many deals or promises that Rachel could make without her mother’s consent. Her mother wouldn’t be motivated by sentiment in this matter, either. She had been more than happy to try to get on his good side back when she was going to marry Dong-wook, but that act had stopped the moment she called off the wedding. Esther probably only approved of his friendship with Rachel because it could be advantageous for her daughter.
Young-do would take mercenary acceptance from Esther over the outright disdain from Myung-soo’s parents any day.
He went back into the main living area, picked up the landline, and told the concierge desk to find him an entire case of his favorite brand of cigarettes. Then he called the kitchen and told them to take a dinner order from Sang-joong and the lawyers and to bring up an additional order for him, too.
The maid would make sure his mother ate, right? Myung-soo had texted that he hadn’t left until she had showed up.
Young-do needed to go home tonight to see his mother, no matter the crisis he was weathering now, he knew that—yet the thought of doing so filled him with dread. When Dong-wook had been angry at him, Young-do had known what to expect. He knew how to brace himself. He knew how to keep his jaw clenched and breathe in against pain because he was less likely to cry out that way.
When Kyung-ran was angry (she had to be angry at him now; she had to be terrified), he never knew what to do or say. He found himself wishing she would hit him—just this once, just so he could be punished and they could move on, that was how his father operated—and then furious that he could ever imagine her doing such a thing.
But wouldn’t it be better than her leaving?
“She won’t leave me behind again,” he said to his empty suite, and every word tasted like a lie. Kyung-ran might not have left if he had been honest with her. Instead, he had proven he couldn’t be trusted, just like—
His phone buzzed with an incoming text. He nearly pitched the phone across the room, but when he grabbed it, he saw Cha Eun-sang’s name on the screen. Against his better judgment, he opened the message.
Her question was as simple as it was absurd: How are you holding up?
Young-do nearly laughed. He had never had much polite fiction in his reserves, and all of it had vanished when Sang-joong called that morning. His plans to quietly oust his father had crumbled around him, he had made his mother cry, and he was trapped in his hotel by a crowd of soundbite-hungry jackals.
If Cha Eun-sang wanted to know how he was holding up, he would tell her.
He called her number, but it wasn’t until he heard her say his name that he knew what he wanted most in the world at that very moment.
“I’m not doing well at all, so I want to call in that favor you owe me.”
“What do you want?”
“Come rescue me, Cha Eun-sang.”
“This is a ridiculous plan,” VJ Han said for the third time.
Eun-sang wished she could reassure him, but her heart started to race when the taxi driver pulled into the little roadway behind Zeus Hotel. “That’s why I’m counting on your acting.”
“There’s a reason I’m made for the other side of this lens.”
At this time of night, the roadway—more like a rather large driveway—was mostly clear. There were nearly a dozen dumpsters along one side, for the hotel’s trash, and there were plenty of raised docks so trucks could deliver whatever supplies the hotel needed. Tidy metal signs in red and white and black warned drivers against parking along the road.
A few paparazzi lurked in the distant shadows. Junior photographers, most likely, waiting on the off-chance that Choi Young-do lost all sense of decorum and pride in an attempt to sneak away. They all had their cameras at the ready when the driver parked the taxi, and the flashes from their cameras were little explosions in the semi-dark.
“I believe in you.”
“That makes one of us.”
Eun-sang passed the taxi driver a handful of ten thousand–won notes. “Go ahead and turn the taxi around, but don’t leave until he comes, okay?”
“I remember,” the driver said. He sounded more annoyed than bored now, which was a dangerous thing.
Eun-sang bit back the urge to remind him, just once more, of his small but crucial part in this scheme. Instead, she and VJ Han climbed out of the taxi.
The photographers looked disappointed, especially when VJ Han jogged over to them with his own camera hanging from his neck. At least they stopped taking pictures. She had never been comfortable with having a mob of cameras in her face, and she preferred to be as unremarkable tonight as possible.
Eun-sang broke away and up the ramp toward the unmarked door Young-do had told her about.
“Where’s she going?”
“She’s got a cousin that works in housekeeping,” VJ Han said in a rush. Eun-sang tried not to cringe. At least he had remembered their fabricated story. “Her cousin said…”
The door was built of thick, unremarkable steel and a keypad lock. Young-do hadn’t given her the code—he hadn’t known it, and asking for it would undoubtedly make someone in the hotel suspicious. Eun-sang knocked on the door three times, and she had to jerk back out of the way to keep from getting beaned in the middle of her forehead with it when it swung open. She kept her footing, though, which was a miracle unto itself.
An anxious and unfamiliar man, about her age, stood on the other side of it. He was just a little taller than Young-do, but his shoulders were narrower, and he had a white-knuckled grip on the walkie-talkie in his left hand. His clothing was casual, unremarkable, except for the baseball cap tucked under his arm. “Cha Eun-sang?”
“That’s me.” She slipped past him and into the back hallways of the hotel. It was clear no guest was ever meant to step foot back here; everything was drawn in severe lines for maximum efficiency, and there was none of the luxury she remembered seeing in the lobby when she came here against her will six years ago. “The taxi is just out the door and to the right. You can’t miss it. There are some photographers out there, but just keep your head down while you run, all right?”
She gave him her best reassuring smile even though her heart was in her throat. This was a ridiculous plan, and if it didn’t work out the way she needed it to, she was going to end up on the news. Like VJ Han had said, she was made for the other side of the lens. “Where’s the service elevator?”
He gave her directions before returning to his anxious pacing. Eun-sang didn’t hurry down the hallway; she walked with the physical confidence she had learned to fake for Tan and Won. Head up, shoulders down, an even and unwavering gait, direct eye contact, and a smile that promised nothing. Zeus Hotel was large enough that she was counting on the fact that there was no way all of the employees knew each other.
No one stopped her. She made it into the service elevator and took it down to the right level of the underground parking garage.
Young-do’s driver was waiting for her there. She recognized him from today’s photographs, and he knew who she was without asking for confirmation. He handed her the key and a walkie-talkie. “The helmets are in the compartment under the back seat.”
“Thank you.” Eun-sang tucked the walkie-talkie into her coat pocket and went over to the motorcycle the driver indicated.
Young-do’s motorcycle was much bigger than she remembered his high school one being. Much bigger. Eun-sang tied her hair into a low ponytail, tucked the end beneath her coat, and pulled out one of the helmets—they were both new—and put it on. It didn’t make her feel any safer when she got on the motorcycle.
Eun-sang knew how to drive a moped thanks to one of the many grieving phases Bo-na had gone through while Chan-young was in the army. In theory, she ought to be able to handle the motorcycle for a little while. She still wasn’t prepared for how loud the engine was when she first started it up or how heavy it felt when she turned the handlebars. This was much more powerful than anything she had handled before, and part of her was certain she couldn’t do it.
The rest of her knew she had to.
She was cautious with the gas, barely going above 5 kph while she made her way out of the parking garage. Caution was her first priority because she very well couldn’t rescue Young-do if she wrecked his getaway vehicle. It was more than a little ridiculous how proud she was of herself once she got out of the parking garage and onto the road in front of the hotel.
Several people in the crowd turned her way. The VJs and photographers were trigger-happy when she slowly drove by them, at least until her slight build registered and they realized that she couldn’t possibly be Choi Young-do.
She parked the motorcycle next to the stop sign at the edge of the hotel property, over twenty meters away, right before she turned onto the main roadway. It was remarkably quiet once she killed the engine. She got off the motorcycle so she could retrieve the second helmet. Then Eun-sang turned her back to the main entrance of the hotel in order to pull the walkie-talkie out and keep both it and the helmet hidden from the press, just in case. It took a moment to find the button she needed to press. “I’m ready,” she said. “Is everyone else?”
A few moments later, Choi Young-do’s car emerged from the underground parking lot and stopped in front of the main doors of the hotel. That got the reporters, photographers, and VJs to form up ranks between the doors and the car, all of them ready to pounce on their prey.
But one minute, then two, then three went by, and Choi Young-do didn’t emerge from the hotel to run their gauntlet.
Four, five, six.
Even from her vantage point, she could tell how frustrated and annoyed they all were. Part of her was sympathetic—some people from YBS were undoubtedly in that crowd—but the part of her that had hated every single time she had been confronted with hostile media simply because of her relationship with Tan was looking forward to this con.
Seven, eight, nine.
Eun-sang was too far away to hear the shouts, but she couldn’t miss the crowd when it moved. She said a quiet thank you to VJ Han as most of the people rushed around the hotel, toward the employee entrance, where her co-worker was busy loudly misidentifying some poor employee as the heir to Zeus and chasing after him as he rushed to the waiting taxi.
It took just a few moments for the bulk of the crowd to disappear, though not all of them abandoned their posts. Several of them sprinted for the underground parking garage. It would have to be enough.
Young-do’s driver pulled away from the curb and circled back around to the parking garage so he could park directly in front of exit. More shouts then, this time ones she could hear but not understand, as a few members of the press crowded around the car, undoubtedly demanding that the driver get out of the way.
It meant no one except for Eun-sang was ready when Choi Young-do sprinted through the front doors of Zeus Hotel and toward the street, where she was waiting.
Eun-sang turned the motorcycle on again and climbed onto the back of it, just in time to hand over a helmet to Young-do. He shoved it on his head, not bothering to secure the strap beneath his chin, and hopped onto the motorcycle in front of her. She didn’t need to be told to wrap her arms around his waist and hold on for her life. The moment she did, the motorcycle engine roared, and Young-do left Zeus Hotel, and camera flashes, behind them.
The lights of Seoul—yellowish streetlights, flashing neon signs, animated billboards—smeared together into meaningless streaks of color. Her jacket and pants weren’t thick enough to offer much protection against the wind, and the only paltry relief she could find was by hunkering down. She pressed her helmet between his shoulder blades, tightened her grip around his waist, and squeezed her eyes shut. His back was solid, unyielding, a wall between her and most of the world.
Young-do couldn’t shield her from everything. She hadn’t thought to bring gloves in her sleepy rush out the door that morning, and the night air leeched the heat from her fingers. They grew stiffer from the cold with every passing kilometer. Her heartbeat smoothed out as the adrenaline from their escape worked its way through her.
Eventually, Young-do slowed and slowed and slowed to a stop. Eun-sang didn’t let go until he shut the engine off. She slid off the motorcycle, pulled off her helmet, and put it and the walkie-talkie back under the back seat.
Young-do didn’t move.
Eun-sang shoved her hands into her pockets to warm them up. She glanced around, searching for anything familiar, but she was disoriented in the dark, and the few lights that illuminated the area showed mostly walking paths and trees. Far off in the distance she could see the lights reflecting off the waters of the Han River.
“Where are we?”
Young-do pulled off his helmet then, and for the first time in a long time his voice was quiet, almost still. “The north side of the Han, at the park near Seongsan Bridge. I don’t remember the name of it.”
Eun-sang couldn’t, either, but she was fairly certain there was a subway station nearby. She could look it up on her phone once Young-do was gone.
“Does this count as a successful rescue?”
“Are you so eager to get rid of me?”
“I have to get back to my work,” Eun-sang pointed out. “I can get fired for this stunt, unlike you.”
He didn’t rise to the bait, and the silence worried Eun-sang enough that she circled around to the front of the motorcycle so she could see his expression. The nearby streetlight cast his face in harsh lines and shadows, but he didn’t look away from her.
If she hadn’t known better, she might have called his expression desperate.
His hands twitched, as if he were about to put his helmet back on and drive away, but they went still again. “Is it too late to change my mind?” he finally asked. “Cha Eun-sang—can we be friends?”
He can’t possibly still like me. It’s been six years.
Since when was Choi Young-do the kind of person who was good at letting something go?
He smiled in his bitter way at whatever it was he found in her face. “I guess it is. Thank you for the rescue. I’ll consider us even now.”
He moved to put his helmet back on, but Eun-sang bridged the space between them and grabbed the helmet by the visor. His surprise might have been comical in another situation, but right now it wasn’t. She didn’t let go until he set the helmet back down.
“Before I answer you, I have two questions of my own. I’ll give you my answer afterwards.”
“How did you get even worse about this since high school?” He sighed when she glared at him. “Go ahead.”
“I think it’s likely the Hongs, Pangs, Chungs, or Soons are behind this whole mess. What do you think?”
Young-do clenched his jaw, and for a moment Eun-sang wished she had saved that question for last. Did he think she was going to exchange her friendship for information? No matter what he thought, Eun-sang needed something new to give her bosses if she was going to blunt their wrath over her and VJ Han’s unauthorized disappearance.
“Not the Soons,” Young-do said after a tense silence. “The family is very good at putting up a united front in public, but it’s nothing more than a front. As for the rest?” He shrugged.
It would have to be enough. It had better be enough.
“What’s your second question?”
“I know you like me, Young-do, but I don’t return those feelings.”
He didn’t flinch, precisely, but she could almost see him put his angry-bored expression back in place, like it was a mask. “That’s not a question. Is this the kind of hard-hitting journalism YBS expects of its writers?”
She refused to let him distract her with that. “So can you be okay with being a real friend? And not a guy who hangs around me, hoping that eventually I’ll fall in love with him.”
“I’ve spent the last six years of my life pretending I was fine just running into you every few months,” Young-do said. She might have called it a whisper, only it was too intense for that. It was too private, too raw, and she almost looked away because hearing it felt like a breach of privacy. “The fact that you’re willing to be my friend is more than I deserve after everything I did to you in high school.”
“I’m willing to try being your friend.”
He accepted the correction with a simple nod.
Eun-sang smiled and offered him her hand to shake, and Young-do took it as solemnly as if they were closing a multi-billion-won deal.