(Originally posted 26 Oct 2014 on tumblr)
Young-do spent Wednesday morning finalizing the initial bid on the Barcelona property with Sang-joong’s help. His vice president was polite, efficient, and thorough as always, but there was an undercurrent of tension in his voice whenever he spoke. Neither of them brought up their almost-argument over Ha-sun’s marriage offer.
It was a relief that they had something else to focus on. Zeus Hotel was an international company, and a love triangle and prison scandal in Korea didn’t mean much in Spain—other than the risk that the owners might see it as an opportunity to negotiate for a purchase price that was higher than they could have reasonably expected otherwise. The board had set a maximum bid for the property, and Young-do would have to stick to that in the offer–counter offer negotiations. That was why the initial offer was so crucial: too low, and the owners would be insulted; too high, and he could end up paying millions of Euros more than he should.
But as soon as Sang-joong left to pass the bid on to the Zeus lawyers for a final review, Young-do’s mind was drawn back to Ha-sun’s offer. Both Sang-joong and Rachel were in favor of him accepting the deal; Kyung-ran and Myung-soo were against it.
(Young-do hadn’t often heard Myung-soo’s bitter amusement, but it had been plain over the phone last night. “There’s a certain amount of freedom that comes when your parents expect absolutely nothing from you,” Myung-soo had said. “They will be thrilled if I actually marry someone instead of having perpetual dating scandals.”)
“The only one whose vote matters is you, Young-do.”
Rachel had said that last night—maybe because she believed it or because she knew how much he might want to believe that. His marriage, whenever it happened, was always going to be about more than him and the woman he married. Was happiness something he should even take into consideration, especially when he knew at the outset that this marriage was for a set term?
He didn’t know. There were an equal number of points on both sides, and the longer he grappled with the problem, the more uncertain he felt about it. He needed more information. He needed—
A different perspective.
Young-do pulled out his phone and sent a quick text message to Eun-sang before he could change his mind: I need to talk to you. Are you free for lunch?
Eun-sang was a little relieved to see that the address Young-do had texted her was for a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant not far from her work. It was a bit odd to see his driver standing at the front door like a sentinel, and it wasn’t until he bowed to her and opened the door that she realized the sign in the window said Closed.
She stepped inside the restaurant, which was entirely empty except for Young-do at a table near a side window and a middle-aged woman who stood awkwardly at the counter. Young-do lifted a hand in acknowledgment; the woman gave a nervous bow. Eun-sang gave her a reassuring smile and went to take the seat across from Young-do.
“Did you rent out the entire restaurant?”
“You didn’t want to come to the hotel,” he said, as if that justified the expense.
There had still been a few reporters lurking outside her house that morning. Eun-sang hadn’t wanted to go to Zeus Hotel in the middle of the day and risk the chance that would encourage the press to linger around her even longer. Meeting in a public place had seemed like a better idea.
This, though—this was just awkward. At least Young-do had seated himself next to a window. If someone had followed either of them, they would have a good shot of seeing how non-romantic their interactions would be.
He had probably selected this table for exactly that reason. As far as gestures went, it wasn’t overtly friendly—but it was a considerate one. It meant he had thought ahead about how to meet with her and cause the least amount of unwanted attention.
Eun-sang pulled out her phone, a small notepad, and a pen from her purse. She shut off the phone but slid it to the center of the table. When Young-do raised an eyebrow at her, Eun-sang smiled. “So it looks like I’m recording our conversation for an interview.”
Something dark flickered across his face for a moment, but it was gone in an instant, replaced with his normal smirk. “Should I be flattered that I’m the only friend whose voice you want to pretend to keep with you at all times?”
Eun-sang made a face at him and was saved from answering by the restaurant owner’s appearance with the menus. There weren’t many options—the restaurant only did variations on three different dishes—so it only took a few moments for them to order. Young-do ordered beef bibimbap and a beer; Eun-sang stuck with tofu bibimbap and water.
The woman disappeared. Eun-sang flipped open her notebook and took the cap off her pen. “How are you holding up?” It was awkward to write upside down, but she managed to scrawl a legible off the record today on the paper.
Young-do glanced down at her notebook, and when he met her eyes again, there was something assessing in his gaze. “Not well. It is a different sort of awful than when you asked on Sunday night, at least.”
“Did something else happen? Besides the love triangle stuff, I mean.”
“I had been trying to oust my father before SBS broke the news about his release from prison,” Young-do said. “But I neglected to mention it to the people I was trying to get on my side. Some of the board members did not appreciate being kept in the dark.”
Eun-sang listened quietly while Young-do explained everything that had been happening at Zeus Hotel in the last week. She had known, on some level, that Dong-wook’s release from prison would mean a struggle for control of the company; it was entirely different to hear directly from Young-do what had happened behind the scenes. Every now and then she wrote a few random, disconnected words down to make it look as if she were taking notes, but the bulk of her attention was on Young-do.
To someone who wasn’t familiar with him, it would look as if he wasn’t particularly bothered by how his machinations had failed. But Eun-sang recognized the tension in his shoulders despite his relaxed pose and heard the jagged emotions lurking in his straightforward narration. He only paused when their food was dropped off and didn’t resume talking until the woman disappeared again.
“I got ambushed at the dinner,” Young-do said as he finished off the last of his lunch. Eun-sang was still only halfway through hers. “Pyo Sook-ja wants me to marry her granddaughter in exchange for her help ousting my father. Do you remember Ryu Ha-sun? She was in our year.”
Somehow, Eun-sang managed to swallow without choking on her food, which was quite a feat considering the sudden suspicion that made her stomach knot up. Young-do couldn’t possibly have called her out here to—
“We didn’t talk much, but she never treated me like I was beneath her, either when she thought I was new money or when she knew I was poor.”
Eun-sang had spent a good portion of her second year being terrified of everyone and desperate to keep her poverty a secret. Ha-sun hadn’t scared her as much as some of the other students had, and the few times they had interacted in Jeguk had always been marked by a neutral civility. It had been a welcome relief from the condescension she typically got.
Young-do didn’t quite smile. “That’s a point in her favor, then.”
“Did you accept?”
“I haven’t decided yet. My vice president and Rachel are for it, but my mother and Myung-soo are against it.”
Eun-sang set down her spoon. She put the cap back on her pen and closed her notebook, but she wasn’t able to put them back in her purse before Young-do caught hold of her wrist.
“Wait,” he said. His fingers were warm against her skin. “Please listen to me, Eun-sang.”
She stared at his hand until he let go of her. Only then did she look up—and the vulnerability in his expression reminded her of their talk after she helped him escape from the hotel.
Eun-sang bit her bottom lip briefly while she tried to find the right words. “I’m not going to cast the deciding vote in your life, Young-do. That’s too much of a burden to give a friend. I won’t do it.”
“I don’t want your vote. I want…your perspective.” His sharp-edged smile said he knew how absurd this whole conversation was. “My thoughts keep going in circles. I need something to help me break out of that cycle so I can make a decision.”
Part of her wanted to finish packing up and leave; the rest of her couldn’t help but wonder just how much this conversation had cost him. Not in money—though that had to be considerable to shut down this restaurant during the lunch hour—but in strength and pride. Young-do might have agreed to be her friend a few days ago, but six years of feelings couldn’t just vanish in a few days.
How much had it hurt him to ask the woman he was in love with her opinion on if he should marry someone else?
Eun-sang laced her fingers together. “Tell me what happened last night.”
Young-do finished off his beer while he walked her through his conversation with Ha-sun and his subsequent conversations with his vice president, his mother, Rachel, and Myung-soo. He had all of their points neatly organized into sides, both for and against an engagement with Ha-sun.
It was hard not to notice how the sides also seemed to split down the line according to what the intelligent decision would be and what the emotional decision would be.
Eun-sang looked down at her hands when Young-do finished. In the silence that followed, she remembered what it had been like to wear a couples ring, and what it had been like to take it off and return it to Tan.
She let out a long breath and looked back up to Young-do. “I might have dated Tan, but I still don’t truly understand the weight of your inheritances,” she said quietly. She hoped she wouldn’t ruin this somehow. “Not like you do. So you need to—all I have are my opinions as an outsider.”
He nodded a little, and his eyes never left her face.
“Won and Da-kyung didn’t love each other when they got married. It made things…difficult, for everyone. They passed in and out of each other’s lives like they were business partners. Breakfast was a business meeting, always. The staff, at least, was good about keeping secrets—they had practice with it—and kept things running smoothly. But the more time went by, the person I pitied most was Da-kyung.”
Even though Da-kyung was the one who had kept a lover for over a year into the marriage. Eun-sang had only seen the man once before, when he had come to the house while Won had been on a business trip. When Tan had realized who was there, he had smiled sadly and asked Eun-sang if she didn’t mind relocating their study night to her home for the evening.
“She was stuck in a home where everyone tolerated her because she was wealthy and well-connected and not because she was part of their family. No one showed her any disrespect, but no one welcomed her. They kept her at a distance and tolerated her because she was Won’s wife. There was no one on her side, not really.”
Won had born it all in his usual, reserved way. If it hadn’t been for Tan, Eun-sang might not have known how much Won had suffered as well.
“And then Chae-mi happened. Not that her birth is what fixed Won and Da-kyung—I don’t know, precisely. But they changed, Young-do, and now I actually believe they love each other. Or at least they like each other enough now that it looks like love to me.”
“What are you trying to say?”
Eun-sang struggled to find the right words, but they eluded her. She finally had to settle for the best ones she could come up with. “For me, a marriage ought to be about more than business. But the marriages that are about business aren’t all the same. Sometimes love happens. Sometimes friendship does. And sometimes they fall apart completely because there was nothing other than money holding people together.
“What Ryu Ha-sun is offering you right now is business, and it’s a limited term contract. I don’t if you should accept it because I don’t know what’s most important to you, Young-do. I don’t know if you think this is a situation where the ends justify the means. I don’t know if you can exchange that much of your life for power—because even if this is all going to be ‘just business,’ you’re going to be giving up things you don’t realize you’re giving up if you say yes.”
Young-do didn’t quite laugh. “It sounds like you’re even more confused than I am.”
If he hadn’t been on the other side of the table, Eun-sang might have smacked his arm. She had to settle for a disapproving glare. “I told you I wouldn’t be of any help.”
“You have been,” he insisted. He placed his hand over his heart and gave her a smile she wasn’t entirely sure was false. “You’ve shaken me up, just like I’d hoped.”
Eun-sang didn’t know how to respond to that, but she was saved from needing to when Young-stood up abruptly. His smile had melted away. “Go ahead and finish eating. I’ve got to get back to the hotel.”
She didn’t ask what his decision was or tell him she had lost her appetite. Instead, she just said, “Good luck, Young-do.”