(Originally posted 27 Apr 2014 on tumblr)
Hyo-shin was grateful that he had looked up the restaurant Rachel picked because otherwise he would have shown up embarrassingly underdressed. The restaurant was precisely the sort of place his late grandfather would have loved: traditional seating; rich décor in deep blues, greens, and grays; and private rooms sectioned off by hand-painted sliding doors. He hadn’t worn a full suit—opting instead for light brown slacks, a chestnut brown sweater, dress shoes, a close-cut jacket, and one of his favorite watches—because he had to go to class afterwards but still wanted to give Rachel a better impression of him than he had yesterday.
The hostess led him to one of the private rooms, and when the door slid open, Rachel stood to greet him. She wore a simple slate gray sheath dress that showed off her legs and arms to great advantage and a matching sapphire necklace and bracelet. It reminded him of the fact that they were both adults now, not merely playing at it like they had in high school.
The thought made him smile. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, sunbae,” Rachel said and did not smile back. They sat down across from each other. “I’ve already ordered for us.”
That was a small surprise, but Hyo-shin had told her last night that he hadn’t been to the restaurant before. “I was going to ask you for recommendations anyway, so thank you.”
The hostess slid the door shut.
“How did it go yesterday with the fire?”
“We lost all of the inventory in that warehouse. Over half of it was to smoke or water damage.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
He may as well not have spoken for all the acknowledgment she gave. “The insurance will cover the building and seventy-five percent of the retail cost for the lost products.”
“Which still isn’t ideal with this week’s product placement. What did you and your mother decide to do?”
Rachel briefly outlined the plan to shift inventory to the busiest stores, pay the quality assurance inspectors bonuses in exchange for working longer hours, and shifting the talking points to the jackets’ exclusivity to help drive customers to the web to place backorders. Hyo-shin knew it wasn’t an elegant solution, but it was a workable one. Moreover, it was one she had memorized and was already underway barely twenty-four hours after she got the news of the disaster.
A disaster that she had decided could be set aside for a few hours in order to have breakfast with him.
It was a stupid thought to be happy about, so Hyo-shin curbed it as much as he could when the waitstaff appeared with the food. Once they were gone, he picked up his spoon to try the soup.
“Why are you here?”
Hyo-shin glanced up from his food. In the seconds he had turned his attention elsewhere, Rachel’s face had changed. Her beauty had taken on sharp, cold edges, and there was steel in her voice.
“You invited me.”
It was a stupidly obvious thing to say, so he ought to have expected the derisive look she gave him.
He put on a smile that he hoped would mask his confusion. “I thought it was pretty obvious that I was interested in you.”
“Isn’t it a little early in the day to be fishing for compliments?”
She didn’t respond. Hyo-shin felt the conversation start slipping out of his grasp. “All right, then. You’re intelligent, driven, and competent, and I find those qualities attractive. I find you—”
“What do you want from me?”
“Ten minutes ago I would have said a second date.” He stared at her. “What is going on?”
Her lip curled, like she had smelled something foul. “I don’t date men who use me to attack my friends.”
It took him a few seconds to put the pieces together. “Wait—Choi Young-do?” He sat his spoon back down, incredulous. “I don’t want anything to do with him.”
“And yet yesterday you all but invited him to meet with you.”
“Yesterday all I wanted to do was to warn him about his father. And if you’ve taken care of that, then I’m done.”
“So you passed on that message out of the goodness of your heart.” The way she sneered those words conveyed just how likely she thought that was.
“Yes, as little as he deserves it.”
“Don’t lie to me, sunbae. At least give me some credit for the intelligence you just praised.”
“I haven’t lied to you. I don’t want anything from Choi Young-do.” Anger knotted up his stomach. He kept a tight leash on his temper, but he couldn’t maintain the sincerity of his smile. “And no, I won’t tell you why I wanted to warn him. That’s not my secret to tell.”
The door behind Rachel slid open abruptly, and Choi Young-do peered in from the adjacent room. “Whose secret is it?” he asked with a grin that held more menace than mirth.
If Hyo-shin had still had the spoon in his hand, he might have thrown it. Not at Rachel, though this betrayal carried more than a little embarrassment for him. All he had wanted was to test out the waters with her, and yet she had completely blindsided him with something else.
Hyo-shin met Young-do’s eyes and mentally cursed how tall he was. Young-do practically loomed over him, since Hyo-shin refused to give in to the urge to get to his feet. The black suit and tie Young-do wore emphasized his shoulders and the power he had at his disposal.
Hyo-shin was not about to be intimidated by Young-do.
“It’s yours. Is that okay to share?” There was nothing but mocking concern in his voice, and a vicious part of him wanted Young-do to be as reckless as he remembered.
Young-do didn’t disappoint.“I don’t keep many secrets from my sister.”
“Then have a seat.”
Young-do raised an eyebrow at him, but Hyo-shin simply waited until the younger man stepped into the room, shut the door, and sat beside Rachel. She was stone-faced, but Hyo-shin could find the cold fire lurking in her eyes.
He almost laughed at the absurdity of everything, but he didn’t. Instead, he rested his forearms on the table and threaded his fingers together. Then he adopted a condescending attitude that he hoped would get under Young-do’s skin.
“Choi Young-do is one of the worst people I’ve had the misfortune to interact with,” he told Rachel, but his gaze never left Young-do’s face. “He has only done two good things in his life. Despite that, there was one occasion in which I pitied him. Seven years ago, I ran into him at a private hospital.”
Young-do’s grin turned sickly by degrees as Hyo-shin continued to talk.
“His father used to beat him. I suspect that was why Young-do was in the hospital in the first place. I never got to ask, though, because Young-do decided he ought to mock me for trying to kill myself instead of thanking me for getting his father out of the hospital.”
Young-do wasn’t smiling anymore. His face had gone sallow, and the vulnerability in his expression made Hyo-shin’s stomach churn. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Rachel, uncertain he could deal with what he might find there. His own toxic mix of satisfaction, anger, and guilt was more than enough for him, even though it didn’t change what he decided to say.
“I wanted to warn Young-do that the man who used to beat him might be back in his life. Next time I’ll make sure to have some motive besides a clear conscience for the two of you to ferret out.” He got to his feet then, fished his wallet out of his jacket, and tossed all of his cash on the table. “Get a drink with the change. It’s a gift from your caring sunbae.”
Hyo-shin walked out of the private room. He barely made it outside the restaurant in time to vomit bile in an alleyway dumpster.
Rachel got to her feet, intending to chase Lee Hyo-shin down and drag him back, but Young-do wrapped his large hand around her wrist. “Get off me,” she hissed, and when he didn’t let go, she wrenched her arm free of his grasp.
“Please.” If it had been anyone but Choi Young-do saying that word in that tone she would have thought they were begging.
That simple please was enough to get her attention, and for the first time since Hyo-shin had started talking, she looked at Young-do. His head was slightly bowed, just enough that she couldn’t see his eyes. She could see the sickly cast to his skin and the subtle slumping of his shoulders. It reminded her of the rare times she had spotted Young-do in a quiet conversation with his mother, and she fought the urge to leave the room. Leaving him to talk with his mother was one thing; leaving him alone in the restaurant now would be abandoning him.
Rachel reined in her fury and sat back down beside him. She knew better than to ask him if he was all right—of course he wasn’t—or to show him any sort of concern. Pride was as essential to her or Young-do as a heart, and she did not intend to be the one who tried to fracture his.
She briefly considered proceeding with breakfast, but she hadn’t had much of an appetite when she arrived at the restaurant, and she had even less of one now.
The man who used to beat him, Hyo-shin had said, and those simple, awful words weren’t ones she could forget so easily. Rachel had never had anything but suspicion on that front. The slap she’d seen six years ago, the thorough hatred Young-do had occasionally expressed for his father, the way Yoo Kyung-ran flinched sometimes when a strange man brushed by her, the fact that Young-do had never once visited his father in prison—all of it had suggested in broad strokes just how little love or even civility there had been in Choi Dong-wook’s household.
Rachel was suddenly, fiercely grateful that her mother and Young-do’s father had never married.
But that wasn’t the only disturbing piece of information she had just been told. It seemed Hyo-shin hadn’t lost the habit of telling her his secrets.
“Do you know why he was suicidal?” she finally asked to break their silence.
Young-do let out a long breath and straightened his shoulders. They still didn’t risk looking at each other. “No.”
“Do you think sunbae was being honest with us?”
“If he wasn’t, then I can’t tell what game he’s playing. I’m more likely to marry you than I am to approach him voluntarily again.”
“Did you have to pair me with such an unattractive option?” she said, and then she frowned, remembering against her will Hyo-shin saying, I find those qualities attractive. I find you—
It didn’t matter what he thought of her.
“Forgive me, sister.” Amusement crept back in Young-do’s voice with his pet name for her, and that meant she could relax a little.
She shoved her bowl of rice in front of him in the hopes of further distracting him. “One day I will find something to blackmail you with to make you stop calling me that.”
“You’d waste prime blackmail material on that?”
“It’s not a waste from my perspective.”
“Someday I’ll blackmail you into calling me oppa.”
“Not a chance,” Rachel said. “If I wouldn’t call Shi-hyun oppa, I’m not about to use it on you.”
His name came out without her meaning to say it, as easily as if it had been any other name. The casualness of it was more startling than the phantom twinge of longing Shi-hyun’s name dredged up. She usually weighed and measured those syllables carefully before giving them voice.
Young-do finally glanced at her then, and she was relieved to see him caught in the awkward space between anger and concern. It was more satisfying than she cared to admit that someone else still had such a strong reaction to her ex-boyfriend’s name.
She eyed Young-do, and after a beat, he turned his attention to the food. He knew better than to press her about Jang Shi-hyun.
“We shouldn’t waste sunbae’s generosity,” Young-do said around a spoonful of rice. “Which bar would you like to go to tonight?”
“How drunk do you want to get?”
“Enough to have an excuse for being irritated with the world tomorrow morning.”
Rachel snagged the spill of cash Hyo-shin had left behind and thumbed through it. He had been generous in his anger.
(She had been surprised when his smile went hurt and hollow. She had expected a fight between peers, with each party prepared for the possibilities.
She hadn’t known he could be provoked into cruelty. She hadn’t believed Hyo-shin knew enough about Young-do in order to strike like that.)
“We have enough for a couple of rounds at Vinga. I should be able to be there by eight, if my class gets out on time.”
“If it doesn’t, I’m sure I can entertain myself.”
Young-do should have gone to the hotel after he saw Rachel into her car. He should at least have gone home, where he could focus on preparing for the possibility of his father’s return. He and Rachel had spent some time last night discussing Young-do’s analysis of the board members, and she had offered what insights she could. Even six years after the failed wedding/merger, Zeus Hotel and RS International still had a substantial number overlapping power players. Rachel gave him one name he ought to pay particular attention to, and she offered some fine-tuning on his approach for another.
You don’t want the board to see you as the lesser of two evils, Rachel had said. You want them to believe you’re a valid option in your own right. They’ll be more cautious about trying to puppet you then.
But the conversation with Lee Hyo-shin had left him unsettled. More than unsettled—shaken. So shaken the only thing he could think to do was to order his driver to take him to Secret Garden.
(Hyo-shin had reminded him of Bo-na back in his third year, which was almost laughable considering how different their approaches had been. Hyo-shin hadn’t slapped him, or screamed at him, or stormed out of his life in tears. But they both had been able to gut Young-do in a matter of moments. They both had left him with nothing but fresh remembrances of the terrible life he had once lived.
Not that either of them would be likely to praise the way he was living now.)
His mother’s café was still as small as it had been the first time he had seen it, when he had been too scared, too furious, too anguished to bring himself to go inside. No amount of cajoling had persuaded Kyung-ran to accept her son’s offer to pay off the business loans, much less turn the café into a franchise so she could live properly off the money others made for her. She insisted on borrowing money from a bank instead of him, even when he offered to have his lawyer draw up a proper loan agreement with penalties for late payments and everything.
Young-do didn’t go inside the café when he arrived. It was near a university, which meant that there were always sleepy-eyed patrons in need of a quick breakfast. He peered in from a window near the entrance and looked around for his mother.
The café was about a third full, and there was a small line of college-aged students at the front counter, waiting to place their orders. Young-do didn’t recognize the cashier currently running the register, but the boy had a friendly smile and cheerful demeanor and enjoyed chatting up everyone he interacted with. He saw another of his mother’s employees clearing a newly vacant table and knew there was at least one cook and an assistant back in the kitchen. There was no sign of his mother.
Young-do’s phone rang, so he pulled it out to decline the call. He wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone right now.
The screen read VP Kwon.
Sang-joong rarely called him so early on a day Young-do wasn’t scheduled to go in to the hotel to work. He hesitated for a moment too long—the call went to voicemail.
A few seconds later, Sang-joong called again. There hadn’t been enough time for him to leave a voicemail, so this time Young-do answered the phone.
“Vice President Kwon. Did you enjoy the wine that much you had to call me this morning?”
Sang-joong ignored the question, which was the first sign that something was wrong. “I received a tip from a contact in the prosecutor’s office. It’s very likely that, by the end of next month, your father will be released from prison.”