Home sweet home, Bae Sung Hyun thought as he walked through the Incheon airport gates.
"Welcome, sir," the chauffeur, a short and probably not even over 25-year old man, croaked and dropped the sign with RH hotels written on it. His hat fell on the floor too when he bowed.
Sung Hyun only had to remove his sunglasses to cut off the flow of apologies from his chauffeur. "Name?"
"Oh Dong Gu, sir," he stuttered.
"Are you new to the job?"
"I started a month ago, sir."
"And who assigned you to be my chauffeur?"
"Director Hwang Hong Min."
The expression of guilt on Dong Gu's face was brief but real as he glanced down. Sung Hyun put back on his sunglasses. "Let's go," he said as he stepped aside to let him push his cart.
The one-hour ride to the hotel was enough for Sung Hyun to check one more time the latest declining profit reports of RH Hotels and for Oh Dong Gu to tell him about his big plan to buy back the bar his grandfather, he called Mrs. Oh (Sung Hyun decided not to ask further clarification), had to sell to pay for his cancer treatment ten years ago.
"I have it all planned. Three years from now, I can have enough money to make a loan and then..."
Sitting on the backseat, Sung Hyun look from his tablet. "Are you confident you can manage it and not lose it again?"
"Well... I'm attending this night course management and I have a friend who can help me out. She's so smart."
"As long as you can trust her..."
"See, Ha Na and I grew up together. We're like best friends. I can trust her."
"What about you? Are you trustworthy?"
The stuttered answer sounded more like a yes than a no, but no word were exchanged until they reached the downtown hotel.
"We're here, sir," Dong Gu said, looking back.
Sung Hyun sighed and lightly knocked on his window. Dong Gu quickly apologized and went out to open the door.
With a wave of his hand, Sung Hyun kept the luggage handler on put as he turned to Dong Gu who was unloading the truck. "Here's my offer. I will personally train you for the next few weeks. I'll make sure you get your evenings free so you can attend your classes. In exchange, I want you to be my eyes and my ears."
Dong Gu looked down. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking me, sir."
"Do you know why I'm here?" Sung Hyun asked and went on when Dong Gu remained silent. "Do you know what happens when hotels are closed down?"
"Employees lose their job."
"Employees lose their job, indeed. I'm here to prevent this from happening. If you're not going to help me, don't get in my way at least. Do I make myself clear?"
It seemed like time had stopped. If the quick tour of the hotel he hadn't been enough evidence, the suite booked for Sung Hyun was exactly the same as when he left fourteen years ago. It was no surprise they were losing clients while their rivals kept upgrading.
"I know, son. I know," his father quietly agreed as he motioned him to pour him a glass of water. The machines he was hooked on beeped at a steady pace. "That's why I asked you to come back. At this point, you're the only one I can trust."
"And no one else?"
His father sighed and took a sip of water. "Now that everybody knows I'm at the hospital because I had a stroke, Hwang has the board on his side and he will do everything to take the hotels from you."
"You mean from you." After putting the glass back on the night stand, Sung Hyun carefully sat on the bed. His heart beat a bit faster when his father took his hand, a sign of affection that Sung Hyun could only remember from his childhood. "Father—"
"Even when I completely recover, I won't be able to work like before. I will hold a meeting in four weeks to announce my retirement and recommend you to take over. I know why you left and I let you go although I didn't agree with your choice, but don't let me down on this one. I need you."
It was time to step up. It would have been better in other circumstances, but Sung Hyun wouldn't back down. That was the promise he made to himself as he lightly squeezed his father's hand.
It would be a tough fight, one that Sung Hyun knew he wouldn't be able to win alone no matter which strategy he could come up with. Many questions ran through his head as he checked the list of employees the next morning. He needed just one person to give him answers. Among the unfamiliar names, one stood out.
Sunwoo In Young.
Sung Hyun scrolled back up and clicked. Her résumé was displayed on the screen but his eyes were set on her picture. Zoom in. With her hair tied in a perfect bun and her composed expression, she looked exactly the same as the manager who had scolded him on the first day of his internship fourteen years ago. One week into his training and he had figured out three things: Sunwoo In Young never admitted she was wrong, never refused free food, never complained about work. Every evening, she made him stay at the office, kick off his shoes and sit without doing anything for ten minutes. When her cell phone alarm rang, she thanked him for his hard work and sent him off, reminding him to be ready to work again the next day. Of course, it was only when they were just co-workers. They spent their evenings together in a different way once they had become lovers.
Sung Hyun sighed as he tossed his tablet on the sofa. Leaning back, he closed his eyes as if to stay away from the memories he had blocked when he left Korea. Still, In Young was the only one he could trust. Or at least he wanted to. That's why he was knocking at her office door at 8:10 pm sharp. There was no answer, so he opened the door slightly and was welcomed by a quiet snoring sound.
Her chair reclined, In Young was sleeping at her desk. Her alarm phone startled them both as he was debating leaving her alone. Yawning loudly, she turned it off and raised her arms above her head to stretch when she met his gaze. Surprise or shock? Sung Hyun didn't know how to interpret the way she didn't move until he was at her desk. She stood up at once and gave him a 90° bow.
"And that just became even more awkward," he commented.
"I'm sorry, sir."
She glanced up and lowered her head, giving Sung Hyun the occasion to openly stare at her. Her tailored uniform underlined a curvier body than he remembered. Her face was also a bit rounder. She might have been 45 but was as beautiful as the 30-something woman of his memories.
"I'm sorry, sir, but my shift ended and I have to go home. If you need help with something, you should—"
"Do you need a ride? I can give you a ride... Except that I don't have my own car yet," he remembered.
In Young slightly smiled. "It's okay." She grabbed her purse hanging on her coat rack. "Well, have a nice evening, sir."
"Can I walk you to your car?"
"... I don't think we should be seen together."
"Sir, you don't want anything or anyone to ruin your reputation. Especially now."
Her cold tone was enough to convince him that tonight wasn't the right time to talk to her... nor any time they ran into each other the following week. One evening, he no longer could help it and went back to her office as she was getting ready to leave.
"How does us being seen together can hurt my reputation?" he asked, leaning against the closed door.
"Do you really think people forgot that fling we had fourteen years ago?"
Fling. Maybe that what she was to him. Her rebound guy before going back to her cheater of a boyfriend who happened to be her first love too. She knew how Sung Hyun felt about her back then and it wasn't like her to treat his feelings so lightly.
"So what if they didn't?"
"If you want to take over, you need the board's trust and you won't have it if there are rumors that you sleep with your employees," she said, using the highest way of speech.
"Manager Sunwoo, sir," she corrected him once again as she stood in front of him.
"Are you mad at me?"
"I wouldn't dare, sir. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go home."
He knew her well enough to figure out the anger behind her even and polite professional tone. Sung Hyun stepped aside and she left without looking back.
In Young's words haunted Sung Hyun everywhere he went for the next two weeks as he visited the ten hotels they had in Korea to have a clear picture of their state. Behind each smile and each compliment he received, there was no way to figure out who was on his side... Pyeongchang had been his last stop. Now it was time to organize all the data and come up with a marketing plan the board wouldn't refuse.
"Do you have a class tonight?" Sung Hyun asked as he loosened his tie and relaxed against the backseat of his car.
Dong Gu looked at him in the rear view mirror. "I don't."
"How long until we get back to Seoul?"
"About two hours."
"Make it three," Sung Hyun said and closed his eyes.
When he woke up, it was past 9. The car was parked in a remote area by the Han River and Dong Gu was nowhere in sight. Sung Hyun started pacing up and down, his calls to Dong Gu going straight to voicemail.
"Sorry, sir. There was a bit of a line," Dong Gu said as he tried catching up his breath and handed a plastic bag to Sung Hyun.
Three rolls of kimbap and a beer later, Sung Hyun let out a sigh of satisfaction as he was sitting in the backseat, the door open. Sitting on the driver seat, Dong Gu was finishing his own dinner but only drank water.
"I suppose I should thank you," Sung Hyun said, taking out his wallet from his jacket lying behind him.
"No, no. It was my treat," Dong Gu protested.
"I know how much the drivers earn. I don't want you to waste your money."
"Sir, it's perfectly fine. If you're feeling better, it's not wasted money." Dong Gu cleared his throat and glanced down. "That kind of came out wrong. I just... You looked like you needed a break."
"... Thank you."
Dong Gu grinned. "I'm almost done and I'll take you back to the hotel."
"Take your time," Sung Hyun said.
The summer breeze of the night was refreshing. Taking in the city lights that seemed to float above the dark water, he even allowed himself to do some breathing exercises. In moments like this, when his responsibilities and his unfulfilled desires didn't matter, the illusion of having control over his life was real.
"I didn't say a thing to Director Hwang," Dong Gu said, standing by his side. "I'd be lying if I said he didn't offer me first the same deal you offered me, but I hadn't accepted it."
"And the reason you're telling me this now is..."
"Ha Na said I should come clean about it even if I don't help you."
Sung Hyun nodded. "So that is your answer. You won't help me."
"Look, I know nothing about all the shady stuff that is going on, but I'm not stupid enough to think that being involved wouldn't get me in trouble. One way or another."
"However, from what I've seen... You're a good boss. And you do care about your employees... I hope you will succeed in whatever that is that you're planning to do."
Sung Hyun smiled. "Thank you for your honesty."
During the weekend, Sung Hyun locked himself in his suite to work. Although he hadn't made any specific requests, room service was delivered at regular hours. It turned out that the menu was composed of his favorite dishes which was the perfect excuse to take a break. On Sunday night, though, inspiration left him. It wasn't just about pointing out problems, it was about coming up with solutions and new ideas.
The hotel was quiet at 2AM. The dining hall was already closed, so Sung Hyun helped himself a glass of scotch he brought to the piano. It needed a bit of tuning, but the sound was still clear enough to pull him away from negative thoughts. Someone clapped, startling him out of his daze.
"That was amazing," a teenage girl said, walking up to him. "You're no Lee Sun Jae, but you're good."
"And who are you?"
"Someone who should probably not be here," she replied with a sheepish smile. "Well, goodbye."
And she ran out before Sung Hyun could even stand up. The fact she left the door open was the evidence that she wasn't a ghost. Still, he decided to call it a night. Still, the perspective of having only one week left until the board meeting had him waking up at sunrise. Unable to go back to sleep, he ate a few cereal bars and went to the gym. Working out his frustration didn't help him to get new ideas.
The elevator doors opened and he found himself face to face with a teary-eyed boy. He could have been 7 or 8.
"Hello?" Sung Hyun greeted him, stepping inside. He pressed the button to his floor and looked at the boy again. "Where are you going?"
"I... My mom said not to talk to strangers."
"She's absolutely right." The doors closed. "Does your mom know you walking around the hotel all by yourself?"
"No," he admitted, looking down.
Sung Hyun managed not to smile until they reached his floor. "Well, have a nice day."
"Sir!" the boy called him out and stepped out of the elevator at the last second. "I got lost. I don't know how to go back to my room."
"I see... We should go back to the front desk and check which room your parents booked."
The boy seemed to go through an intense internal debate before he went on. "My mom is working here and if her boss finds out she brought her kids to work, she might get fired."
Sung Hyun frowned. "What's your mom's name?" He offered him what he hoped to be a reassuring smile. "I work here too. I'll take you back to her."
"You promise you won't say anything to her boss?"
"She's manager Sunwoo In Young."
"I know where her office is," Sung Hyun said, his voice slightly shaking. He cleared his throat. "Shall we go?"
The boy's wary expression turned into relief once they stood in front of the office door with her name on it. "Wait," he said, grabbing Sung Hyun's hand before he could knock. "She's going to be so mad at me. Can't you just go?"
"Maybe if I'm here she won't scold you too much?" The boy pouted. "Okay. Well, if she's not here, come to the elevators and we'll go find her."
"Okay." He waited for Sung Hyun to be down the hall before knocking on the door. In Young opened it and the boy walked inside.
Of course, she must have had kids and she had probably gotten married too, even if she didn't wear a wedding ring. Sung Hyun could have checked the "family situation" category in her file. The confirmation that she had built a happy life without him wasn't something he had prepared himself for, though. The In Young she was today was someone he didn't know at all. This thought was too unsettling for him to focus on work after taking a shower.
Room service for breakfast came as he was checking his emails on his tablet. He opened the door while reading over the one announcing the meeting his father had told him about. "Put everything on the coffee table," he said already walking back.
"Yes, sir." It wasn't until In Young was done that she met his gaze. "I... Thank you for my son. He told me what happened this morning," she added before he could lie.
"How did you know it was me?"
"He described you as tall and handsome and no one but you would use the gym, especially this early."
Sung Hyun returned her smile. "Well, I wanted to make sure he was okay, but he said you'd scold him if you saw us together."
"This boy can't lie to save his life. He had spilled everything 30 seconds after greeting me."
Sung Hyun didn't know what else to say, so he sat down on the sofa and checked his breakfast. "That looks really good. I should thank the chef for always coming up with everything I like."
"Someone might have given him pointers," she lightly said and gave him a sheepish smile. "One can't think with an empty stomach."
"... I'm surprised you remember—"
"That's what happens when you do this job. Clients appreciate details like this."
"Right..." Sung Hyun picked up his spoon which should have been the signal for her to leave, but she didn't move. "Anything else?"
"It was my first time bringing my kids to work. Manager Seo had an emergency last night and no one else was available to do this shift. I usually drop the kids at their dad's, but he's filming a movie in Japan right now, so..." She caught up her breath. "What I'm trying to say is that I know it was unprofessional of me and it won't happen again."
"Where did you hide them?"
Her face reddened as she kept looking down. "I made them sleep in an empty room on the first floor. They weren't supposed to leave it until I come and get them in the morning."
"Has this ever happened to any other employee? I'm not asking you to be a snitch," he said into her silence. "It's a genuine question."
"It might have happened a couple of times."
"Does Director Hwang know about this?"
"Are you crazy?" She had dropped the honorifics. Her boldness made her stutter. "I mean, of course he doesn't know, sir."
"And it will stay that way."
"Thank you, sir." She smiled and bowed to him before heading out.
Sung Hyun sipped on his coffee, the morning events already replaying in his mind. Did she mean that Sung Soo and she didn't live together even when he wasn't overseas for work? He wondered and checked her file. His heart was beating a little bit faster when he clicked on the current family situation category.
Single. Nothing about being married or divorced. Just single.
In Young had taken her Tuesday off too, so Sung Hyun waited Wednesday morning to put his plan into motion. From the first floor, he could see her talking with her colleague at the front desk. As she walked away, he texted her.
This is Vice Ceo Bae Sung Hyun. I need to talk to you. When are you available? (It's my private number)
She stilled in the middle of the lobby as she checked her cell phone but put it back in her jacket pocket.
Are you ignoring your Vice CEO?
Another employee walked up to her and they talked for a moment.
I am working, sir.
How about having lunch with me?
So when? It's important!
Now. Meet me by the tennis court.
Sung Hyun followed her at a safe distance, noting that she checked her hair and her uniform any chance she got to.
"I've always liked this place. Reminds me of the picnics we used to have," Sung Hyun said as he sat down next to her on the bench. "You're not scared people might see us?"
"If they see us together like this, they'd know you have nothing to hide."
"You really sound like you're at war."
"And you act like someone who isn't."
"So you're on my side?"
In Young shook her head. "I can't believe you're even asking me this," she quietly said, dropping the honorifics. Sung Hyun placed his hand over hers. She only let him for five seconds. "So what did you want to tell me?" she asked, switching back to her professional tone and scouting away.
"It's more like a favor. I'd like to talk to you about the few ideas I have for the hotels. I'd like to hear your input."
"Because I can trust you."
She hesitated. "You can come at my house tonight. The kids are going to bed at 10 at the latest. So let's say 10:30?"
"... So you're really living on your own with them."
"Yes and I will not answer to personal questions. We will keep this professional."
"What makes you think I was hoping for something else?"
Sung Hyun fought the urge to caress her cheek just like he used to whenever she blushed because she was embarrassed.
"Anyway, you have my address in my file. I'll see you tonight," she said as a goodbye.
Friendship was the only thing In Young wanted to give him back then. As he sat in the cab, Sung Hyun wondered if he had finally reached the point that he was willing to accept it. Truth be told, their short conversations had triggered more his curiosity than any sense of attraction he was afraid to feel.
"Sir, we've been here for five minutes. Do you want me to drive around one more time?" the driver asked him.
"No. I'm ready. Thank you." Sung Hyun paid him, took a deep breath and made his way to the small gate. The house had nothing fancy, blended in with the rest of the quiet middle-class neighborhood. It didn't have the bright and welcoming atmosphere of her old house, the one she used to share with Sung Soo, he reminded himself.
As he was about to ring the bell, In Young came out, even running a little.
"Didn't you get my text? I told you I had left the gate open. Hurry up!" She grabbed his hand and didn't let go until they were inside. "I don't think anyone saw you," she said as she peaked behind one of the living room window curtain.
"So we can't be seen together at the hotel. We can't be seen together either at your house. Is there somewhere in Seoul we can meet freely?" he asked, half-amused.
In Young glared at him. "I don't want my kids to hear at school that their mom is bringing men home."
"I understand," he said, still standing in the entrance.
"You can use the slippers by the door. Sung Soo is shorter than you, but your foot size is the same," she said, still looking by the window.
Sung Hyun made no comment as he removed his shoes and walked in with just his socks on. "Where do you want to sit?"
"Here is fine," she replied, finally turning her attention back to him. "Did you have a dinner? Don't get any idea. I'm just being a good host."
"And you're really doing a great job at it," he teased her. "Am I allowed to sit?"
"Yes." Her expression said the opposite, though.
"Are you sure this is okay for me to be here?" he asked, standing back up.
"Yes," she assured him, making him sit down again. "I made us some coffee."
"Coffee would be nice."
As his laptop and tablet were turning on, Sung Hyun walked around the living room. There were several pictures of In Young with her two kids, but only one with Sung Soo with them. The girl seemed familiar, though.
"Is this your daughter?" Sung Hyun held up a framed picture as she came back with two mugs.
"Min Ah, yes. She's 12. And you already know Jae Min. He's 8."
"You have a lovely family."
"Thank you." She held his gaze only for a second before she sat down on the sofa and invited him to do the same. "So let's hear your ideas."
"I've been thinking that we might need to switch our target a little bit. We could turn the hotel in Hongdae and the hotel in Seodaemun into some sort of college dorms."
"You mean like a guest house or a goshiwon?"
"More like an upgraded version of a guest house because we would provide the quality service and the comfort of a hotel for a reasonable price. This would probably be much appreciated by foreign students too."
"I like that idea. Tell me more."
Previsions, estimated cost, potential benefits, Sung Hyun explained her in details his vision, noting her remarks as her concierge experience helped her to point out the logistics needs.
"Now for the main hotel, I was thinking about upgrading the services. Maybe turning half of the first floor into a kids' center for our clients and our employees. It would run 24/7."
"Really? Even on weekends?"
"It's something I had already implemented in our Singapore branch. Parents who want to go out at night, employees working a night shift, just about anyone can leave us their kids. I don't get why it hasn't be done here already."
"Director Hwang was against it. He said it was too much responsibility and women just had to stay at home if they had no one to take care of their kids."
"Some of the board members think the same way. It's going to be hard to convince them."
"You can do it." She smiled at him but didn't let him touch her hand this time. "So what else can you tell me about this kids' center?"
With his eyes on the screen, Sung Hyun went back into a lengthy explanation that went into deaf ears as a quiet snore cut him off. It was past two in the morning and more than time to go. If he managed to put quietly everything back into his laptop bag, she was awake when he came back from the kitchen where he had called a cab.
"I'm sorry for falling asleep," she said in a sleepy voice.
"It's okay. You can go to bed. My cab should be here in ten minutes anyway."
"I'll wait," she insisted after a loud yawn.
So they sat in silence, exchanging a little smile every now and then.
"How have you been all this time?" he finally asked the most neutral personal question he could come up with. "Happy?"
"Most of the time, yes," she agreed after a brief hesitation. "What about you? Have you been happy?"
"Most of the time, yes."
In Young chuckled and shook her head. "I didn't think it would be so hard to see you again."
"What do you mean?"
She went to the window. "Your cab is here."
"So, I'll see you around," he said as she walked him to the door. Now that he had climbed down the entrance step, they were at eye level. "Thanks for tonight."
"Just make sure you get back what's yours."
She was talking about the hotels and nothing else Sung Hyun reminded himself on his way out.
The sun was shining, birds were singing. Today could only be a good day, Sung Hyun decided after he received a text from In Young wishing him good luck for the meeting. Rehearsing his presentation as he smoothed out his shirt, he walked by the mail left on the entrance table. A small envelope caught his attention. He put it back down as soon as he read the word "wedding". He already knew who it was from and it was definitely not the time to let himself be distracted. Checking his reflection one last time, he nodded to himself. Today would be a good day no matter what.
The enthusiasm his father managed to hide behind appreciative smiles was nothing compared to the ones shown by some of the board members. It made it easier to figure out Director Hwang's pawns too.
Standing by a white board where the last card of his PPT was still displayed, Sung Hyun had answered to every objection so far. The nods of approval came from the majority now.
"I believe our Vice CEO is a visionary," Pawn number 1 said with a sweet smile. "However, while I find all these projects ambitious, they require money and time that we don't have. Director Hwang is currently negotiating the acquisition of a resort in Jeju Island. As you're very well aware, this will be a big investment for RH Hotels."
"Zeus Hotels are also bidding, so this resort project is still a project," Sung Hyun replied. "What I'm presenting today is a project that doesn't depend on our competitors. I'm not saying we should do everything at once. The priority should be the "hotel dorms" since summer break just started and foreign students will start flying in by the end of August. Everything can be organized by the end of July which is one month from now."
"Who will take responsibility if it fails?" Director Hwang asked.
The room echoed with quiet gasps of shock. This was an open declaration of war and Sung Hyun would have now to place his Vice Ceo and potential CEO status on the line. Despite his father's alarmed gaze from the other end of the table, he couldn't back out.
"I will," his father cut him off. All eyes were on him. "This was supposed to be our last topic of discussion today, but we might as well talk about it now. As you probably already know, my health hasn't been at its best for the past few months. That's why my son accepted to come back. He made tremendous work for our branch in Singapore and Japan. I trust him to do the same with the main group."
"So you're saying that we should still follow him even if his project fails and he's proven to be unfit for this position?" Director Hwang calmly objected.
"I'm saying this project will determine if it's time for me to retire."
"As expected, this is our CEO's wisdom", Director Hwang agreed with a small bow.
How did it go?
Do you want to talk?
Fine. I'm going home.
Sitting by the tennis court, Sung Hyun ignored his vibrating cell phone as he stared the wedding invitation, a reminded of the life he could have had.
"I had a feeling you'd be here," In Young said as she sat on the bench. "What are you doing? Except ignoring my texts."
Sung Hyun didn't have it in him to smile. "I'm just thinking."
"You should at least take tonight off to celebrate."
"That your project got voted? That you defeated Director Hwang?"
"I should, right?" He sighed as he looked back at the sky. "Except I have no one to celebrate with."
"Your kids, I know. Just like the rest of my friends. You all have families to go home to."
In Young grabbed his wrist as he walked past her. "What happened?" She lightly shook his arm when he didn't answer. "What's wrong?"
"My ex-fiancée is getting married." He briefly held up the envelope. "See?"
"I didn't know you were engaged," she said after a short silence.
"About three years ago."
The two of them were never that kind of friends. Probably because they didn't get the opportunity to as they went from being sunbae-hoobae, to being boss-employee while being lovers. And now they were just boss-employee. Sung Hyun sighed again. "It's a long story. You should go home. See you tomorrow."
"I'm here if you want to talk."
He pretended he didn't hear her as he walked away.