Chapter 32: The Leader is Inefficient and the Mom Has a New Best Friend
Work had never been so inefficient for Rhett. He kept forgetting documents on his table or placing the wrong slides on his Powerpoint. He even spilled some coffee on someone else’s desk. He would trip for no reason, and he would space out for several minutes. Something was wrong with him. He knew, and his whole staff knew.
“Rhett?” He heard a voice calling him. “Rhett? Did you hear what I said?”
At that time, he had his cheek resting on his palm. He was too busy remembering what had happened a few nights ago. She had kissed him right? He had felt her lips press against his skin. Did she like him? What was he even thinking?
He felt a sharp pain to his shin. “Ow, what was that for?” He glared at Rachel, who sat to his right. Then, he remembered where he was: at a staff meeting. Feeling doomed, he cleared his throat and uttered, “I believe I need more time to think about your proposals before I share my input. We will meet tomorrow morning to discuss more. Meeting is dismissed for today.”
Rachel murmured, “Rhett, I think you’re working too hard. You should rest some time.”
Rhett only nodded as he gathered his supplies to leave. He watched the others depart, and timed it so that he would be the last to lock the door. Oddly, there was someone who seemed to be waiting for him.
“Hana? Is everything fine?” he inquired at the door.
“I . . . was wondering that for you,” she answered with reddened cheeks. “Mr. Jung—“
“Just call me Rhett. We’ve known each other for a bit now.”
“Rhett, you seem out of the loop today,” she explained. “I hope nothing is troubling you.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he scoffed. “It’s just something . . . silly.”
He then turned to shut the door, but Hana had grabbed onto his elbow. “E-e-even if it’s something silly,” she uttered, “I don’t think it would make you change so much. It must be something important. I-I can help you if you want.”
“Ha,” he replied, “don’t worry. It’s nothing that has to do with the company. You’re already helping out a lot by being an eager intern.”
“All right then,” she said, “I’ll get to work on the proposal.”
Yes, Rhett should have been working on the proposal too, but he was barely focusing. So, he decided to handle the small details first before doing anything he would regret in the future. Somehow, even the littlest problems took the whole day, and by the time, he decided to leave the office, it was already close to midnight. He thought, by then, no one would be there, but to his surprise, there was still a cubicle glowing among the darkness. Wondering who it could be, he purposely walked towards the area.
“It’s already past the usual work time,” Rhett announced.
The woman almost jumped up in her seat with her mouth gaping. “Rhett! What are you doing here?” Hana asked. “You should be home.”
“I thought that was my line.” He chuckled before questioning, “So, what’s keeping you so busy?”
“I’m just fixing my presentation.” She swiveled her chair towards him and giggled. “I guess the details always get to me.”
A smile was immediately plastered on Rhett’s face. He always appreciated reliable employees, who did everything they could for the company. He was that type as well. If the company needed him, then he would be there whenever and wherever. Who didn’t like people who resembled them though?
“It’s too late for a young lady to be up,” he reminded like he always did to his sister. “Come on.” He held onto her jacket, which was lying on her seat. “I’ll give you a ride home. You’ve done enough for today.”
Like a gentleman, Rhett helped her into her jacket, and from then on, like a lady, she followed his every move. When he walked, she would walk. When he spoke, she would reply. When he made a joke, she would giggle. When he opened the car door for her, she would thank him and sit in the passenger seat. When he started to drive, she sat with her knees bent at a perfect angle.
The car ride was rather silent until Hana uttered, “I thought I should give you this.”
Rhett saw her lifting a white, plastic bottle from her purse. “What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s a bottle of vitamins,” she replied. “I th-thought you looked rather tired these days, and I’ve been hearing that this infectious cold is spreading throughout the city, so—“
“Thank you,” he answered. “That was very kind of you.”
“Really? You didn’t think it was weird or anything?”
No one could be weirder than Kannei.
“No, it wasn’t—“  
He couldn’t resist a small chuckle when thinking about Kannei’s offbeat expressions and sentences.
“You laughed!” She pointed at him, the culprit. “You laughed! So, it was weird huh?”
“No, no.” He made a left turn before answering, “I just thought of something funny. That’s all.”
“What was so funny?” she pondered.
Rhett tried to explain, “This friend of mine . . . she’s . . .”
He wasn’t sure what to say. How was Kannei funny? Was it her vicious glare or was it her height? Was it her nonsensical jokes or her habits? Honestly, he didn’t know why he’d laugh so easily when he was with her. They were so different from each other, yet he didn’t mind anymore. It was interesting listening to her speak. It was fun seeing her get mad for no reason. It was nice just being beside her. As harsh as she was, he knew that she would never have any ulterior motives. She was a good friend, a great friend, in fact. Maybe, even too good to be a friend.
“She?” Hana interrupted Rhett’s thoughts. “I thought guys were usually the funny ones.”
“Yeah, they are, but—“
“But, she’s special, huh?”
As Rhett parked the car to the side of the street, he acknowledged, “Yeah. She’s important.”
“Lucky her then,” Hana said in a disheartened tone. “I wish I could be her.”
When Hana opened the car door, she noted, “Because I want to be liked by you.”
Rhett almost honked the car in front of him, but luckily, he grabbed for his cell phone, which was vibrating in his pant pocket. He had just received a text message from Jaejoong.
Yo, slowpoke. When are you going to introduce us to your girlfriend? *cough* Kannei *cough*.
Sometimes, that was what friends for: to remind you what was most important in your life. Whether or not you took the warning depended on you and only you. No one could force you in the end to do what you disliked.
Maybe Jaejoong had been too nosy. Maybe, he shouldn’t have interfered with Rhett’s love life. Maybe, he shouldn’t have even cared, but he had chosen to invite Kannei for dinner at a seafood restaurant. His purpose? For Kannei to win over Rhett’s heart completely.
Now, inviting Kannei couldn’t have been harder. She kept questioning Jaejoong’s intentions, shooting him down with so many interruptions that Jaejoong could only tell her the truth. Well, the deviated version of the truth.
“Really,” Jaejoong had uttered, “I’ve never tried this place before, and I just thought you’d like to try it out too. I don’t know anyone else who enjoys eating as much as you do.”
“I’m pretty sure there are others,” Kannei had argued. “We’ve only met a couple of times, so going by ourselves is—“
“Yunho is coming too,” he had blurted.
“Why didn’t he ask me himself then?”
“Be-because he’s shy.”
“Mhm, I always knew he was a coward. Ha!”
“So, you’ll be there right?”
            Oh, she had been there waiting for him in front of the gates to her university. She had also been so excited during the car ride discussing tactics to order their appetizers and entrées that Jaejoong had trouble focusing on his driving. He had almost forgotten to tell her that Rhett was not going to be joining them until Kannei had asked, “So, when is that lazy ass going to come?”
            “About that—“
            “He lied, didn’t he?” She interrupted him before he could even formulate an excuse.
            “Oh, no,” Jaejoong quickly remarked, “I lied.”
            “Wh-what? Say that again?”
            Jaejoong cleared his throat. “I said I lied. I never told him about this.”
He met her frightening glare while turning his head for a shoulder-check. For once, he felt like he should have lied. A white lie wouldn’t have hurt anyone in this case, but it was too late to even lie. So, he explained, “I want to help you . . . and Rhett. I know Rhett likes you. I’ve known Rhett for too long, so I know when he’s in love with someone.”
            “Wh-what are you talking about? Rhett and I are already—“
            Seeing her baffled look, Jaejoong pulled over to the side of the street and gave her a weak grin. “I know you and Rhett aren’t really a couple.”
            “How’d you—“
            His eyes stared into her wavering pupils before declaring, “Like I said, I’ve known him for years, and that’s why I want to help you guys get together.”
            “Wh-wh-why? I don’t even like him that way!” She turned her head away and crossed her arms.
            Jaejoong chuckled once he saw her reflection from the windows. She had the rosiest cheeks he had ever encountered paired with pouty, stubborn lips. Upon seeing her expression, he attacked by questioning, “Okay, so if you don’t like him, then why’d you agree to have dinner with me after I said Rhett would be there?”
            “Be-be-because . . . I thought you knew we were actually together.”
            Knowing that she would never cave in, he tried another method. “Okay, so if you don’t like Rhett, then why don’t you date me instead?” he asked.
            This time, she pounced towards him, but her seatbelt had chained her in place. Still, her hands had clung onto his blazer, pulling him forward just to shout in his face, “No! No!”
            Jaejoong’s lips curved upwards. “Why not?” he countered.
            “Because it’s wrong.”
            “Why is it wrong?”
            She loosened her grip and reclined in the seat before saying, “Because . . . you’re his best friend.”           
“So? It’s not like you’re betraying him or anything,” Jaejoong added. “It’s just like you said. You’re not even a couple, and you don’t even love him, so why not date me?”
He had purposely held onto her hand, which rested on her lap. He was inching closer and closer to her, to the point where his lips almost touched hers, and it was then that she muttered, “I can’t, Jaejoong.” She looked up at him and stated, “I can’t date someone I don’t love.”
            “Would you let me kiss you then?”
            “Wh-what? No. I can’t kiss someone I don’t—“
            Jaejoong’s smile brightened and decided that it was time to drive again. “But you kissed Rhett when I suggested it as a way to avenge him.”
            “That’s different,” she moped.
            Jaejoong scoffed and signaled to merge, “You know, you’re never going to get him this way. If you can’t even admit your feelings for him, then how are you ever supposed to be in a relationship with someone?”
            Throughout the drive, they hadn’t talked. She had grown too silent and even when they had arrived at the restaurant, Jaejoong could tell that the glisten in her eyes had withered to dullness. It wasn’t until Jaejoong had opened the car door for her did she answer, “That’s why I’ve never been in a relationship. What are the chances of someone liking me back? And even if he did like me . . . then what are the chances of a relationship actually working? I’ve seen too much Jaejoong. I’m . . . not meant for love. I mean, I’d rather watch a happy couple than be part of a couple.”
            He felt his chest grow sore after hearing her words. He could understand how she felt. He too had questioned love and marriage often. Why even get married when there was going to be divorce? Why even have children when you didn’t love them enough to keep them? Despite his own frustrations, he didn’t want to discourage her. In fact, he felt like encouraging her to be more optimistic.
            “Nonsense!” He chuckled and tugged her hand. “You’re just afraid of taking a risk. Love can be like poker. There’s a bit of a gamble, but there’s also something called reading your opponents.” Once she was on the sidewalk beside him, he lowered to her height and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Now, I’ve read your target for you, and from his actions, I know that Rhett is falling for you. You just have to do a few more tricks and he’s yours! And, don’t worry about Rhett breaking your heart. He’s too responsible to even cheat, and if he does cheat on you, I’ll beat him up for you.”
            Kannei couldn’t conceal her smirk as she verified, “Can you even . . . fight?”         “Shush, I have my ways.” Jaejoong then held onto her hand again, reminding her to follow him. “Come on! They’re going to cancel our reservation at this rate.”
            Indeed, their reservation had been taken by other people and indeed, Jaejoong felt guilty. Not only had he deceived her, but he had also failed to keep part of his promise. Just by hearing the scraping of her shoes against the pavement, Jaejoong knew how disappointed she was. He knew he had to do something spectacular for this poor girl, and so he suggested, “Why don’t we just walk around and see if there’s anything that catches your eye?”
            Kannei turned back with a grim smile and said, “What else are we going to do?”
            He must have been out of his mind for saying this, yet he couldn’t stop himself from blurting, “I’ll show you my favourite restaurant. We’re going to have to somehow find parking in Shibuya.”
“Isn’t the 109 building for shopping purposes?”
She had eyed him, wondering why they were suddenly venturing to a popular department store. They were climbing escalator after escalator until they had reached the seventh floor.
            “There’s also food here, mochi,” Jaejoong at last answered once they stood in front of a restaurant called Ma Maison.
            “Oh my gosh! Are those what I think they are?” Kannei rushed to the glass display of several plastic omelets and had almost planted her cheek against the window.
            Luckily, Jaejoong had tugged at her collar, dragging her from behind. “Table for two, please, and tell Hiroshi that I’m here with a special guest.”
            “Okay, Jaejoong, I’ll tell him that,” the waitress answered while directing them to a square table for two. The restaurant was cramped, filled with people, yet its decorations were homey.
            Rather embarrassed by Kannei’s incessant head turns, he pushed her forward. “Come on, let’s move along. Aren’t you hungry, anyways?”
            Immediately, she plopped onto the chair across from him, and patted her stomach. “Yes.” Her eyes glanced downwards. “My stomach has been—“
            Her cheeks reddened, and it didn’t help that Jaejoong had heard the loud growls from her stomach. Then, he sputtered a laugh before that spiraled into a boisterous guffaw. He might have even fallen off of his chair if Kannei’s cell phone had not rung.
            When Kannei had excused herself to answer the phone, the chef, Daniel, personally delivered the dishes to Jaejoong’s table. “Rare that you’d bring a girl here,” he uttered.
            “Ha,” Jaejoong scoffed and sheepishly grinned.
            “I don’t meant to be rude, but what about—“
            “We broke up.”
            “Sorry, I didn’t know . . . but she seems like a good girl.”
            “She’s just a friend,” Jaejoong corrected.
            “Sorry, I just thought . . .”
            Jaejoong patted Daniel’s shoulder before reassuring, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay.”
            “You sure?” Daniel struck an eyebrow up.
            “Positive,” Jaejoong answered with a polite smile. “I’m not in high school anymore.”
            Staring at the curry omurice before him, he was reminded of that day in high school. He had taken a train and gotten off a stop with the crowd pushing him forward. He had arrived at Shibuya, in front of the sea of people crossing that road. That day had to have been one of the worst in his life. He had finally realized why his family was so odd, why he was never allowed to watch TV, why he had strict limitations to surf the Internet, and why he could not even retrieve the mail.
            It wasn’t raining. The sun’s rays were scorching, striking at his cheeks and blinding his eyes. He would have rather it rained. He would have preferred to drown his frustrations. He couldn’t possibly accept warmth again now that everything that he had believed in was a lie.
            “Why didn’t you ever tell me who my mother was?” he had shrieked while throwing the envelope of money and a short letter onto the kitchen table.
            “We thought it was best that you never remembered her,” his mother had explained.
            “All this time . . . I only remembered what she vaguely looked like. I was searching so hard, and it was there all along. In my face,” he had rambled.
            “Jaejoong, it’s not like she wants you back,” his sister, Miho, had argued. “She just wanted to shut our mouths by sending us money.”
            “You!” he pointed his finger at the guilty members and scoffed. “You all disgust me!”
            He let his feet drag forward, walking into a department store, climbing the escalators floor after floor. Number seven seemed like the appropriate floor to visit. His nose had lulled him towards a small restaurant, and he stood outside, gawking at the plastic models of food. Omelette with rice. Omurice.
            Who knew how long he had stood there, staring without thinking?
            “Excuse me,” a man in his early thirties had spoken, “you’ve been here for several hours now. Are you waiting for someone or are you interested in a meal?”
            That man had to have been the chef. Feeling slightly embarrassed about his own behaviour, Jaejoong murmured a quick apology and turned away with his hands in his pockets.
            “Hey, kid,” the man shouted, “you dropped this.”
            “You can throw it away,” Jaejoong replied. “I don’t need it anymore.”
            The man insisted, “But, isn’t this your wallet? There’s a picture of your family—“
            “They’re not my family!” Jaejoong yelled while quickening his pace to the escalators. He would have been able to escape if the man had not grabbed onto the collar of his shirt.
            “Yeah, you kids these days should appreciate your family!” the man shouted before releasing his grip. “They’re the ones that raised you and the ones that’ll always support you! Who do you think has been feeding you for all these years? Huh?”
Jaejoong felt a sense of heaviness passed onto his palm.
“You’re lucky you have family,” the man continued to say. “Don’t be like me. I never got a chance to thank my parents before they passed away.”
            “I’m sorry,” Jaejoong had remembered uttering.
            “Don’t say sorry to me. Apologize to your parents.”
            Jaejoong shook his head.
“As much as I would like to say that, I can’t.”
            It was too much of a surprise when the man had suggested, “Why don’t I treat you to a meal and let you have some time to think? You look like you need a place to sort your thoughts.”
            Jaejoong didn’t know why he had listened to this stranger, why he had even bothered to eat when he was not even hungry, yet with one taste of the omelette curry, he had shed a tear, which grew to a few more. It was then that he realized why he had stood there for so long.
            “Is it okay to give you a Japanese name?” an old woman with short, grey hair had asked him with a heavy Japanese accent.
            He only shook his head. He must have been five at that time. He was sitting at a dinner table with a spoon in his hand. He remembered being the only one with a spoon; everyone else had chopsticks. They also had a bowl of rice and used their chopsticks to grab an assortment of food. He, on the other hand, had an egg, sprinkled with some ketchup, on top of his rice.
            “Mom, why don’t we just call him, Jaejoong?” a young teenager had requested. “Jameson is so hard to pronounce!”
            “Jameson, are you okay with Jaejoong?” the woman had gently asked.
            He didn’t answer and instead, poked at his food with his spoon. The egg wasn’t made like his mom’s; it wasn’t burnt at its edges and flimsy. This one was fun to jab. He would have continued to play with his food, but an older man with a stern, rustic voice bellowed, “Stop it, Jameson! Pay attention to your mother!”
            Jaejoong had screamed, and slid his bowl off the table. “She’s not my mom! You’re not my dad either!”
             Now, he couldn’t remember what exactly happened. He just remembered being hit several times on his butt. He remembered crying too in the end in the woman’s arms.
            “It’s okay, Jaejoong.” He had felt her rough fingers stroking the tip of his hair and had smelt that strong, green tea scent smothered along her sleeves. “I know you’re sad and confused, but it’ll be okay. We’re always going to be here for you, okay? We will never leave you,” she had declared.
            He didn’t know how long he had sobbed, but he remembered his stomach growling. The woman had chuckled at this before walking towards the stove to prepare some food.
“I’m going to make you some dinner again. Is that okay with you?” she had asked.
            He had simply nodded then.
            Then, he had his first taste of omurice.
            “Jaejoong? You okay?” Jaejoong shook his head a bit once he heard Kannei’s voice.
            “Yeah, I’m fine,” he responded quietly and grazed his index finger across his left eye. “So, what’s up?”
            “Y-Yunho wants to introduce me to you and his friends.”
            Jaejoong clapped his hands, and forced a smile. He knew he should have been smiling genuinely. After all, his text message was working, but somehow, even feeling happy for a friend was hard. “Oh . . . that’s wonderful! He’s acknowledging you and he’s never brought a girl back before. So, this is perfect!” he chirped.
            “It’s just for his pride,” she mumbled.
            “It’s a step, and a good one,” Jaejoong remarked, pointing his spoon at her. “You, mochi, with my help, will be Rhett’s official girlfriend. Now, you better follow my advice because I asked the chef to make us the lunch curry sets. Usually, there are only ten released per day during lunch, but I thought—“
            “Thanks, Jaejoong.”
She plastered a rare smile, making his chest sting and his throat sore.
“And . . . I don’t like asking this, but . . . you’re fine right?”
Her eyebrows had even arched like a bridge and her lips had puckered to unsteadiness.
            “Yeah,” he swallowed a spoonful of curry before muttering, “I’ll be okay.”