It was until the final leaves had taken its familiar colorful shades that Chun released his next novel. Unlike the previous times, they had to rush to meet deadlines. Chun was glad his publisher was understanding enough. He did not want to be so close and he hoped it was his last exception. Book signings were scheduled and the first one to start this familiar activity off was home. He felt lucky that it would allow him to restore his energy before heading to different areas for the upcoming weeks. As usual, the first day was crowded and they had to work overtime. He did not mind. He was glad to have such a great team. They finished and cleaned up together before separating. Celebrations could be scheduled for some time in the future. Possibly after all promotional events were done – or when sales surpassed his previous record.
That night he stopped at Calvin’s place as always. His agent was the one who dropped him off. He found Calvin, Jiro, and Joanne gathered in the dining room, getting ready for dinner. It was all routine yet he knew there was something different. Who were they fooling? He was one of the conspirators during Joanne’s birthday. Was he going to fall for that one?
“Chun!” Joanne called out when she looked up from the table. She had her back to him seconds before.
“Hey, man,” Jiro greeted him, setting another plate on the table. “Celebration time.”
“Isn’t it too early to celebrate?” Chun asked, observing everyone in the room cautiously, knowing they were waiting for him to be off-guard. “Besides, we always eat dinner together anyway.”
Jiro flashed out his usual cunning smile. “You won’t be able to guess our surprise for you this time.”
Chun finally sat down next to Joanne. “A possible prank?”
“Are we that twisted?”
Jiro reached his hand, touching his heart. “Cold.”
“How was the signing event today?” Joanne asked, her eyes sparkling with interest.
Chun turned his attention to her. “It was good. Crowded.”
Calvin settled down at the head of the table at that time – like many times before.
“No more?” Jiro asked, surveying all the foods on the table.
Calvin shook his head.
“All right then.” Jiro finally took the seat on Joanne’s right. He picked up his chopsticks before turning to Chun, pointing at Chun. “Last chance to guess.”
“Karaoke night?” Chun guessed, his voice lazy.
“Don’t tell me we’re playing Wii. I would love to but I’m burnt out tonight.”
“Give him a break already, Da Dong,” Calvin interfered.
“No fun,” Jiro argued. But he dropped the challenging look altogether. He turned to the storage room next to the kitchen. “You girls can come out now.”
Chun, surprised, turned that way also. He could see Hebe and Selina walking out to greet him. Jiro and Joanne got up from their seats at that time, making their way across the table. It was too rehearsed. Then Chun realized they were letting Hebe sit next to him. Joanne took the seat across the table from him, which also meant she was sitting on Calvin’s other side. Jiro sat down at the seat one away from Joanne while Selina sat next to Hebe. Jiro planned it well. He was now face to face with Selina.
“Surprised?” Jiro asked, turning to Chun at last.
“Surprised indeed,” Chun admitted, nodding his head.
“Let’s eat, everyone,” Calvin spoke up again, sounding like their ‘all-mighty’ leader.
“Yes, sir,” Jiro returned, his sarcasm obvious.
“I’ll sign for you guys after dinner,” Chun said five minutes into eating.
Jiro nodded, only half listening.
“You’re not burned out for the day?” Joanne asked.
Chun shook his head. “Used to it.”
“Aren’t you modest,” Jiro jumped in. “You said you were burned out before.”
Chun knew Jiro was trapping him. “For Wii, not signing several more books.”
“So…what is the story about this time?” Joanne asked, her smile too innocent.
“Not going to get it out of me,” Chun said, pointing at her with his chopsticks. “Read it yourself, kiddo.”
Joanne dropped the innocent act. “Aww…come on.”
“What happened to Princess?” Jiro jumped in again – another obvious sabotaging attempt.
Chun wrinkled his face in confusion. “Huh?”
Jiro turned on his usual trouble-maker smile. “You call her ‘Princess’ just the other day.” He flashed his eyes to Hebe at that time. An alarm seemed to go off on top of his head. “Oohhh…” He nodded knowingly.
Chun wrinkled his face. “You’re weird.”
“What are you guys talking about now?” Hebe asked, her attention turned to them. She had been talking to Selina about something.
“Nothing,” Chun replied quickly, seeing the glint in Jiro’s eyes.
“Can we ever eat in peace without you two going at each other?” Calvin pondered aloud, placing a piece of food into Joanne’s rice bowl.
Joanne, alarmed, turned to Calvin since she had been occupied with watching Chun and Jiro stabbing each other in the back. She studied him carefully, wondering if it was an accident or…
“Snap out of it!” Jiro yelled out.
Joanne turned her attention back on him. He had moved one seat over and snapped his fingers in front of Joanne while yelling the previous phrase.
“What are you doing?” Joanne asked, finally regaining herself.
“If you let him stomp all over you, you won’t succeed in the end,” Jiro whispered, leaning in a little closer so the others couldn’t hear what he was saying – even if they tried. “Hold your grounds, be strong. I’ll keep you in check, so don’t worry.” He even took it into his hands to place a reassuring hand around her shoulders.
Chun couldn’t help but gawk at Jiro’s actions. He waited until Jiro resumed eating again. “What was that?”
“Just watching out for our princess,” Jiro replied casually – too casual for Jiro.
“How did you guys know each other?” Hebe asked, her curiosity rising.
“All of us?” Jiro asked, slowing his food consuming rate.
“We’re from the same town.”
“Duh,” Chun jumped in – this time.
Jiro glared at Chun. “I wasn’t finished, okay?” He turned to Hebe once more. “As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted…”
Chun ended up laughing, having paused his eating already. “You’re killing me.”
“Haha,” Jiro shot back.
“Guys, come on,” Selina interfered.
“You don’t need to worry about them arguing,” Joanne explained. “They’re always like this.”
Joanne nodded. “Anyway, Ah Ru and I live across the street from each other while Chun and Da Dong are a little further down from us.”
“And?” Hebe prompted.
“It’s a small town, everyone knows everyone else,” Jiro said. “You city people don’t get it.”
“Don’t mind him,” Joanne jumped in, sensing Jiro’s hostility rising. “He’s just kidding.”
Joanne elbowed Jiro at that time, her smile wider than before. “He forgot to take his meds today.”
“Subject change,” Chun prompted, attempting to rescue Hebe from Jiro’s scheme.
“Afraid I’m going to eat her alive?” Jiro challenged, his expression still intense.
Jiro brightened up at that time. “Of course I was kidding! Where’s your sense of humor?” He turned to Hebe at that time. “Sorry, had to do a little test on him.”
Hebe let out a sigh at that time. “You scared me.”
“Believe me, if we don’t like you, we wouldn’t be inviting you to dinner.”
“Liking one more than the other, right?” Joanne teased, relaxing again.
Jiro turned to Joanne. “Want me to expose you?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“All right,” Calvin interfered again.
Jiro rolled his eyes though he quieted down – even if it was for a short period of time only.
After dinner, Chun signed their books. It was already an unsaid thing that the others had somehow bought the books during the day. The only surprise Chun got was from Hebe and Selina having purchased a copy as well. He took extra time with theirs. The other three did not mind since they were always around. Joanne decided to go out to the den in the back for some fresh air while the others chatted on. Calvin followed her out, claiming he needed a break from the guys. Joanne leaned forward on the banister while Calvin sat on the banister toward her left.
“What did he say to you earlier?” Calvin asked suddenly.
Joanne turned to him. “What?”
“That was a lot of nothing,” Calvin commented.
Joanne directed her eyes to the night ahead once more, not wanting to let Calvin discover that she was lying. “He was just telling me some silly jokes.”
“If he said anything that made you sad, you know how he is…he was probably joking.”
Joanne turned to face Calvin again. “He didn’t say anything mean.”
He sensed otherwise from her stare. “You sure?”
Before Calvin could probe further, they heard someone calling Joanne through the screen door.
“I’m going to see what’s up with them,” Joanne said quickly, glad she found an excuse for a clean exit.
“Where do you want your message to be?” Chun asked, looking up when she entered.
“At the back,” Joanne replied, smiling.
“You’re weird, girl,” Jiro commented. “Why would you want to hide it back there?”
“It would protect the content better.”
Jiro looked like he was mulling it over. “Good point.” He turned to Chun – who was leaning over Joanne’s copy at the moment. “Do the same to mine, Chun.”
“Want me to wrap a cover over yours too?” Joanne asked.
Jiro shook his head. Then he remembered something. He grabbed Joanne’s arm and pulled her down the hall to her room. He closed the door behind them before speaking up. “What was he talking to you about in the den?”
“He wanted to know what you were saying to me earlier,” Joanne replied.
Jiro let out a smile full of satisfaction. “Ah…”
“I told you it worked. He’s getting curious.”
“Maybe he just wants to know if you were going to pull some pranks on him.”
“What could I do?”
A knock startled them both.
Jiro walked to the door and opened it.
“What are you doing in her room?” Calvin asked, scanning the room with his radar eyes.
“What does it look like?” Jiro asked back.
“Stop messing with her.”
“I mean it.”
“Sure you are.” He let out a yawn. “I’m going to check on the others. Maybe the girls are leaving soon.”
“You all right?” Calvin asked Joanne when Jiro had made his way to the living room.
Joanne nodded. “He just likes to act suspicious. It wasn’t anything serious.”
Calvin turned around and entered his room. Joanne stared after him, puzzled.
The days continued its original course after that strange and interesting night. Or so it seemed on the surface. As if Chun’s absence had declared their separation, they did not get together for dinner anymore. Jiro came over at times, but he did not stay long either. Though Calvin and Joanne lived under the same roof, but they did not eat together like before. Calvin ended up caught at work at times, not being able to make it home on time for dinner or Joanne was busy with her designs that she did not join Calvin for dinner, locking herself in her room and ended up eating very late.
One day in October when Chun was back in town again, Jiro came home with Joanne – instead of dropping her off at Calvin’s first.
“Hey, you guys,” Chun greeted them, a little surprised that Joanne was there.
“Got a minute?” Joanne asked, a bright smile on her face.
Too bright, Chun noted silently. He braced himself for it. “What’s going on?”
“Question about your book.”
Chun walked over to the sofa and settled down, waiting for the worst. “What about it?”
“What happens at the end? Will Kelvin end up with Josephine?”
Chun had to let out a laugh. He had his lips sealed up until now. What was she thinking? He regained himself after realizing Joanne was serious about the answer. “Read it.”
“Come on!” Joanne urged, settling down next to him and shaking him by his arms.
“So you made me drove you here just for that?” Jiro asked, jaw hanging – though it was more for dramatic effects than his actual shock level.
Joanne ignored Jiro but continued to torture Chun for the answer. She had to resort to whining. “I won’t pick it up until later since I’ve been so busy with work. I’m only halfway through.”
Chun managed to pry her hands off him already. He reached for his tea cup – as if he was watching a show, not having any direct relation to the current situation. “What do you want me to say? Doesn’t it get more excited when you find out for yourself?”
“What’s so serious about this one?” Jiro asked, sitting down next Joanne. “You didn’t hunt him down when you were reading his other books.”
“This is different.”
Joanne stopped for a bit – as if looking for the answer on their living room wall. “I almost forgot something else.”
“What?” Chun asked, his voice passive, knowing it was another question about the book – from her tone.
“He was spying on us that night?”
Chun nodded. “You didn’t see because you were focused on me.”
“Who was?” Jiro jumped in, wrinkling his face. “What are you guys talking about? I thought we were talking about the book.”
Chun continued to drink his tea, not bothering to look at Jiro. “We are.”
“Huh?” Jiro did not mean to sound that dumb but they were confusing him major time.
“What chapter are you up to, Da Dong?”
“In Chapter 5, Kelvin and Josephine had a fight, right?”
Jiro nodded. “He was taking it out on her because his boss was…” Then his mind snapped into alert mode. He jumped up from his seat. “You can’t be serious, are you?”
Chun nodded, knowing the information had sunk in.
Jiro sat down again. “He was spying on you guys then.”
Joanne turned to Jiro, her radar eyes taken away from Chun for the time being. “He was?”
“We were finishing up with the dishes and then he walked to the living room. I saw him staring out to the den for a while.”
“Oh.” Then she remembered her initial purpose at their house. She turned to Chun again – who picked up his teacup somehow and was sipping away again. “Can’t you even give me a hint of the ending? Please?”
“Just turn to the last page,” Jiro said. “That’s what I would do.”
“Bad advice,” Chun mumbled.
“Did you then?” Joanne asked, directing her eyes to Jiro.
Jiro shook his head. “No. I only do that to boring authors.”
“Thanks for your support then,” Chun said.
“It’s only a book, girl. If you want to find out the real answer, just go ask Ah Ru.”
Chun placed his teacup back down once more. “He’s right. It’s just some book. I just based it off on some of what happened to you guys. The rest I had to make up. You can’t expect it to go according to plan. I can’t control people’s feelings or predict the future. That’s why it’s called fictional.”
Joanne looked thoughtful.
“Let’s get you home,” Jiro spoke up at last, not used to the quiet atmosphere surrounding them.
Chun got up from his place, dragging Joanne out the door as they made their way to Jiro’s car.
“Relax,” Chun said when they were in the car, having sat in the back with Joanne on purpose. “If I’ve known you took it that serious, I wouldn’t even base it off on this.”
“And why am I not in it?” Jiro demanded, turning to Chun.
“In what?” Chun asked, his eyes still on the road.
“Your story, hello!”
Chun chuckled, shaking his head. “What is this? We’re dividing the pig?”
“No, but I played a major part in that scene too and you just dubbed yourself to be the hero?”
“No one’s the hero in it, okay? It’s a love story, there’s no fighting.”
“You know what I mean.”
“What do you want me to do about it then?”
Chun knew that look. “Okay, okay, I’ll include you in my story in the future if it is suitable. I’ll even make you the main character too. How about that? Happy now?”
Jiro smiled at last. “Smart choice.”
Chun shook his head upon seeing a sense of satisfaction on Jiro’s face, realizing how childish Jiro could be at times, always wanting to compete – regardless of situation.
“You’re right,” Joanne said at last when they stopped at a red light. She had tuned them out the whole while since Chun asked her that question. It was like she suddenly snapped out of it and joined them again, not realizing what had taken place minutes ago.
“What?” Jiro asked, looking into the rearview mirror briefly.
“I have to ask him,” Joanne declared. “He has been driving me crazy these past weeks.”
“When isn’t he?” Jiro teased.
“No, I meant his sudden caring gestures and then he’s practically ignoring me since Chun left.”
“He’s probably confused himself.”
“Maybe, but I need to get this straightened out.”
“Are you ready for the answer?”
Coincidentally, they arrived at Calvin’s house at that time. It was like Jiro had planned ahead what to say, but it was actually a coincidence this time around. He got out and walked to the door. Chun stayed behind, making sure Joanne was all right.
“Here we go,” Jiro prompted, pushing the door in after unlocking it. He turned to them, stopping the door halfway. “I’ll bet he’ll…” Jiro had stopped because he caught the look on both Chun and Joanne’s faces. He knew Joanne would be a little strange at that point – from nerves. But Chun? What did he have to worry about? Jiro turned to face front again. His jaw dropped opened, mirroring the other two’s expressions seconds ago. However, he only stopped briefly. He was not someone who had never seen such situations before. He did not need to freak out. He pushed the door all the way in, knowing the others would eventually enter. Making his way to the sofa, he maintained whatever he could find of his calm composure.
Calvin finally looked up. He smiled upon seeing the three enter.
“Are we interrupting anything?” Jiro asked, apparent hostility leaking into his voice. So much for being calm, he thought to himself.
“Oh, hi, you guys,” The girl sitting next to Calvin spoke up finally, her smile brightly lit on her face. “Sit anywhere.”
“We know,” Jiro snapped. “What in the world are you doing here, Vanessa?”
Chun stepped up at that time, giving Vanessa a friendly smile. He had already recovered from his initial shock, finally remembering why the girl looked so familiar. He met her once or maybe twice somewhere when Jiro first introduced Selina to him and then some other time.
“She said she was having problem understanding the architectural side of our plan, so I was just explaining it to her,” Calvin explained.
“Nice to know that you can answer for each other now,” Jiro said, his hostility still apparent.
“Da Dong,” Chun whispered to him quickly, crushing Jiro’s shoulder slightly – since his light tap did not seethe through previously.
Jiro ignored Chun – as if he just decided that he could replace his shoulder later. “And since when did you need his help understanding some architectural plan?”
“Uh,” Vanessa struggled. “My father’s company’s currently working with Ah Ru’s company. My father assigned me to oversee the project. So I had to make sure I understand everything.”
“I’m going to drop this in my room and then prepare dinner,” Joanne spoke up – finally.
“We’re going to eat out tonight,” Vanessa jumped in. “Thanks though.”
“Last time I checked, we need to eat too,” Jiro shot back.
“Oh…” Vanessa stuttered. “I’m sorry, I just thought…”
“That she’s the maid?”
“No, I didn’t mean that. I…uh….it’s just that Ah Ru and I are discussing some more details over dinner and I don’t want to be shut in tonight so…”
“Da Dong, could you come help me with this?” Joanne yelled from the hallway.
Jiro finally peeled his threatening eyes away from Vanessa and made his way down the hall.
“Um…I’ll go help them,” Chun said, turning to follow Jiro also.
“Did you have to be so fierce?” Chun chided after he closed the door behind them.
“Speak for yourself,” Jiro snapped. “You almost broke my shoulder.”
“Guys,” Joanne interfered. “Can you two drop the hostility? She’s Selina’s friend and Ah Ru’s client.”
“I was the hostile one. Mr. Peacekeeper over there was trying to break my shoulder because I said otherwise. And even if Selina was here, I would still act that way. She knows I don’t like Vanessa.”
Chun almost looked ashamed. “I don’t know, but I have to agree with Da Dong that she’s trouble.”
“Just keep it down for my sake, will you?” Joanne pleaded.
Chun and Jiro exchanged a look. Then they nodded.
Joanne smiled at last. “Thanks.”
Jiro knew the conversation was over. He reached for the handle but let Joanne passed first. He sent Chun a look.
“I know,” Chun said, knowing that stare too well. “What happened to the Little Miss Mischief we once know, right?”
When they were back out in the living room, they found Calvin and Vanessa by the door.
“I’ll be back later,” Calvin said to the group of three.
“Sure,” Jiro snapped, receiving a poke from Joanne.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” Vanessa said, turning to Joanne. “I didn’t mean it in that way. You’re Ah Ru’s sister, right?”
“Not exactly,” Joanne replied. “But you could say that.”
Chun and Jiro exchanged a look – the one slightly mirroring Jiro’s while they were still in Joanne’s room.
“Let’s go,” Calvin said to Vanessa.
Vanessa waved at them as she followed Calvin out.
“Sister?” Jiro blurted out as soon as the door was closed.
“What did you want me to say?” Joanne asked, her voice passive – too passive. She turned toward the hallway and headed to her room.
“Hey,” Jiro called after her.
“Let her go,” Chun said.
“You sure it’s safe?” He had lowered his voice on purpose.
“She’s not a kid anymore. We should head home.”
“Leave the light on or off?” Jiro still had that reluctant look on his face.
“Leave it on. If someone comes home late, then so be his electricity bill.”
Jiro grinned at that time. Now that was someone he knew. “Should I turn the kitchen light on too?”
“Nah, don’t want to be too suspicious.”
Jiro scanned the room once more, making sure the den was closed.
They arrived home and prepared dinner in silence. But only for ten minutes.
“Why did we even leave her there anyway?” Jiro shouted out.
“She needs time alone,” Chun replied casually.
“She was devastated. Not safe.”
“What do you think she would do? Commit suicide over it? Stop being dramatic.”
“Why do you sound like you couldn’t care less? You were the one who was super nice and friendly to Qiao Qiao when she first came here. Don’t tell me it’s because you’re so occupied with Hebe that you’re forgetting your friends.”
Chun pointed at Jiro with a warning look. “Don’t go there.”
“I’m just frustrated, okay?”
“Maybe we’re over-reacting.”
“He never brings girls home, remember? And if he makes exceptions, it’s because of us. But we respect him enough to not push it so we never bring past girlfriends there.” He stopped himself. “Well, at least I don’t bring my girlfriends there since you don’t have any to begin with.”
“Maybe Vanessa’s father was there before and then he left so there were only two of them when we came.”
Jiro rolled his eyes. “Sure. What a coincidence.”
“Or he’s just trying to please a client, not wanting trouble with his boss since it seems to be a big project.”
“Then why didn’t you tell that to Qiao Qiao?”
Chun did not reply but just returned to stirring the soup on the stove.
“See?” Jiro turned off the water at that time, having finished his rinsing tasks already. “And I don’t even know what’s worse. Friend-zoned her or made her feel like she’s his sister.”
Chun risked diverting his attention to Jiro for a moment. “Isn’t the first one the worst?”
“Dude, you’re writing romance and you’re still that clueless? Being friend-zoned is when you still have a chance in the near future. If you’re the sibling, you might as well hang yourself because who in the world would think about a family member in that way?”
“I don’t care what you guys are saying. I’m confronting him tomorrow.”
“I had enough of this blind game.”
Chun looked more surprised than ever. “You’re the one against the whole idea in the first place, why are you so into it now?” He paused briefly. “I know you don’t like Vanessa, but does it mean you just push Qiao Qiao out there to fend her off before considering other things?”
“I’m serious about helping Qiao Qiao.”
“Then don’t make it harder for her.”
Jiro sighed out, frustrated. Yet he knew Chun was right.
© Monday, September 27th, 2010 – Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
Posted: Friday, October 29th, 2010