Chapter 3 – Another Conspiracy

Though the ambiguous signs of a war brewing between the Sun family and the Zhao family had braced them all for the worst, but there were no other additional actions taken for the rest of the week. It was like they had agreed to cease fire silently without notifying the public. But the others had a feeling that it was only the beginning. It was just the calm before a storm, as the old saying went. Like anticipated, the end of the week brought them a stir of events. Even if it had nothing to do with Tony and the Zhao’s situation, but it was enough to occupy their time. Interestingly, it also had to do with Tony. Tony arrived wearing the same stylish raincoat he always wore, the only difference being the color. He was holding his sunglasses in his hands just like how he once did upon entering their shop more than a year ago. Or was it even longer than that? It seemed not so long ago yet could be so long ago. The difference was the renovation that had turned their shop into a different shape. The familiarity of the first meeting with him dawn on them more than anything because it was also around lunchtime.

“Some things never change,” Wallace joked, the same laid-back smile on his face.

It seemed that Wallace had disregarded the words Ehlo said to him since that week. Or more like they all had because everyone was appearing as normal as can be–in their standard.

“Is Tang Feng in?” Tony asked, darting his eyes around the shop.

Though there were some customers present yet Tony didn’t care that he was broadcasting that or wanting to hide of his presence at the shop.

“In his office,” Wallace replied, gesturing toward the same direction that Alyssa’s office used to be–like Tony didn’t even know of its existence before.

“See you guys later then,” Tony said casually before making his way toward it.

After he was gone, some of the customers moved toward Wallace, asking questions, one overlapping the other.

“Yes, that’s the Tony Sun,” Wallace answered, not losing pace at all. “And no, you can’t have his autograph.”

A murmur stirred among the crowd yet they soon dispersed because of Wallace’s unwillingness to cave in to their demands. It wasn’t like he would cater to their every request, especially those that weren’t even related to his job description.

“Guess what happened?” Chen Yi asked as soon as he spotted Qiao Qiao returning from one of her trips.

“What?” Qiao Qiao asked tiredly, changing the sign to ‘Lunch’ as she made her way to them.

“Tony just came.”

“He’s still here?”

Chen Yi nodded. Then he noticed Qiao Qiao’s troubled state. “What’s wrong? Something going on with our suppliers?”

Qiao Qiao shook her head. “No. Just tired.” Then she also noticed something. “Where’s Cyndi?”

“She went out after you left.”

“That’s strange.”

Chen Yi shrugged. “You want to join us for lunch later then?”

Qiao Qiao shook her head. “I’m going to meet up with Alyssa and Vincent later.”

“Serious?”

Qiao Qiao could tell by the sparkles in Chen Yi’s eyes that he was interested in knowing the nature of their meeting. Like it wasn’t too obvious already that they were all waiting for more information–even if they had pretended to mind their own businesses for the past few days.

“Someone has to check in on them, right?” Qiao Qiao asked back.

“Not that we didn’t want to before,” Chen Yi returned, somewhat offended.

“I’m not saying it’s your fault. I’m just saying that it’s about time I check in with them. They’ve been so busy with work that they haven’t had time.”

“The Zhao threw the keys away?”

Qiao Qiao shrugged. “I have to get this to Feng ge first.” She waved the folder in her hand for emphasis.

“All right.”

She didn’t need Chen Yi’s permission because she was already walking away. When she was about to reach up to knock on the door–a habit which she had to adopt because of Tang Feng’s principle, she stopped. Like literally stopped.  Because she had overheard something.

“So you haven’t told the others yet?” Tony was saying.

“No,” Tang Feng responded–with no traces of awkwardness or discomfort in his voice. “Xiao Ling isn’t ready to break it to them. I guess I’ll have to wait. It’s a price of being a famous prankster, huh?”

Qiao Qiao heard a chuckle then, like everything was so amusing to him. She shrugged it off and finally knock, pushing the door in before Tang Feng could rattle off his command to allow her entry. “Feng ge.”

“You know that I’m supposed to say, ‘Come in’, before you enter, right?” Tang Feng said, though his expression was showing traces of teasing.

Qiao Qiao handed him the folder. “It’s all in there. So I’m off to lunch.”

“Wait.”

Qiao Qiao turned to face him again, keeping a straight face, like she hadn’t eavesdropped at all. “What?”

“Your shoe’s untied.”

Qiao Qiao abandoned the controlled, calm exterior altogether and snapped her attention to her shoes. She scrambled on the ground to tie her shoe, feeling her face burning red from embarrassment. Of all the days she chose to wear sneakers, it had to be today–and it had come undone without her knowing. The next step? She got up as quick as her pace would allow and scrammed out of there before Tang Feng could find out if her hair was loose as well.

“Your scrunchie’s going to fall off soon,” Tang Feng’s voice followed her.

How in the world could he have read her mind? She pouted all the way back to the break room and while making her way outside. Imagine being babied by your boss. Mega-embarrassing.

“What’s wrong with her?” Chen Yi asked, pondering why that phrase sounded so familiar.

Their Qiao Qiao was indeed getting back on radar once again with making them worry. Yet she no longer cared to divulge any information about it.

“If I only know,” Wallace replied, his mind somewhere else. Somehow, he was thinking about what Ehlo said once again. It was like those words were coming back to him for the first time since Ehlo said it. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what caused Qiao Qiao’s change in attitude had to do with Tang Feng, and anything having to do with Tang Feng recently–had to do with Cyndi.

*****

Qiao Qiao made it to the restaurant before Vincent and Alyssa, and even ordered for everyone. It wasn’t like she didn’t know what they wanted. It was actually perfect timing because they arrived just in time to eat. Contrary to all those exaggerations of marrying into a rich family, Alyssa looked just fine, more glamorous even. Yet she still had that down to earth touch to her. But then, it wasn’t like she was scrubbed clean poor to begin with. Their families were both quite well-matched, except for the arrogant air. Qiao Qiao felt a lump forming in her throat as she was watching her cousin eat. It wasn’t like she did not get to see Alyssa since Alyssa got married. Yet it felt like it had been ages. So much had happened and she felt like she missed the old days when they were living under the same roof.

“What’s wrong?” Alyssa asked, offering Qiao Qiao a smile. “You ordered all these foods just to stare at them?”

Qiao Qiao shook her head, pondering why she was getting so emotional lately, so easily distracted. “It’s just that I haven’t seen you for a long time.”

Alyssa gave Qiao Qiao an amused smile. “I came to your place several times to visit, you know.”

Qiao Qiao nodded. “What I meant was it was always with others and not…” She stole a glance at Vincent and sent him an apologetic smile.

Vincent shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. You two have been living under the same roof for so long. It’s expected that it would take awhile to get used to.”

Qiao Qiao nodded again, glad for Vincent’s backup. “I just want to know if you’re all right.” She felt like she needed to elaborate even more. “With all the rumors flying recently. I meant like I care what those gossip papers say, but since I haven’t seen you two for a while now, I…”

“Slow down,” Alyssa said, placing a hand on Qiao Qiao’s to reassure her. “We’re fine, okay?”

Qiao Qiao waited in silence for the coming words.

“I know it’s hard to believe because of how I have to move into the Zhao family and give up the shop…and…all that. But it’s not as bad as it looks. I knew what I was getting into since marrying Vincent. The newspapers are making too much of a deal out of it because it’s easy to report on the typical dramas, dubbing me out to be the victim. But I won’t let it get to me. Sure, I’m sad that I had to close the shop, but you know what? I learned to adapt to this new job. And if things hadn’t happened, would you guys meet Tang Feng? Or decide to change the business approach? Not to mention we drifted apart, didn’t we? But it’s like Tang Feng had brought you guys back. Change is inevitable, but what I’m saying is these things happen for a reason. Just because every one of us wants a fairy-tale out of marriage doesn’t mean we could opt to listen to the newspapers when it doesn’t come out that way. Everything has a price. It’s life, not a daily drama you see on TV.”

Qiao Qiao nodded, still trying to sink everything in. She still had the image of how devastated Alyssa looked that day when she and Vincent moved out. Though it might have been her own interpretation with her unwillingness to let go.

“So let’s eat,” Alyssa prompted, gesturing toward the delicacies in front of them.

*****

After lunch, Qiao Qiao got up and made a quick trip for the restroom when she ended up running into Tang Feng–literally. She wasn’t really watching where she was going and ran smack into him. He caught her by the shoulders and steadied her again. From her expression, it was obvious she was looking for a hole to hide under. It was yet another embarrassing moment and even lunchtime couldn’t spare her of it.

“Careful,” Tang Feng said, letting go of her finally.

“I know,” Qiao Qiao blurted out, sounding hostile–though she didn’t mean it. Not that way. Not really.

Tang Feng gestured his hand in the general direction. “What a coincidence.”

Her eyes were searching the area, wondering which room he’d come from. “Not like it’s some other town out there.”

Tang Feng nodded. It was either he didn’t realize her attitude or had chose to ignore it. “I was just with Tony and Cyndi.”

“Great…”

“Anything wrong?”

She had on the look that said he should’ve known already. Yet she just cleared her throat. “No.”

“You’ve been acting strange lately.”

“How long have you known me anyway?”

Tang Feng shrugged. “Good point.”

She let out a deep sigh and shook her head before returning her eyes to his. It wasn’t like her to act all calm and collected. Though she knew she had failed miserably these past days. How in the world did those people carry on the suave look? She couldn’t even pull that off–even if her life had depended on it. “I overheard you and Tony talking about Cyndi earlier.”

That got a reaction. At least he wasn’t maintaining his beyond annoyingly calm composure anymore. “From which part?”

“The part where you said she’s still not ready to tell everyone about you two.”

It was like something had snapped into place for him. His intense mood had shifted to one of amusement. It was like everything in the world was a joke to him. He even took the time to shake his head to emphasize his attitude. “It’s not what you think.”

“What should I be thinking then?”

It was also like he had realized her hostility at that moment. Or finally chose to acknowledge it. Because what he did next took her by surprised, like it had rendered her speechless–or more like unable to force her motor nerves to work. He placed his hands on her shoulders and had on his sincere smile. “You should be thinking that those two must be long lost buddies and are just putting the rest of us on with their jokes, rattling the rest of us insane with their secret, and waiting for the right time to expose themselves at last.” Then he removed his hands from her shoulders.

“Then is that the truth?” Somehow, she felt strange without his hands residing on her shoulders. Like she hadn’t minded if he had kept it there.

He shrugged, his couldn’t care less attitude back on. “Who knows? Whenever Cyndi’s ready, she will let us know, right?”

Qiao Qiao turned to leave, forgetting what in the world she was in the hallway for. Or more like pondering why she even bothered. Or even cared that much for. But then she scolded herself. Why shouldn’t she care? Wallace was her almost brother after all. She had to care. Or was that it?

“Hey,” Tang Feng spoke up again, somehow sounding so distance.

She turned to face him once again, but did not bother to close the gap between them. Her face was reflecting of indifference. Or so she had hoped. Yet she had a feeling she had failed miserably again. Like that was news. And while she was waiting for him to speak up what in the world that was on his mind, she pondered something else: What in the world was she even stopping for? It was lunchtime, her free time. He had no control over her actions.

“You free this weekend?” He finally asked.

“Off work,” She replied crisply, feeling proud of herself–before walking out of there altogether. And beating herself up afterward when she realized they had to see each other back at work. So much for a victory.

*****

That afternoon, Qiao Qiao found herself wandering around on foot. Yes, on foot, not really having a goal in mind. It was after work and she had every right to wander around without feeling guilty for whatever reason. Yet she wasn’t feeling fine either. Fine was far from it. And somehow, she just ended up at Uncle Ben’s noodle stall without realizing it. What was even more was seeing Ming Dao there at one of the tables, eating away. He looked like he enjoyed his meal. But then again, he was a fan of Uncle Ben’s noodles regardless so she should not be too surprised that he was there. Just when she was undecided whether to approach him or not, he looked up from his bowl and saw her. A sincere smile and a friendly wave told her she should approach him.

“Hey,” She managed, not sure if she was audible. “Haven’t seen you for a while now.”

“Barely a month if you want to say for hangouts,” Ming Dao returned, still keeping his friendly smile on. “But just last weekend if you want to be literal.”

That got her smiling.

“What will it be for you today, young lady?” Uncle Ben’s voice asked.

Qiao Qiao turned to see him smiling at her. Just like an uncle that he was, he was displaying his semi-teasing and semi-loving smile. That was their Uncle Ben. Qiao Qiao’s smile turned a little wider. It was like she found something in her life that was normal lately. “A big bowl of your special.”

“Coming right up,” Uncle Ben said, sending her another smile before going back to his stoves.

Aunt June was waving to her from behind the stoves. She returned the gesture and felt like it was home.

“Maybe we should have one of those big gatherings again,” Qiao Qiao said, finally returning her attention to Ming Dao.

Ming Dao shrugged, still eating so he couldn’t talk. But when he spoke up again, he got to the point, unlike some people. “Jacky and Sam are on their way here.”

“That’s why you’re here?”

“It’s a coincidence. I didn’t know they were coming. But Sam said that Jacky was restocking some supplies for Uncle Ben. And I said since he was with Jacky, why don’t he just come here and I’ll drive him home instead of making Jacky drive back and forth.”

“But you guys live across the street from each other.”

“He needs to go back to the station to pick up Sonia later.”

“Oh.”

Ming Dao nodded. He continued eating but still stopped to talk to her. “But if you want to plan some sort of gathering, better do it by next week or do it without us. Or maybe wait for us to come back. Sam and I, that is.”

“How come?”

“We’re making a trip back to Kenting to see our parents.”

“Oh.”

Ming Dao nodded again. But he didn’t return to his food like the last few pauses. Instead, he stopped eating altogether and looked at her straight in the eyes. “What’s wrong?”

Qiao Qiao shrugged.

“It’s not like you to be all silent, you know.”

She wasn’t offended though. She knew what he was talking about. That comment also got her to smile again. She didn’t answer though. She just shrugged.

“Look what we have here!” Jacky’s voice hovered over them.

Qiao Qiao jumped up upon hearing his voice. She ran to him and gave him a hug–despite the fact that he was carrying some heavy objects at the moment.

“Miss you too, sis,” Jacky said, his composure still intact–not even flinching an ounce.

She finally let go of him and reached for the other box he was carrying. “You emptied out the store?”

He had on his teasing smile. “Pretty much.”

It was then that she turned to Sam and uttered a greeting.

“Some things never change, huh?” Sam said, launching right into the teasing mode, which was so unlike him.

“You should’ve seen her minutes ago,” Ming Dao contributed helpfully.

“What’s going on?” Sam asked, turning to his buddy.

“Nothing,” Qiao Qiao jumped in, not wanting anyone else to know of her bad mood. Though she felt she was more than bizarre to react so strong. Or deny them of knowing.

“Here it is,” Uncle Ben said, coming toward them at that time with Qiao Qiao’s order.

“I’ll have one too, Uncle,” Jacky said upon seeing Qiao Qiao’s large bowl. “You sure eat a lot for a girl who’s depressed.”

“I’m not depressed,” Qiao Qiao said quickly, too quickly, too defensively.

Jacky patted Qiao Qiao’s shoulder gently. “Whatever you say, sis. Come on now.”

It was a cue that they should transport the boxes in their hands to the stalls instead of standing there. So the three of them helped with the task before returning to the table. Qiao Qiao ended up sharing her bowl with Jacky while he was waiting for his order. Of course, he had taken a clean bowl from the stall to transfer some of the food over. Sam finally caved in and ordered one also–to which Ming Dao was ordering his second one.

“So, what’s going on?” Jacky asked, having already finished his food transferring task. He even placed his left hand around Qiao Qiao’s shoulders, urging her to continue. “And don’t say nothing.”

Qiao Qiao pretended she was busy eating, which she was, stalling for time.

“Well?” Jacky prompted again, having taken a break from his eating.

“It’s not that bad,” Qiao Qiao finally said. “I’m just disturbed, that’s all.”

“Is that an understatement?” Ming Dao asked. “It’s written on your face.”

She turned to him, her expression unease. “Am I that obvious? Like that terrible at shielding my emotions?”

“Let’s just say that you’re better at acting when you’re in some crazy conspiracy with us,” Jacky responded in Ming Dao’s place.

Ming Dao had to agree. He was attacking his second bowl that Uncle Ben had brought over–along with Jacky and Sam’s orders. But he was nodding in agreement.

“I guess I’m not that girl you guys met anymore,” Qiao Qiao admitted, feeling so vain that she should care if she was special or not.

And it was like they understood. Because they exchanged a look among themselves before letting Jacky speak up for them.

“You’re not any less important or less special to us, sis,” Jacky reassured her. “It’s life.”

“Are you guys going to give me the fortune cookie talk now?”

“So, how about not beating around the bushes and tell us what’s wrong?”

“Well….”

“Yeah…”

“It’s about Wallace…but…no…it’s actually about…”

“At this rate, we’ll be sitting here until my fifth bowl,” Ming Dao teased–and not Jacky.

“So Ehlo’s right?” Jacky asked, playing with his food now–and silently blaming Chen Yi for passing it on to him.

Qiao Qiao’s functionality returned to normality at that point. Or at least normal reflex rate. She turned to Jacky, alarmed. “What did Ehlo say?”

“Something about Wallace and Cyndi’s relationship in jeopardy, the situation, not the game.”

Like they needed Jacky to clarify that.

Qiao Qiao scratched her head at that time. “Well, I’m trying to figure it out but I can’t seem to get it out of Tang Feng. Maybe I should take his offer and go with him this weekend to extract more information.”

All three guys stopped eating at the same time–as if that was rehearsed because they were so in-sync with one another.

“He asked you out?” Jacky asked for everyone.

“Well…” Qiao Qiao hesitated. “I’m not sure what that was since he could be on some business trip and wanted an assistant around to take notes for him.”

“At this day and age? Tell him there’s a thing called recorder. He could get one of those hi-tech gadgets and get it over with already.”

Qiao Qiao shrugged. “Maybe just to show people that he could control others’ lives? Even on weekends?”

“Or maybe he’s asking you out.”

“Here, here,” Ming Dao seconded.

“Yeah right,” Qiao Qiao argued.

“Either that or…”

“Are you guys pushing me into it so you could save Wallace’s relationship?”

All three guys did another in-sync exchange of glances. But before either one could speak up for all three, Jacky’s ringtone came on.

“Hey,” Jacky said, apparent gentleness seething into his voice. Not the same kind of patience used on Qiao Qiao. “You know what? Tell Bianca to pick you up and meet us at Uncle Ben’s.”

“What’s going on?” Sonia asked from the other side.

“Big news.”

“Which equals to gossip time,” Bianca’s voice interpreted from the other side.

“You’re on speaker?” Jacky asked, alarmed.

“Busted, eh?” Bianca continued without letting Sonia explain herself.

“Miss Bai, aren’t you supposed to…”

“I’m already picking her up. Wait for you? Might as well wait for the sun to go down.”

“Thanks, Miss Bai.” Though his voice was edging over to sarcasm.

Then they got cut off, which Jacky didn’t mind.

“That went well,” Ming Dao noted, having finished his second bowl already. He was now taking a break and tapping on his glass of coconut juice.

Jacky shrugged. “Who knew, right? Miss Bai finally shows her true colors.”

Ming Dao smiled at Jacky’s dramatic words. “Welcome to reality.”

“And here we were talking about Qiao, right?” He diverted his eyes onto Qiao Qiao again, choosing to ignore Ming Dao. “Continue.”

Qiao Qiao shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what you guys are up to with convincing me about what might or might not be. I thought it over. I’ll just tell him that I’ll go. Then I could carry out my plan.”

“Is that a conspiracy?” Jacky asked, his mischievous smile flashing on. “Let’s get it going. Does Silver Dove need Flying Eagle’s help?” He was, of course, hinting at their assigned code names for one another.

“No,” Qiao Qiao replied sharply, her eyes passing Ming Dao and Sam. “Especially not you two.”

Jacky smiled, remembering what happened the last time they were on some spying mission as well. “Definitely not. You would get her exposed faster than anything–that is, after you got yourselves exposed.”

“You’re not sneaking around either.”

Jacky’s smile turned off. “Why not?”

“Because…”

“It’s really a date.”

Qiao Qiao scoffed. “I don’t have to do this.”

Jacky shrugged. “All right.”

Like that was a done deal, they shook hands. And that was when Bianca and Sonia arrived.

© Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Posted: Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

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