After Janine and Novia left, Joanne entered the apartment and found it eerily empty. She let out a heavy sigh and headed toward Sophia’s room, flashing on a bright smile and pretending that she didn’t know of Sophia’s escape plan.

“Hey, how’s it going? What’s going on here? Why are you packing?”

Sophia stopped her movements briefly to smile at Joanne before resuming her tasks. “You came just in time to bid me farewell.”

“What? You’re leaving? Why?”

“It’s about time, because I’m ready for my new adventure.”

“You can’t leave. I mean…what about Jacky ge?”

Sophia folded another set of clothes and packed them neatly into her luggage, not looking up at Joanne. “What about him?”

“Come on, Sophia,” Joanne urged. “You can’t be serious, right? We still have a battle to fight and you’re suddenly pretending like you don’t care?”

It was then that Sophia paused from her task and looked up at Joanne. “I think it has gone too far already.”

After saying that, Sophia continued to pack, no longer smiling or putting up a show for Joanne’s benefit. That went on for another fifteen minutes or so. It wasn’t until Sophia was done and was hauling her luggage out into the living room that Joanne unfroze herself from her spot and rushed after Sophia, blocking her path. Yet Sophia was the one to speak up first.

“Didn’t you say you always wanted to see Jacky and Sonia reconcile?” Sophia kept her teasing smile leveled, swallowing back a lump in her throat. “Now you have your wish.”

“But that was before I realized how despicable and manipulative she could be. Ehlo’s right! She’s not worth his attention. Ehlo was right about her from the start. Only the rest of us were blind to it because we cared for Jacky.”

Sophia shook her head, not showing traces of satisfaction or happiness that she had Joanne on her team. “That’s not how life works, Qiao. I know you’re just showing your support for me; I really appreciate that.” She paused and gave Joanne a pat on the shoulder. “But it doesn’t mean you have to drag Sonia through the mud for it. She has every right to fight for her happiness. Who’s actually in charge here that decides we have to live by certain rules? We only live once anyway. And what’s most important is Jacky loves her. As long as Jacky loves her, she doesn’t have to care what the world has to say.” Sophia finally let go of Joanne’s shoulder at that moment. “Because Ehlo understood that so he had no choice but to support Jacky in the past.” Sophia paused once again to swallow back the lump that was building itself at an exponential rate in her throat. “But after what happened with Sonia meeting James again, Jacky decided to let go so Ehlo did what he could as a friend, support Jacky.” Sophia’s tears finally rolled down her face at that point. “But it’s now back to its original course. So, my duty here is done. I shouldn’t stay here to cause anymore complications.”

After saying those words, Sophia grabbed onto her luggage handle and began to haul it toward the door. She had used her left hand to wipe her tears.

“Sophia, you can’t go,” Joanne urged, rushing after Sophia, blocking her path yet again. By this time, Joanne’s tears had also fallen. She no longer cared if Sophia saw it. In fact, she wanted Sophia to see it. She wanted Sophia to know she cared and wouldn’t give up on Sophia. “You don’t have anyone else but us. We’re your only family.”

Sophia had already dried her tears and attempted to put on a light smile. “No, this is your family, and if I’m staying any longer, I will end up ruining it. I’m an adventurer, remember? I’ll survive.”

With that, Sophia left at last—without any other interruptions. Joanne still wanted to stop Sophia, yet she was still numbed of how things had turned out for them all. It wasn’t until she felt someone shaking her shoulders that she awakened from her trance.

“Qiao, what happened?” Novia asked. “Where’s Sophia?”

Fresh tears made their way into Joanne’s eyes again as she realized Jacky was the one shaking her shoulders earlier. “She left already.”

“I told you to stall,” Janine said. “Why did you let her go?”

“Don’t yell at Qiao,” Bryant interfered, walking over to Joanne and trying to detach Jacky’s arms on Joanne’s shoulders.

Yet like many times before, Joanne shoved Bryant out of the way, not allowing him to shield her from harm. She faced Jacky with her determined look—although tears were still sparkling in her eyes. “You have to get her back, or I’ll never forgive you.”

“Did she let on where she’s going?” Jacky asked, his attention focused on Joanne.

Joanne shook her head. “She just said she’s adventurer, she will survive.”

“We can’t waste anymore time,” Novia said. “We have to go find her.”

“Where could she go though?” Bryant asked.

“Just separate and go to all the places she could possibly go,” Jun suggested.

It was also then that Joanne realized that even Jun and Derek were also present. And what Jun said was right on point.

“Keep in touch on the way,” Jacky said, rushing out of the apartment.

“Qiao,” Bryant said as the others were piling out of there. “You want to wait here?”

Joanne shook her head.

Like many times before, Bryant and Joanne went together in Bryant’s car. Jun and Derek took Jun’s car while Novia and Janine went together. That left Jacky on his own, but he didn’t mind it. He hoped he could convince Sophia otherwise without the others distracting them. He had a terrible feeling that he didn’t allow himself to think anymore of it. He only focused on driving and staying in touch with the others. They had called one another along the way and thought of possible locations.

“Tang Feng’s grave!” Jun yelled out all of a sudden. “She has to say goodbye if she wants to leave here, right?”

“That’s right!” Derek agreed, his voice full of hope.

“I’ll go,” Jacky volunteered.

So, it was settled that Jacky went to check at Tang Feng’s grave while Bryant and Joanne checked the bridge and the other side of town. Jun and Derek had volunteered to go to the airport—just in case they were already late at the other locations. Janine and Novia were browsing various areas of town, especially the bus stations and piers.

*****

Indeed, Jun was right, because Jacky found fresh flowers on Tang Feng’s tombstone.

“Jing Jing!” Jacky called out, his voice full of desperation.

The sun was setting soon, and that terrible feeling was getting worse within Jacky. He knew she couldn’t have gone far judging from the bouquet of flowers. Or at least he wanted to become some flower expert all of a sudden to give himself a tiny glint of hope. He scanned the perimeter before heading back to the path that led toward his car. Yet his uneasiness forced him to scan the surrounding areas once more. That was when he saw a silhouette walking along the sidewalk heading toward a yellow cab nearby. He couldn’t really make out that person’s appearance, yet it was his only hope. He ran after her, calling out her name. Yet as he got closer, he realized how wrong he was.

“Miss, are you leaving?” The cab driver asked impatiently, tapping on his dashboard.

The girl whom Jacky had mistaken for Sophia had been startled from his call hence turning to him briefly. She soon returned her attention to the driver and nodded.

“Sorry,” Jacky blurted out as the girl got into the taxi.

“Crazy,” The driver mumbled at Jacky before he took off.

The girl didn’t say anything but just looked at Jacky with a troubled expression. As if she was pitying him. Or that must have been his imagination.

“Jacky ge!” Joanne called about five minutes later.

The sun was setting. In fact, it had been setting. He was standing in almost complete darkness, staring into an unknown future, feeling shattered.

“I failed,” Jacky mumbled, not knowing what else to say, remembering what Joanne told him earlier.

Unlike her outburst from earlier, she wrapped an arm around him and comforted him.

“We’ll find her,” Joanne promised.

Just then, Bryant’s phone rang. He picked it up and said a few words before hanging up.

“They’re all at the house waiting for us,” Bryant informed them. Bryant hesitated a moment before continuing. “It doesn’t look good.”

Jacky knew exactly what Bryant meant without the need to elaborate. Another battle was brewing on the horizon. Even he knew. And he was about to start it before the others could. He suddenly felt more determined than he had in the past few weeks. His anger was on the rise. He also knew that there wasn’t anyone who could stop him now. And just like that, he detached himself from Joanne and uttered something about meeting them back at the house.

*****

Jacky arrived at the house first. He was speeding most of the way. And he wasn’t the least bit ashamed of it. Unlike in the past. Aside from the parties involved in the search earlier, Ehlo, Angela, Wallace, Yvonne, Bianca, Andy, and Achel were also present. Andy and Achel had bumped into Janine and learned about what happened so they joined the search. Ehlo, Angela, Wallace, and Yvonne actually just arrived home several minutes back and heard the recounts from the others. Bianca had returned with Sonia and Valerie.

Jacky scanned the room once before speaking up. But before he could, Joanne and Bryant arrived on the scene. They had detected a difference in his attitude since he separated from them. Yet they didn’t interrupt. They stood by his side and waited for him to start.

“I hope everyone’s happy now,” Jacky said, his voice full of bitterness.

It was like the rest of the group could sense Jacky’s intense mood too, so they didn’t interfere. Not yet.

“Because Jing Jing’s gone.”

Jacky wasn’t done.

“All because of this silly game.”

Jacky directed his attention to Sonia then. “I contacted James already. He will be in town tomorrow and I’m going to take you to meet with him so you two could have a real talk at long last.”

Sonia reacted then. Her expression a mixture of disbelief and betrayal. “No! I don’t want to talk to him.”

“This has gone far enough, don’t you think?” Jacky asked, his tolerance level was on the low, even toward Sonia. “Because I wanted to help you and keep things quiet while James took care of matters on his end before coming, I neglected my own situation. And I only have myself to blame for not speaking up earlier. I could only blame myself for not telling Jing Jing that I love her. But don’t you think that you owe it to all of us to just meet and talk to James for once?”

Gasps were heard around the room as soon as Jacky said that loved Sophia. Except for Ehlo that was. He smiled a victory smile toward Valerie’s side.

“Is this your answer to us?” Valerie asked, ignoring Ehlo and his taunting expression. “You chose Sophia over Sonia?”

Jacky directed his fierce expression toward Valerie again. “There was no Sophia versus Sonia in the first place. You and the others started it all, making a big deal over nothing. I wanted to help a friend in a time of need, and you all assumed that I was some pathetic loser who was taking advantage of the situation and restoring a piece of my past.” His eyes brushed past the group once more before continuing. “This silly game is ending today, am I clear?”

Everyone nodded, except for Sonia—who was in a trance of her own. Then it seemed like she pulled herself out of it and fled the scene. Bianca and Valerie tried to chase after her, calling out her name. Yet Jacky stopped them.

“Let me,” Jacky said. “This has to end one way or another.” He paused briefly to scan their faces once more. “While I’m gone, don’t you dare fight again. And I mean you, Ehlo. Don’t taunt them.”

Ehlo had on his innocent smile. “Wouldn’t think of it.”

“You never think, you just do.”

With that, Jacky left.

Ehlo shrugged, still able to smile. “Fair enough.”

*****

When Jacky made it outside, he found Sonia by the garage. Devastation described her state perfectly. As soon as she saw it was Jacky who had chased after her, she seemed to calm down a bit and rushed toward him, throwing her hands around him.

“I know you still care for me,” Sonia said, sniffling.

Jacky detached her hands from his and took several steps back. “I still care for you as a friend.”

Sonia attempted to rush toward Jacky again, yet he put even more space between them this time.

“Don’t make this harder than it is,” Jacky said. “I know you’re upset with what happened with James and what you can’t control. But it doesn’t mean making it so hard for the rest of us who are only trying to support you in a time of need.”

Sonia was no longer crying yet it didn’t mean she wasn’t devastated. She was studying Jacky’s face, trying to detect what was going on. “You’ve changed. Because of Sophia?”

“I’ve never changed,” Jacky contradicted Sonia’s conclusion. “I’ve always been the same. It’s just that our relationship had changed. So, don’t try to make this about Sophia. She’d suffered enough from my poor judgment these past weeks.”

Sonia shook her head. “No, you only care about protecting her. You weren’t like this in the past. If you care about me at all, you wouldn’t have contacted James. You promised you wouldn’t call him.”

“I promised I wouldn’t call him; I didn’t say I wouldn’t take his call. He called me so I went and met up with him.”

Sonia’s disappointed expression made its appearance then. “You’ve become as scheming as Ehlo. Those are just words. You obviously know what I meant.”

Jacky’s intolerance was apparent. “You’ve gone overboard. You can target me, but don’t bring Ehlo into it. I tolerated your unreasonableness in the past because I loved you. But now I’m your friend, so I can’t just let you hurt our other friends like that.”

“Just because you don’t love me anymore, you want to force me into accepting James after what he’d done?”

Jacky couldn’t help turning on his amused expression despite the seriousness of the situation. “Sonia, even if Ehlo had been more than unpleasant toward you from the start, I have to agree with him. James didn’t cheat on you. That was the life before you. It’s like saying if somehow, we have a child in the future, and you ran back to confront me about it and Sophia giving me a hard time about it. But of course, that wouldn’t happen because nothing happened between us anyway.”

“You’re not taking this serious at all.”

Jacky wasn’t affected by Sonia’s wrath. “Are you? Because if you want to see which one of us rate higher on the maturity scale, we could stand here and do a thorough analysis of all events leading up to this point.”

“You really think that I should go back to James?”

Jacky sighed. “Sonia, I’m not telling you to accept him. I’m only asking you to give him a fair chance to explain everything and have a real talk with him instead of just running away and ignoring everything like this. If after the talk, you don’t want to be with him anymore, then that’s your choice. No one could make that final decision for you.”

Sonia didn’t look so intimidating anymore. Her expression had softened, as if she had seen a way out. “Will you be there with me?”

“Sonia, you’re married to the man,” Jacky reminded her. “What am I there for? So I could grab some popcorn with Ehlo and watch the show?”

“But…”

“It’s not like we’re going to drop you off at that location and then forget about you. We’ll wait for your words and Bianca could come pick you up afterward if it doesn’t work out. Or you two could both call us for a celebration if it works out in the end.”

Seeing that Jacky wasn’t going to cave in, Sonia finally nodded after some more minutes passed. Jacky finally smiled.

*****

That night, Jacky occupied his time by rearranging his furniture and other items around his room. It seemed like Ehlo’s grand plan wasn’t all for nothing. Because of Ehlo’s persistence of doing the renovation, Jacky had a luxurious room to decorate and fill up his time. Before leaving, Joanne had offered to stay and help Jacky with his room. Yet Jacky had turned her down, indicating that he was fine on his own.

“Good luck, man,” Ehlo had said before heading for the door.

Jacky nodded and locked the door after that. He was exhausted yet felt a heavy burden lifting from his shoulders. He knew he still had a long road ahead, especially with the search for Sophia. But he knew that no one could question his motives anymore. His so-called friends had agreed to back off. That was all he needed for the time being.

© Monday, November 17th, 2014

Posted: Saturday, September 19th, 2020

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