Several days later, Ehlo was seen eating breakfast at Cynthia’s shop with Andy and Wallace. Cynthia and Achel were also there earlier but, once again, decided to prepare the shop for the opening like many times before hence they weren’t there at the moment.

“So, how are we supposed to go on from here?” Ehlo asked, playing with the piece of toast in his hands.

Wallace turned to Ehlo with his usual amused look. “What, Huang? Are you having a little midlife crisis?”

Ehlo turned on his annoyed expression then. “Seriously, Huo?”

Wallace still had on his amused look. He was signaling for Ehlo to enlighten him of whatever it was that was bothering Ehlo at the moment.

“After that major breakdown from the both of them, what’s going to happen?” He paused to take a taste of his coffee before putting two more cubes of sugar into it before stirring again. “I mean, what now?”

“Are you still recovering?” Wallace asked, taking the coffee cup from Ehlo. “You put six cubes in already. You’re now slurping on a dessert, not coffee.”

Ehlo seemed like he was shaking.

“Calm down, man,” Wallace said, grabbing onto Ehlo’s shoulder. “Are you going to break down too?”

“Ehlo, you’re scaring me,” Andy jumped in then. “And you know I don’t like to admit it out loud, no mater how many years we’ve known each other.”

Ehlo realized he was still shaking so he took several deep breaths before placing his hands on the table again. Wallace had gotten up and had replaced Ehlo’s cup with the one that was up to Ehlo’s usual preference. Ehlo took a sip out of the cup before looking at the others again.

“Sorry,” He muttered. “It’s just that…”

Wallace had a hand on Ehlo’s shoulder then. “It’s okay, man.”

Ehlo turned to Wallace with an even more serious look than before—if that was possible. “How could I mess up so bad?”

Wallace shook his head. “It’s not your fault. Jacky was just blaming himself for the past. You know what they say, hindsight is always 20/20. You couldn’t have known. You can’t blame yourself—like how he did. Besides, he and Sonia finally resolved the past. Are you going to tell me it’s your turn to hold onto that past that they both already let go of?”

“What?” And jumped in again, confused.

Wallace turned to Andy then. “He’s blaming himself for causing the wedge between Jacky and Sonia ages ago. Also blaming himself for his obnoxious behaviors in the past.”

“Oh. Of course, you can’t blame yourself. You can’t help it.”

Ehlo turned on his annoyed look then. “Thanks a lot, man. Now I’m just an asshole that can’t control myself.”

Andy got up from his seat then. “You know what? I don’t know anything anymore.”

As Andy was about to exit the breakroom with his coffee cup in hand, Joanne was on her way in. They almost collided but luckily Joanne had seen Andy stepping out so she dodged out of the way before entering the breakroom.

“What’s wrong with him?” Joanne asked.

Wallace rubbed the wrinkle lines on his forehead before shaking his head. “Just some disagreements. What’s going on?”

Wallace had spotted the newspaper in Joanne’s hands. He didn’t bother to buy one earlier on the way in.

“It’s about Unex’s latest,” Joanne said, pointing to the newspaper yet hadn’t unfolded it yet. She had detected Ehlo’s moods, so she didn’t know how to proceed at that point.

“You can go ahead and read it,” Wallace encouraged.

Joanne had on her worried look yet opened the newspaper anyway. “After much delay, the investigation of the Zhao’s embezzlement activities has finally reached its conclusion. It was revealed that the young master of Unex, Vincent Zhao, wasn’t involved in the embezzlement activities himself, however, because of his negligence of his company’s operations, he was fined severely to send a message through the industry in general. It was also revealed that the person responsible for the embezzlement activities was actually Darren Zhao, Vincent Zhao’s uncle. The reasons were unknown, but according to an anonymous source, he was going to be cut off from all family assets hence his drastic move and the involvement in the embezzlement activities. Our honorable judge will deliver the sentencing for Darren Zhao at a future date—to which we will follow closely for further development of the case. But what could be said regarding Unex was that all assets will soon be released. The auction for the company is believed to be held by the mid-autumn festival—if there are no further delays. Renowned analyst Ricky Chang once predicted that Sunrise would emerge the winner in this bidding war. Will it become a reality? We will see. However, one last thing must be noted. According to the same anonymous source, this bidding war wouldn’t be coming so soon if it wasn’t for a certain party from the behind the scenes who had used his influence to fast-track the investigation.”

“Things are turning around,” Wallace noted after Joanne was done reading. He noticed that she’d skipped the headlines on purpose this time around. Possibly to save time. The article was already long. They didn’t need to know the vague headline, after all.

“Things are really turning around,” Joanne agreed. “I mean if Vincent’s not involved, it’s a good thing, right?”

“Somewhat,” Wallace, stirring his coffee cup out of habit. “His reputation and his company’s reputation are already tarnished. You can’t come back from that, Qiao.”

Joanne’s expression was still troubled. She knew her words were weak, but it was an attempt to show some sort of positivity toward the situation. “I know.”

“Even though he wasn’t involved in the whole embezzlement thing,” Wallace continued. “His negligence of the company’s operations had caused Unex to go bankrupt. That, we already know months back, but now with fines and other details coming out, the bidding war is going to be their last saving face moment—if at all. Because the bidding war is just going to be the three companies’ showdown, not because Unex mean anything anymore.”

Joanne nodded. “What do we do now? Alyssa has been…”

Wallace nodded, rubbing his forehead again. He understood too well what Joanne meant. “I’ll go talk to her later.”

“I’ll go with you.”

Wallace nodded again and got up at that time. He also managed to drag Ehlo along with them, knowing Ehlo was still processing. He didn’t blame Ehlo, considering how they were once again bombarded with several changes like months ago.

*****

That afternoon, they met up at East Shore Café. It wasn’t regarding Unex or anything having to do with the Zhao family. Not at first. It was Tony. He had summoned them, making it a big deal about how they had to be there. They thought it was about Unex. But when some of them showed up and saw Esther as well, they didn’t know what to make of it. Sure, it could still have to do with Unex and needing some of their help, especially Ehlo and Wallace—like how Tony had said several months back. But involving all of them? That was a reach.

It wasn’t until almost all of them were there that Tony and Esther took front and center—of the tables they managed to pull together—that they all simmered down. Yes, they were outside again. No way were they inside with that many people.

“All right, everyone,” Tony said, taking a quick scan of the crowd gathered before turning to Esther.

Ehlo and Wallace exchanged a look between the two of them when they saw Esther’s supportive smile toward Tony as she took his hand. Yet they remained quiet, waiting for the upcoming words—whatever that was going to be.

Before either Tony or Esther could speak up again to inform them of the new development, though, Bryant and Derek rushed toward their area, seeming out of breath.

“Sorry,” Bryant mumbled. “Traffic.

“It’s okay,” Tony said, gesturing for the two to take a seat.

Bryant managed to take a seat that Joanne had saved for him between her and Andy as Derek scanned the area for Jun’s table. It was a habit with their seating arrangement. When they were finally settled, Tony took a deep breath—like he needed to recollect his thoughts again—and scanned the crowd once more. Was that to check and make sure no one would be wandering in all of a sudden to interrupt them again?

“All right, guys,” Tony began again.

“Please don’t tell us you’re going to break up again,” Andy jumped in before anyone of them could stop him.

After Andy said that, several things happened around the same time—or within seconds of each other. One and the most important thing that happened was Ehlo tossing an empty paper cup toward Andy’s direction, hitting his shoulder. Where did Ehlo get the empty paper cup from? No one knew, but that wasn’t the point. The second thing that happened was Tony and Esther bursting into laughter and exchanged an amused look between the two of them. Also happening around the same time was how several parties yelling out for Andy to not jinx them. It was getting sort of chaotic, but interestingly, it had taken the pressure off Tony and Esther, seeing how the atmosphere was less hostile—ironically. But, of course, that was temporary since it escalated to a whole another level of chaos that none of them could piece together.

“Of course, they’re not breaking up,” Ehlo shouted among the chaos. “Their expressions reflected of nervousness, not morbid mode.”

“If they were breaking up, would they still be holding hands and smiling like that?” Wallace followed, gesturing toward the couple currently standing in the center of the group.

“I don’t know why I’m in the same clan as you for,” Ehlo continued. It was like somehow through the day, he had found his old self again and had returned with even more ammunition to attack Andy. “Your observation skills are severely lacking.”

“Oh, coming you, Drama King?” Andy returned. “You weren’t that cheery this morning, you know. The way you were, I thought the world was ending. Not to mention taking it out on me. You still owe me an apology, you know.”

“Not happening,” Ehlo said, his voice not wavering.

“Guys,” Tony interfered finally, holding his hands up. “Come on, that’s not why we’re here today.”

“See?” Ehlo said, continuing with his train of thoughts. “Tony said I don’t have to apologize to you.”

“He did not say that,” Andy argued. “I don’t know why I’m in the same clan as you. You severely lack listening skills.”

“That’s not what I said,” Tony managed to get in.

“What are you implying?” Ehlo shot back.

“I’m not even implying; I’m saying it straight out for everyone to hear.”

“Huang, I don’t think you’re helping the situation,” Wallace jumped in then.

“I’m not helping anyone, Huo.”

“Enough already!” Esther finally yelled out.

The others finally quiet down after that, even Ehlo and Andy. They finally turned to look at Tony and Esther again—mostly Esther. It was a surprise that she could yell that loud. Okay, maybe they knew of her capabilities already, but she was never that confrontational in the past. The most she did was rolled her eyes or shook her heads in disapproval. Was it because she finally had enough of their craziness? Or was it because of the nature of today’s announcement?

“I don’t care what drama you all cooked up earlier today to entertain yourselves,” Esther continued. “But all I’m asking is for you all to give Tony and me two minutes of your time. Then you can go back to arguing over whatever semantics it was you were disagreeing on before. Okay?”

Esther had looked particularly at Andy, Ehlo, and Wallace when she said those last few words. They all nodded at the same time as she swept her eyes past them.

“Please continue, Miss Liu,” Wallace said, gesturing his hand toward her and Tony.

Having Wallace’s words, which meant a lot more to Esther than relying on Andy and Ehlo’s expressions, she turned to Tony again, indicating that he could continue.

“Okay, guys,” Tony said, stepping forward again, remembering to take Esther’s hand into his once more. “The reason why we gathered you all here today is because…”

“Drum rolls,” Andy said.

Everyone else at the table—except for Chris and Margaret who was still amazed by the amount of chaotic their group often created out of nowhere—turned to Andy to give him a look once more.

Tony cleared his throat once, trying to stay patience before continuing again. “We’re getting married.”

The atmosphere got chaotic again. This time, it was mixed of confusion and positivity. Some of them had gotten up to congratulate the two. Joanne had run up to hug Esther.

“I’m definitely one of the bridesmaids, right?” Joanne asked.

“Of course, you are,” Esther said. “Can’t promise about anyone else, though.”

“Especially when we promised to let my mom took over the other arrangements,” Tony said.

“That bad?” Andy asked, having overheard the conversation.

Tony nodded. “I love my mom, trust me. But it’s going to be payback for her major time with this wedding. She’s going to invite the whole universe.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Is this the first day you know me?”

“Bad example, Mr. Sun,” Wallace said. “The first day you showed up at the shop, you totally pranked us.”

Tony smiled and looked over to Esther—who was currently talking to Janine and Novia. “I did set myself up really bad, huh?”

“So, is Cyndi going to be there too?” Andy asked then.

That was when some of their smiles turned off and they turned to look at Wallace real quick before directing their attention back on Tony. In fact, Tony looked unsure. He even gave Wallace a look and licked his lips, seeming like he was stalking.

Wallace shrugged then. “You know what? It’s your wedding, man. In fact, it’s yours and Yan’s decision. Whatever happens, I’ll be on my best behavior. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“You sure?” Tony asked, lacing his hand through Esther’s again—since she had returned to his side once she overheard their exchange.

Wallace nodded. “Seriously? What I said to Jacky the other day, I think I could take my own advice. I should be taking responsibility for my actions too, not just shifting the blame totally onto Cyndi. Josh was right when he said we picked and chose what we wanted to accept. Even if I didn’t want to admit it at that time. Whether she had stopped what she’d done to others or not, it was up to her, not us. But what happened to me, I know I’m over it now. It sounds selfish that we seem to ignore what happens to others and only take care of one of our own, but it’s like what Sonia said, we can’t take the burden of the world onto our shoulders. We could only do our best to avoid some of the tragedies in life, right? If Tang Feng were here, he would be happy to know that we could finally put this past us.”

Upon the mention of Tang Feng, Esther had turned to Joanne, who was standing not too far from them. She had reached out to take Joanne’s hand. Joanne nodded, indicating that she’d understood.

“All right then,” Ehlo said, clapping Wallace’s shoulder—since he was nearby. “I guess that’s done.” He scanned the group once before continuing. “I guess we’re moving forward with this wedding planning, huh?” He turned to Tony. “Do you need any additional help, man? I mean I know your mom probably hired over hundreds of people to help, but you never know.”

“Dibs on head chef of the event,” Derek said then.

Ehlo had on his challenging smile then. “Excuse me? Have you seen Bryant?”

Derek turned to Bryant then. “You wouldn’t mind, would you?”

Bryant looked uncertain with everyone’s eyes on him. He shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a big event and I’m sure Mrs. Sun had already sought out other professional catering venues for the event.”

Ehlo swung his hand around Bryant’s shoulder then. “Come on, show some confidence. You never know. You got reputation in the industry, what have you got to lose?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Tony said.

Bryant shook his head then. “No, don’t. I don’t want to…”

Tony smiled then. “You should know them enough by now. No one is judging you. It’s my wedding after all, it makes sense I’m checking with Mom on the details. But if you’re sure you don’t want in, I wouldn’t want to force you either.”

Bryant nodded. “Thanks.”

“What does that mean?” Ehlo asked, confused. “Is he in or out?”

“It means no, Huang,” Wallace deciphered. “He’s not an attention hog like you.”

“Hey, I resent the ‘hog’ comment.”

“Attention-seeking maniac?”

Ehlo wrinkled his face. “That’s a mouthful. How about just go back to drama king? Your naming convention sucks, Huo.”

Tony and Esther exchanged a look, shaking their heads once again, knowing the two guys too well to interfere in that particular conversation. Instead, Tony took out some white envelopes from his raincoat pockets that they didn’t realize he’d been carrying with him all along. He and Esther handed it out to everyone present.

“What’s with this?” Ehlo asked, though he was passing the envelopes around to the others too.

When they were finally done with the tasks and had returned to their tables again, Tony and Esther took front and center as previously.

“Well, since my mom’s in charge of the planning and all,” Tony said, gesturing his hand. “We’re going to stick with all the formalities instead of our typical gathering each time to make a list like we did in the past.”

What Tony said was true. In the past, they’d never been that formal, even during the past few years with attending or planning for weddings. Possibly the only exception was when they participated in Vincent and Alyssa’s wedding that they had to go through formal RSVP. But that was ages ago—and they weren’t exactly involved in the planning process. Even with Johnny and Bianca’s wedding—where the planning had ballooned out to another level of formalities that they didn’t realize at first, they didn’t really go through the RSVP process. Not really. They mostly had some notebook—courtesy of Angela—to log who was coming or who couldn’t make it and other meticulous details. That had been the same for when they had the double wedding with Ehlo and Angela, Wallace and Yvonne. Now? Yes, they had to go with formalities on all grounds. No more cutting corners, considering the situation. Especially when Mrs. Sun had waited for so long. She was considered patient—even if she had no choice over the past few years.

“Makes sense, I guess,” Ehlo mumbled, though he didn’t sound too happy.

“So, we fill them and send it out before the deadline, right?” Andy asked, sounding unsure.

Tony nodded. “Either that or you can give it to me or Yan, and we’ll forward ‘em to the appropriate parties.”

Upon hearing that, some of them actually took out pens to start filling out the cards.

“No rush, guys,” Tony said, seeing how diligently some of them were writing. “It’s in November. Anything could happen by then.”

“Wait,” Ehlo said, snapping his head up from his shared card with Angela. “If you’re getting married in November, then…”

Tony gestured his hand toward Ehlo, urging the latter to continue.

“What about the whole Unex fiasco?” Ehlo finished. “I meant the bidding war.”

Tony had on his puzzled look but answered Ehlo’s question anyway. “It’s going to take place before the mid-autumn festival—or so I hope. We already done all the research we can and have the reports ready. We’re still going to monitor the market though, adjusting according to changes from now till then. You haven’t had a chance of reading the article from this morning yet, right?”

Ehlo shook his head.

“She read it to you this morning, man,” Wallace jumped in, looking at Ehlo.

Ehlo wrinkled his face and turned to Wallace. “What?”

“Qiao came into the shop around the same time Chen Yi left the breakroom and read it to us,” Wallace reminded Ehlo. “You tuned her out?”

Ehlo looked like he was trying to remember. “It was a blur to me, seriously. The whole morning was a blur to me.”

Wallace shrugged. “Well, now you know.”

Ehlo shrugged again.

As Ehlo was processing those words, Wallace turned to Tony. “Did you have anything to do with the ‘fast-tracking’ matter?”

Tony smiled then. “Nope.”

“Your smile says otherwise.”

Tony smiled again. “That’s your bias against me.”

“You’re you.”

Tony looked like he was considering it, his cunning expression still on. “Fair enough.”

“If we’re not really involved with the planning process of the wedding, are we going to forward with our yearly tradition of the mid-autumn gathering?” Andy asked then, turning to the others.

Ehlo and Wallace exchanged a look again. It was one of those rare times that they were unsure, considering how the majority seemed to look to them for guidance of the general decisions of recent. It was mostly due to the fact that other members of the group were more involved in their own personal conflicts or differing goals in recent years.

“It’s up to you guys,” Wallace said at long last—possibly five minutes later. “It’s not like I want to act passive toward the matter. But you know it’s been years. We all have different goals now. No one is expected to show up just because…”

That was an unsaid thing since years ago when they became somewhat of an extended family—because of their bond. Yet having Wallace said it now out in the open, it seemed like an imaginary string that had bonded them all had become breakable.

 “You didn’t have to say it like you’re our leader and you’re now giving us permission to not show up, Huo,” Ehlo said, having his amused expression on.

They also knew that. But they also knew Ehlo was joking. At least, most of them did.

“I’ll make a list and gather some information about this year’s changes,” Angela volunteered, ignoring Ehlo’s comment on purpose. She knew her husband too well. She didn’t want to fuse his words even more. He could do that on his own just fine.

“I’ll help you,” Joanne said.

“Me too,” Esther chimed in. “I know we have some projects at work, but you can count on me with locations.”

“Inside information?” Ehlo asked, his mischievous expression on.

“Not exactly,” Eddie jumped in. “But in our field, we hear things.”

“They’re acting like they know everything now,” Ehlo said, turning to Wallace with an amused smile.

“And you’re out, old man,” Wallace returned.

“Okay then,” Janine interrupted, knowing if Ehlo and Wallace get started again, it would take them until possibly midnight to stop. And she seriously didn’t want to stick around until then with this meeting. “I’ll help too since I know some places we could go to after watching fireworks—if that’s the plan.”

“One last thing about the wedding, guys,” Tony said at that time.

Everyone turned to Tony again, giving him their full attention.

“I know it’s kind of repetitive, but…” Tony hesitated. “Prepare for a huge crowd. When I say huge, I mean huge, no jokes. My mom’s going all out on this wedding. I’m the only child, after all. She’s going to invite so many people, so just be prepare and watch out. Like I said, the whole universe.”

“So, we get to meet all the aliens from the other planets too?” Ehlo pondered, his smart-aleck smile on. “Huh, I always wanted to meet some.”

Tony shook his head, knowing Ehlo too well. “You can joke all you want, but when the time comes, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Are you going to tell us that we have a dress code too?”

Wallace wrinkled his face then. “Since when did you think there are no dress codes at weddings?”

“As long as you don’t turn up in your pajamas, we’re grateful,” Tony answered, trying to dissipate the expression Ehlo just gave Wallace.

Ehlo shrugged. “Works for me.”

Angela shook her head then, feeling like Ehlo was really pushing it with the questions but didn’t say anything. She focused on filling out hers and Ehlo’s card again.

After that, the conversation shifted back to plans for the mid-autumn festival and related plans for that. Some of them even went inside to order food and held side conversations. They were already there, might as well do some catch up.

It was around 9 that they started to leave. Like several days ago, Wallace called for a sidebar. But this time, it was Ehlo—and not Jacky—that was being summoned. And this time, Wallace made sure to drag Ehlo out further than he did with Jacky. They were by the parking lot, so they were able to check on the traffic without any other structures obscuring their views.

“What’s up, man?” Ehlo asked, yawning. “I have to go home. Just because I don’t have an office to go to doesn’t mean I don’t have work, you know.”

Ehlo actually did have a little office he set up in his and Angela’s place for business-related matters. He meant he didn’t have a boss to report to or needed to be on time for business to commence. At least, when he was working by himself—and not when meeting clients, that was.

Wallace, of course, knew Ehlo too well, didn’t dwell on technicalities this time. He gestured in the general direction before speaking up. “I’ll make it quick.”

Ehlo nodded, seeing Wallace’s serious expression. “Okay then.”

Wallace licked his lips once before continuing. “Are you all right?”

Ehlo wanted to laugh. He really did. But Wallace’s serious expression made him curious. So he didn’t laugh. He waited instead. He was waiting for Wallace to elaborate. One of those rare times that he was patient.

Wallace sighed out before speaking again, considering how Ehlo still looked confused. “I mean you were so rattled this morning. It was several days ago that Jacky had that breakdown. And you were still acting like you were responsible this morning. Now you’re acting like nothing happened. I just wanted…”

Ehlo finally understood what Wallace was so worried about. He smiled then, his normal smile, not the teasing or amusing one. “I’m all right.” He clapped Wallace’s shoulder then. “Thanks for checking in on me, man. But I’m good.”

“You sure?”

Ehlo nodded. “I’m not Jacky, okay?”

“You can be pretty convincing, Huang” Wallace joked, his subtle smile on.

Ehlo looked out toward the dark parking lot at that point. He looked like he was collecting his thoughts before looking at Wallace again. “I’m fine. I actually had a talk with Jacky at lunch. He apologized for making it seemed like it was my fault, or how it came out that night. But he said he wasn’t prepared for how things turned out. He thought he got it but didn’t really get it until after he talked to Sonia. He’s fine now. So I’m fine too.”

Wallace smiled then. “That’s good.”

Ehlo clapped Wallace’s shoulder again. “Thanks for checking on me, though.”

Wallace smiled. “Anytime, Huang.”

They could see that the others were making their way toward the parking lot at that point, so they stopped their conversation and joined the rest of the group. It wasn’t like they needed to halt on purpose. They were done. And things were going to be just fine. Because Huang and Huo were back—whether it was said aloud or not.

*****

Before they knew it, was already August. Jacky’s birthday was coming up soon—to be exact. It wasn’t like they were going to plan on purpose this year. It just occurred to some of them that they needed to whip up something. And it wasn’t like they didn’t care for Jacky’s birthday anymore. They celebrated everyone’s birthdays like normally—unless said party had requested that there should be no fuss around it, because that person had plans with his or her significant other already. Or possibly family plans. Or just that they didn’t want a fuss. But this year was especially tricky. They didn’t know if Jacky wanted to celebrate or not. Usually, Ehlo would gather them up and somehow cooked up a plan, even if small. This year? Ehlo was nowhere to be found around mid-August. Even Angela was gone. Those two didn’t say anything to them. Wallace and Yvonne weren’t any help either, considering how both were very close with one another—contrary to Ehlo and Wallace’s hostility behaviors toward one another at times. Even Nic and Achel didn’t know. They had to resort to asking Chris. They were indeed in a for a disappointment because why would Ehlo and Angela tell Chris about their whereabouts? Especially Ehlo.

“So, what do we do now?” Andy asked one night when he and some of the others were sitting around some hotpot shop.

Joanne shrugged. “Let it be?”

“Just ask him, seriously,” Eddie said before picking his soup bowl up to take a slurp out of its remnants.

“You’re starting to sound like Ehlo with that overused ‘seriously’ word,” Janine chided.

Eddie shrugged, having placed his bowl back on the table already. “Can you blame me? We’re always around him anyway.”

“Whoa, you guys are really unbelievable,” Bryant’s voice spoke up then. “You’re not giving us any face. You rather eat out than let us cook for you?”

The others turned from their noodle bowls and spotted Bryant and Derek walking toward them. They were sitting outside so it was easy to see them. Upon seeing Bryant, Joanne got up from her place between Andy and Janine and walked toward him. She had hooked her hands through his as Andy waved to Derek.

“We didn’t know,” Joanne said, her voice panicked.

The three of them were making their way back to the table where Andy and the others were.

“I’m joking,” Bryant said, patting Joanne’s hand in reassurance. “Seeing you panicking like that is so cute.”

Joanne’s timid state turned 180 degrees to annoyance by then. She slapped Bryant’s hand and unhooked her hands from Bryant’s before saying, “It’s not funny.”

The others laughed, watching for the upcoming development. Before Bryant could speak up to defend himself, Andy extended his hand toward Bryant.

“Congratulations,” Andy said. “You’re officially part of our group. In order to become a member, you must be hit by Qiao at least once.”

Joanne was standing near Andy at that time again so she reached out and hit Andy’s head before he could say anything else.

“Ow,” Andy yelled out, rubbing his head. “Hey, I’m eating here.”

Joanne had on her taunting expression. “Serves you right.”

“You guys are just in time,” Janine interfered then. “Sit down and help us think about what to do for Jacky’s birthday.”

Derek had already sat down between Achel and Eddie. That left Bryant and Joanne standing. Joanne was still having her hands crossed and staring up in space, indicating that she was still upset over Bryant’s comments. So when Bryant heard his sister’s invitation, he took that time to sit down at the chair that was supposedly Joanne’s. it was one of those long wooden chairs that could seat two. Andy and Achel were sharing one earlier, leaving the other three having their own spot each. Now that Bryant and Derek were there as well, Eddie had moved over a bit to make way for Derek. Janine was the only still having her own free space. However, she could see the hostility on Joanne’s face so she pointed to her space with a smile.

“Want me to move?” Janine asked, a teasing smile on her face.

Bryant tugged on Joanne’s hand then, urging her to sit down. “I’m sorry, okay?”

Joanne looked like she had cooled down already, so she dropped the hostile expression and settled down in her place again, remembering to move her dishes toward her side so Bryant could have some space to eat—if he wanted to order something. Derek had already taken the time to order after he sat down.

“So, why are you two here anyway?” Andy asked, glancing between Bryant and Derek.

“Filming ended early, so we decided to take a walk and get some fresh air after being cooped up in the studio,” Derek answered.

Yes, the others had chosen a hotpot nearby the studio where Bryant and Derek were filming on purpose to wait for them. And yes, Derek had been helping Bryant filming some segments and acted as his sous chef. However, Derek wasn’t quitting his daytime job anytime soon. He had said in the past that he wanted cooking to be his leisure activity, not something that would create pressure for him. He was happy with helping Bryant from time to time if they weren’t able to find a sous chef for some activity though. Since Bryant and Derek moved in together, they’d got along quite well and understood each other’s routines hence working well when filming together. In fact, that was the sole reason why Bryant had suggested Derek helped him that one time Derek visited on the set and they were short a sous chef—because of some unknown emergency. So, that was how Derek became occasional sous chef for Bryant.

“It’s actually nice tonight,” Eddie agreed. “No more rain.”

“Or humidity,” Janine chimed in.

“Nice night for a gathering, right?” Ehlo’s voice spoke up then.

The others, surprised—shocked even, turned and saw not only Ehlo and Angela, but also Jacky, Sonia, Wallace, and Yvonne with them.

“Kids,” Ehlo said, his smiling as cunning as his words. He stepped forward and sat down at an empty table nearby before a waiter could step forward to offer them a menu.

Angela and the others followed suit, taking a seat at that table also. Ehlo had stationed toward a left corner of the seat, leaving the right for Angela. That meant Wallace had settled down at the corner next to Ehlo to the right while Yvonne took the left of his. They had left two full seats empty on purpose for Jacky and Sonia. Jacky took the one next to Yvonne while Sonia took the one next over—also to Angela’s right.

“So, you six came together just like that?” Andy asked, eyeing their table suspiciously. He had look at Wallace particularly. “And we asked you earlier if you knew where Ehlo was too, you know.”

Wallace shrugged, still able to smile. “Hey, I didn’t know where he was for real.”

“Uhuh.”

Ehlo looked over at the other table and had on his suspicious expression also. “Why were you looking for me then?”

“Celebration,” Andy returned, leaving his answer vague on purpose.

Ehlo smiled. “Angela and I just came back from a short getaway.” He was playing with his chopsticks now. “Then we saw Huo and Yvonne, so we just took a little walk. After that, we ran into them, so…here we are.”

Upon hearing that, the others turned their attention to Jacky and Sonia at that time, waiting for their explanation.

“It’s a coincidence,” Sonia said, feeling her face burning—although she didn’t know why.

“So many coincidences in life, you know,” Ehlo said casually.

“So many that there are like three or four that happened tonight alone,” Andy said, matching Ehlo’s casual voice.

“Well, it was a coincidence,” Jacky spoke up then, feeling like he needed to take the heat away from Sonia. “I finished my latest research assignment, so I decided to head out. Seeing how nice tonight was, I thought I got out of the car and took a stroll. That was when I ran into Sonia. She was telling me about some future plans, and we ended up on the same path as those four…”

“What a coincidence,” Eddie said, exchanging looks with the people at his own table. “So many of them.”

“That’s what we just said,” Ehlo jumped in again. “Don’t believe us?”

Eddie shook his head. “Nope.”

“Here comes another coincidence,” Derek said around then. He even took it into his hand and waved toward a direction in front of him and behind some of the others. “Hey, Jun! Over here!”

That was the others turned to see Jun and Novia walking down the street. The other two displayed the same shocked as the rest of them. In fact, some of them got up from their spots and walked over to them.

“Hey, you guys,” Jun greeted them, his smile awkward—like he was caught red-handed. And he seriously shouldn’t even worry about that. Since they all knew the two had been dating and had actually helped them moved in together too.

“Hey, join us,” Janine urged. She then realized what was going on, so she turned to Novia with an apologetic expression. “Oh, not enough space at our table.” She took a brief glance at the other table before saying, “Maybe join them since they have some space left?”

“Miss Chang, do you know what privacy is?” Ehlo asked, his voice teasing. “Some couples want to be alone together. Besides, they’ve been avoiding us since forever. What makes you think they want to join us now?”

  “It’s not like that,” Jun rushed to explain as he tugged Novia’s hand and made his way toward Ehlo’s table. “We’ve been busy.”

“Uhuh,” Ehlo muttered, using the same sarcastic tone Andy had used on him previously.

It was also then that Sonia moved over to Jacky’s seat since he’d made room for her. So Jun and Novia was able to sit down at the remaining chair as Jun attempted to explain himself again. Jun was actually sitting at the corner next to Angela now, leaving Novia at the right side—next to Sonia’s corner.

“He’s trolling you,” Eddie repeated a phrase he once used with Chris. “I don’t know why you still fall for his drama king act.”

“Stay out of it, kid,” Ehlo gritted his teeth.

“I’m only five years younger than you,” Eddie protested.

“If you’re at the other table, you’re a kid,” Ehlo said in an as a matter of fact tone. “This, over here, is the adult table.”

“Hey,” Derek yelled out then. “There’s no need to get into this. He’s even more immature than me.”

Derek was pointing at Jun.

“If we’re rating by behavior, I think Ehlo would already be expelled from this table,” Jacky said, his smiling mischievous.

Wallace turned to give to Jacky a high-five then. That was around the same time Ehlo rolled his eyes. It was also the time that Sonia reached over and hit Jacky lightly on his hand.

“Yeah, real mature things going on over there,” Andy noted, tapping his chopsticks on the table. He was done eating and was waiting for his dessert. In fact, most of the people at his table were done eating and were waiting for their desserts as well. “I wish I could be granted access to the adult table too.”

“You’re just jealous, kid,” Ehlo returned, not missing a beat. He had his back to the other table but knew that Andy was rolling his eyes at him, which made him smile. “You still have so many things to learn.”

“Oh yeah?” More tapping. “Like what?”

“Like…”

Before Ehlo could say more, he realized that Joanne and Bryant were standing right next to him. He could only see their feet but recognized their shoes. He was about to look up and confront them for getting into his personal space. But he heard a gasp from some others at the same table as him. When he finally looked up, he saw the people from the other table had lined up in a circle around his table. Joanne and Bryant had brought over a cake. So Wallace and Yvonne had gotten up from their seats—probably around the time Ehlo was immersed in thinking of a comeback to Andy’s earlier comment to notice—and helped with making way for the cake. At that realization, Ehlo had gotten up from his seat as well. In fact, most of them were standing now—with Jacky and Sonia being the only ones sitting. Jacky turned to look at Sonia as the others started singing. Sonia sent him a smile before joining in with them.

“When did you guys pulled this?” Jacky asked after he had blown the candles already and Joanne handed him a knife to cut the cake.

“Secret,” Joanne said, exchanging a look with Bryant.

Then Jacky remembered seeing how Joanne had leaned in and whispered something to Bryant earlier. It was the same time that Eddie made his protest known about being called a kid by Ehlo. He guessed they were scheming about checking on the cake. The cake must have been ordered around the same time the desserts were ordered, which was when Jacky and the others arrived and had placed their orders.

“So, congrats to the kids for pulling this one off, huh?” Ehlo said, his compliment laced with his mocking tone.

“Hey, it’s not exactly his birthday today, but we tried,” Eddie said.

“You and your technicalities,” Ehlo returned. “You’re starting to sound like Huo.”

“Funny, because Chen Yi said I sounded like you earlier.”

Ehlo glanced at Andy real quick before looking at Eddie again. “Really?”

“I think we can all agree that we’ve been hanging around you guys way too much,” Janine jumped in.

Ehlo nodded. “Fair enough.”

After that, the others left the table, carrying their pieces of cakes that had been passed to them while the previous words were exchanged.

“Thanks, you guys,” Jacky said, feeling so grateful for their friendship.

The others only sent him a smile in return, not saying anything more. Their actions had proved it all. And that also meant that Ehlo had chosen to stay silent.

*****

Several days after Jacky’s actual birthday, they were once again at the edge of town. Well, some of them were. They were sending Chris and Margaret off. The two were ready for another adventure with their mutual friends, so they had informed them all out of a sudden hence only some of them were able to make it.

“Don’t disappear on us again to return fourteen years later,” Andy warned Chris when it was his turn to say a few words to the two.

Chris smiled, rubbing his well-trimmed beard. “I’ll definitely come back to visit more often from now on.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Ehlo sabotaged. “You know how it is around here. If you miss out on some details, it might take years to catch up.”

Chris smiled again, knowing Ehlo was teasing. “You have so little faith in me.”

Margaret smiled also, one of her sweet smiles but this time with a trace of mischief as well. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he remembers.”

Ehlo turned to Margaret, pointing a finger at her. “I’ll hold you to that.”

Margaret smiled again. “You bet.”

After that, Janine stepped forward and hugged Margaret. “I’ll miss you, roommate.”

“Don’t worry,” Margaret returned. “I’ll keep in touch.”

“Women,” Ehlo muttered. “Always making things so dramatic, like she’s going to Mars or something.”

“That coming from you, Drama King?” Eddie asked, his expression a mixture of confusion and taunt.

While those words were exchanged, Jacky and Wallace were having their turn with bidding Chris goodbye. Then they stepped back again. It was Joanne’s turn to say some words.

“All right,” Chris said when the others had all stepped back to form a line in front of him and Margaret. “Thanks for coming on such short notice. We’ll miss you guys.”

The others nodded and stayed silent.

“We’ll definitely come back,” Margaret promised.

“It was nice being roommates with you two,” Chris said, looking at Bryant and Derek at that time. Although he had some words of farewells to those two earlier, he felt like he should repeat of his gratitude one last time.

Margaret had looked at Janine and smiled as Chris said “roommates”, waving for the last time.

They said a few more words before Chris and Margaret left in Chris’ rental car. They would be returning the car at the airport, so the others didn’t have to worry about that. And the reason why they didn’t do the farewell party at the airport was because Chris had insisted. It had already been a stretch with some of them making it to say a word or two of goodbyes. It would be too much to make them drive all the way to the airport and deal with the traffic both ways just for that.

“Well, I guess that’s that, huh?” Ehlo said, gesturing toward Chris and Margaret’s car disappearing around the bend of the road.

“You must be happy now, huh?” Wallace jabbed.

Ehlo wrinkled his face. “What?”

Wallace had on his mischievous smile. “He’s gone.”

“Hahaha.” Ehlo’s laugh was far from amusing. His sarcasm was reflected on his face.

Angela shook her head and sent both guys a chiding look. “Seriously.”

“Let’s go somewhere for the rest of the afternoon,” Janine suggested, ignoring Ehlo and Wallace’s banter on purpose.

“Where?” Angela asked, brushing a piece of loose hair out of her face.

“How about a makeover for the upcoming wedding?”

“That’s in November!” Ehlo exclaimed. “It’s still August.”

The others gave Ehlo a look.

“Okay, it’s like the end of August already, but we still have a lot of time until November.”

“We can just go look at some clothes and buy some catalogues to get ideas.”

“Good idea,” Yvonne chimed in. “Let’s go.”

“I want to go too,” Joanne joined in.

“Great,” Janine said. “We can go in my car since I came in my own car earlier.”

“Hey, what about me?” Eddie asked, looking at Janine.

Janine turned to Eddie then. “You can go with the guys.”

After saying that, Janine followed Angela and Yvonne to her car. Angela had gestured to Ehlo already, so he wasn’t worried about it. As for Wallace, he had nodded when Yvonne was about to say something to him. It was the way they usually communicated; it was routine.

“Love you too,” Eddie yelled after Janine when he realized she was not kidding about leaving him behind with the guys.

“Get together already,” Ehlo teased.

Eddie turned from his attention from Janine’s back to look at Ehlo. “What?”

“Since Yan’s going to get married soon anyway, you have no chance.”

Eddie’s face was displaying an even more confused look. “What?”

Ehlo shook his head. “Come on, man, too obvious. We all know you liked Yan.”

“Oh, come on,” Eddie exclaimed, returning his glare at Janine’s back briefly. He gave the others a quick scan before speaking up again. “Janine blabbed to you all?”

“Ha!” Ehlo exclaimed in return. “Got you!”

Jacky and Wallace shook their heads at the same time, their smiles equally mischievous.

“And you said you have his routine down to the dot, huh?” Wallace teased. “We didn’t know that you liked Yan, you just told us on your own.”

“This is fun,” Andy said, displaying an expression that he was enjoying the show.

“There’s no shame in that,” Ehlo jumped in again, his expression less cunning than before, seeing Eddie’s awkward expression. “Kris used to like her too and guess where it went. We’re still friends.”

“What?” Eddie asked. “Chris? Really?”

Eddie had pointed toward the bend of the road where Chris and Margaret had disappeared a long time already.

Ehlo shook his head. “Not that Chris, I meant Chen Yi’s buddy. You met him already.”

Eddie’s face reflected of realization at that time. “Oh, that Kris.”

“The point is,” Andy took over. “We all have history, right? I used to like Qiao too, but it’s no big deal now.”

Bryant turned to Andy at that time, surprised, considering how he had never known that before. Even Derek was staring. It was like Andy had realized his mistake, so he had his hands up in the air as a protective shield.

“The past, totally in the past now,” Andy rushed to explain, looking at Bryant. “I swear I love Xiao Yu with all my heart now. No need to worry about anything like me running off with Qiao, like maybe tomorrow. Like totally not happening, right?”

“Keep digging that grave, kid,” Ehlo said, his turn to enjoy the show, considering how bad Andy was stuttering at this point.

Andy had on his annoyed expression then, turning to Ehlo. “You used to like Qiao too, like you’re any different.”

That was also when Bryant, Derek, and Eddie shifted their attention to Ehlo. Wallace had also taken that time to wipe an invisible drop of sweat from his face. He knew they were in for good.

“Totally not true,” Ehlo said with a straight face, looking at Bryant—and not the others. “He’s lying through his teeth just to divert attention from himself. How could I like Qiao? She’s so different from me.”

“Keep telling yourself that, Huang,” Andy jabbed, his smile projected of victory.

Ehlo still had on his charming smile toward Bryant and the other two. “Totally not true.”

“They haven’t denied it, you know,” Eddie said, pointing toward Jacky and Wallace.

Ehlo turned to Jacky and Wallace then, still smiling. “Why don’t you two tell them how ridiculous Chen Yi is?”

Jacky raised his right hand up and used the back of his hand to wipe the tip of his nose briefly, trying to compose himself. Or possibly trying to look for some words to deescalate the situation? “Um, see, uh…, the thing is, well…” He turned to Ehlo again. “I got nothing, sorry.”

Ehlo wrinkled his face in annoyance. “You’re not helpful at all.”

Wallace had placed his hands on his sides at that point as his eyes were darting left and right before speaking up. “I got nothing either.”

“I agree, this is fun,” Eddie jumped in then, his voice cunning, like he was able to enjoy the show now, considering the current development.

Ehlo turned to Eddie then. “Not helping, man.”

“Hey, you exposed me first,” Eddie reminded Ehlo.

“Fair enough.”

“Seriously, though,” Wallace interfered then. “We all have a past, right? Let’s forget it. No need to bring it up anymore. Let’s take the rest of the afternoon off and do a little bonding, considering how they already abandoned us?”

“That’s right,” Ehlo said, finally feeling relieved that the situation had been taken care of. “I’ll pay.”

Wallace pointed at Ehlo. “Are you buying us off, Huang?”

“Whatever, man,” Ehlo returned, his confidence back. He turned to others then. “So, you guys in?”

Bryant and Derek exchanged a look then—to which Derek shrugged.

“Sure,” Derek said. “It’s one of those rare times we get to talk, right?”

Bryant nodded, agreeing.

They turned to Eddie then. It was too obvious that Jacky and Wallace were coming along, considering how Ehlo was the one offering to pay. Andy, of course, wouldn’t miss it for the world, knowing the get together would be an interesting one.

“Sure, why not?” Eddie said, gesturing in the general direction. “I have nowhere to go anyway. But what about the ride?”

“I got you covered,” Andy said at that time, pointing his thumb toward the car parked across the street. “I need to pick up Xiao Yu first though. She has a meeting with Cynthia and the rest of the sales team now. She’ll probably be done soon.”

“Wait, she’s going to the gathering with us?” Eddie asked, feeling unsure.

“I’ll just ask her if we can postpone our date to tomorrow and then I’ll take her home first before we meet the rest of the guys there.”

Eddie nodded. “All right then. Let’s get out of here, huh?”

The others quickly chose a restaurant to meet up before separating. Because Ehlo and Wallace were in the same car earlier, so they left together as well. Bryant and Derek, of course, left in the same car too. That meant Jacky was alone. Yet he wasn’t the last one to leave. He was the first to pulled out of his parking spot. Then Ehlo and Wallace. Bryant and Derek had parked a little farther down, so it took them a little longer to walk to their spot. They even got a chance to wave to the other three as the others were leaving. That left Andy and Eddie.

Even though Andy’s car was across the street, Andy had to take care of matters first before he could leave. As Eddie was buckling up and Andy was waiting for his car to start up, he dialed Achel’s number. She picked up right away. He thought he would have to leave a message, considering how she should still be in the meeting.

“Hello?” Andy answered, surprised.

“Hey, I heard you guys already sent Chris and Margaret off,” Achel said immediately without any prompts.

“Yeah. About our date later, I…”

“Can we move it to tomorrow?” Achel said before he could finish.

“What?”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice sounded timid. “But Qiao just called and asked me if I wanted to go with her and others to the mall.”

“Oh, she and the others left already.”

“Yeah, I told them that I would check with you first.”

“That’s fine. Actually, the guys and I are thinking of doing some get together too. It has been a long time, you know. I wanted to ask if we could move our date to tomorrow as well.”

“Really?” She sounded hopeful then. “That means it works out for us, right?”

“Totally. Talk to you later?”

“Great.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

As Andy hung up, he saw Eddie looked at him.

“Qiao, huh?” Eddie asked.

Andy nodded. “Nice coincidence, huh?”

Eddie smiled and looked out the window, tapping on the hand rest.

Andy didn’t say anything else. He put his phone on the holder before pulling out of the spot.

© Thursday, August 6th, 2020

Posted: Friday, October 2nd, 2020

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