It had been raining since the last day of March. It was like Heaven was shedding tears for a little princess who had fallen down and had not found her strength to get back up yet. 

Their town’s unpredictable weather pattern had always been a part of their lives. And the on and off raining seasons had been routine. They were always prepared. However, this year was extra sensitive. It was like an omen to them. Their group was no longer united. That was something Ehlo often bragged about over the years. Regardless of what happened, they would get past that obstacle. Yet, they weren’t so hopeful this time.

Joanne had been sick since after the confrontation scene at the cemetery. It wasn’t exactly due to the fact that she had caught a cold or anything. It was like she’d given up on life. She no longer cared to respond to the others. The majority of the people who still talked to each other took turns taking care of her whenever they were free. Yet it was no use. It was like she’d tuned them out on purpose. She didn’t care for their worried expressions or their sob stories. It no longer concerned her. They didn’t want to listen to her? She didn’t want to listen to them either. It wasn’t exactly like that either. Or so they soon came to realize. Because it was like there was only a deep hollowness within. It was reflected through her eyes. At times when she’d actually fallen asleep, they saw tears flow through. Sometimes, they even heard her mumbling through her dreams. But when she was awake, she wasn’t responding to them. At first, it was just her ignoring them while they accompanied her and tried to get through her. Soon, though, it became much worse. Her physical health deteriorated along with her mentality. She was so weak that she’d become bedridden. 

It wasn’t until the beginning of May that she recovered again. It was like through all the phase of her feverish dreams that she’d discovered something and had somehow found her way again hence her physical strength taking over again to help her heal. 

By mid-May, she was able to get out of bed. In fact, she had gotten out of bed to turn off the TV. Andy and Eddie had been watching a show and had forgotten to turn it off on their way out. The remote was too far away, so she was forced to get out of bed to retrieve it. Just as she reached the remote, a new program popped on after the commercial break. It was a cooking show. It was Bryant’s show. Joanne wanted to turn it off when the intro scenes flashed on, but she paused when she caught the real Bryant on the screen. He looked so thin and tired that even the makeup wasn’t helping much. 

“Qiao, why are you out of bed?” Achel asked, walking into the room at that time. She soon saw the TV screen and realized what was going on. She reached for the remote and was about to turn it off when Joanne grabbed onto her hand to stop her. She panicked. “I’m sorry. I meant to come back to turn it off. Chen Yi forgot.”

Joanne was looking at Achel intently, still having a strong grip on her hand. “How is he?”

Achel looked confused. “Who?”

Joanne turned briefly and pointed at Bryant on the screen. 

“He…”

Joanne switched from gripping Achel’s hand to her shoulders. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me. Tell me, how is he?”

Achel looked like she wanted to cry. “I can’t tell you. Ehlo ge and Jacky ge said not to trigger you even more.”

Upon hearing the two names, Joanne’s expression turned fierce. “What do they know? Do you know me longer or them? Tell me, how is he?”

Seeing that Achel was having an internal struggle, Joanne let go of her and made her way out of the room. It was then that Achel recovered and rushed to block Joanne’s path. 

“Qiao, don’t go. You’re still weak.”

Joanne didn’t feel weak. She was fuming. She wanted answers. She started to pace, trying to think of a tactic. She needed a real plan.

“All right, I’ll tell you,” Achel said, knowing that Joanne was ignoring her again. 

Joanne finally turned to look at Achel, acknowledging her existence again. 

“He’s getting worse. He’s been torturing himself since he learned that you were sick.”

Joanne wrinkled her face.  “How did he know I was sick? They went and yell at him again?”

Achel shook her head. “Eddie and Derek have been texting each other without telling Janine and Bryant, because Eddie was still worried about them. Derek told him what happened. Eddie has been telling Chen Yi updates.”

“How bad is he?”

Achel knew Joanne meant Bryant. She had a worried look on her face. “It’s bad.” She hesitated. “He has been drinking.”

“Drinking?” Joanne looked like she was about to snap again. “Drinking?”

Achel nodded, her expression anxious.

“I have to see him.”

Achel shook her head. “You can’t. You’re still weak.”

“I’m fine.”

Achel saw that Joanne was looking through her closet for something. A change of clothes? Was Joanne ignoring her again? “I’ll go with you.”

Joanne paused from her search. “Because you need to answer to them?”

Achel shook her head again. “I’m worried for you, Qiao.” It was then that her tears fell. “I don’t want to lose you again.”

Joanne rushed over to hug Achel, patting her back and trying to soothe her. It was then that she realized she’d gone overboard. She could be mad at everyone. She could blame anyone. But she can’t take it out on Achel. Because Achel had always supported her. Even if Achel rarely got into confrontation or spoken in crowds or yelled at anyone, but Achel had always been by her side, taking care of her. 

*****

Somehow, they managed to sneak past Andy and Eddie—who were sitting by the living room downstairs. They were on their way to Bryant’s place. It took a while, but they arrived about thirty minutes later. 

“What are you doing here?” Janine asked when she opened the door for them. 

“Where is Bryant?” Joanne demanded, not caring that she was outright rude. 

“That’s none of your business.”

Joanne snuck a look into the apartment to see various furniture, no Bryant. 

“I think you should leave,” Janine said, attempting to close the door. 

Joanne reached her hand out to stop the door from closing all the way. In fact, she had pushed the door back to its previous spot. “I just want to see him for a bit. Then I’ll leave.”

“No,” Janine responded, her voice determined. “You’ve done enough.”

Janine tried to close the door again, yet Joanne used a little strength to push past Janine and stepped into the living room. 

“Hey!” Janine yelled out. “What are you doing?”

Joanne ignored her and rushed toward the hallway that led into the bedrooms. Achel had also used that opportunity to enter the apartment. She followed Joanne and Janine into the hallway.

When Joanne pushed Bryant’s door open, her eyes took in the room’s dark atmosphere. With the hallway’s light, she was able to see Bryant’s silhouette on the floor. He was sitting with his back to the bed. A bottle was seen laying nearby. It was like it had rolled away from him. 

“Hey, get out,” Janine’s voice reached them then.

Joanne ignored her and entered the room, walking toward Bryant. She knelt down next to him and reached for his face, trying to straighten it so she could see it clearly. As if the motion had disturbed him, he stirred and opened his eyes. 

“Qiao?” His voice asked weakly. “Am I dreaming?”

Joanne shook her head. 

He reached up and took her hand that was cradling his face and held on tightly. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t deserve it.”

After that, he pushed her away and attempted to get up yet failed. Joanne regained her balance and helped him up. As he was settled in his bed again, she sat in the chair next to it. 

“You should go,” Bryant said, looking toward the door.

“Not until you promise me you wouldn’t drink anymore.”

“It doesn’t concern you.”

“You really believe that?”

Bryant nodded, looking at her again.

Joanne nodded also, as if understanding. “Once I’m walking out that door, I’m not coming back.”

Bryant didn’t say anything. He turned away from her. It was like he didn’t care one way or another.

Joanne finally turned to leave. What surprised her wasn’t her own tears falling but because Janine was also crying. When she realized Joanne was looking at her, Janine turned and fled down the hall. Joanne really wanted to rush after Janine and asked about it. Yet Joanne stopped herself, reminding herself that it no longer mattered to her. It was always the same answer. She was tired. She no longer cared.

“Let’s go,” Joanne said to Achel as she walked by her. 

Achel nodded and hooked her hands through Joanne’s, leading her out of there. 

*****

Two weeks later, Wallace came to see Joanne. He hadn’t come since she awakened. Mostly because she was back to ignoring everyone, except for Achel, Andy, Eddie, and Esther. Her childhood friends were untouchable. The rest? They could always find new friends. She was done with them. Eddie was an exception because he was truly innocent. He didn’t want to be involved in this mess anyway, but he still made an effort to patch things up. 

“I have the answer for you,” Wallace declared as he entered her room. He was holding a folder in his hand. “You won’t like it at all, but I kept my promise.”

Joanne could see the troubled look on Wallace’s face. In fact, he looked like he was trying to restrain himself. Because of her? Or because of what he’d found out? 

“Friday, 6 PM, East Shore Café. It’s only right that everyone gets the answer at the same time.”

After saying that, Wallace left the room.

*****

When Friday rolled around, most of the parties who knew about what happened were there. Well, it was hard to be in the dark about the breakup because of all the dramas surrounding it afterward. Even Chris and Margaret came back from their adventure for the meeting. Actually, they’d been back since Joanne got sick and had taken turns caring for her like some of the others. However, it was just that Joanne didn’t remember since she was still so weak and was in and out of it constantly to distinguish from reality and dream. Joanne wasn’t surprised either that Johnny and Bianca made an effort to be there. And Tony’s presence made sense because of his link to Esther. He wanted to show his support for them. But what surprised Joanne into standing up from her seat was seeing Ambrose and Penny walking toward them with Cyndi. 

“What the hell are they doing here?” Ehlo asked, hopping off the railing he had been sitting on since his arrival half an hour ago with Chris. He saw Ambrose’s expression, so he held his hands up. “Not that I have a problem with you being here.”

Wallace gestured for all three new arrivals to settle down at the same table as Tony before turning to Ehlo. “It’s only fair that they know.”

“You want to broadcast this far and wide?” Joanne asked.

Wallace glanced at Bryant’s table real quick before turning to Joanne. “Because this is an important matter.”

Joanne had caught that little detail with how Wallace had looked at Bryant before answering her. She looked across the way to his table, realizing he had also gotten up after seeing the new arrivals. He looked nervous. Somehow, he had managed to clean up for the meeting. She didn’t know what to make of his reactions, so she sat down again. 

Wallace scanned the perimeter real quick before speaking up.

“Over six years ago, a car accident happened not far from here.”

Joanne thought Wallace had some information about Bryant. Yet when he started talking about Tang Feng’s accident, Joanne had on the confused look. As she scanned the area, she saw the majority were as confused as her. Jacky, Tony, and Ambrose fell into the group that wasn’t confused. However, Joanne knew that Ambrose had always been compose. She suspected Tony must have known about this since she saw he had nodded at Wallace earlier before Wallace started talking. But Jacky? She scanned Bryant’s table again and saw Janine reached a hand over and held Bryant’s. They knew what this was about?

“Qiao, hear him out,” Jacky said when he saw Joanne getting up from her seat. “I know it’s hard. But it’s relevant.”

That was when Wallace turned to Jacky with a surprised expression on his face. Yet Jacky nodded, indicating that Wallace should continue. Wallace cleared his throat once before speaking up again.

“According to local authorities, it was done by a drunk driver who was also taking drugs. He was caught later and brought in. However, due to some unexplained evidence, he was released, and his records got erased. The case was still considered closed because the public attention was no longer on the accident.”

“On the day that Wallace came into the station to see Detective Chen, there was also someone else there,” Tony took over. “The camera had captured him.”

That was when Yvonne took out her phone and pressed some buttons. Soon, all their phones beeped at the same time.

“The low, lying bastard!” Ehlo exclaimed. He was glad he had already hopped down from the railing earlier. He was actually impressed Chris hadn’t fallen off yet.

That was when everyone turned to look at Bryant. Yes, the person in the picture Yvonne just sent to them all was Bryant. The picture was a little grainy, but the person was still recognizable. And that was also when Joanne got up from her seat and made her way toward Bryant. Jacky was prepared so he grabbed her as she walked by.

“Let go of me!” Joanne yelled out. 

“It wasn’t him. Wait a little more.”

Joanne had stopped fidgeting and looked up at Jacky. “How do you know?”

“I know. If it were him, he would need bail, not wondering around freely at the station like that.”

Jacky could see that Joanne was already calmed so he let go of her.

“Huo, you better go faster before all of us have a heart attack,” Ehlo warned. He had gripped onto the railing for courage. The reason why he hadn’t already lunged at Bryant after seeing the photo was because he had promised Wallace not to act rashly when they talked last night. 

Wallace ignored Ehlo’s comment and focused on the others again. “That person who you all just saw in the picture was there to post bail for the suspect.”

Joanne was staring at Bryant again, not being able to believe it. In fact, Bryant was also staring at her. Contrary to his nervousness earlier, he was unusually calm. 

“In fact, their relationship to one another is…” Tony continued.

“Enough!” Janine yelled out at that time and got up from her seat. “If you have anything to say, just do it in private. Why are you bringing half the town over to embarrass us?”

Janine meant that for Wallace.

Wallace walked over to her Janine at that time, his face restrained. “Remember what I told you that day I left your apartment? I will get to the bottom of it. You refused to tell me then. Don’t blame me when the truth comes out now.”

“You…”

“Janine,” Bryant called out, having gotten up himself since he saw Wallace making his way over. He slid a hand around Janine’s shoulders to stop her.

“But…”

Bryant shook his head at her before turning to Wallace. “How did you know?”

Wallace wasn’t tongue-tied. He maintained his composure—or what was left of it. “That day we had the get together and ended up talking about Tang Feng, your behaviors were suspicious. I somehow had a feeling like I saw you at the station that day, but I wasn’t sure. Then you broke up with Qiao, so I was more than suspicious. Your behaviors made me want to investigate. It wasn’t until I coaxed Detective Chen into letting me see the old CCTV record that I knew for sure. The rest, thanks to Tony’s and Yvonne’s networks.”

“There’s more,” Tony said, looking at the others.

At that time, Wallace returned to the center table and was standing next to Tony again. Bryant and Janine had sat down again. It was like they were prepared for whatever it was that was going to happen. But both still looked worried.

“Oh, there’s more?” Ehlo asked, his sarcasm on high. “Please do tell us how worse this could be.”

“The person responsible for what happened,” Ambrose prompted. “What is his name?”

“His name is Mark Lee,” Jacky said, noticing that Ambrose was getting impatient. That rarely happened. He knew he should speed things up. 

“What?” Chris exclaimed, losing his footing. Luckily, Ehlo was next to him, so Ehlo was able to catch him in time.

“Seriously, man?” Ehlo said, stepping back after Chris regained his balance already. “You didn’t fall off for the previous one, but this is the hill you’re going to die on? Some guy with the same last name as yours?”

Chris shook his head. “Mark Lee is my brother.”

Ehlo looked surprised. “You have a brother? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Chris gave Ehlo a weird look. “You didn’t ask.”

“And what kind of brother are you that you don’t know what your brother’s up to?”

“He’s not here right now, he’s been studying overseas for most of his life.”

“Totally not your brother,” Jacky said, his voice reassuring.

Chris turned to look at Jacky. “How can you be so sure?”

“Trust me on this one. I had you scanned.”

“What? You had me scanned?”

“The point,” Jacky said, seeing the others were getting impatience with the randomness exchanged between Ehlo and Chris already. So, he didn’t want to push it either. He turned to address the others in general. “The Mark Lee in question is Spencer Lee’s son.”

There were gasps within the group at this point. They exchanged looks among themselves. Even Ambrose reacted upon hearing that one. He exchanged a look with Penny. Penny looked equally troubled as her husband.

“The Spencer Lee who owns Serpentine Enterprise?” Nic asked, standing up from his spot between Cynthia and Achel.

Jacky nodded. “Yes, that Spencer Lee. So, that was why the case just went away like that, without anyone questioning it again.”

“I don’t mean to be the insensitive asshole in this situation here,” Eddie jumped in then. “But what does this have to do with Bryant breaking up with Qiao?”

Jacky looked at Wallace then, like he was waiting to see if Wallace wanted to continue or let him be the bearer of bad news. Wallace nodded and waved his hand, allowing Jacky to continue.

“Mark Lee is Bryant and Janine’s half-brother,” Jacky answered, looking up at the others again.

Upon hearing that, everyone went wild, even Ehlo. There were scattered conversations everywhere. Well, almost. Cyndi had been sitting there patiently, waiting for the others to give her the relevant information to her brother’s death. So, when she realized what was going on, her face had displayed traces of shock and disbelief. She had now gone completely pale and was clutching her mouth, like she was trying to process it. Seeing her reaction, Penny had placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to comfort her. The rest of the group was turning to pester Jacky, Tony, and Wallace for more answers.

While that was going on, Joanne had made her move. Since the three men who knew about the situation the most was occupied, she made her way toward Bryant.

“This is why you want to break up with me?” Joanne asked. “Because you were involved in the coverup?”

“I…” Bryant managed. “Qiao, I…”

“He didn’t cover it up,” Janine jumped in. “The brat had an argument with his dad several weeks before and disappeared. It wasn’t until he caused the accident that he ended up calling his mom for help. That was when she wanted to use us to get him out since his dad was busy with business. It wasn’t until he was done weighing the consequences that he tossed us out and dealt with it himself. We didn’t know anyone had died, okay? We just thought the brat hit someone, and that person was just hospitalized. That woman manipulated us into helping with her pitiful talk.”

Janine’s words had caused the others to turn to them again. Her voice had risen to another level that it was hard to not hear her. Jacky and Wallace had made their way over, ready to stop Joanne—if she had intended to attack. But they halted in their way when they heard Janine’s explanation. They had also exchanged a look.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Joanne demanded, having closed the distance between her and Bryant and was shaking his shoulder at the moment. “Why?”

“Qiao,” Bryant managed, not daring to look at her. “I…”

“I told him to talk to you after he finally told me and Novia about it,” Janine continued. “He just refused to do it. He blamed himself for it. Because he felt responsible.”

“I want to hear it from you,” Joanne urged, still having a grip on Bryant’s shoulder and was looking up at him.

“Ge!” Janine yelled out. Her voice was fierce, but she was also crying at that time.

While they were waiting for Bryant to speak up, Ambrose got up and left. In fact, he had gestured for Penny to stay. It seemed like he had enough. It was like he needed a minute. Penny looked worried but nodded anyway.

“Coward,” Ehlo muttered under his breath. It took all his restrain not to personally walk over there and strangle Bryant on sight. And the fact that Chris had held him back too helped.

The others were still waiting. Yet before Bryant could react or say anything, Cyndi got up from her place and ran off as well. Wallace turned around in time to see Penny chasing after her.

“You think I would blame you for something you didn’t do?” Joanne asked then. “Did you know from the start? Did you know when we were standing on that bridge?”

According to Wallace’s words, it didn’t seem likely that Bryant knew anything from the start. However, Joanne had to confirm. She didn’t know what else they were hiding from her. And upon realizing what Joanne was getting at, Bryant looked panicked. She had already let go of his shoulders awhile back. Now, it was his turn to grab onto her hands.

“No, I didn’t know anything,” Bryant said. “I didn’t want to push you into telling me after I learned of Tang Feng’s passing. It wasn’t my place. It was up to you when you wanted to share. I didn’t know until the other guys were talking about it at the gathering.”

 “So, instead of telling me, you ran?”

“Qiao, I…I just want you to forget about me and move on.”

They heard a smack then. Joanne was too fast. The others didn’t react in time.

“Qiao!” Wallace yelled out, grabbing onto her shoulder.

Joanne shrugged Wallace’s hand away, still facing Bryant. “So, you rather have everyone go at each other like maniacs than tell us?”

Bryant was now rubbing the left side of his face—the spot where Joanne had slapped him. “I didn’t know it was going to turn out that way. But I thought it would be for the best. That the worst was already over. That everyone would move on soon.”

“What if I didn’t wake up?” Her tears finally fell. “Tell me!”

“Qiao…” He reached both hands out to hold her shoulders this time. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

“Well, it happened anyway. I hope you’re happy now.”

After saying that, she pushed him out of the way and rushed off. Yet this time, she couldn’t. Janine had leaped forward and stopped her, grabbing onto her shoulder from behind.

“Qiao, don’t go.”

Joanne’s tears were falling at an uncomfortable rate and she was losing control. Yet she managed to push Janine off her. But Janine refused to give up. She jumped in front of Joanne and stopped her from going. Joanne could see Janine was also crying at that point. It was obvious from her previous words that she was crying. Her voice was already hoarse. But seeing her face full of tears now confirmed that Janine wasn’t any better off than her.

“Qiao, please…you can hate me, please don’t give up on Bryant,” Janine pleaded, grabbing onto Joanne’s hands at that time. “He’s innocent. If it wasn’t for that woman. She guilt-tripped me. I fell for it. If I didn’t go that day, then Bryant wouldn’t have stopped me. He wouldn’t be the one bailing that brat out.”

It was now that Joanne understood. Janine was also living in guilt. Both of them were. That was why Janine wanted to be the more hateful party in the whole matter. Because she’d also blamed herself for what happened. Bryant wasn’t just feeling guilty for having a hand in the whole matter. He was also covering for Janine. Even if both of them had nothing to do directly with the accident, both of them were still going through the same guilt. It was like Joanne was able to see it all clearly with what had happened. Each time, each moment, each word. How it had changed. Janine had done it on purpose. How it had contradicted everything Janine said and acted toward her previously. Why hadn’t she realized it before? Yet it still hurt.

Joanne finally reacted. She undid Janine’s hands on her and continued to walk off. She needed more time. Her head was swimming. She needed to think.

Janine seemed to have given up on her attempt. She returned to Bryant’s side. “Ge, why aren’t you running after her?”

Bryant reached out to attempt to dry his sister’s tears. “It’s better this way.”

After saying that, Bryant released his hands from his sister and started to leave as well. He had used the side entrance that was built recently instead of walking straight out to the parking lot like how Joanne had done.

“Ge,” Janine called after Bryant, but it was useless.

That was also when Eddie walked over to Janine, giving her a pack of tissue. “That was why you attacked Qiao? Because you wanted her to hate you?”

Janine took the tissues from Eddie and used it quickly before speaking up. “If she hated me, at least Bryant had a chance. It was my fault anyway. Don’t you see?”

Eddie didn’t know what to make of it. He knew that thinking was so messed up that he didn’t know what to say. He just reached out to hold her shoulders, pulling her to him, feeling like all he needed to do was lend her his shoulders. And he didn’t care if the others were watching.

Since the two key characters of this current telenovela had already left, Ehlo felt like he’d already fulfilled his promise to Wallace. So, he chose that time to step over to where Jun was standing numbed at one side.

“You owe Qiao an apology, asshole,” Ehlo gritted his teeth.

Jun turned to Ehlo, shocked. “What?”

“You weren’t that innocent, you know. You acted like you were torn because of your girlfriend here, but I could see you were judging Qiao with your high morality and all. What now, too egoistic to admit it?”

“Ehlo,” Novia interfered. “Don’t blame him, he…”

Ehlo had on his amused look then. “It’s funny that cowardly runs in your family, really. Even extended relations too.”

“It’s not that simple like you think.”

“Huang,” Wallace called out then, shaking his head at Ehlo.

“What?”

“It’s not the time.”

“When is it the time then? When is it ever the time?”

“Ehlo,” Chris spoke up then, walking over to them. “I think we should just go check on Qiao now. It’s what’s important now, not…”

Ehlo turned to Chris. “What?”

“Petty side swipes.”

“Huh, so I’m petty.”

“You know it, man.”

Ehlo swallowed back his rage and sent Jun another nasty look before walking off. He used the regular straight path that was leading to the parking lot. That was also the time that Eddie muttered a phrase or two to the others before escorting Janine away from the scene as well.

“Well,” Chris said. “I guess my deed is done.”

After saying that, Chris turned to look at Margaret. They left as well, following Angela. Angela had gotten up when she saw Ehlo leaving.

“I’ll go check on Cyndi,” Wallace said, looking at Jacky.

Jacky nodded. “Meet you back at Alyssa’s.”

Wallace nodded before leaving with Yvonne.

“Totally not a disaster meeting at all,” Andy commented as the others were leaving one by one.

“We have to go check on Qiao,” Achel said, tugging on Andy’s arm.

“I know,” Andy said, getting up from his seat at that time. “It’s just…”

“What?”

“Maybe she needs some time alone?”

Achel wrinkled her face. “I know, but I’m still worried.”

Andy shoved his hands into his jacket pockets at that time. “You know what?”

“What?”

“Old plan.”

“Huh?”

“Stalk her at a distance.”

Achel understood then. They continued walking to Andy’s car, looking for Joanne. She wasn’t far. Andy was right that she wanted to be alone. So, he made sure to let his presence be known and drove slowly to watch her. He didn’t care that he was annoying some of the drivers. They could always drive around him. As he was driving though, he also dissected what just happened earlier at the meeting. His mind was still a jumble. He didn’t blame Joanne for not knowing what to do. He, himself, didn’t want to be involved in it either—and he wasn’t even the closest to the whole thing.

*****

The next day, Novia came to Ehlo and Angela’s place with Jun. Jacky and Wallace were also there. Yvonne had already left after they finished with breakfast. She claimed she had somewhere to go but would be back later.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” Ehlo asked as he opened the door for them.

Based on his expression and voice, it was obvious he didn’t mean that. His hostility was too obvious.

“There’s something I think you need to hear before you dismiss Bryant off completely,” Novia said. “It’ll only take a little of your time.”

Ehlo was still blocking the door. He had no intention of letting them in. However, he didn’t outright slam the door in their faces either. He turned to Jacky and Wallace sitting in the kitchen. Jacky and Wallace also exchanged a look when Ehlo turned to them.

“It wouldn’t hurt to hear them out, I guess,” Wallace said, gesturing toward the door.

Ehlo looked like he wasn’t convinced, but he stepped aside to let them in. He closed the door and led them to the kitchen. That was also when they saw Angela walking in from the deck with Chris and Margaret.

“So, to what do we owe the pleasure of your royal presence here today?” Chris said as he saw the two walking in—and was still standing awkwardly in front of Jacky and Wallace who were sitting at the island in the middle of the kitchen.

“I wouldn’t expect you to be so…” Jun began, looking at Chris.

“What?” Ehlo asked, interrupting Jun on purpose. “So petty like me? You don’t have to be here, you know.”

Jun wasn’t intimidated by the number of people in the room. He scanned the group once before saying, “Look, I get it. I messed up when I didn’t say anything helpful during the situation. However, I don’t understand why you all are always shielding Qiao like she’s a fragile glass doll, like she’s going to break at the very next moment. If it isn’t Bryant, there’s going to be someone else in the future who breaks her heart. Are you going to go after every single person? You can’t baby her all the time. She has to grow up sometime too, you know.”

Ehlo looked like he was going to lose it. His hands had been clutching his sides, but now he released them and had ended up using his right hand to wave it at Jun. Then he returned them to his sides again. “Someone, hold me back, seriously.” He had to pause for a little to collect his thoughts before speaking up again. “You people broke Qiao and had the audacity to come here and lecture us?”

“Jun, perhaps, you should wait outside,” Novia said then, gesturing for him to leave.

“No,” Ehlo said, raising a hand up to stop them. “If you’re already here today, we might as well do it now.”

“Ehlo, I know you’re upset, but…”

Ehlo scoffed. “Upset? This is me upset?” He stopped to point at himself. “You haven’t seen me upset yet, trust me. I’m restrained right now.”

“Huang, just let them say whatever and leave,” Wallace interfered then. “They wouldn’t understand.”

“How could anyone understand your high-class society’s mindset anyway?” Jun asked, feeling like he had enough of their fake outrage.

That was when Jacky—and not Ehlo—reacted. “High-class society mindset?” He got up from the counter and made his way toward the group. He and Wallace were somewhat disengaged from the group the whole time. They had a little distance. But he closed it now by coming closer. “You want to play this game? I’ll play with you.”

“Come on, man,” Ehlo said, surprisingly calm and trying to hold Jacky back.

“No,” Jacky said, brushing Ehlo’s hands off him—though not that hard. They were on the same side after all. He turned to Jun again. “High-class society, huh? What have you heard from your daily gossip magazines’ catchup? That we drink rabbit’s blood daily to remain youthful? Or we somehow discovered a miracle cure for human sickness? Oh, we’re not that selfless. We’re probably killing monkeys in the labs to discover some potion so we could live forever, is that it?” He stopped to lick his lips before continuing. “You know what your problem is, Jun? It’s that you missed the point so far that I don’t know how you managed to live up to this point. The fact that you think that we’re all mad at you and your precious Bryant because of some typical breakup.” He turned to Novia now. “You had the full information the whole time, but you didn’t say anything. Why are you coming here to heal that rip now? What’s the point? If Wallace didn’t expose you, would you have said anything at all? Sure, Qiao will get over it eventually. But has anyone thought of the downside? What if she didn’t wake up? You rather hide the information about some past than trying to revive what’s in the present.” Jacky could see that Novia was crying now. But he wasn’t backing down. He was far from done. And he intended to finish this, right here, right now. “You know what the worst feeling of it all is? Do you?” He paused—as if waiting for some sort of response. “It’s helplessness. I don’t care when she’s crying or when she’s lashing out at us. It just means she still cares to acknowledge our existence. But when she ignores us, she has given up on us. She no longer cares about anything. That means we failed as her friends, her support system.” Jacky didn’t realize he was on the brink of breaking down too. He paused briefly to recollect his thoughts. “Seeing her lying there, not moving at all, not acknowledging us, not knowing if she was going to ever wake up again…” He turned to Jun again at that time. “High-class society, huh? Is that how you dismiss our feelings and think you could do anything to us? So, my parents are well off. So, I was lucky that I was born rich. Have I ever exuded that richness in your face before? Have I flaunted it around like I have nothing to lose? Have I ever tossed my money around like they’re candies? I’ll have you know; I worked my ass off since I was sixteen to get where I am today. Have I ever shamed anyone for not working hard enough? Have I ever judged people for their poor decisions? Or have I ever used my parents’ power to get what I wanted?” He was pacing when he was saying those words, yet he stopped again and stared at the two in front of him. “No? Why does it sound so familiar? Look in the freaking mirror. Who’s getting off with murder over there because their daddy dearest is the second most powerful man in the business world? And you want to know how it feels to judge someone’s character based on their background? Look in the freaking mirror again.”

And it seemed like that was his final take because Jacky walked off after that pause. He wasn’t leaving the house. He just went to the deck. He needed some air before he lost it completely.

“Well,” Ehlo said, looking around the room in awkwardness—although that was part of his house. “Welcome back to our Jacky, after ten years. Thank you everyone for unleashing the sleeping dragon.” He suddenly felt like laughing, so he did—to which he earned a shove from Angela. But he didn’t mind. “Coming from the same production that tanked Wallace and Angela’s relationship.”

Angela shoved him harder then. Wallace also gave him a look. That was also when Chris and Margaret exchanged one of their looks again. Confused was probably their top feeling at the moment. Because the whole situation had gone from Ehlo being upset to Jacky unleashing his anger and now Ehlo was back to his playful self? Did they miss something?

“So, you came today because?” Wallace prompted. “More excuses for Bryant?”

Novia was shaking when Jacky was unleashing his anger, but when he left, she was trying to pull herself together again. So, when Wallace asked, she turned to him. “Wallace, you know Bryant and Janine didn’t mean to help in the whole matter. They were as much the victim as…”

“Oh, I’m sorry, are they dead?” Ehlo jumped in then. “No? Then it’s not the same.”

“Ehlo,” Angela said, reaching out to grab his hand.

Ehlo shrugged, shutting his mouth again.

“I know it wasn’t their fault,” Wallace said, his expression not anymore friendlier than Ehlo. It was restrained. “None of us get to choose who our parents are or our family background. I sympathize with them for what they’d been through. But that doesn’t give them a pass just because you’re closer to the situation than the rest of us. Jacky’s right, don’t you see the hypocrisy? You don’t get to slam Qiao or us and then turn around to come up with excuses for your family.”

“Bryant and Janine’s father passed away early,” Novia said, her voice leveled. “Their mother remarried. They never got along well with the stepfather. It got worse after Mark was born.”

“Spare me from the sob story,” Wallace said. “I read their files already.” He noticed Jun’s judging eyes. “Now you want me to have compassion for your girlfriend’s tears? I thought those are just masquerade? You know, part of the props for a good sob story.”

“You’re as petty as them,” Jun said. “When she convinced me to come here, I thought our best bet was you. I was wrong.”

Wallace had on his arrogant smirk then. “Oh? I’m sorry to disappoint you then, your royal highness.”

“Don’t get up, don’t get up,” Ehlo mumbled under his breath. Although his hands were fidgeting in a nervous manner, he was standing at the same spot. He could also feel Angela’s increased pressure on his hand. She wasn’t upset with him, but she had also recognized what was going to happen. He patted her hand in silence, trying to comfort her.

Wallace got up all right. His expression was cold now, so cold that it could even cut through ten layers of ice. “Where were your compassions when Qiao was crying and begging for answers? Where was it? Huh?” He stopped to look at Jun then, his eyes piercing through Jun. “Petty, huh? You expect us to just sit there and take it? If we don’t take it, we’re petty, huh? The fact that you’re still standing here and criticizing us tells me you haven’t even heard a word Jacky said. He was just wasting his breath. You know what, you want compassion, talk to the least petty candidates in this room then. I’m out.”

Wallace had pointed at Chris and Margaret. Then Wallace was gone. He, unlike Jacky, had left by the front door.

Ehlo sighed out in relief then, even patting where his heart was supposed to be for emphasis. “Lucky he didn’t point at me.” He smiled. “I’m off the hook.”

Chris had to laugh at that comment—despite the hectic situation. “I have a hard time believing you’re the least petty among us.”

Ehlo leaned over to Chris and whispered, “Good luck with the talk then.” He patted Chris on the shoulder. “Angela and I have a movie to catch.”

“Hey,” Chris said, alarmed. In fact, he looked panicked and in desperation had grabbed onto Ehlo’s hand. “You’re not going to leave me here with them, are you?”

Ehlo had on his amused expression. “You’re a grown man, you can handle it.”

“Still growing,” Chris confessed.

Ehlo patted Chris shoulder, having detached his hand from Chris already. “Keep growing, you’ll be fine.”

After that, he took Angela’s hand into his and made his way to the front door.

“Hey, come on man!” Chris yelled after them.

Margaret shook her head then, her expression more amused than ever. Then she turned to Jun and Novia still standing there. “Have a seat.” She gestured toward the living room. Then she turned to Chris. “Could you get us some drinks?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Chris said, saluting.

Margaret gave him a look yet didn’t say anything else. She joined Jun and Novia in the living room, sitting at the sofa across from them. Her sweet smile made its appearance then. It was like her smile had lit up the whole room, dissipating all the intensity from the atmosphere. Chris soon came back with some lemonade for them.

“I couldn’t find anything else around,” Chris said, gesturing toward the glasses. “We haven’t gone grocery shopping yet.”

“It’s okay,” Novia said. “We’re not here for lemonade anyway.”

Chris smiled, his charming one. “All right then.” He turned to Margaret. “You want to start?”

Margaret nodded and turned to Jun and Novia. “So, first things first, some ground rules.”

Both Jun and Novia had a puzzled look on their faces.

“No name-calling,” Margaret continued, her expression turning serious. “That’s the sole reason why the situation went from bad to worse in the first place, so it’s only fair. Don’t you think?”

Novia nodded, understanding. Jun looked like he was still thinking.

“That means no calling anyone petty. Also, no guilt tripping, no slut shaming, no senseless gestures to trigger anyone’s reactions.”

Chris’ jaw dropped then. “Is there anything we can do?”

“You just violated one rule.”

Chris smiled. “Does that mean I’m out?”

Margaret gave him a look, which she knew he just tricked her into violating the last rule also. “You wish.” She ignored him and turned to the other two again. “Anyway, you can start.”

Novia nodded again. “What I told Wallace, do you also know?”

“About Bryant and Janine’s background?”

Novia nodded.

Margaret shook her head. “Chris and I don’t know anything about it. I’m pretty sure the only ones who knew were Jacky, Tony, Wallace, and Yvonne. The rest of us were in the dark, remember? If not, Wallace wouldn’t have the meeting anyway. It would have been a waste of time. I’m pretty sure he would have told us earlier after breakfast. But you guys came, so…he probably didn’t have a chance yet.”

Novia sighed out. “What I said earlier, it’s all true. Bryant and Janine’s constant struggle with trying to bridge the gap with their stepfather over the years had been unsuccessful. Each time, they were guilt-tripped by their mother. They gave up and tried again and it just kept repeating. You know what’s with society expecting us to get along with family? That was what happened. They tried, but it just didn’t work out. Each time, it was a different argument. They finally break the cycle when the accident from six years ago happened. It was the last straw. That was when they agreed to follow me around different places. I meant, we’ve always lived together on and off over the years. But they finally made the leap with breaking free from their family. Then you know the rest when we decided to settle here.”

“Uh, actually, we don’t know,” Chris said, which earned him a sharp look from Margaret. “I’m not being an asshole. We don’t know anything about them except what happened when we came into the picture, remember?”

“It’s okay,” Novia said before Margaret could speak up to chide Chris.

Novia quickly recounted to them how she and the other two came to the town and became friends with the group.

“So, that’s the whole story,” Novia said after she was done with the recounts.

“So, where do we go from here?” Margaret asked. “I mean, what’s the purpose of you coming here to tell us this today?”

“Really, Margaret?” Chris asked, his amused expression on. “You did so well up till now.”

“I’m not trying to start a fight,” Margaret clarified. “I just want to understand why now. Everything has an intent and purpose. If not, there’s no point in any of our actions really.”

“You’re right,” Novia interfered, looking at Margaret. “We should have come clean sooner. Janine and I tried to convince Bryant to just tell Qiao, tell everyone what happened. But Bryant has such low confidence due to what happened in the past that…”

“Really?” Chris jumped in. “The guy who has his own TV show has confidence issues?”

Margaret turned to Chris with a sharp glare again.

“Sorry,” Chris said, raising his hands up in defense. He had sent Margaret his famous charming smiles to disarm her hostility before turning to Novia again. “Please continue.”

Before Novia could speak up again, though, Margaret chimed in. “So, what do you want us to do about Bryant’s confidence problem then? We can’t just drag him out of the house and force him to talk to Qiao. He has to do it himself.”

Novia’s face was wrinkled now. It wasn’t because she was offended by Margaret’s words. It was more like she was troubled by the situation. “I know.”

“Like you said…” Margaret had paused and looked at Jun. “We can’t just baby him. He has to grow up sometime too, you know.”

Chris’ jaw dropped again. He even started clapping. “Three cheers for Margaret, right on the money.”

Margaret turned slightly to give Chris a look again before turning back to Novia. “Yes, I broke a rule or two here, but my intention wasn’t to attack him just for my own thrill. What I said was true, don’t you think?”

Novia nodded again. “You’re right. What happened between Bryant and Qiao, we can’t really fix it, because it would depend on them. But what I came here today to say is, we can’t change the past, we can only try to make up for what little part we played in the tragedy of the past.”

“Like what?”

“You name it, and we will try to do it to the best of our abilities.”

“Well, I guess resurrecting Tang Feng is off the table then,” Chris mumbled. “Or do you suggest we hunt down Mark and kill him ourselves?”

“Chris!” Margaret exclaimed, turning to him with her disappointed look. “Really?”

Chris’ current expression was that of a mocking one. “What? It’s not like we’re going to do it for real. Last time I checked, murder’s still illegal. Even if it’s done in revenge. Also, revenge is wrong, even if there are no laws against it.”

“I know there are limited things that we could do,” Novia said, ignoring Chris’ side snipes because she knew he was just upset over the whole situation. “And even if we could do anything, it doesn’t mean we could ever forget it.”

“No,” Chris contradicted her. “There isn’t anything that you could do that could make the situation better.” He sat straight up now because he’d been kind of slouching before. Hs expression was serious again, no mockery or humorous traces on that charming face of his. “The only thing that you could literally do was what you just did now by telling your story. But…you were eight months late.” He noticed Jun’s expression at that point. “And you said I’m as petty as Ehlo, remember? I am petty. Just because I was born with this face doesn’t mean I have to comply to its stereotypes. Now, I don’t even need to rehash what Jacky and Wallace said earlier, because you obviously do not care to understand, Jun.” He looked at Novia at this point. “You all forgot one important thing. You should have come to me first, not Jacky or Wallace. Because if anyone wants to claim the brother status around here, I’m tenfold more qualified just based on history.”

Chris got up then, which caused Novia and Jun to get up as well.

“And just for the record,” Chris continued. “I’m actually pettier than Ehlo. He’s only hot-headed and would forget about it after the problem is resolved. Me?” He paused to point his thumb inward at himself for emphasis. “No entry.”

After saying that, Chris left the house as well.

“I guess what’s done is done now,” Margaret said without flinching—or any acknowledgement that Chris just blew up seconds ago right in front of them. “We can only wait for things to die down and let everyone continue on with their lives. Thanks for coming today. I wish you two luck for the upcoming future. I also hope that Bryant would recover soon. Unlike those petty men, I don’t wish harm toward anyone, even that murderer. Because I believe in karma, no matter how long it’s going to take for it to be dealt.”

Novia and Jun exchanged a look before Novia nodded.

“Thank you for listening,” Novia said as Margaret was seeing them to the door.

“You’re welcome,” Margaret returned. “It’s the least I could have done.”

Novia and Jun finally left, so Margaret closed the door behind her. She let out a deep breath before proceeding to retrieve the two undrink lemonades on the coffee table. She took the two to the sink and empty it out after taking a sniff at it.

“Petty men,” She mumbled as she rinsed the glasses out.

“Who called me?” Chris said then, walking in through the deck.

Behind him were Ehlo and Angela. How did he do that when he left by the front door? That was the same for Ehlo and Angela. They actually left by the front door but circled around the back via the side entrance. They just stayed there until after the other two left. It was just that they stayed out of view, so the other two didn’t realize it. Not to mention how they had more pressing matters to focus on than checking to see if anyone who said they left had actually left. What about Wallace? He was the only honest one who left for real. What about Jacky? Jacky had actually already left a long time ago. He used the side entrance to circle around front—opposite of what the other three did.

“You put salt in their drinks, you jerk,” Margaret chided Chris, placing the second glass onto the drying rack.

Chris shrugged. “I thought it was sugar.” He turned to Ehlo then. “You forgot to put labels on the jars, man.” Then he turned to Margaret again. “Lucky they didn’t drink it, huh?”

Margaret gave him a doubtful look and returned to the living room without another word. He followed her and tried to engage in conversation again.

“It literally said ‘salt’ on the jar,” Ehlo mumbled, eyeing Chris suspiciously.

“You know he did it on purpose,” Angela whispered. “Don’t need to ask.”

“What are we going to do now?” Ehlo asked, changing the subject and walking toward the living to sit at the sofa where Novia and Jun sat earlier. “Wait it out?”

Angela walked over and sat down next to Ehlo before responding. “Maybe we should do something.”

“I know, but what?”

Angela had crossed her legs on the sofa and was using her hands to support her face as she leaned forward. She was still thinking. “I don’t know.”

“Why does it feel so empty now that everything’s out in the open?” Chris asked, leaning back on the sofa.

“What did you expect the outcome would be then?” Margaret asked, looking over to him.

Chris was rubbing his neatly trimmed beard with one finger and was thinking. “Maybe a reunion?”

“That coward is not going to move things along faster, you know,” Ehlo said, also leaning forward and using his hands to support his face as well.

“You seriously can forgive him?” Margaret asked, turning to look between Ehlo and Angela.

“It wasn’t his fault, after all, you know,” Angela said. “But it’s only a sticky situation because of their relation to the brat.”

“We can’t choose our families anyway,” Ehlo agreed. “It’s not exactly like that, considering how they all were. But it’s not up to us to decide.”

“Then why didn’t you say all these when they were here?” Margaret asked, still eyeing them.

“Jun was being a top-notch asshole. I couldn’t let him off that easily.”

“I have to side with Ehlo on this one,” Chris jumped in.

“Of course, you would,” Margaret said, her voice edgy. “You’re both petty men.”

“Hey,” Ehlo said, straightening up in his seat again. “I don’t think people who live in glass houses should throw stones.”

Margaret turned to Ehlo then. “You’re saying I’m petty?”

“If you weren’t, would you have used the passive aggressive approach on them?”

“That’s right, Margaret,” Chris said, also turning to her. “Seriously? You believe in karma? Since when?”

Margaret didn’t look like she wanted to back down. She turned to Chris with an accusing finger. “You’re the one to talk. You’re suddenly Qiao’s brother? Her brother who disappeared for fourteen years?”

Like Margaret, Chris didn’t seem to be lost for words. “Oh, really? We’re counting days now? It doesn’t matter if I’m gone or not, they’ve been here, but couldn’t really do anything. Its not a matter of being around or not. It’s a matter of actually doing something when the time calls for it.”

“If you’re good with your reasoning, why did you leave me here with them?”

“I was upset, okay?”

“You just wanted to use the dramatic scene so you could exit without looking like you wanted to run away.”

“Guys,” Ehlo interfered, not believing that he had to be the peacemaker in this situation. “I don’t think we should be turning on ourselves.”

“Because Ehlo spoke up, so I’m letting you off,” Margaret said before Chris could argue further.

Chris had on the stun look. “Really?”

Margaret had on her proud smile. “Really.”

Ehlo and Angela exchanged a look then.

“So, what are we going to do now?” Chris asked, leaning back on the sofa again. He had leaned forward while arguing with Margaret earlier. So now that it was settled—sort of, he leaned back again.

“I don’t know,” Angela repeated her answer from earlier.

“I feel like we already have this conversation,” Ehlo said.

“We did, like five minutes back.”

“Probably ten,” Chris corrected her.

“So, now you want to talk about math?” Ehlo jumped in.

Chris shrugged.

“So, who was the one who told me not to turn on each other?” Margaret demanded.

“Thanks, Margaret.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I wasn’t really thanking you, you know.”

“Then why did you say it like that?”

“Maybe we can seek out those lame soaps and set them up again,” Angela said, wrinkling her face. Even she wasn’t buying it, but she felt like they were desperate enough. Maybe? She rubbed her nose before turning to look at the others. “Too much?”

Chris stared at her for a few more seconds before speaking up. “If you’re serious, I can make the sacrifice and hunt around for some clips. You know, do some research.”

“We know you like to watch soaps, stop pretending like you hate it,” Margaret said.

Ehlo shook his head. “Seriously.”

Chris threw up his hands then. “Okay, so we can’t all be perfect, right?”

Ehlo had on his amused look. “Sure, man, whatever helps you sleep at night.”

Chris chose to let that one go. He scanned the other three’s faces real quick before speaking up again. “So, we’re doing this, right?”

The other three nodded, finally on a united front.

© Monday, August 10th, 2020

Posted: Thursday, January 14th, 2021

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