As it turned out, they didn’t have to think up a plan. The plan just wandered into being on its own. Somehow, Tony invited them over for a little gathering the following Saturday. It was for CW’s birthday. According to Tony, CW’s mother was trying to get Tony’s mother to hold some kind of big feast for CW’s birthday. It was her way to introduce her now 36-year-old son into their circle as a shining star—or so they heard from Tony. However, Tony’s mother didn’t really entertain the idea with much thought. After much persistence from CW’s mother, Tony’s mother finally caved—slightly—and told Tony to pull something together. Like Tony was a miracle worker or something. In Tony’s defense, they barely told him like right after he left Wallace’s meeting. So, he had a one-week deadline to make. In the midst of all the craziness, he managed to think of a solution after talking to CW. Apparently, CW didn’t want to hold the so-called feast either. He was actually fine with not having any attention on him. Being the youngest in the household with three other brothers, he was used to them getting all the attention. And being the youngest, he was surprisingly not the spoiled brat among them—or so Tony had told the others before the gathering. Because of what Tony learned from CW, he had a brilliant solution out of the sticky situation and would also make both of their mothers happy. What was the solution? He told both of the mothers that it would be best to let CW have a party among his friends—which Tony would arrange the exclusive guest list to show credibility so the reporters wouldn’t write them off so easily. The little exclusive gathering would also show CW’s assertive nature. Not to mention his consistency with his independence of breaking out of his family business to make a name for himself thus far by working his way up and becoming a general manager of a major company. Tony was so convincing with his speech that even CW was in awe of the whole thing. Well, almost. CW knew all along what it was about when Tony gathered them up the night before to present his plan. Tony had called CW up two nights before to talk about that, reminding CW to play along.

So, that was how they ended up at the same party. Well, most of them were. Bryant and company, except for Derek, didn’t come. Actually, Derek didn’t want to come either because he was still torn, but Eddie had convinced him to come. The reason why Eddie had bothered to convince Derek in the first place was because he knew Derek would blab to Bryant when he got home. Eddie had also convinced Janine to come. She was hesitant at first, but Eddie reminded her who the host was, and he wanted to get her out of the apartment for some air—aside from her work environment that was.

“Thanks for coming on such short notice, guys,” Tony said, gesturing toward the general crowd. “I know not everyone here knows Chris, so I’ll began by introducing him and then let him say a few words to us.”

“Great,” Ehlo mumbled. “We get to hear how he feeds the homeless on his free time, and how he kisses babies at the local hospitals too.”

Angela jabbed him in the sides at that time. Chris—the one with Margaret—was actually standing to the left of Ehlo, so he saw that and ended up laughing. He had leaned on Ehlo for support because he was laughing a little too hard and was trying to cover the laugh with his left hand.

“You sort of had that one coming,” Chris whispered as Ehlo rubbed his sides.

“Oh, grow up,” Ehlo snapped, elbowing Chris in the sides.

“Told you, still growing.”

“Would you two stop?” Margaret chided both.

Although they were exchanging those words, because they were way in the back and were whispering, they didn’t really disturb the crowd. Only some of the people near the back heard them and had chosen not to react—at least at the moment for CW’s sake.

“Thanks, everyone,” CW said then, flashing on his warm smile like some of them once witnessed at Tony and Esther’s wedding. “Tony already covered most of the facts about me, so I wouldn’t want to waste any more of your time. I just want to say I really appreciate you all for coming here today to celebrate with me.”

“So polite,” Ehlo mumbled.

Angela turned to glare at Ehlo again.

Ehlo threw his hands up, looking all innocent. Like he was seriously confused as to why Angela was giving him such a hard time. “What? I just gave him a compliment.”

Angela ignored him then and walked toward where Sonia was standing with Jacky and Wallace. They were standing a little closer to where Tony and CW were.

“What did I do wrong?” Ehlo asked, his face showing legit confusion.

“Really, Ehlo?” Tony’s voice asked then, his tone mocking.

Ehlo had forgotten to whisper or at least keep his voice at a low tone so everyone had heard him. That was why the side conversations had also died down. It wasn’t like they were all tuning into Tony and CW’s speeches the whole time. But most at least kept it at minimal. Ehlo’s group was the only one showing signs of obstruction. Tony, of course, had seen some of the commotions but had chosen to ignore it previously. Since Ehlo was offering himself up for criticism now, Tony couldn’t really ignore it anymore.

“Nothing to see here, everyone,” Ehlo said, waving and smiling innocently at everyone present. “We should be focusing on CW, right? It’s his birthday after all.”

“Right,” Tony said, not the least bit convinced. “Since you have so much to say, why don’t you come up here and tell us your story of meeting Chris?”

“Not necessary, right?” Ehlo asked, his face looked like he was testing the water—like he wanted to see if Tony was serious.

Tony had on his serious look.

“Okay then,” Ehlo said, putting on his charming smile to disarm all the stares coming at him as he made his way up front—mostly Angela and her dagger look. It was harder to do that when Chris had clapped him on the shoulder for encouragement before he made this journey. He knew Chris was far from being helpful or supportive. “Coming through, everyone.”

Wallace had sent Ehlo a thumbs-up signal as Ehlo had already made it up front and was standing in between CW and Tony at that point, licking his lips—and stalling for time. From Wallace’s smile, it was far from supportive—just like how Chris’ clap wasn’t meant to be helpful.

“Hi, everyone,” Ehlo began. “So, everyone already knows about Chris’ history, right?” He even ended up wrapping a hand around CW’s shoulder to act like they were best buddies or something—to which CW was too polite to deny him of the gesture. “Of course, you all know who I am.”

“Nice progress so far, Huang,” Wallace jabbed, his smile still as mischievous as ever. “Might want to move along a tad faster or we might have to stand here until midnight.”

Ehlo gave Wallace a dirty look before turning to CW again. “So, anyway, we met at Tony and Yan’s wedding, see? Some of you were there when it happened. He was so heroic in his act, leaping forward to rescue our Sonia out of danger. Or you know what would happen if he hadn’t done that.” Ehlo finally released his grip on CW’s shoulder and actually ended up trying to reenact the scene. “He was like a prince charming sweeping in and carrying her out of there like a princess. And then…”

At the mention of Sonia, CW had looked toward her way and shared a smile with her. Somehow, they ended up tuning Ehlo out with their silent conversation.

“So, anyway,” Ehlo said. “That’s the story. We now call him CW, you know, because ‘Still Chris’ over there doesn’t want to change his name.”

Chris, having enjoyed the show so far, was smiling and crossing his arms—with the exception of popcorn. However, when he heard Ehlo mentioned him, his smile turned off. It was like he knew what was coming. Having known Ehlo for almost a year already—and having stayed at Ehlo and Angela’s place for a while, he had managed to establish some kind of pattern for Ehlo’s behaviors. As to confirm his worries, he saw Ehlo gesturing toward his direction.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Chris muttered.

“You knew he was coming for you,” Margaret said, her smile showing no sympathy.

“So, uh, Still Chris, why don’t you come up here and tell everyone how you met CW here,” Ehlo said at that time.

By that time, Wallace was almost hysterical. He wasn’t the least bit worried about being called up since he knew Ehlo’s pattern. Ehlo would only sacrifice one person at a time. Even Ehlo wasn’t that brutal with dragging this thing out until midnight.

At that moment, Chris had already made his way up front and nodded at CW, remembering to show his shining smile as well. But as soon as he turned toward Ehlo, he had given Ehlo a dirty look. It was almost like the one Ehlo sent Wallace earlier. Of course, CW didn’t see it since Chris’ back was to him at that time. Ehlo was smiling now, feeling like he got the upper hand.

“So, have at it, Still Chris,” Ehlo said, gesturing his hand like he was passing the torch along.

After saying that, Ehlo exited safely out of the spotlight and stationed himself next to Tony who was now standing next to Wallace. Wallace remembered to send Ehlo another thumbs-up as their eyes met. Ehlo, of course, sent him another dirty look. Tony, being the one in the middle of them both, saw that he wasn’t going to win this one, so he ended up switching places with Ehlo. No way was he going to catch that bullet if they ended up fighting.

“So,” They heard Chris said at that time. “Well, it’s nothing to tell really since we did meet each other around the same time that Ehlo and the others met Chris here. Funniest thing, we have the same name, so there was a little confusion initially.” He sounded almost like Ehlo, the same stalling method and his eyes were scanning the crowd to see who was “it”—aka the next person to be dragged up to the stage. “Anyway, nothing to talk about really, except, did our Princess Sonia even have time to thank Prince Charming here for his heroic acts yet?”

That was when Chris literally walked toward Sonia and pulled her out of the crowd and walked her back toward CW. Although Sonia was feeling a little uncomfortable with everyone staring at her, but she stepped forward anyway. It was like CW’s warm smiles and caring eyes had reassured her. Chris also took that time to signal toward Ehlo as well, sending him a challenging look. Ehlo had glared back at him for pulling that one. Yet Chris ignored him and turned back to the crowd.

“Anyway, why don’t we mingle among ourselves while they chat and sort out what happened that day, right?” Chris said, gesturing his hands—attempting to dismiss the crowd.

Tony took that time to step up also since Chris was making his way out of the limelight.

“That’s right, everyone,” Tony said. “Please go ahead and make yourselves at home. Also, if you need anything, feel free to ask me or Yan.”

“How do you like that one, huh?” Chris asked when they were far away from the main commotion and everyone else had dispersed already.

“Do you want me to strangle you right here and now?” Ehlo shot back. “Because that’s how you get strangled.”

“What?” Chris returned. “You threw me under the bus.”

“You didn’t have to laugh so hard earlier.”

Chris had on a confused look. “I was laughing? Have you seen Wallace? He was literally standing in front of you.”

“Just because you covered your mouth didn’t mean I couldn’t see you.”

“Again, have you seen Wallace? I was already polite with my laugh.”

“Polite, huh? Get out of here, man.”

“Would you two stop it already?” Angela interfered then. “Why don’t you two separate for a while? It might be good for the rest of our health and well-being.”

After saying that, Angela walked away from them, claiming she was going to find Bianca to catch up. Ehlo and Chris exchanged a look between the two of them before shrugging. Then they separated—like told—and managed to find other groups to mingle with.

About fifteen minutes later, Ehlo was seen talking to Jacky and Wallace. More accurately, he was in some heated debate with Wallace about something. Jacky did not even know why that was even a thing that they were arguing about, but he chose to stay and see what else was going on. Just in case he needed to separate them—if it came to that. The way Ehlo saw it, Angela only told him to stay away from Chris. She didn’t tell him to stay away from Wallace, so she couldn’t blame him for this one, right?

“No way in hell would that be true,” Ehlo said after another five minutes later.

“All right, Huang, you want proof?” Wallace asked. “I’ll show you the proof.”

Ehlo gestured his hand in an inviting way. “Please do.”

“Kris, could you come here real quick, please?”

Ehlo didn’t know who Wallace was calling over but his annoyed expression was obvious. “I hate Chris so much.”

“Hey, I didn’t do anything to you,” Kris protested, walking toward them at that time. “Why are you hating on me?”

That was when Ehlo realized he’d been wrong. And yes, Kris had come back from one of his photoshoot trips and managed to join them at this gathering. Andy had called Tony to confirm, so the others could be prepared with the head count and all.

“Sorry,” Ehlo said, clapping Kris’ shoulder. “Not you, I misunderstood. You know there are two other Chris here, right?”

Kris looked like he wasn’t convinced. The reason why he was usually suspicious of Ehlo was because Ehlo wouldn’t apologize that easily. He would argue through next Tuesday before admitting he was wrong. “Which one are you hating on then?”

“Which Chris?”

Kris nodded.

“Is there anything wrong?” A familiar voice asked then.

That was when Ehlo turned around to see CW walking over to them. He had temporarily separated from Sonia and was making his round around the room to check on different guests. Even if he knew the majority were friends of Tony, but it was a habit that he made sure to check on them. After all, they were Sonia’s friends after all, so he wanted to find out more about them.

“No, of course not,” Ehlo said, flashing on his overly charming smile. Seconds ago when he realized CW was within hearing range, he had actually clutched his heart and looked like he was going to faint. Luckily, he recovered in time when CW was closer. “Nothing exciting going on over here. We’re just catching up on old time. Oh, he’s also Kris, but slightly different spelling. Did you meet him yet? He’s also a model like Johnny.”

CW nodded at Kris then and they shook hands.

“Anyway, small world, right?” Ehlo said, still trying to think up of what to talk about—like he was ever tongue-tied or anything.

“So small,” Wallace agreed, though his smile said otherwise. He wasn’t mocking CW but was aiming it at Ehlo.

“Something wrong?” CW repeated his question from earlier. “Honestly, just tell me if there’s anything.”

Ehlo turned on his charming smile again. “No, why would there be anything going on?”

“I overheard you saying you hate ‘Chris’ and I’m sorry to intrude, but I don’t want some misunderstanding to affect us in the future.”

Ehlo shook his head. “Come on, man. Why would I hate you? I meant…Still Chris, get over here.”

Yes, he had spotted Chris talking to someone and was forced to call him over.

“You know you can just call me ‘Chris’, right?” Chris reminded Ehlo. Then he saw CW. “Hey, what’s up? You enjoying your birthday? Don’t mind Ehlo, he’s weird, but harmless for the most part.”

CW smiled at Chris’ attempt at humor. “I’m fine. But I think there has been some sort of misunderstanding.”

Chris covered a yawn at that time. “Sorry, I had a long day today. What’s the problem?”

“I overheard him say he hates ‘Chris’ so I’m just trying to find out if there’s any misunderstanding here. We only met one time and now gathered here because Tony was nice enough to help me. So, I do not want to cause any hardships for him or his friends.”

“Of course, we do not have any problem with you, man,” Ehlo said, grabbing Chris by the shoulder that time. “I meant I hate him.”

Chris smiled then, not minding that Ehlo was throwing him under the bus—for now. “I can vouch for that. He makes sure to tell me that constantly, sometimes on the hourly bases. If I’m not around, I’m pretty sure he tells others that too.”

Ehlo let go of Chris’ shoulder then and pointed at Chris instead. “See? You heard it from the man himself.”

CW looked between Ehlo and Chris, not really convinced, considering how both were smiling so bright. He wasn’t sure if they were teasing him or if they didn’t know what the word ‘hate’ meant so they were using it in the wrong context.

“Know why he hates me?” Chris asked, seeing how CW wasn’t too convinced.

“No need to say anything in front of the man when it’s his birthday,” Ehlo said, gritting his teeth. “Those boring details, you know, keep ‘em to yourself.”

It was like Chris didn’t hear Ehlo—or had chosen to ignore him—because he went right on. “You remember Angela, right? Sonia’s friend?”

CW nodded.

“I’m her first love, so of course, Ehlo hates me.”

CW still didn’t look like he bought it. Although Ehlo’s smile had turned off, it didn’t look too bad. And it was like Chris could see that as well. Luckily, he saw Angela walking by with Margaret at that time.

“Xiao Han!” Chris yelled, causing several people to turn around and look at him too.

That loud commotion had also earned him dagger looks from Angela. She, of course, walked over with Margaret. Margaret had also made sure to send Chris one of her disbelief looks.

“What do you want?” Angela asked, looking between Ehlo and Chris. “I thought I told you two to separate before you kill each other.”

“See?” Chris said, gesturing toward CW. “Proof.”

That was when Angela realized CW was there too. She and Margaret turned to greet him.

“Sorry about that,” Angela said, embarrassed. “These two are always up to no good. I hope they didn’t prank you or anything.” Angela rolled her eyes for emphasis. “I’ll talk to them later.”

CW shook his head. “It was just a misunderstanding on my part. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

They exchanged some more words before CW moved on to another group. When CW was out of sight and earshot already, Angela turned to the guys.

“Seriously? Can’t you behave for two seconds?”

“He called me over, it wasn’t my fault,” Chris defended himself.

“Yeah, I don’t care. Break it up, okay?”

Chris saluted. “Yes, ma’am.”

Margaret shook her head at Chris in disbelief again. “I can’t believe you.”

“Hey, Margaret, wait for me,” Chris called after her as she turned to leave.

Margaret didn’t say anything but continued to walk away from them. Chris followed her and they somehow ended up talking about something else.

“So, that was fun,” Wallace said, having stood to one side with Jacky and Kris to watch only. He had some side conversations with them, so it didn’t seem like they were spying on the three, but other than that, they were nearby.

“Haha, Huo,” Ehlo snapped.

Although Ehlo looked like he wanted to start another fight with Wallace, but he ended up scanning the room instead. Then he gestured toward the others to move away from that area as well. He had made sure CW wasn’t going in the same direction as them.

“I hate him so much,” Ehlo said, remembering to whisper this time—in case someone overheard him like the last time. “Why does he have to be so likable? Even I love him. Who could blame Sonia if she says yes to his marriage proposal right now?”

The others displayed their amused expression. Even Angela was surprised, considering how she was ready to scold him for being mean when she heard the first part. However, she realized Jacky was also with them, so she turned to him, her face concerned. Jacky had sent her a smile.

“Seriously?” Eddie’s voice asked at that time.

They turned to see Eddie nearby with Janine. It seemed like he overheard Ehlo.

“What?” Ehlo asked, looking at Eddie, not threatened.

“You’re obsessing over the new guy?” Eddie pointed out.

Ehlo wasn’t embarrassed by Eddie’s comment. “Coming from you? You were obsessing over Ambrose too, you know.”

“Come on, you guys,” Andy interfered. “Let’s not do this right now.”

Andy had somehow wandered over to their area as well, so he thought he interfered.

Ehlo shrugged. “What do you suggest we do then?”

“Anything but all the senseless arguments?”

“Okay then.” Then he realized Janine was staring at him. He turned his sly smile off before saying, “Can we talk?”

Janine had on the unsure look. She had turned to Eddie. Eddie shrugged, not knowing what to make of it either.

“If you want,” Eddie said, knowing he needed to say something. “I’ll be nearby just in case.”

“I promise I won’t do anything stupid this time,” Ehlo said. “I just want to talk.” Then he shrugged again. “But if you don’t feel comfortable, I wouldn’t want to force you either.”

Janine looked like she was reconsidering it. She finally nodded.

Ehlo gestured toward one direction. “Balcony?”

“Angela jie and Jacky just went out there to talk,” Andy informed Ehlo.

That was when Ehlo realized Jacky and Angela were gone. He wrinkled his face. “Really?”

“Really,” Wallace confirmed, seeing how Ehlo was looking at him.

Ehlo scratched his head before looking at Janine. “How about the deck?”

Janine nodded. “Okay.”

*****

What did Angela and Jacky talk about out in the balcony? And why were they talking in the first place? Apparently, Angela was the one who initiated the talk after realizing Ehlo’s joke might be going too far. She made sure that the door was close and they had some privacy before she began.

“So, you all right?” She asked, gesturing in the general direction. “You know how Ehlo is.”

Jacky smiled and nodded. And also felt it a bit amusing that Angela should be explaining about Ehlo’s behaviors to him. They grew up together after all. Of course, Jacky knew how Ehlo was. Yet he knew Angela was worried for him, so he didn’t want to shoot her down just because. He walked a little closer to the ledge and leaned on it, looking down at the streets below. The night was really setting in. He was trying to find the right word to begin. He was thinking about what Ehlo said, but not in the context that Angela thought. Angela, seeming to be more patient than previously, waited. The only thing she did was followed suit, stepping toward the ledge and leaning on it. She was also looking down at the streets below. It was a nice view.

“Angela,” Jacky said suddenly. He was looking at her now—and waited for her to look at him before saying anything. “Have you ever really forgiven me?

Angela wrinkled her face in confusion. “What?”

“What Ehlo said the other day. I didn’t really leave yet. I knew he was joking when he made that comment about my temper being the reason for your breakup with Wallace. And I knew we talked about it a long time ago after Sonia and I got together. But what Ehlo said the other day, it just brought back a lot of things into mind. Did you just let it go for Sonia’s sake? Because we were already together? Then it got even more complicated when you and Ehlo got together. So…”

Jacky knew he was rambling, but he felt like if he didn’t get it out that night, he was never going to have a chance again.

“You think that I made peace with you because of the circumstances we were in? Because it was only right to just shove it under the carpet just for the sake of everyone?”

“I…”

Angela could see Jacky’s reluctant look. She was waiting for him to continue.

“I know it’s so wrong to talk about it now, considering how it happened a long time already, and we’ve all moved on now, especially how you’re already happily married to Ehlo. But…I just had to wonder, you know.”

“If you think I would fake forgiveness or gloss past the issues for the sake of everyone, then you haven’t known me at all.”

Jacky wanted to leap to defend him, yet he resisted the urge. He knew he needed to listen to her. She paused and looked toward the streets below them real quick—as if collecting her thoughts—before looking at him again.

“I like to say that I’ve grown and matured to the point that I could just take some moral high ground as easily as some people out there. But the thing is, I’ve always been the same. Sure, I learned some things and moved on, but if I haven’t come to term with things, I wouldn’t let it go. The thing about me and Ehlo is, we’re clear about our intentions.”

Jacky nodded, understanding too well, especially the part about Ehlo.

“Although you see us always fighting or what it seems on the surface, it’s not like that at all. Sure, it’s mostly for the sake of harmony with others, and at times necessary. But other than that, I feel like we’re more honest with each other and other people and that’s a good thing. I come to realize that I don’t like those mind games and it’s better to say it out than just keep guessing. If we’re in a relationship where we have to keep being careful or hold back like that, it’s going to fail one way or another down the road. We can’t just tiptoe around one another forever, right?”

Jacky nodded again. “You’re right.”

“So, I think you did Wallace and me a favor. We kept going back and forth with our differences and could never work it out. Then we would somehow shove those problems aside for the sake of peace or so others would think we get along. It became really tiring. It was just that I loved him so much at that time that I didn’t even realize what we were doing to each other. At least, I thought I loved him, but it was just the idea of having someone like him. It was weird, because maybe I didn’t go through that phase in high school although I had Chris. We were practically buddies and only used each other as shields to fend off other interested pursuers.” She stopped and smiled at the memory. “That was why I never really minded that Chris brought up the breakup after we graduated from high school. It was like we knew it was coming one day, but it was just a matter of when. We were done and we were free to do whatever with our future.” Her smile faded then and she was looking down at the streets below again. “So, you can say Wallace was actually my first serious boyfriend. That was why it was much harder to let go when the breakup happened. It took me several more years to realize that I was just punishing myself for holding on to that impossible past for so long. When I finally could see it more clearly, it felt less suffocating. To be completely cliché, it was like something lifted off my chest and I was able to breathe again.” She turned to look at Jacky at that time. Her smile was bright again. “So, here we are.”

Jacky smiled also, feeling much better. “Thanks for telling me.”

Angela placed a hand on Jacky’s then. “The reason why I told you all of these today isn’t to brag about how I overcame the worst.”

“I know.”

“It’s just that what’s happening lately, I wanted to know if you’re really all right.”

It was Jacky’s turn to be confused.

“I know you and Sonia had that talk last year at Uncle Ben’s and it seemed like you’ve overcome the worst. But…lately with Sonia…” She gestured toward the door for emphasis. “I know it must hurt.”

Jacky smiled then, shaking his head. “I thought you said you knew Ehlo.”

Angela recognized that mischievous smile. She hit his hand. “What? I’m trying to be supportive here.”

Jacky turned off his smirk. “And I’m thankful for that, but the thing is…”

Angela’s anxiousness increased even more. “What?”

“Ehlo and Wallace got it wrong. They all got it wrong.”

“About?”

“About me still carrying a torch for Sonia.”

“But Ehlo said the way you looked at Sonia and how you reacted at the wedding when you saw Sonia and Chris were staring at each other during the ceremony and…”

Jacky licked his lips and he turned serious again, no more mischievous sparks in his eyes. “I wasn’t jealous of them in a sense that I was still having feelings for Sonia.”

“Then…?”

“It was just that…I was jealous of everyone.”

“Everyone?”

Jacky nodded. “It’s hard to admit, but I felt like I got left behind. Everyone found their happiness already, and I felt like I missed something or didn’t do enough. The reason why it seemed like Sonia and I were back to where we were ten years ago was because…”

“What?” Angela knew Jacky was having a hard time sharing his vulnerabilities, but he was going too slow for her sake. “You know I won’t judge you.”

Jacky was looking down—as if in shame. But now that he heard Angela say that, he looked at her again.

“Misery loves company,” He finally said.

Angela wrinkled her face in confusion again. It wasn’t like she didn’t understand the phrase, but she was wondering how context would play into his situation.

“It’s wrong of me, I know,” Jacky said, looking down again. “But when she said she was getting divorced, I felt like I had someone to share that pain with. I meant like ‘Hey, we have something in common now’ kind of thing, you know.”

Angela nodded, finally understanding. “That was why you initially avoided her and us.”

Jacky nodded also. “I was torn. I was both ashamed and glad at that time. Ashamed because what I just told you, why was I celebrating for her misery? Glad because I had someone to share with.”

“You still miss Sophia?”

Jacky had to think about it a bit before shaking his head. “I don’t know. Sometimes, I feel like I really missed her, even before she came back and eventually left.”

Angela nodded.

“But it was like a sense of companionship and having someone instead of loving her like she deserved.” Jacky gestured toward the general direction. “Not really coming off as the candidate of the year for anything, huh?”

Angela smiled, just a light smile—like she understood—and not out of mockery. “I think it’s normal to want companionship.”

Jacky sighed out. “I think after I calmed down and didn’t make the whole situation about myself, I realized I was more relieved than ever.”

Angela waited in silence this time, not contributing.

“Relieved that Sophia was able to get away from us. Okay, maybe just mostly me.”

“You want her to leave?”

Jacky shook his head. “Not necessarily like that. But more like I was glad she left, for her sake, you know. Because she was just wasting her time. I didn’t really love her like how I said so loudly that one time, trying to stop everyone from turning on each other because of what I did. I was just being dramatic.” Jacky smiled then, a pitiful one. “And I said Ehlo was dramatic, huh?” He sighed out. “I’m just glad she found the happiness that she deserved.”

Angela placed her hand on Jacky’s again. “You need to stop beating yourself up for your past.” She sighed out and looked at the night sky this time instead of the streets below them. “I thought we’ve gone past this already, after that talk you had with Sonia. But it seems like…”

Jacky had on his troubled look. “I thought so too, but after what happened to Qiao, I couldn’t help feeling so helpless about everything in general. I’m just really tired of everything. I feel like I regressed instead of progress and we’re like stuck in a loop or something.” His expression changed then. “But you know what made me feel better? If just a little, that was.”

“What?”

“Yelling at Jun.”

“Huh?”

“I know it’s wrong to take it out on him, because we were all petty as hell. But it was like I had enough. I no longer cared to keep myself in check anymore. I think it was like what you said, the whole tiptoeing around each other. In a way, Ehlo was right, I was back, but in the way that not everyone could accept.”

“It’s not up to you to make them like you. It’s up to them whether they want to accept you or not. Besides…”

Jacky turned to her again. And waited.

“I like you better when you have a little balance in you.” She had on her teasing smile, so Jacky knew she was kidding. “You having so much restraint within you isn’t good, especially if it’s just a façade. That would only eat you from the inside and then one day you will explode just like that.”

Jacky smiled. “More predictable, huh?”

Angela nodded.

As if they were finished—or felt like they didn’t need to say anything more, both looked up at the stars above at the same time, wondering about tomorrow. If only life were that easy, but they at least knew they said what was needed to be said.

*****

As for Ehlo and Janine, they had to go through a crowd to get to the back door. Eddie actually had followed them, making sure everything was all right—like Ehlo promised. He didn’t want to chance it. Even if he trusted Ehlo, he knew he needed to show Janine some support. Once they were outside though, Eddie made sure to find a spot out of earshot but also within eyesight so he could see where they were.

“I know it’s eight months late,” Ehlo said when they stopped under a decorative lamp of some sort. “But I still wanted to do this properly.”

There was a table and some chairs around there, a nice garden set really, but they did not sit down in it. Instead, they were sitting at a ledge nearby. There were some vines of bougainvillea wrapping around the area behind them, so it created some sort of boundary for the property and also provided somewhat of a feeling for privacy.

“What do you want to know?” Janine asked, her composure unusually calm compared to how she reacted to him since their fallout.

Ehlo hesitated, pondering why he was such a coward at that time. It was such a crucial time. Or was it because of that so he needed to be careful? So he needed to choose his words more carefully? “Most of what happened, Margaret already recounted what Novia told her and Chris. I later asked Jacky and the others to verify, so it’s not that.”

Janine had on her confused look. “Then what?”

Ehlo let out a long sigh before answering. “When Novia and Jun came that day, there were a lot of things tossed around and how heated it got. But it wasn’t for nothing. I think it’s only fair to say that we weren’t any better with trying to patch things up. I shouldn’t have said all those things to you, whether I was drunk or not. It was a miracle Tony and Yan didn’t kick me out of that wedding. I meant those people who almost killed Sonia because of their carelessness got kicked out, right?”

Janine smiled, knowing Ehlo was trying. “I think I was half responsible for what happened that night too.”

Ehlo rubbed a spot behind his neck. “I doubt it.”

“You definitely don’t remember anything; how could you be so sure?”

“Because I know me, whether drunk or sober, I have a terrible temper. Hot-headedness is just a nice way for others to pave me out as some passionate guy. It’s not a thing, really. Sometimes, it’s hard to admit, but I know it.”

Janine had on a surprised look then. It wasn’t like she didn’t believe he was capable of apologizing. After all, like he said, it had been eight months already. Why now? It made sense if everyone wanted to attempt to patch things after the truth had come out. But why did he have to admit his flaws now? Or more like confide with her about his vulnerabilities?

“Not used to me attempting to be philosophical?” Ehlo asked, not used to her being all quiet. He had on a light smile. “I know, you guys are more used to Wallace being the intelligent one, huh?”

Janine shook her head. “It’s not that. Maybe I just underestimated you a little.”

Ehlo turned on his sly expression again. “Just a little?”

Janine shook her head again. “You can’t be serious for long, huh?”

Ehlo shrugged. “So, what are we going to do? How are we going to go from here? Keep a distance until everyone can move on? Or should we attempt to somehow meet halfway?”

Janine shook her head again. It was like that was her latest habit. “I don’t know either. But can I ask you something?”

Ehlo nodded, gesturing his hand.

“How can you be so calm now when you wanted to tear everyone’s head off like before last week?”

Ehlo shrugged. “I don’t know. Thank Jacky.”

Janine had on her confused look again.

“I was so frustrated, and it seemed like nothing we did could get through Qiao or Bryant. It was worst that Qiao didn’t trust us to talk to us anymore. I knew I messed up really bad that day for what I did in front of Tang Feng’s grave. But my anger just got the better of me. I just wanted to find out what was wrong. I mean, the guy had no skeleton in his closet, or so we assumed, suddenly he just cut everything off like that? I felt like I was fighting my own battle, acting like a madman, but someone had to do it. But when Jacky had his outburst the other day, I realized I didn’t have to do what I did. The others were worried too, but they didn’t go to such extremes. Why did I have to act like I needed to prove anything? Like I needed to win some world title against the others or something. As soon as I realized that, I was able to calm down. And because…”

“Because?”

Ehlo had looked toward the path leading out to the main streets when he was saying the previous words, but now he turned back to look at Janine again. “Because I seriously don’t want all of us to have another fallout like we did after Wallace and Angela broke up.”

Janine had on her surprised look again. “It’s hard to believe you ever had any type of fallout before. I meant, okay, several years ago, we did participate in that petty stuff when Sonia came back, but… still hard to imagine before that.”

Ehlo smiled. “We’ve been a little better these past five years or so, if you can believe that. Because if it wasn’t for Qiao, Yan, Chen Yi, and Xiao Yu, I don’t think we’ve patched things like we did after that big fallout over ten years ago.”

“It was that bad?”

Ehlo nodded. “It was that bad. And you won’t believe it, but it wasn’t my fault that time.”

“Who was responsible then?”

Ehlo smiled. “Jacky. He had enough of Wallace and Angela’s pretentious relationship—his words—that he called them out on it. They had a big fight and broke up. Angela said she never wanted to see us again and left. She went home. That was before we met Qiao and the other three. Because they still had school and stuff, so they weren’t active in our lives. Like seriously, who wants to hang around with a bunch of college kids anyway, right?”

Janine smiled and shook her head, knowing Ehlo was attempting to lighten the mood with his jokes again. “That’s what the college kids would say about high school kids, you know.”

Ehlo laughed. “Yes, they would.” Then his expression turned serious again. “Jacky wasn’t proud of what he did after Angela left. But Wallace said it wasn’t his fault. I knew Jacky always blamed himself. That was also partially why he’d been restrained in his behaviors and words after all these years.”

“But if Angela and Wallace haven’t broken up, you wouldn’t end up with Angela, right?” Janine reasoned.

Ehlo smiled. “Yeah, but we didn’t think that far at that time. But I think Qiao changed most of that with her sudden presence in our lives.”

“How did you guys meet her? I don’t think I ever heard you mentioned it.”

Ehlo smiled again, his eyes wandering—as if remembering back to that particular time. “I got a call from Jacky to meet him at this boutique. Qiao came out in this fancy dress. She looked like a princess who walked right out from a fairyland and into our world. It was kind of unforgettable, really. But then she opened her mouth and then the spell was broken.”

Janine laughed. She couldn’t help but slap him on his hand upon seeing his expression.

“It wasn’t that bad, was it? I heard you used to like her.”

Ehlo nodded, admitting his guilt. “I think it was just a slight crush because she was so innocent and full of life. Like it was unreal. But that was it. She was just different from the people in our world, so several of us were fascinated by her, that was all.”

“I sense backpedaling.” Her tone was teasing.

Ehlo smiled and shrugged. “I guess it’s easy to look back at it now and think differently.” Then he turned serious again, his attention back on her. “But about your brother…”

Janine wrinkled her face.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to attack him, not anymore. We all got past baggage, right? I’m not judging. It’s just that, I think he needs to let it go. You too.”

“What?” She thought he meant regarding the relationship with Joanne so that was why she was confused when he mentioned her.

“Of your past.”

“It’s easier said than done. After all, we did accidentally let that brat go.”

“You only posted bail that one time. The records and evidence were still there. You weren’t powerful enough to do anything besides from a temporary solution at that particular moment. Your stepfather, on the other hand, broke through all the barriers and used his power to throw his weight around. He was the actual party responsible for it. You don’t need them, move on with your lives. Trust me on this one, I understand more about that complicated high-class society than you or Bryant could imagine. It’s not easy. If you’re able to pull out of it, don’t look back.”

Although Ehlo was serious, Janine ended up smiling.

Ehlo looked at her with suspicious eyes. “What?”

“You talk like you’re some old man, just sitting there on his porch, telling stories of your time.”

Ehlo shrugged. “Jacky and I made a pact when we were fifteen that we wouldn’t rely on family ever again. We were able to keep that pact until now. I don’t see why we’re looking back.”

Janine wrinkled her face. “That serious?”

Ehlo nodded. “I don’t like to talk about my family much. It’s not like they’re abusive or anything. I know Jacky and I were move privileged than most, growing up with everything we could ever wanted. But the necessary evil of mingling with those type of people, it wasn’t what we wanted, so we know we rather get out there and fight the whole world than be stuck around in that small circle.”

“But you were fifteen, how could you make your decision so soon?”

Ehlo smiled. “It sounds cliché, like one of those soaps that Chis loves to watch.” Ehlo stopped again to laugh. “I’ll never get over that one. That man does love his soaps.” He turned serious again before continuing with the main story. “Anyway, we had this classmate in our class, his parents worked really hard for him to be able to go to our school. It was a really good one, most who graduated from there ended up going to very credible universities. One time, his dad was hospitalized and needed a long time to recover after surgery. Their savings were really draining, so that classmate had to take on more jobs just for his family to get by. The reason why we even knew about that was because he fainted one time in class and we took him to the nurse station. We even insisted on taking him to the hospital. He told us no because he couldn’t afford to rest. After learning that, we pooled our money together to help him. You know what he said?”

“Thank you?”

Ehlo shook his head. “He said we didn’t need to pity him or treat him like a charity case so we could brag to our friends.”

“Why would he think that?”

“It was because we were never friends anyway. We usually would hang around with the same people that were kids of our parents’ friends. So it was like an inner circle. It wasn’t like Jacky and I were bullies or anything. We just attended class, did our work, and went home. You know, routine. But because those so-called friends of ours were acting like elites, like there was some exclusive club, it caused a lot of resentment from the other classmates. If it wasn’t because that classmate fainted in front of us, our teacher wouldn’t have asked us to take him to get medical help. So, that was how we knew him. Through him, we learned to be more aware of our surroundings. I meant we weren’t bullies, but we were considered really spoiled with how we splurge on stuff, you know. It was about time we stepped out of our comfort zone. Although that classmate didn’t take our money or accept our help, we still wanted to help. Somehow, we managed to locate his home.” He saw Janine eyeing him suspiciously. “Okay, so we stalked him after class, okay? Happy?” He saw her expression less judging, so he continued again in a serious manner. “Anyway, we went home later and took our model car collections and sold it. We took the money to his house and talked directly to his parents, saying that we wanted to help, and it was a loan, not charity. We just wanted to help the classmate while he was in class. He was really mad at us for even telling his parents about him working after school hours. They didn’t know, because they wanted him to focus on school. He lied to them about getting a loan from his aunt, at least until his mom was able to find something to substitute their income while his dad recovered. After he was done scolding us, we told him that he was being silly, wasting his parents’ effort by being stubborn. We convinced all three of them to accept our money for the time being until his father was well again and was able to provide some sort of income like before.”

“So, what happen after that?”

Ehlo had looked out to the streets again. He stayed quiet for a little while before turning to Janine like before. “After that? We ditched those elite assholes and hung around with him fulltime. We never looked back. Oh yeah, Jacky and I made that pact I mentioned earlier after we left that classmate’s house that night. His parents wanted to invite us to stay for dinner. It was good, fish soup with some fried tofu. The best ever, no one could beat her cooking. I told the classmate, that was the sole reason why we hung around him since then. His mom’s cooking saved him a spot in the club we just formed.”

“Don’t tell your mom that,” Janine joked, seeing Ehlo’s excitement while describing the food.

Ehlo smiled. “If she cooks. I love her, but she can’t cook to save her life. My dad’s the one who could cook a little, but not any better. They tried.”

They laughed at the joke.

“So, I guess all around a happy ending? I mean, you learned some lessons and earned a friend. Not to mention, the dad recovered, right?”

Ehlo had on his mocking expression. “This isn’t a Disney movie. Even so, Disney movies usually have a twist.”

Janine wrinkled her face. “Why, what happened? Did the father not recovered?”

“He recovered all right. But unfortunately, he and his wife passed away after a car accident when we were in college. We were in class at that time when someone came in to inform the classmate what happened. Well, they pulled him out of class, and we had a feeling something was wrong, so we tagged along.”

Janine gasped, not expecting such an ending. She covered her mouth with her hand. “How could it be so…”

“So tragic? Yeah, it was tragic.”

“So, what happened after that? Don’t tell me it was like those soaps that you slowly drifted away, not knowing how things are now. Or if he still lives around the area…or…”

Ehlo smiled. “Don’t worry, as tragic as things were, we got past it. We still kept in contact with him.”

“Oh? How is he doing now? Good, I hope? Where is he now?”

Ehlo’s smile had turned a little mischievous. “As good as can be. He’s inside. You can ask him yourself.”

Janine’s expression was beyond surprised at that point. “He’s inside?”

Ehlo nodded, his expression serious once more. “That classmate, his name was Huo Jian Hua.”

That was when Janine got up from her place. “Wallace?”

Ehlo nodded. “He only went by Wallace when we entered college.”

“But I thought you guys grew up together?” Janine reminded Ehlo.

“We did, we only counted from when it mattered. And you can’t take us at face value for saying things like, ‘oh, we know each other ages ago.’ It was really a long time ago, but not from the cradle or anything. And I love to exaggerate.”

Ehlo said the last bit with a smile. Janine sat down again after that. She was still shocked that Ehlo had shared that story with her and was still digesting it.

“Then how did Wallace’s aunt and Jacky’s uncle meet?”

“After Wallace’s parents passed away, he went to live with his aunt. Yeah, Aunt June. She was his only family left. That was how we met her. She and Wallace’s dad haven’t talked in years because of some disagreements. She wasn’t really that traditional and that sort of didn’t sit well with him. Again, good old man, loved him, but you know how it is with tradition.”

Janine nodded.

“So, after that, we tried to patch things between Wallace and his aunt. It wasn’t like she hated him or anything. Aunt June pretty much stayed the same over the years. But because of their gripe, his dad sort of said some untrue things about his aunt. Wallace only wanted to see her to talk about his dad at first and maybe showed some respect for informing her.”

Janine nodded again.

“He wasn’t into it though, but Jacky and I said we would tag along. Between the two of us, we thought up of lots of excuse to just hightail out of there after just telling her the news, you know. So, the three of us went to her house and stuff. That was when we found out how many untrue things were said about her. She still lives at the same place, so you can just imagine her current place. It was really strange seeing how nice she was. We came by more often to see her and all. Wallace was still devastated with his parents’ passing but also shocked that his aunt wasn’t what his dad told him. So, lot of things to work through. We urged her to go to different places with us, like go eat or whatever. Eventually, we roped Uncle Ben into those senseless picnics. That was how they met.”

“Sounds like a fairytale.”

Ehlo laughed. “Funny, isn’t it? Oh yeah, I think Jacky and I didn’t start out so bad because of Uncle Ben. He was the only one that was really down to earth within our circle anyway. He just didn’t fit in. That was why Jacky’s grandpa was forced to hand the business over to Jacky’s father. And you know how hard that is to swallow?”

Janine nodded. “Definitely.”

“So yeah, there they were. They got married and lived happily ever after because of us.”

“Now you sound like your old arrogant self.”

Ehlo smiled, not offended at all. “Yeah.” Then he turned serious again, looking toward the backdoor of the house. “Wallace, he took Tang Feng’s death pretty hard, because it was almost like what happened to his parents. Many thought it was because of how they almost became in-laws. But it wasn’t so. There was frustration and not to mention the same resentment toward what could have been for both situations.” He paused, rubbing a finger past his lips before continuing. “That was why no one stopped him when he volunteered to take care of all the details and funeral arrangements for Tang Feng. He needed it. It was closure, even if it wasn’t really closure. And what was even more complicated was how Tang Feng had left him the shop. It was something that reminded him of what we did for him that year, even if the whole fiasco was because Tang Feng and Cyndi hadn’t sorted out their family drama yet. He didn’t want to have anything to do with charity—or what seemed so. We finally convinced him to keep it after many hassles with wanting to transfer it to Alyssa. There were many things he could do with it.” He paused again and turned to Janine, sitting straight up again since he had been sort of slouching and used his knees to support his crossed hands. “So, you can understand why he reacted so hard when he realized Bryant might have something to do with Tang Feng’s death and how he confronted you then.” He sighed out. “I know it’s not a good excuse, but considering how none of us had gotten over it yet…”

Janine nodded.

Ehlo looked toward the streets again. “After Wallace’s parents passed away, the three of us made a pact.”

“What pact?”

“To live each day without regrets, because of the unknown things in life.”

“That’s a good pact.”

Ehlo had on a bitter smile. “After Tang Feng passed away, we made another pact. To think I was the one who suggested it, because I was the one who broke it first.”

“What was it?”

“To never get drunk.”

“What?”

Ehlo looked at Janine before saying the next words. “Drinking is different from getting drunk. Sober versus to the point that you can’t remember what happened. You know, responsible drinking versus reckless ones.” He shook his head. “Angela was really mad and disappointed in me for breaking it. It wasn’t because it was important to her, which it was. But it was because she knew it was important to me. And what was worse, I accidentally knocked Wallace out when he helped get me into the house that night. He didn’t blame me when we sort out what happened that night, because he knew I was really upset for Qiao and what was happening around us, losing control of our lives in some ways. But we all knew I broke it.”

Janine extended her hand toward Ehlo then. He had on his confused look.

“What?”

“I accept your apology.”

Ehlo was still eyeing her hand with hesitation. “You really mean it?”

“Because you were honest with me and were patient enough to share your story. And because, I sort of initiated your outburst too.”

“You what?”

“I had enough of how you and Chris were going on with your dares that night and called you some names. So, that was how it started…”

Ehlo shook his head and finally took her hand. “I’m pretty sure I should have known better. But I’m glad we’re even.”

Janine smiled as they released each other’s hands. They got up at the same time, getting ready to head back in.

“Hey, you know what?” Ehlo said, gesturing toward Eddie’s direction at that time to indicate that they were done.

“What?” Janine asked.

“Next time, if I insult your family, you can be sure I’ll be sober for it.”

Janine hit his hand then, seeing his mischievous look again. Ehlo didn’t mind and laughed at her reaction. It was like they had already resolved their conflict. Eddie gave them a strange look but seeing that they were able to joke about the matter, he was reassured.

© Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

Posted: Friday, January 15th, 2021

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