After having finally understood what was really going on, Ehlo turned to scan both Jacky and Wallace’s faces—five seconds each. He held the magazine up in midair like how Jacky had done earlier.

“So, you both accuse me as soon as this thing came out?” He asked, still looking in between them. “I couldn’t even tell my wife! Do you think I would tell them first? Unless I can get my freaking money back.”

“So, this is about money to you now?” Jacky asked. “You know why we can’t say anything.”

Ehlo’s expression was beyond mad now. “You want to play? I’ll play with you. I had enough. How much worse could it get now?”

Jacky looked at Ehlo a little longer before speaking up. “Fine, if you want it to be that way, I’ll compensate you then.”

“Keep your stinking money to stuff it in your stinking rotten heart, you spineless, no-good, two-faced…”

“Huang, you might want to stop now,” Wallace interfered.

Ehlo turned his focus solely on Wallace now, having lowered his hand already. “You want to take his side too?”

Wallace shook his head. “No, but I don’t think we should be discussing it here.”

Ehlo scoffed. “Where can we discuss it then? Back at Tony’s? To reach the same conclusion? That we can’t do any stinking thing even if they weren’t so freaking powerful to begin with?” Then he turned to Jacky. “You know why your relationships never worked out?”

“Ehlo,” Wallace urged. “You don’t want to go there.”

“Wallace’s right,” Joanne said, stepping forward then.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Jacky asked, ignoring the other side comments trying to diffuse the situation.

Ehlo hadn’t taken his eyes off Jacky since he said those words. He wasn’t going to back down now. “Because you always decide for them all, whether it was Sonia or Sophia. You thought what was good for them or not. You went and did everything yourself. Then you wonder why they left.”

“Huang Yu Rong!” Joanne and Wallace yelled out at the same time.

Ehlo finally took his eyes off Jacky and turned to look at Joanne. “Am I wrong? Did he even know why you were crying the other day? Or he just assumed it was all about him as well?”

“Ehlo, stop talking already,” Andy jumped in at that time. He gestured toward Achel at that time. He wanted her to help him take Joanne out of there—if it came to that.

“You can attack me, but don’t come after Qiao,” Jacky said, stepping forward to shield Joanne then.

Surprisingly, Joanne didn’t break down or attack Ehlo right back. She pushed Jacky aside and stepped forward, looking at Ehlo.

“You’re right,” Joanne said. “He never told us anything until it blew out of proportions, whether it was investigating about Sonia’s car theft incident, investigating James’ background, investigating anything for that matter.” She turned to Jacky then. “We deserve to know too. Stop treating us like a bunch of kids.”

Jacky had a shocked look on his face. “You’re agreeing with him?”

Joanne nodded; her eyes determined. “Because you have a pattern, and it’s getting worse. It’s like you never realized it or learned from it. We’re all in this together. Why can’t you tell us anything? You know how awkward it was with that meeting we had when Wallace gathered us all up? It was awkward and painful, but Wallace initiated it, so it all came out in the open. It actually helped. You should have done the same.”

“I can promise to do anything for you, but I can’t tell you this.”

“Then I want Sophia back here. Make it happen.”

Jacky paused then. “I…”

“Can’t do it, right? Then don’t go around tossing promises.”

“That’s it, we’re going to Tony’s,” Wallace declared then.

“I told you I’m not going,” Ehlo said, turning to Wallace again.

“It’s not optional, Huang.”

“Who died and made you our leader?”

“Tang Feng.”

That was what stopped Ehlo. Wallace knew that was a low blow, but in some ways, that was true. Many who joined their group later thought that Jacky was their leader. Or maybe it was Tony because of his reputation. Yet they didn’t realize that Tang Feng was the one who inspired them and changed their lives for the better in many ways.

*****

About half an hour later, Wallace gathered them all up at Tony’s place. It wasn’t like any of them had important meetings anyway. They’d been canned for a while now. Also, the ones who actually had some sort of workload had a flexible schedule. Wallace had promised to compensate both Novia and Cynthia. He even forced Sonia and CW to come. And regretfully, he had to go home and wake Yvonne up, because she had shut her phone off. But he knew if he didn’t do this today, no one was going to get any rest. What surprised them, though, was Ambrose showing up without any invitation. Yet Wallace didn’t argue, considering how Ambrose was there during the meeting last Friday.

“All right,” Wallace began when everyone had sat down. “We’re doing this. It’s about time too.”

“What’s the big deal here?” Eddie asked, gesturing his hand in the general direction. “You guys pulled me out of work. We actually have work, you know.”

“I’m going to answer that now,” Wallace said, feeling somewhat impatient.

Eddie could see Wallace’s somewhat hostile expression, so he simmered down.

Wallace scanned the room real quick before clearing his throat. “I’m sure some of you have seen the latest headline and the picture.”

Some of them nodded while others exchanged looks.

“Well, that was leaked due to our meeting last Friday here.”

That was when Chris turned to Ehlo. He didn’t really say anything, but just looked at Ehlo with an understanding expression.

“You guys had a meeting here last week?” Angela asked, also looking at Ehlo.

“Don’t blame him,” Wallace said, seeing Angela’s expression. “Somehow, we decided it wasn’t beneficial to let you guys know. But because it’s already leaked, there’s no point in keeping it from you any longer.”

“So, you’re saying you know who the woman in the picture is?” Eddie asked.

Wallace nodded. “She has a close relationship with someone here right now. And…”

“It’s my mom,” CW spoke up at that time.

That was when gasps were heard around the room. Well, the ones who didn’t know. Only some gasped though. Because Angela had laced her hand with Ehlo’s while they waited for further development. Ehlo reacted by squeezing tighter and turned to smile at her. It was probably the first time since before the confrontation began that he had smiled—or so some of them believed to be true. Sonia, on the other hand, had looked at CW with much confusion and doubt. CW had gotten up since he made the confession. He even stepped forward to stand alongside Wallace—but still maintaining a distance.

“I apologize for everyone’s troubles,” CW said. “When I saw the magazine this morning, I called my mom to talk to her about it. She confessed to me she only wanted them to do a piece on me, but she didn’t realize how it had spiraled out of control like that, affecting everyone.”

“This is the part where he’s going to tell us to keep it under wraps so it wouldn’t affect his freaking royal family,” Ehlo muttered, his left hand on his chin and his right hand still holding onto Angela’s.

“I know what my mom did was wrong, but I would appreciate it if you don’t reveal it to the world,” CW finished seconds later, not realizing Ehlo had whispered that to Angela and the others who were sitting near him.

Ehlo removed his left hand on his chin and gestured in the general direction. “See? What did I tell you?”

“It’s good that you acknowledged it,” Wallace said, ignoring Ehlo’s side comments. “It would be easier to proceed to the next step.” That was when the others realized Wallace had been holding a folder in his hand the whole time since he had raised that hand up at that time. “Here’s the amount you owe us. I divided it by section of who was affected and by how much. The detailed report is also there, if you question it in any way or want to verify that number, go ahead and analyze it all you want. There’s no deadline really.”

That was when Ehlo had on another smile. That was also when he acknowledged Wallace’s existence. He only showed up earlier because Wallace had used the “Tang Feng” card so he was still fuming. Now, he saw some type of results, so he was alert again.

CW still didn’t take the folder from Wallace. “This is…?”

“You think that you’re going to get away with all of these by just a simple apology with your flowery words?” Ehlo asked. “It doesn’t matter if we know you or not. Our reputations were tarnished to the point of no return. You want to be responsible for your mom’s failed paparazzi game? Pay up.”

Wallace opened the folder then. “I’ll give you a run by if you still think this is a joke.” He cleared his throat real quick before beginning. “First off, KFT’s loss because both Jacky and Angela’s ratings dropped.”

“I don’t care about my portion,” Jacky jumped in then. “I can make up to Producer Lin on that, we worked something out already.”

Wallace turned to look at Angela then.

“Keep mine in,” Angela said, squeezing Ehlo’s hand tighter.

They knew that look. Most of them did. Angela wasn’t going to back down on this one. It wasn’t because of her own reputation nor monetary loss, but it was for Ehlo.

“All right then,” Wallace said, crossing out something on the page he had opened. “Next item, Sonia’s advice column got frozen and she was almost fired from her job.”

“I don’t need mine either,” Sonia said, looking toward CW.

CW looked surprised, considering what she’d gone through. He saw her expression before when they found out about his mom’s involvement. Now that she spoke up to decline a payment, he felt a little relieved, because she wasn’t mad—and that she wanted to support him. He knew that to be true because she had sent him a smile, which he had returned.

“Okay, crossed out,” Wallace said. “Number 3 on the list, Xin Ru’s Art Gallery’s loss.”

“I don’t want mine,” Cynthia spoke up, surprising everyone.

“What?” Wallace asked, turning to her—though he had heard her.

Cynthia didn’t look at Wallace but turned to Sonia. “The reason why I’m doing this is because I didn’t take your side years ago when you returned here for some kind of support. I wasn’t making it better by siding with the others. This is my apology. And now we’re even.”

Wallace could see Sonia nod, so he crossed out Cynthia’s portion as well. While the others were muttering or whispering about something, CW returned to his seat by Sonia. He took her hands into his and squeezed it.

“I’m changing it to mine,” Wallace said, looking at CW. “You’re not getting off that easily.”

“What?” Cynthia asked, looking at Wallace this time.

“You think I don’t know you had to let some people go? It wasn’t any of their fault or ours. I’m using it to compensate for them and give them the choice to return or not. If not, it’s still a good amount of money for cushion while they find some other job.”  

Cynthia finally understood and nodded.

Seeing that no one else spoke up to interrupt him, Wallace continued. “Ehlo’s loss in clients and possible contract negotiations. This is different from Watson & Co.’s losses. After that, it’s Tian Cheng’s business losses.”

“I’m paying my dad back,” Jacky spoke up then.

Wallace didn’t bother asking this time, but just crossed it out. However, Ehlo spoke up.

“You’re willing to empty your savings for this stupid principle of yours?”

“It’s my money and my decision. You said my relationships aren’t working out anyway, what the hell am I saving it for?”

Ehlo shrugged. “Fine, die mad then.”

That was when Chris and Margaret exchanged a look again. They thought they were used to Ehlo and Jacky’s constant disagreements by now. Yet that had taken to another level. What was more, the others barely exchanged looks among themselves but didn’t even interfere. They just waited for Wallace to continue.

“Okay,” Wallace said. “Now that everyone’s sure, next item. Novia’s shop had to close for several days and also continued to suffer losses because of the rumors.”

“I’m not taking mine either,” Novia said.

Wallace turned to her. He was especially surprised. Because regardless of what happened in the past, he knew she was a sensible businessowner, why was she doing this? It wasn’t like she was that close to Sonia.

“Cynthia’s right,” Novia said. “I had my part in that silly disagreement a few years back also. I think it’s about time I pay for the consequences as well.”

Wallace shook his head, sighing out. “Fine.” He crossed out Novia’s line as well. “Sunrise’s business losses and the effects on their investors.”

Ambrose smiled at that line because he knew Wallace had mentioned him vaguely on purpose. Because not everyone knew about his connection to Sunrise. That was if the others hadn’t blabbed yet.

“James’ motorcycle shop’s business losses.”

“I don’t want mine either,” James said.

Why was James there? It so happened that when Wallace went home to pick up Yvonne for the meeting, he had retrieved the folder he was now holding as well. That was after he printed out the summary and detailed reports, because he wasn’t sure how long the news cycle lasted, and the numbers kept adding up. Anyway, on the way to Tony’s, they saw James around town, so they picked him up as well.

“You sure?” Wallace asked, surprised. “You know you have to care for Sara and Dan too, right?”

James smiled. “I’m sure. I still have my savings and since the rumors died down already, it’s going to go back to normal soon. I wasn’t that affected by the rumors like most of you anyway. They just called me poor because of the small shop, which was true. It wasn’t that extreme like what most of you have endured.”

Sonia, upon hearing those words, had turned to James. It was like she was feeling guilty all over again—for the role that she supposedly played. Yet she didn’t say anything.

Wallace shrugged. “All right then. One more line down. Second last item, Uncle Zhe’s shop’s losses.” He had turned to Angela for that one. “Do you think he wants it?”

Angela held her free hand up. “I’ll call him right now. Hold on.”

The others waited patiently for Uncle Zhe to pick up and for Angela to explain what was going on. She only gave him a brief summary that Wallace was making a list, so they wanted to verify of his decision.

“I don’t care about the money for me,” Uncle Zhe said over speaker. “I just want to know who that asshole is so I could give him a piece of my mind. He caused my niece so much grief these past two weeks. You think she’s tough? She’s been crying her eyes out again. She hasn’t cried that hard since that pretty boy dumped her.”

“For the last time, Uncle Zhe,” Chris jumped in. “Xiao Han and I broke up on mutual terms. No one cried, okay?”

“How would you know? You weren’t there. You left right after you dumped her, you brat.”

Ehlo clutched his head again, feeling like this was spinning out of control. “Uncle Zhe, please just answer the question. Do you want the freaking money or not? I would take it—if I were you. Because no one is going to see the lying asshole getting any justice around here. Use the money to do something meaningful, like maybe donate to charity or something. Their blood money could use some cleansing, you know.”

“Ehlo,” Jacky warned then, shaking his head.

Ehlo rolled his eyes at Jacky. He mouthed to Jacky, “Like I’m going to disclose the asshole’s identity to him.”

“I’ll take it,” Uncle Zhe said then. “Ehlo knows what he’s talking about. I trust him.”

“All right then,” Wallace spoke up again.

“Oh, Wallace?”

“Yes, Uncle Zhe.”

“Triple it.”

“Triple it?”

“Yes, since that asshole’s getting away with it, why do I have to feel guilty for taking his money?”

Ehlo had on a wide smile then, muttering, “Sweet justice.”

“All right then,” Wallace said. “I’m making a note right now.”

“Good,” Uncle Zhe said and then hung up.

“That went well,” Ehlo commented, smiling again. “Last item, Huo.”

Wallace was glad that Ehlo was speaking to him again. He smiled and nodded. “Emotional damages endured because of the rumors and public gossips that followed the flaming of the rumors. This goes for all parties who the tabloids mentioned this past two weeks. This, of course, is different from monetary damages that I listed earlier. So, I once again ask you to confirm or deny your status. Ehlo?”

“Taking it,” Ehlo said.

“Same,” Angela followed, knowing Wallace would ask her eventually.

Wallace nodded. “Novia?”

“Not taking it,” Novia said. “Same answer as before.”

Wallace marked the page before turning to Janine.

“Not taking it,” Janine answered. “It was partially my fault for not being careful.”

Wallace shook his head, wondering why Janine was beating herself up for yet marked the page anyway. “Bryant?”

“Not taking it,” Bryant answered.

Wallace was looking down at the page when he asked, so he looked up again as he heard Bryant’s answer.

“I wasn’t really affected by it.”

Wallace shrugged and marked the page again. “Qiao?”

“Taking it, double it.”

Wallace looked up again to see Joanne’s cold expression.

“I don’t have to explain myself, do I?”

“No.”

“Good.”

“Qiao,” Jacky called out then.

Joanne stared right at Jacky with that same cold expression. “If you dare tell me to back down, I’m going to tell Wallace to double that amount that I just told him to double.”

“It’s emotional damage, man,” Ehlo jumped in. “You don’t get to tell her how or what she feels. Or I’ll triple mine, both monetary and emotional damages.”

Jacky sighed out and rubbed his forehead. He knew he was the weakest link there, regardless of whom he was dealing with at the moment, so he went back to his silent state.

“Okay, then,” Wallace said before turning to Chris. “Chris?”

Chris shook his head. “Not taking it. I wasn’t really affected by it. They actually gave me a good article. Besides, I don’t want the blood money anyway.”

Ehlo laughed at that comment, feeling like he could appreciate Chris for his snarky swipe. “What a perspective.”

Wallace crossed out Chris’ name real quick before turning to James. “James?”

James shook his head. “Same answer as before, not taking it.”

“All right then,” Wallace said, crossing James’ name off. He took a few more minutes to make the new calculations before shutting the folder. He then walked over to CW and handed the folder to him. “Again, no deadlines. But we would like to see it sometime in this lifetime.”

“You haven’t asked Jacky or Sonia,” Andy noted.

Wallace turned to Andy. “Do you think I should waste my breath?”

“He’s right,” Ehlo chimed in. “The answer would be ‘no’ from them. Also, the last person that was affected by the rumors was the person whose mom was responsible for the rumors in the first place. So, no need to ask.”

“So, I guess that concludes the meeting,” Ambrose said, getting up from his place next to Tony.

“Wait,” Wallace said, walking toward him.

“What?”

“We took care of the compensation part already. But we haven’t figured out who leaked the photos.”

Ambrose took a quick scan of the room before speaking up. “I think we should save this discussion for next time.”

“Agreed,” Ehlo said. “I don’t trust some people not to blab to their families.”

“I thought you said we shouldn’t hide stuff from one another,” Joanne said, looking at Ehlo. She had turned off her fierce expression already. What she had on at the moment was her confused expression.

“I don’t trust him,” Ehlo said, looking toward CW.

“I’ll leave then,” CW said.

“Please,” Ehlo said, gesturing his hand.

“Ehlo,” Jacky said, attempting to reason with his so-called buddy again.

“Don’t ‘Ehlo’ me,” Ehlo said. “You know if what your PI said is true…” He paused to point at CW who was still standing around. “He will be the reason for your PI’s possible harm.”

“You can predict the future?”

Ehlo scoffed. “You seriously want to play this game? We all know how capable all businesses are of their low tactics. If we can’t trust someone, I rather we say it out rather than pretend with all the civilized talk and have someone drop dead down the road. You should know how serious it is now because we’re dealing with business issues, not our own disagreements on whatever personal principles.”

CW looked at the others real quick before speaking up. “You shouldn’t argue because of me. I know what my mom did to everyone had caused a major rift within your group, even if it was unintentional. I’ll leave.”

Ehlo got up then. He was going to let it go. But CW’s “unintentional” comment had triggered something in him. “Unintentional? Is she a 5-year-old girl who doesn’t know about actions and consequences? How long has she been around? She doesn’t know the impact that those tabloids could create? Don’t tell me it’s unintentional. You’re downplaying it. Just stop while I still feel some sympathy for you.”

“Ehlo,” Janine called out, getting up from her seat then. “I know you’re upset. We’re all upset over what happened. But you told me that one time that we’re not responsible for what our families did, so why are you making it harder on him?”

 Ehlo turned to Janine. “The fact that he’s willing to cover for her and downplaying it is the sole reason why I can’t let it go.”

“She’s his mom after all, you have to admit he’s in a hard place.”

“So? You know the backlash that he receives right now, right here on behalf of his mom couldn’t even compare to what the rest of us went through in the past two weeks?”

“We don’t have to live by how those tabloids judged us nor do we need to cave to public pressure. Yes, it was hard to listen to those things, but we know it’s not true, so why should we be affected by it?”

“It’s easier said than done. You’re lucky you’re not my wife. But my wife’s still lucky that she still has the support of both her family and mine, and also Jacky’s family. Because they knew her and trusted her. They also know Jacky and me. Imagine if it was some other family out there, would they let her off easily? Don’t even talk about how complicated our families are because of our parents’ businesses, but just based on family alone. Those traditional family are petty as hell, ten times pettier than me. If they thought for a minute that was true, the rift could never be mended.”

Janine felt trapped. Or more like, she could see what Ehlo was going on about, so she sat back down in her place, not saying another word.

Ehlo turned to CW then. “Well?”

“I’m leaving with him,” Sonia said, getting up at that time.

Ehlo turned to Sonia then. “I think you need to stay for this one.”

“If you don’t trust him, you shouldn’t trust me either. I might blab it to him, isn’t that your logic, Ehlo?”

Ehlo turned to Sonia. “You know I’m doing this for you, right? You know how crazy his family could be yet you’re still siding with him? What are you trying to do? Are you seriously like what those tabloids said? Wanting to enter a royal family that you refuse to listen to us while it’s not too late?”

Jacky and James got up at the same time and walked over to them since Ehlo was advancing on both Sonia and CW while he was saying those things. Jacky was at a ready to pull Ehlo away from the other two. James? He was worried for Sonia, so he was on standby for any new development.

“You say you care for me, but you’re obviously just using this excuse to attack Chris,” Sonia said, not backing down. Instead, she looked stronger than before. It was like she had decided she was standing by CW regardless of others’ judgment toward her.

“Oh yeah?” Ehlo returned, taking another step forward.

“Ehlo,” Jacky said, grabbing onto Ehlo’s shoulder with one hand. “Don’t do anything you’re going to regret.”

“What?” Ehlo asked, turning to look at Jacky and scanned the room real quick. “You’re all thinking I’m the unreasonable one?”

Angela walked over to them at that time, placing herself in front of Ehlo. “Sonia, I know Ehlo’s really hot-headed at times and he’s not in the best of his mind right now. But he has a point. You don’t know Chris like you know us. You shouldn’t…”

“Forget her,” Ehlo said, returning to his seat. “If she wants to leave with that royal prince, let her.”

Angela turned to CW then. “Don’t you have anything to say?”

CW had on his intense expression. It was like he was torn. “I…I don’t know what to say to make everything better. But I need everyone to trust me that I’m not conning Sonia.”

Ehlo scoffed. “Whatever, royal prince.”

“I trust Chris,” Sonia said. She turned to scan the room like how Ehlo did before. “I know everyone’s concerned about me. But I know Chris will treat me well.”

“He hasn’t sold you down the river yet,” Ehlo mumbled. “Yay, progress.”

“What does everyone want me to do to prove myself then?” CW asked then, his expression determined.

“If push comes to shove, who will you choose?” Ehlo asked, looking at CW then.

“What are you getting at, Huang?” Wallace asked. He didn’t engage during the back and forth between several parties on purpose. Yet he knew it was time to interfere.

Ehlo smiled, an amusing one. “It’s the oldest question of time, who will you choose? Your wife or your family? In this case, it’s your wife or your mom.”

“What?” Jacky asked, turning to look at Ehlo.

Ehlo scoffed. “So, now both of you want to play dumb? That eons old question about if you want to choose your mom or you wife when there are disagreements.” He looked at CW then. “It looks to me from over here that you’ve already chosen to help your mom cover up her mistake, instead of restoring all our reputations, including Sonia’s.” He looked at Sonia then. “You failed the test.”

CW seemed to have understood what all this back and forth was about. He sighed out. “I know it’s hard to swallow, but even if my mom’s identity is exposed, it’s not like it’s going to change everyone’s opinions of what happened anyway. People will speculate.” He looked at Ehlo then. “You know more than me about human nature. We can’t really control the narrative. Why bother making it worse so they could write more stories?”

Ehlo looked at Sonia then. “Is this who you want to be with? Someone who defends his family at all costs and sacrifices you?”

Sonia turned to look at CW upon hearing that. CW had taken her hands into his again.

“I know this is hard and I never wanted to hurt anyone, especially you,” CW said. “But this doesn’t just concern us. We have to think for everyone too.”

“By everyone, you mean your family only,” Ehlo said. “Because everyone here isn’t getting anything, especially not justice.”

CW looked panicked. He squeezed Sonia’s hand tighter. “Sonia, I…”

Sonia shook her head then. “Ehlo…”

Ehlo sighed out, looking at CW. “Okay, I’ll compromise with you.”

CW looked hopeful. “Say it.”

“They say that paparazzi is the ultimate test for high-profile couples.” He paused and scanned the room once. “Tomorrow, open a press con and declare your official status, and clarify what that means for you two in the future. No more secrets, no more speculation. You don’t have to say she’s the future Mrs. Wang or anything. You can just say she’s your girlfriend, the most important woman in your life right now and that you want to protect her at all costs. Also, if anyone wants to harm her like publishing such damaging articles again, you will take legal actions against them.”

“That…”

Ehlo had one eyebrow raised. “Can’t do it?”

CW hesitated before speaking up. “I could do that. But I have to consult with my family first. I mean, this doesn’t concern just me, but…even if it’s not business, you know it’s important I don’t leave them in the dark. A press con out of nowhere would throw them off and…”

Ehlo looked at Sonia again. “Your call.”

Sonia nodded then. It was like she was sending Ehlo some kind of signal because she finally let go of CW’s hand and stepped back. CW looked surprised, like he was genuinely confused. Because Sonia had on her serious look at that point. It was a type of “all-business” look, not the distressed look she’d been carrying with her since the scandals broke. It was an expression he hadn’t seen before, but some of the others had. And they hadn’t seen it in the longest time.

“Sonia,” CW called out, reaching for Sonia’s hand again.

“No,” Sonia said, taking another step back—and almost bumped into James. Luckily, she side stepped in time and James had also taken a step back as well. “I’m done. Ehlo’s right, you don’t get it. You’re right that this affects everyone, but you were clear from the start with wanting to protect your family, not us. I get that family is important to you, but you can’t disregard the suffering of others. I can’t let go of my friends just because you said some sweet words to me.”

Jacky looked at Sonia then. “Sonia, are you sure about this?”

“Seriously, man?” Ehlo asked, looking at Jacky. “You’re undoing our work.”

Jacky turned to Ehlo then. “I just don’t want any of us to have any regrets in the future about this.”

Sonia shook her head then, which only some of them were able to see. “I’m not going to regret my decision. I’ve thought a lot these past few days after last Friday’s meeting. And everyone is right. I think I knew from when things started to unravel that I wasn’t cut out for this, but I let myself believe that I could get past this because I have Chris. But I was just lying to myself. I’ve already made the mistake once regarding my marriage. I’m not going to make another one. Not when this could cost everyone’s safety.”

CW looked at Sonia like he saw her for the first time ever. “Sonia…”

Sonia smiled then, a bitter one. “I’m sorry to let you see this side of me, but this is really who I am. I’m not that innocent girl you thought you knew. What are we? In some kind of fairytale?” Sonia had on her amused look then. “It’s not that simple. This is real life. And the truth? Ehlo’s wrong. I’m no princess. And sometimes, the prince doesn’t get to play hero all the time, just because he believes he is.” Her smiled returned to normal. “And you know what else? I belong with them…because we’re more similar than you think.” She turned to Ehlo at that time with a smile before turning back to CW. “Did you know that we were just acting the whole time?”

That was when gasps were heard around the room. CW was still looking at Sonia with a stun expression on his face. It was like he still refused to believe Sonia had a deceitful bone in her body. As for Angela, Jacky, and James, they had returned to their seats after Sonia disclosed that it was all an act. They didn’t need to keep Ehlo in line—like they had made it look like previously. James wasn’t in on it, but he realized he needed to give Sonia and CW some space after the grand reveal.

“I knew it!” Andy said, standing up then. “She just said last Friday’s meeting when we were just called here today. And I swear you guys said only five of you knew.” He had pointed at all five guys in turn when he said the last bit. “If she was there, that meant you all had a meeting with her already.”

Ehlo smiled then, his amusing one. “Glad you caught on, kid.”

Yes, the previous disagreement, including the part at Cynthia’s shop was an act pulled by the eight people who were in the meeting last Friday at Tony’s. Tony didn’t tell Esther on purpose. It was important they got it right. The others had convinced him that they would help him apologize to Esther’s later.

“And it wasn’t just the six of us,” Wallace clarified, smiling also.

“Who else knew then?” Andy asked.

“You think I would lie to my wife about this?” Ehlo asked, lacing Angela’s hands with his again.

“Same, Wallace followed.

“Yvonne was also in on it?” Andy asked, surprised—and turned to look at Yvonne before turning back to Ehlo.

“It was her idea,” Ehlo answered. “But let’s be honest, most of us know she doesn’t really get along with Sonia. They’re at a polite level the most, so we agreed it was best she didn’t participate in the whole thing—or kept neutral regarding the main argument. That would make it less suspicious.”

“Correction,” Yvonne interrupted them. “I’m on board with Sonia now. I finally see what’s the big deal about her. Solid acting the whole time.”

Ehlo sent her an “OK” sign, like he was updating his information vault with her new status about Sonia. “You’re actually a few years late, but Sonia used to perform more before and during the time she was with Jacky.”

“How did you manage to remember so much of the script though?” Andy asked, wrinkling his face. “I meant; I was amazed but that was really hard. You know how many lines you all had?”

Ehlo smiled, shaking his head. “It wasn’t about memorialization. It was more like keeping to the main goal. As long we stayed on topic, the rest of us could still follow along.”

Andy still had on his doubtful look. “Seriously?”

Wallace nodded at that time. “We had to improvise a lot, but it wasn’t that hard, to be honest. Most of it was based on our personalities and history. Ehlo, Jacky, and Sonia had it the toughest with their performances. Ehlo and Jacky at the beginning to initiate the meeting. Then Ehlo and Sonia toward the end. Each time Ehlo approached or looked at Sonia, he was looking for cues from her to see if she was ready to pull the plugs on the production. Because we agreed from the beginning that Sonia would make the final call. It was, after all, done for her.”

“Seriously? That was all agreed upon beforehand? You all were very toxic toward one another, you know that, right? Especially, the stuff that Ehlo said to Sonia near the end.”

Ehlo smiled. “I knew it was brutal, that was why I said it. That was the final act to push Sonia forward. If I didn’t do it, Sonia wouldn’t have a reason to step forward to defend her relationship with CW.”

“So, you used all of us for your grand production as well?” Eddie asked then. “I meant with your morbid faces the whole week. We were really convinced you had some kind of fallout, like again. I was actually coming up with different activities we could do this weekend to get everyone together, you know.”

Ehlo winked. “Call it a sacrifice for the ultimate test.”

“You’re crazy.”

Ehlo wasn’t offended. “Thanks. You know what? Maybe we can open our own classes to teach improv.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, Ehlo,” Jacky said that, smiling for the first time since they started this meeting. “You wouldn’t want to reveal all your tricks, would you?”

Before Jacky knew it, Joanne was standing in front of him. He got up from his place and looked at her. She didn’t look too happy.

“You used me too, huh? You thought it was funny?” Joanne asked, her hands on her hips in a demanding manner.

The others smiled upon seeing such a familiar scene. They stayed silent to see further development.

“Hey, sis,” Jacky began. “I didn’t mean to, but you just had to tag along when I stormed into the shop. You were already there. I can’t call the whole thing off.”

Joanne hit Jacky’s shoulder then. “Next time, if you do it again, I’m not going to care.”

Jacky smiled, grabbing onto Joanne’s hand. “Seriously, though. I’m sorry, okay?”

Joanne yanked her hand away from him and turned to Wallace. She had accidentally looked at Bryant and saw some jealous glint in his eyes. Yet she didn’t want to acknowledge that now. She maintained her focus on Wallace. “And you, bringing Tang Feng into this.”

“I didn’t know you were there,” Wallace defended himself, his hands raised. “But what I said was true.”

“Hmp.”

At that time, CW finally turned to them. The others’ exchanges seemed long, but it was just ten minutes top. CW was still stun by Sonia’s reactions and her part in the others’ games that he didn’t know what to say. He also took some time to listen to their exchanges—and wondered what his next step would be.

“All of this was a test for me?” CW asked then.

Joanne turned to face him at that time, standing between Jacky and Wallace. “You think you deserve any sympathy from us?”

Jacky placed a hand on Joanne’s shoulder then, feeling like he needed to protect her from whatever that was going to happen next. “I know it wasn’t our best move, but we did it to make sure Sonia was well taken care of.”

“And you failed,” Ehlo finished.

“You all think it’s funny?” CW asked. “You convinced Sonia to participate in this silly game just to see a reaction from me?”

“No, Chris,” James said, standing up from his seat at that time. “As someone from Sonia’s past—someone who knows Sonia more than most of the people in this room, I’m telling you this is who Sonia really is.” James made sure CW looked at him before continuing. “She could be so mischievous.” He paused, smiling as if remembering the past. “Or stubborn at times, but that’s what makes her so lovable and real. If you can’t accept that, you need to walk away before both of you get hurt even more.” His expression turned serious again. “For the first time in the longest time, I saw her past self returning when I watched that production that they put on earlier. And you know what? I missed that girl. If you don’t like that girl, you won’t like spending the rest of your life with her.”

CW looked like he was reconsidering things. He looked at Sonia again. Sonia still maintained her determined expression.

“You can leave,” Sonia said at long last. “You’re not obligated to stick around just because.”

CW still looked hesitant, yet he finally made a move to leave.

“Oh yeah,” Wallace spoke up again.

CW turned around to look at Wallace.

“That folder?” Wallace said, pointing toward the folder now in CW’s hands. “Flip to page 2 for the accurate number. Because we still want some compensation, but the second page shows both Watson & Co. and Tian Cheng’s losses. In addition, what Uncle Zhe said, we’ll keep it the way he wants it. The rest, including Ehlo’s fees and mine, it won’t matter anymore.”

CW still looked confused.

“What happened earlier was an act and we only pretended to have a fallout, but I think we all agree it’s fair we get some sort of compensation for what happened,” Wallace continued. “So, when I asked everyone, I meant it. Except, do you think Jacky’s crazy enough to foot that amount for his father’s company? Look at that figure. Ehlo’s already lenient that he’s only including his father’s company’s business losses. Your father has a company, so you could imagine the impact all these rumors have on it. But guess what? Da Fa received the least damaging publicity. Because guess what? Sonia received the brunt of the rumors. Do you think it was an accident that all the tabloids pointed to her being a gold-digger? Think again.”

“Wait, you took mine out?” Joanne asked, turning to Wallace.

Wallace turned to Joanne then. “We all knew why you did it, Qiao. I’ll compensate you personally if you’re still mad.”

Joanne shrugged. “Whatever.”

Seeing that no one else had any additional comment directed at him, CW finally turned to leave. He didn’t forget to give Sonia a look. It was like a last hopeful glint that she would change her mind and leave with him.

“I guess I’m leaving too,” James said, gesturing in the general direction. “I mean, show’s over, right?”

“James, wait,” Wallace called out then.

James turned around and looked at Wallace in confusion. “What?”

Wallace didn’t answer James but turned to Jacky and Yvonne, respectively. It was like the two got it. Jacky went to the window and Yvonne went to the door.

“He’s out,” Yvonne reported seconds later.

“Outside,” Jacky said a minute or so later. “He’s driving away.”

That was when Yvonne closed the door to the drawing room.

“We’re clear,” Yvonne said when she returned to her seat again.

“What is happening?” James asked, still standing in his place, confused.

“We haven’t talked about the leak yet,” Wallace said, scanning everyone in the room. “Of all the things we had to improvise today, the leak was the biggest work around. It was a good excuse to gather everyone together. However, we only knew about it this morning. That was when I texted Jacky and Ehlo about using it as leverage.”

“So, you didn’t release the photo to the press?” Andy asked, wrinkling his face.

Wallace shook his head. “No, at least, I know for sure Jacky, Ehlo, and I didn’t do it.”

“Of course, I didn’t do it,” Yvonne said when the others looked at her. “I was really home, catching up on sleep.”

“You know I wouldn’t do that,” Sonia said. “I’m just glad to be out of the spotlight, how could I add more attention to myself again or risk your safety?”

Ehlo nodded. “Good point. And I know for sure my wife didn’t do it.”

That was when the others turned to Tony and Ambrose.

“Don’t look at me,” Tony said. “I’ve been buried in trying to resurrect my company here.”

They focused their attention on Ambrose then.

“I talk in my sleep?” Ambrose offered, his smile a charming one.

“Nice try, but no,” Ehlo said. “You just decided to throw Penny under the bus like that, huh?”

Ambrose shrugged. “Okay, fine, I did it.”

“Why?”

“Because Yvonne said some risks are worth taking.”

“That wasn’t what I said exactly,” Yvonne jumped in. “You’re grasping at straws.”

Ambrose had on his serious look then. “Fine, it’s because I knew you guys needed some sort of leverage. And I also wanted to test the waters a little.”

“You know you’re going to get Will killed, right?” Ehlo asked, giving Ambrose an incredulous look. “Because that’s what’s going to happen.”

“Guys, is it that extreme?” Eddie asked. “Are you exaggerating again?”

All the eight people who had that meeting last Friday exchanged looks among themselves then. It was like they were wavering about whether to tell the others or not.

“Look,” Janine suddenly spoke up. “If this is some kind of secret that you can’t tell us, maybe we should just leave to be safe, you know.”

“I think you need to hear this one,” Ehlo said.

Janine exchanged a look with Bryant and Novia before turning to Ehlo again. “What’s going on then?”

“Jacky’s PI guy,” Wallace answered for his co-conspirators. “He warned us not to go after Da Fa, because he said Da Fa was the force behind tanking Unex in the first place. In short, Da Fa is very powerful and capable. Even if we can’t prove most of the stuff, but we all know Da Fa is pulling strings behind the scenes. That was why we had to test Chris. If we can’t trust him, we have to cut our losses. And I’m sorry to put it that way, but this concerns everyone’s safety. When I say everyone, I mean every one of you. No exaggerations, no jokes whatsoever.”

“But we’re not some important faces though,” Eddie said, wrinkling his face.

Ehlo smiled, his amused one. “I’m sorry, that was our fault. You’re pulled in now, whether you like it or not. Just precautions, though, be careful from now on.”

“At least, until things die down again,” Wallace said.

“Yeah, thanks to Ambrose over there,” Ehlo said, his voice edging toward sarcasm. “For a smart businessman, you’re not really taking the smart route here.”

Ambrose shrugged and got up. “I guess we’re done?”

The others exchanged looks again before Wallace nodded.

“By the way,” Ehlo said when everyone was getting up and James had gone to open the door to the drawing room again. “What ever happened to Jun and Derek?”

Yes, aside from Johnny and Bianca—who were still busy with the photoshoot and other side matters, respectively—Jun and Derek weren’t present for the current meeting.

“I broke up with Jun already,” Novia confessed.

The others stopped in their tracks, including James who just finished saying goodbye to Sonia—and was on his way out.

“Why?” Ehlo asked. “Don’t tell me it’s because of us.”

“You sure have a big head, Huang,” Wallace chided.

After that side swipe though, both Ehlo and Wallace quieted down and waited for Novia’s explanation.

“I realized he and I won’t work,” Novia said. “It was fun while it lasted, right?”

“Seriously, was it us?” Ehlo pressed. “I know we’re over the line for asking it, but I need to be sure. Because seriously, you two seemed to get along really well.”

Novia smiled, a sad one. “He was too into attacking the high-class society that he missed the messages so many times. It was like he wasn’t really supporting me or Janine or Bryant. But it was more like he wanted to attack rich people. Like it was a personal gripe, you know.”

“Did you two actually have a serious talk about it?” Janine asked then, having a grip on Novia’s arm, like she wanted to show support. It seemed like Janine didn’t know about this either. “Like if something happened in his past that caused a hatred for them?”

Novia turned to Janine. “I tried talking to him, but he kept diverting to attack rich people, and how they were the problem. He didn’t want to talk about his past either. He didn’t get what I was trying to tell him. He thought that you guys got to me and made me feel guilty on purpose—or that somehow, I got brainwashed already. It was like he refused to believe that I was able to see things from your side.”

“He totally belongs in the same club as CW,” Ehlo joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “Gaslighting your feelings.”

Novia nodded, smiling. It was like she appreciated Ehlo’s effort. “After seeing how I couldn’t communicate with him no matter what since he was set in his mind he was in the right, refusing to compromise, I realized it’s better for us to separate than continue on like that, pretending like I didn’t see it, you know.”

“Just for the record though,” Ehlo said, his expression serious again. “We were totally trolling you guys that day. You knew that, right?”

“All the things we said were true, that we wanted to support Qiao,” Jacky clarified. “But Drama King and his sidekick over there, totally trolled you guys.”

“Hey!” Chris yelled out then, feeling a little offended. “I’m his sidekick?”

“You were totally acting like one,” Wallace confirmed.

“Whatever it is,” Novia said, looking at them all one by one. “I think I had to thank you all for exposing him. It was a shame because…”

“He seemed so genuine at first, right?” Ehlo asked.

Novia nodded.

Ehlo had on a sly smile then. “Since we caused you a prince charming, how about we find you someone else worth your effort?”

Novia knew Ehlo was joking, but she decided to have her own fun. She also had on her mischievous smile. “Who would that be?”

Ehlo looked around the room real quick before answering. “Currently, the only one single and seem to fit with you candidate is our Jacky.”

Jacky shook his head. “Look who’s selling me off to pay our debt.”

Ehlo had on his innocent look. “What? You two totally had a good setup, don’t you think? The sign with ‘Hope For Sale’ and how it changed your life.” He turned to look at Novia then. “Maybe your dad was sending you a sign then, you just didn’t know it was a literal sign.”

Novia smiled and shook her head. “Come on, Ehlo, you can try harder than this.”

“What’s wrong with Jacky?”

“Too much baggage.”

“Thanks?” Jacky said then—and he knew they were joking, so he wasn’t really offended.

“Hey, man, you know what she said is true,” Ehlo said.

Since he was sure they were done with any type of serious topic by now, James finally left after a nod toward Sonia’s way. The rest of them continued to disperse as well. And even if things didn’t turn out the way it should for Sonia, she still kept her head up and joked with the others as they left Tony and Esther’s place. It was the first time since ages now that they were able to interact so comfortably with one another. Since last year’s mid-autumn festival, possibly?

*****

Two days later, which was Sunday, a piece of major breaking news flashed across the screen several minutes after Chris turned on the TV at Ehlo and Angela’s place. In fact, the four of them had somehow gotten up around the same time and decided to have breakfast together at home before heading out. Ehlo was barely done brushing his teeth and finishing his morning routine when he heard it. He was walking out from the bedroom areas and was heading toward the common areas. He had to halt in mid-yawn when he heard it.

“Next up, a body discovered last night at a beachfront,” A news anchor said. “It is believed to be a private investigator.”

Ehlo’s eyes went wide as he recognized the picture they provided on the screen. He rushed back to his room when saw that it was going into commercials. He was retrieving his phone. “I need to call Huo.”

Chris was actually trying to pour himself some orange juice after cleaning up the counter for their breakfast. He needed some surge before prepping that said breakfast. But when he heard the news, he also stopped in his progress and placed the orange juice carton back on the counter.

“Margaret!” Chris called out.

“What?” Margaret returned from the deck. She and Angela walked inside then. She looked annoyed, like he was interrupting something. “What do you want now?”

“The PI’s dead,” Chris blurted out.

© Monday, August 17th, 2020

Posted: Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

PREVIOUS CHAPTER | CONTENTS | NEXT CHAPTER