Chapter 27 – Joint Conspiracy

After everyone had settled down comfortably in their chairs, Jacky rubbed his hands together before speaking up.

“All right, everyone,” Jacky began. “We’re gathered here today to…” He saw Qiao Qiao’s stare. “Patient, sis, patient.”

“We all know why we’re here today, right?” Qiao Qiao asked.

Johnny looked at Bianca.

“Uh…” Bianca managed, not knowing where to begin.

“I’m sure everyone knows that Johnny and Bianca are dating each other,” Jacky summarized. “And other people are thinking that Ming Dao and Qiao Qiao are dating.”

“You’re not dating Ming Dao?” Johnny asked, turning to Qiao Qiao surprised.

Qiao Qiao shook her head.

He wrinkled his face, puzzled. “You know we were dating?”

Qiao Qiao nodded. “Too obvious.”

“So…now that we all know…or at least the five of us know,” Jacky said, trying to steer the subject matter to the correct one again. “We have to try and break it to the others and stop them from fighting over Qiao Qiao. Or whatever teasing they’re doing that’s driving her insane. Although she’s not dating Ming Dao and is available right now but it’s driving her insane with all the jokes. So we have to find a way to clear that up for everyone.”

Qiao Qiao looked down at the table at that time.

Bianca put a hand on Qiao Qiao’s shoulder to reassure her. “Don’t worry. We’re going to find a way.”

“I’m more worried about Ehlo here,” Johnny said.

“And I don’t know why he was aggravating Qiao yesterday,” Jacky said. “Is that the latest hare-brain idea from Wei Ru?”

“I don’t think so,” Bianca answered. “‘Cause yesterday when you were in your room with Qiao, Wei Ru grabbed Ehlo aside to talk to him. Probably she told him to quit it since after they returned, Ehlo seemed less aggressive.”

“Great…”

Bianca looked at Johnny. “How did you find out about Ming Dao and Qiao? I meant how you came up with the assumption that they were dating and…”

Johnny looked a bit nervous since he was caught. Seeing his uneasiness, Jacky spoke up instead.

“That’s not the point,” Jacky said.

“I want to know though.”

“Okay,” Johnny mumbled.

Johnny told Bianca and the others of how he followed Ming Dao and Qiao Qiao the day they were at the mall and were talking about the Soulfest Duo’s book with Bianca. Then he followed them awhile more. From there on, he guessed from various signs of changes, such as that of Qiao Qiao hanging around Bianca more than usual, especially when Ming Dao was present. After he was done, Qiao Qiao spoke up first.

“For the record, we weren’t going on a date when we met up at the theater,” Qiao Qiao clarified. “It was a coincidence since I wasn’t planning on going until later, it was last minute. I almost didn’t get the tickets…”

“Don’t say it anymore,” Jacky interfered. “You don’t have to worry about anything. It was mostly my fault for sending people wrong signals and using my mouth to give them advice. I’ll clean it up in no time.”

Bianca smiled. “Brave, eh?”

“Thank you, Miss Bai.”

“No wonder Sonia likes you so much.”

Jacky looked away for a bit before turning back to them, clearing his throat. “We’re not talking about me today.”

“Does this mean we’re all in on this conspiracy now?” Johnny asked, looking from one to the other.

“You want to back out?” Bianca asked him. “It’s only right. I mean Ehlo is…”

“No. If Jacky’s not backing out, I’m not either.”

Bianca twirled the straw in her hands for a bit before speaking up again. “Have you guys notice how strange Chen Yi has been acting too? Has he lost it?”

“I don’t know,” Jacky said. “I no longer know anything.”

“Is he using Xiao Yu to get Qiao jealous?”

“I don’t think so…I hope not.”

“Am I that despicable?” A voice asked behind them.

Everyone jumped–almost–at the same time. They turned to see Chen Yi and Achel walking toward them. They froze, not knowing how to react, except just to watch Chen Yi’s actions before deciding what step to take next.

“A secret without us?” Chen Yi asked rhetorically. “No way.”

The others did not know how to react or say to ease the situation–since they were still trying to recover from the awkwardness or pondering how much Chen Yi listened in, so they remained silent to wait for Chen Yi’s next words. However, Chen Yi didn’t speak up right away. He took a quick glance at everyone present first. Qiao Qiao tensed up even more when Chen Yi’s eyes passed her, waiting for the worst. Chen Yi sighed out quickly and shoved his hands into his jacket pockets before beginning.

“I’m going to be straight-forward with you guys,” Chen Yi spoke up finally.

They all waited for him to continue–like before.

“I heard what you…” He stopped and pointed at Qiao Qiao. “…and Jacky were talking about yesterday when they sent me in to check on you guys.”

“I should’ve known to stop you,” Bianca said.

“I’m glad I know though.”

Qiao Qiao got up. “Chen Yi, I…”

“Let me finish first.” He gestured for Qiao Qiao to sit back down.

She did as instructed.

Chen Yi turned to the others again. “I know you must be surprised why I’m here today and how I could still maintain such calmness right now. But let me tell you all something.” He paused to make sure he had everyone’s attention. “I already found out a long time ago.” He turned to Qiao Qiao before continuing. “Sorry, Qiao. I was that creepy stalker following you guys the day you were on your first date.”

The others stared at Chen Yi, trying to determine if he was kidding or not, especially about the last part. He looked quite serious so they decided that he was telling the truth.

“Correction,” Jacky jumped in. “Ming Dao and Qiao aren’t dating.”

“What?” Chen Yi asked, surprised.

“Not yet,” Qiao Qiao said.

So Chen Yi did not listen in that much after all. Or maybe he didn’t come until they were discussing the bit regarding him.

The others who were sitting at the table were as puzzled as Chen Yi. They stayed silent for Qiao Qiao to elaborate.

“I’m still trying to find a way to tell him,” Qiao Qiao clarified.

“Oh…”

Johnny cleared his throat. “You were the guy in the shadow in front of Qiao’s house that night?”

The others turned to look at Johnny, curious about what he was talking about. Chen Yi had on this confused look on his face while Achel was the only one to still show a passive, observant look. Jacky had somehow managed to find his voice again so he spoke up.

“What creepy stalker?” Jacky asked. “What shadow?”

“I told you guys that I followed Ming Dao and Qiao around since they left the mall,” Johnny reminded them of his recounts. “And I didn’t realize it, but when Ming Dao left to haul a Taxi, I tried to follow him so I wouldn’t have to go back the way I came. I was across the street from Ming Dao, but there was a car that passed by and with the help of the light, I could see someone hiding near Qiao Qiao’s house. Just barely, but I couldn’t see who. Later, I thought that I was just being paranoid and that person was just walking by.”

“Yes, that was me,” Chen Yi confessed. “I was curious. And…okay, a bit jealous too. But then something happened later.”

They waited without interruptions like before.

“Xiao Yu.”

Qiao Qiao wrinkled her face, confused. “Huh?”

“I bumped into Xiao Yu when I was trying to stalk you guys one day–you, Ming Dao, Bianca that was. And she looked troubled so I asked her what was wrong. She told me she was having trouble at work, some confidence problem. Nothing that severe. I tried to help her whenever I can. So…uh…I found out something weird, which I’m glad I did.”

“You’re with Xiao Yu, aren’t you?” Jacky asked, gesturing his hand. “It’s the only explanation for your over-protectiveness of her these past weeks.”

Chen Yi nodded. “Yes. And it’s not ‘cause I lost Qiao to Ming Dao either.”

“Then…”

“I realized something. When I’m with Xiao Yu, I’m like all out on my behavior, not having to hold back or check with myself mentally if I should do this or that. Or should I act cool in this situation or maybe I shouldn’t? At first, I thought I was just feeling sorry for her since she’s having problems, but then I found out as I was trying to stalk Ming Dao and Qiao one day that…it’s gone.”

“What’s gone?” Johnny asked.

“The magic dust surrounding her.”

Bianca couldn’t help but to laughed out loud. But she pulled herself together at once. “Sorry. I may have misunderstood.”

Jacky turned to Bianca. “It’s a guy thing. I’m not putting you on. When a guy likes someone, he worships or treats her like a princess, imagining that she has this little fairy dust surrounding her thus creating attractiveness and charm. But when he realizes that the magic dust is gone, it just means that she’s just human after all. It’s just one of those harmless crush and not something serious. It actually happens mostly with guys who has never been in love before or only those who live in his mind more than in reality. Chen Yi belongs in the first category.”

“Wow. You’re such an expert.”

“Experience.” He turned to Chen Yi again. “Sorry. I was stealing your limelight.”

Chen Yi smiled. “No wonder Qiao worships you.”

“I’m not,” Qiao Qiao said defensively.

“I don’t mean it in that way. Don’t worry. Anyway, after the dust falls off, I was still confused. But then I realized…like Jacky just said…I’ve known Qiao all my life but only started to like her about a year ago. Maybe I suddenly notice girls more than my car models or…”

“Your dog.”

“That too.” He cleared his throat out of habit since no one was speaking at that time. “So…just to test myself some more, I try to live normal again, not acting crazy or stalking you guys anymore. I work and then get off work and then help Xiao Yu some more and sometimes hang out with Yan too. Then I realized why I like to hang around Xiao Yu so much.”

“You can bully her.”

Chen Yi let out a nervous laugh. “That too. And because what I already mentioned. I can be me around her. I’m comfortable around her. You know why I always slide my hands around her shoulders sometimes when we hang out or maybe like we stand near each other?”

“Like the day I had to clear my throat to remind you?” Jacky asked.

“Yeah, that one. I’m just comfortable with her. I wasn’t trying to play Romeo. And then…somehow we just got together. Oh yeah, remember that day at lunch when you guys asked why we have matching couple’s jackets?”

“You went shopping together?”

“Yeah. But we didn’t get together yet…until that night. Anyway, the jackets were on sale so I was trying to help her boost her confidence so I agreed to get one too.”

“And you’re here today ‘cause you just want to ease Qiao’s pressure? Considering that you’ve overhead our conversation yesterday?”

“Yes. And ‘cause I want to show my Xiao Yu off!” He smiled sheepishly and slid a hand around Achel’s shoulder.

Jacky smiled. “You just can’t stay serious for long.”

“Oh come on, what are you talking about? I’m trying to relief some stress off all your minds here. So the only one out now is Ehlo. And of course the rest of the gang. But I can’t hide from them any longer. And…”

“What?”

“You guys were suspecting me during the BBQ so I had to keep calling Ehlo ‘Mr. Pervert’.”

“Clever.”

Chen Yi flashed on his proud smile.

“And you think you could outdo me in the righteous department?” Ehlo’s voice rang out from somewhere.

They all turned to different directions and spotted Ehlo coming toward them from the side door. He must have been inside. Or was he?

“What in the world are you doing here?” Johnny asked, shocked.

“Hey, you guys are talking about me,” Ehlo said.

“I thought I said you can’t follow me,” Jacky reminded Ehlo.

Ehlo rolled his eyes, walking toward them and sitting down at a seat next to Qiao Qiao. “Listen girl.” He waited for Qiao Qiao to turn to him. “I don’t like you in that way so stop beating yourself up, okay? And I’ll try to shut the others up who aren’t here so you wouldn’t feel bad anymore.”

“You’re serious?” Jacky asked, not really buying it.

Ehlo turned to Jacky. “Hey, just because you pin her on me doesn’t mean I like her. I meant okay, I was really amazed or more like not really buying the whole idea how there’s such a person like her, thinking simple thoughts at times or be as spunky as that without caring if others judge her. But…does that mean I have to go crazy over her? I meant I was a tad silly thinking that I like her and should fight with the other guys. But seriously, when I think about it the other day and tried to test it out, I don’t think I like her that much.”

Jacky turned to look at Qiao Qiao again. “So…I guess you all are free now. Don’t have to worry about rumors now. At least until we clear it with the others as well.”

Chen Yi could see that Qiao Qiao was still troubled so he put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on. We’re going for a walk.” Then he turned to the others with a threatening look. “Keep my girlfriend safe or else.”

“Yes, Master,” Jacky joked, saluting.

Chen Yi pointed at Jacky before leading Qiao Qiao away from the group. They walked toward the walkway leading out farther toward the water. Qiao Qiao followed Chen Yi silently until he stopped at the end of the walkway and turned around to face her again.

“Why are you still unhappy?” Chen Yi asked. “Our only concern earlier was to break it to Ehlo but now that he knows too, it’s done, right? We can all move on. Until we tell the others, that is.”

“Are you just doing this ‘cause you don’t want to see me sad?” Qiao Qiao asked back, her eyes hopeful. “I know it was my fault for hurting you and misled you into…”

“Come on, Qiao. Would I team up with Xiao Yu to do such a thing? Am I that good of pretending?”

“You’re not that kind of person.”

“Then there you go. I know you’re feeling guilty, that’s why I left early yesterday to talk things over with Xiao Yu and the others. I don’t want to see you like that anymore. I’m happy and I want one of my best friends to be happy too.”

Qiao Qiao stared into Chen Yi’s eyes, trying to detect any signs of him trying to hold everything back just for her. Or any signs of pretense. But all she saw was her own despair reflecting in his eyes and was staring right back at her.

“I know you’re still feeling guilty so I’ll give you a reason not to,” Chen Yi said, seeing how morbid Qiao Qiao looked.

Qiao Qiao waited for him to continue.

“I found out something quite spooky.” He paused for emphasis. “I liked you because you were exactly like me. Isn’t that creepy or what? Liking someone like yourself is like liking yourself. How conceited is that? Or egoistical?”

Qiao Qiao laughed at that comment and also because of the disgusted look Chen Yi was displaying on his face.

Chen Yi smiled. “That’s better.” He resumed his serious tone again. “So…promise me you’ll be happy.”

Chen Yi extended his hands out to her. Qiao Qiao hesitated before hugging him finally.

“Thanks, Chen Yi. You’re the best.”

“Wow!”

“What?”

“Hugging you wasn’t like what I imagined.”

“Huh?”

“I thought it would feel quite heavenly to hug you. But now all I’m feeling is relief. It’s like I just overcome the worst. And now we’re friends again and I don’t have to worry whether you’ll be mad with me or not. Or if we’re still going to be friends.”

“We definitely will be.”

They finally let go of each other.

Chen Yi gestured toward the walkway again. “Shall we get back now? Or they’ll think we’re eloping.”

Qiao Qiao laughed. “Glad to have you back, Chen Yi.”

“I wasn’t gone to begin with.”

“True.”

They continued back to the others side-by-side.

When they were at the edge of the walkway, the group from the table looked up at them. Achel had taken Qiao Qiao’s place temporarily when they were gone. But now they were back, Achel got up again.

“I told you they didn’t elope yet!” Jacky told the others at the table, his voice rising on purpose.

Chen Yi heard that. “Very funny, Zhu Fan Gang.”

Jacky smiled. “You’re welcome.”

Bianca got up to pull some extra chairs so Chen Yi and Achel could join them before sitting back down at her place. Qiao Qiao sat back down between Jacky and Ehlo again.

“So…does this call for a celebration?” Chen Yi asked, scanning the others.

“Too early?” Johnny asked.

Ehlo turned to him. “What do you mean too early? I’m sure the others could take it.”

“Don’t we have to wait for Qiao to succeed in confessing to Ming Dao?” Chen Yi asked.

Ehlo shook his head. “The more we have to celebrate today. To give her strength and support!” Ehlo clapped on Qiao Qiao’s shoulder at that time.

“Thanks, Ehlo,” Qiao Qiao said, not minding the enthusiasm or the teasing at all for the time being.

Chen Yi glanced at his watch briefly. “And…Tony and Cyndi should be here soon.”

“Tony and Cyndi?” Qiao Qiao echoed.

“Yeah. I was in a meeting with them yesterday and they helped me decide whether I should come here today or not. Tony and Yan supported me. Cyndi and Xiao Yu were a bit hesitant but of course Xiao Yu supports me.”

“I thought Cyndi went with Wallace yesterday.”

“Actually….” Johnny spoke up.

They all turned to Johnny.

“They left around the same time as me, but I saw them leave separately.”

“Oh…” Qiao Qiao uttered.

“Talking about that, now we’re in another mess,” Jacky said. “I don’t even know why we care so much about their love lives.”

“What happened?” Qiao Qiao asked, turning to him. “Something to do with Wallace? I thought he’s with Penny.”

“I haven’t told you but I don’t think he’s with Penny. Or he wouldn’t be so down lately. I think he misunderstood that Tony’s with Cyndi, so…”

“Tony’s getting along with us better though,” Chen Yi reported. “I mean after his arrogant exterior falls off.”

“Cyndi was right,” Qiao Qiao said. “That was just a façade.”

“Is he serious about Yan then?” Jacky asked.

“I don’t know anymore. He seems more distance with her. I meant like he’s more polite to her now than before but not sure if they’re going anywhere with this in the future. He said something about getting her all riled up before but I’m not sure now.”

“Maybe he used to like Cyndi so now that he reunited with her again, he backs out?” Chen Yi suggested.

“Far-fetch but possible,” Jacky said.

“But…” Qiao Qiao began.

“Let me remind you, Missy. You were the one objecting him the whole time.”

Qiao Qiao frowned.

Jacky smiled. “That won’t help them.” He glanced at his watch out of habit. “Are they coming at all?”

Before Chen Yi could reply, his cell phone rang. He picked it up and talked into it briefly before hanging up.

“Well?”

“Found something else to do with Yan so yeah…”

“I guess this meeting is coming to an end?”

“Aren’t we celebrating though?” Chen Yi reminded him.

“Maybe we should save it for next time when Qiao succeeds for real.”

“Where are we going now?” Chen Yi asked. “Since we’re already up so early and out of the house.”

“I’m going back to prepare for tomorrow’s segment.”

“Since our party’s breaking up, I’ll take Qiao home,” Bianca said.

“I’ll take Qiao back so you guys can go,” Chen Yi told Bianca.

“Actually, you and Xiao Yu can go first, I want to stay for a while,” Qiao Qiao spoke up.

“You sure?” Chen Yi asked, looking at her with concern.

“Yeah,” Qiao Qiao said, sending him a reassuring smile.

Chen Yi nodded. “All right.”

He got up and Achel followed. They waved to the others the last time before heading to the parking lot.

“They gone yet?” Qiao Qiao asked after a minute later.

“Out of earshot,” Jacky replied.

“Tell me when they’re at the parking lot or past it.”

Jacky had on a puzzled look but waited anyway. He reported it to her several minutes later. The others had been silent, wondering what was up.

“Here’s the deal,” Qiao Qiao said, scanning the others still present. “Don’t ever mention to Ming Dao or anyone about what happened. I meant regarding how I like him or whatever else. And don’t try to help hook us up or anything.”

“What?” Ehlo asked, confused.

“Jacky told me just say that I’ve already found someone so it would be easier to break it to everyone else.”

Ehlo gave Jacky a look.

“Sorry,” Jacky mumbled.

Qiao Qiao turned to him. “Don’t blame him. I asked him for help because I couldn’t take all the pressure anymore.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ehlo said, putting a hand up to stop her from continuing. “I don’t like you in that way, remember?”

Qiao Qiao nodded, addressing the others again. “So yeah, don’t make Ming Dao feel even more awkward with what’s going on. I already feel bad that he had to switch seats at the gathering and how I forgot and sort of leaned on him for support. It was just a coincidence that Chen Yi spied on us and I didn’t want to complicate things even more when he was explaining.”

The others nodded automatically.

“Then I guess we should get out of here now,” She said, getting up.

The others did the same. It was then that Qiao Qiao dared to look toward the parking lot. She was sure Chen Yi had left already. It did not make sense to linger after so long. Jacky was the first one to realize Qiao Qiao was sniffing and was reaching into her pocket. For a tissue? He reached into his own pocket to search for some.

“Tissue?” Jacky asked, looking at Ehlo.

Ehlo fished out a pocket-sized bag from his pocket and handed it to Jacky. Jacky caught up to Qiao Qiao and handed some to her.

“What’s going on here?” Jacky demanded. “I swear you should be glad we will eventually clear up the rumors.”

Qiao Qiao shook her head, not being able to talk at all. Jacky stepped in front of her, preventing her from increasing her pace. She was really crying now. He had his hands on her shoulders.

“Come on,” He urged. “What is really going on?”

Qiao Qiao continued to shake her head.

“Am I your brother or not?” Jacky asked angrily.

“Stop bullying her,” Ehlo interfered, having caught up with them.

“What’s going on?” Bianca asked.

Bianca and Johnny had stopped by the three also.

“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” Jacky said, turning to Qiao Qiao again. “Come on, sis.”

Qiao Qiao tried to wipe her tears away with the tissue, still shaking her head. “I can’t tell you or…” Her voice was hoarse and fragmented. “Just take me home, please.”

“You’re not going anywhere until you tell me.”

“What are you doing?” Ehlo jumped in, giving Jacky a disgusted look. “Don’t push it.”

“I have to know.”

Before anyone could say anything, Qiao Qiao had leaned onto Jacky’s shoulder to cry some more. She had abandoned her braveness already. Jacky patted her on the back, trying to stay patient. Then something clicked inside him. Why was he so dumb?

“You like Chen Yi,” He said, not believing his own words.

“What?!” Ehlo, Bianca, and Johnny blurted out at the same time.

“I was right after all.” Jacky did not sound like he was proud of himself for being correct, but more like he was beating himself up for not going with the instinct.

“You gotta be kidding me, right?” Ehlo asked, having recovered after a minute of silence. “That’s too ironic and pathetic. I meant she let Chen Yi walked away without trying. And…”

“Xiao Yu’s her friend,” Bianca replied in Qiao Qiao’s place.

Ehlo turned to her. “You knew?”

Bianca shook her head. “No, but it made sense, right?”

Ehlo turned to look at Jacky and Qiao Qiao again. “The more she should fight though. Chen Yi just got together with Xiao Yu recently. There’s still hope.”

“Are you crazy?”

He turned to give Bianca a challenging look. “Care to elaborate?”

“If you think it’s some modern cheesy drama that after fighting, they could be friends again, then you can drop that thought from your mind.”

“And the rest of the guys weren’t competing these past months?”

“That’s different.”

“How different?”

“That’s because you guys backed out of it and it hadn’t gotten to the point where you play dirty or the hostility is to the point of irreversible. If you want Qiao to fight with Xiao Yu, things will get quite ugly in the end.”

“Xiao Yu isn’t aggressive. She could back out when she learned of…”

“You think that’s fair to her?”

“But…”

“And Chen Yi has already liked Xiao Yu.”

“You think it’s fair to Qiao?”

“It’s my fault for moving too slow,” Qiao Qiao spoke up finally. She had tried to pull herself together and was standing straight up now.

The others turned to her.

“I knew they were going out before they admitted it today.”

“This is starting to make my head spin,” Ehlo said, rubbing his forehead.

“Sorry, but…”

“Don’t worry, he’s just being dramatic,” Jacky said, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“When did you find out?” Bianca asked, urging Qiao Qiao to continue.

“I was going to give Chen Yi the book and then I saw how he and Xiao Yu were interacting so…”

“What book?”

“Soulfest Duo’s book.”

“That was why you went in the first place.”

Qiao Qiao nodded. “I got it signed and all too…so I thought it would be a nice present.”

“So you didn’t give the book to him?”

“Are you asking so you could buy it?” Ehlo jumped in.

“Huang Yu Rong,” Jacky gritted.

Ehlo threw up his hands. “It’s a possibility.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Qiao Qiao said, her voice much calmer now. Calm like when she was trying to clear up to them after Chen Yi was gone. “What’s done is done.” She sighed out. “I know it’s hard for everyone, but could you please not tell Chen Yi about it? Or the others?”

The others exchanged looks among themselves before nodding.

Qiao Qiao smiled. “Thank you.”

“How are you going to hold this up, kid?” Ehlo asked, his apparent concern for her–as a friend and not as someone who was looking for another opportunity.

“I have to try and until I could forget about it and treat Chen Yi like a regular friend again.”

Jacky sighed out as well. “Let’s get out of here and go somewhere fun.”

“Like?” Ehlo prompted.

Jacky smiled. “Your favorite place.”

They ended up spending most of the morning at the amusement park on different rides and enjoy themselves at different game booths.

*****

It wasn’t until they dropped Qiao Qiao off at Orchids’ place that Bianca called Jacky. They ended up doing a three-way call so Ehlo could listen in as well. They were of course putting it on speaker since they were all driving at the same time.

“What is it, Miss Bai?” Jacky asked.

“Where did you learn about those ways of categorization in guys and the pattern they fall in love?” Bianca asked.

“What categorization?” Jacky asked with a puzzled expression, though Bianca could not see him. “What pattern?”

“What you said earlier about Chen Yi and the whole princess theory.”

Jacky laughed.

“What? Come on. Tell me.”

“He’s putting you on,” Johnny explained in Jacky’s place. “He was just trying to ease the tension from before and help backing Chen Yi up. Those things do happen but I don’t think that was the case for Chen Yi.”

“That means he really used Xiao Yu so that Qiao wouldn’t feel guilty? Or at least he thought he was helping Qiao. And if that’s the case then…”

“I don’t think Chen Yi is that type of person,” Jacky said. “I think what happened was he spent too much time with Achel lately that he discovered many things about her. Not to mention how he was pestering her with the whole health thing and…”

“What?” Bianca asked anxiously.

“The way he looks at her.”

“Are you saying it from experience?” Bianca teased.

“Very funny.”

“All right, guys,” Johnny interfered. “What are we going to do now?”

“Head home, what else?” Ehlo jumped in. “I had enough drama for one day.”

“How about take in a movie?” Bianca asked.

“It has to be a comedy.”

“What kind?”

“Not a romantic comedy of course.”

“Too cheesy for you?”

“No, it reminds me of what we’re going through too much if there’s romance in it.”

So they agreed on some action adventure comedy instead.

*****

“This one looks better on her,” Chen Yi argued.

“No way,” Qiao Qiao said, not backing down at all. “It looks too flowery. White still looks the best. Purity, get it?”

Chen Yi rolled his eyes. “That’s so last century. We need something special just for Orchids and Vincent. How about this yellow one then?”

“Hmm….I still say go with the white.”

Chen Yi turned to give Qiao Qiao his famous aggressive glare.

Qiao Qiao had this innocent look on. “What?”

“Are you trying to contradict me on purpose?”

“Come on, you two,” Achel interfered. “Stop arguing. You know what? She can wear both.”

Chen Yi and Qiao Qiao turned to Achel and wrinkled their faces at her.

Achel smiled. “Didn’t you two forget about the reception afterwards? She can wear the fancy white one for the ceremony and the simple yellow one for the reception.”

“Huh…that’s not a bad idea,” Chen Yi admitted.

Achel and Qiao Qiao exchanged a smile as Chen Yi went back to look at the catalogs in front of them.

It turned out that when Qiao Qiao arrived home, she discovered Chen Yi and Achel were around so she joined in with them, poring over some wedding pictures for hours and helping Orchids narrow down her choices.

As Qiao Qiao was poring over another magazine nearby, Orchids walked into the room with a tray of drinks and desserts.

Orchids smiled at the sight in front of her. “Break time, anyone?”

Qiao Qiao jumped up from the floor and headed over to where Orchids was standing. “It’s funny that Chen Yi’s even more into this than me.”

“Hey, I won the bet after all,” Chen Yi reminded her, without looking up from the magazine. “I have to be more actively involved, right?”

Orchids looked from Chen Yi to Qiao Qiao. “It looks like you two are back to normal. What happened?”

“We’ve sort some stuffs out so…” Chen Yi said casually.

“What production or play did I miss this time?” Orchids teased.

“It’s not important anymore. The most important thing right now is preparing for your wedding. We have to make it perfect or else.”

As Chen Yi was saying those last few words, he finally looked up from the magazine and smiled at Orchids.

“Great to know that I have you three around as backups,” Orchids said in an appreciative tone.

“Anytime.” Then he looked around the room. “Where are the angels?”

“They left half an hour ago. Xiao Qiao said she’s going to finish her novel this week.”

“Wow. I would’ve switched to writing novels too if it were that easy.”

“I think she said something about getting the right inspiration ‘cause it usually takes her longer to write one,” Qiao Qiao said.

As they were exchanging those words, Chen Yi and Achel had joined Orchids and Qiao Qiao at the sofa. Now, they were distributing drinks and desserts among themselves as well as continuing with the conversation. Chen Yi took a quick sip of his apple cider before continuing.

“I wonder what Xiao Qiao’s writing about though,” Chen Yi pondered aloud. “I mean what is there to write about here?”

“What you guys think might not be important or special might be to Xiao Qiao,” Orchids pointed out.

Chen Yi nodded. “True.” Then he realized what Achel’s doing. “Eh…what are you doing?”

Achel turned to look at Chen Yi. “What?”

“You’re ruining the food by adding in candy. And why are you eating that again? I thought I told you it’s…”

“Mr. Health Nut, stop being so strict,” Qiao Qiao said. “Like you weren’t munching on candy bars all through high school.”

Chen Yi turned to Qiao Qiao. “Like you said, that was high school.”

Achel could see where this conversation might be heading to, so she put the other candy bar aside and began to munch on her dessert instead.

“Anyway…” Chen Yi continued.

“What?”

“What are we going to do after this?”

“I thought you guys are…”

“Nah…we’re so going to hang around here until dark…”

“Are we going to check back with Tony ge and Yan Yan later?” Achel asked.

“Nah. Let them call us.”

Achel nodded and went back to eating.

Seeing that the three were getting along just fine, Orchids went back downstairs again. But about fifteen minutes later, she came back. Chen Yi was deep in thoughts about something but when he saw some shadows coming near them, he snapped to attention.

“Oh hey!” Chen  Yi greeted the new arrivals. “I thought you guys want to go somewhere together instead of hanging around with us.”

Achel and Qiao Qiao had gone back to look at the wedding arrangement magazines so they didn’t notice it when Orchids came back. Now that they heard Chen Yi talking, they turned to see who had just arrived. They could see that Tony and Yan Yan were together, and Tony had settled down on the sofa next to Chen Yi while Yan Yan joined them down on the floor beside the magazines.

“Good thing that you guys came,” Qiao Qiao said in an excited tone. “We need as much help as we can.”

Tony spotted the contents on the floor. “You guys been at it since morning?”

“Not really, been out for a bit before that,” Chen Yi said.

Tony suddenly remembered. “Oh, the meeting? How did it go?”

“Better than I expected it to be.”

“That’s good then.” He turned to look at Qiao Qiao. “So we’re all good now?”

Qiao Qiao smiled. “Yeah.”

Tony looked at his watch. “Vincent came by at all today?”

“Nah,” Chen Yi replied. “At least not that I know of.”

They turned around to look for Orchids to realize that she had gone back downstairs again.

Chen Yi turned back to Tony. “Maybe she went downstairs to wait for Vincent.”

“Possibly,” Tony said, getting up. “I’m going to join her downstairs as well. I’ll see you guys in a bit.”

They nodded and turned their attention back on the wedding magazines again.

*****

At the arrival of the following week, things seemed to be quiet for the most part. In short, everything was smooth-sealing as far as their careers go. However, it couldn’t be said the same for their personal lives. There wasn’t any major live changing events happening, but it was not really a promise paradise either. Jacky dived into his work 125%, not paying attention to anything else–at least that was what it seemed to be. On the other hand, he and the other six people were keeping a secret to which two had no idea what was really going on. On the top of that, Chen Yi and Achel helped the others plan for Orchids’ wedding also. Only Xiao Qiao, Wei Ru, and Xiao Jie seemed to be the only ones not having a care in the world. Xiao Qiao continued with her story while the other two girls were making their final visits to different locations to take pictures as well as take in the scenes for the last time before going home. Ehlo seemed to accompany Wei Ru most of his time off-work to different places, not showing any signs that he was also in on the conspiracy with the other six people–of which two he lived with. Wallace seemed less attentive at work and seemed less like his charming self. Orchids and Cyndi were worried for him although they didn’t dare to ask since they wanted to respect his space. If he wanted to share, he would. Aside from that, Laura–the new girl–seemed to get along fine with the rest of them. However, without Chen Yi and Qiao Qiao, Orchids Agency seemed even quieter than ever. Even Simon couldn’t get used to it.

It was until the end of the week that things started to stir up again since Jacky had to see the three angels off. He and Qiao Qiao followed their car until the end of town before saying goodbye.

“Jacky ge, are you going to miss us?” Xiao Jie asked innocently.

“Of course,” Jacky replied automatically. “It wouldn’t be the same without you all.”

“And next time you come, be sure to look us up again,” Qiao Qiao chimed in. “We always have room for you.”

“Of course,” Xiao Jie obliged. “You guys are so fun.”

Wei Ru smiled. “If you let her talk anymore, we’ll never go.”

“Hey, I’m just being friendly.”

Jacky smiled at them, knowing too well they liked to pick on each other but were very good friends.

Qiao Qiao turned to Xiao Qiao. “So…did you manage to finish your novel, Miss Xiao Yue Lan?”

Xiao Qiao nodded. “I did. It’s the first time I did it so fast. But then again, I will have to go through editing and all the gists that all novels have to go through before it gets published. It just depends how they like it this time. You know how it is with books.”

Qiao Qiao nodded also. “We’ll be looking forward to it then.”

“All right,” Wei Ru took over. “I think we better head off.”

“Take care then,” Jacky said.

Xiao Qiao turned to Jacky. “One last thing.”

Jacky smiled. “What?”

“Aren’t you the least curious as to what I’m writing about?”

“I’m sure I will find out when it gets published.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret.”

“What, Miss Zhao?”

“You’re my inspiration for the main character.”

Jacky smiled.

“Don’t believe me?”

“I guess it’s not impossible since…”

“You wrote a song for her, right?” Xiao Jie reminded him.

Jacky let out a nervous smile.

“Okay,” Xiao Qiao said. “We’re off. You both take care, all right?”

Jacky and Qiao Qiao nodded and waved to the girls as they returned to Xiao Qiao’s car.

“When will they be back?” Qiao Qiao asked.

“Not anytime soon,” Jacky replied. “Xiao Qiao will have to spend a lot of time getting her book published and…”

“Maybe we could go visit them?”

Jacky shrugged. “Maybe.”

Qiao Qiao turned to Jacky. “Are you all right?”

“What?”

“You look so tired lately that you’re worrying us.”

“It’s life, Qiao.” He slipped a hand around Qiao Qiao’s shoulders at that time. “Let’s go.”

Qiao Qiao didn’t ask any more questions but just let Jacky lead her back to his car. They stayed silent for the rest of the ride to Orchids’ house.

© Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Posted: Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

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