Chapter 43: The Mom Quits and the Leader Meets with his Previous Followers         
Jaejoong couldn’t believe his bad luck. First, he was being followed by paparazzi everywhere. Somehow, the paparazzi had gotten interested in his relationship with Yumi. Yumi's popularity was escalating after she sang for the ending song of a popular anime series, and took on the role for another popular manga adaption for a drama. Second, he had to agree to work for Yumi, who was clearly blackmailing him. Now, he had to deal with Changmin’s frustrating request.

A few days ago, Changmin had sought for Jaejoong’s help. It was more like a compromise to Jaejoong. It began with Changmin saying, “I’m proposing an offer that you can’t refute. I’ll wash the dishes for a week if you do this.”
“What do I have to do then?”  Jaejoong quizzically queried. Ironically, he was in the process of washing last night’s dishes because of Changmin’s midnight snacking.
Changmin knew that in order to close the deal, he had to maintain his mysteriousness. “No, you have to agree before I can reveal anything,” he argued.
“Three weeks of dish washing,” Jaejoong countered, knowing that the headstrong Changmin would never give an answer unless Jaejoong followed his plan.
“Two weeks,” Changmin bargained.
Jaejoong unwilling to give in that easily, proclaimed, “Two and a half weeks of dish washing . . . and a week of gardening.”
“Fine, deal.”
“Okay,” Jaejoong enthusiastically dried the dishes with a cloth. “So, what’s the catch?”
 “There’s this winter festival that’s on December 15 and—“
“Hold it,” Jaejoong interrupted. “That’s Junsu’s birthday, you do realize that?”
“Aw fuck. I have to supervise, damn it.”
Jaejoong taunted, “Fuck yeah, I can’t believe you forgot.”
“So, what are we going to do?”
Changmin awarded the problem to Jaejoong, who was now in deep thought. With a hand to his chin, Jaejoong thought and thought. Whenever they celebrated Junsu’s birthday, they always had a gaming festival with all the different types of consoles Junsu owned. They would order his favourite meal, hitsumabushi, along with his preferred plum wine. This was the event to which Junsu particularly looked forward. There had to be some resolution and then a specific image came to Jaejoong’s mind. Voila, there was a plan.
“I’ve got it!” Jaejoong exclaimed. “I have the best plan! We’ll go to your Winter Festival and we’ll tell Junsu’s girlfriend to come with us. This time, she will pretend that they’re having a double date with Yunho and Kannei! Then, she can surprise him with whatever gift she has! We’ll also surprise him too!”
Changmin proudly high-fived Jaejoong, cheering, “You the man, Jaejoong!”
“Yeah!” Jaejoong grunted. “Who’s the man?”
Changmin laughed before adding, “You the man! Right, you have to bring some celeb with you on that day.” 
“Say what?” Jaejoong stopped his laughter.
“I said,” Changmin clearly enunciated this time. “You have to get a singer to sing at our winter festival.”
“What? I never agreed to this!” Jaejoong hollered. To disprove Jaejoong, Changmin clicked a pen he had in his pocket, which repeated their conversation. Jaejoong shook his head, muttering, “That’s cheap, man,”
With a smirk, he sang, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
 “All right, all right. I’ll give birth to some celeb.”
“Oh that’s nasty,” Changmin noted.
“Screw you, you bastard,” Jaejoong swore this time.
“Wrong word choice there, you noob,” Changmin lectured.
He had exhausted his resources, asking this singer there, and begging that singer here. No one, however, had time during Christmas time to perform for others. They were busy with their year-end activities, which involved attending ceremonies and Christmas-related festivals. Simply put, they were selfish, unwilling to sacrifice chances for the spotlight. Now, that behaviour made Jaejoong snicker. Charitable acts were always desirable.
“Jaejoong,” Yumi reminded. “I think you put too much blush here.”
Jaejoong was supposed to be dressing her for a talk show, but his mind was wandering. He was too bothered by his celebrity friends. They weren’t exactly friends; they were more like acquaintances, who stayed for amusement and left whenever needed.
“Fuck you.” He slammed the brush onto the table. “I can’t deal with all this crap anymore!”
“Well, too bad for you,” she scoffed while evening out her blush by herself.
“Yes, I know I have bad luck,” he uttered. “You don’t have to be even more of a bitch to remind me.”
Yumi shrugged her shoulders, flicking her hair in the process. “You were the bitchy one first. If you had actually kept your promise to help me in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to do this.”
“Okay, I give up.” He snapped his brush in half and tossed it on her lap. “I don’t care anymore. I quit. I’m moving. I don’t give a damn.”
“Hey!” Yumi shrieked. “You can’t just quit like this again. Aren’t you worried that I’d—“
Jaejoong, who was already walking away, turned to say, “Taka Yumi, I don’t know why you’ll only settle with me working by your side, but I don’t care. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m sick of this. I’m sick of people—“
Pulling on his sleeve, Yumi collapsed onto her knees. “Please,” she urged, “just help me. I know that your dad is staying at our hospital. I can get the best doctors to—“
“I don’t need your pity,” Jaejoong stated. “I don’t even want anything to do with you. I know your sort too well. You don’t have a heart. All you think about is yourself.”
Yumi, after seeing his disappointed look, uttered, “That’s not true. I . . . I just want to show that I can succeed, that my dream was worth it.”
“And what about other people’s lives? You’d destroy them in the process?” Jaejoong harked back.
“I—“
Jaejoong shook his head, and tossed his apron aside. He always had a habit of wearing a black apron whenever he worked. That was a gift from his sister, but there was no need for it anymore. His family didn’t even want to do anything with him now. He was all alone, just like before, and he could only laugh at himself. Those that used him, that abandoned him were all successful these days. The loser? The one who helped others, the one who stayed behind . . .
As he left, Yumi had quietly followed him. She picked up the apron he had discarded and hugged it close to her chest. There was no hope for him to help her anymore. She always made him angry for some reason. Even when she was trying to help him overcome his crush, he disregarded her. In his mind, she only cared about success and about herself. He knew nothing of her, yet he loved judging her. She knew she shouldn’t have cared about what he thought. Still, she cared . . . too much. Since when had he taken such a large chunk of her heart and mind?
Slipping from the pocket of his apron was a flyer. Yumi read it carefully, and saw the note that had been written on that sheet of paper: “Find a singer for the Winter Festival”. Was that her chance for redemption? Her chance for him to trust her again?
------



Reunions were impregnated with anticipation and expectation. They were to demonstrate changes, whether for the better or for the worse, from the past to the present. Rhett had hoped to delightfully surprise his university colleagues. He wanted to hear their jealous howls. Well, he just wanted them to respect him. What he didn’t want was for them to probe his privacy. Family, love, friends’ lives were what he considered to be private matters. Unfortunately, fate usually didn’t grant him what he wished, and all it took was a rumour to be announced.
 “I heard from your parents that you’ve got a girlfriend now,” Rhett’s close buddy from university, Dongmin, slurred.
Dongmin had drunk many bottles of sake like usual. He never had much self-control or shyness. He was like Jaejoong, except more vulgar. 
Rhett mumbled, “I-I s-suppose.”
Sadly, Dongmin’s girlfriend, Dana, overheard and shouted, “Girlfriend? Oh la la, Rhett. That’s scandalous!”
“Holy shit!” this statement caused the blabbermouth, Jin, to yell. “Dude, how hot is she? Is she as hot as that actress?”
Dongmin pressed on, ordering, “Scale of one to ten, man.”
Rhett could only say, “Ugh . . .”
He knew this would happen if any of them found out about a private matter. He hated being interrogated, but most of all, he hated how words spread like a forest fire. Soon, people who seemed like strangers to him would know about his life, specifically about Kannei now. He didn’t want them to know about her and wished that they wouldn’t ask for more information.
Mina, one of Rhett’s classmates, thankfully added, “Guys, don’t bully Rhett like that!”
Dongmin snickered, “I take it you still have a crush on him then, Mina.”
Rhett was surprised that Dongmin said that. That couldn’t possibly be true. Mina was always a friend. She even had a steady boyfriend in university, and she never really did do anything to Rhett. Okay, maybe she was a bit touchy at times with her excessive hugs, but he thought that was just her style of showing that she cared for a friend.
Mina spilled a cup of water on Dongmin’s face, and insisted, “Oh shut up, Dongmin! You jerk!”
So it was true, Rhett thought. He was surprised at how he never noticed this, but he remembered how he was never good at detecting such things. It was usually Jaejoong or Yoochun who would tell him that this girl fancied him, and they probably never told him about Mina’s crush for him since they didn’t even know about her existence.
“Go on, Rhett,” Jin nudged Rhett, urging, “tell us how hot she is.”
Upon hearing that word, Rhett almost squirmed in his seat. Kannei and that word were impossible to group together; they were close to being antonyms. What was worse was that he couldn’t really judge Kannei’s appearance even though he had had his share of judging women’s looks with his friends. This was just as bizarre as hearing a friend critique his sister.
“Ugh . . . she doesn’t really  . . . fit that scale,” Rhett attempted to explain.
Dongmin instantly shot back, “So, she’s ugly? Don’t tell me she’s fat cause no one likes fat chicks man.”
Dongmin was not going to leave without a fight. He never knew when to stop. This thought made his stomach shrivel. If only he had remembered to bring some pills to soothe his stomach, then . . .
“Dongmin! That’s not very nice!” Mina grumbled.
Dongmin rolled his eyes, sputtering, “Oh, fuck you. You’re not my mother.”
“She sure does sound like her though,” Jin jeered.
“Hurry Rhett!” Dana stuck her head out from Dongmin’s shoulder to shout, “Tell us! Show us a picture!”
 “I h-haven’t taken any pictures of her,” he admitted.
“What? I thought you loved taking pictures, man,” Jin moped. “Are you honestly Rhett because I don’t think you’re Rhett.”
Sure, Rhett had a fascination with photography. He even took classes outside of university to understand the art of photography. He also owned several camera models from the vintage sort to the high-tech ones. In a group outing, he was usually the photographer and was,  thus, excluded from most of the photos. That had made him vow to capture every moment he and his future girlfriend shared with a picture, and also feature an album of her.
“Well, she’s funny?” Rhett argued.
Dongmin almost spat out his drink. “Funny means she’s a man or maybe she’s just goddamn ugly.”
“Hey!” Lena scorned. “Girls can be funny!”
“Ugh, she’s . . . unique?” Yunho could simply mutter.
“You mean weird,” Jin corrected.
Rhett gulped, “N-N-no . . . or at least I don’t think so. Well . . . she can be cute?”
“Cute is for a kid!” Dongmin countered. “D-don’t be a pedo.”
“No!” Rhett hollered.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Jin added, “Oh, thank god. At least tell me she’s tall and has some boobies.”
An awkward question deserved an awkward response, so Rhett uneasily laughed, “Ah . . . Hahaha . . .”
“You can’t be serious. Have you at least slept with her?” Dongmin slammed his drink onto the table.
“Dongmin!” Mina yanked his ear, causing him to whimper.
“What?” Rhett almost spat his drink out. “W-why are you asking me that question?”
Dongmin shook his head, unable to believe that Yunho did not know the golden rule to dating, “If you’ve dated her for a while and you haven’t fucked her then, something is wrong.”
“Don’t listen to Dongmin! He’s an asshole,” Lena disputed. “The only thing that matters is that you love her and that she loves you.”
Rhett didn’t even think their relationship qualified any of the topics that they had mentioned now, so he felt like he was back to the start. Had he confused love with friendship this time? Was his concept of love wrong? Now that he thought of it, a loving couple should have been like Naomi and Junsu. Those two were certainly in love; they were happily holding hands and sharing kisses here and there. Plus, whenever Yoochun had a girlfriend, he would shower her with affection and go on romantic dates. Even this bickering couple beside him shared the look of lovers. Rhett didn’t think he looked at her like that. He just saw her as Lee Kannei, just Kannei, nothing more, and nothing less. Was that enough then . . . to be called love if he didn’t think she was particularly amazing, but still wanted to be by her side?      
            Not knowing what to do, Rhett excused himself from the dinner. He pretended that he just remembered that he had unfinished work at the office. What he really had to resolve was his dilemma with Kannei. He had to find her right now. He had that sudden urge to call her to confirm . . . something. While walking to his car, he was dialing her number on his phone.
            “Hello?”
            “Hey, it’s me,” he stated.
            “Yunho? What’s up? Is something wrong? You sound horrible.”
            Lightly chuckling, he started his car engine and asked, “I’m fine. I’m just wondering . . . where are you . . . right now?”
            “I’m at home. Why?”
            “I . . .”
            “Yunho . . . do you need to talk?”
            Rhett answered, “I . . . Yeah . . . I do need to talk . . . to you. Can I . . . just go to your place?”
            He thought she would have rejected him. It was close to midnight. However, she still said, “Yeah, sure. Just text me when you’re close and I’ll be waiting at the lobby.”
            “Okay, and thanks.”
            “I’ll see you then.”
            With a click, his phone call had ended. This end meant he could drive faster to her home. He was racing through cars and when he arrived, he was already fairly tired. Seeing her sitting in a couch to wait for him, he dashed to her side and wrapped her in his arms. This was it for Rhett. This would let him know if this was actually love.  
“Just stay there for a moment, will you?” he begged.
Rhett would have anticipated her to push him away, yet today, she was rather obedient. She even returned his embrace, and in a muffled voice, she muttered, “Okay.”
There, the two stood in each other’s arms. No one needed to understand why they were acting this way. Even they didn’t know why this was happening. Somehow, it just felt right and natural. So, for a while, they stayed still just to savour the moment. It wasn’t until Rhett’s cell phone started to vibrate in her pajama pocket did they leave each other.
“Hello?” Rhett answered.
“Rhett, it’s Uncle Henry.”
“Wh-what do you . . . I mean, what would you like?” Rhett stuttered, knowing that nothing good would come out of his uncle’s mouth.
“Yunho, what is there to be afraid of your dear uncle? Since when did I ever try to harm you?” Rhett could hear his uncle’s exaggerated voice.
“What do you have in mind?” Rhett now steadied his own tone.
“Why, I want you to have dinner with me,” Uncle Henry suggested. “I have a special treat for you.”
“Treat?”
“It’s more like a few guests,” his uncle clarified, “Hana and her parents are going to be there.”
“For?”
Uncle Henry threatened before cutting off the conversation. “What’s important is that you be there. If you’re not, then I’m not sure how well your advertisements will go . . .”
Rhett felt a tug coming from his sleeve. “Yunho . . . what happened?” Kannei pondered with concerned eyes.
Yes . . . what had happened? What was supposed to be a fine evening was now ruined. Rhett had suspicions about his uncle’s scheme. Most likely, Rhett would be introduced as Hana’s potential fiancé candidate, which meant that if he were to attend this dinner, he wouldn’t be objecting to this idea. He might as well been silently agreeing to his uncle. If he were to bail on this date, his uncle would torture him at work. Rhett would never succeed and claim his father’s previous title. He would be a disgrace in his family, but . . . another tug had came from Kannei, reminding Rhett of what could be.
Taking a huge gulp, he gently removed her hand from his shirt, and lied, “It’s just Julie. She wanted me to guess what she bought for me for Christmas.”
“Oh,” Kannei revealed a soft grin, and sighed, “that’s good. I thought it was something bad.”
Rhett forced himself to smile, hoping to reassure her that everything was all right. Even though he knew the answer to his question and had cleared his doubts, he didn’t confess anything to her. He didn’t even linger on for any longer. He would have actually kissed her on the cheek or maybe on her forehead, yet he knew that if he were to touch her, he wouldn’t be able to leave her. Out of duty, he said good night to her, waved, and left. Tomorrow, he would have to pick up Kannei from school. Tomorrow, he would have to decide what to do with his uncle. Tomorrow . . . he would have to be brave.

Reactions: