The lotus is portrayed by the cultures of many lands as a symbol of purity. Arising from the mud, it inspires all who see it. In poems, paintings, sculptures, and legends from China, India, Egypt, the lotus inspires mankind to follow its example to open up to beauty and light. Out of the muck the lotus springs forth pure and beautiful.

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Chapter 1

'taken'

There were a lot of good things about spring vacation.  For starters, the sheer lack of school was nice, even if there was homework.  But Li had finished that weeks earlier and it was of no concern to him.  The warming weather was a plus, too.  The cherry trees were on the verge of blooming, and he looked forward to that.  Cherry trees were probably the most beautiful part of the scenery here in Japan. 

But the part of vacation that Li loved the most was this right here.  He pressed Sakura a little more against the cushions at the end of the couch and kissed her again, this time more aggressively.  She did not hold back or feign a struggle, but wrapped her arms around and pulled him close until not a molecule of air remained between them.  He loved vacation because it meant he was with Sakura, and there was nothing at all to distract him from a session like this.  Not class, not homework, not her brother… and not even that damn phone, still ringing like there was no tomorrow.

"I really think you should get that," she whispered, after he'd finally pulled away and began to plant a line of kisses down her neck.

"Not a chance."

"But it's been ringing for five minutes, Syaoran.  It really might be important."

"How could it be anything important?  Nothing's happened in this town for months."  That was true, life in Tomoeda had been absurdly quiet lately.  Sakura demurred and let Li began to slide his hands under her light sweater. 

The phone stopped ringing at that point, and Li exhaled in relief as he pulled it over her head.  But he'd hardly begun to go lower before it started ringing again.

"Damn it!"

"Maybe you should get it."

"It's probably just your brother calling to see if you're here."

"Could be," she acknowledged, and decided to concentrate on lipping each of his fingers gently, then dropping a tiny kiss on his palm.  He sucked in his breath and started to lean over her again.  But it was becoming harder and harder to concentrate with that damn shrill noise in the background.

"I need to take care of this," he finally grunted.  She sighed and dropped her head back against the cushion as he clambered half off the couch to reach the phone, then resettled himself on top of her.

"What?" he said irritably.  "Oh.  Hi Mother."

The resigned look on his face was too funny, and it was all Sakura could do to not laugh out loud right there and then.  Instead she settled for stroking his scruffy hair back from his face, which made him squirm.

"Look, I'm kinda busy at the moment-  What?  What about her?"  He listened for a moment, then abruptly sat up.  He was putting undue pressure on Sakura's legs like this, but she knew better than to complain.  Something was wrong, she could see it in his eyes.

"What?  You can't be serious- this can't be right!  It's impossible!"

"What?" Sakura mouthed, but he wasn't paying any attention to her.  All of his focus was on the phone.

"Are you sure?  For how long?"  Whatever answer he got was clearly bad news, and his face began to lose color.  "And no word?  Right, I'll be right there."

And with that he hung up and stood.

"What?" Sakura finally asked. 

"She's gone."

"Who's gone?"

"Meilin," he choked.  "She hasn't come home for a day now.  She's missing."

It took a second for his words to register, and then Sakura's hand flew to her mouth in shock.

"How?  What?  No word at all?"

He shook his head stiffly.  Shock was giving way to horror for Sakura, and she could see it was in his eyes too.

"Who would do this?  Who could take Meilin?"

"I don't know.  But that's why I'm going back home."  He gave a throaty snarl and let fly with the phone, and Sakura jumped when it crashed against the far wall of the room.  He paid no attention to the mess, but stalked out of the room.  She had to hurry to catch up, pulling her shirt back on over her head.

"But she's so strong," she said plaintively.  "And such an incredible fighter.  It seems so unbelievable.  Has there been a ransom note?  Maybe they're after some money…"

He was shaking his head at every statement as he pulled a duffel bag out of his closet and started throwing things in it.

"I don't know.  But she went out yesterday and she didn't come back, and that's enough for me.  I have to get there tonight.  Whoever did it, I'll find them."

He raked his hand through his unruly bangs, pushing them out of his eyes as he looked around.

"Passport?  Where the hell did I put that thing?" 

He shut the top drawer of his dresser with a slam – right on his hand.

"Ouch!"  He yanked out his red hand and waved it in the air before delivering a swift kick at the dresser.  "Damn it, damn it, damn it!"

"Syaoran."  Sakura took his hand in hers and kissed it lightly.  "Your face is white.  You've got to calm down.  You can find her, I know it.  But you've got to take a deep breath."

He nodded and took a shaky breath.

"It's just… she's my cousin… she's always been there…"

"I know.  It's going to be okay.  You're going to find her."

"I have to get there tonight."

"I know.  I'm coming with you."

That took Li by surprise, and he gave her a startled glance.

"She's one of my best friends, Syaoran, of course I'm coming.  I won't let you do this on your own."

He was taken aback, but realized he should have expected this.  Of course Sakura would want to help. 

"Thank you."  He gripped her in a sudden hug, then resumed searching for his passport.

Two hours later, two seats had been booked on the 9:15 flight to Hong Kong, Sakura had explained everything as best she could to her father, and she was throwing whatever she could find into her bag.

"Sakura, are you ready yet?"  Li fretted in her doorway, pacing back and forth.  "We've only got an hour until the plane takes off."

"I know, I know.  I'm going as fast as I can.  If I don't pack any snacks, Kero-chan will fuss over the flight."

"And who says he's coming?"

"Hey!" Kero interjected.

"Of course Kero-chan is coming," Sakura said placidly.  "He can help."

Li's eyebrows went straight up.

"How, exactly?"

"He can fly overhead and scout, or something."  Sakura was taking out the Cards now, leafing through them absentmindedly before tucking them into a side pocket. 

"Oh sure.  He can fly overhead to look for a girl with dark hair in a city full of people with dark hair.  And of course she'll just be wandering around, after being kidnapped."

"Please don't be like that, Syaoran.  I'm sure he can help somehow.  I can't exactly leave him behind in the house."

"I don't see why not."

"But I wanna come," Kero grouched.  "I wanna see Hong Kong again!"

"Kero-chan, this is not a vacation.  It's an emergency, Meilin's in danger."

"I know, I know," he sniffed.  "Relax.  I can help you find the brat, no sweat."

"What was that?"  Kero gave a strangled choking noise as Li grasped him firmly around the throat and lifted him.  "What did you say?"

"I said I can help you find the -"

"Meilin," Li said coldly, giving a slight squeeze.  "Her name is Meilin."

Kero's face had gone white under his golden fur, and Sakura bit her lip worriedly.  Li had not bothered to correct Kero's spiteful nicknames for years, both he and Meilin seemed to have accepted that they would be 'kid' and 'brat' forever.  But Li had clearly been pushed over the edge with worry.

"I know…"

"Syaoran, I'm ready."  Sakura held her bag out.  "Put him in, and let's go."

Li ground his teeth, then stuffed Kero unceremoniously into Sakura's purse.

"Hey!"

"Quiet, Kero-chan."  She snapped it closed and then shouldered her travel bag.  "I'm ready.  Let's go." 

"Finally."  He strode out of the room at a brisk pace.  "We've got just enough time to get to the airport, so there better not be anymore -"

He broke off as they reached the first floor, and scowled.

"Damn."

Touya crossed his arms and returned the look.

"What the hell is going on here?"

"There's no time for this, Onii-chan.  We're in a rush."  Sakura tried to brush past him, but he promptly pinned her to the wall with one hand.  "Onii-chan!  Let go!  What are you even doing here, you don't live here anymore!"

"Dad just called and told me what was going on.  I can't believe you think you're actually going to run off to Hong Kong with him!"

"Touya-kun, we're in a hurry.  You let go of her right now or -"

"Or what?"

Sakura knew how dangerous Li was right then, and hastily she placed a hand over her brother's arm.

"There's no time for this, Onii-chan.  This really is an emergency.  Meilin is missing!"

"So let the cops take care of it."

"Onii-chan!  She's his cousin, he has to go!  She's probably been kidnapped for ransom, you know how much money they have."

"I'm not stopping him from going.  It's you I'm worried about."

Li looked at his watch and growled impatiently.

"We'll be at his mother's house!  You stayed there the night once, remember?  Trust me, it will all be supervised and chaperoned."

"Not enough.  You are just sixteen years old, missy, way too young to be running off to another country with your degenerate boyfriend!"

"Hey!"

"Onii-chan, I don't know if you've ever noticed this or not, but…"  Sakura took a deep breath and leaned in close, toward her brother's ear.  "YOU ARE NOT DAD!"

"Ouch!"  Reflexively he pulled away and covered his ears. 

"He said I could go.  And I'm going.  I'll be back as soon as I can.  And I'll call when we arrive, okay?"  She wasn't giving him any time to argue but heading for the front door. 

"Hey, get back here!  We're not through here!"  Touya went after her, but found Li in his path, crossing his arms defiantly and lifting up his chin.

"Get out of my way."

"Touya-kun, listen to me."  Touya hesitated.  The typical expression of aggression and hostility that he always saw on Li's face was no longer there, and instead there was a deep and gnawing anxiety.  "I know how much you love your sister."

"Well, I -"

"I love my cousin the same way too.  See?  And picture yourself if you ever found out that Sakura had disappeared without a trace."

Touya shuffled and looked away.

"I am very worried, Touya-kun.  I won't be able to sleep until I get to Hong Kong and figure out what happened, and see her safe and sound again.  Your sister is very powerful, you know it and I know it.  I want her help.  She wants to help.  So will you stand in our way?"

"Syaoran!" Sakura called from the front porch.  "Tomoyo's here!  Come on!"

"Will you?" Li repeated, and Touya felt his shoulders sag.

"I guess not," he muttered.

"Good.  We're off then."  Li turned around and walked briskly toward the door, followed closely by the older man. 

"But nothing better happen to her this time!  And she better be back here soon, I mean it."

"She will be.  I hope."

They reached the porch.  Tomoyo was parked in the driveway, waving.  Sakura picked up her bag and prepared to walk away, but Touya snagged her shirt just in time.

"Onii-chan, I mean it -"

"I know.  Just give me a hug, okay?"  Surprised, Sakura obeyed, and he clutched her tightly before releasing.

"You better be back here before your birthday," he warned, and she nodded.

"I'm sure I will, Onii-chan."

"And call as soon as you get to his place, all right?  Not just here, Yuki's place too.  I won't go to sleep until you call."

"I know.  I'll call."  She backed away, towards the waiting car.

"And be safe!  Don't do anything dangerous!"

"Trust me!" she called out before sliding into the rear seat.  Touya winced a little at that, but he'd already realized that there was no way he could keep her forcibly from going.  So he resigned himself to waving before the BMW pulled out and turned in the street.

Nothing better happen to her, kid.  Or you will pay absolute hell.

He grunted and went back inside.

Li shivered slightly, and Sakura gripped his hand.

"It'll be okay, Syaoran.  We're going to make it in plenty of time."

"I know.  Just a final parting message from your brother."  He squeezed her hand slightly and glanced over at their driver.  She was worried too, he could see, biting her lip and looking even more pale than usual.

"Thanks for the ride, Tomoyo.  You're a lifesaver."  She nodded.

"I only wish I could come too.  But there's just no way I can leave my group to finish up the film project before school starts again.  They need me."

"It's okay, I understand."

"But if you two haven't found her by the time I'm done, I'll hop the first flight I can and get down there."

"It's okay, Tomoyo," Sakura answered.  "I'm sure we'll find her in no time.  Between the three of us and the Cards, we'll track them down somehow.  There has to be some kind of clue, something."

There was only silence in the car at that, and she swallowed.

"I mean, she's far too good a fighter to have been overcome by any random attacker, so whoever did it obviously wants something from the Lis.  There'll be a note.  Or something."

Li was staring straight ahead through the windshield.

"Yeah," he forced himself to say when the quiet got awkward.  "Something.  We'll find her."

Sakura couldn't exactly see his face, as he was sitting in front of her and looking rigidly forward.  But she could feel his grip on her hand tightening, until it was so hard that she had to bite her lip in pain.  She did not struggle or pull away.  She knew he was picturing whomever could have overcome her, and that it was not pleasant.

What if it was something even more than a kidnapping?  Meilin had no magic to protect herself if anything of that ilk chose to attack her.  What if…

No.  Sakura shook her head.  There was no point in imagining horrors that weren't necessarily true.  All they could do was get there as fast as possible and figure out what happened.  It was as much as any of them could do right then.

Even a sorceress could only do so much.

*24 hours earlier*

"Eat," Eric tried again, squinting to read the translation in the dim light.  The florescent sign overhead was on its last legs, and emitted a fitful light into the darkness.  "Dinner?  You know, food?"

The local standing in front of him looked as though he didn't understand any of the known languages on planet Earth, let alone Cantonese or English.  Hopefully he held his hand up to his mouth in an approximation of someone eating a hamburger.  Not that there were any hamburger joints nearby, but the symbolism should be understood.  "Come on, give me a break.  I'm lost and I'm starving."

The lumpy man just shook his head in confusion and wandered away. 

"Yeah, well same to you, pal," Eric called out at his back, then groaned out loud.  Stupid city.  It really wasn't Hong Kong's fault that he was stuck here, in this particular situation, but it was hard not to hate it all the same.  It seemed things just kept getting worse and worse, and now he was lost.

Lost in a neighborhood where apparently no one needs to eat, and spoken communication is still in the works, evolution-wise.  This damn guide definitely needs to be updated.

He stuffed it back in his backpack and began to shuffle down the sidewalk.  Things were oddly quiet, in this remote part of the city, without the crowds that he'd become accustomed to.  Perhaps they were all afraid it was going to rain.  The stars had disappeared from overhead, those few that could be seen with the city's bright lights, and now he thought he could feel a little moisture on his face.  Like a misty fog, drawing a curtain down over the sounds and smells of Hong Kong.

It was pleasant, but it could get worse soon.  He needed to find a hostel or a student boarding house, but for the moment there was no rush. 

"Nice weather, huh?" he muttered to a prostitute standing on the corner.  "Got a light?"

She looked up in surprise and said nothing.  Of course.  He rolled his eyes as he pulled a cigarette out and stuck it between his lips.  "That's all right.  I think I've got one somewhere.  Just trying to make conversation.  But I keep forgetting you can't do that around here."

She continued to stare at him silently, looking a little nonplussed that someone would be standing there and talking to her. 

"You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?  Well, that's all right.  I know it's my fault.  The ugly American tourist, yadda, yadda, yadda."  At last he unearthed a lighter and put his cigarette to the flame.  After a grateful deep breath, he exhaled the smoke out into the misty night.

"I have been trying, you know.  But Cantonese is tricky stuff.  And I've only been here for three days.  Hong Kong was definitely more intense than I was expecting.  That's good.  And it's not as communist as I thought it would be.  That's good too.  But now I'm sort of stuck here, and that's not so good.  And I'm a little grouchy about the whole thing.  You would be too, if you understood what the hell I was talking about." 

He exhaled again and gave her a leisurely glance.  He was beginning to wonder if he was correct in assuming she was a prostitute.  She was still standing there, watching him, and hadn't approached him or anything.  Plus she was dressed a little more conservatively than most were, in black jeans and a sleeveless red top.  It did nothing to distract from her body though.  Nice slim legs.  He always did like a good pair of legs.

She cleared her throat a little as he continued to ogle, and hastily he looked back up at her face again.

No, definitely not a prostitute.  But he couldn't guess what she might be, then.  It was impossible to determine her age, though her face seemed youthful enough.  It was just that her gaze was so cool and level-headed.

"Sorry," he said, not wanting to bother digging out the phrasebook again.  As if he could read anything in this light.  "I'm just on rebound.  You know what that means?  No?  Well, it's when you spend years in high school and college bouncing from girl to girl and never really feeling 'it' with any of them, and then you settle down into a relationship with a girl.  And she's got wit, intelligence, and gorgeous blue eyes that make you want to drop to the floor and beg for mercy.  And you think that she really is the one, and that you're going to be together forever, and just before you make up your mind to propose to her, you walk into the apartment you share and discover that she's in bed with your accounting professor.  Can you say ouch?"

She was frowning slightly, and cocking her head slightly to one side as he worked himself up.

"Yikes, I'm sorry again.  Didn't mean to unload all that on you.  I haven't actually told the whole story since it happened, so I guess it all came out in a rush.  The guy was my teacher, for crying out loud!  How could I sit in his class after that?  I dropped the course, but it wasn't enough.  Jess and I were living in the same place, still trying to do all the same things but avoid each other as much as possible… it was a mess.  Finally I decided to skip the last few days of class and go for an early spring break.  Everybody said Hong Kong was a good place to party, and so here I am.  Desperately trying to nurse a broken heart but not really succeeding because it's very hard to do that on an empty stomach."

He cracked a grin in her direction, who just looked down at the ground again.  He wondered what she was doing out here, anyway, just standing on the corner and staring at the pavement. 

"You look as lost as I do," he finally said, and she looked up again.  Was she some kind of street kid?  She seemed a little too clean for that.  The faint glow of the neon lights above was reflected in the glossy sheen of her black hair, hanging straight down her back.  She seemed healthy enough.  So why the standing around?

"Not that I'm in a position to point fingers or anything," he continued aloud.  "Who knows, maybe you're just trying to figure something important out, and I'm distracting you.  Well, if that's true, then I'm sorry.  Again."

He finished his cigarette, and threw it down to stamp on it. 

"I suppose I really should get going.  There's got to be somewhere to eat nearby, right?  And I won't rest until I find it."

He thumped his fist over his chest in a mock salute, then continued on his way.  She said not a word at his departure, which disappointed him a little.  She could have at least said goodbye in her language, or something. 

She was pretty though.  He was in the middle of glancing over his shoulder to see if she was watching him walk away, and therefore not looking forward, when the three men leapt for him.

Eric hadn't been hit like that across the face since he played street hockey in high school, and he was so surprised that he actually yelped in pain before stumbling back into the wall.  He should have been expecting this, of course, in such a desolate block there was every reason to worry that a pale-face like him might get mugged.  But nothing had happened since his arrival in this exotic city, not even at the party a couple nights before when he had completely passed out in the middle of a group of strangers.  Everything, his money, passport, all of it, had still been there when he woke up with the worst hangover of his life.  He had actually been thinking that this city must be more honest than any place he'd ever been, until now.  Nervously he raised his hands as they circled around.

"What?  You want money?  Don't have too much of it, you know, it's all on the Visa.  And you're not going to have much luck getting it to work…"

They didn't seem to understand any English either, and snickered as they drew closer.  Eric gulped as he tried to press himself further back into the bricks.  Evidently there was no way to discourage them, there was nothing left but to fight for it.  But he wasn't so sure he could take three guys –

There was a blur to his left, and then a scream of pain as someone slammed into the first guy.  He crumpled to the pavement, completely out for the count, but the girl didn't even pause for a breath before skipping off one foot and launching into the air again.  The other two had that much time to prepare themselves, and her target managed to jump out of the way of a kick aimed at his temple.

It was a good thing Eric hadn't tried to take them on.  They clearly knew some kind of kung fu or something, and he watched them settle into defensive stances with their fists up.  But they didn't know nearly as much as she did.  She worked efficiently, spinning and kicking too fast for them to avoid, keeping one of them between herself and the other to use as a shield.  Neither of them could even land a punch.  He watched one leap forward with a kick, but she deflected him to the side and planted a painful looking kick at the base of his spine.  He yelled and stumbled forward, and she used her momentum to spin around and smack her heel against the temple of the other.  He was knocked to the ground, and after a moment he shakily climbed to his feet. 

"Hey," Eric said helpfully.  "This guy's waking up." 

Indeed the first guy was picking himself up off the pavement, looking a little groggy.  Eric was about to return that punch when he uttered a sharp command in Chinese to his friends, and they all turned and ran.

For a moment she looked as though she actually wanted to follow, and Eric quickly moved to intercept her.

"Hey, hey, no.  Don't worry about it.  They're just muggers; it's no big deal.  Trust me, it's not worth getting killed over."

"I'd be fine," she said crossly, but reluctantly chose not to follow.  Eric almost fell over.

"You can speak English?"

"Of course I can speak English.  This was a British consulate, you know."  She had an accent, but her words were perfectly intelligible as she frowned at him. 

"Well yeah, I know…  I just, back there I mean…"  He flushed a little as he remembered his one-sided conversation.  There were certain things that he would have rather not said, knowing that she could understand.  Then he noticed that she was turning around and preparing to walk away.

"Hey, wait a second!"

"What?"  She glanced over her shoulder impatiently.  "Are you hurt?"

"Huh?  Oh, no… I mean, maybe a little, but I'll live.  Thanks to you.  You're amazing.  Where did you learn to do that stuff?"

"This is Hong Kong."

"Well, yeah… but you're a -"

He stopped himself just in time, but she raised her eyebrows and gave him a sardonic look.

"A girl?"

"Woman of independent means and sparkling personality?" he tried hopefully.  He'd hoped she might crack a smile at that, but evidently this one didn't have much of a sense of humor.  Instead she just hmphed a little before turning around again.

"Wait," he tried again.  "Hey, come on, you just saved me.  At least let me buy you dinner."

She didn't say anything, but she did at least stop walking.

"My mom raised me to always buy dinner for kind women that saved me from muggers," he continued doggedly.  "It's etiquette.  You gotta eat, right?  I know I do."

She was looking at him a little indecisively now, and her vacillation gave him hope.

"I mean, it's not like you've got anywhere else to be, right?"

"No," she answered slowly.  "I don't."

"Great!  Then it'll be on me.  If you could just do me one favor and, um, find the restaurant?"

At that she did almost smile, and gave a tiny shrug before starting to walk again.  He had to hurry to catch up.

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Disclaimer:  I do not own these characters.

A/N:  Those of you that are connoisseurs of my early work no doubt recognize Eric.  Sorry!  I can't help it; I really think he's the perfect match for Meilin, so I'm recycling him for my little fic.  Don't worry – the story is still new.  And if you have no idea what I'm talking about, then definitely don't worry.  You're not missing much.