Chapter 64: A Christmas Miracle

Four students were seated in a music room in the old Seijou building, before the middle school extension to the campus was built, some twenty-three years ago. The girl with the long auburn hair tied back in a ponytail stared at her essay assignment, nibbling on the back of her pen. She was slight-framed but had alert gray eyes that darted back and forth with great shrewdness.

With a sigh, she set down her pen. "What are you most scared of, Ryuuren?" asked Mizuki Miara, age fifteen.

"Me? I'm not scared of anything. Fear is a sign of weakness," replied Li Ryuuren, a third-year in high school. He absentmindedly tuned his violin without playing a tune. Those who did not know him would describe his attitude as haughty but there was a sense of humor behind the deep sapphire eyes.

"Show off," said Tanaka Keisuke, a twenty year old university student, deftly doodling on a sketchpad with a stub of charcoal. His strokes were bold but his touch delicate. "To not admit your fear is a sign of weakness in itself. For how can you face your fear if you're not willing to acknowledge it?"

"What about you, then? What are you most scared of, Keisuke-senpai?" Mizuki Miara asked.

"Of losing my loved ones, of course," said Keisuke. "What about you, Mi-chan?"

"I'm most scared of disease—because there's nothing you can do to prevent it, to stop it. Because humans are helpless in the face of nature," Miara replied. Her literature composition on the subject of "What is your greatest fear?" was getting nowhere.

Amamiya Nadeshiko, Miara's junior high classmate, looked up with dreamy evergreen eyes. "True, all of those things are frightening. But as for me, those are still things that humans can deal with. What I'm most scared of is not being able to live life to the fullest. Whether in the face of illness or death, adversity of the loss of a beloved one, I'm afraid that such fears will keep me from living my life to the fullest."

From his seat by the windowsill, Ryuuren looked up.

Just then, the fire alarm rang.

"What is this?" Miara demanded, covering her ears.

A girl with shoulder-length pigtails in a paint-smeared smock burst into the music room. "Kei-sensei, fire in the art room!"

"I told you guys not to fiddle with the torch when I'm not around, Eri-chan," said Keisuke, bolting up.

Eri hung her head. "I know—I told Reiji-kun to wait… But he had an awesome Christmas ornament idea."

Keisuke quickly followed Eri out the room and Miara rolled her eyes and followed after them. "I'll get a story out of this—negligent student art teacher burns down school."

"Go back to the junior high section," grumbled Keisuke. "How is any of this my fault?"

"Because you suck as a teacher," replied Miara with a callous chuckle. "You're better suited to do individual work, not teach." The door shut behind the squabbling twosome.

Only Ryuuren and Nadeshiko were left in the room now. They exchanged bemused glances. Ryuuren set down his violin on the windowsill.

"Poor Kei-senpai," Nadeshiko murmured.

"Don't feel sorry for a guy you rejected just last week," said Ryuuren, walking over to Nadeshiko and glanced at the sheet music she was writing out for the finale of Star-Crossed.

"Kei-senpai wasn't really serious, anyway," said Nadeshiko.

"You're his muse, he says," Ryuuren said, rolling his eyes.

"Why are you acting like your jealous or something?" asked Nadeshiko with a little chuckle. "It's only Kei-senpai."

"Why ask an obvious question?" Ryuuren placed a hand on Nadeshiko's soft cheek. She looked up at him through long-lashed emerald eyes, looking puzzled. "You know what I'm most scared of?"

"I thought you're not scared of anything, Ryuuren," Nadeshiko murmured.

"I'm most scared of losing you, Nadeshiko. If anything took you away from me, if anything harmed you, I'll probably lose my mind," he said in a trembling voice.

Closing her eyes, Nadeshiko cupped his hand against her cheek with her two hands. "Maybe for a little while, but you'll still survive. Because you're a strong person. Many trials may come along our way, but because we're humans, we keep on going."

"No, if anything happens to you, I'm pretty sure I'll die. I'll do everything I can to save you or die in attempt," Ryuuren said, his dark blue eyes stormy like a tempest in the sea.

"You can't, Ryuuren. You're the Li Clan Chosen One. Your fealty lies to the Elders. Your life is not your own to give away freely. It is in the hands of the people who you have a duty to protect." Nadeshiko smiled sadly. "Remember that, Li Ryuuren, because our fates have already been written before we were even born."

"I don't believe in fate," replied Ryuuren, wondering if Nadeshiko spoke according to her Sight or according to her heart.

"I wish I didn't either," said Nadeshiko, a sense of longing in her evergreen eyes.

A conversation amongst four friends, lost in the lapse of many years. The fate of the four was determined by the curse of the Dark Ones, an ominous fate which projected onto their successors. Their story was lost over the course of over twenty years, but echoes of the past yet haunts those who are left behind.

******

"Hoe-ee!!! Why are there so many subjects to study for in high school?" bemoaned Kinomoto Sakura, age sixteen, as she stared at the exam schedule during break time at school.

"You'll do fine, Sakura-chan," said Sasaki Rika with a smile.

Sakura pouted. "You're always are in the top five percentile, that's why you're so at ease."

"Well, studying helps me keep my mind off… things…" said Rika.

"Rika-chan…"

Rika gazed out the window. "Do you know it's been almost nine months since I last saw him?"

"Terada-sensei?" Sakura stared at a dry brown leaf quiver at the tip of a branch, struggling to hold on by its feeble stem. She missed Terada-sensei too—he had always been her favorite teacher, along with Mizuki-sensei.

"This will be the first Christmas I'll spend without seeing him at all," said Rika. "We always managed to see each other, even for a brief while. But I don't know where he is or what he will be doing this Christmas."

"I wonder where he is," Sakura said.

"You know, Sakura-chan, I thought I should become like you," remarked Rika suddenly. "I know how much pain you were in after Li-kun left Japan. I thought your feelings to Li-kun were like my feelings to Terada-sensei. But I guess the heart does heal. I'm very envious of the relationship you have with Eron-kun. I think Eron-kun is a wonderful person."

Sakura smiled sadly. "Yes, Eron-kun is very good to me."

"But I'm different from you, Sakura-chan," said Rika. "I tried to like someone else. But it didn't work. Nothing will change the fact that I love Terada-sensei. Maybe I've just loved him for too long. But even now, I love him, and that is a certainty in me that will not change no matter how much time passes."

"Rika-chan…"

Hot drops of tears trickled down Rika's face. How many months had she spent crying for that person and how many more had she spent trying not to? "I thought time would heal. I thought if I kept myself busy, I would forget him. But I miss him. I miss him so much."

Sakura stroked her friend's back knowing that sometimes listening was all that could be done. And she watched the little leaf outside the window get swept away by a gust of wind. The tree branches were completely bare now. Spring was a long time away.

"I tried to be patient and strong. I tried so hard. But it hurts my heart thinking I might never see him again. I would be happy just to his voice just once, just hear any news that he's all right." Rika covered her face with her hands.

Carefully, Sakura wiped the tears off of Rika's face with a clean handkerchief. "I'm sure he's doing fine, Rika-chan. And you'll most definitely see him again. I'm not just saying this… I know that you will see him again."

And Rika smiled at her friend a weak one, but a genuine smile. "Thank you Sakura-chan. I had a feeling you would understand. Naoko-chan and Chiharu-chan scold me, telling me I need to get a grip on myself."

"I do understand you," said Sakura with a far-off look in her green eyes, recollecting the misty morning harbor of Hong Kong. "Perhaps more than you can imagine." When he had left her that day, his blue coat fading into the distance, she had truly believed it was the last time she would ever see him. She did not yet know quite what to think now that Syaoran had returned. And she wondered how Syaoran felt when he learned that she had forgotten him. He had betrayed her by taking the Sakura Cards from her. Yet, she too had betrayed him by forgetting all their memories together.

"Sakura-chan, we know how difficult this past year has been for you," said Rika slowly. "We were all truly worried for your health."

"Sorry for making you all worry." Sakura smiled slightly. "But I'm all right now. I've healed."

"You're stronger than me, Sakura-chan. I'm glad you're back to yourself," said Rika with pensive coffee-brown eyes. "I just have one question to ask you, if you don't mind me asking."

Sakura looked up at her questioningly.

"Are you healed now because you started dating Eron-kun, and he makes you happy?"

Time heals… Or does it? Without Eron, would she have even recovered?

"Or is it because Li-kun has returned from Hong Kong?"

Sakura looked up and met Rika's eyes directly. She opened her mouth and closed it again.

******

There are some people that emanate a dark aura in the entire room when they are in a foul mood. And then, there are some people when they are in a bad mood that become so pleasant and gracious that only those who are the most observant can fathom the foreboding glint in their eyes. Unfortunately, Chang Eron was the latter kind, and Sakura, being the oblivious person she often was, had a difficult time discerning when Eron was ticked off.

"I think Eron-kun is mad about something," remarked Daidouji Tomoyo to her best friend that afternoon. Tomoyo, unlike the rest of the class, was not stressed over exams at all and instead was sketching out new battle costume ideas in the back of her algebra notes. Classmates shot her poisonous glares for being the only cheery person of the bunch.

"Why?" said Sakura, flipping through her history notes. How was she going to memorize all these dates? When was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria again?

"Yeah, he asked Sakura-chan out on a date after school," stated Meilin giving her friend a teasing nudge. "Even in the midst of exam studies, Sakura-chan is all love-love."

"Maybe I'm mistaken," said Tomoyo pensively. "Perhaps even Eron-kun gets stressed during exams."

Walking back to her desk, Sakura peered at her desk mate who was reading silently. Even now, she had difficult reading Eron's expression. His nose was buried in his history text.

"Eron-kun, are you mad about something?" she asked timidly.

"No I'm not," Eron replied rather stiffly.

Tomoyo had been right as usual. "You are mad," said Sakura, leaning over Eron's desk and peering up at his face. "Why?"

"I'm not mad," snapped Eron.

There was usually only one thing that did make Eron mad. "Are you still mad because of the fashion show? It was completely a coincidence that he was there—"

"I told you I'm not mad at that. I know it wasn't your fault he became the model," said Eron.

"But you are mad at something regarding him?" asked Sakura. She knew she had guessed right when Eron didn't reply for a while.

Then he sighed. "Akizuki-san told me yesterday that she saw you two together at the hospital the other day."

"Nakuru-san?" Sakura blinked. When had Nakuru seen her with Syaoran? "Oh. That… That's when I was sealing a dark force," said Sakura.

"I thought you said you would contact me when you are about to capture a dark force."

"It was a simple dark force—the one that my grandfather was being influenced by," said Sakura. "It would have taken five seconds to seal it—and I have no idea why he was there, either."

"So, did you seal it?" asked Eron.

"Actually, no," replied Sakura. "I couldn't seal the Pride."

"The Pride?"

"Now that I think of it, Syaoran-kun was the one who said it's the Pride," said Sakura.

"Sakura, you realize you sealed the Pride already, right?" Eron remarked.

"You're right, I did," said Sakura. "Or did I?"

"What do you mean?"

"It's just ever since I began using the power of the moon, nothing really feels like my power anymore," replied Sakura. She shook her head. "I know, I'm just being silly."

"I thought Syaoran didn't have any powers. How did he even know that it was the Pride, presumably, that was affecting your grandfather?" Eron said.

"I don't know."

"What if it was the Li Clan using the Pride Card to control your grandfather?" asked Eron.

"It can't be. The Pride is one of the Cards I sealed after the Li Clan stole the other Cards from me," said Sakura.

"Well, do you have it?" asked Eron.

Sakura didn't reply.

"You don't. Why didn't you mention it before?"

Sakura shook her head. Because she had wanted to believe Syaoran. Syaoran had said that none of the Li Clan could use the Sakura Cards. She said slowly, "I'm trying hard in my own way to become a better magician. I need help from everyone, it's true. But there are certain things I need to accomplish on my own, especially when regarding the Cards. I'm sorry—I'll try to communicate better with you next time."

"I'm sorry too. I didn't mean to take it out on you—I think with Erika in hysterics all day long and exams and everything, I was a bit tenser than usual," said Eron, sensing Sakura's darkening expression.

Sakura mustered a smile. "Eron-kun feels a little bit more human now."

"Excuse me?"

"Eron-kun always tries to be so perfect. It feels like I can't do anything for you because you can do everything yourself. But I like it when you tell me stuff like this so I can think, ah, Eron-kun is not always perfect and not always sure of himself."

"I don't try to be perfect," grumbled Eron.

"Well, after the incident with the Pride, I recently realized I am a little proud," said Sakura in a meek voice. "I do hate losing. I hate being belittled. And I hate being made stupid."

"Silly," said Eron. "You're the Card Mistress and the pillar of the Alliance of the Stars. You should be a little proud of yourself and all your accomplishments till now, especially considering you're just a sixteen year old high school student."

"But I thought pride is a bad thing," said Sakura.

"No certain emotion is bad in itself," Eron replied. "Our capacity to feel the range of emotions is what makes us human, isn't it? It is just how we end up channeling and using our emotions which can end up harming ourselves and other people in the process."

"What do you mean?"

"You can be proud without being haughty, ambitious without being overbearing and powerful without being oppressive," said Eron. "But it is the more difficult path to take."

"Clow Reed managed to be like that," said Sakura with a hint of admiration in her voice. She had never really thought much about what it entailed to be a sorcerer with the magnitude of power that Clow Reed had and how easy it was to misuse magic.

"Clow Reed had many many years of trial and error before he became the world-renowned figured he is today," replied Eron.

"You're so mature, Eron-kun," remarked Sakura with a long sigh. "It's hard to believe we're the same age."

At this, Eron looked awfully smug, and Sakura giggled. "But you're quite silly sometimes, Eron-kun."

A peculiar look came over his topaz eyes. "I dwelled on the negatives within me for so long that when I found light, it made me drunk on a bliss that I thought was out of bounds for a sinner like me."

"Hoe?" Sakura said.

With a gentle smile, Eron replied, "Nothing." He had already known about the Pride incident—what he was peeved about was the fact that Sakura had not spoken anything about meeting Syaoran the day before the First Meeting of the Allegiance. Perhaps it was coincidence that she had bumped into Li Syaoran in the hospital that day. Perhaps, as Akizuki Nakuru remarked, they had an innocent conversation out of courtesy and then passed ways quickly thereafter and it was nothing important at all, and he was just overreacting. But he also knew that Sakura had made thirteen white invitation cards with the golden star seal. Nine for those who had showed up to join the Alliance: Hiiragizawa Eriol, Akizuki Nakuru, Suppi-chan, Kero-chan, Tsukishiro Yukito, Kinomoto Touya, Mizuki Kaho, Mizuki Miho and himself. Two for the non-magical descendents of the Great Five and integral confidantes of the Allegiance, Li Meilin and Daidouji Tomoyo. One for Mizuki Kai, who did not show up. And one last invitation card to whom it was addressed to, he did not know. And that card was never sent out.

******

Mizuki Kai held up a white rectangular card embossed with a golden twelve-pointed star to the sunlight. An artisan at heart, he couldn't help admire the creamy thick paper and the simplicity of the design, kudos to Tomoyo.

"Why didn't you accept Sakura's invitation?" asked Kara, leaning against the metal fence around the school rooftop. "Well, you always hated being bound to anything."

Kai tucked the card back into his pocket and stared up at the blue sky. "Senpai, back then, why did you leave without saying a word?"

"Why, if I told you I was going to leave, would you have held me back?" Kara laughed shortly. "Perhaps you felt betrayed because I left you."

"No, I always knew you would leave," said Kai. "That's the sort of person you are. Like the waves upon the shore, you come and go as you please."

"I knew I will see you again," Kara said. "But I knew you would no longer be waiting for me by that time." Her pale violet eyes were a little remorseful. The wind caught her golden hair. Strands of her fine hair got tangled on her silver cross earrings. "Ow."

"Let me do it." Kai carefully untangled her hair from the cross earring, each point twinkling with a tiny amethyst gem. Her birthstone.

Li Meilin knew she would find Mizuki Kai on the rooftop when she discovered that he had come to school. She was furious that he had not showed up for the first meeting of the Alliance yesterday. Yet, she also had half-expected him not to show. What she had not expected to find was Kai standing intimately with Kara Reed, heads bent very closely together. She could only see the backs of their heads from her angle, but it looked like they were kissing. Or he could just be whispering words of love into her ear. It was as if her worse fears were confirmed.

Over Kai's shoulder, Kara looked up and caught Meilin's eyes. She told Kai, "Thanks. I'll talk to you later."

She brushed by Meilin, giving her a steely amethyst gaze before taking the stairs, leaving behind a scent trail of musky lavender.

For a moment, Meilin stood paralyzed by the doorway, unable to step forward. The noon sunlight, as golden as Kara's hair, pelted down on the rooftop as if to mock her.

Kai just stared at her brazenly, with no defense.

"I thought you said Rido-senpai is just your friend," Meilin said, feeling blood drain from her face. A tumultuous monster seemed to churn in her stomach.

"She is," said Kai.

"I saw you two," said Meilin.

"Saw us what?"

"I don't know… What were you two doing?"

Kai shrugged. "Kara and I were just talking, as usual. I don't see what you are so offended about."

"I don't like how to two are so intimate all the time and the fact that Kara Reed knows more about you than me. I don't like how you talk to her about things that you can't tell me about," stated Meilin.

"What's the matter with you today?" said Kai with a short laughter as if he was bemused by her.

Meilin's black brows furrowed down. "Kamura Karin. She was your first love, wasn't she?"

Kai did not meet Meilin's eyes. "I once told you that we are more alike than you can imagine."

"Do you... still love her?" asked Meilin, suddenly feeling her heart lurch. Kamura Karin. Karin was the name Kai had called out in delirium. And the same Kamura Karin had reappeared in his life as Kara Reed. Of course he would still be drawn to her.

"You should know better than anyone else that a heart doesn't just stop loving because time has passed. It's has a lingering, bitter aftertaste like the scent of tobacco that clings to your clothes even after you washed it." Kai looked Meilin in the eye. "But the shadows of the past are but shadows.

What was that roundabout answer? Meilin found that her hands were trembling. Kai loved Kara. Of course he would. She was beautiful and mature. She looked good standing next to Kai—they had the same ambiance, like they were cut from the same piece of cloth, like they were from the same world. Why did he have to play with her heart when the person he truly cared for was Kara Reed? All this while, she had been delusional, thinking to Kai, she might be someone special. But she was never the most important person to him.

"I thought you said you trusted me," said Kai.

"I do," said Meilin. "Well, sort of."

Kai stared up at Meilin with cold gray eyes. "Meilin, you can't partially trust me. You either trust me or you don't trust me."

Meilin stepped back, knees wobbling. She was used to the joking Kai, the goofball, silly Kai, the flippant, flamboyant persona. She was not used to the serious Mizuki Kai, the Kai who looked her straight in the eye and stated blunt, direct words with no double meaning. "How can I trust a habitual liar?"

"Have I ever told you a direct lie?" Kai asked.

"I don't know. But you definitely keep things from me all the time," said Meilin. "Deliberately holding back the truth is the same as lying."

"Is it?" Kai asked. "Well, what is it that you want to know about me. There is nothing at this point that I particularly need to hide from you. Ask, and I will answer."

"I can't think of something if you ask me so suddenly like that," Meilin said, flustered. "I'm just trying to say it's unfair that you know everything about me and can read right through all my emotions, and yet you make me feel nervous all the time, like you're going to just vanish."

"I told you I'll let you know the next time I decide to disappear," said Kai with a crooked smile.

"And I hate how you can always casually joke about something like this," said Meilin. "Do you know I gave up everything to be with you? My family, my home…"

"Did I ever ask you to that for me?" asked Kai. "You chose to do so of your own will."

Meilin drew back, as if she had been slapped on the face. It's true. I can't blame him. I followed him out of my own choice. I am becoming the kind of girl I despise the most. Clingy and dependent.

Syaoran has never lied to me. I can't say the same about Mizuki Kai. Kai has been a habitual liar since the day we met. But the difference is, Syaoran, I never knew what he was really thinking though I have grown up with him all my life. But with Kai, no matter how much he is lying, his true feelings are always evident in his eyes.

That's why it's so painful when he is looking at another girl that is not me.

******

"Where are we going?" asked Sakura to Eron, after school. She was little relieved to find he had recovered from his dark mood earlier on. Neither of them had after school activities that day because it was the week before finals. It was their first date since before the Fashion Show.

"You'll see," said Eron, as the bus pulled up to the stop.

Sakura was surprised to find that they were at the children's orphanage.

"I haven't been here in a while," said Sakura, walking into the green-painted gates of the orphanage. It was the orphanage that Eron and Erika had grown up in. "I haven't been back since… Not since…" She stared at her feet. "Do you come here often, Eron-kun?"

"Yes, I've been volunteering here for some months now," replied Eron.

"You never told me."

"Because." Eron didn't have to say anymore. Because he was afraid talking about the orphanage would remind Sakura of Subaru.

"Ah, how nostalgic," said Sakura walking into the front door which had been freshly painted white. "Remember how we had to come here for the vaccinations? I was surprised at how good Eron-kun was with children. Well, that is after you got over your I'm-superior-to-thee stage. And the children adore you too, for some reason. And when I first saw you change diapers—"

"Stop making fun of me," grumbled Eron. "Shouldn't have brought you here in the first place."

Sakura walked down the hallway. There were cabinets and cupboards now and the toys and arts and craft material were neatly stored away. She peaked into the playroom and gasped. The walls had been repainted with a mural with a blue sky, green grass and animals lined up. A new wood table for drawing replaced the wobbly one from before and there was even a proper bookshelf now with rows of fairytales, children's novels, textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries. An ornate Christmas tree stood at one corner of the room, twinkling merrily with multi-color lights and tinsel.

"Wow, they didn't have all this the last time I came here," murmured Sakura, fingering the children's drawings lined up on the new bulletin board on the wall.

"They've been doing reparations for some months now," said Eron. "You should see the backyard—they've just installed a new playground set, complete with a tire swing."

"It's been a while, Kinomoto-san. Welcome back," said the orphanage director from behind them.

"H-hello Nomura-san," said Sakura, bowing. "It has been a long time."

"Your boyfriend has been of great help here. The children adore him," said Nomura with a smile.

"B-boyfriend?" Sakura stammered.

"This orphanage has come a long way since when started working here, hasn't it, Eron-kun?"

"Yes, Nomura-san" replied Eron.

"The old director was removed from position by the trustees for charges of fraud, and at one point, we thought we would really have to shut down this orphanage. But we stuck through, and I think it's become a place that truly can welcome all children of God with open arms and make this a home," continued Nomura. "Come now, there is somebody you might want to see."

Sakura and Eron followed Nomura-san down the corridor to the nursery. The nursery was painted in pastel colors and several volunteers tended to the babies. Animal mobiles hung from the ceilings and the babies cooed and cawed in fascination. In the play area, there was a little girl, around two, a red ribbon tied around her hair, stacking building blocks on the floor with another girl, perhaps a year older.

"Moeko-chan, come here."

The younger toddler looked up. "Sensei! Won-nii-chan!" she exclaimed with a slight lisp. "Ewon-nii-chan is back!"

"Moeko-chan?" Sakura said in disbelief. The same Moeko she had babysat for in Yukito-san's stead last year? "She was just a baby last time I saw her."

"Children grow up so fast, don't they?" said Nomura-san with a smile. "She'll be starting pre-school next year already. Moe-chan, come here and say hello to Sakura-nee-chan. She used to take care of you when you were a baby."

"Sa-ku-wa-nee-chan!" Moeko said, crawling up and tottering over to Sakura with her short chubby legs. She was wearing a festive red woolen dress lined with white eyelet lace.

Sakura knelt down onto her knees and peered at Moeko's round face with misty eyes. "Moe-chan! Do you remember me?"

"Silly, babies don't remember people they met once or twice," said Eron.

But Moeko shook her head and threw her small arms around Sakura's neck. "Sakuwa-nee-chan.

"Look, she remembers me!" Sakura exclaimed in delight.

"That's because Chang-kun always tells the kids about his beautiful girlfriend," remarked Nomura with a chuckle. "The little ones were dying to meet the lovely girlfriend of their favorite Eron-nii-chan."

"So pwetty!" stated Moeko, rubbing her soft, chubby cheek against Sakura's cheek. "Me likes Sakuwa-nee-chan.

Sakura wrapped her arms around Moeko. "Thank you, Moe-chan. That's a pretty dress you on, Moe-chan. Is it new?"

"Su-nii-chan gave it to me," said Moeko.

"Su-nii-chan?" repeated Sakura.

"Yes, Su-nii-chan," replied Moeko, tugging on Sakura's skirt and waddling down over to the hallway.

At the end of the corridor, in front of the director's office, was a portrait of Subaru and a golden plaque beneath it entitled, "The Shirose Subaru Foundation – Founded in order to grant the wishes of children who dream."

"What…" Sakura's voice failed her, eyes suddenly stinging.

"The renovations, the books, the new facilities-- all these Christmas gifts were made possible through the Shirose Subaru Foundation," said the director.

"Shirose Subaru Foundation?" repeated Sakura.

"Yes. A couple of months ago, we had a very generous donation to the orphanage established as the 'Shirose Subaru Foundation.' A part of the fund has been requested to be set aside for medical expenses for children in need. Since then, the Shirose Subaru Foundation and the story of Shirose Subaru has garnered much public interest and gathered support from many sponsors."

"May I ask who set up the foundation?" Sakura asked, her throat choking up.

"The benefactor requested that his name remains anonymous," replied the director. "And we respect his wishes."

"What a generous philanthropist," remarked Eron. "Not wanting credit for his good deeds."

"The donator said that he wanted Shirose Subaru's death not to be in vain. And because of Su-chan's situation, much public awareness has been raised on the issues with healthcare of children in need in Japan, and the Children's Cancer Research Center has expressed interest in becoming a partner with the Subaru Foundation," said the director. "It's a growing foundation, but so much has been done for our orphanage already."

Even after all these months, Sakura felt a prickly sensation in her throat and picked up Moeko and hugged her to her chest so that no one could see her face. "You're getting too big to carry, Moeko-chan."

******

Sunday morning, the day before exam week, Sakura woke up two hours later than she had intended. She already knew she was not off to a good start as she packed her books to go study in the public library—it was far too distracting at home.

"Hoe-eee—Why does it always turn out this way?" wailed Sakura, staring at the completely full library as she juggled her book bag and her five textbooks. She had an impossible amount of studying to do—she had been so caught up in the Fashion Show, figuring out Kai's motives and procrastinating on schoolwork that she was dismally far from being ready for her mathematics exam tomorrow. Which is nothing new, I guess.

Finally, she spotted and empty chair and made a mad dash for the seat just as another person set his books down on the desk.

She looked up, ready to fight for the seat. Then, she frowned, only to get out-scowled by a brunette boy in a green hoodie and jeans. It did not even surprise her to see him, because his presence always seemed correlated to whenever she was most stressed or cranky.

"You again. What are you doing here?" Sakura demanded crossly. "You just took the last available seat. I spotted it first."

Syaoran sat down on the seat and looked up. "Too bad. I sat down first."

Sakura let out a squeal of frustration. "Are you really going to play like this? This is not even your town. Go back to Eitoukou and leave space in the Tomoeda Public Library for residents of this neighborhood!"

"Do you own this library?" Syaoran asked coolly. "It's not up to you to decide who can and cannot use it now, is it?"

Everybody in the surrounding seats looked up from their books and glared at the two. It was exam week for elementary to university students alike, and everybody was especially tense.

"See, you're creating a ruckus. Now, give me the seat. Do you know how much studying I have to do before tomorrow?" Sakura said in an angry whisper.

"It's not my fault you were procrastinating and eating pudding and watching TV last night instead of studying and then woke up late so that you couldn't get to the library early enough to get a seat," said Syaoran opening up his textbook and pencil case.

And Sakura let out a rude sound of indignation. Unfortunately, each word pierced a dagger into her because they were all very true.

The girl in glasses sitting in the seat next to them slammed her book shut and stood up. "Ugh, if you two won't leave, then I'll leave!"

"Hoe… Sorry…" Sakura said, meekly bowing her head as the girl swung her backpack over her shoulders and stormed off, shooting poisonous glares at the pair.

"Now sit before someone else takes the seat," said Syaoran, gently shoving Sakura down into the empty seat next to him.

Sakura reminded herself not to use the public library anymore—she always bumped into Syaoran far more often in it then she liked to. And the annoying thing was that he was already through five pages of his textbook while she had been staring at the first sentence of hers. Didn't he find it distracting to be sitting next to her? Maybe it was just her own problem. Sakura buried her head in her hand. What's wrong with me? Stop looking at him.

"Do I have something on my face, Kinomoto-san?" asked Syaoran, not looking up from his book.

"Kino—who?" Sakura gawked at Syaoran.

The corner of Syaoran's mouth slipped into a faint smile. "It's sort of rude for two strangers to address each other so familiarly, don't you think, Kinomoto-san?

"N-No!" Sakura said. "I mean, yes!"

"I'm just trying to be polite here," said Syaoran.

She scowled even more and muttered, "And yes, you do have something on your face, Li-kun."

Syaoran set his book down and glanced at her. "Where?"

"Umm… There!" said Sakura, pointing to an imaginary spot on Syaoran's left cheek.

Syaoran reached over to her bag's front pocket

"W-what are you doing rummaging through someone else's bag?" demanded Sakura. "That's rude, considering we're strangers."

He proceeded to take out a little pink hand-mirror from her bag and examine his reflection in the mirror. He looked up at her with a scowl. "Liar. There's nothing on my face."

"Probably just wanted an excuse to look at the mirror, coming from the vain person who wanted a mirror for his birthday," muttered Sakura under her breath. Ironically, that specific pocket mirror had been a present from Syaoran. Why did she even carry it around? Because it was useful.

Syaoran just sighed and shook his head in exasperation, as if he was above even arguing back to her. He nonchalantly slipped the mirror back into the front pocket of her bag and resumed reading. Blood rushed to Sakura's ears because she was infuriated that Syaoran knew exactly where she kept her mirror in her bag and that he knew exactly the words and actions that irritated her the most. To keep from losing her temper, she buried her head in her book and began reading. Alas for her short attention span. The numbers in her notebook swirled in front of her eyes. Slowly, her lids grew heavy.

"Li Syaoran!" she shouted, her long golden-brown hair swishing behind her as she burst into the boy's locker room at school.

Syaoran, still in his red and black Seijou Junior High soccer uniform, a towel slung over his shoulder, took a swig of water from his bottle. As he looked up at her, he spewed out the water in his mouth and the corner of his lips twitched. "You honestly didn't come to school like that?"

"Yes, I did," she exclaimed, staring at her reflection in the locker room mirror. Last night, they had been playing a game of trump in Syaoran's living room, and when she fell asleep, Syaoran must have drawn on her face with a black marker cat's whiskers and a black-eye.

And Syaoran groaned, smacking his palm to his forehead. "Did you not look at the mirror before walking out the door this morning?

"I was late," she mumbled, rubbing her face with her hand, remarkably like a little tabby cat. "I thought people were staring at me in the streets. And then, I bumped into Terada-sensei and he said, 'Kinomoto-san, did you wash your face this morning?' And Naoko-chan and Chiharu-chan pointed at me and just laughed. I had no idea what they were laughing at until Tomoyo-chan lent me her hand mirror. It was the most humiliating experience in my life—it's all your fault."

"God, don't most girls carry around a pocket mirror? Actually, most civilized people wash their face in the morning," said Syaoran, not knowing whether to laugh or feel remorseful.

"I told you. I slept through my alarm." Her bottom lip was pouted. "Stop laughing—I hate you."

"It doesn't look half bad," Syaoran remarked, admiring his handiwork and gently pinching the tip of her nose. "Quite an improvement from the original canvas, I say."

"Don't draw on other people's face while they're sleeping!"

"It was Wolfie-chan's idea, not mine," said Syaoran with a shrug. And Sakura had looked so cute while she was sleeping, sprawled over the living room floor.

"Don't blame a harmless puppy!"

"Now, come here," said Syaoran taking out his handkerchief and wetting it in the sink. His teammates had already headed off to class, and they were the only ones left in the locker room. He seated Sakura on the bench and gently wiped off Sakura's face with the wet cloth. "Wolfie-chan said to use the permanent marker but thank goodness I didn't." He swiped off the last whisker off her cheek. Her eyes were closed and her long brown lashes fluttered.

"All this fuss because I had early morning soccer practice and didn't wake you up and tell you to wash your face," said Syaoran, shaking his head. "What will you do without me?"

What will you do without me? Sakura head banged on her desk with a thud. With a start, she opened her eyes. She blinked and found she was in the Tomoeda public library, not the Seijou Junior High locker room. How long had she dozed off? She had been dreaming. She groaned silently. Did Syaoran catch her napping? She was afraid to look. He would have laughed at her if he had noticed, right? Syaoran was so quiet that Sakura had to peak over to see if he was still there. She peered over the edge of her textbook, through the curtain of her short bangs.

He looked up and caught her eye. Did his eyes twinkle in bemusement?

"I was not—" she was about to protest.

He pushed his textbook over. "This kanji, how do you pronounce it?"

Sakura squinted her eyes over the character and said, "Well, you see, it's, umm… Let's see, how should I put it…"

"If you don't know it, just say it," said Syaoran with an almost-smile.

Sakura pouted. "That's a difficult book. What sort of class is that?"

"Honors Japanese Classical Literature," replied Syaoran.

Sakura gaped. "Eitoukou offers really difficult classes, it seems."

"Yeah, it's sort of hard. I'm still having trouble with ancient courtly Japanese when I've barely learned modern-day usage," said Syaoran. "But knowing a lot of Chinese characters helps in understanding the meaning. I just have some difficulty with the pronunciation." He leaned back in his chair and glanced over at Sakura's notebook. "Go ahead. Ask me the question. You've been hovering over that equation for the past thirty minutes."

"Umm…" Wait, had Syaoran been watching her? So he had noticed she had dozed off for the past half hour! Sakura bashfully pointed to a math problem. "Can you explain to me how you find the limit of this equation?"

"Sure. Let's see there… You set up the equation right. But here, you can use L'Hopital's rule to evaluate limits involving derivatives of indeterminable forms."

"Hoe, what's this Lopitaru?" asked Sakura.

Syaoran frowned in consternation. "Were you sleeping in class again?"

"Maybe…"

With a long sigh, Syaoran rolled his sleeves up and took out a fresh sheet of paper. "To derive this function, you have to…"

Sakura smiled slightly as she listened to the lull of Syaoran's voice. He always was so serious when explaining math equations to her. And he always got a little excited when he really got into his studies because unlike her, he genuinely enjoyed learning.

Their knees brushed, and Sakura slightly jumped in her seat. But he didn't even seem to notice their legs were touching, because he was so sincere in his explanation.

"So, to find the limit of x to infinity of this function… Hey, are you listening?"

"Hoe?"

"I said, do you understand now?" Syaoran repeated with a scowl.

"Can you explain one more time please?" said Sakura.

"Well then, before we continue, I recommend you look in the mirror," Syaoran said, not looking up at Sakura for fear he would snicker. "It's sort of distracting, you see."

Panicked, Sakura fumbled in her bag for the little pink hand mirror. She let out a squeak of dismay as she stared into the mirror. A neat row of mathematic formulas had been imprinted onto her cheek from her notebook from her nap earlier. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" she wailed.

"Says the person who said we should be strangers from now on," muttered Syaoran.

"Umm…" A slight grimace came over Sakura's face, which Syaoran picked on immediately.

Syaoran, handed Sakura a blue handkerchief. "It's like during World War I. On Christmas Eve, the British and German troops declared a ceasefire for that one holy day. After declaring truce in the trenches, both sides even called out Christmas greetings and sang carols together. And in that action, everybody realized how the other side was human as well."

Wiping her cheek absentmindedly with the handkerchief, unbeknownst to herself, a nostalgic smile appeared on Sakura's face as she remarked, "Syaoran knows so many useless facts." That was a characteristic that he shared with Eron. She had never realized before why she had liked that serious, studious side of Eron so much.

Syaoran scowled further. "Well, from a stranger to a stranger, I have to say, if you don't want to fail the exam tomorrow, you better focus, Kinomoto-san."

She didn't realize how much it would hurt to actually be addressed in this strictly formal way—she even preferred "omae" to this. Sakura sighed—she had no energy to even argue against Syaoran; actually it felt good to squabble with him rather than ignore his existence completely.

Until nightfall, the two studied diligently. All awkwardness was set aside, and Sakura did not hesitate to ask Syaoran questions when she was stumped—that was how she had made it through junior high mathematics and it was a proven method that worked. In return, she thought she helped Syaoran out with organizing his notes and coming up with essay answer ideas.

Watching the sun set outside, Syaoran groaned, reviewing his exam schedule. "Terada-sensei is out to get us or something—he's turned into quite an ogre-teacher."

"Wait, Terada-sensei, as in our Terada-sensei?" Sakura's jaw dropped. "He is teaching at Eitoukou High?"

"What—oh you didn't know. Yeah, he's my homeroom teacher," replied Syaoran. "Fourth year of having him as homeroom teacher. Funny, huh?"

"I can't believe it. He's been so near all this time," murmured Sakura.

"What are you talking about?"

"I have to tell Rika-chan this," said Sakura, suddenly bolting up.

"Eh. Sasaki-san?" Syaoran raised an eyebrow.

"You see, actually, Rika-chan and Terada-sensei were sort of in a... relationship," said Sakura. "And the school found out about it. So, he left the school in order to protect Rika-chan and cut off all ties with her. She hasn't heard from him in months. But he's been near by all this time."

"When did all this happen?" Syaoran said.

"After you… left," Sakura said. "Just before graduation."

"I see. I did hear some rumors about the student-teacher scandal from classmates at Eitoukou."

"Is it a sin for two people to be in love?" demanded Sakura.

"And Sasaki-san… She still loves him?" Syaoran asked. "Even though he completely cut off all ties with her?"

Sakura turned and gazed into Syaoran's eyes. "Does a heart stop loving just because it is told to?"

Syaoran stared at the desk. "Well, what can you do? Even if they meet, even if they talk it out, he's still a teacher and she's a student. They can't be together."

"Why not?" demanded Sakura. "Onii-chan dated Mizuki-sensei."

"She was a student teacher and a bit eccentric on top of that. And in the end, she left as well," replied Syaoran. "Terada-sensei is an adult. Don't you think he would have put a lot of thought into his decision? He wanted to protect Sasaki-san."

Sakura's lower lips trembled. "Why is it so hard for two people to love? Shouldn't it be enough to find a person you really love and have the feeling reciprocated? Why then is it so difficult?"

"I wonder as well," said Syaoran. "Well then, what is it you want me to find out from Terada-sensei?"

And Sakura smiled for the first time that day. "How did you know?"

"I know that dogged determination behind your eyes. You're up to no good," said Syaoran with a long sigh.

"Out of all my friends, Rika-chan has the purest heart and is one of the kindest, most mature people I have ever met. If there is anything I can do to support her, I would," said Sakura. "Whether or not you want to help me out."

"I'm really not into meddling with other people's business, but I am afraid you will just cause problems if I do not cooperate. What do you want me to do?"

******

Even more so than Seijou students, Eitoukou students were hostile and stressed during exam period, perhaps because they were an elite private school with students aspiring to go to not just any university but the top universities of Japan. The curriculum was ridden with honors classes and foreign language classes, all directed towards a "global era." For the first time, Syaoran was surrounded by people who seemed to believe that getting a high grade was the single most important objective in life. How simple life would be if it were all about grades.

After school ended, Syaoran lingered in front of the teacher's office the next day. He cleared his throat.

Tereda Yoshiyuki looked up. "Oh, it's you Li-kun. Did you have an exam question for me?"

"No…" Syaoran did not know where to start—he was the worst person for this task.

"Do you like it here at Eitoukou?" he asked.

"It's all right," replied Syaoran stiffly.

"It's a good school. Because of your international background, the courses here might in fact offer you a better range than Seijou. Have you adjusted here well? It's difficult transferring in the middle of the semester, isn't it? Though you must be used to moving by now," said Terada-sensei.

"Ah, well, yes." Syaoran shifted his weight between his feet, wishing he was anywhere else.

"I'm a little concerned about your sliding class rank. You've always done so well in school. Do you have any worries or problems at home?" asked Terada-sensei. "You've missed a large number of classes this semester, granted your guardian has called in each time… You arm is feeling better, isn't it?"

Syaoran sighed. Leave it to a teacher to turn the conversation on him.

"I really don't know what your family circumstance is," said Terada-sensei. "But if you need somebody to talk to, I am your teacher. Fourth year being your homeroom teacher, now that I think of it. That's quite a bond, isn't it? So, please feel free to come to me with your worries."

"Umm…" Syaoran's ears turned red. This was really not his forte. "Do you have any plans for Christmas?"

Terada looked at the boy mildly amused. "Not particularly."

"Really?" Syaoran said robotically. "I'm surprised. Do you not have a special person or somebody to spend the holidays with, Sensei?"

"I'm sorry, but I really don't think my private life is something I would like to share with my students," said Terada-sensei with a puzzled look. It's the first time I had a male student this interested in me… and out of all people, lone wolf Li Syaoran. "Anyhow, with all my troublemaking students, I don't have time for a relationship."

Syaoran looked greatly relieved. Then, he recalled the second part of his repertoire and recited stiltedly, "Ah, I heard Kinomoto-san and Sasaki-san is doing some Christmas shopping on the Eve at the Tomoeda Plaza at noon. Poor Sasaki-san. I heard her family is moving to America soon, and we might never see her again. That is very sad news."

"Ah, you're still in touch with Kinomoto-san?" said Terada-sensei. "That's good to hear. You two were such good friends. I remember you used to get in trouble all the time for whispering to each other in class." He had a nostalgic smile, recalling his time at Seijou.

And Syaoran let out a long sigh. He had tried his best.

********

When Syaoran got back home that afternoon, he was peeved to find Erika lounging on his bed, eating imported golden-brown Chinese mooncakes arranged on a tray and leaving a trail of crumbs on his sheets. "You're here often," Syaoran remarked crossly. "What are you doing in my room?"

"The rest of the house is scary—and Wei-san said I could make myself at home until someone came back." Erika licked her fingers. "These are delicious."

"You've been gaining weight lately, haven't you?" said Syaoran, tossing his school bag on the floor next to his desk.

Erika let out a screech of indignation. "Don't you know that's one of the cardinal rules of what you're not supposed to say to a girl? No wonder you still don't have a girlfriend!"

Syaoran shrugged. "So, what brings you here today?"

"Leiyun invited me over for dinner."

"I don't know what you're up to, but I advise what ever you're doing is not really going to please the Dark Ones very much. I thought they hate the Li's?" Syaoran said.

"What do you know about the Dark Ones, anyway?" Erika demanded.

"That they hate the Li's," replied Syaoran with a shrug. "I'm not sure what you're plotting with Leiyun, but I'm not sure that's the best idea, you know."

"Anyhow, Leiyun-san is very handsome and very gentlemanly—unlike you," said Erika. "But something about him feels like he has a few screws loose."

"Coming from you, that's quite a statement," Syaoran remarked with a dry chuckle.

"Seems like that's what the Li Clan does to you," Erika said. "You and Jinyu too—you all have a maniac look to your eyes. And of course, Doctor Jingmei seems like she was a whacko from the beginning."

"If you've realized we all have a few screws loose, then why do you still liaise with us?"

Erika laughed. "Haven't you realized I'm the biggest nutcase of all? I'm the Dark One for crying out loud. And yet nobody takes me seriously. They never did. It's only Eron that has been feared. And Eron's turned into a whole big joke ever since he started Sakura. He's forgotten all common sense."

Syaoran watched tears flow down Erika's cheek as she bit into another mooncake. He poured her a cup of water when she began to choke on the delicacy.

"Don't look at me as if I'm crazy. You've never been dumped right before Christmas, have you?" demanded Erika reproachfully, blowing her nose into Syaoran's sheet. "I don't have anyone to rely on anymore. Not onii-chan, not the dark forces, not Mike-san. Nobody stays by my side."

"Maybe that's because you don't value people who do choose to stay by your side," said Syaoran.

"What do you know?" said Erika. "I've never really had any friends. Eron was always the popular one—he had lots of friends at the orphanage. Well, that is he would have, if he wasn't always having to look after me. It's the same here. Everyone loves Eron. He's the good twin. I'm the mean one, the catty one."

"I never thought that bothered you," Syaoran remarked.

"What, that nobody likes me?" Erika frowned. "It doesn't bother me. I don't care what other people think or say about me."

"Then, Erika, what are you so afraid of?" asked Syaoran softly.

"Of being alone," replied Erika. "Of being left alone, without anybody by my side."

"I don't have a high opinion of Eron, as you probably know. But I doubt he will ever abandon you," said Syaoran.

"Sakura's the most person in his life now," Erika stated flatly. "It makes me feel sick in the stomach. How could he betray our pact?"

"I don't think Eron has forgotten it," said Syaoran with a far off look in his eyes. "You should have more faith in him, don't you think?"

Erika crammed the last mooncake into her mouth before glaring up at Syaoran. "Stop being so condescending. You're the last person I need to hear advice from. It's not like you've gotten anything going right in your life. Don't you know that Sakura's finally made the Star Alliance. Without you. You never thought that she would pull together and draw up an Alliance that you weren't a part of, did you?"

"I knew she would be able to do it," said Syaoran with a sad smile.

"Ugh, I'm so sick of your martyrdom," said Erika. "My turncoat brother swore his allegiance to her. Don't you realize he took your spot?"

******

Because Kai slept less hours than the average person, when he slept, he usually slept like a rock, without dreaming, without stirring. But every so often, he would have a nightmare that he was running and running until he was cornered against a wall. Policemen stared at him, rifles pointed towards him. He had nowhere to run. There would be a shot and an excruciating pain would erupt from his chest. And he would let out a silent scream, clutching his wound. I don't want to die yet… I cannot die yet. I have things yet I have to accomplish, a promise I have to keep. I don't want to die!

Kai woke up and flashed out a pocket blade. A cold metal was pressed against his skull, and he saw a pair of gleaming red eyes in the dark. He said in a staid voice, "It's a little rude to attack someone while he is sleeping, won't you say?" The gun barrel pressed against head more forcefully.

"Drop the knife," said a quiet deep voice.

Kai dropped his knife and looked up at the Black Dragon. "If you want to kill me, please do it cleanly and quickly, right through the head so that I don't feel any pain. I don't like pain, you see."

"Follow me."

Most ordinary people who have been frightened out of their minds to be cornered by the Black Dragon. But Kai was not most people—he was Kaitou Magician. He threw a black leather jacket over his black sleeveless shirt and jeans but did not bother to arm himself. While he was a skilled fighter, there was no way he would win against Li Jinyu, head of the Hong Kong triads.

There was a car waiting outside, and Kai went in without protest. Jinyu got in the seat next to him.

"The Black Dragon. You are the mostly deadly assassin in Hong Kong. It doesn't make sense to me that you would miss a shot at point range." Kai glanced at the silent Jinyu. "Which makes me believe you missed Kinomoto Fujishinto on purpose."

Jinyu's slanted amber-red flickered over to Kai for a brief moment.

"Why did you leave me your pistol?" asked Kai.

"What will you do with it?"

"What do you want me to do with it?"

"You can keep it or return it," replied Jinyu. "What you choose to do with it if you keep it is your choice."

"Why didn't you shoot him then?"

"He didn't want to die yet," replied Jinyu.

"Since when did the Black Dragon care about the wishes of his victims?"

"One human life is insignificant in the greater course of nature."

"But that insignificant person can be someone's father, someone's brother, someone's husband."

"People die every day," said Jinyu. "Just because one more person dies or not doesn't change anything."

Kai realized that Li Jinyu was a person who did not fight or kill based on his personal emotions. He did not believe in justice or punishment, wrath or vengeance. He simply did not believe in the worth of human life at all. And such a person did not believe in his own self worth either.

And he asked again, "If one person's life does not make a difference on this earth, why did you not shoot him?"

Jinyu met Kai's eyes. "Because I didn't feel like it."

The Li Estate looked like an austere gothic marble structure from the outside. Inside, it looked like time had stopped back in the 19th century. There were those large, luxurious mansions that seemed very unwelcoming and foreboding, less like a home and more like an antiquated structure that endured and endured even as the landscape of the outside world changed, as it was decaying from inside out. In other words, the house was exactly like the Li Clan. The basement of the mansion was creepy even by Kai's standards. The tapestries were poor taste, as was the yellowed skull on the table, and some of the alchemic circles on the walls looked like they were written in blood. He shuddered.

On an oak-carved armchair at the head of the back chamber sat Li Leiyun, his silver hair glowing in the dimly lit lantern light. "Welcome, Mizuki Kai-san," said Leiyun.

"Welcome my butt. You could have the decency to extend an invitation at a normal time," grumbled Kai.

Leiyun laughed. "My apologies. I heard you were a regular night owl and thought this was the appropriate time to call. It was short thinking on my part."

"Well, what do you want?" demanded Kai. "I'm a busy person, you know, without some creepy mafia dude sneaking in my bedroom in the middle of the night. You could have the common sense to at least send a sexy female assassin or something."

"Mizuki-san, you are a very amusing person," said Leiyun. "But I remember I told you before that it'll be a better choice to make allies with the Li Clan rather than enemies."

"I'm sorry, but I have no intention of joining forces with anybody," replied Kai. "I have always worked alone, and I want to continue that tradition."

"I've always admired your independent spirit," said Leiyun. "But you do forget that the Li Clan holds several things that are quite precious to you."

Leiyun stretched out a hand and suddenly, an image flashed before Kai's eyes of Kara in chains, blood trickling from her mouth. "Mikai…" she whispered, phantom hands reaching out for him.

Kai blinked away the image and replied staidly, "Kara's strong. She's not the type of person you can hold against your will. If she didn't want to be here, then she would have fled a long time ago."

And Leiyun smiled dryly, if not a bit reluctantly. "Kara was right. You do know her too well."

"Besides, you won't harm your only Seer," Kai added.

"True. It's a pity. Though I find you an amusing, dexterous individual, I'm afraid you've made a fool out of the Great Elders one too many times, first with stealing the Five Force Sword, making us cooperate with you to treat your injuries and then taking off without returning the Sapphire Ring to us. Not to mention kidnapping one of our very own." Leiyun paused. "You really do not leave us much option. You either comply with us, or we destroy you and everything that is precious to you."

"Ah, so this is the infamous Li Clan-style blackmail technique," said Kai with a short, cynical laughter. "Believe me, I've been played by you wretched Li's long enough."

"You forget your precious girlfriend is also a Li," Leiyun continued. "She will always be bound to the Clan."

"It's strange. I've always been told you are one of the more decent ones," said Kai. "But I suppose that's what happens when you're trapped up for years in abandonment. You go a little crazy. I can sympathize with that."

Leiyun drew his sword and pointed it at Kai's neck. "Meilin has been walking a dangerous path ever since she left Hong Kong, you know."

Suddenly, a strong gust of wind filled the room which quickly accelerated to the velocity of a hurricane. Papers and pens and small objects swept up into the air. Leiyun gripped his chair to prevent being swept up with everything else when his armchair began to shift as well. And then, everything came to a standstill and all the objects clattered to the ground. And Kai stood in the epicenter of the clutter, looking straight into Leiyun's eyes.

"I've sealed away most of my magical powers because I did not want it to become a crutch. But don't think because I don't use it doesn't mean that I don't have it. Don't forget, I am the only descendent of the Great Five that was a direct disciple of a Great One. I swore six years ago that I will never have to bend down to another human being. And that meant learning how to protect those I care for."

Leiyun clapped lazily. "What an inspirational speech, Kaitou Magician-kun."

"What is it you want, Li Leiyun?" demanded Kai, ignoring the dripping sarcasm. "I don't see you as a clone of those regimented, conservative Elders of your Clan, nor a mere thoughtless puppet of the Clan like that Jinyu. You must have some higher aspirations."

Leiyun had regained composure and was smiling, arms folded in front of him as if he was highly amused by Kai's words.

"I fancy you are trying to replicate the alliance of Five, but I doubt you will find yourself anyone to fill the Mizuki slot," said Kai, testing his luck.

"Don't worry. We already have one," said Leiyun. "We just wanted you because we thought a thief would add a nice touch to a group consisting of a betrayer, an assassin, a daughter of a criminal and a demon-possessed soul." He laughed out loud.

******

Despite his foolhardy words in front of Leiyun, Kai sighed in relief as he left the Li Mansion, unscathed. There was something quite uncanny about Leiyun that he could never quite place. He smells cold, like ice.

It was the second close call he had escaped from that month. Mizuki Kai closed his eyes, recollecting an odd conversation he earlier that month, the day he had encountered Sakura at the Kinomoto estate.

The security alarms had been ringing, and there had been nowhere to run. He decided last-minute to hide in Kinomoto Fujishinto's bedchambers. There, to his surprise, he found himself facing the older man. His first instinct had been to run, but strangely enough, Fujishinto did not raise his voice nor call the guards. Instead, he had looked him in the eye and asked, "You're Tanaka Keisuke's son, aren't you?"

Kai flinched as he stared up at the older man.

"I knew Keisuke-kun since he was a young boy," the older man said. "His father, Tanaka Eisuke, was a good friend of mine."

"And you order the son of your good friend to be disposed of?"

Kinomoto Fujishinto stared at Kai. "It was never meant to turn out that way. Back then, during the recession, the Hoshi Group was in a major pinch. We had financial troubles that if they were revealed to the shareholders would have brought about the ruin of the entire corporation. Then what would happen to the thousands of workers in all our subsidiary firms and their families? I do not run this company alone. There are tens of thousand of families and livelihoods at stake. But the Li Group proposed to help us out if we comply with their wishes."

It was nothing that Kai had not already surmised. The Li Clan liaised with the Hoshi Group to get the Mirror of Truth; in return, the Hoshi Group received financial backing. "So, my father's life was the sacrifice for all your necks?"

"As you might have guessed, the Li Group wanted a certain item called the Mirror of Truth, which you may be familiar with. That was easy enough. We decided to bring Tanaka Keisuke-san's company, a subsidiary body of the Hoshi Group, to bankruptcy and take control over his assets. Of course, I would have restored everything to him over due course of time, once the Hoshi Enterprise was secure again. We sent him off on the business trip to Hong Kong to get rid of him while we proceeded with seizing his assets in Japan. Unfortunately, Keisuke-san found out about our plans. He was foolish and instead of coming to me went straight to challenge the Li Clan. And we never saw him again."

Kai was trembling. "And you think that will mitigate your crimes? The fact that you turned a blind eye to one man's disappearance and the ruin of his family and continued living your own comfortable life?"

"You may think what you want to," said Fujishinto. "But I am genuinely sorry for what happened to Keisuke. I was fond of him—granted he wasn't the brightest businessman, more a dreamer than a tactician, he was an honest, hardworking man. Back then, I too was ignorant and did not know who I was meddling with when I joined hands with the Li Group and till this day, I regret it."

"Is that why you took the Mirror of Truth for yourself?"

"While we do not know the exact reason why, obviously the Mirror of Truth was very valuable, so as long as we held it, it would prove a good bargaining tool with the Li Clan," replied Fujishinto.

"When did you figure out I was Kaitou Magician?" Kai asked in a chill voice.


"Ever since you stole the Mirror of Truth," replied Kinomoto Fujishinto. "I thought, ah, it was about time that Tanaka Keisuke's son is old enough to make show his face again. And I was definitely sure when you stole Shing-san's painting, the Thief of the Night, that you were Tanaka Mikai, our crafty Thief of the Night."

Kai stopped mid-track. It felt repulsive to hear his name called out loud by this wretched man he loathed with all his heart.

"Whether you recall it or not, I used to hold you on my lap, and you used to call me 'ojii-san.' You were a bright boy. You reminded me a little bit of my son. Not Fujishika. The one who betrayed me, and the child that I had invested all my hopes in, only to be slapped in the face," said Fujishinto. "I am an old man. Maybe it's about time my life is ended."

"Why are you telling this? Do you feel guilt? Do you want forgiveness?" Kai laughed shortly. "You probably never lost sleep over signing those papers which basically sentenced my father to financial destitute, my family to complete ruin. My mother went mad, my sister became virtually an orphan overnight. And do you at this day feel any remorse?"

"No, I don't," replied Fujishinto with a long sigh. "It is not my style to regret the past, because those actions are choices I have already made and cannot undo. It is perhaps that attitude which has brought me this far. But my luck seems to have run out. The Li Clan wants me dead, it seems."

Kai watched the older man silently, gauging what the man wanted.

"I know what you want. I will give it to you in exchange for something."

"What do you need?" asked Kai.

"When the Li Clan tries to kill me, you have to be there and create a distraction with your abilities as Kaitou Magician," said Fujishinto. "Who knows. Perhaps you will even get what you really want. But I have a daughter that hasn't started school yet. I want to live long enough for her to remember my face."

"If they really are after your life, don't you want justice to be brought about?" demanded Kai. "Why don't you go to the officials?"

"No, I cannot let the police find out about the connection between the Hoshi Enterprise and the Li Group—you know their ties with the Hong Kong Triads. We can't let the public know about how we used dirty money, money from the mafia, money from the red-light district to save the corporation. I cannot tarnish the integrity of my corporation."

"Ah, is that the pride of the chairman, the face he has to keep up to his employees?" murmured Kai. He looked at Kinomoto Fujishinto in the eye. "So if I agree, you will agree to my terms?"

******

After school the next day, Erika was feeling glum that had just bombed her literature exam. At least she had managed to copy most of her deskmate's history answers. She had to stifle a chuckle as she walked up the steps to the front door of the Li estate. Thanks to Wei's enthusiasm, the austere Li Mansion had been decorated with tinsel and Christmas lights much to Kara's chagrin.

"Horrid, just horrid," Kara said, shaking her golden head at the neon red and green lights on the windowsills. She too had bombed all her exams. Walking indoors, she glared at the Christmas tree, exploding with candies and metallic ornaments and shuddered.

Erika swiped a candy cane off the tree and began munching on it—so much for dieting, so much for her fear of the dentist.

Li Jinyu seemed a little baffled at the function of the green leaves hanging above the doorway. With his black cheongsam and his glum ambiance, he quite looked out of place amidst all the decorations.

"It's a mistletoe," said Erika, smug to know something that the Mafia King didn't.

Meanwhile, Leiyun sat on the sofa, reading a card.

"Love letter?" asked Kara, tossing her sky-blue blazer on the couch. Wei followed after her and hung up the jacket.

"What an interesting girl," remarked Leiyun, examining the white card. "I was all excited thinking Sakura-chan sent me a Christmas card. It seems like she sent a challenge letter for a Christmas present instead."

Kara grabbed the letter and read it out loud:

Dear Li-san,

I, Kinomoto Sakura, rightful Mistress of the Sakura Cards, challenge you to a duel. Winner of the duel, judged by Yue, Guardian of the Moon, will rightfully become Master of the Cards.

You may set the location and time.

Sincerely,

Kinomoto Sakura

"Who the heck helped her draft this letter?" said Kara, disdainfully holding up the letter with her thumb and forefinger. A fancy seal of a star mandala was imprinted in red wax next to her name. "It's so eloquent. Not her style at all." She envisioned a tacky pink homemade card with a childish handwriting.

"Sounds completely like my brother's style of rhetoric, and his calligraphy on top of it, except for the signature—that's hers," said Erika. When did Eron turn into Sakura's private secretary? "What was he thinking?"

"Eron's such a talented guy. How did you turn out so dumb?" remarked Kara, examining her carefully manicured nails.

"Excuse me?" Erika glared at Kara. "I'm not the one who repeated two grades."

"I still think we picked the wrong twin," said Kara to Leiyun, ignoring Erika.

"Well, we didn't have much of a choice, did we," said Leiyun with a shrug. "Can't fight the natural course of the power of love."

And Erika shot a poisonous glare at Leiyun, who laughed.

"So, what are you going to do?" asked Erika. "Are you really going to fight Sakura-chan?"

"What good is she for without her Cards, anyway?" remarked Kara. "Is it necessary to even fight her when you already have the Cards?"

"True; the Cards are already in our possession," said Leiyun, watching his cousin out of the corner of his eyes. "But this way, we can officially become the Masters of the Clow by contract." Even after you so carefully arranged a way to steal the Cards without harming the Mistress, it eventually would have had to come down to this, Syaoran.

"She's not worth your time though, Lei," said Kara, playing with her cross earrings. "She's so outmatched, it's kind of sad.

Erika looked up. "You'll be surprised. She's stronger than you think."

"Do you think so, Erika-chan?" said Kara with a lazy smile. "I think it's sort of silly that she decided upon a duel as her form of challenge. Her magic without the Cards is clearly not combative. And she has such powerful allies, your brother and Eriol included, that a one-on-one fight is only to her disadvantage."

"Someone go upstairs and bring Syaoran," said Leiyun. He glanced over at Erika. "You go."

Erika stood up, hands on hips. "Nobody tells me what to do."

"Pardon me, Erika," said Leiyun with a smile. "I just thought you enjoyed my cousin's company and perhaps wanted time with him."

"Humph." Erika stood up and walked up to the second floor. She entered Syaoran's room without knocking. "Leiyun wants to see you."

She found Syaoran sitting at his desk, solving through physics problems mechanically. "Are you actually studying for exams?"

"Aren't you?" asked Syaoran, not looking up from his problem set. "You guys are in the middle of exam week over at Seijou if I'm not mistaken?"

"I would think with everything going on in your life that school is the least of your concerns," said Erika. "Do you know Sakura sent a duel challenge to Leiyun?"

Syaoran dropped his pencil. "She did what?"

"Idiotic, isn't it," said Erika.

"And Eron let her do something like that?"

"Don't ask me. It's not my idea," said Erika.

Syaoran shut his book and hurried down the stairs to the basement chamber. Only Leiyun was waiting for him. Kara and Jinyu were nowhere in sight. Erika had taken off for home with the guilty conscience that the chemistry and algebra exams were tomorrow.

"Syaoran, it is time for your final task," said Leiyun, arms folded in front of him.

"What will that be?" asked Syaoran dully.

"You might have heard that our delightful Card Mistress has sent us a challenge letter for a duel," said Leiyun, throwing Syaoran the letter.

Syaoran glanced at it.

"The Clan has decided that it should be your final task in order to be reinstated as the Chosen One. Defeat the Card Mistress and become the Master of the Clow," said Leiyun.

"What?" Syaoran frowned, staring at the letter. "This is addressed to you, Leiyun. She is challenging you."

"No, it's addressed, 'Li-san,' " replied Leiyun. "She did not specify in the letter which Li she is challenging."

"But she clearly means you," said Syaoran. "Besides, didn't you want to become the Master of the Clow?"

"The Clan has decided it is more logical for you, as the Chosen One, to be the Master of the Clow, just like they originally intended," said Leiyun.

"I don't have magic; the Cards will be useless to me," Syaoran repeated.

"What part of the Elders' command did you not understand?" Leiyun said pointedly. "Do not feign innocence because you knew it would eventually come down to this when you agreed to come on this mission."

Syaoran crumpled the letter in his hands. "What if I refuse?"

"Syaoran, my dear Syaoran. Why do you insist on making things more difficult for yourself? Leiyun said. "I'm not your enemy. I'm on your side. But if you want to make things work, you have to cooperate with me."

"Leiyun-ge-ge. I came to Japan under the condition that I would be completely under your orders," said Syaoran. "I was ready to do everything the Clan asked. I was ready to give up my pride, my identity, my self-will. But there are things that I will do and things I cannot do. I cannot agree to what the Clan asks of me this time."

"Don't be foolish," said Leiyun. "I think you know you have no choice in the matter. You accepted that when you chose to come as a part of the Li Delegation in Japan."

"I do have a choice," said Syaoran. "I will do almost anything the Clan will ask of me. That's been engrained in me since birth. But this one thing, I refuse."

"I expected you might throw a fuss," said Leiyun with a shrug. "Defeat me. Prove yourself stronger than me. Then you can maybe talk about having a right to freedom. But until you are stronger than me, you are but a puppet of the Clan and must submit to my command." He tossed a sword at Syaoran and it landed in front of his feet with a clatter.

Syaoran picked up his sword with his left hand. When he was little, he and Leiyun had engaged in numerous sparring matches. Leiyun had been assigned as his first teacher in swords not only because he was good, but because he was the best in the Clan, aside from the Great Elder. Till date, he had never beaten Leiyun in a sword match. He had never faced Leiyun for a real match, either. He could not raise his sword against Leiyun.

"Try beating me. I won't use magic. Let's have a man to man fight."

"I don't want to fight you," said Syaoran.

"What, you're scared?" Leiyun said, ice blue eyes gleaming menacingly.

Gritting his teeth, Syaoran lunged forward at Leiyun, blade drawn.

Leiyun carelessly thwarted the attack with the sheath of his sword. "You've gotten weak, Li Syaoran. You were a stronger opponent at age nine. What happened to your fighting spirit?"

When Syaoran struck again in a wide diagonal stroke, Leiyun ducked away without flitting an eye.

"You're not going to be able to beat me with just your left arm. Come on, use your full force. What, do you still think you need to pretend your right arm is hurt? Jingmei told me that your arm has been all right for a while now thanks to the Card Mistress. Oh, you thought at least Jingmei was by your side?" Leiyun let out a short laughter. "Foolish boy. When will you learn? Each person was brought here for a reason. Her job is report back to the Council, not be your personal nurse. Same as how you came to Japan as a demoted Chosen One, not to be your Card Mistress' ally once again."

Syaoran shifted his sword to his right hand, gladly, and lunged forward and Leiyun warded off his punch with one hand. Stepping back, Syaoran spun up with a side kick, which Leiyun countered with his unsheathed sword. Syaoran unsheathed his sword and then leapt forward. Leiyun blocked with his sword sheath and then met Syaoran's blade with the Five Force Sword. There was a clang of metal. Syaoran felt a dull throb in his right arm again. The Five Force Sword, his father's sword. He had never had to fight against it before. But it had been entrusted to Leiyun now. It was no longer his sword—it wouldn't be unless he was reinstated as the Chosen One.

With lark-like grace, Leiyun slammed down his sword into the floor and pinned Syaoran to the floor, his left hand holding Syaoran's collar. He smirked "You're still weak. You will never beat me in your current state. So what if you lost your magic? Is this the best martial skills you have? Were you not trained to become the Chosen One, the strongest warrior of the Li Clan? I didn't use a bit of magic on you, and this is the best fight you can put up against me? I'm disappointed in you, Li Syaoran. You cannot even stand in the footsteps of your father's shadow."

"Shut up," said Syaoran through gritted teeth.

"What did you say?"

"I said shut up!" repeated Syaoran, swerving out his legs and kicking Leiyun away.

"This is what happens to you when you are stuck supporting some weakling peace-loving Card Mistress. You get weak and pathetic," Leiyun sneered, lithely leaping backwards.

"Leiyun, what made you change so much?" asked Syaoran. "You, out of anybody, probably would have valued the ideals that Sakura holds, the vision that she has."

"Change? I didn't change. I'm still the same person," said Leiyun.

"Maybe I just didn't know you then," said Syaoran. "The Leiyun I knew would never follow such ridiculous orders from the Clan."

"You're right. You just didn't know me." Leiyun laughed out loud. "My father didn't come rescue me. The Great Elder didn't come to rescue me either. No one from the Li Clan came to save me at all. Why should my loyalty lie with the Clan?"

That dark, haunted look that came over Leiyun's face every so often, a look that he never had in the olden days, was there again. Syaoran frowned. "What are you talking about? Aren't you following the Clan's orders? What is it that you want?"

"Your father, the greatest Chosen One since the Great One, died alone. Li Ryuuren, the Blue Dragon as they called him, died all alone before he was even thirty. What did his great talent, his honorary titles and his great achievements amount to then? He was just a defeated man, without a person by his side at his final hour. I wonder what he was thinking, what he felt his life amounted to at the moment he died."

"Don't talk about my father in that manner!" Syaoran stated. "My father was a great man, and his death was not in vain."

"There is no one who knows better than me that your father was a great man. There is nobody who understands him better, perhaps," remarked Leiyun with narrowed blue eyes. "Think Syaoran, what would your father do in this situation?"

Syaoran shook his head.

"You know how he would decide," said Leiyun lowly.

"No," said Syaoran stepping back. He turned around and walked out of the room.

Leiyun did not stop him but merely watched the boy leave with a half-smile.

Syaoran brushed past Jinyu, who didn't stop him. He passed by the portrait of Li Shulin, grabbed his coat from the hanger, and walked out the Li Estate gates. First, he was walking, then his legs picked up speed until he was running down the street at full speed, ignoring the people he bumped into on the sidewalks, running like a wild wolf that had finally escaped from the iron cage of Li Shulin's mansion.

Long after his cousin burst away, Leiyun sat in the dark chamber, expressionless and still.

"Lei, what kind of man was Li Ryuuren?" asked Kara, brushing the dirt off Leiyun's arm. "This man that you said you respect the most."

"He's a lot like Syaoran, actually," Leiyun said with a soft smile.

Kara's pale lavender eyes crinkled. "What, an obstinate grouch?"

"Willful and one-track minded."

Leiyun sat down on the armchair, frowning. Li Wutai, Head of the Clan, had been scared that Leiyun was growing too powerful. He thought that he would easier control young Syaoran. But he was of course mistaken. Syaoran was not dumb and would never be controlled by someone as weak as Li Wutai.

"Uncle Ryuuren was noble and braver than any man. Unlike my very own cowardly father who sent his only son off at the age of sixteen to his probable death," murmured Leiyun with a cold laughter. If only Uncle Ryuuren had been his father. "He looked like he had seen a ghost when I came back."

Kara ran a hand over Leiyun's silvery hair in a maternal way.

"He pretended he was glad to see me and welcomed me with open arms. But not once, not when I was alone and thought I was dying, was anybody sent to find me. Even though I was not dead, nobody came to check if I was perhaps still alive. Nobody came to even retrieve my body. I was completely abandoned by the Clan," Leiyun said.

"But you're here. And alive," murmured Kara into his ears.

"Yes, I am." Leiyun sighed. "Are you all right Kara? You've been looking down lately."

A pair of arms slinked around his neck. "I'm fine," said Kara, closing her eyes. "I'm fine."

"That's good to hear."

Kara asked, "Is it all right letting the Little Wolf run off like that?"

"He'll come scampering back in no time," replied Leiyun with a tight smile. "He's a Li, after all. The Li Clan may choose to abandon you. But you never can run away from the Clan."

******

"Exams are over!" squealed Sakura, clapping her hands together as the students streamed out of the school gates as the bell struck three.

"Good job," said Eron, flipping through his notes even though exams were already over. He turned gray as he realized that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, not June 18.

"I think I bombed my chemistry exam," said Sakura. "But the math test was surprisingly easy, wasn't it? A bunch of the problems used the L'Hopital rule, and the rest were easy derivatives. Now, I just need to focus on how to get the Sakura Cards back."

"I still think the duel is a bad idea," said Eron. "There are other ways to get the Cards back. Isn't Kaitou Magician your friend?"

"It doesn't count if we steal it back. I have to show to the Li Clan once and for all who the Master of the Cards is," said Sakura.

"It's not that hard to figure out, with all the pinkness and your name written on each and every card," replied Eron. "Anyhow, you beat Li Syaoran six years ago and became Card Mistress. Yue chose you. What more proof is needed?"

"It's more than ownership of the Cards," said Sakura softly. "When someone first told me that a new alliance was in the forging, the alliance of the stars, I thought it was a silly notion, but I guess that person was right."

"How do you know?" asked Eron.

"You, despite the fact that you have the blood of Chang flowing in you, are my friend, aren't you?"

"Just friends?" Eron raised an eyebrow.

"Don't tease," said Sakura, blushing. "Anyhow, that's why I formed the Alliance. Because I realized that trust is sometimes not enough in the world of magic. Magic is still a rigidly regimented realm where physical contracts are needed, where we need to be restricted by rules and regulations in order to uphold a certain order, to amplify our strengths and cover our weaknesses. Otherwise, chaos will ensue."

For a moment, Eron watched Sakura out of the corner of his eyes. "When did you find time to read Clow Reed's notes on the origins and applications of contract magic?"

"Just a little bit here and there, before going to bed," replied Sakura. "Eriol-kun lent the book to me."

"Reading even during exams?"

"Well, I have so much to catch up with the rest of the people in the Alliance," replied Sakura. "Even Miho-chan knows so much about magic because she's learned a lot directly from Nakuru-san and Spinel Sun, not to mention Eriol-kun and Mizuki-sensei."

And Eron watched Sakura with wistful eyes. "Either way, as much as I am a supporter of regulations and procedures, I really don't think you should send that letter."

"It's too late. I sent it already," said Sakura.

"When?"

Sakura smiled a sunny smile. "Leiyun-san hasn't responded at all. I think he's going to ignore it."

"Hopefully that is the case," said Eron with a shudder. Though he had always known Sakura to be headstrong, while it had worked to his advantage when she was his target, as his girlfriend, it was enough to throw him into a panic attack.

******

"Why did you help Sakura write the challenge letter?" demanded Erika, stomping into Eron's bedroom that night.

"I tried to dissuade her," replied Eron. "And she was going to do it whether I wrote it for her or not."

"Did you include the loophole in language on purpose?"

Eron blinked his golden eyes. "What are you talking about?"

Erika's arms were crossed. "Did you want Syaoran to fight Sakura? That's why you addressed it to 'Li-san' without specifying which Li?"

"I have no idea what you are talking about," said Eron. "Besides, do you seriously think any of Sakura's allies would truly let her come into danger? We clearly out number Leiyun's side."

"Eron," said Erika. "Do you realize what you're saying? Would you fight against me, also?"

"Erika, you're my twin. I wish you didn't choose to align yourself with Leiyun—I don't trust him one bit. Even if I were still following the Dark One's order, I don't think they would have chosen Leiyun. I haven't changed, Erika. Amamiya, Li, I still hate both sides."

"But you love Sakura," said Erika.

"Yes, I love Sakura," her twin replied.

******

A young man walked down the sandy white shores, staring out at the winter sea. In the distance, he saw a lithe girl with hair golden sunlight, wearing a black t-shirt and tight jeans. Slowly, he walked up to her. He took off his leather jacket and placed it over her shoulders.

She looked up at him, startled. "Kai. What are you doing here?"

"I thought I might find you here," he said. "How did exams go?"

"Horribly. Who knew I would end up back in high school."

"You weren't a bad student back in the days," remarked Kai.

"You weren't either," replied Kara. The two commiserated for a moment.

"It's tougher carrying off where you last left off rather than starting anew."

"It makes me mad," said Kara. "All these kids are younger than me. If I continued my studies, I could be doing better than all of them."

"Well, you abandoned that road long ago, didn't you?"

"So only I am too blame." Kara stared out at the blue-gray ocean. "Do you come here often?"

"Sometimes, to cool my head."

"I haven't been back since that last time." She clutched the leather jacket around her. "You refused Leiyun's offer."

"You didn't expect me to accept?"

"I don't know. I half expected you might." Kara smiled crookedly. "But that might have just been my own hubris. I always wondered. Back then, if I didn't leave, would you have come and rescue me."

Kai didn't respond.

"Somewhere deep in my heart, I kind of wished you would chase after me," said Kara. "But you never did come find me."

"You didn't want me to find you."

"If you wanted to find me, you would have found me, I believe," Kara replied with a sardonic smile. "If I didn't leave then, I wonder if you would still be mine."

"I wonder."

"If I didn't leave then, I wonder if he would still be alive."

"You need to stop blaming yourself, Kara."

"Don't you understand?" Kara's pale violet eyes were dilated. "I knew he was going to die. I knew he was going to get shot. I saw it. And I didn't warn him. I didn't tell him. I didn't save him. I killed him."

"Get a grip, Kara. You didn't kill him. It was not your fault. Your Sight is not a curse. Nor is it a tool."

"He was the man I hated most in the world, the one person I never wanted to become like. But in the end, I was the same," said Kara shivering, clutching Kai's leather jacket. "I was also a coward."

"You can stop being angry now. It's okay to mourn." His voice was quiet, drowned by the crashing of the waves on the shoreline.

"I have no regret of his death," she said coldly.

"Then why are you here today?" Kai's tone was strained.

"Stop it Kai," snapped Kara, walking away. "Don't pretend to understand me. You don't know what is like to be abandoned. You were always the prince, adored by everyone. It was sickening watching you. You had everything. You were just a spoilt kid who lived at the lap of luxury. Even now, your father is alive. Your mother is healing. You've accomplished everything you set out to do. Aren't you satisfied?"

"Not yet." Kai grabbed Kara by her frail arm and pulled her along. "Stop it! Let go of me!" Kara shouted.

With a sigh, Kai deftly picked up Kara and set her on the back of his motorcycle and climbed on, igniting the vehicle. They took off and zoomed down the hallway.

"Where are you taking me?" Kara screamed as she clung onto Kai's back for dear life. "Are you crazy?"

"If I remember correctly, the crazy one was you!" replied Kai over the roar of the engines. He grinned crookedly craning his head over his shoulder. "Though it might have rubbed off."

The motorcycle came to an abrupt halt, and Kara tumbled off, throwing Kai's leather jacket back at him. "I'm leaving!"

Kai reached out and grabbed Kara's wrist. "Just follow me."

"Let go of me!" Kara shouted.

"I won't let go until you listen!" replied Kai.

"I said, let go!" Kara tried to push Kai away but his grip on her wrist was like iron. When had the boy grown so strong?

"Listen, Kara," said Kai, finally halting. "Please listen. It was his last wish, and I am only messenger. Please let me finish my last promise to him."

And Kara, her lavender eyes blazing like rose-quartz, finally stared around her surroundings. She realized she was standing in the midst of a graveyard. She stared at a blank granite tombstone and clenched her long nails into her palm.

"It's your father's grave."

"I don't want to hear," she said through gritted teeth.

"You've got to listen! He wanted me to tell you—"

"He's gone now; it doesn't matter!"

"He said he's sorry he had to leave you, and that he loves you," said Kai. "Leon-san made me promise to tell you this.

And Kara stared up at Kai with furious violet eyes and slapped him across the face. "I told you never to mention his name in front of me again."

"He asked for forgiveness," said Kai quietly.

Kara glared at Kai, her eyes suddenly blurring. She stepped forward and buried her head in Kai's chest.

One time, when had been but a twelve year old boy mourning for his father's death, he had sobbed into her shoulder. And at that time, she had patted his back very gently like he was patting hers today.

"Idiotic father," she muttered.

"Isn't it time for you to forgive him now?" asked Kai.

"What, for abandoning me once again? He was a coward till the end, not telling me those words to my face," Kara let out a short laughter. "Don't mistake me. I'm not mourning for him. I'm not sad that he died at all."

"Then why do you have tears in your eyes?" asked Kai.

"Because I'm angry at him. I'm mad at him for always having his way and never seeing the consequence of his actions," said Kara stepping back and staring at the tombstone.

"He was a broken man," said Kai, looking into the distance. "He was lonely and desperate and defeated."

"What does it matter now?" she asked in a tired voice.

"Do you know what he told me before he died?" Kai said. "He told me, 'Don't become like me, Kai. Don't run away from life and lose everything that is important to you.' And yet, back then, Leon-san was like a hero to me. He was the kind of man I wanted to become like. Strong and invulnerable, sharp-witted and carefree. He accepted he was a failure in many ways, he admitted himself. But he was not afraid to accept his flaws. He was a talented magician like no other. And if it weren't for him, I don't even know how I would have turned out."

"Good role model that man was. Don't you think he ruined you? You became a thief, for heaven's sake. Golden boy Tanaka Mikai became Kaitou Magician. It's hilarious enough to make me cry."

"Look at me, Kara," said Kai. "Do you also judge me as a complete failure in life? I may not be Tanaka Mikai anymore. On the day I left home, I decided to give up my name and the lifestyle I was used to in exchange for the means of accomplishing what I set out to do. But just because I am no longer Mikai, does that mean I am nobody? If I had not met Leon-san, I don't know if I would be here where I am today. Many times, I had thought of running away for real and forgetting everything. There were many nights when I battled with anxiety and rage at the world and thought I was going crazy because of depression and solitude. But Leon-san was the person who knocked some sense into me, to make me stop feeling sorry for myself. Without him, I would have been eaten away by vengeance and reduced to a shadow. To me, Leon Reed was a savior."

"And they say one man's demon is another's angel. God, I hate him," said Kara sinking to her knees. The damp dirt was cold against her bare legs. Hot, angry tears that she swore she would never shed for that man streamed down her cheeks. "I hate him, I hate him, I hate him."

And Mikai sank down on the ground next to her, letting Karin fall against his shoulder when she had exhausted herself, silent the whole time.

******

Humming a little tune because exams were over, Sakura visited the hospital with a triple deck bento that she prepared for dinner. She convinced herself the only motive was to deliver a bento to her brother and Yukito-san who were working over hours to get some time off during the holidays.

Down the hallway, she heard a loud wailing. She winced as the wailing grew louder and louder. A nurse came tumbling out of the end room, near tears.

"Ah, it's Sakura-chan. Are you here to see your brother?" said the nurse, wiping her forehead with a handkerchief.

"Is everything all right?" asked Sakura.

"It's that time of the year again," said the nurse. "Nina-chan becomes impossible to handle during holiday time."

"Another tantrum?" asked Sakura with a worried frown.

"Not even Tsukishiro-sensei could calm her down today," said the nurse. "And she usually listens to him."

"Kinomoto-sensei had to come and send her to bed without dinner," said another nurse. "Thank goodness—all the other children were getting restless."

"That's horrible—she did not have dinner?" Sakura exclaimed. "That's too much, even coming from onii-chan—"

"No, he did the right thing," said the nurse, who was a mother of two. "No one in the hospital can stand up to her, and she's just a child. Nina-chan needs discipline in her life, but nobody here can give it to her. Because she's the child of the Chairman."

And the unspoken words lingered in the air. Nina needed parents. And the reason why she acted up during holidays was because that was when parents came and spent the most time with their children or took them home.

"I'll go check on her," said Sakura.

Nina sat on the bed, clearly sulking as she did not jump up to give Sakura a customary hug. She clutched something to her chest. It was a white porcelain angel, the kind used for Christmas tree ornaments, and the gilt paint had faded. But out of the array of every sort of toy imaginable to a child, Nina held that particular cold porcelain bric-a-brac to her heart. Shirose Subaru was a precious person in Nina's life, because he was the first person in her short six years who had stood up to her.

"What's wrong, Nina-chan?" Sakura asked. "Are you hungry?"

"No."

"I have a steamed bun in my bag if are you tired of hospital food," said Sakura, reaching for her bag."

"I'm not hungry," snapped Nina with a scowl.

"Then what is it?" Sakura said gently. "You were giving the nurses a hard time again."

"I don't want to spend Christmas alone again," said Nina, bottom lips trembling. "This year, Su-chan is not even here."

And Sakura's green eyes filled with sorrow. "Well, do you want come home with me?"

"To onee-chan's house?" Nina repeated with bulging eyes, looking up at Sakura for the first time. She nodded.

It was not difficult to cajole her brother to obtain permission from the hospital for Nina's discharge over the holidays; since Touya was technically family, a Kinomoto to boot, and there were no particular health concerns for Nina, the hospital authorities were all too eager to release the problem child.

"What are you thinking?" asked Touya to his little sister—where she got her stubborn streak from, he did not know.

"Then do you want Nina to spend Christmas all alone in the hospital again?" asked Sakura, clutching Nina's little hand in her hand.

Nina was bundled up in a red coat, a matching felt hat, a white wool scarf and white mittens. On her feet were little black patent leather boots. Nobody would be able to guess she had been scream her tiny lungs out just moments ago judged by the beaming smile on her face.

Touya saw the determined gleam in Sakura's eyes and sighed. There was no reasoning with his little sister when she was like this.

******

"The playground!" exclaimed Nina, her eyes sparkling as her eyes darted from the big blue penguin slide to the yellow swing set.

"Do you want to ride on the swing set?" asked Sakura.

Nina peered at the children swinging and then shook her head. "Okaa-san told me that the playground is full of germs."

"I played on the swing set all the time, and I'm fine," said Sakura. "Come, I'll push you."

Nina looked hesitant as Sakura lifted her up on the swing. She clutched the metal handles tightly and closed her eyes. Sakura gently pushed her so that she swayed back and forth.

"See, it's fun, isn't it?" said Sakura, pushing her slightly higher. "Try pumping your legs to go higher."

Nina extended her legs out then folded them again. As she gained momentum and soared higher and higher, she exclaimed, "It feels like I'm flying!"

When Nina grew tired of swinging, Sakura asked, spotting an ice cream stand near by, "Do you want ice cream?"

"Okaa-san said that you can't eat ice cream in the winter or you'll get a cold."

"It's not even that cold outside today, and ice cream tastes good what ever the season," said Sakura. She paid for two cones.

Nina happily licked away her vanilla soft serve ice cream. She shivered in delight and then exclaimed, "Sweet!"

"See, it's more fun eating ice cream in the winter because it doesn't melt as fast," said Sakura.

"Brr… Delicious!" Nina exclaimed.

Sakura took off her scarf and wrapped it around Nina's neck.

"Su-chan was right. You are like a fairy godmother, Sakura-nee-chan," said Nina.

And Sakura smiled sadly. "Now, what do you want to do, Nina-chan?"

"Sakura-nee-chan, can we go visit Su-chan?" Nina asked, tucking her sticky hand into Sakura's hand.

"All right," said Sakura, clutching the child's hand tightly. "Let's go see Su-chan."

The graveyard was bleak and gray as it had been on the day of the funeral. At least in the summertime the grass was green and it felt less lonely. Sakura prayed at her mother's tombstone briefly.

"Kinomoto Nadeshiko," Nina slowly read—though she hadn't started school, she was far from illiterate. "Is she Sakura-nee-chan's mother?"

Sakura nodded.

"Was she beautiful?"

"More beautiful than you can ever imagine," said Sakura.

"My mother is very beautiful too," said Nina with a smile. "She's famous too. Sometimes, she comes on TV, and I can see her. Su-chan said she's beautiful too. He said that if I grew up to become as beautiful as okaa-san, he would marry me."

Sakura laughed. The conversations little kids had.

"But he's no longer here. I never told him that I would like to become Su-chan's bride," said Nina, hugging her knees to her chest.

Now, Sakura did not know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, she hugged Nina-chan around the shoulder as she knelt in front of Shirose Subaru's tombstone. Again, there was a fresh bouquet of peonies, not yet wilted in this cold weather. Where could you get peonies in this season? The lingering smell drifted in the midst of the stark, damp smell of soil.

Sakura bolted up.

"Nee-chan?"

"Wait a minute here," said Sakura, turning around and ran past a grove of trees. She thought she heard footsteps. "Wait!" she called out. She wove in and out of the trees. "Is someone there?"

But there was no one. She glanced around from side to side. There was no trace of another person in the graveyard. She caught her breath and sighed. Who had she been hoping to see?

"Onee-chan!" Nina called, catching up with Sakura. "Don't leave me by myself!"

"I'm sorry, Nina-chan," said Sakura, hugging the girl close to her. "I'm sorry for leaving you alone. I thought I saw someone I knew."

"Ghost?" Nina asked, unblinking.

"Hoe-e!" wailed Sakura clutching Nina closer to her.

Nina giggled. The blessing of children were that they were as quick to laugh as they were to cry. "Touya-nii-chan said nee-chan is a scaredy-cat."

"Not nice!" Sakura pouted.

And Nina reached over, wiping the faint tears off of Sakura's cheek with her little hands. "Don't cry, Sakura-nee-chan. Su-nii-chan says that he wants Sakura-nee-chan to be happy."

Sakura smoothed Nina's sandy-gold hair and asked, "Did Su-nii-chan tell you that?"

Nina shook her head. "Silly, I can't talk to Su-chan anymore because he's in heaven."

And Sakura glanced curiously at the fresh bouquet of peonies.

"Come, let's go, Nina-chan. Otou-san said it's crab croquettes tonight," said Sakura, holding Nina's hand. She took one last lingering gaze at the groves.

"Yay!" Nina looked back. "Goodbye Su-chan! Goodbye, Sakura-nee-chan's okaa-san. Merry Christmas!

******

"What a small house," remarked Nina at the Kinomoto residence. She had grown up thinking the hospital was her house, so her disdain was understandable.

"Welcome, Nina-chan. The croquettes are almost ready and we have a mint chocolate chip cupcakes baking in the oven—I heard they are your favorite," said Kinomoto Fujitaka, bustling around the kitchen in a blue teddy-bear apron.

Since Nina had taken to Sakura's father back at the hospital, she proceeded to trail after him like a little duckling. She even helped dry the dishes and clung to Fujitaka to the point where she had completely forgotten about Sakura.

It was strange watching how comfortable her father was with handling children. Sakura smiled as Nina crawled onto her uncle's lap for storybook time. Technically, Fujitaka was Nina's half-brother, but it was less complicated to think he was her uncle.

"Now, Nina-chan, do you see this big dinosaur here? It is called a tyrannosaurus rex and is the king of dinosaurs," he said, balancing the little girl on one lap and holding a large picture book in the other.

Sakura watched her father, reminiscing how once she too had sat on her father's lap as he read her picture books and told her all sorts of stories of olden days. His wound from the gunshot had almost completely healed, and he was running about at the university, grading finals, writing up report cards and preparing for the release of his new book, busy as he always was during this season.

When it was time for bedtime, Sakura took Nina up to her room. Nina unfortunately discovered Kero-chan and insisted on cuddling him like a teddy bear and dress him up in doll's clothes.

"Gomen, Kero-chan," whispered Sakura with a smile as she ran a brush through Nina's wet hair, fresh out of the shower. Little Nina wore an oversized t-shirt as pajamas as it came down to her ankles.

"I wish Sakura-nee-chan was my real sister," said Nina.

"We can pretend I am," said Sakura. It was certainly less mind-boggling than thinking of Nina as her aunt. "I've always wanted a sister too."

"But you have Touya-nii-chan," Nina pointed out.

"He always makes fun of me and is mean," said Sakura. "I want a cute little sister like Nina-chan." She squeezed Nina into a tight hug. "So I can do stuff like this."

Nina squealed happily. The two girls curled into bed, and Sakura left the nightstand on.

"Sakura-nee-chan?" Nina said, poking her head out of the plush yellow blankets.

"Yes, Nina-chan?"

"Why are you mad at Syaoran-nii-chan?" Nina asked.

"I'm not mad at Syaoran-nii-chan," said Sakura.

"I asked Kai-nii-chan why Syao-nii-chan doesn't come to visit anymore. And he said it's because Sakura-nee-chan and Syao-nii-chan fought. Like otou-san and okaa-san."

"That silly Kai-nii-chan… Filling children's head with nonsense," Sakura grumbled under her breath. "No, Syao-nii-chan is very busy. That's all. I don't see him anymore, either."

"Please make up with Syao-nii-chan," said Nina, her lids growing heavy. "I miss Syao-nii-chan. Kai-nii said that if you say sorry, everybody can hold hands and be friends again."

"You're right, Nina-chan," Sakura said, patting Nina's back. "You're right."

Slowly, Nina's breath deepened, and she fell into deep slumber. Just as Sakura was ready to lie down and sleep, she heard Nina murmur under her breath, "Okaa-san…"

******

Her father had taken charge of Nina that morning, teaching her how to mix cake batter, and Sakura managed to sneak out without Nina noticing. Having tea with a big movie star meant drinking tea with a person wearing sunglasses and a hat and still getting stares.

"I still can't believe Tomoyo-chan didn't win the Best Designer Contest," grumbled Akagi Arima. "Sakura-chan and Syaoran-kun were so adorable on stage together." She slurped down her tea in a very unladylike manner.

"Arima-san, I know you are busy, but can I ask you a favor?" asked Sakura, fiddling with her straw.

"Sure, what is it?" said Arima. She was currently in the midst of a big fight with Asuma, who would be in Scotland over Christmas preparing for a race, and thus would not be able spend the holiday season with her at all. But for Sakura's sake, she put on a smile.

"Is there any way to get in touch with the actress Ishikawa Nanase?" asked Sakura.

"Oh. She's sort of a difficult person to approach," said Arima. "I'm filming a movie with her currently."

"I heard," said Sakura.

"I can arrange an opportunity for you to speak with her—I'm sort of scared of her myself," said Arima. "I'm not sure if she'll speak to you though."

Since it was Sakura's first time on a big movie set, she was a little intimidated. However, having been filmed by Tomoyo since she was nine and also having participated in two professional photo shoots, she was not as intimidated by the lights and camera as she could have been.

There was no mistaking Ishikawa Nanase. Even though a middle-aged woman in the midst of an all-star cast, Sakura found her to be stunningly beautiful, even more beautiful in person than in film.

"Ishikawa-san," said Sakura timidly. "Ishikawa-san."

"I don't sign autographs," said Ishikawa Nanase without looking up, in a silk robe, legs crossed.

"I wanted to speak to you about Nina-chan."

The actress' face paled as she turned around. "Who are you? How do you know about Nina?"

"M-my name is Kinomoto Sakura."

"Oh. So you're Nadeshiko-san's daughter," said Nanase, thin eyebrows arched. "I got my start in modeling. I've worked with Nadeshiko-san a couple times. She was a pretty little thing." The actress eyed Sakura critically. "Well, what do you want?"

"Nina-chan… Aren't you going to take Nina-chan back?"

Nanase stared at Sakura. "And why would I do that?"

"Don't you want to see her?"

"I do, I guess. She was a noisy little thing, always crying, always whining. I don't have time with my filming schedule to raise a child."

"She's your own daughter!" Sakura said in disbelief.

"Do you know how hard it was for me to make a come back? I'm an aging actress. My beauty has gone, and I am no longer young." Nanase pursed her lips. "I don't have time."

"But—"

"It was very difficult after the scandal with Fujishika-san…" Nanase paused. "My reputation was ruined."

"I thought ojii-sama was…"

"Yes, Fujishinto-san is Nina-chan's father. I figured, why go for the small fish when there are bigger fish out there?" Nanase smiled coldly. "I was growing old and losing out roles to the younger, fresher faces. I was becoming insignificant. I was plagued by debt and work was getting harder to find. But if I had a child, a child that bore the Kinomoto name, then my financial future would be secure."

Sakura felt a cold fury creep through her. "How can you use Nina-chan as a bargaining tool?"

Nanase laughed shortly. "Because I was a fool—I would never have born that child if I had known better. Kinomoto-san wouldn't acknowledge Nina-chan as a legitimate child. He asked me to give her to him and never appear in front of him again. But that would mean that I would get nothing. So, I didn't let him have his way. He's used to getting his way, you know. Nina-chan remained my daughter and took on my name. And he gives me a monthly stipend to look after her. It's not what I imagined my life would be like. I probably shouldn't be telling such a young thing as you something like this. But I guess you're old enough to know that one day, we wake up to realize we're not fairytale princesses anymore."

"She's your daughter, and you fought to keep her. But why do you keep her locked up in the hospital?" Sakura asked.

"I can't let people know I have an illegitimate daughter," said Nanase. "Let alone let the media find out who the father is. What would people say? An affair with both son and father, the chairman of Hoshi Enterprise and a man old enough to be my own father. What would they write about me in the tabloids?"

Sakura's jaw dropped. Could there be a more self-centered woman? "Do you know how lonely Nina-chan is? How abandoned she must feel?"

"I spent four years with my career on hold because Nina-chan was so sickly. I looked after her day and night," said Nanase. "But I couldn't spend the rest of my life like that. It was Kinomoto-san's idea to put her in the hospital. He said that she would get the best facilities and treatment possible. And I could get my freedom back. Nina-chan is treated like a princess in that hospital—she has every toy, every dress, all the good food imaginable. What more can she want?"

"The hospital is not a daycare center or a hotel. It's a place to treat sick people," said Sakura. "Nina-chan is not sick anymore. She's regained her health and can run about and play. She's going to start elementary school soon. What's going to happen then?"

Nanase blinked. "She's starting school already?"

Sakura realized that Nanase thought that Nina was still some infant baby that just needed food and her diaper changed to be content. "You don't deserve a daughter like Nina-chan."

"Wait till you have a child without a husband to rely on," said Ishikawa Nanase with bitter eyes. "Do you think this is the kind of environment I wanted to raise a child in? I too am a woman. I had dreams. But what use is there dreaming now?"

And Sakura realized that beneath Ishikawa Nanase's glamorous makeup and jewels was also a scarred woman.

"Nina-chan is growing up without a mother," Sakura said softly.

"I'm doing the best I can here," Nanase snapped. "What more can I do? I made sure Kinomoto-san is going to support us, and Nina will never have to worry about having a roof over her head or food to eat. She'll have the prettiest dresses and in time, I'm sure there will be men who will want to marry since she is a Kinomoto, even though she is an illegitimate child. And I'm engaged to Director Takashiro now. I slaved away for twenty years trying to make a name for myself. Don't I deserve some love and happiness as well?"

How could a person be so selfish? Sakura's face was expressionless. "Well, I wish you a very happy and fruitful life then. I won't ever come to you about this issue again."

"Don't judge me," said Nanase, frowning fiercely. "I'm doing the best I can, in my own way. Someone as young as you has no right to judge me. Maybe I'm not the best mother out there. But I too tried the best I could."

"I'm not judging you," said Sakura. "I'm just feeling sorry for Nina-chan, that's all. All the decisions you made that you think was for her sake were actually decisions you made for yourself. But at least, she does have a mother, a mother who wants to make decisions to benefit her child. In that manner, I think Nina is very blessed."

And Sakura walked away, head in the air. Arima handed Sakura a warm drink in between scenes. "Wow, what did you say to Ishikawa-san? I've never seen her that shaken up."

Sakura shook her head. "I hope Nina-chan never hears those words that woman uttered today. I heard Ishikawa-san is marrying again?"

"She'll be Director Takashiro's third wife," said Arima. "I don't know what kind of woman she is or what kind of private life she leads. Nonetheless, as an actress, I really admire her. She's the kind of actress I want to become. Because in the roles she plays, she can bring in such a diverse range of emotions and express her characters so genuinely. When you see her acting, you can't help thinking, ah she must know a lot about a woman's heart in order to be able to portray characters ranging from a samurai's dignified wife to an alcoholic divorcee with such conviction."

"Arima-san," Sakura said. "You're a popular actress. But in the future, if you had a family, do you think you would be able to choose between your career and your family?"

"I don't know," said Arima. "I'm still young and Asuma and I have talked about our future, vaguely, but I don't think I'm ready to marry yet. Ideally, I would like to be able balance acting with my family. But I know life doesn't always work out like that. I gave up horseback riding and Asuma to act. But Asuma did not let me go. In that, I was blessed. I don't want to give up acting. But I don't think I can act without knowing that someone like Asuma will always be by my side."

"I'm sure Asuma-san is sad that he can't be with you for Christmas," said Sakura. "But he wants to do well because he wants you to be proud of him."

"Wait, how do you know Asuma and I fought?"

"Aki-kun told me you weren't speaking with Asuma-san." Sakura said.

"That good for nothing blabbermouth," Arima groaned.

******

Li Meilin awoke in the middle of the night in cold sweat. It was pitch black, and Meilin reached over to turn on the nightstand. Her pajamas clung to her skin, and she pushed her heavy hair out of her face. In the light, she was able to calm down a little bit. She glanced around. Slowly, she walked over to her desk drawer. Her heart sank to her stomach. Jinyu's pistol was gone.

Kai

******

All his life, Syaoran had been a planner. His days had been guided by strict regiment and routine and the concept of vacation to him was foreign. For the first time in his life, it seemed like he had no place to be, no place to go to, nothing to do, nothing to plan for. After leaving the Li house, he wandered down the streets aimlessly. When he was weary of walking, he sat on the benches, but since he did not like the cold, he had to move about soon again.

It seemed as if those who were cheery were cheerier during Christmastime and those who were morose were even more so, because in the midst of the blinking lights and the blaring music, those without family and those who could not afford the luxury of holiday season were left out of the yearend festivity.

Though Syaoran did not believe in self-pity, he was getting quite close to the point when he spotted a familiar face in the crowd. It occurred to him that he had so few that he could trust or call a friend, that the former thief Mizuki Kai could possibly be his only confidante now.

"You're a hard one to track down, aren't you?" said Kai, clapping Syaoran on the back. "Wow, I've got new respect for you. I heard from Kara-senpai. I can't believe you had the guts to run away from home. Let alone ditch half your exams—I always thought you were such a nerd."

Syaoran scowled. "Somehow, everything coming out of your mouth sounds like an insult."

"So, what are you going to do?" asked Kai. "Do you have a place to stay? You can stay at my place for the time being, if you need a place to sleep. I'm going to be out of town for a while anyway. Or you can go back to your own apartment, I suppose."

Syaoran shook his head. "I can't let Meilin find out for the time being."

"They're not going to hurt Meilin," said Kai.

"I don't think Leiyun would harm Meilin," said Syaoran. "He's always liked Meilin, and it's not his style to turn on family."

At this, Kai coughed.

"But my mother told me back in Hong Kong that it's best if I am not too close to Meilin—or else the Clan would use that against me. My mother's powerful, and she'll protect my sisters. But nobody in Meilin's immediate family has magic—they don't have any leverage in the Inner Council. I have that to be thankful to you about. That you brought her to Japan, away from the Clan. She'll be safe here with Sakura and you by her side."

"You make it sound like I brought her here on purpose—she chose to come herself," stated Kai.

Syaoran gazed at Kai skeptically. "As for yourself, are you ready to ask forgiveness to Miho yet?"

And Kai blinked in an aggravating manner. "Eron and Sakura are very close these days—they're the hot topic of gossip at school."

"Don't change the topic on me," said Syaoran.

"What do you think they do on dates?" Kai remarked, chin on hands. He wondered if Syaoran knew there were times when he uncharacteristically sounded remarkably like Sakura.

"It's none of my business," Syaoran said sharply.

"How far do you think they've gotten?" Kai asked blinking.

"Excuse me?"

"Well, Eron's a guy after all. I mean, they've been dating for months now. But Sakura-chan is so naive and pure. How do you feel thinking that Eron-kun will be the one tainting your precious Sakura-chan?"

"You disgusting, perverse thief," growled Syaoran.

"Don't act all high and mighty," Kai said. "You were the one who stole her first kiss from her. And you're the creepy sort of guy who would steal a kiss from her while she is innocent sleeping or something like that."

Syaoran's ears turned bright red. "W-what are you talking about?"

"You know, Eron-kun's probably the most popular guy in school now," Kai continued. "I mean, you had your loyal fans at one point, but let's face it, Eron, unlike you, is courteous and gracious to everybody. The 'pretty boy' type is totally in these days, and Eron's not only top of his class, but he's good at sports and music. Well, I guess he's got everything you had, plus a more sociable personality furthermore enhance because his twin sister has such a horrible reputation. Hence, the school perceives of him as the 'good twin,' the nice, caring brother. The worse Erika behaves, the more angelic Eron seems. And finally, Eron's popularity has sky-rocketed ever since he started dating Sakura-chan. Sakura-chan has always been the darling of Seijou—she's loved by pretty much everybody, especially after rumors circulated that she was heartlessly dumped by her foreign-exchange student boyfriend back in junior high. Now, the two are the school's golden couple, and Eron's slightly mysterious, dark atmosphere is enhanced by Sakura's positively dazzling and radiant personality. They counterbalance each other, and people are intrigued by them and admire the pair."

"Do you really want to make my holiday any more miserable than it already is?" demanded Syaoran. This Kai, didn't he have enough family problems not to have to meddle in other people's relationships? But he seemed to share that hobby in similarity to Sakura.

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I know for a fact that Eron has not made it to second base yet." Kai paused. "But you know Christmas is always the most romantic holiday, and is the perfect opportunity to…"

Syaoran narrowed his eyes. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, innocent Syao-chan." Kai patted Syaoran on the back sympathetically. "I think a little jealousy would do you some good as a matter of fact."

"You're not helping the situation here."

Kai pulled Syaoran behind a tree. "They're here!"

"Who?" Syaoran looked up. Eron and Sakura walked down the parkway. Sakura was adorable in a white wool coat and a red skirt, in Christmas spirit. A white wool tam o'shanter with a pompom was perched on her head, slightly tilted, and she was holding hands with him as they walked. She looked happy, not pallid and frail like she had when he had first returned to Japan. They looked good together, he had to admit grudgingly. "Did you know they're going to be here?" he hissed to Kai.

"Pure coincidence," said Kai with an innocent shrug, ignoring Syaoran's death glare. "Totally did not intend on spying on their date at all."

The pair stopped by a bench.

"That's the love-love couple bench," whispered Kai to Syaoran.

"What?"

"That's where boyfriends bring their girlfriends for you-know-what," replied Kai with a wink.

Syaoran watched Eron fumble in his coat pocket and hand Sakura a little silver-wrapped box. "It's a little early, but since, Erika and I are leaving for Kyoto tonight… Here's my Christmas present."

"Eron-kun, this is absolutely beautiful!" Sakura exclaimed, opening the jewelry box. It was a golden ring with a little emerald inset. "But I can't possibly accept something this extravagant."

"Why?" Eron said. "It's my first gift to you. Don't you like it?"

"No, it's lovely," Sakura said. "But my gift is so..." She stared at her purple box bashfully.

Eron opened up the box and took out a lumpy navy blue scarf. "You made this?"

"I'm currently quite broke, so I'm sorry. It's handmade. I know I've never been much of a knitter, and I tried out the double cable pattern for the first time, and I can't say it's been much of a success," said Sakura. "You don't have to wear it—I realize now it's completely not your style."

"What are you talking about?" Eron wrapped the scarf around his neck. "This is the first time anybody has taken the time to make me a handmade gift." He pressed the wool scarf to his lips. "I'm very happy."

Sakura smiled.

"Umm… Do you want me to put it on for you?" asked Eron.

"S-sure…" stammered Sakura.

Eron slipped the ring onto Sakura's third finger. "Does it fit well?"

Sakura nodded, staring at the emerald sparkle from her finger. She realized that a ring was sort of a serious gift to receive from a boy. "It's very beautiful. Thank you Eron-kun."

Shoving Kai over for a better position behind the bush, Syaoran hissed, "She knit him a scarf."

"It's not very well made," remarked Kai, shaking his head, not making much of an effort to hide or lower his voice.

"That's beside the point. She made him a homemade gift!" said Syaoran, dragging Kai down lower. "Since when did she care for him that much?

"Sakura's holey wool scarves are famous. She knit me a black one last Christmas," said Kai nonchalantly.

And Syaoran's jaw dropped.

"What, you thought you were special?" Kai chuckled. "You used to wear that hideous green scarf she knit you in elementary school only at home because you were afraid to soil it."

"Shuddup," muttered Syaoran with a deep scowl.

"I'd be more concerned about the ring, if I were you," remarked Kai. "That's a sign when the guy wants to announce to the world, this is my girl."

"Did you give Meilin a ring?" asked Syaoran.

"No, I just implanted a microchip on her," replied Kai with an evil cackle.

"They're getting up," Syaoran whispered, crawling out of the bush to get a better look.

"He's probably taking her home," said Kai. "It's getting late, after all. The moon is out, he's given her a beautiful gift, and she is very moved. He's going to walk her home, and then kiss her good night. It's a perfect romantic set up."

"Where do you get all these ideas?" Syaoran demanded in exasperation.

"It's all in the A Dating Manual For the Hopeless Guy," said Kai. "You want to borrow it?"

Syaoran snorted. "I still have the copy Meilin sent me, thank you."

"Well, if you don't believe me, go see," said Kai, giving Syaoran a nudge. "Follow them."

Whatever awkwardness there had been between Eron and Sakura before was no longer there. For a brief delusional moment, he had been swayed by that contagious smile, but he had to come to his senses. "No, it's all right. It's none of my business."

"We're not going to spy on them anymore?" asked Kai in disappointment, chasing after Syaoran, going down the road opposite from the one that lead to Sakura's house. "We were just getting to the juicy stuff."

"Do you want me to punch you?" Syaoran sighed and slipped something out of his pocket. "Here, I didn't forget what you asked for." Syaoran handed two down-turned Sakura Card to Kai.

"Thanks. You're not going to get in trouble for taking this, are you?" Kai shuddered. "They're not going to pull out fingernail by fingernail or poke you with hot tongs or anything, right?"

"I'm pretty sure they don't do that anymore," replied Syaoran vaguely. "The Clan veers toward impatience and prefers dismemberment methods or just a good old whipping."

It was rather amusing to see Kai turn slightly green.

"I think I'm already in enough trouble anyway, as is," Syaoran said. "And Leiyun can't seem to open the Sakura Book yet."

"I figure he's busy trying to find a way to master the Cards. Sakura still has the Heal and the Fantasy right?" Kai said. "And the Despair. It's too bad she doesn't have a single combat card in possession. But I guess Leiyun would not rest too easy if any of the key element cards went missing."

"She went ahead and challenged Leiyun to a duel," said Syaoran. "Where would she get such a ridiculous idea like that? I'd like to leave her alone, but every time I do, she goes ahead and causes a big accident."

Kai hid a smile behind his hand. "I believe she got the whole duel idea from a foolhardy boy who decided to challenge the reincarnation of the greatest sorcerer in the world because of his whim just about a year ago."

Syaoran glared at Kai. "That and this are completely different things."

"Is it?" The crafty thief shrugged. "Of course the whole concept of a challenge letter seems to be a page out of my book."

"Why, why does she never listen to me?" bemoaned Syaoran, clutching his temple.

Kai patted Syaoran on the back sympathetically. "Well, you're welcome to bounce town with me."

"Miho's going to kill you."

"I know." Kai grinned lopsidedly. "You know, you've changed ever since you came back from the Fantasyland."

Syaoran looked into the clear afternoon horizon, amber eyes unclouded. "I went there in search of Sakura's memories. But instead, it seems like I was the one reminded of something that I had forgotten."

******

As the sun set, Eron walked Sakura back to her house. They walked down cherry blossom lane, the trees completely bare now that it was winter. It was a mild evening and the streetlamps tinted the night an orange-blue. Sakura sneaked peaks at Eron's side profile with his long black lashes and hazel eyes rimmed with gold. A blue ribbon tied back his long violet-blue hair, and even the sad excuse of a scarf she had knit him looked like a lush cashmere scarf when he wore it.

"Thanks again for the ring," said Sakura staring at the emerald sparkle from her third finger. "It's lovely."

"And thanks for the scarf. I'll wear it well," replied Eron.

"Please don't feel obligated to," Sakura said, turning red. "Also, thank you for taking me to the orphanage, the other day. I had fun."

"I was worried it was too soon," said Eron, looking relieved. "The children really like you, don't they."

"They like you better though," said Sakura. Seeing Eron at the orphanage had been quite eye-opening, and The children quite adored Eron and flocked to him. He was very different from the aloof Eron who would have nothing to do with the kids the first time he had visited the orphanage. It was the first time Sakura realized that Eron, in himself, had a very nurturing personality. Perhaps it stemmed from having a sickly sister when they were little. Or perhaps, Eron had been so isolated all his life that he was now making up for that time of solitude by seeking to be loved by as many people as possible. Or perhaps, Eron, if he had not been the Dark One, would have been a very sociable person in the first place. Contrary to his looks, he liked to be with people—and people found him charming, children and adult alike.

"Of course," Eron replied smugly. "I bribed them with sweets into becoming my little minions."

"Moeko-chan had grown so big. I was surprised." Sakura smiled, thinking of Moeko calling her 'Sakuwa-nee-chan' in her little sweet voice. She had realized that children gave her a feeling of hanyaan as well.

"Children grow very fast, don't they?" Eron remarked.

Sakura giggled. "You make it sound like you're so old."

And Eron blushed, slightly. "Well, I always looked like Erika as my baby sister though we're the same age. She used to be so cute and followed me around everywhere, calling me 'onii-chan.' Then, one day, she became blunt and started calling me 'Eron' and doing everything the way she wanted."

"Classic signs of a sister complex," said Sakura, shaking his head. "Not wanting his baby sister to grow up."

"You've been making fun of me a lot lately," stated Eron, turning to face Sakura, his golden eyes gleaming like the moon.

"It's fun seeing you get flustered," replied Sakura with an impish smile. "Because I didn't know even Eron-kun can get embarrassed."

"Are you teasing me?" Eron gently brushed away a lock of soft brown hair away from her face. His face was close to hers, and Sakura held her breath.

She clenched her eyes shut and tilted her head up slightly. Her friends had been surprised that Eron had never kissed her. It was only natural since they had been dating for several months now. After all, they were actually more like two friends than a couple, it seemed like. She liked Eron, and she felt comfortable with him. So this was all right.

After a prolonged pause, Sakura opened her eyes again.

"It's all right if you're not ready yet," said Eron.

"I am ready," said Sakura defensively, staring at her feet, her cheeks turning crimson.

Eron put a gentle hand on her shoulders. "Then why are you shaking so much? It makes me feel like the bad guy again."

"I'm sorry." She hadn't realized she was shivering. The evenings were always colder, and her fingers had gotten numb in her gloves.

"It's all right. I told you I don't mind taking things slowly. Don't force yourself to do anything you aren't comfortable with. I want you to grow to trust me completely," said Eron.

Sakura sighed. Somehow, she felt guilty towards Eron, and she did not know why. She touched her lips. Why was this person so considerate… and that person so not? He always took her by surprise, never giving her a moment to catch her breath. And in the cold of the winter, a little part of her still yearned for the heat of the summer sunrise.

******

This year, the Daidoujis were not holding their usual annual Christmas Party at their house since Sonomi had taken Tomoyo away on a ski trip on the Alps to console her for not winning the Design Contest. Instead, this year, the Kinomoto family, plus Nina, dressed in their finest, the men in their best suits and Sakura in a brand new dress, were on their way to visit grandfather Kinomoto on the Eve of Christmas.

"Do we have to do this?" grumbled Touya, loosening his red tie. "What does that old geezer want of us all of a sudden?"

"Onii-chan!" Sakura chided.

"I think it's a horrible idea," Touya continued. "Why walk into the lion's den with our own two feet? What even possessed that Scrooge to invite us for dinner?"

"Touya-san," said their father warningly.

Sakura had to stifle a giggle—it was so rare that her grownup brother acted up and their father had to gently chide him.

"What about Nina-chan?" Touya asked.

"It seems like your grandfather wants us to bring Nina along," said Fujitaka a mysterious smile.

Sakura clutched Nina's hand as they walked through the front doors of the immense Kinomoto estate. Today, there were Christmas lights decorating the gates and trees so that the entire estate had been transformed from a foreboding gray fortress into a twinkling fairyland. It was worth the trip to see Nina's face light up as the fountain burst into a shower of different colors.

"Don't I look pretty!" exclaimed Nina twirling around once in a brand new Victorian collared white lace dress sent by Fujishinto's secretary. "Do you think otou-sama would like it?"

"Of course, it looks beautiful on you," said Sakura, retying the ribbon around Nina's waist and smoothing away a stray curl from her plump face.

"Welcome back, Fujitaka-sama," said Mori at the front door with tears in her eyes. "I lived for this day. Now, come on in come on in."

The butler took their coats while Touya narrowed his eyes suspiciously as they followed the maid to the dining hall. This was his first time in the mansion, and it was a surreal experience, walking down the very corridors of the house that his father once grew up in.

"You're here," said Fujishinto stiffly when they entered the dining hall. He was already seated at the head of the table and did not bother to stand up.

Kinomoto Fujishika and Kinomoto Hisano entered the dining room, bowing to Fujishinto. Then, they awkwardly faced Fujitaka and his family. Hisano bowed her head slightly to Fujitaka. Her eyes lingered upon Sakura.

"Ah, you are that lovely model from the Young Designer Contest," she exclaimed. "Daidouji Tomoyo-san, is that correct? I didn't even realize you were Fujitaka-san's daughter, but I should have. You have your mother's eyes and have become such a lovely young lady. And your friend is a very talented designer—at such a young age."

And all the resentment Sakura felt for the judges of the Contest slowly melt away.

"And you are Nina-chan," said Hisano with a warm smile. "The last time I saw you, you were but a little toddler. You don't remember your Auntie Hisano, do you?"

Nina shook her head but looked confusedly between Sakura and Touya.

"Well, please seat yourselves for dinner," said Yamada-san.

Fujishinto sat at the end of table with Fujishika and Fujitaka on either side of him. Touya and Sakura sat next to their father, while Hisano insisted on Nina sitting next to her.

In the next hour, Sakura had to endure what could possibly be the most awkward dinner she had ever had to undergo. There was little conversation and the servers brought in each course at turtle pace. Her grandfather shot her a look when she slurped her soup, and it was impossible to ignore the poisonous glares her uncle gave his younger brother every few minutes. She was afraid to even make a sound with her silverware as she cut through her steak and was terrified she might drip gravy onto the pristine tablecloth. Even Touya seemed more tense than usual because he tried to cut his steak with his bread knife and eat his dessert pudding with a fork. Uncle Fujishika had a deep scowl on his face throughout the entire meal and their aunt seemed to have lost her appetite. In fact, the only person who seemed the same as usual was her father.

There was a universal sigh of relief when dinner came to and end.

Hisano stood up and looked up at Fujishinto. "Now, the real reason we have gathered here today… Well, we thought it was good to have a family reunion once in a while, but there was one more thing."

Fujishika was frowning so deeply that his eyebrows met in the center. But Hisano seemed heedless.

"Nina-chan, how would you like to live here?" said Kinomoto Hisano. "My children are all grown up and I've always wanted a daughter."

Sakura and Touya exchanged puzzled glances.

"I can… really live here?" Nina asked timidly.

Hisano smiled gently. "We haven't raised a child in this household in years, and we're a bunch of old people. But we would love it if you would join our family and call this your home now. You'll become 'Kinomoto Nina' from now on. You'll be starting first grade soon, and you can go to Eitoukou Elementary School, the same school your mother attended when she was young."

"I… don't have to go back to the hospital?" Nina asked.

"Just for checkups—but the doctors say there is no reason for you to stay in the hospital anymore. Your immunity will build up as you go to school and grow older, and we can take better care of you if you're here with us."

Nina turned her head to Fujishinto. "Otou-sama?"

"I would like you to be a part of this family, Nina. You always were, but I want you to understand that because of circumstances, we could not necessarily provide what would have been ideal." Fujishinto paused. "This is something that should have been done years ago, but of course the choice is up to you."

"Is that the best apology he could muster?" muttered Touya under his breath. Sakura nudged him because she saw how Nina's face had lit up.

"Otou-sama!" Nina exclaimed, throwing her arms around her father's stout waist. "Otou-sama. I want to live with otou-sama."

And Sakura swore that she thought she saw tears glistening in the corner of her formidable grandfather's eyes. The staff was clearly moved, and the maids were clearly at loss of what to do as they brought out soup spoons for dessert and were at loss what to do when they were not even scolded.

"Hisano-san, please show Nina her new room," Fujishinto said gruffly.

"My room?" Nina's eyes sparkled. "My own room?"

"Come. I'll show you your new toys and dresses," Hisano said, extending out her hand.

Nina timidly took Hisano's hand. Then she held out her other hand toward Sakura. "Sakura-nee-chan is family too?"

Sakura looked up at Hisano, and Hisano nodded. "Come, let's show Sakura-nee-chan and Touya-nii-chan your new room too."

Sakura would never forget the way little Nina's face lit up when she first saw her new room, all done up in princess pink. There were huge teddy bears and the canopy bed was done up in white and pink lace. It was every little girl's fantasy bedroom.

There were some familiar toys from the hospital, so that if felt like Nina's room already.

"We brought your stuff over from the hospital, so that you can sleep here from tonight," said Hisano. "But if you don't want to sleep in your room, you can come across the hall to my room and sleep in my room tonight, Nina-chan."

Nina nodded, blinking back tears. She walked over to her little vanity table. There was a white porcelain angel wrapped in tissue. Carefully, she picked it up and hugged it to her chest.

"Hisano-sama always wanted to bring Nina-chan to the main house, but Fujishinto-sama would not hear of it," Mori said when Sakura looked at her questioningly.

"This used to be Fujiko's old room," said Mori. "It's been locked up for twenty-some years. Kinomoto Fujishinto finally opened it up and asked that we redecorate it. He'll cherish Nina-sama as dearly as he did Fujiko-sama."

"What about Nina-chan's mother?" asked Sakura quietly.

Mori peered at Sakura. "Ishikawa Nanase is still a popular actress famed for her graceful image. They covered up the scandal well enough, but she is not in the position to be raising a daughter as she is still in the prime years of her career. And actress' popularity lifespan is short, and it's amazing she lasted twenty years in the industry. But she chose her career over her child. She kept the child to spite Kinomoto Fujishinto-sama but was not able to raise her because of acting. So she used Nina-chan's ill health as an infant to raise her in the hospital while forbidding Fujishinto-sama custody of the child."

"Uncle Fujishika seemed to be in a bad mood," remarked Touya.

"That's because just when he thought he had the entire Hoshi Group under his thumb since Fujitaka-sama was disinherited and Fujiko-sama died, suddenly another new heir pops up and then Fujishinto-sama reconciles with his second son," said Mori. "This is the worst Christmas for Fujishika-sama and his two sons—notice how they are missing from the dinner tonight?"

"Wait, that means…"

"You heard that Nina will be formally registered as a 'Kinomoto.' That means that she is being considered as one of Fujishinto-sama's legitimate heirs, and she would get her share of the inheritance when she comes of age."

"Why did Ishikawa-san suddenly agree to hand over custody of Nina?" asked Touya.

"Fujishinto-sama offered a price that Ishikawa Nanase-san couldn't refuse," said Mori. "She will probably visit once in a while, like she did at the hospital."

Sakura frowned. People were not things. How could someone simply buy somebody like that?

"I know. You are thinking what sort of household poor Nina has been brought into," Mori said. "But don't you think, despite family politics, so long as she does have blood relatives, it's still better to have a home than to be brought up by strangers in the hospital. With my remaining life, I will give her all the love she never grew up having. Though Fujishika-sama is a bit gruff, Hisano-sama will be a good mother-figure—she always treated Fujiko-sama like a younger sister. Nina is a split image of Fujiko-sama when she was that age. And though Fujishinto-sama has been afraid of giving his love to his daughter after all the hurt he has gone through in the past, with Fujitaka-sama leaving home and Fujiko-sama's untimely death, but I know he will grow to love Nina and cherish her very much."

"Besides, she absolutely dotes upon her father," said Touya slowly. "Kids are simplistic like that. Even if you ignore them, they'll come clinging on to you more."

"You are right, Touya-bocchama. It's not the most ideal situation. But it's the best situation we could come up with for the moment," Mori said. "And I'll make sure Nina-ojou-chan is treated well. I think her presence would do good in this house—it's a house that has gone without laughter for too long. Inevitably, she is going to be loved and pampered in this household."

"Well, I guess it's the best situation we could come up with for the time being," said Touya. He was going to suggest to his father that perhaps they could raise Nina before he had learned of his grandfather's decision. But it would not have been fair to Nina since Fujitaka and Touya were at work, and Sakura was still a high schooler. There would have been no suitable mother-figure in the house. "That's the kind of world we live in."

Touya closed his eyes. He remembered one day, after he picked up Sakura from kindergarten, she had been crying and crying all day long and the teacher had given up on her.

"I know your family is going through a trying time, Kinomoto-kun. But Sakura-chan is disturbing all the other children's naptime, and we're getting complaints from parents," said the teacher. "You might want to ask you father to stay with her until she grows out of this phase. It's typical of children to go through a difficult phase especially after losing a parent, especially after starting school…"

"Sakura-chan is not going through a difficult phase!" he had retorted, glaring up at the teacher. Even though he was but an eleven year old boy, the teacher shirked.

Sakura was still crying as he dragged her along back home, holding her sticky hand.

"Stop crying!" he snapped.

She tried to stop her tears but they came out in choked hiccups. Touya could not bear looking at her, listening to her. He pushed her along into the house. He helped her take off her shoes and then unpacked her bag.

"Why didn't you eat your lunch?" he demanded.

"I wasn't hungry," she mumbled.

"You have to eat your meals, Sakura. You barely ate dinner last night either. What's wrong with you?" Touya said. "You're wasting food. Now, eat this."

"NO!" Sakura said.

Touya jerked the lunchbox open and lumped a spoonful of rice on the spoon and held it in front her mouth. "Eat it."

"NOO!" Sakura said, stamping her bare feet down.

"Fine, don't eat it then," Touya said, walking over to the kitchen and dumping the rice into the trashcan. "See if I care."

At this, Sakura's bottom lips trembled again. He noticed that her hair was all tangled up and a piece of gum was stuck to it. How did mothers brush their daughter's hair and keep it so pretty? Both Sakura's knees were scabbed, and she had a bruise on her elbow and her forehead. How did mothers keep their daughters from falling over and getting injured? Sakura's new jumper already had a hole in the front of her skirt and her bottom was dirty. How did they keep their daughter's dresses always clean and tearless? I'm not her mother… What can I do?

"Don't cry," he said, half in infuriation half in despair. He stared at the little girl standing before him, with glassy green eyes, the same eyes as his dead mother. He didn't want to look at her, he didn't want to be responsible for this child. He picked her up and carried her into her room. "Stay there until you stop crying," he said. She only wailed louder. He put his hand over his ears to cover the sound. His mother's health had been so poor already. She should have had another child. If she didn't have Sakura… "You never should have been born."

And young Touya suddenly realized what he had thought. How could I… How could I have such a horrible thought? He turned around and bolted down the steps. I'm just a sixth-grader. I can't go out an play soccer with my friends after school like all the other guys. I'm always late for school in the morning after I drop Sakura off at pre-school. I don't have time to do homework. He felt a lump in his throat as he was overcome with guilt. He crouched behind the bookshelves in the musty-smelling basement, sheltered by a tower of books. I'm sorry, Sakura. I don't deserve to be your brother.

"'Nii-chan! Where are you?" asked little Sakura, waddling around the house. "Nii-chan!" She peaked into her brother's room. "Nii-chan?"

Slowly, she climbed down the steps again, bottom on the steps and letting her feet dangle down the edge onto the next step until she reached the bottom again. "Nii-chan!" Her bottom lip began to quiver. She poked her head underneath the couch and in the bathroom. "Nii-chan?" She finally squatted down on the middle of the living room, her chin trembling. "ONII-CHAN!" Large drops of tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. "Nii-chan, don't leave me too. Tou-chan? Kaa-chan! Kaa-chan!"

"Sakura, what are you doing here by yourself?" asked Fujitaka stepping into the front door. He dropped his briefcase and hurried to Sakura and scooped her up in his arms, patting her back as her hiccups subsided. "Where is onii-san?"

Little Sakura shook her head.

"Well then, let's go find him," said Fujitaka, stroking little Sakura's back until she was breathing regularly.

Fujitaka's eyes flickered around the house and then he headed over to the basement. The stairs creaked and it was dark.

"I'm scared," said Sakura. "Nii-chan said there were ghosts in basement."

"It's all right, I'm here. You don't have be scared when otou-san is here," said Fujitaka. Nadeshiko used to tell Touya that there were ghosts in the basements when Touya was a child because she was afraid that Touya would trip down the stairs and injure himself. But only someone as clumsy as Nadeshiko would trip down the stairs. He rubbed the bruises on his child's legs. Perhaps it was an inherited trait.

Slowly, Fujitaka navigated himself around the bookshelves until he heard a shuffling sound. "Touya? There, I found you."

Touya, crouched in the corner of the basement next to an old bookshelf, looked up to see his father. "Otou-san! How did you…"

"You used to come here quite a lot right after your mother passed away, right?" Fujitaka said.

"I thought no one noticed…"

"It's all right. Everybody needs a quiet place on their own sometimes. And afterwards, it's nice to go back to a loving family, isn't it?"

"Otou-san…" Young Touya's bottom lip trembled.

"You took my little sanctuary in the basement, so I had to find a different spot," said Fujitaka with a smile. "Come now. Let us go out for dinner for a change."

"Yes, otou-san."

"I got a call at the office. Why didn't you tell me Sakura was having problems at school?" Fujitaka asked his son. Touya had always been such a mature boy, he sometimes forgot that Touya was only an elementary schooler.

"I didn't want to worry you with something like that," said Touya.

"I am a father. It's my business to be concerned with my children," said Fujitaka.

"I'm sorry, otou-san, for disappointing you," Touya said.

"No, I'm sorry, Touya-san," Fujitaka said. "You are always so mature, I sometimes put too much responsibility on you when you're still a boy yourself. You are always home, taking care of Sakura-chan, doing household chores and still staying top of your class. It's all right to let loose sometimes. Don't forget you're a kid too. Go out and have fun. The university has some daycare facilities, and I can try harder to be home more."

Touya shook his head. "No, otou-san, I'm fine. From now on, I'm going to protect Sakura."

Fujitaka patted Touya on the head. "That is my son."

And Touya took little Sakura in his arms and hugged her tightly to him. On that day, he vowed never to let go of her again and to protect her until she no longer needed his protection anymore.

"Don't you know? Mother's an angel now. She's always watching over us. Our entire family. When you cry, Sakura, Mother has tears in her eyes too. She doesn't like seeing you sad," he told Sakura.

"'Nii-chan's lying. The kids in pre-school said that there are no such thing as angels."

"Sakura…"

"I don't need 'nii-chan." Little Sakura pushed away her brother's gentle hand away. "I want Mommy! I don't want 'nii-chan!"

"Sakura… Mother's no longer a part of this world. But she told me to tell you that she is always by your side, whenever you feel joy or sadness, and she asked me to take her place. Father's very busy, so can't you turn to me, Sakura? It's not the same as having Mother, I know, but isn't just 'nii-chan good enough?"

"Why can 'nii-chan see and talk to Mommy? Why can't I see her?" Sakura sobbed. "Doesn't Mommy want to talk to me?"

"No, Sakura, it's not that."

"Then how can 'nii-chan see her then? Tell me how, so that I can see her too."

With a far off expression on his face, young Touya replied, "If you close your eyes and empty your heart, if you take a deep breath and open your mind, and if the warm blood flowing through your veins intertwine with a glowing aura wrought from a profound belief in your heart, then, an inner vision is unveiled and you will see heavenly light."

Touya would never forget that warm feeling from deep within his heart when Sakura threw her chubby little arms around his neck. And that day, holding his fragile baby sister in his arms, he had let out silent tears which dropping onto Sakura's golden brown head. That was the last time he had cried.

"Onii-chan, what is it?" asked Sakura, hands locked hind her back, head tilted. She apparently thought he did not notice whenever she quietly slipped away and then returned. But he always knew when she went missing. She blinked at him innocently, as if she was up to no good.

"You're still Kaijou-Sakura," muttered Touya, mussing Sakura's carefully combed hair. He silently thanked Daidouji Tomoyo for becoming Sakura's friend and keeping her from turning into a complete tomboy and teaching some ladylike manners to his clumsy little sister.

"I wonder what made Grandfather change his mind," Sakura remarked.

Mori chuckled, "I too was surprised when Fujishinto-sama called me and told me to redecorate Fujiko-sama's old room. I thought he was finally going senile! I guess people, even in their old age, can learn to change."

Fujitaka bowed to his father. "Thank you for inviting us over tonight."

"Humph," Fujishinto grunted.

"Well then, it is getting late. We'll be taking off," said Fujitaka, taking his coat.

And Fujishinto spoke up, "Your book." He paused. "It's all right. You dragged on in the middle about metallurgy and mysticism but your chapter on the Emerald Tablet was quite fascinating. Your conclusion needs some working on though, and I disagree with your analysis of humorism and the advent of modern medical science. But, all in all, I wouldn't mind reading more in the future."

Kinomoto Fujishika's mouth dropped, as if his father had been speaking in Greek and secretary Yamada hid a smile behind his hand—Fujishinto never praised anymore. Then, Fujishika sighed. It had always been like this. Fujitaka had always been the favorite son, and no matter how hard he tried, he could never be as bright, radiant and kindhearted like Fujitaka. Like father, like son. In many ways, Fujitaka has always been more like my father than I'll ever be. And perhaps, that is why their prides collided so much. They are both stubborn as pigs and are convinced each is right.

Before leaving, Touya bowed his head to Fujishinto, this time with greater reverence.

But it was Sakura who beamed up at her grandfather and said, "Merry Christmas, ojii-sama! We'll come visit again."

Sometimes, less than ideal situations could work out for the best, and the time ahead to catch up to after a long misunderstanding becomes all the more precious because of the lost time put behind. And the icy barrier between a torn family was finally shattered.

******

Most girls Nina's age would have been overwhelmed sleeping alone on in a huge new room on the eve of Christmas, surrounded by mountains of stuffed animals of every species and size imaginable. But she was not just any girl. She had grown up petted by actresses and doctors and nurses. Thus, she adjusted to new faces and new surroundings quite easily. Instead of being frightened, she was quite giddy in anticipation at the prospect of living in a new house with her father and aunt. When there was a rustle by her bedside, she jumped up in glee.

While many children would have exclaimed, "Santa Claus," little Nina exclaimed, jumping up from her pink princess canopy bed, "Kai-nii-chan!" She flung her arms around Kai's waist. "How did you find me?"

Kai winked. "Santa Claus will always find children who have been good."

"Silly, I know there is no such thing as Santa Claus," Nina said, chin in the air. "Su-chan told me."

"Are you so sure?" said Kai, winking.

"Do you have a present for me?" Nina asked, clapping her hands together.

"Here you go, Nina-hime," said Kai, handing Nina a wrapped box.

Nina took the box and tore open the wrapping paper. She took out a picture book and grinned. "Thank you, Kai-nii-chan. Now, even if you aren't here, Auntie Hisano can read me 'Princess Veritas and her Gray Knight.'"

"Do you like Aunt Hisano?" Kai asked.

Nodding, Nina replied, "She's not as beautiful as okaa-san, and she looked a little bit scary at first, but I love her very much. I love Uncle Fujishika and Uncle Fujitaka and otou-san too and Touya-nii-chan and Sakura-nee-chan. Don't worry though. I still love you too, Kai-nii-chan."

Children Nina's age gave their hearts very easily. Kai smiled as the little girl gazed up at him with round marigold eyes, head skewed.

"Did you bring a present to your little sister?" Nina asked.

"Not yet," said Kai.

With a child's keen intuition, Nina clasped Kai's rough, cold hand with her two small hands. "Kai-nii-chan… Everything's going to be all right." And she prayed hard, to Subaru in heaven, that her favorite Kai-nii-chan could find his family too. "I'm sure she will like your present."

And Kai smiled, petting Nina on the head gently. "Thank you, Nina-chan." Then, he tucked her into bed.

After leaving Nina's bedroom, Mizuki Kai walked down the hallway of the Kinomoto Estate. The corner of his lips curled. Kinomoto Fujishinto was known to be an art collector and there were quite a few original Shing pieces hanging on the walls.

"Mikai-kun."

Slowly, Kai turned around to face Kinomoto Fujishinto.

"I was trying to figure out who this 'Kai-nii-chan' that Nina kept talking about since last year was," Fujishinto said. "Did you approach her because you knew she was my daughter?"

Kai stared at the old man warily. Kinomoto Fujishinto was a tall man of stature. There yet were traces of formidable handsomeness in the wizened, wrinkled face. And somewhere in the depths of his eyes were traces of Kinomoto Fujitaka as well, of intellect and shrewdness.

"Why were you kind to her? I thought you might have had less than honorable intentions," said Fujishinto. "Because…"

"Because I am the son of the man you had killed? Because I could break your family like you broke mine?" Kai asked with a crooked smile. "To be honest, I might have had one or two sinister thoughts."

"I admit I was a little baffled. I thought you wanted the deeds to the Hoshi Electronics and Software Company, or the entire Hoshi Enterprise," said Fujishinto. "Instead, you asked me to make Nina my legitimate heir, something I would have done on my own without your suggestion. I have to ask, why does my family business concern you?"

"Because Nina was abandoned by everybody," said Kai. "It's a bit unfair for the child to have to suffer for the parents' shortcomings, don't you think?"

"Isn't that your own reproach for your parents because they failed to protect you and your sister, Mikai-kun?" asked Fujishinto.

"No," Kai replied. "I may reproach myself for failing Miho numerous times and being a disobedient son, but I realize I cannot blame anybody for the misfortunes that fell upon our family. If there is a reason for everything, there must be a reason why I am standing here, facing you once more. Do you remember six years ago, when I came to your office?"

Fujishinto lips were tightly set.

"It was shortly after my father's death. My house, our family's assets, all had been seized. I came to your office in Tokyo, and I knelt in front of you. I begged you to have mercy on my family. My mother was gravely ill and my little sister was in fourth-grade. I was only twelve and powerless. It was the first time I knelt in front of another human being," said Kai. "And you turned me away. You had the guards drag me out and throw me out in the streets. It was the most wretched point in my life. I had never felt so worthless and helpless. You showed me no mercy then, and I admit, at that time there was nobody I hated more than you."

"It is probably too late to apologize now," said Fujishinto stiffly. "But if it means anything to you, I do genuinely regret what had passed six years ago. You have every right to go to the police with the embezzlement and fraudulent documents you have found. If you want me to kneel down and beg forgiveness, I can do that."

"I have not come all this way to hear an apology from an old man. I am a thief, not a blackmailer. Just because you showed me no mercy back when I had lost everything precious in my life doesn't mean I wish the same to you. You may be a proud and heartless businessman. But I pray you will be a kind, loving father, nonetheless." And Kai smiled slightly. "Because I had a kind and loving father and mentors who have taught me compassion and clemency, I am able to stand here today with a pistol in my pocket and walk away without shooting."

And on that night of the Eve of Christmas, Kai walked down the hallway, and boldly walked out the front door, no guards stopping him. There was no reason to sneak out the window anymore.

******

"I guess we're going to have a dry Christmas, after all," said Miho glumly, leaning against the windowsill Christmas morning with a sigh. She wondered what her idiot brother was doing for Christmas. He had of late not come to visit or pester her at school. Perhaps he had been busy with exams. Neither had he showed up for the meeting of Sakura's Alliance. Maybe he had forgotten about it.

"Let it snow! Let it snow!" chanted Nakuru. She twirled around. "Eriol, make it snow. I want to make a snowman."

Miara smiled nostalgically, hand pressed against the coldness of the windowpane. "Miho, do you remember the huge snowman otou-san used to make for you and Mikai-kun?"

Miho nodded. "They were more like snow sculptures, all over the front lawn. All the neighbors would come and take pictures."

"It's a pity… Your father was such a talented artist," said Miara. "He gave up on art to take over the company… If only at that time, I told him to continue doing what he loved most…"

"Otou-san never stopped drawing though," said Miho. "Wasn't he always painting stuff at home?" He never gave up painting… He always continued by his alias of "Shing," unbeknownst to us all.

"Yes, he used to make you little homemade picture books," said Miara. "I would write them and your father illustrated them."

"And onii-chan would read them out for me," murmured Miho. "Okaa-san."

"Yes, Miho?" Miara held out her hand, pressing her bony hands against her daughter's hand.

"Okaa-san… Say, if by chance otou-san was still alive, what would you do?" said Miho.

Miara smiled sadly. "What kind of question is that, Miho-chan?"

"What if otou-san had not died, but it just seemed like he died, and one day he came back again…" Miho said.

Patting Miho on the head, Miara said, "Do you know how many times I've dreamed something like that might happen? A writer's imagination is no good for the heart, Miho. It's taken me a very long time, but I've healed. I've stopped being angry and stopped reproaching the world. For me, I'm content just recalling the happy times we had together as a family, and I'll just cherish that in my heart, always."

*****

Tomoeda Plaza was bustling with families and couples on Christmas Day, and the stores, trees and lampposts were decorated in a brilliant glory of lights and tinsels. A huge Christmas tree was set up at the center of the Plaza, and a large Swarovski crystal sparkled from the top of the tree, catching the lights of the sunlight and showering the streets with a kaleidoscope of light.

"So pretty," murmured Rika. "It would be nice to see the tree with your boyfriend."

"Yes, it would be," Sakura said, absentmindedly, glancing around the crowd for a tall man with short cropped brown hair and broad shoulders.

"You have a boyfriend," Rika muttered under her breath. "Sakura-chan, do you really need to buy a new book bag today? We already passed by three cute shops."

Sakura wriggled uncomfortably. She hated lying. "Well, actually, I just wanted to spend some time with you, Rika-chan, because we never spend time together."

"That's really sweet, Sakura-chan, but it's Christmas Day. Shouldn't you be spending time with Eron-kun?" said Rika.

"He took Erika on a trip because she recently broke up with Mike-san."

"Poor Erika-chan," said Rika with a sigh. "Older men are horrible boyfriends."

Sakura smiled sadly. "Erika-chan will recover soon enough. She's broken up with dozens of boyfriends before."

"But it always hurts more to be dumped," said Rika. She breathed into her hands. "Brr… It's cold outside. Can we go to a café or something and get some hot chocolate?"

"Why don't we get hot chocolate at the stand over there and drink over here," Sakura said, pointing to the benches outside.

"You want to stay outside?" Rika asked.

Sakura glared at her cellphone. Where was Terada-sensei? Had Syaoran even remembered the plan? She wished she had Syaoran's phone number. But only he knew her number. It wasn't really fair at all.

Just then, her phone rang. It was a blocked number. "Sorry Rika-chan, just a moment." She ran off to the corner of the street. "H-hello?"

"Stay where you are."

"Hoe?"

"Try to stay in the plaza. It's a good open area to be spotted," said the person whose call she had been waiting for.

"Where are you?" Sakura said, clutching her cellphone and spinning around the circular plaza. It was as if he was watching her, and she had no idea where he was. "Is Terada-sensei coming?"

"Be patient," he replied. "I'm sure he will show up."

"How do you know?" Sakura asked.

"Just a feeling," said Syaoran. Omoi.

Even with his unreliable words, she felt reassured. "Do you know how cold it is?" Sakura said, rubbing her bare hands together.

"I know," he said.

"Where are you calling from?"

"Phone booth." Static crackled on the receiver. "The connection is getting cut—stay in the center of the Plaza."

"Wait, Syao—"

And the connection was cut.

Sakura turned around. Where were the nearest phone booths? There was one behind Piffle Princess down the road. And one next to Burger Heaven. There was also one just across the street. She ran across the street to the nearest phone booth. Nobody was there. She ran back to the one next to Burger Heaven. A lady stared at her suspiciously in the midst of her conversation. Her breath came out in tiny puffs, and her cheeks tingled from the cold. Because everybody used mobile phones nowadays, you forgot how many public telephones were still around. She ran to the farthest phone booth, behind the Piffle Princess Store. The glass door was swung open and the receiver cord swayed slightly. A pair of brown leather gloves were set on top of the phone. She walked in and touched the receiver. It was still warm.

"There you are, Sakura-chan!" Rika exclaimed, running up to her friend, cheeks flushed. "You wanted to come to Piffle Princess? What are you doing in the phone booth? You have a cellphone in your hand."

"Ah, sorry!" Sakura stammered. "My battery ran out, and I had to make a call."

"Do you want to use mine?" asked Rika, holding out her cellphone.

"No, it's all right." Sakura took once last glance around. Clusters of people wove in and out across the streets, but he was nowhere to be seen.

"Are you looking for somebody?" asked Rika.

And Sakura smiled sadly. "I guess I always am."

If Rika found the answer odd, she did not remark but tilted her head at the over-sized brown gloves covering Sakura's hands. Did she have them on earlier?

The two girls took a seat on the benches smack in the center of the plaza, sipping on hot chocolate.

"You know, hot chocolate tastes better when you drink it when it's so cold," said Rika, licking the whipped cream off her lip.

"It does," said Sakura with a smile, sipping the hot chocolate. Every time a tall man in a suit passed by, she turned her head. And she realized that Rika did too. She wriggled her fingers in the over-sized gloves, feeling the soft cashmere lining against her skin. They were the size of Syaoran's hands and so very warm.

Rika took out of her blouse a gold ring hanging from a chain around her neck. The ring barely fit on her pinky finger now. "You know, Terada-sensei gave me this ring many years ago. It might have been a little gift for him. But to me, it was a promise. And I've held on to that promise for all these years. It's kept me going on."

"Sakura-chan, I think I know what you're trying to do for me," said Rika. "I recently heard from Naoko-chan. Terada-sensei is teaching at Eitoukou, isn't he? He left Seijou because he's an adult and had to take responsibility for the situation. He won't come back."

Sakura shook her head. "He was so nearby. You could have seen him any time you wanted to, over these months."

"Well, sometimes the distance of the heart is a further bridge to gap than physical distance," said Rika, closing her eyes. "He left me. I decided not to chase after him because that would burden him. Instead, I was going to wait until he decided to return to me. Because if he looked back, he would always find me waiting."

"Rika-chan…" Sakura's eyes misted.

"Well, then, the sun is going to set soon," said Rika. "I'm sorry we couldn't get a new book bag, Sakura-chan. Let's go back now."

Sakura nodded, dejected. The two girls stood up.

Rika walked forward, towards the bus station, and Sakura reluctantly followed, dragging her feet. Then, she glanced up and a slow smile came to her lips. With a little skip, she dashed off in the opposite direction.

"Sakura-chan, where are you—" Rika's voice trailed off.

"Rika!" called out Terada Yoshiyuki, his breath coming out in puffs of cold air, as if he had been running.

Slowly, Rika looked up. Her eyes widened, and her hands flew to her mouth, her eyes glistening. "Terada-sensei."

"Rika…" Terada-sensei paused and adverted his eyes. "It's been a long time. You look well."

"I heard you are teaching at Eitoukou Academy. You were so near by, and yet you didn't let me know you were all right," said Rika.

"I thought it was for the best if I didn't communicate with you," said Terada-sensei. "Because of the circumstance."

"You could have let me known," Rika said. "Do you know how worried I was thinking about you, Terada-sensei?"

"You shouldn't have worried for me," said Terada-sensei.

"Why not? You're the person I love most in the world."

"Risa—you should say stuff like that anymore."

"You're a coward!" shouted Rika. "Sensei is running away from the truth."

"Perhaps," said Terada-sensei with a sigh. "It was a mistake coming today. It makes all my resolve crumble away. But when I heard you were moving to America, and thinking that I might never see you again—"

"Wait—America? Who?" Rika blinked. "Me?"

"Yes, I heard your whole family was moving the States," said Terada-sensei.

And Rika smiled slightly. "Who told you that?"

"Li-kun," replied Terada-sensei with a small frown. "Wait, you're not moving away."

"No," said Rika. "How will you come find me again if I move to a different country? And Sensei's English skills weren't always the best, either."

And a dull blush came to his cheeks. "I thought I saw Kinomoto-san earlier. I guess they set us up?"

"I didn't know Sakura-chan was still in touch with Li-kun," said Rika, fondly.

Yoshiyuki saw the golden ring hanging from Rika's neck. He touched it. "You still have it."

Rika nodded. "Sensei, do you remember the promise we made when you gave it to me?"

"Yes."

"It's what kept me living each day even when I couldn't see you. It was so painful not knowing where you were, not being able to communicate with you. But I told myself, Sensei will not break the promise."

"Rika." Yoshiyuki brushed a chestnut brown curl away from Rika's face. "I can't be with you now. I can't take you out on dates, I can't hold your hands outside, I can't even be your teacher anymore. But I promise you, I promise you in two years, I will become a man worthy of you."

"And in two years, I'll become a woman worthy of you, sensei," said Rika. "I'll be waiting, sensei."

"Are you always going to call me sensei?" Yoshiyuki asked, hands in pocket. "I'm not really your teacher anymore, am I?"

"Then what should I call you?" Rika asked. "Terada-san?"

"That makes us sound like strangers. How about just Yoshiyuki," said Yoshiyuki. "Try it."

"Y-Yo-shi…" Rika blushed hard. "I can't say it. It's too embarrassing."

"Yoshi is fine too," said Terada Yoshiyuki running a hand over his hair, also blushing.

"Y-yo-yoshiyuki-san!" Rika finally exclaimed, ears red.

"Ah, that sounds nice," said Yoshiyuki with a big smile.

Rika timidly snuck her hand into his hand. He gripped her hand tightly and tucked it into his coat pocket.

"Warm," said Rika blissfully.

"Yes, it's warm," said Yoshiyuki. Then he sighed. "Two years is a very long time, isn't it?"

"Not at all," said Rika. "After all, I've been in love with sensei for half my life already."

"Has it been that long already?" Yoshiyuki sighed, resenting himself for having to choose such a young, angel-hearted girl and then feeling blessed because he was loved by such a girl.

Rika narrowed her eyes. "You can't hide from me any longer, sensei. I won't forgive you if you run away from me again."

"Yes."

"And you can't change your phone number again. We'll text each other and call each other every day."

"All right."

"And…" Rika looked up at Terada Yoshiyuki, the one and only love of her life. "And you must promise to love me and look any only me for the rest of your life."

"I promise you."

And the lovers walked down the street, hand in hand, listening to the jingling of bells and carolers singing a pretty noel at the corner of the plaza as dusk drew upon Christmas.

******

Nakuru and Miho walked out the house to put up a wreath of bough on the front door. Mizuki Kaho was coming over for dinner in the evening.

"Isn't that the 'Brat'?" remarked Nakuru pointing at a brown-haired boy lurking near the bushes.

It took Miho by surprise when she saw none other than Li Syaoran lingering outside the Clow Mansion gates.

"What are you doing here?" demanded Miho, stomping up to him. She narrowed her eyes. "Enemy."

"You're a fickle one," remarked Nakuru. "Didn't you used to adore your 'Syaoran-senpai' and follow him around everywhere?"

Miho crossed her arms. "Anybody who makes Sakura-senpai cry is an enemy of all females!"

Nakuru snickered. "Sakura-chan is currently in love-love mode with Eron. Give the jilted guy a break."

"While I'm at it," continued Miho," Tell onii-chan I never want to see him again. I knew I couldn't trust him. How dare he not show up to Sakura's meeting of the Alliance?" She covered her mouths and turned to Nakuru. "Oops, is it all right to mention that to the enemy?"

"Meh, he was bound to find out sooner or later," replied Nakuru with a careless shrug.

Syaoran stared at Miho with solemn amber eyes. "Miho, do you remember what you told me that day I came back from the Fantasy? You asked me why I went to save Sakura, that if I didn't love her, I wouldn't have come in the first place."

"I might have said something like that," mumbled Miho.

"Well, doesn't that apply to your brother too then? Why do you think he came back? Why do you think he showed his true identity to you? Sometimes, action means more than words do. Isn't it time that you truly forgive your brother for lying and instead look at what he is trying to do?" Syaoran's amber eyes caught the afternoon sun.

Miho stared up at Syaoran and gulped. Her bottom lips wobbled as she nodded. "I kept thinking, if Miho-chan is a good girl, onii-chan would come back. If I study hard, if I eat all my vegetables, if I don't complain, if I don't cry and be brave, then onii-chan will come back. But he never did."

"The key in your pocket," remarked Syaoran. "Have you tried unlocking the door yet?"

Slowly, Miho shook her head. It didn't occur to her to ponder how Syaoran knew there was a key from her brother in her pocket.

"You might be able to find the answer to your brother's heart if you try unlocking it first," he said.

Miho nodded again. Her hand slipped into her pocket, clasping the cold brass key. She suddenly burst down the road.

"Wait Miho-chan!" called out Nakuru, tossing away the wreath. "Where are you going?"

"Satisfied?" asked Syaoran to the bushes with a long sigh. This Christmas, he seemed to be a designated messenger.

"You really got to stop ad-libbing. What's with all the embarrassing stuff about the key to the heart?"

******

Many times, Miho had walked by her old address, but she had not ventured to enter the house before. Because she had a fear that once she entered, the illusion would end. It may look the same from the outside, but at the end of the day, it was not her house. That was why she hated this house, this fake replica of the dear house that held so many memories.

This time, she was determined to enter. Her dear house on the hill, behind a row of birch trees. It was like it had never burned down. There was a large wreath on the front door, just like the ones her father had handcrafted every year. The big brass key worked on the locks perfectly and the door swung open. A house long abandoned would be drafty and chill, but Miho found the lights to be on inside, as if it was still occupied. The long white marble hallway was the same, and there was a painting of a flower vase. No, it wasn't the same painting if you looked closely, but it was by the same artist and the same series so that at a glance, it seemed the same. She walked upstairs to the second floor. The crystal chandelier was the same—it was a rare antique Parisian chandelier—how had her brother found an exact replica?

She walked down the blue-carpeted hallway. The first bedroom was her bedroom. Hesitantly, she opened the door. Sunlight seeped into the room, and Miho shielded her eyes with her arm. Suddenly, she was a ten-year-old girl again, returning to her bedroom. Her bed was a large canopy bed with sheer white curtains and chick-yellow sheets. On her bed was Usagi-chan and big white teddy bear her brother had gotten her for her eighth birthday. Even the photos on her desk were arranged in a similar way so that if she did not look carefully, they seemed identical to the setup in her old bedroom. Except, the original photos were all burned and the actual photos were more recent photos. On her desk was a fat black leather notebook. Her throat choked up. It was the same type of journal she used to keep. All those precious things that had burned down in the house—somehow, her brother had found a replacement, remembering all the minute little details like the little Maneki Neko good luck cat from her school trip to Osaka and the complete collector's edition of the Anne of Green Gables series on her bookshelf.

It was as if when she ran down across the hallway to her brother's room, she would find him reading a book at his desk. She thought she heard a noise. No way… She dashed out her room, across the hallway, and flung open the door. Unlike the rest of the house which was furnished and decorated meticulously, her brother's room was completely bare. As if nobody had ever lived in it and nobody ever would. She thought she heard a shuffling sound downstairs. A lump formed in her chest and she dashed downstairs. Where did the sound come from. The kitchen? The dining hall? She made her way into the sunny parlor, her favorite room in the whole house. Many days the family would gather in the parlor, her mother curled up on her sofa with her notebook, brainstorming ideas for the paper, her father on the floor, leaned next to her mother, sketching his family with in his sketchpad, her brother and herself sitting on the couch over there, amusing themselves with a picture book or a card game. If she closed her eyes and sat on the couch and breathed in the room, it was almost as if she was little Miho again, her brother sitting next to her. And she could hear her father's rich laughter and the scratching of a pen nib against paper.

Suddenly, Miho heard the door creak open and a heavy footstep behind her. She turned around, her heart pounding wildly. Was it onii-chan?There stood by the doorway a middle-aged man in a gray wool coat over a crisp pinstriped gray suit and shortly-cropped mahogany brown hair swept back from his forehead. Square-framed glasses were slightly fogged from the cold outside, and the tips of his nose were red, as if he had been running.

"Otou-san!" Miho exclaimed, her gray eyes widened. "How—Why are you here?" Her chest surged with anticipation. "You remembered!"

"I'm sorry, Miho-san." Shing's eyes were sorrowful. "I still do not seem to recollect who you are."

Miho shook her head. "But you returned. You returned to our old house!"

"I went back to New York and found a letter in the mailbox with an address and a key. I thought there might be an answer to my past. So I took a flight back to Japan and came here straight away." Shing frowned as if he was in a daze. One moment, he had been back in New York and the next moment, he found himself getting off a cab in this unfamiliar neighborhood.

But now, he was no longer focused on Miho and walked down the hallway with an expression of puzzlement. "This house. It seems strangely familiar. Yes, that Burmese silver elephants were there. And that Medieval tapestry was there. And there are the oakwood cabinets from Italy… Ah, I thought the Faberge egg was blue? Maybe I was mistaken." Shing walked down the hallway and into the parlor. "And the yellow room. Everything was decorated in yellow, like sunshine. There's the grand piano that no one knew how to play. And this nostalgic scent of lavender and citrus." He dipped his hand into the bowl of potpourri. "Have I been here before, in this house? I must have…" Slowly, he walked up the fireplace, where above the mantle hung a large portrait of a family, a man with dark red-brown hair and square-framed glasses dressed in a gray suit, a lovely woman with long auburn curls and sharp gray eyes. Her arms were around a beaming little girl with auburn braids and a slightly older boy with gray-blue eyes and auburn-gold hair, wearing an oxford shirt and a blue vest. They were a picture-perfect family.

"Strange. This painting… It's my style, especially the eyes. But I do not recall painting this," Shing said.

"Do you not recognize anyone in the painting?" asked Miho in a choked voice.

Shing did a double take. "Why, yes. This little girl—it's you, isn't it? And that boy—he looks familiar—is he your brother? And that man—he's me!" Shing stepped back at this realization. "It's me, isn't it?" And his voice turned somber. "And this woman…" His fingers traced the full red lips of the auburn-haired woman in the painting.

"It's my mother," Miho said quietly.

His voice was cracked. "Miho… What did you say your mother's name?"

"Tanaka Miara. Maiden name, Mizuki Miara," said Miho.

******

"Where did Miho-chan go?" asked Tanaka Miara suddenly. "It's almost time for dinner. I can smell all the delicious food you have cooked, Eriol-kun."

"I'm looking most forward to your infamous lemon cake," said Eriol, taking the cake, recipe a courtesy and Miara, out of the oven.

"Blegh, it looks too sour," stated Suppi-chan. Suppi-chan was designated mail-bringer and sorted through the mail—full of holiday advertisement, letters from the National Nurse's Association for Nakuru, an occasional challenge letter to Clow Reed (those never ceased even after very public announcement of Clow Reed's 'death' and various utility bills (it was far more convenient in the days when he had run the house on magic).

"Miara-san, there is mail for you," he said, holding up an envelope.

"For me?" remarked Miara. "I wonder from whom."

"It doesn't say," replied Suppi-chan, examining the address. "Do you want me to open it for you?"

"Please do."

Suppi-chan tore open the envelope with his paws.

"What is it?"

"There is a key."

"A key to where?"

Holding up a piece of paper, Suppi-chan read out what seemed like an address.

"Why—" Sudden tears formed in Miara's eyes. "That's my old address." Suppi-chan pressed the cold metal key in Miara's hand. A look of determination came over her eyes as she turned to Eriol. "Eriol-kun, is it possible for you to take me there?"

It had been six years since Miara had walked up that little hill. Though she could not see it, she could smell the crisp scent of nutmeg and cinnamon that drifted through the neighborhood. Eriol gave her a hand, but she could almost see the path leading up to the house in her mind, the flowerbed next to the pavement, the swing set in the front yard. Finally, she reached the top of the slope, arms held out in front of her. There was a door.

Six years ago, the house had burnt down into ashes. She had not returned since then. "A new house was built here?" she asked. It was not her house anymore. She would never come home from work to see her little Miho and Mikai run up to her and her dear Keisuke come and give her a hug. Hesitantly, Miara gave a knock on the brass knocker. There was no answer.

Taking the key out of her pocket, Miara tried the lock, fumbling to find the slot. The lock clicked, and the door swung open.

"Miho… Are you there?" she called out. She heard footsteps in a nearby room and walked towards the sound. "Miho-chan, is that you?"

Miho spun around to see Miara, stepping into the parlor. Eriol supported her, holding the door open. "Okaa-san! What are you doing here?"

"Someone sent me a key in the mail. And the address… it was the address of our old house," Miara replied. She stepped forward, arms reached out in front of her. "There is somebody else in this room."

Shing turned from the portrait and then slowly turned around. For a second, he squinted as he stared at the pale woman in her mid-thirties with long auburn hair braided down her back before his eyes rounded in recognition. "Miara…" His voice trailed off. She was older and more sallow than he recalled her to be, but those eyes were the same and the hair was as vibrant a hue of red-gold as before.

Miara walked forward, hands spread out in front of her. "That voice… That familiar voice…" Her voice trembled. "It can't be… Keisuke-san?"

"What is this… This painting… And the children…" Shing crumpled to the floor as a split headache pierced his skull. He looked up at the painting of the family of four again. What was the meaning of this?

Miara's voice choked up. "Miho, what's going on? Is this an illusion? It's your father's voice, isn't it, or am I hallucinating?"

"Miara…" Keisuke looked up at the woman with eyes closed, arms stretched out in front of her. "You can't… see?"

"Kei-senpai?" Miara was suddenly transported into the mindset of a girl of fifteen again. "Is that really you?" She stumbled forward, crossing the gap between them. She reached out and drew back for a second, almost as if she was afraid that the illusion would shatter, then touched Keisuke's face and hair. "This hair… This nose… This chin… These lips…" Her throat closed in. "It can't be Keisuke-san… No way… You died."

"Mi…ara…" Keisuke cupped her cheek in his hand. "What happened? Who did this to you? Why…"

"It's all right. It's nothing," said Miara as the tears flowed freely from her clouded gray eyes. "Even if I can't see you, I can hear you, touch you and smell you… Just tell me this isn't a dream. Tell me you're back for real."

"I'm sorry, Miara, I'm sorry," said Keisuke, hugging Miara tightly to his chest.

"You're really not a ghost. You're not a dream," Miara murmured. "You are my Keisuke-san."

Crouching outside the window of the Tanaka house, Sakura wiped the tears from her eyes with her sleeves while Meilin was outright bawling her eyes out.

"What are you crying about, silly?" Meilin asked Sakura with a sniffle. After leaving Tomoeda Plaza, Sakura had been lingering around the Tanaka house and bumped into Meilin coincidentally while snooping around the premise, both with the same idea in mind. Since they had been camping out since before Miho arrived, now their limbs were numb from the cold and their noses a strawberry red.

"Handkerchief?" asked Sakura holding out a dripping handkerchief.

"Thanks," said Meilin, blowing her nose into the handkerchief. "I'm so happy for Miho-chan."

And then, Sakura clapped gloved her hands together. "I understand now. I understand why Kai-kun gave me these Cards last night and told me to come here."

"You saw him yesterday?" Meilin asked.

Sakura nodded. "Briefly, at grandfather's house."

"What was he doing there?" Meilin wondered how Sakura felt about Kai not showing up the other day at Eriol's house. But for some reason, Sakura seemed to be the one person who trusted the thief wholeheartedly from the beginning.

"I'm not quite sure. But I think he was somehow involved in Nina-chan being adopted into the Kinomoto household."

"That busybody," muttered Meilin.

Sakura drew out her key. "Key that hides the power of the moon. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!"

She held out two cards and commanded, "Veil, unveil the vision of one whose heart has healed. Memory, restore the memories of one whose heart has been found!"

A prismatic light filtered in through the parlor window and illuminated the embracing pair. Keisuke lifted up Miara's head, and as he did so, those with magical vision saw that a red scarf tied around her eyes seemed to fall away. Miara blinked, shielding her eyes. "It's so bright."

Eriol smiled intriguingly, glancing out the window at Sakura before turning back to Miara. His voice was low with emotion as he said, "It might take a while for your vision to return completely to normal, after so much many months of disuse. But now that you want to see again, Miara-san, I think it will be a matter of time before your vision returns to you.

"But… The doctors…" Miho looked up confused.

Miara blinked, the blaring light softly reduced to a glow. The foggy haze gave way to amorphous shapes and bright colors like a camera lens coming to focus. Her daughter blinked up with large blue-gray eyes. "Miho… I can see your face. You're wearing a red blouse." She looked up at Keisuke. "And Keisuke-san… You look the same as ever… You still don't brush your hair." She smoothed her hand over his head. "Did you get new glasses?" Then she began to scowl. "Now, where have you been all this time? Do you know how much Miho and Mikai and I worried?"

Tanaka Keisuke didn't have any magical sense and could not see a myriad of rainbow-hued feathers absorb into a white light that shrouded him and then slowly faded into him. "Miara… All this while… All this time that I thought I was completely alone in this world…"

Miho slowly stepped up to her mother and father, holding back her tears that came out in little hiccups. Keisuke met her eyes for the first time.

Keisuke spun around and stared at the portrait of the family, of the young boy and girl. "Miho! Mikai!" Then, he stared at the lanky girl with short auburn hair and gray eyes. "You can't be my little Miho-chan? She was wee little when I last saw her," he said, holding his hand to his waist level.

"Yes, it's me, otou-san," said Miho, eyes misting. "It's your little Miho-chan. And you're finally back."

"Come here," Keisuke said, his voice cracking, holding out his arm. "Come to me, my little girl."

Miho sprinted forward and threw her arms around her father, knocking him down to the ground.

"Oomph. You're not as little as you used to be, and I'm not as young as I used to be, it seems," said Keisuke, adjusting the glasses on his nose. With one arm, he held Miho to his chest while with the other, he held his wife. "I never thought I would be together with you like this again."

"Are you really back?" said Miara, tears glistening on her eyelashes. "You're not a ghost or a dream?"

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry for taking this long to return." Keisuke held Miho and Miara to her even closer.

"But you're back. That's all that matters," murmured Miara into her prodigal husband's chest. "We're together again." If only her Mikai were back.

With a smile, Sakura collapsed on the sidewalk, clutching the two cards to her chest, cold sweat trickling down her brows.

"Sakura-chan, are you all right? You don't look too well," asked Meilin alarmed, kneeling down next to Sakura wiping her brows with her sleeves.

"I'm fine—the Memory is just an especially draining card to use, it seems," said Sakura, breath coming slightly truncated. She mustered a smile. "I just need to… catch my breath." She slipped the Memory and the Veil into her pocket.

"How did Kai-kun manage to steal those cards from Leiyun?" Meilin muttered.

Sakura turned her head, watching Miho's blithe laughter, caught in her parent's embrace. "Well, Kai-kun's plan worked out well, didn't it?"

Meilin rolled her eyes. "There's Kai for you. I get it. His mind is convoluted and cryptic."

"But surprisingly simple," said Sakura, leaning against Meilin who helped her up. "All he wanted was a fairytale Christmas for his family. Just look at this house."

The two girls stepped back. The trees were decorated in Christmas lights that slowly began to twinkle as dusk fell, and the large wreath hung on the front door sparkled in iridescent colors. All the windows were decorated with tinsel and Christmas ornaments and in the corner of the parlor was a huge Christmas tree and by the merrily lit fireplace hung four red stockings. Even the lawn was layered with fake snow.

"It's like a picture-book Christmas house," said Meilin.

"How Kai-like. He has to do everything with style," remarked Sakura with grudging admiration. "It's almost enough to make you forgive him."

"But just enough to irritate you so that you want to smack him in the face." Meilin smiled. Suddenly, she wanted to see Kai.

******

Meilin had not seen Kai since the end of exams. She ran down the back hill and was not surprised to see a black convertible parked on the side of the road. Kai stood leaning against the trunk, hands in the pocket of his black wool coat as if he had been waiting for her.

"Why are still here?" demanded Meilin. "Didn't you want to see Miho's smiling face? And your father and mother all together again?"

"Oh, I saw it," said Kai. "Tomoyo lent me all her camera equipment before she headed off to Switzerland."

Now, Meilin was irritated, and she smacked Kai on the head. "Are you an idiot? You can go see them in person. Don't you want to be reunited with your family for Christmas? Isn't this everything you've planned for all these years?"

"It's over, isn't it?" said Kai, suddenly sounding weary.

"You've done a good job," said Meilin.

"Do you want to come somewhere with me?" asked Kai.

Meilin nodded. She got in the car seat next to him. She almost giggled at the tinsels scattered around the usually spotless car and carefully moved various cables and Christmas lights out of the way.

Since Kai was in one of his silent spells, she did not speak to him. She stared out the rolled down window, wind whipping back her hair. She was surprised when they came by the ocean side.

"Why the ocean all of a sudden?" asked Meilin walking out of the car, her boots leaving an imprint on the sand.

The blue-black winter's ocean thrashed about turbulently. The sky ahead was dark and gray, like the color of Kai's eyes. Kai walked behind her, breathing in the salty air. He slowly reached into his coat and took out an object wrapped in cloth. Meilin's heart beat slightly quicker at the sight of the gleaming pistol peaking out from the black cloth.

"I guess I passed the Black Dragon's test," said Kai, staring at the pistol.

"Test?"

"I did not use the gun." Not on myself, nor anybody else. "I did not give into temptation."

She watched Kai wrapped the pistol in his long black cloak then fling it far into the ocean. The weight of the pistol dragged down the black cloak and the tide carried it away, deep into the sea. I've been a horrible girlfriend. It was never about Kara or me or the Li Clan or the Kinomotos. This was Kai's battle against himself. And I didn't understand that. I didn't see him struggling. I was unable to lend him a hand in his time of darkness.

"Now, Kaitou Magician is really gone," said Kai, staring out in the horizon of the ocean.

Meilin shivered. "But you, Mizuki Kai, no, Tanaka Mikai, are still here."

"Yes. It's true."

"You're quite a simplistic person, aren't you?" said Meilin. "I thought perhaps you wanted revenge or you were being blackmailed or something. But at the end of the day, you swore you would get Miho back everything she had lost, and you set out to exactly do that. Well, you accomplished what you set out for."

"Did I?" Kai seemed to be in a daze. "I did, didn't I?"

Meilin's eyes blurred as she wrapped her arms around Kai's head. "It's all right now. You've done enough. You can go back home. You can return."

Kai hugged Meilin to him tightly, the salty spray of waves lapping at their feet. He had waited so long to hear those words.

"When my future seemed so nebulous, all I could do was run forward and keep running without looking back. But what happens when all my goals are achieved and those nebulous aspirations are attained? Where do I go from here?" said Kai. "I swore I will give up my criminal ways once I've achieved my goals. But I can't go back to simply being a student—it's a suffocating life style. Now what? What am I going to do now?"

"Why can't you just continue being Mizuki Kai, the way you always are?" said Meilin. "Blundering and strong-willed, flippant by nature but as loyal as can be."

"I spent so much time fixated on my goals. I'm sort of at a loss. I need some time to just think things out," said Kai.

A sinking feeling came through Meilin as she came to a realization. "Are you really going to leave? Don't you want to see your parents? And Miho-chan?"

Kai looked at Meilin. "I do. So much. That is why I have to leave. The current me can't face my family yet."

The first time she fell in love, she had been moved by a little boy who had rescued her bird in the pouring rain. The next time she fell in love, she fell in love with a bird who sought to fly away from her when the sun was out. But she believed he would return to her when it began raining again. "I understand," said Meilin resolutely. "If you need time, take time. You asked me whether I trusted you or not. I do trust you. That is why I'll be waiting here when you return."

******

Later that night, Li Meilin sat curled up on her couch, eating Christmas cake out of a box and watching a sappy Christmas movie rerun on TV. This was perhaps the worst Christmas ever, all alone in a different country, without her family, her friends all busy with one thing another. At least Miho-chan was finally reunited with her father. She looked down at the letter that had been attached to the cake box and glared at the bouquet of red roses. You really couldn't depend on a former thief at all. Kai could have waited until tomorrow to leave.

"We wish you a Merry Christmas!" squawked Perro-chan, flying onto Meilin's head.

"Shut up, Perro-chan," Meilin said. "Why do I have to spend Christmas with a stupid parrot?"

Perro-chan flew down onto her shoulder and poked her cheek gently with his beak.

"Are you trying to reassure me? Thanks Perro-chan. I love you best too. Much more than that horrid master of yours." Meilin sighed. It was her fault, actually. Miho had invited her over, but Meilin thought she might want some quality time with her parents—they had a lot of catching up to do. Tomoyo had invited Meilin to the ski trip, but Meilin was not particularly fond of skiing and declined. Sakura also had invited Meilin to come join her family for dinner, but Meilin felt like she would be intruding.

Just then, there was a pounding on a front door. Meilin sat up. There was nobody to come at this hour. "W-who is it?" she called out, peaking through the peephole.

"Meilin-senpai, it's me!" exclaimed Miho, panting hard.

"Miho-chan, what are you doing here? I thought you would be with your mother and father," said Meilin.

"Where's onii-chan?" asked Miho. Her face was extremely flushed and her scarf was half unraveled from her neck. "He's not home."

And Meilin stared at her feet, silent.

Miho grabbed Meilin by the arms. "I know you know where he is. Let me see him. Is he with you? Is he out? What time will he back?"

Slowly, Meilin stared at the younger girl. "Do you have to see him tonight?"

Miho nodded.

"And it can't wait?"

"I made him wait for so long. I have to see him. I have to apologize for everything," said Miho, eyes glistening.

"I'm really not supposed to tell you this," said Meilin.

"Please, Meilin-senpai," said Miho, tightening her grip around Meilin's hands. "Where is 'nii-chan?"

Heaving a long sigh, Meilin said, "Narita Airport—his flight is at 8."

Miho's eyes widened as she glanced at her watch. She had less than an hour. "Thanks, Senpai."

Meilin blinked. The door shut and Miho was already gone.

"Blabbermouth! Blabbermouth!" chanted Perro-chan, flying out from Meilin's bedroom with a golden tinsel around his neck.

"Shut up, Perro-chan," grumbled Meilin. Who could resist those large gray puppy eyes? "Like brother like sister. They both have this way of cajoling anything out of you." She slumped down on the sofa again, picking up the remote control. "What's wrong with this remote control—it was working find a second ago."

The lights suddenly all switched out. "Wha—"

Meilin glared at Perro-chan in the dark. "Perro-chan!"

"Not me! Not me!" protested the bird.

"Now, where did Syaoran keep the flashlight?" muttered Meilin, fumbling around in the dark. Did Syaoran even keep flashlights in the house? He always used his ofuda when there was a power failure. That was when he still had his magic in tact.

And when the lights switched back on, a large Christmas tree had appeared on the corner of the living room floor and little white snowflakes showered down. Meilin clapped her hands in momentary delight. Who?

And Meilin frowned, looking up. She slipped her feet into her bunny slippers and dashed down the hallway. "Wait. Syaoran!"

Slowly, Syaoran turned around.

"What are you doing here?" asked Meilin in disbelief.

"Kai wanted me to do him a little favor since he couldn't be here," replied Syaoran with a shrug. "He was worried that you'd be alone for Christmas."

"If he was worried, he shouldn't have left," said Meilin.

"I'm sort of broke, so I don't have a gift," said Syaoran sheepishly. "I'll give you an extra nice gift next year."

"Next year." Meilin smiled slightly. "Well, since you're here, do you want to stay for a cup of tea?"

Slowly, Syaoran shook his head. "I have to get going."

"I see." Meilin looked slightly disappointed.

"Good night."

Meilin then blurted out, "Wait—you really haven't betrayed Sakura-chan, have you? Please tell me, all this is some sort of crazy act."

Syaoran looked at Meilin with sad eyes.

No, it's not true that I don't understand Syaoran. He has always been so easy to read in one regards and that was why my heart was always breaking. Because he could never hide that single truth.

And Meilin walked up to her first love with sad ruby-amber eyes and placed her hand on Syaoran's gaunt cheek. She had been too busy stressing about Mizuki Kai to have noticed that Syaoran too looked like he hadn't been eating or sleeping properly. She had to crane her neck up high to look at him in the eye now, and he was no longer the sweet, grouchy little boy that she remembered. But the traces of loneliness in his amber eyes, the determined line of his mouth, the cold, calm façade were still the same. "Well, it doesn't matter if you have. I'm still angry with you and will be angry at you for a long long time to come. But if you need a friend, I'm here, as I've always been. After all, I'm still your ex-fiancée!"

"Thanks, Meilin. I really mean it," Syaoran said with a smile.

"Leiyun is going to be really mad when he finds out that you stole the Veil and the Memory for Kai," she remarked.

"But it made everybody else happy, right?"

Meilin recalled Miho in her mother and father's embrace, Kai with his shoulders lifted as if he was finally liberated, Eriol with a rare smile as he watched the reunited family, like he was a proud father, and Sakura, Sakura whose joyful delight shone from her eyes even as her magic took a toll on her. Her voice was choked. "Yes, it made everybody very happy."

"Good," said Syaoran, closing his eyes as if trying to picture everybody's smiling faces in his mind. "Meilin… Merry Christmas."

"You too, Syaoran. Merry Christmas," said Meilin. "Thanks for stopping by."

******

"The airport?" asked Nakuru from the front seat of the Rolls Royce Phantom (the Hiiragizawa family car), a refurbished antique car.

"Yes, Narita," said Miho, glancing at her watch. "We have less than an hour. Do we have enough time?"

"Leave it to me!" exclaimed Nakuru, stepping on the pedals.

The car jerked forward. "By the way, Nakuru," said Miho, fastening her seatbelt, "When did you learn to drive again?"

"Oh, when Touya-kun was signed up for driver's ed, I tagged along," replied Nakuru.

"Wait, you do have a license?"

"We need a license to drive these things?" asked Nakuru, honking at a car.

Though Nakuru did not know how to change lanes properly or keep traffic light, let alone park, she knew how to drive fast because she had no fear of speed. Somehow, through rush hour traffic, they made it to the Narita International Airport driveway in record time.

"Which terminal?" asked Nakuru.

"I don't know," said Miho. "I forgot to ask."

"We don't have time," said Nakuru. Her maroon eyes gleamed as she scanned the crowd. "Head towards Terminal 1—I think you'll make it in time."

Miho dashed off to the first terminal, her unbuttoned blue peacoat flapping behind her. Her mother and father were waiting at the Hiiragizawa mansion, and she had to bring her brother back. Their family would finally be reunited again. All her dreams would come true. It was not hard to spot that solitary figure dressed in a black in the midst of all the families in bright colors crowding the terminal. Why had she not seen it earlier? Why had she not noticed that he was hurting and lonely, that he had been struggling and in more pain than anyone else? Why had she been so selfish?

"Onii-chan!" she shouted. The noise of the airport drowned out her voice. "ONII-CHAN!" she called out again. People looked up and stared at her.

Slowly, Kai turned around, dropping his black duffel bag. "Miho! Why are you—how did you—"

"Are you running away again?" demanded Miho, panting.

"How did you find me?" Kai said. "What about Mother and Father?"

Miho's throat chocked up. "Stupid brother. Where do you think you're going? Okaa-san and otou-san are waiting. Come home now."

"Miho…"

And Miho ran up to her brother and flung her arms around him, something she had wanted to do for the past six years. "Onii-chan. I'm sorry for everything I've said to you. I don't hate you. I'm not mad at you for leaving me. But I'll be mad at you if you leave again. Please, return now. Be my onii-chan again."

"Silly goose, I never stopped being your brother," said Kai. "And I will always be your brother no matter what."

"I saw the house—it's exactly the same as before. How did you do it?"

"It just looks the same the surface," Kai said vaguely. "It's not the same, not the house we've made so many memories in."

And Miho's nose crinkled as she slammed the key into Kai's chest. "It's not like I asked to have my house back! Who asked you to do all this? All I wanted was to have my brother by my side when I was going through times when I wondered why I was still alive, when I thought I was completely alone in the world."

"You're not alone anymore," said Kai. "You have many people who love you and cherish you."

"Were you always such a bigoted idiot of a brother?" said Miho. "I didn't want anything else. All I wanted was to have onii-chan by my side. But I understand. I understand what you did in order to find a way to heal okaa-san, to find out the truth behind otou-san's death. But why couldn't you tell me soon? Why couldn't you let me help you?"

"I'm sorry Miho, for always disappointing you," he replied.

Miho's eyes glistened. "But we will be able to make new memories in the new house, the four of us. You, me, otou-san and okaa-san."

And Kai smiled sadly. "I've hurt you for so long, haven't I? I'm sorry I could not be by your side all these years."

"It doesn't matter anymore. You'll always be by my side from now on," said Miho, clutching her brother's leather jacket.

"I'm sorry Miho. I have to leave," said Kai, carefully pulling away Miho's hand. "My flight is leaving in ten minutes."

Miho stepped back, as if she had cold water flung on her. "What do you mean you have to leave? I told you it's all right. Okaa-san and otou-san are waiting for you. The house… It's Christmas… I—"

Kai patted Miho on the head. "I'll be back. Till then, be a good girl and listen to mother and father."

"Don't leave, onii-chan," said Miho. "Don't leave."

"Miho, I'm proud that I have such a strong, brave little sister. Now, it's onii-chan's turn to become someone that you can be proud of as a brother."

Miho shook her head, large drops of tears dripping from her eyes. "I love you onii-chan, just the way you are."

"Thank you, Miho. That means a lot to me." Slowly, Kai picked up his duffel bag and slung it over her shoulder, quickly turning his head so that he did not have to see Miho crying, which would make all his resolve crumble away.

When Nakuru caught up with Miho, she found the girl sitting on the airport terminal, legs spread out, crying with her head thrown back like she was ten again, her big brother nowhere in sight.

******

"Here's a package for you, Kaijou," Touya said after a quiet family dinner plus Yukito. "It was buried beneath all the Christmas mail."

"Who is it from?" asked Sakura, drying the last dish and taking off the apron. It was nice having a quiet Christmas dinner just with the immediate family for a change.

"Mike Kant?" replied Touya, reading the scrawling English letters. "Has he finally gone back to New York?"

Sakura opened the package and unfolded a letter.

"Dear Sakura,

"I'll be back in New York by the time you get this package. Sorry I couldn't say goodbye in person. It's too bad Tomoyo-chan didn't win the Young Designer Contest, but let her know I'm going to show her designs to some of my fashion-related friends in New York. Please give her the set of photos I took during the fashion show and let her know her designs were truly unparallel. And they photograph quite brilliantly, as to be expected from someone who was a director's eye, I suppose."

A packet of photos fell onto her lap, and Sakura flipped through the stack of photos from the fashion show. She smiled. The first outfit in yellow, she was standing like a stick, without a smile. She flipped to the next photo. Her smile dropped. Syaoran was standing at the edge of the stage in cream-beige, casually posing with his blazer tossed over his shoulder. She flipped through the rest of the photos. The mermaid costume, the kimono, the punk rock costume. Her eyes lingered on the black and white "love" theme outfit. The long red ribbon which trailed from her pink to Syaoran's had seemed so ridiculous at the moment, yet photographed such vividly under the dramatic stage lights and the black and white contour of their outfits. The next photo was a close up of Syaoran's face. She gently traced her fingers down his cheek. Syaoran. He looked so handsome on stage. That day had been too chaotic for her to properly look at him. In her mind, she still held the image of him as a ten-year-old boy. Yet, there was now an expected manly side to him, like he was a complete different person, someone she could barely approach. The photo of the battle costumes made her smile again—she thought that she might never stand on the same side with Syaoran in his green battle outfit again. Leave it to Tomoyo to be able to replicate the staff to such perfection (after all, she was the daughter of the president of a toy manufacturing company.) Tomoyo said that the pink "bird staff" had been so popular amongst little girls that the Daidouji Toy Company had to mass-produce it for the holiday season. There was no photo of the final outfit since the incident happened, which was a pity because the dress had been so pretty before it got ruined.

Sakura thought that she had come to the end of the batch but to her surprise, there were more photos. Wait, this wasn't Japan. The snow covered park, the Alice in Wonderland statue. It was Central Park in New York City. There was Syaoran in a blue ski jacket and herself in a pink one, faces flushed, laughing. It was only two years ago, and yet, they seemed so young. She flipped to the next picture. Their hair was covered in snow, and Syaoran had a mischievous smile. And there was the next one. The corner of Syaoran's eyes were crinkled as he held up a huge snowball in his hand. There was another picture where he was tenderly brushing snow of her head, and another where she was doing the same for him. When did they do that? If the moment was not captured here in these photos, she might not believe that it had happened.

Then, there were never seen before candid photos of her in a long pale blue dress with fake angel's wings on the top of the Empire State building. She had only seen the final product, the Valentine's Day advertisement that ran in the magazines with her enveloped in a winged Syaoran arms. It had been embarrassing, but she had distanced herself from the photo and convinced herself it was not her in the advertisement. But it was strange seeing the picture of her makeup being done, the hairdresser fussing with Syaoran's chestnut locks. The two of them awkwardly standing at the roof edge with the backdrop of the city stretched behind them, the two of them looking baffled as they heard the instructions. Then, the next series of photos played out like a motion still frame. First, Syaoran tripping over the cables off the edge of the roof. Her shocked expression. Her jumping off the recklessly jumping off the building. White feathers sprouting from Syaoran's back. His arms stretched out to catch her. Her hand stretching out towards him. Her landing in his embrace. The warm smile of relief on his face. The strange look on her face as she gazed up into his eyes, her hair whipped around and her dress tangled in his arms.

Is that really me? She could not help asking herself. It looked like her, it looked like him. Yet, they seemed so distant and removed. Like a movie rerun where you vaguely remember the events but can't recall all the little details at all and think, did that really happen?

The last photo was a candid shot from the Young Director party on the last night in New York. She was wearing an ice chiffon dress. Her hair was in a cascade of curls piled on her head, but she was not looking towards the camera, nor at the podium where Tomoyo was receiving applause. Instead, her head was turned towards where Syaoran was standing in the corner, looking more handsome than ever in his custom-fit black silk tuxedo (provided courtesy of Mike Kant). It was a moment you think nobody would catch on camera, when you bashfully sneak a peak at your crush, when in a crowd, your eyes naturally linger on that special person, when you can spot him from miles away just by the shade of his hair or the shape of his coat and just seeing that person, even though he is at the end of the room, brings an instant giddy smile on your face.

She clutched the photo to her heart. What is that dumb expression on my face? A mirror does not reflect your true age as well as a still photo of gone-by days of oblivious bliss. Sakura buried her head in her hands. Ah, it must have been…

Quickly banishing the thought from her head, she flipped to the second page of the letter from Mike, keeping her hands from trembling.

"I was going through old film rolls from two years ago and decided to develop the film. I thought you might want to see these pictures, so I'm mailing it to you. I hope we will meet again. Give a call if you ever come to the States again. 'Amamiya Nadeshiko' was always my favorite Japanese model, but should you ever have an interest in the field, I think you may be able to shine brighter than anyone else, and I would want to work with you again (and no tripping off of 100-floor buildings allowed)! Merry Christmas!

Yours truly,

Mike

"What are you doing?" asked Kero-chan, letting down his new game controller and flying up to Sakura's bed. He glanced at the photographs scattered about her and frowned.

Sakura flopped down on her bed and photos flew up and some landed on the ground. "Kero-chan. I'm so stupid."

"What's wrong?" Kero-chan asked, picking up a photo on the floor. It was Sakura and Syaoran collapsed into a mound of fresh snow. Was there a time like this? When Sakura and Syaoran were so carefree? When Sakura laughed with her head thrown back like a burst of sunshine on a field of white snow?

"All this time, I thought I was moving forward, but in the end, I was only running away," said Sakura, hands covering her eyes.

"What do you mean, Sakura-chan?"

Slowly, Sakura stared up at the ceiling and sighed. "I don't know."

Kero-chan replied knowingly, "It's Christmas. It's natural to feel a little silly and sentimental."

And Sakura nodded before grabbing pulling on a sweater and hurrying down the stairs.

"Where are you going?" Touya asked.

"I just wanted to take a walk," replied Sakura, slipping on a red fur-lined jacket and pulling on boots.

"At this time of the night?"

Sakura did not answer, but she bolted down the street, first at a slow jog, then full speed down the sidewalk, around the corner.

The faintest traces of snowflakes drifted down from the sky and in the darkness glowed like sprinkles of sugar scattering over the town.

It was a mild winter's night even though the snowflakes grew larger, and Sakura's face was flushed. She paused when she reached King Penguin Park and looked up. The King Penguin slide looked distorted in the darkness and glistened from the soft layer of snow gathering on top. Her breath was caught in her chest, and Sakura gazed around, half full of mirth, half with a yearning desperation.

What am I doing? she muttered to herself, shaking her head. What did I think would happen if I came here?

Her doubts were broken by that dear voice she always waited to hear from.

"You're late. You always keep me waiting, don't you?" asked Syaoran, sitting on the park bench in a brown coat, hand in pockets to ward off the cold, but with a gentle smile.

"Silly, that's my line," said Sakura. It was not a question of whether he would show up or not but when. It always had been. Was it strange that she was not at all surprised to find him here, that instinctively, she believed he would be waiting? She could feel her throat choking up again. Why is it, after all these years, that whenever I see him on Christmas, I feel this tightening in my chest and this giddy feeling in my stomach? "What are you doing here?"

"Watching the snowflakes fall from the sky."

Sakura too stared up at the sky and her lips curled into a soft smile. "It is magical, isn't it? It's going to be a White Christmas after all."

"You're right." Syaoran lifted up his right hand, the hand he thought he might never be able to use again. The snowflakes melted on his palm into little droplets of water that glistened in the moonlight like crystals beads.

"How do you think things turned out?" Sakura said to break the awkward silence.

"Terada-sensei and Sasaki-san? They'll be fine," said Syaoran.

"How do you know?" asked Sakura.

"Just." Syaoran stuck his hand in his pocket.

Was it omoi again? "Aren't you the least bit curious?"

"It's none of our business, you know," Syaoran said. "Don't you get tired of playing love cupid?"

"I know, but sometimes you need someone to give the extra boost."

"Tell me you don't just have a soft spot for teacher and student relationships," said Syaoran with a wry smile. "Sasaki-san and Terada-sensei have quite an age gap."

Sakura pouted. "So? What does age matter in love?" Her eyes sparkled. "You know, if Rika-chan marries Terada-sensei, that would make her sensei's wife."

"You're jumping too far ahead, aren't you?" said Syaoran.

"My mother married when she was sixteen," said Sakura. She glared at Syaoran. "What are you staring at?"

"Ah, nothing. It's just, I was thinking you have that kind of feminine side to you and everything."

"What, I'm a girl too. I like thinking of weddings and marriage and stuff as well," said Sakura stiffly. "Though it is very far off in the future for me."

"Not so far," remarked Syaoran.

"Yeah. My mother already was married at my age," said Sakura. "It's strange thinking that at my age, my mother already knew exactly what she wanted in life. She already had her dream job, knew the man that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, even the names for her children picked out. How could she be so certain about everything?"

Syaoran said, "Perhaps it was because she knew she didn't have a lot of time left. She didn't have time to be indecisive."

"I don't know anything I want from life," said Sakura. "It's hard enough dealing with the Dark Forces. I can't plan for a future when I don't even know what Dark Force will pop out tomorrow."

"It's all right not to have a plan. It's all right to just life day by day," said Syaoran.

"It must be easy for you. You've had everything planned out from the beginning. You always wanted to be the Chosen One. I guess you'll be the marvelous Chosen One you are and maybe someday become the Head of the Clan or something," said Sakura. "I have no idea what I want to do, what I want to be, what I want to study."

And Syaoran gazed at Sakura solemnly. "It's all right not to know everything. We're still young. But why not focus on what you do know you want."

"Let's see." Sakura's smooth forehead wrinkled in concentration. "I want Miho-chan to forgive Kai-kun and the Tanakas to be a big happy family again. And I want Tomoyo-chan to find true love. I hope Rika-chan and Terada-sensei will be able to sort out their problems, and of course, I want otou-san's books to sell well so that he can get a commission to write his next one."

Syaoran chuckled. "I mean, don't you have anything you want for yourself? Not even immediately, but in the distant future."

"Well, I do want a family someday, of course," said Sakura. A little daughter and son, perhaps. "And I do want to continue to be a good Card Mistress and protect my cards until the time comes when my contract expires. I want to travel and maybe study in a different country for a while like onii-chan did."

"There, you know a lot of things," said Syaoran with a smile.

Except one thing. I have always somehow pictured you as a part of my future. But when I think that you will be far away, as some austere person in the Li Clan, it leaves a pang in my heart thinking of the hole in my life that will always be there.

As if able to read the change in her expression, Syaoran said, "Just for one night, let us set aside everything that has happened over the past year. Let us just be."

Feeling a tightening in her throat, Sakura nodded.

It was the first time she had seen him smile since he had returned to Japan. And that one smile at this moment seemed to bridge the long distance between him and her at the Hong Kong harbor.

******

"Sakura-chan sure is late," said Yukito, looking at the clock in the Kinomoto kitchen.

"She is," said Touya with a scowl. "At least otou-san is sleeping, or else he'd be worried."

"I wonder who she's with. I thought Tomoyo-chan and Eron-kun are away," Yukito bit into his chocolate raspberry cake. Despite his words, he was not particularly concerned about his Mistress because cake always alleviated all his worries.

"Not that hard to figure out," Touya said, slicing another piece of cake for his friend, glancing at the stack of photos that Kero-chan had provided for him.

"Another slice for me too!" exclaimed Kero-chan, perched on the kitchen table.

"You're getting fat, Cerberus," said Yukito.

"Humph. I burn up more energy in the winter time," replied Kero-chan. "And you're such a glutton yourself, you have no right to criticize me."

"Clow made me with better metabolism," stated Yukito with a smirk. "I am the more perfect creation."

"Well, he made me cuter," said Kero-chan, gobbling down the cake.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," retorted Yukito.

Touya sighed, glancing out the window at the driveway. He sliced two more pieces and set them in front of Kero-chan and Yukito. "Just eat."

"Is it all right if we don't leave Sakura-chan a piece?" asked Yukito in between bites. "It's so rare that you bake."

"It's surprisingly delicious—moist and rich," said Kero-chan, cheeks bulging. "Did you work at a bakery as well? You should bake more often—much better than Sakura's cakes."

"Today's a special occasion," said Touya gruffly.

"Is it?" Yukito asked.

"Yes, it's your birthday."

"Ah, it is!" exclaimed Yukito, clapping his head together. "My birthday always gets lumped together with Christmas, so everybody always forgets."

"I never do," said Touya.

"No, you never do."

"Happy Birthday, Yuki."

"Thanks, To-ya. Merry Christmas."

******

In the fast-paced modern world, people are restricted and regulated by the twenty-four hours of the clock. With the digital watch, cell phone, radio, satellite TV and computer, you are constantly reminded of the passage of time. Schedules are regulated by time, the meeting of people, the parting of people, the value of one's intelligence, the speed of one's body, the result of a game, the victor of a race, the length of a relationship, are all determined by a time limit. There are some people that you are painfully aware of the time that is being spent with that person and there are people that are a waste of your time. There are people that you cannot spend enough time with. And then there are those that time halts while you are with that one person. With Syaoran, Sakura was never sure if minutes or hours or days or months had passed by.

The two sat on a wooden bench as snow piled at their feet, as if the past year was suddenly suspended in the magical flurry of white and silver and they sat at the world's end, no longer struggling, no longer fighting, no longer floundering, no longer caring.

"It's been a long time since we could just sit like this and talk," said Syaoran, leaning back on the bench and gazing at the white flakes that were falling thicker now.

"Yeah," said Sakura. Perhaps that was what she missed most about having Syaoran by her side was just that steady companionship he offered. There was nobody quite like Syaoran, the sturdy feeling she had when he was with her, the two of them watching snowflakes shower down from the sky like twinkling stardust, as if their friendship had never broken.

"Hey, Sakura, do you know why I like watching snow?"

Sakura swallowed hard. "Because those millions of tiny white snowflakes all seem to be alike. But, even so, each one of them is different, no two exactly the same as another. Like human beings. Each individual is made up of its own crystal formation to make it different, just like each person is different." She glanced at Syaoran out of the corner of her eyes.

He was still staring upwards. "Hmm… Yeah, that sounds more profound, I suppose. You know, it doesn't snow back in Hong Kong. So the first time I ever saw snow was when the first winter I spent in Hong Kong, when I was ten."

"Really? That was your first time seeing snow?"

"I think it began snowing after school one day. All the students were excited. You ran outside ahead of everyone else shouting, 'yuki yuki yuki.'" Syaoran had a nostalgic look on his face.

Sakura laughed. "That sounds like something I would do."

"You probably don't remember, because to you it was just another winter's day. But for me, it was the first time I saw snow." And slowly, Syaoran turned to face Sakura.

"Well, so why do you like watching snow?"

"It makes me feel calm," replied Syaoran.

"I thought you hated the cold."

"It's actually less cold when it snows," Syaoran said.

"This winter's supposed to be a long and cold one, since the first snow this year was ridiculously early," said Sakura with a sigh.

"I know. I was with you." They had been stranded in that haunted mansion again.

"You're right." Sakura suddenly recalled a silly story Yamazaki-kun had told the girls back in elementary school. 'If you see the first snow with the person you like, a miracle would happen.' Of course, Chiharu smacked him and then proceeded to drag him outside on the first snowy day of that winter.

Syaoran watched Sakura drift off in her own thoughts, pout a little bit and then smile and then frown. "What's wrong?" he finally asked, hiding a smile behind his hand.

"I don't have anything for you this year," said Sakura.

"I don't want anything else," replied Syaoran. "You coming here is enough."

Sakura stared up at him incredulously. Did she have to remind him that he was the one who had left her in the first place? But he looked so carefree for the first time she had seen him back in Japan.

"I didn't think I would ever spend a Christmas again looking at the snowfall with you," he said, gazing up at the flurry of shimmering white falling from the blue-black sky, like a silver meteor shower.

"Neither did I," said Sakura with a sigh of relent.

"Yet here we are, somehow," Syaoran said. Like the still before a storm.

"What's going to happen to us now, I wonder," murmured Sakura, closing her eyes.

"Who knows."

Sakura turned to Syaoran and held out a closed fist. "Present for you," she said. "It's not really, actually."

Hesitantly, Syaoran held out his hand and Sakura handed him his brown leather gloves back. From one glove tumbled out the leaf-pattern watch into his hand. His voice was an octave lower. "I was wondering where I dropped the watch. You had it all this time?"

"Yeah, you left it in the dressing room, and Tomoyo-chan thought it was mine," mumbled Sakura.

The second hand ticked away, tick tock tick tock. "The battery was replaced?" The long hand moved as the minute changed.

"Yeah. It was sort of silly having a watch that doesn't work. So I got yours replaced when I got mine done," replied Sakura. She pulled up her coat sleeve to reveal her flower-petaled watch; she frowned—was it really near twelve already, or had her watch broken down again.

"And time is moving again," said Syaoran in a distant voice.

"So it is," said Sakura.

"I don't have anything for you," Syaoran said.

"I don't think recycling last year's present really counts anyway," said Sakura.

"True," agreed Syaoran with a slight smile. The greatest present imaginable was that Sakura was here beside him on this quiet evening when he thought he might never spend another Christmas with her again, never see her smile at the snow, never see her cheeks flushed from the wind and long lashes blinking droplets of water.

"The Shirose Subaru Foundation. It was your idea, wasn't it?" said Sakura slowly.

Syaoran looked up warily.

"I asked Nomura-san at the orphanage. She said the main sponsor was Victoria Confectionary, a subsidiary of the Li Group Food Division."

"It's not a big secret. The Li Clan wanted to put up a philanthropic image in Japan, so they set up the foundation," said Syaoran without expression. "I merely suggested to the Li Clan a suitable name, that's all."

"Stop it. Stop talking about Subaru as if he's just a name." Sakura looked up at Syaoran, emerald eyes glistening. "I know you were sad too. The flowers at his graveside. The peonies. There was always a fresh bouquet whenever I went. I thought, ah, this person might miss Su-chan as much I do. They were from you, weren't they?"

Helplessly, Syaoran knelt in front of the bench and looked up, wiping away the tears that formed in Sakura's eyes with his bare hands. Her cheek felt warm against his thumb. Why did he always make her cry? She was smiling just a moment ago.

And she said, "Thank you."

That was not the reaction he had been expecting. "For what?"

"I didn't want Subaru's name to be forgotten. Now, he will always be remembered." Sakura tried to smile through her tears. "It means a lot to me."

Back when Subaru had died, for the first time Syaoran had to see a person that he loved go through such unbearable grief. He had wanted to take Sakura in his arms and cry with her and comfort her and let her know that he would always be by her side. But he hadn't. He couldn't. Just for this night, let me hold you in my arms and let nothing else matter in the world. He wanted to touch her. He wanted to apologize, to kneel at her feet and ask for forgiveness. But from the distance, the bell tower began to chime.

Sakura watched the minute hand of her watch shift to twelve. "Ah, it's midnight." The magical hour was over.

And Syaoran drew back, staring at his hand, wondering what he would have done if the minute hand did not bar him. "Christmas is over," he said somberly.

Twenty-four hours had passed. It was a new day now. Time was ticking again.

"I guess I have to head back now," said Sakura.

"Yeah, it's late. Get home safe," said Syaoran. He could not walk her home. Because she had another person who would do that for her. He could only watch. But then, a little down the path, she halted.

"Syaoran!" Sakura called out, hands folded behind her back. "I forgot to tell you. Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas, Sakura!" Syaoran called back. The wind carried the echoes of her name down the silver-covered cherry blossom lane, Sakura… Sakura… Sakura…...

And so, Syaoran watched Sakura walk off down the road, leaving little imprints on the freshly piled sugar-snow, and smiled nostalgically.

Did you know? The reason I like watching the snow fall is because every time I see the snowflakes in the sky, I think of you, Sakura. The first time I saw snow, the winter of fourth grade, it was such blazing white; it was so bright it hurt my eyes. It was such a dazzling beauty I had never witnessed before, yet I was watching you instead, because you were laughing in such delight, and all I could do was thank that first snowfall for bringing you such sheer joy. When the first snow falls, I always recall that day.

Back in fifth grade at the ski lodge, when you were standing on the balcony with your brilliant smile, I thought I was going to confess to you right then and there. But the sight of your smiling face gazing up at the sky was so mesmerizing that I could not say a word and only watch you.

And on that day, I prayed that if nothing else, when the snow falls and transforms this bleak and gray world into a dazzling white wonderland, even for a brief moment, please grace me with the blessing of seeing your smile again.

******

Meilin yawned as she heard a pounding on the front door. She suspiciously peaked through the hole and saw a familiar little red-head and quickly unlatched her door.

"What are you doing here, Miho-chan? Your mother and father—"

Miho, flakes of snow falling from her shoulders and hair, flew into Meilin's arms, sobbing uncontrollably. "M-Meilin-senpai, what am I going to do?"

Meilin held Miho's chan in her arms, stroking her head. "What's wrong, Miho-chan?"

"I lost my onii-chan forever. It's all my fault. He did everything for me, all for me, and I was mean to him and told him I hated him. I refused to listen, and this time, he really left and he's never going to return to me."

"Don't worry. It's Kai. He knows you love him, deep down inside. He'll surely return."

"No, not after all I've said to him," said Miho, sniffling. "Why did I continue to ignore him and be mean to him when he was trying to hard? Now, he's gone and he'll never come back to me."

Meilin let out a long sigh. "He promised me not to tell you."

"Tell me what?"

"Come." Meilin walked Miho over to Kai's apartment next doors. She opened the door with her extra keyset. The apartment was a mess with all sorts of leftover Christmas decorations, bric-a-bracs that Kai had been collecting to decorate the Tanaka house with and remnants of fabric for the curtains and tablecloths.

"Eh, all his stuff is all here," said Miho. "He must have left in a real hurry."

"Miho-chan! Miho-chan!" squawked Perro-chan. "I love you. I love you."

"Perro-chan?"

"Do you think Kai will really leave his beloved parrot behind?" Meilin asked.

"Wait, then where did he go?" asked Miho.

"He really promised me not to tell you. He wanted to surprise you." Meilin pointed to a pamphlet on the floor.

"The Asian Archery Grand Prix held in Shanghai?" Miho frowned. "I remember the teachers wanted him to enter the championship when he entered junior high."

"He seems to think he would be worthy of facing his mother again once he comes back with a golden medal," Meilin said. "Look at his report card."

Miho gaped. "How did he come first of his year when he skipped so many classes?"

"I guess he was serious when he decided to return to the 'old Mikai,'" Meilin said. "Oh, I hope he doesn't try to pull an embarrassing stunt on national television like he did for the Best Couple Contest." She groaned.

"I don't care if he returns to being 'Tanaka Mikai' or not, I just want my brother back," Miho stated with a sniffle.

"You really mean that?"

"Yes. Onii-chan is fine the way he is," said Miho.

"He also mentioned something about having to grow out his bleached hair and blocking up all his piercings before he goes to see your mother or something of the sort," muttered Meilin with a chuckle. "Since she regained her vision and all."

"Are you serious?" Miho cracked her knuckles. "Idiotic brother! I'm going to kill him when he returns for making me worry for no reason."

"Kill him! Kill him!" squawked Perro-chan merrily. "Merry Christmas!"

******

As the weeks leading up to Christmas had been chaotic, Sakura was determined to spend the rest of her winter vacation as peacefully and relaxed as possible. In fact, it was so quiet recently that it veered to being a slightly boring vacation. Tomoyo was still away on a ski trip in Sapporo with her mother, and Eron had taken Erika off on a trip to the onsen in Kyoto since Erika had resorted to eating gallons of ice cream and watching day time soap operas ever since she had been dumped by Mike Kant. Sakura had tossed her winter break homework into a corner and instead ran about the house doing New Year's cleaning and busily writing thank you cards for all the congratulatory letters addressed to her father for the release of his new book. The bright side was that her father was now on break as well, having finished grading finals and was now busy preparing for his book tour. Almost losing her father had given Sakura a newfound conviction to be the best daughter she could be.

"Hurrah! Otou-san's book has been released," said Sakura, clapping her hands together.

Kinomoto Fujitaka chuckled. "I never thought I'd see my book in stores. It's sort of embarrassing."

"Look, there's such a good picture of you on the jacket cover," said Sakura, holding up the brand new hardcover book. She had never been prouder of her father.

There was a knock on the door.

"Is that you, onii-chan!" Sakura-exclaimed, running out of the kitchen holding a ladle in one hand and wearing an adorable yellow apron with a teddy bear on the front over a sky blue jumper. Her golden-brown hair was tied into short pigtails with matching teddy bear ties. "Perfect timing—the curry rice is almost ready! Otou-san just got home too."

"Why does my sister get more and more adorable by the day?" grumbled Touya to himself as he kicked off his shoes.

"Sister-con acting up again?" asked Yukito. He held up a box. "Your favorite strawberry shortcake, Sakura-chan!"

"Thank you, Yukito-san!" Sakura said, taking the cake so that Yukito could take off his coat.

Touya scowled, turning around. "Hey, you. You can come in, you know."

"You have another guest?" Sakura asked. "I better set another plate—it's a good thing I made plenty of curry."

"Humph, you can just give him the dog bowl," muttered Touya. Wolfie-chan's old bowl, as a matter of fact, though Touya never understood why a dark force turned puppy needed to eat.

"That's rude, 'nii-chan!" exclaimed Sakura. It was so rare that Touya brought any friends besides Yukito-san home. She turned her head and her instantly jaw dropped as Touya's 'guest' entered the front door.

"Yo." Syaoran, wearing a camel-colored wool coat, both hands in pockets, entered.

"Y-you! W-what are you doing here?" demanded Sakura, brows furrowed down.

"Honestly, I have no idea," replied Syaoran with a replicated scowl.

"Oh, him. He'll be staying with us for a while," replied Touya, pushing Syaoran forward.

Sakura's jaw dropped even further. "HOE-EE?"


Wish-chan (December 25, 2009):

Because I wrote Chapter 64 in conjunction with Chapter 63, it was fun reading theories after Chapter 63 for the next chapter from a point of view where I had already written out pretty much everything. It seems like I've written an awful lot of Christmases for New Trials, but it's only the third one, so Christmas comes about once every three years in the New Trials universe; I wrote Chapter 49.75, the Christmas Special, in 2003; but I wrote the Christmas Special Prequel, Chapter 49.5 in 2005 and the New Year's Special in 2007, so it feels like I'm always writing a winter holiday special. I wrote this chapter over the summer (with Chapter 63), so while writing this chapter, I brainwashed myself into thinking Christmas was coming, listening to carols. The coldness of summer transitioning to autumn felt like winter was coming to me. And then, one day, I looked out and saw the trees were changing colors and realized that actually, Halloween was around the bend, and that it really wasn't winter yet. Anyhow, by the time I release this chapter, Christmas will be nearing again and New Trials would be in sync with the seasons again, which is quite rare.

This chapter has a lot of fluff because I originally intended it to be a Christmas Special chapter. Last chapter was about girl-power, so this chapter was about… the guys? Lol. The Kaitou Magician Special Part II deals with more of the gritty aspects of life for Kaitou Magician, which I should upload hopefully soon.

As usual, reader feedback is always so appreciated at hopeluvpeace hotmail (dot) com. Please join the Yahoo Group at groups (dot) yahoo (dot) com/group/newtrialsring/ if you haven't already. Latest New Trials fanart can be found at wishluv (dot) deviantart (dot) com and visit my blot at for the latest updates: wishluv (dot) blogspot (dot) com

Anyhow, next chapter should be interesting. ^_^

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays 2009!!! And Happy New Year!