Chapter 65: Cohabitation, Part Deux
Kinomoto Touya yawned as he took off his white coat and folded it over his chair, returning to his dorm room in the residence halls of Kinhoshi Hospital in the wee hours of morning. It had been a long night at the clinic, and he rubbed his eyes. The shades were down, and he glanced over at his roommate's side of the room. The bed was occupied.
"Yuki, didn't you have nightshift?" asked Touya. Yukito was curled up in bed, blanket completely covering his head, being a sleepyhead as usual. "Hey Yuki, wake up."
There was no response. Frowning, Touya walked up to the bed and shook him. "Yukito, you're going to be late for breakfast." As he pulled down the blanket, a brown-haired boy turned his head. Touya's jaw dropped. "Gyah! Y-you're not Yuki—"
The brown-haired boy blinked until his amber eyes focused on a scowling black-haired man looking over him. Upon recognition, he quickly scrambled up remarkably like a wild wolf caught off guard.
"You. What are you doing here?" Touya growled.
Li Syaoran's eyes darted back and forth looking for an exit. Touya towered over him, cornering him against the bed.
"Well, I'm still waiting for an explanation." Touya tapped his foot on the floor.
Just as Syaoran was about to lunge forward and push Touya aside, Tsukishiro Yukito came into the room, holding his morning baguette and a donut. "Touya, you're back already?" His marigold eyes flickered back between Syaoran and Touya. "Oh, sorry, did we wake you, Syaoran-kun?"
An instant look of relief came over Syaoran's face, and he quickly took refuge behind Yukito.
Now, Touya glanced between Syaoran and Yukito suspiciously.
As if reading Touya's mind, Yukito smiled. "I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to let you know beforehand. I found Syaoran-kun sleeping on the hospital benches, and I couldn't leave him like that. I had nightshift, and nobody was sleeping in my bed, so I told him he could use it."
"So you too took pity upon a stray dog," muttered Touya. He peered at Syaoran over the tip of his nose. "Well, what's the deal? Why are you camping out in the hospital like some homeless person?"
Syaoran stuck his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor glumly.
"He seems to have had some… disagreements at home," replied Yukito.
"What are you? His good-will ambassador? Let the boy speak for himself." Touya peered at Syaoran. "Is this true? You ran away from home?"
Warily, Syaoran looked up and met Touya's gaze.
Though Christmas was over, Kinomoto Sakura hummed to herself a little jingle song as she stirred the beef curry. Tonight, her brother and Yukito-san were coming over for dinner. Though she had been dating Chang Eron for around two months now, Yukito-san had been her first crush and always held a special place in her heart. There was no one who ever gave her that same hanyaan feeling. Today, she wore a yellow teddy bear apron that had been Yukito-san's Christmas present over a sky-blue jumper and a yellow shirt. As the front door bell rang, out of habit, Kinomoto Sakura glanced at the mirror to check if her blue hair ribbons were in place before running out to the front door to greet Yukito-san. "Onii-chan! Yukito-san! You're back!" she exclaimed, holding a ladle in one hand. "Perfect timing—the curry rice is almost ready! Otou-san just got home too."
Tsukishiro Yukito, in a cream-colored coat and a blue cap, glasses steaming from the cold, held up a white box. "Your favorite strawberry shortcake, Sakura-chan!"
"Yukito-san! Thank you!" Sakura said, taking the cake so that Yukito could take off his coat.
Her brother 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.
"That's rude, 'nii-chan!" exclaimed Sakura, She tilted her head and her jaw dropped as Touya's 'guest' entered the front door.
From behind Touya stepped Li Syaoran, wearing a camel-colored wool coat, both hands in pockets. "Yo."
If there was any one person who could counter all the giddiness she felt from Yukito-san's presence, it was this person whose presence sent an intense electric tension throughout the room. "W-what are you doing here?" Sakura demanded.
"Honestly, I have no idea," replied Syaoran, the inner corners of his dark brows joining in the center.
"He'll be staying with us for a while," replied Touya, pushing Syaoran forward.
Sakura's jaw dropped even further. "Says who?"
"Says me," replied Touya, narrowing his eyes.
"Are Yukito-san and Touya-san back?" asked Fujitaka, walking out of the kitchen in a matching blue apron with a teddy bear on the front. His eyes lingered on the brown-haired boy with the deep scowl. "And Li Syaoran-san, right? It's been a while. Welcome. Dinner is ready. And is this cake? Thank you, Yukito-san!"
And Syaoran was ushered to the dining table before he could protest.
Sakura stared at her steaming plate of curry, suddenly having lost all appetite, glancing up suspiciously up at the unwelcome visitor. She was half convinced this was all a really bad dream. Her father and Yukito were engrossed in a conversation about the proper way to bake sponge cake, while her brother interjected with his expertise. Syaoran sat across the table from her, next to Yukito-san, and appeared absorbed in the curry, not looking up once as he shoveled food into his mouth in a barbaric fashion. Almost as if he was enjoying the food. Or perhaps he was just really hungry.
She tried to catch his attention, first by glaring at him, then by clearing her throat. He continued to ignore her. Finally, she kicked him underneath the table. It wasn't that hard reaching his side, now that he was so tall and his legs stretched out near to her end of the table. She cleared her throat extra loudly. Finally, he looked up, which was lucky because last resort was to fling a spoonful of curry at him. "What are you doing here?" she hissed.
"Your cooking skills have improved," remarked Syaoran out of the corner of his mouth. "Though these carrots look like you chopped them with your eyes closed."
"Well, if I knew you were coming, I would have whipped out my ruler and measured each piece for your portion," replied Sakura, pushing around the lumpy curry in her plate with her spoon.
"It's not like I had a choice. Your brother dragged me here."
"Oh really? When did you and my brother become so chummy?" Sakura muttered. "Wouldn't it be more convincing to say that you came here because of Yukito-san?"
Syaoran's ears turned red. "That was six years ago!"
"Ah, silly childhood memories."
"Has spending time with Chang Eron made you this sarcastic?"
And Sakura's cheeks were tinted crimson. "No, I'm just like this to people who show up unwelcomed to my house and start insulting my food."
"I told you the curry's good!"
"Why, thank you, Li-kun, but please don't force yourself to pay compliments to something because of mere politeness," Sakura said, slamming her spoon down on the table, appetite suddenly lost.
Kinomoto Fujitaka cleared his throat. "So, Li-san, I hear that you are attending Eitoukou High now?"
"Y-yes sir!" replied Syaoran.
"It's a fine school. One of the teachers, I don't know if you know him, Okazaki-sensei, was a former student of mine and an Ancient Civilizations major," said Fujitaka.
"Ah, yes! Okazaki-sensei is a marvelous teacher. The other day, we had the most fascinating lecture on Spartacus and the Third Servile War," replied Syaoran. He suddenly felt a little rueful that he had missed his history exams.
Touya had remained remarkably silent through the meal. He sipped his green tea, watching Syaoran's face light up as he talked with Fujitaka.
"Syaoran-kun gets along really well with your father, doesn't he, To-ya?" remarked Yukito with a smile.
"Humph." he scowled. Touya knew that his father had always been a little disappointed that he had never show that much interest in archeology and ancient civilization, since his favorite subject in school had been chemistry and hard sciences.
Sakura did not know how she swallowed down dinner, but she was eager to excuse herself from the table as soon as possible. While she did the dishes, everybody else headed down to the basement so that her father could show Syaoran some books on the pyramids of Giza. With a weary sigh, she dried the dishes and put the plates back in the cupboard. She heard Syaoran and her father finally emerge from the basement again. Despite her irritation that Syaoran showed no signs of leaving after dinner, she could not help a faint smile now that her back was turned to him. She had not seen him so animated in a very long time—Syaoran had taken a liking to her father ever since Kinomoto Fujitaka's guest lecture at Tomoeda Elementary School, without even realizing he was her father.
"It's fascinating how the Mayans, all the way on the other side of the world, developed structures that are parallel to the Egyptian pyramids," Syaoran remarked, clutching a stack of dusty books that Kinomoto-sensei had lent him to read.
"Indeed. I've heard the Mausoleum of the First Emperor Qin referred to as Chinese pyramids but they are not actually pyramids, is that correct?" said Kinomoto Fujitaka to the younger boy. "When I first heard about the Terracotta Warriors that were found in Xian, I thought they might be the Chinese equivalent of mummies, but they are supposedly decorative art rather than preservation of bodies."
"Yes, legends say that the Terracotta Warriors were real warriors that were buried to protect Emperor Qin in the after life, but they were most likely assembled out of clay," replied Syaoran.
"I also heard that each Terracotta Warrior is supposed to have a different face," said Fujitaka. "Which is amazing because there were over 8000 soldiers and 800 horses. Can you imagine the time and scale of organization it took to assemble them? I would love see them some day."
"I actually went to Shanxii Province some years ago and the experience of seeing the Terracotta Warriors in person and just the sheer number of them was quite amazing," said Syaoran. "You could see the faded paint on the warriors, and though they are just gray clay now, they were once supposed to be individually painted and decorated."
"Like the Sphinx was once brightly painted, but we will unfortunately never see it in its true glory," said Fujitaka with a sigh of regret. "Unless we travel back in time."
The two paused, realizing that Touya and Sakura were now staring at them agape.
Fujitaka cleared his throat and stammered, "Ah, my apologies. I got carried away not thinking that you must be tired, Syaoran-san."
"First name basis already?" Touya muttered, as if he was finally having second thoughts about bringing the boy home.
"No, sir, it is an honor to be able to speak to someone so knowledgeable about the ways of ancient civilizations," Syaoran stammered back. "And I didn't know you possessed this extremely rare copy of the translation of the works of Antipater of Sidon. Thank you so much for lending it to me."
"Of course. You are welcome to borrow anything from my collection, and if you need any recommendations after you finish those books, please feel free to come to me. We need to continue our conversation on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon," said Fujitaka.
Syaoran's face lighted up as he bowed his head. "Thank you very much!"
"Suck up," muttered Touya under his breath. His father never lent his precious books out to anyone.
"Why'd'you bring him here?" muttered Sakura with a twinge of jealousy—she had not seen her father talking so excitedly about a subject outside of his classroom.
Yukito only chuckled—once in a while, he became acutely aware how similar the Kinomoto siblings actually were.
"Now, Syaoran-san, for your sleeping arrangements…" Fujitaka turned to Yukito.
"Ah, I need to go back to the hospital soon," said Yukito.
"The Brat can sleep in my room." Touya glared at Syaoran, as if to challenge him.
"Umm… I can just be of minimal burden to everyone and sleep on the couch or on the floor in the living room?" said Syaoran, gulping hard.
"We can set up the extra futon in Touya-san's room," said Fujitaka. "It's no problem; Yukito-san stays over all the time, and we already have everything set up in there."
Syaoran turned to Sakura with eyes that seemed to plead, "Help me."
Sakura had to almost stifle a giggle. She doubted Syaoran would be able to sleep a wink in the same room as her brother. Cackling evilly, she stuck out her tongue at him. Serves you right.
Li Syaoran could endure the Great Elder's Demon Training program and train bare-chested in ice-cold weather in the mountains and even fast for a week for purification. But there were exacting three things, actually three people he could not stand. That was Hiiragizawa Eriol, Chang Eron and Kinomoto Touya. Eriol he could ignore, Eron, he could loathe. But Kinomoto Touya was the one person, since day one, that he could not avoid no matter how hard he tried. Because he was Sakura's brother.
A week ago, he would have laughed out loud had he been told that he would be kneeling on a futon in the Kinomoto household and out of all the places in the house, in Kinomoto Touya's bedroom. He wore navy blue flannel pajamas borrowed from Touya that was slightly too big on him and smelled of the same detergent that Sakura used. Kinomoto Touya's room was in impeccable order, mostly decorated in blue. Stacks of medical textbooks lined his bookshelves. His walls were decorated with a periodic table, posters of his favorite J-League soccer team and a banner of his alma mater, Seijou University.
And Touya, in an indigo Seijou sweatshirt and sweatpants, sat cross-legged on his bed, glaring down at Syaoran. He threw him a pillow. "I hope you don't snore."
"Same to you," muttered Syaoran.
"Don't be mistaken. I don't like having you here any more than you like being here," said Touya. "You are only here on the conditions that I set out for you."
"I know. That's why I said I'll sleep downstairs," Syaoran mumbled.
And Touya cackled maliciously. "As much as I loathe you taking up space in my room, at least I can keep a close eye on you when you're here." What person in his right mind will let a high school age boy prowl around the house at night with a pretty sixteen-year-old sister sleeping next doors?
Despite his contempt for Syaoran, Touya fell asleep right away as he fell into bed. Sleep was precious for a first year resident intern. But long after the lights were turned off, Syaoran lay stiffly on the futon, staring up at the ceiling. Touya was snoring slightly.
Syaoran was afraid to shift about for fear he would wake Touya. It was nice to take a long hot shower and sleep with a pillow and blanket after sleeping crouched on various plastic benches at the hospital. But he was restless. He could hear shuffling next doors. Was Sakura still awake? It was late. While he hadn't exactly expected a warm welcome from Sakura, he hadn't expected outright hostility either. Well, it's not like I can exactly explain the situation to her. But she had called him 'Li-kun' again. As if marking the boundaries.
He stuffed his head underneath his pillow, drowning out Touya's droning snore.
Meanwhile, in the room next doors, the certain sixteen-year-old girl was also unable to fall asleep either. "What is onii-chan thinking?" Sakura whispered to Kero-chan, blanket covering her head to muffle her voice. Syaoran had sharp ears. "He can't seriously be serious, inviting Syaoran here. He's leaving tomorrow, right? He has to."
"Well, it seems like the Brat has had a falling out with the Li Clan," replied Kero-chan, a flannel nightcap on his head. "Which is a good thing for you, Sakura-chan."
Sakura frowned. "Kero-chan, you're not taking his side, are you?"
"I'm not taking anyone's side, replied Kero-chan coyly.
"And out of everybody, onii-chan was the one who brought him here. Why would onii-chan do that?" Out of everyone to be betrayed by, she had never thought that her own brother would turn on her.
Turning a beady eye on Sakura, Kero-chan remarked, "Anyhow, isn't this a good opportunity for you? I thought there are some issues you need to clear up with the Brat."
"What issues?" Sakura muttered. "There is nothing I have to say to him." That Christmas night when she had returned to Syaoran his watch, she had ended her last connection to him. It's already over.
Kero-chan yawned. "If it bothers you so much, just think of him as a stray dog your brother picked up and brought home."
"Yes, onii-chan is the kind of person who would do that," Sakura conceded. Though her brother was gruff on the exterior, he was the type of person who protected the weak and the bullied. When he was twelve, he brought home a stray dog with a fractured limb and nursed it back to health and eventually found an owner for the dog. Perhaps she knew from then that her brother would make a good doctor some day. When Touya was sixteen, he brought home a strange, fragile looking boy who barely spoke a word. The boy was an outcast in school with his silvery-hair, old-fashioned glasses and silent disposition. He lived with his grandparents and was new in town, had no friends and did not fit into Seijou High. But Touya had taken up the new boy and invited him home, made him join soccer practices and work at the burger chain to earn some extra pocket money. And the boy slowly came out of his shell under Touya's guidance. Everyone grew used to seeing him beside Touya. And despite his frail appearance, he excelled in schoolwork, sports and even home economics. Girls were soon wooed by his gentle smile and delicate bishounen looks and boys admired him for his easy disposition and athletic finesse paired with an enormous, beastly appetite. People began to recognize him for his own merits, not simply as ace Kinomoto Touya's shadow.
With a sigh, Sakura turned over on her bed. It had been love at first sight the moment she saw Tsukishiro Yukito. Back then, life had been so simple. Kero-chan turned off the lamp and flew over to his bed in Sakura's bottom desk drawer. She tossed and turned in bed. I'm just annoyed that person decided to waltz into my house as if everything's fine between us, that's all. She clutched her palpitating heart. Angry, I'm angry that he has the nerve to come here. And she curled into a ball, completely burying herself in her blanket.
Why did he have to make that snarky remark about Eron earlier at the dinner table? What right did he have to criticize Eron? She suddenly recalled something Syaoran had once told her after her first date with Eron, last spring. He had said, "If Eron takes one step too near you, I'll take him out and beat the light out of him." But she had felt slightly pleased when he made that remark.
With a squeal of frustration, Sakura bolted up from bed. Why was she having such strange memories all of a sudden? Was it because Li Syaoran was just a wall away? Or was this the result of bottling up all her memories for so long? When she had returned from the Fantasy, she had continued on with every day life as if nothing had changed. But inside, she had been struggling against a demon, the demon of uncertainty and terror of the impending future.
At every critical moment in her life, when she was floundering and struggling, why did he reappear and overthrow any balance that she had maintained?
"Chocolate pudding!" Kero-chan suddenly exclaimed.
Sakura jumped and turned to her desk drawer—Kero-chan was sleep talking. It was half past two, and she was still wide awake.
She slipped out of her bed and tiptoed down the steps to the living room, hugging her flannel nightgown closer around her. The staircase creaked as she came to a halt at the bottom of the steps. Unbeknownst to herself, her lips curled into a gentle smile at the strangely nostalgic sight of Syaoran curled up on the couch, reading a book against the faint orange light of the lamp. Hearing footsteps, he turned his head towards her. "Sorry, did I wake you? I meant to come down quietly—I couldn't fall asleep."
"I couldn't fall asleep either," said Sakura. How could she, with Syaoran next doors? She had never thought that she might end up under the same roof with him again. "I bet you couldn't fall asleep with onii-chan's snoring."
"He's actually been pretty pleasant to me thus far—quite surprisingly," replied Syaoran. "I can tell he's biting his tongue to be nice to me."
"Seriously, I can't tell what 'nii-chan is thinking at all. I mean, he hates you," stated Sakura. She rapidly turned to Syaoran. "Sorry, I didn't mean to put it that way—"
"Come on, it's a fact we already know very well. We both know he's hated me since day one. It's my fault, actually. He caught me when I was bullying you."
Sakura giggled. "You were such a bully. I thought you were the meanest person ever."
"It's not like your impression of me has improved much since then," remarked Syaoran with a sigh. "So, does your brother give Eron as hard of a time as he used to give me?"
"No, surprisingly, onii-chan treats Eron-kun very well," replied Sakura.
Syaoran looked peeved.
"Maybe Eron-kun put a black spell on him?" Sakura said with another giggle. "It was sort of funny introducing him. Hello, onii-chan, remember Chang Eron, the Dark One who gave me so much trouble earlier?"
"Don't joke around about stuff like that," Syaoran stated. "It's really not funny at all."
The whole scenario in itself, that she was talking to Li Syaoran three in the morning about Eron was so ridiculous, she could not take it seriously. "Why? Eron-kun and I find it sort of hilarious," Sakura replied flippantly.
Syaoran suddenly slammed his book shut. "Eron-kun, Eron-kun, Eron-kun, stop talking about him. Just hearing his name is nauseating,"
Sakura jumped. And just when she thought they were about to have a civil conversation. "Why are you getting mad at me? I should be the one annoyed. You just burst into my home out of nowhere. I don't know what you are up to, but I hope you leave as soon as possible."
"Don't worry, I don't enjoy being here any more than you enjoy having me here. I'll leave as soon as I can," said Syaoran.
"Good." Sakura bolted up, hugging her nightgown to her chest and stomped back upstairs.
Only later did it occur to Sakura that Syaoran might have been a little bit jealous. And it made her feel a tad bit pleased.
The next morning, Sakura woke up rather late, after a much sleep deprived night, and dragged herself out of bed, bleary-eyed and hair sticking out in all directions. Winter break was wonderful; she could sleep in all she wanted to. She pulled on a sweatshirt and training pants and groggily tumbled down the stairs to the kitchen to the delicious smell of buttery hotcake and warm blueberry syrup.
"Good morning, Sakura-chan," said her father, flipped another hot cake and setting it on her pink plate.
"Good morning, otou-san," she said, rubbing her eyes.
"Good morning sleepyhead kaijou—you're up late."
"Morning onii-chan." Sakura yawned again.
"Good morning, Kinomoto-san," said a third male voice.
"Good mor—" Sakura snapped awake. She had completely forgotten about the unwelcome visitor.
She had come down to the familiar sight of her father in the kitchen, making hotcakes and her brother flipping through the morning newspaper, and the unfamiliar sight of Li Syaoran, seated at her placemat, eating breakfast like he was a part of the family.
"You're still here?" she demanded, rapidly pulling her hood over head. Why did she not run a brush through her hair before coming downstairs or at least choose the sweatpants without the holes?
"Kaijou, did you even wash up before coming downstairs?" asked Touya, sipping on his black coffee. "You become such a lazy slob during vacation."
"Syaoran-san, would you like another hotcake?" asked Kinomoto Fujitaka.
"Yes, thank you," said Syaoran standing up and bringing his empty plate to kitchen.
"Sakura-san, here is your plate—sorry we got started without you," said Kinomoto Fujitaka.
Sakura took the corner seat and poured maple syrup over her hotcake and then divided off the soggy cake with the side of her fork and jammed the warm, savory morsels into her mouth.
"Table manners," said Touya. "You have a knife there, don't you?"
Sakura glared at her brother and picked up her knife. She glanced over at Syaoran, sitting upright on the chair, knife in his right hand and fork in his left hand, neatly eating the hotcakes like he was dining on filet mignon at a gourmet restaurant. He was even wearing a crispy, starched blue button-down shirt and corduroy trousers that she recognized as her brother's clothes, and his hair was neatly brushed into place, unlike last night. Even more infuriating was that he paid no attention to her whatsoever. And what was with the 'Kinomoto-san?'
Touya sat up and said, "Well, I'm off to the hospital."
"Take this to Yukito-san," said Fujitaka, handing Touya a five-tier bento.
"Thanks." Touya took the bento and then glanced worriedly at the table. He saw the poisonous glares that his sister was shooting off across the table and then hid a grin before hurrying out of the house.
"I'll do the dishes," said Syaoran, sitting up.
"No, no, you're the guest," said Fujitaka. He glanced at the clock. "Ah, I'm running late for the seminar."
"Sorry otou-san—I overslept," said Sakura guiltily. "It's my duty to clean anyway."
"It's no problem; it's Sakura-san's precious holidays. Do you have any plans for today?" Fujitaka asked, taking off his apron.
Sakura held up Fujitaka's coat and briefcase. "Not particularly."
"I see. Well, have a good day, then. Syaoran-san, let us continue our discourse on Sun Tzu's teachings of the Art of War in the evening."
"Yes sir!" said Syaoran getting to his feet and bowing.
Only when Sakura shut and locked the door did she have the sinking realization that she was now alone in the house with Li Syaoran.
"What were you really thinking?" Yukito asked Touya as he returned to their dorm room in the morning with a large home-packed bento.
"Nothing," replied Touya. "You're the one hosting him in our dormitory room, and you know that's against the rules. It's not like he could continue hiding out here forever."
"I know, but I never expected you to actually bring him home," replied Yukito. "After all, Sakura-chan is not in the best terms with Syaoran-kun."
"Which is exactly why it's okay to invite him to my house," replied Touya, matter of fact.
"Oh Touya, you always have everything calculated, don't you?" Yukito said with a chuckle.
"Haven't you heard the saying keep your friends close and your enemies closer?" said Touya with an evil cackle.
"So said Sun Tzu," replied Yukito, pale lashes lowered. " 'It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.' "
Touya raised an eyebrow. "You were testing me."
"Yes," replied Yukito. He sighed. "Poor Syaoran-kun. He does not know what he has gotten himself into."
A daddy's girl through and through, Sakura enjoyed nothing more than those quiet evenings that she could spend with her father, and vacation was one of the few times when both she and her father had time. Tonight, her father was in his study, already working on material for a new book because the first one had become a nonfiction bestseller (though Sakura suspected her grandfather had pre-ordered two thousand copies and circulated it amongst the Kinhoshi Enterprise staff as a Christmas gift).
"Otou-san, can I help you with anything?" Sakura asked, walking into his study with a cup of tea.
"Oh, it's all right. Syaoran-san here is giving me a hand already," her father replied, not looking up from his computer. There was already a steaming cup of tea by his desk, as well as fresh-baked biscuits.
Sakura glared at Syaoran who stacked up the research books innocently. She rarely even entered the study as not to bother her father—how dare Syaoran, an imposter, act like he was entitled to be in her father's study? Because he was taller, he could reach the top shelves with ease, and her father occasionally asked questions like, "Syaoran-san you check what Champollion said in chapter 7? Ah yes, and can you read me the quotation. Thank you, got it."
Her father never asked her to help him with his research—partially because her English skills were not up to par, and her father had university student assistants to help him out. But what qualifications did Syaoran have? He was not a university student either.
With a long sigh, she wandered back into her bedroom. "Kero-chan, I'll play a game with you," she said. Usually Kero-chan would jump up in excitement, but today, he didn't even look up from the game controller.
Kero-chan, eyes glued to the TV screen, stated, "I don't have time to waste playing with amateurs."
"I need to level up to beat the Brat." Kero-chan let out a wail as he K. and he flung his paw in the air. "You distracted me! Don't you have winter break homework to do?"
"I'm bored," whined Sakura, sulking as she spun around on her desk chair. Tomoyo was in Switzerland, Miho was spending time with her parents, Rika was obviously catching up lost time with Terada-sensei, Kai was apparently in Shanghai, Meilin did not pick up the phone and Eron was in Kyoto with Erika. All her friends were busy. "I'm bored, I'm bored, I'm bored."
With a pout, she wandered into the kitchen, where her brother was rummaging through the cupboard. "Onii-chan, I didn't know you were back already. It's my turn to make dinner tonight."
"Oh it's all right," replied Touya. "Li-kun is showing me the top-secret clam and saffron sauce linguine recipe from La Seine. The head chef guarded it with his life when I worked there."
"Eh?" Sakura said, peeking over towards the kitchen at Syaoran diligently slicing the onions. "Weren't you just helping otou-san out with his book?"
"Oh, I finished much quicker than I anticipated, thanks to Syaoran-san's help," replied Kinomoto Fujitaka, standing up with a pack of dried spaghetti from the bottom cabinet. "Syaoran-san the water is boiling. Should I put the linguine in?"
"Ah, first, the salt and a drop of olive oil," said Syaoran. "Five minutes to cook it al dente."
"Oy, Li-kun, the saffron sauce is simmering—should I add the clams now?" called out Touya.
Sullenly, Sakura asked, "Is there anything I can do?"
"No, we have things under control here," replied her father.
"You can go over there and set the table," said Touya.
Sticking out her tongue at Syaoran back, Sakura stomped to the dining table with the silverware.
Dinner would have been delicious if she was not forced to hear the analysis of the historical accuracy of Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms. If she heard another sentence about Zhang Jiao and the Yellow Turban Rebellion, she though spaghetti would start coming out of her nose.
"So, Syaoran-san, do you agree with speculations that Zhang Jiao indeed was a sorcerer?" asked Fujitaka, slicing a large piece of red velvet cake for Yukito.
"Zhang Jiao followed the teachings of Laozi, and I find it fascinating how Western alchemy has so many correlations with Taoism," replied Syaoran.
"Some worshipped Zhang Jiao and even looked upon him for divine powers," remarked Fujitaka. "He is said to have had extraordinary healing powers."
Syaoran nodded. "Zhang Jiao practiced the Way of Great Peace and the book of Taiping Jing does have many incantations in regards to healing and exorcise evil. There were even incantations to make people live forever."
"Ah, one theme that shares a common correlation in the different forms of alchemy that emerge through all cultures," Fujitaka stated. "You need to come by my office at the university one day, and I will show you some of the Japanese translations of the Sangokushi, and you can tell me how it compares to the original Chinese text."
"Kaijou, stop play with your food," Touya said.
Sakura slurped up her spaghetti loudly and made a face at her brother. Yukito chuckled as he helped himself to the garlic bread dunked in the clam saffron sauce. "This is delicious, Li-kun."
And Sakura silently vowed she would learn that recipe even if it killed her.
The only highlight of the dinner was that Yukito came over. Except today, Yukito did not linger after dinner and chat with Sakura but instead went up to Touya's room after the meal.
"Onii-chan, Yukito-san," Sakura said, knocking on her brother's door, balancing a tray on her right hand. "I brought some tea and cookies."
She opened the door and peeked in. Her brother and Yukito sat cross-legged on the floor, holding a mug of steaming freshly brewed coffee. Across from them sat Syaoran and scattered on the floor was mahjong tiles.
"Oh, Sakura-chan, you should try this red velvet cake that Syaoran-kun baked. It's heavenly," said Yukito, holding up a slice of cake with thick butter-cream frosting.
"I'll set down the tea over here," said Sakura, glaring at Syaoran suspiciously. When had Syaoran been so chummy with Yukito-san and her brother? She glanced over at the fourth player.
Kero-chan took a large bite out of his slice of cake and then threw down a tile. "Pong!"
"Kero-chan!" she exclaimed. After six years of hiding Kero-chan, she could not get over her brother and Kero-chan sitting together in the same room as if they were time-old pals.
"It's said that mahjong originated from the great sage Confucius," stated Kero-chan knowingly, pointing at the tiles. "The three dragon tiles coincide with the three cardinal virtues of Confucius: benevolence, sincerity and filial piety."
"Virtues that none of which you seem to have upheld," muttered Sakura. She never thought she would feel like an imposter in her own home. She made a nasty face at Syaoran, who was too engrossed in the mahjong game to notice, before slamming the door shut. Nobody bothered to look up.
It was difficult to even breathe under the same roof as Li Syaoran. During breaks, Sakura liked to laze around the house doing nothing. It was the third day since Syaoran had started staying at the Kinomoto residence, and he showed no signs of leaving. Sakura realized the only way to avoid him was to eat meals at different times and run errands outside.
"You're up uncharacteristically early," mumbled Kero-chan as Sakura rolled out of bed and pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans.
"Um, yeah, thinking of going to the library and doing some winter break homework," replied Sakura, tying her short hair back with a blue scrunchie.
Kero-chan snorted and rolled back to sleep.
Sakura tiptoed down the staircase to the kitchen. She poured herself a bowl of cereal. It was better to eat cornflakes than sit through a meal of praises of Syaoran's culinary skills. Without sitting, she leaned over the kitchen counter, crunching on the cereal. That wretched Li Syaoran, when was he going to leave? Not only was he freeloading at her house, but he had been completely ignoring her for the past three days, addressing her as "Kinomoto-san," while kissing up to her father, brother and Yukito-san.
"How dare he monopolize Yukito-san and otou-san!" Sakura grumbled, slamming her spoon down.
"Noisy as ever," remarked Syaoran, staring at her with his aggravating bored look, eyes half shut. He was wearing an oversized blue sweatshirt and blue sweatpants, hands in his front pouch, sweat glistening on his forehead.
Sakura jumped. "How long have you been standing there?" she demanded.
"I was just trying to get some water," he replied, walking past her and pouring himself a cup of filtered water.
"Why are you up so early?" It completely defeated the purpose of waking up early.
"I took a jog around the park and did some training," replied Syaoran, downing his cup of water. "As usual."
Sakura opened her mouth and shut it. He was implying that while she was oversleeping, of course he diligently did his morning training routine. As usual. He reached over and took her bowl, taking the dish to the sink. He pulled on the rubber gloves and turned on the faucet.
"You don't have to do the dishes," she said sharply.
"It's all right—I was going to wash this up anyway," he replied, pointing to his glass and some plates gathered in the sink from Kero-chan's midnight snacking.
"Stop trying to be so helpful all the time!" Sakura exclaimed. "This is not your house; you don't have to do stuff like that!"
"What's all this commotion in the morning?" asked Kinomoto Fujitaka.
"Good morning, otou-san," said Sakura.
"Good morning, Kinomoto-sensei," said Syaoran stiffly bowing his head down.
Seeing Syaoran doing the dishes, Fujitaka remarked with a gentle smile, "You're always so helpful around the house, Syaoran-san. You're a guest, you really shouldn't."
"I enjoy cleaning," said Syaoran replied.
"Really? What a coincidence, I do too!" Fujitaka said.
Throwing her empty glass into the sink, Sakura stomped up the stairs.
"I'm not going to get beaten by Li Syaoran," muttered Sakura, sleeves rolled up, mopping the stairwell.
"Weren't you going to the library?" asked Kero-chan, leaving crumbs on the floor as he crunched on a bag of potato chips.
"Kero-chan, stop littering," Sakura snapped. She wiped the sweat off her brows as she scrubbed harder.
Kero-chan, still crunching on his chips, remarked, "The Brat already mopped and scrubbed everything an hour ago. While you were watching TV."
Sakura flung her mop down, yanking off the kerchief tying her head back. "Fine, I lost. I accept defeat. I can't beat him." She scowled and stomped off to the bathroom.
"Wait, Saku—" Kero-chan gaped.
Sakura yanked the bathroom door open, greeted by a mist of steam. As the steam cleared, Syaoran stared at her, hair dripping wet and a towel loosely looped around his waist.
For a second, Sakura's eyes bulged and her face turned tomato red, and she let out a piercing scream. She flung her mop at him and dashed down the stairs.
"Being a noisy ogre as usual," remarked her older brother who lounged on the living room couch, long legs crossed on the coffee table, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. It was convenient having Li Syaoran as a manservant in the house; it meant minimal chores, diversification of the dinner menu and endless entertainment at home.
"Don't you have work?" Sakura demanded, arms akimbo.
"Well, ever since the director discovered I am Kinomoto Fujishinto's grandson, he has been extra nice to me," said Touya, shrugging. "As an apology for the whole sudden dismissal mix-up, I've been granted flexible hours through New Year's."
"I thought first year resident interns never get breaks," said Sakura.
"Exactly," said Touya with a grin. "I'm even getting a holiday bonus."
Sakura scowled. "Don't you have any conscience using your family name like that?"
"Why, don't you want to spend the holidays with your dear brother?" Touya asked with a pout. "You didn't miss having me around? I'm a bit insulted." Besides, did you really think I would leave you alone in the house with the Brat?
Syaoran shuddered as he saw Touya shoot him a malicious glare as he came down the stairs, fully dressed. He quickly hid in the kitchen and began to knead the flour dough.
"What's for lunch?" called out Touya.
"Shrimp dim sum and chicken stir fry," replied Syaoran from the kitchen.
"Make the chicken spicier than last time," said Touya, setting down his cup on the coffee stand. "And do that delicious dipping sauce again."
"Yessir." He proceeded to flour the rolling pin and roll out sheet-thin dumpling skins.
Hands on hips, Sakura stared at her brother. What was this situation? When had Syaoran become so complacent, and what was this attitude of her brother's, as if he had simply accepted Syaoran into the family? "Onii-chan, exactly how long do you plan on keeping him here?" she demanded, not quietly.
"Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Go and help out in the kitchen, and let me read the paper in peace," said Touya, shooing off his younger sister.
Grumbling under her breath, Sakura rummaged through the cupboards for clean silverware, glaring at Syaoran over the cabinet doors. Didn't he have any pride? Why was he submissively doing household chores at her house when he was supposedly the high and mighty Chosen One of the Li Clan?
The family gathered at the table for lunch, which was rare. As usual, the dim sum was succulent and the chicken moist and tangy. It was a taste that she had sometimes craved after she had moved out of Syaoran's apartment. But today, she had no appetite.
"This is delicious, Syaoran-san. What is you secret recipe?" asked her father, biting into a piece of chicken.
"Just the same old chicken," muttered Sakura under her breath. She pushed her food around her plate, letting it grow cold.
"I must admit, your dumplings are better than even otou-san's," Touya stated, popping another dumpling in his mouth, the tender shrimp and scallion filling burst with juice in his mouth.
"What's so special about it?" muttered Sakura. "The Chinese restaurant's down the block is better."
Finally, Syaoran slammed down his spoon and turned to Sakura. "What is your problem?"
"Are you still mad about earlier?" he demanded. "Technically, I was the one who was violated."
"Why don't you lock the door when you're taking a shower?"
"Why don't you knock first?"
"Why don't you use the first floor bathroom that no one uses instead of my bathroom?"
"I'm sorry, your father said I could use it, and it was vacant at that moment," replied Syaoran. "I didn't realize you would come bursting in like that."
"Oh, so now it's my fault? This is my house. I don't see what I have to be cautious in my own house and accommodate you."
"What's with you? If you have a problem with me, say it straight to my face instead of nitpicking at me about some insignificant lack of foresight on my part."
Sakura's left brow twitched. "Insignificant lack of foresight? Is that what it was when you decided to walk into my home?"
"Yes, I guess that's what it was. I didn't mean to get in your way. As I mentioned before, this really was my last option."
"Really? Really, Li Syaoran, you have nowhere else to stay? What are you, a loner with no friends?"
"Yes. I have no friends. I have nowhere to go. Are you satisfied now that you heard that?"
Sakura opened her mouth and closed it. "Why don't you just return home then? To your fancy mansion and servants and precious Li Clan? Instead of floundering like a housekeeper in this house." She was fired up now. "In fact, why don't you just return to Hong Kong, where you're from? We don't want you here in Japan."
"There is a reason I can't." Syaoran abruptly stood up from the table and bowed his head to Fujitaka. "Thank you for your hospitality and having me here. I think I can take the sign when I am not wanted."
He quickly walked out the kitchen to the front door, grabbing his coat.
"Wait, Syaoran-san!" called out Fujitaka.
"Hey, Brat, come back here!" Touya shouted.
The front door slammed shut.
"Kaijou, go and bring him back," said Touya, arms crossed.
"Onii-chan!" Sakura exclaimed in shock. "Why are you taking his side?"
"Sakura-san, I don't know what has gotten into you. I don't think I have raised you to be such an inhospitable person," said Kinomoto Fujitaka.
Her father had never scolded her before, and she could not bear hearing the disappointment in his voice. Her eyes watered. Stamping her feet in frustration, Sakura stomped up to her room, meal unfinished, and slammed the door shut.
Fujitaka's jaw dropped—his dear little Sakura never slammed the door on him before.
Touya shook his head and said to his father, "Adolescence. Kaijou's just going through a rebellious stage."
"Ah, I see." And Fujitaka looked a bit cheered up as he cleared the dishes.
Sakura slumped down on her bed, head buried in her blankets.
Kero-chan, who had heard the argument downstairs, floated towards his mistress. "You were doing okay—why did you lose your temper like that? It's not like you."
"I don't know," Sakura replied, voice muffled in her arms. Why had she thrown a tantrum like that, especially in front of her brother and father?
"You weren't jealous of all the attention the Brat was getting?"
"No, that's not it."
"You've been acting weird since the bathroom incident earlier," Kero-chan said, flying out of the room to leave his mistress alone. "It's not a big deal you know that you walked in on him, considering that you've lived in a house of all men all your life."
Little did Kero-chan know that he had struck the exact chord. It was a big deal. It shouldn't be, but it was. And Sakura felt furious at herself for getting bothered by it. Lying face up on her bed, Sakura thought guiltily that Syaoran had run out with wet hair in the cold.
"Well, it's not my problem what he does!" she stated out loud.
Late afternoon, a cranky Sakura came out of her room. Her stomach rumbled because she had not eaten much of her lunch. Her brother was packing some leftover food to take to Yukito.
"Are you going back to the hospital?" asked Sakura.
"Yeah," Touya replied, putting the bento and thermos into a shopping bag.
"Where is otou-san?"
"Did you forget? He has a book signing event in Yokohama."
Sakura realized with a pang that she had not been able to see her father off with a smile, and he hadn't even come by to say that he was going to leave. Reluctantly, she looked up at her brother. "And Li-kun…"
"I don't know. I haven't seen him around," replied Touya with a shrug. He pulled on his coat and Sakura held the shopping bag for him, slipping in a carton of cookies. He turned to his younger sister. "You probably already know how I feel about the Brat. He has never been in my book of favorite people. But he's speaking the truth when he said he has nowhere to go. Why else do you think I out of all people took him in?"
"Onii-chan…" She watched her brother leave. Once she heard the ignition outside and Touya pull the car out of the driveway, she collapsed on the floor, hugging her knees.
Kero-chan hovered by her. "Why don't you go look for him?"
"No." Sakura stared down at the floor. "If he wants to, he can come back. But I'm not going to find him."
"You know with his pride, he would never come back on his own," Kero-chan remarked to his mistress.
"Then he doesn't have to come back. I'm not going to him. And that's that."
But afterwards, Sakura was not able to concentrate on anything. She turned on the TV and turned it up. She went to the kitchen and began cooking ramen until the noodle bloated into a soggy mess. She watered the plants and then realized they had already been watered by Syaoran. And she gazed out the window as the sun began to set. A flurry of snow drifted down from the gray sky. "He hates the cold." Where was he? Why hadn't he come back already? Had something happened to him? What her brother had said… was it really true? It hadn't occurred to her before. Did he have no other place to go?
Though he had left in his temper, running down the street full speed, Syaoran soon realized he had nowhere to go. He slowed his pace. It was true. He had no friends, no place to return to. There was nobody who would accept a traitor like him, a traitor to both his family and friends. Syaoran drew his jacket closer around him. He was only wearing a thin cotton shirt underneath, and his damp hair clung to his forehead. Shivering, he pulled the jacket hood over his head. Slowly, he passed through downtown. The Christmas decorations were coming down and the unlit pine tree, standing tall and stately, seemed bare and lonely. His stomach rumbled. He had no money on him, and he swallowed hard as he watched a family of four at the burger chain through the window. A young boy, munching on French fries, reached over and wiped his younger sister's ketchup smeared mouth with a napkin.
They were a picture-perfect family. Like the Kinomotos. Up till now, he had thought of Touya as a grouchy interference in his life and Kinomoto-sensei as an amazingly intelligent professor that he admired. But over the past few days, observing the Kinomoto family had been an eye-opening experience for him. He didn't know that a family gathered together at breakfast and told each other their plans for the day every morning and said "thank you for the meal" after each meal, did chores side by side, and never forgot to say "good morning" "good night" and "thank you." He realized how Sakura had grown up to become such a sunny, kindhearted person. Back in Hong Kong, he had often been in a separate schedule from his mother and sisters. He had eaten breakfast, served by servants, alone. Dinners had often been formal affairs with large gatherings of relatives at the Main House. His Hong Kong house was so large, he could spend a week without seeing his sisters or mother. Things were a little different when he was younger, but ever since he became the Chosen One, he had grown more and more isolated from his family and everybody kept a distance from him with the exception of Meilin, and he had pushed her away.
For a while, it had been fun pretending that he too could be a part of Sakura's world, that lifestyle, where he was a member of the "family," not the designated heir, not the Chosen One, not the tool of the Clan.
It began snowing, but Syaoran was too weary to care. His skull pounded, and he leaned against a lamppost. Nowhere to go. No one to return to. Somehow, he stumbled towards King Penguin Park and took a seat on one of the swing sets. Children who had been playing in the park eventually cleared out as their mothers came to pick them up as the snow thickened. Sneezing, he stuffed his bare hands into his pocket. Tick tock tick tock. His watch was the only part of him that seemed to be moving.
"Seems like my battery has run down," he murmured, pressing his throbbing head against the cool metal chain of the swings. He had forgotten how much he hated the cold. Because my brain becomes numb. And I start imagining strange things. Why did I come to Japan in the first place?
He looked up. Through the flurry of snow, he could make the outline of a girl in a white jacket with eyes as green as a summer field.
Now I am really delusional…
"What are you doing here?" demanded Sakura, cheeks rosy from the cold, panting. "Are you an idiot?"
Syaoran blinked through the snow. "Why?"
"What are you doing here with snow piled on you? How uncool." She instinctively reached out to brush the powdery snow off his hair. All the anger that she had pent up melted away as she realized his hair had been frozen solid because he had not dried before going out. His lips were purplish, and he was shivering uncontrollably. "Do you know how much I had to look for you?"
"Why were you looking for me?" Syaoran asked sullenly.
"Because it started snowing, and you hate the cold, and you have no place to go, right?" Sakura stated. "You're such an exasperating person."
He looked up at her, swaying slightly back and forth on the swing. "You're right," said Syaoran.
"What?" Sakura blinked.
"I said, you're right. About everything." Syaoran paused. "It's my fault. I wasn't thinking clearly when I showed up at your house. I overstepped by boundaries."
Startled, Sakura gazed at Syaoran, frowning, wondering if Syaoran was really Syaoran. He never admitted that he was wrong. "So really, why did you run away from home?"
As expected, Syaoran hesitated. Unexpectedly, he stammered under his breath, "Leiyun… I had a… disagreement with him."
She had suspected as much. "Do you remember, that one night when you told me about your cousin Leiyun-san?"
"Not really," he mumbled.
Maybe he didn't, but she could never forget the look in his eyes that one thunderous night. It was the first time she had felt such a deep connection with anybody. But as it turned out, it had all been in her head. "You told me about your cousin for the first time. I was really grateful that you opened up to me. That night, I said to you that I always wanted to be a good friend to you, someone that you trust enough to share your problems and worries at any time. Despite all that has happened, I still hold up that offer."
Syaoran gazed up at her with a strange expression, like his best friend had died.
Ears red, Sakura continued, looking at the floor, "I'm sorry I said those harsh things to you earlier. I admit, I was really surprised to find you show up at my front door, but the Kinomoto doors are always open to those who need a place to stay."
"Even for the likes of me?"
Sakura looked at her feet. "I mean, I am in your debt since I was under your care last summer when my father and brother were away, and I just want to pay back that debt."
"I see. A debt." A rueful crooked smile came over his lips. Kinomoto Sakura was always a fair person.
Clearing her throat, getting more embarrassed by the moment, she continued, "That's why, I wouldn't mind if you come back to the house. It's a big enough house, and otou-san always taught me to be hospitable to a guest, and at this point, I don't really care about your circumstance. Whether you ran away or whatever. You don't have to talk about it. In fact, I think it's better if we don't talk about it. When you are ready to make up with Leiyun-san, then you can go back."
Syaoran stared down at his feet. "Leiyun… is the one person I would do anything for… Because…"
"I know about you and Leiyun-san. I know how important he was to you." How could she not remember that pained moonlit amber eyes when Syaoran spoke of the cousin that he had admired so much, the cousin who had met his untimely death in a mission, the cousin that had inspired Syaoran to become the Chosen One? Her voice was very soft as she continued, "So, that's why when I heard he had come back, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't ask you to come back to my side, because it wasn't anybody else. It was Leiyun-san."
Syaoran looked up at her, startled. "I can't go back yet. Because I don't have the power to fight him." He clenched his right fist into a ball. "I need to become stronger, and until then, I cannot stand up to him."
She was surprised by the sudden fervent fire in his eyes.
"He asked me to do the one thing that I could not do," continued Syaoran, having difficulty finding the right words to say. "He—"
"It's all right," Sakura interrupted. What was she so afraid of hearing? "It's all right, you don't have to force yourself to tell me about your situation at home. Honestly, it isn't any of my business anyway." She spun around. "Come on, let's go home. It's getting dark.
Syaoran stood up from the swing, to follow her. Suddenly, collided into her back, head rested against her shoulder. "W-what are you doing?" she squeaked. She spun around, pushing him away abruptly.
"What?" She then realized his face was uncharacteristically flushed.
Suddenly, Sakura reached over and felt Syaoran's forehead. She felt her forehead and then his again. He was burning up. "Are you all right? You have a fever."
"Now that I think of if, my throat's been feeling a bit funny," replied Syaoran in a hoarse voice.
Sakura wanted to smack herself in the forehead. Just because she hadn't heard Syaoran's voice in over half a year didn't mean she would forget what is sounded like. It was scratchy, like he was having trouble breathing. And he had been sneezing and sniffling a lot over the past couple days. Because she was annoyed with him, she just passed it off as him being his grumpy, winter-hating self. "How long have you been like this?" she demanded. Perhaps he had been sick since he first came to the house. And sitting outside in the cold did not help the situation and was probably the last trigger.
Syaoran blinked slowly. He had a pounding headache for days now, ever since falling asleep on the park bench that one night, but he had figured it was because of sleep deprivation among other things. It had improved while staying at Sakura's place with a warm blanket and hot food. Now, he had difficulty swallowing and a stuffy nose.
"Are you a real idiot?" demanded Sakura. "Why didn't you say something if you were coming down with the flu?"
Syaoran shook his head.
Of course. Li Syaoran was not the type of person who would fuss over a flu. In fact, out of all the years of knowing him, Sakura had seen him get sick maybe twice or thrice, and the only thing that really would keep him in bed would be a burning fever that immobilized him. Otherwise, he would be up and about, moving around till he collapsed.
"You should be lying down," said Sakura.
"Hmmm?" Syaoran's eyes were bloodshot and glazed.
"Come on, we should get going home soon," Sakura said, wrapping her scarf around Syaoran's neck and pulling him closer to her. "You can lean on me."
Because he was sick, he did not even protest. It was not an easy feat getting a boy of Syaoran's stature home. But Sakura was no ordinary girl—she was an ogre with superhuman powers that manifested with her stubborn will. By the time they reached home, Syaoran was half slumped over her shoulders, but she did not buckle under his weight.
"Can you make it up the stairs?" Sakura asked.
With the help of Kero-chan in his full form, they dragged Syaoran upstairs and Cerberus dumped him on Sakura's bed.
"What's wrong with the boy?" asked Kero-chan.
"I don't know," replied Sakura. "Should I call the hospital? He has a fever, and he may have been sick for days and I didn't even notice. I even made him sit outside in the show for hours, and it probably made him sicker. What should I do?"
"Stay calm," said Kero-chan. "If you take him to the hospital, they might call his legal guardians, and though I'm not sure of the boy's circumstances, it might bring trouble. It might just be a little flu, and if it gets more serious, we can call your brother."
"You're right," said Sakura, taking a deep breath. "Thermometer. I should take his temperature first."
"You better get him changed," said Kero-chan. "His shirt is sweat-soaked."
"You're right." Sakura found her father's thickest flannel pajamas. She then helped Syaoran up. "Li-kun, you should change into this." She pressed the pajamas into his hands. "All right?"
Syaoran nodded. Sakura stepped outside her room, running downstairs to boil a kettle of water and find a thermometer. Kero-chan was put in charge of gathering pills from the medicine cabinet (since he had actually acquired quite some medical knowledge in his summer in England with Yukito and Touya during their studies in Oxford). When she came back upstairs, she knocked on her bedroom door. "Are you finished changing?" There was no response. Timidly, she opened the door. Syaoran was collapsed over her bed. His sweat-soaked shirt was only half unbuttoned. "Li-kun!" she called out.
He merely groaned. "Syaoran, what's wrong?" she demanded, shaking him. She had turned up the heat in the room, but he was shivering.
"Kero-chan!" she called out. But Kero-chan was still downstairs and couldn't hear her.
First, I need to get him changed. This was no time to be bashful. Sakura proceeded to unbutton Syaoran's shirt. A dull blush tinted her cheeks as she wrestled to peel off the shirt. There were scars and faded bruises on his back and chest that she had never seen before. He was a trained fighter, and it was normal for him to get bruised. She gently traced a purplish bruise across his ribcage that she didn't notice earlier because of the steam. His chiseled muscles were hard. Everything about him was hard, his limbs, the lines on his brows, the tone of his voice. It seemed like he had lost all his boyish features over the past year and was replaced by this tall stranger lying on her bed. It was easier thinking of him as a stranger. She propped him up with great difficulty and pulled him into the pajama top, arm by arm. Panting, she buttoned him up and then helped him lie back down on her bed. She was relieved to find that at least he had changed his pants before he decided to pass out.
"We have to take your temperature," she said. It was reassuring to talk aloud. "Can you open your mouth?"
He was surprising complacent, or perhaps he was too weak to argue. When she took the thermometer out his mouth, she gasped. "He's 41 degrees."
Kero-chan, finally back with medicine, frowned. "We've got to bring down his fever or else it'll get dangerous. First, give him these pills."
Sakura poured a glass of lukewarm water from the pitcher. "Syaoran, you've got to take some medicine. Can you swallow these?" She held out two white pills. "Hey, Syaoran, wake up."
Syaoran opened his eyes groggily.
"You've got to take some medicine."
Kero-chan said, "You might have to try mouth-to-mouth."
Sakura choked. "Excuse me?"
"To feed him medicine. You should do it mouth-to-mouth," replied Kero-chan. "That's what they do in movies."
"Kero-chan!" exclaimed Sakura, turning red. Then she stared at Syaoran, moaning slightly as he shifted in his bed, face pallid, and then at the pills.
"Well, if you won't do it, I'll do it," said Kero-chan, self-sacrificially.
With a frown, Syaoran mumbled even in his feverish state, "Don't you dare." He tried to sit up.
Sakura helped prop up his head on the pillow and then placed a pill in his mouth. She brought a glass of water to his lips and he obediently swallowed. His lids were heavy.
"Good job," she said, place a cold towel on his head. "Now, lie down and rest."
Sakura let out a sigh as she went to the kitchen to boil some more hot water. The phone rang, and Sakura ran to pick it up. It was her father. "Otou-san!"
"Sakura-san, sorry I wasn't able to call earlier. It seems like I'll be stuck in Yokohama overnight because of the snow. I'll drive back early in the morning if the snow lets down. Are you going to be all right by yourself?"
"Yes, I'll be all right. Just drive safely tomorrow." Sakura bit her lower lips. "Otou-san…"
"Is anything wrong?" asked her father.
"Li-kun seems to have come down with a fever," said Sakura.
"Has he taken medicine? They're in the blue container in the medicine cabinet."
"I've given him two pills, and he's sleeping right now," replied Sakura. "I covered him with three blankets, and I'm give him lots of water. Do you think I need to take him to the hospital?"
"It seems like you've done a good job," Fujitaka said. "Just keep an eye on his temperature and make sure it doesn't rise higher over the next hour or two. If it does, call your brother."
"Are you going to be all right on your own?" asked Fujitaka. "I can try to catch the train back."
"I'll be all right." Sakura swallowed hard. "And about earlier today… I'm sorry otou-san."
"Did you apologize to Syaoran-san as well?"
"That's my Sakura."
Somehow, hearing her father's voice energized her, and she no longer second-guessed herself. It was her first time taking care of someone with a flu on her own, if that's what it was, but she could recall the countless times her brother and father had nursed her back to health when she had a fever. Kero-chan had long since passed out downstairs.
Throughout the night, Sakura was careful to keep Syaoran hydrated.
At one point as she wet his lips with lukewarm water, he croaked. "Thank you."
When she took his temperature again, she realized it had gone up again. In frustration, she pulled out the Heal Card. Surely this could bring down a fever at least. And even in his hallucinating self, Syaoran reached out and pressed his hand over hers and shook his head. "No, don't do it."
"Just to let down your fever a little. I can control my powers better now," said Sakura. "I won't do anything more."
Again, Syaoran shook his head. "This is something I can recover from on my own. Don't waste your powers on the likes of me."
Syaoran had always been adverse to her using the Heal from the very beginning. Why was it? But he had been right. She had overused her powers to seal the Plague and had caused everyone a lot of trouble. She knew that he had been angry at her for abusing the Heal. Soon afterwards, Syaoran had left. Back then, she had so many questions to ask him. Now, her memories from that time were hazy. With a long sigh, Sakura put the card away.
The Li Syaoran she knew was not supposed to get sick. He was always haughty and sturdy; he scorned weakness and was invincible. She stood up. She had to go boil some more water. Too bad she didn't have the Fiery Card with her.
A hand reached out and grabbed her wrist. "Don't leave," he said. "Sakura."
Sakura smiled slightly though her heart felt like breaking because only in delirium would he call her name so gently. "What, you're calling me by my name again?"
"Stay. Stay with me." He looked at her with such a boyish, vulnerable look, a look she had never seen on his face before. And yet, the hold on her wrist felt firm like a man's grasp.
Sakura shivered. It finally sank into her that her brother was at the hospital and her father was in Yokohama that the two were alone together through the night till tomorrow morning. Only once before had she seen Syaoran so defenseless, when he had been bedridden because of the Whip. He must be in so much pain if he had reached that state. She knelt down by his side again. I said to you, I always wanted to be a good friend to you, someone that you trust enough to share your problems and worries at any time, that despite all that has happened, I still hold up that offer. Because now, there is nothing else we can be… We aren't allies, we aren't classmates, we aren't strangers…You can't be my most important person… So can we salvage what little we have left?
She pushed away a strand of hair that fell into his eyes, her voice very soft and soothing. "I'm not going anywhere."
In that long night, Sakura had a brief glimpse of how Syaoran had spent the past nine months through his hallucinations. Sometimes, he writhed in bed shouting out loud as if he was in excruciating pain. Cold perspiration glazed his brows, and he sometimes uttered words in Chinese laced with Japanese.
Most often, he murmured, "I won't forget. You can't make me forget."
And he thrashed about in his sleep as if trying to struggle against phantom arms pinning him down. Many times, Sakura wiped the glistening sweat off his brows with a wet towel. When he kicked off a layer of blanket, she pulled them over him again. She eventually found it was more effective sitting on the bed next to him to keep him from throwing off the blankets.
"I won't forget. I won't forget," he continued repeating in his sleep.
And she swept a stray lock of hair that was poking into his eye off his forehead. "What won't you forget, Syaoran?" she asked gently.
"You can't make me forget," he murmured in a broken voice. Sakura realized he was not even talking to her. She carefully dabbed his forehead with a clean towel. He was shivering and burning up at the same time.
Only one time he awoke and looked up at her with strangely clear amber eyes.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, leaning over and feeling his forehead. It was still warm but was not burning like earlier.
He reached out and touched her cheek with trembling hands. "You're here."
"Of course, I'm here," said Sakura softly. He had said something similar once before. "You told me to stay."
"Thank goodness." And his eyes had a far-off look as if he was no longer looking at her. "I could never forget you. Sakura."
Afterwards, he finally fell into a deep, calm sleep and his fever subsided.
The sun was so brilliant, it hurt his eyes. He was shrouded in a soft cocoon of pink sheets and blanket. A nostalgic subtle smell of cherry blossoms was driving him delirious.
"I've brought you some warm honey milk to soothe your throat."
That beautiful, clear voice like daybreak. A voice he had never thought he would hear again. He blinked. A girl in a rose-print pinafore with eyes a vibrant green as sparkling peridots, with that smile as gentle as the first rays of the sunrise clearing the darkness of the long night. She set a tray with a blue mug down on the nightstand.
No, this was not a dream. He stared down at the pastel flower-print blanket. This room was Sakura's room and this voice was Sakura's voice and this hand was Sakura's hand. After a long night fighting against every demon in his mind, he no longer could tell if he was hallucinating or awake. But even if he could only see her in hallucination, he was content.
"How are you feeling? Your fever is almost down," she said, hand brushing against his forehead.
No. No hallucination could mimic that soft warmth of her touch. He shielded his eyes with the back of his arm. "How could I forget, when every single memory is so engrained in my memory that I cannot even separate fantasy from reality?"
"Hoe?" Sakura tilted her head, wondering if Syaoran was still sleep-talking. She picked up the mug and blew on it to cool it first before handing it to Syaoran. "Drink."
And he softly smiled as he took the mug in both hands. "I remember you made me that back in fifth grade when I caught a cold. It was really good."
"Well, this is going to be even better because I used raw honey that Tomoyo-chan sent from Switzerland," said Sakura, sitting on the edge of the bed to watch him drink.
"You're right. It's really good," said Syaoran, feeling the hoarseness in his throat soothed as the warm, sweet milk slid down his throat.
"You should rest in bed—I'm going to bring you some porridge in a while," Sakura said, taking the empty mug.
"Sakura?" Syaoran looked up at her, amber eyes catching the sunlight seeping through the drawn curtains.
"Hmm…" A sudden tightness formed in her throat upon hearing her name called by him. Perhaps it was a momentary lapse because he was still feverish.
"Thank you." Syaoran stared at his hands. "You stayed with me the whole night?"
"Do you not remember anything from last night?" asked Sakura.
"No," replied Syaoran.
"You were sleep-talking a lot," said Sakura smugly.
Alarmed, Syaoran demanded, "Did I say anything strange?"
"Oh, not particularly," replied Sakura. "You were calling for Kai-kun a lot."
"I did not!" exclaimed Syaoran, turning beet red. Then he frowned. "Did I?"
Sakura grinned. "I'm glad you look better." Then, she blushed. "You should probably let go of that. Tomoyo-chan made it for me, and I don't want it to get squished."
Syaoran looked down and to his horror realized that he had been hugging the Sakura-doll that Tomoyo had made years ago. How did it end up in his arms in the first place?
Not surprisingly, after his fever subsided, Syaoran returned to being the usual Syaoran, and neither of them mentioned that night again. In fact, Sakura was relieved that he returned to being his usual smug, grouchy and confident self. New Year's passed and vacation drew to an end.
Usually, Sakura wanted vacation to last as long as possible, but now, she couldn't wait till winter break ended. At least at school, she wouldn't have to see Li Syaoran. It was not that Syaoran was particularly being a bother. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
"Ha, beat you!" cried out Syaoran, sitting cross-legged on her bedroom floor, game controller in hand.
"You cheated!" exclaimed Kero-chan, flinging down his controller.
"Did not," retorted Syaoran. Because he was still recovering from a cold, he was told to forgo training for a couple days, not clean, not cook, rest and stay indoors. A non-active Syaoran did not know what to do with himself, but Kero-chan quickly took him under his wing.
"Rematch in a different game!" Kero-chan stated.
"We already played these," said Syaoran, flipping through a pile of PlayStation games on the floor.
Sakura sat on her bed, browsing through a magazine while munching on a bag of potato chips. "Why don't you go play in the living room?" she said, yawning and scratching her ankle with her big toenail.
"You go," said Kero-chan, fired up from three consecutive losses.
"It's my room," replied Sakura.
"Hey, where's the games?" asked Syaoran.
"Look in the box under the bed," said Kero-chan, chugging down a can of coke then warming up his paws.
Syaoran crawled over to the bed and began rummaging. He pushed away Sakura's foot dangling off the end of the bed. When she didn't budge, he took a feather pen rolling on the floor and tickled her. She kicked his hand away with her bare foot, and he took to tickling her more.
"Stop it," she squealed, tucking her legs under her. She shook her head. This definitely wasn't normal. What was Syaoran doing on the floor of her bedroom, playing videogames with Kero-chan? Perhaps Kero-chan and her brother were okay with it, but she would never be able to tell this to the other members of the Alliance of the Stars. After all, Li Syaoran was the one who had stolen the Sakura Cards.
And Syaoran had successfully drawn out a pale green-papered box from under the bed. He brushed the dust off and sneezed. "Someone needs to clean under her bed," he remarked as he lifted up the box lid.
Belatedly, Sakura realized exactly what box Syaoran had retrieved from under her bed. "No, not that box!" she exclaimed, leaping over from her bed, crashing down on the floor, half flattening the box. "What's wrong with you, taking stuff from under people's beds without permission?"
"Ouch, what's wrong with you?" Syaoran said, crawling out from under Sakura. "Geez, I'm starting to understand why your brother named you 'kaijou.'"
"Ugh, this is my room—why can't I have some peace and quiet on my vacation?" demanded Sakura, crouching over the box with her whole body.
"Sheesh, I get it. Just let go of my hand," said Syaoran, his right hand crushed by Sakura's stomach.
As Sakura released her hold of her box enough for Syaoran to take out his hand, he suddenly yanked open the lid.
"No!" Sakura exclaimed, slamming her whole body weight over the box, shutting it again.
"Oww—my right arm!" cried out Syaoran, his arm twisted as Sakura tried to pry it away. "What's wrong with you? What's so precious that you're hiding in the box?"
"It's none of your business!" said Sakura.
"I wasn't really planning on looking," Syaoran stated. "But you're acting so strange, now I'm curious."
With the hand that was crushed under Sakura's stomach, he rotated it around and grabbed her around her waist.
"Noooo!!!" screeched Sakura as Syaoran lifted her up with one arm and flung her on the bed. She hooked one foot around his leg, so that he lost his balance.
The bedroom door swung wide open. A violet-haired girl in an Alpine milkmaid apparel, videocamera in hand, burst into the room. "Sakura-chan, I'm back!"
For a second, Daidouji Tomoyo blinked at the sight of her beloved Sakura straddling a brunette male atop her bed. "Sorry, the front door was open so… Please continue." She turned around rapidly and out the door, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. "My Sakura-chan has all grown up."
"No, wait, Tomoyo-chan!" Sakura exclaimed, knocking over Syaoran. She slipped on the floor before balancing herself by the doorway, ready to fling her arms around her best friend. "Thank goodness you're back."
"I'm glad to be back too, Sakura-chan," Tomoyo said, patting her best friend's head. Clearing her throat, she glanced towards the brunette boy who picked himself up off the floor. So it was Syaoran, after all. "Hello, Syaoran-kun. It's been a while."
"Hello," said Syaoran stiffly.
Tomoyo gazed at him with penetrating amethyst eyes before diverting all her attention back to her darling Sakura-chan again. "I got you the most darling Alps no Shoujo Heidi mountain girl outfit and adorable wood clogs, and I brought back chocolate for Kero-chan and learned how to yodel—and I must show you all the amazing fabric I bought in Europe and all sorts or ribbons and lace galore. Next time, you're coming with me. There's so much to see in Europe, and so many places I want to videotape Sakura-chan in. Sakura-chan in the Alpine hills. Sakura-chan in Paris. Sakura-chan in Rome—I can just imagine it."
"Oh, I missed you so much, Tomoyo-chan!" Sakura sighed in happiness. Then she turned and glared at Syaoran again.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to look or anything," said Syaoran, kicking the box under the bed again and leaving the bedroom.
"I'll keep an eye on him, Sakura-chan," said Kero-chan, munching on the chips, a bemused spectator of all that had happened.
Daidouji Tomoyo's work room would be enviable to any couture house in Paris or Milano, filled with yards and yards of fabric of all different hues and texture.
"Look at this lovely gold-print brocatelle from Florence," Tomoyo said, drawing out a roll of fabric and holding it up to Sakura. "And this gorgeous violet voile from Amriswil—I'm going to make a fairylike midsummer night's ball gown with it. And this cream-color cambric lace from Nice to trim the skirt."
Sakura simply let Tomoyo prance around the room, twirling around in ribbons and lace, videotape in hand, squealing and yodeling in her own happy wonderland after a fortnight of Sakura-withdrawal.
"I'm so glad you're finally back, Tomoyo-chan. Can I sleep over tonight?" asked Sakura.
"What about Syaoran-kun?" Tomoyo asked, coming to a sudden halt.
"He's doing perfectly well, without me," grumbled Sakura, popping a Swiss chocolate champagne truffle in her mouth.
Tomoyo picked up a truffle. "Eron-kun is still in Kyoto?"
"Yeah," replied Sakura, greedily stuffing her mouth with two more truffles. "I think he's coming back tomorrow."
"So, how is it with Syaoran-kun staying at your house?" Tomoyo carefully trimmed out three yards of Chantilly lace, watching Sakura's expression out of the corner of her eyes. "Is it very awkward?"
"Actually, the rest of my family is getting along so well with him that it's sort of disturbing," remarked Sakura.
Tomoyo chuckled. "What do you mean by that?"
"My father has already adopted him as a third son (second son is Yukito-san of course). When they get lost in their own world talking about the Valley of the Kings of West Nile or something, my brother and I can't even penetrate their wall of obtuse erudite discourse," said Sakura.
"That's how they talk," said Sakura with a shudder. "Sometimes, they switch to Chinese—not even modern day Mandarin (Syaoran speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese) but ancient Chinese of the courts that nobody speaks anymore, and then otou-san gets Syaoran to transliterate some ancient texts he has from the Qin Dynasty and asks him about his interpretations of the implications of the text. It's quite a nightmare, actually."
Tomoyo smiled. "Syaoran-kun always used to be fascinated by archeology, even back in elementary school. What is Kero-chan's reaction?"
"Kero-chan actually refers to Syaoran by his name now, and it's sort of unsettling," said Sakura. "Did you know that Syaoran is actually amazing at videogames? He said, 'I've never played videogames before' and then picked up the controller, fiddled with it for five minutes, and then proceeded to blast through the game till master level, with the most difficult settings, unlocking all the secret weapons. Kero-chan was thrilled to have an opponent since I never play with him and also get beaten very easily— Kero-chan hasn't been this excited since the last time Kai-kun came over. I can't even go to my own room anymore because they think I'm a nuisance to their game-play."
Smothering a chuckle, Tomoyo said, "Well, isn't it a relief that Kero-chan and Syaoran-kun are getting along?"
"No, it's abnormal, like a cat and mouse getting along. And then, if that isn't annoying enough, I came home the other day and found onii-chan and Syaoran cooking together. Onii-chan and Syaoran! Can you imagine that?" Sakura shuddered again. "Wearing matching teddy bear aprons. (Of course, those are the only aprons we have because I burnt the green one last time I was baking and both are too vain to get their clothes dirty). And not only that, I had the perhaps best crab croquette and bacon carbonara pasta I have ever tasted. You would think an ogre and a beast would come up with some monstrous concoction, but no they created a heavenly taste that melts in your mouth like the 'melding of cloud and cream,' quoting Yukito-san."
"Ah, who ever thought your brother and Syaoran-kun would ever get along so well," remarked Tomoyo, straight-faced. Actually, the two were so similar, she was not very surprised that when Touya gave Syaoran a chance, they would get along extremely well. It was also not surprising that their personalities clashed because they were so similar.
"Seriously. The other day, onii-chan took Syaoran to the park for a game of soccer. According to 'nii-chan, the Kinhoshi Intramural intern team was short of one player since they were playing against the doctors, and they only took Syaoran because he was an MVP soccer player, but still... Onii-chan and Syaoran playing soccer together on the same team? And I heard from Yukito-san that Syaoran made a marvelous pass which onii-chan then kicked into the goal, letting their team win 3 to 2 against the doctors' teams. They were called the 'Golden Toyaoran Team' because of their fantastic team play. So, the doctors had to take out all the resident interns for dinner. And Syaoran went with them and was made an honorary member of the Kinhoshi Hospital Intramural Soccer League—Syaoran used to volunteer at Kinhoshi, and they all know his cousin, Dr. Li Jingmei, so they already think him as part of the family, it seems, and offered him a job on the spot after he graduated from med school, if he plans on attending med school, which he isn't, I think. Not only that, onii-chan and Syaoran high-fived after the goal, which I thought was a lie, but here is an evidential photo taken by Yukito-san. Hoe-ee… What is happening to the world?"
And Tomoyo laughed so hard later on that night after Sakura fell asleep that stitches formed in her stomach and her maids thought their eccentric young mistress finally had gone over to the other side. Or was just was really ecstatic to be back home with Sakura-ojou-sama.
Sakura had grown accustomed to coming home to an empty house, turning on the lights, switching on the heat. It was a strange to come home to a warmly heated house with the porch light on, the house filled with a sweet scent of cinnamon and apple tea brewing in the kitchen and fresh laundry, straight out of the dryer. She momentarily felt a pang of guilt for leaving Syaoran alone in the house.
"I'm back," she said timidly, wondering if Syaoran was around.
"Did you have a good time?" asked Syaoran, who was neatly folding up laundry in the living room.
This sort of simple, everyday conversation was very strange to Sakura after all that had happened in the past year. "Tomoyo-chan's scarily obsessed over a new project. I think the Alpine air excited her too much."
"That's the same old Tomoyo," said Syaoran with a slight chuckle.
A pang of annoyance hit Sakura that Syaoran said Tomoyo's name so easily. "Here's a box of Swiss chocolate that Tomoyo brought back."
"Kero-chan would be excited," Syaoran remarked as he finished stacking up the towels then picked up a piece of white fabric.
"You don't need to do stuff like that—you're not a housekeeper," said Sakura, snatching away her underwear, cheeks pink.
"I like to be useful," Syaoran said, matter of fact. In fact, the house was spotless and even the windowpanes were gleaming. "What are you so embarrassed about? We did laundry together before."
"It's different," said Sakura stuffing her clothes into the laundry basket rapidly. Why was it different now? Because this was her house? Because they were a year older?
"It's the same old underwear from last year, anyway," muttered Syaoran under his breath.
"By the way, Tomoyo-chan wanted me to give you this," Sakura said, rolling in a large trunk through the doorway.
"What is it?" asked Syaoran.
"She heard you don't have clothes, so she picked out some clothes she had made for you."
"Are they… wearable stuff?" Syaoran peeked into the bag.
"Yeah, I weeded out the more… eccentric items," replied Sakura.
"Really?" asked Syaoran, holding up a bunny-eared hoodie.
"What, I thought, it was cute," remarked Sakura.
"You wear it," said Syaoran, tossing it at her.
"I already have one," replied Sakura, nose in the air. Then she grinned mischievously. "Try it on!"
"I don't want to!" exclaimed Syaoran as Sakura unzipped the hoodie and pulled it over Syaoran's shoulders.
"Get away from me!"
Heedless to his protests, Sakura zipped Syaoran up and pulled the hood over his head. The bunny ears flopped over his head. She giggled. "How adorable!"
Instead of struggling, Syaoran relaxed into the hoodie, bunny ears and all, and slipped his hands into his pocket.
"You're remarkably complacent after all that fuss," Sakura remarked, stifling a giggle.
"Well, it's warm and soft," said Syaoran, sinking back into the couch. And he was glad to not have to borrow clothes from Touya anymore.
"Just admit it, you like it don't you?" said Sakura, snapping a photo with her cellphone to send to Tomoyo.
"What are you two wearing?" Touya demanded as he came home to two white bunnies sitting on the living room couch, munching on a bowl of popcorn and watching evening anime together.
"Oh, I was showing Li-kun how much my bunny sweater that Tomoyo-chan made me comes with a little tail in the back," replied Sakura. "And matching mittens as well.
At least she was still addressing him as Li-kun. Touya raised an eyebrow. "And you?"
Syaoran looked up, crunching on the chips, looking ridiculous with the fluffy white hoodie with floppy bunny ears. Next to him was a stack of laundry, still half unfolded.
"Kaijou is not a good influence on you at all. You've become as lethargic as her," said Touya, shaking his head.
"Not fair! Why is everything always my fault?" demanded Sakura, sinking her hood over her eyes as she sulked.
Touya patted her head. "You should do some winter break homework instead of crying on the last day when you haven't done anything." He walked upstairs, chuckling to himself at the sight of Syaoran wearing that ridiculous thing, then frowning at the realization that it was matching with his sister's, and wondered if he could get Tomoyo to make one of those hoodies for Yukito.
After Touya was out of earshot, Syaoran remarked, "I swear your brother is the most complicated character ever." He put on his Touya imitation, first scowling "grr", then chuckling to himself "he he he," then growling "hu-umph…" then finally having a revelation, "ah!"
Sakura clutched her stomach and burst out laughing as all the expressions were spot-on. "You're getting good at your impressions of onii-chan."
"Happens when he's breathing down your back 24/7," Syaoran remarked.
"Kids, I heard that!" growled Touya from upstairs.
Standing in front of the full-length mirror, Sakura pulled on a soft lavender cashmere cardigan over a white layered miniskirt and white knee socks with lavender lace trim. She was rather pleased with her reflection; she had gained back all the weight she had lost since last year, and her skin had a rosy, healthy glow. As a final touch, she dabbed strawberry lip-gloss on her lips.
Syaoran eyed her strangely as she came out of her room. "You're wearing that out?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"What?" said Sakura self-consciously, hand flying to her lavender headband. What did that tone imply? Did she look weird?
"Just," Syaoran said. "It's really cold outside, you know."
"It's not that bad—I checked the weather forecast this morning," said Sakura.
"It's supposed to snow this evening," said Syaoran. "You should wear something warmer if you don't want to catch a cold."
"Since when did you care about what I wear?" demanded Sakura. "And you should take better care of yourself before concerning yourself with other people's wardrobe choices."
Syaoran grumbled to himself, "Was she always this contradictory?"
"Try living with her," Kero-chan responded, poking his head out of the cheesecake (that Syaoran made) that he had been devouring. "She's pigheaded and stubborn as a mule."
"Anyhow, I'm leaving," said Sakura, arms akimbo and with a frown. Was it possible that Syaoran had noticed she was going out to meet Eron?
"No you're not." Syaoran dragged Sakura backed into her bedroom and then rummaged through her closet.
"What do you think you're doing, going through my stuff?" demanded Sakura.
"Trust me, I have four sisters," he replied, his voice muffled behind her clothes.
Even in her indignation, she was mildly amused to watch her messy wardrobe fall into order as Syaoran filed through it. Absentmindedly, he color-ordered her shirts and skirts, refolded her sweaters and straightened the jackets that were falling of their hangers. Finally he drew out a long brown skirt and a putrid orange sweater. "Here, wear this. This will keep you warm," he said, satisfied that he had somehow drawn out the most outdated and dowdy outfit possible from Sakura's closet.
"You're the one with cryophobia," Sakura grumbled to herself, but to his relief, she took the outfit.
"An abnormal and persistent fear of the cold," replied Sakura, green eyes glinting with mild bemusement at employing a term she had learned from her brother.
To Syaoran's relief, Sakura did not protest any more and took the clothes and gently pushed him out of her bedroom and shut the door. What was he doing? He buried his head in his forehead. Perhaps he was still feverish.
"There, satisfied?" Sakura asked, coming out of her room minutes later.
The wool skirt fell almost to her ankles and the orange sweater, as he had expected, was oversized. But contrary to his expectations, the warm hues of the outfit brought out the golden hues of her hair and the glow of her skin, and her eyes seemed brighter and greener in contrast. And the soft fabric and the scooped neck of the sweater revealed her collarbones, her silver chain glimmering at her nape of her neck, and gave her a diminutive feminine air that he had never noticed before.
How could he tell her that she looked radiant even in a ratty granny sweater? "It'll do," he said stiffly, plunking a brown wool hat on her head and handing her a long wool coat. "Don't stay out too late."
"Yes, 'nii-chan," replied Sakura, rolling her eyes. It was like having a second Kinomoto Touya at home. But for some reason, it didn't feel bad to have Syaoran being nosy and demanding and silly for a change.
"Syaoran's been acting so weird lately," Sakura muttered to herself as she walked down the street, hands buried in her wool coat. "Maybe he's not over his fever yet." So much for the cute outfit that she had planned for the date. But at least she was warm. And there he was, the slender boy with the long violet-blue hair pulled back by a white ribbon, wearing a gray wool coat, standing in front of the newly opened Piffle Princess Café. Her boyfriend. What a foreign word. Sakura waved her hand to catch Chang Eron's attention.
Young girls walking by nudged each other and giggled. "Who is that boy? He's so handsome. I wonder if he's a model."
She always had thought Eron had a beautiful side profile, as was apparent when he gazed off into the distance. It made her wonder why she had thought his eyes looked so evil when she first met him. They were not cold and unkind, as she had initially thought them to be, but rather lonely, the eyes of a dreamer. Strangely, she felt more comfortable watching Eron from this distance. "Eron-kun!" she finally called out and caught up to him. "Happy New Year!"
"Happy New Year, Sakura!" he said, face lighting up immediately. "Brr… It's cold out."
"Yeah, let's go in." They entered Piffle Princess Café and took a booth by the window. If Eron thought Sakura's fashion choice of a burnt-orange sweater and an ankle-length skirt was odd, he did not comment. Sakura ordered a butterscotch eggnog milkshake and Eron ordered a peppermint double espresso shot.
"I always wanted to come to this Café," said Sakura folding her menu. The Café was cozy and chic, decorated in pink and white. She realized they were mostly surrounded by couples and shifted uncomfortably on her seat. There were always those prolonged silences where she scrambled to find a conversation with him. Because she was not comfortable in those silences with him. "How was Kyoto?"
"It was amazing—there was so much to see," replied Eron. "But Erika wasn't too fond of all the sightseeing. She liked the onsen and the shopping though—and burned a hole through my wallet. I'm sort of bummed I didn't get to spend Christmas and New Year's with you, but I'm really glad I went."
"Erika's doing better now?" asked Sakura. The photographer Mike Kant and Erika had been dating for a good half year before they had broken up right before Christmas.
"Yeah. I don't know if it's a good thing or bad thing," Eron said. "She was set on finding a handsome Kansai man."
Sakura giggled. "Well, it seems like she's doing better now."
"I brought you back a present," said Eron. He handed her a paper bag. "Sorry—I didn't know what to get you."
"You didn't have to get me anything." Sakura unwrapped the yellow tissue paper and took out a beautiful comb decorated with sakura flowers and beads trailing down. "It's beautiful! Thank you." She stared down at the table. "You are always giving me such nice gifts." And Eron always insisted on paying for dates. "I feel bad. I don't have anything to give Eron-kun. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Hmm…" Eron leaned over on the table, chin on hand. "I like your homemade gifts. Make me something delicious next time."
"Hoe?" Sakura nodded her head determinately. "Okay, leave it to me, Eron-kun. Look forward to next time, I'll bake you something from scratch."
Eron grinned, eyes twinkling. "I'll look forward to it. I had fun in Kyoto, but I like Tomoeda best. Because Sakura-chan is here. But I'd like to go back someday with you."
Sakura blushed. "I would like to go to Kyoto—I've never been there since I was really little."
Their drinks came and Sakura sipped on her milkshake. They shared a peanut butter caramel brownie. Sakura couldn't help thinking that Syaoran's brownie's were moister and richer. He would probably like Piffle Café though. He surprisingly liked cute places like this. Except, she had never gone to places like this with him, places that normal people would go for dates. What was Syaoran up to now, she wondered? He was home alone—her father had a dinner appointment and her brother was working. Syaoran was the type of person who would gladly prepare a lavish meal for somebody else, but when he was alone, he did not cook for himself. Plus, though his fever was down, he was not completely over his cold yet—especially because he had foolhardily played soccer and also began training out in the cold. Had she reminded him to take medicine this morning? He was so stubborn and never took medicine on his own accord, even though he was so good at taking care of others.
"So, how was your holiday?" asked Eron, watching Sakura slurp her milkshake down, lost in wonderland.
"Horrible," replied Sakura shortly.
"Why? Because I wasn't there?" he asked hopefully.
"Umm… I mean, it was all right," Sakura stammered. Until Syaoran came along and turned her world upside down. That Christmas night, when she had seen him at King Penguin Park, had he already left home?
"You're not wearing the ring," Eron remarked, glancing at her bare fingers.
What ring? She glanced at his third finger and realized he was wearing a thick gold ring with an emerald inset. His Christmas present. "Ah, I'm sorry. I forgot."
"It's all right—I know you don't usually wear rings anyway."
"No, I was washing my hand, and took it off…" It sounded like she was making excuses. Because she still had the sapphire ring around her neck. She had not worn the ring once since she had received it. Why? It was a beautiful ring. And she liked jewelry. Necklaces and rings and earrings. But it was a ring. It was as if it was formally binding her to him.
"It's not an engagement ring or anything," said Eron. "I just thought the design was pretty—it matched your eyes. I would have gotten you the necklace version, but I figured you have enough hanging around your neck."
"No, I really love the ring. I'll wear it next time," she insisted. She glanced out the window. The sun had set. The streets looked a little lonely without all the twinkling Christmas decorations.
"What do you want to have for dinner?" Eron asked.
"Actually, I—" Sakura stared down at her glass. "Onii-chan is coming home, so I…"
"It's all right. You rarely get to see your brother. We'll have dinner next time," said Eron.
"Right." Sakura bit her lower lip. Why had she just lied to Eron? But somehow, she couldn't bring herself to tell him that Li Syaoran was a guest/housekeeper at her house at the moment.
"I'll walk you home then."
"It's all right. It's cold out," Sakura said.
"I just want to spend more time with you," replied Eron. "I missed you the entire trip, you know. Didn't you miss me?"
"Of course I missed you," replied Sakura. He had been gone for only two weeks. Was that enough time to miss somebody?
"You're back early," Syaoran said, walking out of the kitchen to greet her.
"Yeah," said Sakura, hanging her bulky coat on the hanger and taking off her cap, feeling very tired even thought it was still quite early in the evening. "You were right. It was really cold out today."
"Did you have dinner yet?"
"No." If he had noticed Eron drop her off, he did not remark.
"Well, it's a good thing I've been making lo mein, isn't it?"
Sakura clapped her hands together. "Is it pork lo mein? It's my favorite!"
"Yup, pork lo mein."
"I'll help." Sakura tied her teddy-bear apron around her waist. Yes, she had never noticed before, because she had no point of comparison. But for the first time, she realized there was just quite nobody she felt as ease with as Syaoran. Whether in battle or when they were just alone together, cooking in the kitchen, her body moved naturally with him. Maybe she was just more used to him. Or maybe… She snuck a look up at him.
She found him gazing at her with an intensity that she had never seen before. She dropped the spatula with a clatter. When she looked up again that look was gone.
Baking had never been Sakura's strong point. Why had she promised to bake Eron a cake? She knew how peculiar he was towards taste and furthermore, he had a sensitive stomach. But a promise was a promise. The kitchen counter gleamed like never before, thanks to Syaoran's cleaning methods. Sakura pulled her hair into two pigtails and then clipped loose strands of her hair with a heart-shaped pin. She tied her teddy bear apron around her waist and rolled up her sleeves. Humming to herself, "Cake, cake, oishii cake," she glanced over at the recipe in her cookbook and measured two cups of flour into her mixing bowl.
"You're supposed to sift the flour first," remarked Syaoran from behind her, leaning against the kitchen counter.
Sakura jumped, almost dropping the eggs. "It won't make a difference," she replied, ears tingling. Did he hear her singing to herself?
"Yes it will—the cake will become lumpy," replied Syaoran.
"Why is it any of your business?" snapped Sakura. "It's not like this cake is for you anyway."
"True. I mean, why should I care if somebody is going to eat a lumpy, disgusting cake?" he retorted.
Cheeks flushed in irritation, Sakura dumped the rest of the ingredients into the bowl and then began whisking it furiously. She heard a sigh from kitchen counter. Pouring her concoction into the cake pan and slamming it into the oven, she turned around and glared at Syaoran. "What now?"
"Nothing," replied Syaoran, pretending to be fascinated by a cooking magazine.
"Well, if you mix a cake that much, it's going to become stiff. And…"
"What?" Her voice was dangerously sharp.
"You didn't pre-heat the oven," replied Syaoran.
"It's all right. I'll just leave the cake in a bit longer," Sakura retorted, cranking up the heat, crimson to her ears. She knew everything—it was just that having Li Syaoran monitor her every move from behind her made her feel nervous and make silly mistakes. "Don't you have anything better to do?"
"No," he replied flat out.
With an exaggerated sigh, Sakura took out the whipping cream from the fridge and the confectionary sugar to begin the icing. Her arm ached from all the whisking—she couldn't find the electric mixer earlier and apparently had too much confidence in her arm muscles.
"The electric mixer is in the fourth drawer," remarked Syaoran.
"How would you know where it is? It's my kitchen," said Sakura. She yanked open the drawer and there it was. She spun around and glared at Syaoran. "You misplaced it on purpose, didn't you?"
"No, it has always been in that drawer," replied Syaoran, engrossed in a pumpkin pie recipe in Fujitaka's cookbook. "If you ever baked, you would know."
Lips pouted, Sakura poured the confectionary sugar into the bowl, which billowed out a puff of sugar. She turned on the electric mixer and brought the whisk to the mixture. There was a loud whirring sound and sugar flew out of the bowl, clouding around her. She coughed and fumbled with the mixer. "How do you turn off this thing?"
Now, the mixer had gotten out of hand, and it took both hands to keep the rattling whisk steady and as it whirred on, cream splattered all over the kitchen counter and walls.
"Silly, did you put it on high?" Syaoran said.
"I don't know!" exclaimed Sakura as a big wad of cream landed on her cheek. "Stop this thing!"
Syaoran rushed towards her and took the mixer from her hands, changing the dial to slow. Calmly, he whisked the cream until it reached a peak and turned off the mixer. He dipped his finger in and licked it. "You poured too much sugar in here, didn't you?"
Sullenly, Sakura replied, "I like sweet things anyway."
He took a peek at her and then stifled a giggle.
"You have cream on your face."
"Where?" Sakura rubbed her cheek with the back of her hand.
"Silly, you smeared it more." Syaoran instinctively reached out and wiped her cheek with his thumb.
Sakura flinched at his touch. "What are you doing?"
"This." Syaoran dabbed the cream on the tip of her nose.
Scowling, Sakura said. "Oh no you didn't." She swiped her finger of the cream on the whisk and smeared it on Syaoran's nose. Then, Sakura's eyes flitted to the can of whipped cream on the counter—she had bought it just in case her homemade cream didn't turn out well. She shook the can.
"You're not going to—"
"Oh yes I am." Sakura shot off the cream square into his mouth.
He sputtered as he dipped his hand inside the mixing bowl.
"Not my icing!" she exclaimed as he flung the white cream at her.
He glanced at her guiltily, as she wiped her face with her hand. "You're so dead, Li Syaoran."
"Why don't we call it a truce?"
Sakura licked her lips and frowned. "You're right. The cream is too sweet."
"Really? I was thinking on a second thought, it's just right," replied Syaoran.
"Well, get a better taste of it!" Sakura grabbed another handful of icing and flung it at Syaoran. This time, he expertly dodged and sprayed her again with the canned cream, which hit the back of her head.
As she lunged over to grab the other can of whipped cream, Sakura slipped over a huge glob of cream that had landed on the floor.
"Watch out!" exclaimed Syaoran, catching her by the small of her back.
Even as they fell, Sakura grabbed a handful of cream. She landed on top of him and smeared the cream over his cheeks. Sticking out a tongue, she said, "Gotcha."
"I give up," groaned Syaoran, arms spread on the floor.
Sakura rolled over next to him with a sigh. "I win."
"Not!" Syaoran grabbed the can of whipping cream rolling on the floor and sprayed it at Sakura.
She let out a shriek as whipping cream landed like a halo over her hair. "Oh no, you didn't!" She grabbed the tube of colored icing and squirted it at Syaoran. Pink smeared his forehead.
"Who are you baking the cake for anyway?" asked Syaoran, wiping the cream away with the back of his sleeves and resulting in smearing pink across his cheek.
"Why do you care?" demanded Sakura, glaring up at him through her stringy, sticky bangs.
"You've never baked a cake for me before," Syaoran remarked.
"That's because you're better at baking than me," replied Sakura. "You would have laughed at my cake, like you did today."
"No I wouldn't have," said Syaoran.
"Anyway, why should I bake a cake for you?" demanded Sakura.
"I baked you a cake every week," replied Syaoran.
It was true. Last summer, when she had stayed at his place, Syaoran would bake a cake every single week, the most scrumptious, moist cakes ever. "You like baking!" Sakura retorted. "This cake is for someone who I want to do something special for because he doesn't have anyone else who will do this for him." Erika had no skill at cooking and Eron didn't bother either.
"So the cake is for Chang Eron," Syaoran said. "You must care for him very much to try baking with your non-existent culinary skills."
"Sorry my abilities are too shabby for the high-and-mighty Li Syaoran-sama. I would never dare force you to eat my cake. But unlike you, Eron-kun appreciates everything I cook for him."
Everything she cooks for him? What else did she cook for him? Did she make him special couple lunchboxes and stuff? "I wouldn't eat it even if I was famished and it was the last food on earth," replied Syaoran, feeling his maturity level drop by the second. What am I doing?
"Good, because I won't ever make you anything." How did Syaoran know this cake was for Eron? "It's not like you were ever my boyfriend!" Sakura blurted out, throwing a bag of flour at him—he dodged, and the bag collided into the cabinet behind him. A white cloud puffed up in the air and they coughed as a sheet of white snowed on them.
Her eyes now fell on the carton of eggs.
"No! Eggs are hard to clean!" Syaoran called out, reaching forward and colliding into her because his vision was impaired by the flour covering his face. Sakura lobbed an egg at his leg.
They were now slipping and sliding on the kitchen tiles, completely covered in whipped cream and icing, grabbing whatever they could and flinging it at each other.
Sakura had run out of all five tubes of colored icing.
Pastel blue and yellow and blue were smeared over Syaoran's face and shirt and pants, and trickles of lavender and green trailed from his hair. It was difficult to stay angry at someone who looked like a child's art project gone wrong.
She pointed at him and laughed. "You look ridiculous."
"Look who's talking!" replied Syaoran, spraying the last of the canned whipped cream at Sakura's wide open mouth.
She sputtered. "How dare you." Her eyes fell on the bowl of icing for the cake, and she grabbed it off the kitchen counter.
"Don't even think of it," said Syaoran, backing away from her. "Don't come near me."
"You can't run away!" exclaimed Sakura, flinging the entire bowl at him.
"Well, if I go down, you're coming down with me!" cried out Syaoran, head completely coated in thick white cream as he grabbed Sakura. They collapsed down together on the kitchen floor, a flurry of all colors of the rainbow, sticky cream clinging to their skin and hair and clothes.
For a second, Sakura could not breathe under the weight of Syaoran's body. They were both out of breath and dazed. She reached over and grabbed a handful of baby blue cream and flung it at Syaoran. "I hate you."
"C'mon. Let's call it a truce now," said Syaoran as a glob of cream fell from his hair.
Sakura grabbed another handful of cream with her other hand.
"Really. Let's stop now," said Syaoran, gripping her wrist with his hand, knees trapping both her legs under him.
Sakura, pinned to the ground, squirmed against his tight hold. "I hate you." She used her free arm to grab another handful of cream and slammed it against Syaoran's chest. "I hate you."
"I'm sorry," said Syaoran, gently wiping away a dab of yellow icing from Sakura's eyelid. "I'm sorry, so please don't say you hate me."
"I hate you." She looked up at him with vivid emerald eyes.
Because they had been so engrossed in their food fight, they did not hear the front door creak open.
"What are you two doing?" asked Kinomoto Touya, stepping into the kitchen to the sight of his younger sister pinned to the ground with none other than Li Syaoran on top of her. He only noticed that the kitchen looked like a winter blizzard had struck at second glance.
Syaoran quickly rolled off Sakura onto his knees almost as quickly as Sakura sat up.
Glancing around at the kitchen walls, covered in every color cream possible, Touya asked very pleasantly, "And what happened in the kitchen? I hope you have a very good excuse, Kinomoto Sakura."
"Dark force?" squeaked Sakura.
"Kero-chan?" muttered Syaoran.
Brows twitching till they met at the center of his forehead, Touya barked, "Don't just sit there. Clean up the mess. NOW!"
"Yessir!" Syaoran sprung up and Sakura quickly scrambled to find the mop. There was not a square inch of clean space on the floor.
Arms akimbo, Touya remarked, "Do you smell something burning?"
Sakura's eyes rounded. "The cake!"
With a long sigh, Touya took the keys and left the house, dazed, even forgetting the spare change of underclothes he had come to pick up. He had been greatly mistaken. It was not safe leaving the Brat alone in the house with the Ogre, after all. He had forgotten that the Brat was a strapping sixteen-year-old boy and the Ogre had grown into a lovely young woman.
"I'm dead," muttered Syaoran, mopping the floor as Sakura took the cake out of the oven with a yellow mitt. He had not missed the perilous gleam in Touya's eyes.
"It's just cream. It'll wash off," replied Sakura.
"Not what I'm talking about." Seriously, Sakura's brother had a strange sort of radar when it came to matters involving his little sister. "Ah, so this is what Yukito-san called 'sis-con.' "
"Did you say something?" said Sakura, hesitantly testing the burnt cake with a fork. It was rock hard. "I guess I'll have to throw this away."
"Don't throw it away!" exclaimed Syaoran.
"Then what am I supposed to do with it?" asked Sakura, knocking on the cake. "It's inedible."
"I'll eat it," said Syaoran.
"Don't be silly."
The two cleaned the kitchen expertly, leaving it gleaming and cleaner than ever before, and the proudly reviewed the results.
Sakura took a peek at Syaoran and giggled. He still was a mess of pastel colors. "You look funny."
"You look funny too!" said Syaoran, pulling on her stiff, spiked pigtail. "We better go wash up."
With a long sigh, Sakura sat in front of her vanity, brushing out her hair after a long hot shower. It was much easier washing her hair now that it was shorter. Carefully, she took out the comb that Eron had bought her from Kyoto and held it up to her hair. The long tassels caught the light. Sakura sighed. She regretted cutting her hair now—the accessory would look much better with longer hair.
"Such a fancy comb doesn't suit you at all," remarked Syaoran, also freshly washed, arms crossed. "Something as gaudy as that suits someone like Erika or something."
"I'm sorry I'm not being feminine enough to wear something like this," said Sakura, scowling. Syaoran was back to his gruff, poison-tongued self.
"I'm just saying you don't need anything fancy to make you look feminine. A simple ribbon is enough," he said.
But it simply floated over her head that he had indirectly complimented her, and she snapped. "Stop coming into my room without knocking."
"As if you didn't barge into my room all the time," Syaoran muttered. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, whenever she felt homesick, whenever she was stuck on a math problem.
And Sakura swung around in her chair to face Syaoran. She blushed when she realized he was shirtless with a towel draped over his shoulders. "Can't you get dressed properly before you go walking around the house?"
"Well, that's why I came to ask you if I can borrow a clean shirt."
"Couldn't you find one in Tomoyo-chan's trunk?" Sakura asked.
"There's a velvet tuxedo, a silk ruffle blouse, a suede cowboy vest, a sequined jacket and a fishnet turtleneck, but there seems to be not a single wearable shirt," replied Syaoran.
Sakura was more impressed that Syaoran was able to accurately identify all the items in Tomoyo's mystery clothes chest—she certainly couldn't. "Just take a shirt out of onii-chan's closet."
"I don't dare touch his personal belongings when he's not here," replied Syaoran grimly.
Heaving a sigh, Sakura walked over to her brother's room and opened up his drawers. She rummaged for a shirt and tossed it at Syaoran. She turned her head as he pulled on the shirt.
Since when did it bother her so much to see Syaoran half-naked? They had gone swimming together numerous times in the past. But he was no longer a scrawny boy.
"I'm going out for dinner tonight," she said shortly.
"What are you doing to do? Your precious cake for Eron-kun is ruined," he remarked sarcastically.
"Speaking of that, can I just take that vanilla bean cake you baked yesterday?" Sakura asked, blinking prettily at him.
"Never!" he growled.
"That Italian restaurant was no good," Eron remarked. "We're not going back there."
"Why, I thought it was all right," said Sakura. After eating Syaoran's pasta, no restaurant quite lived up to his dishes anyway.
The pair slowly walked towards Sakura's house.
When they reached the front gates, Sakura turned to Eron. "Umm… about my promise…" Sakura clasped her hand in front of her.
Eron looked up at her expectantly.
"I'm sorry," said Sakura, bowing her head down. "I tried to bake you a cake, but it was a big failure."
"You should have brought it anyway. I would still eat it."
"No, it was inedible," Sakura said, shaking her head. "Next time, I promise I'll bake you a delicious cake."
"All right, I look forward to it," Eron replied, the corner of his eye crinkling. "School starts on Monday. How's winter break homework coming along?"
"Um… well…" Sakura diverted her eyes.
"You know, you haven't invited me over to your house even once over break?" Eron remarked. "I would invite you over to my place, but I figure you don't want to deal with Erika."
"Ah, my house is a mess, and onii-chan's home a lot these days," said Sakura. "How about next time?"
"Yeah, your brother still frightens me like no other," Eron remarked. "Is that him glaring at us behind the curtains from the second floor?"
Cramming all her vacation homework on the last day before going back to school was something Sakura had been doing from elementary school. A self-proclaimed procrastinator, Sakura took no shame in her bad study habits. Her favorite subjects were physical education and music, and she had little academic drive, unlike her older brother. However, once in a while, studying with Syaoran made her enjoy learning and strive to work harder. Syaoran was the opposite from her. He liked studying and always found it a pity that he couldn't spend more time reading and learning. He was inquisitive and an active thinker. He was also a good teacher.
"What's next?" asked Syaoran, looking up from checking Sakura's math problems. He marked the incorrect answers with a pencil so that she could review them.
"Umm… History homework," replied Sakura, looking at the syllabus. "I need to go to the Metropolitan Museum and choose one piece from the Ancient Egypt exhibit and write a one-page report on it."
"Shoot, it's a Sunday. We don't have much time before the Museum closes," said Syaoran, glancing at his watch.
Sakura felt a tiny bit of satisfaction that he was wearing the leaf-shaped watch that she had given him. She also felt a little bit rueful that this unusual vacation was coming to an end. All she wanted was two weeks of quiet and rest before the brewing battle of school life and the dark forces resumed again. And this person she had been avoiding for the past months stumbled onto her doorway like a stray wolf cub.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum always reminded Sakura of Kaitou Magician, the way King Penguin Park reminded her of Syaoran. The Mirror of Truth, the fake Kaitou Magician stealing the Thief of the Night painting, the Swan Lake exhibit and the Young Designer Fashion Showcase. Many events had happened here, yet odd enough, there were many places she had not yet seen in the museum.
"You didn't have to come along," said Sakura as she picked up the museum brochure.
"I didn't have anything better to do anyway, replied Syaoran.
"Don't you have winter break homework at Eitoukou?" Sakura asked, handing Syaoran a brochure.
Syaoran merely shrugged.
Of course Syaoran would have completed it already, Sakura figured. Not that she had seen him do any schoolwork over vacation. She followed the museum floor plan to the second floor Exhibit G, Ancient Egypt. "I've been here so many times, but I don't think I've been to the Ancient Civilizations exhibit before," she remarked.
They walked through the modern art gallery and passed by the Swan Lake exhibit, which had been extended through January because of its popularity. She paused in front of the last painting of Princess Odette standing at the edge of the cliff, ready to plunge into her watery death at the realization her curse would never be broken.
"Strange things happen in life," said Sakura. "But sometimes I really have to believe Mizuki-sensei's words. There is no such thing as coincidence. Who would have thought that Shing-san was actually Tanaka Keisuke-san?"
"Moon wanes, eye cracks, world goes round, Two conceived lost forever would once more be found," Syaoran recited, from the Riddle that had been presented to them last year during the ski trip.
Eyes widening Sakura turned around to gaze up at Syaoran. If finally sunk into her. "Two conceived lost forever… Leiyun-san and Shing-san..."
"The irony of life. Two who were surely thought to be dead are actually alive."
"I don't know how it took me so long to figure out," said Sakura shaking her head. Slowly, the prophesy was coming true. "When did you first figure out about Tanaka-san?"
"I didn't figure it out till pretty recently, as well," replied Syaoran. "Only when I realized he was not amongst the others inside Memoria."
"Nothing," Syaoran stammered. He had only reached certitude inside the Fantasy. He was pretty sure everybody else there were those already deceased, but Tanaka Keisuke had not been amongst them. "Kai had to bear that knowledge alone for a long time. Idiot, running away at a time like this."
"I do wonder how Kai-kun was able to steal the Memory and the Veil from you people," remarked Sakura, peaking at the two cards.
Syaoran's ears turned crimson, and he shifted uncomfortably. "Don't underestimate his skills as a thief, I guess."
"Are you going to steal them back from me?" asked Sakura.
"No!" Syaoran exclaimed.
"Truthfully, that's what I thought when you showed up at my doorsteps," Sakura remarked, her hands slipped into her pocket to her remaining Sakura Cards. "Ah, I knew they would come for these."
"They are going to come for them," said Syaoran slowly. "But not through me."
Sakura gazed at Syaoran curiously. "Truthfully, I don't know whether to believe you or not."
"I know I lost your trust," said Syaoran curtly. "And I don't expect to regain it overnight."
Yes, this was where all her unwanted memories had stirred again, that day of the Young Designer's Fashion Show. During the blackout, why had he said those words to her? His voice had been so low, she still did not know if she had heard correctly. "I can't explain everything, and I can't return to you at the moment. But for once, let me be selfish. For once, let me say what I truly desire… I can't be by your side yet, but I swear, I swear to you that I will return. So even though it's painful, even though I know you're hurting, wait for me just a little longer, Sakura."
Every time she made the resolve to annihilate him from her mind, he would show up and turn her world upside down. Why had he said those words? If he hadn't, she wouldn't have begun hoping again. She rather wished he had continued to be his cruel, distant self as when he first returned to Japan. Then, she could move on. These last traces of lingering hope, like the stubborn last flickering embers of a dying campfire refusing to burn out was more painful, more excruciating. She would rather someone come along and just stamp out the campfire.
She stared at the lady in white on the edge of the cliff. Whether to jump or not to jump. To live meant to always live with the curse, the knowledge that she would forever be a puppet of the Fates. To jump meant to leave all her loved ones behind but was the only means of breaking free of the curse. And unbeknownst to her, a single tear rolled down her cheek and dropped to the floor. The one question that had always haunted her escaped from her lips. "Why did you have to return?"
Syaoran reached out, opened his mouth and then quickly away, looking at the ground. "I am sorry my presence has been such a burden to you. If it were not the current circumstance, I would gladly disappear from your sight."
"Well, starting from tomorrow, we're going to return to me being a Seijou student and you being an Eitoukou student," stated Sakura. "We won't have much reason to bump into each other." She then walked off toward the Ancient Civilizations exhibit, furious at herself for showing a vulnerable side to Li Syaoran. Never, never would she show her crying face to him again.
There was something giddy about the first day back to school after break. Half the school year seemed to have flown by, and truthfully, that time period fell into a black hole of her memory, but Sakura thought she had finally adjusted to high school life. She adjusted her black tie around her white blouse over a black pleated skirt and then pulled on black knee socks. She tied her short golden-brown hair into two pigtails with red pompom ties. Finally, she pulled on the sky blue Seijou blazer. Her eyes fell on a small jewelry box on her bureau. She took out a golden ring with a small emerald inset that Eron had bought her for Christmas. For a second, she stared at it and then pulled it on her third finger. Taking one last glance at the mirror, she grabbed her book bag and ran downstairs.
"Good morning otou-san!" She wolfed down her buttered toast without sitting down. Trying to appear nonchalant, she asked, "Where is Li-kun?"
"He already left for school," replied Fujitaka, handing Sakura a two-tier bento box tied with sky-blue kerchief.
"I see," replied Sakura. Eitoukou was further away, so it made sense he had to leave earlier. What did he do about the uniform? Did he even have all of his school supplies? After spending all of winter break with him breathing down her neck, it felt sort of odd not having him around. Without further thought, she pulled on her rollerblade and took that same route that she was so familiar with to Seijou High.
First day of school back from winter holidays was always rambunctious and class 1-2 of Seijou High was perhaps one of the liveliest of the bunch, especially the group of girls gathered at the far corner of the classroom that were Sakura's closest friends. Though Sakura had enjoyed her break to a certain extent until a certain somebody had ruined it, she was glad to be back at school and see all her friends again.
While Sasaki Rika was usually the quiet one in the class, today, the girls were circled around her desk, and she was the center of attention.
"I can't believe you're dating Terada-sensei again," exclaimed Yanagisawa Naoko with a happy squeal. "Congratulations!"
"When did this all happen?" asked Mihara Chiharu—she had been away over the winter holidays and was a little hurt that her best friend had kept all this a secret from her.
"Shh—other people might hear!" said Rika, cheeks tinted a bright crimson.
"What is that ring?" demanded Naoko suddenly, grabbing Rika's hand. A gold ring circled her fourth finger, at the center of which was embedded a tiny diamond in the shape of a heart.
"No way, is that an engagement ring?" Chiharu exclaimed as the diamond caught the light.
"It's more like a promise ring. I wanted to get married right away," said Rika with a blush. "But sensei wants me to graduate high school first and get into university. Besides, I think my parents wouldn't consent to it."
"Well, you're such a good student, it would be a pity if you give up on your education," said Chiharu.
"Wow, it makes me feel we've grown up thinking that we're already talking about marriage and stuff," said Naoko. She let out a long sigh.
"I always dreamed I'll be a beautiful young bride," said Li Meilin, twisting the end of her long black pigtail with her forefinger.
"Meilin-chan is the most romantic of us," remarked Chiharu.
"I used to be," said Meilin with a scowl. "And growing up has already crushed the rose-colored fairytale I dreamed my life would be."
"Isn't Kai-kun nice to you?" Chiharu asked. "He's so charming, I think I would barely be able to catch my breath if I were dating him." She blatantly ignored Yamazaki Takashi scowling at her.
"It's not a matter of him being nice or not. It's simply draining being near him," said Meilin. "I get so tired of putting up with him, it makes me think it's nice to not be in a relationship, not have to worry about anyone else except yourself."
"Kai-kun has not returned yet?" Sakura asked.
Meilin shook her head. She had been so sure he would at least return by the first day of school. But he was nowhere to be seen.
"How about you and Eron-kun?" Naoko asked.
"What about Eron-kun?" Sakura said absentmindedly.
"That ring—it's a couple ring, isn't it? It looks so expensive!" exclaimed Naoko, pointing to the emerald circlet around Sakura's third finger. "Eron-kun is wearing a similar one on his finger."
Sakura stared at the ring. It was the first time someone had give her a ring. Was it a couple ring? What did that signify? A promise? A bond? A token of love?
"Oh, Eron-kun gave you that ring? How pretty," remarked Tomoyo.
"What, even Tomoyo-chan hasn't seen it yet?" Naoko remarked, raising an eyebrow.
The bell rang and homeroom was about to begin. Mizuki-sensei walked into the classroom in a sharp pinstriped gray suit, her long auburn hair tied back into a ponytail. The male students sighed happily at having such a beautiful teacher while the female students gazed upon her with slight envy.
Mizuki Kaho smiled, opening up her attendance book. "Well, I hope you all enjoyed a nice relaxing winter holidays. And I hope you all finished your winter break assignments as well." There was a groan throughout the classroom. "I think you all will be excited to learn that we have a new transfer student."
A murmur of excitement ran through the students.
"I hope it's a guy!" said the girls. "It's been depressing ever since Mizuki-kun skipped a grade and Li-kun transferred out and Chang-kun now is dating Sakura-chan."
"I hope it's a hot foreign girl," said Akagi Aki, feeling slighted by the female population. He gave a lingering glance towards Tomoyo, who looked even more radiant since she had returned from the Alps, and he let out a long sigh.
Only Sakura remained wary as usual, chin rested on her hands. "I just hope it's someone unrelated the Li's and the Dark Ones or Clow Reed," she muttered glumly. "I get a heart attack every time I hear someone new is transferring to my class."
Eron chuckled and murmured in her ears, "Well, you have no worries, because you have me to watch for your back now."
And Sakura smiled. "You realize that you were the person who stressed me out more than all the rest of the transfer students put together, right?"
"What an honor," replied Eron.
Because Eron had distracted her, Sakura missed the door sliding open and the student entering the classroom, and unlike the rest of the class, she was not particularly interested.
"It's someone most of you will be excited to see again," replied Mizuki Kaho. "Because he's been your classmate for many years before."
And Sakura looked up, to see the familiar face of Li Syaoran, with his fierce scowl, bow to the class. "You must be kidding me," she said out loud, jumping to her feet.
But he was wearing the sky-blue Seijou High blazer, slightly baggy on him, gold-trimmed black tie and black trousers.
"Do you have something you want to say, Kinomoto-san?" asked Mizuki-sensei.
"N-no!" Sakura exclaimed, ears turning bright red, and taking her seat again.
Syaoran wrote his name carefully in Chinese characters on the chalkboard. "I am Li Syaoran, transferred from Eitoukou Academy."
"Welcome back Li-kun!" squealed the girls.
"You Eitoukou betrayer!" cried out his former soccer teammates.
"Comrade!" exclaimed Yamazaki Takashi, glad that his number two most gullible friend was back.
Only Meilin and Sakura looked slightly horrified, but for completely different reasons.
"Let's see," Mizuki-sensei scanned the classroom. "Chang Erika-san's deskmate, Honda-san is out with mono. Why don't we seat you there for now?"
"I really didn't have to be placed in this class," remarked Syaoran under his breath as he passed by Mizuki Kaho.
"Oh, Touya insisted," replied Kaho with a smile.
Even now, he was being watched. He glumly took the seat farthest from the window, careful not to meet Sakura's eyes.
"You can pretend to be a little more excited to be sitting with me," said Erika, leaned back in her chair.
"Is this your stuff?" he asked, pointing at the cardigan draped over his seat and the nail polish bottle, lipstick and hand mirror on his desk top.
"Picky picky. Honda-kun never minded," remarked Erika.
"No wonder he's out with mono," replied Syaoran sinking into his seat.
"I have to admit I am a bit surprised. What are you doing here?" Erika asked. "Does Leiyun even know?"
"I'm sure he does," he said. "And if he doesn't, Kara would let him know. Or you will."
"I'm not his underling, like you guys," said Erika, arms crossed. "I do what I want to do."
"Don't you always?" Syaoran almost grinned crookedly.
"Actually, I'm impressed that you had the guts to leave," said Erika. "If I were in your situation, I don't think I could have."
"Well, then, I hope you're never put into my situation," said Syaoran shortly. It was not something he wanted to talk about, least of all with Chang Erika.
"I was. And I couldn't." Erika looked up at Syaoran and smiled extra sweetly. "Well, look forward to working with you, desk mate?"
"You're not copying off my homework," replied Syaoran shortly.
"I can't believe that Li Syaoran is back," stated Naoko, glancing over across the classroom. "Did you know, Sakura-chan, that he was coming back?"
"When did he get so chummy with Erika-chan?" remarked Meilin with a deep scowl. At this moment, she did not know whether she was more furious with Mizuki Kai or Li Syaoran. "How dare he have the nerve to show up here after what he did to you, Sakura-chan?"
"Umm… Meilin-chan, there's something I should tell you later," said Sakura. Meilin still didn't know that Syaoran was living at her place now.
"I thought Li-kun was attending Eitoukou?" Chiharu stated, perplexed. On the one hand, she was delighted to have Syaoran back, but on the other hand, now that Sakura was dating Eron, things could definitely get awkward.
"A love triangle, perhaps," remarked Yamazaki Takashi. "That should be interesting to watch."
Chiharu turned to Takashi and pouted. "I really don't know if my mind is becoming more like yours, or yours like mine."
"Actually, Terada-sensei told me that he had prepared Li-kun's transfer papers. Apparently, Li-kun didn't show up for half of his exams at Eitoukou," Rika said. "And he missed the make-up exams as well."
"I wonder if something at home came up," remarked Chiharu. By now, they were used to Li Syaoran coming and going spontaneously, but when he was gone, it always felt like there was somebody missing in the class.
If there was anything more uncomfortable than having a scowling Li Syaoran glare at you from behind, where he was out of your peripheral vision, it was having a scowling Li Syaoran seated at the other end of the classroom, where you could perhaps glimpse him but would rather die than be caught looking. Sakura spent the rest of homeroom stiff-backed, staring straight at the chalkboard or head turned to Eron.
On the other side of the classroom, a certain individual was not being subtle at all where he was gazing towards. And his menacing glare was completely being directed to Chang Eron. "Since when were they desk mates?" hissed Syaoran, brows furrowed down as he bore a hole into notebook with the pen clasped in his hand. "It's study hall—why aren't they working? Do they just chit chat all the time? That would never happen in Eitoukou. And why are their desks stuck so close?"
"I never knew you were the blatantly jealous type," remarked Erika with a smirk. "It's actually kind of cute."
"Shuddup," muttered Syaoran. It was true though. It was one thing to know that Sakura was dating Chang Eron. But to see it in your face, throughout the whole day, was another thing.
"The offer is still up. After all, it think Eron and Sakura got to the point that they did because they were desk mates and spent so much time together," said Erika.
"You don't seem as opposed to the two as you used to be," stated Syaoran.
"Maybe," Erika said with a shrug. "I don't know. I've just never seen Eron so happy and carefree before. Even when we were away on our onsen trip to Kyoto, he couldn't stop talking about her. It infuriated me—but it also made me think that it must be nice, being so infatuated and in love."
And Syaoran had a wistful smile. "Someone wise once told me that the greatest happiness is wishing the one you love to be happy."
Erika blinked, staring up at Syaoran. He had never made that kind of gentle expression in front of her before. Her eyes flitted towards Sakura and Eron's heads bent over together. "Well, isn't that silly?" she said, arms crossed. "What about my own happiness then?"
Daidouji Tomoyo and Hiiragazawa Eriol had the most coveted seats in the classroom, the back window-side desks; and as they were widely considered the shadow queen and king of the class, they were often let alone. And the two got along beautifully as desk mates because neither of them were particularly talkative and rather enjoyed observing the happenings of the class unfold from their thrones at the back of the room. Today, Tomoyo didn't look up at Eriol as she sketched out a long cape with star and moon embroideries in her literature notebook. "It was your idea, wasn't it?"
Eriol glanced sideways at Tomoyo, her long lashes cast down so that he could not see her eyes. Lately Tomoyo's uncanny intuition began to frighten him the slightest bit. Perhaps it was because she had been exuding a slightly frosty aura ever since she had returned from Switzerland. Anyone less observant would not have nuanced it.
"I'm not sure what you were thinking, but it's a dangerous game your playing, isn't it?" Tomoyo remarked, flipping the page and methodically began a new sketch.
"It's not a game," replied Eriol slowly. "It's a gamble."
"What's the difference?"
"One merely has entertainment value and the other has a stake."
"For the chess pieces, there always has been a stake. It's just that you've always seen everything as a game until now, that's all."
"What are we talking about now?"
"Chess. I was only talking about chess," replied Tomoyo with a small smile. She wondered what Eriol had at stake in this battle.
"Frightening girl," murmured Eriol. It occurred to him that Tomoyo no longer was in love with him. And he felt rather rueful.
"You look exhausted," remarked Yukito, handing Touya a cup of milk coffee from the vending machine in the doctors' lounge.
"Have you ever tried to get an unwilling child to school in the morning?" Touya downed the coffee in one shot. "I realized, ah, so this is what a father feels like having a pubescent son."
"So, Syaoran-kun really enrolled in Seijou High?" Yukito smiled. "His uniform?"
"I lent him my old uniform," replied Touya.
"I would have liked to see that. They've grown up so quickly. I can't believe they're already in high school," remarked Yukito. "It seems just like yesterday when we were bicycling to school and Sakura-chan came chasing after us on her rollerblades."
"Yes, okaa-san. Children grown up so fast." Touya yawned.
"So, what convinced Syaoran-kun to go to school?"
"I told him that either he puts on the uniform himself, or I would put it on for him," replied Touya.
Yukito chuckled. "Poor boy. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. I figure sending him to Seijou is the same reason you took him into your house in the first place?"
Touya let out a low cackle. "No, actually it's because I enjoy torturing the Brat as much as I can, and I figured if he can endure a class with Mizuki Kaho, Hiiragizawa Eriol and Chang Eron all in one place, then he can pretty much handle anything else that comes along."
Sakura was at her wit's end to restrain herself from cornering Syaoran and starting one of their banters at school. Instead, she contained herself and avoided him throughout the day. Even the silly gossip faded towards the afternoon.
"Wasn't Sakura-chan dating Li-kun back in Junior High?"
"What? She was dating Li-kun? I thought she's dating Eron-kun. They're a perfect couple."
"But Sakura-chan and Li-kun were the legendary Star-Crossed couple back in the days. Sports, theater, music—there was nothing that they couldn't conquer."
"I heard from Naoko-chant they weren't really an item."
"No, I've been in the same class with them since fifth grade. There definitely was something going on. I heard that Li-kun completely broke Sakura-chan's heart when he left for Hong Kong last year. Nobody was allowed to mention his name in front of her."
"Really? But Sakura-chan is always so bright and energetic. I would never have thought that of her. And how could Li-kun do that to her?"
"Anyway, why did he return?"
"Maybe he's still in love with her and wants to win her back?"
"But what about Eron-kun?"
"Eron-kun is so cute. I wish he would date me."
"Wait, does that mean Li-kun is single now?"
At one time, all the rumors and gossip would have bothered her. But now, it only seemed like they were talking about someone else. Throughout the day, Sakura peeked up at Eron to see how he was responding. He was surprisingly expressionless.
"I didn't know he was coming to our school. I really didn't," said Sakura, not knowing why she felt guilty.
Eron gazed at her curiously. "If you're concerned about me, I don't mind particularly. So don't let it bother you, either."
"Why? Why did he transfer to Seijou out of all the schools in Japan?" Sakura grumbled.
And Eron smiled tightly. "Why are you so worked up about it? It shouldn't really matter to you where he goes to school."
"You're right. It shouldn't matter," said Sakura. But why had Syaoran not told her?
Because of all the watchful eyes, Sakura did not have a single opportunity to talk with Syaoran the entire day. Only when after classes ended, she finally pounced on Syaoran heading towards the boy's locker room and pulled him to an empty corridor.
"What in the world are you doing here?" she hissed.
"Soccer tryouts," replied Syaoran frankly.
Sakura grimaced. "No, I mean, at Seijou. Aren't you enrolled in Eitoukou?"
"Not anymore, apparently," he replied, swinging his gym bag over his shoulder. Briefly, his eyes fell on an emerald ring glimmered on her forefinger.
Instinctively, as if Sakura sensed where Syaoran's gaze fell upon, she curled her left hand into a ball and slipped it into her pocket. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I really found out the last minute too," replied Syaoran. "Touya-san literally drove me to school this morning and took care of all the paperwork."
Again, her brother had done something behind her back. "He never even gives me a ride to school!"
"I don't think that is the issue at hand here," muttered Syaoran.
"Why Seijou? Just continue going to Eitoukou or something," said Sakura.
"Look, it's not exactly like I wanted to return to Seijou either," Syaoran retorted. "You know how hard it's going to school and being called a traitor and betrayer for going to Eitoukou?"
"Yeah, the Seijou soccer team was furious at you for getting that final goal in during semi-finals," remarked Sakura. "You completely are a turncoat."
"Yeah, the soccer team was not particularly happy with me at the moment. And my Eitoukou teammates won't be very happy either when they learn that I'm at Seijou now." Syaoran frowned. "It's hard to please everyone."
"What do you want? Why did you even return to Japan in the first place?" Sakura demanded. She had thought it was to follow the orders of the Li Clan.
And Syaoran remained silent for a while, to the point where Sakura forgot what her question had been in the first place.
"Anyway, the paperwork is all done, and it's not like I can quit school at the moment," Syaoran said. "I requested to be put in a different class, but I'm sorry that didn't work out."
"Why would you request to be in a different class?" Sakura bit her lower lips. What was wrong with her? Why was she mad that he showed up and mad to find that it really wasn't his choice?
"I didn't think you would like seeing me at school. I wanted to stay out of your way as much as possible."
These words hurt Sakura more than even learning that Syaoran had transferred to Seijou. She quickly turned her head away from him. In a choked voice she said, "Well, you don't have to worry about keeping out of my way tonight. I'm having dinner with Eron-kun."
Throughout the afternoon cheerleading practice, Sakura dropped her baton on her head no less than five times. But it was distracting when Syaoran was participating in the soccer tryouts across the field. She deftly twirled the baton around her fingers and flung it over her head.
"Goal!" shouted somebody from the soccer field. Syaoran had made a magnificent shot and was applauded by the team. Betrayer or not, the Seijou High was glad to have their MVP player back right before the semi-finals.
"Ouch!" The baton end smacked her on her forehead.
"Earth to it, Sakura," said Meilin, deftly catching her baton.
Pouting, Sakura rubbed her forehead. "I guess I'm out of practice."
"You've been lazing around all winter break, haven't you?" Meilin remarked, stretching out her arms.
"What did you do over the break? I called you several times, but you didn't pick up. I got worried a bit," said Sakura.
Meilin shrugged. "Sorry. I went into intensive training mode."
"Wow, really? By yourself?"
"Well, for the time being, I'm part of your Alliance and all representing the Li's, I can't slack off in order to become a master martial artist. I won't let the Li Clan beat me," Meilin replied, punching out her fist. "How about you? Any news of dark forces?"
There was another murmur in the soccer field. The soccer team had divided off into two teams Syaoran, in a blue jersey had outrun Eron, wearing a white jersey and was heading towards offense.
"First day back from holidays but the soccer team's energy is amazing today," remarked Naoko, forgetting cheerleading practice and walking nearer towards the soccer field to have a better look.
"It's because Li-kun is back," Chiharu said.
"I've never seen Eron-kun so riled up," stated Naoko as Eron burst forward and slid beneath Syaoran to steal the ball.
Meilin crossed her arms. "I can't believe he had the nerve to show up at Seijou. I wonder what Leiyun was thinking?"
With a pang, Sakura realized that Meilin did not know that Syaoran had run away from home and was currently staying at her house. But Syaoran had told her not to tell Meilin. Should she anyway? She did not know enough about the family situation to even begin to try decipher what was going on in the Clan, but Meilin might be able to. "I remember you told me Leiyun-san is different than he used to be."
Meilin narrowed her eyes. "I don't know. Maybe I just never knew him well enough. Seems like people can change awfully easily. But maybe, it was just because I never knew them well enough in the first place."
"Is that why you are so harsh on Syaoran-kun?" Sakura asked.
"Is it Syaoran-kun again now?" Meilin said, sharp as ever.
Deliberately ignoring Meilin's snide remark, Sakura said, "You know, I was initially surprised at how harsh you were being on Li-kun. I know how close you are with him and that it must be hard for you severing your ties with him like you have."
"Well, with the Li Clan, you are either in or out. Because Syaoran chose to follow the orders of the Elders, I cannot walk the same path as him. If I maintain my friendship with Syaoran, then I too am a follower of the Elders, and I do not uphold their beliefs or actions. Hence, I cannot be friends with Syaoran or else I would become a hypocrite." She said in a quieter voice, "Also, if I am friendly with Syaoran, that would put him in a difficult position. At the end of the day, the truth is, I would still do anything for him. Because he is Syaoran. And the Li Clan will take advantage of that knowledge. So it is better this way."
Again, Sakura stared at Meilin as if she was seeing her friend in a new light. Who knew how deeply Meilin had considered all these factors?
"Don't look at me like that," said Meilin. "I love Kai, though god knows why. But still, in the depths of my heart somewhere, there will always be a part of me that once was in love with Li Syaoran."
"I see. So that is how it works," murmured Sakura.
"But at this rate, Kai-kun is about to be demoted to ex-boyfriend status," muttered Meilin under her breath.
Sakura peeked at her friend, unable to figure out Meilin's frown. "I wonder what Kai-kun is up to."
"I'm going to kill him. He was supposed to have returned already," said Meilin. "Miho-chan and Keisuke-san and Miara-san are waiting for him."
"I thought that he would at least have kept in touch with you," said Sakura.
"Well, he can go rot in hell, and see if I care," stated Meilin, foreheads crinkled and arms crossed. "I keep wondering if he ran into some trouble and whether he's eating all his meals and whether he's getting enough sleep and taking care of his health. He's always so busy taking care of everyone else, he doesn't take care of himself. And he get's awfully lonely and depressed when he's not complimented and pampered once in a while."
And Sakura came to a sudden realization. "Ah, you miss him."
And Meilin scowled deeply. "That bastard. I would rather die than admit that to him. I miss him. I miss him so much, I lie awake at night worried that he might never come back to me."
"I'm sure he'll be back soon," Sakura said with a sad smile. "He most definitely will be back because he loves you, Meilin-chan." She admired Meilin's honesty. If she could only be a little more straightforward like Meilin.
Sakura loved gliding to school every morning on her rollerblades, feeling the wind catch her hair and blood through her body. Today, she pumped her legs faster and faster, glaring behind her. "Stop following me!" she yelled out as she swished around a corner.
From several feet behind her, Li Syaoran, pedaling on Touya's old bike, called back, "I'm not following you! I can't help we're going in the same direction."
Propelling her weight forward, Sakura sped forward.
Unfortunately, Syaoran also had a competitive streak and pedaled twice as fast, surpassing Sakura.
"Stop blocking my way!" shouted Sakura, swooping around Syaoran's bicycle.
"Look who's talking," replied Syaoran, leaning forward as well, gliding forward.
"Sakura-chan, what's wrong?" asked Tomoyo, as her best friend tumbled into the classroom with wobbling legs. She fanned a sweaty Sakura with a notebook.
"Nothing," panted Sakura, face purple as she caught her breath and collapsed in a chair.
Syaoran came in a couple minutes later, green in his face as well.
Naoko burst into the classroom, glasses gleaming. She sported a bandage around her left hand.
"What happened to you, Naoko-chan?" asked Chiharu, looking up.
"Oh, this?" Naoko giggled. "Did you know that we have a new school doctor? He is so handsome. There's a huge line of girls by the infirmary hoping to catch a glimpse of him."
"What does he look like?" asked Chiharu.
"He's young and dreamy," swooned Naoko.
"So that's where half the girls in our class are," Meilin muttered. "Sakura-chan, you look sick—you should go get some medicine."
"I'm fine," Sakura said, queasy in her stomach for rollerblading so hard after a huge breakfast of fried eggs with bacon and toast.
"Come, we have some time before homeroom," said Chiharu. "I want to see him. I'll take you to the infirmary."
Yamazaki Takashi did not look pleased at. "Li-kun, you don't look well either. You should probably see the doctor as well."
"I'm fine," replied Syaoran.
But Chiharu had already dragged Sakura along down the hallway towards the infirmary. Tomoyo and Meilin trailed after. Takashi, pushing Syaoran along, chased after Chiharu.
Though homeroom was about to begin, there was a huge line of girls gathered right outside of the infirmary, everyone pushing each other to catch a glimpse of the new, young, handsome school doctor.
"At this rate, we won't be able to even see his face, let alone get medicine!" Chiharu exclaimed, pushing through the other first-year girls. The third years had formed a wall near by the door, primping their hair and reapplying lip glosses.
"Li-sensei!!!" squealed the girls outside.
"Li-sensei?" repeated Sakura.
"Yes, Li Leiyun-sensei. I heard he's from abroad," stated another girl.
"Li?" Chiharu blinked and turned to Meilin and Syaoran. "Is he related to you guys?"
"Li is a very common surname in China," replied Meilin with a forced smile.
But Sakura, with a sinking feeling in her stomach, glimpsed through the infirmary doors a man with silver hair and aquamarine eyes in a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck. There was no mistake. As if sensing her presence, he looked up at her.
Sakura gulped hard as her eyes met his.
Li Leiyun looked up from his patient and smiled, waving his hand.
"Oh my gosh, do you know him?" asked Chiharu, turning to Sakura. "Introduce me to him."
"No," said Sakura sharply. "I do not know him."
Quickly, she turned to Syaoran—had he known? Was that why he had transferred to Seijou?
Because Syaoran's face also changed several shades, from green to pale green, Sakura realized that Syaoran too was surprised to see Leiyun. She quickly spun around.
Tomoyo rested a gentle hand on Sakura's shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Sakura nodded, pushing out of the crowd and taking a gulp of water out of the water fountain.
It took a while for the girls to clear away even after the school bell rang. Li Leiyun took a breath of relief as the squealing schoolgirls dispersed and finally took a seat. Legs crossed, arms folded in front of him, he looked up. "Aren't you going to class? Homeroom has started."
"What are you doing here?" demanded Syaoran.
"Nothing. I'm at the age where I think I should take on adult responsibilities," said Leiyun. "And in all the manga I've read, school doctors are always popular with the high school girls. Besides, I look good in a white coat, don't I? I've always wanted to cosplay as a doctor."
Syaoran frowned. "Stop kidding around."
"I was getting bored at home alone by myself," replied Leiyun with a smile. "I actually wanted to be the hot, young male teacher, but I figured that would be too much work. At least as the school doctor, I can read manga and sleep during class times."
"Are you serious?"
"What, I learned Japanese reading manga," replied Leiyun with a careless shrug. "It's very effective."
He wasn't here to discuss with Leiyun the most effective way to learn Japanese. "I'm not going back," Syaoran stated.
"Who told you that you need to come back?"
"But the Elders—"
Leiyun's aqua blue eyes were fixed upon Syaoran. "I haven't told the Elders. Do what you please. You may come back when you have figured things out."
After school, Sakura joined Miho and went to the Hiiragizawa mansion.
"I can't believe Li Leiyun-san is your school doctor now," Miho commented. "Well, that makes sense with Syaoran-senpai having transferred to Seijou High."
"I don't think Li-kun knew about Leiyun-san," Sakura remarked slowly.
"Nonsense—why would he not know? Leiyun-san most likely told Syaoran to attend Seijou to keep an eye on all of us," replied Miho.
No, Syaoran clearly had been surprised by Leiyun's appearance. But could it be possible that she was being deceived? Perhaps, Syaoran running away and having a falling out with Leiyun was all a show. Maybe this was all planned so that she would put down her guard.
In the Hiiragizawa parlor, Sakura stared up at the magnificent painting hung up on the mantelpiece of the cloaked thief silhouetted by the full moon. She thought the "Thief of the Night" captured Kai's shining, feisty personality so well that the painter surely understood the subject's mind thoroughly. It was very different from the uncertainty lingering in the Swan Lake painting of the cliff side that always caught her.
"Sakura-chan," said Tanaka Keisuke, stepping into the room. Cleanly shaven, and dark red-brown hair slicked back, he looked completely different from his grizzly appearance before.
"Shing-san!" Sakura exclaimed. "I mean, Tanaka-san."
Keisuke smiled. "Sakura-chan, I've been meaning to meet you but haven't gotten a chance to. Both Miara and I wanted to thank you."
"I did nothing," said Sakura, ears reddening.
"We all know what you did for us," Keisuke said, staring up at the painting on the mantelpiece. "I am a completely changed man now that I have my memories back. It is like I've been given a second chance, and I feel this exuberance welling inside my heart that I thought I didn't have in me. Well, enough about me. You must be curious about many things."
Sakura shook her head. "I'm just glad that you turned out to be Tanaka Keisuke-san."
"It's strange, isn't it, the way this world works," remarked Keisuke. "Sometimes, the answer is sitting right in front of you, and yet you are blind to it."
"Are you going to stay in Japan?" asked Sakura.
"For the time being, I've been working on my new exhibit here and spending as much time with Miho and Miara as possible," replied Keisuke. "I guess we will be in Hiiragizawa-kun's debt a little longer. Miho-chan seems attached to this place." Once again, he gazed up at the painting of Kaitou Magician.
I see. They are still waiting for Kai-kun to return. Sakura too stared up at the painting.
From down the hallway, they heard a woman's voice. "Keisuke-san, did I not tell you to wash your hands after you use charcoal—you left finger smudges all over Eriol-kun's couch."
"For someone whose vision hasn't returned completely yet, how does she notice all those minor stuff," mumbled Keisuke with a grown.
Miara burst into the room, hands on hips. "Oh hello, Sakura-chan!" she exclaimed, running up to Sakura and rubbing her cheek to the girl. "You're as adorable as ever."
"G-good afternoon," Sakura said as Miara pinched her cheek.
"Never fall in love with a struggling artist—they're useless," she said.
"Okaa-san!" Miho exclaimed. "The editor is calling about deadlines—what should I tell him?"
"I don't know—I'm having a writer's block," said Miara.
"Should I take you to a resort by the beach, darling?" asked Keisuke, wrapping his arms around Miara's waist.
"No, honey, how about the onsen. I think I need to steam out all this stress."
Miho placed her hands on her hips. "Otou-san, the museum director wants you to submit a proposal by next week!"
"Get Aiba-kun to put it together," Keisuke said with a shrug.
"Aiba-san can't put together a proposal when you haven't given him a clue what your next exhibit is going to be about!" exclaimed Miho in exasperation.
"How about going to Sapporo?" asked Keisuke, turning to Miara. "Beach and onsen and delicious ramen."
"And the Snow Festival and the sake," Miara added.
Miho sighed, and Sakura giggled.
"They're always like this," Miho said, rolling her eyes.
"I envy their relationship," Sakura said. Despite the long years apart, it seemed like Keisuke-san and Miara-san had a bond that even time didn't dampen.
"Actually, I also wanted to speak to you regarding another matter, Sakura-chan," interjected Tanaka Keisuke. "There have been some strange occurrences at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum."
"Strange occurrences?" Sakura repeated.
"Right. A mummy has disappeared from its tomb, and some of the armors from the armory have been misplaced."
"A thief?" asked Miho, round-eyed.
"No, the mummy was later found in the Renaissance gallery, and the Rodin statue ended up in the Modernism exhibit," Keisuke replied. "No item has exactly gone missing—hence it was not reported by the news."
"It's almost like somebody is playing a prank," remarked Miara.
"Or it can be a dark force," Sakura remarked. "I'll check it out, Takana-san. Thanks for letting me know. I'm going to go check it out."
"Is there anything I can do?" asked Miho, enthused ever since she had been named a member of the Alliance of the Stars.
Sakura shook her head. "It might not be anything—I think you have your hands full pulling together an art exhibit proposal and contacting the editor regarding deadlines."
"She is a lot like her mother, isn't she?" remarked Miara, nestling her head against her husband's broad shoulder, watching the lithe green-eyed girl skip off purposefully.
"Yes, she is," replied Keisuke, stroking his wife's long auburn hair.
"Sir, have you seen or heard of any unusual happenings in the museum late at night?" Sakura asked one of the guards at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum.
"As a matter of speaking, I have," replied the guard in the blue uniform. "One of my colleagues said that the mummy walked out of its tomb and chased after him. And my other colleague said that the Rodin Thinker stopped thinking and stood up."
"Well, the museum is closing down soon, so hurry along. You don't want to be here when all those creepy stuff happens. It's like the Museum is haunted."
"Yes, with all the mummies stolen from their tombs and artifacts that were meant to stay buried disturbed and brought to a foreign country, I can imagine legions of ancient spirits feeling vengeance."
As the museum closed down, Sakura hid behind the Egyptian tombs and watched the guards pass by. This was not her first stakeout at the museum, and she expertly turned around and hid behind the case of the mummy as another guard passed by.
"You're getting rather good at this," Kero-chan remarked, popping his head out of Sakura's bag after the last visitor disappeared.
"Yeah, I have the secret floor plan of the museum that Kai-kun gave me last time were were staking out the place," replied Sakura.
"It's going to be tough capturing an active dark force without all the Sakura Cards," said Kero-chan.
"It's the sort of dark force that Eriol-kun liked to employ," Sakura remarked.
"What, bringing inanimate objects to life?" Kero asked. His mouth twitched as there was a hollow thud. "W-what is that?"
At that moment, they heard a creak. Slowly, the gold-painted, varnished wood coffin painted with the Ba of the Pharaoh, swung open. And the mummy inside walked out of its case.
"AHHH!!!" Sakura tried to scream before a hand covered her mouth. She struggled before turning around. "Li-kun! What are you doing here?"
"I thought something smelled fishy last time and decided to check it out," Syaoran replied, crouching down on the floor next to her, sword strapped to his back almost touching the floor. He was not wearing his green battle costume of the Chosen One. Instead, he was dressed in a simple dark green turtleneck and black jeans.
They heard male screams down the hallway in the armory exhibit and clashes of metal.
"It's happening again! This museum is possessed!" cried out a guard.
"It's the m-mummy! The curse of the pharaohs!"
"Run for your life!"
At least the guards were out of the way now. Sakura turned to Syaoran. "What's the curse of the pharaohs?"
"It's an ancient belief that any person who disturbs the tombs of the pharaohs would be cursed," replied Syaoran. "Understandable, since the mummies were a form a preservation and the tombs their eternal rest place. The Valley of the Kings was the burial place for many of the rulers and high nobles of the New Kingdom in Egypt. Throughout history, numerous tomb raiders have ransacked the tombs of these rulers to steal the treasures that lay buried. In the Middle Ages, there was a belief that mummies had healing properties and were ground up to be used as medicines. However, numerous excavators and tomb robbers are rumored to have met unfortunate demises afterwards."
"But this should be a dark force," Sakura said.
"I guess." Syaoran frowned, coming out of hiding since all the guards had run off. A Roman statue of a semi-nude man with missing arms and a broken nose stepped off of his pedestal.
"Wait, I have to call Tomoyo-chan," said Sakura. "She's been depressed that I haven't used any of her battle costumes lately." She dialed Tomoyo's number. "Coast clear.
Tomoyo, who had been hiding in the ladies' room after hours, came to join them. "Sakura-chan! You don't know how excited I am for my first opportunity to film you in the new year! Syao—Li-kun, I didn't expect you to be here as well." She ran up to Sakura and pulled off her coat. "Come on, show us the outfit!"
"Hoe!" Sakura took off her long coat, which had been hiding her battle costume of the day.
"What are you wearing?" Syaoran asked, turning around, eyes bulging.
Sakura was dressed in a white sheath draped and fastened by a golden clasp on one shoulder with a pleated crimson belt tied around her waist. A golden necklace embedded with lapis lazuli and leather sandals clad her feet. Thick gold cuffs dangled from her wrists, and Tomoyo pinned a white lotus flower to her hair, to the beaded headband. "Hoe-e… I'm not sure."
"Oh ho ho… I was Egypt-inspired," replied Tomoyo. "I never thought there would be an occasion to use this battle costume." She spun around Sakura, filming the outfit in every angle. "Okay now, release your staff, using the new hand gestures I taught you."
"Hoe, it's embarrassing," Sakura protested. She held out her key and then held out her arms, making a circular gesture. "Key that hides the power of the moon. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!" She twirled the staff around her fingers and then posed to satiate Tomoyo's filming urges.
Before Sakura could look up, an empty armor from the exhibit down the hall began charging forward.
"Watch out!" Syaoran called out, unsheathing his sword.
"Ah, the dark force has finally smelled us," Kero-chan murmured knowingly.
The armor, too, drew out its rusty sword, which Syaoran deftly knocked out of its arms while Sakura swung around and with her staff tripped over a file of marching terracotta warriors from the Ancient Chinese exhibit.
"Just like old times," sighed Tomoyo happily. "Sakura-chan looks adorable as an Egyptian princess."
"It really is like old times," said Kero-chan, adjusting his pharaoh's headdress. "Kind of makes me nostalgic to see those kids fight together again."
"I wish Syaoran-kun would wear the male version of the Egyptian costume," said Tomoyo wistfully, holding up a white piece of loincloth, eying Syaoran.
"No thank you," Syaoran replied curtly.
"You never stopped making battle costumes for the Brat, did you?" Kero-chan remarked.
"Well, it sort of became a habit," replied Tomoyo, queuing her brand new camcorder. She watched Syaoran expertly topple another suit of armor with a lance.
Sakura, having no combative Cards, felt quite helpless. "This is such a simple dark force to handle," she grumbled. "All I need is the Freeze or something."
"Can you see the source of the power?" asked Syaoran.
"Not really, can you?" replied Sakura, squinting her eyes.
"No, I can't."
Sakura turned to Syaoran with a frown. His powers were not back then. A marble statue of a Greek goddess rolled over and then clomped in her direction. Sakura dodged.
Syaoran was left to do most of the fending and tirelessly knocked over rows of armed suit. "Shoot—I forgot these are all artifacts of the museum," he muttered.
The four looked up in horror as Sakura ducked a granite club and to her horror heard glass smash behind her.
Cerberus sprawled forward, covering the papyrus scrolls on the wall as a stuffed vulture came swooping down from the sky. Camcorder tossed aside, Tomoyo lunged forward to catch a falling vase with both arms. They sighed in relief.
"I can't stand this much longer," groaned Cerberus as he shielded a glass exhibit of Queen Hatshepsut's jewelry with his body from the halberd of a medieval knight.
"Hoe, it's like a horror movie," Sakura wailed.
"Hurry—the damage—" Syaoran panted as he took the full blow of the armor's lance rather than let it crash into the terracotta vase behind him.
"Li-kun!" exclaimed Sakura. That's right—Syaoran was a lover of artifacts of the past. He would rather have his body battered up than break any of these relics of the past, which was why he was expending so much energy just buffering the attacks instead of striking down the animate objects, so that they could simply charge again and again.
There must be a mastermind, a center of focus. She had been forgetting all the basics. As Mistress to over a hundred Cards, she had become reliant on power rather than tactic, convenience rather than the balance of nature. Syaoran always told her to concentrate. She had to concentrate. "King Thutmose!" she said aloud.
"What about the mummy?" asked Cerberus, catching a bust of Aphrodite from falling with his tail.
Sakura scanned the exhibit and found the mummy of the pharaoh. She narrowed her eyes.
"Even in the museum, there must be a hierarchy of the oldest, most powerful. The armors and the statues are all really inorganic objects, metal and stone. But the Pharaoh is the remains of a human body. The body remembers." Sakura looked up. "Hence, King Thutmose III most likely has a lingering desire."
"Ib, sheut, ren, ba, ka," murmured Syaoran.
"Eh?" said Cerberus.
"The Ancient Egyptians believed that the human soul was made out of five parts," Syaoran explained. "Ib, the heart, sheut, the shadow, ren, the name, ba, the soul, and ka, the spirit. They believed that a person died when the ba, the spirit, left the body. The ba and the ka reunited in the afterlife to create the akh, symbolized by that birdlike hieroglyphic over there on the tomb. It seems like the akh of Thutmose III is displeased with something."
"I see—so that mummified pharaoh is the object with the highest likelihood of having an agenda," remarked Cerberus.
The mummy, though eyeless, seemed to look up at Sakura, then started walking in her direction.
"Look out!" Syaoran exclaimed, drawing his sword.
"No, stand back and watch," said Sakura, stepping away as the mummy reach out past her, to the glass exhibition case behind her of the cobra Double Crown of the pharaoh. It smashed through the glass and reached for the crown then put it on its head.
"So, that's what the mummy creature wanted?" demanded Cerberus.
"I understand now," said Syaoran. "It's the Double Crown of Ancient Egypt, Pschent, bearing the emblems of the Egyptian cobra and the vulture, representing the unification of the Upper and Lower Egypt."
"So what?" Cerberus demanded.
"King Thutmose III spent much of his childhood under the shadow of Queen Hatshepsut, his aunt and regent. There was much tension between Thutmose and the regent queen, to the point that he defaced and destroyed many cartouches and statues of her. Look where the crown was displayed," stated Sakura—her school report had come to some use after all.
"With Queen Hatshepsut's jewelry," Tomoyo remarked.
"So, he was simply reclaiming what was rightfully his," Syaoran said. He looked up at the mummy. "Are you at peace now, King Thutmose?" He bowed his head. "Please forgive us for trespassing."
And in the midst of the chaos in the museum, everything came to a halt. The armors froze, the armors toppled over and the mummy of King Thutmose III, bearing the cobra coronet, nodded.
Taking a deep breath, Sakura held up her staff. "Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!"
A new card materialized and Sakura turned it over. "The Animate."
"Well, that completes the Create, the Illusion, the Transform, the Change and the Animate set," Kero-chan remarked.
"What's that?" asked Tomoyo.
"Giving birth to a new soul, giving the impression of a soul, the mimicking of a soul, the switching of souls and giving animation to a soul-form," replied Syaoran in a low voice. "The Soul Set. Dark forces which can mimic the impression of life. But in the end, empty souls are not equivalent to a living soul."
"The Animate. A seemingly harmless dark force. But otherwise known as the Necromancer's Curse," said a low voice from behind them.
The four turned around to see a black shadow emerge from behind the arched hallway. It was a tall man with black hair, dressed in a black cheongsam, two swords strapped to his back. He continued, "Black magicians who could not bring back the dead's soul thought that it was enough to reanimate the corpses of those already passed into the valley of death. But though the corpses moved like they were living, their hearts were still dead."
Sakura shuddered. The Necromancer's Curse. Bringing back one already dead. What sick person would try to do that? "What are you doing here, Li Jinyu-san?" she asked, tightly gripping her staff.
"I have come to collect the new Card," Jinyu replied shortly.
Syaoran stared up at Li Jinyu warily. Why now? Why when he was completely worn out? "Leiyun sent you?"
Without responding, Jinyu reached back and unsheathed both swords strapped to his back.
"Stand back!" Syaoran said to his companions, holding out his sword.
"But—" Sakura protested.
Syaoran turned around and looked into Sakura's eyes. "Just listen. This is between Jinyu and me."
Tomoyo placed a hand on Sakura's arm. "He's right. This one's his battle. We shouldn't interfere."
The two men, one with brown hair and one with black hair, similar in stature, similar in facial features, faced each other, bent low. Jinyu was armed with two swords of slimmer blades with short red tassels trailing behind. Syaoran held a broad double-bladed jian that was heavier and slightly longer than Jinyu's twin blades, decorated with two long blue tassels. There was no signal, but both men dashed forward at the same time, blades drawn.
The first strike landed with Syaoran's blade caught between the cross formed by Jinyu's double blades. Both withdrew and regained formation before Jinyu leapt forward, red tassel trailing behind him like a blazing fire, long black braids whipping around like twisting snakes. His movement was liquid, almost too quick to trace with the naked eye. All Sakura could see was a blur of the red and blue and then the clash of metal.
While Sakura had seen Syaoran fight numerous times, she had never seen someone really Syaoran's match in skills, speed and strength. Furthermore, it was the first time she had seen him fight against another with skills on par with him, besides Meilin of course, who was trained in the same school that he was, with the same style and techniques. It was like watching a martial arts performance unfold, but one that was nerve-wracking and high tension every single second of the match.
For the first time, Sakura realized why the Black Dragon was so named; his speed was unparallel and when he sprinted forward with his sword drawn, he turned into a dark blur, like a black dragon unwinding forward. His special technique was the double blade, and he moved with a crisp grace powered by great precision and dexterity in both arms. Every time his blade struck down on Syaoran's blade, she could see sparks fly from the clashing metal and Syaoran's arm tremble slightly as he buffered the blow. Strength-wise, they were pretty neck to neck, but Li Jinyu had the slight advantage because of his phenomenal speed and also the unpredictability of the second sword. But Syaoran was not once the child prodigy and forenamed Chosen One for no reason. Whereas Jinyu was the more seasoned fighter as the Li Clan Protector, one who was used to street fights and gang brawls, Syaoran as Card Master candidate had garnered years worth of battle strategy fighting against the Clow Cards, Eriol and the dark forces, and kept a level head during fights, always observant of his surroundings and calculating moves ahead of time. He had dealt with enemies of every form imaginable, humans and monsters, forces of nature, the celestial bodies and mankind. Jinyu fought with a ruthless air, perhaps a reflection of his underground fighting tactics as the Mafia King of the Hong Kong Triads. He was like a black cobra waiting to tighten around his prey. But Syaoran, as he faced off Jinyu, unleashed a savage ferocity that had been dormant within him all this time.
It was strange that they were instructed under the same teacher and guided by the same techniques because their fighting attitudes were utterly different. The Black Dragon fought with an air of menace, as if he was ready to slay his opponent at any moment; his technique was always offensive. On the other hand, there was always a slight hesitance in Syaoran's blows, because he had been trained in ceremonial swordsmanship, to not kill another human being. Which one was the stronger of the two, Sakura could not tell as she watched in anxiety as Jinyu flew down from a pedestal, a vase crashing down with him, and Syaoran blocked the crossed double swords with one arm before retreating, kicking off the wall and deftly maneuvering his sword around Jinyu's left blade, knocking it out of his hands.
With emotionless eyes, Jinyu lunged forward with his remaining sword, both hands gripping the hilt, and swung the blade from right side. Without waiting for the blow to strike, Syaoran lunged forward, both hands on hilt, knuckles white, and met the force. Their swords clashed at the center, sharp-edge of the blade, electric sparks flying off from the impact.
"When two fighters are evenly matched in strength and technique, then it all comes down to one thing," said Cerberus slowly.
"What is it?" Sakura asked, unable to take her eyes of the fighting pair.
"The quality of the blade," replied Cerberus just as Jinyu's jian sliced straight through Syaoran's blade.
The pointed end of Syaoran's sword clattered on the granite floor. Without losing his head, Syaoran tossed his hilt aside and lunged forward straight at Jinyu, grabbing his wrist with one hand and his throat with the other.
Like Syaoran, Jinyu was a fighter who used all of his body. Without flinching, Jinyu kicked out his right foot and whacked Syaoran in the stomach with his knee. But Syaoran held on until Jinyu lost grip of his sword. Before Jinyu could reach into his shirt for his knives, Syaoran punched Jinyu in the face.
Jinyu spat out blood and then leapt back. His eyes flickered over to his sword, which was nearer to Syaoran's end. His other sword was being observed by Cerberus.
"Well, it is now truly a battle of strength now, isn't it?" Syaoran said, holding up his fists. "You are said to be a better bare-fist fighter, anyway, Jinyu."
Without flinching, Jinyu ran forward and Syaoran met his punches deftly. Nobody would guess that a little over a month ago, his right arm had been deemed paralyzed. Syaoran felt the wind knocked out of him as a blow smashed into his guts. He jumped back and in a roundhouse kick swept Jinyu out of balance midair then smashed his foot down into his chest.
"The Black Dragon is a lot more levelheaded than Syaoran, but the Brat is more passionate. Jinyu has stronger punches, but Syaoran's kicks are more powerful. Likewise, Jinyu's offense is strong, but his defense is weak, whereas Syaoran's defense is almost flawless. Jinyu falls into the school of fighting to kill, whereas Syaoran, fighting to protect. Together, they would have been the perfect warrior," Cerberus said.
"If the two are so evenly matched, and they are both weaponless, then who would win?" asked Tomoyo.
"I guess the one who has more determination," replied Cerberus.
Unlike Sakura, Tomoyo had witness Syaoran in a duel before, when he had challenged Eriol. She had seen that look of sheer determination in his eyes before.
And sure enough, as they simultaneously looked up, they saw Syaoran execute a perfect combination of a butterfly kick followed by a reverse crescent kick and topped by a powerful low, reverse roundhouse which toppled Jinyu over. Syaoran landed on top of him, hand gripping throat. "It is my victory today."
For a brief second, Jinyu stared up at Syaoran with narrowed blood-crimson eyes. It was the same attack he had used on the boy before.
"Won't ever… forgive what you did to Wolfie," Syaoran said through gritted teeth.
Jinyu knocked Syaoran's arm aside. "You have improved since that day."
"You can tell Leiyun that I am not going back!" shouted Syaoran. But the Black Dragon had darted forward, gathering his fallen swords, and disappeared.
"Syaoran-kun, are you all right?" said Tomoyo as Syaoran sank down on his knees, breathing unstably.
Sakura stood paralyzed, not realizing that Jinyu was gone now.
Cerberus prodded her. "Check on him. He doesn't look so good."
Slowly, Sakura walked over and picked up the halved fragments of Syaoran's sword. "I'm sorry about your sword," she said.
Syaoran knelt on the ground, his splintered sword laid out in front of him.
"You are the rightful wielder of the Five Force Sword—nothing would break that blade," Cerberus remarked. "Who's wielding it now?"
"Leiyun," replied Syaoran shortly.
"There are better swords out there. For you Li's, aren't swords your life?" Cerberus stated.
"But that sword was your father's first sword, wasn't it?" Sakura said.
"And the first sword that I trained with." Syaoran smiled crookedly. "Oh well, there's nothing I can do about it now, either.
"Can't it be fixed?" asked Sakura.
"These Chinese jian are especially difficult to forge and weld," replied Syaoran. "And the master who forged this sword has long since passed away."
"Well, it's a fine blade, the best of its kind. Only, it didn't stand a chance against Shulin-sama's original twin blades. I didn't know that Li Jinyu was wielding them," said Cerberus. "They are extremely hard to deal with, I heard, temperamental like their original wielder, and I'm impressed that the Black Dragon has mastered them like no one before."
"Jinyu received them when he was appointed the Protector of the Clan," replied Syaoran.
"And that broken blade of yours originally belonged to the Protector of the Clan during Shulin-sama's time, Li Shenji, isn't that right?" asked Cerberus. Syaoran was a direct descendent of Li Shenji, who was legendarily the greatest Protector the Li Clan ever had and Li Shulin's right hand. "Ironic that the current Protector wields Shulin-sama's sword and the Chosen One wields Shenji-sama's sword."
"We'll get you back the Five Force Sword," said Sakura slowly. More and more, she realized how little she really knew about Syaoran's background. If she just paid a little more attention, she should have known what kind of weapon he wielded, what kind of skills he possessed and the basic history of the Li Clan, her sometimes ally, sometimes enemy. "But you will need a sword in the meantime." She fingered the smooth steel blade.
"Be careful, you might cut yourself," Syaoran said.
"There must be a way to fix this sword," Sakura murmured to herself.
Cerberus interrupted, "Anyway, it's not the time to be lamenting over some sword. Look around you."
Aghast, the four stared around the gallery at the shattered vases and the disarranged armory and spliced coronet of Queen Nefertiti. At one end was a pile of disoriented armory, to another corner was a crumbled white marble statue of Apollo. A small mummy lay half unraveled next to the stuffed vulture.
"Shoot" said Syaoran, gazing around him. "Look at this mess."
"These are priceless treasures of the past," Sakura groaned, staring at the catastrophe. "What am I going to do? I'm a failure as the daughter of an archeologist."
"Oh ho ho! You're going to be cursed by all the ancient pharaohs of the past!" Tomoyo said.
"You are not helping the situation," said Syaoran, Jinyu and broken sword completely forgotten. He picked up the fragments of a broken red-clay terracotta vase from Athens, heart thumping at the travesty he had done to these ancient treasures. "This beautiful vase. This priceless, amazing Grecian vase."
"Settle down, it's just some old junk," snapped Cerberus.
"Just some junk? You dare call this junk? This 500 B.C. vase is painted by Exekias the potter, the greatest, most original vase-painter of his era," bemoaned Syaoran.
"Well, work your brains then—we can't leave this mess like this." Cerberus paced the gallery.
"If only I had the Time," Sakura said. "I could just undo all this."
Syaoran turned pallid. "And fight Jinyu all over again?"
"Why? You did it once. You can do it again," said Sakura, blinking innocently.
"Well, we obviously don't have the Time, and even if we did, I don't think we could have prevented the damage anyway, seeing Syaoran and the crazy mafia boss' volatile style of fighting," Kero-chan remarked.
"If Eriol-kun was here, he would have set up a barrier first," remarked Tomoyo.
"Yeah. Too bad we don't have such responsible and forward thinking mischief-makers like him," said Kero-chan, arms crossed. "Whose idea was it to have a battle inside the museum, anyway? Couldn't you have taken it outside?"
"I'm sorry, I was only defending my life here," said Syaoran. "As if I had the awareness to watch out for a couple flower pots and old dinky armors when somebody was trying to chop off my head."
"Stop acting so tough. I know you're the only crying the most in your heart because these artifacts are damaged, archeologist geek," Kero-chan retorted.
And Syaoran clutched his forehead with his palms in despair. "Ah! I have sinned. What should I do? Forgive me, Kinomoto-sensei, I fail as your pupil."
"Silence, all you," said Sakura, arms akimbo. "Li-kun, get a grip. Most of the damage is from the Animate, anyway."
Syaoran looked up from the vase he had been lamenting over, stunned at Sakura's sharp words.
"I've been thinking through. It's not like I currently have possession of the Time, and personally, I don't have the confidence to control the Time properly. So, the only other option would be to repair the damage," continued Sakura, eying the extent of damage. Luckily, the Animate had only affected the exhibits closest to the Ancient Egyptian exhibit, and since Li-kun has been careful, most of the damages were the broken glasses. Still, there were several fractured statues, at least half a dozen smashed vases and the disoriented mummies to deal with.
"Ha!" snorted Kero-chan. "Good luck with that."
"Cards are oftentimes created in pairs because forces need to counterbalance each other. There is Dark, so there is Light. There is a Plague, so there is Heal. There is a Freeze, so today, we discovered the Animate. There are many forces that cause havoc and break, so there must be a force to unbreak items," said Sakura.
"Like an Undo Card?" Tomoyo said hopefully, her video-editor mind coming into play.
"No, something that does not mess with the flow of time," said Sakura. "Like the Heal. Something that can rebuild and mend objects like a broken sword. Right, Moonie-chan? You're listening too."
A white bunny-like creature with wings appeared. "You're right, Sakura-chan. You must be talking about the Forge. It's not much of an attack force, so nobody has really employed it."
"So, how do we seal this Forge?" asked Syaoran, arms crossed.
"I don't know. Nobody's ever really bothered before," replied Moonie-chan. "Sakura-chan, how did you create the Heal Card?"
"I've always been asking you, what exactly are you?" Kero-chan asked, circling Moonie-chan. "You never help with any of the battle and just pop up here and there. It's annoying. I'm supposed to be the cute mascot character."
"How did I create the Heal?" Sakura closed her eyes. Syaoran had been hurt by the Whip. He had been in pain. She had wanted to help him. "Hey, Moonie-chan."
"This Forge thing. Can it fix a broken sword?"
"Probably," replied Moonie-chan.
Deep within the mountains, the vegetation, the soil, there is a blazing fire, the fire at the center of the earth. Man was given fire and fire became life. And in the glazing flame, man learned to forge. Once, a little boy dreamed to grow up to be as strong a warrior as his father. At the age of three, his father gave his son his first sword. But the sword broke. I want to mend it.
"Fire and water. Metal and earth. Master of hammer and anvil, I summon thee." Sakura felt a tingling underneath her skin, an adrenalin high. "Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Forge!"
On the face of the card was a hammer and anvil. The Forge.
"Cerberus, I need some fire," said Sakura. "The hottest flame you have."
"Yes, Mistress Card Captor," replied Cerberus. He let out a crimson jet of fire on the blade.
Sakura raised the new card in the air. "Fire of the Guardian of Sun and blacksmith of the impenetrable steel, bring new life upon this broken blade. Forge, I summon thee. Hien, Sword of Scarlet Flame, become whole once more."
A bright white light enshrouded the broken sword. Cerberus withdrew his breath. And the blade, straight and gleaming as if it had never been broken, levitated midair. Then, it dropped down on Syaoran's open palms, still hot.
Sakura swayed as she brought down her staff. Tomoyo steadied her. "Are you all right?"
"I just… need to catch my breath," replied Sakura. "Because of the heat."
"Well, how is it?" asked Cerberus.
"Amazing," Syaoran replied as he admired the blade, holding it up to the light. "Thank you."
"I don't think that blade will ever break again," Sakura remarked.
And Syaoran didn't doubt her words.
"Well, now that's done, I think I can fix this room up in a jiffy," said Sakura. She hopped onto an empty pedestal and drew out her new cards. "Animate, I summon you. Armors, return to the Medieval Gallery, King Thutmose, sir, please return to your coffinette, Apollo, Aphrodite and armless man, to the Grecian hall."
The armed suits got up from the tangled messes, picked up their respective weapons and filed out of the Egyptian gallery. The statues likewise climbed onto their original pedestals. King Thutmose III, crown on head, returned to his coffin, arms folded, lid shutting with a click. Sakura jumped off her pedestal to allow the Thinker of Rodin to step up.
She held up the Forge once more. "Vase of Athens and tomb of Pharaoh, armor of Nantes and lance of Dante, return to your original state of being. Forge!" Next, she drew out the Memory Card. "Retainer of years gone by, artifacts and relics of centuries past, recall thine original form. Memory!"
"Smart thinking," Cerberus said in awe, amazed that Sakura thought of employing the Memory to get the original shape of each artifact right.
"Broom, sweep, sweep sweep," commanded Sakura, and brooms flew out of the supply closet, gathering all the shards of glass into a pile
"Master of fire and anvil, return glasses to place!" The glass shards flew back into place down to the last shard.
"Did you guys watch the Sorcerer's Apprentice recently?" asked Tomoyo dryly as she recorded the spectacle unfolding in front of her, half in awe, half in disbelief.
"Yeah," said Syaoran, stepping aside as a broom danced around him and back towards the closet, staring at Sakura in absolute awe. She truly was the one and only Card Captor Sakura.
Finally, with a sigh of contentment as the last statue climbed back onto the pedestal and the glass cases were all in one piece again, Sakura stepped back to admire her work. The museum was exactly the same as when they had first entered. There was no sign that a swordfight had happened at all, no more cracks or fissures in the statues than before, no less. Only the Double Crown of King Thutmose III was missing from its original velvet cushion and instead with the pharaoh. And as Sakura gazed around, she stumbled, head spinning. It seemed as if the painted face on Thutmose III's coffin was smiling at her. What a relief. Everything was in place now. Her eyes rolled back, and she collapsed onto the floor.
When Sakura regained consciousness, she was gently swaying back and forth. She blinked. Somebody was carrying her on his back, and her arms were encircled around that person's broad shoulders. It had been a long time since she had been carried on someone's back like this. She snuggled her nose into his jacket, pretending to still be unconscious.
"We're home," said Syaoran, walked into the front gates. "Tomoyo dropped us off." Kero-chan was in his pocket, sound asleep from overexerting himself today.
"I can walk," she protested weakly.
"You're not wearing shoes," replied Syaoran.
And Sakura realized that she had been changed into regular clothes and that indeed, there were no shoes on her bare feet. But Syaoran's back felt surprisingly warm and sturdy, and she was almost sad that the walk from the front gate to the door was so short.
"Let me down now," she said, as Syaoran kicked off his shoes with her on his back still.
"Shush. Just close your eyes and rest," said Syaoran, carrying her up the stairs. "If you stumble and fall on your head, your brother will surely get mad at me."
"I'll tell him it's not your fault then," murmured Sakura.
"You always try to exceed yourself, don't you? Always making all of us worry?" he said as he gently set her down in her bed.
Sakura yawned. Using her powers really drained her these days. But Syaoran should be more tired, especially with that fight against Jinyu. What a strange day it had been. Even after knowing Li Syaoran for six years, she still learned new things about him every day.
"I was so relieved today," she murmured, letting Syaoran pamper her, fluff up the pillows and tuck her into bed.
"I was so scared. That when Jinyu-san appeared, you would join him and tell me that the past two weeks were just a joke."
Syaoran's eyes were pained.
"It's strange. I can't sense your aura at all. Today, I tried to. And I couldn't." Sakura stared up at the ceiling. "Your powers. Are they really gone?"
"Who knows." Syaoran looked down on Sakura in her bed. "I almost see it as a blessing in disguise. It's my first time I could really concentrate on my physical skills without being hindered by my magic. I beat Jinyu with my own two hands, not because of any special advantages I have because of my powers."
Sakura recalled the animated vigor behind Syaoran's eyes as he was fighting Jinyu, something she had never seen before. "Syaoran, do you enjoy fighting?"
"Eh?" Syaoran blinked to consider something he had not thought about. "Maybe I do. It's something I was trained in all my life. And it's been a while since I had an opponent like Jinyu."
"What about Leiyun-san?"
"Leiyun never goes all out on me," Syaoran said shortly. "I've never fought anybody who I'm really fighting for my life against. It brings out a whole different element to the battle."
"You were training," Sakura said in realization.
"I guess you can put it that way." Syaoran paused. "I can also see why the Great Elder never trained us together."
"Why didn't he?"
"We grew up to have our own fighting style. And it's more interesting that way, the Great Elder would say. Each swordsman is like an artist, he used to tell Meilin and me. To a certain point, we have to learn the technique and mimic others to master the skills. But to become a true warrior, we need to follow our own path and find our own style. And the greatest compliment a warrior can receive is not from his teacher but from his opponent. Because when the opponent respects you as a warrior, then you have passed from being a mere soldier to become a true warrior."
"Ah, I think Meilin-chan once said something similar," said Sakura.
"Meilin also will find her path," said Syaoran. "Her hand-to-hand combat skills should be on par with even Jinyu's. She was the Great Elder's only female pupil of our generation, after all."
"She trained under the Great Elder as well?"
"A bit, when we were children," replied Syaoran. "I needed a sparring partner my own height, and Meilin was the best of our age group. Because she didn't have any special powers, she felt compelled to train harder than any other person."
"I always knew Meilin-chan is amazing," Sakura murmured. She wished she had tried a little harder when Syaoran had trained her. "But you're amazing too, Syaoran."
"Eh?" Was this a compliment coming from Sakura? Perhaps she just really tired.
"Your fighting skills." Sakura stared up at Syaoran from her bed. "I was surprised. I always knew you were good. But I didn't realize how good."
"Silly, you've known me for how many years, and you're just figuring out that I'm good at the one thing I have been training in all my life?"
"Because as my rival, all I was thinking about was being better than you. And as my ally, I was just happy you were fighting on my side. But today, I got to see you as an individual fighting another individual, in a world unassociated with me."
Syaoran stared up, gazing out at the full moon through the window. Yes, Sakura was right. Today's battle was not simply a battle to keep Jinyu from stealing the Sakura Cards. It was his own battle of dignity. "But I still have a long way to go."
"Where are you trying to get to?" asked Sakura.
And Syaoran leaned down by her bed, arms crossed by her beside. "There is a legend that has been retold generation after generation. Once, there was a Japanese swordsman who possessed the second sight and was purportedly the best swordsman of the East of his generation. One foolhardy young warrior accused him of being so strong only because of his second sight. In response, the Japanese swordsman challenged that warrior to a duel. He said since he possessed the second sight and could sense his opponent's moves beforehand, it was only fair that he would be given handicaps. Thus, the Japanese swordsman was blindfolded, and his ears were plugged with wax so that he could not see or hear. His arms and legs were tied down with weights to slow his reaction time to match that of a regular person without the second sight."
Sakura blinked. It was so rare to find Syaoran in a talkative mode. She had forgotten how much she loved to hear the soothing sound of his voice, low but with a boyish tinge, just before going to bed. "So, what happened?"
"The Japanese swordsman and his indignant challenger had a duel. Of course, the Japanese swordsman, even with all his handicaps, was proclaimed victor by an impartial judge. The challenger, after accepting defeat, asked the Japanese swordsman, 'How is it that you are still so strong? Was it not because of your second sight that you have an advantage over everybody else?' And the swordsman replied, 'Perhaps my second sight does serve me an advantage. But if I were not already the strongest I could be as a swordsman, that advantage would not be an advantage but merely a crutch. Even if you take away my second sight, I will still be a skillful swordsman with the title of the strongest samurai of Japan.' "
Sakura blinked again, her eyelids growing heavier. "And then, what happened?"
Syaoran leaned over and pulled the blanket over Sakura. "I'll tell you the rest of the story some other day. Now sleep."
He quietly left the room, taking one last glimpse at Sakura's sleeping face before turning off the lights.
And Sakura fell into a deep and heavy slumber for the first time in days.
Touya walked into a peculiar scene one morning, perhaps to many a very mundane and ordinary morning procedure, but a scenario which irked him more than anything else had till now. He walked out of his room, to the aroma of fresh coffee brewing. Yawning, he walked down the hall, half-asleep, until he paused, walked several steps back and stared into the half-open bathroom door.
Sakura, half-dressed in a white camisole and her school skirt, bare-legged, was brushing her teeth. And Li Syaoran was washing his face in the sink next to her, wearing Touya's gray ribbed singlet and baggy blue shorts that hung low on his waist because Touya was slightly larger in frame than him.
"Toothpaste?" Syaoran asked, blinking the water out of his eyes.
Nonchalantly, Sakura handed him a hand towel. He wiped his face, and held out his toothbrush. Sakura squeezed a dollop of mint-flavor toothpaste on his toothbrush.
"Move," she said with her mouth full of foam. And he scooted over to give Sakura room as he brushed his teeth while smoothing out his hair with Sakura's brush.
And Touya continued watching in disbelief. What was wrong with taking turns using the bathroom? There was another restroom downstairs. This was not a sleepover with Tomoyo or some other one of Sakura's girl friends from school. No matter how much Li Syaoran seemed like a Brat in his eyes, he was still a sixteen year old male.
"Sakura, put this on," said Touya, throwing his little sister his ratty old training sweatshirt from high school gym as she came out of the bathroom.
"But I'm hot," replied Sakura, rubbing her hair dry with a towel.
"Just wear it," Touya said.
Sakura pulled on the sweatshirt which completely dwarfed her
"And put on some pants or something," he added. Were uniform skirts so short back in his days?
Scowling, Sakura replied, "Why?" Then she looked down. The oversized sweatshirt completely covered her skirt. Sticking out her tongue, she stomped downstairs to prepare breakfast.
Touya frowned. Wasn't Sakura supposed to be at an age where she should be more embarrassed in front of the opposite sex? Granted, it was only Syaoran, but he was a boy nonetheless. Or maybe they had just grown too used to each other's presence over that summer they spent together. The way they moved together had a sort of internal rhythm, even doing something as ordinary as brushing their teeth. For a brief second, he regretted ever going to study abroad in the first place and letting Sakura out of his sight.
It had always bothered Touya, and he had always tried to refrain from dwelling on it for too long. When a boy and a girl spent that much time under the same roof, things were bound to happen. And to his innocent, precious Sakura… What did that Wolf-boy do to her then? Or what wouldn't he have— Brushing the murderous thoughts out of his mind, Touya poured salt into Syaoran's omelet while Sakura went back upstairs to finish preparing for school. With a smirk, he wolfed down his eggs.
"This omelet is delicious," Fujitaka remarked as he stared down at his cheese and mushroom omelet.
"Thank you," said Sakura, in her Seijou blouse and skirt, hair parted into two pigtails as she joined her father and brother for breakfast.
Silently, Touya chewed on his omelet. Sakura's cooking skills had improved remarkably since the Brat had come to live with them.
Syaoran, who took longer to prepare for school than even Sakura, finally appeared downstairs in his Seijou uniform. "You forgot your tie," he said, holding out Sakura's black tie.
"Oh, thanks!" said Sakura, wolfing down the rest of her eggs and taking the tie. She tied it around her neck, then frowned. The final product hung down way past her hips. She pulled it off, laughing. "Wait, our ties got mixed."
"Eh?" Syaoran looked down and realized his tie came only midway down his stomach. Quickly, he loosened his around the neck and then looped it around Sakura's neck. "That's better."
"D-did you see that?" Touya grumbled to his father, who was calmly reading the morning paper.
"Yes, I did." Fujitaka pushed his glasses up his nose. "Syaoran-san's method of tying his necktie is superb. I must get him to show me his way." He stared down at his own crooked tie ruefully.
Touya, who had been chewing on a piece of the toast for the past five minutes gasped for air and then gulped down a cup of ice water. To his satisfaction, he watched the Brat grimace as he bit into his omelet but made no comment as he ate it up under the watchful eyes of the Ogre-brother.
Today, Sakura did not rollerblade to school because she had time. She peeked into the front hall mirror to fix her hair ribbon.
"Lunch box," Syaoran said, holding up a bento wrapped in a pink kerchief, prepared by Sakura's father. He had a matching bento wrapped in a green kerchief.
"Thanks." Her eyes rested upon Syaoran, looking surprisingly handsome in the Seijou sky blue blazer over a white collared shirt and black trousers, custom-fit by Tomoyo. She let out a little sigh because she could not help recall that back when she was just a simple-minded ten-year-old girl, she had the tiniest fantasy of seeing Syaoran in the Seijou high school uniform one day.
"What is it?" asked Syaoran stiffly, slinging his leather book-bag over one shoulder.
"Nothing." Sakura clasped her hand behind her back before as Syaoran walked on ahead of her. His dark brown hair blew in the wind. He paused and turned around. "Aren't you coming?"
"Yeah, I'm coming," Sakura said, catching up. It's just, I never thought we would one day be walking to school together in the same high school uniform. Maybe briefly last year, I had that hope. But that all crumbled away when he left for Hong Kong.
Yet, what are the odds? I am walking to school with him again.
"Sakura-chan, did you walk to school with Li-kun today?" asked Naoko, leaning over and peering at Sakura's face over the bridge of her glasses.
"N-no!" exclaimed Sakura. "It was coincidence—we bumped into each other by the school gates."
"You seem to be getting along better with Syaoran-senpai these days," Miho, visiting from the junior high section, remarked. "I guess living together, it can't be helped."
Sakura's eyes rounded as she dragged Miho to a corner. "W-who told you that?"
"Oh, it's a secret?" Miho blinked.
"What's a secret?" asked Meilin, walking into the classroom.
"Oh, n-nothing," Sakura replied. "There was a dark force yesterday."
Miho raised an eyebrow. So Sakura didn't want anyone to know that Syaoran was staying with her. "By the way, otou-san told the museum curator that the crown of Thutmose III has to be united with him, or else the museum would be cursed."
"It seems like Jinyu-san has taken care of all the security cameras," Tomoyo said, joining her friends. "I looked into it, since Daidouji Corp. is one of the museum sponsors. I think there were quite a few guards who apparently were sleeping on their jobs as well."
"As expected of the Black Dragon," Miho said in awe. "I saw the clip from Tomoyo-senpai's video. Syaoran-senpai fighting was amazing! I think I've totally fallen in love with him again."
"Syaoran was there too?" asked Meilin.
Sakura groaned. "Meilin-chan, I think you're going to find out sooner or later anyway. To put a long story short, Syaoran has been staying at my place since after Christmas."
"Syaoran is WHAT?"
"Shhhh!" Sakura muttered, "I don't really want people to know."
"Who are you keeping it a secret from?" Meilin asked. She turned around to see Eron walk into the classroom. "Oh. Eron-kun doesn't know?"
Sakura shook her head.
Meilin crossed her arms in front of her chest. "He's bound to find out. Why are you trying to hide it from him? Because you're afraid he's going to be jealous?"
"No, it's just, I haven't found the right opportunity to," Sakura mumbled.
"He's going to be angrier that you lied to him. For one thing, I HATE liars." Meilin scowled. Especially lying thieves who broke promises.
It was strange sitting in class with Syaoran again. This was the first time he was not sitting directly behind her, and she stared off to the side, able to catch a glimpse of his profile, chestnut brown hair falling into his eyes as he diligently solved a math problem. It was almost like he had never left in the first place.
Their math teacher handed back their winter break assignments. "Good job, Kinomoto-san," he remarked. "Hundred percent. I knew you had it in you."
Sakura stared at the big red 100 on top of her page. Eron looked slightly impressed.
"I guess you were actually working hard over winter break," he commented.
"Y-yeah," stammered Sakura, quickly putting away her assignment.
"Oh, Kinomoto-san, can you run over and hand this envelope to Li-sensei in the infirmary?" said Onitsuka-sensei. "Since you got a 100, I don't think you need to stay for review session."
"Y-yes, Onitsuka-sensei," Sakura stammered.
Naoko bemoaned, "I should have gotten a hundred on my assignment if it means getting to see Li-sensei."
Syaoran looked up at Sakura as she brushed by his desk, brows creased.
Sakura took a deep breath as she knocked on the infirmary door.
"Come in," said a melodic voice.
She entered. The beautiful man with silver hair, wearing a white shirt over white pants, stood in the center of the room, as if he had been waiting for her.
"Li Leiyun-san," Sakura said, her bone turning chill as it always did when she saw him.
The window blinds slid shut and the door behind her clicked shut. His eyes glimmered like ice in the darkness, and Sakura felt a sort of panic wash through her, her knees becoming paralyzed.
"We meet again, Card Mistress," said Leiyun with a thin smile.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"You haven't heard from Syaoran? I'm the new school doctor," replied Leiyun.
Sakura stared up at Li Leiyun, her eyes flitting towards the door that he stood in front of.
"You're not going to take my Cards from me," she stated, backing away.
"I'm not going to do anything to you in school, you know," Leiyun remarked dryly. "I'm not that irresponsible."
"Why did you not respond to my challenge letter?" asked Sakura staidly.
"I'm sorry. I'm a little behind on Christmas mail," replied Leiyun with a sardonic smile.
His eyes bore through her as he watched her silently.
"I don't understand," Leiyun said slowly. "I just don't understand why it had to be you. You are not a particularly remarkable person, no matter how I look at you. Yet, why were you chosen?"
"Chosen for what?" Sakura asked.
And Leiyun smiled grimly. "No matter how I look at it, you are subpar to my Syaoran in every single way."
"S-so what? I never said I was better than him," replied Sakura.
"And that angers me even more," Leiyun said. "If you do not match Syaoran in terms of skills or ability, then at least I expected you to have some hidden talents or brains or bloodthirsty ambition. But you are plain and unspectacular in every way. I've been waiting to see if you can pleasantly surprise me, but you bore me. I have no desire to take on such a weakling as you."
"You Li's have a way of putting everyone else down, don't you?" Sakura remarked.
"There will always be those who are superior and those who are inferior," he replied coolly.
"Or maybe that is what you have been conditioned to think by your Clan," said Sakura. "In this world, we are not divided off by those who are superior and inferior, those who have power and those who don't, those who are chosen and those who aren't. We are all born equally as humans, trying to find our place in the world."
And the smile dropped from Leiyun's lips. "What do you know about us, Kinomoto Sakura? What do you, a simple girl who grew up in this dull, simple town, living a life of a cup full of sunshine know about all else that goes on in this world?"
"You're right. I've lived a simple, straightforward life till all of you came into my life," replied Sakura. "But in those years you were gone, I was with Syaoran. Even now, I don't really understand what goes on with the Li Clan. But I do know that there is a part of him that does want freedom to do and act as he will. Did you not, as well?"
Leiyun stared at her with murderous ice-blue eyes.
"I've heard about you from Syaoran before," said Sakura slowly. "You're the cousin who took care of him after his father passed away, the one who was like a brother-figure, the one who has taught him almost everything he knows. I don't know what happened since then and now, but whatever you are planning, leave Syaoran out of your Li games."
Reaching over, Leiyun grabbed Sakura by the nape of her tie. His voice had lost its melodic note and was low and crisp. "You do have a reputation for being a busybody. If it weren't for you, Li Syaoran would not be in the disgrace he is in right now. And you have the nerve to look down on me?"
"If you weren't perchance chosen by Clow Reed as Card Mistress, you would be a nobody, not worth anybody's time, certainly not worth my time."
"Perhaps." Sakura stared at Leiyun's beautiful face contorted in a hideous snarl. "But still, I am by contract the Card Mistress, and I have a duty to uphold as the wielder of the Star Staff."
"Yet, without them, you are worthless," he sneered at her.
And Sakura swallowed hard as a sudden realization finally sank in her. "W-why?"
Sakura looked up at Leiyun with clear green eyes. "Why do you hate me so much, Leiyun-san?"
For a second, Li Leiyun faltered. "Why do I hate you? Why…" His sterling blue eyes flickered as he yanked her against the wall by her collar. "I just do. Do I need a reason?"
Sakura gasped as she felt his hand tighten around her neck. "I'm sorry if I offended you. But I just thought, you aren't a very happy person, Leiyun-san. I don't know the details of your last mission, but everybody thought you were dead for the past six years. I know better than anyone else that Syaoran was happy to see you. But—"
"But what?" Leiyun said, thumb pressed against her throat and the rest of his fingers encircling her neck.
"But he left you. I don't really know why, but he left," she whispered.
"Oh, he'll come back eventually. He is a Li after all," remarked Leiyun with a crooked grin.
"Y-you can't take Syaoran back," said Sakura, her eyes glistening as she struggled to breathe. "He chose to leave."
Leiyun suddenly released his hold on her.
Sakura collapsed onto her knees, breathing hard. She was trembling so hard that her teeth were clattering. But she glared up at Leiyun definitely.
"You…" And Leiyun stopped short, giving her a strange look.
And Sakura took his momentarily lapse to push through and unlock the door. She ran down the hallway, stumbling, gasping for breath.
"Sakura-chan, are you all right?" called out Rika.
Sakura nodded, blindly running towards the emergency exit. She ran up the stairwell, bursting out onto the rooftop, and took deep gasps of icy air. It burned her throat, but she welcomed the pain. Her fingers went to her collar. She could still feel Leiyun's hands tighten around her neck.
She had never been hated by somebody. Her past enemies had never loathed her like this—Syaoran surely hadn't accepted her as the Card Captor in the beginning, but he had been willing to give her a chance. Eriol had her best interests at heart, and Eron definitely didn't hate her now. Even with Erika, no matter how they disliked each other at times, she felt like she had some sort of mutual understanding. But Li Leiyun straight-out abhorred her. He did not hate her because of her ancestors or because he felt particularly threatened by her. It was like her very existence offended him. Why?
This was the first time she was terrified of another individual. It was the kind of fear that seeped through your heart slowly until a blackness paralyzed you. When she closed her eyes, those cold, ice-blue eyes would haunt her and mock her. It was as if he was watching her and watching her, waiting to crush her. And she thought could feel phantom finger enclose around her throat and tighten.
Leaning against the barbed-wire fencing around the roof deck, she gazed off towards the soccer field. She had not even delivered the teacher's envelope. Why had she said those foolhardy words to Leiyun. She had exposed to him her weakness. The school bell rang, marking the end of lunch period, but she did not return to class. No, she did not want to risk bumping into him in the corridors. Because where he walked, she felt a chill, a chill as cold as death.
What is wrong with you, Kinomoto Sakura? You are not a coward. I won't let Li Leiyun intimidate me.
The roof deck door creaked open. Sakura looked up, startled, bracing herself.
"Sakura, what are you doing here?" asked Eron, running up to her. "I got worried when you didn't show up to class."
"Oh, did the class bell ring already?" Sakura asked, looking up at Eron.
Eron stared at her hard. His eyes fell upon her loosened tie and the missing top button of her blouse. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing. I just spaced off," Sakura replied, trying to stand up.
Eron pinned her against the wire fence. "Have you been crying?"
"No, I haven't," Sakura said, wiping her cheek with the back of her sleeves.
"Was it that bastard, Li Syaoran?" Eron growled.
"No!" Sakura shook her head. "It's really nothing. Let's go back to class."
"You can't go back in that state," said Eron. He leaned over and retied Sakura's tie then smoothed over a piece of hair that was sticking out of her head. "You didn't pick up the phone last night."
"Yesterday?" Sakura blinked. "Sorry—there was a dark force."
"I heard. You know how worried I was? There was a strange barrier around the museum, and I couldn't even locate you."
"I'm sorry. I wasn't in a position to call."
"Why was Li Syaoran there?"
"He sensed something and coincidentally happened to be there," replied Sakura.
"What, to steal the new Cards?" How could somebody without powers sense anything?
"No, he actually kept Jinyu-san from stealing them."
"The Black Dragon was there too? Well it can all just be a façade, you know. To gain your trust."
Eron didn't know Syaoran had run away and was currently staying at her house. "No, it wasn't like that," Sakura said. "It's not like that at all."
"That's what you want to believe."
Both her father and brother were coming home late today, and Sakura walked into her house wearily. She had already been feeling lightheaded from overexerting her powers yesterday.
"Why did you skip afternoon classes?" asked Syaoran, sitting on the kitchen chair as if he had been waiting for her.
"What are you, Mizuki Kai?" Syaoran frowned. "Eron was missing as well. Were you together?"
"Yeah, we were," replied Sakura shortly.
And Syaoran's jaw dropped a little. Of course high school boys and girls ditched class together all the time—or so said Erika.
"What do you expect?" Erika had said with a careless shrug. "They're a couple."
"W-what are they doing together?"
Erika had stared at him with an exasperating knowing smile. "You know. Stuff that couples do."
Coughing, Syaoran turned to Sakura. "I don't think it's a good idea to skip classes. Especially with creepy, ponytailed guys with surely no good intention in mind."
"Eron-kun is my boyfriend. Don't badmouth him," said Sakura.
"E-excuse me?" Syaoran choked. It was one of those painstaking facts that he could ignore so long as he did not hear it from Sakura's lips.
Sakura turned around and glared at Syaoran. "Seriously, how long do you plan on staying here? It's getting annoying having to lie to everyone about you."
"Why, so that you can invite your precious Eron-kun over?" demanded Syaoran.
"Why don't you just go back to Leiyun-san now?"
"I would if it weren't for the stupid pro—" Syaoran stopped short and stared up at Sakura carefully for the first time, his eyes lingering at a black wool scarf that he did not recognize as Sakura's.
She instinctively wrapped the scarf tighter around her neck and stomped up the stairs to her bedroom. Syaoran chased after her to her room.
"Don't come in!" she exclaimed, trying to slam her door shut.
Syaoran wedged his foot between the door and forced his way in. "Did Leiyun do something to you at school?" he demanded. "Did he?"
"It's none of your business!" exclaimed Sakura, pushing away Syaoran.
"Then why are you wearing a scarf indoors?" asked Syaoran, grabbing the end of Sakura's black scarf.
"Let go—I'm just a little cold," said Sakura, yanking back her scarf, but not before Syaoran saw that her top button was missing and her collar hung loose. He glimpsed the greenish discoloration of her skin around her throat and nape of her neck, the glaring reason why she had been wearing the scarf and had not returned to class.
"I'm going to kill him. Even if it is Leiyun," Syaoran growled.
"It's nothing!" Sakura retorted.
"How can you call this nothing?"
"You've hurt me far more than a man called Li Leiyun ever has."
And Syaoran's face dropped.
Sakura grimaced. She had uttered the words that she was not supposed to. The Pandora's box of all her bottled emotions had been released. "The Li Clan, Jinyu-san, Li Leiyun, I can handle. I'm not fragile, I'm not weak. You don't have to baby me anymore. I know how to take care of myself. I don't need you."
Why did Syaoran look disappointed? Sakura paused. "I don't need you, Li Syaoran. So don't interfere with my life. And I won't with yours."
"Very well, if that is what you wish," Syaoran replied.
Why? Why does he make me feel like the bad person? Like I hurt his feelings. Sakura turned her head away.
Just then, the front doorbell rang.
Sakura looked up. "Who can it be at this hour?"
"No, he has a key. And otou-san's dinner lecture shouldn't be over yet." Sakura walked up to her window and peeked through the curtains at the front gates. "Oh my gosh, it's Eron-kun."
The doorbell rang again. Sakura ran about flustered. "Hurry up and hide. Don't come out until I tell you to."
"Why? It's not a secret that I'm staying here, you know."
"Just do it." Sakura pushed away Syaoran and hurried downstairs, tripping over her own feet.
She opened the door, out of breath. "Eron-kun! What brings you here at this hour?"
"Sorry, were you sleeping?" asked Eron. Sakura hasn't even changed out of her school uniform yet.
"N-no." Sakura glanced upstairs nervously. Hopefully Syaoran had the sense to lock himself in her brother's room and not come out.
"I was just worried because of what happened in school earlier today. Are you really all right?" Eron asked.
Sakura nodded. "It really was a misunderstanding."
"Your brother and father don't seem to be in," Eron remarked, glancing at the darkened living room. "Aren't you scared by yourself?"
"No, I'm used to it," Sakura replied. She heard a clash upstairs.
"Did you hear something?" asked Eron.
"It's Kero-chan—he's playing videogames in onii-chan's room," replied Sakura hastily.
"I see. You have Kero-chan, so I guess you won't get lonely," said Eron. He sneezed.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Come on in," Sakura said.
Eron walked in the house, suddenly aware that he was visiting Sakura's house at nighttime, and that they were alone, besides the stuffed animal.
"Here let me take your jacket," Sakura said, hanging it up on the coat hanger. "Do you want some tea? Or some cake? Oh, it's German chocolate cake—it might be too sweet for your taste. But we have some green tea pudding."
Sakura only babbled so much when she was nervous. Eron peered at Sakura, realizing she was flustered. Was she nervous to be alone with him? "I'm actually not hungry."
"Oh." Sakura looked quite dismayed.
"We barely got to spend any time together over the holidays, and I just want to catch up. Do you mind if I stay just a little and chat?" asked Eron.
"No, of course not," Sakura said stiltedly. She walked towards the living room. "Do you want to watch TV?"
"Umm…" Eron blushed slightly. "Can I see your room by any chance?"
Sakura blinked. "Sure." Then she frowned. She had not planned on taking Eron upstairs at all. Hopefully Syaoran was well in hiding. "Umm… My room is a mess, and I haven't made the bed and…"
"It's all right. I just want to see Sakura's bedroom—that is unless you don't want to show me—" Eron blushed more. "I've never really seen a girl's room before. Except Erika's, and she doesn't count."
"No, no, it's fine." Sakura sighed. It would be weird if she refused now.
She walked up the stairs, stomping her feet loudly to signal that she was coming up.
"Well, this is my room," said Sakura, pointing to the wood door labeled Kinomoto Sakura. "Wait a second, let me just tidy a few things up." She walked in and peered around suspiciously. Good. Syaoran was nowhere to be seen. "Come in!" she called out.
Eron stepped in. The gable room was small and cozy, just like he had imagined Sakura's room to be like. The wallpaper was a bright, cheery yellow, and the curtains and bed sheets were a soft pink. By her headboard was an assortment of stuffed animal, including a miniature Sakura. Eron smiled. And by her closet hung her spare uniform.
"Well—" Sakura blushed. "Say something."
"Ah, so this is the room you grew up in," said Eron. "It's a nice room."
"I thought you've seen it before," said Sakura. It occurred to her that Eron was the first guy who had asked to see her room. Yukito-san, Syaoran and Kai were probably the only non-family males to have been in her room. She had not thought particularly about any of those instances. But with Eron, she was suddenly painstakingly aware that a boy was in her room.
Eron walked over to her desk and picked up an old family photo, one of the very few in existence. "Your mother was a very beautiful person."
"Yes, she was," said Sakura wistfully.
"You look a lot like her in this photo. And this baby is you?" Eron smiled. His eyes lingered over to her photo albums. "Can I see these?"
"Sure." Sakura made a face. "I hope there aren't any embarrassing photos in there."
Eron sat down on the floor and opened up one of the middle albums.
Sakura crouched down next to him. "Ah, that's from elementary school. Let's see… That's the fifth grade cultural festival. And the sports festival. Ah, and the Sleeping Beauty play."
"You made a very cute prince," Eron chuckled.
"Don't make fun of me," said Sakura.
Flipping through the pages, it was like glimpsing Sakura's childhood, a world that he was not a part of. Sakura, age ten, was full of laughter and exuded a brightness like no other. She still did, but not with that same, transparent innocence of those days. Her friends were still the same. There was Rika, Naoko and Chiharu. Yamazaki Takashi looked the same. Tomoyo was in fewer pictures, most likely because she was more often taking them.
"Wow, Mizuki-sensei looked the same six years ago," he remarked.
"Yes, she's an eternal beauty," replied Sakura, peering over Eron's shoulders. It had been a while since she had looked through her old albums.
"There's any empty slot here," Eron replied. "Did you take out a picture?"
"Um, maybe. It must have been for an art project," replied Sakura absentmindedly.
"Oh, Meilin was in your class too," remarked Eron with a chuckle at a picture of Sakura and Meilin doing the marathon. He flipped through more pages. The courage test, choir, cheerleading practice, the ski trip. Once in a while, there were more empty slots. He frowned slightly. "Weren't you and Li Syaoran in the same class in elementary school?"
"Yeah," replied Sakura.
"How come there aren't any pictures of him in any of your albums?"
"Oh. Really? He didn't like to take pictures much, I guess," replied Sakura nonchalantly. "Umm… I'm going to make us some hot chocolate, and I'll bring it up."
"All right. I'll be looking at these," said Eron. He flipped through to the junior high albums. It was nostalgic seeing pictures with Sakura's long hair. As he had suspected, all photos of Li Syaoran were missing. And it was far more apparent in the later albums, because there seemed to be entire pages of photos missing. And because he had been there as well, he knew they were missing. The New York trip—there were photos of Sakura and Tomoyo and Sakura and Meilin, and Sakura and her brother and Yukito-san. There was even him and Erika. But there were no photos of her and Li Syaoran. The only photo remaining from the Star-Crossed production was one with her in her Juliet costume and her family. In fact, from her second to third year of junior high, there were very few photos in general in the album. Because Li Syaoran had been such an integral part of those years?
Sakura walked back into the room with a tray with two mugs of hot chocolate and a thick slice of chocolate cake.
"Wow, I'm drinking hot chocolate that Sakura made me," remarked Eron. "I feel special. Did you bake this cake? It's delicious."
"Um, yes!" Sakura jumped in her seat at her own lie, resulting in knocking over her mug of hot chocolate. It spilled over Eron's shirt.
"Oh no, I'm so sorry!" exclaimed Sakura, wiping his sleeves with napkins. "It's going to stain your shirt—let me wash it for you!"
"No, it's fine, it's fine," said Eron.
"You can borrow one of onii-chan's shirt," Sakura said.
"That's really okay,'' protested Eron.
"No, I insist." Then, suddenly Sakura remembered Syaoran was supposed to have locked himself in her brother's room. She walked up to her closet.
"You keep your brother's shirts in your closet?" Eron asked curiously.
"Ah, yes, I've taken some of his shirts," replied Sakura, opening the door to find none other than Syaoran staring out at her. He silently handed her a shirt. Sakura eyes bulged as she mouthed, "What are you doing in there?"
"You told me to hide," he mouthed back.
Sakura quickly slammed the closet door shut again. "Umm, Eron-kun, you can get changed into this. The bathroom is down the hall."
Eron took the shirt and walked down the hall.
As soon as she heard the bathroom door click, Sakura opened the closet door again. "What in the world are you doing in there?"
"I told you, I'm hiding."
"Well, if you had some common sense, I meant in onii-chan's room or in the basement or something."
"I didn't have enough time," replied Syaoran. "I just hid in the first place that came to mind."
"Were you sitting there spying on me and Eron-kun the entire time?"
"It's not like I had a choice. And what kind of girl brings a guy to her bedroom at this time of the night? It's not decent at all."
"Excuse me? What are you doing here then?" Sakura asked in disbelief. "Anyhow, hurry and go hide somewhere else before Eron-kun comes out of the bathroom."
"Where?" asked Syaoran. "I'll have to pass by the bathroom to go to your brother's room."
Down the hallway, the bathroom door clicked open again.
"Shoot, just go back in there," said Sakura, shoving Syaoran behind her hangers and slamming the closet door shut. She swung around. "Eron-kun! Does it fit?"
"Umm…" Eron looked a bit peeved as he fingered the long-sleeved pink polo shirt. "This really is not my color."
"Sakura-chan, where did my piece of cake go? It was definitely in the fridge earlier," said Kero-chan, holding a bag of chips as he flew into the room. Then he blinked, pointing at Eron with a paw. "What's he doing here at this time of the night, wearing the Brat's shirt?"
Sakura's jaw dropped. "Kero-chan, where were you?"
"In the basement, doing some reading." Kero-chan peered at Eron suspiciously. "What're you doing here?"
"I was getting ready to leave soon," replied Eron.
Kero-chan looked around. "Where' s the Bra—"
Sakura quickly clamped her hand over Kero-chan's mouth. "Where's onii-chan? Onii-chan is at work, you know."
And Kero-chan peered at Sakura skeptically. "Well, I'll be in the basement if you need anything." He then flew off, wondering if it was all right to leave Sakura alone with that Chang boy in her bedroom. "Well, she's had the Brat in there all the time, so it shouldn't matter too much."
"I thought Kero-chan was supposed to be in your brother's room playing videogames," remarked Eron, sitting down at the tip of Sakura's bed.
"Oh, I guess I was mistaken," Sakura replied, cold perspiration running down her back.
"Then what was that noise upstairs, earlier on."
"Maybe a mouse?" squeaked Sakura.
Thankfully, Eron did not probe any further and instead leaned over to observe the Chibi-Sakura doll with a pink cape and matching hat. "Did Tomoyo-chan make that for you?"
"Yeah. That's the mini-version of the battle outfit I wore in Yue-san's Final Judgment," said Sakura.
"What's that teddy bear?" asked Eron.
"What teddy bear?"
"The one underneath the bed," said Eron, reaching over and pulling out a dusty black bear out from under the bear."
"T-that—" Sakura stammered.
"Poor thing. Look how dusty it became," said Eron, brushing off the cloud of dust. "How long has he been under here?"
"Does he have a name?"
"N-no!" Sakura replied.
"I thought all teddy bears have names," Eron remarked. "At least in Sakura-chan's world." Carefully, he set the bear next to the Chibi-Sakura-chan doll. "Must be a present from a person that you particularly don't care about."'
"R-right," replied Sakura.
"Sakura, next time, I'll buy you a teddy bear, a huge teddy bear as big as you," said Eron.
Sakura giggled. "What would I do with such a big teddy bear?"
"You can name it 'Eron-kun' and pretend it's me when I'm not there," Eron replied.
"You're remarkably silly, Eron-kun," said Sakura, taking a seat next to Eron on the bed. "I'm not so fond of big teddy bears myself. Back in elementary school, I made a teddy bear for Yukito-san. And Eriol-kun spelled it to become huge, and it attacked me."
"You had to fight against a giant teddy bear that you yourself had made?" asked Eron. How Eriol-like the scenario sounded.
Sakura nodded with a giggle. "Of course, I ended up not being able to give it to Yukito-san."
"This was back when you were transforming the Clow Cards into Sakura Cards."
"Right. Eriol-kun was actually helping me along with the process by creating situations where I needed to transform the Clow Cards into their new form," said Sakura.
"Because you used the power of the stars, whereas the Clow Cards used the power of darkness." Eron stared down at the floor. "I guess Li Syaoran was with you through all of that."
"Yeah. He ended up staying back even though all the Clow Cards were captured."
"Oh no." Sakura said extra loudly so that somebody could hear, "Back then, Li-kun was completely infatuated with Yukito-san."
"Eh, I didn't know Li-kun swung that way," Eron remarked.
"Then again, I think it's impossible not to love Yukito-san," said Sakura with a sigh. "I have not met anybody who doesn't like him."
"I think you like Tsukishiro-san more than me," said Eron, rather jealously.
"Well, he was my first love, after all," Sakura replied. It was funny. Whenever she talked about Yukito-san, she had this same warm, fuzzy feeling inside. But when she thought of Syaoran, she would always feel a dully aching hollowness inside of her. "He's more like 'family' now. But there's nobody who makes me feel 'hanyaan' like Yukito-san does."
Sakura nodded with a grin.
"Well, now I'm really jealous," said Eron. He leaned over to Sakura. "And have I never made you feel 'hanyaan'?'"
"Nobody makes me feel like that except for Yukito-san and Mizuki-sensei," Sakura said with a weak smile.
"Always attracted to the power of moon, aren't you?" remarked Eron lowly.
Sakura straightened up. "Well, tomorrow's a school day and—"
"Sakura." He called her name out in a soft yet urgent tone. "I love you."
What was he saying all of a sudden? "Eron-kun…"
"That's why, I wish you will learn to trust me now." Eron's eyes were a bright gold, like it always was when he was passionate. He leaned over to Sakura's face.
And Sakura floundered. How did the topic of conversation go from Clow Cards to this? She suddenly bolted up from the bed but ended up tripping over a green cardboard box that was sticking out from underneath her bed. That idiot Li Syaoran must have tried to hide underneath her bed first and upset everything she had shoved underneath it.
Out spilled a battered music box clattered on the floor, its lid swung open and tinkered out a pitiful orgel of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Sakura let out a gasp as she realized which box it was. Tink tink-tink-tink-tink-tink tink-tink… Each little note resounded with the beating of her pulse.
Eron steadied her, but not before seeing the contents of the overturned box. There were photos, dozens of photos. Some of them were facing down. He bent over and picked one up. It was a photo he had not seen before. It was one of young Sakura in a yellow jacket and Li Syaoran in a green cardigan, around ten or so, laughing, wearing matching teddy bear ears, in front of the Teddy Bear Museum. There was another photo of Sakura in her elementary school uniform, practicing recorder next to Syaoran in the Tomoeda Elementary uniform, and yet another of Sakura pressed as a prince, arms flung around Syaoran, if that person in a frilly pink dress and blonde curly wig was indeed Syaoran.
"I got it!" Sakura exclaimed, cheeks red, picking up the photos and trying to hide them with her hands.
And Eron picked up a clump of photos, which judged by the quality seemed newer. Yes, they were. These were photos from New York. Central Park, the Plaza Hotel, the Empire State Building. Every photo contained that same sullen brunette boy with piercing amber eyes, eyes that he wanted to tear into pieces. Eron stared at the last photo, a moment he had no recollection of. Where was this event? He vaguely recognized the blue dress Sakura was wearing. The look in Sakura's eyes as she gazed upon a brunette boy in a black tuxedo… A look that she had never shown him. "What are these?"
"T-they're nothing," Sakura replied hastily, face pale.
In a frosty idiosyncratic tone that Sakura had not heard in a long time, Eron asked, "Then why are you keeping them so preciously stored?"
"I'm not. It's just a random junk box—it's nothing. I forgot they were even there," said Sakura.
"Well then, if it's nothing, then just throw them away."
Sakura blinked up at him, her voice suddenly caught in her throat. "Because." She clutched the photos on the floor. "Because they are still my precious memories."
"I see." A strange smile curled in the corner of Eron's lips. "How pitiful. Even now, I cannot beat a simple memory of bygone times."
"Eron-kun…" Sakura looked up at Chang Eron's catlike hazel eyes.
"All this time, I gave everything to you, and you still kept him in mind, didn't you?" demanded Eron. "Admit it. You are glad that's he's back, aren't you?"
"It's not like that between him and me!" exclaimed Sakura. "Not at all. I'm dating you. I don't care for him at all."
"How can I believe you?"
"Because I am with you now. Isn't that enough evidence? I can't erase the six years of knowing him. But he is the past."
"Prove it to me."
"I will." Sakura looked into Eron's eyes. And she knew the answer. Leaning over, she closed her eyes.
There was a loud clatter in the closet.
"What was that?" Eron asked.
"N-nothing," Sakura replied, drawing back abruptly. How could she have completely forgotten? "I—I think a hanger fell."
"No, I think there's somebody in there," said Eron, slowly walking towards the closet.
"You must be mistaken, Eron-kun!" said Sakura.
"Why are you getting so defensive? I don't it's a ghost or anything."
"Yes, now, let's leave it at that," said Sakura, standing in front of Eron and the closet. "About what we were talking about right now. About proof and everything." She tilted her head up, her eyes flitting back towards the closet briefly.
"I can't get in the mood when I feel like the closet is watching me," replied Eron, pushing Sakura aside and swinging open the closet door.
And Li Syaoran, swaddled in a pink tulle dress and a long scarf, came crashing out of the closet, sprawled onto the floor on top of the mess of scattered photos, music scores and videotapes.
There was a prolonged period of silence in the house that even a pin-drop could have been heard.
"Li Syaoran?" Eron finally exclaimed in disbelief. "What were you doing in there?"
"You bastard, get away from her!" growled Syaoran, clambering on the floor to untangle himself from a feather boa and a blue chiffon scarf.
"Eron-kun, I can explain!" Sakura stated.
Kero-chan flew into the bedroom. "Sakura-chan, is everything all right? I just heard a crash upstairs."
Downstairs, there was a click and the door swung open. "Kaijou, why did you leave the front door open?"
"Oh no…" groaned Sakura, clasping her head in hands. How could everything just come crumbling down in just one instant?
It was a matter of seconds before Kinomoto Touya clomped upstairs and burst into the room. "Kinomoto Sakura, why didn't you answer me? You left the front door unlo—" He stared at the spectacle in front of him, his little sister's boyfriend fist raised in the air, looking about to kill the brunette boy sprawled on the floor over what seemed like the aftermath of a hurricane. Sadly enough, nothing really surprised him anymore. His brows twitched.
"Onii-chan!" exclaimed Sakura.
"Onii-chan?" Eron's eyes widened as he finally looked up to see the one person that intimidated him the most in the world, his girlfriend's older brother.
And Syaoran only groaned, burying his head into the pink tutu twined around his neck, wishing he could just disappear into the floor.
"Well, you have some explaining to do here, don't you, Kinomoto Sakura?" barked Touya, hands on hips.
This was sort of an eventful chapter, wasn't it? (It's more like two chapters squished into one, hence it took longer to write than anticipated). It feels like everything's starting to happen all at once now that the "Memory Arc" is over. This chapter is a lot more lighthearted than Arc 4 thus far. I loved CCS for the little tidbits of details put into the characters, like Syaoran completely being taken by Kinomoto Fujitaka when he visits Tomoeda Elementary. I thought it was cute that CLAMP retained this detail and transferred it to Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles, where Fujitaka adopts Syaoran and they both are archeologists. I always wanted to write more interaction between the two characters. Poor Touya. I think he had several heart attacks in this past chapter alone. Please check out fanart on Chibi-Sakura and Syaoran in their bunny jumpers at my devianart account (wishluv).
I guess next chapter will be Eron vs. Syaoran? Lol. I'm sorry about ending with a cliffhanger... For more about Li Shulin and Li Shenji (Syaoran's direct ancestor), please refer to the Legacy of the Five Forces.
As always, reader feedback has been my life source and is always so appreciated at hopeluvpeace hotmail (dot) com . I am still working to respond to everybody, so if you don't receive a response, please feel free to send a prodding reminder. ^_^ Please join the Yahoo Group at Yahoo (dot) com/group/newtrialsring/ if you haven't already. Latest New Trials fanart can be found at wishluv (dot) deviantart (dot) come and visit my blot at for the latest updates at wishluv (dot) blogspot (dot) com and newest chapters can be found at wishluv (dot) revolutionhosting (dot) net.
And without further ado,
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SAKURA 2010!!! Happy April's Fool Day!