Part II: Intermission
It was the first time Seijou High School Classes 2-2 and 3-2 had the auditorium for themselves for the entire afternoon to rehearse the ill-named Goth Cinderella play, and Kinomoto Sakura knew it was a disaster waiting to happen. The orchestra, headed by the devilish Li Leiyun, had been practicing separately and was to accompany the rehearsal for the first time. Sakura was gripping her violin neck so tightly that Syaoran watched anxiously whether she would snap it in two.
Yet Director Tomoyo, her annotated script in hand, seemed determined to make the play work, even though a woe begotten Cinder-Eron was sulking in the corner, hugging a broom, like the world was coming to an end, and Dark Prince Jinyu stared off into space, holding a prop cardboard sword, emanating an aura of doom.
At least Erika was a cheery enough stepsister, kicking her brother back up on his feet. She then walked up to Jinyu, explaining to him extra succinctly, "Today's a dress rehearsal. Obviously, we don't have the costumes ready yet, but we have a great deal of props, and this is the first time we're going to rehearse on the real stage. You have to pay attention to the entrances and exits, as well as the cues from the demon director, Tomoyo. You know, the annoying girl who always carries around a camcorder. She's recording everything and will make us watch it to review our mistakes, so you better do a good job or else she'll use the clip the blackmail and humiliate you till the end of time."
Tomoyo nearly smiled at this nearly empty threat from Erika, then glanced back worriedly at Sakura and Syaoran in the orchestra pit, as Leiyun barked out instructions at them. While Tomoyo had watched over several orchestra practices, this was the first time they were directly working together, and she didn't know how well she would actually be able to collaborate with Leiyun, since communication between director and conductor was essential for the flow of the play. When she had asked him to take on the role of conductor, she had never expected him to take on the role so seriously, and he was not cutting anyone, including his cousin, any slack. And Eriol, who had seemed to be content taking the back seat after writing the Cinderella script had suddenly volunteered as the pianist.
Sakura leaned over and whispered to Syaoran, "When did Eriol-kun join the orchestra?"
"The pianist cut her hand on a glass beaker when her chemistry experiment exploded," replied Syaoran.
"I have a horrible feeling about this rehearsal," murmured Sakura under her breath.
"At least Fuutie's away at the onsen today with Jingmei to take a breather," said Syaoran.
"At least anyone who wants to create mischief will have a hard time since they're all here in plain view," she added.
"And at least we're not the ones on stage," Syaoran pointed out. The two of them met eyes and couldn't help laugh out loud harder than intended out of pure relief.
And first cello told them sourly, "What is there to be merry about? Li-sensei will have my head for sure today if I miss a note."
"But I think he really likes you," remarked Syaoran, rather considerately.
First cello looked thoroughly appalled at this suggestion.
Leiyun said, "I expect all of you have memorized the score for the first act, like I assigned last time. Remember, eyes on me—unlike our practices on our own, we will need to keep up with the pace of the play. Your role is to follow me and to concentrate."
"I'm doomed," mumbled Sakura morosely. "I didn't have any time to practice."
And Sakura really did her best to try to keep up with the score, but unlike previous practices, where Leiyun would stop them and make them redo measures when they messed up, they had to go along with the pace of the actors—and the tempo was completely different from their practices because things were not going quite smoothly on stage either. She could feel Leiyun's icy blue eyes narrow on her. Her bow skid over the neck of the violin, making an embarrassing screech, and her ears turned a bright red, and she lost track of where they were playing. She scanned the score, having no idea what measure they were up to. As she fumbled, she braced for the scathing words Leiyun would have for her after practice.
But then, Syaoran made a surprising mistake, missing a major chord. He was playing much sloppier than usual, and Leiyun was scowling now. Sakura supposed he was having an off-day too, but as the glaring mistakes continued, the other orchestra members glanced at each other quizzically, for this was quite unlike Syaoran, especially that last jarring ping.
Finally, Leiyun, whether or not the Eron was in the middle of his heartfelt soliloquy or not, set his baton down and barked, "Concertmaster! What's going on? You think this is a joke?"
Syaoran stared up at his older cousin brazenly. "Sorry. My bow slipped."
"The first violin sets the tempo for the entire orchestra! If you can't hold a bow straight or match the pace, then quit!" declared Leiyun, and the other orchestra members tittered, delighted that it was the perfect Syaoran being scolded in front of all their classmates, not themselves.
Tomoyo finally intervened. "Li-sensei, the orchestra sounds fine to me, and this is our first time doing a full run-through, so we can work on things as we go along."
"Sorry for the unsightly interruption, director," said Leiyun, hand on chest, bowing his head slightly. "Their incompetence is a reflection of my own inadequacy. We shall continue."
Sakura sighed in relief, finally having found where they were in the score, and positioned her fingers on the strings. And Syaoran seemed to have recovered as well, and played smoothly for the remainder of the act.
It was amusing for Leiyun to see the usually cool and composed Tomoyo looking quite anxious over this rehearsal. Perhaps she should admit to herself that she had taken on more than she had anticipated by placing every single troublemaker imaginable together in one room. He had to admit, Tomoyo and Eriol had come up with a clever ploy. With Eriol in the orchestra pit, watching over Sakura and Syaoran, and Tomoyo on stage, narrating, they had complete control over the play. Erika, Kara, and Jinyu, along with Eron, were all key characters leaving not a single moment where one of them was not on stage. As the conductor, Leiyun himself was tied down throughout the duration of the play. But Sakura's friends were cast in roles that allowed easy mobility, including Kai as fairy godmother and Meilin as a stepsister.
"Even if I wanted to create mischief, I wouldn't be able to," he murmured to himself. "But mischief will happen nonetheless when this many troublemakers are grouped together."
Despite Leiyun's brief outburst at Syaoran, Tomoyo thought this rehearsal was going along slightly better than before, though just barely. Eron seemed to be able to do fine in his scenes alone. It was the scenes with Jinyu that were a problem.
Jinyu missed his first and second cue. It wasn't until Erika marched backstage to fetch him that he appeared for his debut scene in the play. And then Jinyu stood staring blankly at the glaring spotlight, even though he was holding his script in hand.
Finally Erika, from the sidelines, whispered out his first lines, and Jinyu repeated after her stiltedly, as if remembering he had to speak. The other students groaned.
"Eron-kun already has all his lines memorized, and he has the most lines out of all of us," said Naoko. "But Jinyu-senpai can't even remember his first line."
"We should just recast," muttered Aki. "I'd make a much better prince."
"I think even Takashi will make a better prince than him," said Chiharu. "Poor Tomoyo-chan—what in the world was she thinking casting the foreboding Li Jinyu-senpai. I always did think she was a little out of her mind."
"There must be a reason," pointed out Takashi. "Or perhaps, she just likes his looks. She likes the tall, dark, solitary, brooding types."
"Someone like Li-sensei would make the perfect fairytale prince," said Naoko.
"More like the two-faced villain that tries to splinter the main couple," Takashi pointed out.
"What a horrible thing to say!" exclaimed Naoko.
It was Rika who looked around and first asked, "What is this smell?"
While it took longer for those off the stage to smell the smoke, Sakura realized that it smelled like burning wood. "Don't you smell something burning?"
"Sakura, is that you squeaking again?" snapped Leiyun.
"I smell it too," said Syaoran, setting down his violin and standing up.
And Naoko, the backstage manager, came running out screaming, "Fire! Fire! Everyone, get out!"
There was immediate panic amongst the students, who clambered toward the exits. Leiyun called out, "Everyone, leave the auditorium immediately and file in a straight line outside!"
"The exits are locked!" exclaimed Tachibana Rei, trying one door. Someone else ran over to another exit and called out, "This one too!"
With a frown, Leiyun tried the nearest exit.
"We're trapped in here!" exclaimed Naoko, as the smell smoke thickened.
Aki said, "It's the ghost of the auditorium! The second school mystery—the girl who was burned in the auditorium by her jealous classmate and buried beneath the stage."
"Nonsense," said Leiyun.
"Why aren't the sprinklers activating?" asked Rika. "And the fire alarms aren't going off."
"Everybody, calm down and exit without pushing," said Leiyun, covering his mouth with a handkerchief. "Kara, go check backstage if everybody's out. Syaoran, come here and knock down the door."
Syaoran nodded and ran up to the main exit, flinging out a side kick, blasting open the door. The students clambered to rush outside, and Leiyun called out, "Line up outside and check if all your classmates are out—Naoko, you're stage manager so you know everybody, right? Do a roll call when you get out."
"What about you, Li-sensei?" asked Naoko.
"I'm going to check if nobody's left behind, and I'll be out shortly," said Leiyun.
Kara called out to Leiyun, "I think Jinyu and Erika are trapped backstage. And the fire's spreading."
Leiyun took off his sweater and handed it to her. "Cover your mouth and get out."
Syaoran turned to Kara, "Where's the source of the fire?"
"I don't know—it started backstage, near the changing room," replied Kara.
"I'll use the Watery right away," said Sakura with a frown, releasing her star staff.
"Don't!" exclaimed Leiyun, grabbing her arm.
"Why? Watery can put out the fire instantly," said Sakura, holding up the Sakura Card.
"It's not a regular fire," replied Leiyun. "I think a Sakura Card will only fuel it. It will feed off your power and burn fiercer."
She should have known that, but she didn't and almost made the fire spread quicker. Furious at herself for making another mistake in front of Leiyun, Sakura rushed backstage, where the smoke was thick, to the point where her eyes almost stung. "Erika-chan! Jinyu-san! Where are you?"
"Idiot, don't go back there all on your own!" exclaimed Syaoran, running to her side.
It occurred to Sakura she hadn't spotted Eron in the group of students that had exited the auditorium. "Where's Eron-kun?" She saw the flames now that were spreading at an immense speed across the backstage. It couldn't reach the curtains—that would take down the whole stage. "Eron!" she called out. The heat scorched her skin, and she spotted Eron, banging against the changing room door.
"They're in here," said Eron.
"Eron, stand back, I'll do it!" Syaoran said, sword in hand.
"Erika! Erika!" Eron exclaimed frantically, pounding the wooden door. "Erika, she won't be able to withstand the smoke. Her heart…"
Sakura held back Eron as Syaoran slashed the wooden door open and found Jinyu holding onto a limp Erika. "She lost consciousness," he said. "Get her out of here, quickly."
Nodding, Syaoran carried Erika on his back and rushed out of the auditorium, through the growing flames.
Jinyu, covered his nose with his forearm, hurried back further backstage.
"Where are you going?" demanded Eron.
"The cat is still back there," said Jinyu.
"Who cares about a stupid cat? Come out!" exclaimed Eron.
Sakura said, "I'll look with you." She was afraid to use her Sakura Cards because of what Leiyun had told her. But she also knew that she could last longer in the flames than could Jinyu, and she could also figure out the source of the fire and end it. It was magical, she was sure, but was it a dark force?
"It's a demon fire," said Kai, who jumped down from the beams above with flourish.
"A demon fire?" asked Sakura.
"Yes, an evil spirit, a yokai, can cause an unnatural fire. Perhaps for vengeance, perhaps for mischief. Perhaps on command by a stronger master," remarked Kai.
"Who has the power to summon or control yokai?" asked Sakura.
"The more important question right now has the power to exorcise it," said Eron.
"Mizuki-sensei!" exclaimed Sakura. "She was trained as a Shinto priestess, after all."
She heard a quiet changing and Shinto ward papers flew around her.
"Mizuki-sensei!" exclaimed Sakura.
Kaho and Miho stood side by side.
For a moment, Miho stared at the spreading flames, frozen. Kai grabbed his younger sister by the arm and turned her around to face him. "What did you come here for?"
"But I heard there was some sort of dark force," said Miho, frozen in the spot.
The fire ceased abruptly as Kaho murmured a final chant and only wisps of smoke remained. Jinyu came out with the purring kitten in his arms.
"Byakko-chan!" Tomoyo said, glancing up at the soot-covered Black Dragon, starkly contrasting with the snow white kitten.
"Oh no, the backstage paintings and most of the props are ruined," exclaimed Meilin.
"I don't think that's the main problem—the whole back stage is wrecked and half the front stage is singed," said Kai dryly. "We won't be able to put on any performance over here."
"The other classes will be devastated—we have a lot of performances scheduled in the auditorium for the cultural festival," stated Miho. "Well, while we're at it, should we check for the dead body underneath the stage?"
Sakura glanced around and said quietly, "Can't I just fix up the backstage and main stage a little bit? Nobody else knows how bad the fire really was."
Erika, who had regained her consciousness and seemed fine, albeit a bit lightheaded, exclaimed, "Are you guys worrying over the stupid stage when I nearly lost my life there in the fire?"
"Jinyu too," pointed out Eron.
"And you dare call me and the others the 'troublemakers?'" stated Erika, pointing at Tomoyo. "I think one of you guys was deliberately trying to kill me and Jinyu."
"That's ridiculous," said Meilin.
"Then how come it was only me and Jinyu trapped backstage?" demanded Erika. "And all of you guys were safe and sound outside?"
"I don't know!" exclaimed Miho. "Maybe you guys caused the fire yourselves and are pretending to be the victims to catch us off guard."
"You, don't you have fire magic? You're the one who burned down the house you grew up in," declared Erika. "Maybe you're the one who caused the fire!"
"Maybe someone's trying to sabotage the play," Meilin interjected, glancing over at Miho and seeing her bottom lips tremble at the unpleasant memory.
Erika shot back, "Yes, that's what I'm saying. It's probably Tomoyo and Eriol themselves, coming up with this mess of a play, forcing us to be a part of it, and having the last laugh."
"Don't bring Tomoyo into this—think how devastated she must be over her stage being ruined," said Meilin.
"I think she got so annoyed with how bad Jinyu is as the Prince that she planned to get rid of him," declared Erika.
Gasping, Meilin stared up at the Black Dragon and then back at Erika, and declared, "You said that, I didn't!"
"What, he's horrible!" exclaimed Erika, both hands in the air. "If Tomoyo didn't set the stage on fire, I would probably have done it myself."
"See, you said with your own lips you'd like to set fire on the stage! You're the culprit!" said Miho.
"And you call yourself an acute journalist? Where's your logical sense? I actually like this stinking play! I like the script, I like the music, I like the costume designs. I want it to do well, despite all of you guys' twisted ploys to mess it all up," said Erika. And she spun around and glared at Sakura who was tiptoeing around the stage like a busy squirrel. "What in the world do you think you're doing?"
Sakura, staff in the air with the Woody, Forge, and the Metal cards caught between her forefinger and middle finger, squeaked, "I thought I would just fix up the stage a little bit while you guys were… having a discussion? Go on."
"Sakura-senpai, you're the Card Mistress. Don't you care who the culprit is?" Miho demanded. "It's clearly Erika again, and she's acting like the victim. Or it's her twin brother."
"Eron would not hurt Erika," Sakura pointed out, closing one eyes and holding out her staff to eyeball the dimensions of the stage. She had fixed a dented Tokyo Tower before, this was simple.
"Then they're in it together," retorted Miho.
"Thank goodness the costumes were not brought over here," remarked Syaoran, coming out of the backstage area. "There's nothing we can do about the burnt pumpkin carriage and props left behind by the last production, but props and backdrops can be rebuilt easily."
"Where did you come from?" asked Meilin, glancing around.
"We're finished restoring the backstage," said Syaoran, ward papers in hand. "But I singed the wood a little bit to make it look like there was a little fire so the others wouldn't become too suspicious. The front stage looks good."
"It's much more stable than it was before—the wood was rotting, which was why it burned so fast," said Sakura. She glanced up at the ceiling at the beams. "I made sure to reinforce the nuts and bolts up there too."
"Good. No crashing chandeliers," remarked Syaoran.
Kara blinked. "What's wrong with them? What are they talking about?"
Tomoyo replied, "They've done this too many times. For them, it's not a matter of whodunit but 'the show must go on.'"
After examining her reconstruction handiwork, Sakura said, "You know what I think, Syaoran?"
"Yeah, there definitely is a dark force out there," he replied.
"Or two," said Sakura. "Do you think we can lure it out, even though we're not sure what it is yet?"
"We can try," said Syaoran.
"Yeah, in the forest behind King Penguin Park. I'll try locating it with my Rasinban."
"Let's just keep this low key?"
"Definitely," replied Syaoran.
As if Syaoran thought his week could get any worse, Fuutie, who was thankfully back to her usual self, announced when he and Meilin got back home from school, "I just got a text message from Shiefa—she's arrived at the airport."
"What?" exclaimed Syaoran, feeling his knees wobble. "What's she doing in Japan?"
"She's here with rest of the business delegation," said Fuutie, who was glowing from a day at the spa. "You know I came a week early because I missed you so much."
Syaoran groaned. How had he not realized Shiefa would also be a part of the business delegation—especially since the Li Group was looking to expand in the electronics sector in Japan. It was hard enough dealing with one of his sisters, let alone two, and Shiefa was a lot more impatient than Fuutie.
Fuutie looked around the apartment. "You know, unfortunately I don't think Shiefa's going to fit here. I'm very sad to have to tell you that I'll also move into Leiyun's place for the rest of my stay to be with Shiefa. Frankly, the bathroom situation here was getting annoying, and I miss Wei's cooking." She looked up expectantly at her younger brother, who seemed truly grief-stricken at the news of her departure. "Don't worry, we'll be visiting often."
Meilin mouthed to Syaoran, who was struggling to contain a wide smile, "Thank goodness."
"Well, why don't I help you get packed?" asked Syaoran extra helpfully.
"Yes, do pack up my trunks. And give Wei a call to pick us up."
"Yes, us. Shiefa of course will expect you to be waiting when she and the business delegation arrives," replied Fuutie.
Leiyun paled slightly when he saw Syaoran heave large leather trunks into the Li Mansion in the outskirts of Tomoeda. He waved his hand over the luggage and asked, "What's all this?"
"She'll be staying here for the rest of the visit," said Syaoran extra cordially as his older sister followed in after him.
And Leiyun's eyes rounded. "Oh no, dearest cousin Fuutie. I wouldn't dream of having you or Shiefa staying in this dusty old Meiji-era house. I'll go ahead and book a suite room at the five-star Hoshi Plaza Hotel, where the rest of the business delegation will be staying."
"It's all right, this is fine," replied Fuutie sunnily. "After staying in Syaoran's rat hole of an apartment for a week, this should be perfectly suitable."
"I am afraid, the water pipes here are antiquated so we don't get all that much hot water, and the floors creak. And we cohabitate with spiders, snakes, and rodents because Kara has an affinity for such creepy creatures."
Fuutie smiled up at him. "Why, I would almost think that you do not want me here, dearest cousin Leiyun."
And Leiyun smiled back equally as sweetly. "Of course that wouldn't be the case. I was merely concerned for my favorite cousin's well-being."
"I thought your favorite cousin was Syaoran," muttered Kara under her breath.
"No, it's actually Jinyu—he's the only one that doesn't talk back," Leiyun whispered back.
The front door swung open without the doorbell ringing, and a tall woman with short auburn hair cropped short in the front, gathered in a long tail in the back, dashed into the hallway. "Syaoran! Is that you?"
She squeezed her younger brother into a choking hug. "It's been so long."
"Actually, it really hasn't been," muttered Syaoran as his second oldest sister smothered him.
Shiefa, dropping Syaoran abruptly, exclaimed, "Cousin Leiyun! How delightful to see you here in Japan, finally." She then turned to her older sister. "So, how is it? How is Japanese life? Were you having so much fun that you couldn't even return my calls? Isn't this such a quaint little village in the countryside? I can't believe it took us so long to visit."
"This is suburban, not the countryside," mumbled Erika from the stairwell. The Li sisters couldn't be serious about staying here, could they?
"Well, Mother did mention that if we were to come when Syaoran was capturing the Clow Cards, we would be a distraction," Fuutie pointed out. "Too much moon power could create unbalance with the Clow Cards on the loose."
Shiefa sighed. "Totally unfair that Meilin got to go instead and have all the fun."
Meilin snickered. "First time in my life not having powers was useful."
"Oh, is that why they let you come?" Syaoran asked.
Rolling her eyes, Meilin questioned, "Why else did you think I was allowed to go to Japan?"
"I don't know," said Syaoran with a shrug. He never had given it much thought.
"What a heartwarming reunion. Makes us almost look like a functioning, close-knit family that we are not," said a deep, acerbic voice from behind the female chatter.
Syaoran stared up at a man in a crisp navy suit with glasses and jet-black hair that stepped into the hallway. He asked disdainfully, "Leiyun, what is this I hear about you being some substitute teacher at a rural Japanese high school? I swear, your talents are rotting here. When will you return back home?"
"Oh my gosh, it's Dairen," groaned Meilin under her breath.
"Did you have a good flight, Dairen? It wasn't a bad drive from the airport, right?" Leiyun asked.
"The rush hour traffic was horrible." Li Dairen gave his cousin a clap on the back. "Well, you look like you've been doing well, Lei."
Syaoran had never been close to Dairen, who was 25, and was perhaps the most calculating but grounded of the bunch. Dairen was the second oldest son of Li Daifu, the CEO of the Li Group. He was especially known amongst the cousins for his poisonous tongue and short-temperedness. As he had always been top of his class, he had little patience for stupidity or laziness. Back in the days, Dairen had been considered to be closest to Leiyun. They had often been pitted against each other, because they were similar in age, talented, and the sons of the Head of the Li Clan and the CEO of the Li Group. Yet, rather than being caught up in a bitter rivalry, they had paired up and become quite an invincible duo. While Leiyun had been immensely popular, there was nobody who really got him. But Dairen seemed to get Leiyun. Probably because he was a little twisted as well.
"Why is he here?" muttered Meilin, shrinking away. "I thought he's staying at the hotel."
Syaoran knew Meilin had never been fond of Dairen—not that he blamed her. Dairen and his father Daifu were both elitists to the extreme—they gave no time of the day to any of the powerless Li members or were not of any use to them. While Uncle Daifu and his son entered the world of finance, that didn't make them any less accomplished warriors and magician who were core members of the Inner Council of the Li Clan. Li Daifu had often been considered the puppet-master who pulled the strings on the important decisions of the Clan, for after all, he was the one who managed the family's assets. He not only controlled the Li Clan Treasury but also was a well-respected businessman in Hong Kong and internationally. And Dairen, a successful entrepreneur in his own right, was equally brilliant in finance and was considered the frontrunner to becoming the next CEO of the Li Group to succeed his father.
Some Lis quietly grumbled how the distribution of talent was extremely unfair in the Li head family. Wutai had paled in comparison to his younger brothers—it was only because he was the oldest that he ended up becoming the head of the Li Clan. And that was only possible because Daifu let him. Wutai and Daifu always had fierce rivalry all their lives, but when their youngest brother Leiyun became Chosen One and apparently most likely candidate to succeed the Great Elder, the oldest two teamed up. And Ganliu, the third oldest brother and director of the Li Hospital, Jingmei's father, generally always backed Daifu who was considered the second most powerful person in the Li Clan, next to the Great Elder.
Which brother was it that had sent his father on a death mission? Or did all three collaborate together? It was a thought Syaoran tried not to dwell upon. His mother was a firm believer of letting bygones be bygones. And Syaoran tried to put it behind as well but he had never warmed up to any of his uncles. But Dairen was different from his father. It had been rumored that he had a falling out with Daifu some years ago, after Leiyun supposedly died. In defiance of his father, Dairen went to study abroad for years and only returned back to Hong Kong last year. The only reason he had not been disowned was because he was so brilliant and had a strong network with the up and rising Hong Kong entrepreneurs and businessmen, as well as connections with the United States because he went to college and received his MBA there.
There was a shrill female squeal. "Shiefa! You came!" A bespectacled woman came down the stairwell. In a flatter tone, she added, "Oh, and Dairen too."
"Jingmei!" exclaimed Shiefa. The two women clasped hands and jumped up and down—they were very close, despite having very opposite interests and personalities. "I thought you'd be at the hospital."
"Nope, I had a long surgery in the morning and got off early," said Jingmei. "All of you guys are moving in?"
"No, I'm heading to the hotel soon," said Dairen. His gaze settled upon Erika who was watching from the stairwell for a second, then flickered over to Kara, who was leaned against the second-floor railings. "What an interesting gathering of riffraff we have here. What are you doing, running a charity or something, Lei?"
"Dairen, be nice," murmured Fuutie. Even amongst the cousins, Dairen was known for his acerbic tongue.
Dairen pushed his glasses up his sharp nose. "Well, when do I get to see the famed Card Mistress, Syaoran, or should I say, Great Elder? Are you going to introduce her to us, finally?"
Syaoran paled at the thought of Dairen sizing up Sakura in scrutiny, but it was thankfully Fuutie who interjected, "We've all met Sakura. She's a regular high school student in all aspects. Unless, your interest runs that way, I think you have a busy enough schedule in Tokyo, meeting with potential investors and the Li Group Japan Branch executives until the board of trustees meeting."
"True, my schedule is packed until the board meeting," said Dairen. "Syaoran, I trust you are preparing for you presentation. In business, first impressions matter so I expect you won't mess up and embarrass our delegation. A lot is expected from the new Great Elder of the Li Clan—Great Uncle Renshu was once a very respected and admired man in the Hong Kong elite circle, long before he ever became the Great Elder, and you have a big hole to fill. Remember, you are now the face of the Li Clan."
"Easy now, Dairen, Syaoran still has plenty of time to gain experience," said Leiyun softly.
Dairen replied, "You've always been too lax on the boy. He should be getting a proper education in Hong Kong and learning the ropes of the Li Clan Council from scratch under the direct supervision of the Elders. I still don't know what Great Uncle Renshu was thinking naming him the next Great Elder—it's unheard of to have a teenager in that position. I guess Great Uncle Renshu had slim pickings with Uncle Ryuuren's death and you missing, but Syaoran's just wasting his time in Japan."
Meilin finally burst out, "Syaoran has not been wasting his time here! What do you know about fighting the dark forces and all we've been through here, not only with gathering the Clow Cards but battling against the Dark Ones and defending this town, defending the honor of our ancestors? He works harder than anyone else, so don't you dare make judgment about him, when you don't even know!"
For the first time, Dairen turned to Meilin and blinked slowly. "And you are?"
Fuutie hissed, "Our cousin Meilin. You know, the one who trained with Syaoran under Great Elder Renshu."
Dairen shrugged. "Oh, the one who thought she was engaged to Syaoran, right?" He turned to Syaoran again. "And I don't buy this whole fight against the Dark Ones, which I think should have been taken care of three years ago. Besides, that girl over there, she's a Dark One, and she's working for Leiyun."
"I'm not working for Leiyun," interjected Erika from the corner, but Dairen ignored her, for he seemed to only speak with those within his radars—senior Lis or the powerful or wealthy or both.
"And the other one, the boy, is supposedly in some sort of alliance with the Card Mistress," said Dairen. "Then, problem solved, isn't it? Or if those twins cooperate, then you can easily end them or lock them away, and the threat of the Dark Ones, or what ever you call them, will be gone."
Erika glowered from behind the banister but Leiyun shook his head and turned to his older cousin. "Cousin Dairen, I think there is something that you fail to understand. When we speak of the Dark Ones, we are not simply talking about the descendants of Chang Ruichi, but more specifically the original Dark Ones themselves. We are fighting against a never-ending curse, incurred by the mistakes of all our ancestors, not against any individual. If you have the answer to that puzzle, do enlighten us."
Dairen blinked slowly and said, "I chose business, because there are clear solutions, clear profits and losses. I leave the messy curses and Five Forces business to you guys."
Leiyun smiled. "Good, and I leave the Li Clan's troubled finances to you."
With a deep bow, Wei emerging from the dining room and announced to everyone's relief, "Dinner is served."
At school the next day, Meilin narrated the grand arrival of Shiefa and the rest of the Li business delegation to her friends. "And then, Leiyun, standing up for Syaoran, told my awful Cousin Dairen, 'The battle against the Dark Ones is fight against a never-ending curse, not any individual,' and that shut up Dairen completely.'" She clasped her hands together. "Leiyun's always so carefree, not serious about anything, and then when he does turn serious, he's so awesome."
"That Cousin Dairen of yours sounds like quite a charmer," drawled Kai. "Poor Erika getting caught in the middle of all that Li family drama. She really shouldn't have meddled with Leiyun's business in the first place."
Tomoyo remarked, "You know, I never really thought about it that way, that this battle against the Dark Ones stopped being about Eron and Erika long ago. But Sakura-chan, you already knew that."
Sakura had been listening silently to Meilin's account of the arrival of the Li delegation to Japan and only smiled slightly in acknowledgement. At the same time, she was a little perturbed that Leiyun, whom she considered a newcomer to the situation, understood the crux of the situation as well as those who had spent the past three years deliberating over it. Then, where did that put Leiyun in the bigger picture in this fight against the Dark One?
"It's surprising that Leiyun, who hasn't been here from the beginning, understands so much about the situation after just several months in Tomoeda," said Kai.
"But don't you think Li Leiyun has been working on the pieces to this puzzle for much longer than we have been?" said Tomoyo slowly. "I'm not sure what the nature of his mission eight years ago was, but I would think he knew to a certain extent about the Five Force Magicians from even then."
"If that's the case, then maybe you should recruit Leiyun to your alliance," remarked Kai, watching Sakura from behind his black shades. "Ah, but you don't trust that man, do you, Sakura-chan? What do you, think, Tomoyo? What do you think of Leiyun's motives?"
Tomoyo replied levelly, "I'm not sure—I haven't given it much thought."
Kai said, "But surely you have formed an opinion. You've spent quite some time with him these days."
"He's the conductor for the orchestra, that's all," said Tomoyo, suddenly feeling Eriol's eyes flitting in her direction behind his glasses.
"So, Li Dairen is the oldest son of Li Group CEO Li Daifu, who we saw last time?" asked Sakura.
"No," replied Syaoran. "He's the second son."
"That's surprising he's not the eldest," remarked Miho. "And yet, he's the chief financial officer of Li Corporation?"
"Dairen's a financial whiz," remarked Meilin grudgingly. "He's always been the prodigy of the clan."
"Yes, he is, unfortunately," said a female voice from behind her. "And he knows it, too."
The others started to see a tall woman with red auburn hair cropped short in the front, with a long tail that was braided down her back laced with a long green ribbon.
"Gah, what are you doing here?" demanded Syaoran, as his second oldest sister poked around the classroom, flipping through a copy of the Cinderella script lying around and picking up someone's necktie draped on the back of a chair and wrapping it around her neck.
"So this is the school that Touya and Yukito went to," sighed Li Shiefa. "Japanese high schools are such as wonderful place. Ah, the nostalgic smell of youth and aspirations and heartbreak of yesteryears."
Tomboyish Shiefa, in a light green cheongsam paired with white slacks, with her flashy hairstyle and louder demeanor, drew even more attention at school than Fuutie, who had the appearance of an elegant beauty. She squealed, "Sakura-chan! Tomoyo-chan! How many years has it been? I almost didn't recognize you two! I can't believe you're already high schoolers. You were just elementary school babies when I last saw you."
Sakura and Tomoyo waved excitedly, but Syaoran shoved Shiefa out of the classroom with both hands, muttering, "Class is going to start soon, and you can't just wander in and disrupt it. And where's Fuutie?"
"Oh, she's getting dragged around to business meetings with Dairen," said Shiefa with a shudder. "Thank goodness I escaped in time."
Syaoran asked her, "How did you end up being a part of the business delegation again?"
"Li Corporation Japan is looking into expanding its semiconductor business, so I came as a consultant," replied Shiefa.
"You hate these kinds of board meetings," remarked Syaoran. "What made you change your mind?"
Staring down at her discerning younger brother, Shiefa replied, "It's true, I wasn't originally planning on coming. But I got a call from Leiyun about Fuutie. I was worried about her too. And also, I wanted to look into the hacking business as well."
Syaoran said slowly, "Last year, I was going through a rough patch myself, with losing my powers and injuring my arm, and being under the watch of the Council, so I wasn't able to notice the pain she was in. How long has she been like this?"
"Fuutie, she's the oldest so she always thinks she has to be strong, for the rest of us," said Shiefa softly. "She never lets down her guard. But I could see how much she was suffering, how much strain she's been under these past two years."
"I never knew," said Syaoran.
"How could you? Even those closest to her wouldn't have known. And you were dealing with all the Clan business."
"I'm sorry. I wish I could have been there for her," said Syaoran.
"It should be us who should be sorry," said Shiefa. "We couldn't be there for you. Mother was occupied as Great Uncle Renshu's caretaker. Fuutie was going through Zino's death. The rest of us, we knew we were powerless. Mother warned us this was your battle with the Elders, to get them to acknowledge you, that we had to stay out of it."
Syaoran, recalling a time he did not like to remember, slowly said, "I knew Mother and you were doing your best to support me in ways that were not directly visible. And I've always been grateful for that."
And Shiefa slapped her younger brother on the back, nearly sending him reeling over. "Aw, don't say such grown-up things and make me feel all old and maternal. You were always too serious for your own good ever since you were young. Lighten up and enjoy your high school days. They only come by once, you know, and you'll end up missing it for the rest of your life. Well, go back to class and don't worry about me—I promise I won't do anything too perverted or strange. I'm here to see Leiyun, anyway."
Shiefa poked her head into several other classrooms, as well as the infirmary, before finally landing in the music room, where she found Leiyun strumming a few chords on the piano, a pretty picture indeed with his silvery hair falling into his queer aqua blue eyes that perpetually seemed to be staring into the distance.
"You're playing again?" she asked in disbelief.
"No, I'm just teaching music class," said Leiyun. "My students will be coming in soon."
Shiefa laughed, "Well, I guess that makes more sense. I heard some nonsense that you were the school doctor."
"Good grief, don't kill anyone—wait till Feimei graduates from law school should you decide to get embroiled in a medical malpractice suit," she said, handing a file over to Leiyun.
"Thanks for dropping off the sheet music," said Leiyun. "Sorry for making you come all the way to school."
"It's all right—I needed any excuse to escape from the meetings with Dairen. And I wanted to check out Syaoran's school, anyway." She smiled crookedly. "It looks like he's doing well. He looks happier than I've seen with all year."
"Yeah, he's so happy it makes me want to torture him a little bit," remarked Leiyun.
"Or embarrass him before the whole school with his toddler pictures," added Shiefa. "It seems like he's established a cool guy image here. But they don't know nothing's cuter than a mortified Syaoran."
Leiyun nodded in agreement, "With his face the color of an apple, looking as if he wants to crawl into a hole and never come out again."
Miho was a bit alarmed at the sight of the two Li cousins cackling, an evil sound she often heard coming from Nakuru and Eriol when they were up to no good. "Syaoran's Sister No. 2!" she exclaimed, catching glimpse of the showy woman who could only be Li Shiefa.
"Whoa, is that another one of Li Syaoran-senpai's sisters?" asked her classmate Shouji, immediately spotting the resemblance to Li Fuutie. "How many sisters does he have?"
"Li-sensei, are you giving back our pop quiz grades today?" asked Miho.
"Li-sensei! You promised you would play us a riff on the guitar if we memorized our song!" called out the prettiest girl in the class, Ayu, who was also the best singer of the grade.
And Shiefa turned to Leiyun. "You actually had a class coming in? I completely thought you were joking." She reeled over clutching her stomach, laughing her head off. "This is too hilarious. Wait till I tell Fanren and Feimei about this. Our high-and-mighty Li Leiyun out here in the countryside of Japan, teaching a bunch of high school duckling music, and them calling you Li-Sensei. How rich. I think the Elders would cry."
Shouji, not liking this Li sister as much as the gentile older one, said defensively, "Li-sensei is an awesome music teacher. And an okay doctor too though I've never really seen him treat anyone of anything."
"I'm sure he is," said Shiefa, wiping her eyes with the corner of her sleeves. "Though the Elders once supposed he would have saved a nation by now. Or destroyed one. Instead, he's normal. A perfectly normal, mundane, dedicated salary man."
Miho had to hand it to Syaoran's sisters for being the only ones who could make the aloof Leiyun visibly squirm. And yet, he did not lose his temper with them, and only laughed out loud in good humor. "You'd cry when you hear what a meager salary I make too since I'm just a temporary substitute teacher and a foreign citizen to top that," he told Shiefa. "They don't even give me health or life insurance!"
"Meh, neither does the Li Clan," Shiefa said, and the two of them laughed at the macabre inside joke, which only Miho caught onto.
"I haven't seen Syaoran look so miserable since you first transferred to Tomoeda Elementary School," remarked Tomoyo to Eriol, sipping on a cup of black tea, watching the spectacle unfold during lunch time.
Eriol, also drinking tea, said, "In my defense, I was deliberately trying to make him miserable. I don't think Li Fuutie is trying to do that."
Shiefa had laid out a red and white checkered picnic blanket on the grass underneath a tree and unfolded a huge bento. She had forced Syaoran to sit next to her and held up a burned fried shrimp with her chopstick. "Say 'ah,' Syaoran, don't be shy."
"I can eat by myself!" exclaimed Syaoran, ears red as his sister drew curious stares from classmates, seniors, and underclassmen alike.
"I woke up early in the morning to pack your lunch and came all the way to school to have this bento with you!" said Shiefa with a pout. "Are you spurning my efforts just because you're a high schooler now? And the rest of you, please help yourselves. I packed enough for all of you too."
Sakura tried to stifle a giggle by stuffing a sandwich packed by Fuutie into the mouth. She turned green for a second.
"You must finish everything!" said Shiefa, clasping her hands together. "I made it all by myself, though Wei tried to stop me!"
Syaoran guzzled down some more tea, wishing Wei had tried harder.
Kai, munching on the dry sandwich, remarked, "You know Meilin, I may have become spoiled by Syaoran and your fantastic cooking. I've survived off of stale pizza, moldy bread and undercooked instant noodles in my thieving days without much qualm. But I can confidently say your cousin Fuutie is an awful cook."
"Of course," whispered Meilin. "Why do you think Syaoran became so good at cooking for?"
Shiefa waved her hand as she spotted Leiyun walk outside to enjoy the sunlight. "Leiyun! I packed lunch for all of us!" she exclaimed.
And Leiyun spun around, his white coat swirling around him, and he muttered, "Ah, I forgot we have a teachers' meeting today."
"Poor Leiyun, he must be busy. I must save a couple of my sandwiches for him to eat later," said Shiefa. She turned to Kai, who was tearing up pieces of the sandwich and feeding it to little doves that had hopped over to him. "So, what's your role in Sakura's alliance, Porcupine-head?"
The former thief, pitch-black sunglasses gleaming, glanced up and pointed to himself. "Me?" For a second, he glanced at Meilin, then at Syaoran helplessly, at a loss for words.
"Kai-kun is our chief intelligence adviser," said Sakura.
"So, he's like the spymaster?" asked Shiefa. "Who's he spying on?"
"Namely the Li Clan," muttered Eron under his breath from his corner.
Miho, leaning forward, said, "Shiefa-onee-san, you grew up with Li-sensei, right? Tell us about him in the old days."
And Shiefa reached over and pinched Miho's cheeks. "I don't know your face. So you must be Tanaka Miho, based on my intel. You're so adorable! How did such a cute thing like you have such a delinquent-looking older brother?" She heaved a sigh, staring back toward the school building where Leiyun had disappeared into. "How to describe Leiyun of those days. He was the only son of the Head of the Li Clan, so there was always an expectation he was candidate to become the Chosen One, or the future Head of the Clan. But he was truly friendly and accessible to everyone—he was everyone's Leiyun. The older generation and younger generation alike adored him alike because he was courteous, kind and generous. The younger cousins especially idolized him." Shiefa paused, as if recalling something she hadn't in a long time and maybe regretting it.
She continued, "Following my father's death, there had been a growing generation gap between the Elders and the younger generation. The Elders were traditionalists—they didn't want change. But Dairen, Jingmei, Fuutie, and a few other cousins in the same age range that were considered the most talented of their generation formed a close circle around Leiyun, who stood for reform of the Li Clan. We believed that the Li Clan had to change with modern times, that we could no longer survive being an exclusive, elitist entity, and that we had to redefine our role in society." Shiefa turned to Syaoran. "You were too young then, but back then, we never imagined that anyone but Leiyun would become the Chosen One to succeed our father. We laughed when Leiyun spoke of training Syaoran for the position. I mean, maybe in another 10 or 20 years, but we always thought it would be Leiyun who would follow our father's footsteps."
Syaoran shrugged. "I always thought Leiyun would become the Chosen One too."
"Until, he went on that mission eight years ago and never returned," Shiefa said quietly. "I always thought Leiyun was invincible. He was our ringleader. It was hard to believe he had been defeated. There was quite a bit of internal panic as well, since the presumed Chosen One in training was gone, and the next potential candidate was only nine years old. There was a lot of unrest within the younger generation as well, since Leiyun's mission and how he died was left so ambiguous. And we fell apart. Daifu had a falling out with his father. Jingmei became immersed in studying healing. Jinyu formally entered the triads. Fuutie was especially hit hard by his death, since she and Leiyun were especially close. Now that I think of it, it was during such times that she began relying more and more on that person."
"You mean Wu Zino?" asked Sakura.
Shiefa glanced at her, surprised. "You know of him. Yes."
Meilin asked, "I've met Zilai and Zian. But what kind of person was the Gold Dragon?"
With a tilt of her head, Shiefa said, "Completely the opposite of his ostentatious younger siblings, I would say. He was tall and brutish, but he had an unexpected gentle side only those close to him might have glimpsed. Like when he was around my sister, or with his younger siblings. But to the Hong Kong underworld, he was the formidable mafia boss that singlehandedly unified the many different factions."
"What sort of relationship did they have?" asked Sakura softly. "Wu Zino and Fuutie-san."
"I guess appropriate to start with how they met," said Shiefa, pausing for a moment. "The two met for the first time when Fuutie was around 10. It was right after she learned that our father had died during his mission. They didn't know then, but I was watching that day that they first met because I was worried about my older sister and had followed her quietly to the harbor when she skipped school that day. She walked into the ocean in her school uniform, standing with the seawater to her waist, perhaps mourning for him, perhaps in meditation. And an older boy, a high schooler who looked like a delinquent was passing by that day on his motorcycle and spotted her. He thought she was trying to drown herself, and chased after her into the water and dragged her out. She was annoyed, because she clearly wasn't trying to harm herself, she just wanted to be left alone to mourn for our father in peace. She needed a place to cry, I suppose, because she was the oldest child, she didn't want to cry in front of us. That was their first meeting. At that time, Wu Zino seemed like an adult—he would have been around 16, and already had many unscrupulous rumors surrounding him since he was already involved with the Hong Kong triads. After that, they had several more encounters. And she developed a crush on him pretty fast, I believe."
"They didn't start dating when she was only 10!" exclaimed Meilin in shock, though of course she knew there had been couples with greater age differences.
"Of course not," said Shiefa with a chuckle. "He didn't see her in that way at first and just thought of her as a kid. But there were many chances when their paths would cross, as eldest children of the prominent Li Clan and Wu Clan. He was at that time training to become his Clan's head, and was very serious and dedicated. And my sister Fuutie is clever and beautiful—she never had a shortage of admirers as well. Over the years, Fuutie never gave up pursuing him, and she entered high school finally. They began officially dating after she turned 16. She tried it to keep it a secret, but I knew from the get-go since I had to cover for her so many times. Luckily, our mother was distracted at that time because this was when Syaoran was training to pass the Chosen One Test and preparing to go to Japan. Mother would never have approved."
"Why, because he was mafia?" asked Kai. "Which is quite hypocritical considering the Li Clan's involvement with the triads. Besides, I thought the Wu Clan is the third largest magic clan in Hong Kong."
Fuutie shrugged, "Despite the Wu Clan having become a wealthy and powerful family to reckon with, Zino still would not have made a suitable suitor for Li Fuutie, eldest daughter of the former Chosen One Li Ryuuren, a main branch Li. The Wu Clan has only risen in power over the more recent decades because of its connection to the triads. The Li and Tang Clans had often scorned the Wus for being nouveau riche, coming from black market money, while the former two originated from an imperial line from mainland China. And Zino, while a powerful ally, was still mafia at the end of the day, in the eyes of the Elders, unworthy of winning the hand of Fuutie, the epitome of a well-bred elite young lady."
"I wonder what the turning point was that Zino-san saw Fuutie-san as a women and not just a girl," remarked Tomoyo.
"It's all complicated—I don't know all the details myself," said Shiefa with a shrug. "But I do know that it was Fuutie was very persistent. And Zino, despite his gruff exterior was a gentle spirit. He treasured her very much—and it was apparent he had watched over and protected her for many years before he ever made a move on her though she's always been way mature for her age. He had some strange code of honor, despite being mafia boss and all."
"So, they kept their relationship a secret the whole time?" remarked Sakura.
"Yeah. Zino, the Gold Dragon, became head of the Hong Kong triads when he turned 21, defeating the former boss, a cruel and crooked man. Zino over the next couple years went onto reforming the Hong Kong underworld, unifying the feuding factions and setting out a widespread codification of the triads. But as mafia boss, he had a lot of enemies as well vying to become the next head of the Hong Kong triads. If it was known that Fuutie was his girlfriend, she could have been targeted, and he wouldn't have wanted that. Of course, a select few on both sides inadvertently learned of the relationship anyway. But in the end, Zino ended up breaking up with her anyway. And not long afterwards, he died. That must have been around two years ago."
"How exactly did Wu Zino-san die?" asked Syaoran.
Shiefa replied, "There were many rumors at that time about how he died, and few witnesses. But the most popular story is that Jinyu was the one who killed him. That is the story of how the Black Dragon became the new mafia king to succeed Wu Zino."
Tomoyo frowned. "Yet, how is it that those who loved Zino, including his own brother and sister, are following Jinyu then?"
"Jinyu was already the second in charge. Zino had expressed many times that should anything happen to him, Jinyu would become the next boss. But, of course, Jin was young and the seasoned mafia wouldn't just accept anyone. Don't get me wrong about Zino—he was kind to Fuutie but he was also a merciless mafia leader. He didn't treat his enemies kindly," said Shiefa.
"I'm not getting the larger picture," said Sakura. "Something is off."
"You'd have to talk to the people who were there that night, namely Jinyu—but he's never spoken of that night since," said Shiefa.
"T-talk with Jinyu-san?" squeaked Sakura, paling at the sheer idea of attempting a conversation with the sullen Black Dragon.
"Or Zian," said Meilin suddenly. "Zian would know."
"Yes, he probably would," said Shiefa. "Except, he would never speak of Zino's death. That's one of the reasons he and my youngest sister Feimei had a major falling out. The two used to be inseparable at one point."
Sakura frowned. So many years have passed, and yet, the heart did not heal so quickly after the loss of a love. Her father, she knew, had never gotten over with the death of her mother. And there also was Clow Reed who had lost the love his life, Mizuki Mika, and spent his lifetime and the next to be reunited with her.
By a low-key search for the dark force, Sakura had meant only herself, Kero-chan, and Tomoyo, just like old days, with of course Syaoran. But somehow, word had gotten around the Alliance about the search for the unknown dark force or forces, and the entire group, sans her older brother, had showed up promptly at the King Penguin Park forest without any prior notice. And they were wearing perfectly coordinated outfits, meaning Tomoyo was behind this somehow.
Syaoran was late, which was unusual since he was usually quite punctual. She was agonizing over how to apologize over what a huge debacle the night's activities had become, when Sakura saw Syaoran step out in his green battle costume, sword strapped to his back, accompanied by quite an entourage of his own, with two sisters, the Black Dragon, Leiyun, and Dr. Li Jingmei with Kara Reed and Chang Erika not far behind them.
"What are they all doing here?" hissed Suppi-chan.
Ruby Moon shrugged. "Maybe we are having another faceoff with the yakuza."
"Something about the Brat looks different from before," remarked Kero-chan.
Tomoyo couldn't help but circle around Syaoran like a humming bee with camcorder zoomed up to him. "Yes, it looks like the same battle outfit but it isn't." She had seen Syaoran go through many versions of the green Chosen One battle costume, from the original one from elementary school, to a winter version made with thicker lining and boots, a summer version with lighter spring green breezier fabric. Sometimes he alternated with black trousers instead of white, sometimes his robes had slimmer, fitted sleeves. This one was a darker forest green, offset with black and orange trimming, while the gold trimmings on the sleeves and neck were flecked with actual gold embroidery. "Wow, this must truly be an ultimate upgraded version."
"Of course," remarked Fuutie. "Fanren had a brand new battle costume made, since Syaoran is now the Great Elder, as well as the Chosen One."
Kero-chan remarked sourly, "What is with this whole big Li entourage?"
Shiefa replied, "Well, Syaoran is our Great Elder now—should he go to battle, he must have at hand his chief strategist Leiyun, Protector of the Clan Jinyu, his personal bodyguard Meilin, and a healer, Jingmei."
"Do you guys really think we are heading into some sort of major battle?" Kero-chan asked. "All you Lis in one place reeking of magic will only unbalance the dark force. Capturing dark forces, or even Clow Cards, is about subtlety, calculation and catching the force off guard."
"Well, Sakura has her whole big alliance backing her—why can't Syaoran have us?" demanded Shiefa.
"Because you're outsiders, that's why. I get the others Lis' roles, but what are you two doing here besides creating a disturbance?" asked Kero-chan, nodding toward Fuutie as well.
"We're being Tomoyo of course!" exclaimed Shiefa, whipping out her DSLR camera. "We promised Feimei and Fanren high-quality pictures of Syaoran in his new battle costume." And her sister was snapping photos on her smartphone and immediately forwarding them to her younger sisters.
Syaoran seemed to grow wearier by the moment. He whispered to Sakura, "I really tried to sneak out alone, but they tracked me down somehow."
"Just give them the money shots and sneak off later to properly catch the dark force," remarked Kai with a shrug.
"As spoken like a world-famous thief known to manipulate media," remarked Meilin sourly.
"Sakura-chan, come over here and twirl around for me once. You look absolutely adorable," said Fuutie, admiring how beautiful the Star Alliance looked in their coordinated outfits. "Wow, Tomoyo, did you make all these costumes?
"Hoe," Sakura wailed, as Fuutie swirled her around and around to admire from all angles the billowing pale pink dress that faded into a spring green at the skirt like a flower in bloom. The dress had a qipao-style high collar, lined with silver, but the skirt was short, and flared out in a bell shape, with layers of hot pink lace petticoat underneath. It was adorned with a wide green sash around the waist, tied into a large bow on the back. A little light green ribbon and pink lace garter adorned her left thigh, and she had a little pink cap on her head accented with silver.
The other members of the Alliance of the stars had matching outfits with qipao-style collars. The guys had cheongsam-style tops paired with trousers. Eriol's was a long sleeved deep navy robe that faded into sky blue, which offset his hair color. Yue had foregone his usual white and lavender robes and wore a sky blue version that faded into violet, his long silver hair held back by a violet ribbon. Eron seemed to reluctantly be wearing a purple version that faded into bronze, matching his eye color.
Kai was resplendent in a sleeveless and black which sifted into a deep oxblood, and was the only one that came with a cape as well. Likewise, Meilin's version was red with flowing sleeves that faded into bright orange, and unlike Sakura's dress had a fitted skirt with a small slit on the side, similar to her usual battle outfit. Miho wore an orange fabric that faded into a yellow, and hers was paired with lacy bloomers underneath the short skirt. Mizuki Kaho's version was half-sleeved and long-skirted and was yellow that faded into bronze. Ruby Moon was fabulous in a brilliant maroon dress that faded into a bright turquoise.
Even Tomoyo, whose hair was braided up into a coronet around her head, was wearing what seemed like a rose-gold version of the dress, with a hem that came to her calves. Upon closer look though, it was a gold dress that faded into pink in the edges.
Shiefa sighed, "I wish Touya-san was here too. And Yukito-san."
Meilin cleared her throat. "Yukito-san is here." She pointed to Yue, who seemed quite disconcerted to be wearing anything other than his usual outfit, yet was even more frail and beautiful than ever with the pop of color.
"Oh, I was so much more into that bed-tussled, innocent glasses look that Yukito-san has going on," said Shiefa. "When did he grow out his hair so long?"
Fuutie said, "So, I'm guessing Touya's outfit would have been navy fading into turquoise?"
"How did you know?" exclaimed Tomoyo. "He would have looked so handsome in it, too."
Sakura glanced up, and checked that though Yue and Ruby Moon were there, her brother wasn't.
Shiefa glanced between the Star Alliance and turned to Leiyun, who was angelic with his feathery light hair, in a stark white cheongsam with fitted sleeves and delicate silver embroidery. "Why can't we coordinate our battle costumes too, like them?"
"Aren't we coordinated enough?" asked Jingmei. "I mean, we're all wearing Chinese-style outfits like you told us to wear."
"But our colors and fabrics are not matching! Look at them, they're like a beautiful rainbow!" declared Shiefa.
Leiyun blinked slowly. "Do you want us to dress like Sailor Senshi as well? I can put in a word with Wei."
Tomoyo said weakly, "Well, Fuutie-san, Shiefa-san I have some extra outfits in the van that might fit you."
"Really?" exclaimed Shiefa. "Even for Leiyun?"
Tomoyo was sure some of the extra outfits she had for Yue or even Syaoran would fit Leiyun fine, but it was Leiyun who waved his hand. "I'll pass. Get the sisters dressed, Tomoyo, and I'll make sure they observe quietly from the sidelines and let you guys get on with whatever you are here for besides an impromptu fashion show in the woods."
"And what brings you're here today?" asked Tomoyo, hearing Syaoran's sisters squealed in the van as they filed through the racks of Sakura's battle costumes.
"The sisters forced me to come," replied Leiyun. "Otherwise, why would I impose on a place where I am not welcome?"
"You could be welcome if you let yourself be," remarked Tomoyo.
"I doubt it," said Leiyun. "Our little Card Mistress detests me."
Shiefa, in a forest green long dress that faded into teal, paired with slacks, and Fuutie in a teal and gray dress that came to her calves, came out of the van, admiring their new outfits.
After an hour of excitedly photographing Syaoran, Shiefa asked, "So, why are we just standing around? When is the dark force coming out?"
Kero-chan sighed. "A dark force doesn't just come out because we want it to. The circumstance has to be right."
"Well, make the circumstances right then," said Fuutie. "I want to catch an episode of my favorite new drama tonight."
"It doesn't work like that!" snapped Kero-chan. "Capturing dark forces is a very delicate process that requires tact and strategy and—"
"This is kind of boring," remarked Shiefa, paying no heed to Kero-chan.
"There really isn't much to being a Card Captor, is there?" said Fuutie.
"Can I bite them?" Kero-chan asked Sakura.
But his mistress merely laughed. "I think Syaoran might beat you to it."
Syaoran, brows furrowed down, stomped up to his sister. "Both of you, either get into the van and stay quiet, or I'll make you leave completely."
Fuutie, holding up a handkerchief to her eyes, said, "Syaoran, how can you speak to us like that. We are only here out of love for our baby brother. We came this long way from Hong Kong just to check on you, and our Mother worries too."
Unrelenting, Syaoran pointed to Tomoyo's RV and said, "In there. Now."
"There's something there," said Fuutie, glancing toward the woods.
Syaoran frowned. "That's not going to work on me."
And the group felt a sizzling heat as blue fire blazed across the clearing.
"It's the demon fire again," said Kai, jumping atop a tree branch.
Sakura looked up and saw that a ring of fire had encircled the group and was burning higher and higher. Yue soared up into the sky and said, "The fire's spreading northwestward. We have to contain it."
"I'll get it under control," said Kaho, who climbed on Spinel Sun's back.
"I'll help contain the forest fire," exclaimed Miho. "Fire is my forte, after all." Cerberus let her climb on his back, and the two beasts soared off into the sky, right in time as the ring of fire blazed higher up, engulfing the group in a dome.
Jingmei let out a shriek, covering her head with her arms. "We're going to be burned to death!"
"No, we're not," said Leiyun. And Jingmei uncovered her face, and gazed up at what Leiyun was staring at.
Eriol, had released his Sun Staff released, and the group was encircled in a strong dome-shaped barrier that shielded them from the fire.
"What is that?" whispered Meilin. "It's completely different from the Fiery, isn't it?"
Syaoran replied, "This fire seems to be fueled by some unnatural cause—as Kai said, most likely an evil spirit."
"We're not going to be able to track down the source, being trapped inside here," remarked Shiefa. "Let's go find the source!" She released here weapon of choice, a long lance, and darted out toward the far end of the barrier.
"No Shiefa!" called out Syaoran. "Don't leave the barrier!"
"Why, I'll go hunt down that dark force or shikigami or whatever it is," said Shiefa. "What else did we come here to do?"
Syaoran said, "We'll handle it. You stay here."
Shiefa frowned, "Are you doubting my skills? I learned how to fight when you were in diapers. I'm sure I can take down any of you here singlehandedly with my lance. Save maybe Leiyun. I'm here to be useful."
But Syaoran said, "I know your skills, Shiefa. I even learned from you. But while you are in Japan, you are under my guardianship."
"You?" Shiefa scowled. "Just because you've become the Great Elder, you think you can order your older sister around? Come here, let me knock you down a notch or two."
It was Fuutie who stepped in and put a hand on Shiefa's shoulder, shaking her head. "Syaoran's right. We are under his guardianship in Japan. And while it's true you are strong, have you ever put you ever been on the field? We've never actually been in a real battle. Only controlled matches. We don't know what is out there, and it may be dangerous. We don't want to become a liability for Syaoran."
Finally, with a long sigh, Shiefa set down her lance. "Fine."
"Look, I think Mizuki-sensei and Miho were able to control most of the fire," said Meilin. Indeed, the flames were sparser, and they could see the other side of the clearing.
Sakura frowned. "I already have the Fiery, and it's hard to imagine there are any comparable dark forces. And it doesn't feel much like a dark force at all. If this is really caused by a yokai, that's something we've never encounter before."
Kai nodded. "This town does not have many yokai or the likes, mainly because it's been infested with released Clow Cards and dark forces—they've driven most yokai and evil spirits away."
"Then if it is a yokai, it has to be one that's stronger than dark forces and Clow Cards," remarked Meilin.
Eron said, "Not necessarily. It could be just be a stray."
Fuutie looked up again, staring into the distance. "It's here again," she whispered.
"What is?" asked Shiefa.
And Fuutie pushed past her sister and ran out toward the flames, breaking through the barrier, to an unknown object.
"Wait, where are you going?" asked Syaoran, chasing after her.
In alarm, Sakura released her staff and called out, "Freeze!" The towering flames froze into icy columns, and Fuutie passed through them without burning.
"Fuutie, you can't go that way!" called out Syaoran. And he looked up, and saw it too. A majestic gleaming white beast.
"The White Tiger," whispered Sakura, catching up.
The tiger stared at Fuutie with gleaming red eyes, then ran off again, further into the woods, where the fire was still spreading.
"Don't follow him!" called out Syaoran. "It's a trap!"
But Fuutie was running faster, pushing through shrubs and swatting away low branches, chasing after the beast.
"Yue!" called out Sakura. And Yue, spreading his white wings soared up overhead as Fuutie darted deeper into the forest. With his silver bow, he shot at the white tiger. The tiger dodged, and Yue released another arrow, this time piercing the beast in the shoulder, and it let out a horrific roar.
Fuutie had caught up with the tiger, and stood in front of him, arms spread. "Don't hurt him!"
Yue, front the sky, another arrow strung to his bow, said, "That creature is the cause of the fire."
"No, he's not!" said Fuutie.
"Fuutie, that is not the White Tiger," said Leiyun. "It's just a low-level yokai, or something of that sort."
"It's him. I know it's him!" replied Fuutie, hair falling to her face, as she wrapped her arms around the creature.
Sakura hesitated, glancing between Syaoran and Leiyun, wondering what the true identity of this creature was.
Kai spun around and turned to Eron. "You. The White Tiger—isn't that—"
"What, are you accusing me again?" snapped Eron. "As much beef as I have with Syaoran, I have nothing against his sisters. Besides, I wouldn't do such a sloppy job."
Leiyun said slowly, "Jinyu, go finish off that creature and show her what its true form is." And Jinyu nodded a narrow blade with a black hilt in hand, stepping toward the tiger.
With sapphire eyes blazing in fury, Fuutie stood up and grabbed Syaoran's sword which was sheathed to his back. Then she dashed forward at Jinyu who barely had time to register her attack. He blocked quickly with his slender blade, then leaped back as Fuutie came in for another attack, both hands on the broad hilt of Syaoran's jian.
"Fuutie, what are you doing?" exclaimed Shiefa in horror. "Stop it!"
But Fuutie was not listening, her short auburn hair flying back from the wind, her robes a blur of gray and turquoise as she dashed forward with amazing speed. She was driving him further and further into the center of the forest fire.
"Jinyu's not fighting back," remarked Erika.
"Of course he wouldn't," said Kara, careful to stand away from the clash. "Doesn't his face read, guilty as charged?"
"Then he really did murder Wu Zino?" asked Erika with a frown. She knew that as a triad boss, Jinyu must have had blood in his hands. But somehow, she could not link the merciless mafia boss to the reticent man she had grown to know over the past several months.
Miho rushed up to them and demanded, "What's going on? We've contained the forest fire to this area—it's not spreading, but it's really stubborn. Kaho's having trouble putting it out completely because we can't trace the source." Her eyes widened as she saw Fuutie swing at Jinyu, barely missing his neck. "What is Syaoran's sister doing? Is there a dark force? Wait, isn't that Syaoran's Five Force Sword?"
"Oh my gosh, Syaoran, do something," said Meilin. "I think Fuutie's serious. Someone's going to seriously get hurt."
But Syaoran was frozen, stunned at the rage that filled Fuutie's faced.
Of course Syaoran would be shocked. For him, his oldest sister had been the rock, the pillar of the family, after their father died. Sakura scrunched up her face. Fuutie had been in love with a man called the Gold Dragon, the former head of the Hong Kong triads and the oldest brother of the troublesome Wu siblings, Zian and Zilai. He was also called the White Tiger, apparently the patron animal of the Wu Clan. Fuutie believed that the Black Dragon had killed Wu Zino in order to become the new King of the Hong Kong Underworld. And to this day, she had never cleared up this with Jinyu. She had so many questions, and yet, she could not ask any of them, because she was afraid of hearing the answer, afraid of hearing what the Li Clan's involvement in Zino's death was.
Fuutie's face was ashen, her blue eyes dilated as she swung the sword expertly above her head, red tassel swinging out behind her, barely missing Jinyu's chest.
Shiefa whispered, "I've never seen my sister lose control like this before. The past two years since Zino died, it's like she was in denial, ignoring he was gone."
"We've got to stop her—her body's going to give out on her," exclaimed Meilin. "I forgot what a strong fighter she was."
Shiefa murmured, "Fuutie was always a powerful swordswoman. She and Leiyun were the last to have received training underneath my father. I would have started soon too, but he passed away. Fuutie always could carry a decent swordfight against the best of the Li swordsman—her techniques top class."
"Fuutie-san is being controlled by a dark force," said Sakura. "It's an Emotion, I'm sure."
"Which emotion?" asked Tomoyo with a frown. "It can't just be grief from losing her loved one."
"Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief," said Eriol. "First comes denial, then anger. Then bargaining, depression and acceptance."
"Anger," murmured Sakura. "Fuutie-san is under the control of the Wrath." She groaned internally—out of all the dark forces, she feared the Emotions the most. Because there was really no clear cut way to seal them.
Sakura, clutching her staff, stared at Syaoran, who clearly couldn't attack his sister. Not only was Jinyu in danger, but it was clear that Fuutie was straining herself as well. She had to do something. But what?
Jinyu, usually agile, was dodging Fuutie's attacks quite sloppily. She had backed him up against a tree, and she pointed the blade to the nape of his neck.
"Why?" demanded Fuutie, tears streaming down her face. "Why did you have to kill him?"
But the Black Dragon only stared back at her with his reddish-amber eyes, silent.
"You should understand. I thought you cared for him as much as I did," continued Fuutie. "There was nobody closer to him than you, across the years. Why did you do it?"
And from behind them, Leiyun pushed through and walked straight toward Fuutie who slashed at Jinyu blindly, driving him further and further back to the flames behind them.
"What is he trying to do?" whispered Miho, staring at the expressionless older man, ghostly white in the darkness of the deep black forest lit only lit by ghoulish blue flames surrounding them.
And Leiyun closed in on Fuutie, who finally noticed his presence. "Get out of my way, Leiyun!" she exclaimed. "My business is with Jinyu. Fight me! Fight me you coward! Why? Why can't you face me squarely?" Fuutie dashed forward, knocking Jinyu to the ground. She raised the blade in the air and was about to slash down at the Black Dragon, who made no attempt to escape. But she was not able to strike down her sword. And she looked up to see what was blocking her. Leiyun, grasping the blade with his bare hand, stared straight into her eyes.
"This is the sword of you father, the Great Five Force. It is a sacred sword meant to protect, not for revenge," he said. "Don't misuse it."
And Fuutie's blue eyes widened at the mention of her father, and she dropped the blade. Then she stared at Jinyu on the ground. She crumpled down on her knees, head buried in her hands. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me. I haven't thought about him for so long. But when I saw the White Tiger, it just all came back to me."
"Fuutie, don't. Don't go back to that place," said Leiyun, drawing his cousin into a tight embrace. "I'm sorry I wasn't there when you had to go through that. I miss him too. But he's gone now. You have to let go of him."
Tears were flowing down Fuutie's eyes, blocked by Leiyun's shoulders. "I didn't get to say goodbye. I didn't get to see him one last time. I wasn't there for him. The last thing I said to him was that I hated him and never wanted to see him again. I never thought that would come true. I didn't tell him how much I loved him, even if he no longer loved me, that I would always love him. "
Leiyun was stroking her hair with his left hand, and he told her softly, "He would have known. Some things are known even without words."
"You must think me foolish," she said, in between hiccups. "I never knew how weak and fragile I was. And I hated it."
"No, I don't think you're foolish," said Leiyun. "It's okay to hurt. It's okay to grieve. It's okay to miss him."
And Shiefa came over and wrapped her arms around her older sister, helping her up. "Fuutie, I'm here for you. I've always been here. It's okay to rely on us, once in a while."
Leiyun too stood up, and picked up the Five Force Sword with his left hand. For a moment, he stared down at the blade. He handed it to Syaoran. "Don't let this be taken away so easily."
Syaoran nodded. "Thanks. About my sister."
"She will be okay. She is our invincible Li Fuutie, after all," said Leiyun.
Tomoyo glanced up at the silver-haired man who had a strange look of compassion, pity and contempt in his eyes, then glanced down at his limp fingertips. "Your hand," she said, walking up to his side.
He glanced down at his right hand. "It's fine. The blade wasn't even sharpened, anyway." With his teeth, he ripped his shirt sleeve that wrapped it around his palms as a makeshift bandage. "Why don't we call it a night? I do not think we will be seeing any more dark forces tonight."
Jingmei rushed up next to him and grumbled, "Did you forget you have an actual doctor next to you? Let me see it."
Leiyun waved his crudely bandaged right hand and said, "It's nothing. Not worth your energy. Focus on the serious stuff. Go see to Fuutie. Maybe you can brew her one of your special teas to ease her nerves."
"How can you remain so calm?" asked Jingmei softly. "Weren't you really close to Wu Zino as well? You're the one who's known him the longest, after all."
"Did you guys even miss me half as much as you guys miss Zino when you thought me dead?" Leiyun asked Jinyu, who was still completely quiet, strands of his hair having slipped from his tight tail down the back of his head. "I don't know whether I whether I should be hurt or not."
"It was Syaoran who went on a rampage," remarked Jingmei. "That idiotic kid smashed up all the large parlor windows in the Main House with his bare fist. He broke both arms and was hospitalized for ages. My father nearly had a heart-attack—we were terrified he might have slashed a nerve or two from the glass shards."
"He's not even human," murmured Miho, narrowing her gray eyes at Leiyun. "How can he grip the sword like that and not even shed a drop of blood?"
"He said, the sword's not sharpened," pointed out Suppi-chan.
"It's not sharpened, but doesn't mean it's completely blunt," pointed out Kero-chan. "What a reckless man."
Sakura, not knowing what to do, gripped the sleeve of Syaoran's green robes with her thumb and forefinger, unable to speak but not willing to let go.
He turned around, surprised to find her hanging onto his sleeve like a child full of concern. He could tell she wanted to comfort him but did not know what to say so was staying silently by his side.
"My sister Fuutie's strong," said Syaoran. "Growing up, Mother was always very strict and distant, and she was always busy with the Li Council business, in place of my father. It was Fuutie who really led the family after Father died, though now I realized she was just a young girl, only in elementary school. She was very brave, and I admired her greatly."
"I can imagine so," said Sakura quietly.
"She won't give into some dark force, or an Emotion," Syaoran added.
"Of course not. I won't let that happen," said Sakura. And her simple yet utterly sincere words drew a small smile from Syaoran.
And he said, "Come, let's call it a night. We failed to catch the dark force."
"But there's always tomorrow," concluded Sakura.
Tomoyo knew it was inappropriate to squeal in happiness at the thought of another shot at dressing Sakura, and tried to contain her momentary joy.
Kaho walked up to them and informed them that the forest fire had been put out completely, though the source had not been tracked. And the White Tiger had vanished completely.
"You don't actually think that could have actually been the ghost of Wu Zino?" remarked Kara. "Maybe he wanted to see his love one last time."
"He wouldn't do that," replied Leiyun.
"Why not? Perhaps he wanted closure," said Kara.
"When you returned to your first love's side, were you able to find closure?" Leiyun asked softly. "Or, did that just spur futile hope and expectations again?"
"No, I wasn't able to find closure," said Kara quietly. "That's why I chose to walk away again."
"Zino was a man of conviction. He chose to walk away for a reason. And because of that reason, he would never look back on his decision. He will stay dead," said Leiyun. "Unlike me. I refused to die, you know. The world wanted me dead, and yet, I came back."
"Don't be dramatic," said Kara. "It's clear that you've always been surrounded by those who love you."
"You're unusually gentle with me today," remarked Leiyun.
Glancing down at the makeshift bandage around his palm, Kara murmured, pressing Leiyun's hand to her cheek, "Musician's hands are insured you know. Don't hurt yourself."
Leiyun smiled crookedly. "How rare, are you worrying for me?"
"No, I'm worrying for your precious play director. She would panic should she lose her conductor."
"Silly, conductors don't need their hands."
"Yes, you conduct with that potty-mouth of yours," replied Kara. "You would be so princely, if you learned to keep your mouth shut. You are such a nag."
Erika chuckled. Leiyun indeed was a nag—worse than her own brother in fact.
The rest of Sakura's Alliance dispersed, but Mizuki Kaho smiled at the glimpse of a handsome, tall black-haired man with his hands in his old university letterman jacket, leaned against the tree in front of the Tsukimine Shrine. She remarked, "That's rare of you to wait for me here. Just like old days."
"I got the message the alliance might be tracking down a potential force," said Touya. "I was just passing by."
"But you didn't join us?" asked Kaho. "Or you couldn't?"
"I had another fight with Sakura," said Touya. "Over something ridiculous. It's like she's going through a rebellious stage."
Chucking to herself, Kaho said, "Rather, hasn't Sakura always been a bit rebellious since she was a kid? Sneaking out in the middle of the night to catch Clow Cards, using the Mirror Card to duplicate herself—as if that would work on you. Keeping Kero-chan in the house for all those years. Trying to hide Yukito's alter ego from you. It's just, she's not little anymore so you can't bully her around anymore, that's all."
"You make me sound like the ogre," grumbled Touya. "I don't know who put it in her head to get serious about modeling."
"What's wrong with modeling? Your mother was a model too."
Touya replied, "Mother had to model to support our family—both her and my father were disowned by their families. My dad was a newbie teacher with a meager starting salary and he went off to marry his student and then they had me when she was only 17."
Kaho said, "Touya, do you think she modeled just to earn a living? I have seen her pictures—you've showed me many before. She was smiling from her heart. She not only had a talent but enjoyed her job. That's why she did it."
Touya murmured, "Because she knew she had a death sentence, and pictures she thought were the only way to be remembered when she was gone."
And Kaho turned to Touya. "That's it. That's why you don't want Sakura to get into modeling. Silly boy. Sakura's reasons are completely different. If that's what she wants to do, you shouldn't hold her back but support her—or she might end up resenting you for it."
"I know!" replied Touya. "I know that, but that doesn't mean I approve! She could have at least told me her thoughts—it's like she doesn't trust me with anything."
Kaho said, "But if she told you, you would have told her not to do it."
"Any sensible brother would say the same," replied Touya with a scowl. "It's nerve-wracking as is having a cute younger teenage sister as is without putting her on display for the world to see."
"But you can't treat her like a child forever," Kaho said softly. "You know best how frustrating that is."
"Yes, I do," said Touya coldly.
Kaho stared up at the green leaves of the Sakura tree. "Do you remember nine years ago, when I told you I was going to study abroad in England, you didn't tell me not to go."
"How could I?" he replied. "You were an adult. You had everything all planned. I was only a middle schooler. You would have still gone even if I asked you to stay. And I didn't want to be the child throwing a tantrum."
Kaho remarked, "But if you asked me to, I would have stayed."
Touya stared down at her. "No you wouldn't have. You told me only a day before you were about to leave. You made the decision on your own and didn't let me in, till the end."
"You were mad at me then because I didn't tell you," said Kaho. "I could see it in your eyes. You were hurt. Yet, you stayed calm. That's what I liked about you. You were so dependable, even at that age."
"Well, you told me that you didn't tell me because you didn't want me to worry," replied Touya. "What could I respond to that with? Obviously I would have worried, I would have tried to stop you, perhaps."
Kaho looked up at him. "And didn't you think maybe I didn't tell you because of that reason? And that would have weakened my resolve to do what I knew I must do. It would have made things even harder for me than it had been."
In the past nine years since they had separated, Touya had never thought Kaho might have had a hard time then. For she had always been the adult, and he, the student who could never catch up to her, his teacher. If he had asked her to stay, would she have? Maybe she would have. But she would eventually grown to have resent him for that. "Okay, fine, I'll support Sakura. I'll try to have an adult conversation with her. But that doesn't mean I approve of it."
"I wish the rest of the parent-teacher conferences goes this well," remarked Kaho sunnily. "Parents' expectation of what they want from their child frightens me."
"So, this was a parent-teacher conference to you? So much for being good friends or something next time we meet. Well, after all you are the woman who trampled all over my feelings when I was a teenager," he said with a crooked smile.
Kaho remarked, "Well, you were my first boyfriend. Though I was not your first."
"What makes you say that?"
"Don't look surprised. I did my research, and I know you dated around a bit before you met me."
He paled. "Where did you hear that?"
"I have my sources," replied Kaho with a little smile. "You looked so serious and sincere, but you had a deceptive side to you as well."
"I was young and stupid then!" exclaimed Touya. "I was going through a rebellious stage and wasn't serious about anyone. Before you, of course."
"Yes, to your credit, I heard that once you entered high school, you turned around a new leaf," said Kaho. "Don't worry, I won't tell on you to your precious Yuki."
"I forgot you've always had a mischievous streak."
And she tip-toped on her feet to pat him on the head like old days. "And you were always a good boy."
Jinyu was surprised to find Erika sitting on the parlor couch of the Li mansion, as if she had been waiting for him.
She spun around and saw that it was Jinyu. "You're finally back. Good."
"You were waiting for me?""
"Yes." She shoved the script into his hands. "We're going to practice."
"Yes, practice your lines for Cinderella."
Jinyu stared at her blankly.
"Don't just stare at me. Turn to Act 1 Scene 3, where you make your first appearance," she ordered.
"Are you okay?" asked Jinyu. "You must have breathed in quite a lot of smoke yesterday and last time at the rehearsal."
"Yes, I'm fine," said Erika impatiently. "Jingmei said there's no damage done. This whole fire business likely happened because you are terrible as the Prince, so pay attention! Here, I'll read Cinderella's lines and you respond."
And Jinyu did seem to try his best to read his lines in between checking text messages from Hong Kong. If the affairs of the other night bothered him much, he had recovered quite well. She did not know what to make of Fuutie's outburst at him, or what to think of this elusive White Tiger figure. So, she refused to think about it at all.
Finally, Erika wrangled her hands in despair and declared, "You are horrible! I know Japanese isn't your first language, but can you be any more stilted? I mean, aren't you supposed to be a mafia boss? How do you get by with such lack of communication skills? Or do you just pull the trigger on anyone who doesn't understand you?"
"Huh?" Erika blinked at him, for he truly sounded remorseful. "I mean, there's no need to apologize because you suck at acting. This is for your own good, after all. And my good. I don't want to be associated with a play that is a flop—and it is looking dangerously close to being a flop with you as the Prince and Eron as Cinderella, despite Tomoyo's eccentric direction and Eriol's somewhat intriguing script."
"I have never been in a play before," Jinyu said.
"Well, it's not like I've in a play before Star-Crossed back in junior high," replied Erika. "But you've watched plays before, haven't you?"
He shook his head.
"Oh god, I forgot that you were an android with no life," groaned Erika. "I mean, it's not like we have enough time to give you Acting 101 classes. Have you even watched a movie before? I thought Leiyun said you have a great memory—why can't you remember the lines?"
He stared down at his feet, silent.
She wracked her brains for a moment. "Okay, let's stick with what you are good at then. You are the Dragon King of the Hong Kong Underworld. So of course you are used to all this royalty business—I mean, you're the closest thing to a monarch in this world that I know of. Now, to get into character, you are on a mission. There is a priceless glass slipper, and you have to return it to its owner. Cinderella."
Erika grilled him over and over again, and to Jinyu's credit, he took it without a word of complaint. They actually made it through a pretty smooth reading, granted Jinyu said his lines in the same monotonous tone from beginning to end. But he seemed to be less lost on the concept of a fairytale, now that he took it on as some sort of mission. "Good job! See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Though it had taken a toll on her, and Erika was sure she had dark circles drooping to her cheeks.
He stared down at her solemnly. "You're good at this. You like this? Acting?"
Erika shrugged. "It's all right. You see, when I was at the orphanage, my body was weak so I couldn't go out and play with all the other kids. So I was usually stuck indoors, alone all the time. Eron tried to play with me, but he couldn't always be around. He had to go to kindergarten, and he liked to play outdoors. So, I had to amuse myself on my own. I only had a doll he bought me to play with, and I liked to playact. Create fairytales for myself. It may sound silly but I'm sure you boys played warrior or action heroes or something at that age. I would play princess and make up fairy stories in my head. It wasn't too hard to do so. After all, heroes and heroines of fairytales were often poor orphans spurned by the world like Eron and me." Then it occurred to Erika that Jinyu might have been orphaned at an early age too, if rumors were true.
"So, what was your favorite story?" asked Jinyu slowly. "This Cinderella?"
"No," replied Erika. "I'm not one to sit around and wait for a prince to hand me a glass slipper. My favorite was Hansel and Gretel. You've never heard of that either, right? It's the story of a boy and a girl who is abandoned in the woods by their father and their evil stepmother. They are then trapped in a witch's gingerbread cottage, and the witch makes Gretel a slave and tries to fatten up Hansel to eat him. But they push the witch into the oven and escape with all her jewels. They go back home to their father—the evil stepmother was already dead, and they lived happily ever after."
"That's a rather macabre story. Is it really a children's fairytale?" asked Jinyu. "Why was that your favorite? And why did this Hansel and Gretel go back to the father who abandoned them to die?"
Erika smiled wistfully. "Maybe as a little girl, I still hoped my father who had abandoned me would come back and take Eron and me back, tell us it was all a big mistake."
"Why did he leave?" asked Jinyu.
She tensed up. "Probably because we never should have been born in the first place. All I know is that our Uncle Reiji—our birth father's twin brother—raised us until he died. Then, we were sent off to the orphanage."
"She died giving birth to us," said Erika. "I used to think maybe that is why our father didn't want us. Maybe he thought we caused her death."
Jinyu stared at her silently, perhaps out of pity.
"It's all right. Uncle Reiji raised us for one year, at least until he died. At least Uncle Reiji, I believe, must have cared for us a little bit. I used to wish he was our father. I guess he was the best father we had, under the circumstances." Erika paused. "What about you? Where are you parents?"
"My mother died when I was around eight," said Jinyu slowly. "I probably would have too, if Leiyun did not take me in."
"What about your father?" asked Erika, pushing the boundaries.
"I don't know," said Jinyu. "I never really knew him."
Erika laughed. "I guess Fuutie's theory about Leiyun is right. He really likes to collect orphans, riffraff, and misanthropes. Well, I guess it's better not knowing your father than to have one that tries to kill you." She noticed Jinyu glance up at the door and turned around. Leiyun was standing by the doorway silently.
His silvery blue eyes met hers, and his lips curled into a thin smile. "Do you know why my father wanted to kill me in the first place, Erika?"
Filling a chill to her bones, she stared at the gaudy print of the rug. It seemed implied that Li Wutai had been the one to send his own son to a death mission but no one had ever really confirmed it.
Leiyun continued, "It's because he was afraid that I would kill him, as the prophets said."
"Would you have?" Erika found herself asking.
"Maybe," he replied. "If he got in the way."
Sakura glanced out the library window cranked open to let in the warm breeze to an interesting sight. Erika, script rolled up in hand, was with the dark and brooding Li Jinyu, taking shade from a large oak tree,
Erika scolded, shaking her finger at him, "No, you are supposed to say, 'Do you want to dance?' holding out your hand and bowing. You just saw Cinderella, the love of your life, show up to the ball. She's the most beautiful girl you have ever seen, and all you can see is her. Each second you can be with her is precious, because the spell will break at midnight."
Again and again, Jinyu repeated the line until she was satisfied.
"Now, Cinderella is trying to leave. The love of your life is trying to get away. You don't know her real name, where she lives, if you will ever see her again. How would you be feeling?" asked Erika.
"Feeling?" Jinyu blinked slowly. "I don't know."
"You've got to show desperation, because the moment she slips from your hands, you may lose her forever," said Erika. "That is what the glass slipper represents to you, your last connection to her. It's the key to reaching her again, so when you hold up the slipper Cinderella has dropped, you have to express dismay, as well as determination and hope."
"What amuses you so much?" asked Tomoyo, watching Sakura chuckle to herself as she stared out the window.
"I've never seen Erika-chan work so hard at anything before," remarked Sakura. "It's not even her role, yet she's helping out Jinyu-san. It's quite an unexpected pairing."
"I thought Jinyu-senpai seems to be doing better with his lines as of late," said Tomoyo. "Erika is surprisingly dedicated. She played a marvelous Rosalind back in junior high—she should join the drama club."
Sakura smiled slightly. "I always thought Erika was a bit frivolous. But she's always serious when she puts her mind to something. Even when we were candy-striping at Kinhoshi Hospital, I was impressed at how dedicated and professional she was."
"Yeah, she was pretty impressive, arranging the release of all the hostages during the shutdown of the Li Group Japan headquarters last time," remarked Meilin.
"And she's pretty patient, seeing as she's actually getting Jinyu-senpai to learn some of his lines," remarked Tomoyo. "Something even I couldn't do."
"Oh no, Sakura-chan has that gleam in her eye," muttered Meilin.
Kai interjected, "Forget it, Erika will never join the Alliance of the Stars."
"Why not?" asked Meilin. "Even you joined it. And Eron too."
"Erika has no reason to join," said Kai. "I joined because I'm an idiot, and Eron joined because he's an even bigger idiot."
"Who are you calling an idiot?" asked Eron with a scowl, taking a peek out the window at his twin sister actually having the nerve to whack the Black Dragon on the back of his head with a rolled up script, something he had been dying to do all week long. The others winced along with him.
"Do you think his pistol is loaded today?" Meilin whispered to Kai.
"I don't know. Maybe we should skip rehearsal this afternoon," replied Kai. "Poor Eron—I think we're practicing the ballroom scene today, right Tomoyo."
"Yup!" said Tomoyo sweetly. "We got the auditorium again today. Reparations have gone completely smoothly. And wonderful Sakura-chan added in the trap door that I wanted even without me asking her!"
With a sigh, Meilin said, "I really do hope that Fuutie and Shiefa leave before the Cultural Festival. They'll ruin everything if they come."
Miho remarked, chin leaned against her palm, "Syaoran-senpai's sisters really are something."
"You haven't seen the younger two—they are the more extreme pair," remarked Meilin. "And the four of them together…" She trailed off and shuddered.
Tomoyo glanced over at Syaoran, who was flipping through binders of what looked like tax accounts in the corner of the library—he wasn't even making a pretense of working on school work anymore. "Syaoran-kun looks even more tired. Is he all right?"
"The Li Group Japan branch's board of trustees meeting this weekend," said Meilin. "He has to make a presentation, so he's completely swamped. Dairen's been threatening him to make an impactful first impression, and I'm not sure if Syaoran's ever had to make any presentation before."
"What's the trustee meeting?" asked Miho.
"A business delegation from the Li Group headquarters in Hong Kong flew in to discuss about business plans for the third quartile. Which is why Fuutie and Shiefa are here in the first place. As you know, we've had some horrible losses with the Great Elder's death, plummeting stocks and the damage on our Japan HQ's building from the altercation with the Wu Clan. Of course, since Syaoran is here, it's his responsibility to attend the board of trustees meeting and reassure old the board members that everything is going smoothly." Meilin trailed off, taking a worried glance at Syaoran.
"So, what's the problem?" asked Miho.
Meilin sighed. "He doesn't know anything about business, only about fighting dark forces and strategizing for battle. He's unsociable by nature, and nobody's going to take him seriously because he's still a kid. And he's already swamped with Great Elder training as already is, not to mention school chores like career planning, the cultural festival and whatnot. And now he has to deal with the trustees who are of course going to judge him and tear him apart."
"Poor Syaoran-kun," sighed Tomoyo. "It's not easy being the Great Elder, is it? He must have a lot on his mind at the moment with the corporate spy leaking sensitive information from the Li group and the upcoming board members meeting."
"Corporate spy? I didn't know about that," said Sakura. She wondered how it was that Tomoyo always seemed to know about Syaoran than she did. Even back in elementary school she remembered that the two of them would be engaged in intense conversation and would suddenly hush up when she entered the room.
"He consulted my mother about a secure firewall for the Li Group, and I just happened to overhear," said Tomoyo, as if reading her mind. In a softer voice, she continued, "See, it doesn't feel nice to hear about important news from a third party does it?"
Interest piqued, Miho asked, "So did they catch the hacker? Or do you have any suspects? "
"No, they weren't able to track down who it was yet," replied Meilin. "But last week, Tang Corp. cut in on a semiconductor deal that Dairen had been working on for months—he was furious. Syaoran says there is a high chance the Tang Clan set the corporate spy, but there's no way of knowing."
Tomoyo remarked, "Well, it's too bad the board meeting coincides with your High School Prefectural Gymnastics Meet this weekend. He could probably use your help."
Meilin's lips curved into a surreptitious smile. "Oh no, you're right! I'll be away all weekend for the gymnastic meet. Who will look after Syaoran and be his manager?"
"I'm sure Syaoran-senpai can take care of himself—he's a big boy," snickered Miho.
Meilin glared at Miho, and the younger girl covered her mouth. Clearing her throat, Meilin said woefully, "Syaoran these days doesn't even eat unless someone forces him to sit down for a meal. And his schedule will be so jam packed, somebody needs to be by his side and make sure he doesn't work himself to death. What I am most worried about is that he's been having such a hard time sleeping. I don't feel good about leaving him. Maybe, I should just drop out of the tournament."
"You can't," Tomoyo pointed out. "You're the vice captain of the Seijou High Girls' Gymnastics Team."
"Yes, the girls will be awfully disappointed if I dropped out because we actually might have a chance to make it to the Kanto Regionals this year," said Meilin. "But of course, Syaoran comes first. Unless…"
"Unless?" Tomoyo asked.
"Unless someone can take my place just for the three days I am away for the tournament," said Meilin extra loudly.
Miho blinked. "But who can do that?"
"Someone who is familiar with Syaoran, of course, since we all know how much of a grouch he is with strangers. Someone who will not get on his nerves, because he's very tense these days. And preferably someone who's lived with him before, because it has to be someone who can stick around with him 24/7 to make sure he sleeps properly and eats all three meals," said Meilin, staring blatantly at Sakura.
"Hoe, are you talking to me?" asked Sakura, finally looking up from her novel.
"Of course. Who else would I be able to entrust Syaoran with?" said Meilin.
"What about Kai-kun? I mean, he's right next doors, so it would be pretty easy for him to check in." Sakura said.
"Kai?" Meilin snorted. "Knowing Kai, it'd be lucky if Syaoran is not the one doing the cooking and cleaning and watching over of that delinquent."
Miho nodded knowingly. "And I'm sure they'll fight within an hour of being around each other. Onii-chan is impossible to live with."
"How about Wei-san?" asked Sakura.
"Do you know how busy he is at the main house right now, catering to Leiyun, Fuutie and Shiefa?" responded Meilin.
"I don't think I can be of much help to Syaoran," said Sakura weakly.
Meilin put her hand on Sakura's shoulder. "Leave things to me. I'll train you thoroughly before I leave."
Meilin trudged out of her room to the living room with her over-packed duffel bag at the break of dawn Friday morning. "Syaoran, I'm leaving now."
Syaoran, coming back from his morning jog, asked, "Are you immigrating? I thought you'll just be gone for the weekend?"
"I'm a girl. I have a lot of things I need," replied Meilin. "There's a pot of beef stew in the fridge that you can heat up for dinner. I've tidied up your itinerary and set it here on the kitchen counter for your temporary manager to take over."
"Temporary manager?" he repeated.
Meilin looked at the kitchen clock. The door bell rang. Grinning, she ran to the front door. "Welcome! You're just in time!"
Syaoran's jaw dropped as Sakura, in her school uniform, stepped in with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder and Wolfie-chan cradled in her other arm. She set down the duffel bag at the door and the tan-furred puppy jumped onto the floor and ran around Syaoran's feet, yipping joyfully.
Meilin turned around, with her chin jutted out. "Sakura's going to be staying here for the next three days as your manager."
"I don't need a manager," protested Syaoran.
"Sure you do," replied Meilin, pointing to several stacks of paper that came up to her height around the living room. "How are you going to get through all those accounts all on your own?" She glanced at the clock. "Oh no, I'm going to be late! Kai!"
The Thief of the Night popped up from next doors, swinging a key-ring around his forefinger. "Whoa, and are you immigrating or something? I guess it's car today, Meilin-sama?"
Rolling her eyes, Meilin turned to Sakura. "You can of course use my room, same as before. The itinerary is on the kitchen counter. You'll have to do groceries at one point—we're out of milk and eggs. The board meeting is at 9 a.m. Sunday, but Syaoran has to get there an hour early to be debriefed by the vice president of Li Group Japan. Remember to pick out his outfit the night before and iron his suit and shirt out the morning of, because he is very particular about presentation. Don't let him wear the pink shirt though!"
"It's my lucky shirt," muttered Syaoran.
Meilin slapped Sakura on the back and said, "I'm leaving things to you now, Sakura-chan. I'm leaving now. See you Monday! Bye!"
Sakura thought she heard Kai ask Meilin, "Are they going to be okay?" as they walked off toward the elevator. Considering Kai was a late riser, it was nice of him to wake up early to give his girlfriend a ride to school. She felt a little envious that they were next door neighbors and able to head off to school together all the time like this.
As the door shut behind them, Sakura found Syaoran staring at her. He finally said, "I can see Meilin talked you into this. It's really okay. I don't need a manager. You can go back."
Sakura shook her. "I promised Meilin-chan to look after you."
"I don't need looking after," Syaoran sighed in exasperation. "You know that. I know Meilin takes her role seriously, and I'm really grateful for it. She's been very helpful. Though she's always on my back, nagging at me nonstop. In fact, I was almost glad that she's going to be gone over the weekend. So, there's no reason for you to be here."
"No, I pinky-swore with Meilin-chan. Three meals a day and to make sure you sleep." Sakura stood her ground, hands on hips, lips pouted, as she glared up at Syaoran challengingly. "I'm staying."
A single dark brow was arched as he met her gaze, his amber eyes glimmering golden. "Oh, really? Meilin was that worried about me." He leaned over and bent over till his lips were near Sakura's ears. "Of course, you can't go back on your words then. I guess I will not refuse your offer then. Since you made a promise with Meilin."
"G-good!" said Sakura, stepping back, her ear tingling from his breath. "W-what should we do first now. B-breakfast? Or those documents?" She pointed to the stack of papers.
"I'm sweaty from my morning jog. I'm going to shower," replied Syaoran.
Sakura blinked up at him.
"You don't have to help with that," he added.
She flushed and swerved around robotically. "O-of course! I'll prepare breakfast!"
When Syaoran walked into the kitchen fifteen minutes later, rubbing a towel over his head, he found that Sakura had whipped up a mess per usual. "Hotcakes?"
"Yes," Sakura replied, setting a plate in front of Syaoran. "They have bananas in them. For potassium."
"Interesting," Syaoran remarked, munching on the mushy hotcakes, infused with the sweetness of ripe bananas. He took a sip of the freshly squeezed orange juice.
Sakura watched him devour the hotcakes, not making a snide mention that the bottoms were burned, not even making a face at the seeds and rind ground into the orange juice. It was a familiar sight, Syaoran with his slightly damp hair, ends curled as it always did when it was wet. He was wearing pieces of his school uniform, the black trousers, and the button-down white shirt not yet tucked in. Since he was always so put together at school, she always enjoyed the glimpses of a ruffled, grumpy Syaoran at home.
"Aren't you eating?" asked Syaoran, setting down the newspaper.
"I already ate at home," replied Sakura.
"Oh." Syaoran stared down at his empty plate. "I'll do the dishes."
"No—you finish getting ready," said Sakura, coming and swooping up dishes.
As she dried the last plate, Syaoran came out, dressed in his sky blue blazer, book bag slung over a shoulder. "All right. Let's head to school."
"It's still kind of early, isn't it?" Sakura pointed out.
Sakura pointed to the stacks of paper. "Shouldn't we be working at that?"
Walking to school from Syaoran's apartment like this was very nostalgic. Sakura recollected that hot and humid summer, when she had lived with Syaoran, heading to school like this beside him. She had loved those quiet morning walks with him, enjoying the morning breeze and the fresh scent of trees. Syaoran never talked much, but he made sure not to walk too fast, always matching his pace to hers.
The Syaoran today was slightly taller, a little sterner than the boy of two summers ago. So much had happened since then, to both of them. To be able to walk to school like this, so naturally, was a treat that she would not even have expected would be possible last year, or even until a month ago.
"How rare," remarked Naoko, who was in the empty classroom because she was on duty, when she saw Sakura and Syaoran walk in together. "Did you two come to school together?"
"W-we met at the gate," stammered Sakura.
"Oh, I guess you are here early to see the girls' gymnastic team leave," said Naoko. "I think Meilin-chan said she takes off for the meet this morning."
Kai walked into the classroom with a huge yawn, arms stretched above his head. "The bus just left." He walked over to his seat and collapsed over his desk. "I don't think I've ever come to school this early before."
Naoko giggled. "You are such a dedicated boyfriend."
"I know, right?" Kai said. "But Mei-chan doesn't appreciate me one bit." And he slung an arm over Syaoran's shoulder and whined, "Syaoran, what am I going to do without Meilin all weekend. I'm bored already. Entertain me."
Sakura chuckled to herself as Syaoran told the former thief straight-faced, "You're probably going to drive up to the gymnastic meet before the weekend is over, anyway. And you need to stop parking your sports car in the faculty parking lot."
And Naoko remarked to Sakura softly, "You and Meilin are lucky."
"Why?" asked Sakura.
"I wish I can look upon some with those eyes," said Naoko, eyes glimmering behind her round glasses. "Eyes of utter adoration."
"I— wasn't looking at Syaoran like that!" stammered Sakura.
"It's a figurative way of speaking," replied Naoko. "I've never been in love, so I can't speak for myself. But I think if I were in love, I would never be able to take my eyes off of the one I cherish. Chiharu has Yamazaki-kun. Rika has Terada-sensei. And you have Li-kun. It must be a nice feeling. It makes me wonder, when I will be able to find my special one."
"Naoko-chan, there will definitely be that special person out there," said Sakura. "Because you are a super special person too." It was true. Naoko was probably one of the cleverest of her friends, perhaps with insight almost on par with Tomoyo at times.
"I don't know," said Naoko. "I always thought by the time I got to high school, I would have found someone. But none of our classmates appeal to me—maybe because we've grown up with most of them."
Sakura smiled. "That's obviously because guys our own age just won't suit your mental level, Naoko. You've always said you wanted a mysterious foreigner to sweep you off your feet. And he will definitely appear, someday."
Sunlight streamed in between the cracks of the curtain, and Kinomoto Sakura woke up from bed with a start to an unfamiliar room. The Egyptian cotton sheets, a spring green color, was cool against her skin, and she hugged the plaid olive and white duvet to her chest, whiffing in a familiar scent of detergent. It was Syaoran's room, Syaoran's bed, Syaoran's scent. When did she end up in his room, in his bed? In alarm, she racked her brains back to the previous night. That's right, she was his manager for the weekend. They had come home after school pretty late because of another disastrous orchestra practice and had a quick dinner of beef stew. She had been helping Syaoran color code and label clear files into the wee hours of the night, and she must have dozed off, for that was the last memory she had, of her face smashed up against stacks of paper. But then, how did she end up in here, and where was Syaoran? Her eyes flitted to the clock on the nightstand—it was past noon!
She leaped up from the bed and ran out into the living room, hair disheveled. She tugged on her loose t-shirt to straighten it as Syaoran came out from the kitchen with a platter of eggs frittata with melted cheese and vegetables. Glancing up at her, he said, "Oh good, you are up. I was afraid the food may get cold. Wash up—the bacon's almost fried up."
Sakura was at loss of words as Syaoran carried to the dining table platters of eggs, bacon, potato wedges, sliced up assorted fruits, freshly baked buns with creamy butter and raspberry jam on the side, and a pitcher of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. "When did you have time to make all of this?" she asked.
"Did I get carried away?" asked Syaoran sheepishly. "I wasn't sure what you would want to eat. You don't have to finish it all."
"Sorry, I think I fell asleep last night before I finished with the labels," said Sakura. The buttery scent of the buns made her salivate.
Sipping on a cup of freshly brewed black coffee, Syaoran replied, "No worries, you were nearly done with it, and I finished the rest up."
Sakura glanced over at the living room and found the clear files neatly stacked up in one corner. "But that's what I came here for!" she exclaimed aghast. "And did you even sleep last night?" What a dumb question—she had been sleeping in his bed. "Your bed! How did I—" She couldn't bring herself to ask if she went to sleep in his room by mistake and kept him from his own bed.
He chuckled and poured Sakura a glass of juice. "I thought you might drool over my documents which you were conveniently using as a pillow if I left you in the living room. I just put you in the nearest room—my room—because you're not that light."
At this, Sakura gasped at the double-blow. She drooled in her sleep and was heavy! Cheeks flushed, she gulped down the icy juice and gasped again. "This is delicious. What's in here?"
"It's my special health blend for immunity since you looked a bit under the weather," replied Syaoran. "Do you like it? It's grapefruit juice blended with grapes, apple, ginger and cucumber with a dash of lemon. Oh, try the buns."
Sakura stuffed the warm bread into her mouth. It was fluffy, buttery and milky, like heaven on her tongue. "It's so good."
"I tried out a new recipe that I learned at La Seine and never got a chance to try out," replied Syaoran.
She was famished since she had missed breakfast and began stuffing her face with the feast in front of her when she looked up mid-bite and saw that Syaoran was watching her eat, bemused, occasionally sipping on coffee.
"Aren't you eating?" asked Sakura.
"I picked on this and that while I was cooking," was his reply.
That was what mothers said to their children, Sakura thought sourly. Nonetheless, she devoured the platters of food, and volunteered to do the dishes. As she scrubbed the cups and plates, berating herself for not only falling asleep last night and sleeping in this morning, but also making Syaoran cook for her. Syaoran was the type of person who would clean up as he cooked, so there were few dishes to clean and dry. By the time she returned to the living room, she found Syaoran vacuuming the rug as Wolfie-chan chased after him, tail wagging so hard it became a blur.
"I'll do it!" exclaimed Sakura.
"I'm almost finished—just take Wolfie-chan out of the way and go sit over there on the couch." And Sakura did as told, tucking her leg underneath her, holding Wolfie-chan to her so that he wouldn't jump out and tangle himself with the electric cords. Staying out of the way, she watched Syaoran, the Great Elder of the Li Clan who had his major debut with the Li Group board of trustees tomorrow, nonchalantly vacuum the apartment.
That's right, the board meeting. "Syaoran, let me know what we have to get done today. Meilin's notes said that we have this year's January to May files to review still, and that we need to run through your presentation tomorrow and time it."
"Yup," said Syaoran, absentmindedly opening up the fridge in the kitchen. "Sakura, what do you want for dinner? I used up all the ingredients for breakfast. Or was that considered lunch?"
"I'll go grocery shopping!" exclaimed Sakura. "Just give me a list of all the things you need."
But Syaoran replied, "I can't think of it off the top of my head. Let's go together."
She was about to protest, but thought it would do good for him to get some fresh air, and it was so sunny and bright outside, it would be helpful for his circadian rhythm. So half an hour later, she found herself strolling beside Syaoran with a baseball cap, looking more casual than she had seen him as of late, in faded denim jeans and a navy cardigan layered over a striped white shirt. That's right, he had been in mourning since Great-Uncle Renshu's passing and had worn dark, somber colors for weeks afterward. Wolfie-chan skipped beside him happily, yapping at other dogs out on walks and sniffed tree trunks and shrubs curiously.
Grocery shopping at the nearby family mart with Syaoran came naturally—she'd pick the vegetables, he'd haggle with the fishmonger for the freshest king prawns; they'd get stalled when passing through the baking ingredients section. He wouldn't even let her carry the grocery bags, instead making her scoop up a drowsy Wolfie-chan. It was just like that summer they spent together.
"Oh it's drizzling!" exclaimed Sakura, palm to the sky, as they stepped outside.
Syaoran glanced up at the sky and remarked, "It looks like a passing shower. Why don't we stop by at the café over there and wait for it to clear up a bit. No point in getting Wolfie-chan soaked."
She knew she should protest, but how often did she have a Saturday afternoon to sit in a café with Syaoran? And there he was sipping on his glass of melon soda, sitting with his legs crossed, a snoring Wolfie-chan snuggled on his lap, looking more carefree than she had ever recalled in the past year.
Their rare tranquil moment together was interrupted when a girl with air two red-brown high pigtails came into the shop with her arms linked to a tall boy with shortly cropped black hair.
"Sakura-chan! Li-kun!" exclaimed Chiharu with a wave of her hand. "Are you two on a date as well? We got caught up in the shower on the way to the movie theater."
Sakura's ears reddened. "It's not a date."
"We bumped into each other while grocery shopping," said Syaoran glibly.
Sakura shot a quizzical look at Syaoran, wondering when he had gotten so nonchalant about lying.
"How cute, is that your dog, Li-kun?" asked Chiharu, pointing to Wolfie-chan. "He kind of looks like a little wolf cub."
"He's Sakura's dog," replied Syaoran, stroking the pup's back.
"And you're its papa," remarked Takashi with a grin. "Now, speaking of canine creatures and their filial loyalty to their masters—"
"What should we order, Takashi?" asked Chiharu extra loudly, dragging over two extra chairs to join Sakura and Syaoran's table without any invitation. "So, how is orchestra practice going? I heard Li-sensei is quite the demon maestro? The senpai playing first cello came begging to Tomoyo-chan to be transferred to backdrop painting."
"He's Syaoran's cousin though. They say blood runs thicker than wine," said Takashi.
"Than water. Blood is thicker than water, you mean," interjected Chiharu. "Li-sensei is very handsome and nice, but his atmosphere is completely different from our Li-kun."
"Yet, there are moments when the two are uncannily similar," said Takashi, who opened his hawk eyes for a split second. "Though their main difference is, I suppose, Li Syaoran is a straight-forward sort, while Li-sensei is gnarled up inside, like an ancient tree root. He'd be the Yggdrasil while Syaoran would be a young bamboo tree."
To Syaoran's relief, the weather had cleared, and he set down cash, balanced the grocery bags in one hand, and grabbed Sakura by the wrist, dragging her along. Wolfie-chan, jolted awake, followed after them. "We're got to take off now."
"Hoe, see you at school on Monday!" said Sakura, waving her other hand as Syaoran quickly ushered her out of the door.
"I wonder if the two of them are living together again," remarked Chiharu, sipping on her milkshake. "We're near Li-kun's apartment, right?"
"It must be a weekend arrangement, since Meilin's out of town for the gymnastics tournament," pointed out Takashi. "Haven't seen Syaoran look so relaxed in a long time. I guess they made up over whatever squabble they had the other week."
Chiharu turned to her boyfriend and childhood best friend. "What did they fight about this time?"
"Chang Eron of course," replied Takashi astutely. "Though neither of them seem to know that."
It was half way through washing dishes for dinner, which had been a menu of scrumptious shrimp and asparagus pasta with tossed mixed green salad and a dessert of raspberry soufflé that Sakura realized that they hadn't cracked open a single folder all day long. She glanced at the clock. It was still early evening; if they worked hard surely they could make it.
"I'm full," declared Syaoran. "I think I need to take a jog."
Sakura gaped at Syaoran. "But the work?" Yet, it was true—there was no way they could get anything done with such a heavy stomach. "I'll go with you then."
To Sakura's chagrin, she was pretty winded as they jogged around the town, for Syaoran's concept of a jog was a full sprint, and while she might have been able to keep up with an elementary school Syaoran, she could not with the current high school one. To her dismay, as they reached the forest behind King Penguin Park, he suddenly halted and turned to her. "I heard you were training in martial arts under Meilin."
"Yes," she replied.
"Well, we'll see how much you've improved since I last taught you."
"Now?" she asked.
"I need a sparring partner, and Meilin's not here," was his simple response.
It was far more nerve-wracking to be trained under Syaoran, as it always had been. But after a grueling hour of punches, kicks, blocks and stretching, he declared, "Well, Meilin's been doing a good job, hasn't she? You've improved a lot."
"Yes, Meilin-chan's a patient and thorough teacher," replied Sakura.
"Yes," he said with a glint in his eyes. "Unlike me."
Sakura should have protested, but couldn't deny this fact.
"Has she taught you defense when the attacker comes from behind?" asked Syaoran. He slinked up behind her and locked an arm around her neck, other hand tripping her hand so she could not budge. "I guess not."
Sakura's heart was thumping so hard at the sudden proximity that she didn't even hear his next series of explanations.
"Okay, jab your elbow into the assailant, and when attacked from behind, then take the arm and twist it behind his head," he told her. His warm breath tickled the back of her neck. "Sakura, are you listening?"
Sakura was sore to the bones by the time they returned to the apartment. She mindlessly guzzled down a bottle of water, wondering how they will ever be able to finish the rest of the files, and if Syaoran was ready for his presentation tomorrow. Tomorrow! In two hours, it would be tomorrow. And her eyes fell upon a square white box, with an untied green-and-striped ribbon to the side, sitting atop the kitchen counter. She shouldn't look, but she was curious what had been in Tomoyo's box which did not contain a cherry pie after all. While she wouldn't touch it if it were in his room, it was lying out here on the counter, in plain view. And the ribbon was already untied. Surely she could just take a peek, and Syaoran wouldn't know. With a trembling hand, she reached over and flipped open the lid just the slightest bit.
"What are you looking at?" came a dangerously soft whisper in her ears.
Sakura nearly let out a squeal and was afraid to turn around, as she quickly snatched away her hand. Because he was standing right behind her, trapping her against the counter, she could not inch away. "I was just… I was just. I thought it was…"
"What did you think it was?" Syaoran, freshly out of the shower, still had damp hair, and she felt a droplet of water trickle from his bangs down her neck. "Go ahead. Look."
"No, it's okay," she said, turning around, and finding it to be a mistake, for he would not budge, and she was now facing his chest squarely. He had changed into a loose cream-colored shirt, baring his collarbones, and soft green flannel pajama bottoms.
"Open it," he said.
Because she was sure he would not budge unless she obliged, Sakura reached over and flipped the box lid open. It was empty.
His lips curled into a sardonic smiled. "Silly Sakura, if you are still hungry, I can bake you a pie, if you want. Any kind you wish for."
"No thank you," said Sakura, suddenly feeling foolish and increasingly uncomfortable as Syaoran still refused to move away. He reached over, and she nearly bent over backwards against the kitchen counter. But he had only reached over to grab the bottle of water she had just set down. And she found herself clinging onto the edge of the counter with both hands to regain her train of thoughts.
Sipping water, he said to her, "What are you standing there for? I filled the tub for you. It'll be good to soak up in hot water so that you don't get sore tomorrow—I made you go through an intense drill today."
She could not protest, since the water was already filled, and he had even put some aromatic rose-scented salts in the tub—apparently Fuutie's favorite. When he wasn't bullying her, he had always been very detail-oriented and considerate to the point of exasperating her. The water was just the right temperature, not too hot but not lukewarm, a temperature that could only be maintained through a magic spell. Wafts of floral scent and Syaoran's favorite minty shampoo filled her nose. She sank deeper into the tub, thinking how wonderful life was.
Until she woke up with a start, some time later, realizing the water had started to cool. Judging by the shriveled prune-like state of her skin, she must have dozed off for a good hour. She quickly rinsed off, dressed herself in crisp pink ruffled pajamas, and ran over to Syaoran's room to find he was working at his desk, most likely reviewing his presentation tomorrow.
"Good, you are out. I was getting worried that you might have drowned in the tub and was debating whether or not I had to go check on you," he remarked.
And Sakura stared back at the stacks of untouched files in the living room in utter dismay. "How can you joke at a time like this? We didn't do any work all day long!"
Syaoran smiled. "Don't worry. I have everything prepared already."
"B-but Meilin said you had to review all those accounts before tomorrow!" exclaimed Sakura, pointing to the mountains for paper surrounding the desk.
Syaoran bit his lips. "Sakura. Those are all documents that I've already sorted through—see over there—those are accounts from last year. Those are from two years ago. Those are from three years. That stack over there are questionable financial transactions. And this binder here has a summary of all the most recent accounts, dated and color-coded."
Sakura slumped down on her knees. "Then why in the world did Meilin send me here? I'm useless."
Syaoran bent down next to her. "No you aren't. Don't you see? Meilin knew I needed a distraction before the board meeting, or else I'll be stressing over it all weekend long. I've been preparing for this meeting all month long and done all that I can do. The rest is up to how the board members accept me. The most important thing is you've helped me relax, eat all three meals, and sleep regular hours, okay?"
And Sakura finally grinned. "Roger. I'll make sure I'm of use to you tomorrow at least!"
"Yes, go get some sleep now. Tomorrow's going to be a long day," he told her.
But Sakura first ironed Syaoran's dress shirt, and was mighty proud of how crisply it had turned out. She paired it with a sky blue and silver necktie that she thought would offset his brown hair best, rather enjoying the process. When her father had an important seminar or lecture, he would let her choose his tie for him, telling her it always brought him luck.
Because she spotted the light was on in Syaoran's room, and it was well past midnight, she tiptoed to his door and peeked in a little while later. She found him in his dark green plaid pajamas, typing away on his laptop at his desk, with Wolfie-chan curled up at his feet.
"You've got to stop working and sleep now," said Sakura, after a single knock. "We have to wake up early tomorrow."
Syaoran shrugged. "I can't fall asleep at this time anyway. Might as well get some work done."
Sakura frowned. This wouldn't do. She had promised Meilin to make sure Syaoran got at least six hours of sleep. "I will make you some steamed honey milk."
"I'm not feeling sick," replied Syaoran with a wry smile.
But Sakura has scrambled to the kitchen to find a pot.
She brought back a steaming mug to Syaoran's room. "Thanks," he mumbled, not looking up from his laptop.
"In bed," she commanded.
With a sigh, Syaoran shut his laptop and sat down on the bed. She placed the warm blue mug in his hand. "Now, drink."
He sipped the creamy, sweet concoction. "I taste a bit of nutmeg."
Sakura nodded. "Since you're not sick or anything, I added some spices."
Syaoran downed the hot drink rather quickly, because Sakura was watching over him. He set the mug down on the nightstand. "Okay, I'll sleep soon. You can go and rest—you'll have a long day tomorrow too."
She shook her head. "I'm going to watch you fall asleep first." Syaoran almost smiled until she added, "I promised Meilin as your assistant."
He raised a brow again. "How dutiful of you. Well, then, come sit here on the bed instead of standing over me like that—it's rather making me feel nervous."
"I'll sit over here," said Sakura, pointing to Syaoran's desk chair.
"No, I can't see your face in the dark. Come sit here." He scooted over and patted to the spot beside him. His eyes glowed a warm orange in the dim light of the nightstand.
Sakura tentatively sat down on the corner of the bed, on top of the plaid green cover. She suddenly recalled that thunderous summer night two years ago. It was the first time he had told her about his cousin Leiyun. It had been the moment she had felt closest to him, that he had felt the most vulnerable to her. And yet, she had felt so safe beside him, during the ranging thunderstorm.
She had been so happy that he had opened up to her, as he did once in a while when they were alone. Like that time during the beach trip in elementary school when they were sitting by the seaside at night, or that time when they were locked in to dungeon of her Aunt Fujiko's lover three winters ago. Her memory was pretty fuzzy from that sweltering hot summer night, but she recalled him asking her, "Is that all you ever want to be to me? Just a good friend?"
It was that moment she had truly pondered the meaning of being something more with Syaoran. She had watched his sleeping face in silence with that very question. It was the question she had asked herself over and over again that summer.
"Do you remember that night of the thunderstorm?" Syaoran said suddenly.
Sakura gulped. "W-which one?"
"Two summers ago, right here," said Syaoran, looking up at her. "You told me its okay not to be perfect, to let down my guard once in a while."
"It's the first time anyone told me it's okay to be less than perfect. All my life, I've been told anything less than perfect means I am a failure. That was the pressure that was always put on me, to be the best of the best, so that I can become the Chosen One. So that I can fill my father's shoes." He paused. "And it got me thinking, for whom I have worked so hard for all my life."
Sakura smiled slightly. "You haven't changed much. You're still a perfectionist. And you still don't show your emotions. I think you've gotten worse about it, actually."
"Not to you," said Syaoran. "Not to you. You are the one person I can open up to, and just be. And you accept that side of me. I can trust you and share my problems and worry with you. Because you've been a good friend to me all these years, even though I may not always have been to you."
The exact words she had used on him that night: "I always wanted to be a good friend to you, someone that you trust enough to share your problems and worries at any time." She remembered those words vividly because she had always wondered what might have changed if she had answered differently then. Or was he testing her? Did he expect her to respond or was he simply making a statement? Was he going to broach the taboo subject again?
As if sensing her discomfort, he leaned back onto his pillow. "Well, as my good friend, you said you will stay with me until I am sleeping. So, you better keep your word. For some reason, I do feel more relaxed when you are by my side."
He had been teasing her. With a scowl, she said, "Because you can rest assure that those nasty mafias or cockroaches or Tang Clan assassins won't come for your neck while I'm on watch."
"Oh, how did you know about the Tang assassins? They're always the nastiest. Because of bad blood between them and Clow Reed. How did that man make so many enemies in his lifetime?"
He had shut his eyes now, and Sakura noted the lines on his brows from all the tension he'd been under over the past weeks. "So, tell me what keeps you from sleeping at night."
"Meilin calls it chronic insomnia," said Syaoran. "But it's not that I can't sleep. I don't really want to sleep. Because once I lose control of my consciousness, I do not know what world I may slip into."
Sakura frowned. "Nightmares?"
"At least you can wake from a nightmare," said Syaoran.
"You said you were stuck in Limbo. You can try telling me a little about it," she murmured, even though she knew he did not like to speak of his time inside the Cavern of Reservoirs.
"It's not something I really want to relive." He opened his eyes again, staring at the opposite wall. "The problem with my time in Limbo is, it wasn't just that once. For the past three years, or maybe even longer, I've always had the same recurring nightmare. I am on a cliff against a gray, overcast sky. Sometimes it's all hazy, but I am pretty sure it's a representation of the Mt. Kumatori summit, from where Chang Risa jumped off. There have been so many variations of that same nightmare. Sometimes you're falling off, and I can't catch you. Sometimes I'm falling. Sometimes, the whole cliff is crumbling."
Sakura stared at him with her rounded emerald eyes, feeling goose bumps on her skin though it was uncomfortably warm in the room.
"It sounds silly, when you are out of it and just recollecting it. But in that moment, as it's happening, it feels so real and wretched and terrifying," he said.
"I know," whispered Sakura. "But you know it's not real. This is real. You are here, and I am here. We are both here."
To her surprise, he suddenly reached across the bed over to her, his fingers caressing the side of the throat. She could barely breathe at the contact of his hand on her bare skin.
"You have a pulse. You are real." He laughed, his fingers slipping away and leaving her neck feeling bare against the cool night air. "What a silly imagination I must have."
"It's not just your imagination. Syaoran. I've had those dreams too. I know what it's like."
"What do you mean?"
She stared down at her hands. "You are there. Right within my reach. And then you fall off the cliff, and I am shouting out your name over and over again."
He paled before saying lightly, "Well, we did our share of falling over the past several years. It's sort of a natural dream to have, based on our past experiences." He glanced at her. "What about you. You haven't told me much about what you were doing in the Cavern of Reservoirs while you were supposedly waiting for me. I believe you kept yourself quite busy. You've been quite strange about it, but I never really got a chance to ask about it."
Sakura wished she could tell him about how she had met his father. But she couldn't. Not yet. How could she describe how weary and defeated Li Ryuuren had been in his last moments of life? Of how haunting and chilling it had been, watching a life slip away, and how she couldn't do anything to help him or east the pain. And how Chang Ryouta had been responsible for his death. She glanced over and found that Syaoran had leaned over to his side, propped up by his pillow and was staring up at her quizzically.
"Is your encounter with Chang Ryouta bothering you again?" he asked softly.
"N-no," she stammered. She hadn't told him the whole story last time. "Well, I guess that too."
"It's true, he was a horrid, wretched person," said Syaoran. "What he did to Eri-san and his twin brother was unforgivable. But at the end of the day, we don't have the full story, and we don't know exactly what passed between the three of them. So, there's no point in dwelling over it."
Sakura sat up. Syaoran knew about how Ryouta had tricked Eri, taken her from his brother. "How do you know about that? I didn't tell you." And she paused. "That day at King Penguin Park—you read my mind then!" Wait, did that mean he had read other things from her mind too?
He said slowly, "I can't read your mind anymore. You know that."
"Then how do you know about Eri-san and Ryouta-san?" Sakura demanded.
"I overhead," said Syaoran reluctantly.
When could he have overheard? Right, that day she told Eron at school. They were outside on the bench nearest to the school building. Sakura's shoulders slumped. She was sure he wasn't lying about not reading her mind anymore, and if he had seen how she had confessed her feelings to his father, he surely would have said something. "He was a horrid person—I don't know if I were his brother, I would have ever forgiven him. Reiji-san and Eri-san genuinely seemed like sweet people from meeting a version of them in the Fantasy."
"You have to remember, Reiji-san was a Dark One too," said Syaoran.
"But he joined in with my mother and your father at the end. He helped sealed a part of the Plague inside his body too, to help defeat it," said Sakura. "Besides, Eron said Reiji had cared for him and Erika until the very end. Even though he knew what Ryouta did, he didn't hate his children. He made sure to arrange everything with an orphanage and left a house and his savings to them for when they turned of age. I didn't want to tell Eron, but he had already suspected something was strange, because he's awfully sharp."
Syaoran had shifted in the bed again, so that his back was to her now. "It's about Eron again, isn't it? You spend a lot of time worrying about him."
"I can't help it," said Sakura. "I made him join the Star Alliance even though it makes him go against Erika, the person he cares about the most in the world."
"Well, he chose you. I think that says something," mumbled Syaoran into his pillows.
"Did you say something?" asked Sakura.
"Say, can I ask you something?"
"What is it?"
"Why did you go out with Eron?"
Sakura nearly toppled off the bed at the sudden question. But since his back was turned to her, she found it easier to try to respond. "I don't know. I wanted to make him happy."
"Do you still have that feeling for him?" he asked softly.
She glanced over at his shoulders. "I guess yes."
"Would you have dated him, even if you hadn't lost your memories?" he asked, even quieter.
Sakura didn't know how to respond. Would she have dated Eron, if she hasn't lost her memories of Syaoran? If she hadn't been at a point in her life when she believed she had lost everything? It had been Eron by her side, all those months, filling an empty void she did not even know she had. He had encouraged her to forget, had distracted her from the pain. Was this question another pivotal one that she had to answer correctly? Or was Syaoran simply curious, as friends had a right to be. None of her friends had understood why she decided to date Eron in the first place. She didn't either. "Yes, I think I would have," she said. After all, at that time, she didn't have any reason to refuse Eron.
Sakura clenched her hands into a fist in realization. No she wouldn't have. Because, if she had memories of Li Syaoran, she wouldn't have been able to.
"I'm going to sleep now," murmured Syaoran, his back still turned to her.
"I'll turn off the lamp then," said Sakura, trying to stand up.
A hand slipped out from under the duvet and gripped her by the wrist, though he was not even facing her direction. "Stay."
It was a command, yet she didn't mind it because it came from him. "I will." It dawned upon her that the day he had overheard her conversation with Eron was also they day that they fought over her swimsuit modeling gig. He didn't let go of her wrist, even as his breath softened. Eventually, he rolled over, his head turned toward her again.
She watched Syaoran's handsome sleeping side profile. She loved how his long brown lashes touched his cheeks, and how his dark brows had eased from his incessant frown. His hair always curled messily at the ends when they were rumpled. A slight came over his brows and she saw his fingers curl into a fist, as if he was under strain. She reached over and slipped her fingers into his fists, and slowly, his grip loosened. He exhaled, and Sakura found she could wrap her fingers around his warm, large hands. She loved the feeling of his palm and finger tips, hard with calluses from sword training yet somehow smooth, not dry or scratchy. Her lids grew heavy, and she thought she wanted to rest her head down on the second pillow for a moment, just to make sure he did not have any more bad dreams. He turned his head slightly, and she found that he was directly facing her, so close that she could feel his breath.
Sakura snuggled up closer to her Syaoran-bear. He was so warm and cuddly… and big? Wait, why was he not cushiony like a stuffed doll should be? And Sakura's eyes flew open and stared up into the sleeping face of her one-time nemesis Li Syaoran. This was the second night in a row that she had fallen asleep in Syaoran's bed, and this time, he was in it! Sunlight streamed into the bedroom because the curtains were not drawn all the day. And while she would like to excuse herself and say he was the one who had been holding her to him, on the contrary, she had been the one who had been curled against his chest, holding onto him. How was it that he didn't wake up, she wondered. He must have been tired. Carefully, she slipped away from under the duvet cover—she was pretty sure she had been on top, and had meant to return to Meilin's room when she was sure he was asleep. When had she zonked out? Goodness, what time was it? Were they going to be late for the meeting? She signed in relief after leaning over to check the clock.
As if on cue, he rubbed his eyes and murmured, "What time is it?"
"It's half past six," she told him, glad that his eyes were still shut and she was standing by the door now, not curled up in the bed next to him. True, she was still in her pink flower-print pajamas, and was sure her hair was sticking out in all directions, but Syaoran's eyes were half-shut anyway.
With a yawn, Syaoran remarked, "I think I actually slept through the whole night."
"Wonderful. Now, I'll get breakfast ready—you can wash up first."
"Sakura?" called out Syaoran.
"Y-yes?" Sakura said.
"Oh, it really is you." He looked up at her with his bleary eyes and smiled sleepily, and if she stayed any longer, she thought her heart will explode from the sweetness, so she dashed out of the room.
Wei picked them up by car and drove them to Marunouchi, the financial district of Tokyo, where the Li Group Japan headquarters was located—a gleaming glass high-rise building. Sakura was impressed to find that the damages from the yakuza rampages in April seemed to have been fixed. They went up the elevator to the 17th floor conference room.
"Syaoran, is it really okay for me to be here?" whispered Sakura, clutching the files to her chest. "I really can wait here outside, or around the corner at a coffee shop."
"No, I need you here," said Syaoran, trying to a hide a smile at Sakura's attire of the day. She was dressed in business formal, a style he had never seen on her before, with a gray pencil skirt paired with a white silk blouse, sheer tan stockings and a pair of black patent leather pumps. Her hair was pulled back into neat ponytail, and she finished off the look with a pair of slim silver-rimmed glasses. "It'll be boring, but can you stay by my side?"
Sakura gulped and nodded. "I'll be taking all the notes of course."
"That would be helpful," said Syaoran. "There's another issue."
"What is it?" asked Sakura. "Anything I can help with?"
"There's a corporate spy," said Syaoran. "And Cousin Dairen believes it's one of the members of the board of trustees here today."
"I see," said Sakura. "Well, I'll be keeping an eye out for the spy. Here's your main presentation points. The blue binder contains the appendix documents and the red one is supplementary spreadsheets."
Syaoran looked over the binder of presentation notes that Sakura had color coded and tabbed for easy reference. "You're really good at this."
"Of course. I've always helped my father out whenever he was preparing for an academic conference or a major presentation. Though of course, I made him lose all his work one time when his hard drive got wiped. But that was because of a Clow Card." She then took out a thermostat and poured Syaoran a cup of steaming coffee, sweetened with honey and milk. "Drink. It would calm your nerves."
Syaoran sipped the coffee. "This is really good. What's in here?"
"I prepare it for my dad when he has an important seminar," said Sakura. She inspected him and straightened his Windsor-knotted sky-blue and silver silk tie in front of the conference room door before he entered. She took this moment to peek up at Syaoran who looked dashing with his chestnut brown hair slicked down, wearing a charcoal gray pinstripe suit paired with a crisp white shirt. A folded white silk handkerchief was tucked into his breast pocket, and onyx and gold cufflinks glimmered at his wrists. "Well, let's go in then. I'll be right by your side. Let me know if you need anything."
Taking a deep breath, Syaoran entered the conference room, where a group of mostly older men in business suits had already taken a seat. Sakura quietly walked behind him, to the side of the room, where she would not be noticed, and quickly began preparing her laptop. When she looked up, she realized she recognized a few of the faces, such as Syaoran's sisters, Leiyun, and another older cousin called Dairen.
And Syaoran slowly took the podium. Slowly, he said, "Good morning president, vice president, esteemed members of the board, as well as the delegation from the Li Group Hong Kong headquarters led by CFO Li Dairen. My name is Li Syaoran, 77th Great Elder of the Li Clan. I thank all of you for taking your valuable time out to join us here today."
Dairen and some others watched Sakura suspiciously. But Sakura paid no heed and professionally typed away notes as various board members reported to the headquarters first quarter results. When Syaoran's turn came up to make his presentation, she discreetly linked his laptop to the projector.
"We had a 74.9 billion yen loss in the first quarter in Japan because of the death of our figurehead Li Renshu, some bad business choices, major repairs needed in the HQ building and the general sluggish economy, but according to Li Group Vice President Li Dairen's report, I am optimistic that we can anticipate steady recovery in the third and fourth quarters, especially with our expansion in the hotel business and our recent new shipping contract," said Syaoran. "Now, that is only possible if we analyze where our biggest deficits are coming from, and what I see is that the Japan branch's high executives has been taking bigger bonus cuts over Christmas and there has been a lot of undocumented expenditure throughout the past two years."
The members of the board nodded and seemed to listen carefully to Syaoran's presentation while others looked uncomfortable.
One middle-aged man asked, "Great Elder Li Syaoran, to my understanding, you are still a high school student. How will you balance your duties in your position as the Great Elder with your basic education?"
Syaoran told him coldly, though no less politely than usual, "If you have not been informed, Kitagawa-san, I have served as the Chosen One of the Li Clan, the third highest position in the hierarchy, for the past seven years. I don't believe my education has ever gotten in the way of my duties to the Clan or the Li Group."
Sakura beamed up at Syaoran as he concluded his presentation and calmly answered the various questions.
Shiefa leaned over from her seat at the back of the room and hissed to her sister, "What is Syaoran thinking bringing Sakura here? Does he know what kind of occasion this is?"
Fuutie said wryly. "Syaoran is using his brain. Don't you see, he's sending a very powerful message to the Li Group Board of Trustees, or more like Dairen and the business delegation from Hong Kong. By having Sakura by his side in an exclusive meeting like this and making her privy to internal discussion of the Li Group, he is conveying his utter trust for Sakura. At the same time, there have been some grumblings that the Great Elder of the Li Clan allegedly joined the Alliance of the Stars under the new mistress of the Clow Cards, and some Elders have said that no Li should be subordinate to the Card Mistress. But by having Sakura come here as his assistant, he is demonstrating that they are on equal playing fields, that they are partners."
"I didn't think of it in that way, but it makes sense I guess," Shiefa said.
"More importantly, this is the first time the younger generation is getting a chance to see Sakura up close. And it's crucial for them to get to know Sakura as she is, in person," Fuutie pointed out.
Shiefa giggled. "Yeah, we didn't really like Sakura much until she came to visit us in Hong Kong. And she passed our test. Not that she knew she was being tested."
"Yes, and Syaoran's calculated the best venue for her to get the approval of the rest of the Clan. Sakura is at a vast disadvantage in Hong Kong, where she can easily be intimidated by the Li Clan. Here, in the board room, there are also some non-magical trustees, so the Li Council members can't do much but observe. And also, Sakura is most charming in person, so it is smart of Syaoran to let her do the winning over on her own. Besides, it's better to have Sakura show up here, when we all need to be on good behavior, than for Dairen to turn up suddenly to see her alone, catching her off guard, Syaoran probably thought."
"True, there are so many unscrupulous rumors about Sakura floating around at home," remarked Shiefa. "That she is a ditzy airhead who is an inept, useless Card Captor. I'm afraid Meilin was at the root of that rumor though, when she came over here years ago and did not like Sakura at all."
"How about the one where she is some cunning seductress that completely manipulated our poor Syaoran into giving up all his powers to her," Fuutie suggested. "Painting her as an absolute femme fatale."
Shiefa chuckled at the ridiculous image. "Well, that can't be helped since Syaoran did lose his powers because of her."
The meeting lasted for over six hours, and at some points turned nasty as top executives of the Japan branch took shots at each other. Luckily, after his presentation, Syaoran was able to sit back at the head of the round table and listen, with Dairen moderating the meeting.
Sakura found herself almost yawning a couple times but made herself take notes, putting question marks in areas that she missed, so that she could check the recording later on. She shot off the notes to Syaoran's smartphone, so that he could read up on them almost simultaneously. But she sighed in relief as the meeting seemed to draw to an abrupt end after lunch, two coffee breaks and 10 presentations. Many board members rushed up to Syaoran and shook his hand, a lot more reverent toward him than when he had first entered the meeting room that morning.
"Very good points you made today, cousin," remarked Dairen, after most of the board members except family had filed out of the room.
"Actually, it was Meilin who sorted through the expenditures of the executives," said Syaoran. "She has a very sharp eye for details."
"I see," said Dairen mildly. "Maybe we should invite her to the next board meeting next time."
"Yes, I plan on inviting her," replied Syaoran. "I did this time too, but she had an engagement."
Dairen smiled thinly. "And do you plan on introducing me to your very competent assistant?"
Sakura jolted as she felt a pair of narrow brown eyes fix upon her from behind black-framed glasses.
"This is Kinomoto Sakura, Mistress of the Sakura Cards," said Syaoran. "Sakura, this is my cousin, the CFO of the Li Group Hong Kong Headquarters, Li Dairen."
Dairen held out a hand. "Delighted to make your acquaintance, finally, Card Mistress. I've heard a lot about you." Sakura found his grip to be strong, and his eyes seemed to scour her. It was the same feeling she had gotten when she had first met Syaoran's mother in Hong Kong, years ago, and Ieran had lifted up her chin, as if to gage her power.
Syaoran was about to step forward, to cut off Dairen, but the older man released Sakura's hand first. "You indeed are as powerful as they say you are. I couldn't read you at all."
"Go easy on her," hissed Fuutie.
And Dairen heaved a long sigh. "What idiot gave me the report that the Card Mistress is some sultry seductress that bewitched my cousin Syaoran, making him his personal slave? That person is getting demoted."
Shiefa whispered loudly, "I think that was your father."
And Fuutie snorted at this. "That's why you still don't have a girlfriend, Dairen. You don't trust that a relationship is not all about power control."
Clearing his throat, Dairen said, "Well, that board meeting went better than I thought, though we still haven't caught the weasel yet."
"If you are talking about the corporate spy, it's the man that was sitting over there, I'm pretty sure," said Sakura, pointing to the spot where a mousey balding middle-aged man had been sitting. "Kitagawa-san from the Kyoto branch office."
"What makes you think that?" asked Fuutie.
"He was the only one suspiciously texting someone the whole time," said Sakura. "And he was sweating nervously, even though the AC is blasted on inside here."
"That's not enough grounds to suspect someone of corporate espionage," remarked Dairen.
"I used the Libra Card to check," mumbled Sakura.
Dairen blinked. "Well, I've always found Kitagawa-san a bit fishy. I'll get a few people to check up on him. Thank you very much, Card Mistress. You've been of great help today. I doubt you will be interested in a permanent position with the Li Group?"
"No, she won't be," snapped Syaoran. "And I won't have you trying to use the Sakura Cards for business profits, either."
With a sigh, Dairen said, "You're stiffer than Great-Uncle Renshu, Syaoran." He turned to Sakura. "Well, Card Mistress, remember, an offer with the Li Group will always be open if you come look for me, should you change your mind."
"Sakura." She looked up at Dairen. "My name is Sakura." She then fiddled in her pocket and handed a stack of tickets to him. "Our school's holding a cultural festival next week. I heard you will be in Japan through the week to finish the rest of your business, so if you have time, please do come."
"Dairen and the others are busy. They won't have time to come," interjected Syaoran.
"Yes, of course I'll make the time to go to your Cultural Festival, Sakura," said Dairen, with a glint in his eye. "Leiyun tells me it will be very amusing."
"Yes, it will be," said Sakura. "And there's someone I think you should meet."
As they left the conference room, Syaoran's sisters, Leiyun, and Dairen chatted between themselves.
"I told you she's an interesting girl," said Fuutie, glancing over her shoulder at Sakura and her brother.
"Yeah, she is," replied Dairen. "Leiyun described her as a dull, useless person. But then Cousin Wenyen described her as some glorious angel that has fallen from heaven when he was with the Li delegation with Uncle Wutai last time. I was expecting some extraordinary celestial beauty but dear Sakura is a plain, ordinary schoolgirl."
Shiefa rolled her eyes. "Sakura-chan is plenty cute. You should see her modeling shots though—she shines in front of the camera. And Wenyen is an idiot—I doubt he even got up close enough to see her face during the 'Resurrection of the Card Mistress, Birth of the Dragon Lord,' as some of our relatives have dubbed Syaoran and Sakura's return from the Dragon Isles."
Fuutie giggled. "Well, that beats the rumors that Syaoran had killed Sakura in a dual."
"That wasn't a rumor," remarked Leiyun.
"Or that a swarm of locusts covered Tokyo entirely, blocking out all sunlight like doomsday, and that Card Captor Sakura, resurrected from the ashes of the dragons, soared through the sky with angelic white feathered wings, with all the insects trailing behind her like some Pied Piper of Hamelin drawing away the rats," said Shiefa.
Leiyun interjected, "That was true though."
Dairen chuckled. "Here's the best one. It's that Uncle Wutai tried to attack Syaoran and pushed him over the edge of a building, nearly falling off himself in the process. And our Chosen One instead of crashing to an untimely death to the pavement below flew up with a pair of black dragon wings. And all the proud of mighty elders, including my dear father and Uncle Wutai, bent down on their knees, in awe, subservient to the new Great Elder."
"Still all true," mumbled Leiyun.
Left alone in the empty conference room, the Li Group board of trustees out of ear shot, Syaoran finally let out an audible sigh of relief.
"So, did it go okay?" asked Sakura eagerly.
"I think so," replied Syaoran.
"Dairen-san is scary, but not as scary as his father—Elder Daifu, right?" said Sakura.
"Yeah, Cousin Dairen's not a bad sort, once you get his style," said Syaoran. "I thought you don't believe in using the Libra Card to see if someone is telling the truth."
"This was an exception. I was protecting a member of the Star Alliance. That man seems to be planning some nasty business, and that will impact you. And I don't want to lose you from the Alliance."
And at this, Syaoran finally smiled. He mussed her neatly pinned hair. "Thank you. You've been tremendous help for me today."
The corner of her eyes crinkled as she asked, "Really?"
Syaoran looked at Sakura, holding out a hand. "Now, do you want to get out of here?"
"Don't you have to go to the dinner banquet with Japanese business executives?"
"I'm sure they'll do fine without me," said Syaoran. "Dairen and my sisters will take care of things. They know I hate social events like that."
Sakura was not sure what excuse Syaoran had given to Dairen and his older sisters, but she found him dragging her by the wrist, through the marble hallway, down the elevator to the lobby. And then, they were out in broad daylight in the bustling streets of Tokyo.
"Oh, I left your laptop and briefcase in the conference!" protested Sakura.
"Don't worry, Wei will bring them over to the apartment later," said Syaoran. "Well, what should we do now? I'll treat you because you helped me out today. We can do anything you want."
"Anything?" squeaked Sakura.
"Well, let's change into some comfortable clothes first," said Syaoran.
Sakura nodded. Her black patent leather heels were killing her feet and the prim gray skirt and silky blouse borrowed from Meilin were extremely restricting and uncomfortable.
They went into a boutique in Shibuya—it was a brand that Tomoyo often frequented. She was not surprised to see Syaoran walk down the men's aisles and quickly select an outfit—a pair narrow-cut chinos, a blue button down chambray shirt over a white shirt, and brown loafers.
Sakura browsed through the racks of frilly dresses, lovely floral-print shirts, fuzzy cardigans and flouncy skirts. She didn't know where to start. Over the years, she'd grown so used to Tomoyo sending her clothes, some pieces that she designed, others that she and Aunt Sonomi bought for her when they went shopping, that she couldn't even recall the last time she went shopping for her own clothes.
Syaoran had already changed into his casual outfit, his suit in the store's shopping bag, when he found Sakura fumbling through the racks. When Sakura picked out a dress, she checked the price tag and gasped. "Um, well, you're changed. Let's go out and have dinner."
"Aren't you getting that dress you are holding?" asked Syaoran.
"Umm… No." She didn't have enough cash on her at the moment to buy the dress. "Maybe we can look elsewhere."
With a frown, Syaoran flipped through the articles of clothing and selected a blue and white checkered gingham skirt, paired with a pale pink pinhole lace shirt and a faded jean crop jacket. He fumbled through the shoes, and picked out a pair of white brogues and tossed her white lace knee socks. "Go try this on."
"But—" Sakura stammered as she eyed the articles of clothing in her arms. She had been fingering the skirt for a while earlier.
The sales assistant gushed, "Your boyfriend has excellent taste—do try it on together."
Sakura was ushered into the changing room before she could protest that Syaoran was not her boyfriend. What was she supposed to do now? Change and show Syaoran?
But as soon as she was finished changing, she was dragged out by the sales attendant to model in front of the large mirror outside. Syaoran took once glance at Sakura, who tugged at the hem of her short flouncy skirt, rather bashful for someone who had posed in ridiculous cat ears, bunny rompers and every sort of frilled dress imaginable before without batting an eye.
"Okay, we'll take all of that," said Syaoran. "And that white lace layered dress too."
Sakura squealed, "I didn't bring enough cash!"
"It's my present to you," he replied. He absentmindedly placed another pale green blouse with capped sleeves on top of the white dress and a matching ribbon hairband.
"I-I'll pay you back when we get back home," said Sakura. It wasn't like Syaoran hadn't gotten her presents before, but those had been for special occasions.
"Think of it as my payment to you for being my assistant all weekend. I want some way to thank you, and you wouldn't tell me how. My sisters like clothes as presents." Syaoran handed out a black credit card to the sales assistant.
Sakura sighed. "I guess you got your credit cards back?"
He smiled. "Perks of being the Great Elder."
Sakura swirled around in the blue-and-white checkered skirt trimmed with pinhole lace. Belatedly, she caught her reflection in the mirror next to Syaoran and wondered if he had color coordinated their outfits intentionally. "Well, thank you then."
"Good," said Syaoran. "Because now I'm hungry. I don't know the last time I felt this hungry."
"What are you craving?" asked Sakura. "It'll be my treat."
"Pizza," replied Syaoran.
"Pizza?" squeaked Sakura. "I've never seen you eat pizza before, I think. Are you sure that's what you want?"
"I bet I can devour a whole pan of large pepperoni pizza right now, and I'm not sure I like pepperoni."
Sakura realized that Syaoran had not been exaggerating, and after sharing a huge pan of pepperoni pizza, the two went into a little corner café afterward and ordered melon soda, a toxic lime green color, alongside a strawberry cheesecake and cherry tart.
"I don't get why this is called the best cheesecake in Shibuya. I bet I can bake this in a jiffy," declared Syaoran. "Add a little bit more vanilla—maybe some white chocolate chips.
"I'm sure you can bake a better cheesecake," agreed Sakura, popping a strawberry in her mouth.
With a little frown, Syaoran peered at the slice of cake and said, "I'll probably alternate the strawberry slices with whipped cream sprinkled with dried raspberry chips. And add some light pink food coloring to the cheese cake batter."
"You really like pink, don't you?" said Sakura with a laugh, staring down at the shirt Syaoran had chosen for her.
He raised an eyebrow but didn't refute her.
"I wonder if Meilin won in the gymnastics meet—she really is fantastic, there is no reason she shouldn't get a gold medal."
"Why didn't you join gymnastics this year? If I recall, you are probably as good," Syaoran remarked.
"No, Meilin truly is the best," said Sakura. This, Syaoran could not deny—after all, Meilin had trained hardcore in gymnastics since childhood to make sure she could maintain the flexibility needed to be the best martial artist possible. "I'm co-captain of the cheerleading team, so I couldn't take up the extra responsibility. And gymnastics is really time-consuming."
"I'm pretty sure Meilin did well—she is very competitive, after all," remarked Syaoran.
"Even more competitive than you are?" Sakura asked with a grin.
"I'm competitive?" asked Syaoran in surprise.
At this, she chuckled. "Of course you are. Is it a Li thing?"
"I guess I am competitive," Syaoran admitted. "All the cousins were pitted against each other from an early age, whether it be in academics, sports, music or martial arts, so naturally we all end up with a competitive streak. I would say Leiyun probably is the only one who was always kind of above the competition."
"Why, because he was the best at everything?" Sakura asked dryly.
"What next?" asked Sakura, half afraid that Syaoran would say that they should return home now since they had school tomorrow and it was already nightfall. He was checking his mobile phone, and seemed a bit distracted. Because she didn't want to end the day, she savored the last bite of the cake slowly, then looked up at Syaoran expectedly.
"We can catch a movie—there's a theater across the street," he pointed out, turning off his phone and sliding it into his pocket.
As expected, the theater was bustling with people—groups of giggling high schoolers, families with kids and couples because it was a Sunday.
"I haven't been to a movie theater in ages!" exclaimed Sakura. She juggled the popcorn and soda cups. "What are we watching?"
"I don't know—everything was sold out, so I got whatever ticket was available," said Syaoran peering down at the tickets. "It's called Ring: The Return."
"I hope it's a romantic comedy," said Sakura. She was okay with melodrama as well.
They took seats in a near-empty theater.
And the film started off with a ghastly murder scene that left the audience shrieking.
"Syaoran!" wailed Sakura, eyes covered with both hands.
"Sorry—I mean, the title was misleading!" replied Syaoran weakly. "It sounded either like a chick flick or an epic fantasy trilogy." But Sakura had thrown her arms around his and buried her head into his sleeve as a contorted ghost crawled out of a television set on screen.
"Hoe—Tell me when it's over… Is it over?"
"Not yet," said Syaoran, looking at anywhere but the movie screen as the creature let out the most horrifying croak. While Syaoran did not exactly enjoy the ghosts or the gore, the mystery suspense of the plot was enough to keep him through the film. Though he doubted Sakura caught much of the film.
"Hoe, I hate you! How could you do this to me? You're awful," she sniffed.
"Sorry, I really had not clue it was horror! I said we can leave in the middle!" he said.
"No! You were having fun. And you said it was the first movie you've seen in a theater since—I don't know, when was the last time you went to a theater?" Besides, she was afraid he would say they should return home if they left in the middle of the screening.
Syaoran hid a smile, watching her bottom lips tremble. "Well, next, we can do something you want to do."
Sakura tilted her head. "Anything?"
Sakura clapped her hands gleefully. "I wanted to take a purikura in this new outfit—but I know you don't like taking photos, and I wanted to try crepes in Harajuku, and see a street band performance. Oh, how can I choose?"
"Why choose? We can do it all," he replied.
Then Sakura stared at her watch in alarm. "Syaoran! What time does the last train to Tomoeda leave?"
Syaoran glanced down at his petal-shaped watch. It couldn't possibly be this late, could it? Then again, they had caught a very late film which had run for nearly two hours. "We just missed it," he remarked solemnly.
Sakura stared up at him, horrified. "What are we going to do?"
He fumbled in his pocket for his mobile phone. "It's okay, I'll just call Wei and ask him to pick us up."
"You can't call Wei at this hour!" exclaimed Sakura. "He'll be sleeping. And your family would expect you to be back in Tomoeda, studying as you told them you would be. Besides, it takes at least an hour to drive here from Tomoeda, and more like two if he is waking up, dressing and getting ready. We might as well just wait for the morning train then."
At this, Syaoran opened his mouth and shut it again, wondering if she knew what she was suggesting. He sighed. "I guess you are right. Well, hope you are not too sleepy then."
"Nope! I had too much soda, and I might have dozed off slightly in the middle of the movie, so I'm completely awake!" exclaimed Sakura.
"And the good news is Tokyo is a city that never sleeps. Let' s go finish up the rest of your list," said Syaoran, dragging her out of the empty theater. "What first?"
"You know, don't laugh but I think I'm hungry again—I'm craving sweets," replied Sakura.
He did laugh at her. "How can you be hungry after all the junk we've been eating? But I guess to Harajuku we go!"
They walked along the streets, still bustling with people.
"Syaoran?" said Sakura, arms swinging. "By any chance, do you know the way?"
"No, I've never been there before," replied Syaoran. "Though I've scoured most of Tokyo by now because of my tourist sisters. But look, there's a purikura machine." He pointed to a sticker picture machine. "I think I haven't taken one since fifth grade."
"You mean the one we took together on our Tokyo outing when we caught the Dream Card?" asked Sakura.
They squeezed into the machine together, and Sakura fed bills into the slot. Syaoran gawked at the sheer number of choices. "What do we press? It's so pink in here."
"First, we need to choose the backgrounds—let's do this blue sky one, the pink bubbles and the rainbow. Oh, we need to pose for the pictures—look at that camera." There were several consecutive flashes, and Syaoran stared at the screen, stunned. Sakura shoved a pen into his hand. "Hurry, now we've got to decorate—see you can write something. I'm going to write today's date. Here, you can add stamps—I'm going to add wolf ears for you. And ribbons here, and sparkles. Syaoran—we only have 10 seconds!"
The two peered over the final laminated sticker sheet of rainbow explosion. Sakura laughed. "Syaoran, you have the same expression in all the shots!" And Syaoran stared down at his sheet and saw Sakura winking in one picture, making a goofy face in another, imitating his solemn face in the next one and beaming in the final one. "And I thought you're a semi-pro model published in magazines by now, Syaoran." She proceeded to cut the sticker sheet in half. "Here, Syaoran!" For a second, she stared at her half, wondering where to stick the photo. She wanted to stick it on the back of her cellphone. But only couples did that, so she slipped her half of the sticker sheet into her wallet.
Though Sakura didn't know if it was sheer luck or if Syaoran had a much better sense of direction than she had surmised, they stumbled along right into Harajuku.
Syaoran watched Sakura munch on the peaches and cream crepe—only in Tokyo would there be a crepe stand me open at this hour. "You really have room to eat that after all the sweets we've eaten tonight?"
Sakura nodded and in between a mouthful, she said, "It's delicious!" She held out the crepe to Syaoran.
He hesitated slightly before taking a bite. He chewed and remarked. "It is quite tasty."
He proceeded to buy another crepe for himself, in apple and cinnamon. "Try mine," he said.
Sakura took a bite and her eyes widened. "It's even better than mine! Let's switch."
He laughed. "No switching."
They watched girls in pastel-toned Lolita frocks pass by. "Tomoyo will fit right in here," remarked Syaoran. He glanced over at Sakura. "And you wouldn't even stand out here in your crazy battle costumes."
"I doubt you would either, in yours," remarked Sakura. "You can probably walk around with your sword too without getting arrested."
Syaoran stared at the fleck of cream on her upper lip and wanted to reach out and wipe it away from her. But she quickly licked it away with a flick of her little pink tongue. The crepe didn't stop them from sampling piping hot takoyaki, little pieces of octopus coated in batter, purchased from another stand couple blocks down. Because they burnt their tongues in process, they cooled it with lavender-flavored soft-serve ice cream on waffle cones.
And the two chatted and walked through the bright neighborhoods into the wee hours of dawn, stopping by stores still open at the hour or to listen to street machines. Sometimes, Syaoran would walk closer to her and sort of nudge her along quickly when they passed through dodgier neighborhoods or when suspiciously looking people passed by.
They walked for a good hour before Sakura pointed. "Look, we're nearly at Tokyo Tower. Too bad it's closed at this hour."
Syaoran turned to her in mock surprise. "Did that ever stop us before?"
"Wait what are we doing?" hissed Sakura, following Syaoran around the lattice structure.
"Don't you think this is the best place to watch the sunrise in Tokyo?"
"Is it okay to break in like this?" whispered Sakura.
"After all that we've done up here, I don't think that's the right question to ask," replied Syaoran, leading her up a back entrance, up the emergency stairwell. "It's quite a climb. We might now make it in time. Beat you to the top!"
Sakura panted as they reached the closed-off special observatory deck—which Syaoran broke into easily with a couple ward papers. Stepping back into the space reminded her of that night of her birthday.
In between breaths, she asked, "Did we make it in time?"
"Yeah. Look." And Syaoran pointed eastward. And they could see the first sliver of gold in the horizon glimmer through the high-rise buildings. She experienced for the first time a panorama view of the sunrise over Tokyo. The horizon was now a deep crimson and then for a brief second, the city was a brilliant blinding gold, and Sakura squinted her eyes as the light reflect off of the glass of the surrounding buildings. For a brief second, Sakura looked over at Syaoran, washed in the golden light, smiling.
A smiling Syaoran. How nostalgic it was. She wanted to reach out and touch him, to make sure he was real, but was afraid he would crumble away with the light. In that moment, he too glanced her way and their eyes met briefly. His head seemed to bend over to her. And Sakura was suddenly transported to that morning two summers ago on the train. She sometimes thought she dreamed up that moment, for neither of them had referenced it again. And it was not like Tomoyo's video footage existed as proof that the kiss had really happened.
Yet, his gold-lit amber eyes were staring into hers, as if he was searching for an answer in her.
"Y-yes?" She looked up at him expectantly.
"There's something I wanted to tell you," he said, his voice quiet.
She waited, unable to breathe.
"I just wanted to say," Syaoran said, taking a pause. "I wish you can feel like you can talk to me about anything that concerns you. I mean, not just about work, the dark forces. But other things too."
Sakura in the past was always able to confide in Syaoran. Syaoran was a very sympathetic listener. Tomoyo was a great listener too, but with Syaoran, she always got the sense that he got her, somehow, even though she couldn't express all her thoughts into words.
The thing was, now, her concern was about him. And she couldn't necessarily tell him that. Whereas Eron, she had always found, to be a horrible companion to talk to because he was intentionally blunt, truthful but oftentimes hurtful. Yet, sometimes she needed that.
"Okay?" asked Syaoran.
"Okay," she replied.
"And also," he continued. She looked up at him expectantly. "I just wanted to tell you that I believe in you. That everything will turn out okay."
Sakura let out a breath. "Oh. Yes. Thank you. T-that's its?"
She looked up at him. If he wouldn't say it, she would say it. "Syaoran. I have something to say too. I—" Her stomach let out a low rumble. With a blush, her hands flew to her belly.
And the magic moment passed as the city was lit with a rose-colored glow and sunlight streamed into the observatory deck in all directions. Syaoran was staring off at the city skyline, with a distant look again.
"You know, with all that walking and climbing up the stairs, I never would have thought I would say this after all that we ate last night, but I think I might be hungry again too," remarked Syaoran.
"Well, told you we would need this." Sakura produced melon bread, banana milk cartons and little cheese Danishes she had bought at the 24-hour convenience store just earlier. "We did walk around half the city all night long."
He chuckled and spread his blazer on the floor for them to sit on.
"That was amazing," said Sakura. "I'm glad it's a clear day. I never would have thought of watching the sunrise from up here. It's quite an experience."
He nodded, apparently in a pensive mood again. They sat down the ground, watching the sun rise higher overhead, munching on the bread and sipping on the milk in silence.
She was sure Syaoran had felt it too, Sakura thought. Or maybe the lack of sleep and the beauty of the sunrise had played tricks in her mind. Had he been trying to reassure or tell her something crucial? Had she been ready to tell him her feelings, or had she been swept away by the moment?
The first time Syaoran left Japan, in elementary school, she had been hopeful, positive that they would meet again. The second time he left Japan, at the end of junior high, she was not sure at all they would see again. When they parted that day at the Hong Kong harbors, she was near certain she would never see him again.
Yet, he came back. And he was here. There would come a day when he will have to leave her again. But she was determined never to let go again.
Syaoran knew not when he had drifted off to sleep, but he found himself jolting up with a horrible neck ache. He shook Sakura. "Hurry, we've got to catch the train or else we're not going to make it to school on time!"
Sakura rubbed her eyes, a gray suit blazer slipping off her shoulders. "When did we fall asleep?" Drowsily, she had a vague memory of leaning against a broad shoulder and basking in the warmth of the sunlight. And her shoulders, bottoms and knees all ached.
"Get up, get up. The janitors are coming in," said Syaoran, scooping up their shopping bags and plastic bags full of wrappers, bottles and other trash.
"Oh my gosh, what time is it?" exclaimed Sakura. "School!"
The two took the elevator down and then zipped out toward the nearest subway station, colliding into people heading toward offices and other people up and about early in the morning.
The train had just arrived and they dashed on, with the morning rush hour crowd, barely able to squeeze into the car.
"You know Syaoran," said Sakura, panting, struggling to hold up her shopping bag and push her hair out of her face. "Is it crazy that all this running's made me hungry again?"
"Well, I'm sort of craving that pizza we had last night," replied Syaoran. "Do you think they deliver to Tomoeda?"
They looked at each other as they collapsed into two empty seats, and laughed out loud, barely able to catch their breath.
"Syaoran—my brother worked at a pizza chain before. He can make better pizza from scratch," said Sakura. "And I'm sure you can too." She could not recall the last time she had seen Syaoran laugh so frequently and carefree. And why his smile tugged at something inside her, as if all she wanted to do was make him laugh like this. She was reluctant to return back to Tomoeda because when they did, she would no longer be his manager for the day, and he too would be back as Li Clan Great Elder. She wouldn't have Syaoran all to herself anymore.
"I guess this is what it feels like to be Yukito-san," remarked Syaoran.
Sakura chuckled. "Yeah, Kero-chan warned me that unbeknownst to ourselves, our bodies may still be fully regenerating our respective powers as a part of the healing process, and that hunger may be a side effect."
"I don't think I noticed while I was in Hong Kong after my powers came back," said Syaoran with a frown.
"You don't even sleep properly when left alone," replied Sakura. "You wouldn't feed yourself properly if left to your own devises. That's why Meilin made sure I became your manage for the weekend. She made me promise to make you eat and sleep properly, if nothing else."
"Oh, she made you promise her," said Syaoran.
Sakura did not know why Syaoran looked glum all of a sudden, as he watched out the train window for the rest of the ride, as the tall skyscrapers faded to green fields.
Sakura and Syaoran caught a cab from the train station straight to school.
"Oh my gosh, we're so late," squeaked Sakura as they snuck across the empty Seijou High soccer field.
"It's all right. First period is just homeroom," replied Syaoran, signaling Sakura to follow after him after peaking around, darting into an empty room.
It took a second for Sakura to register where she was. "This is the boy's changing room!"
"I keep an extra uniform at school," replied Syaoran, pointing to his locker. "Shoot, I don't have a tie. Wait, Kai never wears his—where is his locker?"
Sakura blinked, watching Syaoran open locker No. 603. "You just broke into Kai's locker."
"He never locks it," replied Syaoran, taking out a black tie. He also found a comb in Kai's locker and ran it through his hair.
They turned still when they heard voices coming from outside.
"Oh no—the freshmen have gym next," whispered Sakura.
"Hide," said Syaoran, staring around for a spot to tuck away Sakura. "In the locker."
Sakura found herself squeezed into Syaoran locker, clutching his shirt to her chest. The metal door shut.
"Vice-captain! What are you doing here? Did you get your schedule mixed up?" called out a freshman on the soccer team. "It's our gym class next, not yours. Why did you miss morning soccer practice?"
"Oh my gosh, Li-senpai, can I please touch your biceps?" asked another boy. "You don't look that ripped with your clothes on. What is your workout routine?"
Sakura smothered a giggle then clasped her mouth shut. Syaoran always had been popular with sports teams.
"Did you hear that?" asked the first boy. "It sounded like a girl."
"Hurry up and change and leave. I'm meditating," said Syaoran.
"Of course. Li-senpai is meditating. Boys, change and leave quickly," said the soccer team underclassman.
"Can I please touch your abs? Do you have a special diet? Oh, they're rock hard!"
Syaoran sighed. "If you're finished changing, leave. Okay touch them. And then leave!"
Of course, it took the boys another five minutes to change, leaving a trail of clothes on the floor.
Syaoran yanked the locker door open, vaguely hoping he had not left any dirty laundry in there—unlike most boys, he brought home his gym clothes to wash daily. And Sakura nearly hurdled out into his arms.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "You didn't get suffocated? It wasn't stinky in there?"
"No, it smells like laundry detergent inside," said Sakura with a weak smile. "Like you. Oh, my legs have gone dead though. I feel needles in my feet." She tried to step forward and her legs gave up on her.
"Sakura!" he exclaimed as she collapsed forward. He tripped over a pair of gym shoes, and she tumbled atop.
"Oh my, how bold, in the middle of the boys' locker room," exclaimed Tomoyo, walking in with impeccable timing, camcorder in hand. She eyed the disarray, Syaoran with his shirt half buttoned, Sakura apparently holding a blue flannel shirt, one hand entangled in a black necktie half encircled around Syaoran's neck.
"Naughty, naughty," whistled Kai, who was munching on a box of Pocky as he walked in. "Hey, isn't that my tie?"
Meilin walked in after him and smirked. "Kai, hand me over 1,000 yen. I totally won the bet."
"Yeah, comes the day, it's me sitting in first period, on time, studying diligently," said Kai. "While these two are playing hanky panky in the boys' locker room."
By now, Sakura had regained the sensation in her legs and finally realized she was squatting on top of Syaoran, again, and that they had gained a group of spectators. "Hoe! Syaoran, I'm sorry, are you okay?"
"No, he's not," said Kai. "Poor wolf boy."
"Oh, Sakura-chan, your outfit is so adorable!" exclaimed Tomoyo. "Twirl around. Did Syaoran pick it out for you?"
Sakura's jaw dropped. "How did you know?"
"It's totally his style," replied Tomoyo. "Don't you know sometimes I got him to select battle outfits for you? He's always had good taste, and there are some days I just couldn't decide."
"No… really?" asked Sakura dubiously.
"How do you think I always managed to be so point on with the card themes so many times?" replied Tomoyo.
"I thought you coordinated with Kero-chan," said Sakura. Then again, there were time when Tomoyo had been prepared even before Kero-chan got the sense of what was going on.
"Anyhow, did you bring Sakura a spare uniform?" asked Syaoran, picking himself up from the floor.
"Yes, of course," said Tomoyo, taking out two uniforms from a shopping bag.
"Why do you have two uniforms?" asked Meilin.
"I have more—I'm just showing two," replied Tomoyo. "Do you want loose fit or slim fit?"
"How was your gymnastics meet, Meilin?" asked Syaoran, pulling on his spare uniform blazer and adjusting his tie. Well, Kai's tie.
Meilin flashed her gold medal.
"Good job!" said Syaoran. "I knew the medal was yours."
"And how was the board meeting?" asked Meilin.
"It went well, I think," said Syaoran. "Thanks to Sakura. And of course, all the notes and data you prepared as well."
A chocolate Pocky in his mouth, Kai remarked, "Well, I'm glad your boring board meeting went well and all. But I'm sure it didn't run all night, right? I don't think you even came home last night. Didn't hear the door open."
Syaoran glowered at the former thief. "What do you do, lean up against the wall with your ears pressed up against it all night?"
Kai fed a Pocky into Syaoran's open mouth. "As a matter of fact, yes," said the former thief. "Why do you think I moved next doors to you in the first place?"
Tomoyo only got a chance alone with Sakura at lunchtime and grabbed both her hands. "So, how was it? Being manager for the weekend? I wish I was there to film the whole thing."
"I don't think I slept at all," groaned Sakura, head drooping down and her hair falling all over her face.
With a chuckle, Tomoyo asked, "Was there that much work to do? Or did Syaoran keep you from sleeping?"
Sakura confessed, "You know, I thought I'm used to living with Syaoran by now. I mean, I spent that whole summer with him in junior high, and he stayed at my house over the winter. Yet, something's different."
"Like what?" Tomoyo asked.
"I feel nervous when I'm alone with him."
"Like your heart is all scrunched up, like it's about to explode, and you feel all hot and uneasy?" asked Tomoyo. "Like your lung is being squeezed and you can't breathe?"
Sakura nodded frantically. "How did you know? Yes, exactly like that."
Tomoyo snickered. "Isn't the difference that you've acknowledged that you like Syaoran now, so you are just aware of your feelings for him in his presence?"
"I-I didn't acknowledge I l-like him!" exclaimed Sakura.
"If you say so," said Tomoyo with a shrug. "But isn't it time to become a little bit more truthful about your feelings?"
Sakura twiddled her thumb and said quietly, "We were together the whole weekend, but to Syaoran, it seems that nothing's really different between us."
Tomoyo blinked. "You've known each other for seven years now, thinks don't really change overnight."
"He called us good friends," Sakura said. "I can't help that he thinks of me just as a comrade and ally against the dark forces."
"Which you are," Tomoyo pointed out. "I think you've said the same about him numerous times. I think you were secretly hoping for something to be different, now that he's returned to Japan legitimately, and he's officially a member of the Alliance of the Stars?"
"I really don't know what Syaoran thinks of me," said Sakura.
"Really?" Tomoyo reminded her, "Remember, Syaoran did confess to you. Six years ago, before he left for Hong Kong."
Sakura said, "But that was just spur of the moment, because he knew he was leaving for Hong Kong, and maybe he was confused about his feelings at that moment."
"You really think that Syaoran began liking you only then?" mumbled Tomoyo, heaving a long sigh of commiseration for poor Syaoran. "Anyway, did he ever explicitly say he stopped feeling anything for you though?"
"He told me it was just some silly childhood impulse when he returned to Japan three years ago," replied Sakura, staring down at her lap. "He called everything silly childhood memories."
Tomoyo wondered if Sakura did not suspect this was yet another move on Syaoran's part to distance himself from her. In a more solemn tone, she continued, "I think what you want is Syaoran to confess to you again. But if you are waiting for that, don't you think, maybe it's your turn to confess your feelings to him?"
And Sakura's mouth dropped, her arms flapping by her side helpless. "I-I can't do that!"
"Why not?" asked Tomoyo. "I think maybe, Syaoran is waiting to hear from you the truth. Which he deserves to hear."
Sakura shook her head rapidly. "I had an awful dream recently. I confessed to Syaoran. And do you know what he told me? He told me that my feelings for him may be like that for my brother. That demon brother of mine!"
Tomoyo did not know whether to laugh and cry and tried to maintain a straight face. "Are they? Is that why you are hesitant?"
"No!" exclaimed Sakura, horrified. "Of course not! I just don't want to ruin what we have right now."
"Which is?" asked Tomoyo. "Friendship? Camaraderie? An alliance? I think, you have been hurt in the past, when you confessed to Yukito-san and he rejected your feelings. Perhaps, you are scared of rejection from Syaoran as well."
"My feelings for Yukito-san and Syaoran are different," said Sakura quietly.
"Yes, Yukito-san was right, after all, wasn't he? They're different, aren't they?" Tomoyo said. "Didn't you confess to Yukito-san clearly knowing he didn't return your feelings? You confessed to him your feelings knowing you will be turned down because you wanted closure. You knew he liked your brother. But it's different with Syaoran, isn't it."
Sakura remained silent. As usual, Tomoyo uncannily hit the nail. Why had she asked Syaoran to accompany her to the park seven years ago, after she was rejected by Yukito on the day of the Seijou High cultural fair? She could have asked Tomoyo, who would have been very sympathetic, but she didn't. It was not simply because she knew that Syaoran had liked Yukito as well. It was not just because she knew he was a good listener. Because even then, she had somehow known if there was anybody to be by her side when she was the most vulnerable and dejected, it was Li Syaoran. Subconsciously, she had already been aware at that point that Syaoran was a special existence to her. So, of course she was scared of rejection from Syaoran more than anything else in the world. She could never risk putting at stake what they had now, something that had been so hard-earned which many others could take for granted—the right to simply be in the same place at the same time.
"You know, I was a little hurt back then that you didn't come to me first when you were feeling depressed about being turned down by Yukito-san," said Tomoyo with a twinkle in the eye.
"I'm sorry!" exclaimed Sakura. "He was right there, and he offered too walk me home. And he liked Yukito-san too, so I thought he'd understand."
"I was actually there that day too." Tomoyo smiled slightly. "In a sense, I am glad it was Syaoran who was there for you that day. I don't think anyone would have been able to cheer you up so quickly as he was able to then. But I think it's important to ask yourself, why was it that you were able to tell Syaoran about your innermost feelings. Not just that time, but when you broke up with Eron-kun." The she said more quietly, "Though I was sad that you didn't tell me about that either. And I found out about it at school the next day with the rest of the class."
Sakura's eyes widened. "I didn't mean to not tell you. I promise I will tell you everything from now on!"
"It's okay, you know," said Tomoyo with a chuckle. "You don't have to tell me everything. Just, ask yourself a little more truthfully, what are the things you want to tell just one person, and you will be able to recognize who the person most important to you is. But remember, your feelings won't come across unless you put them into words." And Tomoyo sigh again and murmured to herself, "Oh dear, I had a sense of déjà vu. I swear I had this same conversation with a certain someone seven year ago."
"There's something I never told you," said Sakura. "You remember the ski trip back in fifth grade, a little before the Seijou High School cultural festival when I confessed to Yukito-san. I bumped into Syaoran in the lounge when everybody went to bed, and he told me then that he had only been attracted to Yukito-san's moon power. And then, he told me that he had someone he liked. He was about to tell me who it was, and then, I said it's okay, that he didn't have to tell me. At that moment, I felt the worst feeling ever, learning that he had someone he really liked. I didn't want to hear it from his lips. I knew Yukito-san liked my brother, so it never bothered me when Syaoran liked Yukito-san."
Tomoyo had always suspected that something had happened at that ski trip while they were always asleep, so she wasn't surprised by this. But too bad Sakura had not listened to the rest of Syaoran's confession—it might have saved a lot of heartache down the road.
Sakura continued, "And also, there is one thing I am glad about having lost my star powers and Syaoran losing his power of the moon."
"What is it?" asked Tomoyo, thinking there really was nothing to be glad about losing one's powers.
"Well, I know for certain I was not drawn to Syaoran because of his moon powers, nor was it my star powers dictating how I felt. It was purely my own emotions," replied Sakura with a smile. "I like Syaoran because he is Syaoran."
And Tomoyo felt her heart throb even if it was not a confession directed to her. She couldn't help throw her arms around Sakura with a squeal, her voice muffled against her chest, "That took you long enough to realize, in fact, far too long, and in a sense I'm not sure who had it worse. You with your pure romantic sensibilities finally awakening after enduring trial after trial from Clow Cards to dark forces, or the anguish Syaoran had to go through watching you get over Yukito-san then Eron-kun with Eriol-kun meddling in the worst way possible in between, or me, having to watch over the both of you for the past seven years and keeping my vow of silence, testing every thread of patience I have in me." She grabbed her best friends shoulder and said out loud, "But now, go relay these exact words to Syaoran! "
"But how?" asked Sakura.
"The cultural festival is coming up. Isn't it legend that couples that confess to each other during the bonfire dance will be blessed?" Tomoyo clenched both hands into fists. "Good luck Sakura-chan!"
And Sakura collapsed to her knees, wailing, "I can't after all!"
Tomoyo exclaimed, "You can do it!"
To be continued in Chapter 73: The Other Side of Midnight