Chapter 73.5: The Hong Kong Encounter
A Side: A Birthday to Remember
Author's note Sept. 1, 2018: The second part of the chapter has been added.
Li Syaoran, dressed in a dark green silk cheongsam with stiff golden brocade collars and hems, was seated behind a big mahogany desk in the office of the Great Elder. He twisted the heavy obsidian clan seal ring around his forefinger, deep in thought, oblivious to the sound of the heavy oak door swinging open.
"What are you sighing about so deeply? Did you just get another earful from Uncle Wutai?" asked Li Fanren, his third oldest sister, setting a new stack of documents in front of him. "You've made no dent on these all afternoon long. It's summer vacation, and the world's not going to end if you take a break, you know—you've been burying yourself in work ever since you got back to Hong Kong."
"It's fine," said Syaoran, picking up the fountain pen again. "I'll finish those, leave them here."
"Why, because work takes your mind off things?" asked Fanren, whose long auburn hair was clasped by a butterfly barrette on one side. "What have you been worrying about so much over the past week? I know you have a resting frowning face, but you've got a permanent line carved right over here." She pointed to the center of his forehead, between his dark brows.
"Not worrying—regretting," replied Syaoran with a groan.
"What, about the horrible job you did as the Beast in your school play?" Fanren asked, referring to Syaoran's high school cultural festival fairytale production. "I saw the video. Did you actually fall asleep on stage, or was that brilliant sleep-acting?"
Burying his head in his hands, Syaoran mumbled, "Don't even remind me of that."
Fanren leaned over the large mahogany desk, knocking aside several stacks of files. "Or, is it relationship problems? Now, I'm quite an expert in that field."
"Says the person who's never dated someone over a month," mumbled Syaoran.
"Who told you that?" asked Fanren, lips curling into a sinister smile.
"I've got my sources."
Tucking a strand of long auburn hair behind her ear, Fanren whispered into her brother's ear, "I don't want to hear that from someone who's never even dated anyone before. Have you even held hands with a girl? I hope your first kiss wasn't with Kaitou Magician!"
Syaoran snorted at the mere notion of this.
Fanren stared at her brother's carefully expressionless face in scrutiny, and her jaw dropped instantaneously. "You didn't! Who? Oh, don't tell me you and Sakura! No, you wouldn't have the nerve to!" She failed finish any of her sentences. Wait till she had a moment to chat with her other three sisters.
"So, I heard you went out with Wu Zian," interjected Syaoran. "Hopefully that's not while he was still seeing Feimei. Or was it because he was with Feimei that you felt compelled to date him?"
Graceful Fanren slammed her foot clad in stilettos on the polished desk, quite like a local thug. "Who's been going around spreading such rumors? Why would I ever go out with that moronic gangster egoist with the worst sense of fashion in Kowloon?"
"I don't know, maybe you in your own way were trying to help him make up with Feimei," murmured Syaoran, flipping through a budget report.
Li Fanren, 21 years old and a fashion major in university, was the most fashion forward of the four sisters. She was also considered the social butterfly of the family, which always made her in the loop about all the clan gossip, but it also stemmed from her natural curiosity as the middle child of five. Fuutie, as the oldest, was the leader-figure in charge of accounting, Shiefa was the inventor and toughest hand-to-hand martial artists, and youngest of the four, Feimei, was a prelaw student in college. And then there was Syaoran, the reinstated Chosen One of the Li Clan and youngest-ever Great Elder.
Fanren stared at her younger brother, who had made his untimely debut as the Great Elder of the Li Clan due to the passing of his predecessor, Great-Uncle Li Renshu, once known as the Demon Trainer but has always been kind and grandfatherly to the Li sisters. "Syaoran, if anything is up, do let us know."
"Of course," replied Syaoran in a tone which clearly indicated he had no intention of doing so. He flipped through the stacks of files until a glossy fashion magazine slipped out from one of the folders. It was a copy of the July edition of Seventeen Japan. And there was Sakura's face staring out at him from the cover, with those piercing emerald eyes accented by the green leaves printed on the summer pink yukata she was wearing, with a spring green obi clinching her waist. A large pink peony was pinned to one side of her head, and she was smiling up at the camera, like she knew a great secret that she was ready to share with you. "What is this?"
"Oh no, did I slip that in there by mistake?" asked Fanren, blinking innocently. "I dropped by the bookstore earlier, and that must have gotten mixed in with all the files. Here, let me take it back."
"Leave it," said Syaoran curtly.
With a snicker, Fanren replied, "Sure, sure."
After his sister left, Syaoran glanced over at the magazine cover again, for a minute despising the notion that her smile, the warmth in her eyes, was out for the whole world to see, being shared with everybody, when it should be for him alone. In a foul mood, he signed another document, nearly puncturing the paper with the metal tip of his fountain pen.
She had been sitting on the swing set in King Penguin Park, lit by the lamplight, that last evening before he left Japan. "My greatest destruction would be forgetting my most loved ones. And in turn, I am afraid of being forgotten."
"Point well taken," murmured Syaoran, flipping through the pages of the magazine until reaching the four-page spread featuring Sakura in various yukata, some with bold flower patterns, others in more delicate pastel hues that set off the greenness of her eyes. He liked best the photoshoot styled like a scene from a summer festival, with Sakura in the same pink yukata from the cover, holding a paddle fan with one hand and dango on a stick with the other. He had thought it might be nice to see her in a summer yukata and watch the fireworks with her for the annual Tanabata Festival which he always seemed to miss out on because he was back in Hong Kong. He'd wished to go with her to the Tanabata Festival since she told him the tale of the Princess Weaver and the Shepherd, or Vega and Altair, when they watched the stars from Star-Gazer Hill back in junior high. He heard footsteps outside, and he slipped the magazine into the top drawer of the mahogany desk, alongside key confidential documents, which locked with a spelled key he kept in his pocket at all times.
Kinomoto Sakura tried to focus on the rows of text in front of her, as Eriol lectured on the Treaty of Nanjing of 1842 which effectively ended the First Opium War between Britain and China.
She couldn't help but recall that evening at King Penguin Park, the smell of rust and sand, the squeaking of the chains of the swing set, his amber eyes gleaming in the moonlight, and the warmth on her lips. Her cheeks flushed bright pink. She had replayed that scene at the playground over in her mind so many times since that day that she wasn't quite sure if she had dreamed it all up.
Seated next to her at the table, Hiiragizawa Eriol continued, "This treaty resulted in the ceding of Hong Kong to the British and also the opening of the Shanghai port to international trade, very significant for the Li Clan because it expanded in wealth and power not because of its links to imperial lineage, but because of its quickness to adapt to changing times, Western influence, and profit from trade with Europe." He paused and asked, "Should we take a break, Sakura-san?"
Sakura dropped her pencil and shook her head furiously. "I was listening! Well, sort of." Since she had slacked off on her lessons on the history of magic from Eriol because of the cultural festival and final exams, they had an extra amount to catch up on over summer vacation. Eriol was extremely patient with her, but his voice was somewhat lulling.
He continued, "It was because of this accumulated wealth and influence which led to the Li Clan making the move from Shanghai to Hong Kong, under the helm of Chosen One Li Shulin—but you've probably all heard about this before. In a sense, for Sorcerer Clow Reed, England was his birthplace, Japan was the place he called his home and also his final resting place, but in his heart, Hong Kong was the inspiration of his magic, the embodiment of the fusion of the East and West.
She could hear the crisp male voice, telling her matter of fact, "I'm leaving for Hong Kong tomorrow." Sakura snapped her pencil lead before she realized she had not been paying attention to Eriol at all. "Hoe, I'm sorry! I lost you at the First Opium War."
Eriol shut the book and said, "Why don't we end our lesson here today?"
"No, it was interesting! I'll pay attention!" protested Sakura.
But Eriol shook his head. "We are going to have a visitor who bears good tidings."
As if on cue Daidouji Tomoyo burst into the parlor, long violet curls in a high ponytail streaming out behind her. She paused for a dramatic effect and exclaimed, "Sakura-chan, you were cast for the Tokyo Girls Collection fashion show, summer edition!"
Sakura blinked up at her best friend, who caught her breath and realized she had walked into a lesson. "Oh, sorry! I didn't mean to interrupt your lesson."
"As if magic history lessons are important at the moment," said Nakuru, who had also been sitting in on the lesson, though only listening half-heartedly while flipping through a fashion magazine. "Did you say Tokyo Girls Collection? That's the it show in the street fashion world? It's very competitive to be cast in, isn't it? It features not only supermodels, but top idols and actresses as well."
"Yeah, a model dropped out last minute because of pneumonia—and Sakura got a call back—the organizers were impressed with Sakura's recent Seventeen Japan spread," said Tomoyo.
"When is it?" asked Sakura.
"There's not much time—it's at the end of next week," said Tomoyo.
"That's so soon!" exclaimed Sakura.
"Yeah, you'll have to go in for fitting tomorrow," Tomoyo said. "Oh, I forgot to mention, the fashion show is happening in Hong Kong."
"What?" exclaimed Sakura, eyes flitting to Eriol. "I'm not sure if I can go."
"Don't worry, mother is coming along too—she has business there as well, and the timing coincides fortunately. She's already spoken to your father, and I've already finished ticketing," said Tomoyo, holding up boarding passes. "So you can't say no!"
Sakura groaned. "Do I have any choice in this?"
Tomoyo said gleefully, "Nope!"
"Hoe, I have to go tell onii-chan—I promised I'll report all my modeling schedule to him!" exclaimed Sakura rushing out of the study. "Sorry Eriol-kun, I'll study extra hard when I come back!"
Eriol waved his hand. "I'll look forward to watching the broadcast of the fashion show."
"What, it's broadcasted too?" asked Sakura.
"It's streamed online as well," replied Tomoyo.
Sakura ran out of the room, mumbling, "I have to pack too—what should I pack? Wait, I forgot to ask when we are departing. Onii-chan, I have to get permission from onii-chan first. What if he doesn't let me go? Maybe I shouldn't tell him? I know, I'll tell Yukito-san first, and he can convince onii-chan. Oh my gosh, I'm going to Hong Kong! I'm going to walk on a runway!"
Nakuru chased after her, saying, "Can't I go see Touya too? I haven't seen him since the cultural festival. Doesn't he ever get time off the hospital?"
Tomoyo chuckled, not even having the heart to tell Sakura that the flight was in a mere two days.
"Sakura never changes," remarked Eriol with a fond smile.
"She always gets so excited before going on any trip," said Tomoyo.
"So do you."
"True. Do you think it's safe for her to be in Hong Kong?" asked Tomoyo with a slight frown.
"Probably. With Syaoran as Great Elder, the Li Clan will not be able to outright target the Card Mistress any longer," said Eriol. "Besides, news of the Alliance of the Star has slowly spread amongst the magic circles—those who need to be aware already know that the Card Mistress is not only powerful on her own right, but that she has formidable allies surrounding her."
"Magic circles?" asked Tomoyo.
"A network of ancient magical families globally," replied Eriol. "You've already heard of the ones in Hong Kong—besides the Li Clan, there are the Tangs and Wus. But magical societies exist globally—in other parts of Asia, Europe and beyond."
"Are they a threat to Sakura?" asked Tomoyo.
"No, not so long as she is Card Mistress, successor of Clow Reed and also leader of the Alliance of the Stars," replied Eriol. "She is in good hands. But do be careful when you are overseas, for there is deep magic beyond what is familiar to Sakura in Hong Kong, as well as a lot of rivaling players."
"Like what happened with the Madoushi, the first time we visited Hong Kong," remarked Tomoyo. "Why did you trick Madoushi? You could have given her closure, long ago. And yet, you made Sakura do it for you."
Eriol glanced up at Tomoyo. "I did not trick her. Clow Reed no longer exists in this world. The person she wanted was Clow Reed, not me."
Tomoyo murmured, "That may be what you tell yourself. Because it gives you reprieve, a way to remove yourself from the situation. It's the same as what you did to Yue. You tricked him because it suited your conscious, forcing him to accept a new master. But you never gave him a choice, you did everything your own way. Or Clow's way, because for Clow, people's feelings didn't matter to him."
"You think I am selfish?" asked Eriol, almost peeved but more bemused by Tomoyo's candor.
"Clow was probably selfish, but you're just a bit cowardly," said Tomoyo.
Eriol chuckled. "I don't know whether to be hurt or not. I've been cursed at and called many names in my lifetime, but I've never been called a coward to my face before."
"Well then, can't you come as well?" Tomoyo paused, surprised at herself for asking.
"I don't think it's time for me to return there yet," Eriol replied, shutting his eyes. "Sorry. I am sure you will be safe, and Cerberus will be there too. The Li Clan, or at least Li Yelan will make sure no harm befalls upon the Card Mistress. But you be careful too, Tomoyo."
Tomoyo shrugged. "What's there for me to be careful about—it's not like I have any powers or pose anyone any threat."
Eriol's midnight blue eyes gleamed behind his glasses. "That many Lis gathered in one place is never good news."
That many Lis only meant one Li, Tomoyo was sure. No, but Hong Kong held no sentimental value at all to Hiiragizawa Eriol. He had never returned there. Hong Kong was deeply tied to Clow Reed, a place that was nostalgic, precious, and perhaps accursed to Sorcerer Clow Reed, son of the Great Elder Li Shulin and Lord Landon Reed of England.
"See, you are a coward. Why else would you have avoided returning to Hong Kong all these years?" said Tomoyo, wondering why she was provoking Eriol on purpose.
Eriol strummed his fingers on the desk. "You are right. I wonder why I have never gone back to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place very dear to Clow Reed. It's where he spent a lot of his formative years as a magician, where he came up with a lot of his greatest theories of magic."
"Even Kero-chan was surprised how much it has changed since he last was there," remarked Tomoyo."
"I can imagine so," replied Eriol.
"I know that first time Sakura won the lottery to visit Hong Kong, she was beckoned there by the Madoushi because of the Clow Cards," said Tomoyo. "She could have faced great danger without the help of Syaoran's mother then. I'm afraid she is at greater risk when she is overseas, especially without the Alliance by herself."
"Don't underestimate Sakura—she can plenty take care of herself as Card Mistress," said Eriol. He frowned slightly. "Tomoyo-san, hold out your hand."
Tomoyo stretched out her palm. "Why?"
Eriol dropped a heavy gold amulet in her hand, the shape of a sun similar to the design of his staff.
"What is this?" asked Tomoyo, tracing the sharp spokes of the sun with her finger.
"Keep it on you at all times. If you summon me, I will come to you," said Eriol.
"I can just call you if something comes up," said Tomoyo, surmising Eriol must be quite worried about Sakura, rightfully so since she was going right into the lion's den. "Besides, you're right. Syaoran, his sisters and mother all will be there, if something does come up."
"Sakura can fend for herself. But you, you don't watch out for yourself enough, considering you too are an Amamiya," remarked Eriol.
Tomoyo blinked. "I don't really have powers, so I don't really think I'm the target of anyone's interest. Save one person, who did see her as an Amamiya.
Eriol's voice was low. "Do contact me, if something comes up."
Tomoyo glanced at him quizzically, feeling the weight of the amulet on her palm. Though she had no magic, she realized an old magical artifact when she saw one. She wouldn't be surprised if the amulet had belonged to Clow Reed. Why was Eriol giving this to her? "I will." Probably not, but she was no fool to refuse the command of a powerful magician.
"A typhoon is approaching from the East," remarked Li Leiyun, gazing out the window of the Great Elder's study, hand on the thick brocade curtains, a deep forest green shade matching Clan colors.
Fanren remarked, "Oh, Leiyun, don't just quote the weather channel and pretend to be making some profound prophesy. I can look at my weather app on my smartphone if I needed the weather forecast. Speaking of which, it better not rain on the day of Syaoran's birthday banquet."
"That banquet talk again," groaned Syaoran. "I said I'm not taking part in it!"
"Nonsense!" said Fanren. "How can the guest of honor not attend the party? Right, Leiyun?"
His female cousin glared at him so fiercely, Leiyun stammered, "Fanren does have a point, Syaoran. Besides, you heard Aunt Yelan—the birthday banquet is nonnegotiable. Besides, Fanren's been coordinating it for the past three months—you can't disappoint your sister."
Fanren had often been employed as the events coordinator for such banquets because of her impeccable sense of trends, vast networking skills, and above all, spectacular managing skills which could also be categorized as sheer bossiness. "The seating chart is giving me a major headache. All our family members are feuding with one person or another, and if we invite the Tang Clan, we've got to separate them from the Wu Clan members, which is fine, but then Tyler Tang is back now, so how does that work out—do we need two tables for the Tangs? And now that Zian is the Head of the Wu Clan, we need to include him in a center table, but Feimei is currently not speaking to him, which is a pain in the neck."
"Why Feimei and Zian did break up in the first place?" asked Leiyun. "Those two were as tight as thieves back in elementary school, I remember."
And Fanren took a seat on the Great Elder's grand desk and brushed off her canary yellow and navy qipao. "Two years ago, after Wu Zino died, Zian had to take over the Wu Clan. He was a mess because the person he admired the most, his brother was gone, and the other person he admired the most had killed that very brother. Their father—the head of the Wu Clan—fell into alcoholism and the triad factions were on the verge of a revolution. Zian never thought he would have to lead his clan—their father's still relatively young, and Zino had always been the pillar of their clan. He had played the role of the useless, carefree second son all his life, when suddenly, he had to take over. So he pushed away Feimei—they mutually said hurtful things to each other and they naturally drifted apart, for they were young and immature."
"They still seem to be friendly with each other," remarked Syaoran.
"Yes, because for much longer than they've been lovers, they've been friends," said Fanren. "And friendship can endure much more than love can. Which is why after the initial sting, the anger faded away, they found each other again as trusted companions, and they can still see each other and be with each other today. Perhaps, it's better this way, for the two of them."
"Then why is she still dating that two-timing scumbag senior from her law department at university?" said Syaoran.
Fanren gasped. "How do you even know that?" Then she glanced over at a black file, known of the Li Clan X-Files on all the happenings of the clan members, compiled for the Great Elder.
"You think he's a scumbag too, or else, why did you try to date Zian to provoke Feimei into reacting?" asked Syaoran. "That's some desperate measure, considering what a fashion terrorist the Golden Leopard is."
"See you agree with me, Zian is an eyesore!" exclaimed Fanren. She cleared her throat. "That law student is a clan-approved fiancé candidate—he comes from impeccable lineage and will have a fine career in the Legislative Council. Feimei saw the heartache that Fuutie went through keeping her affair with Zino secret. She swore to have a safe relationship that would be beneficial to the Li Clan—you know Feimei has always been the most practical of us four sisters."
"Well, on the bright side, we'll finally meet that scumbag law student boyfriend of hers at Syaoran's birthday banquet," remarked Leiyun darkly.
"Why is he invited? I thought it's my birthday banquet?" asked Syaoran. "Don't I get a say in who comes?"
"I just told you he's some bigwig politician's son," replied Fanren making a face. "Besides, it's Fuutie who has final say over the guest list. She's coming over right now with the others—you're welcome to try to disinvite Kenny Liu, but that will be a huge snub to his family."
"And here, I will make my graceful exit," announced Leiyun, turning green in the face at the mere thought of all four sisters gathered in one room.
"So, how should we eliminate Feimei's boyfriend?" said Syaoran, after Leiyun shut the door behind him. "I hate cheats, I hate liars, but most of all, I hate hypocrites pretending to uphold the law but gambles away his family fortune like some bum and gets his girlfriend to bail him out."
Fanren's jaw dropped. "Oh my gosh, how did you hear about Macau incident—I don't think even Shiefa knows! Feimei made me swear not to tell anyone—she had to bail out Kenny last month because he had gambled away all his cash, his car, and the clothes on his back!"
"Well, don't let her know I'm aware—she'd get defensive over it," remarked Syaoran. "You know how hot-headed she can be."
"Of course I won't mention it—I'm still figuring out how to eliminate Kenny myself." Fanren grinned. "I see what Fuutie meant when she said you've changed. You've grown up quite a bit since you've been gone, baby brother of mine."
"That's Great Elder to you, at least while in this office," said Syaoran, meeting his sister straight in the eye. "And your own current boyfriend, or whatever you call him, is an actual bum. I'm not too worried, since you are called the female equivalent of Dairen, but I do wish you would take relations a tad bit more seriously now that you are a senior in university."
"He's an aspiring actor, not a bum, and he's beautiful to look at!" declared Fanren. "And how dare you compare me to that shallow, vapid, and calculating Dairen. All my relations are very pure!" Fanren stormed out of the office nearly bumping into her oldest sister, Li Fuutie, who came with another stack of files.
"Fuutie! Where did our adorable and innocent baby brother disappear to?" wailed Fanren. "I want him back!"
"Well, he's undertaken a lot of heavily responsibilities over the past year, so he's been forced to adapt to circumstances," remarked Fuutie, who had come with the daily budget report. "I'm no match for him anymore, either."
"Syaoran thinks my boyfriend is a bum!" exclaimed Fanren.
"Who, Louis? Well, he's been freeloading off of Cousin Daoming for three months now—isn't that how you met him? He is pretty to look at," said Fuutie. "Not very bright though."
"Yeah," admitted Fanren. "He actually bores me most of the time. But he looks so good in my designs."
"Why don't you just a hire a good-looking fitting model then? But it's true Syaoran's gotten so meddlesome lately," remarked Fuutie.
"Don't you know he's always been like that?" asked Fanren with a chuckle. "He used to glare away all potential suitors that approached you, or any of us for a matter of fact. Didn't you ever wonder why such beautiful sisters had so few guys ask us out? You lucked out, sneaking away with Zino after Syaoran left for Japan. And I just learned to hide my boyfriends well."
"I did wonder," remarked Fuutie. "After being rejected by Zino so many years, I tried to find someone else to date, but all the boys in middle school seemed to be intimidated by me. I just thought they just found me standoffish. And I don't think Shiefa's even dated at all."
Fanren smiled lopsided. "Well, that's because of Leiyun, silly—weren't you his classmate? He guarded you and Shiefa one grade below like an ardent knight, in Father's place, against the wolfish teenage boys."
"Was Leiyun like that? It was so long ago," remarked Fuutie, for at that time, all she cared about was attention from Wu Zino. "Now, is Syaoran going to eliminate Feimei's scumbag boyfriend and save us the trouble, or do we have to intervene?"
Fanren gasped. "You can't use such crass language like that, you're Fuutie! You don't like Kenny either? I thought you approved since he's been screened by clan!"
"Of course I can't stand Kenny. I don't know which of us has the worst taste in guys," remarked Fuutie with a groan.
"Obviously Syaoran," remarked Shiefa, popping out from the study behind them. "He's the one dating the Interpol-wanted thief. At least Kenny doesn't have a criminal record, yet."
Fanren remarked, "I found Sakura-chan to be so adorable. How dare she have the nerve to dump our Syaoran?"
"Who dumped who?" asked Feimei, who joined with her three sisters later because her summer clerkship had ended late.
Fuutie remarked, "Well, he did try to take the Clow from her back in the days, then he stole the Clow Cards, and now he spends his spare time running over budget reports with her. Who in their right mind would want to date him?"
"Oh, you're talking about Sakura and Syaoran," said Feimei with a knowing nod.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," declared Fanren. "Syaoran's idea of courting a girl is probably writing a letter to her once a month. Though, I have top news. I was fishing for details, and I think he ki—"
"I can hear you from here!" called out Syaoran from his office, crossly.
The four sisters smothered giggles and spun around abruptly and rushed down to the end of the hallway.
"I think he's learned how to text message, finally," said Shiefa.
"I think Meilin does that for him," interjected Fuutie.
"I bet the first and last time he ever kissed a girl is for their junior high school production Star-Crossed," stated Fanren extra loudly. "Of course, he can prove me wrong."
"Out, all of you!" called out Syaoran.
The sisters heard a loud thud from inside the office, and they glanced at each other.
"I think he just banged his head on his desk," remarked Feimei.
"Well, Mizuki Kai did kiss him during the Cinderella play at the Seijou High School Cultural Festival," remarked Shiefa.
"I think you are imagining things, Shiefa," said Fuutie. "You might be mixing it up with what happened in the Notorious Magician of the Night and the Small Wolf 2."
"Speaking of kisses, did you see that Chang Erika girl slap Jinyu on stage during the final scene of the Cinderella play?" said Fanren. "Is she still alive after laying hand on the Hong Kong triad's boss?"
"Isn't she the girl that was held hostage during the HSBC bank during the yakuza attack that Jingmei told us about?" said Shiefa. "You know, I kind of liked her ever since she slapped Jinyu on stage. That stunned look on the Black Dragon's face was priceless."
"Are you okay with Jinyu now?" Fanren asked Fuutie cautiously.
Fuutie nodded. "Yeah, we sort of talked things out. Well, not completely, but I'm okay now. It's in large part thanks to Sakura."
"I miss Sakura," said Fanren. "I'm jealous you guys got to see her and Tomoyo."
"Aren't you always messaging Tomoyo?" asked Shiefa.
"Yes," said Fanren with a twinkle in her eye. "And Leiyun may be right. A typhoon may be on its way."
"I saw Leiyun scrambling out the back garden for his life on my way in," said Feimei. "Where is he off to?"
Fanren replied, "Probably back home to gather in the laundry. He thinks a storm is coming."
"This is his house though," remarked Fuutie.
"I forget he's Uncle Wutai's son, sometimes," remarked Feimei. Li Wutai resided in the Main House, or the Li Clan Headquarters, and this sprawling mansion was where Leiyun grew up in.
Hong Kong International Airport…
Tomoyo filmed Sakura, in an adorable little white sleeveless sailor dress with wide navy collars and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a white sash, rush out of the Hong Kong International Airport, her little carry-on satchel flapping behind her.
"Sakura is so adorable—you'd think this is the first time she's visited Hong Kong," remarked Sonomi, in a chic gray pantsuit and large horn-rimmed sunglasses.
Tomoyo in a sky-blue pinafore dress, hair tied back with a matching ribbon, remarked, "Sakura-chan's eyes always sparkle when she travels. She's going to take the Hong Kong fashion circle by storm with her cuteness!"
This marked the third time Tomoyo and Sakura traveled to Hong Kong together. The first time was due to a lucky, or perhaps foreordained, lottery draw which brought them to this island city seven years ago. The second time was just last year, during spring break, when Sakura went in search of Syaoran who had mysteriously disappeared from Japan. And this third time was technically for work, for Sakura's upcoming fashion show. But Tomoyo had ulterior motives of course. Tomoyo knew that Sakura had also briefly returned to Hong Kong with Syaoran earlier that spring, though she spoke little of that trip which had been taken on the Unicorn, as the Li Clan's Great Elder had been on his deathbed, and it had been an important trip for Syaoran.
The local-hire chauffeur came to inform them that the van was ready, and the Daidouji entourage also comprised of Sonomi's bodyguards, personal secretary, and assistants, stepped out immediately greeted by the summer humidity.
Sakura gaped as they checked into the presidential suite at the luxurious Island Shangri-La Hotel—Daidouji Sonomi used the master room, while she and Tomoyo shared the other double-bed room, linked to a spacious living area.
"We stayed here last time, but this room is even more amazing," exclaimed Sakura, peeking into the white marble bathroom and trying out the cushion of her queen-size bed. "But shouldn't I be lodging with the other models?"
Sonomi said, "Your job doesn't start till next Monday—you'll stay in the model dormitory until the fashion show for fittings, rehearsals and social functions related to Tokyo Girls Collection. But you have the weekend off, so enjoy it!"
Sakura opened the maroon curtains, greeted by a glorious view of Victoria's Peak.
"Look, we're right near Syaoran's house!" exclaimed Tomoyo. "And today's July 12. We're just in time!"
Sakura stared hard at Tomoyo, realizing why she had insisted on departing for Hong Kong early, instead of with all the other models next week as scheduled.
"You do want to see him, don't you?" asked Tomoyo.
"Yes, but I can't just go unannounced! He doesn't even know I'm in Hong Kong!" exclaimed Sakura.
"Well, it won't be a birthday surprise if he did," replied Tomoyo with a wink.
"Come, girls, let's get some lunch and unpack later," declared Sonomi, emerging from her room to the living room area, changed into a breezier beige Safari-style dress which tapered below her knees.
The three headed downstairs to the waterside terrace restaurant, which had an even more direct view of Victoria's Peak. Because it was slightly past lunchtime, there were few guests dining.
"So, just when the Black Dragon stormed off stage, and Cinderika chased after him, the lonely Wolf-Beast revealed that he had been hiding in the shadows all this time, awaiting his destined one before the last leaf of the rose fell," stated a familiar chirpy voice. "But his destined one was the Fairy Godmother—or the Evil Magician of the Night—who cast the spell on him in the first place!"
"Mother, don't listen to this girl—it was a very poignant story of the lonely Wolf-Creature learning to let go of the person he loves the most, and in freeing her, earning her love in return," drawled a male voice.
Their father chuckled. "That sounds like one of those crazy fairytale stories your mother would come up with when she was in junior high school."
"They were not crazy—they were original!" snapped back their mother. "And Nadeshiko said they were very moving!"
Sonomi squinted at the family of four seated at the dining table. "Isn't that Keisuke-san? And Miara!"
"You're right, it is, and Kai and Miho too!" exclaimed Tomoyo, waving her hand at the family of four seated across from them.
"Tomoyo-senpai!" exclaimed Miho, in a yellow plaid romper over a white sleeveless blouse, waving back. The waiter came and pushed together another table, joining the two parties.
"What are you guys doing here?" asked Sakura. She then bowed her head to the artist Shing-sensei, who she first met three years ago in their winter vacation trip to New York and only found out last winter that he was actually Tanaka Keisuke, Kai and Miho's supposedly dead father, and husband to Mizuki Miara, a former journalist who had completely recovered from her longtime illness and was now working as a freelance writer.
"Sakura, I heard you are modeling, just like your mother!" remarked Tanaka Keisuke. "I'd always thought you would be a good model—though I didn't want to encourage you too much because when I first saw you, you were only in junior high."
"But why are you all in Hong Kong right now?" asked Sakura.
"Didn't I mention Father's new exhibition is opening at the Hong Kong Museum of Art—we're here to support him," said Kai.
"Kai-kun?" squeaked Sakura. Even now, she had trouble recognizing the former thief without his usual pitch-black sunglasses.
Mizuki Kai in fact was not wearing a single black article of clothing today—instead, he wore a light blue linen shirt paired with light beige chinos and loafers. His brilliant auburn hair, with streaks of copper and gold highlights, was windswept, tumbling into his eyes, and he was earning admiring glances from the other hotel guests and waitresses.
"Are you back to Mikai-mode?" whispered Sakura. "I thought your parents didn't care about your delinquent past?"
"I told him he looks ridiculous in black leather in this subtropical weather," stated Miho.
Kai nodded solemnly. "Actually, I realized I did stick out like a sore thumb in leather in this muggy, subtropical Hong Kong climate. And even my most powerful hair wax does not stay in this Hong Kong humidity, so I gave up."
Miho heaved a funny little sigh as she tugged at the ends of her short auburn hair. "My hair's been curling up since I came here."
The former thief, who looked like he had stepped out of a resort catalogue and should be on a cruise trip, remarked, "By the way, Sakura congratulations on your first real runway gig. Miho told me you were cast in the Tokyo Girls Collection Hong Kong show. What a coincidence we're all meeting up here, isn't it?"
Sakura thought it was anything but coincidence. "Are you guys staying at this hotel too?"
"Nope, we're staying over at The Peninsula," replied Kai. "Nearby."
Sakura blinked. "Does Meilin know you're in Hong Kong too?"
Kai put his forefinger to his lip. "Let's keep this a secret from her for now—we sort of had a big spat before she left."
"Why?" asked Sakura.
"I don't know," said Kai. "But she told me she wants to take a break."
"Well, did you come here to make things up with Meilin?" asked Sakura, who actually had heard from Meilin firsthand about their most recent fight.
"No, I came here because my father is trying to avoid his press appearances and meetings with sponsors of his exhibition," replied Kai. "And that darned portrait that the Li Clan commissioned for an exorbitant sum of money!"
"I'm never going to finish the Great Elder portrait in time for his birthday banquet," groaned Tanaka Keisuke, better known as the renowned artist Shing. "Miara, let's run away to Macau!"
"Oh, a night at the Venetian—let's do it!" said Miara.
"No! Father, you promised Fuutie-nee-san you will finish Syaoran's portrait—and it looks completed just hand it over instead of fussing over every detail!" exclaimed Miho. "Mother, your editor has been badgering about the new chapter which was due last week!"
Keisuke turned to his wife. "Who invited our children again?"
"Not me," said Miara with a shrug. "So, should I book the ferry, or do you want to?"
Kai said solemnly, "Syaoran's birthday is tomorrow—have you ever seen Li Fuutie angry?"
"No, but I've seen Ryuuren lose his temper before, and it was not a pretty sight," replied Keisuke with a sigh.
Kai, took out his gleaming aviator glasses, and said, "I've confiscated both your passports and credit cards. Father, I'll drive you to the atelier. Miho, take the draft from Mother and go to the hotel business center and fax the chapter back to the editor."
Keisuke took a glance at Miara. "Let's run for it." And he took his wife by the hand and they sprinted out of the restaurant like giddy teenagers, not even bothering to pay the bills.
Forking out cash from his leather wallet, Kai groaned. "What am I doing babysitting my parents?"
"So, your escapism was hereditary," remarked Tomoyo solemnly.
"Plan B, Miho," said Kai, sunglasses on.
"Roger!" replied Miho. "I knew this would happen—I have a backup copy of the chapter on my USB. I'll send this, whether it's completed or not!"
"I'm getting the portrait framed," replied Kai. "No one's going to notice if Syaoran's ceremonial robes has a few less embellishments or not." And the two siblings headed in opposite directions.
Sonomi remarked, "What capable children Keisuke and Miara have. You know, Sakura, I think it's a good thing your mother met your father. She was rather absentminded all the time as well—I worried for her. I remember, those three were always lost in their own world, back in the days. Nadeshiko was always daydreaming, sometimes playing a little jig on the creaky school piano, while Miara scribbled away her nonsense stories and Keisuke-san—he was a student art teacher then—doodled in his sketchbook."
Sakura closed her eyes, picturing her mother, with her long violet curls pulled back into a braid, in her short-sleeved summer sailor uniform strumming a light medley on the piano, while Miara, auburn hair in a high ponytail, wrote out the script for a school play on her spiraled notebook. Keisuke sitting on the floor, would sketch the pretty scene unfolding before him. And Li Ryuuren, in his high school uniform, would burst into the room, scolding the group for lazing around. Nadeshiko would look up and laugh, tell him to lighten up. The crease on Ryuuren's brow would ease, and he would come sit by the piano bench, next to Nadeshiko, and listen to her play, eyes shut, a little smile lingering on his lips. Traces of the legacy of that foursome who had been full of so much dreams, ambition, and inspiration a quarter-century ago, somehow seemed to live on today, through Keisuke, now a world-renowned painter, and Mizuki Miara-sensei, a budding novelist.
July 12, Victoria's Peak…
"Do you want me to come with you?" asked Tomoyo with a worried little frown as she walked Sakura to the lobby of the hotel, where a cab was on standby. She could never forget that day last year when she last saw Sakura off to go see Syaoran. The Sakura who had returned then had no pallor to her face—it had almost been like a stranger had returned that day, and Tomoyo had spent the next months regretting ever suggesting they go to Hong Kong to find Syaoran.
"No, you should go to the dinner appointment with Aunt Sonomi," said Sakura. "I'll be fine on my own—it's my fourth time in Hong Kong, you know."
"Here, don't forget to take this with you," said Tomoyo, handing Sakura a white shopping bag. Circumstances were completely different from then—Syaoran and Sakura had also changed. "Call me if something comes up!" Tomoyo was torn, for Sakura looked adorable in her little floral lilac dress paired with a white knit cardigan adorned with pearl buttons, and a white cross-body circle bag with pearl buckles. But Tomoyo was expected to accompany her mother for a dinner with Daidouji Toy Company's business partners. Besides, Sakura probably needed some alone time with Syaoran. "Good luck, Sakura-chan!"
Sakura actually had put on a brave front in front of Tomoyo, but already regretted declaring she would go by herself by the time she reached the massive iron gates of the Li Main House, where the Great Elder's office was located. Kai had drawn her a very extensive map of the grounds—which didn't show up on her smartphone GPS for some reason. The cab driver gave her a strange look and drove off, and Sakura realized she was on her own and took a deep breath.
"Who are you? Who are you here to see?" asked a guard in green livery with the Li Clan emblem.
"I'm here to see Li Syaoran. I mean the Great Elder," squeaked Sakura.
"Do you have an appointment with the Great Elder?" asked the guard.
Sakura gulped. "No."
"Then is the Great Elder expecting you?"
"No," she replied again. She wanted to tell the guard that she was Card Mistress Sakura, that she was Syaoran's friend. But then, she recalled the stricken expression on Syaoran's face the last time she had visited him unexpectedly—he had been worried for he safety because the Li Clan apparently did not take kindly to her existence. So she couldn't tell them exactly who she was either. Maybe it wasn't the best idea to just show up at the front steps without calling. But she didn't know how to face him after their last encounter at King Penguin Park. They hadn't called, written, or even texted since that night.
"I'm afraid we cannot let you in. Please return when you have made a proper appointment with the Great Elder," stated the suspicious guard.
"Well, well, if it isn't Sakura-chan?" came a melodic female voice from inside the gates.
Sakura looked up to see a graceful woman with long red-brown hair in a short cobalt blue qipao lined with mustard accents. She immediately recognized her as one of Syaoran's four sisters. Which one was she? Right, the third sister, Li Fanren.
"I thought it was you—I almost didn't recognize you because you grew up so much! What are you doing here?" asked Fanren. "Oh, right! You came to surprise Syaoran for his birthday, right?"
"Well, sort of," mumbled Sakura, hugging the shopping bag closer to her chest.
"Oh, you're acquainted with Lady Fanren," said the guard.
"Yes, she's a friend—a very important partner to the Great Elder," declared Fanren. "The Great Elder would have been furious if he learned that you turned Kinomoto Sakura away at the gate."
"Y-yes, milady!" declared the guard. "I will ring her in immediately!" He blinked at Sakura again. "You're not the famed Card Mistress Sakura who rose from the ashes of death and parted darkness and a storm of locusts like a Winged Angel of Light in the Battle of the Succession of the 77th Great Elder? I heard from my cousin, who serves as a maid at the Li Main House, who overhead the story in person from the Head's chief bodyguard!"
Sakura coughed, turning red.
Fanren almost chuckled then in a moment of epiphany grabbed Sakura's wrist, glancing around surreptitiously. "Wait, keep it a secret the Great Elder has a visitor. Sakura, come here, follow me!"
"Hoe, where are you taking me?"
Fanren shoved her into the back of a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz which drove around a winding path five minutes away from the Li Clan headquarters, to a more secluded location higher up in the hills.
To Sakura's dismay, she realized Fanren had led her back to Syaoran's house. Sakura had first entered the massive gated villa atop Victoria's Peak back in elementary school, when she and Tomoyo had slept over. At that time, she had been shocked at how large and spacious the mansion was—it had been the luxurious house that she had ever visited before, complete with a driveway and the most magnificent garden she had ever seen in her life.
"Where are you leading me to?" asked Sakura, as Fanren dragged the younger girl up the stairwell and down the long corridor of the second floor.
Fanren fumbled in her purse and extracted a key. "Aha! I knew I still had it. She opened the last door and swung it open. She fumbled with a switch and the room was lit.
Sakura stepped into a large chamber, neat and spotless, interior done up in hues of light gray and spring green to deep forest green. There was a large king-size bed with minty green sheets and a cream-color duvet cover with gold accents. An entire wall was line with a dark walnut wood bookcase full of books of all sizes and languages, similar to the Kinomoto house's basement study.
Fanren walked over and swung open the dark green brocade curtains, revealing floor-length windows that led out to the spacious balcony which overlooked the marvelous Li botanical gardens and ivory fountain, much talked about in the neighborhood. Moonlight poured into the room, for it was already nightfall. There were no personal items or photographs that would give up who the owner of the room was, but there was no doubt it Sakura's mind.
Sakura turned to Fanren in dismay. "Is this Syaoran's room?"
"Yes. He's been locking it up ever since he became a teenager—wants to keep his prying sister out of the way, I suppose. He even cleans the room himself. We understand. He's a healthy, growing boy who values his privacy, I suppose. Of course, he doesn't know we made a spare key," said Fanren smugly.
"Oh, maybe I should wait outside for him to come back," said Sakura. "I don't want to be impolite and intrude when the owner's not in."
"No, you should wait here," Fanren replied. "There's lots of people coming back and forth, delivering the Great Elder birthday presents and whatnot today. It wouldn't be ideal for your presence to become noted. And you want to surprise him, right? He should be back soon."
"He must be really busy, I can return tomorrow," mumbled Sakura.
"Don't you want to tour the room?" asked Fanren, completing ignoring her protests.
"Oh no, I don't think that will be quite right," protested Sakura weakly. She had not gotten to visit Syaoran's room last time she visited either, though she and Tomoyo slept in the guest room on the opposite end of the hallway. The room, however, smelled familiar, of pinewood and clean laundry detergent, like Syaoran's apartment in Japan.
Fanren swung open a connecting door. "Syaoran has nearly as much clothes as I do—look."
They stepped into what Sakura realized was a walk-in closet—which was the size of her own bedroom at home. Her long friendship with Tomoyo kept her from being completely in shock at the sheer amount of clothes, arranged by color, hanging in rows and rows across the walls. One wall was dedicated to shoes, while a whole section was filled with traditional Chinese costumes of varying colors and delicate fabrics, some which seemed so luxurious she dared not touch it. She was especially fascinated by a glass compartment filled with diamond-studded watches, sparkling cufflinks, heavy rings and chains, and other traditional gold ornaments and jewels most likely meant to be pinned to ceremonial robes. Thinking about it, normal guys would have been slightly shocked, impressed or dismayed by Tomoyo's van full of clothes back in elementary school dedicated to Sakura's battle outfits that accompanied each night's expedition. No wonder Syaoran had never flitted an eye, nor even acted like it was strange that she changed her battle outfit every day. He simply took it for granted.
"Why does a boy have so many clothes, you are wondering," said Fanren. "You should have seen how much clothing he had in elementary school days—this is just half of that. Our younger cousins are having a field day with those outfits, of course, though none of them are as cute as our Syaoran when he was little."
"I'm sure," replied Sakura.
"Now, let's see, where did it go?" Fanren fumbled in the back of the closet and extracted a box. "I'll show you something precious." She took out a frilly green dress and a matching bonnet, something that looked like it would fit Sakura's doll back at home. "Look what we made Syaoran wear when he was a toddler! Isn't it adorable! Oh, and this pink organza dress—that was a hit too with the cousins. And this sky-blue chiffon jumpsuit was Leiyun's favorite on Syaoran." Fanren clasped her hands together and squirmed. "Oh, Syaoran was the most adorable baby ever!" She fished out of her wallet an old picture of the four sisters as young girls in patching white pinafore dresses.
And there was a plump baby Syaoran in a white bonnet, scowling as usual, swaddled in yards of green tulle, smothered by his doting sisters.
"With four sisters, whenever we go out shopping and see something nice, we would buy it for him," said Fanren. "And he was too nice to refuse, no matter how ridiculous the outfit was. Of course, he managed to make the strange pieces we bought for him work—it was a natural-born talent, being able to coordinate outfits like that. I am proud of him."
Sakura nodded distractedly. No wonder Syaoran had never seemed to even consider Tomoyo as an abnormality and got along with her so fabulously. He had grown up with four Tomoyos.
Checking her smartphone, Fanren told her, "Syaoran's last meeting of the day's over. He should be home soon. Now, which one do you want to wear?" She held up two hangers.
Sakura glanced up at what seemed like a sheer black Chantilly lace negligee on one hanger, and the other was a hot pink chiffon baby doll with ruffled edges, held together by a black satin lace-up ribbon. As she realized how scant fabric comprised either piece, Sakura's ears turned beet red. "Hoe! What is that?"
"I made them for design class, and they seem to be your size," replied Fanren. She laid them on the bed. "I'll leave them here. You can choose either one and change into it."
"I—I can't—" And Sakura could not even flat out refuse because Fanren said she had made them herself and didn't want to insult her. She took another glimpse at the skimpy lingerie on the hangers and blushed the same shade as the hot pink baby doll.
"I think Syaoran will prefer the pink one," remarked Fanren offhandedly. She turned around and looked into Sakura's eyes. "I know that the Li Clan may not be your cup of tea—and frankly, some of those Elders are not mine either. But if it means anything, you have us four sisters' blessing. Well, Feimei's coming around, since she's always been the most suspicious of us. And Mother seems quite fond of you as well—though I am sure she would have eaten alive any other female creature that would dare approach our precious Syaoran even before we did. "
Sakura looked up and saw behind the mischievous glint a rare kindness—a look that she sometimes recognized from Syaoran—and suddenly felt like she had known Fanren much longer than their brief encounter seven years ago, and now. She didn't know whether to feel grateful or mortified or maybe a little bit of both as Fanren winked, turned off the lights, and left her in the room, alone, clutching the white shopping bag to her chest.
Li Syaoran heaved another long sigh as he trudged down the hall, to his bedroom, at the end of what seemed like a needlessly long day. So many people came in with this problem and that—was it really necessary for the Great Elder to sign off on roof repairs for the woodshed behind the Main House, or approve of a second cousin's divorce from his wife of three months? How strange. Were all his sisters out? The house was unusually quiet. He reached his room. Odd—the door was slightly ajar—he was sure he had locked the room when he left it earlier in the day, as he did every morning.
There was someone in his room, for sure. He frowned, reaching for an ofuda. Someone had drawn back the curtains, and opened wide the balcony windows, letting in the warm humid summer breeze from the gardens float in, with the intoxicating scent of sweet magnolia and fresh cut grass drifting into the room.
Perhaps he was dreaming, or seeing things. There, silhouetted by the moonlight, was a slip of a girl in a whimsical lilac sundress sitting on his bed, slender ankles crossed. Her pale skin gleamed, as if she were a fairy creature, and tendrils of golden-brown hair framed her face in little wisps like golden and copper thread. She looked over her shoulder, her eyes glowing like green Will-o'-the-wisp in the dark, a quizzical, soft smile on her lips as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to be sitting there.
He blinked again, convinced she would disappear, that she was an illusion, a hallucination after a long day, like so many times before.
And she spoke. That crystal clear tinkling voice that called his name. "Syaoran." Only she could call his name like that and make him feel blessed to be born Li Syaoran.
He voiced the name, the only name, that could cross his lips like a prayer answered. "Sakura."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to intrude like this. But Fanren-nee-sama showed me to your room. And I wanted to surprise you," she told him in a sweet little voice full of worry.
"I did intrude, right?" Sakura hung her head, shoulders sagging, even the stray tendrils of hair drooping. "I'm so sorry, I know it was rude of me to be in your room without your permission, when you weren't here."
"No, I mean, you did surprise me," said Syaoran, shaking his head rapidly. "I didn't even know you were in Hong Kong. I'm glad you are here. Wait, why are you here? How long have you been waiting?"
"Just a couple of hours," replied Sakura with a smile. "I came to Hong Kong with Tomoyo-chan for a fashion show. It was a last-minute booking. I would have contacted you, but I wanted it to be a surprise."
He murmured below his breath, "And I won't be surprised if this is all a dream tomorrow."
"Hoe?" Then Sakura stood up, hands behind her back. "Close your eyes."
He complied and shut his eyes, though he was tempted to open one eye and take another peek at her, afraid that when he opened his eyes again, she would be gone again, a phantom creature of his mind as he often created last year, locked up alone in this room. But downstairs in the parlor, the grandfather clock rang once, twice, thrice, twelve times, and it was midnight again, the unearthly hour which ended one day and started another.
"Happy birthday, Syaoran!" Sakura exclaimed, holding up a cupcake with pale green frosting and white sprinkles, with one lit blue candle. "Sorry—I couldn't bake a proper cake. I made it this afternoon in the hotel—Tomoyo-chan coaxed the head chef to let us use the kitchen, but I felt bad about using up too much ingredients. It's mint vanilla flavored."
"It's perfect," said Syaoran with a smile.
"I'm going to sing for you now!" exclaimed Sakura, clearing her throat, and singing to him "Happy Birthday" with her sweet little voice, as if not to wake the other family members. "Blow out the candle before it melts! And you have to make a wish!"
And he obliged, pouting his lips and blowing out the candle with one breath. He caught her staring at him with those bright green eyes that seemed to glow in the dark like cat's eyes, but she looked away when their gazes met.
"W-what did you wish for?" she asked.
"Silly, if I tell you, it won't be a secret wish anymore. It won't come true then," he told her.
"Meanie," replied Sakura, cheeks puffed out. "You never change, do you?"
"You're the one who told me never to change," said Syaoran with a wolfish grin. "So, do I get to eat this?"
Sakura nodded. "Sorry if it's not very good—I didn't have a lot of time to make it—the chef was glaring at me the whole time."
Syaoran sat down on the bed and peeled off the paper. He bit into the minty icing, into the moist, rich cake, airy like a soufflé. "It's delicious."
She watched him devour the cupcake as if it really was the best cake he had ever eaten, and felt grateful that he did.
"You have icing on your lip," she remarked, something rather unexpected of him.
"Where?" he asked. And he ran a tongue over his lip.
Sakura swallowed hard, as she recalled an uncomfortable incident two weeks ago at King Penguin Park. "N-now, for your present."
"What, there's more?"
"I didn't give you a proper present yet," Sakura said, with a frown.
"I got the greatest one sitting on my bed," murmured Syaoran under his breath.
"Did you say something?" Sakura said, fumbling in her shopping bag and extracting a small cardboard box.
He took the box. "Thank you."
"It's embarrassing after all!" exclaimed Sakura. "You must have gotten so many amazing gifts. Give it back!"
"No, I want to see!" Syaoran held it over his head, out of her reach. And she jumped up to reach for it, her feet tangling up in his, knocking him over. He collapsed behind on the bed, Sakura on top of him.
For a moment, they were a muddle of limbs, and Syaoran felt the warmth of Sakura's head pressed against his chest, her legs tangled with his.
"Hoe! I'm so sorry!" exclaimed Sakura, trying to sit up, pushing down on his stomach to try to prop herself up.
Syaoran let out a groan and just collapsed back on the bed in despair as she scrambled up. And he caught a glimpse of her flushed face. Slowly, he got up again. "What is this?" he reached under his legs and slipped out what seemed like a scrap of sheer fabric.
For a second, Sakura stared in utter dismay as Syaoran held up with his forefinger and thumb a lacy black underwear. And it took him another second to register what it was before he set it down on the bed again and said rigidly, "I don't know how that got there!"
"I know!" exclaimed Sakura.
"Should we turn on the lights now?" he asked, jumping off the bed.
"Y-yes!" stammered Sakura, desperately trying to hide the other beribboned slip in between the sheets as Syaoran switched on the lights.
With a frown, Syaoran tried his door. "It's locked. From the outside."
"My room." He scowled. "That's it, my sisters." He pounded on his door. "I know you are out there! Fanren? Or is it Feimei?" There was no response.
With a sigh, Syaoran returned and told Sakura, who was now standing in the corner of his room, next to a potted orchid, "You can sit, you know."
Considering how large the room was, the only places to sit were Syaoran's desk chair or the bed. Sakura headed toward the desk chair, but Syaoran said, "No, come sit over here. We can't really talk with you over there, anyway."
He was pointing back to the king-size bed atop a platform. And now the room was lit, the crumpled beribboned pink baby doll with slits up the front and another scandalously sheer black lace slip laid on the bed were clearly in view. Syaoran sighed. "Fanren?"
Sakura nodded, cheeks flushing again.
He let out another long sigh. "She means well. I think."
Sakura noted that he didn't even flit an eye at the embarrassing garments. Was it from living with all females his entire life? He didn't even have a problem gathering them up and depositing them into an empty drawer of an antique chest in the room.
"She seems to think you'd like the pink one," remarked Sakura abruptly. "She designed it."
"I know. I helped her choose the colors—I thought she was designing a shirt, I couldn't tell from her sketches," replied Syaoran dryly.
"Oh. I bet she'll get along with Tomoyo-chan well," said Sakura.
"She has—they've been pen pals for years now," said Syaoran. "Are you sure you don't want to sit? I don't think my sisters plan to open up that door anytime soon. And I can't throw too much of a fuss for it may wake Mother up."
Seeing no choice, Sakura walked up to the bed and sat at the very edge. She took a tentative peek at Syaoran, who despite still looking tired had a healthier glow back at home. It looked like he was getting good meals with all his sisters looking after him. "How are things going over here?"
"Busy, I guess," said Syaoran, glancing over at the stack of files he had brought back on his desk. "I never knew being Great Elder required so much administrative work. But I also realized, there are a lot of competent people who know what they are doing and have been doing it for all these years—I've got to learn to delegate and trust them. I've always tried to do everything alone, but this is something I can't do alone. There's so much to learn, and I have never realized how little I knew about how the Clan was operating. Because I was trained to be a warrior; I was trained to follow orders. But now, I'm the one expected to make the big decisions. And people trust me to make the right decision, for some reason."
"I trust you," replied Sakura.
"Why?" he asked, looking in her eyes.
"B-because you are my friend," she stammered.
"And a member of the Star Alliance."
She blinked up at him, almost slipping off the edge of the bed. At that moment, her smartphone rang. "Hoe! It's Tomoyo-chan!"
"You can pick it up," said Syaoran.
She glanced at him, and at the phone, not quite sure how she was going to explain the situation to Tomoyo, then back at him. And suddenly, the phone was no longer in her hand nor ringing. It was in Syaoran's hand.
"Yeah, she's with me. Yup, I was surprised. And thank you for your birthday present—I received it by mail yesterday—you could have mentioned you would be in the country. Sure, good night, no worries, she can stay here." And Syaoran had already hung up her mobile phone and set it on his oak wood nightstand.
"Hoe!" Sakura exclaimed. "What did Tomoyo say?"
He tilted his head at her and wondered whether he could really tell Sakura what Tomoyo had said to him. "She knows you are at my place, so she's not worried—she's going to be shopping in the night market with Miho, so she's going to be busy. And Sonomi-san is at a banquet with her Hong Kong clients."
With a sudden sense of doom, Sakura realized that she might be stuck in Syaoran's room for the night.
"So, this is my present?" asked Syaoran, peering at the white cardboard box tied in a green ribbon.
"Hey, how did you get a hold of that?" demanded Sakura.
He unraveled the green ribbon. "It's not a mirror by any chance, right?"
"No!" said Sakura. "I know you like mirrors a lot, and there was such a pretty silver hand mirror, kind of like the Beast's Enchanted Mirror, that I wanted to get you. But Kai insisted that he wanted it so badly, so I got it for his birthday last month instead."
"I believe Kai's birthday is in March," Syaoran said dryly. "But thank goodness."
"Hoe?" Sakura shrugged, reasoning that Kai had multiple identities so perhaps had multiple birthdays as well. "Kai's really obsessed with mirrors as well, though that might just be remnants of his days trying to track the Mirror of Truth. I'm sorry, it really was a magnificent mirror. But he threatened to steal it from you if I gave it to you, and he looked so happy to receive it."
"No, no, I completely am okay with it. I'm glad that it made him happy. It's very light," said Syaoran weighing the box in his hands. "I guess it really is not a mirror." He lifted up the lid, and stared blankly at the slips of paper stapled together. "Um, thank you?"
"Read it!" said Sakura, ears pink. "I told you I didn't want to show it to you!"
Syaoran picked up the pieces of paper written with marker and decorated with little flower stickers and little cartoon doodles of what may be Kero-chan, or perhaps Syaoran-bear. He read out the words written on the first piece of paper. "Make Any Wish to Sakura Coupon 1." He flipped the page. "Sakura Super Wish Coupon 2. Sakura Super-Duper Wish Coupon 3."
Cheeks flushed, Sakura stared at Syaoran earnestly with her huge jade green eyes.
He stared at Sakura straight-faced. "First wish, and you can answer truthfully, did you perhaps forget my birthday present?"
"I did not!" exclaimed Sakura, ears blazing. "And that wish doesn't count!"
"The coupons are written on hotel stationary," pointed out Syaoran. "You wrote it today, didn't you?"
"I did, but I will grant your wishes, just tell me anything!" exclaimed Sakura. "I am, after all, a very powerful magician! You know they call me the Winged Angel of Light who rose from the ashes of death and parted darkness!"
Syaoran nearly snorted at the moniker, which he too had heard whispered amongst the maids and guards. "So, why are there only three wishes?" he couldn't help asking. "Is it like you are a genie? Or are there any limits to the wishes? For example, what if I wish on my third wish, grant me three more wishes?"
"Three wishes within the realm of what I can do!" exclaimed Sakura.
"You can admit it if you don't have a birthday present," said Syaoran, struggling to keep a straight face. "The cupcake, and you coming to deliver it in person, is more than enough."
"But Kai said you would like this sort of present!" Sakura said. "I knew I should have gotten you the pretty antique hand mirror!"
"No, he's right," said Syaoran. "I'll put these coupons with your sketches of Kero-chan in my scrapbook in my desk, right over here."
"It's Syaoran-bear, not Kero-chan!" declared Sakura indignantly. "You don't even get along with Kero-chan, why would I draw him on your present?"
"Yes, of course it's a teddy bear." Syaoran stared at the doodle of the bear and noted that it may have smaller ears than Kero-chan. He had always thought Kero-chan a breed of bear when he first met the stuffed doll guardian.
"And you better make a wish, or else I'm not going home!" exclaimed Sakura, hands drawn into little fists.
"You're not going home, either way," Syaoran murmured under his breath.
And Sakura's eyes rounded, as she glanced over at the locked door, as if finally realizing the predicament she was in.
"Okay, my first wish," said Syaoran to distract her quickly. "My youngest sister Feimei's boyfriend is a scumbag, and I wish to eliminate him."
"What exactly do you mean by eliminate?" squeaked Sakura. "Like in mafia terms? Or just figuratively speaking?"
"I meant very literally," said Syaoran.
"Wasn't she dating the Golden Leopard?" asked Sakura.
"No, those two are just good friends," said Syaoran. "Feimei's dating an upperclassman at her university who's addicted to gambling and has mixed with the wrong crowd. He's cheating on her as well."
"Why is she dating him?" demanded Sakura.
"Perhaps rebellion. Or revenge on Zian," murmured Syaoran.
"Can't you just talk to your sister frankly?" asked Sakura.
"No, she'll beat me up for intervening in her private affairs," replied Syaoran. "My sisters have the worst taste in men."
"Fanren-nee-sama's boyfriend seemed very nice," remarked Sakura. "I met him briefly—he dropped by the house earlier, before you came back."
"She brought him to the house?" demanded Syaoran.
"Yes, Fanren said she needed a fitting model for her design class," said Sakura.
"Isn't he the most narcissistic person you've ever seen?" asked Syaoran. "All he does is stare at his own reflection in the mirror all the time and talk about his looks."
"I thought there was a language-barrier," remarked Sakura meekly, recalling how self-absorbed the picturesque blonde man had been. In fact, Fanren hadn't even bothered responding to anything he said, and sometimes poked him with a pin, which made him yelp.
"Liar," said Syaoran, shutting his eyes.
And suddenly, Sakura giggled.
"I thought onii-chan was a worrywart," said Sakura. "You're tenfold worse—but you do have four older sisters, so I guess it's understandable."
"Yeah, I'm just joking about Kenny Liu—I'm sure Feimei will come to her senses too. Speaking of which, why did Kai and Meilin fight?" asked Syaoran. "Meilin refused to tell me what happened."
"Oh, I can't tell you," said Sakura. "Meilin would get mad. Does Meilin know that Kai is in Hong Kong?"
Syaoran groaned. "What's Kai doing in Hong Kong again?"
"Family trip with his parents—Shing-sensei has a major exhibition launching here, remember," replied Sakura.
"Meilin doesn't look like she's in the mood to forgive Kai any time soon," remarked Syaoran. "You know how stubborn she is when she makes up her mind to be."
"Are you actually worried for them?" asked Sakura in surprise. "I thought you didn't approve of their relationship?"
"Yeah, after meeting my sisters' boyfriends, I'm appreciating Kai to a whole new level," said Syaoran with a crooked smile. "Besides, he did a mirror intervention and sent me you."
"I came by myself!" declared Sakura. "Well, I took a cab and referenced the map Kai drew of the Li cluster. The cab driver seems to think that these hills are haunted. Are they?"
"They're just rumors to keep nosy strangers away," replied Syaoran with a chuckle. "Though I'm sure there may be one or two vengeful ghosts of my Li ancestors lurking around since there have been quite a few assassinations and bloodbath here over the decades."
"Don't be a meanie!" said Sakura, whacking Syaoran with his goose feather pillow.
How odd it was that she was sitting cross-legged on Syaoran's king-sized bed in his house in Hong Kong, chatting with him about little nothings that had happened since summer vacation started, as if nothing had happened at all between them since then. The kind of conversation they would have been having in his bedroom in Tomoeda. But even in this unfamiliar room in this unfamiliar island country, it felt so natural to be here, talking to him like this. Just a year or so ago, this place had seemed for foreign, foreboding to her, the place that had barred her from Syaoran. Yet, a Hong Kong with Syaoran by her side was no different than Tomoeda, or New York, or any other town, city, or country that they may be in.
Sakura did not wake until she heard a click from outside, and realized someone had unlocked the door. She sat up reluctantly from the softest, most plush goose feather pillow she had ever slept on in her life, greeted by a stream of sunlight from the full-length windows. She was covered by a satin sheet, but since it was so warm in Hong Kong, she hadn't been cold. And she glanced around, looking for Syaoran, and was surprised to find he had taken the blanket and extra pillow and was sleeping on the floor. Which was odd because the bed was king-sized, and they had ended up sleeping on the same bed together numerous times in the past for one reason or another. He hadn't even stirred at the sound of the unlocking door, and she wondered if he wouldn't be late for any morning meeting, though it was a Saturday.
She crawled onto the light-green satin duvet on the floor and whispered into Syaoran's ear, "Wake up, Syaoran."
Syaoran mumbled into the pillow, "Don't want to."
"You should. The door's unlocked."
And Syaoran's eyes instantly opened. "Gah!" he exclaimed, pointing at her. His chestnut brown hair stuck out in all directions. "You're real!"
Sakura yawned. "Well, I'm not a ghost, if that's what's you're asking."
Syaoran groaned, pressing his palm to his eyes. "This can't be happening."
"I'm sorry," said Sakura meekly. "I know I'm hated by the Li Clan."
"No, not you!" exclaimed Syaoran. "Well, it's true Uncle Wutai hates you, but he hates me and everyone else too. Here, let's sneak you out of the house before all my sisters notice." He flung open the full-length windows leading to the balcony.
"Good morning Syaoran. Good morning Sakura!" called out Fuutie, the oldest sister, who was watering the shrubs outside from the ground floor.
"G-good morning, Fuutie-nee-sama," Sakura said, aghast. "I mean, I don't know why I am here. I'll be leaving."
"Don't be silly, join us for breakfast," said Fanren cheerily from the gardens, pointing indoors.
Sakura tried to run a comb through her disheveled hair and smooth out the wrinkles in her dress.
Behind her, Syaoran emerged from his walk-in closet, already washed up and dressed in a white button-down shirt over gray linen slacks, looking quite refreshed. The two headed downstairs toward the dining room in dread.
"Wow, Syaoran brought home a girl last night?" asked Shiefa. "Oh gosh, is that Sakura?"
"So, did Baby Brother finally become a man last night?" asked Feimei, Syaoran's youngest sister, all smiles, as she poured herself a cup of coffee.
Fanren whispered, fluttering her lashes, "Which one did she choose? Black lace or pink chiffon with ribbons?"
"I wonder what Touya would say if he knew where his sister spent the night," remarked Fuutie, the oldest sister, with an evil grin. "I got his cell phone number last time when I was visiting."
Syaoran glared at his sisters, and Sakura cowered behind the doorway.
"You guys better pay up $100—I told you he won't lay a finger on her," said Feimei. "Did you do anything worth reporting about, Syaoran? What's wrong with you?"
"What is all this chaos in the morning?" said Li Yelan, their mother, walking downstairs from the third floor. She glanced over at Sakura staidly, her robes rustling as she extended out an arm. "Welcome back to Hong Kong, Sakura. Why don't you join us for breakfast?"
"Hoe! G-good morning Syaoran's mother! I apologize for intruding in this manner," Sakura stammered, cheeks pink.
"You're always welcome in this home," said Yelan, petting Sakura on the head. "You've grown a lot and become even more beautiful. Now, sit." That was a tall order, and Sakura and Syaoran abided.
Breakfast in the dining hall was unusually solemn because Yelan had a serious look on her face as she buttered her toast. The sisters however were nudging at each other and giggling uncontrollably. Yelan sat at the head of the dining table, and the three older sisters sat on one side. Feimei, Syaoran, and Sakura sat facing them.
"Syaoran." Yelan set down her cup of white tea.
"I never thought I would have this conversation with you, because I never thought I would need to. And in a sense, if your father was alive, it would have been his role. However, he isn't here, and you are no longer a child, so I will speak to you as an adult." Yelan paused.
Fanren and Shiefa poked each other, trying to keep a straight face over their omelets.
"You are the man of the house, Syaoran, as well as the Great Elder. You are a role model to others, and the exalted head of the Li Clan. But before that, you are my son, and a student, and you are under my roof. Thus, I expect you to follow certain decorum and principles so long as you are living here. Do you understand?"
Syaoran gulped hard. "Y-yes, Mother."
Yelan's amber eyes flitted over to Sakura. "Sakura."
Sakura gulped. "Y-yes!"
"Here, have some more toast. You look like you've lost weight since I've last seen you," remarked Yelan.
"Thank you. This toast is delicious."
"I baked it," Yelan said.
"Oh! I guess that's where Syaoran gets his baking skills from."
"I was fibbing. I don't bake. Nobody in this house is any good at cooking, save Syaoran," said Yelan. The four sisters nodded solemnly.
"That's why Syaoran was forced to learn," remarked Shiefa.
"Poor Syaoran. We used to threaten to feed him Feimei's home economics baked cookies if he didn't follow our orders," remarked Fanren.
"Hey, at least my cookies were edible!" exclaimed Feimei.
"Then why did Zian projectile vomit for three days after eating them?" asked Fanren.
"Oops, sorry, I might have been experimenting my poisons on him," Shiefa said.
"Poor boy—I do wonder if he's colorblind," said Fuutie. "That gaudy pink leopard miniskirt Zian wore to the Great Elder coronation ceremony—it was not only out of place, but very unflattering. And really, was it necessary to put so much hairspray in his hair and dye it a putrid flamingo pink?"
"Sister, I think you are confusing him with his sister—Zilai. She's the one with the pink hair. Zian was the blonde punk standing next to her," said Fanren.
Fuutie shrugged. "Oh, I always get the two confused—they're always wearing loud-colored leopard print or crocodile or snake skin, and they're both obsessed with Cousin Jinyu. So, which one of them is Jin dating?"
"I heard both," replied Fanren.
"No, not a threesome!" exclaimed Shiefa.
Fanren chuckled. "Based on what I heard through the grapevine, Cousin Jinyu's been enraptured by a certain Dark One."
"Chang Eron?" Fuutie raised an eyebrow.
"I thought it was the girl twin—Erika," Shiefa said. "The one who played Cinderella."
"Wasn't that Eron? The program said Chang Eron. I never could tell those two apart," replied Fuutie with a shrug. "They both have long hair."
Sakura choked on her freshly squeezed orange juice. The Seijou High School Cultural Festival program had been printed before Eron's "accident," which had resulted in Erika taking on the lead role of Cinderella, so the name had never been corrected.
"Eron's quite handsome," remarked Shiefa. "I understand why Sakura fell for him."
"He's not as handsome as our Syaoran. I mean, not because he's our brother, but considering what a grumpy little boy he was, he's grown to be quite a looker, considering what a short ill-tempered brat he was," said Fuutie.
Feimei wrinkled her nose. "I don't see it—my friends are always asking about him, and he's just…Syaoran. He's no Kinomoto Touya."
The four girls sighed in unison. "Now, Touya is attractive. Though Yukito is a dreamboat as well," said Shiefa.
"And Yue," murmured Fanren. "I wish I can run my hand through his silky long silver hair and let him slay me with his frosty stare."
"You know who's surprisingly hot," remarked Feimei. "Meilin's boyfriend. Cousin Jingmei has been going on about him since he was her inpatient, and I saw him up close once."
"What's he like?" asked Fanren.
"I don't know—he was wearing sunglasses, and his hair was all spiked up—delinquent like. But there was this air about him. I'm surprised she went for someone totally opposite of our Syaoran in personality. I mean, everything about Syaoran screams proper, refined and rule-abiding," said Feimei.
"Well, you always were drawn to the bad boys," remarked Fanren off-handedly. "I wonder if Zian is serious about Meilin. You know he's the kind of guy once he is fixed on something, he won't let go until he has it."
Feimei rolled her eyes. "He'll get over it as soon as he finds a new infatuation. Besides, Meilin's boyfriend seems like the possessive type—he won't let go without a fight, I'm sure."
"Actually, he has absolutely no fighting spirit," mumbled Sakura into her marmalade toast.
"Oh, do you think there's going to be a brawl?" asked Shiefa. "I put my money on Zian—he's sly and very determined. He knows what he wants."
"I put my money on Kai," said Fuutie. "I met him in person, and he's not your run of the mill average guy. I'm not sure I'm convinced his intentions with our Meilin are completely pure, but he's quite an enigmatic person."
"I don't have a problem with him being a former thief—I mean our family has relations with mafia," said Shiefa. "But this Kai has such a complicated past. I feel like our Meilin needs to meet a normal guy, who can give her stability and be there for her."
"Syaoran seems to be fond of Kai though," remarked Fuutie. "And you know, it's rare for him to have any male friends."
"Comes from growing up with four sisters," remarked Fanren.
"He turned out all right, for that, didn't he?" Shiefa said.
"No credit to us," said Fuutie.
"Gosh, I was sure Syaoran and Kai were the ones dating, and Meilin's just covering for them," said Fanren. "Right, Sakura?"
"Yup," said Sakura, drinking in the careless chatter, thinking how delectable it might have been growing up with four sisters, having been raised in an all-male household. "I see you've been keeping up with 'The Forbidden Trials of Small Wolf and the Nefarious Thief of the Night.'"
"When's the sequel coming out?" asked Feimei.
"Tomoyo's here too, you can ask in person," said Fanren.
Syaoran looked progressively gloomier throughout the meal, and Sakura would almost have been amused had it not been his birthday breakfast.
Feimei asked, "I wonder if Tomoyo is dating anyone—I think she would be popular with some of our male cousins."
"Oh, Leiyun wouldn't allow that," remarked Shiefa.
"What do you mean?" asked Feimei.
"Exactly that," replied Shiefa. "He's rather protective of his students."
Feimei rolled his eyes. "I won't believe he's a high school teacher unless I see it with my own eyes."
"Speaking of Leiyun, what's he been up to since he came back?" asked Shiefa. "He hasn't even dropped by—he can't be that busy. One would think he's intentionally avoiding us!"
"Well, surely he'll be attending Syaoran's birthday banquet," said Fuutie.
"I know, Sakura, you must join us for Syaoran's birthday banquet tonight," declared Fanren.
"Oh no, I can't!" exclaimed Sakura in horror.
"You've met half the clan already, anyway, you're almost family!" declared Fuutie.
"No, no, it's impossible!" said Sakura.
"The situation has changed since Syaoran is now the Great Elder," said Fanren. "You're no longer in danger in Hong Kong—well no more than I guess you would be back home since you are the Card Mistress. Oh how wonderful—you can come to my room and pick a dress to wear—I might have the perfect one."
"Dairen was showering so many praises about you—he'd be happy to see you again too," said Shiefa. "The last time he's praised someone is in elementary school, and I believe that it was Syaoran's golden retriever."
"Syaoran, this is a bad idea, right?" said Sakura, turning to an empty chair.
Feimei said, "Syaoran left a while ago for his morning briefing by his advisers. He said he'd give you a call later."
"Girls, I too have an appointment at the Main House and will take my leave," said Yelan. "I'll arrive to the birthday banquet earlier—make sure you aren't late. Sakura, I will be seeing you tonight."
And that was that. Syaoran's mother had said so, she would have to attend. Sakura swallowed hard. Last time she had faced all four of Syaoran's sisters, she had been with Tomoyo, but now, she was all on her own.
"There's so much to do and so little time!" exclaimed Fanren.
"I thought the banquet was in the evening?" asked Sakura.
"Yes, how are we ever going to get ready by then?" Fanren twiddled her fingers gleefully. "Now, what should we dress you up in?"
"What do you mean?" squeaked Sakura.
Fanren clapped her hands together. "Aha! I got it." She dragged Sakura toward her second-floor bedroom, and then flung open the door to her walk-in closet.
Sakura gasped. It was possibly larger than Tomoyo's, though Sakura was still certain Tomoyo's had more clothes in it lined from one end of the room to the other.
Sifting through racks of clothes, Fanren finally yanked out a long emerald gown. "Perfect—you have to wear this tonight, Sakura."
"W-what is this?" stammered Sakura.
"Let's get you changed into it—I think I'll just have to adjust the hems slightly. I never got a chance to wear it because it's a size too small for me, but it should fit you perfectly." And Fanren proceeded to strip off Sakura, until the younger girl feebly protested she would put on the dress alone.
Sakura finally stepped out into the main bedroom, where Fanren sat on a red velvet couch, making a phone call. "Yes, send it over by 4 p.m. at the latest. Thanks!" Fanren tossed her smartphone and exclaimed, "Perfect! You do the dress justice! We'll just pair it with strappy sandals, and maybe some silver bangles."
"I can't go out like this!" exclaimed Sakura, clutching her hands around her bare arms.
"Yes, of course not. First, a spa to detox and give you glowing skin. And we have to do your hair and makeup too, obviously." Fanren circled around Sakura approvingly. "You are indeed a model, after all. You're not very tall, but you do have good proportions."
"But the dress is b-backless!" squeaked Sakura, cheeks flushed.
"That's the point," said Fanren. "What are you all getting flustered about? Didn't you model swimwear for Tomoyo's designer contest? And frankly, some of the Card Captor battle outfits you have worn were a lot more embarrassing."
"That's different! I can't go like this for Syaoran's birthday celebration."
Fanren snorted. "Actually, there will be a lot more girls wearing a lot less tonight, so we need to make you stand out. Now, I think I'll lend you my emerald and diamond drop earrings. Your shoes will be arriving from the store soon."
"I should go see Tomoyo-chan, and Aunt Sonomi would be worried about me too," said Sakura.
"Tomoyo will meet you at the banquet—Feimei got in touch with her already. Feimei and Tomoyo have probably been busy shopping for the past hour and are anything but missing you, while President Daidouji Sonomi is also included on the banquet guest list," replied Fanren with a shrug. "Now, how should we do your makeup? Come, sit over here so we can experiment." She dragged Sakura to her makeup room. Sakura gasped to see the sheer abundance of eye shadows, powders, lipsticks of all imaginable shades, along with cases of brushes and unfamiliar apparatus in a brightly lit room with huge mirrors.
"I don't think Syaoran would want me to show up at his birthday banquet," mumbled Sakura. "He told me to stay away from the Elders."
"If Syaoran had his own way, he wouldn't attend his own birthday banquet," replied Fanren. "But he doesn't have a choice in this. Oh, but you of course are going very willingly, aren't you, to celebrate a one-of-a-kind evening for our Syaoran."
She smiled sweetly at the younger girl, and Sakura wondered how she ever thought Fanren to be a kind person. Fanren was perhaps the most persuasive person she had met. Stubbornness seemed to run in the family, but it was pretty clear to Sakura that Syaoran seemed to generally let his sisters have their own way, most likely for his own peace of mind. Only later on did it occurred to Sakura that even if his sisters had locked the room, surely Syaoran would have been to break the lock if he had wanted to since he was supposed to be the most powerful Li Clan magician of his generation.
July 13 evening, Shangri-La Hotel…
Li Fanren had not exaggerated when she said getting ready for an evening really would take the entire afternoon, and Sakura had first been beaten to pulp at the spa by two vicious old ladies, and then the girls spent hours under glaring light getting their hair and makeup done, complete with a manicure and pedicure. It was nothing like getting ready for a magazine photo shoot, in the sense that Fanren was pickier than any photographer, director or stylist than she had ever worked with before. And bossy. Extremely bossy.
The girls were taken to the Shangri-La Hotel, the venue of Syaoran's banquet, in a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz, and Sakura was amazed at how soft the suede leather of the chairs was, and that the car even came with a minibar. As they got out of the car, Sakura almost sighed "hanyaan" at how goddess-like Fanren was with her long, straight, red-brown hair loose over her shoulders, clasped by a mother-of-pearl barrette on one side. Fanren wore a fitted turquoise silk gown with a high collar, fashioned like a qipao, which fanned out into a mermaid-style skirt, with layers of foam-like lace, and a high slit up to her thighs her revealing her long legs, clad in lace-up golden sandals.
As they ascended up the hotel's stairway, Fanren gave Sakura a nudge into the grand ballroom. "Now, take off your shawl—I'll leave it with the coat check for you."
"No, I'll keep this," said Sakura, hugging her silver silk shawl embroidered with delicate peonies closer around her.
"Don't be such a ninny," said Fanren, yanking away the shawl, unraveling Sakura as if she were a toilet paper roll, and shoving her through the ballroom doors.
Sakura stifled a squeal as she wobbled on her strappy crystal-studded sandals into a huge ballroom lit with bright golden chandeliers. Elegant men in tuxedos and glamorous women in long evening gowns stood around the ballroom. A waiter held out a tray of champagne toward her. "Glass of champagne?"
Sakura shook her head rapidly. "No thank you!" She spun around. Where was Fanren? She found herself alone in this huge ballroom in a foreign city without a familiar face in sight.
"Don't tell me Tomoyo let you go out dressed liked that," said a bemused male voice from behind her.
Sakura spun around, never happier to see the devilishly handsome former Thief of the Night in a jet black tuxedo, auburn hair slicked back. "Kai-kun! You were invited as well!"
"Not exactly, but my father was, so I tagged along," replied Kai. "Look at all the carats of jewels accumulated in this room. If only I was still in the business—ouch!"
"Don't you dare!" exclaimed Miho, in a cap-sleeved canary yellow ankle-length dress, arms akimbo. Her eyes rounded. "Sakura-senpai, I didn't recognize you! Your dress!"
"Hoe, is it weird?" asked Sakura bashfully. "Fanren-nee-chan chose this gown for me."
"Figured," remarked Kai, trying to veil a smile with his hand as he imagined a certain someone's expression when he saw it.
When Tomoyo, chatting merrily with Feimei, entered the ballroom, instant relief washed over Sakura. "Tomoyo-chan!" she exclaimed, waving excitedly at her best friend.
"Oh Sakura, you look so lovely!" said Tomoyo, holding up her smartphone in video recording mode immediately.
"You do too!" said Sakura. "Did you get a new dress? You really look lovely in it!" Tomoyo was always the most effortlessly beautiful person she knew, next to her mother, but she exuded quite a mature air today. She was wearing a form-fitting deep purple dress, almost black. Only up close did Sakura realize it was a sleeveless purple silk slip under an intricate, sheer black rose lace sleeveless sheath, leaving her arms bare and giving glimpses of her neckline. The skirt tapered out in the bottom and revealed simple black stiletto heels, glittered with black and violet Swarovski crystals, with straps that crisscrossed her slender ankles. Her long violet hair was unbound, and curled at the ends into elegant loose waves, one strand of hair tucked behind her left ear, revealing black pearl drop earrings. Compared to the gaudy dresses and flashy jewelry touted by the women in the ballroom, everything about Tomoyo was understated, but Sakura thought that made her subtle youthful beauty shine even more.
"Is it okay?" asked Tomoyo, glancing down at her slinky slip dress. "I obviously didn't expect we would be attending a banquet of this sort, so Feimei-nee-san took me shopping and took me to her salon to do hair and makeup. If I had known, I would have prepared something for both of us—I mean I have multiple battles costumes prepared in the trunk, just in case, but evening gowns just slipped from my mind!"
"Yeah, this is not something I would have chosen to wear," said Sakura, tugging at the end of her carefully curled bangs.
"Well, you certainly do look different," remarked Miho, which was probably an understatement.
"Sakura looks like a lotus flower in bloom in that green dress," gushed Tomoyo.
"I feel rather like an exposed leek," mumbled Sakura to herself.
Kai was the only one who heard her and nearly guffawed. "Now, where is the birthday boy? Wonder what he will say."
And Sakura's eyes followed Kai's gaze to the center of the banquet hall and glimpsed Syaoran, dashing in a stark black tuxedo, clearly custom-tailored to fit his physique like a glove. He was talking to a dainty doll-like girl with long curly brown hair, wearing a balloon-sleeved short ivory dress and matching ivory lace gloves. She said something to him, and he smiled at the girl that rare smile which reached the corners of his eyes.
Sakura felt a sinking in her stomach, and suddenly, he glanced up, in her direction. His eyes showed brief recognition, before he turned to speak to a young man standing next to the girl in ivory. Flittingly, she recalled that cold look on his eyes back at the Hong Kong harbors one year ago as he glanced her direction and then turned away from her, without looking back once.
"Fanren did a wonderful job with your dress, hair and makeup, I almost didn't recognize you compared to how bedraggled you were this morning, Sakura!" remarked Feimei, in a cobalt blue gown with a sweetheart neckline, and topaz jewelry. Her shoulder-length auburn hair was gathered back into a sleek low ponytail fastened by a silver clasp. "Oh, Tiffany and Tony Tang are back!"
"Who?" asked Sakura.
"That's Tiffany Tang," said Feimei, nodding her head toward the brunette girl. "She's 16 years old, and she's often been mentioned as a potential fiancée candidate for Syaoran."
Tiffany Tang was a pretty girl with an ivory complexion, long glossy brown curls, held up by a huge white bow flecked with little seed pearls, and large hazel eyes. Sakura had never seen Syaoran smile at a girl like that before, so gently.
"She was such a cute little girl, and she's grown into a lovely young lady," remarked Fuutie, in a maroon qipao with heavy beading along the short sleeves and the hems of her long skirt. "And Tony's all grownup too now." She glanced at Sakura. "Wow, Fanren pulled quite a number on you, didn't she? I thought you were one of Fanren's model friends for a second."
Sakura didn't know how to respond, but then a silver-haired man in an ivory tuxedo tapped a knife to his wine glass, and the conversation in the hall died down. He said, "Now, everybody, please take your seat in your assigned tables, and we will begin the birthday banquet of my dear cousin, and the new Great Elder of the Li Clan, Li Syaoran!"
She made a face when she realized it was Li Leiyun. Obviously he would also be in attendance, but Sakura had hoped to avoid him if possible during this trip. The guests flocked to the dozens of round tables at the front of the ballroom, and Sakura was relieved to find she was seated with Tomoyo, Miho and Kai, along with some other people who looked around their age, at a round table far from the main stage. Aunt Sonomi was seated further up in the ballroom with Tanaka Keisuke and his wife Miara, while Syaoran and his sisters were seated with their mother with key Elders of the Li Clan, at the head table. Also at that head table were Tiffany and her brother, Tony. A slightly older man, who bore a strong resemblance to the boy and girl, presumably another one of the Tangs, also sat with them.
Feimei went up to a podium on a small platform set up in front of the ballroom. "Good evening, ladies and gentleman. My name is Li Feimei, and I will be your MC for tonight. Before dinner is served, I will like to introduce our guest performances. We still start off with a sword dance, entitled, 'Wind and Flame,' choreographed by Li Meilin."
There was polite clapping, and six girls, three in red-orange cheongsam, and three in blue cheongsam, filed onto the dais. They faced the front, and bowed. Then, drum rolled on, and then tingling chimes.
Meilin in a flowing vermillion cheongsam, half her long black hair pulled back into a bun at the top of her head, and the rest loose over her shoulders, unsheathed double swords with long red tassels, and her partner trailed behind her, while the two other girls with swords with blue tassels crisscrossed with them, running toward the other end of the stage.
Tomoyo propped her mini-camcorder on the salt shaker to capture Meilin's performance.
A boy their age, who had introduced himself as Yuujin, remarked to his companion, "Meilin's gotten even more beautiful since she came back from Japan, hasn't she? I wonder if she has a boyfriend."
"Isn't she engaged to Syaoran?" said the other young man.
"No, why else would Tiffany Tang be seated at the head table with her brothers at the first major Li public event since Syaoran's ascension as head of the clan? That means something, you know," said Yuujin.
Now, the drums beat faster, and the climax of the dance approached. Though there were six girls on stage, all eyes were only on the lead dancer, for the sharpness of her movements, her grace, and blazing intense ruby eyes were mesmerizing to watch for Kai. Once again, Meilin swerved around, her long black hair swirling around her like black liquid, her flaming eyes catching his. She flung up her swords with a snap of her wrist, did a cartwheel on stage, and caught the swords, earning a gasp from the audience. And finally, the drum beat came to an end, and Meilin snapped her swords back, facing Syaoran with the other girls in red, while the three girls in blue knelt down. The audience clapped enthusiastically, and the six girls bowed and filed off the stage.
Feimei announced, "Next, we have a performance by the Li jazz trio!"
As the stage was rearranged, Syaoran turned to Fanren, seated to his right, and hissed, "Why is Sakura here?"
"What do you mean why is she here? To celebrate your birthday of course," replied Fanren.
"I mean, who invited her? How did she end up at the banquet?" demanded Syaoran. Well, he clearly knew how she had ended up here, his sisters, but he didn't know why.
"We discussed it this morning—oh wait, you left before we decided to invite Sakura," said Fanren. "Besides, Mother approved."
Syaoran glared at his older sister and murmured, "It's a horrible idea, you know it very well. You forced her to come, didn't you?"
"Maybe, but look, she seems to be enjoying herself. And besides, isn't it nice to have a familiar face at your own birthday banquet, instead of people you despise?" asked Fanren. "It's my birthday present to you, darling Little Brother."
The jazz trio started, and Syaoran was forced to pretend to pay attention because Leiyun and his oldest sister Fuutie were performing with another cousin a rather catchy rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon." Leiyun was on the piano, Fuutie on the saxophone, and a cousin whose name escaped Syaoran, was on the bass.
"I never realized Fuutie played the sax," remarked Tyler Tang, the oldest of Stephen's three children and a savvy entrepreneur. "What a charismatic performance."
"It's Leiyun, he brings out the best in others music," murmured Shiefa.
"I never thought I'd hear Leiyun on the piano again," murmured Fanren, hands covering her cheeks. "Just like old days."
Shiefa said across the table, "Uncle Wutai doesn't look so pleased about it though."
But Leiyun, eyes shut, was playing a delicate tune, a jazz rendition of Pachelbel's Canon.
"Father loved this piece," murmured Shiefa.
"Yes, he did," said Syaoran, with a gentle smile.
Sakura glanced over at Syaoran sitting at the head table, recalling how he had a played a striking version of the piece at the Junior High Music Festival, placing first in the violin category. She personally preferred Syaoran's solo rendition of Canon, though Leiyun's trio did a fantastic job livening up the song.
The trio ended with a jazzy "Happy Birthday," and on cue, Feimei held up her champagne glass. "Now, let us raise our glasses and give a toast to the host of tonight's banquet, Li Syaoran, the Great Elder of the Li Clan, and wish him happy birthday." said Feimei. "Are your glasses filled? Then, at the count of three. Three, two, one."
The room raised their glasses and called out, "Happy Birthday!"
Sakura choked back a giggle when she realized how miserable Syaoran was at that moment as he forced a polite half-smile as to not offend all his older relatives, sixth cousins, and business partners of the Li Clan and their spouses and offspring.
Waiters filed into the room, and began serving smoked salmon rosette salad with seared prawns and scallops. Sakura took a glimpse at the printed menu, with a total of seven courses, nearly drooling at the description of a dessert of raspberry chocolate cake with shaved gold sprinkles and handspun sugar flowers. The boy called Yuujin, seated at their table, stared obviously at Sakura, to the point where she dropped her steaming bun and it rolled off her plate and straight off the table. She flushed red as she watched her bun roll over to the next table over, praying nobody stepped on it.
"I swear, I've seen you before," said Yuujin, who seemed about their age. "Those green eyes seem so very familiar." This was not the first time she had heard this remark from someone in Hong Kong. In fact, Wu Zian, the Golden Leopard, had made the same remark on their first encounter in Hong Kong. Sakura suddenly felt chill suddenly recalling what her brother once told her, that if you meet your doppelganger, it meant you were going to die.
A slightly older man, who had introduced himself as Kenny Liu, a law student, leaned over to Tomoyo and said, "So, are you a Daidouji as in Daidouji Toy Company?"
Tomoyo only smiled thinly.
"My grandfather's a former secretary of justice and my father's a lawmaker," said Kenny. "I'll probably run for office after I graduate from law school."
Tomoyo tried to stifle a yawn, almost unsuccessfully, as she cut up her steak into bite-sized pieces. Sakura glanced over at the name card and noted that he must be Kenny Liu, Feimei's current boyfriend. What a feat to be able to bore Tomoyo, who generally treated everyone with the same level of politeness.
It was Meilin who came to the rescue, dropping by and asking, "How is dinner? Fanren hired a Michelin Star restaurateur as head chef. Sorry I couldn't stop by earlier—there's so many people coming up to wish Syaoran happy birthday, and he's so bad with names and faces."
"Meilin, your sword dance was amazing!" exclaimed Sakura. "I've never seen anything like it."
Meilin laughed. "It was nothing—we're all trained in sword-fighting from such an early age."
Sakura noted that Meilin stopped short of actually acknowledging Kai, however, instead greeting Yuujin, a former junior high classmate of hers. Meilin had changed out of her sword dance costume, and was wearing a flowing strapless vermillion organza dress with voluminous ruffled skirt that fanned out behind her. On any other girl, the dress would overwhelm the wearer, but Meilin owned her bold dress. Around her neck, she wore a large heart-cut ruby necklace, with matching ruby stud earrings, while her black hair had been gathered into an elegant chignon on the top of her head, fastened with ruby pins. In many ways, she was playing the role of hostess of the evening, and was very popular amongst the guests especially after her earlier performance.
"Meilin! I didn't know you were back from Japan!" said Yuujin.
"Just for summer vacation," replied Meilin, distracted as Wu Zian in a tuxedo lined on the inside with leopard print, approached her.
Zian managed to escape from his sister, Zilai, and waved his hand. "Meilin! When did you come back to Hong Kong! Why didn't you call?"
"Oh gosh, were you invited too?" asked Meilin.
"You should be more excited to see me. I helped you out last time, remember?" said Zian, currently the No. 2 of the Hong Kong Triads and staunch follower of the Boss, Li Leiyun. He was also the young Head of the Wu Clan, after the early death of his older brother, Wu Zino, who had been Fuutie's boyfriend.
"Yeah, thanks," said Meilin. "You really helped that time."
"What are you two so chummy about?" asked Kai, stepping in between the two, looking more like mafia boss himself with his slicked back hair, stark black tuxedo, and menacing grin.
"You are?" Zian blinked.
"Mizuki Kai! We met in Japan, remember?"
"Oh, didn't recognize you out of your goth gear!"
"Well, you're the usual eyesore even at a black-tie event!" retorted Kai, eying the Gold Leopard in a flashy black satin suit with cheetah-print collars.
"Thank you!" said Zian. "Hope to catch up with you later, Meilin! You still owe me a date!"
"Aren't you going to reject him?" asked Kai stiffly. "We technically haven't broken up. Yet."
Meilin glanced up at him, raising a perfectly arched brow. "Oh, you're still here?"
"How long are you going to stay mad at me this time?" asked Kai. "Isn't it time you forgive me?"
"For what?" asked Meilin, crossing her arms.
"That's exactly the problem—what are you mad at this time?" said Kai.
"That's the problem," said Meilin, swirling around, head high. "I'm busy, I don't have time to talk with you."
"It's not like it's your birthday," muttered Kai.
Meilin retorted, "It's Syaoran's birthday. It's my duty to make sure all the guests are having a good time and also make sure he doesn't run away."
Kai trailed behind her. "I'm an invited guest too, you know. That sword dance you choreographed was amazing—I get why gymnastics was so easy for you—if you're juggling around daggers like that, batons probably were a piece of cake. When did you even have time to prepare such a performance after returning to Hong Kong?"
"I practiced ten hours a day since I came back," replied Meilin tersely. "Unlike, you, I have to work at things till my hands bleed to make it perfect."
"Whatever I did, I'm sorry," said Kai.
"I don't want your empty sympathy," shot back Meilin and spun around, toward the crowd, layers of chiffon skirt that looked crimson in one light and orange in another, swirling after her like a fiery trail.
Sakura winced as Kai's face suddenly became expressionless, as if meditative, something far more chilling than a mere scowl. And then, there was a hush across the banquet floor, and she followed the gaze of the quests to the center of the room.
The three Tang siblings, Tyler, Tony and Tiffany, walked up to Syaoran and presented him with a large wooden box, rumored to contain an ancient Chinese scroll from the Five Dynasties period that had been highly sought after by the Great Elder. Not to be outdone by the Tangs, Wu Zian and Zilai followed along with their present, contained in an ornate garnished chest said to house a bejeweled dagger. Meilin and Feimei stood by Syaoran, receiving the presents, keeping track of who gave what. It was quite a striking image, Syaoran in his black tuxedo striking conversation with Tyler Tang standing to his left and Wu Zian to his right. Their presence drew quite a few stares from the crowds as well, for not only were they exceedingly good-looking young men but the trio emanated a formidable sense of unspoken power felt even those without magic.
"It looks like we're witnessing the beginning of something significant," remarked Mizuki Miara, who was standing next to Sakura. "The convergence of the next new leaders of the three major magic clans of Hong Kong, who will shape the future of these islands and also extend its reach toward Asia and beyond."
Sakura glanced up at Miho's mother, who had stood witness to the last battle against the Plague that had eventually been the downfall of the previous generation. But she had survived it, and lived to carry on their legacy. She had seen it all.
"Miara, come taste these mandarin madeleines," said Keisuke, the ever devoted husband, holding up the delectable bite-sized dessert in one hand for his wife.
Kai interjected, "Father, we've got to present the Great Elder's portrait commissioned by the Li Clan now."
Keisuke groaned, but Miho pushed her father up toward the main dais. The portrait, covered in a scarlet satin cloth, was wheeled out onto the stage by two women in red qipaos.
Feimei announced, "Now, world-renowned artist, Master Shing, will honor us today by unveiling the portrait of the Great Elder."
Tanaka Keisuke, who had cleaned up quite well since his days as the curmudgeon artist Shing, shaving off his bushy beard and trimming his unruly hair, stepped up on the stage and was handed a mike. With a sigh, he said, "I was given the honor of being asked by the Li Clan to paint a portrait of the Great Elder after his inauguration back in April, in time for his birthday celebration. It was a heavy task, which I did not know if I was up for, and I was of course in the middle of a world tour. I initially said it would be impossible to complete it by today. But I thought about it again, and knew I couldn't refuse, because Li Syaoran, the Great Elder, is the son of my dear friend Li Ryuuren. Some of you here might remember Li Ryuuren, but there really was no man quite like him, so honorable, talented, intelligent, driven, and inspiring. Very much like Li Syaoran today. There is no doubt, Li Ryuuren would have been very proud of his son, and it is my greatest honor to stand here in celebration of Li Syaoran's birthday today. Now, without further ado, I present the portrait of the 77th Great Elder to the Li Clan. I wish long health, prosperity, and good tidings to Great Elder Li Syaoran!"
With a magnificent snap of Keisuke's fingers, the red cloth covering the portrait disappeared with a suaveness befitting that of Kaitou Magician. The audience gasped and applauded as the life-size portrait of a young man with brown hair and determined, piercing amber eyes set under dark brows, dressed in the dark green ceremonial robes of the Li Clan, was unveiled to the public for the first time. The portrait was set in a heavy golden frame with intricate carvings of dragons and peonies. Only up close could one note all the fine details of the oil painting, like the gold flecks in the intricate embroidery on the hems and collars of the green ceremonial robes, the dazzling specks of light on the jewels on the Great Elder's ear cuffs, rings and amulets, and the life-like softness in the strands of brown hair.
"As expected from a genius painter," remarked Sonomi with a nod. "Looks like the subject could step straight out of the painting. It's one thing to be able to capture a visual replica, but to be able to paint one's spirit and soul, that is real talent."
Sakura had seen a prototype portrait during the Cinderella play thanks to Kai, and really, it did no justice to the final product. Oddly enough, that sketch had resembled Ryuuren more, but this portrait was entirely Syaoran. The eyes exuded wisdom and insight beneath his years, yet the firm line of his mouth and strong chin portrayed his sternness and strength juxtaposed by youthful determination.
Miho heaved a sigh of relief and said to her mother, "Father had a speech prepared all along. Why does he always make us worry so much?"
Miara chuckled. "He's just shy. But where else did you think your brother gets the gift of the glib from? Certainly not me, I'm a writer, not an orator."
Syaoran looked like he couldn't figure out whether he should be mortified or impressed by his life-sized portrait. He finally stammered to the artist who he first met in New York three years ago, "Thank you very much, Shing-sensei, for this meaningful present. I think you flattered me too much."
"You really didn't cooperate much, ditching all our portrait sitting sessions," remarked Keisuke. "It's lucky that you are a spitting image of your father at that age, and I spent a long time studying his face. Don't get the wrong idea, I found him a very anatomically proportionate and pleasing model. As an artist!"
"Oh Father, you're really not helping the situation," said Kai with a thin smile, recalling the agony of getting his father to finish the portrait in time.
"Isn't the portrait rather flattering," remarked Kenny to Tomoyo, but nearly bit his tongue when the green-eyed girl across the table glared at him with such ferocity.
The portrait was wheeled out again to be hung up in the Li Headquarters' Hall of Great Elders, next to the painting of Li Renshu, his predecessor, locked away from the general public.
"I wonder if we should go up and greet Syaoran now," said Tomoyo, after dessert course was cleared away.
"He looks occupied," said Sakura stiffly.
"True," replied Tomoyo with a little sigh, wishing she could catch a glimpse of Syaoran's expression the exact moment he got a proper look at Sakura in her dress when she stood up from the seat.
"Are you girls enjoying yourselves?" asked Fanren, sweeping up to the younger girls' table after escaping from a flock of scrawny handsome young men who seemed to be in show business.
"Yes, very much so," said Tomoyo.
"Now that the portrait revealing ceremony is over, we're going to do the birthday cake cutting soon," said Fanren. "The older crowd will probably take off afterward, but there will be plenty of wine, music, and dancing to follow!"
"How long did you spend putting together this magnificent banquet?" asked Tomoyo. "The food, flower arrangements, music, everything is amazing!"
"Oh, this is nothing compared to Syaoran's Great Elder Inauguration Ceremony—we had so little time to put that together and had to cut corners," said Fanren. "Of course, I wanted to include an outfit change for this banquet, but Syaoran would have none of that. He looks so good in his traditional ceremonial robes though. I know, I'll show you some pictures later!"
A huge five-tier rectangular birthday cake done up in pale mint frosting and decorated with elaborate pink rose and green icing was wheeled in on a card by the waiters. The light was dimmed and the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to Syaoran, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else besides at the banquet. He blew out the artistic candles that sparkled like fireworks in one puff, quite a feat considering the height of the cake. His eyes scanned over the guests, calculating the number of people that needed to be served, and twirled the silver cake-cutting knife in the air and made ten perfect horizontal and vertical slashes. The enormous cake was cut into equal-sized pieces ready to be served to all the banquet guests, earning an enthusiastic applause from the onlookers.
"Oh Syaoran, you could have just left the cutting to the servers!" exclaimed Feimei.
"It would take even longer," muttered Syaoran darkly under his breath.
"I'm surprised he lasted this long," remarked Fanren, nibbling on the perfectly rectangular lime and elderflower cake that was being served to the guests by the waiters. "Delicious!"
"I didn't realize how grand the birthday banquet would be," said Tomoyo, who had attended a fair share of fancy dinner parties as the heiress to the Daidouji Toy Company. "Really, how do you keep track of this many guests?"
"Divide and conquer, I suppose," replied Fanren. "Fuutie is overseeing the Tang Clan, Shiefa is in charge of overseeing all the pesky Li relatives, while Feimei is in charge of the Wu Clan—since she is childhood friends with the head Wu Zian, though they may not exactly be on speaking terms right now. Dairen is liaising with all the business executives, Jingmei with the doctors and pharmaceutical sector representatives, while Leiyun's sole job is to keep his father, the de facto Head of the Li Clan, in check, and Jinyu, though you don't see him, is in charge of overall security."
"You must be busy, is it okay for you to be showing us around instead of entertaining guests?" asked Sakura.
"I'm doing that just now—I'm in charge of overseeing the fashion sector reps, magazine editors, designers, models and creative directors—and aren't I doing that just now, you being an up and coming designer, and Sakura the future face of Japan's modeling industry?" Fanren grinned. "By the way, have you guys even greeted Syaoran yet? He's flocked by so many people, since he is the guest of honor, and also, the Great Elder makes so few public appearances, it's a rare chance for people to actually see him face to face."
"Renshu! You're getting younger and younger!" said a wizened old man, an Elder who flew in from London, shaking Syaoran's hand heartily. He had apparently missed Li Renshu's funeral and Syaoran's inauguration ceremony since he lived so far away.
"I'm Li Syaoran," said Syaoran patiently. "The 77th Great Elder, at your service."
"Ah, yes, Syaoran!" the Li Clan Europe branch head said, as if recalling who he was. "You used to play the violin for me when you visited London, when were a wee little one."
"That would have been my father, Ryuuren," said Syaoran gently.
Fanren said, "Should I bring him over?" She glanced around and saw that Leiyun was coming to the rescue of Syaoran who was now surrounded by a group of lawmakers eager to make acquaintance with the new figurehead of the Li Clan.
Tomoyo whispered, "We'll greet him a little later, when he isn't so busy."
"Happy birthday, Syaoran," said Leiyun, walking over to his younger cousin, a cue for the others to take leave. "Uncle Ryuuren would be proud to see you today."
"Thank you for the jazz performance earlier," said Syaoran. "I wasn't expecting it."
"I didn't do much. Fuutie arranged it for you because she wanted to lighten up the atmosphere a bit since she knew you dreaded attending this banquet. And I just followed along," said Leiyun.
"I figured," replied Syaoran, scanning the crowd for the girl in the striking emerald dress. There was something unnerving about Fanren and Tomoyo snickering together over by the punch table, and Syaoran belatedly realized that the duo may be a match made in heaven.
"That's quite a scandalous dress that your Card Mistress is wearing, even considering this is Hong Kong," remarked Leiyun.
And Syaoran almost choked on his glass of ice water the moment Sakura sat up from her chair talk to some guests. From the front, she was wearing a demure emerald green halter-neck gown, studded with moonstones encrusted in a byzantine-style collar. But the back then plunged dangerously low, revealing her shoulder blades, and the fabric tapered at the bottom of her spine, with clusters of coral peonies embedded with moonstones and crystals, then spread out in a little train behind her. A moonstone and silver headband encircled her head, tied with a green ribbon at the nape of her slender neck, her golden-brown hair curled slightly at the ends.
She was speaking to one of his older cousins, a film producer. "Aren't you a model? I think I've seen you in magazines," said the cousin, Li Daoming.
Li Dairen, son of Li Daifu, the CEO of Li Corporation, snorted. "Do you think that line works anywhere, Daoming?"
Li Daoming replied, "You use it all the time!"
Sakura squeaked, "Yes, I am a part-time model, but I'm just getting started in the industry."
"See, I told you," remarked Daoming. "I've seen her in Jingmei's Japanese fashion magazines."
Dairen frowned. "You're too short to do high fashion, but I guess in Japan height doesn't matter as much. Anyhow, be careful of people like Daoming."
"As if you have a right to talk," remarked Daoming. "Aren't models right up your alley? What happened to that supermodel you were dating this spring? Who did you bring as your date today? That top model Cindy?"
"Shut up, Daoming, go talk to Tomoyo over there—she's the director of the Nefarious You Know What," said Dairen, rolling his eyes. "Pardon my tactless cousin, don't believe a word he says."
"Are you dating anyone Dairen-san?" asked Sakura, blinking her bright emerald eyes.
"Not at the moment," replied Dairen. "Sorry, you're not really my type, and you're too young."
Sakura frowned. "Am I too young? My father and mother were over eight years apart though."
"It's fine, when the other party is not a high school student. I'm an adult, you know," said Dairen.
"My mother married my father, her teacher, when she was sixteen," declared Sakura.
Dairen coughed. "I see. Well, there are always exceptions, I guess."
"As a matter of fact, I think eight years is a perfect age difference," added Sakura. "Because people mature at different rates. It's most important that your souls resonate."
"I'm sorry, Sakura, I don't think our souls resonate all," Dairen told her solemnly. "Scoundrel as I may be, I make it a rule not to go after married women and relatives' girlfriends."
"Not you and me, silly Dairen-san," said Sakura. She grasped Dairen's hands suddenly. "There is no such thing as a coincidence in this world. There is only the inevitable, said a very wise person I know."
Dairen said, "We Lis are no fans of Clow, and you better let of my hand, or my Great Elder will carve my head with a silver cake knife. It will be a great loss to the Clan, since I'm supposed to be the brains of the family."
Sakura dropped his hands, but tiptoed to whisper in his ear, "As I have said before, she is very literary-inclined."
He whispered back to her, "I have no idea what you are talking about, Card Mistress, but I'm going to flee before the birthday boy throws a tantrum." And Dairen spun off in a hurry, queasy from the wine, a bit uneasy, a bit bemused by the riddle-speaking Card Mistress.
Sakura heaved a little sigh, bracing herself, and turned around knowing who was standing behind her even without looking. She hadn't expected him to come up to her first or approach her at all based on their last public encounter in Hong Kong.
"Aren't you here to celebrate my birthday? Or are you going to ignore me all evening long?" asked Syaoran, stepping up beside her casually, as if he wasn't aware of all the eyes on his every movement.
"I already wished you happy birthday last night," mumbled Sakura. "Besides, weren't you the one ignoring me? You looked busy enough entertaining your very important female guest, and I didn't want to interrupt."
Syaoran blinked. "Who? Oh, are you perhaps talking about Tiffany? She's my friend Tony's younger sister. They were studying abroad in the United States but returned to Hong Kong recently."
"I heard. So I thought the Tang Clan is your mortal enemy and sends out assassins after you guys," remarked Sakura.
"Yes, the main branch of the Tang Clan," he replied in a soft voice. "We don't get along with the current head. The Tang Clan, like the Li Clan, is split into factions, but it's much worse. There are two main factions. Stephen Tang is the younger brother of the Head of the Tang Clan, Simon Tang. He has three children, Tyler, Tony and Tiffany. They spent time abroad because of bad blood with Simon's family, but they've moved back to Hong Kong, mostly because the Li Clan has offered protection. We've always been close to that side of the family—especially Dairen when he spent time in Boston."
"That sounds dangerous, meddling in the feuding of another clan, especially your most powerful rival one," remarked Sakura with a frown.
"What's more dangerous is to let Simon Tang go along unchecked," replied Syaoran. "We've determined he was behind the hacking attempts of Li Corporation's network and probably some assassination attempts as well. And the reason Stephen and his children returned is because Simon's been trying to eliminate their allies within the family as well. Damage control."
"I see," said Sakura quietly. "You've been dealing with all of this, even while you were in Japan."
"Dairen's been managing most of it—he's close with Tyler," replied Syaoran. "Speaking of which, I didn't realize you two were so close to be whispering into each other's ears and holding hands in the middle of the ballroom."
Sakura frowned. "Do you think he wrote to her?"
"Who, Dairen?" asked Syaoran. "Of course not. He has a secretary who writes everything for him."
"I wonder how he would react if he knew," remarked Sakura.
Sakura winked. "I have a little surprise for him."
"Dairen doesn't like surprise—he likes being prepared at all times," murmured Syaoran into her ear. Yelan came over to fetch the much sought-after birthday boy, and Syaoran with a long sigh turned away.
Yelan glanced over at Sakura and said, "You look lovely tonight."
"T-thank you," stammered Sakura, cheeks flushed at the thought of how little fabric the dress had. "And thank you for the invitation to the banquet."
"It was purely selfish, on my part, I'm afraid," said Yelan, more to herself than to Sakura, before heading off to greet the Elders from the United States.
Tomoyo had to smother a giggle into her punch glass when she saw Syaoran's face turn the color of the icing of his birthday cake the moment Sakura turned around and he got a glimpse of the plunging back of her dress. It was not just him, but quite a few male guests who turned to glance at Sakura, with her ephemeral beauty offset by the bold emerald green floor-length gown. Fanren had been clever in choosing that color for Sakura, because despite the wide array of bold-colored dresses worn that day, nobody else had chosen to wear the particular shade of green.
"As I thought, you look good in simple, classic silhouettes," remarked Leiyun.
And with a sinking feeling, Tomoyo came to an abrupt realization. "You chose this dress."
"No, you chose to wear it," replied Leiyun. "I merely suggested to Feimei that it would look good on you."
"I usually wouldn't wear something like this," remarked Tomoyo, feeling the black diamond choker with rows of seed pearls clamp around her neck. They had been "loaned" by Feimei as well.
"Don't look so stricken—it's not like you can strip off that dress in the middle of the ballroom," remarked Leiyun. "And it's not horrible to go out of your comfort zone sometimes. I do love your designs, but you sometimes dress yourself like you are an Edwardian nun."
Tomoyo actually chuckled at this. Leiyun possibly knew more fashion terms than Fanren did. "I was actually going for Sweet Rococo."
"Oh, is that what you call your getup for the Cultural Festival band concert?" asked Leiyun.
"No, that was loaned by the band vocalist who I was standing in for. Miho forced me to wear it." Tomoyo shuddered recollecting the horror of being made to change her outfit into something that Kara Reed may enjoy wearing.
"I rather liked Punk Rock Tomoyo for a change, but I have to admit my sense of taste may have become skewed after hanging around with Kara for so long," said Leiyun thoughtfully.
"Where is Kara-senpai? I don't think I've seen her around," said Tomoyo.
"Back in Japan, of course. What would she do over here?" replied Leiyun. He reached over as if to pick up the heavy sun-shaped amulet that hung from her neck over her chest but retreated with a start the moment his fingers touched the golden metal, as if he had been electrocuted. "What an interesting trinket," he remarked, staring down at his fingers. "Where did you get it?"
Tomoyo for some reason didn't feel like telling Leiyun its true owner, though those with powers likely could sense Clow's traces from a mile away. "It was loaned to me," she said shortly. Kara was in Japan, meaning she must have been assigned to keep guard.
"A weighty and ancient artifact from a powerful being watching over you," remarked Leiyun. "Do you realize that it is a heavily spelled object? I do wonder from what, or whom, you are being protected from."
Tomoyo gazed up into his ice blue eyes. "Perhaps it's simply to ward off a brewing typhoon."
Leiyun smiled thinly. "Or perhaps you may be the typhoon that upsets the calm, Little Songbird."
It took a moment for Dairen to realize that the beautiful girl in a delicate black-violet lace dress that Leiyun was chatting to was Tomoyo, Sakura's shrewd artistically-inclined friend. Dressed up like that, she looked older. Tomoyo was the kind of girl that Dairen avoided at all costs because he sensed in her a similarity to him, someone who could play well-bred and courteous but hid behind a calculated mask. Dairen took a swig of red wine and hurried across the ballroom, deciding it was high time to call it a night. Maybe he could hit up his usual spots in town—he had been stuck working late hours in the office ever since Syaoran returned, it would be okay to take some time off. Perhaps meet a new woman. This time a smart, beautiful woman, since all his cousins seemed to think he dated dumb, shallow celebrities and socialites.
He took out his smartphone and scrolled down his contact list, to call up his usual crew. There was a long list of women's names, some he had dated, some he had met once or twice, some he barely remembered at all. Then, there was one contact saved as "That Girl." The one who never responded to his emails or texts. Had she blocked him? She must know who they were coming from—surely he was the only person with an area code from Hong Kong that she knew.
"Excuse me, if you're just going to stand there, can you please move aside a couple inches?" asked a hushed voice. "You're blocking my field of vision."
Dairen looked up from his phone, at where the voice was coming from, and saw a girl crouched down behind a potted plant. Her brown hair was cut in a plain bob, and she was dressed in a no-nonsense white blouse tucked into a calf-length navy skirt, and practical flat loafers with white ankle socks. Was she staff? Which would be quite rude, for her to tell him, a guest, to move out of the way.
"You're still blocking my view," she repeated with a frown, pushing her glasses up her nose, looking up at him.
"Naoko?" exclaimed Dairen, utterly shocked.
"Shh…" said Yanagisawa Naoko, pressing her finger to her lips. "I'm trying to listen."
Crouching beside her, Dairen whispered, "Why are we eavesdropping?"
"I'm not eavesdropping, I'm information collecting," said Naoko with a deeper frown now because she had been distracted from her target. She was jotting down something on a notepad.
"Who are you spying on?" asked Dairen, glancing over at a crowd of people mingling.
"Tyler Tang, age 27, graduate of Harvard Business School, oldest of three, single, doesn't eat red meat, prefers white wine, doesn't like sweets but likes dark chocolate, and plays tennis."
"How do you know he plays tennis?" asked Dairen.
Naoko replied, "You can see his forehead is lighter than the rest of his skin—the shape of a tennis headband."
"What are you—a detective now? Or are you interested in him? I can introduce you," remarked Dairen.
"Really, you can introduce me to him?" asked Naoko, looking up at him for the first time, brown eyes sparkling.
Dairen stared down at the girl with short pin-straight brown hair that framed a pretty, willful face somewhat obscured by her large, round spectacles. Someone like her wouldn't catch his attention in a crowd. Yet, just a moment of conversation with her left him chuckling, grappling to keep up with her pace, even flustered.
"Yeah, he was my senior at Harvard, and we were tennis buddies as well," replied Dairen, slightly peeved that Naoko seemed so enthralled by Tyler. "But first, why don't you enlighten me as to what you are doing in Hong Kong, at Syaoran's birthday banquet, not as a guest but as a spy?"
"I'm on summer vacation."
"I know—my cousins go to your school too," replied Dairen dryly. "You should have contacted me if you were coming to Hong Kong."
"It was an unexpected trip, and I'm here for work," said Naoko.
Dairen raised a beetling black brow. "Work?"
"I'm interning at Daidouji Toy Company for the summer," said Naoko. "Specifically I'm working as President Daidouji Sonomi's assistant—but she had a business trip in Hong Kong, so here I am."
"That's an impressive summer internship for a high schooler," remarked Dairen. "Connections work there as much as here I guess."
"I was hired on my own merit," declared Naoko. "I applied through the company's summer internship recruitment program—and my toy idea won first prize."
"I'm not surprised it did. So, you are interning at Daidouji Toy Company, and the president brought along on an overseas business trip?" asked Dairen. "Mighty skilled intern you are."
"President Daidouji was impressed with my handling of the Gotherella play—and since this trip also overlaps with Sakura's first overseas fashion show, she figured there's less explaining to do because I'm already friends with Tomoyo and Sakura."
"In other words, you are here to manage a crisis just in case something goes wrong," muttered Dairen. "A regular assistant wouldn't be able to do that. So, are you actually interested in business?"
"I'm not sure yet," said Naoko. "But I think I'm good at managing things. President Daidouji is fantastic—I've learned an awful lot from her, she's completely my role model. Oh no, Tyler's walking away."
"So tailing Tyler, I assume, is a part of your job?" asked Dairen.
"Yes, he's a potential investor," replied Naoko. "And business is all about having more information than the other person. Daidouji Toy Company is planning to expand to the Hong Kong and Chinese markets. Can you really introduce me to Tyler then?"
Dairen was floored that a high school girl had the guts to lecture him on business strategy, but curiosity got the better of him and he replied, "If you tell me why you never responded to my texts or emails."
Naoko blinked. "I did reply to your first email."
"You sent me one line," said Dairen.
"You asked me how I was doing. I told you I was doing fine," replied Naoko, baffled.
"I didn't want to know whether you were fine—I know you would be doing fine!" retorted Dairen.
"Well then, ask better questions," declared Naoko, matter of fact.
Dairen had to take a deep breath to keep from exploding at this impertinent girl in the middle of his cousin's birthday feast. "I guess my question of how you are spending your summer vacation is answered. The other part, do you ever plan on coming to Hong Kong, is also answered. So, now you are here, I think it is my duty to show you around, as I initially offered, to repay your courtesy during my visit to Japan. How long are you staying?"
"Sorry, I don't have time to play," replied Naoko. "Thanks for the offer though."
Dairen did explode this time. "Do you know how busy I am, running a company, and how many people are dying to have five minutes of my day?"
"I know, so I totally agree, you should spend it with someone who would appreciate your precious time and expertise," replied Naoko. "Now, if you would excuse me, you're distracting me from my target. If you didn't plan on introducing me in the first place, why even suggest it?"
Dairen had never in his life been told he was a distraction and was furious by now. Over this odd Japanese high school girl! "Just follow me," he said, taking a breath in. "Tyler is a bit overbearing, but he's not a bad sort. He's hasn't returned to Hong Kong in seven years, and he's probably more comfortable speaking in English."
A man with brown black hair parted to the side, wearing a navy suit, waved at Dairen. "Dairen, there you are! Have you been avoiding me all evening long?" He took a curious glance at Naoko. "Are you going to introduce me to your lady companion?"
Dairen said, "Naoko, this is Tyler Tang, a VP at Tang Corporation. Tyler, this is Naoko Yanagisawa, Daidouji Toy Company President Sonomi Daidouji's personal assistant."
"Oh, I have a meeting with President Daidouji next week!" exclaimed Tyler. "But tell me, how are the two of you acquainted?"
"I am classmates with Li Syaoran, Vice President Li Dairen's cousin," replied Naoko in impeccable English. "And I had the pleasure of meeting him when he was on a business trip to Japan."
"Interesting, I never knew his tastes geared so—young," remarked Tyler, more to himself. "May I get you a glass of champagne, Ms. Yanagisawa?"
"Yes," said Naoko, eyes widening. She'd never had champagne before.
"No," interjected Dairen, handing her a glass of sparkling apple juice instead.
Naoko sipped on the glass glumly, before remembering her motive. "I read your poetry collection when it was first published, Mr. Tang. It was truly inspirational!"
"Not many people know about it," said Tyler sheepishly. "Nobody reads poetry nowadays."
"I really enjoyed 'Ruminations by Walden Pond, Mr. Tang,'" said Naoko. "I've never visited the United States, but I would like to go to see Walden Pond someday—the way you describe it touched my soul, as if your words transported me straight to a place I have never been."
Tyler flushed and said, "Ah, you flatter me too much. Do call me Tyler, and if you will be coming along to the meeting with President Daidouji, I can have a signed copy for you."
"I would be honored!" exclaimed Naoko.
A man in glasses who looked like a younger, nerdier version of Tyler came to fetch his older brother.
Dairen drawled, "Congratulations, Naoko, for thoroughly doing your research on Tyler. Very few people know he was a literature major in undergrad. Nice work of flattery, you've completely won him over."
"That wasn't flattery. I loved Tyler Tang's poetry collection ever since I did a book report on it—I was amazed to learn that it was written by a college student, and an Asian student whose first language wasn't even English," replied Naoko.
"So that was why you were so interested in Tyler," remarked Dairen. "I didn't realize you were so fluent in English."
Naoko shrugged. "I've always been quick to pick up languages. And I had an Australian pen pal in elementary school."
"Yeah," said Naoko, jotting down further notes on her notepad page titled Tyler Tang. "Interested in Syaoran's sister Li Fuutie—she's the one with short hair in a blue dress, right? And doesn't get along with his uncle's side of the family."
Dairen stared at her notes, wondering if she had a similar page for him. "How did you pick all that up? You don't moonlight as a private eye or something?"
Naoko's gaze followed Tyler's movement, and sure enough, he was speaking to Fuutie. "His eyes did not leave Fuutie for a second when she was playing the saxophone, and even while he was talking to us, he was searching for someone—and walked straight to her as soon as our conversation ended. He doesn't get along with his uncle's side of the family, because he and his siblings were seated at Syaoran's table, while the rest of the Tang family was seated on the opposite side of the hall—I checked the seating chart. Usually, in assigned seat in banquets like this, members of the same family would be seated together, unless they don't get along."
"Impressive," remarked Dairen. "Maybe I should hire you as my personal assistant—and we might be able to track down the corporate spy." He held out a hand. "Well, I've formally introduced you to Tyler, so set down your notepad and enjoy the rest of the evening. Come, let's dance."
Naoko shook her head.
"You're rejecting me a second time?" Dairen asked incredulously. "Will you at least tell me why?" Perhaps she was shy about not being dressed in an evening gown like the rest of the ladies at the banquet. That could be remedied quickly though.
Naoko replied solemnly, "Because your model ex-girlfriend will likely throw a fit if you do dance with me and cause a scene, and you don't want to deal with the complications, especially at this apparently important occasion."
"Ex-girlfriend?" Dairen followed Naoko's gaze and saw a tall willowy woman in a formfitting sequined pink gown—a popular model currently the face of a major fashion house, who had been his main partner to social functions until several weeks ago. "How did you figure that out?"
"She's been sending you poisonous glares for the past half-hour," replied Naoko. "And she's your type."
"What makes you think she's my type?" asked Dairen with a frown.
"Based on the looks of your other ex-girlfriend?" replied Naoko, pointing behind him.
Dairen dared to peek around and saw another flashy femme fatale in a tight sleeveless navy gown, a college socialite, staring at him murderously over a glass of red wine.
"I bought her that diamond necklace—we ended things amicably," muttered Dairen.
"In your head, maybe," replied Naoko astutely. "You initiated, you carried things out at your pace, and you probably ended things on your own terms. It'll come to bite you one day."
"It already has," muttered Dairen.
"So, what's the big deal with Syaoran—why are people fawning over him like he's some big shot? Is he like the son of the Li Corporation's CEO or something?" whispered Naoko.
"No, actually, the son of the CEO would technically be me," remarked Dairen, glancing over at his father, Li Daifu, flanked by sycophants and businessmen vying for his attention. "Syaoran's just the Great Elder of the Li Clan."
"Great Elder?" Naoko snorted. "He doesn't look that old to me? Or wait—is he an immortal vampire, after all, that doesn't age?"
"You are persistent, aren't you?" asked Dairen bemusedly as the girl turned sparkly-eyed behind her spectacles.
Naoko clapped her hands together. "I get it! Is today actually some sort of Walpurgis Night—oh, are we all going to be human sacrifices for the Li Vampire Clan?"
Dairen groaned. "Yes, the bloodbath is going to happen at midnight—of course not! We're just a plain, old, boring, maybe not so boring, magical clan."
Naoko stared hard at Dairen. "I wouldn't mind becoming a human sacrifice."
Did this bizarre girl know what she was talking about? And why was she drawing him into her pace. "Why? For research purposes?"
Naoko gave a nod of her head. "Obviously. Besides, I don't think you would drink all my blood and kill me—you'd probably leave enough blood in me to keep me alive so that I would continue being a good food source for you. Since you know I'm tightlipped and can keep a secret. That is, if you were a vampire. Which you are not."
"What makes you so sure I'm not one of them?" asked Dairen.
"Oh, so you're admitting you are one?"
Naoko fished out her golden cross necklace from her blouse collar and held it up at Dairen. "See, you're fine with this! Of course you'll point out that your kind is actually not weak to things like this. It's okay. I like mysteries and secrets even more. Now, if you will excuse me. I would like to give my greetings to my classmate, since I am here, and he seems to have finished greeting important guests."
"Wait!" But as Dairen was about chase after her, he was ambushed by both model and socialite.
"You never called back after you returned from Japan!" exclaimed the supermodel.
"Did you block my number?" demanded the socialite daughter of a heavyweight politician.
As shrill voices called him all sorts of names synonymous to various vermin, his eyes were fixed on the brash Japanese girl who strode across the ballroom, through the crowds of elegant men and women, ignoring them, as if she were the queen of the night herself. Had she dared to jilt him again, in front of this many people?
"So, what did Syaoran say about the dress?" asked Tomoyo, the first moment she could lead Sakura to a quiet corner of the bustling banquet hall, which had been transformed into a dance floor.
Sakura blinked. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" Tomoyo was not fazed. "How did the birthday surprise last night go?"
"I think Syaoran was surprised," replied Sakura. "He definitely wasn't expecting me. I don't think he liked the Super Duper Wish Coupons. I knew I should have laminated it."
"I don't think lamination was the issue." Tomoyo blinked her large amethyst eyes at her best friend. "So…"
"Aren't you giving me any details about what happened last night?"
"Nothing remarkable happened!" exclaimed Sakura. "Well, Syaoran's sisters locked us up in his room together."
"So you spent the whole night in his room?" Tomoyo asked, though she clearly had heard some details from Feimei already.
"What does that mean?" asked Tomoyo.
"I mean, yes. But he slept on the floor, and I slept on his bed," replied Sakura. Well, they actually hadn't done much sleeping. They talked a lot, catching up on how they had spent their summer break so far, sitting side by side on the floor, gazing out the balcony window at the magnificent view of the moonlit garden. She had first learned to appreciate what a good listener he was that night at the beach on the elementary school summer trip. If it wasn't by chance that he had been out there alone by the seaside, she may never have come to realize that she enjoyed his company. Until then, she had been somewhat intimidated by him. What was it about him that made her feel like she could say the most absurd, selfish things, and he would simply take it in? The thing was, till this day, there was nobody she could talk to heart-to-heart quite like that through the night about her deepest anxieties to simple light chattering.
"So, you guys didn't clear up your misunderstanding from whatever happened that night you guys met up at King Penguin Park?" asked Tomoyo. While Sakura hadn't filled her in on the details of what had transpired that night, she had pretty pieced together what might have happened.
"No!" exclaimed Sakura, cheeks flushed. And yet, in the course of the year, there were still topics that the two simply couldn't broach.
"What does that mean?"
"Well, Kai-kun did handcuff you together once, and nothing happened." Tomoyo mumbled under her breath, "After all the encouragement I gave Syaoran." She was instantly distracted by a pair of garish women gossiping loudly about Syaoran.
"Who was that girl talking to the Great Elder earlier—how dare she have the audacity to wear that shade of emerald green. Everybody knows that green is the Li Clan's crest color," said one young woman, seated in the Li branch section, rather loudly, to her companion.
"Isn't that the Clow Card Mistress?" replied the other woman, apparently also a Li.
"I thought I recognized her from somewhere. Who invited her?" the first woman asked. "Surely not the Great Elder."
"I think she's Fanren's guest," said her friend.
"She's not as pretty as the other cousins made out. I thought she's supposed to be some model. Why, I believe you're prettier than her!" said the Li cousin.
"Now, if it's Tiffany Tang, it's another story. What a sweet, proper, pretty young lady she is. Just suitable for the Li Clan Chosen One," replied the friend.
Sakura, beet red, turned around and tried to blend in with the punch table. Yes, Tiffany was just that. Dainty, ladylike, and just the kind of girl she imagined the Li Clan would want to pair with Syaoran.
"Oh, look, Syaoran is dancing the opening dance with Tiffany! They do make a lovely pair," said the Li cousin. "I wouldn't mind someone like her joining the Li Clan. And she comes from the powerful Tang Clan, with a lineage as old as the Lis."
And Sakura looked up with dread at a sight before that she had never wanted to see. Syaoran, handsome in a black tuxedo, dancing with the girl with the long brown curls in an ivory dress, like they belonged together.
"Don't worry too much about the dance," said Tomoyo in a small voice. "Feimei told that Syaoran is obligated to dance with her out of courtesy to her brother, Tyler. Since they are old family friends and did come all the way from the United States and were seated at the head table."
"I'm not worrying," said Sakura.
Tomoyo patted her friend's back sympathetically. "He was likely forced to, so don't mind it."
Meilin scowled. "It's not fair—he always refused to dance with me when we were kids. Not really sure what's so special about Tiffany. Well, except her family. And she's really cute too. I wish she's mean, but she's super sweet as well. I knew she had a crush on Syaoran when we were kids, but she was so nice, trying so hard to keep it a secret since she knew I called him my fiancé, I couldn't even tell her off."
"The dance is over, and Syaoran looks relieved by the speed in which he is turning Tiffany over to her older brother," remarked Tomoyo.
"Ugh, I need to go fend off all those desperate girls trying to get a dance with Syaoran. Who do they think they are—even I never got to dance with him when I was his official fiancée!" Meilin stormed off toward the crowd.
Sakura glanced over, and all she noticed was that Syaoran was smiling cordially at the younger girl and shaking hands with Tyler Tang. If there was anybody more annoyed with the Tangs, however, it might be Kai, for the middle brother, Tony, had been gawking at Meilin all evening long. "So, why has Meilin been ignoring Kai all evening long?"
Tomoyo's gaze followed the charming Mizuki Kai, auburn hair more tousled than earlier, who was exuding all his usual charms to the flock of beautiful ladies who vied for his attention. Except the one who he really sought attention from was having none of it.
"Onii-chan better watch out, because Meilin is quite the belle of the ball," remarked Miho shrewdly. Keisuke and Miara had already taken off, calling it a night after the portrait unveiling ceremony.
A brown-haired young man in glasses walked up to Meilin. "Meilin, it is you! Do you remember me?"
"Tony, right?" said Meilin. "It's been years."
"I know—we only came back from the United States last month, and we've been settling in," stammered Tony Tang, in a prim navy suit. "Your sword dance was amazing. Did you really choreograph it yourself? It seemed to be telling a story. You were always so athletic, I remember, ever since elementary school."
"And you, is your health better now?" asked Meilin, recalling that Tony had been a frail kid.
"Yes, I've recovered completely, and even joined the tennis team while I was in the States," said Tony. "And you, I heard you are studying in Japan. In Tokyo?"
"No, in Tomoeda," replied Meilin.
Tony blinked at her blankly. "I'm not quite sure where that is. But you do plan on returning to Hong Kong for college?"
Meilin said, "I heard you enrolled at Hong Kong University. Congratulations."
"Thanks," said Tony, slightly flushed. "It's really good to be back home." The boy trailed off and peeked up at the glowering taller young man in a black tuxedo. "Excuse me, Meilin, do you know that gentleman? He's been glowering at us for some time now."
Meilin glanced up at Kai staring at them sourly from the corner. "Not really. I think he's Syaoran's acquaintance."
"I see. It was so gracious of Syaoran to invite us to his birthday celebration. And how amazing is it for him to become the Great Elder at such a young age. He was always outstanding in academics and sports, I do recall, so it is not a surprise thought. Tiffany was so excited to come here, she changed her outfit three times today. Oh, she'll get made if she learns I told you that. And Meilin, you look quite b-beautiful too." Tony peeked at Meilin again then blushed.
"Oh god, save me the agony of this budding courtship," muttered Kai rather loudly. "I always wondered who this Tony Tang was. What in the world was Fuutie thinking?"
Tony again stared up at Kai glowering behind him in alarm. "Are you talking to us?"
"No, I'm just a passing pickpocket," muttered Kai in Japanese, loosening his bowtie and mussing his carefully slicked hair.
"What a rude guest!" remarked Tony. He then turned to Meilin, cheeks flushed, and stammered, "Meilin, will you do me the pleasure of granting me this dance?" He extended out a shaking hand.
Meilin glanced over her shoulder and found Kai flanked by a group of pretty Li cousins. "Sure, why not," she replied, taking Tony's hand and marching out to the dance floor, practically dragging the boy along with her.
Syaoran watched Meilin in a vibrant crimson dress, swirl around the ballroom in the arms of Tony Tang. "That's an unexpected pair," he remarked, walking up next to Kai. "Meilin never took another glance at him back in the days."
"She's tormenting me on purpose, isn't she?" Kai asked glumly.
"Probably?" replied Syaoran. "But I think Tony's serious. He was completely smitten with Meilin the moment he saw her in the sword dance and kept asking me about her."
"He was asking your permission to court her or something?" Kai said with a rude snort. "Did you grant it?"
"I don't know, should I?" replied Syaoran. "According to her, she's broken up with you. And an alliance with the Tang Clan would be advantageous to us."
Kai kicked Syaoran in the shins, and he immediately saw several guards posted at the doors lunge forward until their Great Elder waved his hand signaling it was okay. "So why is Meilin so royally pissed off at me this time?"
"How should I know?" asked Syaoran. "You should ask Tomoyo."
"I did already," replied Kai. "She told me that Meilin needs time left alone to think things out. Think about what?"
"Didn't you score top in the exams last semester, you figure it out," said Syaoran. "By the way, Zian's been asking about Meilin too. I thought he was joking around at first, but he's been pretty persistent—I don't really mind a stronger alliance with the Wu Clan either, especially now we know about Zino, and Zian's part helping out with Fuutie last time."
"He's mafia!" exclaimed Kai.
"You're a thief," replied Syaoran. "Besides, what's most important is Meilin's heart."
"Well then, it's you! It's always been you and always will be!" snapped Kai, before storming out toward the terrace, barely dodging one of Syaoran's gawking sisters.
Shiefa remarked, "Oh, another lovers' spat?"
Tomoyo replayed the new footage on her smartphone for Fanren, showing Kai gazing intensely into Syaoran's eyes and telling him, "It's you! It's always been you and always will be!"
"How romantic!" squealed Fanren, clasping her hands together. "So the confession scene will happen in The Forbidden Trials of Small Wolf and the Nefarious Thief of the Night, Volume 3? Was Kai shocked that Syaoran has another male friend besides himself?"
"Tony was always polite and nice—it's just Syaoran was a lone wolf who always ignored everyone around him when he was little. And Tiffany used to be such a lanky little thing, she's grown up beautifully," remarked Fuutie. "Oh gosh, Tyler's coming this way again. Let's head to the cocktail table."
"Who was that hot guy in the black tuxedo that Meilin was talking to earlier?" asked Feimei.
Fuutie said bemusedly, "I thought you said you've seen him before. That's her boyfriend, Mizuki Kai."
"No way!" said Feimei. "Mizuki Kai is this delinquent with porcupine hair, who wears a black leather motorcycle jacket and always wears sunglasses, even indoors, with all these piercings in his ears."
"Yeah, so we thought," said Shiefa glumly. "And then, he turned out to be this really radiant, courteous prince-like creature who is at the top of his grade."
"Who are you talking about, you mean Kai?" asked Fanren. "He's very hot. I'm almost tempted to switch over to him myself. But I wouldn't dream of coming between him and our Syaoran. Right, Tomoyo?"
Tomoyo replied, "It's very sweet of Kai to come all the way to Hong Kong for Syaoran's birthday."
"No way, that's why he came here?" asked Feimei. "How devoted of him." She was distracted as she spotted that Zian had cut in and was now dancing with Meilin. The two did make a flashy pair, with Zian and his leopard print suit and Meilin with her floating crimson chiffon dress.
"I still prefer Tony for Meilin," said Fuutie, who glanced over to the wine table. "By the way, why is Cousin Dairen fuming over there by himself, ignoring all our business partners and all the women as well?
"Oh dear, maybe he was too shocked," murmured Sakura with a frown.
"Look, Syaoran's coming over finally," said Tomoyo.
All her friends quietly dispersed, to give the pair a moment alone together.
Sakura at that moment didn't know if she could face Syaoran, but her friends, traitors, had disappeared. Once glance at him, and she could tell his fuse was about to blow.
"What are you doing there, standing by yourself?" asked Syaoran, joining her next to the wine table. "I'm sorry you had to spend your evening such a boring way—and you have only the weekend free to enjoy yourself in Hong Kong."
"It wasn't boring at all," said Sakura. "Though apparently you didn't want me around, since you did leave this morning without a word."
"It's not like I didn't invite you on purpose. I simply thought this environment would make you uncomfortable. Me suffering alone is enough. Also, I left a note for you," said Syaoran. "I left it with Fanren. Didn't you get it?" And he groaned. "I never learn do I?" He spun around and called out to Fanren, who was talking with a beautiful platinum-haired male. "What did you do with the note I left you?"
Fanren tilted her head and pretended to think. She fumbled inside her bejeweled evening clutch and extracted a folded piece of paper. "Oh, you mean this note? Oops."
Fanren tossed the note to Sakura. "Sorry, my bad!" She then walked off with her boyfriend to the dance floor.
Sakura read the short message: "Sakura, sorry I had to leave earlier without a word. I had a meeting and didn't want to interrupt your breakfast. I asked for the chauffeur to take you back to the hotel. I'll give a call later in the evening if you are at the Shangri-La Hotel. Just a note, do stay away from the ballroom floor if you can tonight. Thanks for the birthday surprise. – Li Syaoran."
She almost smiled at the short note written on beautiful cream stationary with the Li Clan emblem.
"Come, Sakura, let's leave this boring party," said Syaoran, holding out a hand.
"You can't leave!" exclaimed Sakura. "It's your own birthday celebration!"
"Then use the Mirror Card to take my place," said Syaoran.
"I can't do that—it's not right," said Sakura. "You're the guest of honor and everyone came here today to see you!"
Syaoran stared at her blatantly. "When have I ever asked you to use the Sakura Cards on me for a selfish reason before? And since it's my birthday, don't I get to do as I wish?"
"Because it's your birthday, you have to stay!" exclaimed Sakura. "Besides, don't you have to dance and entertain the guests?"
Syaoran blinked down at her. "Do you want me to?"
"No!" Sakura's hands flew to her mouth. "I mean, you should do what you want to do because it's your party."
"Well, I'll use one of those Sakura Wish Coupons you gave me earlier," said Syaoran. "My first wish is that I want to leave this party this very moment, and you create a replica of me so that I can do so."
"I really don't think this is a good idea," said Sakura. "This is really not what I had in mind when I gave you the coupons. But if you say it's your wish." They hid in the coat room and Sakura released the Mirror Card. "Take on the form of Li Syaoran," she instructed the Mirror.
The Mirror contorted and two Syaorans in a tuxedo stood in front of Sakura. The Mirror Syaoran scowled fiercely back at her.
"Hoe. Mirror-san, I think you're overdoing it. It's Syaoran's birthday, so he has to appear cordial," said Sakura. And Mirror Syaoran smiled at Sakura with a princely charm, nearly bedazzling her. Gulping, Sakura whispered to the Mirror Card, "Too much. We don't want half the female population in Hong Kong falling for him."
"I can't even tell the difference," remarked Syaoran, inspecting the Mirror's version of himself. "I'm sure you'll do a much better job being civil to all the annoying guests than I would anyway. I owe you, Mirror."
The Mirror Syaoran grinned at the two and said, "Leave things to me! If I can handle Touya-nii-chan, I can handle all your sisters as well!"
"Please don't say 'Touya-nii-chan with my face," said Syaoran, grimacing. "And about my sisters, I'd do my best to stay away from them if possible—they're really sharp. Above all, avoid Leiyun and my mother at all costs."
Mirror Syaoran gave them a thumbs up and headed back into the banquet hall, as if excited to prowl about in a new city, new setting.
"You're really close to the Mirror, aren't you?" remarked Syaoran.
"Yeah, she's always been rather a spokesperson for all the Cards when they have something to say to me—not all the Sakura Cards have the ability to verbally communicate, but the Mirror always conveys their thoughts when needed to me," said Sakura. "And also, she was the first Clow Card that I think willingly was sealed. It's also the first time I realized that the Clow Cards have feelings and emotions as well."
"She felt bad about hurting your brother, I remember," said Syaoran.
"You helped me find onii-chan in the woods then," Sakura reminisced. "I realized again that day how kind you were."
Syaoran raised a brow. "Kind? Me?"
"Yes, when you were careful not to hurt Rika-chan when she was controlled by the Sword, when you encouraged my when everybody disappeared because of the Erase Card in the cave, when you helped me find onii-chan lured over the cliff by the Mirror, you proclaimed to be my rival, but you showed me such kindness," said Sakura. "I wonder when it was that I came to rely on you so much and count on you."
With a sigh, Syaoran said, "For all you know, it could have been a ploy to get you to trust me and let down your guard so that I could steal the Clow Cards from you."
"True," said Sakura. "But you didn't. At least, not then. Rather, even when the Clow Cards were all collected and Yue's Final Judgment passed, you stayed on in Japan because you were worried about what we later learned was Eriol's interference. If that's not kindness, I don't know what it is."
He blinked at her. "That's not kindness, Sakura."
"Then what is it?" asked Sakura.
Syaoran suddenly leaned over to her and murmured in her ear, "I wonder what it is."
She flushed slightly, as he walked ahead. "By the way, Syaoran, where are we going?" asked Sakura, as she had been blindly following behind Syaoran through corridors and through the hotel kitchen, emerged through a back exit of the hotel into a dark alley.
The two caught their breath for a moment, before he held out his hand. "Anywhere."
She took his hand and followed his lead, as they ran into the bustling, brightly lit Hong Kong streets. Holding tightly onto his hand, with good reason to because pedestrians were shoving right and left, Sakura glanced up at Syaoran, determinedly crossing the street to get them as far from the hotel as possible. Just a month ago, they had prowled the streets of Tokyo together till the wee hours of dawn, and they were in a whole new city with a different landscape.
A moment ago, Sakura had been anxious at the thought of being caught or recognized. But sometimes, the best place to hide was in a crowd, and they were merely just two passersby blending into the hundreds and thousands of other locals and travelers enjoying a weekend night out.
Tomoyo smiled as she saw Sakura and Syaoran take off through the back door, unnoticed except by someone always watching keenly over them such as herself. Lost in her musings, she took a wrong turn after leaving the powder room and found herself in an isolated hallway when she spotted two people she would rather avoid and ducked behind a pillar.
"Father, you can hold off on the wine," remarked Leiyun, taking the glass from Li Wutai. "The party's over."
"Don't tell me what to do, just because you are favored at the moment," said Wutai. "So, you picked up on your music again."
Leiyun replied, "No, music is the one thing that never left."
"One would think you'd have better things to do than tinkle on the piano for your little cousin's birthday banquet like some low-class performer," said Wutai snidely. "Don't you have any sense of dignity?"
"One would think I should, but I guess I don't," said Leiyun.
"Always impertinent. Just like him."
"Who, Uncle Ryuuren?" asked Leiyun with a thin smile. "Were he alive, he would have been very proud to see Syaoran today. Too bad he had to be sent on that deadly mission."
"He chose to go himself," said Wutai.
"I chose to go too," murmured Leiyun. "Too bad I returned."
"What nonsense are you spouting?"
"Thank goodness Syaoran's turned out to be such a benevolent Great Elder," remarked Leiyun. "Were it me, I would have purged all the rottenness from the Clan in one swipe."
Wutai raised his hand and slapped Leiyun across his face, and Tomoyo winced.
"Are you threatening me?" demanded Wutai, eyes narrowed.
"Of course not," replied Leiyun in mock surprise, not even flinching. "Why would you think so? Or do you consider yourself rotten, Father? How introspective."
"Who had a son like you?" said Wutai. "It is a pity you did return. Everything just went downhill ever since you did. You've always been a harbinger of bad luck."
Leiyun gazed at the older man in black robes with cool silvery-blue eyes. "There is no such thing as luck or coincidence, only the inevitable. Did you not teach me that yourself, Father?"
Tomoyo though Wutai's dark eyes had a murderous glint for a split second but he instead remarked, "I'm not sure what's in the water in Japan, but first Syaoran, and now you with your insolence. I don't know what's gotten into both of you, having no respect for the Council of Elders, and talking back like you do."
"Now, let us not create a scene on such an important occasion," said Leiyun. "And speaking of the Elder Council, doesn't Syaoran look every part the Great Elder, even though he is so young? A worthy successor to Great Elder Renshu, I say."
Turning around, Wutai said, "I've forgotten—you've always been this way, ever since before you were sent away. Well, I'm going home. Please send my deepest congratulation to Great Elder Syaoran again." And his secretary trailed after the Head of the Li Clan as he exited the hotel.
Leiyun smiled whimsically before remarking without turning around, "It's not polite to eavesdrop, Tomoyo."
Tomoyo took a sharp breath, realizing ducking behind the potted plant was not going to work. Usually she was more discreet, but there were only so many places to hide in a narrow hallway.
"Don't look so shocked. That was actually one of the more civil conversations between my father and me." Leiyun glanced at her, his long pale lashes downcast.
"Why do you provoke him on purpose?" she asked him.
"Do you see it as me provoking him?"
"You're provoking each other."
"Ah, classic shadow complex. I thought I wasn't like him, but perhaps I've turned more similar to him than I thought. Well, the rotten apple doesn't fall far from the tree," said Leiyun. "In case you were wondering, I am his son. By blood."
"You do not like your father?"
"You saw for yourself. He's not a very likeable person," said Leiyun.
Tomoyo gazed up at Leiyun's icy turquoise eyes that gleamed in the dim lighting of the hallway. "Does it hurt?"
"Your cheek. Where he hit you."
Leiyun blinked at her. "Did he? Didn't really notice it. He doesn't pack much punch, does he?" He touched his slightly smarting red cheek, noticeable only because his skin was so pale. "Hey, was it my imagination or did I see a girl that looks remarkably like Yanagisawa Naoko lurking around the ballroom earlier?"
"Oh, that was Naoko alright," said Tomoyo. "She's my mother's intern."
Whistling lowly, Leiyun said, "I hope this wasn't your ploy again. Someone's in for a sore surprise."
"Or a pleasant treat. I will send for some ice. It will keep your cheek from swelling before you return to the banquet hall," said Tomoyo.
"It's all right, I was about to call it a night, anyway," said Leiyun. "Nobody will notice one less Li in this menagerie of Lis, and Syaoran's made his escape as well."
"There you are Tomoyo, what are you doing in this dark corridor? That banquet seems to be wrapping up," said Sonomi in a smart red blazer paired with an ankle-length pencil skirt said. Her eyes flickered over to the man with silvery hair in a white tuxedo. "Aren't you Tomoyo's music teacher at Seijou High School?"
"Substitute teacher," replied Leiyun.
"You look a lot like a man that I didn't like much back from my school days," remarked Sonomi abruptly.
"Thank you, it's an honor," replied Leiyun with a smile, suddenly looking quite boyish. "Then, if you would excuse me, President Daidouji, Tomoyo. I must go back to my duties." And he walked off, giving a little nod to Tomoyo. "Later, Songbird."
Sonomi watched Leiyun walk off before remarking to her daughter, "I don't like him. What happened to that nice, polite boy from England that used to come over often?"
"Li Leiyun is Syaoran's first cousin."
"I swear that boy's related to half of Hong Kong—how many cousins does he have," remarked Sonomi. "Syaoran's grown up so much, I was shocked. He looks more like his father every single day."
"What kind of man was Li Ryuuren?" asked Tomoyo quietly.
"Arrogant, overbearing, sarcastic. Devilishly handsome," replied Sonomi in disdain. "Not like Syaoran at all—he's turned out to be quite a respectful, serious boy, considering who his father was. I probably shouldn't speak ill of the dead though. Nadeshiko wouldn't like it."
"Is Leiyun-san more like Li Ryuuren then?" asked Tomoyo.
"Not at all," said Sonomi. "As much as I disliked Ryuuren, there was something very straight about him, something grounded. Your Li Leiyun-sensei has none of those characteristics which made Ryuuren a despicable man."
"So, there is in fact some similarity between Ryuuren-san and Sakura's father?" asked Tomoyo.
"You know, I never realized that until you pointed it out," replied Sonomi. "They don't look anything alike and their personalities are opposite, but both Ryuuren and Fujitaka-sensei had that sense of dependability and that sincere look of conviction in their eyes. My Nadeshiko always had stars in her eyes, as if she was looking off far into the distance, into a world that I could not see. Those two men served as an anchor during different points in her life."
"I wonder if I will ever find someone like that in my life," murmured Tomoyo.
"You don't need that, Tomoyo. You can be your own anchor," said Sonomi. "I never had to rely on anyone else, and that's how I got this far."
Tomoyo nodded, for she knew it was her who had taken her father's small family toy company and built it into the global business enterprise it was today.
"That's an odd pendant you are wearing, Tomoyo," remarked Sonomi, glancing down at Tomoyo, who was clasping a sun amulet. "It doesn't go with your dress, which is lovely by the way."
Kai nearly missed Sakura and Syaoran slipping off behind a backdoor because a certain evil black-haired vixen chose to deliberately aggravate him all night long. Li Meilin danced six dances with other guys, twice with the glass-eyed dweeb Tony Tang, once with Wu Zian, then her spacey former classmate Yuujin, another with a Li male cousin and the latest one with Kenny Liu, Feimei's obnoxious boyfriend.
It was about this time, that Kai felt a vein pop on his forehead, and he cut in, sweeping away Meilin while gently shoving Kenny into Feimei's direction. Meilin, who was bored out of her mind as Kenny droned on and on about his family's summer resort in Saipan, was almost relieved to face a frowning Kai, his periwinkle blue eyes offset by his flaming hair. Really, there was no one quite as striking as Kaitou Magician, no one who could pull off a tuxedo quite as effortlessly, no one who could manage to cut into a dance so elegantly without anyone even realizing their partners had switched.
Feimei took one glance at her puzzled boyfriend and resumed her lecture at Zian, scolding him for wearing leopard-print to a black-tie event. Well, at least they seemed to be on talking terms again, Meilin thought, before returning her gaze to Kai, who was clearly furious, and so maddeningly handsome when infuriated. Better than the constantly impassive expression he wore when dealing with her. He twirled her around, and she spun into his arms, her flaming layers skirts twirling around her like a flamenco dancer, and he caught her. She looked up into his eyes, surprised to find that his anger seemed to have flitted away just like that, and he gazed down at her with an intensity that thrilled and scared her.
"I thought you don't dance," said Meilin.
"I don't," said Kai.
"Pity. You're rather good at it," remarked Meilin. Not that she would have expected any less from the Mysterious Thief of the Night.
"Not as good as you, my darling," said Kai, dipping Meilin back rather dangerously low. But the arm supporting her waist was secure, and Meilin raised her leg up, leaning back all the way so that her weight was completely balanced by his hand, then snapped up again, continuing a rather provocative tango number. The fiery pair had gained quite a few observers as well. "Even so, really, Meilin, six guys?
"Five," replied Meilin impishly. "Tony danced with me twice." Meilin was rather impressed that Kai was leading her in a rather intricate pasodoble number. None of the other guys were able to keep up with her steps, and quite a few had tread on her toes, but with Kai, she found herself nearly breathless as he twirled her round and round, until she was giddy with laughter. But she wouldn't let her legs collapse beneath her, even if she knew he would catch her in an instant should she falter.
The tango music came to a stop, giving way to a slower ballad, letting her lean against his chest, his arms around her waist, swaying slowly back and forth to catch their breath. He looked down at her, and she was pleased to find that he was as breathless as she was. "I don't care if you dance with four, five, or six other guys. So long as you save the last dance for me," he whispered in her ears.
It would be easy to agree with him, tell him, yes, all her dances could be his if he asked for it. But Meilin drew back from Kai. "I have to see off the guests that are leaving."
Meilin turned to Syaoran, who was surprisingly standing amicably near the doorway, bowing at all the leaving guests, cordially thanking them for attending the banquet. "Syaoran, you're still around?" she asked, raising a brow.
"Meilin-chan!" said Syaoran.
Meilin frowned. "Syaoran?"
His cheek flushed, and he cleared his throat. "I mean, Meilin. Long time no see." Then he spotted Fanren approaching him and quickly spun around to avoid her.
"Maybe it is Syaoran, after all," mumbled Meilin.
Kai snickered as he wrapped an arm around "Syaoran's" shoulder. "Come on, Mirror-chan, you can stay with me until your delinquent mistress and her faithful Wolf-Boy comes back."
Meilin rolled her eyes. "Figured. Sakura-chan is missing as well. Mirror-chan, you can just stay with me. People already have enough misunderstandings about Syaoran and Kai, if they are seen taking off from the banquet together, who knows what we will see in tabloids tomorrow morning."
Mirror Syaoran said, "Hoe! That will be troublesome!"
Meilin burst out laughing. "Mirror-chan, stop using Sakura's speech pattern with Syaoran's face! I guess you've never had to take anyone else's place besides Sakura before. What did you do all those nights when you were roleplaying Sakura while she was out capturing a card?"
"Chat with Touya-nii-chan," Mirror Syaoran replied, blushing slightly. "He knew I wasn't his sister, but he was still nice to me."
Kai nearly howled with laughter. "Touya-nii-chan? Can you try calling me Kai-nii-chan?"
"Kai-nii-chan," said Mirror Syaoran, blinking shyly, just as Tomoyo reentered the ballroom and filmed the moment.
"I think my heart fluttered just a bit," sighed Kai. "Don't ever call me that with that face. Now, if I can only get Miho to call me onii-chan again."
Syaoran's stomach rumbled as they passed by a street vendor selling fragrant sweet pastries. He remarked slightly embarrassed, "Now, why am I hungry? I'm sure Fanren arranged to have a seven course dinner by a Michelin Star chef."
Sakura laughed. "You hardly ate a bite of dinner because everybody kept talking to you all night long." She turned to the vendor and exclaimed, "Oh, I saw this place in onii-chan's tourist guide book."
"You can't trust those travel guide books," remarked Syaoran, but Sakura was already handing off coins to the vendor. She placed a steaming egg tart wrapped in paper in Syaoran's hand. He gazed at it suspiciously before taking a bite, then devoured it in two more bites. "It's delicious."
Sakura exclaimed as she bit into hers, "So yummy!" Tears of bliss welled up in her eyes as the light egg custard melted on the tip of her tongue, licking the crisp pastry crumbs from her lips. "Poor Kero-chan, he will die if he knew I ate this without him. And I can't even carry this back since it's best eaten hot."
Syaoran blinked. "I'll make it for him later then. It's pretty simple to make."
"For you," muttered Sakura. "I guess you don't eat from street vendors often."
"No, but egg tarts are best in Macau. I'll take you there someday," said Syaoran.
"Why wait?" asked Sakura. "Isn't it only an hour away by ferry? Let's go now!" For who knew when someday would be.
Syaoran grinned down at her. "Sure, let's go then."
They headed back to the streets, and Syaoran pointed to a red double-decker tram. "Let's get on that—it'll take us in the direction of the ports."
Sakura clapped her hands excitedly. "I've never gone on a double-decker tram before!"
"Neither have I," muttered Syaoran, as he paid the conductor for two passengers. Sakura climbed up the narrow stairway to the second floor, holding up her long skirt, and Syaoran followed shortly behind her. Nobody thought much of the fancily dressed pair hopping onto the tram next to the backpacked tourists gawking at the view and sleepy locals calling it a night. But Syaoran took off his tuxedo jacket and draped it around Sakura's shoulders, as if bothered by the backlessness of her dress after all.
"Thanks," she said, hugging the silk jacket closer to her as she took a seat next to the window, and Syaoran sat next to her, loosening his bowtie.
"Did you know that the electric trams in Hong Kong are over a century old and were initially brought from England?" said Sakura, sticking her head out the open window, letting the breeze blow back her hair as the tram sped forward.
Syaoran grinned. "You know a lot about Hong Kong's tramway history."
"Eriol taught me about it during our magic history lessons," said Sakura. "Isn't it odd to think that the whole cityscape must have changed since Clow's time here, but this tramway hasn't?"
"The one constant amid the constantly changing, modernizing surrounding," murmured Syaoran.
"Rather like Clow Reed himself, isn't it?" said Sakura staring out at the blurred buildings and streetlights passing them. "It would be nice if Eriol can come here and see it for himself."
"I'd rather he not come back and wrack havoc in my hometown," remarked Syaoran. "Let's go, we need to get off here."
They hopped off the tram, having left the hectic downtown area, and walked closer toward the harbor.
"I can smell the ocean," said Sakura.
"Yeah. Some people don't like it," said Syaoran, breathing in the briny smell of the sea. "But to me, it smells like home."
"Me too. I like hearing the sound of the waves, looking far into the horizon and wondering where the sea ends," said Sakura. "I always thought that night when we sat by the beach in elementary school summer trip that you looked a bit homesick while looking at the ocean. By the way, what were you doing up so late that night anyway?"
"I was looking out for Clow Cards of course," mumbled Syaoran. "Isn't that why you were up too?"
"No, I was actually too scared to fall asleep because of a ghost story Naoko-chan told us and was looking for a teacher," said Sakura with a slight blush. "I know, it's embarrassing at that age." She glanced at Syaoran, but under the moonlight, she could see he had a faint smile. "Wait a minute, did you know I was scared to be alone, that's why you stayed with me until I was no longer scared? That's why you told me about Hong Kong and Wei to keep my mind off of ghosts."
"Think what you want," murmured Syaoran, walking ahead of her.
She ran up to catch up to him. "By the way, Syaoran, we've been walking this way for a while now, but I don't see any ports. Are we lost by any chance?"
"No, we're not lost!" exclaimed Syaoran. "Though it's a bit difficult to tell in the dark."
"Oh," exclaimed Sakura. She almost hadn't realized it because it was dark, but she recognized the long span of cracked stone walls, where she had seen Syaoran two years ago. And she's also waited here just several months ago, the night the former Great Elder of the Li Clan passed on. She climbed on the cracked wall, letting the sea breeze blow back her hair, fanning out her long skirt like an emerald sail. "You're right, we're not lost, after all."
"Hey it's dangerous, get down!" exclaimed Syaoran.
"Come up here too, it feels amazing up here!" said Sakura, turning back and holding out a hand to Syaoran.
Syaoran leapt onto the ledge in one stride. "I know." He had sat on this very ledge all those mornings, staring into the turbulent gray seas, holding letters that never were sent.
"Well, this isn't Macau, but isn't it over there somewhere westward?" asked Sakura, pointing into the pitch black sea.
"Not exactly, but close enough," said Syaoran with a chuckle.
"Besides, it's near midnight, and I'm sure we missed the last ferry to Macau," said Sakura.
"Or maybe we're very early for the first ferry," replied Syaoran.
"Good point," said Sakura, grinning. "Are you okay with missing out the rest of your birthday banquet like this? Despite your grumbling, you seemed to be enjoying it well enough."
Syaoran shot her a look. "Well I did enjoy it a little more than the Gotherella play, and a bit less than our classical Japanese literature final essay exam. So I guess it's not exactly the worst way to spend my birthday."
"You certainly seemed to be enjoying dancing with guests," said Sakura, knowing she sounded petty. "Though you say you hate that kind of stuff."
"If you mean the dance earlier with Tiffany, it was purely out of courtesy for Stephen Tang—father of Tyler, Tony, and Tiffany—I refused everyone else," said Syaoran. "And it was the only way my sisters were going to let me escape the banquet."
Somehow, it seemed worse that the only dance was with Tiffany. "The Mirror Card was just an excuse then?"
"Well, obviously the Mirror won't be able to trick my sisters or those closest to me," said Syaoran. "But the majority of the guests wouldn't notice, and my sisters won't throw a fuss since I did everything they asked me to, including being cordial to Tiffany."
It was very difficult to refuse Syaoran's sisters, Sakura had learned firsthand, feeling a bit relieved by his quick dismissal of Tiffany Tang. "I hope Mirror-chan is okay back there."
"She's handled your brother all these years, she'll be fine," replied Syaoran.
"But there's four of them," said Sakura.
"Yes, but your brother is four times worse than them," muttered Syaoran under his breath.
She couldn't help chuckling in agreement as she stared up at the sky. "Look, I think I see Vega of Lyra over there."
"I don't know, it could be a satellite," said Syaoran. "Hong Kong is always so brightly lit at nighttime, it's hard to see stars clearly from here."
"No, it really is Vega—you can see Altair over there and traces of the Milky Way," said Sakura, pointing at the clusters of stars.
"I think I see it too," said Syaoran, staring at her beaming face, hair windblown from the tram ride earlier, rather than up at the sky.
"Liar," said Sakura, sticking out her tongue at him.
"I always wanted to come back to this place with you," he said slowly. "I don't want it to be a place filled with painful memories for you. Because, it's not for me. You coming here then was not in vain, for that moment gave me back my life."
So, he had known where they were as well. Had he deliberately brought her here then? "You've already apologized. Multiple times," she told him bemusedly. "I understand now. It's okay, it's in the past."
Syaoran shook his head. "Today, I wanted to thank you. Thank you for coming. Thank for waiting for me. Thank you for believing in me, when I gave you every reason not to."
Sakura gazed up at him. "Syaoran, do you want to know the reason I believed in you when you have me every reason not to?"
Syaoran said meekly, "Because you knew I would join the Star Alliance?"
Sakura shook her head. "No, not just because of our Alliance. It's because it was you who first believed in me when I didn't even believe in myself. You were there for me all those times when I didn't know I needed your help. No matter what you say or what you do, you won't be able to break that trust I have had in you from the time I didn't know any better."
"What did I do to deserve all that?" asked Syaoran with a crooked grin.
"You called me a crappy Card Mistress," said Sakura returning a smile. "And forced me to become a good one to prove you wrong."
"Yeah, you definitely weren't the greatest in the beginning, but not sure I ever said anything about you being a good Card Mistress now," he remarked.
"Just kidding," said Syaoran. "You're a much better Master of the Cards than I would ever be, and should I daresay, even Clow Reed."
"Wow, the sun will rise from the west, for Li Syaoran has complimented me on my card captoring skills," she said.
"I know, we'll have to go further west, maybe even to Macau, to see the sunrise," said Syaoran, in a more jovial tone, as if sensing the shadow that had come over her eyes since they recalled their parting in this very harbor last year. "So, where is my birthday present? The day's nearly over, and haven't I been very patient?"
Sakura, hands behind her back, replied coyly, "What present? Didn't I already give you the Sakura Super-Duper Wish Coupons?"
"My real birthday present!" declared Syaoran. "I heard from Tomoyo that you actually have been preparing it for the past month!"
"Two months, actually," said Sakura. "I got distracted a bit because of the cultural festival and exams. But I left your present back in Tomoeda." She knew she was being childish, but she couldn't help it.
"Are you doing this because you think I won't go back home for some reason?" asked Syaoran slowly. "I'll return to Japan after summer vacation is over—didn't I tell you that I will?"
"How do I know for sure?" asked Sakura. Was it a slip of tongue that he had called his Tomoeda apartment "home" for some reason? His home was here, Hong Kong, where he had grown up and spent most of his life, and his family was. She was able to confirm this with her very own eyes this very morning.
"I gave you my word," replied Syaoran. "Is that not enough?"
"I don't know—should it be?" replied Sakura.
"How about we seal a contract then," asked Syaoran. "A very powerful contract." He held out his pinky. "Here, now link my pinky." She held out her pinky finger and crossed it with his. "I pinky swear, I promise you I will return to you."
"Always," he added. "Okay, I promised, so give me at least a hint on what my present is?"
"That still?" said Sakura. "It's still going to be on your bed when you return home, where I left it, with the help of Kai of course. He broke into your apartment while you were gone. Sorry."
"I still have two Sakura Wish Coupons left," said Syaoran. "I can wish for you to give me the present now."
Sakura raised a brow. "You want to waste your super-duper rare chance to wish anything from me on a request that is physically impossible? I'm not lying, your present is wrapped beautifully in a rectangular box on top of your bed in Tomoeda this very moment."
He made a pouting face, reminiscent of his elementary school days, and she almost laughed. "Why are you so eager to get a birthday present for me?" she asked. "I saw someone give you a key to a Ferrari sports car. It's almost embarrassing that I don't want you to see it."
"Because it'd be from you," he mumbled. And maybe he had learned that a certain Chang Eron had received from Sakura on his birthday a very rare collector's item book on Gothic architecture from Professor Kinomoto Fujitaka's private collection. He had further been peeved that Mizuki Kai had received a rose-engraved hand mirror—after all, he had been sure he was the only person to have received a huge wall mirror from Sakura. "Oh gosh, is it another mirror after all, and fragile, which is why you couldn't bring it?"
Sakura chuckled. "I can't tell between Kai and you, who's more obsessed with mirrors. Anyway, I tried to think of what you would like. But I couldn't think of a single thing that you needed. So, all I could do was think of what I wanted."
"That's fine," said Syaoran.
"It's a selfish present. Because I wanted to see you wearing it and go to the Tanabata Festival with you," said Sakura, her shoulders sagging suddenly. "Though it can't happen, because you're here over summer vacation."
"Well, based on the Lunar calendar, the festival is in August this year. We can go," said Syaoran.
"But you'll be in Hong Kong all summer long, you said, and return when the new semester starts," replied Sakura, realizing this was the closest she had gotten to mentioning the incident at King Penguin Park.
"I promise I'll be back in time for the Tanabata Festival," said Syaoran. "I attended my dratted birthday banquet as obligated—my sisters have nothing on me anymore."
'It's a promise then," said Sakura, smiling softly like a sea nymph in a vibrant green dress billowing out around her from the ocean breeze. "Before the clock strikes midnight again, once more, happy birthday Li Syaoran."
He whispered words of yesteryears, "Thank you, Sakura. I will always remember and cherish each birthday I spend with you."
Wish-chan (July 13/September 1, 2018): This is another Syaoran birthday special, one that I've been wanting to write for a while. The way I envisioned this chapter is as a movie. If New Trials were made into an anime, "The Hong Kong Encounter" will be a fitting Movie #3 to the Card Captor Sakura franchise, of course set back in Hong Kong, this time high school edition. I've been to Hong Kong twice, and I'm not sure my travel companions realized how much on-location research I was doing for the sake of this fanfiction. The people I traveled in were only interested in shopping and food (important too), but I was very adamant we had to take the tram up and see Victoria's Peak, among other locations. I probably should be grateful for New Trials and CCS because I've actually learned a lot through the years in the course of writing the story and traveled to places that I might not necessarily have initially been interested in visiting.
I don't recall the last time I was able to write pure fluff, because you all know very well that since the end of Arc 3, there has been some heavy material. At the same time, I know very well that since this is the last repose before the finale of New Trials, there needs to be some direction. There might be a little more of that in Part B of the chapter. Truthfully, this chapter is more of a breather for me as I work out the finale of New Trials, and I'm getting to write out everything I wanted to before it all ends. I'm working on this in tandem with the finale, which is why it's taken so long to release a simple birthday special! The bedroom scene was foreshadowed in 2015 through Syaoran's Birthday Omake #4. Who knew it would take me so long to get to it! Some people guessed correctly that it was actually a future scene in New Trials canon, not just silly doodling by me! wishluv/art/Syaoran-s-Birthday-Omake-4-546116988
This one is for all of you, for joining me on this journey of nearly 20 years, some from the very beginning, some in the middle. Happy International New Trials Day 2018!
Emails are most welcome at: hopeluvpeace hotmail dot com.
The birthplace of NT discussions continue to live on: Yahoo New Trials Ring at group/newtrialsring, while Facebook is the best place for updates and sharing info on CCS-related stuff.
I managed to update my blog more frequently this year than ever before thanks to reviewing every week the Cardcaptor Sakura Clear Card Arc: wishluv dot blogspot dot com.
Please check out my newest artwork at devianart.