Sakura woke to a sound like static pulsing in her ears. She sat up quickly to find sunshine pouring into her bedroom, but the noise continued. As the fog of confusion lifted from her groggy senses, she realized that the abrasive sound was coming from her TV. She stared at it for a few moments, watching the snow dance over the screen.
I fell asleep watching Tomoyo-chan's tape, Sakura thought as she rolled out of bed and shut off the TV. She ejected the tape from the VCR. I have to give it back to her today.
She paused with the tape in her hands. The sleek, black surface looked so innocent and mundane on the outside, but it contained something very precious.
"And I've got to tell her 'thank you'," Sakura said.
She yawned hugely and stretched, trying to squeeze all the grogginess from her sleepy muscles. For a few moments, she felt like she had actually lost energy while she slept, rather than gained it.
A few quick, loud knocks on Sakura's door startled her out of her stretch and made her swallow her yawn. She grimaced and rubbed her jaw. Yawns should never be interrupted.
"Hey, Kaijuu! What's wrong with you?"
"Onii-chan!" Sakura yelled at her closed door. "I'm not a kaijuu!"
"Could have fooled me," came Touya's muffled reply from behind the door. "Kaijuus have to tendency to sleep very late, you know."
"Huh?" Sakura said, and in the same breath, turned to her alarm clock. She simply stared at it for a few frozen moments as her shocked mind tried to comprehend the numbers on the face.
"HOE! I forgot to set my alarm last night!"
Touya stood on the other side of the closed door and listened to the panicked crashing noises Sakura made as she dressed at light speed. "I'm going to be so late! It's my day for chores with Tomoyo-chan, too!"
Despite the fact that it sounded as if Sakura was setting off a series of small nuclear devices inside her room, Touya smiled softly to himself. He hadn't heard this noise in ages and was surprised to find how much he had missed it.
"I'll have breakfast on the table by the time you get down," Touya said and turned to head back downstairs.
But he hadn't taken so much as a step forward before Sakura's bedroom door burst open and a blur dressed in a slightly wrinkled school uniform rolled past Touya like a shock wave.
"I don't have time for breakfast!" the blur said as it raced down the stairwell. "Thanks, though! I'll see you after school, onii-chan! Bye!"
Touya watched Sakura open the front door and head outside. Just before she disappeared behind the frame, she flashed a genuine Sakura grin and waved goodbye.
"That's more like it," Touya said to himself as the door slammed shut. "I know that girl."
Sakura swept down the small flight of stairs in front of the house and headed for the gate. Cherry blossom petals were everywhere, turning the front yard into a sea of pink. And yet, some still managed to hang onto their branches in the trees, making the street look like it was lined with giant bouquets of flowers wrapped in pale gray wax paper. All the pink looked especially vivid against the bright blue, cloudless sky and the air was saturated with the flower's clean, sweet scent. The morning air was soft with only a weak chill still lingering from the night's cooling grip.
"It's a beautiful day," Sakura said between strides as she raced for the opening in the fence where she could see the sidewalk beyond.
She rounded the corner like a flash of light, keeping one hand on the fence post and using her momentum to swing herself onto the sidewalk. It was such a fluid motion that the landscape became a blur and she was moving so quickly that she didn't see the shadow leaning against the fence until her back was to it.
As soon as her mind had time to process what she thought she had seen, she stopped like she had hit an invisible wall. Her heart was racing and her breath caught in her lungs. The wind picked up slightly, stirring Sakura's hair and scattering cherry blossom petals across her path. Her hand began to tingle madly and she brought it up to her chest.
She stood there, frozen, for several moments as if any slight movement would shatter her world. She felt like each breath she took was a fraying piece of cloth.
I didn't check, Sakura thought wildly as she tried in vain to calm her heart. I always check, but today I didn't even think about it.
Am I dreaming?
Slowly, as if she were made of glass, she turned around. She was staring at the ground at first, but she eventually lifted her head to the spot on the fence that had been empty for three long, long months.
He was standing there, one hand pressed up against the fence post while the other grabbed at his chest as if trying to keep his heart from jumping out of his skin. He was breathing heavily and his hair was tousled as if he'd just now stopped for a rest after running for miles.
He looked just as confused and shocked at finding himself standing there as Sakura felt looking at him. As he caught his breath, he took his hand off the fence and stood there with his arms at his sides as if ready to reach out and grab Sakura if the world suddenly began to fall apart.
They stood like that for a while and time seemed to slow sluggishly to a stop.
"Is that really you?" Sakura managed to get out. She tensed, ready for the dream to end.
She watched as he gently clenched his fists and looked down at his hands.
"I think so," Syaoran finally said. He sounded so unsure.
"Prove it," Sakura said, as if daring the sky to fall.
Then, suddenly, she was in his arms. And the world didn't shatter, the sky didn't fall, and the dream didn't end. They just stood there, holding each other so tightly that not even single cell could pass between them. Sakura rested softly against him as she breathed in his weight and his heat. She let all the tension out of her body until Syaoran's strong arms wrapped around her shoulders were the only things keeping her standing upright. He smelled heavily of sweat and blood, but that only meant that this couldn't possibly be a dream.
He's real and he's really here, Sakura thought as she squeezed him closer.
"How? Why?" she whispered into his chest. So much confusion was packed into those two little words, but she didn't know how to phrase it properly.
He shrugged his shoulders and Sakura could feel him grinning.
"I don't know!" he said, flinging his arms out.
Sakura pulled herself back into his arms and rested her head against his chest. She felt so right here— feeling the gentle rising and falling in Syaoran's lungs as he breathed.
"It doesn't matter, though," he said quietly as cherry blossom petals flitted to the ground. "I'm here now and I will never leave again."
"Promise?" Sakura asked, using only the force in her breath to voice the word.
But Syaoran shook his head firmly the second she opened her mouth. He took her shoulders and held her out, looking deep into her eyes.
"No more promises," Syaoran said, the shadow of a smile appearing on his lips. "Promises imply that something is so hard that it's almost impossible, remember? You're just going to have to trust me when I say that I will never leave again. It's not a promise, it's a certainty."
"You heard me..." Sakura said, her eyes searching his. "How did you hear what I said last night?"
"I'm not sure," Syaoran said quietly, his voice serious and contemplative. "But your words were the only thing that reached me through the darkness. I heard your voice and it followed it out. That's all I know."
Sakura had no idea what to make of this, but she gleaned enough to know that Syaoran hadn't left her for just any reason.
But it didn't matter where he had come from or what brought him here.
Really, it didn't.
And it never would.
After a few moments of just sanding in each other's arms, Syaoran began to squirm a little as he patted down one side of his jacket.
"What's wrong?" Sakura asked.
"There's something in my pocket," Syaoran said, confusion in his voice.
"Like what?" Sakura asked, stepping away from Syaoran and letting him reach into his jacket.
"I have no idea," he said as he struggled awkwardly with the flap. "I don't remember putting anything in there. In fact, I didn't even know this jacket had pockets."
Sakura leaned in, curious, as Syaoran removed something long and paper thin from the inside pocket of his jacket. It glinted in the sunlight, making it difficult for Sakura to get a clear view.
"What is it?" Sakura asked. She tried to get a look herself, but the sunshine was making it difficult. She wouldn't be able to see it until Syaoran handed it over.He stared at the object in his hand for a moment before a soft smile slipped onto his face. He choked out a short laugh before finally holding the object out to Sakura.
"You've been looking for this, haven't you?" Syaoran asked as Sakura plucked the card from his hand.
It was The Return card— the one that had been missing from her deck all this time. The young man in the image smiled serenely toward his frozen hourglass like a master prophet whose predictions had just now become reality.
"Yeah," Sakura said, looking back to Syaoran. Her smile forced tears out of her eyes, but she quickly wiped them away. "I guess I have."
But it was only when I stopped looking for it that I finally found it.
Syaoran stood in front of the apartment door for a few moments, just staring at the wood. He raised his arm to knock a few times, but as soon as his knuckles brushed the grain, he yanked his hand back as if the door were a heated stove.
A couple more false starts convinced Syaoran to turn around and head for a bench in the park. After all, it wasn't too cold out. He'd survive until the morning, at least...
Just as he was about to reach the stairwell, the door behind him clicked open. Syaoran froze, suddenly feeling embarrassed.
"I thought you might come back," Wei's kind voice said, echoing in the quiet hallway.
Syaoran turned around, trying to find all the words he'd been carefully rehearsing since he decided to come back here. But they just didn't seem right now.
"I'm back," Syaoran said weakly. It was all the explanation he could offer.
"No, no," the old man said seriously. "That won't do at all. Let's try this again, shall we?"
Wei stepped back inside and shut the door firmly. Syaoran could hear his footsteps move away, probably into the kitchen.
Syaoran stood there for a few uncertain seconds before taking a deep, steady breath and reaching for the door's handle. He hesitated for just a moment before turning it confidently and stepping over the frame and into the apartment. He closed the door behind him, but couldn't bring himself to step further than the entryway.
"I'm home," Syaoran said, a bit quieter than he meant to say it.
"Welcome back," Wei said, his back to Syaoran as he bustled around in the kitchen. He acted as if Syaoran's presence there was nothing less than expected. "Dinner will be ready in a moment."
Something was cooking on the stove and the fumes reminded Syaoran just how badly he needed food. His stomach growled softly and he put his hand on his gut subconsciously.
"I still don't have anything to give you..." Syaoran said quietly, staring sullenly to the floor. "I'll never be able to repay you for the kindness you've shown me here."
"Payment comes in many guises, Syaoran," Wei said, waving off his words. "Perhaps you have given me more than you think."
"I don't understand," Syaoran said, his eyebrows scrunching up. "I haven't given anyone anything."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Wei said, smiling through his mustache. He turned around and opened the cabinets behind him. "Would you like to set the table?"
"What's the hurry?" Syaoran asked as he trailed a few feet behind Sakura. He pulled his arms up behind his head. "No one's going to be at the park yet. Everyone said to meet at six and it's not even five."
Sakura turned around and shrugged. "I just want to show everyone that I can be on time for something! And besides..."
She reached out and grabbed Syaoran's arm to tug him along.
"It's an excuse to spend more time with you," Sakura said.
"Well, when you put it that way..."
They stopped and shared a little moment among the cherry blossom petals that floated gently on the light breeze to the ground. The sun was low in the bright blue sky, its warmth cutting through the ambient chill in the mid-afternoon air. From the hill they were on, the whole town spread out below them, bathed in waning orange-red sunlight.
"We will be late if we just stand here," Syaoran said after several minutes.
Sakura shrugged in his arms. "I don't want to go."
"It's okay," Syaoran said softly. "We have all the time in the world now, you know."
It was only as Sakura broke out of his arms and started leading him back up the sidewalk that a feeling of familiarity began to dawn on him. He'd been at this place before. Not quite like this — nothing had ever felt quite like this — but he knew where he was.
And annoyance began to tighten in his stomach with every step forward.
"Wow, what a pretty house," Sakura said as the trees moved out of the way to reveal a mansion perched atop the hill. "It's so big. Must be old."
"I know the person who lives there," Syaoran grumbled.
Sakura perked at this. "You do?"
"Yeah," Syaoran said, his gaze darkening. "He's the most annoying person in the world."
After pausing for a few moments, he added, "But... I wouldn't mind talking to him again. One more time."
"Well, let's go say hello then," Sakura said, pulling Syaoran gently toward the gate.
"I don't think so," Syaoran said, shaking his head stiffly and staring straight ahead. "He's not the kind of guy who likes to be disturbed. I don't think he'd appreciate a sudden arrival, especially from me."
But as they passed the gate, it quietly and mysteriously clicked open like a welcoming arm beckoning them to enter.
"It looks like you've been invited in after all," Sakura said. She turned and looked toward the mansion. "He saw you from the window and opened the gate. It must be one of those gates you can open from a switch inside the house."
Syaoran eyed the gate suspiciously, but it only swung open wider.
"This is just like him," Syaoran said, a distinct rumble in his voice. "He can't even come out to greet me himself."
"Well, let's go inside," Sakura said, grabbing Syaoran's arm and leading him through the gate. "You can't refuse an invitation. It would be rude."
Syaoran sighed. "We'll be late to the park, though."
Sakura turned around and grinned. "We have all the time in the world, remember?"
The gate clicked shut behind them as they ascended the small staircase in front of the house and walked up to the door. Sakura pushed Syaoran in front and gave him a few whispered words of encouragement.
Syaoran reluctantly raised his arm to knock, but the door swung open by itself before his knuckles even brushed the wood.
"He can't even come to the front door when people call," Syaoran grumbled.
"Come on, let's go in," Sakura said, giving Syaoran a push from behind.
"Why are you so eager?" Syaoran asked, looking over his shoulder as he stepped over the door frame and into the house.
"I'm being eager for the both of us. You're trying to hide it, but I can tell this is important to you," Sakura said, a light blush appearing in her cheeks despite her jubilantly serious expression. "So it's important to me too."
"Sakura..." Syaoran said dumbly, unable to find the words that matched his thoughts.
As soon as Syaoran and Sakura cleared the door, it shut with a hollow thud and swallowed the sunshine. The dark, empty foyer stretched ahead of them and faded to black down the long tunnel-like hallway.
"It's just as dark in here as it was before," Syaoran said, a bit of grim amusement in his voice. "And I thought it would look brighter in the daytime."
"Hello?" Sakura called, her voice bouncing off the empty walls. "Is anyone home?"
"Welcome," a voice said from the darkness.
A figure appeared outlined in black against the dark hallway. Instantly, Syaoran knew it wasn't Clow, but he felt just as annoyed by the presence. Maybe even a bit more annoyed, if that was possible.
Suddenly, light flooded the room as a few lamps in the corners of the foyer and a small chandelier hanging from the ceiling came to life. Color filled the dark figure in the hallway.
"Eriol-kun?" Sakura said, the confusion on her face leaking into her voice.
The blue-haired boy was indeed standing before them, his usual soft smile warming his face. He didn't seem the least bit surprised to see them, but at the same time gave the air that he hadn't been expecting company.
"What are you doing here?" Syaoran managed to say through his glare.
"I hardly need a reason to be in my own house, do I?" Eriol said, chuckling. "Really, I should be asking you."
"This is your house, Eriol-kun?" Sakura asked. She glanced at Syaoran for a moment as if to make sure that he didn't know Eriol would be here.
"Well, it's my— father's," Eriol said, his grin pressing wider. For a little more than a moment, he gave a glance to Syaoran as if they were sharing some private joke.
But it was a joke Syaoran didn't get. Eriol had faltered on the word "father" like an actor who, for just a moment, had forgotten his lines.
"Your father?" Syaoran said darkly with a touch of cynical skepticism in his voice.
"That's right," Eriol said, nodding. "In fact, he'd like to meet you Sakura-san."
"Me? Why?" Sakura said, a little taken aback.
"I've told him all about you," Eriol said. "And, being a friend of Li-san's, he is very interested in meeting you. Do you have the time?"
"Yes!" Sakura said enthusiastically, surprising Syaoran. She seemed to sense Syaoran's feelings and turned to him. "He knows you, Syaoran. So I want to know him too. And besides, Eriol-kun is my friend and I would like to meet his family."
"Wonderful," Eriol said jubilantly. He turned and beckoned them forward. "This way."
Sakura followed eagerly after Eriol as he proceeded down the hallway, which forced Syaoran to hurry after her. He wished he could've had a few moments to try and digest the new information he'd just suddenly received. His mind was having trouble wrapping around the horror of Eriol and Clow having a connection, let alone being related.
Syaoran jogged up to walk beside Sakura. Despite himself, he found he was tense and ready for danger. But that was silly, seeing as how Clow, although a pompous jerk and an insufferable know-it-all, would probably never actually hurt anyone. At least he wouldn't unless it was part of some brilliant scheme. And Syaoran was done with brilliant schemes.
So it was something else that was making him nervous, but he had no idea what.
"Syaoran," Sakura said after a few moments of silence. Eriol was walking several paces ahead of them, leading them down the long hallway. "Why did Eriol-kun call you 'Li'? I'm pretty sure he was talking about you, anyway. Is that a nickname?"
Syaoran felt his stomach twist. So this was the source of his anxiety: telling Sakura the truth about himself. What would she think? What would she do? And even after he tells her everything, would she still love him in the same way?
"No, it's not a nickname," Syaoran said without thinking of the words before he said them. "It's my real name."
"Hoe? Your real name?" Sakura said, unable to keep her eyes from going big.
"Yeah. My real name — the name I was born with, anyway — is Syaoran Li," he said. "The man who lives here is called Clow Reed. He gave me the life I have now, so I took on his last name. Not that I really had much choice."
"So... you're adopted?" Sakura asked.
"I guess," Syaoran said, shrugging like he was trying to shrug off his nervousness. "But this man's never been much of a father to me. I barely know him— I didn't even know Hiiragizawa knew him. Still... I owe him a lot. He's the reason I met you, Sakura."
She was quiet for several nerve-racking moments. Syaoran suddenly ran lies through his head, trying to find one that would reverse the damage. He wanted to say "Just kidding," or "Not really." But he also desperately wanted Sakura to know the truth. She deserved to know the truth.
Syaoran was just about to open his mouth to say something, anything, when Sakura threw her arms around him and hugged him close.
"I'm so lucky I get to meet him, then," she said. "Maybe, somehow, I can thank him too."
"You're not upset?" Syaoran asked, blinking. "Even though you found out that I'm not the person who I claimed to be when we met?"
Sakura looked up at him and grabbed his arm. "To me, you're Syaoran. And that would be true no matter what your name is."
That made Syaoran's thoughts grind to a halt and the knot in his stomach loosen just a bit, but he couldn't bring himself to say anything.
Are Syaoran Reed and Syaoran Li really the same person? Are they both... even people?
It was a question he couldn't answer.
As they neared the end of the hallway, the room beyond the double doors there opened up to them. Eriol barreled on ahead, but Syaoran stopped right before the door frame. Sakura plodded on for a few paces, but slowed when she found that Syaoran wasn't moving forward anymore.
The giant room spread out wide through the doorway, the huge window on the north wall letting in the sunshine. Clow's robed figure stood outlined in white light against the window, his hands clasped behind his back. To Syaoran, he looked regal and unapproachable.
"Is that him?" Sakura asked, whispering now.
Syaoran nodded, suddenly wondering why he was here and what he'd possibly want to say.
Eriol approached Clow and said something in a normal voice, but oddly, Syaoran couldn't make it out. Then Clow turned around, smiling— the same exact smile that Eriol used. Syaoran glared at this as a wave of the creeps washed over him, raising goosebumps on his arms.
"Syaoran," Clow said, seeming to cross the huge room in a single stride. "It would be so good to see you if only I could make you out through all the gloom in the hallway."
Syaoran rolled his eyes, but finally ventured into the room. Sakura followed.
"And Sakura-san," Clow said, sweeping his robes aside and grabbing Sakura's hand. He cupped it warmly between his own thin, gentle hands. "It's so good to finally meet you. Hiiragizawa-san has told me all about you. Syaoran has even mentioned you once or twice, which is quite an honor, given how he seems to have so few words to spare."
Sakura blushed. "I wish I could say I've heard all about you too, but..."
Clow's smile deepened at this. "It's quite alright and expected under the circumstances. I try to remain elusive if at all possible and my charges certainly seem willing to oblige."
"Sorry to disturb you then," Sakura said politely.
"That's not to say I don't enjoy company once in a while," Clow said, winking discretely.
"I'll be right back," Eriol said shortly, sliding out of the room through a door Syaoran hadn't even noticed until just then.
Clow led them both over to a large dining table near the west wall. He pulled a chair out for Sakura while Syaoran sat heavily in the seat next to hers. After making sure Sakura was comfortable, Clow sat in the huge red armchair at the head of the table.
"It's a bit of a surprise to see you here, Syaoran," Clow said when everyone was seated. "Not that you've come to visit, but that you are here at all."
Syaoran shrugged, wary and extremely aware of Sakura's presence.
Just how much was Clow going to tell her? And how horrible could he make the truth sound?
"So Reed-san," Sakura said, filling up the silence. "What do you do for a living?"
"Certainly nothing that warrants a stiff title like 'Reed-san'," Clow said.
Sakura laughed a little. "Then, Clow-san, what do you do for a living?"
Syaoran looked at her with a raised eyebrow while attempting to glare at the same time. Was she... enjoying this?
"I'm an inventor, if you want to know the truth," Clow said, winking at Syaoran. "I dabble in the unknown, striving to improve what little we have on this tiny plane of existence." He chuckled at Sakura's eagerly reverent expression. "Oh, it's not all as glamorous as those big eyes make it out to be, Sakura-san. Inventions and experiments don't take one very far in our world. But I enjoy it and I like to think it helps people from time to time."
Sakura opened her mouth, but it was then that Eriol swept back into the room, carrying what looked like a big golden lump in his arms.
"This was making a horrible racket just inside the foyer," Eriol said, coming closer and handing the lump over to Clow.
Sakura peered over the edge of the table, trying to get a closer look. Syaoran raised an eyebrow at the thing, getting the strange sensation that he'd seen something like it before. A long, long time ago.
"What is it?" Sakura asked, still struggling for a good look. "A toy?"
"I'm not a toy!"
For a few fleeting seconds, Sakura thought that Clow had just done a particularly flawless ventriloquist trick by making the doll sit up and spit the words out indignantly. But Clow's hands were still folded in his lap and he hadn't so much as swallowed.
"Sakura-san, this is Keroberos," Clow said, his soft smile unwavering. "I believe you've already had the pleasure, Syaoran."
"How are ya kid?" Kero said, rising into the air and floating over to Syaoran, his little cream-colored wings flapping needlessly. Kero reached out a stubby paw and patted Syaoran on the head a few times. "You did alright, didn't ya?"
"No thanks to you," Syaoran grumbled, flinching a little with each pat and staring straight ahead.
The thing grinned. "But that was the point."
Kero turned to Sakura then, floating over within arm's reach. "Sakura, Sakura! Isn't this great? You get to meet me! That's interesting, ain't it?"
Sakura sat staring, a little bewildered. She reached up a hand to touch Kero— as if making sure he was really there. "Is it... alive?"
"Well, no," Clow said. "He's certainly not alive."
"Then... is he one of your inventions, Clow-san?" Sakura asked as Kero sat looking annoyed at being ignored.
"Yes, I suppose you could say that," Clow said, smiling mysteriously. "Actually, he's the by-product of an experiment conducted a very long time ago. But he's come to be a dear friend of mine nonetheless."
"Well, it's nice to meet you... Kero-chan," Sakura said, surprised at the way the name slipped off her tongue. Keroberos-san just didn't seem appropriate, somehow.
"Isn't it, though?" Kero said jubilantly.
"Sakura-san," Eriol's voice sounded behind Sakura. She turned around in her seat. "Would you like to see the garden? It's so beautiful in the Spring; everything is in bloom. And you can see the entire town spread out under the sunset."
"I'd like that," Sakura said.
"I knew you would," Eriol said. He pulled Sakura's seat out and offered a gentlemanly hand. "I'd be happy to give you a tour. Reed-san and Li-san probably have a lot to discuss, so we can leave them behind."
Sakura gave a pained glance to Syaoran as Eriol pulled her out of her seat.
"It's okay," Syaoran said. "Go see the garden."
Sakura nodded and smiled. "Okay. You'll tell me all about it later, right?"
Syaoran hesitated for a moment before nodding, but by then Eriol had guided Sakura to yet another door in the wall that hadn't been there before. Sakura waved before Eriol gently swept her through.
"Forget the boring garden," Kero was saying as the door shut. "Let's tour the kitchen!"
The silence was almost overwhelming in the echoing noise the door made when it clicked closed. Syaoran stared at the wood grain in the table, trying desperately to gather his thoughts and to keep his hands from fidgeting.
"You seem to have given up being a bodyguard," Clow said eventually, amusement in his voice. "I'm surprised that you let her go like that— out of your sight and, supposedly, into danger."
Syaoran turned his head and glared searingly. "What the hell do you mean by that? Should I be nervous?"
Clow chuckled, making the hair on the back of Syaoran's neck stand on end out of sheer annoyance. "I only mean to say that you don't seem as protective or distrusting. The Syaoran I knew before would have run after Sakura-san, worried about her to the point of anxiety."
"She... can take care of herself," Syaoran said after a few beats of silence. "She's not stupid. She knows what will put her in danger and what won't. And so if she's not afraid of Hiiragizawa's company, I shouldn't be either."
"And Chaos?" Clow asked, raising an eyebrow in fake interest. "You have no fear that supernatural forces are still out there, waiting for you to lower your guard?"
Syaoran sat silent for a long moment before answering.
"I... don't think Chaos is a threat anymore," he said. "When I came back, I felt like the world had changed. It's just a feeling, but it's like all the tension that was there before is gone now. I don't know what it means exactly, but I'm pretty sure that it has something to do with why I was thrown into the Void. And that's why Sakura isn't important to Chaos anymore."
"You have good instincts, Syaoran. In another life they may have gone to waste," Clow said. "It's true that the world has changed. That tension you feel is gone now was the mounting struggle between Chaos and Order. When you gave up your energy to Sakura-san, you simultaneously achieved two tasks: you nullified Chaos' precious virus and saved a soul that should have died. This tipped the scale in favor of Order and the tension instantly went slack like the chains on the Cosmic Scale had broken. It sounds grandiose, but the truth is that little has changed for us human beings. That is because we still have the ability to create chaos ourselves. Having a balance in favor of Order simply means that things are generally more orderly on a cosmic level. And Chaos, having had her fun here, is most likely off somewhere else having fun, lest she get too bored by staying in one place."
Syaoran nodded sullenly, feigning understanding. "That's why I'm not worried anymore."
"Oh, that's certainly not the truth, now is it?" Clow said, leaning forward just a bit.
Syaoran opened his mouth to spit out a protest, but paused before he said anything. His mouth gaped open for a few moments before his body sagged and he stared back at the table.
"It's not worry, exactly," Syaoran said quietly as if admitting to a crime. "I'm more like... confused."
He looked up to Clow, meeting his eyes for the first time.
"I don't understand," Syaoran said. "Why am I here?"
Clow sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Well, that's the question, isn't it?"
"I remember being in the Void," Syaoran said. His eyes had turned back to the side, looking inward and panning his sockets unfocused as he searched his memories. "I was in that place and... then... I lost myself."
Syaoran's eyes went wide and he stared at the table, looking beyond it. "There's no way I should be here. I went too far— I shouldn't have been able to come back."
"No one has ever come back from the Void, Syaoran," Clow said serenely. "You are the very first. The fact that you came back after being assimilated into the universal consciousness is largely irrelevant."
"But why?" Syaoran asked, the skin on his forehead bunching up in frustration. "What made me so special?"
"I remember the night the ghost of you came to me so clearly," Clow said in a way that made it seem like he was changing the subject. "Do you remember it, Syaoran? It was the night before a new moon— a night on the cusp of new beginnings and also the the last bit of light before of a long period of darkness. When you came to me, I wanted to refuse your request. The look in your eyes was the look of someone who was ready to sacrifice everything. You said that you had made a promise, remember? That was enough to make me hesitate, even if I was in the position to grant your wish.
"It was a sense of obligation that led you to this house, Syaoran. When Keroberos told you about Sakura-san's imminent death, you were instantly weighted down with a heavy burden: the knowledge of the fate of a human soul. You made a promise, then, don't you remember? 'I'll make sure nothing happens to her,' you said. Then, suddenly, the duty to keep her safe fell on you.
"You must understand that duty is one of the heaviest things in the world. It is the overwhelming omnipresence of tremendous obligation. And it requires tremendous sacrifice. Soldiers go to war and die for it, priests give up their souls for it, and police officers are even prepared to kill for it. But, wherever duty is born, it always born from an oath... from a promise. What you said that day in Sakura-san's room was your oath, Syaoran. Even though Keroberos never expressibly held you responsible for Sakura-san's well-being, you felt responsible anyway— and that's all that mattered. That's all it takes for someone to become bound by their own words."
"That still doesn't explain how I was able to come back," Syaoran said. "I had to pay for disrupting the cycle, right? My payment was leaving this world and leaving Sakura. So... why am I here?"
"Like I said before, duty demands sacrifice," Clow said, his voice rising like he was getting to the punchline of an absolutely hilarious joke. "Obligation requires compensation. But duty was not the only motivation you had, Syaoran. There was something else there; something you succeeded in suppressing through the end."
Syaoran's face twisted up in confusion. His eyebrows lowered as he thought hard.
"What was the last thing you remember while being in the Void?" Clow asked, prodding.
"Hearing Sakura's voice," Syaoran said without hesitation. "I... well, 'we' heard Sakura. At first, though, it didn't seem important. And then she said 'I miss you.' That's when everything came back to me, almost all at once. Sakura said my name and I was able to separate myself from whatever that thing was. I got upset... I started wondering why I was where I was and... I yelled out, with my own voice, that I would never make another promise. The next thing I knew, I was on my back in the sandbox next to the penguin slide."
All the while, Clow had been nodding along to Syaoran's story. "When you called out in the Void, you were acting upon a single, very strong emotion. And this emotion, in its purest form, is absolutely unconditional. The bond it creates between two souls is so powerful that it can span worlds, essentially linking those people's energies together. Even when you were assimilated into the Void, your bond with Sakura-san still existed because the energy that made up your being never actually disappeared. It had been scattered and mixed with the universal consciousness, but the link remained. That's how Sakura-san's voice was able to call you back to yourself. Then you only followed the link out of the Void and back to our world."
"But why am I like this?" Syaoran asked, flexing his hands. "How is this body possible when I shouldn't have any energy left to keep it?"
Clow shrugged. "Because you wanted it. I told you, Syaoran. Unlike the initial obligation that took you when you did not want to go, the force that brought you back here from the Void doesn't demand anything of you. It is unconditional and requires no sacrifices, makes no promises, and enforces no restrictions. The energy that you needed to sustain the body I created for you all those months ago is now obsolete."
"But there's no way I'm going to get off without any retribution, is there?" Syaoran said. "What about my punishment? I mean, why doesn't Spinel Sun just sentence me back to the Void?"
"Because you don't belong there."
The soft, cool voice sounded directly behind Syaoran. No sooner had the voice spoken a single syllable then Syaoran was out of his seat and turned around.
Yue was standing there, arms crossed heavily over his chest. His face was as stoic as always, but his ice-blue eyes looked all around Syaoran except directly at him. And, for the first time that Syaoran could recall, Yue's wings were gone from his back. It made him seem smaller than Syaoran remembered.
"Spinel's angry, of course," Yue continued. "But you've made new rules, so the Void can't hold you any longer."
"I made new rules?" Syaoran said skeptically. "I changed the rules of the universe?"
Yue nodded. "It's not unheard of, really. Actually, it happens more often than you'd think. It makes us wonder sometimes who really controls the universe. Is it us, or is it you people? The line tends to blur."
"Maybe it's a combination," Syaoran said slowly. "Like we're in control of some things and you're in control of others."
But Yue just shook his head. "No. It's only that you people don't really know what you're capable of. When you finally do come to realize it, you won't need us anymore... Just like you didn't need me to find your way out of the Void."
"That's what I don't understand," Syaoran said, talking to the floor. His shoulders slumped. "Why didn't you help me? Why did you leave me with Spinel and Chaos without an escape?"
"Because I am bound to rules that don't exist for you," Yue said. "You must understand that you had to figure out how to get out of the Void all on your own. I couldn't do anything for you once you willingly crossed the veil with Spinel that night in the girl's room. That's the difference between us: I am bound by all these regulations that I clearly see and understand, while you are liberated by a universe that is practically beyond your comprehension."
"Is that why you killed me fifty years ago, then?" Syaoran asked, his words coming out more bitter than he meant them to sound. "To teach me some kind of universal lesson?"
Yue was quiet for a few minutes. "We... don't really teach lessons, Syaoran. We do what we have to do and then you people try to make sense of it. And if in all that contemplating and pondering you come to understand more about the universe, that can hardly be considered a lesson. If you learn that birds fly by watching them flit amongst the trees, can the birds really say that they taught you something? And, furthermore, that they meant to teach you that particular thing about them?"
"So, basically, you're saying that my death was just something that had to be done," Syaoran said quietly. "And it wasn't part of some intricate plan created especially for me?"
"No, it wasn't," Yue said. "You were just what we needed. It could have been anyone, but you happened to be there with the attributes that we were looking for. In other words, you weren't born just so I could kill you. You lived your life separately from me until that moment."
"That's really disturbing, though," Syaoran said. "So Order and Chaos can just sweep our lives away whenever it's convenient or serves a purpose for them?"
"Yes," Yue said simply. "In fact, it's happening all over the world at this very moment. But our power over your lives is based on one assumption that you people have somehow engraved into your conscious: that there are some things beyond your control. And, as you showed me when you climbed out of the Void, it is an ungrounded and ultimately incorrect assumption."
Syaoran was quiet, not speaking for several long moments. He continued to stare toward the floor, but held his hands up in front of his face and balled them into fists.
"You have every right to be angry," Yue said, watching Syaoran's clenched hands. "And if you think it will help, you can hit me. I won't feel anything, but you can hit me all you want. I won't stop you."
"No... I'm not angry. Not really," Syaoran said, flexing his hands once more before lifting his head to look directly into Yue's eyes for what seemed like the first time in an eternity. "I was just thinking that... I only met Sakura because I existed in that house when she came there. And I guess, despite everything else, I can't thank you enough for that."
He was surprised when Yue's shoulders dropped sharply like a huge weight had been removed. Syaoran couldn't be sure, but for a few moments Yue's serious, ice-blue eyes seemed to become glassy and soft. As soon as Syaoran could blink, however, the strange expression was gone.
And Yue's wings were back.
"You would have met another girl, you know," Yue said in his usual matter-of-fact tone. He crossed his arms over his chest like he would in the old days when giving Syaoran a lecture about the world. His wings flared slightly. "If you would have lived a normal life fifty years ago."
"But that girl wouldn't have been Sakura," Syaoran said simply.
"No, that's true," Yue said. He shifted his position, pulling his arms tighter inward. "It's amazing how soulmates — even those displaced in time and against all odds — can still find each other with a happy ending. It makes me wonder if there isn't someone else out there; someone higher than any of us who can see all this and make it work."
"If you don't know," Syaoran said, slumping. "What hope do I have in finding out?"
"The odds are better than you think," Yue said. His shadow-smile appeared on his face for a little more than a moment. "Goodbye, Syaoran. And thank you."
"Huh?" Syaoran asked, taken a bit off guard. "What are you thanking me for?"
"That," Yue said as his form faded away. "Is probably the one thing you will never fully understand."
Yue was gone a moment later, leaving the room feeling somehow cooler. But Syaoran felt that Yue wasn't really gone. Not really.
"Goodbye, Yue," Syaoran said to the empty room. He felt a bit awkward, but said the words clearly as if Yue were still standing in front of him. "I'm glad I knew you."
Syaoran turned back around and jumped a little. Clow was still sitting there, holding a cup of tea. The man turned and smiled warmly.
"So nice of him to stop by," he said, taking a long, careful sip of his tea.
"You were listening?" Syaoran asked, glaring harshly.
"Oh, yes," Clow said, amused. "But it wasn't anything I hadn't heard before."
"Then... do you believe what Yue said?" Syaoran asked, drifting back into the seat he'd been sitting in before. A cup of tea was on the table in front of him, but he just stared at it. "Is nothing beyond our control? Can a person really find their own way through life, even with Chaos and Order there to set up cosmic road blocks that we can't even see, let alone predict?"
"I think that's a silly question," Clow said, setting his cup down. "Don't you have enough evidence for yourself to decide one way or the other? You came back from a place that Order and Chaos thought you could never escape from. That alone should be testament enough to the power of the human spirit."
"But I didn't do it on my own," Syaoran said sullenly. "I had Sakura to help me. And I had this."
He reached into his pocket, pulled out The Return card, and set it on the table in front of Clow.
"Now this," Clow said, picking up the card from the table and staring at it as if it were a long lost friend. "This is something that I haven't seen in a while."
"That's how I got out of the Void, isn't it?" Syaoran said, hanging his head. "I don't know what kind of power it has, but it was able to get me out."
"Syaoran," Clow said, chuckling. "This card has as much mystical energy attached to it as a candy wrapper. It's no special object and carries no special attributes." He slid the card back over to Syaoran. "I'm sorry to disappoint you."
"The energy must be gone now," Syaoran said desperately, picking up the card again. "I know it had something to do with why I was able to come back because it was in my pocket when I woke up in the park. I've had for a very long time and I didn't even know until now."
"I know for a fact," Clow said gently. "that there is nothing special about that card because I designed it. And trust me when I say that I didn't put any special energy into it at all."
"Wait," Syaoran said shortly. "You made this card and you're telling me that there's no magic in it? Just who are you trying to fool?"
"I never said I made the card, Syaoran; I only designed it," Clow said. He took a long sip of his tea before continuing. "It is part of a game I created during the 70s to profit off the generation's craving for mysticism. It was quite fun, actually— especially making up all the silly rules and incantations from off the top of my head. A major toy company in the area bought the rights to the game from me two days after I put them up for sale and mass-produced thousands of units for shipment to stores all over the world."
Clow reached over and turned the card face down in front of Syaoran.
"See, now?" Clow said, pointing at the tiny print near the bottom of the card: for entertainment use only. "This isn't even the original card that I made as a prototype. It was produced in a factory and only one of two-hundred-thousand exactly like it. And I haven't so much as touched it until just now.
"So that should settle this debate once and for all. If there is truly magic in the world, Syaoran, it certainly doesn't come from the cards. Understand?"
Syaoran started at the tiny print, reading it a few times over. "The power of the human spirit, huh?" He clenched his hands unconsciously, digging his nails lightly into the wood grain of the table.
Clow glanced sideways at Syaoran and they sat in silence for several long minutes. All the while, Syaoran kept his head down and stared into nothing.
Finally, he said, "But am I really... human?"
"And what do you mean by that?" Clow asked, grinning madly.
"You know, human!" Syaoran said, jumping out of his chair and pacing shortly back and forth. "Am I like everyone else? Am I human the way... Sakura is human?"
"I don't think I understand," Clow said seriously. "What does it mean to be human?"
Syaoran opened his mouth, but quickly closed it again. He paced a couple of times then said, "I don't know! That's why I need you to tell me."
"Syaoran, please sit back down," Clow said, gesturing to the empty seat. "Have some tea."
Syaoran paced a couple more times just out of protest, but eventually sat heavily in his seat. He picked up his tea and sniffed it briefly, then took a careful sip.
"Ug," he said, swallowing the liquid with a grimace. "Bitter."
"To answer your question," Clow said, grinning as he watched Syaoran dump several spoonfuls of sugar into his cup. "I don't think there's a person on the planet that can tell you exactly what it is to be human. Ask a million different people and you'll get a million different answers— right after they have all said 'I don't know.'
"But if being human means that you have strong emotions and have enough senses to tell that the tea you're drinking needs more sugar..." Clow trailed off as Syaoran froze in the middle of stirring a fourth spoonful of sugar into his tea. "Well, I would say that's all there is to it, really."
"I just have to wonder..." Syaoran said, placing his spoon on the table with a little clank. "Even if I can feel things and eat and drink and sleep, is this body just faking everything? Am I really doing all these things because I actually need them, or am I playing a part? Is it possible that I'm just... pretending to be human?"
"The human body is an amazing organism," Clow said coyly. "It functions by a complex network of interdependent systems that are constantly beating, processing, and churning. There are countless parts to the human body, from the most essential vital organs down to the smallest molecule whirling around at the very end of a single strand of hair.
"However, there are basically three components to a human body: bone, fluid, and flesh. And even these most basic parts can be further be lumped into the single category of 'matter'. And can you tell me, Syaoran, what the most general definition of matter happens to be?"
"Matter is energy," Syaoran said after thinking for a few moments. "Energy that's been focused to form any material that occupies space and has mass."
"So it's agreed," Clow said, waving his hand with a flourish. "A human body is simply focused energy. Thus, Syaoran, you are human. As human as any of us, that is."
Syaoran shifted in his seat and, after several long moments, reached out and took a sip of tea. He gulped it uncertainly, then set it back down. He added a few more spoonfuls of sugar to the cup and stirred it slowly.
"The truth is," Clow said, following Syaoran's movements with his eyes. "that we are all only pretending to be human. We have all come from focused energy and, someday, we will all return to that energy. These bodies are so ephemeral; so very temporary that we never actually get enough time to become used to them. If you feel awkward and strange in that body, Syaoran, it's completely normal. There's not a person in the world who feels completely at home even in their own skin one hundred percent of the time."
"Even you?" Syaoran asked curiously.
"Well," Clow said, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands neatly over his stomach amongst the folds in his robes. "Perhaps I am a bad example. However, I think that's only because... I've had time to adjust."
He winked, sending chills down Syaoran's spine.
"We should sit down here, next to this tree," Rika said, indicating a nice little patch of grass that overlooked a rolling field.
"Yeah, that's perfect. The cherry blossoms will look so pretty in the moonlight here," Chiharu agreed.
"Would someone grab the other end of this?" Naoko asked, unfolding the huge checkered blanket and fluffing it out in the breeze.
"I've got it!" Sakura exclaimed, grabbing at one billowing end. She missed it the first time, but got it on the second try.
"Li-san, would you please put this ice in the cooler?" Eriol asked Syaoran, holding out the damp bag.
"Yeah, sure," Syaoran grumbled, snatching the bag away and heading for the small cooler propped against the tree trunk.
"Shall I start unloading the food?" Tomoyo asked, setting down the giant picnic basket on the grass.
"I'm starving," Chiharu admitted. She helped Tomoyo set the covered dishes onto the blanket. "Why don't we start with the rice balls I made? It's a new recipe and I want to know what you guys think."
"Hopefully we'll live to tell you," Yamazaki was able to say before Chiharu knocked the wind out of him with a sharp elbow to the ribs.
Syaoran wandered back to the blanket and took the last empty seat next to Sakura. The food got passed around and, at Yamazaki's instigation, everyone began telling jokes and stories. Eventually, all the jubilation culminated into an enthusiastic food-fight that had the group using their plates as shields and corners of the blanket for cover.
As the sun neared the horizon and the laughter began to subside, Syaoran quietly slipped away and wandered over to the little bridge that ran over a creek in the middle of the park. He leaned against the railing, feeling the cool evening air against his sleeveless arms and savoring the taste of dinner still on his tongue. He shut his eyes and let all his other senses take over.
"Hey," Sakura said, come up behind him. "What are you doing over here?"
"I was just wondering..." Syaoran said over a swell of laughter in the distance. "What I did to deserve all this."
Sakura slid up next to him and draped her arms over the railing. She watched her dark, wavy reflection in the water below. "Actually, I was just wondering the same thing."
"You're you," Syaoran said softly. "That's more than enough reason."
Sakura grabbed Syaoran's hand suddenly, sending a wave of pleasure from the top of his spine into his toes. Sakura slid close and rested her head on his chest.
"Ditto," she said, her voice rumbling his ribcage.
They stood wrapped up in each other as the sun slipped behind the line of the world. Syaoran squeezed Sakura tightly then, as if reassuring himself that they were both solid and real.
"So what did you and Clow-san talk about?" Sakura asked as the horizon enveloped the last bit of sunshine. "It must have been something very interesting to keep a conversation going for over an hour like that."
The knot in Syaoran's stomach tightened again.
"Sakura, I can't..." he began, lowering his head.
But Sakura cut him off right away and grabbed his hands, taking one into each of hers.
"No, it's okay," Sakura said. She looked him right in his eyes. "I don't think I want you to just tell me. It feels like cheating."
She squeezed Syaoran's hands and then let them go. She leaned back against to railing and watched the huge full moon creep up into the sky beyond the cherry blossom trees.
"I want to know everything about you," Sakura said. "But I think I want to do it on my own. I want to figure you out and piece you together."
She turned to him. "Because I know there's a lot of things that you just can't put into words."
Syaoran nodded slowly, ignoring the panging in his chest as best he could. "It must be the same thing with you. You've told me all about yourself, but... I know there's more to you. And I'll find that out too. We can piece ourselves together."
"Yeah," Sakura said, a small, content smile creeping into her voice. "I like the sound of that."
The water trickled softly below them and the trees rustled in the breeze overhead. Sakura slipped one arm around Syaoran's waist and pulled him close. The cherry blossom leaves sifted the moonlight, scattering mottled blue light on Syaoran's arms as he lifted Sakura's chin to look into her eyes. He gently brushed a few strands of hair out of her face and then slid his hand behind her neck to draw her closer. His warm breath beat softly on her cheeks just before their lips met.
It was then that the pang in Syaoran's chest exploded and, for that one fleeting moment, he felt like maybe...
Maybe he did know what it meant to be human after all.
When they finally broke apart, Sakura backed away and studied Syaoran's face seriously in the moonlight. She squinted at him as if she were trying to recognize him from very far away.
"What?" Syaoran said, laughing a little at Sakura's expression.
"Nothing," Sakura said after a moment. She grabbed his hand and they started walking back to the blanket where everyone scrambled to look like they hadn't been watching.
"It's just..." Sakura began, a blush creeping into her voice.
"A long time ago, I had this crazy dream about a maze..."
Disclaimer: CSS is the property of CLAMP and all related companies.
Wow, so it's over finally— emphasis on finally. I'm so sorry to make you all wait forever, but I hope this last chapter was worth it. I hardly consider this work a masterpiece, but I'm proud of it nonetheless. It's not everyday that I finish a near-novel-length story, you know. I should give myself kudos at least for that.
I'll spare you all the end-of-story rant (this chapter was long enough as it is). If you feel your life just won't be complete without my unbiased concluding thoughts, visit my writing journal which is linked in my profile. I promise that I will rant there enough for four stories. ;P
Before I go, I want to extend my thanks to everyone who reviewed for me. I appreciate all your kind words and have seriously taken your criticisms to heart. I'm very happy that my story has entertained you enough to take the time out of your day to tell me so. Thanks again, everyone.
I'll be posting a few new stories soon, so please keep a lookout for me!