My apologies to strictly-san for erroneously referring to this as a birthday request. Anyway, happy reading!
"You could at least give me the benefit of awareness as to what this whole thing is all about," said Eriol as Nakuru dragged him with her to his closet.
"Why are all of your clothes blue?" asked his lunar slave, ignoring him.
"It's the safest color to wear. It matches almost anything, and it's more colorful than white," replied the Londoner, smiling sheepishly.
"Don't you have black outfits? You loved them so much when you were in elementary," said the red-haired woman, turning to him.
"I don't think so." Eriol sat down on his bed and watched her rummage through his clothes. "Nakuru, I just ironed those things. Careful!"
She turned to him, aghast. "You are in the middle of a life and death situation and you're worried about your clothes getting a little wrinkled?"
He sweatdropped. "I'm sorry. You didn't tell me I was in a life and death situation."
"Fine." She faced his closet again. "Your date is an hour away and you still don't have something to wear. If you mess up this date, who knows when would be the next time that you can have a chance like this. If you don't start looking for a girlfriend, you'll never have a wife and a mother for your future son that would host Clow Reed's spirit."
"Nakuru," said Eriol slowly, "if I and another person are really meant to be, fate would do something to oof—" A piece of red shirt landed on his face.
"Ooops," said the lunar guardian, smiling apologetically. "Sorry, Master. My fingers slipped—hey, that's red!"
"Um, yes… and?" It was a shirt that was given away for free to the faculty of Tomoeda University by a fastfood chain that set up a stall in their quadrangle in last year's sports festival
"That will do!" said Nakuru cheerfully. "We'll just pair that with a black jacket and your usual trousers!"
"But—" Before he could protest, the moon servant had pushed him towards the bathroom already.
"Shower as quickly as you can, Master," said Nakuru from outside the door. "We still have so much work to do."
"So that means I can't do my backrubs?" asked Eriol sadly, staring at the rubber ducky that he received as a gift from his students last Christmas. "How tragic."
When his servant finished dressing him, Eriol had to agree that the black and red effect created quite a visual impact of sophistication and class. Now, he just had to remember not to drop the jacket.
Nakuru was now busy bathing him in alcohol. Earlier, she had searched his things for a perfume, which according to her suited this occasion better, but he told her that all he had was an alcologne—an alcohol which doubled as his cologne. He found it an amazing convenience—something that smelled good and at the same time, protected him from the bacteria civilization.
"Okay, done." Nakuru stepped back and examined him carefully. "You look better."
"I'm overwhelmed," he replied smilingly. "So now I wait in the restaurant for her?"
She looked at him, horrified. "Master, no! Without flowers?" She proceeded to describe the proper bouquet for a lady—one that featured a lot of colors, large sizes of flowers, and kinds that weren't roses for a change.
Eriol sighed. "I have a feeling I'm going to borrow money from my friends this week."
Meanwhile, a white car was making its way to a restaurant. Inside it were Daidouji Tomoyo and Mihara Chiharu, who both had not yet changed their office outfits. Chiharu silently gazed at her lady boss, wondering what Sakura told her over the phone that made her boss decide to cancel all her plans this evening and arrange for her driver to go to a fairly-known restaurant.
It sure couldn't involve business; Kinomoto Sakura abhorred discussing those kinds of things with her already workaholic best friend. Then perhaps Sakura had already arrived in Japan? But she swore she saw Sakura's caller ID stating it was made overseas.
And the restaurant they were going to was not Daidouji Tomoyo's usual place—the bistro was decent and cozy, but it wasn't classy enough to reckon the society's A-listers. It was more of a place where first dates happen or families gather for a formal dinner.
"Mind if I ask why we are heading for Calamari?" she finally voiced out, maintaining the respectfulness in her tone.
Tomoyo turned to her. "I'm meeting someone there… for Sakura-chan." The raven-haired lady sighed and rested her head on the plush seat. She didn't need mention to her aide that Sakura whined and begged for her to give one hour of her time to a blind date.
She remembered telling her second cousin in her most patient schoolteacher voice that her time was far too valuable to spend on meetings that weren't as pressing as her other business-related ones, but Sakura had tugged on her most sensitive heartstring.
"It's the least you could do for your sick, struggling best friend here in Hongkong."
So setting aside the wry inner observation she made on how Sakura was manipulating her so overtly, she agreed. One hour. She didn't need to enjoy it, and she didn't need to feel responsible to make her date enjoy it. It was a little satisfaction on her part when things were put that way.
"Do we have a timetable for this meeting?" asked Chiharu dutifully. It was her role to watch the clock as Tomoyo smoothly interacted with her business associates. If ever her boss felt that the actual business was over and the men were just lingering for small talks and tentative attempts to ask her out, she would give a sign and Chiharu would interrupt to give her a graceful exit.
"Sixty minutes." Tomoyo took out a compact mirror from her handbag and inspected herself. Sighing, she reached for her makeup kit to retouch her fatigued face.
"I can't believe it!" Nakuru slammed the phone down in frustration. "Just about every car rental in town refused to service Master Eriol!"
Spinel rolled its eyes. "Look, no car rental in the world would accept I-O-Us."
"Well, they should!" She crossed her arms in front of her chests, scowling. "Master Eriol happens to be the most powerful mage in this world!"
"That is something they'll never understand in this lifetime, Nakuru. Not everyone believes in magic that don't have dollar signs written all over it, so live with it." The feline threw its master a wry glance. "If you only accepted my suggestion that you turn that raving lunatic over there," it gestured to its counterpart guardian, "into a twig and then pretend you haven't heard anything about blind dates today, then you won't have to go through with this."
Eriol chuckled. "It's been quite awhile since I last ate something that isn't canned tuna or fried eggs. If ever my date gets bored of me and leaves me, then I'll help myself with her share."
"Such optimism," retorted the cat before it gave a surrendering sigh and went back to reading the next chapter of its book.
"How will you reach the restaurant in time, Master?" asked Nakuru in despair.
"Well, since I don't have a pumpkin, then this Cinderella has no choice but to walk." Eriol looked out and inspected the surrounding. "It's a little rainy… spring rain, hmm?"
"I hope your date likes soggy men," remarked Spinel, not looking up from its book.
The maitre d' looked stunned but very pleased when he saw who his next customer was. After all, she was the type of patron that no restaurant would turn down at any cost. Her face, though numerously featured in television shows and publications, was one that no pair of eyes would ever tire of seeing. Her figure was modestly wrapped in a simple teal dress, and yet, it couldn't conceal the refined grace that only the most cultured breeding could create. But the real price tag was essentially unseen—her persona that only people who lived under the rocks could not identify with awestruck certainty.
"We're glad to have you, Miss Daidouji," he greeted cordially, unable to resist a small bow. This woman commanded a respect that bordered on reverence. He met a lot of known personalities in his line of work, but no one could ever come close to this person.
He received a warm smile from her. "Thank you. I'm meeting someone here," she began. "I'm afraid I wasn't given a face, let alone a name to identify him. But my cousin assured me that a reservation has been made."
"Ah. Please give me a moment to check." The headwaiter looked at the master list for tonight's reserved seats. "Yes, a table for two." He politely led the way. "This way, please."
As he walked, he was aware of the surprised gazes that followed them. He smiled inwardly, knowing this was going to be a very helpful publicity to this establishment.
He had the power to command the winds, the rain, and the elements, but tonight, Eriol Hiiragizawa chose to be a mere spectator to nature's symphonic performance. Clutching his raincoat and holding his umbrella tighter, he continued walking towards the rendezvous point for the night.
When he first promised himself that he would live like normal human beings, he learned firsthand that normalcy brought about a lot of inconveniences. Suddenly, he had to learn how to run a household efficiently, line up in Sunday grocery queues, ride in crowded subway trains, and figure out on his own to tie clotheslines that don't easily fall.
In the process, he realized that normal people had their own shares of battles too, although not necessarily in Armageddon proportions. Enemies came in various faces: bills, taxes, annoying superiors, traffic jams, and the like.
Humans utilized an assortment of ways to deal with these: some were successful, some weren't. But what amazed him was the normal human being's innate resiliency. Even when knocked down on their feet, they still get up, with much more determination far from the blinded rage of a wounded animal out for revenge.
This awareness came as an epiphany for someone like him who lived quite a sheltered life in his past lifetimes. For the first time, he learned how to be part of life's daily affairs, and for all those often-not-easy adjustments, he recognized how nice it felt for his existence to be acknowledged, even by a few small people like his rowdy university students or his fellow professors.
So despite of how history and literature painted humans in not-so-flattering colors, he had learned to love mankind for what it was: a crazy mixture of the bad, the beautiful, and the plain bewildering.
The lighted sign of Calamari's snapped him back to reality. Running a hand over his damp azure hair, he went inside, hoping Suppi's confidence-yanking remark would prove true.
Tomoyo saw him trudge inside, his hair still dripping, the frame of his glasses catching small raindrops that twinkled from afar. He was chatting animatedly with the maitre d', who tactfully kept to himself whatever his disapproval was for the man's soaked state.
I should have known. Of course, Sakura-chan had always been fond of Hiiragizawa Eriol, and it went beyond Clow Reed connections. Her best friend was charmed by the Londoner since elementary, and had always looked up to him as a wise older brother of some sort. She wouldn't be surprised if Eriol had asked Sakura to mediate for him to get this opportunity she selfishly kept from him.
Despite her discomfort at seeing the person she had avoided deliberately for many times already, she still couldn't help but watch him silently as he navigated his way to her place, oblivious of the stares that followed his back. This came with grudging admiration for his guts to walk inside a semi-fancy restaurant, drenched to the bone, and yet with no care for the world.
She inhaled deeply as he sat down. Quietly, she prepared herself for whatever he was going to say on those appointments that she wouldn't give him.
But instead he sat down, smiling apologetically as he rubbed his lenses with his hanky. "The nice man over there told me that my vision would be blurry all night if I don't wipe this. I nearly forgot what these air-conditioners could do to one's wet glasses."
She blinked, not expecting this kind of opener from him.
He placed his eyeglasses back smilingly. "I'm sorry if I had kept you waiting—" His eyes widened.
And once more, she was taken aback by the genuine surprise in his eyes.
"I think my eyeglasses were damaged by the rain," he said slowly. "I was supposed to meet someone… oh, never mind." He started to get up, muttering about wrong tables, but she stopped him.
"Who arranged your meeting for tonight?" she wanted to know.
He scratched his cheek. "Actually… it was Sakura-chan. She was compassionate enough to give me a birthday mystery date."
That verified it. "Then just call me a mystery revealed." She gestured to the seat he was about to vacate. "Please."
He sat down, face still confused.
"Sakura-chan asked me to meet a man celebrating his twenty-ninth birthday today. I had no idea it was you." Her tone was that of a person who couldn't believe he even had a place in the calendar.
"And Nakuru relayed to me Sakura-san's intention for me to go out tonight with someone. I had no idea it was you." He chuckled. "And here I was, intentionally late because I was hoping my date would leave so I could finish her meal."
She fought the surrendering urge of her businesslike demeanor. "So… let's fulfill Sakura-chan's wish and execute this…this… meeting," she finished lamely, for the lack of proper words.
He laughed, making her eyebrow arch. "I wasn't making a joke, Hiiragizawa-kun," she said sternly.
"You make this thing sound so mechanical," he replied, "like a computer program with a strict algorithm."
"Which is what exactly it should be," she responded curtly. "Hiiragizawa-kun, I'm sorry if I would be blunt with you but dates are not my cup of tea. I am too busy for those kinds of trivialities. It just so happens that this favor was asked by my closest friend and I couldn't directly say 'no'. Now my intention is to finish the allotted time I gave this activity and then leave."
When she finished, she looked at him to see his reaction. But to her dismay, he was just browsing the menu nonchalantly, as if she was just commenting something about the weather. "Their French terms for their dishes are grammatically wrong. Are you sure we're getting our money's worth here?" he whispered smilingly.
She flushed slightly. "Hiiragizawa-kun, I was saying something about—"
He nodded gently. "I heard you the first time. I'm sorry if you felt that Sakura-san had coerced you into doing something you don't like. She may have her reasons, but then, you may also have your own reasons for not liking this kind of… meetings." A gleeful smile formed on his face. "Very well, I shall respect your wish and make this date work exactly like a computer program."
Did he just make fun of me? Tomoyo didn't know what to think as she watched the peculiar man smooth the napkin on his lap and then reached for the menu.
A waiter then came, greeting them courteously and asking what they would be having.
Eriol stared long and hard at the menu, and then looked up smilingly. "A glass of water, please."
The waiter did a double take. "Won't you consider trying our house specialties, Sir? We are the best seafood restaurant in town, and I'm sure you won't regret tasting any of our dishes."
"Water is the primary seafood," he said seriously, but she could see a twinkle of mischief in his cerulean eyes. "I most certainly hope you do your water right."
The uniformed man smiled uncertainly. "B-But of course, Sir." He hurriedly turned to her. "And what will you be having, Ma'am?"
She placed her order as the waiter dutifully wrote it down. A couple of minutes later, they were alone in the table again.
"As we wait for our meal, we must engage in a conversation," Eriol said, mimicking an android drone. "Dating experts agree that five minutes of conversation complies with the etiquette standards of the society."
"Hiiragizawa-kun, stop acting like a…" The PR specialist in her stopped herself from blurting out loud what she was intending to say. Searching for better terms, she finished, "…silly person."
"I'm. Not. Silly. Robots. Are. Not. Programmed. Silly. With. Silicons. Maybe. But. Not Silly."
She was finding it harder and harder a battle to fight the smile threatening to form on her face. "Alright. Stop that act and we'll talk."
"Processing command. Applying changes…"
"Changes have been applied. But system needs to restart for changes to take effect. Would you like to restart now?" he asked monotonously.
"Yes," she said, going along with his role-playing.
And thankfully, his tone returned to its normal human form. No, wait, her thanks were too premature—the playful twinkle in his eyes was more apparent than ever.
"Daidouji-san, glad to be back! For awhile, I thought a computer ghost would forever possess my body!"
She cupped her chin. "I was expecting a more meaningful conversation than this."
"Meaningful is a relative word." Eriol shrugged casually. "Besides, don't fight that smile, Daidouji-san. I have tried and tested this thing on my students—and I of all people should know that if you can make astrophysics students laugh, then you can make anyone-- even a grumpy grandfather turtle-- laugh."
Eriol felt a warm hand touch his heart when he saw it – like daybreak after a long winter—the little smile that blossomed on her face.
Almost instantaneously, Tomoyo's posture relaxed slightly. He was inwardly relieved when he saw that she wasn't angered by his comical demeanor born of living with someone like Akizuki Nakuru under a single roof.
Usually, he didn't try this hard to make a woman laugh. His female colleagues and students were always ready to laugh at his soft tirades on supercilious textbooks, Nakuru was in seventh heaven if he so much as cooperated with her in playing a prank on Suppi, and Kaho told him somewhat flippantly that his awkward attempts at seducing her in vain in the early years of their relationship was one for the joke clubs to tell to the next generation.
But seeing Daidouji Tomoyo's elusive smile now richly rewarded his corny efforts. It was more than how her smile amplified the beauty of the woman— even when stripped off of his Clow Reed foresight, he knew it had been a very long time since she last knew smiles that weren't necessarily practiced.
The waiter came, carrying her meal and his glass of water. He politely delivered his job and then evaporated quickly.
"Are you okay with just that?" she asked after a while, looking at his sparkling beverage.
"I shouldn't fill myself," he explained smilingly. "Last night, I saw an ice cream gallon in the freezer. Nakuru wouldn't forgive me if I don't finish that with her tonight."
"Why did you return to Tomoeda?" she asked all of a sudden.
"From ice cream to personal probing." But he gamely answered her anyway. "It's the first place I thought of after I decided a change of pace in life."
"If you wanted a change of pace, you should start building a family," she said. "I heard it's quite challenging."
"I wish it's as simple as building DNA blocks together," he replied lightly. "But it's much, much more complicated than that. And I never thought of families as hobbies."
"I didn't mean that," she said defensively. "I just thought everyone, including you, follow a pattern of life. Birth, puberty, fooling around, marriage, a little more fooling around, offspring, and then the inevitable death."
"That's a rather dry look at life, Daidouji-san," he commented gently.
"Why bother painting life romantically?" she replied. "It's something I learned while growing up, a lot like discovering Santa Claus is a Christmas poster child encouraged by commercialism."
"That makes me wonder what kind of journey you undertook to find such discovery."
A sharp exhale from her. "That was a colored statement, Hiiragizawa-kun."
He suddenly turned apologetic. "I saw a lot of things in all those recollections I've gathered in all my previous lifetimes. One of my fondest memories is the eleven-year-old Daidouji-san who taught me that life is anything but dust breathed with ego. I guess I was just taken by surprise by your newfound beliefs in life."
She folded her napkin. "This dinner is over." She stood up to go when he spoke, startling her.
"I never got around to say this, but I wish to thank you."
She faced him, puzzled. "For what?"
"For opening my eyes to some things I had never really seen before," he said softly. "I had long wanted to tell you this in person, but chances to talk to you are slim. You are the busiest woman in town."
"Ridiculous," she said. "You are Clow Reed's persona. There's nothing that you don't know, let alone something a mere mortal like me could teach you. If you intend to flatter me, then I must tell you I'm in no mood for it."
"Exactly," he agreed. "In his whole lifetime, Clow Reed never knew humanity. And my first concept was born because of you."
Her forehead creased. "First… concept?"
He got up. "I'm sorry for ruining a night that initially promised to be wonderful. But I was really glad to see you again… I really am. I hope you let me at least walk you to your car."
"I can find my way there on my own, thank you very much," she said stiffly.
He smiled affably in reply, just as Chiharu rushed in, vigilant of the sixty-minute mark.
Tomoyo watched Eriol silently from the tinted windows of her car as he struggled to open his umbrella. It was raining outside—much more heavily than awhile ago, to be sure. But the cheery man didn't seem to take offense of nature's tantrums. He had good-naturedly clutched his jacket tighter as moist gusts of wind assaulted him.
"Should we offer Mr. Hiiragizawa a ride?" asked Chiharu, who was watching her boss watch the professor.
She nodded slowly.
Eriol heard the roar of engine beside him as he treaded the slippery sidewalk leading the way out of the seafood restaurant. He turned to it and saw the familiar color of the vehicle.
A second later, the driver's window rolled down, revealing Daidouji Tomoyo's driver.
"Miss Daidouji will drop you to your house." It wasn't a question or a command. It was a fact. His thought was strengthened when the side door of the vehicle opened invitingly.
Shrugging, he climbed inside the car.
to be continued