L-chan's notes:  Shocked to see this updated?  Yeah, me too.  I'm really sorry it sat unloved for so long. 

Disclaimer:  See Chapter 9.

Take My Advice

Chapter 10—Dear Confused

Syaoran read the words again, even though he'd memorized them.  It had been a week since "Hope" answered his ridiculous letter, and he still didn't know what to do.

It was a stupid idea in the first place, he thought, cursing his ancestor for planting that bug in his ear.  She obviously has no idea what she's talking about.  I could have gotten better advice from an American fortune cookie.

He sighed and returned the newspaper clipping to his backpack, tucking it inside one of the pockets where it would be safely hidden.  He didn't know why he was keeping it.  It only reminded him of a problem he wasn't really even sure he had.  Damn Hiiragizawa.  Any chance to blame things on the blue-eyed sorcerer.

The wind blew past with a chilly gust, unusual for this time of year, and Syaoran pushed his unruly brown hair out of his eyes.  He kicked at a pebble on the sidewalk and leaned against the brick wall of the school, waiting for Sakura to finish her cheerleading practice.

That was the root of his imaginary problem.  They hadn't been spending any time together lately.  If they did, then he'd remember why'd he'd come to care for the cheerful girl with the sparkling green eyes.  The girl who could make his heart lighter with just the lilting sound of her laughter.  The girl who could make him smile with a sarcastic quip and a haughty toss of her long black hair.

Damn.  How did Meiling's image impose itself over Sakura's?

He'd just been living with his cousin for too long.  But doesn't familiarity breed contempt?  Or is that contentment?  No, it's absence makes the heart grow fonder.  That didn't seem to fit either.  Let's see.  A bird in the hand— 

"Waiting for me?"

Syaoran was abruptly pulled from his meandering thoughts by the wry voice of his second least favorite person.  "Hardly," he shot back, assuming his best scowl.

Eriol shrugged.  "Well, maybe someday," he said with a feigned sigh of wistfulness.  "I'm headed for the arcade.  Want to come?"

"No," Syaoran answered rudely.  Then he caught himself and realized he didn't need to be so surly.  Besides, it only seemed to encourage his nemesis.  "No, thank you," he amended, but still glaring a bit.  "Sakura should be done with cheerleading club any time now, and we'll probably do something together."

"Ah," the other boy said with a knowing nod.  "That sounds promising."

"So, don't let me keep you," Syaoran continued.  The strain of being polite was already wearing on him.

Eriol's eyes twinkled behind his round glasses.  "I always have time for my favorite descendant," he teased.  "But don't tell your darling cousin I said that.  She thinks she's my favorite."

"And why is that?" Syaoran asked, prolonging this conversation that he hadn't wanted to start.  The mention of Meiling had aroused his curiosity.  Had Meiling and Eriol been getting close?  That didn't make much sense.  Eriol was still with Kaho, as far as Syaoran knew, and Meiling had always kept a careful distance from Eriol.  She didn't quite trust him, which only made Syaoran like her more.

"I've always had a weakness for the feisty ones," Eriol answered.  "You two are alike that way.  But I'm sure you knew that already."  He checked his watch for no apparent reason and hefted his backpack over his shoulder.  "Well, I'll leave you to it.  Good luck."

Good luck?  "What does that mean?" Syaoran asked, making the other boy stop and turn around again.

"It means whatever you want it to mean," Eriol replied enigmatically.  He gave his descendant a mocking salute and a sardonic grin.  "See you on the other side."

Syaoran was left to wonder what in the world had gotten into his obnoxious ancestor.  Nothing he said ever made any sense.  It was as if Eriol just strung words together without rhyme or reason, plucking them from the air and weaving them into something that sounded like a sentence, but only if one didn't pay very close attention.  If he's trying to tell me something, why can't he just say what it is?

"Been waiting long?"

This time it was Sakura's cheerful voice that greeted him, and he turned his attention to the honey-haired girl as she approached.  "Not really," he answered in his usual brusque manner.

"That's good."  She studied his blank expression carefully, perhaps wondering why after five years she was no closer to figuring him out.  "So, are we going to your place?"

Meiling was probably already there.  He didn't think he could handle being around both of them right now.  "Not today," he answered vaguely. 

"Okay.  Want to go to my house?"

"Is your brother home?"

Sakura considered that possibility.  "Probably," she decided.

"No, thanks." 

"Then where should we go?  I mean, we usually—"

"I know 'we usually,'" Syaoran interrupted.  "The choices are always the same."  Before Sakura could reply, he started walking, the uncertainty of the destination not stopping him.  She was left to follow in confusion.

"Is something wrong?" she asked.

He sighed and shook his head.  He didn't know why he was trying to ruin their afternoon with his surly mood.  And he didn't know why he was taking it out on her.  She hadn't done anything.  Maybe that was part of the problem.

"Syaoran-kun...."

"It's nothing," he said, waving away her concern.  "Let's go get some ice cream or something."  His tone made the suggestion sound as pleasant as a trip to the dentist.

"We don't have to."

"Yes, we do."  He reached into his pocket and counted out his change.  "Yeah, I've got enough.  Let's go."

They took their ice cream to the park and found a bench near the pond.  The afternoon breeze rippled across the water's smooth surface, disrupting its generally calm state.  A pair of birds flew by, squawking to each other in an argument only they could understand.  Other than that, and the occasional rustling of the ice cream wrappers, it was uncomfortably silent.

There couldn't be anything worse than the scenarios playing out in his head.  The dread of letting it go for too long.  The oppressive silence bearing down on him like the weight of the world.  "What are we doing?" Syaoran finally asked.

"Besides the obvious?" Sakura answered, but he wasn't in a joking mood.  "I don't know.  What are we doing?" she repeated hesitantly.

"How do you feel about me?" he asked.  "I mean really.  Seriously."

She looked away.  "I don't know what you're getting at."

It wasn't the answer he was looking for.  It wasn't an answer at all.  "Why are we together?" he tried.

"Because we love each other."

He knew that was true.  He did love her.  But not in the way he'd always thought.  "And why else?"

She still wasn't looking at him, and she blinked quickly, maybe trying to force back tears.  "Well, back when we were capturing the cards—"

Syaoran stopped her there.  "The cards," he said with emphasis.  "The cards brought us together."

Sakura nodded and stared down at her feet.  "That's how it was supposed to be."

Is it?  He remembered Eriol's comments after Sakura had finished changing the cards.  Eriol had said that he'd misinterpreted how Yue and Sakura would feel about each other.  He hadn't been able to predict how their hearts would choose.  So was she supposed to choose me?  Over Yue?  Over anyone?  It didn't make any sense.  And I wasn't a part of that prediction at all.  The Li family had sent him here to get the cards, but he'd failed.

And Meiling had followed him here.  If he hadn't come to Tomoeda, Meiling wouldn't have, either.  They wouldn't have lived together for the past five years, fighting and teasing and confiding and getting on each other's nerves.  They still would have been cousins and friends, but they never would have had a closer, deeper relationship like the one they had now.

Syaoran couldn't explain this to Sakura.  If everything played out the way it was supposed to, then he was supposed to come here and to lose the cards to her.  He was supposed to help her, and he was supposed to be her friend.  But maybe there was never meant to be anything more than that between them.

"So, other than the cards, what is there?"

"What are you saying, Syaoran?"

He flinched at her pointed use of his name.  There was a time when it made him flush pink from the tips of his ears to the bottom of his feet.  Now he wished she wouldn't say it at all.  Or look at him with her green eyes shimmering with apprehension.

"I don't know.  Just forget it."  He wanted to kick himself, or run himself through with his sword.  She didn't deserve this.  Was it her fault that his feelings had changed?

Because now he knew for certain that they had.  He wasn't avoiding this talk because he secretly wanted to stay with her.  He was avoiding it because he didn't want to hurt her.  But it was too late.  When he dared to look at her with a peripheral glance, he saw it written all over her face.  She knew.

People called her oblivious.  People teased her about it.  But she knew.  She'd learned long ago that by feigning naiveté, she could discover much more than anyone might have told her otherwise.  She could be keenly observant and sensitive.  Maybe things like sarcasm and algebraic equations didn't sort themselves out in her mind, but anything dealing with magic or emotions was as clear to her as the midnight sky.

"Do you want to... break up?" she asked, her voice trembling ever so slightly as she dared him to look at her.

"I don't know," he said again. 

He couldn't pretend with her.  It was only because of all the time they'd spent apart lately that she hadn't figured it out sooner.  "I don't believe you, Li Syaoran," she said shakily.

There was nothing for him to say to that.  She shouldn't believe me.  He knew he should apologize, but the words were trapped somewhere between his brain and his mouth.  His lungs wouldn't give them breath for force, and his lips wouldn't give them shape for sound.

"Why?" she asked.  "What did I do?"

"You didn't do anything," he reassured her quickly.  "I just think...."  Why were the words coming now?  Why these words, excuses instead of regrets?  "We're drifting apart.  It's better to realize that now instead of later."  Even he knew that was a line of nonsense.

"Is this because of Tomoyo-chan?"

"No.  What?"  He had no idea why Daidouji's name had a place in this conversation.

She seemed to misunderstand her own reasoning behind that question.  "Is there someone else?"

He couldn't answer her.  He wouldn't.

And that was her answer.  She stood up to go.

"Wait, Sakura...."  He tried to reach out to her, but she jerked away harshly.

"Don't.  Don't touch me.  Don't talk to me.  Don't...."  She shook her head and ran away before he could offer any more lame excuses.

I was wrong.  This was much worse than doing nothing.

***

Meiling glanced again at the empty space across the dinner table.  Syaoran should have been home long before now.  He hadn't called to say he'd be late, and she knew his soccer team was only having a brief meeting after school.  He must be with Kinomoto-san, she realized, pushing the last bit of broccoli around her plate as Wei stood by, watching her.  And he is.  You know that.

"If you're finished, Meiling-sama," Wei said, pulling her from her thoughts.

"No, Syaoran's not here yet," she said childishly.  She didn't want to get up from the table before he'd eaten.  Even though his plate remained just as empty as his chair, and the pitiful remaining sprigs of broccoli in front of her were cold and limp.  She'd never liked broccoli, and Wei knew that.  He usually made her eat it anyway.  But tonight, he hadn't insisted.  It was his subtle, formal way of comforting her in her time of melancholy.

Meiling sighed and pushed her chair back.  "I changed my mind.  I'm finished.  Thank you."  She had homework and two new letters to Hope waiting in her room, ready to provide a much needed distraction.

She was helping Wei carry dishes to the kitchen when the apartment door opened.  There was a scuffling sound as Syaoran removed his shoes, but he didn't call out to announce his arrival.  The two of them exchanged a curious glance before meeting him in the hallway.

"Syaoran-sama, wel—"  Wei's words died immediately upon seeing the disheartened expression on the young master's face.

Meiling wasn't as willing to remain silent.  "You're late for dinner.  Where were you?"

"Not now, Meiling."

"But, Syaoran—"

"Not now, Meiling."  He went to his room and slammed the door behind him.

She recoiled visibly, only realizing her reaction when she felt Wei's hand come to rest on her shoulder.  "Give him time," the old man said sympathetically.

Meiling looked up at him, questions forming in her ruby eyes.  "How do you know—?"

"Believe it or not, I was your age once.  And I know that when a teenage boy wants to be left alone, it is best to respect that wish."

"He's not mad at me, is he?"  She hadn't even spoken to Syaoran since breakfast, and nothing she'd said then was bad enough to put him in a mood.

"Probably just a bad day.  It happens."

"He missed dinner," she said stupidly, still focusing on that one mundane detail.  She refused to consider anything more complicated right now.

"I'll make him eat something later.  For now, I believe you have a history assignment that requires your attention."

If he was aware of the extent of the problems the two young people were suffering, he didn't let on.  But Meiling was grateful for whatever insight he had.  Wei was the closest thing she had to a parent here in Japan, caretaker and disciplinarian and adviser, and while growing up under his tutelage, she'd never thought of him as a family employee.  Just family.  "Thanks," she said, offering him a small smile.

"For reminding you of your homework?"

"For reminding me that I have plenty of other things to worry about without borrowing more."

"Well, that's life for you, isn't it?" he mused.  "Fortunately, life's worries can sometimes be interrupted by more important things.  Chocolate cake, for instance."

Meiling brightened a bit more.  "There's chocolate cake?"

"For those of us who have fulfilled our day's responsibilities, yes."

Was there a moral in there somewhere?  About being rewarded for doing the right thing?  Or was it simply an incentive to get her work done?  Either way, she appreciated the message.  Maybe that would help her practice patience.  At the very least, it gave her something to look forward to.  And she could certainly use that right now.

~~-~~

We're nearly to the end.  But I don't know when I'll have the next chapter up.  Keep an eye out, because I'm not abandoning this story until it's done.  Thanks so much for reading.