The two of them tumbled to the living room floor like a pair of acrobats. Sakura giggled. "You're easy to sneak up on, Syaoran," she said, rolling over and letting him sit up.
His coffee-colored eyes flicked up to her, his look of surprise softening until a smile warmed his face. "Sakura-hime, I didn't think you knew I was back."
Her features twisted with false indignation. "I told you to call me Sakura. Just Sakura. And how could I not know you were back?"
His expression shifted again, wary for a moment as he tried to decide whether the fury on her face was genuine or not. When she stubbornly held her pose, he panicked. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to . . . I mean, I just got back, so . . ."
She moved a hand to her lips to suppress her laughter. "Syaoran, I always know when you come back. The excavation team has to cross right through the bazaar on their way back from the ruins. You're always with them. And besides . . ." Her smile faded as her cheeks turned red. "There was something important I needed to tell you."
"Sa-ku-ra," she reminded him sternly. Maybe he'll call me by name after today, she thought, opening her mouth to say the words. Maybe the most important words I'll ever say. "Syaoran, I . . . There's something I've been wanting to tell you for a while now."
His face turned quizzical as he took in her expression. He doesn't know, she thought. He doesn't understand. It had taken her weeks to get him to smile after they'd first met, so she knew she shouldn't have assumed he'd understand the reason for her blush, the meaning behind her hesitation. But part of her wanted him to say it first, before she choked on the words.
"Sakura? Are you all right?"
My name. Yes, he's finally calling me by name. "I wanted to say . . . I lo—" The sound of bells exploded through the tiny house, slamming against her eardrums. Her head whipped around toward the open window, her lips twisting into a snarl as she identified the cause of the disturbance. Touya, you jerk!
Syaoran stared at her, waiting breathlessly for her proclamation, not even knowing what she'd been about to say. For a moment, she considered ignoring the order to return; the bells might have been the signal for her to go back to the castle, but another minute here probably wouldn't alarm anyone. But it could be a disaster, she thought. Maybe we're under attack, and Touya needs me back at the castle. "I have to go."
Some of the fervor left his eyes, and he leaned back, realizing how close they'd come during their brief conversation. "I'll see you soon, then," he said, his voice carrying just the barest echo of the gloom she felt. She gathered up her white and pink cloak, remembering how Yukito-san had given it to her two years ago, to keep the desert sandstorms from wreaking havoc on her skin. At the door, she hesitated. "That thing I wanted to tell you . . . I'll tell you tomorrow, okay?"
She hurried out the door, not allowing herself any more time to hesitate. Big brother will already be mad enough as it is.
Annoyance flickered through her as she passed through the Clow Bazaar. From the smiles of her people, and the offerings of gifts from each of the stalls, she knew the castle hadn't been attacked. Touya called me back for nothing, she thought, trying to smile graciously as a man handed her a fresh basket of apples. With the basket in hand, she waved off the other offered gifts on the pretext that she wouldn't be able to carry them.
Clow Castle wasn't heavily guarded, like some. Surrounded by desert on all sides, Clow Country was impractical to go to war with, and not much of a threat to other nations. It had been centuries since they'd been involved in anything larger than a territorial dispute. She walked through the castle gates with little fanfare, then hurried up to the upper level, where she was to report whenever the bells rang for her.
"Found you, Sakura."
She whirled around. "Big brother, why did you call me back?"
The dark-haired man grinned wickedly. "You were hanging out with that brat again, weren't you?"
"His name is Syaoran, and he's not a brat."
"Is too. A little brat who digs around in his sandbox all day, pretending to be an archeologist."
She scowled, opening her mouth to retort. Yukito-san intervened before she could, his arms full of scrolls. "Princess Sakura," he greeted her before turning to Touya. "Your Majesty, you have business to attend to. The gala next month."
Touya looked up, groaning. "Does it have to be right now?"
Yukito smiled. "You're the king. You have duties."
Her brother sighed and turned back to her. "Stay inside the palace. The archeologists brought back reports of sandstorms around the ruins. The winds could hit us any time now."
"It's just sand," she argued.
"You're staying inside until it blows over. Let your little twerp of a friend run around in the sandstorm if he wants. You're the princess, and you're staying here."
"The king is right," Yukito-san said. "The reports say the storms are getting quite vicious. We're sending an edict out to all citizens to stay inside until the weather clears."
Her head drooped down. If Yukito-san's not taking my side, it must be pretty serious. She turned and headed toward her room, dejected. I'll tell Syaoran I love him first thing tomorrow morning, she thought to herself. Before Touya wakes up.
The curtain over her door parted for her as she slipped inside. Within the clay walls of her room sat a soft bed with pink, silk sheets. Books, toys, and other materials sat on shelves, to keep her entertained while Syaoran was away. She put on a pair of pajamas and slipped under the covers, too depressed to do much besides close her eyes and sleep. Within minutes, dreams took her to some faraway place where she could be with Syaoran without her brother interrupting.
In her dream, Syaoran was braiding her hair, manipulating the fine, sunset-colored strands with nimble fingers. Though her hair was cut short to keep the sand from sticking to it, his delicate touch allowed him to catch the wisps and twine them together so they fell down the sides of her face like waterfalls.
She often had dreams like these, dreams where he wasn't afraid to touch her, where he would play with her hair or touch her face. Once, she'd dreamed that he'd kissed her, as if he'd done it every day for years.
"I love you," dream-Syaoran said, twisting a lock of hair with two others to start another braid. Sakura felt her lips curl up into a smile.
"I love you, too, Syaoran," she said. If only I could say that so easily, some distant part of her thought. The thought quickly vanished from the dream.
"But I have to go soon," Syaoran went on, his features darkening a little bit as he said it.
Sakura cocked her head to the side in confusion. "Why? Where are you going?"
"Away. I won't be able to stay with you anymore."
No, this isn't right, she thought, her conscious mind surfacing briefly before the ocean of dreams took her under again.
"The feathers are going to scatter, all over."
"What does that mean?" she asked, leaning toward him in desperation.
"When the sandstorms come, the feathers will scatter, and I'll have to move on from this world."
"No. Stay, please."
"I can't. I'll be . . . gone." He looked up at the sky. The stars reflected in his striking eyes, and for a moment, his gaze looked more ancient than the wing-shaped ruins of Clow. "I'll be gone, somewhere you can't follow."
"No. No, Syaoran, you have to stay, I need to . . . I need to . . ." She struggled for the words, struggled to say them as easily as she had a few moments ago. It was vitally important for him to hear. He had to hear, otherwise . . .
Something bad will happen, she knew.
She woke abruptly to see stars glittering beyond her windows. She sat up, disoriented, and got to her feet. Something bad . . . she thought, stripping off her pajamas and hastily putting on a fresh outfit. She was almost out the door before she remembered to pick up her white and pink sand-cloak. I'll need this in case the storms get bad, she thought, stretching the fabric over her shoulders.
Feeling more agitated by the second, she hurried down the corridor leading to the grand staircase. Where are all the people? she wondered. The castle guards should be at their stations, no matter how late it is. Where have they gone?
She reached the stairs then, and froze where she stood. At the bottom of the steps, lying in a lake of crimson, were the missing guards. Rips in their clothes revealed the nature of their death. There's an assassin in the castle, she thought, almost turning back toward Touya's room to warn him, then stopping. No, if the guards are dead, the assassins would've reached Touya's room a long time ago. I might be the only one left. I have to get out of here. She raced down the steps, wincing at the loud footfalls of her shoes against the hardened clay. When she reached the pool of blood at the bottom, she edged around it, averting her eyes. I have to find Syaoran. He'll protect me, even if the guards can't.
Unless he's the one in danger, she thought, the surreal certainty of her dreams leaking into her conscious mind.She moved faster, bursting through the massive exterior doors. The city was silent, empty, as if everyone had died peacefully in their sleep. When she saw no imminent threat, she ran down the castle steps and into the bazaar, taking the quickest path to Syaoran's house. Please, let him be there.
Her ears focused in on the sound of shifting sand, and she looked over to see swirls of the grainy substance whipping all around the cluster of houses where Syaoran lived. Her heart pounded. "When the sandstorms come, the feathers will scatter . . ." he'd said.
"What does that mean?" she wondered aloud. Several steps later, she pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, to keep the sand out of her eyes. The wisps of sand she'd seen a moment ago had whipped up into an impressive storm, more like a tornado than a whirlwind. She kept low to the ground, exposing as little surface area to the shifting winds as possible. The storm still slowed her down, though, and by the time she burst through the doors of Syaoran's house, he was gone. "Syaoran! Syaoran, where are you?" A fit of coughing shook her frame as her lungs attempted to expel the sand she'd inhaled. More shifting particles poured through the open window. Why did he leave the window open? she wondered, squinting.
Because that's how he left. There were times when she just knew things, knew them without having any solid evidence in favor of that conclusion. And as with her dream, this was one of those times.
Sakura crossed the living room and hoisted her leg over the windowsill to propel herself out. The storm was even worse than it had been when she'd entered the house. I've never seen a sandstorm escalate so fast, she thought as she slogged through the sea of sand. Beyond the shifting particles, she saw a figure, a few inches taller than her and wearing a simple cloak. "Syaoran! Syaoran, you have to get back inside!"
If he heard her, he didn't turn. He just kept moving as if the storm didn't affect him at all. She hurried after, dread coiling up in her stomach like a diamond-headed viper.
She followed him all the way to the ruins, where the storm was at its strongest. Sand clogged her throat, forcing her into coughing fits every few steps. After a while, she had to stop calling his name, for fear she'd choke on the moistened particles. It was a relief to descend into the comparative sanctuary of the ruins. Syaoran said it wasn't safe to come down here, she thought. But I have nowhere else to go now. The storm's only getting worse. She spat a wad of sand onto the floor and continued down the halls. "Syaoran, stop!"
He glanced back, but the look on his face chilled her to the bone. Desert nights could get quite cold, especially compared to the sweltering heat of midday, but she'd never felt this cold until she saw the blank gaze he favored her with. Dead. It's like he's dead. "Syaoran, stop right now. That's an order!" Using her commanding voice was something she seldom had to do, but it almost always had the effect she wanted.
This time, it didn't. He descended down a narrow flight of stairs, looking away from her. The dread she'd felt a few minutes ago doubled in intensity as she ran after him.
After dozens of steps, they reached the bottom level of the ruins. Walking into the massive chamber was disorienting after the claustrophobic stairwell. The room stretched out farther than the palace dining hall, but lacked the windows and wall ornaments to break up the monotony of the walls. The only feature in the empty room was a pair of stone wings embedded in the floor. Syaoran walked toward the center of the wings, kneeling down with one hand touching the floor. Almost at once, the pale stone started to glow with brilliant white light.
"When the sandstorms come, the feathers will scatter, and I'll have to move on to the next world." The words echoed in her ears, and suddenly the whole situation was too much, too real for her to deal with. As the blinding light flooded the room, she watched a pair of dark brown wings unfurl from Syaoran's back, like chocolate ribbons. They stretched out, until they were almost the size of the marking on the floor, then flapped once, lifting him high up, where she had no chance to reach him. Too late, she sprinted across the room, extending one arm to pull him down. "Syaoran!"
His face didn't change. As he floated up to the top of the room, his expression looked like that of a doll, blank and unmoving. Sakura watched his body curl up, wings folding around him. She watched him in those final moments before her world changed forever.
Syaoran spread his wings one final time, the movement almost reckless. The brown ribbons split apart, cracking like a piece of pottery dropped onto the floor. Hundreds of feathers exploded out from those wings, moving away from his body almost too fast for her eyes to track.
And then he fell.