Chapter 54: Cherry Blossom Branches Shake

 

 

 

******

 

 

I am a dreamer¡¦

Hidden power¡¦

 

 

 

A golden twelve pointed star illuminated in the dark. Ten figures standing around me in a circle. Two spots missing. Three shadows standing behind you. Nine figures standing around me in a circle. Three spots missing.  

 

 

 

******

 

 

April, Tomoeda, Japan¡¦

 

 

 

Kinomoto Sakura, age sixteen, woke up an hour earlier than usual, jittery and nervous as usual on the first day of a new school year. It was not just another new semester but her first day of high school.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, you¡¯re up early,¡± Kero-chan remarked, handing Sakura the brush. A mere onlooker might confuse the yellow creature as one of Sakura¡¯s stuffed animals, but in actuality, he was the Guardian of the Clow, the golden-eyed beast named Cerberus.

 

¡°Good morning, Kero-chan. Can you believe it? It¡¯s my first day of high school,¡± Sakura said, brushing out her long golden-brown hair damp from the shower. She went to the closet and took out her freshly pressed high school uniform. Careful not to wrinkle anything, she pulled on her black skirt and buttoned down the white shirt, tucking the ends of her blouse into her skirt. Next, she fastened on the navy blue tie with golden lining. Finally, she put on the sky blue blazer with the Seijou High school emblem embroidered on the breast pocket. She checked her reflection in the mirror, recalling how jealous she had been of her brother¡¯s uniform when she was in elementary school and had to wear a sailor uniform. But somehow, she was already a high schooler. After pulling on her knee socks, she ran down the stairs.

 

¡°Good morning, otou-san!¡± Sakura called out. She could hear the sizzling of oil on the frying pan in the kitchen and the smell of hotcakes drifting throughout the house. There was a never-seen picture of her mother wearing a lemon-yellow sundress on the kitchen counter today. ¡°Good morning, okaa-san.¡± Her mother had passed away when she was three, but her father changed pictures of her mother daily so that her presence in the house was never forgotten.

 

¡°Here¡¯s your hotcake, Sakura-san. To think you¡¯re already a high schooler,¡± Kinomoto Fujitaka, in a yellow apron, stated as he brought over the frying pan from the stove and set a steaming hotcake on top of Sakura¡¯s plate. Though Sakura¡¯s father was in his mid-forties, he looked no older than his thirties and was one of the most popular professors at Seijou Universities, his specialty being archeology. Recently, Fujitaka had received tenure and was now in the process of writing a new article for an archeology journal. 

 

¡°My favorite!¡± exclaimed Sakura as she lathered the hotcake in butter and syrup then wolfed it down. Her mouth was filled with warm sweetness.

 

¡°Slow down Kaijou, or you¡¯ll choke,¡± Kinomoto Touya said, walking in through the patio door with his best friend, Tsukishiro Yukito. ¡°Your table manners are still the same.¡±

 

¡°Onii-chan! You¡¯re back from the hospital!¡± Sakura exclaimed, chugging down a glass of milk then setting it down on the table. Her brother and Yukito-san, both M.D.s, had recently started residency at the Kinhoshi Hospital and it was harder to see them now. ¡°Good morning Yukito-san!¡±

 

¡°We need to go back by noon,¡± Touya said, running a hand to his newly trimmed black hair. ¡°Yuki was giving me a haircut—my hair was getting long after spending all that time at the hospital, and I didn¡¯t have time to cut it.¡±

 

Yukito held up his scissors, smiling. ¡°And I got to eat your father¡¯s delicious hotcakes.¡±

 

After putting her plate in the dishwasher, Sakura asked, ¡°Yukito-san, can you give me a haircut too?¡±

 

¡°Sure—right now?¡± Yukito glanced at the clock. ¡°Ah, you¡¯re up early today.¡±

 

¡°For a change,¡± muttered Touya.

 

Ignoring her brother, Sakura nodded. ¡°I still have lots of time before school starts.¡±

 

Soon, Sakura was position on a chair with a large towel over her shoulders, and Yukito sprayed some more water on her hair. ¡°How much should I cut?¡± he asked, holding up a lock of her long hair. ¡°You want to trim the ends, right?¡±

 

¡°Actually, can you cut it all off?¡±

 

¡°All of it?¡± Yukito exclaimed. ¡°But it¡¯s so long now—it took you years to grow it to this length.¡±

 

¡°I know—but I grew tired of having long hair,¡± Sakura replied, playing with the end of her hair ruefully. Her brother and father had decided to cut her hair short when she was little because they were two guys who could not figure out how to braid her hair or tie it in pretty ribbons like mothers did for their daughters. She had liked her easy to handle short hair and maintained the same hairstyle throughout elementary. Right before junior high, she decided to grow it out like her mother¡¯s hair. It had taken great patience and Touya had always teased that she wouldn¡¯t be able to grow it long. Well, she proved him wrong for once.

 

¡°Are you sure?¡± Yukito wound a large towel over Sakura¡¯s shoulders and began combing out her wet hair down to her back.

 

¡°Yes.¡± Sakura closed her eyes, feeling relaxed as Yukito began snipping her hair off from the right side, cutting of layer and layer. His movement was swift and exact and there was a soothing effect as he ran his fingers over her hair.

 

When Yukito lay his scissors down and then blew her hair dry with a blow-dryer, she stared at the long locks of golden hair fall from her shoulders and onto the ground. Finally, he ran a brush through her soft, short hair. Her neck felt strangely bare, but her head felt much lighter. ¡°Take a look, Sakura-chan,¡± Yukito said, holding up a mirror for her.

 

Sakura gazed at herself in the mirror properly, turning her head from side to side to examine her new hairstyle. It was very reminiscent of her elementary school hairstyle from the front, though Yukito had left the back slightly longer, slightly below chin-length so that should she want to, she could still tie it back. She grinned into the mirror. ¡°Thank you, Yukito-san!¡±

 

¡°Its suits you very well, Sakura-chan,¡± Yukito replied, admiring his own handiwork. With the extra inches off, Sakura¡¯s hair sort of floated about her like a halo when she moved her head, accentuating her long neck and bringing out the brightness of her eyes. He gave a rueful sigh—Touya was going to scold him for making his sister look even prettier.

 

¡°Eh, Kaijou—you look like an elementary kid again!¡± Touya exclaimed back downstairs after taking a shower. He stared at his younger sister, slender and radiant in her high school uniform. On a second look, the shorter hair actually made Sakura seem taller and more mature, but he would never admit that to her.

 

¡°Well you haven¡¯t grown up at all since high school yourself, ¡®nii-chan,¡± replied Sakura without flitting an eye. Gone were the days she would stomp around and pout at her brother¡¯s merciless teasing.

 

¡°Here¡¯s your bento, Sakura-san. The hairstyle looks very nice on you,¡± Fujitaka said, smiling at his daughter. It was like his little Sakura was back. Except she was not so little anymore but a young lady the age that Nadeshiko was when she married him. He sighed a father¡¯s quiet sigh when he first realizes that his little girl has grown up.

 

¡°Sakura, do you want me to drop you off at school—we¡¯re leaving for the hospital soon,¡± Touya asked. He had recently purchased a new car with the money he had saved from all his part-time jobs and was mighty proud of it too.

 

¡°It¡¯s all right—I can just rollerblade,¡± Sakura replied, fastening the clasps of her brand new roller blades and grabbing her book-bag and bento. Then she glided out of the front door. ¡°Ittekimasu!¡± she called out.

 

¡°Good luck on your first day of high school!¡± her father called back, waving from the door.

 

¡°Wait, Sakura-chan! Catch!¡± called out Yukito, dashing up to the front gate and throwing her something. She caught it and opened her palm to find a lemon-drop candy in her hand.

 

Though she no longer felt weak in the knees and sighed hanyaan, she still felt a warm flutter in her stomach as she held tightly to the candy. ¡°Thanks, Yukito-san! Take care of onii-chan and make sure he doesn¡¯t get ostracized at the hospital because of his horrible personality!¡±

 

¡°Say what?¡± grumbled Touya, leaning against the front door, watching his little sister disappear around the curb. ¡°What kind of high schooler still roller blades to school?¡±

 

 

 

It was a mild April morning, and Sakura glided down the cherry blossom lane, showered by a greeting of pink petals. The sweet spring wind swept back her unbound hair. She swerved in and out of all the students heading off to their first day of school. When little girls dressed in the black and white Tomoeda elementary students gaped at her with wide eyes, Sakura gave them a little wave. They were so tiny—she was that short once. The little girls beamed and waved back, nudging each other. ¡°Look, a high schooler said hi to us. The Seijou High uniform is so pretty—I can¡¯t wait till I¡¯m old enough to wear it.¡±

 

The girl¡¯s friend whispered back, ¡°Hey, isn¡¯t that the nee-chan who played Juliet? I think I saw her in my sister¡¯s magazine before.¡± Chattering happily, they entered the Tomoeda Elementary School building, dreaming of the day they would become high schoolers.

 

Out of habit, Sakura almost passed the Seijou High campus to go to the junior high building. Luckily, Daidouji Tomoyo was standing in front of the school gates by her black van, her eight bodyguards lined up to send off Tomoyo for her first day of high school. Tomoyo was probably the only high schooler to be driven to school by a chauffeur and escorted by eight bodyguards and had been Sakura¡¯s best friend ever since third grade, when they were in the same class at Tomoeda Elementary. Every year since then, they had been in the same class, and they had promised to enter the high school gates together same as when they entered the junior high school gates.

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan!¡± she called out, braking her rollerblades into a halt.

 

¡°Sakura-chan!¡± Tomoyo, in her light blue blazer and black skirt, squealed. ¡°You cut your hair! Kawaii!!!¡± She could not resists the temptation of squeezing Sakura into a tight hug even though they had seen each other only the previous day, because she was reminded of Sakura-chan from elementary school.

 

¡°Hoeee~ Tomoyo-chan—I can¡¯t breathe,¡± gasped Sakura, blushing. The pair had already accumulated stares from other students.

 

The upperclassmen rolled their eyes and muttered, ¡°Freshmen—just wait till day get through the first week.¡±

 

¡°Look, it¡¯s Sakura-chan and Tomoyo-chan!¡± Mihara Chiharu exclaimed, running up to the two girls, followed by Yamazaki Takashi. ¡°Are you two heading over to the gymnasium for the entrance ceremony? Naoko-chan and Rika-chan will be saving us spots.¡±

 

¡°Yes, we were just about to go there,¡± Tomoyo said, holding up her newest camcorder.

 

Sakura glanced around and said, ¡°Hey, you guys go ahead. I¡¯ll catch up, all right?¡±

 

¡°All right, we¡¯ll save you a spot,¡± replied Tomoyo, glancing at Sakura questioningly.

 

As the clock struck eight, the students beelined towards the gymnasium, the freshmen especially jittery and boisterous after spring break. Sakura pushed through the crowds in the opposite direction. The school gardens were lined with trees in full blossom, perfuming the warm air with a floral scent. She continued around the school gates, admiring the greenery, and frowned when she saw that the end trees had already wilted. The courtyard was now silent; the opening ceremony must have started already. Over the barbwire fence, she could see Tomoeda Elementary. How carefree she had been back then, giddy each morning when she had received a candy from Yukito-san, scared that she might be tardy again, thrilled when there was a school festival, dreading when it was midterms. So simple it was then, when each day held some sort of wondrous delight. Though she was scared of what destruction might occur, capturing Clow Cards had been fun, learning the powers of each card, discovering how she could mix forces, flying through the air for the first time—meeting Kero-chan and everyone else¡¦

 

But no, she was no longer Card Mistress. She had locked away her cards after the incident with the Plague. Sharp footsteps on the pavement interrupted Sakura¡¯s thoughts. A tall, long-legged girl in the Seijou Uniform entered the school gates—she was also late for school. However, she seemed in no hurry to get to the entrance ceremony. The girl looked slightly older than Sakura and had wide-set lavender eyes that seemed almost pink in the midst of all the cherry blossoms. Her hair was a pale platinum, the color of sunlight on daffodils. Was she a foreigner, Sakura wondered. She didn¡¯t look very Japanese at all. The lavender-eyed girl tilted her head at Sakura, who blushed to be caught staring. Then, the girl continued strolling towards the school building at her own pace, the heels of her boots clacking on the cement.

 

What a pretty person—I wonder if she¡¯s an upperclassman, Sakura thought. Then she stared at the school clock tower—she was completely late for the opening ceremony!

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

Li Meilin clutched her bag tightly to her as she walked into the Li Hospital, the director of which was her uncle Li Ganliu. Many of her cousins and relatives who were talented in healing had been recruited into the Li Hospital once they finished medical school. Though there were quite a few familiar faces amongst the doctors who were in the hallway, none of them greeted her. She ignored them also and continued her way to the elevator well, to the top floor. That was the private floor where only Li¡¯s or top officials were admitted. When she reached the glass doorway, she punched in the private access code to admit her into the hall of suite rooms that her cousin had given her. Room 905 was probably one of the smaller rooms—but better than anything downstairs, where the other patients were accepted. Wiping her sweaty palms on her skirt, she gave a brisk knock.

 

¡°Who is it?¡± asked a gruff voice from inside.  

 

Meilin hesitantly entering the door. She didn¡¯t know whether to sit or stand, so she stood awkwardly in one corner of the hospital room. ¡°Hey Kai.¡±

 

¡°What are you doing here?¡± Mizuki Kai demanded, looking up with rounded gray-blue eyes.

 

It was strange seeing Kai in the pristine hospital gown, his hair ungelled. He looked so powerless all of a sudden, like a boy, not the self-assured man that he pretended to be. He sat up on the hospital bed, arms folded across his chest. The television was turned on, but he wasn¡¯t watching.

 

¡°You just disappeared. How come you didn¡¯t tell me you were admitted to the hospital?¡± Meilin asked.

 

¡°I don¡¯t want you to see me like this,¡± replied Kai flatly. ¡°I was going to show up when I¡¯m all recovered.¡±

 

¡°When¡¯s the surgery?¡±

 

¡°Tomorrow morning,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°Will it¡¦hurt?¡± Now that she was actually here, Meilin found she had nothing better to say to him. It insulted her that he looked irritated to see her there rather than touched. It also irritated her that he always went off and did things on his own, without ever giving her a warning.

 

¡°I¡¯ll be under full body anesthesia. I wouldn¡¯t know,¡± Kai said. ¡°Don¡¯t stick around when I¡¯m getting the surgery either—it¡¯ll get on my nerves.¡±

 

¡°But it¡¯s scary being in the hospital all by yourself.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry. I have plenty of pretty nurses looking after me,¡± replied Kai, grinning, as if to reassure Meilin and taunt her at the same time.

 

Meilin scowled. ¡°Well, I guess I don¡¯t have to worry about you then. I won¡¯t bring porridge and flowers when you recover. I won¡¯t sneak in Perro-chan to visit you either, nor buy you copies of the latest Shounen Jump.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t. When I¡¯m all recovered, I¡¯ll come bother you again.¡±

 

¡°How long¡¦ will it take you to recover from the surgery?¡± Meilin asked. ¡°A week? Two weeks?¡±

 

¡°They say several months to half a year,¡± replied Kai. ¡°They took an x-ray earlier and told me that the bullets are in fragments and have drifted a bit—it¡¯ll be sort of a hide and seek game for the surgeons to get them all out. And all the toxins have to be removed from my blood over the months for it to return to normal.¡±

 

¡°Toxins?¡±

 

¡°Yes. The blood poisoning from the bullets,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°You never told me¡¦ it was this serious,¡± Meilin replied. ¡°How did you even go around?¡±

 

¡°I had a more important task at hand. And I¡¯m not telling you this to get your sympathy either. I just want you to know so that you don¡¯t think I¡¯m a wussy when recovery process drags on. It¡¯ll go by quick enough. So don¡¯t come here again.¡±

 

Pouting, Meilin took off her jacket and then dragged the chair to the bedside.

 

¡°What are you doing?¡± Kai demanded.

 

¡°Staying with you, that¡¯s what I¡¯m doing,¡± Meilin stated, taking out volumes of manga, magazines and even a P2P from her bag. ¡°I¡¯ll entertain you until tomorrow. So that you won¡¯t get scared by yourself.¡±

 

¡°I told you I¡¯m not scared,¡± Kai sighed. ¡°But I admit I¡¯m a bit hungry.¡±

 

¡°Should I get you something to eat?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not supposed to eat for twenty-four hours before the surgery,¡± replied Kai. ¡°How about you tell me about all the delicious meals you¡¯ll cook for me after I recover?¡±

 

¡°Well¡¦ You¡¯ll only have to eat mild food afterwards, so I¡¯ll make you my special vegetable porridge and steamed buns and fried rice. My mom¡¯s taught me recently how to braise pork to make the meat all tender and juicy.¡±

 

¡°Sounds delicious¡¦ My stomach¡¯s rumbling. Can you hear it?¡±

 

¡°Yes¡¦ it made that sound when you kidnapped last year. Wow, it¡¯s already been a year since then.¡± She chuckled. An odd friendship had been struck between the two then, a former phantom thief hunted down by INTERPOL and a whining Chinese girl who happened to be the unlucky victim taken hostage by this very thief. ¡°And I¡¯ll make you curry rice and tempura too, if you crave Japanese food¡¦ That¡¯s the only Japanese food I know how to make. Oh, I know you like oranges, so I¡¯ll make you a citrus cake—I¡¯m no good at baking though... I always burned my cakes during home economics.¡±

 

¡°I like burnt stuff,¡± replied Kai.

 

¡°It¡¯s not good for you,¡± she scolded.

 

So the two talked until the wee hours of dawn—because Kai would not have fallen asleep anyway. Meilin told him all the dishes she could cook, then all the restaurants she would take him to in Hong Kong, all the places they would visit, and all the movies coming out in the summer that they would go watch. As the night waned on, Kai began talking about his childhood, returning to little memories he thought he had long since forgotten.

 

¡°Okaa-san used to bake us the most horrible cakes for our birthdays—we all had to smile and eat it anyway,¡± he began with a nostalgic smile. ¡°But they grew progressively worse each year because we always complimented her cakes, and she grew overly self-confident in her baking skills. By my tenth birthday, she wasn¡¯t even using a recipe anymore. ¡®Cooking is all intuition,¡¯ she said. The cake was so inedible that outo-san switched it with a store-bought cake when okaa-san wasn¡¯t looking, and then coated with some home-made orange frosting so that it looked exactly like okaa-san¡¯s cake. He even replicated her handwriting and wrote out all fancy ¡°Happy Birthday Mikai¡± like the decoration on her cake. So, we all had a good birthday cake for the first time, and okaa-san didn¡¯t even notice the switch. She merely thought that her own skills improved so much and stated she would do the same next year. Ah, but there was no next year¡¦¡± Kai paused in his story and looked down. Meilin was leaning over his bed, fast asleep. Gently, he brushed back a stray strand of hair from her face. He said softly, ¡°If I knew then it would be my last birthday cake from her, I would have eaten every piece, gladly.¡±

 

Though the nurses had offered him sleeping pills since they expected him to sleep well before the surgery, Kai spent the night watching Meilin breathing softly, hand gently rested upon her head. In a couple hours, he will undergo full-body anesthesia to prepare him for the surgery. Was he scared? He might have been if he had been waiting alone. After all, he had always been rather squeamish around blood. But, strangely, he felt calmer than he had ever before in the two and a half years he had been Kaitou Magician. Tomorrow¡¦ no, just in a couple of hours, he would undergo the surgery he had been delaying for months and months.

 

You told me you detested me more than any one else in the world. But please don¡¯t hate me, my Miho, because I can¡¯t live being hated.

 

 

 

At the break of dawn, the nurses came to prepare Kai for the surgery. Kai had reassured Meilin that the surgery was a simple process that should be finished in a couple hours, but nonetheless, Meilin felt her heart pounding as Kai lay down on the stretcher.

 

Leaning up from the stretcher on the way to the operation room, Kai said with a weak smile, ¡°Go back home now, all right? I¡¯ll come by tomorrow and let you know how it went.¡±

 

¡°Silly, you can¡¯t leave the hospital so soon after the surgery,¡± Meilin said.

 

¡°Don¡¯t look so worried—it¡¯s not like I¡¯m going to go die. I¡¯m going to get better now. I¡¯m going to get back on track. I¡¯ll become a brother that Miho can be proud of again.¡±

 

¡°Kai.¡± Meilin felt teary eyed, not because she was worried for Kai, but because she recognized that this surgery was Kai¡¯s first step to trying to make amends for himself. He was trying. For Miho¡¯s sake.

 

¡°Remember, you promised to make me your homemade dumplings when I get better,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°I will,¡± said Meilin.

 

¡°And tell Perro-chan not to worry.¡±

 

¡°I will¡¦¡± How could Kai look so calm before such a big operation? Meilin swallowed the lump forming in her throat—stupid Kai, planning on taking such a big operation without telling anyone.

 

¡°And my will is in my laptop case. I leave you Perro-chan and my favorite periwinkle studs.¡±

 

Meilin frowned angrily and would have shook him hard if he wasn¡¯t already in so much pain. ¡°Don¡¯t be silly—it¡¯s not like you¡¯re going to die or anything.¡±

 

¡°Meilin dear, half my family¡¯s troubles resulted because of my father¡¯s lack of preparedness. We lost our house, our trusts, even our insurance money because outo-san never thought about the future. It never hurts to be prepared.¡±

 

¡°All right,¡± Meilin said meekly. It was best to humor him, after all, before such a scary procedure.

 

¡°And Meilin¡¦ I¡¦¡± Kai lay back down on the stretcher as the nurses pushed him toward the operation room.

 

¡°Yes, Kai?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll tell you later.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Japan¡¦

 

 

The students were already streaming out of the gymnasium by the time Sakura made her way in that direction.

 

Breaking from the crowd, Tomoyo took Sakura by the arm and asked, ¡°Where were you, Sakura-chan? You missed the opening ceremony. It¡¯s already time for homeroom.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan! Tomoyo-chan!¡± Yanagizawa Naoko called out, pushing her way through the congregation of students in the hallway. ¡°We¡¯re all in the same homeroom again, 1-2!¡± Then again, Seijou High was an escalator program where students moved up from the junior high, so most of the classes tended to stay the same.

 

¡°Naoko-chan—we¡¯re all in the same class again! That¡¯s such a relief,¡± Sasaki Rika said, reaching out a hand through all the shoving upperclassmen. None of her friends forgot the heartbreaking separation between their former homeroom teacher, Terada-sensei and Rika. But Rika did not lose her soft smile and her nurturing ways, and her friends admired her all the more for holding up so strongly. ¡°Oh, there you are, Sakura-chan. I didn¡¯t see you in the gymnasium. Your hairstyle is so cute!¡±

 

¡°Isn¡¯t it like our elementary school Sakura?¡± Chiharu added with a smile, recalling how Sakura would sometimes come into class with her short, fluffy hair sticking out in all directions in the morning back in third grade, days when her brother had left to school early because of soccer practice. Hence, Chiharu had taught Sakura how to tie it into two pigtails herself.

 

¡°Ah, who¡¯s our homeroom teacher?¡± Sakura diverted the subject, running a hand through her wind-tousled hair, embarrassed to have drawn so much attention to her haircut. ¡°Onii-chan told me to beware of Bad-Breath Yamaguchi-sensei and Ogre Onitsuka-sensei.¡±

 

¡°Oh, I heard about Yamaguchi-sensei!¡± Naoko stated. ¡°Oy, Yamazaki-kun, you look completely lost! Why so gloomy?¡± There was no response

 

¡°Yamazaki-kun is awfully quite today,¡± Sakura remarked.

 

Chiharu giggled. ¡°He had his tonsils removed—he can¡¯t talk even if he wants to. Well, let¡¯s go to homeroom then!¡± Chiharu dragged Takashi away by the arm.

 

 

 

The classroom was crowded with students busy contesting to get the best seats. Sakura was relieved to find that her class consisted mostly of familiar faces from Seijou Junior High—some kids were from other classes but she recognized most of them. Only one or two were completely new faces. Tomoyo and she took the back row window-side desks, the most coveted desks. If any other student claimed those seats, there would have been a fuss, but since Tomoyo claimed it, no one questioned her.

 

¡°Good morning, Sakura-san, Tomoyo-san. Did you two have a nice spring break?¡± Hiiragizawa Eriol said, setting his book bag down on the desk in front of them, looking quite handsome in the blue blazer, white shirt and black tie knotted impeccably at his throat.

 

¡°Yes, and you, Eriol-kun?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°Are Miho-chan and her mother doing well?¡±

 

¡°Very well indeed,¡± Eriol replied, sighing. ¡°Too well. They¡¯ve gotten into quite a few mother and daughter rows over the past several days.¡±

 

¡°Over what?¡± Tomoyo asked, bemused.

 

¡°The usual female things.¡± Eriol¡¯s eyebrows twitched. ¡°Like why doesn¡¯t Miho have a boyfriend yet, how she needs to learn better table manners or nobody will want to marry her, how I should switch to contact lenses and get a tan¡¦¡±

 

¡°What does your appearance have anything to do with Miho and her mother?¡± Sakura blinked, bemused.

 

¡°Well, Miho¡¯s mother seems to think that if I were a little less nerdy and had a girlfriend, it would set a good example for Miho. Apparently, I¡¯m not a good role model for Miho,¡± said Eriol with a straight face.

 

Tomoyo stifled a giggle; Sakura nudged her underneath the desk.

 

¡°How¡¯s Miara-san¡¯s eyesight?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°Is there any sign of improvement?¡±

 

Eriol shook his head. ¡°But she¡¯s learned to get around the house without any help—and it helps she¡¯s always has had good intuition, so she can make do even without her vision.¡±

 

Now the class was almost full, only two seats remaining empty. Akagi Aki was soliciting students to get them to nominate him as class president. Meanwhile, Yamazaki Takashi was unusually gloomy in his desk, unable to communicate all the fantastic first day of school tales he was brimming with. As expected, Mizuki Kai was not there—his name was not in the first year classroom roster at all. Tomoyo figured Kai had not returned from Hong Kong yet—surely Meilin was keeping him company.

 

¡°L-look,¡± Naoko whispered to the girls, pointing. ¡°Y-yamazaki-kun¡±

 

They all noted in unison, ¡°His eyes are open!¡±

 

Yamazaki Takashi was positively bug-eyed, suffocating in his inability to tell his first day of high school stories that he had been saving up since junior high. He took out a notebook and began scribbling furiously onto the brand new sheets of paper. Grabbing Chiharu by the arm, he pointed to his notebook.

 

Sighing, Chiharu said in a monotonous tone, ¡°Takashi-kun would like to announce that traditionally on the first day of high school, to be initiated to the ranks of the student body, freshmen had to undergo a series of impossible tasks set out by their upperclassmen. Because of the high mortality rate of freshmen due to this hazing, the school is now noted to have several notable ghosts haunting various classrooms. In Seijou Junior High, the seven mysteries include the bodiless hands playing the piano in the middle of the night in the music room, the shattering glasses in the chemistry lab that attacks students, the bloody ghost in the third floor girl¡¯s bathroom, the hanged girl from the gym storage room¡¦¡±

 

It was actually more frightening to hear Chiharu read it so straight-faced because Takashi¡¯s stories could be brushed off as jokes because of his comical demeanor. Luckily, Sakura was spared from hearing the rest because the classroom door slid open.

 

¡°Ah, it¡¯s Eron-kun and Erika-chan!¡± Naoko exclaimed. ¡°I thought they weren¡¯t coming since they weren¡¯t at the opening ceremony.¡± The entire class looked up because this was the first time they were seeing Chang Eron in months. His sister had accepted his graduation certificate in his place last month.

 

The twins had always been a striking pair, but in their long absence, people had forgotten how eye-catching they truly were. If Eron had been ill in the past months, it did not show at all because he was as beautiful as ever in his new uniform, his violet-blue hair tied back neatly. He stopped in the middle of the classroom when Sakura caught his eye.

 

Tomoyo glanced nervously at Sakura—this was Eron¡¯s first public appearance since the release of the Plague. How was Sakura taking all this in? She could not tell, because Sakura showed no shock nor anger in her face. Instead, she merely looked away and took her seat next to Tomoyo.

 

Eventually, the students settled down into their seats as homeroom was about to begin. The classroom door slid open again, and the students waited for their new homeroom teacher to enter. In walked in a tall, graceful woman dressed in a navy blue suit, her long red-brown hair fanning out behind her as she set her books down on her desk.

 

¡°Mizuki-sensei!¡± Sakura-chan exclaimed—she had missed out in hearing who their homeroom teacher was because she missed the opening ceremony. The other student who recognized her from fifth grade were grinning, knowing they lucked out in their homeroom assignment.

 

Tomoyo¡¯s first reaction was to glance side ways at where Eriol sat—he had his usual languid smile without showing any sign of recognition of Mizuki Kaho.

 

There was a loud chatter amongst the students—those who had not had her were excited to have such a young and beautiful homeroom teacher—those who had her before knew that she was a great teacher and were relieved that they were not getting Bad-Breath Yamaguchi.

 

Mizuki Kaho looked around the classroom smiling. ¡°I see quite a few familiar faces from Tomoeda Elementary School. I can¡¯t believe so much time has passed already.¡± Her eyes rested upon Eriol. Eriol smiled back. ¡°I have recently completed higher studies in England but have returned to teaching because that¡¯s what I truly love doing. So, let¡¯s make this a great school year together!¡±

 

¡°Let¡¯s see. First things first. I see all of you have chosen your desk mates already. But I think it would be more interesting if we mix it up a bit, instead of sitting with the same people you always sit with,¡± Kaho stated.

 

¡°So, in this paper bag I have a name of all the boys in the class. I thought it would be fun to have a boy-girl pair for the seating arrangements, and since we have an even number of boys and girls, I thought we will let the girls pick the names out of the names from the bags.¡± Mizuki-sensei held up a brown paper bag. Chiharu groaned—it was just like Mizuki-sensei to want to mix up everything. They all still remembered the Sleeping Beauty play they put on in fifth grade. Mizuki-sensei decided to assign roles regardless of gender, so that Sakura ended up playing the Prince and Syaoran played the Princess. She exchanged worried glances with Rika, who was her desk mate. But most of their classmates were jittery in anticipation—after all, they were at that age where any prospect of interacting with the other sex excited them. ¡°Boys can each find a desk, while girls line up and pick out a name to see who you will sit next to.¡± There was scuffling as everybody grabbed their book bags and belongings.

 

¡°Hoe¡¦ But we¡¯ve always sat next to each other,¡± Sakura told Tomoyo sorrowfully.

 

¡°We can sit near by still,¡± reassured Tomoyo.

 

Sakura reached into the bag and drew out a name. Carefully, she unfolded the sheet of paper. She groaned. Chang Eron. Out of the fifteen boys in the classroom, why him?

 

¡°I didn¡¯t get Takashi-kun,¡± Chiharu lamented, holding up her paper. ¡°We¡¯re not meant to be!¡±

 

¡°Shh¡¦¡± Tomoyo tucked her piece of paper into Chiharu¡¯s hand. ¡°Take it.¡±

 

Chiharu stared at the name written on the paper Tomoyo had given her. Yamazaki Takashi. ¡°Tomoyo-chan—¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right—it¡¯s doing the rest of us a favor—you¡¯re the only one who can keep him under control.¡± Tomoyo smiled.

 

Then, Chiharu grinned. ¡°This is a fair exchange.¡± She handed Tomoyo her piece of paper.

 

Tomoyo stared hard at the piece of paper. Hiiragizawa Eriol. It was a strange twist of luck. She didn¡¯t particular mind who she sat next to, because besides Sakura, there was nobody she really had preference for. But to have Eriol as a desk mate. That was a different story. Gathering her books and bag, she tentatively sat down in the desk next to Eriol¡¯s.

 

Eriol smiled at her. ¡°Yoroshiku onegai shimasu, Tomoyo-san.¡±

 

Tomoyo nodded her head. ¡°Let¡¯s have a good semester, Eriol-kun.¡± She looked up to see who Sakura¡¯s partner was.

 

Since most of the girls had settled in their seats already, Sakura had to awkwardly walk around Eron to get to her seat and set her books down in the empty desk next to Eron¡¯s. The only consoling factor for Sakura was that it was a coveted window seat, and also, the seat directly in front of Tomoyo¡¯s. She couldn¡¯t meet Eron¡¯s eyes, but he didn¡¯t seem to mind being ignored. Instead, he was gazing quite mesmerized at their homeroom teacher.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

Contrary to Kai¡¯s wish, Meilin did not leave the hospital. It was spring vacation so she had no school; she had no friends to hang out with, and none of her relatives associated with her anymore because she was linked with Syaoran, the one unspoken of. Besides, her mother knew Meilin was at the Li Hospital and had given her permission to stay there. Surprisingly enough, her mother had taken a liking to ¡°Tanaka Mikai,¡± Meilin¡¯s Japanese exchange student friend who was to have a bone marrow transplant. Perhaps it was because of the sob story of ¡®Tanaka Mikai¡¯ having been diagnosed leukemia while studying abroad or perhaps it was because ¡°Mikai¡± was a charmer, but he was the first non-Li playmate that Meilin¡¯s mother approved of for her daughter. He had been invited over for dinner a couple times, and Meilin¡¯s mother had even put together a hospital kit for him, including a hand-knit stomach warmer.

 

Meilin sat outside the operation room in what seemed like the longest hours of her life. For the first time in the fifteen years of her life, her mind was completely filled with someone not herself, not Syaoran and herself, not the Li Clan, but of one who had been a complete stranger just the year before. It was nearly evening, and she had sat on the hard plastic bench all day long without eating or drinking. The operation light should have turned off hours ago, yet there was still no news from inside. 

 

She recognized one of her cousins walked out of the operation room, looking haggard and worn, and ran up to her. Her stomach lurched as she saw the dark brown stains on the doctor¡¯s green smock. ¡°Jingmei-jiejie, What¡¯s going on? Is he all right?¡±

 

¡°Ah, it¡¯s you Meilin. You know the patient? There are¡¦ some complications,¡± her older cousin replied. She wiped the sweat from her brows with a sleeve and slicked back a loose strand of hair from her tight bun.

 

Her voice came out in a squeak. ¡°What complications?¡±

 

¡°Well, the x-rays showed that the bullet had been splintered into many pieces, and it¡¯s proving more difficult than expect fishing out all those pieces—they¡¯ve floated so much because so much time has passed since it got buried in his skin.¡±

 

¡°But the healers—¡°

 

In a lower voice, Li Jingmei said, ¡°There is only a limit to what the Li Healers can do—they can alleviate the pain and lessen the blood flow. But to heal properly, there¡¯s no easy way out—you have to follow the procedures and take things step by step.¡±

 

¡°Doctor Li!¡± A nurse in a blood-smattered surgeon smock came out of the operation room. ¡°Doctor Wang wanted me to let you know the patient is continuing to bleed profusely. We need to transplant more blood to him, quickly.¡±

 

¡°What are you waiting for?¡± Jingmei demanded.

 

¡°The patient¡¯s blood type is O negative,¡± replied the nurse. ¡°There was another O negative patient who needed blood transplant earlier today, and we are low on stock of that type. We need to make an emergency call for donors.¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s the problem?¡± Meilin asked. ¡°Can I give him my blood? What can I do?¡±

 

Shaking her head, Jingmei replied, ¡°Mizuki Kai has an extremely rare type of blood—it¡¯ll be hard to find donors with the same blood type as him.¡±

 

¡°Then what¡¯s going to happen to him?¡± Meilin asked, grabbing her cousin¡¯s arm. ¡°Why weren¡¯t you prepared for this?¡±

 

¡°He wasn¡¯t supposed to lose this much blood—we already transplanted a good amount to him earlier,¡± the nurse replied. ¡°But it¡¯s taken us longer to locate the shards of foreign material in his body, and he kept on bleeding.¡±

 

¡°Well, we have to find somebody with the same type of blood as him!¡± Meilin exclaimed. ¡°Who—¡°

 

¡°Family, relatives,¡± Jingmei said. ¡°Does this patient have any family members that can possibly be donors—¡±

 

¡°He doesn¡¯t have anyone here,¡± Meilin said.

 

¡°Doctor Li—I¡¯m afraid if the patient loses anymore blood at this point¡¦¡± The nurse adverted her eyes from Meilin¡¯s fearful gaze.

 

Dr. Li Jingmei frowned. ¡°We can send out a broadcast through the hospital for potential donors.¡±

 

¡°The patient is losing more blood by the second!¡± exclaimed a nurse in a blood-stained smock who rushed out of the room. ¡°At this rate—¡±

 

¡°No¡¦ NO!¡± Unbeknownst to herself, Meilin had tears streaming down her face. ¡°No¡¦¡±

 

¡°Meilin, you¡¯re in the way. Go sit in the waiting area, and we¡¯ll let you know of any progress,¡± said Jingmei, pushing away the distraught Meilin.

 

¡°O negative¡¦ Who has O negative blood type?¡± Meilin repeated to herself frantically. Light footsteps sounded ahead of her.

 

¡°I do,¡± came a silky smooth voice. ¡°I can be a donor.¡±

 

Meilin looked up in shock at the familiar voice. Then she sighed in relief.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Japan¡¦

 

 

During the break between first and second period, Sakura sat stiffly at the edge of her chair, pretending to look over the textbook. If she didn¡¯t have the inside seat, she would have walked over to her friends¡¯ desks, but doing so would require Eron to move for her, and she couldn¡¯t quite face him yet.

 

¡°I don¡¯t have some contaminable disease, you know,¡± remarked Eron at his first attempt to start a conversation with her, leaning back in his chair. ¡°You don¡¯t plan on holding your breath the entire school year while sitting next to me, do you?¡±

 

Sakura realized she had been holding her breath and slowly exhaled. Sitting next to him had been making her anxious and tense because she did not know how to react to him. But his dry humor got the better of her and made her turn around to glance at him for the first time since they had taken their seats. ¡°I wasn¡¯t holding my breath.¡±

 

Eron¡¯s frown melted into a slow grin. Not the mocking one he usually wore but one of amusement. ¡°You cut your hair. Long hair suited you better.¡±

 

At this nonchalant comment, Sakura scowled and replied, ¡°Well, I like short hair better.¡±

 

¡°There—you¡¯re at least looking at me now. I¡¯d rather have you angry at me than to have to face a deskmate who refuses to acknowledge my existence for the rest of the semester,¡± said Eron.

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, but if my presence makes you feel uncomfortable, then maybe we can request Mizuki-sensei for a seating change,¡± replied Sakura, staring at her desk again.

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you changing around the words—it¡¯s me who makes you feel uncomfortable.¡± Eron sighed. ¡°Well, you can continue to ignore me. Or, you can request to change desk partners.¡±

 

¡°What do you want me to do?¡± asked Sakura.

 

¡°Stay. And hear me out.¡±

 

¡°Why should I listen to anything you say anymore?¡±

 

Eron paused for a second, before replying, ¡°Because that would be the Sakura-like thing to do.¡±

 

¡°What is the ¡®Sakura-like¡¯ thing to do?¡± Sakura retorted, finding herself growing more an more irritated by the minute. ¡°I don¡¯t know myself, and how can someone like you know me? Why should I even listen to the likes of you?¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s a good question,¡± replied Eron, sighing. It was going to be a long school year. ¡°But isn¡¯t it convenient sitting next to each other in class? We can have this sort of conversation without anyone really paying attention.¡±

 

Sakura was saved from replying as the literature teacher walked in.

 

 

 

First day of school back from vacation was always chaotic, as students adjusted into their new schedule. For Sakura, having an older brother had prepped her well into knowing what to expect from high school. If anything, it was a pity she did not feel more excited about finally being a high schooler. The initial excitement of meeting everyone again after spring break and also being relieved to have a nice homeroom teacher had worn off already.

 

Since Mizuki Kaho had always been popular with the students, it was difficult to find a moment alone with her, especially now that male students had become acutely aware of the other sex and were delighted to have such a beautiful teacher. But Sakura finally caught her homeroom teacher alone at the end of the school day. It had been six years since she had last seen her, but Sakura found Mizuki-sensei had grown even more beautiful than before. 

 

¡°Mizuki-sensei!¡± Sakura exclaimed, blushing. She couldn¡¯t help feeling a little giddy whenever she talked with Mizuki-sensei. ¡°You never let us know that you will be coming back to teach us.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry I didn¡¯t let you know beforehand—it was a last minute decision on my part,¡± replied Kaho, smiling at Sakura. It had been five years since their last meeting. But Sakura was no longer the adorable grade-schooler, but now a slender, lovely young lady. Even lovelier than Eriol had described her to be. But something had changed though. A sixteen year old should not look like she was so world-weary, especially someone who was usually so bright and cheerful as Sakura had been.

 

¡°I¡¯m so glad that you¡¯re my homeroom teacher.¡± Sakura looked up with bright green eyes. ¡°So many things happened while you were gone.¡±

 

¡°So I¡¯ve heard,¡± replied Kaho quietly.

 

¡°But things will be all right¡¦ won¡¯t it, Mizuki-sensei?¡± the somber high schooler asked, not with conviction in her voice but with an air of uncertainty.

 

There a brief pause. ¡°Hopefully, Sakura,¡± was the quiet response.

 

It was for the first time Sakura noticed that Mizuki-sensei and Kai both had the same sad smile, the smile of someone who was concealing something. She wondered how Kai was doing, if he had decided to follow through with the surgery after all.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

¡°Mikai¡¦ Tell her that I love her¡¦ and that I am sorry¡¦¡±

 

 

The first thing you sense when you wake up from a long sleep is the background noise, the chirping of birds, the clacking of heels on the floor, the low murmur of voices all around. Next, your eyes become blinded by a brilliance, the light of the sunrays piercing in through the shades, a light so excruciatingly bright to the eyes after a deep sleep.

 

When Kai finally opened his blurry eyes again, he was greeted with the sight of a girl with long black hair cascading onto his face, dripping large drops of tears onto his cheeks. Salty.

 

She flung his arms around his neck. ¡°Kai, you¡¯re all right. Thank goodness, Kai, I was so scared.¡±

 

¡°Am I¡¦ in heaven? Or hell?¡± Kai blinked again, but the radiant face did not disappear. God had been merciful to him after all.

 

¡°Don¡¯t be silly, Kai. You¡¯re right here, on the bed in the Li Hospital. You¡¯re fine now. The surgery went fine.¡±

 

¡°Mei¡¦lin¡¦ Why are you still here?¡± he croaked. His throat was parched and his tongue felt woolen. He tried to move his limbs but found that he wasn¡¯t fully awake from the anesthesia yet.

 

¡°This young lady waited through your nine hour surgery and has been by your side ever since you came back here,¡± the nurse said, smiling in relief to see the awakened boy. She primped his sheets and checked his IVs. ¡°You lost so much blood during the surgery, we were all scared.¡±

 

¡°Blood?¡± Kai stared at his arm, where the IV were attached with tape. One lead to a clear bag and another to a red one.

 

Meilin nodded. ¡°They were low on stock of your blood type, O negative, and we were all so scared. But luckily¡¦¡± Meilin turned around. ¡°You need to thank her. If she weren¡¯t here¡¦¡± She trailed off, shuddering, not wanting to think what the consequence would have been like. Realizing she was tearing up again, Meilin sniffled loudly and ran out the room, mumbling something about having to use the restroom. But as she walked out, another person entered the room.

 

Kai turned his head, blinking to clear his hazy vision as a tall woman with long auburn walked into the room. Mayura-sama¡¦

 

The woman bowed her head slightly and stood by his bedside, smiling warmly. ¡°This is the first time we have the pleasure of meeting, though I have heard much about you.¡±

 

No, it wasn¡¯t Mayura-sama. This woman had warm marigold colored eyes and was taller.

 

¡°My name is Mizuki Kaho.¡±

 

¡°You¡¦¡± Kai was at loss of words. ¡°You were my blood donor.¡±

 

¡°Yes, luckily I happen to be an O negative also—very lucky I was here at the right time,¡± Kaho replied, smiling.

 

¡°So, you¡¯re Mizuki-san,¡± Kai replied, his head rolling back on the pillow as he stared up at the ceiling. ¡°I¡¯m in your debt once again —you looked after Miho these past five years. You¡¯re the one who rescued her when the house burned down. Now, you came here and saved me too.¡± 

 

¡°We¡¯re cousins too, Mikai-kun— is it all right for me to call you that? I only did what was natural between family members. I¡¯m sorry I couldn¡¯t do anything for you sooner. Six years ago, I returned to Japan as soon as I could, but when I did, it was too late, and you had already disappeared.¡± Kaho stared at the boy stretched on the hospital bed, pensive. He should be in pain again, now that the anesthesia was running out.

 

¡°What brings you to Hong Kong?¡± Kai asked his cousin slowly. All this time, Mizuki Kaho had remained out of the picture. What had brought her on the move also? Or what had she been waiting for?

 

¡°I have accepted a teaching position back in Japan—it begins tomorrow, and I dropped by here on the way to Japan from England.

 

¡°I see. Then you¡¯ll be residing in Japan for a while,¡± Kai said, sighing in relief. He could rest assured that his sister and mother had the dependable Kaho and Eriol watching out for them.

 

¡°Well, my plane flight is in two hours. I better head towards the airport now. I hope you a speedy recovery, Mikai-kun,¡± Kaho said. ¡°I know you have many questions. If you want them answered, first regain your health then seek me out. You know where I will be.¡±

 

¡°Wait, Mizuki-san—¡°

 

¡°Call me Kaho.¡± She smiled at him, before donning sunglasses.

 

¡°Kaho-san!¡± Kai called out again. ¡°Thank you for everything—I¡¯ll repay all you¡¯ve done for my family someday. Please look after Miho and okaa-san till...¡±

 

¡°The greatest repayment is for you to recover and be able to return home as soon as possible,¡± Kaho said, finishing his sentence. ¡°We¡¯ll be waiting, Tanaka Mikai.¡±

 

When the door closed again, he rolled back onto bed, closing his eyes. He could picture Mayura-sama smiling at him one of her rare, warm smiles. I told you you¡¯ll manage fine, boy. Now get on with it—I have no patience for laggers.

 

Kai smiled. Yes, Mayura-sama. I know I can¡¯t stop here. I¡¯ll keep going.

 

The door opened again and Meilin walked in with a tray of food. ¡°Ah, did Mizuki-sensei already leave? I wanted to say goodbye to her.¡±

 

¡°Meilin?¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦¡± Meilin fussed with the foldable table.

 

¡°You really waited the whole time I was in the operation room?¡± Kai asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

Meilin looked away blushing. ¡°It¡¯s not like I was worried or anything—with that resilience, as if there was anything to worry about.¡±

 

¡°Thanks, Meilin.¡± Kai smiled, reaching out with arms weaker than they had ever been but hands warmer than ever before, to caress her flushed, tear-stained cheek. ¡°You don¡¯t know how touched I am. And I¡¯m not a type for sentimental talk. Do you know, I think I just felt my heart beat faster.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t be silly.¡±

 

¡°Do you want to feel it?¡± Kai reached for her hand and placed it on his chest a little below the stitched incisions from the surgery. ¡°See?¡±

 

¡°Low blood pressure because of the surgery,¡± Meilin said flatly, snatching her hand away. He was warm again. Like he should be. Kai was going to get better. The worst was over.

 

¡°Ah, but yours is beating faster too,¡± said Kai, grinning slowly.

 

¡°It¡¯s not!¡± exclaimed Meilin, stepping back from the bed in defiance.

 

¡°Did I not tell you that bracelet on your wrist also has a pulse detector?¡±

 

¡°Liar!¡±

 

¡°Why would I lie to you, Mei-chan?¡± sighed Kai, placing a hand over his bandage chest. He was sore all over, but he was still alive.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Japan¡¦

 

 

Despite their busy schedules as resident interns at the Kinhoshi Hospital, Touya and Yukito habitually found ways to sneak out for meals and drop by home. Especially since Touya had a car, it was easier to transport back and forth. Yukito had just earned his driver¡¯s license and Touya made sure to supervise when he drove, as Yukito was prone to get distracted. So, Sakura didn¡¯t have to wait too long to report to her older brother the happenings of the first day of high school since Touya and Yukito dropped by for dinner during the middle of the week. Fujitaka was always glad to have the two back—they were sorely missed during dinnertimes.

 

¡°Yukito-kun, Touya-kun, have some more rice,¡± said Fujitaka, heaping second helpings of rice on the boy¡¯s bowls.

 

¡°Arigatou!¡± stated Yukito happily. ¡°Such a nice change from the hospital¡¯s cafeteria food.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s true, there¡¯s nothing like home food,¡± Touya declared as he shoveled down a mouthful of rice and took of sip of miso-shiro. ¡°Kaijou, where¡¯s your appetite?¡±

 

Taking a sip of bitter sencha, Sakura replied, ¡°I had a big lunch.¡± She set down the tea cup. ¡°By the way, do you know that Mizuki-sensei is back in Tomoeda? She¡¯s my homeroom teacher.¡±

 

¡°Oh.¡± Touya set his chopsticks down.

 

¡°You don¡¯t seem surprised?¡± Sakura read her brother¡¯s face.

 

¡°No, I am,¡± replied Touya, though he could always sense when she was around. ¡°Well, I never really expect her to really preannounce her return anymore.¡±

 

¡°Did she mention her returning to Japan when you were studying in England last summer?¡± asked Fujitaka, slicing the apple pie.

 

¡°No, she¡¯s the type of woman who would dump a guy the day before she leaves the country,¡± replied Touya crassly.

 

Sakura choked on her pie. She never told her brother that she had witnessed the scene when she had been drawn back by the Return Card, though she had not been able to hear all of the conversation. One day, she would like to hear Mizuki-sensei¡¯s side of the story. Had she really loved her brother? As Touya¡¯s little sister, she could not figure out why such a wonderful woman as Mizuki-sensei would have chosen someone grumpy like her brother. Did Mizuki-sensei ever have any regrets, shed any tears over the person she had left?

 

¡°Otou-san, did you seen the news that the farmers are facing draught and the crops are looking badly?¡± Touya asked, expertly changing the subject.

 

¡°I was talking about it with my colleagues,¡± replied Fujitaka. ¡°It¡¯s rain season and there hasn¡¯t been any rain. My colleague mentioned his garden has been doing poorly when all the flowers should have bloomed by now.¡±

 

Yukito said in between a mouthful of cheesecake, ¡°I noticed that all the Sakura blossoms outside have already faded when they only just barely bloomed.¡±

 

¡°Hopefully we¡¯ll get some rain soon,¡± stated Fujitaka, gathering the dirty dishes. He sighed when he saw that Sakura had barely eaten half a bowl of rice.

 

¡°Do you think it¡¯s the dry spell which is the problem?¡± Touya commented, gathering up his own dishes. ¡°Seems more like problems with the soil or the seeds. From what I¡¯ve seen of reports, it seems more like the crops are rotting before they even get a chance to grow. Well, I hope this doesn¡¯t mean grain prices are going to rise again. We¡¯re already on a tight budget at the hospital anyway.¡±

 

Yawning, Sakura mumbled, setting down her chopstick, ¡°Gochisou sama deshita. I¡¯m going to bed now.¡±

 

¡°See, told you high school¡¯s tough,¡± stated Touya, flicking his little sister on the forehead. ¡°Humph, you barely said a word all dinner when your brother took some of his precious time to come see you.¡±

 

Smiling weakly, Sakura replied, ¡°It was good seeing you, ¡®nii-chan. You too Yukito-san. Have a safe drive back.¡±

 

Touya¡¯s smile dropped when he saw Sakura trudge back upstairs. She didn¡¯t even try to argue back anymore.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

After being top of the ladder as third years in junior high, it was a rather humbling experience to be at the bottom again as freshmen in high school. Sakura and her friends all had been leaders in their clubs and activities at school, but now they were back to being awe-stricken by the mighty and aloof upperclassmen. Various clubs were busy recruiting new members from the incoming class, and the first weeks were a flurry of various sports try-outs, auditions and upperclassmen soliciting the freshmen to join various activities. Akagi Aki had been unanimously voted class representative, and the students of class 1-2 knew it was a matter of time before Aki tackled the student council. It was still rather a reality check for Aki during basketball tryouts when he realized he was on the shorter side compared to the seniors and wasn¡¯t even going to be a starter, at least not for the first semester. Meanwhile, Tomoyo had been accepted to the choir without auditions—the music teacher was ecstatic to finally have Tomoyo as a student. But whereas Tomoyo had been the main soloist and musical coordinator for all the songs in junior high, seniors had to be given priority for song selections, and Tomoyo was assigned as back-up vocals for songs she particularly didn¡¯t care for.  

 

Naoko and Chiharu both tried out for the cheerleading club again, and Naoko asked Sakura, ¡°Are you sure you aren¡¯t going to join the cheerleading club again, Sakura-chan?¡±

 

Sakura shook her head. ¡°I¡¯ve done it for seven years—I¡¯d rather try something different in high school.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s not because Erika-chan joined?¡± Chiharu asked in a low tone. Erika had decided that the Seijou High cheerleading outfit was cute and had tried out—but everyone knew the ulterior motive was because the basketball captain, a senior, was very handsome.

 

¡°No, it¡¯s not!¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°It¡¯s because Sakura-chan¡¯s going to join the journalism club again, right Sakura-chan?¡± said Aki, grinning.

 

¡°So, tell me again, Aki-kun, how did you end up being chief editor of the journalism club when you¡¯re only a freshman?¡± Naoko asked wryly.

 

Shrugging, Aki said, ¡°Well, the previous editor graduated last year and nobody could handle the heavy responsibilities of editor, and the club embraced me gladly after seeing my magnificent leadership in the Junior High Weekly.¡±

 

¡°In other words, nobody else wanted to do it,¡± muttered Eron, who seemed mildly annoyed that everyone was crowded around his desk. Aki actually had the nerve to sit on his desk, while Naoko was leaning on the back his chair, pushing Eron off to the side. Well, he had to get used to it because Sakura always had so many friends surrounding her.

 

¡°Eron-kun, are you trying out for soccer again—those are next week, right?¡± asked Chiharu. ¡°You were vice-captain in junior high—they will be glad to have you on the team.¡±

 

Eron shrugged. ¡°I was thinking of joining the orchestra, maybe.¡±

 

¡°I think you guys should both join the journalism club again,¡± stated Aki.

 

¡°No thank you,¡± replied Eron and Sakura simultaneously. Eron caught Sakura¡¯s eyes, but Sakura looked away quickly.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, you play the violin—maybe you can join the orchestra too,¡± remarked Naoko.

 

¡°I don¡¯t play anymore,¡± said Sakura shortly.

 

There was an awkward silence as her friends recalled who else had played the violin well.

 

Tomoyo came to the rescue as usual as she asserted, ¡°Sakura-chan is trying to follow the footsteps of her older brother—who participated in almost every club activity but never joined any of them. Till this day, over ten clubs have plaques and awards dedicated to Kinomoto Touya-san, associate member of all those clubs, but never an official member despite all his popularity.¡±

 

¡°I see,¡± said Naoko, exchanging glances with Rika.

 

¡°Sakura-chan¡¯s brother was very awesome, I remember—he and Tsukishiro-san had a fan club dedicated to them,¡± stated Chiharu. ¡°My older sister told me about it.¡± She giggled recalling the video tape of the Cinderella play with Sakura¡¯s brother as Cinderella and Yukito-san as the Fairy Godmother.

 

 

 

Since Kinomoto Touya and Tsukishiro Yukito had been such a living legend in Seijou Junior High, rumors that Kinomoto-senpai¡¯s little sister was now a freshman spread far and wide through the school, and there was probably not a person who did not recognize the emerging second legendary duo, Kinomoto Sakura and Daidouji Tomoyo. Sakura already had won some fame in the local community through the Star-Crossed production, along with her modeling gig and cheerleading activities. Meanwhile, Tomoyo had won national choral awards for her voice, and she had always been venerated by students and teachers alike. While Sakura politely declined any offers to join any club, she found that she was often recruited to fill in spots at the spur of the moment. When the track team¡¯s star racer sprained her ankle, Sakura was asked to run in her stead—and set a new record for girl¡¯s 100 meter sprint time. When the acting club needed an extra, Sakura was asked to stand in, and when the journalism club needed to fill in extra articles, Aki fully exploited his position as editor and forced Sakura to churn out articles on lifestyle and relationships. Everybody who read Sakura¡¯s articles, which were quite simple in structure and language, always said that it cheered them up.

 

After school, Tomoyo found Sakura in a white t-shirt and running shorts, walking straight into the wall on the way to the locker room.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, are you all right?¡± Tomoyo exclaimed, taking out a towel and wiping Sakura¡¯s sweating face.

 

Taking a swig of water from her bottle, Sakura panted, ¡°Just ran¡¦ Four kilometers¡¦ to train for the marathon.¡±

 

¡°Tachibana-senpai¡¯s leg hasn¡¯t healed yet?¡± Tomoyo asked. Tachibana Rei was the second-year upperclassman who was the fasted runner in the track team—she also had been the same senpai that had taken care of the injured Dash six years ago. Either way, Sakura had always been athletic but training for the high school marathon could not happen overnight.

 

¡°It¡¯ll take a month, I heard,¡± replied Sakura. ¡°Poor Tachibana-senpai.¡±

 

Tomoyo nodded. ¡°She was looking forward to competing too. Well, since practice ended, do you want to sleep over tonight at my house? Choir practice just ended.¡±

 

¡°Sorry—promised Aki-kun that I¡¯ll interview all the captains of the sports teams for the newspaper,¡± said Sakura. ¡°After that, I need to memorize all the extras¡¯ lines for the drama club¡¯s play, A Midsummer Night¡¯s Dream. I¡¯m Puck¡¦¡±

 

¡°You realize that the character of Puck is not an extra but a main character, right?¡± said Tomoyo worriedly.

 

¡°And the track team has training at six AM tomorrow,¡± Sakura recalled.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, I hope you¡¯re not overworking yourself,¡± Tomoyo said worriedly. ¡°If I didn¡¯t make that stupid comment saying you¡¯re following your brother¡¯s footsteps...¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry—I enjoy helping out where I can. And I can try out different things without being obligated to just one club. I like running, too. It feels liberating,¡± said Sakura. ¡°And I have plenty of time at hand—school work¡¯s never bad during the beginning of the semester. Besides, in the evening, there¡¯s nothing much to do besides schoolwork¡¦¡± She trailed off. Without the nightly battles against the dark forces, there was plenty of time at hand. Too much time.

 

¡°Well, you don¡¯t have to please everyone. It¡¯s always all right to say no to people,¡± said Tomoyo.

 

¡°It¡¯s all right, Tomoyo-chan. I know my limit,¡± replied Sakura.

 

Tomoyo sighed. Clearly you don¡¯t, Sakura-chan.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

It was a strange feeling, taking care of somebody else for a change. All her life, Meilin had been the one that had to be tended for, protected. For the first time, she felt that she could be of use to someone. Kai had been telling her something the other day, right before the surgery. He said he would tell her afterwards—she wondered what it could have been. He had looked so serious then. Li Meilin entered Room #905 with the dinner tray she picked up from the nurse to find a sleeping Kai. The doctors said the results from the checkup came out positive and so long as he stayed in bed with plenty of rest and good nutrition, there shouldn¡¯t be any lasting damage to his body.

 

Setting down the dinner tray, Meilin walked to his bedside and brushed a lock of red-gold hair from his eyes to get a closer look at his sleeping face, so peaceful like that of a boy¡¯s. The line that had been carved across his forehead had faded and his lips were slightly moving in sleep talk. ¡°Ka¡¦rin¡¦¡±

 

She frowned then poked him on the chest.

 

His eyelids flew open, and he exclaimed, ¡°Ow!¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s dinnertime—have the porridge before it gets cold,¡± said Meilin, pointing to the tray.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sick of hospital food,¡± replied Kai sulkily.

 

¡°Well, you have to eat it. The nurses check diligently,¡± returned Meilin.

 

¡°Dump it in the trash then.¡± Kai yawned, rubbing his eyes. ¡°I refuse to eat that mush.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll tell on the Head Nurse,¡± warned Meilin.

 

Kai winced. ¡°Fine, feed it to me then.¡±

 

Rolling her eyes, Meilin pushed the button to prop up Kai¡¯s bed and then rolled out the table in front of him, setting the tray on top. ¡°Eat.¡±

 

Childishly pouting, he turned his head away.

 

¡°Fine, I¡¯ll feed it to you then.¡± Meilin picked up the spoon and then scooped up the rice porridge and help it in front of Kai¡¯s lips.

 

Grinning, he swallowed it.

 

When he had finished the bowl, Meilin said, ¡°Good boy.¡± She cleared away the tray and handed Kai his pills and a glass of water.

 

Kai sighed. ¡°You won¡¯t visit often when the new semester starts for you, will you?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll come by when school ends,¡± stated Meilin. ¡°Besides, this would keep you busy during the day.¡± She set a stack of books on the table.

 

¡°W-what is this?¡± demanded Kai at the stack of textbooks that came in level with his head.

 

¡°You have to study to keep up with school while you¡¯re in the hospital!¡± replied Meilin. ¡°You¡¯re seventeen, and you haven¡¯t even graduated middle school yet! You were flunking eight subjects the last time I checked your report card. You realize you¡¯re in the same grade as Miho-chan now, don¡¯t you?¡±

 

Making a face, Kai grasped his chest and groaned, ¡°M-my chest. It¡¯s hurting again—ah!¡± And he rolled his eyes back, pretending to pass out.

 

¡°As if that trick¡¯s going to work on me again,¡± replied Meilin. ¡°Finish the Introduction and Chapter 1 of each textbook by tomorrow. Alright, Mizuki Kai-kun?¡±

 

¡°Hai, Meilin-sensei,¡± replied Kai, opening his eyes again. ¡°I kind of like this roleplaying.¡±

 

¡°Pervert. I¡¯m going home now. Classes start tomorrow,¡± stated Meilin.

 

¡°A goodbye kiss?¡± Kai asked hopefully.

 

¡°Humph, why don¡¯t you ask your ¡®Karin¡¯ for one?¡± retorted Meilin.

 

¡°Eh?¡± Kai blinked at her.

 

¡°The girl whose name you were repeating in your sleep. Do you care to tell me who she is?¡±

 

Kai poked at the textbooks set before him. ¡°She¡¯s the cute nurse who¡¯s in charge of this hall.¡±

 

¡°Oh, then you can ask Nurse Karin to come kiss you goodnight then,¡± Meilin said, hands on hips. ¡°And I guess she can feed you your meals and read you stories too.¡± And she stomped out of the hospital room. Only once she was home did she realize she had forgotten to ask Kai what he was trying to tell her before he went in for the surgery.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Japan¡¦

 

 

Who are you? Sakura whispered. She was standing in a completely dark void. At first, all she could see was a pair of piercing blue eyes. But now, she could see the face, a face that she did not recognize, but seemed strangely familiar nonetheless. One of the Great Five? No¡¦ Just a little closer...

 

Sakura was rudely awakened from her daydream by a sharp jab on her side. Sitting up alert in her chair at school, Sakura realized that bad-breath Yamaguchi-sensei had been repeatedly calling her name to come up to the board and solve the math problem. She looked beside her and realized that Eron had been poking her with his pen to wake her up and frowned at him. He sighed.

 

¡°Kinomoto-san, will you some up to the board and solve the equation or not?¡± Yamaguchi-sensei demanded.

 

¡°H-hai!¡± Sakura stood up reluctantly, fumbling with her textbook to figure out what problem they were on. Eron quietly slipped her a sheet of paper ripped from the notebook with the equation solved out. She shoved it away and stated to the teacher, ¡°I¡¯m sorry—I wasn¡¯t paying attention—I can¡¯t solve it.¡±

 

There were some titters across the classroom—Sakura¡¯s old classmates were used to Sakura¡¯s spastic daydreaming sessions. The math teacher scowled. ¡°Your brother was exceptionally good at algebra—I¡¯m disappointed at your lack of discipline. A freshman, too. Well, I recommend you get some extra help if you can¡¯t keep up with the class lessons—or we¡¯ll have to send you back to junior high.¡± There was even more tittering in the classroom, and Sakura sank deeper into her chair.

 

Eron glanced at her and whispered when the teacher¡¯s attention was on the next student to pick on, ¡°Why didn¡¯t you take my note?¡±

 

¡°It was my fault for not paying attention—I don¡¯t need your help,¡± replied Sakura shortly, not looking at Eron. Sitting next to Eron every day, as uncomfortable as it was, had taught her things about him that she would never had known otherwise. For one thing, Eron was a lot neater and organized than most boys in the class. He always had his homework done, and never forgot to bring his textbooks or supplies. Guys like Aki or Takashi always borrowed pencils and erasers from their deskmates—and never returned them either. But Eron was the one who lent Sakura an eraser during a surprise pop quiz. He was the one who shared his biology textbook with her when she mixed up books and brought the wrong one to school. If Tomoyo had been sitting next to her, she would have shared everything with Sakura, but it was Eron sitting there. And he never waited for Sakura to have to humiliate herself by asking him. That day when she had forgotten her textbook and looked around blankly as they were asked to read an excerpt from page 34, Eron simply pushed his desk over and shoved his textbook to the center, in between his desk and Sakura¡¯s.  

 

Another thing Sakura found out about Eron was that he took meticulous notes and paid utmost attention to lectures—especially Mizuki-sensei¡¯s classes, which he seemed to enjoy the most, judged by the alertness in his expression when listening. Back in fifth grade, Mizuki-sensei had been the substitute math teacher, but now, she taught history, which Sakura later had found out was what Mizuki-sensei had received a doctorate on. For some reason, Sakura had always thought Eron¡¯s good grades in junior high was because he was smart, like Eriol, and figured that Eron probably bothered little with studying. But on the contrary, it was clear that Eron had a good brain—but he worked very hard too. Not only that, but he actually enjoyed learning. He never raised his hand or asked questions in class—but Sakura once glimpsed at his notes and realized that not only had he transcribed the teacher¡¯s words, but he had drawn diagrams and written in the margins his own questions and observations. And not only did he always do the reading for the class, but he always had extra books checked out from the library on whatever subject they were covering.  

 

There were other little things she noticed about him also. She tried not to look at him in general, but it was difficult when he sat right next to her. For instance, she could not help noticing that the ruby earring gleamed in his left ear again. One day after gym class when Eron had not buttoned up his shirt to the top as usual, she realized that he no longer wore that strange eye-shaped crystal necklace that he had worn since the first day she had met him. Instead, he wore a simple golden pendant shaped like an ¡°I,¡± with a tiny seed-pearl dangling off the bottom. She also noticed that there were strange, thin reddish marks around his neck. Almost as if a rope had tried to strangle him.

 

¡°Is there something so fascinating about my face?¡± asked Eron, bemused. His hand moved to his throat, and he buttoned up the top of his collar and straightened his black and gold-trimmed necktie.

 

Sakura straightened in her seat, startled to have been caught staring at him. ¡°Ah, no—I thought your necklace was interesting. I never noticed it before—it¡¯s shaped like an ¡®I.¡¯ Does it signify anything in particular?¡±

 

¡°Actually, it¡¯s half the Gemini symbol. Erika and my horoscope—the Twins,¡± said Eron, fingering the fragile golden charm. ¡°She has the other half. It¡¯s the Christmas present I gave her.¡±


¡±I see,¡± Sakura remarked. ¡°That¡¯s kind of cute. I think my brother would laugh if I got him matching necklaces for us.¡± She was amused to find that Eron, the invincible Eron, turned slightly red.

 

Tomoyo and Eriol, sitting right behind the pair, glanced at each other. Sakura was speaking to Eron again. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, neither of them knew.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura and her friends rarely saw Tanaka Miho, one grade below them, now that they were in separate buildings. However, the Seijou Junior High and High School campuses were next to each other, and Sakura and Tomoyo visited Miho during lunch break—Sakura even brought Kero-chan in her bag. It felt strange to walk down the familiar corridors of the Junior High Building, to the journalism club room. It was less than a month ago that they had been students in this very building.

 

¡°Miho-chan—how have you been doing?¡± Tomoyo said, walking into the club room—cluttered with stacks of old newspapers, brimming trashcans and empty cans of soda and half-eaten bags of chips. Apparently, Miho was not the neatest of editors.

 

¡°Tomoyo-senpai! Sakura-senpai!¡± exclaimed Miho. ¡°Long time no see—it¡¯s so unfair that only I got left behind.¡± She pouted. ¡°School¡¯s no fun without everybody.¡±

 

¡°Since when did she start calling everyone ¡®senpai¡¯?¡± muttered Kero-chan from Sakura¡¯s bag. ¡°She should start addressing me as ¡®Kero-sama.¡¯ ¡±

 

¡°We brought lunch for you, Miho-chan¡± said Sakura. ¡°Well, Tomoyo¡¯s maid packed it—but it¡¯s really good.¡±

 

¡°Yay! Okaa-san¡¯s been insisting on packing Eriol and my lunches—and her cooking¡¯s quite horrid actually. She was never much of a cook in the first place. But now, she can¡¯t quite see the labels on everything, so she relies on Suppi-chan to read them out for her. And you can¡¯t trust Suppi-chan¡¯s taste in spices at all.¡± Miho wrinkled her nose. ¡°Eriol¡¯s too polite to say anything, after all the trouble okaa-san goes through, but¡¦¡±

 

¡°It must be nice to have your mom pack your lunch, all the same,¡± said Tomoyo, smiling wistfully. ¡°I don¡¯t think my mother has ever packed lunch for me. We have a cook instead.¡±

 

¡°This room is a regular pigsty,¡± remarked Kero-chan, who had wriggled out of the lunch bag, having finished quite a big portion of the dessert already. ¡°It used to be so neat when that kid Aki was the editor.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ve been busy,¡± said Miho, crossing her arms. ¡°And I¡¯m understaffed. So, how are things in the high school? Heard Aki-senpai¡¯s editor-in-chief of the newspaper, even though he¡¯s only a freshman.¡±

 

Sakura nodded.

 

¡°And cousin Kaho¡¯s your homeroom teacher, right? Talk about ironic. She even makes Eriol go to a different room when she¡¯s writing up tests for your class,¡± Miho remarked.

 

¡°Is Mizuki-sensei staying with you?¡± Tomoyo asked.

 

¡°No—she¡¯s staying at the Tsukimine Shrine. We tried to get her stay with us—okaa-san insisted that she move into the Reed mansion, even if it¡¯s not even her own house. But Kaho visits us often enough anyway, and comes over for meals and such.¡± Miho chuckled. ¡°It would have been quite a strain on poor Eriol with three Mizuki women in the house, on top of Nakuru.¡± 

 

¡°I see.¡± Tomoyo proceeded to clear away the messy desk and unpack the boxes of bento for the three girls.

 

Sakura wondered if Tomoyo looked slightly reassured.

 

¡°So¡¦ I gather Mizuki-senpai has not returned?¡± Miho asked stiffly. ¡°Did he even end up graduating with your class?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not quite sure,¡± said Sakura slowly, exchanging troubled glances with Tomoyo. Though they knew briefly what had passed been Kai and his little sister, they hadn¡¯t heard Miho¡¯s side yet.

 

¡°Well, I guess Mizuki-senpai just ran away again.¡± Miho looked away, poking a finger at an egg salad sandwich. ¡°Yum, these look delicious, Tomoyo-senpai!¡±

 

¡°What is this?¡± Sakura asked, pushing aside a chalkboard that was concealing a bulletin board compactly filled with all sorts of scraps. With a quick glance at the bold titles of newspapers and magazines clippings covering the bulletin board, Sakura quickly realized they were all about Kaitou Magician. In the center of the board was the front page of the newspaper clip stating that the ¡°Thief of the Night¡± piece on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts by the artist Shing had been stolen by Kaitou Magician. Looking around, Sakura realized the videos stacked by the VCR were labeled as news segments covering the Kaitou Magician story, the current view page on the PC was a Kaitou Magician blog, and what had looked like stacks of trash were actually highlighted fragments containing anything about the notorious thief. Sakura saw how the journalism room had transformed into the private investigation room for Thief Number 0603. It seemed like Miho had found a new obsession.

 

¡°It¡¯s what it looks like—information on the Kaitou Magician,¡± replied Miho.

 

¡°Why this sudden interest in the thief—surely you haven¡¯t joined his fan club?¡± Kero-chan remarked—chomping down banana-cream cupcakes.

 

¡°After careful examination, I have already figured out his true identity,¡± stated Miho smugly. ¡°It is clear the Kaitou Magician is no ordinary person. Clearly, he is athletic and stealthy. He¡¯s also very clever and sly. Not only that, he must have some special power to aid him with his whole show—it¡¯s not possible for any normal person to complete the feats that he has accomplished as a thief. Even more suspicious is that as of a late, there has been no news of him in Japan after all the fiasco a couple months back. Like he¡¯s completely disappeared from the country. Thus, I can only conclude that Kaitou Magician is¡¦¡±

 

Sakura found her palms sweaty. ¡°Who is it?¡±

 

Arms akimbo, Miho asserted, ¡°It¡¯s Syaoran, isn¡¯t it? It all adds up. Wherever Syaoran is, Kaitou Magician seems to appear. Even when we were in New York, Kaitou Magician appeared last year, when he was there.¡±

 

Kero-chan clutched his stomach and began to roar with laugh, and Tomoyo chuckled behind her hair.

 

¡°What are you laughing at? It¡¯s true, isn¡¯t it? And now, Syaoran¡¯s gone and there¡¯s no news of Kaitou Magician anywhere.¡±

 

¡°Nice try, kid,¡± Kero-chan said in gasps. ¡°Oh good one¡¦ Wait till I see the expression on the Brat¡¯s face when I tell him¡¦¡± Then there was a prolonged pause, as they all remembered that they wouldn¡¯t be seeing him anymore.

 

¡°So, why the sudden interest in Kaitou Magician again?¡± asked Sakura staidly.

 

Tomoyo shot a worried glance at Sakura. When Miho saw that Tomoyo looked troubled, she mentally scolded herself. Just like her to be so tactless and mention Syaoran to Sakura under such circumstances.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Eriol chuckled when Tomoyo told him about Miho¡¯s deduction earlier in the day. They were partners for art class and sat side by side on the bench with their sketchpads. The class was busily sketching the scenery, people, whatever caught their eye. Or rather, the rest of the class was struggling with their sketches while Tomoyo and Eriol, both expert artists, had long finished with their pencil sketches and had moved on to their own amusements. Tomoyo was busily designing an entire spring collection for Sakura and was glum because there were no more opportunities to make Sakura dress up and film her anymore. She added another flourishing ribbon to the fairy costume she had drawn. ¡°She¡¯s been driving Miara-san and Nakuru crazy with all her incessant talk of Kaitou Magician.¡±

 

¡°I guess that¡¯s her reporter mentality,¡± replied Tomoyo, looking up from a sketch of an Arabian Night¡¯s Scheherazade-inspired outfit. ¡°My father was kind of like that because he¡¯s Chief Inspector on the Kaitou Magician case. I guess each of us have our own obsessions. Me with Sakura-chan, Miho with her brother, Kero-chan with food, Nakuru-san with Touya-san¡¦¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ What do you think my obsession is?¡± asked Eriol, shading in his sketch.

 

¡°Perhaps your obsession is less with an object or a person, and more with a penchant for constant amusement,¡± replied Tomoyo.

 

Eriol smiled, adding a signature and date to his complete picture. ¡°You know me too well, Tomoyo-san.¡±

 

¡°Say, Eriol-kun,¡± Tomoyo began. ¡°Are you worried about Sakura-chan too?¡±

 

¡°She looks fine to me,¡± replied Eriol. He busied himself sharpening Tomoyo¡¯s pencils, the wood shavings flying off into the wind.

 

¡°She looks happy enough.¡± Tomoyo sighed, picking out the pencil shavings from her hair.

 

The art teacher clasped her hands and announced, ¡°Okay class, you may now switch your sketches with your partners and critique each other¡¯s works.¡±

 

There was a groan throughout the class.

 

Eriol flipped through Tomoyo¡¯s sketchbook of pages after pages of Sakura posing in different outfits. ¡°Remarkable designs—I like this fairy costume the best. Inspired from Puck, I believe? Ah, and this dress is exquisite too—the Grecian-goddess style will suit Sakura-san.¡±

 

¡°My nature sketches are in the pages behind,¡± said Tomoyo, turning the pages of Eriol¡¯s sketchbook. While they were required to complete one sketch, Eriol had completed many; she already knew from elementary days that Eriol was an exceptional artist—he really seemed to lack in no area. She saw pages of pencil sketches of trees, the school, figure drawings of students and the teacher. And last, a sketch of a girl with long hair and lowered dark eyes wearing a dreamy expression. ¡°This is?¡±

 

¡°Yes—it¡¯s how you look when you¡¯re happily designing—beautiful and serene. Like you know something incredibly wonderful that no one else knows.¡±

 

A blush appeared on Tomoyo¡¯s cheeks. ¡°Ah, you flatter me.¡± But she couldn¡¯t help wondering if this was really how she appeared in Eriol¡¯s usual penetrating and critical eyes.

 

¡°How can the artist be flattering when the model is flawless?¡± Eriol smiled, taking back his sketchbook. His eyes flitted over to the end bench, where Sakura was staring in his direction with questioning eyes. She quickly looked away when he caught her staring and turned her attention back to her own partner.

 

Eron tapped his finger on his sketchbook impatiently and asked Sakura, ¡°So, are you going to show me your sketchpad or not? The teacher told us to switch.¡±

 

Reluctantly, Sakura handed over her sketchbook and took Eron¡¯s. She couldn¡¯t help wondering what Eriol could have said to Tomoyo to make her blush. The two worked together extremely well—Sakura had been observing them for half the class. They moved together in some sort of complimentary rhythm, as if they were the two hands of a clock. . Sakura took a glance at the sketch that Eron had so diligently been working on for the past and had to smother a smile.

 

¡°What?¡± demanded Eron indignantly. Sakura had made a simple, yet pretty sketch of the flowers planted in the school¡¯s flowerbeds. Considering all the flowers had wilted before even blooming, Sakura¡¯s sketch was a fair stretch of imagination.

 

¡°You¡¯re not very good at drawing, are you, Eron-kun?¡± Sakura held up to him the very primitive rectangle with a triangular roof, swirly sun and stick-figure people.

 

¡°Humph, I worked very hard on it, thank you,¡± sniffed Eron. ¡°And I didn¡¯t expect you to appreciate abstract art.¡±

 

¡°Oh?¡± Sakura raised an eyebrow. ¡°I guess there are things that even Eron-kun is not good at.¡± She could already tell that Eron was vowing to master sketching by the next class. That was how he was. Back in junior high when they were preparing for the strings quartet, Eron hadn¡¯t been very good at the violin in the beginning. At least, not compared to Him. But he practiced harder than anyone else, she knew, because with each rehearsal, he improved so much, it was obvious he had practiced at home by himself. Back then, she didn¡¯t notice though, how hard Eron tried.

 

Staring at his pathetic sketch, Eron smiled ruefully. ¡°You would think this should come to me naturally. After all, outo-san wanted to be an architect.¡±

 

¡°Your father?¡±

 

Noticing that Sakura looked taken aback, Eron said, ¡°I guess you never heard me talk about my father before.¡±

 

¡°No¡¦ I thought you were in the orphanage since you were very young,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°We were. Ever since Reiji-san died. Chang Reiji—he¡¯s the only father I remember. You probably know that my father was a twin. Reiji-san¡¯s twin brother, Chang Ryouta was our biological father, and Reiji-san is actually was our uncle. Ryouta abandoned us before we were born, so it was Reiji-san who sought us out when our mother died and raised us from infants as his own children, until he passed away. I don¡¯t remember much anything about him, and Erika and I were always resentful for being dumped in that wretched orphanage. It was only later that we realized that he had left the deed to our house and quite a decent fortune under our name to be inherited when we reached age. We had to fight with the head of the orphanage to obtain the will. It was only more recently that we realized that Reiji-san truly did care for us, even though our real father hadn¡¯t and abandoned us before we were even born.¡±

 

¡°And was Reiji-san an architect?¡± asked Sakura, taken aback by the faraway look on Eron¡¯s eyes, that were a warm hazel in the natural sunlight.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know—but I found in his old study a bunch of sketches of houses. Beautiful houses, traditional Japanese style, pagodas, Rococo palaces, gable-roofed mansions¡¦ He couldn¡¯t go abroad to study architecture because his health was poor. But he dreamed of traveling all over the world.¡±

 

¡°How rare. Eron-kun¡¯s eyes turned very gentle all of a sudden,¡± remarked Sakura in a softer tone. ¡°It seems like you admire him a lot.¡±

 

¡°Reiji-san was the shadow twin, the one that nobody ever heard about, nobody even remembers. It¡¯s sad, isn¡¯t it? If no one ever remembers him, it¡¯s like he never existed in the first place. But in the very house that he built for us, preserved for Erika and me, he still lives on. I almost don¡¯t remember his face, and I don¡¯t know his role in the Final Battle, but I know that he was the only person remotely like a parent in Erika and my life. I¡¯d like to believe that Uncle Reiji must have cared for us, just a tiny bit.¡± A frown settled on Eron¡¯s brows. ¡°What ever people think about the Chang inheritance, we¡¯re not rotten to the core as you all seem to think we are. Some of us were, I admit to it—but not by birthright. It was circumstance, not hereditary.¡±

 

¡°I never thought you were rotten to the core, Eron-kun,¡± Sakura stated, gathering up her art supplies. 

 

¡°Really. Sometimes you give me this look. It¡¯s quite frightening you know, as if I¡¯m receiving divine judgment.¡± Eron was back to his poison-tongued ways, but Sakura knew he was just embarrassed about revealing about his father. Sakura knew virtually nothing about the Dark Ones of her mother¡¯s generation, Chang Ryouta and Chang Reiji, twin brothers. She only knew that Ryouta had been the dominant Dark One and little was heard about Reiji.

 

Chang Reiji, the shadow twin. Now that she thought about it, the original Dark One had a twin sister, the other twin unspoken of. She absentmindedly picked at the dry grass on the ground. Though she tried not to think of it, she was always drawn back to the whole mystique behind the Great Five. Would the complete truth ever be revealed? Even though she tried to break away from the magic world, she found it more and more impossible. Could it be¡¦ Maybe she didn¡¯t want to completely break free from it after all?

 

¡°So, what are you going to do?¡± Eron asked, tucking his sketchbook under his arm and dusting the dirt off his uniform trousers.

 

¡°About what?¡± Sakura tossed her art supplies into her quilt-print bag.

 

He replied matter-of-fact, ¡°About the dark force.¡±

 

¡°Dark force?¡± She hadn¡¯t even noticed. Why not? Sakura felt the weight of the star key hanging from her neck. No, it was impossible to break free from the world of the Great Five and Clow Reed.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tsukishirio Yukito had considered becoming a neurosurgeon like Touya, so that they could take the same classes and be in the same department. However, he did not want to become a surgeon, and the part of his job that he liked best was interacting with children. Choosing the pediatrician path meant that he would see less of Touya, but in the end, it was what suited him the most. At first, he had chosen the medical path because Touya had been set on pursuing it, but now, Yukito could say he found merit in his work in a way that he had not thought possible. He stopped by his last room of the day—the end suite in the children¡¯s ward. This child was the one that he had the most difficulty facing, because no one ever knew what mood she would be in that day. But Yukito knew that she threw temper tantrums and reduced the nurses to tears because she wanted attention. She was desperately crying out for someone to hear her, because she was lonely. Months passed by and children came and left. But Nina was always in her large suite, alone, waiting and waiting for someone to come take her away.

 

¡°Yuki-nii-chan!¡± Little Nina in a flounced lace nightgown flung his arms around Yukito¡¯s legs as soon as he entered. ¡°Yuki-nii-chan¡¯s finally here! Play with me!¡±

 

¡°Nina-chan, have you been a good girl?¡± Yukito asked, patting Nina on the head—when he had first met Sakura, she had been just a little older than Nina was now. He had always wished for a little sister as cute as Sakura. Perhaps he liked spending time with children because he never had siblings, never had experienced much of a family until he met the Kinomotos, never even had childhood memories of his own.

 

¡°I tried to be good. I really did,¡± Nina sniffed. ¡°But Sakura-nee-chan and Kai-nii-chan don¡¯t come visit me anymore. And Su-chan¡¯s gone. I¡¯m all alone.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re not alone. I¡¯m here,¡± Yukito said, patting the girl¡¯s head.

 

¡°Yuki-nii-chan might leave me too,¡± Nina said.

 

¡°I¡¯m not going anywhere,¡± Yukito told the little girl with his most reassuring smile.

 

¡°I wonder if that¡¯s what the Brat was doing back then,¡± Touya murmured outside the doorway as Yukito came out of Nina¡¯s private suite. ¡°Feeding empty promises to an eager child.¡±

 

¡°Touya—what are you doing in this section of the hospital?¡± Yukito asked. Even if they were both interns, since they were in different departments they rarely got to see each other. In fact, they could only catch up with each other briefly in the hallways or quickly during mealtimes—even those were hard to match to each other¡¯s busy schedules.

 

¡°Running away from the Head of the Department,¡± grumbled Touya. ¡°Beast—he thinks interns are his private secretaries or something. Fetch coffee, check out the movie listings for his daughter, bring him his morning newspaper, pick out his tie.¡±

 

Yukito cocked his head. ¡°The Brat? So, what makes you think of that boy again?¡±

 

¡°Just. It¡¯s strange not to have him running under foot,¡± Touya said. ¡°No one to release my stress on.¡±

 

¡°Just admit you were fonder of him than you let on,¡± Yukito sighed. Touya and Syaoran¡¯s bickering had been entertaining while they lasted.

 

A shadow came over Touya¡¯s eyes as he said grimly, ¡°It¡¯s been three months since I last heard Sakura laugh. If it¡¯s the Brat that made her laugh, let him come back. If it¡¯s the Brat that made Sakura lose her laughter, then I¡¯ll kill him but then I¡¯ll revive him again if it¡¯ll bring back her laughter.¡±

 

¡°To-ya, you are rarely home. How do you know if she¡¯s laughing or not at school?¡± Yukito said. ¡°If I were here, I wouldn¡¯t be laughing around you with that temper you¡¯ve been in lately.¡±

 

¡°I know. I¡¯m her brother,¡± Touya replied. ¡°Besides, I talked with Tomoyo about it the other day. Sakura looks happy enough—but she¡¯s not. We know the difference. Even Tomoyo doesn¡¯t know yet what happened in Hong Kong.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s why Tomoyo dropped by the hospital the other day.¡± Yukito sighed. ¡°But if you think about it, Sakura-chan¡¯s not been the same since Subaru—¡°

 

¡°But if the Brat was here—¡°

 

¡°You¡¯re the one who told him he¡¯s not needed here anymore,¡± Yukito said.

 

¡°That¡¯s me. I didn¡¯t want him here—he¡¯s dangerous. But I didn¡¯t think of Sakura. I didn¡¯t think she would be affected¡¦ like this.¡±

 

¡°Why? Because she recovered after I rejected her without a problem?¡± Yukito looked into Touya¡¯s eyes. So, there was even a limit to Touya¡¯s clairvoyance—or maybe his brotherly priggishness prevented him from really seeing. ¡°But you forgot, back then, Syaoran was by her side. He was the one who helped heal her heart. He is the one most important to her and has been for five years. We all knew that. You knew that too, no matter how hard you tried to deny it.¡±

 

Touya¡¯s forehead creased. ¡°Why him?¡±

 

¡°Because he loves Sakura the best too,¡± Yukito replied, closing his eyes. Don¡¯t you think Clow Reed would have been a happier person if he had someone to love him half as much as Syaoran loved Sakura, Yue? Yue answered, He did have those who loved him very much. He just didn¡¯t return the feelings. Because he was a selfish man. He could not love and died a lonely man.

 

 

 

Touya was distracted by Yukito¡¯s words for the rest of the day. He had spaced out during the morning seminar and even right now, as he listened to Doctor Okawa, the words were not filtering in through his ears. Sakura loved him best. She loved the Brat. He had always known that Sakura cared for him. There had been no doubt that he had cared for her all this while. Sometimes, he had been deceived by Syaoran. Touya had been secretly glad that even with the return of the Brat a year and a half ago, the relationship did not resume off the childish elementary games that had been played. The Brat had become colder, and Sakura had been abashed by that. But Touya¡¯s mistake was studying abroad last year. In those months that he had been absent, Sakura and the Brat had renewed a bond that could never be thwarted again.  

 

¡°Kinomoto-kun, do you have the patient¡¯s MRI scans?¡± asked Doctor Okawa to Touya.

 

¡°Yes, it¡¯s right here,¡± Touya said automatically. Forget about Him. He¡¯s gone now. ¡°And here are the patients charts.¡± He squirmed nervously as his pocket started vibrating.

 

¡°Your cellphone¡¯s ringing,¡± said Doctor Okawa wryly. ¡°You know you should turn off your cellphone in the hospital, don¡¯t you?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, I forgot—¡° Touya fumbled in his pockets, mentally reprimanding himself for being so absentminded today.

 

¡°Go ahead and get it,¡± said the older doctor—out of the new residents, Touya was rising quickly as a favorite in the department. He was reliable and responsible. The patients trusted him and his fellow doctors found him to be an intelligent and dependable colleague. His only flaw was his lack of a sense of humor—he was more stoic than the head of the department himself.  

 

¡°Pardon me,¡± Touya mumbled and walked off outside, coughing at the smoke accumulated from all the doctors who had taken a cigarette break and picked up his cellphone. ¡°Hello?¡±

 

¡°Touya.¡±

 

He cleared his throat, reeling from the sound of that tinkling voice. ¡°How do you have my number?¡±

 

¡°Your little sister told me.¡± There was a lighthearted chuckle at the other end.

 

¡°Why—¡±

 

¡°I heard you were offended that I didn¡¯t personally let you know of my return.¡± There were footsteps behind him. ¡°So I am here to give you my greetings, since it¡¯s so hard to see your face these days now that you¡¯re a working man.¡±

 

He spun around, greeted by the sight of that familiar smiling face. She hadn¡¯t changed at all in the months since he had last seen her in England. ¡°Kaho-san,¡± Touya said awkwardly.

 

¡°Touya,¡± Kaho beamed at him. ¡°You look so handsome in your white doctor¡¯s coat. Just like a real doctor!¡±

 

¡°I am a real doctor,¡± Touya grumbled. ¡°Well, I¡¯m merely an intern at the moment though.¡±

 

¡°Ah, I remember when you had to fill out your career plans form. You always indicated wanted to become a doctor,¡± Kaho said nostalgically. ¡°It fits you, a vocational practice, saving other people.¡±

 

¡°Well, what brings you back here to this boring town?¡± Touya asked dryly.

 

¡°It¡¯s a pity. I remember telling you some eight years ago that the next time we meet, we will become really dear friends. But somehow, I think our relationship is not where I would have wanted it to be after all these years,¡± Kaho remarked.

 

¡°Well, you can¡¯t disappear for years and suddenly reappear and expect things to be exactly the same as it was as if you haven¡¯t left,¡± was the sullen reply. ¡°And we had our chance, when I came to study in England last spring.¡± It had been awkward attending Cambridge as an undergrad exchange student, while Kaho had been a graduate student. They rarely bumped into each other on campus, and they were in different fields anyway. But finally, they had been on equal grounds. They were both students, not the tabooed teacher and student that they once were. But constantly by Kaho¡¯s side had been the glass-eyed classmate of Sakura¡¯s, the reincarnation of Clow Reed. And whenever he had a chance to speak to Kaho alone, the annoying Nakuru always popped out of nowhere. Besides, Touya sensed just the tiniest bit of tension whenever Yukito was with Kaho. They both smiled, but Yukito always felt a little more like Yue whenever Mizuki Kaho was around. Maybe it was the power of the moon drawing him out. Either way, Touya did not like being caught in the middle of the two¡¯s smiling battles.

 

¡°That¡¯s true. I guess it¡¯s my fault.¡± Kaho smiled. ¡°Well, should we start anew? Hello, I am Mizuki Kaho, your sister¡¯s new homeroom teacher.¡±

 

¡°So I heard,¡± remarked Touya.

 

¡°But now, you¡¯re no longer Kinomoto Touya, my student, but Kinomoto-sensei.¡± Kaho clapped her hands together. ¡°Ah, I heard you deal with brains? Can you figure out why I have such a terrible sense of direction?¡±

 

¡°Go check the psychiatrists¡¯ ward.¡± Touya scowled. ¡°While you¡¯re at it, check in the glass-eyed freak as well.¡±

 

¡°You never were really fond of Eriol, were you?¡± Kaho sighed. ¡°I guess it¡¯s understandable, considering all the trouble he caused for your sister five years ago. But it was all for the better.¡±

 

¡°Tell me, if there is nothing left to chance, did you know all this would happen too?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not the fortuneteller, Touya, you are.¡±

 

¡°Humph. Good use that has been to me,¡± Touya stated, rubbing his eyes, tired all of a sudden.

 

¡°I know it¡¯s hard, Touya, being able to see what other cannot, being able to see, but not being able to see everything. It¡¯s a hard position to be in. I wish I can help make things easier for you. But I cannot tell you anymore that you don¡¯t already know,¡± Kaho said.

 

Touya shook his head slowly. ¡°I¡¯m not the one who¡¯s suffering. It¡¯s her—she¡¯s holding everything to herself. But I¡¯m glad you returned. It¡¯s a relief knowing you¡¯ll be by her side. Ah, I got paged by Izuki-sensei—I got to get going. Are you going to be around a little longer?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll be around,¡± replied Kaho.

 

 

 

Glimpsing through the door in the children¡¯s ward, Kaho smiled to see Yukito bent over a bed, a little boy talking animated to him. It was clear that all the children adored the Snow Bunny. Tsukishiro Yukito had a calming presence, and he brought smiles to those in the same room as him. He turned around and glanced at the door when he sensed that someone was watching him. It seemed as if he had been expecting her, because he only bowed his head to her and resumed tucking the child into bed.

 

Neither did he show any surprise when he walked in the doctors¡¯ lounge and found her waiting there, arms folded on lap. The man who walked in the door was not the benevolent, good-natured pediatrician but one who was suddenly very distant and reserved. ¡°What are you doing back in Japan?¡± asked Yukito, who had removed his glasses to wipe them with a cloth. He narrowed his golden-brown eyes. ¡°I sensed you were back.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s been a long time, Tsukishiro-san¡¦ Or Yue?¡± Kaho smiled. Even in England, she had a hard time distinguishing when Yue took over Yukito¡¯s mind—it was very occasional, when transforming was not practical

 

¡°I doubt you¡¯re back here solely to renew your friendship with Touya,¡± Yukito replied. ¡°So, are you back here to be with Eriol? Or to watch over Sakura? Maybe to lend us some insight on the studies you have done on the Great Five?¡±

 

¡°Actually, I came back because my instincts told me I should be back here in Tomoeda, naught else. And you don¡¯t have to be so wary of me anymore, Yue.¡±

 

¡°No happiness can be brought to you by being with Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation,¡± was Yukito¡¯s reply.

 

¡°Depends on what your idea of happiness is,¡± she said. ¡°Happiness can be found in being with the one that you love. Pain and jealousy also. Despair and sorrow. Love is an emotion which can derive many other emotions along with it. Hence it¡¯s a complex emotion, one that can lead many astray.¡±

 

¡°That is why humans are foolish,¡± was Yukito¡¯s reply.

 

¡°But too you have human emotions, Yue.¡±

 

¡°No, that makes ¡®Yukito,¡¯ alive. The emotions within ¡®Yue¡¯ have died years and years ago.¡± Yukito closed his eyes.

 

Kaho smiled sadly. ¡°And is the cold-hearted master Clow Reed to blame for that?¡±

 

Yukito gazed at her with narrowed eyes. There was a sharp knock on the door and he blinked. His marigold eyes widened, then he fumbled to put on his glasses. ¡°Mizuki-san, when did you get here again? I must have been spacing out—residential interns notoriously get little sleep.¡±

 

A tall figure leaned against the doorway. ¡°Yukito, we¡¯re running late for the intern lecture—hurry up and get your notepad,¡± said Touya. Yukito hurried off to get his note-taking material. ¡°You¡¯re still here.¡±

 

Kaho turned to him with a soft smile. ¡°Don¡¯t scowl at me like that, Touya. You always made that expression whenever other male students used to talk to me in class.¡±

 

¡°What were you talking to Yukito about?¡± demanded Touya.

 

¡°I was just trying to get to know Tsukishiro-san better.¡± Kaho tucked her long red hair behind her ears. ¡°Though I had little luck with that.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t get near Yukito,¡± said Touya curtly.

 

Looking up at Touya, Kaho remarked, ¡°You were always protective of your loved ones, Touya.¡± She reached out to touch his cheek out of habit but stopped. ¡°Your brusque manners always misconstrued your meaning though. It¡¯s a pity. Because it sometimes conceals how gentle your heart is. Don¡¯t worry—I won¡¯t give any weird impression to Tsukishiro-san about our past or anything. That¡¯s not why I came to see him.¡± Touya¡¯s midnight blue eyes were still narrowed is distrust. In the eight years since she had first met him, Kaho realized that there was no trace of boyishness left in Kinomoto Touya at all. He was now the man that she had always known he would grown into.

 

Touya gazed hard at his first love, the woman who always went her pace, the woman who always did everything her way. ¡°That¡¯s not what I¡¯m concerned about.¡±

 

¡°I know,¡± was her quiet reply. I know, Touya. I know that you have no worries or fears regarding Yukito. You two know each other inside out—there is nothing you hide between each other. But your concern is in his other half, Yue. The side that you don¡¯t know, the past that you have no inkling of. The other half of Yukito that you can never claim. The side that only Clow Reed has full possession over.

 

Sighing, Touya glanced at his watch and called out, ¡°Yukito—you can just borrow paper and a pen from me—we¡¯re really late now.¡±

 

¡°Well, I better get going now—I have to grade homework,¡± said Kaho, gathering her bag.

 

¡°Kaho—¡° Touya uttered out of old habit. He shook his head and corrected himself. ¡°Mizuki-san.¡±

 

¡°Call me by my name, Touya, like you used to. We¡¯re both mature adults now, aren¡¯t we?¡± Kaho gave him a genuine smile this time, because she suddenly recalled what an awkward clumsy boy when he first asked to date her. How sincere and unclouded his blue eyes had been back then.

 

¡°Kaho,¡± he said again. This time, he too mustered a tight smile. He held out his hand. ¡°Let¡¯s give this another try—where¡¯s the harm? Friends from now on.¡±

 

¡°Good friends from now on,¡± she corrected, taking his hand and shaking it. She had a nostalgic look as she watched Touya and Yukito run out together in their white lab coats, dodging nurses who swooned after the two.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

I didn¡¯t even sense a dark force. If Eron hadn¡¯t told me¡¦ Sakura trudged on home after a grueling practice track meet and dragged herself upstairs to her room and plopped down into bed without eating dinner.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, are you all right?¡± Kero-chan asked, looking away from the TV. ¡°You look beat.¡±

 

¡°I need to finish my math homework and take a shower and finish writing up the interview for journalism and memorize those lines¡¦¡± Sakura voice trailed off. It was too tiring to even talk. During the day, she kept herself busy; so busy that she had not a moment to think, to rest.

 

¡°I thought you said you weren¡¯t joining any extracurricular activities,¡± remarked Kero-chan.

 

¡°I¡¯m not¡¦¡± Yawning, Sakura kicked off her socks and crawled under her covers. She watched the TV with bleary eyes. Since when did Kero-chan watch the evening news?

 

The anchorwoman stated, ¡°Further updates on the draught. Farmers from Fukuoka and Okinawa have all reported that the dry weather has had hazardous results on the new spring crops. Reports state that at this rate, the price of wheat and vegetables will increase drastically this summer. Likewise, fruit orchards have been plagued by bugs and are drying up. Botanists have remarked perhaps the pollution in the soil is causing this failure of flowers to bloom this spring. The cherry blossom season has ended abruptly, and there is not sight of the greenery usual of spring. The cause is yet unknown, however¡¦¡±

 

¡°Nee, Kero-chan.¡± Sakura rolled over to her side.

 

¡°Yes?¡± Kero-chan stared hard at the evening news.

 

¡°It¡¯s a dark force, isn¡¯t it?¡±

 

Kero-chan didn¡¯t reply.

 

¡°Why didn¡¯t you say anything?¡± Sakura demanded.

 

¡°I wasn¡¯t going to say anything until I was completely sure,¡± mumbled Kero-chan.


¡°Liar. You didn¡¯t want to talk to me about it because you¡¯re still worried about me.¡± Sakura sat up again and buried her face in her hands. ¡°All I do is make everyone worry. I¡¯m sorry, Kero-chan. I¡¯m sorry for being a disappointment as a Card Mistress. I haven¡¯t been doing my job. I should have learned by now. I can¡¯t just stop being Card Mistress, can I? It¡¯s not my choice anymore.¡±

 

Kero-chan placed a paw on his Mistress¡¯ lap. ¡°Sakura, neither I nor Yue want you to do something you aren¡¯t comfortable doing. If you don¡¯t want to be Card Mistress anymore, you don¡¯t have to be. I will always support your decision.¡±

 

Kneeling on top of her bed, Sakura said, ¡°To think, I had to have Eron-kun tell me there¡¯s a dark force.¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s he up to now?¡± Kero-chan asked warily.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± she replied. She stared at the drawer she had locked up the Sakura Cards remorsefully. Was it too late to revoke her decision? She flopped over on her bed and shut her eyes, hit with a weariness that she had been warding off for the past week. Her head pounded and her limbs were sore from the sudden physical exertion from running. She hadn¡¯t even touched tomorrow¡¯s homework¡¦ And there was the dark force on loose. I have to capture it¡¦ No, I don¡¯t have to. There¡¯s Eriol-kun and Mizuki-sensei. There are others who can fight the dark forces. I don¡¯t want to fight anymore¡¦

 

¡°You¡¯re asleep already?¡± Kero-chan pulled a blanket over Sakura and sighed. Right now, it was in Sakura¡¯s best interest not to use magic because none of them knew how the power transfer would backfire should Sakura start trying to release her power. ¡°Keeping yourself this busy—is it helping you forget him, Sakura-chan?¡±

 

 

 

Every night, I have a haunting dream. A dream that leaves me drenched in cold sweat. It is a dream of him walking off, fading into the distance. I run faster and faster towards him, but I can never catch up. Then, a familiar sensation sinks into my heart as I realize how scared I am, how desperate and terrified. How utterly alone. And I wake and realize it wasn¡¯t a dream. It¡¯s reality.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura overslept the next morning and not only missed her 7AM track practice but was going to be late for school. She glided out of the house full speed on her rollerblades. There was a crowd gathered on the streets and she looked up. The lane of cherry blossoms in full bloom just a week ago was brown and ashen, the branches completely bare as if was stark winter. Swerving down the corner, she passed by Tsukimine Shrine. The trees there were also bare and all the flowers in the flowerbeds had wilted. How had she failed to notice? Or had she intentionally been blocking out everything?

 

When she entered her classroom, barely on time, she was relieved to find Mizuki-sensei had not arrived yet and the students were lingering about, conversing in low voices.

 

¡°It¡¯s so strange. First that plague epidemic and now this—otou-san said that there¡¯s something strange going on in Japan,¡± Naoko stated. Her eyes sparkled. ¡°Armageddon.¡±

 

Yamazaki Takashi, who had regained his voice, elaborated, ¡°According to meteorologists, there is a worldwide phenomenon called global warming occurring due to carbon emissions, which would result in the thinning of the ozone layer and the contamination of all life forms, meaning the eventual extinction of humankind¡¦¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re not making the situation any better with your sci-fi stories,¡± stated Chiharu.

 

Eriol came to the rescue, stating, ¡°Yamazaki-kun is absolutely correct. The greenhouse effect is quite a serious environmental issue in recent decades with the extensive use of fossil fuel which is triggering an overall climate change which will result in the rising of ocean levels with the melting of glaciers.¡±

 

Takashi finished off, ¡°Consequently, the Japanese islands will eventually be swallowed by the ocean at this rate within a century or two.¡±

 

At this, Chiharu sighed. ¡°A century? My grandfather is worried because his crop yield won¡¯t get him through this year at this rate—the soil returns nothing no matter how hard he ploughs and waters the seeds, he said. Poor ¡®jii-chan. He works so hard—I was going to visit him for summer vacation.¡±

 

Catching her breath, Sakura took her seat.

 

¡°You didn¡¯t do anything about the dark force,¡± hissed Eron.

 

Sakura took out her notebook from her book bag. ¡°If you¡¯re so concerned about this dark force, why don¡¯t you do something about it yourself?¡±

 

¡°I would, if I could.¡±

 

Sakura looked up at Eron¡¯s clouded eyes. ¡°What do you mean?¡±

 

¡°The dark forces are longer on my side,¡± said Eron.

 

Sakura stared at Eron in surprise. ¡°I don¡¯t understand.¡±

 

Eron began slowly, ¡°I don¡¯t have any more control over the dark forces. I¡¯m not sure how to explain it, but I guess we too had some sort of contract with the dark forces. It¡¯s different from your Cards—we had a loose reign of the dark forces, meaning they could do as they please but we could also control them to our specific means, in return for feeding them with dark energy. But I¡¯ve lost control over the dark forces while I was ill.¡±

 

¡°What does that signify?¡± asked Sakura slowly. What game was Eron playing with her now?

 

¡°It means that all the remaining dark forces are no longer under my jurisdiction.¡±

 

¡°How does that affect me?¡±

 

¡°Well, I¡¯ll put it this way. Previously, I was able to control the dark forces that you had to face one of them at a time, or a couple, depending on what dark force it was. There was always a couple that I had a hard time controlling and went amuck anyway.¡± Eron sighed. ¡°What I mean to say is, while I was ill, all the dark forces have been released simultaneously, and they are no longer under my power.¡± Sakura was taking the news much calmer than he had expected. Or maybe she did not understand the gravity of the situation yet.

 

¡°And what happens when all the dark forces are released at once?¡± Sakura questioned as a sinking feeling filled her stomach.

 

¡°They¡¯re all out there, without any restraint, and can attack any moment. It¡¯s no different from when all the Clow Cards were released—they¡¯re not, well hopefully not, going to attack all simultaneously. Certain circumstances attract different dark forces. At the same time, there is not going to be any predictable pattern in how they attack—all we can do is await and see what unfolds. But because I know them better than anybody, and I will recognize them quicker too. I can be of use to you.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not as stupid as to receive advice from a Dark One,¡± was Sakura¡¯s curt reply.

 

¡°Despite what you think, I¡¯m not trying to sabotage you or anything,¡± said Eron.

 

Sakura raised an eyebrow. ¡°Do you seriously expect me to believe that?¡±

 

¡°You have nothing to lose from at least listening to what I say. For instance, I am more familiar with the dark forces than anyone else,¡± he replied. ¡°And my knowledge can be of some assistance to you if you choose to employ it.¡±

 

¡°Why exactly are you trying to help me now, after all that you did?¡±

 

¡°Do I really have to explain why?¡± Eron stared at Sakura hard. ¡°I know you can¡¯t trust me. I know you reproach me for what happened with the Plague. But don¡¯t think I haven¡¯t paid my price, that I feel no remorse. These past months, I¡¯ve been fighting too, in my own way. Same as you. You know what I¡¯m talking about.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t want to talk about it,¡± replied Sakura shortly.

 

¡°Don¡¯t you see Sakura? He¡¯s gone. I don¡¯t know for what reason, but he left you.¡± Eron¡¯s voice softened. ¡°But I¡¯m here. I¡¯m standing right here in front of you. I¡¯m not asking that you forgive me or accept me. I¡¯m not even asking for you to give me another chance. All I¡¯m asking is for you to let me be by your side this time and prove myself to you until you can believe how genuine my feelings are.¡±

 

¡°Eron-kun, I—¡° She was cut off.

 

¡°You don¡¯t have to give me an answer yet. Tell me later. Right now, I¡¯m not asking anything from you,¡± Eron said, gazing at her steadily with his eyes golden like steadily glowing lanterns in the dark. He gave her a half smile then walked away.

 

Though she tried so recall all her reproach for him, strangely enough, Sakura found that she no longer harbored her original resentment towards him because of what had happened with the Plague. Because she realized that Eron was not lying. He too was fighting. After all, had he ever been dishonest with her? True, he was the Dark One¡¯s ancestor, and her enemy. But he had always been truthful towards her, even that day before everything began to spiral downwards, when he called her out to King Penguin Park. Even though she hadn¡¯t been listening then, he had been letting her know his true feelings.

 

Mizuki-sensei entered the classroom so that Sakura didn¡¯t have to reply to Eron. She hadn¡¯t forgiven him, but she was no longer angry with him; she didn¡¯t have the strength nor will to stay mad at him. Besides, when ever there was a new dark force, that was all she could focus on whether she wanted to or not.

 

I gave up being a Card Mistress. It¡¯s no longer my responsibility¡¦ Is it?

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

On her way home after gymnastics practice, Sakura was surprised to have the long silver-haired figure silhouetted by the moon waiting for her near Penguin Park. ¡°Yue-san!¡±

 

¡°Card Mistress Sakura. It¡¯s been a long time,¡± stated Yue.

 

Sakura looked away shamefully. ¡°High school is a lot busier than I thought.¡±

 

¡°I thought something else should be keeping you busy,¡± Yue commented, narrowing his silver-blue eyes.

 

¡°The dark force. I—¡° Sakura couldn¡¯t find words to explain herself to Yue¡¯s scrutinizing eyes.

 

¡°I have chosen you, Kinomoto Sakura, as Card Mistress. Because there is no one else more suited to be Keeper of the Clow Cards. When I accepted you as Card Mistress, I was bound to you by contract to serve you.¡± Yue paused. ¡°And you expect me to accept a Mistress who has locked away her cards and turned her back to her duties, allowing this mayhem to ensue? Do you remember what you went through to seal the Plague? This fight against the Dark Ones is not something you can so flippantly give your all towards one day then ignore the next. It¡¯s an ongoing struggle, where you, as the Card Mistress, can¡¯t relapse for a day.¡±

 

As she listened to Yue¡¯s cold, crisp voice, Sakura clenched her eyes shut. Her knees were trembling, not from the brisk evening breeze but because she found she could not look at Yue straight in the face. Yue was so different from the smiling Yukito-san. However, this was also the first the Yue had gotten angry at her.

 

His tone might have been slightly gentler as he said, ¡°Your heart may be hurting, but nurse your broken tender heart in your own time. The battle is not over yet. When peace and equilibrium is restored to the world, you may do as you please. But until then, you are under Yue¡¯s Judgment, Card Mistress Sakura.¡±

 

Sakura smiled crookedly, staring into Yue¡¯s ethereal face. ¡°That you have in similar with Yukito-san. A cruel bluntness. But also, an unfathomable kindness.¡±

 

Yue¡¯s stern expression relaxed. ¡°¡®Kind¡¯ has never been a word to describe myself.¡±

 

¡°Even when I¡¯m like this, you could have left me, disqualified me as your master, but here you are, scolding me.¡± Sakura looked up at Yue with sorrowful jade-green eyes.

 

¡°I am bound to you by contract—I would not leave you,¡± asserted Yue.

 

Though his words were curt, Sakura did not miss the ¡®would.¡¯ Yue could have said he could not leave her, but he said he would not. She said softly, ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Yue-san. I¡¯ll try not to disappoint everyone anymore.¡±

 

¡°Well, I¡¯m transforming back now. Maybe my counterpart can cheer you up; I¡¯ve never been very good at doing that myself,¡± stated Yue, folding his vast white wings around him into a cocoon.

 

Tsukishiro Yukito, Yue¡¯s alter ego, emerged. He was still in his white coat and blinked. ¡°How did I end up here again?¡± He pushed up his round glasses and found Sakura staring up at him. ¡°Sakura-chan, are you coming home from school?¡±

 

¡°Y-yes!¡±

 

Patting Sakura on the head before withdrawing his hand and pondering if Sakura was too old to be treated like this, Yukito stated, ¡°Well, I¡¯ll walk you home, and I need to get back to the hospital. Maybe I can grab some dinner though, since it¡¯s dinnertime.¡±

 

Together, they walked towards the Kinomoto residence. It felt so natural keeping pace with Yukito-san.

 

¡°Yukito-san?¡±

 

¡°Yes, Sakura-chan?¡±

 

Sakura gulped down a lump in her throat. ¡°Yukito-san.¡± She had forgotten what a calming effect being with Yukito-san had on her. If she could have continued loving Yukito-san instead, would life had been a lot simpler? Hadn¡¯t Clow Reed intended them to fall in love? Why could not everything have worked out by the book?

 

¡°Hmm...¡±

 

¡°Thank you.¡±

 

¡°What for?¡± Yukito asked Sakura, blinking.

 

¡°For sticking by onii-chan and me, though ¡®nii-chan¡¯s a grouch, and I¡¯m a crybaby,¡± replied Sakura, feeling a lot calmer than she had in weeks—Yukito had that sort of presence.

 

¡°I should thank you for always making me feel like a family, giving me somewhere I belong, Sakura-chan,¡± replied Yukito, staring up into the starless night sky.

 

¡°That¡¯s right. We¡¯re pretty much like family. Yukito-san won¡¯t go anywhere,¡± said Sakura softly.

 

A sad look came over Yukito¡¯s eyes. ¡°Of course not. I¡¯ll always be here for you and Touya.¡±

 

Sakura nodded, letting her bangs hide her eyes. But even as I walk with this person I like and respect so much, why can¡¯t I get rid of this hollow feeling? Didn¡¯t He once promise not to leave me?

 

 

 

Once home, Sakura ran up to her room and took out the Sakura Cards from her drawers. She felt an electric shock as she opened the Clow Book and whispered, ¡°Sorry, I know you¡¯re all mad at me for abandoning you for so long.¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s the matter, Sakura-chan?¡± Kero-chan asked, yawning.

 

¡°Yue-san spoke to me earlier,¡± replied Sakura.

 

¡°Eh, Yue came all the way here? What did he say?¡± Since Kero-chan had not communicated with Yue since the Plague incident, he did not know how Yue was faring with the whole turn of events. No, Cerberus had been afraid to speak with Yue, because he knew that Yue was a stoic when it came to following duties.

 

Sakura sighed. ¡°He scolded me for abandoning my duties as Card Mistress.¡±

 

¡°You don¡¯t have to listen to what he says. He used to always chide Clow Reed also when he didn¡¯t approve of the things Clow did.¡± Kero-chan chuckled. The only person who could get away with saying whatever he wanted to the greatest sorcerer in the world would have been Yue.

 

¡°Nee, Kero-chan, did Clow Reed ever have a moment he wanted to give up being a sorcerer?¡±

 

¡°Many times,¡± replied Kero-chan. ¡°Can¡¯t you tell? He eventually had to reincarnate himself in order to no longer be the most powerful magician in the world.¡±

 

¡°But he continued on doing what he had to do, creating Clow Reed, keeping balance in the world,¡± said Sakura. ¡°How could he bear the burden?¡±

 

¡°Because he let his heart decay inside him long ago, and only the logic in his mind kept him going.¡± Kero-chan looked away. While his current card mistress had always been like a friend to him, Cerberus¡¯ relationship with Clow Reed had been slightly different. Clow had been more of a fatherly figure. But Clow also had very little contact with the outside world, especially in his later years. Cerberus had always been a companion to Clow, but never a comrade, cared for and cherished by Clow, but never truly loved.

 

¡°Well, come now, Kero-chan. Let¡¯s go see what the deal with this dark force is,¡± said Sakura, clutching the Key of Stars hanging around her neck and tucking the Sakura Cards into her pocket.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tanaka Miho stared at the oval mirror hung at the end of the hallway in the Clow Reed Residence. The mirror that had started the upheaval of everything in her life. She stared at her own reflection. For a second, her image warped into a woman with long auburn hair, wearing a kimono. She reached out and touched the glass, leaving a smudged on the surface.

 

¡°So, this is the Mirror of Truth,¡± remarked Mizuki Kaho, standing behind Miho.

 

¡°Somehow, it has been returned to us,¡± said Miho. If it weren¡¯t for this mirror¡¦

 

¡°Are you ready for dinner?¡± asked Kaho, holding up a box. ¡°I brought dessert, also. Lemon tart.¡±

 

¡°Yummy!¡± Miho clapped her hands together. ¡°Well, I¡¯m going to the kitchen to help okaa-san out.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll help out too,¡± Kaho said.

 

¡°No, you¡¯re a guest!¡± stated Miho.

 

¡°Well, I¡¯ll help set the table then,¡± insisted Kaho.

 

The two walked into the immense kitchen where Miara, in a frilly apron stood in the center of, arms on hips. ¡°No, Nakuru-chan, I told you to add the curry power last. Suppi-chan, the water¡¯s boiling over—turn down the heat!¡±

 

¡°Good evening Aunt Miara,¡± Kaho said, dodging Suppi-chan who was balancing a bowl of chopped carrots taken from the fridge.

 

¡°Is that you, Kaho?¡± Miara turned around and reached out a hand. Kaho took it with both hands. ¡°We¡¯re having curry for dinner tonight. That¡¯s all right with you?¡±

 

¡°Yes, it sounds delicious,¡± said Kaho, smiling.

 

¡°We¡¯re doing all the work,¡± muttered Nakuru under her breath, scraping the burnt curry from the bottom of the pot.

 

¡°Nakuru—the rice is done. Open the cooker and give it a stir, or else it¡¯ll stick,¡± said Miara.

 

¡°I got it!¡± Miho shouted, running to the rice cooker. ¡°Kyaa! Oww¡¦ I burnt my hand.¡±

 

¡°Silly Miho-chan. You have to be careful—the steam is very hot. Go stick your hand under cold water.¡± Miara navigated her way around to the freezer and took out a couple ice cubes for her daughter.

 

¡°You¡¯re quite a wonderful mother,¡± remarked Kaho. She was amazed how well Miara moved around even without her sight. The last time she had met Miara, she had been deranged and bed-ridden, a frail ghost of a woman. But the woman standing in front of her was a strong, opinionated and spirited person, someone who had drive to live and carry on. What had changed her?

 

Miara¡¯s eyes fell to the floor. ¡°No, I was and still am quite a horrible mother. Household chores are far from me. I was always busy with work, so I never ended up doing much of the chores at home. I was a horrible cook too—I baked the most disgusting cakes. I never ate them myself—wouldn¡¯t dare. But Keisuke-san and Mikai and Miho were too kindhearted to tell me how bad it was and always finished the whole thing in front of me and told me it was delicious.¡±

 

Misty-eyed, Miho said, ¡°They were good, okaa-san.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right, Miho. I knew they were bad. Remember, otou-san once switched Mikai¡¯s cake with a store-bought one? He covered it with yellow icing and printed out the chocolate letters in my handwriting so perfectly, that even I wouldn¡¯t have been able to tell it apart.¡± Miara smiled wistfully. ¡°Eriol-kun, you have to stop that habit of lurking around the house without making a sound.¡±

 

Eriol cleared his throat. ¡°I just thought you might need a hand in the kitchen, and you were all in conversation so I didn¡¯t want to interrupt.¡±

 

¡°Are you implying that you don¡¯t believe it capable of me to produce a decent meal for your delicate taste?¡± Miara asked, crossing her arms.

 

¡°No-no! I was just trying to be helpful!¡± Eriol said helplessly.

 

¡°Well, go out to the dining room and wait then. You¡¯ll just get in the way if you stay. Dinner¡¯s almost ready,¡± stated Miara.

 

¡°Yes, ma¡¯am.¡± Meekly, Eriol walked back out of the kitchen. He was no match for three Mizuki¡¯s.

 

After Eriol left, Miara turned to Kaho, Miho and Nakuru, and they all burst into giggles. It was so fun to see a much-subdued Eriol unable to do anything in the house. Suppi-chan sighed, stirring the curry with a spatula. Poor Eriol. With four women in the house (three women and one she-thing), there was no room for a sadistic mastermind to scheme—it took all of Eriol¡¯s wits to keep up with all the females¡¯ banter.

 

 

 

By the time Kaho had left and Eriol had finished washing the dishes, it was time for bed. But Miho sat awake in the study, disregarding that she had not finished any of the homework for tomorrow. She pushed up her reading glasses up the bridge of her nose and sighed, leaning back on her desk chair. Picking up her pen again, she started scribbling in her notebook.

 

The door to the study opened a crack, and Eriol peaked in.

 

¡°You can come in,¡± said Miho, sighing, scratching out her notes in her notebook.

 

¡°Why are you still up?¡± asked Eriol, coming in with a cup of hot chocolate with three plump marshmallows on top. He set the tray on the desk.

 

¡°You brought that for me? Thank you.¡± Miho smiled. She took a sip of the thick, creamy drink. ¡°Mmm¡¦ It¡¯s delicious.¡±

 

Eriol picked up a clip of a newspaper article entitled, ¡°Where is Kaitou Magician?¡± He glanced over at the cluttered clippings on the desk, the stacks of scrapbooks Miho had created, all on the mysterious thief. ¡°Miho—why are you so obsessed over this Kaitou Magician figure.¡± He stared at the large painting mounted on the opposite wall of the figure clad in black, a black cloak whipped out behind him as he leapt midair against the painted darkness of the night. It was a magnificent painting, and one could almost feel the wind blowing back from the way the brushstrokes captured movement. No less would have been expected from the renowned character painter, Shing.

 

Miho turned around and stared at the painting, taking off her glasses. ¡°I¡¯m not obsessed,¡± she replied flatly.

 

¡°These past weeks, ever since you received that painting, all you¡¯ve been doing is researching on Kaitou Magician. What are you hoping to find out?¡±

 

¡°Who murdered my father,¡± replied Miho stonily.

 

¡°You have no proof that your father was murdered—he died in a car accident in Hong Kong. That¡¯s what you said,¡± said Eriol.

 

¡°Mizuki-senpai said he was murdered. He must have sent me the Mirror of the Truth and the Thief of the Night painting as a clue,¡± said Miho.

 

¡°You don¡¯t know if the painting¡¯s from him,¡± Eriol remarked.

 

Miho gazed at Eriol warily. In the past five years she had known Eriol, she had learned to not trust a hundred percent of what he said. She had also learned that he often kept things from her, tidbits of knowledge that he supposedly was protecting her from. In that sense, she had learned not to rely on Eriol. ¡°I¡¯m not stupid, Eriol, and onii-chan knows I¡¯m not stupid. He¡¯s set up a puzzle for me—he¡¯s testing me. And I¡¯m not going to disappoint him.¡±

 

¡°So, what are you planning to do?¡± asked Eriol.

 

¡°Keep on investigating. What else?¡± Miho stood up from her desk and walked up to the painting. ¡°First of all, I need to figure out why Tanaka Mikai chose to become the Kaitou Magician,¡± she stated.

 

¡°It was to collect the Five Force Treasures, wasn¡¯t it?¡± remarked Suppi-chan, rolling over from the large sofa where he had been quietly reading a book.

 

¡°Yes. And that was to heal okaa-san. I understand that much, without him having to tell me,¡± said Miho.

 

¡°Then why are you still so angry at him?¡± Suppi-chan asked, blinking his beady black eyes.

 

¡°Because he chose to hide all this from me and lied to me over and over again. He could have told me. I would have understood his decisions,¡± said Miho softly.

 

¡°So, you think there is something more that he¡¯s hiding, and you hope to find it out by uncovering the mystery behind Kaitou Magician, a.k.a. Mizuki Kai, a.k.a. Tanaka Mikai?¡± Suppi-chan rolled over on his back and yawned.

 

At this, Miho pursed her lips, her brows furrowed together in a deep frown. 

 

¡°Have you drawn any conclusions from your investigations?¡± asked Eriol mildly.

 

For a second, Miho resented Eriol for not taking her seriously. Then she replied staidly, ¡°He returned the Mirror of Truth to us—he promised okaa-san that he would, and he kept his promise. I don¡¯t understand why he sent me this painting.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s as if to mock you,¡± said Suppi-chan. ¡°He threw you a bone, let you know his alter-ego to let you know how he had been deceiving you all this time. The role-model, perfect brother was actually a notorious top-20 wanted thief, a criminal sought out by the police of ten different top cities.¡±

 

¡°Spinel Sun,¡± Eriol said in a warning voice.

 

¡°What, it¡¯s the truth,¡± grumbled the black butterfly-winged creature, crawling back over his book.

 

Miho sighed. ¡°I did find out various things. It worries me—reports state was shot in the chest last summer. I don¡¯t think he could have gotten the bullet out. He could not have been accepted by any hospital, because the police had his blood sample.¡±

 

¡°He¡¯s not stupid—he would have figured something out,¡± said Nakuru.

 

¡°I told him that I never want to see him again. But I don¡¯t want him to die,¡± said Miho in a distant voice, eyes fixed on the red-black backdrop of the Thief of the Night.

 

Realizing that Miho was already lost in her own thoughts again, Eriol slowly drew on his cloak and headed out the door.

 

¡°Where are you going at this hour?¡± demanded Miho.

 

¡°Seems that our Card Mistress is up to something again,¡± replied Eriol.

 

Miho grinned. ¡°Finally.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It was almost like the beginning, back when it was just Sakura, Tomoyo and Kero-chan out to seek for a mischief-causing Clow Card. If only they could return to those days, when Tomoyo thought that capturing Clow Cards was a fun game, and Sakura would look up with a bright smile and tell them, ¡°everything will be all right.¡±

 

¡°If you gave me more notice, I would have brought a new battle costume for Sakura-chan,¡± Tomoyo-chan exclaimed, clinging on to Sakura¡¯s back as Cerberus carried the two girls up into the night sky. Her voice was bright, trying to cover up an unmistakable void.

 

¡°I¡¯m just scoping out what we¡¯re dealing today,¡± replied Sakura, clutching on to Cerberus¡¯ as he soared forth. Tomoyo was trying to videotape Sakura in vain while still holding on to Sakura. ¡°I doubt we¡¯ll be able to seal this dark force tonight—it seems to be one of those wide scope ones.¡±

 

¡°I see what you mean,¡± remarked Cerberus—it had been a long while since he had released himself into his large form. First he he had been dubious if he could change back without much problem. But either way, the brat¡¯s power of the moon was still enough to sustain him. And he would not be surprised if Yue found an even greater surge of power than before. It felt refreshing to fly so high up in the sky in his real form.

 

Sakura pointed towards the mountainous regions. ¡°Look there—the trees in the outskirts of the mountain are still green. That means this dark force hasn¡¯t gotten to it yet.¡±

 

¡°No, look!¡± Cerberus swerved lower to the ground even at the risk of being seen. Though it was dark, they could see that a row of trees that had been abundant with leaves just moments ago had in a matter of seconds withered away, leaving the branches bare and dry.

 

¡°Kero-chan, let¡¯s get down there. I think the dark force must be around there!¡± exclaimed Sakura.

 

Cerberus swooped down to the ground and the two girls jumped off his back. Sakura reached into her shirt and drew out the key from the chain around her neck. Taking a deep breath, she recited the command that she had not spoken for over two months. ¡°Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± It did not release.

 

¡°Try it again,¡± said Cerberus, noting the panic in Sakura¡¯s eyes.

 

A frown was etched on her forehead as she willed the key to release. But there was no response. ¡°Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release! Release! RELEASE!¡±

 

Sakura was not surprised to find that she could not release her key. The last time she used magic was the day she sealed the Plague and used the Heal card. Maybe she would have noticed earlier if she had paid attention to the nagging feeling within her when she did not sense the powers within her as she usually did. Instead, she blamed it on the aftereffects of recovering from the Plague. And she kept trying to block out everything that reminded her of him. Including her duties as Card Mistress.

 

¡°Kero-chan. Why is my key not releasing?¡± asked Sakura slowly.

 

¡°Your skills might be a little rusty, since you haven¡¯t used your powers in so long,¡± replied Cerberus, casting his golden eyes down.

 

¡°I didn¡¯t have such a problem when I first reused my powers to seal the Knife, after two years of not using magic since Eriol-kun left Tomoeda,¡± replied Sakura.

 

¡°Well, you did overreach your powers with the Heal, and¡¦¡± Cerberus realized he was just making excuses. He turned his head towards the tree branches where Eriol stood in the shadows. When Eriol saw that Cerberus had noticed him, he shook his head slowly as if to tell Cerberus to wait and see what Sakura would do.

 

Tomoyo noticed the direction of Cerberus¡¯ gaze but did not look up. ¡°Let¡¯s go back home for tonight,¡± she said.

 

¡°But—¡° Sakura clutched her key in her hands.

 

¡°You¡¯re not going to seal the dark force tonight anyway. Climb on my back—I¡¯ll take you back home,¡± reasoned Cerberus.

 

 

 

****** 

 

 

 

The next morning, Sakura had a moment alone with Eron before school started since they were both assigned for early morning classroom duties. Eron brought in a vase of fresh flowers. But the moment he set it on the teacher¡¯s desk, the petals dropped and the stem wilted. He winced. ¡°I guess the flowers don¡¯t like me.¡±

 

¡°No, look.¡± Sakura walked over to the window and peeked outside. By mid-spring, the campus should have been abundant with greenery and flowers. However, the branches were now as bare as winter and the flower buds drooped before they even had a chance to blossom. ¡°What dark force would do something like this?¡± asked Sakura, staring at the dead flower.

 

¡°The Decay,¡± replied Eron quietly. ¡°It¡¯s the opposite of the Flower Card. It causes everything it breathes upon to wither and die. Like the first breath of autumn upon summer.¡±

 

Sakura picked up the dry petal which crumbled at the touch of her fingers. ¡°I¡¯ve got to seal it before it causes anymore damage.¡±

 

¡°Finally come to your senses, I see.¡±

 

¡°Too late though.¡± Sakura sighed, leaning back on the window pane.

 

¡°Why do you say that?¡± Eron looked up at Sakura¡¯s frame silhouetted by the bright glare of sunlight.

 

Sakura opened the window, letting in a fresh draft of air into the stuffy classroom. She could see the students filing in to school. ¡°Erika-chan¡¯s been missing a lot of school lately.¡±

 

¡°She has a new boyfriend,¡± replied Eron shortly. Of course he noticed that Sakura was purposefully changing subjects. But he would go along with her flow for the moment. ¡°An older guy and a foreigner on top of that.¡±

 

¡°Ah—like a typical brother.¡± Sakura finished writing the date on the chalkboard and brushed the dust off her hands. ¡°No guy will ever be good enough for Erika in your eyes.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s not that—she doesn¡¯t take relationships seriously. She dates boys to amuse herself, not because she loves them. It makes her seem—cheap. Even though she¡¯s my sister.¡± Eron scowled.

 

¡°And you do?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°Take relationships seriously.¡±

 

¡°Well, considering it¡¯s impossible for me to have any sort of relationship at all, I guess I do,¡± replied Eron.

 

¡°You know, I haven¡¯t used any magic ever since I sealed the Plague,¡± said Sakura. She walked over to her desk and took her seat, staring at Eron who was still standing at the head of the classroom. ¡°I can¡¯t release my staff.¡±

 

¡°What do you mean?¡± asked Eron, watching the girl sitting in the empty classroom.

 

¡°I¡¯m just letting you know. Even if I want to, I don¡¯t think I can be Card Mistress anymore. There¡¯s no point in attacking me with all those dark forces. I can¡¯t fight it anymore—I am as well as defeated.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not the one who released this dark force,¡± said Eron.

 

¡°If I can¡¯t use my powers and Syaoran is gone, and you say that it¡¯s not under your control, then who will take responsibility?¡± burst out Sakura. There was a silence. She had uttered his name for the first time since she had returned from Hong Kong.

 

Eron remained silent, watching the changed expression on Sakura¡¯s face. In that brief moment his name slipped from her lips, the cool demeanor, the controlled expression all shattered. A vulnerable, desperate look had come over her face, as a ripple over the calm pond. ¡°We are the descendents of the Great Five. We all bear the burden of the bloodline, and we all our liable. That is our curse, but that is also the bond that draws us all together.¡± 

 

Somehow, Eron¡¯s calm certainty also steadied Sakura. By the time class started, she was back to normal. Only Eron noticed that her cheeks were more flushed than usual and she was uncharacteristically fidgety.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

¡°We are the descendents of the Great Five. We all bear the burden of the bloodline, and we all our liable. That is our curse, but that is also the bond that draws us all together.¡± Sakura spent the rest of the day ruminating over Eron¡¯s words. Throughout breaks during the day, she ran into secluded places to try releasing her staff, without any luck.

 

¡°Any progress today?¡± asked Kero-chan, popping out of Tomoyo¡¯s sheet of hair. He had insisted on following Sakura to school since he was worried about his mistress.

 

¡°I still can¡¯t release the staff,¡± Sakura replied, beads of sweat rolling down her forehead after another failed attempt after school. ¡°No matter how much I try, I can¡¯t release it. I¡¯m being punished, punished for being a bad card mistress, for abandoning the Sakura Cards.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s not true,¡± said Tomoyo, patting her friend¡¯s back.

 

¡°Do you remember? I said I won¡¯t use magic anymore. I decided I wouldn¡¯t because I thought if I stopped using magic, I wouldn¡¯t have to be responsible anymore. I was running away. And because I abandoned my powers, said I didn¡¯t want them anymore, I can¡¯t use them anymore.¡± Sakura stared at her trembling hands.

 

¡°I really don¡¯t think that is the issue,¡± said Tomoyo, not untruthfully. She desperately wished Eriol was here instead. Though Tomoyo had watched Sakura battle for six years, she couldn¡¯t honestly say she really had any idea how powers worked. She did not know how Sakura could draw up energy from within her and release cards in the first place. Surely Eriol could provide more of a solid explanation why Sakura was having troubles releasing her staff.

 

Sakura continued, ¡°I know I can¡¯t run away from being Card Mistress—it¡¯s no longer a matter of choice for me. I am bound to my cards under contract. And until I find another master of the cards who can love them as much as I do, I am responsible for them. That¡¯s why, I¡¯ve got to continue fighting the Dark Ones.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m glad to hear your decision, Sakura-san,¡± said a deep voice. Eriol walked forward.

 

¡°Eriol-kun!¡± exclaimed Sakura.

 

¡°I have come to see the situation with the dark force,¡± stated Eriol. ¡°This is the sort of dark force that can create a massive amount of damage but also has a limit to the damage it can cause. Don¡¯t push yourself too hard because there is not much more that the dark force can do at this point.¡±

 

¡°Eriol-kun is right,¡± stated Kero-chan, arms folded.

 

Nodding, Sakura walked off to an isolated corner and returned to focusing on her Key of Stars.

 

Watching Sakura¡¯s face scrunched up in concentration, Tomoyo implored to Eriol, ¡°Eriol-kun, isn¡¯t there anything you can do? Clow Reed¡¯s the one who created the Key of Darkness.¡±

 

Eriol replied, ¡°But Sakura is the Mistress of the Key now—her ability to wield it and control it comes from within her. It¡¯s up to her now, and all we can do is wait and watch what she does in this situation.¡±

 

¡°But someone¡¯s got to tell her,¡± Kero-chan said, frowning. ¡°Someone¡¯s got to tell her why the power of stars won¡¯t awaken in her. She¡¯s got to know why—we can¡¯t just leave her like this.¡±

 

¡°Cerberus.¡± Eriol turned to Kero-chan, who shuddered slightly, as he always did when Clow Reed had used that tone on him. ¡°Have some faith in you mistress. Look.¡±

 

The three of them turned to watch Sakura, who was standing up right, arms stretched out. ¡°Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± Her key did not release. She mustered all her concentration and repeated, ¡°Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release! Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± Release! Release!¡±

 

She collapsed onto her knees, cupping the key of stars in her hands. ¡°Please release¡¦¡± The tree branches around the school were barren as if it was still the middle of winter. If the Decay continued like this—no, she had to stop it. Only she could.

 

Spinel Sun slinked up next to Eriol. ¡°You know, Eriol, I find it interesting that your former self used the power of the sun.¡±

 

¡°Though you created us using the power of darkness,¡± added Ruby Moon, flipping back her magenta hair.

 

¡°Now that I think of it,¡± remarked Kero-chan, ¡°Clow Reed used the power of the sun. But Eriol uses the power of darkness now. For some reason the source of power changed for Clow Reed in his reincarnated form.¡±

 

That¡¯s right. Sakura stared hard at the star emblem at the head of her key. Originally, she too had used the power of darkness. Perhaps¡¦ She bolted back up and stated with new conviction, ¡°Key that hides the power of the darkness. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± No response. ¡°Key that hides the power of the sun. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± No, it was still not right¡¦

 

Just one more time. ¡°Key that hides the power of the moon. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± And suddenly, she felt a strange tingling within her, same as when she first received the power of the stars. A surge of fire rushed from her arms to her fingertips. The key levitated in front of her and glowed, expanding into a full-length staff. She had successfully released it. As she took grip of the staff, she realized suddenly that the head of the staff had changed again. It was no longer a single star embedded within a winged circlet. Up till now, she had seen the staff in three different forms. The first, the Bird staff, then the Star staff, then the powered up staff when Yue and Cerberus joined together to defeat the eclipse created by Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation. This current staff was most similar to the last, except, instead of the large star atop the crescent moon, this staff had a golden star embedded between the sliver of the crescent moon. Then, she smiled grimly. Somehow, she had done it. Somehow, she had released the staff, which she clutched tightly with trembling hands. Her eyes misted. ¡°I did it.¡±

 

¡°Good job, Sakura-chan!¡± Tomoyo squealed, holding up her video camera. Now, she wouldn¡¯t have to feel guilty about suggesting that Sakura change into a battle costume.

 

¡°I really did it!¡± Sakura exclaimed, clutching the released staff. A look of determination came over her brows. ¡°Leave the rest to me. I¡¯ll seal this dark force in no time.¡± She whipped out a Sakura Card. ¡°Fly!¡± Wings sprouted from the head of her staff, and she flew off into the air, full speed.

 

¡°And our Card Captor Sakura is back,¡± remarked Kero-chan.

 

¡°She is,¡± said Tomoyo, ecstatically filming Sakura fade into the distance.

 

 

 

High up in the sky, Sakura glimpsed that the last patch of green trees near the base Mount Fuji was turning ashen. There it was! She whipped out two cards. ¡°Woody, Flower! Goddess of Spring, blossom and grow. Winter has ended, bring prosperity and abundance!¡±

 

She could see the bare branches start budding sapling leaves, increasing and increasing. Hovering over the sky, she could now see that at the edge of the forest was a skeletal creature—whatever it breathed on decayed and crumbled to ash. The root of the willow tree that it just breathed upon was shriveling. ¡°No!¡±

 

Without a moment of hesitation, she hopped off her staff and charged at the dark force with the Firey Card. The skeletal creature blazed in flame for a second, before stepping away, undamaged. It then grinned, bearings its yellowed teeth and, reached out for Sakura with outstretched bony hands.

 

¡°Watch out!¡± Sakura¡¯s was knocked over by somebody.

 

¡°Ouch.¡± She picked up her staff and sat up, untangling herself from the body that had pushed her over. Long purplish-blue hair tickled her cheeks. ¡°Eron-kun! What are you doing here?¡±

 

¡°You can¡¯t let the Decay touch you,¡± panted Eron, standing up and brushing the dirt off his shirt. ¡°Look.¡±

 

The Decay reached out its bony fingers and grabbed a sparrow by its wing. The sparrow writhed before its mummified frame fell to the ground. Sakura gasped.

 

¡°After the Decay is done with the flora, it moves then on to the fauna and up the ladder of living organisms. The Decay does its work and then its brother, Death, steps in.¡±

 

Shuddering, Sakura asked, ¡°How do I seal the Decay?¡±

 

Sighing, Eron said, ¡°It¡¯s one of the darkest of dark forces. You can lure it out with even more dark energy.¡±

 

Sakura frowned. ¡°Where do I find that immense amount of dark energy?¡±  

 

Slowly, Eron walked forward with an outstretched hand. He took out from his jacket a pocket knife and made a slight incision on the palm of his left hand. From his hand, he let three drops of blood fall on the soil below. ¡°Spirit of the dark forces. I, Eron, command you forth! I bind you to me by blood.¡±

 

The skeleton figure knelt in front of Eron, glaring up at him with empty sockets. It was apparent the dark force was captive and could not move.

 

¡°I thought you couldn¡¯t seal dark forces,¡± said Sakura.

 

¡°I can¡¯t permanently seal dark forces into a contract. I can bind them to me by force,¡± replied Eron. ¡°That is why it is impossible for me to defeat the dark forces—they would eventually escape from me, perhaps turn on me later on. Imagine an army of dark forces set to destroy their captivator. It makes me shudder. Hurry, now, I can¡¯t hold the Decay for too long in my current state. Seal it. ¡±

 

Sakura did not waste a moment. ¡°Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!¡±

 

The Decay materialized into its card form, and she took the Decay and added it to her collection of cards. She gazed around her at the barren forest. This was not right. ¡°Fly!¡± Sakura jumped on her staff and flew up high in the air. ¡°Rain! Bring an end to the draught and bring this dry land water!¡± She flung out a second card as the clouds from above showered down on her. Blinking back the water droplets from her eyes, she raised her staff. ¡°Earthy! Let the soil be fertile and rich!¡± Now the last two cards. ¡°Woody! Flower! Goddess of Spring, blossom and grow. Winter has ended, bring prosperity and abundance!¡± She felt light headed as she watched the four cards busy themselves, flying over fields and mountains, forests and gardens. She could almost swear she heard the bubbling of branches as they sprouted new leaves and the whispering of stalks piercing through the soil. The trees waved their budding branches and the grass quivered in anticipation as they soaked up the long-thirsted for water.

 

A true smile at last lingered on Sakura¡¯s lips even as her eyes rolled back in her giddy lightheadedness. She slipped off her staff and plummeted down from the sky, head first.

 

¡°Sakura!¡± Eron had not time to think. He slammed his palm onto a tree trunk and commanded, ¡°Grow.¡± Immediately, the tree shot up into the sky, its great branches billowing up, high above all the other trees, into the clouded midnight blue sky. The branches cushioned Sakura¡¯s fall, catching the hem of her skirt and preventing her from smashing into the ground. Meanwhile, the skirt tore and Sakura crashed through the second branch and the third, which greatly slowed the impact of the fall by the time she dropped down into Eron¡¯s outstretched arms, knocking him over. Her staff followed, bonking him on the head.

 

Still in a daze once she regained consciousness, Sakura wobbled off of Eron all apologetic. ¡°Eron-kun, I¡¯m so sorry. I don¡¯t know what happened. I blanked out for just a second and¡¦¡± She stared up at the tree that had cushioned her fall, which slowly shrunk back to its original size, branches of cherry blossoms shaking in the wind as if to greet her. Her fall had loosened a shower of sakura petals over them, glowing eerily snow-white under the shadow of the branches. ¡°Ah, did you do this? Thanks.¡±

 

¡°My head,¡± groaned Eron, rolling over to his side and rubbing his bruised forehead.

 

¡°Look!¡± Sakura exclaimed, spinning around. The trees around her that had been bare were all in full blossom as if the forest had suddenly been covered in pink and white frosting.

 

¡°Amazing,¡± remarked Eron in awe as he observed the glory of flowers and greenery, glowing in the darkness of the forest. Spring was finally here to stay. And there was the Goddess of Spring, a clumsy, absentminded girl slipping bottom-first into a puddle of mud with a torn skirt and twigs and flowers petals tangled in her hair. His little angel with golden-brown hair like rays of sunlight in the darkness of the night, floating around a face so lovely that it made all the nights of darkness struggling against the demons in his mind worth it.

 

Sakura tensed when Eron reached over and picked a sakura petal from her golden-brown hair. He whispered into her hair, ¡°I lied. You look pretty with short hair too.¡±

 

¡°Hoe?¡±

 

¡°But to me, it¡¯s a constant reminder to me of the person who broke your heart.¡± He crumpled the petal in his fist.

 

At this, Sakura shivered. No, she had wanted to forget him, start anew. Yet, everybody kept bringing him up again. She would never be able to escape from him, not unless every single memory of him was wiped from her mind.

 

By this time, a drenched Cerberus, Tomoyo and Eriol had finally caught up to Sakura¡¯s whereabouts. As Cerberus flew over the country, they first felt the rain and then saw the trees bearing leaves and the flowers uncurling their petals firsthand and knew that Sakura was at work. Yue followed not too far behind, because he too had felt the immense power of the moon drawing him forth. One glance at Sakura¡¯s staff told him that she had now awakened the power of the moon. As Tomoyo and Eriol landed next to Sakura, Eron quietly disappeared into the forest for he had no doubt what sort of welcome he would receive from Sakura¡¯s friends.

 

¡°Good job Sakura-chan!¡± exclaimed Cerberus, nuzzling Sakura¡¯s dirt-smeared cheek. He shook out the water from his fur, leaving him a huge ball of fluff. Eriol chuckled, pointing his wand at Cerberus. His fur smoothed out sleek and dry. Cerberus blinked at Eriol.  

 

Fawning over the tattered Sakura, Tomoyo said, ¡°Oh no, your clothes are all torn up—I guess there is no choice but to change into my clothes!¡± She slipped out from her bag a frilly ensemble that resembled leaves.

 

It was Yue who tactfully asked, ¡°Are you all right? You look a little pale.¡±

 

Tomoyo and Cerberus exchanged concerned glances. They had forgotten this was the first time Sakura had used her powers since she had received the transfer from Syaoran.

 

¡°I¡¯m okay now,¡± said Sakura. ¡°It¡¯s strange, I was fine when I was releasing the Flower and the Woody, but right afterwards, I felt really drained.¡±

 

¡°Well, you were using wide-range nature forces, which always takes up a lot of energy. And it¡¯s been a while since you had to use so much power simultaneously,¡± reasoned Cerberus.

 

Turning to Eriol, Tomoyo asked in a low voiced, ¡°Is it a side effect from the power transfer?¡±

 

Eriol shook his head. ¡°I doubt it—she¡¯s responded to it better than I had hoped for. Perhaps it¡¯s because she originally started off using the power of darkness—it might have been easier for her to adjust to new power sources. But remember, the power of the moon and the power of stars function somewhat differently. The power of the stars is known to be rather constant and consistent. It is probably not the strongest of the energy forces, at least in the beginning, but it is durable and probably lasts longer that all the other forces. In contrast, the power of the moon is noted for being able to generate a surge of forceful power, but it¡¯s not as consistent. In exchange for the momentary generation of power, it drains the user quite considerably.¡±

 

¡°Ah, I remember Syaoran-kun I always got really worn out after using high-power cards like the Time,¡± recalled Tomoyo. ¡°But I don¡¯t think Sakura-chan realizes where her source of power is coming from yet.¡±

 

¡°She probably won¡¯t,¡± replied Eriol. ¡°She¡¯s surrounded by too many powerful moon users.¡±

 

Sakura turned towards Tomoyo and Eriol curiously, wondering what they were whispering about.

 

Walking forward to Sakura, Eriol remarked, ¡°I was really surprised you called upon the power of the moon to release your staff, Sakura-san. How did you think of that?¡±

 

¡°I just remembered when my staff first turned into the star staff,¡± said Sakura, staring at her slim pink staff, now with the golden star symbol intertwined with a crescent moon. ¡°Mizuki-sensei¡¯s Moon Bell merged into my staff, transforming it into the star staff—that¡¯s when I first awakened the power of the stars. Originally, I used the power of darkness. I figured that even if for some reason I cannot seem to draw upon the power of the stars, there must be other energy sources to draw upon. In the final battle against you, Yue and Cerberus combined into my staff to summon the Light. I figured that depending on circumstance, my staff can transform and adapt.¡±

 

¡°I see. Well, that¡¯s why you¡¯re the chosen card mistress.¡± Eriol smiled fondly at Sakura—Sakura was undoubtedly always at her best as Card Mistress.

 

¡°Scared me for a second she figured out about the power transplant when she called upon the power of the moon,¡± muttered Cerberus to Tomoyo. ¡°Luckily, with Mizuki-sensei showing up, Sakura-chan doesn¡¯t seem to think it particularly strange that out of all the power forces, it¡¯s the power of the moon that answers to her.¡±

 

Tomoyo turned to Cerberus with a lowered voice. ¡°I¡¯ve seen that emblem before. The intertwined star and moon emblem on the staff.¡±

 

¡°Where?¡± Cerberus quirked an eyebrow.

 

¡°Back when Syaoran was sealing the Crystal—that¡¯s when I was being controlled by the Phantom. Sakura was frozen by the Crystal, and she gave the key to Syaoran to release. And when Syaoran released the staff, there was that same moon and star emblem on the top—but his staff was green though.¡±

 

¡°Interesting,¡± remarked Cerberus. ¡°Well, so long as Sakura-chan can use the staff and doesn¡¯t suspect¡¦¡±

 

Yue joined Cerberus next to their Card Mistress. Breathing in the fragrant scent of pine and cherry blossoms, he said gentler than he had ever before, ¡°You¡¯ve done well, my Card Mistress.¡±

 

¡°It seems as if you¡¯re even more powerful than before, Sakura-chan,¡± stated Cerberus. They all knew the Decay was no easy dark force to seal. He sighed ruefully. The Brat had somehow saved them all again.

 

Sakura wrapped her arms around Cerberus¡¯ thick fur. ¡°Thanks, Kero-chan, Yue-san.¡± Kero-chan had been her very first companion from the moment she stepped into the world of Clow. As for Yue, he had been at her side even longer, waiting for his true form to be unsealed. While his other form, Tsukishiro Yukito, was a blithe and loving person, and welcomed and loved by everyone, Sakura knew Yue was lonelier than anybody else. At first, Sakura had struggled to learn to learn to care for Yue, the other face of her first crush, but now, she could confidently say she loved Yue as much as she loved Yukito. She stared up at Yue¡¯s icy, angelic face. Like the eclipsed moon in the nighttime, his side-profile, concealed by a sheet of long silvery hair billowing out around him, seemed a little sad beneath the expressionless mask. And his usually narrowed silver-blue eyes seemed rather forlorn and remote. If Sakura could learn to love another person, probably the only one she could give all her heart to was Yue, because more than anyone, Yue needed to be loved. She would love Yue if Yue allowed her to reach out to him. But Yue¡¯s heart had long been fixed upon someone else. That was why Yue was the only person she could learn to love. Because Yue was the only one who knew what it was like to be turned away by one¡¯s most loved one.

 

Glancing up at Yue, she could see his icy eyes were fixed off into the distant moon. What was he thinking of now? She wondered.

 

¡°Well, we have school tomorrow. We should get to bed,¡± Eriol announced smiling. ¡°Now, where in the world are we again?¡±

 

¡°Gah, we were all so intent on just locating Sakura-chan¡¦¡± Cerberus¡¯s tail drooped. It was difficult to find Sakura because she no longer radiated the power of the stars. ¡°I wasn¡¯t really paying attention to where I was flying towards.

 

¡°Hoe, we¡¯re lost?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°Oh dear. Why can¡¯t there be any useful dark forces like the Navigator or something,¡± sighed Tomoyo. Too bad Syaoran wasn¡¯t here—he never got lost.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Before homeroom started the next day, Akagi Aki was quite intimidated when Chiharu and Naoko approached his desk, arms crossed and looking extremely cross.

 

¡°So, Aki-kun, I heard you¡¯re understaffed so you¡¯re exploiting kindhearted Sakura-chan,¡± said Chiharu, hands on hips.

 

¡°Eh, who said I¡¯m exploiting her?¡± demanded Aki.

 

¡°Clearly you must know that Sakura is busy helping out with all the other clubs because she¡¯s too nice to say no. I won¡¯t stand you bullying her too!¡± returned Naoko, popping a gum in her mouth.

 

¡°I wasn¡¯t bullying her!¡± protested Aki. He desperately turned around to find an ally. Spotting Tomoyo, angelically embroidering a piece of muslin with green thread, he said, ¡°Tomoyo-chan—I really wasn¡¯t taking advantage of Sakura-chan¡¯s kindness.¡±

 

Tomoyo looked up from her embroidery and smiled sweetly. ¡°Of course I know that Aki-kun is not the manipulative, abusive, self-oriented sort of person who would take advantage of such a kind-hearted and helpful person as Sakura-chan who can never say no to someone¡¯s earnest request.¡±

 

¡°S-see!¡± Aki exclaimed triumphantly to Chiharu and Naoko who clucked at him. Tomoyo had been defending him, right? Even Rika was shaking her head disapprovingly. He muttered to himself, ¡°Girls are so scary.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right Chiharu-chan, Naoko-chan,¡± Sakura intervened. ¡°I enjoy writing articles, and I volunteered to help out Aki-kun until he finds more reporters.¡±

 

¡°Well, have you had any luck?¡± asked Naoko, who was one the only other journalism club member in the class.

 

¡°There¡¯s this hot senior that I¡¯m trying to recruit into the journalism club,¡± stated Aki.

 

¡°And why would a senior join the journalism class?¡± asked Naoko wryly.

 

¡°To spend quality time with the handsome editor,¡± Aki replied flipping back his hair from his eyes. ¡°Look, that¡¯s her!¡±

 

The girls turned to look at the tall, slender girl who walked down the hallway by herself. Sakura recognized the upperclassman that she had bumped into before the opening ceremony on the first day of school She stood out from the rest of the students easily, because of her pale golden hair, cut angled at chin-length. Only up close could one tell that her eyes were a pale lavender with a sort of glassy gaze. Her angelic features contrasted heavily with her get-up—even though she wore the same uniform as the rest of the students, she managed to make her own statement. Heavy silver cross earrings dangled from her ears and her slender wrist was adorned with a chain bracelet with rose and skull-shaped charms; her nails were painted black, with jeweled tips. Her blouse under the pale blue uniform blazer was buttoned only halfway, revealing a black lace camisole and a matching Gothic cross necklace hung from a long chain. Missing was the tie. Unlike other students who changed into indoor shoes, this senior wore black leather high boots over black net stockings. As she walked past classroom 1-2, her eyes narrowed as she gazed at the gaping freshmen. Sakura gulped—did this senior just glare at her? She stepped back to collide into Eriol, who had been standing right behind her and steadied her. Eriol wad looking over her head, however, down the hallway.  

 

¡°Isn¡¯t she a beauty? It¡¯s uncommon to transfer schools in your senior year though. I wonder if she came from America. Or maybe France.¡± Aki sighed happily. ¡°Mature women are so much better than silly middle school girls.¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s her name again?¡± asked Sakura.

 

¡°Rido Kara or something like that,¡± replied Aki.

 

¡°Weird name,¡± remarked Naoko, crossing her arms. ¡°So, did you get her to join the journalism club?¡±

 

¡°Nope,¡± Aki sighed glumly. ¡°She told me ¡®merde¡¯ and walked away. Well, the prettiest girl in our school is still our Tomoyo-chan, right? Tomoyo-chan, do you want to join the journalism club? ¡± His classmates groaned and one of the guys through a chalkboard eraser at the back of his head.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

Kara found Li Leiyun bent over the large wooden desk in the center of the basement room, a frown on his forehead as he read through an ancient leather-bound book. At another corner of the room sat Jinyu, silently reading through stacks of documents—what Kara knew to be weekly reports from the heads of the triads. Jinyu had gotten to his position as Dragon King of the Underworld through physical power, but he maintained his position with his intelligence and meticulous diligence in overseeing that the triads remained under control. Though Kara had known Jinyu only for several months, the Li Jinyu who the mafia bosses were terrified of, the Li Jinyu that was completely subordinate to the Li Clan, the Li Jinyu that was Leiyun¡¯s right-hand man, she understood. She understood Jinyu¡¯s type, the one-tracked, stoic type. Whereas Leiyun¡¦ Her eyes turned to Leiyun, who looked up at her with warmly lit blue-green eyes when he heard her footsteps at the bottom of the stairwell leading to the basement.

 

¡°Welcome back, Kara. How was your first weeks in Seijou High?¡± Leiyun said.

 

¡°Horrid, being around those chattering, annoying chits,¡± replied Kara, rolling her eyes.

 

¡°Are uniform skirts really that short in Japan?¡± asked Leiyun, raising a silver eyebrow.

 

¡°Ugh, such hideous uniforms—I¡¯d rather have gone to Eitoukou Academy,¡± said Kara, turning around once to model her Seijou Uniform.

 

¡°Why? It looks good on you,¡± said Leiyun, resuming reading the book. ¡°You almost look like a Japanese high school gal. Well, more like a Yankee with the hair and the accessories. But you¡¯ll pass. So, what are your first impressions?¡±

 

¡°Boring. They¡¯re just a bunch of silly kids. The Card Mistress seems pretty useless. I think the most concerning person is that Mizuki-sensei—she¡¯s our history teacher.¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ Mizuki Kaho¡¯s back, is she?¡± Leiyun smiled. ¡°And, I presume you¡¯ve seen him.¡±

 

¡°I have.¡±

 

¡°And?¡± Leiyun looked up from his book again.

 

¡°As I imagined him to be,¡± replied Kara. Then she frowned. ¡°No¡¦ He¡¯s happier, more relaxed. He¡¯s not like a man carrying the burden of the world on his back. He¡¯s more like¡¦ just a boy. It¡¯s perplexing—I can¡¯t quite grasp him.¡±

 

¡°Oh?¡± Leaning back in his leather arm chair, Leiyun asked, ¡°Has he noticed you yet?¡±

 

¡°Perhaps,¡± Kara blinked innocently. ¡°I¡¯ve been doing my best to stay out of everyone¡¯s radar.¡±

 

At this, Leiyun chucked. ¡°As if that¡¯s possible for you, my dear. Where ever you walk, you always will draw attraction.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll take that as a compliment,¡± said Kara. She glanced over at Jinyu, who had made his way through half the stack since she had entered. ¡°So, Jin, how¡¯s babysitting going?¡±

 

¡°Our Little Wolf has been surprisingly submissive and well-behaved,¡± replied Leiyun for Jinyu. ¡°At this rate, we might have to release him from house arrest. His grand jury with the Inner Council is tomorrow anyway.¡±

 

¡°Are you worried for him? Our wild wolf was just an obedient pup with his tail between his legs, after all.¡± Kara sighed. ¡°I thought he would at least be a little different. You Li¡¯s are a predictable bunch, entrapped in some senseless centuries-old code of honor. Don¡¯t glare at me Jin—oh wait, your eyes always look like you¡¯re glaring.¡± She laughed shortly.  

 

Leiyun¡¯s lips curved into a thin smile. ¡°Don¡¯t besmirch the name of the greatest family of the East.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Japan¡¦

 

 

Chang Eron found his twin sister lounging on the sofa, flipping through a magazine and crunching on a bag of chips. He sighed, picking up the empty cans of soda and half-eaten bags of chip lying on the floor. ¡°Erika-chan, you barely got into high school. I¡¯m not sure if it¡¯s such a great idea missing all those classes.¡±

 

Erika yawned and crossed her long legs, leaning back against the couch. She glanced at the clock. Still not dinner time.

 

¡°Why aren¡¯t you saying anything, Erika?¡± Eron demanded. ¡°You¡¯ve been avoiding me ever since the whole Plague ordeal¡±

 

¡°There is nothing left for me to say,¡± burst out Erika, not looking at her twin brother. ¡°You¡¯ve been spared by the Plague, and that is all that matters to me.¡±

 

¡°Look at me, Erika,¡± said Eron. ¡°We have to talk.¡±

 

¡°No, Eron. There¡¯s nothing to talk about,¡± she said rigidly. ¡°I¡¯m not angry at you for helping Sakura this time. She saved your life before. You and I both know that. The Heal came and pulled you away from Their clutches.¡± Erika turned around and smiled sadly at her twin brother. ¡°You have suffered enough, Eron¡¦ You are your own master, captor and punisher, Eron¡¦¡±

 

¡°Erika¡¦¡±

 

¡°Eron, we¡¯re two separate people. You are free to do as you choose. But don¡¯t try to make decisions for me.¡± Erika swung her handbag over her shoulders.

 

¡°Where are you going?¡± called out Eron.

 

¡°On a date. And don¡¯t you dare follow me like last time!¡± She slammed shut the front door.

 

¡°It¡¯s all right. She¡¯s just going through a rebellious stage. You don¡¯t know how worried she was while you were suffering from the Plague,¡± said a soft voice beside him.

 

Eron smiled. ¡°You think so?¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It was quiet and peaceful in the graveyard, which had been so gray and barren the last time she had been there, almost two months ago for Shirose Subaru¡¯s funeral. Now, the trees were abundant with verdant leaves and fluttering dandelions and wildflowers had begun to sprout everywhere. Birds chirping in the background was the only sound besides the sound of her footsteps carpeted by the mossy grass at her feet.

 

Sakura set down a bouquet of lilies by Subaru¡¯s graveside. ¡°Sorry Su-chan, sorry it took me so long to come visit you. It¡¯s spring already, Su-chan. I told you I would teach you how to rollerblade when the weather was warm enough, didn¡¯t I?¡± She sat there, staring off into the distance. As she stood up again, she realized there was a bouquet of peonies—it was fresh and must have been left there recently. She spun around and glanced back. ¡°Who¡¯s there?¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t mean to¡¦ intrude,¡± said Eron slowly, stepping away from behind the tree.

 

Sakura narrowed her weary green eyes. ¡°What are you doing here?¡±

 

Eron¡¯s eyes fell to the peony flowers.

 

¡°You brought them here?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°You know you have no right to be standing here, in front of Subaru.¡±

 

¡°I understand,¡± was his quiet reply.

 

¡°You shouldn¡¯t be here.¡± Sakura crossed her arms. Though it was spring, it suddenly felt chill. ¡°After what you did¡¦¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not trying to redeem myself, nor do I expect forgiveness. But do I not have at least the right to grieve? Do you not think that in the eyes of the deceased, we are all simply humans, swelling in sorrow and struggling in life? Are we not all same in the face of death? After you die, you disappear from earth. The only remnant, the only reminder of your existence on earth is in the realm of the living. To those who have passed along well before there time, all that remains is the trace of the memory of them held amongst the living.¡± 

 

It was true, and Sakura could not counter Eron¡¯s argument, his plea. For he was not arguing for forgiveness, for understanding. He was merely relaying to Sakura that in his own way, he to was grieving for Subaru¡¯s death. And how could she deny Subaru this? She knew that Eron too had been fond of Subaru. Her voice was softer as she said, ¡°There were many people at his funeral. Everyone came—the children from the orphanage, his classmates from grade school, the nurses from the hospital. Everyone from the journalism class. We¡¯ll all remember Su-chan and treasure our memories of him.¡±

 

Eron knelt in front of the tombstone and lowered his head in silent prayer.

 

Sakura looked at Eron¡¯s bent figure and realized that this must be his first time here. Why had he come? I think I do understand now¡¦ ¡°Onii-chan told me he didn¡¯t have half a year left. He knew he was dying. But I desperately thought that if I did something, I could prolong his life. In the end, in the face of the death god, we are no magician nor fairy godmother, but simple hapless humans. He passed away without suffering. And he was ready for it, just a mere boy of seven. I wasn¡¯t ready though. Maybe it was me being selfish, clinging on to him because I was not ready to send him off.¡± Her voice broke off. ¡°You don¡¯t have to blame yourself for his death, Eron-kun. I too learned not to blame myself.¡±

 

And she saw an expression she had never seen before in Eron¡¯s face, as if some sort of mask crumpled away and a look of sheer agony could be glimpsed before he buried his head in his hands. Slowly standing up, Sakura said, ¡°I¡¯ll be going first. I¡¯ll see you at school tomorrow.¡± She turned to the grave. ¡°Su-chan, I promise I¡¯ll visit often from now on.¡± Leaving Eron kneeling by Subaru¡¯s graveside, she walked away. Deep in her heart, she knew that Eron did not want anyone¡¯s death, especially not Subaru¡¯s. She could not yet forgive him—she probably never would be able to. Yet, she could not despise him either.

 

I vowed after Subaru¡¯s death that I would no longer be Card Mistress. But at the end of the day, my powers have returned to me and I am still fighting against the dark forces. Strange, isn¡¯t it? I thought it would be you here by my side that I could have leaned my head against and grieved with. Only, you¡¯re no long here. Don¡¯t worry, I¡¯ll continue being Card Mistress even without you. How different your world must be from mine now. I try not to think of you, because if I do, a wallowing sort of despair sinks into me whenever I recall that cold look in your eyes when you turned away from me. Was it really you? Why did you leave like that? What are you doing at this moment when I need you the most?

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

Once more, Li Syaoran found himself standing in front of the Great Hall. A long line of Inner Council members lined up on each side of the hall, at the head of which sat the Elders. The last time he had been called in front of the entire Council like this was when he first received the Five Force Sword to embark on his first mission as the Chosen One six years ago. Back then, he had been proudly robed in the emerald green robes of the Chosen One and was younger and smaller than anyone else in the room. Now, he stood in white, derobed and without any title, to readily receive his punishment. He was still the youngest in the room, but six years the wiser and more experienced, and as tall, if not taller than most standing in the Great Hall. And now, the center chair was no longer occupied by the Great Elder but by Li Wutai, feet planted on the floor, hands folded on the head of a staff.

 

Li Wutai stated in his cold, mechanical voice, ¡°Li Syaoran, former Chosen One, you have been brought forth to the Li Clan Council in order to hear your judgment. The Elders have spent a long time deliberating upon your punishment. You have failed the Li Clan three times already. First, you failed to bring back the Clow Book. You were excused then, because you were a mere boy of ten, and it had been your first mission. We decreed then that we can retrieve the Clow Cards at a later date from the new mistress without much difficulty. Thus, the Great Elder excused you, too easily in my opinion, seeing what impudence you learned since then.¡±

 

¡°Sakura Cards, not the Clow Cards anymore,¡± muttered Syaoran under his breath.

 

Ignoring Syaoran, Wutai continued, ¡°Secondly, a year and a half ago, you ran away to Japan without receiving permission from the Clan. Not only did you run away, but you blatantly ignored explicit orders to return to the Clan. You clearly understand that your decision then in refusing to return to Hong Kong signified that you were choosing to give up your title as Chosen One, not to mention sever up all ties to the Clan, did you not, Li Syaoran?¡±

 

Syaoran, still looking dignified in unadorned white, stood with his head tilted up, gazing coolly up at the line of the Elders. The very venerable men and women who had praised him and encouraged him at one time. As expected, the Great Elder was missing as was his mother. Over the six years, the face of the Clan had changed drastically. The Great Elder¡¯s trusted counselors were retired, missing, or dead. Twenty some years ago, the great marriage alliance had been made when Ielan had married Ryuuren, the union between the Clan¡¯s most skilled seer to the Clan¡¯s Chosen One and most powerful warrior. Whilst Li Ryuuren¡¯s premature death at age thirty had been tragic, the Great Elder took Ryuuren and Ielan¡¯s youngest son, Li Syaoran under his wings and personally oversaw the training of the boy.

 

¡°I asked, Li Syaoran, did you not consciously choose to remain in Japan over fulfilling your duty to the Clan as the Chosen One,¡± repeated Li Wutai.

 

¡°Yes, I clearly understood the consequence of my actions,¡± Syaoran replied staidly.

 

There was a murmur amongst the Council Members—they had expected denial or an explanation—not outright acceptance of his misdeeds. Why, that was complete heresy, disobeying the command of the Elders! Li Syaoran would never have consciously committed such an offense.

 

¡°I see.¡± Wutai narrowed his eyes. ¡°Your third offense, as it seems, is that you appear to have lost all your powers, and thus, have ceased to be of any use to Clan.¡± This caused the Council to start whispering to each other, for it was news to majority of them. ¡°Before we announce your judgment, Li Syaoran, do you have any final words in your defense?¡±

 

In a quiet voice, Syaoran replied, ¡°No I don¡¯t. I will gladly accept any punishment for my misdemeanors.¡±

 

¡°Do you have a clear understanding of what you have done wrong, boy? You, the Chosen One, the most exalted and acclaimed front-man of the Li Clan, have betrayed the Council, acted willfully and dangerously on your own without consulting the Elders, without seeking our permission. You have put the Clan dignity and stability at line. In other words, you are a traitor to the Clan, Li Syaoran.¡± Wutai¡¯s lips were pursed. ¡°But it is not too late for you to go down on your knees and beg, beg hard with your forehead to the ground, and ask for forgiveness for your foolishness. It might help the Elders reconsider their judgment.¡±

¡°I apologize for what inconvenience I have caused the Clan, but I had no regret of the choice I made. If I had the option to go back in time and redo this past year and a half, I would make the same decision again,¡± said Syaoran with a defiant blaze in his eyes.

 

¡°The impertinence!¡± Wutai¡¯s hands, gripping the arms of the gold-wrought chair, were trembling now. He recalled a flash of blue eyes, eyes that were neither mocking nor condescending, but with a far-off gleam. Dear older brother Wutai, I have no regret for the decisions I made. ¡°Humph, like father, like son. Guards, give him fifty strokes—we¡¯ll see if a good beating will knock some sense into the boy. We will not tolerate such impertinence!¡±

 

Instantly, two guards came and gripped Syaoran by each arm. He didn¡¯t struggle as the guards dragged him down on his knees. Another large man came with a wooden club, positioned to smack him on the back. The first blow stunned him into awareness, and the second one made him remember physical pain—a refreshment to the dull numbness he had been feeling up till now. And the third blow never came because another body intercepted it. A protective pair of arms circled around his shoulders, wrenching him away from the rough grip of the guards.

 

¡°Li Leiyun, what are you doing? Get back to the line, immediately!¡± exclaimed Wutai, stamping his staff to the ground. ¡°Guards, what are you doing? Continue with the beating.¡±

 

¡°Elder Wutai, show some mercy upon this boy,¡± Leiyun declared, his voice echoing clear and insistent throughout the Great Hall.

 

¡°Li Syaoran is a traitor to the Clan and has shown blatant disrespect towards our efforts to give him mercy today,¡± was the brisk reply.

 

Leiyun declared, ¡°He is but a boy, acting upon childish and naïve impulse. How can you punish him like a man?¡±

 

¡°The Ordeal of the Chosen One made him a man,¡± declared the Wutai. ¡°He has taken on the responsibilities of a man—he knew clearly what he was getting into when he accepted the Five Force Sword. And how had he repaid our mercy? With impudence and wretched haughtiness. The boy needs to be put into place.¡±

 

¡°Li Syaoran has been removed as Chosen One and stricken from the Book of Li. His arm has been injured beyond repair, and he has lost all his powers. Isn¡¯t that enough punishment already?¡± implored Leiyun.

 

There was another murmur amongst those who stood in the Great Hall. Most of the adults had watched Li Syaoran grow up from a little boy to this willful young man standing before them today, the fatherless child who worked harder than anyone to become the Chosen One. Ever since he was a child, Syaoran had been polite and obedient, with few words but always respectful of his Elders. And Syaoran had been the Great Elder¡¯s protégé, his favorite pupil since Li Ryuuren. If the Great Elder were here¡¦ but no, the Great Elder was ill. It was true some of the older members of the Clan were resentful that such a young boy had been appointed as the Chosen One and were smug at the series of failures that Li Syaoran had brought upon himself. But most of those who were present in the Council had been fiercely proud of Li Syaoran, watching his development over all these years fondly and devotedly.

 

¡°I have a proposal to make,¡± continued Leiyun, this time facing out at the Inner Council. ¡°Why not give Li Syaoran another chance, one last chance to redeem himself to the Clan. We all make mistakes, even the best of us, and I think the Council should give Li Syaoran an opportunity to prove his unfaltering loyalty to the Clan.¡±

 

Wutai was about to protest, when Elder Fenjian declared, ¡°Leiyun is right. Syaoran deserves one last chance to prove his allegiance.¡± He was backed by the grim nodding approval of the other seven Elders.

 

Li Wutai scowled. ¡°And how, Leiyun, do you propose that Li Syaoran prove his loyalty to the Clan?¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

After the trial ended, Syaoran was escorted back to his room by Jinyu, and he flopped down on his side onto the silken-sheeted bed, hunched over from his aching back. Somehow, he had made it through this dreaded day. Sakura¡¦

 

The first month back in Hong Kong, he had lived without living, breathed, drank, ate in a robotic, monotonous pattern. All the thought and memory of her that he muted out when he left Japan came rushing back. From his pocket, he slipped out a folded piece of paper, carefully smoothing out the crinkles. A new school year must have started back in Japan. And he was not there. He pressed the letter to his lips. It tasted like salt water.

 

It was over six years ago when Syaoran received the Five Force Sword, right before embarking on his first mission as the Chosen One. The Great Elder had told him then, ¡°Li Syaoran, take the Sword of the Li clan. It has been handed down for many generations, through your great ancestors. Use it well, to fight off any foes that may prevent your mission. Remember, accomplish your mission faithfully and hold honor to your name. You are a ¡®chosen one.¡¯ Take that liberty to excel your powers.¡±

 

Never had he felt so triumphant and proud, at the mere age of ten, at the age when most boys ran about carefree in the playground and fought only in videogames and card games. But Syaoran had never been a regular boy. He had been raised with the knowledge that he would one day succeed his father¡¯s title as the Li Clan¡¯s ¡°Chosen One.¡± From an early age, he had been trained personally by the Great Elder himself, and from the moment his father passed away, he had been revered by even the Li adults as someone special, someone meant to do great deeds. After spending his entire life believing in his self-importance, it was a splash of cold water on his face that his existence amounted to nothing after all. But he was living to face the reality, the reality that one life in the midst of billions on earth was like a single snowflake lost in a raging snowstorm.

 

He still remembered the phone conversation with his Uncle Wutai last year. Elder Wutai had told him, ¡°Li Syaoran, I command you to come back, as the eldest brother of your dead father. That is what Li Ryuuren would have wanted.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, Uncle. I can¡¯t. I have obligations here,¡± Syaoran had replied.

 

¡°You have obligations to your family. You are the Chosen One. There are yet many duties you have to accomplish for the Li Clan. I know what. You think you love that new Card Mistress. You think you should be in Japan to be with her. Well, I¡¯ll tell you want thing. As you know, the Li clan is specialized in prophesy-making. And one thing for sure is things are never meant to work for you two. That¡¯s the order of the stars and the universe. So now, before you get further involved into this foolishness, return. You are too young and unwise yet to waste your life with wrong decisions.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re mistaken Elder Uncle. I do not have any special feelings toward Kinomoto, other than as a comrade in past battles.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s good to hear. I¡¯m glad to have such a wise nephew.¡±

 

¡°But, I still can¡¯t return to Hong Kong yet. While I¡¯m here, I can gain new powers. And the Dark Ones are fatal foes to our family as well, and I will like to fight them and become stronger.¡± That had been his excuse.

 

¡°I still believe you¡¯re making a terrible mistake Syaoran. But do as you wish. I hold nothing over you and can¡¯t force you to come back yet. I have no choice but to let you stay in Japan.¡±

 

¡°Thank you, uncle.¡±

 

He had been frightened of his uncle, his father¡¯s oldest brother, for Li Wutai had always gazed at him like a cobra waiting to unfurl. ¡°Yet that is on one condition. You may not, and listen carefully, you may not involve yourself in any frivolous relationship with that girl. Don¡¯t take my words lightly, Syaoran. I know you¡¯re wise enough. Remember my warning. If you don¡¯t want to hurt yourself or that girl, do not to lose your head. Keep some pride at least, as a Li. Your stay in Japan will be as long as you are working towards becoming a Level One Magician. If I, or any other person finds out that you have been wasting time doing something else, you will at once be ordered to return to Hong Kong, and you will not dare defy the will of the Elder.¡±

Back then, he had meant to obey. That was how he had been reared. And what he regretted most was listening to his stern uncle¡¯s words, actually letting him control his life. He could never erase from his mind that certain day last winter, that cold, snowy day when Sakura gazed at him with those luminous emerald eyes. How could he forget the veiled hurt well in her eyes as he told her, ¡°You know that I don¡¯t have special feelings about you anymore, right? All those things that happened back in those days before I left to Hong Kong is the past.¡±

Her face was frozen in an expressionless mask as she replied, ¡°Right.¡± He had been screaming in his mind, ¡®it¡¯s a lie, don¡¯t believe a word I say,¡¯ but she could not hear him then.

 

It had taken every bit of effort to say to her, ¡°Good. I¡¯m glad that we sorted the things between us. I don¡¯t like it when things are uncomfortable... Don¡¯t feel pressured about this, or anything. Nothing much has changed between... Just now, we have things straight.¡± Because, everything had changed. He had lied to her, and himself. If she hated him forever, he really didn¡¯t blame her. If she lost all faith and trust in him, it was his fault. Yet, back then it seemed to be the only way he could force the reality on himself, the only way he could continue on living in Japan and look over Sakura.

 

I lied to you, Sakura¡¦

 

That summer, she told him with sorrowful eyes, ¡°I was so confused, I wanted you to explain to me why you fought by my side and acted so kind at times, yet always turned that cold face on me. Tell me, did you hurt me because you are my rival and enemy? Then why do you help me? Is it to hurt me again? I want to trust you, yet how can I trust you when you make my heart hurt so much? Are you lying to me again?¡± Why was it that whenever he tried to recall her, all he could remember was images of her with tears in her eyes?

 

Did I cause only pain while I was by your side?

 

Now, belatedly, Syaoran realized that all he had done to protect her, to shield her had ended up scarring her over and over again. What he thought was best for her had led to him lying to her over and over again. He did not want to lie to her anymore. But under the current circumstance, it was lie after lie, tangled into such an intricate net of lies that even to him, the truth was lost. What was the truth? Was truth what was before his eyes at this moment, this life barren of warmth and compassion? Or was truth what he wanted to believe? If he closed his eyes, he could see a vision of a brown-haired girl standing beneath the shaking branches of a sakura tree.

 

Forgive me, Sakura¡¦

 

 

 

It¡¯s been a month since I saw your tear-filled eyes that foggy morning by the harbor in Hong Kong. Sometimes, it feels like it¡¯s a dream those fleeting minutes in which I last saw your face, the face that I never thought I would see again. Spring has long since come but when I think of how far you are from me, how far Japan is from Hong Kong, there is a chill in my bones as if I can never get warm again. When I think that I might never see you again, I wonder what the use of all this struggling is. My mind feels blank and a deafening sense of despair pervades me. Only the memory of your face, more vivid than any of the flowers blossomed in the gardens, the memory of the warmth of your smile, warmer than all sunlight, the sound of your laughter, more beautiful than any music, sustains me, reminds me to keep breathing. It seems every new day without you is harder to bear, harder to face. But I continue living, in the hopes that our path might some day cross again.

 

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

 

Wish-chan (March, 2008): Wow, it was sort of distracting writing these two chapters because I kept having to jot down notes of what¡¯s going to happen in the following chapters. Though I said I was working on chapter 54 and 55 simultaneously, in reality, I was writing bits and pieces of the next five chapters at least @.@ This is the first time I¡¯ve been sort of forced to plot the entire arc, as this is the final arc and I need to prepare for the finale and tie down all the different loose ends. (Believe me, so many things are left that it scares me.) Whenever I remembered something I¡¯ve been meaning to write, I had to jot it down in the moment before I forgot it. Things started slow for Sakura & co.—I sort of reused the ¡°new beginning¡± theme now that the CCS crew are in high school. Yay! Personally, I think I like the middle school uniforms better—ie. I think the Seijou Uniform looks better on people with Touya, Tomoyo and Eriol¡¯s coloring more than Sakura and Syaoran¡¯s.

 

With the hair poll at the Yahoo New Trials Ring, you probably could guess that Sakura would cut her hair. I know, accuse me of growing out Sakura¡¯s hair just because I wanted to write a scene where she cuts it off after getting her heart broken. lol¡¦ >.< Truthfully, it was also just selfish reasons¡¦ I¡¯ve wanted to draw Sakura-chan with short hair for a while now, and I also wanted a distinct way to distinguish between Arc 4 Sakura and the Arc 1-3 Sakura. She¡¯ll probably eventually grow out her hair again anyway. We¡¯ll see. I personally think Sakura looks cute with everything. : )

 

This arc is such a headache to write because of like five different subplots going on along with so many things to cover in just one more arc! I guess you all knew Kaho was going to be coming back this arc, no? Though I¡¯m sad I didn¡¯t get to write more about Syaoran this chapter, it was fun developing more of the other characters that I¡¯ve been pushing off to the sidelines. Well, this is clichéd, but this is just the beginning of a new arc! Lots of exciting things to come as our last arc unfolds.

 

So thank you for supporting New Trials, and I¡¯ll continue on working hard to bring you Arc Four, the final arc of the New Trials of Card Captor Sakura! Please email me at hopeluvpeace@hotmail.com with any comments whatsoever. If you haven¡¯t already, check out the Yahoo New Trials Ring at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/newtrialsring/

And of course, visit my website at http://www.wishluv.com/ and check out the latest arc 4 fanart at http://wishluv.deviantart.com/

 

AND¡¦Happy Birthday Sakura, April 1, 2008!!!

 

(I know, what a horrendous birthday chapter. On a bright side, it¡¯s been a long time since the season of a chapter has been in sync with realtime. I love it when that happens. Happy April Fools Day!) I am forever grateful to everyone who has emailed me, read my stories and supported me for all these years. : ) Happy Birthday our darling Sakura-chan! You have given numerous people happiness and joy over the course of 12 years!