Chapter 66: The Truth in the Heart

 

 

 

 

Arms akimbo, Kinomoto Touya stared at the three teenagers kneeling on the floor of his younger sister’s bedroom, hands on knees and intimidated. His brows twitched. Though he had surmised something like this was bound to happen sooner or later, he had hoped it wouldn’t be for another couple years. But his little sister was a sixteen year old girl, and a clueless one at that. Judging from the situation, it seemed that Chang Eron, currently his sister’s boyfriend, had discovered Li Syaoran, the Brat, was staying at their house, and he had probably saved the house from disaster by the way the two were glaring at each other. If the third party involved had not been his younger sister, he would have found the whole situation hilariously amusing. Anybody that ticked off Syaoran was immediately Touya’s ally. And the way the Brat twitched on the floor, tangled in the ridiculous pink boa, was just priceless. Nonetheless, Touya was furious that the two good-for-nothing boys were frolicking in his little sister’s room at this time of the night in his absence. Seriously, how did fathers with daughters sleep at night? He had a strong urge to tie the two up together and roll them down King Penguin slide. Then, he realized that the three were barely breathing, waiting for him to speak.

 

Clearing his throat, Touya finally lowered his voice and stated, “Chang-kun, Li-kun please see me downstairs in the living room. Sakura, I don’t know what happened in this room, but it’s a mess. Please tidy up. I’m going to speak to otou-san about this.”


The hair on the back of his neck stood and Syaoran gulped hard; he did not miss the deathly glint in Kinomoto Touya’s eyes. Touya walked out of the room, mighty proud of himself for handling the situation very adult-like and keeping his temper for a change. Seriously, he had caused no problems at all when he was that age. Then he grimaced. No, he had dated his teacher as a junior high student and had been an emotional wreck when she had dumped him. Teenagers will be teenagers.

 

Sakura stared at the floor, desperately trying to sit on top of the photos that were scattered on the ground, heart thumping. Heaven knew what would have happened between Syaoran and Eron had her brother not showed up. 

 

It was Eron who recovered and stood up first. “I’ll go speak to your brother now. I’m sorry—I   shouldn’t have come so late in the first place.”

 

“Eron-kun!” Sakura stood up rapidly, glancing between Syaoran and Eron. “I’m sorry—I can explain the situation.”

 

“I’m sure there is a reason why he’s staying here. Because there is a reason for everything,” said Eron acerbically. He leered at Syaoran with darkened topaz eyes. “A good enough reason that you couldn’t tell me.”

 

“Well, that is…” Sakura frowned. There wasn’t. Why had she hidden it from Eron in the first place? Because for some strange reason, she felt guilty about the situation, when she had no reason to be. It’s not even like I was the one who invited Syaoran to stay at my house.

 

“Well I’m going,” said Eron. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow, I guess.” His lips curved up sardonically. “Hopefully, dear Li-kun does not actually reside in your closet.”

 

Syaoran took one glance behind and followed Eron down the stairs to meet his doomsday.

 

 

 

Though Sakura was tempted to go by the stairwell and try to overhear the conversation her brother was having with Syaoran and Eron, she did not eavesdrop. After a while, she heard the front door swing shut. She heard the car ignition start outside. Peeking out the door, she saw Eron following her brother. Was her brother driving Eron back home? That was strange. With a long sigh, Sakura stared at the mess around the room, the clothes that had fallen out of her closet and the overturned box of photos on the floor. On her knees, she quietly gathered the scattered photos. She picked up a photo from the Best Couple Contest last summer and smiled wistfully. Syaoran looked a lot like Ryuuren-san when he was playing the violin. Then, there was a group photo in front of the greenhouse from the fifth grade strawberry picking trip. All her closest friends were posing in the photo. Tomoyo, Naoko and Rika, Chiharu throttling Yamazaki as usual, and Mizuki-sensei, standing in the back, tall and graceful. Sakura herself stood in the center of the picture, beaming, arms linked around Yukito-san’s, and her brother stood off the side because they had been part-timing at the strawberry farm that day. To one corner of the picture was Meilin, clinging to Syaoran who looked irritated. Back then, she hadn’t been that close to Syaoran and it was perchance that he had been caught on film. Even then, he had always been watching out for her. “If you lag behind, you’ll get lost,” he would remind her when she was distracted. She almost fell off the ledge and he had extended out his hand and said “Take my hand.” Little things she had taken for granted back then that she should have been so grateful for. He had been far more prone to scolding her than saying a nice word, but she almost wished to hear him scold her instead of that dead silence in his gaze nowadays. It was funny how a single picture could bring back so many memories. Life had been so simple back then. Meilin had made the most extravagant lunch box for Syaoran for the fieldtrip and she had wished she could cook as well as Meilin. She stared at young Syaoran in the photo, the boy she had not put much thought into back then besides, “I would like to get to know this person better.” He was glaring off at her brother. With a little giggle, she flipped through the older elementary school photos, the high school cultural fair, the sports day, the summer festival—any picture with her brother and Syaoran caught in it, they were glaring at each other. Some things never changed. 

 

Engrossed in the photos, Sakura did not hear the footsteps behind her. For a brief moment, Syaoran stood by the doorway, watching her, before he knocked. 

 

She didn’t look up but froze. Quickly, she stashed the photos into the green cardboard box. “Don’t come in!”

 

He stated, “Touya-san drove Eron home on his way back to the hospital.”

 

She did not look up. “Oh.”

 

Clearing his throat, he continued, “I’m sorry about what happened. It was an honest mistake. I’ll explain to Eron tomorrow. I wasn’t trying to spy or anything—” He stared at the mess on the floor and bent down, picking up the photos that had fluttered over to the doorway.

 

“It’s all right,” Sakura said. As she set upright the jewelry box, the prize from the Best Couple contest scavenger hunt, a tissue paper clump rolled out. It was the diamond necklace that Syaoran had gotten her two Christmases ago. Last year, when she had summoned the Five Force Treasures to seal the Plague, it had cracked in half. It was her first time physically touching the stone since she had put it away. She had hated looking at the fractured stone. Because it seemed to represent what had happened to her and Syaoran. 

 

“You still have that?” he asked in a funny voice. He took one step closer to her. “It doesn’t have any magical powers left in it and it’s broken. Just throw it away.” 

 

She remembered Eron’s caustic words earlier on. “Well then, if it’s nothing, then just throw them away.” But she had refused. Because. Because they are still my precious memories. Why had she uttered such embarrassing words?

 

Clutching the stone, Sakura spun around to face Syaoran, angered by his dismissive words. “Maybe I really should just throw it away,” she said, taking the pendant, still wrapped in tissue paper, and flung it at Syaoran.

 

He caught it with one hand and stepped one foot closer. Pay no heed to her, he knelt down to pick up a packet of high quality professional photos. Carelessly, he flipped through them. “I didn’t see these before. Are these from the fashion show?” He stared at a shot of Sakura in the black and white attire, standing on the stage, looking strangely fierce yet demure. That day, he had almost tripped over his feet when he saw her in that dress. His fingers traced the long red ribbon trailing from her pinkie finger. “They came out good.”

 

“Give them back.”

 

“All right, no need to get touchy.” Syaoran tossed the photo packet back into the box. His eyes flickered to the corner of something that had gotten stuck underneath the rug.

 

Frowning, he knelt down and picked up the crumpled photo turned face down.

 

“I said, get out of my room!” Panicking, Sakura pushed him out with all her might. She slammed the door behind her and heaved a long sigh.

 

Then she glared at the beady black eyes of Syaoran the Bear, toppled on the floor and demanded, “What are you staring at?”

 

 

 

“Why is she the one angry?” Syaoran grumbled to himself as he returned to Touya’s room. ”I was the one stuck in the closet for an hour, and I was the one who got a lecture from the ogre-brother, and I had to apologize to that disgusting Chang Eron, and I had to witness that odious smirking face all evening long.”

 

Remembering the picture he had slipped into his pocket, Syaoran turned over the photo that had slipped from the stack of pictures that Sakura had been desperately hiding. When was this? It was a candid shot of Sakura. She was standing in a fancy ballroom with a brilliant chandelier, surrounded by many foreigners. She wore an ice-blue silk dress, her golden-brown hair pinned up from her neck in loose curls and her cheeks were still a little more rounded, as if she was younger. I’ve seen this dress before. It was New York, the Best Young Director after party. What was she trying to hide? She came out well in all her pictures. Most people, such as himself, came out flat in pictures. But even a still photo seemed to capture the animation and vigor in her emerald eyes, which was probably why Mike Kant was so eager to photograph Sakura. With a half-smile, he tossed the photo on the desk. Yawning, he went to the bathroom to wash up for bed. He could hear Sakura muttering to herself in her room. 

 

When he returned to his room after brushing his teeth, his eyes flickered back towards the desk. He picked up the photo again. Sakura herself was unaware that she was being photographed in this picture and had been caught off guard, staring off into space like she so often did. Her tendency to get lost in her own thought and the funny expressions that came of it was her charm. Then, he followed the direction of her gaze. Previously, he had not noticed himself in the photo, standing off to the corner of the ballroom, awkward in a borrowed black tuxedo, looking out of place. It’s not a photo of her… it’s a photo of me. 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“What is this hostile atmosphere in the classroom?” Li Meilin remarked, shuddering as she took her seat in Seijou High classroom 1-2 the next morning.

 

“It’s so tense a knife could cut through it,” Mihara Chiharu muttered, looking back and forth between Syaoran and Eron, anchored on either end of the classroom.

 

“Are you all right, Sakura-chan?” Daidouji Tomoyo asked, looking up at her best friend. “Did something happen yesterday?”

 

“Hoe-e…” Sakura leaned her head against Tomoyo’s shoulder. “It was horrible. Eron-kun came over last night and of all things, Li-kun was hiding in my closet—don’t ask me why—and onii-chan came home just then and…”

 

Tomoyo had a hard time stifling a snicker at Sakura’s woe-begotten face, knowing the gravity of the situation. She didn’t even have to hear the rest of the story to surmise what had taken place last night. But then, she glimpsed Syaoran blue in the face, looking as miserable as a wet cat, and Tomoyo could not help disguising a chuckle with a cough. On one hand, it served Syaoran every bit right to have Sakura there but not there for him. But on the other hand, she pitied Syaoran for being by her side, yet not be able to be reach her.

 

“Oh my goodness, Li-kun is walking over to Eron-kun,” Naoko said, staring across the classroom, huddled with her group of friends.

 

“Look at Eron-kun’s expression,” replied Chiharu, craning her neck hear. “What are they saying?”

 

Naoko’s glasses glimmered. “Does it look like they’re going to fight?”

 

Li Syaoran scowled till his brows met at the center of his forehead and walked up to the person he despised most. He ignored his fellow classmates nudging each other and whispering behind his back. “Can I speak with you separately?”

 

Eron followed Syaoran to outside the hallway.

 

“I just wanted to clear things up with you,” said Syaoran. “About last night—”

 

“Sakura’s brother already explained to me,” Eron replied curtly. “We both heard.”

 

“Just so there is no misunderstanding, there is nothing between Sakura and me. You don’t have to worry…”

 

“I wasn’t worried,” said Eron sharply. “She clearly explained to me that it was not her choice at all.”

 

“You’re right. It wasn’t,” Syaoran said.

 

Eron looked at him with a bored look. “Well, is that all you have to say to me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Flicking a strand of violet-blue hair out of his eyes, Eron walked back into the classroom, taking his seat next to Sakura.

 

Cracking his knuckles, Syaoran inhaled a deep breath of air and exhaled.

 

“Ah, adolescence,” Hiiragizawa Eriol remarked, chin rested on hand. “Don’t you love high school? Something new happens every day.”

 

Glancing over at her deskmate, Tomoyo stated, “If I didn’t know better, I would say this was all planned. Now, what are you going to do if something happens between Eron-kun and Syaoran-kun?”

 

“I’m betting my staff on a confrontation before the end of the day,” said Eriol, looking more pleased than he had all winter long.

 

“They’re not going to fight,” Tomoyo said half-heartedly. She glanced at Eron’s sinister gloom and Syaoran’s purple face. “Never mind. I’ll bet my best sewing machine on a fistfight.”

 

“Just a fistfight?” Eriol’s glasses glimmered. “I say a full-out duel before the week’s end.”

 

“Sakura-chan wouldn’t allow that,” Tomoyo replied. “They’re not that stupid, you know.”

 

“I’ll bet my bedchamber curtains that it won’t stop with a few punches,” stated Eriol.

 

“You mean the black Parisian brocade with gold trimmings?” asked Tomoyo, violet eyes sparkling. She had been eying the curtains for months, thinking it would make fabulous material for a winter manteau, and had even been considering recruiting Kai to steal the fabric from Eriol’s bedchamber. “Deal.” 

 

Eriol shook hands with her and smiled. “Deal. I say duel within the week, you say fistfight.”

 

Yamazaki Takashi interjected, “A duel? I know all about duels. In medieval days, duels to death were in fashion—and the last person standing won the hand of the princess.”

 

“I wish someone would fight a duel for me,” sighed Chiharu, before glaring at Takashi.

 

“No you don’t,” said Eriol, knowingly.

 

“I guess Clow Reed had many women fighting for his affection,” remarked Tomoyo.

 

“It wasn’t a pretty sight,” conceded Eriol.

 

Their eyes all flitted towards Sakura, who took her seat next to Eron. 

 

Sakura gulped hard. “I really meant to tell you about it, but I just couldn’t find the right opportunity. It’s not like I really had a choice in the matter, at all, and—” She broke off and stared at Eron.

 

He smiled thinly at her. “Don’t worry, I’m not mad at you.”

 

“Really?” said Sakura in disbelief. She had been running through excuses in her head all night long, but this was too simple; she would rather have Eron lose his temper and then give her an opportunity to defend herself.

 

“You said you didn’t have a choice in the matter,” said Eron.

 

“What did you an onii-chan talk about yesterday?” Sakura asked timidly.

 

Eron arched an eyebrow. “You mean Li-kun didn’t tell you?”

 

“I didn’t talk to him,” replied Sakura. “Was onii-chan very angry?”

 

“No, it’s the usual stuff,” replied Eron shortly. “I understand his position very well, having a sister myself.”

 

“I’m still sorry I didn’t tell you about Syao—Li-kun. I should have let you know right away,” said Sakura. “I didn’t think he would really end up staying this long.”

 

“I didn’t either,” said Eron briskly. “Don’t get me wrong. Just because I’m not mad at you doesn’t mean I like the situation one bit.” And he coolly watched Syaoran across the other end of the room. “I trust he will leave as soon as possible.”

 

Noticing her twin’s outburst of open hostility, Chang Erika watched her desk mate Syaoran, more glum and agitated than ever. Watching her twin throw a temper tantrum was not a pretty sight, and she pitied the subject of Eron’s rage. She examined her perfectly manicured nails and remarked, “You are such an idiot walking into the lion’s den like that. What possessed you to thinking living under the same roof with Sakura is a good idea?”

 

“I don’t know,” groaned Syaoran. “As you know, I have a history of making one bad decision after another.”

 

“Well, don’t go down before giving my brother a good punch in the face,” stated Erika. “Ever since you returned to Seijou, our classmates have been betting my brother is going to beat you to pulp before the month’s end. I put money on you.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because nobody else did,” replied Erika with a cackle. “If I win, then I get to reap in all the bet money by myself, though it might be just be a reverse gambler’s fallacy on my part.” Her gaze swiveled towards Sakura. “I wonder who Sakura would cry more for should one fall. Her evil boyfriend or her little wolf who betrayed her.”  

 

Watching Eron glaring at Syaoran with a newfound sense of animosity, Yanagisawa Naoko sank into her chair with a woeful sigh. “I wish I have two boys jealous over me. Haven’t even got one!” 

 

“Aren’t you lurking around the infirmary today?” asked Chiharu, bemused. Naoko had been obsessed with the handsome new school doctor for some weeks now, but Chiharu couldn’t help feeling a bit intimidated by him.

 

Naoko replied, eyes suddenly sparkling behind her round-framed glasses. “No, I have a new target.”

 

“Who?”

 

“There’s a dangerously dashing senior that transferred into class 3-1,” said Naoko with a mysterious smile.

 

“That’s rare that someone transfers in their third year,” remarked Meilin. “Especially right before college entrance exams.”

 

“Actually, now that I think of it, he looks a bit like you, Meilin-chan,” Naoko said, eyes shimmering behind her glasses. “Li-kun back in our homeroom. A hot senpai and an even hotter school doctor. How can school life get any better?”

 

Though she had been distracted by other concerns, Sakura suddenly turned towards Naoko. Even as Sakura figured her day couldn’t turn worse, her pulse beat rapidly. “By any chance, do you know his name?”

 

“Why the sudden curiosity?” Naoko remarked. “You already have a boyfriend—it’s no fair you attract all the cool transfer students. You can’t show interest in him, all right?” She clasped her hands together. “His name is Jin Yuu-senpai.”

 

“Such a cool name!” exclaimed Chiharu, starry-eyed. “Jin-senpai. Sounds like a tough, manly name. Where is he from?”

 

“Could it be?” asked Tomoyo, raising an eyebrow.

 

“It must be,” replied Sakura warily.

 

Tomoyo remarked, “Why did he not use the Li surname, I wonder.”

 

“To maintain some sense of anonymity, I guess,” Meilin replied. “His name should be well known in the Japanese yakuza factions.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Regardless that the bell for second period was ringing, Kara Reed stomped down the hallway in her heeled boots and slid open the infirmary door with a bam. “How dare you set Jinyu as a spy on me?”

 

Li Leiyun, currently doctor of Seijou High, had his long legs propped up on the desk and looked up from the latest issue of Shounen Jump. “Who said Jin was spying on you?”

 

“Then why else would you have him transfer into my class? Isn’t he too old for high school?”

 

“He’s younger than you, you know,” remarked Leiyun wryly. “You really shouldn’t take things so personally, Kara-chan. I thought it was a pity that Jinyu has never really experienced school life, so I’m just giving him a once in a lifetime opportunity to wear a uniform and sit in a classroom.”

 

“You think Jinyu’s in Japan to play around?” demanded Kara.

 

“It’s stressful to be scheming all the time,” replied Leiyun. “I believe in plentiful entertainment alongside with working.”

 

Rolling her eyes, Kara stated, “Since both you’re both here, then that means I can quit then.”

 

“Not until you get into university,” replied Leiyun.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“You’ve been studying so hard for the college entrance exams, it’ll be a pity if you don’t pass them.”

 

“What?” Kara blinked then slightly turned pink in the cheeks. “I just don’t like doing things half-heartedly. When I dropped out of school back in junior high, I had just the slightest bit of regret thinking I would never be in a school uniform again, studying for exams, applying for college. And it’s almost like I’ve been given another chance.”

 

“So go for it. So you can live life without regrets,” said Leiyun.

 

“Actually, it’s a huge hassle. You never had to study for college entrance exams or anything. Why should I?” demanded Kara with a scowl.

 

“I didn’t get a chance to now, did I?” he replied with a rueful smile.

 

And Kara stared at the stack of comic books disguised in medical text covers on the desk. That’s right. Leiyun missed out on a good portion of his latter teen years and all the thrill and heartache of adolescence. She kind of understood why he wanted to be in this environment, even merely as an observer.

 

“Well, if you do expect me to stay in school, I’m going to be really busy now,” Kara stated, arms crossed.

 

“You’re freed from all your missions till exam period is over,” Leiyun said.

 

Chin in the air, Kara said, “I may not look like it, but I graduated elementary school valedictorian.”

 

“And dropped out of junior high, turned delinquent at fourteen and is currently the oldest high schooler in Seijou,” listed off Leiyun. 

 

“So what? I had a lot of catching up to do. Four years worth of schoolwork I never learned.” Kara grinned halfheartedly. “Who knew this would be the biggest challenge of my life?”

 

Leiyun smiled. “I thought that was finding me.”

 

“No, that came naturally.” Kara looked into Leiyun’s eyes. “After all, it seems to be the only thing I have ever gotten right.”

 

“Really? I thought you would be regretting it by now,” remarked Leiyun.

 

“Nah. Who else would appreciate how cute I look in a high school uniform,” said Kara, spinning around in her modified Seijou uniform. “Jinyu certainly wouldn’t care if I was wearing a miniskirt or a sack.”

 

“I wish Seijou kept their old sailor uniforms though,” sighed Leiyun. “Those were really cute.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Walking down the hallway towards art class, Sakura caught up with Syaoran, the one person who should know the answer, and the one person who seemed to be trying to run away whenever she drew near. She cornered him just as he was about to dodge down the stairwell. “Are the rumors true? What is Li Jinyu-san doing at Seijou?”

 

Her question was self-answered. Even from across the hallway, Sakura could sense Li Jinyu’s ominous black presence even before she spotted him. He did not mingle with the others and exuded an unapproachable air that could be considered intimidating or intriguing. But there was no doubt; he was clearly wearing the Seijou uniform with the sky blue blazer and the black trousers.

 

Turning to Syaoran, who clearly looked as surprised as she did, she demanded, “Why did Jinyu-san transfer to our school? Did you guys all plan to infiltrate Seijou or something?”

 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” replied Syaoran more curtly than he would have liked. While he understood why Leiyun might have decided to observe the high school, he did not understand the purpose of Jinyu being installed as a student. First of all, Jinyu did not make a convincing high school student, and furthermore, with Leiyun and Kara in school and Erika in their grade, there was no need for a fourth person. Unless… Syaoran frowned. He had forgotten to put himself in Leiyun’s shoes. After all, Leiyun was every bit descendent of Li Shulin, mother of the one and only twisted sorcerer Clow Reed.

 

As a child, Syaoran had only occasionally suspected that behind his cousin’s angelically smiling façade was a mind that was mischievous and scheming. He was pretty sure that it was Leiyun who had first put it into his four sisters’ heads that it might be a good idea to dress him up like a girl.

 

“Poor thing,” Leiyun had said, finding Syaoran, age seven, swaddled in a voluminous magenta silk dress, lips rouged and cheeks painted with blush. “Who did this to you?”

 

Of course, Syaoran had expected Leiyun to help him out of the spectacle he had been wrapped in. It was not the first time his sisters had done this to him and would not be the last. But as he grew older, Syaoran had become so expert at unzipping himself out of dresses that his sisters came up with an ingenious ploy to find a Victorian-style apparel with layers of lacy petticoat laced up the back so that it was impossible for Syaoran to escape from without assistance from another person. Which should have been Leiyun. But Leiyun had proceeded by ceremoniously stating, “Oh dear, we have no time. We’re just going to have to practice like that.”

 

Syaoran recalled staring up at his older cousin, swaddled in lace and flounces, helpless. “Like this?”

 

“It’ll be good for training, having to fight in those restricting, heavy clothes,” replied Leiyun, straight-faced.

 

With a long sigh, Syaoran realized belatedly that there must have been a reason why his cousin Leiyun got along so well with his four evil sisters and cousin Jingmei. As is said, birds of a feather flock together. But then again, Li Leiyun was no Clow Reed who did things purely for entertainment’s sake. There always was a reason, or multiple reasons, for his every action.

 

 

 

The person who had been subject to the most number of Li Leiyun’s whims was probably none other than Li Jinyu himself. It was under Leiyun’s recommendation that Jinyu had trained under the Great Elder. Likewise, it had originally been Leiyun’s idea that Jinyu infiltrate the Hong Kong triads. He had followed Leiyun to Japan and found himself enrolled as a high school student, the one role he had never been asked to play before. Li Jinyu stood out like a sore thumb from the crowd of boisterous high school boys with his sleek black hair, the long ends plaited, and his ember-red eyes keenly observing his surroundings, like his head was detached from the body that was clothed in the high school uniform identical to all the other male students. He didn’t seem any more enthusiastic to be at school than he was in being in Japan or babysitting Syaoran or trailing after dark forces.

 

Chang Erika, spotted him from a distance walked up to him boldly. “Jinyu-san, is that really you? What are you doing here?” she asked incredulously.

 

There were murmurs around her, high school seniors commenting on the nerve a freshman come up to a senior and start a conversation. He stared back at her with cool red-amber eyes showing no sign of recognition. Taking another peek at him in the Seijou sky blue blazer, she guffawed. “You look ridiculous in a high school uniform. I didn’t even know you were even near our age. I thought you were in your late twenties. Leiyun would have made a better high school student.”

 

“Late twenties,” Jinyu muttered to himself after Erika marched away, flicking back her glossy violet curls. She was a strange girl, a girl who liked to talk a lot. “Late twenties.”

 

Kara patted him on the back jovially. “Don’t take it to heart. I thought you were Lei’s uncle when I first met you; but Lei also looks remarkably young. Besides, considering your line of business, your face suits you just fine.” She put her fingers to the corner of her brows, slanting them up. “Mean and scary.”

 

“Uncle?” Jinyu mumbled. He narrowed his eyes as a group of freshman girls walked past. A strange bespectacled girl ogled him and dashing off giggling. High school girls were such strange creatures. He did not understand them. A brunette girl with green eyes absentmindedly walked down the hallway and jumped upon catching sight of him. He was used to that.  

 

“Li Jinyu-san!” Sakura squeaked as she almost colliding into the Black Dragon.

 

Li Jinyu’s amber-red eyes flitted over her for a brief second before he simply walked on.

 

“He just completely snubbed me, didn’t he?” Sakura asked Meilin, rubbing her eyes to make sure that it really was Li Jinyu in the Seijou uniform.

 

“Don’t take it personally—he doesn’t like talking much,” replied Meilin, distracted. Following behind Jinyu was Kara Reed. Meilin ran down the corridor to catch up to her. “Rido-san!”

 

Kara turned around, her pale golden hair framing her face. This was the Li-girl that had been a candidate to become the Protector of the Clan under the original plans. Li Jinyu would be able to crush her in thirty seconds. But the Great Elder favored her, and because Syaoran and Meilin had been trained together, they probably would have made a formidable Chosen One and Protector pair.  

 

It killed her pride to be asking Kara Reed out of all people this question. But she had to know. Li Meilin stared up at the older girl earnestly. “Rido-senpai. Have you heard from Kai by any chance?”

 

Kara gazed at her with cool lavender eyes.

 

“Please,” Meilin exclaimed. “If you heard anything, tell me!”

 

“Why should I?” Kara said with an aggravating grin.

 

And Meilin was stumped.

 

Playing with the skull ring on her forefinger, Kara said, “He’s training. You shouldn’t bother him.”

 

So Kai had communicated with Kara. It was like a blow in her stomach. Before Kara turned away, Meilin called out once again, “Rido-senpai!”

 

“Yes?” Kara’s arms were crossed and she stared at Meilin impatiently.

 

“I was just wondering…” Meilin gulped. “W-what is your relationship with Kai?”

 

“Is that any of your business?” asked Kara.


At Kara’s tart reply, Meilin’s mouth dropped.

 

“Do I care what your relationship with Kai is? No.” Kara smiled.

 

Meilin’s mouth dropped. “H-he’s going out with me now. Frankly, I don’t like seeing him hanging out with you.”

 

“I’ve known him far longer than you have,” stated Kara, flipping back her shiny gold hair. “I can see him and do what ever with him that I please.”

 

At this, Meilin’s mouth dropped even further. “B-but…”

 

“And I don’t care to talk to you one on one like this again—I don’t like getting mixed up in someone’s inconsequential love problems and insecurities.” With her flaxen hair sweeping around her dramatically, Kara turned around and walked off, chuckling to herself—she found Meilin amusing mainly because she had often imagined putting pigtails on Jinyu.

 

Watching Kara walk down, tall and graceful as usual, Meilin stamped her foot down in frustration. “Ugh, that aggravating woman!”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Li Meilin had very few fears. She had grown used to living by herself over the past several months, though at least when Kai was next doors, it never felt quite alone. She was not afraid of ghosts or intruders or thieves, since she was confident in her abilities to fend for herself. But late at night, out of habit, she would lie awake in bed, listening to the door next doors, in the hopes that Kai had returned. She lifted her wrist up, and a silver bracelet intertwined with a gold one glimmered in the moonlight. At times like this, all she wanted was perhaps a stuffed animal from him to hold when going to sleep, or even a single sticker picture with him that she could put on the back of her cellphone or a movie ticket stub to put stick into a scrapbook. But Kai hated taking pictures—perhaps precautionary measures remnant of his days on the other side of law, and when he did buy her a present, it was something outrageously pricey, because Kai seemed to equate more expensive with better. Whenever he did take her out to dinner, he would always take her to one of those fancy restaurants with private rooms that were stifling. If she wanted to watch a movie with him, he would somehow pirate the movies before it was released in theaters and screen it in his own movie room in the house. The designer dress that he had bought her from the Winter Wonderland last year hung unworn since then in her closet, though the single white rose he had give her as a corsage was pressed into a book of Chinese poems. And even now, she was uncertain why she had chosen to leave Hong Kong to be with Kai. If he loved me, he would be here with me right now. If he loved me, he wouldn’t make me wait like this. If he loved me, he would have let me know where he is and what he’s doing. Kara’s words still bugged her—it hurt her pride more than anything to realize that Kai would tell Kara Reed things that he would never tell her. Training? For what? Kara always exuded an air of superiority, as if she knew Kai better than anyone else. Was she hiding something else from her? Surely Kai was not planning to join Li Leiyun’s side.

 

It was two in the morning, and Meilin shifted in her bed, a bed that seemed not completely hers because Sakura had spent last summer habiting the room. There were still traces of Sakura around the house, like half a tube of peach-scented hand lotion, a cheerleading baton, a pink umbrella, bunny slippers and red bubble hair ties. It was as if her presence in the house was greater than Syaoran’s, though Syaoran had inhabited the house for much longer. Meilin could not bear to enter his room, not even to clean it, and the door remained shut. Times like this, she wondered why she had returned to Japan in the first place. The only one of the Alliance of Stars without magical powers, she had little to offer. Syaoran had alienated himself from her, and Kai wouldn’t need her any longer once he returned to his family.

 

She heard a slight shuffling on the balcony, and she blinked in the dark, drawing her blankets closer to her. There was definitely a shadow by the curtains. At this time, she wouldn’t help but recall Miho stating there was a pervert going around, targeting schoolgirls. Meilin reached over to the nightstand and took hold of the lamp, unplugging it and raising it over her head.

 

“Put that thing down, it’s me,” the intruder said, slipping through the curtains.

 

Sure enough, even in the dark, Meilin could recognize the contour of the spiked hair and the gleam of the gray-blue eyes. Silver fang earrings flashed from the streetlights outside and a draft of cold air drifted in through the open window. She blinked, still holding the lamp over her head.

 

“I’m back,” said Mizuki Kai, stepping forward and taking the lamp from her hands and setting it on the floor next to her.

 

Meilin glared up at him. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I figured you might be pining for me in my absence,” he replied, watching Meilin’s amber eyes flash animatedly at him, like it always did when she was furious. Her long black hair was tied into loose pigtails over her shoulders, and she was wearing blue pajamas. He couldn’t resist stepping forward and squeezing her into a tight hug.  

 

The chillness of his body seeped through her thin flannel pajamas. She pushed him away abruptly. “In your dreams.” The scent of his musky cologne clung to her hair and clothes still. In his absence, she had forgotten how nauseating the scent was. “When did you get back?”

 

“Yesterday,” Kai replied.

 

He had been back for a whole day before finally deciding to let her know that he was back? Meilin clenched her hands into a ball. At the risk of sounding callous, she stated, “You said you would be gone for two weeks.”

 

“I sent on a soul-searching journey, and it took longer than I expected,” he replied.

 

“Sure, like I would buy that,” said Meilin, half relieved that it was the jovial, frivolous Kai that she knew, half incensed that he was so lighthearted when she had been so worried. “You were just afraid to come back, weren’t you?”

 

“I thought of not coming back at all, but then I imagined how angry you would be at me, so here I am.”

 

Arms crossed, Meilin stated, “Like I even care what you do anymore.” While she had not been expecting an apology, it infuriated to see Kai as nonchalant as ever. Had he gone to see Kara Reed first?

 

She also did not trust him in a dark room in the middle of the night. Plugging the lamp back in, Meilin switched it on, lighting the room a dull orange. Kai immediately shielded his eyes with his hand out of reflex. He blinked several times before his pupils adjusted to the light. Even in the lamplight, Meilin noted that Kai looked a bit more haggard than she had last seen him. His hair was a bright bottle-bleach color. “Weren’t you going to grow out your hair?”

 

With a long sigh, Kai reached into his pocket and held up an array of hair dye. “That’s why I am here. You have to help me. I don’t remember what my original hair color was.”

 

Meilin rolled her eyes. “How would I know what your original color was?”

 

“I see.” With an even longer sigh, Kai stumbled over and plopped down onto her soft bed. “Of course you wouldn’t know.”

 

“Why are you sitting there?” demanded Meilin, drawing her blanket closer around her.

 

“I’m hungry.”

 

“That’s not my problem.”

 

“My hair,” he continued to mope, holding up a tube of auburn dye and a tube of honey-blonde dye.

 

“I don’t think at this point your parents would care if your hair is blue or green,” stated Meilin, arms akimbo.

 

“You forget my father is an artist and my mother a writer—they both have an eye for detail.”

 

She knew he would end up coming up with one excuse or another to not meet his parents. “When are you going to stop stalling from returning home?”

 

“I’m scared. What am I going to say?”

 

“What did you spend a month doing?” Meilin questioned in exasperation. What was he so terrified of? “I thought you were trying to figure things out.”

 

“Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea returning after all,” said Kai, strumming his fingers on the bed. “Suddenly, I feel like the tropical islands. Do you want to come with me to Bali?”

 

“Just get on your knees and beg for forgiveness. I’m sure they’ll accept you,” snapped Meilin. She hung her head and heaved a sigh. Life was much more peaceful without Kai around. She lay back down and pretended to fall asleep.

 

Tucking her into bed and brushing the hair off her forehead, he kissed her ever so lightly on the forehead. “Sorry to keep you waiting, my darling.” He turned off the unoffending lamp that had almost been bashed over his head earlier on and then hopped back out the window he had come in through.  

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Mizuki Kai stepped into the shower. His tense shoulder muscles relaxed as fluid warmth shrouded him. It felt good to have hot water again. Water streamed down from head to toe and swept back his hair. Red dye swirled down the drain like blood washing out.

 

When he finished, he tied a large towel around his waist and then gazed at his reflection in the steaming mirror. With his forearm, he wiped away the fog on the mirror. His hair, slickened down by wetness, glistened a dark copper-gold. Slapping on some aftershave, he walked out of the bathroom, listening to the water trickle down the drain. Though his bedroom wasn’t lighted, he saw a faint shadow sitting on his bed. Instinctively, he reached over to his desk drawer and grabbed two pocket knives. He blinked slowly and then exhaled.

 

“Don’t startle me like that,” he said, releasing his grip on his knife as he recognized the silhouette of a young woman with black lace-up leather boots.

 

“You’re skills are getting rusty if someone like me can take you off guard,” replied Kara Reed, sitting cross-legged at the edge of his bed.

 

“What are you doing here this early in the morning?” Kai asked, rubbing a towel over his head.

 

“Your real hair color is two shades darker,” remarked Kara, twisting a heavy antique silver cross necklace that hung from a long chain around her neck.

 

“Turn around, I’m getting dressed,” said Kai, reaching into his closet and taking out freshly ironed beige trousers.

 

“Go ahead,” replied Kara unabashedly. Nonetheless, she fell back onto the bed stared up at the black wallpaper as Kai proceeded to drop his towel. Perro-chan landed on her forehead and began pecking at her. “Your parrot doesn’t like me.”

 

“Perro-chan takes a while to get used to strangers,” replied Kai, pulling on a crisp white button down shirt over the linen trousers. He walked over to the bed and held out a hand. The parrot flew up and landed on his forefinger, preening his feathers than squawking at Kara.

 

“I see, I’m a stranger,” said Kara, sitting up from the bed and finally turning around to face Kai. “Where did you find Garuda-sama?”

 

“In my travels,” replied Kai with a mysterious smile.

 

Kara reached out her fingers. Perro-chan flew over and inquisitively poked his beak at Kara’s fingers. “Perro-chan is a funny name.”

 

“Really? I find it rather endearing.”

 

“You have yet to accept Card Mistress Sakura’s invitation to the Alliance of Twelve,” remarked Kara, holding up the white card with the golden embossing of a twelve-pointed star from Kai’s nightstand. “I wonder what is making you hesitate.”

 

“If you think it’s an indication I am inclined to your master, then you are mistaken,” Kai responded.

 

“To each his own.” Kara sat back on Kai’s black satin sheets. “But no one serves as master over me.”

 

“Of course not.”

 

She watched Kai button up his white cotton shirt, admiring how broad his shoulders had become. There was a whitish scar shaped like a star above his left chest, and below it, the silver locket that she had never seen him without. She reached over and buttoned his sleeves. “It’s funny, you look exactly like when I first saw you. Just a bit taller.”

 

“Really? I thought I got a lot more handsome and charming,” replied Kai, sweeping his bangs out of his eyes, and flashed her a rakish grin through the glass of the full-length mirror.  

 

“Nah, my first love was a boy, much more angelic, pure-hearted and humble than you are,” replied Kara.

 

“Ah, you too like ‘Mikai’ better.” He sounded a bit morose.

 

“When I look at you now, I get the irrepressible guilt that I corrupted a good boy.”

 

“Yes, you did,” said Kai with grim nod. “I used to be such an innocent kid before I met you.”

 

“Excuse me, but you I think you were the one who corrupted me!” Kara retorted. “Even then you weren’t as much of a prince as you pretended to be.”

 

Kai smiled, bemused. “And beneath the lamb’s skin was a wolf.”

 

Kara tossed back her golden hair. “That was my first kiss. I was robbed.”

 

“And then you left Eitoukou. You always said you would. And you did.”

 

“I did, didn’t I?” A shadow drew over her pretty face.

 

“Have you contacted your mother since?”

 

“I let her know when Leon died. I thought she might want to know,” said Kara shortly.

 

“How about him,” Kai asked shortly. They both knew who that him referred to, Kara’s abusive stepfather.

 

“She’s still with him—she has no other place to go,” Kara said. “And in some twisted way, I think she loves him. Must be some acute form of Stockholm syndrome.”

 

Through the mirror, Kai watched Kara’ s pale eyes turn a dark violet. Stockholm syndrome, when the prisoner starts feeling attracted to the captor.

 

“You know, many times, I thought of killing him.”

 

And Kai turned around to face her.

 

“Many times, I thought of asking Jinyu or someone to go and kill that man. Many times, I thought of taking a gun and doing if myself in the still of the night, when nobody is awake,” said Kara. “But I didn’t. I don’t want to look back. He is the same as dead to me. And for some strange reason, I think Leon wouldn’t have approved. Because that man was the closest thing I had to a father for most of my life. Yet, sometimes, ever since I have returned to this town, I think, what if I bump into him. What if I run into him on the streets? And I think, then, what would I do?”

 

“What would you do?”

 

“Nothing.” Kara said, as if coming to a sudden realization herself. “Nothing at all. I would just keep walking on, like a stranger.”

 

“What about your mother?” he asked softly. The Japanese woman that a teenage Leon Reed had once fallen in love with.

 

“Because she is a stupid woman, I think she will stay until he one day really kills her. Like mother, like daughter, I guess.” Kara let out a short laughter. “But I vowed that I would never become dependent on a man. And I guess the only way to accomplish that is to never fall in love. But once in a while, I still wonder.”

 

She drifted off and Kai watched her as a faraway look came over her light lavender eyes, as if she was looking towards a place he could not follow her to.

 

“Is that why you ran off from me?” asked Kai quietly, sitting down on the bed next to her.

 

Kara turned her gaze back towards Kai and observed him. “Are you asking whether I left you because I fell in love with you? Or whether I left because I didn’t want to become dependent on you nor Leon.” The light caught the amethysts embedded in the silver cross earrings that dangled from her pointed ears. He had once commented that she had fairy ears. Lord Landon Reed’s mother, Lady Eleanor Cleau Reed, was said to have been descendent of the fairy-folk of Avalon. 

 

She drew near to his face, so close that he could see how long her golden lashes were. The first time he had kissed a girl, it had been by the seaside on a day that was gray and clouded and the waves were turbulent. He had between twelve and she had been fourteen. If he closed his eyes, he could still picture her in her Eitoukou uniform, a navy vest over a gray pleated skirt. Her arms were outstretched, her long golden hair billowing out behind her as the wind blew on her face. She peeled off her stockings and let the waves lap up her ankles. And he could see the bruises on her knees and shin, purple and green like the colors of the sea. He could only imagine the injuries on the parts of her body that were hidden. But she had been smiling and told him, facing the vast blue ocean, “I can’t wait till I’m an adult, and I can leave that house. Someday, I’m really going to run away from that place and the wretched town and see the world.”

 

He didn’t realize how close Kara had drawn to him as she reached over and brushed a silky lock of hair out of his eyes. Her voice was low and teasing. “Shampoo model boy is back. I used to think your hair was your best feature.”

 

“Really? I thought it was my body,” said Kai.

 

Kara let out a soft chuckle. “You were a puny thing back then.”

 

“Oh, really?” Kai asked, pretending to be offended.

 

“But I think I liked that puny boy most,” Kara stated, leaning over again. Over Kai’s shoulder, she saw the door move slightly, and before he knew what she was doing, she drew her head closer and kissed him on the lips.

 

If Kara hadn’t distracted him, Kai would have heard Meilin walk in the front door and her footsteps. The master bedroom door was slightly ajar, and Meilin stood there, paralyzed, hearing a woman’s voice in Kai’s room. With trepidation, she nudged the door open. Her worst fear was confirmed. 

 

Kai quickly swung around, seeing Meilin by the doorway. “Meilin! What are you—”

 

Meilin blinked, her lips white. “I prepared breakfast for you—you need your energy to see your parents today. Come out when you’re ready.” Quickly, she shut the door and headed towards the kitchen.

 

“You did that on purpose,” said Kai, pushing Kara off the bed. “You know how hard it’s going to explain things to Meilin?”

 

Kara stuck out her tongue. “Serves you right, you unfaithful Casanova.”

 

“Excuse me, you’re the one who dumped me. Not once, but twice.” 

 

“I had things to do.”

 

“I had many things to do as well.” Kai looked slightly melancholy as he remarked, “But at one time, I thought for you I could give it all up.”

 

With catlike lavender eyes, Kara stared at Kai. “But you didn’t.”

 

“No, I didn’t. So I am as much to blame as you. Now, I’ve got to sort out this mess you created,” Kai said, standing up. How was he going to explain to Meilin—she would surely misunderstand; actually, she had every right to misunderstand. He groaned—Kara was the devil.   

 

“If you kiss me for real, I’ll go back,” said Kara, blinking up at Kai with her long pale lashes.

 

Kai reached over and tilted up her chin. And he looked her straight in the eye. “Karin-senpai, don’t tease. I’m not as gullible as I used to be.”

 

Clutching her chest, Kara drawled, “You just made my heart skip a beat, Mikai ouji-sama. Maybe you’ve grown up a bit after all. If I knew how handsome you’d grow up to me, maybe I’d have reconsidering leaving you.”

 

“Well, it’s too late for regrets now,” said Kai with a crooked smile.

 

“I never regret,” replied Kara as she reached up and stroked Kai’s hair. He flinched at her touch. Her fingers slipped to his ears. “You forgot to take these out,” remarked Kara. She took out the earring post in each lobe. Then, she pressed the periwinkle studs into Kai’s hands. Her fingers were cold and her long nails, painted an amethyst-black, scraped his palms.  

 

“How did you know these were my birthstone back then?” asked Kai, staring at the sparkling blue-grey gem, that he had worn since he had his ears pierced.

 

“I didn’t. I just thought that aquamarine matched the color of your eyes,” she responded, with a smug look indicating she was lying. “Do you know your eyes are more blue than gray when you’re in a good mood?” Today, Kai’s eyes were a stormy gray. Knowing when she was no longer welcome, Kara, who had not bothered taking off her shoes indoors, hopped over to the windowsill.

 

“We’re on the seventh floor,” Kai called out.

 

Kara looked over her shoulder with a reckless grin. “I’m the daughter of the greatest thief in the world. You’ll always only be second best, Tanaka Mikai.” And she jumped out, calling out, “Good luck with your family!”  

 

 

 

Meilin poured a glass of orange juice with shaking hands, not noticing when the juice overfilled and spilt out over the side. She saw what she saw, and there was no unseeing it. The blond girl had definitely been Kara Reed. How could I have been so dumb, so blind to the truth? Of course he loves her. Why shouldn’t he? She was his first love. And by the looks of it, she’s still interested in him as well. She blinked away angry tears with a Kleenex as she heard Kai come out of the room.

 

“Meilin—there was a misunderstanding. I didn’t invite Kara, she just showed up and—”

 

“You said that either I trust you or I don’t,” said Meilin shortly. “I don’t care to hear excuses.”

 

“But listen. There really is nothing—”

 

“Eat,” said Meilin, setting down a plate with scrambled eggs, fried sausages and buttered toast.

 

“For me?” asked Kai, looking slightly perplexed because Meilin was ten times calmer than he had expected her to be. That meant she trusted him, right? Or was she simply mad beyond words to speak? “Kara really was just stopping by to give me a hard time—that’s just how she is.”

 

“Well, it seems like at least she’s gotten the color of your hair right,” said Meilin shortly. “Just focus on what you’re going to say when you see your parents. And with you, less is more.”

 

Kai nodded, eating silently then gulping down his orange juice and standing up. “Thanks for the meal!”

 

Meilin watched Kai out of the corner of her eyes as she placed the plate in the sink. He fussed with his hair in front of the big mirror in the hallway. And Kai’s bilingual parrot fluttered around, squawking, “Ouji-sama! Ouji-sama!”

 

“Do I look respectable?” asked Kai, in a navy blue vest over a white collared shirt and beige pants, turning to Meilin, his red-gold hair parted in the center.

 

“Did you raid Syaoran’s closet again?” responded Meilin dryly.

 

“Is it that obvious?” Kai inspected his crisply ironed shirt and picked lint off his cashmere knit vest. He smoothed his hair down and then looked into the mirror.

 

“For heaven’s sake, stop fidgeting,” said Meilin. “You’re not going to some job interview.”

 

“I think I’ll calm down if you give me a kiss on the cheek,” stated Kai, eying Meilin. Was she really okay after seeing Kara? This composed, nonchalant Meilin was making him nervous.  

 

“Well, are you ready?” Meilin asked.

 

Taking a deep breath, Kai nodded. 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It was surreal driving up the driveway to his old house. Many winters ago, Tanaka Mikai had walked up this same pathway, weary and worn, to discover that the house he had lived in for twelve years had burned down the ground. The only things salvaged were some of his father’s painting that had been stored in the basement and the rose bushes. He parked the car by the street, at the bottom of the little hill. His knuckles clutching the steering wheel were white. 

 

“Why did you follow along?” Kai asked, turning to Meilin in the passenger seat, who surprisingly looked just as anxious as he did.

 

“Because I was afraid that you would run off if I didn’t take you to the front steps.”

 

“You know me too well,” he replied.

 

And she did not doubt his words. She straightened his collar and gave him a slight push. “Now hurry and go.” 

 

Kai nodded.

 

Meilin watched Kai walk up the pathway to the three-story house painted in white on top of the little hill. In the springtime, the trees would be lush with peach blossoms and the tangle of bushes would bloom fragrant roses of every color. Legend was that the roses were from Lady Eleanor Reed’s rose gardens back in England. After marrying Landon Reed, Li Shulin had tended to the rose gardens, which then passed on to Clow Reed, who had transported all the way to Japan a bush from Lady Eleanor’s garden and presented it to his first love, Mizuki Mika and had been tended by the Mizuki family for generations. Mizuki Miara had clipped some roses from her old home garden and planted them in the newlywed house when she married Tanaka Keisuke, and they had been the greatest pride and joy of her garden.   

 

We’ll see if the roses will bloom again after such neglect,” Kai had remarked. “The gardener said he did all he could do to save them, and the rest is left to providence.”

 

As if you believe in providence,” Meilin had replied. But watching Kai standing in front of the doorway of the white Victorian house that he had rebuilt from scratch, returning to the family he had thought he would never see again, alive after the brink of death, Meilin thought perhaps even Mizuki Kai had seen the grace of providence.  

 

 

 

Mizuki Kai recalled the first time he had left home, after signing the deeds to the Mirror of Truth to Kinomoto Fujishika. Back then, he knew there would be no turning back. Yet, here he was, some six years later, finally returning back home. He closed his eyes. The fresh smell of dirt laced with the scent of burnt lemon meringue and the muted chatter in the dining room. How nostalgic. It seemed just like yesterday little Miho would come running out of the front door upon hearing his footsteps, her braids flying out behind her, and throw her arms around his waist. His father would sit cross-legged in the parlor, sketching still life with a stub of charcoal, while his mother would be curled up in her favorite rocking chair, her nose buried in the newspaper. 

 

Slowly, he put his finger on the doorbell, but was unable to press. How could he return back home after all this time? He spun around. He saw Meilin glare at him from his car. Slowly, he turned around to face the door again.

 

“Is there someone at the door?” called out a voice from inside. Before he could step away, the door squeaked open.

 

It was the first time Kai had seen his mother up close in six years, standing, with that sweet, gentle smile. She wore a loose cream-colored cotton blouse tucked into a long, billowy tan skirt and thrown over her shoulders was her favorite yellow cardigan. Her curly auburn hair, as thick and radiant as ever, was braided loosely down her back, and her gray eyes stared at him, unblinking. And he whispered for the first time in so many years, “Okaa-san.”

 

“Are my eyes playing a trick on me again? It’s not another illusion, is it?” asked Miara, rubbing her eyes. “Is it really my Mikai?”

 

“I am home, okaa-san,” Kai said, his voice cracking slightly.

 

“Mikai! My Mikai is back,” said Miara, flinging her arms around her son, now a head taller than her.

 

Though he had so many speeches planned out, so many explanations rehearsed in his head, all he could say was, “Okaa-san,” voice muffled in his mother’s bosom.

 

“My boy, my dear boy. Where have you been all this time?” said Miara, tears streaming down her face, onto her son’s head. “I knew you would come back to me. I knew it.”

 

“What is it, Miara?” called out Tanaka Keisuke, emerging from the kitchen.

 

“Keisuke-san, Miho-chan!” Miara called out. “Mikai is back. Our dear Mikai has finally come home.”

 

Slowly, Keisuke walked up to the front door, followed by Miho.

 

“Onii-chan!” exclaimed Miho, eyes bulging from her sockets, as if she knew not whether to be surprised, delighted or furious.

 

“What are you standing there for?” Miara said, arms wrapped around Keisuke and dragging him forward. “Can’t you see? Our son Mikai is back.”

 

“Who?” Tanaka Keisuke stood at the door and stared hard at Mizuki Kai. The peculiar thief with the sad, sad eyes.

 

“Otou-san. Okaa-san.” Kai knelt down on his knees and then bowed before his mother and father. “Please forgive me.”

 

Tanaka Keisuke watched his kneeling son for a long time. “Stand up, Mikai.”

 

Slowly, Kai stood up, still staring at the ground.

 

His father proceeded to smack Kai on the head. “Where have you been all this time, son?”

 

Unable to reply, Kai swallowed hard, head still lowered.

 

Then, Keisuke stepped forward and hugged Kai tightly. “Mikai, my brave, brave son. Thank you for looking after the family in my stead all this time.”

 

Kai swallowed hard, head against his father’s firm chest, feeling safe and secure as if he were a young boy again. “I’m sorry otou-san, I’m sorry for not being able to do better. I tried my best, I really did.”

 

“You did well,” said Keisuke, patting his son on the back, silent tears flowing down from beneath his glasses. “More than I could ever have dreamed of. I’m sorry, Mikai. Because of my shortcomings, I put a huge burden on your shoulders at such a young age.”

 

And now, Kai felt a tightness clench his throat.

 

“What took you so long, Mikai?” asked Miara, wiping the tears off the corner of her eyes. “Do you know how worried I was?”

 

“You were… worried?” Kai looked up at his mother then father, and then at Miho who was sulking in a corner, swallowing her blubbering tears bravely.

 

Miara embraced her son again, as if afraid to let him go. “We’ve been waiting for you, Mikai, all this time.”

 

“You were waiting?” Kai stared down at his mother, much smaller and frailer than he recalled her to be. 

 

“Come out of that corner, Miho,” said Keisuke.

 

Miho, hands crossed behind her back, sauntered out and then peered up at her brother.

 

“Miho-chan! Your brother came back. Don’t you have anything to say?” Miara turned to Mikai as if she could not get enough of how her little boy had grown up to become such a handsome young man, a split vision of his father when he was younger.

 

“Miho.” Kai reached out and dropped his hand again. “I know it’s going to take a while to… And I know it’s not enough to say I am sorry. But someday, can you forgive me?”

 

“Stupid, it’s not your apology I want!” cried out Miho. “That never was it. I just wanted… I just wanted…” Miho swallowed a hiccup, trying her best not to shed a tear. Her lower lips trembled. “I wanted…”

 

Unable to hold back any longer, Kai pulled his little sister close to him, wrapping his arms around her and giving her a bear hug as he often did when she was little. He smoothed his hand over Miho’s ruffled hair. “I did wrong. I’m sorry I left you without tell you. I’m sorry for hiding the truth from you for so long. And I’m sorry for lying to you. But, I’m back now.”

 

“Stupid onii-chan,” said Miho, burying her nose into her brother’s chest. “I don’t need any of your fancy speeches.”

 

“I brought back the gold medal for the Asian Archery Grand Prix,” said Kai, holding up the gleaming medallion.

 

“You’re such an idiot brother.”

 

And the family of four, all united for the first time in six years, clung to each other crying tears of joy and feeling truly blessed by providence.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Meilin-chan, you were late for homeroom,” whispered Sakura to her friend during break time at school. “Is everything okay?”

 

“Kai came back. He went to see his family this morning,” replied Meilin with a tight smile.

 

“That’s great!” exclaimed Sakura, clapping her hands together. “Miho-chan must be thrilled.”

 

Nodding her head, Meilin replied, “I was afraid Kai might chicken out, but I’m proud of him for doing it.”

 

A warm smile drew Sakura’s lips as she thought of the Tanaka family being finally reunited again. Somehow, somehow her mother and Li Ryuuren-san’s efforts a quarter century ago seemed to have paid off. Mizuki Miara was the only one of her mother’s generation who had survived the Plague. Syaoran had grown up fatherless, and likewise, Eron and Erika had been orphaned as babies. And my mother passed away before I could recall her face from my own memory—I don’t know what is worse though, not knowing her in the first place, or knowing what a wonderful person she is and losing her like onii-chan and otou-san did. But the fact that Miho and Kai had reunited with their parents seemed to be a consolation for the sacrifice of those who had passed along. It is what my mother would have wanted to protect, thought Sakura. She would have wished for one less family to have been torn apart by the dark forces. Then, she noticed that Meilin’s eyes were red-rimmed. “What’s wrong, Meilin-chan? Everything’s all right with Kai-kun and his family?”

 

“Yes.” Meilin’s bottom lips trembled. “Everything’s perfect. He’s gotten what he has dreamed about for all these years.”

 

“Then why do you look so sad?” asked Sakura, reaching out and holding her friend’s hands.

 

And Meilin was not able to hold back any longer. “Kai and I are over,” she blurted out, tears filling her eyes as she buried her face into her arms.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Chang Erika detested getting sweaty or out of breath, and she ditched gym class as often as she could come up with an excuse. Today, she had faked a cramp and made her way towards the infirmary to take a nap before realizing that hiding out in the infirmary meant keeping Li Leiyun the school doctor company. She was not particularly fond of Leiyun nor Kara. Leiyun at first had been charming and courteous and just as handsome as his younger cousin. Of course, such a perfect person would not exist. He was unlike other Lis, who were overall a direct, blunt bunch. Instead, he had a way with words, of convincing people of doing what he wanted to be done without them even realizing that they were being manipulated. Truthfully, Erika was far more terrified of Leiyun than Li Jinyu, who by appearance seemed to be the more formidable of the two.  

 

“You have a patient outside,” said Erika as she slid open the infirmary door to find Leiyun lounging back on his rotating chair, very intently studying a book.

 

“I know, I know,” said Leiyun, not looking up from his manga tankoubon glued into a medical textbook cover.

 

Rolling her eyes, Erika said, “He has a concussion.”

 

Eyes glued to the pages of his book, Leiyun replied, “He can wait a bit—we’re going to find out the true identity of Hohenheim.”

 

“Leiyun-san, you can read your manga later!” Erika poked her head outside and told the student, “Dr. Li said to enter.”

 

The boy entered timidly. “Li-sensei, I injured my head on the goalpost and the coach said to get some treatment.”  

 

With a long sigh, Leiyun picked up the phone and dialed a number.

 

“Who are you calling?” demanded Erika. “Didn’t you hear the boy?”

 

Leiyun put a finger to his lips. “Hey, Jingmei. Yeah, I know you’re busy. It’s all right, your patient can wait. So, there’s a kid in the infirmary who’s bleeding from the head. I think he hit his head on the goalpost during gym. Yeah. Yeah… Got it.”

 

Erika’s jaw dropped in horror. “You’re calling Jingmei-sensei?”

 

With a sigh, Leiyun fumbled around the drawers with one hand, nose still buried in his manga. “Let’s see bandage… And compression… where is the gauze…”

 

“Leiyun-san, the boy is going to bleed to death!” exclaimed Erika in exasperation.

 

“But I don’t like getting my hands dirty,” said Leiyun, wrinkling his nose in disdain at the smell of dirt and blood.

 

“And you call yourself a school doctor?” Erika snapped open the first-aid kit and took out a swab of gauze. “Sit.” She told the boy and gently dabbed the blood off his forehead. With a tong, she seized a clean swab of cotton and told the boy, “This is going to sting a bit. I’m going to disinfect the cut.” Finally, she taped a square piece of gauze on his head. “There, you’re set. Remember to disinfect with rubbing alcohol later on when you take off the bandage.”

 

The boy blushed hard and then muttered, “Thank you Chang-san.” Then, he ran off to class.

 

Leiyun watched, impressed. “You’re actually pretty good at this,” he remarked. “I don’t think I need to call Jingmei anymore when I got you.”

 

“This is basic stuff—anybody knows how to do this much first-aid. Plus, don’t act like you know me at school, Leiyun-san,” stated Erika with a scowl. “It’s sketchy.”

 

“You should call me Li-sensei at school.” Leiyun sat back down in his chair. 

 

“I will, if you act your age,” Erika snapped.

 

“You’re so bossy—no wonder your twin left you.”

 

“He didn’t leave me.”

 

“He chose the Cherry Blossom over you, did he not, by entering the Alliance of the Stars,” said Leiyun with a pleasant smile. “Anyhow, preparations are being made for D-Day.” He handed Erika a large box from her favorite boutique with a navy blue card attached on top. “I expect you to be present wearing this.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Chewing on the tough, charred steak, Tanaka Miho looked up from the dining table, a huge dark oak imported from Italy, covered in a gaudy floral-print linen tablecloth that she had always hated since she was a child. It was the first time since the day before her father left for the business trip to Hong Kong some six years that that Tanaka family was once more gathered together at one table. Again, she felt a lump in her throat, and it was not because the steak that her mother had cooked was so dry. It was like these past six years had been some horrible nightmare, and when she had awakened, she was with her family again and everything was back to normal. Her father maybe had one or two strands of gray hair that he didn’t have before, and her mother was much frailer and now wore reading glasses when she had sported perfect vision before. And her brother. She watched her brother delicately cut the steak, dousing it in Tabasco sauce when his mother wasn’t looking, then politely smile up at their father.

 

“So you, raised the funds to buy back this plot of land and then built the exact replica of the house here?” stated Keisuke, examining the kitchen done in blue and yellow interior design in awe. “I’m impressed. How did you manage it?”

 

“You showed me the floor plans of the building once,” replied Kai. Tanaka Keisuke built the dream house for his new wife years ago. 

 

“Yes, it was Chang Renji’s design,” said Tanaka Keisuke, always impressed by his son’s photographic memory. “He was a talented chap, that fellow. Too bad his twin was a bit…”

 

“Lunatic,” offered Miara, waving her steak knife around for words. “Psycho. Bonkers.”

 

“Well, that too,” said Keisuke with a weak smile. “I meant to say, ill-motivated.”

 

“It’s not only the house,” Miara said, picking up her tea set. “Where ever did you find a replica of this 19th century vintage Wedgwood tea set? It was a Mizuki family heirloom.”

 

“Oh, I traveled around a lot,” replied Kai.

 

“I see,” Miara sipped the aromatic Earl Grey milk tea and then took a bite of the vanilla-lemon wafers that Eriol had sent over. “And this hideous tablecloth. Where in the world did you even find this? The print is absolutely atrocious.”

 

“Hey, it was our wedding present from my cousin,” stated Keisuke, offended.

 

“Ugh, the Tanakas have such a horrible sense of colors,” remarked Miara.

 

As an artist, Keisuke’s brows twitched in annoyance.

 

Turning to her son, Miara stated, “Where ever did you get the funds to buy back this house?”

 

Kai, Miho and Keisuke exchanged sideways glances. Kai cleared his throat. “Well, you know. Borrowing and lending and investing and such…”

 

Miho muttered under her breath, “I wonder if borrowing and lending is the new terminology for thievery.”

 

“Well, who thought our son would be so resourceful?” remarked Keisuke, staring around the dining hall. “That painting of the sunflowers—it’s one of my first pieces. It was a part of my graduation portfolio. There shouldn’t be a replica.”

 

“Onii-chan painted it from his memory,” stated Miho.

 

Keisuke stared at his son, impressed. “You’re very talented with the brush. Maybe you should join my trade.”

 

“No, I heard Mikai-kun has taken up journalism,” stated Miara.

 

“Only briefly back in junior high,” said Kai.

 

“He will be a fantastic journalist with his keen observation skills and way with words,” continued Miara. “Won’t you, Mikai?”

 

Kai smiled weakly.

 

“Wait, there’s dessert! Go sit in the parlor and I’ll bring it out,” exclaimed Miara, running over to kitchen and bringing out a plate. 

 

Keisuke groaned. “Another one of Miara’s kitchen concoctions?”

 

“Eriol-kun has been teaching me how to cook,” said Miara, slicing the cake and heaping a generous portion on Kai’s plate first. “Well, how is it?”

 

Kai bit into the lemon pound cake. It was brittle and sour, as usual. His throat was choked. “It’s delicious, okaa-san.”

 

“This is not Eriol’s recipe,” mumbled Miho, chewing and chewing on the hard cake.

 

On the surface, the Tanaka family was a picture-perfect family with a father, a mother, a son and daughter, who lived in a beautiful white house atop a hill. The father was an absentminded artist with a penchant for gambling and losing pencils, the mother was a writer who couldn’t cook or clean or do laundry and slept in all morning long and wrote into the wee hours of morning, and their beloved son was a retired thief who didn’t know the difference between slight exaggeration and flat-out lying. The cute and bright youngest daughter, age fifteen and an aspiring journalist, was the only sane and ordinary one of the family. Miho looked up and gazed at her mother, now curled up in her favorite rocking chair, nose buried in the newspaper. After dinner, she had thrown all the used dishes into the sink, where it probably would stay until they ran out of clean dishes. Her father lounged on the couch, crumbs scattered over his soot-stained shirt, sketching his wife with a stub of charcoal. Meanwhile, her prodigal brother sat on the floor, typing away at his laptop, looking very studious indeed. But she knew he was actually playing a new videogame while online gambling. She hugged a cushion to her chest with a broad smile. So what if her family was abnormal and dysfunctional at times? They were a family, and together at last. 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The next day, during homeroom, Mizuki Kaho let out a low sigh. “We have a new member in our class.”

 

“We’re running out of seats,” grumbled Akagi Aki. The novelty of Li Syaoran transferring into class 1-2 had not even worn off yet, and he despised how it was always the new transfer students who stole the thunder.

 

“Mizuki-kun, please step in,” said Kaho, heaving another sigh. Really, this was absolutely the most troublesome class in her whole history of teaching. The whole point of having a mysterious transfer student was because it was rare and made it a special occasion; when there seemed to be a transfer student every other month, it became a pain to form seating charts.

 

Mizuki Kai stepped in, a far cry from the first day he had transferred into Seijou Junior High, with his spiked hair and sunglasses. Today, his auburn-gold hair was combed down, and even his necktie was in place, albeit tied loosely. Two of his collar buttons were open, nonetheless, and he was slouching, hands in pockets, as if he was not particularly keen on parading as ‘Tanaka Mikai’ anymore, like he had been as a second-year student the last semester.

 

“Which name do you prefer to go by?” asked Kaho.

 

“Either,” replied Kai with a careless shrug.

 

“Kai-kun!” exclaimed Chiharu, clasping her hands together in delight. “What in the world are you doing here? Aren’t you a second year?”

 

“Due to certain circumstances, Mizuki Kai-kun has been transferred to class 1-2,” replied Mizuki Kaho. With a tight grimace, she remarked, “And I can guarantee we are not going to get any more transfer students this year.”

 

“There is no such thing as certainty,” murmured Eriol.

 

“But there is such a thing as limited seats in the classroom,” replied Kaho. “Help yourself to any seat, Mizuki-kun.”

 

Of course, Kai took the only empty seat, the one next to Li Meilin, making a big deal out of shoving his desk as close to Meilin’s as possible.

 

“Didn’t you get straight A’s on your report card last semester?” hissed Meilin.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then how in the world did you flunk a grade?”

 

“Oh. Attendance. I was warned by the principal that if I missed any more classes I was going to get expelled,” replied Kai.

 

“And?”

 

“I coerced him into flunking me instead.”

 

“How?”

 

“Hypnosis,” replied Kai with a goofy grin.

 

“You flunked on purpose, didn’t you?” demanded Meilin, horrified.

 

Kai winked. “Can’t let class 1-2 have all the fun without me! The second years are such a boring, serious bunch. Besides, I won’t get a chance to see my darling Mei-chan now that I’m no longer your next-door neighbor.”

 

“I’m assuming things yesterday went well,” remarked Meilin.

 

“Yeah. You should have stuck around. I was going to drive you back,” said Kai.

 

Meilin had taken the bus back once she was satisfied that Kai was not going to run off again. “I figured you’d want to spend as much time as possible with your parents and Miho-chan. Besides, I knew it was going to turn out okay even after all that fuss you made.”

 

“I called you five times last night. Why didn’t you pick up?” Kai questioned, leaning over to peer at Meilin’s face.

 

“You did? I must have been busy. Sorry.” Meilin looked down and pretended to review her homework problems.

 

It seemed like Meilin was angry at him. “You are hung up about Kara being over the other day.”

 

Meilin shot him a reproaching look.

 

“You didn’t say anything yesterday—I thought you said you’re okay with it, that you understand. Didn’t I explain the situation already? Why are you bringing it up now, if you were that mad?”

 

“I didn’t say it was okay; I said we’ll talk about it later after you deal with your family first,” replied Meilin crisply. “And no, it’s not okay, and no I do not forgive you. In fact, don’t talk to me at all.”

 

For a second, Kai looked so crestfallen, that Meilin wanted to give him a big hug and tell him how proud she was that he finally reunited with his family. Then, she recalled the look that vixen Kara Reed had given her over Kai’s shoulders. What exactly was her relationship with him? Ex? First love? Accomplice? Lover?

 

Seeing that Meilin was not going to respond to him at all no matter how much he tried to catch her attention, Kai sighed. Looking around the classroom, he asked, “So, what is this bet between Chang Eron and my darling Li Syaoran? Where do I get to wager? I’m completely putting my money on Eron-kun.”

 

“Join the line,” said Naoko, whipping out her accounting book. “Twenty-one, now twenty-two for Chang Eron-kun. Three for Li Syaoran.”

 

“I’m starting to regret placing my bet on Syaoran-kun,” remarked Chiharu worriedly. “I did it out of loyalty more than anything.”

 

“You can switch,” said Naoko. “So that makes it twenty-three for Chang-kun.”

 

“What bet?” asked Sakura quizzically.

 

Chiharu looked surprised. “You didn’t hear about it? Why, it’s basically about whether you would end up choosing Eron-kun or Syao—”

 

Alarmed, Rika clamped a hand over her friend’s mouth. “It’s nothing, Sakura-chan. I think Chiharu-chan’s been hearing too much nonsense from Yamazaki-kun.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Setting the dinner table, Sakura quietly maneuvered around the kitchen so that she wouldn’t collide with Syaoran. It had been painfully awkward since the incident with Eron. And somehow, Touya seemed to manage to find himself home for an awful lot of meals these days which was almost a relief since it meant she didn’t have to be alone in the house with Syaoran. What was even odder was how complacent Syaoran was with her brother’s every whim without so much as a peep. As strange as it sounds, those two really are up to something, she observed.

 

“Onii-chan, why are we making so much food?” asked Sakura, peering over at the skillet sizzling with spicy chicken and vegetables. “I thought otou-san is having dinner out.”

 

“Oh, I invited Chang-kun over for dinner,” remarked Touya, checking the rice cooker.

 

Sakura choked. “You did what?”

 

“As an apology for the misunderstanding the other night,” replied Touya. “Hey you, Brat, prepare another setting—make that two. Yuki’s coming over.”

 

“Ugh, why didn’t you tell me you invited Eron-kun?” Sakura panicked, looking down at her ratty training pants and baggy t-shirt. She hurried upstairs. “I have to change.”

 

Snorting, Touya remarked, “When did Kaijou ever care about appearance?”

 

 

 

Sakura opened her bedroom door to find a young man with spiky coppery-gold hair, dressed in black from head to toe, sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing on the PlayStation with Kero-chan. “Kai-kun, what are you doing here?”

 

Kai turned around, face lighting up. “Sakura-chan!” he exclaimed, leaping up and throwing his arms around Sakura.

 

“I’ve been meaning to ask, how did things go with your family?” asked Sakura excitedly, momentarily forgetting her headache downstairs. 

 

“It was just as sappy and sentimental as I feared it to be,” replied Kai with a groan. “Why Meilin had to put me up for it, I do not know.”

 

In Kai’s words, it meant he was extremely happy and feeling very insecure because of that fact, hence his flippant attitude. Sakura beamed up at her thief friend. “I’m so happy for you, Kai-kun. Shing-san—I mean Tanaka-san and your mother must have been so ecstatic to see you.” 

 

“But Miho was not,” said Kai glumly.

 

Patting the ex-thief on the back sympathetically, Sakura said, “Give her time.” She had to hide a smile at Kai’s odd apparel. He had thrown on his favorite leather jacket over a crisp white oxford shirt and his pants were not his black jeans but freshly pressed dress-slacks. His silky coppery-gold was covered by a black cap, as if he was trying to drown out ‘Tanaka Mikai.’ “Anyhow, what brings you here?”   

 

“Feed me. I’m famished,” moaned Kai. “I’d forgotten what a horrible cook my mother was.”

 

Now that she thought of it, he did look rather hollow-cheeked and sallow.

 

“What about Meilin-chan?” she asked.

 

“She’s mad at me still and refuses to cook me anything,” replied Kai with a low sigh. “I don’t get girls. First, she’s cheering on me to return home and now, she’s back to being all aloof. I mean, I get she’s mad because I was gone for a month—not even a full month—but at least I returned. And there was that tiny incident with Kara…”

 

Sakura sighed. Kaitou Magician was a wizard of illusions and charms, but he was probably as clueless as herself when it comes to relationships. “Well, you really ticked her off this time. Either way, it’s impossible to think on an empty stomach. Go downstairs. One more setting won’t make a difference.” Syaoran wasn’t going to like it—he was a firm believe there should be enough food for seconds, and with Kai, that would be six when he had cooked for four.

 

Recalling why she had come upstairs in the first place, she quickly changed into a blouse and skirt and pulled her hair back with a yellow headband. For some reason, she couldn’t recall if Eron got along with Kai. Well, it didn’t matter. She slipped on her emerald ring again and then peeked out her window. Had Kai climbed up the window? Then, she quickly ran downstairs.

 

 

 

“What are you doing here?” demanded Syaoran as Mizuki Kai emerged in the kitchen with a black baseball cap on. He had last seen the innocuous thief shortly before Christmas and had not heard of his whereabouts for almost a month.

 

“What the heck are you doing here?” retorted Kai, eying Syaoran in a teddy bear apron. A lot seemed to have happened in his absence. The doorbell rang.

 

“Welcome, Chang-kun,” Touya said, quite graciously accepting the apple pie that Eron had brought.

 

“Sorry I’m late!” exclaimed Tsukishiro Yukito bursting in through the doorway.

 

“No, you’re just in time,” said Touya, looking up with an evil smile.

 

Eying Kai, Eron remarked, “I didn’t realize this would be such a big gathering.”

 

“And just my luck, I seem to have walked into a potential trigger for World War 3,” mumbled Kai under his breath as he saw the ferocious glares Syaoran and Eron exchanged.

 

The six squished in the Kinomoto dining table, Touya sitting at the head of the table and Yukito on the opposite end. Sakura and Eron sat on one side, and Kai and Syaoran on the other.

 

“How did this end up happening?” Sakura muttered to herself, not looking up from her plate. If she in either direction, she would be facing a radiantly-smiling Eron or a scowling Syaoran.

 

“Delicious!” exclaimed Kai. “To think I would have Syao-kun’s home-cooked food at the Kinomoto residence. I missed this delectable taste.”

 

“You’re close with this guy, Mizuki-kun?” asked Touya, pointing to Syaoran.

 

“Yeah, Syao-kun and I go way back,” said Kai. He winked at Syaoran. “We have a very special relationship.

 

“I see. Interesting.” Touya smirked.

 

Syaoran coughed. “More helping of chicken?” he asked, standing up and making a round, ladling his kung-pao chicken on everyone’s plates. He piled an extra serving onto Sakura’s plate.

 

“Sakura doesn’t like celeries,” Eron said. “Don’t you know that?”

 

“Well, she likes them when they’re cooked,” replied Syaoran. “I guess you didn’t know that.”

 

“Ouch, ten points to Syaoran,” Kai muttered under his breath.

 

“Sakura-chan, here, take some more steamed buns,” Yukito said, passing Sakura a basket of steaming white buns.

 

“Thank you, Yukito-san!” Sakura exclaimed happily. Steady, dependable, wonderful Yukito-san. Her one source of solace at the table. Syaoran and Eron glowered.

 

With a sudden snicker, Kai leaned over on the dining table, chin on palm, and remarked, “What an awkward situation. The first love, the ex and the current boyfriend all sitting in one table.”

 

Both Syaoran and Eron choked on their wonton soup. Only Yukito continued to munch on his food as if nothing was wrong.

 

Kai blinked innocently. “What, did I say something wrong? The past, the present and the could-have-been.”

 

Syaoran gagged on the “could-have-been” and proceeded to down a glass of ice water.

 

Whoever thought inviting Kai would be a good idea. Sakura wanted to sink into her chair and disappear, but instead dumped more chicken on Kai’s plate. “Just eat.” This was going to be a long night.

 

 

 

After dinner, Tomoyo skipped happily out of her van, clutching a new dress to her chest. She rang on the Kinomoto doorbell. There was no answer. She rang again.

 

A frazzled Sakura answered the door. “Tomoyo-chan! Sorry for the wait. What are you doing here?”

 

“Sakura-chan promised to try on this new dress that I made!” Tomoyo exclaimed.

 

“Right, I did. Come on in,” said Sakura, wiping the sweat off her brows and guiding her friend in.

 

Stepping in the house, Tomoyo gaped, blinded by the dazzling sight of five beautiful long-legged men lounging in the living room. She blushed happily. “It’s just like a scene out of my fantasy, Sakura-chan and her bishounen harem.”

 

“You came at the perfect timing,” said Sakura with tears of relief.

 

“My Sakura-chan is like a delicate rose in the midst of all these... guys,” Tomoyo said, eyes sparkling at the thought of Princess Sakura and her Five White Knights. Then she noted that Touya was cackling evilly to himself while Syaoran was fuming at Eron who had a sinister smile reminiscent from his Dark One days, and Mizuki Kai had a maniac gleam in his eyes, just like Kaitou Magician always did when he was up to no good. Perhaps they were better suited as Black Knights. Only Yukito-san smiled innocently, emanating a flowery aura, an indication he had a satisfying supper, as he sucked on an English toffee from a tin of sweets that Eron had brought over.

 

“Kaijou, is the tea coming?” Touya belted out.

 

“Yes onii-chan!” Sakura called out, rushing to the kitchen. “Tomoyo-chan, you can go sit in the living room. You’re just in time for dessert.”

 

“Do you need a hand?” asked Yukito, popping his head in the kitchen.

 

“No, I’m fine, Yukito-san!” replied Sakura, more chipper.

 

Kai sat up and gave Tomoyo his chair, and he proceeded to sit on the floor next to her, with a bemused smile. Tomoyo looked up and saw Eron and Syaoran sitting stiffly, wedged on opposite ends of the couch with Yukito sitting between them. Demon-king Touya sat back in the sofa, legs leisurely crossed.

 

“What is this unforeseen scenario?” whispered Tomoyo to Kai.

 

“It’s epic, isn’t it?” replied Kai, not very quietly. “It’s like a marriage interview for Saku-chan.” Sakura kicked Kai in the shin as she brought the tea pot and poured out seven mismatched teacups. 

 

Sipping on the fragrant Earl Grey, Touya turned to Eron. “So, Chang-kun. I heard from your homeroom teacher that you recently handed in your career options form. What are your future plans?”

 

Eron sat up straighter, sweaty palms on his knees. “Well, actually, I have always been interested in academia and the research route.”

Touya nodded solemnly. “I see. In what subject?”

 

“Psychiatry,” replied Eron.

 

Sakura looked up from slicing up the apple pie into equal pieces. She had not known that Eron had interest in psychiatry—he had always shown more interest in history and sociology at school.

 

“And you would prefer to become a researcher or perhaps a professor than a practitioner?” Touya asked.

 

“I would like to research, but of course, I think once I receive a doctorate, then I would see what job opportunities come along my way,” replied Eron.

 

Touya nodded his head again. “It seems you are very pragmatic. Is there a particular reason for your interest in psychiatry?”

 

“I grew up in an orphanage. From an early age, I have been exposed to personalities of all sorts and children who suffered from various disorders stemming from trauma in the past. My twin sister was one of those children. She had a weak body, and was withdrawn from everyone else and had difficulty bonding with anyone besides me. From an early age, she had visions and dreams—but the directors always brushed her stories off as just a child’s overactive imagination and desire for attention. There was a sense of indignity that we were grouped as being difficult without a chance for therapy or healing. Doctors heal the body. But psychiatrists heal the mind. I wish I knew then her visions had been because of our powers.” Eron’s hazel eyes were honest. “At that age, I did not know that. I did some research, however, to find means to help her, and I was lucky enough to chance upon a book by Carl Jung that had been donated to the orphanage. I think that was when I became fascinated by analytical psychology and his research on the effects of therapy on patients.”   

 

“How old were you then?”

 

“Seven,” replied Eron.

 

“I heard you are an excellent student,” Touya remarked. “I’m sure you will do well in academia or as a practitioner. As someone who went through the M.D. process, if you have any questions regarding the field, feel free to ask me. I actually have a lot of personal interest in psychiatry and have clinical experience in that field.”

 

“Thank you very much,” Eron replied, bowing his head. “I will keep that in mind.”

 

Sakura continued to slice up the pie and handed out the plates. She heard a note of respect in her brother’s voice; he had clearly been impressed by Eron’s intelligence and poise, and she let out a sigh of relief.

 

Kai whistled. “You got yourself an intellectual boyfriend. Plus thirty points for Eron.”

 

And Touya turned to Syaoran. “Well now, let us hear about your future plans, Li-kun.”

 

Syaoran turned to Touya and blinked. “Future plans?”

 

“Yes, career goals? Higher education aspirations?”

 

Staring at the bottom of his tea cup, Syaoran blinked. “I never really thought much about it.”

 

“Well, you aren’t going to be running about chasing dark forces forever, are you?” Touya said. “Even so, you need to have some solid future guidelines, you know. Please tell me you have some other talents besides brute strength and waving your sword about.”

 

For a second, Syaoran closed his eyes and imagined himself as a doctor, a teacher, a businessman, a banker and even a car salesman, and then he shook his head. Nothing.

 

Tomoyo smiled slightly. She could not imagine Syaoran being an ordinary salary man at all.

 

“My mother’s motto always was, ‘Never marry a man whose occupation is obscure,” stated Kai. “That’s why my father gave up his dream of becoming an artist and became a businessman. Though he ended up doing what he wanted anyway.”

 

“There’s got to be something Li-kun can do,” Sakura said defensively. “He’s very smart at school.”

 

“You can’t tell from his Eitoukou school transcripts,” remarked Touya dryly. He had the pleasure of looking through all of Syaoran’s school records in the process of helping him transfer to Seijou High.

 

“He’s good at martial arts,” Tomoyo suggested.

 

“Maybe he can become a bodyguard,” Touya said, unimpressed. “But with that temper of his, I doubt anyone would hire him.”

 

It was unfortunately true. “He’s good at violin,” Sakura added.

 

“Every other person plays an instrument. There are people who spend their lifetime playing and still do not find a lucky break,” said Touya shortly.

 

Sakura had forgotten her brother played the violin, and awfully well at that, and it would not impress him. “He’s a good cook.”

 

“You’re right. He is. Maybe he can open up a restaurant,” said Touya.

 

“We’re living in a modern society. I don’t see why he can’t just marry a salary woman, and he can stay home and take care of the house,” Kai stated. “He’s an obsessive-compulsive cleaner, anyway.”

 

“It’s true,” Touya relented. “My mother used to be a hopeless housekeeper, and she earned a higher income from her modeling jobs than my father did as a high school teacher, back in the early days of their marriage. Otou-san always was the one who cooked, cleaned and did laundry.”

 

“Can you guys stop planning out my future for me?” Syaoran snapped, arms crossed. “I get enough of that back home.”

 

“Don’t worry, kiddo,” said Touya, more kindly. “You still have a couple more years to figure things out, and in the worst case scenario, at least you are good at keeping house.”

 

Yukito, having wolfed down half the pie while the others were engrossed in conversation, looked up. “Well, I never really figured out what I wanted to do. So I just tagged along with what Touya was doing. All I wanted to do was study with Touya and work with Touya.”


“So, if I wanted to open up an ice cream truck, would you have done that?” asked Touya.

 

Yukito nodded. “That actually sounds like a wonderful idea.”

 

“Well, I’ll consider it as a retirement plan,” replied Touya with a faint smile.

 

“Aren’t you going to ask me what I want to do?” Kai asked eagerly.

 

Touya took one glance at the former thief and shuddered. “No, I do not want to know.”

 

Sakura looked perplexed. “Tomoyo-chan is set—you have so many talents, whether you go into fashion or film or music or take over the Daidouji Toy Company.”

 

“Really, life is so unfair to some people,” Kai remarked, fingering the pleating on the dress that Tomoyo had made with admiration. 

 

“Look who’s talking,” muttered Sakura. “What am I going to do? I’m not good at school, and I don’t have any particular talent whatsoever.”

 

“You’re right. I shouldn’t be worrying about the Brat. What will I do with Kaijou? Who will take her in?” said Touya, cackling maliciously. “With all the stomping and yelling and fussing.”

 

Sakura pouted. “Onii-chan!”

 

“I can teach you my business, Saku-chan,” said Kai sincerely. “It’s tough and usually long, late hours, but it reaps good profit.”

 

“No, Sakura-chan shall always remain my mascot,” Tomoyo exclaimed.

 

“She can always go work at the restaurant that Syaoran-kun is going to open up,” Yukito stated. 

 

“Yukito-san!” Sakura’s bottom lips trembled. How could even her beloved Yukito-san think she could not do anything better than go work for Syaoran? Brows burrowed in determination, she asserted, “Just see, I’ll think of some career aspirations.”

 

“I can’t think of anything better than working with food,” Yukito said in earnest surprise.

 

“Well, if it’s Syaoran’s restaurant, I think I’ll want employment there,” said Kai. “Free Syaoran-cooked food all the time! Maybe I can put on magic shows for the guests.”

 

“And of course I will design all the waitresses’ and waiters’ uniforms,” Tomoyo stated. “Different uniforms for every night of the week!”

 

“Touya should play the piano as well,” Yukito said. “You used to at La Seine, on Saturday evenings. It was very popular.”

 

Sakura smiled. “Tomoyo-chan must sing then. Nobody has a lovelier voice. I suppose we can have a little stage for performers.” The more she thought about it, the better she liked the idea. “Enjoying a good meal while watching a show.”


Clapping his hands together, Kai exclaimed, “Like the Moulin Rouge. A different theme for each night—and cuisine from all over the world.”

 

“What a great idea!” exclaimed Tomoyo, completely heated up. “Sakura-chan wearing costumes from all over the world! In a silk qipao, or a flowing ao dai, a fluttering flamenco skirt or a tartan Aboyne dress.”

 

“I am not planning to open up a restaurant!” Syaoran finally interjected in indignation.

 

The others stared back at him, startled by his outburst.

 

Kai guffawed—he had been wondering when Syaoran would break. “Minus twenty for Syao-kun.”

 

Sakura’s face fell. “Oh.”

 

Eron smiled sardonically. “Well, if all else fails, Sakura, you can just come marry me.”

 

And the living room turned dead silent.

 

Jaw dropped, Syaoran turned to Eron and croaked, “Wh—What?”

 

“And Eron scores fifty points,” Kai murmured under his breath.

 

Sakura forced lighthearted laughter. “I thought you said you never want to get married, Eron-kun.”

 

“Well, I’ll make an exception for you,” replied Eron.

 

“Was that a proposal?” Tomoyo blinked rapidly. “Was that Sakura-chan’s first proposal? And I missed getting it on camera!”

 

“It doesn’t matter—get that expression on Syaoran’s face. It’s priceless,” said Kai, switching on Tomoyo’s camcorder and zooming into Syaoran’s face which had turned into stone.

 

“Ah, I think just saw the soul leave his body out of his mouth,” said Tomoyo in awe, taking over the camcorder and panning up Syaoran’s rigid body.

 

“Poor Syao-kun. He’s game over,” Kai remarked, clapping his hands together gleefully. “And we have a winner for Round One, Chang Eron!”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“So, are you going to accept Eron-kun’s proposal?” asked Tomoyo with a slight giggle at school the next day.

 

“He was just joking,” Sakura groaned.

 

“I don’t think he was,” remarked Tomoyo. “So, how does it feel like, your first proposal?”

 

“Tomoyo-chan!” Sakura buried her face in her hands, grateful that Eron was out of earshot. “Don’t tease about this anymore.”

 

“Eron-kun is in an unbelievably good mood today,” Naoko remarked in disbelief as Eron waved to her hello, the whites of his teeth flashing as he smiled.

 

“Rumors say he received full approval from Sakura-chan’s demon-brother last night,” whispered Chiharu (who heard from Yamazaki Takashi, who heard directly from Kai, the blabber).

 

“What’s wrong with the other one over there?” Naoko said dryly, pointing discreetly with her thumb to the other corner of the room.

 

It was a rare sight to see Li Syaoran slumped over his desk, lifeless.

 

Peering over her desk mate disdainfully, Erika remarked, “Good riddance, you’re a sad mess. I’m starting to regret placing my bet on you.”

 

It was no fun poking fun of this sort of listless Syaoran, so Erika walked off to make fun of her brother instead. She warily eyed Mizuki Kai. Her feelings toward him was neutral—she neither liked him or disliked him, nor did she trust him or distrust him. She had half expected him to accept Leiyun’s offer last Christmas, but neither was she surprised that he didn’t. One thing she hadn’t realized was how well Kai and Syaoran got along—it was rare for Syaoran to have a confidante, and considering how different their personalities were, they got along very well. Then again, the two of them seemed to share this common ideal about responsibility and obligation, all those nagging virtues she didn’t care twopence about.

 

With a long sigh, Kai leaned over Syaoran’s desk, head butted against Syaoran’s. “What are you doing, Li Syaoran? Get a grip,” said Kai. “Did you endure all you did just for this?”

 

“He proposed to her,” Syaoran mumbled. “He proposed to her. And she didn’t reject it.”

 

“He was joking,” said Kai. He put both hands on Syaoran’s shoulders. “Don’t you have any sense of humor?”

 

“We Li’s don’t have much of a sense of humor,” said Syaoran listlessly.

 

“I noticed,” Kai said wryly, glancing over at Meilin. “Well then, idiot, don’t hesitate. If you’re so uncertain, you’re going to lose everything important to you.”

 

“Look who’s talking,” Syaoran muttered.

 

“I’ve lost a lot of things to get to where I am now.” Kai’s lips were set in a firm line. “I know what I’m talking about.”

 

“Yeah, sure you do.”

 

“Once you lost everything, you learn that your pride no longer matters anymore,” stated Kai. “Been there, done that.”

 

“You think I’m in this situation because something as silly as pride?” Syaoran watched Eron and Sakura whispering to each other in the corner of the classroom—it was impossible to ignore when they did it so blatantly. “Why did you come back in the first place? To plague me?”

 

“I’m offended. Didn’t you miss me?” replied Kai, wiping imaginary tears from his eyes.

 

“And what ever did you do to infuriate Meilin thoroughly this time?” asked Syaoran.

 

Kai groaned, his sore spot hit. “I don’t know—no, I think I know… Ugh, I’m in a bigger muddle than you are. I’m the one that needs cheering up. Miho-chan pays no attention to me and Meilin-chan hates me and says she’ll never speak to me again.” And Kai sank down on the floor began to emanate a blue aura that rivaled Syaoran’s.

 

So Syaoran patted the ex-delinquent on his shoulders. “Meilin-chan always exaggerates. Her temper only lasts probably as long as one of your hair colors does.” Then suddenly, he gripped Kai tightly on the shoulder.

 

“Oww—what are you doing?” whimpered Kai as Syaoran twisted his shoulder muscles.

 

“But if you make her cry, you’re dead,” Syaoran replied with a deadly glint in his eyes. 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Soccer practice was half-hearted because the seniors were out for college entrance exam prep, and it was cold and muddy outside. But today, there was quite a stir because there was an unexpected additional member to the team.

 

“Whose horrible idea was it to ask Jin-senpai to join the soccer team?” asked Yutaka Ichiro to Yamazaki Takashi under his breath. “Why isn’t he out for exams?”

 

“Because he transferred in so late and he’s from abroad, he’s supposed to be exempt from the examinations,” replied Aki, who was changing for basketball practice. “I’m so glad he chose soccer over basketball.” 

 

The boys in the locker room froze as they watched Jinyu strip off his shirt, revealing his chiseled torso. They gaped at the rock-hard muscles and almost sighed in relief to find that his tanned back wasn’t tattooed with some flashy yakuza emblem. And then, he turned around and revealed that both his arms were tattooed with twin black dragons twining from his wrist to his biceps.

 

All the boys froze and then cowered away to the corner of the locker room. Their voices were hushed as they whispered to each other, “Did you see that? Those dragon tattoos on his arms?”

 

“The rumors must be true. He must be related to the mafia.”

 

“Did you see those muscles?”

 

“You know, he oddly resembles Li-kun from class 1-2.”

 

“Now that you point it out, he does. Something about the eyes.”

 

“No way, Li-kun’s eyes are not as scary as that mafia-dude’s eyes,” stated Yutaka Ichiro in defense of his classmate and former soccer team captain.

 

“Oh, you didn’t seem him when he first arrived at Tomoeda,” stated Yamazaki Takashi with a chuckle. “He was a wild, wild thing.”

 

“Really? I would not have suspected,” Yutaka Ichiro remarked. “Li-kun always seemed like a good person.”

 

“You see, Li Syaoran’s true identity is…” Takashi lowered his voice so that his friend leaned forward to hear better. “A vampire. And our classmate Kinomoto comes from a long line of vampire hunters. Remember last year, when Sakura-chan was out because of an illness?”

 

“Yeah, she was out for almost a month,” Aki replied in a hushed voice.

 

Takashi nodded gravely. “Well, she had been bitten by a deathly vampire and was in the brink of death. But our Li-kun gave up his immortality in order to save her. And without knowing his sacrifice, Sakura-chan was saved. But Li-kun was condemned to wander the earth, neither immortal nor human, but an empty shell in search for a soul.”

 

“That is absolutely tragic,” exclaimed Ichiro, teary-eyed. “I always thought there is something haunted in Li-kun’s eyes when he gazes at Kinomoto-san. So, why did Li-kun return to Tomoeda then?”

 

Clutching his chest, Takashi said in a dramatic finale, “No longer a vampire, Li-kun thought he no longer had a bond with the vampire hunter.”

 

“So poor Kinomoto never knew who her true savior was?” Ichiro asked, absolutely bawling now. 

 

“Nope, he returned because his heart could not forget her,” Aki said before shaking his head in skepticism. “Good one, Yamazaki-kun, good one.”

 

“My dear journalist friend, there is no such thing as one truth,” stated Yamazaki Takashi, his brown eyes gleaming. “Life is about analogies and being able to discern exaggeration from actuality, understatement from deceit.”

 

At this sudden revelation, Aki’s eyes bulged. “So, all your lies—you just do that to annoy Chiharu-chan?”

 

“What lies?”

 

“You don’t mean that you truly believe in vampires and stuff,” stated Aki.

 

“Vampires do exist.”

 

“Do not.”

 

“A real-life vampire told me all about it.”

 

“Who?”

 

Takashi lowered his voice. “You can’t tell anyone. But Hiiragizawa is actually a centuries-old vampire.”

 

“You’re lying!”

 

“It’s not a lie,” stated Eriol with a surreptitious smile, as if he was trying to hide fangs. “Tomoyo-san is another one of us. You can ask her.”

 

“W-what?” Aki stammered. “My Tomoyo-chan is a vampire too?” Where had Eriol popped up from in the first place—he wasn’t on any sports team.

 

“No wonder they get along so well,” remarked Ichiro, nodding his head in comprehension. “They’re of the same kind.”   

 

Syaoran, who had been changing on the other side of the lockers, tied his shoelaces and stood up as his teammates and the basketball team members trailed out of the locker room. Good riddance. A vampire indeed.

 

“Kids,” said Kai, shaking his head as he pulled on a sky-blue t-shirt. “They get more imaginative every day.” 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The couch clapped his hands together and gathered the soccer teams after they did their routine warm-up drills and ten laps around the soccer field and. “Since the seniors are out for college entrance examinations, today, we’re going to have a practice game with the rest of us. Mizuki-kun and transfer student Jin Yuu-kun are joining us today to fill in the numbers. Do a good job because as you know, we will be naming the new soccer team captain soon. This will be a good chance for all of you to display your skills for my evaluation. Now, I’ll number you off. Ones, grab the white jersey, twos, grab the blue.”

 

Soon, the soccer team members were numbered off. The coach turned to the remaining four. “Chang-kun, one. Mizuki-kun, two. Jin-kun, one. And Li-kun, two.” The white-jerseys groaned—they were stuck with the freakishly menacing Jin Yuu, while the blue-jerseys eyed Mizuki Kai suspiciously—they knew that he could be very idle and sporadic.

 

Soccer was probably the last thing on his mind at the moment, and Syaoran trudged towards the half line. Whites had the ball, and he watched Eron tap the ball towards a teammate. Jinyu jogged forwards, and Syaoran couldn’t quite figure out of the mafia leader had the faintest clue what the rules of the game were. He saw Eron smirk towards him, as if telling him, “My team is going to crush yours.” With a renewed vigor, Syaoran called out, “Kai, Yutaka, Honda, forward!” The three members dashed forward. Syaoran had been unanimously picked as the captain of the blue team because the seniors were out, and even though Syaoran was new this semester and only a freshman, many students knew him as an MVP player in Seijou Junior High and did not protest against his command.  

 

The white team’s captain was Jinyu, regardless of the fact that he joined today, because of seniority and the fact that his team members were terrified of him; Eron was slightly peeved that he had not been picked captain. Regardless of the fact that Jinyu had never played soccer before, according to himself, he proved to be a volatile and ferocious player.

 

“As is expected from the Black Dragon,” muttered Kai, quickly dodging Jinyu without even trying for the ball.

 

“Mizuki-kun, what are you doing?” cried out a teammate. “The ball—chase after the ball!”

 

Syaoran glanced around the field sharply. This was turning into a one man-show on the field. Whenever he or any of the blue team managed to take the ball, Jinyu flew in and spirited the ball away. Obviously, nobody in Seijou was a match for Li Jinyu’s athleticism—speed, strength, dexterity, he lacked nothing. But Jinyu did not even seem to realize he had teammates. The other white team members were too frightened to receive a pass from Jinyu as he drew nearer to the goal, and Eron was too proud to reach out to Jinyu first. Syaoran couldn’t tell if Jinyu was enjoying himself or not—it seemed that he was vaguely aware that he had the ball and there was a goal, and it was his objective to shoot into the goal. His amber-red eyes did not seem to register the blue team members charging towards him, nor the fact the goalkeeper on the blue side looked paler by the moment as the ball drew nearer. With a sudden pang, Syaoran realized I used to be like that as well.   

 

“Everybody, defense!” called out Syaoran with a frown.

 

Yutaka Ichiro, seeing Jinyu dribbling the ball towards him like a stream of black snaking down the soccer field, gulped hard and ran up to meet him. And Jinyu proceeded to knock him over as if he was a wooden soldier.

 

“Oww!” wailed Yutaka from the ground, grabbing his knee in pain. “Owwwwwww!”

 

“Time!” called out the coach. “You all right Yutaka-kun? Do you need to go to the infirmary?”

 

Shaking his head, Yutaka replied through gritted teeth, “I…I’ll be all right if I sit out for a couple minutes.” 

 

“You should apologize,” said a teammate to Jinyu. 

 

Jinyu stared down at the boy with the expression of, “That boy knocked into me, why should I apologize?”

 

“Technically, it was Yutaka-kun who collided into Jin-senpai. It’s not our foul,” stated Eron.

 

Syaoran shook his head. The Li Clan had no mercy for weaklings. To Jinyu, if someone fell and could not stand back up to fight, then that person was a worthwhile opponent.

 

The game resumed eleven against ten with Yutaka sitting out nursing his strained knee cap. Now, everybody was all the more terrified to approach Jinyu. Without any hesitation, Jinyu kicked the ball from nearly halfway across the soccer field. Everybody dodged the path of the spinning ball. The goalie yelped and ducked away from the flying ball. The ball hissed at the topmost corner of the goal, then fell to the ground with a thud. The goalie observed the ball and then called out, “T-the ball’s deflated! We need a new ball!”

 

Syaoran groaned. It was bad enough with Eron breathing down his neck all the time in soccer practice. Jinyu seemed to be under the impression that soccer was a combat sport. This is not a soccer match, but a match of life and death.

 

“One-zero!” called out the coach. He turned to Jinyu and remarked, “Jin-kun, I don’t know if that was by chance or skill, but nonetheless, you seem to have a very powerful kick. Now, if you can just… err… collaborate with your teammates better.”

 

Jinyu stared down at the coach through his thick layer of long black bangs as if he was extremely displeased. Then he announced in a low, quiet voice, “Your team is full of weaklings. As their leader, it is your duty to train them mentally and physically to their utmost potential.” The coach’s jaw dropped—in his fifteen years of coaching, nobody had ever spoken in that tone before. And he gulped hard because Jin Yuu was not a brooding adolescent acting up; he spoke as if he was the most authoritative person on soccer.

 

With a flick of his long black braid, Jinyu turned around and faced the team, his eyes glowing a merciless garnet-color. “You tall squinty-eyed boy over there with black hair. Your hand-eye coordination is atrocious. How can you protect the goal when you are staring off into space half the time and talking the other half? Concentrate. The other goalie—if you are scared of the ball, you are never going to be able to stop it. The one sitting out,” Jinyu pointed at Yutaka Ichiro, who trembled as the Black Dragon’s eyes focused on him. “Someone as weak as you should not be in a team—you’re only an impediment to your fellow teammates, and because of you, now they have only ten players; your presence has become a hindrance. You,” he said, pointing to Mizuki Kai. “I expected more from such a notorious crook; you’re only good at running away, it seems.” He turned to Eron and remarked, “You might be good, but I wouldn’t know because you are lazy and think too highly of yourself to bother trying. And you. Li Syaoran. Isn’t it time to show your true skills instead of rotting amidst these incapable saplings?” 

 

The entire team gaped at Jinyu, speechless and prides trampled upon, especially since the Seijou High had one of the strongest soccer teams in the prefecture.

 

“J-jin-kun,” croaked the coach, knowing he should be angry but was more terrified by this odd student who looked like he could be a part of the mafia and spoke like he was the boss.

 

“As expected from someone who hangs out with Li Leiyun,” muttered Kai under his breath, not knowing whether to be insulted or laugh at the expression on those kids whose life had been soccer and prided themselves as being J-League candidate material. 

 

“I have wasted enough time on these amateurs,” stated Jinyu, matter of fact, without a hint of malice in his words. “The lack of discipline and finesse of the group appalls me. No wonder Eitoukou always beats you.” And he proceeded to walk off the field, peeling off his white jersey and tossing it towards the benches. The team watched him leave in stupor.

 

“Well, we’ll continue the match, ten on ten since Jin-kun and Yutaka-kun are out,” said the coach, dabbing his damp forehead with a towel. Once, he had been called a demon-coach for drilling the soccer team to the hardest to drive them towards the nationals. But with age, he no longer had the drive to be so harsh on these boys who did enjoy soccer as a game. They had been crushed year after year when the returned home from nationals without a cup. And eventually, it had seemed pointless to push something that was an impossibility. But why was it impossible? This was probably the most talented group he had had in almost six years. “Pick up the pace, and if you don’t show me why you should belong to the team, you’re going to be replaced by next year’s freshman!”

 

Groaning, the boys trudged back to the muddy field, prides trampled upon but determined to prove Li Jinyu wrong. Seijou was a strong team—better than Eitoukou, good enough to compete in the Nationals every year.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Watching the soccer field from a distance, Sakura tied her hair back into a short ponytail for cheerleading practice. The seniors were out preparing for examination and the juniors rolled their eyes at how unmotivated and distracted the freshmen girls were ever since vacation ended. Following Meilin, Chiharu and Naoko, Sakura joined the line of upperclassmen in the cheerleader team, dressed in the winter practice uniform of a white turtleneck and blue skirt.

 

Last night had positively been more painful to sit through than the other night when Syaoran had fallen out of the closet. Sakura belatedly recalled as she flung her baton up in the air what Eron and she had been doing when Syaoran had chosen to pop out of the closet. Did he see us? Her baton bonked her smack in the middle of her forehead. “Oww…” she moaned, clasping her head with both hands. This is all Li Syaoran’s fault for coming to live in my house in the first place. She picked up her baton and continued twirling her baton as if she had not missed a step.

 

Watching her friend, Meilin shook her head in surrender—she had been convinced that Sakura’s head was made of steel and worried more for the baton than Sakura’s forehead. Because she had cried her heart out already, her spirit was somewhat back. Good riddance to Mizuki Kai. She was never going to cry over that cheating, lying thief again. She flung her baton up in the air with smugness and deftly caught it in one hand. With a flourishing an extra spin, Meilin flung her baton up higher than any other cheerleader.

 

Tomoyo set down her video camera; since she was free from choir practice now that the Christmas concert was over, she often watched cheerleading practice. “You seem like you’re in a bad mood today, Meilin-chan” remarked Tomoyo, dodging as Meilin waved about her baton like a staff. In some ways, she was awfully similar to her cousin. “Really, being solo seems a lot more pleasant at times like this,” she remarked, switching on her video camera again and viewing the soccer field through zoom screen.

 

Just then, Naoko called out, trying not to sound too excited, “Fight! Fight in the soccer field!”

 

The baton’s metal end fell on Meilin’s head with all the force of gravity, and instant tears stung her eyes. Rubbing her forehead, she trained her eyes towards the soccer field.

 

Sakura stared up, alarmed. “Who’s fighting?”

 

“Hurry, Sakura-chan!” cried out Rika. “Their teammates tried to tear them apart, but it was no use. Only you can stop them.”

 

 

 

The soccer game between the white team and blue team resumed with the goalies taking their post and the nine players positioning themselves on the field. With Jinyu out of the picture, Eron naturally took lead of the white team. And perhaps he was incensed by being called lazy by the Black Dragon, because he ran to his full potential and took helm of his team’s offense tactics. Of course, Li Syaoran was not going to let Eron score so easily. After all, soccer was one department he knew he could clearly beat Chang Eron in. With a spark in his eye, Syaoran quickly maneuvered the ball away from Eron and dribbled nearer to the goalpost.

 

“Foul!” cried out Syaoran’s teammates as Eron charged into Syaoran.

 

“As if you can take the ball away,” said Syaoran, throwing his shoulder against Eron, meanwhile cleverly manipulating the ball around him.

 

Eron swaggered as Syaoran pushed through and dribbled away. Again, he ran forward and slid on the gravel, kicking Syaoran hard on the shin and causing him to trip over. The coach blew on his whistle.

 

“Free kick!” cried out Syaoran’s team members triumphantly.

 

“You all right?” Kai asked, helping Syaoran to his feet.

 

Syaoran brushed the dirt off his muddied jersey and shorts and glared at Eron.

 

“Li-kun, buddy, go easy on me,” whimpered Yamazaki Takashi as Syaoran warmed up his legs before the free kick. Syaoran made a clean kick into the leftmost top goalpost, and his teammates cheered, clapping his on the back.

 

“Always so arrogant, aren’t you?” muttered Eron under his breath as Syaoran walked past him.

 

“What, are you a sore loser now?” retorted Syaoran, wiping his brows with the back of his sleeves.

 

“Sore loser? Me?” Eron laughed shortly. “I’m not the one who is leeching off of Sakura’s generosity. I’m not the one who stabbed her in the back and then has the audacity to try to win back her grace by pretending to be her friend again. I know it’s all one of your clever Li ploys to get her to trust you and then crush her.”

 

“What did you say?” Syaoran’s voice was dead chill.

 

“Stop trying to crawl your way back into her life,” Eron spat out. “It’s pathetic.”

 

A white light flashed through Syaoran’s mind and before he knew it, he grabbed Eron by the nape of his shirt and knocked him to the ground.

 

 

 

Through the cloud of dust billowing from the soccer field, Sakura could discern two figures struggling against each other. Both Meilin and Sakura exchanged looks, horrified, then rushed out towards the soccer field where the Seijou soccer team practice game had been interrupted. The boys had circled around the fight, and Sakura pushed her way through the cheering and whooping teammates. Dust stung her eyes, and it was unclear what was going on as a group of boys shoved each other to get a better view. And she saw Syaoran straddling Eron, pinning him down the ground.

 

“What are you doing, Li Syaoran?” shouted Sakura. “Are you crazy?”

 

Meanwhile, Syaoran and Eron were oblivious to the spectators. All the incessant chatter amongst everybody on the field drowned out what they were saying to each other.

 

“What? Are you going to hit me? Go ahead. Hit me if you have the courage,” said Eron, looking up at Syaoran, whose fist was raised in the air. “You seem to think that fists will solve everything.”

 

“At least I am not manipulating her kindness.”

 

Eron kicked up both legs and knocked Syaoran off him. “What did you say?”

 

“She doesn’t love you. She never will.” Syaoran stated. And he stopped short of himself, realizing that he was trembling.

 

Eron’s face contorted hideously for a moment. “Say what you want to solace yourself. Don’t you get it? She chose me! She said so herself. She is with me because it was her choice. Did you think that if you returned to her side, she would forgive you? She will never forgive you for abandoning her. That had nothing to do with me. I was here for her when she was going through her most difficult time. I was here for her and you were not.”

 

And suddenly, Syaoran was still. Eron landed a punch on his face. His cheek smarted, and a saltiness trickled from his lips.

 

“Why aren’t you fighting back?” demanded Eron, panting hard. “What, you’re now a coward on top of betrayer? You. You’re the one person who shouldn’t have betrayed her.”

 

“You are right,” said Syaoran, lowering his fist. “She chose you. Because she chose you, there is nothing I can do.”


“Stop condescending upon me,” said Eron, jerking Syaoran back down and plummeting punches on him. “You think you know her better than me, don’t you?” He struck his knee into Syaoran’s gut.

 

Syaoran coughed up blood. Eron was a lot stronger than he had suspected. His punches were not just untrained blows, but were evidence of disciplinary training and technique. 

 

Eron smashed Syaoran’s head into the ground with his palm. “But the truth of the matter is, you are the vilest, most disgusting creature out there. Because I know. I know the truth. I know what your mission is. And I won’t let you complete it.”

 

“What do you know?” asked Syaoran, rolling over and grabbing Eron by his shirt and yanked up. “What do you know?”

 

Eron looked up at him, glad his words had the desire effect. “Does Sakura know the truth? If she does, she won’t simply despise you anymore. Who knows what she will do.” His lips contorted into a smile. “Hit me. Hit me if you think I am wrong.”

 

And Syaoran smashed his fist into Eron’s cocky face, just like he had that day back in junior high. But this time, instead of just taking the punch, Eron grabbed Syaoran’s shirt and threw back a punch so hard that Syaoran could see black spots in the back of his eyes. Before Syaoran could thrust back, he heard a crystal-clear voice.

 

“Li Syaoran, what is wrong with you!” shouted Sakura. “Stop it!”     

 

“Let’s see who Sakura chooses,” murmured Eron into Syaoran’s ear, punching him in the stomach before falling back, eyes shut.

 

“What are you—” Syaoran clutched his stomach, crumpling down, watching Eron collapse on the ground.

 

“Oh no, Eron-kun’s knocked out,” screamed Naoko. She had not been expecting a full-out confrontation and pattered about in a panic.

 

For a second, Sakura gazed between Syaoran and Eron, both sprawled back on the ground.

 

“Eron-kun!” Sakura rushed forward. “Eron-kun, are you okay?” she asked, taking out a handkerchief and dabbed the corner of his mouth with it. Carefully, she swept a strand of hair off his forehead.

 

He blinked up at her in a daze and then smiled. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Are you injured anywhere?” asked Sakura.

 

“I’m all right,” replied Eron, sitting up slowly. Sakura helped steady him.

 

Syaoran sat up on his own, wiping his forehead with the back of his sleeve, staring at Sakura kneeling by Eron’s side.

 

“You all right, Li-kun?” asked Yamazaki Takashi, pulling his teammate to his feet.

 

“Yeah. Right.” He stood up, wobbled before regaining balance and then walked ahead. 

 

Last fall, when Syaoran had discovered that Eron had physically harmed Sakura, he had been furious beyond his mind and his mind had gone a blank white, like today. And he had not hesitated to beat the living daylight out of Eron then, and would not have stopped until Sakura had intervened. Even then, Sakura had gone up to Eron and lent him her handkerchief. When it was for her that he had been fighting. No, it was for myself. Because I hate Chang Eron. I realize that now. I hate him. Not just because he is the Dark One, not because he is dating Sakura. I hate him most because Sakura chose to give him a second chance. Sometimes, scars that could not be seen were deeper. And perhaps I hurt her more than I could imagine.

 

The coach, who had been unnoticeably cowering in the corner, panicking and wondering what had gotten into his soccer team today, finally spoke up. “Chang, Li, who started the fight?”

 

Neither one spoke. The teammates muttered, “Didn’t Li-kun start it? He hit first.” And somebody else replied, “I thought Chang-kun provoked him.”

 

Shaking his head, the coach declared, “Well, that doesn’t matter. Get your selves to the infirmary at once. And a week’s worth of cleaning duty for both of you.”

 

Eron stated, “I’ll just go wash up in the restroom—”

 

“I am fine. I don’t have to go to the infirmary,” protested Syaoran simultaneously.

 

“Not another word. To the infirmary, both of you.” The coach’s temple was throbbing. “Soccer practice is canceled for the day. Yamazaki-kun, accompany these two and report back.”

 

“Yes, coach.” Yamazaki Takashi grabbed a much battered Syaoran and Eron with each arm and dragged them along. 

 

“Crazy boys,” sighed Meilin, shaking her head. “I’ve never seen Syaoran snap like that.”

 

“I’d lose my temper if I had to be around that two-faced skunk all day,” muttered Kai, eying Eron’s martyr-like pose with suspicion. “I don’t know how Sakura puts up with him.”

 

“Well, better to be a two-faced skunk than a lying, cheating crook,” retorted Meilin, nose in the air.

 

“Poor Chang-kun, I wonder if he’s all right,” remarked Yutaka Ichiro. “Yamazaki-kun is right. Li-kun is very unpredictable and fierce. I’ll have to remember to stay on his good side.”

 

“What a violent, volatile guy,” muttered another teammate. “Li-kun is not the kind of guy I thought he was.”

 

But Syaoran did not lose his temper for no reason. At least not the Syaoran she knew. Sakura saw that a trickle of Eron’s blood had smudged on her white shirt. Suddenly, she had the uncomfortable feeling she was being watched, and she looked up to the school building, towards the second floor end room, the infirmary. Narrowing her eyes, she saw a silhouette standing behind the shades, and she shuddered.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Li Leiyun crossed his arms and stared at the two boys seated in front of him. “You guys are a mess.”

 

Eron and Syaoran silently glared at each other.

 

“Ah, the passion and hot-bloodedness of youth,” said Leiyun. He stared at the two, pouring rubbing alcohol over a cotton swab. “So, should I disinfect your wounds?”

 

Wide-eyed, Eron stepped back. “No thank you. Just treat Li-kun. I’m fine.”

 

“You’re more scratched up than he is,” Leiyun said. “Look at that knee—let me pour some of this stuff over your wound.”

 

“Do you even have a valid medical degree?” Eron asked, eying the medical certificate from the University of Hong Kong on the wall suspiciously.

 

“No, but your sister taught me how to use the first aid kit recently,” replied Leiyun with a smile.

 

“He’s like a doctor out of a horror movie,” muttered Eron under his breath.

 

Leiyun pulled out the tweezers and grinned. “Well, Syaoran, should I take a look at you then?”

 

Syaoran jumped. “Oh no, Eron is much more injured up than I am.”

 

“Aw, I didn’t realize you two were such caring friends. How sweet,” said Leiyun. “The wonderful fraternity between a Chang and a Li!”

 

“You didn’t tell me he’s crazy,” muttered Eron under his breath.

 

“I think it’s just his idea of humor,” replied Syaoran, cowering towards the door.

 

“And they say you Li’s don’t have any sense of humor,” Eron remarked dryly.

 

“So I’ve heard.”

 

Looking up from the assortment of bandages he had prepared, Li Leiyun smiled brightly. “What are you two boys chattering away about in the corner?” He held up a shearing scissor and yards of gauze. “Come here, who wants to go first?”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The rest of cheerleading practice ended haphazardly after the soccer team disbanded for the day.

 

“I cannot believe Li-kun took down Eron-kun,” Naoko kept on repeating. But in the back of her mind, coins were clinking at the thought of reaping profits from the class bet.

 

Meilin grimaced—Syaoran had looked pretty beaten up as well. She wanted to check on him, but then, she did not particularly condone his behavior. Violence was usually Syaoran’s last resort—and he never beat up somebody weaker than himself. Then again, Eron seemed pretty well-matched, and she was half convinced that his collapsing and being all clingy on Sakura was an act. 

 

“I’m going to go check on Eron-kun,” said Sakura, as they came out of the girls’ locker room.

 

“You’re going to have to have to see Leiyun then,” reminded Meilin.

 

“Ugh, I forgot,” said Sakura, looking perplexed. “Well, he can’t do anything to me when there are this many people still left at school.”

 

“You should be all right so long as Eron-kun is there,” said Meilin. “But do you want me to go with you?”


Sakura shook her head. “It’s all right. I can’t hide from Li Leiyun-san forever—after all, he’s a part of this school now.” 

 

Luckily, Leiyun was not in the infirmary when Sakura arrived.

 

“Oh, Eron-kun, look at you. You look awful!” exclaimed Sakura tearfully leaning over the infirmary bed.

 

“It’s all right. I’ll survive,” said Eron heroically. Thanks to Leiyun’s atrocious bandaging skills, his condition looked far worse than the actual damage. And Eron thoroughly enjoyed playing the part of errant knight, battered and bruised on his deathbed with his fair princess weeping by his side.  

 

“Poor Eron-kun,” Sakura said. “Are you all right? Does it hurt?”

 

“I should get injured more often,” stated Eron with a weak smile. “When else would I get you fussing over me like this?”

 

“Don’t be silly,” replied Sakura with a blush. “I’m sorry—I don’t know what Li-kun was thinking. He’s usually not a violent person.”

 

“Well, you know that boy can never hold his temper,” said Eron with a shrug. “But it’s all right. I understand it wasn’t on purpose.”

 

Sakura sighed. “Thank goodness at least you’re so level-headed, Eron-kun.”

 

“You don’t have to stay,” Eron said. “Isn’t cheerleading practice over?”

 

“I’ll wait, and when you feel better, I’ll walk with you home.”

 

“I’m okay now. I just need to change.” He was still in his soccer uniform. “Should we grab dinner in town?”

 

“In that state?” Sakura shook her head. “I’ll come by and cook you porridge.”

 

Eron smiled. “I’m not that badly injured, you know.”

 

Sakura shook her head vehemently. “I’m not much good at baking, but I can cook good porridge. Well, I’ll be waiting in the classroom—I’ll pick up your bags! Come when you’re ready.” And Sakura left the infirmary, looking around, wondering where Leiyun had gone but very relieved she didn’t have to cross paths with him. It seemed that though he wasn’t a very good person, he was a sufficient doctor. She couldn’t help wondering if Syaoran had already gone home.

 

After Sakura left the room, Eron turned around in his bed and swung opened the curtain partition between his bed and the next. Li Syaoran, equally as bandaged up, sat on the bed, staring at the ceiling. “You still there?”

 

“I was about to leave,” said Syaoran, sitting up and carefully unraveling the crudely wrapped gauze.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura saw that the lights were on in her brother’s room when she returned—her brother had night shift at the hospital, so it meant that Syaoran was back. She was half tempted to ignore him and return to her room. Why did he insist on provoking Eron so? She always knew Syaoran was short-tempered, but had he always been so quick-tempered? But then, she remembered that Syaoran had looked pretty beaten too. She knocked on the door, which was slightly ajar, and peeked in. “Did you eat dinner already?”

 

Nose buried in a textbook, Syaoran did not look up from his desk. “Did dear Eron-kun enjoy your homemade porridge?”

 

“How did you know?” Sakura asked, surprised.

 

“I just guessed.” Syaoran was in such a foul mood that Sakura thought she could see a thundercloud looming over his head. “Really, he’s such a baby, making such a big fuss over nothing.”

 

“And I guess you’re such a man then,” replied Sakura irritably. “But for your information, I don’t condone violence at all. Really, I thought you had better sense than that, raising your fist first. I’m thoroughly disappointed in you.”

 

“Well, at least I’m not a big wussy,” he grumbled under his breath, implying Eron was. 

 

And Sakura’s hands went to her hips. “Excuse me, are you holding a grudge because I didn’t check up on you?”

 

Syaoran let out a rude noise which sounded awfully like a snicker.

 

“I figured you’re the trained martial artist, not Chang Eron,” she continued. Has he always been this petty and childish?

 

“Don’t you know that Chang Ruichi was a trained ninja in his days?” replied Syaoran. “He knew the most deadly martial arts tactics of both China and Japan.”

 

“Sure, Eron-kun has inherited the fighting skills of a deadly martial artist.” She laughed out loud. “Really, can you be any more immature?”

 

“Fine, I am the immature, petty, senseless idiot, so leave me alone!” retorted Syaoran, his back to her.

 

“I will!” replied Sakura, slamming the door behind her. Good riddance, serves me right for having a morsel of concern for that juvenile, self-centered person.

 

 

 

Of course, Sakura’s anger half evaporated by the time she had returned to her own room. Besides, why in the world wouldn’t Syaoran turn around to face her when she talked to him? It was horribly rude and impolite. 

 

“Did the Brat and the Creep have a fight at school?” Kero-chan remarked, munching on a bar of chocolate on her bed.

 

“Kero-chan! You got chocolate all over my bed sheets!” Sakura chided. “Do you even know what a long day I had?”

 

“Don’t take it out on me. It’s not my fault if you had a bad day. And it’s your turn to do laundry today, remember?” replied Kero-chan, smacking his brown lips. He offered his mistress a piece. “Want some?”

 

“How can you so happily eat chocolate when my high school life is in such a bit mess?” asked Sakura.

 

“Have some. It’ll make you feel better,” replied Kero-chan, cramming a piece into his mistress’ mouth.

 

Sakura sucked on the sweet, slightly bitter cacao. And she felt her nerves relax.

 

“I’ll help you do laundry,” said Kero-chan, feeling extra generous today since he had completed the top level on Street Fighter, and witnessed the Brat have a complete meltdown when he came home from school, which was even more satisfying than mastering the videogame.

 

Sakura threw her bed sheets into the laundry basket with the used towels and her white cheerleading uniform shirt. With a long sigh, she knocked next doors on her brother’s room.

 

“Do you have any laundry?” asked Sakura through the door. “I’m going to turn the whites.” There was no response. Was he still mad? Then, she heard the water running. He was in the shower.

 

Well, it’s my house, I can go where I please. Sakura went into her brother’s room. She stripped the bed sheets. Then, she pulled off the pillowcases. A single photo fell out. Carefully she picked it up. Her eyes widened. Why does Syaoran have this? She jammed the photo back underneath the pillow and threw down a set down a new set of sheets. Then she hurried out of the room before Syaoran came back, almost tripping over a shirt. She picked up it up, about to toss it into the laundry basket. It was the shirt Syaoran had worn earlier. Her heart lurched as she glimpsed dark red-brown smudges on the fabric, some streaks of more vivid red. Was Syaoran bleeding?

 

 

 

Syaoran, still sore, walked into the bedroom, rubbing a towel over his head. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt and gray sweatpants. The hot shower had just exacerbated all his cuts, it seemed, and whenever the fabric of his clothes brushed against the long gash on his back, he winced.

 

“Gah! What are you doing here?” demanded Syaoran, seeing Sakura waiting behind a pile of laundry. For a second, he panicked when he saw that the bed sheets had been removed. “D-Did you find anything in the pillows?”

 

Sakura saw why Syaoran had refused to turn his face to her. His swollen cheek was a bright purple and a gash decorated the other cheek, and his lips were blistered. “Come sit,” she said.

 

“Why?” Belatedly, he saw that he had a first-aid kit next to her.

 

“Just listen,” she said. She pulled him down on the floor then slightly touched his back.

 

“Ouch!” He glared at her. “What are you doing?”

 

Gently, she lifted up the back of his shirt. The fabric clung to his skin and his back was an assortment of green, blue and orange, with all sorts of scrapes from the gravel that had cut into his skin.

 

She poked her finger at the largest green blob flecked with violet-red specks.

 

“Ow!” he snapped.

 

“God, you’re such a baby,” Sakura snapped. “Hold still.” She tried to pull the shirt over his head.

 

“W-what are you doing?” demanded Syaoran.


“Oh, don’t be silly. Who took care of you when caught the flu?” replied Sakura. “I undressed you, fed you medicine, stayed by your beside all night long—”

 

“Fine, I’ll take it off,” muttered Syaoran, turning beat red. He turned from her and stripped off his shirt. The scabs from his elbow clung to the fabric and hurt as he yanked off the shirt.

 

“Were you just going to let these bleed like this?” demanded Sakura, holding up a Q-tip and a damp cloth. “Is Leiyun-san even a certified doctor if he can’t even treat simple cuts like these?”    

 

In response, Syaoran let out a funny snort which sounded like mixture between a grunt and a chuckle. He squirmed as Sakura pressed the lukewarm cloth over his back, sopping up the blood. “Leave it, it’s nothing. It’ll heal on its own.”

 

“Of course it’s nothing compared to all the injuries you have sustained over your years of training,” replied Sakura. “I’m sure it’s nothing compared to having your arms dislocated or your back torn apart or being stabbed straight through with a sword. But all the little cuts and bruises still hurt and need to be treated as well. Sometimes, they hurt more because they are little and you tend to ignore them, and then they become infected and take longer to heal.”

 

Syaoran was finally silent and stared at Sakura carefully pressed away the excess blood on a cut on his abdomen that he hadn’t even noticed. Even though he could tell she was clearly angry by the way her lips were pursed and her refusal to look up, her fingers were gentle. She then proceeded to dab some ointment on the wound, then tend to his elbows which were scraped badly.

 

“Ouch!” he winced.

 

“Look who’s being a wussy now.”


“You just poured ethanol on my open cut,” retorted Syaoran.

 

“To disinfect it.” Sakura pressed the cotton swab doused in rubbing alcohol to his other elbow.

 

“OWWWWW!!!” howled Syaoran.

 

“Stop fidgeting,” said Sakura. Softly, she blew on the scrapes as she cleansed away the dried blood. “Is that better?”

 

Syaoran nodded, watching Sakura’s cheeks puff up, her warm, gentle breath tickling his skin. She reached over to the final cut across his cheekbone. He found himself staring at her collarbones and the chain with the star sapphire ring slipped out from under her shirt. Carefully, she applied the antibiotic on his with a Q-tip, her soft lips pouted in concentrated. Then, she peeled off a Band-Aid and stuck it across his cheek. The corners of those lips curled a little.


“What?”

 

“You look like a troublemaker,” replied Sakura.

 

“Yeah, a juvenile, self-centered troublemaker,” he muttered. 

 

“Did you really have to get into a fight with Eron-kun?”

 

Like a sulky boy getting scolded by his mother, Syaoran sat head lowered, lips sealed.

 

And Sakura looked grave. “I know you don’t like Eron-kun. But can’t you try to get along with him, for my sake?”

 

Syaoran looked into Sakura’s verdant eyes. No I can’t. “Fine, I will.”

 

“What is with that tone?” asked Sakura, feeling suddenly irritated again.

 

Anybody else, anybody else, he could try to put up with for Sakura’s sake. But not Eron. I can’t ever get along with Chang Eron. Finally, Syaoran blurted out, “Why Chang Eron? Why him out of all people?”

 

And Sakura stared down at the cotton swabs stained in blood, as if she suddenly recalled a question that had been asked to her once before in the realm of Fantasia. Chang Eron. How could you be with someone like him? After what he did to you? Syaoran was staring at her with amber eyes that bore through her, as if he was trying to search into her soul.

 

“Because I care for him,” said Sakura in a hollow voice, without looking into Syaoran’s eyes. “And he cares for me.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tomoeda was a very peaceful town, and the wee hours in the morning right before the sun rose and the newspaper delivery circled the town were the quietest. When Syaoran wanted to clear his head, he often took a morning jog around the town. The same streets, when they were not crowded with people, seemed strangely bare and foreign, but he liked the silence. Sakura’s words echoed in his ears. “Because I care for him. And he cares for me.” After breaking sweat, Syaoran drifted off to his old favorite training spot, in the woods behind King Penguin Park. To his surprise, there was already somebody there this early in the morning. He stepped into the clearing and found it was Meilin, dressed in a white cheongsam and white trousers, practicing a complicated series of stances with a crisp fluidity and agility he had never seen in her before.

 

Not wanting to interrupt, he quietly watched Meilin in grudging admiration. She was so deep in concentration that she did not notice him standing off to the side. Finally, she came to the bow stance and then looked up, sweat dripping down her temples and neck even though it was in the middle of winter. Startled, she saw Syaoran standing by the trees. She stood rigidly, almost as if waiting to hear feedback from her training master.

 

“Continue,” he said. “Don’t mind me.”

 

Nodding, Meilin proceeded into the next set of stances, careful to elongate each limb of her body and master each angle and posture to a new level of perfection. She finished her last back flip and turned to Syaoran triumphantly.

 

“When did you improve this much?” asked Syaoran in unrestrained awe.

 

It was so rare to hear praise from her very first training partner and it was more precious to her than any number of compliments from anyone else. “What, did you think you were the only one who has been practicing?” Seeing that Syaoran too was dressed in training clothes, feeling bold, she stated, “Well, how about a match, like good old days?”

 

“Why not?” replied Syaoran with a slow grin, setting down his sword and then warming up his hamstrings.

 

Also stretching out her legs, Meilin remarked, “You got pretty beaten up the other day by Eron-kun. Are your injuries okay?” Syaoran was sporting a Band-Aid across his cheek, but otherwise looked to be in better shape than she had feared.

 

“Humph, it’s the other way around. I beat that guy up.”

 

“Why did you do that?” asked Meilin. “You know he’s just trying to pick a fight with you.”

 

“He irritates me,” replied Syaoran shortly. Sakura words still echoed in his ears. Because I care for him, and he cares for me…

 

“Why? He’s good to Sakura-chan, and he’s been quite helpful so far in the Alliance of the Stars,” Meilin stated.

 

“Enough talk about him. Let’s get started.”

 

“Right.” Meilin extended her body into a crouching stance. “No need to go easy on me.”

 

“I won’t.” The two bowed, and then proceeded to resume their stances, facing each other.

 

They had spent the best of five years training with each other as children, and in some ways, there was nobody else who knew Syaoran’s movement as well as Meilin did, and vice versa. What Meilin lacked in power, she made up in agility, and she was always alert and on her feet. While Meilin did not have magic, she knew that there were very few in the Li Clan who could live up to her martial skills—for she had been practicing nonstop these six years since Syaoran had become the Chosen One. In the back of her mind, somewhere, she had hoped maybe she could then one day become the Protector of the Clan and become Syaoran’s right-hand. Because the Protector was the rare position in the Inner Council of the Li Clan which was based solely on martial skills, not magical powers. Of course, that dream was shattered when Syaoran had been demoted as Chosen One and then Li Jinyu had been surreptitiously appointed as the Protector. But it had been a fanciful dream while it had lasted, and if nothing else, she knew it had made her stronger today.

 

This was the first time she had practiced with Syaoran since he had lost his powers. She couldn’t help wondering how this would have affected his fighting. After exchanging a couple kicks, Meilin was reassured that even without his moon powers, Syaoran was strong, if not stronger than ever before. I see… it’s changed him, not having his powers. Before, he could fight with a sense of leniency and leisure, because he could always fall back to his powers. But now, all he has is his physical powers and his five senses. That’s why he has to fight with all he’s got. And it’s made him a better fighter.

 

Seeing an opening she quickly countered a roundhouse kick with her outside forearm, grimacing at the impact, and then gracefully spun around, leaping into the air, tucking her right leg in and extending out her left leg, heel straight, descending down with a hook kick and hitting Syaoran square in the chest. It was her victory.

 

The two bowed to each other ceremonially, and then Meilin, wiping the sweat off her brows with the back of her sleeves, stared up at Syaoran expectantly.

 

“You’ve become a master martial artist since I’ve last seen you,” he said. 

 

“Same to you. Where did you learn that maneuver you did with that twist-kick midair?” Meilin replied, catching her breath, smug at having landed a blow on Syaoran and yet extremely giddy, like she had been every day as a little girl when she thought that she could go home from school and practice with Syaoran. When other girls had been playing dolls or dress-up, she had practiced till her body was bruised and her hands and feet blistered. It was a lucky day if Syaoran spoke one word to her, but she had been happy being by his side, practicing as an equal. The two had been gauging each other’s improvements, and Syaoran was thrilled to have found out that Meilin must have picked up some unseen speedy, street-wily maneuvers from Kai, and Meilin clearly saw that Syaoran had somehow combined teachings from the Great Elder, cousin Leiyun and even a bit of Jinyu the Black Dragon to come up with a martial arts style of his own. Over the past year, through the process of his arm healing and being deprived of powers, he had crossed the line between a student and a master of martial arts. “You really better be in tip-top condition and not hold back the next time I fight you.” 

 

“You better not, either.” After a second thought, Syaoran added, “I missed having you as a sparring partner.”


Meilin felt a lump in her throat for she understood this was Syaoran’s way of apologizing. “Me too.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Being a dutiful older brother to a teenage sister was far more difficult than stealing Queen Elizabeth’s coronation crown or infiltrating into a laser-installation high-security government official building or dodging INTERPOL and the CIA and the Russian mafia simultaneously. At least to a former thief, that was. 

 

“Miho-chan, wake up!” said a bright and chirpy Mizuki Kai, opening the pink curtains of his little sister’s room.

 

“Go away,” mumbled Miho, burying her head in her pillow.

 

Kai dragged Miho out her bed. “Look how bright and sunny it is outside. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

 

A disgruntled Miho blinked, staring at the windows and then made a face. “Bleh, I hate pink.”

 

“But pink was your favorite color!” Kai said.

 

“What, when I was seven?” Miho said, rolling her eyes.

 

“Do you want me to braid your hair?” asked Kai, holding up an array of ribbons in every color.

 

“Who braids their hair anymore? That’s so out of fashion,” replied Miho, mussing up her short-cut auburn hair so that pieces of hair stuck out in all directions. “Go out, I need to change.”

 

Miho came down the stairs to see her mother groggily move about the kitchen, looking quite lost, and her father, bent over an apple, intently carving it into lotus flower with the fruit knife. Her brother beamed at her. “Do you want your eggs sunny-side up or scrambled?”

 

Staring at her brother scraping the burnt egg on the frying pan, she replied, “I’m just going to grab a piece of toast.”

 

Yawning, Miara stated, “And I think I’m going back to bed. I stayed up all night writing my new chapter.” Blinking, she looked up at Kai with a drowsy smile. “Doesn’t our son look so handsome in the Seijou High uniform?”

 

“Blue is a lovely color on him,” agreed Keisuke half-heartedly as he began doodling on the morning newspaper.

 

Leaning over, Miara exclaimed, “Don’t draw on today’s newspaper—I haven’t gotten to reading it yet.” She narrowed her eyes as she read the headlines, ‘Much venerated sixth-regime yakuza boss of the Yamamoto-gumi murdered last night.’ She pulled the sheaf of paper away from Keisuke’s destructive hands. “The oyabun of Yamamoto-gumi, Yamamoto Noboru, was assassinated in his house last night?” 

 

“That’s a pity. They say Yamamoto Noboru’s done a lot for the city, like the time he organized the relief-support for earthquake victims and distributed food and supplies to everybody when police were immobilized,” remarked Keisuke. “If anything, he’s been a very just and fair godfather of the yakuza during years of much political and economic instability in this country.”  

 

Miara frowned. “But a criminal is a criminal. You can’t justify the illegal activities of the yakuza by the one or two good acts that they do.”

 

Kai choked on his orange juice. Munching on her toast, Miho grabbed her coat.

 

“Here’s your bag and lunch box!” exclaimed Kai, chasing after his younger sister.

 

“This is so childish,” said Miho, peering at the bunny-shaped lunch bag.

 

“But you love bunnies.”

 

“Not on my lunch box and my curtains and my bed sheet,” replied Miho impatiently, walking out the door. “Bye otou-san, okaa-san.”

 

“Wait, I have my car parked up front,” said Kai, trailing after her.

 

“I’ll ride the bus,” replied Miho.

 

“But the car will be much quicker.”

 

“You’re not supposed to be driving underage,” replied Miho. “It’s against the law.”

 

“But the law is meant to be broken,” mumbled Kai under his breath.

 

 

 

By the time Miho hopped off the bus, her brows were knit into a V-shape. “You don’t have to follow me to class,” said Miho, turning around and glaring at her brother who trailed after her holding her lunch bag.

 

The girls in the hallway nudged each other. “Who is that hot high school boy?”

 

“I heard he’s Miho-chan’s older brother.”

 

“He’s so dreamy.”

 

“Is this Miho-chan’s classroom?” said Kai, peeking into the classroom that he had studied in last year. “Is this your desk?”

 

“Go back already,” snapped Miho. “You’re going to be late for homeroom.”

 

“What time does journalism meeting end?” asked Kai. “I’ll come pick you up.”

 

“I don’t know what time it’s going to end. Just go home by yourself after school,” said Miho, pushing her brother out the classroom. Exhausted, Miho slouched over her desk.

 

Just then, she heard a loud voice call outside. She walked over to the window and peered out. Her brother stood in front of the school gates, waving his hand. “Miho-hime! Have a good day! Call onii-chan if you need anything!”

 

“Ugh, so embarrassing,” groaned Miho, shutting close the window and pulling down the shade.

 

“Why?” her friend Saori asked. “I’m so jealous you have such a caring brother. My brother is so busy with his college entrance exams, I don’t even see him anymore. And he’s nowhere near as cool and handsome as Miho-chan’s onii-chan.”

 

“Onii-chan is not cool at all,” mumbled Miho.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Chin leaned against palm, Meilin watched in amusement as Kai’s head nodded off in the middle of math class; he seemed to think that if he wore tinted glasses, nobody would be able to tell he was dozing. She kicked him on the shin underneath the desk. “Wake up.”

 

Kai yawned, unable to lift his head from his desk, a piece of hair sticking up in the air.

 

“Did you stay up all night playing videogames again?” she demanded.

 

“I woke up early to pack Miho’s lunch and wake her up.”

 

“You, wake somebody up?” Meilin snorted. “You can barely wake up yourself in the mornings.”

 

“I know. I was afraid I would sleep in, so I stayed up all night,” he replied, stifling another yawn.

 

“I knew as much.” Meilin’s eyes softened. “You can’t cook. What did you pack for her lunch?”

 

“I ordered a deluxe bento set from the Japanese restaurant and repackaged it in a bunny bento box,” replied Kai. “But she didn’t seem to like it.”

 

“Well, it’s obvious that you didn’t cook it.”

 

“No, she didn’t like the bunnies.”

 

“Silly, girls her age want to be cool,” said Meilin.  

 

“But you like cute things,” said Kai. 

 

Meilin blushed. “Yeah, but Miho grew up in England—she’s into trendy stuff.”

 

“Why does Miho-chan hate me?” moaned Kai. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was supposed to come home and be like ‘Miho-chan!!! ‘Nii-chan is finally back!’ And she was supposed to say, ‘Onii-chan! You are the best brother in the world!’ And we would spin round and round together, hand in hand in a whirlwind of bubbles and glitter.”

 

“Ah, I would love to see the delusional, fantasy world you live in, Mr. Kaitou Magician,” Meilin remarked dryly.

 

“Is it because she outgrew me? The things I did for her when she was little don’t move her anymore.” Kai was not only moping, he was having a nervous breakdown.

 

Meilin sighed. He was not listening at all—so much for trying to break up with a guy who would still come complain about his family woes as if nothing was wrong between them. “What is with the round-framed spectacles?”

 

“I thought it was a nice change of image?” said Kai, cocking his head towards her and pushing his silver-framed glasses up his nose. “Don’t I look really serious and studious?” 

 

“Maybe if you stop trying too hard to be and Eriol-clone, Miho would be more receptive,” muttered Meilin. 

 

 

 

The students of class 1-2 expected a continuation of the showdown between Chang Eron and Li Syaoran the other day—those who had not been present at the soccer field heard a glorified narrative of the fight from overenthusiastic soccer team members. But to their disappointment, Eron and Syaoran anticlimactically each took their respective seats on the other end of the classroom without as much as exchanging a glance at each other.

 

Daidouji Tomoyo spotted the pink band-aid across Syaoran’s right cheek and smothered a smile. Sakura was so soft-hearted, no wonder Eron always lived in a state of anxiety. “Syaoran-kun, I need your advice on something.”

 

“Yeah?” Syaoran looked up at Tomoyo who plunked down a thick book onto his desk.

 

“So, which fabric do you think will match best?” asked Tomoyo flipping through her fabric sample book. “This pale green muslin or this deep emerald green Persian samite?”

 

Syaoran bent over the desk and fingered the fabric. “How about this spring green charmeuse—it’s lighter than the samite and will look good with the floral print on the Mechlin lace you chose, especially if you drape the skirt here.”

 

“You’re right!” exclaimed Tomoyo, delighted at the effects of layering the fabric. “You have such wonderful eye for detail, Syaoran-kun.” She gazed at Sakura. “Err… Li-kun. And what do you think about this aqua damask—don’t you think this violet silk goes well with it?”

 

“I think I like the indigo one better,” Syaoran after deep consideration, bringing the two fabric samples together.

 

“You’re absolutely right. I didn’t think of that combination before,” replied Tomoyo. “I can always count on you.” Even in the olden days, Tomoyo had often consulted Syaoran for fashion ideas. She figured that if Sakura and Syaoran had reached some sort of truce, since they were living together, it would be okay to talk to him again. Besides, Syaoran looked so depressed these days, she sincerely felt for him.  

 

“Syao-kun. Tell me, why is Mei-chan always so cold towards me?” Kai asked, slinging his arm around Syaoran’s shoulder. “Who else would flunk a grade to be with their girlfriend?”

 

Looking somewhat irritated, Syaoran replied, “Gee, I wonder.”

 

Meilin went and smacked Kai on the back of the head with her notebook. “What is this rumor circulating that you got rejected by Syaoran on Christmas Eve and fled the country, only to realize your love can never be satiated, hence you transferred into the same class as Syaoran for one last chance?”

 

With a twinkle in his periwinkle eyes, Kai bent down on his knees in a Romeo-esque fashion and presented a scarlet rose out of thin air. “This rose symbolizes the burning passion within my heart. Will you take me back, my darling Syao-chan?”

 

The girls in the class squealed—even better than a love triangle was a sizzling BL romance; class had never been so entertaining until Mizuki Kai had transferred back. Tomoyo watched in wry amusement as Hiiragizawa Eriol decided to enter the scene by walking up to Syaoran and slapping him on the face. “How could you do this to me?” Then he stormed out of the classroom, leaving Syaoran to sputter at Eriol, mouth hung open like a fish out of water.

 

Both boys and girls were squealing now, stunned and absolutely thrilled by the drama unfolding in front of their eyes, Eron and Sakura completely forgotten. Meanwhile, Syaoran who had been the underdog ever since he became labeled as the “Eitoukou betrayer” suddenly faced an explosion of popularity amongst girls, who found his grouchiness adorable, and guys, who found him a novel prototype of tough Apollonian sportsmanship melded with Dionysian romanticism.

 

A little while later, Naoko trotted over to Syaoran’s desk with her textbook. “I don’t understand this problem, Li-kun,” said Naoko, leaning over on Syaoran’s table. She eyed Syaoran very sympathetically. 

 

“Let’s see…” Syaoran, ignoring the unfamiliar looks of sympathy in his direction, reviewed Naoko’s problem and then said, “You didn’t factor out the denominator and…” He proceeded to explain the complex equation to Naoko.

 

“Thank you Li-kun. You’re so good at explaining problems!” exclaimed Naoko, clutching her textbook to her chest, feeling guiltier by the moment for having been an advent supporter of Eron.

 

“Really?” a stream of students surrounded Syaoran. “I don’t get this problem from homework last night, Li-kun!”

 

“Me neither!”

 

And looking slightly overwhelmed at the sudden attention, Syaoran answered each person’s question, and when he did so, everybody quieted, taking down notes.

 

“Ah, that makes a lot of sense!” exclaimed Chiharu—Takashi was an excellent mathematician as well, but to hear the solution to the problem meant hearing a thirty-minute repertoire on Pythagoras and his cat.

 

“Gee, Li-kun is a lot more friendly than he used to be, isn’t he?” remarked Aki begrudgingly.

 

“Yeah, he would have bitten of my head if I asked him anything back in fifth grade,” said a long time classmate.

 

“He completely knocked me down at the Winter Wonderland ball two years ago,” Aki remarked.

 

“No way. What did you do to him?”

 

“Nothing!” replied Aki, indignantly. Well, he hadn’t known back then Syaoran was interested in Sakura-chan, or else he would never have made a move on her.

 

From her desk, Sakura slid down into her chair. “It’s happening again,” she muttered to herself. Her father, whom she rarely saw these days because classes at the university had started again, and Syaoran had only had a five-hour discussion about the Persian Wars while baking apple pie, apple strudel and apple muffins in the kitchen. “The same thing at home.”

 

“But Syaoran-kun has come a long way, hasn’t he?” remarked Tomoyo. “He used to be so antisocial—nobody in our class could approach him at all in the beginning back in elementary school, but look at him now. He fits in.”

 

Strange enough, people did evolve and change. Eron did. Kai did. So did Rika and Meilin. And even, Syaoran, steady, constant Syaoran who she thought would always stay the same had changed the most.

 

“It’s thanks to you, you know,” remarked Meilin. “If you didn’t befriend him back then, he would still be a loner. I was so surprised when I first came from Hong Kong and found you in his apartment and everything. He never had any friends before, never invited anyone home, never even talked to anyone else in school besides me.”

 

“Well, it seems like now, he’s friends with everyone besides me,” muttered Sakura underneath her breath as she watched Meilin push her way through the crowds of people to her once customary spot right next to him.

 

“It looks like Meilin-chan and Syaoran-kun have made up,” remarked Tomoyo, watching Meilin chattering away at Syaoran like olden days and even producing a half-smile from him.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What is it?” Tomoyo asked her best friend, astute as ever.

 

“Nothing. It’s just, it’s a relief to see Meilin-chan and him getting along,” said Sakura with a long sigh.

 

It could have been you, but you wouldn’t forgive him, Tomoyo thought of saying. But she had learned to keep her tongue regarding Syaoran.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It was chilly on the rooftop, but Sakura knew it was better to eat lunch there than in the classroom, with everyone watching. She spread out the three-tiered bento box laden with skewered octopus sausages, rows of plump yellow egg rolls, crispy fried shrimp and crab croquette, potato salad and pearly white onigiri. The last box was filled with peeled apples, pear, grapes and strawberries. She opened the thermostat and poured two cups of steaming hot black tea. 

 

“Did you really make all of this?” Eron asked in awe at the feast spread before him.

 

“Everything,” replied Sakura, sipping her cup of aromatic koucha, slightly bitter.

 

“So, what’s the special occasion?” asked Eron, almost suspiciously.

 

“N-nothing. I just felt like making you a lunch box,” stammered Sakura with a faint blush. Naoko had told her that was what girlfriends did for their boyfriends. It was really difficult trying to please Eron—over the past several months, she realized she had no clue what Eron liked, what food he preferred, what music he listened to, what books he read—she had realized this most acutely the other night when Eron had come over for dinner and her brother had questioned him. And guiltily, she realized that maybe she had not put enough effort into getting to know Eron.

 

He bit into the egg roll and stated, “This tamagoyaki is delicious.” He shoveled rice into his mouth and then bit into the fried shrimp. “This too.”

 

“I didn’t know what you liked,” said Sakura. “Next time, tell me what you want me to make you.” She added as an afterthought, “But nothing too hard—I’m not very good at cooking as you know.” This was probably the extent of the recipes that she was confident in.

 

“I would like anything you make,” replied Eron, sipping on the aromatic black tea.

 

Sakura smiled. Eron was a person who would say exactly the words she wanted to hear. And yet, sometimes, she wondered what he really was thinking. “I’ll make you a cake next time as well—I’ve been practicing on my family.”

 

“This is fine too, you know,” Eron said. “Do you know this is the first time anyone has packed a bento for me?”

 

“No way!” And then Sakura recalled that Eron always brought store-bought bento to school or skipped lunch. He had no parents, so he probably never did have someone pack him lunch. At least Sakura had a father and brother who were both brilliant cooks and made sure she always had a lunch box that she could proudly set forth during lunchtime and share with her friends.

 

“If this is a consolation prize for getting beaten up, then I’d gladly get beaten up every day,” Eron remarked, touching the faded bruise on his cheek. 

 

 

 

“Syaoran, you’re turning purple,” Meilin stated, peering over to the other side of the rooftop. It was strange seeing Sakura completely devoted to Eron—and Eron seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it. I guess Sakura’s been feeling bad about hiding from Eron that Syaoran was staying at her house.  

 

“Ugh, they’re such a lovey-dovey couple, it’s annoying,” stated Naoko. Half the class was gathered on one end of the rooftop—they couldn’t risk missing the action.

 

“You’re just jealous,” snickered Chiharu.

 

“Aren’t you?” Naoko said. “How did our clumsy dunce Sakura-chan end up with the hottest guy in our grade?”

 

“Yeah, Eron-kun is very handsome,” conceded Meilin. She eyed Syaoran, who was huddled up in his coat, face bruised up. “He really is an ideal boyfriend material, and if someone doesn’t shape up, I think they’ll really end up married.”

 

Only Tomoyo took pity on him and said in consolation, “It’s all right. It’s only a lunch box.”

 

“Ah, all the love poured into the bento,” remarked Eriol with a smile, eying the Little Wolf without an ounce of sympathy. “What a lucky guy Eron-kun is.”

 

“In the olden days, a girl making a lunch box for a boy was a method of the female proposing without words,” declared Yamazaki Takashi.

 

Eriol nodded. “And if the boy finished up the lunch box, it meant he agreed to the proposal.”

 

Syaoran snapped his chopsticks in half and glared at his so-called friends.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tanaka Miho was popular in her grade. Last year, since she had transferred to school in the middle of the year and hung mostly hung out with the upperclassmen, she knew few people in her grade. But because Sakura’s grade had graduated into high school, Miho grew closer to her year-mates. She was no longer the “poor girl who lost her family;” and her magical studies with Eriol, while they had been a chore before, was actually enjoyable now that she had the goal of becoming someone useful in the Alliance of Stars. At school, she enjoyed being at the top of the ladder and having underclassmen of her own, plus it was nice to run the school paper exactly the way she wanted to instead of having to match Aki-senpai’s whims. Her classmates were always envious that Miho had so many cool upperclassmen friends who often invited her to the high school during breaks. And though Eriol was neurotic, Sakura, scatterbrained, Meilin, violent-tempered, Tomoyo eccentric, and Syaoran, grouchy, she had to admit, from a distance, they seemed cool. In fact, life couldn’t be better. 

 

“Is that handsome brother of yours coming to pick you up today as well?” asked Miho’s classmate Saori.

 

Miho made a face. Life couldn’t be better, except for one aspect. It was so hard sneaking around, trying to avoid her clingy, infuriating brother. He was absolutely driving her crazy, and she was at a limit to how much she could tolerate him.

 

Sure enough, after school, Kai was waiting for her at the school gates. He waved at her frantically. “Miho-chan! How was your day?”

 

“Ugh, onii-chan,” Miho groaned. “Stop following me around everywhere. It’s annoying!”

 

“But—“

 

“I’m fifteen now. I don’t need you babysitting me. Especially not on dates!”

 

“Dates?”

 

“Yes.”

“Who is this boy? Does he go to Seijou? Since when were you dating him?” Kai demanded.

 

“It’s none of your business. You just do your stuff, and I’ll do mine,” stated Miho, stomping off.

 

“B-but—” Kai stared at his feet, crushed. “Since when has her good old brother become a nuisance?”

 

Walking up behind him, Meilin patted Kai’s back understandingly. “You’ve got to accept that Miho-chan’s a grown girl now. Her world does not revolve around her amazing onii-chan anymore.”

 

“It doesn’t?” Kai narrowed his eyes as he instinctively trailed after his younger sister’s steps. “Wait, isn’t that boy Akagi Aki? That little scum-of-the-earth!”

 

With a sigh, Meilin dragged Kai back as he tried to leap forward after the pair. Really, what’s the point of breaking up with him when I’m always having to chase him down to keep him from making a mess out of things? “I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

 

“What are you talking about? My innocent, pure Miho-chan is walking into the hands of the good-for-nothing playboy! You know what kind of reputation Akagi Aki has!”

 

Meilin scowled, scarily resembling Syaoran for a moment. “Look who’s talking. Aki-kun is a perfectly nice boy, and for your information, I doubt he’s interested in Miho-chan, anyway.”

 

“What? Why? What’s wrong with Miho-chan? She’s the cutest, sweetest thing every? Why won’t Aki, that bastard, date her?” Kai demanded in indignation.

 

Meilin shook her head in surrender. Giving Kai the silent treatment was impossible when he was this opaque. “Because Miho-chan has a crush on a boy in her own class who has recently joined the journalism club and Aki-kun has unrequited feelings for Tomoyo-chan.” It was just as she had suspected; Kai had closeted a serious case of sister complex all this while. He was a guy who just did not know moderation. 

 

 

 

“Is this a date?” asked Aki, bemused, having overheard Miho and Kai’s conversation as he waited for her at the school gates with a draft of the high school paper.

 

“Of course not,” replied Miho, clearly offended. “I just had to get rid of onii-chan. I wonder if he’s always been this clingy and annoying.”

 

“Yeah he has. You two were inseparable back in the days,” Aki said. “I was a bit jealous. I was nowhere near as close with my sister or brother.”

 

‘”I know, but onii-chan used to be really cool back then,” Miho said. “Now, he’s just…”

 

Aki wrinkled his nose. “I know what you mean. He’s just that delinquent Mizuki Kai, with his necktie straight and hair parted in the center.”

 

“Yeah, and all the qualities that I thought made him seem prince-like are actually just…” Miho wrinkled her nose. “Obnoxious.”

 

“Don’t be too harsh on him. It’s sort of pitiable that he’s trying so hard. Trying too hard, that is,” said Aki. “Oh, did I tell you? Kai-senpai is back in our class. I guess I can call him Kai-kun again?”

 

“Onii-chan flunked?” exclaimed Miho.

 

“I thought he wouldn’t tell you,” said Aki. “Our classroom seems like a whole big conspiracy plan, with the tension between Eron-kun and Syaoran-kun and Sakura-chan. Eriol-kun always seems to be plotting something, and I swear, Yamazaki-kun is his lackey or something and my beloved Tomoyo-chan is probably being brainwashed by that evil mastermind. There’s something fishy about Mizuki-sensei as well, though I can’t quite figure out what.”

 

“Are you okay with Tomoyo-senpai?” Miho asked gently.

 

Shrugging, Aki replied, “What can I do? It’s not like I stand a chance against Eriol-kun.”

 

“What are you talking about? Aki-senpai is smart, popular and basketball MVP, not to mention really motivated and hardworking!” Miho exclaimed. “Eriol is just a sadistic old geezer.”

 

Aki blinked. “I’m touched. I didn’t think Miho-chan thought so highly of me.”

 

Two pink spots appeared on Miho’s cheeks. “Don’t get to full of it. I’m just saying, it’s not like you to give up just because of a tiny little obstacle along the way.”

 

Grinning, Aki said, “Well, Reporter Tanaka, with that sort of mentality, I’m sure you can churn out two feature articles by next week!”

 

“What? That’s impossible!” Miho exclaimed.

 

“How’s your article on the yakuza turning out?” asked Aki.

 

Miho frowned a little bit. “I’ve sort of hit a block. There’s no new angle I can cover, and the assassination of Yamamoto Noboru has been overexposed by the media.”

“But yet, they haven’t really uncovered who has assassinated him, have they?” Aki remarked. “Reports say it was an inside job, that a revolting faction organized his assassination. Some people even think it was done by the second in command, wakagashira Taoka Yoshinori, so that he could become the next head of Yamamoto-gumi.”

 

“But that doesn’t make much sense,” replied Miho. “The natural successor would have been Taoka Yoshinori anyway then. He’s been the first lieutenant and second boss for some years, and was Yamamoto Noboru’s right hand man. He had no incentive to assassinate his boss, did he?”

 

“I like the way you think. It’s not likely Taoka would have killed the man who basically adopted him and treated him like a son. But a lot is at stake,” replied Aki. “Taoka Yoshinori is rumored to be a young man, probably still in his twenties, and if would be impossible for him to gain the respect and obedience from all the yakuza factions. You know the yakuza controls the economy and politicians behind the scenes. Because the Japanese economy has been in such a decline the past decade, they want to make sure the new head is going to be a person who is global-minded. After all, the Yamamoto-gumi had extended factions across Asia and the United States under Yamamoto Noboru’s regime. But now, rivaling yakuza family might a chance to break the monopoly of the Yamamoto-gumi and seize a chance at expansion since the fate of the leadership of Yamamoto-gumi is up in the air. It can take one insurrection, one bad choice from an experienced to leader to crumble the dynasty of a centuries-old syndication.”    

 

Miho stared at Aki in awe. “How do you know so much about the yakuza, Aki-senpai?”

 

“Ah, Asuma-aniki used to tell me a lot about this stuff,” replied Aki smugly. “His close friend from Hong Kong knew a lot about the organized criminal world.”

 

Pouting out her lower lips, Miho stated, “Well, if you know so much, why don’t you write the article instead?”

 

“Don’t get so cheeky, kiddo,” Aki said. “I hear you’ve been gadding away with that little journalist-wannabe Eisuke-kun. Focus!”

 

Turning bright red, Miho demanded, “W-who told you that I like Eisuke-kun?”

 

“Ah, it’s good to be in love,” said Aki, hands folded behind his head. “I want a girlfriend too. Makes me jealous of Eron-kun and Sakura-chan.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The Seijou seniors were a group of hardworking, exam-studying students and could not be a duller bunch. With one exception. Kara twirled her pen around her finger, watching Li Jinyu’s granite face.

 

“I swear, out of all the scenarios we could be in, I never thought there would come a day when you and I would be wearing Japanese high school uniforms and sitting in class. But I have to admit, it’s been amusing thus far, though it doesn’t seem like you’re enjoying this task one bit,” remarked Kara, staring at the foreign physics formula in her textbook. What the heck was Kepler’s third law of motion?

 

Jinyu did not answer but diligently scrawled down the scientific equation from the board with an ink fountain pen. On a slip of parchment hidden beneath his notes, he was simultaneously writing down a note in code form in perfect calligraphy. Though he seemed unarmed, Kara knew he had at least nine weapons tucked away into his clothes. It was strange seeing someone you had a preconditioned notion about thrown out of their element. He looked as ridiculous in a school uniform as she would in a pink, frilly doll-dress. Kara speculated that Jinyu’s slightly irritated expression indicated that he thought it was a waste of time sitting in class; but he didn’t complain. He never complained, unlike that whiny Chang brat, Erika. 

 

At that moment, someone’s cellphone rang. It was not just any ringtone either, and the dark and ominous chords of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 sent the stressed and studious students into a state of panic.

 

“Who brought their cellphone to class?” barked their teacher.

 

Everybody shuffled to check if their cellphones were on vibrate.

 

Frowning, Jinyu reached into his pocket and flipped out a sleek black phone. “What is it?” he asked in a low voice.

 

“Jin-kun, I would like you to refrain from using your phone in class. I will have to confiscate it. Now, hand it over, it’s the rules,” said the teacher, walking up to Jinyu.

 

Heedless, Jinyu stood up, phone pressed to ear and demanded, “What? How many times did I tell you to take him out without leaving evidence? There’s no choice. Locate the Orange Tiger—he’s in danger—and tell Sparrow to return to the base. Immediately.”

 

“W-where do you think you’re going, Jin-kun?” stated the teacher, dumbfounded. “Jin Yuu, are you listening!”

 

Paying no attention to the class, Jinyu headed out the door and stated calmly into his cellphone, “I’m heading over there right now. Don’t do anything reckless. I’ll handle the situation.”

 

The students gaped at their classmate who till date had not spoken one word in class. Kara smirked. Jinyu was by no means being intentionally disrespectful to the teacher—as one accustomed to being boss of the Hong Kong triads, it simply did not occur to him that he should excuse himself from class before leaving.

 

 

 

“Are you prepared for the exams tomorrow?” asked Kai, taking a seat next to Kara on the rooftop. 

 

“Nah,” replied Kara, watching the gray clouds. “I have far more important concerns.”

 

“My little sister can’t stand me, my girlfriend dumped me, and Syaoran apparently cheated on me with Eriol-kun,” replied Kai with a woeful sigh. “Can your worries beat that?”

 

“Why live life with worries when you can just live carefree,” replied Kara, twirling her finger towards the sky and letting her tarot cards form a circle around her head.

 

And Kai glared at Kara. “You know, this really is all your fault.”


“So quick to blame,” Kara drawled.

 

“Why’d you do it?” asked Kai. “To punish me?”

 

“It’s fun teasing her,” replied Kara. “Almost as fun as teasing her cousin.”

 

“You really are Leon-san’s daughter,” remarked Kai glumly.

 

Kara chuckled. “Leon used to tell me how gullible you once were. He’d spend a week devising a prank to play on you. Then he’d die of laughing, clutching his stomach.”

 

Leon Reed did have a peculiar way of laughing, eyes shut and head thrown back, a deep, hearty laughter from the stomach. “Yes, I was gullible. But that man was positively even more sadistic and sinister than Clow Reed.” Kai grimaced. “Like that time he mixed peroxide into my shampoo. Or used me as his dart target. Or handcuffed me and then conveniently lost the keys for twenty-four hours.”

 

“Really, compared to him, aren’t I an angel?” stated Kara. “You were always complaining that Meilin always scolds you and never shows any indication that she really does care for you. What better indication is there than her outright jealousy when she saw you with me?”

 

“Do you really think Meilin is jealous?” asked Kai, slightly hopeful again.

 

Kara glared at him. “Don’t fish for compliments from me. Do you remember how you oh-so-rudely pushed me out of your seventh-story window the other day?” 

 

“You jumped out on your own!” retorted Kai.

 

“Kiss me.”

 

“No.”

 

“Good. Meilin-chan’s watching,” said Kara, before pecking Kai’s forehead and hopping off the roof.

 

She had always been this spontaneous, and he could never keep up with her pace. Kai picked up the tarot card that Kara had dropped and smiled softly despite himself. The Magician.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Daidouji Tomoyo had a great dilemma. She held up three invitations printed on a navy blue card to a reception at the Hoshi Plaza Hotel Emerald Ballroom hosted by the Vogue Nippon magazine. It was for the Young Designer Contest after-party, and it was expected that the designers and their two models participate; basically, it was a publicity event. One was for herself, and one was for Sakura. And the last card would be for Syaoran—the editor-in-chief of Vogue Nippon expressed her great desire to see that “mysterious, atypically handsome, brooding male model.” The problem was, since each person was expected to bring a date, Sakura surely would come with Eron. And with the tension in the air these days, Tomoyo was not sure if putting Eron, Syaoran and Sakura into the same room was the best idea. She looked up and gazed at Eriol who looked slightly irritated as Mizuki Kai sized him up and down in a combative manner. It didn’t make sense for her to ask Eriol to be her escort, anyway. With a long sigh, Tomoyo tucked away the invitations inside her bag.

 

Usually, Kai did his best to ignore Hiiragizawa Eriol’s existence. Today, he circled around Eriol hand on chin, brows furrowed down in deep observation. “What?” asked Eriol dryly.

 

Finally, Kai crossed his arms. “I don’t get it. Why does my sister absolutely idolize you? You’re good at cooking and smart, undoubtedly. But I’m more handsome and athletic and charismatic. I’m probably a more fun person to be with. Besides, you can’t change that fundamentally, you are an old creep who plays chess for fun.”

 

“Miho idolizes me? That’s news to me,” remarked Eriol with that maddening Cheshire-like smile.

 

“It’s always ‘Eriol this, Eriol that.’” Kai scaled Eriol from head to toe. “I admit, Clow Reed does hold a certain mysterious charm, though I credit that black cloak is where half that ambiance comes from. Heck, I know my appeal goes up ten points when I have my Kaitou Magician cloak on. Maybe Clow’s evilness and notoriety plays a part into that intrigue. But you’re just Hiiragizawa Eriol, not some all-powerful sorcerer—and Kaitou Magician is more notorious in the 21st century, if I may boast so myself. It’s true Miho-chan does like musically talented people, but you only play gloomy elegies, she said. I concede though, you do hold that over me. I can’t play the piano.”

 

“Well, do you want to learn the real secret to winning over Miho?” asked Eriol with an evil glint in his eye.


“What is it?” Kai asked, unsuccessful in quelling the eagerness in his voice.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“What now?” demanded Miho, hands on hips as Kai pulled her out of the journalism club room where she had been busily copyediting next week’s paper. “You know how busy I am with deadlines?”

 

“It’ll just take ten minutes,” said Kai, dragging Miho to the empty music room.

 

He sat down by the grand piano and poised his fingers over the black and white keys. Indeed, with his soft auburn hair tumbling into his eyes and his sorrowful, brooding expression, he did visually fit the part of an anguished pianist very well. With a sweeping flourish, he proceeded to rattle off Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, the whole piece in presstisimo agitato. Though he self-admittedly had absolutely no musical talent, because he had an excellent memory, a good ear and especially adept, long fingers, he had mastered the difficult Chopin piece in speed time, at least technically. Finally, he ended, finger flailed, looking up at Miho expectantly.

 

“What, aren’t you moved? Aren’t you impressed?” Kai blinked up at his younger sister, awaiting a shower of compliments. Nobody in their family was particularly musically talented.

 

“You dragged me away from my article just to show off another trick you have?” Miho replied. “Ugh, onii-chan, you’re so irresponsible.”

 

“But I practiced for hours to show you!”

 

Arms crossed, Miho stated, “You should study a bit harder and get placed back into your proper grade if you have the time to be doing such useless things.”

 

“H-how did you find out I flunked?” exclaimed Kai. “Everybody promised not to tell.”

 

“Again, you and your pointless secrets,” Miho snapped. “I’m sick of them all.”

 

“But Hiiragizawa-kun said that you would absolutely be moved if I played this for you!” exclaimed Kai. “I thought you loved Chopin!”

 

“I like Beethoven better.”

 

Kai’s jaw dropped and his fingers closed in on the claviers in an ominous elegy.

 

“Don’t you know that Chopin spent all his life regretting writing Fantasie-Impromptu when he realized it sounded like the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata?” Miho continued. “Besides, how can you play the instrument like that, without a chord of sensitivity, hammering away all the notes without putting any thought into thinking about the tempo, the tone, the composition? When it comes down to it, the reason I can’t accept you, Mizuki Kai, is because you’re nothing but a big copycat!”

 

Every word shot an arrow through his heart. Dramatically sinking to his knees, arms outstretched as Miho stomped off, Kai bemoaned, “I endured seven hours of hell-training from the creepiest, most sadistic music-master ever for this?”

 

 

 

“Oh dear. Is an infuriated world-class criminal coming at me with a raised fist from 12 o’clock direction?” asked Eriol to Tomoyo in the midst of art class, calmly sketching a fat cat.

 

“He looks pretty ticked off,” remarked Tomoyo, looking up over Eriol’s head.

 

“You liar!” exploded Kai, glowering over Hiiragizawa Eriol. “She hates me even more! It’s all because of you!”

 

Eriol stifled a chuckle. “Did you really think she would like you if you tried to become like me?”

 

“That’s what you said I should do!” Kai replied in indignation. “But she likes Beethoven, not Chopin!”

 

Tomoyo hid a smile. “Did you not learn lesson number one is never to trust the words of a wizard?”

 

“This is all your fault!” Kai sputtered, pointing at Eriol. “You made me learn piano to ridicule me!”

 

“Really, I wonder how a person which such sensuality is such a dunce at the piano,” replied Eriol coolly. “Playing all the notes as fast as you can does not mean you are producing music.”

 

“So I’ve been told,” replied Kai. Now he gloomed. Despite his indignity, he was desperate. “Now what do I do?”

 

“Don’t look so sad, Kai-kun. I’m sure Miho appreciates your efforts deep in her heart and just doesn’t know how to express it,” said Sakura, pressing a reassuring hand on Kai’s arm.

 

“Sakura-chan!” exclaimed Kai, eyes glistening at the very rare compassion shown to him as of late. “Do you really think so?”

 

“I heard you learned the piano from Eriol-kun,” said Sakura with a smile. “Isn’t Eriol-kun a wonderful teacher? He once taught me how to play a beautiful melody that he composed for my Cards. It was a lot of fun.”

 

Now, Kai stared at Sakura, eyes bulging. “Fun? What are you, a masochist or something?”

 

“Hoe?”

 

With a chuckle, Eriol turned to Tomoyo. “Now, what are those invitations you’ve been fingering all day long?”

 

“About that.” Tomoyo looked at Sakura guiltily. “There’s a reception at the Hoshi Plaza Hotel Emerald Ballroom hosted by Vogue Nippon magazine for the Best Young Designer contestants tomorrow—you know how they covered the contest and included outtakes in their January issue. All the models are invited as well. And by invited, I mean they are expected to be there. It’s a press-covered event, so it is a good opportunity for everybody to network. But I understand very well if you don’t want to go, with everything that happened during the contest….”

 

“Of course I’ll go for Tomoyo-chan’s sake,” said Sakura. Her father had taken the bullet in the middle of the contest, covering for her grandfather. But luckily, it had been a minor wound, and her father had since then recovered completely. While Tomoyo had not received first place, because of positive coverage by the magazine, she knew that Tomoyo had been receiving various commission requests and even scholarship offers to various design schools. But Tomoyo had refused all the requests with her polite, “I am thankful for your interest, but I am currently occupied with high school.” 

 

And Tomoyo added in a smaller voice, “I think you’re supposed to bring a partner as well.”

 

“I see. Who should I ask?” pondered Sakura.

 

Eron leaned over, bemused. “Isn’t it customary to bring your boyfriend?”

 

“That’s right!” exclaimed Sakura. She had clearly forgotten that you go to events like this with your boyfriend.

 

“Well then, I will be honored to accompany you then,” said Eron.

 

Sakura gulped hard. Did that mean that Syaoran was going to turn up at the reception? Or was Aki invited instead. For everyone’s sake, she prayed it would be Aki, since he had accompanied her to the press conference and had been the original male model. She stared at her the invitation printed on fancy navy blue parchment paper. Sakura wondered who Tomoyo would bring to the reception. Customarily, Eriol had escorted Tomoyo to most of the big events by default. But now that Tomoyo seemed to have folded her feelings for Eriol, it might be awkward for her to ask him.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The classroom was empty as school ended and everybody filed outside. Sakura was on cleaning duty and she rested the mop against the wall and stared out the window. Outside the window, she could see Syaoran running in the soccer field. She watched him leap up and shoot the ball into the net. Though his back was turned to her, she was pretty sure he was grinning bashfully as his teammates cheered on him. He always had that same blithe expression, pleased to have scored, embarrassed at the attention he was receiving. The Syaoran she knew was hardworking and humble, disciplined and determined.

 

“Sakura-chan, we’re all done outside,” said Rika.

 

Sakura turned around with a start as she found her friend standing next to her. “Oh. Thanks Rika-chan. I’m finished in here as well.” She glanced outside out of the corner of her eyes. Surely Rika hadn’t caught her watching Syaoran. Besides, it wasn’t like I looking at Syaoran specifically; I was just looking at the soccer team because I’m worried about what happened last time between Eron and Syaoran.

 

“Terada-sensei says he never met a student who has changed more than Li-kun,” remarked Risa offhandedly. The two were the only ones remaining in the classroom.

 

“How so?”

 

“Don’t you remember when Li-kun first transferred to Tomoeda Elementary? He never spoke to anybody. Well, until Meilin-chan came along. We all used to be slightly scared of him. But even then, you seemed to get along with him.” Rika watched Syaoran’s teammates clap him on the back. While Eron was popular amongst the girls, Syaoran was liked and respected by the school’s male population, because Syaoran was viewed as a man’s man. “He’s come a long way, don’t you think?”

 

“I guess,” said Sakura stiltedly.

 

Rika leaned against the windowsill and smiled slightly. “But I always knew Li-kun was a good guy. Long ago, I was possessed by something and attacked Sakura-chan against my will with a sword. I almost hurt Sakura-chan. But you told Li-kun not to hurt me, and he listened to you.”

 

“You remember that?” asked Sakura. Sometimes, she wondered how much of her big secret really remained a secret to her closest friends and how much they really had figured out and just played dumb. 

 

“It took me a long time to piece together things.” She pulled over the end of her scarf and revealed red heart-shaped brooch with wings, the gilt golden paint slightly chipped now.

 

“That—” Sakura pointed.

 

Rika nodded. “Sakura-chan gave it to me long ago, back in fifth grade. Because I lost my sword-shaped brooch.”

 

“I can’t believe you still have it,” said Sakura.

 

“I treasure it very much, because Sakura-chan gave it to me.” Rika smiled. “Sakura-chan always has been such a genuine and generous person and that generosity has been a strength to me for all these years.”

 

“Rika-chan.” Sakura stared at her dark-haired friend who had always been more mature than any of her year-mates and often seemed to have far more thoughts than she would express in word. 

 

“In life, each person we meet can make all the difference in the world,” said Rika slowly. “I come from a really strict family, so I didn’t get to interact with a lot of other kids my age when I was young. So, when I started school, I used to be really shy and scared of everybody. It’s because I met Terada-sensei, though, that I got a little less introverted and was able to open up to people. And you and Chiharu-chan and everybody always tried to include me in everything. Somehow, when I was with you guys, I always found myself laughing and having fun.”

 

Sakura recalled how quiet Rika had been when she first met her back in third grade, even more so then now.

 

“I think for Li-kun, you might have been that kind of person in his life,” Rika continued. “If you hadn’t been so kind to him in the beginning, Yamazaki-kun wouldn’t have gotten close to him—you know Yamazaki-kun only hangs out with Chiharu-chan. Yamazaki-kun doesn’t trust people that easily, but he knows that the people Sakura-chan likes are good people. And if Yamazaki-kun didn’t hang out with Li-kun, the rest of the class wouldn’t have found out what a nice and gentle person Li-kun actually is. Then, if hadn’t made so many friends, I’m sure he would have transferred back to Hong Kong at the end of the school year, like he intended, and perhaps never came back.” 

 

“You’re giving me too much credit, Rika-chan. All that had nothing to do with me,” said Sakura with light laughter. “Really.”

 

“Sakura-chan is kind to everyone equally, so maybe you didn’t notice.” Rika watched her friend. “I thought about it over and over again, but you treat him differently from anyone else.”

 

“Do I?” It was true. Sakura fiddled with her banana milk carton; she had thought it too. Syaoran had always been harder on her than he had been on anybody else—she had noticed it when she saw him interacting with everybody else. And she too always put a higher bar on Syaoran. Because their fundamental relationship had been based on friendly rivalry, they naturally had higher expectations from each other.

 

Rika nodded. “You are deliberately harsher to Li-kun than anyone else. I thought when you ignored him for months after he came back, and also last time when Eron-kun and Li-kun got into a fight in the soccer field. You know Li-kun wouldn’t fight unprovoked—he’s not that type of person. And you saw that he was injured. But you turned your back on him.” And Rika paused. Sakura went to help Eron, without taking a second glance at Syaoran. The Sakura she knew wouldn’t ignore a person in pain like that. And Syaoran had been in pain, for Rika could see it in his eyes as he gazed at Sakura and Eron. “You’re not the type of person who would turn your back on your long time friend even for your boyfriend’s sake.”

 

Flustered, Sakura opened her milk carton and took a swig out of it, feeling uncomfortable being cornered by Rika out of all her friends, because she had always been slightly more intimidated by her than any of her other friends. Swallowing, she asked slowly, “What do you mean?”

 

“Sakura-chan, are you by any chance still in love with Li-kun?”

 

“EHHH?” Sakura spurted out her milk. “In l-l-love with who?”

 

Rika stared at Sakura with her deep chocolate brown eyes. “I’m sorry if I crossed the line, but I want you to know, you don’t have to hide anything from me. We’ve been friends for over eight years now.”

 

“You’re mistaken, Rika-chan. I’m dating Eron-kun now,” stammered Sakura, red in the face.

 

“And do you love him?” Rika asked frankly. “Do you love Eron-kun?”

 

Sakura remained silent for a while. “I don’t know. Love is such a strong word. I don’t know if my feelings can be called love.”

 

“Really?” Rika smiled softly. “I’ve been a romantic all my life. Perhaps I’m a little old-fashioned but for me, the person I love is the person I want to date and the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

 

“But what if you think you love somebody and later realize that it wasn’t love?” asked Sakura.

 

“And what if you didn’t realize only till later that it was?” Rika looked up at her friend, knowing they both were not talking about Chang Eron anymore. “What is the risk of loving? Love unrequited? Sacrificed pride? Fear of rejection? If there is anything I learned with my experience with Yutaka-kun, the heart speaks for itself.”

 

“What if you’ve given your all, and there is nothing more to give?” Sakura stared off at the chalkboard smudged with today’s math equations. “Last year, I went to Hong Kong to see him, to hear any explanation. But he rejected me. Still, I was waiting, even after all those months. And when he came back, he could have offered me some sort of explanation, any sort of reassurance, but he didn’t. He shut me off. What more could I do then?”

 

“Li-kun did?” asked Rika. She had never heard the whole story of what had happened between Sakura and Syaoran, two people she had always had faith in, and why they had become strangers to each other. “I see. Is that why you drifted apart from him?”

 

“We’re okay now. We’ve come to some sort of understanding,” replied Sakura. For a long time, it had been painful to think about, talk about. But the fact she could speak about it so openly must have meant her heart had healed a little bit. “He must have had his reasons, and he’s not someone I can shut out from my life forever.”

 

“Someone you cannot live without seeing.” Rika’s eyes were sad. “What does he mean to you then?”

 

For a long moment, there was only silence in the classroom as Sakura thought of all the adjectives that she could use to describe him. Finally, she replied, “He’s just Li Syaoran, as he always has been.”

 

“Sakura-chan, last Christmas, you gave me one last chance when I had given up all hope.” Rika paused. “No, that’s not true. I thought I had given up all hope, but you made me realize that no matter how much time passed, my heart would never change. If I didn’t have that once last chance to see Terada-sensei, whether or not he would accept me, then I would have always lived my life with regret. I always thought Terada-sensei was right, because he’s older, because he’s more mature, because he’s my teacher. But I realized age, maturity, position in society, nor sense of duty matters once you find that undeniable answer deep within your heart.”

 

“Rika-chan…”

 

“When I was separated from Terada-sensei last March, I thought love was scary; it was scary thinking that the pain will never go away, thinking that I may never see the person I love again. But I think the scariest thing is when it’s really too late, when it’s not a matter of not seeing that person but when you really can’t see the person again.” Somehow, Rika, the quietest of her friends, had grown bolder and much franker. Her brown eyes were clear and luminous. Perhaps it was love. “This is for your sake Sakura-chan. If you don’t know the truth in your heart, it is not fair to anybody, not Eron-kun, not Li-kun, not yourself.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Do something about my brother,” Miho implored Meilin after school—Kai was waiting by the junior high building, so she figured the only safe zone was the high school section. “Has he always been so clinging and annoying?”

 

“Don’t even talk about it,” said Meilin, rolling her eyes. “He’s obsessive and competitive to boot. That’s how he’s so good at videogames you know—he has a complete otaku mentality.”

 

“Please get him to stop following me around. My friends actually think I make him stand around waiting for me all day because I’m trying to show off.”

 

“Does he ever listen to anyone? He definitely won’t listen to me,” replied Meilin. “Besides, we’re over.”

 

“Why?” exclaimed Miho, clasping Meilin’s hands. “Don’t break up with ‘nii-chan. His heart would be broken, and then he’ll become even more clingy to me if he doesn’t have you.”

 

Meilin smiled wryly. It’s my heart that’s gotten broken here. He doesn’t even bother to hide that he’s still crazy about Kara Reed. “He’ll find another girlfriend in no time.”

 

Miho shook her head adamantly. “Onii-chan knows only one. He likes you, Meilin-nee-chan. What ever he did wrong, just give him another chance. He’ll make it up, I promise.”

 

“See, you know him best. Just humor him for a bit, and he’ll get tired of trying to be the perfect brother,” Meilin remarked, patting Miho on the head.

 

“Ugh, I can’t believe I used to think I wanted to marry a guy just like onii-chan when I was five,” said Miho, palms on her forehead.

 

“Ah, what to five-year-olds know about love,” said Meilin with a tiny smile as she glanced off to Syaoran running the soccer field with new vigor, catching up to Chang Eron who dribbled ahead with the ball.

 

 

 

“I absolutely detest Hiiragizawa Eriol,” groaned Kai, kicking the soccer ball in to the net, pretending it was Eriol’s head. Miho had disappeared from her classroom, and he was sulking again. 

 

“Welcome to the club,” replied Syaoran. It was a sad day when he welcomed listening to Kai mope about his unreceptive little sister because it offered a distraction from his own headache. Needless to say, Jinyu had not returned to the soccer team after that one day but his presence remained in that the team practiced like they were training for championship, not passing off time till the seniors returned.

 

Kai groaned, “I can’t believe I let him manipulate me into learning the piano from him. He’s a demon!”

 

“Ever get him to teach you basketball?” Syaoran said glumly.

 

“Does he go, ‘Be calm, if you don’t lose sight of that, you will definitely get better?’ ” Holding his shoulders, Kai shivered at the thought of Eriol saying those words in his deep purring voice.

 

“And doesn’t he creep up behind you without making a sound?”

 

Kai nodded. “He does! And then he acts all smug and superior. What’s so great about him anyway?”

 

“He’s eviler than the Dark Ones, but the girls just don’t see it,” remarked Syaoran.

 

“Friend!” exclaimed Kai, throwing his arms around Syaoran. “What did I do until now without you in my life?”

 

“Get away from me—this is how rumors start!” exclaimed Syaoran, squirming. He groaned as Aki clicked a photo.

 

“I wish you were a girl,” sighed Kai. “You’re totally my ideal type. Faithful, single-minded, a great cook and housekeeper to boot, not to mention fashionable.”

 

“Gee, I don’t know whether to be flattered or not.” Syaoran juggling the soccer ball with the top of his knees.

 

“So are you going to the reception at Hoshi Plaza this weekend?”

 

“I guess.” Syaoran kicked up the ball and began bouncing it off his head. “It’s quite strange. I was helping Tomoyo embroider butterflies on a dress, and somehow, by the time we finished the embroidery, I found myself with an invitation and her shaking my hands, thanking me.”

 

“And the scary part is, you don’t remember saying yes, right?” said Kai.

 

Syaoran nodded. “That’s right!”

 

“It’s like she has a master plan, and we are all her puppets,” stated Kai. “No wonder she’s the only person in our class Eriol considers as an equal.” 

 

 

 

“Are you all right?” asked Tomoyo when Eriol sneezed three consecutive times in the music room.

 

“Maybe I’m coming down with a cold,” said Eriol, as he continued the sonata he had been playing on the grand piano.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Mei-chan! Mei-chan!” Kai exclaimed excitedly, leaning over the windowsill. “It worked. It really worked!”

 

“What did?” said Meilin crankily, yawning as she turned over in bed to see her clock. It was two in the morning.

 

Without invitation, Kai hopped off the windowsill and helped himself to sitting down on the bed, next to her. “Today, Miho-chan said ‘thank you’ when I packed her lunch box and then said hello to me when I waited to pick her up after school. She even called me ‘onii-chan’ at dinner and let me tell her a bedtime story before going to bed.”

 

Meilin hid a little smile. It was so easy to forget that she had ended things with Kai when at times she wanted to pet him on the head and flower him with words of encouragement. “Well, are you satisfied now? She’s glad to have you back, as you can tell. So now, you can relax a bit and focus on your life?”

 

“No!” Kai shook his head. “Now, maybe she will listen to me a bit. That pesky Aki-kun is no good for her.”

 

With a sigh, Meilin muttered, “Sorry Miho-chan, I tried. I really did.” To Kai, she said, “Well, if that’s what you woke me up for at this time of the night, go away so that I can get my beauty’s sleep.”

 

Glad that Meilin at least was talking to him again, Kai, mustering up his courage, asked, “Saturday, do you want to go out with me?”

 

“Sorry, I have prior arrangements,” said Meilin shortly. It wasn’t a lie either.  

 

“Meilin, how long are you going to stay mad at me? I’m sorry. I really am. I don’t know what more to say. What can I do to get you to forgive me?” implored Kai.

 

Who could resist those sincere periwinkle blue eyes when he looked up like that, his golden-auburn hair tousled and his collar button open? “Nothing,” said Meilin, turning her head abruptly. Why can’t I just forgive him? He apologized. I don’t want to stay mad at him. But not this. I can’t forgive him for cheating on me.

 

 

 

******  

 

 

 

Saturday evening came along, and the Vogue Nippon reception was every bit a press-covered event studded with prominent personnel related to the fashion industry. It wasn’t so much a party honoring the magazine as much as it was an opportunity for everyone to come decked out in their finest and make the biggest impression on everyone else in the business. Even now, Sakura’s mouth dropped in awe at all the fashionable individuals mingling around the ballroom, though she personally thought there was nobody more beautiful than her beloved Tomoyo. Tomoyo had an understated beauty that could be easily overlooked by those who were attracted to flashy types such as Erika or the model Olivia; but Tomoyo had very traditional Japanese features, with pale, luminous skin and masses of dark hair which just made her seem like one of those porcelain dolls that you looked at without touching. Unlike most of the women in the room, parading in their flashiest jewelry and luxurious, revealing dresses, Tomoyo was decked out from head to toe in Victorian regalia, in a black crape dress trimmed with ivory-colored antique lace and little pearl buttons on the collar and sleeves. Black patent leather ankle boots gleamed at her feet, and she looked very professional; people did not treat her like a mere high school girl, but a respected designer. With a contented smile, Sakura waved at Tomoyo, honored to have such a wonderful person as her best friend.

 

“You look breathtaking,” murmured Eron as Sakura slipped off her dark blue brocade peacoat, revealing an aqua damask dress with a deep blue brocade obi that accentuated her narrow waist and then floated into a delicate tiered skirt that came to just below her knees. The fragile dress was embroidered with silver butterflies and the delicate fabric seemed to flutter about her like butterfly wings with her every movement. A large aqua butterfly ornament was pinned behind her left ear, and emerald studs glimmered from her earlobes. On her slender third finger was the gold and emerald ring that was Eron’s Christmas present.

 

Eron looked pretty spectacular himself looking far more comfortable in a three-piece ivory suit than he did in his school uniform. His long violet-blue hair was tied back in a white satin ribbon, and Sakura saw many eyes turn his direction. Even in a room full of models, he exuded a magnificent beauty that made everyone else pale in comparison, like he was vintage red wine from the vineries of Southern France, while everybody else was champagne from the local convenience store.

 

“Thank goodness you’re here,” said Tomoyo, walking up to Sakura, bright-eyed. “You look gorgeous in that dress!” She added after a second thought, “Hello Eron-kun—I’m glad you could make it as well.”

 

“Is that dress another one of your designs?” asked a petite lady with cropped hair, bending over and tracing the butterfly embroideries on the obi of Sakura’s dress. “How delightful, bringing a modern flair to traditional Japanese dress.”

 

“This is the fashion editor of Vogue Nippon, Watase-san,” said Tomoyo to Sakura.

 

“I was telling Daidouji-san how I am interested in doing a spread on street fashion featuring her designs,” said Watase Anna. “The freshness of her designs caught my eye during the Young Designer Contest.” She pushed up her glasses and examined Eron. “And this young gentleman? Are you a model?”

 

“Chang Eron-kun is a classmate,” Tomoyo said. “He’s Kinomoto-san’s date tonight.”

 

“I see,” said Watase Anna, peering at Eron. “I swear, I feel like I met you earlier this evening. But you couldn’t have been wearing a crimson tube dress. I do wonder if that face will photograph as well as it looks. The androgynous look is coming back, and that face surely can work versatile looks.” Then she looked up and spotted the girl in the red dress. “Ah. Twins. That explains. Now, that’s another never done before category.” Muttering to herself, she quickly walked off to greet her other guests.

 

Sakura and Eron looked up to see Erika walking towards to them. Erika gave them a big smile. “Onii-chan! What a surprise to see you here.”

 

“What are you doing here?” asked Eron.

 

Taking a sip of the fizzy champagne, Erika giggled. “Silly, same thing you’re doing.”

 

And Sakura, brows creased, turned around, scanning the crowds for him. The ballroom was filled with beautiful tall people decked out in their finest, just like during the Halloween masquerade. Even so, she could see him, standing quietly by the wall in a black tuxedo, looking slightly out of place like he belonged to the world on the other side of the looking glass. She was rather relieved to see Meilin, stunning in a rose-pink dress with a corseted bodice and flared skirt, walk up beside Syaoran.

 

“What, you thought I was darling Syaoran-kun’s date?” Erika rolled her eyes. “I wish.”

 

 

 

Li Syaoran looked up to see Sakura enter the ballroom with Chang Eron. The aqua in her dress brought out the greenness in her eyes and she had a soft smile on her face. Perhaps it was from all the training for the fashion show that she carried herself in a different manner. She looked more beautiful than ever, more woman than girl, and of course Eron realized it as well. Syaoran’s hand clenched into a fist. The two looked like a picture from a magazine, standing together, her golden-brown head bend against his dark violet hair.

 

“They look good together,” remarked Meilin. She pulled on the ends of her jet-black hair which had been tied into a high ponytail at the back of her head and fastened with a cherry pink ribbon. “You sort of forget how good-looking Eron-kun is because he’s so nasty all the time, but really, Sakura’s made him into a half-decent human being. You can see how he adores Sakura-chan just by his eyes.” Meilin liked her guys masculine and strong, but she couldn’t help thinking someone as devoted to her as Eron was to Sakura might be a nice change. She glared at Kai across the room. What was he doing here of all places? Then, she recalled that Tanaka Keisuke, aka Shing-san, had been a judge at the Best Designer Contest.

 

Instead of responding to Meilin’s offhand remark, Syaoran chugged down a glass of ice water and plunked it down on the cocktail table. Who wouldn’t be enamored when Sakura stared up and smiled that brilliant smile which could melt a block of ice? But if he reached for her, she would probably flutter away like that mesmerizing aqua-blue butterfly ornament on her head.   

 

Sakura waved towards Malanie, her model friend from the Best Designer Contest. Malanie smiled and waved back. There were quite a few other familiar faces, including Olivia, contest winner Aoyama Shiori’s model and a pop icon on her own right, dressed in a radiant yellow tulle dress, and Watanabe Jun, the runner-up winner, was engrossed in a conversation with Tomoyo regarding his experience studying fashion abroad. Her Aunt Hisano spoke to the Director of the Horitsuba Design School, and Sakura bowed to her. Kinomoto Hisano smiled and nodded to the director, hurrying to greet her niece and update her with news on little Nina’s progress.

 

Watching from a distance, Syaoran noted that Sakura had grown a lot more comfortable in public. He recalled how nervous and awkward she had been back in New York for the Young Director reception, as captured so expertly in Mike’s photograph. Now, she moved about with a natural poise, assisted of course by the beauty in Tomoyo’s clothes, with a new sort of confidence that radiated from her posture and eye contact. She was no longer the blundering girl who would turn bright red and try to hide behind her friends’ back in a situation where she was put into spotlight.

 

A man in his mid-thirties approached Sakura with a business card. “Kinomoto Sakura-san, right? My name is Matsuda from Stardust Production. I saw you in the Young Designer Fashion Show, and our agency thought that you had a bright, fresh image that we were looking for. Please contact me if you are interested in starting a modeling career.”

 

“Hoe?” Sakura took the business card and blinked. She was pretty sure Stardust Production had been her mother’s modeling agency. 


“Well, looks like you’re not going to end up working at Li Syaoran’s restaurant, after all,” Eron remarked.

 

 

 

Because Meilin was so fixated on a certain handsome young man in black, she was oblivious to the fact that Syaoran had downed his fourth glass of water since entering the ballroom. It bothered Meilin that Kai had not come up to her once to greet her—surely he had seen her. From across the ballroom, Meilin could see that Kai had slicked back his auburn hair and wore a black Italian linen suit with a slim black silk necktie over a black silk shirt, looking every bit the society boy he had grown up as. When he was not being a moronic, needy older brother and put together all the best traits of Kaitou Magician, the mastermind charismatic manipulator, and Tanaka Mikai, the chivalric and courteous gentleman, there was nobody who would not fall under his charm. The thing about Mizuki Kai was that he could blend into any setting seamless, be it a grand ballroom in a five-star hotel or in the allies in the rundown outskirts of Tokyo with hoodlums or as a role model student and archery champion, or on the headlines of the evening news playing the mysterious Thief of the Night. But who was the real Mizuki Kai? 

 

“Tanaka-kun, you’re the son of Shing-san, aren’t you? Who knew the renowned artist Shing was none other than Tanaka Keisuke-san? Really, it’s a miracle story and I couldn’t believe my ears that Tanaka-san was actually alive and doing so well as well. Do you remember me? Your family used to come to our estate in the summertime,” said an elderly gentleman.

 

With a bow, Kai said, “Of course I remember you, Yoneda-san. My father sends his greetings and apologizes he could not attend the reception, as he is currently in the midst of preparation for his next exhibition.”

 

“Wait, Shing-sensei is your father?” asked a plump woman with gray hair. “THE Shing-sensei of the ‘Angel and Warrior’ series?”

 

“Didn’t you know? Shing-san is actually just the pseudonym of a regular Japanese businessman. Rumors say he faked his own death so that he could start his art career in quiet,” stated another older lady who was a reputed fashion designer

 

“Really? I heard he had amnesia after an accident,” remarked another person.

 

“Ha, are you writing a soap opera? I heard that the mafia was after him, so he had to go in hiding, and all his paintings are code messages to a Vatican secret society.”

 

Kai merely smiled politely like his face was frozen into a mask. Then, Meilin stopped short when she saw Kara Reed step up next to Kai—she had not been expecting Kara to be here. Kara wore a long sleek black halter-neck dress with slits that came to her thighs, revealing long, slim legs accentuated by gleaming black high heels. Her golden-white hair was pulled back into a simple chignon and long golden drop earrings dangled from her lobes. She looked effortlessly chic and elegant. Meilin, who had felt so beautiful and mature in her brand new dress from the department store, suddenly felt very childlike and tacky next to Kara. Her stomach suddenly felt queasy from the little enchiladas and fried mushrooms from the hors d’oeuvres table that she had devoured earlier. He didn’t waited long at all to find a replacement for me. A lump formed in her throat Of course Kai is in love with her. She’s a real woman. Next to her, I’m just a little girl playing make-believe. Quick tears stung her eyes. That liar—he lied when he said there’s nothing going on between him and Kara Reed. They’ve probably been dating behind my back all along, and I’ve just been too stupid to see it.   

 

“I don’t think there’s anything going on between Kai and Kara,” said Syaoran slowly as he handed her a glass of water that he had been about to drink.

 

Meilin took the water gratefully. “Don’t you see them together?”

 

“Appearances can be deceiving,” he replied. “You know how Kai is a surprisingly one-tracked person. He wouldn’t cheat on you.”

 

“But Rido-senpai was his first love.”

 

“First love is what it is. The first. It doesn’t necessarily last.” Syaoran remarked looking to the other side of the ballroom where Sakura was now dancing in Eron’s arms. “Kara’s not someone who will give her heart out so easily, either. She’s a Reed—she likes causing trouble for the sake of it.”

 

For some reason, though Syaoran’s words were not very convincing, just the fact that he was in his awkward manner trying to reassure really did make her feel better.

 

“Do you want to dance?” asked Syaoran, holding out a hand.

 

Li Meilin had waited sixteen years for this moment, when the prince of her dreams would extend his hand out in a fancy ballroom, and she would take his hand, wearing a beautiful, floaty dress that swooshed when she moved. It was like a dream come true waltzing with Syaoran under the brilliance of the chandeliers and surrounded by beautiful people. They moved together well, since they were so accustomed to each other’s movement. Though she was still confused about how she felt about Syaoran’s role in stealing the Sakura Cards, there was something irresistible about this Syaoran who seemed to be motivated and striving towards a goal. He had regained that glean in his eyes as if he had a purpose again. Because she had seen him in Hong Kong move about like one who had given up on life. Though she had been forbidden to speak to him, he himself made no efforts to reach out to her either. And it hurt her that during such difficult times, he would not confide in her. She did not know if it was regaining the use of his arm or just being near Sakura again or whether it was that he had finally come to terms with not having his powers again, that Syaoran was back to the Syaoran she knew and loved.

 

 

 

Mizuki Kai watched Meilin in irritation as he saw that her head was bent close to Syaoran’s. What were they talking about? Sure, they probably had a lot to catch up after all these months. He was sincerely glad that Meilin seemed to have made truce with her cousin—but he never realized that it would be at the expense of his relationship with her. How could she ignore him all night as if he was some vermin of the earth that didn’t even deserve a greeting? She clearly looked him into his eyes and then looked back at Syaoran with a self-satisfied smirk, as if telling him two can play at a game. He groaned. Out of all the girls in the world, why did I have to pick the most stubborn one of all?

 

“They were out of orange juice,” grumbled Miho as she walked back from the drink bar.

 

“Here, they have fizzy lemonade,” said Kai, snatching away the champagne glass from Miho’s hand and replacing it with the lemonade.

 

“Gosh, Aki-senpai is so dedicated to Tomoyo-senpai, it’s pitiful,” remarked Miho, watching Aki trailing around Tomoyo like she was the goddess of his life. But Tomoyo was far too preoccupied with greeting everyone to pay much attention to her date. Why Tomoyo had chosen Aki instead of Eriol, Miho had no clue—no wonder Eriol had looked like he wanted to bring down the house earlier that day; he so did hate being left out. “Of course, Tomoyo-senpai is so pretty, it’s easy to see why he does worship her so. It’s a hopeless case, you know.”

 

“Why?” demanded Kai with sudden fervor. “Why can’t he be rewarded when he tries so hard? Is he any less deserving than Hiiragizawa Eriol? Aki-kun is smart and kind and generous, not to mention dedicated and hard-working!”

 

“Geez, when were you all buddy-buddy with Aki-senpai?” Miho sipped on her lemonade. “Anyhow, aren’t you going over to Meilin-senpai? We came here just so that you can try to win her back.”

 

Her older brother groaned. “How can I compete against Li Syaoran? Didn’t you watch the Card Captor Sakura movie that Tomoyo-chan made for the Best Director contest?”

 

Miho nodded. “You watched it too? Yeah, Meilin-senpai’s loved him for a good ten years. That’s dedication right there.”

 

“I had a chance while he was out of the picture. But now that he is back in the single-market—” Kai swiveled around and glared at Eron and Sakura.      

 

“Well, we’ll just have to make sure that Syaoran-senpai gets back together with Sakura-senpai,” stated Miho, gray eyes glinting. “I learned all about this from Eriol. It’s called the Tanaka-Kyoudai Love-Love Operation #1: Split apart Chang Eron and Kinomoto Sakura!” 

 

“Are we finally on the same wavelength here, Miho-chan?” asked Kai, tears of gratitude brimming in his eyes.

 

“Nope,” replied Miho with a big grin. “But I’d rather have Meilin-nee-chan as a sister-in-law than Kara Reed any day! Anyhow, what is Rido-senpai doing here, anyway?” 

 

“The Li Clan is up to no good, it seems,” said Kai grimly. “You stay close to me—there’s some strange people lurking around here tonight.”

 

 

 

Dancing with Syaoran was perhaps not as dreamy as Meilin had once imagined it would be, since she could have probably been a wooden doll and he would have handled her the same. She spun round and round the ballroom in Syaoran’s arms and started feeling dizzier and dizzier. Syaoran was clearly preoccupied with something else. Alert again, she asked, “What’s cousin Leiyun doing here?”

 

“I don’t know,” replied Syaoran. “Both Kara and Leiyun are here. That’s rare.”

 

And it dawned upon her. “Where’s Jinyu then?”

 

“May I cut in?” asked a haughty, crisp voice.

 

“Go ahead,” replied Syaoran, stepping away as he did not want to get caught in the midst of a lover’s quarrel.

 

And Meilin found that Kai had interloped between her and Syaoran and guided her towards the center of the ballroom. For a split second, Meilin wondered if Syaoran intentionally had led her across the ballroom to dump her straight into Kai’s arms. Meilin glared up at Mizuki Kai as he grasped her hand and pressed her against him. Her heels clacked on the marble floor and her feet moved to the rhythm of the tango. Whether or not he had any musical finesse, there was nobody who could dance quite like Mizuki Kai, with force and sensuality.  

 

“I’m sorry I ruined your fantasy-moment with dear Syao-kun,” said Kai snidely.

 

Meilin let out a rude noise as he swirled her around and caught her in his arm. “As if you have any right to say anything. We broke up. Remember?”

 

“I don’t remember breaking up with you—you just decided on that one-sidedly. Perfect timing too, so that you can go back to Syaoran who is coincidentally single at the moment, since our precious Sakura-hime is being courted by the Duke of Darkness over there,” remarked Kai.

 

She hated when Kai was being intentionally malicious. “Excuse me, you’re the one who abandoned me for a month, and you’re the one who cheated on me. Besides, shouldn’t you go entertain your date?’

 

“I did not cheat on you!” exclaimed Kai.

 

“I saw what I saw, and you can’t lie or hypnotize your way out of this,” replied Meilin with eyes that suddenly stung. Why are all the chandeliers so bright?

 

“I didn’t kiss her back.”

 

Abruptly, Meilin stepped away and slapped Kai across the face. “You call that an excuse?” She picked up her skirt and ran away towards the exit. The tears that she had been holding back all night long since she saw Kai walk in with Kara overflowed and spilt over her cheeks.

 

“Wait, Meilin. I said wait!” called out Kai, chasing after her.

 

Meilin pushed a waiter and made her way out to the balcony, shutting the glass door behind her so that Kai could not follow her. After a while, she turned around and looked back. He was gone. Good. Then, she took a deep breath, holding her shoulders to contain her sobs. Don’t cry over that cheating thief. He doesn’t deserve your tears. Whoever wrote fairytales were all liars. When she had literally thrown herself into Kai’s arms at the Hong Kong airport, she had believed, at least in that blissful moment, that her heart had spoken and she truly had found her most important person. The problem was, her so-called most important person had so many more important matters than her. Is it selfish of me to ask him to pay attention to me and only me? Heaven knows, he’s not my prince on a white horse that I’ve always dreamt about. Just my luck I fell in love with a cynical, sinister thief whom I cannot comprehend at all.    

 

To her surprise, a black shadow dropped from above her head onto the balcony ledge like a bat. She gasped.

 

Kai knelt down on his knees on the marble balcony. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let her enter my room in the first place—but she really caught me off guard as well. It was not my intention at all.”

 

Craning her head up, Meilin demanded, “Where did you come from?”

 

“I’ve stolen from this location before. I know the structure of this hotel better than the constructors do,” replied Kai a little too smugly.

 

“See, that’s exactly why I can’t be with you,” said Meilin. “I can never tell when you are being serious. I can’t be with somebody just for the fun of it. Maybe you view things differently from me. You don’t trust people, hence you don’t think trust is important. You don’t like the obligations of a relationship, hence you run everything at your pace and refuse to say any words binding you to one person. That’s why you can’t even accept Sakura’s invitation to become a part of the Star Alliance. You act like a clown so that people don’t take you seriously, because you’re afraid of people getting closer to you and really cracking into what is beneath the surface, hence you alienate yourself from your friends and family. Maybe that is why to you, love is a sentimental, flippant affair that you can mock and ridicule.” Meilin looked Kai straight in the eye. “But to me, love is sacred, and my heart can be only for one person. That is why I can’t be with you, Mizuki Kai.”

 

She couldn’t tell if Kai was in shock or simply analyzing a way to respond to her without hurting her feelings. His voice betrayed him, because it slightly shook as he asked in a low voice, “So you thought all this while, I’ve just been playing around, that I wasn’t serious, that I took you lightly?” Kai’s marble-like eyes flashed a deep gray-blue, almost black, like the turbulent night sky. “You think that I am that kind of vile, thoughtless person?”  

 

“I’m not you. I can’t read between the lines. I need things told to me plain and straight,” said Meilin, blinking away her tears.

 

“Fine. So be it,” Kai said. “If that is what you thought of me, then that is that. I don’t chase after someone who wants out. That is my policy.” He then leaped off the balcony, into the pitch black gardens below.

 

Meilin collapsed down on her knees. She had never seen Kai so furious. And those who craned their ears at the sound of a girl sobbing in the trail of the howling winter’s wind probably heard the sound of a heart breaking.

 

 

 

Though Eron had accompanied her to several formal affairs before, this was Sakura’s first time at an event as a couple. Eron was a wonderful dance partner. He knew how to lead, and he had an internal sort of rhythm uncommon in boys his age. Sakura had always thought this since the days of rehearsal for Star-Crossed back in junior high, except back then, she had felt far too awkward with him to appreciate that he was an excellent ballroom dancer unlike someone else. As Sakura always noted, Eron always seemed to emanate the sense that he belonged in 19th century Europe, not modern day Japan.

 

“Oh my gosh, isn’t that movie actor Himura Takuya?” squealed some models. “And the woman next to him actress Akagi Arima!”

 

Sakura looked over Eron’s shoulder at a glum looking Akagi Arima sitting at a table. A handsome man that Sakura vaguely recognized from the screens sat across from her and was talking. But Arima was slouched, and she looked bored, and her makeup didn’t cover that she had dark circles underneath her eyes. Arima looked up and caught her eye. Then she waved with a tiny smile at Sakura.

 

Poor Arima-san… She looks overworked, Sakura thought. As she circled the ballroom in tune with the violins, she noted that nobody at this party looked particularly happy. There was Meilin, looking as is had been crying. Sakura glanced over at Kai—she could see why. Kai was now speaking with Kara Reed. Even from here, she could see that Kai’s shoulders were tensed over, as if he was worried about something. In another corner of the ballroom, Aki stood alone, looking quite forlorn as Tomoyo mingled with the contestants of the fashion contest, as if coming to the realization that even without Hiiragizawa Eriol, he was no match for Tomoyo. Even Erika looked anxious, as she kept glancing at the clock. Then, as Eron and she swirled by the edge of the ballroom by the window side, Sakura caught her reflection in the glass of the window. She almost didn’t recognize herself, dancing with a handsome young man, just like some perfect couple you could see on a TV commercial. It was like a lucid dream, watching someone who looked like herself dancing in a stranger’s arms, as if her body and mind were separate entities. She slowly looked around the crowd of people more out of habit than by intention. And her emerald eyes met a pair of amber eyes. She quickly looked away, humiliated to be caught looking at him. But then, she slowly looked up again.  

 

Syaoran nodded his head towards his left side, and Sakura followed his gaze. She almost gasped. Li Leiyun was here. It was the first time Sakura had seen Leiyun in his element. She might have seen glimpses of it at school, but Leiyun shone most when he was surrounded by people. He reminded of her snow, beautiful yet cold, with his silver hair and ice-blue eyes accentuated by a white silk tuxedo.

 

“What’s wrong?” Eron whispered in her ear as she came to a sudden halt. Eron too looked up to see Li Leiyun amidst the throng of businessmen present at the reception.

 

A distinguished man in a navy blue suit walked up to him. “Welcome to Japan, Li Leiyun-san. We are honored you finally graced us with your presence. Is your father doing well?”

 

“My name is Nishimoto of Daito Securities. We would love to strengthen are ties with Li Corporation this year. If you could put in a good word with your uncle Li Daifu-san,” said another gentleman, bowing down to Leiyun.

 

Syaoran would probably scowl and grunt a half-answer, but Leiyun smiled graciously, shaking hands with each person, saying, “Fukada-san, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. I heard your son got accepted to Waseda University. Congratulations. Nishimoto-san, I just communicated with Uncle Daifu who wanted me to convey to you that you are cordially invited to a dinner event next month in Singapore which you may be interested in. Our secretary will of course extend a formal invitation next week.”

 

Finally, Leiyun turned around and watched Sakura as if he had found a very amusing spectacle. Sakura prayed he would not come up to her, but he did, with a delighted smile on his face. “Why, it’s the little model. They say fine feathers make a bird. The Dark One and the One Who is the Descendent of the Betrayer, what a pretty picture.”

 

Sakura felt Eron’s fingers lace around hers more tightly as he stared up at Li Leiyun.

 

Leiyun, however, did not seem to notice, and turned over and looked at Syaoran and Meilin, who looked nearly in tears, standing together. “Aren’t those two adorable? I always thought they should end up getting married. You know, keep the good blood in the family. And really, who else would put up with that obstinate boy besides dear, patient Meilin-chan?” He bent over and whispered, “I’m not a big fan of Mizuki-kun, you see. Never was particularly fond of liars and thieves, though I guess dear Miho-chan is still ecstatic that her dear brother returned. Almost as excited as Syaoran was when I came back, don’t you think?” His gaze lingered towards a girl with long violet hair dressed in black. “It’s a pity about your good friend Tomoyo-chan. She’s quite a phenomenal girl, isn’t she? Too bad she couldn’t stand a chance against Mizuki Kaho-sensei. And poor Aki-kun. It’s scandalous his sister is rumored to be having an affair with her costar right over there, isn’t it? What will Asuma do?”    

 

A chill washed over Sakura. It was unsettling to have Li Leiyun rattle off all her friends’ names and make observations about them as if he knew everyone personally, and Sakura braced herself. It also surprised her to recall that Asuma-san and Leiyun had once been friends back in Hong Kong.

 

Instead of making more snide comments, Leiyun bowed mockingly, hand on chest, and declared, “Well, if you would excuse me, little Moon-wielding Card Mistress without her Cards, duty calls.”

 

 

 

Kai had been on his way out when he spotted Leiyun with his ice-blue eyes watching over the ballroom like a chess master watching his pawns fall into place. He gripped Kara by her arm. “Kara. What’s going on? Is this what you meant earlier, when you said something very interesting is going to happen tonight?”

 

Glancing at her watch, Kara replied, “I don’t have time to talk to you.”

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“They’re holding a meeting. To decide on the successor to the late Yamamoto Noboru, sixth head of the yakuza,” replied Kara shortly.

 

“Why are you going there?” Kai demanded. “It’s dangerous. There are people who would recognize who you are.”

 

Brushing off Kai’s hand, Kara said, “I’m not some frail girl that needs protection. Stop caring what I do when you can’t even keep your girlfriend happy.”

 

Once again, Kai watched Kara walk off, her long black dress sweeping behind her.

 

“Mikai, promise me you will watch out for Kara… I don’t think I can anymore… Tell her that I love her… and that I am sorry…”

 

 

 

“Meilin-nee-chan!” Miho blinked when she saw Meilin reenter the ballroom with puffy eyes with Syaoran by her side. “Weren’t you with onii-chan?”

 

“Why should I be with him?” replied Meilin, hoping her mascara hadn’t smeared from her tears. It was over, completely over between her and Mizuki Kai. “Wouldn’t it be more logical for him to be with his date?”


Miho looked up in surprise. “Onii-chan came with me. I wanted to see all the famous people and perhaps come up with an article idea, but otou-san didn’t want me to come alone, so he made onii-chan escort me. Of course, he didn’t want to since he hates societal functions like this—not that you can tell since he never acts like he does— but he heard you’re going, so he got all dressed up just to see you, Meilin-nee-chan.”

 

“But Rido-senpai…” Meilin looked up at Syaoran.

 

Syaoran sighed impatiently. “Didn’t I tell you? Cousin Leiyun’s here. The Li Clan is up to something.”

 

“And onii-chan was just trying to find out any information he can,” Miho stated. She tilted her head up at Syaoran—she wondered if he had intention she did, bringing Meilin to the party to help Meilin-nee-chan and her brother reconcile. 

 

Without waiting to listen further, Meilin grabbed her long skirts and swerved around. Kai!

 

 

 

“I’ll be right back,” said Eron to Sakura, as he noticed that Kara and Erika had disappeared from the ballroom. What is Erika up to now? His younger twin was quite impossible to deal with these days.

 

Meanwhile, Sakura stood in a daze, not knowing whether to be alarmed or relieved that Leiyun seemed to be busy with the other guests. Alarmed that someone who had such scary eyes could smile and look so normal.

 

“Someone will take advantage of you if you space out like that.”

 

What a Syaoran-like thing to say. Sakura blinked and looked up in surprise to see it really was him. He took her hand and led to the dance floor before she got a moment to protest.

 

“What are you—” She was cut off.

 

“This is the only way we can talk naturally.” Syaoran looked over her shoulders and said, “Don’t look around. Just look at me.” Their feet moved in tune to the music before Sakura could protest and he murmured, “Kara and Erika suddenly went missing. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with Jinyu and the negotiations between the Hong Kong triads and Yamamoto-gumi, the largest yakuza organization in Japan. Their leader was assassinated not too long ago, so I surmised they’ll be up to something.

 

Syaoran’s hand always had that strange, comforting warmth, slightly damp, callused on the palms yet soft to touch, long, strong fingers that encircled around hers. She awkwardly placed a hand on his shoulder, almost not able to touch him properly. And the hand on her waist. They had danced together numerous times, at the Winter Wonderland and for the Star-Crossed rehearsals. Yet, she had never felt so self-conscious about his touch before. Why? What had changed? Because they were no longer the close friends they used to be?

 

“Are you listening?”

 

Sakura nodded, though she was barely keeping track of the information Syaoran had bombarded at her. “It wasn’t Jinyu-san who killed the boss of the Yamamoto-gumi, was it?” 

 

“I don’t think so,” replied Syaoran. “And don’t worry—I don’t think Jinyu’s going to do anything to your grandfather again.” He wasn’t going to tell Sakura this, but he was pretty sure that someone on the Kinomoto side had come to some sort of agreement with the Li Corporation over Christmas. Otherwise, it was not the Li Clan’s policy to let a missed target live. 

 

“I see. That’s a relief,” said Sakura, looking a bit more cheered. “That’s all?”

 

“That, and the entire hotel is filled with mafia members. You need to be careful tonight,” stated Syaoran, the worrywart he always had been.

 

It occurred to Sakura that Leiyun was not in the ballroom anymore. Syaoran was no longer speaking and yet his hand was still clasping hers almost as if he was reluctant to let go. The next tune began, the first song they had learned to waltz to, Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube. She recalled vividly how painful the first couple rehearsals for Star-Crossed had been; the dance choreographer had been reduced to tears at the pair’s clumsiness, and even Tomoyo had not a single word of compliment. He had been stiff like a board, and she had stepped on his feet at least half a dozen times. None of that awkwardness remained in the Syaoran standing before her today. Yet, what was this stifling tension? Was she imagining it, or did he feel it too?

 

If you don’t know the truth in your heart, it is not fair to anybody, not Eron-kun, not Li-kun, not yourself.” Why did Rika’s words suddenly echo in her ears? This throbbing in my heart… Is it because I am still angry at him? Or is it something else… “The Halloween Masquerade… It really was you.”     

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Why did you have that photo?”

 

“What photo?” Syaoran knew exactly what photo she was talking about.

 

Then she glimpsed Eron’s face across the dance floor and saw him leave the ballroom in a rage. Instantly, she was pulled back into reality. “Eron-kun!” she exclaimed.

 

“What is it?” Syaoran asked.

 

“I’m sorry,” said Sakura, pulling away from Syaoran.

 

Don’t go, he wanted to say. Don’t go to him.

 

But she ran after Eron without taking a second glance back. Syaoran watched Sakura push through the crowd, towards Chang Eron, the long sash of the navy blue obi tied around her waist trailing behind her like wings fluttering away.

 

 

 

He looked away for five minutes and there they were in each other’s embrace as if he had been the only impediment from them being together. That look in her eyes that she had never given him, that tenderness and yearning that will always be turned in another direction. 

 

“Wait, Eron-kun!” called out Sakura down the hallway, grabbing hold of Eron’s arm. “Wait, what’s wrong?”

 

“That bastard,” Eron slammed his fist into the wall. “Don’t you see he still has feelings for you?”

 

“You’re completely mistaken,” Sakura stated.

 

“What, then you still have feelings for him?” Eron asked, his voice cold and clipped.

 

Sakura reeled back. “H-how can you say something like that?”

 

“Why, because you are dating me, you think that I am under some delusion that you are madly in love with me?” Eron laughed out loud. “I’m an idiot, but not that stupid.”

 

“You’re wrong!” Sakura retorted. “I… I…”

 

“Do you love me, Kinomoto Sakura?” asked Eron. “Can you seriously say that you love me and you can swear you will love me forever?”

 

Sakura did not reply, stunned by Eron’s sudden outburst.

 

“If you love me, then will you accept my proposal?” Eron asked, taking her left hand where the emerald ring sparkled on her middle finger. Slowly, he removed it from that finger and slipped it onto her fourth finger. Somehow, the heavy metal of the gold seemed to shrink to fit her ring finger perfectly. 

 

“You were only joking the other day,” stammered Sakura.

 

Eron, looked her straight into her eyes. “If you love me, will you marry me?”

 

And Sakura felt the weight of the golden ring on her finger, as if the words she spoke right now might bind her to eternity. “We’re still too young to even think of marriage and stuff.”

 

“Your mother married when she was our age. Isn’t that what love is? A vow to spend the rest of your life in dedication to the other person,” replied Eron. “What does age matter? If you love me and I love you, why put off the inevitable?”

 

Once, Sakura had believed that when she met her most important person, it may be the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. But how had her mother been so certain that her father was that person? Because Sakura grew more uncertain as the years passed by that true unconditional love did exist for her.

 

“Unless, that one person is Li Syaoran, not me,” said Eron.

 

“I… do not love him,” Sakura said slowly, words that were perhaps the most painful thing she had ever had to say.

 

“I see.” Eron had a particular expression, not of assurance but of bitter amusement.

 

Sakura bit her lips. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have danced with him. But we were being watched, and he was telling me that Leiyun-san is up to something—there’s something going on with the Hong Kong triads and the yakuza and...”

 

“Do you still blindly believe every word that Li Syaoran says?” asked Eron.

 

“What do you mean?” Sakura replied, noticing that Eron’s golden eyes had regained that same impenetrable glint of olden days. 

 

“Whose side do you think he is on?” Eron continued. “He’s a Li. Isn’t it ironic that he is informing you about the plots of the Li Clan? Why would he do that?”

 

“I don’t know. He left Leiyun-san. He’s never really done harm to me either—I don’t have any reason to distrust what he says.”

 

Eron scoffed at her words. “Hasn’t done harm to you? Who stole the Sakura Cards exactly?”

 

“At that time, he was following the order of the Elders.”

 

“Have you asked him about the real reason he is staying at your house?”

 

“Onii-chan took him in because Li-kun had a falling out with his family, it seems, and he has no place to go.” It was like she was reciting textbook answers.

 

“And do you buy that? Is he a beggar? He can go to Meilin or Kai. He had a big house back in Hong Kong. Do you really think he has no place to go?”

 

Sakura had been suspicious ever since her brother had spoken to Eron and Syaoran separately. She had figured it was as Eron had said; that her brother had lectured the two in his usual manner. But it did strike her odd that her brother out of all people had invited Li Syaoran to their house and even tolerated him until now. Perhaps the two had struck some sort of bargain. She knew even if she asked her brother, he would evade the question completely—he had been like that ever since the Plague incident last year.

 

“Have you tried asking him?”

 

She suddenly recalled the day at King Penguin Park, when Syaoran had run off. That time during the blackout at the fashion show, then on Christmas night and again when he had caught the flu, she thought that he was not the same Syaoran who had walked way from her that chill morning by the Hong Kong harbor. “I can’t go back yet. Because I don’t have the power to fight him. I need to become stronger, and until then, I cannot stand up to him,” he had said. He had been slightly delirious because he was sick, but he had said something odd then, with a strange, pained expression. He asked me to do the one thing that I could not do.” But she was afraid to hear the rest of the sentence and had cut him off. That’s right, all this while, she had been scared to know the real reason behind Syaoran returning. Because for the time being, though deep in her heart she knew it wasn’t, she too had enjoyed pretending that everything was back to the way it used to be between them.

 

“It doesn’t make any sense that he returned to Japan as a part of the Li delegation as their Chosen One, and then suddenly, he has a falling out with his favorite cousin, and as if all according to plan, you accept him into your house just like that.” Eron watched Sakura’s reaction. “It’s obvious he has some hidden agenda. Perhaps it was Leiyun’s orders to get close to you again and regain your trust, and then, take your powers. You certainly don’t think they’re going to be satisfied with just taking the Sakura Cards. They’re going to want mastery.”

 

“But—” No, Syaoran was sometimes unapproachable, sometimes harsh, sometimes impatient. But he wasn’t the type of person to use someone.

 

Briskly, Eron interrupted her. “Syaoran’s an ambition one—don’t ever doubt that. He’s the one who had the drive to actually pass the Test of the Chosen One at age ten, never done before in the history of the Li Clan.”

 

She felt a chill over her heart. “What is his goal now then?”

 

Eron’s lips curved into a thin smile. “Why, I thought it’s obvious. It’s to become the next Great Elder of the Li Clan.”

 

Sakura stopped short, her breath caught in her throat.

 

“And you still don’t get it, Sakura? Are you that dense? Eventually, he is going to have to defeat you. That’s the only way he’s going to become Master of the Clow and win the approval of his Clan.”

 

A chill tremor rippled through her body. “Don’t say stuff like that about Syaoran-kun,” she said in a far-off voice that did not seem to belong to her, her nails biting into her palm, feeling her cheeks heat up as blood rushing towards her temples. “Despite all the stuff that has happened, he’s not that sort of underhanded person.”

 

“Why are you getting all defensive about him? I was just postulating my speculation, nothing more.” Eron said coolly, stepping forward. Sakura stepped back, pressed against the wall. There was the same look of fear in her eye as last year, when she had looked up at him terrified, begging, Please let me go Eron-kun… I know you’re usually not like this. It infuriated him that she could still look up at him like he was some sort of monster, like he would try to hurt her. “Why? Is it because you still love him, after all? Does it break your little heart thinking that your most important person wants to destroy you?”

 

“Don’t,” said Sakura, blocking her ears with her hands. “Don’t say intentionally cruel things like that.”

 

“You think I’m lying?” Eron laughed shortly. “Why would I do that at the risk of making me sound like a jealous bastard? I just want you to wake up and see Li Syaoran for what he truly is. He’s going to backstab you again and again till you crumble, whether or not either of you realize it.”

 

“Stop it!” shouted Sakura, pushing away Eron. “I don’t want to hear anymore.” Unable to think straight, unable to breathe, she ran down the hallway, away from the loud, blaring music of the ballroom, away from the leering faces, away from Chang Eron and mostly, away from Li Syaoran.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“It’s time,” said Kara to Erika. She glanced up to see the unhappy bunch of Seijou kids wound up in their silly little love games. Erika followed Kara who walked down the hallway from the Emerald Ballroom to a corridor she had not noticed before. There was a hidden elevator at the end of the corridor, and Kara produced a metal chip and held it in front of the lens above the elevator buttons. The heavy metal doors of the elevator swung open and they zapped up to the penthouse floor.

 

“What’s with all the security?” whispered Erika as she glanced around at the row of security guards in black.

 

“We’re going to witness a highly confidential invitation only meeting,” replied Kara.

 

“And you’re invited?” asked Erika.

 

“No. We’re part of staff,” replied Kara, handing Erika a tray and a bottle of wine. She promptly producing a wooden medallion carved with two winding dragons which she showed the guards at the front door of an unlabeled conference room.

 

They entered through door into a long conference hall at the center of which was a long oak wood table for two hundred. The lighting was dimmed and the table was laden with food and wine, but most of the men seated at the table were grim and silent. 

 

“What is this meeting?” whispered Erika to the older girl as they stood towards the end of the room with the other select servers who had been sworn to confidentiality.

 

In a lowered voice as she took a place towards the sidelines of the conference room, Kara replied, “It’s the meeting to determine the successor to the sixth oyabun of the Yamamoto-gumi.”

 

Even Erika knew that the Yamamoto-gumi was the biggest yakuza group in Japan with over 55,000 members, and directed criminal throughout Japan ranging from blackmailing, extortion, gambling and illegal trade and was heavily involved in the backdoor dealings of corporations and politicians. “In other words, they’re going to pick the seventh head of the leading yakuza family.”

 

A vast majority of the men were dressed in brightly colored suits and wore sunglasses. Kara whispered to Erika, “Most of them are high-ranking kumicho, bosses of their respective yakuza families that are all directly under the rule of the Yamamoto-gumi. That man of there in the white suit and white alligator-skin shoes is the boss of the rival yakuza family Minato-gumi, Minato Abe.”

“Why is he here then?” asked Erika.

 

“That’s just how things work. The yakuza is deeply bound to feudal honor, and there are all sorts of alliances between the various families. Because within Japan, they may be rivals, but against the world, they have to put up a united front.” Kara looked up. “That Italian man there smoking cigar is the boss of the Cuntrera-Caruana Cosa Notra, a Sicilian mafia clan that is considered pretty much the bankers of Italian mafia. Next to him are the Corleonesi from the United States. And you recognize Jinyu, of course, representing the Hong Kong triads—he’s the newcomer, but he’s gotten quite notorious in the underground world. And there’s Mikhailov of the Solntsevskaya Bratva from Moscow—the Brotherhood is considered the most powerful criminal organization in the world. Kaitou Magician had quite a falling out with them when he stole a Romanov heirloom from their St. Petersburg headquarters some years ago. And next is…”

 

Erika didn’t need to be told about the next person. “That’s our prime minister!” she squeaked.

 

“Why are you surprised?” said Kara with a chuckle. She pointed to the row of men who were in dark suits and ties. “There’s a handful of prominent government bureaucrats as well. And you recognize the businessman sitting across from the bosses. We saw a lot of them at the reception. There are the CEOs and CFOs of many of the largest corporations in Japan.”

 

“You mean, the whole reception was a cover-up for this meeting?” asked Erika. She saw that there were some empty seats on the long conference hall.

 

“Yes. Certain businessman are going to find an opportunity to sneak out of the reception and join this meeting throughout the evening,” replied Kara. “And others are being reported to during the reception and won’t risk showing their faces here unless there is an emergency situation.”

 

“What kind of emergency situation?” Erika demanded, slightly alarmed.

 

Kara paid no heed and continued to point out the important figures in the room. “And that young man with the orange hair in the blue kimono over there is the wakagashira, second-in-command of the Yamamoto-gumi and the hand-chosen successor to the recently assassinated rokudaime boss of the Yamamoto-gumi, Yamamoto Noboru.”

 

“Why is there a meeting if there is already a chosen successor?” Erika asked.

 

“Don’t you see? Yamamoto Noboru was only a middle-aged man and was expected to live a good many more years. And in the meantime, as the second-in-command, Taoka Yoshinori would have gained the experience and following needed to become the boss of the yakuza. But as of now, Taoka is young and inexperienced, and the older kumicho oppose to following his leadership.”

 

“But Jinyu-san is young and he became the head of the Hong Kong triads,” remarked Erika.

 

Kara watched Jinyu from the shadows. “Don’t underestimate Li Jinyu. He’s formidable beyond your wildest imagination to take helm of the Chinese underworld at that age. But even for someone like him, it would not have been possible without the backing of the Li Clan. The Li Corporation has always been a stronghold in the Hong Kong financial and political arena.”

 

And Erika watched Jinyu in renewed awe. “So, what’s going to happen then?”

 

“All the lobbying has occurred behind the scenes already. The factions are already divided here, and all the talking and smiling are formalities,” replied Kara. “The Japanese yakuza families are mostly in favor of the kumicho of Minato-gumi to take the godfather position of the Japanese organized crime syndicates because he has the respect and the years to fulfill that position. And the brains.”

 

“I thought he’s from the rival family,” replied Erika. That’s what Leiyun had been up to tonight at the reception. He had been lobbying with the CEOs on behalf of the Li Corporation.

 

“It doesn’t matter—if he is chosen, then there might be a shift in balance to the Minato-gumi taking over as the controlling yakuza group of Japan,” Kara said. “And you can see Jinyu is analyzing the situation. He’s been put into a pinch. Things were working well under the previous oyabun. They were almost at the brink of stamping a treaty between the Yamamoto-gumi and the Hong Kong triads. But the assassination of Yamamoto Noboru has turned the table for Jinyu and all his negotiations put in the air. Depending on who takes leadership, the new boss might not want an alliance with the Hong Kong triads and instead reach out to a different syndicate. All of the Dragon King’s efforts in Japan would be put to waste.”

 

“So, what’s he going to do then?” asked Erika.

 

“What would you do if you were him?”

 

Erika glanced around the room, each person reflecting a desire for power and money, each person thinking of the most profitable outcome. She shuddered. This was the brutal reality of the world. For there to be order and law in the world, there had to be the shadow world, those behind the scenes covering the dirty work. These people controlled the happenings of world politics and economy. She glanced at the bosses of the various yakuza family, all calculating, all restless. The boss of Minato-gumi had a self-satisfied smirk, indicating that negotiations had ended well, and he had a very strong corporate supporter, as well as a firm network of smaller yakuza families under his rule. On the other hand, Taoka Yoshinori stuck out like a sore thumb, the only one dressed in traditional Japanese garb. Everybody entering the room had to disarm, but he hung on his to bamboo shinai. He alone was restless and didn’t seem particularly concerned about losing out to someone else the coveted spot of oyabun. She replied slowly, “If I were the head of the Hong Kong triads, I would be trying my best to get that Taoka Yoshinori appointed as oyabun of the Yamamoto-gumi.”

 

“And what made you come to that conclusion?” asked Kara, amused. Perhaps Erika was brighter than she looked.

 

“All the other men in this room have their own agenda. They are here to profit, to use each other and very capable of backstabbing each other. Even if an alliance is reached with the kumicho of Minato-gumi, he will most surely break that treaty if a better offer comes along from any of the other mafia bosses in this room. But Taoka Yoshinori is still young. You can see in his eyes that he has not become jaded by the criminal world, and he believes the yakuza is the protector of the civilian, a chivalrous organization as they first originated. Because Yamamoto Noboru was on the brink of reaching negotiation with the Hong Kong triads, and Taoka was the successor, he is probably most likely to follow through with what his boss had intended.”

 

Kara smirked. “In other words, he’s naïve and young, so he would most likely be easy to manipulate.”

 

“Perhaps yes,” said Erika. “But I think he must be a similar person to Jinyu-san if he is in the position he is right now and can stick to his own traditions so boldly.”

 

“Because they are in similar positions, similar aged and have similar mindsets, they will be able to get along is what you surmise,” said Kara.

 

Erika nodded. “An alliance cannot be formed simply with the idea of profiting each other. There must be some sort of shared goal, or else that alliance can fall apart as easily as paper can be ripped.” Or so her twin brother had once said.

 

Now, Kara watched Erika in renewed respect. “You might have made a good mafia boss yourself.”

 

“Nah, I like the solo-act better,” Erika replied. “No worries about backstabbing and pleasing other and image-keeping.”

 

“True, nothing beats the grandiose title of ‘Dark One,’” said Kara. She tapped the mouthpiece of her wireless microphone and fixed the earpiece. “Hear that, Black Dragon? By the way, don’t drink the water. It’s poisoned. Don’t drink anything that Erika doesn’t pour you.”

 

Jinyu looked up and Erika saw his lips move ever so slightly—he must also have an earpiece to communicate with Kara.

 

One of the men from across the table in a pink suit and flower-print shirt leapt from the other end of the table with a hidden knife pointed straight at Jinyu’s back. Erika let out a tiny shriek.

 

Without flinching Jinyu turned around and grabbed the man by his neck and twisted until they heard a crack. The man gagged and dropped the knife. And Jinyu tossed him to the floor like a rag doll. “He is not dead. Treat him if you wish,” he said, looking forward at Minato Abe, kumicho of Minato-gumi, who just smiled amusedly. One of the men came forward and dragged the unconscious man away.

 

“Foul! We were not supposed to carry any weapons into this conference room!” cried out one of the men in a black cheongsam from the Chinese triads. “We refuse to make a pact with those who do not honor their side of the bargain.”

 

“Leave it be,” replied Jinyu in a crisp, deep voice, speaking out for the first time that evening. “If there is anybody else in this room who wishes to challenge me, then go ahead.” His eyes glimmered red like a wild beast’s. “But I cannot guarantee you will come out in a whole piece like the preceding person did. With all our inner quarrels, I think we forget the main objective here tonight. That is to come to an agreement on who is most suited to become the seventh oyabun of the respectable and historically long-standing Yamamoto-gumi after the grievous assassination of our dear brother, Yamamoto Noboru of the sixth Yamamoto regime.”   

 

Those seated at the table murmured their words of condolences to the deceased boss.

 

“We will get down to the murder of Yamamoto Noboru and makes sure the assassin answers to our code of honor,” stated Jinyu, staring directly towards Minato Abe, who smirked, revealing a gold tooth. 

 

“But the police didn’t find anything,” said Kinomoto Fujishika from the group of businessmen.

 

“We do not need the police. We deal with things our way!” declared Taoka Yoshinori, arms crossed. There was a roar of approval from the younger members of the Yamamoto-gumi, but Jinyu had the expression of annoyance, as if he wished the Orange Tiger would just stay silent.

 

“As if we’ll let an ignorant bloke like you become our leader,” replied a bald man with a round, sun-like emblem embroidered on his sleeve, the emblem of Minato-gumi.

 

Usually, such a meeting as this would have bored Erika to tears, and she would have complained about having to stand around listening to the tiresome discussion that she had no interest in. Her eyes lingered over to Li Jinyu’s impenetrable expression. She understood why he was like he was, living in a world where he could be assassinated next if he let off guard for one second. Perhaps, Erika felt frightened of him for the first time she had seen him, because today, she saw not Li Leiyun’s silent shadow but the boss of the deadliest criminal syndication in Asia.

 

 

 

******  

 

 

 

Slowly, Syaoran walked out the backdoor of the hotel lobby. He no longer had a reason to stay at the party because Meilin had gone off to find Kai, hopefully reconciling with him, and he had finished greeting all the fashion industry people for Tomoyo’s sake. Neither Eron nor Sakura had returned back into the ballroom and he felt nauseous thinking they were probably alone together somewhere, more of a reason to leave, because every girl in a blue dress made him turn his head thinking it was her. Maybe he should try harder to find out what Jinyu was up to. But that would mean that he might have to come face-to-face with Leiyun, and he seriously did not feel like dealing with any more confrontations tonight. It was chilly outside, and Syaoran tucked his hands into his trouser pockets, though he probably looked ridiculous doing that in a tuxedo. A stone wrapped in soft cloth brushed his finger tips. Why had Sakura kept it? Once, he thought he understood her better than anyone else. But now, he had no idea what she was thinking, like she had set up a wall. As he walked out the back door into the hotel gardens, he saw a solitary figure sitting by the illuminated fountain. Last summer when he and Sakura were on run from the Tokyo metropolitan police thanks to Kaitou Magician, they had stayed overnight in a hotel room that overlooked these very gardens. The garden had been in full bloom then, and the bushes luscious with flowers of crimson and magenta and bright pink. If they hadn’t been embroiled in the complicated affair with the Hoshi Group and Sakura finding out the true identity of her grandfather, he would have liked to hold her hands and walked down to the gardens. And there she was, standing right before him, finally alone. For a second, he felt like he was blundering, hopeful fifteen again.

 

“Sakura?”

 

His fantasy was immediately shattered as Sakura looked up, her eyes dilated as the fountain behind her trickled merrily. “Don’t come near me.”

 

Syaoran sank back into reality. The last time Sakura had given his this kind of expression was when her memories of him had disappeared, and he had taken the Sakura Cards from her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

 

And Sakura looked into the familiar amber eyes that seemed to say, “trust me,” mixed with a certain sadness. What had compelled him to say such an odd thing? As if he could read her mind. “I’m sorry,” she said, Eron’s words racing through her head. “I was just thinking about something. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” How could she suspect Syaoran? Even when he had taken the Sakura Cards from her, he had done so without hurting her. For some reason, she thought that she would not have come out unscathed had it been the Black Dragon or Li Leiyun who took the Cards from her. Even now, deep in her heart, she desperately wanted to trust Syaoran. Perhaps he had really left Leiyun for good. Maybe he was going to be her ally once again. Maybe things could be mended and they could really go back to the olden days. Maybe, her Circle could finally be whole. “It’s not true, is it? It can’t be true,” she murmured.

 

“What is?” he asked.

 

Shaking her head, she stared at her feet, where little butterflies were attached to her blue slippers. “It’s nothing.” But why had Eron made that sort of accusation? She knew Eron had a poisonous tongue at times and loathed Syaoran. But he was not the type of person who would simply make up empty claims without a reason. Whose words could she trust? 

 

“Why are you out here alone? Where’s Chang-kun?” said Syaoran.

 

A strange expression came over her face, like she was holding back tears.

 

“Did something happen between you and Chang Eron?” asked Syaoran.

 

“No.”

 

“Did you guys have an argument?”

 

“Why do you even care?”

 

He saw that he had hit the nail on the head. “I just thought you might need someone to talk to,” he replied. “I’m sorry, I guess you didn’t.”

 

Sakura looked up. Yes she did desperately need someone to talk to. Usually it would be Tomoyo, but these days she always had difficulty confiding to her best friend about Eron. Somehow Tomoyo, as sweet and supportive as she always was, always seemed slightly skeptical of her dating Eron or just considered it a joke. And Meilin seemed to have enough problems of her own. Long ago, she could pour her heart out to Syaoran, and he would listen to her trivial problems with such patience and gentleness, as if he wanted to share the burden of her heartaches. He had been that kind of force in her life. But she could not tell him that the source of all her problems was Li Syaoran. 

 

“I’ll leave then,” Syaoran said awkwardly. “I didn’t mean to intrude.” He did not feel comfortable leaving her alone in the gardens when there were mafia guards stationed throughout the hotel. But how could be stay with someone who so clearly abhorred his company?

 

As he turned away, he heard Sakura burst out, “I do need someone to talk to.” 

 

Slowly, Syaoran turned to face Sakura again. Sakura, who had looked so grownup in the ballroom looked like a lost girl playing dress-up here outside on this mild winter’s night. The silvery butterflies embroidered on her sash glimmered in the moonlight.   

 

“Eron-kun and I did fight.”

 

“Can I ask, about what?”

 

“This and that.” Sakura sat down on the ledge of the ivory marble fountain, at the center of which a cherub statue spouted out a jet of water. “And then, he suddenly proposed to me.”

 

His voice almost failed him. “He did what?” And then, he saw the emerald ring on her fourth finger. Never before had he felt this sort of surging despair as the multifaceted green jewel caught the light of the jealous moon. 

 

Syaoran looked so alarmed that Sakura quickly stated, “He spoke out of anger more than anything else. I don’t think he was being serious. It’s probably my fault he was feeling insecure. Because I’m a bit wishy-washy when it comes to things like this.”

 

“Are you going to accept his… proposal?” Syaoran said in a choked voice.

 

For a long while, Sakura stared at the gold encircling her ring finger. Unlike Meilin or Rika, she had never had wedding fantasies and never thought much about marriage in the first place. Maybe if she had a mother to talk with about such things, she might have had more interest. But somehow, having a steady boyfriend forced her to consider such things. “I don’t think I’m ready to marry anyone yet. There are so many things I have to do and many dark forces yet to seal.”

 

“But someday…” Syaoran’s voice was so quiet, she could barely hear him over the trickle of the fountain. “Someday, you will want to marry.”

 

“I do care for Eron-kun. I do like him.” Sakura paused. “But I don’t want to be proposed to because it is a means to prove to him that my feelings are true, that they won’t change. Marriage should not be about proof. I want it to be something like my mother and father’s, a cherished vow between two people bound by trust, not by contract.” 

 

“Because love can lead to marriage but marriage does not necessarily mean love.” Syaoran did not look up into her eyes as he spoke. He knew this better than anyone else, having watched his mother’s sad profile as she stared out the front window for a husband who did not return for months and months. “There is no need to rush yet. Because the person you want to spend the rest of your life with should be your most important person. And if that person knows your feelings, then I think that should be enough until you truly are ready.”

 

For a brief moment, Sakura thought of the irony of having this conversation with Li Syaoran and the fact that he seemed to have put a lot more thought into the whole issue than most people his age. Long ago, in the distance past, there was one person she had once, very briefly, thought about sharing that sort of sacred union with. But that was a silly, childish thought that she had pushed to the back of her mind. Because now, she was with Eron. Were relationships supposed to be like this? Always feeling nervous, always unsure what the other person was thinking, always feeling anxious, waiting, waiting for something to happen. She had once thought when she loved somebody, that love alone could sustain her through anything, just the way her mother and father shared that strong bond of unspoken faith in each other. She had once thought the day she was proposed to would be the happiest day of her life. Not this offhand provoked words of anger thrown towards her. Yet, she did not reproach Eron for this, because she knew in his own way, he had been sincere. “But I thought this was enough. What more can I do to prove my feelings him?”

 

Syaoran wanted to say, Then break up with him. Leave him. Instead, he asked, “Do you really care for him that much?”

 

“Yes, he is a very important person to me,” replied Sakura, wondering why tears were falling from her face right now, when Syaoran’s words were much more soothing and more sensible than she had been expecting. A roll of tear dropped down her cheek and landed on her skirt, leaving a dark splotch.

 

Till this day, Syaoran had never wanted to go and strangle someone this badly. But if he hurt Chang Eron, then Sakura would cry. Her important person. Maybe this was how things were supposed to be. Maybe this way, the curse of the Dark Ones will finally be broken. He watched her, trying to hold back tears, and told her in a gentle voice, “If you continue trying, I’m sure he will one day know the truth in your heart.”

 

Sakura blinked up at Syaoran, leaned back on the fountain, hands gripping the ledge and staring up at the star-filled sky. Though he did not look her way, she could see in his eyes that he was neither mocking her nor simply giving her empty words of reassurance. He really meant his words. Yet, she felt a little bit sad about it, nonetheless. “Thanks, Syaoran-kun. I always figured you hated Eron-kun. But thanks for listening.” She stood up suddenly, unable to trust herself in the gardens under the moonlight with that one person who made her heart ache with a dull, aching sort of hunger that seemed to fade as time passed, only to return with a redoubled vengeance. “Well, I guess I should go find Eron-kun.” 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Breathing in the crisp night air after being confined in the stuffy conference room an hour, Kara Reed wondered if Prince Mikai had made up with the Li-girl. Perhaps she felt a little guilty for creating the misunderstanding in the first place because she did not have the heart to bully Kai a little more. Besides, she had been too busy keeping an eye on both Leiyun and Jinyu. With a sigh, Kara walked down the path leading to the hotel garden, thinking how tiresome social events were. She wanted to go home to a nice bubble bath and a cup of espresso pressed by Wei. Her toes were blistered from the sky-high stiletto heels. Then, her lavender eyes flickered towards the trees behind her.  

 

“You can come out now. You’ve been following me for days,” stated Kara, turning around.

 

“Why, yes,” replied a voice from behind the trees. “We have. But that evil-looking Chinese mafia dude was always with you, but now he seems to be preoccupied and we’ve finally gotten you alone.

 

“What do you want from me?” demanded Kara, as three men walked out from the shadows.

 

“Heh, you’ve grown quite a bit, Karin-chan!” exclaimed a greasy-looking stout man.

 

Kara glared up at the man. “How do you know my name?”

 

“You see, your father owes us quite a bit of money,” said the man. “And he said, his daughter can pay back his bills for him.”

 

“That man is not my father,” spat out Kara.

 

“It doesn’t matter. He said you will pay, that you owe him.”

 

“In your dreams,” stated Kara. “I don’t have money to pay back for him.”

 

“Well, he said either you pay up, or we can just take you as payment,” he sneered

 

Kara jerked back. “Don’t you dare lay a hand on me. How did you find me?”

 

“Wasn’t that hard. You didn’t run away too far, did you? Just because you live in a posh mansion in a the posh side of the neighborhood, doesn’t change your blood, does it?” The man circled her, scanning her up and down.

 

“Don’t come near me.”

 

The leader of the three laughed. “You’ve grown into quite a beauty. The boss might like you. He’s been in a celebratory mood these days. You see, soon he will become the most important person in the Japanese underworld.”

 

 

 

Sakura had considered looking for Eron right away after her talk with Syaoran and instead circled the gardens, thinking about what Syaoran had told her. If you continue trying, I’m sure he will one day know the truth in your heart. The thing was, she hardly knew what was the truth herself. Do I love Eron? If I did, like he said, then naturally I should want to spend the rest of my life with him. It doesn’t matter if I’m only sixteen. My mother knew exactly what she wanted when she was my age. But, I’m still young. I don’t know. I don’t know if I have yet loved anybody the way my mother loved my father. Not even Li Syaoran… Not even Syaoran. Today, after her talk with Syaoran in the gardens, she had realized something. Buried deep in my heart somewhere is a burning knowledge that I will never tell anybody…

 

Lost in thought, Sakura realized she had reached a part of the gardens that was furthest from people. She heard a girl’s voice call out. Quickly, Sakura crossed through the rose bushes and recognized that the girl was Kara Reed. She was surrounded by three intimidating looking men wearing black sunglasses.

 

“Let go of her!” exclaimed Sakura, hand flying towards her star-moon key.

 

“Who is this there?” sneered the largest of the men. He wrenched Kara’s hand behind her so that she could not struggle. “Drag this girl to the car.”

 

“No!” shouted Sakura, leaping forwards and grabbing the smallest man by the arm.

 

“You stay out of this!” said Kara to the meddlesome Card Mistress.

 

“But—“

 

“Aniki, this girl isn’t letting go,” said the small, lean man, shaking his arm and dragging Sakura with him.

 

“We don’t have time. Just take her along as well,” stated the largest of the three men. 

 

For a second, Sakura, panicked, kicking at the man with her heels. But he doubled her hand behind her back and clamped a cloth doused with a sickly saccharine substance over her mouth. Her eyes rolled back and she crumpled over.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Mentally berating himself for all his stupid babbling earlier in the gardens, Syaoran kicked off his black dress shoes and entered the Kinomoto residence. All the lights were off. That meant Sakura wasn’t back yet. Kinomoto-sensei had a seminar in Kobe and Touya was probably at the hospital again. Part of him wanted to tear his hair out of scalp when he thought about Chang Eron and Sakura together, most likely reconciling with each other. Instead, he plopped down on the living room couch and stared off at the ceiling. He dozed off on the living room couch for an hour before waking up with a start after a horrible nightmare. It was way past midnight, and Sakura still showed no signs of being back. Was she still with that despicable Chang Eron? Had she run into a dark force? Surely she would have let Kero-chan know then. 

 

“Cerberus!” he hollered. There was no answer. Then, he recalled the Kero-chan had gone over to the Hiiragizawa resident to challenge Suppi-chan to a game of Soul Caliber.

 

Reluctantly, Syaoran picked up the living room phone and dialed Sakura’s cellphone number. The phone dialed and an automated voice picked up. “The person you have called is not available. Please leave a message after the beep.”

 

When the house phone began to ring, Syaoran clambered to pick up the phone before the first ring even completed completely. “Sakura?”

 

“This is Chang Eron,” came the crisp voice from the other side of the receiver. “As a matter of fact, I was calling to see if Sakura was home.”

 

“She’s not,” said Syaoran shortly. “Wait, isn’t she with you?”

 

“Unfortunately, she isn’t,” said Eron stiffly. “She hasn’t picked up her cellphone over the past two hours, either, so I called the house phone thinking she might have run out of battery.”

 

“What are you talking about? Weren’t you with her after the party ended?”

 

There was an uncomfortable silence. “I haven’t seen her since ten.”

 

Syaoran swore under his breath and looked around. That meant Sakura had never gone back to the party after they separated in the gardens. Why did he let her out of her sight? If he had his powers, maybe he could locate her, but without them, he could only rely on others. Where could Sakura be?

 

“What, has something happened to her?” demanded Eron.

 

“I don’t know,” replied Syaoran, suddenly the worst place scenario coming into his mind. “Do you sense her?”

 

“What do you mean?” Eron asked.

 

“I mean, don’t you sense Sakura’s presence nearby?” Syaoran said.

 

“How could I?” replied Eron. “I’m still in Tokyo. Do you know how many distractions there are in the city—it’s full of different sorts of energies and powers and creatures all mingled together.

 

“Concentrate!”

 

Eron shut his eyes and frowned. After a prolonged pause, he said, “I don’t think so.”

 

“You don’t think what?”

 

“She’s not nearby,” replied Eron.

 

“We know that already!” Syaoran stated exasperation. “So, which direction has she been taken to?”

 

“I don’t know, she’s out of range,” snapped Eron.

 

“What do you mean out of range? Her aura is so distinct and so bright, it’s unmistakable—why can’t you see her?”

 

“For your information, the moon energy is easily diluted by many other sources, hence it’s a little more difficult to sense. Yes, if you don’t remember, she’s currently using the power of the moon,” Eron replied snidely. “I can account for about a 1000 km radius in either direction from here, and she’s not within the vicinity.” 

 

“Then how are we going to locate her?” Syaoran demanded. He knew it was dangerous with all of the mafia present at the Hoshi Plaza Hotel, and yet he had left her. But of course, he had not counted on Chang Eron being careless enough to lose her. Anything could be happening to her right now—she didn’t have the Sakura Cards. And that’s my fault.

 

“I don’t know. I think if I consult my crystal scrying ball back home, I might be able to track her,” stated Eron.

 

“We don’t have time!” exclaimed Syaoran. 

 

“You find her if you think you can do it any quicker.”

 

“Fine, I will,” stated Syaoran.  

 

“We’ll see who finds her first, Li.” And Eron hung up the phone.

 

Even if Syaoran had any clue where Sakura was, he had no means of reaching her. And it was not like he could teleport himself. His eyes flickered to Touya’s old motorcycle parked to the side of the garage. He remembered where Touya kept the keys; he ran back into the house and upstairs to Touya’s room, opened up the top drawer and rummaged for the key. Then, he opened the bedroom window, slung himself down from a tree, and landed deftly on the ground level. Quickly, he straddled the motorcycle and inserted the key, turning on the ignition. He prayed the engine would still work. To his relief, he was greeted by the low purring of the combustion engines warming up—it was like Touya to take good care of his motorcycle and make sure the tank was over half-filled with gasoline. He took a second to fiddle with the levers and brakes to familiarize himself with the gears. Not that he had ever driven a motorcycle before. Then, he blasted down the street in full speed.

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

When Sakura opened her eyes again, her head was pounding and her arms was twisted behind her in a strange angle. Then she recalled following Kara Reed and that a man had shoved her into a van. Where am I? How long was I unconscious? For a second, she glanced around at the ghostly expanse around her. She looked around and found herself anchored to a pole in the middle of what seemed like an abandoned warehouse. Moonbeam sifted through cracks in the wooden planks of the structure. 

 

She squirmed against the pole, finding her wrist to be tied tightly behind her back, and her arms bound tightly to her side. Stay calm. I can’t panic now. Taking a deep breath, she tried to sense where she was. She came to a sinking realization that the area was unfamiliar to her, and that she was no longer in Tomoeda, nor in its close vicinity. Squirming against the pole, she looked for an exit, any indication of where she could be. Finally, she noticed another girl tied to the pillar to her right.

 

“You’re finally awake,” said Kara Reed, also bound tightly. Except, Kara didn’t look particularly alarmed or scared.

 

“Rido-senpai!” Sakura exclaimed. Normally, she was quite intimidated by Kara Reed, but she was somehow relieved to see a familiar face despite their dire situation. That’s right, they were at the Hoshi Plaza gardens, and she had seen some intimidating men trying to drag Kara away. “How long have I been unconscious?”

 

“For a while,” replied Kara, squirming against the rope. “I told you not to meddle.”

 

“But those men were trying to hurt you!” replied Sakura.

 

“I have a motto, ‘if you can’t help, don’t butt in,’” Kara remarked. “And another one, ‘if it’s not your problem, run as fast and far as you can in the other direction.’”

 

Sakura stifled a giggle. “No wonder you’re fast friends with Kai-kun.”

 

Kara stared at the younger girl, a little perplexed. Most sixteen-year-old girls would be in tears after the rough handling by yakuza and finding themselves tied up in the middle of nowhere. Then again, this was no ordinary girl but the successor to Clow Reed.  

 

“Do you know where we are?”

 

“Listen,” said Kara, closing her eyes.

 

Sakura too closed her eyes and held her breath. Sure enough, in the distance, she thought she heard the sound of waves crashing upon the shores. “We’re by the sea.”

 

Kara nodded, still wriggling against her bonds. “I figure we were knocked out for three hours or so. I think we spent maybe a little more than an hour and a half in the van, being brought here, so I don’t think we’re too far from the coastlines of Chiba prefecture.”

 

“What are you doing?” Sakura asked Kara, who was intently sucking in her breath.

 

Without answering, Kara managed to twist her arm enough to slip out a tiny pocketknife from up her left garter belt. She managed to release the blade with one flick and then positioned the knife between the two palms tied behind her back. Carefully wriggling the blade back and forth, she began to gnaw away at the ropes. It was a slow and toilsome procedure as the blade was so small and the ropes thick, but Kara kept at it. Finally, the ropes tying her wrists together fell apart. Next, she gripped the knife in her right arm and then flexed to expand the ropes as fast as possible. These ropes had not been tied as tightly. She then sucked in her breath and then began wriggling her arms back and forth. When the ropes slid far enough, she stretched her hand to reach the bottom strand and slashed away. The rest of the ropes fell to her ankles, and she leaned back against the pillar to catch her breath, rubbing her rope-burned wrists.

 

“Wow, you’re amazing! Like Houdini!” exclaimed Sakura, watching in fascination. “How did you do that?”

 

“I was semi-awake when they tied me and flexed out so that they didn’t tie me as tightly as they could have,” replied Kara. “It’s an old trick of the trade.”

 

Kara walked over and examined Sakura’s bonds. “They’ve tied you up tighter. This is going to take a while with this knife,” she said, working at Sakura’s wrists first. “I had a better knife in my purse.”

 

“I’ll have to learn that trick sometime,” stated Sakura.

 

“You shouldn’t be too happy. The guy who tied you up took your necklace,” said Kara.

 

Sakura looked down and indeed, saw the long chain that she always wore with the Star Key and the sapphire ring was gone. 

 

“It’s a pity. It would have been a perfect opportunity to take it and save Syaoran the trouble,” continued Kara.

 

Sakura couldn’t tell if Kara was being serious, since her pale golden hair covered her face as she intently sawed away at the ropes. Then, they heard voices outside. The kidnappers had returned.

 

“There’s no time,” whispered Sakura, giving the ropes a tug. “Go without me.”

 

“I would like to, but I can’t just leave you,” replied Kara. “They’re going to be furious when they learn that I’ve gotten free—who knows what they’ll do to you?”

 

Sakura looked Kara in the eye. “I’ll be fine,” she said staidly. “It’ll do us no good if you get caught again, and I doubt they’ll be easy on you once they find out you’ve escaped. Besides, I need to find my key. Once you get out of here, if you can get in touch with Kai-kun, I’ll be grateful.”

 

“What makes you think I can get in touch with Kai?”

 

“Can’t you?”

 

Kara gave her a stare. “Yeah, I can. But what if I just runaway and leave you here to the mercy of those thugs. I’m not a particularly trustworthy person, you know.”

 

“But you won’t, would you?” replied Sakura. They heard the front door creak open. “Now, hurry, go. Out of the back door.”

 

And Kara gave one last look, before sprinting out towards the backdoor. It was locked, but since the wood was rotten, it gave away as she put the weight of her shoulder against it.

 

It was none too soon because three men barged into the warehouse.

 

“Where did the other one go?” barked the first man, the one who had tied up Sakura.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Didn’t I tell you to tie ’em up good?” he demanded. “Go find her!”

 

And the short, burly man ran out after Kara through the back door.

 

Sakura prayed that Kara had a good lead start—besides she was awfully clever, she wouldn’t get caught.

 

 

 

Just then, the stout man returned through the back door. “There’s no sign of that blonde girl anywhere. Aniki is going to kill me.”

 

“Don’t worry, the boss called Machi-aniki, and he won’t be back for a while,” said the youngest of the three, a wiry, bony man with bleached hair slicked back. He circled Sakura and remarked, “You’re kind of cute—the other one was a bit too feral for my taste. How about I untie you and we can go to the karaoke together?”

 

“I have a boyfriend,” Sakura replied coldly, struggling against the ropes that cut into her wrist.

 

“Of course you would,” said the man, wrinkling his nose. “Well, it doesn’t matter. You do as I say, or you’ll never see him again.”

 

“What happened to my necklace?” Sakura asked, treading softly.

 

“What? Oh. You had the sparkling blue stone ring hanging around your neck, didn’t you?” he replied. “Aniki took it to the boss because he likes bling. Why, did your boyfriend give it to you?”

 

“And what about the key? The key attached to the chain?”

 

“I dunno,” he replied. “Must have taken that as well. Aniki was convinced that blue stone was real—what do you call it… a sapphire? And I told him that high schoolers these days don’t have money to buy precious stones like that. Unless, is your boyfriend rich?”

 

“He’s rich and smart and super strong, so it would be best if you let me go now,” stated Sakura, eying the door. Kara-senpai should have escaped by now and hopefully reached a telephone. It would still be a good hour or two before anyone could arrive here—unless Cerberus or Yue could be reached, and they could probably fly here in half the time. But knowing how unreliable Kai was, even if he was reached, he probably wouldn’t have the sense to communicate with Kero-chan or Yukito-san first. She actually didn’t know if Kara would call Kai for her; she might just leave her stranded here. If she had her cards, or even her Star Key, she might find a way out of this pinch.

 

“Well, good for him. He’ll never know where to find you,” replied the man, holding up a plushy teddy-bear keychain ring form which dangled a pink cellphone then dropped it on the ground, smashing it with his heel. “We turned your phone off.”

 

Sakura gulped. Her eyes flickered to the insignia on the kerchief tied around the man’s arm. She vaguely recognized the symbol of a kanji encircled in a sun—she had seen quite a few men with the insignia around the hotel.

 

Cracking his neck, the man stated, “Well, it seems like Kamura Karin ran off leaving you behind, and you’re all we got. Then you’ll just have to pay off the debt then.”

 

And Sakura looked up at the man with fierce emerald eyes. The Kamura Karin he kept talking about must be Kara Reed. Surely he won’t kill me. “I thought even yakuza have a code of honor. Would you harm an innocent civilian?”

 

“It’s a dog eat dog world, little girlie,” sneered the stout man. “You see, if we don’t get your head, our boss is going to take ours. Either you pay up for that Kamura Karin, or you bring her back. Get it?”   

 

The man pressed a sharp knife to her throat and the coldness of the metal sent a shiver down her spine. It was damp and chill in the warehouse, and she was only wearing the flimsy gown, but she could not feel the cold because her arms and legs had gone numb for being tied up so tightly. She had survived a near-death experience a year ago. I can’t die yet. All the dark forces haven’t been sealed yet. I have to apologize to Eron-kun. I promised to bake him a cake, and still haven’t mastered the recipe yet. And Syaoran… I need to let him know the truth. I have to tell him that I do trust him.   

 

“Now, tell me where Kamura Karin went,” stated the man, grabbing her by her bangs and yanking her head up.

 

“How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t know.” He whacked her on the cheek again. Her face stung, but she did not cry. Instead, she caught her breath. At first, she heard the roaring of an engine outside and then a screeching of tires. Was it Kai? No, no matter how fast he could speed through the highways, he could not already be here. Then, could it be more of the gangsters?

 

She had to draw out time. She murmured, “It’s a pity that grown men are so scared stiff of their boss that they’re attacking a harmless schoolgirl. Does it make you feel powerful and self-important?”

 

The man slapped her across the face. “Kids these days. They’re so impertinent. We should teach this one a lesson.” He grinned toothily. “I’ll show you how we deal with things around here!” Because he was furious, all his attention was devoted onto her. Thus, he did not hear the outcry of his comrade outside the door, nor the thud of a body. He did not even notice the metal door swing open. 

 

Sakura did not dare look up in fear that the thug might notice the figure approaching. She just desperately hoped it was not more yakuza. Because it was taking all her wit’s end trying to stay alert and coax this person into keeping her alive.

 

“Now you’re finally quiet,” sneered the man, yanking Sakura’s head back in his direction. “Are you ready to tell me?”

 

Her eyes widened as a voice boomed through the warehouse, “SAKURA!”

 

Brown hair mussed up and frenetically searching amber eyes. Her heart lurched in her chest. Syaoran had been the last person she was expecting.

 

 

 

Syaoran smelt the tangy, salty sea air for the first time since he left Hong Kong. The motorcycle was running low on gas and began sputter. He cursed under his breath. What timing. Then, he spotted the lone warehouse which was lighted inside. The motorcycle screeched to a halt, and he leapt off, running full speed towards the slightly ajar door. A wiry man came at him.

 

“Who are you?” he demanded, raising a metal bat.

 

Without hesitating, Syaoran knocked him out with one punch. He swung open the heavy metal doors and shouted out the one name he had been repeating over and over in his mind for the past two hours.  

 

Then, he spotted her in the center of the warehouse, tied to the wooden pillar. Her cheek was red, and her eyes were bloodshot. A burly man in a colorful blazer held a knife to her throat.

 

“What the heck are you?” growled the man. “If you step this way, this girl is dead.”

 

“Don’t lay a hand on her!” Syaoran shouted. And a blur sped forward and before the man realized what had happened, he lay flat on the floor.

 

With a groan, he tried to get up, “Why, you little punk—”

 

“You dared to lay a finger on Sakura?” said Syaoran through gritted teeth.

 

“Oho, so is this the smart and rich and super strong boyfriend you were talking about?” The man grunted, dodging Syaoran’s second punch. “Well, this one is a scary looking one right here. Where’d you find him—he fights like one of us.”

 

“What did you do to her?” demanded Syaoran.

 

“Nothing. Yet.” The man grinned, throwing a low punch toward Syaoran.

 

With a single roundhouse kick, Syaoran tossed him over to the ground, and he rolled over like a sack of hay.

 

The man grunted. “Heh, you’re a strong one.” But before he could stand up again, Syaoran pounced on top of him and punched him so hard that his teeth knocked together. Then, Syaoran stood up, turning to Sakura, looking dismayed and furious and concerned all at once.

 

“Are you all right did they hurt you?” Syaoran asked, gripping Sakura’s arms, eyes scanning her frantically to see if she had been injured in anyway.

 

For a second, his hand brushed against her slightly bruised cheek. With a venomous glare at the fallen man, Syaoran gave him an extra kick.

 

“W-why are you here?” asked Sakura through chattering teeth.  

 

His eyes were redder than amber in the moonlit warehouse, and he was not listening to her. Like a wild wolf unleashed from a cage. “How dare he lay a finger on you? As soon as I get you out of here, I’m going to tie him up and toss him into the ocean, and that’s too kind of a punishment for what he did.” He quickly took out a pocketknife and slashed through the ropes binding Sakura and despite irate words, he was very careful when cutting through the ropes. 

 

Blood rushed back through her limbs as the ropes slid off. Limp after suddenly being loosened from the rope, Sakura toppled forward.

 

She didn’t know if she simply lost her balance as she regained circulation, or if Syaoran first put his arms around her. “Thank goodness,” said Syaoran squeezing Sakura into a tight hug. “Don’t scare me like that.”

 

“How did you find me?” Sakura, knew not if tears came to her eyes because she had been tired and scared or because somewhere in her heart, she was so relieved that it was Syaoran who had come found her after all.

 

“When I learned you went missing…” Syaoran looked up into her eyes, touching her hair and fingers as if to check if she was in one piece. “I was so scared I was going to be too late… Thank goodness you’re safe… Are you sure you’re not hurt anywhere?”

 

“Of course I’d be safe,” replied Sakura quite impishly. “I’m Kinomoto Sakura.”

 

“Then don’t give me a heart attack like that,” rebuked Syaoran, very serious.

 

Sakura tried to stand and then crumbled over again because her legs were suddenly like noodles after being bound for hours. But it didn’t matter because Syaoran was holding her so tightly.

 

“Never…” he murmured.

 

“Never what?” At a time like this, why did she suddenly recall Rika’s words in the classroom? Really, why had she put such strange ideas in her head? And she blushed, thankful it was dark, because she could hear Syaoran’s heart thumping, as if he must have run very hard. 

 

She never did hear his answer because at that moment, the door swung open again and Chang Eron stepped into the warehouse. For a second, his gleaming golden eyes flickered between Syaoran and Sakura, then the ropes on the floor and the two unconscious men. “Well, seems like you got here first. I’m impressed.”

“Eron-kun!” exclaimed Sakura. She glanced between Eron and Syaoran who were glaring at each other like carnivorous animals in the wilderness.


Syaoran looked up at Eron. “There’s more of them out there, so be careful.”

 

“Be careful yourself,” was Eron’s blunt reply.

 

Then, Sakura recalled that her key and sapphire ring had been stolen. “They took the Five Force Ring and Key of command,” she exclaimed.

 

“We have to find it,” said Syaoran, while Eron simultaneously responded, “Look for it later.”

 

They heard voices outside.

 

“Hey, why is Matsuo knocked out? Check out the warehouse!” ordered a gruff, low voice.

 

“Is it the police? Should we report back to the boss?”

 

“No, the hostages are free. I think they’re decoys from the Yamamoto-gumi. Surround the warehouse!” There were shouts of men and a trail of profanities uttered.

 

Syaoran groaned. It looked like it was going to be a long night. 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It was unfortunate, but in a situation of crisis, there was only one person everyone depended upon. Mizuki Kai burst into Hiiragizawa Eriol’s study chamber. “Sakura-chan has been kidnapped!” To his surprise, there was company. Eriol sat in his large chair, legs crossed and sun staff illuminated a magic circle on the floor. To each side was Ruby Moon and Spinel Sun, and Kaho sat in the other arm chair. Kai was even more startled to see that Yue and Cerberus were also present. Behind him followed Miho, Meilin and Tomoyo, still in their party clothes. Meilin and Kai did not meet eyes. 

 

Shortly after, Kinomoto Touya, still in hospital scrubs, dashed into the room. “What do you mean my sister has been kidnapped?” 

 

“Chang Eron has informed me that Sakura has been taken by yakuza members,” stated Eriol. “No need to be alarmed. It seems that Eron-kun and Li-kun have had a head start.” 

 

“What are we going to do?” demanded Cerberus. “Shouldn’t we go rescue her?”

 

“Don’t you think Eron-kun has things under control?” asked Ruby Moon, spinning her bright fuchsia hair around her finger. 

 

“I thought it was weird that Sakura-chan disappeared from the party without saying a word,” said Tomoyo, quite distraught.

 

“Ah yes, the party,” remarked Eriol. He turned to Miho pleasantly. “Was it fun? Did you get to meet a lot of celebrities?”

 

Miho gulped and squeaked. “Yes, it was lots of fun.”

 

And Eriol smiled demurely. “I am glad to hear it was so fun. You ladies all look lovely in your dresses. Meilin-san that color is charming on you.”

 

“T-thank you,” stammered Meilin. She looked away from Kai—what was he doing here? She had last seen him with Kara. Why wasn’t he with her then?

 

“You see, I adamantly hate being left out of the fun,” stated Eriol, hands crossed on his lap.

 

“Sorry, Eriol. I didn’t have an extra invitation,” Miho mumbled. “I didn’t know you were interested in celebrities and such…”

 

“Enough talk about the wretched party! What about my sister?” roared Touya.

 

“As I mentioned before, Chang Eron and Li Syaoran already went to rescue her,” stated Eriol.

 

Kai cleared his throat. “The real problem is, Kara—Kara Reed, stated that the Minato-gumi is waging a war against Yamamoto-gumi. And the location happens to be at their headquarters in Chiba. Where Sakura happens to be locked up.”

 

“Kara Reed?” Eriol’s glasses glimmered in the shadows.

 

“The yakuza were after Kara, and Sakura I think tried to meddle and both of them were kidnapped. Kara escaped and let me know their basic location,” said Kai. 

 

The pained expression in Meilin’s eyes did not escape Tomoyo’s notice, and she squeezed her friend’s hands in support.

 

“Well, looks like Eron-kun and Syaoran-kun are going to need reinforcement if they are going to be caught in the middle of a major yakuza battlefield,” stated Eriol with a smile. “And while I do dearly hate being left out, but looks like the day is not over yet. Kai-kun, why don’t you lead the way?”

 

“Right, my car is parked outside,” Kai said.

 

“I’m not riding in onii-chan's car,” stated Miho, nose in the air. And Meilin looked reluctant as well.

 

“My van is also waiting outside,” stated Tomoyo. “We can probably split up into the two cars.” She looked a bit troubled and then stated, “Umm… I’m really worried about Sakura-chan and all. But if we are going on a rescue mission, don’t you think we can do it with… style?”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

After Kara Reed put the phone back on the receiver, she leaned against the phone booth. While she was not certain that Kai wouldn’t make a muddle of things like he tended to do, she could leave now since she fulfilled her obligation to the Card Mistress. Then again, if the punks were back, they were probably giving Kinomoto Sakura a hard time because she had escaped. But if she went back, she would end up being caught again; and Kara had no intention being tied up like she was a piece of meat. Past experience had taught her the less you meddle with the yakuza, the better. With squinted eyes, she walked towards a run-down building towards the end of the beach. She saw the Minato-gumi emblem posted on a wood plank outside. The men didn’t particularly flinch when Kara walked straight into the door. She looked down at her crumpled long blacked dress, and one of them men called out, “Who’re you looking for?”

 

They think I’m a call-girl, thought Kara bemusedly. “Where’s the boss?”

 

Kumicho is upstairs. He’s busy though—he didn’t tell us there’s someone coming.”

 

“Nah, he’s expecting me,” said Kara and walked upstairs as if she belonged there.

 

The door of the office was open, and the fifth kumicho of Minato-gumi, Minato Abe looked up from his desk, smoking a cigar and barking into the phone, “Get it right, bastards!” before hanging up in a huff. He peered at Kara through the cloud of smoke before asking, “And what is a pretty lady such as yourself doing here?”

 

“You took something that doesn’t belong to you,” stated Kara.

 

Minato Abe bellowed in laughter. “I hear that often. So, what is it that I took from you?”

 

“Not me. Someone else. A ring and a key.”

 

“A ring and a key?” Minato Abe leaned back in his chair. “Doesn’t interest me. I have far more important things in mind. Soon, I’m going to be the most powerful leader of the Japanese underworld. Do you know that?”

 

“You’re not going to beat the Yamamoto-gumi so easily,” remarked Kara with a smirk. “Taoka Yoshinori won’t go down with a fight to avenge his godfather.”

 

“You know the internal affairs of yakuza warfare very well,” remarked Minato Abe, leaning forward with sudden interest in Kara. “Now, where have I seen that distinct, elfin face before? Ah, that’s right, I saw you earlier this evening at the secret conference. You’re the Black Dragon’s girl.”

 

Kara smirked. “I’m no one’s girl.”

 

“Feisty. I like that. I’ve taken a liking to you. When I become the greatest oyabun of Japan, you can become my number one,” stated Minato Abe. “That’s a great honor.”

 

“No thank you,” said Kara very politely with a smile. “I personally favor world-class criminals, not some local gangster, especially pretty boys younger than me with plenty of charisma, which you are very lacking of.”

 

“W-what?” Minato Abe sputtered. “You impudent thing! Machi! Nobu! Are you outside! Take this girl and lock her up in the warehouse.”

 

“Yes, kumicho!” stated two strapping men in blue suits and sunglasses.

 

“You!” Machi exclaimed, pointing at Kara. “Didn’t I tie you up in the warehouse earlier?”

 

“Ha, so that’s the debtor’s daughter,” stated Minato Abe. “Make sure you guard her well—she’s with the Hong Kong triads. We’ll use her as leverage when we negotiate with the Black Dragon after we beat the Yamamoto-gumi.”

 

Before the men leaped towards here, Kara spotted a deck of cards on the coffee table and grabbed it. With a flick of her wrists, the cards flew straight at Nobu and Machi’s faces. Then, Kara reached out and grabbed a gun from Nobu’s belt. She checked that it was loaded and then pointed it at Minato Abe.

 

“W-what are you doing?” demanded Minato Abe then gulped as he saw the girl knew how to use the gun.

 

“Key and ring,” said Kara.

 

“I-it’s here!” said Minato Abe, fumbling in his desk’s top drawer and finding a long silver chain, then flung it at Kara.

 

Kara caught it with her left hand, her gun never leaving target. 

 

“Where is everyone?” hollered Minato Abe. “We have a situation up here!”

 

Nobu rolled over and grabbed Kara by the ankle. There were footsteps on the stairwells. And Minato Abe blocked the window. Kara was completely encircled without an exit in site. Sweat rolled down her bare back. Leon always told me it is essential to plan out an escape route. Which is why I’ll never make a good thief. She fired off her gun at the men who filed up across the back of the room, but there were too many of them, and they were all armed.

 

“If only the public transportation was running at this hour or I had enough change to pay for a cab, then I wouldn’t be in this pinch right now,” muttered Kara, ducking as a half dozen men lunged towards her. “If that wretched Card Mistress didn’t meddle, I could have made an escape ages ago.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Syaoran dodged a man the size of a sumo wrestler. He dashed forward, whirled around and toppled the massive man with a roundhouse kick. Out of the corner of his eyes, he watched Sakura leap up lithely and then spin out a straightforward sidekick to an attacker regardless of the fact she was wearing a dress. The man, perhaps startled at the power of the kick coming from an unaggressive looking girl, stumbled back over another fallen man. Syaoran smiled slightly. With all the stomping and jumping around she did, Sakura had good leg muscles. Though he had not got around to teaching Sakura much, she seemed to have practiced and nailed the basic steps, and one could put up a good defense with just the basics.

 

“Why are there so many of them gathered here?” muttered Eron, sending out a spelled resonating punch which knocked over a train of men like dominos.

 

Eying Eron, Syaoran realized that Eron had mastered energy manipulation to the point where he could use magic without detection since he did not have to rely on a staff or any other amplifying object. “It seems like there’s some sort of yakuza warfare happening here,” Syaoran remarked, dodging a bat.

 

“That’s right,” snarled the stout man who had first tied up Sakura. He had finally recovered consciousness from Syaoran’s blow and charged towards Sakura. “Tonight’s the night our kumicho becomes the biggest boss in all of Japan.” 

 

With an unruly look in his eyes, Eron stepped forward and pushed Sakura behind him.

 

“So you’re the real boyfriend? You’re such a pretty thing, you almost look like a girl. You don’t look particularly strong to me,” the stout man stated, sizing Eron up and down.

 

“You want to see?” said Eron with a cruel smile. “I hear you’re the one who tied us Sakura and threatened her?”

 

While Eron was distracted, another man charged towards Sakura. Sakura managed to leap back onto a wooden crate.

 

The stout man chuckled and saw this opportunity to reach out and grab Sakura by the wrist. “I won’t let you get away as well.”

 

Sakura tried to yank away her arm. Without her Cards, there was nothing she could do. It was not like she was particularly an experienced martial artists, nor did she know words of command like Eriol or manipulate energy like Eron did. 

 

“Sakura! Elbow bend, stamp right foot down, twist kick!” shouted out Syaoran.

 

And Sakura, almost out of routine from training with Syaoran a summer ago, followed his directions to the cue, and elbowed the man, stamped down her heel on his toes then freed her wrist, spun around and procured a twist kick, knocking her captor over.

 

She almost toppled over a crate but Syaoran rushed forward and steadied her. “Good job,” he said.

 

Momentarily, Sakura smiled up at Syaoran. It was a natural effect because compliments from Syaoran were so rare.

 

The fallen man stared up at Eron bemusedly. “If she’s your girl, then why is he getting all worked up?”

 

Eron watched Syaoran out of the corner of his eyes.

 

“Well, it’s game over for you guys, anyway,” said the man, looking up. “The rest of the crew has arrived.”

 

Sakura, Syaoran and Eron, back to back, gathered towards the center of the warehouse where Sakura had been tied to the pillar. In all directions, men of all sizes and ages, dressed in a colorful array of suits, Hawaiian-print t-shirts and biker jackets, gathered around them.

 

“So, where’s the Yamamoto-gumi? Don’t tell me all they sent is a little girl and two pretty-boys?” demanded a muscular man in a bold yellow shirt.

 

“Well, doesn’t matter. We’ll show ’em how the Minato-gumi deals with things,” cried out a ghoulish man in a leather jacket.

 

“Not a chance!” cried out a female voice from the doorway.

 

The Minato gang turned around to face the oddest assortment of people to be sent from the Yamamoto-gumi. The girl who had spoken wore an indigo long sleeved cheongsam with a black sash accentuating her narrow waste. Her jet-black hair was pulled into two pigtails in the popular odango style from videogames. Next to her was a nerdy bespectacled boy dressed in what seemed like a black and navy blue robe with a large black staff in hand. The toughest looking of the bunch was a tan-skinned brunette man in a blazer the same shade of blue as the other two over a black turtleneck and pants, who would have looked intimidating had he not a stethoscope around his neck. An androgynous man with long silver hair was clad in a flowing navy robe with black and silver trimmings, and a beautiful woman with bright fuchsia hair wore a form-fitting dress of black lace over Prussian blue silk. A tall woman with long auburn hair tied back in a low ponytail wore a form-fitting blue riding jacket over a long black skirt and gave out the vibe of a schoolteacher more than gangster, though she had a wooden bow and bag of arrows slung on her back. Finally, there were two younger girls, one with short auburn hair, wearing a black turtleneck under a blue jumper and one with violet curls pulled back into a side ponytail, wearing a robin blue double-breasted coat trimmed with black fur and holding a video camera. Tomoyo was delighted—it was hard deciding on a color that fit everybody, but blue looked good with Touya’s eyes, Yue’s silver hair, Miho and Mizuki-sensei’s auburn hair and of course, Eriol’s favorite colors were blue and black.

 

Face lighting up, Sakura exclaimed, “Meilin-chan! And Eriol-kun, onii-chan, Yue-san, Ruby Moon-san, Mizuki-sensei, Miho-chan and Tomoyo-chan too!” She stared up at the roof. She could feel the presence of Cerberus and Spinel Sun, both wearing sapphire and onyx collars designed by Tomoyo, above them. She beamed at her friends. “You all came.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Encircled in by a dozen men in black in the cramped yakuza office, Kara Reed glared at their boss, gun extended out and fingers on trigger. 

 

“If you just cooperate, you won’t get hurt,” said Minato Abe, the boss of the men.

 

“But I don’t feel like cooperating,” Kara replied saucily.

 

“Well, then it is unfortunate but we’ll have to do it by force.” Minato Abe’s broad face twisted into a grin, his golden tooth flashing. “I’m sure the Black Dragon will be horrified when he finds what we’ve done to his precious golden-haired sidekick.”

 

Kara was about to pull the trigger when the window behind Minato Abe shattered into pieces, and a black form landed atop the desk. Blinking her violet eyes, Kara stared up at the young man who fit right in with the delinquents, his hair spiked up and ears pierced, wearing a tight black leather jacket over a dark navy blue shirt and black jeans. He wore sunglasses though it was dark outside. He was not the Black Dragon, but he was good enough. Holding out his hand, he called out, “Come!” She grinned and grabbed it. Together, they jumped out the window of Minato-gumi headquarters.

 

She heard Minato Abe call out, “Chase after them!”

 

Hand in hand, Kai and Kara ran down the beach. Kara’s heels sank down into the beach, her long black skirt trailing behind her. Finally, when they had enough distance ahead, they paused to catch their breath.

 

“So you still come running to save me, prince,” said Kara with a lazy smile.

 

“Nah, I came to save my little Card Mistress,” replied Kai. “You see, I am thoroughly in her debt.”

 

“I see.” Kara pouted her pink lips. “Should I say I’m a little bit jealous?”

 

“You don’t need saving, Princess,” replied Kai.

 

“Then why did you come?”

 

“Ah, to retrieve something that our little Mistress had stolen from her.”

 

And Kai held up the chain, from which dangled the star sapphire ring and Sakura’s pink star key.

 

“When did you—” And Kara shrugged. “You know that sapphire ring should rightfully have belonged to me.”

 

“No, it would have rightfully belonged to Clow Reed, since Lord Landon Reed gave it to Li Shulin as an engagement ring. But right now, it belongs to me,” said Kai.

 

“You unscrupulous thief,” said Kara, shaking her head.


Kai threw his jacket over Kara’s shoulders.

 

The leather settled over Kara’s shoulders. She hadn’t even realized she was cold wearing the flimsy evening gown because she had never had to run so hard before. “Well, are you going back to save the little Card Mistress?”

 

“Yeah.” Kai looked up towards the warehouse roof, where he could see the golden eyes of Spinel Sun and Cerberus as they guarded their Mistress from a hidden position. “Well, you can go back. You can take my car if you want. It’s parked behind the warehouse.” He tossed the car keys to Kara.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Where did all these men come from?” muttered Meilin under her breath as a man in sunglasses with a Mohawk dashed forward. She pretended he was Mizuki Kai and punched his face, smashing the sunglasses to pieces.

 

“They’re spelled!” stated Sakura, scampering up bags of sawdust, watching the number of gangsters in the warehouse increase exponentially before her eyes.

 

“Is it a dark force?” cried out Miho. Tomoyo and Miho stood behind Eriol, who guarded them while zapping off discreet spells here and there to aid the ones who were active in fighting. At least, that’s what they thought he was doing. 

 

“I don’t know!” replied Sakura ducking as Yue shot the man behind her with a silver arrow, pinning his shirt to the wall behind him.

 

Meilin, Syaoran and Touya were the best martial artists of the group and hence were the most active in fighting. Yue and Mizuki Kaho both were armed with bow and arrow, and shot from the distance. Of course, the aim was to slightly stun, not kill, which was the more difficult task. Since they were tackling ordinary men, they could not use blatant magic. And the numbers of yakuza, all with the insignia of the Minato Clan seemed to just increase.

 

“They’re completely possessed!” exclaimed Ruby Moon, ducking a man who dashed towards her with a baseball bat. She flicked her finger and blasted a crystal shard at him, knocking him backwards.

 

“Nakuru, you can’t use such obvious magic!” cried out Miho.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” said Eriol, as they watched new blobs of men materialize in the warehouse. “These aren’t humans anymore—they’re just clones. We need to get rid of them or else they’re going to overpower us.”

 

“I think they really want to kill us!” squealed Meilin, ducking as a man began to flail about his baseball bat at her wildly, and Syaoran deftly kicked away the bat from the side. Another inched in on her and began firing off shots from a handgun. They were all fended off by a shower of steel-hard trump cards that flew down from above.

 

Both Syaoran and Meilin stared up at the ceiling to find Kai balanced on a wooden beam, a long black cape with cobalt blue lining was draped around his shoulders. He leaped down with every bit of grace befitting the magnificent Kaitou Magician. With a flick of his right hand, a flashy silver bow materialized from a heavy silver ring on his forefinger. As he drew the bow string, a silver arrow materialized. He started firing off the arrows with great speed and precision. Ten men were pinned to the back wall with the arrows.

 

While Kai was a hopeless brother and a useless boyfriend, Meilin had to admit, he was a topnotch magician and thief.

 

“New skill?” asked Syaoran, trying to hide that he was impressed.

 

“Took me a month to design this,” said Kai, holding up his elegant silver bow. “Ain’t it a beauty?”

 

Nodding his head towards Yue, who was sporting a similar bow, Syaoran asked, “Aren’t you just a big copycat?”

 

Kai grinned. “Caught where I got the inspiration from?”

 

“You’ll always be a thief through and through."

 

“Either way, it’s impressive that you mastered energy materialization in less than a month, Kai-kun,” Eriol remarked.

 

“I know, I must be a genius,” boasted Kai.

 

“Liar. Nobody learns energy materialization and manipulation in a month,” said Miho.

 

“Nah, he practices hard and is just too vain to admit it,” stated another voice from the beams above.

 

“Kara!” exclaimed Kai, looking up.

 

Kara flung the car keys back at Kai. “I just realized that Leiyun will be very mad if he realized that I missed the opportunity to take the Five Force Ring and the Star Key.” She looked down at the mob of gangsters below. “What is going on here?”

 

Sakura looked up and waved. “Rido-senpai! Thank you!”

 

And Kara stared at the younger girl, dumbfounded. She had thought of abandoning Sakura with the yakuza at least a dozen times in the past several hours—why was she grateful? “She’s even more idiotic that Leiyun surmised,” Kara muttered to herself.

 

“Sakura-chan!” called out Kai. “Thank goodness you’re all right.”

“Kai-kun!” exclaimed Sakura. “I knew I could count on you. I heard you brought everyone here. I really appreciate it.”

 

Kai looked at Sakura gravely in the midst of the chaos around them. Up till now, it had been unclear whether Kai had been on the side of Kara Reed or Sakura’s group. “I didn’t get a chance to properly accept this invitation,” he said, presenting a white slip of paper with a golden star seal. “I had some business to take care of before I was in a position to offer my allegiance to you. But now, I am here to offer you my service, one and only Card Mistress Sakura, to the utmost of my capabilities.” His cloak fanning out behind him majestically, and right hand over left chest, Kai bent down and knelt on one knee. “If you will still accept me, I will gladly offer my hand to the Alliance of the Stars.”

 

The corner of Sakura’s eyes crinkled. “Thank you, Kai-kun, and welcome.”

 

Miho and Tomoyo clapped their hands together.

 

“Why in the world is he kneeling?” grumbled Meilin. “Does he think he’s getting knighted or something? And why are there rose petals blowing around?”

 

“I think he stalled joining the Circle of the Stars just so that he can come up with a grand entrance ceremony for himself,” remarked Ruby Moon. The eleventh had joined.

 

Eron smirked. “Really, after all that fuss, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from the Kaitou Magician.”

 

Only Syaoran sulked into a corner, suddenly realizing his position as the only outsider besides Kara, and that was no reassurance. 

 

Unlike the others, Sakura had never really had doubted that the scrupulous thief would join the Circle and knelt down with Kai. “I look forward to working with you, Mizuki Kai-kun.”

 

“And as my first present to you, I give you your most important item,” said Kai, producing the star key and the sapphire ring.

 

“Kai-kun. Where did you find it?” exclaimed Sakura, taking the chain gladly.

 

“I stole it of course,” replied Kai.

 

With a dissatisfied grunt, Kara grumbled to herself. “Today is just not my day. I thought I can relax now that college entrance exams are done with, but first, I have to attend some boring mafia conference, like I care who becomes the next boss. Then, I get kidnapped by some oafs and hear that bastard that my mother married still has debt, not to mention have the goody-goody Card Mistress butt into my business and ruin all my escape plans and then get assaulted by that disgusting pig of a boss. And I could have left, but here I am.”

 

“Watch out Karin!” cried out Kai as a man held up a broken chair and smashed it down over Kara.

 

Meilin turned around to watch Kai throw his body over Kara and knock her over to the floor as the chair smashed down on his back. “Kai!” she called out.

 

A trickle of blood rolled down his forehead. Meilin reached out and then drew back as she saw the genuine look of concern come over Kara’s violet eyes. So, even ice-queen Kara Reed was capable of emotions.  

 

“You dummy, what did you do that for?” Kara said, pushing Kai away. But her usually calm demeanor was broken. “I can look after myself without you butting in.”

 

“Perhaps you can. But I made a promise,” said Kai, groaning when a bone cracked as he stood up. He wiped the blood off his forehead with the back of his hand. “It was a promise with Leon-san, not you.”

 

Just then, the man returned to lunge at Kai with a knife. Without blinking an eye, Kara reached under her skirt and drew out from her garters a handgun and shot off.


The man yelped, dropping his knife as the bullet whizzed past his left ear.

 

“Next time, I’m not going to miss,” said Kara with a smile. She blew off the smoke from her pistol and turned to Kai. “Told you I can look after myself.”

 

“Your skills haven’t grown rusty,” remarked Kai.

 

“I’ve been practicing on the shooting range with Jin.”

 

“Seems like Leon-san taught you something useful, after all,” he said, looking away from the gun.

 

“Squeamish as ever,” said Kara. Her long skirt tangled between her legs, and she quickly ripped off the fabric, modifying her gown into a halter-neck mini-dress. “Well, stick to your antiquated weapon, and I’ll stick to mine.” 

 

The two charged forward, Kai with bow in hand, and Kara with pistol.

 

“Wait, aren’t you two one of us?” asked one of the gang members, pointing at Kai and Kara. “You’re fighting the wrong side.” 

 

“We are not one of you!” retorted Kai and Kara simultaneously.

 

“Look at your hair; you must be Yankees,” replied the man with the bleached hair spiked into a Mohawk. “You’re just like us.” 

 

Kara and Kai stared at each other and then glared at the man. “We have much more style than you!” 

 

 

 

If Syaoran knocked down three men, Eron had to go and knock down four. If Syaoran performed a back kick, Eron would do a back-flip and a series of multiple kicks. Syaoran had been progressively growing more irritated having Chang Eron breathe down his back.

 

“So, tell me, how did you find Sakura?” Eron asked when both of them had finished knocking down a train of ten yakuza.

 

“I’m not quite sure,” replied Syaoran, not untruthfully. His lasin board usually reacted to the power of the moon, and whereas he could no longer use magic, the power of the moon within Sakura was enough to activate the lasin board and guide him to her. Or so it seemed. He was not quite sure exactly how it worked, but somehow that one thought that he must find Sakura brought him to her.

 

“You know there’s no need for you to be here anymore,” said Eron. “Sakura’s Circle will protect her.”

 

Syaoran caught his breath as he wiped the sweat off his brows. When he had his powers, he recovered from injuries a lot quicker and sustained stamina for a longer time. Physical pain didn’t even bother him then. He could especially note the difference between his own state and Eron’s. Eron had not even broken sweat yet.

 

“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Eron’s lips twisted into a sardonic smile. “This alliance of twelve was first your idea, wasn’t it? Twelve allies to represent each point of Sakura’s twelve-pointed star. And yet, you never imagined that there would no longer be a spot for you.”

 

“Well, it’s a pity someone who claims to be her boyfriend and one of the Alliance has such difficulty protecting Sakura,” murmured Syaoran.

 

And Eron’s calm demeanor snapped like elastic stretched too far, and he blast out an electric whirlwind from his palm, knocking back Syaoran against the wall.

Falling back with a thud, he remarked with a grimace, “So, you finally show your true colors.”

 

Slowly, Eron walked up to Syaoran. “I’ve been holding back because I thought Sakura would be distressed if I injure her precious Syaoran-kun. But I wonder why it didn’t occur to me that eliminating you is for the best? You see, ever since you came back, I’ve been very afraid that you might end up taking back your moon powers.”

 

Syaoran wiped a trickle of blood away from his lips. “Why… Would I do that?”

 

“I don’t know. Why else would you be spending so much time with her? Perhaps you regretted giving up your powers. Perhaps you saw the easy way out of the dismal state you are currently in. Living without magic for a year. You probably learned how difficult that is. You can’t achieve your goals without the power of the moon. You’re helpless and useless.” Eron paused. “I’ve been very concerned that whether by plan or by chance, you might take back your powers. Then what will happen to my Sakura?” Eron’s eyes glowed a blazing-gold so bright that it almost seemed white.

 

He stared up at Eron. “What are you talking about?”

 

“I can’t take the risk. So long as you are alive, Sakura’s life is endangered. That is why you must disappear. It is either Sakura or you. You can pick. Or else, I will choose for you.”

 

From his wrist, Eron drew a long, curved blade with a strange vermillion crystal shaped like an eye embedded in the hilt of the sword.

 

“The Demon-Blade of Chang Ruichi, a single-edged sword that was rumored to have slashed over a thousand men,” murmured Eriol, as if he had been watching Syaoran and Eron the whole time.

 

Miho, who had been busy snapping photos of the fight for her article on the yakuza, looked up. “What?” Instinctively, her eyes wandered towards Syaoran. 

 

And Syaoran too drew from the sheath strapped to his back Hien, flame-sword of his director ancestor, Protector of the Clan, Li Shenji, cousin to Li Shulin. “For the last time, I do not want to fight you, Chang Eron.”

 

“Well, it’s too late,” said Eron, dashing forward with his gleaming saber. “Today, we’ll see an end to this for once and for all.”

 

 

 

A deep frown etched into her usually smooth forehead, Tomoyo looked up from her video camera. She had been admiring how the Alliance in blue and black complimented Sakura’s aqua and blue dress and thinking how next time, she was going to get Eron and Syaoran to dress up. Then, she remembered that Syaoran was not a part of the Alliance. She had forgotten momentarily, because they were all fighting together again. Or more like, everybody else was fighting and Eron and Syaoran were at each other’s throat.   

 

Meilin twirled around, letting the two oafs who dashed towards her simultaneously collide into each other. She looked over to the other side of the warehouse, spotting Syaoran and Eron clash their swords together. “Are those two idiotic? Why are they fighting each other instead of the enemy?”

 

“Don’t get distracted!” called out Kai, smashing the end of his bow into a man who had lunged towards Meilin. “You can’t pay attention to the others.”

 

“But someone’s got to stop them,” stated Meilin, glancing over at Eron who seemed to be choking Syaoran. But Syaoran shoved him off. Good. She looked up to see that Sakura was busily dashing up a pile of crates and Mizuki-sensei was lecturing a group of young punks who seemed quite smitten by her. Touya deftly knocked down a dozen men with his thunder punches, and Ruby Moon cheered on him. Kara had grown tired of fighting and sat up on a wooden beam, occasionally BB-gunning the ruffians from above.  

 

“This is never-ending,” muttered Kai, hair soaked in sweat. “Something smell’s fishy.” Between the five of them who were actually fighting—Meilin, Touya, Yue, Sakura (who basically was reduced to using her poor staff to smack people who attacked her) and himself, they had surely taken down a lot of gangsters. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had taken down the whole Minato-gumi already. Yet, they keep appearing. And yet, Sakura doesn’t think it’s a dark force.  

 

“They’re not just Minato-gumi,” stated Kara. “Look at their insignia.”

 

Indeed some of the men had a white diamond crest embroider on the back of their biker jackets.

 

“The Yamamoto-gumi and Minato-gumi are all a jumble. Everyone’s fighting each other regardless of their clan,” Kai exclaimed.

 

Touya wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeves. “I don’t think we can keep up much longer. Nothing’s getting sorted out.”

 

At that moment, the boss of Minato-gumi burst into the warehouse to check on the status of things, alarmed by the amount of unconscious bodies laying about the sand. He saw his own men fighting each other. “Fools, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be taking down the Yamamoto-gumi!”

 

Machi crawled out with a broken tooth. “Boss, I don’t know what’s going on. Our men are taking each other down. And there are these super-powerful punks. I don’t know whose side they’re on, but I don’t think we’re going to hold out.” He toppled over.

 

Minato Abe frowned, gazing around the state of chaos. Then, he pointed at Kara Reed. “You! You’re still here. Men, take that blonde girl down. She’s with the Hong Kong triads! We’re going to use her as hostage!”

 

And Kara looked up, slightly alarmed. Men had climbed up the beams to where she sat. Deftly, she jumped down. The men stranded up on the wooden beams balanced dangerously and their weight caused the wood the splinter in half, and they came crashing down on the floor, sending up a cloud of dust.

 

“You’re all useless!” cried Minato Abe, reaching into his pocket and producing a silver pistol. “I’ll do it myself.”

 

He lunged forward to Kara Reed and doubled her wrist behind her back, pressing the pistol to her head. “Everybody, put your hands up in the air or this girl is dead!”

 

“Rido-senpai!” cried out Sakura.


Kai halted, swerving around as a woman in a kimono with a sash representing the Yamamoto-gumi and a long saber dashed towards him. Meilin swirled around and kicked the sword out of her hands.

 

“Thanks,” said Kai to Meilin.

 

Meilin smiled grimly as they watched Kara standing complacently as the Minato-gumi boss continued to press the gun against her head. “I said, all of you stop at once. Or else I’m going to shoot!”

 

But through the bright entrance to the warehouse walked in a man with jet-black hair and in a black cheongsam with a golden dragon embroidered up his back over black trousers and boots, a long black pistol in each hand. He shot off without flinching. The first bullet knocked Minato Abe’s gun out of his right hand, and the other grazed his left hand, causing him to releasing Kara. 

 

Several steps back, Erika followed. To her amazement, men in black suits lined the seaside path that Li Jinyu walked down and bowed down low as he walked down towards the warehouse entrance. It was fun pretending all these men were bowing at her feet, but her fantasy did not last long as she realized that a major skirmish had taken place in the warehouse. The entirety of Sakura’s alliance seemed to be present. Where was Eron?  

 

“You took your time coming, Jin,” remarked Kara, flexing her wrist. “I thought for a moment, I was going to get my brains blown out.”

 

Not that Jinyu seemed to care, as he quietly observed Minato Abe’s next action.

 

“T-take that man down!” cried out Minato Abe, pointing at Jinyu.

 

The few standing members of both the Minato-gumi and Yamamoto-gumi dashed forwards, holding various scraps of weapons ranging from an axe to a broom. 

 

Before they could strike, a man with orange hair and in a yukata burst into the warehouse, a sheathed katana in hand. “Halt!” He declared in a deep, growling voice.

 

“Why should they listen to you, Taoka?” demanded Minato Abe.

 

“Fools! You guys have heard that the Hong Kong triads have been making a move in Japan?” demanded the man with orange hair. “That’s Li Jinyu, the Black Dragon, Head of the Hong Kong triads.”

 

That had the desired effect and everybody in the warehouse automatically fell to their knees like dominoes.


“That’s more like it,” stated Taoka Yoshinori, arms crossed.

 

The gangsters cried out, “Welcome to Japan, Jinyu-sama!”

 

“THE Dragon King of Hong Kong triads?” squeaked Machi.

 

“He’s so young? Only in this early thirties!” exclaimed a bald man with his back decorated with an array of colorful tattoos in blue, red and yellow.

 

And Jinyu glared at him ever so slightly.

 

“He’s scary,” muttered Nobu.

 

“Why are you listening to this fool?” demanded Minato Abe. “I’m the next head of the yakuza. Listen to me!”

 

“It’s over, boss,” stated Machi. “The Black Dragon’s here. You don’t have your negotiating piece, and frankly, you don’t have your army of men anymore either.”

 

Minato Abe looked up and saw that his hundreds of men were fallen. “What happened in here? Where did all my men go?” He glared at Taoka Yoshinori and the pointed his gun at the young man. He pulled the trigger. There was an empty click. He was out of bullets. Picking up a katana on the floor, he madly dashed forward, blade drawn.

 

Right arm bared from his blue yukata, revealing part of a large tattoo of an orange and black tiger on his back, Taoka Yoshinori declared with a wild grin, “You get ’em before they get you. That is the way of the yakuza.” Without drawing his blade, he quickly deflected the blow and then knocked the sword out of Minato’s hand. Then, he pointed his sheath at Minato Abe’s neck. “Admit your surrender, Minato Abe. Under the Yamamoto code of chivalry, I condemn you, Minato Abe of Minato-gumi, for the assassination of the sixth oyabun of Yamamoto-gumi, Yamamoto Noboru, and breeching the decade-old peace treaty between Yamamoto-gumi and Minato-gumi. Furthermore, you have breached the yakuza code of honor in attempting to kidnap and assault the first lieutenant of the Hong Kong triads and violated our international cooperation treaties. Accept your defeat, and you will be subject to appropriate judgment by our brothers.”

 

Minato Abe spat at Taoka and demanded, “What gives you right to command me, your senior? I’ve been killing men before you were out of your diapers.”  

 

Without smiling, Jinyu stepping forward. “You are speaking to the new boss of the Yamamoto-gumi. The succession ceremony has been completed at the third hour of this day with the approval of the 850 clans of the Yamamoto-gumi, and you will answer to seventh oyabun Taoka Yoshinori as an allying family of Yamamoto clan.”

 

And everybody was suddenly on their knees again. “Hail Taoka Yoshinori-sama! Nanadaime oyabun, hail!” 

 

While Sakura did not have a clear idea what had suddenly happened and who all the men in black were and why Li Jinyu had appeared, she gazed at the alleged leader of the Yamamoto-gumi, Taoka Yoshinori, who was a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, with long bright orange hair tied back into a high ponytail. His body was muscular and his face lined beyond someone his years. But he was grinning like a boy as he gazed at his future family, the future of the yakuza. And she couldn’t help thinking how different he seemed from Li Jinyu. 

 

“You weren’t sticking around because you suddenly developed a conscious and you wanted to help out Sakura,” said Kai accusingly to Kara. “You were acting as a decoy for when Jinyu struck. You knew what the Black Dragon was up to, didn’t you?”

 

Kara slipped her handgun back into her garter-belt. “Silly, did you really think Jinyu’s mission in Japan was simply to babysit Syaoran? Of course as Li Clan Protector, he had a much more important task at hand. He was under orders to form a liaison with the Yamamoto-gumi, the largest yakuza group in Japan so that the Li Clan could cement their stronghold in Japan.”

 

“Are you really first-lieutenant of the Hong Kong mafia?” asked Kai apprehensively.

 

“You actually believe that?” Kara roared out in laugher, head thrown back, clutching her stomach. “You are so gullible.”

 

I didn’t know Kara Reed could laugh like that, thought Meilin, watching the two from afar.

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Because all eyes were fixed upon the new yakuza leader, Sakura thought it was a perfect opportunity to slip away unnoticed. Mafia warfare was beyond her and a realm she did not want to explore. So that’s the kind of person Li Jinyu is… Someone who feared by all those scary men, someone who commands them. Her brother and Yue walked out onto the beach, and she could see that her brother was more exhilarated than he had been in a long time—after all, he had been the most scouted member of the wrestling team back in college. The two of them were treating the injured, occupation taking precedence after exercise. Cerberus and Spinel Sun had transformed back into their small forms and rested in Tomoyo’s bag—they had a long evening setting a barrier around the beach to protect the civilians of the neighborhood. Mizuki Kaho, Miho and Eriol were engaged in a lengthy discussion about the origins of the yakuza in feudal Japan. Kara joined Erika and Jinyu. And Meilin and Kai seemed to be about to do some major sorting out.  

 

Where had Syaoran and Eron both disappeared to? Collecting her breath, Sakura dashed outside. It was misty gray outside, not quite dawn, and very still except for the waves crashing upon the sand. And in the distance, down the opposite end of the shore, she saw two figures facing each other. “What are they doing?” she murmured to herself, before running full speed down the shoreline, her feet sinking into the soft sand with each beat of her heart drumming in her chest as a frightening premonition sank inside.

 

 

 

Syaoran and Eron faced each other on the sandy beach. The sky overhead was gray and tumultuous, as if a storm was brewing, and the waves crashed down at their feet with a ravenous hunger. They were oblivious to the fact that the fighting inside had stopped and that Jinyu had appeared to sort out the mess. They were oblivious to the fact that Sakura and the others had caught up to them. They were oblivious to everything else except for each other.

 

“I knew it would one day come down to this,” said Eron, facing Syaoran, curved blade drawn.

 

“I told you many times before, I don’t want to fight you,” Syaoran responded through gritted teeth. “You are dating Sakura. What more do you want?”

 

“I don’t know. I thought it was enough that she is by my side. But I realized, so long as you exist, she will no longer be mine.” The white ribbon tying back Eron’s hair had become untied, and his long blue-violet hair whipped back from his face.

 

Syaoran paused and stared hard at Eron. She doesn’t belong to you, nor anyone. “You’re crazy.” But that went without saying.  

 

“If you didn’t exist…” Eron stared at Syaoran as the true meaning of those words was dawning upon him for the first time.

 

Both dashed forward and their swords clashed. They withdrew, clouds of sand flying up from their feet. The two formed a stark silhouette against the backdrop of the deep blue ocean, Eron was in his white tuxedo and Syaoran in black. Both had untied their bowties and loosened their collar. While Syaoran’s sleeves and trousers were chaffed from a nightlong bottle, Eron’s white suit was spotless, as if he had just stepped out from the ballroom. Eron charged forward again with a ferocity that nobody had ever witnessed before. Syaoran grimaced at the impact on the sword, a ripping pain ringing up his right arm to his shoulder. Had Eron always been this strong?

 

Watching from a safe distance, Eriol murmured, “The Dark One finally reveals his true powers.”

 

“I see. We have until now only seen the surface of his true potential,” stated Mizuki Kaho. “Chang Eron could possibly be stronger than we had possibly imagined.”

 

“His mind not only defeated the Chang curse, but he has twisted his former dark powers into a new form. He’s invented magic and crafted it in his own manner, not unlike Clow Reed,” Yue remarked. “He’s an uncanny force to be reckoned with.”

“Thank goodness he’s on our side,” remarked Ruby Moon. “I think. He is, right? Who are we supposed to be cheering for again?”

 

“We should be stopping them,” Miho stated, pacing up and down. “They’re going to get seriously hurt.”

“I don’t think we can intervene anymore,” said Eriol quietly.

 

It took all of Syaoran’s wit end to keep off Eron’s blows, and he did not know how Eron managed to keep up his banter after each stroke; he was not even out of breath yet.  

 

“You Li’s have always been betrayers. Li Shulin brought the downfall of the Great Five,” stated Chang Eron. “And her blood flows in you. You are bound to be a betrayer as well.”

 

Syaoran jerked back, his feet sliding in the mud. “Humph, are you showing your Dark One routes again? I knew it was hiding in there somewhere.”

 

Eron laughed out loud with a maniac gleam in his eyes. “What, you think this is the Dark One being channeled through me? No, this is me. Chang Eron and only me. I shall be controlled by no one.” He raised his saber up into the air, channeling an electric current down the blade. Then, he released a lightning bolt.

 

There was nothing Syaoran could do but jump out of the way—except they were surrounded by ocean, and the electric shock amplified by the water flung Syaoran back onto the sand.