Chapter 67: The Sacrifice
Is it a sin to wish for something that is unattainable? My eyes, my arms, my legs, my heart, there is nothing I would not have given for my one wish.
But that was not enough, was it? For your wish to come true, you have to pay something of equivalent value.
Part I: Moon Risesc
One autumn day towards the end of the Edo Feudal Erac
The trees of Kumatori Mountain of Edo Japan were dappled a brilliant crimson, amber and golden as an unusually hot and long summer finally gave way to the brisk chill of autumn. Vermillion-colored maple leaves showered down the wooden engawa porch of the Shinto shrine located towards the summit of the mountains. Two women sat on the porch, sipping fragrant green tea, breathing in the musty, smoky smell of the woods around them. One was a miko, clad in the red and white garbs of a Shinto priestess, and the other was a woman, almost childlike in frame, with long violet-black hair pulled into a tight bun. Her kimono was a deep plum color, a lighter shade of her hair, accented with a deep ochre sash, the color of her eyes. She had a small, delicate-boned face, though it lacked much color.
gYou look pale. Is your health all right, Risa?h asked the auburn-haired miko, Mizuki Mayura of the Great Five.
gI am much better now,h replied Chang Risa with a small smile. She put her hands on her stomach, over her orange and canary dyed silk obi.
Mayurafs gray eyes flickered over to Risafs hands. gDonft tell mech Her eyes widened. gYou canft be?h
gItfs been three months,h said Risa, her cheeks flushed.
gCongratulationscbutch A dark shadow came over Mayurafs eyes. gBut your bodych
gIfll be fine. I want this. Ifve always wanted this child.h
gDid you tell him yet?h
Risa hesitated. gNoc Hefs been busy sealing the escaped mountain youkai. I donft want him to worry for me.h
gBut he should know,h said Mayura slowly. gYou have to tell him.h
gJust a little longer. Until I am sure I am stable.h She stroked her stomach. gIfve always wanted a child, Mayura. I never thought it could happen. But this baby, I will protect no matter what.h
gRisa, you must be careful.h Mayura reached over and held Risafs thin hands in hers. She had never seen the younger girl who had always been so meek and timid speak with so much determination before; perhaps it was motherly instinct. gIfll be here for you, so donft overburden yourself.h
gThank you, Mayura.h Risa smiled wistfully. gYou know, I never regretted losing my sight, not once, but now, I have the slightest regret I will not be able to see my babyfs first smile nor the color of her eyes.h
gYoufve been so brave all this time; I wish is a way to turn back time and give you back your sight,h said Mayura softly, wondering if she would have been able to do the same as Risa for the sake of love.
Chang Risa shook her head adamantly. gI never regret the choice I made. In return, I received so many gifts. Hayashi-sama, whom I never even dared to dream about, is by my side, and I am with his child now. In many ways, I am very blessed.h Risafs cheeks were a rosy pink as she gazed at her closest friend. gYoufve been like a sister to me, always giving me strength and courage. Thank you so much, Mayura.h
The trees had grown bare and the colorful autumn had stripped down to a barren cold winter in the mountains almost overnight. Chang Risa sat up from her futon, shivering. It was cold. Her long wavy hair hung damp around her white face. She covered her shoulders with an earth-tone haori and sat up. Carefully, she placed her hands over her obi sash, which had begun to pinch her stomach. Would he be happy? She wondered if she would bear a son who would grow up to become a mighty swordsman to make his father proud or maybe a lovely little girl with his bright eyes. Yes it would definitely be a daughter. A throb came from her stomach again. gEven if I wonft be able to see your face, I will know exactly what you look like. So grow healthy and strong, my dear baby.h She heard footsteps outside\was he back already? She stumbled outside towards the outhouse, her breath coming out in heaves. Risa wiped the sweat on her brows with her sleeve\she wanted to see his face light up when she had told him about the baby. He would be happy, wouldnft he? Her hands reached out feeling in front of her and she stumbled before balancing herself again. For a second, she paused. gIs anyone there?h she asked out loud to the presence of a girl with green eyes very like Amamiya Hayashifs.
Kinomoto Sakura did not reply. Though Risa could not see her, her marble-like golden eyes lingered where she stood for a moment. Then she continued on walking as she heard whispers behind the walls. With a sense of dread, Sakura too looked on. Was there someone else? A golden-browned haired man with a dark green haori over his kimono stood next to a figure in a crimson silk robe on a red wooden bridge over a stream. The sky was a hazy white. Flakes of snow began to fall. Risa concealed herself behind the stone wall, recognizing the voices instantly. A nauseous sensation rippled through Sakurafs insides\she didnft want to watch anymore. But her feet were transfixed to the spot, just like Risafs were. She couldnft move away, nor close her eyes nor block her ears.
gI heard about your marriage.h It was a womanfs voice.
gYes,h was the manfs curt reply.
gI thought you would at least let your old friend know. And invite me to the wedding.h
gYou were in Hong Kong. It was a quick and quiet ceremony with just the family and friends.h
gAnd I guess I was not friend enough to be invited.h Her voice was low and bitter.
gDonft, Shulin. I thought you would understand the circumstance.h
For a second Li Shulin looked like she wanted to hit the man in the green haori over an earth-tone kimono, her fingers curled into a fist. gHow could you, Hayashi? You know how I feel\how could you betray me like this?h she demanded, her amber eyes glistening.
gYoufre engaged to Landon.h
gI donft care for Landon, you know that. I never did. I love you, and always have.h
Amamiya Hayashifs forest green eyes were sorrowful. gItfs too late now, Shulin.h
gNo itfs not. Letfs run away together. Ifll leave everything\Ifll abandon the Clan.h
gYoufre the Chosen One.h
gI donft care. So long as Ifm with you, I donft care about my family or Landon or title or power.h Shulin buried her head in Hayashifs chest. Her long jet-black hair fanned out behind her. gTell me you love me. That you want to be with me and only me.h
gShulin, stop.h He sounded weary. gIfm married now.h
Shulin gazed up at Hayashi. gI heard about what happened. She tried to protect you from a dark force and gave up her sight for your sake. You married her out of pity. Pity does not equal love, Hayashi.h
gI will never do anything to hurt Risa.h
gDo you love her?h demanded Shulin.
gI care for her deeply.h
gHayashi, look me in the eyes. Do you really love her more than me?h
Amamiya Hayashi did not answer.
With pale slender hands, Shulin reached up to stroke Hayashifs lean cheek. His face was more chiseled than it had been when she had first met him a decade and half ago, when they had been mere children, but his eyes were the same forest green that seemed to hold the wisdom of the world behind it. He was the first man that she had loved and the only one. From age thirteen, she had never stopped loving him. But now, he was married to another woman. To someone she had never even considered as a rival for this manfs affection. Quiet, shy, mouse-like Risa who used to trail around her twin brother like his shadow. Shulin was more beautiful, more talented and had known Hayashi longer. But then, why was Chang Risa his wife and not her? Her voice wavered. gI should never have left Japan in the first place. I should never have agreed to Landonfs proposal. I thought it would anger you. I thought you would come for me. I waited and waited. But you never came.h
For the first time, there was emotion in his voice. gI didnft know you wanted me to come for you. You said you didnft ever want to see me again.h
gBecause you hurt me. Because I hated not knowing your true feelings.h Tears dripped down Shulinfs cheeks. It was humiliating, for she was a grown woman now, the Chosen One of the prosperous Li Clan, not some naïve thirteen year old girl falling love for the first time. gBecause I loved you more than you loved me, and I was too proud to allow that. I wanted you to want me. I wanted you to come to me for a change.h
Strong fingers brushed the tears from her cheeks. gYou never cried when you were a kid. An annoying, outspoken girl from Shanghai waving her sword at me and challenging me every waking moment of the day.h
gYou were so patient with me then,h Shulin said, leaning her head against his warm, slightly scratchy palm. gI donft know how you put up with me.h
gOh, I wasnft any better,h said Hayashi with almost a trace of mirth as he recollected yonder days gone by. gPoor Mayura was always cleaning up after us, scolding us.h
gRemember the first time Ruichi saw Mayura lose her temper? He was terrified of her afterwards because he had been under the impression that she was some calm, dignified miko-sama before.h Shulin sighed. gBut those days are gone now. Youfre married and Ifm marrying someone I donft even love.h
gYou do care for Landon. And he loves you very much. He is a good man,h said Hayashi gently.
gNo, Hayashi.h Shulin stared straight into his eyes. gSo long as I love you, there will never be room for any other man in my heart. I love you, Amamiya Hayashi, and Ifm not afraid to say it.h She leaned forward to block his words. When their lips parted, she murmured, gI know you love me too.h
Covering her mouth to stifle any sound, Risa turned around and stumbled back towards the house. She had heard enough. For the first time, she was thankful that she could not see\she could not bear the thought of Li Shulin locked in Hayashifs embrace. A rippling tear surged through her stomach.
Hayashi and Shulin broke apart and turned around at the sound, aghast.
Shulinfs eyes widened. gRisa\g
gGo back now, Shulin. Ifll handle things,h said Hayashi, hurrying after Risa.
Li Shulin watched Hayashi disappear after Risa. White snow drifted down with ironic serenity, mingling with the burning tears streaming down her face.
When I awake, will this nightmare end?
gKaijou, youfre going to be late for school!h Kinomoto Touya pounded on his little sisterfs bedroom door. Very graciously, he stated, gIfll drive you and the Brat to school on my way to work.h
There was not answer. Touya glared at Li Syaoran, currently a guest at his house, as if it was his fault. gWhatfs wrong with her?h
Li Syaoran, hands shoveled in his sky-blue uniform jacket, loathing the fact that he had to be the news bearer, mumbled, gChang Eron broke up with her, it seems.h Yesterday, he had found Sakura in King Penguin Park, in tears because things had ended with Eron. Maybe he was too optimistic in thinking that Sakura would have been cheered up by today. And he felt an ugly resentment whelming within his stomach.
gYou mean shefs hung up over some guy?h Touya scowled with renewed viciousness. gWhy are we Kinomotofs so unlucky when it comes to relationships?h He pounded on the door again. gKaijou, you come out this second or else Ifm going to come in and drag you out of bed.h
gIfm not going to school!h retorted Sakura, voice muffled by her pillow.
gThatfs it. Where is this Chang Eron?h Touya growled, rolling up his sleeves.
gStop it, enii-chan. Just go away and leave me alone!h Sakura exclaimed from under her blankets.
Touyafs jaw dropped. His precious little sister had just called him a nuisance. Again he glared at Syaoran then smacked him on the head.
gOw! What did you do that for?h demanded Syaoran, clasping the back of his skull. gDonft you have the wrong guy here?h
gI donft know. I just felt like hitting you for some reason,h said Touya. gUgh, just looking at you makes my stomach curdle.h
gItfs not my fault!h exclaimed Syaoran.
gYeah, sure.h Touya whacked Syaoran on the head one more time. gIf Sakura is not out of her room, smiling and brightly calling out eonii-chanf by the time I come home again, youfre getting more than a whack on the head. Understand?h
With a deep-set scowl, Syaoran mumbled, gAnd I thought Kai had a sister complex.h
gRemember who stole my motorcycle and then got it busted up by all those yakuza?h growled Touya.
Syaoran gulped hard.
The demon king glowered over the younger boy. gDonft forget the conditions I set forth when you came to live here.h
gI wonft,h Syaoran said gruffly. Of course he wouldnft. Nothing had surprised him more than when Kinomoto Touya out of all people had opened the doors to his home a month ago. As far as he was concerned, Kinomoto Touya detested him and had so since their first meeting some six years ago. Itfs not like he had forgotten their altercation a year ago, when Sakurafs brother had made it clear to him that he wanted Syaoran nowhere near his younger sister.
gWell then, act accordingly.h
gI will. You donft have to remind me.h Syaoran watched Touya grumble to himself as he stomped downstairs. Why the change in attitude, he sometimes wondered. In the beginning, Syaoran had been suspicious that the whole offer had been a farce, a joke on him. But Kinomoto Touya had been surprisingly decent to him this past month considering their many years of animosity. To the point where Syaoran almost wished he had tried harder to get on his good side from the beginning. Oddly enough, he trusted Touya, if only because he knew Touya was Sakurafs brother, and he knew this temporary truce would be maintained so long as he kept his end of the bargain.
Hesitantly, he knocked on Sakurafs door again. gHey. Itfs me.h
gPlease. I want to be alone today,h said Sakura after a prolonged pause.
gAll right then. Ifll make a set of notes at school for you.h Syaoran turned away from the door and headed down the stairs with heavy steps.
Seijou High Class 1-2 fell into sudden silence as Li Syaoran stormed up to Chang Eronfs desk and dragged him up to his feet by the nape of his shirt. gHow dare you make Sakura cry?h he demanded.
Eron peered up through his long violet bangs, as if he had been expecting this outburst from Syaoran. gPeople go out and break up all the time,h he remarked. gShefs weaker than I thought if shefs crying over something so trivial.h
gWhat did you say?h Syaoranfs right hand curled into a trembling fist. gYou promised. You promised you would make her happy.h
gSo I did,h said Eron, averting his eyes. gSo I did.h
gYou bastard, then why did you do that?h hissed Syaoran, amber eyes sparking.
gWell, arenft you a simpleton entrusting me out of all people with such a task.h Eron smirked. gI had fun with her. But she bored me after a while. Shefs so innocent and naïve, itfs a chore to date someone as dense as her.h
Syaoran didnft hold back any longer and punched Eron in the face, his left hand clutching the nape of Eronfs tie. His shoulders trembled and his voice was low. gRepeat what you just said.h
Eron wiped the blood off his lip with his thumb and smirked. gArenft you delusional? Youfre the single person who has made her shed more tears than anyone else combined ever has.h
As Syaoranfs grip on his collar loosened, Eron returned the blow. Startled, Syaoran stumbled back colliding with the chairs behind him. Chiharu dodged out of her seat, and Meilin winced. Thankfully, the teacher had not entered the classroom yet.
gThat is for all the tears you made her cry when you left her.h And Eron lunged forward, dragging Syaoran down with him on to the floor, as he punched Syaoran in the stomach. gAnd this is just because I hate your guts.h
gStop it you two!h Chang Erika exclaimed, finally making it through the crowd and prying her brother off Syaoran. Why was it these two were always at each otherfs neck whenever she glanced away for a second? gYou two just donft seem to understand moderation. Class is going to start soon, and if Mizuki-sensei comes, youfre going to get in trouble.h
gLet go of me!h Eron said, struggling against his sister. gOur fight isnft over. Therefs no reason to hold back any longer. Ifm finally going to teach this Li bastard a lesson. I am Chang Eron. Nobody looks down on me.h As he lunged forward, Erika yanked him by his ponytail.
gOuch!h howled Eron.
Meanwhile, Li Meilin pushed through the crowd and pinned Syaoran down in a deathly hold, jerking his arms back and slamming his head on the floor so that he could not much alone squirm let alone leap at Eron again. gGet a grip, Li Syaoran. After all the ruckus you caused last time, you should know better. Shame on you. What would your mother say?h
gDonft butt in, Meilin. This is the day I finally teach that Chang Eron a lesson,h sputtered Syaoran, kicking out his legs in futility. gI wonft hold back this time.h
gWhere is Sakura-chan in this kind of situation?h Sasaki Rika paced up and down, panicking.
gI havenft seen her today,h replied Mihara Chiharu, glancing around the classroom.
gEh? Sakura-chan didnft come to school today?h exclaimed Yanagisawa Naoko. gI wonder if shefs sick. Did you hear anything, Tomoyo-chan?h
Daidouji Tomoyo shook her head.
gThatfs strange,h remarked Chiharu. Tomoyo always knew about Sakura. gEron-kun, did you hear from Sakura-chan?h
A grumpy Eron, now subdued, replied, gNo.h
gBut shefs your girlfriend,h said Naoko.
gNot anymore,h replied Eron shortly.
There was a dead silence in the classroom.
gOh my gosh, do you think Sakura-chan was dumped?h Chiharu whispered rather loudly to Naoko.
gNo way\they were getting along so well,h Naoko replied, face crumbling as she realized how much money she would lose in the class bet if Eron and Sakura broke up. gWhy, I saw the two of them at the movie theater just yesterday.h
The girls glanced back and forth between Syaoran and Eron, and suddenly the situation made more sense to them.
gI wonder what happened,h remarked Akagi Aki.
gPoor Eron-kun,h said Rika, unexpectedly.
Hiiragizawa Eriol knew that Tomoyo was rarely surprised by anything and watched her hand Syaoran a handkerchief to wipe his bleeding lip. While Syaoran had always been a short-tempered boy, it so rarely translated to physical violence. Neither of them had seen Syaoran lose his composure so frequently and uncontrollably as of late. Which was undeniably entertaining. gIs it true?h she asked the glowering boy, a bit taller and worse for wear, but otherwise very much the same hot-tempered Li Syaoran of elementary school.
gYeah,h said Syaoran shortly. gShe wouldnft leave her room.h
gWhen did it happen?h
gI wonder why Sakura didnft call me. I would have come rushing over,h Tomoyo said though she knew pretty well who had been by Sakurafs side last night. She gazed at Syaoran, deep in thought.
Her languid smoky violet eyes were expressionless. gWhat are you going to do?h
gNothing. Ifm going to do nothing. Itfs Sakura and Chang Eronfs problem,h was his expected reply.
When Kinomoto Touya was furious, his tanned skin grew flushed against his white coat and his blue eyes turned dangerously black. Even now, he was sitting cross-legged in the doctorsf lounge, tapping the end of his pen on the sole of his shoe. The other resident interns, save his best friend, carefully avoided him.
gDid something happen?h asked Tsukishiro Yukito.
gThat other pretty-boy brat dumped my little sister and broke her heart. Ifm debating whether Ifm going to dangle him by his ponytail off of Tokyo Tower during a blizzard or roll him up in honey and dump him in a bearsf cave right when they wake up from hibernation,h stated Touya shredding his morning schedule into shreds.
gBecause he broke Sakura-chanfs heart or because that leaves Sakura-chan single again?h asked Yukito shrewdly.
Touya floundered then stated, gBoth.h
gHow did Syaoran react?h
gDoes it matter?h Touya glared at his best friend. gWefre talking about my sister here. She refuses to leave her room. Hefll pay for making my little sister cry.h
gI once made her cry too,h Yukito said offhandedly.
gT-that was different!h Touya exclaimed. gShe was just a kid. Itfs natural to mistake admiration for love and sometimes you need someone to point that out.h
gItfs for the better though, isnft it? Itfs not like you particularly liked Eron-kun either. Or is it to you, anyone is better than Li Syaoran, even Chang Eron?h Yukito paused.
gI donft know. Sakurafs sixteen now; I canft dictate who she sees. Itfs not like I can lock her up in a tower or something. Shefs going to have to deal with these kind of things whether I like it or not.h Touya ruminated for a second. gMaybe I should lock her up in a tower.f
gAre you sure shefs crying over what you think shefs crying about?h
gWhat do you mean?h Touya glowered.
Yukito gave Touya a scrutinizing gaze through his glasses, what Touya would call his gYueh look.
gWhat?h demanded Touya edgily.
gYou should just tell Sakura about the deal you had with Li Syaoran.h
Touyafs face froze into a rigid mask. gWhy do I have to? The Brat can tell her himself if he wants to.h
gLi Syaoran has too much honor to break his word with you,h murmured Yukito, carefully absorbed in his patient files.
Touya let out a rude snort. gHonor? The Brat?h But it was true. He mumbled under his breath, gTruth is, I didnft consider that the Brat would be so damned honorable and keep his word for this long. It just makes everything more complicated.h
gAnd you have too much pride to go back on your words, To-ya,h sighed Yukito, shaking his head disapprovingly.
Li Syaoran endured an awkward dinner alone with Kinomoto Fujitaka that evening. Luckily, Touya was on night-shift at the hospital, so he didnft have a chance to check in at home. Sakura had adamantly refused to come down for dinner.
gUmmc Ich Syaoran swallowed hard, staring down at the tofu squares bobbing up and down in miso broth. gSakurac I mean Kinomoto-sanch
And through his glasses, Kinomoto Fujitakafs eyes glimmered kindly at the boy who seemed so concerned over Sakurafs welfare. It seemed not too long ago when Touya, a moody teenager, had thrown a tantrum and refused to come out of his room for a week when his girlfriend (and teacher) at that time left him to study abroad in England. gDo you mind taking up the dinner tray for Sakura-san? Let her know she can eat it when shefs hungry.h
Syaoran nodded, taking the dishes to the sink. Fujitaka ladled steaming rice into a bowl and placed it on the tray, with a bowl of miso soup and a plate of grilled mackerel and pickled vegetables on the side. Apparently as a father of two, this was not the first time he was dealing with his kidsf break ups. gArenft you worried?h he ventured to ask, glancing up as Sakurafs father began washing the dishes though it was technically his daughterfs shift.
gTime heals, and you would be surprised how resilient a young heart can be,h said Fujitaka with a far off voice as he glanced over to the picture of Nadeshiko on the kitchen table. It was at times like this a daughter needed a mother most, not three insensitive lumbering men in the house.
Timidly balancing the tray on one hand, Syaoran knocked on Sakurafs door. gHey. Your father prepared dinner. Ifll leave it outside your door if youfre hungry laterch There was no answer. He added, gI copied my notes for todayfs lessons for you, and the homework assignments as well. Ifll leave it under the tray if you want to take a look.h
Finally, there was a short, muffled, gThanks,h from inside.
Syaoranfs leaned his back against her door and sank down onto the floor. Sometimes, there was an ocean separating them. Sometimes, they were just an armfs reach away. But then, a door would separate them. An inch of plywood that blocked her heart away from him. Sakura, why is it the closer I get to you, the further I become from you?
It may have been a miracle that had reunited the Tanaka family but perhaps the true miracle was sheer human perseverance and patience. The past month had been surreal for Tanaka Miho, who had not only regained her mother, but her father, brother and childhood again overnight. They lived in the newly renovated white Victorian mansion on a hill, an exact replica of their old house that had burned down years ago. Miho had a beautiful room done up in pink and cream and in her closet flowery dresses of every pastel tone color under the sun. Which she hated; she had outgrown frilly skirts at the age of ten. Unfortunately, there was no such a thing as an oasis at home, especially not in a family of four, each more strong-willed than the next, as Miho soon realized.
Tanaka Miara coughed loudly as she entered the room. gUgh, Keisuke-san, were you smoking in the parlor again?h
gNo.h Her husband gulped, quickly crushing his cigarette into the ashtray and hiding it behind his back.
gAnd can you not pick up after your tubes of oil paint?h Miara continued, arms akimbo. gI just stepped on a violet tube and it squirted out all over the living room rug. You know how oil paint stains.h
gBut I was in the middle of preparing for my exhibit next month,h replied Tanaka Keisuke. gThe deadline is approaching and my assistant is growing quite anxious, you know.h
gI understand, but canft you just take your paints and do it in your lovely studio in the attic that our dear Mikai-kun has built especially for you? I canft concentrate on my novel having to pick up your mess everywhere.h
gI donft see why you canft just concentrate on your novel in the lovely den that our dear Mikai-kun has set up especially for you. Youfre just fussing because you have a writerfs block, arenft you?h
gAll right, I have a writerfs block!h snapped Miara. gBut actually, I was trying to spend some time with our family, since wefve been separated for the past seven years, even if I also have a deadline coming up too.h
Keisuke shrugged nonchalantly, remarkably like Kai for a second. gItfs not like I donft want to spend time with the family, but as an internationally renowned artist, I do have an obligation to my sponsors and fans.h
gOh, now, are you rubbing it in my face that I havenft yet published my first novel and donft know if it would be any good?h demanded Miara.
And Miho, unable to bear it any longer, sank into a corner, hands covering ears, blocking out the sound of her parents harping at each other. gOkaa-san, otou-san, stop it!h she finally burst out. gI canft concentrate on my homework at all. Do you two realize that if I donft study for this math exam, Ifm going to fail the class?h
There was a prolonged silence as her parents stared at her. gWhat do you mean, daughter?h demanded Keisuke.
gShe must take after you. Math was never really your strength,h remarked Miara snidely.
gExcuse me? Youfre the one who didnft take a single math course since graduating high school.h
gWell, then, why donft you help our daughter out with her math problems then, Keisuke-senpai?h demanded Miara.
Keisuke gulped hard. Numbers had never been his forte.
gUgh, Eriol would tutor me at least,h said Miho, placing her pencil between her lips and nose. She had been so distractedly lately with the holidays and writing articles and the Alliance of the Stars, she had let her grades slip. Perhaps she had been taking Eriol and Suppi-chan for granted all this time. There had been an abundance of resources at Eriolfs house. Even Nakuru, once you got her sitting down for a moment, was a math whiz\she had an excellent memory and could recite all sorts of formulas and compute difficult equations in her head with calculator-like accuracy. Or Kaho-san had taught math for years and could explain equations beautifully.
gWell, who does Mikai-kun take after then?h asked Keisuke.
gI was a journalism major and got distracted in university,h replied Miara smugly. gBut I was valedictorian in high school, you know.h
gPshaw, school grades measure nothing,h Keisuke snorted. gCreative ingenuity cannot be learned\itfs in the blood. Mikai completely takes after me. Did you see how he good he is at painting? He painted all the backdrop of the Star-Crossed musical production.h
gNo, Mikai takes after me. His inquisitive mindset, great analytic skills and persuasive rhetoric is all completely me,h retorted Miara.
gYes, and Ifm just a foundling,h muttered Miho under her breath.
gMiho, do you need some help with your math homework?h asked Kai with an aggravating brotherly smile.
gNo thank you,h said Miho curtly. gI can do it myself.h
gAre you sure?h
gYes.h Miho looked up at her brother, chin jutted out. gYoufre the one who told me that I need to learn how to do things on my own and become self-sufficient. Besides, Ifm not the one who flunked a grade!h There she said it.
Kaifs jaw dropped.
gDid you really flunk a grade?h Keisuke asked with a frown.
gO-of course not!h Kai hadnft grown out of being a habitual liar.
gMiho-chan, I understand you are jealous of you brother, but itfs bad to make stuff up,h said Miara.
Arms crossed, Miho glared at Kai. Her motherfs constant favoritism of her brother had not changed at all. gI hate you,h she hissed at him.
Because his son looked so crushed, Keisuke suggested, gMikai, do you want to come help me with my exhibit? I need someone to nude model.h
Scowling, Miara stated, gNo, Mikai-kun is going to come help me with editing my new chapter of The Soliloquy of a Criminal Mind. Did you see how fast he types and his flair for stringing together eloquent prose (never mind his verbose, archaic use of language)?h
gItfs dinner time soon,h said Kai with a weary sigh. gShould I order Chinese or pizza?h
gUgh, Ifm sick of delivery,h grumbled Miho.
Miara pouted, gI wish I married someone like Eriol-kun. He was such an excellent cook; we always had such luxurious meals at his house.h With an emphatic note, she added, gA spotlessly clean house.h
gWell, why donft you go and marry him then?h said Keisuke crassly, crunching up his sketch pad.
gI want him to marry my Miho-chan,h replied Miara, clasping her hands together.
gEw, no!h exclaimed Miho.
gI thought you liked him,h Miara said, surprised.
gMy little Miho-chan likes a boy?h Keisuke demanded, horrified at the thought of his baby girl being at that age already.
gWell then, my only hope is Mikai marries a girl whofs a good cook,h Miara said.
gOh, onii-chanfs girlfriend is a fantastic cook,h Miho stated slyly.
Miara gaped, gWhat, my precious son has girlfriend already? Who is this girl? Why havenft you introduced me to her yet, Mikai? Is she pretty? Is she smart? Does she come from a good family?h
In final surrender, Kai slumped his head into his hands and whimpered, gMeilin-chanc Come save me from this nightmare.h
Li Meilin was far from alarmed when she heard a shuffling sound from the balcony of her apartment later that same night. Having a former thief as a boyfriend meant she never knew which window, trap door or closet he would be popping out of next.
gWhat did you do now?h she asked amusedly as a much rumpled Mizuki Kai tumbled into the room, a far cry from the dashing Kaitou Magician. She had wondered how long he would last as eTanaka Mikai.f Though he was usually so meticulous about his appearance, he appeared to have a violet streak of paint down his right cheek, ink smudged fingers, chalk dust on his jeans and his shirt clearly hadnft been ironed. But the silky hair that brushed against her cheeks as he leaned his forehead on Meilinfs shoulder smelled like fresh-cut English roses and cinnamon.
He mumbled into her shoulder, gI give up. I canft do this anymore!h
gThis Tanaka Mikai act. Ifm going to puke or go crazy.h He yanked off his necktie and mussed up his hair. gWhy did I used to have such a bad fashion sense? Oxford shirts and woolen vests? Give me a break.h And his family was driving him up the wall as is\had each member been so opinionated and pigheaded? Had he simply been blind to it all because he had been a child?
gThen stop acting,h snapped Meilin. She was at the moment far more concerned about Sakura to really feel patient for her truant boyfriend. gDonft you get it? Your parents just want their son back, thatfs all. And even Miho-chan. Shefs accepted eMizuki Kaif long ago. The only one that canft accept you is yourself.h
gWhat?h Kai blinked at the sudden revelation.
The next morning, Syaoran left for school alone again. He looked up from the front door at the drawn curtains of Sakurafs room. With a long sigh, he walked out the gates.
Sakura quickly shut the crack between the curtains, blocking out all sunlight and turned around again. She knew that last night, Syaoran had waited on the other side of the door again. He didnft speak, but she knew he was there. If she called out, he would have answered. But she pretended he wasnft there. Maybe he hadnft been there. Maybe it had been her imagination. She would never know, because she didnft open the door. She flopped down on the bed again, covering her eyes with her hand.
gYou canft avoid everyone forever,h said Kero-chan.
gWhy not?h replied Sakura, knowing how childish she sounded.
gYou need to get out of bed and go out again some time,h Kero-chan continued. The first couple days, he had respected his mistressf need of privacy. But now, it was getting unbearable seeing Sakura revert back into how she had been last year. gYou havenft changed out of your pajamas in three days. Your brotherfs going to come back soon\what will he say?h
Sakura knew everything Kero-chan said was right. And it was different from last year. She knew she was hiding away. Hugging a pillow to her chest, Sakura rolled over, back turned to Kero-chan, and shut her eyes. gGo away, Kero-chan. Leave me alone.h Kero-chan sulkily flew out, once more exiled from his teenage mistressf bedroom.
It was sometime around noon when Sakura heard a knock on the front door. With a groan, she curled into a ball and sank into her blankets. She sighed in relief when the knock subsided. Then, she sat up with a start when there was a knock on her bedroom door.
gW-who is it?h she asked. It couldnft be Syaoran\he was at school, and her father had a lecture.
gItfs me,h came that delightful mellow voice that she had always craned to hear.
gY-yukito-san?h squeaked Sakura. What was Yukito-san doing here, at this time?
gCan I come in?h he asked.
Sakura could not turn him away, like she did everyone else.
Because she didnft respond, Yukito took the answer as a yes, and cracked the door open, peaking in. gHello, Sakura-chan. Itfs been a while.h
Swaddled in her blankets, Sakura sat up and tried to bow down her head. gYukito-san! What are you doing here?h
gI have the afternoon off, and I decided to stop by. Sakura-chan, do you want to go out on a date with me?h asked Yukito, leaning his head over.
gDate?h squeaked Sakura as she realized what a mess she must look like in her pajamas with hair sticking out like chestnut burrs, and hugged her blanket closer around her.
Yukito nodded. gIfm going to be reviewing some documents downstairs. Take your time to get ready. Itfs a sunny, bright day, perfect for a date.h
gWith you?h Sakura managed a half-smile. Once, those words would have been the greatest happiness of her day and probably would have left her in an ecstatic daze. gOnii-chan isnft going to like it.h
gWho cares about that ogre? Today, wefll have a fun day together, just the two of us,h said Yukito with a wink.
Kinomoto Sakura stared up at the cloudless sky, shielding her eyes with her hand. Yukito-san had been right; it was a brilliant, sunny day. Had the sky always been so blue and did the birds always chirp so merrily? It felt food to step outside and breathe in the brisk, cold air and feel the tingling sharpness of the winterfs wind. It felt good to take a steaming shower and brush her hair away from her face, and put on nice-smelling, ironed clothes. She especially wore a new canary-yellow coat over a rusty-yellow wool pinafore. Her hair was pulled back by a yellow headband, and she was happy when Yukito-san smiled and told her that she looked cute, almost feeling at heart like a ten-year-old girl experiencing her giddy first crush again.
A date with Yukito-san meant a day of eating. First, they went to a popular curry restaurant, where Sakura had a curry donkatsu set, while Yukito indulged himself in ordering a curry donkatsu udon double combination set with a side of pan-fried dumplings. Sakura bit into her crispy pork cutlet soaked in spicy curry and watched Yukitofs eyes sparkle at the feast spread before them. Then, they went to try out the new strawberry butter-cream crêpes down the street, and Yukito chattered happily about little anecdotes of Touya at the hospital.
gOh, and Nina-chan dropped by for check-ups the other day. Shefs doing very well now that shefs more active. Shefs enjoying pre-school, and she gets along very well with her aunt,h Yukito said, pausing to lick the cream off his lips.
Sakura smiled. gThatfs good to hear. Aunt Hisano seems like a very kind person. I am glad Nina-chan found a place to call home.h She had glimpsed in the celebrity tabloids that Ninafs mother, actress Ishikawa Nanase, had recently married Director Takashiro and would be starring in a new movie produced by him.
gHard to believe little Nina-chan is Touya and your aunt though,h remarked Yukito with a chuckle. Grandfather Fujishinto surely led a complicated life.
It was exciting to play truant from school and check out all the cute stores down town. Yukito bought Sakura a new a new teddy-bear keychain which came in a set of pink and green. They munched on a bag of rainbow-colored konpeitou as they watched a street saxophonist belt out a heart rendering jazz tune. The two clapped heartily as the last notes rang through the town circle, and Yukito dropped some coins into the saxophone case. Then, the two made their way to Piffle Café, and even after a full meal and the crêpes, Yukito helped himself to an order of chocolate banana gelato waffles and a cherry caramel fudge triple sundae with whipped cream on top. Sakura sipped on her royal milk tea, feeling a sugar rush from all the sweets she had consumed that day.
There never was anyone who could ever make her feel so giddy ghanyaanh like Yukito-san did, even after all these years. Though eight years had passed since she first met him as a freshman in Seijou High who had been her brotherfs fellow classmate, Tsukishiro Yukito seemed to have not aged a bit since then. Despite his many all-nighters as a resident intern, his skin was still milky smooth and his hair a beautiful wispy silver that caught the wind. His eyes behind his round-framed glasses were a kind, understanding marigold. Today, he wore an over-sized beige woolen jacket that had been Touyafs Christmas present, and brown corduroys, but his frame was slight and slender compared to her broad-shouldered, steady-as-a-tree brother. To her, Yukito-san was always like a soothing milk tea.
The late afternoon sun cast the town in a deep sienna tone as Yukito walked Sakura back home. He had to return to the hospital for evening shift.
Yukito paused in front of the doorsteps. gSakura-chan, do you remember the conversation that we had after your junior high graduation?h It was already almost a year ago. gYou told me then that you found your most important person.h
Sakura did remember the conversation. It had been when she decided to go to Hong Kong. The Kinomoto Sakura of that day had been fearless. Nothing could have fazed her, not the Li Clan, not the Dark Ones, not Great Five. gI thought I did.h She looked up at him imploringly. gBut what if I found my most important person, and that person doesnft love me back?h
gIt depends. You can wait. Or you can continue looking,h replied Yukito quietly. gI am guessing Eron-kun did not turn out to be your special person?h
gWhen Eron-kun told me he loved me it made me a little bit happy. But then it made me even more sad. Because I knew no matter how much I tried, I knew I could never return his feelings. At least, not in the way he wanted me to.h Sakura closed her eyes. gThat is why, when he broke up with me, I couldnft help feeling guilty. As if I didnft give my hundred percent, that I should have tried harder.h
gHuman feelings are very complicated. There is no plan, no reason, no rule. There is no universal law to love, except for those who make them.h Yukito stared off into the distance. gWhen you have found your most important person, donft just become a passive observer. Fight for that person. Because if you donft, you will have lingering regrets for the rest of your life. Love is a wish. A wish for your feelings to reach the other person. A wish to be acknowledged. And a wish that festers into oblivion changes from a beautiful dream to an endless self-inflicted curse.h
For some reason, Sakura believed that Yue was speaking to her now, not Yukito. gI always thought that love should make you happy. I wonder why then is there such a thin borderline between the happiness and pain you feel from love.h
gBecause humans are fundamentally selfish creatures, we are not content in just loving, just observing. We want to be loved in return. We want to possess the otherfs love. And with greed comes unhappiness.h Yukito trailed off. gDonft make such a sad face, Sakura-chan. Itfll make everyone else around you very sad.h
And Sakura tried to smile.
gNow, hold out your hand.h She obediently stretched out a hand, and he placed a lemon drop on her palm. gWell, Ifve got to head back to the hospital and report back to your ogre-brother that I have safely escorted his little sister back to the house.h
Clutching the candy, Sakura looked up and blinked at Yukitofs smiling face. The smile was contagious and she could feel her cheeks flushing. This piece of candy in her hand was not any candy. It had always been a token from Yukito-san, a good luck charm, a sign of her feelings to him reaching his heart. Of course, as you grow older, sometimes a piece of candy is not enough evidence to prove your heart. gYukito-san, do you ever fight with onii-chan?h
gJust trifle disagreement in opinions every now and then,h replied Yukito. He didnft tell her that they had a disagreement regarding her just the day before.
gI never knew that you and onii-chan argued as well,h Sakura said. She could imagine it would take a lot to get Yukito-san angry. gOver what?h
gLetfs see, the last big one was when I was making him think Ifm suspicious of his feelings for Mizuki-sensei.h
She frowned. gOnii-chan has gotten over Mizuki-sensei years ago.h
gOf course\I know everything about him; we have no secrets. Thatfs the key to a relationship, you know. Communication.h Yukito chuckled. gBut I enjoyed making him uncomfortable thinking that I had suspicions about him. Well, I think he deserved some punishment\he wouldnft have told me about his first love if I didnft pry it out of him.h
gOnii-chan doesnft like talking about himself,h said Sakura understandingly. gWait\but Yukito-san, you know Mizuki-sensei really is a great, wonderful person right?h
Yukito nodded. gOf course. Any person Touya chose would have been a wonderful person. Besides, she still loves him.h
gEh?h Sakura choked. gHow could she\g
Yukito was taken aback by Sakurafs reaction. gI didnft mean it in that way\she cares for him as a dear old friend who will always look out for him. A human does not ever just stop loving a person. As time passes, the amount you think and feel for a person diminishes, but you canft simply annihilate the feelings youfve had for a person as if they never existed in the first place. You can find someone who you love even more, someone who becomes an even greater presence in your life. But you never completely forget one you have loved. Because they are a part of who you are today.h
Those who I have loved make me who I am todayc Sakura sighed. She had truly cared for Eron, there was no doubt about that. Even now, she hadnft completely sorted out what her feelings toward him were. And maybe, shefd never figure it out. gI wonder if Ifll ever fall in love again.h
Yue chuckled at the melancholy sixteen-year-old girl talking as if her life was all over. Then he said in a gentle tone, gThe heart is like the waning moon. There will be a night when the sky is completely dark and the light of the moon nowhere in sight. You might look up into the black sky and wonder if the moon had ever shone there in the first place. But even if you canft see it, you know it is still there, and that the moon will appear once again, first as a sliver of a crescent, and eventually become full again.h
Sakura stared up at the twilight sky. The crescent moon had started to peep out from behind the clouds. gI seech she said pensively. Same as she still loved Yukito-san in this gentle, familiar way, Touya and Mizuki-sensei, even after all these years had passed, would never forget that blissful year they spent together. But both of them had moved on to their respective paths. And Yue, too, would always have a lingering love for Clow Reed, as her mother would have Li Ryuuren and Ryuuren would have her mother. Everybody carried past love in their hearts, some as warm memories of the past, some as scars never quite healed, but having a failed relationship was never the same as not having had that love in the first place. It was like the lyrics of a song she had once heard. gOmoi,h feelings, change everything. And I, too, have changed because of it.
When Sakura came downstairs the next morning in her school uniform, hair neatly pulled back by two red bobble ties, nobody commented otherwise, but the three men in the house were immensely relieved.
gGood morning, onii-chan,h said Sakura sheepishly. gIfm sorry for making you worry.h
Touya glanced at his sister over his newspaper\he had already heard the details from Yukito, but he smiled genuinely. gSeems like my kaijou is back.h
gOtou-san, thanks for the meals you prepared,h said Sakura with a bow. gIfll do double duty for the rest of the week.h
Her father nodded. gAre you feeling better now, Sakura-san?h
Sakura nodded. gYukito-san took me out yesterday and cheered me up.h
Careful not to meet her eyes, Syaoran stared into his coffee cup. So, he had done all he could, but it had not been enough, after all. In the end, it was Yukito-san that Sakura had turned to and Yukito-san who had brought back the smile on Sakurafs face. Nonetheless, he felt gratitude for Yukito.
gThank you for the notes,h said Sakura. She was standing in front of the table, facing Syaoran now.
gNo problem,h mumbled Syaoran into his cup of coffee.
Sakurafs classmates swarmed around her upon her return to school. gSakura-chan! Are you okay? We heard from Mizuki-sensei you caught a bad case of the flu!h
Looking up at her friends, she smiled apologetically. gIfm all right now.h
gIfm glad youfre back,h said Tomoyo, squeezing Sakura on the shoulder sympathetically, indicating she understood.
Nodding gratefully at her best friend, Sakura said, gSorry I didnft call back.h
Tomoyo shook her head. gI understand.h
It took all of Sakurafs courage to walk up to her desk and sit down next to Eron.
gGood morning, Sakura,h Eron said, very civilly to her. gGood to see you back.h
gGood morning, Eron-kun,h Sakura replied stiltedly, staring down at her desk, painfully aware of all the nudges and whispers circling around the classroom.
Thanks to Syaoranfs meticulous notes, Sakura found she wasnft too far behind in schoolwork. However, enduring the sympathetic gaze of the entire school was an ordeal she had not been expecting. How did rumors spread so quickly over three days? It seemed like all the students and even the faculty knew that Eron had broken up with her, and even Li Leiyun did not miss an opportunity to make a snide remark when he passed by her in the hallways. gThe Dark One grew tired of you fast enough. Thank goodness; I thought he might pull a Chang Ruichi, but seems like he didnft care enough about you in the first place.h
She had come to terms with the fact that Eron had ended things with her out of the blue; but she did not need a constant reminder from everybody who bumped into her. Really, the most nonchalant person about the affair seemed to be Eron himself. Nonetheless, she avoided contact with him at all costs, because she didnft think she could quite face him yet.
The school day seemed to drag on, and Sakura groaned when she realized it was only lunchtime. She grabbed her lunchbox and dashed out the classroom, knowing if she stayed, she was going to be bombarded with embarrassing questions and even worse, words of consolation and pity, pity she did not deserve.
gItfs not the end of the world to get dumped,h said Yamazaki Takashi. gThere are many women who got dumped who have moved on to fantastic careers\take Queen Elizabeth Ifs Golden Age even after Lord Dudleyfs betrayal or Jeanne DfArc and her successful campaign in the Loire Valley against the English after Rogerfs transformation\too bad she was burnt on a stake in the end.h
Chiharu kicked him on the shin. gHow can someone be so insensitive? Sorry Sakura-chan\Takashi-kun is talking nonsense.h
gSakura-chan, where are you going?h asked Naoko, shoving a glossy spread in a fashion magazine towards her friend. gLook at this magazine\arenft these idols gorgeous? Kazu-sama is so hot! And Himura Takuya is so dreamy. I wonder if hefs really dating Akagi Arima.h
gSakura-chan, wefre going to meet a group of Eitoukou guys after school today. Are you interested?h asked Fuko, a fellow cheerleader.
gSorry, Ifve got to run an errand!h exclaimed Sakura, quickly making an exit from the homeroom hall. She saw out of the corner Nakano Yuri, the girl from the same orphanage as Chang Eron, give her a strange look. Yuri had been pointedly avoiding her the past couple months, which was not that hard since they did not share any classes or activities together, but Sakura had gotten closer to Yuri last year during Star-Crossed rehearsals and had not missed the frosty silence from her whenever they bumped into each other in the hallways.
Sakura turned the corner. To her horror, she saw Li Leiyun come out of the infirmary, looking quite dashing in his pristine white coat. Twice in one day! Just her luck. His smile was enough to melt the knees of the line of high school girls stationed by the infirmary. But to Sakura, it was a mask that conveyed his mind was set to work on his foulest schemes. Sakura quickly swerved around the corridor to avoid crossing paths with him. The third years were streaming out of the library, and she spotted Li Jinyu, walking alone, scowling imperatively. Quickly, she took the stairs downstairs. When did school become such a danger zone? All she wanted to do was spend a lunch break without talking to anybody. The school rooftop was no longer a quiet hideout, and it was a bit too chilly to sit outside. Just then, she spotted Eron walking around the hallway, the one person she wanted to avoid the most. She dodged into an empty classroom.
gHave you seen Sakura?h she heard him ask a classmate in the hallway.
gNo. Isnft she with Tomoyo-chan?h
gNo, Ifm pretty sure I saw her around here somewhere,h said Eron.
Quiet as a mouse, Sakura crept across the classroom and saw that the window was open. Why was he looking for her? Maybe he was angry. Peering outside, she saw the coast was clear, and hopped out. It was cold outside without her coat, but bearable. Her head felt clearer. She crept alongside the building and peeked into another window looking into the first floor hallway. Eron walked back towards the stairwells, perplexed. With a sigh, Sakura crept further along the building side, and plopped down behind a grove of bushes, leaning against the concrete wall, below a windowsill. gWhat am I doing?h she muttered to herself. She closed her eyes and hugged her knees to her chest. A slightly familiar tune on the violin drifted out through the window above her. She must be sitting in front of the music room. Her brother often used to practice piano there when he was a high schooler. She used to love leaning over the windowsill as an elementary student, listening to him play a tune.
What a sad tune, thought Sakura as she listened to the lingering vibrato. He had reworked the gStar-Crossedh Theme into a new variation that was not Li Ryuurenfs signature somber and lonely violin solo, not Amamiya Nadeshikofs lilting tune of hope. It set her in a queer mood, as if she was waiting and waiting for the variation to lift off and break free from the sequence. But it didnft.
She hadnft even realized the reason why the tune had broken off. gWhat are you doing there?h Syaoran leaned over the windowsill, staring onto two pigtails tied with red double-bobbles. gHiding?h
Still crouched up against the wall, hugging her knees to her chest, Sakura tilted her neck back to see Syaoranfs amused face peering down overhead. gIfm not hiding.h
There was chatter of voices outside by the front door. She recognized Chiharufs voice.gSakura-chan? Wasnft she in the classroom? Ifll let her know youfre looking for her if I see her around.h
Sakura looked around hurriedly for a place to run off to, but she was out in the open. Without further ado, Syaoran reached out the window and grabbed her arms and pulled her in. Sakura collapsed onto her knees in the music room, knocking over Syaoran with her. She quickly sat up again, adjusting her blazer and skirt. gWhat did you do that for?h
gWerenft you looking for a place to hide?h He sat up, smoothing a hand over his hair.
gNo,h said Sakura, indignantly, clutching her lunchbox to her chest.
gWell, I was about to eat lunch as well,h Syaoran stated, taking out his matching lunchbox packed by the talented Kinomoto Fujitaka-sensei.
It seemed to Sakura that ever since Syaoran transferred to Seijou, he ate lunch alone more often than he did not. He had been like that even back in elementary school, until Meilin came along. She had always wondered where he disappeared off to, though she had pretended she did not notice.
Syaoran bit into the egg roll. gI thought it would be too suspicious if we always came to school with the same contents in our lunchbox.h
Sakura glanced at Syaoran sharply. He always did have an uncanny way of reading her mind. She bit into her egg roll as well. It was juicy and delicious. How long had it been since they sat together like this at school and ate lunch together? Not since junior high.
gSo, who are you hiding from?h asked Syaoran.
He gave her a look.
gEveryone.h Sakura sighed. gYou know, for most of my life, I have thought of school sort of as an oasis. It was a place where I can be with my friends and learn from the teachers that I admire. Even in the hectic days as Card Captor and sealing dark forces, for me, school sort of brought normalcy in my life. But now, school feels like a battlefield.h
gReally?h Syaoran gave her a grim smile. gI always thought of school as a battlefield. Give me dark forces or martial training\I can handle that. But to deal with classmates, interacting with others, understanding mob mentality, trying not to do anything too unexpected in gym class, blending in, that to me was the bigger challenge.h
Sakura blinked. gI didnft realize school life was that difficult for you.h
gYou couldnft tell?h Syaoran leaned back in his chair. gI was stuck in a new country, new school where I wasnft even familiar with the language. The Clow Card Mistress-in-training was my purported rival, a popular, cheerful girl who was the favorite at school and everyone thought me the evil, bullying outsider. To make matters worse, there was her demon-brother who seemed to be out there to get me and the strange best friend of this girl was trying to film me in my most embarrassing moments, surely to blackmail me, I supposed then. Then, there was a suspicious homeroom teacher, a cousin, though I understand her good intentions, that seemed to be out to make any normal, quiet day at school only wishful thinking, and then a transfer student aka the reincarnation of the most evil sorcerer of the last century, whose hobby apparently was to humiliate me.h
Sakura burst out laughing. It was the first time she had let out such carefree laughter in front of Syaoran since he had returned to Japan, and if she did not have jovial tears in her eyes, she would have seen the careful, almost inquisitive look Syaoran gave her. gI never thought about it that way. Goodness, and I thought I had things bad. I always wondered what Tomoyo kept in that locked cabinet she marked eBlackmail Material.f She said itfs confidential.h
Groaning, Syaoran said, gI knew it. I knew therefs a reason why she gets along with the glass-eyed creep.h
gHopefully it wonft be her next feature film,h giggled Sakura.
geThe Li Syaoran Blackmail Diariesf or the likes of it,h said Syaoran glumly, plucking the string on his violin in a morose D.
gYoufve really improved,h remarked Sakura, gathering some scattered sheet music on the desk. gI wish I kept at the violin.h
gThere was a time when I thought I would never play again,h murmured Syaoran. gThere are so many things you take for granted in life, the simplest things like being able to see, smell, hear and use your limbs freely.h
gThat dayc I was in Eitoukou for the cheerleading meet and I heard you practicing.h Sakura paused. Her mind had forgotten eLi Syaoran,f but yet, her ears and feet had led her to him nonetheless.
gI didnft in my wildest dream expect you to be standing there when the music room door swung open,h said Syaoran. gAnd there you stood, without even the slightest clue who I was.h
It was painful to talk about that time. gHow did you manage to play? That was before you could use your arm again, wasnft it?h
gI couldnft make a fist, so I couldnft properly hold the bow. But I found that if I tied it to my hand, I could sort of anchor it in place. For weeks, it sounded like a dying parrot.h His lips twisted sardonically. gThe up side was, it was painful for everybody else to hear as well, so nobody dared come near me.h
gIt must have been hard,h Sakura murmured. She wondered if she was in that situation, whether she would have the strength to tie a bow to her hand and force her arm like that. Like that time when she had lost her vision. How had Chang Risa and Mizuki Miara been so brave and continue on daily life like that? That brief day when she had lost light had been so frightening, so daunting. Losing any one of her senses was a terrifying thought.
gThose days, I thought I was going crazy. I practiced nonstop because it was the only thing that kept my mind off other things,h said Syaoran.
Sakura jerked back, surprised by the darkness in Syaoranfs tone. Every so often, he let on those strange glimpses into how he had spent the past year, and in some ways, she did not want to know because it did not align with how she had imagined he had spent it. Because that bitter resentment that flickered into his eyes was something she was not familiar with, something that frightened her, as if there was a Syaoran she did not know beneath that mask of Syaoran she had always known. She did not know if she should blame it on the loss of his magic or Li Leiyun or even more alarming, if it had always been within him and she just had never seen it before.
gItfs not like you to run away,h he remarked offhandedly.
gYou canft avoid him forever,h he continued. gNot as long as you go to the same school, same class and are allied with him and fight against the same enemies.h
She turned to Syaoran and resentfully asked, gWhat do you know?h There was nobody who told her as many unpleasant things as Syaoran did, and nobody who was quite as frank and blunt to her about things she did not want to hear.
gDid you care for him that much?h Syaoran asked, with a pained look in his eyes. Did you really love him so much, to have him affect you like this?
The question made Sakura flinch. It was a question she deemed not worth answering, and she excused herself. Lunch break was over.
Syaoran was so lost in his own thought that he did not even notice that Erika was copying off his math homework. Last period was study hall in the library and she had joined him in his private little corner, knowing that he couldnft turn her away without attracting unwanted attention. She scribbled a heart on his textbook and remarked out loud, gYou must be having a field day now that my brother and Sakura are over.h
gAre you?h was his brusque response. He was the only one who actually made use of study hall and sped through his textbooks, finishing up the problem sets in record speed, as if he wanted to get over with them as soon as possible. He glared at the heart doodle on his book.
gYou know, Sakura must have cared for him a lot more than I thought she did.h She toyed with the end of her hair as she glanced over at Sakura pretending to read a book while the rest of her classmates glanced her way, speculating upon the reason for the breakup. gNot bad, taking a week to get over him. It took me only a day to get over Mike. Of course, it took her a good half year to get over you. But surprisingly enough, she did. I thought she would go on moping until the end of time, but I guess Eron was good for her. And shefs turned him into a half-decent person over the past year.h
gWhat do you mean?h
gWhat? Eron-kun? I mean, look at him. Hefs a standoffish esoteric Europhile, but now, he gets along with people, volunteers at the orphanage and even talks about preparing for college and stuff.h Erika snorted. gHefs an embarrassment to the Chang name.h
gNo, before that.h
Erika knew exactly what he had meant, and blinked her long violet lashes. gOh, you mean about her taking a half year to recover from you?h She laughed what she believed to be a tinkling laughter but was rather closer to a cackle. gYou think what you saw the past week was sad? Itfs nothing compared to how she was when she came back from Hong Kong after you turned her away. That was pretty cruel, wasnft it? Rejecting her like that.h
gHow do you even know about that?h
Erika examined her French-manicured nails. gGranted it must have been tough on her, almost dying, losing that bratty boy\what was his name again? Thatfs right Subaru. And her purportedly most trusted person left without a word. Illness, death, abandonment\that was probably the ultimate low point in her life. At the beginning of high school, she was a miserable mess. She didnft smile or laugh for months on end. Eron was driven mad with worry. I could almost like that Sakura, the dejected Sakura.h She looked up and observed her brother, sitting across from Sakura, watching her over the edge of his textbook. He was tapping his finger on the pages, something he would normally never do. gIt would have been the perfect opportunity to take her down. But the dark forces were still. And Eron broke the taboo. He asked her out. He wasnft going to, but he had to risk it. Because you returned. If he waited longer, he might never get the chance again. Itfs all about timing, you know. For the first time, there was a gap in Sakurafs heart. I didnft like the two of them together anymore than you did. But no matter what you think, Eron treated her well. Hefs that sort of person. And they sort of fit together, oddly enough. Sometimes, I couldnft help thinking that the two of them might break the curse for good.h
For some reason, there was a wistful quality in Erikafs words. gHow was Eron able to break free from the Dark Ones?h Syaoran asked.
gThe Plague scared him properly. He rebelled,h replied Erika, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear to reveal a blood-red stud. gHe awakened his own powers as Chang Eron. Thatfs why he didnft need Ruichi-samafs powers anymore. Itfs always been like that with the Chang descendents. Twins are born with special powers, and of the two, there is always the dominant twin and the latent one. Hefs the dominant one\his powers have always been stronger than mine.h
gWhy did you turn against him and join hands with Leiyun?h Syaoran said. gCould you not break free as well?h
Erika fingered the odd crystal shaped like an eye hanging from a chain around her neck. gI need power more than I need freedom. You see, Ifll never do something so stupid as falling in love with anyone. You shouldnft have either, if you wanted to protect everything that is important to you. Itfs stupid to sacrifice yourself for the sake of love.h
gIt was stupid to miss all those days of school just to avoid seeing me,h remarked Eron, not looking up from his book.
gIt wasnft because of you.h Sakura mumbled.
gIfm sorry, maybe I flattered myself. Itfs just that you were making the worldfs ugliest face sitting there. Your eyes are puffy and your face is bloated. Donft tell me youfve been crying over being dumped by me,h he continued snidely, carefully writing out the rough draft of his lit essay. He was unfortunately sitting across from her and there was nowhere to hide except behind her textbook. gIf you have been, thatfs disappointing.h
Sakura looked up from her notes and glared at him.
gGood. Go around with that kind of face. If you go around so dejected, people are going to misunderstand and think youfre actually heartbroken on something. Theyfll make into me the bad guy. I donft deserve that, do I?h Eron said. gAfter all, I did you a favor.h
Slamming her book shut, Sakura stood up.
gDonft tell me you actually were heartbroken?h Eron remarked in mock surprise.
That was it. Sakura, disregarding everyonefs curious looks, stomped out of the library. To think this had all been such a joke to Eron. She had been worried how to face him, and he thought it was funny.
gWait, Sakura!h called out Eron. gI said wait.h
And Sakura halted, back to him. They were alone in the stairwell.
gIfm sorry. I didnft mean what I said. I was worried because you didnft come to school, but I had already lost the right to call you,h Eron said. gItfs good to see you back.h
Sakura didnft turn back; she was afraid she would cry if she did.
gI just wanted you to stop avoiding me,h said Eron.
gI-Ifm not avoiding you stammered,h stammered Sakura.
gI told you Ifm going to see you at school and greet you, that I wonft revert back to being the Dark One, that things will be just the same as before.h
gHow can everything just go back to being the same as before?h asked Sakura, finally facing him. She couldnft help thinking Eron didnft look that great either\his eyes were bloodshot. gI hurt you.h
gYou did,h Eron said bitterly. gBut that was then, and itfs over now.h
gWhy did you break up with me?h asked Sakura, eyes glistening.
He paused. gIn the beginning, I told myself that I could be content with having you by my side. But as time passed by, I got greedier and greedier. I could no longer be content with you just being by my side. I wanted more. I wanted your heart. But you can never give me that, can you?h
Sakura verdant eyes, strangely vulnerable yet sincere, met his. gYou are an important person to me, Eron-kun.h
gBut I am not your most important person.h
gNeither am I yours.h
gNo.h His eyes were mocking. gYou come in only third, next to Erika and me. But all my life, I never thought I could care for another person besides Erika and myself.h
Sakura smiled ruefully. gI feel privileged.h
gYou have this strange notion that if you love someone, you should wish that person to be happy. But I didnft want you to be happy with any other person except me. I wanted your smile to be only for me and your heart to belong to me and only me. I didnft want to share you with anyone else. If I couldnft have you, I wanted nobody else to.h
At this, Sakura stared at him, dumbfounded.
gThatfs the true me. I am not nice and caring\thatfs all a façade. Arenft I despicable? How could you date someone as wretched and selfish as me?h Eron broke off, his ragged breath revealing he too had been struggling.
gI always liked your truthful self, Eron-kun.h
His long dark lashes shaded his topaz-hued eyes. gI am not truthful. I lie when itfs convenient for me. Ifll deceive you if it is to my benefit. Thatfs the kind of person I am, Sakura. I canft help it. Itfs in my blood. What Ifm trying to say is, donft blame yourself. Itfs nothing you did wrong. I myself set an arbitrary time limit. If I couldnft make you fall in love with me in two months, I probably never can.h
She asked quietly, gWhy couldnft you give me more time?h
gI said before my love for you is finite. Our time is finite. Humans are finite. Hence, I am only human, so my patience is finite. That was the extent of my love for you. Maybe it wasnft enough.h
It was hard listening to Eron speak to her so calmly, as if he was explaining a math formula to her. Sakura didnft follow his words at all\it had always been like this. Choose option A or option B; she always grappled to understand what Eron was thinking of, what double-entendre meaning his words held, as if he were a ticking bomb that would explode if she chose the wrong answer.
gWe tried being enemies, but truthfully, I donft want that anymore. We tried being a couple, but that wasnft too much of a success either, because frankly, itfs tiring for me to be on my best behavior all the time with you. Hence, you have two options. Option A, you can choose to continue ignoring me. Orch Eron finally held out a hand to Sakurafs surprise. gOption B, how about one more shot for me, this time as friends. Ifm not going to try to intimidate you or impress you anymore. Ifll just be, and you can decide what you want from me, as your ally.h
Sakura looked up timidly. He was offering her another chance. Another chance to reach to him. She liked how he looked at her with direct hazel-gold eyes that were clear and bright, as if he was speaking straight from his heart. She grasped his hand and shook it.
gWhat are those two doing, filming some romance movie?h Meilin muttered under her breath at the pretty picture Sakura and Eron made together.
gSkipped entire study hall without a trace,h grumbled Syaoran under his breath.
Tomoyo had to stifle a giggle as she saw the murderous look in Syaoranfs eyes. gI wonder if Sakura-chan made up with Eron-kun,h she remarked, amazed at how Sakura was smiling up at Eron as if he was her best friend in the world when just earlier that day, she had been running away from him. gPoor Syaoran-kun never will get a chance.h
gWell, poor Syaoran better step up his game,h was Meilinfs merciless response as she tossed back her pigtail tied with red ribbons. A petite redhead girl in the black and crimson Junior High uniform ran up to them, panting.
gMeilin-nee-chan, have you seen him?h asked Miho, peaking around the bustling hallways after school.
gWho?h Meilin blinked.
gOnii-chan. Have you seen my brother?h repeated Miho, blushing deeply, almost like the girl who had been so desperately searching for her missing brother for years.
gMizuki-kunfs been out for the past couple days,h replied Eriol, hurt that Miho had been neglecting him ever since her real brother returned. Truth was, he still hadnft let go of his grudge for being left out of the Vogue reception. gReally, you get Sakura back and then the Thief of the Night goes missing. This class probably has the worst attendance record ever.h
Miho bit her lower lip and clasped Meilinfs hands. gYou know where he is, donft you? He hasnft come home in days\he hasnft left, has he?h
With a kindly pat on the younger girlfs shoulder, Meilin said, gDonft worry about Kai. Hefs a grown boy\he just needs some alone time.h
gH-he hates me, doesnft he?h Miho sniffled. gI said some horrid things to him.h
gNo, he doesnft hate you, and hefs already used to verbal abuse,h replied Meilin with a knowing smile. It looked like the younger girl hadnft completely grown out of her brother complex yet.
With a broom propped against her shoulder, Meilin marched into Kaifs apartment.
Perro-chan greeted her pertly, gIntruder! Intruder!h
gDonft be silly, itfs just me,h she told the parrot. She heard a shuffling in the bathroom, and she flung open the door, only to be greeted by a steamy fog. Kai stood in a black bathrobe, wiping his hair with a fluffy towel.
gGah, what are you doing here?h demanded Meilin.
gItfs my house,h Kai replied, glancing at the misty mirror to see Meilinfs reflection. gYou wanted to catch a glimpse of me showering so badly? You could have just asked.h
gMiho-chan came looking for you at school today,h Meilin stated, blatantly ignoring his last remark. gWhy have you been skipping classes again\I thought you flunked because of poor attendance.h
gMiho-chan came looking for me?h Kai asked, turning around blinking his gray-blue eyes.
His bathrobe was tied very low and loose, she suspected on purpose, and Meilin averted her eyes from his taut stomach. gYou were here the whole time? You could have let me know that.h Kai, as rambunctious as he usually chose to be, could be as quiet as a mouse to the point where she wouldnft even know if he was in the room next to her.
gYoufd make me go back home,h said Kai sullenly.
Meilin let out an exaggerated sigh. gHonestly, I do understand why you might need some alone time. Youfve had absolute freedom for the past six years, it must be a bit stressful living with a family, obliging curfews and all. Trust me, Ifm surprised you lasted as long as you did. But you should know Miho would worry if you disappear from her sight like that.h
And Kai grabbed the broom away from her and squeezed her in a tight hug. gI knew youfd understand.h
Meilin squirmed, uncomfortably aware of his moist skin and pushed him away firmly. In the process, the towel over his head completely slipped off. She let out a little shriek. gMizuki Kai, what have you done with your hair?h
gWhat?h Kai ran his fingers through his hair.
gRoyal blue,h he corrected, holding up his tube of hair-dye. gI was going for a brighter color, but it came out looking rather dull, didnft it?h His hair was a lovely shade of pale blue which suited his gray-blue eyes. Meilin saw that defensive, reckless glint come over those glass-like eyes as he stated defensively, gItfs stressful being Tanaka Mikai. I need a little vacation, and Ifll go back home and attend classes again.h
gIfm not your guardian,h said Meilin coolly. gTherefs no need to explain yourself to me. Do that to Miho or your parents.h
It was no fun rebelling when he was given permission to do so, and so his restlessness was replaced by his usual poise. gSo I guess there was no need for me to hide from you if youfre not going to send me back home. Well, then letfs go have fun then.h
gNo thank you. Unlike you, I have homework to do,h said Meilin.
Kai sighed. gIn spite of what you might think, I havenft been just playing around all week long. Ifve been working on something.h
gWhat? Your videogame or your biceps?h she remarked dryly, kicking the dumbbells lying around on one corner of the room.
Examining his hair in the mirror, he tilted his chin in various angles, clearly satisfied with the result. Meilin knew he was pausing for dramatic effect and wasnft going to tell her until she badgered him. Well, two could play at a game. She watched him meticulously comb up his hair, working wax into it and spiking up the blue strands. It brought out the blue in his eyes and he looked strangely ethereal, especially as his bathrobe became progressively looser and looser, most certainly deliberately.
gArenft you getting dressed?h she demanded, not willing to admit that his half-nakedness was distracting her.
Kai gave her a mischievous grin. gDo you want to see my biceps?h
gPervert,h muttered Meilin under her breath, as she trudged after Kai, who sauntered around his room, spraying himself generously with rose-scented cologne, fixing up his bangs and finally, pausing in front of a metallic door.
gWhatfs this room?h She had never noticed the silver screen in the far corner of his room before. He slid the door open and she followed after him
gAnd welcome to Kaitou Magicianfs secret chamber,h said Kai, snapping his fingers and light immediately flickered on.
She gasped as she peeked through the door into a walk-in-closet extravagant and spacious enough to make any girl envious, and her jaw dropped. One end of the room was neatly lined with black cloaks of every shape and length. On the shelves against the center wall were dozens of top hats and the glass stand in the center of the room was lined with a sunglasses of every shape, color and brand. The stand next to it was laden with a brilliance of jewelry that Meilin didnft even want to ask about, though she glimpsed a couple of Kaifs favorite accessories such as the silver skull ring, the fang earrings, his array of punk chains and of course his favorite metal-studded leather gloves.
gReally, Kai?h Meilin raised a brow. gDo you really need thirty black cloaks?h
Taking hold of a length of fabric, Kai declared, gBut this one is for summer, and this one over here is for winter. This onefs waterproof and this onefs satin, for media appearances. And this one sparkles in the dark and this one becomes inflatable in water while this onefs inflammable.h
Meilin rolled her eyes. gWhat was the whole show of throwing your black cloak in the ocean and saying Kaitou Magician is no more last Christmas?h
Kai blinked. gThat was a symbolic gesture. You didnft expect me to throw out all my Kaitou Magician apparel, did you? Do you know just how much one of those cloaks cost? I get them specially tailored in Paris. Though those couple over there are Tomoyo-chanfs designs\you can tell by the embroidery. Ifm rather fond of them, so theyfre only for special occasions.h
And Meilin sank to her knees with a groan. gI was tricked. I thought my boyfriend reformed but in actuality, hefs exactly the same as before.h
gSilly girl. You thought you can reform a thief,h said Kai, walking over to her and lifting up her chin with the tip of his fingers.
gI hate liars.h
gYoufre the one who said to be truthful to myself,h Kai stated. gThis is who I am. You said you loved me just as I am.h
gWho said I loved you?h
gI donft what?h
gYou donft love me?h
gI donft know.h
gI love you.h
Meilin blinked her heavy black lashes. gSo?h
Instantaneously Kaifs jaw dropped and instantly he switched from the suave phantom Thief of the Night to a petulant, sulking teenage boy and proceeded to lock himself in the closet. Meilin sat on a chair, atop Kaifs unfolded laundry, and fed Perro-chan crackers. Perhaps she had been too harsh. Two weeks ago, Kai had told her that he loved her when they were at the beachside. At that time, she had been very happy, but then, she hadnft given him a proper answer. What was she supposed to do, tell him that she loved him too? Did she? She didnft like how Kai was able to throw around words so easily. Was his love the same kind of love as her love? Or was it just a momentary passion that would fade with time.
To her relief, he had not donned his cloak and top hat when he emerged from the closet a good twenty minutes later. Instead, he was dressed in a faded pair of black denim jeans with a black shirt under a fitted motorcycle jacket with brass buckles and zippers, and a white and black checkered kerchief was tied loosely around his neck. He had discarded his polo shirt and woolen vest and tie in a deep corner of his closet marked gto burn.h His favorite fang earrings dangled from his ears and he swung his Harley-Davidson key-ring around one finger. gIfm going for a ride. Are you coming or are you not?h
gGo ahead,h Meilin said.
Again, Kai looked a bit crestfallen. gI havenft been goofing off you know. Ifm doing some important work.h To his disappointment, Meilin did not show the slightest sign of interest and proceeded to feed Perro-chan more biscuits. With a childish pout, he drew on his black designer shades and hopped out the window.
gYou think hefs off stealing something again?h Meilin asked the blue parakeet.
gJe tfaime,h squawked Perro-chan, preening his feathers. gJe tfaime.h
Lying down on her bed, Sakura raised the sapphire, which fit her ring finger perfectly, up to the light. Was love a finite entity? Eron believed it to be so. But then she recalled a distant voice. gWith stars, you barely notice them at first, but when you watch them, theyfre so many of them, all twinkling so merrily. It makes you think, ah, theyfre growing and growing. The more you look, the more stars you find. And before you realize it, when at first you barely noticed it, you realize the entire sky is covered with stars.h Something in her heart jerked, and she stared back at the ring. The beauty of the star sapphire was that on the surface, it looked like a smooth blue gem until it was held up to the right light source and when she tilted the blue gem, a twelve-pointed star formed.
If she concentrated hard, she could make the stone glow and emit a pale blue light. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead as she concentrated. It was something she had watched Syaoran do numerous times, and yet she had not realized it had taken so much effort. The stone crackled and an orb of sparks of electricity formed over her hand. A little bit more.
gWhat are you doing?h Kero-chan asked, flying into the room, sucking on a lollipop.
Sakurafs concentration broke and the orb of lightening shot up to the ceiling, leaving a scorch mark.
Kero-chan dodged, dropping his candy, and screeched, gThatfs dangerous! Donft do it indoors.h He peered at the black mark on the wallpaper. gWhat was that?h
gKero-chan, why did my powers change to the power of the moon?h Sakura asked suddenly, sitting up from her bed.
Choking on the candy, Kero-chan stammered, gW-why are you asking that all of a sudden?h
gJust. I thought it was strange when I couldnft release my star staff. Eriol-kun told me that I had overused my power of the stars, that is why my body needed time to recuperate. So I thought it natural to draw upon a different pool of power. But I thought eventually, the power of the stars would return to me. But I donft feel it anymore. Then, what is the source of the power of the moon come from? Has it replaced the power of the stars?h Sakura slipped the Reed sapphire ring off her finger again. The eye of the dragon will wake.
Kero-chan was a horrible liar, but luckily, Sakura was distracted. She jumped off her bed and pulled out the green storage box underneath it. She rummaged through the box and swung open the Swan Lake music box. It was not in the music box, where it should be. Frantically, she toppled over the rest of the contents of the box onto her bed. It wasnft there. Maybe it slipped out when the box had been toppled over that night when Eron came over. Crawling on the floor, Sakura poked her head underneath her bed. Then she lifted up her rug. Perhaps it was caught behind her bookshelf.
gWhat are you doing now?h Kero-chan asked, acknowledging that his mistress had finally lost it.
Two winters ago, she had spotted a stone in a jewelry store in passing, a luminous crystal that seemed to sparkle like the North Star. The price had been so expensive that she had quickly left the shop in shock that a piece of stone can cost so much. To her utter surprise, it was that very necklace that had popped out of a green balloon on Christmas Day, Syaoranfs Christmas present to her. She had been surprised that Syaoran had even noticed that necklace. But Syaoran had always been observant like that. Of course, it wasnft until quite later that she learned the necklace was indeed Amamiya Hayashi of the Great Fivefs token artifact. Till this day, she didnft know if she had found the stone or the stone had found her. Or more accurately, Syaoran had brought the necklace, the one Five Force Treasure whose whereabouts had been unknown for the past century. When the crystal split into two, it felt like an omen, an ominous omen of what was to come. It was a precious gift to her. Not because of its price or because it was a Five Force Treasure, but because it had been Syaoranfs gift to her. Now where could it possibly be?
He had snidely said to her, gYou still have that? It doesnft have any magical powers left in it and itfs broken. Just throw it away.h His words had infuriated her more than he would know. The fact that he didnft realize what an important talisman the necklace had been to her all this while, that he could so casually suggest she discard it. Plopping down on the floor, she groaned. In her anger, she had flung the necklace at Syaoran. Thatfs where it was.
gCleaning?h asked Kero-chan, floating above her head, peering into the chaos inside the box. gOr are you looking for something?h
gCleaning,h replied Sakura, gathering the photos together. Because she had so hastily stuffed them back in the last time, they were all out of chronological order, a big jumble of timelines and events all piled into one box. She stared at a solo shot of Syaoran from the fashion show in a dark green battle outfit trimmed with gold. Sixteen-year-old Syaoran-in-the-photo was more handsome than she recalled in her mind. But he had no trace of a smile on his lips, and his eyes held none of the warmth that she recalled. From the pile, she drew out another picture of Syaoran from two winters ago. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold, and his chestnut brown hair was windblown. He was laughing widely as droplets of snow melted on his lashes and shoulders, and she could almost hear his voice, not yet fully matured, call out her name, gSakura.h Finally, she put next to this photo a picture from six years ago; a grouchy ten-year old Li Syaoran stared up at her with his big scowl, wearing an oversized sports jacket and a green scarf. He was probably grumbling about how he hated the cold, and yet, even that seemed endearing. She slid this photo on top of the one of grown-up Syaoran. Dear Syaoran-of-the past, the boy she had once believed to be her most important person. gWhere have you gone?h she murmured to herself.
She recalled how Yukito had told her the other day, gThe heart is like the waning moon. There will be a night when the sky is completely dark and the light of the moon nowhere in sight. You might look up into the black sky and wonder if the moon had ever shone there in the first place. But even if you canft see it, you know it is still there, and that the moon will appear once again, first as a sliver of a crescent, and eventually become full again.h You can shut it up in a box or close your eyes and block it from sight. You canft hear it if you listen nor can you feel it if you touch it. But itfs still there.
The Golden-eyed Cerberus watched his Mistress in bemusement as she carefully picked up Syaoran-bear and wiped the lint gathered on its black fur, then hugged it to her chest. gI see. Youfre not gone. Just because I shut you away, you didnft disappear. How silly of me.h Standing up, she help up her green box and overturned it completely, letting all the photos shower down, and she went to her bookshelf, pulling out all her albums. There was no point in storing away photos where they could not be seen.
gWhat are you doing now?h Kero-chan screeched, fluttering away as an avalanche of photos poured over his head, onto the floor.
gHmm?h Sakura was too intent in going through her photos, that she paid no heed to Kero-chan. Instead, she flipped through the pages of her album, filling them with the photos she had taken out months ago. Finally, she came to the last batch of photos. They were from the fashion show. She hadnft taken many photos this year, and she flipped to the back of her most current album. Then, she inserted the pictures into the brand new pages.
Kero-chan shook his head in disapproval as his mistress, sprawled across the floor, chuckled quietly, frowned, laughed out loud then smiled yearningly as she carefully slipped the photos into the empty pages in her albums. He was convinced Sakura had finally gone mad. It had taken all evening to sort through her photo albums, and when Sakura finally realized the time, she poked her head out her bedroom door. Syaoran was not back yet though it was past ten. He must have stopped by earlier, because he had changed out of his uniform. These days, he always came home late at night. Where was he and what was he doing at this hour? When he was home these days, she tried his best to avoid him, which was not hard since by the time he came home, she was usually in her bedroom, ready to go to bed. Either way, this was her chance. Stealthy as a certain Thief of the Night, she tiptoed next doors to her brotherfs room, currently occupied by Li Syaoran, careful not to arouse Kero-chanfs suspicion. For a second, she felt a little guilty rummaging through his stuff. Well, itfs my house, she reasoned.
She never entered her brotherfs room without permission, for fear of Touyafs rage; from a very early age she had learned that her brother valued privacy. Even when she cleaned his room, she was very careful not to upset any of his stuff, and usually, Touya did the cleaning himself anyway. It must be difficult for Syaoran to reside in such a meticulous personfs room. By the looks of it, Syaoran seemed to simply sleep in the room and do not much else in it; there was no presence of him except for the carefully-made cot on the floor next to the bed.
Cautiously, she reached under his pillow. Nothing. She laughed at herself. What had she been expecting to find? She couldnft help wondering if he still kept the picture from New York. She then moved on to his book bag. Now, she felt even guiltier. Unfortunately, inside Syaoranfs bag was as neat as the rest of the room. There were only textbooks, his notes for each class, and a pen and a wooden pencil. Very different from her bag, which was full of snacks, sticker pictures with her friends, a bulging pencil case with very cute pens and animal-shaped mechanical pencils, a cosmetics bag with a mirror, small brush and lip-gloss and bits of garbage accumulated throughout the day. Next, she checked his uniform blazer pocket, then trousers. How could it not be anywhere? Had he really thrown it away? She was on the verge of patting down all the clothes he had worn for the past week (and since he never wore anything twice in a week, that was quite a lot of clothes) and failed to hear the rustle by the doorway.
gAre you looking for this?h asked Syaoran, leaning against the doorframe, holding up two halves of a broken crystal encircled between his thumb and forefinger.
Her heart dropped to her stomach and Sakura bolted up, aghast at having been caught rummaging through his stuff. gN-no!h she stammered, turning beet-red, pretending to smooth out the bed. gIfm just looking for something onii-chan asked me to find for him.h
gOh, I see.h Syaoran tossed the crystal into the air and in the blink of an eye, it disappeared into one of his pockets with a sleight of hand that would have made Kaitou Magician envious.
gW-why do you have that still?h Sakura demanded. gI thought you were going to throw it away.h
gSilly, you canft just discard of magical artifacts in the trash can\itfs hazardous waste; even in its broken state, it can be used for evil in the wrong hands,h replied Syaoran, matter-of-fact as always.
gThen give it back to me.h
gWhy?h Syaoran blinked. gYou threw it away.h
gNo I didnft.h
gYes you did. Do you want me to refresh your memory?h
Sakura glared at Syaoran as she realized he was making fun of her. She held out her hand, palm up. gGive it back.h
gNo,h replied Syaoran, dodging as Sakura lunged for his right jean pocket.
gI said, give it back!h cried out Sakura as Syaoran childishly grabbed the crystal and held it way above his head, beyond her reach. Had he always been this tall? Arms outstretched, she jumped up and tried to grab it. gGive it back!h
gWhy should I? What do you want of it, anyway?h He swerved around into the room as Sakura lunged forward at him. She stumbled out into the hallway, and he closed the bedroom door behind him with a laugh.
Fuming, Sakura returned to her room and stared at the completed sets of albums on her bookshelf. And she finally let out a small smile. How foolish it was of her to think that putting away all these photos would erase him from her life. One thing she had learned with certainty while inside Memoria was that never would she be able to completely forget him. I canft lock you away. I canft pretend you donft exist. I canft forget you. Hence, Ifm just going to have to accept you have always been an important part of my life. And even the daunting future cannot take away my precious memories of you.
gKai-kun, I want to hire you,h said Sakura solemnly at school the next day. Unexpectedly, the former thief had shown up at school with hair that matched his uniform blazer color. gI need you to steal something for me.h
gSorry, dear, Ifm retired,h replied Mizuki Kai with a yawn. Then he lifted an eyebrow, curiosity getting the better of him. gWhat is it? I might make an exception if itfs an interesting project.h
gMy diamond necklace.h
gThatfs yours in the first place,h Kai pointed out.
Sakura nodded. gI need you to steal it back from the person who took it from me.h
Kai leaned over and looked Sakura straight in the eyes, over the bridge of his black sunglasses. gHave you tried asking this person to return it to you?h
gI did! He wouldnft give it back!h retorted Sakura, indignant that the former thief suggested she should ask rather than resort to thievery.
gMaybe you didnft ask nicely enough,h said Kai, patting Sakura on the head fondly. gHow about a good old-fashioned, eIfm sorry, itfs important to me, so please return it to me.fh
Sakurafs jaw dropped. gGoodness, youfve changed Kai-kun.h Perhaps it was the effect of being a family-guy again.
gHavenft changed,h replied Kai. gItfs in the Gentleman Thief Handbook, Rule #14. Steal only what you cannot have by asking.h
A teasing smile brushed her lips. gBy any chance, is the author the same as the Dating Manual for the Hopeless Guy?h
gIt is!h Kai responded, delightedly. gYou know the book? Itfll be a bestseller yet, donft you think?h
gYeah,h replied Sakura dryly.
gTherefs a companion book, Dating Manual for the Hopeless Girl.h Kai clasped his hands over his mouth, recalling that Eron and Sakura had broken up recently. gOops. No offense intended.h
Sakura scowled at her tactless criminal friend. gYoufre meaner than onii-chan!h
gThank you. I take lessons from the master,h drawled Kai. The ex-thief seemed to have drawn up an odd sort of adulation for the ogre-king last time he had dinner at the Kinomotofs, whom he had dubbed as gthe supreme sister-complex onii-chan prototype!h
gKai-kun, do you know what the Eye of the Dragon is?h asked Sakura suddenly.
gIsnft that the name of the stone of your diamond pendant?h replied Kai. gIn the days of the Great Five, Amamiya Hayashi-sama was the bearer of the Eye of the Dragon, a mysterious chunk of uncut crystal that was rumored to have been actually taken from a dragon by the first Japanese swordsman. It was passed on for generations to the so-called best swordsman. Why?h
gJust. Itfs been mentioned here and there so many times, I was wondering what its significance is,h Sakura remarked.
gIf the Eye of the Dragon is such an important artifact, you should not have let it out of your hands, as the Li Clan should be after it,h remarked Kai offhandedly. gMake sure you take good care of that ring at least.h
Sakura fingered the sapphire ring on the chain around her neck. gKai-kun, you sent me this ring when you were in Hong Kong,h she said slowly. gDonft you want it back? I donft think it belongs to me.h
Kai replied, gIt doesnft belong to me either. According to my father, aka the artist Shing, from whom I originally stole the ring from, it belonged to Li Ryuuren. At one point, he gave it to a certain Amamiya Nadeshiko as a Christmas present, which she returned to him upon their parting. Afterwards, Li Ryuuren gave it to my father for safekeeping, claiming it reminded him to much of her, but since Li Ryuuren-san is dead, I guess it rightfully belongs to his heir. Though technically speaking, the ring is a Reed heirloom which Lord Landon Reed presented to Li Shulin as an engagement ring.h He paused, staring at the bewitching blue gem that reflected a six-pointed star. gOddly enough, that certain ring probably has had the most carriers of the Great Five and their descendents.h
gWhy did you send it to me?h
gWhat do you mean from whom?h asked Kai, raising an eyebrow.
gDo you remember, you wrote me in the letter that you sent with the ring Syaoran was planning something with the Great Elder to regain the title of the Chosen One. You told me that he chose the Clan, so I best forget about him,h said Sakura.
gDid I write something like that?h Kai said vaguely.
gThe thing he was planning with the Great Elder\does that have something to do with why Li Leiyun-san is in Japan now?h asked Sakura.
gIfm not quite sure,h replied Kai, not meeting her eyes. He was too principled to point straight out that Syaoran might have deliberately taken the crystal, and it was obvious to Sakura she was not going to get a straightforward answer from him.
gWell then, the Li Clan taking the Sakura Cards from me, you knew that they were planning that, right?h Sakura paused. gBut that isnft it. Therefs more, isnft there?h
gDo you seriously think one of Syaoranfs ambitions will be content with just being the Chosen One, the puppet of the Li Clan?h Kai laughed out loud, more out of nervousness than real amusement. gI honestly donft know what you want to learn from me. If you want to find out more about the inner-goings of the Clan, you probably know best who to ask.h
gI canft ask him. Thatfs why Ifm asking you,h said Sakura.
gWhat is there to ask? You know even better. Hefs meant to do great deeds, not to be limited to some tiny town in Japan,h Kai stated.
Kai stared at her with his pale gray-blue eyes. gHe did betray you big time, you know, and took the Sakura Cards from you. Rumors say that the Great Elderfs successor will be him. Hefs only sixteen, and the Great Elder wants to make him the next Head of the Clan.h
gHefll make a good Head,h stated Sakura, struggling to keep her voice level despite the turmoil she felt in her heart. Syaoran as the Great Elder, the Head of the mighty Li Clan? She couldnft imagine it. The great Li Estate back in Hong Kong with its golden-gilded halls and all those rows of solemn men in black robes embroidered with the Li emblem intimidated her.
gYoufll never see him again if he becomes the Great Elder,h said Kai. gThe Clan will completely consume him. This really might be your last chance to see him, go to school with him, have any sort of contact with him.h
gSo be it, then,h said Sakura.
gBut if he doesnft, what will you do?h
gHe will carry out his duty. We both know that.h Sakura cast down her pale brown lashes. gWhy think of hypothetical situations that can never be. This is reality.h
At this, Kai smiled wistfully. gYet the prodigal son came back home. There is as much of a chance for him to return to your side as there was for me to return to Miho and okaa-san.h
gKai-kun, youfre contradictory as usual, arenft you?h Sakura gazed up at the older boyfs clear gray-blue eyes. And for the first time, she understood him. He could only be defined in contradictions, therefore he was. It seemed as if Mizuki Kai had not yet made his mind up to reassure her or make her feel worse, whether to condemn Syaoran or defend him. Talking with Kai always left her feeling a little more cynical but at the same time, logical.
gYoufre the one that is contradictory. Do you trust him or do you not? Do you love him or do you not? Are you going to believe in him or are you not?h His eyes flashed a stormy gray, no longer jesting. gWhy do you think I sent the sapphire ring to you with a letter mentioning Syaoran?h
gI donft know. I donft understand your cryptic language,h retorted Sakura.
Kai slammed his fist down in frustration. gSyaoran asked me to send the ring to you, why else? I donft know why he did, and that is the truth, so you can ask him.h Then he stomped off muttering to himself about ingrates who had not read his precious dating manual.
Utterly befuddled, Sakura turned to Meilin. gHow do you date somebody who speaks in constant riddles?h
gOh, Mizuki Kai.h Meilin rolled his eyes. gHefs pretty simple to figure out once you get to know him. When hefs being serious, he just speaks completely opposite to what he actually means to say.h
Tomoyo giggled. gI think the real dilemma is, how do you recognize someone whose hair color changes every other day?h
gI donft,h said Meilin with a serene smile. gI just look for the oaf wearing sunglasses indoors.h
Back home, Sakura fished through her memory box, empty except the treasure box and a couple letters, including Kaifs letter from Hong Kong. Even from the hospital, his calligraphy was beautifully laid out on clean parchment paper. His flourishing script was dripping with sarcasm and yet, she had been touched when she received it because she knew even though he was recovering from a major surgery, he had been concerned about her welfare. She scanned to the second paragraph.
Enough about me\I know you donft really care about what Ifm up to. What you probably want to hear about is news of Him. Well, here it is. I had a chance to see him, just once. He seems to be doing fine. In fact, I donft even think hefs particularly being restrained or punished by the Clan at all. We can scrap the locked in the dungeon theory as well as the chained to the walls one. Hefs still the high and mighty Li-sama as usual. If you canft tell, Ifm quite disgusted with him at the moment. When he finally came to see me the other day, it was not to ask about you but to ask me what Ifve done with the sapphire ring. Since Ifm staying at the Li Hospital, I have some inside sources. And rumors are, hefs planning something hand-in-hand with the Great Elder so that he can regain his title of Chosen One. In the end, he has chosen the Clan over you.
To understand Kaifs words, interpret it as the opposite of what he says, Meilin had told her. But if she followed her theory, then this letter meant the complete opposite of what Kai had written didnft it? But what did that mean? That Syaoran had not been fine, that he had been confined by the Li Clan and punished for disobeying. That when he had gone to see Kai, he asked about her? Sakura shook her head. Impossible. She should take Meilinfs words with a grain of salt.
Truthfully, she was still taken aback by Kaifs passing comment about Syaoran becoming the next Head of the Li Clan. That was an understatement. When she had heard it, a paralyzing fear had crept through her heart. But hefs only sixteen. Was that what he had been striving for? Was that why he had returned to Hong Kong in the first place? Then why was he here? To become the master of the Clow to become a more powerful leader of the Clan? Was it a lie that he had a falling out with Leiyun? Whatever his mission in Japan is, once that is accomplished, will this really be the last time I will get to see him?
From a distance, a lurker watched a tall blonde girl wearing a military-style bomber jacket, not unlike the one he was wearing, and curve-hugging skin-tight jeans tucked into black motorcycle buckled thigh-high boots. She walked briskly through the slums, as if she was no stranger to the parts, stepping over a drunken man leaned against a rundown building without any hesitation. His fingers flicked and closed the knife in his pocket out of habit as he eyed the dark alleys suspiciously.
Kara Reed, hands tucked into her pocket, came to a halt and stated out loud so he could hear, gI know youfre following me. Itfs annoying.h
gWhat ever youfre going to do, donft,h called back Mizuki Kai. He had bleached his hair back to an inconspicuous gold-streaked maroon and wore a pair of large aviator sunglasses.
gIfm just taking a stroll,h she drawled.
gThe yakuza are dangerous. Donft get involved. Donft bargain with them.h
gYou have no right to stop me,h Kara replied.
He responded, gAre you doing it for the Black Dragon? Or Leiyun?h
gI do everything for myself, Kai. Ifm not like you.h Kara spun around. gI donft meddle in your business, do I? Then why canft you let me be?h
Kai took off his sunglasses. Strands of his red-gold hair flew back from his forehead. gThatfs a very silly question. You know youfre the missing link. According to prophesy, only when the descendent of a Li, Amamiya, Mizuki, Reed and Chang are gathered together and once more joined in a circle can the curse of the Dark Ones be broken.h
Her expressionless lilac eyes sized him, a stark black silhouette with flaming hair. gYou dyed your hair again. Too bad. I liked your old color better.h
gDonft change the subject.h
gYou guys have Hiiragizawa Eriol.h
gYou know as well as I do that a reincarnation of the soul does not mean the sharing of blood as the original vassal. Hiiragizawa Eriol does not hold any Reed blood in him.h Kai met Karafs eyes. gYoufre the last of the Reed line.h
gWhy couldnft you just tell me that youfre following me because you missed me?h Kara tucked a loose strand of gold hair behind her elf-like ears.
gYou once told me you hated sappy meaningless words like that, Karin-senpai.h
gDid I?h She stared at him a bit wistfully. gWhy did you choose the Card Mistressf side? Is it because of that Li-girl?h
gNo, I did not join the Alliance of the Stars because of Meilin. If I could, I would have stayed out of this battle all together. After all, I did my portion already, did I not, by gathering the Five Force Treasures.h He smiled crookedly. gI did it because itfs Sakura. She saved my motherfs life. You know I donft like owing anyone a debt.h
Kara had known Kai for enough years to recognize the tone of admiration in his voice. She laughed out loud. gKai, do you actually believe that sixteen-year-old girl can break the curse?h
gWhy not?h With a sinister grin, Kai said, gIf wefre all doomed anyway, Ifd rather go down in style.h
It had not been easy getting rid of Kai, but she knew this area better than he did. Kara Reed burst through a rusty barbwire fence and kicked the door open to a half-demolished building, irritated about meeting Kai, irritated at how cocky he had become, irritated at herself for feeling a little bit sentimental when he called her eKarin-senpai.f The stairs were steep and crumbling and she came to a dimly lit room that seemed like an office turned into sleeping quarters.
A stout middle-aged with a receding hairline and dressed in a shiny white suit stared up at the golden-haired girl. gYou. Youfre that girl. The Black Dragonfs girl.h
She scowled at the musty smell of tobacco and stale alcohol in the room and told him coldly, gI am Kara Reed.h
Minato Abe scowled, snuffing a cigar into the ashtray. His life over the past weeks had turned upside down as the young Taoka Yoshinori had claimed ordinance over the Kanto and Chiba yakuza. gHow did you find me here?h
A pert smile rested on her crimson lips. gYou are in a desperate situation position right now. I can show you a way out.h
The manfs face darkened. gI donft get it. Didnft the Hong Kong triads sign an alliance with the Yamamoto-gumi and fully support the new head, that imbecile Taoka Yoshinori?h
gThink, Minato-san,h said Kara with a smirk, pacing around him. gThe Black Dragon doesnft need a powerful, united Japanese yakuza.h
And Minato Abefs jaw dropped. gYou want me to be the inside dissenter?h
gYou understand my language quickly,h said Kara with a smile.
gWhat benefit is there for me?h demanded the yakuza boss, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
gYou donft like Yamamoto-gumi nor the new boss. You should be thankful for an opportunity to weaken them.h Kara paced around the room, hands folded behind her back. gMinato-gumi is in debt. A lot of debt. You need a lot of money, and quickly. Therefs only one way to get that much money quickly. Unless you rob a bank, that is. I can provide you a means of getting such a sum of money.h
gHow?h he whispered.
She looked into his eyes. gGambling.h
gWhere? Pachinko? Casino?h
Kara shook her head. gNo, you need a gamble where you know for hundred percent you are going to win. And you need a large-scale win, or else Minato-gumi is going to crumble.h
gSo what is your suggestion?h
gHorseracing. The Japan Cup is coming up next week. If you gamble on the right horse, itfs a legitimate means of earning a lot money quickly.h
gHow do I know what the winning horse would be?h
gBet on me, and Ifll guarantee a win,h said Kara with a smile
Now, Minato Abe snorted. gYou? Are you telling me youfre a professional jockey or something as well as the Black Dragonfs lieutenant? As if you can win against the likes of Tamemura Asuma\last yearfs champion. Everyone knows hefs going to win and the lot will be split up that it wonft amount to much because everyonefs put their money on him.h
gI guarantee that I will be winning. And because nobody will be expecting a dark-horse candidate like me to win, youfll get to claim the entire lot to yourself,h Kara replied.
gHow can I trust your words?h demanded the disgruntled yakuza boss.
gYou canft. But do you have any other choice?h
gSay you are speaking truthfully, and that you will win and I reap the profits. Then, what do you want from me?h
gYour allegiance to the Li Jinyu, not Taoka Yoshinori, not Yamamoto-gumi, not even to Mintato-gumi.h Kara narrowed her eyes. gAnd remember, it would be a very simple feat for the likes of someone as worthless as yourself to just disappear one day. Donft do anything foolish.h
gIt was a good idea having a family dinner out,h stated Kinomoto Fujitaka, looking up from the menu at his two children over the candlelight. It was Kinomoto family tradition to have dinner out together at least once a month, especially as it became more difficult for the three Kinomotofs to coordinate meals together due to each of their busy schedule. gItfs been a while since wefve eaten out together.h
gAnd itfll be good to take a break from Li Syaoranfs cooking, and I havenft had La Seine food in ages,h said Touya, rubbing his stomach. He swore he had gained back all the weight he had lost from dining on the hospital cafeteria food over the holidays.
gItfs too bad Syaoran-san couldnft make it,h remarked Fujitaka. gWe were supposed to finish our discussion about Nebuchadnezzar.h
Touya shrugged his shoulders. gKidfs gotten a part time job somewhere.h Under his breath, he added, gBesides, the Brat is not a part of our family.h
gSyaoran-san is such a hardworking boy,h Fujitaka said with a smile. gHe reminds me a bit of you, Touya-san.h
In outrage, Touya responded, gHe and I have nothing in similar!h
gOf course not,h replied their waiter, setting down three glasses of water on the table. gTodayfs special is a cream of mushroom soup and grilled bay scallops with a saffron vinaigrette sauce for appetizer. The main course is seared tuna with miso glaze and a side of mixed greens and filet mignon with bouillabaisse sauce and roasted russet potatoes on the side. Our desert is a chocolate and raspberry mousse and a mixed berry tart with homemade blueberry cream gelato.h
Sakura choked on her ice water as she looked up to see their waiter, strikingly professional in a black vest and bowtie over a crisp white shirt, reciting the daily specials as he would an incantation spell. gW-what are you doing here?h
Li Syaoran blinked back at her, balancing a tray with one hand. gI have a part-time job here, what else?h
gHumph, the boss did take a liking to you, I remember,h remarked Touya. gAre you still prepping in the kitchen?h
Touya sighed. gWhat did you make tonight?h
gThe chocolate mousse,h replied Syaoran.
gWell, pack us an extra serving of that later on, so that I can take it back to Yuki,h said Touya.
gAs you please, most valued customer,h Syaoran stated, bowing mockingly.
The seared tuna melted in Sakurafs mouth and the chocolate mousse was heavenly\it would have been a perfect meal albeit their glowering waiter. This past month, he puzzled her more than anything else. Whatever his mission in Japan is, truthfully, it doesnft seem like hefs trying very hard to accomplish it. I havenft seen him do anything remotely Li Clan-related, and I should know since Ifve been watching him. She remarked, gWhy did Li-kun take on a job, I wonder.h
gOh that.h Touya smirked. gHe needs to pay back the repair cost for busting up my motorcycle which he stole the keys from my drawer.h
gBorrowed,h interceded Syaoran filling Touyafs glass to the brim with ice water, one hand behind his back.
gLearning bad habits from your good friend Kaitou Magician?h asked Touya. gI never gave you permission to ride it, hence taking without asking is called stealing, at least the last time I checked in the dictionary.h
gI said Ifll pay for the reparations,h grumbled Syaoran. On a second consideration, it had been a horrible idea thinking he could get away from gborrowingh Touyafs motorcycle without facing the consequences. gBesides you wouldnft have known if I just returned it to the garage.h Unfortunately, during the epic showdown between the Minato-gumi and the Yamamoto-gumi, while the yakuza were engaged in gangster warfare, some local hooligan thought it would be fun to bust up all the motorcycles lining the beach warehouse that night, Touyafs motorcycle included. Touya had thrown a fit, and Syaoran hadnft heard the end of it for the past two weeks. My motorcycle\you better pay for my precious Yamaha, and so forth.
Touyafs midnight blue eyes glinted as he thoroughly enjoyed making the Brat squirm. gYou donft even have a license, do you?h
Syaoran whistled and swerved around. gOh, the chef is calling for me.h
gIfm not finished talking to you!h called out Touya.
gWhat a good boy,h said Fujitaka, sipping on the service cup of coffee and biscotti on the side. gHe took on a job to pay for your motorcycle repair, Touya-san?h
gYou donft understand, he was irresponsible and stole it in the first place\of course he needs to repair it,h stated Touya. gYou know how much I treasure it.h
gIt was your first big purchase,h his father replied nostalgically. gI remember how hard you worked for it.h
Sakura reflected and remarked, gOnii-chan worked multiple jobs when he was my age. Maybe I should take on a part-time job as well, otou-san.h
gI donft want you to take on more than you can handle, but it wonft be a bad experience,h stated Fujitaka. He too had worked multiple jobs to get through college after he had left home.
But Touya scoffed, gYou wouldnft last in a job for a week, Kaijou.h
gWill too!h replied Sakura, indignant.
gOh really?h Touya remarked, left brow cocked. gClumsy, lazy, sleepyhead Kaijou who can barely finish tomorrowfs homework even without a job?h
gOh, you donft think I can do it? Li-kun can, why shouldnft I be able to?h demanded Sakura.
gWell, as much as I hate to admit it, Li-kun already had the experience, and hefs not the one dangerously near flunking math,h replied her brother.
gSo you think I canft handle it?h Sakurafs eyes were fiery as she slammed her mousse spoon on the table. gIfll prove it to you!h
Later that night, Syaoran was surprised to find Sakura waiting cross-legged on the living room sofa in her over-sized bunny-hoodie, reading a newspaper for the first time ever.
gIfm thinking of getting a part-time job,h Sakura announced when Syaoran glanced at her quizzically. She had been circling ads with a highlighter. gCan you believe that onii-chan thinks I wonft be able to handle it? Ifll prove it to him!h
If Syaoran thought that Touya might have intentionally provoked her he didnft say so otherwise. gDonft you have enough to worry about without another chore added on top of it?h
gWhat, you donft think I can do it either!h exclaimed Sakura indignantly.
gI didnft say that.h
gOnii-chan had at least three part-time jobs a week on top of school and soccer,h replied Sakura. gAnd you too. Why should I not have a job as well?h
gBecause, you should focus on capturing the dark forces,h Syaoran muttered under his breath.
gWell that is that, but I donft think it would be a bad idea to get some work experience,h stated Sakura. gBesides, I need a little bit of pocket money.h She had been broke since Christmas and felt guilty always relying on her father when her brother had been financially independent since junior high.
gI guess youfre right,h said Syaoran with a long sigh. Besides, it might help keep her mind off Eron.
gOh wait, Tomoyo-chan said to give this to you,h said Sakura, holding up a deep emerald metallic flip-phone. gItfs the newest model from her motherfs company. She said it must be inconvenient for you not to have a cellphone. And since you work, you need a way for the manager to get in touch with you.h
Syaoran took it and saw a green teddy bear chain dangling from it.
gI got one too,h said Sakura, holding up her rose-pink cellphone with a pink teddy bear dangling from the corner. gThe yakuza-san broke my old one last time. Tomoyo-chan said that she revived your old number because it was still available.h
gT-thanks,h said Syaoran. gIfll thank her at school tomorrow.h The phone began vibrating. He jumped\he hadnft had a cellphone in about a year. Frankly, the only people who had called him in the old days he had one were his mother, Meilin and Sakura, anyway. Gingerly, he flipped open the phone. gH-hello?h
gLi-kun!h exclaimed Tomoyo from the other end of the receiver. gDid Sakura-chan give you the phone? Do you like it? Itfs inconvenient that we have no means of contacting you. Your number one speed dial is Sakura-chan. Like before. And your number two is me.h
gThanks for the phone. You didnft have to,h Syaoran said.
gTherefs an updated HD photography and videotaping feature to the phone. Take lots of pictures and video clips of Sakura-chan at home, eating, sleeping, brushing her teeth and send them to me,h said Tomoyo cheerily.
gSure, sure.h Syaoran sighed. He knew there would be a catch. gAnd let me guess, is there a spy camera installed in the teddy bear keychain?h
gWhat teddy bear keychain?h asked Tomoyo. gOh. Sakura-chan must have attached it.h She giggled and then hung up.
Sakura blinked up at him with her large green eyes. gWhat did Tomoyo-chan say?h
gN-nothing!h stammered Syaoran, stomping up the stairs in a hurry.
gI got one too!h exclaimed Kero-chan, holding up his gold cellphone proudly. Kero-chan flipped through the newspaper clippings. gSo what do you need the extra money for?h
gKinomoto Sakura, did you say your name was?h said the manager of La Seine, eying the bright-eyed girl with golden-brown pulled into short pigtails. gYoufre Kinomoto Touya-kunfs little sister? Do you have any work experience?h
gNo,h replied Sakura meekly.
gWell, if youfre anything like your brother, Ifm sure you wonft disappoint,h said the manager. gWefve been short of hands lately since once of the waitresses quit. Ifll put you on a two-week trial period.h
gThank you!h said Sakura, bowing her head down. gI will try my best.h
gLi-kun, I leave training the newbie to you,h stated the manager.
gEh, why me?h protested Syaoran.
gDo you have a problem with it, Li-kun?h
gNo sir, Ifll train her,h said Syaoran meekly.
Syaoran warily eyed Sakura, dressed in the crisp black and white restaurant uniform. Her golden-brown hair was clasped by a black barrette into a short ponytail. gItfs all good that you decided you wanted to get a job, but did you have to choose this particular restaurant out of the dozens of restaurants in this neighborhood?h he asked.
gThere was no other place that would hire me,h replied Sakura, matter of fact.
gDid you even try?h
gThis place has the best pay,h Sakura stated. gOnii-chan said so.h
Of course it was all the demon-kingfs mastermind plan. gWell, you are here, and it seems like Ifm in charge of you. Trainees are in charge of cleaning and dishes and stuff. If you break a dish, itfs docked from your pay.h
Sakura nodded. gGot it.h
The manager popped his head in the kitchen again. gBy the way, Sakura-chan, you begin serving tonight.h
And Syaoran stared at her warily\washing the dishes and cleaning was one thing. Serving off the bat was another.
gWhat? I have experience waitressing during the school cultural festivals and stuff,h stated Sakura defensively.
gThatfs a relief.h
gDid you just roll your eyes at me?h
His amber eyes sparked in laughter seeing her pouted lips.
gSous-chef Li, youfre distracted tonight,h remarked the Head Chef Nobuhiro as Syaoran chopped the onions later into the night. gPass the pepper.h
gYessir!h replied Syaoran, jumping.
gEying the new waitress?h said the Chef with a chuckle as he seared the tuna over the blazing flame. gShefs a cute thing, isnft she? I heard shefs Touya-kunfs little sister. Who knew that grouch had such an adorable younger sister?h
gI wonder if shefs single,h remarked the youngest assistant chef, blushing happily at the sight of a young high school girl.
Syaoran turned and glared at the assistant chef.
gAh, well, I already have a girlfriend anyway soch the assistant chef stammered, dismayed as one would be after witnessing the Little Wolffs death glare for the first time.
gI donft see whatfs special about her at all,h stated a college sophomore waitress named Enomoto Izumi. gShefs awfully clumsy.h
Sakura came to the kitchen, flushed. gOrder for table 18!h
gThere you are, Kinomoto-san,h said the waitress. gYou switched the orders. Get a grip.h
gSorry, Enomoto-san!h exclaimed Sakura, bowing her head.
gHurry, the customers are waiting!h called out the manager.
gIfm coming!h exclaimed Sakura.
As if in slow motion, Syaoran watched Sakura skid on her black high-heeled pumps, falling flat on her bottom, as her tray of dishes and drinks smashed on the floor.
gKinomoto-san, look where youfre going!h exclaimed Enomoto Izumi. gClean up this mess immediately. This is why newbies should know their place.h
Drenched in ice and soda, Sakura slowly sat up, trying to gather the shattered pieces of glass. She could feel all the eyes on her, and her ears were pink.
A blue handkerchief dropped on her head. Sakura looked up to see Syaoran staring down at her. He ears turned an even deeper crimson. Why did Syaoran have to witness this?
gKinomoto-san, Ifll clean up the mess. You should go to the locker room and dry up,h said Syaoran.
Sakura gulped, nodding.
He turned to the older girl. gEnomoto-san, can you please run back to the kitchen and grab the drinks for table 18?h
gY-yes, Li-san!h exclaimed Enomoto Izumi, blushing.
gLi-san is so dreamy,h remarked another older waitress with a sigh. gI wonder if hefs single.h
The rest of the evening was so hectic, that Syaoran could barely keep track of his own orders. But as the night began to wind down, he realized that Sakura was nowhere in sight. He wiped off the kitchen counter and opened the supply closet. As he expected, Syaoran found Sakura glooming behind the mop bucket as the restaurant prepared to shut down. gTough day?h
gHaving a job is a lot harder than I thought,h Sakura replied, hugging her knees to her chest. gTherefs so much to memorize, and the trays are much harder to balance then I thought. And some people are awfully impatient, and I keep forgetting who ordered what and they get mad at me for taking too long.h
gYou did a good job for your first day,h said Syaoran with a half-smile. gThe first day I started working, I knocked over a big stack of plates, and then almost got fired on the spot for talking back to a customer. I was stuck dishwashing and trash-sorting, and the manager never could remember my name\I was all ready to quit after the first week.h
Sakura almost smiled, chin leaned against her knees. gI didnft know that. I always thought youfre good at everything on the first try.h
Shaking his head, Syaoran said, gI donft have a lot of patience, and you know Ifm bad at dealing with people.h
gNo, you were very patient with me,h said Sakura. gEven earlier today, you helped me out.h Like you always have.
gItfs natural for comrades to help each other out,h replied Syaoran bluntly. Then he blushed slightly. gI mean work comrades. Yukito-san and even your brother helped me out a lot when I got started.h
gOnii-chan did?h asked Sakura, raising an eyebrow. Yukito-san would help out anyone, but her brother was a firm believer of struggling on your own. gMy onii-chan?h
gHe doesnft like me, still doesnft, understandably,h said Syaoran. gBut hefs a fair person, and I do respect that about him.h
gI see,h said Sakura, cheeks pink. Though he teased her horribly all the time, she too was very proud of her brother, and to hear Syaoranfs words made her strangely pleased.
And somewhere on the other side of town, Kinomoto Touya sneezed in the midst of dinner break at the hospital and wondered if someone was talking about him.
The first week at La Seine was quite a humbling experience for Sakura\she hadnft felt so incompetent and clumsy since her early days as Card Captor. Sakura was sure if it hadnft been for Syaoran, she would have been long since fired. Today, the manager scolded her for spilling coke on a customer and breaking three plates, and she had been relegated to extra dishwashing. Sakura eyed the stack of dirty dishes towering over her. It was long past closing hours, and as the newbie, she was stuck with closing down the restaurant. When was she ever going to finish them all? Her shoulders and back ached.
gYoufre still here?h asked Syaoran, stepping into the kitchen at the sound of the running water.
Sakura forced a smile. gIfm almost finished. Go home first.h
With a frown, Syaoran walked up to her and grabbed her arm. He peeled off the rubber gloves and saw her raw, blistered fingers and demanded angrily, gWho made you do all these dishes by yourself?h
gItfs my duty,h replied Sakura. gIfll do them.h
The determined gleam in Sakurafs eyes was nothing new. Feeling murderous towards Enomoto-san who should have been on duty with Sakura, he sighed. gIfll help.h
Syaoran glared at her. gThe sooner you finish, the sooner we can go home.h
gGo home first,h said Sakura, wiping the sweat off her brows with the back of her sleeve.
gYour brother will kill me if he finds out that Ifve let you walk back home near midnight without an escort,h he replied, pushing the wine glasses towards the other sink and turning on the water faucet.
She shook her head. gOnii-chan is so old-fashioned. Itfs a perfectly safe neighborhood.h
gWell, Ifm not okay with it either,h said Syaoran gruffly, scrubbing the dirty dishes viciously that his voice was drowned about by the water.
Then Sakura narrowed her eyes in sudden realization. gDid onii-chan recommend me to this job because you work here?h
gIf he had his way, if you had to take on a part-time job, he would be either employed here or watching over you as a stalkerish customer. But he trusts this place, the manager, the chef, and the customers are usually families and couples, so no creepy customers that might try to take advantage of you\hefs worked here before so hefs deemed it the safest working environment for you.h Syaoran hid a smile. gAnd he told me that if you come home with so much as a chaff on you pinky finger, hefd skin me alive and boil me in the Cheffs special hot sauce.h
That sounded very much like what her brother would say. Sakura didnft know what to be more disturbed by: the fact that her brother and Syaoran seemed to be getting along or the fact that the two of them seemed to enjoy getting along.
The two finished in speed time\Syaoran was an expert dishwasher, a testament to his long hours working at the restaurant. Sakura had found this out while living with him that oddly enough, Syaoran enjoyed doing the dishes. gItfs relaxing,h he had said. Then again, he found her fatherfs esoteric textbooks interesting and enjoyed waking up in the morning and jogging around the town at the crack of dawn.
She had to admit, it was nice having someone to walk back home with in the dark. It would be a lot scarier having her first job without knowing anyone there. It was nice talking about little nothings and little somethings. But even then, in the back of her mind, she could not help thinking of Kaifs words. gHefs meant to do great deeds, not to be limited to some tiny town in Japan.h And she couldnft help thinking there may not be many more days left to walk with him when the sun is down and watch his eyes glow in the moonlight and just talk, laugh, hear him grumble about the cold.
gAre you all right?h He was genuinely concerned.
gHmmc Yeah. Sorryc I spaced out,h said Sakura, walking besides Syaoran as they slowly walked on home from the bus station, hands in her coat pocket. It was chilly in the nighttime, and Syaoran was swathed in a red cable knit scarf. She was so used to watching his gait, the way his shoulders hunched over when it was cold, his long strides with his hands in his pocket. He was always considerate and never walked to fast, just steady enough so that she could keep up comfortably without bumping into him. And though it sounded like he wasnft listening to her ceaseless chatter, he was actually taking it all in. gI think the manager hates me\hefs always glaring at me. Chef Nobuhiro seems nice though\he called me into the kitchen today, and I was scared stiff, but he only wanted me to taste his new soufflé recipe.h
Syaoran smiled. gOnce you get to know him, hefs great. All thatfs on his mind is food.h
gKind of like Yukito-san,h remarked Sakura with a chuckle. gI found out today that the Cheffs surname is Oishi. Oishi Nobuhiro. Itfs like he was predestined to become a cook.h
gWith all the experience wefre getting, maybe we should open up a restaurant after all,h remarked Syaoran. gWhen I see Chef Nobuhiro, he looks so happy in the kitchen, Ifm jealous of him.h
gSay, did you ever have a dream like that?h Sakura asked. gOne thing to say, this is it. This is what I want to devote my life to.h
Sakura wrinkled her brows in deep thought. gI donft know. Back in the days, all I wanted to do was capture all the Clow Cards safely. And over the past two years, I just wanted to safely seal all the dark forces without too much mishap. Truthfully, I donft think I had the mindset to really think of anything else.h She paused and turned to Syaoran. Was his dream to become the Great Elder? Hadnft that been his dream since he was a child, to follow his fatherfs footsteps?
gMaybe I did,h replied Syaoran, staring up at the starry sky. gI think once, I did not know how to differentiate between edreamf and eduty.fh
gAnd now you do?h
gYeah. I think I do.h Syaoran smiled ruefully. gI envy those who can freely pursue their dream.h
gWho said you canft complete your duty and pursue your dreams as well?h said Sakura. gYou canft have everything, but it doesnft you have to give up everything either. Sometimes, therefs a strange balance that can be found.h
gLike this.h Sakura stared up at the night sky, hands folded behind her back. gI thought I would never see you again, but I did. I thought we could never talk to each other like friends again, but we are.h
He smiled, gazing at her. gI guess you are right.h
This past month has been like a blessing. Perhaps itfs make-believe, but does it matter? Time that I never thought I could spend with you, I am spending with you, morning, day and night. Itfs like a magic spell, and the person standing before me might only be an illusion. When the clock strikes midnight, everything will disappear. It might really be my last chance to see you. Though I canft stop time, I can stop the clock. So long as I donft say anything, the clock wonft strike midnight.
Even if my wish canft come true, I can continue on dreaming.
Part II: Moon wanesc
The distant cawing of crows sent a shiver down her spine. Autumn had given way to one of the last winters of the Edo feudal era, and the trees looked strangely naked and brittle in the morning mist. A woman dressed in the traditional white kimono and red hakama of a miko with a straw broom in her hand gazed at the space between the two spruce trees, as if she could almost see the girl with green eyes like Amamiya Hayashi. Her own eyes were a sad blue-gray like the sky. There was something about the way the corner of her lips curved into a sad smile as she looked up at the flakes of snow drifting down that reminded Sakura of Kai. Mizuki Mayura continued to sweep the snow off the temple path, wisps of auburn hair falling over her shoulder. She looked up again to find a deadly pale woman with long curls unwinding from her bun standing before her. gRisa!h Mayura exclaimed. gWhat are you doing here at this time?h Clutching her stomach, Chang Risa collapsed atop the temple steps, her violet-black hair spread out across the sheet of white blanketing the pavement.
hRisa, what is wrong?h Mayura dropped her broom and ran over to her friend. Her gray eyes widened in horror as she saw the crimson stain through Risafs saffron-colored kimono onto the snow like a carnelian blossom blooming. gRisa, youfre bleeding...h But she was levelheaded as usual and quickly wrapped a blanket around her friend and ushered her to a room.
Some moments later, Amamiya Hayashi showed up, disheveled like Mayura had never seen him before. gIs Risa here?h he asked, breathless.
gGood. Youfre here. Her condition is unstable,h said Mayura staidly, carrying out bloodstained bed sheets to wash. Her auburn hair was tied back away from her face and her white sleeves were folded up. gShe might lose the baby at this rate.h
gBaby?h asked Hayashi.
Mayurafs steel-gray eyes widened. gYou mean Risa hasnft told you yet? Itfs been four months already.h
gNo, she did not tell me.h Hayashifs eyes darkened. How could he have missed all the signs? He, of the Third Eye, had been so immersed in events far-off that he had missed out all the vital signals that could be visible to the plain eye, under his own roof. It was at that moment he had a premonition of everything falling apart. gHow is she? Can I see her?h
gShe wonft recognize you right now\she doesnft recognize any one\but you should go and stay by her side. She seemed greatly in shock from something.h
gI was with Shulin,h Hayashi said quietly.
gShefs back in Japan?h Mayura frowned. gYou did nothing to hurt Risa, did you?h
gI might have done an unforgivable thing. And we will all pay for it in the years to come,h Hayashi replied in a chill voice.
gOh Hayashi, how could you? Do you know how Risa was excited to be with your child? There is no one who loved you more than her.h
gI know.h Hayashifs shoulders were stooped. For the first time, Mayura wondered how much Hayashi of the Third Eye could see, and if he already knew the outcome of the downward spiral of the Great Five. And for the first time, she pitied him.
Tears of agony streamed down Chang Risafs face. Her stomach throbbed like a thousand knives stabbing her womb.
gHow are you Risa, are you feeling all right?h came that gentle lulling voice that she loved to hear. Or perhaps she was dreaming again. After all, why would Hayashi-sama be here?
Her voice came out in gasps. gI knew it was too good to be truec For Hayashi-sama to love me, it was not possible. I told myself not to be greedy, to watch him from afar. But I desired more. He told me he would protect me, that he would always stay with me. And I was so happy. Even if he did not love me, just to have him by my side. But it hurt. It still hurt when I realized he would never truly love me, not even in a hundred years. But itfs okay. Itfs all right. I have this baby. Our baby. He will love our baby even if he doesnft love me.h She gasped as a ripping pain shook through her body as she became aware of a hollow ache. Her hands clutched her stomach. gMy babych
A cool cloth wiped her forehead. Mayura said, gRisa, just rest now. You must gain your health back.h
gMy babyc Itfs not here anymorech Risa whispered, reaching out in front of her to the darkness.
gIfm sorry, Risa. It was a miscarriage,h said Mayura. gYour body is unstable\you must lie down and rest.h
gNoc Not my poor baby,h said Risa, tears streaming down her eyes. gHayashi-sama, forgive me.h She could sense that Hayashi was by her side. He always had the soothing presence of bamboos trees in the midst of a forest.
gRisa, your health is more important to me. There can be children in the future,h said Hayashi, clasping her emaciated cold hands. If she still had her vision, she would have been able to see the wetness glistening in his green eyes. But she was doomed to eternal darkness, where the only light in her life was Hayashifs kind voice and the warmth of his touch.
gNo, Hayashi-sama. I wonft be able toc It was our only chance,h Risa whispered. gMy baby, my little Hana, canft be gone. I wanted her to name her Hanako\she would have been beautiful as a flower. I was sure she would be a girl with a beautiful smile like Hayashi-samafs. You would have told her what color her eyes were and if her hair was golden-brown like yours. Or perhaps, dark like mine. h
gRisach Amamiya Hayashifs head sank into his hands, brows furrowed.
gIfm sorry, Hayashi-sama, Ifm sorry,h she whispered in haunting desperation.
gShhhc Risa, you must sleep now.h Mayura brushed away a lock of hair from Risafs face. gHayashi, can you bring another blanket? Wefve got to keep her warm.h
Fiery amber eyes fringed with long black lashes, lush scarlet lips and luminous skin; Li Shulin was a woman who looked like a painting come to life, whose beauty seemed to fade out all else that stood by her side even though today, her long black hair hung lank and her eyes were red-rimmed as if she had been crying. But Mayura did not have sympathy for this headstrong girl who had always been like a sister to her, a willful, temperamental younger sister who often acted brashly without thinking.
Shulin, eyes bloodshot, turned to Mayura. gItfs all my fault. I should never have come back.h Her cold fingers grasped Mayurafs arms with an iron grip. gHow is she? Is she doing better?h
gHer bodyfs always been so frail. Ifm worried for her,h replied Mayura shortly.
gIf I apologize to her\g
Steel gray eyes flashing, Mayura said, gShulin, donft you think youfve caused enough damage with your selfish whims? Youfre not a girl anymore. You canft do as you please and not think about the consequences. Go to Landon. He needs you. You should not be here.h
gRisafs going to be all right, isnft she? Hayashi will watch over her,h said Shulin, uncertainty and anxiety making her jittery and jerky.
Mayura was brutally curt with her. gI donft know. Her mental condition is not stable and shefs anemic from losing so much blood from the miscarriage.h
gShe wasc pregnant?h Shulin crumpled to her knees. gI had no idea. What have I done, Mayura?h
gHe did not know. She had not told him yet.h Mayura turned around. gHayashi will be back with the herbs any minute. You should leave now. Try and see if you can get in touch with Ruichi.h
gRuichi? Her condition is notcthat serious?h
gShe doesnft want to get better. She lost her baby. She refuses to eat and drink. She will die at this rate.h
gIt was unborn, unnamed. She can have more children in the future,h said Shulin. Her eyes darkened. Hayashifs children. Children she had thought she would bear one day. gThis is not the end.h
A frown came over Mayurafs brows. gI donft know. Her body was never meant to carry a child. Itfs a miracle she conceived in the first place\and after this, itfll be very hard for herch
gIfm a horrible person. For a second, I thought if she died, then I can be with Hayashi.h Shulin covered her face. gBut I love Risa too. We were all like sisters. I never meant to hurt her.h
gAnd she never meant to hurt you either,h Mayura said. gHe chose her, Shulin, not you. And you have to come to terms with that. You should never see Hayashi again. Youfre betrothed to Landon. Donft hurt him as well.h
When Mayura was seven, she had seen her mother die. A couple years ago, her father, priest of the Tsukimine Shrine, had fallen ill, and she had been by his side, nursing him till he drew his final breath. She knew death when she saw it. First there was anger and despair. Then, came the silent resignation of one who had lost the will to fight. She knew the signs very well as she nursed a rapidly declining Risa.
gYou canft tell onii-sama,h whispered Risa, gripping Mayurafs arm with frail, bony fingers. Cold perspiration formed on her brows. Her lips were cracked, and her white face emaciated. gHe will get mad. I donft want him to see me like this.h
gRisa, you need to eat and gain your strength,h said Mayura pleadingly. gRuichi will scold me if he sees how much weight you have lost.h
She pushed aside the bowl of porridge. gIfm not hungry.h
gPlease just one bite,h coaxed Mayura, holding up a spoon. gYoufre going to die at this rate!h
hI donft care.h
Tears blurred Mayurafs eyes. gWe care. You know how worried Hayashi has been? Hefs always here by your side when youfre sleepingcShulin has come too.h
gHe still loves her,h murmured Risa. gI was a fool not to see that. No. I always knew that he loved her and she loved him. But I was selfish. I thought that if I loved him enough, one day, he will return my feelings. Because nobody can love him more than I do. Not even her. Not even herch
gHe loves you now, Risa. He chose you. He is your husband.h Mayura closed her eyes. Free-spirited Hayashi as a husband. She could never imagine him as a married man, let alone be the first of them to settle into matrimony. But Hayashi was good to Risa. Hayashi was good to everyone. Perhaps that was his flaw.
gIfve been nothing but a burden to him from the beginning,h said Risa, opening pale golden eyes that did not see. She had not hesitated one moment when she stepped in front of the dark force that was about to attack Hayashi. When she had lost her vision, she thought about a life ahead of her without color, without light, and she thought she could die. But Hayashi-sama had been by her side. It was like a dream come true. He had been her eyes, her source of light and hope. He had been her arms and legs and taught her of warmth and tenderness she had not thought possible for someone as insignificant as her. gI know that. But was it wrong for me to seek for a little happiness? Oh, the past year has been so blissful. I never thought I could be so happy. I am grateful for that.h
gRisa, donft talk like that,h Mayura said, stroking Risafs damp hair. gThere are going to be many more happy years ahead of us. You and Hayashi will have many children. Landon and Shulin too\knowing those two, Ifm sure theyfll have a dashingly handsome son who will grow up to be a great heartbreaker. Maybe I will have children as well, a son or daughter or two. And our children will all be as great friends as we all are. Theyfll be the next generation of the Great Ones, youfll see.h
gOh, how I wish to see that,h Risa murmured with true yearning.
gYou will, someday,h whispered Mayura, clasping her dear friendfs hand.
But that day never did come. The rest of the story unfolded like a recurring nightmare that was hit on constant replay mode. Sakura could not wake up, and even if she did, she would awake to this same scene in an endless loop. It was the day when everything began and everything ended. One overcast winterfs night Chang Risa, clad in a white kimono, slipped out of the temple towards the mountain like she was in a trance. Gray clouds loomed overhead and it began to rain as she climbed up Mount Kumatori. Her bare feet left small imprints in the dirt path.
It was too late when the Amamiya Hayashi found the empty room back at the shrine. Hayashi ran up to the summit to find Risa standing dangerously near the edge. The wind whipped back her unbound violet-blue hair and she seemed other-earthly in her sheet-white robe, a woman who had finally given into the deafening chambers of utter despair. gCome back Risa! Itfs dangerous!h he called out.
gHayashi-sama, youfre here.h Risafs golden eyes were unclouded as if she could see him standing in front of her as clear as day. The tip of her heels dangled off the edge. gI thought I wouldnft be able to hear your voice one last time.h
gDonft be silly, Risa.h He held out his hand. gHere, come to me!h
gI was very happy while I was with you. I will always cherish that time. But I wonft be a burden to you anymore. I will join my baby now. My poor Hana-chan who never got to see daylight.h Her lips moved faintly. gGomennassai, Hayashi-samac Sayonarach The weight over her body tipped back.
gRISA!!!h He dashed forward frantically, throwing out his arm. gHold my hand, Risa!h
In that brief second where the tip of his fingers could almost brush against hers, she smiled at him calmly, as if she could see the tears flowing from his forest green eyes. And his outstretched hands grasped thin air as her body hurled headfirst over the edge of the cliff, dropping down to the deep abyss below. Amamiya Hayashi crumpled onto his knees. gRisach
A man in a navy kimono, with long blue-black hair tied up in a high ponytail, pushed forward and collapsed on the ground at the edge of the cliff, clenching his fingers into the dirt. He stared hollowly at the black chasm blow. He knelt over, beating his fist on the ground as he cried out, gRISA! NOOO!h
Almost afraid that Chang Ruichi might jump after his sister, Mayura placed a hand on his sleeve, as he screamed and howled his twinfs name over and over again, voice drowned out by the deafening roar of the rapids below. Pushing her away, Chang Ruichi sat up golden eyes dilated. He turned around and grabbed Hayashifs bare throat with muddy hands, face contorted in rage. gYou killed her. You killed Risa.h
Hayashi did not respond as the fingers clenched tighter.
gBring her back! Bring my sister back!h exclaimed Ruichi, shaking Hayashi. gBRING HER BACK!h
gRuichi\stop it!h exclaimed Mizuki Mayura, grabbing his arm. gPlease\let Risafs soul rest in peace now.h Her gray eyes glistened as she put a reassuring hand on Shulinfs shoulder. Li Shulin sat on her knees, paralyzed. Behind her, a tall man with long golden hair stood silently, watching over Shulin with sorrowful midnight eyes.
Ruichi was suddenly still, and a frantic expression came over his face. gWe can save her. With our powers combined, we can do anything. We have the powers to save her.h He stared up desperately at the four with his hungry golden eyes.
Slowly, Hayashi shook his head. gThere are things that even we canft do.h
gTherefs nothing impossible for us!h Chang Ruichi gave a short laugh as his long blue-black hair thrashed in the wind. A delirious look came over his face. gWe are the Great Five, arenft we?h
gRuichi, we canft,h Mayura said.
gWhy not?h Ruichi crumpled to his knees, sobbing into his hands like a broken child. His voice cracked. gBring back Risach
If she could have cried, Sakura would have cried out loud for Chang Risa and the unborn baby. But no tears fell. Only her chest ached as it was lit on fire and her eyeballs seemed to burn and smother till darkness engulfed her. Her heart was one with Chang Ruichi and she opened her parched mouth and screamed in fury, gRisa! Bring her back! Bring my sister back!h She screamed and screamed but nobody could hear her.
gWake up,h a curt voice commanded.
gDonft jump,h she gasped, and he knew she wasnft speaking to him. gIfm sorryc Ifm sorrych
A silver sheen of perspiration covered her forehead as she thrashed about in her bed. gItfs all right, Sakura. Itfs all right. Itfs not your fault. Itfs not anyonefs fault.h Her whole body shuddered and her voice was choked as her lips twisted in a silent scream of horror.
With a start, Sakura woke up to find a large hand covering her mouth. Her eyes widened. The birds were chirping outside and glimpses of sunlight seeped in through the cracks of the yellow curtains. Her pulse was racing, and she could still feel the icy wind and the dampness on her skin from the cliff side. The fingers trailed off her lips and she realized she was trembling hard, even as that same warm hand began to stroke her head in a familiar gesture. His voice that had woken her was scratchy but soothing. gItfs not your fault. There was nothing that could have been done.h
Drawing her blankets up to her chest, she squinted up at the profile silhouetted by the drawn curtains. gWho are you? Have I met you before? I remember those eyes.h
He stepped back from her, taken aback. Then, he realized that her eyes were glazed over as she was still dreaming. gDonft leave me. Please donft leave me.h Fresh tears flowed freely down her already damp cheeks.
gSakura, itfs me,h he said with a wavering voice. gYou can wake up now. Good girl.h
To his relief, she had snapped out of her trance-like state as she looked around her, then touched her cheeks as if surprised by its wetness. Quickly, she wiped her face with her pajama sleeves. She was fully awake and alert now as she stared in bewilderment at him. gWhat are you doing here? Donft come into a girlfs room without knocking!h
gI knocked. Five times.h
gYou were having a nightmare, werenft you?h he replied.
gWhat makes you think that?h Sakura realized that her breath gave her away. She throat was hoarse.
gYou were screaming.h
Sakura glanced over at her desk drawer. gNo I wasnft. Kero-chan would have heard and woken me up if I was.h
gI heard you. Loud and clear,h Syaoran insisted, arms crossed.
And Sakura looked up to get a proper look at Syaoran. His hair was mussed, and he looked strangely vulnerable in his rumpled green pajamas, as if he had awoken with a start. She glanced over at her alarm clock and with a sigh, dragged herself out of bed, grabbed her face towel and walked out of her room to take a morning shower since she was drenched in sweat.
For a while, Syaoran was silent after Sakura left the room. gDoes she do that often?h he asked.
Kero-chan hesitated. gYeah. She used to every night.h
gFor how long?h
gI donft know. It was on and off since last summer. Itfs been better lately.h
There was only one person he was fairly certain he could get a truthful answer from. Li Syaoran watched the girl with the long dark hair loosely tied over one shoulder with a yellow satin ribbon, calmly sipping a cup of Earl Grey in her parlor. gTea?h she asked.
He shook his head, to the point as always. gTomoyo, when exactly did you say Sakura lost her memories?h
gA little before summer break,h replied Daidouji Tomoyo. She had been wondering when he would muster up enough curiosity to come to her. gJune, to be exact, the day of the Seijou Cultural Fair.h
gDid something happen?h
Tomoyo set her teacup down and smoothed out the crinkles in her yellow and white checkered muslin skirt. gShe fainted inside the Fortune Tellerfs Tent. Rido-senpai was with her.h Tomoyo paused and looked up at Syaoran. gEron-kun took her to the infirmary. I myself wasnft there. But Yukito-san later told me that when he spoke to her that evening, she did not seem to remember who you were.h
Syaoran stared down at the floral print on the parlor carpet, still standing as he had declined Tomoyofs earlier offer to take a seat. gAnd Eron. Eron gave up Chang Ruichifs powers to be a part of Sakurafs circle. Hefs been by her side all these months.h
gYes he has.h Tomoyofs amethyst eyes seemed to pierce through him. gYou were not surprised when you learned Sakura-chan had lost her memories of you. In fact, you seemed almost relieved. Because you probably would not have carried out your tasks for the Li Clan the way you did if Sakura had remembered you.h
Syaoran could not meet her analytical gaze and continued to stare at the floor.
gI think you might have chosen a different course of action when you returned to Japan had she not forgotten about you. Or maybe Ifm mistaken.h
gYoufre right. I might have acted differently had the circumstances been different. But what is done is done.h
gI wonft ask you what your mission is or the reasons behind your actions up till now,h said Tomoyo. gAll I want to know is your true intentions.h
Because Syaoran did not respond, Tomoyo continued, gI spent summer vacation with Sakura\we shared a room. Every single night, she repeated the same words, as if she were having a recurring nightmare. But youfve been living with her all these weeks. You must have heard them too.h
gIfm pretty sure she must have learned through Kara-san the events that lead to the Great Fivefs demise. Though I donft understand the story completely, I get the gist of it, as it is my family history as well.h She paused with a frown. gI donft think Sakura in her heart could forgive Amamiya Hayashi-sama for his part in the destruction of the Circle of Five. She lost confidence in her cause, her very reason to fight. For she felt more sympathetic towards the Dark Onesf plight. I think if I were someone with as much compassion as Sakura, I too would despair were I to find out that the very enemy I have been fighting against might not be the villain but yet another victim. In her own way, forgetting you was the only way to pay for the sins of her ancestors.h
gWhy arenft you more condemnatory toward me?h asked Syaoran wearily. gTherefs no denying I did the things I did since Ifve come back.h
gTrue.h Her violet eyes were completely unreadable. gThat day in the mountains, when she almost fell off the cliff. I know you saved her.h
gHow do you\h Syaoran narrowed his eyes. Then again, Tomoyo always had an uncanny intuition.
gSakura said it. She said that you were there. She was under the influence of the Veil and Memory at that time, and since youfve given up your powers, she couldnft have sensed you. She didnft see your face nor hear your voice. But she still remembered you.h
He forced a short laughter. gIt could be a lapse of memory.h
Tomoyo gave him an oddly scrutinizing look. gI was the only one there and she told me. She told me that though she didnft sense your powers and she couldnft see your face, she knew it had to be you, that she would recognize you anywhere. I donft know what it is if you take every single one of your senses and even your memory away from a person, and still have that person recognize you. Your name and your face had been erased from her mind, but she still remembered your existence. I wonder why that is. Eriol-kun said itfs hard to break a habit. But I think differently. After all, you both came back from Memoria with your memory intact. How was that possible? If Sakura truly wanted to forget you, you would not have been able to return from there.h
Syaoran suddenly recalled something Kara had once said to him. gWhat an idiot you are. You think just because you have been deleted from her memory that your past existence as Li Syaoran has ceased to exist? A child unborn is still a child lost to a mother who miscarried. A love unrequited is still an emotion true and real to one in love. And a memory forgotten is still an event once experienced even though it has faded from the mind.h
gYou didnft go back to Hong Kong out of your own will,h said Tomoyo, almost imploringly, with no trace of her cool aloofness from earlier. gWhy canft you tell her that? You canft hide the fact that you gave up your powers for her. Shefs going to figure it out sooner or later.h
Syaoran looked at her with his sad amber eyes that always touched her sentimental soul, those same frank eyes that had looked into hers when he had been a boy, admitting the truth of his heart. Of course. Syaoran hadnft changed. He was still that same ten-year-old boy who had hesitated to tell his true feelings to Sakura because he was afraid she might become troubled by it. A little more gently, Tomoyo said, gAfter all, Sakura has been waiting. She has been waiting all this time for you to return, Syaoran-kun.h
gEven if that were true, shefs not anymore,h said Syaoran slowly. gI can assure that.h
Tomoyo only looked down into her teacup and sipped her now lukewarm tea.
Sakura stifled a big yawn in the middle of class.
gDidnft get much sleep?h asked Eron, his head positioned remarkably near her face during homeroom. gDonft tell me Syaoran-kun has been harassing you during nighttime.h
She jumped in her seat.
gYou have darks circles underneath your eyes.h Eron smiled thinly. gRemember, you promised things are going to be normal between us.h
She nodded. gR-right, Eron-kun.h How could he be so fine?
gSo, I heard you got a job at La Seine with dear Syaoran-kun.h Eron watched her with his glinting golden eyes.
gNot with him, per say,h Sakura said. gIt was coincidence.h
gAnd they say there is no such thing as coincidence. I wonder why out of all the jobs you could take did you choose one in the same place as him?h Eron remarked snidely, tilting his head towards Syaoran.
gIt has good pay, and the manager knew my brother, so I got it pretty easily,h said Sakura shortly.
gI donft want you to be with him at work as well.h
gWhy not?h asked Sakura wearily. She didnft need to point out that Eron was the one who had broken up with her in the first place.
gI just donft,h replied Eron. gIt irritates me that you live with him, go to school with him and that you even work with him. I guess living conditions and school, you canft change. But do seriously have to spend any more time with him than necessary?h
gThen what do you expect me to do? Change jobs?h
Sakura glared at him. gI canft; I just started to learn the routine.h
gQuit then. Why did you suddenly get a job anyway?h
gI need the extra money,h replied Sakura.
gThen get Syaoran to quit,h stated Eron.
gItfs not my place to suggest to him what he does. If it bothers you so much, well, why donft you work there too?h stated Sakura in exasperation.
Eron blinked as the idea sank into him. gFine, I will.h
Sakura gazed into Eronfs inscrutable face; she never knew when he was in jest or not.
Apparently he hadnft been in jest. Never in a thousand years could anyone have imagined Chang Eron to be wearing a black and white waiterfs uniform with a bowtie at his collar, serving. Sakura mopped the kitchen tiles, watching the waitresses fawn over Chang Eron. She had always thought that Eron never quite fit into a school setting. Eron, when he was not being a manipulative erudite, could be quite charming, and he looked very polished and refined in his white dress shirt, black vest, black bowtie and black trousers, his hair tied back by a slim black ribbon. Unlike his twin sister, he could read people easily, and knew how to flatter someone and manage to insult them at the same time while maintaining a certain amount of mystique in character. The manager personally was intimidated by Eron, but it was hard to come by such a good looking employee.
gWhat is he doing here?h grumbled Syaoran, pulverizing the onions to mush.
gIfm sorry\I didnft think hefd actually do it,h groaned Sakura as Eron flashed her a brilliant grin.
gHefs quite a find, isnft he,h the manager of La Seine remarked. gHis knowledge of wine is impressive\hefs starting as a server. Hefs quite a looker, that one. He can be a model with that bone structure. I heard youfre classmates. Are you friends with Chang-kun, Li-kun?h
Syaoran let out a rude snort and went on to attack the bell peppers.
By the end of the day, Sakura was eating her words. It was her suggestion that had prompted Eron to start working at La Seine, only she had never thought he would have taken it seriously. Strangely enough, Eron seemed to be mildly amused, sauntering around the tables with a wine bottle in hand, clean white napkin draped over his left hand like a pro sommelier. To him, it was play-acting. He walked up to a distinguished-looking middle-aged couple who asked his expertise on what to have with the entrée. gMadame, with your order of salmon, I would recommend this Pinot Noir from Burgundy which would counterbalance the richness of the fish with it fruity, robust flavor.h
With a lavish pop, Eron pulled the corkscrew and poured a taste for the lady. She swirled the red wine around the glass, sipped, then nodded to her husband. Eron proceeded to pour them each a glass expertly without spilling, without dripping. The couple seemed satisfied with the selection and smiled up at their handsome young waiter. gWhat a handsome boy,h they thought.
Over the course of the evening, Eron grew very popular with the customers. gSir, I would recommend with your steak this vintage Bourdeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, which we call the eKing of Red Wines,f and is suitable for such a refined gentleman as yourself.h
The stocky gentleman he was serving seemed very pleased with the selection, and nodded to his group of businessmen. And Sakura, arranging the bread baskets, looked up at slight awe at Eron, as if she was seeing him for the first time. She hadnft known that Eron was so knowledgeable about wines, though she knew that Eron kept a wine cellar at home. It wasnft right for a high schooler to know so much about wines, but then again, Eron always seemed to be more adult than his age. Not to be outdone by Eron, Syaoran also pranced around the floor balancing three trays at once, being very cordial and agreeable for a change.
gNot since Kinomoto-kun and Tsukishiro-kun did I have such good business,h said the manager happily. gChang-kun and Li-kun are going to be the next golden pair.h He cast a side glance at Sakura. gYoufre doing all right, Sakura-chan. The customers seem to like you, heaven knows why, since you always botch the orders and have two left feet. Are you really related to Kinomoto Touya by blood?h
gHoe.h Sakura hung her head. gIfll try harder, Manager.h
He chuckled and handed her a white envelope. gWell, herefs your first paycheck.h
And Sakura gripped the envelope, beaming. gThank you! Ifll continue to do my best!h
At 7:15 AM in the morning, Li Meilin went in search for Kai in his apartment as usual to wake him up for school. Though the apartment layout was exactly the same as Syaoranfs, Kai had completely redone the interior; the wallpaper was a shimmery black and the furniture a sleek black and titanium combination. None of the décor was to her taste, for while Syaoranfs place was homey and decorated in warm colors, Kaifs place reminded Meilin of a sci-fi maze. The living room was plain with a large black leather couch and an 82 inch flat screen TV. The overhead lights in the apartment were controlled by remote control and the kitchen was done in sleek black tiles, with little sign of use. She entered through Kaifs bedroom door, stepping onto the lush leopard print rug. To her surprise, his queen-size bed with black satin sheets was rumpled and empty. gWherefs Kai?h she asked Perro-chan.
gFollow me! Follow me!h replied the bird. The parrot flew towards Kaifs walk-in closet and passed the wall partitioned into rows holding shiny-polished black leather shoes. Meilin found herself staring into a ceiling-high full-length mirror. Perro-chan with his beak pushed aside a row of black cloaks then expertly punched in some code into a security lock embedded into the wall. With a click, the mirror swiveled open, and Meilin entered.
Just when she thought nothing about Mizuki Kai could surprise her anymore, the scene unfolded before her made her gasp. gWhat is this? Kaitou Magicianfs Batcave?h she murmured as she entered the hidden chamber that unveiled a CIA-inspired secret headquarters with three large flatscreen computer screens lined up in a row, and a larger projector screen above head on one end of the windowless room. Complex machinery with all sorts of dials and switches lined another wall, and she was afraid that she might bump into something. It was hard to believe that she was still within the same apartment complex in this strange futuristic chamber. She realized that the big black rotating chair in the center of the room was occupied. Legs crossed, Kai was bent over furiously typing something into the keyboard. Meilin glanced over to a black screen with green gridlines and red dots. Was he locating something?h
Kai was so deep in thought that he did not even bother to look up, though he must have heard her enter. He took out a map and fumbled for a pen. She picked up a red pen off the floor and handed to him. Without looking it up, he removed the pen cap with his teeth, and began scribbling something onto the map. Then, he glanced over to the computer screen on his far left. A series of binary codes flashed by. gShoot,h he mumbled under his breath and quickly typed in a code into the keyboard. For a while, Meilin watched Kai frown, chewing on the end of his pen. He was half-dressed in the Seijou Uniform, hung around his black-tie untied and barefoot and his hair was mussed as if he had been clutching it. Finally, he sat up straight and then began typing away again. A new series of grids popped up on the middle screen. She didnft make a sound, not wanting to interrupt, for it was rather awing to see this new side of Kai, the serious, hardworking side. Not Kaitou Magician or Tanaka Mikai but the Kai behind the walls, the mastermind Mizuki Kai. Quietly, she walked up to the huge bulletin board covering the other wall. She mustered a small smile. One end was plastered from top to bottom with articles on Kaitou Magician, new articles overlapping older ones. At times like this, there was no denying the shared blood between siblings. There was a very similar bulletin board in the Seijou Junior High journalism room\Miho was a very thorough researcher and collected news clippings in a similar fashion. But on this wall, there were floor plans and blueprints of dozens of the worldfs most famous museums, including a very detailed one of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, and maps, maps of cities, maps of subway lines, maps of sewerages and government buildings. Kaitou Magician was not a flamboyant, showoff. There was no magic or chance; he planned every move down to the last detail beforehand. She frowned as she reached the far end of the wall with his assumedly newest project. There were articles covering the assassination of Yamamoto Noburu, former oyabun of the Yamamoto-gumi, lists of names that were unfamiliar to her but sounded awfully like yakuza names.
gFound it,h he exclaimed abruptly, sitting up from his chair.
Clearing her throat to let him know she was there, she asked, gFound what?h
gIfm a genius,h he stated, cracking his knuckles. gWait till I get my hands on him.h
gWho?h she asked.
Kai nodded as he pointed to a sheet of paper on the wall. gThatfs right. All good reporters find the five Wfs, who, what, when, where and why.h He picked up a dart sitting next to his keyboard and flung it across the room at a large map of Tokyo. gAnd all good thieves must therefore thoroughly plan the how.h
She glanced around the room. gHas this hidden room always been here?h
gWho let you in? Perro-chan? Useless bird.h He glared at his parrot as he headed through the mirror-door.
gWhere are you going?h demanded Meilin. gWhat about school?h
gFollow me if you want to know,h replied Kai, grabbing a pair of designer shades as they passed through the walk-in closet. This time, curiosity got the better of her and she followed.
The Tokyo Racecourse, the largest track in the country, was bustling with trainers and jockeys preparing for the upcoming Japan Cup. Each trainer made sure the horses were in tiptop condition and the jockeys sized down each other, getting a sense of the competition. Even after all these years, Tamemura Asuma felt a bit giddy as he always did before a big race. Ignoring the bustling of people running about the stables, he curried his horse in his stall until Thunderboltfs coat gleamed a rich red-brown. It was a job for his apprentice, but Asuma liked the grooming process, the most intimate communication between rider and horse. Ever since he had lost Midnight Star two summers ago, he had been racing with Thunderbolt, so named because of a whitish zigzag marking his forehead, a beautiful red chestnut stallion who had brought him the Japanese Triple Crown title last year. Together, they rode on towards victory in the Melbourne Cup, Dubai World Cup and Prix de lfArc Triomphe. Most faces in the stables were familiar\usually the cream of the crop made it to the Japan Cup, one of the biggest racing events in the world with the second highest prize money next to the Dubai Cup. Hence it attracted many strong competitors. He saddled Thunderbolt and walked him to the tracks to warm up and saw that a couple of his jockey friends were gathered about the tracks. Though fierce competitors on the tracks, outside of it, they were comrades. Asuma too gazed towards what the other jockeys seemed to be mesmerized by. Down from the opposite end came an unidentified rider galloping on a beautiful white Arabian with great speed and grace. His breath stopped short, as it always did when he saw an exceptionally beautiful horse with an exceptionally coordinated rider.
Upon reaching the finish line, the rider swung off the Arabian and took off her helmet. Chin-length golden hair tumbled out. It was a woman. Female jockeys were still rare in Japan and his girlfriend Arima had been one of the rare female riders, not that it ever fazed her when she had been a junior league jockey.
Asuma walked up to the newcomer. gThatfs a beautiful horse youfve got there. A white Arabian?h
gYes. Hefs a beauty, isnft he?h replied the girl stroking her stallionfs silvery mane. gMorning Star is his name.h
gMorning Star.h Asuma stared at the horse quizzically, wondering why he felt so familiar. gYou must be new around here. I donft recognize your face.h He had been racing long enough to recognize most jockeys and their horses and point out the newcomers.
gYes. Ifm filling in for our ace racer, who was injured during the Hong Kong Vase last month,h replied the girl.
Asuma looked up and saw the checkered dark green and gold logo on her silks over functional white cotton breeches and sturdy brown boots. Jockeys wore the colors of their owners. Thunderboltfs owner was his father, Tamemura Akira, who had been a renowned jockey back in his days and now owned a joint venture racing track outside of Tokyo, and during races, he wore the sky blue and white of the Tamemura-Akagi Stables. gYoufre with the Li Group?h
gYeah. Our owner is Li Leiyun of the Li Horse Syndicate,h replied the girl with a curious smile.
gLic Leiyun?h repeated Asuma.
gDo you know him?h
gIc knew someone by that name once.h Asuma trailed off. gI forgot to introduce myself. Ifm\h
gI know who you are. Who doesnft? You are the pride of Japan, Tamemura Asuma, the Triple Crown world champion.h Her lavender eyes twinkled.
gYou flatter me,h said Asuma, shifting embarrasedly. gAnd what is your name?h
gI am honored someone as internationally renowned as you is showing interest in our rider. Her name is Kara Reed,h came a melodic male voice from behind them. A young man with blue eyes stepped out from the awning. gOur priced new jockey. Quite a find, actually. Isnft she a natural?h
For a second, Asuma looked up at the man in pristine white before his eyes widened in disbelief. gLeiyun?h It was Leiyun, but it was not Leiyun. His hair, once a rich brown was now a beautiful, snowy white and his eyes, too seemed to have lost the sparkling turquoise luster and was a cold ice blue. Like someone who hadnft seen sunlight in a long time. In contrast, Asumafs skin was permanently tanned from always being outdoors, and the tips of his tan brown hair had been bleached golden by the sunlight.
Li Leiyun looked up at him and smiled, his eyes reflecting the color of the sky. gAsuma. Itfs been a long time.h
gWhat are you doing here? How\h Asuma was at loss for words.
gWe first met in the stables in Hong Kong. You were riding on Uncle Fumafs tracks. Isnft it fitting that we meet again on the tracks?h said Leiyun.
gThey told me youcdied. All these yearsch Asuma found his voice caught in his throat.
gItfs a long story, but Ifm alive and doing well,h said Leiyun. gEither way, youfve made quite a name for yourself. You said you would when we were children. Youfve made your dream come true.h
Asuma was not interested in talking about their childhood dreams. gIf you were alive, why didnft you contact me earlier?h
gI didnft think an accomplished world champion like you would remember the likes of me,h said Leiyun with a thin smile.
gI still canft believe it,h said Asuma, blinking hard. gYoufre not a ghost, are you?h
Leiyun blinked. gWe flung horse manure at my Uncle Daifufs new Rolls Royce and rode off into the woods so that we wouldnft get in trouble and got lost until Wei came to fetch us. We broke into your fatherfs liquor cabinet and downed his best maotai and vomited it all back up behind the stables in junior high. We dressed up Syaoran in girlfs clothes and submitted it to a toddler modeling contest and used the prize money to buy our first por\h
gOkay, okay, it really is you,h said Asuma. He stared hard at Leiyun. Yes, this was the Leiyun he knew, the model student and son who played pranks and caused mischief every moment he could as if to get vengeance for the fact he was born a Li.
gGoodness, I was an awful influence on you back in the days,h stated Leiyun with a genuine smile.
gItfs good to have you back, friend,h said Asuma, choked, hugging his friend. gNow, you have to tell me how have you been and what are you doing herec God, itfs good to see you, Lei.h
There was never a quiet moment when dating an INTERPOL Most Wanted Criminal. Ever since the moment Meilin had met Kai, there was never any sort prediction where he might take her next. He kidnapped her in the springtime, collapsed into her bedroom after taking a bullet to the chest in the summer, took her racing on the back of his motorcycle in the fall and stole her heart in the wintertime. She couldnft believe it had only been two years since she first met Kaitou Magician. Now, she couldnft imagine a time when he had not been a part of her life. gWhere are we going?h she screamed at the top of her lungs as they raced down the highway on the back of his gleaming black motorcycle.
gFuchu!h He called out.
gBless you,h she said, burying her head in his sky blue uniform blazer and tightening her grip around his hard waist. Her own school necktie flapped back into her face and her skirt flew out immodestly; she would have changed into gym pants had Kai the decency to tell her they were going so far away.
gFuchu\itfs where the Tokyo Racecourse is,h he said, bending low and switching lanes. Cars honked at him.
gRacecourse?h Meilin had learned it was impossible to figure out what he was up to till she actually witnessed the act, so she just clung on for dear life. gDidnft you promise me youfll take me back to school in time for first period?h
gFirst period for me is lunchtime,h called out Kai over the roar of the engine.
While the Li Group owned a reputable stable back in Hong Kong, Meilin had never been too interested in racing even though her cousin Leiyun used to take Syaoran and her down to the stables every once in a while. The empty Tokyo Racecourse was immense, probably able to seat 15,000 people, in her estimation.
gWhat are we doing here?h Meilin asked, as Kai walked past the grandstand towards the tracks. And then, Meilin saw where his gaze was focus on. A rider with golden hair, without a helmet, raced down the course on a beautiful white horse. It almost seemed like she was sailing. There were many spectators whose eyes were all fixed on her. As they drew nearer, she recognized her. Then she gasped. gIsnft that Rido-senpai? Was she a jockey?h
Kai replied with a frown, clearly surprised himself, gNot that I was aware of.h
Her old irritation resurged. gDid you know she was going to be here? Is that why you came here?h
gThis changes everything,h muttered Kai to himself.
Meilin overheard the conversation of a group of men by the stands.
gWhatfs the Li Group up to, entering a no-name candidate out of the blue?h growled a man in a black suit and sunglasses. gBoss, what are you going to do? Should we investigate?h
gShefs gorgeous,h said the tall man in a blue kimono, with a bamboo shinai strapped at his waist. A passerby bowed down deeply to the man in the blue kimono before scurrying away.
gOyabun, thatfs not the issue here. Itfs suspicious. Why didnft the Black Dragon warn us about the change in jockey and horse? It changes how we organize the lot on the day of the race,h said a second man in the black suit.
A third man bent over and whispered, gOyabun, a suspicious guy in sunglasses is lurking around the tracks. Should we catch him?h
gGo ahead,h said the man in the blue kimono, attention focused on the beautiful blonde rider.
The two men jumped over the railings and cried out, gYou, what are you doing around here? Who are you with?h Without giving them a chance to answer, they charged forward.
Out of instinct, Meilin leapt out and knocked both men over with a swift double roundhouse kick. Her skirt and pigtails flailed out behind her as she swept down in style, landing on her knee and declared, gIsnft it basic courtesy to state who you are before attacking first!h
And Kai clapped from the sidelines, exclaiming, gThatfs my Meilin-chan. Amazing! Marvelous!h
Their young boss finally looked down to see what the commotion was about and saw his men sprawled on the ground. gWhat are you two idiots doing?h He stared at Meilin and Kai.
Meilin blinked and tugged Kaifs arm. gKai, isnft that\h
A man in the blue kimono with hair a flaming orange tied back into a high ponytail, looked up at her. A couple weeks ago, Sakura and Kara Reed had been kidnapped by the second largest yakuza gang in Japan, the Minato-gumi, headed by a man called Minato Abe. Consequently, Meilin and the rest of the crew had been caught up in the middle of yakuza warfare between the Minato-gumi and the Yamamoto-gumi regarding the succession of the next mafia leader in Japan after the death of former boss, Yamamoto Noburu. Yamamoto-gumi had come out victorious with young Taoka Yoshinori as the new oyabun of the Yamamoto-gumi. Though Meilin had only caught glimpse of him before, he was recognizable anywhere. To her surprise, the orange-haired man strode towards them, squinting his slanted eyes. gKai-aniki?h
gKai-aniki?h repeated Meilin, blinking back and forth between the two.
gIt is you. Itfs Kai-aniki, isnft it? I thought it might be you last time at the warehouse, but it was so hectic with the takeover of Minato-gumi and the succession ceremony.h Taoka Yoshinori peered at Mizuki Kai carefully. gYou remember me, donft you?h
gTaoka.h Kai looked around nervously. gItfd be a good idea if you donft associate with good old commoners like me.h
gWhatfre you talking about?h The Orange Tiger slapped Kai on the back as if they were longtime friends. gUs on this side of the business need to stick together, yfknow. I almost didnft recognize you for a moment. Why are you wearing a school uniform? Disguise?h He chuckled. gOr are you just a very old student? Leon-oyaji was always harping on us about finishing school. As if he wasnft a middle school dropout himself.h
Kai looked even more uncomfortable than before.
gAnd who is this pretty schoolgirl with the amazing kick?h Taoka eyed Meilin curiously. gGirlfriend? You still get around, donft you Kai-aniki. Ifm impressed.h
Kai shifted uncomfortably. gI have no idea what youfre talking about.h
gI always thought you went for the glamorous older type,h continued the blabbermouth yakuza.
gShut up, Taoka,h said Kai in a dangerously low tone.
gSo whatfs your special technique getting the girls? I took Leon-oyajifs advise\remember how he used to say itfs all in the hair?h Taoka swung his bright orange-dyed mane and sighed.
With an ironic smile, Kai said, gThat geezer was too vain for his own good.h
gI miss the old man.h Taoka Yoshinori looked genuinely remorseful. gHe was a good sort. Always barking without the bite. He liked giving us youngsters a hard time but he was always looking out for us.h
gYeah.h Kai looked up at Taoka. gHe was.h
Taoka asked, gStill going around as Kaitou Magician? Rumor around the block is that you got caught by INTERPOL or something.h
gI bet Leon-oyaji will roar out in laughter if he hears that Ifve become oyabun of Yamamoto-gumi. He used to always call me a brainless bumbling fool and swear at me in English. Well, he always called you a pathetic, weaseling pretty-boy. And look at you. Youfve become an international celebrity.h Taoka paused, eying Mizuki Kai. gShould you be out in the open daylight like this? Isnft the Tokyo Metropolitan Police still after you?h
gSame goes to you,h said Kai. gAt least they donft know my real face or identity.h
Taoka shrugged. gMy former master came to a deal with the police. Theyfre not going to give us real trouble. Let me know if youfre ever in a pinch. I can at least get you out of life-sentence if youfre ever caught.h
gItfs all right, Ifm retired from the business,h said Mizuki Kai.
gThatfs a pity. Youfre the best thief Ifve ever met. Even better than Leon-oyaji,h Taoka said. gWell, youfve always been smart, so I guess you know what youfre doing.h
Kai frowned. gBy the way, why the heck did you let go of Minato Abe?h
The yakuza boss looked into Kaifs eyes. gIt was my first decision as head of the yakuza. I could punish him and show everyone that my rule would be ironfisted and people would fear me. Or I could pardon him and show that I will be fair and willing to give second chances. And people might look down on me. Or they might see me as someone who will see justice done.h
gI swear, you were born in the wrong generation. What kind of yakuza goes by a feudal samurai code of honor?h Kai sighed. gHow did someone as thickheaded as you get picked as you get picked as the head of the Yamamoto-gumi?h
gI donft know. Because of my dashing looks?h said Taoka, hands on his chin, before laughing out loud.
Kai could see Taokafs boastful nature hadnft changed at all. gYou should keep an eye on Minato Abe. Hefs up to no good.h
gI know. Ifm waiting for an excuse to banish him from the Kanto area all together,h said Taoka, orange eyes wickedly gleaming. gI couldnft risk alienating Minato-gumi under him by punishing him for rising up against the Yamamoto-gumi last time. But if I catch him in unauthorized embezzlement or manipulation of the Japan Cup betting levy, then that will give me ample ground to eliminate him. Right now, I donft know which of my men I can trust, which clans will honor their alliance with the Yamamoto-gumi, which ones will secretly turn on me behind my back. I need to establish myself before corner my enemies. For that, I need to be observant and vigilant.h
Those had been Leon Reedfs words. Be observant and vigilant when you are in enemy terrain. Kai realized that Taoka was a much more able boss than he had anticipated. A different sort than Jinyu, all together. But perhaps, hefd make it. gThat rider on the white horse. Shefs Kara Reed.h
gNot the Kara that Leon-oyaji would never stop talking about?h Taoka Yoshinorifs eyes widened. He whistled. gI see the resemblance.h
gYou better keep an eye on her.h Kai paused. gAnd if I were you, I wouldnft trust Li Jinyu or any of the Lifs too much.h
Taoka grinned. gJinyu-aniki is awesome, isnft he?h He shot a look at Meilin. gYou know, nee-san, you look remarkably like the Black Dragon, now that I think of it, and something about your kick reminds me of the Hong Kong triadsf style. Are you mafia as well?h
Meilin scowled and was about to voice her outrage when a man in a black suit interrupted. gOyabun, the car is ready. Wefve got to get going.h
gSee you around, Kai-aniki, Mafia-nee-chan.h said Taoka Yoshinori, seventh oyabun of the Yamamoto-gumi, newly appointed leader of the Japanese Yakuza. His underlings followed him, sending glares of awe at Meilin.
After the flashy orange-haired yakuza boss left, Meilin raised an eyebrow. gKai-aniki?h
gWhat, so I pretended I was a bit older back in the days,h mumbled Kai.
gHefs a head taller than you. Isnft that guy in his mid-twenties?h
gHe should be around Sakurafs brotherfs age,h said Kai. gI think. We all lie about our ages in this business.h
gAnd I guess he hasnft heard Jinyufs real age either?h
gWell, Jinyu looks old,h replied Kai.
Stifling a giggle, Meilin asked, gDoesnft he know that Jinyufs claim to fame is being the youngest Dragon King of the Hong Kong triads?h
gPerhaps he thinks Li Jinyu became the boss at age 18 ten years ago.h Knowing Taoka, he probably did. gAll he knows is how to fight. Thatfs probably why the Hong Kong triads supported him becoming the oyabun\hefs not the scheming complex type. But I wonft be surprised if sheer brawn and determination carries him far. Being yakuza isnft easy if you get carried too much along into the politics of things. Hefs the type to take no nonsense and go by gut instinct.h
gYou seem to know him very well.h
gVagrants and runaways and those on the other side of law. We end up bonding because we have no one else.h Kai paused. gLeon-san was a reputable thief\it was natural for him to have many ties to the yakuza world. The old boss of the Yamamoto-gumi, Yamamoto Noboru, was somewhat of a philanthropist. When Leon-san was a young boy who had just arrived in Tokyo, Yamomoto Noboru helped him out quite a bit. Of course, Leon-san has returned the favor many times over. Yamamoto Noboru also took in Taoka who was an orphan and raised him to be second-in-command. But Taoka was a rebellious sort, and whenever he ran away from the training, Leon-san kept an eye on him.h
Somehow, this boy in the high school uniform standing beside her once lead a lifestyle that she could not picture. gYou made the mafia sound really scary when you spoke to Miho-chan last time,h said Meilin wryly. gWhen theyfre all your buddies.h
gDonft get me wrong,h said Kai, turning to look at Meilin. gThey are dangerous and bad people. They will kill those who get in their way and cheat those who they want to cheat. Taokafs mafia. In his lifetime, he will do evil deeds. Itfs their way of living. But, that doesnft necessarily make him an evil person. Leon-san was what you would call an honorable thief. He stole from only those who are rich and fraudulent, cowardly thieves as we call them. He was generous to the poor and needy. I also never stole from anyone who couldnft afford to be stolen from. But I never disillusioned myself into saying that it was okay to steal, envisioning Kaitou Magician as some sort of modern Robin Hood. What I did was a crime, and I was ready to serve time if I was caught. If I was shot, it was justice served because I was a criminal. But I wasnft. Maybe you would think me crazy, but I got an adrenalin high from that risk. Itfs why people are ready to gamble. Only if there is something high at stake is the win even more thrilling. If you want to take a gamble, then youfve got to be willing to make sacrifices should you lose. All in or all out.h
Meilin looked up at Kai, hands folded across her chest. gI think you forget who I am. I trained in martial arts. Fighting is my hobby, for heavenfs sake. Give me some credit here. Itfs not like I completely donft understand.h
gI know, youfre the crazier one dating someone like me.h Kai grinned, leaning over and watching the wild stallions stampeded down the tracks, racing against each other.
gWho else would have the patience to tame a crazy colt like you?h said Meilin, her black hair whipping back as the horses galloped past. It was true. Choosing to be with Kai was the biggest gamble she had ever taken in her life. Every minute was like balancing on one foot at the edge of a cliff. And even at the risk of falling off, she continued balancing, because it was more fun than standing at the base of the mountain, looking up, wondering what was up at the peak.
The corner of his eyes crinkled. gWell, letfs get going if we want to get back for last period.h
gDid you find who you were looking for?h she asked\she had yet to figure out what Kaifs purpose in coming here was.
gBetter.h Kai stared at the racecourse grimly. gI found the why, where, what and when.h
Perplexed, Meilin asked, gYoufre not planning on stealing something again, are you?h
gNo, silly. If I was planning on stealing, I wouldnft be wearing my school uniform,h said Kai.
He had a point.
gSwindlers, blackmailers, gamblers and extorters are all some sort of thieves. What better to stop a thief than the supreme King of Thieves,h replied Kai.
gLofty title you give yourself,h Meilin said, squinting at Kaifs handsome sunlit face.
gAnd you are my Queen of Justice,h said Kai, bending over and planting a kiss on the tip of her fingers.
Saturday evenings were always the busiest nights at the restaurant, and via word-of-mouth, rumors rapidly spread that La Seine had the best-looking waiters, hence reservations were completely booked out.
gOh dear,h muttered Chang Eron, hurriedly returning into the restaurant kitchen.
gWhatfs wrong, Eron-kun?h Sakura asked, straightening her black skirt.
gI think I just saw a group of our classmates walk into the restroom,h he replied, quite pallid.
gGreat,h mumbled Syaoran\they had dealt with a group of giggling Seijou seniors just the previous evening. gJust hope they donft sit in my assigned tables.h
To his greatest chagrin, Eron was assigned the table of five. Fellow classmates Tomoyo, Kai, Meilin and Eriol, plus Miho found it hilarious that Sakura, Syaoran and Eron were working together and had made a group reservation. gMy treat,h stated Eriol with an evil chuckle.
gOh my gosh, Eron-senpai is actually working here!h squealed Miho. It was the first time seeing her brother since he had left house. She was dressed in a no-nonsense navy blouse and gray wool jumper and eyed Kai in a shiny black suit with a sheer black shirt underneath, silver hoops and crosses dangling from his earlobes. gDid you forget to wear a shirt?h she demanded.
Meilin giggled\she had the same conversation with Kai before leaving their apartment.
Unfazed, Kai replied, gI heard you missed me, sister dear? I need to finish up some business and Ifll be back home in not time.h
gLike Ifve missed you.h Miho scowled. gItfs so nice and quiet at home without you\donft bother coming back at all!h
Tomoyo expertly diverted the conversation, holding up her camcorder and exclaiming, gSakura-chan looks adorable in black and white!h She silently thought the uniform would look even cuter with cat ears.
If Kai was hurt, he disguised it by stating, gWell, so when do we get to see Syao-kun in a waiterfs uniform? So, who wants to be the annoying customer who drops a fork every five minutes?h
gSyaoran!h Meilin called out halfway across the restaurant as Syaoran emerged with a tray of dishes. gYou look so handsome as a waiter! Just like my favorite penguin doll.h She quickly snapped with her cellphone camera blackmail photos that she was going to send to Syaoranfs sisters. Their table was drawing many glances from the other diners in the restaurant.
gMaybe I should work here too. I look most magnificent in a bowtie,h stated Kai loudly.
Meilin raised an eyebrow. gCan you really work at an hourly wage of 800 yen?h She knew for a fact that Kai had been selling computer software to some US company for some crazy sum of dollars that she could barely count the zeros in for some years\that was his main source of income, not stealing jewels. In fact, sometimes she wondered why he bothered to come to school when he could make a living off of programming.
To everyone surprise, Miho spoke up. gOnii-chan used to work at the convenience store for minimum wage back when our family went bankrupt. He lied about his age and he worked multiple jobs to support Mother and me. He used to bring back the leftover bento from the store to eat for dinner. I used to think it was the most delicious thing ever. Well, I guess anythingfs better than my momfs nonexistent cooking skills.h
Somehow, none of them could picture the flamboyant Mizuki Kai working at a convenience store, and Kai changed the subject. gWell, I guess we should start off with ordering drinks.h He waved his hand. gWaiter!h
gYes?h Eron said crossly, arms akimbo.
gI want to order a glass of Dom Perignon and club soda with a slice of lime on the side on the rocks,h stated Kai.
gMay I see your ID please?h said Eron with a pleasant smile. gThatfll be club soda for you.h
Kai frowned and Meilin stated, gI want to order melon cream soda!h Tomoyo, Eriol and Miho all chimed in their orders, changing their minds every five seconds.
gArenft you going to write it down?h asked Tomoyo kindly. gItfs a lot to remember.h
With a deep frown, Eron recited off glibly, gThat will be club soda with a slice of lime on the side on the rocks, melon cream soda without the melon and ice water on the side, royal milk tea with exactly one cube of ice, triple decaf espresso with two cubes of sugar and 2% skim milk, heated, and freshly squeezed orange juice without the pulp.h
gMaybe I want lemonade after all,h stated Miho for the fifth time.
gHow about I bring you both orange juice and lemonade?h Eron said with a tight smile.
gOh, I didnft see the option for fresh pineapple juice!h exclaimed Miho. gIfll change that to pineapple juice.h
Before Miho could change her mind again Eron walked off to put in the order, fuming. And this was just the drinks\they havenft even gotten to the main course yet. Sakura felt sorry for Eron because even though they were her friends, she knew that specific group seated at Eriolfs table could be very relentless if they wanted to be.
gWaiter, I dropped my fork. I need another one,h said Miho to Eron when he came back with the main courses some time later\it had taken the table at least fifteen minutes to order, and Eron was at his patiencefs end. He obliged and slammed a fork down on the table.
Kai grinned. gCan I get some more butter for the bread?h
gIfd like some more water,h said Meilin.
gAnother order of the sautéed spinach please, theyfre delectable,h Eriol added.
gWhere is Sakura-chan?h lamented Tomoyo, searching around for Sakura in her cute white apron over black skirt.
Eron stormed back into the kitchen and slammed his tray into Syaoranfs chest. gYou take over that table. I refuse to serve them.h
Syaoran blinked. gI have my hands full over here. Thatfs your table.h If he had been any less polite, he might have gloated, gSucks to be you.h
Sensing the sparks that were sizzling, Sakura intervened between the hot-blooded twosome. gHoe! Ifll do it!h She wiped the blob of tomato sauce on Eronfs sleeve with the tip of her apron. gPoor Eron-kun. You look absolutely haggard. Go take a break.h
Eron gazed at his reflection off the back of a spoon. gI think I just aged ten years tonight.h
Sakura chuckled and with her laden tray, hurried out to her friendsf table. gSpinach for Eriol-kun. Butter for Kai-kun.h She refilled everyonefs glasses with ice water and Tomoyo videotaped in delight.
Hiding in the kitchen, Eron clapped his hands together when Sakura returned. gWow, youfre really good at this. Ifm impressed. I thought you were a hopelessly clueless dunce.h
gThank you,h said Sakura. She could never tell if Eronfs compliments were actually insults or not.
gItfs almost worth working in this smelly place to see how cute you look in your uniform,h stated Eron.
Sakura blushed to the tip of her ears.
gIf youfre going to sit around, go mop the floor,h said Syaoran, thrusting the mop at Eron. gSomeone spilled coke and its starting to get sticky.h
gI refuse,h stated Eron.
Syaoran gaped at him, and the fellow waiters could swear he could see electric beams sparking from the boyfs eyes. Controlling his temper, Syaoran said, gAs you can see, itfs full house tonight. Why donft you go out and serve the other tables then, since you got Sakura to take over your table.h
gWhy should I slave away when my popularity is undeniable,h said Eron with a careless shrug. He casually reached into his pocket and took out a wad of cash. gLook at all the tip left by the customers.h
The other waiters ogled the cash.
gWell, someone left me a 10000 yen tip,h stated Syaoran, pulling out the note from his apron pocket as evidence.
gHoe!h said Sakura, staring between the wads of cash held up by Eron and Syaoran, more than she had seen at one time. gI never received any tip.h
gCharity-case,h muttered Eron under his breath as he shoved past Syaoran with a superior smile.
gConceited rattail,h retorted Syaoran, glaring at the back of Eronfs head, with his hair that slinked around like the tail of a rat tied in a black ribbon.
gOh, why is it so delightful to watch Syaoran-kun getting jealous?h sighed Kai, wolfing down his apple pie as he watched Eron and Syaoran enter the dining area, shoving each other. Sakura followed behind them looking very apologetic to all the diners around them.
Sipping on her third glass of cream soda, Meilin remarked extra loudly because Syaoran was waiting on the table next to theirs, gStrange, isnft it; Sakura-chan looks more like shefs going out with Eron-kun now than when they were actually dating.h
gBefore, Eron-senpai was trying too hard. They both were. Now theyfre natural with each other and that took away the artificial aspect of their relationship,h shrewd Miho stated, scooping up her orange meringue but dropping it on the tablecloth. She snickered, gSyaoran-senpai has had a dark cloud over his head all evening long.h
Tomoyo held up her video camera in rapture. gTruthfully, Ifve been hoping for a Syaoran versus Eron Showdown Part Deux.h
gI thought youfre a Syaoran-senpai shipper?h remarked Miho.
gI am. And therefs nothing as fun to watch as Syaoran-kun getting jealous,h replied Tomoyo, eyes twinkling. gHe hasnft displayed this much jealousy since Eriol-kun transferred to our school in fifth grade.h
gAh, those were the days,h said Eriol with a distant look in his eyes. gAdorable Syaoran with a red face racing off into the other direction, stammering, stumbling, making a fool out of himself.h
gHe used to be such a cute boy,h sighed Tomoyo.
gSo gullible and innocent,h added Eriol. They clinked their glasses of nonalcoholic champagne together.
It took about a week for Chang Eron to grow bored with the job. Tossing the mop to the floor and taking a seat, legs crossed, he demanded, gDisgusting! Why do I have to do something so degrading like serving all those egotistical gluttons and cleaning up this pigsty?h
gWhy did you even take this job?h demanded Syaoran in frustration, picking up the mop and setting straight the dishes that Eron knocked over. Syaoran normally had not patience for slackers, and because it was Eron in question, he was all the more irritated.
gTo see what the big deal was,h replied Eron. gIfm obviously not cut out for this life.h
gThen quit!h Syaoran had just about enough of Eronfs consistent whining and snide remarks.
gAnd leave you and Sakura alone?h
gWefre working, not playing. Besides, youfre the one who broke up with her.h
gIndeed.h Eron had a lazy smile as if he found Syaoran amusing.
gThen why should you still care that I am working with her? I can assure itfs not by choice.h
gWhy should I not care?h replied Eron. gItfs what I do.h
gYoufre not her boyfriend. What she does isnft your business.h
gItfs not your business either,h pointed out Eron.
Syaoran paused, since Eron had a point. gIf you were going to quit after a week, why did you even start working here?
gI didnft know it would be so bothersome.h
gYou donft have much drive for anything, do you?h Syaoran said. His brows twitched in annoyance\Chang Eron exemplified all the principles he absolutely despised. gItfs been bothering me for some time. You always seem to follow what ever I do, and frankly, itfs annoying. Is there anything that you personally enjoy?h Soccer, violin, journalism, the school musical\Eron always seemed to jump at any chance to compete with him, and Syaoran had enough of Chang Eron.
gYoufre right, I have a short attention span,h Eron replied with a careless shrug. gEverything you did, I felt no need to follow through once I proved that I could do it too.h
gIs that why you dated Sakura?h asked Syaoran through gritted teeth. gTo prove a point to me?h
Syaoranfs voice was now a dangerously low growl. gThen why did you break up with her?h
gOnce I took her away from you, I got bored. Simple as that. You think I actually loved her or something silly as that?h Eron laughed shortly.
Syaoran lunged at him, knocking aside a pile of stacked dishes which came crashing down the floor with a clatter. gTo think that I entrusted her in your hands. Ifm the imbecile, I suppose.h
Pinned against the table, Eron stared up at Syaoran, feeling the grip on his collar tighten. Only lately had he begun to surmise how much Syaoran had been holding back all these months. In terms of powers, Eron knew he could crush Syaoran easily. Yet he wouldnft. He wanted Syaoran to destroy himself on his own. Syaoran was like a wild beast unleashed. If Syaoran could learn to tame that beast within him, he will one day become invulnerable. If he lost to that beast, then he would be reduced to a savage, soulless killing-machine. gWhy arenft you hitting me?h
gIfm not going to hit you,h said Syaoran releasing him. gYoufre not worth my fist.h
gCowardh he hissed. gI realized that the best way to destroy you is to let you do so by yourself. Ifm not going to give you the satisfaction of proving to Sakura that she was wrong about me. If you disgrace yourself in her eyes, it would be your own doing, not mine. If she scorns you and rejects you, itfs because of your own shortcomings. I donft have to date her to influence her. I am satisfied that I have already left my imprint on her. She will never return to return to being your Sakura.h
gWhat are you saying?h asked Syaoran, hands shaking as he stared at Eronfs calm face.
gShe may not be mine. But Sakura will never be yours, either. Ifm content with that.h
gShe is her own, not for someone to possess,h said Syaoran.
gIsnft love about possession?h Eron said. gMarriage. Itfs a contract of possession of another being. Rings, little trinkets, theyfre a statement of possession over another person.h
gIs that truly what all this was about to you?h Syaoran stared at Eron.
gWhy donft you tell her? I gave up my life for you, so you belong to me.h Eron smirked. gOr are you afraid that will make her feel obligated to you? Or are you just too much of a gentleman to use that power over her?h
gDonft you dare ever mention that to her,h Syaoran said in a low, rumbling voice.
Eron laughed out loud. gGod, donft tell me you still havenft realized? Donft you know the reason\h
The two were interrupted by footsteps. gWhat are you two doing here?h
Syaoran staggered back as he glanced up. gManager!h
The manager gaped at the shattered plates and hollered, gWhat happened in here, Li-kun, Chang-kun? The broken dishes will be docked from both your wages!h
For the past several days, Sakura had been tailing Syaoran, looking for a chance opportunity to look through his belongings. Sakurafs eyes flitted over to the menfs locker room in the back of the restaurant. It was empty at the moment. She walked over to Syaoranfs locker. Looking back to see if anybody was around, she took out his uniform blazer and checked both pockets. Her fingers brushed against something, definitely not the necklace. She drew it out. It was a frayed green ribbon.
gWhat are you doing skulking around like some pervert?h asked Eron with a smile. He had crept up right next to her and was poking his nose into Syaoranfs book bag.
gGah! Donft scare me like that, Eron-kun.h Sakura sighed in relief that it was not Syaoran and stuffed the blazer back into the locker.
Eron snorted. gIfm not the one creeping around the menfs locker room.h
gShhhc keep your voice down,h Sakura said, dragging Eron down with her as somebody walked by outside.
gWhy donft you tell him what you told me?h He mimicked her mockingly. geBecause they are still my precious memories.fh
Sakura glared at him, partly aggravated that he so clearly figured out what she was looking for. How had he even known?
gIs there something wrong with me when I think you look prettiest when you are glaring at me like that?h said Eron.
gDonft tease.h She had finally learned to get used to Eronfs style of joking\compliments verging insults and a strange morbidity that was his idea of dark humor. Sakura snatched away Syaoranfs gym bag from Eron and slammed it into the locker.
gHe carries it on him all the time. Unless youfre wishing to grope his rear end, since he keeps it in his left back pocket, then I doubt youfre going to retrieve it. You can always walk in on him while showering if youfre up for it.h
gHow do you know where he keeps it?h Sakura demanded.
His lips curled into a thin smile. gEven broken, that stone emanates all sorts of old powers.h
gI didnft notice,h said Sakura.
gItfs probably harder for you to sense it because itfs sort of like an extension of you, having borne it for over two years,h remarked Eron. gItfs like you canft smell your own body odor because itfs a part of you.h
At this, Sakura almost laughed. gYou and your smelling analogies.h Eron had once made an uncomfortable remark about how she and Syaoran smelled similar which had puzzled her.
gSyaoranfs hair smells of strawberries and cream today,h remarked Eron. gYour house must have changed shampoos recently.h
gYou know, thatfs remarkably creepy?h said Sakura.
gWhy?h Eron leaned over and caught the end of her hair. gHis hair smells like your hair because you two use the same shampoo. I like sniffing it in the boysf locker room during soccer practice. Itfs the only thing that smells good.h
Sakura raised an eyebrow. gYou realize you just shattered the aristocratic image you had built up for yourself over the past two and a half years overnight?h
gWell, donft go around telling anybody that I go around sniffing Syao-kunfs head else they think Ifm a part of the Syao-chan vs. Eriol-kun vs. Kai-kun love triangle.h
At this, Sakura laughed out loud. Eronfs golden eyes twinkled.
gWhat are you two doing in the locker room together?h demanded Syaoran from the doorway, arms akimbo.
gWhat do you think wefre doing?h asked Eron still holding the tips of Sakurafs hair. gDonft you know how to knock?h
gEron-kun!h exclaimed Sakura, flushing a deep pink.
Adding fuel to fire, Eron whispered under his breath so that only Sakura could hear it, gSniffing Syaoran-samafs precious sweat-soaked gym shirt.h
She couldnft help it. She giggled.
Syaoran grew more aggravated by the minute at the sight of Chang Eron and Sakura crouched in the corner of some dark locker room, laughing about some inside joke that he wasnft a part of. In front of his locker. He turned around and stomped off noisily, upsetting the manager who had been balancing a tray of cleanly polished stemware who called out after him, gWatch it, Li! Do you want to pay for these also?h
As strange as it sounded, Sakura was closer to Eron now that she was no longer going out with him than ever when she was his girlfriend. Now that they were no longer dating, he no longer tried to flatter her nor cater to her whims; he returned to his caustic, disdainful airs. Except, she used to think he was conceited and egotistical but she came to appreciate that he possessed a dry sense of humor and knew how to laugh at himself. She had sometimes thought it when they had volunteered at the hospital but there was something very dependable about Eron. He was consistent in his inconsistency. Though he complained, he adamantly completed all his given tasks. At school, he was always in the top five, never breaking the pattern over the span of two and a half years except when he was out sick last spring. Today, he insisted on walking her home because Syaoran was stuck with kitchen prep per request of Chef Nobuhiro. They walked along the barren cherry blossom lane. When they had been dating, Sakura had always been nervous being alone with him and filled the silence with senseless chatter, probably boring him to tears. She realized that sometimes, he too liked to just walk in silence and watch his surroundings, that she didnft have to try so hard because Eron knew when she was nervous and when she felt uncomfortable.
gEron-kun, what happened with you and Li-kun the other day? The manager was furious the whole day,h said Sakura. A month ago, it was something she wouldnft have been comfortable asking him.
gWe were discussing you,h said Eron quite frankly.
gIt seems hefs angry I broke up with you. Ironic, isnft it? Hefs the one who gave his blessings in the first place, you know. He told me to make you happy.h Eron paused. gBut were you happy with me?h
Sakura blinked slowly. Syaoran had said something like that to Eron? Why? gOf course I was.h
gI see.h The tree branches swayed as a gust of wind blasted from the west. Eron didnft seem to feel the cold, but Sakura drew her coat closer around her chest. gHey, Sakura, did you know my favorite flowers are cherry blossoms?h
gI thought they were roses.h
gRoses are common. They are thorny and vain flowers.h He turned to her, wisps of hair fanning out behind him like the trails of a brush dipped in violet. gThe cherry blossoms bloom for only one week of the year. The sun, the wind, the rain all jealousy shorten the blossomsf already short lifespan. Perhaps the brevity of its lifespan makes it all the more beautiful.h
gPerhaps,h conceded Sakura. She always felt a little sad when the pink petals carpeted the roads, as lovely as they were, because the branches looked bare and lonely without its billowing rose-hued brilliance.
gDo you know when cherry blossoms are most beautiful?h asked Eron, staring up the starry sky. gYozakura, the night sakura. The Japanese enjoy watching the cherry blossoms in the nighttime because in the night, illuminated by the still moonlight, it reaches the peak of its beauty. The moon does not scorch like the sun nor drench like the rain nor blow away the cherry blossoms like the wind. It just shines quietly from the distance, and lets the sakura blossoms bloom to its fullest.h
Two years ago, if somebody told her she would be walking down this road, appreciating the beauty of cherry blossoms with Chang Eron, she would have laughed. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine the cherry blossoms covering the bare branches along the road, glowing fairy-pink under the pale moonlight. gI think you are right,h she said.
He remarked, gYou promised me to take me to the hanami festival this year because I missed it last year.h
gWe can still go,h said Sakura. gLast yearfs cherry blossom season was over before it began. Ifm sure this year would be even more beautiful to make up for it.h
gYoufve got to learn how to keep from making promises you donft mean to keep,h said Eron with a twinge of sarcasm in his voice as if to remind her that they had broken up.
gIfm going to keep my promise. Wefll go to the hanami together this year,h Sakura said. gWith Tomoyo-chan, Meilin-chan, Kai-kun, Miho-chan and everybody. It would be a lot of fun. Tomoyo-chanfs motherfs company has developed a new portable karaoke mike. Ifll sing a song for you. Youfre going to have to sing too.h
Eron stopped suddenly, standing in front of a lamppost, his eyes like golden half-moons in the dark. He didnft bother asking her if everybody included Li Syaoran. gSakura, if I asked for another shot, will you go out with me again? If I told you I will keep my promise and be patient and always love you, will you give me another chance?h
Sakurafs cheeks were flushed and she stammered for words. gWellc Ich She paused coming to a realization. gDonft joke around with me like that.h
He looked at her wistfully. gI liked you, Sakura, because you were an honest, well-meaning person. I never meant to change that.h
gWhat do you mean?h asked Sakura, her throat tightening as she sensed he had not been joking after all.
His voice had become low and quiet. gWith me, you become dishonest. Youfve learned to lie and deceive others and yourself. You no longer radiate that light which drew me to you in the first place. Itfs like my darkness has overwhelmed you.h
gNo, thatfs not true,h Sakura stated, shaking her head.
gIt is,h Eron stated with a note of resentment. gDonft you get it? I took advantage of you when you were most vulnerable. I made you go out with me when you had lost your memory of Li Syaoran. I knew it was unfair to you, but I did it anyway.h
gNo you didnft, Eron-kun. I went out with you because I wanted to. When you asked me, I was truly happy.h
gBut that doesnft change the fact, would you have gone out with me had you retained your memories of him?h
gEron-kun, did you set the Memory on me?h Sakura asked in a steady voice.
gOddly enough, no.h He ruminated for a second. gI probably would have, were I given the opportunity, if the dark forces were still under my regime.h
gSee, I chose to forget him. Likewise, you didnft force me to date you. I chose you as my boyfriend because I wanted to get to know you better.h
gI lied to you. I was jealous of him. I was afraid he was going to take you away.h His eyes were averted. gAt the autumn school trip, at the cliff side, it wasnft me who saved.h
gI knew that already,h Sakura said with a small smile. gBut were you not the one who carried me back to the cabin and stayed with me till I woke up again?h
gAnd in the Fantasy, he was the one who went to bring you back from Memoria.h Eron frowned. gI was too much of a coward to enter in myself, knowing I might not be able to come out again.h
gI heard from Tomoyo. You were the one who went to find him. You asked him to save me,h Sakura said.
A deep frown creased his forehead. gStop it. Stop trying to excuse me. There are many more things I am not telling you, because if I do, Ifm afraid that you might truly come to scorn me. I can go on\The Plague\Syaoran having to leave in the first place, itfs all my fault. Itfs me who sabotaged your relationship with him. If it werenft for me, that person might be where I am standing right now.h He broke off. gGo on, say it. Say that you abhor me. That I disappointed you.h
Sakura blinked up at Eron. gIf you are trying to make me hate you, I wonft. You are an important person to me, so I will always care for you, now and in the future too.h
He signed in relent. As he expected, she was unyielding. gWhich is one thing that still puzzles me. Why did you agree to date me in the first place? I was completely expecting you to say no. At that point, you didnft particularly trust me or even, I daresay, like me particularly much.h
gI do trust you and care for you,h said Sakura.
gOddly enough, I do believe that now,h said Eron. gSometimes, I regret not setting myself a longer time span. Lucky for you, Ifm not that patient.h
Sakura smiled. gWell, Ifm glad I am enough for the both of us. I like having Eron-kun around.h
Now, he was genuinely puzzled. gWhy do you trust me?h
gBecause Eron-kun, you were always by my side,h she replied. gIf it werenft for you, I donft think I would be walking and smiling and laughing like I am today, ever since Subaru-chan passed away.h
gHe died because of me,h said Eron, a dark look washing over his face. gBecause I was not strong enough to hold back the Plague.h
Sakura shook her head. gHe was dying from cancer long before the Plague came along. There was nothing we could do. I have inherited my motherfs second sight and saw the mark of death on him for a long time and I continued to deny that. It took me a long time to come to terms with that, but it was thanks to you that I did.h
gI should have been the one that died with the Plague,h murmured Eron moribund, saying out loud the thought that had haunted him over the past year.
She said gently, gYou too were a victim of the Plague, and you almost died trying to fight it. And I am so glad that you are alive.h
And a morose yet calm look came over his face. What ever ill thoughts he had been having seeped away like the morning dew evaporating into the sky at daybreak. gWhy do you\why did it have to be you?h For the first time since he was a child, he felt something clench his throat. It was difficult to speak and his voice came out uneven. gYour open heart and kindness, your sincerity and innocence is what drew me to you. When I am with you, I get a sense that even someone as wretched as I could seek salvation.h
gEron-kunch Sakura felt a change had come over him, an inner glow which she had never sensed before, a blazing brightness that must be his aura.
gHence, I was so afraid that I would taint you, that I would be the one to rob you of your wings. And I was right. I do not like the person you become when you are with me.h Eron looked her straight in the eye as if he had nothing to hide from her anymore. gThat is the real reason I broke up with you. Because I want you to fly free to the person that will make you truly shine.h
The smile that she rewarded him filled him with the same, iridescent warmth you feel when you open your eyes and find the bluest sky peeping through a shower of sakura petals. She said, gThank you, Eron-kun.h
gWhyc are you thanking me?h said Eron in a choked voice.
gBecause I just felt like thanking you. For being you.h Sakura looked up at him with her evergreen eyes. gDo you know, Eron-kun, I always found it odd that you called yourself a eDark One.f h
gYou didnft realize?h asked Sakura, pulling him out of the shadows into the starlit path. gYour power, the power you gained on your own, itfs not the power of darkness anymore. Itfs the power of light, a brighter light than anyone around you.h
Chang Erika found it ridiculously humorous that her self-obsessed twin had found part-time employment and made no efforts to conceal her amusement. gThis is delicious,h she said, tasting the baumkuchen that Eron had packed from the restaurant. gSyaoran really is a good cook.h
gOw, my back hurts,h groaned Eron, cracking his neck.
gI still donft understand why you would take on such a demeaning job,h remarked Erika, leaning back on the sofa with her cake plate.
gYou reek, Eron,h chimed in a third voice.
gMy hair smells like scallion,h lamented Eron, sniffing the ends of his ponytail. gAnd some dunce had the nerve to spill orange juice on my Italian Vero Cuoio shoes today.h
Erika rolled her eyes. As if his shoes were the issue. gWhy did you take on a job? Just to be with her?h
gNo, to mop the floor and do the dishes,h he snapped.
gGeez, youfre touchy,h said Erika, stretching out her newly pedicured toes. gOne would think youfre the one who got dumped the way you are clinging at her heels. Itfs unsightly.h
gI donft understand,h Eron stated, his laugh truncated. gI all but told her how I manipulated her into dating me. She would never have thought about dating me if she remembered how she felt about Li Syaoran. But she brushed it all off. Instead, she thanked me. Can you believe it? She thanked me for staying by her side. When all I had been doing was thinking of ways to contaminate Li Syaoranfs reputation and keep him from approaching her.h
gYou sound loony,h Erika said.
gIfm not. Or maybe I am.h Eron wrangled his hands. gI donft know anymore.h
gAnd I thought you were supposed to be the brains of the family.h Erika rolled her eyes. gThough they say lunacy does run in our blood. Then again, Ifd go crazy if I dated someone like her as well. Shefs a bit dense, if you havenft noticed after two months of dating Princess Cherry Blossom.h
gNo, shefs not. She can read people and buries all her sorrows within her because she doesnft want to trouble others.h Eron laughed. gAll this while I had been looking down on her, I was never even a match for her.h
gYou did the right thing, Eron.h
But Erika was not in the mood to listen to her brotherfs love woes, especially when the girl in question was the dimwitted Kinomoto Sakura. But she owed Eron since he had been so supportive when she broke up with Mike Kant, and it wasnft like she didnft somewhat understand what her brother was going through. gWhy did you break up with her in the first place when you spend more time with her now than when you were dating?h Erika scraped the last crumb off her plate and smacked her lips in satisfaction. gI have a belief that breakups need to be clean and final to avoid ambiguities.h
He looked up at her with a whimsical smile. gBecause if I stayed with her, I knew I would destroy her, but if I stayed away from her, I would destroy myself.h
And Erikafs golden-hazel eyes were filled with compassion. gFoolish onii-chan. You really did love her after all, didnft you?h
Part III: Lost Forever
Even from a distance, Akagi Arima could recognize Tamemura Asumafs form racing down the track. Now that the Japan Cup was less than a week away, jockeys were practicing diligently, though careful not to strain the horsefs muscles. In contrast, Asuma sailed down the tracks on Thunderbolt with a natural speed that put him in a league of his own. Maybe some years ago, she might have been able to beat him in a race or two. But now, there would be no competition. The most riding she had done over the past two years was some riding action for a feudal film.
gSo you are the lovely Akagi Arima-san.h
Arima jumped a bit, before spinning around to face a man with blue eyes and silver hair. Something about his visage was vaguely familiar, but she knew she had never met him before. gDo I know you?h she asked stiltedly.
gI am a great fan of your works, especially your recent portrayal as Kaguya-hime,h he said. gYou are even more radiant in person.h
Narrowing her eyes, Arima asked, gPardon me, but do I know you?h
gLi Leiyun is my name.h Leiyun smiled.
That name rang a familiar bell. gYoufre Asumafs friend.h
gI am flattered that such a rising starlet as yourself knows the likes of me,h remarked Leiyun. gI have heard a lot about you from Asuma back in our days in Hong Kong.h
gHe had the longest one-sided crush on you.h Leiyunfs eyes sparkled turquoise. gHe composed many a confession letter that he tore up after we endlessly made fun of it.h
Wait, how could this man be Li Leiyun? gBut Ifm confused. I heard\I mean, I was under the understanding thatch
gDead people should stay dead?h Leiyun smiled. gI agree with you. Dead people cannot come back to life, no matter how hard they try. Hence, I guess I must be alive. Itfs too bad, isnft it? There are far more living who deserve to die than dead to deserved to have died.h
Arima stared at Leiyun; there was something cacophonic about the slippery glib voice and flickering pupils.
gWhatfs worse is those stuck in a limbo. Not dead nor alive,h said Leiyun. gLike that vampire movie you starred in a couple years ago. That was your best piece to date, I would say, portraying the vampire Rosalind, condemned to eternal damnation for trying to save the life of her loved one.h
gYoufre certainly must be a movie-guru. That was one of my earlier indie films that didnft get much recognition,h remarked Arima.
gI told you I was a fan,h said Leiyun with a smile. gYou know, your little brother looks remarkably like you.h
gYou know Aki?h He was starting to creep her out; she had a stalker or two in the past and had developed a heightened sense of suspicion of everybody. Was this really Li Leiyun?
gHefs a student at the place I work.h
gYoufre a teacher at Seijou High?h asked Arima. Maybe she had been overreacting.
gIfm the school doctor,h replied Leiyun. gIf I were you, I would be concerned about the group of friends he associates with. Hefs got a bright future ahead of him. But if he meddles with the wrong crowd. Bam. Hefs going to get drawn into a big mess, one he could have avoided.h
gIfm sorry but itfs none of my business who my little brother hangs out with,h stated Arima sharply, turning around and slipping on a large hat to hide her face.
gArenft you going to say hi to Asuma?h Leiyun asked, tilting his head towards the tracks.
gItfs all right. I was just dropping by because I had a press conference nearby,h said Arima, pulling her hat low over her head and hurrying away from this disturbing man who claimed to be Li Leiyun.
gHey, Aki,h said Arima, looking up from the kitchen TV. She was watching the racing channel curled up on the wooden stool and crunching on carrot sticks.
gOnee-san. What are you doing home? I thought youfre finishing up shooting in Hokkaido,h said her teenage brother, Akagi Aki, setting down his Seijou Basketball Team duffel bag. His sister might be a top-star actress to the public, but when she was home, she wore baggy track clothes from high school and tied her hair back in a messy knot\the public was sorely deceived if they thought the actress Akagi Arima lead some super glamorous lifestyle.
gI had some business in Tokyo,h replied Arima vaguely. gBy the way, do you have a new school doctor?h
Aki rummaged through the cabinet and produced a bag of potato chips. gYeah, we do. Hefs new this semester. Supposedly hefs from Hong Kong or some place, though his Japanese is fluent.h
gWhatfs he like?h She shook her head when her brother offered her chips.
gLi Leiyun-sensei?h Aki glanced at his older sister, who he hadnft seen for two months. gHefs popular with the girls, I suppose. He can be considered good-looking, though personally, I think therefs something off with him. There are rumors that hefs related to Li Syaoran\they look really similar. I told you that Li-kun transferred into our class, right? Eitoukou-betrayer.h
gHow are Sakura-chan and Syaoran-kun doing?h asked Arima with a wry smile.
gI donft know. Sakura-chan got dumped by Eron-kun, it seems, and therefs been a constant murderous vibe in our classroom, itfs quite stressful,h said Aki. He was a happy-go-lucky type of guy, and he didnft like watching his classmate distressed because that made Tomoyo worried. gAnyway, why are you suddenly asking about Li-sensei?h
gHmm. Nothing important,h replied Arima. gRemember Asumafs best friend in Hong Kong?h
Aki frowned. gThe one that died?h
gWell, he didnft really die, it turned out. Hefs your current school doctor,h said Arima.
gEh, how did that happen?h Aki asked, bug-eyed.
gI donft know. Hefs Syaoran-kunfs cousin.h Arima chewed on her dry carrots, eying the bag of potato chips jealously.
gI knew they were related,h Aki stated.
Arimafs cell phone bell rang. She glanced it and silenced the call.
gWas that Asuma-aniki?h
Aki couldnft contain himself anymore and burst out, gWhy are you ignoring his calls? Didnft you come back to see Asuma-aniki?h
Slowly, Arima turned and blinked at Aki. gNo, I didnft.h
gThe Japan Cup is a week away. Arenft you going to go cheer on him?h
Arima crossed her arms. gI need to go back to Hokkaido to finish up the shoot.h
gYou havenft seen him for months. Itfs not just any race\itfs the Japan Cup\hefd be waiting for you.h
gNo, he wonft be,h replied Arima shortly.
gThen the rumors are true? Youfre engaged to your co-star Himura Takuya?h Aki demanded.
gDonft you think Ifd tell you if Ifm engaged to someone?h Arima replied crossly. gI swear, why do people believe that garbage?h
gBut the photos in the tabloids\h
gItfs true, Takuya-san and I are good friends. But we have a working relationship, thatfs all.h Arima frowned.
gThen you need to explain things to Asuma-aniki,h said Aki. gWhy wonft you answer his calls? He contacted me, saying that you wonft return his calls or emails, and he was worried something happened to you. It looks like youfre avoiding him!h
gI am avoiding him,h Arima replied curtly.
Aki dropped the bag of potato chips he was eating out of. gWhy?h
gAki, youfve never been in a relationship, have you? When you become an adult, there are responsibilities that you need to carry out.h Arima tossed her half-chewed carrot back into the plate and sat up.
Her younger brother mumbled under his breath, gLike youfre that much older than me.h
Week nights were a little less crowded at the restaurant, though Syaoran almost preferred when it was completely busy, because then he wouldnft have to watch Eron and Sakura endlessly whispering to each other behind the kitchen counters. It was bad enough seeing them together at school all day, let alone in the evenings as well. And he did not like the way that Sakura looked up at Eron with an enigmatic smile, as if the two shared some sort of secret together. He walked over to the new customer and asked, gMay I take your order please?h
The man in a dashing pinstripe navy suit sitting alone in the corner seat set down his menu. Syaoran immediately recognized the tanned skin and the longish mussed tan-brown hair. gAsuma-san!h
gSyaoran-kun!h Asuma exclaimed, eying the boyfs uniform. gYoufre working here? How have you been doing? I heard you were back from Hong Kong. I canft believe you didnft even contact me once.h
gYoufve been abroad for months,h pointed out Syaoran. gCongratulations on winning the Prix de lfArc Triomphe.h
gThanks.h Asuma let out a long sigh. gTraveling is fun but itfs been so long since I came back to Japan.h
gYoufre here for the Japan Cup?h Syaoran asked.
gYeah. Itfs been a while since Ifve competed in home terrain. Wait.h Asuma fumbled in his pocket and produced special VIP tickets. gYou have to come, all right? Bring your friends. Special box seats.h
gIfll definitely go,h Syaoran said, setting down the pitcher to put the passes into his trouser pocket.
gI met Leiyun the other day.h
Syaoran managed to reply, gI see.h
gI guess miracles do happen. All these years, and I never knew he was alive.h
gNone of us did.h
Asuma looked up at Syaoran. gItfs strange. I was glad to see him, and he seemed the same... Yet he wasnft. Itfs like Leiyun is not like Leiyun anymore.h
Syaoran knew exactly what Asuma was saying and stared at the ground. gYou heard how he was sent on a mission seven years ago.h
gRight. I was back in Japan then in high school. He wrote me a letter telling me vaguely about it. I think he too had an ill premonition about the mission even then. Then, I heard from your sister Feimei about what happened.h Asuma paused, grim. gSo he wasnft dead? Or was the Clan mistaken?h
gSeven years ago, when he was sixteen, he was sent on a mission, a deadly mission.h Syaoran hesitated for continuing, gThe Clan thought he had demised.h
gBut he somehow survived,h murmured Asuma, sipping on his glass of water. He had learned years ago to not ask too deeply about the internal affairs of the Li Clan. gWell, I always thought Lei was a tough one. He wouldnft die that easily.h
gI should have known that. I should have known he wouldnft be defeated so easily,h said Syaoran.
gYou were just a kid. What could you have done?h said Asuma.
gLi-kun, your orders are waiting, whatfs taking you so long?h stated Sakura, walking with a tray laden with five entrée dishes. Then she recognized the man sitting in the table for two. gAsuma-san!h
gSakura-chan!h You work here too?h Asumafs turquoise eyes flitted between Sakura and Syaoran. Hadnft the two been on first-name basis before? gSakura-chan, you have to come to my race next Saturday, all right? I gave Syaoran the tickets to special front-row seats.h
Syaoran cleared his throat when he saw the manager eying him. He had been standing around talking with Asuma for a good ten minutes and the other tables were impatiently waiting for him to bring about the water. gAre you alone today, or will you have company?h
gIfm meeting Arima,h said Asuma. gShefs running a little late, I guess. Shefs been acting strange lately. Figures. Itfs tough doing long distance. We havenft seen each other since last year.h
gArima-san is always busy. I saw Arima-san a couple weeks ago at the Vogue Nippon Reception,h Sakura said.
gAh, I saw your Vogue Nippon spread in the summer with Arima,h stated Asuma. gYou were adorable. Are you going to follow your motherfs footsteps?h
gHoe. Arima-san just took me along to that photo shoot.h Sakura blushed. gI had no clue what I was doing.h
gThough Ifm not much of an expert, it was a beautiful photo shoot, the best Ifve ever seen,h said Asuma. gRight, Syaoran-kun?h
gHuh?h Syaoran turned red as well. gR-right. The jewelry was nice.h
Sakura glanced at Syaoran out of the corner of her eyes. gDid you see the magazine as well?h
And Syaoran knew he had been driven into a hole. gWell, sort of. My sisters buy all sorts of Japanese fashion magazines. It was coincidence.h
gI didnft know they sell Japanese magazines in Hong Kong,h remarked Sakura.
gLet me guess. Did Fanren and Jingmei force you to translate all the love quizzes and dating advice columns?h asked Asuma with a chuckle.
gSomething like that,h mumbled Syaoran, unable to meet Sakurafs eyes. gJingmeifs in Japan, you know. She works in the same hospital as Kinomoto-san and Tsukishiro-san.h
gReally? Did your whole family decide to emigrate to Japan?h Asuma chuckled. gDonft tell me Fanren and Feimei and the rest are here as well.h
gThank goodness, no,h said Syaoran, shuddering.
Sakura had forgotten that Asuma had spent several years in Hong Kong and had been close with Syaoranfs sisters and cousins. It was strange hearing Syaoran talk of his family normally. Thatfs right, though there were the complications with the Li Clan succession and council of the Great Elders, there were also the cousins and relatives that Syaoran had grown up with; they were his family and shared his childhood. She did not like thinking of Syaoranfs life back in Hong Kong, his other life. gYou must have missed Arima-san a lot,h Sakura said to Asuma.
Asuma glanced at the pair questioningly; he had not missed the awkward tension between the two. Something about Sakura and Syaoran had changed too. Somehow, Asuma could figure the past year had been tough on two of them as well. gYeah. I came to a realization while I was sitting alone in the hotel room in Paris.h He glanced over to the other diners and then leaned over and said in a hushed voice to the two, gIfm going to propose to her tonight.h
gHOE!h Sakura squealed, blushing happily. gReally?h
gShhhch Asuma grinned from ear to ear. gIfm crazy about her, and I canft live without her. Why put off the inevitable? Itfs totally impromptu. I should have prepared a better event, but itfs so hard for both of us to meet up. I picked up a ring from a boutique in Paris. Itfs in my pocket right now.h He flicked open the jewelry case to reveal a beautiful 4 carat heart-cut diamond encrusted with smaller diamonds.
gWow, congratulations!h exclaimed Syaoran and Sakura in unison. Then they glared at each other, as if comparing which one of them was happier for the couple. After all, each of them felt a little bit entitled to boasting rights as matchmaker of the Arima/Asuma union.
gItfs beautiful!h Sakura said. gArima-san will surely love it.h
gDo you think so?h Asuma blushed to his ears. gI donft know much about these things, but when I saw this ring, I knew it would be perfect for her.h
Eron came balancing two trays and told them, gYou two better get in the kitchen before the chef throws a fit.h He saw a glamorous woman with tawny curls peeping out of a scarf wrapped around her head. She stepped towards the quiet corner where Asuma was sitting. Eron took her fur coat and pushed back the seat for her.
Asumafs face lighted up. He quickly hid the jewelry case in his pocket. gArima!h
gSorry Ifm late. The mall signing event went over time.h Arima took off her sunglasses. gDid you wait a lot? You should have started without me.h
gI just got here,h said Asuma. gWhy havenft you been picking up my calls? You knew I was back in Japan.h
gSorry, itfs been so hectic with my new movie promotions that it completely slipped from my mind that the Japan Cupfs coming up,h Arima said, sipping on the glass of house wine.
gThe one with Himura Takuya?h
gThis is your third movie with him. Youfd think there would be more competent male actors to go around,h Asuma mumbled under his breath.
gYou know wefre from the same agency,h said Arima tiredly.
Asuma realized he made a mistake. gWell, take a look at the menu. I donft know about you, but Ifm famished. You look like you lost weight.h
gIfm on a salad diet,h said Arima as she glanced over the scrumptious entrées listed in the menu.
gThey still have your favorite banana pudding pie,h said Asuma.
gYoufre right. They do. Maybe I can break the diet for one night. I havenft been here in ages,h said Arima with a slight nostalgic smile as she gazed around. gKinomoto-kun and Tsukishiro-kun used to waiter here.h
gI brought you here on our first official date,h Asuma reminded.
gDid you? What did we eat?h
gSirloin steak with mushrooms and seared tuna nicoise salad,h said Asuma. gAnd five different desserts.h
gAnd yet, you could never remember the lines to our school play,h Arima remarked with a small chuckle.
He cleared his throat before he lost his nerve. gArima, this past year has been really hard for us. We couldnft spend much time together. And when we did, we were always tired. But\h He reached into his left trouser pocket.
gAsuma, thatfs why I said we should meet today. I didnft want to talk to you over the phone, so I took a break and came down to Tokyo,h said Arima.
Arima had lost him. He looked at her beautiful red lips and saw them moving.
gI donft think we should see each other anymore.h
It took a moment for the words the register in his mind. Finally, he realized what she had just said. gWhy?h demanded Asuma. gIs it your agency again? Theyfre opposed to you being in a relationship?h
gNo, itfs not them. Itfs my decision. Ifm tired of this. Letfs end it,h said Arima, staring at her plate.
As expected, his green-blue eyes sparking up in anger. gWhy are you saying this now? Is it true? Do you have another man?h
gItfs not that.h Arima looked up at her long-time friend and lover. gWe canft be together. My schedule for the next three years is packed with filming. If I take on the Bond Girl project, Ifm going to be abroad for a good year and a half. Youfre in your prime as a horse racer\youfre going to be traveling. The chances that we will be even in the same country at the same time is next to zero.h
gIt doesnft matter. Therefs Christmas, New Yearfs, the weekends, every little time in between, Ifll fly to where ever you are.h
gDonft you get it, Asuma?h Sudden tears filled Arima. gItfs me. I canft do it anymore? I canft stand this uncertainty of not knowing when Ifll see you next. Itfs draining. I canft concentrate on my acting. And acting is my first priority.h
gI donft get it. What more can I do? Your work is important, my work is important. But wefve managed till now, havenft we? Do you want me to quit racing then? Ifll quit then, if it means I can be there with you.h Asuma was shouting now, and he didnft care if the other diners were looking their way.
gNo, I donft want you to quit!h exclaimed Arima. gDo what you want to do, and Ifll do what I set out to do. Wefll go our separate paths, as wefre supposed to. Itfs something I foresaw back when I first chose acting over racing.h
gYou reallyc want to end things?h His voice was broken. gThe rumors are true, arenft they? Youere seeing Himura.h
Out of anybody, she thought Asuma would believe her. gDo you seriously believe that of me?h
gIfm not blind. I saw the pictures. I get asked questions all the time from acquaintances, reporters, even my own mother. I told them I believe you. But Ifve got to hear from you in person. Are you in love with someone else?h
Her coffee brown eyes were defiant. gAnd if I am?h
gIf you are, Ifll let you go,h said Asuma. gIfm not going to hold you back.h
Arima was not a born actress for no reason. The tears that were welling up from her heart were held back, and she lifted up her head. gItfs true. Ifm in love with Takuya-san. I see him every day, and I was lonely. He has been a great comfort to me. Ifm sorry I couldnft tell you before. I didnft want to hurt you.h
gI see.h Asuma managed to smile tightly, but he wasnft a very good actor. gWell, I wish you the best then. I guess this is goodbye.h He set down cash on the table and grabbed his overcoat, leaving the restaurant.
After he left, Arima crumpled over the table and wept. Luckily, the booth was partitioned off from the rest of the dining area; it was a popular seat especially for engagements.
From the kitchen counters Sakura whispered to Syaoran, gWhy did Asuma-san just leave? Wasnft he proposing to Arima-sanh
gI donft know,h replied Syaoran, trying to peek through the pillar.
Sakura pushed him away. gArima-san is crying. What just happened?h
gGo,h said Syaoran, nudging her forward.
gWhat am I going to say?h
Eron handed Sakura a stack of napkins. gLooks like shefll be needing this.h
Timidly, Sakura walked up to Arima, who looked lovely even though tears were pouring down her cheeks.
gSakura-chan? What are you doing here? Did you pick up that habit from your brother, always popping up as a part-timer at random stores and restaurants?h sniffled Arima, hands covering her face. gDo I look awful? Is my mascara running? I hope therefs no press here. I can just see it in the headlines tomorrow. eActress Akagi Arima dumped in public.f Though I guess Ifm the one that broke things off with him.h
After a while, Arima calmed down and checked her face in her compact. By the time she left the restaurant, it looked like she had not cried at all. Sakura had to admire the skills of a professional.
Akagi Aki wandered into the classroom, looking unusually morose. gWhy do couples have to break up?h he asked the girls quite rhetorically.
If he didnft look so worried, Tomoyo might have laughed. gDid something happen?h
gIfm worried for onee-san. She broke up with Asuma-san out of the blue,h Aki replied. gAnd she wailed all night long as if she was possessed. I couldnft sleep a wink\shefd make a wonderful vengeful ghost in a movie.h
gDo you have an idea why she would break up with him?h Tomoyo asked.
gI donft know,h replied Aki. gThere was that scandal in the tabloids. They had a big fight over Christmas and the two have drifted apart the past year\I guess itfs natural because Asuma-aniki was always abroad and onee-san was busy filming her new movie.h
gBut Asuma-san and Arima-san love each other,h said Sakura woefully, recalling Arimafs tear-streaked face.
gI know they do. Thatfs what I donft understand.h Aki clasped his forehead. gUgh, I just donft understand women. Though I overheard a strange phone conversation yesterday.h
gWhat was it?h asked Sakura.
gIt was late at night and she was talking to someone. She said, eIfm not together with him so donft bother calling me again about that. He has nothing to do with me anymore.fh
Syaoran frowned. gWho was she talking to?h
gIfm not sure, but it sounded like a man. At first, I thought it was someone at the agency, but then, I realized they wouldnft be calling her that late at night,h replied Aki. gSo then I thought it might be the man shefs having an affair with.h
gArima-san is having an affair with someone?h Meilin asked.
gNo!h Aki said. gAnd then, I heard her tell the person, eIfll pay back for the company, so leave him alone; he has nothing to do with this.h
gThat sounds like an extortion case!h Meilin exclaimed. She had become very knowledgeable in these sorts of shady affairs thanks to having a criminal boyfriend.
gIfm scared for onee-san,h Aki continued. gAt first, I thought it was the tabloid journalists again, threatening her with a scandal, but the way she sounded terrified got me real worried. I donft know what to do\Ifm afraid shefll be troubled if I let on that I heard her conversation.h
gYou thought correctly,h Mizuki Kai stated, taking his seat. He whipped off his sunglasses. gActress Akagi Arima is being blackmailed by yakuza.h
gYakuza?h squeaked Aki.
gHow do you know that?h asked Syaoran.
gI have my sources,h replied Kai grimly. gMore specifically, shefs being accosted by Minato-gumi boss, Minato Abe.h
Tomoyo frowned, trying to recall where she heard that name before. gThe man who kidnapped Sakura-chan?h
Kai nodded. gThe entertainment agency that Arima works for is one of the biggest in the business. But at one point, they almost went bankrupt and borrowed a lot of yakuza money to recuperate. In other words, they were in heavy debt to the Minato-gumi. Arima-san has been such a big hit in recent years, the agency has grown five-fold and is very successful. Reversely, Minato-gumi after its recent collapse in power resulting from the humiliating defeat of their boss against the Yamamoto-gumi leader, is currently in a financial pinch.h
gWhat does this have to do with Arima-san?h asked Sakura.
gThey told Arima-san, the chief money-earning for the agency, that she has to get Asuma to withdraw from the Japan Cup or else theyfre going to ruin the company. They can do that with accusations of black market money\any scandal is enough to ruin an agency, an actorfs entire career,h responded Kai.
Meilin interjected, gAnd how does this involve Asuma-san?h
Kai replied, gMinato-gumi has been investing in horserace gambling. They need their candidate to win in order to make a lump sum of money quickly. Of course, everyone is expecting Asuma-san, Triple-Crown winner to claim another victory, so if another candidate wins, that means immediate profit.h
gWhatfs the Triple Crown?h asked Sakura.
gItfs one of the most prestigious titles a horse can win in Japan,h replied Syaoran. gIt goes to the jockey and horse team that wins the three legs of Japanese horse racing, the Sakurai Sho, Tokyo Yushun and the Kikuka Sho. Some call it the test of speed, the test of luck and the test of strength. Only six other horses in history have received the Japanese Triple Crown\itfs a great honor for Thunderbolt and Asuma-san.h
gWow, Asuma-san really is amazing,h mused Sakura\she had always known he was, just not to what extent.
gThe problem is, everyone knows Asuma-san and Arima-san are an item. Asuma quitting the Japan Cup just a couple days away would be a devastating blow to his investors but big money for whomever else takes the Cup; namely the horse that Minato Abe has invested in,h Kai said. Unlike his father, he had a quick brain for investments and profiteering.
gBut Asuma-san is going to compete in the Japan Cup,h Sakura stated.
gOnee-san knows Asuma-anikifs dream. She couldnft make him give up the Japan Cup,h Aki murmured half to himself. gThatfs why she broke up with him.h
gRight. She had to end her relationship with Tamemura Asuma so that the yakuza couldnft manipulate her and use Asuma-san,h Kai stated. gItfs a win-win scenario for Minato Abe; if Asuma-san had been pressured into quitting the Japan Cup by Arima-san, Minato Abe gets what he wants, and even if Asuma doesnft drop out, then Minato-gumi has grounds to further blackmail Arima-sanfs agency for money.h
Sakura bolted up. gBut whatfll happen to Arima-san then? Wouldnft the Minato-gumi be angry that she didnft follow their orders?h
Aki frowned. gShould we call the police?h
gI wouldnft recommend that\that might put Asuma-san in danger, if the Minato-gumi is pressured by the police in anyway,h said Kai. gDonft worry about Arima-san for now. Ifve got some reliable friends who are keeping surveillance on her 24-7.h
gMore yakuza?h asked Meilin skeptically.
gTheyfre not all bad,h Kai protested. gJust like all you Lifs arenft all good.h
gAre you trying to pick a fight with me?h Meilin demanded.
gWhy is her agency even allowing this?h Aki said.
Kaifs eyes darkened. gItfs what happens when you sign a contract without a lawyer and an agent.h
Aki sighed. gYoufre right. My sister was being all rebellious when she wanted to become an actress against my parentfs wishes that she complete college and follow the family business. She went ahead and found any agency and signed a contract by herself, since she was already of legal age, which is why they are overworking her to death without any vacation whatsoever. She wonft even show us her contract, because shefs too headstrong to admit she made a mistake. The good thing is, she likes acting, but Ifve always thought shefs had very unfair working conditions considering how popular she is. So what do I do? How can I save my sister?h
Sakura looked up at Aki. gLeave things to us, Aki-kun. Wefre not going to let anyone harm Arima-san.h
gThanks, Sakura-chan.h Aki didnft look very convinced as he walked off to his seat.
Sakura turned to Mizuki Kai with a smile. gThank you Kai-kun, for looking into this matter. Youfre really amazing.h
The Thief of the Night grinned from ear to ear. gAny more compliments?h
gI donft know what we would have done without you. Youfre an absolute genius!h Sakura praised him. The others groaned\Kai was a showoff who liked being complimented like some little kid.
gThatfs why Ifm here for. In your Alliance, you have your knights, your guardians, your advisers and even you own professional costume designer. You just need your own criminal spymaster who will take care of the dirty work for you,h said Kai with an exaggerated bow. Truth was, he had been bored out of his mind ever since he had retired as Kaitou Magician, and enjoyed being useful again.
Meilin eyed Syaoran who sank back, looking rather left out of things.
gWell, Ifm going to check if my friends have some updates,h said Kai. gGive me a call if anything comes up.h
gI donft have your number, Kai-kun,h reminded Sakura.
With a wink, Kai flicked out his sleek black touch phone and dialed a number. Sakurafs bell rang. gYou have it now.h
Following Kai down the stairwell, Meilin stated accusingly, gYou didnft tell Sakura-chan everything.h
gTaoka told me that he didnft think Minato Abe was acting alone,h he replied.
gSomeonefs supporting him from behind the scenes?h Meilin blinked. gWho?h
Kai stared at Meilin pointedly.
gYoufre not keeping things from Sakura-chan,h Meilin said in sudden realization. gItfs because Syaoran was there. You donft suspect Syaoran, do you?h
gNo, I believe in him,h replied Kai. gIfm just pointing out, have you wondered why Syaoran suddenly decided to live with Sakura?h
gBecause hefs still in love with her?h replied Meilin directly.
Kai shook his head. gYou know Syaoran better than that. He avoided her in Hong Kong because of that very reason.h
gThough Sakura doesnft seem to realize it,h muttered Meilin.
gThough Sakura doesnft seem to realize it,h agreed Kai. gNo, there must be a very good reason for him to choose to reside in the Kinomoto house.h
gIsnft Sakura enough of a reason?h
gWhy did he leave Leiyun?h Kai asked pointedly. gIfve met Leiyun, several times. Hefs not a person who will easily let go of what he wants.h
gYou mean, Leiyun let Syaoran leave the house and did not bring him back on purpose?h Meilin paused. gYou think Syaoran pretended to have a falling out with Leiyun?h
gIfm just saying, Syaoranfs reasons for staying at Sakurafs place might not be as simple as you think.h
Her breath was caught in her chest. gYou think\hefs using her?h she demanded. gDo you honestly think that Syaoran would do something so vile? How can you even consider something like that?h
gStop putting words in my mouth,h snapped Kai. gYoufre so blinded when it comes to your precious cousin, you donft look at things objectively. Think about it. Why would Syaoran, who spent the past year trying to avoid Sakura as much as possible suddenly jump to her side again? The situation hasnft changed at all. He doesnft have his powers back, and the Great Elderfs still in a critical position. For all we know, hefs not emancipated from the Li Clan. If he was, he should have returned the Sakura Cards to their rightful owner. Instead, Ifm pretty sure Leiyun still keeps it safely locked away. In fact, I wouldnft be surprised if theyfre coming up with ways to be able to manipulate the Cards this very moment.h
Meilin admitted, gYoufre right that Syaoranfs a pretty stubborn guy. He isnft the type of person who would return to Sakura and pretend as if he didnft do any wrong without fixing the core of the problem.h
gYet thatfs precisely what hefs doing. Continuing on daily life like that. As if hefs biding for time.h
gTime for what?h Meilin glared at Kai. gDo you know something? Did Kara tell you something?h
gNo, she didnft,h said Kai. gShe wouldnft. But purely on an observational basis, we know that firstly, Leiyun somehow is granting Syaoran his freedom in an unexpected circumstance and secondly, Syaoran knows this fact as well. I wonft be surprised if itfs a secret from the Li Clan that Syaoran is currently not residing at the Li mansion.h
gMaybe Leiyun is helping Syaoran out,h Meilin said. gI know hefs a bit strange, but hefs not all together that bad. He really does care for Syaoran like a younger brother.h
Kai snorted. gI donft know what he used to be like, but Leiyun is bat-shit crazy, and you know it.h He paused. gThere are two factions of the Li Clan. You know very well of this. The faction of the Great Elder, Li Renshu, the traditionalists, which Syaoran is under. The followers are usually the younger generation who used to admire Li Ryuuren. Then, there is the faction of the Head, Li Wutai, the expansionists, followed by most of older the Inner Council, the group in favor of expanding the Li Clanfs control through Asia and internationally. The question is, where does Li Leiyunfs loyalty lie? His father is the Head, Li Wutai, but he too had been trained for many years under the Great Elder.h
Meilin tilted her head. gWhy is it that you know the affairs of my family even better than I do?h
gSometimes, you need an outsiderfs objective eye,h he replied.
gNow that you retired as a thief, maybe you should become a professional detective,h Meilin stated.
gYou look glum,h remarked Li Leiyun, walking into the stables. He fed Thunderbolt a carrot. gGood boy,h he said stroking the magnificent chestnut stallionfs neck.
gI got dumped,h sighed Asuma.
Thunderbolt whinnied and sniffed Leiyunfs fingers. gHow did that come about?hf he asked.
Asuma fished inside his pocket and flipped open the velvet case. Inside was a brilliant heart-cut diamond set to a white-gold band. gI was planning on proposing to her. I couldnft bear the thought that we be separated any longer. Instead, she said we should break up.h
gIsnft it a bit too soon to be thinking of marriage?h asked Leiyun. gBoth you and Arima have your entire careers ahead of you.h
gI knew I was going to propose to her one day ever since we graduated. The timing is sort of unexpected. I wasnft going to do it for a three, four years at least. But I thought girls like this sort of thing!h Asuma stared at his steed. He understood horses through and through, but he did not understand women.
gDoes love need a proof?h
Turning to Leiyun, Asuma said, gI donft get her. I mean, I know she must be pretty pissed that I sent her only one postcard from Paris and called her twice, but therefs the time difference, and she gets so little sleep during film shoots, I didnft want to wake her when shefs sleeping. And whatfs to say she couldnft call me?h
gDid you try to make up with her?h
gShe blocked my number,h stated Asuma. gAnd her manager always tells me shefs busy. I know I shouldnft jump into conclusions, but I canft help thinking, she must have another guy. I kept convincing myself that I should believe in her, but maybe Ifm being the blind one here. I mean, Ifve been patient and understanding, I really have. But itfs hard when your girlfriendfs a celebrity whose name is linked with every other handsome co-star.h
gWell, the race is tomorrow,h said Leiyun. He had always been the more practical of the two. gYou should focus on that and not let down Thunderbolt here.h
gMy heart got broken and my pride trampled upon all in one night,h Asuma groaned. gHow am I supposed to concentrate on the race?h
gItfs bad enough being the guy who got dumped,h said Leiyun. gYou donft want to be the guy who got dumped and lost the biggest race of the season.h
gEven if your masterfs a failure, I canft let your reputations as the king of stallions go down the drain with all the mares watching, can I?h said Asuma, brushing out the tangles in the chestnutfs mane. gWefll beat them all, and maybe Arima will fall in love with me all over again.h
gIf you paid as much attention to your girlfriend as your horse, you probably wouldnft have been dumped,h Leiyun remarked offhandedly.
gLei, are you trying to cheer me up or make me go jump off the stable roof?h demanded Asuma. But he chuckled. He had always been simple-minded, and only able to concentrate on one thing at a time, which was his vice and strength.
Leiyun clapped his friend on the back. gGood luck tomorrow. Show them how you nailed the Triple Crown.h
Saturday morning came around and Sakura entered the stadium, slightly overwhelmed as she clutched her black Tam ofShanter with red pompoms to her head to keep it from flying away. It was her first time at the Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, and she wouldnft be surprised if there were more than 100,000 people filing into the arena; she didnft think she saw so many people gathered in one spot before. She wore a Scottish wool scarlet and black plaid dress with a black velvet collar and buttoned sleeves. Tomoyo trailed behind her, videotaping the spectacle. She wore a red riding jacket trimmed with black fur and a long black skirt with black lace-up ankle boots. Her hair was pulled back into a high ponytail with a little black cap with red feathers and lace trimmings fastened to the side of her head. Shortly behind them followed Kai and Meilin, Kai in an auspicious black trench coat, hair flaming red, and Meilin in a black turtleneck and red tartan miniskirt with a short leather jacket, fishnet stockings and black leather boots. Behind them, Syaoran followed, clearly realizing what a sight they might have looked like to observers\luckily, the spectators were too excited about the race to take notice of the misanthrope group decked out in scarlet and jet black. He tucked his hand into his woolen red blazer jacket with a black collar. His black trousers were made of wool and were warm, thanks to Tomoyofs consideration, and were tucked into black ridding boots with buckles on the side.
Turning around to the group, Sakura remarked, gYou know, I keep getting this feeling wefve forgotten someone.h
Tomoyo said, gKero-chanfs right here in my bag.h
On cue, Kero-chan emerged from the bag with a black and red pompom Tam ofShanter on his head, waving a blue and white flag. gThis is my first race. Is there food?h
gIfm here, invited or not,h stated Eron, with, in a silky red button-down shirt with a black scarf tied into a ribbon around his neck, and black linen pants a red-rimmed black fedora perched on his head. A red stud sparkled from his left lobe.
Syaoran scowled and Tomoyo shrugged. gSorry, but Eron-kun insisted he looks good in red.h Which he did.
The group followed the map and finally found the Tamemura/Akagi box after much mishap. Someone was already sitting there. gAki-kun!h exclaimed Sakura. gI didnft expect you to be here.h Beside him was Miho, a big camera hanging from her neck and holding a clipboard. A red wool beanie covered her head and she wore a cute little red cape over a lace blouse and black bubble shorts with red and black checkered tights underneath.
gThe Japan Cupfs a big deal,h replied Aki with a sigh. He didnft have much of an interest in horseracing like the rest of his family but was there out of concern for his sister.
Miho briefly glared up at her brother and stated, gAki-senpai brought me along so I can write an article. After all, Tamemura Asuma-san is a Seijou alumnus.h She glanced around. gWherefs Eriol?h
And a stricken expression came over Sakurafs face as she realized who she had forgotten. gOh no! Eriol-kun! How could we forget, Tomoyo-chan?h
Tomoyo blinked innocently. Clearly, as Sakurafs manager and second-in-charge, she had say in who got invited on the Star Alliance excursions. gI ran out of time and couldnft complete the last outfit.h
gHefs going to throw a tantrum when he hears we left him out again,h said Miho with a snicker.
Aki nudged Sakura. gIsnft that Li-sensei over there?h
Sakura and Syaoran glanced up. Indeed, several boxes over, sat Leiyun, intently absorbed by the race. His box was otherwise empty.
gWhat is he doing here?h Sakura asked.
gHefs always been interested in horseracing,h replied Syaoran. gItfs actually not that odd he should be here. The Li Group sponsors a lot of races in Hong Kong, and Leiyun always took interest, ever since he was young.h
gThatfs where he met Asuma in the first place,h stated a female who took the empty seat next to Aki.
gArima-san!h exclaimed Sakura. She had not expected her to be here. A beribboned wide-brimmed straw hat was perched on her head and she wore huge sunglasses which covered half her face.
gShush, I snuck out of filming to be here.h Arima eyed Sakurafs friends. gDid you guys dress up in matching colors on purpose?h
gI-Ifm surprised to see you here, Arima-san,h said Sakura. She did not miss the lines of worry etched on the actressesf brows. She must have been concerned about Asuma.
gOnee-san, you shouldnft be here,h hissed Aki, gazing around the stadium in panic.
gItfs all right, wefre under tight surveillance,h said Kai, indicating over his shoulders. Aki looked up and saw four huge men in colorful suits, being very indiscreet that they were yakuza with their sunglasses and gaudy tattoos peeping out on the backs of their necks and wrists.
gAre they your friends?h muttered Aki suspiciously. Then he saw Tomoyo wave a little distance away at a row of four tall women looking foreboding in black suits and sunglasses. gWho are they?h
gTomoyo-chanfs personal bodyguards,h replied Sakura with a smile.
Aki shook his head. He definitely did not have normal friends.
Miho leaned over the railing and saw a young woman straddle on a white horse marked 7. gIsnft that Rido-senpai? What is she doing there?h
gRido-san replaced the Li jockey for this race,h said Meilin.
gHow do you know that?h Syaoran asked, squinting at Leiyun. What was he up to now? There were at least 200,000 spectators in the stadium. Surely he wouldnft try anything here\even for Leiyun that was too risky.
Kara was the only female rider on the tracks, and her golden hair was tied back into a short ponytail, tucked into her green helmet. She was mounted on a magnificent white Arabian. Sakura thought Kara looked very dignified and splendid on her white horse and looked like she belonged right on the race tracks. gWhich one is Asuma-san?h Sakura asked.
gThe blue and white\number 3,h replied Aki over the noise of the commentatorfs voice and the cheering of the crowd.
The gates opened and the thunderous clatter of hooves signaled that the race had begun. gWhat, the race already began?h Sakura leaned over, squinting through the cloud of dust. Bays, chestnuts, blacks and grays. The green and golden checkered pattern of Karafs silks became a green-gold blur as the horses raced forward. She could barely keep track of which horse was which but luckily, Asuma took the clear lead on his chestnut stallion, Thunderbolt. gGo Asuma-san!h she called out.
gAnd as expected, Tamemura Akagi, number 3, takes lead on Thunderbolt,h cried out the commentator. gThunderbolt is in fine condition today, a beautiful red-brown chestnut, worthy of his sire Midnight Star and dam, Marron Chocolat.h He paused for breath. gBut the dark-horse candidate number 7, on a beautiful white Arabian\quite rare a specimen\is inching forward. Who is this unidentified jockey and mysterious new horse? Owner is Li Stablesf Li Leiyun. Li Stables from Hong Kong has produced many fine thoroughbred race horses over the years and will Morning Star go down the list of champions under the Li Stablesf belt? Let us see! Now, Morning Star has the lead by half a length, no but Tamemura Asuma and Thunderbolt gallop forward and again have the lead!h
Sakura frowned. Even from this distance, there was no mistake. gThe horse that Kara Reed is ridingc Isnft that Midnight Star?h
gThe Unicorn?h Syaoran asked, turning to her. Without his powers, he couldnft verify this fact, but they certainly looked similar enough.
gBut how\h Sakura paled. gI thought Leiyun-san was not able to use the Sakura Cards.h
gThe Great Five each had a patron animal, a familiar you might call it. The Unicorn was Landon Reedfs patron animal, so it has loyalty foremost to the Reed bloodline,h said Kai from behind them. gIt wonft be surprising if the Unicorn would consent to the commands of a Reed, namely Kara Reed, currently the only remaining descendent of Landon Reed.h
Meanwhile, Tomoyo was silent, deep in thought because she realized her videocamera, as high-tech as it was, did not have enough zoom to film a horse race. An admirer of beauty, she watched in marvel as the horses stampeded forward and the jockeysf silks blurred into streaks of red, blue, green, yellow and orange.
The commentator cried out, his voice cracking in tension, gItfs a neck to neck race between Thunderbolt and Morning Star. Who will be the winner? The Triple Crown recipient, international champion Tamemura Asuma and Thunderbolt or rookie Kara Reed, the only female jockey competing today, and mystery stallion Morning Star?h
As the horses came turned the corner, Sakura
craned further and further over the railings till she almost toppled over. She
frowned. Something was not right. What was it? It was impossible to concentrate
over the noise and the dust in the tracks.
gWhere are you going?h hissed Meilin as Kai leaped over the bleachers. gWefve got to protect Arima-san.h
She thought he said, gIt was a red herring. We got distracted by the wrong issue,h before melting in with the crowd.
gWorried he bid on the wrong horse, no doubt,h grumbled Meilin.
The enthused commentatorfs voice could be heard booming over the tracks. gAnd Thunderbolt has surpassed Morning Star again by one full length. There is no doubt Tamemura Asuma is a rare sportsman that will come maybe once every quarter century. Thunderbolt is racing like he has never before. But Morning Star is tailing closely behind. They pass the 2000 meter mark! Two fine stallions racing towards the finishing line\is our national champion Tamemura Asuma going to win the gold cup again\wait\something has happened. Thunderbolt suddenly jerks back\uncommon behavior from such a well-behaved horse\and Morning Star surges forward\h
But nobody was listening any longer. The spectators watched in horror as Thunderbolt jerked then lurched back on his hind leg, breaking formation. Without any warning, the powerful horse writhed, teeth bared, and yanked his head and twisted his torso, hurling Asuma off the saddle into the air. Asumafs body collapsed on the dirt with a bone chilling crack. It all happened in a matter of a split second, and the other horses galloped forward from momentum, leaving the spectators to wait for the cloud of dust to clear away.
There was a dead silence in the tracks, an abnormality as a race had just ended. The commentator was silent, and did not announce the results of the race, and the other racers finally realized that one of the jockeys had fallen. As their horses came to a halt, and they turned around, they could see the contorted form of a man sprawled on the floor, like a limp mannequin, and the ferocious chestnut red stallion stamped and snorted around the fallen rider, fuming and uncontrollable.
Arima stood up, yanking off her hat and sunglasses, witnessing the nightmare spread before her eyes. gASUMA!h She leaped over the railing and ran towards the tracks, shoving past the guards.
gLady, stand back!h cried out one of the ushers.
gLet go of me! Do you know who I am?h demanded Arima, running towards Asumafs body.
gSomeone control the beast\hefs going to tread over the boy!h cried out Tamemura Azuno, first to come to his senses as was a parentfs instinct. He wobbled over from the stands towards his son.
gThis horse is uncontrollable!h cried out Asumafs apprentice. gThunderboltfs never been like this before.h The chestnut beast snarled at the young man and kicked up its hind legs and shook in fury.
gGet out of the way,h said Arima.
gStand back, Arima, itfs dangerous!h exclaimed Tamemura Azuno.
gOjii-san, you trained Asuma and me for years equally,h said Arima. gI know what Ifm doing.h She pushed away Asumafs apprentice and walked up to Thunderbolt.
gThe paramedics have arrived!h exclaimed the manager.
gBe careful when moving him\his body has been heavily crushed,h said Tamemura Azuno.
gThe horse\we canft get to the patient!h stated the paramedic, cowering away from the vicious stallion.
gSomeone tie that horse down\itfs gone mad!h shouted out Asumafs father.
Unfazed, Arima took another step closer and stared at Thunderbolt in the eye. gCalm down, boy. Asumafs hurt. Youfve got to calm down.h The horse snorted at her, and she could see he was as panic-ridden as the rest of them. gItfs all right, Thunder, itfs all right. Itfs not your fault. Asuma doesnft blame you and neither do I. Itfs not your fault.h Thunderbolt recognized Arimafs soothing voice\after all, Asuma and Arima had seen Thunderboltfs birth and had fed him cubes of sugar when he was a yearling colt and fought over who would get to ride him when he was old enough to join the races. But of course, Arima had chosen acting, and after losing Midnight Star, Thunderbolt became Asumafs choice steed. gItfs going to be okay, Thunder, so calm down. Thatfs a good boy.h She ventured to place her hand on the horsefs head, stroking behind his ears and speaking softly and calmly. As a trained actress, her voice could command an audience of thousands. It also worked on the horse.
And the horse finally quieted, and Asumafs apprentice meekly led him towards the stables. gItfs not Thunderboltfs fault\make sure hefs not punished. Asuma wouldnft want that,h said Arima.
The paramedics managed to lift Asuma onto the stretcher. And still, Arima did not walk any closer to him. As a former junior jockey, she had seen dozens of excellent riders thrown off their horses in her time. She too had fallen off a horse numerous times, granted not at that speed and height, and certainly had not been stamped down upon by the full weight of the horse.