Chapter 71: The Alliance of the Stars

 

 

 

Part I: Return of the Card Captor

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tokyo Tower…

 

 

Daidouji Tomoyo stood on the top observation deck of the Tokyo Tower, both hands pressed against the cold windowpane. She was not admiring the grand cityscape, which was cast in a dark shadow, but peering up at the flickers of hazy verdant sunlight that could be glimpsed through the ominous blackened sky. The sky was not black because it was overcast, or because it was nightfall—it was actually approaching late afternoon. It was because swarms and swarms of locusts were shielding the sunlight, furiously flitting around an invisible barrier doming the city.

 

Yue, Guardian of the Moon, clad in white and lavender, said quietly, “The Shield is not going to hold up much longer.”

 

“What are we going to do then?” asked Tomoyo, glancing up at Hiiragizawa Eriol, their default leader now that Sakura was gone, who stared pensively at the center of the special deck of the Tokyo Tower, currently off limits to the public for renovation. A group of their most immediate friends, the Star Alliance, was gathered there in their one last hope to trace their missing leader.

 

Squinting up at the sky over the rim of his sunglasses, Mizuki Kai remarked, “If Syaoran really disappeared inside that portal, it means it’s likely that the Shield is going to collapse, probably within minutes.” Sure enough, the former thief could spot ripples in the Shield where locusts managed to break through.

 

Li Meilin let out a shriek as a huge locust sizzled down from the sky and smashed into the windowpane that she was standing next to. She turned around as she heard another thud across one the other side of the observation deck. And more and more locusts dropped from the sky like meteoroids.

 

“The barrier has broken,” exclaimed Kero-chan, spinning around 360 degrees within the Tokyo Tower, watching locusts dropping down in streaks, like burning coal sinking down. More patches of the fiery afternoon sky could be glimpsed, tinting the city in a deep crimson, as if it were ablaze.  

 

They could actually hear thumps against the glass windows, throughout the lattice structure of the tower. Meilin backed away from the glass. “It’s like they’re trying to break through and get in here.”

 

“They won’t be able to get in,” said Ruby Moon, flicking back her long fuchsia hair. “Eriol has set a barrier around Tokyo Tower, so we’re safe.”

 

“But they’ll graze through everything outside,” Kai said with a frown, staring through a pair of binoculars into the cityscape, at Shiba Park across the street from the tower. “At least the Li Elders seems preoccupied with containing the Wu Clan and their hired thugs. I don’t think they even realize that Syaoran is missing.”

 

“Doesn’t that just mean we’ve got to find him then, before they do?” exclaimed Kero-chan. “He is the new Card Master—it’s his duty to seal or trap or do something about the dark force.”

 

“So, who wants to go in the portal to fetch Syaoran then?” asked Kai with false cheeriness. “I would love to offer myself, but apparently there’s a darn good imposter of me inside the Fantasy, and truthfully, if that’s where fantasies come true, I don’t think I would ever desire to leave my harem of Meilin in a high-slit cheongsam, Meilin in a bunny costume, Meilin in a—”

 

“Just go in there and don’t bother coming back,” snapped Meilin, kicking his shin.

 

From the corner of the observation deck, Chang Eron remarked, “If Syaoran could do something about the dark force, don’t you think he would have resolved the issue here before disappearing in there?”

 

Kero-chan said, “So do you have a better contingency plan, smarty-pants? Go find your twin sister and make her do something about it then!”

 

Eron’s golden eyes flickered, and his violet ponytail whipped around him as he spun towards the portal.

 

“Look, the portal is rippling!” exclaimed Tanaka Miho, the youngest of the group, pointing at the entrance to the Fantasy located in the center of the deck. For the past hour, she had been squatted on the floor, staring at it. “Someone—no someones are walking towards us.”

 

“Can it be?” Ruby Moon craned her neck.

 

They blinked through the gleaming prismatic light, making out a familiar silhouette.

 

And Li Syaoran, dressed in a tattered black cheongsam, stepped out of the Fantasy’s portal, the oversized Five Force Sword strapped to his back. If he was startled to find the Star Alliance awaiting him at the entrance to the portal, which had been hidden, he didn’t react. He looked worse for wear, with soot smudged on his cheeks, but there was a sense of silent resolve in his amber eyes as he faced the group he probably most wanted to avoid at the moment.

 

“You!” roared Kinomoto Touya as he tried to lunge forward, but Yue held him back. “Let go of me! I’m going to kill him!” But Yue crossed his arms around from behind, refusing to let go.

 

And Syaoran turned around, extending out his right hand, and pulled another hand forward. A girl in a cream-colored dress lined with gold lace detailing around the bodice and hems of the high-low skirt, emerged behind him and stepped onto the observation deck. Everybody stood agape, staring at the emerald-eyed girl with a cluster of golden stars pinned to her hair catching the fluorescent light.

 

The two stood hand in hand, and the portal behind them disappeared. Sakura lifted up her fingers, and the Fantasy Card gently landed on her palm. The members of the Star Alliance, gathered in a semi-circle around Sakura and Syaoran, simply watching in disbelief, doubt. Less than a week ago, they had all witnessed Syaoran stab Sakura, killing her. Sakura’s body had dissolved into cherry blossom petals, and Yue had promptly named Syaoran the new Card Master.

 

Tomoyo was first to find her voice, staggering forward to her best friend. “Sakura-chan?” She stopped, a foot away. “Sakura-chan, is that really you?” She briefly glanced at Syaoran, who nodded. “But how—you died. We all saw you.”

 

“Go on,” said Mizuki Kaho, nodding her head at Touya. And Yue released his hold on Touya, prodding him forward.

 

Sakura looked up and saw her brother, looking as if he had aged ten years in the time she had been away, brown-black hair straggly and with dark shadows under his blue eyes that had a stricken look to them. Now, his full attention was directed at her instead of at strangling Syaoran. And her lower lips trembled. “Onii-chan.”

 

Touya didn’t meet her eye and stared at the gleaming gray tiled floor.

 

“Say something to her,” hissed Yue. But Touya was frozen.

 

But Sakura rushed forward first and threw her arms around her brother’s waist. But he jolted from her touch, with a shudder, as if she were a ghost. “I’m so sorry onii-chan. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to trick you. But there was no other way. Say something. Anything.”

 

“Sakura?” Touya croaked, clutching both her cheeks and roughly lifting her head up. “You aren’t the Mirror or some illusion, are you? No—you’re just another hallucination. Or the Fantasy playing tricks on me. That’s right. You’re a clone.”

 

Sakura shook her head rapidly. “It’s me, onii-chan! Your only little sister. Your kaijou.”

 

“No.” Touya suddenly released her. “No, Sakura is dead. Don’t play tricks on me. Don’t raise my hopes again.”

 

Hot tears streamed down from Sakura’s face. “It’s me, Sakura, onii-chan. You used to make me warm honey-milk when I was sick. You played the organ when I was little—our mother’s favorite instrument. You used to tell me the forests were haunted so that I don’t wonder off and get lost in it. You saved up from your thousand part-time jobs in high school to get a brand new Yamaha motorcycle, but you never rode it to school and always rode a bicycle so that I could keep up on my rollerblades. You taught my how to rollerblade in second grade, so that I wouldn’t be late for school every day.”


And Touya squeezed her into a tight hug—Sakura couldn’t remember the last time Touya had hugged her like this—not since she was in elementary school. He had to hunch over because he was so tall, and his shoulder was shaking. Her name was all he could muster out in a broken whisper.

 

Touya’s back was turned to the others, but Syaoran, who had been standing behind Sakura, saw discreet tears swelling in her brother’s eyes. And Syaoran realized Sakura had betrayed all those who loved and trusted her, for him. Since the moment he had learned of Great Elder Li Renshu’s death, Sakura, who had taken him to Hong Kong, had become his pillar and had been protecting him, keeping him on track. She had never let it on while they were inside the Fantasy, but what kind of inner turmoil she must have undergone, knowing her choice to help him may splinter her relationship with all those who believed in her. He knew best what a horrible thing it was to have to lie to the ones you loved.

 

“I guess it really is her, based on her brother’s reaction,” remarked Spinel Sun. “Not some nasty illusion cast by Syaoran or some dark force.”

 

Next, Sakura turned to her best friend, who watched on wordlessly. “Tomoyo-chan, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for tricking you all. I’m so sorry.” Tomoyo couldn’t quite bring herself to answer and only gave a slight nod. Then, Sakura’s gaze fell upon a boy with blue-violet hair pulled back into a ponytail with a sky blue ribbon. But he jerked back, turning his head, refusing to meet her eyes.

 

Meilin slumped do her knees, gazing between Syaoran and Sakura. She didn’t even care about their story. At this moment, all she felt was deep relief wash over her like the high tide rushing upon the shore. Of course, she would have a slew of hurtful words to hurl at Syaoran later, when then were alone. But there they were in flesh and blood, sheepish and guilt-stricken, as they should be.

 

Kai crossed his hand behind his head and whistled low. “Well, those two pulled the greatest trick of the century, didn’t they?”

 

“I would have to say, it might have beaten my own comeback,” replied Hiiragizawa Eriol quietly, so that only Tomoyo who was standing next to him heard and almost smiled. Well, the return of Clow Reed’s half-reincarnation was on a level of its own.

 

Ruby Moon interjected, “These sentimental reunions are heartwarming and all, but need I remind you that the Insects have broken through the Shield? I mean, between former Card Mistress Sakura and current Card Master Syaoran, I’m sure something can be done about this infestation.”

 

Sakura didn’t seem particularly surprised that Ruby Moon called Syaoran Card Master and stared out at the window. She stifled a squeal when she saw swarms of locusts colliding into the window, spurting out dark juice on the glass.  

 

“First things first,” Kero-chan said. “How are you alive, anyway? We all saw the Brat stab you with his sword, straight through your heart. You were bleeding. And you disappeared.”

 

“It was a clone,” Sakura replied. “I made a clone, and Syaoran killed the clone.”

 

Tomoyo nodded. It was as much as they had all figured.

 

“But how did you manage to make such a perfect clone, that even your own brother could not tell apart?” asked Kai. “It’s no ordinary skill—there are few Level 1 magicians who can make that sort of perfect replica of a human being. I’m not even sure if Clow Reed would have had such a capability. And don’t tell me you were able to master that skill in such a short period of time.”

 

“I didn’t—that’s why I created the clone inside the Fantasy,” said Sakura. “Actually, I got the inspiration from the Mikai clone last year.”

 

“The Fantasy,” murmured Miho, to relieved to gloat that her most out-there theories may have hit the mark. “It makes sense.”

 

“There’s more to it, isn’t there? Your clone, it used your magic, had your aura,” Kero-chan said.

 

Syaoran said in clipped voice, “She gave her own left eye to the clone to mimic her magic and aura.”

 

“What?” exclaimed Touya, turning pale. 

 

“Don’t worry. Syaoran realized what I did and retrieved my eye for me from my clone, after he… after he did what he did,” said Sakura.

 

Ruby Moon shuddered and muttered, “How gruesome this whole ordeal has become.”

 

“That was definitely the dumbest thing you could have done,” Eron exclaimed. “Do you know what kind of risks could have been involved—what if something went wrong and your eye couldn’t be returned to you? What if the Li Clan found out, or Syaoran just took it, your power along with it? What if—” Eron trialed off, staring at the evident pain in Syaoran’s expression at each remark he made, the hurt in Sakura’s eyes. How desperate had she been in order to take such extreme measures to put up this farce. For him.

 

“Why? Why did you hide this from us?” Touya finally asked in a bare whisper. “Why couldn’t you have told us about this beforehand? Did you not trust us? Did you not trust me?”

 

And Sakura felt a clenching in her throat. “No—it wasn’t that! I knew I could trust you all. But we had to make this a perfect deception, not for you guys but for the Li Clan. This is the only way we could guarantee that we could pull this off.”

 

Touya frowned. “Why, because we wouldn’t be able to pull off a realistic reaction if you told us beforehand? Because someone might tell on the enemies? You thought it was okay to let me see my little sister die in front of my eyes? Couldn’t you have given us a sign, any sort of sign?”

 

‘Well, she did pull it off on April Fool’s Day,” remarked Kai, but Meilin nudged him hard in the ribcage with her elbow.

 

“And you.” Touya stared at Syaoran. “What was your part in all of this—this can’t be all of my sister’s idea. What did you force her to do?”

 

“Actually, it was my idea—Syaoran didn’t make me do anything,” said Sakura quickly. “But we had a reason.”

 

Her brother’s arms were crossed and his voice was frosty. “Of course there’s a reason for everything. Well, I’m listening.”

 

She wasn’t sure if Syaoran wanted to explain his whole situation with the Li Clan right now. “We’ll explain, soon.”

 

“We? What sort of darned reason can justify why you had to deceive all of us, your alliance, your own family.” Touya was sputtering out his words now. He reached out and grasped a fistful of Syaoran’s tattered shirt collar. “You explain. What is the meaning of all of this? You think playing with life and death is some sort of sick joke?”

 

“No. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life,” said Syaoran quietly. Killing Sakura, even a replica, was the hardest thing he had ever done, and Touya looking into the younger boy’s eyes knew he was speaking the truth. “We have to get moving, as Cerberus pointed out. You guys should control the Insect. And I’ve got to do something about the Wu Clan before they wreak more havoc in the city.”

 

“You are the Card Master—you do something about the Insect. And the Li Clan is probably wreaking more havoc than those pests or the Wus or the yakuza or the Hong Kong triads put together,” spat out Touya.

 

“You are probably right about that,” said Syaoran. “I apologize on behalf of the Li Clan, and I will make sure that they regain order and restore whatever damage they have incurred. Come Sakura, let’s go.”

 

Come Sakura, let’s go?” squawked Kero-chan. “We aren’t finished here, Brat! Who does he think he is, our master or something?”

 

“Well yeah, technically he is,” Ruby Moon pointed out. “Well, all this talks of clones and special skills is fascinating. But though I am inspired from a butterfly myself, all those moths swarming about are grotesque.”

 

Sakura shot an apologetic gaze over her shoulder. “Syaoran’s right, we’ve got to seal the dark force first. And then I’ll explain everything from the beginning and answer every question you guys have.”

 

And even Kero-chan couldn’t find a flaw in the logic of that, and transformed into his full form.   “Speaking of sealing the dark force, so what happens now?” Cerberus turned to Eriol. “Yue named Syaoran as the new Card Master. But Sakura’s back.”

 

Miho turned pale. “Don’t tell me they have to fight another duel to determine who is the Master of the Sakura Cards again?”

 

Syaoran turned to Yue. “Well, you named me Master of the Clow under the presumption that Sakura was dead. But she isn’t. So it’s only fitting that Sakura is the one and only Card Mistress.”

 

“But it doesn’t work like that,” pointed out Spinel Sun. “The duel was fought, and Sakura was defeated, and Yue accepted a new master.”

 

“Well, technically, the person defeated wasn’t really Sakura but her clone,” Miho pointed out.

 

Yue’s long white hair swished behind him as he raised his hand up. “I agree with Syaoran. As he doesn’t oppose, I hereby revoke Li Syaoran as Master of the Cards and proclaim Kinomoto Sakura Mistress of the Sakura Cards once more.” He turned to his mistress. “Sorry, mistress. Technicalities.”

 

Sakura smiled up at Yue. “No, thank you for carrying out your duty and guarding the Sakura Cards in my stead while I was gone.”

 

And Cerberus sputtered at Yue, “What, just like that? Seriously? You never meant to take a new master in the first place. You knew Sakura would come back!”

 

Yue turned to Cerberus. “I didn’t know for sure. Nothing was certain, and it was Clow who taught us to prepare for the worst case scenario.”  

 

Spinel Sun asked Syaoran, “Why did you even go through the trouble of getting yourself named Card Master if you weren’t going to stick to it?”

 

“Wait, so you were working behind the Li Clan’s back all along? Is that it?” demanded Cerberus. “How long are you going to run away from your obligations to the Li Clan?”

 

Syaoran turned to face them, his dark brows knit together. “No, I am no longer shirking from my duties. I thought foolishly that I could run away from my responsibilities to the Clan, deny the fact that I was designated to be the Chosen One. But in the end, I wasn’t able to escape. It’s instilled in me, an intrinsic part of me, my duties to the Clan. Though I do not necessarily agree with all the decisions of the Council of Elders, I have a heartfelt obligation to the Clan that can be called perhaps a love of its own kind—for the people, the history, its doctrines, what it stands for. And I will fight for it.”

 

Cerberus was at a loss of words at the disturbing thought that the young man standing in front of him was not the bratty boy he had squabbled with and watched grow up over the years but a distant stranger that emanated the dignified and noble aura of a seasoned warrior.  

 

“And you’ll be able to, because you’re Li Syaoran,” said Sakura, with a small smile, thinking that Syaoran looked valiant and handsome in his black sleeveless robe with a green dragon embroidered down the front, eyes radiating determination.

 

“You think you can handle the Insect on your own?” Syaoran asked.

 

Sakura nodded. “You’ll be all right too facing off the Elders and all the Wu Clan?”

 

“Yeah, I’ve never felt better,” said Syaoran, unsheathing the Five Force Sword and practicing a few casual exercises, swinging the blade above his head with a flourish. He glanced down from the vantage point of the Tokyo Tower observation deck, to pinpoint where Uncle Wutai and his cronies watched down the city from the roof of a building a block down.

 

“Good luck with the Li Clan,” she said. 

 

“Good luck with the dark force.” Syaoran then fumbled in his trouser pocket. “Wait Sakura, here!” He tossed her something pink.

 

Sakura caught the Star Key with one hand, staring at Syaoran. “Thanks.” It was an odd feeling, thinking that she may not see Syaoran up close like this for a long time once they took their separate paths. She watched him head towards the exit door, without looking back.

 

Amid the awkward stupor of the spectators, Yue turned to his Card Mistress and asked, “Well then, what should we do?”

 

Sakura shot Yue an appreciative look—they might not have forgiven her yet, but the Alliance still had her back.

 

With a reluctant sigh, Cerberus said, “Yue is right. We can’t lose sight of our focus here, which is to seal the dark force, and I think everyone here can agree on that and put our 100 percent in doing so.” The others murmured an agreement.

 

“Thanks guys. I’m still figuring out the situation, but I have a good idea of what’s going on—Syaoran filled me in before we got back,” Sakura said. “Right now, our number one priority is to seal the Insect. Yue, Cerberus, Spinel Sun and Ruby Moon, because you can fly, you have the greatest range. Can you keep an eye on containing the Insect and keep it from spreading any further in each direction? Eriol-kun and Mizuki-sensei, I noticed that you have already set up barriers throughout the city. I can’t set up the Shield at the moment because I’ll have to chase after the Insect freely, so can you continue keep an eye on civilians or areas that need protection? And with the situation with the triads and yakuza, I’m sure the Li Clan will set things straight, but Kai-kun and Meilin-chan…”

 

“I know,” said Kai with a grin. “We’ll keep an eye on the situation and intervene if necessary.”

 

Sakura smiled slightly. “Miho and Tomoyo, I need you to be my control tower. You can stay here or at another high vantage point and keep and eye on the situation throughout the city, in regards to the spread of the Insect, the whereabouts of the Wu Clan and hired thugs, if there are any vulnerable civilians, and the locations of the police, and keep all of us posted.”

 

“Are we supposed to be keeping an eye on the Li Clan as well?” Miho interjected.

 

Sakura paused. “Yes. If you watch the Lis, you will surely be able to track the movement of the Wu Clan.”

 

Miho sighed. “I should have been more specific. Are we watching out for Syaoran-senpai as well?”

 

“Yes. If Syaoran is in danger, we will support him,” said Sakura.

 

“I don’t understand!” Touya burst out. “The Li Clan wanted to destroy you. If they find you again, they might really kill you!”

 

Sakura looked up at her brother. “I’m the Card Mistress. I can’t hide because somebody doesn’t like me. The Li Clan can’t stop me from doing my job. And I’ll go track down the Insect.”

 

Touya bit his tongue to keep from lashing out again. Yue said, “Touya, you stay with Miho and Tomoyo and guard them. As the Card Mistress said, while sealing the dark force is priority, there may be unpredictable and dangerous factors, with the Lis and Wus in the middle of a clan war in Tokyo, mafia mobilized throughout the city, police lurking in the outskirts, and Syaoran apparently leading a coup d’état to seize power.”

 

“And what do you want me to do?” drawled Eron.

 

Sakura blinked. Actually, she had wanted to ask Eron to help her track down the Insect, because he was likely the most capable person to do so, but instead told him, “Please keep an eye on Erika—she’s vulnerable because the Insect is feeding off her dark powers to multiply.”

 

Eron met her eyes for the first time since she returned. He nodded.

 

Then Sakura threw her key up in the air, extending her hands out in front of her, palm up. “Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. RELEASE!”

 

“Oh my gosh, did you just see that?” exclaimed Miho.

 

“Right, Sakura released her staff,” replied her brother.  

 

“No, Sakura used the power of the stars!”

 

“So? Isn’t that normal—she’s always used the power of stars—Oh!” Kai’s jaw dropped. “She didn’t use the power of the moon!” Sakura had been using the power of the moon for the past year since she had lost her own star powers after sealing the Plague.

 

Sakura glanced over her shoulder. “I forgot to tell you. My power of the stars has returned, and Syaoran has his power of the moon back. We’re back to normal now.”

 

“What? When did all this happen?” demanded Cerberus.

 

“Inside the Fantasy. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Fly!” Sakura jumped on her pink staff, which sprouted a pair of white feathered wings, and flew off through the nearest exit. It was an exhilarating feeling, using the Fly again.

 

Tomoyo slowly lifted her camcorder up, pointing it at the window. She pressed the record button as she saw Sakura fly outside the tower, wearing the birthday dress she had designed, with snowy layered skirts embroidered with hundreds of tiny sparkling golden stars, billowing out behind her like a sail. “Card Captor Sakura is back,” she murmured dreamily.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Chang Erika stared up at the sickening sky, as the locusts cracked through the barrier that Syaoran had set up, swallowing a swelling sense of panic. I don’t know what to do. Onii-chan, he might know how to contain them. But I don’t know how stop them. She stepped back, against a rusty metal door. Then again, did she care? She had no love for this city, this country. Let it all be devoured by these insects that would grind through the greenery, through the tree barks, through the flowerbeds and fields of grass, with a hunger for destruction. All the Star Alliance members had disappeared off radar a while ago. Did Leiyun notice? She noticed, because she could always sense Eron. But there must be some sort of barrier, because she couldn’t feel his presence anywhere.

 

And she heard the muffled voices of men with a thick Kansai accent. She hid behind a pile of cardboard boxes, grumbling to herself, “As if I have to sneak around piles of garbage.”

 

She spotted a stout, balding middle-aged man in a garish powder blue suit. He growled, “Damn that Black Dragon, I will take him down for once and for all.”

 

Erika craned her neck further and recognized the man to be Minato Abe, the former boss of the Minato-gumi, once the second largest yakuza group in Japan, next to the Yamamoto-gumi. Kara had pointed him out to her last winter, during the secret yakuza meeting the Hoshi Plaza Hotel, on the same night as the Vogue Nippon reception several months ago.

 

“Our men are surrounding the Li Group Japanese HQ in Marunouchi—they’ll ambush the place when I give them the signal,” said Abe.

 

Erika frowned. The Li Group headquarters was located in one of the tall gleaming buildings in Marunouchi, Tokyo’s business center. She’d seen it in passing before, though she had never entered it before.

 

“But boss, don’t we have to await orders from the Gold Leopard?” said a burly man with curly hair.

 

“Who, that Hong Kong punk who probably never had blood on his hands before?” Abe snorted. “We don’t have a lot of time—Taoka will get a wind of this, and we need to strike before the Yamamoto-gumi sends in reinforcements to Marunouchi. Once our men ambush the place, it will surely lure Li Jinyu to defend the building. I have positioned six snipers, two to the front entrance, two for the south entrance, one on east and west—they’re ordered to shoot the Black Dragon when he approaches the Li Group HQ. We’re not taking any risks this time.”

 

At this, Erika gasped. They were planning on shooting down Jinyu. The Black Dragon was so distracted with containing the Wu Clan, he surely wouldn’t know that Minato Abe, who should’ve been banned from the city, was also up to something.

 

“What’s that noise?” Abe spun around.

 

Erika spun around and crouched into a ball behind the cardboard boxes.

 

Abe loaded his handgun and spit on the ground. “Is it a little mouse I hear, or maybe a pretty little snitch?”

 

Holding out her palm, Erika mustered her dark powers and a cloud of gray-brown moths swarmed around her. “Attack him!” The moths swarmed around Abe, who sputtered as the moths flitted around him, blocking his view.

 

She streaked out of the alley. “Chase after her!” called out the disgraced former mafia boss. His underling swatted at the moths with a shinai bamboo sword and chased after Erika. But she ran, without looking back.

 

“Keep running,” she told herself. “You can do it.” The heavy footsteps behind her came closer. Her lungs screamed as she forced each leg forward. She dodged into an empty garage and watched her pursuer whiz past her. She clasped her heart, beating rapidly, struggling to catch her breath.

 

That’s right, the Black Dragon was in danger. She had to inform someone. She reached for her pocket. Her phone was gone—she must have dropped it as she was being chased. Erika closed her eyes and scanned if Kara or Leiyun was in the vicinity. She cursed under her breath. The Star Alliance, as well as the Li Clan, had surrounded the city with so many levels of complex barriers, all the signals were muddled, and she couldn’t even spot where her own brother was.

 

The fastest thing was to find Jinyu first, before he reached Marunouchi.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Li Meilin peered over Kai’s shoulder as he sat down on the ledge of the rooftop of one of the taller buildings in Minato, his paper-thin laptop open. “I thought we are tracking down the yakuza and Wu Clan.”

 

“Darned if I waste time running about in this huge city,” said Kai. His eyes flitted across the screen which showed a map of the city.

 

On the screen, Meilin could spot a heavy concentration of green dots in the Minato area, surrounding the Tokyo Tower, and another group near Marunouchi, where the Li Group headquarters was located, around 10 minutes away by car. “So, the green dots I presume are the Li Clan.”

 

“Yup. The orange is the Yamamoto-gumi and yellow is the Wu Clan and their hired thugs.” Kai typed in some codes into the laptop. “There, pink is the Star Alliance.”

 

She pointed to a red heart located near Tokyo Tower suspiciously. “Who’s that?”

 

“You, my Queen of Hearts, of course,” said Kai with a laugh. He stood up, flicking back his long black cloak, letting it catch the wind magnificently. Without awaiting Meilin to berate him, he raised his arm and a flock of doves flew onto his sleeve. He seemed to whisper words to them, and they scattered out, dozens of white birds piercing through the black clouds of locusts.

 

“Where did you send them?” she asked.

 

“They will be my eyes and ears. CCTVs and microchips can only pick up certain locations and people. As I said, no point in running about and expending unnecessary energy.”

 

And despite his careless words, Meilin saw that his eyes were scanning across the city through his black sunglasses. Looking for who?  

 

“Meilin, stay clear of the Wu Clan—especially that Gold Leopard and his crazy sister. I’m leaving this laptop with you—keep Miho and Tomoyo updated on the movement of the mafia as needed. You should stay here, I’ve set up a general barrier—nothing too fancy but enough to keep out general interferences out of the way.”

 

“Wait—where are you going?” demanded Meilin.

 

“Ground patrol,” said Kai.

 

“I’ll go with you!”

 

“My doves will be coming back here. Report to me any shifts in the mafia movement. And don’t move from here, it’s dangerous with all the thugs running about. If you don’t look distinctly Li enough, you don’t help the situation by wearing your battle costume with the Li emblem adorning the front side.”

 

“You realize I don’t understand dove language!” Meilin watched Kai leap off the building, using wind resistance to glide down gracefully to the pavement 20 stories below.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tracking the Black Dragon was not as easy a feat as Erika had assumed it would be—she knew he was the king of stealth and had never particularly felt the need to look for him before. But he had simply disappeared into the city.

 

As she was lost in thought, a shuriken sizzled past her head and embedded itself above her head into the door behind her. Quickly, she dodged another flying metal throwing star.

 

It was third-in-command of the Hong Kong triads, Wu Zilai, in her flaming red leather outfit, her pink hair streaking out behind her. “You. You’re that girl who’s always hanging around the Black Dragon.”

 

Erika scanned both ends of the alley, scouting for an exit route. She was not sure if she could be bothered to handle this volatile girl by herself.

 

“So, where is the Black Dragon? Tell him to stop hiding from me,” said the Flaming Flamingo, as she was called by the triads. She was the older sister of the current head of the Wu Clan, Zian, known to be second to Jinyu in Hong Kong’s underground syndicate.

 

Of course, Erika could stand her own against this flamboyantly dressed girl, if she wanted to. After all, she was the Dark One. But was it worth the hassle? She knew the Flaming Flamingo to be ruthless with her double swords, and that she had a fair bit of fire magic. But Erika didn’t have time to waste—or could this girl help lead her to Jinyu quicker? “I don’t know. I thought you would know with all the Wu men after him.”

 

Barley brown eyes framed by spikey burgundy lashes narrowed. “So, are you the Black Dragon’s new woman?”

 

And Erika had to laugh out loud. “Me? With Jinyu?”

 

Zilai darted forward, slamming Erika against the wall. Arm pressed against Erika’s throat, she asked, “Then what are you?”

 

“Not someone you should mess around with lightly,” croaked Erika. “I’m the Dark One. Haven’t you ever heard of us?”

 

For a while, Zilai blinked, as if the moniker struck a familiar note—she never paid much attention to her brother’s long ramblings about the Great Five and the history of the clan warfare in Hong Kong. “I doubt the Dark One is some puny girl like you. I heard the Dark Ones were identical twins, male, unparalleled users of black magic.”

 

Erika sighed. Eron always had been the better one at talking and intimidating. No, that’s not true. She had no problem bullying people to get her own way. Wasn’t she voted the meanest girl in her grade in junior high? She’d always gotten what she wanted from people. Once, she might have been quite similar to the reckless Flaming Flamingo. 

 

“What, did you just smirk at me?” demanded Zilai, pressing her forearm into Erika’s bare throat. “Make Jinyu show up this instant. Or else, I’m going to slit your stomach open and sell all your organs to the black market.”

 

And Erika this time laughed. “Go ahead. They’re defective, so nobody would want them anyway.”  

 

Zilai found the younger girl’s unfazed laughter chilling and unsheathed a knife with her free hand and slashed it straight down, from her neck to her navel.

 

Gasping, Erika clasped her gaping sweater shut. She was lucky it had been a shallow swipe, for the blade had barely grazed her flesh. But Zilai was ready to slash down again, her blade gleaming as it swung down. Erika shut her eyes.

 

The blade didn’t strike down at her. Instead, she saw droplets of blood fall drip down on her cheek and trickle down. “Eron!”

 

Her twin brother opened a clenched eye, staring down at her. “Are you an idiot, Erika? When someone tries to stab you with a knife, dodge!”

 

“Who’s the bigger idiot? Why did you have to block it?” demanded Erika. “We have powers. Use your freaking magic! I was going to if you didn’t interfere!”

 

Eron staggered back, clutching his shoulder. “I saw some crazy woman trying to slash you with a knife—my body acted first.” Luckily, Zilai hadn’t cut him deeply. His hand glowed, and the bleeding stopped, though that didn’t stop the throbbing.

 

And Erika stared up at him. Eron was not the type of person to act rashly—he was logical, thought ahead. Seeing Sakura die in front of his eyes must have unhinged him. Why was he even here?

 

Eron unzipped his light beige jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. Erika gratefully took it and zipped up the jacket to her throat, since her sweater was ruined. She slipped her hand into her twin’s and faced Zilai, who seemed to have been caught off guard by Eron’s appearance. “You see, the previous great Dark Ones, one of the twin brothers, Chang Ryouta, had another set of twins. We are those twins, and we are now the Dark Ones to carry on the legacy of our ancestors.”

 

Zilai’s eyes flitted between Erika’s smug gaze and Eron’s dead cold golden eyes that stared down at her scornfully. He was a strikingly beautiful boy, very similar to the girl, but a lot more calculating, merciless and strangely remote. She was pretty sure she could take him down physically—she doubted this frail-looking boy would be trained in martial arts, but you never knew. She didn’t want to risk it before finding the Black Dragon. She spoke into her ear pierce. “Have you tracked down the Black Dragon, Gan? Eh? What’s he doing heading in the Marunouchi direction?”

 

Erika’s eyes widened.

 

“My brother’s set up base at the Li Group Japanese headquarters? I’m heading that way.” Zilai quickly turned away.

 

Erika watched Zilai leap away. If the Wu Clan decided to seize the Li Group Tokyo headquarters, its CEO Li Daifu would throw a fit when he heard. Surely, the Li Clan would have reinforcements—the Black Dragon was strong. He wouldn’t be beaten by the idiotic second-rate Wu Clan and the likes of the washed-out mafia boss Minato Abe.

 

Eron was frowning at her. “Why are you running around getting involved in triad business? What is the Black Dragon doing if he can’t even control his people and protect you properly?”

 

“I don’t need any protection,” lashed out Erika. “I’m the Dark One. That Flaming Flamingo just caught me off guard.”

 

“I don’t care if it’s a Pink Flamingo or Flamenco,” said Eron. “I don’t ask you to live with me or listen to me or care who you associate yourself with. I don’t care if you kill or manipulate people or demolish civilization. Just stay safe, that’s all I ask of you.”

 

But my life is not worth anything without you, she wanted to tell him. But she didn’t. “What is this sickly feeling of star power I’ve been sensing? Don’t tell me Sakura is back?”

 

“Long story.”  

 

So she wasn’t dead, after all. “You must be relieved,” Erika said, peeping up at her twin. “Why are you not by her side then? Why are you here?”

 

“Odd enough, she told me to watch out for you,” Eron said. “Let the Li Clan collapse—you can escape their grasp.”

 

Erika laughed. “Eron, it’s me that’s using the Li Clan, not the other way around. I’m a Dark One. I work for no one. Unlike you.” She didn’t like the way Eron stared her with those penetrating, haunted eyes. How was it they were the same age, born minutes apart, but Eron always had the air of someone who had seen too much, knew too much of pain and loss. Was it all because of her? If she had not been so sickly in their youth, would he have been a completely different person? Had she been the one holding him back all these years? “Go. I bet Sakura’s so-called alliance needs you. After all, you’re the one who lost control, again, and set off the Insect. It was you, wasn’t it? For I certainly didn’t do it.”

 

And she spun around, heading in the direction that Zilai took after.

 

“Where are you going so urgently?” he called out, unperturbed.

 

She glanced over her shoulder at him. His white shirt was soaked with crimson blood spread from his left shoulder. Eron, who would still come to her though she had been so nasty to him over the past several months. Like that moment at the icy bridge at the Snow Queen’s castle two winters ago. She could still recall the moment Eron fell in love with Sakura. The Sakura who told him, “People have the choice to live, but they don’t have the choice to die.”

 

And Sakura had rescued the both of them from the crumbling ice castle, without any questions, without any hesitation. Sakura said, “It’s not embarrassing to help each other out in tight scrapes like this… That’s what friends are for.” Erika would never forget the ski trip, because that was the day she had lost a part of Eron to that wretched girl.

 

“Minato Abe—that washed-out yakuza leader. He’s going to ambush the Li Group headquarters,” she said.

 

“Good for him,” Eron replied snidely.

 

“They have snipers there—six of them—they’re going to shoot down the Black Dragon when he gets near them. I have to let him know.”

 

Eron grabbed her arm. “Erika, no! I’m not going to let you walk into the middle of some cesspool of violence and mafia warfare!”

 

“But I can’t just let him walk into a trap!” Erika retorted.

 

And Eron stared at her, puzzled. “So, what does the Black Dragon mean to you that you would risk so much for him?”

 

“Nothing!”

 

“Then the Li Clan? Li Leiyun holds you that tightly under his grasp? A Chang working for the Lis. What a joke. What does he hold over you?”

 

“You’re working for an Amamiya, aren’t you? What’s the difference? At least my heart is my own,” retorted Erika. “It’s all a means to an end. Remember, you are the one who ditched me, not the other way around!” Turning around, she walked briskly northward towards Marunouchi in Chiyoda District, right next to Minato District where Tokyo Tower was located.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The former Thief of the Night stared at the 50-floor skyscraper where the Li Group was headquartered watching a sniper positioned in a building across from the Li Group HQ, hiding behind the shaded windows on the 20th floor. His eyes flickered to the streets. They were mostly local hooligans who were trying to break into the lobby of the building—which should have more guards even though it was a Saturday. Of course the Lis must have called out most of their able-bodied men for protection around their hotel and for tracking down the Wu Clan.

 

Kai’s eyes caught a glinting in another building next to the Li Group HQ—a regular person wouldn’t be able to spot them. But there was more than one sniper. How many were there? He scanned around the buildings. One to the east of the building. And he was pretty sure there much be at least another sniper positioned to the south. At least four snipers were guarding the Li Group HQ in the midst of an ambush. Who were they targeting? They did not seem to be Li snipers—they would be a lot more discreet of course.

 

He frowned as he spotted a girl with violet hair walk down the sidewalk towards the Li building. That idiot—why was Erika walking through the clear plaza—didn’t the Lis block off the neighborhood so that outsiders couldn’t enter? There were other offices located in the Li Group building—Kai hoped that the Lis had enough common sense to let those employees out. He glanced over at the north-post sniper—he was aiming his rifle at her—no. It was Jinyu. Jinyu had somehow managed to sneak into the building west of the Li Group HQ. Had the Black Dragon noticed Erika yet? Did he know there were at least four snipers targeting him?

 

He saw a red laser dot blinking off the back of Erika’s head. She was a target!

 

 

 

Erika scanned the street from the alley across from the Li Group building—it was surprisingly empty. She had been pretty sure the Black Dragon would be around here somewhere. Where were the snipers? She squinted her eyes up at the overcast sky. They would usually be located in a hide site somewhere high up. North, east, west and south. There, she spotted one sniper—there was a shadow on the rooftop of a building left of the Li HQ. The other five must be similarly positioned around the square. She heard a blank fire and shrieks within the building. The Wu men must have taken hostages inside. Jinyu should be nearby. Where could he be? She knew he wouldn’t be walking out in the open. Skulking quietly in the shadows, sneaking up. And she spotted him, scaling the inside a lower floor the same building as the west-point sniper. If she had spotted the Black Dragon, it was a matter of time before the assassins did. And she saw a glint of metal from the building across the street from the Li Group HQ, perhaps the 20th floor or so. The sniper must have spotted Jinyu. She had do alert him somehow.

 

That’s right, she had to act as a decoy. Erika burst out into middle of the plaza. Sure enough, she spotted a red laser flicker on her shoulder, but she dared not turn around. This time, she knew that Jinyu had seen her. “They’re not going to shoot and give away their hiding location so easily,” she told herself, as she prayed Jinyu would look up and spot that there was more than one sniper. Jinyu was crouched behind a windowsill. She saw a gleam of metal in his hand. He had his pistol—but could it match the snipers’ long-range precision rifles? To her alarm, she saw a red laser dot flash on his forehead. It must be the south-post sniper. She knew Jinyu must have spotted at least two of the snipers, but did he know that there was one on the south side?

 

She held out her palm and a swarm of gray moths came flocking down, surrounding the building, sticking to the windows, clouding everyone’s vision, even her own.

 

A bullet whizzed past her head. She heard a window crash above her, near where Jinyu had been standing a second ago. Several more rounds whizzed by from different directions and more glasses cracked. Erika fell to her knees, knowing she had to run for shelter, except she was in the middle of the open square with nowhere to run to.

 

And she felt a strong hand grab her wrist and pull her through the swarm of moths. Who?

 

A pair of steady amber eyes were fixed on her, and Syaoran mouthed to her, “Follow me.”

 

She nodded, and Syaoran drew her toward the Li HQ, through a hidden emergency exit. Shutting the door behind them, Erika collapsed on the steps, wheezing for breath, shaking some stray moths from her hair.

 

Syaoran frowned at her. “What are you doing here, Erika?”

 

Erika scowled back. “I heard from Minato Abe that there were six snipers positioned around the building to take down the Black Dragon.”

 

And Syaoran looked taken aback. “You were trying to warn Jinyu? Didn’t you think he would already know this?”

 

She blinked, feeling foolish all of a sudden. Of course the Black Dragon would have figured this out. And where had Syaoran been hiding out—she hadn’t noticed him sneak up to her until he touched her.

 

“Good thinking with the moths, though,” said Syaoran. “It might prove a good enough distraction outside for Jinyu to take down the west-point sniper.”

 

“What about the other ones?” she asked.

 

“If I’m not mistaken, Kai is eying the north post, and Kara’s got the east. I’m going to tackle the south.”

 

“What about me?”

 

“You stay here and make sure no hostages are harmed.”

 

“Excuse me?” Erika scowled. What did Syaoran think he was, bossing her around like she was some subordinate of the Li Clan?

 

 

 

From his vantage point from the roof of the building diagonally across the street from the Li HQ, the tallest building in the neighborhood, Kai strung his arrow to his silver bow, aiming at the sniper located on the north post, the key gunman to take down location-wise.

 

To Kai’s surprise, Erika halted in the middle of the street, as if beckoning the snipers to shoot at her. What was she doing? And he realized—she was trying to distract the snipers. She raised up her hand, and a swarm of moths streamed down from all directions of the city, clouding the streets. Kai swore—he lost his target. And he heard gunshots and crashing windows. He froze for a second, the exploding sound reverberating through his bones, and then took a deep breath. He squinted down at the streets and saw Syaoran drag Erika away from the square towards the Li building. The Black Dragon must have dodged as well, though there were several bullet holes in the building across from them. More shots were fired at the streets.

 

“Dratted indiscreet mafia, this is going to turn into a shooting spree,” muttered Kai. From the corner of his eyes, he saw that the Black Dragon was making his way up the floors to where the west sniper was located. More gunshots sounded. Three snipers were aiming at Jinyu now. “I have no reason to stick around, do I? Erika’s safe, since Syaoran’s here, and it’ll be a matter of time before Jinyu takes control of the Li Group HQ again.”

 

But he barely dodged a bullet that whizzed past him. He looked up and saw through the swarm of moths that the west sniper, a man with a black ski hat covering his face, had spotted him and was aiming his rifle at him. There was no cover on the roof.

 

He ducked another bullet, this one grazing the side of his arm. It wasn’t even a deep cut but the smell of salty blood brought him back to that night where he heard the sound of the police sirens, shouts of voices and the clashing sound of bullets. As several more rounds of bullets flew his direction, an arm dragged him down on the floor of the roof.

 

He tried to look up, brushing off the silky black locks of hair obstructing his view.

 

“Keep down, you idiot. Do you have a death wish?” Meilin hissed at him, dragging him closer to the ledge, holding him to her with one arm, as if knowing he had broken out in cold sweat. “Shh, take a deep breath. It’s all right. You can do this.”  

 

“How did you find me?” asked Kai, breathing out slowly, wondering how Meilin knew he had been having a panic attack.

 

She grinned, showing him his laptop pointing to a blinking red heart. “I tracked you of course.”

 

“How?”

 

Meilin slipped her hand into his trouser pocket and slipped out her golden bracelet. “You think I haven’t picked a few sleight of hand tricks after spending all this time with you, my silly thief?” And a dove landed on her shoulder. Several more doves were sauntering around the rooftop, keeping watch.

 

He managed to smile at her weakly. “I feel pretty useless now.”

 

“Seriously, what are you doing going into the middle of a shooting spree when you have an aversion to guns? I mean, don’t you hate the Li Group? Shouldn’t you be the one orchestrating the ambush?” Meilin then stared up at a building east of the Li HQ, where a golden-haired girl had snuck up behind another sniper. “I see.”

 

“Meilin, get down to a lower floor—there’s no shelter here,” said Kai.

 

Meilin shook her head. “I heard there are hostages in the Li HQ. I’ve got to check the situation in there.”

 

“I saw Syaoran and Erika go into the lobby—they’re going to have things under control,” said Kai.

 

“I heard from Tomoyo’s police intel that the mobsters have blockaded all the stairwells and shut down the elevators. Besides, look, Syaoran’s heading out to take down a sniper on the other side of the building. And you know Erika’s not going to save the hostages.”

 

“So, what are you doing to do?” demanded Kai.

 

Meilin took out a black boomerang attached to strong piano string and let it sail across the building onto the ledge of the Li HQ rooftop. She tugged it once to make sure it was anchored properly.

 

“What are you doing, where’d you my equipment!” exclaimed Kai. “Meilin—no!”

 

Without paying any heed, Meilin swung herself into the Li building’s higher floors, kicking open a window with her heels and landing inside niftily.

 

Kai groaned. Even through the moths, the north sniper had spotted her and was targeting her. But clever Meilin made her way into the center of the building, where she could not be spotted.

 

“If I don’t get a heart attack from that girl,” he grumbled to himself. He looked around and jumped across onto the roof of building that the two north snipers was located. Then, he lowered himself down the building, to the 20th floor. One sniper, crouched towards the northwest side of the building, had not noticed him yet, focused on Meilin through the rangefinder.

 

“The Li Group is going to have a lot of repair fees,” Kai muttered gleefully. And he threw himself at the sniper, who finally realized someone had snuck up behind him. He kneed Kai in the stomach. Kai grabbed the man’s arm and tried to yank away the rifle, but the sniper slammed the butt of the rifle into his chest.

 

Kai sputtered, wind knocked out of his lungs for a second. Again, he threw his body at the sniper knocking him to the ground, but the man refused to let go of his rifle, kicking Kai off of him. He pointed the gun at Kai.

 

“Put your hands up, or else I’m going to shoot!” the sniper said.

 

Kai backed up, taking a deep breath. “Can’t we talk this out civilly?”

 

“Stand over there!” ordered the sniper. “Who sent you here?”

 

“My own darned meddlesome butt,” muttered Kai. And he lunged forward at the man, swiping the rifle out of his hand. But the man twisted under his grip and pinned him to the ground, pointing a hidden handgun at Kai’s chest, just where the scar of his old bullet wound rested.

 

“You scared, huh?” The gunman’s yellow teeth were bared in what could be a grin or snarl. “The other snipers are yakuza underlings, but I trained in the armed forces. And they sent an amateur like you to take me down?” 

 

“Who ordered you here?” asked Kai.  

 

“Does it matter?”

 

“Was it the Wu Clan? Wu Zilai? Or Wu Zian?”

 

“Who?”

 

Kai frowned. Somebody was acting independently from the Li Clan and Wu Clan, or else, just had not informed this sniper in detail who he was working for.

 

“Did Taoka Yoshinori send you?” asked the sniper. He jammed the muzzle of the gun harder into Kai’s chest. “Answer me!”

 

And then, Kai heard a splinter of glasses and a silver bullet sprouted in the middle of the man’s right shoulder, his whole arm going limp. The man keeled over, unconscious, but he was still breathing.

 

Kai looked out the window to see Kara, from the east building, sling a rifle over her shoulder. Another man lay at her feet.

 

 

 

Meilin peered at both ends of the hallway. Based on Kai’s trackers, most of the Wu men and hired thugs were blockading the lobby’s exits and stairwells, and all the hostages were being held in the HSBC bank located on the first floor of the Li Group building. There seemed to only be employees of the building since it was a Saturday. But the Gold Leopard was surely hiding out somewhere on the top floor, and she was going to find him. The Great Elder had always told her it was useless to fight the underlings. “Always go for the leader to end the fight as quickly and with as few casualties as possible,” he had advised her and Syaoran. She unsheathed her twin butterfly swords that once belonged to Li Shulin, Ryuuga and Shyuura, and kicked open the door to the CEO’s office.

 

There sat the Gold Leopard at the big oak table, on the swiveling chair, chin rested on his two hands laced together. The shades behind him were drawn, covering the magnificent view of the Tokyo skyline.

 

“Why, we meet again, my glorious creature of fire,” murmured Wu Zian in their native Cantonese, as if he had been awaiting her.  

 

“Excuse me?” Meilin scowled.

 

“I was expecting they were going to send up Jinyu or at least one of the higher ups. But all the better news for me, I suppose, they sent you instead.”

 

“Nobody sent me. I came here of my own volition to demand you release all hostages downstairs immediately.”

 

“We’re holding hostages?” Zian asked. “I guess my men got bored. They won’t be harmed—it’s not our thing to hurt civilians. Unnecessarily.”

 

“And call off the snipers targeting Li Jinyu.”

 

This time, Zian looked genuinely puzzled. “What snipers?”

 

“The ones positioned on each side of the plaza, to take down the Black Dragon.”

 

He frowned slightly. “I did not order any snipers. You must be mistaken.”

 

“Look out,” Meilin said.

 

Zian did push his chair back and peeked through the shades. He smiled grimly. “They must not have been very good snipers. They seem to be knocked out. Don’t you know my assassins would not be detectable and won’t leave behind such a mess?”

 

Meilin tapped her foot impatiently. “If you are the leader, stop hiding up here like a coward and take responsibility for all the mayhem that all your men are causing. Do you know how expensive the window glasses are in this economy? And the lobby floor your clumsy men are trampling over is Italian imported marble!”

 

“Oh. But one of your comrades seems to have entered the lobby and is taking care of the hostage situation,” remarked Zian.

 

He didn’t have any earpiece, so there was nobody giving him reports, and he didn’t have any computers or any CCTV footage in front of him. How did he know what was going on in the lobby? And why was Zian up here, without a single man or bodyguard?

 

As if reading her mind, Zian told him, “I can sense things happening around me without being physically present. It’s a nifty talent to have, as a triad member.”

“Or for a pervert,” mumbled Meilin.

 

“Well, the snipers are down, and the hostages are being released,” said Zian. “Looks like you came all the way up here for no reason. Well, we really just need one hostage, after all.” He stood up from the swiveling chair.

 

Meilin stared around the office. She could handle Zian on her own, she was pretty sure. She had fought him last time. She scowled. “I’ll defeat you, so that the Wu Clan will withdraw from Tokyo for once and for all.”

 

“I would like to see you try,” remarked Zian. “You do look so pretty when you are fighting. Like a fiery butterfly, with the red tassels of your swords swirling around you and your black hair like a tail.”

 

“You’re a creep,” remarked Meilin. 

 

Zian grinned, white teeth flashing. “I just have a thing for Li women.”

 

She decided it was best to catch him off guard and sprinted up at him with the swords crossed in front of her. She jumped atop the expensive oak desk and swung down her blades, aiming to knock down the Gold Leopard. And again, like the other time, he twisted out from underneath her like a snake and slammed her back atop the large desk, knocking away her swords as if they had been plastic toys. Before she could recover from the impact, he yanked off his black necktie and tied her wrists up expertly and pegged it down with a knife, blade piercing straight through the wood of the desk. 

 

“Let go of me!” Meilin shrieked, jerking her wrists and kicking up her legs.

 

“Maybe I will, if you kiss me again,” said Zian looking down at her with a lazy smile. “I wouldn’t call that other one earlier today quite satisfying.” He watched her with his predator-like eyes and bent over her head.

 

Meilin squirmed to turn her face away, but his hand held down her arms, and she couldn’t budge. And his lips closed on hers, stifling out her scream. She bit down hard. She tasted saltiness.

 

He broke away, and touched his bleeding lower lip, bemused. “You bit me?”

 

She glared up at him with her ruby-like eyes. “You dared to touch me without my permission?”  

 

“What’s the use of running, Meilin?” Zian asked with a sigh. “Didn’t you hear the Wu Clan Head has prophetic skills? You are going to be mine, someday. Why avoid fate?”

 

“In you dreams,” said Meilin.

 

“Well, I’ve always liked a challenge,” said Zian, licking his lips. “It makes the chase all the more fun.”

 

A woman in a black qipao burst into the room. “Boss, some brat calling herself the Black Dragon’s girlfriend is asking to exchange herself for the release of all the hostages.” She paused and saw a girl in pigtails tied to the desk. “Zian, are you womanizing in the middle of a takedown of the Li Clan?”

 

Zian grinned lazily. “This girl is a Li.”

 

“Nice, we have a Li woman as hostage? The Black Dragon will have a fit when he hears. Which one is she? Not one of the infamous four demonic sisters of the Chosen One?”

 

He waved her away. “Just go, Becky. Tell my men to release all the hostages. They can do what they want with the Li men. And don’t send anybody up for the next hour or so. I’ll be very busy.”

 

The woman chuckled as she left the room.

 

“Why are you trying to take down the Li Clan?” Meilin asked, as she struggled with the knots of the tie—it was done up securely and was cutting off the circulation in her wrists.

 

“Did I ever say that was my goal?” Zian smiled. “I think I might reconsider if I can have you as my conciliation prize.”

 

She concluded that the Gold Leopard was unreasonable and absolutely dangerous as he watched her with those perilous eyes through layers of sun-kissed golden bangs.

 

“You find me attractive, don’t you?” he murmured. “Most women do. Men too.”  

 

There was no denying that the Gold Leopard was attractive. Meilin looked away from the mesmerizing caramel-colored pupils. Syaoran had straightforward eyes that seemed to look directly into your soul. Kai’s eyes were marble-like and distant, as if he was hiding sorrow and secrets. But Zian’s eyes were slippery, as if they were trying to hypnotize and mock you, like an animal ready to pounce on a prey.  

 

He traced her leg delicately with one finger and said, “I have a magnificent butterfly collection. I would like to add you to that.”

 

For a brief second, Meilin recalled a the horrible stories of the Hong Kong triads that she had grown up hearing from her older cousins, of girls and boys sold into brothels and never heard from again, organs slit out of a live victim’s body, or fingers, toes and limbs severed off as punishment for traitors. Zian wasn’t that inhumane, was he? She had heard plenty enough about the cruel and merciless Wu Clan—but surely some rumors were exaggerated because of the bad blood between their families.

 

“Why did you break off your engagement with your cousin?” he asked.

 

“What?”

 

“Your cousin Syaoran. I thought you were dead set on marrying him.”

 

Meilin frowned. “That is none of your business, I believe.” Zian was awfully curious about Syaoran, every time they met.

 

“What if I tell you it may change the course of where this battle between our clans leads to,” he told her.

 

“I doubt it would.”

 

“You don’t seem like the girl who would ever waiver should you have your eyes set on a goal, Meilin.”

 

“I’m not,” she replied shortly. “If you have to know, I promised him that I would break up with him should he ever finds someone he loves more than me.” It was a fact she had only told Tomoyo.

 

“I see. Well, he is a foolish one, not recognizing a true gem when he spots one. You are a woman of honor, who keeps your words,” said Zian. He was not taunting her but smiled down at her kindly, almost sympathetically.

 

At that moment, a silver arrow smashed through the window and embedded itself into the wall behind them with a twang. Meilin glanced up and saw Kai leap onto the windowsill with a ferocious scowl on his face. When Kai saw Meilin tied up to the desk, most of her legs exposed, he was ready to stab his entire quiver of arrows into the Gold Leopard’s throat.

 

“What are you doing to Meilin!” shouted Kai, leaping atop Zian like a wildcat, casting aside his bow and arrows, the muzzle of the handgun he had taken from the sniper earlier pointed straight at Zian’s forehead.

 

“And the impetuous porcupine bandit appears again. Do you even know how to use that?” asked Zian with a crooked smile, flicking away the pistol carelessly.

 

“Kai!” exclaimed Meilin. “Don’t harm the Wu Clan’s head. If you kill him, you will ruin all chance of a truce between our clans.”

 

“Listen to the Li girl—she’s always right,” said Zian with a snicker.

 

For a second, Kai trembled, and then he smacked his fist into Zian’s jaw. He stood up and cut Meilin away from the desk with his pocketknife, helping her regain circulation by rubbing her arms and fingers. “Did he hurt you in anyway?” Then he touched her lip. “There’s blood.”

 

“I’m not hurt,” replied Meilin.

 

And Kai spun around and saw the blood on Zian’s lip. “That’s it.” He flung his silver pocketknife, then another from his pocket at Zian. The Gold Leopard dodged lightly without shifting his feet.

 

“Wait, Kai,” called out Meilin. “Stop.”

 

“Why are you defending him?” demanded Kai, puzzled.

 

“Can’t help fate. Mutual attraction, the raw, passionate, sizzling kind,” murmured Zian.

 

Kai blanched and turned to Meilin.

 

“Don’t listen to that freak.” Meilin stared up at Zian. She had thought he had wanted to take down the Black Dragon, but Jinyu was near, and he had not budged. “Who are you waiting for?”

 

“Someone wise once told me, ‘always go for the leader to end the fight as quickly and with as few casualties as possible,’” he said.

 

“That depends on the leader. You’ll never get anywhere with the current Head of the Li Clan, Li Wutai,” said Meilin.

 

“But that means some others can be negotiable, aren’t I correct?” asked Zian.

 

“That’s right,” she replied. “As Chosen One, Syaoran has always been fair. And he’s the only one who can stand up to Uncle Wutai.”

 

Kai stared at Meilin. “What are you saying? Are you trying to incite some mutiny within the Li Clan?”

 

Zian had made his way to the window that Kaitou Magician had uncouthly crashed through, peering at the streets below. “Look what my hellfire sister has gotten herself into. I guess this meeting here is inevitable, but duty unavoidably calls. Farewell, my delightful goddess of the ruby eyes. Till I see you again.” He jumped out.

 

Meilin rolled her eyes. “What ever happened to the use of a good old door?”

 

Kai frowned. “Why are we letting him go again? He tried to—on the desk—” He couldn’t even bring himself to finish describing what the Zian might have done to Meilin.

 

“I’m fine. Zian ordered the release of all the hostages. I got what I wanted from him.”

 

“You call…this no harm?” Kai waved at the remnants of the shredded tie, the knife dents on the desk and the scuffmarks on the floor. “Or is what he said true? Are you actually attracted to that psychotic leopard freak?”

 

Meilin sighed. When Kai was being unreasonable, there was no use in conversing with him. “I’m going to check out the damage downstairs and check if no hostages were left behind. You do what you want.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

There were around two dozen Wu Clan and affiliated hooligans blockading the lobby of the Li group headquarters. The building was owned by the Li Group and the upper floors of the 50-story building were the Li Group’s Tokyo offices, but the lower floors were leased out to various businesses including airlines, law firms and investment banks. Luckily, it was a Saturday, so the few people that had been working seemed to be Li Group-affiliated, and there were no regular civilians being held hostage. Erika counted the number being guarded by the thug-like men, and she thought there couldn’t be more than ten people locked inside the HSBC bank on the first floor of the building.

 

Syaoran had told Erika to keep in hiding while he was gone, and she did not know why she had to listen to him, but at this point, she didn’t particularly want to face off the hooligans either. She heard footsteps. The ladies’ room was open—she quickly ducked inside the stalls as she listened to the footsteps pass by. And then, she heard it. A sniffle and a sob. Tentatively, she opened the end stall door. A little girl, around seven or eight, sat on the shut toilet seat, rolls of tears streaking her chubby cheeks. She gasped when she was Erika. “W-who are you?” the girl asked.

 

“Shhh,” Erika said, placing her finger to her lips. Why was a little girl inside here? Did anyone know she was here? “My name is Erika. Chang Erika. Tell me who you are, and why you are hiding here?”

 

“M-my mom works upstairs, and then the bad men came and shouted at everyone to take the stairs down and go inside the bank. But my mom hid me underneath her desk, and they didn’t see me.”

 

“Your mom works for the Li Group?” asked Erika.

 

The girl with her hairs braided into two pigtails nodded. “She’s a receptionist. She let me come with her to work today because it’s a Saturday. I kept waiting for her to come back, but she didn’t. So I tried to find her, but there were scary men guarding all the doors on the first floor.”

 

“So you hid in the bathroom?”

 

The girl nodded. “B-but I’m hungry and thirsty. And I want to go home. Is my mommy okay? And who are the bad men? Why isn’t the police coming?”

 

Erika sighed. What was she going to do with a little kid? Eron was always better with children, but he was not here. She glanced around the bathroom—there were no windows. Then they heard a gunshot echo inside the building. The girl yelped and threw herself into Erika’s chest.

 

“Shh—you can’t make any sounds, or the bad men will come find us,” Erika whispered. Who was shot? It came from the direction of the bank. “Tell me, what’s your name?”

 

“My name is Risa,” the girl replied. “What’s going to happen to us?”

 

Erika smiled wryly. “Hang in there, Risa, help’s coming. I think.”

 

Then they heard two more gunshots.

 

Little Risa cried out. “Mommy! My mommy!”

 

“What’s that?” came a voice outside.

 

“I don’t know. Hey, Gan, did you check the bathrooms?” replied another man.

 

Erika drew the little girl closer to her and sat further back into the stall, making sure their feet were up on the toilet seats. If she was alone, she could escape easily, but with Risa, there was not much she could.

 

“Hey, little mouse, I can hear you breathing,” said the man called Gan, kicking open each stall door. He yanked open the final door. “Ha, found you!” He yelped when a cloud of moths attacked his bald head, and Erika, drawing Risa close to her, bolted out of the bathroom.

 

Another thug spotted her and shouted, “Look, there was someone else in the building!”

 

Erika, holding Risa’s hand tightly, ran down another hallway, towards the elevators, but they were surrounded. She wrapped a protective arm around the little girl. Nobody was coming to rescue them. She had to think, and quickly. “Don’t hurt the girl. Let her go—she’s just a child!”

 

“We can’t let her go—she’ll run off and tell the police,” laughed Gan, who appeared to be a member of the Hong Kong triads based on his slurred Japanese.

 

Two men dragged Erika and Risa into the bank with the other hostages, who were not tied up but sat against the wall, with armed men lined up, ready to shoot them should they move.

 

“Is your mom there?” whispered Erika. Risa nodded.

 

“Go stand over there with your hand against the wall!” said Gan. “Chiman, I brought more captives that were hiding in the bathroom—why isn’t the Black Dragon showing up?”

 

Erika was shoved towards the wall, but little Risa ran to her mother, who embraced her tearfully. “Risa-chan, Risa-chan, are you hurt?”

 

Despite orders to face the wall, Erika stared around at the hostages, mostly women and one young man who looked like a clerk. They watched her fearfully. “How long have you been held here?” she whispered to Risa’s mother, who held her daughter dearly.

 

“T-two hours,” replied the woman.

 

“Is anyone hurt? I heard gunshots,” Erika said.

 

“No, one of the secretaries tried to escape, and the men shot at the wall to intimidate us,” she replied.

 

Erika glanced over her shoulder and counted the number of men armed with guns. Seven—but the others might have hidden weapons. She could use some magic to distract them and help the hostages escape, but it seemed too risky. And they would have to clear both the bank’s clear glass door, guarded both on the inside and outside. Then, the nearest exit was through the lobby’s main entrance door, which was guarded even more heavily. There was no way to move a group of a dozen people without attracting attention. 

 

Risa began to sniffle again. “I’m scared. I miss papa! I want to go home.”

 

A Hong Kong triad captain, named Chiman, barked, “Make the girl shut up!”

 

Risa’s mother, trembling, held her daughter closer to her.

 

Erika glanced over the terrified faces of the hostages and with a frown turned around.

 

Chiman fired a blank shot into the ceiling. “You, girl, turn around and face the wall.”

 

“My name is Chang Erika,” said Erika, chin high. “You don’t need all the other hostages. Let them go. I will be sufficient enough. I’m the Black Dragon’s girlfriend.”

 

The gangster members mumbled between themselves.

 

“It’s not triad policy to involve innocent civilians,” Erika said. “I can’t imagine Jinyu will be happy to know that you’re holding a dozen Japanese hostages.”

 

“They work for the Li Group, it’s fine,” spat out Gan.

 

“They are employees for the corporation—they are not Lis,” said Erika. “They have no value to the Li Clan. But the Black Dragon will definitely come to save me.”

 

“How do we know you aren’t lying?” demanded Gan.

 

Chiman said, “Wait, I’ve seen that girl around Jinyu a lot. Her and the violet-eyed witch. Not sure if she’s telling the truth, but she’s definitely involved with the Black Dragon. I’ve seen her in and out of the Li Estate. Becky, go check with the boss if we should release the others.” A woman in a tight black qipao nodded and headed out.

 

“He’s always had women flock around him,” snorted Gan. “She’s just one of them. Watch, he won’t come for her. He never has for the others.” 

 

What others, Erika wondered.

 

“Better not let the Flamingo hear—she’ll throw a fit,” remarked Chiman. “Where did she disappear off to by the way?”

 

Some time after, the woman in the black qipao walked back into the bank. “The Gold Leopard says to let go of all the hostages.”

 

“What?” demanded Chiman. “We’ve got to keep them as leverage to get the Li Clan to do what we want!”

 

“Well, Zian’s doing plenty of leveraging with a Li girl upstairs,” said Becky “I said it’s a stupid idea, invading the Li HQ. And there’s a kid here—are you guys idiots?”

 

“Fine, release the others—we can keep this one,” said Chiman, tugging Erika’s arm.

 

Erika scowled. “Don’t touch me with your filthy hands.”

 

“The Leopard said to let everyone go,” said Becky.

 

Gan replied, “Well, this girl claimed she was the Black Dragon’s girlfriend, and she volunteered to stay behind.”

 

Little Risa gave Erika a tight hug. “Onee-san, stay safe. I’m sure your boyfriend will come for you.” Risa’s mother put her arms around her daughter tearfully and mouthed to Erika, “Thank you,” as the hostages exited out of the bank, escorted out by the mafia.

 

And Erika found herself standing alone in the bank, with the members of the Hong Kong triads and their cronies. “Well, good riddance. I’m so glad all those whining annoying hostages are gone.” She found a chair to sit on.

 

“Who told you to sit?” demanded Chiman, pointing the gun at her again.

 

“My legs hurt,” snapped Erika. “Someone, bring me some ice water.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I said, I’m thirsty. Bring me some ice water,” said Erika.

 

“You get it yourself!”

 

Erika crossed her arms. “I would, but you told me not to move from this spot.”

 

“Gan, bring her royal highness some water,” barked Chiman.

 

And Erika took the paper cup from Gan ungraciously. “It’s lukewarm.”

 

“Well, there is no ice machine here!” retorted Gan.

 

“And the hostages were all thanking that girl. That’s no heroine,” grumbled Chiman. “She’s a demon.” 

 

“Why isn’t the Black Dragon coming for you?” demanded Gan.

 

Erika looked up from her paper cup. “Oh, you actually thought he’d really come for me? How gullible are you?”

 

Gan sputtered, “What do you mean? Then what are we doing sitting around here if all the hostages are gone, and you’re not worth anything?”

 

“I don’t know,” replied Erika, setting down her paper cup and flipping through a fashion magazine on the magazine rack of the bank. “Personally, I’d rather be in here, away from all those bugs flying about outside. And I figured, with the Black Dragon busy taking care of business outside, eliminating the snipers and all, the less of you are out there on the streets creating a ruckus, the smoother things would be.”

 

Chiman snarled and tried to open the bank door. “Hey, it’s not opening!”

 

“What are you saying?” said the female triad member, trying another door. The other men began pounding on the glass door.

 

Erika smiled serenely, crossing her legs out in front of her. “Now who’s the real hostage?”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Kinomoto Sakura tried not to shriek when a locust almost smacked into her face as she swerved up higher into the sky on the Fly. She pierced through the remnants of the Shield that Syaoran had cast over the city to gain better vantage point. From high above the city, she stared down in dread as she realized that the black patches that from afar simply looked like clouds were clusters of locusts, moths, flying cockroaches and other ginormous bugs.

 

She had to lure them all together before she could seal them. What attracted bugs? Light attracted moths. Blood attracted mosquitos. Something that could lure them all. While Sakura knew she had to focus on the Insect, foremost, her eyes flitted around the city, looking for the boy with brown hair.

 

That’s right. The Scent. She could lure the Insect with the Scent.

 

From Marunouchi, Meilin craned her neck as the sun was veiled in a whirring black sheet that covered the sky like an eclipse. “What’s going on? Where are all the locusts going?” she asked Yue, staring up at the darkened sky. They could see swarms of insects all heading in the same direction, westward.

 

“Something is drawing them,” said Yue, wings spread, taking off into the sky to have a better vantage point.

 

“What is this smell?” asked Spinel Sun, sniffing the air. A nauseating sweet smell filled his nostrils.

 

“Look, it’s Sakura-senpai!” exclaimed Miho, from near Tokyo Tower, pointing at the sky. Sure enough, Sakura was flying through the sky, straddling her winged staff. And she was holding what seemed like a vial overhead.

 

“What is she holding?” asked Ruby Moon, squinting up. She sniffed the air. “What is this aroma? Makes me feel woozy.”

 

“It’s the smell! The smell is luring the Insect!” remarked Spinel Sun.

 

“What smell?” asked Miho.

 

Sure enough, Sakura landed atop a high building nearby and called out, “Scent! Windy!” The Windy carried the sickening sweet scent far and wide throughout the city and more and more swarms of insects buzzed and fluttered overhead.

 

“I see,” Eriol said with a nod of his head. “Luring in the Insect with the Scent. Very clever. Other methods could have killed off real insects, but she’s only drawing the dark force to her through the special aroma.”

 

“When did Sakura have the Scent Card?” asked Cerberus. “It’s not one of the originals. Nor anything she caught recently.”

 

“Well, she’s been surprising us quite frequently, recently,” Eriol remarked. “Another mystery about her clone resolved. I wonder what she has up her sleeves next.”

 

Tomoyo had joined them, holding up her video camera. There was something quite cinematic about Sakura, standing atop a building, holding up her staff as swarms of all sorts of winged bugs gathered overhead like a black buzzing cloud. 

 

“Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!” And she waved the new card to the others.

 

“Sakura can still seal dark forces!” squealed Tomoyo. “She’s real.”

 

“What, you thought she might be a clone, after all?” Eriol said with mirth.

 

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” said Tomoyo, as she zoomed her camcorder lens into Sakura’s face as she waved the Insect card to show them that the dark force was sealed. “But if this is a dream, I prefer this reality.”

 

Li Clan members seemed to have noticed the vanished insects as well, and finally seemed to have pinpointed the cause.

 

Sakura turned around as a group of men wearing the black and white Li crest came up to the rooftop and gaped at her. They pointed to her and stammered, “But we saw her die. Is she a g-gh-gh..”

 

Sakura helped out. “Ghost?”

 

The men screamed and fled the other direction.

 

Sakura tilted her head. “Hoe. So that’s what it feels like to be on receiving end.”

 

 

 

From a little distance away, Li Wutai frowned, as he saw the green-eyed girl in a white dress edged with black point-lace, holding up the Sakura Cards. “What is going on here? Didn’t Kinomoto Sakura die?”

 

“Well, apparently not,” said Leiyun with a wry smile. “Maybe she’s a ghost. Or an illusion.”

 

“I don’t think ghosts can seal dark forces,” snapped Li Daifu.

 

“I knew Sakura-sama wouldn’t die so easily,” murmured Wei.

 

“We saw her killed—and Syaoran became the Master of the Clow. What is going on here? Does someone care to explain to me?” barked Wutai. “Where is Li Syaoran? Fetch him to me.”

 

“Well, he sort of disappeared,” said Leiyun.

 

“What do you mean he disappeared?” demanded Wutai.

 

“He’s been missing for half the day,” replied Leiyun.

 

Wutai’s beady black eyes flashed. “And nobody cared enough to report this to me?” 

 

“Well, if you haven’t noticed Father, we have been busy fending off the Wu Clan,” said Leiyun

 

“Wutai, this is not what you said we’ve come to Tokyo for,” said Daifu. “Syaoran’s proved his loyalty to the Clan. And I’ve done my part, reassuring the Japanese stockholders that the Li Group is stable. We should retreat, while we can, back to Hong Kong.”

 

“We will, as soon as Jinyu takes down that pesky Head of the Wu Clan, as well as his sister,” said Wutai. “And get rid of Kinomoto Sakura once and for all. Daifu, call Hong Kong HQ and tell them to send in more reinforcements.”

 

Daifu frowned. “We can’t have all our best fighters fly into Japan and leave our home unprotected. We already lost more men than we anticipated. And besides, mobilizing them would take a day at least, and by then, it might be too late.”

 

“We aren’t going to accept defeat,” Wutai said. “Leiyun, you go track down Syaoran. And Daifu, the reinforcements—”

 

“You aren’t the Great Elder, yet, brother,” said Daifu, his brows furrowing down. “Who do you think brought the Li Clan to its current wealth and influence? I modernized and built up the Li Corporation. I won’t let you take all that away with your power-play and greedy ambitions.”

 

They were interrupted as a man ran up to them, and bowed. “Elders, it appears that the Wu Clan has recruited more local yakuza than we had accounted for—the Minato-gumi is helping them take down our men.”

 

“What, that washed-out yakuza group headed by Minato Abe?” Wutai said. “What’s Jinyu doing? Don’t we have the top yakuza clan, Yamamato-gumi, on our side?”

 

“We have been reported that the Li Group Japanese Office HQ in the financial district has been under attack by the Wi Clan. Jinyu’s taking care of that business at the moment,” said Leiyun.

 

“What? And nobody though to report this to me?” demanded Daifu. “How dare those ruffians attack our property? They better not have scratched up the marble floors.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Kara Reed gave a final kick at the sniper sprawled on the cement and was satisfied he was out cold. She dissembled his rifle and tossed it away. Then she headed back to the streets, wondering if Jinyu had successfully taken down the other assassins.

 

Watching from the shadows of an abandoned ally, Kara stared up in the direction of Tokyo Tower. She saw a girl in a flimsy cream-colored dress, with a cluster of golden stars pinned to her golden-brown hair, swerve around the red and white lattice structure, a stream of locusts trailing after her like a comet tail. The magician’s blood in her thought it was a fantastic sight, the girl on a pink winged staffed swerving round and round the tower, the locusts spiraling around after her like a comet tail.

 

“That cannot be Kinomoto Sakura, can it?” she murmured to herself. “What really have you been up to, Wolf Boy?”

 

She could see two possibilities—either that was the real Sakura, and she was alive, or the Star Alliance had come up with a clever ploy to throw the Lis off guard and had created an illusion. Eriol certainly would be capable of pulling a trick like that. Or even Mikai.

 

Kara had been too distracted by the appearance of Sakura, or a look-alike, and too late, she spun around and saw a stocky man in a white suit and yellow floral-print polyester shirt, pointing his gun straight at her chest.

 

“You, you’re the witch that always hangs out next to the Black Dragon,” said Minato Abe, grinning, revealing a gold tooth.  

 

Kara smiled at him, the amethysts in her cross earrings sparkling the same shade of her eyes.  “Who are you again?”

 

Abe didn’t blink. “I’m not going to even bother taking you hostage—I’ve already figured you aren’t worth anything to the Lis—they don’t care about anyone that’s not their own blood.”

 

“Nope, and not even their own,” replied Kara, eyes set on the pistol in the man’s hand.

 

“If I sell you to the black market, you’d fetch a pretty penny with you, with your pretty gold hair,” Abe murmured. “But no, I’m going to shut those violet eyes of yours forever. You took everything away from me. I’ll return the favor.”

 

Kara smiled thinly. “What makes you think that I have anything left to be taken away?”

 

“After I kill you, I’ll find your mother, debtor’s daughter. I’ll kill her too,” said Abe.

 

“Kill her then—she’s the mother that would forsake her daughter for a man.” Kara stared at him levelly, and it was the former yakuza boss who looked away first. She took the opportunity to spring forward, swerve her hips and kick the pistol out of Minato Abe’s hand.

 

He yelped. The pistol slid across the street colliding into the bottom of a rotten crate.

 

They both lunged towards the pistol, crawling against the ground, fingers scraping against the gravel. Kara reached it first but Abe’s fingers tugged at the barrel and they yanked it back and forth, before she grabbed it away. She checked if it was loaded. It fired off. “Thanks Leon, for teaching me something useful in my life.” She twirled the semi-automatic round her finger by the trigger, then pointed at Abe.

 

“Go ahead. Shoot me,” he said. “One quick one, through my brain.”

 

“I will,” said Kara.

 

“You know what’s ironic is I saw your father’s end,” he remarked.

 

“That sleazeball is not my father,” said Kara.

 

“No, I’m talking about your real father—I knew him, we all did back then,” replied Abe thinly. “It was several years ago. The notorious Thief of the Night, with those arrogant violet eyes so like yours. He was but a clever foreign street magician turned thief, but he thought he was some hotshot. But in the end, he was chased by police, running through the allies. Nobody helped him. You’d think that someone would lend him a hand, pull him away into a hidden ally. But they didn’t. And the police had him cornered.”

 

Kara blinked, as if she could picture the man, with golden hair like hers, running, running through the allies with his magnificent black cloak fanned out behind him. It was nightmare she had frequently over the course of many years. She called out his name, but her voice was drowned out by the wailing of the sirens. “Kai was there. Kai tried to help him,” she whispered.

 

“The police shot him down like a dog. We all watched. Glad to see him go, after all that bravado,” said Abe. “He was a cocky one, the worst of all scums, and an outsider who lorded over us, pretending he was above us all. The woman flocked to him of course, since he was a novelty. I’m surprised he didn’t leave behind more violet-eyed bastards like you.” 

 

Kara to her surprise found herself knocked on her back, pistol slapped out of her hand, and Abe on top of her, fingers around her throat. “What, you’ve lost all will to fight?” Abe sneered at her.

 

“I never had much to begin with,” replied Kara calmly, not struggling as the fingers squeezed. She looked past the bloodshot man of the eyes, above at the late afternoon sky glimpsed through the towering buildings on the either side of the ally. She thought she saw what seemed like a black crow soar across the sky.

 

A raspy voice called out, “Fight back, Kara. You can take him down easily!”

 

Kara closed her eyes, recalling the boy with pretty gray-blue eyes the color of a winter morning sea, years ago when they were just kids. “I’m happy you told me about your father, Kara-senpai. You may hate him now. But at least you have the hope of maybe seeing him someday.”

 

She struggled as Abe tightened his grip around her neck, seeing black spots on the back of her lids.

 

A boy with bed-tussled hair propped himself up on his pillow, a periwinkle studs twinkling from his earlobes, and stared down at her. “Kara, when are you going to forgive Leon-san? Can’t you see he’s trying his best? He really wants another chance.”

 

She clawed at Abe’s hands, gasping for air.

 

Again at the seaside, last December, there he was, no longer a boy. “Isn’t it time for you to forgive him now? He was a broken man. He was lonely and desperate and defeated.”

 

“You need to stop blaming yourself, Kara… It’s not your fault.”

 

And she reached over, till her fingers clamped on the cold metal of the pistol. With a wobbling hand, she fired at Abe. The bullet grazed his shoulder. He yelped in pain, losing his grasp on her. She kicked his hefty weight off of her, and then scrambled to get up.  

 

Li Jinyu had caught up with them. “Are you okay, Kara?” he asked. That was about the most concern he had ever showed her, but she was too annoyed at Abe at that moment to even appreciate it. He told her, “We’ve taken back northern and western districts. I’ve sent reinforcements to Tokyo Tower, but you should return to base—” 

 

She shrugged. “Just focus on tracking down Wu Zian, I’ve got this part covered. I’ll probably chase after Abe and do away with him for good measure. Or there’s that yakuza buffoon.”

 

It was Taoka Yoshinori, the head of the Yamamoto-gumi, Japan’s top yakuza group, who jumped down from a window above them. “Black Dragon, I’ll take care of Minato—it is my fault for not taking care of him properly in the first place. I have called up reinforcements. My men are taking care of the troublemakers from the Minato-gumi. Most of the Wu men seem to be trapped inside the Li Group HQ for some reason.”

 

Jinyu stared up at the brawny man with bright orange hair tied up in a high ponytail before nodding. “I leave this to you, Taoka.”

 

With a brisk nod, Taoka dove into an ally, chasing after his mortal enemy Minato Abe.

 

Kara pointed her finger towards a street across from them. “Flamingo’s in that direction.”

 

The Black Dragon nodded and headed off single-mindedly.

 

And Kara collapsed onto a wooden crate without grace. She had to take a deep breath, alone, that’s all.

 

“You never fail to impress me, Kara,” that most familiar voice came in a drawl from above her.  

 

“If I don’t take care of myself, nobody would,” she replied, staring at the imprint left on her right hand by the pistol. “Why did you come after me?

 

“You called for me.”

 

Kara blinked at Kai, seated atop a bunch of crates stacked up across from her as if he had been there the whole time. “No I didn’t.” She paused. “It’s through the wind?”

 

“Yeah, I can hear you,” he replied. “Though I can’t see your mind.”

 

“I thought your Li princess was in danger being mauled by the Gold Leopard.”

 

“She apparently can fend for herself fine,” said Kai dryly. “You know, I thought there would be no Hong Kong family I liked less than the Li Clan, but I think the Wu Clan might have just topped that list.”

 

Kara almost smiled as she stared up at Kai in his black cloak whipping out in the wind. “So, the Card Captor is back.”

 

“Yeah, she is,” he replied with a lopsided grin.

 

“You’re glad.”

 

“Very glad.” He jumped down from the crates like a black panther and took a seat right next to her. “What now, Kara. The Li Clan is shifting—your time there is limited, I’m sure. Even Leiyun won’t protest a new order with Syaoran. And where will you go?”

 

“Why should I share that with you, Mikai,” she said. “Oh wait, is it because of the promise you made with my father?”

 

Kai said, “I want you to be happy, Kara, that’s all. I don’t think you will find happiness before you find some peace in your heart.”

 

“Happiness? Peace in my heart?” Kara raised a thin, pale brow. “Is whatever rainbows and butterflies and honey syrup virus that Kinomoto Sakura is infected with contagious or something?”

 

He leaned forward to her with a grin and whispered in her ear, “Yeah, it is.”

 

With an impish smile, she looked up at him. “Don’t give me false expectations with smooth words, Mikai. Though I admit you do not make a very gallant prince, with your gun phobia and all.”

 

“It brings back unpleasant memories,” he replied shortly. “I guess I am a reformed man after all—this glimpse back into my old lifestyle does not bode well for my nerves.”

 

“Silly boy, you were always a pacifist at heart, whatever tough act you put up,” she told him. 

 

“You know me too well. But Kara, thanks earlier. You saved me.”

 

“I was always the better marksman,” said Kara with a shrug.

 

“Give me a bow and arrow—I would be able to outshoot you any day of the week,” he said lightly.

 

Kara didn’t bother pointing out that Kai had also been able to outshoot her in the shooting range in the past. “You were shot two summers ago. You were really stupid, going around with a bullet in your chest so long. Like you had a death wish.”

 

Kai replied. “Now that I think of it, I know how foolish I was, reckless. Back then, I only had one singular objective on my mind, and I couldn’t be bothered by any distractions.”

 

“Is that why you have such a strong aversion to guns now?” asked Kara asked. “Because you nearly died then?”

 

“No. It was from before that summer,” replied Kai. “It’s why I got shot in the first place, because of a panic attack from hearing shots fired. When Leon-san was shot, I was hidden, but I saw it happen. I couldn’t help him.”

 

“He was going to die anyway,” said Kara quietly. “I knew he was going to die, and chose to let him.”

 

Kai stared at her queerly. “Kara. Leon-san knew he was going to die too. You’re not the only one with the Sight. He knew he was going to die, but he still went out that day.”

 

A chill washed over her. “What?”

 

“So stop trying to blame yourself, because you never played any role in it. It was foreordained,” he said. “He was going to die anyway, because he chose to. Though you deny it, he was so much like you.”

 

“No he wasn’t. I was never that foolhardy, cocky,” said Kara.

 

“Don’t you remember? Leon-san always blamed himself at how the Plague took down his generation of the decedents of the Great Five,” said Kai. “When he was a teen in England, he had visions of Amamiya Nadeshiko, Li Ryuuren, my mother—the other descendants like him. He learned through his visions that he was needed for the circle to be complete. That if he was there, the circle would be complete, finally rejoining a Li, Amamiya, Mizuki, Reed and Chang—they had a shot at taking down the Dark One, of sealing in the Plague completely. But he was scared, frightened of coming to Japan and facing the unknown. And he chose to ignore his visions.”

 

Kara twiddled with a silver skull ring on her forefinger. “And when he did come to Japan, it was already too late. He was filled with remorse. Guilt. If he had more courage, none of us would have gone through all of this misery. You, you would have grown up with a healthy mother. Of course, Syaoran would have had his father, and Leiyun would not have all grown twisted. Yes, I am just like the man I despite the most.”

 

“No, you are different in a key factor,” said Kai. “When you chose to save Leiyun, you chose for the future.”

 

“How do you know about that?” she asked with a sudden frown.

 

“Don’t you remember, you used to tell me your dreams of the boy encased in an iceberg, asking you to come save him?” Kai said. “When you left me, that second time, I figured you’d either you dumped me for good or gone off to find him, and it was easier on me to believe the latter. So I decided to wait again for you to return.”

 

“I know where this whole spiel is heading towards, and I’m going to say one last time, no,” said Kara. “Not even for you.”

 

“Though I find nothing in life to be certain,” said Kai stared at her straight in the eye. “I can tell you for certain, when you join, it won’t be for me. It would be because it’s Sakura who has asked.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

Syaoran watched Sakura swerve down onto a rooftop with the new Insect Card in hand, giving a thumb up to her friends below. Good job, Sakura. Of course he had no doubt she would be handle the dark force, but seeing her in action again, using her star powers and taking control of the situation with a completely unexpected strategy like she always did, gave him a nostalgic feeling. Gone were the days when he had to scold her for panicking, for becoming too emotional or caught up in the moment, for lacking certainty. The Card Mistress before him was confident and clever beyond imagination, relentless yet humane. How did she even think of using the Scent Card, and when had she even sealed it? She was everything he had thought she would become and more. And he too wanted to live up to her expectations.

 

Taking down the first sniper south of the Li Group HQ had been simple. What came to his surprise was to find that the second sniper had already been defeated—tied up to a chair, stripped to his underpants, and rifles disposed of. It was a very Eron-like touch to leave a colony of fire ants to crawl up the man’s legs—and Syaoran electrified the vicious ants, much to the sniper’s gratitude. But he left the man tied up and gagged.

 

He glanced over at the Li Group building—was it okay leaving Erika like that? He had no worry she could take care of herself, but the men were armed, and who knew how many of them were stationed in there? But it was Jinyu’s role to keep the mafia in track.

 

Except, Syaoran spotted a swirl of pink hair in the streets below and saw the girl in a bold leopard-print top charge at Jinyu with a whirring weapon that looked and sounded awfully like a chainsaw.

 

“Found you at last, Li Jinyu!” cried out the Flaming Flamingo.

 

Jinyu dodged.

 

“What, are you a coward? Why are you running away? Black Dragon, I will take you down, for once and for all!” exclaimed Zilai, chasing after Jinyu, her pink cloud of hair whipping back in the wind.

 

She withdrew her butterfly sword and in a dual motion struck down at Jinyu with a stream of fire, which he dodged carelessly. Zilai twirled both her swords over her head rapidly then charged at the Black Dragon. He swung around and began countering with a series of expert moves that never struck her body but kept her dodging.

 

“What? Are you too much of a gentleman to fight back?” she jeered at him.

 

“I will tell you this only once,” said Jinyu, his amber eyes cold. “Keep your people away from those who are unrelated to the triads.”

 

Zilai laughed, tossing her long pink mane. “Do you think you can intimidate me?”

 

And she had reinforcements, local yakuza that she had hired. Of course, they were not nearly adept as the Wu men, who were busy trying to break into the Li Group.

 

Jinyu swerved around a hefty man leaped at him with a katana. Swiftly, Jinyu took out his own double bladed jian and knocked away the katana definitely. The group of men charging at him were Japanese—most like yakuza and hoodlums recruited by the Wu Clan.

 

“You’re distracted, boss!” cried out Zilai, with her wild pink hair flying out behind her as she dashed towards Jinyu with her double butterfly dao, single-bladed swords.

 

Jinyu blocked her deftly, but she ducked, then jumped him, pressing a blade to his neck from behind him. “That will make you think twice about fighting me seriously, Black Dragon. What, are you looking down on me too because I’m a girl?”

 

He slipped away from her grip. Next, he was attacked by a group of five ruffians in yukata who charged at him with baseball bats, an axe, and a bamboo shinai. Jinyu slashed his sword out, slicing the bats in the half, knocking the axed blade off its handle.

 

It was too late for him to spot that Zilai had zapped a jet of flames towards him. He turned around to see Zilai’s triumphant laughter. But the fire fizzled with a stream of water that came out of nowhere. She looked up and spotted the amber-eyed boy in the shadows. “You.”

 

And Syaoran jumped down from his vantage point and stood between the Black Dragon and Zilai. Then they heard firing of shots from inside the Li building. Jinyu turned his head towards the Li building.

 

“Leave this to me,” said Syaoran to Jinyu.

 

The Black Dragon hesitated.

 

“The Li Group HQ—Erika’s in there by herself. You’ve got to take back the building,” said Syaoran. “All the snipers are down, right? And you’ve lured most of the Wu men and their hired yakuza into the Marunouchi region?”  

 

“Yes. There are still groups down in Ginza, blockading the Hoshi Plaza Hotel.”

 

“I’ve set a barrier around the neighborhood—people will be able to enter the area but not leave unless they have this ward,” said Syaoran, handing a stack of ward paper to Jinyu. “Give this to any of your men who need to leave.”  

 

For a second, Syaoran thought Jinyu would refuse, but the Black Dragon nodded and took the ward papers, then darted towards the building.

 

“Hey Dragon,” came Kara’s voice in his earpiece. “The Card Mistress is back, and she sealed the Insect. And Li Daifu is threatening to send all the Li men to Marunouchi and massacre all the Wu Clan.”

 

“They can’t come here. Buy me some more time,” said Jinyu into the mouthpiece. “We almost have things under control here.”

 

“We?”

 

“Wolf’s here,” he replied shortly.

 

“I see. Well, Leiyun is doing his best to distract the Elders, who are panicking with Cherry Blossom’s return,” said Kara. “Have you tracked down the Leopard?”

 

“Not yet,” replied Jinyu, but trailed off as he spotted Meilin behind the Li building, with a group of women, ranging from their 20s to their 40s, and one young man. “Kara, send my special squad for reinforcement to Marunouchi. But try to keep our other men near Tokyo Tower, away from this area.”

 

“Roger.”

 

When Meilin looked up to see the Black Dragon, alone, she panicked for a second before realizing that Jinyu would know what to do in such a situation. What was that saying Kai used to tell her, “an enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

 

“Meilin—who are these people?” Jinyu asked with a frown—why were there civilians on the streets.

 

“They’re employees of the Li Group that were held as hostages by the Wu Clan—but they were released,” replied Meilin.

 

A woman with her hair in a bun, holding her daughter close to her, said, “We were released because of a girl with curly violet hair—she volunteered to stay behind as hostage in exchange for letting us go.”

 

Meilin’s jaw dropped. “Erika did that?”

 

“And the girl?” asked Jinyu.

 

“She’s still being held hostage in the HSBC bank,” replied the woman. “Who knows what’s happened to her—there were at least seven armed men. And she was so brave, she saved my daughter.”

 

The little girl with pigtails tugged on her mother’s skirt. “Mommy, is that the Black Dragon? He looks scary.” But her mother quickly told her, “It’s rude to point, Risa.”

 

Jinyu turned to Meilin, and handed her an ofuda, which she immediately recognized as Syaoran’s ward paper. “Syaoran’s set up a barrier around Marunouchi to trap in the Wu men. Meilin, can you make sure that these people leave this neighborhood safely and check that they are okay? Reinforcement is coming, but trust only the men with the Li Clan crest on their sleeves—they’re my handpicked men.”

 

Meilin nodded. “Leave it to me. Oh, and one more thing. I met with Wu Zian—he was in the building until moments ago. And he’s the one who ordered the release of the hostages.”

 

“I see. Thanks for letting me know, Meilin.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Please let us out of here!” groaned a triad ranking member called Gan, a big burly man without any hair, on his knees. “Get these slugs away from us!” Most of his underlings were cowered near the entrance of the HSBC bank, standing atop benches and desks.

 

Erika, arms crossed, stared down at him disdainfully. “Stay back.”

 

Another man pounded on the glass door of the bank. “Let us out of here!” Furry black caterpillars crawled up his legs.

 

“Disgusting!” shrieked the woman in the black qipao, Becky, who appeared to be Wu Clan affiliated, stamping at plump maggots the length of sausages with her heels. “You crazy bitch, I’m going to kill you.” She snatched out her pistol from her gun holster fastened to her thigh and fired. But instead of a bullet, a juicy larva spewed out and landed on her comrade’s bald head.

 

“Jinyu, come save us,” groaned Chiman, who was in charge, cowering atop a counter as gleaming cockroaches crawled up to him.  

 

“So tell me, whose brilliant idea was it to seize the Li Group headquarters?” demanded Becky.

 

“It was that Minato Abe—and he hired the snipers to take down the Black Dragon,” Gan exclaimed.

 

“Snipers?” demanded Becky, flicking away a caterpillar from her leg. “That was not our original plan!”

 

“Some measly Japanese sniper won’t deter the Black Dragon,” said Chiman.

 

And then, suddenly, all the insects vanished, as if they had never been there in the first place.

 

“Oh shoot,” muttered Erika. “The Insect must have been sealed.”

 

The spiders that had spun sticky webs over the bank’s glass door also disappeared, and the doors slid open. A scowling man with long black hair clasped in a narrow ponytail with a slender red ribbon stepped in.

 

“Dragon King, you’ve come!” exclaimed Chiman, practically throwing himself at Jinyu’s feet.

 

“Thank goodness,” sighed Becky, collapsing onto her knees.

 

With a frown, Jinyu demanded, “Who ordered to take in civilian hostages?”

 

“It wasn’t me!” exclaimed Becky, pointing her finger at Chiman.

 

“It wasn’t us, either!” cried out Chiman. “That former yakuza boss, Minato Abe, it was him who took charge and gathered the hostages and then told us to keep watch.”

 

“Since when do you follow the orders of Japanese yakuza nobodies?” Jinyu said coldly. “What about Zian?”

 

Becky pointed upstairs, “He was up there with a Li girl, getting busy if you know what I mean.”

 

“If you mean Li Meilin, she’s guiding out the hostages,” said the Black Dragon shortly.

 

“Eh? Then where’s Zian?” exclaimed Becky.

 

“Apparently not interested in seizing the Li Group headquarters. I want you all to clear this building immediately—take Minato Abe’s men with you while you are at it,” said Jinyu. “And the issue of taking innocent Japanese civilians hostages, I will address it with the triad council when we return back to Hong Kong.”

 

“B-but you’re no longer our boss!” exclaimed Chiman.

 

Jinyu’s eyes glinted. “I’m alive, aren’t I, and you hear me, do you not—at least for now if I don’t slit off your ears off for not listening. Becky, go find Zian and tell him it’s game over. Gan—where did you guys hire such inept snipers?”

 

“I-I-It wasn’t me!” exclaimed Gan. “That was Minato’s doing also! Zian would shoot you down himself, face to face, not use an underhand method such as hiring assassins to take you down.”

 

“I know,” said the Black Dragon. “And where is the last hostage you guys took?”

 

All their faces paled, and they quietly turned around and pointed to the chair leaned against the far wall.

 

Jinyu seemed to register her presence for the first time, and his reddish-amber eyes flitted over Erika’s tattered state, from her curls coming loose from its ponytail to the oversized jacket zipped to her throat, to the scrapes on her knees. And the Black Dragon turned around and yanked up the nearest man by his topknot.

 

“I-it wasn’t us! She was already in that state when she came to us!” Chiman exclaimed. “She’s monstrous—please take her with you. And do reconsider consorting with her—she’s a terror!”

 

“Sorry, I had to tell them you were my boyfriend,” said Erika with a shrug. “And I’m fine—let them go about their business. What a bunch of big wussies you have in the Hong Kong triads. Can’t take a few caterpillars and cockroaches and man it up.”

 

“Crazy witch,” Gan muttered as he fled out of the bank.

 

“Woe the day the likes of you becomes the Dragon King’s woman,” muttered Becky, glaring at Erika and hurrying away to find the Gold Leopard.

 

Jinyu walked up to Erika then frowned. “You’re injured.”  

 

Erika glanced down at to her beige jacket, at the slashed shoulder stained with dried brown blood. Eron’s blood. “No, I’m not—it’s Eron jacket. He got hurt trying to protect me from Zilai’s attack earlier.”

 

And she saw a deeper crease on his forehead. “I’m sorry for involving you in mafia warfare. I should have set up better protection for you. I didn’t think…”

 

When had the Black Dragon apologized before? “I’m perfectly capable of watching out for myself,” she replied abruptly.

 

“I can see that you handled the mafia very well. But it’s not all right. I have failed in my duties as head of the triads to keep civilians from being involved.”

 

“Oh, you Lis and your dratted duties and responsibilities! Darned if I am anyone’s liability!” Erika stamped her foot down.

 

Jinyu blinked at her, then smiled at her in a gentle sort of way. “Were you not here in the first place to warn me about the snipers?”

 

“Fat good that did—you already knew about them, didn’t you?”

 

“But I discovered their hideout quicker thanks to you. And I heard you were the one who bargained to have all the hostages released. I was really impressed you tackled two dozen of some of the top men in the Hong Kong triads, singlehandedly. That was very brave of you.”

 

Erika stared at the Black Dragon, stunned. She had never been called brave before.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The Flaming Flamingo, dressed in a tight leopard-print leather bustier top and long red leather pants laced up her leg on either side, chewed on gum loudly as she stated, “You have gall, getting between me and Jinyu.”

 

Syaoran thought his eyeballs might explode, looking at the Zilai’s electrifying outfit, but he carefully held his sword out. She attacked first, with surprising speed and strength coming from a girl. But he blocked her swiftly.

 

Zilai leaped back, stunned at Syaoran’s countermove. “I see. You are the Li Clan prodigy, Chosen One Li Syaoran. You are on a different level, as they say.”

 

Her words were cut short, as Syaoran attacked her with another powerful stroke, and she was too busy defending herself to catch her breath. He had knocked both her swords from her hands, the flat of his blade pressed to her throat as if to prove a point, then withdrawing.

 

She blinked her long lashes. “You aren’t going easy on me, just because I’m a girl. Not like Jinyu.”

 

“What does the Wu Clan want from us?” demanded Syaoran.

 

“To defeat you pompous Lis for once and for all,” replied Zilai, serving behind him. With a snap of her wrist, she withdrew sharp metal talons, slashing it into Syaoran’s shoulder blades and dragging it down. She took the distraction to shove past Syaoran and jump up onto a trash can, out of his sword’s reach.

 

“And then what?” asked Syaoran, barely feeling the blood seeping through his shirt from the gashes in his back—they were shallow cuts.  

 

“Then—then—Zian and I will rule the Hong Kong triads,” said Zilai with a shrug, showing she had not given it much thought. Did the boy feel no pain—grown men would be howling in agony from the deep cut. “And get the Li men to serve us wearing only leopard-print speedos.”

 

With a sigh, Syaoran whipped out an ofuda between his forefinger and middle finger and slammed the flat of his blade on the paper, calling out, “Raitei Shourai!”

 

Zilai barely dodged the jet of electric light, the ends of her hair frying. “Hey, foul! Who said you could use magic on me?” But as she spoke, she retrieved a fallen sword and blasted out a ball of flame from its tip at Syaoran. If the Tang Clan was known for their water magic, the Wus specialized in fire magic.

 

Syaoran merely glanced at it, and the fiery ball of flame dissipated into the air inches away from him.

 

“You were going easy on me, earlier, after all,” said Zilai, containing the panic in her voice. “But you didn’t have to. Because I’m the strongest female martial artist in Hong Kong.”

 

She began blasting consecutive balls of fire at him, so fast, that they whizzed by like comets, setting discarded cardboards boxes and wooden crates on fire around them in the ally. But he dodged nonchalantly and murmured some spells under his breath. She shrieked as she levitated into the air and pieces of vines bound her arms and legs.

 

“Let me down!” she shrieked, realizing how ridiculous she must look, with her mop of pink hair half covering her face, flailing about midair.

 

“No you’re not,” said Syaoran, lit aglow by the crackling flames.


“What?”

 

“You’re not the strongest female martial artist in Hong Kong. Li Meilin is,” said Syaoran. “You would never be able to match her in skill.”

 

“What are you going to do to me?” shrieked Zilai, as she lurched higher into the sky. “I’m going to puke, and it’ll get all over my hair. If you’re going to kill me, get over with it quickly. Oh my gosh, you’re going to drop me from this height, aren’t you? I’ll make such a disgusting mess of a corpse! Just explode me into a million pieces instead. Or better yet, dump me into the ocean and let me become fish food. Ah, I get it—you’re going to roast me whole here, aren’t you, and serve me at the Li Clan’s dinner banquet—you brutal cannibals!”

 

Syaoran had a hard time keeping a straight face. “Can you promise to call back the Wu Clan and return quietly to Hong Kong?”

 

“As if!” Zilai retorted, glaring at him through her stringy pink hair. “You may kill me, but my brother will avenge my death and destroy the Li Clan into smithereens—or at least I think he will. He’s a bit of a procrastinator sometimes. So, go ahead and sacrifice me, the flaming rose of the Wu Clan and the visual icon of the Hong Kong triads, and all my admirers will cry their hearts out and my enemies will toast over voodoos dolls they made of me.”

 

“Why are you so convinced I want to kill you?” asked Syaoran wryly.

 

“Because you killed that Sakura-girl, I heard,” said Zilai. “And my intel tells me you are a power-grubbing frightful magician who is merciless on his victims. They also say you are a playboy who has legions of girls in Japan and Hong Kong Island falling head over heels for you. I can see why. You are a not so handsome version of Jinyu. Now, I wouldn’t be complaining if it was the Black Dragon who slit my swan-like throat instead of a chit like you. Now, that would be epically romantic.” 

 

Syaoran sighed. “You’ll have to fire your intelligence sources, for none of that’s true.” He mumbled to himself, “And it was me falling over my own feet most of my time when I was around Sakura.”

 

“Well, I saw you spear the Card Mistress with your sword myself with my own eyes,” Zilai stated. “And Zian told me she was your girlfriend and you betrayed her in order to become Master of the Clow.”

 

“She wasn’t my girlfriend,” said Syaoran. “And I didn’t betray her. You can probably see her clearly from that vantage point up there. She’s actually over there, on that rooftop, sealing the Insect.”

 

But the Flaming Flamingo was not listening and declared, “If you can do that to your true love, what will you do to your enemy, someone who tried to assassinate you?” She unbuttoned the top button of her leopard bustier top and said, “Here, go ahead, impale my heart with your sword, swiftly and cleanly like you did the Card Mistress, and let my poor brother know I had a dignified death when you bring him my ripped out heart.”

 

By now, Syaoran was thoroughly regretting taking on the Flaming Flamingo from Jinyu.

 

And then came a drawling, scratchy voice from behind them. “Zilai, Zilai, Zilai. Button up your shirt. Can’t you stay out of trouble for once?”

 

Syaoran looked up to see a flamboyantly dressed man with long honey-gold hair which whipped back from his face as he emerged through the flames which had spread across the alley. The fire around him fizzled out. He flicked two fingers at the pink-haired girl. The pieces of vines constraining her snapped.

 

Zilai dropped down from the air, not gently at all, and would have had a rougher landing if Syaoran didn’t use wind to cushion her fall. Without missing a beat, Zilai flipped back her pink hair, straightened her top, and clasped her hands together. “Little brother, dear, I knew you would come to save me!”

 

“No, I came to speak with him, when I chanced upon a pink flamingo-like flower sprouting from the ground and realized to my dismay it was you, darling sister,” said the Gold Leopard, jerking his head at Syaoran. “Now, go off and find Jinyu or something.”

 

“Okay!” said Zilai, brushing off the dust from her red leather pants, and skipped off in the direction Jinyu had gone off to, completely failing to acknowledge Syaoran’s continued presence, as if to banish her humiliating defeat from her mind.

 

“Good to see you finally, face-to-face, Chosen One of the Li Clan,” said the fair-haired boy, who seemed a year or two older than Syaoran. “Apologies for my sister’s uncouth behavior. One would think she was raised in the jungle. Which is partly true, being raised by mafia.”

 

“And you are?”

 

Zian lost his patience. “Remember your longtime rival’s face at least, you dimwitted Li brat!”

 

And Syaoran blinked at him. “Rival?”

 

“Yes, Wu Zian.”

 

With deliberate slowness, Syaoran seemed to rack his brains. “Oh!”

 

“Yes, I am that Wu Zian—”

 

“I remembered. We went to junior high together,” said Syaoran. “We weren’t in the same grade, so I didn’t recognize you at first.” Truth was, it was unlikely he would even remember the names of most of the people in the same class as him in the private academy in Hong Kong.

 

“That—and I’m Head of the Wu Clan and the Gold Leopard of the Hong Kong triads and—” Zian trailed off. “Hey, are you listening?” The aggravating wolf-boy was as spacey as usual, staring up at the sky way behind him somewhere.

 

Syaoran heaved a long sigh. “I am very busy right now, with a dark force on the loose and a clan to put in order, and half the population of this town wanting to kill me, and I don’t have the time to be chatting idly with you.”

 

“If you haven’t realized, the Wu Clan has waged war against the Li Clan,” said Zian. “And if I defeat you, the Wu Clan can become the most powerful family in Hong Kong.”

 

“Is it really necessary to do this right now, here in Tokyo?” asked Syaoran.

 

“Yes. Because back at home, we will be outnumbered by the Li Clan and your cronies. But here, there’s just a handful of you,” said Zian. “We can handle that.” He popped up his leopard print collar and grinned smugly.

 

“I see.”

 

“Are you floored at seeing the legendary Gold Leopard, your greatest rival, face to face? Or are you just normally this dull?”

 

Syaoran sighed again. “Well, after what I’ve just been through in recent days, I can’t say the addition of your appearance really has much impact. And so many people claim to be my rival, acknowledged or not, that the word has little meaning.”

 

Zian scowled as Syaoran, still staring up into to the dusky sky, mumbled to himself in Japanese. “At least look at me when you are talking. I demand that you acknowledge me as you greatest rival—after I’ve grown up all my life with your blasted name engrained in my ear—Syaoran from the Li Clan who’s younger than you did this, he became the youngest Chosen One ever, he got perfect scores at school and is a soccer champion.”

 

“Sorry. But there’s been only one rival that I have recognized in my life,” replied Syaoran softly.

 

And Zian followed the direction of Syaoran’s gaze, into the distance at the girl of the emerald eyes, stars twinkling in her hair and fluttering white dress like a twilight fairy.

 

“Besides, you have awful fashion sense,” remarked Syaoran dryly.

 

“Are you now resorting to insulting me, you lousy Li brat?” retorted Zian.

 

Syaoran smacked his fist on the palm of his hand. “Now I remember. You dated my sister. Feimei.”

 

“And Fanren too at one point,” muttered Zian.


“Ah, and Feimei broke up with you—she said, ‘I can’t stand that stupid Leopard Boy’s horrific fashion sense—he makes my eyes bleed,’” Syaoran quoted the youngest of his four older sisters. He eyed Zian in his shiny suit and leopard printed shirt. “I see what she meant.”

 

“No, I dumped her because she like all the Li women was crazy violent and aggressive! And I thought Feimei was bad and then I got to Fanren—” Zian trailed off, red in the face. “Though I can’t say much since I have Zilai as a sister.”

 

Syaoran cracked his fist. “Oh, so you played around with two of my sisters, and you thought you’d get away with that?”

 

“Ugh, I already had this conversation with Shiefa—by the way she’s the worst of the bunch,” said Zian.

 

“Oh, you haven’t met Fuutie then,” said Syaoran, mentioning his oldest sister. 

 

“Yes I gave,” groaned Zian. “She always gave me an earful when she and Zino were dating. Zian do this, Zian fetch, Zian keep watch on the door. Zian, go change your shirt, the pattern hurts my eyes. Zian, do you want to try wearing this frilly maid apron I made in home economics? She thought I was her man-servant or something.”

 

And Syaoran blinked. “Fuutie used to date your brother? The Gold Dragon?” Wu Zino, the mafia king before Jinyu came to power, had been famous for unifying the Hong Kong triads—he had been merciless to betrayers and benevolent to his loyalists, and had a cultish following.

 

“You didn’t know that?” Zian laughed. “Have you been living your head underneath a bucket?”

 

Fuutie who was the only level-headed one amongst his sisters, Fuutie who vowed never to marry, Fuutie who turned down all her prospective suitors despite their mother’s nagging. Was she still in love with Wu Zino, whom Jinyu allegedly had killed to become the head of the triads? As a young boy, Syaoran met Zino several times, during special events in Hong Kong, when the two families couldn’t avoid each other because they ran in the same circles. Zino had been the eldest Wu son, heir to the third largest magic clan in Hong Kong. Syaoran vaguely recollected him to have been tall, broad-shouldered and handsome in a burly sort of way, much more serious than Zian, but with the same dark golden hair, cropped short, and barley brown eyes.

 

“How long were they… together?” asked Syaoran.

 

“I don’t know. On and off for years,” responded Zian. “They kept it low-key. You know—neither side would’ve approved. He was older, he was a Wu, a mafia leader. She was the precious young lady of the prosperous Li Group, first daughter of Chosen One Li Ryuuren. It was quite the Romeo and Juliet story. Oh wait, you know that tale well—you starred in the school play. Quite a dashing Romeo you made.”

 

“H-how do you know that?” demanded Syaoran.

 

“Your sisters were selling copies of the DVD, and I got hold of a copy at school.”

 

“They sold that at our school?”

 

“Yes, I used to be classmates with Feimei,” Zian. “Though I never showed up to classes.”

 

And Syaoran lowered his sword, sizing up the flippant triad leader. “What exactly do you want, Wu Zian?”

 

“What do you mean, are you a knucklehead? I want to defeat the Li Clan,” replied Zian.

 

And Syaoran stared hard at Zian with his amber eyes, with an intensity that made the mafia leader stagger backwards. “No. You don’t want to fight. You wouldn’t be standing here chatting with me about junior high and my sisters, after having flown all the way to Tokyo, if you truly wanted to defeat me. And the Wu Clan definitely wouldn’t have stalled all this time to attack us, when the element of surprise would have been the best plan of attack. You want something else from me.”

 

Zian smiled lopsided. “You are as straightforward and logical as your lovely cousin Meilin.”

 

“You met with Meilin?”

 

“Jin is like that too. For being Mafia King, Jinyu spends an awful lot of time planning and strategizing. Though he can be more ruthless than anyone else. But he tries to minimize the casualties, the victims. He looks out for his triad family. Hence, he’s stayed top for this long.”

 

“You…do not hold a grudge against him for killing your brother?” asked Syaoran. “If the stories are true.”

 

Zian said slowly, “The strongest survives and rules. It’s a world we are used to.” But his face was like a mask, and he didn’t betray anymore.

 

To Syaoran’s understanding, Zian became the de facto head of the Wu Clan since last year, when his father died supposedly in a mountain accident, but was rumored to have been taken out by Li assassins. Before, Zian as second-in-charge of the Hong Kong triads had remained low-key, the Black Dragon’s golden shadow.

 

Syaoran sized up his self-proclaimed rival. In many ways, Zian was not unlike himself. Zian was the leader of the Wu Clan, which was a newer and smaller clan than the Lis. They only gained leverage against the Li and Tang clans in the past half century because they gained control of the Hong Kong underworld. Which was why it had been imperative for Jinyu to penetrate the innermost circle of the triads and position himself as the boss. Zian as the second son probably never expected he would end up as head of the clan, and not at such a young age. Zino had apparently been the one trained to lead the clan and rule the Hong Kong organized crime syndicates.

 

“I don’t want to fight you Zian, especially not now,” said Syaoran slowly. “And you, I believe, are of the same mind.”

 

“I for one will be glad if you take over the Li Clan, if rumors are true,” said Zian. “I don’t trust Li Leiyun or even worse, his sleazy weasel of a father Li Wutai. But I trust you.”

 

“Why would you trust me? I am of the Li Clan, and you barely know me.”

 

“Your eyes,” replied Zian. “You have a sense of honor code. And you will keep your word. That’s very important in the triads. You are right. I do not want to fight you. I want a temporary peace treaty with the Li Clan.”

 

“Then why did you come to Japan and attack the Li Clan?” asked Syaoran, peeved.

 

“It was an emergency measure and expected of me,” replied the Zian. “Your Great Elder died, meaning the Li Clan was vulnerable for the first time in a long time. Then Zilai ran off to Japan, and we had to retrieve her. Of course, she attacked Jinyu, so we had to back her up. I mean, what does it do to the image of the Wu Clan Head if he can’t even keep track of his sister?”

 

Syaoran blinked slowly. Then he waved his hand towards the streets where Li and Wu Clan members were at each other’s necks. “So basically, all of this was so that you can retrieve a wayward psychopath sister?”

 

“Hey, that’s my sister you’re talking about. She’s not a psychopath!” exclaimed Zian. After a second thought, he added, “Just highly emotional and volatile, as you may have witnessed earlier.”

 

“But you waged a full-out war on the Li Clan,” Syaoran reminded.

 

“Well, yeah, you disappeared and the Li Clan was in chaos, so suddenly it seemed like a good idea to taken down the Clan after all. And Zilai sort of went off to attack Jin, so we had to back her up or end up looking uncoordinated.” Zian sighed. “But you returned, and personally, I’d rather have an inexperienced fledging leader like you to deal with than the demonic old Li Renshu. Let alone that dodgy Li Wutai—we all know what an underhanded slime-ball he is. And your Leiyun—he gives me the creeps ever since he came back. He used to be decent sort though and maybe still is. Putting things frankly, I’m trying my best to get myself be taken seriously by the Wu Clan—they all wanted Zino, not me. And I didn’t want any of this. I was satisfied being the second son, being second in the triads. I would gladly have been my brother’s protector, being his shadow. But here I am, forced to take on Zino’s role. The Wu Clan would benefit more from being allied with the Lis than not. We may be able to take down the Li Clan in its current unstable state, but at the cost of how many Wu Clan warriors? And then, what if the Tang Clan decides to attack? The Tangs have been lying low, thinking to strike after the Lis and Wus exhaust their men and resources on each other.”

 

Syaoran realized Zian, besides his careless, easygoing façade, was a lot sharper than he let on. He probably was letting Jinyu stay on as mafia king because seconds had a higher mortality rate than boss. Also, the rumors that Zian had been leading the Wu Clan for several years before his father’s untimely death was likely true, since the previous head had reportedly been traumatized by his first son’s death and took to alcoholism and heavy gambling soon afterwards. “So, what are you proposing then?”

 

“I just have two questions I want to ask you,” said Zian. “If rumors are true, I have heard you are Li Renshu’s chosen successor. First, what are you plans with the Li Clan? And second, what do you think of a temporary alliance, or at least some sort of ceasefire between the Lis and Wus?”

 

“To the first question, I plan to take over the Li Clan and launch an internal restructuring. To your second, I will respond with my own question. What do you plan to do, if we agree on this temporary truce?”

 

“I’ll call back my men. And Zilai. We’ll return back to Hong Kong. Our fight here—we’ll keep that under the cover. I came to greet the new Li Great Elder in Japan in person. Back home, let some word slip out that the Li Clan and Wu Clan have come to a business agreement,” Zian dug out of his pockets sheets of paper. “Tell Li Daifu to reexamine this shipping contract. And if the Tang Clan gets wind of some sort of business partnership between the Li and Wu Clan having formed, that would keep them at bay for at least the time being.”  

 

For a second, Syaoran hesitated—this was going too smoothly. Shouldn’t he sit down with the Elders and talk out the Wu Clan’s motives? What would the Great Elder do in this kind of situation? Was it wise to partner up with the Wu Clan? The Lis had more business transactions with the Tang Clan. But Zian was right. So long as the Wu and Li clans appeared to have formed an alliance, the Tang would hesitate to attack either of them. And Zian was much cleverer than Syaoran had calculated him to be. To corner him into an alliance by ordering an attack in Tokyo, when the Li Clan was most vulnerable, when he had just been named Great Elder, and enabling conditions for a negotiation favorable to the Wu Clan. Except, the Li Clan also benefited from this alliance. Syaoran looked up at Zian—he wanted to trust the Leopard, at least this once. Because the Great Elder once told him to keep enemies close by. And that an enemy with honor was worth a hundred allies without honor. “Deal,” said Syaoran, holding out his right hand. “In exchange, call back your men immediately and leave the country within 24 hours.”

 

Zian gripped his hand. “Shipping contract. You must get it signed. And don’t even think of sending your assassins at me—just because I didn’t fight today doesn’t mean I can’t—and I fight real dirty.”

 

“You have my word.” Syaoran glanced down at the streets. “And do something about your sister before she wrecks half of Tokyo.”

 

Zian groaned. “Are you sure you don’t want to marry her? She’s been considered a serious fiancée candidate for you, though you turned her down very heartlessly without ever meeting her. That’ll make us brothers-in-law.”

 

“I will have to refuse again,” Syaoran said stiffly. 

 

“At least I only have one of them to deal with,” sighed Zian. “How do you deal with four?”

 

Syaoran felt sudden compassion for Zian.

 

“Or I can marry Meilin,” said Zian. “She’s quite a spitfire too, but something about those glaring eyes and pouty lips. And those legs—those long, shapely legs. Wasn’t she your fiancée before? You must be an idiot to break things off. But it is of course a blessing in disguise for me. Don’t you think, we should cement our alliance once and for all—a Li and Wu marriage can do that, don’t you think? My elders have been pressuring me to get married ever since I became Wu Clan head last year.”

 

And Syaoran immediately lost any breadth of compassion he had for the older boy. “Go away and take Zilai with you before I change my mind about this whole deal.”

 

Zian grinned, his white teeth flashing against his tan skin. “I met her. The girl with the green eyes that was in your watercolor painting in junior high,” said Zian. “She’s the infamous Card Mistress, isn’t she? And funny to think, she was in Hong Kong. I knew you couldn’t kill her, for she’s the kind of person the infallible Li Syaoran would bring with him when Great Elder Renshu was on his deathbed.”

 

Syaoran glared at Zian and said, “If you have time to chitchat, call off your men. I’ll do the same.”

 

“Okay, impatient Small Wolf,” said the Golden Leopard, staring at the black onyx signet ring on Syaoran’s left index finger. “Or should I say, Great Elder Syaoran of the Li Clan? Truce?”

 

Syaoran took his hand and shook it. “We have a deal, Wu Zian.”

 

 

 

Could he trust that Zian would keep his words? But at this point, Syaoran had to take that gamble—and there was something behind Zian’s brown eyes that he liked, something straightforward and frank, when he looked you straight in the eye, when the Gold Leopard wasn’t testing waters or plotting. Truthfully, he had heard more about Zian in the past than he had let on, and while excessive womanizing, gambling and frivolous partying had been listed as some of his vices, Feimei had never called him a liar.

 

And in the meantime, the fighting seemed to have split up into groups—he could barely distinguish which were the Li men, the Wus, the Japanese yakuza and just random hired thugs. The lower floors of the Li headquarters building were the most damaged, with smashed windows and the front door skewed. But there were quite a few crushed vehicle on the streets, knocked over trashcans and bent lampposts from the street brawls, not to mention trees and flowerbeds that had been stripped bare by the locusts.

 

A group of the Li business delegation was trapped inside the hotel because hired thugs were blockading the Hoshi Plaza Hotel entrance, while most of the Elders outside were shouting at each other and Uncle Daifu was nearly at Uncle Wutai’s throat. “Smart move, Elder Wutai, stripping the Li Group HQ of all able-bodied guards—what if the Wu Clan stole our business contracts and top secret blueprints?”

 

“As if that is our greatest problem at the moment!” snapped Wutai. “The Card Mistress is apparently back, and using Clow Cards—we’ve got to find Syaoran and demand what the meaning of this is!

 

Scanning his surroundings and the positions of the Li delegation, Syaoran jumped up onto the highest of the surrounding buildings, near the center of the fighting, where most people would be able to see him.

 

“Halt!” said Syaoran, before drawing in another deep breath and activating an amplification ward. “I said halt!” he called out in a sonorous voice that echoed from the building top throughout the alleys below like the rumbling of thunder.


And everybody did stop this time, both Li and Wu clan members, looking up at him.

 

“Cease this fight this instant!” Syaoran said.

 

“Who the heck is that?” demanded a man wearing the Wu Clan crest, holding up a scythe.

 

“Don’t you recognize the Chosen One of the Li Clan?” said his immediate superior, Wu Chiman.

 

“Eh? That’s the one that murdered the Clow Card Mistress?” the first man asked, dropping down his scythe for a moment. “He’s just a boy—I’m sure no older than our Head.”

 

Syaoran took the moment of silence to head to where a cluster of elders, including Uncle Wutai, were standing atop of a nearby building roof, gaping at him. He stared at them levelly. “Elders, I apologize for the delay. I heard you were looking for me.”

 

“You, where have you been all this time, neglecting your duty? Who are you to speak for the Clan?” lashed out Wutai, storming up to Syaoran, who did not look a bit intimidated or sorry for his prolonged disappearance.  

 

“I was on a very important mission imbued on me by the Great Elder.” Syaoran paused, making sure that everybody was listening. “And I respectfully request an immediate ceasefire with the Wu Clan.”

 

Wutai shook his head. “What is this body talking about? Ceasefire? Ridiculous. We will not withdraw our fight with the Wu Clan. We are going to destroy them for once and for all for daring to defy us.”

 

“Besides, they attacked the Li Group headquarters,” said Daifu. “We don’t let them get away with that.”

 

“We have taken back the headquarters, and I have agreed to a truce with the Head of the Wu Clan, Zian, agreed to withdraw his men immediately,” replied Syaoran, unfazed, holding a contract. “I have his word on paper.” 

 

“And what gives you the authority to do so?” Wutai sneered.

 

“As supreme head of the Li Clan,” replied Syaoran staidly, facing off the Elders.

 

Wutai blinked. “Excuse me?”

 

Syaoran paused, to make sure everyone was listening. “I, Li Syaoran, 212th Chosen One of the Li Clan, hereby proclaim myself as the 77th Great Elder of the Li Clan as ordained by the Blue Dragon of the Eastern Heights.”

 

This produced a stunned silence from both sides of the battlefield.

 

“What nonsense are you talking about? You, the Great Elder of the Li Clan?” Wutai snorted.

 

From the side, Leiyun drawled, “Father, why don’t you ask Syaoran, what his very important mission ordered by Great Elder Renshu before he died was?”

 

Syaoran held up his left hand to reveal the heavy gold and onyx Li Clan signet ring on his finger which caught the sunlight. “Great Elder Li Renshu passed me the seal ring before and named me his successor before he passed away.”

 

Wutai’s black pupils flitted from Syaoran, to the other elders of the clan present. “So, Uncle Renshu chose you. But that doesn’t mean anything. You’re just an untried chit, what do you know about leading the oldest and most venerated magical family in China? Preposterous! Come over here and hand me over the seal ring—we’ve been searching high and nigh for it. Who knew you had it all this time.”

 

Syaoran stared down at him with cold amber eyes. “Give it up, uncle. I have no intention of fighting you. I just want your cooperation to rebuilt the clan and restore to it honor and dignity that I think our ancestors would have envisioned for it in modern days.”

 

And Wutai seemed to make a calculated deliberation—the boy could be bluffing, or he could be real. But if he took down Li Syaoran one way or another, there was no more obstacle blocking him from becoming the Great Elder. He could take the seal ring from him and claim his rightful place. Without warning, he lashed forward, unsheathing a large blade with a black tassel.

 

He did not even see Syaoran release his own Five Force Sword, and to his credit, Wutai did not know his nephew had fully regained his powers. But before Wutai realized what was happening, his sword had been knocked from his hand, out of reach, and he was sitting on the rooftop, legs sprawled out, trembling. Syaoran pointed his blade briefly to his neck, before withdrawing. A swift, clean gesture, showing who was the more powerful of the two.

 

Had the boy always been so strong? No, he had been holding back. Unlike his father, Ryuuren, who had been determined to flaunt his skills every chance he got, Syaoran had always been reserved and restrained. Wutai’s brows furrowed down. There was once chance to get rid of the boy, once and for all. Sure, there were witnesses, but most of the Council was back in Hong Kong, and those here could be persuaded, controlled. The Clan would not need to know the truth. He lunged forward, to grab Syaoran’s hand, in an attempt to wrestle the seal ring from him. He pinned Syaoran against the ledge of the roof, grabbing his left arm and yanking the ring off. But in the process, the deteriorated concrete ledge crumbled away, sending Syaoran sailing off the ledge. Wutai grasped the ledge last minute, clinging on for dear life as the concrete slipped from his grasp. He lost grip on the onyx ring, which dropped down to the sidewalks below.  

 

“Someone, get me up!” he called out to the few Li men on the roof. But Daifu and the others were staring overhead. Wutai, barely hanging onto the ledge, legs dangling off midair, dared to glance over his shoulder.

 

They saw Li Syaoran, with a pair of magnificent black dragon wings sprouted from his back, fly up into the crimson sky gracefully. The wings had ripped through his black shirt. A gust of wind blasted from below, whipping off the tattered remains of his shirt to reveal his chiseled torso.

 

Syaoran held up his hand and the seal ring, blown up by the wind, landed on his extended palm. He held it up for them to see and slipped it back onto his finger. “Let me repeat one more time. I have traveled to the Dragon Isles and have passed the dragon’s test to become the 77th Great Elder of the Li Clan. Anybody who wants to challenge me can do so right now, or rest your case.” He glanced down from the sky at the Li Elders, the younger henchmen who had followed, at Leiyun, Jinyu and Wei, watching from not far off, and at Meilin standing off with the rest of the Star Alliance members. For just a brief second, his eyes lingered on Sakura, before turning back to the Elders.

 

Daifu had reached Wutai and dragged him back onto the rooftop. Doubled over to catch his breath, with his brother supporting his weight, Wutai stared hard at Syaoran, winged like a demonic angel, staring down at him with a strange look of pity, not anger. He was no longer the vulnerable boy who cowered from the Elders, who had knelt before Wutai in the Great Hall to be given another chance a year ago, maimed both in body and spirit.

 

Wei first dropped to his knees. “I, Li Wei, pledge my allegiance to serve and honor the new Great Elder Li Syaoran.”

 

With a thin smile, Leiyun also lowered his head, followed by Jinyu, Jingmei and the other younger Lis present.

 

One by one, the Li men and women dropped down to their knees, right arm on their chest, in a sign of deference.  

 

Meilin stared hard at the strange sight of the proud and mighty Li Wutai glance around him helpless, watching even the haughty Daifu kneel, before finally dropping on his knees. But she did not miss the resentful gleam in his beady black eyes.  

 

Syaoran lifted his sword up into the sky, and a jet of lightening zapped from the clouded sky, to the tip of his blade. “By the power vested in me by the Dragonlords, I, Li Syaoran, son of Li Ryuuren, pledge my allegiance to the Li Clan, to protect and guide my bloodline as the new Great Elder and Chosen One.”  

 

Anybody with magic saw an etching of a great dragon facing upwards blazing in gold from Syaoran’s back. Then, the light faded, and the dragon mark disappeared.

 

From somewhere, Wei produced a long black silk robe with golden embroidery and placed it over Syaoran’s bare shoulders. The robe of the Great Elder.

 

 

 

“What’s going on over there?” asked Miho, screening her eyes with her hand. “All the Lis are gathered together and looking awfully serious.”

 

“Isn’t that what they always do?” Kai said, rolling his eyes. “Stand around and brood.”  

 

“Syaoran’s at the center. He seems to be making some sort of announcement,” said Tomoyo, zooming in through her camcorder.

 

Meilin exclaimed, “Oh no—Elder Wutai has pushed Syaoran off the ledge!”

 

“Syaoran!” Sakura dashed forward and to her relief saw black webbed dragon wings sprout from his back, just as they had that moonlit night at the Tokyo Tower when he had rescued her. There were three parallel welts across his torso where he had been cut, angry red as the blood was still setting. But it was a brilliant sight, Syaoran, his tousled brown hair blown back by the wind, his amber eyes blazing with fire even from this distance. Even several buildings across, his eyes seemed to flit in her direction briefly.

 

“Look, they’re all bowing to him,” said Miho, even more puzzled. “I thought they were going to shackle him for disobeying them or something.”

 

They saw Syaoran lift up the Five Force Sword, red tassel whipping back in the wind, blade pointed straight at the sky. There was a deep rumbling resonating throughout the city, and through dark gray clouds that had gathered overhead, there was a flash of lightening. A golden dragon zapped down, combusting as it reached down tip of the blade, traveling down the length of the steel, down Syaoran’s bare arms, and lighting him aglow. Then, there was a still as the clouds cleared, and the pale moon appeared overhead as the sun slipped away into the evening.

 

“Oh my gosh, look at his glistening body and those gorgeous wings,” sighed Tomoyo, one of the rare moments she appreciated less clothes than more.

 

Eriol smiled. “I see. So he’s finally stepped up to the plate. He’s become the Great Elder of the Li Clan,” he remarked. “The top position and de facto leader of the Li family and business conglomerate.”

 

“Our Syaoran-senpai?” Miho squeaked. “But he’s just a kid—only a year older than me.”

 

Cerberus frowned. “But to become the Great Elder of the Li Clan, you have to pass a very difficult test.”

 

“Like a written exam?” asked Miho.

 

“No, more like a quest of physical and emotional endurance,” replied Cerberus. “At least from what I heard, because the details of the test are a top clan secret.”

 

“Well, the Great Elder passed away just a fortnight ago—when in the world did Syaoran have the time to secretly pass this test, without the rest of the clan knowing?” demanded Meilin. Then, her head snapped towards Sakura. “You knew. Where were you with Syaoran, inside the Fantasy?”

 

Ruby Moon gasped. “That’s what you were doing in there, you were in the Dragon Isles—with Syaoran. You were helping Syaoran pass the Test of the Great Elder, or buying time, or something!”

 

Cerberus swerved around. “You knew, Sakura? You knew he was going to become Great Elder?”

 

“That’s why you pretended to die? To create a distraction for the Li Clan, so that Syaoran could secretly pass the ordeal to become the Great Elder?” Miho asked in disbelief as the last link of the story clicked. 

 

“Hoe.” Sakura looked around frantically, then at Tomoyo. “I know you have a lot of questions. I’ll try to answer them best I can—if I can. There are things I don’t completely understand myself yet.”

 

Tomoyo stared at the black-robed Syaoran, half inclined to approach him to touch the delicate embroider on the sleeves, neck and back of the silken fabric. Did that mean it was official? Syaoran had been accepted by the clan? “So it’s all over,” she murmured.

 

“Not really,” said Eriol, watching Syaoran give orders, and Li men flying here and there. It seemed like they were retreating, and breaking up any lingering brawls with the local yakuza. “Just today’s over, for now.”  

 

“Well, I have to admit, everything’s starting to make more sense now. I mean, we were wondering why you had to keep everything top secret—but if it was for his sake, with the Great Eldership at stake, then it makes sense,” said Kai with a shrug.

 

“No it doesn’t!” Meilin exclaimed. “How does any of this make sense? Why did Sakura have to fake her death in order for Syaoran to become Great Elder?”

 

“You should understand better than anyone else, as a Li, what it means for Syaoran to become the Great Elder, the implications, the possibilities,” said Kai. “You know this could mean the Li Clan doesn’t have to try to destroy the Alliance anymore. I don’t necessarily like the method those two used, but I get it.”

 

Meilin shook her head. “How can you say you understand? Do you know what we went through these past few days thinking that Sakura was dead, that Syaoran had killed her? Don’t you know the hell that I went through, as his cousin, thinking Syaoran had betrayed all of us?”

 

“I know!” lashed back Kai. “I know best how wretched it feels to have to deceive the ones you love most. That’s why, if I were him, I would want forgiveness. I know why that option he had to take was the most difficult one, and that it was pure necessity and desperation that probably drove him to it.”

 

“You know, up till now, I thought the worst feeling ever was to have him break off our engagement, to know that he loves another person, and that would never be me,” said Meilin. “Now I know better—the worse feeling ever is this double, no triple betrayal. It’s like a slap in the face, these past two years. He could trust Sakura, but he could not trust me with his plans to become Great Elder, and worse, he made me think the very worst of him, pretending he killed Sakura, and then it turned out to be an even bigger ruse, all for the honor and glory of this darned Li Clan. It makes me sick to the stomach.” 

 

“Meilin-chan, Syaoran trusts you more than anyone else. The only reason I found out about his plans was because I was there with him, the day that the Great Elder passed away,” said Sakura. “He probably wouldn’t have told me either—you know how he is.”

 

“Well, I always knew that two-faced brat could never be trusted,” said Touya, finally speaking for the first time since Sakura’s return. “Taught me to go with my first instinct, after all.”

 

“Don’t blame Syaoran,” said Sakura. “It was my fault. It was all my idea.”

 

“Of course it was,” snapped Touya. “Of course you would choose to keep everything to yourself, and not trust your friends, your family, with such an important matter. Why do I even hope that even if you can’t depend on me, you can at least have enough faith in me enough to warn me beforehand before you play such a cruel trick? What, is it an April Fool’s Day joke? Ha ha. Very funny. I congratulate you. You and Syaoran were very clever indeed. I was fooled, we all were.”

 

And hot tears streamed down Sakura’s face. She grasped her brother’s arm with both hands. “Onii-chan, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust you. I’m so sorry.”

 

Touya shook off her hands. “Go. Go to Syaoran and congratulate him on his victory. I’m going to find father and apologize to him for the false emergency call.”

 

“Onii-chan, don’t leave. Let me explain everything to you and otou-san too. I’m sorry, onii-chan. Please listen to me.”

 

“I think I’ve heard enough. Just go. I’m happy you are alive. But I don’t think I can see your face right now without rehashing the nightmare this past week has been.” Touya turned around and walked away.

 

Miho had never heard Touya raise his voice and had gradually crept up to Kai and slipped her arm into his. When Touya stormed off, she finally squeaked, “Are they going to be okay?”

 

They watched Tomoyo walk up to Sakura and awkwardly patted her on the back. With this small gesture, Sakura stepped forward and sobbed into her best friend’s shoulder, saying in a muffled voice, “I’m so sorry. So sorry to you, Tomoyo-chan. Sorry.”

 

Kai put an arm around his younger sister and replied, “Yeah, they’ll be okay.” He looked down at her with a crooked smile. “You forgave me for running off and abandoning you and mother, and becoming an INTERPOL wanted top thief.”

 

With an identical smile, Miho looked up at her brother and said, “I don’t know. I never said I did forgive you, did I?”

   

“It’s not something I ever dreamed of, forgiveness,” said Kai, staring off into the distance at the Tokyo Tower lighting up in the violet twilight “I don’t always think that forgiveness is always necessary. What’s more important is being able to move on. Sometimes, forgiveness helps with that. But sometimes, you don’t always have to forgive to go ahead with life.”

 

Meilin stared at Kai curiously. It was true. Miho would always hold a bit of resentfulness towards her brother for abandoning her during the most difficult period of her life. Kai probably would never forgive Kinomoto Fujishinto of the Li Clan for what they did to his father and family. But moving on was what was important.

 

She glanced up at the rooftop where the Li Clan members had scattered, but Kara Reed and Li Leiyun were still standing there, watching. Her eyes caught Leiyun’s aqua eyes. Did he look smug? Or resentful? Was this what he had in mind all along? Had he ever forgiven the Li Clan for sending him on a death mission?

 

 

 

“Who would have thought Syaoran would have gone off and made himself the Great Elder?” muttered Erika, shaking her hair out of a ponytail. She eyed Leiyun who seemed lost in deep thought though not particularly surprised at the latest turn events.

 

“I have to admit, I’m taking another look at Li Syaoran—didn’t know he had it in him,” remarked Kara. Or rather, she could admit she now understood why Leiyun had been so jealously protective of what he called Syaoran’s latent potential.

 

The Hong Kong triad members—regardless of whether they were Li or Wu Clan-affiliated, lined up in two straight long lines, making a path to a black Mercedes Benz park near the Tokyo Tower.

 

Erika turned around to see who they were all waiting for so anxiously.

 

And Jinyu walked forward, in a long black trench coat, accompanied by men Erika now recognized as his personal guards. All the triad members bowed 90 degrees as Jinyu walked past. 

 

Erika pointed to Chiman, Gan, and some other familiar triad figures she recalled from the Li Group HQ takedown. “Weren’t those men trying to kill the Black Dragon just hours ago?”

 

“What do you think Jinyu’s been doing all day? He was going around reconfirming the loyalty of all the triad men behind the scenes,” replied Kara.

 

“And those who were not loyal were eliminated?” Erika asked.

 

Kara shrugged.

 

At the end of the line of triad members from Hong Kong, Jinyu turned to face a man with long orange hair in a blue kimono, with a katana strapped to his waist.

 

“Yo, Black Dragon!” called out Taoka Yoshinori. “Minato Abe’s been arrested by police for charges of embezzlement, fraud and murder—he won’t be bothering anyone for a long time. His men have been dispersed—they won’t set foot in Tokyo for a while.”

 

Jinyu turned to the boss of the top yakuza family in Japan. “Thank you for your help, Taoka.”

 

“You saved me in Moscow, that other time, from Nikolai Mikhailov of the Solntsevskaya Brotherhood,” said Taoka, referring to the leader of Russia’s top mafia organization. “I owed you one.” The two shook hands. The rows of Yamamoto-gumi members bowed to Jinyu. 

 

And then, Erika found herself facing the Black Dragon, back to his usual formidable mask, his long black hair tied back with a thin red ribbon, and a ruby drop dangling from his left ear. She expected him to walk past her, to the car, but instead, he paused in front of her.

 

Erika gulped. “So, you’re leaving now?”

 

Jinyu glanced down at her. “The Li Clan will be withdrawing. You can come with us.”

 

“No, I’ll rather stay,” said Erika. “How long are you going to be gone?”

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

“Are you coming back? Or is your business here over now that the yakuza stuff is taken care of?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Did you know Syaoran was going to become the Great Elder?”

 

“No.”

 

Erika heaved a sigh. Jinyu had returned to being his usual delightfully taciturn self. She wished he would just hurry and go his way, but it seemed as if he wanted to tell her something.

 

Then came a piercing shrill voice. “I finally found you!” It was the Flaming Flamingo, cotton candy pink hair disheveled, with several gashes in her red leather pants, sprinting towards them.

 

Alarmed, Erika reached for a hidden dagger, refusing to be caught off guard again—which wouldn’t do much against Wu Zilai’s double swords.

 

But Zilai sprinted right past her and straight at the Black Dragon.

 

And instead of attacking him, she threw her arms around Jinyu’s neck, clinging on tightly as she gave him a deep kiss on the lips.

 

Erika’s jaw dropped.

 

Zilai broke away and placed her hands on Jinyu’s cheeks. “Jinjin, Zian told me I have to go back to Hong Kong. But you’ll be coming back too, right? The triads are just not the same without you.”

 

“We’re returning to Hong Kong for the Great Elder’s inauguration ceremony,” said Jinyu.

 

“I missed you so much,” said Zilai tearfully, placing her hand against his chest, twirling her finger around the silver dragon pendant he always wore. He did not push her away. “Zian is so bossy when you aren’t around.”

S

“Well, you did give him a rough time running off like that,” replied Jinyu. “Captain Chiman and Gan got into a lot of trouble because they lost you.”

 

And Erika squawked, “Jinjin? And I thought she hated the Black Dragon? And what’s up with him, nonchalantly just kissing her like that?”

 

“I think she’s the one doing kissing,” replied Kara with a snicker. “And love and hate, what’s the difference? All’s fair in love and war.”

 

Erika scowled. “No it’s not. Wait, are they dating?”

 

Kara blinked. “Why? You think the Black Dragon should remain celibate? He’s the triad boss— he’s always had woman throwing themselves at him. He’s just too straight-laced to respond. Usually.”

 

It felt icky envisioning Jinyu’s messy love affairs, of all those voluptuous triad women prostrating themselves to him—a thought Erika wanted to completely banish from her mind. “Well, are you going back to Hong Kong with them?”

 

“No, I’ve got to stay and finish exorcising the house of all remnants of cockroach carcasses,” replied Kara with a laugh. “All thanks to that ridiculous brother of yours. He’s quite a sadist you know—the sniper than he took down was traumatized when he was arrested, mumbling something about the attack of the ants. Ugh, here comes the other Wu.” 

 

When had Eron showed up at Marunouchi? Erika scowled as Zilai fawned over Jinyu, who at least seemed distracted.

 

“Sister dear, what are you doing here? I thought I lost you again. Stop bothering the Boss.” This time, it was Wu Zian, hands in pockets, looking relaxed as if he didn’t order a siege on half the city that morning. In fact, he was the only one of the Wus who seemed unruffled, without a single scrape or strand of hair out of place, save a bloodied lip. “Come here, we’re going to miss the plane if we don’t leave soon—or else, we’re going to be stuck on the same flight as the Li Clan for four hours, and we don’t want that.”

 

He turned to the Black Dragon. “Sorry, Jin. Was Zilai clinging again? I swear, I’ve introduced to her a dozen guys since you left for Japan, and she’s rejected all of them. Anyhow, apologies for all the chaos here. No offense taken?”

 

Jinyu sighed. “Feimei told me to tell you to return her macroeconomics textbook before the new semester starts.”

 

Zian wrinkled his pointed nose. “I think I lost it. Speaking of which, I heard you were attending high school here as a student and Leiyun was a teacher? How did that happen? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

 

And Zilai shoved aside Zian. “I want to see you in a Japanese high school uniform! You’ll look so cool in a gakuran, Jin.”

 

“Oh and tell Feimei to bring back my limited-edition purple crocodile leather jacket that she hasn’t returned in a year!” exclaimed Zian.

 

Slowly Erika turned to Kara, aghast. “Don’t tell me—those two siblings absolutely adore the Black Dragon and missed him, and chased him all the way to Japan to retrieve him?”

 

Kara said coolly, “I told you Jinyu’s popular amongst his own set, odd as it may sound. How else would he remain triad boss?”

 

But Erika did not want to think the Black Dragon as having friends, with people to joke around with casually, for she had only seen him as the quiet shadow of Leiyun who followed all the summons of the Li Clan.

 

And abruptly, Wu Zilai turned her attention to Erika, in Eron’s tattered jacket zipped up to her neck. “You weren’t lying earlier, when you said you were defective. That grotesque scar on your chest. What is it from? It would be enough to turn away the guys.”  

 

“Zilai, Zian’s already leaving,” said Jinyu. And Zilai cheerfully ran after her younger brother.

 

Good riddance, though Erika. She hoped that was the last she ever heard of the Wu siblings. Her hand went to her heart. Only Eron had seen the whitish cluster of scars that were the remnants of surgery when she was seven, for she had always been careful to wear necklines that covered it.

 

“Don’t worry. It’s barely noticeable,” said Jinyu quietly to her.

 

And Erika’s eyes widened as she stared up at the Black Dragon, looking into his inscrutable red-amber eyes. “What?”

 

“The scar.” And Jinyu pointed to his left chest.

 

“Oh.” Her face flushed. She recalled she had run out of the shower in a towel the other day because of the maggot infestation in the Li mansion, straight into Jinyu. It gave Erika some satisfaction that at least he had been looking where he should have been despite how indifferent he had seemed.

 

Leiyun walked up to them. “Let’s get going, Jin. I think my father’s going to have another fainting spell now that his dream of becoming the Great Elder is smashed to smithereens.”

 

“Has he come to terms with the idea of Syaoran as Great Elder?” Kara asked.

 

“No, he’s in denial and will be for a long time—but Syaoran’s been chosen by Great Elder Renshu, as the signet ring shows, and the Council is generally receptive of the idea,” replied Leiyun. “They’re sick of my father’s tyranny and histrionics, and Syaoran as Great Elder will do well to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations. Plus, those oligarchs think Syaoran is just an uninitiated kid so basically he’ll be a puppet leader, which suits well their needs.”

 

“Boy are they in for a pleasant surprise when they realize Syaoran will be Demon Leader 2.0. They haven’t figured out how clever the boy is yet?” replied Kara. “I mean, look at this intricate ploy he carried through right behind their backs after that whole submissive act he pulled off all year.”

 

“They’ll refuse to acknowledge it, same as my father,” said Leiyun. “They are convinced that the Great Elder walked Syaoran through the whole process. Knowing Great-uncle Renshu, he probably handed Syaoran the seal ring right before dying, told him some abstract analects, and asked him to pass the Great Elder test without any instructions whatsoever.” To this, Jinyu nodded knowingly.

 

“And you, what do you think of all this?” Erika asked Leiyun. “Syaoran becoming the Great Elder of the Li Clan and de facto leader.”

 

Leiyun’s icy blue eyes glimmered. “It took long enough, didn’t it? I told Syaoran last year if the Great Elder nominated him as his successor, I would support him with all my heart. And I stand by my word.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura swooped down from her winged staff on top of the rooftop of a low office building across from the Tokyo Tower, which was illuminated as the sun set. She was joined by Cerberus and Yue.

 

“No traces of locusts anywhere,” Cerberus told her. “And cockroaches appear to have returned to usual population—I mean, it’s the city so it’s what you get.”

 

“The Flower has done its job,” reported back Yue. “Worst damage caused on the flora and fauna by the Insect seems to be salvaged. Eriol says he has lifted most of the barriers and civilians may enter the quarantined areas now.”

 

Miho spring down from Spinel Sun’s back. “The property damage isn’t as bad as we had feared thanks to the barriers, except for of course in Marunouchi. But the Li Group has already discreetly begun repairs, it seems, to cover up the worse damage.”

 

Sakura leaned over the rooftop, staring down at the streets. “And what about the yakuza? Are they under control?”

 

“Yeah, most of the hooligans and hired thugs have dispersed. The remaining Hong Kong triad members seem to have halted fighting. Seems like the Black Dragon and Gold Leopard had their men withdraw. I also spotted Taoka—he’s got the streets under control,” said Kai. “And police reinforcements are finally patrolling, so it’s unlikely that the mafia will cause anymore ruckus at this point.”

 

“And the Li Clan?” asked Sakura distracted.

 

“If you mean Syaoran-kun…” Tomoyo handed Sakura a handkerchief. “He’s there.” She pointed to a high-rise building across from them. Two men came and bowed to Syaoran, one pointing at his watch. Tomoyo looked down at the streets and saw a black Mercedes Benz parked below. “I think he’s coming this way.” Syaoran had dismissed the two men, climbed onto the ledge of the building, and jumped down to the adjacent building, landing a couple feet away from where Sakura stood.     

 

Sakura wiped her face with the cotton handkerchief, ran a quick hand through her hair, though there was little to be down with all the snarls and tangles, then took a deep breath before turning around.  

 

Somehow, the others had discreetly slipped away from the roof, leaving the two a moment of quiet. She found herself facing Syaoran, a battered, weary Syaoran, but firm and resolute. He was wearing a black silk cheongsam over white trousers, and someone had draped a black cloak trimmed with gold over his broad shoulders, and he looked regal, stately.


“Syaoran,” said Sakura. “Or should I say, Great Elder of the Li Clan now?”

 

Syaoran smiled slightly. “That makes me feel so wizened and old.”

 

“Well, you did spend an endless eternity in the Dragon Isles,” remarked Sakura.

 

“True enough. I thought I’d never see Tokyo Tower again,” he murmured. “Not this one.”

 

“So, what now?” Sakura asked. “I guess you will be heading back to Hong Kong to sort out loose ends?”

 

He nodded. “I’ll have to be properly inaugurated as the Great Elder—a grand, elaborate ceremony I am told. All the clan members from across the world—the U.S., Europe, across Asia, have been contacted to fly into Hong Kong. I’m sort of dreading it. And we’re going to have to work out an official truce agreement with our rival Wu Clan and enter negotiations with the Tang Clan.”

 

“What about your Uncle Wutai? How’s he handling things?” asked Sakura.

 

“I don’t know,” said Syaoran. “I’ll have to keep an eye on him. But there’s not much he can do, since I have passed the Test of the Great Elder—even the most critical of the Elders can’t deny that.”

 

“Good,” said Sakura. “You show them.”

 

“It’s all thanks to you, Sakura,” he said, the corner of his eyes wrinkling. “You did a good job with cleaning up with the mess left behind by the Insect.”  

 

Sakura sighed. “Except, I couldn’t get the cherry blossoms to bloom.”

 

“Cherry blossoms do require a lot of care and patience to grow,” Syaoran remarked off-handedly.

 

“The Flower always seems to listen to you better ever since I lent the card to you back in junior high,” Sakura said with a pout, holding up the card with the pretty fairy with corkscrew pigtails. “It’s good I’m not jealous, because some cards just like you better than me.”

 

“Yeah, I mean we go way back, right Flower?” said Syaoran. “She’s the first Clow Card I ever met.”

 

“Eh, were you even in Japan then?” asked Sakura. “I thought I sealed the Flower before you transferred to our school, at the school parents’ sports festival.”

 

“Well, yeah, I guess that was before we officially met,” he replied. “I was shadowing you, to gauge what kind of person my potential rival was.”

 

Sakura’s jaw dropped. “You never told me you were spying on me before we met!”

 

“Observing, not spying!” replied Syaoran.

 

“And based on your spying, what kind of person was I?”

 

Syaoran pretended to think. He recalled seeing through a shower of vivid pink Nadeshiko petals, a girl with eyes the color of summer leaves laughing with her family and friends, “A foolish child who would use the Clow Card to create truce for her loved ones. Which to me then translated to, someone who doesn’t take her job seriously.”

 

“Well, you immediately assaulted me, trying to take away the Clow Cards from me when we first met,” said Sakura solemnly. “Some things never change.”

 

The corners of his eyes crinkled. “No, they don’t.”

 

“Well, I’d seen you in my nightmares before you transferred into my class in elementary school,” said Sakura. “I couldn’t see your face, but I saw you in your battle costume, with the Five Force Sword, silhouetted by the moon standing across from Tokyo Tower.” 

 

“Nightmares?” he asked, raising a brow.

 

“Yeah, I woke up screaming in the morning,” replied Sakura.

 

Syaoran sighed. Nightmares indeed. “Speaking of Tokyo Tower, Sakura, remember, back up at the observation deck, I promised you that I would give you the second part of your birthday present. Sorry it’s a little late.”

 

“What’s a week, compared to a year,” said Sakura, eyes twinkling. She touched the star pin on her head, Syaoran’s birthday present that he had given to her at the strike of midnight on April 1 at the special observation deck of the Tokyo Tower.

 

Syaoran reached into this pocket. “This is something I’ve been meaning to do, the moment my power of the moon returned.”

 

She realized what he was holding up—it was a gray-cast card. The Wolf. He had not returned it to her with the rest of the Sakura Cards.

 

And Syaoran held up the card and murmured, “Wolfie-chan, wake up.” The ashen card quivered and glowed. “It’s okay now, Wolfie-chan, you can wake up.”

 

The card burst into its usual pink shade.

 

“Wolfie-chan?” Sakura called out.

 

And a golden puppy with pointed wolf-like ears leaped out and jumped into Sakura’s open arms.

 

“Wolfie-chan, you’re back!” she exclaimed, burying her face into the soft fur.

 

He barked and licked Sakura all over the face with his wet, pink tongue.

 

Sakura looked up at Syaoran. “How did he—I thought you said Wolfie-chan died.”

 

“When I no longer had powers, I could no longer sustain him in this current form. He did die, in a sense, protecting me. But ever since some sort of powers seemed to be returning to me, I’ve been gradually feeding him with a bit of the power of the stars—a light power. And now, with my moon power completely back, it’s enough to sustain him in his light form once more,” Syaoran replied.

 

“Look, he wants to go to his papa!” said Sakura, and handed off Wolfie-chan to an embarrassed Syaoran.

 

The puppy began sniffing Syaoran out and nuzzling his moist nose against Syaoran’s cheek. “Missed you, Vega,” Syaoran said brusquely. “Thanks for protecting me, that time.”

 

Sakura laughed out loud—it was such a delightful sound, clear and tinkling. Syaoran turned around and fumbled inside his pocket.

 

“What are you doing?” asked Sakura, tilting her head, watching Syaoran tie a ribbon around the puppy’s waist.

 

“Go, deliver it to your mistress,” said Syaoran.

 

Wolfie-chan obediently trotted over to Sakura, who dropped to her knees and discovered a stack of letters tied together with a narrow green ribbon. “What are these?”

 

“All the letters I began to write and didn’t send you,” said Syaoran, somewhat bashfully. “You know what, this is a horrible idea. What was I thinking? Here—I’ll get you something else.”

 

“No!” Sakura clutched the stack of letters to her chest tightly.

 

“I found the letters in a drawer in my room when I was back in Hong Kong—I thought of throwing them out since none of them were finished and never would be. Then I thought that may be a waste—when I wrote them, most of the time I never thought I was going to see you again. Truthfully, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read them myself. I’m not even sure what I wrote—I wasn’t in the right state of mind when I was writing most of them. Shoot, this was just a horrible idea.” He sank to his knees as well, hands buried in his hair.

 

“No! This is the most meaningful present I’ve ever gotten in my life,” she said, lifting him to stand up again, holding his hand.

 

“Hey, you know how much that necklace cost?” said Syaoran with a mischievous grin, pointing to the solid diamond stone that hung from her neck.

 

“I know—your whole year’s allowance.” Sakura blinked at him mirthfully. Of course, Syaoran’s year allowance would probably be her whole elementary, middle and high school allowance combined. “Now, what in the world am I going to get you for your birthday? Do I now have to get you two gifts?”

 

“Anything besides a mirror will be fine,” muttered Syaoran under his breath.

 

Sakura grinned. “Maybe a five-times magnifying mirror with a backlight—latest model?”

 

He looked so aghast, that she told him, “International shipping is kind of expensive for fragile objects, so I’ll have to consider it.” And she stared down at the first envelope, addressed to “Sakura.” To think, Syaoran had written her these many letters—there was enough perhaps for one per week he was gone, depending on how long he was gone. “Can I open these right now?”

 

“No!” exclaimed Syaoran. “Read them… later.”

 

“Okay. I’ll ready them out to you later, Wolfie-chan,” she told the puppy who chased his tail round and round in circles, seemingly happy to be liberated again.

 

“Only you can read it!” said Syaoran.

 

“I’ll write you letters too, when you are in Hong Kong,” Sakura said. “It’s okay if you are too busy to respond to them though.” She fumbled with a chain around her neck, with the Reed sapphire ring. “Wait—I want to return this to you.”

 

“You can keep it.”

 

Sakura shook her head. “I know you lent it to me hoping it might help stabilize my—or I guess your—power of the moon. Our powers are switched back. So you should take back the ring—it’s a memento from your father.” Right now was not the right moment to tell him that she had seen Li Ryuuren inside the Dragon Isles.

 

Syaoran took back the ring and stared at the six-pointed star gleaming from the ocean blue gem, set in platinum. A strange determination came over his eyes as he clenched his fingers over the jewel, a look Sakura missed as she watched Wei approach them.

 

“I guess it’s time for you to leave now.”

 

Syaoran nodded. “Though it may not be in my place to say this, I will say it anyway. Please wait, Sakura. I promise I will be back, as soon as I sort out all the business with the clan.”

 

Sakura only nodded, afraid she will cry if she spoke.

 

“See you again, Sakura.”

 

“I’ll be waiting, Syaoran.” As she watched him get into the car parked on the streets, Sakura wished she could have walked down cherry blossom lane in full bloom just once, with Syaoran, in their high school uniforms, something she had envisioned since elementary school.

 

Tomoyo, hiding behind the water tank, set down her camcorder. “I can’t believe Syaoran really is leaving this time.”

 

“Oh, I can’t handle these tearful farewells anymore,” sniffled Ruby Moon.

 

“Don’t they realize they can send emails, web chat, send instant messages, or hello, telephone and video chat?” remarked Kai, shaking his head. “Who in this day and age still sends letters as the primary method of communication?”

 

“Letters are far more romantic, you dolt of a brother. I bet you’ve never sent Meilin-nee-chan a single love letter, ever,” said Miho.

 

“Why would I? I have a microchip tracker attached to her so I know here she is all the time, and I go see her when I miss her, right away,” said Kai.

 

“Aren’t you just a stalker with no life?” Miho replied.

 

Tomoyo looked over her shoulders at Kai. “Syaoran-kun’s not very good at staying in touch.”

 

“No kidding, look.” Kai pointed at Sakura, clasping the letters to her chest. “I mean, that stingy kid stored a year’s worth of letters and decided to hand deliver them to save on international postage. How Victorian can they get?”

 

Tomoyo added, “Well, Sakura’s not very good with technology.”

 

Kai nodded, “Yeah, I mean, her password for everything is 0401! Who uses their birthdays for passcodes!”

 

Miho looked up at Kai. “Isn’t Kaitou Magician’s criminal code No. 603? My birthday?” He pretended not to hear her.

 

“Kai-kun, do you hack into Sakura’s private email?” asked Tomoyo.

 

“So sue me! I can’t help it—I have a curious, meddlesome nature,” said Kai. He glanced at Miho. “I won’t do it anymore.”

 

Tomoyo grinned. “No, don’t stop! Can you share it with me?”

 

“You’ve corrupted even the most pure and virtuous Tomoyo-senpai!” groaned Miho. “And on a more serious note, I think we’re forgetting we have a much more serious issue to deal with.”

 

Kai cocked his head. “More serious than the bloody nonexistent love life of Sakura and Syaoran?”

 

“Yes,” Miho replied, arms crossed. “It’s on the issue of whether the Star Alliance exists anymore at this point, or has it broken beyond repair.” 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Despite each person in the room wishing to take a steaming shower and collapse into bed, upon Miho’s insistence, they gathered at the Hiiragizawa estate for an emergency meeting, sans Sakura and her brother.

 

The group was a frazzled mess, Miho noted, as she gazed around at the Alliance, slumped in the Reed study after the most harrowing week of their lives. After the initial shock of Sakura’s return, sealing the Insect, restoring order around the city and managing to avoid any further altercation with the Li Clan, half the group was in tears and the other half in stupor. And there was Eriol, sitting at his antique mahogany desk, strumming his fingers on the lacquered surface with the corner of his lip twitching.

 

“Where’s Sakura?” asked Nakuru, draped over a velvet cushion.

 

“Touya took her home—their father was waiting and wanted to see them as soon as possible,” replied Yukito.

 

“Frankly, I’m not sure what we have left to say. Sakura is back and resumed her duties as Card Mistress, the Li Clan returned to Hong Kong and the Insect is sealed. And that’s that,” said Nakuru.

 

“No, it’s not over,” said Miho. “I mean, we are here in this Alliance because we trust Sakura-senpai. But she betrayed all of our trust. I’m not sure how we can continue on at this point when the most fundamental core has been shattered.”

 

Turning to Kai, Nakuru said, “Your sister has serious trust issues, and I completely blame you for it.”

 

Kai shrugged. “Well, she does have a valid point. I was the last one to join the Alliance because of this very reason—I hate being bogged down by all these interpersonal issues, related to trust, allegiance, decorum and all that crap. This whole affair left a nasty taste in my mouth. Did I like what Sakura did—of course not. Do I get why she did it? Sure, I’ll give her a chance to explain herself. I’m not a person to judge someone for any bad decisions they make.”

 

Kero-chan said slowly, “Miho’s right. I don’t think anyone here will not forgive Sakura for what she did, for I know I certainly am just grateful she is safe and back to us. But whether or not we can put our trust in her is another issue. Even though for me, with Sakura as my mistress whom I believe in unconditionally, I am wavering. I can’t imagine where the rest of you are standing.”

 

Nodding, Miho said, “And we haven’t even touched upon Syaoran-senpai’s role in this whole fiasco—I mean, he’s the Li Clan Great Elder now. That just complicates everything even more. Doesn’t that just put him as our given enemy? I can’t even distinguish from where the lie ends and truth begins. How much of his and Sakura’s open animosity over the past year was real and how much of it was an act? How long have we been deceived in the first place?” And she spun around to glare at Eriol, who was madly distracting.

 

“What are you cackling about so unceremoniously?” she demanded. “You actually look… pleased about something? They tricked us! We pledged our alliance to Sakura-senpai, and she didn’t trust us. She deceived us all.”

 

And still, Eriol continued to chuckle to himself. “Oh, but how beautifully they tricked us. Even I would never have imagined such an intricate, messed-up plan. I was very pleasantly surprised.”

 

“It’s only you,” snapped Meilin. “I’ll never forgive Syaoran for fooling me.”

 

“Maybe you should’ve had more faith in him,” said Kai.

 

Meilin scowled. “You didn’t trust him either.”

 

“I don’t trust anyone. And I’m not you. You knew him better than anyone else,” reminded Kai.

 

“I thought I did.” Meilin crossed her arms. “But I admit it. I truly doubted him over these past several days.”

 

“Well, who knew, Syaoran was a better actor than we ever imagined him to be,” remarked Kai.

 

“That wasn’t acting,” said Tomoyo said slowly. “When he stabbed Sakura, that wasn’t acting.”

 

“True, even if that wasn’t our Sakura, and an illusion or a clone or whatever she was, it hurt him as much as killing the real Sakura,” admitted Miho.

 

Kai said, “At the end of the day, it wasn’t any easier on Syaoran and Sakura’s end, I would think, having to bear with such a huge lie for what could have been weeks.”

 

Meilin shot him a nasty look. “Of course you would be able to empathize.”

 

And Kai stared down at his hands, suddenly absorbed by his skull ring.

 

“Sakura-senpai never needed an alliance in the first place,” declared Miho. “She chose Syaoran over us.”

 

“Do you really think so?” said Mizuki Kaho, who usually chose to listen. “I think Sakura chose what she thought was the best solution at the given time. Was it the right choice? Could we have come up with a better one? Perhaps. But if choices are a means to an end, then she has accomplished what she has set out to do, with the least amount of casualties.”

 

“Albeit a few hurt feelings,” added Suppi-chan.

 

“If anything, Syaoran’s the real victor in all of this, isn’t he?” remarked Kai. “He got his magic back, he’s finally head of the Clan, and might I say, he got the girl.”

 

“I would say he has a tough road ahead of him, for the next couple years, unless he can come up with some sort of deal to reign in the Wu Clan and Tang Clan,” said Eriol. “There will be predators who will prey on the fact that he is a young and inexperienced leader, both from within and outside the Li Clan.”

 

“So that means, we aren’t going to see him for a very long time, I guess,” sighed Tomoyo.

 

Kero-chan asked, “So he’s just going to drop out of the battle with all the dark forces still left?”

 

“How many dark forces are left at this point?” Miho looked around for Eron, and realized he wasn’t there. When did he even disappear? Then, she realized she hadn’t seen him since Sakura sealed the Insect, hours ago. “And are they even a problem? I feel like Sakura has things under control and doesn’t need Syaoran’s help anymore.”

 

“It’s not time to let our guard down,” said Kero-chan. “I don’t think I can trust Leiyun isn’t up to anything. Him, Chang Erika and Kara Reed are such an unlikely combination that they make me nervous.”

 

“Kara won’t do anything stupid,” said Kai.

 

“Sure, she won’t. Why, because she is the great Leon Reed’s daughter?” asked Meilin, irritated at how Kai always defended his ex-girlfriend. Like she wouldn’t notice that he was always watching for her.

 

“By the way, shouldn’t you be heading to Hong Kong to attend the Great Elder’s inauguration ceremony?” asked Kai nonchalantly. “Maybe you’ll even bump into dear friend Wu Zian.”

 

Meilin scowled. “I’m not going! I refuse to have anything to do with Li Syaoran. I don’t accept him as the Great Elder.”

 

“Is it wrong to feel gleeful at this point that at least she’s disgusted with my No. 1 rival?” remarked Kai to Tomoyo.

 

Looking a bit perplexed, Tomoyo said, “Do you think Feimei-nee-san will be able to send some video footages of the ceremony since Meilin-chan’s not going to be there?”

 

“We should just crash the party—it will be hilarious, don’t you think? Syaoran hates all the ritualistic stuff and being the center of attention,” said Kai.  

 

With a groan, Miho said, “I don’t think we’re going to get anymore productive discussion tonight.”

 

Yukito said, “Well, let’s see how Touya responds. There is nobody more hurt that he was, because he’s her brother, and if he can work at forgiving Sakura, I don’t see why we cannot do the same.”

 

“Well, I have lasagna in the oven downstairs, and cartons of ice cream in the freezer for dessert,” said Eriol. “Why don’t we have dinner?”

 

Miho touched her stomach—she hadn’t eaten all day and realized she was ravenous. “Oranges and cream flavored for me!” 

 

“Mint chocolate chip!” exclaimed Kero-chan. Then he added solemnly, “As Miho said, we will continue our discussion next time.”

 

“Okay, so I’m going to show you guys my next group design,” said Tomoyo, holding up her sketchbook. The others were wondering what she had been furiously sketching. “I was feeling inspired by the Li and Wu Clans, and I think we’ve never had a Chinese-themed group outfit. I’ve gotten fabulous rolls of silk imported from Shanghai.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura knocked on her brother’s room. “Onii-chan. Are you in there?”

 

There was no response, but she could hear the shuffling of his chair. “I’m sorry, onii-chan.” For a few minutes, she stared at the shut door, before retreating back to her room. Kero-chan was at Eriol’s. She slumped down at her desk and picked up at a rare family photo on her desk. Her father had his arm around her mother, carrying Sakura’s toddler self. Her other hand was rested on young Touya’s shoulder.

 

A moment later, she heard a door swing open and footsteps creak down the stairs. Her brother was going back to work.

 

She didn’t recall dozing off, but she awoke to a gentle tap on her shoulder. “Sakura-san, you should sleep on the bed—you’ll end up with a terrible neck cramp if you sleep here.”

 

Sakura bolted up from her desk—her neck was stiff from dozing off from the desk. She glanced at the clock—it was past midnight already, yet she didn’t recall falling asleep. Then she stared up at her father, wanting to fling her arms around him, but instead clenched her hands into fists, staring up at him guiltily, not knowing where to start.  

 

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything,” said Fujitaka softly.

 

And this time, Sakura did rush forward and wrap her arms around her father in a tight hug, like she was a 10-year-old girl again. She couldn’t even recall the last time she had given her father a hug in the past year. Her father tapped her back soothingly, as if she were a toddler again, as she sobbed into his chest. “Shush now, it’s okay.”

 

“I’m sorry, otou-san. I’m sorry.”

 

Her father was warm and steady, like always. And his low, gentle voice told her. “I’ve heard the gist of things from your brother. Thank you for being safe.”

 

“Onii-chan will never forgive me,” she said, staring up at her father with tears streaming down her face. “I never meant to hurt onii-chan. But I did.”

 

“It’s true that your brother is feeling a bit hurt and confused at the moment, but you have to understand, he will come around to it eventually,” said Fujitaka. He knew Touya well, and the boy had an obstinate streak, one that he recognized well because he once had been so at his son’s age. He had been willful enough to run away from home and never look back again for over two decades.

 

“No, he won’t,” said Sakura. Her brother’s eyes had been cold when he gazed at her that last time. As if he never wanted to see her again.

 

“Can I sit here for a moment?” said Fujitaka, taking a seat at the edge of Sakura’s bed. “Come.” He patted the spot next to him, and Sakura sat down next to him, grabbing a black handmade teddy bear from the bed and placing it on her lap.

 

“Have I ever told you how I ended up marrying your mother?”

 

Sakura glanced up at her father through her bleary eyes, surprised by the unexpected change in topic. She saw that through his glasses, his brown eyes were fixed on the family photo on her desk. While she had heard the story of how her father first met her mother numerous times, she had not heard much about their courtship in his words.

 

“I’ve already told you how I first met Nadeshiko-san. She was still a high school student, and she fell right out of a tree on my first day starting as a newbie teacher at Seijou High School. It’s strange thinking that you are now the age that your mother was when I married her. I didn’t think of her being so young then, but she was. We both were.” Fujitaka paused, as if he too was lost in that transient youth which to him seemed just like yesterday. “I knew from the moment she tumbled into my lap from the tree while saving a little bird that she was the one I was destined to love. I truly thought an angel had fallen from the sky, and for me, she was the most beautiful, kind and wonderful person in the world. I think within two days of knowing her, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. After two weeks, I asked if we could meet each other, going against school regulations, my own morals. And after two months, I asked her to marry me. I know, it was impulsive, but when you meet the woman of your life, you don’t want to let her go.”

 

Sakura recalled a conversation she once had with her father back in junior high. He had told her that he knew of her past love. Perhaps, he even knew of Li Ryuuren. Did their time in Tomoeda every overlap? Had they ever met?

 

She remembered her father’s words then. “We weren’t each other’s first love. She knew nothing about my past life, and me, nothing about hers. Both our childhood loves were long gone by. Yet, all we knew is that we gave our full mature adult love to each other and we were fully content with that.

 

At that time, Sakura wondered what adult love was. She still didn’t know—was mature love understanding that there is a past, an aspect of your partner that you will not know of and still accepting it? Her father that day had told her that Nadeshiko, at age 16, told him that she only had a decade left to live. And yet, he still chose to marry her, even though the rest of his life with her would be cut so short.

 

Fujitaka continued slowly, “You know, I was sure your mother loved me too, as much as I loved her. And yet, she rejected me when I first proposed to her. I asked her to marry me once she graduated from high school, so I even told her she could take her time to reply. But she told me it was impossible.”

 

This was the first time hearing that her mother had first refused her father’s proposal. Sakura saw that her father had closed his eyes, as if reminiscing that day.

 

“It left me confused, hurt. I thought I knew her heart, and yet, I began to realize, in those past two months, I did not know anything about her, after all. She avoided me for two weeks. Sonomi-san was pretty delighted, I think, because she figured we had broken up. After Nadeshiko refused to tell me why she avoided me, and I felt desperate because she wouldn’t speak to me. I thought of giving up right there—for she was only 16, a popular model on top of that, and her family hated me. I thought, maybe there was another man she loved. But desperate, thinking it was my last shot, I went to her house one night, standing out there in the pouring rain, praying she would glance out her window. Of course, back then, we didn’t have the convenience of cellphones, and I didn’t dare call her home phone because her grandfather might pick up. Eventually she did look out the window, and first, she shut her curtains, planning to ignore me. But then, being soft-hearted as she is, snuck out into the gardens with an extra umbrella. She told me to go back home before her grandfather wakes up. And I told her I wouldn’t, until she agreed to marry me in two years’ time, when she graduates from high school. I think we raised our voices at each other for the first time. Then, she startled me by saying, ‘I won’t marry you in two years, but I will marry you right now.’ I didn’t take her seriously and told her I couldn’t do that, since she’s still my student.”

 

“But what made you change your mind?” Sakura couldn’t help asking her father.

 

“Because of our age difference, I had kept treating her as a child, but I realized, she wasn’t one, that she hadn’t been for a long time.” He smiled in a bittersweet way, which reminded Sakura briefly of Clow Reed, as he recollected the events of a quarter century ago.

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Tomoeda, 25 years ago…

 

 

Rain pelted down hard and she was barefoot, her feet covered in mud but she didn’t care. Amamiya Nadeshiko blinked the raindrops from her eyes, staring up at the tall man with fog clouding his glasses. “What are you doing here? Are you crazy? What if my grandfather finds you?”

 

“Nadeshiko, I can’t take no as an answer,” burst out Fujitaka. “I thought I can suppress this feeling, but I love you, and I can’t lie to you or myself. I want to be with you.”

 

She stared at him with a sudden rebellious streak. “Then marry me now, Kinomoto-sensei. This instant.”

 

“You’re my student still! We have to wait until you graduate, and I will get proper permission from you grandfather,” Fujitaka exclaimed, short of raising his voice at her, water dripping from his auburn brown hair plastered over his forehead.

 

“He will never agree to it,” she replied.

 

“I will get on my knees and not move a single inch until he consents our marriage.”

 

Nadeshiko shook her heard. “No, ojii-san will never approve of our relationship.”

 

“Is that what this was all about? That I’m not good enough for you, that your grandfather told you to break up with me?”

 

“No!” exclaimed Nadeshiko. “It’s not that. I told you that I will marry you right now.”

 

“But why not in two years?” demanded Fujitaka. “By then, I will have saved up enough to buy us a house and hold a proper wedding ceremony.”

 

“It’s because I don’t have time!” she replied, her eyes flashing like emeralds in the torrential rain. Her violet curls were weighed down from the wetness, and her white dress was plastered to her porcelain skin.

 

“Time?” Fujitaka blinked. “What do you mean? Are you going somewhere?”

 

Nadeshiko shook her head, tears pouring down her face. “I have at most ten years left to live.”

 

“What do you mean?” All blood had drained from his face. “Do you have an illness? Is this some horrible joke because you want to end things with me?”

 

“No,” Nadeshiko said. “You know I have the second sight.”

 

“Have you been to a doctor? What did the doctor say?”

 

“There’s nothing that the doctors can do.” Nadeshiko was shuddering now.

 

“That’s why you rejected me?” Fujitaka asked slowly. “Is that why, Nadeshiko-san?”

 

And suddenly, Nadeshiko burst out, “I’m so scared, Kinomoto-sensei. All I ever wanted was a family of my own—I never had any grand dreams or goals in life. I was just scared of being forgotten. But my family wouldn’t forget me. Yet, knowing this disease is slowly going to kill me, and that I will have to leave my family, that scares me more. I don’t want to cause you pain, Fujitaka-san, because I love you. But, is it wrong of me to want to be selfish and be loved and happy for the remaining time I have left? I don’t to be alone anymore.”

 

She stared up at him, glistening in the moonlight, shivering, in his eyes angelic and frail and vulnerable. And his heart was forever severed in half. Fujitaka grasped Nadeshiko in a tight hug, fingers clinging around her damp head. “Then let’s get married right away, Nadeshiko-san.”

 

“Right now?” She almost sounded surprised.

 

“Yes, we’ll find a church, a pastor, anywhere. We’ll get married, and everything afterwards, getting your family’s permission, school, we’ll just worry about it afterwards.”

 

“Why, Fujitaka-san?” Why the sudden change of heart?

 

His voice was caught in his throat, and his brown eyes were shimmering in the lamplight. “Because you said you had a decade. Well, we’ll just have to fill a full lifetime’s worth of memories into that decade. And we haven’t a moment to lose.”  

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Sakura’s father continued slowly, “And we did live those ten years to the fullest. Her grandfather was furious at me for a long time—that is one regret I had, taking her away from her grandfather and cousin. The school was surprisingly accepting of our married status—it was less uncommon then, the age difference, and I think Sonomi-san in a sense used her influence—for she was an influential person even then—to shoot down any critics. I wanted her to quit modeling because I was worried about her health, but she insisted on continuing the career especially because her grandfather disowned her. In a sense, it was a steady income—more than I made with my teaching. But I think later, I think I understand why she continued modeling till the end, leaving behind her legacy through the numerous photographs.”

 

A ten-year sentence. Her mother had died when she was 27, when Sakura was just three years old. Nadeshiko spent some 11 years married to Kinomoto Fujitaka, and she had died without any regrets.

 

Sakura recalled Li Ryuuren, with his scrutinizing blue eyes, stubborn chin and cocky smile. If her father was a patient listener and a man who spoke after considering the situation, Ryuuren had been brusque, short-tempered and self-assured. The broken Ryuuren, who she had seen in his last moments, had died loving her mother still. Ryuuren self-purportedly claimed he had been a poor husband to Yelan, and had many regrets left. Did he too know he had a decade left to live, and if so, how did he choose to spend it? For he had been different. Till the last moment, he was full of regret, anguish. He had not found peace of heart.

 

Last year, Sakura had almost died sealing the Plague. After Syaoran returned back to Hong Kong, she had lost direction, motivation, and the will to continue on even as Card Mistress. Because through the Plague, the very dark force that had killed her mother and Ryuuren, she had felt her limitations, for the first time felt utter despair. When Syaoran turned her away at the Hong Kong harbors, she had felt her whole future had been shut off from her, as if there was no reason to smile again tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. But this time around, even though not much of their situation had changed, and Syaoran was back in Hong Kong again, perhaps forever, it was all different. She was eager to be able to hear any sort of news about him, or maybe even hope for a letter or call from him. If she wanted to, she could visit him. He could visit her.

 

“I think he’ll be back,” her father remarked.

 

Sakura, who had been toying with the bear’s soft front paws, stared up at him. “Who? Weren’t we talking about onii-chan?”

 

“The maker of that stuffed toy,” said Fujitaka. “I’m sure he’ll be back.” And with a yawn, he said, “Well, I’m going to wash up. Your mother surely would have down a better job about this sort of talk. But it’s partly my fault. From such an early age, I entrusted Touya to look out for you, when he was but a mere child himself. And he is harder on himself than anyone else when he thinks that he broke his promise to your mother to protect you. What probably infuriates him more though, is to think that his baby sister who was scared of her own shadow is growing up.”

 

Wolfie-chan, who had been hiding underneath the bed, decided to pop his head out and prod Fujitaka’s slippers with his nose.

 

“Oh, the puppy’s back! I better feed you some leftovers.” And Wolfie-chan happily scampered out after Fujitaka.

 

After her father left, Sakura collapsed back into her bed, suddenly not feeling so miserable and alone in the world as she had before their talk. She lifted up Syaoran-bear into air, staring into his beady black eyes. “Onii-chan will forgive me eventually, right? And you will be back too, someday, right?” She drew the teddy bear closely to her chest, closing her eyes. “I miss you, Syaoran.”

 

She hadn’t told anyone, not even Tomoyo, but only through letting go of Syaoran had she realized how much she needed him. Was this need love? She had told Ryuuren in the spur of the moment that she had loved his son. And she knew she had loved Syaoran for a long time, but exactly, what sort of love was this? Eron had told her that his love was finite last winter. Strangely, that was the only time someone had said he loved her. Syaoran had told her when he first came back to Japan in junior high that his elementary confession was nothing but silly childhood memories. And it must be true, since he had never once told her that he loved her, not even like. Was it strange that though she knew that she and Syaoran had a bond stronger than any spoken words, that she felt this desolate void knowing that it wasn’t love?

 

She rolled over and reached out into her drawer, taking out the stack of letters Syaoran had given her. She had been saving them for the right moment, when she was alone. For she knew they would be grim, for they were written at a low point in his life. And the fact that he chose to share that side with her meant all the world for her.

 

The endearing bold scrawl of his handwriting, words addressed to her. At first, the letters was shaky but became firmer—Syaoran was ambidextrous but was more used to writing with his right hand, which had been paralyzed last year. There were pages of letters with dates ranging back from March of last year. Some letters were simply a line long, others were written in a hurry. Others had many lines crossed out.

 

 

Dear Sakura,

             You must have so many questions. On why I left Japan so suddenly, why I haven’t gotten in touch, what happened to Wolfie-chan… I’m back in Hong Kong, as you probably know by now. There was a family emergency. I’m sorry for leaving without saying goodbye… It wasn’t my intention…

 

 

Dear Sakura,

             Remember the cousin I once told you about? Li Leiyun, he was the cousin that was my mentor, the person I used to look up most to. He was supposed to have died in an accident seven years ago. But it turned out that he was alive after all. It’s so strange having him back. All these years, I thought I would never see him again…

             Seven years is a long period of time, Sakura, it seems. A person can change so much, become a stranger in all those years. But Sakura, you never seem to change. When I next see you again, I hope you will still be that same person I met six years ago.

             Sakura, someday you’re going to find out about the source of your powers. Please don’t ever blame yourself for it. I never, not once, regretted what I did. If you died, I would never have been able to forgive myself.

            

 

Some letters were written on what seemed like pieces of paper written out of a notebook.

 

 

Dear Sakura, it’s junior high graduation day. I wish I could have been there. I missed elementary school graduation as well. It must be spring there now. Did the cherry blossoms bloom yet?

 

I wish I told you more about the Li Clan when I was with you. I told you a lot about our history, our magic. But I never really explained to you about our current dynamics. The Great Elder is very ill. I am afraid that when he’s gone, the centuries of structure will fall apart. There is no one to lead the clan—Uncle Wutai only cares about wealth and power. He’s the Head of the Clan. He was my father’s oldest brother. I’m afraid of what he’s capable of, what he would do if Uncle Renshu is gone.

 

 

Sakura saw that the date of the letters became less frequent. Sometimes, there was just a line or two written on the whole sheet of paper.

 

 

Sakura, there is no one I can tell this to, and I will probably never send you this letter, so I guess it’s all right to write this to you. I thought I did not know fear, but I haven’t seen sunlight in a week, and I am locked in this room. If I don’t see you, I think I will go crazy. I have to tell you…

 

Maybe I can just write the truth. I wonder what you would say to me. I can never face you the way I am now. I realized, without magic, without my sword arm, I am nothing to the Li Clan. But, if I am nothing to the Li Clan, doesn’t that mean I can be free from it? Yet, why I am trapped here? What do they want from me? Truthfully, I’m scared, that I will never be free.

 

 

As the days passed by, the letters grew darker in tone, and it became harder and harder for her to read on, but she forced herself to. He had been getting more desperate.

 

 

Today, I had a dream about my father. He was dying, all alone. He was the Chosen One and loved by the Clan—yet why did he have to die alone, far from home? Sometimes, I think, should I die here, like this, would I be missed?

 

What is the worth of my life, if I am not Chosen One, and I am not fighting by your side?

 

 

Sakura, I miss you. That is so much easier to write than say out loud. What I would not give up in order to see you just one more time...

 

 

After she read those words, she had to pause, clenching her heart. “Syaoran, I never knew things were this bad. I didn’t know.” She was furious at the Li Clan elders, for locking away Syaoran, for treating him like a prisoner in his own home.

 

 

Leiyun is not Leiyun. I don’t know who he is. He is a stranger. He terrifies me. His eyes have gone cold. But who is he if he is not Leiyun? I should be happy to have my cousin back. But sometimes, I’m afraid he has become a monster… What can change a person so much?

 

Will I too change someday? If I do, will you remember who I used to be? 

 

The next one was a proper letter on sky blue stationary, sealed, and dated April of last year, the day she had met with him in Hong Kong.

 

 

Dear Sakura,

             I thought I would never see you again, and I never imagined you would be here in Hong Kong. It was like a dream I kept having. You standing shrouded in fog, and I can almost see your face, but always, the wretched fog gets in the way. I shout out your name, but you do not hear. And I run towards you, but you drift away from me.

             Today, I had to walk away from you, and that was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Since I will never post this letter to you, I can tell you the truth. If I turned back then, everything would have been ruined because I would have gone to you and never let you go, Li Clan or not. But I had to turn away. I cannot see you the way I am now, I cannot protect you from the Elders.

             Wei gave me the letter you wrote to me. You will never realize what your words did for me. It reminded me, I do have a motive. I have to see you again. I don’t have the right words to say to you, but I want you to know, I’m going to give it a try. I may not be the same Syaoran that you remember, but if I have to change in order to be in the same country again as you again, I will change, even if I may have to hurt you in the process. Sorry I can’t be there for you anymore. I know it’s selfish to hold you by those words, to please wait a little longer, and I don’t expect you to. But in my head, I can’t abandon that one last hope that you wouldn’t abandon your faith in me. - Li Syaoran

 

 

There was a slight change in tone in the letters afterward, and Syaoran sometimes wrote of school, rehabilitation for his arm with Dr. Li Jingmei, training his left arm to become his main sword hand.  

 

 

Today, for the first time, I managed to sneak out and see Great Elder Renshu. It shocked me at how much he had aged. But when he told me that he wanted to nominate me as his next successor, I did not know what to think. To have one person, who believed in me, when I am stripped of all powers and my sword arm is maimed. I do not want to disappoint him. Yet, can I live up to his expectations? Do I have the right to lead the Clan, when I have tried to run away from it, abandon it? 

 

 

The last letter of the bunch was recently written, she could tell just by the crispness of the sheet of parchment paper. The letter was also neat and well-formed, and tilted to the right—his usual handwriting, written with his right hand once more.

 

 

Dear Sakura,

             Today was Uncle Renshu’s sending away ceremony. It was strange, as I scattered his ashes into the ocean, thinking one day, I too will return to dust. He was the man I feared and respected most in my life, my role model. I realized, the man Li Renshu, died with no regrets in life. He lived a long, fulfilling life, and died with a smile on his face. He died in peace. For that I am grateful.

             Last night, I again had a strange dream about my father. He was dying, in a place where it was cold and isolated, and it was snowing and snowing. He was calling out a name, your mother’s name. Recently, I was rereading my father’s diary, the one we discovered together three autumns ago. And I kept thinking of his words, his final thoughts. They were full of so much regret. And I don’t want to repeat the mistakes he did, but I can’t help wondering if I am doomed to the same fate. The curse of the Lis, the Dark Ones call it.

             When I thought I lost you to the Plague, I went crazy. I was initially furious at you for deceiving me, all of us. And I never want to rehash that when you were on the brink of life and death, lying on the hospital bed. So I keep thinking back to several days ago at the Victoria Bay, wondering if we made the right decision. My head is complicated and muddled at the moment, but when I think of that clarity in your eyes, I can’t help but believe you and think that everything will turn out fine because we are in this together.

             It was funny, I was cleaning out my drawers, and I found a stack of letters that I must have started writing to you over the past year. Why didn’t I throw them out, I wonder. I’ll probably burn them later. I don’t want my sisters to find them. And there was a present I got for you last year, for you birthday. That, I will give to you, because I remember spotting it and thinking how pretty the stars will look against your brown hair.

 

Yours, Syaoran

                                                                                                         

 

 

******

 

 

 

Dear Syaoran,

             How are you doing? A week has passed since you have returned to Hong Kong. It’s just been a week since we came back from the Dragon Isles, but what happened there sometimes feels like a distant dream. But sometimes, I dream about it at night, and it is so vivid, the dream feels real. In that dream, I waited and waited in the Cavern of Reservoirs, but you never returned.

             I wanted to thank you very much for your letters. I won’t speak of them until you are comfortable talking about what happened in that time we were apart. All I can think is that I wish I had been there for you during that difficult period of your life, that I had been more persistent to reach out to you, that I hadn’t given up so easily.

             Wolfie-chan is doing well. Kero-chan is nicer to him now—but it might be because I threatened to unleash Wolfie-chan into his full form if Kero-chan doesn’t behave. I don’t see onii-chan often. He’s been busy with work. I visited great-grandfather Amamiya recently with Tomoyo-chan. It was good to see him again, and he showed me pictures of my mother when she was young that I had never seen before. I also did another teen magazine photo shoot that Tomoyo booked for me.

             School’s starting next week. Can you believe we are now going into our second year? Just two more years of high school. And then, we’ll be off to college. What do you want to study in college? Are you even going to college, since I know you are the Great Elder and all, so maybe that will keep you occupied. All my friends are already talking about where they want to apply to. I haven’t really thought much about it at all. 

 

Always, Sakura

 

Sakura pondered adding a “P.S. I miss you.” But she decided not to. It had only been one week. People don’t miss each other after not seeing each other one week. She used to go around not seeing Syaoran all vacation long during grade school and never gave it a second thought. However, she did include a Polaroid taken by Tomoyo during her latest magazine photo shoot session of her in a cherry-blossom printed kimono.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“And so, Sakura did not see or hear again from Syaoran for the next four years. She always recalled their last parting, in front of the Tokyo Tower, that spring evening. He told her he would return to her someday, and she believed he would. So she waited and waited.”

 

“Cut!” exclaimed Tomoyo.

 

Miho took off her headphones and emerged from Tomoyo’s sound studio. “Did I do a good job? Should I have made it sound more morose?”

 

Meilin rolled her eyes. “This is so stupid. Who wrote the script?”

 

“I did, sorry,” replied Miho. “We were under a time crunch—Tomoyo-senpai wants to summit her new movie for the Tokyo Indie Director’s Film Festival.”

 

“That’s a horrible ending to the film,” said Meilin. Then again, it probably was a better one than the one with Syaoran stabbing Sakura—it was hard to believe that had all happened just a week ago.

 

“I agree,” said Tomoyo. “I did have a backup film project luckily.” She popped a disk into the DVD player.

 

A headline loomed on a black screen: “The Forbidden Trials of Small Wolf and the Nefarious Thief of the Night.”

 

Meilin groaned. “Is this what I think it is?” They watched a clip of a man in a long black cloak and a jaunty top hat on his head jump down from a building. Then, he turned around and blow the camera kiss. With a wink, he said, “Bonsoir! I Tonight, I will steal the heart of the Small Wolf! Will your humble Thief of the Night tame the wild beast and make him his very own pet? Watch and see!” 

 

“Isn’t that Kai’s voice?” exclaimed Meilin.

 

“The lines are so cheesy!” stated Miho.

 

“Yeah, I got him to record last time,” replied Tomoyo, hands on her blushing cheeks. “Kai-kun got really into it. It’s a very steamy and sensuous film. He even wrote the catch phrase himself. Now, if only I can get Syaoran to dub over his lines.”

 

“Well, we won’t be seeing him for a long time,” remarked Meilin. “Feimei said that Syaoran nearly ran out of the house when he saw the inaugural ceremony schedule—it’s the grandest ever held in the history of the Li Clan. He’s supposed to have seven outfit changes. Uncle Daifu concluded that they have to make a big spectacle and invite not only all the members of the Li Clan from across the world but also the Wu Clan, Tang Clan, political and economic leaders and the underground syndicates. Rather than holding Syaoran’s age and inexperience as a disadvantage, they are flaunting that he’s young, handsome, powerful and eligible, to make him become the new emblem of the clan, its new face.”

 

“Oh dear, Syaoran hates frivolity,” remarked Tomoyo.

 

Meilin nodded. “Not only that, but after that ceremonial fiasco, they’ll hold the annual Li Clan General Assembly since everyone will all gathered there, but technically, all the heads of the branches of the Li Clan in 42 countries across the world will be testing Syaoran as a leader. Then, the super-secretive Inner Council Caucus would commence.”

 

“Wow, it feels like Syaoran-senpai is living in a complete different world now,” said Miho.

 

“It’s simply what he’s been training to do all his life,” Meilin said. “It just came earlier than expected.”  

 

“Do you think he’ll ever come back?” Miho asked, flipping through the newspaper.

 

“Who knows,” Meilin replied nonchalantly.

 

Miho, however believe it was not a question of if but when, and gawked at a headline on the social page, “Beautiful teenage girl bravely saves hostages in a yakuza attack.” The hostage situation at the Li Group headquarters had been reported belatedly, and she read out segments of the article. “A high school girl courageously exchanged herself for the release of 11 hostages, including a child, when local yakuza seized a bank in a commercial building in central Tokyo. One victims, a 35-year-old female office worker, said, ‘She saved my daughter from the armed gangsters and stood up for all of us. And she was as pretty as an actress, and the bravest person I have ever seen.’ No ransom was demanded and all hostages were released without any injuries. On the same day, yakuza leader M. was arrested for charges of embezzlement, murder and extortion. If found guilty, M. could be sentenced to a lifetime in prison.”    

 

Meilin shook her head. “Who would have thought Erika would become the hero of the day?”

 

“I’m just glad that nasty old Minato Abe was arrested,” said Miho. “He better not get out of jail for a very long time. Though it’s disturbing how the media left out completely the involvement of the Hong Kong triads or the Li Group and pinned everything on Minato Abe.”

 

For Meilin, it came with no surprise that the Li Group had controlled the media reportage.

 

Tomoyo giggled. “Look at this article, ‘Strange abundance of peonies and out of season blooming of flowers throughout Tokyo. Botanists explain the locusts must have spread distant pollens throughout the city. However, there are still no signs of the cherry blossoms.”

 

Miho sighed. “Eriol promised to take me to my first hanami festival after last year’s disappointment.”

 

The locusts destroying much of the springtime vegetation, though Sakura did her best with the Flower. It appeared that the cherry blossom season would be nonexistent like last year. Maybe next spring they will all be able to enjoy a proper sakura festival. Tomoyo wondered if Syaoran would be back by the next time the cherry blossoms bloomed.

 

 

 

******

 

 

Part II: Springtime Again

 

 

 

Two weeks later…

 

 

Once again it was springtime in Tomoeda and the start of the new school year on a warm, breezy April morning. Sakura ran a brush through her chin-length golden-brown hair several times, but couldn’t do anything about the two strands of hair that refused to stay slicked down. Carefully, she took her sky-blue Seijou high blazer from the hanger and wore it over her crisply ironed long-sleeved white blouse. She straightened her navy tie and smoothed the pleats of her matching blue-black skirt.

 

“See you later, Kero-chan,” she called out. Kero-chan yawned and rolled over in his bed in her desk drawer.

 

“Good morning, okaa-san,” she said to a portrait on the kitchen counter of her mother in a pink sundress, a crown of spring flowers on her head. She gulped down a glass of milk for breakfast, then grabbed her book bag, swinging it over her shoulder.

 

She glanced upstairs—her brother hadn’t returned home from the hospital in days. This was the first time he wasn’t home to see her off for a new school year since kindergarten. She never knew there would be a day she would miss hearing him call her ogre and make fun of her height before she kicked off a new semester.

 

“See you later, otou-san!” she called out.

 

“See you later, Sakura-san,” her father called from upstairs—he was getting ready for orientation week for the spring semester at Seijou University.

 

Because she was leaving early for a change, Sakura decided to walk rather than rollerblade. She checked the mailbox. Still no mail. She reminded herself that of course Syaoran would not have had time to reply to her letter, between the Great Elder inauguration ceremony and learning the ropes of running the Li Clan.

 

As she walked down the familiar street, she gasped as she was showered by a pink brilliance.

 

Overnight, the cherry blossom lane was in full blossom. They had all thought the cherry blossoms were not coming this year and given up on waiting. A gust of wind blew and delicate pink and white petals snowed down from the swaying branches. Arms outstretched, eyes closed, she breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with the sweet, fresh perfume of spring.

 

When she opened her eyes again, at the end of the lane, she saw a brown-haired boy in a sky blue blazer leaning against a bicycle rack, hands tucked into his pockets, as if he had been waiting for her.

 

Her eyes blurred, ever slightly. She stood paralyzed, afraid if she blinked, he would dissipate with the flower petals.

 

Because she looked so dumbfounded, he walked up towards her first, his footsteps muffled by the luxurious carpet of pink. He picked a petal off from the top of her head. “I’m back, Sakura.”

 

“How? Is that really you? What happened? Why are you… you didn’t do anything stupid, did you?” she broke off, craning back her neck, staring up at him.  

 

“Well, you know I’m the Great Elder of the Li Clan,” said Li Syaoran.

 

“I know.” Just a fortnight ago, they had embarked on an incredible journey to the Dragon Isles for Syaoran to attain that position.

 

“That means I am my own boss now. I don’t have to listen to anyone anymore.”

 

“B-but you’re the head of the clan,” stammered Sakura, telling herself not to get her hopes up. “That’s why you need to be back in Hong Kong. Not here.”

 

“You forget something,” said Syaoran, the corners of his eyes crinkling.

 

“What?”

 

“I am also the Chosen One of the Li Clan.”

 

Sakura nodded.

 

“What is the duty of the Chosen One?”

 

She repeated words only too familiar to her now. “To fulfill Li Clan missions and represent the family?”

 

“And my mission right now is to protect Card Mistress Sakura until the very last battle,” said Syaoran.

 

How could she have forgotten how his eyes caught all the hues of autumn leaves in the sunlight, how his smile could be so gentle and understanding. “What does that mean?”

 

“It means, I can stay here with you in Japan as the Chosen One,” said Syaoran. “For as long as you need me.”  

 

She exhaled. “Really?”

 

“Really.” One word, in that soft voice of his, and yet, it was wrought with so much meaning. “Do you still need me?”

 

“Yes.” Of course. Always. “That means…”

 

“Sakura, remember you told me you have reserved a spot for me on the Alliance of the Stars. I am ready to that join spot, if it is still open, whenever you are ready to have me.”

 

She swallowed hard. They both knew the process was a little more complicated that her welcoming him into the Circle, because of the Li Clan history and the recent events which had antagonized him from the Star Alliance. But he was here now. “Thank you.”

 

He nodded, then swung his leather book bag over his shoulder and continued down the street. “Well, let’s go to school. We’re going to be late on the first day back.”

 

School. He was wearing the Seijou High School uniform. Sakura caught up with him, swinging her book bag in large circles. “You’re really going to start second year with us? Aren’t you supposed to be too busy?”

 

Syaoran looked over his shoulder with a grin. “You forgot the most important thing. We are, after all, high school students. Great Elder can’t be a high school dropout, don’t you think?”

 

And Sakura laughed out loud. “Great Elder. That makes you sound so ancient. You’re still just Syaoran, aren’t you?”

 

He had forgotten how joyous the sound of her laughter was. Because, when was the last time she had laughed so carefree in front of him? “Of course.”

 

She walked up ahead of him, spinning around to face him, fingers laced behind her back. “I thought we’d never be able to do this again. Walk to school together.”

 

“Don’t walk backwards—you’ll trip—” Sure enough, Sakura’s foot skid over the slippery petals coated by dew, and she would have landed straight on her back had Syaoran not dropped his bag and deftly caught her by the small over her back.

 

In the still of the morning, Sakura found herself caught in an awkward backward dip, balanced by Syaoran’s five fingertips caressing her hip. She stared dizzily up at the glorious clusters of cherry blossoms swaying like cotton candy against the cerulean blue sky. If he let her go, she would fall headfirst, if he pulled her up, she would tumble straight into his chest. His brilliant eyes shone ochre, catching the glint of the morning sunray. He did not miss the telltale rosy blush in her cheeks.

 

She wasn’t captain of the cheerleading squad for no reason, and Sakura neither fell back nor forward, and with born agility twisted around with a skip, her black pleated skirt swishing around her legs. She spoke with her back to him. “Don’t pull airs on me just because you’re some powerful Great Elder or something.”

 

“Same to you, Card Mistress,” said Syaoran, staring ruefully at his palm imprinted with the warmth of her waist. “Don’t leave me behind in the dust.” He picked up his bag still full of toiletries from his plane ride to Japan and followed after Sakura down the road.  

 

She quickened her pace, afraid to turn around to face him again, for fear he would glimpse her crimson face.

 

“Hey, you!” he called out, just as he used to call her.

 

It was nostalgic, hearing him call her the casual “omae” again, as he used to address her in the beginning. He had closed the distance between them and was standing directly behind her now. Bending over, he murmured in her ear, “Thank you for waiting, Sakura.”

 

And she knew he was not talking about the past two weeks. She turned around, not caring whether the flush had left her face, and beamed at him as they were showered by a parade of pink confetti. “Welcome back, Syaoran.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The school was abuzz with news that Li Syaoran had returned.

 

“I can’t believe we’ll be in the same homeroom again,” squealed Yanagisawa Naoko, her round-framed glasses gleaming. The tight group of friends who dated back to Tomoeda Elementary school were now second years in Seijou High School and were promptly placed in Class 2-2, with most of their classmates from freshman year. “So, I won the bet this year?” The students had a yearly bet going on whether Syaoran would show up again or now.

 

“I don’t know what it is, but doesn’t Syaoran seem… different?” remarked Sasaki Rika.

 

“Maybe he got a haircut?” asked Mihara Chiharu, watching Syaoran with his casual air of confidence, his glossy dark brown bangs falling into his eyes, the back of his hair closely cropped.  

 

Naoko tilted her head. “He seems more handsome. More manly.”

 

“He looks more relaxed,” remarked Yamazaki Takashi. Syaoran’s longtime classmates had noticed how withdrawn and tense he had been last year, ever since he transferred into Seijou High in the middle of the semester. Not that he had ever been the most laid back person.

 

“I know what it is. It’s springtime love,” stated Hiiragizawa Eriol with a straight face.

 

“Ah, I see,” agreed the other four readily.

 

Mizuki Kai snickered, wondering why Sakura and Syaoran walked to school together, barely making it in time for the opening ceremony, then entered the building separately. He picked up a petal that had been caught on his sleeve and brought it up to his lips. How odd it was that the cherry blossoms decided to finally bloom, the day Syaoran returned.

 

“The teacher’s coming!” someone called out.

 

Once again their homeroom teacher, Mizuki Kaho, her auburn hair tied back in a slick ponytail and elegant in a dove gray suit, entered the rowdy classroom. She smiled at her class. “Welcome back, everyone. Did you have a good spring break?”

 

“No—it was too short!” groaned half the class.

 

“It was like eternity passed,” muttered Syaoran.

 

Daidouji Tomoyo smiled weakly. If last spring break after the disastrous trip to Hong Kong which left Sakura heartbroken hadn’t been harrowing enough, her best friend’s “death” proved one of the most trying periods in her life. But all was well, it seemed— or was it? “I didn’t realize you would be back already?” she remarked to Syaoran. “Surely you have more important business to attend to than high school?”

 

With a wry smile, he replied, “Well, apparently, I am the least-educated Great Elder in the history of the Li Clan. You know our family prizes scholars.” Meilin nodded off to the side in spite of herself. Syaoran continued, “The Chosen One mainly has to be good at fighting. But the Great Elder is expected to be intelligent. The Elders agreed to accept me, on the condition that I prove my intellect and scholarly prowess. And my mother also supported that I should focus on my high school studies for the time being. Leiyun also backed this, oddly enough, saying that I have the rest of my life to be Great Elder but two years left to be a high schooler. ”

 

Well, that rather explained why both Syaoran and Meilin had always been so caught up with grades. Tomoyo asked, “So, is this just another visit? Or permanent?”

 

“Nothing in life is permanent, but I told the Elders to properly dedicate myself to my academic studies, I plan to finish high school in one place—I’ve shifted school three times the past year,” remarked Syaoran dryly, as if recalling the moment his freshman year report card was unveiled to the Elders. Needless to say, it was cumulatively the worst grades he had ever gotten in his academic career—as if they cared that they had been the ones to lock him away for half the year in the first place.

 

“Surely your private elite academy in Hong Kong provides a better education than our small town public school,” remarked Tomoyo innocently, as she glanced over at Sakura.

 

But Syaoran didn’t take the bait as he once might have. “The Elders value the perks of studying abroad, especially as they want to expand their projects in Japan. Even if it means being in that person’s class a third year.” He unfortunately found that with moon powers back, he was no fonder of Mizuki-sensei than he had been six years ago.

 

Yes, blunt and caustic Syaoran indeed was back. Tomoyo at this point didn’t even care about the circumstances. True, the Alliance had not completely forgiven Sakura and Syaoran for the deception they pulled off yet. Touya was not yet speaking to Sakura. But, as an end result, Syaoran was finally back.  

 

Sakura peeked at Tomoyo meekly. “Tomoyo-chan. I hope we can be desk mates this semester again.” Throughout elementary and middle school, she had always been paired with Tomoyo. Until last year, when she got unexpectedly placed with Eron.

 

“I think Mizuki-sensei is going to do mixed pairings again,” Tomoyo pointed out. “I hope I get paired with Aki-kun.”

 

“Why Aki-kun?” asked Sakura, glancing over at Eriol.

 

“Oh, because Aki-kun is helping me with the script of a new movie scenario I’ve been working on,” replied Tomoyo. She added sinisterly, “It’s tentatively called, ‘Betrayal of the Heart’ or ‘April Fools’ Day Massacre,’ or ‘Crucify My Love.’”

 

“Hoe.” Sakura always knew that Tomoyo had a penchant for gothic horror stories, and her dark side seemed to have been finally unleashed. “It’s all my fault.”

 

“I’m very good at writing,” mumbled Eriol to the side. “And I love gory, body-mutilating, eyeball popping horror stories the most.”

 

Sakura shuddered.

 

“Onii-chan. I want to sit next to you,” said Erika, tugging on the end of her high ponytail tied with a pretty red bow, matching with red patent pumps. She had quite a string of admirers amongst the male students, for her new hairstyle showed off her long neck and small doll-like face, and she sported a healthy glow, as if she had gotten a lot of sunlight over spring break.    

 

Eron blinked at Erika. “You just want to copy all my answers.”

 

“Yes. Exactly.” Erika stuck out her tongue at her twin.

 

Mizuki Kaho held out a top hat. “All right. There’s an even number of boys and girls this semester. I put the names of all the girls in this hat. Boys, come up and pick a name from the hat.”

 

Kai chuckled gleefully. “Today’s my lucky day.”

 

“By the way, Kai, how did you manage to stay in our grade?” asked Meilin. “Surely your attendance and grades last year were good enough to warrant you returning to your original grade this semester.”

 

“Yeah. But my little sister is starting high school today. And the senior classrooms are all the way across on the other side of the building. I want to be able to go down the hallway and see my darling sister in her high school uniform every day,” replied Kai.

 

“You just want bully any boy that even casts an eye in her direction, right?” Meilin said, rolling her eyes.

 

“He’s another baka-onii-chan, isn’t he?” sighed Tomoyo.

 

“He is,” Sakura replied half-heartedly, as if recalling when another overly protective older brother bullied a certain brazen transfer student from Hong Kong.

 

“Who do you want to sit next to, Sakura-chan?” Meilin asked. She had been one of the first to readily forgive Sakura—perhaps because she was simply relieved that her friend was alive, and that Syaoran had not done the terrible deed everyone thought he had.

 

“I don’t know,” said Sakura.

 

And Meilin glared at Syaoran, whom she had not so easily forgiven. “You would think you can at least announce you are returning, honorable Great Elder.” She said that mockingly. “Or is the humble daughter of a minor Li branch not worth your time or consideration?”

 

“Meilin.” Syaoran’s frown, Meilin perceived, was warning her, “Let’s not make a fuss in school.”

 

Eron walked up and picked the name first. “Erika,” he said.

 

“One obstacle out of the way,” Kai murmured to Syaoran, as if reading his mind.

 

Syaoran replied under his breath, “For four school years I’ve been stuck staring at the back of her neck. As if I’d let that happen a fifth time.”

 

Kai whistled. “Newfound determination I see.”

 

Next on the list, Syaoran rummaged around the top hat and drew out a name. He read it out loud barely glancing at the printed letters. “Kinomoto Sakura.”

 

Tomoyo nudged Sakura. “He picked you.”

 

“You must be glad,” whispered Rika.

 

“Hoe?” Sakura blinked.

 

Syaoran stared at her and held up the unfolded piece of paper to the disbelieving group of friends. On the slip of paper was clearly printed Kinomoto Sakura in Mizuki-sensei elegant writing.

 

It was no surprise when Kai picked Meilin.

 

“You cheated,” hissed Meilin.

 

“Of course I did,” Kai replied. “It’s in a top hat. How can I not cheat in my home base? Anyhow, aren’t you glad I picked you?”

 

“Nope, not one bit,” replied Meilin gloomily. Kai would be an awfully distracting desk mate—because he was the type that didn’t need to study to get perfect scores, which he attained occasionally when he felt like it. “I’m going to kill you if you divert me from my studies. This is the most vital year for college preparation.”

 

“Good, I can tell you all about the process, since I already have a bachelors’ degree,” said Kai.

 

Meilin blinked. “I thought you were joking before.”

 

“Not many names left—higher probability. Who are you going to pick?” Takashi asked Eriol, who seemed vaguely amused by the seating arrangement plans.

 

“I’ll just leave it to chance,” replied Eriol.

 

Kai snorted, as he watched the remaining boys pick out the names of the top hat one by one.

 

Syaoran picked the coveted back window seat. Sakura sat down in the seat next to him, setting down her book bag, and peered at him suspiciously. “Did you pick me on purpose?”

 

Chin leaned on hand, he glanced at her, then outside the window at the glory of blossoms of all shades of pink, hiding a faint smile with his palm.

 

Hey Flower, thanks for keeping our promise. To hold off on the cherry blossoms just until I got back again. He could almost see the Flower give him a mischievous wink.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Very unnatural,” said Naoko, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose during break time. “All the probable couples in our class are seated together. Either there was collusion, or each one of the boys cheated—or Mizuki-sensei rigged the selection.”

 

“I think it’s interesting,” replied Aki. “After all the mix-up in seating arrangements last semester.”

 

Naoko turned to her desk mate Aki. “You didn’t cheat.”

 

“No, I’m an honest man,” replied Aki with a sigh. Tomoyo was seated across the room, next to Eriol, once again this semester.

 

“He didn’t cheat either,” said Chiharu, pointing to Yamazaki Takashi. “My name was the last one left anyway, and Takashi picked me by default since he was the last person to pick.”

 

“Actually, no, yours wasn’t,” replied Takashi. “There was another slip of paper left in the hat.”

 

“That couldn’t be,” said Naoko. “Everybody’s present today, and there’s an even number of boys and girls in our class. We saw Mizuki sensei cut up the paper with the names of the girls and put it into the hat—there were no extra slips.”

 

“That means somebody cheated. They made an extra slip and pretended to pull it out,” Aki stated.

 

“What if someone else drew up that name again?” Chiharu asked.

 

“Then that next person cheated as well,” Aki said.

 

Their eyes all turned to the top hat, still on Mizuki-sensei’s desk. “That means, there is one slip with a girl’s name left in the hat,” said Naoko, glasses gleaming. “We will know at least one person who cheated.”

 

“I bet it’s Meilin’s name,” said Aki. “Mizuki-kun would do something crafty like that.”

 

“It might be Tomoyo-chan’s name,” remarked Naoko. “Hiiragizawa-kun looked pretty smug.”

 

“Or Sakura-chan,” said Chiharu. “Li-kun was pretty confident.”  

 

“Nah, Li-kun’s not the type to cheat,” said Rika.

 

“No, he’s not the type to leave evidence,” corrected Naoko.

 

“Go look,” said Chiharu to Takashi. “You’re the one who said there is one slip left.”

 

Takashi hesitated. “Schrodinger’s cat.”

 

“Why are you talking about some virtual cat at this vital moment?” Chiharu demanded. “Hurry and pull it out.”

 

“If the box remains closed, the cat can be dead or alive,” muttered Takashi.

 

Aki reached over and took out the last remaining slip of paper. “The cat is dead anyway.” He opened the folded slip and his eyes widened, and he waited for a dramatic pause.

 

“Hurry up. Read the name on it!” everybody shouted.

 

Aki muttered, “Mihara Chiharu.”

 

“What?” Everybody’s mouths dropped.

 

“Eh?” Chiharu blinked, glancing at Takashi.

 

“Woe is me. Fifty-fifty and yet I fail,” he sighed.

 

“I didn’t think Yamazaki-kun would be the cheater,” sighed Rika.

 

“That doesn’t make any sense, Chiharu-chan was the only girl left,” pointed Naoko.

 

“Wait, you’re all forgetting something important here,” said Aki, turning to his classmate. “That means Yamazaki-kun, you drew someone else’s name. Who was it?”

 

Takashi shrugged. “Is the cat dead or alive?”

 

“Just spit it out!” Chiharu exclaimed.

 

Takashi opened his brown eyes and gazed at his classmates. “Hiiragizawa-kun once told me, ‘there is no such thing as coincidence in this world.’”


Chiharu rolled her eyes. “Are you going to tell us the name or not? Or are you trying to say it was Tomoyo-chan’s name?”

 

Takashi shrugged. “I say the cat’s not only alive—there’s a litter.”

 

Everybody laughed as Chiharu throttled her longtime boyfriend, a scene they’d grown familiar with since elementary school.

 

Mizuki-sensei covered her face with her attendance folder and hid a snicker, as she gazed at her teenage students’ carefree smiles.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tanaka Miho, dressed in the crisp sky blue blazer that complimented her gray eyes and snug navy-black uniform skirt, decided that the only thing that could ruin a fresh new semester as a high schooler was having her creepy older brother stalk her from across the hall. “He’s going to ruin my dating life, isn’t he,” she bemoaned, quickly swerving around the opposite direction and covering her face with the daily newspaper as she spotted Kai. But he strode up to her in five steps.

 

“Why is your skirt so short?” Kai demanded, heedless that he had not bothered to tuck his uniform shirt tails into his pants and was not even wearing his school tie.

 

“You’re girlfriend’s is even shorter,” muttered Miho. “Old-fashioned ‘nii-chan.”

 

“Meilin has long legs,” replied Kai matter of fact.

 

“And what, my legs are short?” demanded Miho.

 

“Unfortunately, as a matter of fact, yes. You take after our mother,” replied Kai.

 

“Oh, and lucky you, taking after long-limbed outo-san!” grumbled Miho.

 

“Ah, I heard that’s Mizuki-kun’s little sister. She’s so adorable,” sighed Kai’s classmate passing by to his friends. “I didn’t think Mizuki-kun would be such a doting brother. He seemed so reckless and wild last year.”

 

Miho spun around and shot Kai a smug look.

 

Kai said, “Anyhow, why don’t you come live with me in my apartment—”

 

“No, I don’t want to live with you. I don’t want to find out with my very own eyes that you are indeed a perverted slob,” stated Miho.

 

“W-who said I’m a perverted slob?” Kai glared at Meilin.

 

Meilin shrugged and looked away.

 

A group of senior guys walked past. “Did you see the batch of new freshmen girls this year? That Tanaka Miho girl is pretty cute—I say a Grade A.”

 

And Kai glared at the group over the bridge of his sunglasses so fiercely that the group of boys swallowed hard then rushed away from the freshmen corridors in a jiffy.

 

“Weren’t you dating since you were twelve and older girl on top of that?” asked Meilin, slinking up beside him. “Miho’s in high school now. Of course she will be looking for romance. And if you scare them all away, she’ll hate you. What are you so scared of, anyway? It’s good to gain some high school love life experience.”

 

He gave her a whimsical smile. “I’m terrified she’ll meet some worthless scum like me.”

 

“Well even a worthless scum like you found an incredibly beautiful and awesome girlfriend like me.”

 

Kai sized up Meilin. “Aren’t you embarrassed to say that with your own lips?”

 

“No. I am, so why deny the fact?” Meilin flipped back her long black pigtails.

 

She was startled to find he was staring at intently her through his gray-tinted glasses, looking more perplexed than teasing. “I do wonder why you are dating a scum like me.”

 

“Because you are an incredibly handsome, awesome scum,” replied Meilin.

 

“Did you just call me handsome and awesome?”

 

“Yup!” Meilin winked over Kai’s shoulders.

 

Miho giggled and hopped off to join her new classmates. A boy in glasses, holding a stack of books, and one with his hair gelled back and headphones around his neck, blasting punk rock music, joined her side.

 

“Tanaka-san, are you joining the journalism club too?? I have a new pitch for an article about the harmful impact of carbon emissions,” said the boy in glasses. “Isn’t the Seijou Times editor-in-chief Akagi-senpai just amazing, taking in the high school journalism contest award last year for his investigative piece on Kaitou Magician?”

 

“Hey, Miho-chan, you said you wanted to borrow my Monpachi CD,” said the boy to her left with the headphones. “I can burn you a copy. By the way, my band’s playing at the town square this weekend. Do you want to come see us perform? I’m the lead vocalist.” 

 

 

 

From the opposite end of the hallway, a tall girl with short golden hair smiled nostalgically. “That silly boy always stalked his little sister’s classroom on the first day of the new semester to make sure nobody bullied her or gave her a hard time. Some things never change.”

 

“Who, Kai?” Erika said, spotting down the corridor Meilin and Kai wrapped up in each others’ arms, a lovey-dovey sight to make her feel nauseous—yet Kara did not bat an eye. Erika wrinkled her nose. “Why is that thief-wannabe in my grade again? Isn’t he supposed to be in your guys’ grade?”

 

“Knowing Kai, he probably just wanted to be in a classroom closer to Miho’s,” remarked Kara, yanking at her black necktie. “Jin, you realize you’re supposed to bring pens and textbooks to school—today’s the last day I’m carrying them for you. Here, I marked the British literature and world history pages you have to read for tomorrow, and these are the Calculus problem sets due Wednesday.”

 

Erika snickered—she couldn’t help thinking the rumors that Kara once was a bookworm might be true. She peeked up at Jinyu, looking disgruntled in his Seijou High uniform. After seeing him in action commanding the Hong Kong triads and taking down the Wu Clan and Minato-gumi yakuza, she had no doubt of his legitimacy as mafia king. She had not expected him to be back in Japan already, however. He didn’t look particularly happy to be back, either. Not that she had ever seen him look anything but stone-faced in any situation before. “I understand Kara flunking because she didn’t pass her college entrance exams. I mean, the other students had three years of preparation, and she only had a few months. But why are you repeating a grade again?”

 

“Oh, Jin barely attended any classes last year—it’s a given that he had to repeat,” stated Kara. She cackled. “And this time he can keep me company, now that the Hong Kong triads have reached some stability and the alliance with the Yamamato-gumi is secure.”

 

“He’s really staying in Japan?” Erika frowned.

 

“Well, it’s his duty as the Li Clan Protector—to guard the Great Elder at all times,” replied Kara. “Though I guess the Small Wolf is now technically his boss, not his prisoner anymore.”

 

“So Leiyun’s still posing as school doctor then?”

 

“Yeah,” replied Kara. “Apparently he needs the job now that he is neither Great Elder nor Chosen One. Identity crisis time, I suppose. Though his technical mission is to support and advise Syaoran.”

 

They peeped into the second-floor infirmary, where the usual crowd of high school girls loitered around, feigning first-day illnesses, blushing when Leiyun smiled their way.

 

“Oh, Li-sensei, how did you spend your spring break?” asked Naoko, who had come to treat the very minor bruise on her knee from P.E. and pushed her way to the head of the line.

 

Leiyun, in his white coat, turned to his flock of fawning patients. “Well, I did some humanitarian deeds—exterminating insects from destitute neighborhoods, cracking down on organized crime, and rehabilitating hooligans in slums.”

 

“You mean volunteer work? How wonderful!” exclaimed Naoko.

 

Erika raised an eyebrow at Kara. “He’s calling central Tokyo destitute?”

 

“He’s a high and mighty Li,” Kara replied, rolling her eyes as someone who actually grew up in the slums.

 

“And what else did you do, Li-sensei?” asked a sultry senior girl.

 

Leiyun pretended to be pensive a moment. “My great-uncle passed away, so I kept vigil at his wake. My father had a mental breakdown and nearly killed himself, so I tended to his whims. All this while my cousin’s ex-girlfriend tried to murder him—or get back together with him, I’m still not sure—and my other cousin almost murdered his perhaps-girlfriend, but unfortunately, she was just pretending to be dead.”

 

“Oh, Li-sensei. I am so sorry for you loss,” Naoko said, eyes sparkling. “Tell us more about yourself. Are you dating anyone? What kind of woman are you attracted to?”

 

“What do they find attractive about that sociopath?” muttered Erika.

 

Kara shook her head. “Beats me.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Eron sat at the corner of the school library, silently reading a book. He looked quite saintly with afternoon sunlight poured into the windows, casting a halo over his head, strands of his long violet blue hair tied back in a blue ribbon tumbling over one shoulder. Quite a few freshman girls glanced over in his direction and giggled, for there was no boy quite as beautiful in the entire high school. Sakura might have been more impressed if she hadn’t thought Eron was intentionally posing by the window where the natural light was most flattering, but she had to admit there was a serene quality to Eron that hadn’t been present when she had first met him three years ago. Of course, Sakura knew behind the angelic face, Eron was probably reading a book on medieval torture devises or maybe a history book on the French Reign of Terror.

 

Sakura had by now spoken to each of the members of the alliance, except for Eron, who had been missing all spring break long.

 

“What is it?” Eron asked, without looking up from the book he was reading, turning a page.

 

Sakura said, “Can we talk, Eron-kun?”

 

“We are speaking.”

 

Realizing he wasn’t going to make things easy, Sakura took a seat across from his at the table. He was reading a book on Italian Baroque architect Bernardo Vittone. “I called you several times over spring break.”

 

“Oh. Erika and I went on a trip to Okinawa, and I dropped my phone into the pool. Nobody ever calls me anyway.”

 

Which was a lie, she knew. Eron was unexpectedly popular because he had joined so many school clubs over the past year. Something she had learned about Eron was that he was not antisocial by nature—she had seen this over and over again, at school, from when he volunteered at the orphanage and the hospital, even when they had been dating. If he kept away from people, it was because he was an elitist. “How was Okinawa?” she asked. “I’ve never been there.”

 

He replied, “It was very nice. Relaxing. The seas were such a brilliant cyan color, compared to the murky oceans around here. I enjoyed seeing the Nakijin Castle ruins and the rebuilt Shuri Castle, and we had a lot of good sashimi.”

 

“It’s nice how you and Erika travel together during vacations,” said Sakura. “I don’t think I’ve had a proper trip with onii-chan since our Hong Kong trip six years ago. Oh, I guess we did go to New York two winters ago—that was quite disastrous.”

 

“I bribed Erika to come with me on trips with new shoes,” said Eron. “She’d much rather stay home and watch a drama rerun or something. She was complaining the whole time we were touring all the historic palaces in Kyoto last winter, saying her legs hurt. I guess I’m trying too hard to make up for all the trips around Japan we couldn’t go on as kids. Funny how now that Erika can go anywhere, she doesn’t want to anymore.”

 

Sakura nodded. “You two traveled a lot around the world before you settled in Tomoeda, right?”

 

“Yeah, but despite how well-traveled we are, we haven’t explored a lot of Japan in contrast,” said Eron. “Of course, she just sees me just as her butler to carry all her shopping bags.”

 

“Well, I’m pretty sure she appreciates what an incredible brother you are.” Sakura swallowed hard, feeling a lump in her throat.

 

Eron glanced up at her, through his blue-violet bangs. “How are things with your mulish brother?”

 

Sakura shook her head. “He rarely comes home and won’t even look at me when he does.”

 

“Don’t worry. He’ll get over it. He’s just a bit hurt and confused,” replied Eron.

 

“You think so?” Sakura paused. “Do you forgive me as well, Eron-kun?”

 

“What’s there to forgive? You’re alive and here. What more is there to it?”

 

“You are not mad at me for lying to everyone?”

 

Eron shut his book and leaned across the table, tilting his head up at Sakura, the sunlight catching the gold flecks in his hazel eyes. “I’m not somebody who has the right to judge anyone. Whatever anger I felt at being deceived is overshadowed by the joy of the person I love having returned to me. Isn’t that enough?”

 

“Eron-kun. I—” Sakura swallowed hard.

 

“It’s okay. I’m not asking you to return my feelings. For me, it’s enough for you to be alive in flesh and blood. What I was trying to say is, love forgives all. Your brother loves you, and almost losing you overwhelmed him with the knowledge of how much so.”

 

She asked, “Are you thinking of Erika?” When Erika almost died because of a heart disease when she was seven, Eron accepted his fate to become the dark one.

 

Eron smiled ruefully. “The ironic thing is, the more I try to look out for Erika, the more she runs from me. I must have done something wrong down the road. But I tell myself, I can’t shield her from the world forever, that I have to let her roam and stumble on her own.”

 

“Erika-chan was quite amazing this time,” remarked Sakura. “She singlehandedly saved all the hostages, faced off snipers and even stood up to the Wu triad members. Oh, has she returned home?”

 

“Yeah, your fake death has brought us closer together, if that is of any solace to you. So maybe I should actually thank you instead. Or it might just have been that she wanted to avoid the cockroach carcasses and stains left in the Li Mansion, which would then be thanks to my clever ploy. ”

 

That almost made her giggle. “I heard how helpful you were while I was gone, trying to track down the Insect and all.”

 

“I wasn’t trying to be helpful,” he remarked. “I just loathe bugs. And, if you haven’t heard, it was me who set off the dark force in the first place and lost control.”

 

“And you tried to take responsibility for it and do the right thing. Thank you.”

 

Eron smiled thinly. “Don’t think so highly of me. I knew you were going to come back and just wanted to indulge in your compliments. If you think about it, I knew that Syaoran’s powers were returning since that day at the beach after the Vogue Nippon reception, and I didn’t say anything because I was jealous. After all, I am probably the most depraved person you will ever meet.”

 

Sakura looked up at him with her narrowed evergreen eyes, recalling someone who had said similar words. “Ah, you are like him in many ways.”

 

He blinked at her. “Who?”

 

She shook her head. “No, you are no more depraved than I am for betraying all of you.”

 

And Eron told her quietly, “Sakura, if deliberately deceiving your friends and causing to anguish beyond description is called betrayal, then I agree, you are depraved as well. But all I see is that you were protecting the one you love with all you’ve got, and well, I call that courage.”

 

It was a strange revelation, this lump in her throat due to sympathetic words coming from the most unexpected place. Sakura glanced up at Eron, wanting to tell him everything, but would the truth shatter this delicate trust that they had built up? She didn’t have the volition to test it.  

 

She had not yet shared with anyone her encounter with the wretched man who singlehandedly had destroyed her mother’s generation. Whenever she felt the weight of the Amamiya diamond on her neck, she could not help recall the raspy, haunting voice that mocked her, pervaded her when she closed her eyes at nighttime.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Meilin kicked off her slippers and tucked her bare feet underneath her as she sat on Kai’s big black leather couch, sipping a mug of hot coffee. She had never been much of a coffee drinker until she began living with Kai. Though Kai was a horrible cook, he made a good cup of hazelnut coffee. She breathed in the velvety aroma. “I can’t believe Syaoran’s back. What is the Li Clan thinking?”

 

He is the Great Elder—ergo he is the Clan,” replied Kai. “And he’s thinking he wants to live a very average teenage boy’s life next to the girl he wants to protect.”

 

She was not listening. “I mean, he can’t just waltz back into our lives as if nothing has changed. What about the Li Clan affairs—the internal factionalism, the feud with the Wu Clan and Tang Clan. How about the triad unrest in Hong Kong? What about Leiyun?”

 

Maybe if you were on speaking terms with him, all those questions would easily be answered,” replied Kai wryly.

 

Oh shut up, why do you always takes Syaoran’s side?”

 

He pointed at himself. “Me?”

 

She kicked Kai, sitting on the edge of the couch with her bare toe. “Yes you. You’re too easy going.”

 

And you, my dear, are too callous,” said Kai. And he reached over and set her mug down on the coffee table. “But I do like you, callous and caustic as you are. I hope I’m never the target of your wrath, however.”

 

Scoot over,” said Meilin with a blush.

 

Didn’t you call me a handsome scum earlier?” he asked, his periwinkle eyes twinkling merrily.

 

I don’t remember,” replied Meilin.

 

You don’t?” He tilted over further, forcing her so far back against the edge of the couch that she toppled over.

 

Watch out!” he exclaimed, caressing her head with his hand to shield it from the edge of the coffee table.

 

She let out a shriek, as they both collided onto the floor, Kai’s weight on of her. She squeaked, “Get off of me!”

 

He looked down at her, his lips twisted into a smirk. “Don’t want to.”

 

She thrashed underneath him, trying to kick him off, but he had her neatly pinned. He stared down at her with a blazing intensity in those rainwater-colored eyes, throwing all her martial arts skills into the toilet. His voice was so low, she almost missed his next words. “So, what exactly happened between you and Wu Zian that day at the Li Group president’s office?”

 

Kai had not even mentioned Zian’s name once since the incident—so he had been wondering about it all along. Meilin stammered, “N-nothing!”

 

He breathed into her ears in a dangerously low whisper, “Do you know you always avert your eyes to the bottom left when you are lying, Meilin?

 

Suddenly, Meilin recalled being pegged down in a similar position over the oak desk, with Zian’s brown-lashed honey-hued eyes staring down at her. He had told her, “You are going to be mine, someday.” How he had the audacity to spout out such nonsense, she did not know.

 

“Why, is it something so awful you can’t tell me?” Kai’s eyes glinted silver.

 

“H-he was more interested in learning about Syaoran!” exclaimed Meilin.

 

“Oh, he swings that way too?”

 

Meilin blinked slowly. “Are you being jealous?”

 

“I was scared for you. Even I have the sense not to meddle with the Hong Kong triads, especially not the second-in-charge. And of course I was jealous! You kissed him right in front of me!” burst out Kai.

 

“It was so he would tell us if he really saw Sakura-chan in Hong Kong!” Meilin wondered if Kai knew about the other kiss that had happened in the office. He probably did—he had a radar for those sorts of things.

 

“If I ever catch you kissing somebody else, there’s no telling what I might do,” said Kai softly, in the criminal-like low tone he rarely used now.

 

Meilin glared up at him. “Don’t make threats against me.”

 

“Who knew what he could have done to you?”

 

“But nothing happened,” she said.

 

Then reassure me. Don’t make me jealous,” Kai said, now cajoling and flirtatious. “Tell me you love me.”

 

Why all of a sudden?” she demanded, struggling as his fingers tickled her palms.

 

Because I have a sudden desire to hear those words from you.”

 

Meilin stared up at him. Well do you love me?”

 

Haven’t I already told you so numerous times?”

 

She was going to joke it off, for he often used words lightly, flippantly. But that day at the beach, when he looked into her eyes with those clear gray blue eyes, he had been serious, and she had avoided answering him. How she wished she had responded then, not missed the magic moment. She gazed up into his face and realized he was awaiting her answer. I—I…”

 

“Cat caught your tongue? Maybe I’ll help you remember.” Kai’s lips brushed her forehead first, and then her eyelid and the tip of her nose. Her heart fluttered, as if she had just run a marathon, and she prayed he couldn’t hear it.

 

“You need more help?” His fingers traced her collarbone and his lips left a tingling trail on her neck.  

 

At that moment, the door swung open—Kai never bothered to lock his front door—and Syaoran stood there, staring at Kai pinning down a girl with masses of long jet-black hair to the floor, cushions scattered about. Then he bounded forward. “Get off of her this instant!” he barked.

 

Kai, who usually did not take orders well, abruptly leapt up at the younger boy’s command. And Meilin sat up too, tugging on her shirt, and brushed her hair away from her face to glare up at Syaoran. “What are you doing here?”

 

Well, I came back home, and noticed your were not there. And then I heard a blood-curdling scream next doors and came running in here to find a revolting vermin assaulting my cousin! I will have him answer to the Li Clan jury for daring to lay a hand on you,” Syaoran sputtered, pointing an accusing finger at Kai.

 

Oh my gosh Syaoran, Kai’s my boyfriend, and stop sounding like some old geezer just because you are the Great Elder now. You are not my father or brother or protector or anything to me. You have no right to say anything!” Meilin stood up now, glaring at Syaoran.

 

Syaoran gaped at her.

 

And Kai, if he had not been so peeved at Syaoran’s interruption, thought that a furious Meilin with her flashing eyes and disheveled hair and flushed cheeks made a very pretty sight. Syaoran was also minutes away from losing his infamous temper, however.

 

Well, unfortunately, I am the head of the Li Clan and your de facto guardian in Japan since your father is not here,” said Syaoran joltingly. “So yes, I am your protector, and it is my responsibility to make sure you do not come to any harm.”

 

I was doing fine here without you!” Meilin burst out. “That’s what you taught me. That I can never rely on you, that I should never trust you. That, my own bloodline can turn on me someday.”

 

And there was a pained expression on his face. “I’m sorry Meilin. I’m sorry for not being able to explain things to you. But I will make it up to you. I will answer any questions you have. Come home now.”

 

Home?” Meilin blinked. “You’re living back here now? Why not at the main house?”

 

This is my home,” he replied with a shrug. “And it’s closer to school.”

 

Meilin crossed her arms. “I’m not going back with you. I live here now.”

 

And Kai’s mouth dropped, shaking his head rapidly, shrugging shoulder to indicate he knew nothing of this.

 

Heedless, Syaoran’s sharp amber eyes were focused on Kai now. “You’re living together with her?”

 

N-no!” exclaimed Kai. “I mean, we hang out a lot, but we’re not technically living together in the literal sense.”

 

Meilin scowled. “Yes we are. I moved in earlier this month, Syaoran, when you decided to make us think you killed Sakura. And there were cockroaches everywhere, including our apartment.”

 

Okay, that’s fine, there were circumstances, I understand,” Syaoran said. “So let’s go back now.”

 

No!”

 

No? Look, Meilin, you are not some child. You can’t just move in with your boyfriend—what will your father and mother say?” said Syaoran, wanting to smack his forehead into the wall for the lame comeback.  

 

But you alone lived with Sakura all summer long and that’s okay?” she demanded. “Oh right, there were circumstances!”

 

Yes, there actually were, and it was related to our mission to seal dark forces. And besides, that guy can’t be trusted—do you know his reputation?” said Syaoran, pointing at Kai.

 

Kai, pointing back at himself, blinked innocently. “Moi?”

 

“Well, luckily I’ve learned to trust no guy at all.” Meilin grabbed her mug of coffee and stormed into Kai’s bedroom, slamming the door shut.

 

And Kai found himself confronted with the ugly situation of being in the living room alone with Great Elder Syaoran. And all his attention was on the former Thief of the Night. “That’s your bedroom,” was his accusing remark.  

 

Kai gulped as Syaoran’s dark eyebrows furrowed down at him. “N-no! I mean, yes. She sleeps in the bedroom—I have only one bed in the house. I mean, I sleep out here and let her use the master bed.” He pointed to the pillow and folded blanket on the couch. “But she’s not living with me!”  

 

Syaoran heaved a sigh. “Kai, I know you were watching out for her in your own way. I do thank you for that. But, as Meilin’s guardian, there are certain things that can and cannot be allowed.”

 

Can and cannot be allowed my derriere,” grumbled Kai. “Fine, I’ll convince her to move back in with you, if that’s what you want. I mean, when I asked her to move in with me, I didn’t really expect she would stay. She’s an awesome cook, and she gets along well with Perro-chan. But she’s always scolding me to clean, fold the laundry, do the dishes, wake up at the crack of dawn to exercise with her and use me as a punching bag.”

 

I can hear you!” called out Meilin from the bedroom. “You know, you aren’t a great pleasure to live with either. You’re always throwing your clothes on the floor, including your used boxers. You never do the dishes, not even once. You play juvenile videogames on surround sound all night long and have an obsession with the stupid stock market. And I’m pretty sure you peeked on me in the shower!”

 

“Just a little bit!”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Finally alone at last,” murmured Syaoran to himself, leaning back against the wooden bench at King Penguin Park.

 

“Tough day?” asked Sakura, setting down her book bag and taking a seat next to him after school.

 

“Sometimes, I think being a high school student is just a tad bit more difficult than being the Great Elder and Chosen One of the Li Clan put together,” remarked Syaoran, looking at the kids swinging in the playground and climbing up the giant blue penguin slide.

 

This brought out a chuckle in Sakura. She told him, “Because you’ve been training to become the Chosen One all your life. While nobody really signs up for high school. It’s just an obligatory rite of passage.”

 

“Tell me about it.” Syaoran gave out a long sigh.

 

“What else is bothering you?”

 

He clasped his hands behind his head. “Meilin.”

 

“Is she still mad at you because you didn’t tell her beforehand about your Great Elder quest?”

 

Syaoran’s dark eyebrows arched. “Oh, that’s what she’s mad at me about?”

 

Sakura had to stifle a giggle because Syaoran was so solemn. “Then what else is worrying you about Meilin-chan?”

 

“Kai.”

 

This time, Sakura had to press her lips together to keep a straight face. “Why? Are they having relationship problems?”

 

“No. Quite the opposite. They’ve gotten very close while I was gone, apparently. They’ve been living together, for who knows how long. Did you know that?” he turned to her.

 

Sakura had known, but replied, “So, what’s the issue?”

 

“The issue? I’m Meilin’s guardian here! I can’t let her live with an older guy, a criminal on top of that!” 

 

“Kai’s your friend too,” Sakura pointed out.

 

“It’s different,” replied Syaoran. “You know what she told me? She told me I have no right to say anything to her. I’m her cousin, I grew up with her, and I’ve watched out for her all my life since we’re kids. I mean, I’m the Great Elder. And she actually told me she would rather live with Kai than me.”

 

Sakura finally laughed out loud. “Syaoran, don’t tell me you told her that, pulling your bossy act again. You are worse than my brother sometimes, I swear. Syaoran, Meilin is your equal. Just because you became the Great Elder overnight doesn’t change who you are to her. You are her confidante, and I’m sure she does value your opinions. Why don’t you try having a conversation with her, instead of just telling her what to do? Ask her why she’s living with Kai, what she’s been going through, and tell her what your plans are now, and what she means to you, not as your responsibility as the Great Elder, but as her longtime best friend.”

 

He nodded. “You are absolutely right. I think I took the role of Great Elder too seriously, being new to it and all.”

 

“And Meilin gets that. She probably wants to support you, given the chance. Trust her.”

 

“It’s not Meilin I don’t trust. It’s Kai. He’s dangerous to the female sex.”

 

Sakura paused, unable to deny this. “He cares for Meilin deeply.”

 

“Perhaps. But there will always be a side to Kai that we don’t know about. He has a complicated history,” said Syaoran.

 

“Are you talking about Kara Reed?”

 

“Not just Kara,” replied Syaoran. “I was even suspicious of his motivations for approaching Meilin in the first place. I’m pretty sure he went after her initially because she was a Li. He meant to hurt the Li Clan through her. I wonder if any sort of healthy relationship can come from someone who hates the Li Clan so much.”

 

“I don’t think there is any doubt, whatever his initial intentions for approaching Meilin were, that he will never let any harm come to her. And he has also been coming terms with his past, and I think Meilin has played a big role in helping him to heal,” said Sakura slowly. Syaoran’s worries, thoughts he had never expressed out loud. Concerns he had as a friend, as the head of the largest magical clan in Hong Kong. They all fused together to form his identity.

 

What she gleaned, however, was how much Syaoran also cared for Kai—if he didn’t, he would have just beaten the former Thief of the Night to pulp and threatened him to never come near Meilin again. And when she told that to Syaoran, her observation produced an actual chuckle from him.    

 

He turned to her with a boyish grin, as if struck by the fact that she had seen right through him, and abruptly changed the topic. “Guess what I found in my older sister’s photo album?” He didn’t give her a chance to reply. “A picture of Wu Zian from elementary school dressed as Rapunzel in a school play.”

 

Sakura laughed. “The Gold Leopard? Is that how you ended the feud with the Wu Clan? By threatening to blackmail him by showing the pictures to the Hong Kong triads?”

 

“I may or may not have used coercion,” mumbled Syaoran.

 

She blinked up at him. “So, did you really pick my name out of the box by coincidence the other day?”

 

The corner of his lips curved. “Did any descendent of Clow Reed believe in such a thing as coincidence?” Then he frowned a bit. “So, what did you have to talk to Eron about the other day after school?”

 

Sakura bit her lower lip. It was odd that Eron had been the one who had been able to cheer her up. “All I see is that you were protecting the one you love, and well, I call that courage.” Words that had shrouded her with another set of worries, that someone once called her enemy could see straight into her heart things that even she had not figured out herself. And then, there was the crucial encounter that she had put off explaining to Syaoran. Instinctively, her fingers went to the Amamiya diamond stone that hung from her neck on a silver chain, whole once more.

 

“So, are you going to finally tell me about what happened in the Dragon Isles, while I was gone for the Test of the Great Elders, and how you made the Dragon’s Eye whole again?”

 

She looked at him briefly, before glancing away quickly because she hadn’t realized how serious he had been about hearing an answer. And he had waited carefully, for she had evaded the question till now. The reason was, she was not yet ready to share that last moment she had spent next to a dying Li Ryuuren. She could not tell Syaoran how frail and broken Ryuuren had been, how he much he had longed to see his little son, how world-worn and weary his sapphire blue eyes had been. He had dealt with enough loss in the past weeks already.

 

“Is it that difficult to speak about?” said Syaoran softly. She could already see him thinking the worst, as he was prone to, but trying to keep a light tone. “It’s not like you sold your soul to the devil or something.”

 

But maybe, it was like she had. She could not forget those haunted golden eyes that seemed to desperate, hungry and cold. “I met Chang Ryouta,” she finally said.

 

Syaoran paled. “How? Where?”

 

“I must have traveled back in time, in the Cavern of Reservoirs,” said Sakura.

 

“It could have been very dangerous,” he said with a frown. “He didn’t do anything to you, did he?”

 

“No. He was the one who helped me to fix the Eye of the Dragon,” Sakura replied reluctantly.

 

“In exchange for what?”

 

The intensity in those amber eyes shot with gold shook her. There really was nothing Syaoran missed.

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Ryouta flashback 1…

Somewhere inside the Dragon Isles…

 

Sakura for as long as she lived would never be able to forget her first taste of death firsthand, feeling Li Ryuuren’s cold, cold hand in her hands, seeing the distant look in his sapphire blue eyes, the faint smile, the yearning in his voice as he spoke of his son. “I wanted him to grow up to be strong and noble, courageous and courteous.” If only Syaoran had been there to see his father off. Tears continued to flow freely down her cheek in a salty trail. She clutched Ryuuren’s blue leather-bound journal closely to her chest. How was she going to make sure this journal made it back to the past, to the Li Clan? Because she had to return to her present time, and yet, Ryuuren had tasked her with the impossible, bringing this journal back in time. It was cold, so bitter, cold, and she didn’t know where she was, or where she was heading towards as she trudged through heavy snow, clutching her fur-lined cloak closer around her bare shoulders.

 

Someone was walking her way. Through misty eyes, Sakura could see the silhouette of a man. She prayed it was no enemy because frankly, she didn’t think she could ward off anyone at this point. Sakura blinked. “Eron-kun?” No, this man was much older, and his golden eyes, more slanted, with dark hollows beneath them, had a manic gleam. As of someone who was starved and desperate.

 

His blue-violet hair hung long and tangled around his lanky face. She recognized his face because she had met him before, or at least someone who resembled him, last time in Memoria. And she had seen pictures in the high school yearbook, though the man standing in front of her was at least a decade older and gaunter.

 

It had to be either Chang Ryouta or Reiji.

 

She whispered, “Chang Ryouta-san.”

 

And he smiled. She recognized that smile, that same familiar thin, cynical smirk that Eron made which made him seem older than his age. 

 

“It has been so long since someone called my true name. How did you know who I was?” He paused. “More correctly, how did you know which one I was?”

 

“A lucky guess,” said Sakura.

 

His dilated gold eyes shot towards her. “And who are you? Why are you here?

 

“I’m Kinomoto Sakura. And I too wonder why I am here.”

 

“So you are Kinomoto Sakura.” he laughed shortly. “You don’t look much like your mother, do you? How old are you? Thirteen? Fourteen?”

 

“I just turned 17,” said Sakura. It was strange. Sakura found Eron to be a handsome boy—but she could not find anything handsome about the man standing before. And yet, it was startling to see what Eron would look like in another ten, fifteen years, if he took to alcohol, insomnia, and the slow path to self-destruction.

 

“So you are from the future.” Ryouta paused. “Little good does your presence do now. But you are here, and you will do something for me.”

 

“What if I refuse?” asked Sakura.

 

“You won’t. Because it is for the twins.” Ryouta stared down at her with those haughty gold eyes.

 

“Eron and Erika?”

 

“Good you know them already.” Ryouta seemed to fall into deep thought.

 

Sakura eyes flitted around for an exit strategy. Could she possibly get killed here, a dimension within the Dragon Isles, though she was from the future? Was this Ryouta even real? More importantly, was he dangerous? If he planned to kill her, he had ample opportunity to do so already. If she guessed accurately, Ryouta and Ryuuren may have had some final altercation here, somewhere in the vicinity of the dragon realms. Had Ryuuren’s last mission been to kill Ryouta? She hadn’t even thought about it—but Ryouta hadn’t died after the final battle which had sealed the Plague. He had lived on at least until Erika and Eron were born—and it must be around three years after that when Ryuuren died. Her three-year-old self was somewhere out there in the world. Chang Reiji, the twins’ uncle who had raised them, died around a year or two year ago then, based on what Eron had told her. When had Ryouta died? Because he didn’t look near death—mad, yes, but not dead.

 

“After Eri died and Reiji died, I wondered, why am I still alive? Everyone’s dead or dying, and I’m the only one left.” Ryouta paused. “Miara’s still alive. She’s as good as dead though because the plague will spread in a couple years.”

 

“You’re wrong. We sealed the Plague,” whispered Sakura. “Do you know your son almost died because of the Plague? But he’s okay now. So is Miara-san. She’s living, happily, with a wonderful family to support her.”

 

“Good for her. She was the least annoying of the bunch,” said Ryouta. “See, she never made any pretense of upholding family honor or being moralistic and patronizing. In a sense, she too was a victim in the Li and Amamiya ploy. The Mizukis will always be the victim.”

 

“Why is that?”

 

Ryouta stared down at her over the bridge of his nose. “Of course you are blind. She wasn’t—she knew everything even without words. Because she had the Sight. But if she knew what I did, I’m sure she would have spurned me too. I hated her scornful green eyes. But even worse, I hated that condescending smile, as if she somehow understood, as if she pitied a wretched soul.”

 

It took a moment to realize he was speaking of her mother. “What did you do?”

 

“I did something unforgiveable to my brother. Even though he betrayed me, I didn’t want to hurt him. At least, now I realize I didn’t want to damage him like I did.”

 

Sakura hesitantly asked, “You mean Reiji-san?”

 

“How much do you know about us?” Ryouta said.

 

“I know enough,” she replied. “I am close friends with Eron.”

 

Ryouta gazed at her with those inscrutable golden eyes. “Friends you say. Friends.” 

 

“Good friends.”

 

“Then you probably heard Eri and Reiji had been together since high school. After it all ended, they went to art school together. Reiji studied architecture and she studied fine arts. They left everything all behind. They were happy. And I could not stand that. Every waking day was a torment for me, yet how was it that he could find bliss? He had a future, a future with no room for me. He was talented and won awards. He built his dream house. He proposed to her. They were going to get married. And leave me completely behind. So I went to her.”

 

“To who?” whispered Sakura.

 

“To Eri. Yoshida Eriko. The love of his life. He was away for some design contest. It was nighttime and dark. And I tricked her. It was a prank we used to pull often when we were kids, switching places, Reiji and I. I’m good at it, pretending to be him, so I don’t blame her. She thought I was him. Still, she should have known better. By the time she realized it was actually me, it was too late. She screamed and begged for me to stop, but I didn’t.”

 

Sakura paled as she truly understood the implication of his words. “H-how could you? To your own brother?”

 

He wasn’t listening. His eyes were glazed over, as if he was reliving that moment. “She protested and cried and cried. But even though she was my twin’s most beloved one, I felt no remorse. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling this to an innocent young girl like you,” said Ryouta with a crooked smile. “No, you are not so young and innocent. You are old enough to marry and have children. Will you marry Eron? He seems to be a failure, but our bloodline has to continue on to satisfy the Dark One’s bloodlust. That will be the ultimate slap on the face, a Dark One descended from Amamiya Hayashi.”

 

Sakura reeled back, stomach hurling. Back then, she had thought things didn’t add up. Chang Reiji and Yoshida Eri had loved each other, but why was it that Ryouta was the twins’ father?

 

“He found out. He walked in on us, in their bedroom. He would’ve killed me. But he didn’t. He told me that he never wanted to see to me again. And he never did. She got pregnant with twins. She was distraught—she wanted to get rid of them. She should have. But he didn’t let her. He said that he will raise them like they were his own. That he would be their father, and they will be a family.” Ryouta paused. “But she died giving birth. Did you know that all women that give birth to Chang twins are doomed to die—the twins sap the life out of their mother because they are cursed, or so legends say.”

 

“And Reiji-san?” Sakura swallowed hard.

 

“He did raise them as his own, I give credit for that, for a short year. His health was never good, and he foolishly had shortened his lifespan years ago by helping Nadeshiko seal a portion of the Plague within his body. So he died. And the twins went to the orphanage.”

 

“But you were still alive. Why did you not take your children and raise them yourself?” she demanded. She had never known. Chang Reiji had helped her mother in the final battle—did Eron know of this fact?

 

“And grovel for redemption?” Ryouta shook his head. “The twins were better off at the orphanage than in the hands of me. I was doing them a favor.”

 

“But they are your own flesh and blood.”

 

“Go ahead. Judge me. I am likely the most depraved person you will ever meet,” said Ryouta. “No, don’t gaze at me with her eyes. Don’t look at me as if you are seeking to forgive something in me.” 

 

“Never. You are every bit horrid and disgusting as I had feared,” said Sakura, struggling to keep a level voice. “You do deserve to die. But death is too easy a way out. Living with your sins is the greater punishment. That is why your brother, Ryuuren, my mother, they all did not end your life.”

 

“You are right about that,” he replied hollowly. “I live, but every day, I am miserable. What a laugh, that I’ll outlive them all. The irony of life. There, I have said my confession. Go tell the twins now, make them writhe at the indignity of their birth, they who should not have been born, they who were unwanted, cursed since conception.”

 

Sakura felt her chest clamp. She couldn’t possibly tell something so horrible to Eron, let alone Erika. Or did they already suspect? Eron was pretty shrewd, and he might have suspected foul play along the road. “Why don’t you tell them yourself?” she asked. “If you came here, surely you know the way back?”

 

“Yes, I do,” said Ryouta. A red eye-like pendant, similar to one that Sakura had seen Eron and Erika wear, hung from his neck. 

 

She loathed having to hold any sort of civil conversation with this man, but she recognized how broken he was, mentally, physically, and in spirit. And she could not lose focus or let her emotions get the better of her. “Then you would know how to get back to the Cavern of Reservoirs?” she asked staidly.


“Why are you asking me?”

 

“I have someone I need to get to.”

 

Ryouta smiled crookedly. “You have the Dragon’s Eye. You already have the pass. Just concentrate and it should take you to where you wish. It’s a bit more complicated if you don’t have that handy trinket.”

 

“It’s broken,” said Sakura. She gazed up at him. When he stared off into space like that, his resemblance to Eron was remarkable. “The White Dragon said there is no way to fix it for him. But I thought Amamiya Hayashi-sama would know.”

 

“Of course it’s impossible for the White Dragon with his type of magic. But humans have our own set of contract magic that can do things that dragon magic can’t do,” replied Ryouta. “Don’t you even know that? You don’t even need Amamiya Hayashi—any idiot versed in magic can tell you that.”

 

“That means you know how to fix it,” said Sakura in a dull voice.

 

Ryouta smiled thinly, like a cat that had caught a mouse in his paws. “Touché. If that was implying I am an idiot, good blow, little one. And correct, there is nothing that cannot be mended with magic, though some things cost more than others. Save maybe a broken heart. Yes, a heart that is broken cannot be fixed.”

 

“You will help me fix the Dragon’s Eye?”

 

He drew nearer to her. “Is that a request or demand?”

 

So this is what it’s like to bargain with the devil. She would have been more terrified was she not more worried about how Syaoran was faring in the Test of the Great Elder and whether he had made it back to the Cavern of Reservoirs yet. “It’s a question.”

 

“If I were any less weary, I would indulge in making the daughter of Nadeshiko grovel at my feet a bit more,” he said. “But you convey my message to the twins, and I will consider us even.”

 

“What if I don’t tell Eron and Erika?” Sakura asked.

 

“Even if you don’t, they’ll find out anyway. So better you tell them, in your gentle, caring way. Maybe you can wipe away Eron’s tears of indignation with that delicate, unsoiled fingertip of yours. Take him. An Amamiya and a weak Chang—what a sweet twist of fate it would be. But he will burn you, I promise you, if you reach out to him. He will break you, because Chang men destroy all women who grow to love them.” Ryouta reached out and grabbed her wrist.

 

“Don’t touch me!”

 

“I will help you fix it.”

 

Trying to pull away from the iron grip, Sakura realized she had been foolish to think she could negotiate with this volatile man. “I do not want your help.”

 

“I am not doing this to help you, silly girl,” said Ryouta, yanking out the two halves of the crystal from her skirt pocket, as if he knew they had been there all along. “The Five Force Treasures have to be whole.”

 

Alarm bells were ringing in the back of her mind, but she knew she had to fix the Eye of the Dragon, and Ryouta seemed to be her best shot, since she doubted she will ever be able to track down Amamiya Hayashi. Ryouta surely had a selfish incentive for wanting the Amamiya diamond fixed, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it. Sakura struggled to release his hold but realized how strong he actually was despite his fragile demeanor.

 

“You’ll need a sealant and the Forge and the hottest of all flames.” He peered into the broken stone and remarked, “You are lucky, the Eye of the Dragon has been in the possession of a Li, Mizuki, Reed, Amamiya and now, briefly, a Chang. It has awakened its sealed powers somewhat—it will help speed along the process.” 

 

She knew that Syaoran and Kai had kept the stone before, but thought Ryouta must be mistaken about a Reed. Ryouta flung the two halves of the crystal on the snow, chanting strange unfamiliar spells. He took out a narrow saber that had been sheathed by his belt. The blade gleamed crimson.

 

Sakura turned pallid realizing it was blood, not yet dried. She stifled a scream as he yanked her left hand forward. “First a little bit of your blood.” He sliced her palm with the blade and dripped her fresh blood over the broken stone. Several drops landed on the snow, seeping into the whiteness, dyeing it a deep red.

 

“Stop sniveling—a mere scrape isn’t going to kill you,” he said, releasing her hand abruptly. With the stained blade, he sliced his palm and dripped a few drops of his blood, mingled with the blood on the blade, on top of the broken stone. “How convenient, Li blood is still fresh on my blade,” he murmured. “Chang blood, Li blood, Amamiya blood down. And isn’t it lucky that you happen to have the Reed sapphire ring with you of all Five Force Treasures—Landon’s blood was sealed in there—hopefully that’ll be enough.” He hooked his fingers around the ring and yanked it from the chain around her neck, tossing it on the snow atop the drops of blood. “Don’t worry—no harm will be done to the sapphire.”

 

“What about the Mizuki blood?” Sakura asked.

 

Ryouta looked into her eye, then smiled crookedly. “Already taken care of.” He licked the blood off his palm. “Well, you can do the rest now. Fire and forge, and blood of the Five Force Magicians. ‘Twas how the Great Five made one the Five Force Treasures and bound their magic together.”

 

Sakura’s palm was still raw and bleeding but, she gripped her staff, whipping out two cards. “Firey! Forge! Make whole the Eye of the Dragon once more!”

 

The two halves of the Eye levitated above her, apparently having soaked in the blood. She was lightheaded, but to her shock Ryouta grab her wrist, and she sensed an unfamiliar dark power pouring into her staff, a nauseating, invasive sensation. The broken stones blazed in blinding white light, sending her toppling back.

 

Then it dropped onto the snow, sizzling and whole.

 

For a second, she eyed Ryouta who was fixated upon the gem. Finally, he sighed. “Don’t pick it up right away—you’ll burn your hand. Don’t worry—it’s not a trick. What use do I have of the Five Force Treasures now?”

 

Sakura picked up the sapphire ring first, checking if it wasn’t damaged by the ordeal, and then the Eye of the Dragon, gleaming, a complete globe once more. It had cooled in the snow, and fit in her palm like a small quartz quail’s egg. She was feeling lightheaded, and wished she could simply collapse into the snow, into a fetal position, and take a long nap. If Ryouta were to attack her now and take the Amamiya diamond and Reed ring, she would be defenseless.

 

Distract him. That’s what she had to do. “Where are you heading to next?”

 

“Back to my real world, eventually,” replied Ryouta. “So that I can gloat about being the last remaining Great Circle descendent of my generation. Good riddance, isn’t it? Who said justice prevails? I am rotten to the core, and I am the only one left standing.” He laughed out loud.

 

Without thinking, Sakura pressed a leather notebook into his hands.

 

“What is this?” Ryouta asked.

 

“It’s Li Ryuuren-san’s journal.”

 

“So?” Ryouta asked.

 

“When you go back to your time period, please deliver it to the Li Ielan—his wife—in Hong Kong. Ryuuren’s dying wish was to give this to Syaoran, his son.”

 

“And why are you giving this to me? Ryouta demanded.

 

“Because I can’t take it back with me, to the future,” said Sakura. Otherwise, she and Syaoran would not have been able to discover the journal three years ago when sorting through a bunch of old Li Clan books and find out about the past.

 

“What makes you think I’m not going to burn this up on the spot?” demanded Ryouta.

 

“You might,” said Sakura, recalling the burnt condition they had found the journal in years later. “But I have to put my faith in you.”

 

“I’m going to read it,” Ryouta said. “It might contain all sorts of Li Clan secrets, and I might use it against them.”

 

“Read it,” Sakura said. “Know your so-called enemies. Know the Li Ryuuren that struggled, that dreamed, that loved. It might do you some good.”

 

He blinked at her. “Are you preaching at me, girl? Why do you not fear me? I set off the Plague. I killed them all. Even your mother.”

 

Sakura stared at him square in the eye. “I’ve already dealt with Eron and Erika—what makes you think that I can’t deal with just one Chang by himself?”

 

Ryouta held up his hand, palm up, and shot a blast of fire, holding the journal over it with his other hand. The edge of the book singed.

 

The girl continued to stare at him with those haunting green eyes that were so like her mother’s. The sparks dissipated. “Fine, I won’t burn it now. But I will, later, after I read it and laugh at what a pathetic fool Ryuuren was and the pitiful way he died.” Ryouta paused, his eyes dilated. “What a laugh—he spared my life, but I didn’t his.”

 

And Sakura stopped short, finally understanding. The blood on the Ryouta’s blade. And she felt a howling rage inside her. “You. You killed him.”

 

“Of course. After all these years, I finally got to end him, for once and for all. Fool.” Ryouta threw his head back and laughed out loud, a dry, cackling sound. “Ryuuren, foolish Ryuuren, should have killed me years ago when he had a chance. But he didn’t. Because he listened to the stupid woman. Nadeshiko told him, ‘Spare Ryouta. What harm can he do now?’ And he listened to her. That was his demise.” His eyes flickered to the Eye of the Dragon. “Poor Ryuuren, who knew he was dying but still made this fatal journey to the Dragon Isles, hoping to find the last of the missing Five Force Treasures. Thinking if he found the Amamiya diamond, he might be able to save Nadeshiko’s life. All for naught.”

 

“You monster!” hissed Sakura, fingernails digging into her palms as she struggled to keep her arms at her side. She realized it was a mistake to hand him the diary after all. For the first time in her life, she felt the true desire to kill another human being.

 

“I’ve heard that many times before,” said Ryouta. “Even my aunt called me so when I was born because I was born twice the weight of my brother. I tried to kill Reiji in my mother’s womb, she said. That I’m a demon-child. That my mother, her sister, died because I sucked the life out of her and my twin.”

 

“Ryuuren-san had a family waiting for him back home,” whispered Sakura. Why did Ryuuren go on this journey that took him away from them, trying to save her mother, when it was all for naught?

 

“Then why did he leave them? Always chasing, never satisfied.” Ryouta closed his eyes. “He and I, I wonder how different we were, in the end.”

 

“Don’t compare yourself to someone as honorable and deeply caring as Ryuuren-san,” said Sakura.

 

“Even you side with him.” Ryouta lips curled into a thin grimace. “Go now, Nadeshiko’s daughter, before I rip out that pulsating healthy heart from your breast. It’s very tempting.”

 

And she was eager to get as much distance between herself and Ryouta as possible, before she killed him or he killed her. She had to get back to Syaoran, to the Cavern of Reservoirs. She staggered forward.

 

She had forgotten, she was not even half-force right now. She had burned through too much power trying to fix the crystal. Right, wasn’t the Dragon Eye some sort of portal? She blinked her right eye, as her vision faded. She couldn’t faint here. It was snowing again, and it was cold. She saw a silvery wolf silhouetted by the moon.

 

As Sakura collapsed into the snow, she thought she saw the wolf slink up next to her, to cushion her fall. His fur was warm and soft. Clutching the stone to her chest, she wished herself back to the Cavern of Reservoirs, to where Syaoran was.

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Seated beside her on the bench in King Penguin Park, near dusk, Syaoran repeated his question once more. “He helped you fix the Eye of the Dragon in exchange for what?”

 

“He just wanted me to pass a message to the twins,” Sakura stammered. She briefly related the strange encounter she had with Chang Ryouta, while Syaoran had been off on the Ordeal of the Great Elder, and how he had helped her to mend the Dragon’s Eye, omitting most of the actual dialogue. She knew it still disturbed him, and that he was controlling himself, and he winced when she described how he had slit open her hand.

 

“He used just your blood and his blood as a sealant?”

 

Syaoran really missed nothing. She clenched her left hand. The blood on Ryouta’s saber that she had not told Syaoran about. “Y-yes. And the Reed ring.”

 

He reached out and took her left hand and spread open her fingers with his thumb. Sakura was startled by his touch and did not see the frown when he saw a faint horizontal line across her palm, his eyes flickering with momentary rage. And he let go of her hand.  

 

“And this message to Erika and Eron is all he asked in return?” he asked in an even tone. “What kind of message was it?”  

 

What Ryouta had done to his brother and Eri, the blood on his sword, the lost journal—how could Sakura begin describing all of that. That queasy feeling in her stomach returned when she recalled that crazed haze in his eyes as he spoke of how he had betrayed Reiji.

 

“It’s all right, Sakura,” said Syaoran with a long sigh. “There are things that take time to heal, once you’ve been inside the Cavern of Reservoirs. I know. There are things too terrifying, too dreadful, to put into words. Because when you do, it seems to have been real. When it’s in your head, you can lock it away and ignore it.”

 

Sakura glanced over at Syaoran, always surprised by his uncanny knack for just getting concepts she had trouble expressing. She had been so elated to see him, she hadn’t realized how fatigued he looked, the toll the past month had taken on him since the Great Elder’s passing. His eyes were bloodshot and there was a slight tremor to his hand. And she frowned. “Syaoran. When was the last time you slept?”

 

He blinked at her. “I don’t know.”

 

Sakura frowned. “Syaoran-kun.”

 

“Honestly, I really can’t remember. Not since I’ve been back.”

 

“Since you’ve been back to Japan? The plane then?”

 

“No, I was finishing spring break homework on the flight,” replied Syaoran.

 

“You must have been had time to sleep when you were in Hong Kong?”

 

He still stared at her blankly. “Too busy with the inauguration ceremony. Had 24 hour days.”

 

Her voice was pitched higher. “Don’t tell me you haven’t slept since you passed the Ordeal of the Li Elder?”

 

Syaoran sighed. “I couldn’t close my eyes at night since that day when you… When I…”

 

Sakura gasped. Since her birthday, the day of the duel with her clone. “You haven’t slept since then? What’s wrong with you?”

 

“I knew it wasn’t you, but when I closed my eyes, that scene where you disappeared in my arms, my worst nightmare, played over and over again in my mind,” said Syaoran. “So I just kept busy, preparing for the Elder Test. And then, since I got back from the Dragon Isles, it’s just been pretty hectic.”

 

“That’s no excuse for not sleeping!”

 

He looked down at his lap and told her quietly, “Dreaming and being inside Limbo is pretty similar. Since I returned from the Dragon Isles, I’ve been scared of not being able to wake up again, of being forever trapped in that place where you are taken from me over and over again.”

 

“You were stuck in Limbo?” whispered Sakura, referring to the place in between dimensions, sometimes called the dreamscape, suspended from time, caught between life and death. But she could tell that he didn’t want to speak anymore of that part of the Test of the Great Elder. “Syaoran, I can use the Sleep Card on you.”

 

Syaoran shook his head. “I’d rather just talk with you.”

 

“I can give you pleasant dreams, it’ll be meditative,” said Sakura. “You need to rest your body or you’ll break!”

 

He tilted his head with a smile. “I am resting now.”

 

And she gripped him by the shoulder and looked straight into his eyes. “You’re going stunt your growth.”

 

“I think I’ve been growing fine. You’re the one who can grow a little more,” he replied with a lazy grin.

 

Sakura sighed at Syaoran not taking her seriously, peeved he wouldn’t let her use the Sleep Card, angry at the Li Clan for no particular reason. “All right, I won’t use the Sleep Card on you, but I want you to just close your eyes. I’ll keep talking to you.”

 

“All right.” He shut his eyes. “You got to meet with Shulin-sama inside the Dragon Isles. What was that like?”

 

“How did you know? Oh! As part of the Great Elder test, you meet all the previous elders as well, right?” Sakura glanced over at Syaoran’s side profile. His long brown lashes cast a shadow over his cheek, and she could see now that he had Shulin’s stubborn chin. “She was extremely beautiful in the glaring sort of way. Looking at her is like trying to stare straight into the sunlight. But she’s so sharp-tongued, sarcastic, and a bit boastful. She has a way of making you feel small and insignificant. Sorry. I know she’s your ancestor.”

 

“Haven’t you met her son? Where’d you think he got it from?” Heavy lids still closed, he remarked, “So, she told me that you called me your acquaintance. Now, why would I bring a mere acquaintance with me all the way to the Great Elder Ordeal in the Dragon Isles, I wonder.”

 

Sakura’s ears turned red. She hoped the mischievous Shulin hadn’t made any embarrassing remarks to Syaoran about her. “I didn’t mean it in that way! But she misunderstood because of the sapphire ring, which she said was a family heirloom.” And an engagement ring. “I was just setting her straight!”

 

Then, she glanced over at Syaoran. His breath was soft. He was asleep. His head swayed, and she looked around, then carefully reached over and positioned his head on her shoulder, to use as a headrest. She glanced at her watch. There was still time left until dinner. What was the harm in staying like this, just for a little while?

 

His breath ticked her neck, and his head progressively seemed to weigh heavier against her shoulder. But she was afraid to shift, as not to wake him.

 

 

 

It was some hours later, Wei walked up to King Penguin Park, to the sight of his master, lying on the bench, long legs dangling off the end, his head rested on Sakura’s lap, in deep slumber. And Sakura, so tenderly, was playing with strands of Syaoran’s hair, sometimes blowing air into his ear, sometimes poking his cheek, as if to check he was real.

 

And he watched for a little longer, unable to interrupt the space which seemed to belong to just those two.

 

Sakura looked up first and spotted Wei. She turned scarlet but did not move away, because she knew how long it was since Syaoran had slept.

 

“Syaoran-sama didn’t come home from school for dinner, and he missed his evening conference call with the Elders. So I went to search for him,” said Wei. “Syaoran-sama, he’s been working himself to death since he returned to Hong Kong. Ielan-sama, his sisters, all told him to take things easy, that he didn’t have to push himself so hard. But he said he had to finish all his business in Hong Kong in two weeks. To get back to Japan for the first day of school.”

 

“Why didn’t anyone stop him?” asked Sakura.

 

“Because Syaoran-sama, he looked very happy,” said Wei. “Happier than we’ve seen him ever in Hong Kong.”

 

At the sound of Wei’s voice, Syaoran stirred. He had the pleasant heavenly sensation of having had the best sleep of his life, and his head was pillowed against something soft and warm. He snuggled his cheek against the softness and sighed. Then his eyes flew open and saw Sakura peering down at him. He bolted up, almost falling off the narrow wooden bench, and glanced around. It was pitch black. “What time is it?” He finally spotted Wei and jumped on his feet. “The conference call!”

 

“It’s okay, Syaoran-sama. I told the Elders there is no need for daily conference calls anymore,” said Wei. “I will send them daily reports—you can do a video conference call once a week, unless there is an emergency. And quoting Ielan-sama, she said, ‘Please focus on school and the dark forces for the time being. The centuries-old Li Clan is not going to fall apart just because the Great Elder is a teenager.’”

 

Syaoran sighed. He knew her mother was right. Great Elder Renshu had been sick for two years, but the Elders, though a disagreeable bunch of curmudgeons who didn’t get along with each other, still had kept he clan running. And Ielan, who had kept in the shadows seeing to the administration business in the last few years of Renshu’s life when his health was failing, knew more about running the clan than anyone else. It was unfortunate that she was not a Li by blood, or else she would have made the perfect Great Elder. The reason why she had been chosen as Ryuuren’s bride from an early age was precisely because she had stood out from her three other sisters with her sharp wits, administrative skills and magical prowess. Ryuuren himself was Chosen One material but would not have made a good Great Elder, because he hated dealing with paperwork, negotiating, settling—he was brash, hot-tempered and a warrior at heart, who would have ruled by brute force.

 

“It’s a good thing you have found a place you can fall asleep,” said Wei. “Ielan-sama said to knock Syaoran-sama unconscious if he doesn’t get some rest very soon.”

 

And Syaoran finally turned around jerkily towards Sakura, then stared at the creases from the weight of his head on the pleats of her uniform skirt covering her thighs. She looked up at him and smiled. “I didn’t use the Sleep Card!”

 

Like a creakily wound clock, Syaoran turned around, unable to meet Wei’s eyes either, for having witnessed such a private moment. “Good night Sakura sorry for imposing. Please get home safely,” he mumbled to the ground and dashed off.

 

Wei smiled. “Good evening, Sakura-sama. Thank you.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Meilin sat on the floor of Tomoyo’s bedroom, painting her toe nails a bright orange-red.

 

“And Syaoran walked straight into me and Kai in the middle of—” Meilin blushed and trailed off. “He always catches us in the most awkward moments. But this time, Syaoran had the nerve to scold both of us as if we were some naughty kids, like Kai isn’t older than him! It was so humiliating! And we’re not the ones who slept in the same hotel room in junior high!”

 

Tomoyo chuckled, pouring her friend another cup of Earl Grey tea. “So, are you going to move back in with Syaoran then?”

 

“I would have, if he didn’t order me to move back in like he can boss me around!” exclaimed Meilin. “I mean, staying at Kai’s place was a temporary thing—my mom will kill me if she finds out I’ve been staying at his place. And the thing is, he’s been on very good behavior—I know the only reason he let me stay at his place was because he was worried about my state of being after Great Elder Renshu’s death, the April Fools’ Day incident, and all that’s been happening with the Li Clan recently. He’s such a private person, it’s hard for him to live with anybody—I mean, he couldn’t even live with his own family—and I know he’s been uncomfortable too.”

 

Tomoyo didn’t mention to Meilin that she could have very well come stayed at the Daidouji mansion, where they had a dozen extra guestrooms. “Oh, I’m not sure about that,” she murmured, recalling another conversation she had with Kai.

 

Some days ago, the former thief had clasped her shoulder and bemoaned, “Living with Meilin’s driving me insane. She’s just there, and she does girly things like cook me meals, makes my laundry soft, and leaves the whole bathroom smelling like cinnamon and spice after she showers. Even my sheets smells like her. I don’t know how I can stand this excruciating torture anymore. I’m a man, too. And the worst thing is, I know Zian kissed her that day in the Li HQ office—there was blood on their lips, and I can’t even bring myself to ask her what happened because I’m afraid to hear the truth. What if she tells me she actually is attracted to him—heck, I’m a guy and I find the Leopard a very attractive guy, if you are into the garish sort.”

 

Tomoyo didn’t bother to point out that Zian’s allure to Meilin was probably his confidence and flamboyant flair, somewhat reminiscent of Kaitou Magician’s criminal charm. While mostly sympathetic to Kai, she mischievously remarked, “Yeah, Wu Zian seemed pretty serious about Meilin-chan—he proposed to her on first sight, you know. We got Sakura-chan to do a card reading, and it showed that Meilin and Wu Zian are very compatible for marriage. But then again, Sakura did mention she’s not very good at readings yet. Although she did a successful reading for Asuma-san and Arima-san.”

 

Meilin continued, “And Kai got really jealous. It’s strange—I’ve never seen him lose his cool like that before, not even over Syaoran. He asked me if I loved him, and again, I couldn’t reply.”

 

“Well, do you love him?” Tomoyo asked.

 

“I don’t know,” Meilin replied honestly. “I don’t think I can use that word so lightly. I was convinced half my life I was in love with Syaoran, but when I look back, I wonder what those feelings toward Syaoran were. Because what I feel towards Kai is different.”

 

“What do you feel towards Kai?”

 

“I’m trying to figure that out. With Syaoran, I felt safe, protected. I could envision a future with him—I used to dream about having a big fancy wedding with him all the time.” Meilin played with the bracelets on her wrist. “With Kai, I don’t see any sort of future—I can’t even imagine us being married, and this comes even after living with him over the past month. But I’m drawn to him like a magnet. It’s been like that ever since we first met, and he kidnapped me. I couldn’t get him out of my head though I absolutely detested him.”

 

“But you obviously care for him now.”

 

“I do. But another part of me always feels suffocated, as if I truly let myself give my heart to him, he will want to possess all of me.”

 

“Is that necessarily a bad thing?” said Tomoyo. “It’s because he needs you.”

 

“That’s the problem. It’s like the bird I once took in after its wing was broken,” said Meilin. “I looked after it and helped it heal, and gave him a name. But months passed, and the bird grew restless and stopped eating. And I realized, he didn’t want to be caged anymore, that he had already healed completely. He no longer needed me. So, I set him free, and he flew off into the sky, and I never saw the pretty bird again.”

 

Tomoyo remarked, “That’s contradictory. You find fault with him for wanting to possess you, and yet, you are afraid that he will leave you.”

 

Meilin said, “From the beginning, I knew this relationship was toxic. We are both too independent, strong-willed, and maybe someday in the future, we will end up resenting each other. That’s why, I can’t say Syaoran is wrong for being worried. Because I know he is looking out for me and doesn’t want to see me get hurt.”

 

“So, moral of the story is, Syaoran’s always right?” Tomoyo asked with a smile.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Taking Tomoyo’s advice, Meilin returned back to Syaoran’s place the next evening after school. He was waiting for her, as if he had known she would eventually return, which both peeved and pleased her.

 

Seated at the kitchen table, Meilin awkwardly ate the beef curry—it was delicious. Meilin had to admit she had missed Syaoran’s cooking. He always knew the right amount of spices to use without overpowering the food, his vegetables were always cut into perfect cubes, and his rice was fluffy and succulent. The one day she has asked Kai to cook the rice, it had turned out rock hard.

 

Meilin sighed. “Don’t blame Kai—he didn’t do anything weird. I imposed upon him.”

 

“Are you trying to defend your boyfriend to me?” asked Syaoran trying to keep a straight face. “I can’t really unsee what I saw.”

 

“What you saw is not what you think you saw!” exclaimed Meilin. “Ugh, this is an awkward conversation that I thought I would never have with you.”  

 

“What, discussing your boyfriend?” asked Syaoran, raising an eyebrow. “I have to admit, it does hurt a bit, considering you were the one bent on marrying me and then you went and found a boyfriend quickly enough.”

 

“I did not—I never—” she trailed off when she realized Syaoran had been joking. When had Syaoran regained his dry sense of humor, like olden days? She felt a lump in her throat.

 

“I’m sorry, Meilin. I never meant to hurt you. Forgive me.”

 

“No, it’s because I’ve been angry at myself all this time. I prided myself in knowing you the best. I grew up with you, trained with you all my life, have known you the longest. But I did not have faith in you. I did not trust you, though I should have known you would never kill Sakura.”

 

Syaoran shook his head. “You couldn’t have known. Because Sakura’s clone had been so perfect, she almost deceived me too.”

 

“I was so happy when the both of you came back from the Fantasy but ashamed for doubting you,” said Meilin, sniffling. “And so proud that you became the Great Elder. I knew you could do it. I just wish, you shared a little bit of the process with me, so that I could support you instead of proving an impediment. I wanted to go to the inaugural ceremony and see all seven outfits and the 100 musicians and you getting sworn in by the Council and the expression on Uncle Wutai’s face when you did.”

 

Syaoran passed her the Kleenex. “Meilin you know I would never have made it this far without your support. You and the Great Elder were the only ones who have always believed in me from the very beginning.”

 

“How did you get the seal ring?”

 

“I met with the Great Elder right before he passed away. Sakura took me to Hong Kong on the Unicorn. I promised to Great-Uncle Renshu that I would get my powers back and pass the Test of the Great Elders. Sakura agreed to help me do so by distracting the Li Clan, long enough that I could get to the Dragon Isles.”

 

“What was it like?” Meilin asked. “The Dragon Isles?” She had only heard of it in folklore.

 

“Terrifying, yet fiercely magnificent,” replied Syaoran. “The heat there is unbearable, but when you get to the center, it’s ice cold.”

 

“What was the test like?” she asked. He was silent, and she realized it was something he might have difficulty talking about for the rest of his life. Yes, there was a shadow over him that she had not seen before, a cloak of responsibility, the burden he had to carry as the Great Elder, but also the look of someone who had seen too much, experienced loss, and stood up again.

 

“You know when you are falling in your dream, and you know when you wake up, you will be back in your bed, but you just keep falling and falling, with no end. That’s what the test was like,” said Syaoran.

 

“Sounds horrible—I’m glad Sakura was there for you at least,” said Meilin.

 

“If she wasn’t waiting for me, I’m not sure I would have been able to find my way back—I may still well be roaming in Limbo,” he replied. “But here I am. And Meilin, I’ve always imagined that when I take my rightful position in the Clan, someday, you would become my Protector.”

 

“I—I can’t. My place is here now. And Jinyu is the official Protector—”

 

“Not right now,” said Syaoran with a smile. “But it’s something I want you to consider.”

 

 

 

Oddly enough, Meilin found herself enjoying living with Syaoran, no longer her ideal prince she was determined to marry, nor the unattainable guy she had to force herself not to like, but her comrade.

 

Oftentimes he was busy pouring over stacks of documents faxed by the Li Clan, ancient scrolls, letters and business contracts, and the house was turning more cluttered than even Kai’s pigsty apartment. For the first time, she found that he actually needed her, that she could help him out, whether it was through sorting through memorandums and reports sent by the Li General Council, making sure only the important notices made their way to Syaoran, or micromanaging his schedule so that he did not overexert himself. They trained together, just like old days, taking an early morning jog together at dawn, before school, and practicing combat before dinner. He appreciating having a sparring partner—and Meilin knew she was in better form than ever, having even picked up some new techniques from Kai and her battles with the Wu Clan. At first, she thought he would be too busy to be bothered with household chores or homework, but she found that cooking dinner or doing laundry provided him a much needed distraction from the work as Great Elder.

 

But the real task was making sure he was able to sleep—Meilin knew Syaoran suffered from something worse than insomnia and chronic nightmares, perhaps the price of passing the Great Elder test. She learned he had his alarm set for every 30 minutes, to interrupt falling into deep sleep, which kept her up as well, listening at nighttime to make sure he was not crying out in agony in his dreams. “I’m afraid of not being able to wake up,” he had told her one night, when she had found him thrashing in his bed, choking, in a sleep paralysis. She didn’t ask him about Limbo, or how he had escaped. At times like this, she wished Sakura was there, because Sakura would know what to do for him. And that gave her the idea to hunt out a certain winged pink stuffed teddy bear and place it beside Syaoran when he slept. It seemed to help a little bit.

 

He also floored her with many questions about finance, politics, people they knew, even Hong Kong rumor mills, topics he had never shown much interest in before. At first, she was reluctant to answer. But he genuinely listened to her point of view and wanted to hear her opinions.

 

From the dining room table, where he had spread out stacks of accounts, Syaoran said, “With the Li Group shares down, global recession, expenses from Great Elder Renshu’s funeral and my unnecessarily exuberant inauguration ceremony, we’ve got to administer across the board budget cuts. Uncle Daifu says we need to slash the wages of the Li staff, but I disagreed. But where will we be able to cut corners? We can’t stop the funds for the renovation of the Li village—that’ll cause an uproar. And we’ve promised new training weapons and uniforms.”

 

“I don’t know why you are asking me this—you have an official Li Clan treasurer and a bunch of economic experts who can give you plenty of advise,” replied Meilin, cranky after another squabble with Kai at school.

 

Syaoran looked up. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to burden you. You are right, I have heard all of their opinions, and each one of them has given me conflicting advice. I do not know who I can trust yet, who’s not motivated by personal incentives. You’re the only person I can really confide in at the moment.”

 

And Meilin swallowed hard. All her life, she had wanted to be acknowledged by Syaoran, needed by him. And now, she had the chance. She had been reading through all the Li accounts, since Syaoran freely shared them with her. Growing up, she had received the same education in terms of Li management as Syaoran from the Great Elder and Wei. In fact, she knew more about this area than even Syaoran, likely, because her family, as a non-magic branch of the Li Clan, focused exactly on management and financing. “You’re right, you can’t stop the funds for the Li village renovation—that’s set to be completed by the end of the year. Nor can you cut the budgets of the Li staff, when morale is so low. What you can do is put off the weapons purchase—what we have now will last another year or two, especially since it doesn’t look like we are going into immediate battle with the Tang or Wu Clans. Likewise, we can hold off constructing that Li building in New York. It won’t hurt to put a cap on the Elders’ finances as well—itemize their fine dining and vacation spending.”

 

She then went on a tirade about the Li Group’s faulty investments over the past several years, the wasteful spending by its executives, the inefficiencies because of the bureaucratic system and the lack of innovation and diversity in its projects. 

 

Jotting down notes, Syaoran gazed at Meilin in awe. “How do you know so much about stocks and investments and the Li Group’s global standing?”

 

Meilin sighed. “You know Kai has chronic insomnia—or maybe he’s just nocturnal—and I really thought all l he did was goof off. But he’s often playing stock games—he’s a financial wizard. I guess it makes sense, because after his family went bankrupt, he was bent on earning back all that they had lost. He completely oversees the Tanaka family’s financial portfolio, managing Shing-sensei’s art auctions, his mother’s book contracts and a bunch of other side projects. And of course, he’s always thinking of ways to taken down the Li Group—you know he’s a major Japanese shareholder. This in turn has taught me a lot of what its deficiencies are. I don’t think he knew I was paying that close attention though, or else he wouldn’t speak of it so freely in front of me.”

 

“Is Kai still bent on revenge on the Li Clan?” asked Syaoran casually.

 

“No. But he doesn’t have any kind feelings toward it either,” replied Meilin.

 

“You know Kaitou Magician’s on the Elders’ black list. It’d be best to keep things low key with him,” remarked Syaoran. “And I’ll make the budget reform suggestions to Uncle Daifu—I doubt he will listen, but maybe Cousin Dairon will.”   

 

Meilin knew the Elders thought they could get rid of Syaoran’s meddling if he were in Japan, but unfortunately, that was not going to be the case, not as long as she was by his side. And she didn’t have to bother telling Syaoran that she was sure whatever the Elders thought of the Kaitou Magician was not comparable to what Kai felt towards the Li Clan. “So, how did you get the Wu Clan to sign a truce with us?” she asked.

 

“Actually, it was Zian’s idea in the first place,” Syaoran said. “He came to negotiate with me, and I agreed to his terms.”

 

“Really?” Meilin blinked.

 

Syaoran smiled. “Don’t pretend to be surprised. He told me it was you who convinced him to speak with me.”

 

“Not exactly.”

 

“I didn’t know you were that close with Wu Zian,” remarked Syaoran, not looking up from his documents.

 

“I’m not,” said Meilin hotly.

 

“Oh? He spoke great praises of you.”

 

“When did you become so chummy with the head of our enemy clan that ordered an attack on us to sit down and discuss me?”

 

“He asked me for your hand in marriage. Several times,” remarked Syaoran nonchalantly.

 

Meilin’s brows snapped together. “Excuse me! You think you have the right to discuss my marriage prospects with our enemy just because you are the Great Elder? How chauvinistic!”

 

“Sorry, when such a proposal from the head of our major rival and ally family comes our way, we have to discuss it seriously in the Council. That’s why I’m asking your opinion,” said Syaoran. “You are being credited as the architect of the truce between the Wu and Li Clans, you know. Rumors have been flying around that you went up to negotiate with him alone when the Wu Clan seized the Li Group building. Of course, technically, the Elders back home do not acknowledge that the Li Group Tokyo HQ was seized in the first place. I was just curious if you and Zian came to a special arrangement of some sorts along the sidelines.”

 

Meilin’s cheeks turned crimson recalling Zian’s cocky grin, as he told her he would become hers, like some addition to his butterfly collection.

 

“He seemed convinced that you will agree eventually. He apparently went to his clan’s best Shang Guan Four Pillars of Destiny fortuneteller who said you two had high compatibility.”

 

Meilin snorted. “Are you kidding me? And you’re okay with that lunatic mafia head of our mortal enemy clan who tried to kill Jinyu but not with a retired thief who happens to be one of your best friends?”

 

Syaoran nearly smiled. “No, I’m not okay with either option. I was hoping you’d refuse. I can sign off one paper—Wu Clan marriage petition declined by the other party in question.” He stamped off a document.

 

Meilin’s jaw dropped. “They make you deal with such menial stuff like this?”

 

“I know—why did I ever sign up to become the Great Elder?” sighed Syaoran. “Truth is, there are many things I would like to change within the clan. But for now, there is so much for me to learn from bottom up, and once I learn the ropes and get the hang of being an Elder, figure out who I can trust, who is actually good at their jobs, I can start with a proper overhaul.”

 

“I figured that was the case,” said Meilin. “Wait, does Kai know about the marriage proposal?”

 

“I might have mentioned it to him,” replied Syaoran casually.

 

“That explains why he’s been throwing knives at a full-body cut out of Wu Zian all week shouting murderous oaths,” muttered Meilin.

 

“Well, so long as it’s not me,” said Syaoran.

 

“Oh, he has another cutout of you too.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

There was a reason why Meilin had been extra-absorbed with helping out Syaoran—because it provided an excuse to avoid Kai ultimatum. But Syaoran was at the Li Mansion for a conference call with the Elders, and Meilin volunteered to cook that night.

 

It was very disconcerting having Kai watch her from behind as she chopped up the carrots for the beef stir-fry she was making, and even more so because he wore his pitch black sunglasses so she never knew exactly where his eyes were resting. He came over for dinner often, like old days, but it seemed as if he was monitoring her.

 

“You know, ever since Syaoran’s come back, you don’t spend any time with me,” Kai remarked.

 

Meilin poured the canola oil into the wok and dumped in the onions, red pepper, cabbage and carrots. “I’ve been busy—Syaoran needs a lot of help filling the Great Elder’s shoes.”

 

Kai blurted out, “I don’t approve of you living with Syaoran.”

 

Meilin blinked her red-amber eyes at him. “Why?”

 

“I-it’s not right!”

 

“What’s not right?” Meilin asked, tossing vegetables and meat in the wok and fall back with a sizzle.

 

“He’s a grown guy! And you had a huge crush on him for two-thirds of your life.”

 

Meilin rolled her eyes. “Oh gosh, don’t tell me I’m having this conversation all over again, with you. You do realize that Syaoran and I are cousins, right?”

 

“Precisely fifth cousins once removed!”

 

“Oh, really? Our genealogy is so complicated in the Li Clan—we just call everyone cousins and aunts and uncles.”

 

“Well, it’s a good thing—I’d hate to think you are any closer related to that creepy Leiyun,” said Kai. “I don’t get it, why is he not living with the other blasted Lis in the huge mansion they have across town?”

 

She shrugged. “He’s a teenage boy. He wanted privacy I guess. Or maybe he has unpleasant memories being locked up in the Li Mansion dungeon. And he’s a little OCD—the Li Mansion is infested with bugs and cobwebs.”

 

“What about Wei-san? Why isn’t he living with you guys?”

 

“Wei’s at the Li Mansion—nobody there knows how to cook. Syaoran’s pretty capable of cooking and cleaning after himself—he never really needed a butler in the first place.”

 

“Either way, I don’t approve of you living with him.”

 

“Kai, don’t be ridiculous. I’ve always lived with Syaoran. We work well together. And I promised Aunt Ielan that I’ll look after Syaoran and make sure he doesn’t overwork himself.”

 

“That’s precisely why I don’t like it!”

 

Meilin smirked. “Let me guess, you’re afraid I’m going to fall for Syaoran again?”

 

“Of course I am. He went from anti-social powerless loser zombie mode to hotshot Great Elder of the Li Clan. You might rehash some fantasies about him.”

 

“I’m not like you! When I say it’s over, it’s over.”

 

“Then why won’t you tell me you love me?”

 

There, that was the crux of this conversation. “Because maybe I don’t!” exclaimed Meilin. Then she clasped her hands over her mouth.

 

Kai stared at her. “Oh. I see how it is. All this while, I guess I was just fooled.”

 

Meilin snapped, “I didn’t mean it that way.”

 

“No, I got your point. I should’ve known I was just some replaceable entity.” Kai stood up, pulling on his jacket.

 

“Where are you going?” Meilin called out. 

 

“Sorry. I lost my appetite all of a sudden.”

 

“What should I do with your portion—should I pack it for you?” asked Meilin.

 

“No thanks, why don’t you save it for Zian?” said Kai snidely.

 

“Maybe I will,” retorted Meilin, stomping up to the living room telephone. “Let me call him up. I’m sure he’ll appreciate my cooking. People in Hong Kong don’t let good food go to waste!” She picked up the receiver.

 

And Kai’s 20/20 vision picked up Wu Zian’s name written on a post-it on the address book from across the room. “Why do you have the Gold Leopard’s phone number?”

 

“Oh my gosh, it’s not me—Syaoran has his number, and it’s just lying around here!” exclaimed Meilin.

 

“You expect me to believe that? Syaoran is suddenly buddy-buddy with his mortal enemy, the Head of the Wu Clan?” roared Kai. “You’ve been seeing Zian behind my back, haven’t you?”

 

The front door slammed open. Syaoran threw his bag on the floor. “Can’t you guys pipe down—I can hear you arguing from the first floor. I don’t want to get evicted from the apartment.”

 

“You own the entire apartment complex,” retorted Kai.

 

“True,” remarked Syaoran. “Maybe I’ll just evict you.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“She refused to tell me she loves me, she goes off and kisses another guy who apparently has an obsession with her and is even a worse criminal than I am, and is living with her first love and enjoying every minute of it,” bemoaned Kai to his most sympathetic listener at school the next day before class started, head slumped over his desk.  

 

“Well, it’s no worse than how Meilin felt when she walked in on her boyfriend kissing his ex-girlfriend last winter,” remarked Tomoyo.

 

Kai frowned since his most sympathetic listener was not being very supportive today. “How do you know about that? Anyhow, it didn’t mean anything. I mean, Kara was just pulling a prank.”

 

Tomoyo tilted her head. “I don’t think anyone can look at what you have with Kara Reed and think there’s not something going on between you two.”

 

“We have history.”

 

“And history always is more frightening than even the threat of a potential rival for love, because history, you can’t destroy, change or ignore,” said Tomoyo softly.

 

Kai was silent for a moment. “And Meilin was hurting this much because of Kara?”

 

“It’s not a pleasant feeling, is it?” said Tomoyo. She suspected that Kai had been a person who had been showered with attention and love all his life and never had any reason to feel jealous over anyone before.  

 

“But I guess, the other option, is to let this fester and eat me up from inside,” remarked Kai, staring into Tomoyo’s clear blue-violet eyes. “I think what’s more frightening than history is memory. For the memory can be warped, idealized, immortalized. Who can compete with the memory of perfect love?”

 

“Do you think perfect love exists?” asked Tomoyo.

 

Kai glanced over at their class president, Eriol, who was erasing the chalkboard. “Nope. But I think your mind can idealize love—that’s why people obsess over love lost for so long, and sometimes it consumes them. Wouldn’t life be much simpler if you forget about your love the moment you end things?”

 

“I’m sure that will make things much simpler,” remarked Meilin, who had overheard the last remark as she took her seat next to Kai. “Little good it did Sakura—remember when she was struck by the Memory.”

 

“Because of that evil, meddling Chang Eron,” muttered Kai. He watched Sakura enter the classroom. A minute later, Syaoran entered. Why did those two bother to walk in separately when they clearly had entered the school gates together moments ago? “Say, do you think those two are dating?”

 

Tomoyo glanced over to the back of the classroom, where Sakura and Syaoran were absorbed with unpacking their bags. “No. But I think it’s a pity they think they have to hide out when they want to talk to each other or spend any time together.”

 

“Yeah, as if we don’t know that they sneak out to the second music room for lunch and meet up before school secretly,” remarked Kai.

 

“Well, they probably still feel bad about the clone trick,” said Tomoyo.

 

Meilin added, “I also get the sense that Syaoran feels uneasy about showing his closeness with Sakura at school. You know, with Leiyun watching.”

 

“Yeah, what’s the deal with him?” asked Kai. “You’d think he’d have more important things to do than to read comic books while posing as the school doctor.” 

 

“I don’t know. He refused to be Chosen One,” remarked Meilin. “Which is why Syaoran will remain Chosen One until they can train a fitting successor—and that might take several years to a decade. Nobody in our generation really has the background be the Chosen One because the position had always been thought to become Leiyun or Syaoran’s.”

 

“Why did he refuse to be the Chosen One? Isn’t it some sort of honor? Or did he have his eyes set on being the Great Elder too?” Kai asked.


Meilin shook her head. “I’m pretty sure if Leiyun wanted to be the Great Elder, he would have become the Great Elder already. If there is anyone