Chapter 72: Almost Left Behind

 

 

 

Part I: Prelude

 

 

******

 

 

“Syaoran,” said Sakura, cheeks flushed, standing in King Penguin Park. “Syaoran.” He smiled quizzically at her, his hair a deep russet lit orange as the sun set. Taking a deep breath, she blurted out, “Syaoran, I like you!”

 

Li Syaoran stared back at her for a moment, then blinked his amber-hued eyes. “Sakura, you really like your brother, right?”

 

She nodded.

 

“And what about me?” he asked solemnly. “Aren’t the feelings the same? Of you liking your brother and your feelings for me?” He let her ponder this. “They’re really similar, right?”

 

Stunned, Sakura shook her head rapidly. No, of course they were not the same. Not even the slightest bit similar. “It’s not the same! My feelings for you are completely different. What about you? I don’t mean anything to you?”

 

His lips curled into a sardonic smile. “It’s true, I think, I may have been drawn to your power of stars before. But that’s just my power of the moon being drawn to your power of the stars. That doesn’t make you my most important person. Now that I am the Great Elder, the Li Clan is the most important to me.”

 

“But I like you,” she whispered. “I’ve liked you for a very long time.”

 

“I’m really sorry. I cannot accept your feelings.”

 

She felt a lump in her throat. “But Syaoran, you were the one who told me that someday I would find my most important person.”

 

“And I’m sure he’s out there, somewhere.”

 

Sakura dropped to her knees. This aching in her heart—when had she felt this before? Yes, when she saw him turn her back to her a year ago by the Hong Kong harbors. She screamed, but no voice came out as the ground beneath her crumbled away and she fell into a deep pitch black abyss, with Syaoran standing above her, staring down at her expressionlessly.

 

 

 

Kinomoto Sakura, age 17, bolted from her bed, to realize she was at home and it was still the middle of the night.

 

“What is it Sakura-chan?” demanded Kero-chan, finding his mistress in cold sweat. “Did you have a premonition?”

 

“I hope it wasn’t a premonition,” replied Sakura, clutching her heart. “I think that was the worst nightmare I’ve had in my life.”

 

“Did you dream about the Dark Ones? Was it Chang Ruichi again? Or about a new dark force?” asked Kero-chan with a frown. “We need to analyze the dream carefully because it might carry some underlying meaning.”

 

“No, it was a dream about Syaoran,” murmured Sakura, clutching a frayed black teddy bear close to her chest. “It was awful.”

 

Kero-chan nodded. “Yes, it would be awful dreaming about the Brat. What did he do? Bully you and steal the Sakura Cards again? Turn into a wolf? Eat your favorite pudding?”

 

A little puppy with pointed ears jumped onto her bed and nuzzled on her lap. Stroking his fur, she replied, “No, he was very handsome and cordial and polite.”

 

“It’s all right, it was just a dream then. We know he’s rude, curt and impolite in real life,” reassured Kero-chan. “He was such a beast to you in the beginning, I’m impressed you put up with him for this long. I’m sure your dream is warning you to stay away from the Brat.”

 

“I’m not sure that’s possible,” she said.  

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Everybody, please fill out your career forms and hand it in by next week,” said Mizuki Kaho, handing out the sheets of paper to her homeroom class, second years at Seijou High School. “List your top three career choices, and then your top three college choices and get it signed by your guardian.”

 

Sakura stared at the questionnaire sheet on her desk. Top three career choices? She didn’t even have one. As for college, that was one of the last worries on her mind at the moment. After all, she may be a high school student by default, but she was also the Mistress of the Sakura Cards, successor to the enigmatic sorcerer Clow Reed. Now that her star powers were back, she could actually focus on overcoming the remaining dark forces. Several weeks ago, she wasn’t even sure she would have the leisure to worry about the future. Or sit here in the classroom beside that person who she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to see again, one year ago. Even now, she couldn’t help sneaking a surreptitious peak at the boy sitting next to her by their window seats at the back of the classroom. It was her favorite pastime over hers as of late, and she never looked more forward to school each day.

 

Besides her, Syaoran heaved a long sigh as he stared as his sheet of paper. It was of some solace for her to think that even Syaoran was having a tough time with it. Then again, he was the head of the largest magical clan in Hong Kong, which owned a large corporation with subsidiaries in construction, electronics, hotels, hospitals, and more fields she probably hadn’t even heard of. Some weeks ago, Syaoran had also regained his moon powers and had been named the Great Elder of the Li Clan. But Syaoran said graduating high school with honors was a prerequisite before he could assume full duties as the Great Elder. Which was why he was able to return to Japan in the first place.

 

It seemed unreal that he was here, after all that happened over the past year. He was no longer the scowling 10-year-old boy that she had first met seven years ago after he transferred to her class in Tomoeda Elementary School, just one campus over. The two schools even shared the same wire fence as a border. Back then, she would not have thought they would be sitting over on the other side of the fence on the high school campus, wearing the same uniform and in the same classroom with him.

 

His profile was silhouetted by the sunlight streaming into the classroom. It was fascinating to watch Syaoran from this angle, as her desk mate—he had always sat behind her in elementary and junior high, so she never got to watch him like this at school. The light color of the Seijou High uniform blazer offset his chestnut brown hair which curled slightly at the ends. While most high school boys slouched or leaned sideways, legs crossed, Syaoran always had good posture when studying, sitting upright, facing the front of the classroom. When in deep thought, he had that slight frown, dark brows furrowed down in concentration. And when he found something amusing, like after solving an especially difficult mathematics equation or when reading an interesting line in his history textbook, the corner of his right lip would curl up ever so slightly before falling again, as if he thought it a sin to smile in class. If she thought about it, she was pretty sure she spent at least a year knowing Syaoran in elementary school without ever seeing him crack a smile. She suddenly recalled her dream last night, how he had stared down at her with distant eyes, and shuddered.     

 

As if sensing she was staring at him, he glanced up at her quizzically. Their eyes met, and he smiled, out of the blue, the corner of his eyes crinkling as if something had amused him. And the cold stranger of her dreams was vanquished in instant. She felt her heart thump, and perspiration down the back. For an uncomfortable moment, she felt her breath caught in the back of her throat, afraid to exhale. She quickly glanced down at her survey sheet again and mumbled out loud, “Gosh, this is so difficult.”  

 

“It really is hard,” remarked her best friend, Daidouji Tomoyo, turning around from the seat in front of them.

 

“You too?” asked Sakura in surprise, thinking her friend had it easy with her multitude of talents.

 

“Yes,” said Tomoyo, tugging on the end of one long thick plait. “I do enjoy directing films, but I can’t decide if I like it more than designing clothes. And I do love music as well. I feel like I would like to go to an arts school, but I know Mother probably expects me to study finance, like she did.”

 

“So, your problem, Tomoyo-san, is that you are too multitalented,” her desk mate, Hiiragizawa Eriol, pointed out wryly. “Or is it that you refuse to go anywhere that Sakura doesn’t, so that limits your future university prospects quite a lot?”

 

Tomoyo said with a shrug, “I can always pursue my hobbies anytime, anywhere, so I’d rather surround myself with the people I care about.”  

 

Eriol chuckled to himself. “You make a good point.”

 

At this, Tomoyo glanced at Eriol, wondering if he was taking the survey seriously, especially since Mizuki-sensei would be reading it. Clow Reed seemed to have been socially awkward and had immersed himself in his magic, distancing himself from all people. But Eriol was different. He was surrounded by people who loved him and wouldn’t leave him.

 

“When I was 10, this would have been the easiest form to fill out,” said Li Meilin said with a frown, pencil balanced between her nose and upper lip. She glanced over at Mizuki Kai and was impressed to find him intently filling out the sheet. Upon a closer look, she read his bold, impeccable handwriting listing: No. 1 World class (handsome) thief, No. 2 Professional hacker, No. 3 Interpol Top 10 Most Wanted Criminal.

 

“Kai!” Meilin exclaimed, her pencil dropping. “Seriously? You can’t hand in the survey like that!”

 

“Why not?” said Kai with a shrug. “It’s a career survey, and as I’ve obviously accomplished all three on my list, I think it’s more accurate than anything else anyone here is going to hand in.” He waved his hand in the air dramatically. “Fame, wealth and power, I’ve got a taste of it all.”

 

Meilin was stumped. She couldn’t deny that Kaitou Magician was a world class thief once in the Interpol Top 10 Most Wanted list, with impeccable hacking abilities envied by top intelligence agencies. It was only lately, she had also seen glimpses of the boy genius that she had heard about and had a hard time imagining. Kai’s mind worked differently from other people—things that people had to work hard for came naturally to him. She had never seen Kai study for a single subject, yet he was able to ace all his tests if he actually decided to fill out the questions instead of falling asleep. It was partly the reason to his success as a thief, she learned. He was able to strategize and plan ahead in a way most people could not. He also got bored easily. She had thought that he slept at school because he was lazy but it was because he was uninterested with it—and he would stay up all night developing a new program or tracking stock trends or simply clearing a new video game.

 

“And let me guess what you have on your list,” drawled Kai, who was in a sarcastic mood. “No. 1 Li Clan Protector, No. 2 The Great Elder’s personal assistant, No. 3 Li Syaoran’s bride.”

 

Meilin scowled. “You know, I hate to admit it but if you asked me seven years ago, that probably would be a very accurate description, if you replace Syaoran’s bride as No. 1.”

 

Kai swiped her eraser over his sheet of paper, blowing away the debris. “And if you asked me what I wanted to be seven years ago what I wanted to be, this survey would have looked quite different as well.”

 

Fascinated, she watched Kai rewrite the form, reading over his shoulder. No. 1 Commissioner General of the National Police Agency, No. 2 Software company entrepreneur, No. 3 Olympics archery gold medalist.

 

“You—police?” Meilin snorted.

 

“Or maybe an investigator or a detective,” said Kai with a whimsical smile. “When I was 12, I still believed in justice. I believed that evil people could be caught and punished by law, and that I had the power to make a difference. And Miho-chan thought policemen uniforms were cool.”

 

“Well, oddly enough, maybe the means is wrong, but perhaps, you haven’t changed so much over the years. Whether as a thief against the law or on the side of the law, you in you own way were pursuing your idea of justice,” said Meilin.

 

“No, Meilin, you are wrong,” said Kai. Once more he erased the sheet of paper, leaving it streaked with graphite stains. “I was selfishly pursuing my own greed. I realize that now. But the difference between me now and me a year ago is that I can see that anything can be in my future. The me then believed I had no future. And in that sense, I feel the most liberated I have ever felt.”

 

“Like anything can be possible?” asked Meilin.

 

“Yeah, something like that,” said Kai. “Odd, isn’t it?”

 

“It’s called the Sakura effect,” said Meilin with a slight smile, looking over fondly at her first Japanese friend who looked quite troubled, staring at her blank sheet of paper, with Syaoran, beside her, watching her bemusedly. “It is strange, that with a certain set of skills, a person can easily put it to do good, or misuse it.” She glanced over at Chang Eron, perhaps the single person who had overturned her expectations most in the past year.

 

“What do you mean you are considering going to college in Hokkaido?” shrieked Mihara Chiharu at her boyfriend. “We were supposed to Seijou University together, weren’t we?”

 

Yamazaki Takashi, replied, “I have Seijou University here as my first choice. But I’ve lived in the same town all my life. It’s fun to think of living somewhere new for a change, isn’t it?”

 

“No!” exclaimed Chiharu. “My parents will never let me go to college so far away.”

 

Takashi called out, “Li-kun, you’ll probably end up going to university back in Hong Kong, right? Schools there are really competitive to get into, aren’t they?”

 

Chiharu glanced over at Sakura in dismay and kicked Takashi under the desk. “No need to get ahead of ourselves here.”

 

“That’s the whole point of this exercise,” pointed out Takashi, index finger pointed up. “Thinking ahead into the vast, endless territory that has not yet been treaded.”

 

Sakura glanced over at Syaoran. Though she had known Syaoran for nearly seven years, and would say she was comfortable enough to have frank conversations with him about almost anything by this point, after all they’ve been through, there was one topic that they never breached. The future. Their futures. Because she had always been scared that he would tell her one day that he had to return to Hong Kong, permanently. When she was in elementary school, she had been content to know that Syaoran was staying for one more semester, and another. But that was not enough. Right now, she knew he was back. But she knew not for how long. He had only told her that for the moment, he could go to high school in Japan. That could mean the end of this school year, or two years maximum, when they graduated. That is why she refused to think of the future, a future without him.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Music was always one of Sakura’s favorite classes, and she and her classmates filed toward the music room excitedly, for the last period of the day.

 

Yanagisawa Naoko said, “I heard Nomura-sensei is absent today.”

 

“Wait, then who is our substitute teacher?” asked Sasaki Rika.

 

They entered the music room and were greeted by a strong gust of wind as all the windows were open, and found a man with silvery hair swaying in the breeze, leaned against the grand piano.

 

“Li-sensei?” exclaimed Tomoyo, brushing her long hair from her face.

 

“Don’t tell me he’s our teacher?” exclaimed Sakura aghast.

 

Li Leiyun, Syaoran’s first cousin and currently school doctor, turned to the student and replied, “Well, as some of you may have heard, Nomura-sensei had a family emergency, so he will be out of town for a few weeks.”

 

“Are you our substitute teacher from now on?” asked Naoko, clasping her hands together gleefully.

 

“Yes, I will be filling in for him. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much prior notice. What are you guys learned these days?” said Leiyun, who in his dove gray V-neck sweater and casual beige slacks, looked little like a teacher and more like a student himself.

 

Rika handed Leiyun sheet music. “We were learning a new song, ‘Tsubasa wo Kudasai.’ I’m accompanying on piano.”

 

“Good, then you guys know what you are doing,” said Leiyun, with a wave of his hand. “Do what you usually do then.”

 

Kai whispered to Sakura, who was sitting next to him, “Does he even know the song? I mean, most Japanese kids grow up hearing this song in school, but he’s not from around here.”

 

Meilin scowled. “And you, do you even know the song? I’ve never even heard you open your mouth during music class.”

 

“Good point,” said Kai, stretching out his arms and yawning. “Well, wake me up when the class is over.”

 

“I thought he’s our school doctor,” mumbled Akagi Aki. “What’s he doing teaching music class? Does Li-sensei know anything about music?”

 

“The key question is, does he know anything about medicine?” muttered Sakura under her breath.

 

Rika sat on the piano bench and spread out the sheet music. Gulping, she began playing the introduction to the song. And the girls began singing, many of them missing the opening lines since Leiyun did not bother cuing them in. Others mumbled the lyrics. Only Tomoyo sang the lines true and clear, her voice taking precedence over everyone else’s voices.

 

The boys did even worse and not a single person came in at the right time as the second verse started.

 

For a moment, Leiyun stared at the class, blankly. He waved his hand in the air and called out, “Stop, just stop, this is a mess. Mizuki Kai—are you lip-syncing? And Yamazaki Takashi, you have the lyrics right in front of you—why are you making up the words to the song? Akagi Aki, are you trying to harmonize, or are you just tone deaf?”

 

Aki grumbled, “How does Li-sensei know all of our names? He spends all his time in the infirmary surrounded by a flock of girls.” 

 

“No wonder your music teacher ran on you guys,” Leiyun sighed. “You guys were truly awful, save Tomoyo.”

 

“We weren’t that bad,” grumbled Meilin. “At least the girls weren’t.” She glared at Kai, who indeed had been lip-syncing, which was actually an improvement from staring off into space, she supposed.

 

“Well, let’s start from the top again then,” said Leiyun. “Rika, piano.”

 

Rika sighed, thinking it was going to be a long hour, and began again.

 

Wait,” Leiyun said, raising a hand. “Play that last note again.”

 

Rika pressed the key again.  

 

Tomoyo frowned. “It’s off tune.”

 

“Is it?” asked Sakura hopefully. “Maybe we can cancel music class.”

 

We have to call in the technician then,” Rika said. “It might take several hours.”

 

It’s all right, someone bring me a mute and a tuning lever—it should be in the music storage room,” said Leiyun.

 

Rika gladly ran off to fetch the tools.

 

“And Tomoyo-chan can sing the song for us acapella so that I can figure out what it’s actually supposed to sound like,” said Leiyun. He crossed his arms. “Well, go ahead.”

 

Tomoyo looked up at Leiyun, wondering if he was serious. And she realized he was. She couldn’t refuse, since technically, he was their teacher for the day.

 

“If my wish were to come true right now, I’d wish for wings. Please put white wings on my back like a bird’s,” she sang in her soft but sweet voice. She prayed for Rika to return soon, but it wasn’t after she sang the last lines of the song. “I want to spread my wings and fly in this sky.

I want to make my wings flutter in a free sky without sorrow.”

 

And Leiyun clapped heartily by himself as she sat down again in her seat. “Bravo. Beautifully done. I didn’t realize I’ve heard this song before!” He stroked his chin, trying to recall where he had heard it. “I know, it’s a theme song in the Evangelion movie!”

 

Tomoyo groaned. “No, Li-sensei, it’s not just a theme song from Evangelion—it’s a popular Japanese folk song dating back to 1970.”

 

“You know, I sometimes get the sense that Li-sensei is a complete otaku,” whispered Naoko to Sakura. “I think he reads manga all day long in the infirmary. And he collects Gundam figures in the medicine closet.”

 

Leiyun continued, “Maybe we can just have Tomoyo-chan sing this song solo. It’ll sound much more agreeable that way and spare me the headache of listening to the rest of you monotone kids.”

 

Aki groaned, “I hope Nomura-sensei returns soon—Li-sensei does not take teaching seriously at all.”  

 

Returning to the classroom, Rika held up the tuning equipment. “Li-sensei, are you sure you don’t want me to call the technician? We can cancel music class and have a self-study period.”

 

“Yes, you guys should self-study the melody,” said Leiyun. “Or learn the lyrics or something.”

 

But Tomoyo and the other students instead watched Leiyun lift the lid of the piano, clinking down the keys. He tested the middle octaves and fiddled with the strings of the grand piano until he was satisfied. 

 

“I hope he’s not messing up the piano too badly,” said Aki. “Isn’t the school choir supposed to use it after school?”

 

“He’s tuning it by ear,” murmured Rika in awe, as Leiyun tested the other notes, moving down octave by octave.

 

“Well, he appears to be pitch perfect,” remarked Eriol.

 

“See, I guess he knows something about music then,” said Naoko to Aki, who snorted.

 

“Of course he does—he’s the one who taught Syaoran how to play the violin in the first place,” declared Meilin.

 

Sakura glanced over at Syaoran, who had been sitting rigidly throughout the whole class. It probably was unnerving for him to be taught by Leiyun. No, it wasn’t that. Syaoran was watching Leiyun tune the piano intently, in fascination. When was the last time she had seen Syaoran so enraptured by someone? Probably Yukito-san.

 

“Here, Rika-chan, come test out the piano,” called out Leiyun.

 

Rika played a scale, then a few more. “It sounds good,” she said timidly.

 

“Well, let’s start from the top,” said Leiyun. But the school bell rang just rung, to all of their relief. “Your homework,” he called out as everyone groaned. “Memorize the notes and lyrics! Or better yet, learn how to read music!”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Do you think Nomura-sensei is going to be away for long?” groaned Sakura, dressed in a fluffy pink pajama with white polka dots, hair tied back in short pigtails.

 

Meilin and Miho were also gathered in Tomoyo’s bedroom for a sleepover. The four girls had platters of lovely rose, lavender and citron macarons, little strawberry tarts, dainty finger sandwiches and tea in pretty hand-painted porcelain pots and cups. Tomoyo even provided them matching pastel-toned pajamas, and they had just finished painting their nails in spring hues. They flipped through stacks of glossy fashion magazines, waiting for their nails to dry, while Miho read the Financial Times.

 

“I heard his mother is really ill, so he might be out for some time,” Meilin said, letting Tomoyo plait the ends of her hair and tuck them up into Mickey Mouse buns.

 

Miho chuckled. “You guys had music class with Li-sensei too? He’s really strange, but I actually don’t mind him as our music teacher. He’s more fun that Nomura-sensei, albeit a bit unconventional.”

 

Sakura snorted. “Fun?”

 

“Yeah, he let’s Shouji-kun play the electric guitar in accompaniment, and we play a rock version of the song we’re learning,” replied Miho, setting down her newspaper. “But I’m rather curious about what Li Leiyun is up to now. He’s a hard nut to crack.”

 

“He’s just looking out for Syaoran, now that he’s the Great Elder,” said Meilin. “I mean, Leiyun’s always been eccentric.”

 

“Or psychopathic,” muttered Sakura under her breath.

 

“Miho-chan, do you still want to become a journalist, like your mother, when you grow up?” asked Meilin, impressed at Miho reading a British economic paper.

 

“Yup—I’ve always wanted to write,” said Miho.

 

Meilin groaned. “You’re only a freshman and you already know what you want to do.”

 

“Oh, I heard from Kaho that you are working on your career surveys,” said Miho. “I’d never seen Eriol look so stumped by an assignment before. I mean, you can’t really tell the reincarnation of Clow Reed that he’s unambitious, but Kaho might just have done that the other day.”

 

This drew a chuckle from Tomoyo. She would have loved to see Eriol’s expression.

 

Lying on her belly, resting her chin on both hands, Miho said, “Well, Sakura-senpai, onto the most important issue. So, tell us, what’s going on between you and Syaoran-senpai?”

 

Sakura nearly choked on her cut of hot chocolate. “N-nothing,” she stammered, floundered by the younger girl’s straightforward question.

 

With a long sigh, Miho, flipping over onto her back said, “Boring. After all that fiasco, with Syaoran-senpai returning from Hong Kong against all odds, there’s nothing going on between you two? Either you are the best liars in the world, or you are just hopeless!”

 

Meilin shook her head. “Those two are a bit different. I think having too much magical powers addled there ability to function in normal day-to-day activities.”

 

“Different?” snorted Miho. “More like medieval.” She bolted up and peered straight into Sakura’s face. “Sakura-senpai! Do you even like Syaoran-senpai? As a guy?”

 

Sakura swallowed hard, backing away from the vicious younger girl. “He’s a very important friend. He always has been. And now, he’s a very important member of the Alliance of Stars too.” She was rambling to a question she would have been able to answer so easily even until the end of junior high. Yes, of course she did.

 

Tomoyo sighed. “Poor Syaoran-kun.”

 

Miho collapsed on her bottom again and declared, “Hopeless!”

 

“I’ve already reached that conclusion years ago—let them go at their pace,” remarked Meilin. She scrolled through the rows and rows of footages from Sakura’s Card Captor escapades that Tomoyo had accumulated over the years and saved on her master computer used for her film editing. The only student who had a fancier computer than Tomoyo that she knew of was Kai. She popped a disc into the DVD player. A nostalgic figure popped up on the screen, a young brunette boy in a green and gold Chinese battle costume, with a magnificent scowl. He was standing in front of a large recreational van, Tomoyo’s vehicle of choice to store Sakura’s multitude of costumes.

 

“Oh, I forgot how young we were,” sighed Meilin. “When was that?”

 

Tomoyo glanced over to see the clip that was playing. “That must have been in fifth grade, not long after Syaoran transferred to our elementary school. Before you came to Tomoeda, Meilin-chan.”

 

An off-screen female voice said, “Li-kun, I’m sorry, I hope you don’t mind waiting until Sakura-chan finishes changing into a new outfit I made for her. You must think it a bother having to wait and a waste of time.”

 

Syaoran turned to look straight at the camera—to Tomoyo—the owner of the voice. “I don’t think it a bother,” he responded, in the curt manner he used to speak to everyone when he first transferred to Tomoeda. “A warrior wears his armor before going to battle, an archer strings his bow. I too wear the Li Clan robes as the Chosen One. So, it is natural to take the necessary steps to prepare to fight the Clow Cards, and changing into the right clothes is not a waste of time.”

 

Tomoyo said to him, “Thank you for understanding. And I also hope you don’t mind me videotaping Sakura-chan. Please let me know if I am ever a hindrance when you guys are tracking down the Clow Cards.”

 

“I would have told you already if you were being a hindrance,” said Syaoran to the camera. “But you’ve been pretty helpful in multiple occasions. Just don’t get yourself in trouble. It will make that girl sad.”

 

With a chuckle, the young Tomoyo from off-screen said, “You’re actually a pretty nice guy, aren’t you Li-kun?”

 

And then, from inside the van, they heard a long wail. “HOOEEEE! I can’t go out wearing this Tomoyo-chan.” The camera was still focused on Syaoran, and the corner of his lips almost curled upwards a bit before he returned to a stone face, as if he knew not how to smile.  

 

Miho chuckled. “So I guess this was the moment that Syaoran-senpai was officially approved by you, and you forgave him for horribly bullying Sakura-senpai?”

 

“Of course!” exclaimed Tomoyo, eyes sparkling. “I met a kindred spirit who understood the significance of the battle costumes I made for Sakura-chan.”

 

“I think he just equally enjoyed seeing Sakura in all those outrageous get-ups,” muttered Meilin under her breath. 

 

The clip then cut away to another never-seen before segment, some time later on in the year, during the time Sakura had to convert Clow Cards into Sakura Cards—it was easy to tell because she had her pink star wand now.

 

After several more segments, Miho snorted. “Sakura-senpai, did you just conveniently fall into the direction of Syaoran-senpai’s arms every time you fainted after exhausting your powers from converting a new Sakura Card?” 

 

Sakura said aghast, “No, I mean, I didn’t realize I did that!” She watched her 10-year-old self collapse into Syaoran’s arms another time, then another. Her memory of those times after she converted Clow Cards, especially during the early stages, were very hazy because she would immediately fall asleep afterward from overexertion. And somehow, Tomoyo and Kero-chan would have dropped her off home discreetly later on in the night.

 

She watched the young Syaoran take her in his arms.

 

“Is she all right?” asked Tomoyo’s worried voice from off-screen.

 

“She’s just sleeping,” replied 10-year-old Syaoran. He gently carried her to Tomoyo’s van and set her into the backseat. Then, he strapped the seatbelt around her. “Keep her hydrated, and make sure to feed her a snack when she wakes up later.”

 

“She seems a bit feverish,” remarked Kero-chan, placing a paw on Sakura’s cheek.

 

With a frown, Syaoran placed the back of his hand over her forehead. “Her body is burning more energy to replenish all the magic she used.” He took out a ward and murmured some chants.

 

“What did you do?” asked Kero-chan suspiciously.

 

“Just cooled her down a bit,” said Syaoran. “Well, I’m really heading off now. Call me if the fever goes up again.”

 

The segment blacked out, and Sakura turned to Tomoyo. “I didn’t realize that I put you guys through so much trouble back in those days. I’m sorry!”

 

Tomoyo replied, “I didn’t do anything. It was Syaoran who eventually ended up lugging you home all the time.”  

 

“This is fun,” said Miho, leaning toward the screen. “I didn’t see any of this in your Card Captor Sakura film that won the Best Young Director Award in New York. Why didn’t you include these segments, Tomoyo-senpai?”

 

Tomoyo suddenly stood up, nearly upsetting her balls of yarn, and turned off the TV as if recalling the rest of what was on the DVD. “That’s just my random compilation of behind-the-scenes extras that I found when clearing my old hard drive,” she said. “Back then, I was only interested in filming Sakura-chan, but I had a lot of random shots of Syaoran as well, while we were waiting around for Sakura. I might have enough material to do a Syaoran POV edit someday.”

 

Sakura remarked, “You two always were engaged in some deep conversation back then, considering just how talkative Syaoran used to be, when I wasn’t around, and hushed up when I came over. Especially that semester when Eriol transferred.” Syaoran, who never opened up to anyone, seemed to be easily able to confide in Tomoyo. Well, anybody would find it easy to talk with Tomoyo, after all.

 

Tomoyo groaned at this—of course they hushed up when Sakura came along, because their main topic of conversation had been her. More precisely, Syaoran’s feelings for Sakura. That Tomoyo had out of courtesy for him edited out.

 

Meilin, catching on to the drift, switched the subject adroitly. “Say Tomoyo-chan, are you going to enroll in a film school when you graduate from high school?”

 

“Maybe,” replied Tomoyo with a shrug. “But I like fashion too. I’ve been thinking I would like to launch my own design label someday. Though I’ll have to inherit Daidouji Toy Company, so I’m not sure how that will work out.”

 

“I heard you were offered a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London?” asked Miho. “The recruiters were impressed from your solo in the choral competition last year.”

 

“Oh, I heard from Kai who heard it from the art teacher it was the London College of Fashion,” remarked Meilin.

 

With a smile, Tomoyo merely said, “I don’t have plans to study abroad at the moment.”

 

Sakura turned silent. Tomoyo really was so multi-talented and creative she wouldn’t be surprised if her best friend would be able to pursue fashion, film and music somehow in unison.

 

And Meilin turned glum, burying her head into a pillow. “I’m a failure in life!”

 

“No you’re not. I know how much you do for Syaoran with all his Great Elder business,” said a male voice from the movie screening room.

 

“Kai!” exclaimed Meilin. Then she took a pillow and flung it at her boyfriend. “What are you doing here? This is an all-girl’s sleepover party. It’s not your place to crash it.” She retrieved the pillow she had thrown at him and began whacking him over and over again.

 

Miho rolled her eyes, popping a rose macaron with raspberry filling into her mouth. “Idiot brother.”  

 

“Oh wait, Meilin-chan! I invited Kai-kun over!” exclaimed Tomoyo. “He was adding special effects to my latest film, and then my mother had to talk to him about some surveillance programming since Daidouji Toy Company got hacked last month.”


“I heard about that,” said Miho. “Did you find the culprit?”

 

“Police are still tracing the IP address,” replied Tomoyo.

 

“Do you want a sandwich?” asked Sakura, holding up a platter for Kai.

 

Kai grabbed a ham and cheese finger sandwich, and said with a wave of his other hand, “Well, I’m leaving now, as cute as you girls look in your matching pajamas. Enjoy the rest of the sleepover. Maybe I can convince Syao-chan to hold our own sleepover. Though we won’t have matching pajamas. And I like to sleep in the buff.”

 

Miho through her pillow at her brother. “Go!”

 

Deftly, Kai took out his smartphone and snapped a picture of Sakura, in her soft pink polka-dotted pajamas and cute pigtails, forwarding it to Syaoran’s number. “You can thank me later,” he murmured to the phone.

 

Tomoyo exclaimed, “Oh, if you’re going back home, Kai-kun, do take Syaoran’s favorite cherry pie back for him. It’s freshly baked and in the kitchen. Sakura-chan, be a dear and fetch it for Kai-kun?”

 

“Sure!” Sakura hopped off to the kitchen, wondering if Syaoran wasn’t more partial to strawberry shortcakes.

 

When Sakura was out of earshot, Kai remarked, “I can just wrap her up and bring Syaoran’s most favorite cherry pie to him instead.”

 

With a long sigh, Miho said, “So, do you think Syaoran-senpai and Sakura-senpai are going out?”

 

Meilin snorted. “I can guarantee you that they are not.”

 

“Why?” asked Miho. “Are you sure? I mean, they went behind our backs and turned out to be all plotting together all this time we thought they were sworn enemies.” 

 

“Miho, darling, there’s a huge jump between not being enemies and dating,” said Kai. “I would bet on the two needing a lot more time in order to adjust into being on the same team again.”

 

“That’s ridiculous—the two clearly are attracted to each other—they only have eyes for each other at school, pointed out Shouji-kun, the densest person I know, and we’re not even in the same class as them!” exclaimed Miho. “We’ve got to do something for them to realize their feelings for each other.”

 

“I don’t think it’s a matter of realizing feelings,” murmured Meilin. “It’s way beyond that point.”

 

“Should I handcuff them together again?” suggested Kai.

 

“No, something more dramatic,” said Miho. “Like locking them up together in a bedroom for 24 hours.”

 

Meilin shook her head. “Syaoran’s too much of a gentleman. He wouldn’t touch the tip of her lashes even if they were locked up together.”

 

Kai snorted. “You know, Syaoran is a guy too, a healthy, teenage guy, not some monk.”

 

“Don’t put Syaoran on the same level as you, pervert,” said Meilin.

 

At this, Tomoyo chuckled. “Sakura-chan is so naïve. I wonder if she’s not the one who would need an impetus.”

 

The other three glanced at each other and shuddered, for a plotting Tomoyo never boded well, though they agreed with her point.

 

Sakura came running back into Tomoyo’s bedroom, cheeks flushed. “Tomoyo-chan, there’s no cherry pie in the kitchen!”

 

“Oh, silly me,” said Tomoyo. She reached over to the coffee table and held up a white box tied up with a green and white striped ribbon to Kai. “I forgot, it’s right over here. Please give this to Syaoran-kun.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Students were abuzz that morning, and Syaoran sat rigidly at his desk, not even reading, as if awaiting doomsday.

 

“Did you enjoy Tomoyo-chan’s cherry pie last night?” asked Sakura, hair tied into two pigtails with green and white striped ribbons, setting down her book bag on her desk at school.

 

“What cherry pie?” asked Syaoran, blinking.

 

“The cherry pie Tomoyo asked Kai to bring to you,” replied Sakura. “In a white box.”

 

And suddenly Syaoran turned red, as if recalling what was in the white box. “Yes,” he replied curtly, looking away.

 

Realizing he was not in a talkative mood, Sakura looked around and asked, “So, what’s the big news?”

 

“Don’t you remember? It’s that time of the year again!” exclaimed Naoko, swirling around and hugging her arms to her. “The Seijou High School Cultural Festival!”

 

Syaoran groaned audibly from his seat.

 

“I wonder what we’re going to do this year!” said Meilin. “I’m so excited. It will be my first high school cultural festival. What did you guys do last year again?”

 

“We did a tea café with traditional costumes from England, China, India and Japan,” replied Chiharu. “It was a big hit.”

 

“Oh, I hope we can do a play this year though,” said Naoko.

 

“I’m pretty sure we will do a play,” said Tomoyo. “Class 2-2 always does a fairytale play. It’s tradition.”

 

“But I heard Class 3-2 wants to do a play as well, and they won’t be able to do two plays because of the time limit,” pointed out Aki.

 

“Didn’t their class do one last year?” asked Chiharu.

 

“It got canceled last minute because half the class got the flu,” said Aki.  

 

“I remember. They were awfully disappointed,” said Naoko. “But this is our year, after all.”

 

Mizuki Kaho entered the classroom. “Well, it’s seems like all of you have already figured out my announcement. Yes, the annual Cultural Festival is coming up. We need to brainstorm ideas of what you want to do by this week, so I’m open to hearing suggestions.”

 

Naoko raised her hand in the air. “A play! A fairytale play! It’s tradition!”

 

“No, not a play again,” moaned Syaoran.


Kaho glanced around the classroom. “Any other suggestions? No? Okay, then a play it is.” She took a chalk in her hand. “Now, what are some ideas for what play to put on? Remember, we have limited time and budget to produce one, so take that into consideration.”


“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” suggested Meilin. “The more characters, the better.”

 

Yamazaki Takashi called out, “Rumpelstiltskin,” while Chiharu overrode him with, “Pinocchio!”

 

Sakura pondered a minute. “Beauty and the Beast?”

 

Aki called out, “Sleeping Beauty!”

 

Syaoran glared at him from half way across the classroom. “I object!”

 

“Yeah, half of us in this class already put on a Sleeping Beauty play in elementary school,” said Naoko. “I say we should do the most classic of all fairytales—Cinderella!”

 

“Surely someone has done Cinderella already,” said Eron.

 

“No, the last time Cinderella was done is seven years ago—when Kinomoto Touya-senpai put on a legendary performance,” said Naoko. “I think that’s long ago enough that we can introduce our own fresh rendition of the story.”

 

“Well, let’s have a raise of hands to see who is okay with going with Cinderella,” said Mizuki-sensei. And most of the students raised their hands.

 

“Wait!” called out Syaoran frantically. “Are you going to cast the play using the ladder climbing game again?”

 

Kaho chuckled, thinking this was the most Syaoran vocal had ever been over a class project. “No, you guys are in high school. I’ll leave the casting, script and producing all up to the students. The class president is in charge. I’ll leave you guys to come up with a detailed proposal to submit to the student council.”

 

Eriol, who was the class president, said, “Well, first of all, the Class 3-2 representative approached me and asked if it’s okay to collaborate on a play for the cultural festival.”

 

“No, it would be awful to collaborate with the seniors!” said Naoko. “They’d want to take all the good roles and make us do all the grunt work. Why don’t they just put on their own play?”

 

“There is only time for one play during the cultural festival. And I got reassurance from the Class 3-2 rep that most of the students are busy with studying for college entrance exams anyway, so are up for doing more of the behind the scenes work. But they do have regret for not being able to put on a play last year.” Eriol looked around. “But if anyone has any serious objections, we can reconsider.”

 

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Tomoyo. “The more people we have, the grander the production will be!”

 

Rika nodded, “Many Class 3-2 senpai are in orchestra with me—they’re really nice.”

 

“Okay, then let’s take a quick vote,” said Eriol. “Raise your hand if you are in favor of a collaboration production with Class 3-2.” Most of the students raised their hands.

 

Sakura turned to Syaoran. “Wait, which class were Kara Reed and the Black Dragon in again?” Syaoran, who had been all for joining with Class 3-2, which meant less of a chance he would be cast as a female character, merely shrugged.

 

“Well, I guess since there is an overwhelming majority, I’ll let Class 3-2 know we have agreed on Cinderella,” said Mizuki-sensei.  

 

“Shouldn’t we ask them if they’re okay with doing Cinderella?” asked Chiharu.

 

“Actually, Cinderella was their first choice as well,” said Eriol. 

 

“I guess we need to figure out what kind of angle we’ll approach the story,” remarked Naoko, who had warmed up quickly to the idea of getting a chance to work with hot, single seniors.

 

“Can’t we just follow the same script from seven years ago?” asked Erika.

 

“That one was a little strange,” remarked Sakura.

 

Chiharu said, “If we need someone to come up with the script, Hiiragizawa-kun, you’re a good writer, and very imaginative. Why don’t you draft a script?”

 

“I will help!” exclaimed Takashi.

 

“That’s all right, Yamazaki-kun, we don’t need Cinderella’s adventures in outer space,” said Naoko. “Hiiragizawa-kun can come up with the script. Of course Tomoyo-chan would be our director—I doubt Class 3-2 would have a problem with that. And we can divide off the rest of the duties from there.”

 

“It seems like we’re passing all the work to the two of them again,” said Rika.

 

“They did a good job last year with the tea café, it’s fine,” said Naoko. “Besides, I bet Eriol-kun already has a script for Cinderella written out.”

 

“Actually, I do,” said Eriol. “Tomoyo-san?”

 

Tomoyo stood up and handed out copies of the script to the class. “Please take a look and if you have any suggestions, let us know.”

 

Naoko flipped through the pages. “This is good.” And she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “I know we voted on this, but isn’t it fishy? It’s like Eriol-kun knew all along that we would decided on Cinderella and even agree with collaborating with Class 3-2. Look at the number of characters and scenes here—it would be impossible for just one class to produce. And how did Tomoyo-chan already even have the script photocopied?”

 

Chiharu whispered, “I think the two have been plotting to put on Cinderella since last year.”

 

And Rika nodded. “I believe they’ve already written the music score as well. I sort of overheard the two of them working on some in the music room after school the other day and mentioning they need a live orchestra, not a pre-recording.”

 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t Hiiragizawa-kun who pressured—I mean encouraged—Class 3-2 into joining in the production, because he needed more hands to carry out his vision,” pointed out Takashi.

 

Chiharu frowned. “Why did Mizuki-sensei ask us what we wanted to do, and why did Eriol-kun ask us to take a vote then, if everything was already planned out?”

 

“It gives us the illusion of having a choice, when everything was actually predetermined,” replied Takashi. “It was inevitable that we put on a Cinderella play.”

 

Naoko sighed. “I guess it’s best not to meddle in the affairs of Hiiragizawa Eriol and Daidouji Tomoyo. Between the two of them, they’d be able to take over the school if they wanted to. They may have already done so, and we just don’t know it yet. Now that’s decided, we have even more interesting things to discuss.” Naoko held up a photo spread from a magazine. “Sakura-chan, this is you, isn’t it?”

 

“What’s that?” Sakura looked up and paled.

 

Naoko waved around the May edition of Gothic Lolita Bible. “I almost didn’t recognize you—it’s so different from all the other concepts you’ve done until now.”

 

The girls of the classroom gathered around Naoko and marveled at the glossy spread of Sakura in an intricate maroon pinafore lined with black lace surrounded by gray ruins in a post-apocalyptic set. “Oh, look, the designer of the outfit is listed as Daidouji Tomoyo. No wonder—they’re magnificent,” Rika remarked. “What a beautiful dress, though I’d never have the courage to wear something so bold and elaborate.”

 

They flipped the page and squealed at the shot of Sakura with her arms wrapped around a male model, looking over his shoulder straight into the camera.

 

“How daring!” exclaimed Chiharu with a blush. “Sakura-chan, I didn’t know you had this in you.”

 

“It’s quite scandalous,” remarked Meilin, looking over Chiharu’s shoulder. “Look Kai, the male model is wearing your dream outfit.”

 

“The model’s shoulders are so broad,” Naoko sighed. “I wonder if he’s someone famous? He looks sort of familiar, but his name isn’t listed.”

 

Meilin peered closer at the boy, in black distressed leather with silver buckles. His face was cast in a shadow, but there was indeed something very familiar about the jawline and his silhouette.

 

“You know, the more I look, he seems to resemble Li-kun greatly,” Chiharu remarked.

 

Four pairs of female eyes narrowed in on Li Syaoran, reading nonchalantly at his window desk.

 

“Look at that profile,” Chiharu said, holding up the magazine and glancing in between Syaoran and the glossy photo spread.

 

“It can’t be Li-kun—I’m sure he was in Hong Kong or feuding with Sakura when this photo shoot took place,” remarked Naoko. “Besides, this model is so much hotter than Li-kun—can you imagine the proper Li-kun in such delinquent, tattered punk-Goth clothes that maybe only Kai-kun would be able to pull off in real life. Right, Tomoyo-chan?”

 

“R-right,” stammered Tomoyo. “Of course Syaoran-kun wouldn’t do something so crazy as stepping into a photo shoot and taking over for a professional male model because he was jealous of some other guy getting up and close to Sakura-chan.” She covered her mouth with her hands to smother a giggle when Syaoran jerked his head from the other end of the room and shot her a sizzling death glare over his book.

 

“I guess you are right,” said Chiharu dubiously.

 

“Sakura-chan, you must have things easy with your career form,” remarked Rika with a sigh. “You already have your modeling career started.”

 

“Eh?” Sakura looked up in surprise at the unexpected suggestion. “I’m not sure if this really is my dream though. It’s more like… a part time job right now. I had an opportunity to take some photos, that’s all.”

 

“No, you’re getting pretty popular among the middle and high school crowd,” said Chiharu. “I think you have your own fan site online.”

 

“I’m pretty sure Tomoyo-chan is the administrator,” murmured Sakura.

 

“Are you signed to a modeling agency?” asked Naoko.

 

“No,” said Sakura slowly. “Tomoyo-chan has been overseeing the bookings.”

 

“We know Tomoyo-chan is not ordinary, but she can’t really be your manager forever, especially once you begin to establish a name for yourself,” remarked Naoko. “No offense Tomoyo-chan, but you’re a high schooler too and there must be professionals who look after these kinds of things.”

 

Tomoyo smiled. “There have been several calls from scouting agents, and I told Sakura-chan about them. But she declined all of them so far.”

 

“Why?” asked Chiharu. “This could be the start of your modeling career!”

 

“I’m not sure if I’m ready for that,” replied Sakura. “There’s school, and it’s a very important time for all of us with university prep.” And of course, there was the business about being a Card Mistress.

 

“But you enjoy modeling?” asked Rika.

 

Sakura said slowly, “I do enjoy photo shoots though it’s embarrassing at times. I like it best when I am wearing clothes designed by Tomoyo-chan.”

 

“Wasn’t your mother a famous model?” asked Naoko. “Her perfume ad is still famous.”

 

Chiharu nudged her friend on the side for bringing up an insensitive topic, but Sakura just smiled and said, “Yes part of the reason I started doing this in the first place was because it made me feel a little big closer to my mother. My mother was said to have been really shy in general. But she was not shy in front of the camera.”

 

And then, Sakura recalled how she had dipped her foot into the modeling world in the first place. It was thanks to the award-winning American photographer Mike Kant and that eventful photo shoot at the Empire State Building in New York three winters ago with Syaoran.

 

“There are many girls dying to be in your position,” said Naoko. “If you are so half-hearted about modeling, someone will come take your place.”

 

“Well, Sakura-chan is in high demand right now,” remarked Tomoyo. “She was offered a cover shoot opportunity for the Seventeen summer edition. Though she hasn’t accepted it yet. Sakura-chan, are you going to take it? We have to get back to them by this week.”

 

“A cover shoot for Seventeen is a big deal Sakura-chan!” exclaimed Chiharu.

 

“It’s with two other girls who are exclusive models with the magazine,” Tomoyo said. “But I think I can negotiate putting Sakura-chan as center. In fact, I think we can lose the other girls all together—what do you think Sakura-chan?”

 

“I’m not sure why they wanted me,” said Sakura. “I’m only an amateur.”

 

“You’ve got to have more confidence in yourself—or you won’t get far!” stated Naoko. “You’re our Sakura-chan. You’re adorable and everybody will love you!”

 

“Yeah if you go for the average, klutzy schoolgirl type,” remarked Erika, who had overhead the conversation. “Frankly, I don’t think you are model material, Sakura-chan. You better quit early on, before you are crushed in the big league and make an utter fool of yourself.” She considered herself an expert on the issue since she had once dated a professional photographer and a male model.

 

Chiharu whispered to Sakura, who was fuming in her chair, “Erika-chan’s just jealous. You are klutzy, it’s true, but that’s part of your charm.”

 

“Erika-chan is taller and has a better figure though,” pointed out Aki. “And she has that glamorous look popular in teen magazine nowadays.” When all of Sakura’s friends glared at him, he retorted, “Hey, my sister started out in modeling, and I’m just pointing out the truth!”

 

“Oh yeah, you and Akagi Arima were in that Vogue Nippon jewelry spread,” Naoko said. “You were beautiful, like a Grecian goddess! I heard Masuda-senpai from Class 3-2 posted that pictorial up on his locker!”

 

Syaoran’s eyes narrowed and he muttered, “Who the heck is Masuda?”

 

Tomoyo replied, “Masuda Yoichi-senpai, you know, the basketball team point guard. He’s very popular.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Heaving a long sigh, Sakura sank into a wooden bench outside of the school. She took out her career survey sheet from her folder and stared at the green-leaved trees. Her latest magazine photo shoot had gathered much more attention from her peers than she had expected, which was odd because her photos had been printed in magazines before. Then again, this was the first time her name had been printed so boldly. Of course, it was also because Tomoyo’s designs were stunning and had created quite a sensation. She had heard the limited-edition dresses had sold out in one day. It was through that photo shoot she had realized modeling could be quite fun—the other times, she had always been nervous and afraid of making a mistake.

 

“Why don’t you enjoy your sudden fame a little bit, instead of hiding out here?” remarked Chang Eron, who had slinked up beside her without a sound. And uninvited, he took a seat next to her on the bench. He saw that she had her career survey sheet in her hand. “You haven’t turned that in yet?”

 

Sakura shook her head. “You already completed it?”

 

“Yeah, what’s to think about? It’s just a sheet of paper. You can change your mind later, if you want, it’s not like it’s going to determine or change your fate based on what you write here,” he replied, his golden eyes gleaming. “What’s important is not tomorrow, but today, what you feel like doing now.”

 

“And what do you want to do?” asked Sakura.

 

Eron shrugged. “I’m interested in architecture. I’m not good at art or design, but I think engineering is more along my line.”

 

It fit Eron well, she thought, since he was good at physics. “Are you following your Uncle Reiji’s footsteps? He was a talented architect, wasn’t he?”

 

“And what about you? Are you going to follow your mother’s footsteps?”

 

“Do you think it’s foolish of me to do so?” she asked. “It’s not something I ever thought much of. But it’s something I am interested in finding out more about.”

 

“Why not, if you enjoy it,” replied Eron. “You shouldn’t care about what others think. You should do the Seventeen cover, if the reason you are hesitating is because you think it’s going to interfere with the dark forces business. You don’t have to put your life on halt to be Card Mistress. Being the Card Mistress is a part of your identity, but it isn’t all you are.”

 

Sakura stared up at Eron, who was now looking up at the blue sky with a much more relaxed look that she had seen in the past three years of knowing him.

 

He smiled slightly, as if feeling her gaze upon him. “I’m glad you are talking to me normally. I got the sense you’ve been evading me a bit ever since you came back from the dead. Or should I say, the Dragon Isles.”

 

She instinctively fiddled with a crystal hanging from her neck, whole once more.

 

“I meant to ask, how did you go about fixing the Eye of the Dragon?” asked Eron. “It must not have been an easy feat.”

 

Sakura had avoided the memory altogether, of meeting Chang Ryouta while she was in the Cavern of Reservoirs, of how he had helped her piece together the broken stone. She recalled how Ryouta had stared down with those wild golden eyes and told her, “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.” She could still feel his iron grip on her wrist, and she stared down at her opened left hand, where he had slit her palm open with a bloodied blade. Because blood was needed to bind the cracked crystal.

 

“Did you get that scar on your palm there?” he asked.

 

Sakura quickly closed her hand into a fist again, hiding the thin white line that crossed her palm, paling. “No, it’s from cheerleading practice.”

 

Eron smiled thinly. “You always were a horrible liar, Sakura.”

 

She stared down at her lap. “Say, Eron, I know Chang Reiji-san died because of the Plague, like my mother, but did you ever find out how Ryouta-san died?”

 

“Who knows,” he replied. “He could have rotted in hell for all I care.”

 

“You shouldn’t say that about him. He was your father.”

 

“Why defend the Dark One who ended up killing your mother?” said Eron in a low tone. “Unless you perhaps, you met with Chang Ryouta in the Dragon Isles.”

 

“I did meet your father,” she replied slowly. “He was the one who helped me fix the Dragon’s Eye.” 

 

“He’s not the kind of person who would have just done it for nothing,” remarked Eron. “Surely he was up to something.”

 

“No, I think it was for you and Erika.”

 

“Is that what he said? That all the things he has done are for our benefit?” Eron laughed shortly. “That man has no soul, I’m pretty sure. He abandoned Erika and me because he didn’t want us. He abandoned our mother. He betrayed his brother.” 

 

Sakura stared up at him and blurted out, “You knew.” No, he could not know what Ryouta did to Yoshida Eriko, to get in between her and Reiji, his betrayal of the two people he must have cared for the most. Chang Ryouta’s cynical smile, the cold way he had told her what he had done to Reiji and Eri, still were vivid in her mind. And she could never bring herself to tell Eron and Erika of what had transpired 17 years ago, how Ryouta described how he had seduced Eri, pretending to be his twin brother.

 

“What? That Ryouta took my mother from my uncle?” Eron smiled thinly. “It’s not hard to piece together. Ever since you found the old yearbook last autumn, and I figured out that Uncle Reiji and my mother were probably dating back then, I thought long and hard why it wasn’t Uncle Reiji who ended up being my mother. And of course it naturally dawned upon me that Ryouta probably came in between them. He probably pulled a deplorable trick. I don’t blame him. After all, I would have done the same, probably.”

 

Sakura shook her head. “No, that’s not true.”

 

“But I am my father’s son, after all. I tricked you, too. I made you forget your memories of Syaoran. I kept it from you that his powers were returning. I took advantage of you, Sakura.” He stared at her with gold-flecked hazel eyes.

 

“No, you are not alike, Eron-kun,” said Sakura, shaking her head, tears welling in her eyes. Could she describe the deep loathing she had for his father, a terrifying and cruel man who had seem more savage than human when she had met him? If was a horrible feeling, the loathing she had felt for that man, the first time she had ever wanted someone dead. “You are not like Ryouta-san at all. Don’t compare yourself to him.”

 

And Eron tilted his head. “Is that why you have been avoiding me Sakura? Because you met my father in the Dragon Isles and found him so horrible and repulsive, you found it difficult to face me?”

 

“He was a broken man,” said Sakura softly. She was sure she hated Chang Ryouta for killing Syaoran’s father, for what he did to her mother and Mizuki Miara, for crushing Reiji and Eri’s future together. But no matter what wrongdoings he had done in his lifetime, she was sure Ryouta was sincere in wanting to protect the twins.

 

“You were worried for me.” Eron reached over and brushed a single tear from her cheek. “Are you crying for me? Why? Uncle Reiji was our father, for all that matters. So you do not have to pity Erika or me. I do not resent growing up without parents. Because I had Erika, from the very beginning. We were never alone. And in that, I think we are very blessed.”

 

 

 

From the second floor of the school building, Kai watched Syaoran stare down the hallway window and followed the direction of his gaze. Leaning over Syaoran’s shoulder, Kai whispered, “Eron made Sakura cry again.”

 

Besides them, Tomoyo zoomed her camcorder closer. “Wait, they’re embracing each other. He put her arms around her, and she not really protesting. Oh, she’s smiling up at him now.” She cracked the window open further, and Kai had to hold Tomoyo by the nape of her blazer so that she didn’t topple out. “Kai-kun, can’t you use your wind powers to carry the sound up here or something? I can’t hear what they’re saying.”

 

Kai snickered. “I think it goes something like this.” In a high-pitched voice, he mimicked Sakura. “Hoe, Eron-pyon, you shouldn’t do something like this at school. What if someone sees?” Then, he put on a deeper voice. “Sakura-chan, I can’t hold back my feelings for you.” In a high voice, he continued, “Oh, Eron-pyon, this is so embarrassing.”

 

Tomoyo chuckled. “Kai-kun, you’re genius at doing voices—no wonder you are the master of disguises. Say, Syaoran-kun, isn’t he amazing?”

 

But Syaoran, reaching over them, slid the window shut again and walked away with a deep scowl.

 

With a low whistle, Kai commented, “Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed.”  

 

Eriol remarked from behind them with a thin smile, “I always thought that was just his natural expression.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Eriol-kun, how is a soul kept in tact after a person dies?” asked Sakura, staring at a thick book of runes which she could not read.

 

Eriol replied, “Usually, the person before dying must have a very strong desire to continue on.”

 

Surely there was more to preserving a soul, but Eriol did not seem willing to explain further that day, as he shut a thick book on magic origins written by Clow Reed and said, “Well, that’s enough for today’s lesson.”

 

Inspired by how hard Syaoran was working as the newly inaugurated Li Clan Great Elder, Sakura had renewed her determination to become the best Card Mistress possible. And to do that, she knew she had a lot more to learn—she refused to have the Li Clan, especially Leiyun, question her capabilities as Mistress of the Sakura Cards. She started out by seeking out Eriol for extra lessons on the theory of Clow Reed’s magic, and he gladly obliged. Sakura enjoyed her one-on-one sessions with Eriol immensely—he had a knack for explaining things so that she could understand Clow’s complicated books with more ease and was always patient with her. Along with lessons in the theory of magic with Eriol, Mizuki Kaho offered to teach her about Shintoism and onmyodo. Sometimes Miho and Tomoyo sat in the sessions with her as well. Suppi-chan gave crash courses on the history of eastern and western magic—unlike Kero-chan, who would have the same knowledge but was rather scatterbrained in his explanations, Spinel Sun was very logical, calm and unbiased in his interpretations. To Sakura’s chagrin, most of the basics she learned was learning freshly were review to Miho, who had been trained directly under Eriol since she was 10. Tomoyo, though she did not have magic powers, simply enjoyed the additional knowledge, as well as confirming the hypotheses she had formed over the years. Meilin then volunteered to train Sakura in martial arts. Sakura had learned the basics from Syaoran in junior high, but Meilin insisted that it was important to keep up with self-defense. Sakura soon learned that Syaoran must have gone easy on her, for Meilin was indeed a tough training master.

 

Sakura knew it would take time to work on gaining back the full trust of the members of the Alliance of the Stars ever since she deceived them last month, orchestrating her own death—or to be more precise, the death of her clone. However, she was grateful for their efforts to reach out to her, for it was also their way of telling her that they had forgiven her. And Syaoran too had entered in the ranks of the Alliance and blended in as if he had always been there. In a sense, he had been always there, for without Syaoran, there was no Alliance, at least in her mind.

 

The Alliance of the Stars tried to meet at least once or twice a week, even if there was no dark force to capture. Touya, Yukito and Nakuru usually were not able to make it to all the meetings because of work, but the others gathered at Clow Reed’s study, usually snacking upon a treat concocted by Eriol. Syaoran usually sat in one corner of the room, reading, while Eron would sit as far from him as possible, also reading. The girls—Miho, Meilin, Tomoyo and Sakura—usually chitchatted about any school gossip, latest fashion or interesting TV shows. Kai napped on the long sofa, while Kaho graded homework at the desk. Kero-chan and Suppi-chan played card games or checkers.

 

And Kero-chan remarked during one such meeting, “You know, should we be worried about how quiet everything’s been lately? I know last month was absolute chaos with all that went down, but there’s no sign of a dark force and everything’s so… peaceful.”

 

“Don’t jinx it,” groaned Kai. “Everyone’s busy with the cultural festival—maybe they don’t have time to cause mischief.”

 

“Well, instead of sitting around waiting to get attacked, maybe it’s high time we think of a countermove, to get to the core of the problem,” said Suppi-chan. “We are too lax, all the time.”

 

“We’re using this time on crash course training,” reminded Miho. “Sakura-senpai’s been working really hard on lessons with Eriol and Kaho.”


Meilin nodded, “Sakura-chan’s back kicks are impressive for a beginner.”

 

“Her athletic skills were always great,” Kero-chan stated. “But Suppi-chan is right, I think this might be the time for a counterstrike.”  

 

Tomoyo raised her hand. “I’m sorry, everyone, but we have far more urgent matters to attend to today.”

 

“More urgent than a strategy to take down the Dark Ones?” drawled Nakuru, who had just gotten off duty and returned home, still in her white nurse uniform.

 

“Yes.” Tomoyo turned to Sakura. “You’ve got to decide if you will take the Seventeen magazine summer edition cover shoot and swimwear spread by tomorrow.”

 

“Oh my, you got an offer from Seventeen Japan! It’s my favorite magazine. You must take it!” exclaimed Miho, clasping her hands together. “What are you hesitating for?”

 

“Wait, by swimwear, does it mean Sakura-chan will be photographed in those skimpy little bikinis?” asked Kai, eying Syaoran who was reading on the corner couch. “That’ll be quite an eyeful.” 

 

Meilin said, “You always make everything sound so perverse. It’s a girls’ fashion magazine.”

 

“Sakura-chan will totally rock the cover, you should do it,” said Nakuru. “Just don’t let your brother find out.” Touya and Yukito were still on duty at Kinhoshi Hospital, hence missing from this meeting.

 

“So, Sakura-chan, should I say you will do it?” asked Tomoyo.

 

Sakura opened her mouth and shut it again. For a second, her eyes lingered on the brown-haired boy with his head buried in a book throughout the whole conversation.

 

“Well, if this is a career-making once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break into the modeling world, I don’t see what you are hesitating over,” remarked Eron. “I thought you said you were interested in trying out modeling, to follow your mother’s footsteps.”

 

Tomoyo glanced up at Eron, amused to find that Sakura had confided in her modeling concerns, which she remained so tightlipped about even to her best friend, to the former Dark One. Was that what they had been talking about earlier by the benches?

 

“I still don’t know,” said Sakura. “Everything’s happening so fast. I mean, my duties as a Card Mistress is definitely my first priority. And occasional photo shoots are fun but anything more at this point seems too much.”

 

“Oh don’t be silly!” said Miho. “It’s not like we are being attacked by dark forces every day, and you have the entire Star Alliance who has your back—unlike your days as Card Captor when you were on you own.”

 

“Hey, I was there too!” exclaimed Kero-chan. “And Tomoyo-chan. And the Brat, sometimes, when he wasn’t interfering.” To Kero-chan’s surprise, Syaoran did not even protest. In fact, the Brat seemed to have been in a fouler mood than usual all afternoon long.

 

Eriol smiled. “Well, I think it will be an interesting endeavor for our Card Mistress.”

 

“Well, I think everyone’s said their two-cents, whether asked for or not,” said Kai. “Well, almost everyone, that is. Syaoran, surely you think Sakura-chan should do the swimwear shoot too.”

 

Syaoran slowly set down his book. “Actually, I don’t think you should do it, Sakura.”

 

“Why?” asked Sakura, blinking.

 

Meilin rolled her eyes. “It’s obvious why. Syaoran, you are so old-fashioned. Everybody does swimsuit modeling these days.”

 

“Nadeshiko-san didn’t,” stated Syaoran.

 

“That’s like a generation ago,” said Meilin. “I mean, didn’t you guys even have a swimsuit portion during the Young Designer Contest last year?”

 

“Well, they were pretty covered up,” pointed Miho. “Tomoyo-senpai’s designs are always rather modest.”

 

Kai said, “You’re such a prude, Syao-chan—you just don’t want some pervert old photographer sizing up and down Sakura only clad in some skimpy swimwear. I mean, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Sakura to move ahead in the modeling world. You know how hard it’s to break into the industry?”

 

“Of course you would know all about the modeling industry with all the models you’ve dated in the past,” remarked Eron offhandedly.

 

Despite the jab, Kai only gave Eron a lazy grin, but Meilin’s eyes narrow. “You dated models too? Who?”

 

“I won’t soil your ears with all the sordid details of my past. Some things are best left buried,” said Kai. “I was a thief. Sometimes, I had to use connections to get near my target, be it idols, actresses or wealthy matriarchs.”

 

“Oh, do spare us,” said Miho, rolling her eyes. “What do you think of this, Syaoran-senpai?”

 

Syaoran glanced up at Sakura and said slowly. “I disagree that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s just one magazine shoot. You will have other chances. One where you can remain covered.”

 

Kai whistled lowly at the thorn of the last remark, inching away from the pair as Sakura, temper ignited, glared up at Syaoran and declared, “It’s not just a magazine shoot to me! It could be my first and last chance to land a cover.”

 

“Did you tell your brother about this? He's okay with you taking part in swimwear shoots and getting serious about modeling?" Syaoran asked her staidly.

 

Sakura opened her mouth and shut it again. Of course she hadn’t told Touya about it. He would surely stop her from doing it—he had always been overprotective all his life.

 

Seeing the stunned look on Sakura's face, he continued, "You haven't told him yet, have you? Why? Because you don't want to bother him with trivial matters? Or maybe, you are afraid of what he has to say?"

 

"It's not that!" exclaimed Sakura. "I will tell him. Eventually."

 

"Why, because you are afraid of hearing him tell you it's okay to take your time to think things through carefully? That you don't have to rush in?” Syaoran looked her in the eye. “Because, if I were your brother, that's what I would say."

 

"Well you aren't my brother!" retorted Sakura.

 

Syaoran gave her a pensive stare. "No, I'm not."

 

A knife could cut through the tension in the room and nobody dared to even breathe as they watched Syaoran stand up abruptly and pass Sakura. He told her quietly, “Sorry if I overstepped my boundaries. After all, it is ultimately your decision to make,” then brusquely walked out of the room.

 

Tomoyo instantly locked eyes Eriol who appeared to be suppressing a smile.

 

Miho’s jaw dropped. “Did he just say what I thought he said?”

 

Kai chuckled, “Syaoran’s such a Victorian at heart. How endearing.”

 

“Shush, look,” whispered Meilin, jabbing Kai in the ribs. “Sakura-chan’s furious.”

 

Adding fuel to the fire, Kero-chan remarked out loud, “How brazen of the Brat. What is with that patronizing attitude—maybe he doubts your professionalism, Sakura.”

 

And a livid Sakura bolted up from her seat, fists clenched into balls, the ends of her hair curled upward. “I know, right? Who does he think he is? What right does he have to be so condescending? He’s always like that, always undermining me, ever since the day we met. Tomoyo, let Seventeen know I’ll do the beach shoot!”

 

Kai gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Well, Sakura-chan, I don’t necessarily blame him. I made my start in the underworld, so I know Syaoran’s concerns are not completely unfounded. What goes on behind the scenes in modeling, the entertainment industry in general, is not always pretty. I’ve met some seedy individuals in the business, and I’ve seen firsthand some of the darker aspects of that industry. But you have a very strong support system around you who will not let you come into any harm. So, go with your gut instinct.”

 

Meilin, arms crossed and head tilted, remarked, “Comes a day when it’s Mizuki Kai going around giving the soundest career advise.”

 

“I’ve lived quite a bit longer and harder than the rest of you young’uns,” drawled Kai. “How thrilling. As much as I dote upon a lovey-dovey Sakura and Syaoran, I love heat and flames Saku-Syao even more. Don’t pretend to look troubled—I know you do too, Tomoyo.”

 

“I can’t help it Sakura looks so cute when she’s mad,” mumbled Tomoyo, twiddling her thumb, wondering if she should feel guilty about being the instigator of this disastrous meeting, or whether she should be slightly concerned that Eriol was cackling to himself over by the corner sofa.

 

“And I thought this cultural festival alone was going to keep me plenty amused for the next several weeks,” remarked Kai gleefully.

 

“So, are you guys going with Cinderella for the festival?” asked Miho.

 

“Yup, how did you know?” asked Meilin.

 

“I edited the script per request of Eriol,” replied Miho. “Be thankful—it was much darker originally. He wanted to go with the Grimm Brothers version, including the doves pecking out the stepsisters’ eyes and the chopping off of the toes at the end.”

 

Meilin shuddered. “Hoe, Tomoyo-chan, you won’t let that happen, right?”

 

“Who’s going to play Cinderella?” asked Kero-chan eagerly. “Surely not the Brat?”

 

“Tomoyo-senpai, you should play Cinderella,” Miho said. “You’d look so lovely as the heroine. And I think Eriol wrote the script with you in mind as Cinderella.”

 

“Oh, Tomoyo-chan really would make a wonderful Cinderella,” said Sakura.

 

“Though I would rather enjoy seeing Syaoran-senpai play Cinderella as well,” remarked Miho.

 

“I’d pay money to see that,” agreed Kai. “But you do realize who’s in Class 3-2, right?”

 

“No, is there a problem?” asked Sakura.

 

“Kara and Jinyu are in that class,” Eron pointed out with a thin smile.  

 

“Oh!” Sakura’s shoulder slumped. She said in a small voice. “I just wanted one school play to go by smoothly.”

 

Tomoyo patted her friend’s back. “Don’t worry, it will.”

 

“Eriol, who do you have in mind for Cinderella and the Prince?” Miho asked.

 

With a smile, Eriol replied, “Someone unexpected. I like the element of surprise.”

 

“Of course you would,” groaned Eron.

 

Miho glared at Eron. “You’re one to speak. And don’t you dare pull anything funny because Eriol worked so hard on the script, and I would hate to see his good mood spoiled. None of that Insect business this time, all right?”

 

“Work hard my ass, I’m sure he just sat in class daydreaming and scribbled out the whole script on the back of his literature notebook,” grumbled Eron.

 

“Well yeah, it’s helpful to visualize when he has his minions sitting around him,” replied Miho. “Oops, I meant classmates.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sitting cross-legged on their apartment living room floor later that evening, Meilin watched in amusement as Syaoran stared at the same math question for the past quarter hour. It was rare to find him so stumped by a simple derivative equation. She couldn’t resist leaning over her side of the coffee table and whispered loudly, “I think that should be a negative.”

 

He looked up at her with a start, dropping his pencil. “Huh?”

 

“That should be a negative 2, not positive,” said Meilin.

 

Syaoran stared down at the problem set and quickly spotted his obvious mistake.

 

“That’s rare for you to miss a question,” remarked Meilin. “Something on your mind?”

 

“No,” replied Syaoran, then heaved a sigh deep enough to flip the pages of his notebook.

 

Meilin remarked, “Do you have any updates about the hacking of the Li Group Japan computers. Was any important data taken?”

 

“We don’t know at this point,” said Syaoran. “And it’s not like we can really call in the police here for they’ll start asking uncomfortable questions.”  

 

“Do you think it’s related to the corporate spy that Wei told us about?” asked Meilin.

 

“Quite possible,” replied Syaoran grimly.

 

Meilin shut her notebook and said, “You know, you might want to get Kai to have a look at the network. He may look unreliable, but it’s his area of expertise, and he might be of some help. He helped install additional security firewalls for Daidouji Toy Company upon Tomoyo’s request.”

 

With a frown, Syaoran said, “I’m not sure what’s worse—being hacked by some corporate spy or actually trusting that thief with the security of the entire Li Group network. Besides, I’m sure Cousin Dairen will take care of it.”

 

“So, that issue’s not what has put you in such a tense mood then?” said Meilin. “I thought maybe you were stressed because of the upcoming board meeting.”

 

“As if a bunch of stuffy old men in suits sitting in a conference room will daunt me after dealing with the Elders all my life,” said Syaoran. “Nothing beats wearing a pink frilly dress and a yellow macaroni-hair wig, standing on stage in front of hundreds of people.”

 

Meilin asked, leaning her chin against a hand, “So, why did you make such a fuss earlier? About modeling. I haven’t seen Sakura-chan so angry since, well, since you stole the Sakura Cards from her.”

 

“Then do you think it’s a good idea for her to go ahead with the shoot?”

 

“I don’t really see what the deal is. It’s just a fashion shoot for a girls’ magazine,” replied Meilin. “I mean, it just boils down to you being jealous.”

 

Syaoran made a rude noise that sounded awfully like a snort. “Jealous of what?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe you don’t want other guys to see Sakura-chan in swimwear. Or maybe you have problems with her modeling in front of the male photographer. Maybe you just don’t like sharing her with anyone.” Meilin folded her arms. “But whatever your problem is, don’t you think it’s none of your business? It’s not like you’re her family or even her boyfriend. Your input does not matter. Sakura’s super cute and popular—she always has been since she’s so frank and kind. If you let off your guard, someone’s going to snatch her away from right under your nose. Wait, Eron-kun already did that while you were gone last year.”

 

And Syaoran opened his mouth and shut it again. He bolted up from his seat. “I’m going for a jog.” He stuffed his feet into sneakers and swung the front door open.

 

“At this time?” asked Meilin. “Well, if you are going out, buy me some caramel pudding at the convenience store when you come back.”

 

“Chocolate pudding for me!” added Kai from the doorway. To Meilin, he said, “I’m putting my money on Sakura this time in the battle of the wills.”

 

With a shrug, Meilin replied, “Of course Sakura’s going to get her own way in the end. As if Syaoran could ever stand upsetting Sakura.”

 

“Then why does he ruffle her feathers so often when he does not have the heart to follow through?” asked Kai.

 

“I don’t think he can help himself,” concluded Meilin. “It almost makes me feel a bit jealous of Sakura.”

“Why?”

 

“When I chased around Syaoran as a kid, I did everything to attract his attention, hoping for him to notice me. But all he did was tolerate me. No matter how much I bugged him, he would just bear with me and let me do whatever I pleased.” Meilin paused with a wistful smile. “But with Sakura, it was always different. Every move she makes, he’s always watched over her.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

To Kai’s amusement, Sakura and Syaoran did not speak to each other or even glance in the other’s direction throughout the day, a most difficult feat since they were desk mates. The former thief watched Sakura, her back deliberately turned from Syaoran, bent over Eron’s desk, and he laughed at something she said. It was as Meilin had said, though, even when Syaoran was pretending not to notice, he was watching her out of the corner of his eyes.

 

“Those two still didn’t make up?” Kai asked the other person who was always keeping an eye on the Card Mistress.

 

“Of course not,” replied Tomoyo, hiding a small smile. “You know how stubborn they can be.”

 

“Maybe I haven’t known them as long as you, but how ridiculous is it that they can forgive each other for everything ranging from Syaoran turning Sakura away from Hong Kong to stealing the Sakura Cards from her, and Sakura going ahead and losing her memory of him and even dating his mortal enemy. And they blow up over a magazine shoot that Sakura would probably have rejected in the first place?”

 

Tomoyo whispered, “You should have seen them when they were both infatuated with Yukito-san.”

 

Kai chuckled at this. “So, how is casting coming along, with Syaoran refusing to play the Prince and Sakura deciding she wants to do scenery painting?”

 

“I’m heartbroken, but we will have to make the best of the situation,” Tomoyo said with a sigh.

 

She cleared her throat as the students gathered in the seniors’ classroom for the cultural festival play casting announcement. “After close consultations between the class presidents of 2-2 and 3-2, we are revealing the casting sheet for this year’s production of Cinderella. Even if you are not on the list, we need volunteers for painting backdrops, making costume and props, backstage managers, lighting and the orchestra, so please sign up in the front which section you want to join, and we will do our best to accommodate your choice.”

 

The second and third years stared hard at the chart that Tomoyo pinned on the blackboard. “Since this is a collaboration project between our two classes, I hope this can be the grandest play that has been seen in the history of the Seijou High School Cultural Festival,” said Tomoyo. “We don’t have a whole lot of time to prepare, but I think it can be possible with everyone’s support here in this room. If you have any questions, please ask Class 2-2 President Hiiragizawa Eriol, Class 3-2 President Rido Kara or myself.”

 

“When did Kara Reed become class president?” exclaimed Meilin.

 

Erika snickered. “Leiyun forced her to run for class president because he said it will look good in her college applications—and I’m sure Jinyu intimidated students into voting for her. I bet she also pulled seniority, since she’s the oldest in the class.”

 

Sakura had already volunteered for scenery painting, but she was still interested to see the casting list, since Tomoyo and Eriol had kept so mum about it.

 

“Who’s playing Cinderella?” asked Naoko. She drew closer to the list and read out loud, “Cinderella: Chang Eron.”

 

“What?” demanded Eron, pushing through the crowds to check the list with his own eyes.

 

There was another shrill wail from the crowd. “I don’t want to be the ugly stepsister!” cried out Meilin. “I always get the worst parts. From the Evil Fairy in Sleeping Beauty and now the evil stepsister.”

 

Kai said soothingly, “Now, now, I’m sure you’ll make a magnificent evil stepsister, just like you played a convincing Maleficent.”

 

“How come you get to play the fairy godmother?” demanded Meilin. “I’d rather play the fairy godmother—at least you get to wear a pretty, sparkly dress and carry a wand.”

 

“I’m sure Tomoyo will make sure you get to wear a pretty, sparkly dress even if you are the stepsister,” said Kai. “And I will convince her to write in an epic love line with me.”

 

“No!” exclaimed Meilin. “I wanted to be the star of the show for a change. The one time I got cast as the heroine, I transferred back to Hong Kong. You don’t know how much I regret not being able to play out Juliet in Star-Crossed!”

 

“I’m sure you would have been a wonderful Juliet. But I mean, this time around, remember who the Prince is. It’s Jinyu. You don’t want to play a Cinderella opposite of him, right? I mean that’s sort of incestuous.” Then Kai paused. “Oh wait, you crushed on Syaoran all this time—never mind.”

 

“Jinyu’s an even more distant cousin then Syaoran,” snapped Meilin. Then she sighed. “I guess there’s no point in being Cinderella if Syaoran isn’t the prince.”

 

“What, not me?” asked Kai, hurt.

 

“Well, you’d make a good prince of thieves,” remarked Meilin.

 

“I loved Robin Hood as a kid,” replied Kai, somewhat cheered.

 

“What’s with this casting? I refused to be the evil stepmother!” exclaimed another female voice. It was high school senior Kara Reed, who finally caught a glimpse of the casting sheet.

 

Meilin snickered at this. “Evil stepmother? Aren’t you your class president? Weren’t you involved in the casting process?”

 

“I left things to Eriol and Tomoyo because I thought I knew what they were doing.” Kara swerved around and pointed two fingers at Eriol. “Hey, you four-eyed creep, you better recast me immediately or else I’ll put a hex on both of you.”

 

“Fits you perfectly, Mother,” said Erika suavely, examining her French-tipped nails. “I think Tomoyo-chan had the brilliant idea of casting all of us troublemakers into the play so we can stay out of mischief during the school festival.”

 

“Erika, you’re the other evil stepsister?” asked Meilin. “You’re okay with it?”

 

“Yeah, what’s wrong with the role?” asked Erika, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow. “I get to bully Cinder-Eron around. With Tomoyo in charge of costumes, I will get to wear a pretty dress instead of rags. I’m in many of the scenes but don’t have a whole lot of lines to memorize. And it beats being stuck doing backdrop painting or prop making or slaving away behind the scenes.”

 

“Who would’ve thought you were the optimistic sort?” muttered Meilin.

 

“More importantly, how is Eron-kun taking it?” asked Naoko in a whisper to her friends.

 

“I told you I refuse!” roared Eron, slamming his hands on Eriol’s desk. “There’s no way I’m playing Cinderella!”

 

“But you will be perfect!” coaxed Sakura.

 

“It’s a girl’s role!” Eron said.

 

“I know, but gender reverse roles are tradition,” Sakura replied. “You know Syaoran played Princess Aurora in our Sleeping Beauty play in fifth grade. I played the Prince then. And my brother also played the role of Cinderella when he was a junior in high school. And he’s nowhere near as beautiful as you are.”

 

Eron raised an eyebrow. “How on earth did they get your brother to agree?”

 

“He knew it was important for his class—I mean, him playing Cinderella was the biggest attraction ever. And you too will be the absolute star of the Seijou High Cultural Festival,” said Sakura.

 

“Wow, Sakura’s quite persuasive,” remarked Chiharu.

 

“Well, she can melt anyone if she looks at you with those big green eyes of hers,” remarked Aki.

 

“Oh, did we mention who the Prince was?” said Syaoran, keeping a straight face. “It’s Jinyu.”

 

Eron blanched. “Okay, I’m so not doing it! Whose horrible idea was it to cast Jinyu as prince? What kind of prince is he, Prince of the Underworld?”

 

Syaoran remarked, “Tomoyo-chan was determined to cast all the troublemakers as main characters in the play and keep them from ruining her production.”

 

Eron with a frown turned to Tomoyo. “Is that supposed to reassure me? Remember, I’m on your side? In fact, I’ve been in the alliance for much longer than Li Syaoran. What made you think I should be cast in the play? As Cinderella, of all characters.”

 

“Well, we figured if you are on stage, Erika won’t play any weird sort of pranks,” said Tomoyo with a shrug. “You’ll be able to keep an eye on Kara and Jinyu since you will literally be in every single scene. And you’re pretty and good at acting.”

 

And Eron actually found himself nodding to Tomoyo halfway before he said, “Why not get Syaoran to do it?”

 

Tomoyo smiled tightly. “I tried. He threatened to transfer back to Hong Kong.”

 

Jinyu wandered into the classroom at the moment, eyes flitting back and forth between the boisterous students, wondering why there was twice the number of people as usual.

 

“Congratulations, Prince Jinjin!” called out Kara. “You’re the hero of the school play.”

 

Erika whispered to Jinyu, “You did hear we have a cultural festival coming up and your class and my class are putting on a joint production of Cinderella, right?”

 

He frowned and walked up to the blackboard. “What is the meaning of this?” Slowly, he turned around with narrowed eyes at the rest of the class, who froze as the Black Dragon emanated an aura of dark gloom.

 

“We’re doomed,” groaned Meilin.

 

“It won’t be that bad,” said Sakura, beaming as she signed up for scenery painting much to Tomoyo’s disappointment.

 

“It’ll be a beautiful disaster,” remarked Naoko, signing up as the backstage crew for she knew she wanted to avoid being on stage with the dangerous folks.

 

“Great, with that evil mafia-looking senior as the Prince, the punk rock class president chick as step-mother, punk rock Mizuki Kai as the fairy godmother, and Chang Eron as the heroine, is it some sort of Goth Cinderella?” asked Aki, the astute journalist.

 

And somehow, the name stuck.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tomoyo heard an intricate piano tune from the music room—she recognized it as Paganini’s Liszt La Campanella. At first, she thought it was Eriol, since he was likely the only pianist in the school who could play such a difficult and elaborate piece with complete ease. But whereas Eriol’s performance style was one of restraint and minimalism, this pianist played with great flourish and all the bells and whistles—it was someone who performed for an audience in a large concert hall rather than in the parlor of his home for his close friends and family. She walked into the room and saw the silver-haired man in a loose white button-down linen shirt and pale beige chino slacks behind the ivory and ebony keys.  

 

Her classmates surrounded the pianist, clapping their hands wildly as his fingers flew over the keys in a grandiose manner. Each note was crisp and on the spot, a highly technical performance style admired in piano competitions, for it was as precise as it was flashy.

 

“Li-sensei is so amazing!” squealed Naoko. “Tomoyo-chan, won’t you say Li-sensei is amazing at the piano—I think he’s even better that Eriol-kun. He didn’t even need the music score.”

 

Tomoyo stared at the grand piano, the one Leiyun had tuned last time. “It’s not an easy piece to pull off,” she remarked, as the performance came to an abrupt halt.

 

“Oh, please continue,” said Naoko. “I didn’t know you played piano so well, Li-sensei.”

 

“You flatter me. I’m a little bit rusty,” said Leiyun with a smile. “I don’t remember the rest of the piece.”

 

“That can’t be called rusty. I’ve learned piano since first grade, and I don’t think I can ever dream of reaching that caliber,” said Rika woefully.

 

“Play us a little more on the piano,” pleaded Chiharu, clasping her hands together.

 

But Leiyun laughed. “That’s the only tune I remember. I haven’t played in over a decade.”

 

Sakura crossed her arms, eyes narrowed, trying to remain unimpressed.

 

“I think that’s the first time I’ve heard Leiyun play the piano,” Syaoran remarked quietly from her side. “I thought he gave up on music completely.”

 

“Why did he give up on music?” asked Sakura, before remembering she was not speaking to him.

 

Leiyun called out, “Well, enough fooling around. Let’s get started with class.”

 

He continued, “Now take it from the top—let’s continue where we let off last time with thing song. Girls, come in softly, guys, don’t miss your cue. Rika-chan, I’ll accompany on the piano today—you can sing with your classmates.”

 

While music had always been one of Sakura’s favorite classes, it stopped being so ever since Leiyun became their substitute teacher. Leiyun apparently had come up with his own arrangement for the classic song, and began playing his rendition, while cuing in the girls to sing the part. Nobody missed the timing, nobody messed up the lyrics. Class time whizzed by, and Sakura grudgingly admitted they sounded more in harmony than they had ever before. After all, the students realized that Leiyun was not completely clueless about music—in fact he might be more competent than their actual music teacher.

 

As the students filed out for next period, Sakura watched out of the corner of her eyes Leiyun single out Tomoyo and walk up to her.

 

“I heard you pulled out of the concert section of the cultural festival,” remarked Leiyun.

 

Tomoyo gathered up her choral sheet music. “Where did you hear that?”

 

“I’m the substitute music teacher, so I’m supervising the concert programming,” said Leiyun. “It’s a pity. I was looking forward to your performance. Why did you drop out?”

 

“I already have my hands full with producing the Cinderella play and making the costumes,” replied Tomoyo. “Besides, I sing every year. I’m sure my spot can be used by a freshman who wants a chance to shine.”

 

“Too bad,” said Leiyun. “If I were a sea witch, I would covet your voice and want to seal it away for my ears only. But the next best thing is hear it on stage.”

 

“You flatter me,” said Tomoyo. “But don’t tease—I’ve had my voice taken away by a Clow Card once, and it was not a pleasant feeling.”

 

“I can imagine so, for a mermaid princess without her voice cannot be found by her prince,” said Leiyun with a thin smile. “And I do not tease, Tomoyo. Your voice makes me want to play music again. I haven’t gotten that feeling in a long time.”

 

Tomoyo laughed. “I just heard you play the piano.”

 

“That’s not really playing,” said Leiyun. “It was merely warming up of the fingers.”  

 

She found herself asking, “Why did you give up on music in the first place?”

 

“Why do you sing, Tomoyo?”

 

“Because I enjoy it,” she replied. “And I hope it brings a little happiness to those who listen.”

 

“And I gave up on music because it brought nobody joy, including myself.” Leiyun stared down at her. “But you have a gift. And it makes me wonder if you would sing to my melody.”

 

And all laughter left Tomoyo as she stared into Leiyun’s strange marble-like eyes that always remained emotionless despite his jovial tone. “I guess it depends. Show me what it sounds like.”

 

For a moment, Leiyun’s eyes flashed a deep turquoise, and she thought his smile was genuine when he said, “That sounds like a direct challenge to me, Tomoyo.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The first joint rehearsal between Classes 2-2 and 3-2 of what the students dubbed “Goth Cinderella” had to be called a catastrophe at best. Even Tomoyo’s impeccable directing and Eriol’s superb script could not change the players. The cast gathered in the senior classroom, which was larger than the juniors’ classroom. They had pushed all the desks and chairs to the back of the room, and Cinderella and the Prince stood in front of the classroom while the others watched on.

 

Sakura had not seen anyone so unhappy to be on stage since Syaoran in fifth grade as Princess Aurora, as the Black Dragon stared down at the script as if it was an execution notice. Li Jinyu, who had always skulked in the shadows of the hallway at school, was put under the spotlight. Many of his classmates learned for the first time there was a student like him in the school.

 

Tachibana Rei, a senior, whispered to her friend, “Did we have a classmate like that? He’s so intimidating. Is he even our age—I thought he was a teacher.”

 

“He’s scary,” murmured her friend. “Why couldn’t we have cast someone else as the Prince? Like that handsome transfer student who played Romeo in junior high.”

 

“Didn’t you hear? Tomoyo-chan is going with the dark, Goth theme for this production of Cinderella,” interjected Naoko. “There’s no one darker or more ominous than Li Jinyu.”

 

“Well, I guess that theme hasn’t been done before,” said Rei. “That explains the depressed-looking cast.”

 

Jinyu was positively glowering as the buzz around the classroom grew louder as nobody paid any attention to what was happening in the initial read-through. Not that Eron looked much happier to be paired with the expressionless and gloomy Jinyu. It may even have been tougher for Eron. Unlike Jinyu who did not care about what others thought about him, Eron cared, a lot.

 

“Would. You. Like. To. Dance. With. Me,” said Jinyu stiltedly, staring down at the script as if it was written in hieroglyphics. 

 

And Eron stared at Jinyu, jaw dropping. He turned around and grabbed Tomoyo’s arm desperately. “I can’t do this with him, Tomoyo. I just can’t.”

 

“I’m sure you can. I wouldn’t have cast you if I didn’t believe you didn’t you had it in you, Eron-kun,” replied Tomoyo merrily.

 

“Sadist,” muttered Eron. “You’re getting back at me for daring to date Sakura, aren’t you?”

 

Tomoyo laughed. “It was Eriol who casted you, not me. You were not my first choice.”

 

“Li Jinyu-senpai going to ruin the play!” whispered Rika.

 

“Maybe he’s not fluent in Japanese,” said Naoko.

 

“He’s worse than his cousin Li Syaoran!” groaned Chiharu.

 

“Oh, but Li-kun did a fantastic job as Romeo in Star-Crossed two years ago,” said another female classmate.

 

Shaking her head, Naoko said, “You were not in our junior high, so you apparently didn’t see the rehearsals—he was stiff the whole time and only pulled through the final night. Oh, and don’t even mention Sleeping Beauty in elementary school. Now that was pretty awful, though Sakura-chan managed to pull the play through as the Prince.”

 

“I’m sure Jinyu-senpai will pull through as well. He must,” said Tomoyo resolutely. “This is just the first rehearsal.

 

“I don’t know, this is a whole new level of bad acting,” remarked Eron. “You might do best to recast the Prince.”

 

Tomoyo smiled sweetly. “You know I would cast Syaoran as Prince then. Which Li would you prefer?”

 

Paling, Eron sighed. “I’ll make it work.”

 

Resuming the Third Act, Eron sized up Li Jinyu. The Black Dragon was taller, built like a seasoned martial artist. To his knowledge, Syaoran might be considered the top swordsman of his generation, but there was allegedly nobody who could beat Jinyu in hand-to-hand combat. Erika seemed to think Jinyu to be harmless, and disturbingly enough was rather fond of the mafia boss. She always had been attracted to the lone-dog types. Eron too had no hard feelings against Jinyu, yet.

 

Up close, Eron realized for the first time Jinyu’s slanted eyes, usually covered by ink black bangs, were vivid amber—almost garnet. His brows were black and furrowed down, serious and tense. He asked the Black Dragon dryly, “So, how did they blackmail you into showing up for rehearsal?”

 

Jinyu stared back, as if he didn’t understand his question.

 

“Look, I’m not any more thrilled to be in this play as the titular character than you are. But at least you won’t be the one in a frilly dress,” hissed Eron.

 

And Jinyu continued to stare down at him with those glassy ruby eyes.

 

Eron continued, “I’m not expecting you to act well—heck, all I want to do is get through this cultural festival without becoming the laughingstock of the school. All I ask you to do is to say your lines. I don’t expect anything more.”

 

“Okay.”

 

And Eron gawked. Okay? Just okay? Nothing seemed okay. He was not only cast as Cinderella, but his partner had to be the very last person in this school he wanted to be left in a room with. Well, he would prefer Jinyu to Syaoran, but just barely. He sighed. “I should have signed up for the orchestra.” Then, he could be practicing with Sakura instead of worrying for his own life while partnered up with the mafia king. For he had to admit, Jinyu, even in a school setting, was quite intimidating.

 

Aki, vice president of the Seijou High School student council, glanced at Tomoyo, who actually beginning to look a bit worried. “I got the auditorium time schedule as you requested,” he told her. “We still have a lot of time ahead of the cultural festival, so don’t stress too much.”

 

“Thanks,” Tomoyo said with a small smile. “I’m going to the storage room to check out what supplies there are, and what we can reuse from previous productions.”

 

“I’ll come with you,” said Aki.

 

“It’s all right, you’d be busy with supervising the cultural festival preparation, and also memorizing your lines for the play,” Tomoyo said. “I can go by myself.”

 

Aki said, “What if there’s something heavy to lift? Besides, I have like three lines in the play.”

 

“Should I get Eriol-kun write you more lines?” asked Tomoyo.

 

“No thanks, I’m occupied as is with this student council activities and this stupid university survey—my father thinks I can get into Tokyo University with my grades,” said Aki, as they headed towards the storage room.

 

“You probably can,” said Tomoyo. “You always score in the top ten percentile.”

 

“If I’m not first, that’s not good enough,” muttered Aki. “I’ll never be as smart as my eldest brother, no matter how much I study, nor as talented and popular as my sister.”

 

Tomoyo turned to him. “Aki-kun, I think it’s a good thing to push yourself to be the best version of yourself. But I think the Aki-kun now is great just as is.”

 

And Aki suddenly blushed crimson. “You think I’m great, Tomoyo-chan?”

 

But Tomoyo was unlocking the storage room and completely distracted. She clasped her hands in delight. “Oh look at the props galore. We can definitely refuse that Styrofoam pumpkin carriage if we paint it over in orange and sprinkle some glitter on it. And look at these dresses—we can add some more trimmings and ribbons, and they can be used for the extras for the ballroom scene.”

 

“Ugh, it’s so dusty in here,” said Aki, covering his nose with his mouth. “Looks like it hasn’t been touched in years.”

 

“Of course—I’m raiding the storage room before the other classes remember about it,” said Tomoyo. “So we can get first picks.” She suddenly halted.

 

Aki followed Tomoyo’s gaze. “What is it?”

 

“I thought I saw something whitish move up there,” replied Tomoyo, resuming sorting through the box of swords and plastic weaponry.

 

“A mouse?” asked Aki. “Or a g-ghost?”

 

“I think it’s neither,” said Tomoyo. “Oh, it reminds me of the seven mysteries of our school. Of the boy who killed his cheating girlfriend. The storage room is supposed to be where her hand was hidden.” Tomoyo reached into the box then suddenly went still.

 

“W-what is it?” stammered Aki.

 

“Look!” said Tomoyo drawing out something shaped like an arm and throwing it at Aki.

 

Aki shrieked, holding it at a distance, before realizing it was simply a mannequin arm.

 

Tomoyo giggled. “You’re almost as bad as Sakura-chan. Oh, I should lock her in here with Syaoran-kun, sometime.”

 

“That’s evil,” muttered Aki.

 

“That’s not evil,” said Tomoyo. “What’s evil is I’d want to install hidden cameras and record it.” This time, Tomoyo was sure she saw it again. She craned her neck to see what was on the top storage shelf. “I heard from Yukito-san that there should be a pair of glass slippers from their production. It must be further back there, since it was seven years ago. I’m climbing up there.” She took grip of the ladder.

 

“Y-you can’t go up there!” exclaimed Aki. “I-I’ll go up!”

 

“It’s all right, I got it,” said Tomoyo, as she pawed through different boxes that took her back to cultural festivals of past years. “I like looking through stuff like this.” She had gotten nearly to the top of the ladder, when she spotted a box labeled Class 2-2—Yukito and Touya’s old class. She reached a little bit further to get a hold of the box. And then, she saw a pair of eye blink at her. Before she realized it, the ladder was slipping over, and she was falling backward, box in arm. She thought she heard Aki call her name.

 

And then, she felt a throbbing ache in her right leg, as if something had snapped.

 

Aki ran up to her. “Tomoyo-chan! Tomoyo-chan, are you all right? Can you hold on to me? I’ll take you straight to the infirmary! Hang in there!” 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Leiyun let out a yawn as he flipped a page of a new Shounen Jump issue. “How come this darned manga series still hasn’t finished even after eight years?” he grumbled. “You’d think since I came back from the dead, I’d at least deserve some ending to this dratted, never-ending story.”  

 

And the infirmary door crashed open. Akagi Aki, carrying Tomoyo in his arms, cried out, “Li-sensei! Li-sensei! Tomoyo-chan is hurt! You’ve got to save her!”

 

Slowly, Leiyun shut his comic book and stared up at Aki with half-shut eyes. “You do realize if the patient is really injured, you should not have moved her?”

 

“Hurry up, take a look at her!” shouted Aki.

 

“Well, set her over there on the bed,” said Leiyun.

 

Tomoyo said weakly, “Aki-kun, I can walk by myself. I just tumbled a little, that’s all.”

 

“You’re bleeding!” exclaimed Aki. “And falling off the ladder is not just tumbling a little!”

 

Leiyun walked over toward the infirmary bed. “Calm down, boy. Tell me what happened.”

 

“We were in the storage room, and one second, Tomoyo was on the ladder getting a box, and the next second, she was falling,” said Aki.

 

“Well, aren’t you a clumsy one?” said Leiyun, glancing down at to a pale Tomoyo, who despite being in visible pain was trying to smile in order not to worry Aki. He prodded her knee gently. “Does that hurt?”

 

Tomoyo shook her head. He then he pressed her ankle. She winced. He gently took her foot, tossed off her shoe, and tried to move it in a circular motion. She gasped out loud.

 

“Looks like a stretched ligament,” Leiyun remarked.

 

“Are you sure?” demanded Aki. “I think we need to take an X-ray. She fell several feet off the ladder. What if she has a concussion?”

 

“Did you hit your head?” asked Leiyun.

 

Tomoyo shook her head. “No, I tripped over the rung. I wasn’t paying attention because I thought I saw something moving behind the shelves. It felt like the ladder shifted beneath me, and I fell on my side.”

 

“It’s the g-ghost!” exclaimed Aki. “Li-sensei, I saw the ladder move too! It must have been a ghost!”

 

“Aki, you are being more of a nuisance than any help. If you were a man, you would have been the one on the ladder. Thank you for bringing Tomoyo to the infirmary. Now, get out,” commanded Leiyun.

 

“But—” Aki stared at Tomoyo helplessly.

 

“I’m fine, Aki-kun, I’m really fine. Sorry for making you worry,” said Tomoyo. “Li-sensei said it’s a strained ligament, so no need for you to stick around.”

 

And Leiyun ushered Aki out of the room. “Good riddance,” he said, shutting the infirmary door. “Next time you fall off a ladder, don’t let that blithering idiot carry you around and jolt you around like that. What if you did have a concoction, or worse?”

 

“But I don’t,” said Tomoyo.

 

“Luckily, you don’t,” Leiyun said with a frown, examining her right ankle again. “It’ll heal just fine in a week or so. We’ll just bandage it up and put some ice on it.”

 

She stared up at Leiyun, wondering if he meant he was actually going to treat her. To her unease, his pale, glass-like eyes were fixed upon her.  

 

“Your stockings.”

 

“What?”

 

“If you don’t mind, I’m going to have to tear them off,” Leiyun informed her.

 

Tomoyo stared down at the large gashes on both knees and the run on one side of her black stockings. Without awaiting her consent, Leiyun took out a pocketknife and slit away what remained of the shredded stockings. “I’m going to disinfect your banged up knees first, and then we’ll bandage this foot up.”

 

He soaked gauze held with a metal tong with antiseptic at the counter then walked back towards Tomoyo. Finding her staring up at him with rounded amethyst eyes, he suddenly laughed. “What, are you scared because you know I don’t actually have a medical degree? He sat down on the stool next to the bed, and proceeded to dab the scrape on her scraped right knee first with the cotton swab. “It’s going to sting a bit—hang on.”

 

Tomoyo bit her lip, for it did sting. He rubbed some ointment on the scrapes and slapped Band-Aids over them. And he took her bare foot and gave her right ankle a squeeze. She stifled a yelp.

 

“Try wriggling your toes.” She did, despite herself. “It’s already swelling—nasty sprain but you’ll survive,” he told her. “You’re lucky you suffered no broken bones.”

 

“I’m going to call my bodyguards—they’ll take me to the hospital where I can get an X-ray,” Tomoyo said.

 

“Pshaw, who goes to the hospital over a little sprained ankle?” said Leiyun. Then he glanced down at her and told her, not unkindly, “Don’t worry, Lis are trained basic first aid from an early age. It’s necessary for self-survival. But really, this is something any athlete on a school sports team should be able to handle.”

 

He proceeded to deftly bandage up her ankle with the gauze and secured the end. Then he took several ice packages out of the freezer, wrapped it in a towel, and placed it on her throbbing ankle. He helped her prop that leg atop a pillow, and Tomoyo finally relaxed.

 

“See, that wasn’t too bad, was it? No amputated leg. No blood and gore. Yet.” When he saw her somewhat befuddled expression, he chuckled. “I’m kidding. You Star Alliance kids have no sense of humor.”

 

Tomoyo remarked, “You are good at this.”

 

He smiled thinly. “I think you meant to say, you are surprised I am actually not a quack. Well, there was a time when I was in elementary school, I thought I wanted to become a doctor.”

 

It did not fit her image of him. “Why a doctor?”

 

“I probably wanted to heal people,” said Leiyun. “Of course, my father wasn’t keen on the idea. He wanted me to become the Chosen One. My cousin Jingmei on the other hand swore she would never become a doctor because she grew up in a household of doctors and healers.”

 

“And do you still want to be a doctor?” asked Tomoyo.

 

The corner of his eyes crinkled. “You mean, am I role-playing as a doctor now as some sort of perverse wish-fulfillment? Tomoyo, I am not so asinine.”

 

“Then, what do you want?”

 

“At this moment,” he said, his long, pale lashes flickering, “I want to get inside that pretty head of yours.” His fingers brushed her bare calf. “It’s going to continue to swell for a few hours. Take it easy, and do not put pressure on your right foot. I’ll find you a pair of crutches. I think your friends are here to check if you are in one piece after going through me.”

 

What did that mean, she wanted to ask, but Tomoyo heard a pitter-pat of footsteps, and a girl with widened emerald eyes and flushed cheeks came bursting into the infirmary.

 

“Tomoyo-chan, are you okay?” exclaimed Sakura, hands clenched into small fists, light brown hair in a messy cloud around her face. She was in her sky-blue and white cheerleading uniform—she must have come straight from practice. “I just heard from Aki-kun. What happened?” She glared up at Leiyun accusingly. “Did he—”

 

“I’m fine,” said Tomoyo with a small smile. “Just fell over my own feet in the storage room.”

 

“Akagi-kun didn’t make it sound that way—he said you had a nasty tumble off the ladder,” said a male voice behind Sakura.

 

Eriol stepped forward, and took a glance down at Tomoyo, at the shredded remains of her discarded black stockings, her scraped up knees and the foot propped up on the pillow. “What did you do to yourself?” he asked her, but his gaze was upon Leiyun.

 

“Li-sensei helped treat it—it’s no big deal. My bodyguards are going to come pick me up soon. I’m fine,” said Tomoyo.

 

“It doesn’t look fine,” said Sakura, peering over at the Tomoyo’s elevated foot. “It’s not broken?”

 

“I don’t think so. Li-sensei said it isn’t,” replied Tomoyo.

 

“You trust him?” asked Sakura not too quietly. 

 

“Yeah—he did a good job examining it,” said Tomoyo.

 

Leiyun came back with a pair of wooden crutches. “What a dismal supply closet. It seems like these are the only ones available at the moment—you can always order ones that are height adjustable later when you get a chance. But you will have to make do with this for now. Let me check if this will work. Can you get up?” Tomoyo hobbled up, with the help of Sakura, and tried the crutches. They were too tall for her.

 

“Hmm… that won’t do.” Leiyun with a little frown, sized up the crutches, and then took them. Tomoyo took a seat again, and watched Leiyun pull out a pocket knife.

 

Instinctively, Sakura tensed. But then, to her surprise, she watched Leiyun pop off the rubber bottom of one crutch and hack away at the end of the wood, then carefully whittle it into a rounded shape. He repeated the process with the other crutch. Then, he plugged the rubber tips back on each end.

 

How strange, Sakura thought. At moments like this, there was a side of Leiyun that reminded her of Syaoran, Syaoran who was nifty with his fingers, Syaoran who had a serious look on his face, brows furrowed down, when engaged in a project, Syaoran who had once whittled a wooden wolf for her.

 

“Here, try it,” said Leiyun, handing back the crutches to Tomoyo. They fit her perfectly, though it seemed like Leiyun had only eyeballed her height. “Now, I’m sure our Card Mistress or Former Strongest Sorcerer of the East and West could produce something much higher quality with a snap of their fingers. But, sometimes, the good old touch of the hand can equally suffice. And I don’t believe much in wasteful magic. ”

 

“Thank you. It works well,” said Tomoyo almost shyly, as she tried out the crutches. She found she could hop around well enough with them.

 

“Your car arrived, come let’s go,” said Sakura, protectively ushering Tomoyo out of the infirmary, and Eriol slid shut the infirmary door behind them.