Chapter 73: The Other Side of Midnight

 

 

 

******

 

 

A little past midnight, Sunday, the day of the Li Group board meeting…

 

 

Li Syaoran watched the girl sitting awkwardly on the edge of his bed atop the plaid green duvet cover, her back turned from him. Her short hair was slightly damp from her bath, and little golden brown tendrils fell out of a loose ponytail, down her slim neck.

 

A few months ago, he was not even sure he would be able to return to this country, this apartment, to her side. And yet, against all odds, here she was, just an arm’s length away. He lifted his left hand, fingers outstretched so that if she tilted just an inch backward, he would be able to touch her. So close, and yet, she felt further from him than ever. There was a time she would confide in him her deepest thoughts and worries, and there was a time when he could read her, just by watching her always changing expressions, the way her smooth brows would crease every so slightly, or her lower lip would quiver. Yet, in that span of a year since they were separated, turned their backs and stamped out their memories of each other, traveled to the Dragon Isles, and reconciled, there was this girl that he could no longer read, no longer completely understand. Was that the price he had to pay for the gamble he took, to return here, to be with her?

 

Withdrawing his hand, he shifted, turning around on the bed. He uttered a question that had weighed heavy on his heart over the past year. “Why did you go out with Eron?”

 

After some time, she replied, “I don’t know.” She hesitated. “I wanted to make him happy.”

 

It was a very Sakura-like answer. He was staring at the wallpaper on the far wall and missed a queer, strained expression that washed over her face. And he asked quietly, “Would you have dated him, even if you hadn’t lost your memories?”

 

“Yes, I think I would have.”

 

Usually he appreciated her honesty, but he almost felt reproachful toward her for those words he had dreaded hearing. Syaoran was glad that he was not facing her, for he knew he would frighten her if she could see him now. This unspoken wall between them that he had never noticed before. Had it always been there? Had he just never noticed? Chang Eron. Since the moment he had appeared in their lives three years ago, Syaoran had loathed him, not because he was a Dark One, not because he was a descendant of Chang Ruichi and the son of Chang Ryouta, his fathers’ nemesis, but because he was who he was. Eron had always been lurking near Sakura, with that possessive look in his eyes, biding his time. Syaoran regretted asking, for some things are better left unsaid, unheard. Yet, he also felt a perverse sense of relief, that it had been inevitable, for it was easier to blame inevitability than his own mistakes and missteps.

 

Because he had nothing to say, he shut his eyes, trying to summon asleep. The Li Group Japan board meeting would be held in several hours, and he hadn’t done any preparation for his presentation since Friday, when Sakura appeared in front of his doorsteps as his manager for the weekend, and Meilin took off for the gymnastics meet. Syaoran hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night either, since Sakura dozed off in the midst of labeling files, a most fascinating process to watch. Her eyes began to droop, then her head bobbed back and forth, and finally she collapsed, forehead first, into the pile of papers. He had leaned over on the table, chin on his arms, watching paper flutter from her soft breath. Before he did anything stupid, he had carried her and dumped her into his bedroom—the nearest room—and shut the door behind him as quickly as possible.

 

Sakura must have thought he had fallen asleep, for her weight shifted from the other end of the bed and the springs creaked. She whispered, “I’ll turn off the lamp then,” reaching for the switch.

 

Darkness. He had never been afraid of darkness, or of being alone, until he had entered the place in between dimensions, or as some called it, Limbo. He had not known what true solitude was, what despair was, until he had entered that place. If Sakura had not called him back, he would still be there in the Cavern of Reservoirs. Even now, he did not want to be alone, trapped in his mind, in the web of his greatest fears and anxieties. He uttered the only word he could think of at that moment, “Stay.” He wasn’t sure if Sakura would, and yet, she did.

 

He did not know who fell asleep first. But when he woke again, from what seemed like deep slumber, there was an unfamiliar warmth by his side. This could be the dream, and the real Syaoran could still be trapped in the Cavern of Reservoirs, in between time and dimensions, and yet, he did not care what was real or not. He gently pulled the duvet cover over Sakura, and brushed away that wisp of hair that always curled in toward her mouth. She let out a little sigh and shifted, so that her body was pressed up to him uncomfortably closely.

 

“Who said the spell has to break at midnight?” he murmured. He almost thought she had heard him, as she rolled over toward him, arms splayed, and cuddled up against him, head burrowed against his chest, fingers curling around his back. Her chest heaved up and down, so he knew she was fast asleep. An unfamiliar realization flitted across his mind for a split second, and just like the burst of sunlight at dawn, all his anxieties instantly melted away.

 

She mumbled happily in her sleep, “Bear.”

 

And this time, Syaoran let out a long sigh, thinking there goes another night of sleep, and murmured in her ear, “If you wish, bear I shall be. Bear I am. I am just a bear.”

 

His sisters had dressed him up in a teddy bear bodysuit once, when he was in kindergarten and wouldn’t unzip him all day long—he had been so miserable and hot and hated all the attention he received that Halloween. Fanren had made the suit, and Shiefa held him down, while Feimei zipped him in. But it had been his oldest sister, Fuutie, who had issued the order. Fuutie had always been the mastermind, the sister who ran the family since their father died when she was only 10. He had been too young when their father died, and it was likely Fuutie who was hit hardest by his death, because she had always been closest to Li Ryuuren as the first child. For Syaoran, his father had been a vague memory and became a physical presence only in recent years, since the discovery of his journal. And the recent voyage to the Dragon Isles and back had him thinking of what his father’s final moments would have been like, all alone in a cold, desolate place without his loved ones near.

 

If Sakura had not come with him to the Dragon Isles, he didn’t know if he would have been able to return safely. In that place in between dimensions and suspended from the flow of time, where a second could be eternity and an eternity a second, he had yearned to touch her, feel her, but no matter how far he stretched out his hands, she was separated from him by an invisible barrier. The worst agony had been seeing her right before him and not being able to reach her, no matter how many times he called out her name. Syaoran reached over and cupped Sakura’s pink-flushed cheek in the palm of his hand. She was here, warm, breathing, real. No phantom, ghost or figment of his imagination could be this soft and smell like fresh-cut flowers and honey milk.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Part III: Overture

 

 

 

The first time Li Fuutie saw that woman, she had been seven, and her father was back from a months-long mission and had taken all five siblings out to a Hong Kong department store. It might have been the first and last time Li Ryuuren had taken his four daughters, along with baby Syaoran cradled in one arm, on an outing.

 

They passed by a perfume counter, and a young Fuutie saw a life-size poster of perhaps the most beautiful woman she had ever seen before. The woman had vivid green eyes, so mesmerizing, and long violet curls cascaded around her, like a queen from a fairytale. She was wearing a wispy white lace dress, and she held up a sparkling pink glass bottle of perfume. The perfume lady handed out little pink slips of paper, spritzed with a sweet, floral scent that lingered around the counter.

 

Fuutie could never forget that strange expression on her father’s face, one of yearning, nostalgia, and perhaps another emotion she only realized when she grew older. He whispered a name, “Nadeshiko.”

 

And she also never forgot that foreign word, the name of a flower. It meant pink carnation, she learned later when she studied Japanese.

 

Their father stood in front of that full-length glossy advertisement as in a trance, only interrupted when baby Syaoran gurgled and dropped his stuffed teddy bear on the floor, demanding it to be retrieved by his doting sisters. Fuutie picked up the beaten-up bear for little Syaoran, and he clasped it gleefully, chewing on its ear. They headed up the escalators to the toy store, and Ryuuren did not look behind.

 

Only years later did Fuutie learn from some gossiping aunts that her father’s first love had been a girl he met in Japan, Kinomoto Nadeshiko, born Amamiya Nadeshiko.

 

“Poor Ieran—she waited for him so patiently all those years Ryuuren was in Japan gadding away with that Japanese model—what was her name again?” said one nosey aunt. “That’s right, Nadeshiko.”

 

“He was madly in love with her, I heard—he even told the Great Elder he will leave the Li Clan to be with her. But of course that didn’t work out,” said a second aunt. “She went behind his back and married another man. Her high school homeroom teacher—I heard he got her pregnant. She was only sixteen. How scandalous.”

 

For a long time, Fuutie hated that woman who his father in his youth had loved so dearly and broken his heart. And she found herself resenting Ryuuren for still loving that ethereal, beautiful woman, that he had a past unknown to them, other than as a dutiful husband and father, the infallible Chosen One of the Li Clan.

 

Yet, all these years later, Fuutie thought she could understand her father’s heart at that time, how hard it was to forget the love of his life. She now recognized that what her mother and father had was mutual respect and partnership. Their marriage had been arranged since they were children by their families. It was not love.

 

Even back in elementary school, her cousin Leiyun had been a precocious child, wildly popular with adults and children alike, yet frustratingly shrewd and pragmatic, poison-tongued to his closest circle of friends. “What’s the point of being jealous of a woman on the other side of the ocean?” he asked her, pinpointing a secret she thought she had kept so well-concealed.

 

“I’m not jealous!” she exclaimed, slamming shut the Japanese fashion magazine she had borrowed from her cousin Jingmei, one with a double-page spread of that woman. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

 

“I know what she looks like; you don’t see a face like that every day. Amamiya Nadeshiko. Uncle Ryuuren’s first love,” said Leiyun, his lips curling in a knowing smile. “That violin piece he composed that you like so much. Uncle Ryuuren composed it for that woman, you know.” 

 

“No he didn’t!” a 10-year-old Fuutie had exclaimed. “It’s a tune he composed for Mother!”

 

Leiyun, who was the same age as her, gave her an aggravating worldly look. “It’s called ‘Star-Crossed.’ It’s a tune of longing, unrequited love.”

 

“What do you know about love?” demanded Fuutie, suddenly recalling that her father had never played the song in front of her mother. “You’re just an elementary kid.”

 

“True, what would I know of love,” Leiyun replied with a careless shrug. “We cannot choose the person we will marry, anyway, so why waste the energy? My parents, your parents, they had arranged marriages, as did the generations of Lis before them. Love makes you weak, fragile, vulnerable.”

 

“That’s why I won’t ever fall in love,” said Fuutie, hands clenched.

 

Her cousin swerved around to face her, his turquoise eyes glimmering. “I once heard my father taunting Uncle Ryuuren, calling him foolish, pathetic for losing his heart to that model from Japan who left him for another man. You know what Uncle Ryuuren told him? He said, ‘But isn’t it even sadder not to know of love at all? I’d rather have known of love, of sharing your heart while you can, for that momentary bliss is enough to last you a lifetime.’ And my father’s face turned livid—my parents notoriously despise each other, after all. It was a marvelous scene. Father smashed our priceless heirloom porcelain vase.”

 

Fuutie couldn’t imagine her stoic father, who spoke sparsely and rarely even smiled, would say something so foolhardy, especially to the rigid, harsh Head of the Li Clan Li Wutai, Leiyun’s father. She agreed it was likely Uncle Wutai had never loved another human being in his life other than himself. But she despised that her father, who was always level-headed, almost terse, had an unknown love, the kind of love that would last him a lifetime. He had a past that their family was not a part of, and he still kept that woman so close to his heart even though a decade had passed.

 

She was furious when Ryuuren took Syaoran for a trip to Japan—she should have gone since she was the oldest. And she knew he had gone to see that woman with the name of a flower.    

 

Not long after that, her father departed on that fatal final mission. And she never saw him again.  

 

Fuutie would always remember the day she bid her final farewell to her father by the ocean side. It was also the day she met Wu Zino, and the start of her torrential first love. 

 

 

 

In the middle of the night, 24-year-old Li Fuutie woke up with a start, with wetness on her cheeks. It had been a long time since she had last dreamed of her father. And she opened her eyes to see a gleaming white beast at the foot of her bed in the darkness of the bedroom of her ancestor’s old estate in the outskirts of Tomoeda, Japan. But she did not scream. The White Tiger stared at her with yellow-brown eyes like lamps in the dark, then turned around, heading out the door. And she followed after the beast, clad in her nightgown, walking down the creaky corridor of the Li mansion, turning the corner, heading to the room of the murderer.

 

Just down the hallway, Chang Erika sat up from her bed with a start. It was not unusual to hear footsteps outside in the hallway, with the occupants of the house being nocturnal. Yet something felt off, and she slipped her feet into furry slippers and stepped out into the corridor—there was nobody there. Then, she saw Jinyu’s room door was ajar, which was strange, and she rushed down the hallway. Through the open doorway, she saw on top of Jinyu’s bed a woman in a white satin nightgown, short auburn hair falling into her face. And the woman’s fingers were clenched over the throat of the man lying on the bed.

 

It took a moment before Erika realized that Jinyu was being strangled, and she burst into the room, shouting out loud, “Fuutie-san, stop it!”

 

Fuutie’s fingers tightened around Jinyu’s throat. “Murderer. You killed him. Why did you kill him?” Jinyu stared up at his cousin unblinkingly, not struggling, as Fuutie’s thumb and forefingers enclosed his neck, blocking off all oxygen.

 

By then, the rest of the house had awakened, and Leiyun, Kara, Jingmei and Shiefa, rushed into the room.

 

“Fuutie—what are you doing?” shrieked Shiefa, throwing her arms around Fuutie’s waist, trying to drag her off Jinyu. “Leiyun—help me!”

 

Leiyun grabbed Fuutie’s wrist as she tried to wring Jinyu’s neck.

 

“Let go of me!” cried out Fuutie, striking away Leiyun’s arm. “I want to hear an answer! Jinyu!”

 

“Snap out of it, Fuutie,” said Leiyun, grabbing both her wrists. “You know it wasn’t Jinyu’s fault. If anything, he was as hurt as you are.” 

 

Fuutie retorted, “It’s not as if you were there!”

 

Shiefa finally managed to drag her older sister away from Jinyu, who sat up on his bed, his hand over his throat.

 

“Is he all right?” asked Leiyun to his Jingmei.

 

Jingmei said, “No permanent damage was done. But Fuutie—she looks like she’s in some sort of trance, doesn’t she?”

 

“I saw him. I saw the White Tiger,” said Fuutie in a sing-song voice. “He was here.”

 

“Shiefa, Jingmei, take Fuutie to her room and calm her down,” said Leiyun. “Jin, are you really okay?”

 

“I saw him too,” Jinyu said slowly. “The White Tiger.”

 

Leiyun frown. “Kara and I will try to track this creature and figure out what it really is. Fuutie, go get some rest now. Tomorrow—more like today—is the Li Group board of trustees meeting.”

 

“I can’t stay here,” said a pallid Fuutie, staring at her trembling hands. “I tried to kill Jinyu.”

 

“You’re under the influence of a dark force,” said Leiyun gently. “We’ll find a way to resolve it, don’t worry.”

 

“I'll leave," said Fuutie, shutting her eyes. “I might try to do something to him again.”

 

“No, you stay," said Leiyun. “Jinyu can leave the house for a couple of days.”

 

“That's not right," said Fuutie stiffly. “I'm the problem.”

 

Leiyun replied, “If you are, then I want to be by you just in case. Jinyu, you can get a room at Hoshi Plaza Hotel in Tokyo with Dairen and the others. Or if you want to stay closer, Syaoran’s apartment across town has a spare bedroom.”

 

After the others filed out of the room, Erika turned to the Black Dragon, his long, disheveled ponytail draped over one shoulder, who had not moved an inch from the edge of his bed. “If someone chokes you in the middle of the night, isn’t it natural instinct to fight back?” He did not respond, so she continued, “Are those stories even true, that you killed the previous head of the Hong Kong triads?”

 

Jinyu stared down at his hands. “If truth is what is known as fact, then I suppose yes.”

 

Erika was peeved by his non-answer. She was sure Jinyu would not stay at the hotel, nor Syaoran’s apartment, for she had noticed he did not seem to get along with Dairen and his business cronies. Nor was the triad boss particularly close to Syaoran—they were positively awkward around each other. In fact, the Black Dragon, as it appeared, didn't seem to get along with any of the Lis beside Leiyun. She could tell half the Li Clan was afraid of the triad boss, and the others were wary of him or just liked to keep distance, possibly even shunning him because he was mafia.

 

Few minutes later, Erika, fully dressed, stood at the front door, awaiting Jinyu who walked down the stair well with a black duffel bag slung over his shoulder. “Where are you heading out to?” she called out.

 

He shrugged.

 

“If you don't mind, why don't you come stay at my place?” she said, immediately regretting it the moment she blurted out the offer. He stared at her profusely, and she was sure he was going to turn her down.

 

To her dismay, he replied, “Okay.”

 

Erika swallowed hard. What had possessed her to suggest such a terrible idea? What in the world would Eron say? Would he even allow the Black Dragon in the house? “Well, I was about to head home because I don't really want to stay under the same roof with Syaoran's lunatic sister—I mean, if she attacks you for god knows what reason, what would she do to me? You know, daughter of the man who killed her father.”

 

Jinyu stared at her for a moment after her poor attempt at a joke but followed her out to the streets.

 

“We live walking distance from here,” said Erika. “It's a nice night out, so I guess we can take a stroll—it's around 15 minutes away from here.”

 

“I know,” he said.

 

Erika peeked in through the front door of her house, and to her relief found the lights were off, meaning Eron must be asleep already. “You can come in,” she whispered to Jinyu. She tiptoed across the living room and nearly screamed when Eron in his maroon satin robe stared up at her in the dark, golden eyes identical to her own gleaming like a tabby cat’s.

 

“What are you doing stalking around without the lights on?” asked Erika.

 

“Same goes to you,” said Chang Eron, holding a glass of red wine. His gaze slowly moved from Erika to the Black Dragon. “What is he doing here?” And then it suddenly dawned upon him and he demanded, finger pointed, “Wait, are you two?”

 

“No!” exclaimed Erika, following Eron's train of thought. “He had a family situation—you know Syaoran's crazy sisters are staying at the Li mansion. So I told him he could stay here for a couple of nights.”

 

“Why?” asked a suspicious Eron.

 

“We have like five spare rooms that aren't being used,” Erika replied with a careless shrug.

 

“They're dusty—we only clean our rooms and the living space,” said Eron. “We've never had guests over.”

 

“He doesn't care," said Erika, jerking her head towards Jinyu. “He's the one who lived in the cockroach-infested house. Oh wait, that was because of you releasing the Insect.”

 

“So, he doesn't want to live with Syaoran's psycho sisters, or the sisters don't want to live with mafia?” muttered Eron.

 

Erika whispered to Eron, “Fuutie tried to strangle him this time.”

 

Eron chuckled. “Darn it, she didn't succeed? That's always my primitive reaction, to strangle him when I get on stage with him for Cinderella rehearsals and he fails to deliver the lines, every single time.”

 

“Go to bed,” she told her twin with a sigh, thinking this was going to be a very long week. Erika promptly showed Jinyu to a spare room, wondering why it wasn't awkward at all when she stayed over at the Li mansion, but having him here suddenly felt like an intrusion of her privacy.

 

Odder enough, Eron didn't seem to care much that Jinyu was staying over. She was sure he would throw a bigger fuss at bringing a virtual stranger home. Maybe they had gotten closer during the Cinderella rehearsals. Then again, Eron had always been a more sociable person than she had been. Even back at the orphanage, he had been popular with the kids and staff, while she had only been tolerated because she was his sister. There were many nice elderly couples who had wanted to adopt a pretty, polite boy like him, but they didn’t want her, a sickly, bratty child, and Eron hadn’t wanted to be separated from her. She had spoiled his chance to grow up with loving parents, experience a normal childhood. And she didn’t feel the least bit sorry about it.  

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It was the last day of the regional high school gymnastics meet, and Li Meilin was confident her team would take the gold. One part of her was anxious about the Li Group Japan’s board meeting which should be taking place this very moment, but she had no doubt Sakura would be enough inspiration for Syaoran to do well.

 

“Meilin, you’re up next!” called out her teammate, and she nodded, her attention completely on the floor. 

 

Meilin stood in the center of the floor, toes pointed, in a bedazzling skin-tight crimson leotard with garnet sequence lining the bodice and long sleeves. Her black hair was pulled back into a high ponytail tightly braided. The tantalizing Carmen Fantasy Op. 25 blasted on, and she ran across the mat, crimson ribbon rippling behind her.

 

From the far end of the gymnasium, Mizuki Kai watched Meilin catch the wand of her ribbon deftly with the snap of her wrist, animated like a fiery gypsy, just like three springs ago when he had watched a certain acrobat preparing for the Seijou Junior High circus-themed cultural festival. The streaming red ribbon encircled her like a flaming trail. It was the first time he had watched her in an actual competition. It was clear that there was no other competitor in the gymnasium that could rival her in the slightest bit. There was nothing timid or formulaic about her performance—her powerful jumps, the bend of her wrists, the tilt of her head, with her long black ponytail trailing behind her—everything was sharp, fierce, and bold. She was not mechanically going through a routine, she was unrestrained, dancing, engaging the onlookers with her flaming gaze, her mesmerizing black-lashed eyes flashing like garnets. He may never have seen anything more enticing.

 

After her number came to an end, Meilin, chest heaving, finally caught sight of him watching from a distance, a tall silhouette dressed in black, looking quite like a rock star—or a gangster. He was drawing quite a few curious stares from the students of the host school in his pitch black sunglasses and leather motorcycle jacket, arms crossed, casually leaned against the gymnasium doorway.

 

“Kai! You came!” Meilin exclaimed as he walked up to her with a bottle of water, after the medal ceremony. “How long were you watching?”

 

“Since the beginning—how could I miss the lovely sight of you in that bedazzling skin-tight apparel,” he drawled back. “Kudos to Tomoyo.”

 

Meilin held up the blue ribbon with the large medallion hanging from her neck. “Look, I got a gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics!”

 

“Not even real gold,” remarked Kai, biting the medal.

 

She pouted. “Unlike you, Mr. Archery Champion, it’s my first gold medal.”

 

“Really? Have all the other judges been blind to date?” Kai grinned.

 

“No, I was just never able to train and compete consistently,” replied Meilin. “With all my transferring back and forth from Hong Kong and Japan.”

 

Kai extended a hand. “Well, I’ll have to reward you thoroughly then. Come, let’s go!”

 

“My teammates are waiting in the bus back to Tomoeda.”

 

“Let the coach know you’ll be going separately,” Kai told her. “Go get changed.”

 

“Where are we doing?” asked Meilin.

 

“Anywhere besides home,” he replied with a chuckle. “What were you thinking, lying to Syaoran and Sakura that the gymnastics meet will take all weekend? Where were you thinking of spending the night?”

 

“Oh, I was going to figure it out on my own,” replied Meilin with a casual shrug. “How are they doing? Any progress?”

 

Kai raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know. It’s not like I spent the night with my ear pressed up against our shared wall.”

 

“I was under the impression that you did,” said Meilin. “What were you doing all weekend long then? You’re supposed to help prod them along. Aren’t you good at that?”

 

“I’m not their fairy godmother. I didn’t see them all of yesterday, and today, I drove up early to come watch you, and Syaoran should be in the board meeting right now.”

 

“I wonder how that’s going,” Meilin with a frown. “Maybe it was a bad idea abandoning him before such an important meeting.”

 

“I thought it was unusual of you," remarked Kai. “Weren’t you worried about leaving Syaoran alone before the Li Group board of trustees meeting?”

 

Meilin smiled slightly. “Of course I am. But I trust that he needs Sakura more than he needs me.”

 

“The two just squabble all the time, and I won't be surprised if Sakura distracted him from his work more than aiding him.”

 

“That's exactly what he needs,” replied Meilin. “A distraction. Syaoran's always super-motivated and hardworking. He doesn't know when to stop. Even more so when he's with me, because he will always feel a sense of duty over me. When I was younger, I was hurt because of that barrier I felt, that he was tolerating me because of a sense of obligation. I've gotten over that because I know that's just the kind of considerate person he always has been. But he's different with Sakura. He can be a little bit selfish, a little bit childish. He doesn't feel obligated to be on his best behavior or stand to represent the Li Clan. With her, he can just relax and be himself.”

 

“I see," said Kai with a grin. “You wanted Syaoran to have a break before the big meeting, so he doesn't overwork himself. When did you grow so insightful? What an observant assistant you are. I'm almost jealous.”

 

“Almost?” Meilin asked.

 

“Yeah. I wouldn't want to be micromanaged all the time,” said Kai with a shudder.

 

Scowling, Meilin retorted, “As if anyone can try to manage you. Even Miho's given up by now.”

 

“Well Syaoran’s quite a handful himself. Though I guess he’s a bit helpless when it comes to Sakura.”

 

“You know there's one thing Syaoran enjoys more than bullying Sakura,” said Meilin. “And that's pampering Sakura.”

 

“Something he can enjoy only in private,” murmured Kai with a lopsided grin. “Now, hurry and tell the teacher your guardian came to pick you up. I’ll go start up the engine.”

 

“Who’s my guardian!” she retorted before heading back to the locker room.

 

The other girls had finished changing, and her teammates all gave Meilin a pat on her back and congratulated her. Meilin kept her hair in a ponytail but changed into her casual clothes—a flowing bohemian-style flower-print dress paired with a distressed tan suede jacket. She stuffed her uniform into her duffel bag, glad that she had brought a nice outfit along.

 

“Did your boyfriend come pick you up?” asked one of her teammates.

 

Meilin nodded.

 

“Don’t worry, we’ll transfer your equipment to the bus and make up an excuse to the teacher. Hurry, go.”

 

“Thanks!” Meilin exclaimed. Then she grabbed her duffel bag and ran outside to the parking lot. She quickly spotted the flashy black convertible, and got into the passenger seat. 

 

“Meilin-nee-chan!” exclaimed a shrill voice from the backseat.

 

Meilin gawked at the younger girl. “Miho-chan! You’re here too?”

 

“Why, disappointed?” asked Kai. “You thought it would just be the two of us?”

 

“N-no!” exclaimed Meilin. “But this is a rare sight—the two of you out together.”

 

“Yeah, I’m her chauffeur for the day,” said Kai with a sigh. “Completely ruining my date course. But how often is it that my baby sister asks a favor of me nowadays.”

 

“So, where were you heading to?” asked Meilin.

 

“Mizuki Shrine,” said Kai. “Miho’s never visited and wanted to check it out.”

 

“On Mount Kumatori?” asked Meilin. “Isn’t that quite a drive?”

 

“It’s actually not too far from this school—which is why I was able to stop by and check you out.”

 

“I’ve been badgering onii-chan for weeks to take me, and he always said he was busy,” stated Miho. She held up her DSLR camera. “I’m also covering the girls’ gymnastic team’s victory for our school paper, so I’m killing two birds with one stone. By the way, you were marvelous—congratulations on the gold medal! I wish I was that athletic, but I’m as flexible as a wooden stick. I especially loved your ribbon routine—you were the best!”

 

“Sakura-chan’s really good too,” remarked Meilin graciously. “But I’m a little better.”

 

After late lunch at a ramen shop, Kai drove them as far up into Mount Kumatori as possible, and parked his car when the road came to an end. They had to go up the rest of the way on foot. Meilin kicked off her pretty pumps and stuffed her feet into her gym sneakers from her duffel bag.

 

It was fascinating to watch Kai meld into the forests, for she had always thought him to be an urbanite. But the chameleon that he was, he blended right into the woods, as if he had always lived here in the mountains. He would have probably sped up the mountain much quicker, but seemed to pace himself so that Miho—who was not having a good time hiking—could keep up.

 

And the further they walked up an overgrown path, as they climbed deeper and deeper into the mountains, the more it felt like they were being transported back into the past. They finally reached the bottom of steep stone stairs leading up to a Shinto shrine at the top of the summit. At the top of the steps was a red torii structure, which marked the entrance of the shrine. It was Meilin’s second time coming here with Kai. Nothing had changed since their last visit, except the trees were a lush green, rather than the autumnal hues of red and gold.

 

“So this is the Mizuki Shrine,” said Miho in awe, craning her neck. “The home of our ancestors. And where you stayed, nii-chan, after you left home, for a while, right?”

 

“Yeah.” He placed his palms together and bowed his head in quiet prayer. “I’m back, Mayura-sama. How have you been doing?”

 

“Is she still here?” asked Miho, glancing around.

 

“No.” Kai said, slowly walking around the shrine, which was surprisingly well kept.

 

“Kaho-san comes here every so often to keep it maintained,” said Miho. “But she never brought me along.”

 

“There are many ancient forces lying here deep in the woods of Mount Kumatori, better left undisturbed,” Kai murmured, placing a hand on a tree trunk. “It is not a safe place to wander about.”

 

“But you lived here, alone, for half a year,” said Miho, peaking inside the temple and seeing the bare wood floors. “How did you survive in a place like this?” She could see a twelve-year-old boy with auburn hair, sitting on the floor, by himself, in this isolated, lonely place.

 

He smiled ruefully. “I wasn’t completely alone. There was Mayura-sama.”

 

“I wish I could have met Mayura-sama as well,” said Miho ruefully.

 

“You might still get a chance to, someday,” replied Kai.

 

“I hope so. There are so many questions I would have liked to ask her.”

 

“She probably wouldn’t answer,” said Kai. “She’s very good at evading questions.”

 

“I guess she’s kind of like you in that way,” Miho pointed out.

 

Meilin awkwardly folded her hand in front of her, feeling as if she were intruding on a sacred, private sibling moment. She had felt somewhat special when Kai had brought her up here last time. It was as if he had finally stripped off a mask and was revealing a part of himself that he had never shared with anyone else with her. Of course, she couldn’t be jealous of Miho, the little sister he had given up everything in order to protect. And they would have so much to catch up on because of those lost years that could never be recovered.

 

“Last time we were here on a school trip, Meilin snuck into the boys’ cabin in the middle of the night to see me because she could bear to be apart form me,” said Kai teasingly.

 

“I did not!” said Meilin, blushing red.

 

Miho sighed. “I so wanted to be in high school and go on that trip with you guys back then.”

 

Kai shook his head. “Oh no you didn’t. It was absolutely chaos, with Sakura losing her sight because of the Veil, and her power totally wacky because she was operating on the moon power, and Syaoran lurking around but pretending not to be here.”

 

“I can’t believe you kept it a secret from me that Syaoran was at Mount Kumatori that time,” said Meilin. “And that it was Syaoran who saved Sakura from falling off the cliff, not Eron. How come he reached out to you and not me?”

 

“He was hiding his presence from Sakura at that time, it couldn’t be helped,” replied Kai.

 

“So much happened during that trip,” sighed Miho. “I’m bummed I missed all the fun.”

 

“It was not fun!” Meilin and Kai said simultaneously.

 

“Well, thank goodness our Sakura-chan’s back to normal, and Syaoran’s no longer a puppet of the Li Clan Elders,” said Kai, clearing his throat.  

 

“True,” said a female voice from behind the trees. “Syaoran isn’t the complete bore I used to think he was, now that he’s actually standing up for himself.”

 

“Kara Reed!” exclaimed Miho, as the blonde older girl, dressed in tight black leather shorts and an oversized boat-necked black-and-red striped sweater, stepped out from between the trees. A silver cross pendant on a black choker matched her cross-shaped earrings.

 

Meilin’s eyes flitted to Kai, who did not seem startled at all. When had he noticed Kara was here? Or had he known she was going to be here? Had they planned to meet?

 

“What are you doing here, Rido-senpai?” demanded Miho.

 

“Enjoying the fresh mountain air,” replied Kara with a yawn.

 

Behind her, Chang Erika swatted at the flies and grumbled, “Darned Leiyun making us come up here. It’s so humid.”

 

“This is a sacred place, not for the likes of you to be here,” stated Miho with a frown as Jinyu appeared from behind them, a butterfly fluttering around his nose.

 

“Shouldn’t you be at the Li Clan board meeting?” Meilin asked Jinyu.

 

Kara smiled crookedly. “What, and flaunt the Li Group’s connection with the Hong Kong triads to the board of trustees?” She circled the shrine and came upon a tall tree and halted. Suddenly quiet, she traced the tally marks carved into the bark with the tip of her fingers.

 

With a frown, Kai told her, “You won’t find it here.”

 

“What do you think we are here for?” asked Kara, with a tilt of her head.

 

Meilin’s eyes flitted between Kara and Kai. When the two of them were together, they always seemed lost in their own world, speaking their own language, reacting off of each other through discreet glances. And Kai, who was usually so lax around everyone else, was always on the edge with her.

 

It was Miho who first declared with a shudder, “Don’t you feel some immensely strong force?”

 

Meilin spun around, and even without any powers, she heard unearthly wailing sounds from all around them. Miho let out a yelp and collapsed onto her knees, clutching her palms over her ears. Flocks of different woodland birds flew overhead, westward.

 

“What’s that?” Meilin exclaimed.

 

“The seal on Mount Kumatori has collapsed,” said Kai grimly.

 

Meilin blinked. “There was a seal on Mount Kumatori?”

 

“Of course. It’s a sacred place for the Great Five,” replied Kai. “And also for the Mizuki family.”

 

“So, what does it mean that this seal is broken?” asked Meilin with a frown.

 

But it was Miho who pointed behind them to distance and said, “Look!”

 

They were surrounded by blue flame, like the other night, but this time, it was much fiercer and taller, as it could swallow the mountain whole.

 

“It’s yokai fire!” exclaimed Miho.

 

“We’ve got to escape!” exclaimed Meilin, trying to walk toward the shrine steps, but Kai grabbed her by her wrist.

 

“This is the safest place on the mountain right now,” said Kai. “There are extra powerful barriers around the shrine. Nothing will be able to penetrate here, at least for now.” 

 

“What is that?” said Erika, pointing to the distance.

 

A huge, grotesque creature, taller than all the trees surrounding them, rose up to its full height, turning toward them.

 

“King Kong!” exclaimed Meilin.

 

“Godzilla?” Miho said.


“There, you did it, you’ve awakened the great mountain ogre,” muttered Kai. “It has a nasty temper, and Mayura-sama said the Great Five had a terrible time sealing that one.”

 

Miho glared at Erika. “Why did you break the seal?”

 

“Who said it was me!” retorted Erika.

 

“Who else?” replied Miho.

 

Kai circled around the shrine and remarked, “The barrier around the shrine was originally near indestructible, so long as Mayura-sama’s spirit guarded the place. But I don’t know how long it will hold up because she is no longer here.”

 

“What are you doing?” asked Erika with a frown as she watched Kai retrieve a wood bow from the storage room, along with a quiver of feather-tipped arrows.

 

“Arming myself,” said Kai, restringing the old bow. “You guys probably need to brace yourself as well. Once the barrier around the shrine completely collapses I can probably take down the ogre but as for the other yokai and mountain spirits out there, I don’t know how many are lurking and how many will attack us. They’ve been sealed for a long time, they will be very hungry and agitated.”

 

“Hungry? It’s not like they eat humans,” said Erika, laughing nervously. “Why are you talking as if we are in some great peril? I’m sick of the mountains, I’m leaving.” She stomped up toward the edge of the barrier and tried to pass through, but Kai reached out and pulled her back.

 

“Idiot, that barrier works both ways,” exclaimed Kai. “It’s an emergency offense-type barrier, which works both ways—it will fry what ever tries to come in and what ever tries to go out, and until someone works out how to lift it, we’re stuck in here.”

 

“What sort of nonsense logic is that—I’m going to leave!” declared Erika. To prove his point, Kai strung an arrow to his bow and let it loose. The arrow flew out in an arc, and as it struck what must have been the edge of the barrier, it burst into flames and dissolved into ashes.

 

“W-what kind of barrier is that?” demanded Erika.

 

Kai stared up at the overcast sky. “This was the spot where the Dark One was killed. The Four set a trap on him. They made it so that when there is too much dark energy gathered here, the barrier would be activated. If they failed to kill him, they planned to trap him here eternally. But Plan B did not take place because Ruichi-sama was killed that night by Mizuki Mayura’s arrow.”

 

Meilin shuddered, feeling a chill in her bones as if the ghost of Chang Ruichi was still there.

 

“Eternally?” squeaked Erika. “Don’t be silly, lift the barrier, so we can all go home.”

 

“I’m afraid it’s not within my powers to do so,” said Kai. “I was always weak at barriers in general, and Mayura-sama never got around to telling me how to properly control the shrine barrier. Besides, it was placed by the Great Five, so I imagine the only person who will be able to figure out how to lift it will be someone at the rank of Clow Reed, the master of barriers, himself.”

 

Miho muttered to herself, “Eriol, I have to call Eriol. Please there be reception up here.” She held up her mobile phone, checking the bars. “No! We don’t have reception up here. We’re stuck!”

 

With a long sigh, Kai handed her his phone. “Try mine.”

 

To Miho’s relief, the signal went through.

 

“Why does only your phone work?” demanded Erika.

 

Kai smirked. “It will be released in the market next year if test trials run smoothly. We’re taking preorders though.”

 

Jinyu looked contemplative, and Kara turned to the mafia boss. “Don’t you even think about buying it—it’ll probably be wiretapped anyway.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Setting down a dandelion ball gown she was sewing for the school play, Daidouji Tomoyo heaved a wistful sigh as her Sunday unfolded painstakingly slowly. “I wonder how Sakura and Syaoran are doing in Tokyo. I wish I can go spy on them.”

 

“We can, if you want to,” said her partner in crime, Hiiragizawa Eriol, who was patiently sewing on little gold sequins in flower swirls onto the billowing skirt, as directed by Tomoyo. His parlor had transformed into a sewing factory over that weekend.

 

“Don’t tempt me. I have to finish this ball gown today,” mumbled Tomoyo. “The Li Clan board meeting should be long over, but Sakura hasn’t called me once, all weekend long. That’s a good sign, right? She usually texts me at least once a day, more like ten times. But not one single message.” 

 

Akizuki Nakuru came in with the cordless phone and said, “Miho-chan is asking for you, Eriol. Looks like she’s in a pinch.”

 

Eriol set down the case of sequins and took the phone. He listened quietly and said, “Okay, I got it. Stay put. We’ll be there.”

 

With a frown, Tomoyo glanced up at Eriol. “Did something happen to Miho-chan?”

 

“I have to head over to Mount Kumatori,” said Eriol.

 

“Mount Kumatori? Why? Can I come along?” asked Tomoyo.

 

“What about the ball gown?”

 

“I’m not making much progress anyway, with me wondering how Sakura and Syaoran are doing,” replied Tomoyo, tossing the dress into her sewing basket. “I will welcome the distraction.”

 

Crawling out of the rolls off fabric, Kero-chan, who had been staying at Eriol’s while his mistress was summoned as Syaoran’s assistant over the weekend, remarked, “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

 

Suppi-chan said, “Miho should have more sense than to go to Mount Kumatori alone.”

 

“She’s with her brother and Meilin,” said Mizuki Kaho. “And the Mizuki Shrine will protect them from harm.”

 

“Harm from what?” asked Tomoyo.

 

“I’ll start up the car,” said Nakuru, who was off on Sundays.

 

Eriol did not seem surprised when Eron, who lived only a block away, was waiting by the gateway. “You’re heading to Mount Kumatori, right? Give me a ride.”

 

“How did you know?” asked Tomoyo.

 

Eron replied grimly, “I think Erika’s up there too.”

 

“Is that twin telepathy?” Tomoyo remarked. “So, what exactly is going on up there?”

 

Eron said, “Someone released the seal on Mount Kumatori, a sacred location. Yokai, demons, evil spirits and whatever else lurks on that mountain have all been freed for the first time in a century and a half.”

 

“That doesn’t sound good,” murmured Tomoyo, unable to contain her grin.

 

It was tight in the blue Beetle with Nakuru driving and Kaho in the front seat, and Tomoyo squeezed between Eron and Eriol in the back, with Suppi-chan and Kero-chan in her bag. She almost regretted not calling her bodyguards as Nakuru took a sharp turn and sent the backseat passengers hurling to the right. Tomoyo, untangling herself from Eriol’s lap, wondered if the rattling vintage car would be able to make it up the steep Mount Kumatori. Did Nakuru even have a legitimate driver’s license?

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

A woman with long auburn hair tied back with a white band, dressed in the red hakama of a miko swept the dead leaves of the stone stairs leading up to the shrine with a broom. Out of the corner of her eyes, she watched the Chinese girl with jet-black hair, dressed in a forest green cheongsam, dash at a brown-haired man in a blue kimono seated underneath the cherry blossom tree with her gleaming sword with the agility of a feral cat.

 

Without flitting an eye, Amamiya Hayashi deftly blocked the blade with his unsheathed katana, still holding the book he was reading with his left hand.

 

“Amamiya Hayashi, I will defeat you once and for all!” called out Li Shulin, the Chosen One of the Li Clan of Shanghai. “Stop evading me and fight me, fair and square!” Hayashi, without a strand of fair brown hair straying from place, casually ducked as the younger girl attacked again, red tassel streaming out behind her from the hilt of her sword. Someone without knowledge of kendo would have thought Shulin had the advantage, but the man with grass green eyes actually had the upper hand; despite the uninterested look on his face, he clearly could read the younger girl’s next movements, and his steps were light and blocks exact.

 

“Are those two at it again, Mayura?” asked Chang Ruichi, a pretty light-built boy with long violet hair pulled up into a high ponytail. “Doesn’t she ever give up?”

 

With a chuckle, Mizuki Mayura, the miko of the shrine on Mount Kumatori, replied, “I don’t think Shulin will ever give up on defeating the best swordsman of Edo.”

 

“Why doesn’t Hayashi just lose to her then?” drawled the tall man with striking long golden hair and amethyst eyes, Lord Landon Leed of England.

 

“Because that would injure Shulin’s pride even more,” replied Mayura. “It’s Hayashi’s courtesy toward her.”  

 

A soft-spoken girl with curly violet hair in a dandelion kimono which brought out the golden hue of her eyes, Ruichi’s twin sister Risa, said, “I don’t think she is even serious about challenging Hayashi-sama anymore.”

 

Sure enough, Shulin abruptly put away her sword and announced, “I’m hungry, Hayashi, what are we having for dinner?”

 

But Hayashi glanced up and unsheathed his katana with a flick of his wrist, swerved around, and threw his sword at an unnoticed target behind them. There was an unearthly growl. “Mountain ogre,” he announced. “Not what we’re having for dinner—I meant behind you. Ogres probably won’t taste good. Though I’ve never tried them.”

 

The other five turned around and saw a mountain ogre come crashing down with a thud. Hayashi held up his sheath and summoned his sword back.   

 

“What kind of monstrous aim is that?” murmured Ruichi, half in awe, half in shock.

 

Mayura glanced at him with a smile and agreed, “Abnormal.”

 

“You thought he actually was completely useless just because he messes around all the time?” remarked Landon. “He doesn’t have the moniker best swordsman of Japan for no reason.”

 

Shulin sputtered, “By any chance, was that the ogre that we scoured for a week and couldn’t take down? And you just watched?”

 

Hayashi blinked. “Was it? Ogres all look the same to me. How about some river trout for dinner?”

 

“I don’t like fish,” said Ruichi sullenly.

 

“That should go well with the fresh mountain vegetables I gathered this morning,” said Mayura.

 

Ruichi mumbled, “I hate vegetables.”

 

“You’re not going to grow any taller if you don’t eat your vegetables,” declared Landon, the oldest and tallest of the group, slapping the younger boy on the shoulder.

 

Risa giggled. “Onii-sama is such a picky eater.”

 

Hayashi announced, “We probably should reinforce the barrier around the Mizuki Shrine later—all of us being gathered here attracts too many forces around the mountain.”

 

Ruichi nodded. “It was easy tracking you guys here because of the ridiculous aura you all emitted.”

 

“I never thought onii-sama and I would find you all and be here like this,” said Risa, cheeks flushed. “I can imagine some day in the future, people would remember you as the Great Five, the alliance of the most powerful magicians of the East and West.”

 

“Why not Great Six?” asked Hayashi. “There are six of us.”

 

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly be included,” said Risa, shaking her head furiously. “I don’t have any powers, and besides, I’m here just to support onii-sama.”

 

And Hayashi smiled gently and patted her on the head. “Some people come into their powers later in life. Everybody develops at his or her own pace. But I do like the name you have given us. A century or two from now, when we no longer exist, I wonder if the name of the Great Five may be what remains of our legacy.”

 

 

 

Whispers of yesteryears could be heard in the gentle breeze, sitting up here at the Mizuki Shrine atop Mount Kumatori which had been frozen in a moment in time, isolated from the bustling outside world. With a barrier around Mizuki Shrine sealing them in, there was not much to do for the odd group gathered there but to sit on the wooden engawa, the outdoor veranda encircling the main structure. Tanaka Miho wondered if two centuries ago, a group similar-aged to them, then known as the Great Five, sat on these very wooden engawa, watching the afternoon, talking idly of this and that. Amamiya Hayashi, the ringleader from Edo, Li Shulin, the Chosen One from Shanghai, Lord Landon Reed of England, shrine maiden Mizuki Mayura of Kyoto and her ancestor, and Chang Ruichi and Risa, the mysterious twins of unknown origin.

 

At first, Kara and Erika stood outside in the yard, but there was a passing shower, and they came over and sat on the other edge of the engawa, taking shelter from the rain. But Jinyu seemed content to sit by the large cherry blossom tree outside to keep guard. Luckily, the demon fire didn’t seem to have spread any further, and the ogre and other yokai seemed repelled by the barrier and had not made any attempt to break through to the shrine.

 

Miho clutched her stomach which rumbled lowly. “I wonder if Eriol and the others are going to take much longer.”

 

“It’s not a short drive here,” replied Meilin. “And Nakuru doesn’t seem to be the most reliable driver in the world.”

 

Glancing over at her older brother, Miho asked, “So, this was your living quarters? Which room was yours?”

 

Kai, who was lying back eyes shut on the wooden floor, hands laced behind his back, bow and arrow laid out next to him, replied, “None of them, really. I liked sleeping out here, looking up at the stars, at least when it was warm and dry.”

 

“You actually lived here? What did you eat? Grass?” remarked Erika, aghast.

 

“Whatever fruits were in season. Fresh mountain vegetables. Wild berries. It took me a while to figure out what was poisonous and not,” replied Kai. “The caretaker of the shrine had left some rice as well though it was too much of a bother to cook in the cast iron pot. Sometimes I caught fish in the stream. But it was too messy to gut and skin.”

 

Miho could not imagine her class president brother in this isolated place, catching fish in the stream with his bare hands and gutting it like a scavenger.

 

Erika asked, “How long exactly did you stay here?”

 

“Long enough to see two seasons change,” replied Kai.

 

Miho stared at her brother who was always patient and jovial toward all of them, who was civil even to Erika, and yet, he seemed to be staring off into a far off place, a place that was unreachable to her. He had been so close by when he had disappeared six years ago. She had spent that period of her life hating him for leaving her and their mother, and she had been sure she would never forgive him. He had deliberately made her think he had abandoned them, so that she would reproach him and not search for him. And yet, during that time, what had he been feeling, living in such solitude in this desolate place, with naught but the spirit of their ghostly ancestor as company? 

 

“Eriol!” exclaimed Miho as she spotted the silhouette of the crew arrive up the steep stairwell to the shrine. “We’re saved! What took so long?”

 

“We got lost,” mumbled Nakuru, glaring at a smiling Kaho. “We trusted that woman with directions.”

 

Tomoyo said, “Eriol was making sure that there were no stray people up here on the mountains—luckily the main path has been closed off because of flooding from rainfall yesterday.”

 

“You didn’t have any trouble passing through the yokai?” asked Meilin.

 

Eron reached the top of the steps, looking around the mountain. “We encountered a few along the way, but they’re still in a pretty weakened state after being sealed for such along time.”

 

And Erika groaned. “Why did they bring my dratted brother along? He’s just going to give me an earful.”

 

Solemnly, Eriol circled the outer edge of the shrine and said gravely, “This is a complex, layered barrier, as expected from the Great Five.”

 

“Then, you can’t break it?” asked Miho from inside.

 

“I didn’t say that,” said Eriol. “Like all barriers, it can be broken. That, or the imminent danger can be stopped.”

 

“Meaning, the yokai have to be sealed again,” murmured Kaho. “Eriol, if you take on the barrier, I’ll work on the yokai.”

 

“They’ve been sealed for a very long time—I can sense they’re very agitated,” said Kero-chan with a frown.

 

“There are too many out here to handle out here on your own, Kaho,” said Eriol.

 

Ruby Moon flicked back her long hair and declared, “Spinel Sun, Cerberus, and I can take them on as well, though we can only lure them, and Kaho will need to exorcise any that are harmful. Eriol, you just focus on cracking the barrier.”

 

“My, my, I didn’t realize we are having a party up here,” came a suave voice from behind them.

 

It was Leiyun in a sleek black suit, crisply ironed white shirt, and a loosened bowtie, looking as if he came straight from some fancy dinner party in the city. “When, you said there was a state of emergency up here, Jin, I didn’t realize that it was a whole big picnic happening up here.”

 

“Li-sensei!” exclaimed Tomoyo. “Shouldn’t you be at the Li Clan board meeting?”

 

“That ended hours ago,” said Leiyun with a thin smile. “Say, Syaoran had the gall to bring Sakura with him to the board meeting as his personal assistant.”

 

“Where are they right now?” Tomoyo questioned breathlessly.

 

“Who knows,” replied Leiyun. “I was having a dinner banquet with Li Group business partners, which Syaoran artfully ditched. And I haven’t seen the two since the board meeting ended earlier in the afternoon.”

 

Tomoyo tried to control herself from grinning like a fool, and was interrupted by Miho asking, “Well, shouldn’t we call them then?”

 

“No!” exclaimed Tomoyo, Meilin, and Kai in unison.

 

Clearing her throat, Meilin said, “Between Eriol, Leiyun, and Mizuki-sensei, I’m sure we can figure out this barrier business. What’s the use in calling Sakura here—they must be exhausted from preparing for the board meeting. Besides, yokai and seals are not even her area of expertise.”

 

Miho pointed at Leiyun. “You’re the one who broke the seal on Mount Kumatori, aren’t you?”

 

Leiyun blinked. “I just arrived here, you realize. I was at the Li Clan board meeting all day long—when would I have had the time to take down such an immense seal?”

 

Miho paced back and forth. “It’s an alibi—who knows if he really was there? Maybe he was here the whole time, breaking the mountain seal.”

 

“It’s not an alibi, we were in the meeting the whole day,” said Fuutie, stepping up from behind them, dressed in a fancy navy blue qipao printed with red and pink peonies. She wiped the sweat from her brows. “Gosh, you were not kidding when you said that will be quite a climb, Lei.”

 

“So this is the famed Mount Kumatori,” murmured Shiefa, in a heavily embroidered green qipao printed with cranes. “So many different energies are flowing through this place, some so ancient, from before our time and that of the Great Five.”

 

“Of course,” said Kai, feeling the breeze run through his hair. “This mountain has stood here long before the era of the Great Five and will continue to stand here long after our time. From the beginning of time to the end. That is what Mayura-sama said. That we must protect nature and become one with it. Those who try to go against nature will be devoured by nature.”

 

Fuutie gazed curiously at the mysterious boy in black on the other side of the barrier who looked completely misplaced and yet at home at this ancient shrine. “This Mayura-sama you speak of. You don’t mean the Mizuki Mayura-sama of the Great Five? You speak as if you know her.”

 

“You can say I did,” Kai replied cryptically.

 

“What are Syaoran’s sisters doing here?” hissed Meilin.

 

Leiyun sighed. “I was trying to sneak out of the dinner banquet quietly, and they caught me.”

 

Shiefa said, “This is far much more exciting. I’ve always wanted to meet yokai.”

 

Erika crossed her arms and remarked, “Well, you’re all here now. It doesn’t matter who gets us out of the barrier around the shrine, but can we speed things along before we burn down with this whole mountain?”

 

Eron scowled at her. “I told you not to mess with that crowd. Do you even realize what Mount Kumatori means to us?”

 

“Where it all began, and where it all shall end,” murmured Kara, staring out into the darkened sky, lit by blue flames that flickered higher and higher. “Look, we may not have as much time as we thought.”

 

“I still think we need to call Sakura,” declared Eron. “If the barrier is to be broken, we probably need to have an Amamiya descendent as well.”  

 

Tomoyo interrupted, “If that’s the case, though I may not have any powers, I’m still a descendent of Amamiya Hayashi-sama. I have the Amamiya blood too.”

 

“So you do,” Leiyun remarked. “Do you realize that this is the first time that all the bloodlines of the Great Five are gathered together at this very shrine, since, well since the night the Great Five was destroyed?”

 

There was something significant about those words, but Tomoyo was distracted by the pensive look that flitted in Eriol’s midnight eyes as he gazed upon the Mizuki Shrine, as if lost in thought of times gone by.

 

Leiyun also watched Clow Reed’s reincarnation. “Well, I’m honestly surprised to find you here. I would think it would bring back rather unpleasant memories.”

 

“What do you mean?” asked Miho. “Eriol, have you been up here before?”

 

Leiyun smiled thinly. “Surely you have heard that this place is not only significant because it was where Chang Ruichi was trapped and killed by the other Great Five, but it was also place where Clow Reed’s first love was killed.”

 

Tomoyo’s blood turned chill, as she recalled Mizuki Mika with her long, fine auburn hair blowing in the wind. A girl with a delicate smile that resembled Nakuru and had been reincarnated as Mizuki Kaho.  

 

“How did Mizuki Mika die?” asked Miho.

 

Leiyun raised his eyebrow mockingly. “You really mean to tell me, your mentor did not tell you yet? He can tell you a firsthand account, no doubt. You already know Mika was the daughter of Mizuki Mayura-sama’s younger brother Keigo. The person who killed her was her adoptive brother, Mizuki Ryojiro.”

 

His revelation only earned blank stares, and Leiyun continued in bemusement, “Don’t you guys know anything? That man was also later known as Chang Ryojiro, the son of the Dark One. He grew to be Clow’s longtime nemesis.”

 

Tomoyo saw Kaho had put a protective arm around Eriol, supporting him, perhaps restraining him. It was a fragile side to him that Tomoyo had never seen before. Clow Reed was someone who had lost, hurt, grieved, and eventually made peace with his loss. And the woman beside his reincarnation had the soul of Mizuki Mika, his first love. A bond she could never come in between. She realized when she looked up that Leiyun’s eyes had been fixated on her the whole time though he had been speaking to Miho. But his piercing azure gaze was not mocking. If that man had an empathetic bone in his body, it could almost be called a look of sympathy.

 

“Chang Ruichi’s son?” Meilin’s jaw dropped. Of course Ruichi would have had an offspring in order to continue on the Chang bloodline. But it was difficult to think that the Dark One had time to meet a woman and even have a child before he had grown insane and met his untimely end. “How come we never heard anything about him before?”

 

Miho scrunched up her brows. “Wait, so Mizuki Ryojiro’s father was Chang Ruichi. Who was his mother then?”

 

“We should save the chitchat for later,” said Kai, nodding toward the huge ogre-like creature closing in from behind them, climbing up the forest at shocking speed.

 

Kaho said, “I will tackle that with Spinel Sun.” She climbed on the black beast’s back.

 

“Where did all these yokai come from?” asked Tomoyo watching Kaho soar up into sky on Spinel Sun’s back. She fleetingly wondering what Sakura’s brother would think about meeting a real-life ogre.

 

Eriol replied, “In feudal Japan, during the time of the Great Five, there were many different spirits roaming the land. Yokai, oni, mononoke, and dark forces wracked havoc around here. Five magicians joined hands to tame them, sealing the most evil of the forces and restoring order and harmony to the land. Of course, the Great Five not only fought against evil spirits—they battled against the sorcerers, magicians, priests, and conjurers who summoned and misused the evil spirits to their own ends. That is how the Great Five earned their reputation as the protectors of the land, the common people, and were respected and feared far and wide, because together, they were invincible.”

 

“They sealed a lot of the most evil and destructive spirits here up on Mount Kumatori,” Eron added. “The makeshift base for the Great Five, where the strongest barrier in Japan exists.”

 

“But seals can erode over time, when the one who cast it is gone, when someone deactivates it,” murmured Kai.

 

“It was Clow Reed who took one step further and forged contracts with dark forces, thus coming up with the Clow Card system,” said Leiyun. “The Clow Cards collectively were so powerful that in the wrong hands, they could have been misused and ultimately destructive. Which is why Clow was determined to protect the Cards and find a suitable successor. He didn’t want to get them in the hands of the power-hungry Li Clan, or even worse, the Dark Ones.”

 

“The Dark Ones had no need for such petty gimmicks. They already were powerful enough as was,” asserted Eron.

 

Miho remarked, “Through forbidden blood magic. Dark arts.”

 

“Eron’s different!” declared Erika defensively. “He has the power of light.”

 

“Just like Chang Risa-sama,” murmured Leiyun.   

 

“Stop idling and do something about getting us out of this barrier,” snapped Kara, arms crossed. “It’s getting chilly, and I don’t want to be trapped in this creepy, haunted old shrine overnight.”

 

Leiyun watched Eriol scribble runes on the stand with the bottom tip of his staff. “Do you need a hand?”

 

“No thanks,” said Eriol tersely.

 

Miho pointed and exclaimed, “Kaho seems to have run into some trouble with the ogre!”

 

Kai looked up and saw the ogre swat at Kaho and Spinel Sun as if they were mere flies. The creature let out a deep growl, which rumbled across the mountains, and Meilin and Miho clutched each other anxiously. Ruby Moon swerved up in the air and waved her hand, shooting dozens of crystal shards down at the ogre. But it merely bounced off his thick skin and crumbled away like sand.

 

Eriol frowned. “I can’t take my hands off here.”

 

“I’ll go,” said Eron, turning to Cerberus.

 

“I’m not letting you on my back!” exclaimed Cerberus.

 

Kai frowned. “The ogre’s weakness is his one eye. If you can pierce it, that will distract him enough.” He glanced up at Kaho grabbing onto Spinel Sun with both hands. Even if she had her bow and arrows with her, there was no way she could manage to shoot the ogre from midair while staying on Spinel.

 

“Kaho’s not used to combat, nor has she ever had to shoot a moving target before from midair,” exclaimed Miho, from the edge of the stairwell of the shrine, looking down below. “She’s in danger!”

 

The ogre reached out and tore a tree out by its roots then threw it at Eriol’s Blue Beetle, flattening the car. Ruby Moon and Spinel Sun disbanded in opposite directions as the ogre sped forward to the base of the shrine.

 

“There goes our ride back home,” muttered Eron.

 

Strapping the quiver of arrows on his back, Kai rushed forward and placed a hand on Cerberus’ furry back. “You can fly me up to eye-level with the ogre, right?”

 

“Yeah,” said Cerberus. “Hop on.”

 

Only then did the others just realize that Kai had walked straight through the barrier that Eriol was working so diligently on breaking.

 

“Kai, you passed the barrier!” Meilin exclaimed. “You mean you could have gotten us out all this time?”

 

Kai replied with a shrug, palm in air, “Sorry, I don’t know how to break the barrier. But I can get through it. I’m a thief, it’s my nature.”

 

“How?” demanded Miho with a scowl. “Don’t just leave us stranded in here!”

 

“I’m sure Eriol will do a great job breaking it, in time,” said Kai cryptically. He leapt on Cerberus’ back with ease, and soared up into the night sky. He strung an arrow to the wooden bow, balancing on Cerberus’ back, no-hands, with natural grace as would be expected from the Thief of the Night. The yellow beast swerved around the ogre and Kai released the arrow, hitting the back of the monster’s grotesque head to distract the creature. The ogre’s huge yellow eye flitted back and forth to see where the attack had come from. And it finally spotted Kai. With its clawed green hands, it struck down at the pair, but Cerberus deftly dodged.

 

Kai stood atop Cerberus’ back, stringing another arrow to the bow. “Hey, Ugly One, look over here!” The ogre swerved at him again. But Kai was prepared and released the arrow. It flew in an arc into sky and pierced the center of the ogre’s eye. It let out a roar and bent over. “Now, Kaho! Exorcise it!” he called out.

 

Kaho nodded and muttered an incantation before letting fly ward papers. The ogre wailed and lashed out his hand, hurling Kai off the Cerberus’ back.

 

“Onii-chan!” shrieked Miho, who would have dashed forward and been frazzled by the barrier had Meilin not held her back.

 

Kai raised his right hand toward the blackened sky and from the dark clouds swooped down a majestic white bird below him, cushioning his fall.

 

“What was that?” whispered Miho, squinting, as Kai landed safely on his feet. Kai examined that the ogre was sealed back into its boulder form and gave up a thumb’s up to Kaho.    

 

And Eriol announced abruptly, “The barrier around the shrine has broken.”

 

“You took forever! You’re losing your touch,” declared Miho.

 

Kara remarked, “Well, at least your brother got a chance to show off again.”

 

Meilin rushed up to Kai who walked back toward the shrine and asked, “Are you okay? I thought you were a goner when the ogre smacked you off of Cerberus.”

 

“You were saved by a bird!” exclaimed Miho. “It was a mythical phoenix, wasn’t it? I never thought I’d see the day when I’d get to see a phoenix! Please tell me that was a phoenix.”

 

Kai extended out his right arm, the tip of his forefinger lifted gracefully. And a glorious white phoenix pierced through the clouds and perched on his two fingers.

 

“What is that?” gasped Meilin at the beautiful bird, stark white plumage glistening in the dark like frost, eyes a startling silvery-blue.

 

And Kai replied, “Surely you recognize Perro-chan.”

 

And Meilin’s jaw dropped. “No way! That can’t be Perro-chan!”

 

“Well, more like Perro-chan is the Phoenix, Mizuki Mayura’s familiar,” said Kai. “And the parakeet form was his disguise. His real name is Garuda-sama.”

 

Meilin gently lifted up a finger, and the Phoenix gently pecked her, a gesture identical to Perro-chan. “Is that really you? Sorry for not recognizing you sooner.”

 

Shiefa, who had been on lookout, asked, “Guys, we’re surrounded by the blue fire. Are we trapped up here?”

 

“It’s not actually real fire,” said Kai. “It won’t burn the flora or fauna—but if it touches someone with magic, it will suck all the powers from you, so avoid getting near if you can.”

 

“Eriol and I will work on the barrier over Mount Kumatori,” said Kaho. “You guys make sure that the yokai do not escape this area. Kai, please track down what is causing the demon fire. It’s most likely a yokai with fire powers.”

 

Kai nodded. “The ogre is down, but it means the other smaller yokai will no longer hesitate to come out. I’ll go track down the cause of the fire. Garuda, please circle the mountains and let me know if there is any unusual movement.” And the Phoenix spread its splendid white wings and soared off to the sky.

 

Miho declared, “I’ll help track down the cause of the fire, since that is my specialty.” She raised her hand up in the sky and called out, “Key that hides the power of the Earth. Show your true self to me. I, Miho, command you. Release!” She twirled around a gloss crimson staff with gold accents with a fire encircled in a sun emblem.

 

“Wow, your staff looks fancier than before,” remarked Meilin.

 

“Yeah, I asked Eriol to upgrade my staff when he created his newest staff,” said Miho. “Isn’t it marvelous—Tomoyo-senpai designed it and even coordinated my release move—but it’s a bit hard for me to twirl around since I’m not a cheerleader like Sakura-senpai. I keep dropping it on my head.”

 

“Oh Sakura still does that too,” remarked Tomoyo with a chuckle.  

 

“If you need help twirling, I can help you out!” exclaimed Kai, dangerously swirling around an arrow over his head in demonstration.

 

“No thanks!” replied Miho promptly.

 

Meilin patted Kai on the back as he looked crushed at the flat rejection and reassured, “Well, you are the best of the best in terms of sleight of hand.”

 

“I learned from the best of the best,” said Kai offhandedly.

 

“Leon did always say you were a natural,” remarked Kara.

 

He gazed at her. “I was talking about you, actually.” Kara looked taken aback for a moment, which prompted him to say, “Did you forget you were the first person to teach me magic tricks?”

 

Meilin bit her lower lip. So Kara was the person who first taught Kai magic. She was so many of his firsts, an indelible presence that had contributed to the Mizuki Kai of today.

 

Kara remarked, “You were always better at sleight of hand than me.”

 

“True, I’m a master of deception,” replied Kai boastfully. “Leon always told me that it was a good thing I wasn’t in government because I would become a living weapon.” 

 

“That was not a compliment,” said Kara, arms crossed.

 

“What are you talking about, that’s the greatest compliment he’s ever paid me,” said Kai. “He was always rebuking me, when he made me do all the dirty work.”

 

“And Leon would have been a better thief if he weren’t always womanizing, gambling, and getting drunk,” said Kara shortly. “I’m sure all the booze and smoking had a toll on his overall endurance and health. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten shot then.”

 

Kai remarked, “You know, he really did try his best to stop smoking when you were around, and he was so irritable all the time from withdrawal symptoms. Too bad abstinence didn’t last after you left.”

 

“Too bad you seemed to have picked up all this bad habits while you were with him.” Kara trailed off as she realized his younger sister was eavesdropping.

 

Miho realized she had been caught gawking at the pretty blonde older girl. She too had forgotten the unlikely bond between her brother and Kamura Karin, the quiet, standoffish junior high student that Tanaka Mikai had been infatuated with years ago. Mikai had been devastated when Karin disappeared one day without a word, though he never spoke of it at home, and Miho had hated the girl who had broken her brother’s heart, back when they were going through the most difficult period their lives. Back then, she had not realized how much her brother had been shielding her after their father’s presumed death. He tried to keep her from realizing how sick their mother was, that they were completely bankrupt. Back then, she didn’t realize why he was always out so late, because he had been running odd jobs. His face had gotten so gaunt because they didn’t have money for food, nor electricity bills or heat, but he had never let her go hungry. And he had been too proud to reach out to other family members, so nobody had known how dire the Tanaka family’s financial situation had been in those last several months. Miho never felt lonely, even then, because he had been her support. Yet, who had been there for her brother? She had never thought too deeply about what had driven him to make the choices he did then, but somehow, coming up here to the Mizuki Shrine, it was suddenly real, the deliberate decision he made as a twelve-year-old boy to leave behind everything, his family, friends, school, first love, the life he had known, and the sacrifices he had made to come here and train to become a successor to Mizuki Mayura, for a chance to save their mother.

 

Abruptly, as if sensing her melancholy, Kai clapped his younger sister on the back and declared, “Just train under me for one week, Miho, and you will put the cheerleading squad to shame. Now, the trick is how you position your fingers so that the baton rests at the tip, and you are twirling over that middle finger. Are you listening, Miho?”

 

“It’s easier said then done!” declared Miho, dropping her staff on Kai’s toe.

 

“He’d be a half-decent boyfriend if he could ever get over that sister complex of his,” Kara told Meilin. “It’s just getting worse with age.” 

 

Meilin glanced at the older girl, startled by that unusually gentle look in her violet eyes framed by long up-curled golden lashes. That tender glance and wistful smile. Why hadn’t she realized it? Kara was clearly still in love with Kai. 

 

With natural grace, Kai leapt down the stairs, following along the trail of bluish fire without getting too near. Miho, Meilin, and Kara followed after him.

 

“What kind of yokai is it?” asked Miho excitedly. “Isn’t this what they call foxfire?”

 

“It’s probably a kitsune,” remarked Kai, bending down and fingering the soil. “A fox spirit can be very sly and conniving, so it is important to sneak up on it and catch it unaware.”

 

Shiefa exclaimed, “Oh, I want to see a kitsune! Do you think it really will have nine tails?”

 

Kai groaned silently. “Shiefa-nee-sama, couldn’t you stay with Leiyun-san and the others up at the shrine? It’s not safe to wander about the forest in nighttime, and Syaoran would kill me if anything compromises your safety.”

 

“I know how to take care of myself,” said Shiefa haughtily. “Who do you think was Syaoran’s first martial arts instructor in the first place?”

 

“Syaoran was your favorite punching bag,” remarked Fuutie, popping up behind her sister.

 

“Fuutie-nee-sama, you as well?” Kai sighed. “All of you please just stay out of the way because yokai can get scared and flee if you do not approach with caution—are you listening to me?”

 

“It really is a kitsune!” exclaimed Shiefa, pointing at bushy white tails glimpsed between the bushes and ran off toward the fox spirit.  

 

“Don’t go off on your own!” exclaimed Kai, running after her.

 

Miho tried her best to keep up with her brother. “I’m able to seal lower-level yokai, but if it’s powerful, I have to fetch Kaho.”

 

Kai said, “Kaho can’t be disturbed because she’s in the middle of working on a complex seal over the mountain. Between you and me, I’m sure we will be able to seal a mere kitsune.”

 

“Me and you?” asked Miho, gray eyes suddenly lighting up, cheeks flushed.

 

Meilin chuckled. Who could forget that Miho probably had a bigger brother complex than even Sakura?

 

Halting abruptly, Kai frowned. “Wait, this part of the mountains—”

 

Shiefa exclaimed, “Stop dawdling, the kitsune went that way,” pointing left.

 

Catching her breath, Meilin asked, “Where is Fuutie?”

 

And Kai swore under his breath in French, “Merde,” and asked, “When did we last see her?”

 

Kara replied, “When we all ran off after Shiefa.”

 

“Why didn’t you say anything?” asked Kai in exasperation.

 

“I’m not her guardian—she’s a grown woman,” said Kara coldly.

 

“She’s under the influence of a dark force and clearly not at a capacity to make sound judgments,” said Kai with a frown. “We’re near the edge of the summit, it’s dangerous in the dark to even those who are familiar with the terrain.”

 

“She’s not the type to be so irresponsible,” said Shiefa. “It’s just like last time, when she thought she saw the White Tiger and she was lured toward it, like she was possessed.”

 

Tomoyo remarked, “I remember Sakura telling me about the time she sealed the Mirror. The Mirror, disguised as Sakura, tried to lure her brother off the edge of a small cliff in the forests behind King Penguin Park, but luckily, he didn’t fall too far. The odd thing is, he followed her knowing she was not really Sakura.”

 

“Tomoyo-chan, what are you doing here?” asked Meilin, convinced her friend must have been a ninja in a former lifetime.

 

“I followed you guys,” said Tomoyo. “Filming for Sakura’s reference later.”

 

“Why did Touya-san knowingly follow the Mirror when he knew it was not Sakura?” asked Miho.

 

“Because he wanted to help the Mirror. He initially thought she was a ghost who might have had some business left in this world,” said Tomoyo. “Turned out she was a Clow Card.”

 

“Anybody who falls from this height will fall to sure death,” warned Kai, scanning the darkness for signs of Fuutie. The group stared up at the night sky and saw the Phoenix flying around in circles before it swooped westward. They ran toward the direction that the bird was flying in. 

 

Finally, they spotted Fuutie staggering toward the edge of the mountain, as if unaware that she was nearing it edge. Her feet stumbled over the ledge, concealed by shrubs, and Miho rushed ahead, grabbing Fuutie’s wrist and dragging her back up. In the process, however, Miho was lurched off the edge.

 

“Miho!” exclaimed Meilin in horror.

 

Kai commanded, “Fly, Garuda!”

 

Seconds before Miho toppled straight off the cliff, the bird swooped down and steadied the girl. Miho grabbed onto the phoenix’s soft white feathers and clung on, catching, her breath, and the bird gently nudged her to her brother’s side again. Balance regained, Miho stared up at her older brother who momentarily looked furious. She whispered, “Onii-chan, you saved me.”

 

Meilin saw an odd expression flit across Kai’s face, his lips set in a stern line. And Meilin was sure he was about to lose his temper at his younger sister and tell her to go back to the shrine where it was safe. Instead, he only said curtly, “Of course.”

 

With a sheepish grin, Miho declared, “I’m such a klutz since I take after Mother. Thank you Garuda-sama!” And she hopped off carefree, as if oblivious to the fact that she had almost fallen to death.

 

“That’s it? You’re not going to tell her to stay out of the way? At least tell her to be careful?” asked Meilin incredulously. “She nearly fell off the cliff where Chang Risa-sama died.”

 

“I was here, so it’s fine,” replied Kai.

 

She would almost have been convinced, if she hasn’t noticed under the moonlight that his brows were glistening with cold sweat. “Well, you’re more mature than Syaoran and Sakura’s brother put together.”

 

“I’ve abandoned her before, and she survived on her own, through her own strength,” said Kai. “I wouldn’t have left her if I didn’t know that she was tough.”

 

And Meilin stared up at the former thief who was only a year older than her but seemed much more aged. Kai was someone who had been forced to grow up too quickly and had a more cynical view of the world than anyone she knew. How hard he tried to protect Miho from that world though, without clipping his little sister’s wings. That aspect of him she grudgingly respected.

 

“Look,” said Tomoyo, pointing toward a silvery fox at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the summit. Syaoran’s sisters had already run down to the other side of the ledge.

 

“Watch out!” exclaimed Meilin, as the fiery fox demon, fangs bared, pounced at Fuutie. Miho shut her eyes in horror. But out jumped an imposing white beast that swatted away at the smaller fox demon with his paw.

 

“The White Tiger,” murmured Tomoyo in awe as the graceful creature stretched out to its full height.

 

The kitsune breathed out a jet of blue fire at Fuutie, but the White Tiger swooped up Fuutie—or maybe Fuutie jumped on his back first—and it leaped forward in one stride. The tiger’s roar rumbled throughout the mountains, and the fur on the fox bristled and the yokai scampered off into the forest.

 

Gently, the White Tiger deposited the Fuutie safely on the ground, far from the edge of the cliff. The onlookers saw the beautiful sight of a woman wrapping her arms around the magnificent white creature that gleamed under the moonlight. Fuutie, burying her face in the beast’s fur, whispered, “It’s you isn’t it Zino? You really came for me. I knew you would. Thank you.”

 

“The White Tiger rescued Fuutie,” whispered Miho. “Could that really be Wu Zino?”

 

Shiefa frowned. “It can’t be. He’s dead.”

 

The White Tiger gazed up at Fuutie with golden eyes. It gently slipped away from her arms. “Wait, don’t go!” she called out. But the creature swerved around and leaped off the edge of the cliff, disappearing into the darkness.

 

Fuutie sat at the edge of the cliff, staring down at the rapids below. There was no splash below, no sign of the White Tiger either.

 

“What is she doing?” exclaimed Shiefa. “We’ve got to stop her!”

 

“She’s not trying to jump,” murmured Leiyun, who had appeared behind them. And they watched Fuutie, hands clutching the grass growing the edge of the cliff, weeping silently.  

 

It was Leiyun who slowly walked up to his cousin and put a hand on her shoulder. “The seal has been restored over the mountain. We should leave now.”

 

“It was him. It really was the White Tiger,” whispered Fuutie. “I know it was him. He came to save me again.”

 

Leiyun said quietly, “This is the sacred Mount Kumatori, the dawn of the Great Five and the end. Anything is possible here.” 

 

Tomoyo too walked to the edge of the cliff, supposedly the very spot which Chang Risa fell to her death. Sakura had almost fallen off here once, as well. The wind blew her hair across her face, and she stared down over the edge, surprised at how high up they were. In nightfall, she couldn’t see the bottom of the summit, but could only hear the roaring of the rapids far below. A fall from here would be to sure death. It was a terrifying end, the kind of death where you wouldn’t die immediately. A strong hand gripped her shoulder.

 

“Don’t stand so close to the edge like that Tomoyo,” Leiyun murmured into her ear, releasing her immediately. “Curiosity did kill the cat. What are you so curious of now?”

 

“What kind of thoughts do you have in the seconds before you die,” said Tomoyo. “What if you regret it the moment you are falling, but it’s too late to turn back?”

 

“Were you always so morbid, or is that the influence of your most estimable mentor?” asked Leiyun. “Thanatos, the death drive, as they call it. That is countered by Eros, the life instinct. Regret is when the primitive life instinct kicks in. If there is a choice between instantaneous death, where you are not prepared in any sense, or a slow, drawn out one where you have plenty of time to acclimate to the idea of mortality, then I would say, I would prefer the former. Tried the latter and it’s taxing.”

 

Tomoyo tucked a strand of hair behind her ear to keep it from whipping into her face. “I think I would rather choose the latter.”

 

“You would.” Leiyun remarked. “You asked what if you felt regret in your last moments. That shows your naïveté, dear Tomoyo. I don’t think someone who would have regrets second before death would choose such a gruesome end. Relief. Relief is what one would feel when driven to the point of ending his or her own life.” 

 

Tomoyo frowned. “Of course I don’t know what her circumstances were, but I can’t believe she wanted to die. Surely she would have wanted to live if it weren’t for that dark force which filled her with utter despair.”

 

He too was silent as he gazed over the cliff at the pitch black abyss. “Maybe you are right. But who knows what Chang Risa’s final thoughts were save for herself. For I don’t think even her descendants do truly know her wish. If we did, this cycle of destruction would have long since ended.”

 

Listening on, Fuutie remarked, “Chang Risa must have felt a burning sense of wrath, to the point she wanted to seek vengeance. That’s the only reason she would come back as the Dark One.”

 

“But from what I have heard about Risa-sama, she doesn’t seem like the vengeful type. I get the sense she really did love Hayashi-sama,” said Tomoyo. “Would you want to harm the person you loved most?”

 

“If that’s the only way to be remembered by, yes,” said Fuutie. “For the worst thing is indifference, to be forgotten by your most loved one.”

 

“It seems like the blue fire has subsided,” called out Kara. “Let’s get back to the shrine.”

 

 

 

The group returned to the Mizuki Shrine somberly, Kai leading the way, and the others trailing behind, Leiyun at the end of the procession, right behind Fuutie.

 

Eriol, leaning against his staff, looked beat, while Mizuki Kaho was seated on the steps, dabbing her forehead with a violet silk handkerchief.

 

“Was it successful?” asked Miho.

 

Eriol nodded. “Yes, a makeshift barrier was set over the mountain.”

 

“Then are we safe now?” asked Meilin. “What about the yokai?”

 

“It’s impossible to seal all the yokai that have been put to sleep by the Great Five over the course of a decade,” said Eriol. “And not all of the yokai are evil or mean to do any harm.”

“Then why were they sealed in the first place?” demanded Meilin.

 

“Power-seeking syndicates, those wishing to taken down the Great Five, summoned the yokai, sometimes corrupting them, mutating them, to use them to their own means,” replied Eriol. “They were fed with dark energy and used to attack them Great Five who in turn sealed them to keep them from harm. But such dark energy would have dissipated after a century or so.”

 

“With the barrier around Mount Kumatori, the mountain yokai will not be able to leave this area—and many of them are native here, so they wouldn’t want to in the first place,” said Kaho. “Most of them are creatures of nature, meaning no harm.”  

 

“Will you be able to singlehandedly sustain such a large barrier for who knows how long?” asked Miho. Even Eriol had his limits.

 

“Garuda will also remain here,” said Kai glancing at Leiyun. “He will guard the mountain—he is a deity, so even the yokai are below him in terms of hierarchy.”

 

“You can’t leave Perro-chan behind here!” exclaimed Meilin.

 

Kai smiled slightly. “You forget. This was Garuda’s original home. He said he wants to remain here for the time being. I can’t ask him to do anything he doesn’t want to, remember.”

 

And the Phoenix circled around above them in recognition, before flying further up the mountain.

 

“Thank you, Garuda-sama,” called out Miho, waving her hand, and she glanced back at her brother, who was no longer smiling but frowning as he stared up at the ominous red-lit black sky.

 

Shiefa had seen more combat than her other three sisters—she was considered one of the strongest female warriors of the clan. But she had never seen the likes of today before. “How powerful exactly is Mizuki Kai, do you think?” she asked her older cousin quietly.

 

“It’s not just Mizuki Kai,” said Leiyun. “Do you realize, this is the first time since the era of the Great Five that the decedents are as strong as, if not stronger than the original Five Force Magicians?”

 

“Is that so?” asked Fuutie. “Well, our Syaoran is pretty exceptional, we already accept that in the Clan. And there’s Kinomoto Sakura, who is Clow Reed’s chosen successor as Card Mistress. Kara Reed seems to be no ordinary girl, if rumors are true that it was she who rescued you from the Cavern of Reservoirs. Mizuki Kai appears to be full of surprises, as well. And Chang Eron, if he indeed broke free from the Dark One’s control on his own, is quite a remarkable figure as well.”

 

“I think the figures surrounding them are even more exceptional,” remarked Shiefa. “With Clow Reed’s reincarnation, the Mizuki priestess, Sakura’s older brother, and even that videotaping stalker girl.” She glanced over her shoulder. “And then, there’s that mess.”

 

From the courtyard, Erika poked Jinyu on the chest with a finger and said, “We’ve got to redo the scene of Cinderella and the Prince’s first meeting in the forest. Cinderon, no need to look so smug—you were no better.”

 

And Leiyun told Tomoyo, “Aren’t you proud of your protégées? They are so dedicated to the play, even rehearsing up here in this sacred location of the Great Five.”

 

Tomoyo glanced at Leiyun, standing by a cherry blossom tree which had now sprouted green leaves. He hadn’t lifted a finger to set up the barrier or catch the yokai. What he had said by the cliff side seemed to hold some significance, yet she couldn’t piece it together.

 

“We had nothing better to do to pass time,” stated Erika. She turned to Eriol. “Are you sure you’re Clow Reed’s reincarnation? How many hours did it take you to set up that new seal?”

 

“Well, maybe if you lent a hand, it would’ve taken less time,” snapped Cerberus.

 

“I would have, if Spinel Annoying Sun didn’t declare that any barrier set up by us would be suspicious and told us to keep out of the way,” retorted Erika, who had instead spent the past hour nagging at her twin brother and the magic-less Black Dragon over their lines for the school play. “Well, can we leave now? It’s cold and nasty up here. I feel like I’m being watched.”

 

With a sigh, Eron said, slipping his tattered script into his jacket pocket, “We’re the trespassers, not them.”

 

Tomoyo handed Eriol a daisy-embroidered handkerchief, knowing his had been taken by Mizuki-sensei. He took it and dabbed the sweat on his brows. “Thank you.”

 

“It must have been pretty draining setting up the seal around Mount Kumatori since it’s such a big area,” said Tomoyo.

 

“Actually, that part was pretty easy,” said Eriol. “I’m used to setting up such barriers to contain magic, and this time around, I didn’t have to be careful about making sure not to get people involved or put a whole town to sleep—someone already made sure no one else would be up here. It was more taxing to break the initial barrier set around the Mizuki Shrine, since I’m usually the one who is casting the barrier.”

 

“Well, the Great Five must have done a good job to protect the sacred Mizuki Shrine,” said Tomoyo.

 

“The barrier around the shrine did not activate just on its own,” murmured Eriol. “Someone had to have activated it.”

 

“Who?” asked Tomoyo.

 

“There was only one person who was unaffected by the barrier. The same person who is most familiar with the shrine and the mountain,” replied Eriol.

 

Tomoyo gazed up at Eriol, his eyes gleaming in the dark. “Why would he activate such a barrier?”

 

“It could have been the most primitive instinct,” he replied. “The seal on Mount Kumatori broke, and he had to act fast to protect his comrades.”

 

Kai was someone who despite his looks was staunch in protecting those closest to him, and he had been with his younger sister, girlfriend, and former girlfriend. The former thief also was rather protective of Erika as well, Tomoyo had noticed.

 

“But also,” continued Eriol, “it could have been the reverse, and he figured that the seal was broken by someone, or someones, from within the group. So he decided to trap that person within the barrier to keep them from accessing the raw power of the evil spirits set loose.”

 

“What does Kai know that we don’t know?” asked Tomoyo.

 

“He knows what Mizuki Mayura wanted,” said Eriol. “And I am sure he is determined to carry out her final wish.”

 

Kai had always been a mysterious figure, from the moment he had paraded onto the scene by stealing the star sapphire ring and kidnapping Meilin. He was the person Tomoyo had the most difficulty deciphering out of the Alliance of the Stars. It came to her as no surprise that Kai had his own agenda, because every move he made had been calculated up till now. For Eriol to point this out was fascinating. Because Tomoyo was pretty sure Clow Reed’s reincarnation also had his own intentions, unknown to anyone else except perhaps Mizuki Kaho or maybe not even her. The current alliance was perhaps even more divided than the Great Five had ever been. But Tomoyo had faith that if it was Sakura, she would be able to unite them all and be the pillar to hold them all together.

 

Nakuru remarked suddenly, “By the way, how are we getting home? Our Beetle got crushed by the ogre.”

 

Tomoyo said, “Don’t worry, Kai texted my bodyguards—I’ll give you a lift.”

 

“And Wei’s waiting for us,” declared Shiefa.

 

Meilin watched Kai take a last glance back at the shrine before leaving. Was he thinking of his twelve-year-old self, sitting out on the wooden floor alone, staring up at the stars in the summer sky, the ghost of Mizuki Mayura by his side? That twelve-year-old boy, had he been vulnerable, desolate or vengeful? Had there been traces of the sweet brother and charming school prince, or had he turned savage? It had been before he had learned to become the cunning Thief of the Night who hid his heart behind a black cloak and suave words. What kind of boy had he been back then? Only Kara Reed knew that side of him.

 

 

 

The group trudged down the dark mountain in silence, too weary to even make conversation.

 

“Do we know which way we need to go to get down to the main road?” asked Mizuki Kaho after a while.

 

Eron sighed irritably. “Isn’t this the Mizuki Shrine—you must come here the most often?” 

 

“Not when it’s so dark outside,” replied Kaho, grabbing onto Eriol’s arm as she nearly stumbled over a rock.

 

Eriol chuckled. “You still have no sense of direction, Kaho.”

 

Only Eriol would find that endearing, Miho thought sourly, as they stumbled down the summit. They were about half down when they heard a rustling in the bushes.

 

During that horrible week that they thought Sakura was dead, and again today, Miho had direly realized the lack of leadership in the Alliance in her absence. Miho had always depended on Eriol to take charge in a situation without Sakura and Syaoran, but she was growing to realize, he would not. Or perhaps, he was not capable of being a surrogate leader for them. After all, Clow Reed had never worked well with others. He had always worked solo, and never had been good at explaining his intentions, not even to his most trusted companions, Cerberus and Yue. So, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Eriol would not take charge.

 

It came as a shock to them all that Kai, the most unlikely leader of the group, emerged as the one who would take charge in such a circumstance. And yet, Miho knew best she should not have been surprised. Her brother had served as student council president all through elementary school. His nickname had been Prince, not just for his looks, but because he knew how to draw out what he wanted from people. Ever since his return, she had subconsciously treated Mizuki Kai, the Thief of the Night, and Tanaka Mikai, her brother from her childhood, as two separate entities. Maybe because she just couldn’t accept that her brother had become what he had become. No, that wasn’t it. Because she had accepted that like herself, her brother had changed.

 

Yet, she had ignored the fact that people could change, grow, but that did not destroy the essence of who they originally were. On Mount Kumatori tonight, for the first time, she felt she had seen glimpses of Tanaka Mikai, the brother from her childhood. Not like when he had been play-acting as Mikai for their parents.

 

“Who’s there?” demanded Meilin, shining her flashlight toward the noise.

 

“It’s us,” replied Erika glumly, hair hanging limply around her face and dirt smudged across a cheek. “What, you thought they’re wild bears or something here on the mountains?”

 

Miho exclaimed, “Erika-senpai, didn’t you guys leave way ahead of us?”

 

Erika glared at Leiyun and said, “This guy doesn’t know the way back down, apparently.”

 

Leiyun shrugged. “If we head down, eventually we will find our way back, no?”

 

“Oh no, we’re lost in the haunted mountains,” groaned Shiefa. “Isn’t there a story like that? A man wanders into the woods and sees blue fairy light and when he finally finds his way back home, he’d been gone for a century and everyone’s all dead?”

 

Horrified, they all turned to Kai, who had been lagging behind, whistling, checking his smartphone along the way.

 

“Where did you disappear off to?” demanded Miho.

 

“Caught a sly inugami trailing after us,” replied Kai.

 

“Who cares about dog demons! You know your way around the mountains, don’t you? You lived up here for half a year!” exclaimed Erika. “It’s pitch black, my hair is flat, and I have blisters on my feet.”

 

“Whose fault is it that we are all up here in the first place?” snapped Eron.

 

“Who told you to come, you deadweight?” retorted Erika.  

 

Shiefa declared, “This was not fun at all! We should have just stayed at the dinner banquet, Fuutie. Touya and Yukito never showed up, and what time is it? Can it be any darker?”

 

Kai murmured, “Late enough the trains would have stopped running by now.” He slipped his phone back into his pocket.

 

Miho asked. “Aren’t you Lis taught scavenging, trekking, and basic survival 101 as a part of training?”

 

“Yeah, Syaoran was,” stated Shiefa. “We’re not Shaolin monks or something—most of us don’t go through such hardcore training!”

 

“I’m starving and sleepy!” declared Miho morosely.

 

“I’ll give you a piggyback ride!” declared Kai.

 

“Gross,” said Miho.

 

Unabashed, Kai stated, “Well, come now, my car is parked nearby.” He suddenly walked briskly, leaving the main trial and cutting through the wood.

 

“Why are we deviating from the main path—we’re going to get even more lost!” exclaimed Erika. “Hey wait, don’t leave me!”

 

The others trailed after Kai dubiously as he beelined through the woods, weaving in and out of bushes and trees down a steep trail, until they suddenly emerged back at the main road and saw a gleaming black Lamborghini parked next to a large armored luxury minivan and a Mercedes-Benz.

 

They were greeted by an interesting sight of Wei and Tomoyo’s bodyguards seated on the floor of the minivan playing a game of Mahjong.

 

“Unfair!” said a woman in a black pantsuit and sunglasses as Wei swept in all the flowery cards. “How did you win again?”

 

“Wei!” exclaimed Meilin. “When did he get so chummy with your bodyguards, Tomoyo?”

 

“Oh, they waited around together a lot since back in elementary school days, and they got pretty close, I heard,” Tomoyo replied.

 

“Well, I’m glad someone had fun tonight,” muttered Kero-chan under his breath from Tomoyo’s arms as Wei straightened his bowtie, embarrassed to be caught in such disarray.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Meilin had dozed off in the car ride home, and they made it back to the apartment from Mount Kumatori in record time—she had an inkling Kai must have been speeding along the highway. Pressing her ears against the front door of her apartment, Meilin whispered to Kai, “Do you think they’re home? I don’t hear anything.”

 

“I’m sure they’re already asleep,” said Kai with a yawn. “It’s way past midnight. Or Sakura might have already returned home. She was supposed to just stay until Syaoran’s board meeting, after all.”

 

“I guess,” Meilin said sighing. She opened the front door, and it was completely dark inside. “Strange, Syaoran likes to keep a lamp on these days.” With a frown, she turned on the living room light switch and walked toward Syaoran’s bedroom. The door was halfway open, so she peeked in. “He’s not here!” And Meilin then ran over to her own bedroom, switching on all the lights, and saw Sakura’s duffel bag still there. “Sakura’s stuff is still here too!”

 

Kai whistled lowly. “The two never did come back from Tokyo, did they? I wonder what the two of them are up to at this unearthly hour of the night.”

 

Then, Meilin spotted her pajamas on top of the duvet cover of her bed and exclaimed, “Sakura didn’t sleep on my bed all weekend long! I was in a rush Friday morning and left that there, and it’s in the exact same spot I left it.”

 

“Then where did she sleep all weekend?” asked Kai. His eyes locked with Meilin’s and then he laughed. “What are we thinking? It’s Sakura and Syaoran we’re talking about. They probably stayed up all night finishing labeling the rest of the stinking accounting files.”

 

But Meilin ran to the living room, which was spotlessly clean, with stacks of documents still stacked up in a jumble to the side. “Look, they made almost no progress in sorting the files all weekend long.”

 

“Good,” said Kai. “They acted like typical teenagers and slacked off. Not the end of the world, you know.”

 

“But the question is, where are they right now?” asked Meilin.

 

“They probably missed the last train and are still stuck in Tokyo,” replied Kai with a careless shrug. “I bet Syaoran missed it on purpose.”

 

“He’s not you,” said Meilin. “He’d catch a cab or call Wei.”

 

Kai said, “I’m sure Sakura balked at the cab fare or the thought of waking up Wei at this hour—though he was actually on standby for Leiyun. And she was probably said with those big innocent green eyes, ‘Syao-pyon, I don’t mind staying out with you. I’m a big girl now. Should we go to that hotel— ’” He ducked as Meilin chucked a clear file at him.

 

“Sakura wouldn’t say something like that, and Syaoran’s too much of a gentleman, anyway!” declared Meilin. “They’re probably stuffing their faces in Harajuku or something.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

Monday…

 

 

Daidouji Tomoyo stood palms flat against the classroom window Monday morning at school as she watched the driveway for any signs of her missing Sakura.  

 

“Don’t stand with your nose pressed against the window with your long hair—you look like the school ghost from outside,” remarked Mizuki Kai, collapsing over his school desk the next morning. “Why did you make me come to school, Mei-chan? All I want to do is crawl back into bed.” He pawed through Meilin’s book bag. “Don’t you have anything to eat? Chocolate?”

 

“You don’t even like sweets,” remarked a cranky Meilin, tossing Kai a box of Pocky. He eagerly tore into the package of chocolate-covered biscuit sticks. 

 

Tomoyo remarked, “We got down from Mount Kumatori pretty late, but you don’t look like you got much sleep last night, Meilin-chan.”

 

Meilin yawned, wondering how Tomoyo always managed to look so fresh and well-rested. “I didn’t sleep a wink. This is what a mother feels like when her child stays out all night without getting in touch.”

 

And Tomoyo clasped her hands together and squealed, “Syaoran didn’t come home last night?”

 

“No,” whispered Meilin. “He was out all night with Sakura—her stuff’s still at our apartment.”

 

Tomoyo turned to her desk mate Eriol excitedly. “Did you hear that? They were out all night, together.”

 

With a lazy smile, Eriol replied, “We kept everybody trapped atop Mount Kumatori all evening long. Those two better have spent some time together, without any disturbances.”

 

Meilin’s jaw dropped. “Is that why you took so darned long breaking the barrier? And Mizuki-sensei intentionally got lost coming back down?”

 

Kai chuckled. “No, she just really has no sense of direction.”

 

“But you do—” Meilin trailed off as the former thief shrugged and grinned smugly.

 

Yanagisawa Naoko looked around the classroom and remarked, “Sakura-chan sure is late.”

 

“Li-kun too,” said Yamazaki Takashi.

 

“Maybe they’re together again,” said Mihara Chiharu with a sly smile.

 

“Again?” asked Meilin.

 

Chiharu nodded. “Yes, we saw them at the new café in town, during the midday shower on Saturday.”

 

And Meilin and Tomoyo grasped each others hands together gleefully.

 

First period passed by, and there was no sign of Sakura and Syaoran. 

 

Tomoyo’s mobile phone buzzed, and she whispered to her friends, “I just got a text message from Sakura. She needs a spare uniform.”

 

Kai tittered. “See, I told you they were out all night. How scandalous.”

 

“I wonder if Syaoran needs a uniform too,” remarked Tomoyo, thinking how she had delinquent student style and elite student council style, both which would suit Syaoran well.

 

“He keeps a spare uniform in his locker since he is such a neat freak,” said Meilin, spoiling Tomoyo’s daydream. “So where are they right now?”

“They’re in the boys’ locker room,” replied Tomoyo.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It took the entire study hall in the library for Meilin, Tomoyo, Miho, and Kai to narrate in full what had happened the previous night on Mount Kumatori to Sakura, because they kept interrupting each other.

 

Seated at their isolated corner table in the library, Tomoyo said, “It was quite a dramatic scene, the White Tiger leaping out and saving Syaoran’s sister from the nine-tailed kitsune.”

 

“Did I mention onii-chan slayed an ogre by striking his eye with an arrow midair?” interrupted Miho, who was skipping gym, her least favorite class.

 

“And then, it turned out that Perro-chan was actually the legendary Phoenix Garuda-sama, Mizuki Mayura-sama’s familiar!” exclaimed Meilin. “Can you believe it?”

 

“Hoe, I can’t tell if you guys are just pulling my legs or serious,” said Sakura, perplexed. “Why didn’t anyone contact me?”

 

“We had things under control,” said Meilin with a shrug. “I mean, both Eriol and Leiyun were there.”

 

“Besides, nobody had reception up there,” declared Tomoyo.  

 

“But Meilin-senpai got in touch with Syaoran-senpai, right?” said Miho.

 

Kai glared at his younger sister over the bridge of his sunglasses. He admitted, “Only my phone had reception, and Meilin texted Syaoran. Didn’t he say anything to you?”

 

“No,” said Sakura slowly.

 

“Look,” said Meilin, holding up Kai’s phone to show the message window with Syaoran, and Sakura peered over the exchange of texts.

 

Meilin: Syaoran, we’re up on Mt. Kumatori at the Mizuki Shrine. Seems like there’s some strange yokai up here. Eriol said it doesn’t seem like a dark force though.

 

Syaoran: Who’s with you?

 

Meilin: Most of the Alliance… Eriol, Kai, Miho, Tomoyo. And Leiyun and his crew. Your sisters too.

 

Syaoran: Do you guys have things under control?

 

Meilin: Both Eriol and Leiyun are here, I think we’ll be fine.:)

 

Syaoran: OK, will leave things to you guys. Call me if something comes up.

 

Sakura gaped at the message for two reasons. Looking at the time stamp, it had been around the time they had finished dinner. And yet, he had suggested they go watch a movie and didn’t tell her about the altercation on Mount Kumatori. Second, she hadn’t realized Syaoran actually responded to text messages.  

 

“Oh, he really didn’t mention it?” asked Tomoyo. “That is rare, Syaoran prioritizing fun over duty.”

 

“Or perhaps he was just cleverly avoiding his pesky sisters,” remarked Kai, glancing over at Syaoran seated in his usual corner, who was the only person actually doing work during study hall, furiously solving math problems not just for tomorrow’s class but the entire week.

 

“I really wasn’t going to tell him,” said Meilin. “But I was afraid he’s get mad if I didn’t let him know, and he was going to find out anyway since his sisters were there.”

 

Miho said, “Besides, Eriol and the others contained the situation eventually, though they were so painstakingly slow about it. Almost as if they were deliberately taking a long time.” And then it dawned upon her, and she glared at Eriol, who had just been nodding along to their narration of last night’s events.

 

Sakura had no doubt it was Leiyun behind the released seal on Mount Kumatori. What was he up to now? She was sure Kai held the same suspicion, for he hated anything bothersome, and the only time he would take action was out of sheer necessity.

 

Kai, a Pocky stick in his mouth, leaned over and whispered in her ear rather loudly, “So, Sakura-chan, where did you spend the night?”

 

“Up on Tokyo Tower,” said Sakura. “We were just waiting for the trains to operate again.”

 

“I meant the other two nights,” said Kai with a sly grin.

 

This made Sakura blush beet red, and Meilin kicked his shin under the table. “Don’t tease Sakura-chan!”

 

“Fine, I’ll go harass Syaoran for the details,” said Kai, tossing an empty Pocky package into the trash can.

 

Meilin asked, “Miho, don’t you have class?”

 

“Who cares about PE after all the excitement from last night?” replied Miho. “I got Nakuru to forge a doctor’s note for me.”

 

“If you ever forget whose sister she is,” mumbled Meilin, which made Sakura chuckle.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Li Leiyun entered the music room and heaved a deep sigh as the school bell rang, sinking into one of the chairs, not realizing someone else was already in the room.

 

Clearing her throat, Tomoyo stood up from the piano bench, where she had been practicing a song for choir, to make known her presence. “Are you hiding from someone, Li-sensei?” 

 

And she heard footsteps and Li Shiefa burst into the music room. “Oh it’s you, Tomoyo. Did you see my cousin Leiyun?”

 

Tomoyo glanced over at Leiyun, who had ducked behind the grand piano and placed a finger over his lips, shaking his head furiously. “No, I haven’t seen Li-sensei,” she told Syaoran’s second oldest sister.

 

Shiefa frowned. “I swear I thought I saw him head in this direction. Well, if you see him, tell him to answer my phone calls.”

 

And Tomoyo shut the door before turning back to Leiyun, who sighed in relief, drooping over the shut grand piano. A white kitten slinked out from behind the benches and hopped on the piano lid, scattering music sheets. “Did you get back home safely last night?”

 

“No. Fuutie and Shiefa insisted on visiting Tsukiji Fish Market for fresh sashimi at dawn since we were already up,” replied Leiyun. “I never want to look at raw fish again.”

 

“You do look rather haggard, Li-sensei,” remarked Tomoyo trying to suppress a smile, for Leiyun did seem a bit green in the face. That was also the expression Syaoran had on all week long while hosting Fuutie at his apartment.

 

“It’s a well-known fact Syaoran’s sisters are very high maintenance,” replied Leiyun with a long sigh, burying his head in Byakko-chan’s fur. “I don’t know where they get their stamina from. And the scary thing is, Fuutie and Shiefa are still more easy-going than the younger two.”

 

“It must be fun to have so many relatives,” remarked Tomoyo.

 

Leiyun snorted at this. “I’d gladly trade off a cousin or two. More like a dozen. Anyway, you have Sakura and Touya.”

 

“Yes, I was so happy to find out that I had two cousins,” said Tomoyo. “I’ve always wanted siblings.” She wondered suddenly if Leiyun had any siblings—she knew very little about him. Tomoyo recalled Kai’s questions about Leiyun’s motives. If he did not have any siblings, he would inherit everything from his father and possibly his mother as well. No, Leiyun wouldn’t care about material goods. And he didn’t care for power, because he did not want to be the Great Elder nor the Chosen One. Yet, he didn’t have a strong sense of vengeance against the Dark Ones because he was collaborating with Erika to cause mischief in Tomoeda. Or even if they were not working together, he still was supporting Erika somehow because it was in his benefit to keep her close. Since he had arrived in Tomoeda, he had taken very little action and merely observed, as if he had leisure. As if he was biding his time. He didn’t need to take action. He didn’t need wealth or power or knowledge. Which meant he must already know the answer to solve the curse of the Dark Ones.

 

She had been caught staring, because he was watching her, bemused. “What fancy assumptions are running through your pretty head, I wonder.”

 

“What does it mean for the Dark Ones to win?” remarked Tomoyo, a continuation to their conversation at the cliff last night.

 

Leiyun glanced down at her. “There is no winner if the Dark Ones get their way. Everybody will lose.”

 

“But what would that signify?” asked Tomoyo. “If Sakura could not become the new mistress of the Clow Cards, a great destruction would have befallen upon her.”

 

“What was Sakura’s greatest destruction?” he asked.

 

“Forgetting the feeling toward the person she loves the most,” she replied.

 

“And Tomoyo, what about you? What would the greatest destruction be for you?”

 

Tomoyo frowned for a second in thought. “I think it would be the same for me. Losing memory of those I love the most. I think that would be the worst thing that can happen to me.”

 

Leiyun smiled crookedly. “But for me, that doesn’t sound so bad. Forgetting love sometimes can be a relief. Look at Fuutie, for instance. Wouldn’t she be happier now if she could just forget her love for Wu Zino?”

 

“That’s not true!” exclaimed Tomoyo. “Being able to love is the greatest blessing, and no matter how much pain can come along with it, it doesn’t negate, nor even nullify its joys as well.”

 

“A love that is doomed from the beginning, isn’t it better not to start it?” asked Leiyun, his marble blue eyes resting on her for a second. “What’s the use of loving someone who loves another person and will never turn your way?”

 

“I think there is no greater happiness than being able to share your heart while you can,” said Tomoyo, suddenly recalling their conversation the previous night about Clow Reed’s first love. “To give all your love while you can, for there might come a time when you not will be able to do so, even if you wanted to.”

 

“The man I respected the most in the world once said something similar,” Leiyun murmured, eyes closed. “And yet, what came of it? He was a man full of regrets at the end of life. Made me think, it would rather have been a blessing to forget that kind of wretched love that could never be.”

 

“Then perhaps you have not yet been able to experience that kind of wretched love which is worth fighting for,” she said, scooping up the soft kitten in her arms.

 

This brought a twisted smile to his lips, and he agreed. “Perhaps you are right about that. But you speak as you have experienced it.”

 

“Probably not,” said Tomoyo, shutting her eyes, recalling Edward Cleau Reed, his first and last love, Mizuki Mika, and the mysterious Chang Ryojiro who had gotten between them. “Li-sensei, what wo