Chapter 49: Venomous Minds

 

 

 

******

 

A flash of light on the opposite end of the forest and a sudden stillness indicated that the duel between Li Syaoran and Hiiragizawa Eriol had come to an end. Erika and Eron both glanced up, unsettled by the blast of aura so intense that they could feel it as acutely as it were directly next to them, not kilometers away. Erika shuddered at the impact. Who had fallen? 

 

¡°Syaoran,¡± Sakura whispered, face pressed on the earth, knowing she had to stand but finding her body movement no longer within her control, bound by the Obedience. Had he fallen? If so, there was no hope left for her. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see glimpses of cherry pink floating on the river, drifting down with the current. She had to retrieve them, but no longer had any strength left in her. Furthermore, her sealing key was gone; she was helpless without it.

 

¡°This is the Sealing Key—from today on, you are Card Captor Sakura, and it will be your duty to collect the Clow Cards,¡± Cerberus, Guardian of Clow Book, had told her, as he presented her with a pink key with a winged red ornament at its head, which could be released into a sealing staff.

 

That had been more than five years ago, one spring day when Kinomoto Sakura stumbled across an old book in the basement of her house and accidentally released all the Clow Cards sealed within it except the Windy. From an ordinary schoolgirl, at that time merely ten years old, Sakura had been hurled into the world of Clow Reed and the mysteries of the past. The road to becoming Card Mistress had not always been easy, but she had no regrets. She had learned a lot, been discouraged, gathered hope and overcame the odds. It had been so difficult collecting all the Clow Cards, facing Yue¡¯s Judgment, converting the cards into the power of the star and facing the new dark forces, yet she had always had her sealing staff with her. Now, under the bidding of the Obedience, she had thrown them all away into the stream, all in a matter of minutes. As Card Mistress, she couldn¡¯t even protect her cards from the dark force.

 

Without your staff and Cards, you are no longer Card Mistress, but no one, said a hypnotic voice inside her head, the Obedience. Accept surrender. The Dark Ones are bound to win. Don¡¯t get up. Don¡¯t fight back. Just sit quietly for what will happen will happen. There¡¯s nothing you can do about it.     

 

No, I¡¯ve got to stand up again. I¡¯ve got to gather my cards. I can¡¯t give up like this, retorted a tiny, suppressed voice deep in the back of her mind somewhere.

 

Her entire body trembled as the Obedience clamped tighter in her mind, stifling all logical sense out of her. I can¡¯t listen to that voice, Sakura reminded herself desperately. I can¡¯t just be controlled like this. I need to get to Syaoran before it¡¯s too late.

 

A voice cut through her concentration. It was in the real world.

 

¡°I asked you Erika, what¡¯s going on?¡± Eron said to his twin, able to concentrate on what was happening before him. He stared hard at Sakura, clothes soaked in mud, hair stringy and hanging in her eyes, which had a vacant, distant glaze.

 

¡°Just watch, Eron,¡± Erika replied, hands on hips, walking over to where Sakura lay on the ground. ¡°It seems dear Syaoran has fallen—there¡¯s no chance that he¡¯ll come rescue you now.¡± She smirked. ¡°Listen Sakura, you are a failure as Card Mistress. The two things you should have guarded with your life, which gives you power, are gone. You threw away your staff and cards with your own hands. I¡¯ve always stated before, you are weak Sakura, clearly inferior to the Dark Ones. Right, Sakura?¡±

 

¡°I am¡¦ inferior to the Dark Ones,¡± Sakura repeated, her tongue moving unbeknownst to herself.

 

¡°The Obedience?¡± Startled, Eron glanced at his twin and asked, ¡°When did you¡¦¡±

 

¡°While you were sulking about being beaten up by Syaoran,¡± Erika replied smugly. ¡°I thought I might cheer you up a bit.¡±

 

¡°I told you I wasn¡¯t beaten up,¡± Eron muttered grouchily. His eyes narrowed, watching the rose-colored Sakura cards drift down the stream—the key had already been carried away by the current and was nowhere in sight. Was this really it for Sakura? Show me what you have, Sakura. This is nothing to you, isn¡¯t it, just another silly dark force. Prove to me that you have in you more than this pathetic sight you present to me at this moment.

 

¡°It¡¯s almost too easy, isn¡¯t it?¡± Erika asked, staring at Sakura distastefully.

 

I need to get up. I need to do something, Sakura repeated in her mind, struggling to her feet. Why, oh why isn¡¯t my body moving the way I tell it to? Every time I lift a limb, it¡¯s like a thousand razors are slicing through my skin.

 

¡°She¡¯s still struggling,¡± Eron murmured watching the beads of perspiration roll down Sakura¡¯s forehead. ¡°She¡¯s fighting against the Obedience in her mind.¡±

 

Frowning, Erika said, ¡°It¡¯s surprising that Sakura is still conscious—she should no longer have her own mind after this long. After all, the longer one is under the control of the Obedience, the more impossible it becomes to break free. Even the strongest would become delirious after a while.¡±

 

Eron finished off, ¡°And the eventual result is losing your soul and becoming a dumb puppet of the Obedience.¡± It¡¯ll be so much easier to just submit to the Obedience and shut out her own mind, Eron thought. Yet, why is she fighting back so hard? It¡¯s not visible, the battle in her mind, yet I can feel the aura, the clash between the light and dark.

 

Chuckling, Erika stated, ¡°At this rate, little Cherry Blossom won¡¯t last until Syaoran comes—that is, if he can come at all.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right. Where¡¯s Syaoran?¡± Eron asked. ¡°It¡¯s rare to catch the Card Mistress all alone.¡±

 

¡°Oh, he¡¯s very occupied,¡± Erika replied, gazing in the direction of the woods. ¡°In a duel against the once Greatest Sorcerer of the East and the West. I¡¯m not sure if he¡¯ll last it out. That immense aura we felt a while ago makes me rather doubtful upon his safety. I hope Eriol-kun wasn¡¯t too hard on him. It¡¯ll be a pity for the Little Wolf to miss out on the little surprise I have prepared for him.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re not serious, are you? Why did Li Syaoran fight Eriol?¡± Eron demanded. So that was the great blast of power from the other side of the forest, earlier on. Never had he felt such a chill from a single explosion of magic.

 

Shrugging, Erika said, ¡°Eriol seems to have something up his sleeves again. I don¡¯t now. He said he¡¯s bored. Anyway, the timing worked well with my plans and that¡¯s all that matters.¡±

 

¡°Be careful of Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation,¡± Eron said somberly. ¡°He¡¯s not to be trusted.¡±

 

¡°As long as he doesn¡¯t interfere with our plans, I care little about him,¡± Erika replied flippantly. ¡°Anyway, I didn¡¯t do anything. It was the idiotic Wolf-boy who recklessly challenged Eriol to a duel.¡±

 

Raising an eyebrow, Eron asked, ¡°Why would he do something as stupid as that? I knew Li Syaoran was foolish, but not that brainless.¡±

 

Sakura lifted her head upon hearing Syaoran¡¯s name. Her limbs felt like lead and her mind was fuzzy, as if she was intoxicated in poisonous fumes. Syaoran¡¦ Why would Syaoran challenge Eriol-kun? I still don¡¯t understand. But there are so many things I don¡¯t understand about him, anyway. But I can¡¯t worry about him now. I need to stand up and fight this dark force.

 

¡°So you deliberately caught Sakura when Syaoran was occupied with Eriol.¡± Eron looked reflective for a second. ¡°Very clever, Erika.¡±

 

¡°Well, it¡¯s clear that Sakura is useless without her staff and cards, and more so without Syaoran and her friends,¡± Erika commented lazily. ¡°Hence such a boring fight.¡±

 

Eron tapped his twin¡¯s arm and pointed.

 

¡°Huh?¡± Erika¡¯s eyes widened and she blinked twice. Why was Sakura standing up again? Hadn¡¯t she had enough?

 

Slowly, Sakura staggered towards the twins, hair hanging loose around her pale face. She shivered in the chilly early evening wind which seeped right through her clothes—she had left her blazer back at the library, and her school uniform clung to her skin, damp.

 

¡°I forgot how persistent you are,¡± Erika commented, lips twitching, aggravated. ¡°You never learn do you, Sakura? Everything in life is prewritten and there are certain courses of action that are inevitable. In the name of the Dark Ones, I swear to make you suffer. The more you resist, the more you will suffer. Of course, in the end, it will only be a gain on our part. No, don¡¯t speak.¡±

 

Instantly, Sakura¡¯s mouth clamped shut but her eyes were blazing, different from a moment ago when they were blank and lifeless.

 

¡°Now listen. We have been going easy on you because my twin seems to have lost focus for a while, but no more of that,¡± Erika continued. ¡°Get the ridiculous notion that we can still be friends out of you head.¡± This, she directed to Eron as well as Sakura. ¡°I realized this the day when Syaoran beat up Eron.¡±

 

¡°He didn¡¯t beat me up,¡± insisted Eron, indignant.

 

¡°You¡¯re going to have to pay two-fold for being you as you are, Kinomoto Sakura, and the descendent of Amamiya Hayashi,¡± Erika stated, disregarding her twin. ¡°The first step to take may be to have you go on your knees and beg for forgiveness.¡±

 

Kneel down, Sakura, the Obedience whispered in her mind. Sakura¡¯s knees buckled.

 

¡°Now beg for forgiveness,¡± Erika said, gripping Sakura by her hair near her scalp and shoving her face into the muddy ground.

 

¡°I-I can¡¯t ask for forgiveness¡¦ without knowing the reason why I should be sorry,¡± Sakura said in gasps with all her might.

 

¡°What?¡± Erika mashed Sakura¡¯s face into the ground again. How does she still have the willpower to talk back? Obedience, suck the last sense out of her and make her suppliant.

 

Half suffocated, Sakura struggled to keep her consciousness. I can¡¯t breathe. Just beg for forgiveness. No¡¦ I won¡¯t. I can¡¯t by sorry without knowing what wrong I did. If I give in now¡¦ I mustn¡¯t give in. The two voices in Sakura¡¯s mind clashed again.

 

¡°Why? Why, you ask.¡± Erika laughed harshly. ¡°Silly girl. You ask why? Because we¡¯re the Dark Ones and you¡¯re the Card Mistress, and you chose to fight against us. Because you¡¯re always getting in my way. Because Syaoran beat up my twin brother for no reason.¡±

 

¡°I said, I punched him a few times too,¡± protested Eron.

 

¡°Oh, I forgot, there was a reason.¡± Erika feigned sudden realization, ignoring her brother. ¡°It was over you, I believe. Your existence makes my life miserable. Do you need more reasons?¡± Her pretty face was contorted with hate now. ¡°It¡¯s because Amamiya Hayashi murdered Ruichi-sama.¡± A hand rested on her shoulder. Erika turned around, realizing that she was short of breath.

 

¡°Don¡¯t say anymore, Erika,¡± Eron said quietly, eyes cast down.

 

Heedless, Erika shoved off Eron¡¯s hand and venomously lashed out, ¡°They say, the deepest pit of hell is reserved for betrayers, and that nothing is worse than being betrayed by a friend.¡±      

 

¡°I said, stop it Erika,¡± Eron cut his twin off, and pulled her off from Sakura. ¡°You¡¯re going to suffocate that girl to death.¡±

 

Welcoming the rush of fresh air in her lungs, Sakura sputtered and took a deep breath in, only to realize she didn¡¯t even have the strength left to stand anymore. What is Erika talking about? What is she saying about Hayashi Amamiya-sama and Chang Ruichi-sama?

 

Sakura collapsed onto the ground, welcoming the sharp bits of rock and gravel cut into her skin. Her scalp ached from Erika¡¯s tight grip on her hair. I¡¯ve always wondered what I¡¯m fighting for. I¡¯ve always believed that standing up and fighting back was the right choice, that I am doing the right thing. Yet, as Clow Reed said, there is a reason for everything. There must be a reason why the Dark Ones came to be, and the reason may be my ancestor, who I know nothing about. So then, what is my reason for retaliating, for fighting back, when the fault, the sin may be on my side, of my bloodline?

 

¡°Did she faint?¡± Eron asked, bending closer. Sakura lay crumpled like a flower stepped on and crushed.

 

¡°No, she¡¯s still breathing,¡± Erika replied, kicking Sakura¡¯s side with the tip of her boots. Her fingers were laced with loose strands of Sakura¡¯s long golden brown hair from pulling so tightly. The color of His hair. She flung them aside. ¡°Get up now. How much longer are you going to crawl on the ground, like a slug?¡±

 

Sakura winced. Another bruise didn¡¯t matter anymore—she¡¯d been hurt worse before. No, the problem was her mind. The lapses between the Obedience taking over her consciousness and her being able restore awareness were decreasing, with the Obedience gaining reign over her mind as more time passed. My body won¡¯t hold me up anymore. I just want to close my eyes and sleep, wake up in the morning and find that I¡¯m back to being ten year old Kinomoto Sakura, with no special powers and no care about the past, just an ordinary school girl.

 

¡°It¡¯s seems like she didn¡¯t learn her lesson from the Obedience yet,¡± Erika said, lifting up by a limp arm. ¡°I said, get up!¡± She slapped Sakura¡¯s face hard. Up till this moment, she hadn¡¯t realized how much she hated this girl. The stinging of her palm was nothing compared to the abhorrence she felt towards Sakura. Still, Erika knew that any other girl at this moment would be bawling; but Sakura bit her lips and endured the pain and degradation.

 

¡°Erika¡¦¡± Eron looked away, unable to watch anymore. ¡°Let¡¯s stop this Erika. It¡¯s no fun when the opponent can¡¯t even fight back.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re always weak when it comes down to Sakura,¡± Erika sneered. ¡°Well, you stay out of my business, this time.¡± Abruptly, she let go of Sakura¡¯s arm, letting her roll over into the mud and slime like a lifeless doll. ¡°I wonder how much longer it will be until the Wolf-boy shows up. That is, if he is in any condition to be standing after the duel.¡±

 

Even as she said this, Erika looked around her. Any moment now. He should rush over to save his beloved Sakura.

 

¡°Well, I¡¯m glad to keep you from waiting any longer.¡± A strained, enraged voice, came from behind the twins. In a dangerously low tone, he commanded, ¡°Let go of Sakura, now.¡±

 

¡°My, my who is this here?¡± Erika smiled without turning around. He came, after all. Good. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me that the battle with Eriol is already over? It must have been a rather quick victory on Eriol¡¯s part. Well, I guess he didn¡¯t take it all the way, and you¡¯re alive after all. What a pity.¡±

 

I¡¯ve heard that voice before. Many times. Why is he here? He¡¯s supposed to be elsewhere. Where? I don¡¯t remember. Sakura steadied her weight on her hands and tried to sit up, straining her arm muscles. Dirt streaked her face and clothes and her knees were scraped. Her mouth was full of sand and her hair was a tangled mess. I need to get up. Yet I can¡¯t move my body. I feel like my mind is being ripped apart every time I try.

 

Leaning is weight against a tree trunk, panting, Syaoran glared at the twins standing before him. Beads of perspiration, mixed with streaks of blood dripped down his forehead and temple, and his deep forest-green battle outfit hung in tatters. He wasn¡¯t in his best condition, since he had run nonstop to this location, right after his battle against Eriol. In fact, he could barely stand upright. And he couldn¡¯t bear to bring his gaze to dirt-covered, bruised Sakura, crumpled on the ground. Not for the first time, an uncontrollable fury rippled through his body, unleashing the beast inside him, shredding through all logic and rational thinking. Sakura, Sakura, what have they done to you? I won¡¯t forgive them.

 

The chill rage he felt at this moment, upon seeing Sakura tormented so, was nothing compared to the wrath he felt last time, against Eron. If he could, he would rip off the limbs of the twins this very moment and end it all, but he couldn¡¯t lose his temper. His rational self regained control, as he reminded himself that losing his temper in this situation was not the best tactic. Struggling to keep his voice from shaking, Syaoran repeated, though knowing the twins lacked all logic themselves, ¡°I said, what are you doing to Sakura? Let go of her now.¡±

 

¡°What if we don¡¯t want to?¡± Erika asked, blinking prettily and walking up to Syaoran. Stopping in front of him, she titled her head up, eyes narrowed challengingly. ¡°Save her if you can.¡±

 

******

 

Far across the other side of the woods, the only remnant of the Duel of the Sun and Moon was the slightly uneven ground with clumps of dirt kicked up and scorched patches here and there. Dark splatters on the ground indicated where blood had been shed. 

 

¡°Are you sure you can stand now?¡± Miho asked, supporting Eriol¡¯s weight as they walked away from the battle spot. ¡°Don¡¯t strain yourself, it¡¯s okay. Tomoyo¡¯s bodyguards are going to come pick us up in the van.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m fine now,¡± Eriol replied, smiling. He picked up his broken glasses and slipped them back on.

 

¡°You don¡¯t look fine,¡± Miho said, her brows creased as she dabbed Eriol¡¯s mouth with a handkerchief. She had never seen Eriol perspire, let alone be injured in any way. After all, he was the invincible Hiiragizawa Eriol, who wouldn¡¯t lose composure even in the face of hell. Even after defeat, he looked mildly irritated and amused at worst. 

 

¡°I¡¯d be more worried about Syaoran-kun, if I were you,¡± Eriol commented blandly, looking up to Cerberus and Yue.

 

¡°Why? He¡¯s going after to save Sakura, isn¡¯t he?¡± Miho stated. Then she frowned. She had forgotten about Sakura amidst her shock at seeing the infallible Eriol fall by Li Syaoran¡¯s sword. The situation she had left Sakura in had not been good, to put things mildly. But with Syaoran, it would be okay.

 

¡°What do you mean, Eriol?¡± Cerberus asked, knowing Clow Reed better.

 

Letting go of Miho¡¯s arms, Eriol stood up straight, dusting off his clothes. Though the loser in the battle, he still looked a lot better off than Syaoran did, with only a few minor cuts and bruises here and there; his clothes were at least in tact. ¡°I¡¯m not sure how Syaoran-kun plans on fighting the Dark Ones and saving Sakura-san, without any power left in him,¡± he continued, suppressing a thin smile.

 

Cerberus¡¯s mouth dropped. Miho and Tomoyo stared at each other in dismay.

 

¡°No power?¡± Miho squeaked.

 

Glancing into the woods, Eriol said, ¡°That¡¯s right. I only recovered so quickly because Syaoran used an imperfect form of the Shen-lung Tai-feng on me. He had wasted a lot of his power throughout the battle, and he used his last drop of magic in drawing the dragon out. Had he been able to draw out the full dragon attack¡¦¡± Eriol paused, recalling the blinding, terrifying blue-white light. ¡°I wouldn¡¯t be able to stand right now. In fact, I¡¯m not sure if I would have recovered at all.¡±  

 

Gulping, Cerberus stated, ¡°Then that idiotic Brat—he ran off to save Sakura-chan without having any power left in him? What is he planning to do?¡±

 

¡°What happens if you run out of magical powers?¡± Tomoyo asked, frowning. It was just like Syaoran to recklessly run off to save his loved one without thinking out a plan beforehand. But he would be okay. He always managed fine. More importantly, Sakura always pulled through safely, no matter what. Tomoyo had watched all her battles till now, and she had that much faith in those two.

 

¡°It depends. Ki, as it¡¯s called in Japan, chi in China, magic in the West, whatever you call it—it¡¯s like blood. It runs in your veins, it¡¯s a part of your body. It¡¯s rare that magicians use up all their powers, but when they do, they have to wait a couple days, longer depending on the circumstance, for their bodies to replenish it. It¡¯s not that big of a deal unless you¡¯re in the middle of a battle,¡± Eriol said. ¡°Of course, there are cases when people can go beyond the extent of recovery—meaning they eat into the inner level of power storage, their life supply. It¡¯s comparable to human blood. Humans have a lot of blood—they can lose a certain amount and still be able to function. Yet, if they drain more than what keeps the body from functioning, to circulate the blood to the vital organs in the body, the results can be devastating and tragic.¡±

 

¡°Meaning you die if you use more power than the extent you have?¡± Miho demanded, shuddering.

 

¡°Well, yes,¡± Eriol replied. ¡°But that¡¯s rare. Usually, the mind¡¯s natural instinct is to shut down the body before a magician foolishly draws upon his or her life supply for power.¡±

 

¡°So, that¡¯s what was happening back when Sakura was making Sakura Cards,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°Yukito-san, I mean, Yue-san was disappearing because Sakura couldn¡¯t sustain both Kero-chan and Yue-san with her magical level.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right—instead of yielding more power to sustain Yue¡¯s existence, Sakura¡¯s body was constantly worn out, a side-effect from using all the energy to convert the Clow Cards into Sakura Cards, and Yue¡¯s existence was at risk,¡± Eriol said.

 

¡°Until Sakura¡¯s brother gave up his powers to Yue-san, so that he wouldn¡¯t disappear,¡± Tomoyo ended. ¡°I don¡¯t understand, though. If magical power is like blood, then isn¡¯t there a limit to it? If so, how come Touya-san regained his powers and Sakura is no longer tired, but can sustain Yue-san and Kero-chan, and on top of creating new cards out of dark forces?¡±

 

¡°Well, in that case, magic is a little different from blood,¡± Eriol said. ¡°There is a limit to how much blood a body can contain, and to a certain extent, there is a limit to how much magic a body can contain. However, there is room for development, control and growth. More like human muscles. There is also a final limit to how much strength and capacity a muscle can gain through hard training and effort, but the difference between the beginning and the final results can be drastic. Sakura-san is such a case. Her magical powers more than five years ago were trivial and undeveloped. She has evolved from a Level 4 magician to Level 2 magician in a short period of time, through the training and strengthening of her inner force. Without doubt, her capacity and threshold has increased as well.¡±

 

¡°That makes sense.¡± Tomoyo looked reflective, realizing that some people used their powers freely without every pausing to think of these things and the consequences. ¡°In the beginning, I used to think all of Sakura¡¯s powers were vested in the staff and the Clow Cards. Before she converted from the power of darkness to the power of the stars. Then, I realized that the power lies within.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re right, Tomoyo-san,¡± Eriol replied. ¡°In the beginning, Clow Reed lent her some of his powers in the form of the Key of Darkness, to enable her to become Card Captor and capture the Clow Cards. At that point, it would have been impossible with just her own strength. Yet, she proved in Yue¡¯s Final Judgment that her powers had expanded, and that she was worthy of becoming the new Clow Card Mistress; thus she also graduated into her own level of magic, the power of the stars. She no longer needed Clow Reed¡¯s aid, the Key of Stars being a symbol of her advancement.

 

¡°Centuries ago, magicians discovered that it is easier to borrow power from different energy sources instead of relying solely on their own body. For example, I borrow the power of the sun, the brightest of all heaven and darkness, the strongest and steadiest of all forces. Syaoran uses the power of the moon and also that of various elements in the form of ofudas. (Recently, he learned to call for elemental power without ward papers, as he showed in the battle today). As for Sakura, it is rather rare for magicians to successfully draw upon the power of the stars, yet Sakura has succeeded. Of course, there are other forces one can borrow powers, such as various different elements, other people, spells and contracts, and even objects, like the staff of the Five Force Treasures. The possibilities in practical magic are unbound, and left to the imagination and potential of the user.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s rare to be gifted,¡± Miho said softly. ¡°I wonder why some people are born with it and some people aren¡¯t. And some are born with more of it than others. It¡¯s not quite fair.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s partly genetics, partly fate,¡± Eriol replied. ¡°Some people from magically gifted families are nonetheless born without it, while others from relatively unrenowned bloodlines have a surprising capacity of it. And there¡¯s nothing you can do to change this. If you have it, you can either embrace it or deny it. And if you don¡¯t have it, it¡¯s a blessing in disguise. For magical powers, coveted by many, is nonetheless a curse, a burden.¡± 

 

Recalling Meilin, who desperately wanted to have special powers, for the sake of her clan, Tomoyo said, ¡°I don¡¯t know. Some people who do anything for power. And possessing magical powers has clear advantages. It enables you to become stronger and protect the ones you love.¡± Images of Sakura and Syaoran, fiercely fighting against dark forces, Touya passing his own powers to Yue, to keep him from disappearing, Kai, naturally mixing his specials powers into his display of tricks as the Kaitou Magician, and Eriol, with his dark robes and sun staff, always having control over the situation, flitted through her mind. ¡°It¡¯s truly a gift, not a curse.¡± In this battle against the Dark Ones, I can¡¯t help, even if I want to. All I can do is watch.

 

¡°I don¡¯t get it, Eriol,¡± Miho said, puffing up her cheeks. ¡°You said that though those with special powers have room for improvement, there is always a final limit to what the body can hold. But Clow Reed¡¦¡±

 

¡°A Level 2 magician has mastered all his or her potential skills and has reached his or her maximum limit. What separates a Level 2 and Level 1 magician is, Level 1 magicians break the barrier and exceed beyond the limit,¡± Eriol said.

 

¡°But I thought you said that those who exceed beyond the limit, use more power than their body can contain, will face death.¡± Miho blinked her round gray eyes.

 

Eriol replied grimly, ¡°That¡¯s why they are Level 1 magicians—they can break the threshold and still survive. Most fail in attempt; thus, Level 1 magicians are rare.¡±

 

¡°Like Clow Reed,¡± Tomoyo murmured.

 

¡°Clow Reed was an exception, a freak of nature,¡± Cerberus said solemnly. ¡°There will never again be one as powerful as him. It¡¯s no surprise, since he had the blood of two of the Great Five, not to mention great resolve and a genius mind.¡±

 

¡°But in the end, Clow was only human, and he chose death,¡± Yue spoke quietly, for the first time since the duel ended. ¡°Though why he chose to reincarnate himself, I do not know.¡±

 

¡°Wasn¡¯t it to train a new Card Mistress?¡± asked Miho, glancing up at Yue in wonder. Beautiful words like serene, frosty, godly and glacial came to her mind whenever she saw Yue. That¡¯s why he¡¯s not human, she had to remind herself.

 

¡°He said he wanted a second chance to live life, no longer as the most powerful sorcerer in the world,¡± Ruby Moon stated, fluttering her black butterfly wings.

 

¡°I thought it was merely to suit his sadistic temperament,¡± Spinel Sun corrected. ¡°To see his successors squirm and struggle like nothing before.¡±

 

¡°Who knows what went on in Clow Reed¡¯s convoluted mind,¡± Cerberus said, golden eyes fixed upon Eriol. ¡°Meanwhile, I¡¯m more curious about why Eriol accepted Syaoran¡¯s challenge.¡± He didn¡¯t know about Eriol, but Clow Reed never engaged in futile action.

 

Tomoyo looked up. Indeed, why had Eriol fought with Syaoran? By now she knew that there was always an ulterior motive behind all of Eriol¡¯s actions.

 

Yawning, Ruby Moon stated, ¡°Well, are we going to help Sakura and Syaoran or what?¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right,¡± Cerberus exclaimed. ¡°We have to go help out Sakura! That stupid brat—it was foolish of me to listen to him and stay. Hurry Yue, let¡¯s go.¡±

 

¡°You can go ahead,¡± Yue said quietly. ¡°I¡¯m not going.¡±

 

¡°Not going? Sakura-chan is in danger! As her guardians, we have a duty to be by her side.¡± Cerberus growled.

 

¡°Our Card Mistress did not call for us. And the boy said that he has things under control,¡± Yue replied.

 

¡°But he doesn¡¯t have any power to save her now!¡± Cerberus paced up and down.

 

¡°Let¡¯s see what he will do,¡± Eriol said, smiling brightly to well disguise his cynical humor. ¡°We¡¯ll have some faith in Li Syaoran and his abilities.¡±

 

Cerberus scoffed, ¡°Good riddance. Have faith in that brainless Brat? Who would be stupid enough to challenge the reincarnation of the greatest sorcerer in history and use up all his powers—he¡¯s completely useless now!¡±

 

¡°But he won,¡± Miho reminded.

 

¡°I can¡¯t just wait like this!¡± Cerberus exclaimed, reverting to his small form. Then, Kero-chan sighed. What could he do? His mistress had not called for him.

 

¡°We¡¯re not going to follow?¡± Miho-chan asked Tomoyo, who was no longer videotaping. ¡°Don¡¯t you have a battle outfit prepared for Sakura-chan as usual?¡±

 

Gazing at Eriol, who had an unusually distant expression, Tomoyo shook her head. ¡°This time, I don¡¯t think my place is by Sakura. We just have to trust Syaoran, like Eriol-kun said.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re nothing but a hindrance in the end,¡± Eriol murmured quietly. His midnight blue eyes glimmered under the shadow of the trees. ¡°Prove me wrong if you can, Li Syaoran.¡±

 

Always quick to catch onto Eriol¡¯s words, Tomoyo shivered. Could I have possibly fallen for a more evil guy? Yet, even this side appeals to me. Maybe I¡¯m the strange one.

 

******

 

A surreal world. I am shrouded in darkness. It¡¯s like that time with the Dark card, back in fifth grade, in the middle of the Sleeping Beauty Play. Strange. I can hear voices. That voice. I thought I was mistaken before. A little more. I can hear him. He¡¯s near by. With all the strength she could muster, Sakura reached out with shaking hands.

 

Watching Sakura¡¯s arm twitch out of the corner of her eyes, Erika commented to Syaoran, ¡°Your battle with Eriol ended quicker than I expected. Unless of course, you ran off in the middle of it.¡±  

 

¡°I should have sealed the Obedience when I had the chance,¡± Syaoran said flatly. To his relief, he realized that Sakura wasn¡¯t completely consumed by the Obedience yet. He wasn¡¯t too late.

 

¡°You couldn¡¯t. Only Sakura can seal new dark forces, remember?¡± Erika said. ¡°Oh yes. She can¡¯t anymore because she no longer has the Sealing Staff.¡±

 

¡°What are you talking about?¡± Syaoran asked. The Sakura Cards drifting downstream explained the situation quickly.

 

¡°Sakura threw her Sealing Key into the river, (under the command of the Obedience of course),¡± Erika replied. ¡°All her cards too. She¡¯s no longer Card Mistress.¡±

 

¡°Why, you¡¦¡± Syaoran reached out to strike her but restrained himself. He had yet to figure out her game. Think calmly—what is her objective this time? This is the first time the Dark Ones have actually made a full frontal appearance in battle. Erika could have finished off Sakura ages ago, but she didn¡¯t. What does she want?

 

¡°Why won¡¯t you hit me?¡± Erika demanded. ¡°Because I¡¯m a girl? Or because you don¡¯t have any strength to fight right now? It¡¯s silly of you to come to this site, completely drained of all your powers. You knew you were walking into a trap, weren¡¯t you? By now, you must have figured out the set-up, a collaboration between Eriol and me.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t know when you and Eriol became so intimate, however, yes, I figured a little too late your scheme of attacking Sakura when I was occupied with the duel against Eriol. And you took it a step further, figuring I would show up to save Sakura even when I am completely exhausted and have used up all my strength in the battle with Eriol.¡± Syaoran paused, looking at Erika straight in the eye. ¡°You¡¯re right. I¡¯m an idiot who would try to save that girl even when I¡¯m powerless. I¡¯ve faced such a situation many times before. During Yue¡¯s Judgment, the Final Confrontation against Eriol, against the Fate¡¦ But¡¦¡± A half-smile played upon the corner of his lips. Even as he said this, he was realizing what an absolute idiot he was, for showing up in such a state. ¡°But many times she proved me that she does not need me. After all, she is the chosen Card Mistress. She has many commendable qualities that I do no posses. It¡¯s only my selfish desire which keeps me by her side, time after time. It¡¯s not for her that I am here. It¡¯s for me. I can¡¯t stand watching her face danger alone.¡±  

 

Why? Why is he so self-sacrificing when it comes to Sakura? Why would he give up his prestigious title of Chosen One, his family, his pride, for the sake of being by that girl¡¯s side, even when he acknowledges he doesn¡¯t have to be here? Erika pursed her lips. Prove him wrong. Prove that he is a hindrance to Sakura, that he truly is worthless, that he made a mistake to stay by her side. Make him watch his precious Sakura suffer. Make him suffer. That¡¯s what I want the most. A steady hand pressed against her arm. She spun around. Eron.

 

¡°Erika. Don¡¯t put yourself under strain,¡± Eron said softly.

 

¡°You stay out of this,¡± Erika snapped. Out of anyone, she knew how much Eron despised Li Syaoran, yet he was holding back. Was he that concerned about Sakura? ¡°Obedience! Full attack is on!¡±

 

Instinctively, Syaoran¡¯s hand moved to his sword hilt.

 

Grasping a clump of dry grass in her hand, Sakura squinted her eyes. Her vision blurred and her skull ached. She could now see a faint silhouette of a person holding out a sword. Syaoran¡¦ Syaoran¡¦ Are you standing there, in front of me?

 

The voice of the Obedience interrupted her thoughts once more. Attack him. Attack him now.

 

Attack him? Attack who? A chill went down her spine. Sakura shook her head. Go away. I¡¯m not listening to you anymore.

 

Stand up. Attack Li Syaoran, now! Against her will, Sakura found herself standing up, knees trembling, yet her legs moved forward. She lunged forward, kicking out a leg at Syaoran¡¯s hand, knocking his sword out his hand. Why is my body moving this way? Why am I attacking Syaoran? Automatically, she bend down and picked up the fallen sword then staggered. It was heavier than it looked. Why am I picking up the sword? Steadying the sword with both hands, Sakura leaped forward and swung at Syaoran, who jumped back.

 

¡°Fight me, Li Syaoran!¡± Who¡¯s voice? It¡¯s my own voice. What am I saying? She lifted the sword up, parallel to the ground, and pointed the tip at Syaoran¡¯s neck.

 

¡°Sakura¡¦¡± Unfazed, Syaoran stared at Sakura, controlled by the dark force, pointing his sword at him. Her hands trembled so much that the tip wobbled dangerously near his throat. He did not step back nor cower away.

 

¡°I said, fight me, Syaoran,¡± Sakura repeated, lifting up the sword and swinging it clumsily at Syaoran. He did not move, and the sword sliced off a lock of his brown hair.

 

Clumsy girl. You missed. Strike again, the Obedience whispered in Sakura¡¯s mind.

 

Stepping forward, Sakura struck down at Syaoran. Again, she missed.

 

The Obedience hissed, Where are you swinging at? Hit him. Aim for him. Bring him down. ¡°This is your end, Syaoran!¡± Sakura exclaimed, rushing towards him in full force, having lost all control over her body now.

 

Syaoran stared at Sakura, pale faced, reminding himself, No, that¡¯s not Sakura speaking. It¡¯s not Sakura who¡¯s trying to kill me now. It¡¯s not Sakura.

 

¡°Why aren¡¯t you dodging? Why aren¡¯t you fighting back?¡± Sakura demanded, sword raised in the air, hands trembling. And electric shock ran through her brain as she balanced the sword vertically, midair. Run Syaoran, please. Don¡¯t make me do this. Please Syaoran, run away from here. Can you hear me? 

 

¡°Why isn¡¯t he reacting?¡± Erika muttered, frowning at the expressionless, motionless Syaoran. Was he too stunned? Dismayed? ¡°He¡¯ll really get killed at this rate.¡±

 

¡°Maybe he¡¯s paralyzed with fright and shock at his dear Sakura saying such words, attacking him like that.¡± Eron replied dryly. So this was what his twin had planned. Finishing off Syaoran through his most beloved one¡¯s hands. It was pure malice, this tactic that had been used before. If watching was this unnerving, what would it be like for Syaoran, watching his dear Sakura try to kill him? ¡°Isn¡¯t everything going as you planned, Erika?¡±

 

¡°This is your end Li Syaoran!¡± Sakura shouted. She lunged forward with expert agility, sword positioned to pierce straight into Syaoran¡¯s body. Her mind screamed, Go, Syaoran! Don¡¯t stay here anymore! I don¡¯t have control over my body or mind. Tears streamed down her eyes, despite a cold expression masking her face. This is it¡¦ I can¡¯t do anything. Her arms automatically thrust the sword forward towards Syaoran¡¯s heart. RUN SYAORAN!

 

Three steps, two steps¡¦ she¡¯s coming. Syaoran¡¯s held his breath as Sakura leaped forward, pleading emerald eyes betraying her precise movement.

 

¡°He has two choices—he can either dodge or fight back,¡± Eron said, glancing behind Syaoran. I see now. Even under the Obedience¡¯s command, Sakura planned this attack, assuming that Syaoran would dodge, which would result in her colliding into the tree behind him, so that she won¡¯t be able to attack Syaoran anymore. She still has some consciousness left in her.

 

There were only two choices for Syaoran in this situation. If Syaoran dodged, Sakura would collide head-first into the tree standing behind him, because she wouldn¡¯t be able to stop the intense momentum from the attack. This could result in serious injury on Sakura¡¯s part. Or, Syaoran could fight back—since he was weaponless, this would involve martial arts skills. He could kick the sword out of her hands—a risky moved judged by the speed Sakura was approaching, or he could knock her out with his fists. Either way, she would be injured—it was a no-win situation. Eron grimaced. What will you do, Li Syaoran, to prevent Sakura from getting hurt? See what it is like to be really helpless.

 

Eron and Erika¡¯s eyes widened as Sakura ran up to Syaoran with sword extended in a deadly thrust.

 

¡°What¡¦¡± Eron trailed off. The third choice.

 

Syaoran neither dodged nor ducked the blow. Instead, a strange and unexpected spectacle unfolded in front of them. Without blinking an eye, Syaoran stepped towards Sakura, unafraid of the gleaming blade flying his way. With his bare left hand, he gripped the blade near its base where it was dullest, stopping the attack, and with his other hand, he grabbed her wrist and drew Sakura towards him in a close embrace. For a second, Sakura struggled against Syaoran, trying to draw the sword free from his tight grip. Crimson blood dripped from his palm and onto the cold silver metal of the blade, then onto the ground. Then pain from the cut was enough to keep him levelheaded.

 

¡°Don¡¯t, Sakura,¡± Syaoran said softly into her ear. ¡°I know you can hear me, somewhere in the depths of your mind. I can hear you calling for me. You¡¯re telling me to run. But I won¡¯t run. I will never run from you again. Can you hear me Sakura? I¡¯m here. So return, Sakura. I know you can defeat the commands of the Obedience. I¡¯m not going anywhere until you do.¡±

 

¡°What is she going to do?¡± Erika murmured, in grudging awe that Syaoran was not afraid of his blade. It seemed as if Sakura calmed for a moment.

 

He¡¯s in front of you. Attack him! The Obedience commanded in Sakura¡¯s mind again.

 

No, I won¡¯t, I can¡¯t! I¡¯m going to beat you. Yet Sakura¡¯s inner voice was stifled and she felt that helpless sensation again, as the dark force in her mind sent her body different signals from what she desired. With redoubled fierceness in her attack, she yanked the sword out of Syaoran grip, slashing right through his palm in two deep, horizontal cuts from the doubled-edged blade. Then, she struck down on Syaoran¡¯s shoulder blade with a loud crack. It took all of his self-control not to make a sound at the impact, and Syaoran crumpled onto his knees, wind knocked out of his lungs.

 

¡°Why aren¡¯t you avoiding the hits?¡± Sakura demanded coldly. ¡°Why aren¡¯t you defending yourself?¡±

 

Stifling a moan, Syaoran gripped his left shoulder—judging from the pain, the collarbone had been broken. The dark force was making Sakura twice as powerful—he doubted she could swing his sword about so easily in her regular state. Yet, she was not completely gone yet. There still was hope. Just a little harder. He asked gently, ¡°Then why do you have tears in your eyes?¡±

 

With trembling fingers, Sakura felt her cheek. It was wet. Why are you crying? What are you crying for? The Obedience jeered at her.

 

Syaoran, Sakura replied through her inner voice. What am I doing? Why am I attacking Syaoran? How could I have injured him? I¡¯ve got to stop this!

    

Again, Sakura lifted up the sword. Why doesn¡¯t my body listen to me? I can¡¯t trace the source of the Obedience since it¡¯s inside my mind. What can I do to stop this insanity? Go away Syaoran, go away. I¡¯m begging you!

 

As Sakura swung down the sword ruthlessly, Syaoran shut his eyes. A blunt sword, ineffective at clean slices, called for a long, prolonged death. But if this was what would call Sakura back, he could endure it.

 

Once it entered in your mind, the Obedience was a difficult force to draw out in its true form. Inner strength to fight out the manipulating voice was important. Another was intense shock, which often briefly brought the victim back to his or her senses. This is it. He could sense the gleaming high above him, even with his eyes shut. His father¡¯s sword.

 

¡°What is trying to do? Become a human sacrifice?¡± Erika hissed, horrified at Syaoran¡¯s ambivalence as he kneeled on the ground, hands folded in front of him. She couldn¡¯t bear to watch anymore. This is his end then. The blade slashed forward.

 

Yet, the blow never came. Syaoran opened his eyes. Sakura, with all her might had hurled the sword away, in the guise of stabbing him. The straight blade rotated midair several times and embedded itself deeply in a tree trunk off to the side. Her entire body was shaking uncontrollably, but her eyes were glowing with a new intensity.

 

¡°What happened?¡± Erika demanded shrilly. ¡°Why did Sakura throw away the sword?¡±

 

¡°There¡¯s an unseen battle going on inside her mind right now,¡± Eron replied, gazing at Sakura keenly. Truthfully, he had never seen that girl under so much strain as she was now. Not even when she was fighting the Stalker, nor the Whip, nor the Fate. For this time, it was a battle with the mind.    

 

¡°Sakura¡¦¡± Slowly, Syaoran staggered forward, grimacing at the sharp pain in his shoulder.

 

¡°Stay away!¡± Sakura said sharply.

 

Agitated, the Obedience demanded, Why won¡¯t you listen to me anymore? Aren¡¯t you in pain right now? The pain will stop if you listen to me again.

 

Confidant that the Obedience couldn¡¯t manipulate her mind any longer, she told it, You¡¯re an imposter. I won¡¯t forgive you for making me attack my friends and injuring Syaoran. But I know it¡¯s my fault. It was me who was too weak to fight you off. I am a failure as a Card Mistress. But I won¡¯t always be a failure. I¡¯ll improve with my own two hands. Sakura¡¯s mind was in havoc, as if unseen hands were squeezing her brain, but she could sense her inner voice becoming stronger.  

 

Impossible. You cannot throw me out of your mind. You shall obey.

 

No, I will break barriers if that is what will enable me to become a sufficient Card Mistress. Sakura staggered to stand straight. I won¡¯t be stopped by the likes of you.

 

What kind of Card Mistress doesn¡¯t have cards? The Obedience sneered. Now, stop this foolishness and resume your attack on the Little Wolf.

 

¡°NOOOOOO!¡± Sakura shouted with all her might, the first words of her own she uttered since her attacks on Syaoran began.

 

A golden-white blazed around her and her skin glowed pearl-like. One by one, the dozens of cards floating down the river rose up, and floated to her, surrounding her in a circle of rose-colored Sakura Cards, completely dry and undamaged.

 

¡°She called all the cards back to her,¡± Eron murmured, shielding his eyes from the light. ¡°They came to her, knowing that she wanted them. Indeed, she is their true mistress.¡±

 

¡°But what good are the cards without the staff?¡± Erika said, still taking a step away.

 

¡°Look,¡± Eron said, voice hushed. Sakura¡¯s entire body was alight, and a new rush of power radiated out of her. The golden twelve-pointed star symbol of the Sakura Cards appeared at her feet, etching its mark wide across the forest ground. 

 

¡°Sakura!¡± Syaoran shouted, amber eyes widened. What was happening?

 

Raising her hand, Sakura called out, ¡°Woody! Create a barrier around me!¡± Upon command, one of the brightly glowing cards that had been circling around her levitated into the air and sprouted into the lithe, leafy formed Woody which grew thick vines all around Sakura like a cocoon, concealing her from the onlookers.

 

¡°She just released a card without her staff,¡± Eron murmured in wonder. ¡°How is that possible?¡±

 

¡°What is she doing?¡± Erika gulped, staring hard at the igloo like enclosure which Sakura had trapped herself and her cards in, using the Woody.

 

¡°I see. She¡¯s entrapped herself in order to prevent herself from attacking Syaoran anymore. The Sakura Cards will do her bidding and follow her orders only, not the biddings of the Obedience, a fellow dark force. The Woody will not dissemble as long as Sakura has a grip of her inner mind, and she¡¯s separated herself from the outside world, so she can carry on the mental battle against the Obedience without any interferences or the risk of Syaoran being involved.¡± Eron smiled grimly. ¡°Once more, our little Cherry Blossom surprises us.¡± 

 

Why does he seem pleased about it? Erika thought, glancing at her twin. He¡¯s actually relieved that Sakura didn¡¯t completely crumble. Then, she looked up at Syaoran, noticing how pale and shaken up he was for the first time. It wasn¡¯t surprising, considering he must have survived a grueling, humiliating defeat against Eriol, only to face being attacked by his most important one. After all, he had missed being splintered in two by a hairline. There was a large gash near his temple—the blood hadn¡¯t completely ceased to flow yet. His tattered and ripped battle costume was covered in so much blood and dirt that it was impossible to identify its original color. Without strength left to stand, he knelt by the Woody¡¯s barrier, clutching his left shoulder which was skewed in an awkward angle—from the looks of it, a bone must be broken. Yet, what was that expression on his face? Not one of concern, anguish, nor defeat, but with a triumphant gleam in his eyes as he watched a blazing light gleam inside the cocoon of vines that Sakura had surrounded herself in.   

 

Starting to falter for the first time, Erika walked over to Syaoran. With a snicker, she asked, ¡°Aren¡¯t you worried about her? Why aren¡¯t you doing anything? Oh wait, I forgot. You¡¯re powerless right now. Silly of you to use up all your energy on that futile battle against Hiiragizawa Eriol when you were going to lose anyway.¡±

 

Slowly standing up, Syaoran tilted his chin up and stared down at her with narrow eyes, replying, ¡°Having fought by Sakura¡¯s side for all these years, I know my strengths and her strengths. I have confidence in her abilities, and I can assure you of her willpower to overcome the Obedience.¡±

 

Hands crossed behind her back, Erika said innocently, ¡°I know you were able to repel the Obedience with ease, but surely you know that it is a lot more difficult to discard it once it enters your mind than to simply block it from entering from the beginning.¡±

 

Unfazed, Syaoran replied, ¡°I do know. That is why I know Sakura will be able to defeat such a dark force, when many others will fail. I myself don¡¯t know how I would have been able to handle that dark force if it entered my mind—that is why I repelled it from the beginning.¡±

 

¡°If you know you¡¯re useless, than why did you show up, in such a state?¡± Erika demanded, wishing Syaoran didn¡¯t sound so sure.

 

¡°How should I put it...¡± Syaoran pretended to think for a second, then answered brightly, ¡°For moral support as Tomoyo would put it.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t joke around with me,¡± Erika said crossly. She had wanted Syaoran to squirm, despair and collapse. What was with this cool, confident attitude? Faith¡¦ It was a strange concept to her. 

 

Eyes darkening again, Syaoran said, ¡°And what do you think you are doing, joking around with me.¡±

 

¡°W-what are you talking about?¡± Erika stammered. Did the temperature around her drop suddenly?

 

Holding up a certain ofuda with Erika¡¯s blood imprint up between two fingers, Syaoran asked coldly, ¡°Did you forget our pact? Do not harm Sakura—I thought you had more honor than this.¡±

 

¡°She was the weak one to fall into my trap,¡± Erika replied flatly.

 

¡°You promised not to hurt her,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°A promise is a promise.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s stupid of you to try to make a pact with me,¡± Erika said, covering her uneasiness with mirthful laughter. ¡°Anyway, who said I broke the promise? Sakura¡¯s not being physically harmed right now, is she? Dear Syaoran, you are too naïve.¡±

 

Eyebrows furrowed down, Syaoran said lowly, ¡°You¡¯re lucky that you caught me in such a situation. Or else, I wouldn¡¯t have held back.¡±

 

Erika fluttered her eyelashes. ¡°My, are you threatening a helpless girl? How frightening!¡± What is this feeling inside my heart? Why does it hurt when he says such cruel words to me? Why am I so jealous of Sakura at this moment? Does she know how much he cares about her? ¡°I¡¯m glad to see that you have plenty of egotism left even after being sorely defeated by Eriol.¡±

 

¡°You keep on saying I got defeated,¡± Syaoran began, putting on a signature Erika-style sweet smile. ¡°But for your information, I¡¯m sorry to tell you that actually I won.¡±

 

He left Erika gaping, for at that moment, the Woody evaporated and Sakura tumbled out, beads of perspiration dripping down her forehead. She was short of breath, and collapsed onto the ground, in front of Syaoran¡¯s feet. Beside her was a wooden marionette-shaped dark force—the Obedience. Sakura had defeated the Obedience and forced it out of her mind and show its true face. She stirred.

 

¡°Sakura!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, bending down to help her up. A wave of relief washed over him. 

 

Shaking her head, Sakura struggled to stand up by herself. Out of the corner of her eyes, she watches the Obedience squirming to escape. She raised her hand in the air and flicked a finger. A single card flew out of the stack of cards set on her left hand. ¡°FREEZE!¡± The icy force flew out and snaked around the Obedience, freezing it from motion.

 

Clapping sarcastically, Erika said, ¡°Good job, Card Mistress. I wouldn¡¯t have expected less from you. Come on Eron, let¡¯s go. Our obedient little dark force is nothing but a useless block of ice now.¡± She turned her face away before betraying the livid wrath contorting her face. No way Syaoran could have beaten Hiiragizawa Eriol. It simply wasn¡¯t possible.


Before following his twin, Eron took a final glance at Sakura, dark shadows under her eyes reflecting a difficult battle against the Obedience and the glowing aura her dimming, returning her to a regular, light-hearted schoolgirl, not the fearsome sorceress of a moment ago. Her fiercely blazing emerald eyes were now merely the tired, weary eyes of Kinomoto Sakura. Turning away, Eron walked briskly to catch up with Erika. For a second, I thought I was seeing the eyes of Amamiya Hayashi, ringleader of the Great Five, again.  

 

Watching the twins disappear into the woods, Syaoran turned to Sakura, who wobbled towards the river. She stepped in. The water was chilly in the nighttime.

 

¡°Sakura. What are you doing?¡± Syaoran demanded.

 

The water came up to her waist, and she was desperately groping the bottom of the river, looking for something. ¡°The Sealing Key. I need to find the Key,¡± she murmured to herself.

 

¡°It¡¯s too dark to find it now,¡± Syaoran said. He drew out a fire ofuda then sighed. No use in trying to call fire in his current condition. ¡°And by now, it must have drifted down the river—who knows where it is. Come out of the river now; you¡¯ll catch a cold. Look for it tomorrow when the sun¡¯s up.¡±

 

¡°No, I¡¯ve got to find it right now!¡± Sakura replied. Her fingers were growing numb. She couldn¡¯t tell whether the objects that met her fingers were stone, trash, or water creatures. Yet, she had to find the Key. The Sakura Cards, she had been able to call back because they had souls, they were bound under contract to her. Yet, the Key was an object—she had to search for it. I might be able to feel its aura were it not for the rapid flow of the river interfering with my sensing abilities. Or maybe it I weren¡¯t this worn out.  

 

¡°Don¡¯t be silly. How do you expect to find the Key in the dark? You¡¯re dead tired right now, and you can¡¯t wade around in the river in this weather!¡± Syaoran said, concern masked in harsher words.

 

Looking up, silhouetted by the lantern lights, Sakura said, ¡°You don¡¯t understand, Syaoran, because you¡¯ve grown up with your kills. You don¡¯t understand what it is like to realize how defenseless you are, how helpless and powerless. I can¡¯t forgive myself for falling under the Obedience¡¯s trap, for my weakness. I can¡¯t forgive myself for attacking my friends, first Kai, and you. I attacked you and injured you with these two hands.¡±

 

¡°But you defeated the Obedience, and everything¡¯s okay now—that¡¯s what¡¯s important,¡± Syaoran replied.

 

¡°No.¡± Sakura stared into the bottom of the river, which was pitch black. ¡°This can happen over and over again. Innocent people getting hurt, not knowing the reason why. I finally realized how weak I am.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re not weak at all, Sakura,¡± Syaoran replied solemnly. Kicking off his shoes, he dipped a toe in the river, grimacing at the freezing temperature. Sakura had pluck; she wasn¡¯t even shivering. Bracing himself, he entered all the way in. ¡°Your resilience, determination and perseverance are unmatchable. The Obedience may have been one of the most difficult forces to overthrow, on par with the Phantom, but you¡¯ve overcome the challenge.¡±

 

Smiling sadly, Sakura said, ¡°It¡¯s okay Syaoran. I know better now. I know that I have been an evader of reality. I¡¯ve refused to fight offensively and all my battles have been in pure defense. Till today, I did not know of hate, yet I¡¯ve had a glimpse of it and don¡¯t like it. Till now, I have fought merely because it was what a Card Captor is expected to do; my heart wasn¡¯t it. More than five years ago, it was my fault for releasing the Clow Cards, so under Kero-chan¡¯s instruction, I became Card Captor. Of course, later on I realized there was a bigger scheme planned out by Clow Reed, and it was no coincidence that I stumbled upon the Clow Book in the basement of my house. Back then, I was fighting to protect the town of Tomoeda, my family, friends and home. All I did came naturally, without second thoughts. Currently, I am fighting against dark forces, binding them under contract to prevent them from causing mischief. Truthfully, I am at loss over why this battle still continues. I thought it would be over with converting all the Clow Cards into Sakura Cards. Yet, as Clow Reed says, there must be a reason for everything, and he must have intended me to face the Dark Ones all along when he appointed me new Card Mistress.¡±

 

She looked up appealingly. ¡°Syaoran, how do I know what I must do from now on, and how everyone and all these events fit into the bigger picture, and what the right choice is? Do I give it all and fight back, and if I do, what for? What happened so long ago, that the Dark Ones can¡¯t forgive me? Why did my mother and your father have die, Syaoran? Would things be very different now if they were still alive? And, when will the Dark Ones ever be satisfied? What can I do to stop this all? As I fought the Obedience, when I barely could even hear my own thoughts, all these questions ran through mind, so briefly and rapidly, all in a confusion. I wasn¡¯t so sure of who I was anymore, and it was all the more difficult to defy the Obedience.¡± She paused for a breath, realizing that she had been rambling on.  

 

¡°And did you find an answer to all these questions?¡± Syaoran asked, staring at Sakura, wishing he could take her in his arms and whisper comforting nonsense into her ears to reassure her. Yet, he knew better than to touch her right now. She had never exploded like this before—what she needed right now was a comrade, not a lover. If there was a simple answer to all her questions, life would be a lot simpler.

 

¡°No.¡± Sakura said, bending over and searching for the lost Key again. ¡°All I can do is take things one step at a time and look for the Sealing Key right now. I can¡¯t seal the Obedience without it.¡± She tossed a stone back into the river with a plop. ¡°Syaoran.¡±

 

¡°Hmm?¡± Syaoran too tossed a shiny stone back into river. It was impossible to distinguish rock from key in the dark.

 

¡°I¡¯m¡¦ sorry.¡± There was another plop on the water. It was too light to be a stone. If Syaoran thought that she was crying, he remained silent. It was no surprise that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, after what she¡¯d been through with the Obedience.

 

¡°Don¡¯t be—just concentrate on finding the Key.¡± He found the upside of the freezing water was that it ceased the constant trail of blood flowing from his hand.

 

¡°Did I¡¦ injure you a lot?¡± Sakura asked after a while in a choked up voice.

 

¡°Nope, not a scratch,¡± Syaoran lied. He could treat the broken collarbone later on—it didn¡¯t hurt that much anymore. At least, he was too numb to feel it by now, his clothes sopping wet. Besides, most of his injuries were from the previous duel with Eriol.

 

¡°Liar.¡± Sakura bit her lips. She couldn¡¯t face herself to look at Syaoran directly before, but she waded up to Syaoran. ¡°Come out.¡±

 

She seated him under a lantern.

 

¡°I said I¡¯m fine,¡± Syaoran said, reassuringly. It¡¯s kind of relieving that she hasn¡¯t scolded me for fighting with Eriol yet. Maybe she¡¯s forgotten about it.

 

Crossly, Sakura said, ¡°I have the Libra—I can force you to tell the truth if you refuse to.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re running dry of your powers—you wouldn¡¯t waste it on something as useless as that,¡± Syaoran replied, undaunted. ¡°You still have to seal the Obedience.¡± The Freeze was gradually melting away, though the Obedience hadn¡¯t showed any sign of trying to escape again.

 

¡°Don¡¯t undermine me,¡± Sakura replied, peering closely at Syaoran¡¯s face, which was a bloody mess. ¡°You don¡¯t have a drop of magical power left in you right now—Eriol must have beaten you thoroughly.¡±

 

Syaoran sweat-dropped. So she hadn¡¯t forgotten, after all. The Sakura today was quite frightening—he couldn¡¯t read her thoughts at all. It was annoying how everyone immediately assumed that he had been defeated, however.

 

¡°You¡¯re covered in wounds, silly. What did you do to get yourself in such a state?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°Take off your shirt—you have a cut up your side. Let me see it.¡±

 

¡°No, it¡¯s nothing,¡± Syaoran said. Stupid Eriol, slashing me up everywhere. It¡¯ll take ages to heal. The boys in the soccer team will give me a hard time in the locker room again. Wait, with this broken collarbone, I won¡¯t be playing soccer for a while. And we have a game next week, too.

 

¡°Take it off, now!¡± Sakura commanded, arms crossed. ¡°Or else I¡¯m going to use the Obedience on you.¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s with all the threats today?¡± Syaoran grumbled. ¡°Taking advantage of the fact that I am powerless right now, heh?¡± He grudgingly slipped off his soaking tunic and inner shirt, stifling a groan as his shoulder cracked. Not only was his body sore, but he was freezing cold. A great combination. 

 

She touched his bruised left collarbone, difficult to see under the reddish lantern light. It was from when she struck down at him. Her bottom lip trembled. She couldn¡¯t meet Syaoran in the eye.

 

¡°Ow!¡± Syaoran exclaimed in spite of himself.

 

Slowly, Sakura traced her way down his arm and spread out his left palm. Even under the dim light, she could see two parallel cuts, running deep, the first one across the tip of his fingers and the second one through his lower palm. It was from when he stopped the sword with his bare hand. The blood had dried into a deep, painful-looking scar. 

 

Holding his hand to her face, Sakura whispered, ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Syaoran, I¡¯m so sorry.¡±

 

¡°No big deal, I said,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°Better me than you. I¡¯m made of tough stuff, I tell you. Wouldn¡¯t have survived the Great Elder¡¯s wilderness training otherwise.¡±

 

She wasn¡¯t listening. Drawing out a card, she called out, ¡°Heal!¡± A warm white light consumed them. She pressed a warm hand on the center of his chest.

 

¡°Sakura! Stop it!¡± Syaoran said, breaking her concentrate. How in the world was she calling out all these cards without her staff? ¡°I told you not to use the Heal card for trivial matters.¡±

 

¡°You call this trivial?¡± Sakura demanded. ¡°You¡¯re bone is splintered and you¡¯ve lost more blood than is healthy—yet you call this trivial? It¡¯s not trivial, at least not to me. It hurts me, because I caused them. I injured you.¡±

 

¡°You didn¡¯t—it¡¯s Eriol¡¯s fault, okay? And it¡¯s my fault for challenging him, so it¡¯s all my fault.¡± Syaoran snatched away the Heal card from Sakura. Even in the brief moment, his collarbone had healed, the marvels of the card, created by Sakura after the Whip incident. ¡°You¡¯re already worn out from releasing cards without the staff and fighting the Obedience. Really, you¡¯re going to collapse if you continue this; then we won¡¯t have anyone to seal the Obedience. What ever you do, you must promise not to strain your body, okay? It¡¯s dangerous.¡±

 

Eyes glistening, Sakura said, standing up, ¡°You don¡¯t understand my feelings at all!¡± Was it so wrong to want to heal the wounds she cast upon him? Syaoran was always getting injured because of her, but why wouldn¡¯t he allow her to heal him?

 

¡°Then do you understand my feelings?¡± Syaoran demanded, standing up also. ¡°What it is like to watch you suffer, but having to just watch and not interrupt. We both know this is the unspoken contract between our partnership. We are comrades, partners, each other¡¯s right arm, against the Dark Ones. But we each have our own battles to fight, and then, it is the other¡¯s part not to interrupt but to just watch. Like in the duel against Eriol, that¡¯s between him and me, or when you were fighting against the Obedience—that was your own mental battle. It¡¯ll continue to be this way, that is how the Great Ones functioned without getting in each other¡¯s way.¡±

 

¡°Fine then,¡± Sakura said, walking back towards the river, hiding her face behind her bangs. ¡°So be it. Go home, Syaoran. This is my job. Let me find the Key and finish sealing the Obedience. Go home and rest.¡± She trudged through the river, sending out faint traces of her remaining aura to find her key. The radius of her aura was to short to be effective.

 

To her surprise, she heard a paddling of water as Syaoran reentered the river. ¡°Didn¡¯t you understand me? We have our individual battles at times. But we¡¯re partners. We help each other out in hardship and lend each other a shoulder at times like this. The actual battle is over. All I could do today was watch. You told me to stay out of your fight, and I did. The least I can do today, is help you look for the Key. As a comrade, will you let me look for the Key with you?¡± When Sakura looked like she was about to refuse, he added, ¡°Please.¡±

 

Lips trembling, Sakura nodded. She pretended to busily search for the key again, not trusting her voice to keep from shaking. I can¡¯t even thank him or apologize to him anymore. She knew he was injured, weary to the bone and cold—he got cold easily, yet she couldn¡¯t bring herself to ask him to leave again. I really do don¡¯t want him to leave. Is it too selfish, that I want him by my side?

 

They searched across the river, silently, for what seemed like hours. Dark shadows cast across the icy cold water and an abundance of scraps and pieces of trashes found in the bottom of the river prolonged the search. Soon, both of them had become immune to the cold and no longer had any sensation in their hands. A wave of nausea from the mind-draining battle against the Obedience swept over Sakura. The exhaustion of the day on top of the numbness of her limbs resulted in her inability to stand up straight anymore. Her foot slipped on a loose rock and she tumbled headfirst into the river.

 

Bubbles blew gently through her nose as she sank into the river, not deep at all, but with a strong enough current to make balancing difficult. Through squinted eyes, she saw something glinting in the darkness. Like a glowing star, in the surreal night sky. Almost in a daze, she stretched out her hand and grasped it. Looking up, she could see the glowing moon reflected on the rippled water. 

 

¡°Sakura!¡±

 

Something warm and rigid was clasped in her right hand.

 

¡°Are you okay?¡± Syaoran asked, pulling Sakura out of the river and laying her on the bank. ¡°Sakura!¡± He brushed away the strands of hair in her mouth and checked her pulse.

 

Blinking, Sakura stared up at Syaoran¡¯s concerned face right above hers. His hair was drenched and droplets of water gathered at its end and plopped onto her face.

 

Realizing he was dripping water all over her, Syaoran stepped back. Coughing, Sakura sat up.

 

¡°What happened?¡± Syaoran demanded. ¡°I look away for a second and plop, you collapse right into the river, like a dead log.¡±

 

There¡¯s something in my hand. Blinking the water from her eyes, Sakura, unfolded her right hand, revealing the brightly glowing Star Key.

 

¡°You found it!¡± Syaoran sighed in relief.

 

¡°No, the Key found me,¡± Sakura replied vaguely, clasping it to her heart. Never again will I let it go.

 

With the remaining strength she had left in her, she tottered over to the Obedience. The Freeze has almost melted by now. ¡°Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. RELEASE!¡± The staff felt so reassuring in her hands—just the right weight, length and design for her.

 

The Obedience scowled at her, though with traces of awe and respect replacing its previous mockery and impertinence, before Sakura resumed, ¡°Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura, command you. Return to a new shape of contract! Sakura Card!¡±

 

Adding a hard-earned card to her collection Sakura turned to Syaoran. ¡°Thank you, partner.¡± She doubted she would have been able to seal the Obedience without Syaoran to be by her side every time she thought she would have to give in, to help her up when she fell; most importantly, his presence in itself was a strength to her. With him by her side, she felt that anything was possible. Is it wrong for me to want to keep him by my side a little longer?

 

¡°It¡¯s late. I¡¯ll walk you home,¡± Syaoran said. Slowly, he walked over to the tree that his sword was embedded in and grasped the hilt to tug out the blade. His arm failed him. Bracing one leg against the trunk, he pulled again, almost collapsing backwards. Tiredly, he stuck the sword back into its sheath, strapped to his back. He didn¡¯t even have the power left to seal the sword away—hopefully, he wouldn¡¯t bump into anyone on the way back home.

 

¡°It¡¯s all right—I can go by myself,¡± Sakura replied, watching Syaoran struggle with his own sword, realizing exactly how drained he was—even more drained than back during summer vacation, after he had converted the Wolf to the power of light. ¡°You really should go and rest, Syaoran. We have school tomorrow, you know.¡±

 

¡°You can¡¯t possibly ask me to let you go home alone in that state,¡± Syaoran said, and his tone was final. ¡°Let¡¯s go and face your brother¡¯s wrath.¡±

 

 

 

Their clothes were still damp by the time they reached the Kinomoto residence, and their noses were red and stuffy. Sakura struggled to put one foot in front of the other. Syaoran, who wasn¡¯t in any better condition than her, stopped her from tripping several times. I hope¡¦ I really hope onii-chan isn¡¯t home right now, Sakura wished. If he sees me in this state¡¦

 

To both Sakura and Syaoran¡¯s dismay, Kinomoto Touya stood straight in front of the house gates, legs apart and arms crossed, scowling ferociously.

 

¡°Onii-chan!¡± Sakura squeaked. ¡°W-what are you doing here?¡±

 

Is this what you call ¡®out of the frying pan and into the fire¡¯? Syaoran wondered, gulping as he saw Touya¡¯s fiercely slanted eyes and evil ki radiating out towards him. More intimidating than Eriol and the Dark Ones put together.

 

¡°Do you know what time it is?¡± Touya barked. ¡°And why are you soaking wet, Kinomoto Sakura? Did you fall into a river or something?¡±

 

¡°I—¡° Sakura¡¯s mouth moved but no sound came out. She sneezed instead.

 

¡°I don¡¯t want to hear any excuses. Go into the house and take a hot bath. I¡¯ll bring something warm to drink up to your room later.¡± Touya held the gate open wide enough only to let Sakura pass.

 

¡°But¡¦¡± Sakura glanced at Syaoran helplessly.

 

¡°Do you understand me?¡± Touya scowled.

 

Subdued, Sakura replied meekly, ¡°Yes, onii-chan.¡± Before entering the house, Sakura looked over her shoulder at Touya and Syaoran, engaged in another death glare contest. ¡°See you at school tomorrow, Syaoran.¡± Sorry.

 

¡°And what happened to you, Brat. You look like a beaten up tramp,¡± Touya said to Syaoran, who looked miserable and out of place in his ripped, mud-flecked and tattered battle outfit, sopping wet, with battered sword strapped to his back.

 

¡°You look like an ogre, a wicked, evil ogre,¡± Syaoran muttered underneath his breath. ¡°As usual.¡± What does he want from me? I just need to go back home and recover. I don¡¯t even have the energy to fight with this guy anymore. What am I supposed to tell him about today? Nothing will quench his anger, in this situation.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, I¡¯ve heard about what happened today from Yukito. Yue, that is.¡± Touya¡¯s eyes narrowed. Could the Brat have really beaten Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation? He found it hard to believe.

 

¡°I see.¡± So he was just giving Sakura a hard time. Then, if he knows about today, why is he still standing here? Syaoran wobbled on his feet, trying to look as intimidating as Touya but miserably failing to do so in his current scruffy condition.

 

¡°I¡¯ve been going too easy on you lately,¡± Touya said, tapping his foot impatiently. ¡°To think you allowed Sakura to get in such a state. If such a thing happens again¡¦¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, I¡¯ll protect her with all I have from now on,¡± Syaoran replied, more angry at himself than at Touya. ¡°Such an incident will not recur, ever again.¡±

 

¡°Silly boy, don¡¯t you know that even once can be fatal?¡± Touya paused. ¡°I don¡¯t know what went on over the summer while I was away, but I¡¯ve warned you to stay away from my sister. You¡¯re no good for her.¡±

 

It¡¯s always this way. He thinks he¡¯s always right and I¡¯m always wrong. Even though every bone of me is aching right now, all of a sudden, I feel really pissed off. It¡¯s almost as aggravating as trying to talk to Eriol. Eyebrows furrowed down, Syaoran said, ¡°How many times do I have to tell you? I¡¯m going to protect her. To do so, I have to stay by her side. What do you have against me? Would your rather I be her rival again?¡±

 

Taken back by Syaoran¡¯s sudden outburst, Touya replied coolly, ¡°Yes. I would rather you were her enemy—than I could openly outright beat you. You see, you in yourself bothers me. I don¡¯t like you. Your manners, your speech, your temper, your family, your father, the way you think you are so great, everything is disagreeable about you. Most of all, your presence around Sakura is a thorn in my eye. Why can¡¯t you see that you¡¯re going to end up hurting her in then end? I can¡¯t allow a dangerous leech such as you loiter around my only sister, who I swore to Mother I¡¯ll protect.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t play fortuneteller with me,¡± Syaoran scoffed. ¡°And what can you do to protect Sakura? She¡¯s quite capable of taking care of herself without her meddlesome older brother.¡±

 

¡°At least I¡¯m not a hindrance to her, as someone is,¡± Touya replied. ¡°I¡¯m her older brother. I have a right to worry for her.¡±

 

That¡¯s it. Another person tells me I¡¯m a hindrance to Sakura. Syaoran¡¯s face was turning purple now, partly because of the cold partly because he was furious and irritated as he burst out, ¡°Well, I have a right too, to worry for Sakura, because I lo—¡°

 

¡°I don¡¯t want to hear it,¡± Touya cut off. ¡°You¡¯re just too dense to get it. But sooner or later, Sakura will come to her senses and see you for the danger that you pose to her.¡±

 

¡°Truthfully, I¡¯m not overly fond of you, either,¡± Syaoran said, breathing in to keep his temper under control. ¡°But for Sakura¡¯s sake, I would not want to engage in a fight with you.¡±

 

¡°Well, you surely need to be taught a lesson.¡± Touya crossed his arms. ¡°Never did finish our little combat from five years ago, did we?¡±

 

I really won¡¯t be able to get a proper punch at him in this situation, Syaoran thought. But a man can¡¯t refuse a challenge. ¡°Never did. I¡¯ll happily prove my worth to you anytime, if it means that I can win your approval.¡±

 

¡°Nothing you do will ever win my approval,¡± Touya said coldly. He was surprised that Syaoran had lasted this long without lashing out at him. Where did this new patience and tolerance come from?

 

¡°Well, with or without your approval, I will continue to stay by Sakura¡¯s side, and you won¡¯t be able to stop me,¡± Syaoran retorted. ¡°It will make Sakura¡¯s life easier if you just let go of your grudge, because the battle ahead of is yet a long one, and it can¡¯t be helped that allies need to unite against the foe.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re a foe to me,¡± Touya replied. ¡°And if you had a younger sister, you would do the same as me.¡±

 

Sarcasm slipping out, Syaoran muttered, ¡°If you mean holding tyranny over someone else¡¯s matters¡¦¡± Looking up to see Touya¡¯s murderous expression, he sighed. ¡°Forget it, just forget it. Actually, I don¡¯t even have the energy to talk to you right now.¡±

 

¡°Yes, I¡¯m surprised you¡¯re still standing with all your powers drained from you. Pathetic.¡± Touya sighed. ¡°We¡¯ll continue this talk some other time. You don¡¯t seem to understand plain words. But let me try once more. Go back home to Hong Kong—that¡¯s where you belong.¡±

 

¡°Good evening to you,¡± Syaoran said, bowing his head mockingly, and heading down the road. He paused, without looking back. ¡°You¡¯re the one who doesn¡¯t understand words Kinomoto Touya. I threw away family and home for Sakura. To be by her side. That¡¯s all. If you don¡¯t approve of me as a man, that¡¯s fine. I¡¯ll try harder until you approve of me, and she accepts me. Yet, for now, all I ask is to be here and be able to protect her if she needs me, lend a shoulder when she cries, just watch her silently when she doesn¡¯t want me. No matter what you do, you can¡¯t stop my heart, for as long as it¡¯s beating, it will beat for her.¡± Steps slow and weary, but back straight, Syaoran continued down the road.

  

A noble knight in tatters, or so the Brat seemed to be as Touya watched his nemesis fade away, head up proudly despite his worn out condition. Touya reentered the house. I can¡¯t doubt myself now. Yet, what is it that Li Syaoran has in him, which has enabled him to last this far? Can I possibly be in the wrong, Mother?

 

 

 

¡°Thank goodness you¡¯re okay,¡± Kero-chan said as Sakura rolled into bed, fresh out of the bath and in warm flannel pajamas.

 

¡°Sorry Kero-chan,¡± Sakura said, holding the Clow Book to her chest. I hope Syaoran made it home safely. ¡°I almost was a failure as Card Mistress. I almost lost all my cards and the Key that you gave me.¡±

 

Shaking his head, Kero-chan replied, ¡°What¡¯s important is that you won against the Obedience and you¡¯re still the Card Mistress, stronger than ever.¡±

 

¡°No.¡± Sakura stared up at her ceiling. ¡°You were being to nice with me, Kero-chan. I need to get a lot stronger from now on, if I want to face the Dark Ones.¡±

 

Something in Sakura has changed today. Kero-chan flew up to the windowsill and stared out at the dark streets. A whirlpool of events had happened today, and for the first time, he was starting to really understand why Clow Reed had forced Yue and himself to accept a new mistress. ¡°Sakura-chan, if you wish to become stronger, then I¡¯ll help you all I can, for it is my duty as your guardian and your first teacher.¡± Then, scowling, Kero-chan floated over and sat on Sakura¡¯s lap. ¡°But don¡¯t you dare leave me out in the blue again. If you¡¯re facing difficultly, don¡¯t hesitate to call out for me. Yue too. We¡¯re you¡¯re guardians, but you keep forgetting about us. We should be there in your heart, before anyone else, and we should be the first you call out for when in trouble. Not anyone else, not even the Brat.¡±

 

Picking up Kero-chan and squeezing him in a hug, Sakura murmured, ¡°Sorry Kero-chan. And thank you.¡±

 

Blushing in embarrassment, Kero-chan stammered, oblivious to the queer look that had come over Sakura¡¯s face, ¡°Ah, well, it is just the great Cerberus-sama¡¯s duty to protect Card Captor Sakura, and I am so knowledgeable and experienced, so¡¦¡±

 

Rolling over on her stomach, Sakura said, ¡°Nee, Kero-chan, something strange happened today.¡± She leaned her chin against her hand and recalled that piercing clarity in her mind as she called upon the Woody. ¡°I released the Sakura Cards without the Staff.¡±

 

¡°What!¡± Kero-chan bolted up, eyes widened. No way Sakura could¡¦

 

Fingering the clasp of the Clow Book, Sakura continued, ¡°I don¡¯t know how I did it. I just remember that I felt really calm though was an overwhelming surge of power inside me—I don¡¯t even know where it came from. I was really exhausted then, but my mind felt very clear. My body sort of tingled—I think that was my magic—and the Cards seemed to respond.¡±

 

Frowning, Kero-chan replied slowly, ¡°I would never have expected such mastery over the Cards so soon, an almost unthinkable feat at your age. But I guess somehow you have managed to not only get the Sakura Cards to accept you as their Mistress, but they have formed a bond with you, an unbreakable bond, which enables you to call upon them without any tool of contract, meaning your staff.¡±   

 

¡°But I thought that the Sealing Staff was what enabled me to release the Cards,¡± Sakura said, picking up the Star Key from its chain and observing it.

 

¡°No, you¡¯re wrong about that,¡± Kero-chan said. ¡°The Sealing Staff serves as a conductor of power; but in the end, it¡¯s only a channel and outlet to focus your magic, a mere tool. It¡¯s your power which releases and forms contracts with the dark forces, binding them into Card form, and this power lies within you. But I¡¯m not saying that the Star Key is just a pretty ornament for you to carry around (thought that¡¯s what it basically was for Clow Reed), because it¡¯s a focal point of your powers, which you can concentrate and channel your powers into—this prevents you from wasting energy, which is a tendency for novice magicians who try to spew out raw power, and also ensures more secure contracts, as is the case when you seal the new dark forces. Furthermore, back when you were using the power of darkness, the Sealing Staff had some of Clow Reed¡¯s power embedded in it. This enables you to collect the Clow Cards, with what little skill you had back then.¡±

 

¡°I see.¡± Sakura lay flat back on her back, wet hair spread out over pillow. ¡°I never knew.¡± She raised her arm above her and stared at her hands. Knowing the possibilities of one¡¯s powers was the first step. Next was to accept it, and to strive towards it. She clenched her hands into tights fists. Then, it could be obtained. Sighing, she now rolled over to her side. If it were that simple¡¦ She shut her eyes.

 

¡°Good night, Sakura-chan,¡± Kero-chan said, turning off the lights and flying into the desk drawer, to his own bed. It had been a long day for his Card Mistress—it was for the best to let her rest and talk about grave matters some other day.

 

Though her body was more worn out than after the camping trip, last year, mentally, Sakura, was more awake than it had ever been at this hour. So this is the aftereffect of the control of the Obedience over my mind. It¡¯s been hours since I¡¯ve sealed it, yet my head is still in havoc; some sort of chaos has broken out, and though I am myself again, I don¡¯t know when I¡¯ll break down again. I can¡¯t believe it took me this long for me to realize what Tomoyo must have been going through, that she must have been lying when she told me that she couldn¡¯t remember anything from her experience with the Phantom, which must have been ten times worse. For the Phantom plays upon the deepest fears of the human heart, a grain of truth buried inside one¡¯s soul. Whereas, the Obedience, ignores the human heart—it¡¯s words are absolute control over your mind and body. The Obedience leaves no room for you own thoughts—it has the frightening ability to make you think the thoughts it wants you to think.

 

Clutching the Star Key, Sakura curled up into a tight ball, face buried in her pillow. How could I have attacked and injured Syaoran? I knew such a day might come, that one of us may be forced to attack the other—yet, I thought I¡¯d be able to control myself, come such a time. I completely lost it for a while, until Syaoran¡¦ I was losing against the Obedience, despite how much I struggled to keep my conscious mind. But Syaoran¡¦

 

It was clearly imprinted in her mind, the pounding of his heart as he pressed her head against his chest.

 

Why did he embrace me when I was attacking him? He stopped the sword with his bare hand, I remember vividly. I could hear his flesh rip apart. No, that must have been my imagination. But he held onto me and whispered something in my ear, which I could not hear. I was so desperately telling him to dodge. If he had left me alone, he would not have been so hurt.

 

Slowly, Sakura uncurled her body and lay down flat on her back, staring at the ceiling.


Yet, without him, I know I would not have won against the Obedience. It was upon injuring him, when I felt his bone crack from the impact of the sword, that my mind awakened, and I could truly fight back against the Obedience. Could it be?

 

A wetness trickled down her temple, onto her pillow as she continued to stare up, tilting her head back to keep tears form forming in her eyes. Stupid, what was he thinking, showing up like that, having used up all his power against Eriol? Was he trying to sacrifice himself to bring me back or what? Idiot.

 

Come a time when he is in mortal peril, will I sacrifice my life for his sake?

 

Covering her head with her blanket, Sakura finally settled into sleeping position. Syaoran¡¦ I don¡¯t want you to leave, never.

 

******

 

Sakura did not know how she made it through school the next day, but somehow, it passed without great mishap, besides falling asleep during math class.

 

¡°Thank goodness you¡¯re okay,¡± Tomoyo said during break time. Most of the students had left the classroom. Poor Sakura—she¡¯s so worn out. And there¡¯s a light bruise on her face. Then she sighed. ¡°I missed another opportunity to videotape you, all the same. I had a great new battle outfit prepared, also. It¡¯s such a pity—you won¡¯t be able to wear it once it gets colder.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll wear it next time, Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura said, smiling feebly. Who knew what would happen next time? ¡°It¡¯s a good thing I didn¡¯t wear yesterday—it would have gotten all torn up.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s okay—I have a hundred other dresses to replace any that get damaged. At least I did get to videotape Eriol-kun and Syaoran-kun¡¯s battle—I edited it all night. It¡¯s a completely masterpiece. If you ever want to see it¡¦¡± Tomoyo looked several desks across the classroom, where Eriol was sitting quietly, writing in his notebook. He showed no aftereffects from the Duel of the previous day. ¡°You can come over to my house and watch it on the big-screen, the climax of the battle being Syaoran¡¯s Shen-lung Tai-feng! It was gorgeous, wasn¡¯t it Syaoran-kun!¡± Eyes sparkling, she turned around in her chair to face Syaoran, seated behind Sakura, head drooped over his desk. Kai¡¯s seat was empty as usual.

 

¡°Shen-lung Tai-feng?¡± Sakura repeated. What in the world had she missed yesterday while dealing with the Obedience?

 

¡°Syaoran-kun, you can come over too. We can all watch the superb action, drama and tension of the moment as you stand strong against Eriol-kun, at risk of Sakura¡¯s life!¡± Tomoyo clasped her hands together.

 

¡°Eh?¡± Syaoran looked up from the desk, saw Tomoyo in one of her usual ecstasies, and dropped his head down again. Every bone of his body ached; his collarbone, though no longer fractured thanks to the Heal, was badly bruised, cuts decorated his arms, legs and back as medals of the battle against Eriol, and he could not clench his left hand into a fist because of the hardened long scars across his palm.

 

Tugging Tomoyo¡¯s sleeve, Sakura whispered, ¡°Tomoyo-chan, having been defeated once would be difficult enough. I don¡¯t think Syaoran would enjoy watching it on screen and undergoing the humiliation all over again.¡±

 

¡°What are you talking about?¡± Tomoyo blinked her violet eyes. ¡°You didn¡¯t know? Syaoran-kun won yesterday!¡±

 

¡°EHHHH??!!¡± Sakura bolted up from her chair, jaws dropping, then gazed from zombie-like Syaoran to placid Eriol, then back at Syaoran. ¡°No way! Syaoran defeated Eriol-kun? How come you didn¡¯t tell me such an important thing, Li Syaoran?¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t?¡± Syaoran tugged on his bangs, saddened by a short lock to the side, sliced off yesterday. It was unnoticeable unless you looked closely, but he very conscious of it, all the same.  

 

Nodding her head rapidly, Tomoyo stood up and demonstrated. ¡°At first, Syaoran was getting all beat up and knocked around.¡±

 

¡°Was not,¡± Syaoran muttered underneath his breath.

 

¡°It was awful,¡± Miho stated. ¡°He was bleeding everywhere! That¡¯s why I went to find you, so that you can come save him.¡±

 

¡°What are you doing here, Miho-chan?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°Oh, I was just dropping by an article to Aki-sempai,¡± Miho said—she always had an excuse to drop into Classroom 3-1. ¡°Anyway, and then I come back to the battle scene, and Eriol¡¯s flat on his back, and Syaoran runs off to save you. Little good that did, considering he was all drained from the battle against Eriol.¡±

 

¡°Wait, wait.¡± Sakura tilted her head at Syaoran. ¡°How in the world did Syaoran defeat Eriol-kun, though?¡± Not that I have any doubt in Syaoran¡¯s abilities¡¦ but Eriol-kun in Eriol-kun. In my mind, he has always been the ultimate power.

 

¡°That¡¯s the exciting part!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed. She whipped out a ruler from her desk, in place of a sword, and raised it in the air. ¡°Syaoran-kun jumped up into the air and raised his sword like this then called the spiritual dragon typhoon power—truthfully, I don¡¯t know what it is. Anyway, there was a blazing electric blue light. No one knew what was happening.¡±

 

Hand on hips, Sakura commented crossly to Syaoran, ¡°Well then, I see now I had no reason to hold back scolding you for challenging Eriol to a battle. I was feeling a little sorry for you, thinking how dejected you might be from your defeat, but I guess that was just a waste of concern on my part.¡±

 

¡°Of course,¡± Syaoran said, lifting up his head again, eyes half-shut. ¡°Did you expect me to lose to that creepy four-eyed bastard?¡±

 

¡°First of all, Eriol-kun is our friend, and he has helped us in numerous occasions. We have the Dark Ones to fight against—we don¡¯t have the energy or time to waste on frivolous games, and we certainly don¡¯t fight against comrades,¡± Sakura stated firmly, hands on hips. The more she thought about it, the angrier she was getting—the state she had been before falling into the hands of the Obedience yesterday.

 

¡°Well, let me just warn you, Hiiragizawa Eriol certainly should not be trusted as a friend,¡± Syaoran said, glancing across the classroom at the back of Eriol¡¯s head. ¡°And it was not a frivolous game I was engaging in yesterday, but a serious battle. It was as important to me as fighting against the Dark Ones.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re always creating unnecessary trouble!¡± Sakura retorted, sitting down in her seat again. Though she had plenty more to say, class was about to begin soon.

 

¡°Who said I didn¡¯t see this coming,¡± Syaoran sighed. He was always extra grumpy when he was drained of his powers. It would come back in a couple of days, but still—it made him feel nervous and uneasy, because he didn¡¯t know what would happen in between.

 

 

 

¡°I still don¡¯t get it!¡± Sakura exclaimed, nibbling on a cream puff, seated in Tomoyo¡¯s room—Tomoyo had insisted she visit for a fitting of some new dresses for the Card Captor Sakura Winter Wardrobe. ¡°Why does Syaoran feel like he has to fight Eriol-kun? What does he have so much trouble getting along with some people?¡±

 

¡°Some people are born warriors. Some people are born negotiators,¡± Tomoyo said, adding a ribbon trimming to a new winter dress. ¡°Syaoran is a warrior at heart, and combat is his method of proving his point.¡±

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura set down her fork and looked up at Tomoyo. Her best friend was always able to put herself in someone else¡¯s shoes and understand multiple perspectives. At times, Sakura admired and envied Tomoyo for her open-mindedness.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, you are a peacemaker at heart, so you might find it difficult to understand Syaoran¡¯s actions. Yet, Syaoran comes from a long line of warriors, the most noble of their kind, and he has lived by aggression and combat in order to reach where he is today. If he has to make a statement, he is expected to do so by his sword.¡±

 

¡°What point would Syaoran have to prove against Eriol-kun?¡± Sakura said, tying a ribbon around Kero-chan¡¯s tail—Kero-chan was too busy gobbling up the rest of the cake to notice. ¡°It¡¯s certainly not just to prove that he is stronger than Eriol-kun. Even Syaoran won¡¯t rush into battle so heedlessly.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s true. I think Syaoran-kun learned yesterday that indeed, he still had a long way to go to catch up with Eriol-kun. Still, he had that extra incentive to beat Eriol-kun, which was what enables him that single victory. Yet, as you know, a single victory can be a decisive factor in a long-run battle.¡± Tomoyo folded up the dressed and set it down. ¡°Syaoran-kun knew that you wouldn¡¯t approve of him fighting with Eriol-kun. Even so, he felt compelled to fight, though knowing it was a near impossible duel, for all favors were towards Eriol-kun. Then, he must have a justifiable reason to fight, don¡¯t you think, Sakura-chan?¡±

 

¡°I know you¡¯re right, Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura replied softly. Of course I know. It¡¯s Syaoran, after all.

 

¡°Was the battle against the Obedience very difficult?¡± Tomoyo asked. It was an obvious question—Sakura¡¯s expression showed she was completely worn out.

 

Sakura nodded. ¡°One of the hardest so far.¡±

 

¡°You know Syaoran-kun went running after to you, though he could barely stand from the battle against Eriol-kun. Even when he didn¡¯t have any power left in him.¡± Tomoyo looked up at Sakura. Sometimes, she wondered if Sakura realized all the things Syaoran did for her. She must.

 

Sakura said flatly, ¡°He put both of us in danger for doing so. I attacked him and injured him as a result of him appearing.¡±

 

¡°He must have been anticipating that when he showed up like that, defenseless,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°Yet, he did so all the same. For you.¡± She wondered if Sakura knew that Syaoran was no longer the Li Clan¡¯s Chosen One—Meilin had told Tomoyo the situation before returning to Hong Kong, but made her swear to keep it a secret from Sakura. To have him care for her like that¡¦ Sakura was really lucky.

 

Some time ago, Sakura had told Tomoyo eagerly, ¡°Tomoyo-chan, if you ever find a special person, you must tell me about it, okay?¡±

 

Laughing, Tomoyo had replied, ¡°There¡¯s nobody as important to me as Sakura-chan.¡±

 

¡°Still, there will be a person, Tomoyo-chan, because you out of all people deserve someone really wonderful.¡± Sakura had smiled brightly then.

 

Even now, Sakura was smiling, as she picked at the mocha cake with her fork. She had a far-off look in her eyes; she was clearly thinking of him. After Syaoran had returned to Hong Kong, three, four years ago, Sakura often had such a look—she pretended to be bright and cheerful on the outside, and for the most part, she was. However, she drifted into momentary silence as a distant glaze came over her eyes. That¡¯s strange—she hadn¡¯t had this look in quite a while, at least not since Syaoran returned. Tomoyo cast her eyes down before Sakura noticed she was staring. Despite being best friends since fourth grade with Sakura and a close confident to Syaoran, often, she felt excluded from their relationship. It was only expected, for those two shared so many things that she played no part in. There were so many ugly thoughts in my head when I was overtaken by the Phantom, thoughts that I did not want to acknowledge. It¡¯s not that I¡¯ve quite forgotten about them, but I can deal with them now.

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan.¡± Sakura hung her head down. ¡°Tomoyo-chan. You remember everything from the Phantom incident, don¡¯t you? I didn¡¯t realize it until yesterday, when I fought the Obedience.¡± 

 

¡°Huh?¡± Tomoyo was taken back. ¡°Well¡¦¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry,¡± Sakura clenched her hands tightly together. ¡°I didn¡¯t realize you were lying back then, pretending not to remember anything, for my sake. You didn¡¯t want me to worry, did you? But you must have suffered so much, by yourself. I¡¯m sorry I wasn¡¯t there for you then.¡± She stared at her lap, unable to look up at Tomoyo.

 

What does she look so guilty? It was me inflicting upon her pain. Slowly taking Sakura¡¯s hand, Tomoyo said slowly, ¡°It¡¯s true. Facing the Phantom was probably the most trailing experience in my life. But you saved me Sakura, even though I hurt you a lot back then, spreading false rumors, acting spiteful.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re my best friend, Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura said, managing to smile. ¡°You keep forgetting, I¡¯m always here to listen to everything you have to say. So please, don¡¯t hesitate to tell me, anything, anytime.¡±

 

¡°I will,¡± Tomoyo replied, smiling back, thankful that Sakura didn¡¯t probe any further. She sighed. I really need to tell her about Eriol-kun. But how?

 

Burping, Kero-chan turned on the record button of Tomoyo¡¯s camcorder and stated into a mike, ¡°Ah, the beautiful, reinforced friendship of maidens in the springtime of their lives. I, Cerberus, completely envy them.¡±

 

Kero-chan stared up at his mistress—she was a different person since last night, very subtly but noticeable to those close enough to her. Kind of like how Tomoyo had been changing since a few months ago, after the encounter with the Phantom.  

 

******

 

¡°What do you want from me?¡± Erika snapped, glaring ferociously at Syaoran.

 

When Syaoran had asked to see her after school, she had expected him to get angry at her for yesterday¡¯s incident and maybe challenge her for it. Instead, he had taken her by the arm, dragged her to the library and seated her in an isolated study table.

 

Slamming down a pile of books and worksheets in front of her Syaoran, hand placed on top of a graded homework from a couple days ago—51%, stated, ¡°You failed the last quiz—disgraceful. You know that the retest is tomorrow, right? You better pull together your act.¡±

 

¡°Did you eat something wrong? What do you think you¡¯re doing?¡± Erika demanded, trying to get up.

 

Syaoran pushed her back into the chair and pointed at a new set of problems in the textbook. ¡°What do you think? Keeping my side of the bargain. Finish this, and make sure you get at least 90%.¡±

 

Blinking several times, Erika wondered if Syaoran was missing a screw in his head, after the whole Obedience incident. ¡°Are you an idiot? I don¡¯t think you enjoy this anymore than I do. I broke my side of the pact—you don¡¯t have to do this anymore. Forget it, okay?¡±

 

¡°No,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°You¡¯re right, I probably like this even less than you do. But I keep my promises—I told you I¡¯ll make you pass the retest, and you better study hard and ace it. I hate giving up halfway, you know. So, I hope you¡¯ve learned some good study tips from me—this will be the last time I ever tutor you. So let¡¯s make this good, okay?¡±

 

Sullenly, Erika picked up a pencil. ¡°Do you actually have the time or energy to concentrate on school, let alone some else¡¯s academics, on top of all the battles you run back and forth from?¡±  

 

¡°Apparently yes,¡± Syaoran replied, sitting across the table from Erika and taking out his studies. ¡°You see, physical combat I have mastered, but I have yet to beat a certain Someone in academics.¡±

 

¡°I see.¡± Erika stared at the equation—it looked vaguely familiar. A few minutes into studying, Erika herself didn¡¯t have the time or energy to sulk or glare at Syaoran—it took all of her brains to keep up with Syaoran¡¯s Spartan Last Lesson, of course Li Clan-style.

 

It was no surprise that Erika not only recognized but was able to solve every single problem on the after school retest the next day, a first-time experience for her.

 

******

 

Approximately a week later, Syaoran had mostly recovered from his battle against Eriol, and most of his deepest cuts had healed well and his bruises faded, thanks to the herb ointments of his medicinal doctor. School was uneventful; he no longer had to talk with Erika, Eriol kept a distance from him (probably holding a grudge from the Duel), Tomoyo was definitely in another world, Kai had disappeared, Meilin still didn¡¯t contact him, which was understandable, and Sakura¡¦ well, Sakura was quiet and spaced-out. At least more so than usual. She wouldn¡¯t speak of her experience with the Obedience.

 

¡°Wolfie-chan, do you want to go jogging with me?¡± Syaoran asked, tying his shoelaces to his running shoes. ¡°You¡¯re going to get fat like the yellow stuffed animal, eating and sleeping all day.¡± The sun would set soon—days were much shorter now that winter was fast approaching.

 

¡°Arf!¡± Wolfie-chan wagged his tail and leaped up to Syaoran¡¯s legs.

 

He hadn¡¯t jogged far when Wolfie-chan paused and sniffed, near the King Penguin Park area.

 

¡°What, you need to go to the bathroom?¡± Syaoran asked, slowing down, panting. ¡°Don¡¯t go here—I don¡¯t want to clean up after you.¡±

 

Wolfie-chan turned his head around and gave a reproachful look. Of course a dark force was above such messy business.

 

¡°Okay, okay, I thought that since you eat and sleep like an ordinary dog¡¦¡± Syaoran paused and looked up. ¡°Sakura.¡±

 

¡°Good job, Wolfie-chan,¡± Sakura said, patting the puppy on its head.

 

¡°Eh? Wolfie-chan led me to you?¡± Syaoran asked, bewildered. Managing without his spiritual power for a week made him realize Sakura¡¯s presence much later than he should have. 

 

¡°He¡¯s a Sakura Card, after all,¡± Sakura replied. As if reading his true mistress¡¯ mind, Wolfie-chan rubbed his face on Sakura¡¯s ankle, then merrily sprinted off into the woods, leaving them in privacy.

 

¡°What a smart dog,¡± Syaoran commented wryly. ¡°And I thought I was the one leading him.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran—you¡¯d do me a favor, right?¡± Sakura said, straight to the point.

 

¡°Within reason,¡± Syaoran replied. It wasn¡¯t like Sakura to be so serious and outright. And since when did she come looking for him?

 

¡°Please help me with my training, to become stronger.¡± Sakura looked up into Syaoran¡¯s eyes.

 

I can¡¯t tell what she¡¯s thinking today. She doesn¡¯t even see me. Syaoran cleared his throat. ¡°Of course. What, is it more martial arts lessons? Or my notorious Nightmare Training? More math tutorials?¡±

 

¡°No,¡± Sakura said. She slipped out a Sakura Card from her pocket and handed it to Syaoran.

 

Taking the card, Syaoran flipped it over. ¡°The Phantom? What is this?¡±

 

¡°I want you to use it on me,¡± Sakura replied, expressionless.

 

Jaw dropping, Syaoran demanded, ¡°Are you crazy? Why would you want me to use this force on you?¡±

 

¡°Training.¡± A simple answer. ¡°Mental training. My experience with the Obedience made me realize I must become stronger spiritually, and to do so, I must be able to deal with the Phantom. Don¡¯t worry—Kero-chan approved of this idea.¡±

 

Handing the card back to Sakura, Syaoran said flatly, ¡°I refuse to do it.¡±

 

¡°Fine then.¡± Sakura sighed. ¡°I guess I¡¯ll have to just call the Phantom myself.¡±

 

Snatching the card back, Syaoran shouted, ¡°That¡¯s ridiculous! You can¡¯t call the Phantom on yourself—if you fall victim to it, you won¡¯t be able to control it.¡±

 

¡°Exactly why I was hoping you would help me with my simple request,¡± Sakura stated.

 

¡°If you have to do this, I¡¯ll do it for you then,¡± Syaoran relented. ¡°But first, tell me the real reason why you¡¯re doing this and what happened with you and the Obedience.¡±

 

Sighing, Sakura replied, ¡°I told you, it¡¯s because I need to become stronger for the future. But I guess you want to know how I defeated the Obedience. I¡¯ll tell you now; you should know. Well, you saw pretty much what happened, before I was able to call back the Sakura Cards to me. I called the Woody to entrap myself. I thought I was really going crazy back then, but I trusted that if I was trapped within a Sakura Card, I would make a confined battleground between the Obedience and me. It seemed like a good idea at first. But it was dark in there, and I was scared because I couldn¡¯t hear my voice anymore, inside of my head. The Obedience is a frightening force, not only because it controls your movement and actions, but because it can make you think the way it wants you to think.¡±

 

¡°It brainwashes you,¡± Syaoran interjected.

 

¡°Right.¡± The incident, though a week ago, was sterling in her mind. ¡°It makes you see things you don¡¯t want to see and believe things that you don¡¯t believe, for the truth is what the Obedience states is true. I can¡¯t explain this any better, because some things that go on in the human mind are inexpressible in words. I think what kept me sane was the Sakura Cards that were enveloping me, glowing dimly despite the darkness, a thread to the real me, reminding me of who I was. For though this battle took place in my mind, it felt like I was wondering through leagues of pitch blackness, of a void, and there was no beginning or end. At this point, I was full of hate, hating myself more than anything else. And I was afraid, so afraid that I couldn¡¯t overcome the situation. Then I realized there was a way to draw out the Obedience. Fear. So I called out the Phantom.¡±  

 

¡°You used the Phantom on yourself?¡± Syaoran demanded, his heart dropping to his feet at the horror of such a notion. That was the craziest and most dangerous plan that Sakura had ever come up with.

 

¡°I figured that since the Phantom dwells on the heart¡¯s greatest fears, it would draw out the Obedience, whose greatest fear is not being obeyed, of course. The risk factor was if I couldn¡¯t last longer than the Obedience. After all, though the Phantom brings a person insecurity and anguish, it still echoes the dark truths of a human¡¯s heart and is a reflection of the soul, whereas the Obedience rejects human soul. Luckily, it seems like my fear was better contained than the Obedience¡¯s. Or at least I lasted longer because the Obedience was controlling me, so it felt the full blast of the Phantom¡¯s powers. So I was able to repel the Obedience from my mind and make it take its true form, meanwhile breaking off contact with the Phantom before it could really enter my own heart. But I probably wouldn¡¯t have lasted a second longer, myself.¡± Sakura laughed nervously.

 

No wonder she¡¯s been a little unsettled ever since that night. Who wouldn¡¯t be, after undergoing one dark force that manipulates your mind and another your heart all in one day? Syaoran stared at his feet, speechless.  

 

¡°So, you will do this for me, right?¡± Sakura asked brightly.

 

¡°Okay,¡± Syaoran said doubtfully. He really didn¡¯t want to do this. The Phantom was not a card to be used on humans. Yet, he didn¡¯t want Sakura to do something stupid, like calling it upon herself again. ¡°Are you ready?¡±

 

Sakura nodded, taking a deep breath. ¡°No matter what, don¡¯t call back the Phantom until I can break free from it, okay?¡±

 

¡°Ready?¡± Bringing the flat of his sword to the card, Syaoran released the Phantom, which materialized with a puff of black smoke.

 

¡°It¡¯s you again, Card Mistress.¡± The Phantom grinned maliciously. ¡°Let¡¯s see if I can break into your mind thoroughly this time, with no Obedience to interfere.¡±

 

A chill sensation passed through Sakura¡¯s body as the Phantom entered her heart—she could feel it probing into her soul, filtering through all her memory, thoughts and emotions. It entered much quicker this time, already familiar with her mind.

 

¡°Unusual. You don¡¯t look it, but you have less fear in you than those twice your size and ten times more fierce on the outside. As I would expect from my Card Mistress. But I¡¯ll have to sort deeper,¡± the Phantom said, thrilled upon finding a new prey.

 

While fighting the Obedience, Sakura had to do her best to keep thinking, to strengthen her consciousness, whether it meant recalling unpleasant memories, happy memories, or just concentrating hard on a single thought. Yet, with the Phantom, she had to empty her mind and think peacefully, make her mind a blank state, or else the Phantom would break into the glitches and find her weaknesses.

 

¡°Aha¡¦ Found it again¡¦ I thought I was catching glimpses of it last time I entered your soul,¡± the Phantom whispered. ¡°My you¡¯re in no better state than Tomoyo-chan—and she was one muddled girl on the inside.¡±

 

It was difficult to simply watch Sakura¡¯s face turn pallid as the Phantom probed deeper into her soul. Yet, Syaoran had to watch—he wished to look away, yet he knew that he was going to draw away the Phantom the instant he felt mishap, despite her request. Why would she put herself through this kind of training? There are plenty of other ways to become stronger.

 

Because, lately, I¡¯ve been feeling that I¡¯m only gazing at Syaoran¡¯s back. He¡¯s getting stronger and stronger, and going further away from me. And I can¡¯t catch up, no matter how I try. The dream of the steep cliff, running up towards the edge, Syaoran standing there one second, and disappearing the next, flitted through Sakura¡¯s mind.

 

Her heart had snapped when Syaoran told her that night, by her windowsill, that his family had called him back home. It was what she had dreaded the most, for she knew it would happen sooner or later. Syaoran did not belong here—he had his duties to his family. Back in elementary, after all the Clow Cards were converted into Sakura Cards, and the final battle against Eriol was over, Sakura had not truly comprehended what it meant by Syaoran returning back to Hong Kong, until he disappeared from her one morning. Even though she knew Syaoran¡¯s home was Hong Kong, and his duty as the Chosen One was his priority. Actually, she hadn¡¯t expected to feel betrayed, confused, sad, angry, bittersweet, all these befuddling emotions simultaneously.

 

Someday, you will definitely find your most important one, Syaoran had told her the late afternoon after she had been rejected by Yukito-san. At that time, as she cried into Syaoran¡¯s steady shoulders, she thought the aching in her heart was real pain, yet, that was nothing compared to the stabbing throbbing which faded into a hollow soreness somewhere within her as the reality of Syaoran¡¯s disappearance from her life sunk into her. So, she spent a year then two years, continuing her normal everyday life, not knowing whether she would ever see Syaoran again, nor why she could not erase him from her mind. I¡¯ve already found my most important one. But what¡¯s the use, when I¡¯m constantly afraid of losing him?

 

During this period was the first time Sakura doubted that forgetting her loved one was the greatest destruction possible for her, as was stated during Yue¡¯s Judgment. If she forgot all about him, then she wouldn¡¯t feel so empty inside.

 

Yet he returned, in the middle of junior high life. At first, he was distant and aloof like in olden days, during the beginning of their acquaintance back in fifth grade. That too changed as she began staying at his house, and they became closer friends than ever. In ways, she was closer to him than any other person, yet sometimes, she still felt further to him than any one else.

 

¡°Silly girl¡¦ her mind is full of a single guy. How superficial,¡± the Phantom scoffed. ¡°Teenage girls are so predictable. Must probe deeper. Now, what is this?¡±

 

A little girl with short, tangled brown hair and huge emerald eyes sat on the sidewalk, next to the playground. It was late afternoon and she sat alone. Her eyes were fixed on the other children her age, whose mothers stood by the side, watching their children, then taking them home, holding their hands.

 

¡°Little girl, isn¡¯t your mommy coming to pick you up?¡± a woman bent over to Sakura.

 

Shaking her head, Sakura replied, ¡°She¡¯s coming.¡±

 

¡°Okay.¡± The woman called for her son. ¡°Takashi-kun, let¡¯s go.¡± Holding hands, they walked home.

 

One by one, the lanterns switched on as evening approached.

 

¡°She¡¯s coming,¡± Sakura, age three, repeated to herself, drawing pictures on the sand with a stick. Every time she heard footsteps, she looked up, then disheartened, resumed her artwork. Soon, she dozed off, rolling over in the sandpit.

 

¡°Sakura. Sakura, wake up.¡± A dark haired boy, dressed in the Tomoeda Elementary School uniform shook her. ¡°What are you doing here? Do you know how worried outo-san and I were? We thought you were in the house!¡±

 

¡°Onii-chan?¡± Sakura murmured, rubbing her eyes.

 

¡°I told you never to go wander off on your own! Do you know how dangerous it is?¡± Touya demanded to his toddler little sister. How could he, a merely 10-year-old boy, make his baby sister understand?

 

Smiling brightly, little Sakura said, ¡°Gomen onii-chan! Sakura-chan won¡¯t do it again!¡±

 

Years later, Syaoran had told her that his father and her mother had died because of the same cause, some sort of disease instigated by the Dark Ones.

 

The little Sakura in her mind was sobbing out loud now. My mother didn¡¯t have to die. She left so early, I have no memory of her other than pictures. Yet, outo-san and onii-chan remember her and miss her. They hid their sorrow to put a brave face in front of me so that I wouldn¡¯t worry. I didn¡¯t have to grow up without a mother. Like other girls, I could have talked to okaa-san about fashion, boys, school life, and most importantly, at least remember what her face looked like, what her voice sounds like, what it feels like to fall asleep to my mother¡¯s lullaby. But the Dark Ones did it. They killed my mother. Not only my mother, but Syaoran¡¯s father¡¦ and who knows how many other people? They were the cause of Miho-chan¡¯s mother¡¯s current sickness.

 

¡°Ha, as I expected, you did have more worries suppressed deep within you mind,¡± the Phantom said, voice trembling in delight. ¡°Here¡¯s something quite recent.¡±

 

¡°Stop it,¡± Sakura said, voice strained, knowing it was futile to prevent the Phantom from infiltrating into her deepest thoughts. ¡°Stop it!¡±

 

There had been a silent fury in Erika¡¯s eyes as she told her, ¡°Amamiya Hayashi murdered Ruichi-sama. They say, the deepest pit of hell is reserved for betrayers, and that nothing is worse than being betrayed by a friend.¡±      

 

The Great Five had once been close friends. What happened to split this friendship apart? And why did this battle still continue in the 21st century? What kind of man had Amamiya Hayashi-sama been?

 

He murdered Chang Ruichi-sama, fellow member of the Great Five. He murdered Ruichi-sama. Sakura could not forget the bitterness in Erika¡¯s tone.

 

No way. Hayashi-sama wouldn¡¯t have done such a thing. But then, why did the Dark Ones come to be?

 

Her vision contorted, as if she was walking through mist. Sakura realized that she must be on top of a cliff, for the landscape was familiar. Squinting her eyes, she tried to peer through the white fog. There, at the edge of the cliff stood a dark-haired person, long wavy hair whipping around wildly in the wind. Who is that? The person took a step back.

 

¡°NO!¡± Sakura mouthed, voice failing her, as the figure dropped over the edge of the cliff, disappearing into the mist. It¡¯s just an illusion. Why am I so disturbed?

 

 

 

Watching Sakura move her lips without making a sound, tears flowing freely from her eyes, Syaoran reached out to draw back the Phantom. He could not bear to watch any longer. Then he hesitated, for Sakura looked at him directly, though her eyes were in a distant place, and shook her head.

 

 

 

Sakura¡¯s vision contorted again, and she found that the fog had cleared on the cliff. Now, she was watching Li Ryuuren and her mother, Amamiya Nadeshiko standing face to face, Ryuuren¡¯s sword pointed to Nadeshiko¡¯s throat, not unlike the painting she had seen in New York, by the artist Shing. They were standing near the edge of a cliff, the river below roaring thunderously, the sky gray and tempestuous. It was hard to hear their conversation, yet she could catch parts of it.

 

¡°Don¡¯t come near me!¡± Ryuuren shouted, his sapphire eyes wild.

 

¡°Ryuuren,¡± Nadeshiko whispered. She stepped forward, her violet hair rippling back from her face from the wind. ¡°Ryuuren, don¡¯t do this.¡±

 

¡°I said, don¡¯t come near me!¡± Ryuuren repeated, tightening his grip on his sword, tip a fraction of an inch from Nadeshiko¡¯s pale throat. ¡°I¡¯m serious, you¡¯re going to injure yourself.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t care!¡± Nadeshiko replied, still stepping forward, the blade grazing her cheek.

 

Watching a trickle of ruby blood trail down her pale skin, Ryuuren instinctively stepped back, closer to the edge of the cliff. He was breathing heavily, dark brown hair tousled and shirt sweat-soaked. ¡°Nadeshiko, go back now. It¡¯s all over. We¡¯ve defeated the Dark Ones, and we have no reason to see each other anymore. You can go on and continue with your life, and I will return to Hong Kong and continue with mine.¡±

 

Without a trace of fear, Nadeshiko ran forward and threw her arms around Ryuuren, burying her face in his chest. His sword dropped with a clatter on the ground.

 

¡°Don¡¯t leave, Ryuuren,¡± she whispered, swallowing the sobs in her chest. ¡°Please don¡¯t leave me, Ryuuren. That¡¯s all I ask—you don¡¯t have to be nice to me or care for me or even by my friend. I beg you, please stay.¡±

 

For a second, his lifted his hand as if to stroke her hair, then stopped. Her shoulders were shaking. ¡°I have to Nadeshiko. These are the circumstances. I can¡¯t possibly be friends, let alone anything more, with a descendant of Him. I told you.¡± His voice cracked despite of himself. ¡°We have no reason to see each other anymore. Everything¡¯s finished.¡± Instead of embracing her, he pushed her back. ¡°It¡¯s all over.¡±

 

¡°Ryuuren.¡± She stared at him, green eyes wide so you could see her pupils.

 

¡°Don¡¯t stare at me like—nothing¡¯s going to change,¡± Ryuuren said, bending over to pick up his discarded sword. His voice regained the sardonic, cutting edge of olden days. ¡°You don¡¯t get it, do you? Nadeshiko, this is reality. Up till now, you¡¯ve been a useful tool for me, helping me locate the Clow Book. Now we¡¯ve found it and furthermore, we¡¯ve sealed the Dark Ones. My business with you has ended—I¡¯ve found you very useful, and I thank you for your aid. Now, I have no more use of you.¡±

 

¡°Liar,¡± Nadeshiko whispered.    

 

¡°Why are you looking like a scared bunny, with those round eyes of yours? Don¡¯t tell me haven¡¯t long figured out that I¡¯ve only borne your company because it was necessary in my mission here in Japan. Thanks to you, everything is wrapped up cleanly here, though later than I¡¯d anticipated, and now I can return home.¡± Ryuuren met Nadeshiko¡¯s gaze with his own piercing azure eyes.

 

¡°Liar!¡± Nadeshiko reached out for Ryuuren than set her hand down again. ¡°You said that you were going to stay on here. You said that this is your home now.¡±

 

¡°Dear Nadeshiko, did anyone ever tell you that you are too gullible?¡± Ryuuren laughed short, callously. ¡°My fiancée since childhood is waiting back home—and one day, I¡¯m going to become the Great Elder of the prestigious Li Clan. That is my future, my dream and my aspiration. My son is going to become the next Chosen One, my successor, and our Clan is going to become even more prosperous, not only in Hong Kong but internationally. This is my vision, what is yours? You¡¯ve always known that our life must continue on after the Dark Ones were conquered. It was only a brief stage in our life, and we must move on to our required paths.¡± 

 

So cruel, thought Sakura, a lump in her chest, all the emotions that Nadeshiko felt interchangeable with her own.

 

It was as good as telling Nadeshiko that she had no place in Ryuuren¡¯s life. The forbidding man standing in front of her with eyes as cold and impenetrable as the time of their first encounter, in Clow Reed¡¯s house, was not the Li Ryuuren she had gotten to know over the past two years. Yet, I love Li Ryuuren. Even as he says these harsh yet true words, I still love him. I don¡¯t care about the past, about Shulin-sama and Hayashi-sama and the mix-up of the Great Five, nor about the Dark Ones. All I know is that I don¡¯t want him to be gone from my life forever. Life without him will be so hollow and worthless. ¡°Ryuuren¡¦ if you¡¯re trying to make me hate you, you should know that no matter what you say or do, I will never be able to hate you,¡± Nadeshiko said, her lips quivering in a timid smile.

 

Composure and staidness leaving his face, Ryuuren shouted, dark eyebrows furrowed down, unable to control the anger and frustration in his voice, ¡°Stop being a fool, Nadeshiko! Don¡¯t you get it? I¡¯ve been using you. I don¡¯t care for you, never have and never will. I regard you on the same level as the Dark Ones. Hate me, reproach me if you will—just don¡¯t expect anything from me! Haven¡¯t you learned anything from knowing me for over two years?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ve learned many things,¡± Nadeshiko replied softly, stepping past Ryuuren towards the edge of the cliff, back facing Ryuuren. She stared below at the rapid current of the river snaking through the mountain and valleys and fading into the distance. ¡°Like how Li Ryuuren is an ambitious and proud man, able to sacrifice all for the honor of his family. How he likes peace and quiet, despite claiming he is a warrior at heart, how he loves music, and plays the violin when he¡¯s alone to cover up the silence of the empty house. How beneath his bravado and unapproachable exterior, he just needs a listening ear. Oh, I forgot. He¡¯s rather vain too.¡± Nadeshiko smiled reminiscently. ¡°His eyes are cold, but when he occasionally smiles, they warm into a brilliant sky blue. He has a callus, sarcastic tongue, yet there are moments when he can be sincere and kind-hearted, encouraging and gentle.¡± A single trail of tear dropped from her eye. She cast her head down, letting her hair cover her face. He couldn¡¯t see her face, anyway.  

 

¡°You forgot a few things,¡± Ryuuren said contemptuously. ¡°Like how he¡¯s manipulative and calculating, a good actor, and doesn¡¯t know how to look back, only how to move forward.¡±

 

¡°And you¡¯re a very honorable man, admirable and a strong leader, well-suited to become the Head of the Li Clan,¡± Nadeshiko continued softly. ¡°I never did get to tell you this, did I? All we ever did was insult each other and quarrel. I never really got to thank you for all the times you protected me, saved me, looked after me even though I was so clumsy and foolish at times, a complete amateur.¡±

 

Taking a deep breath in, only to find his lung ached, Ryuuren said, ¡°Well, Nadeshiko. This will be the last time I¡¯ll be seeing you. I¡¯ll be saying farewell then.¡±

 

¡°Wait, I have one last question to ask you then,¡± Nadeshiko said, more firmly than before. She turned around to face Ryuuren, chin set determinedly, ready to take a last gamble. ¡°What am I to you, Li Ryuuren?¡±

 

Without hesitating, Ryuuren replied, ¡°Quite frankly, once a source of annoyance, then an ally, a useful weapon against the Dark Ones thanks to your Sight, what they call the Third Eye, and now a girl from my past who will fade from my memory as soon as I leave the country. You¡¯re nothing to me, Amamiya Nadeshiko, and that is the truth. If you know me so well, you will know that lying is not one of my traits. Or you can use your second sight and trace my heartbeat to track if I¡¯m lying.¡±

 

¡°I see. So that¡¯s it,¡± Nadeshiko said, laughing and brushing back her long curls from her face. ¡°So that¡¯s what chasing after the rainbow¡¯s end or watching my favorite star from my windowsill was all about.¡± Another heavy tear rolled down her cheek. ¡°Wonder why I fought the Dark Ones so hard. What was it all for? Maybe I should just have disappeared with that dark force—it wouldn¡¯t have made a difference and would have been less painful than this.¡± 

  

¡°If you¡¯re going to talk like a senseless idiot, I won¡¯t waste anymore time with you.¡± Ryuuren turned around to leave the cliff-side. ¡°Find a good man, Amamiya Nadeshiko.¡±

 

¡°What shall I do with the Clow Book?¡± Nadeshiko asked, a desperate last call to keep him from leaving. ¡°We¡¯re joint owners, aren¡¯t we?¡±

 

¡°You keep it. I can trust you to keep it safe,¡± Ryuuren replied, puzzled at Nadeshiko¡¯s sudden calmness. ¡°It¡¯ll be safe with you than back with the Li Clan, which is often a target for ill-wishers.¡±

 

¡°I see. I¡¯m glad to see that I¡¯m useful till the end,¡± Nadeshiko said softly, stepping right up to the edge of the cliff. Rocks crumbled from the edge, falling down below. Minutes later, it landed in the river with a plop. A sudden look of determination flickered in her jade-green eyes. ¡°Say, Ryuuren. Tell me, is it really true that I mean nothing whatsoever to you?¡±

 

¡°Yes, how many times do I have to say it?¡± Ryuuren demanded, agitated.

 

¡°Will you swear so, even if I¡¯ll jump off this cliff you say that it¡¯s really true?¡± Nadeshiko asked in retaliation.

 

¡°Yes. Now, don¡¯t be an idiot and move back, that¡¯s dangerous.¡± Panic was written over his face now.

 

¡°I see.¡± Without blinking an eye, she stepped off the edge of the cliff.

 

¡°NO!¡± Sakura screamed, knowing that her mother wouldn¡¯t die, yet shaken all the same.

 

~~~~~~

 

¡°Comical how she thought that one man was her entire life, and within a month, found another to replace with him so easily,¡± the Phantom commented slyly.

 

¡°As if you¡¯d know,¡± Sakura replied. Her heart was still sore. It was as if she had become one with her mother at that cliff-side. All the wrenching emotions her mother had felt had been in unison with her.

 

¡°I guess you can sympathize with Nadeshiko,¡± the Phantom murmured. ¡°For the exact same fate awaits you as did for Ryuuren and Nadeshiko and Hayashi and Shulin.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t care,¡± Sakura said. Shulin-sama and Hayashi-sama. What had their relationship been? It was mystifying, that an acquaintance between the Amamiya¡¯s and Li¡¯s dated so far back. One lived in China and the other in Japan. How had they chanced upon each other? Was that fate, or chance? And the constant crossing of their descendant¡¯s paths was also puzzling. Even if it were for our forbearers, would Syaoran and I have met?

 

¡°Yes, you shouldn¡¯t care at all,¡± the Phantom said. ¡°For at this rate, you would be conquered by the Dark Ones, so seeking out any happy life is useless.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry—I won¡¯t give in to the likes of you,¡± Sakura replied staidly. ¡°I¡¯m not scared of the past. If you think showing me images from long ago can frighten me, you¡¯re wrong. I¡¯m not scared of Syaoran leaving me.¡± That was a blatant lie, and the Phantom knew it too, but saying it out loud made her feel better.

 

The Phantom roared out in derisive laughter.

 

They were back on the cliff a third time, where they had left off.

 

Sixteen-year-old Amamiya Nadeshiko had just stepped off the cliff, with a smile on her face, as if she was merely going for a walk. Her long curls billowed out about her.

 

Eyes widening and body moving automatically even before the notion that Nadeshiko had jumped off the edge of the cliff registered in his mind, Ryuuren was already gripping Nadeshiko¡¯s arm with one hand, leaning over the edge of the cliff. Sand beneath him streamed out, tumbling off the edge into the rapids below.

 

Dangling off the edge of the cliff, held up by Ryuuren¡¯s sturdy right arm, Nadeshiko shouted, ¡°Let go of me!¡±

 

¡°Are you crazy? What are you doing, trying to kill yourself?¡± Ryuuren shouted back, blue eyes dilated. He stabbed his sword into the soil with his left hand and used it to brace himself in position, so that he wouldn¡¯t fall off also. ¡°Are you that kind of silly girl who values life so little, as to throw it away so easily? If so, I¡¯m very disappointed in you, Amamiya Nadeshiko!¡±

 

His hand is warm. A gust of strong storm wind blew over the cliff, and Nadeshiko swayed dangerously. ¡°Don¡¯t worry, Li Ryuuren,¡± Nadeshiko called out faintly. ¡°I value my life more than anything else—it¡¯s what my dear mother gave to me.¡±

 

¡°Well, your actions sure betrays it,¡± Ryuuren said through clenched teeth. ¡°Hang on there. I¡¯ll give you my other hand and try to pull you up.¡±

 

¡°I knew you¡¯ll save me again,¡± Nadeshiko said, smiling weakly—heights were not one of her strong points.

 

¡°This has nothing to do with you—if it were anyone else in this situation, I would have done the same,¡± Ryuuren replied, staring hard at the roaring rapids below.

 

¡°If I am really nothing to you, if all you said really was true, then let my hand go now,¡± Nadeshiko said. ¡°I won¡¯t have any regrets.¡±

 

¡°No!¡± Ryuuren shouted angrily. ¡°Now get up here. Here¡¯s my hand.¡± He lowered his other hand. He had somehow embedded his sword behind him, and wrapped his legs around it to keep from being pulled over by Nadeshiko¡¯s weight. ¡°There, a little further.¡±

 

Nadeshiko reached up, missed, then tried again. Ryuuren was perspiring heavily and his eyes were squinted in effort. He doesn¡¯t hate me. I just need to get up, and we can be together again. Just a little harder. This time, she caught his other hand.

 

¡°Good job. Now, I¡¯ll gather my strength and heave you up at the count of three, okay?¡± Ryuuren prodded.

 

¡°Wait, I¡¯ll find a foothold to steady myself,¡± Nadeshiko said, fumbling with her feet on the cliffs edge for a protruding rock to support her weight on.

 

¡°Why make all this trouble, if you aren¡¯t planning to really kill yourself?¡± Ryuuren muttered, trying to wipe the sweat on his forehead with his sleeves.

 

¡°I have the second sight,¡± Nadeshiko said, smiling impishly, head tilted up towards Ryuuren, who looked down to her full of anger at her for pulling such a prank and relief for being able to catch her time. ¡°I knew you wouldn¡¯t let me die. I told you I value my life as much as I have faith in you, Ryuuren.¡±

 

¡°I used to think you were dim-witted, and you never fail to prove otherwise, do you?¡± Ryuuren smiled half-hearted. ¡°I¡¯m surprised I was able to beat the Dark Ones Okay with someone like you as comrade. I¡¯m lifting you up now.¡± Straining his arm muscles, he heaved Nadeshiko up, setting her safely on the cliff-side, as the patch of earth he had been leaning against began crumbling beneath him. It was a bare whisper, but Nadeshiko, sprawled on the ground heard him say ruefully, ¡°I was very happy then.¡± Then the cliff-edge gave away completely.

 

Gasping in horror, Nadeshiko turned around as Li Ryuuren was tossed off the edge of the cliff

 

¡°Ryuuren!¡± Desperately, Nadeshiko reached out and barely caught his sleeve.

 

¡°This is for the best,¡± Ryuuren said, snatching his arm away and ripping his sleeve, falling backwards. ¡°Farewell, Nadeshiko.¡±

 

Blankly, Nadeshiko watched his body and gleaming sword fall, and fade away into a tiny speck. There was a splash as he landed into the dark river, quickly swallowed by the tide and carried away by the current.

 

He¡¯s going to return, Sakura reassured herself. He¡¯s going to pop up behind and say it¡¯s all a joke.

 

As if finally registered in her mind that Ryuuren had fallen off the cliff and disappeared into the river, that it was not some surreal nightmare, Nadeshiko, crouched at the edge of the cliff, screamed out his name, her voice echoing through the crevasses below. ¡°RYUUUUUUUUREN!¡± She was sobbing uncontrollably now, like a madwoman, then a whimpering child, clutching the piece of fabric from Ryuuren¡¯s shirt.

 

¡°Ryuuren¡¦ Ryuuren¡¦ RYUUREN!¡± Over and over she whispered his name, as if calling had enough will bring him back. When she was crying dry tears, having drained all water in her eyes, and her voice was reduced to no more than a faint croak, she was at last silent. At this point, she finally realized that he was really gone, and that he would never return. It was a dull sensation as all the sound around her suddenly roared in her ear and the night felt bitter cold, her stomach ached from intense hunger, and her chest ached like a stake had been bored in.

 

¡°I love you, Li Ryuuren,¡± whispered the worn out girl, slowly standing up, white dress muddied, her hair blowing behind her, face queerly pale and tired. Her broken voice was carried away by the wind, into the empty valleys. ¡°I love you.¡±

 

On this cliff was the last that Amamiya Nadeshiko saw of Li Ryuuren, the first man she had loved. It didn¡¯t take her long to realize that Ryuuren probably had safely escaped the rapids—after all, he was the Chosen One trained to escape any perilous situation. Some weeks after, she could confirm, to her greatest relief and embittered joy, that Ryuuren was still alive, and some weeks after that, she realized that Ryuuren was gone from the country and her life forever. But she had already met the man that she was destined to be with, a good man, a man who loved her and she loved him with all her heart, except that tiny fragment of childhood innocence that she had left behind at the cliff-side. This scar was only healed near her deathbed, when she was able to see him one last time, despite the odds.    

 

On stormy nights a faint echo of a girl¡¯s cry of ¡°I love you¡± could be heard near the cliff side.

 

 

 

Once more, everything in Sakura¡¯s mind blurred. Her mother had disappeared from view, and she was no longer standing on the cliff. The Phantom¡¯s face swirled around her and multiple voices jarred her mind. ¡°He murdered Chang Ruichi-sama¡¦¡± Erika¡¯s bitter look.

 

Syaoran¡¯s angry outburst: ¡°Does it matter to me if I die? No, I don¡¯t care if I am killed by those enemies who killed my father. Yes, Father was murdered, far from his family. Your mother died blissfully with her family. Yet, I can¡¯t let them kill you. You know only happiness with all your friends and family; you¡¯re full of life, while I can put up with living in any sort of hell¡¦¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, I¡¯m sorry because I made ¡®nii-chan cry. I¡¯ll never be a bad girl again. But I wish so much that I can see Mother one more time.¡± Her younger self crying to her brother.

 

¡°You were once a source of annoyance, then an ally, a useful weapon against the Dark Ones thanks to your Sight¡¦ now a girl from my past who will fade from my memory as soon as I leave the country¡¦ You¡¯re nothing to me, Amamiya Nadeshiko, and that is the truth.¡± This was Li Ryuuren, the tone he said this in even crueler than the actual words.

 

¡°You know that I don¡¯t have special feelings about you anymore, right? All those things that happened back in those days before I left to Hong Kong are the past¡¦¡± White snow drifted from the sky. The words that had stabbed her like a dagger.

 

¡°All I ever wanted was for my sister to have a healthy heart and for us to live happily together. That simple, really. Funny, coming from me, isn¡¯t it? Is that too much for a person like me to ask?¡± Eron¡¯s desperate golden eyes at the orphanage, the first time she noticed that those eyes hid more grief than contempt.

 

¡°¡¦Well, it¡¯s about time that you get the notion out of your head that I am a nice guy, that you can befriend me by throwing bones at a stray puppy¡¦ If I were you, I would be more on guard. There¡¯s no knowing what I might do from now on¡¦¡±

 

¡°¡¦You¡¯re going to have to pay two-fold for being you as you are, Kinomoto Sakura, and the descendent of Amamiya Hayashi¡¦ Your existence makes my life miserable¡¦¡±

 

The jumble of voices slowly faded away, and only one distinct, clear voice remained to be heard.

 

¡°Funny how we can look back to yesterday and realize how silly it was. It seems like another life time.¡±

 

¡®You know what I like about sunrises, Sakura? It¡¯s a new beginning of another day, where anything can await. A whole new day to forget the darkness of the night and erase all the pain and bitterness. It is something you can look forward to with a yearning smile.¡¯

 

¡°Sakura? Are you¡¦ crying? I¡¯m all right. I promised I¡¯d come back before dawn, didn¡¯t I? I didn¡¯t want to keep you waiting like yesterday, but I¡¯m still late. The sun has already risen. Sorry...¡±

 

¡°I got a letter from home, telling me to come back.¡± For a moment, she had thought her greatest fear had arrived.

 

Then she recalled his confident smiling face, as he stated, ¡°But I¡¯m not going back!¡±

 

~~~~~~

 

¡°Sakura! Sakura! Are you okay? Answer me!¡± Syaoran shook her shoulders hard. ¡°Sakura!¡±

 

Opening her eyes, and blinking several times, Sakura realized she was back in King Penguin Park. ¡°What happened?¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. You passed out for a second or something—I caught you as you toppled over, and withdrew the Phantom immediately.¡± Syaoran put her at arms distance to check if she was okay. ¡°Are you really okay?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m fine. Why did you call the Phantom back?¡± Sakura frowned. Had she been able to defeat the Phantom? She couldn¡¯t remember. But she definitely hadn¡¯t succumbed to it, either. ¡°I told you to leave it till the end.¡±

 

¡°Impossible!¡± Syaoran retorted in a choked voice. Reassured that Sakura was fine, he drew her to him and hugged her fiercely. ¡°Thank goodness you¡¯re okay. Never again. I don¡¯t care what you say; don¡¯t ever ask me to do such a thing to you again. I thought I would go crazy, just watching you suffer because of the Phantom.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran.¡± Her voice was muffled because he was hugging her so tightly that her circulation was cut off. Then she relaxed, rubbing her face into his warm sweater. The last trace of unease and doubt left from the Phantom melted away. He was really worried. I shouldn¡¯t have asked him to do such a thing for me. But I¡¯m glad I did. I think next time, I would really be able to beat the Phantom, outright.

 

¡°How was it?¡± Syaoran murmured into her hair, almost as if afraid to let her go.

 

¡°Awful,¡± admitted Sakura. ¡°I don¡¯t want to undergo it ever again.¡±

 

¡°Silly girl—if you want training, run ten laps a day—that gives you plenty of stamina, endurance, concentration and strength. Don¡¯t do anything stupid like this again—it¡¯s hazardous to your health.¡± Syaoran patted her back awkwardly, then realized that he really had been cutting off Sakura¡¯s circulation, and her face was turning red. He dropped his arms helpless, then blushed, running a hand over the back of his head.  

 

¡°Can¡¯t be any worse than the Li Clan Nightmare Training,¡± Sakura said cheerfully.

 

¡°Either way, I think if you lasted under the Phantom for that long, and still have the humor to joke around, you¡¯re fine,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°You don¡¯t need anymore ¡®spiritual training¡¯ or whatever. In fact, I think you need a reward.¡±

 

¡°Reward?¡± Sakura smiled. ¡°The Nightmare Training system must not be so bad, if it has a reward based on merit system.

 

I can¡¯t exactly tell her that ¡®reward¡¯, by the Great Elder¡¯s standards, is allowing me to learn a new, even more difficult spell. Syaoran cleared his throat. ¡°How about watching a movie this Sunday?¡± 

 

Sakura clapped her hands together. ¡°I haven¡¯t watched a movie in ages!¡±

 

¡°Meet me at 10 AM, in front of the Piffle Princess store in town,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°I¡¯ll treat you.¡±

 

¡°Really?¡± Sakura raised both hands in the air like a kid. ¡°Yay!¡±

 

¡°Maybe the Phantom addled your brain, after all. You seem to have regressed in age.¡± Syaoran smiled, relieved that Sakura was back to her normal, cheerful self. Well, as normal as you can get having undergone the tortures of the Obedience and the Phantom in one week. ¡°Mind you, don¡¯t be late this time.¡±

 

¡°I won¡¯t! (I told you a hundred times I¡¯m really sorry about last time—it wasn¡¯t on purpose. Well, it was but¡¦)¡± Picking up the Phantom card and slipping it back in her pocket, Sakura called out, ¡°See you at school tomorrow! I need to get back for dinner, or else onii-chan will throw yet another fit.¡±

 

Watching Sakura skip off, Syaoran sighed, walking over to the bushes. ¡°Did you videotape to your satisfaction?¡±

 

¡°Beautiful!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed, taking off her brown hat, in order to camouflage with the branches. ¡°But why don¡¯t you just ask her out on a date instead of finding such roundabout ways to meet her on Sundays?¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. It¡¯s more comfortable this way,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°Anyway, were you okay with being so near the Phantom and all?¡±

 

Setting down her camcorder, she replied, ¡°I think I can deal with the Phantom now, also, were I to face it again. Not that I would ever want to. Besides, I was worried about Sakura—I¡¯ve experience the Phantom¡¯s control and know the stress and despair you can feel because of it. But I don¡¯t think I had to worry.¡±

 

Hiding a grin by pretending to tie his shoelaces, Syaoran said, ¡°Come on, the real reason is because you have a new outfit for her, right?¡±

 

¡°How did you know?¡± Tomoyo asked, aghast. She fumbled in the bushes and fetched a shopping bag. Taking a frilly dress, an odd mixture of blue and pink taffeta, she sighed. ¡°Isn¡¯t it gorgeous? But I couldn¡¯t bear to interrupt and ask her to wear this. Do you mind if I ask her to wear it on your date—oh, you do mind?¡±

 

She looked so downcast that Syaoran quickly reassured her, ¡°I¡¯m sure there are many more dark forces heading our way, and next time, you can let her wear it—just don¡¯t make me a matching outfit. (Pink and blue taffeta, what a hideous combination.)¡± It would look pretty on Sakura though.

 

¡°Well, good luck on Sunday,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°I think I¡¯ll go home and add some more lace to this dress before next time.¡±

 

¡°Tomoyo.¡±

 

¡°Yes Syaoran-kun?¡± Tomoyo looked up at Syaoran, tugging on the end of her long braid.

 

¡°It¡¯s something I noticed last week, when I was fighting against Hiiragizawa Eriol,¡± Syaoran said slowly.

 

Tomoyo blinked her violet eyes, wondering what Syaoran had to say to her.

 

He continued, straight-faced, ¡°Do you by any chance like Eriol?¡±

 

¡°Yes,¡± Tomoyo replied, equally straight-faced.

 

¡°Oh.¡± It took a minute for her answer to register in his brain. Then, he went ballistic. ¡°WHAT? What do you see in that four-eyed creep? You, with your beauty, intelligence, and kind-heart can do much better. You can practically get any guy you want in the entire school, bit why would you choose him, that unspeakable freak of a nature (god knows how old he is)?¡±

 

Tomoyo laughed, good-naturedly. ¡°I didn¡¯t realize my feelings were that transparent. Is it that obvious?¡±

 

¡°No¡¦ I just noticed that you were looking at him with eyes that you show when you watch Sakura fighting, when we were engaged in that duel last week. You were worried for him, though he¡¯s the most powerful magician alive. And when he fell, you looked like you were reproachful of me for a second.¡±

 

¡°No, I¡¯m really glad you won!¡± Tomoyo insisted. ¡°But you¡¯re a lot more observant than I anticipated, Syaoran-kun. You should have been busy enough, engaged in your battle against Eriol, yet when did you find the time to watch my expressions?¡±

 

¡°Well, I¡¯m usually oblivious to those kind of things, I admit it,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°But it¡¯s your matter, Tomoyo—you¡¯ve always helped me and cheered for me all these years. I¡¯ve always believed your time would come. You, out of anyone, deserve some happiness, someone to open your heart to.¡± Then he looked at her pitifully. ¡°Though you have considerately lower taste in men than expected. Either, I want to let you know, I¡¯m always here for you to confide to or support you. Let me have a chance to pay you back for all you did for me. You¡¯re an important friend to me, one I would protect as I would protect Sakura.¡±  

 

¡°Thank you, Syaoran-kun,¡± Tomoyo said, smiling warmly. There comes a time when Syaoran would offer her support for her love life, and he would reassure her and worry for her.

 

¡°Hey, does Sakura know?¡± he asked.

 

Shaking her head, she replied, ¡°She may suspect, but I haven¡¯t told her yet. I haven¡¯t found the courage to, for I don¡¯t understand my feelings myself, yet.¡±

 

¡°Hurry and do¡¦ if it¡¯s Sakura, she¡¯ll give you a very Sakura-like response,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°She¡¯ll be very happy for you.¡±

 

Tomoyo nodded. ¡°I¡¯ll tell her soon.¡± Sometimes, Syaoran simply amazed her, for who would have thought that scowling fifth-grader who used to glare at Sakura¡¯s back from the seat behind her would turn out to be this decent and considerate? She knew that Syaoran looked after Meilin because she was his cousin, but that he also worried for her, not just as Sakura¡¯s best friend but as an individual, suddenly made her very happy. She chuckled merrily. Comes a day when I receive encouragement from Li Syaoran on matters of love.

 

******

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

Li Meilin had long since learned how to keep out of the adults way, eyes downcast and bowing respectfully to the Elders on rare occasions that they realized her presence. With Syaoran out of favor with the Clan, she had all the more reason to keep a low profile; she knew sooner or later, the Elders would call her to the Main House and interrogate her as to why she didn¡¯t bring Syaoran back. It was all a part of their torture plan, ignoring her like this for now, making her anxious and uneasy.

 

The adults of the Clan were even grimmer than they had been before Meilin had left for Japan. Even her mother was unusually quiet, forehead creased in worry. Though usually clandestine in its projects, lately, the Inner Council had been unusually hushed up and secretive in decisions. Behind all this was the Head of the Clan, Li Wutei, Syaoran¡¯s least favorite uncle, oldest brother of Li Ryuuren. Out of anybody in the Clan, Meilin feared Uncle Wutei the most, because he was always the hardest on non-magical members of the Clan—to him, people like her were no better than ants, there for more worthy members to step on. Luckily, she had avoided bumping into him yet—he was such an important personage in the Clan, that it was rare for younger, unimportant Li¡¯s to see him or speak to him. He had temporarily taken over the duties of the Great Elder, since the Great Elder was gravely ill and taken to bed. Aunt Ieran, Syaoran¡¯s sisters and Wei were currently nursing him in one of the remote estates of the Li Clan, separate from the main Li Village, centralized around the Main House, Uncle Wutai¡¯s residence. Even though Meilin desperately wanted to speak to Syaoran¡¯s mother, she couldn¡¯t find the opportunity, for she was basically bound to home and school.

 

Coming home from another dreary day of school, Meilin walked down the road leading through the village, all the residents being Li¡¯s and relatives, some more distant relatives than others. Depending on the importance of your bloodline and role in the Clan, your family lived in the more luxurious estates. Personally, Meilin thought that Syaoran¡¯s house was the prettiest among all off the Li residences, with beautiful, spacious gardens tended by Li Ieran and careful interior designing. The Main House, which was located further down at the end of the road, was obviously was the largest and most elaborate. 

 

¡°Say, isn¡¯t that Cousin Meilin?¡± a girl in a sleek robin¡¯s egg blue Chinese dress said. It was Cousin Huayin, once a constant rival for Syaoran¡¯s affection.

 

Her younger sister giggled, taking a glance at Meilin, sulky and quite unpopular among her age group in the Clan. ¡°Didn¡¯t she come back from Japan? Wonder what she was doing there?¡±

 

¡°Meilin, is it true that Syaoran¡¯s been removed as the Chosen One? I heard from Mother that¡¯s he¡¯s in disgrace right now,¡± Fuuyen said spitefully, knowing Meilin¡¯s weakness.

 

¡°I heard that the Head struck his name from the Book of Li, under the List of the Chosen Ones,¡± the round-faced younger sister said, grinning cheekily.

 

¡°No way,¡± uttered Meilin, stunned. They couldn¡¯t have already crossed his name off from the Book, without even talking to Syaoran in person. Surely the Great Elder wouldn¡¯t allow such a thing to happen. But the Great Elder is in no condition to tend to the matters of the Clan right now. Uncle Wutei despises Syaoran—he will do anything within his power to bring Syaoran down, while he can. Even something as despicable as this.

 

¡°It¡¯s the truth. Father told us,¡± Huayin insisted. She smiled maliciously. ¡°What in the world is Syaoran thinking? I heard he met some awful, manipulative Japanese wench there.¡±

 

¡°Sakura is not like that!¡± Meilin exclaimed.

 

¡°Cousin Meilin, you¡¯re as rude as ever, aren¡¯t you?¡± Huayin said, laughing mirthfully. ¡°You really have no clue what¡¯s going on in the Clan.¡±

 

Without bothering to answer, Meilin began running down the road, ahead to the Main House. She had to see for herself. No way they could have acted so quickly, taking that final, decisive act. It was one thing to have decided among the Elders to demote Syaoran—it was another matter to have if officially recorded in the Book of Li. Having reached the massive gates of the Main House, she paused, panting. This building had the heaviest security out of anywhere else in the Li Village. The Book of Li was stored in the secret chamber behind the Great Hall—she¡¯d been in the Great Hall only once, for Syaoran¡¯s inauguration as Chosen One. Once again, I¡¯m realizing having a thief as a close acquaintance comes useful. Funny how I can think of that wretched boy at this moment. Wonder what mischief he¡¯s getting into right now. She had already slipped into the main building back entrance and was racing down the labyrinth-like hallways towards the Great Hall. Thank goodness this building had been one of Kaitou Magician¡¯s targets, when he was stealing the Five Force Sword. She had once asked him how ever did he sneak into the Main House, which was heavily guarded by trained bodyguards of the Clan, on top of having protective spells, locks and traps located around each corner. It was amazing she could recall the plot of the building at this moment. Kai will be thoroughly impressed.

 

Meilin reached the massive golden-gilded doors, reaching high to the ceiling, that lead to the Great Hall. These elaborately decorated doors, engraved with swirling dragons, flowers and the sun and moon, were unbarred—nobody would dare enter without permission on their honor as a Li. Carefully, she swung open the door and walked down the long red-carpeted hall, which never failed to impress her, with the platform at the head of the room, where Syaoran had first received the Five Force Sword.    

 

Looking behind her to check if anybody was near by, she brushed pass a bright, elaborately embroidered tapestry hiding the door behind it. Out of her pocket, she took out a special, one-of-a-kind Open-it-all Key, patented by Kaitou Magician. Today, she would finally test if it actually worked. The heavy door swung open, confirming Kai¡¯s liability as a thief. There was the large, dark green leather-bound book, set on a wooden stand in the center of the room. Meilin walked up and with trembling hands, opened it. She flipped through pages of the names of various generations of Li¡¯s, dating back to more than a thousand years ago. Finally, she reached the Chosen One¡¯s List. She skimmed through the pages, searching for the most recent date—there was Li Shulin, the Founder of the Hong Kong branch, listed from a century and a half ago. She trailed down more names, recognizing that of Syaoran¡¯s grandmother, the current Great Elder, and finally the immediate predecessor, Li Ryuuren, Syaoran¡¯s father. A tight ball formed in Meilin¡¯s throat. Next, there was Li Syaoran¡¯s name, written in the Great Elder¡¯s bold Chinese calligraphy, crossed out in a single, thick red line, the first Chosen One to ever be crossed out from the Book of Li.

 

Meilin had been so absorbed by the list, that she did not notice that she had left the door open behind her.

 

¡°What are you doing here, Li Meilin?¡± a booming voice came from behind her. ¡°How did you get in here?¡±

 

Gasping and slamming the book shut, Meilin swerved around, amber eyes widening like a cornered rabbit. ¡°I—I¡±

 

The Head of the Li Clan, Li Wutai, a broad-shouldered, formidable man with dark hair streaked with silver, walked up in three bold steps and slapped Meilin hard on the face, throwing her to the ground. He roared, ¡°What do you think you are doing in here? Don¡¯t you know it¡¯s forbidden to enter this room? Go out, now!¡±

 

¡°I-I¡¯m s-sorry,¡± Meilin said through clattering teeth, clutching her red cheek. She had never seen her uncle so enraged. ¡°I just¡¦¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t care what you were doing! Get out, now, you useless, wretched girl. I¡¯ll see you are properly punished for this later on,¡± The Head demanded, walking up to the Book to check if there was any damage, and staring at Meilin with slit, dark eyes cornered with wrinkles. ¡°Did Li Syaoran ask you to do this?¡±

 

¡°NO!¡± Meilin exclaimed in resentment. ¡°Syaoran had nothing to do with this!¡±

 

¡°Be gone, then!¡±

 

Swallowing hard, Meilin scrambled out of the Great Hall and out of the Main House, her head swirling at all that had been happening around her.

 

 

 

School wasn¡¯t any better than home. Meilin had realized how terribly behind she was in all her classes. She hadn¡¯t gotten any sleep the previous night, imagining all the possibilities of punishment that the Head might come up with for breaking into the Forbidden Room. A gut feeling told her that the hidden dungeon full of scorpions and snakes might not be merely a story to scare children, after seeing that horrid expression on the Head¡¯s face. And she could not digest the fact that while she had been away, the Elders had moved ahead and actually stricken Syaoran¡¯s name from the List. That was the final straw—they were being completely unreasonable! Surely, there were greater crimes to commit to have your name removed. Just because Syaoran refused to return home didn¡¯t call for the greatest measure of punishment and disgrace under the Li Clan doctrine.

 

She had never felt this miserable and alone before, not even when she first learned of the decision to remove Syaoran as the Chosen One, not when she was attacked by the Age and locked in some cellar room with a broken ankle, not even when she was rejected by Syaoran. For the first time, she came to the realization that she was completely on her own, here in Hong Kong. Aunt Ieran, the Great Elder, Wei, all those who had been kind to her were gone. Her mother was recently treating her like a stranger—she knew that her mother was worried that Meilin, because of her rebellious streak, might get in trouble with the Clan. And Syaoran, Sakura, Kai, everyone was all back in Japan.

 

¡°Li Meilin! Li Meilin, I told you to come up to the board and solve the problem!¡± the math teacher exclaimed in frustration. Her classmates tittered.

 

¡°Hai, sumimasen sensei!¡± Meilin exclaimed. Then she shook her head, remembering she was no longer in Japan and converting back to Cantonese. ¡°Sorry.¡± She fumbled for her place in the textbook. At that moment, a cell phone began to ring.

 

The teacher¡¯s eyes narrowed. ¡°Who dared to bring a cell phone to class?¡±

 

The phone rang again. ¡°I, said, who¡¯s cell phone is it?¡± the teacher snapped.

 

Everyone began to whisper.

 

¡°It¡¯s coming from Li Meilin¡¯s direction,¡± a student pointed.

 

¡°Eh? I don¡¯t own a cell phone!¡± Meilin exclaimed frantically. ¡°I really don¡¯t.¡±

 

The teacher strode up to her desk and emptied her bag¡¯s contents on the desk. Out dropped a cell phone, light blinking as it rang. ¡°It is your cell phone! How dare you lie to me, Li Meilin? Take this thing and go to the principal¡¯s office. He shall confiscate it and give you a suitable punishment. I don¡¯t even want to deal with a student who dares to disrupt my class.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s not mine!¡± Meilin protested in vain, blocking out the gleeful laughter and mockery of the other students, glad to see Miss High-and-Mighty in trouble.

 

Grabbing her bag, stuffing all her belongings in, Meilin rushed out the classroom, feeling that clenched sensation coming over her throat again. She ran straight to the girl¡¯s bathroom, shutting the door behind her and leaning against the door. Please, someone get me out of here. Anyone.      

 

The phone began to ring again. What is this phone? It¡¯s not mine. Meilin took it out of the bag. It was a pretty double-fold design, slightly larger than the size of her two fingers, and enclosed in a metallic red case. It rang again, and Meilin flipped it open. On the color screen was an animated icon of a white parrot. She pressed send and tentatively said, ¡°H-hello.¡± It couldn¡¯t be.

 

¡°Ni hao, Mei-chan!¡± came that jovial, light-hearted voice that she had longed to hear. ¡°How have you been doing?¡±

 

¡°Kai.¡± Meilin gulped, sliding down and sitting on the cold tiled ground—Kaitou Magician, full of endless surprises, always managed to make her feel weak-kneed, popping up at unexpected moments.

 

¡°I¡¯m so insulted that you never bothered to call me all this time—I thought something happened to you. Why else do you think I slipped an international cell phone, of course designed by moi, into your bag before leaving?¡± Kai chided into the crackling phone.

 

He¡¯s joking around as usual. Voice trembling, Meilin demanded, ¡°Y-you put the cell phone in my bag? Do you know how much trouble I got into because you called me during class? Idiot.¡±

 

¡°You didn¡¯t even discover it until today?¡± Kai asked in surprise. ¡°That¡¯s why you didn¡¯t call me for almost two weeks! That makes me feel a little better—truthfully, I was feeling a bit insulted you know.¡± He laughed heartily.

 

He doesn¡¯t even care that I got in trouble because of him. Yet, I think I finally understood what it feels like to be Mizuki Kai, in class today. Just hearing his voice his laughter, slowly dissolved the knot in her stomach, and she felt relieved, glad, less isolated, all at the same time.

 

¡°Meilin, you still there?¡±

 

¡°Yeah.¡±

 

¡°So, is it hard back in Hong Kong?¡±

 

¡°Very.¡±

 

¡°When it isn¡¯t bearable, give me a call anytime, and I¡¯ll come steal you away,¡± Kai stated.

 

¡°Another excuse to kidnap me? Don¡¯t worry.¡± Meilin smiled. ¡°It¡¯s bearable.¡± Was Kai truly worried about me? ¡°Kai, have you been skipping class again?¡±

 

¡°Maybe,¡± he replied flippantly. ¡°But you are too.¡±

 

True, he had a point. Shaking her head, Meilin asked, ¡°Where are you right now?¡± That boy was impossible—she didn¡¯t have the energy to scold him anymore.

 

¡°Up somewhere high,¡± Kai replied. ¡°I like high places, far from people; it gives me a sense of security, looking down below.¡±

 

¡°And your health? The bullet¡¦¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right now,¡± Kai said shortly. ¡°Oh, and you must be worried about Syaoran¡¦ you¡¯re probably forbidden to call him, right? Well, you won¡¯t believe what he¡¯s been up to lately. He and the four-eyed freak had a duel, and you won¡¯t believe it.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran won?¡±

 

¡°How did you know? Anyway, it was quite a sight, seeing that creepy magician turned to seed sprawled on his back, knocked out. Syao-kun¡¯s my new hero!¡±

 

¡°Why do you hate Eriol-kun so much—he¡¯s done so much for you family,¡± Meilin commented. She had already figured out why, yet she wondered if Kai had.

 

¡°I don¡¯t like his hairstyle,¡± Kai joked.

 

¡°Kai¡¦ Is anything wrong?¡± Meilin asked. Yes, there was something definitely wrong, even though he was so cheerful on the phone.

 

Seductively low-voiced, he murmured, ¡°You could tell, ma chère? I passionately miss you, Mei-chan.¡±

 

¡°Oh shut up. Hang up now—international wireless fees are expensive.¡± Why do I blush even though I know he¡¯s joking.

 

¡°I¡¯ll hang up if you tell me that you miss me too,¡± Kai insisted.

 

¡°I¡¯m really hanging up.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re so cold.¡± Kai smiled lopsided. What was he doing, sitting up on a high mountain, away from all the people, going through the trouble of setting up an antenna to catch the satellite signals, and calling a girl in Hong Kong who had enough troubles on her own? Sometimes, he realized how foolish he could be, and it made him want to stay up in the mountains forever and forget about everything. ¡°Well, if you ever need me, or just someone to talk to, call this number at any time. You¡¯re the only one who has it. And I¡¯m the only number saved on your phone. Press the 1 button and send. We must give each other moral support during hard times, don¡¯t you think?¡± She¡¯s going to scold me again probably for talking nonsense.

 

Instead, Meilin said softly, ¡°Thank you.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Kai looked at Perro-chan, perched on his shoulder questioningly.

 

¡°Arigato, arigato,¡± chirped the parrot.

 

¡°Nothing!¡± She turned wine-colored. ¡°Bye.¡± She hung up. Tracing the lines of cell phone, designed to her preferences, Meilin thought, Yes, things were a little more bearable now.  

 

******

 

Back in Japan¡¦

 

Saturday afternoon was duty at the orphanage again. Sakura didn¡¯t even mind having to work by Eron anymore. She found at least at the orphanage, Eron knew what he was doing and finished his work efficiently. The children were rather intimidated by him, but he wasn¡¯t particularly mean nor cruel to them.

 

¡°Kaijou-nee-chan!¡± Subaru shouted gleefully, running up to Sakura. Then, he scowled. ¡°You didn¡¯t come for so long. I thought you forgot about me.¡±

 

¡°Sorry Su-chan,¡± Sakura said, patting the five-year-old boy¡¯s head. ¡°How have things been?¡±

 

¡°Boring,¡± Subaru replied, pouting. ¡°And there¡¯s a new baby here—it goes wah, wah all the time. It¡¯s so noisy, it¡¯s impossible to have any silence. I hate the baby.¡±

 

Even as he said this, they could hear the wailing of a baby from the bathroom.

 

¡°There, there, don¡¯t cry now, Moeko-chan,¡± Yukito said, rocking the freshly bathed baby in his arms.

 

¡°Yukito-san!¡± Sakura exclaimed. She peered at the baby¡¯s scrunched up face. It was drooling over Yukito¡¯s cream-colored shirt, not that he minded.

 

¡°Here, can you put Moeko-chan to sleep?¡± Yukito said, handing Sakura the baby wrapped in a faded pink blanket. ¡°It¡¯s her naptime. Besides, she¡¯s been crying all day, and the other children are getting cranky because their nap time has been interrupted.¡±

 

Carefully cradling the baby in her arms, Sakura gazed up at Yukito. ¡°Yukito-san, you spend a lot of time at the orphanage, don¡¯t you?¡±

 

Smiling, Yukito replied, ¡°Well, I have a soft spot for children. Having grown up without parents myself, I want to do the most I can for these children, who weren¡¯t as lucky as me to have kind, caring grandparents. Unlike Touya, I pursued med school with an interest leaning towards the line of pediatrics.¡±

 

¡°That suits you very well, Yukito-san. You will be a wonderful pediatrician,¡± Sakura said. Yes, children would forget that they are sick when with Yukito-san, who had the gentleness which could soothe and heal anyone. They were interrupted by a thud and a shriek.

 

¡°Tsukishiro-san! Tsukishiro-san! Thank goodness you¡¯re here. One of the boys fell outside and scraped his knee!¡± Yuri called out.

 

¡°Well, duty calls,¡± Yukito said, grabbing his first-aid kid.

 

When Yukito left, the baby, Moeko, began bawling again. Her diaper was freshly changed, and she already had her meal, so Sakura cooed at the baby helplessly. ¡°Don¡¯t cry, Moe-chan. What¡¯s wrong? Do you want me to sing you a lullaby?¡±

 

¡°WAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!¡± Baby Moeko bawled, water dripping out her eyes, nose, and mouth. Carefully, Sakura dabbed the baby¡¯s face with a bib.

 

¡°You should just leave the baby alone,¡± Eron said, coming up from behind her and setting down a stack of freshly folded laundry. ¡°That¡¯s the best way to cure babies from that nasty habit—lie them down somewhere and let them cry out all they want. Eventually, they will tire themselves from all that screaming and become quiet on their own accord.¡±

 

Squeezing the baby closer to her, Sakura replied, ¡°That¡¯s plain cruel.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s sensible, especially in such a place where attention can¡¯t be focused on one individual all the time. If you always hold it and humor it when it cries, it just becomes more dependant on you and will cry even more when you leave,¡± Eron said curtly. ¡°Let it cry all it wants, and don¡¯t pat any attention to it. It¡¯s for the better, later on.¡±

 

¡°I refuse to believe that,¡± Sakura said, gently rocking Moeko back and forth in her arms. Sighing, Eron walked off to the kitchen. The baby¡¯s eyes grew heavier as Sakura hummed a little lullaby. Soon, she fell asleep in Sakura¡¯s warm arms.

 

******

 

Sunday morning came.

 

Touya and Yukito, both early risers, sat at the kitchen table in the Kinomoto residence. Yukito had just devoured five plates of omelet and drank 7 cups of freshly squeezed orange juice.

 

Leaning his chin against his hand, Touya said flatly, ¡°Yuki.¡±

 

¡°Yes?¡± Yukito attacked a plateful of scrambled eggs.

 

¡°Are you sure you¡¯re a med student? Egg has high cholesterol—it¡¯s bad for you,¡± Touya commented. ¡°Three eggs per omelet, and you ate five. Fifteen eggs one morning is a lot you know.¡±

 

¡°But being hungry is worse for me,¡± Yukito replied, gulping down a glass of water to finish the meal off. ¡°Egg whites have lots of protein, anyway—all 23 amino acids.¡±

 

¡°Yuki.¡± Touya sighed.

 

¡°Yes?¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s that thing doing here?¡± Touya glared at the chubby baby sitting in a highchair (Sakura¡¯s old one) next to Yukito.

 

¡°It¡¯s a baby,¡± Yukito said, watch the baby, who had finished a bottle of warm milk and had thrown in on the ground in a tantrum.

 

¡°I can see that,¡± Touya grumbled. ¡°I¡¯m asking, what are you doing with a baby?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s Moeko-chan, from the orphanage!¡± Yukito replied. ¡°The children have their monthly excursion trip today, to the zoo, and they couldn¡¯t bring her along. Yet, there was nobody to take care of her, so I volunteered to watch her for today.¡±

 

¡°Yuki.¡± Touya stared at the baby, who was blowing raspberries at him. ¡°You know there¡¯s a pre-med seminar on campus today, right?¡±

 

Blinking his honey colored eyes several times, Yukito smiled sheepishly. ¡°I forgot.¡±

 

¡°Well, then, you can¡¯t bring the baby along. What are you going to do?¡± Touya asked, standing up and clearing the dishes. ¡°Too bad outo-san has a guest lecture today—he loves children to pieces.¡± Then a wicked gleam came over his eyes. ¡°Hey, you can get Sakura to look after Momo-chan today. Kaijou doesn¡¯t have any plans on Sundays.¡±

 

¡°Moeko-chan,¡± Yukito corrected. He brightened. ¡°That¡¯s a good idea. Moeko-chan got attached to Sakura yesterday—she cried so much when it was time for Sakura to leave.¡±

 

As if on cue, there came a stomping down the staircase, and Sakura ran into the kitchen, still in her pajamas and hair sticking out in all directions. ¡°I¡¯m late, I¡¯m late!¡± She opened the refrigerator and took out a carton of milk, drinking straight out of it the sticking it back in.

 

¡°Kaijou!¡± Touya shouted, sticking out a foot, causing Sakura to trip.

 

Sakura almost fell flat on her face, but was saved by Yukito.

 

¡°Yukito-san!¡± Sakura exclaimed, turning crimson as Yukito steadied her. Desperately, she tried to flatten out her hair. ¡°You¡¯re here early!¡±

 

¡°WAHHHHHHHH!!!¡± The baby began bawling.

 

¡°Hoe? Moe-chan!¡± Sakura blinked, rubbing her eyes. Was she seeing things?¡±

 

¡°Well, about, Moeko-chan,¡± Yukito began. ¡°I need someone to look after her for today—I have a seminar to attend this afternoon.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry Yukito-san! I¡¯ll take care of Moe-chan!¡± Sakura volunteered enthusiastically, before thinking twice.

 

¡°Thanks Sakura! I¡¯ll buy you dinner next time!¡± Yukito replied, just as enthusiastically.

 

¡°Great!¡± Touya exclaimed, most enthusiastic of all. Hehe... Beware, Brat! ¡°Let¡¯s go, Yuki—we should get to campus earlier and help with set-up.¡±

 

******

 

Tapping his foot impatiently, Syaoran watched down the street for Sakura. He had been standing in front of the popular Piffle Princess store for too long, and was tired of having female students glance his way with muffled giggles. Once more, he checked in his right pocket for two movie tickets for 10:45 AM. He had carefully thought over what normal couples would do on a date, and this was the best answer he could come up with. But they¡¯ll be late for the movie at this rate!

 

Running full speed, baby in arm, diaper bag slung over one shoulder, bed-hair still in place, Sakura almost zoomed past Syaoran and had to retrace her steps. ¡°Sorry Syaoran!¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re late again!¡± Syaoran barked.

 

¡°I¡¯m only 5 minutes late!¡± retorted Sakura.

 

¡°No, it¡¯s 15 past.¡± Syaoran scowled.

 

¡°How do you know? You don¡¯t even have a watch on!¡±

 

¡°I just know. My mental clock is never wrong,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°Let¡¯s go now.¡±

 

¡°Um, you see¡¦¡± Sakura paused, smoothing her carelessly braided hair with one hand. She had a new outfit planned out to wear today, but instead was suck wearing an old pink jumper under a matching cardigan.

 

Quick enough, Syaoran realized that Sakura was carrying a large package of some sort and had an unbecomingly large bag slung over her shoulder. ¡°What is that thing?¡±

 

¡°Eh, well...¡± Sakura began, turning pink. He definitely would not forgive her a second time. She really wanted to wear her pretty new sweater and skirt, but¡¦

 

The baby began to wail again.

 

 

 

¡°WHAT! ARE YOU AN IDIOT! YOU VOLUNTEERED TO LOOK AFTER THAT BABY, WHEN YOU KNEW THAT YOU WERE MEETING ME TODAY?¡± Syaoran shouted, when he finally heard Sakura¡¯s feeble excuse.

 

¡°But, there was no one else to take care of Moe-chan,¡± Sakura said. ¡°And the children at the orphanage really wanted to go to the zoo—they¡¯ve been waiting all month.¡±

 

¡°So, you think you can just bring a baby along? This isn¡¯t the first time—last time you brought about Subaru, and the time before that, you came along as a baby yourself. Are you trying to joke with me?¡± Syaoran paused for breath, fiercely scowling at the howling baby, attracting more and more attention from by-passers.

 

¡°That should be illegal,¡± an old woman clucked to her friend. ¡°Kids raising a child—parents are so young these days.¡±

 

¡°Poor girl—the father¡¯s no good,¡± the other woman replied, shaking her head. ¡°Single mothers have it so hard in this world.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s not our baby!¡± Syaoran shouted.

 

¡°Well, what should we do?¡± Sakura said, looking up at Syaoran meekly. ¡°We can meet again next time.¡±

 

¡°No way!¡± Syaoran exclaimed. ¡°We¡¯ll just have to bring the baby along. To the movies.¡±

 

¡°Is that okay?¡±

 

¡°We don¡¯t have a choice, do we?¡±

 

¡°Thanks, Syaoran!¡± Sakura smiled brightly.

 

Syaoran¡¯s ears reddened as he looked down at his feet. ¡°Well, I already bought movies tickets so¡¦¡±

 

¡°Movie! Really? Hurry, let¡¯s go!¡±

 

 

 

Right in time for the movie to begin, Sakura and Syaoran sat down in mid-row seats, a carton of popcorn to share between them and sleeping baby on Sakura¡¯s lap, diaper bag on Syaoran¡¯s.

 

Thank goodness Moeko fell a sleep. Sakura nibbled on a kernel of popcorn. Thinking about it, this is the first I¡¯ve been alone to the movies with Syaoran. All around her were couples, girls leaning against their boyfriend¡¯s shoulder, holding hands, sharing drinks. Does this count as a date? I did bring along the baby, but still, when a boy and a girl are alone together, outside of school, doesn¡¯t that count as a date?

 

Sipping on the coke, Syaoran waited impatiently for the movie to begin. Was he supposed to hold her hands, or what? He¡¯d never been to the movies alone with a girl before. Actually, he didn¡¯t even like going to movie theaters. Yet, girls liked these kind of things. Besides, he could never forget Eron and Sakura¡¯s ¡®date¡¯ that spring at the movie theater.

 

¡°The movie¡¯s beginning!¡± Sakura exclaimed. ¡°I wonder what kind of movie it is. I haven¡¯t been in the theaters for so long!¡±

 

¡°Not since the time you stood me up for ten hours,¡± Syaoran muttered under his breath.

 

¡°Oh yeah! It was an Akagi Arima movie then—a romantic comedy. She¡¯s so beautiful and a great actress,¡± Sakura said, grabbing another mouthful of popcorn. ¡°Why aren¡¯t you eating any? I love caramel popcorn.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s a relief,¡± Syaoran said, glancing sideways at Sakura. She¡¯s back to normal again.

 

¡°Hoe?¡±

 

Their conversation was interrupted by a man sitting behind them who shushed them. Quietly, they began to watch the screen. Soon, Sakura had ceased to eat popcorn and was frozen in her seat as eerie music drifted through the theater.

 

After a scene of a bloody murder and chopping off of limbs, the next scene proceeded to a dark school corridor. Haunting music played in the background. The heroine walked hesitantly down the hallway, her footsteps echoing hollowly. She paused, then looked around her. Finding no one, she continued to walk. Then, out of the ceiling popped out a bloody head.

 

¡°AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!¡± Sakura screamed, clenching Syaoran¡¯s hand so hard that it went limp. 

 

People around her glared at her for screaming through important dialogue. Sakura was silent for five more minutes, until another ghost scene ensued, this time with dozens of decapitated women floating around the school. This time, she screamed the roof off the theater.

 

At this, Moeko awoke from her nap and began screaming also.

 

¡°Sorry, Moe-chan,¡± Sakura whispered, regaining her senses, fumbling in the diaper bag for the bottle though she was scared out of her mind—any excuse to look away from the screen.

 

¡°Watch out!¡± Syaoran exclaimed.

 

It was too late—Sakura had already knocked over the carton of popcorn all over the ground.

 

¡°WAH!!! WAHHHHHHHHHHH!!! WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!¡± Moeko was crying even harder now as a high-pitched creepy tune blasted out from the movie.

 

¡°Shhh!!!¡± The movie watchers all said in unison.

 

¡°Sorry, sorry,¡± Sakura whispered, bowing her head in embarrassment, trying to muffle the baby.

 

Without surprise, Syaoran, Sakura and the baby were immediately kicked out from the theater by the usher. Luckily, neither Sakura and Syaoran had much regrets.

 

As they walked out of the theater, much subdued, Syaoran grumbled, ¡°We¡¯ll never be allowed back in that theater again—and I didn¡¯t even do anything.¡±

 

¡°You never told me we were watching a horror film!¡± Sakura retorted in indignation. She sniffled. Moeko was quietly sucking on her bottle now. ¡°That was just plain mean of you!¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t know it was going to be a scary movie,¡± Syaoran said, shoving his hands in his pocket. Great job, Syaoran, choosing a horror film out of all the movies out there. ¡°I just bought tickets for the Box Office #1 movie—who knew it would be a horror film?¡±

 

Shuddering, Sakura said, ¡°That was the scariest thing I¡¯ve ever scene in my life.¡±

 

¡°Oh. You haven¡¯t seen the Great Elder in one of his rages,¡± Syaoran muttered. ¡°Well then, let¡¯s go eat lunch. Though I doubt you have any appetite after seeing that thing.¡±

 

Brightening, Sakura said, ¡°I didn¡¯t eat breakfast today! I¡¯m starving!¡±

 

¡°After eating all that popcorn?¡± Syaoran raised an eyebrow.

 

 

 

Having long since recovered from the unnerving movie, Sakura and Syaoran ate an early lunch at a small café, noted for its sweet deserts and popular among Tomoeda students

.

¡°I¡¯m so full!¡± Sakura exclaimed, leaning back in the booth. Spending time with Syaoran undeniably meant good food.

 

¡°Boo boo!¡± Moeko squealed, throwing her empty bottle on the ground from her highchair.

 

¡°That¡¯s the tenth time you¡¯ve done this during the meal,¡± Syaoran sighed, picking up the bottle and handing it back to the baby, who immediately threw it back down, bonking Syaoran on the head. ¡°And I thought taking care of that boy, Subaru, was difficult.¡±

 

Sakura laughed delightedly—apparently, she thought it was cute.

 

¡°You have room for the chocolate cake we ordered, don¡¯t you?¡± Syaoran asked, rubbing his head and sticking the bottle back in the bag. Demonic baby.

 

¡°Chocolate cake!¡± Out of the diaper bag popped out an over-excited Kero-chan, knocking aside the bottle. ¡°You can¡¯t eat chocolate cake without me!¡±

 

¡°Kero-chan!¡± Sakura gulped in dismay—Syaoran was really going to be furious. ¡°What are you doing here? And go back inside the bag—someone might see you!¡±

 

¡°There¡¯s no one around us,¡± Kero-chan exclaimed. ¡°I knew it was a good idea to follow you.¡± Clearing his throat, he corrected himself. ¡°I mean, not for the chocolate cake, but to fulfill my role as your Guardian, I should follow you around at all times, especially after what happened last time.¡±

 

¡°Great, just great,¡± Syaoran muttered under his breath, sinking into his chair. ¡°This day is full of many wonderful surprises. Could it get any better?¡±

 

¡°Sorry, Syaoran,¡± Sakura said apologetically. How could things go so wrong? ¡°The check is on me, okay?¡±

 

¡°No.¡± Syaoran glared at Kero-chan, who was sipping Sakura¡¯s lemonade. ¡°Don¡¯t even think of it.¡±

 

¡°But¡¦¡±

 

¡°Well, what do you want to do for the rest of the day?¡± Syaoran asked, brightening up. After all, it was a precious Sunday with Sakura. ¡°Obviously, we can¡¯t go far, carrying that elephant of a baby around, and we should try to avoid crowds—people aren¡¯t overly fond of constantly crying babies. We can go to the park I guess. It¡¯s sunny outside, though a little bit chilly. Are you dressed warmly enough? Or we can go to the aquarium—they have a new shark exhibition. Yamazaki-kun said that there¡¯s a new ice cream parlor with a hundred flavors—even wasabi flavored.¡±

 

Sakura hid a smile. He¡¯s trying so hard. Now I feel even guiltier. It¡¯s really not often that we can spend time together like this, doing what normal teenagers do, having fun. I guess he doesn¡¯t know that it¡¯s good enough to just be beside him, without doing anything special.  

 

¡°Sakura-chan! Help me!¡± Kero-chan squealed. The baby had gotten a grip of him, thinking him to be a doll, and was now pulling his ears and tail, stretching him out in all directions.

 

¡°Bad girl, Moeko,¡± Sakura scolded, trying to pry Kero-chan away from the baby¡¯s tight clench.

 

Watching Sakura with tender eyes, Syaoran commented, ¡°You know, babies are kind of cute, after all.¡± 

 

Nodding, Sakura said, ¡°Even though its hard work, I think taking of babies really has merit—because they really need you.¡±

 

¡°Right, and they¡¯re completely helpless without you,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°They¡¯re the only truly innocent being on earth.¡±

 

The waitress brought the chocolate cake, with two forks, and set it on the table. Kero-chan froze in Moeko¡¯s arm, doll-style until the waitress left.

 

¡°Say, Syaoran.¡± Sakura looked up at Syaoran. ¡°What¡¯s it like, being the Chosen One?¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Slowly Syaoran gazed up at Sakura, then lowered his eyes again. She had never asked such a question before. He hadn¡¯t really been thinking about the matter at all lately. What were his feelings regarding that once coveted, now forsaken position?

 

¡°Well, in the beginning, it was just a dream, and as little boys envision their superhero, I thought that the Chosen One was the ideal hero of the Clan, a great, paranormal being. I grew a little older and became too busy training to think of such nonsense. It was hard work, days I don¡¯t like to recall. Leiyun¡¯s death brought back to me that dream of long ago with a rude awakening—from that point on, the position of the Chosen One became not a fantasy but a duty for me. At that point, my entire mind and body was completely focused on fine-tuning my skills to pass the test. At age ten, I was completely focused on proving that I was worthy as Chosen One. At age twelve, back in Hong Kong, I realized that being Chosen One wasn¡¯t everything in my life—that I couldn¡¯t continue to live as an obedient machine of the Clan. It¡¯s my obligation to follow orders and not ask questions—yet I found that it was becoming harder to obey without knowing the reasoning behind a command.¡±

 

¡°And right now?¡± Sakura prodded.

 

¡°Right now?¡± Syaoran laughed shortly. ¡°I used to be an idiotic soldier at the disposal of the Elders. Now, I¡¯m just an idiotic soldier at your disposal.¡±

 

His words were drowned out by a shriek. ¡°Kero-chan! How could you finish the cake all by yourself so quickly?¡± Sakura demanded in reproachfully, pointing at the empty dish with stains of chocolate and a piece of leftover chocolate decoration.

 

¡°Yummy! That was delicious!¡± Kero-chan smacked his stained lips.

 

¡°Yum yum!¡± Moeko repeated. Chocolate streaked her cheek.

 

¡°Moe-chan, you too?¡± Sakura asked, wiping Moeko¡¯s face with the bib.

    

Sighing, Sakura turned back to Syaoran. She had to get to the point instead of evading the most important question. ¡°Syaoran¡¦ Is it really okay for you to stay in Japan?¡±

 

¡°I told you before that it¡¯s fine,¡± Syaoran replied shortly. He thought this was already final. So this was the point she was driving at.

 

¡°Are you sure¡¦ that it doesn¡¯t jeopardize your position as the Chosen One?¡±

 

¡°Did Meilin tell you that?¡± Syaoran asked sharply.

 

Taken back by Syaoran¡¯s edginess, Sakura said, ¡°No, nobody said anything. It¡¯s just that, from what you¡¯ve told me before about the Li Clan, I always thought that the Chosen One had to obey the Elders at risk of their position. The Elders called you back, but you said it¡¯s fine to stay here. I was a bit confused. You told me before that the Chosen One cannot disobey the Elders, having sworn your life to the Clan by accepting the title.¡±

 

That scared me for a minute—I thought she figured out that I¡¯ve officially been demoted as Chosen One. Still, I can¡¯t let her even suspect. She¡¯ll surely throw a fuss if she finds out. Regaining composure, Syaoran managed to reply lightly, ¡°You¡¯re wrong. The Elders were just calling me back on a whim—they¡¯ve been threatening me for months now. You know that. It¡¯s okay. Fighting the Dark Ones is more important. Back home, they¡¯ll probably just send me on a stupid mission to gather some rare magical herb or something.¡±

 

Clenching her hands in a tight fist underneath the table, Sakura, lashes downcast said forcedly, ¡°Syaoran¡¦ You can go back to Hong Kong you know. I have things under control here. I can manage fine on my own.¡± She remained silent, waiting for his answer. ¡°Don¡¯t feel obligated to stay because of me.¡±

 

Kero-chan stared up at Sakura with bulging eyes. Even the baby had sense to remain quiet.

 

Finally, he managed to reply. ¡°Stop kidding around.¡± Syaoran looked up at Sakura¡¯s downcast eyes; it was impossible to decipher her mind. He should be thankful that she was being so considerate, but it hurt more than he had expected, her telling him to go, formally giving him permission to leave. Stating with her own lips that she didn¡¯t need him.

 

¡°I¡¯m not kidding. The Elders wanted you back for ages now—after all, you ran away from home, didn¡¯t you? You¡¯ve been here for over a year, and you really should go check on things back in Hong Kong. That¡¯s the right thing to do.¡± Sakura waited for Syaoran¡¯s response. Of course he¡¯ll return. It makes sense. He won¡¯t be gone forever or anything. He just needs to appease the Elders and take care of a long list of neglected jobs in Hong Kong. I can¡¯t stop him—he thinks he can¡¯t leave me alone with the Dark Ones, but it¡¯s not like I can¡¯t handle things on my own. Besides, I have powerful allies also. I don¡¯t want Syaoran getting in trouble with his family because of me. I¡¯m the only one who can make him leave, so I have to let him go.

 

For a second, Syaoran remained wordless. Was Sakura speaking because of an obligation to let him go, a simple whim, or truly because she believed he was a hindrance to her, as Eriol said? In the end, this is still purely my decision.

 

¡°Syaoran.¡± Why wouldn¡¯t he speak?

 

Then Syaoran grinned, flicking Sakura on the forehead with his finger. ¡°No way. I¡¯m not returning—it¡¯s a waste of money buying roundtrip tickets. (I¡¯m broke, anyway.) It¡¯s much more convenient for me to stay here, even though winters are warmer back in Hong Kong.¡±

 

Rubbing her forehead, Sakura said, ¡°But¡¦¡±

 

¡°How can I make it any plainer? I¡¯m staying here; I don¡¯t need to go back to Hong Kong,¡± Syaoran spelled out slowly. ¡°You can¡¯t make me.¡±

 

Without having realized how nervous she had been, Syaoran¡¯s confident words lifted a great load of Sakura¡¯s heart. How can I tell him to go, when I was selfishly begging with everything in my heart for him to stay? ¡°Are you serious?¡±

 

Smiling warmly, Syaoran said, ¡°This is my home now.¡±

 

Unbeknownst to her, tears of silent joy and relief blurred her eyes. She ducked her head over, pretending to fiddle with Moeko¡¯s bib.

 

Kero-chan burped, interrupting the two again. ¡°Sakura-chan, I don¡¯t feel good.¡±

 

¡°You ate too much cake, too quickly,¡± Sakura said crossly, for the first time realizing how difficult it was to spend some time with Syaoran, alone.

 

¡°No, not like that,¡± Kero-chan moaned, clutching his stomach. ¡°It¡¯s not indigestion or anything—I just feel really sick.¡±

 

¡°He deserves it,¡± Syaoran muttered.

 

Sakura agreed. Kero-chan, though she loved him, was undeniably a gluttonous pig.

 

¡°I promise not to steal your cake again,¡± Kero-chan groaned. ¡°I feel sick all over, feverish but cold, dizzy.¡±

 

Realizing that Kero-chan seemed rather greenish tinted, Sakura exclaimed, ¡°Something¡¯s really wrong with him! Is it food-poisoning?¡±

 

¡°I still think it¡¯s just indigestion,¡± Syaoran said flatly.

 

¡°Boo boo!¡± Moeko screamed, reaching over and grabbing a fistful of Syaoran¡¯s hair.

 

¡°Ow.¡±

 

¡°Moeko-chan, are you feeling sick too?¡± Sakura asked, bending over the highchair, dismayed. The baby skin looked rather pasty and pale but maybe she had always been this way. (Little Moeko was unfortunately rather overweight).

 

Examining the remaining chocolate decoration from the cake, Syaoran sniffed it then said, ¡°Poison. I¡¯m pretty sure the cake¡¯s been poisoned.¡±

 

¡°Not bad, my good lad. Sweet is cake, as sweet as poison can make,¡± came a familiar ephemeral voice from behind him. Everyone groaned.

 

 

 

Not too far from the café that Sakura and Syaoran were eating in, Tanaka Miho came out of the bookstore. ¡°Not fair!¡± She pouted. ¡°Nakuru just left me, all alone. I shouldn¡¯t even be here—deadline¡¯s coming up and no one has turned in their articles. Akagi Aki-sempai is a jerk, making me do all the work! And Mizuki-sempai! Ooh, just wait until I see him—he¡¯s dead!¡± If people stared at her strangely for speaking to herself, she ignored them.

 

Out of the blue, she spotted a familiar spiky hairstyle, which stood out amidst the crowded street. ¡°Ah! Porcupine-head!¡± She ran up to him and slapped him on the back. ¡°Mizuki-sempai!¡±

 

Startled, Kai took off his headphones and turned around. ¡°Miho!¡± Pushing his sunglasses up, his eyes darted back and forth.

 

¡°Don¡¯t think of running away again! You¡¯ve been missing from school for a week!¡± Miho exclaimed, hands on hips. ¡°Where are the photos of the basketball game?¡±

 

¡°Basketball? What basketball game?¡±

 

¡°Ooh¡¦ I¡¯m really going to kill you, Mizuki-sempai!¡± Miho face turned scarlet.

 

¡°Say, I heard that¡¯s the ice cream store that has a hundred different flavors,¡± Kai said, pointing to a baby pink and yellow sign.

 

¡°Oh, the one Yamazaki-sempai was talking about!¡± Miho exclaimed, easily distracted. ¡°Wow, he wasn¡¯t lying this time. Look at the line outside!¡±

 

¡°Come, let¡¯s go check it out,¡± Kai said, dragging Miho along, temporarily saved.

 

Staring in rapture at the rows of different flavors of all different colors and texture inside the store, Miho murmured, ¡°There are so many ice cream flavors¡¦ Marshmallow Heaven, Diamond Dewdrop, Turnip, Peach Soda, Snow and Ice, Sweet Potato, Citrus Splash. Eh, Green Wasabi? (Ew!) Hmm¡¦ what should I get?¡±

 

Having reached the counter, Kai ordered, fishing out his black leather wallet. ¡°Let¡¯s see, Orangeorama Creamy Whirlpool, double-scoop, sugar cone for our ohime-sama, and single scoop, Lemon Blizzard, single-scoop, waffle cone for me.¡±

 

Leaving the store happily licking her rapidly melting orange-flavored ice cream, Miho exclaimed, ¡°Mmm¡¦ This is so good! The best!¡± She had long forgotten being mad at Kai.

 

Kai had already finished his cone and watched Miho tackle hers, dripping melted ice cream over her hands and smearing over her face. He handed her a handkerchief, of course black silk.


¡±Eh? Is it clean?¡± Miho asked, taking the last bite of her cone and taking the handkerchief, wiping her sticky mouth and hands. Even his handkerchief smelled faintly of his fresh cologne.

 

¡°Meilin washed it before leaving, so it should be,¡± Kai muttered under his breath.

 

Not listening, Miho pointed urgently. ¡°What that? Isn¡¯t that the Riddle?¡± she exclaimed, catching sight of a glimmering Sphinx-like beast loitering outside a café, carefully hiding behind a trashcan. ¡°That¡¯s definitely the Riddle!¡± She ran towards it, full-speed. It had disappeared already—no, it had entered the café!

 

¡°Isn¡¯t that Miho-chan?¡± Sakura exclaimed, looking up, behind the Riddle. ¡°And Kai-kun, too—I was wondering where he disappeared to for the past week.¡±

 

¡°You guys are here too?¡± Miho blinked. ¡°Another baby?¡±

 

¡°Moeko-chan, from the orphanage—I¡¯m babysitting today, again,¡± Sakura explained.

 

¡°Miho-chan,¡± Kero-chan wailed. ¡°I¡¯m dying.¡±

 

¡°Kero-chan!¡± Miho glanced around—nobody was sitting near. ¡°What happened?¡±

 

¡°The cake was poisoned, and he ate it. We think the baby might have too,¡± Syaoran said. Then he gaped. ¡°Kai! Did you just eat that remaining piece of chocolate?¡±

 

¡°Yeah,¡± Kai replied nonchalantly, licking his fingers. ¡°Mmm¡¦ Good. Why, is something wrong?¡±

 

¡°Are you listening? It¡¯s been poisoned!¡± Syaoran sighed in despair.

 

¡°It¡¯s okay,¡± Kai reassured, smiling.

 

¡°It¡¯s not okay!¡± Sakura replied. Was it a dark force? ¡°You¡¯ve been poisoned!¡±

 

¡°Really, I¡¯m fine. I developed immunity poisoning long ago,¡± Kai replied.

 

¡°And how could you develop that?¡± Syaoran asked sarcastically. ¡°From drinking spoiled milk and eating moldy bread all the time?¡±

 

¡°No, special training of course,¡± Kai said. He made a face. ¡°Horrible—had stomach cramps, headaches and felt nauseous all the time. But it paid off later on.¡±

 

¡°Where in the world do you receive poison immunity training,¡± Miho pondered. She clapped her hands together. ¡°I see, Mizuki-sempai, did you go to military school before you transferred here?¡±

 

¡°Err¡¦¡± Kai shifted uncomfortably. ¡°Well, anyway, aren¡¯t you guys going to find an antidote for Kero-chan? What kind of poison is it anyway?¡±

 

The Riddle, sitting quietly on the table till now raised its head and said smugly, ¡°Thought you would never ask, the process in order to fulfill you task:

 

¡°A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear

As will disperse itself through all the veins

That the life-weary taker may fall dead,

And that the trunk may be discharged of breath

As violently as hasty powder fired

Doth hurry from the fatal cannon¡¯s womb.¡±

 

Turning pale, Kero-chan squeaked, ¡°Violently¡¦ fall dead?¡±

 

¡°What does that mean?¡± Sakura asked, frowning.

 

¡°I think the Riddle¡¯s giving us a hint on what kind of poison it is,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°What kind is it?¡± Sakura scrunched up her face to make sense out of the Riddle¡¯s riddle.

 

¡°How should I know?¡± Syaoran scowled. He turned to Kai—surely a former criminal knew about these kind of things. Kai shrugged.

 

¡°Trunk discharged of breath,¡± Kero-chan moaned, raising his paw up dramatically. ¡°Sakura-chan. You were a great Card Mistress. I was honored to be your guardian, and shall cherish our memories together till this poison disperses itself in my veins.¡±

 

¡°Kero-chan!¡± Sakura said tearfully clasping his paw with both hands. ¡°You¡¯re not going to die! We¡¯ll save you, Kero-chan.¡±

 

Turning to Syaoran, Kero-chan continued, in a fainter voice, ¡°Dear Brat. You were annoying and obnoxious, but you were still useful at times; I¡¯ll admit that¡¦ Ah, I¡¯m falling short of breath. I think that I, life-weary, will fall dea—¡°

 

¡°Kero-chan! Hang on a little longer. We¡¯ll solve this Riddle and find you a cure!¡± Sakura exclaimed.

 

Perking up, Kero-chan said, teary-eyed, ¡°Sakura-chan.¡±

 

¡°We don¡¯t have any lead,¡± Syaoran interrupted.

 

Before Kero-chan could start up his dying speech again, Miho said, ¡°Oh just shut up all of you for a second. Let me think.¡±

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura turned to Miho hopefully. ¡°Then did you decipher this riddle?¡±

 

Surprising them all, Miho, arms crossed, stated, ¡°Of course. Didn¡¯t you guys ever read Shakespeare? I¡¯ve been telling you to ever since summer. Shame on you, after having been in the Star-Crossed production, based of William Shakespeare¡¯s classic, Romeo and Juliet!¡±

 

¡°What does that have to do with anything?¡± Syaoran asked impatiently. ¡°We¡¯re trying to solve the Riddle—we don¡¯t have time for Shakespeare or whatever.¡±

 

¡°Listen. A dram of poison¡¦ those are Romeo¡¯s lines as he asks the apothecary for a poison to commit suicide with at Juliet¡¯s graveside, upon hearing about her death, of course being misinformed,¡± Miho replied. ¡°And according to stories, the poison which quickly brought Romeo to an end, was foxglove.¡±

 

¡°Foxglove?¡± Sakura glanced at Syaoran, clueless.

 

¡°Foxglove, foxglove¡¦ Where have I heard that before?¡± Kai stroked his chin. He rather enjoyed deciphering codes. ¡°Oh, you mean digitalis purpurea! Yes, that makes sense.¡±

 

¡°Eh, what¡¯s digitalis?¡± Miho asked. ¡°I said, it¡¯s foxglove—the flower supposedly looks like fingers stuck to a stem.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s the scientific name for foxglove,¡± Syaoran said slowly. Knowing Shakespeare wouldn¡¯t¡¯ have helped much, anyway. ¡°I remember now—I¡¯ve heard about it from the Clan Healer.¡±

 

¡°Is there an antidote?¡± Sakura questioned doubtfully. ¡°To this foxglove or digi-whatsit poisoning.¡±

 

Purring, the Riddle flicked its tail, and answered in its silky musical voice:

 

¡°Take thou this vial, being then in bed,

And this distilling liquor drink thou off,

When presently through all they veins shall run

A cold and drowsy humor; for no pulse

Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;

No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest;

The roses in they lips and cheek shall fade

To wanny ashes, they eyes¡¯ windows fall

Like death when he shuts up the day of life;

Each part, deprived of supple government,

Shall, stiff and stark and cold, appear like death.¡±

 

¡°Eh, that sounds even worse!¡± Kero-chan despaired.

 

¡°Really, I didn¡¯t understand much of it, but it seems like the Riddle is talking about another poison, not a cure for the other one,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°Miho-chan, is this a part of Romeo and Juliet too?¡± asked Sakura, wishing she had taken the time to read the full Shakespeare play when she had auditioned for Juliet.

 

¡°Hmm¡¦¡± Miho paused, trying to recall everything she learned in British Literature class, back in England. Maybe she shouldn¡¯t have sounded so self-assured. ¡°These are Friar Lawrence¡¯s lines, as he gives the sleep-inducing poison to Juliet, which would make her appear dead so that she can escape her wedding with Paris.¡±

 

¡°What kind of poison was that?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Wait, I¡¯m trying to think.¡± Miho wrinkled her nose in concentration. ¡°Bell¡¦bella¡¦ something Italian. Meaning beautiful woman.

 

¡°Belladonna?¡± Kai suggested, his knowledge of Romantic languages being rather extensive.

 

Miho snapped her fingers. ¡°That¡¯s it! Juliet¡¯s death-faking drug has been identified as belladonna.¡±

 

¡°So, it¡¯s another poison,¡± Sakura said. ¡°But how will that cure Kero-chan?¡±

 

Nodding, Kai said, ¡°No, it makes sense—oftentimes deadly poisons contain antidotes for other deadly poisons. Belladonna is also called the deadly nightshade, or in scientific terms, atropa belladonna. This plant has an important extract in it, atropine, which is the antidote for digitalis poisoning.¡±

 

¡°Your knowledge on poisons is extensive, Mizuki-sempai,¡± Miho said in grudging awe.

 

¡°Your knowledge on Shakespeare is extensive too, Miho-hime,¡± replied Kai. ¡°Bleh¡¦ I¡¯m not really into literature—blabbing on and on about deep philosophical stuff that maketh no sense.¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ it¡¯s ironic how the poison Juliet drank was the antidote to Romeo¡¯s death-inducing poison,¡± Sakura commented. 

 

¡°Atropa,¡± Syaoran murmured. ¡°Atropa, the inflexible one¡¦ She¡¯s one of the three goddesses of fate in Greek mythology. The one who cuts the thread of life. It is ironic.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Sakura blinked, suddenly recalling the Star-Crossed position and their encounter with the Fates.

 

¡°Wow, Syaoran-kun has an interest in Greek classics too!¡± Miho exclaimed in jubilation.

 

¡°Ah, something I heard from one of Yamazaki-kun¡¯s stories,¡± Syaoran said weakly. ¡°Some of them are actually true.¡±

 

Grinning cheekily, the Riddle flicked its tail and disappeared, having done its duty. These group of youths were the most interesting it had met in centuries.

 

¡°Wait!¡± Miho called out. She bit her lips. The Riddle had disappeared again. ¡°I really wanted to capture the Riddle—I have questions to ask it.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s impossible for now,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°We too have been on its trail since this summer.¡±

 

¡°But since no one can come up with a riddle that the Riddle can¡¯t answer¡¦¡± Sakura sighed.

 

¡°That¡¯s all you have to do to seal the Riddle?¡± Miho asked, perking up. ¡°Come up with a riddle that the Riddle can¡¯t answer? That¡¯s easy then! We just need to use our brains a bit.¡±

 

¡°If it¡¯s so easy, you try capturing it,¡± Kero-chan said, rolling over on the table miserably. ¡°There are more important things to do right now.¡±

 

¡°Fine, I¡¯ll do it! I¡¯ll defeat the Riddle!¡± Miho announced, one foot on the table, hands on hips. ¡°Leave it to Miho-sama!¡±

 

¡°Good luck,¡± Syaoran muttered. ¡°Meanwhile, I guess we have a new dark force to tackle then.¡± Glaring at Kero-chan, Syaoran sighed. Sure, of course any date with Sakura would end with a dark force.

 

¡°Without doubt, it¡¯s the Poison,¡± Sakura said. ¡°I think it was listed in the Five Force Scroll.¡±

 

¡°Well, so we just have to find this belladonna, don¡¯t we?¡± Syaoran remarked. ¡°That shouldn¡¯t be too hard.¡±

 

¡°And where do you plan on finding the belladonna?¡± Sakura asked. Worriedly, she felt Kero-chan¡¯s forehead with two fingers—he was looking worse every second. On the contrary, Moeko seemed fine—probably, she hadn¡¯t ingested much of the cake after all. ¡°How long does it take for the foxglove poisoning to spread completely, Kai?¡±

 

¡°Well, it depends on the dosage, but from the looks of Kero-chan¡¯s current condition, I should figure he has at least a couple hours,¡± Kai replied.

 

¡°A-a few hours to live?¡± Kero-chan croaked miserably. ¡°And I never got to taste the pudding-flavored ice cream with caramel topping at the new ice cream parlor.¡±

 

¡°What I don¡¯t understand is how you didn¡¯t even figure out that the cake you were eating was poisoned by a dark force, after you claim to be the Great Golden-eyed Guardian of the Sun,¡± Miho commented frankly.

 

¡°Exactly.¡± Syaoran nodded in accordance.

 

¡°Shaddarp!¡± Kero-chan snapped.

 

¡°Let¡¯s hurry then,¡± Sakura said, scooping up Moeko from the highchair and patting her back. Moeko burped obediently Luckily, Moeko seemed fine—but you never knew. Kero-chan was a lot smaller, so it might have taken less time for it to take effect on him.. ¡°Kai-kun, is it possible for you to find a place to acquire atro¡¦atrop—that extract from belladonna, quickly? It¡¯s urgent. Syaoran and I will try to track down the dark force in the meanwhile, but I¡¯m not sure how long that will take, we need to antidote as quickly as possible.¡±

 

Crossing his arms nonchalantly, Kai replied, ¡°Now, why should I do that? Didn¡¯t I tell you before that I am not here for you to order me around? I¡¯m busy enough without bothering with tiresome tasks like this.¡±

 

¡°What?¡± Syaoran demanded with gritted teeth. He liked Kai, he really did, but once in a while, Kai could be an impossible jerk. ¡°You idiot, you ingested some of the poison yourself—you need the antidote too, not just the stuffed animal and the baby.¡±

 

¡°I told you before, it doesn¡¯t effect me. And this is your problem, not mind,¡± Kai replied flatly.

 

¡°Why, you—¡° Fist lashed out, only stopped by Sakura interfering.

 

¡°Stop it, Syaoran. It¡¯s okay.¡± She bowed her head to Kai. ¡°Sorry, I didn¡¯t mean to bother you with tiresome requests. It¡¯s just that you are very reliable, especially in such areas. But if you could tell us where we may be able to find the antidote, I will be grateful.¡±

 

¡°Eh, you won¡¯t be able to find it on your own,¡± Kai replied, shifting uncomfortably—Sakura always had a knack for making him feel like the big, evil guy in the wrong.

 

¡°Oh.¡± Sakura¡¯s face fell.

 

Bonking Kai hard on the back of the head, Miho exclaimed, ¡°Just do it, if you can! Stop being so difficult, Kai-sempai! Someone¡¯s life is at risk!¡± Without leaving him a chance to answer, she grabbed his sleeve and dragged him out of the café, calling out, ¡°Don¡¯t worry, Sakura! I¡¯ll make sure we find that belladonna or whatever. Hurry up and catch the dark force! Right, Mizuki-sempai? You¡¯re dong this!¡±

 

¡°Yes ohime-sama,¡± Kai replied wearily. ¡°Leave the antidote tracking to me.¡± 

 

******

 

Nearly an hour later, Sakura sighed, collapsing on a wooden bench in the park. Her arms were beginning to ache from holding Moeko for so long. It was a relief the baby hadn¡¯t been crying at all since lunchtime. She took out Kero-chan from her jacket pocket with her spare hand. ¡°How are you doing Kero-chan?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m¡¦ fine,¡± Kero-chan replied weakly. ¡°The world is rainbow colored. Haha¡¦ Ha¡¦¡±

 

¡°I hope Kai is having more luck than us,¡± Syaoran said, throwing the diaper bag on the bench, next to Sakura. ¡°I can¡¯t feel any dark force around us.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m so sorry Syaoran—I didn¡¯t want the day to turn out like this,¡± Sakura said. ¡°It seems like we¡¯re always just chasing after dark forces, without a moment to relax or let our guard off.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re right.¡± Syaoran leaned his head back, looking up at the sun shining in the clear sky. ¡°We really don¡¯t have the leisure to let our guard off.¡±

 

Syaoran had been wondering why Moeko had been quiet for so long, and confirming his suspicion, Moeko began to bawl again.

 

¡°I need to change her diaper,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Now?¡± What a troublesome baby. Syaoran fumbled in the bag for the extra diaper. His face fell. ¡°Uh¡¦ Sakura. There aren¡¯t any more diapers left.¡±

 

¡°Hoe!¡± Moeko was whimpering now from the discomfort.

 

¡°Wait here—I¡¯ll go to the convenience store and buy baby diapers,¡± Syaoran said. He sprinted off, into the nearest convenience store.

 

Walking through the aisles in the convenience store for baby diapers, Syaoran grumbled, ¡°Geez, what am I doing?¡± Staring at the rows and rows of diapers of varying brands and sizes, Syaoran gawped. Which one was he supposed to buy?

 

 

 

Still waiting on the bench, Sakura cooed to baby Moeko, who gurgled happily as Sakura gave her a finger to play with. ¡°Just be patient for a little longer, Moe-chan.¡±

 

¡°Baby¡¯s are so simplistic,¡± Kero-chan grumbled, hovering into the large bag to see if there was any food. If he had only a few more hours to live, he should be able to eat to his heart¡¯s content.

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ Syaoran¡¯s taking a long time,¡± Sakura commented out loud, gazing down the road. The convenience store wasn¡¯t too far away. Distracted by humoring the baby, keeping an eye on Kero-chan and waiting for Syaoran to return with diapers, she didn¡¯t notice a verdant scaly serpent snake its way around the bench and towards her ankle until she felt a sharp pain on her right ankle. Her blood felt chill for a second.

 

¡°What¡¯s wrong, Sakura-chan?¡± Kero-chan asked, tasting some baby-mush in a can then making a face. 

 

¡°It¡¯s nothing,¡± Sakura said, glancing at the ground, trying not to unsettle the baby. She thought she caught a glimpse of a long green tail of some sort, but it disappeared with a blink of an eye. Then she realized that her leg didn¡¯t merely feel cramped from sitting to long with a baby on her lap, but that her ankle was throbbing—something had bitten her. Her thoughts were interrupted by Syaoran returning.

 

¡°I didn¡¯t know what to buy,¡± Syaoran panted. ¡°I had to wait until a mother walked into the store, and I just bought the brand she picked up.¡±

 

¡°Thanks Syaoran.¡± Deftly, Sakura changed set Moeko down on the bench on her back and changed her diaper, recalling Eron¡¯s instructions.

 

With two fingers, Syaoran disposed the soiled diaper in the trashcan, making a face. ¡°Babies are really troublesome, after all.¡±

 

¡°There you go, Moe-chan! Does that feel better?¡± Sakura said, fastening Moeko¡¯s jumper again, giggling at the thought of baby Syaoran in diapers. She should use the Age card on him one of these days. ¡°You were one once, too, Li Syaoran.¡±

 

¡°Mama!¡± Moeko replied, grabbing Sakura¡¯s long braided hair.

 

¡°Nah, I think I was raised with wolves.¡± Syaoran smiled lopsided, impressed how Sakura could still appear calm and caring to the baby, even though she was panicking inside because of the Poison.

 

¡°That explains it!¡± Sakura said, looking up and rounding her eyes innocently. ¡°That¡¯s why you¡¯re like that.¡±

 

¡°Like what?¡± Syaoran demanded in alarm.

 

Glibly, Sakura listed off, ¡°Savage, lone-doggish, selfish yet ready to die for the pack¡¦¡±

 

¡°Stop! I¡¯m sorry I asked,¡± Syaoran said dejected, resembling a wolf with his tail hanging between his legs. ¡°Well, so what should we do about finding this dark force?¡±

 

¡°Kero-chan! Don¡¯t eat anything! You might make your condition worse!¡± Sakura scolded—it was too late, anyhow. ¡°You¡¯re worse than Moe-chan!¡± With a baby to take care of and a sick Kero-chan, (not to mention a sulking Syaoran), it was impossible to concentrate on finding the dark force.

 

******

 

¡°Will you stop following me around?¡± Kai snapped, trying to walk faster and shake Miho off his trail.

 

¡°No!¡± Miho ran to catch up to Kai¡¯s long strides. ¡°I¡¯m going to help you find the belladonna for Sakura-tachi.¡±

 

Stopping suddenly, resulting in Miho colliding into his back, Kai turned around and stated, ¡°I can¡¯t find it with you chasing me around like this—you¡¯re distracting me. Now go along and leave me alone.¡±

 

¡°No! After you ditch me, you¡¯re probably going to run off again and not help out Sakura,¡± Miho replied, scowling fiercely. ¡°I¡¯m not letting you go off on your own, Mizuki-sempai! Anyway, how do you plan on finding the belladonna poison, anyway? Does it grow around here? You said it¡¯s a flower that grows berries, right?¡±

 

¡°We¡¯re not looking for the plant, silly. We need to get the atropine extract—it¡¯s a special prescription drug.¡±

 

¡°Then how are you going to get it?¡± Miho persisted, craning her neck to look up at Kai, always mysterious and distant. ¡°Don¡¯t we need a doctor¡¯s signature after a check-up¡¦ Hmm¡¦ does Kero-chan need to go to the vet?¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s too much of a hassle,¡± said Kai, slamming his hand in his pocket and turning his back to Miho again and walking ahead.

 

¡°Then what are we going to do?¡± Miho blinked her coal gray eyes. ¡°Hmm, Mizuki-

sempai? Do you have a plan? Tell me! I knew it, you¡¯re trying to run away again, aren¡¯t you?¡±

 

Kai snapped. ¡°Look, I¡¯m a thief, okay? And I can¡¯t steal with you following me around.¡±

 

Digesting his words, Miho stared at him blankly. Then she through her head back and laughed out loud. ¡°Good one, Mizuki-sempai! And I¡¯m a detective! So I¡¯m following you. Lead the way!¡±

 

In frustration, Kai demanded, ¡°Why are you so thick-skinned? Don¡¯t you get it? You¡¯re annoying! You¡¯re in my way!¡± Finding Miho completely silent, he paused, afraid to look at her face.

 

Lips quivering, Miho asked, ¡°Why do you hate me so much, Mizuki-sempai?¡± Her face was unnaturally flushed.

 

Again pushing up the bridge of his shades, Kai glanced aside.

 

In a forcibly teasing tone, she said, ¡°Don¡¯t tell me you hold a grudge because I¡¯m always badgering you for the layouts, Mizuki-sempai! How unmanly! It is your fault for being so irresponsible! That¡¯s why, it¡¯s up to Tanaka Miho to find the antidote!¡±

 

As she was saying this, Kai had already dashed off into the crowed. She chased after him, but in vain. How could anyone be so fast on his feet? ¡°Mizuki-sempai! Mizuki-sempai, where did you go?¡± She stamped her foot in frustration. ¡°Ooh, meanie! He left without me!¡±

 

******

 

Lacking a better plan, Sakura and Syaoran stayed in the park, sitting next to each other on the wooden bench in the park. They thought it best to stay in one spot and feel for the dark forces aura—running around from place to place wasn¡¯t particularly effective, especially carrying around a baby. Besides, Kero-chan was now in no condition to move. His latest symptoms were hallucinations.

 

¡°Do you feel any dark aura?¡± Syaoran asked. Truthfully, he cared little about Kero-chan—surely magical creatures were made of tougher stuff than mortals, but the baby might have ingested some poison, even a tiny amount. Plus, Sakura was worried out of her mind; he could feel it despite her unusually calm demeanor.

 

¡°Nope.¡± Sakura winced. Her ankle was beginning to throb again¡¦she should check it out later. ¡°I guess we¡¯ll just have to count on Kai-kun again, after all.¡±

 

¡°Say, what if he just ran off on us?¡± Syaoran commented dubiously. ¡°He can do that you know, without batting an eye.¡±

 

¡°Kai-kun wouldn¡¯t—he¡¯s dependable, (in a roundabout way),¡± Sakura said firmly.

 

¡°I¡¯m insulted, my dear Syaoran,¡± a casually alluring voice came from behind them.

 

¡°Kai-kun!¡± Sakura exclaimed in relief, as Kai leaned between them over the back of the bench. ¡°Man, you guys look like really young parents.¡±

 

¡°What took you so long?¡± demanded Syaoran.

 

¡°Patience, patience my friend,¡± Kai drawled. ¡°I had to go dig out my black cloak you know. I can¡¯t complete a task without it. It got quite dusty you know, from long negligence.¡±

 

¡°What, you stole again?¡± Sakura remarked in horror.

 

¡°Eh, isn¡¯t that what you were asking me to do?¡± Kai questioned.

 

¡°No, I thought you could manage to find some underground mean of purchasing¡¦ or maybe you had some connections¡¦oh I don¡¯t know,¡± Sakura said. ¡°I didn¡¯t want you to steal again.¡±

 

Darkly, Kai said, ¡°Well I think outright stealing is better than illegal drug-dealing, thank you.¡±

 

¡°Oh I didn¡¯t mean it like that!¡± Sakura exclaimed in dismay.

 

¡°Well, do you have it or what?¡± Syaoran asked, to the rescue. For heaven¡¯s sake, Sakura never knew it when people were pulling her leg.

 

¡°Voila!¡± Kai took produced a plastic container of white pills. ¡°Atropine—extract from belladonna which cures digitalis poisoning.¡±

 

¡°Thank goodness!¡± Sakura exclaimed, fishing out a pill and handing it to Kero-chan.

 

¡°Do I have to swallow this? It doesn¡¯t look good,¡± Kero-chan whispered, barely able to lift his head.

 

¡°Hurry, just swallow it—¡° Sakura said. ¡°I¡¯ll give you candy afterwards.¡±

 

Minutes after swallowing the atropine pill, Kero-chan showed little sign of recovery.

 

¡°Are you feeling any better?¡± Sakura questioned promptly.

 

¡°Hmm?¡± Kero-chan rolled over on his back. ¡°Where¡¯s the candy?¡± 

 

Sakura sighed in relief. Then she peered at Moeko-chan, who had been unusually quiet. ¡°Do you think I need to give Moe-chan some?¡±

 

¡°No, I you¡¯re not supposed to give babies just any type of drugs,¡± Kai said hastily.

 

¡°I don¡¯t think she showed any symptoms of poisoning, for the past several hours,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Maybe she didn¡¯t eat the cake after all.¡±

 

¡°Oh, you guys were worried about that?¡± Kero-chan remarked, chomping on a candy bar. ¡°Of course I didn¡¯t spare any for that fat baby. The cake really was delicious! She did manage to scrape up some frosting with her hands, then smeared it all over her face. Stupid baby.¡±

 

¡°What? You could have told us sooner!¡± Sakura exclaimed. ¡°We were so worried that a defenseless baby was poisoned!¡±

 

¡°Really, we were panicking for no reason,¡± Syaoran stated, ruffling his hair in irritation.

 

¡°Y-you guys weren¡¯t concerned about me at all?¡± Kero-chan wailed. ¡°S-sakura-chan!¡±

 

Bonking Kero-chan on the head with his knuckle, Syaoran stated, ¡°Of course not—you¡¯re not the type that would die because of some stupid food poisoning.¡±

 

¡°Where¡¯s Miho-chan, Kai-kun?¡± Sakura asked, looking around. ¡°Didn¡¯t she go with you?

 

Kai shrugged. ¡°Who knows? Geez—I just wasted a whole day on that stuffed animal. Well then, see you guys later.¡±

 

¡°Thanks heaps, Kai-kun!¡± Sakura called out. ¡°You¡¯re the best!¡± Then she felt the back of her neck tingle. Syaoran was glaring at her. She laughed. ¡°Syaoran too!¡±

 

Syaoran beamed.

 

¡°For buying baby diapers!¡±

 

His expression dropped into a scowl.

 

¡°Well, let¡¯s go find the dark force now—I think I can concentrate better, now that Kero-chan is safe. And Moe-chan too; I was feeling awful, thinking that I was irresponsible enough to let her ingest something harmful to her. Right, Moe-chan?¡± Sakura rubbed her nose against Moeko¡¯s button nose.

 

An electric pain rippled through her left leg as she was about to stand.

 

Syaoran steadied her. ¡°What¡¯s the matter?¡±

 

¡°N-nothing,¡± Sakura stammered. Grimacing, she felt the swollen welt on her ankle. She felt light-headed. Then she pinched herself—it¡¯s just because I was so worried about Kero-chan and Moe-chan, and I¡¯m relieved now. ¡°Really, I¡¯m fine, let¡¯s go—¡°

 

Heedless, Syaoran seated her again, and bent over her feet, taking off her left shoe and lower her socks. ¡°Something¡¯s wrong with your ankle,¡± he observed. On the side of her ankle, he traced two red spots.

 

¡°That tickles,¡± Sakura giggled. Then she gulped, suddenly feeling nauseous. She couldn¡¯t recall if she had been feeling unwell from before, because she had been too busy worrying about finding an antidote for Kero-chan.

 

¡°It looks like something bit you,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Almost like mosquito-bites, but there are two equal spots, and the swelling is the size of a fist, on this side of your ankle. It almost looks like¡¦ a snakebite. But there can¡¯t be any snakes around here.¡±

 

¡°Thinking about it, I felt a prickling sensation earlier on, while you were buying diapers for Moe-chan,¡± Sakura commented reluctantly. ¡°Yes, it kind of felt like something bit me.¡±

 

¡°Why didn¡¯t you tell me earlier?¡± Syaoran demanded, clearly upset.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know—it didn¡¯t seem to important back then. We had more important matters to tend to. And I sort of forgot about it,¡± Sakura said. ¡°I just feel dizzy. I wish I can lie down somewhere.¡± She stroked Moeko-¡®s fine hair.

 

¡°You idiot!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, panic running over him. How long had that been, when he went to buy the diapers¡¦ two, no three hours ago. He was pretty sure Sakura had been bitten by the Poison, and he wasn¡¯t sure how long it took for the venoms to spread, when directly injected by the dark force. He had sworn to protect her and yet this happened again! ¡°Sakura, you stay right, here! I¡¯ll go track down the dark force.¡±

 

¡°You need me to seal it, anyway,¡± Sakura said weakly, attempting to stand. It was less the pain from the bite and more the queasiness in her stomach and the fact that her eyes didn¡¯t seem to focus anymore. Her grip on Moeko was loosening, and Syaoran snatched the baby away. Moeko, about to cry again, stopped when she looked at Sakura¡¯s pale face, covered in cold perspiration.

 

¡°Lie down,¡± Syaoran said, making her lie down side-ways on the bench, using the diaper bag as a pillow and covering her with his jacket (though he wished he wore a thicker shirt underneath, since he hated the cold.)

 

¡°Sakura-chan! What¡¯s wrong?¡± Kero-chan demanded, dabbing at the sweat on Sakura¡¯s brows with a Baby-wipe.

 

It was going to be dark soon, and Syaoran was stuck with a baby and a useless stuffed animal still recovering from the after-effects of being poisoned. And he had to track down the dark force, but couldn¡¯t leave Sakura alone either, and neither could he drag the baby along. What was he going to do?

 

******

 

¡°Erika, don¡¯t tell me you¡¯re not finished yet,¡± Eron grumbled, balancing five shopping bags in each hand, of course all the result of Erika¡¯s extravagance. The twins had spent the day in town, due to Erika insisting that she had to shop for a new winter wardrobe. ¡°We wasted the entire day shopping. Let¡¯s go home now.¡±

 

Finding Erika unusually silent, Eron said, ¡°What¡¯s the matter? Are you angry because I wouldn¡¯t buy you that fur-lined coat? You said you can make your boyfriend get it for you. Erika?¡±

 

Without replying Erika swayed, as if she was about to faint.

 

Dropping all the shopping bags on the ground, Eron rushed forward to hold up Erika from collapsing on the ground, gently lowering her to the ground. ¡°ERIKA!¡± He felt for her pulse frantically. It was far more rapid than usual. ¡°Erika! What¡¯s wrong?¡±

 

Gripping her twin¡¯s arm to sit up, Erika whispered weakly, ¡°I¡¯m fine, Eron. Just give me a moment to catch my breath.¡±

 

¡°Your heart,¡± Eron asked urgently, gripping Erika¡¯s shoulders tightly. ¡°Is your heart okay?¡±

 

¡°Nothing¡¯s wrong with it,¡± Erika said, weakly smiling at Eron, every line of his usual composure gone from his face. It wasn¡¯t unfamiliar though; he used to wear this expression often back then, smooth forehead creased with concern. ¡°I can get up now, I¡¯m okay.¡±

 

¡°No, stay sitting for a little longer,¡± Eron said. ¡°Are you sure you¡¯re heart¡¯s okay? What¡¯s wrong then? Does your head hurt? How about breathing? Are you short of breath?¡±

 

Laughing shortly, Erika commented, ¡°I forgot what a worrywart you were, onii-chan.¡± Then she grimaced, groping her ankle. ¡°Sheesh, I didn¡¯t think my plan will backfire.¡±

 

¡°What are you talking about?¡± Eron asked, suspicion dawning over him. ¡°You didn¡¯t¡¦¡±

 

¡°I released the Poison today,¡± Erika said. ¡°It probably interrupted our darling Saku-ran couple. First attempt didn¡¯t work, (the stupid stuffed animal ate the cake that Sakura was supposed to eat) so I had to use a more direct method, and I made the Poison bite her. Don¡¯t make that face—I told the Poison not to inject too much venom in, so that she doesn¡¯t fall dead right away. It¡¯s really nothing fatal, at least not right away.¡±

 

Digesting Erika¡¯s words carefully, Eron demanded, ¡°Okay, so you set out the Poison on Sakura. So, what does this have anything to do with your state right now?¡±

 

¡°You¡¯ve heard of the reciprocal spell before, haven¡¯t you?¡± Erika smiled grimly. Eron was going to throw a fit when he heard this.

 

¡°What about it?¡± Eron asked, hands on hips. What mischief did his twin cause now?

 

¡°Well, I sort of made a pact with Syaoran—I promised him not to harm Sakura. I know, I know, let me finish this. That is, in return for his tutoring sessions. Oh shut up for a second Eron, yes I realize it was a stupid bargain. Anyway, he made me swear it on a ward paper—and I signed the contract with my blood.¡±

 

¡°WHAT?¡± Eron roared, unable to hold back any longer. People passing by on the street stared. ¡°Chang Erika, are you really brainless or are you trying to ruin everything that we have been so carefully planning up till now? Didn¡¯t I tell you not to go around making reckless moves? What were you thinking?¡±

 

¡°Sorry, Eron,¡± Erika said meekly. ¡°I¡¯m really sorry, so don¡¯t be mad. I¡¯m okay, all right? And it¡¯s not like Sakura and Syaoran won¡¯t catch the Poison—it¡¯ll be any moment now.¡±

 

¡°You go home—I¡¯m catching you a cab,¡± Eron said, not even paying attention to her anymore.

 

¡°Wait, Eron, I—¡°

 

¡°Just do as I say,¡± Eron snapped, hailing a cab and ushering her in with all her shopping bags. 

 

¡°Eron!¡± Erika called out through the window, helpless, as the cab zoomed off.

 

 

 

I can sense it¡¦ the dark force is approaching nearer. Syaoran opened his eyes wide, drawing out his sword with one hand, while holding sleeping Moeko in the other, despite what Sakura said about having to hold the baby with both arms. Very near.

 

It was already dark by now. He glanced over his shoulder at Sakura, who had opened her eyes half-way, indicating that she sensed it as well.

 

Sitting up groggily, Sakura said in a clipped voice, ¡°Key that hides the power of the shtahz... I mean stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under¡¦ I command you under contract. Release.¡± Leaning on her staff, she stood up, balancing her weight on her right foot.

 

¡°Sakura!¡± Syaoran scolded. ¡°You shouldn¡¯t stand.¡±

 

¡°I need to seal it, don¡¯t I?¡± Sakura said, wobbling towards him.

 

To both of their surprise, instead of some tremendous dark force materializing in front of them, they were greeted by Chang Eron, holding a rope-like object in his hand. As usual, his violet-blue hair was tied back neatly with a blue ribbon and his face was expressionless, yet his shaking hand revealed otherwise. In the light, they could see that it was not a rope, but a bright verdant viper was snaking around his arm, as Eron held it by its head, keeping it from biting him. The snake opened its wide jaw, revealing gleaming, long yellow fangs, trying to bite Eron¡¯s hand. Luckily, Eron kept an expert grip, not even flinching as the snake writhed and swiveled around his arm.

 

Instinctively, Syaoran stepped forward, in front of Sakura, who was clearly as confused as he was. If Eron wanted to fight now, it would be a problem, yet neither could he back off right now—the sooner he defeated Eron, the sooner he could defeat the Poison and save Sakura.

 

After the initial shock, Syaoran demanded, though knowing he looked pretty dumb with a sword in one hand and a baby in the other. ¡°What are you doing here, Eron? Did you come to fight directly? If you can¡¯t tell, I¡¯m not in a good mood right now, so it¡¯ll be a pleasure to finish off that fight that we started at the Music Festival.¡± He glared viciously at Eron, who stared back at him coolly like a tiger humored by a rabbit.

 

Barring Syaoran from stepping forward, Sakura said, ¡°Don¡¯t Syaoran.¡± Even she had the sense to know that Syaoran, despite how strong he was, had little chance against Eron at this particular situation—it was too risky with Moeko-chan, and the baby¡¯s safety was first priority. She turned to Eron, looking at him levelly, trying her best to focus her dilated emerald eyes on that figure standing before him, the Dark One, wrapped in a snake. She took a deep breath, clear air refreshing her mind. ¡°Eron-kun. What do you want from us? As you can see, we¡¯re looking after Moeko-chan today, and currently in no position to fight you.¡±

 

Unable to meet Sakura¡¯s eyes, Eron looked down at his arm, twisting his arm to keep from losing grip on the vicious snake. ¡°I have a request to make.¡±

 

Sakura and Syaoran looked up at this unexpectedly humble tone, though forced it was.

 

It took great effort for Eron to say the next words. ¡°Sakura, please seal this dark force.¡±  

 

¡°What?¡± Syaoran looked up, wondering if he was going deaf now.

 

¡°Please seal the Poison right this moment,¡± Eron said golden eyes unusually. ¡°Sakura-san.¡±

 

¡°Are you losing your balls, or what—you¡¯re the one who sent it out to us!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, scrutinizing his greatest nemesis. Then remembering his priorities, he turned to Sakura. ¡°Hurry and seal it before anything happens—he might have something up his sleeves.¡±

 

Shaking her head, Sakura replied slowly, ¡°No, I think we have to hear a reason first, Eron-kun. Why are you making such a request, bringing us the dark force to seal, when you were the one who set it on us in the first place?¡±

 

¡°Syaoran should know,¡± Eron said blandly, eyes narrowed at Syaoran, who frowned.

 

Turning to Syaoran, Sakura demanded, ¡°What is Eron-kun talking about? Do you know, Syaoran?¡±

 

¡°Yes, go ahead and tell her,¡± Eron chided. ¡°How moral and noble you are, the most honorable means in which to protect your darling Sakura.¡±

 

¡°Have you been talking to the Riddle lately,¡± Syaoran asked flatly.

 

¡°Very clever of you, Li Syaoran¡¦ I wouldn¡¯t have expected anything from the one once considered having the most potential in the notorious Li Clan,¡± Eron sneered. ¡°Making a pretty bargain with my foolish sister.¡±

 

Noticing Syaoran slightly pale, Sakura looked up Eron. ¡°So, what does this have to do with you wanting me to seal the Poison? Of course, that was are goal anyway, so it rather defeats the purpose if you hand it over to us on a golden platter.¡±

 

¡°Just hurry up and do it,¡± Eron said, throwing down the snake at her feet with a snap of his hands to detach it from him. ¡°You¡¯re in no condition to be contending on the situation—the venom of the Poison will paralyze the body within three hours of entering your blood; you don¡¯t have much more time to remain standing. 

 

Before the Poison could writhe away, Syaoran speared his sword threw it. ¡°Hurry, Sakura.¡± When she hesitated, he sighed. ¡°Fine, I¡¯ll tell you. You know how I¡¯ve been tutoring Erika, right? It was a bargain—her idea, but I consented. In return for her promising not to harm you, I agreed to give her extra lessons. She signed the contract with her blood—no, I didn¡¯t ask her to—on a ward paper of binding. She broke her promise twice, which activated the reciprocal spell on this ward paper.¡± Fumbling in his pocket, Syaoran took out a warp paper with bold calligraphy written down vertically, and a stain of brown blood in the bottom.

 

¡°Syaoran.¡± Sakura stared up at him in dismay. ¡°Why would you ever do a thing like that?¡±

 

¡°So, as that deceiving underhanded crook explained to you, this is a matter of my concern too, since what ever is happening to your body is reciprocated in Erika¡¯s,¡± Eron said through gritted teeth. ¡°If you get poisoned, she gets poisoned. If you die, she dies. Now, do you understand? Now seal it into a card before you loose consciousness, and we¡¯ll have to go through the tedious procedure of having Syaoran borrowing your sealing staff, and no one wants that.¡±

 

Her head felt wooly again, and Sakura could feel the dark aura inside her spreading through her nervous system, flowing through her veins. The bright green snake thrashed wildly to escape the sword piecing straight through its head, keeping it from bearing its fangs. She had no time to waste. She lifted up her staff, staggering, then holding it up with both hands. ¡°Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!¡±

 

The Poison, in the form of a venomous serpent, contorted and with a poof of emerald smoke, was sealed into a new Sakura Card. The new card, face decorated with a thick, coiled snake floated down, and Sakura caught it. Twirling her staff over her fingers, she threw up the Sakura Card and called out, ¡°Poison! Create an antidote to cure Erika and me!¡±

 

This time, a huge serpent, the width of a tree trunk, materialized, wrapping loosely around Sakura¡¯s body and spraying out a greenish fog from its fangs. Sakura stood paralyzed—she was about as fond of snakes as she was of ghosts. Yet, she immediately felt the black venom disappearing from her body. Turning to Eron, she asked, ¡°Erika?¡±

 

Eron nodded. ¡°She¡¯s okay now.¡± Expressionless, he turned around and started walking away.

 

¡°Wait!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, full rage at Eron returning, now that he didn¡¯t have to worry about Sakura being consumed by poison. ¡°Why couldn¡¯t you seal the Poison yourself, instead of coming to us like some tailless dog? Seriously, you have some nerve showing your face to Sakura and actually asking her a favor. Or were you so eager to let Sakura create another new card and increase her power?¡±

 

¡°Idiot,¡± Eron scoffed, running a hand over his hair. ¡°The Dark Ones don¡¯t have the power of sealing; we only have power to release dark forces. Why else do you think I came to ask Sakura—she¡¯s the only one of our generation with the power to seal dark forces. Not only seal them, but bind them into a new contract under the Power of the Stars. And you called yourself the Chosen One without even knowing that.¡± He laughed, walking on.

 

¡°So, is this what Sakura used to feel like, when I made fun of her for not knowing anything as Card Mistress?¡± Syaoran sighed, slowly turning to Sakura. Lately, he had been doing nothing but making her angry. Today wasn¡¯t supposed to turn out like this at all.

 

¡°Li Syaoran,¡± Sakura said reproachfully, eyes gleaming angrily like emeralds in the dark. ¡°How could you?¡±

 

¡°Sorry—but I don¡¯t regret doing it,¡± Syaoran replied, chin tilted up determinedly. ¡°If I hadn¡¯t done this, who knows if you would be able to stand right now, with the Poison having bitten you. If Eron hadn¡¯t madly dashed over here, having captured the dark force himself, we would truly have been defeated.¡±

 

Knowing what Syaoran said was true, and knowing he had only been trying to save her, Sakura bit her lips. ¡°I know you were being considerate, Syaoran, and thank you for that. But it¡¯s just¡¦¡± She shrugged slightly, then stared at Moeko, quietly sucking her thumb and looking up at Sakura with wide eyes. Carefully, she took Moeko from Syaoran¡¯s arms and held the baby to her chest.

 

¡°Dishonorable?¡± Syaoran laughed shortly. ¡°Dirty? Something underhanded that they would do.¡± He slammed his hands in his pockets. ¡°Yes, if it¡¯s the old me, I wouldn¡¯t have even thought of such a plan—bargaining with the Dark Ones. Not only is it risky but it brings you down to their level. Yet, I¡¯ve long since thrown away justice, righteousness, fighting a fair fight. See, this is a no-win situation if you fight by the rules of integrity, for only we will suffer. They don¡¯t care about right or wrong, morals do no exist for them. The only way to win is use the same method as them, or else we would be deceived and defeated till the end.¡±

 

Rocking Moeko in her arms, Sakura said softly, ¡°No, then we will no longer be able to hold up our heads and say we are fighting for the right cause. We will no longer be able to call them the Dark Ones, for once we stoop to their level, there will be no good and evil. Then, all we have fought for till now will be in vain.¡±

 

Looking up at the glistening night sky, Syaoran slowly said, ¡°You said before that you wanted to be stronger, didn¡¯t you? Don¡¯t you see that you have been chosen as Card Mistress for your strength of light? You alone can out-balance the darkness of the twins. Therefore the power of sealing was bestowed upon you, for you would neither corrupt the cards nor put them to ill use. And that¡¯s why the Sakura Cards love you and respect you as their Mistress, and will come back to you upon your bidding. If that¡¯s not strength, I do not know what else is. Martial arts and swordsmanship comes with endurance and practice. Magical powers come with concentration and control. Intelligence comes from reading, analysis and application. Yet, inner strength cannot be bought with time or practice.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran.¡± Sakura swallowed hard.

 

¡°So, I¡¯m saying, have confidence in yourself and your abilities.¡± Syaoran blushed sheepishly. ¡°For I, and many others, admire these qualities in you. So make the best use of it and don¡¯t disappoint us. For it¡¯s you who has to continue going on when everyone else is too weary to journey on, and it is you who will bright the Last Judgment. After all, you¡¯re the one who challenged Fate.¡±   

 

¡°Speech, speech!¡± Kero-chan said, clapping his paws together enthusiastically. ¡°The Brat speaks intelligently for a change.¡±

 

¡°I always do!¡± Syaoran scowled. Then she smiled blissfully. Syaoran admired her?

 

 

 

¡°You¡¯re home late kaijou!¡± growled Kinomoto Touya as Sakura hurried into the house, Moeko in her arms, sucking on a pacifier amicably.

 

¡°Sorry Yukito-san!¡± Sakura bowed, tipping the baby over, and rapidly standing upright again. ¡°Moe-chan¡¯s diaper has been changed, she drank a full bottle of baby formula, and she is in perfect condition!¡±

 

¡°Thank you so much, Sakura-san,¡± Yukito said, taking Moeko from her arms, giving her his 100-watt smile.

 

Blushing happily, Sakura stammered, ¡°It¡¯s my pleasure, Yukito-san. Any time at all.¡±

 

Whimpering, Moeko reached out with her short chubby arms to Sakura.

 

¡°She¡¯s really grown attached to you,¡± Yukito commented. ¡°Well, the head of the orphanage must be wondering what happened to you, Moeko-chan. I¡¯ll have to take you back now. See you later, To-ya (don¡¯t get carried away with your sister-complex again). Bye Sakura-san—thanks for today!¡±

 

¡°Bye Yukito-san! Hanya~an! Yukito-san is so wonderful and nice!¡± Sakura exclaimed, waving. Then without wasting a moment, she dashed upstairs.

 

¡°Are you going somewhere?¡± Touya asked, when his little sister stomped down again. She had changed out of her pink jumper stained with baby saliva and clumps of milk formula, and was now in a pretty plaid knee-length skirt and a pale yellow sweater on top. Her hair had been re-braided into a French braid, tied with a plaid ribbon, and she had washed her face and applied pale pink lip-gloss. ¡°It¡¯s dinner time.¡±

 

¡°Sorry ¡®nii-chan—I have an appointment,¡± Sakura said, stuffing her feet into brown leather boots and dashing out the door. A block down her house, she halted. ¡°Coast clear!¡±

 

Coming out from behind the bushes, Syaoran looked around, checking if Touya wasn¡¯t charging towards him with a bat. ¡°Your brother wasn¡¯t home?¡±

 

¡°He was—I ran out before he could say anything,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°Anyway, I¡¯m starving—sealing cards always makes me hungry.¡±

 

¡°Are you following Yukito-san¡¯s footsteps?¡± Syaoran asked, teasingly. ¡°Either way, I¡¯m glad that we are finally rid of that nuisance of a baby.¡±

 

¡°Admit it—you like Moe-chan. She¡¯s an adorable baby!¡± Sakura exclaimed. ¡°She called you ¡®dada.¡¯¡±

 

¡°She¡¯s fat, heavy and noisy,¡± Syaoran replied, shuddering. He never knew his arms could ache from supporting a baby all day, when they didn¡¯t from swinging a sword all day and night.

 

¡°No, she¡¯s chubby and loveable. Babies are very huggable,¡± Sakura replied, clasping her hands together.

 

¡°You¡¯re very huggable,¡± Syaoran said solemnly.

 

¡°Eh?¡± Sakura turned beat red.

 

¡°When you were turned into a baby by the Age,¡± Syaoran added.

 

¡°I was five, not a baby,¡± Sakura retorted, blushing.

 

¡°Same difference,¡± Syaoran replied nonchalantly. ¡°Same mentality then or now.¡±

 

He laughed when she let out a screech of indignation—so much for him being nice to her today.

 

******

 

Picking up another sushi roll with chopstick, Sakura said, ¡°This place is awfully formal. The food¡¯s superb though. I haven¡¯t eaten sashimi in a while.¡±

 

The spotless elegant restaurant, traditional Japanese style, had waitresses in stiff kimonos, and breathed that its customers were usually wealthy businessmen. Even the chopstick holders on the table were golden.

 

Shrugging, Syaoran replied, ¡°Kai¡¯s recommendation. Who knew he frequented such a place? Really doesn¡¯t suit his style. I wonder if they let him in with that hairstyle of his.¡±

 

¡°Meilin said he was on top behavior that day,¡± Sakura said, daintily dipping a roll in soy sauce.

 

¡°Eh? They went on a date?¡± Syaoran demanded. Struggling to lower his voice, he continued, ¡°With him? Meilin? How could she?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t be silly,¡± Sakura replied calmly. ¡°They¡¯re not going out. (Long-distance relationships are rather difficult, not matter how international Kai is.) How should I put it¡¦ I guess they are more like friends of benefit.¡±

 

¡°What?!¡± Syaoran dropped a chunk of sashimi into the soy sauce. ¡°Do you even know what that means?¡±

 

¡°Yes.¡± Sakura swallowed her food calmly. ¡°Kai said that he¡¯s kissed her but she showed no interest in furthering their relationship. He thinks that she¡¯s scared of commitment, even though he woos her so. You know. Because she¡¯s been hurt for so long. By you.¡±

 

Coughing, Syaoran reached for the steaming green tea, then gulped it down. ¡°Gah! It¡¯s burning hot!¡±

 

¡°Of course, it will be terrible if Kai is just leading her on—he rather has a wild streak,¡± Sakura continued. ¡°Then again, he seems rather sincere about Meilin-chan. After all, he¡¯s still contacting her.¡±

 

¡°She doesn¡¯t even contact me,¡± Syaoran said in disbelief.

 

¡°Exactly,¡± Sakura nodded. ¡°I really hope the best for them.¡±

 

¡°And what about us?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Us?¡± Sakura blinked. ¡°What about us?¡±

 

¡°Where is our relationship going?¡± Syaoran looked up staidly.

 

¡°We¡¯re good friends, partners, rivals,¡± Sakura said slowly, her heart pounding. There was no mistake that she liked Syaoran, always had since elementary school. The feeling did not even fade away when he left for Hong Kong.

 

¡°I asked you out on a date today,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°It was fun, despite the whole Poison business.¡± Sakura giggled, more out of nervousness than anything else. ¡°The look on your face when we came out of the movie theater. It was priceless¡¦ Admit it, you were scared too!¡±

 

¡°Was not!¡± Syaoran retorted, turning red.

 

¡°It would be nice if there¡¯s a day when we can truly have fun, without worrying about dark forces popping out of any corner.¡± Sakura sighed. ¡°Till then, I feel like I have to concentrate solely on conquering the Dark Ones—that aside from school and after school activities drains everything from me. I feel guilty when I enjoy myself, as if I should be researching about the past or training harder instead of playing around and having fun.¡±

 

¡°I respect your wishes.¡± Syaoran replied, folding his hands together on the table. ¡°I guess we need to stay focused on fighting the dark forces, don¡¯t we? Well, let¡¯s try continue to try our best. The sooner we resolve this matter, the sooner we can return to our ordinary lives.¡± 

 

¡°Oh, I don¡¯t think we can ever return to living ordinary lives,¡± Sakura said, pouring Syaoran another cup of hot green tea. ¡°We¡¯re doomed at this rate.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s a pity then,¡± Syaoran replied, watching the tealeaves sink to the bottom of his cup. ¡°I guess it means no more dates, no more fun, ever again.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right.¡± Sakura grinned. ¡°Don¡¯t we see plenty enough of each other, strictly on business?¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right.¡± Cheered up, Syaoran stated, ¡°How about resuming math tutor sessions?¡±

 

Groaning, Sakura pelted him with her napkin.

 

¡°Well, since today is our last day to spend frivolously, what do you want to do after dinner?¡± Syaoran asked, as he paid the check, and they walked out of the restaurant.

 

¡°Let¡¯s just walk,¡± Sakura said.

 

Making a face, Syaoran muttered, ¡°You know I hate the cold.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re fault for valuing fashion over warmth,¡± Sakura muttered back. Syaoran always looked spotless, even after carrying a baby for half the day. His red cashmere sweater over dark trousers, and a brown suede jacket should sufficiently keep him warm, yet still, he hated the cold.

 

They walked for a while down rather unfamiliar streets, before Syaoran paused. ¡°You¡¯re cold, aren¡¯t you? Wearing that skirt.¡± He took off his jacket and put it around her shoulders.

 

¡°I¡¯m fine!¡± Sakura protested. The large suede jacket snuggled nicely on her shoulders. She drew it around her closer.

 

¡°Why don¡¯t we go inside a cake shop and drink something warm?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

Shaking her head, Sakura walked ahead and paused in front of a formidable gate.

 

¡°This is¡¦¡± Syaoran hadn¡¯t realized they were already in the neighborhood of the Li Estate, built in Li Shulin-sama¡¯s time.

 

¡°Li Shulin-sama seems to have been a great person,¡± Sakura said, leaning against the iron gates. ¡°I wonder what Hayashi-sama had been like—there¡¯s no record of him. Maybe Mother knew, but she can¡¯t tell me.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sure he was a great person too—he¡¯s your ancestor after all,¡± Syaoran replied. Amamiya Hayashi, one time lover of Li Shulin. Yet, Shulin-sama had married Landon Reed, after all.

 

¡°It¡¯s been bothering for a while,¡± Sakura said darkly. ¡°Erika said that Hayashi-sama murdered Chang Ruichi-sama. Yet, they had all been friends once, a part of the Great Five.¡±

 

¡°The Dark One has caused much evil and suffering for many people, innocent ones as well,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°If Hayashi-sama, and the other members of the Great Five, fought Ruichi-sama, it was for a reason, for defense. Fighting for your life and the life of others is not murder.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s what Kero-chan told me,¡± Sakura replied, looking up at Syaoran as if he would have the answer. ¡°That Hayashi-sama was a great and honorable man, that he was a man of peace and principle. But that doesn¡¯t answer why Erika and Eron hold such a grudge against the Amamiya and the Li bloodline.¡±

 

¡°There must have been a misunderstanding, a quarrel which brewed into something much bigger,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°For adults can be quite foolish at times when they get carried away with their emotions. And it seems to me after today, Erika herself doesn¡¯t quite now what she¡¯s doing. You may be right, Sakura, in saying that Eron and Erika may be just about as helpless as we are, and that we should pity them also, not just ourselves. After all, their father died without a home or family to give to his children. It makes you wonder, just why did the Dark Ones of our parents¡¯ generation fight. My father and your mother, at least were happy, in the short time they had left to live, after they sealed away the Dark Ones for the time being. In their time, there were twins again, identical brothers, I think. One died and the other lived through the Final Battle—the living one fathered Eron and Erika.¡±  

 

¡°All Eron wanted was for Erika to have a healthy heart,¡± Sakura murmured, more to herself than Syaoran.

 

¡°Don¡¯t get too carried away feeling sorry for the Dark Ones,¡± Syaoran warned, knowing Sakura was too soft-hearted for her own good. ¡°They don¡¯t deserve that much pity—they are conscious being with responsibility over their actions.¡±

 

¡°Say, Syaoran. Do you think it is possible for us to become enemies?¡± Sakura looked up at Syaoran. ¡°It seems to be a pattern with friendships between magicians. They all become sworn enemies.¡±

 

¡°Silly—as if such a thing is possible. Our ancestors lived in strange times when warfare was prevalent. We¡¯re living in a new generation; we¡¯re a bit more sensible than them, you know. We¡¯ll always be allies, no matter what happens, who ever the enemy may be. Remember that, Sakura.¡± Syaoran looked at her directly.

 

¡°You don¡¯t have to tell me—I already know.¡± Sakura smiled, feeling the last trace of uneasiness left from the Phantom disappearing from her. ¡°Who else will I trust if I don¡¯t trust you, Li Syaoran?¡±

 

¡°Well, how about some ice cream!¡±

 

¡°We have school tomorrow!¡± Sakura protested.

 

¡°Come, they have a chain for the hundred-flavor ice cream store, somewhere around here.¡± He dragged her away by the arm.

 

¡°I want vanilla flavor!¡± exclaimed Sakura.

 

¡°If you have a choice of a hundred unique flavors, why in the world would you want vanilla?¡±

 

¡°It tastes good!¡± For the first time since Syaoran¡¯s return, Sakura felt the reality of him being by her side, that wasn¡¯t going to leave her any moment. She no longer had to have nightmares of him vanishing without a trace. He would not leave her, at least, not without him telling her first.

 

******

 

Monday mornings were Sakura¡¯s least favorite, and it was even worse today because she had such a busy Sunday. All the same, she was a lot happier and relaxed than she had been in ages.

 

¡°How was it?¡± Tomoyo asked eagerly, eyes sparkling as Sakura took her seat.

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura blinked.

 

¡°You know. The date!¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°It took all my willpower to refrain from tailing you guys.¡±

 

¡°Oh, it was wasted effort then,¡± said Syaoran, who had just arrived in time for class, throwing his book bag on his desk and taking his seat. ¡°With a baby and the noisy stuffed animal, not to mention two dark forces plaguing us, one additional person wouldn¡¯t have made a difference.¡±

 

¡°Really?¡± Tomoyo radiated a blue aura as she mumbled. ¡°And I was trying to be considerate.¡±

 

Into the classroom burst in Miho, pencil stuck over one ear and holding a clipboard to her chest. ¡°Is Mizuki-sempai here today?¡± she asked frantically. ¡°I really need the front page layouts by today.¡±

 

¡°Nope,¡± Syaoran said, glancing at the empty seat next to him.

 

¡°Don¡¯t you need to go to class?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°The school bell¡¯s going to ring soon.¡±

 

¡°Ooh, I¡¯m really going to kill him,¡± fumed Miho, swerving around and looking for Aki. ¡°Aki-sempai! You didn¡¯t write this month¡¯s editorial yet! I know you were busy with basketball championships, but as editor-in-chief, you need to set a good example for fellow students. Set your priorities right, please!¡± Bending over, she whispered to Sakura, ¡°Did you capture the Poison, and is Kero-chan okay now?¡±

 

Sakura nodded. ¡°Luckily, Kai-kun brought us the antidote quickly.¡±

 

¡°He did?¡± Miho asked disbelievingly. ¡°

 

¡°Erika-chan, I heard you scored the highest in the retests,¡± Chiharu said. ¡°Congratulations—I never knew you took schoolwork seriously.¡±

 

¡°Of course I don¡¯t.¡± Crossing her arms haughtily, Erika tilted her head towards Syaoran, sitting in the back of the classroom. ¡°Yet the dreaded Li-Style Nightmare Drilling Sessions leaves a permanent scar. I couldn¡¯t help but ace the re-examinations. Of course I¡¯m talented at everything, so it¡¯s no big surprise. These are my real skills! Oh ho ho!¡±

 

Her twin sweat-dropped, pretending he was not related to this conceited, vain creature. Either way, he had been greatly relieved when he returned home yesterday to find Erika, healthy and energetic as ever, trying on all the different clothes she bought that day.

 

¡°What happened to Mizuki-kun?¡± Naoko asked. ¡°Did his score improve at all?¡±

 

¡°Nope,¡± Chiharu said. ¡°I heard he didn¡¯t even show up at the re-exams.¡±

 

¡°He¡¯s hasn¡¯t come to school for over a week,¡± Rika said, puzzled. She wouldn¡¯t dream of missing a single day of school. ¡°What is Mizuki-kun thinking?¡±

 

¡°Exactly!¡± Miho exclaimed, ¡°What am I going to do without the layouts?¡±

 

She stomped off back to her own classroom, wishing she was a part of Sakura¡¯s class, which was much more exciting than her own. She had been racking her brain to find a riddle to challenge the dark force Riddle with. Though she doubted there existed a conundrum that the Riddle, Master of the Sphinx, could not solve, she still believed there might be a slim chance to defeat the Riddle. There might be a chance if I can come up with an original riddle, one that it has never heard before. This is my first real task. It may take some time, but I must give it my everything. I¡¯ve never written a riddle before, but it will be interesting, once I come up with a theme. Then, beware Riddle—I¡¯ll see the end of you.

 

¡°Tanaka Miho! You¡¯re late for homeroom!¡± her teacher scolded as Miho opened the door to find the entire class seated.

 

¡°Sorry sensei!¡± Miho laughed sheepishly, quietly slipping in her seat. She had been so lost in thought that she did hear the school bell. To her surprise, she found the layouts for the newspaper, not just the front-page but the entire months (with the editorial column missing), as well as printed photos of the basketball carefully laid on top of her desk. She bolted up, looking around her as if he would be there, hiding somewhere in the classroom.

 

¡°What do you want, Tanaka-san?¡± her homeroom teacher asked patiently.

 

¡°Sorry,¡± Miho said, turning red and sliding back into her chair, wishing she could disappear as the entire class tittered.

 

 

 

To Erika¡¯s surprise, Syaoran called her out during lunch break to the school roof.

 

¡°What do you want?¡± Erika asked testily. ¡°You never call me out of class.¡±

 

¡°How was it, being victim to the Poison?¡± Syaoran asked, leaning against the wire fencing around the rooftop.

 

¡°Why bother asking?¡± she sneered. ¡°You saw Sakura¡¯s condition. It was same on me. Very clever of you, Li Syaoran. I didn¡¯t know that you put a reciprocal spell on the ward paper—you were thinking two steps ahead. Of course, it was stupid of me to offer such a bargain in the first place. And that spell wouldn¡¯t have worked if I hadn¡¯t sealed the contract with my blood.¡±


¡±True. I was wondering why you did it,¡± Syaoran said.

 

Running a hand over her glossy violet curls, Erika replied, ¡°I don¡¯t know myself. It was stupid—Eron threw a fit. But how should I put it¡¦ I knew I was going to break the contract anyway. It¡¯s my objective to harm Sakura. Yet, a promise is a promise, so I had to sacrifice something on my part.¡±

 

¡°So you sacrificed a drop of blood.¡± The corner of his lips tightened. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me that¡¯s the Dark One¡¯s crooked honor. Or was it guilt for ripping me off of free tutoring sessions?¡±

 

¡°Well, you got what you wanted, either way,¡± Erika said. ¡°You hold an upper hand over me. I will never be able to hurt Sakura with inflicting the same pain upon myself. And in return, if you ever want to get rid of me, you can get rid of Sakura to destroy me.¡±

 

¡°Actually, I asked to speak to you because of that,¡± Syaoran said, shifting uncomfortably, and reaching into his pocket. He drew out the crumpled ward paper. ¡°Here, I¡¯m returning this to you. You can do what you want with it. Rip it up.¡±

 

¡°Why are you giving this to me?¡± Erika said, puzzled, taking it and staring at the dark drop of blood staining the thick cream-colored paper. ¡°You do realize its value, don¡¯t you?¡±

 

¡°Oh, I would very much like to hold this as blackmail over you,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°But Sakura wouldn¡¯t want that. So I¡¯m returning to you. We can call our bargain settled—I used the reciprocal spell on you once for you being able to pass your exams once. Now, it¡¯s canceled, and we can forget it ever happened.¡±

 

Scoffing, Erika crumpled the ward paper in her hand and asked, ¡°What now, are you trying to be honorable now? Even after playing that nasty trick on me, making all my plans yesterday backfire?¡±

 

¡°I think I gave you a taste of how foul I can get,¡± Syaoran said, crossing his arms smugly. ¡°That¡¯s good enough.¡±

 

¡°Idiot. You should have kept it anyway.¡± Erika looked up at Syaoran, his dark brown hair blowing in the wind. A year ago, she had thought him easy to read and very predictable. Now, he was showing her the complexities of human nature, forcing her to reflect upon herself and how simplistic she was in mentality and actions. I¡¯m the predictable on, aren¡¯t I? He had been reading my moves throughout, laughing at how everything backfired on me. Yet, he won¡¯t hold it against me. So, is this the self-assurance of one who can beat Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation in a duel? ¡°What Sakura doesn¡¯t know wouldn¡¯t hurt her.¡±

 

¡°You see,¡± he said blandly, fiddling with his school tie. ¡°I have that bothersome thing called a conscience. Which you guys seem to lack.¡±

 

¡°We exchanged it for power, long ago—it makes life a lot easier.¡± Erika smiled. And a lot less worthwhile. He always makes me feeling wretched. I despise him, yet admire him too. 

 

¡°By the way,¡± Syaoran said after a second thought. ¡°Congratulations on acing the retests.¡±

 

¡°Huh?¡± Erika looked up startled, cheeks feeling warm. ¡°I think you want to hear me say that I had an accomplished tutor.¡±

 

¡°Of course. But you were a worthy pupil—you didn¡¯t disappoint me. That¡¯s why I could say proudly that I kept my side of the bargain, so you should keep yours.¡± Syaoran grinned, then headed toward the staircase. ¡°But I won¡¯t be so nice next time—I can¡¯t forgive anyone for hurting Sakura.¡±

 

After he left, Erika walked slowly toward the edge of the roof, looking down at the ground. Minutes later, she saw Syaoran walk outside towards the benches, where Sakura was eating lunch with her friends. Why is she so important to you? Do you value her over yourself? How is that possible?

 

¡°What are you doing here by yourself?¡± Her twins voice came from behind her. He followed her gaze to Sakura and Syaoran, seated next to each other, laughing together. ¡°Don¡¯t do anything stupid again. It¡¯s dangerous, with Syaoran holding that ward paper.¡±

 

¡°He returned it to me,¡± Erika said. ¡°We can do what ever we want to Sakura without worrying about the reciprocal spell.¡±

 

¡°Why did he return it to you?¡± Eron asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know.¡± Erika sighed, turning around.

 

¡°Well, then, I guess we won¡¯t have to hesitate to use the ultimate plan,¡± Eron said quietly.

 

¡°Not already?¡± Erika¡¯s golden eyes widened.

 

¡°The longer we wait, the harder it will get,¡± Eron replied, watching Sakura wave her hands at her friends enter disappear back into the building.

 

¡°It¡¯s not the right time yet—let¡¯s wait a little longer,¡± said Erika.

 

¡°If you insist,¡± Eron sighed. ¡°Either way, you must promise not to do anything rash again.¡±

 

¡°Okay, okay,¡± Erika snapped. Then she looked up remorsefully. It was Eron who had been suffering the most recently. Not only was he worn out, but probably not in a good mood because she had only made him worry lately. Besides, he used a lot of energy in order to track and capture the Poison, for her sake. He had set aside dignity and poise in order to save her. Even though he would rather be buried alive than be humbled in front of Li Syaoran. Left alone, Sakura and Syaoran would have captured and sealed the Poison anyway, even with Sakura in such a condition. They are that skilled. Yet, why did Eron find it necessary to make things easier for them, putting all she planned to waste?

 

Because I was suffering from the Poison. He wanted to hurry and end my pain. It was like this, eight years ago, when we became the Dark Ones. He wanted my heart to be strong, and I didn¡¯t want to worry him anymore. That was all—we didn¡¯t know of Kinomoto Sakura nor Li Syaoran. Yet, the Dark Ones opened our minds. We were able to see the connection of the past and present, and how we had to bring about justice and redeem our name, bring back all that was taken away from us. That¡¯s why we¡¯re fighting them, not because we hate them, but because we cannot sit and wait for our own destruction to come about. Before that happens, we will set things right, for the sake of our ancestors and for ourselves. There¡¯s no other way. Even if it means defeating them.

 

Laughing shortly, Erika said out loud, ¡°Li Syaoran, don¡¯t you know that protecting her is futile? You are but an imperfect human. Moreover, you¡¯re a Li, proud, vain creatures, bound to the Clan by oath. You will be the cause of Kinomoto Sakura¡¯s downfall.¡±

 

******

 

¡°Isn¡¯t this outfit too flashy?¡± Sakura asked timidly, swirling around the puffy-sleeved taffeta dress which looked blue in one light and pink in the other. She had promised Tomoyo to try on the new dress and sleepover for the night. Sleepovers with Tomoyo were always fun, with plenty of cakes baked by the Daidouji chef, and an entire floor of the large mansion as Tomoyo¡¯s private space, complete with an entertainment room with a movie screen, a wardrobe the size of Sakura¡¯s living room, and of course Tomoyo¡¯s private sleeping chamber. 

 

¡°Beautiful!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed, videotaping to her satisfaction. Kero-chan twirled around in a matching cloak. ¡°Do you think I can get Syaoran-kun to wear this?¡± It was a magnificent prince-apparel, complete with a cape that was a mixture between blue and red, with a matching hat with a huge plume.

 

After Sakura had changed back to regular clothes, Tomoyo shifted in her seat, spreading out her pale rose silken dress. ¡°Sakura-chan¡¦ I have something to tell you.¡±

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura blinked. When had Tomoyo been this hesitant?

 

¡°I—I think I¡¯ve starting to like someone,¡± she continued, turning pink. 

 

¡°Eriol-kun, right? Why, that¡¯s marvelous!¡± Sakura exclaimed, grabbing both of her friend¡¯s hands. ¡°I¡¯m so happy for you!¡±

 

¡°You knew already?¡± Tomoyo blinked her amethyst eyes and sighed. First Syaoran, now Sakura. ¡°I must be really transparent, after all.¡±

 

¡°No, no,¡± Sakura reassured. ¡°It¡¯s just that, I¡¯ve always thought that the only person who could match Tomoyo-chan¡¯s maturity, insight and odd hobbies is Eriol-kun. I¡¯m really glad that you finally found someone so well-suited for you.¡±

 

¡°Ah, it¡¯s not like I really know what my feeling for him are yet,¡± Tomoyo stammered. ¡°And don¡¯t get me wrong, I still like Sakura-chan the best! It¡¯s just¡¦¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, Tomoyo-chan. We¡¯re still best of friends, no matter what,¡± Sakura reassured, hugging her friend. ¡°So I really hope things work out for you! If you ever need my help, I¡¯m always here!¡±

 

¡°Thanks Sakura-chan—but if you have the time to worry about other people¡¯s love life, shouldn¡¯t you sort out your relationship with Syaoran-kun?¡± Tomoyo asked, marveling at how similar Sakura and Syaoran were at times.

 

¡°We did—we agreed that we need to concentrate on conquering the Dark Ones, above anything else,¡± Sakura stated.

 

¡°That¡¯s awful!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed.


¡±Why?¡±

 

¡°I was all excited about making couple outfits for you two! If you two were dating, Syaoran-kun wouldn¡¯t be able to object,¡± Tomoyo explained, disappointed. Then again, she admired the two¡¯s prioritization of more important matters over their social lives. Their discipline amazed her. Either way, I¡¯m relieved that Syaoran seems to definitely have decided to stay here. Now he won¡¯t break Sakura¡¯s heart ever again.

 

¡°What do you see in him?¡± Kero-chan asked, gobbling a biscuit. ¡°That Hiiragizawa Eriol. Couldn¡¯t you have chosen someone more¡¦normal? Then again, I guess simply normal won¡¯t do for someone with such eccentric tastes such as you.¡±

 

Laughing, Tomoyo said, ¡°I admit, I do have eccentric tastes—I doubt he even reciprocates my feelings. I don¡¯t even think this is what normal people call ¡®love.¡¯ All I know is that I am fascinated by him, and want to know more about him. Nothing more. It might be a passing thing, for all I know¡±.

 

¡°It sounds like you¡¯ve undertaken a project, more that started the beautiful, innocent love of a teenage girl,¡± Kero-chan muttered. ¡°Just a warning—Clow Reed was twisted beyond your imagination.¡±

 

¡°Oh, don¡¯t worry—I have a very big imagination!¡± Tomoyo smiled firmly.

 

Seems like Tomoyo-chan has made up her mind, after all, Sakura thought, chuckling in the soft satin bedspread. The soft sound of breathing from Tomoyo¡¯s bed indicated that she was already asleep. So even Tomoyo-chan is capable of having a crush on somebody. Eriol and Tomoyo suit each other very well—in fact, there is nobody quite as similar to Tomoyo as Eriol. I really hope things work out.    

 

~~~~~~

 

A storm raged on and wind blew violently over the cliff edge. A woman with long dark hair stood at the edge, her white dress whipping around her like a ghostly veil. There were tears in her eyes as she turned around and mouthed, ¡°I loved you.¡± 

 

***        ***        ***

 

Wish-chan, September, 2004: Once again, the chapter was delayed amidst a trip to Hong Kong, hard-drive crashing and being replaced, and back to school preparations. Greatest apologies for the long wait. ^_^. Thanks once again for being patient and so encouraging.

 

MEANWHILE: This chapter is dedicated to the INTERNATIONAL NEW TRIALS DAY (September 1). Thanks everyone for putting it together, especially webmistress Serenie-chan. Visit the International New Trials Day webpage at: http://newtrialsgifts.tripod.com/ and send a word of praise to webmistress Serenie-chan for her hard work. I¡¯m moved beyond tears. I should work twice as hard. But that just results in the delay of the chapter because it turns out impossibly long. She also put together a New Trials mirror site at http://www.geocities.com/mejalyn. I¡¯m just amazed by how my fanfic lasted this long, and how much support people have.

 

Please join the Yahoo group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/newtrialsring/ (if you haven¡¯t already) where you can meet other great, great people and talk about CCS, New Trials, anime, life, stubbles, everything~ It¡¯s a great community, esp. thanks to our wonderful moderators. Over 1000 messages. Amazing. And there are very interesting polls also. Need to go check on some of the results. My favorite might be the ¡°Where did Kai¡¯s parrot come from¡± poll. Hahaha¡¦ No, no, that¡¯s not an evil laughter.

 

Truthfully, this is yet another ¡°bridging chapter,¡± lacking better terms. The ambiguity explains, doesn¡¯t it? Yes, that means Chapter 50 marks New Trial Arc 3.5, if such a thing exists. Life is hectic now—heading back to college tomorrow.

 

E-mails have been cherished for 50+ chapters, and always will be for 50 more, at hopeluvpeace@hotmail.com. Please, continue supporting for reviews are the opium of fanfiction writers. (Quote on Marx). Visit my site at http://www.wishluv.com . I need to hurry and finish packing, so I¡¯ll keep my comments here short. (Yeah right.)

 

Let¡¯s see if the Riddle (one of my favorite dark forces so far) will be captured next chapter. ^^