Chapter 49.5: Words We Couldn¡¯t Say

(Christmas Story Prequel)

 

 

Li Syaoran, former Chosen One of the notorious Li Clan of Hong Kong, currently resided in Tomoeda, Japan, living the life of a normal teenage boy, stressed by exams, occupied with extra-curricular activities such as soccer and the journalism club, and struggling with time management and social commitments. At least, his life was as normal as can be, considering that his chief companion, a pet dog of tan-colored fur and pointed ears, named Vega of Lyra, a.k.a. ¡°Wolfie-chan,¡± was formerly a dark force. Together, they started each morning by jogging around the neighborhood at the break of dawn, followed by Syaoran¡¯s martial arts training, and then warm down.

 

Meanwhile, his next-door neighbor was a former thief-turned-classmate, with the pseudonym of Mizuki Kai. In fact, his ex-criminal neighbor was probably the greatest source of nuisance to Syaoran. Not only did the former Thief of the Night insist upon blasting hard rock music on his 5.1 surround sound speaker system in the still middle of the night, but he also seemed to think Syaoran¡¯s apartment was his second home, casually dropping in and out for mealtimes every day. Somehow, Kai always knew when Syaoran had prepared a meal, and popped up from the kitchen window with his pet parrot. Today, his naturally white parrot, named by Meilin ¡°Perro-chan,¡± sported a crimson Mohawk. Leaning back on the chair and tapping his foot impatiently, Syaoran glared at Mizuki Kai who like every evening invaded his kitchen during dinnertime. Not only was Kai a freeloader, expecting Syaoran to cook and feed him, but he never stayed long enough to do the dishes.

 

Helping himself to another bowl of rice as usual, Kai stated, ¡°How come you¡¯re not eating? The vegetable stir-fry is delicious! Then again, I think you should have some meat—we¡¯ve had vegetable all week. I¡¯m getting sick of it.¡±

 

Containing his irritation, Syaoran said through gritted teeth, ¡°If you¡¯re getting tired of my food, why don¡¯t you make your own meals?¡±

 

¡°Arf arf!¡± echoed Wolfie-chan, yapping at Kai¡¯s ankles.

 

Kai jumped up on the chair and swatted at the puppy with a rolled up newspaper. ¡°Shoo, shoo.¡±

 

¡°Grrr¡¦¡± Wolfie-chan growled.

 

¡°Syao-kun, get this beast away from me,¡± Kai yelped, sunglasses skewed. ¡°Anyway, you know I can¡¯t cook for the life of me. No matter what, Syao-kun¡¯s cooking is the best, next to Mei-chan¡¯s. So now, good doggy. That¡¯s right. Good boy. Go back to daddy.¡±

 

Wagging its tail, Wolfie-chan trotted back to Syaoran¡¯s seat and jumped up onto its master¡¯s lap. Absentmindedly, Syaoran petted the puppy¡¯s head.

 

Resuming his meal, Kai asked, ¡°Anyway, has something been on your mind? You¡¯ve been flipping through your account book and sighing a lot lately.¡±

 

Slant-eyed, Syaoran remarked, ¡°Since when have you been so observant of my behavior? Is it a new pastime?¡±

 

¡°Nay, my friend. Only following Mei-chan¡¯s orders and keeping an eye on you,¡± Kai replied, setting down his chopstick next to his clean bowl of rice and patting his stomach. ¡°When she was here, Mei-chan was concerned about my constitution and insisted upon feeding me a healthy portion of protein every day. She¡¯ll cry when she finds out I¡¯ve been living on grass for the past weeks.¡±

 

¡°Ew! Ew!¡± screeched Perro-chan.

 

¡°Heh, then we can have fermented beans tomorrow,¡± Syaoran said crossly.

 

¡°Really? I like fermented beans,¡± Kai declared brightly. ¡°Beans have iron in them, which is good for replenishing red blood cells and¡¦¡±

 

Turning green, Syaoran mumbled to himself, ¡°I forgot this is the guy who can drink spoilt milk without realizing it has gone bad.¡±

 

¡°Mei-chan¡¯s doing fine back in Hong Kong. She says the atmosphere is really tense with the restructuring of the Li Clan; you know, the Great Elder is ill, so the Elders are waiting for him to name the new Great Elder—they¡¯re expecting it to be Li Wutai,¡± Kai said, twisting the heavy silver rings on his long fingers. Teasing the wolf-boy was his favorite pastime, now that Meilin was gone.

 

¡°Uncle Wutai?¡± Syaoran repeated in ill-hidden contempt. ¡°He¡¯d be pleased—he¡¯s been vying for that position for at least a decade now.¡±

 

¡°On top of that, the Inner Council needs to nominate a new candidate as the Chosen One,¡± Kai said, looking up at Syaoran expectantly, over the bridge of his sunglasses. ¡°Meilin told me not to say this, but you do know that your name has been stricken from the Book of Li, don¡¯t you?¡± There was a deliberate pause.

 

¡°That¡¯s nothing unexpected. Anyway, you seem to know a lot about the internals affairs of the Clan,¡± Syaoran finally remarked, pretending to be disinterested.

 

¡°Well, aren¡¯t you worried about it? With everything going on at the Clan; it was bad timing, the Great Elder falling ill, you forfeiting your title, the global economy in a decline, the busy holiday season coming¡¦¡± Kai trailed off, unable to decipher Syaoran¡¯s expression. He¡¯s shocked, definitely, yet he¡¯s taking it better than I expected. At least pretend to be interested in what I¡¯m saying. ¡°You didn¡¯t even tell Sakura yet, did you? That you¡¯re no longer the Chosen One.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s not important,¡± Syaoran replied, twirling a pen around his fingers and crossed out the figures on a notepad. ¡°What¡¯s important is that I chose to remain here. And I told Sakura so.¡±

 

¡°So¡¦ That¡¯s not what you were worrying about?¡± An eyebrow quirked and Kai leaned back on his chair, stretching out his long legs.

 

Believe it or not, family matters are the last of my worries these days. Good riddance, how does that former thief seem to have so much leisure? Syaoran said, ¡°Kai, this is an odd question to ask a thief, but where do you get your daily living from? You¡¯ve returned most of the jewels you¡¯ve stolen, and hopefully you haven¡¯t sold the Five Force treasures.¡±

 

¡°Ah, I see now!¡± Kai clapped his hands together. ¡°Money problems! Why, did mommy cut your allowance again, because she¡¯s mad at you for not coming home?¡± He snickered, mimicking Syaoran, ¡°¡¯I only joined the Best Couple Contest for financial reasons.¡¯¡±

 

¡°No, it¡¯s not a matter of docked allowance,¡± Syaoran replied grimly. ¡°They¡¯ve cut off all my credit cards and suspended my Hong Kong bank account.¡± ¡®They¡¯ clearly meant the Elders. Or more like the Li Clan accountant, his second uncle¡¯s third son. Luckily, he also had a secret personal account in Japan, which in the end didn¡¯t amount to much.

 

¡°Ouch, that¡¯s harsh,¡± Kai commented. So, the Elders were serious about punishing Syaoran, after all. ¡°The Li Clan¡¯s loaded. No need for them to be so stingy.¡±

 

¡°I need to find a job I guess,¡± Syaoran said, crossing his arms. When would he find the time? He was already overbooked. And he was sure Sakura and her friends would laugh, if they caught him working at the ice cream parlor, wearing a pink and white shirt with a red ribbon around his neck. Not that this was a time to be vain. If they thought he would return to Hong Kong once money ran out, they were mistaken.

 

¡°You can join the business—you did a fair imitation of the Kaitou Magician last time,¡± Kai stated, whipping out a rose and throwing it up the air. The petals showered down, then transformed into a top hat which landed on Syaoran¡¯s head. ¡°Code name Kaitou Wolf.¡±

 

¡°Very funny. I thought you¡¯ve retired from your ¡®business,¡¯¡± Syaoran said, snatching off the top hat and picking out a red petal from his tea disdainfully.

 

¡°Dear Syao-kun, from what I¡¯ve seen in life, those who try to earn a living through earnest means to do not get very far. All their life, they struggle, soak in sweat and toil, but what for? It is always those who use crooked means, if not blatantly dishonest, that survive in the end,¡± Kai stated, his cross-shaped earrings glimmered. ¡°Fraudulence enables you to survive, never honesty and hard work.¡±

 

¡°So, how do you earn your living, besides thieving?¡± Syaoran asked dryly. ¡°As a con artist or something?¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s a simple question,¡± Kai stated. He slipped out laptop and placed it on the table, facing Syaoran.

 

Skeptical, Syaoran eyed the blue screen full of charts and graphs. ¡°What¡¯s this?¡±

 

¡°Stock market!¡± Kai replied as a matter of fact.

 

Coughing, Syaoran demanded, ¡°That¡¯s it? You invest in stocks, and that¡¯s how you have enough money to buy an apartment on your own, travel around the world and buy all those ridiculous videogames?¡± Why am I not surprised to learn that Kai would feel no guilt about living off others¡¯ losses?

 

¡°Excuse me—the only means of surviving in this capitalistic society is through investment and vision; it takes talent to do well with stocks,¡± Kai stated, cracking his knuckles. ¡°And maybe this pro can teach you the knack of buying and selling stock and analyzing the quarterly trend.¡±

¡°No thank you,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°I think I¡¯ll stick to my honorable means of earning a living, futile may it be. I don¡¯t plan to invest what little earnings I have in my account for a venture that may collapse the next day.¡±

 

¡°So, you think stocks are too complicated?¡± From his sleeve, Kai conjured up a stack of cards, which he shuffled magnificently mid-air, then deftly caught them on the palm of one hand. ¡°How about trying your hand in gambling? One lucky deal, and you can secure yourself for the next decade. Viva Las Vegas!¡±

 

¡°Or you can end up on the streets without a stitch on,¡± Syaoran muttered. Stupid of him to ask Kai for advice. Either way, he had to pay the apartment rent, the electricity bills and phone bills, not to mention the cost of groceries and basic necessities. Furthermore, holiday season was approaching, and he wanted to save up enough money to buy Sakura a nice present, yet at this rate, he would be broke. He definitely needed to find a job.

 

Not heeding to the fact that Syaoran was no longer listening, Kai rattled on, ¡°Or you can work at a host club.¡± He leaned over the table and stared intently at Syaoran¡¯s face. ¡°Even I acknowledge you¡¯re a bishounen, and ladies pay well at host clubs, especially for such a cute boy like you. Of course, you can always try your luck with modeling—that¡¯s a little harder. You might not make if far because of the fierce competition, unless you go into the underground business and—¡±

 

¡°Shouldn¡¯t you be getting back?¡± Syaoran sighed, having reached his extent of tolerance with Kai.

 

¡°Nah,¡± Kai scoffed. ¡°I can stay for desert. Or you can try car racing— you put on quite a show in Tokyo with the police cars chasing you—and the F1 models are super hot, and if you gain popularity¡¦¡±

 

¡°There will be no desert tonight,¡± Syaoran interrupted, eyebrows twitching in irritation. ¡°Maybe I should start charging you for all the meals you freeload off me. That will be a start.¡±

 

¡°Perro-chan, it¡¯s time to go back!¡± Kai said, jumping up far too readily. ¡°Let¡¯s go back and do some math homework!¡±

 

¡°Oui oui!¡± Perro-chan replied flapping after its master.

 

¡°Finally some peace,¡± Syaoran muttered, leaning over on the kitchen table after he heard the door click. ¡°I guess it¡¯ll be the ice cream parlor after all, nee, Wolfie-chan?¡±

 

¡°Arng¡¦¡± Sympathetically, Wolfie-chan rubbed his wet nose against Syaoran¡¯s hand.

 

¡°The striped shirt is bad enough, but I really hate the red tie and matching visor,¡± lamented Syaoran. ¡°Though I guess I¡¯m not in the position to complain.¡±

 

******

 

The next day, Syaoran, one time foreordained future leader of the Li Clan, immediately began his first job search in the real world.

 

¡°Excuse me, is it necessary to wear that hideous pink-and-white striped shirt?¡± Syaoran politely asked the manager of the 100 Flavors Ice Cream Parlor.

 

¡°Do you want the job or not?¡± the manager barked back.

 

A bell rang at the door, and Sakura, Tomoyo, and a bunch of their girl friends entered the store.

 

¡°Ah¡¦ no¡¦¡± Syaoran replied hastily, ears turning red.

 

¡°Look! It¡¯s Li-kun!¡± Chiharu exclaimed.

 

¡°Syaoran!¡± Sakura waved, smiling. ¡°Did you come here to buy ice cream? Did you try the new Strawberry Marshmallow Cloud Deluxe?¡±

 

¡°Eh? Yes¡¦ Igottago¡¦¡± Syaoran dashed out of the store, leaving everyone puzzled.

 

¡°What¡¯s wrong with him?¡± Miho asked, licking her orange flavored sherbet.

 

¡°He used to do that a lot,¡± Sakura murmured, gigging as she licked her cone. ¡°I thought he finally got over that habit.¡±

 

Holding up her camcorder, Tomoyo stated, ¡°I¡¯ve more clips of him dashing off the scene like that than making a cool appearance.¡± Tomoyo didn¡¯t particularly think the ice cream parlor uniform was flattering; if Syaoran was searching for employment, she hoped that he might as well find a place with a nice uniform. Or maybe she could custom make him one.

 

 

 

Next, Syaoran tried the local fast-food restaurant, Happy¡¯s. Their manager was rapid-talking, very excitable and sprayed spit when he spoke. Carefully, Syaoran stepped back. This was a job he wanted even less than the ice cream parlor job. It demanded long work hours, was low-paying, and the kitchen reeked of cheap corn oil.

 

¡°You can start working anytime!¡± the amiable Happy¡¯s manager declared. ¡°We¡¯re always short of workers around this time of the year.¡±

 

Trying his luck, Syaoran asked, ¡°And do I have to wear that hideous red-and-white-checkered shirt?¡±

 

¡°Of course, it is our uniform!¡± the manager declared.

 

From a corner of the restaurant, Syaoran heard a familiar, haughty voice, ¡°And you won¡¯t guess what Eron told me! He said that I can¡¯t date you because you¡¯re a college student and too old for me! How old-fashioned! It¡¯s like he¡¯s my grandfather or something, not my twin!¡± A girl and a guy burst into laughter.

 

¡°Oh no,¡± Syaoran muttered, looking around rapidly for an exit. Good, Erika hadn¡¯t noticed him yet—she was completely absorbed with a tall guy with glasses and a pile of books.

 

¡°Here¡¯s your shirt!¡± the manager said, thrusting a putrid checkered red shirt at Syaoran¡¯s face. ¡°You can get changed and start working right away!¡±

 

¡°Ah, I¡¯m sorry¡¦ I¡¯ll think about it,¡± Syaoran stammered, before rushing out the backdoor.

 

¡°Eh? But this beautiful uniform is free!¡± the manager exclaimed, waving it in the air.

 

 

 

Syaoran had a bit more luck at the convenience store. The owner was friendly and very sympathetic.

 

¡°Nope, there are no uniforms. The dress code is pretty relaxed here. A neat, clean appearance is all that is required,¡± the owner stated. ¡°And the hours can also be negotiated. The work shouldn¡¯t be too difficult; basically I would need you to help with moving boxes, shelving, and managing the cashier. Hopefully, you are proficient in accounting.¡±

 

¡°Math is my favorite subject at school,¡± Syaoran replied. Finally a decent job!

 

¡°Great! You can start working right away. Kinomoto-kun! Show the new part-time worker around,¡± the owner called out to a tall young man stacking up cartons.

 

¡°Kinomoto?¡± Syaoran¡¯s eyes rounded. No way¡¦ Out of all places! ¡°Ah, excuse me¡¦ Please let met think over this job. He bowed, then rushed out of the store. Out of all places, Kinomoto Touya had to work at the convenience store! And here he was, thinking that he finally found a decent job. So much for that!

 

 

 

Several blocks away, Syaoran could finally catch his breath. He sighed; so much for finding a job. What bad luck he had. Maybe he should just put aside his obstinacy and return to the ice cream parlor.

 

Walking out of the bakery, Yukito, carrying a cake box and a bag of pastries, spotted a gloomy Syaoran. ¡°Li-kun, what are you doing here?¡±

 

¡°Good afternoon, Tsukishiro-san,¡± Syaoran said sighing. He wondered how Yukito could always look so happy. If only food could cheer him up like it cheered Yukito-san.

 

¡°Are you worried about something?¡± Yukito asked, tilting his head in concern.

 

Well, it¡¯s worth a try. Yukito-san knows a lot about the job market, for he¡¯s had quite a few jobs over the past years. ¡°Actually, I¡¯m looking for a part-time job, but I haven¡¯t had too much luck so far,¡± Syaoran admitted.

 

¡°I see. But you must already be overloaded with schoolwork, soccer practice, and volunteer service at the hospital,¡± Yukito said, munching on a meat bun.

 

¡°Tsukishiro-san and Kinomoto-san could handle multiple part-time jobs when you were in high school,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°Let¡¯s see¡¦ But I didn¡¯t have any extra-curricular activities back then¡¦ though we did help out a lot in various activities. Touya did soccer too, now that I think of it. Well, he was saving up money to buy a motorcycle. And I just took jobs because Touya did. It¡¯s kind of funny how similar you are to Touya, now that I think of it; he was always top of class and soccer captain too.¡± Yukito smiled. Not to mention overly protective of Sakura.

 

At the suggestion of any remote similarity between Touya and himself, Syaoran scowled.

 

¡°I know. There¡¯s a suitable job for you.¡± He fumbled around in his pocket for a business card. ¡°You might want to try here.¡±

 

Syaoran took the business card and read it. ¡°La Seine? Isn¡¯t that the high-class restaurant in downtown?¡±

 

¡°Yes. It¡¯s really selective in choosing waiters. But the wage is good, and the working conditions are suitable. And you can only work in the evenings, right? It¡¯ll fit your schedule,¡± Yukito replied. ¡°Actually, I work there right now, so I can speak in your favor to the manager.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯ll be great,¡± Syaoran said eagerly. This was better luck than he had bargained for. ¡°Thanks a lot, Tsukishiro-san.¡±

¡°Any time, Li-kun,¡± Yukito replied. He dug into his white paper bag for another meat bun. ¡°Do you want a meat bun?¡±

 

¡°No thank you.¡± Syaoran shook his head politely. The best way to show his appreciation was to let Yukito-san enjoy his food.

 

Looking rather relieved, Yukito bit into the steaming white bun with the seasoned, juicy meat oozing out of the sides. He licked his lips. ¡°Food always cheers me up!¡±

 

 

 

The manager of La Seine was a menacing, plump man with a curling moustache, and a booming voice. ¡°How old did you say you were, kid?¡±

 

¡°My name is Li Syaoran, and I¡¯m¡¦¡± Syaoran stared at his feet; luckily, he wasn¡¯t wearing his school uniform. With camel-beige woolen half-coat over dark brown trousers and a beige cashmere scarf casually swung over his neck, he looked older than a junior high student. ¡°I¡¯m a senior in high school.¡± He could pass for one; he was tall enough.

 

¡°Eh, you don¡¯t look 18,¡± the manager said, twirling his moustache. ¡°What work experience do you have?¡±

 

¡°Umm¡¦ Modeling. Babysitting¡¦ Professional mercenary¡¦ Bodyguard, violinist, actor, math tutor¡¦¡± Syaoran mumbled, still staring at his feet.

 

¡°Eh, what did you say?¡± the manager asked, picking his ear.

 

¡°Uh¡¦ None,¡± Syaoran said, louder.

 

¡°Humph.¡± The manager circled around Syaoran. ¡°You¡¯re good looking enough. Well, we¡¯ll put you on trial for a week. Be prepared to be dedicated and civil. Remember we are a restaurant of reputation and dignity, and we must always please the customers. You can get started right away. Tsukishiro-san, show Li Shoaling to the kitchen.¡±

 

¡°Li Syaoran,¡± Syaoran corrected underneath his breath. ¡°Oh, are there uniforms?¡±

 

¡°Uniforms?¡± the manager snickered. ¡°You won¡¯t be needing no uniform yet.¡±

 

The first night, Syaoran was stuck washing all the dirty dishes, mountains of greasy dishes which didn¡¯t seem to diminish, as well as carrying out the trash and mopping up the kitchen after working hours.

 

¡°Where are the clean silverware?¡± barked the manager. ¡°Li-kun, hurry up with the dishes!¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t they have dishwashers?¡± Syaoran grumbled, scrubbing harder. He had never seen more dirty dishes in his life. This was worst than when his four sisters made him wash all their clothes by hand when the laundry machine was broken.

 

¡°Do I hear someone complaining?¡± questioned the manager asked, raising a bushy eyebrow.

 

¡°No sir, everything is washed,¡± Syaoran said, proudly presenting the neat, gleaming stacks of dishes and bowls.

 

¡°Good, now go sort the trash and take them outside,¡± the manager.

 

¡°Disgusting,¡± Syaoran muttered, tying the smelly plastic bag and lugging the heavy load outside to the dump. ¡°Is this really what I have to do to earn money?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s always hardest the first week,¡± Yukito said, patting Syaoran¡¯s back sympathetically. Yukito was a waiter, so he hadn¡¯t been able to supervise Syaoran as much as he would have liked to. ¡°It gets better.¡±

 

¡°Really?¡± Syaoran said flatly. He reeked of the kitchen, his hands felt numb from all the scrubbing, and since he hadn¡¯t eaten dinner, he simultaneously felt hungry and nauseous from the stink of rotten garbage.

 

 

 

Syaoran concluded that Yukito must have been kidding when he said the first day was the worst. The next evening was definitely worse—he started off by being 5 minutes late for his shift, because he had to run from after school soccer practice.

 

¡°You¡¯re late, Li Shouting!¡± barked the manager. ¡°For every minute you are late, your pay with be docked 5%.¡±

 

Soon, Syaoran was put to doing more dishes. He was already exhausted from soccer practice and suffered from sleep deprivation since he had to stay up all late last night to study for the Japanese composition test today. It was probably not his fault that one of the waiters collided into him while he was holding a soapy dish, which slipped from his hand and shattered, but the manager blamed him anyway.

 

¡°Li Showa! Wage docked another 5% every time you break a dish!¡± the manager shouted. ¡°Now pick up the pieces before somebody steps on it!¡±

 

The other employees snickered.

 

Who knew that working at a restaurant would be this hard? Syaoran wiped his sweaty brows with the back of his sleeve.

 

¡°It¡¯s just a threat. He doesn¡¯t really dock 5% of your wage,¡± Yukito whispered in reassurance to Syaoran, helping him sweep up the shattered china. ¡°It¡¯s only 3%.¡±

 

As if the day could get any worse, Syaoran heard a sickeningly familiar, high and mighty voice. ¡°Actually, for most employees who work here, they¡¯re lucky if they can retain 50% of their wage in their first month.¡±

 

¡°Touya, you made it after all,¡± Yukito said, handing Touya a white apron.

 

Tying on his bow-tie for the La Seine waiter uniform, Touya replied, ¡°Yeah, the seminar at the hospital ended earlier than expected.¡±

 

Of course, why didn¡¯t I suspect before? Syaoran thought darkly, sulking behind the sinks. If Yukito was working here, that person would definitely be too. Speaking of the worst of luck.

 

¡°Brat, what are you doing here?¡± Touya asked, finally having noticed the miserable soap-splattered boy who was sending venomous glares his way.

 

¡°Li-kun started working here since yesterday,¡± Yukito replied. ¡°When you had shift at the convenience store.¡±

 

¡°Oh yeah, I quit that job,¡± Touya said. ¡°It was too much to handle, and this job has a higher wage per hour.¡±

 

¡°Li-kun, are you feeling okay?¡± Yukito asked, walking over to Syaoran. ¡°You look rather blue.¡±

 

¡°Heh, don¡¯t tell me the Brat is really working here?¡± Touya snickered, crossing his arms. ¡°Is he the delivery boy or something?¡±

 

¡°Actually, I introduced him to this job as a waiter,¡± Yukito admitted sheepishly. ¡°I thought you would be quitting this job, not the convenience store one.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right. If I knew you would be here, I would never have taken this job,¡± Syaoran stated defiantly, stepping back.

 

¡°Li-kun! Watch out!¡± Yukito called out. It was too late. Syaoran had bumped into a high stack of plates near the edge of the table, and they all came crashing down.

 

¡°LI SHENDONG!!!¡± shouted the manager.

 

With the manager¡¯s chiding, Kinomoto Touya¡¯s malicious laughter, and shrieks of remorse and amusement from the waitresses, Syaoran wanted to crawl into the dumpster and simply cease to exist.

 

 

 

When Syaoran returned home, he was greeted with Kai lounging on the couch as if it were his own living room, munching on a bagful of microwave popcorn, which he had messily spilled everywhere. Wherever he walked, Syaoran heard the crunching of corn kernels underneath his slippers.

 

¡°Where have you been these days? Why are you coming back so late?¡± Kai asked, looking up, throwing up a popcorn in the air and catching it in his mouth. ¡°Eww¡¦ You smell of grease.¡±

 

¡°Get out of my house,¡± Syaoran said darkly, kicking aside a popcorn at his foot.

 

Kai winced. ¡°Ouch. Got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m warning you, I¡¯m not in the best of moods right now, especially after dealing with him,¡± Syaoran said, kicking off his shoes and tumbling towards his room. Still smarting from the humiliation and degradation in front of Kinomoto Touya, he threw his soiled clothes into the laundry basket, which was overfull—he didn¡¯t even have time to do laundry anymore. ¡°Why is there color laundry in the white linen basket?¡± he muttered, holding up a black boxer with red heard over it. Again, his expression darkened. Kai¡¦

 

When he came out of his room again, in even worse humor, Syaoran asked dryly, ¡°You still here?¡±

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you making dinner?¡± Kai asked, pouring the rest of the popcorn in the paper bag into his mouth.

 

¡°It¡¯s 1AM,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°Yeah, and I¡¯m hungry,¡± Kai replied, wiping a crumb from his mouth. Crumbs dropped on the carpet.

 

Syaoran was about to snap, but realized that his stomach was rumbling.

 

Quarter of an hour later, the two were eating tofu and eggplant lo-mein, watching TV on the couch.

 

Slurping up the noodles contently, Kai asked, ¡°Did you get a job?¡± Only Syaoran was able to conjure up such a delicious meal in 10 minutes.

 

¡°Yeah,¡± Syaoran replied.

 

¡°It¡¯s tough, huh?¡±

 

¡°Yeah.¡±

 

¡°Should have listened to my advice,¡± Kai said, setting down his plate and leaning back on the couch. ¡°People do crazy stuff for money. Because in this society, you can¡¯t survive without money.¡±

 

¡°Yeah.¡± Syaoran found his stir-fry noodles rather unappetizing after spending all evening in the kitchen. He hadn¡¯t started on any of his homework in four subjects. Plus, articles deadlines for journalism class were approaching, and he didn¡¯t even have a topic. Wolfie-chan jumped up to the sofa and licked his plate clean.

 

¡°You¡¯re not much of a conversation-maker tonight,¡± Kai commented, staring at the flashing images on the television screen.

 

¡°I guess,¡± Syaoran replied. He usually wasn¡¯t, anyway. The Elders had trained him to obey wordlessly, and speak only when spoken to, and even then, only politely and concisely. That¡¯s why it was so awkward when Sakura initiated all her little, light-hearted chatter, like that first time they had a real conversation, by the seaside on the school trip back in fifth grade.

 

¡°A beginner magician is taught that skill comes with endless practice and endurance. But success comes with thinking outside of the box, using charm, beauty and the clever play of words,¡± Kai said, absentmindedly shuffling a deck of cards with one hand.

 

¡°Well, if you¡¯re finished eating, why don¡¯t you go back now?¡± Syaoran said crossly, mostly because he was tired.

 

¡°Don¡¯t overwork yourself. It¡¯s not worth it,¡± Kai replied, not offended.

 

¡°I¡¯m not sure if it¡¯s because of what Meilin said, but you really don¡¯t have to be overly concerned about my business,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, I¡¯m not,¡± Kai said, getting up and scattering all his cards over the carpet. ¡°It¡¯s just that when I look at you, I¡¯m reminded of a certain foolish boy who thought he could solve all the problems of the world with his own two hands.¡±

 

It¡¯s strange. I should be more tired, but I can swear that Kai looks ever more worn out than me. Syaoran reflected, in his drowsy state. Can¡¯t help wondering if it¡¯s mental or physical strain¡¦ ¡®Aren¡¯t you lonely living by yourself?¡¯ Sakura had asked, that one night years ago by the seaside. She looked at me with such inquisitive green eyes, so sincere, and I felt a warmth that I never felt before. That¡¯s right, I don¡¯t even have time to be lonely anymore. That would probably be thanks to Wolfie-chan, and that wretched boy who needs more guidance than even myself.

 

¡°Truly, when I look at you, Mizuki Kai I feel like my problems are quite trivial,¡± Syaoran chuckled.

 

¡°My sister will despise me, my mother won¡¯t recognize me, and I will only loathe what I¡¯ve become—that is what my future holds,¡± Kai murmured, leaning against the doorframe. ¡°You are very lucky; you know what you want, and you have chosen to stay by her side over all else, to protect her with all that you have.¡±

 

Kai was a surprisingly considerate guy at times, Syaoran realized. Albeit he didn¡¯t pick up his cards before leaving.

 

******

 

By the fifth day, Syaoran was no longer dropping any plates, and the manager was not shouting at him every five minutes. He had learned to obediently do his duties quickly and efficiently without complaining. So that he didn¡¯t have to sacrifice sleeping hours, he learned to do his homework at school, during break times, and he bought school lunch, so that he didn¡¯t have to wake up earlier to make lunch. Luckily, Aki had been busy with basketball tournaments, so that journalism club meetings had rather been lax lately. And as the soccer team captain, Syaoran ended practice earlier now, blaming the cold weather. Still, students complained that practices became twice as vigorous as usual, though it ended half an hour earlier.

 

¡°Eh, Tsukishiro-san couldn¡¯t make it today?¡± the La Seine manager demanded to his employees. ¡°He was sent on an errand by some doctor? Then, we¡¯ll be short on waiters tonight.¡± He looked around the kitchen with birdlike eyes. ¡°You.¡±

 

Syaoran continued mechanically scrubbing the dishes in scalding hot water. There was a silence in the kitchen. Then he looked up and around him. ¡°Me?¡±

 

¡°Yes you. Li Shawping.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran. Syao, the character for ¡®small¡¯ and Ran for ¡®wolf,¡¯¡± Syaoran corrected half-heartedly.

 

¡°Put on Tsukishiro¡¯s uniform. You¡¯ll be serving tonight,¡± the manager said.

 

¡°Eh? But the only experience I have as a waiter is during school cultural day when our class hosted a café,¡± Syaoran protested.

 

To his relief, Syaoran found that waiting on tables was a lot easier than doing chores in the kitchen. Balancing five dishes and seven drinks on the tray was effortless compared to some of the training he had to undergo in the Li Clan. The only difficult part was the occasional picky guests who took ages ordering, canceling orders and spilled food all over the table.

 

¡°You boy, smile more,¡± the manager said scowling. ¡°With that kind of expression, you¡¯ll scare all the customers away. Be courteous and polite, respectful and humble.¡±

 

¡°You don¡¯t happen to know the Elders, do you,¡± Syaoran muttered.

 

¡°Excuse me?¡± the manager peered at Syaoran. ¡°And don¡¯t mumble to your self. Project, and remember, smile!¡±

 

¡°Yes sir,¡± Syaoran said, carrying out the dishes laden with food on a tray with one hand.

 

¡°Don¡¯t drop the food!¡± the manager called out.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry—this is a lot easier than balancing a log with a bucket full of water in each hand,¡± Syaoran replied.

 

¡°Weird boy,¡± the manager murmured. ¡°It¡¯s strange how all the female customers love him and all the male ones are very wary of him.¡±

 

¡°Annoying brat,¡± Touya muttered, swearing revenge upon Yukito for introducing Syaoran to this job. Yukito just wanted to put us together, I know it. To see my reaction.

 

¡°What took you so long?¡± demanded a balding man dressed in a blue striped suit dining with a lavishly dressed, plump lady.

 

Syaoran set the food on the table quietly.

 

¡°I bet the food is cold already,¡± the man continued, picking at his pasta with a fork.

 

Without bothering to reply, Syaoran headed over to serve the drinks for the next table.

 

¡°What an impudent boy!¡± drawled the lady. ¡°I love his scowl though.¡±

 

Disdainfully, the man poked at his pasta again. ¡°What is this? Is this seafood marinara pasta? I ordered seafood carbonara pasta! Hey boy, explain this!¡±

 

Eyebrows twitching, creasing his brows, Syaoran said, ¡°I¡¯m sorry, but you clearly ordered seafood marinara sauce, not carbonara.¡±

 

¡°What are you talking about? I distinctively remember ordering cream sauce, not tomato sauce,¡± the man retorted, setting down his fork. ¡°I demand that you bring what I ordered.¡±

 

¡°This is what you ordered,¡± Syaoran repeated, restraining irritation. Were all customers like this? 

 

¡°That rude, impolite waiter!¡± the man declared, voice rising. ¡°I¡¯m going to complain about him to the manager. I refuse to eat this!¡±

 

The famous temper finally erupted, and Syaoran burst out, ¡°Fine then, if you don¡¯t want to eat it¡¦¡±

 

Before Syaoran could finish his sentence, Touya came up behind him and kicked him in the shin. Grabbing Syaoran¡¯s head, Touya made him bow over. ¡°I apologize for the waiter¡¯s mistake. He¡¯s new, so he doesn¡¯t know what he¡¯s doing,¡± Touya apologized hastily. Together, they bowed low.

 

¡°Humph. I demand for him to be fired at once! He dared to talk back to a customer,¡± the man stated, crossing his arms in satisfaction, glaring at Syaoran.

 

¡°It wasn¡¯t my fault,¡± Syaoran hissed, struggling under Touya¡¯s iron grip.

 

¡°Bow down lower,¡± Touya said through gritted teeth. ¡°And apologize sincerely. It is not your place to complain.¡±

 

¡°But—¡° Syaoran was cut off.

 

¡°Do you want to lose your job?¡± Touya demanded. He bowed to the man and woman again. ¡°You can count that dish on the house. If you still want the carbonara pasta, we will have the chef prepare it right away.¡± He glared at Syaoran. ¡°Apologize.¡±

 

Reluctantly, Syaoran bowed down and said through gritted teeth, ¡°I am sorry for my mistake. I¡¯ll bring in your order of seafood carbonara pasta right away.¡±

 

¡°Humph. It¡¯s okay. I¡¯ll just have this.¡± The man sniffed.

 

¡°Again, I apologize on behalf of this new, ignorant waiter,¡± Touya said one final time.

 

Trembling to subdue his infuriation, Syaoran followed Touya to the kitchen.

 

¡°Are you an idiot, talking back to a customer like that?¡± Touya demanded, once they were out of earshot. ¡°What do you think you are, the Emperor of Japan?¡±

 

¡°I told you it¡¯s not my fault!¡± Syaoran retorted. ¡°I did not hear wrong; that man is lying.¡±

 

¡°I know it¡¯s not your fault,¡± Touya said shortly.

 

Choking, Syaoran sputtered, ¡°Then why—¡°

 

¡°As a waiter, the customer is the king, and if they said you made a mistake, then you made a mistake. Just swallow it and accept it. You can¡¯t go around in the real world, thinking that you are always right, and that everything has to be your way,¡± Touya replied. ¡°Idiot; you¡¯re just showing your ignorance.¡±

 

¡°Well, if it means having some greedy pig take advantage of the situation like that, I quit,¡± Syaoran said, taking off his apron and throwing it on the floor. He yanked off his bowtie.

 

¡°Good, no employer wants some half-hearted, useless employee like you,¡± Touya retorted, arms crossed. ¡°Leave now.¡±

 

¡°Kinomoto-san! Your table¡¯s order is ready!¡± called out a waitress.

 

¡°Coming!¡± Touya replied, glaring at Syaoran before leaving the kitchen.

 

 

 

During closing hours, Touya yawned and gathered his bags to return home. The rest of the night had passed by without further hassle. Internship at the hospital was exhausting enough, anyway. Yet, he needed all the money he could scrape together. He returned to the kitchen to get his gloves. All the other employees had already left, but the lights were still on. Who was remaining over hours?

 

¡°You. Why are you still here?¡± Touya asked, surprised upon finding Syaoran mopping the floor.

 

¡°I need to finish today¡¯s duties before quitting,¡± Syaoran replied flatly. ¡°It was my turn to clean up.¡±

 

For a second, Touya stared at the boy hard. Would a person who was quitting sit around to finish cleaning duty till midnight?

 

¡°Who¡¯s quitting?¡± asked a booming voice behind them.

 

¡°Manager!¡± exclaimed Touya, turning around. ¡°You¡¯re still here?¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s all this commotion about? Li Syaoran, you can¡¯t quit—the restaurant is developing a reputation for handsome waiters,¡± the manager said, blushing happily. ¡°Female customers have increased by double since Tsukishiro-san and Kinomoto-san have started working. Customer response to you was highly positive today, and more girls ordered dessert today than any other day. You can¡¯t quit!¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Syaoran blinked.

 

¡°You¡¯ve past the first-week test. You¡¯re hired as a waiter!¡±

 

¡°You mean, no more dishwashing and trash sorting?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Of course. And here is your uniform,¡± the manager replied, handing a bag holding the waiter uniform. ¡°There are two sets, so you can wash them.¡±

 

¡°Great, I can go for the penguin-look now,¡± Syaoran muttered, eying the black and white waiter uniform. He sighed in relief; he wasn¡¯t fired, after all. Whether to be relieved or dismayed, he didn¡¯t know yet.

 

¡°No way, the manager gives other employee two week trials,¡± Touya muttered in disbelief.

 

Crossing his arms in satisfaction, Syaoran smirked at Touya. Though it meant working next to this fiend, at least he could be the wage was the highest someone his age could find in town. His stupid pride could be set aside for the time being. Besides, he couldn¡¯t stand the idea of that person having the satisfaction of seeing him sacked.  

 

******

 

¡°Syaoran!¡± Sakura exclaimed, catching up to Syaoran after school. ¡°You don¡¯t have soccer practice today? I guess we¡¯ll have the same shift at the hospital today.¡±

 

¡°We¡¯ll be the only ones who can make it today—all the others are busy, I think,¡± Syaoran replied. Lately, since holiday season was approaching, all the journalism students had gotten busier, and it was harder for everyone to make it to volunteer service. ¡°Kai has the same shift as us, but I¡¯m not sure if he¡¯ll make it.¡±

 

¡°Kai-kun has been missing a lot of classes lately,¡± Sakura commented off-handedly as they waited by the bus stop. The bus arrived and the doors swung open.

 

¡°He¡¯s like that. He doesn¡¯t have any responsibility,¡± Syaoran replied, stepping into the bus, swiping his wallet over the censor. Sakura fumbled for her bus ticket. The bus driver tapped his foot impatiently. Sighing, Syaoran swiped his card again for Sakura.

 

¡°Thanks!¡± Sakura smiled. They found a seat next to each other at the back of the bus. ¡°Here, I¡¯ll pay you back,¡± Sakura said, taking out some loose change.

 

¡°Don¡¯t bother,¡± Syaoran replied, waving it off and leaning back in his seat.

 

Sakura stared at Syaoran with scrutiny. ¡°Anyway, where are you always off to these days, after school? You¡¯re always in a rush.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m just busy,¡± Syaoran replied vaguely, cracking open the window and letting the wind blast in.

 

¡°You¡¯re always busy.¡± Sakura said, taking off her gloves. ¡°I¡¯ve hardly seen you in school for the past week. I don¡¯t see you at lunch, either. Where do you eat?¡±

 

¡°In the cafeteria.¡± Had Sakura been worried for him? Well, at least her brother hadn¡¯t told Sakura that he was working in the same restaurant.

 

¡°Syaoran?¡± Sakura¡¯s sweet, earnest voice interrupted Syaoran¡¯s thoughts. ¡°This may sound odd, but is there anything you want to tell me?¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Syaoran stopped short, startled. ¡°What do you mean?¡±

 

¡°Oh, I was just wondering. It seems to me that you¡¯re keeping something to yourself.¡± The bus halted. ¡°If anything is troubling you, you can always tell me. I¡¯ll listen.¡±

 

¡°I see,¡± Syaoran said, relieved that Sakura did not know all that was in his wife, a little happy that she would listen to all he had to say, some day. ¡°I¡¯m just a little out of it because I¡¯m tired, that¡¯s all.¡±

 

Once again, Sakura¡¯s selective perceptiveness unnerved him. Like when she had asked him if it was really okay for him to stay in Japan. She had told him that Sunday they were tracking the Poison, ¡°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 its 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.¡±

 

Sometimes, he felt foolish putting on this masquerade, that all was fine when indeed it was not, that he didn¡¯t know if he was doing the right thing or not, that all he wanted was to be able to continue being by her side a little longer.

 

 

 

¡°You¡¯re late!¡± snapped the manager as Syaoran entered the kitchen.

 

¡°Sorry, I was coming from the hospital,¡± Syaoran said, tying the white apron over his waiter attire.

 

¡°We¡¯re extra busy today—some business executive rented out the restaurant for the night and all the guests are to be served full course meals,¡± the manager stated. ¡°You need to get moving, boy. We¡¯re short on hands today.¡±

 

¡°Sir, what are we going to do? One of the cooks called in sick,¡± one of the waitresses said timidly.


¡±What?¡± the manager exclaimed. ¡°How ever will we cook all the meals?¡±

 

¡°The head cook is panicking,¡± the waitress replied.

 

¡°I can fill in,¡± Syaoran suggested.

 

¡°Silly, do you know how hard it is to cook for our reputable kitchen? The cooks have to pass three types of licenses and become apprentice to the head cook for a year before even being able to handle the food,¡± the manager declared.

 

There was a roar from the kitchen. ¡°I cannot make food for 80 guests by myself!¡±

 

Shaking his head, the manager said, ¡°Just go to the kitchen, boy.¡±

 

¡°Leave things to me,¡± Syaoran replied, cracking his knuckles. Running a restaurant sure seemed to be a difficult enterprise.

 

 

 

¡°Awesome,¡± commented the waitress.

 

¡°Amazing,¡± stated the assistant cook, holding up a piece of turnip, sliced so thinly that it was translucent.

 

¡°Stupendous!¡± the head chef exclaimed, piling up the chopped vegetables, which stacked up perfectly into a tower on the cutting board. ¡°Where did you learn to use the knife like this? Even chefs who trained for decades would not be able to master this precision, uniformity and beauty achieved through the blade. Every single piece is the same length and width.¡±

 

¡°Wait till you see me with the sword,¡± Syaoran muttered under his breath, staring hard at the barrels of vegetables he had chopped. ¡°What next?¡±

 

¡°Come over here and heat up the pan so that I can sauté the vegetables as a supplement to the filet mignon main course that I am preparing right now,¡± the assistant chef said.

 

Greasing the largest pan that he had ever seen with olive oil, Syaoran turned up the fire of the oven. The oil crackled.

 

¡°Wonderful!¡± exclaimed the waitress, missing the stains as she wiped the counter, as she watched Syaoran pour various seasoning into the pan full of vegetables without bothering with the usual spoons and measuring cups.

 

¡°Incredible!¡± exclaimed another assistant cook, as the pot boiled and the soup spilled over the edge.

 

¡°Boy, what seasoning did you use?¡± demanded the head chef frantically. ¡°I told you to just heat up the pan.¡±

 

Stirring the sizzling vegetables with a metal spatula, Syaoran picked up the handle of the pan and flipped its contents with the snap of his wrist. The sizzling vegetables flew up in the air and landed back into the pan, without a single piece landing astray.  

 

¡°It smells delicious,¡± said another cook.

 

Picking up several pieces of juicy vegetables with wood chopsticks, Syaoran handed it to the cook. ¡°Taste it—if you don¡¯t like it, we still have plenty of vegetable to start over again.¡±

 

The head chef sniffed the colorful vegetables, breathing in the sweet, aromatic scent, and then bit into it. Chewing carefully, he remained silent.

 

¡°Well?¡± asked his assistant cook.

 

Still chewing, the head chef said, ¡°As I bit into the vegetables, there was just the right amount of resilience in its flesh; it was cooked just enough, not into tasteless mush, and retained just enough crispness of fresh vegetables. The sauce melts in my mouth, in perfect harmony with the vegetables, adding a richness almost as if I¡¯m biting into the most expensive, tender steak.¡± Swallowing, he declared, ¡°Perfect! This is the best vegetable dish I have ever tasted in my life.¡±

 

The listeners, mouthwatering, dived towards the pan with their chopsticks. Blocking the vegetables, the head chef exclaimed, ¡°Stop! This is for the customers!¡±

 

Grumbling, the cooks headed back to their respective chores.

 

Taking Syaoran by the shoulders, the head chef stated, ¡°Boy, have you ever considered a career as a professional chef?¡±

 

¡°Not particularly,¡± Syaoran replied, wiping the sweat off his brows with his apron. It was hot in the kitchen.

 

¡°Well, do consider it; you have great potential to become the best cook of the East. And West!¡± the head chef declared. ¡°And I shall become your master!¡±

 

¡°Oh great,¡± Syaoran muttered. ¡°So this is when the series is renamed Cooking Master Syaoran.¡±

 

Syaoran¡¯s dish was such a success among the guests that night, that the head chef demanded that Syaoran become his personal assistant. The manager proved adamant, stating that Syaoran¡¯s face would be wasted hidden away in the kitchen, that he had to serve as a face of the restaurant as a waiter. In conclusion, Syaoran spent the latter half of his work hours doing food preparation in the kitchen, helping the head chef, and the other half, the busiest hours, as a waiter. Consequently, he was excused from the usual menial chores of the other waiters such as vacuuming and table setting. Considering he worked every day of the week, without taking any day off, and proving to the manager that he was a dedicated worker, it was no wonder that Syaoran¡¯s wage was now double that of regular novice waiters, especially since he had become the head chef¡¯s favorite. Over all, he worked harder than ever, but he earned more money than anticipated within the first two weeks of work.  

 

******

 

¡°Syaoran, you liar!¡± Sakura said reproachfully. There was never anything as frightening as the look Sakura had on her face right now, maybe because she rarely was so angered.

 

¡°No, Sakura, listen!¡± Syaoran exclaimed. ¡°I meant to tell you; I wasn¡¯t trying to hide it or anything.¡±

¡±I¡¯m sick of you always keeping things from me, thinking that I am not worth confiding to,¡± Sakura stated sorrowfully. ¡°I¡¯m not stupid you know,¡±

 

Syaoran reached out as Sakura turned around, her long wispy hair brushing against his fingertips.

 

¡°You¡¯re not even a friend,¡± Sakura continued. ¡°I don¡¯t care if I never see you again.¡±

 

¡°Sakura!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, leaping towards her, only to have her disappear through a black door.

 

 

 

¡°Syaoran. Syaoran, wake up; what is it?¡± Sakura asked, bending over his face.

 

¡°GAH!¡± Syaoran sat up from his couch. He was in his living room again, not in that black void of his dreams. There was no soccer practice today, so he had gotten home early and must have fell asleep on the couch. For a second, he had really thought that Sakura was there. He shook his head.

 

¡°What were you dreaming about?¡± Sakura asked, plopping down next to him on the couch.

 

¡°Gah!¡± Syaoran fell off the couch this time. ¡°W-what are you doing here?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t you remember? We have our literature group project,¡± Sakura stated. ¡°We were supposed to meet at your house, after school.¡±

 

¡°How¡¯d¡¯you get in here? Shouldn¡¯t you knock first, unless your name is Kaitou Magician?¡± Syaoran smoothed over his hair with one hand, embarrassed at having been caught off guard.

 

¡°I did knock, really loudly,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°But nobody answered, and we got worried. So I had to use your house key. Sorry; I keep forgetting to return it, but it¡¯s useful sometimes.¡±


¡±We?¡± Syaoran repeated blankly.

 

¡°Oh, Tomoyo-chan¡¯s here too—she¡¯s in our group, remember?¡± Sakura said. ¡°Eh, where did she go?¡± She looked around.

 

¡°Yes, I remember,¡± Syaoran replied, having no recollection of the assignment, and looked around suspiciously as he heard a whimpering sound from the other room. Getting up, he made his way to his bedroom and flung the door. ¡°I knew it!¡±

 

¡°Good afternoon, Syaoran-kun!¡± Tomoyo said pleasantly, sitting on the floor and holding something that resembled a frilly doll dress in her hands.

 

¡°Hand him over to me!¡± Syaoran stated, extending out his arms.

 

Sweat-dropping, Tomoyo said, ¡°I thought he¡¯ll look cuter like this¡¦¡± Sighing, she scooped up the shivering creature that was hiding underneath the bed.

 

Sakura and Syaoran stared at the puppy, dressed in a frilly triple-tier lace dress with a big red bow around its neck and a ridiculously floppy sun bonnet with little holes for the ears.

 

¡°Grrrr¡¦¡± Wolfie-chan tried to bite Tomoyo¡¯s hand, then rolled out of her arms, onto the floor, trying to knock off the hat, which Tomoyo had tied on expertly.

 

¡°Oh dear, don¡¯t drool over the silk,¡± Tomoyo said, as Wolfie-chan tangled his legs in the yards of red ribbon Tomoyo had been trying to tie around his tail.

 

Gazing at each other, Sakura and Syaoran suppressed their smiles, not knowing whether to be amused or feel pity for Wolfie-chan, since they had both been victims of Tomoyo¡¯s creative inspiration before. As Wolfie-chan tumbled over, the lace dress flopped over its head, tangling with the feather from the bonnet and covering his eyes, and the poor puppy ran about wildly, trying to untangle itself from the mess.

 

Unable to sustain themselves any longer, Sakura and Syaoran roared out in helpless laughter.

 

 

 

After Tomoyo was coaxed into altering the outfit for Kero-chan, she reluctantly removed the dress from Wolfie-chan. Henceforth, whenever Tomoyo eyed Wolfie-chan with the special spark of inspiration, the puppy crawled into Sakura or Syaoran¡¯s arms, whimpering.

 

¡°Where¡¯s Kai-kun?¡± Sakura asked as they took out their books and notepads. Though Syaoran had seemed less than enthusiastic when he had been assigned into her group at school earlier that day, he didn¡¯t have to seem so indifferent.

 

¡°Probably playing videogames next doors,¡± Syaoran replied, leaning back in the couch. His head pounded from lack of sleep, but he had late shift tonight and would get back even later tonight. If I double work hours¡¦ I might be able to earn enough money to pay all the bills and maybe even save up for Christmas. 

 

¡°I¡¯ll go get him,¡± Sakura said, standing up.

 

¡°Get who?¡± Kai asked, hopping in from the window. ¡°What, isn¡¯t it dinner time yet?¡±

 

¡°No,¡± Syaoran said, crossly. ¡°You think I live here to be your personal cook?¡±

 

¡°Well yeah,¡± Kai replied quite frankly. ¡°Why do you think I moved next doors to you in the first place? Maybe I should have moved next to Sakura-chan, instead.¡±

 

Bonking Kai in the head, and almost resulting in cutting his knuckles from Kai¡¯s spiky hair, Syaoran said, ¡°Don¡¯t even dream of it.¡±

 

¡°Anyway, about our project,¡± Tomoyo said, holding up the textbook decidedly—there was no end to Kai and Syaoran¡¯s bickering.

 

 

 

¡°Kai¡¯s been getting intolerable lately,¡± Syaoran commented later on, when Kai had briefly left the room. ¡°Say, Sakura, can I borrow the Age Card?¡±

 

¡°Why?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°Don¡¯t you wonder what Kai was like as an innocent preteen boy instead of this angst-ridden, tough delinquent image that he¡¯s holding up?¡± Syaoran said with a wicked grin.

 

¡°Oooh¡¦ a little boy Kai-kun, I would love to see that,¡± Tomoyo said, star-eyed. ¡°There were so many costumes that I made for Syaoran-kun that he never got to wear before he returned back to Hong Kong.¡±

 

¡°Heh, I would have a good laugh,¡± Kero-chan stated with a gleam in his beady eyes. ¡°And a good chance for revenge.¡±

 

¡°No, I will not allow you to use the Cards for such a purpose!¡± Sakura declared adamantly.

 

¡°Come on Sakura-chan, don¡¯t be such a spoilsport. Clow Reed always believed in a bit of mischief,¡± Kero-chan said.

 

¡°Don¡¯t you remember what a fool he made of us, back when we all fell victim to the Age card?¡± Syaoran demanded. ¡°When you were turned into a five year old.¡±

 

¡°You were all horrid to me!¡± Sakura declared pouting. ¡°Especially you, Li Syaoran.¡± 

 

¡°Anyway, it¡¯s not my idea; it¡¯s Meilin¡¯s,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Remember, she said some time ago, that she really wanted to try turning Kai into a child and see what he looks.¡±

¡±But that was back when we were trying to verify his true identity. And we have no need to do that now,¡± Sakura stated, hands on hips. ¡°I refuse to comply with this.¡±

 

The door swung open again. ¡°What are you guys all arguing over?¡± Kai asked.

 

Syaoran nodded to Wolfie-chan, who bounded forward and attacked Kai¡¯s ankles.

 

¡°GAH!¡± Kai leaped on the couch. ¡°Get away from me!¡±

 

¡°Sakura, hand over the card!¡± Kero-chan exclaimed, diving into Sakura¡¯s pocket and drawing out the Sakura Cards.

 

¡°Hey!¡± Sakura exclaimed, making a grab at Kero-chan, who flew out of reach.

 

Camcorder in hand, Tomoyo stared at Sakura with pleading eyes. She would never miss such an opportunity. ¡°Nee, Sakura, wouldn¡¯t you like to see what a Shampoo Model hair looks like? And what his real hair color is?¡±

 

¡°Take the card, Brat!¡± Kero-chan exclaimed, throwing the Age Card at Syaoran, who caught it between his two longest fingers.

 

¡°What in the world¡¯s going on?¡± demanded Kai, just as the dog leaped on his chest, resulting in him crashing backwards off the sofa, onto the floor.

 

Slamming the flat of his sword against the back of the card, Syaoran commanded, ¡°Take five years from the one who stands before you. Age!¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Still sprawled on the floor from Wolfie-chan¡¯s attack, sunglasses askew, Kai looked up at Syaoran grinning maliciously as a beam of light shot out at him. Kai¡¯s eyes widened as an hourglass turned five times. His body tingled. ¡°What¡¯s happening to me?¡± In horror, he stared at his arms and legs shrink.

 

The brilliant light faded, and Sakura, Syaoran, Kero-chan, and Tomoyo with her camcorder, gaping in anticipation. From a bundle of black clothes, a lean boy of eleven or twelve emerged. His glossy auburn hair tumbled into his eyes, peeking out from too-large sunglasses falling off his nose. In dismay, he blinked at the onlookers and stared down at his baggy clothing. Finding the end of his sleeves, he stared at his hands, still larger than an average preteen boy¡¯s, but clearly smaller and slimmer than his own hands, then touched his face and hair. Desperately, he ran over to the bathroom mirror, nearly tripping over his huge black jeans, falling off his waist. He took one glance at the mirror, before stomping back to the living room and demanding accusingly, ¡°What have you down to me?¡± Before continuing, he stopped short, surprised by his own voice. Though still melodic and pleasant to the ear, his voice was a higher tenor, with a boyish edge, lacking that practiced, suave manly tone that could charm a snake back into a pot.

 

¡°Sorry, Kai-kun. I tried to stop them,¡± Sakura said apologetically. ¡°We¡¯ll turn you back right away.¡±

 

¡°Liar—if you really were intent on stopping us, the Age wouldn¡¯t have obeyed me—you¡¯re its Mistress, after all,¡± Syaoran muttered.

 

¡°Admit it, Sakura-chan, you wanted to see him as a child, as much as we did,¡± Kero-chan snickered.

 

Unable to resist any longer, Tomoyo reached out and stroked young Kai¡¯s soft hair. ¡°Touch it, Sakura-chan; it¡¯s like silk.¡±

 

Setting aside her disapproval, Sakura ran her hand over little Kai¡¯s thick, lustrous hair, which rippled through her fingers. It was like satin. ¡°What a beautiful, rich color.¡± She fingered her paler hair with rue.¡±

 

¡°Well, you¡¯ve had your fun. Now turn me back,¡± young Kai declared, arms crossed. His shirt slid off his shoulders, revealing his smooth boyish muscles.

 

¡°Syaoran, do it,¡± Sakura said warningly.

 

¡°Fine, fine. Spoilsport,¡± Syaoran muttered. ¡°The fun was just about to start.¡±

 

¡°Can¡¯t we take a few shots of Kai-kun in this outfit before we turn him back?¡± Tomoyo appealed, holding up a cat suit.

 

¡°Please don¡¯t tell me that you made that for me back in the days,¡± Syaoran muttered.

 

¡°I thought that you might concede if I coaxed you long enough,¡± Tomoyo replied unashamedly. ¡°Too bad you grew out of it so quickly. No worries—I have one in your current size.¡±

 

Coughing, Syaoran held up his sword. ¡°Return the one who stands before you to his proper age. (Whatever that may be.) Age!¡±

 

¡°Well¡¦¡± Young Kai looked up impatiently. ¡°Aren¡¯t you going to turn me back?¡±

 

¡°I did turn you back!¡± Syaoran declared, halfheartedly for Kai remained the same. ¡°The spell didn¡¯t work.¡±

 

¡°What do you mean it didn¡¯t work?¡± demanded Kai, glaring up at his neighbor.

 

¡°It just didn¡¯t,¡± Syaoran replied, not looking as if he terribly minded his failure.

 

¡°Give it to me,¡± Sakura said, snatching back the Age Card. She released her staff and struck its head down on the Card. ¡°Return Mizuki Kai to his proper age! Age!¡±

 

Light flared and faded again. Kai remained the same.

 

¡°Why isn¡¯t it working?¡± Kero-chan asked.

 

Tapping his foot impatiently, and jerking his sliding sunglass up on his nose again, Kai demanded, ¡°Are you sure you guys are doing this right? I hope you guys aren¡¯t playing a prank on me.¡±

 

¡°I swear, it should have worked,¡± protested Syaoran.

 

Sakura stamped her fist on the palm of her hand in revelation. ¡°Oh no. I just remembered.¡±

 

¡°What is it?¡± Kai demanded uneasily. Surely he wasn¡¯t stuck in this form.

 

¡°Remember how we returned to our proper ages? Those with unresolved obligations at that particular age had to resolve the issue to return to the proper age,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°I didn¡¯t think that rule would apply when you were the Mistress of the Card,¡± Kero-chan commented.

 

¡°Are you sure you guys are trying hard enough to turn me back to my original age?¡± Kai questioned skeptically.

 

Nodding her head, Sakura said, ¡°I¡¯m sorry Kai-kun, but do you have any particular unresolved crisis at that age? It seems like that¡¯s the only way to return you to your proper age.¡±

 

Slapping his hand on his forehead, Kai stated in disbelief, ¡°You¡¯ve got to be kidding me, right?¡±

 

Bowing her head down, Sakura said, ¡°I¡¯m so sorry, Kai-kun; I didn¡¯t know something like this would happen. Are you sure you can¡¯t think of some sort of grudge or guilty conscience or something?¡±

 

Flopping down on his knees, hair covering his eyes, Kai murmured, ¡°Don¡¯t mess with me¡¦ Get me out of his form.¡± He stared at his shaking hands, his heavy rings sliding off his fingers with a clatter.

 

¡°Sorry, Kai-kun. Think hard!¡± Syaoran said, smiling encouragingly.

 

¡°Shut up. You¡¯re enjoying this, aren¡¯t you?¡± Kai glared at Syaoran ferociously.

 

¡°Well then, I guess you¡¯ll be able to try on a few of my outfits while you¡¯re thinking?¡± Tomoyo asked, breaking the tension, holding up a frilly prince outfit with golden embroidery and an Edwardian lace collar.

 

¡°Since we don¡¯t know how long Kai-kun will be staying in that form, I guess we should find some clothes to fit him,¡± Sakura said, turning to Syaoran. ¡°You still have your old clothes, right?¡±

 

¡°Eh? Yeah, they should be in the boxes in the storage room. I¡¯ll get them,¡± Syaoran said.

 

Picking through the neatly folded stacks of Syaoran¡¯s clothes from elementary school, young Kai muttered, ¡°Disgustingly preppy. How am I supposed to wear this? You have polo shirts in every single color. Even pink!¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t wear them if you have a problem with them,¡± Syaoran retorted hotly. ¡°You can just wear the cat suit.¡±

 

¡°Wonderful idea!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed, unzipping the suit.

 

Gulping, Kai said meekly. ¡°I¡¯ll find something.¡±

 

Half an hour later, Kai emerged from the bathroom in clothes that he fit him. Everyone sweat-dropped at the sight of him, a mini-Kaitou Magician to foot. From the stacks of Syaoran¡¯s old clothes, he had managed to find a black turtleneck and black jeans. Syaoran¡¯s elementary clothes were a little tight on Kai¡¯s somewhat taller frame, but they had to do. From somewhere, Kai had found of pair of sunglasses to fit him. As usual, he had taken the pains to spike up that silky auburn hair, and his fang ears dangled from his earlobes.

 

¡°It¡¯s quite disturbing seeing him dressed like that, at that age, a picture of an elementary boy gone wrong,¡± Kero-chan commented wryly.

 

¡°I hate to say this, but the stuffed animal¡¯s right,¡± Syaoran commented. ¡°How can you do such a horrendous crime to my clothes? At least get rid of the earrings.¡±

 

¡°Look, you ruined your beautiful hair!¡± Sakura lamented, poking at the rock-hard spikes.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, I¡¯ll have a new outfit whipped up by tomorrow morning,¡± Tomoyo declared, tackling young Kai with a measuring tape. ¡°Thank goodness tomorrow¡¯s Sunday.¡±

 

¡°Just my luck. It could have been a school day, so that I had a valid excuse to ditch, without being scolded by Mei-chan,¡± Kai muttered glumly. Glaring at Wolfie-chan, Kai demanded, ¡°What are you laughing at, stupid dog?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t vent your anger on a harmless animal,¡± Syaoran said, scooping up the puppy and taking Wolfie-chan out of harm¡¯s way. ¡°Well, I¡¯ll go cook a growing boy some dinner before leaving for my job.¡±

 

¡°Do you think I¡¯m in the disposition to be eating right now?¡± retorted the disgruntled boy.

 

******

 

The next day was a bright and crisp early winter¡¯s morning, and Syaoran took young Kai over to Tomoyo¡¯s house, headquarters for strategic planning.

 

¡°Oh good, you still haven¡¯t returned to your proper age, Kai-chan!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed, emerging from her room, swaddled in yards of blue satin.

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan, what do you want me to do with the ribbons?¡± Sakura trailed out after her, a frilly white apron covering her sweater and skirt, bits and pieces of fabric stuck to her. Costume designing was a lot more exciting than she thought it would be. Especially since she knew the resulting mannequin wouldn¡¯t be her.

 

¡°My dear friends!¡± young Kai lamented.

 

¡°Well then, I¡¯ll see you later,¡± Syaoran waving carelessly.

 

¡°What, are you leaving me here with these fanatic girls?¡± Kai demanded, craning his neck to catch a mischievous gleam.

 

Syaoran patted young Kai¡¯s head and smiled kindly. ¡°Sorry, I have to go to my job—don¡¯t worry, I have lunch shift instead today since it¡¯s Sunday, so I¡¯ll be free in the afternoon. We have hospital hours today, anyway. Oh wait, you have a legitimate excuse to skip today. Well, bye-bye.¡±

 

¡°What happened to cute, sweet, gullible Syao-chan?¡± Kai muttered. ¡°I¡¯ve made a monster out of him.¡±

 

 

 

Spraying bits of cake from his mouth, Kero-chan declared, ¡°Fantastic! Make him wear it!¡±

 

¡°No!¡± young Kai crossed his arms unyieldingly. ¡°I refuse to.¡±

 

¡°But I made it just for you,¡± Tomoyo said, with watering violet eyes. ¡°Isn¡¯t it marvelous?¡± She held up a pink frilly dress with a huge skirt, an alteration from Sakura¡¯s old costumes, tailored to young Kai¡¯s size. On her other hand she held Syaoran¡¯s old yellow macaroni wig from their fifth grade play Sleeping Beauty. ¡°Just try this on once—you¡¯ll look so pretty in it. And nobody will even know it¡¯s you.¡±

 

¡°I said, no!¡± Kai replied, eyes flitting across to find an escape route. ¡°I still have my dignity.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan, catch hold of him—if he won¡¯t wear it voluntarily, we¡¯ll make him!¡± Kero-chan stated exuberantly.

 

¡°Hoe? If he doesn¡¯t want to¡¦¡± Sakura sighed. When else would she get to see Kai in a dress?

 

¡°I¡¯m not wearing it, and that¡¯s final!¡± Kai cried out, swinging open the windows of Tomoyo¡¯s sewing room.

 

¡°Kai-kun! We¡¯re on the second floor!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed—and second floor of the mansion was a lot higher than regular second floors. Heedless, Kai jumped out.

 

Halting mid-air, young Kai came to a sudden realization and muttered, ¡°Ah, shoot.¡± And he crashed down into the garden below, defeated by the law of gravity.

 

Quickly, Tomoyo and Sakura rushed up to Kai¡¯s collapsed body in the garden. It was quite a fall, luckily cushioned by a pile of dead leaves.

 

¡°What happened to him? He usually has no problem with height,¡± Tomoyo murmured.

 

¡°Ah, his physical state must be before he learned magic,¡± Sakura said in revelation. ¡°So it was like when a normal person jumping out of the second floor—he just crashed down.¡±

 

¡°Stupid kid, forgetting that,¡± Kero-chan said from Sakura¡¯s apron pocket.

 

¡°I wonder if he¡¯s okay,¡± Tomoyo said rather guiltily, bending over Kai¡¯s unconscious body. ¡°It¡¯s all my fault for trying to make him wear the dress.¡±

 

 

 

A while later, Sakura exclaimed, ¡°He¡¯s stirring!¡± Tomoyo¡¯s bodyguard had moved Kai up to one of the luxurious spare rooms in the Daidouji mansion.

 

Blinking, young Kai looked up at the two girls and the yellow stuffed animal. Dazed, he looked around the large, sunny room, floral-print wallpaper and frilly yellow curtains trimming the windows. Looking down at his hands, and at the flowery duvet cover matching the curtains, then at the girls again, he asked with a polite smile, ¡°Where am I?¡±

 

¡°Ah, it¡¯s just one of the rooms in my house,¡± Tomoyo replied. ¡°Are you okay? I¡¯m so sorry. How is your head?¡±

 

Feeling his head, an expression of dismay came over his face, as he fingered the rock-hard spikes, which survived the fall in perfect order. ¡°What is this?¡± he asked.

 

¡°It doesn¡¯t seem like you have a concussion,¡± Sakura concluded in relief.

 

Gazing at the yellow stuffed animal questioningly, Kai asked, still very politely, ¡°Excuse me, but who are you all? Or more precisely, what exactly are you?¡± This was directed at Kero-chan.

 

¡°Eh?¡± Kero-chan and Sakura gaped.

 

Tomoyo coughed. Everything was getting more and more complicated. And interesting.

 

 

 

¡°It¡¯s horrible, Syaoran, Kai-kun fell off the second story building, and he¡¯s all right, but he¡¯s not all right. He¡¯s not Kai-kun anymore—I think he lost his memories or something,¡± Sakura rambled into her cell phone. ¡°What if it¡¯s amnesia?¡±

 

Sighing, Syaoran, crouching behind the restaurant table with his cell phone, whispered ¡°I¡¯m busy right now—I can¡¯t talk on the phone right now.¡±

 

¡°But what are we supposed to do—he won¡¯t be able to return back to his own age if he doesn¡¯t resolve the conflict. But if he doesn¡¯t remember anything, how will he be able to solve it?¡± Sakura paused, out of breath.

 

¡°Does he remember who he is?¡± Syaoran asked impatiently.

 

¡°Ah, didn¡¯t ask,¡± Sakura exclaimed. She walked over to the bed and asked smiling, ¡°Do you remember your name?¡±

 

¡°Tanaka Mikai,¡± the boy replied automatically.

 

¡°He says he¡¯s Tanaka Mikai,¡± Sakura said into the phone, feeling foolish, as if having asked the obvious. To think she would hear such a simple, frank answer from the meandering Kai. 

 

¡°Well then, what¡¯s the problem? Seems more like he regained his memory,¡± Syaoran said, peeking over the tabletop. The chef was frantically calling for him. ¡°Look, just humor him for the moment. There are two parts to the Age spell. First is physical, second is mental. When we were transformed by the Age, we retained all our current knowledge in our younger bodies. But I suppose the shock from the fall has knocked Kai¡¯s mentality back to his current physical age; his mental age is twelve years or so now.¡±

 

¡°But¡¦¡± Sakura was cut off.

 

The cook was looking for him again. ¡°Ah, got to go.¡± Syaoran hung up and called out, ¡°Sorry, I was in the bathroom!¡±

 

 

 

¡°He hung up,¡± Sakura declared woefully. Turning to the dazed innocent-faced boy, she said gently, ¡°Mikai-kun is there anything in particular that you feel like you need to do right now?¡±

 

¡°Actually, I¡¯m quite hungry, now that I think of it, Sakura-san,¡± Mikai replied, smiling angelically.

 

Sakura felt her insides melt. ¡°Well, it¡¯s time for lunch, right Tomoyo?¡±

 

¡°Of course!¡± Tomoyo declared with brilliant eyes. From the looks of it, she too had fallen for the young boy¡¯s magnetic spell, a very different charm from Kaitou Magician¡¯s overwhelming charisma. Everything Mizuki Kai did was calculated, to draw certain desired results. Unfortunately, those who knew Kai well enough knew his gentlemanly air was a mere façade for his manipulative whims. Yet, Mikai was so sincere and genuinely well-bred, a reflection of growing up in a fine environment with a loving family.  

 

 

 

After lunch, the group returned to Kai¡¯s apartment, hoping his home may trigger his memories again. Luckily, the front door was unlocked, since they didn¡¯t know what Kai¡¯s access code was. They tripped over various articles of clothing sprawled on the floor, scraps of paper and magazines, books, all carelessly tossed here and there.

 

¡°What a pigsty,¡± muttered Kero-chan. It was a pity because the house itself was furnished in the latest style with the latest technology.

 

¡°Perro! Perro!¡± cried out Perro-chan. Today, Kai¡¯s pet parrot was simply white, for Kai had been in no state to change his pet¡¯s color recently.

 

Young Mikai turned to Sakura and Tomoyo questioningly.

 

¡°Ah, this is your home. And that is your pet parrot,¡± Sakura explained. ¡°I think you call him Perro-chan.¡±

 

Smiling gently, Mikai extended out his forefinger gracefully, and the parrot perched on his finger, crooning adoringly. Even though his form may be different, the bird recognized his master easily. Sakura noted how long Mikai¡¯s fingers were compared to most elementary kids. At that age, he still had a magician¡¯s hands. ¡°This is not my home,¡± he said quietly yet firmly.

 

¡°Hoe.¡± Sakura panicked. But she couldn¡¯t take him back to his real house, because it wasn¡¯t there anymore, and how could she explain it to the boy without putting him in too much shock? He was such a nice boy.

 

¡°She¡¯s writhing in agony over the situation,¡± muttered Kero-chan. ¡°The Brat will throw a fit when he learns that the Kaitou Magician Fan Club has a new member.¡±

 

Pensive for a moment, Tomoyo suggested, ¡°Why don¡¯t we walk around the neighborhood and see if Mikai recognizes anything?¡±

 

 

 

Having washed out all the gel from his hair, Tanaka Mikai stepped out of the apartment with perfectly parted, shining auburn hair, which caught the gentle early winter breeze like strands of silk, and the usual gloom of his dark attire was nowhere in sight. Instead, he wore a crisp light blue polo shirt under a navy blue cashmere vest, which brought out the blueness in his eyes, completed by freshly pressed beige pants and brown suede shoes, all from Syaoran¡¯s old wardrobe. His earlobes seemed strangely bare without its usual array of earrings.

 

¡°I thought Kai would rather die than wear the ¡®preppy¡¯ style,¡± Kero-chan muttered, sinking into Sakura¡¯s coat pocket.

 

¡°Isn¡¯t he so cute?¡± Sakura squealed, star-eyed. She had always wanted a sweet younger sibling. Except, Mikai, though younger than her at the moment, still emanated a responsible, dependable image despite his childish face. The awe she felt of him was kind of similar to the awe she felt for her brother. That¡¯s right, the kind of person you can always depend on to remain calm and in charge despite what problems arise.

 

Meanwhile, Tomoyo was busily filming her favorite subject in complete rapture, and the object of her current curiosity and fascination, the inscrutable Tanaka Mikai. His name had been notorious even before he had ever took up the branded title of Kaitou Magician. As the daughter of a prestigious toy company president, she had been exposed to news among the elites all her life. And the golden name of Tanaka Mikai, multitalented son of Tanaka Keisuke of the Technology and Electronics Department of Kinhoshi Enterprise, was a commonly murmured name among the adults back in the days. Probably Tomoyo may have run across him in the past, in various formal social gatherings that her mother had made her attend. Most of the time, she tended to avoid posh, elite parties and such.  

 

Bending over to Mikai, Sakura asked, ¡°Is there anywhere I particular that you want to go to?¡± Even if Kai couldn¡¯t remember what he had to resolve from the past, maybe Mikai would.

 

¡°Well¡¦¡± Mikai looked pensive for a moment.

 

¡°Sakura-chan! Tomoyo-chan! What are you two doing in town?¡± Chiharu called out, waving her hand. She was shopping with Rika and Naoko. 

 

¡°Mikai-kun, try not to stand out too much, okay?¡± Tomoyo whispered, blocking him from view and plunking a blue baseball hat over his head. ¡°Keep your real name hidden, okay?¡±

 

¡°No problem,¡± Mikai replied compliantly, adjusting the baseball cap over his head, without questioning why Tomoyo was being so cautious, to her relief

 

¡°Who¡¯s the boy with you?¡± Naoko asked, glancing at Mikai curiously, pushing her glasses up her nose.

 

¡°Ah, he¡¯s¡¦ He¡¯s¡¦¡± Sakura stammered.

 

¡°He¡¯s Sakura¡¯s cousin, Kaido-kun,¡± Tomoyo covered up quickly.

 

¡°Nice to meet you,¡± Mikai said, bowing.

 

Clasping her hands together, Chiharu squealed, ¡°How adorable! I didn¡¯t know you had such a cute younger cousin, Sakura-chan!¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t either,¡± Sakura replied weakly.

 

Peering closer at Mikai, Naoko commented, ¡°Strange, he looks rather familiar.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s probably the family resemblance,¡± Sakura said too quickly, laughing weakly.

 

¡°Ah, such pretty hair,¡± Rika commented, as she glimpsed a strand of rich red-gold hair from under the cap.

 

Smiling radiantly, Mikai said, ¡°Not as pretty as your lustrous chestnut brown curls, onee-san.¡±

 

Blushing, Rika fingered her hair bashfully and stammered, ¡°No way¡¦¡±

 

Sakura and Tomoyo glanced at each other and sweat-dropped. Young Mikai was just as much of a lady-killer as Kaitou Magician. Some people were just naturals. Desperately thwarting Chiharu, Naoko, and Rika, they continued down the street.

 

 

 

Licking her ice cream cone happily, Miho chattered excitedly, ¡°Mother told me she¡¯s been working on her novel lately. The doctor¡¯s told me that she¡¯s been doing much better after my visits—she might even be able to spend Christmas outside of the hospital. Think of that! I have a feeling today¡¯s going to be a lucky day. Something good¡¯s going to happen. Are you sure you don¡¯t want a scoop of ice cream too, Eriol? Mmm¡¦ This oranges and cream flavor is the best!¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m fine,¡± Eriol replied, holding the door open to the ice cream parlor as they exited, watching Miho prance out.

 

¡°You¡¯re missing out, Eriol-kun!¡± stated Nakuru, crunching into the waffle cone. She shivered—it was getting too cold for ice cream.

 

Walking, chattering, and licking her ice cream cone all at once, Miho continued, ¡°Either way, I must find that wretched Riddle again.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t fret over it—it¡¯s a temperamental force. It will turn up when it will,¡± Eriol said, wondering if the ice cream tasted that good. He took out his handkerchief and wiped a blob of ice cream of Miho¡¯s cheek.

 

¡°Ha, that sounds rather like my brother, doesn¡¯t it?¡± Miho laughed extra hard. Turn up when he will. Then, she halted mid-street as she stared across the street, pallid as if she¡¯d seen a ghost. Her scoop of ice cream fell off its cone and landed on the sidewalk with a splat.

 

Glasses gleaming, Eriol asked calmly, ¡°What¡¯s the matter, Miho?¡±

 

¡°What, what?¡± Nakuru asked, hopping up and down. She turned to Eriol and smiled mischievously.

 

Shaking her head rapidly, Miho replied hastily, ¡°Nothing—I must have seen wrong.¡± She stared at her empty cone woefully. 

 

¡°Come, I¡¯ll get you a new cone,¡± Eriol said.

 

¡°Me too!¡± Nakuru stated, popping the rest of her cone into her mouth. She licked her lips. ¡°Mmm¡¦ Delicious.¡±

 

 

 

¡°Who thought we would run into Miho-chan here,¡± Sakura whispered to Tomoyo, as they hurried through a back ally. ¡°We weren¡¯t being cautious enough.¡±

 

Popping his head out of Sakura¡¯s pocket, Kero-chan asked, ¡°What would happen if he bumped into Miho?¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. It would just be weird,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°Not the way Kai would want to be reunited with his sister. It¡¯s not a good idea to be wondering around here—my house is nearby. Let¡¯s go there.¡±

 

¡°Good idea,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°We¡¯ll tell Syaoran to meet us there, and we¡¯ll try to think of something. Kai can¡¯t stay in this form forever.¡±

 

Nodding, Sakura said, ¡°It¡¯s all my fault—I should never have allowed the Age to be used. If I had been firmer—¡°

 

¡°Silly, you were the only one opposed to it,¡± Kero-chan stated, crossing his arms, forgetting his own demand to have Kai transformed. ¡°It¡¯s all the Brat¡¯s fault.¡±

 

A reassuring hand touched her arm. Sakura looked down.

 

Mikai smiled at her. ¡°I don¡¯t know what you¡¯re so worried about, but I¡¯m sure everything will be all right.¡±

 

¡°Hanyaan!¡± squealed Sakura. ¡°Mikai-kun, you¡¯re so considerate.¡±

 

¡°I haven¡¯t heard her do that in a while,¡± Kero-chan muttered. ¡°¡¯Hanyan.¡¯¡±

 

Tomoyo giggled. ¡°May it be the Mizuki charm?¡±

 

 

 

Staring blankly at the radiant boy, wearing his own old elementary clothes, in fact, his favorite vest from then, gracing the Kinomoto house, Syaoran whistled. ¡°What a transformation. I see what you guys mean now.¡± He had rushed over to Sakura¡¯s house as soon as his work shift had ended, without bothering with clean up, and was greeted with such a sight. Syaoran had been a little disgruntled to find the girls following around young Kai, awe-struck, unable to take their eyes off of him. Even Kero-chan was stunned into silence by this point, as Syaoran shortly found himself to be. Not only had the boy bowed politely upon introduction to Syaoran, proving manners beyond the grouchy, smart-alert Kaitou Magician, but he was furthermore wearing light colors, which brought out his true complexion—he looked more respectable than a children¡¯s designer brand poster model. A complete image change from the dark, delinquent attire of Kai¡¯s. Kai would cry should he come to his sense and look in the mirror right now. No, the sunny auburn-haired boy standing in front of him was not Mizuki Kai, but a complete stranger. He was the picture of Tanaka Mikai brought to life.

 

¡°Don¡¯t look so dismayed,¡± Kero-chan muttered. Sakura¡¯s brother and father were out, so he was free to fly around the house. ¡°You¡¯ve seen nothing yet—he¡¯s so goody-goody, enough to make you throw up.¡±

 

¡°Good heavens, I¡¯d trade him for Kai any day,¡± Syaoran stated, wondering where Kai had gone so wrong.

 

¡°Both of them are hopeless,¡± Tomoyo lamented, setting down her camcorder.

 

¡°Don¡¯t mind her,¡± Kero-chan snickered. ¡°Mikai wouldn¡¯t wear her dress either, so she¡¯s just sulking. You remember that dress from Sleeping Beauty.¡±

 

Glaring at Kero-chan for reminding me of him painful memories, Syaoran walked out of the kitchen to look for Sakura. Maybe he was a little relieved that Kai was the way he was now, for if he decided to return to being Tanaka Mikai, Syaoran would rather feel uneasy about the effect he would have on Sakura. Mikai was rather a Yukito-type, and Sakura liked gentle, considerate guys. Her knees went wobbly, and she went ¡®hanyaan.¡¯   

 

¡°Sakura-san¡¯s house has a pleasant, cozy feel to it,¡± Mikai murmured, wandering from the hallway into the quaint living room with its warm yellow wallpaper and various pictures on the wall of Nadeshiko. ¡°It¡¯s a place that feels alive, where you can feel the love in it.¡±

 

Fingering the picture on the wall of her beaming mother in a field of sunflowers, Sakura murmured, ¡°It¡¯s the house my father bought for my mother, after they struggled for a year in a rented room, when he was still a poor, struggling teacher, and she was just a high school student. They had my brother in here, and they filled the place with love. Mother decorated the house, and everything, the furniture, the curtains and the ornaments were hand-chosen by her. And my father chose the pictures of her, and he changes them often, so that all her different selves can see how we are growing, even if she isn¡¯t here with us.¡±   

 

Watching Sakura¡¯s glowing face, Syaoran realized how much her house meant to her. Mikai pinpointed that so easily, when he had never paused to think of it. That¡¯s right, I always knew there was something special about this house, but I never could place it in words. It holds all of Sakura¡¯s memories of her childhood, her mother, her family. Mikai¡¯s right, it is a place full of love. But I don¡¯t understand that feeling. My home in Hong Kong feels like a large, foreboding place to me now, and my apartment here yet feels like a temporary residence. No, that¡¯s not right. When Sakura was there, when she was in the room across the hall, when she cooked in the kitchen, when she fell asleep on the living room couch, that house felt alive. Somehow, his thoughts felt familiar. He vaguely recollected Nadeshiko¡¯s words of years ago to his own father. Then, he had not understood it as he did right now.

 

¡°It is a beautiful house,¡± Tomoyo agreed. ¡°More beautiful than any I have ever seen.¡±

 

¡°But you live in such a huge, wonderful mansion,¡± Sakura remarked.

 

Shaking her long hair, Tomoyo replied, ¡°It¡¯s not about how large, or how luxurious a house is that determines its worth. When it¡¯s empty inside, it¡¯s but a meaningless shell.¡± She giggled. ¡°And I didn¡¯t realize until now why I enjoyed sleepovers at your place more than mine, even without my personal theater and the costume dressing room.¡±

 

¡°Eh, I like sleepovers at Tomoyo-chan¡¯s better,¡± declared Kero-chan. ¡°The maids always serve delicious cakes.¡±

 

¡°But when we¡¯re here, your father or brother always brings up home-made snacks,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°Which are so much more delicious than anything bought, no matter how expensive or fresh they may be.¡±

 

Grabbing the flying Kero-chan by the waist, Mikai peered at him curiously. He tickled Kero-chan¡¯s foot. Kero-chan squirmed in anguish. ¡°I¡¯ve been wondering for a while now—this is a wonderfully made robot. I wonder how the wings work. Its intelligence, facial expressions, and reflexes are superb. Though I admit the model design is a little tacky¡¦¡±

 

¡°Hey!¡± Kero-chan bit Mikai¡¯s hand. ¡°How dare you call the great Cerberus-sama tacky?¡±

 

Unfazed, Mikai continued, ¡°Can I take him apart? I promise I¡¯ll put him back perfectly. I must see how he is constructed for he is far more advanced than my iRobot Model A360.¡±

 

Realizing that Mikai was serious, Kero-chan wriggled out of the boy¡¯s tight grasp. ¡°GAH! Sakura-chan, help me!¡±

 

Giggling, Sakura said, ¡°I doubt you¡¯ll be able to put Kero-chan back—he¡¯s very precious to me, so I¡¯d rather not you dissect him.¡±

 

At that moment, the front door creaked. Quickly, Kero-chan hid behind Tomoyo¡¯s hair.

 

¡°Kaijou, I¡¯m back!¡± called out Touya. ¡°Just wait and let¡¯s see if you did any of your chores today.¡±

 

¡°Touya, Sakura¡¯s not a kid anymore—she¡¯ll do her chores without your chiding,¡± Yukito said.

 

Drooping her head down, her pigtails sagging, Sakura murmured, ¡°Didn¡¯t do them.¡±

 

Spotting Syaoran standing in his living room, Touya¡¯s eyes narrowed. The lightening sparks started. Seeing him twice in one day! What bad luck. ¡°What are you doing here, Brat?¡±

 

¡°What are you doing here?¡± demanded Syaoran, arms crossed. It was bad enough seeing Touya at work; now at Sakura¡¯s house!

 

¡°It¡¯s my house, idiot,¡± Touya replied, slamming the groceries down.

 

¡°Now, now, don¡¯t start another argument. There¡¯s enough static in the winter anyway,¡± Yukito said. ¡°Hello, Sakura, Tomoyo. And who¡¯s this?¡±

 

Touya¡¯s eyes caught sight of Mikai. The boy was striking not because of his facial features, though his pale eyes were an unexpected contrast to such a vibrant hair color, but because of that strange aura of peace and tranquility resting upon his shoulders. ¡°I¡¯ve seen you before,¡± he said shortly.

 

¡°Hoe!¡± Sakura waved her arms frantically. ¡°Ah, well, this is my c-cousin, Kaido¡¦¡±

 

¡°Sakura,¡± Touya said, bending over to his sister¡¯s face gravely. ¡°We don¡¯t have any cousins. Mother was an only child. And father¡¯s side of the family doesn¡¯t exactly associate with us, do they?¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan meant Kaido-kun¡¯s my cousin, and Sakura and I are second cousins, so we¡¯re almost family,¡± Tomoyo explained rapidly, dragging Mikai upstairs to Sakura¡¯s room before arousing any more suspicion. Sakura and Syaoran followed them.

 

Staring at the boy disappear upstairs, Touya murmured, ¡°Tanaka Mikai.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Yukito stared at Touya questioningly.

 

 

 

¡°WAH! He beat me again!¡± wailed Kero-chan, frantically pounding on the control button. Previous tension eased, Mikai and Kero-chan were excitedly playing a videogame, while Sakura sat at her desk, solving homework problems, and Tomoyo sat on the bed, videotaping. Watching Mikai playing videogames with Kero-chan made him almost seem like any ordinary boy. Syaoran sat on the floor, reading a book, yet his gaze was more often directed at Sakura. They were killing time until their hospital shift at five.   

 

Chewing on the end of her pencil, Sakura groaned, ¡°Why are there so many math problems for Monday? How long did it take you to solve them, Tomoyo-chan?¡±

 

¡°An hour or so,¡± Tomoyo replied.

 

¡°That¡¯s not too bad,¡± Sakura said, looking a little reassured. ¡°I guess the later problems get easier. I hate trigonometry—I feel like I¡¯m getting the signs all wrong.¡±

 

¡°Remember, if it takes Tomoyo one hour, it¡¯ll take you at least four,¡± Syaoran said nonchalantly from the floor.

 

¡°Meanie!¡± Sakura threw a stuffed animal at Syaoran, who dodged easily. ¡°You can at least offer to help.¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t even solve them myself, yet,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura blinked. It was unlike Syaoran to procrastinate on homework. He wouldn¡¯t have time to work on them later on today; she would have expected him to have them done the previous day.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, I can solve them in thirty minutes,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°Show off,¡± muttered Sakura, fretting over the numbers and symbols swimming in front of her.

 

Having won another round against Kero-chan, Mikai walked up to the desk and asked, ¡°Maybe I can help you, Sakura-san?¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Sakura looked up. ¡°I don¡¯t think you¡¯ve learned trig yet¡¦¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦¡± Mikai was already pouring over the textbook. ¡°I see. Should I show you an easy way to determine the signs?¡± Picking up the pencil, he sketched on a scrap piece of paper a horizontal line crossed by a vertical line. ¡°Here is the graph. As you know, in the first coordinate, all signs are positive.¡± He wrote an ¡°A¡± for all on the upper right hand box. ¡°In the second coordinate, only sine is positive, and the rest would be negative. In the third, tangent is, and in the fourth coordinate, only cosine is positive.¡± He wrote ¡°S¡± on the upper left-hand box, ¡°T¡± in the one below, and ¡°C¡± in the lower right-hand box. ¡°If you read it from the fourth coordinate, counterclockwise, it spells out ¡®CAST.¡¯ The same rules apply to secant, cosecant, and cotangent, and if you just remember this, you won¡¯t get the positive and negative signs mixed up.¡±

 

¡°Wow, that¡¯s an easy way to remember this,¡± Sakura exclaimed, gazing at Mikai in awe. ¡°You know so much at your age. It¡¯s amazing!¡±

 

¡°Ah, it¡¯s nothing,¡± Mikai brushed off bashfully.

 

Patting Mikai¡¯s back, Syaoran said dangerously complimentarily, ¡°My, my, you¡¯re a very smart boy, aren¡¯t you?¡±

 

¡°And much nicer than you are, Li Syaoran!¡± Sakura declared, sticking out her tongue.

 

¡°Oh, it¡¯s time!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed strategically. ¡°To go to the hospital.¡±

 

¡°Mikai-kun, if you want, you can stay here with Kero-chan,¡± Sakura said. ¡°We won¡¯t take longer than two hours.¡±

 

¡°Actually, if you wouldn¡¯t mind, I¡¯ll like to go with you,¡± Mikai replied. ¡°I can be of some help too—you mentioned that a person is missing today, so maybe I can fill the spot.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re the one missing,¡± muttered Syaoran.

 

¡°It¡¯s nice of you to offer to help out, too, Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura said, turning to her friend.

 

¡°She just wants to videotape,¡± muttered Syaoran again.

 

Downstairs, they were surprised to see Touya starting up the car. His father had taken the subway today.

 

¡°Are you going somewhere, onii-chan?¡± Sakura asked her brother timidly.

 

¡°We have night shift at the hospital today,¡± Yukito said from the car. ¡°You guys are going to the hospital too, right?¡±

 

¡°Hop in, I¡¯ll give you a ride,¡± Touya said.

 

¡°Will we all fit in the back?¡± Tomoyo asked dubiously.

 

¡°Oh, wait, I meant you girls and the boy. The Brat can take the bus,¡± Touya stated, turning on the ignition.

 

Scowling, Syaoran muttered, ¡°I know you do that on purpose, schedule shifts to match Sakura¡¯s, so that you can keep an eye on her. Just like how you used to find part-time jobs everywhere Sakura went. Overprotective ogre.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran! ¡®Nii-chan didn¡¯t do that!¡± Sakura exclaimed. Then again, her brother popped up in places far too often for it to be coincidence. ¡°Did you, onii-chan?¡±

 

Mikai hid a smile. ¡°Such a close family,¡± he commented. ¡°It¡¯s rare to find such similar brother-in-laws.¡±

 

¡°Who are you calling brother-in-law?¡± demanded Syaoran—unlike Kai, Mikai was amazingly forthright and blunt in some ways.

 

¡°Silly Kaijou, I have better things to do than baby-sit for you,¡± Touya replied, ears turning red. ¡°I just needed to earn money. You know I¡¯m saving up for a car now, since my motorcycle got busted up. Well, get in all of you. Even the Brat.¡±

 

Somehow, all four of them squeezed into the back, though Sakura found herself half on Syaoran¡¯s lap. Touya zoomed down the road.

 

¡°Watch it,¡± squeaked Kero-chan from Sakura¡¯s bag.

 

¡°Hush,¡± Sakura said, glancing nervously at her brother through the rear mirror.

 

As they drove past different blocks, Mikai, who had the window seat, murmured, ¡°Ah, this is my neighborhood.¡±

 

¡°Eitoukou?¡± Touya said. ¡°Yeah, this is where Kinhoshi Hospital is located.¡±

 

¡°Strange, my house should have been there,¡± murmured Mikai as they passed by a vacant lot of land.

 

¡°Ah, you¡¯re probably mistaken,¡± Sakura said quickly. ¡°We passed by so quickly.¡±

 

¡°Maybe,¡± the boy replied quietly.

 

******

 

Nakuru and Eriol walked down the street of Eitoukoku. A little in front of them skipped ahead Miho.

 

Bending over to Eriol, Nakuru whispered, ¡°Say, Eriol, is it really okay to bring her here? I don¡¯t know why she insisted on coming here today, all of a sudden.¡±

 

¡°There¡¯s no use hiding it from her. She¡¯ll find out sooner or later,¡± Eriol replied lowly. They had arrived. Miho halted, staring at the familiar plot of land.

 

¡°Seems like there¡¯s construction work going on.¡± Nakuru called out to Miho, brushing back her long maroon hair. ¡°Let¡¯s go back.¡±

 

Standing in front of the plot in which her house had once stood, Miho gritted her teeth. Her worst fear had come true. Tractors were moving over the land, and trucks were parked on the sidewalk. How dare they try to build something where her house once stood? It was her land, her home, where all her precious childhood memories were enshrined. Hot tears stung her eyes.  

 

¡°Little girl, can you get out of the way? We¡¯re leveling the ground,¡± called out a tractor driver.

 

Gently, Eriol placed a hand on Miho¡¯s shoulder. ¡°I wasn¡¯t able to tell you earlier. The land¡¯s been sold.¡± Her frail shoulders were trembling. ¡°They¡¯re probably rebuilding a new house here.¡±

 

¡°Who bought it?¡± Miho asked, relatively levelly, though she was staring at the ground.

 

¡°I¡¯m not sure,¡± Eriol replied quietly. ¡°I¡¯m sorry.¡±

 

¡°This is my home,¡± Miho whispered. ¡°It¡¯ll always be my home.¡±

 

¡°Silly, you¡¯re home is with us now,¡± Nakuru stated, pinching Miho¡¯s cheek.

 

¡°I know,¡± Miho said, wiping her eyes with her sleeves. ¡°Sorry, I¡¯m being an idiot.¡±

 

******

 

Folding the stacks of towel in the hospital laundry room, Syaoran muttered, ¡°I think he does it on purpose. Put us on different tasks. Ogre.¡±

 

¡°Sakura¡¯s brother?¡± Tomoyo asked, giggling, folding up the sheets. ¡°You must understand the feelings of an overprotective brother. He can¡¯t help wanting to look after Sakura. She¡¯s just so adorable, and any hungry wolf may come along and devour her.¡±

 

¡°Pun not well taken,¡± Syaoran stated, expertly wringing out the sheets. ¡°Sorry you have to do such menial tasks. I bet you haven¡¯t even had to make your own bed at home.¡±

 

¡°I bet you hadn¡¯t either,¡± Tomoyo replied. ¡°But this is fun. You¡¯re the one I admire—you have enough on your hands without having to do volunteer service here.¡±

 

¡°True, I might as well have worked another two hours at my part-time job for pay,¡± Syaoran confessed. ¡°And I admit I¡¯m not particularly fond of the hospital, either.¡±

¡°Then why are you working here?¡± Tomoyo asked, already knowing the answer. ¡°May it be Sakura-chan¡¯s influence?¡±

 

¡°Perhaps,¡± Syaoran replied frankly. ¡°For most of my life, I¡¯ve been so wrapped up in my own self, blocking out the outside world. I thought the only way to live is through self-improvement and discipline. Yet, the world is a larger place than my own mind, and with these two hands, I can do some good in it. Not through my magic, and not because of my duty, but simply as a human being.¡±

 

Soft-voiced, Tomoyo said, ¡°I see. You almost make me feel ashamed of myself, Syaoran-kun. I¡¯m helping out just this once, while you and Sakura-chan and the others come here at least three times a week.¡±

 

¡°Bravo, Li-kun, such words of wisdom coming out of you.¡± Aki clapped, walking towards the two. ¡°I am moved—such a beautiful quote for my article. I knew my idea would be a success.¡±

 

¡°What are you doing here?¡± Syaoran asked crossly.

 

Following behind Aki, Sakura said, ¡°Aki-kun, I¡¯ve counted the medicine bottles too, but there¡¯s one missing.¡± She caught sight of Tomoyo and Syaoran and waved at them. Her horrible brother had assigned her with Aki today. If Touya hadn¡¯t been their supervisor, she might have been teamed with Syaoran for a change. Sometimes, she envied Tomoyo, who Syaoran seemed to be able to talk with so much ease to. Then again, that was Tomoyo¡¯s charm—she was a great listener to anybody, at any time.

¡°That¡¯s strange,¡± Aki murmured. ¡°There should be exactly fifty.¡± Turning to Syaoran, he flicked back his long golden hair and stated, ¡°I work here, too, as I never fail to reiterate, not because it will look good in my resume.¡±

 

¡°Twice a month,¡± Syaoran reminded. ¡°Less attendance than Mizuki Kai.¡±

 

¡°Eh, I heard that he¡¯s skipped again,¡± Aki chided. ¡°Useless idiot.¡±

 

Picking up a stack of neatly folded towels, Syaoran said, ¡°I¡¯ll take these over to the other room.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll help,¡± Sakura said, taking another bundle of towels.

 

¡°Eh, Sakura-chan! We need to report back to Kinomoto-san,¡± Aki stated.

 

¡°You go back first!¡± Sakura said, smiling.

 

¡°I can manage on my own,¡± Syaoran said, holding the door open for Sakura with his back.

 

¡°Two pairs of hands are better than one,¡± replied Sakura.

 

¡°I can¡¯t tell if those two get along with each other or not,¡± Aki asserted, after Sakura and Syaoran left the room. ¡°And you shouldn¡¯t be doing such menial chores, Tomoyo-san. They don¡¯t suit you.¡±

 

¡°Why not?¡± Tomoyo asked, tilting her head. ¡°I¡¯m glad that I can be of use somewhere.¡±

 

¡°I see.¡± Aki gulped. All boys were rather in awe of Daidouji Tomoyo, the angel of Seijou Junior High. Everybody knew she stood on an elevated platform, inapproachable, far above the common masses. Nobody dared to be less than respectful to her, for she was always kind and respectful to everybody else, and she treated everyone equally.

 

¡°It¡¯s really good of Akagi-kun to be working here at this time. You have a basketball tournament tomorrow, don¡¯t you?¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°I know how busy you are with student council meetings, journalism club, and basketball training. Not to mention tutoring and social functions required to a son of the Akagi household.¡± Setting down the sheets on her lap, she smiled gently at Aki, with round, violet eyes. The smile which had labeled her the Madonna of Seijou Junior High, as the guys called her amongst themselves. Now that Aki saw her up close, he realized how truly beautiful she was, her skin pure and clear, so pale against her masses of dark curls rippling down her back, held up by a lavender ribbon around her head. She looked just like a porcelain doll with her delicate, dreamy features. Unwilling, he felt his heart thump.

 

¡°Y-you¡¯re very understanding, Tomoyo-san,¡± Aki stammered unnaturally.

 

¡°I was like you once,¡± Tomoyo said quietly. ¡°I didn¡¯t want to disappoint my mother. I tried so hard in everything, so that she would notice me. I thought I had to excel in academics, win awards during choral festivals, and be a model daughter.¡±

 

¡°But you¡¯re naturally talented at everything,¡± Aki said ruefully. ¡°I¡¯m the youngest, and I need to try this hard in order to escape from living under the shadows of my multitalented brother and sister.¡±

 

¡°Nothing comes without effort,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°Endeavoring to attain one¡¯s dreams is admirable. But the important thing is not to make yourself miserable by burdening yourself with peer pressure and harsh self-judgment.¡±

 

¡°So, do you no longer push yourself like you used to?¡± Aki inquired.

 

¡°Well, I met Sakura-chan. Just seeing her smile made me happy. She lives life simply—instead of dwelling in egotistical personal ambitions, she¡¯s driven by a good heart. She brought laughter in my life, and I realized how foolish I was. It¡¯s a chain effect really. When one person reaches out and pulls you out of darkness, you must then turn around and do the same to some other person in payment.¡± Tomoyo paused, lowering her lashes. ¡°And the light spreads.¡±

 

Aki gaped, staring at Tomoyo. He had never heard her speak so much, so sincerely. Never would he forget her soft voice, her white hands on the folds of white sheets surrounding her, the silhouette of an angel speaking words of wisdom to him.

 

******

 

Tanaka Mikai stood in front of the hospital room 205. For minutes, he stood there motionlessly. A kindly nurse came up to him. ¡°Are you lost, boy?¡±

 

¡°No, I¡¯m fine, thank you,¡± replied Mikai with a bright smile.

 

Giggling giddily, the nurse waved and left the boy alone. ¡°Such a good-looking boy,¡± she told the other nurses. ¡°He looked somewhat familiar, though.¡±

 

 

 

 

Putting away the linen in the cabinet, Sakura said, ¡°I don¡¯t know how we¡¯re going to return Kai to normal. Did I tell you, we almost bumped into Miho-chan earlier today?¡±

 

¡°Where is Mikai right now?¡± Syaoran asked, handing another load of towels to her.

 

¡°He¡¯s helping out in the children¡¯s playroom—they¡¯ve quite taken to him. After all, he is such a sweet, well-mannered boy. Nina-chan simply adores him,¡± replied Sakura. ¡°I think he¡¯s reminded of Miho when looking after Nina.¡±

 

¡°Humph. You mean, he was a sweet boy. That was him back then.¡± Syaoran sighed, shutting the cabinet. ¡°That¡¯s not the real Kai anymore.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-san,¡± Mikai said, knocking at the door.

 

¡°Mikai, what is it?¡± Sakura asked, turning around rapidly.

 

¡°The playroom hours are over, and I¡¯ve been dismissed,¡± the boy replied. ¡°Is there anything I can do to help out here?¡±

 

¡°We¡¯re fine here, thank you. Why don¡¯t you go to the lobby and take a break?¡± Sakura suggested. ¡°We¡¯ll be off duty, pretty soon.¡±

 

¡°Sure, then I¡¯ll wait in the lobby,¡± Mikai said, bowing, then dismissing himself from the room.

 

Sakura swooned. ¡°He is such an adorable boy.¡±

 

¡°Sorry I was such a grouch at that age,¡± returned Syaoran gruffly.

 

¡°Yes, Mikai would have been a good role-model for you,¡± snickered Sakura.

 

******

 

Tanaka Miara lay in her bed in the unlighted room. All the medicine she took left her drowsy and ill-tempered. It was hard to focus her thoughts and difficult to keep track of the days in here. Hospital life suffocated her, but she had no strength to walk on her own. Her daughter had visited earlier that day, but she didn¡¯t remember half of what Miho had chattered to her about. The doctors lied to her when they reassured her that she was improving. How much longer could she live on like this? If only Mikai would return to her. If only she could hear a single word of him, hear that he was safe and doing well. Sometimes, she sensed that he was near by, but then, when she woke again, she wondered if it had just been a dream, a mother¡¯s delusion. So long she had waited for him, so long she thought she heard his voice, only to realize that it had just been the whisper of the wind.

 

Something shifted by her bedside.

 

¡°Who is that?¡± Miara called out in a strained voice. The curtains were drawn, and it was dark and stuffy in the room.

 

A pair of grey-blue eyes peered out in the dark. The pale moonlight which seeped in through the curtains shone upon glossy dark auburn hair. Her heart dropped and she cried out, ¡°Mikai, it¡¯s you. It¡¯s really you, isn¡¯t it?¡±

 

The boy tried to turn away, but Miara desperately called out, ¡°Don¡¯t leave, Mikai! Just once, speak to me. Tell me you are okay.¡±

 

Mikai opened his mouth and shut it again, shoulders trembling.

 

Gently smiling, Miara said, arms outstretched, ¡°Mikai, it¡¯s okay; you don¡¯t have to say anything. Okaa-san understands. I understand, so just return to me, my dear boy.¡±

 

Knees collapsed, and Mikai bowed down on the ground, head lowered down and hair covering his face.

 

¡°What is it, Mikai? It¡¯s all right, you can tell me,¡± his mother urged gently.

 

¡°Forgive me okaa-san, forgive me,¡± he burst out. His boyish voice shook. ¡°I can¡¯t return yet, but I promise I¡¯ll return everything to normal. I promise.¡±

 

¡°Look up, Mikai, my boy,¡± Miara said kindly. ¡°Everything¡¯s forgiven, and you can always return any time.¡±

 

Mikai stared up, tears streaming down his cheeks. ¡°Okaa-san¡¦¡± Slowly, he stood up and bowed. He took a couple steps back, and like the wind, he disappeared; the only trace of his being there the open windows letting in the night breeze.

 

Later, Miara realized that there was no way her grown son would still bear the resemblance of a twelve year old boy, but nonetheless, she had a good night¡¯s sleep afterwards. The next morning, she was even refreshed enough to start another chapter in her book. She was reassured that Mikai was out there somewhere, living on.

 

 

 

 

When Sakura¡¯s shift at the hospital had ended, she wandered down the lobby in search of Mikai. There was no trace of him.

 

¡°What do you mean he¡¯s disappeared?¡± demanded Syaoran, who had slipped into his coat, ready to leave. By now, he was wishing he never used the age card on Kai.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know—he said he¡¯ll wait here, but he¡¯s gone,¡± replied Sakura.

 

¡°You don¡¯t think anything¡¯s happened to him,¡± asked Tomoyo, frowning. When was the last time she had seen the boy?

 

******

 

Slowly, Miho walked down the familiar path leading to her old home, and stared at the overturned soil marking where her house had once stood. Somehow, she had ended up back here, after visiting her mother at the hospital. She had told Eriol and Nakuru to go ahead—she wanted to be alone. Now, the tractors and the construction workers were gone, and the land was barren once more. But not for much longer. In a couple months, another house, store or tall building would cover the land, stamping away the last reminder of her family. It would become unrecognizable, a foreign territory.

 

If her brother knew, he would have grieved, for he loved that house with his life. Together, they had spent their carefree childhood, had so much fun playing imaginary games, telling stories, swinging on the swing set¡¦ But all of it was gone, burnt to dust.

 

Cautiously, Miho stepped over the railings around the land, and walked into its center, where her house once stood. In the fog, she could make out a hazy figure. Her throat clogged up, and not because of the dust. ¡°Onii-chan¡¦¡± she whispered.

 

Her brother stared at her solemnly, with his staid steel blue eyes, sad and wistful. His auburn hair swept across his forehead in the wind, and she cared not if he was a ghost or an illusion. Though he spoke no words, those very eyes which had always watched over her all those years seemed to say, ¡°I¡¯m sorry.¡±

 

When she blinked the dust and tears away from her eyes, he was already gone.

 

 

 

¡°Miho-chan! Eriol-kun!¡± Sakura called out, running down the lamp lit street leading to the old Tanaka estate. She had thought that Mikai might come back here, but hadn¡¯t expected the two to be there. Close behind, Syaoran and Tomoyo followed. Kero-chan clung on to Tomoyo¡¯s shoulder.

 

Miho, who had been standing blankly at the empty space before her, turned around slowly. How long had Eriol been standing behind her? When had he come? He must have been worried about me.

 

Turning around, Eriol greeted, ¡°Sakura-san, Tomoyo-san¡¦ And Li-kun. What brings you here?¡±

 

¡°Ah, well,¡± Sakura stammered, since she couldn¡¯t admit that she was looking for Mikai. ¡°We were just passing by the neighborhood after work. Miho-chan, are you okay?¡±

 

In a distant voice, Miho replied, ¡°I saw him here.¡±

 

Gulping, Sakura asked, ¡°Saw¡¦ who?¡±

 

¡°My brother,¡± she replied disturbingly calm. ¡°But he couldn¡¯t have been my brother, because he was his former self, the age he was the very last time I saw him. Onii-chan must be older right now, so it couldn¡¯t have been him. But it was him, I just know. It was different from the Fantasy¡¯s replication of him—he felt so real, his eyes.¡±

 

¡°Did he say anything?¡± Sakura questioned gently, for she knew it really was Mikai. But she couldn¡¯t exactly admit about the incident with the Age Card because that would give Kai¡¯s cover away.

 

¡°No.¡± Miho smiled ruefully. ¡°Don¡¯t worry about me. I¡¯m fine. My primary concern is bringing down the Riddle right now. Whether it was an illusion, a hallucination, I care not. For it is my only means of glimpsing him.¡±

 

Leaning over to Syaoran, Sakura whispered, ¡°Do you think Mikai-kun really let himself be seen by Miho?¡±

 

¡°Probably,¡± Syaoran replied lowly. Luckily, Miho did not suspect the Age Card and merely thought it to be her own hallucination. Narrowing his eyes, Syaoran looked over his shoulders towards the shadowed branches. A faint, thin voice drifted towards them as the night wind passed by from the west.

 

¡°Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.¡± *

 

Tugging on Syaoran¡¯s jacket sleeve, Sakura said, ¡°It¡¯s the Riddle.¡±

 

On the broken-down gatepost of the former Tanaka property, the sphinx-creature perched down, smiling lazily in greeting. Eriol looked up at the insolent creature which Clow Reed never had bothered to deal with.

 

¡°What do you want now?¡± demanded Sakura, fiddling with her Key of Stars. Capturing the Riddle was impossible, yet it was a hindrance to have a dark force loose for so long. It distracted her from other pressing matters.

 

With more fire in her eyes than ever before, Miho declared, ¡°Riddle, tell me how I can capture.¡±

 

Chuckling maliciously, the Riddle purred, scratching its face with its paw as if it were merely amused by a squeaking mouse. After some thought, it continued:

 

¡°On the night the lone wolf calls,

And the angel¡¯s feather falls,

Through icy cliffs, the raging gale

Echoes the forlorn mother¡¯s wail.

 

Vengeance sought and powers lent,

Children found and contracts bent;

Wind blows and the cherry blossom branches shake,

Woods divide and the eye of the dragon will wake.

 

Desperate times summon forces combined;

Moon rises, circle rejoined, blood intertwined,

Moon wanes, eye cracks, world goes round;

Two conceived lost forever would once more be found.

 

Shadowing the golden stars way up high,

Thunderclouds loom ominous in the distant sky,

But the lone star will shine again

As the years brush by with the rain.

 

To capture me, the wisest one,

Is a daunting feat, if can be at all done.

Foolish one, to dare challenge me,

Prove your wit to find me,

And I shall humble you gladly.¡±

 

Having said so, the Riddle watched upon the faces of his mesmerized listeners. Satisfied that they were puzzled enough, he disappeared into the night air with a whisk of his golden tail.

 

¡°What in the world does the Riddle mean?¡± asked Sakura, a shiver running down her spine as if she had heard the whispers of an ominous happening yet beyond her understanding.

 

Wind blows and the cherry blossom branches shake. Woods divide and the eye of the dragon will wake¡¦ The Riddle¡¯s words rung freshly in his ears as Syaoran struggled to comprehend what he believed were glimpses of something very important for the future. ¡°It seems as if the Riddle has provided the time, place, and date of its next appearance, along with some unfathomable prophesizing more likely to make us fret than for it to have any relevance with capturing it.¡±

 

¡°Perhaps,¡± murmured Eriol, watching Miho plop down on the side walk, next to the lamppost and slip out a small worn-out notebook from her coat pocket, rapidly jotting down the riddle of challenge from memory as not to forget it. She was already deeply immersed in thought, configuring the riddle.

 

¡°Next time we meet, for sure, I will have you pinned down,¡± Miho said to the piece of paper, slamming down her pen on her notebook. Her mind was deeply in working progress to produce a master riddle that will outwit the Riddle.

 

Offering Miho a hand, and landing her back on her feet, Eriol said, ¡°It¡¯s getting late, let¡¯s get back home now. After all, you must think of a good challenge riddle now, don¡¯t you?¡±

 

Beaming at Eriol, Miho stated, ¡°Today is indeed a good day. I had a vision of onii-chan, and I also am one step closer to capturing the Riddle.¡±

 

Exchanging sideway glances, Syaoran, Sakura, and Tomoyo sighed in relief, thankful for once that the Riddle had distracted Miho from pondering too deeply upon the mysterious appearance of her brother.

 

******

 

Late into what remained of Sunday night, Syaoran caught up with a week¡¯s worth of homework. Tomorrow, he would return to the daily schedule of school, soccer practice, his part-time job at La Seine, and again homework, without time to rest, breathe, or think of anything else but how to get through the next day. Though Sakura had went home distressed that they had not found Mikai, truthfully, he wasn¡¯t too worried about the missing boy—after all, Mikai had survived to become the Kaitou Magician. Mizuki Kai, what ever age he was, undoubtedly could take care of himself. Scribbling out his Japanese composition, Syaoran tapped the lead of his mechanical pencil on the paper. Thanks to his stunt with the Age Card, though on Kai¡¯s expense, he had spent almost the entire day with Sakura. Miho was right¡¦ it had been a good day. All the strain he felt over the past weeks seemed to drift away with the soothing sound of her voice and her bright smile. His eyelids grew heavy over his desk.

 

The burst of the melody of Canon from his cell phone interrupted to sleepiness. Fumbling around his desk, he picked up his slim silver phone and pressed Send. ¡°¡¯Lo?¡±

 

¡°Syaoran? What should we do¡¦ we couldn¡¯t find him anywhere. Has he returned?¡± came a fretful voice drowned by the rustling of sheets.

  

¡°It¡¯s all right Sakura. Kai¡¯s a big boy. He¡¯ll be okay,¡± replied Syaoran, glancing at the red letters of his digital clock. It was 1:30AM. She couldn¡¯t sleep because she was worrying about that rascal thief.

 

¡°But he was just a young boy—anything could have happened to him. He might have gone into deep shock after seeing his house burned down, or he might have gotten lost trying come back to our neighborhood, or¡¦¡± Sakura was gently interrupted.

 

¡°Sakura, we looked hard enough, and he wasn¡¯t there. It¡¯s most likely he¡¯s returned to his normal form by now.¡± There was a click and creaking next doors through the walls. ¡°In fact, I¡¯m positive that he¡¯s back now.¡±

 

Sakura let out her breath. ¡°Really? That¡¯s a relief.¡±

 

In the background, there was the roar of her brother¡¯s voice. ¡°Sakura, why are you on the phone this late in the night?¡±

 

¡°You have to go, don¡¯t you?¡± Syaoran asked, chuckling. He knew Touya did that on purpose.

 

¡°Sorry,¡± whispered Sakura. Just how did her brother always know when she was on the phone with Syaoran? ¡°See you at school in the morning.¡±

 

¡°Sweet dreams, Sakura,¡± Syaoran replied lowly.

 

¡°Good night, Syaoran.¡± After hanging up, Sakura sank into her bed, clutching the phone to her fluttering chest, much to Kero-chan¡¯s disgust. Indeed, Sakura had a wonderful, sweet dream that she was in some fantastical kingdom of unicorns and dragons, where the sky was purple and the river flowed pink lemonade. In her dream, someone whispered to her the much tender words of, I love you. Though in the morning, she no longer remembered what her wonderful dream was about, she still had a warm, fuzzy feeling in her heart as she started a bright new week. 

 

******

 

Before class started Monday morning, Syaoran frantically finished the last of his problem sets for math, acutely aware that Mizuki Kai was missing.

 

¡°Good morning, Syaoran-kun,¡± greeted Tomoyo, setting down her book-bag.

 

¡°Is Kai-kun not here?¡± Sakura asked, frowning.

 

¡°I head music next doors—he was definitely back in the apartment,¡± replied Syaoran, looking up from his homework.

 

¡°Ha—so you didn¡¯t even finish your math homework?¡± Sakura grinned, glad to see Syaoran had slacked off for a change. ¡°After acting like such a know-it-all!¡±

 

All the same, Syaoran finished the last problem just in time to pay attention to class lecture. Sakura was constantly distracted, and he realized that he might have to re-teach the new section on acute and obtuse triangles to her.

 

 

 

During break time, Sakura realized she really did feel Kai¡¯s aura near by. Unlike Syaoran or Eriol¡¯s aura, Kai had a much fainter feeling, which was why he was able to slip around unnoticed a lot of the times. She stormed up the stairway leading to the rooftop. Tomoyo and Syaoran followed closely behind. Holding her breath, she flung open the metal door greeted by a stream of pale sunlight.

 

Indeed, Kai, looking quite his proper age, lay upon the cold cement with a book over his face.

 

¡°Kai-kun!¡± Sakura shouted from the doorway.

 

The book slid off Kai¡¯s head, and he looked up at Sakura, hands on hips. ¡°Sakura-chan. What are you up to?¡±

 

Stomping up to Kai, eyes stinging, Sakura stated, ¡°Kai-kun, do you know how much we worried about you?¡± She sank down on her knees, next to Kai. ¡°Where were you? When did you get back to your normal form?¡±

 

Slowly, Kai sat up and fondly patted Sakura¡¯s pigtailed head. ¡°Why are you crying? Sorry. I didn¡¯t mean to make you guys worried.¡±

 

Biting her lower lip, Sakura stared up at Kai, decked in his usual attire, black shirt peaking out of his half-open school button-down shirt, earrings sparkling from his ears, and sunglasses in tact. His hair was spiked up as usual, but unlike its usual light colors, today it was a deep royal blue. Sakura gaped. ¡°Kai-kun, what did you do with your hair?¡±  

 

Fingering his rock-hard hair, Kai chucked, ¡°Don¡¯t worry, it¡¯s not permanent. I just wanted to see all of your expressions. Right, Perro-chan?¡± His little parrot peaked out of his shirt, an equally electric blue to match its master.

 

¡°How horrible!¡± uttered Sakura.

 

¡°And your natural hair color is so beautiful,¡± said Tomoyo sorrowfully, recalling Mikai¡¯s lustrous hair. Yet, her artistic eye admitted that the blue was indeed a wonderful color and suited Kai in its own way. ¡°You just need some black liner around your eyes, and you¡¯ll pass for a rock star.¡± New punkish outfit ideas flew through her mind.

 

Crossing his arms, Syaoran asked, ¡°How did you get back to your original age, anyway? Were you able to recall your unresolved issue and solve it?¡±

 

Shrugging, Kai replied vaguely, ¡°Nah¡¦ I guess the spell just wore out naturally. The clock struck twelve and the magic ended.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s such a relief!¡± exclaimed Sakura. ¡°Nee, Kai-kun, do you remember anything about being ¡®Mikai¡¯ then?¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Kai tilted his head questioningly.

 

¡°Ah, never mind then,¡± Sakura said rapidly. Bowing her head down, she continued, ¡°Kai-kun, I¡¯m so sorry about what happened with the Age Card—I promise that such a thing will never happen again.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, no grudges held,¡± replied Kai generously. ¡°The school bell¡¯s ringing—it¡¯s time to get back to class.¡±

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you coming?¡± asked Tomoyo.

 

¡°You guys take good notes for me—I¡¯m going to get some more rest,¡± replied Kai.

 

The two girls disappeared down the stairwell.

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you going, too?¡± asked Kai to Syaoran.

 

¡°You know, Miho¡¯s already forgiven you.¡± Syaoran gazed at the older boy, his classmate and neighbor, someone he very much admired for his independence and confidence. ¡°You can return to her any time, and save her from all the pain.¡±

 

Standing up and peering through the crisscrossed wire fencing around the roof, Kai replied, ¡°Even you will learn in due time, that are due courses in life that may not be the most ideal, what you have envisioned, yet that is the course you must follow.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re being selfish.¡±

 

¡°Maybe,¡± was his reply. ¡°There is a reason behind everything, Syaoran, and the Mizuki Kai standing here today is the direct result of the choices I made years ago. Don¡¯t you get it? I chose this path.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t attribute forces of nature to yourself. You didn¡¯t choose to have your father die or your mother to get sick,¡± Syaoran replied straightforwardly.

 

¡°No, I didn¡¯t. But there are reasons behind our misfortunes nonetheless. Things don¡¯t happen just to happen. And even if I had a choice, I wouldn¡¯t return to being the innocent, ignorant old me, even for the sake of my sister. And that is the truth.¡± Kai lifted his chin. So he said, but what did he truly believe? Even for a brief time, returning to that vulnerable age of twelve, before he knew the world, before he started walking this path, reminded him so vividly of what was so important to him then. It still hadn¡¯t changed much—though his appearance had changed so much, his mind was still that of a foolish twelve year old boy¡¯s.

 

¡°You know Kai, when you were back in your old form, you went straight to Miho. Doesn¡¯t that say something?¡± Syaoran said, eying Kai¡¯s reaction. ¡°You can¡¯t simply run from her forever.¡±

 

¡°Oh, I remember perfectly well everything I did yesterday,¡± replied Kai, grinned.

 

Syaoran¡¯s jaw dropped.

 

¡°Don¡¯t think I didn¡¯t want revenge for what you guys did to me,¡± he replied demurely. ¡°Life is a play, and we, merely actors, said Shakespeare whom my darling Miho so worships.¡± 

 

¡°Devil,¡± muttered Syaoran—that was the last time he would ever worry about Kai, amnesia or not.

 

******

 

Though it was a weekday evening, La Seine bustled with even more people than usual. Expertly, Syaoran chopped away at the cabbage. He had found that if he placed a textbook in front of him, he could read the pages while chopping the vegetable, since his hands knew what they were doing. If it made the other cooks nervous that he didn¡¯t have to look at where he was placing the gleaming knife, they didn¡¯t comment, since Syaoran still produced perfectly chopped turnips, carrots and potatoes.

 

¡°That¡¯s enough chopping—it¡¯s full house tonight. Go take the tray and serve the tables,¡± stated the manager, leading Syaoran away from the kitchen.

 

Unable to finish the page he was reading, Syaoran grabbed a pitcher of water and headed toward his assigned table. He saw a familiar glass-eyed man and a very grouchy looking younger dark-haired man pointing at things in the menu. The back of a girl with golden-brown braids came to view. Almost dropping his pitcher, he ducked behind a potted plant.

 

¡°Onii-chan, I didn¡¯t realize that you worked at such a fancy place; there are so many people!¡± remarked Sakura, gazing around the posh restaurant in awe. She had changed out of her school uniform and was wearing a pale yellow blouse with a Victorian collar adorned by a slender velvet ribbon around her throat, and a dark brown tweed skirt with brown leather boots.

 

Looking up from the menu, Tomoyo, perfectly at ease in the elegant setting in her burgundy dress and a matching scarf around her hair, said, ¡°Thank you for inviting me out on a family dinner, Kinomoto-san.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re family too, Tomoyo-san, and it¡¯s a nice change to eat out like this. It would have been nice if Sonomi-san could have made it too,¡± replied Fujitaka, smiling.

 

¡°It¡¯s great that workers here get discount coupons,¡± commented Sakura to her brother. ¡°And you get to eat all this delicious food.¡±

 

Looking around, Touya commented, ¡°Geez, I guess they¡¯re really busy tonight. I¡¯m glad I¡¯m not on shift tonight. I wonder where are waiter is.¡±

 

¡°Li Syaoran! What are you doing there? Your table is waiting for you!¡± barked the La Seine manager.

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura looked up, thinking she heard a familiar name.

 

Bending next to the potted plant, Yukito, in his waiter¡¯s uniform, whispered, ¡°What¡¯s the matter, Li-kun?¡±

 

¡°Gah!¡± Syaoran fell over, luckily balancing the water pitcher in time to keep it from spilling.

 

Taking the pitcher from Syaoran¡¯s hand, Yukito stated, ¡°Ah, Touya and his family came here today. Touya mentioned he wanted to bring Sakura to this restaurant, and today¡¯s his night off. I see¡¦ Are you hiding from Sakura?¡±

 

Nodding, Syaoran asked, ¡°Can you please take over my shift? Sakura doesn¡¯t know I¡¯m working here, and I don¡¯t want her to find out.¡±

 

¡°Strange, Touya didn¡¯t tell her already that you work here too?¡± Stroking his chin, Yukito gazed up at his rather malicious-tempered friend.

 

¡°I¡¯ll do your shift next time,¡± Syaoran said, bowing his head down.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry about it,¡± Yukito said, laughing. Straightening his bowtie, he walked over to Sakura¡¯s table.

 

¡°Yukito-san!¡± Sakura exclaimed in delight. ¡°Are you our waiter tonight?¡±

 

¡°Sorry for the wait,¡± replied Yukito. ¡°May I take your order?¡±

 

After watching Sakura¡¯s overjoyed face as Yukito took her orders, Syaoran slipped back into the kitchen.

 

Catching sight of him, the head chef barked, ¡°You, I need you to come give me a hand—we¡¯re ten orders behind. Heat up the pans!¡±

 

¡°Yessir!¡± replied Syaoran, loosening his bowtie and rolling up his sleeves. 

 

 

 

¡°Mmmm¡¦ The food here is scrumptious!¡± declared Tomoyo, who despite her familiarity with all sorts of luxurious restaurants, was impressed with La Seine¡¯s diverse gourmet cuisine. Too bad Kero-chan had to miss out.

 

Chewing the vegetable stir-fry side dish complementing her juicy sirloin steak, Sakura murmured, ¡°Strange, this tastes really familiar.¡±

 

¡°The vegetable and meat seems to melt inside your mouth with just the right amount of spice and fragrance,¡± commented her father, observing his plate of food with fascination. ¡°Amazing how the different vegetables are all the same width and size.¡±

 

¡°Humph,¡± was Touya¡¯s reply, as he picked at his vegetables and focused on his meat. What was with the suddenly generous portions?

 

Desert was a gorgeous whole chiffon cake with fluffy white icing, and a fantastic design of sakura blossoms curling out on the round face of the cake. It was quite a piece of art work, since the branches welded out of dark chocolate and the flower petals made of bits of sheer pink spun sugar candy. ¡°Here you go,¡± said Yukito, presenting the spectacular cake on the table. Quite a few heads turned his way as he carried it out from the kitchen.

 

¡°Did we order this?¡± Sakura asked, eyes widening for she had never seen such a beautiful cake—whether it was still food or a work of art, she could not decide.

 

¡°With the compliments of your chef tonight,¡± replied Yukito, hiding a smile with his bow.

 

Turning to her brother, Sakura commented, ¡°Your boss must really like you, ¡®nii-chan.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s the most amazing cake I¡¯ve ever seen—it¡¯s a pity to eat it,¡± remarked Fujitaka, peering at the design, amazed to find every single part was edible.

 

¡°A cake¡¯s meant to be eaten, not looked upon,¡± returned Yukito, proceeding to slice four pieces of the cake and passed it around.

 

The first mouthful of the chiffon cake left a feathery, rich and sweet aftertaste on Sakura¡¯s tongue, what she imagined cloud would taste like. Her second bite left a nostalgic tinge, for despite its gorgeous exterior, the cake had the familiar, homemade taste of many cakes she had eaten over the summer. It was amazing, the soft texture of the cake blending in with the silky icing and crunchiness of the candy flowers.

 

¡°This is quite a cake,¡± remarked Fujitaka, who being an expert cook himself, was always on the look for new recipes to try at home. ¡°Is your cook from abroad?¡±

 

¡°You might say that,¡± replied Yukito, who brought cups of coffee for Touya and his father, and tea for the girls.

 

¡°Do you think he would reveal his secret recipe?¡± asked Fujitaka, helping himself to a second slice of the scrumptious cake.

 

¡°Oh, I would think it¡¯s just plenty of love poured into his work for those who would taste his cake,¡± said Yukito demurely.

 

¡°Humph.¡± Touya crossed his arms, glaring down at his empty plate, for despite himself, he had finished his slice.

  

From the kitchen door, Syaoran peaked out as the Kinomoto family and Tomoyo left their seats. There was enough cake left to take home to Kero-chan. Sakura smiled blissfully, for there was nothing like a satisfying meal shared with people you love. Questioning green eyes lingered at the kitchen door, before Touya called her, and Sakura slipped into her tweed jacket and followed after her brother.

 

¡°Li Syaoran! Who told you that you can use all of the bakery supplies for the congressman¡¯s daughter¡¯s engagement?¡± shouted the head patisserie chef.

 

¡°Li Syaoran, didn¡¯t I tell you that the vegetables are for the appetizer? Did you include them in with main dish?¡± shouted the head chef.

 

¡°Li Syaoran, why are you in the kitchen? Didn¡¯t I tell you that you¡¯re supposed to be waiting tonight because we are short of hands?¡± shouted the manager.

 

Smiling as Sakura¡¯s figure disappeared through the glass door, Syaoran turned around to face his demanding superiors. Yukito patted Syaoran¡¯s back sympathetically as he returned to the kitchen for a new order. It was going to be a long night.

 
****** 
 
Seeing her brother, the image of the brother as she last recalled him, age twelve, serious and sad after his father¡¯s death, so demure that he didn¡¯t even hint of his departure, reminded Miho of why she wanted to capture the Riddle. She knew her brother must be look a lot older by now, maybe completely different, but when he gazed at her, he didn¡¯t speak. Yet, he looked as if he had wanted to apologize to her. She wished he had spoken, ghost, phantom, or apparition he may have been. But now she had the Riddle¡¯s challenge, it was a matter of time before the dark force was captured. For once, she would be of use to Eriol. 
 
Miho remembered the first time she had met the mysterious Hiiragizawa Eriol, when she was ten and her entire life had fallen apart. Her house had burnt down and the only clothes she owned were the ones she was wearing. The hair that her mother had so carefully braided for her when she was a child was shorn short, and she was a numb, lifeless shell. At that young age, she thought her life had already ended; her father was dead, her brother had disappeared, her mother had lost all sanity. She was alone in the world.
 
And then, he had appeared, a solemn dark-haired boy, somber midnight blue eyes shielded by glasses. Despite his youthful appearance, he bore the presence of the ancient mountains, and his voice had been tender and deep like the night sea. He took her hand and lead her away from her hometown, took her to his great mansion in England. When she raged with fever, he stayed by her bedside, he fed her porridge. When she start gaining consciousness, he read her books, told her entertaining stories and nursed her body and mind back to health. Those lonely months she stared at a razor blade, thinking it would take a split second of pain to run it over her emaciated wrist, and all her agony would end, he sat by her side, looking sad with her, reminding her that there was still her whole life ahead of her. He was father, brother and companion.
 
It was about six months of living with Hiiragizawa Eriol that she first laughed again. Eriol had baked a batch of chocolate cookies for Spinel Sun, and for the first time she saw Suppi-chan on a sugar high, drunk from sweetness. She saw how ridiculous the whole situation was; a year ago, she wouldn¡¯t have believed she could be living in a mansion in the middle of England, with a reincarnation of the once greatest sorcerer of the East and West, a talking stuffed animal that got drunk on sweets, and a transgender guardian of the moon who was convinced she was a girl. Yet, there she was, and she had survived. And life wasn¡¯t so unbearable anymore.
 
After a long winter, her spring had finally arrived. She felt a thrill, thinking about the opportunities that awaited in her future. She believed that she would be able to find her brother again, that her mother would recover from her illness. And Hiiragizawa Eriol had returned this hope to her. Till the end of her life, she would be grateful to him, and never would she forget that gentle, knowing smile as he held her in his arms, calming her rage when she would have burnt everything down. 
 
Seeing the vision of her brother reminded her of meeting Eriol for the first time. And recalling meeting Eriol for the first time was the opening of a new page in her life, when everything that went wrong before began to pave way to a greater vision, of promising days to come. Suddenly, her dry pen began to flow lines opening her riddle, the riddle which she swore all her faith in to defeat the Riddle:
 

A tingling thrill,

That melts away the bitter chill,

Like the first bud of a blossoming flower

That peeks through the layer of winter frost to greet the spring shower.

 
 
¡°Mizuki-sempai! Are you skipping class again?¡± Miho demanded, clomping up to Kai who lay flat on his back on the rooftop the next day. She realized that he wasn¡¯t sleeping, but talking into an earphone and mike attachment to his cell phone.
 
¡°Go away,¡± Kai groaned, covering his face with a book.
 
¡°Huh?¡± Meilin asked into the receiver. It was lunch break for her due to the time difference. She no longer bothered to scold Kai for skipping classes anymore—all her chidings seemed to have a reverse effect on him. Clearing her throat, she continued, ¡°As I was saying, I can¡¯t believe Syaoran used the Age Card on you—oh I wish I was there to see it.¡±
 
¡°No you don¡¯t,¡± muttered Kai glumly, wondering why Meilin was so gleeful. He glanced up at Miho casting a shadow over his face. ¡°Meilin, I can¡¯t talk right now.¡±
 
¡°Did Tomoyo videotape it?¡± continued Meilin, heedless. ¡°Ooh, I would have bullied little Kai-chan so much!¡±
 
¡°What are you doing up here?¡± Kai asked Miho, realizing she wasn¡¯t about to go away and sitting up groggily. What could he have done wrong this time? He had already finished newspaper layouts.
 
¡°Are you on the phone with Meilin?¡± Miho asked, grabbing away the microphone attachment to the cell phone.
 
¡°Hey!¡± Kai protested.
 
It was unexpected to hear the younger girl¡¯s voice. Meilin said gingerly into the phone, ¡°Hello, Miho-chan. How have you been doing?¡± 
 
¡°I just had a question to ask you,¡± Miho stated, clearing her throat. ¡°Wait a second, Mizuki-sempai, can you set this up to speakerphone? I need to take notes.¡± Handing the phone to Kai, who obediently set the phone on the ground and set it to speakerphone, Miho sat crossed-legged on the ground and spread open her notebook, uncapping her pen with her teeth. ¡°Okay, ready. My question: what is love?¡± 
 
Both Kai and Meilin began coughing.
 
¡°Love?¡± Meilin repeated blankly through the phone speaker. ¡°Is this for some newspaper survey or something?¡±
 
¡°Something like that,¡± replied Miho. ¡°I just need everyone¡¯s opinions. Yours too, Mizuki-sempai.¡±
 
¡°Oh great,¡± muttered Kai. ¡°If you ask a boring generic question like that, I hope you¡¯re replying as generic of an answer.¡±
 
Over the phone, there was a pensive silence from Meilin. ¡°Hmm¡¦ What should I say¡¦¡± Syaoran. That was the extent and everything of her love. Meilin smiled, leaning back against the wire fencing around her school rooftop, gazing into the distant Hong Kong bay, ships drifting along their way. Large yachts, little ferry boats, fishing boats, cruise ships. ¡°But aren¡¯t there many different types of love?¡±
 
¡°Like what?¡± asked Miho, chewing on her pen tip.
 
¡°Oh, I don¡¯t know. Puppy love, little crushes, heartfelt tragic love, familial love¡¦ Friendship, admiration, devotion; all sorts of love,¡± replied Meilin. Or it could be all of those things at once, for so was the evolvement of her feelings for that one person who would never look at her as anything beyond a dear cousin. 
 
¡°But in the end, there is but one kind of love,¡± interjected Kai dolefully. ¡°The curious heart which tastes the forbidden fruit is forever chained by a merciless master, beaten, bruised and bled, but never freed.¡±
 
Sometimes, Kai had a knack for putting thoughts into words which dragged a knife from her heart to her stomach, leaving her naked and vulnerable. ¡°Even so,¡± Meilin protested, ¡°I think love is a driving force in human kind, not a burden.¡±
 
¡°Think what you like,¡± replied Kai with a smirk. ¡°Love is as fickle and temperamental as the passing west wind. Like the wind, love is intangible and invisible, and there is no concrete way to see it, to touch it, to measure it. Yet, like the constantly blowing wind, you just know it¡¯s there. Even when the wind doesn¡¯t blow, you know it will blow again, and even if the wind turns into a typhoon, you know it will eventually return as a gentle breeze one spring day, when you¡¯ve already been worn and torn. And when you die, the wind, which has always stayed by your side, will carry your ashes away and finally set you free.¡±
 
At his words, Miho felt a writer¡¯s tingle, for despite his crude tone, his words had a poetic grace to them. To be free¡¦ Yet to belong. Wind leaves and wind returns at its own pace. You can¡¯t depend on it, yet you still must believe in it. 
 
Grappling at Kai¡¯s words, Meilin, who had difficulty understanding things unless told plainly to her, asked disdainfully, ¡°Are you implying that people who seek love are ultimately left to chase after an ephemeral concept, which till death is never attainable?¡± Across the ocean and back she had chased Syaoran, without avail, and year after year, she had watched him in this pitiful unrequited obsession. Time and distance would be the only medicine to this infection, yet still, she couldn¡¯t help feeling blessed, for these emotions which had caused her so many nights of tear and despair, also had been a motivational force for her all these years. 
 
¡°If you don¡¯t like that idea, why didn¡¯t you stop loving Syaoran years ago?¡± inquired Kai simply, his brusqueness more cutting than any of his usual sarcastic remarks.
 
¡°Do you think it¡¯s my choice?¡± demanded Meilin. There were more painful memories than happy ones, yet those brief blissful moments were more freshly engrained in her mind. If she didn¡¯t even have that, she would not be able to survive these dreary days in Hong Kong, under the iron rule of the Li Clan.  
 
¡°So, you do admit you are slave to love,¡± chuckled Kai, almost maliciously, but more piteously, for Meilin, from the day he first met her till now never could get over her ridiculous notion of love. He couldn¡¯t say if she would be happier one way or the other, but 
 
¡°Slave or not, I would rather humbly accept the truth of my heart, rather than let it pass by like some capricious wind, because I¡¯m scared of what I can¡¯t see, of being hurt, of being scarred,¡± retorted Meilin. ¡°Loving and giving is a lot easier than being selfish and keeping everything to myself. Who cares if I get nothing in return? Just a glimpse of a rainbow at the end, even if I never reach it, is better than nothing.¡±
 
Scribbling away in her notebook, Miho quietly listened to the telephone conversation—both seemed to have forgotten that she was present. 
 
Laughing at Meilin¡¯s earnestly, Kai stated, ¡°You give me hope and vision, my fiery peony of Hong Kong. Being such generous, gracious being, may you save a dance for me at the upcoming Winter Wonderland?¡±
 
¡°Oh shut up Kai,¡± was her scornful reply. But if Meilin had listened more carefully to Kai¡¯s previous words, she would have found an empathizer, not a ridiculer, that he hadn¡¯t mocked her love as being an unattainable, blind chase towards nothing, but had merely capture the essence of it. That it was, therefore it had to be. That he was speaking of himself more than anyone else. 

 

Brush by the spirit of the wind as you race along,

To feel wild and free—that you belong!

Or dance with the sunbeams on a rainbow

And forget the ferocious storm spent in the dismal shadow.

 

 

¡°Sakura, why did you start liking Syaoran?¡± Miho asked bluntly during lunchtime. She knew the whole story—Yukito-san had rejected Sakura, and Syaoran had been there for her in times of hardship.

 

Sakura coughed up her green tea. She wiped her mouth on her handkerchief. Mealtime with Miho was never a peaceful—even during lunchtime, Miho always badgered about article deadlines.

 

¡°That¡¯s right—I remember you two didn¡¯t really get along when Li-kun first transferred,¡± Naoko commented. She counted how many egg rolls she had left in her lunch box. ¡°Didn¡¯t you like your brother¡¯s friend or something?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m through with liking anyone,¡± stated Sakura, serenely sipping her tea.

 

¡°Reveling in solo life. That doesn¡¯t sound so bad,¡± stated Chiharu glumly. Stupid Takashi—he said that the lunch she made him tasted horrible.

 

¡°Nee, Chiharu-senpai, I know a lot of cute guys—I can introduce you to someone much cooler than Yamazaki-sempai,¡± stated Miho.

 

Chiharu laughed. ¡°It¡¯s all right, Miho-chan. I¡¯m used to Takashi-kun by now. I don¡¯t think I can deal with anyone else at this point.¡±

 

¡°How unromantic,¡± muttered Miho glumly.

 

¡°It¡¯s because you¡¯re young, that you idealized love still. Your prince in shining armor may be a dunce who can¡¯t even save himself. But you just embrace all of him and accept him as he is. Only when you can accept someone for what they are you free to truly love,¡± Chiharu said.

 

¡°True. We spent a semester preparing for Star-Crossed, yet I have to say I don¡¯t believe much in love by passion and impulse. Maybe I¡¯m growing old—days of feeling giddy and lighthearted are over,¡± Sakura murmured.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, you¡¯re less than a year older than me—you sound like an ancient grandmother,¡± Miho exclaimed.

 

¡°Well, I¡¯m satisfied with how I am right now. I don¡¯t know—maybe the experience with Yukito-san left me a bit wiser. It¡¯s less about the tingles and thrills of first love, and more about the subtler, deeper stirring within you. I¡¯ve thought a lot while Syaoran was back in Hong Kong. I survived, too, without anyone,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°But you always realized there¡¯s something, though you couldn¡¯t place your finger on it,¡± Tomoyo said.

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan! I didn¡¯t realize you were here,¡± Sakura exclaimed, turning around.

 

¡°I cannot miss out on such a beautiful moment to videotape Sakura¡¯s deep philosophical musings, can I?¡± Tomoyo smiled. Sakura had come a long way since the days she would sob on her shoulder over her broken heart over Yukito-san, over Syaoran leaving her.

 

¡°Now I feel embarrassed,¡± Sakura said, laughing. ¡°What would I know about love? I¡¯m only fifteen and have yet an entire lifetime to learn.¡±

 

¡°Well said,¡± Naoko stated. ¡°It gives a single girl much hope.¡±

 

And Miho didn¡¯t waste a moment to scribble down a new stanza:

 

 

Sitting by a cozy, crackling fireplace

With the friendly flames flickering on your face,

Your thirsting soul is glowing and alight,

As you drink in the meaning of life and delight—

Blissful warmth slowly spreads through your body.

 

 

It was more difficult to corner Syaoran, since even if she asked, Miho doubted Syaoran would give her a direct answer. Of course, she wasn¡¯t the great reporter Tanaka Miho for no reason. Thus, she tailed after Syaoran to find the perfect opportunity.

 

¡°Waiter!¡± called out Miho, waving her hand, impressed that the restaurant was already bustling with customers so early into the evening.

 

Squealing in delight, Nakuru exclaimed, ¡°Is Touya-kun working here today?¡± Since Eriol had night shift at the hospital today, the two had to eat out for dinner; since the money came from Eriol¡¯s pockets, they obviously chose the most expensive restaurant in town.

 

¡°What are you doing here?¡± demanded Syaoran, in his black and white waiter¡¯s uniform, scowling at his unwelcome guests. Lately, La Seine, which was an upscale restaurant for businessmen and such, was infested with teenage girls eager to glimpse the rumored handsome waiters.

 

¡°My, don¡¯t tell me you work here?¡± Miho feigned surprise. ¡°Tomoyo did mention that you work at some fancy restaurant in downtown.¡±

 

So much for keeping a cover, thought Syaoran dully. ¡°May I take your order?¡±

 

¡°Can I have that so-famous Sakura Chiffon Cake that everyone¡¯s talking about lately? Did you know it was reviewed in the local newspaper?¡± Miho said excitedly. ¡°Five stars and applauded for its ingenuity!¡±

 

¡°Shouldn¡¯t you order your meal before the desert?¡± asked Syaoran politely, in the verge of irritation.

 

¡°Or is that cake only reserved for someone special?¡± persisted Miho. ¡°Actually, Tomoyo and Sakura are joining us—Sakura¡¯s brother¡¯s on shift today, and he¡¯s giving us a discount. Oh—there they are!¡±

 

The two girls, still in their school uniforms, entered the restaurant. Sakura giggled at something Tomoyo whispered to her. Catching site of Nakuru and Miho, they headed over to the table. Before Sakura caught sight of him, Syaoran quickly fled to the kitchen, and Miho was shrewd enough not to mention that she had seen him.

 

Bumping into the manager as he weaved in and out of the assistant cooks, Syaoran demanded reproachfully, ¡°Do you have to give employees special discount coupons?¡±

 

Blinking at the usually silent boy¡¯s outburst, the manager replied, offended, ¡°Why, do you have a problem with that?¡± The boy had already stomped off into the kitchen.

 

Chewing her food carefully, Miho glanced towards the kitchen doors. Indeed, the food was superb, and if she noticed that their table was laden with extra service salad, soup, bread and fresh juice, she did not comment. It wasn¡¯t as if Sakura was completely oblivious to this fact either, for she kept looking around the restaurant, expectantly. Touya had gladly taken over the table from Syaoran. Yet, Syaoaran tugged on his soiled white apron and leaned against the kitchen wall, glimpsing out the steamy window to see if Sakura was still looking. Occasionally, he was called away for various chores, but as soon as he finished them, he returned to that same position with that same wistful smile. 

 

Miho wondered why he wouldn¡¯t just come out and greet Sakura. Or why Sakura always looked fixedly at her plate of food when Syaoran came to the doors and gazed her way. But every time he disappeared from the spot, she frantically looked around again, as if she had lost something but knew not what. Yet, Syaoran did not seem to mind standing where he was, so near, but not seen. And Miho finally understood.

 

Watching the shimmering night sky, distant and afar,

To see the celestial glow of an undimmed star;

Stare dreamily with a wistful smile

 

 

It didn¡¯t take long for Miho to understand that the strength of Syaoran¡¯s feelings resided in the fact that to him love was as elusive as an unreachable star, yet it also was the spark of hope within him, the light source which gave him guidance in the darkest of nights. Then, there were people like Eriol, whose inner thoughts were so convoluted and sinister. She made the mistake of asking him his opinion on what love was, one time.  

 

Turning around in his great chair in his study, Eriol smiled bemused. ¡°Love? Miho, knowing me, you shouldn¡¯t bother asking me such a foolish question.¡±

 

Unfazed, Miho replied, ¡°I know you¡¯re twisted, but I¡¯m sure you have insight.¡± For once, Eriol stared up at her blankly and she gaped. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me you don¡¯t have an answer! The great Hiiragizawa Eriol is answerless for a change!¡± Noticing that Eriol seemed the slightest bit peeved, she rapidly added, ¡°I¡¯m just kidding! Your knowledge and insight is unrivaled, Eriol-sama. Please do enlighten me.¡±

 

His eyes darkened for a second, or so she thought. ¡°Love. It¡¯s something cryptic, something too complex for humans to understand. A big, tangled mess with two people standing on each end of a thread, searching for the other end, but there are so many other threads intertwined that it may be impossible to sort through and reach the end of your thread. Sometimes the thread breaks, sometimes, in the big muddle, you end up with someone else, sometimes, you find the end to only find that person has already let go of your thread. Sometimes, you are abandoned, left all alone.¡±

 

Sweat-dropping, Miho said, ¡°Sorry I asked. Is that the simplest answer you can construct? Why can¡¯t you be normal and reply something like love is like a rose or something romantic like that?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t ask me if you want a sugar-coated answer,¡± replied Eriol almost wearily, sinking into his cushioned chair and shutting his eyes. ¡°If I knew one, I would give one to you gladly.¡±

 

Once more, Miho suspected that Sorcerer Clow Reed, despite fame and power, had not been a very happy man. She wondered if Clow Reed had ever been young, naïve and eager to explore the world and learn its wonders, but Eriol¡¯s former self was beyond her. Maybe Cousin Kaho could better understand him.

 

 

And look back at the oblivious joy, ringing with rich laughter while,

Inside, you are trapped in an entangled snare,

Yearning with the cry of a forlorn child for someone to care!

 

 

The last person left was Tomoyo; Tomoyo¡¯s perspective was the easiest to conceptualize, for Miho had been greatly moved by Tomoyo¡¯s ever-famous words from years ago, ¡°If you love another person, you would wish that person happiness even if it means sacrificing your own happiness.¡± Such selfless words were imprinted in Miho¡¯s impressionable young mind ever since she heard them in Tomoyo¡¯s Card Captor Sakura Movie, winner of the Best Young Director Grand Prize.

 

Someday, Miho hoped that she could love someone so much that she could be as unselfish and considerate as Tomoyo. The idea of giving love without expecting anything in return was yet alien to her, but perhaps in the future, she would truly know she loved someone if she could set aside her happiness for the sake of that person¡¯s.

 

 

Yet despite all, to be true, you are willing,

To give all your heart and soul, and wish for every means of fulfilling,

Another¡¯s utmost happiness, though it may deem

Swallowing all your own hopes and dream;

 

Meilin, Kai, Sakura, Syaoran, Eriol, Tomoyo. Each of their feelings had lent voice to her riddle. To each person, love was a slightly different entity. Yet, in the end, in its core essence, love could only be one thing; it was a universal feeling, just like the sun was the sun and the moon was the moon. It was about joy and bliss, loneliness and sacrifices. And Miho wrote in the last lines of her riddle that afternoon in the ski resort, the night when she set off to challenge the Riddle for once and for all.

 

But if you are fully ready to sacrifice your desire and wish,

For another¡¯s well-being, comfort, and bliss¡¦

 

You have seen divine light.

 

******

 

Wish-chan: January, 2006.

 

            I¡¯ve had this chapter for months, but never really got around to editing and posting it. This was meant to be a New Year¡¯s present, but with traveling back and forth between continents, the first wedding of a friend (ah, I¡¯m getting old), a cousins wedding, on top of schoolwork¡¦ boo with less than 2 weeks of winter break, well, again here is a belated chapter. I would say this is a Happy Lunar New Year present!

            It¡¯s a completely fluff chapter¡¦ for fun. It happens sometime before the Christmas episode. I guess there are two parts to the story. Syaoran¡¯s woes finding a job, and Miho coming up with her riddle. I know starting from the next real chapter, New Trial¡¯s might be taking a darker turn, so I had to add in the fluffy chapter somewhere. I¡¯m sorry I produce so little chapters¡¦ That¡¯s life. I¡¯m going out there doing a lot¡¦ I¡¯m even working out everyday, and trying to satiate a loveless life. I¡¯m still writing¡¦ For the first time, I took a creative writing class last semester. Hopefully that helped me¡¦

            I need to catch up with emails again¡¦ I¡¯m always in a constant battle against stress, but Sakura and Syaoran will always have a special place in my heart.

            Emails are always welcome at hopeluvpeace@hotmail.com... Hopefully I can sift through all the junk mail I get¡¦ Please visit my site at www.wishluv.com

 

            Also, Happy Lunar New Year 2006!!! Ten Year anniversary of Card Captor Sakura!!! (I think?) Wow, time flies, doesn¡¯t it?