Chapter 56: The Tea Party

 

 

 

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

 

- Lewis Carrol, The Jabberwocky

 

You are invited to Miho-chan¡¯s Mad Hatter¡¯s Tea Party Birthday Celebration at the Hiiragizawa Residence, June 3rd

 

 

******

 

 

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan what did you get for Miho-chan¡¯s birthday?¡± asked Sakura, hugging close to her a tea set wrapped in pretty orange and yellow wrapping paper. The two girls walked up the steps to the Hiiragizawa residence front door.

 

¡°You¡¯ll see soon,¡± replied Tomoyo mysteriously. She rang the doorbell to the front door.

 

Nakuru, dressed in a splendid floor-length gown, greeted them. Her long coppery hair was twisted up into a high up-do. ¡°Come on in, come on in. Please go upstairs to get dressed.¡±

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura turned to Tomoyo. ¡°Miho¡¯s party¡¯s a dress-up party?¡±

 

¡°Yes, it¡¯s an Alice in Wonderland costume party—we¡¯re supposed to get dressed as all the characters. Tomoyo-senpai designed all the costumes for me!¡± declared Miho, dressed in a sky blue dress with a white apron with lace hems and a large blue ribbon around her head. ¡°Alice in Wonderland used to be one of my favorite books when I was little. Eriol and my favorite book is Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. That¡¯s where the Jabberwocky poem is from, but most people don¡¯t realize that.¡±

 

¡°The book seems like nonsensical gibberish to me,¡± stated Nakuru. ¡°Well now, come on. We still need to get you two dressed.

 

Tomoyo and Sakura were ushered upstairs by Nakuru and they changed into their respective costumes—Tomoyo and Sakura were dressed in matching dresses as Twiddledee and Twiddledum.

 

¡°Why?¡± protested Sakura as Tomoyo fastened a red ribbon in her hair. ¡°What am I supposed to be?¡±

 

¡°Twiddledee,¡± replied Nakuru, the Duchess, looking over her checklist. ¡°Or Twiddledum; which ever Tomoyo-chan isn¡¯t.¡±

 

Sakura patted the large blue bow on her head, matching with Tomoyo¡¯s, which was red. She gaped when she saw what looked like a large, white bird soar straight into the window.

 

¡°What is the emergency?¡± asked Yue, flying in through the window. He glanced around suspiciously. ¡°I don¡¯t sense a dark force.¡±

 

¡°Oh, there you are,¡± said Nakuru, handing Yue white bunny ears and looked over her guest list. ¡°Mr. White Rabbit, check.¡±

 

Yue frowned holding up the bunny ears with the tip of his fingers disdainfully. ¡°You called me all the way over here to dress me up in this?¡±

 

Nakuru grinned cheekily. ¡°It¡¯s Miho-chan¡¯s birthday. It was her explicit wish to see Yue dressed up like a rabbit.¡±

 

Sakura remarked, ¡°I remember when I got sucked into the Alice in Wonderland book back in fifth grade, Yukito-san was the White Rabbit.¡±

 

¡°I remember,¡± Tomoyo exclaimed. ¡°We were so worried back then when you suddenly disappeared into the Alice in Wonderland book in the library.¡±

 

At this, Sakura, glazing over Tomoyo¡¯s intentional leaving out of who the other person had been, stated, ¡°That¡¯s right—Yukito-san was the White Rabbit, onii-chan was the Mad Hatter, Tomoyo-chan was Humpty Dumpty¡¦¡± She trailed off. And Syaoran had been Twiddledee and Twiddledum. Sakura almost smiled at the recollection of Syaoran in a penguin-suit in her little trip to Wonderland. ¡°And Eriol-kun was...¡±

 

As if on cue, Eriol walked in a gray waistcoat and white pants, red scarf at throat, with gray ears and a matching gray-white striped tail.

 

¡°The Cheshire Cat!¡± exclaimed Sakura.

 

Eriol smiled in a most Cheshire Cat-like manner. ¡°If you are dressed, please join us downstairs.¡±

 

Suppi-chan flew off the bed, waving his striped tail.

 

¡°And what are you, Suppi-chan?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°The Jabberwocky,¡± replied Suppi-chan nonchalantly.

 

¡°And I¡¯m Humpty Dumpty,¡± stated Kero-chan in a round, white egg costume.

 

Nakuru tapped her feet impatiently. ¡°Well, hurry on downstairs. We¡¯re starting the Tea Party now.¡±

 

The guests gathered in Eriol¡¯s great dining hall that was rarely used; Nakuru and Suppi-chan had spent all day cleaning and decorating the room. At the head of the long table sat Miho, dressed in a blue dress and white apron as the heroine, Alice. To her right sat her mother, resplendent in a rich scarlet velvet dress as the Queen of Hearts, her long auburn hair pulled back into a bun and a golden crown on her head. To Miho¡¯s left sat Eriol, the Cheshire Cat and next to him sat Mizuki Kaho, dressed as the Mad Hatter, exuding femininity even in a brocaded gold vest and a silk scarf at her throat and a violet top hat.

 

¡°Mizuki-sensei!¡± Sakura exclaimed running to their homeroom teacher and taking a seat next to her, and Tomoyo followed after her, a little stiltedly, as she bowed to Mizuki-sensei.

 

¡°Thank you for the beautiful costume, Tomoyo-san,¡± said Kaho, smiling at her student.

 

¡°It was my pleasure making them,¡± said Tomoyo.

 

¡°Really, you outdid yourself this time, Tomoyo-san¡± complimented Eriol, who seemed quite pleased with his outfit as he wiggled his soft cat ears which almost seemed like they grew from his head. ¡°What a splendid gift for Miho¡¯s birthday.¡±

 

Nakuru and Yue took the seat across from Sakura, and Miara had the courage to actually reach out and touch Yue¡¯s bunny ears. He only patiently permitted it because Miara could not see, and her hands served her as eyes now.

 

¡°Yue-san, you have such soft hair—what shampoo do you use?¡± Miara asked with a straight face.

 

The girls at the table sighed wistfully—they all secretly desired to touch Yue¡¯s long, silky silver hair but never would have the nerve to.

 

Suppi-chan and Kero-chan sat directly on the table, excitedly peering at all the goodies laden on the table covered in gingham-print table cloth. There were tiny scones with thick curdled cream and homemade strawberry jam, dainty finger sandwiches, blueberry muffins, slivers of brie cheese on crackers and slices of quiche lorraine. There were pots of English Breakfast tea and jugs of thick whole milk and fresh honey to sweeten the tea. Everybody helped themselves to the elegant food, while Suppi-chan and Kero-chan had a contest of who could stuff more buttermilk scones in their mouths. Yue merely sipped on black tea.

 

¡°Well, let us toast to our lovely birthday girl,¡± announced Eriol as the food from the table had diminished considerably, and Suppi-chan was starting to get drunk from sugar. ¡°To Miho-chan!¡±

 

Everybody raised their rose-print teacups and chimed in, ¡°To Miho-chan! Happy Birthday! Tanjobi omodeto!¡±

 

Nakuru brought in the lighted three-tiered cake, vanilla with orange cream, lighted with fifteen candles. ¡°Miara-san made this cake for you, Miho-chan,¡± she said, smiling at Miara, who blushed.

 

¡°This time, the cake will actually taste good,¡± said Miara. ¡°Because Eriol-kun assisted me.¡±

 

¡°I loved all the cakes that you baked for me, okaa-san,¡± replied Miho, smiling as the candlelight flickered at her merrily. She blew out the candles and then closed her eyes in silent prayer.

 

¡°Well, your birthday present as you requested, Miho,¡± said Eriol, walking over to the grand piano which had been moved to the dining room. ¡°Miara-san¡¯s favorite song, The Rose. I will be accompanying Tomoyo-san.¡±

 

Tomoyo brushed the crumbs from her lips and walked up next to the piano.

 

¡°You two did enough for me already, arranging such a lovely party, creating such beautiful costumes,¡± said Miho.

 

¡°This is a song requested by Miara-san,¡± Eriol said. He began to strum the soft opening chords of ¡°The Rose.¡±

 

Tomoyo joined in her soft sweet voice, in English,

 

¡°Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reeds,

Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves your soul to bleed,

Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need,

I say love, it is a flower, and you it¡¯s only seed¡¦¡±

 

Listeners found tears in their eyes as they listened to the simple yet poignant combination of Tomoyo¡¯s quietly beautiful voice with Eriol¡¯s mellow accompaniment.

 

¡°When the night has been too lonely and the night, has been too long,

And you say, that love is only, for the lucky and the strong,

Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snow,

Lies the seed, that with the sun¡¯s love, becomes the rose.¡±

 

When the last chord lingered off, everybody broke into applause.

 

Miara dabbed the corner of her eyes. Music was dearer to her than ever before since the light had left her eyes. Every day, she looked most forward to the evening when Eriol always would play a tune or two for the family in the parlor. Miho would do her homework on the sofa, Suppi-chan would quietly read, and even Nakuru would stop bustling about and sit down to listen to Eriol play. And Miara would close her eyes, listening to the array of pretty tunes Eriol would choose, ranging from Chopin¡¯s Fantasie to pop tunes and little songs he composed. Sometimes Kaho would join them in the lounge with test papers to grade. Today, Tomoyo¡¯s heavenly voice added another dimension to Eriol¡¯s playing though.

 

¡°Umm, this onii-chan and my present,¡± said Sakura, handing Miho her present. Actually, Touya had mostly paid for the present, but she had chosen it. ¡°It really doesn¡¯t measure to Tomoyo-chan¡¯s, but¡¦¡±

 

¡°A Peter Rabbit tea set!¡± exclaimed Miho. ¡°How did you know I love Peter Rabbit?¡±

 

Meanwhile, Miara gave her daughter a leather blank journal, and Nakuru gave Miho a new lunch bag. Yue, after awkwardly poking around in his pocket handed Miho a white quill. ¡°Its ink will never dry,¡± he remarked offhandedly. Sakura and Tomoyo were mighty jealous because they suspected the feather was from Yue¡¯s magnificent white wings.

 

¡°My, Yue-san¡¯s gift completely overshadows mine,¡± remarked Kaho, who had prepared a Parkman fountain pen set for Miho.

 

¡°Oh, I¡¯ve always wanted Parkman though,¡± stated Miho, though they all knew nothing really beat the feather quill.

 

Sakura swore that she saw Yue smirk, but she could not tell because he did so behind his long sheet of silver hair.

 

Miho¡¯s eyes misted as she looked around at her friends. ¡°Thank you all, so much. This was such a wonderful birthday—I¡¯ll never forget how we are all gathered together like this.¡± She looked up at her mother and gave her a tight hug. Then she turned to Eriol and gave him a peck on the cheek. To everyone¡¯s amusement, Eriol blushed.

 

For the first time in months, the group partied merrily into the night. Only once in a while did Miho gaze at the empty seat at the end of the long table, where a crown was set on top of a card—the King of Hearts. She sighed wistfully.

 

Nakuru reached into her pocket and commented, ¡°Oh yes, the postman delivered this earlier today. It¡¯s addressed to you. There¡¯s no return address though.¡±

 

Miho took the envelope with trembling hands and tore it open. For a moment, she stared at the front page of a thick stack of papers. Then, her face crumpled as she held the papers to her chest.

 

¡°What is it, Miho?¡± Nakuru asked curiously.

 

Miho shook her head as tears started to stream from her face. ¡°Baka onii-chan.¡±

 

Sakura thought that they were tears of happiness this time, though.

 

The others took this as a cue for the party to end. ¡°Let¡¯s go upstairs and change,¡± whispered Tomoyo to Sakura, who nodded, looking over her shoulders at Miho inquisitively.

 

As they headed upstairs, they passed by the end hall with Mirror of Truth. Slowly, Sakura walked towards the mirror—Kai had returned it to Miho and her mother after all. Sakura felt compelled to walk up to it and stared into the mirror. She jumped at the reflection. In the glass, Syaoran gazed back at her with sad amber eyes.

 

Sakura stepped back and rapidly spun around, to see if anyone was standing behind her. She was greeted only by the empty hallway. He wasn¡¯t here. She shook her head—now she was seeing things. Of course he wasn¡¯t back in Japan. Though she never spoke his name, even now, after two months had passed, his presence was as looming as if he was still here.

 

¡°What¡¯s wrong, Sakura-chan?¡± asked Tomoyo.

 

Sakura turned to her friend, praying Tomoyo didn¡¯t suspect what had just happened. In a light voice, she chattered, ¡°When did you and Eriol-kun prepare all this for Miho-chan? You should have told me; I would have helped out. And that song you sang was so pretty; you must have practiced a lot with Eriol-kun beforehand.¡±

 

¡°No, we only ran through it once before,¡± replied Tomoyo.

 

Sakura gaped. ¡°Wow, pros are really different—it took me half a year to sing all of Juliet¡¯s songs properly for Star-Crossed.¡±

 

¡°I knew the song from before—it wasn¡¯t too difficult to learn; and Eriol-kun and I have collaborated on projects often enough so we work well together.¡± Tomoyo sighed. But sometimes, the closer you think you got to a person, the further away they seemed.

 

¡°Well, let¡¯s head on out after saying goodbye to Miho-chan.¡± Without glancing back, Sakura walked away from the Mirror of Truth, afraid of whom she would see if she looked again.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The entire student body of Seijou High was bustling in anticipation to prepare for the annual summer cultural fair. There was much competition between classes over which class would host the best activity. Sakura¡¯s classmates were excited to brainstorm ideas for what Class 1-2 could do for the fair.

 

While Mizuki Kaho enjoyed teaching class, there was nothing she enjoyed as much as planning for special events. Mizuki Kaho made a chart on the chalkboard to count votes of what the students wanted to do. ¡°So, did you all come to a consensus about what to do for the cultural fair? You are all such a talented bunch, I look forward to your ideas.¡±

 

¡°We should do a maid cosplay café!¡± called out the class president Akagi Aki.

 

¡°No, we should do a play!¡± called out Naoko, eyes sparkling in anticipation.

 

¡°Cinderella!¡± exclaimed another classmate. ¡°We should put on Cinderella.¡±

 

¡°No, we should do Sleeping Beauty!¡± called out Yamazaki Takashi, jumping on his desk with a dramatic sweep of his hand to his mouth. ¡°Oh ho ho ho.¡±

 

There was a titter amongst those who had been in Mizuki-sensei¡¯s fifth grade class at Tomoeda Elementary as they recalled their beloved Sakura-chan as the prince, along with the legendary performance of stoic Li Syaoran as the most horrendous princess in the history all elementary school performances.

 

¡°No, no, we should have a cross-dressing restaurant,¡± declared a female classmate, eying all the bishounen in the class—she would love to see Eron, Eriol and Aki dress up as girls.

 

Erika flipped back her hair and declared, ¡°I think we should have a beauty pageant. With the guys participating as females also.¡±

 

There was a squeal of excitement amongst the female members of the class—though on the down side, some of the boys in the class might look prettier in drag then the girls.

 

¡°And what do you propose, Daidouji-san, Hiiragizawa-kun?¡± said Mizuki-sensei, glancing at the quiet left-hand back section of the room.

 

Looking up, Tomoyo replied, ¡°Well, I think a café is a good way to put to use the various talent we have in this class. However, the maid café and cross-dressing café is pretty common and will probably be taken by other classes. We need a clench to set our class¡¯ café apart from other—a unique theme. Desserts, dango and other sweets are common food that are easy to make and are commonly served in classes. I feel like it would suit us better if we serve some specialty food, such as tea. Do you agree, Eriol-kun?¡±

 

Business-minded Eriol nodded. ¡°Tomoyo-san is correct—a tea café would be a profitable enterprise because many people would become thirsty throughout the day since most students will focus on selling salt snacks. Tea is a universal drink and derives from all different cultures. And to add new flavor to the café, we can have stations with teas from all different parts of the world and waiters and waitresses dressed in that country¡¯s traditional costumes.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s a great idea!¡± exclaimed Chiharu. ¡°Like we¡¯re being taken across the world through tea.¡±

 

¡°A taste of each culture—Darjeeling from India, matcha from Japan, Earl of Grey from England, jasmine tea from China¡¦¡± Takashi grinned—he loved Eriol¡¯s ideas.

 

The tea café idea caught on quickly despite Aki¡¯s protest that he wanted a maid café—but he was solaced when he learned the English waitresses will all be decked in pretty frilly aprons for their tea café. After all, it was widely accepted in class 1-2 that Tomoyo and Eriol were the shadow leaders of the classes—whatever decision those two made oftentimes became the majority consensus of the other students. The two were influential not because they were well-versed and undeniably talented, but because they were well-respected and admired by students and teachers alike.  

 

Mizuki-sensei wrote on the chalkboard a list of regions—England, Japan, China and India, and then wrote under the list the names of the students who wanted to represent each country.

 

Eriol and Tomoyo were unanimously voted as leaders of the English tea section; Tomoyo was also called upon to coordinate the class 1-2¡¯s uniform designs as she had done year after year for their class. Meanwhile, Yamazaki Takashi volunteered for the Indian section because he wanted to wear a turban, and he and Chiharu were voted as heads of the Indian tea section. Aki, as the son of a prestigious Japanese family, had learned from famous tea masters the art of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and he and Rika, who was the most skilled in home economics, talented in flower arranging and playing the koto amongst other things, were assigned to lead the Japanese tea ceremony section, which by default would likely to be the most popular section. The twins meanwhile were unanimously assigned as leaders of the Chinese tea section.

 

¡°So, Eron-kun, Erika-chan, I always meant to ask you two, are you full Chinese, part Chinese or what?¡± questioned Naoko, leaning over to Eron¡¯s desk. Sakura glanced at her deskmate—she too had always wondered but never had a chance to ask.

 

Eron smiled pleasantly. ¡°We¡¯re mutts—part Japanese, part Chinese, part Dutch, part royalty, part murderer and part goodness knows what else.¡±

 

Needless to say, nobody ever asked the twins again about their ethnicity.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The week before the cultural fair, the entire school completely went into preparation mode. Seijou High students of all levels were found running about the campus, painting large banners, directing students and scrambling to make sure that everything was ready in time. Many students stayed at school late into the night in preparation.

 

Lately, Classroom 1-2 was filled with a sweet, exotic spicy smell from the various teas. Sakura¡¯s classmates were extremely jittery and hyper from excess caffeine consumption due to each member being compelled to drink samples of everyone¡¯s tea concoctions. Firstly, supplies were ordered by Tomoyo, whose mother had connections with the best tea companies in the world. Organized Naoko was assigned to be tea keeper, making sure the exotic tea leaves and delicate tea bags were stored and counted after each day.

 

Costumes were already done thanks to Tomoyo¡¯s patterns—everyone sewed their own costumes (or had their mothers, or fathers, sew them). Sakura had completed most of her own costume with the help of her father, who had always been an expert sewer. The Indian section was by the far the flashiest and grandiose, as Naoko and Chiharu swirled around in their intricately beaded saris and fastened sheer veils over their heads. The Japanese tea team was the only group that didn¡¯t have to make their own costumes as most of them owned kimonos or borrowed their parents¡¯ kimonos. Erika¡¯s crimson form-fitting qipao with the scandalously short hemline had created a sensation throughout the school, and the male students from all classes swore to visit the Chinese tea station. Of course, the elegant English tea section would likely be most popular with the female students, but Tomoyo and Sakura as the waitresses would likely attract admiring male student customers.

 

¡°Rika-chan, can you help me with my obi?¡± asked Naoko, holding up her crimson sash to Rika.

 

¡°Here, I can do it,¡± said Rika, helping Naoko tie her obi.

 

¡°Rika-chan is so talented!¡± exclaimed Naoko, hoping to muster a smile from her friend. It had been months since they last heard from Terada-sensei, but Rika was still going strong. And she looked lovelier than ever wearing a kimono and playing a melancholic tune on the koto. Naoko glanced over at their classmate Yutaka Ichiro—apparently he thought Rika looked beautiful as well and was pouring tea over his feet instead of the cup. It had been a surprise to them all when Yutaka Ichiro, who had been in a different class back in junior high, turned up to be in their same homeroom this year. After confessing his feelings to Rika last winter, he had seemed pretty dejected when gently declined him.

 

¡°I¡¯m going to the restroom to wash the pots,¡± said Rika, gathering the empty pots.

 

Yutaka Ichiro glanced up and saw that Rika was leaving the classroom. He trailed out after her.

 

¡°Here, I can take that, Sasaki-san,¡± Yutaka Ichiro said, catching up with Rika. ¡°You might splash water on your kimono.¡±

 

¡°I can manage it,¡± Rika said with a tight smile. ¡°But thank you, Yutaka-kun.¡±

 

¡°S-sasaki-san,¡± Ichiro stammered. ¡°D-do you remember I confessed to you last winter?¡±

 

Blushing, Rika nodded.

 

¡°I—I still like you, Sasaki-san. Please go out with me!¡± Ichiro stated, bowing his head down.

 

Rika blinked around helplessly. Why wasn¡¯t Chiharu or Naoko around at a time like this? ¡°I-I...¡± She took a deep breath. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Yutaka-kun. I appreciate your feelings, but I can¡¯t go out with you.¡±

 

¡°Why, is it because of that teacher? He¡¯s gone now. You deserve better than him!¡± broke out Yutaka Ichiro in all earnesty.

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, Yutaka-kun,¡± Rika said, rushing away to the restroom.

 

Yutaka Ichiro¡¯s face contorted, and he ripped a flier of the cultural fair off the wall.

 

At that moment, Eron came in with a pitcher of water. ¡°You all right there, Yutaka?¡±

 

Taking a glance at his classmate, Ichirio walked away.  

 

 

 

Preparation was coming to wraps and the students were eager to present their hard work to friends, family and peers the following day.

 

It was already near nine o¡¯clock in the evening and all the other students had long since completed their preparation work, ready to get a good night¡¯s sleep before the big day. Sakura yawned, glad that school work had been halted for the cultural festival preparation.

 

Remembering she had forgotten her cell phone in her desk, she walked back into classroom 1-2, to find Eron still bent over on the floor, painting on a large banner sheet block letters that would eventually spell out ¡°Chinese Tea Section.¡±

 

¡°Eron-kun, why are you still here?¡± Sakura exclaimed. ¡°Where¡¯s everyone else?¡±

 

Eron looked up, blowing up a loose strand of violet-blue hair from his forehead. ¡°I¡¯m almost finished. I just need to finish up this sign, and then write out the menu¡¦¡±

¡°What have you been doing all week long?¡± asked Sakura. ¡°All the other groups have finished with posters two days ago.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t know¡¦ I was trying to brew the perfect oolong tea,¡± replied Eron glumly. ¡°I don¡¯t know too much about teas in the first place—I¡¯ve never brewed a single pot before this week. In fact, I don¡¯t even like the taste of tea. It¡¯s bitter, it burns your tongue and it smells bad. I¡¯m more of a wine person.¡±

 

Sakura raised an eyebrow. ¡°You¡¯re underage—you shouldn¡¯t be consuming wine. Besides, if you didn¡¯t know anything about Chinese tea, why did you agree to become the section leader?¡±

 

Eron stared back exasperatedly. Obviously he would not admit he did not know something.

 

Sighing, Sakura eyed the wobbly letters painted on the paper with purple paint. An elementary school student could have done better. Picking up an extra paintbrush, she dipped it into the can of purple pigment and began working on the lettering on the opposite end of the banner.

 

¡°What are you doing?¡± demanded Eron. ¡°You¡¯re in the English tea section and aren¡¯t you guys finished with preparation already?¡±

 

Sakura carefully colored in the letters traced lightly on the paper with pencil. ¡°Obviously Erika-chan wouldn¡¯t help out with anything, and you probably took on all the responsibilities of finishing everything up because you¡¯re the section leader. Everybody went home thinking you have everything in control, but in the end, you took on more than you can finish on your own. Aren¡¯t I right?¡±

 

At this Eron pouted and dunked his paintbrush into the paint bucket. She was right.

 

¡°Eron, do you know what the purpose of a cultural fair is?¡± Sakura waited patiently for an answer.

 

Eron shrugged. ¡°I don¡¯t know. Seems like a waste of time for me. We could be studying, preparing for college examinations. I guess students get to show off their skills, raise some money. Create entertainment for other students and their family.¡±

 

¡°No.¡± Sakura looked up from the banner. ¡°We have cultural fairs for teamwork. It¡¯s true, we sometimes work harder preparing for the cultural fair than we do for school—and then, on the actual day, it goes by so quickly and it¡¯s over. But all the hard work, all the preparation we do, we do it with other people. We learn how to work in groups, cooperate as we wouldn¡¯t do usually in the classroom. That¡¯s the fun of it.¡±

 

Eron frowned at the crooked line he made with the dripping paint. ¡°Sakura, don¡¯t you have something like the ¡®Draw¡¯ Card. Or¡¦ hmm¡¦ the Create will do. ¡°

 

¡°That¡¯s not the point of it! We must do everything by hand!¡± exclaimed Sakura determinedly. ¡°I¡¯m going to help out with this, and we will finish the Chinese section by tomorrow morning!¡±

 

 

 

Late into the night, the two finally finished painting the banner and writing out the menu.

 

¡°Finished!¡± exclaimed Sakura, setting down her wide brush.

 

¡°It looks good,¡± Eron declared in awe, looking at the lettering on the banner which Sakura had remedied by contouring with black paint. 

 

¡°And our menu looks better than even the Japanese menu,¡± declared Sakura proudly. ¡°Aki-kun had it written out by a professional calligrapher.¡±

 

¡°So much for the handwork,¡± muttered Eron. ¡°We could have done that too then.¡±

 

Sakura shook  her head. ¡°Well, we better get home—tomorrow¡¯s going to be a long day,¡± said Sakura, reaching over to the empty paint can the same time that Eron did. She drew back at the touch of his hands.

 

He looked up at her then grinned. ¡°Ah, you have paint on your face,¡± Eron said, reaching over instinctively to wipe it off for her. Sakura, flustered, rapidly wiped her face on her sleeve.

 

Eron chuckled. ¡°You smeared it all over your cheek now. Here, let me wipe it off.¡± He took a clean piece of napkin and dabbed it into the jar of water and carefully wiped the purple smudge on Sakura¡¯s cheek.

 

¡°Wait, I can do it now,¡± Sakura said, taking the napkin from Eron¡¯s hand. ¡°Here, I¡¯ll take the brushes to the sink and clean them. You can put the banner on the table in the back and let it dry.¡±

 

¡°Sure.¡± Eron drew his hands away from Sakura. ¡°Thanks for helping out—I¡¯d have been stuck here all night without your help.¡±

 

Sakura raised an eyebrow at Eron. ¡°Do you really want me to believe that you¡¯d have stayed here all night to finish that poster? You could simply use some magic to finish it, you know.¡±

 

¡°Perhaps. But then, you wouldn¡¯t have peaked in the classroom and felt sorry for me and stayed to help me,¡± replied Eron.

 

¡°I would have done it for any classmate,¡± replied Sakura, drawing back abruptly. ¡°Besides, I didn¡¯t have much to do in my section because Eriol-kun and Tomoyo-chan are so on top of things.¡±

 

¡°Those who are a match made in heaven,¡± said Eron with a hint of sarcasm. ¡°I swear, the two paired together, the sadistic devil and the scheming angel, makes me and Erika feel like saints.¡±

 

At this, Sakura could not help nodding. ¡°Thank goodness they are my friends, or else, I¡¯d feel quite scared of what they can accomplish together.

 

Eron chuckled at this.

 

¡°Goodness, it¡¯s quite windy outside,¡± remarked Sakura. ¡°Oh dear, I should probably go to the rooftop and get our posters—we left them up there to dry quickly. They might blow away at this rate.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll go up with you—you might need a hand,¡± said Eron.

 

 

 

Standing on the Seijou High School roof deck, Eron remarked, ¡°The view from here at nighttime is pretty spectacular.¡±

 

¡°Look, we can see the Seijou Junior High roof deck from here,¡± Sakura commented. ¡°Kai-kun used to go up there all the time when he was ditching class.¡±

 

¡°You sealed the Plague from there, didn¡¯t you?¡± Eron said quietly.

 

Sakura looked up at Eron¡¯s golden eyes, gleaming against the midnight sky.

 

Eron turned to her with a sad smile. ¡°Did I ever thank you for sealing the dark force? You probably don¡¯t know, but back then I was fighting too. I never meant for it to be released. But I was too weak to hold it back.¡± He leaned against the barb wire, cool against his palm. His long ponytail whipped back in the night wind.

 

¡°Eron-kun¡¦¡±

 

¡°I would have surrendered to darkness then, if I didn¡¯t feel your aura reach out to me. It was such a warm, rose-colored aura. With that, I was able to fight back too,¡± Eron said.

 

Not knowing how to respond, Sakura began to roll up the posters for the English Tea Café so that she could take it back to the classroom. Thinking about the Plague brought back memories of moments that she didn¡¯t want to recall.

 

Eron looked back. ¡°Do you hear a noise on the opposite end?¡±

 

Sakura nodded, glancing up. ¡°Who can still be at school at this hour?¡±

 

¡°It could be some upperclassman preparing for the cultural fair tomorrow.¡± Eron tentatively tip-toed forward. ¡°Or it could be¡¦¡± He made a scary expression and waved his hands in the air.

 

¡°Hoe¡¦¡± Sakura shuddered. ¡°Naoko-chan told me about the seven school mysteries, and one of them was the roof deck ghost.¡±

 

¡°And you¡¯re still scared of ghosts?¡± Eron chuckled. Though he felt inclined to tease Sakura a bit more, he glanced up and stated, ¡°Hey, isn¡¯t that Yutaka-kun, Sasaki-san¡¯s deskmate?¡±

 

Sakura instantly recognized the short brown hair and stocky stature. His back was turned to them, and he did not notice his classmates footsteps. ¡°It is Yutaka-kun. What¡¯s he doing, climbing up the barbed wire fence?¡±

 

¡°Yutaka—that¡¯s dangerous. Get down here!¡± Eron called out.

 

Now balancing on the top of the fence around the rooftop, Yutaka Ichiro gazed down at Eron with glazed eyes. ¡°Hello, soccer team vice-captain.¡±

 

¡°What are you doing?¡± Eron demanded.

 

Yutaka Ichiro glanced between the roof and then down below, many stories below the school. ¡°Rika-chan turned me down. That wretched old teacher Terada Yoshiyuki is no longer here, but she still loves him instead. Why?¡±

 

Eron¡¯s eyes rounded, and he turned to Sakura. ¡°Sasaki-san¡¯s your friend. What¡¯s going on?¡±

 

¡°Rika-chan—Yutaka-kun liked Rika-chan back in junior high,¡± said Sakura. ¡°But how does he know about Terada-sensei? I thought the school tried to keep that hushed up.¡±

 

A twisted smile came over Yutaka Ichiro¡¯s face. ¡°You guys didn¡¯t know, did you? I saw the two. At the ski resort. Kinomoto-san. You¡¯re friends with my Rika-chan, right?¡± He wobbled on the fence. ¡°She¡¯s messed up. You tell me, why would she pick that teacher out of all the guys out there? I hate him. I hate Terada Yoshiyuki.¡±

 

¡°Be reasonable, Yutaka-kun. Come down from there,¡± Sakura called out.

 

¡°I saw them together. And then I knew. Rika-chan, who pretended to be so pure and innocent—she won¡¯t be my Rika-chan. So I told them. I told them everything!¡±

 

¡°Told what?¡± Sakura asked, frowning.

 

¡°I told the school administration,¡± replied Ichiro with a short laugh. ¡°I told them about Terada-sensei and Rika-chan. So that Terada-sensei was fired. Nobody knew it was me. If Rika-chan knew, she would have hated me. I was the one who took her precious sensei away from her!¡±

 

Sakura vividly recalled Rika¡¯s tear-filled eyes as Terada-sensei announced his resignation last semester. Rika, who was always composed and steady, crumpled onto her knees and cried on her friends¡¯ shoulders back then. Yet, Rika today was still so brave and strong. If there was anyone hurting more than Sakura at this moment, it was Rika. Because there really was no reason for her to be separated with Terada-sensei. Their relationship had been beautiful and sincere. But someone had to taint it, ruin it all. Trying to keep a level voice, Sakura called out to her frantic classmate, ¡°Rika-chan¡¯s not that kind of person. She¡¯s the kindest, sweetest person I know. She won¡¯t hate anyone. And no matter what you did, she would understand and forgive you.¡±

 

¡°What do you know?¡± Ichiro cried out. He stared down over the edge of the building. ¡°What do you know about being rejected by the person you love the most?¡±

 

¡°Yutaka-kun¡¦¡± Sakura¡¯s green eyes narrowed in sorrow. ¡°Please, come down from there.¡±

 

Eron gripped Sakura¡¯s shoulder. ¡°It¡¯s no use. He¡¯s possessed by a dark force.¡±

 

¡°I thought it might be one—what kind of dark force is that?¡± Sakura asked dully. ¡°It¡¯s nothing like I¡¯ve ever sense before.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s one of the Emotions—they¡¯re not easy to detect because they mingle so well with human nature,¡± stated Eron.

 

¡°The Emotions?¡± Sakura repeated with a shudder.

 

¡°Yes, they were all released back when I lost grip over the dark forces,¡± replied Eron. ¡°They breed in the hearts of those who are at their most vulnerable.¡±

 

Sakura asked slowly, ¡°How do you seal the Emotions?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not sure,¡± replied Eron. ¡°Sorry.¡±

 

¡°Why are you sorry?¡± murmured Sakura, not taking her eyes off Yutaka-kun. It was not like she could release her staff in front of him, anyway.

 

¡°For not being stronger,¡± replied Eron. ¡°And wiser.¡± For not being Li Syaoran. He inched closer towards the fence. What would Syaoran do in a situation like this? When Syaoran had been the captain of the soccer team, he had been strict and almost despotic. But everyone still listened to him and followed his instructions. Why? Because he understood how to work in a team.

 

Yutaka finally noticed that Eron had been drawing nearer. He shouted, ¡°Don¡¯t come nearer! If you come nearer, I¡¯m going to jump.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t be silly!¡± called out Sakura. ¡°Why would you want to take your own life? What¡¯s more joyful than living? Sure, there¡¯s sad and painful moments too. But there¡¯s so much beauty in life. If you¡¯re dead, you can¡¯t do anything about it.¡± She recalled Subaru, who had wanted so badly to live. ¡°There are those who don¡¯t have the choice. Yet you, you¡¯re perfectly healthy a strong. So what if Rika-chan doesn¡¯t love you? How can she love someone who doesn¡¯t love himself? Value your own life first, Yutaka-kun!¡±

 

¡°Umm¡¦ Sakura¡¦ that¡¯s not the most sensitive thing to be saying to him right now,¡± murmured Eron.

 

¡°But I know what it is like. When I was sealing the Plague, I thought it was okay to sacrifice myself if I could conquer that dark force. But I was wrong. It would have made many people sad. I would have hurt otou-san, onii-chan and Tomoyo-chan¡¦ all my friends who were waiting for me.¡± Sakura swallowed a lump in her throat as she gazed up at Ichirio and said to him, ¡°If you love Rika-chan, don¡¯t just say it! Prove it to her. Someone once told me, if you love someone, the greatest happiness is to see that person happy. Doing something like this, don¡¯t you think it would make her sad?¡±

 

¡°So what? She wouldn¡¯t care whether I existed or not,¡± lashed out Ichiro. ¡°What do you know what it feels like to not have anything?¡±

 

Eron frowned as he stated, ¡°I know what it feels like to love someone who doesn¡¯t love you in return. But you should feel blessed. You still have so much going for you. So, your parents are not together anymore. At least you have a mother and a father. Well, Erika and I never even had parents. We grew up in the orphanage. But do you see either of us wallowing in self-pity about it? We¡¯re humans; we all have problems. So deal with it. Be a man.¡± While talking, Eron had reached up close enough to grab his classmate by the ankle and drag him down.

 

Ichiro topped over and fell back onto the rooftop. ¡°What are you doing?¡± he roared. He took Eron¡¯s shirt by the collar.  

 

Grimacing, Eron shoved away Yutaka Ichiro¡¯s hand. ¡°Get a grip of yourself and snap out of it.¡±

 

Tumbling back, Ichiro glared up at Eron. His eyes glowed an eerie red. Then he stared at Sakura. Slowly, he picked up a folded chair by the wall and raised it above his head. ¡°Kinomoto-san, this is your fault. You interrupted me!¡± With all his strength, he stumbled forward and brought the chair down with full force.

 

¡°What do you think you¡¯re doing?¡± Eron demanded, arms raised above his head as the chair crashed down, blocking it from touching Sakura. The chair cracked in half.

 

¡°Ugh!¡± Ichiro dropped the broken chair on the ground. The physical impact seemed to have stunned him more than Eron.

 

¡°Eron-kun!¡± Sakura exclaimed as Eron cringed from the impact of the metal chair on his body. She gazed up at Yutaka Ichiro with imploring eyes and ventured to reach out and touch his hands. To her relief, he did not push her away. ¡°Yutaka-kun. Perhaps I don¡¯t know you very well, but as a classmate, I can say this. Please have a little faith in yourself. And no matter how much despair you feel at this moment, everything will turn out okay.¡± A drop of tear fell from her eyes. In truth, she no longer had certainty in these words at all. Yet, it was all that she could say.

 

Suddenly, Yutaka Ichiro dropped onto his knees, swallowing a lump in his throat. He began to sob uncontrollably. A dark shadow seemed to lift from him, and he toppled over, unconscious.

 

¡°In his moment of desperation, all he wanted was a little word of reassurance,¡± murmured Eron. He grimaced as he tried to move.

 

¡°Oh Eron-kun. Why did you do that? You¡¯re hurt now,¡± Sakura said, rushing up to Eron.

 

¡°A few bruises won¡¯t kill me and probably will do some good for my vanity,¡± replied Eron with a crooked grin. ¡°Besides, consider this retribution for hurting you before. I once bruised your back pretty badly, if I recall.¡± Syaoran had given him quite a beating back then, also. ¡°Well, what about you? You look pretty shaken up.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m okay,¡± replied Sakura, folding her arms closer around her.

 

¡°Yutaka will be all right. He¡¯s a good guy. He¡¯s the sort of guy who turned up to soccer practice rain or storm with a stupid smile. Everybody has times when they are lead astray. Only, some are not so blessed and don¡¯t have anyone to guide them back to the right track.¡± Eron paused.

 

Sakura felt like Eron was no longer talking about Yutaka Ichiro. ¡°How did you know about Yutaka-kun¡¯s family situation?¡± she asked.

 

¡°About his mother and father¡¯s separation?¡± Eron smiled wistfully. ¡°Last year, Yutaka-kun had to miss a number of soccer practices. It is the captain and vice-captain¡¯s business to know the reason why.¡±

 

¡°You never involved yourself in other people¡¯s business before.¡±

 

¡°Maybe your nosiness in contagious,¡± replied Eron. He sighed. Actually, Eron could have cared less back then. It had been Syaoran who had kept Yutaka from being dismissed from the team when he learned about his teammate¡¯s family situation. Otherwise, Yutaka Ichiro would not have been able to play in the Junior Soccer Championship, let alone as a starter. But Eron was not going to tell Sakura this. He glanced back above the doorway leading to the rooftop. There stood a figure draped in a dark hood, silently gazing at them with violet eyes.

 

 

 

When Yutaka Ichiro finally awoke with a start, he found himself at his desk in the classroom. He was greeted by a grim Eron, who sat across from him, arms crossed. ¡°Eh? Why am I still at school? What time is it, Chang-kun?¡±

 

¡°Way past midnight. You must have been really tired after all the preparation for the café—you¡¯ve been sleeping at your desk for hours,¡± Eron said. ¡°Hurry and go home so you can get some rest before the big day tomorrow.¡±

 

¡°I will,¡± Ichiro said, gathering his book bag and dashing out the door. He paused for a second. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Kinomoto-san, Chang-kun, about earlier¡¦¡±

 

¡°You should be¡¦ You were snoring so loudly that all the letters on the poster came out crooked,¡± stated Eron, arms crossed. ¡°Right, Sakura?¡±

 

Sakura replied, ¡°Don¡¯t worry, Yutaka-kun—it¡¯s because Eron-kun is bad a painter.¡±

 

Yutaka Ichiro smiled sadly. ¡°Thank you, Kinomoto-san, Chang-kun. I¡¯ll try my best to be stronger¡¦ When I¡¯m strong enough, I¡¯ll apologize to Sasaki-san for what I did¡¦Umm¡¦ I¡¯ll see you tomorrow then!¡± He hurried out of the classroom.

 

¡°Well, let¡¯s head on home too then,¡± yawned Eron. The two walked out slowly. Eron walked slightly stiffly from the impact of the chair earlier.

 

Sakura remarked, ¡°You¡¯re awfully nice these days, Eron-kun. I¡¯ve never seen you act so nice to anyone besides your sister.¡±

 

¡°People change,¡± Eron replied. ¡°I admit it¡¯s as difficult for me to lose my mean streak as it would be for you to gain one. Nonetheless, I¡¯ve been trying to change for your sake. So that you won¡¯t need to reproach me anymore.¡±

 

Everything Eron said, every time he smiled that wistful smile, Sakura couldn¡¯t help wondering why now, why was he showing such kindness when she felt most vulnerable? ¡°And why are you doing all this for me, Eron-kun?¡± Sakura demanded, halting in front of the school gates. There was no light anywhere on campus at this hour.

 

¡°You already know why, Sakura,¡± said Eron quietly. ¡°It¡¯s because I love you.¡±

 

There was an awkward silence.

 

Eron sighed. ¡°I know this is not the time and place to be saying this. But I want you to know I can¡¯t hide the way I feel forever.¡±

 

She finally replied after another prolonged pause. ¡°Eron-kun, you don¡¯t truly love me.¡±

 

¡°How can you determine that?¡±

 

Sakura reflected for a moment and worded carefully, ¡°What you like is an idealized version of me—you haven¡¯t seen me at my weakest, my silliest, my angriest, my ugliest moments.¡±

 

Eron scowled. ¡°And he has?¡±

 

¡°He has,¡± she replied softly. ¡°We¡¯ve been through everything together—there is nothing left I can show him that he doesn¡¯t already know.¡± Ah, except one thing. I haven¡¯t showed him yet how much I love him¡¦  But it¡¯s too late now.

 

¡°So what, you¡¯ve been together longer. But it¡¯s me here. I¡¯m standing before you now,¡± Eron lashed out.

 

The bright moonlight glistened like a halo around Eron¡¯s dark violet hair. Sakura smiled wistfully. ¡°Eron-kun, Yukito-san once told me that the person I like best is not him. That the reason I like him is because he reminds me of my father. I thought about it, and it was correct to a certain extent. Except, it wasn¡¯t completely true. I didn¡¯t quite like Yukito-san solely because he resembled my father. For a little while, I was hurt because it seemed like Yukito-san was condescending upon my feelings. But it was not that. In the long run, I learned how to differentiate the feeling of liking a person as a person versus liking a person because that person really is the most important person to me.¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s the difference?¡± Eron asked sullenly.

 

¡°Should I tell you a secret?¡± Sakura stared up at the orange clouds sailing across the dusky sky with all the leisure in the world. ¡°I actually like Yukito-san as much, if not even more than I did five years ago. That hasn¡¯t changed. It¡¯s just, I realize the way I like him is always going to stay like that—as an elementary school girl¡¯s first crush, nothing more.¡±

 

¡°Must be nice to have such a loving heart,¡± replied Eron snidely. He was not a prepubescent boy with some silly puppy love—was that all Sakura thought he amounted to? The temper he had tried so hard to curtail over these past months was beginning to flair up again.

 

¡°I like Eron-kun a lot too. Sometimes you made me really angry, and I still can¡¯t figure out what you¡¯re thinking. I¡¯m still half convinced your up to something evil—but I still like you enough, because here I am, talking to you like this.¡± Sakura stared into Eron¡¯s golden-hazel eyes, eyes that held a mystique as if his vision of the world was different than anyone else¡¯s. ¡°Eron-kun, have you ever thought who the number one person in your life is?¡±

 

Eron didn¡¯t need to think—there only had been one person who had truly mattered to him in his life.

 

¡°And you¡¯re the most important person for her too,¡± Sakura said. ¡°I know that without asking. For me, I am at ease because onii-chan found his most important person. Both Yukito-san and onii-chan are happy, and that made me relieved, even when I was disappointed back when I was rejected by Yukito-san.¡±

 

¡°Well, who¡¯s your most important person, may I ask?¡± Eron asked crossly.

 

¡°Why, Tomoyo-chan of course,¡± replied Sakura flippantly. ¡°Tomoyo-chan has always been there for me, from the beginning till now. And I will be there for her until she doesn¡¯t need me anymore.¡±

 

At this, Eron smiled lopsided. He had a good idea of how Yutaka must have been feeling now. ¡°I have too much competition, don¡¯t I? I¡¯ve known you for a shorter time and met you under not the most pleasant of circumstances. But in the end, you¡¯ll see who the one standing beside you is. In a situation when everything is unfavorable on my side, the least you can do is give me a chance, no? Let¡¯s take things step by step. Let me be a friend to you now, since friendship is all you ask for at the moment.¡±

 

¡°Thanks, Eron-kun,¡± said Sakura, feeling more at ease than before the conversation had started. Somehow, when with Eron, she felt as if she was trapped in a cage whose barb wires would enclose tighter and tighter around her if she struggled. She did not know if it was the hypnotic glow of his eyes or the suave yet dangerous undertone of his voice. But today, for the first time, she felt as if the cage door had opened. If nothing else, I think Eron has become a friend. A good friend.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The annual Seijou High School Summer Cultural Fair commenced with students in high spirits as their hard work was finally put on display. Family and relatives were invited to the cultural fair so there was a range of visitors of varying ages. Since Seijou High students were known to take extra measures to make their school¡¯s cultural fairs stand out, local people and neighboring schools always looked forward to see what the new classes came up with that year.

 

¡°I¡¯m glad we got to take some time off,¡± said Yukito to Touya, both in casual-wear for a change. ¡°So, what is Sakura-chan¡¯s class doing again?¡±

 

¡°A tea café or something,¡± replied Touya.

 

¡°Do you remember that play we put on in our second year, when you played Cinderella?¡± Yukito remarked, chuckling to himself.

 

¡°Don¡¯t remind me,¡± grumbled Touya. It was not a pleasant memory for him at all.

 

¡°TOUYA!!!¡± came a familiar high-pitched squeal behind them. A pair of arms wrapped around Touya¡¯s neck.

 

¡°Stop. Hanging. Off. Of. My. Neck,¡± said Touya with clenched teeth to Nakuru.

 

¡°So mean. After all, it¡¯s been a long time, my darling Touya,¡± said Nakuru.  ¡°So, are we going to Class 1-2¡¯s Tea Café?¡±

 

¡°Makes me nostalgic walking through these corridors again,¡± said Yukito as they walked down towards Sakura¡¯s classroom.

 

Touya sighed. ¡°It does, doesn¡¯t it? It seemed just like yesterday when we were high schoolers and Kaijou was just a whiny baby. Now, she¡¯s a high schooler, and we¡¯re old.¡± He glanced over at Yukito quizzically. ¡°Then again, I guess your real age has made you always old.¡±

 

¡°There, I see the sign for the International Tea Café,¡± said Yukito, pointing to class 1-2, ignoring Touya¡¯s comment.

 

 

 

¡°Welcome to Class 1-2¡¯s International Tea Café!¡± called out Chiharu and Naoko, dressed in heavily beaded sari or orange and deep yellow. Each girl had a sparkling bindi on her forehead and multi-colored glass bangles on their wrists.

 

Touya, Yukito and Nakuru started at the manner in which the classroom had transformed into a colorful burst of culture. In one corner was a gaudy gold canopy draped with sheer crimson curtains. Yamazaki Takashi, the tea master, looked resplendent in his white turban and brocade vest. He had found a monkey from somewhere to sit on his shoulder. Their menu choice included musky Assam tea, Darjeeling and the popular Chai tea. A flock of students and guests had gathered in a line to try out the exotic, spicy teas, deeper in flavor and sweetened by honey. Of course, guests at the Indian table were subject to hearing a lengthy introduction of the history of tea trade by Yamazaki Takashi.

 

¡°For a thousand years, the Silk Road connected the East to the West for traders and travelers and pilgrims alike,¡± stated Yamazaki as his listeners gulped down their teas. His monkey tugged on his turban sash. ¡°Specifically, the Southern Silk Route linked from Yunnan, China, all the way to India, and traders sent their tea in form of bricks as hard as rock. The brick teas were so hard, that when people had to break them with rocks. These tea bricks were so highly valued they were also used as currency.¡±

 

¡°Nonsense.¡± Chiharu rolled her eyes. The monkey jumped on her shoulder and slapped her with its tail.  

 

Beside them was the Japanese section, a tatami set out on the floor. Aki, master of chado, the art of the traditional tea ceremony, looking dignified in his navy kimono, solemnly sat on his knees as he prepared in matcha for the girls. Rika, in her elegant maroon kimono carefully mixed the tea, and all together, they exuded a much different ambiance from the rowdy Indian section. By her side, Yutaka Ichiro was gravely serving the tea to the students. When Rika noticed that Ichiro¡¯s hands were trembling so much that he was spilling tea everywhere, Rika took the pot from him.

 

On the other side of the room, Erika in her skin-tight qipao created quite a sensation and attracted a large body of male customers. Eron left Erika to draw in the customers as he was busy brewing the perfect pot of jasmine tea, and his helper poured out piping hot oolong tea for customers who wanted a milder option to the other choices in the room.

 

Sakura glanced across the room, amused to see Eron working so hard at something. He carefully stirred the loose tea into the pot and glanced over at the timer to check that he did not over-brew the tea. It was reassuring to see that Eron didn¡¯t seem too battered from the events last night. And Yutaka Ichiro seemed to have recovered well since he was actually making conversation with Rika now instead of awkwardly lurking about her. He seemed to have come to terms with the fact that Rika was not much of a conversation-maker herself, since she was a shy person. Sakura held her tray to her chest, waving at the new guests—her brother and Yukito-san had finally arrived.

 

¡°There¡¯s Sakura-chan!¡± Yukito pointed out to the elegant tea table and white-painted Victorian wicker chairs at the opposite end of the room. The English tea section had the longest line, and they had somehow set up a piano at their end of the room. Eriol was dressed like an English gentleman, complete with a top hat, pocket watch and cane and was strumming some Debussy on the piano when he wasn¡¯t busy making conversation with admiring girls.

 

Tomoyo, Sakura and the girls assigned to English tea section were dressed in various pastel-colored frilly frocks with lace aprons, all derivatives of the Alice in Wonderland costume. Each dress was customized for the girl, and Sakura¡¯s dress was a rose print on ivory muslin. A pale rose lace petticoat peeped out under the knee-length full skirt, bunched at the waist with the white sash from the apron and more lace peeped out from the ribboned bell sleeve and square neckline. The girls served English Breakfast Tea and Earl Grey.

 

¡°Sakura-senpai, your dress is so pretty!¡± Miho stated as she sipped her bitter Earl Grey tea. She made a face and poured the pitcher of cream into the tea and helped herself to two sugar cubes.

 

Touya remarked, ¡°What is this, this is just another excuse to cosplay.¡±

 

¡°Good old high school days,¡± Yukito said, breathing in the sweet aroma of his creamy breakfast tea. ¡°They did pass by so quickly, didn¡¯t they, Touya?¡±

 

¡°Humph.¡± Touya was surprised at how good his cup of tea was. Leave it to Eriol. What wasn¡¯t he good at? He scowled.

 

¡°Try the homemade biscuits—they¡¯re delicious,¡± said Kaho, walking over to the table. She looked as beautiful as ever in a short-sleeved cream-colored blouse and a beige pencil skirt.

 

Taking a bite, Yukito remarked, ¡°These are delicious—did you make them, Eriol-kun?¡±

 

¡°I helped make them!¡± declared Nakuru, pushing a biscuit into Touya¡¯s lips.

 

One of the male students from a different class remarked, ¡°Goodness, I wouldn¡¯t be able to study with such a beautiful teacher. Class 1-2 is so lucky to have Mizuki-sensei as their homeroom teacher.¡±

 

Touya smiled snidely. ¡°As popular as ever with the students, Mizuki-sensei?¡±

 

There was a squeal outside the classroom as a hoard of female students realized that the legendary Seijou Duo, Kinomoto Touya and Tsukishiro, were in the café. ¡°Oh my gosh, it¡¯s Kinomoto-senpai and Tsukishiro-senpai! They¡¯re more handsome than ever! So much better than any high school guys.¡±

 

¡°Please, wait in a line outside the classroom! As soon as seats clear, we will grant admittance to the tea café!¡± called out Naoko, pushing students back. Goodness, the tea café was more popular than she ever imagined it to be.

 

Kaho smiled back at her former student. ¡°It seems as if you too are as popular as ever, Kinomoto-kun.¡±

 

Yukito narrowed his eyes and glanced between Kaho and Touya quizzically. And Eriol merely poured everyone a second round of tea while Tomoyo cleared away empty dishes.

 

 

 

The crowd died down by mid-afternoon when supplies ran out early.

 

¡°So, the Chinese section did well,¡± said Sakura, taking her seat at Eron¡¯s booth, fanning herself with a butterfly embroidered silk fan lying on the table—it had been a part of Erika¡¯s costume.

 

¡°Would you like a cup of tea?¡± Eron set down in front of her a cup of oolong tea. It seemed as if Sakura had decided to pretend the conversation yesterday had never happened. And he was okay with it.

 

¡°Mmm¡¦ This is really soothing,¡± commented Sakura, sipping in the tea and enjoying the sweet aftertaste in her mouth after the first bitterness. ¡°Much better than the first cup of tea you brewed.¡±

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you needed in your section?¡± Eron questioned. The other members of his table had gone off to see the rest of the fair, and he was the only one left. The Indian section had long since run out of tea, and Aki had dismissed his section after he grew bored of sitting and pouring out tea all day long.

 

¡°We¡¯ve decided to take a break too. The International Tea Café idea was a lot more popular than I thought it would be,¡± remarked Sakura. ¡°I heard class 1-3 had a hard time selling their frozen dango, and class 2-1¡¯s maid café had to close down because someone broke out into a fight.¡±

 

Eron stared at the dark shadows under Sakura¡¯s eyes. She had overworked herself again. When would she ever learn? ¡°Are you all right? It seems like Yutaka-kun has returned to his usual self. He¡¯s never spoken much even when we were in the soccer team together. But he¡¯s a good guy; he just needed some common sense knocked into him.¡±

 

¡°But I wonder how much desperation a person has to feel in order for one to feel that living is no longer worthwhile,¡± Sakura murmured. ¡°No matter how hard things get, I can¡¯t think of anything worse than not being able to live.¡±

 

¡°Some people are not as brave as you,¡± Eron said quietly, wiping his hand on a paper towel. ¡°Sometimes, it¡¯s easier to runaway than to stand up again.¡±

 

Sakura stared down at her empty cup. ¡°But I can¡¯t say that I don¡¯t understand Yutaka-kun at all. Despair—I know what if feels like. At that moment, it is a deep hollowness replacing all anger and pain, a sense of numbness, as if there is nothing more to look forward to in life.¡± Yes, Sakura knew that feeling very well. Even at this very moment, it took all her strength to keep walking and talking, in order to battle reminiscing the stark image of the back of Syaoran¡¯s as he walked away from her that day.

 

Eron knew very well when Sakura¡¯s thoughts had relapsed back on him. ¡°Why don¡¯t we check out the rest of the fair? he asked, untying the apron around his waist. Anything to keep Sakura from remembering him. Whatever it took, he would distract her from thought of the Little Wolf. So long as she was not thinking of Syaoran, Eron was satisfied.

 

 

 

¡°Look, there¡¯s Sakura-chan with¡¦ Chang-kun?¡± pointed out Yukito, chomping happily on his caramel popcorn. Touya and Yukito had long since been pushed out of the over-popular tea café and now were walking outside through the campus. ¡°She looks brighter than before—that¡¯s a relief.¡±

 

Touya frowned. ¡°Do you think she¡¯s really back to normal, Yuki?¡±

 

Yukito smiled sadly and replied in a Yue-like manner, ¡°If she is doing her best to put on a masquerade for us, isn¡¯t it insulting to her if we don¡¯t play along?¡±

 

Gazing through the crowds at his younger sister and the sly, cat-like boy, Touya sighed. Touya almost wished that Yukito had replied that Sakura really did seem fine, and that he was just being an overprotective brother as usual. He muttered darkly, ¡°I wish sometimes that we can just forget that the Brat ever even existed.¡±

 

 

 

Eron, who had changed back into his summer school uniform of a white short-sleeved shirt and black trousers, followed Sakura weave her way in and out of the crowds.

 

¡°I didn¡¯t realize how many people there are,¡± Sakura stated, turning around to find Eron dragging behind. The white ribbon sash tied into a bow at the small of her back had become untied. He reached out and grabbed the ribbon. ¡°What are you doing?¡± she asked, glancing behind.

 

¡°I¡¯ll tie it for you,¡± Eron said quietly.

 

¡°I can do it!¡± Sakura replied, quickly pulling away the sash and fumbling to tie it.

 

¡°It¡¯s crooked,¡± remarked Eron, eyebrows twitching. He reached over without permission and redid the sash. Sakura stood stiffly until he finished. ¡°There—much better.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re awful good at tying ribbons,¡± Sakura commented, raising a brow.

 

¡°You try raising a younger sister.¡± Eron strolled along, staring at all the stalls. ¡°One who does not listen to what I say, but is nonetheless very precious to me.¡± Erika had run off with Mika Kant already.

 

Sakura smiled at this. There were students handing out takayoki on skewers and stir frying sizzling yakisoba on the pans. Another stall sold cotton candy in pink and yellow and yet another popped kettle corn. ¡°Look at the cotton candy!¡± she exclaimed, watching the sugar spun into fluffy pink puffs.

 

Eron walked over to the stall and bought cotton candy for them as he remarked, ¡°I promised Erika that I would buy her cotton candy once she got out of the hospital. But she never asked for it afterwards, now that I think of it.¡± He pushed the candy into Sakura¡¯s hand.

 

Munching on the sweetness which melted as soon as it touched her tongue, Sakura said, ¡°Thanks—have some.¡±

 

Eron shook his head.

 

¡°Try it; it¡¯s good,¡± urged Sakura. ¡°Really.¡±

 

Gingerly, Eron picked a waft of the soft candy and placed it in his mouth. His eyes rounded. ¡°It dissolved in my mouth!¡±

 

Sakura looked up at Eron incredulously. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me this is your first time trying cotton candy?¡±

 

Shrugging, Eron walked ahead.

 

¡°Come to Class 3-2¡¯s Fortune Telling Booth!¡± called out students from the fortune telling booth.

 

There was a large line gathered around the tent that class 3-2 had set up.

 

Sakura found Naoko waiting in line for the booth and asked, ¡°Naoko-chan, what is the huge line for?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s for Class 3-2¡¯s Fortune Telling Booth,¡± replied Naoko. ¡°I heard it¡¯s really accurate.¡±

 

¡°What is it, some bogus crystal-gazing?¡± Eron asked, sniggering.

 

¡°No, I heard there is a senpai who is really good at Tarot Card reading,¡± Naoko said. ¡°People said it¡¯s very accurate.  

 

¡°I¡¯ll like to try it.¡± Sakura stared at the tent.

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you clairvoyant yourself? Why try some fraud student fortuneteller at some school fair,¡± stated Eron. Nonetheless, he seemed quite content waiting in line with Sakura while devouring the cotton candy in his hand. As the line moved along, he sucked his sticky fingers when he was left with only the paper skewer and stared at it wistfully.

 

Finally, it was Sakura¡¯s turn to enter the tent. She took a deep breath. The tent was dark, only lit by candles on each corner of the tent. At the center of tent was a wooden table, where a girl covered with a black cloak sat at the far end.

 

¡°Take a seat,¡± she said, pointing to the stool at the head of the table.

 

Sakura took the seat.

 

The fortuneteller was silent, shuffling a deck of cards which were quite similar to the Sakura Cards in shape and size. Sakura had the uncomfortable feeling she was being watched from underneath that hood.

 

¡°I see you are skeptical,¡± stated the fortuneteller as she set down the deck on the table.

 

¡°No, no,¡± replied Sakura rapidly.

 

The fortuneteller smiled crookedly. ¡°It is okay to be. Many are. But I see you too have the Inner Eye. Why did you choose to seek me?¡±

 

Sakura looked behind at the exit, where she knew Eron was waiting. Maybe this wasn¡¯t a good idea after all.  

 

¡°Very well. Do you have a question in mind, Kinomoto Sakura?¡±

 

¡°How do you know my name?¡± asked Sakura in awe.

 

¡°You probably know mine as well,¡± the fortuneteller replied. She lifted the hood from her face, revealing her short golden hair and smoky violet eyes.


¡°Rido Kara-san,¡± replied Sakura.

 

¡°That is correct,¡± Kara stated. ¡°Most people know each other¡¯s names in high school. You cannot be impressed by my psychic skills simply because I know your name. I will continue now, Kinomoto-san. Do you have a particular question in mind?¡±

 

Sakura shook her head.

 

¡°I can see the question formulating in your mind.¡± Kara laid out fifteen cards, face, down, in the Celtic Cross spread. ¡°Keep that question in mind as you turn over the first card, which will be the significator card that represents you.¡± Sakura turned over the first card.

 

¡°The Star. That can represent hope and faith, or deceived hope and dreaminess,¡± said Kara. ¡°Turn the next two cards.¡±

 

Sakura silently turned over the second and third card, revealing the Three of Swords and the Moon.

 

¡°Three of Swords—unhappiness, tears, separation, faithlessness in promise. That is your current environment, am I correct?¡±

 

At this, Sakura glanced down and nodded.

 

¡°The third card is your obstacle.¡± Kara paused. ¡°You are waiting for him, are you not? The person represented by the Moon. The Moon represents deception and lies. Now, continue¡±

 

Biting her lips, Sakura turned over a fourth card with a man and woman entwined, the Lovers, and a fifth, the Wheel of Fortune. Beads of perspiration rolled down the small of her back underneath her dress.

 

¡°The fourth card you turned over is what you desire. The fifth card is the foundation of the current environment,¡± Kara stated.  

 

There was little ventilation in the tent, and Sakura found her palms to be sweaty and the air thick and stuffy. She turned over the card on the far left. An upside down man dangling by the rope tied around his ankles. The Hanged Man.

 

Kara continued, ¡°The Hanged Man signifies suffering, sacrifice, and punishment. This sixth card represents your past.¡±

 

It was not simple exhaustion at the end of a hectic day Sakura was definitely feeling dizzy. Flashes of light pierced the back of her lids as a blur of visages flickered before her. Her breath came out in gasps. The Hanged Man. Endless suffering. A sacrifice. Divine punishment. A cliff. I see a cliff¡¦ I¡¯ve been here before. Who¡¦ Who are you?

 

¡°Are you all right, Kinomoto-san?¡± asked Kara.

 

Sakura nodded weakly. ¡°The Hanged Man—does it signify my past personally?¡±

 

Kara looked up at Sakura with her demure violet eyes. ¡°No, it could be more symbolic. An aspect that affected who you are today. Perhaps ancestors who have suffered.¡± She gazed at Sakura intently. ¡°Do you wish to continue?¡±

 

Nodding, Sakura turned over the seventh card, which showed a fair-haired young man with blue eyes. The next card she turned was the Aeon.

 

Concealing a wry smile by lowered her head, Kara stated, ¡°The seventh is the immediate future. The Prince of Wands is a young man who is characterized by being strong, hasty, and rather violent, yet just and generous, noble. He can also be cruel, intolerant, prejudiced and ill-natured. The eighth card you turned, the Aeon, judgment and final decision, symbolizes your future environment.¡±

 

The words blurred into the background as Sakura closed her eyes and saw a pair of haunting golden eyes stare at her. The Hanged Man¡¦ Suffering. Sacrifice. Punishment¡¦ Listen and see¡¦ Darkness¡¦ I see darkness¡¦

 

With difficulty, Sakura turned the next card to reveal a single sword drawn upright.

 

¡°The ninth card is the influence of society. The Ace of Swords signifies the will and can represents great power for good or for evil. It can represent an affirmation of justice or become the sword of wrath and punishment.¡± Kara gazed at Sakura. ¡°Are you sure you want to continue? You don¡¯t look well.¡±

 

¡°I-I¡¯m all right, Rido-san,¡± said Sakura, blinking at the angelic face that she might have seen before. Rido¡¦ Reedo¡¦ Reed. As in Clow Reed and Landon Reed? Could she possibly be the eleventh point? She turned over the tenth card. Her heart dropped as she stared at the black cloaked skeleton. The Death.

 

Noticing Sakura¡¯s expression, Kara pointed to the card. ¡°The Death rarely signifies literal death. Rather, it implies time, age or transformation. The tenth card is your challenge. For the future events to come into place, you will have to face perhaps some sort of transformation. Nothing groundbreaking, is it? Shows you what high school tarot card readings are like. Go ahead and turn the last card, the outcome.¡± 

 

But Sakura was staring hard at the Death, face ashen. Her heart was palpitating as if she had run up many levels of stairs. She never got to turn the last card. Her eyes rolled backwards, and she collapsed over the table.

 

The Hanged Man¡¦ Suffering. Sacrifice. Punishment¡¦

 

It¡¯s the cliff. I see the cliff again. Why are you crying?

 

Gomennassai Hayashi-sama¡¦ Sayonara¡¦

 

There was a thud.

 

Without wasting a moment, Kara flung off her cloak and ran out of the tent. ¡°A girl in here has collapsed. We need some help!¡±

 

Eron flung aside his fresh cotton candy swab and demanded, ¡°What happened?¡±

 

¡°I think it was from the heat and lack of fresh air in there,¡± said Kara. ¡°If someone can bring her to the infirmary¡¦¡±

 

Without wasting a moment, Eron rushed in and scooped up Sakura onto his back.

 

Kara said, ¡°Thank you. Let me know if she¡¯s all right. I¡¯d accompany you, but it¡¯s my shift for now and there are so many students waiting still to get their fortunes read.¡±

 

There were curious stares amongst the students lined up in front of the tent as they watched a freshman being carried off to the infirmary.

 

¡°It was your turn next. I¡¯ll give you a free tarot card reading next time,¡± said Kara to Eron, smiling. ¡°Well, duty calls.¡± She swept back into the tent.

 

Eron muttered. ¡°As whimsical as Landon and conspiring as Lawrence.¡±

 

¡°Eron, do you think she did something to Sakura?¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t think so,¡± replied Eron as he felt Sakura¡¯s soft breath tickle his cheek.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

When Sakura awoke, she sat up on the infirmary bed, startled. The white curtains were drawn, but she could see that it was almost dark outside.

 

¡°Good, you¡¯re awake,¡± said Eron, entering the infirmary.

 

¡°Eron-kun! What are you doing here?¡±

 

¡°Remember? You fainted inside the fortune-teller¡¯s tent.¡±

 

¡°And you brought me here?¡±

 

¡°Sort of,¡± muttered Eron. ¡°The nurse was dealing with all the students injured from the sports games, so I was told to stay by and keep an eye on you.¡±

 

¡°You missed out on the rest of the fair then!¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°It¡¯s nicer and quieter in here than outside anyway,¡± replied Eron. ¡°And I got to skip cleaning duty. What happened in there, anyway?¡±

 

Sakura remained silent as she stared at the pristine white sheets on the bed. ¡°I saw it.¡±

 

¡°Saw what?¡± asked Eron,

 

¡°I saw for the first time what happened on that day at the cliff, way back then,¡± replied Sakura, a shadow cast over her eyes.

 

¡°I see.¡± Eron glanced away. ¡°Perhaps seeing Yutaka-kun yesterday triggered something. Don¡¯t think about it too much. It¡¯s the past.¡±

 

¡°All this while, you knew. You both knew.¡± Sakura¡¯s brows burrowed in anguish.

 

¡°We did.¡±

 

¡°You tried to tell me about it, but I didn¡¯t listen.¡± Sakura buried her head into her knees. ¡°I don¡¯t know anything anymore. The more I learn about the past, the more scared I become. I don¡¯t want to know. I wish I can block it all out.¡±

 

¡°Because the more you know, the more anguish you fall into,¡± murmured Eron. ¡°Because you can no longer discern what is just, what is true, what if right and what is evil.¡±

 

Sakura gazed up at Eron with widened emerald eyes. ¡°All this while you had this knowledge—yet you can truly say that you don¡¯t hate me?¡±

 

Gently, Eron knelt down by the bedside. ¡°You said that you have not shown me all your true faces. Well, to you, I have shown you my everything. My worst, my most vulnerable, my anger, my pain. To you, I have revealed my innermost self. I have nothing I want to hide from you. If it means that you want me to answer questions about the past, I will do so. I¡¯ll be truthful. I can¡¯t help seeing the shadow of Amamiya Hayashi in you, same as how you can¡¯t quite separate me from the Dark Ones yet. But, I¡¯ve gotten this far because of liking you. Love does strange things to people. If ever I become a vengeful, spiteful creature because of this love, please feel free to end me because I have fallen into the same level as our ancestors. But till then, let this be my strength to rebel against the trap that the Dark Ones has set for me. Till then, let me help you find a way to somehow resolve all this.¡±

 

¡°How Eron, how?¡± asked Sakura. ¡°I don¡¯t know who to believe anymore. If only he was here. He would know. I hate him. I hate him for leaving like this. I hate him for not responding when I called out to him then. One word, any reassuring single word. I could have waited, have been left with some hope just on that.¡±

 

Eron went chill. ¡°When did you¡¦¡±

 

¡°When I went to Hong Kong to see him, back in March. I saw him. I called out to him. He told me to leave and left without another word,¡± said Sakura with a distant look. ¡°And I had waited so long to see him. My heart was beating so fast back then, I thought it could drown out the sound of the waves by the harbor. But he walked away from me, just like that.¡±


¡±That bastard. How dare he?¡± stated Eron, furious. ¡°After you went all the way to Hong Kong to see him!¡±

 

¡°I keep telling myself, there must have been a reason, that it must have been the circumstance,¡± said Sakura. ¡°But the fact is, he was there on his two feet, walking away. I had been worried sick thinking something might have happened to him when he disappeared.¡±

 

¡°Or you thought I did something with him,¡± commented Eron wryly.

 

¡°All this while, deep inside, I knew. Whenever I tried to see a future with us together, all I kept seeing was a dead end. The place he belongs is by the Li Clan. And that is the path he chose. I can¡¯t resent him for that choice, because were I in that circumstance, I might have done the same. I became too dependant on him, of having him by my side. Like Ryuuren-san and okaa-san, we just weren¡¯t meant to be together, after all.¡± She trailed off.  

 

Eron came to a quiet realization. ¡°What else did you see in the fortuneteller¡¯s tent, Sakura?¡±

 

A stricken-faced Sakura shook her head.

 

¡°To me, you can show your pain,¡± said Eron gently. ¡°I won¡¯t judge you.¡±

 

The tears that Sakura had been holding back began to flow again. ¡°I kept telling myself that I won¡¯t cry again. I hate this side of myself.¡±  

 

Eron¡¯s golden eyes glistened also. ¡°If it¡¯s that painful for you, forget it all,¡± he said, encircling a fragile, shattered Sakura in his arms. His little bird had been trapped in a cage finally. But he was not glad at all. ¡°Forget it all, if it hurts you. You don¡¯t have to hurt anymore.¡±

 

¡°Back when I was facing Yue¡¯s Judgment, the greatest destruction for me then would have been forgetting the people I loved,¡± she whispered.

 

¡°But if remembering him causes nothing but pain, why suffer like this?¡± Eron frowned as wetness seeped through his shirt.  

 

Sakura closed her eyes, a whiteness coming over her mind. Syaoran... I want to forget everything about him.

 

Do you truly wish to forget him? asked a silvery voice that she couldn¡¯t distinguish whether it was female or male.

 

Sakura did not have to think twice. Yes, I want to forget everything about him. I wish I never met him in the first place. Then I wouldn¡¯t hurt so much. If only I can forget him, I¡¯ll return to normal. I can just be happy, carefree Kinomoto Sakura again. Please. Let me forget him.

 

Then your wish shall be granted. I will let you forget him, responded that same, whispery voice.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

By evening the Seijou High School cultural fair had wound down, and the students had cleaned up their stalls and classrooms. Outside by the field, a bonfire had been prepared. Now, it was time for the cultural fair to wind down with the fireside dance. Music resounded from the speakers set throughout the school and Naoko called out, ¡°Hurry up guys, the dance is starting!¡±

 

Rika and Naoko, hand-in-hand, ran outside to the field, followed by Chiharu who dragged Takashi along, knocking off his turban.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, are you coming?¡± asked Tomoyo who peaked out the window. Outside, she saw Eriol heading towards the bonfire.

 

¡°Um, I—¡° Sakura stared at the stack of teacup left to be washed.

 

Eron came up from behind her. ¡°I¡¯ll take them—you shouldn¡¯t be doing overworking when you just came out of the infirmary.¡±

 

¡°But—¡° Sakura looked up at Eron in an apron. She doubted he¡¯d ever washed dishes in her life, but then again looks could be deceiving.

 

¡°Hurry—¡°Miho dragged her along.

 

¡°Miho-chan, who are you hoping do dance with?¡± asked Sakura.

 

¡°Eriol of course,¡± replied Miho, grinning. ¡°He promised me the first dance around the bonfire.¡±

 

Before leaving the classroom, Tomoyo turned to Eron quizzically. ¡°Eron-kun, did anything happen to Sakura-chan today?¡±

 

¡°Why?¡±

 

¡°Well, she seems a little¡¦ different,¡± remarked Tomoyo. ¡°I know she passed out in the fortuneteller¡¯s tent¡¦¡±

 

¡°She looks fine to me now,¡± said Eron.

 

¡°I guess you¡¯re right.¡± Tomoyo thought that Eron looked more trouble than Sakura, anyhow.

 

Eron asked her directly, ¡°Did you know that Sakura actually did meet Syaoran in Hong Kong?¡±

 

¡°I had an inkling,¡± replied Tomoyo hesitantly. She frowned ever so slightly—did Sakura, who hadn¡¯t even told herself anything, actually tell Eron about what had really happened in Hong Kong?

 

¡°It seems he turned her away without a second glance,¡± continued Eron. ¡°After she went all the way to Hong Kong to see him, he simply walked away. Isn¡¯t it best to forget a guy like that?¡±

 

Tomoyo gazed up at Eron, alarmed. ¡°No, it¡¯s not. No matter how much it hurts to have a loved one leave, to Sakura, the most painful thing of all would be to forget that she had even loved.¡±

 

¡°Do you truly think so, Tomoyo-san?¡± Eron asked sadly. ¡°Then you have not truly loved yet.¡±

 

 

 

Around the merrily burning bonfire, students of all ages had conglomerated. Shy boys and girls inched closer together, and the seniors set example by leading the dance. Soon, pair by pair, the underclassmen joined into the circle around the fire. Yamazaki Takashi and Chiharu were the first freshman couple to join in the square dance, followed by Miho dragging out Eriol. Touya scowled at the giggling girls who lingered around him and Yukito hoping for a dance. The two had been so famous in their days that the current high schoolers still recognized their faces.

 

Tomoyo videotaped the festive crowd—it had been a long time since she had seen everyone so happy. Even Sakura¡¯s spirits seemed a little lifted as she watched the dancing couples swirl around the bonfire, their elongated shadows casting varied shaped on the sand.

 

¡°Good job you two with the tea café,¡± remarked Aki, who had inched closer and closer to the two girls. He had changed out of his kimono back into his uniform—it had been tiring to wear a constricting kimono all day long. ¡°I heard our class was placed second as most popular activity by customer vote. We were only second to class 3-3—and senior classes always win by default.¡±

 

¡°Good job to you too, Aki-kun. Why aren¡¯t you out there dancing already?¡± replied Tomoyo, putting down her camcorder. She was surprised to see Aki blush.

 

Aki shuffled his feet in the sand. ¡°I saw that you weren¡¯t dancing, Tomoyo-chan, and was wondering if you w-wanted to dance.¡±

 

¡°Well, I—¡° Tomoyo glanced at Sakura helplessly.

 

Sakura nudged Tomoyo forward. ¡°Don¡¯t mind me. Go and dance.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯d much rather videotape,¡± protested Tomoyo. But he looked so crushed that she handed her camcorder to Sakura and took Aki¡¯s sweaty hand.

 

Sakura watched the two unlikely pair twirl around the bonfire, Tomoyo so light and graceful on her feet and Aki looking completely enamored to be dancing with the prettiest girl in school. Of course, who wouldn¡¯t love Tomoyo, the sweetest girl ever? The music was winding down now. Sakura¡¯s eyes flickered over to the black-haired boy wearing glasses, who carefully twirled around young Miho, whose carefree laughter brought a smile to bystanders.  

 

¡°Now, switch partners with the couple next to you!¡± called out the MC for the evening.

 

Tomoyo and Miho glanced at each other—they were next to each other. Aki grinned and took Miho¡¯s hand—they were good dance partners since they had gone to the Winter Wonderland together. Since Miho had gone with Aki, Eriol looked up to Tomoyo and extended a hand. Sakura smiled softly when she saw Tomoyo¡¯s amethyst light up as she stepped towards Eriol. Even with a merry folk song, the pair, once crowned the Snow King and Queen of the Winter Wonderland, looked like they were waltzing in a grand ballroom.

 

On the other side of the bonfire, Sakura glimpsed Rika dancing with a boy from class—wait, it was Yutaka Ichiro. Mizuki-sensei was standing across on the other side also, dreamily staring at the bonfire, looking more beautiful and serene than ever. Sakura gave a quiet sigh of hanyaan.

 

Sakura¡¯s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps behind her. She turned around to face the golden-eyed boy who seemed to turn up by her side so frequently these days. ¡°Eron-kun, thanks so much for helping with cleanup!¡±

 

¡°Are you really all right now? You gave us such a scare when you fainted earlier in the fortuneteller¡¯s tent,¡± Eron said.

 

¡°It must have been the heat,¡± replied Sakura. ¡°I¡¯m fine now.¡±

 

Eron smiled sadly. ¡°Your brother liked Mizuki-sensei?¡± he remarked, looking up at the older crowd that watched the high schoolers with nostalgic smiles.

 

Glancing up at her brother chatting with Yukito-san by the trees, Sakura asked Eron, ¡°What makes you think that onii-chan liked Mizuki-sensei?¡±

 

¡°You can tell by the way he never takes his eyes off of her,¡± replied Eron.

 

Frowning, Sakura replied, ¡°He¡¯s been talking with Yukito-san the entire time.¡±

 

¡°True. But he keeps one eye on her and one eye on Tsukishiro-san.¡± Eron smiled. ¡°And so does Tsukishiro-san.¡±

 

At this, Sakura turned around and found that Yukito was indeed gazing at Mizuki-sensei with narrowed eyes even as he seemed to be intent on what Touya was describing to him. And there was Mizuki-sensei, with her gentle marigold eyes. Who was she gazing at?

 

Eron gazed at Sakura¡¯s whose animated green eyes flickered back and forth between her Yukito-san and their homeroom teacher. ¡°So, why aren¡¯t you dancing? I even took over doing all the dishes so that you could enjoy the bonfire dance.¡±

 

¡°No one asked me.¡± Sakura said sheepishly, ¡°And I guess I¡¯m too big to get onii-chan to dance with me.¡±

 

Eron cleared his throat. ¡°Would you like to dance with me?¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Sakura turned back to Eron again.

 

This time, Eron held out a hand. ¡°It doesn¡¯t mean anything. But to get the whole experience of the cultural fair.¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ the last time I danced around the bonfire was with Yukito-san, back in fifth grade, for the Seijou High cultural fair,¡± remarked Sakura.

 

¡°You mean you never danced with Syaoran at a school cultural fair?¡± asked Eron in disbelief.

 

¡°Eh?¡±

 

Eron gazed at her sadly. ¡°Ha, so there are times when I come first,¡± he murmured more to himself than anyone else. Since Sakura did not answer, he took the opportunity to lead her by the hand to the crowd around the bonfire. Still, she did not draw away. When the fiddle struck out its merry notes, he led Sakura into a couple dance. She followed. But though Sakura¡¯s body moved in perfect rhythm, he could see her eyes were gazing off into the distance.

 

Touya had finally realized his little sister was not standing by him anymore, and he tugged at Yukito¡¯s shirt. ¡°Hey, why is my little sister dancing with that pony-tailed freak?¡±

 

Yukito raised an eyebrow. ¡°Why, you¡¯d rather she be dancing with the ¡®Brat¡¯ were he here?¡±

 

¡°Yuki, go and cut in,¡± said Touya.

 

¡°You go cut in—she¡¯s your sister,¡± replied Yukito, fiddling with the camcorder Sakura had handed to him earlier. ¡°That boy¡¯s pretty enough to be a girl, anyway.¡±

 

¡°Why are you cross with me, Yukito?¡± asked Touya, turning to face Yukito¡¯s pouting face.

 

¡°Say, Touya, aren¡¯t you the one hiding something from me?¡± Yukito glanced at his friend with slanted eyes.

 

¡°Hiding what?¡± returned Touya. He was distracted to find that Mizuki Kaho had disappeared. Where had she gone now?

 

¡°Never mind.¡± Yukito sighed, shoving the camcorder to Touya and making his way across the field to the bonfire. ¡°I¡¯ll go dance with Sakura not because you asked me to but because I enjoy her company.¡±

 

Eron had only one dance with Sakura because Yukito-san cut in for the next dance, and he found himself dancing with Miho

 

Miho, unlike Sakura¡¯s other friends, was blunt and to the point. ¡°How dare you dance with Sakura, taking advance of the situation just because Syaoran¡¯s not here?¡±

 

Swirling Miho around on cue, Eron replied, ¡°I didn¡¯t force her to dance with me. And the point is, he¡¯s not here. Why should I hold back for the girl I like?¡±

 

¡°You like her?¡± squealed Miho, tripping over her feet. Eron steadied her. The frankness of his confession almost touched her romantic little heart. ¡°You really like her?¡±

 

¡°What are you going to do about that delinquent brother of yours?¡± returned Eron, stepping in with his left foot and forcing her to step back. ¡°You¡¯ve by now figured out his double identity as Kaitou Magician, haven¡¯t you?¡±

 

Regaining composure, Miho stepped out and twirled. ¡°What brother?¡± She scowled up at Eron.

 

¡°You know, the Dark Ones had nothing to do with your father¡¯s death,¡± stated Eron. ¡°You should start looking closer around you.¡±

 

This time, Miho halted completely, almost making the couple dancing next to them collide into her. ¡°What do you mean? Do you know about the murder then? Who did it?¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t know—I¡¯m sick of taking all the blame. The Dark Ones aren¡¯t the route of all evil in the world; we tend not to do anything unnecessary and the elimination of Tanaka Keisuke would not have benefited us in any manner,¡± said Eron crossly. ¡°There are plenty of other evils like greed and ambition. But if I were your brother, I would do everything I could to keep my little sister away from it. Truthfully, I have no idea what he¡¯s thinking. Or maybe he¡¯s just no thinking.¡±

 

At this, Miho turned pensive. She had always assumed that the Dark Ones had been behind the attack on her family; it was easy to believe so, easy to hate them for it. But no, it had been the Kinomoto Group that had put her family into bankruptcy. It had been Kinomoto Fujishinta who had ordered the Mirror of Truth be taken away from them. It had been the death of her husband and the family bankruptcy that had pulled her mother into borderline sanity in the first place, and that, even Miho understood, had been due to the weakness of Tanaka Miara herself. She and her mother never spoke of it, but she knew Miara was so good to her now to make up for all those missing years in between. And Miho thrived being pampered and loved by her mother. In a sense, it was the first time she had her mother to herself, without being in the shadow of her perfect older brother.

 

The tune of the fiddle died down and the dance had wound down to an end, the bonfire reduced to embers.

 

¡°Thank you for the dance, Sakura-chan,¡± said Yukito. He no longer had to bend over to reach her hands.

 

¡°Thank you, Yukito-san,¡± replied Sakura, smiling.

 

¡°I know these are hard times for you—but it¡¯s good to see you smiling again,¡± remarked Yukito, patting Sakura on the back. ¡°But you can always tell me if you have any worries, even if you can¡¯t tell that ogre brother of yours.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t have any particular worries, Yukito-san, but thanks for the offer,¡± said Sakura.

 

¡°By the way, have you¡¦ heard anything from him?¡± Yukito asked slowly.

 

¡°From whom?¡± Sakura blinked up vacantly at her brother¡¯s best friend.

 

¡°Li Syaoran.¡±

 

Sakura smiled back blankly. ¡°Who?¡±

 

 

 

On the other side of the bonfire embers stood another girl who stared wistfully up at the crescent moon. Tomoyo realized with a pang that she had handed off her camcorder earlier on and hadn¡¯t been able to capture any footages of the bonfire dance. She had danced with Eriol though—she would have been too shy to ask, had it not been perchance that in the partner switch dance, she and Aki-kun had been standing next to Miho and Eriol. Of course Eriol was so well-mannered, he would never turn down a girl. The only consoling factor was that Eriol did not dance with any other girl after her. She knew because she had watched. But that was Eriol. He was always equally courteous to everyone, always kind and ready to lend a hand. That made him popular with the female population. Yet, because he was kind, he was aloof, unattainable. Because he was nice to everyone, there was no indication if anyone was a little more special to him.

 

She searched for him through the crowds of students ready to go home after an exhausting week of preparation ended by a strong finale; she wanted to congratulate him for the success of the tea café. Weaving in and out of the crowds, Tomoyo made her way towards the back of the building. Under a plum blossom tree she saw a tall silhouette. It was Eriol¡¯s profile, his glasses glimmering in the dark.

 

¡°Eri—¡± His name escaped from his lips, as she realized that he was not alone, and he was intently conversing with Mizuki-sensei. Something she said made him smile, and his eyes were a gentle cerulean blue. Tomoyo had never seen an expression like that on Eriol¡¯s face before. It was not just an ordinary conversation between a student and a teacher. Why hadn¡¯t she noticed before? Of course he and Mizuki-sensei¡¦

 

Quickly, she spun around and hurried back towards Sakura and the others. She took a deep breath, regaining composure before she faced her friends.

 

Stay still, Tomoyo, don¡¯t take a step forward¡¦ Don¡¯t let your heart move, and you won¡¯t get hurt. Stay where you are, and you¡¯ll be safe.  

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

 

In Hong Kong, another girl was slowly coming to a revelation also. For her, however, it was an internal revelation. A certain young former-thief currently resided in her family¡¯s hospital, and he had recently been recovering from a major operation. Pamepering him had been fun for a while, but every day, to her chagrin, she realized that she dreaded the day that he would be completely better. For that would mean he would finally leave.

¡°How are you feeling—¡° Meilin trailed off as she entered the hospital room to find Kai, shirtless and revealing the white bandage around his torso, doing a handstand in the corner of the room. ¡°Mizuki Kai, what in the world do you think you¡¯re doing?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m bored,¡± Kai whined, kicking off the wall and landing gracefully on his feet.

 

¡°You¡¯re not even supposed to be out of bed yet!¡± Meilin exclaimed. ¡°You¡¯ll reopen the stitches. ¡°Get back into bed this instant!¡±

 

¡°But I¡¯m bored—¡± Nonetheless, he crawled back into bed meekly.

 

¡°Put on a shirt too,¡± Meilin said, dropping down her bag of goodies on the spare chair.

 

¡°The hospital gowns are so unflattering,¡± grumbled Kai, running a hand through his hair.

 

¡°Look, I brought you my homemade pork dumplings—I won¡¯t give them to you unless you get dressed,¡± Meilin threatened, opening up a container to let the sweet aroma of the buns drift out.

 

¡°Fine, fine,¡± grumbled as Kai grabbed a t-shirt from under the bed and pulled it on. His hair became mussed again. Meilin felt the urge to reach out and smooth it out for him. Ever since Kai had entered the hospitalized, he had stopped bleaching and gelling his hair all together. Though Meilin could not be a hundred percent sure, she suspected that lovely copper-tone of Kai¡¯s hair right now was his natural hair color. With his pleading, boyish gray-blue eyes and devoid of his usual jewelry, Mizuki Kai looked surprisingly young and ordinary in his ridiculous pirate shirt. He did not look like a Top 20 Wanted thief, nor like a rebellious delinquent. He held out his hands and grabbed the container. Happily, he began to stuff his mouth with buns.

 

¡°Kai.¡±

 

¡°Mmmmm?¡± Kai swallowed the last bun and set the empty container on the nightstand.

 

¡°What do you plan on doing now?¡±

 

¡°Well, I think I¡¯ll like to take you out on a proper date—you promised to take me to Victoria¡¯s Peak. And I think I would like to go on a cruise too. Macao, definitely, after that,¡± Kai replied.

 

¡°I¡¯m serious.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m serious too,¡± Kai grinned. ¡°Or we can get married. We can leave this city and live in a far off villa in Southern France, drink wine and eat baguettes all day long.¡±

 

Meilin turned red. ¡°Stop joking around and avoiding the question!¡±

 

¡°I was serious. At least about the villa in Southern France part. I don¡¯t think I¡¯d like to eat baguettes all day long—I need my bowl of rice at the end of the day. And I don¡¯t really think I¡¯m the marrying type either—but cohabitation without legal binding is just as good, isn¡¯t it Mei-chan?¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re the last kind of man I would ever want to marry anyway!¡± Meilin retorted.

 

¡°Oh? I hear a note of disappointment in your voice?¡± Kai grinned.

 

¡°In your dreams!¡± Meilin scowled—foolish of her to think she could have a serious conversation with Kai.

 

Sensing Meilin¡¯s annoyance, Kai reached out and stroked her hand, tracing a finger up palm to her wrist, over the silver and golden bracelet and up her arm. She shivered at his touch—a pleasant shiver. ¡°Meilin—I want you to consider this really carefully.¡±

¡°Consider what?¡±

 

¡°Us. Just the two us, we can leave this city and go off somewhere quiet, somewhere that no on will trace us, somewhere away from all of this, the world of Clow Reed and the Great Five. It doesn¡¯t have to be France—it can be New York City or Venice or maybe a tropical island because you don¡¯t like cold weather. Somewhere away from the Li Clan. Somewhere for just the two of us,¡± Kai said in a low voice.

 

And this time, Meilin knew he was dead serious. For a second, she had a vision of just she and Kai, strolling down a warm beach near sunset, hand in hand, and the waves lapping at their ankles. Away from the Li Clan. Away from the Dark Ones. No. She couldn¡¯t leave Syaoran, not under current circumstances. And Sakura had yet to face the Dark Ones. There was little Meilin could do in this battle, but for the little she could do, she had to be there. Kai¡¯s hands were hot on her hands, and she realized he was gripping them so tightly now that her circulation was getting cut off; he was waiting for her answer. ¡°We can¡¯t, Kai,¡± Meilin replied, slipping her hands away.

 

Kai¡¯s hands limply dropped to his side, and he glanced away.

 

¡°Don¡¯t be mad, Kai. You know we can¡¯t run away now. Sakura, Syaoran, we need to be by their side. We can¡¯t abandon them,¡± Meilin said. ¡°And you have to return to Miho-chan and your mother.¡±

 

¡°Of course you can¡¯t abandon Syaoran,¡± Kai said, his usual sarcastic tone back in his voice. ¡°I thought you would say so. Even if he returned without a word and went back straight to the Elders like a lapdog after all his bravado about giving up his title as the Chosen One, you would still choose to be by his side.¡±

 

¡°Stop twisting my words like that!¡± Meilin stated. ¡°That¡¯s not what I said!¡±

 

¡°Meilin, it¡¯s all right. I respect your decision.¡± Kai smiled sadly. ¡°I know you¡¯re braver than I ever will be. Just don¡¯t reproach me later when I¡¯m gone because I ran away with my tail between my legs. I offered you a place by my side. Remember, you turned me down.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Meilin had long since left, but Mizuki Kai was more irritated than he had expected to be at her flat rejection of his half-serious proposal. A proposal to run away from his whole mess before it really got out of hand. Chances were, Meilin, despite her nagging ways, would have been the least likely to drive him crazy. And it would have been good to have company. Perhaps.

 

¡°What are you staring at?¡± snapped Kai at Perro-chan, who was preening his feathers at the bedpost.

 

Peeping, Perro-chan hid his head under his wing.

 

¡°So, you like Mei-chan better than me now, do you? Fine, go back to her then!¡± Kai stuck out his tongue at his pet parrot.

 

His doctor came into the room with a clipboard and shaking her head. ¡°Oh dear. Have you been cooped up in the hospital for too long? Conversing with animals and such.¡± She shooed away Perro-chan and took a seat next to Kai. Kai sat up and took off his shirt. Carefully, the nurse unwrapped the bandage around Kai¡¯s chest. The nurse couldn¡¯t help blushing as he saw Kai¡¯s well-toned chest and shoulder blades.

 

¡°Doctor Li, how much longer do I have to stay in here?¡± asked Kai, gently moving away from the nurse¡¯s prying hands.

 

¡°You¡¯ve been working out in your room, haven¡¯t you?¡± scolded Jingmei. ¡°You¡¯re not supposed to do anything strenuous.¡± Jingmei examined how the scar on Kai¡¯s chest had faded to a white line. ¡°You¡¯ve been healing remarkably well, better than any of us suspected.¡±

 

Kai smiled. He suspected it was probably the regenerative powers from Mizuki Kaho¡¯s blood which had sped up the healing process, but didn¡¯t say anything.

 

¡°Kai, you know you¡¯re not supposed to have pets in the hospital room, right?¡± Jingmei said as Perro-chan started pecking at her bun.

 

¡°But isn¡¯t Perro-chan cute?¡± asked Kai, smoothing out the parrot¡¯s white feathers as Perro-chan rubbed his head against Kai¡¯s finger affectionately.

 

Jingmei chuckled. ¡°Meilin always liked birds too.¡± She sighed wistfully at the handsome young man sitting on the bed—if only she was eight years younger. When ¡°Mizuki Kai¡± became her ward, she had sworn to top secrecy regarding her patient. As a primary Li Clan healer, while she dealt with patients in the hospital, she was also occasionally given undercover healing assignments, oftentimes dealing with injuries related to the triads. ¡°Well, since I¡¯m letting you keep the bird, why don¡¯t you fess up to a couple questions. Are you really a Japanese exchange student friend of Meilin¡¯s? How in the world did you get shot? And why did the Elders insist on top-class security and confidentiality regarding your profile?¡±

 

Kai grinned, rebuttoning his shirt, feeling so liberated now that he was free of the bandages. ¡°I don¡¯t know—why do you think, Doctor Li?¡±

 

¡°Well, I always figured you¡¯re affiliated with the Japanese yakuza, and perhaps one of Jinyu¡¯s men from the triads accidentally shot you or something. And the Clan was compensating by healing you undercover.¡± Jingmei scrunched up her face. ¡°Am I in the least bit close?¡±

 

At this, Kai chuckled. ¡°Almost there. I¡¯m not cool enough to be in the mafia. I¡¯m just a lowly thief, that¡¯s all.¡±

 

Crossing her arms, Li Jingmei stated, ¡°Making fun of your doctor. Not nice at all.¡±

 

¡°So this is how the boy who cried wolf feels,¡± remarked Kai wryly. ¡°Well, speaking of wolves, how did dear Syaoran react when he saw the Vogue Nippon magazine that I gave you?¡±

 

¡°Oh, that¡¯s right. He stole it away from me.¡± Jingmei smiled. ¡°I heard his ex-girlfriend from Japan was a model in it?¡±

 

Kai chuckled to himself. ¡°He was devastated when he saw the photo, wasn¡¯t he?¡±

 

¡°Besides himself—he walked into a pillar on his way out of the hospital,¡± replied Jingmei. ¡°Wait a second... How do you know Syaoran again?¡±

 

¡°Oh that.¡± Kai put on a solemn face and held out his pinky and did a yubikiri pose with it. ¡°We¡¯re like this.¡±

 

Jingmei replicated the pinky swear and blinked. ¡°Like this? What does that mean—you¡¯re promised to—oooohhh¡¦¡± She blushed pink as it dawned upon her.

 

Sighing dramatically, Kai said, ¡°Yes, we¡¯re like that. You see, Syaoran broke up with Sakura-chan so that he and I can run away together. But I got shot by the jealous mafia boss when I tried to protect my darling Syaoran from being taken away by the Clan.¡±

 

¡°Jealous mafia boss?¡± Jingmei blinked. ¡°Jinyu? He and Syaoran¡¦¡± The tips of her ears were pinkening.

 

¡°Oh, you haven¡¯t noticed how he sticks to Syaoran twenty-four, seven?¡± Kai grinned evilly.

 

Now bright red, Jingmei exclaimed, ¡°I would never have expected that of Jinyu—he usually looks so scary, but I guess he has a soft side too. Ah, but it makes sense, now that you put it that way. Well, if you would excuse, me, I have matters to attend to.¡± She stood up and wobbled towards the door, all flustered, muttering, ¡°I knew it¡¦ I knew the mafia was involved.¡±

 

Afterwards, Kai rolled back on the bed and roared out in laughter. ¡°Man, the Li¡¯s are such a gullible bunch, Perro-chan.¡± He stopped laughing and remarked, ¡°Serves him right if Doctor Li Jingmei blabs the story to the Elders. Good riddance to the whole Li Clan!¡±

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

Japan¡¦

 

 

 

In his eight year acquaintance with Yukito, Touya had never seen his friend pick at his food. They were seated in the bustling hospital cafeteria during lunch hour, and Touya stared at disbelief as Yukito picked at his rice.

 

¡°What¡¯s wrong, Yukito?¡± Touya demanded.

 

¡°Hmm?¡± Yukito stared up spaced out.

 

¡°Are you sick? Do you have a fever?¡± Touya felt his forehead and then placed a palm on Yukito¡¯s.

 

¡°I¡¯m fine.¡± Yukito set down his chopstick.

 

¡°You¡¯re still mad at me, aren¡¯t you?¡± Touya said.

 

¡°I¡¯m not mad at you,¡± Yukito replied.

 

¡°Then what is it?¡± Touya crossed his arms in exasperation.


¡°Have you talked to Sakura-chan recently?¡±

 

¡°We saw her a couple days ago at Seijou¡¯s Cultural Fair. She seemed fine. Why, is something wrong with her?¡± Touya asked.


¡°Have you mentioned Li Syaoran to her recently?¡±

 

¡°Why the heck should I mention the Brat to her? stated Touya defiantly.

 

¡°I think you should try talking to her about Syaoran. You¡¯ll see what I mean,¡± said Yukito slowly.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura was surprised to see her brother¡¯s shoes when she returned home from school that day.

 

¡°Ogre! Come see me in the living room for a second,¡± Touya called out.

 

¡°What is it, onii-chan?¡± Sakura dropped her book bag and found her brother waiting in the living room.

 

Touya took her chin and lifted his litter¡¯s head up. She had lost her cute cheeks that he had loved to pinch and her eyes never lost that hollow, haunted look from the nightmares of that February. But she was smiling and bright, like before. Was Yukito right? Was there really anything wrong with her? At least she was smiling now. ¡°Have you heard anything from that Brat recently?¡±

 

¡°Brat?¡± Sakura blinked at him.

 

¡°You know that Chinese kid. Li Syaoran.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran¡¦¡± The foreign name rolled off her tongue naturally. ¡°Who¡¯s that?¡±

 

Touya¡¯s midnight blue eyes rounded. He reached over for the photo album and flipped the pages to the New York trip last winter. Holding up a group photo in front of her, he said, ¡°Who¡¯s standing next to you?¡±

 

Sakura stared at the picture taken in front of Central Park—it was from the New York trip when the stayed at the Plaza Hotel, right across from Central Park South. Tomoyo had won the Best Young Director contest then. ¡°Tomoyo-chan¡¯s standing next to me,¡± she replied.

 

¡°The other side,¡± said Touya, staring at the face of the scowling brown-haired boy, arms crossed, standing next to a brightly smiling Sakura making a ¡°V¡± with her fingers. ¡°Who¡¯s standing on your other side?¡±

 

¡°Onii-chan¡¯s standing next to me,¡± Sakura said, blinking at the group picture. ¡°What¡¯s wrong with you today, ¡®nii-chan? You¡¯re acting so strangely.

 

Touya stared at the Brat¡¯s brazen glare and himself glaring at the boy. Back then, he had been standing beside Syaoran, trying to shove him out of the photo. Holding the album up to Sakura, he placed his finger directly on top of the boy¡¯s head in the picture. ¡°What am I pointing to?¡±

 

¡°A gap?¡± Sakura frowned. ¡°Are you okay, ¡®nii-chan? You¡¯re acting very strangely. Do they overwork you at that horrid hospital? Well, it¡¯s dinner time. Come, otou-san¡¯s coming back soon. I cooked curry.¡±

 

Shaking his head, Touya shut the album. ¡°Sorry, Kaijou. I can¡¯t stay for dinner. I¡¯ll stop by next weekend before you leave for ojii-san¡¯s for summer vacation.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Touya eyed the antique furniture in the large study. The house reeked of old magic.

 

¡°What an unexpected visited,¡± remarked Eriol, sitting at the great oak desk at the head of the room.

 

¡°Sakura—she¡¯s completely forgotten about the Brat¡¦ I mean Li Syaoran. This is not some strange, prolonged side-effect from the power transfer, is it?¡± demanded Touya.

 

¡°It could be, but most likely, it isn¡¯t,¡± replied Eriol. ¡°Please take a seat. Would you like some tea?¡±

 

¡°Well, what can we do about it?¡± Touya asked.

 

¡°Why force her to remember something that she doesn¡¯t want to remember?¡± asked Eriol gravely.

 

Touya gaped. ¡°Then you expect me to sit around doing nothing when my little sister is missing chunks of her memory?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s not an uncommon thing,¡± replied Eriol. ¡°Sometimes people who experience severe trauma shut off their brains to unpleasant memories. As a doctor, you should already know that.¡±

 

¡°Yes I know about that. But this is different. She remembers everything else. She remembers the New York trip, just not the Brat being there with her. She remembers being in a school production, just not who played opposite of her. How can it be like that? It¡¯s not natural.¡±

 

Kaho walked into the room with a tray with teacups and a pot of freshly brewed Earl Grey. ¡°Hello, Touya.¡±

 

¡°Funny finding you here as well,¡± remarked Touya crassly.

 

¡°Would you like some tea?¡± asked Kaho, pouring herself and Eriol a cup of the fragrant tea.

 

¡°You think I can calmly sip tea when my sister apparently has some form of amnesia?¡± Touya stated, his voice rising higher and higher, short of shouting.

 

¡°I thought you¡¯d be glad that Sakura has forgotten about Syaoran; I never recalled you being so fond of him,¡± remarked Kaho wryly, taking a seat on the couch.

 

Touya took a deep breath. ¡°So you two are telling me that it¡¯s okay to leave her in this state.¡±

 

Sipping on the cup of tea, Eriol replied staidly, ¡°The Memory is not an active dark force. Most likely, Sakura-san chose to forget Li Syaoran herself. If it was her choice, and it makes her happier, it¡¯s not our place to interfere.¡±

 

Touya turned to his former teacher, lover and friend. ¡°Kaho, you agree with him?¡±

 

¡°Despite all the physical barriers one can impose on another being, one cannot force someone to recall or forget. What happens in the mind is internal and up to the individual. Sakura has been suffering by herself for all these months. Why not let her alleviate the suffering for a little while?¡± Kaho¡¯s marigold eyes were sad. ¡°You should know better than anyone else that sometimes it is best to forget.¡±

 

At this, Touya remained silent. ¡°Then, you¡¯re telling me, just let it be?¡±

 

¡°What else can you do at this point?¡± asked Eriol, smiling.

 

¡°Well, sorry to intrude.¡± Touya spun around and stormed off. He took a last glance at Kaho, bent over Eriol¡¯s chair, whispering something in his ear. It took all his dignity to keep from slamming the door.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

 

Meilin entered Kai¡¯s hospital room with a new bouquet of lilies of the valley for his nightstand. To her surprise, the bed was empty and neatly made. She dropped her flowers and ran to the bathroom—toothbrush, toothpaste and cleaning gear was all gone. She flung open the closet—his leather jacket was gone too. So was Perro-chan¡¯s cage. Turning to a nurse on duty who entered to clean the room, she asked, ¡°Do you know what happened to the patient who was staying here, Mizuki? The one with auburn hair—¡°

 

¡°Oh, that charming boy—he was released this morning,¡± replied the nurse, blushing happily. ¡°All the nurses were sad to see him go; he was such a gentleman.¡±

 

But Meilin was not listening anymore. She ran down the hallway and pressed the elevator button continuously. Once she ran out of the hospital door and took a deep breath of fresh air, she swallowed the choking feeling in her throat. He was gone. He had really left without telling her. Why are you so surprised, Li Meilin? You knew he would leave. He even warned you that he would soon. Don¡¯t cry over him, Meilin, like some silly girl in love. You never loved him. You never cared for him in that way¡¦ You¡¯re just worried for him, that¡¯s all, because there is nobody else to look after him.

 

Meilin wiped her eyes with her sleeve and said out loud, ¡°Who am I kidding? Mizuki Kai, you bastard! I hate you!¡± She didn¡¯t care that people stared at her as if she had escaped from the mental ward.

 

 

 

When she returned home, she found her mother waiting. ¡°Oh, Meilin, you just missed your friend,¡± she said.

 

¡°My friend?¡± repeated Meilin.

 

¡°Yes, that charming boy, Tanaka Mikai.¡± Li Yinling handed her daughter a large, half-dome shaped package. ¡°He wanted me to give you this.¡±

 

¡°He said his flight is leaving in the evening.¡±

 

¡°What airline?¡± Meilin stared at the package. It was Perro-chan¡¯s cage. How could Kai leave Perro-chan behind? He loved the parakeet probably more than he loved himself.

 

¡°JAL, I would presume.¡± Yinling smiled wistfully as her daughter dashed off. How difficult it was to bind to home a willful teenage daughter.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

To Li Leiyun, though he had traveled all over the globe, no place was exactly like Hong Kong. The façade of a bustling commercial center concealed in the depths of the hills a community so imbued in traditional customs that it seemed as if time had stopped back in the 19th century here. Yet, this place in which the buildings reflected traditional Chinese architecture from the first time the Li Clan had transferred from Shanghai to Hong Kong a century ago, and this quietness unmarred by the sound of cars and the whirring of electricity, all was so dear to his heart.

 

¡°Lei!¡± Kara joined Leiyun on the long balcony overlooking young Li trainees in the middle of their staff exercise. Her pale gold hair fanned out with the humid breeze, leaving a trail of lavender scent. ¡°Is it true? Are you really coming to Japan?¡±

 

¡°My proposal has finally been approved by the Inner Council,¡± replied Leiyun. ¡°It took longer than I expected. I¡¯m sorry I had to make you wait alone there for all these months.¡±

 

Kara shook her head. ¡°At least I visited often, didn¡¯t I?¡±

 

¡°I think you spent more time back in Hong Kong than in Japan,¡± remarked Leiyun dryly. ¡°Did summer vacation for you even officially begin yet?¡± He squinted his aqua blue eyes towards the greenery around him. The home he had grown up in. It was even more beautiful than he had remembered it to be.

 

¡°Nah—but this week is just end of semester review stuff.¡± Kara leaned over the balcony and tilting her head. ¡°You look tired, Leiyun. Has everything been good back here?¡±

 

Leiyun shut his eyes. ¡°As well as things will get around here.¡± Kara¡¯s cool hand brushed a strand of hair off his forehead.

 

¡°Your meddlesome doctor cousin is walking this way. We¡¯ll catch up later.¡± Kara disappeared through the sliding doors. 

 

Li Jingmei, hands on hips, stormed up to Leiyun. ¡°Leiyun, I heard that your father¡¯s been trying to convince the Council to cut back on the annual budget allocation for the Li Hospital. We¡¯ve already commenced renovation in the new wing. If you cut back on the budget now—¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, Cousin Jingmei.¡± Leiyun smiled sadly. ¡°The economy¡¯s been in a recession for quite a while now and budget cuts are being made everywhere, not just the hospital. I obviously have little influence over the decisions that the Inner Council makes.¡±

 

¡°But you¡¯re the Head¡¯s son!¡± exclaimed Jingmei in frustration. ¡°Surely he¡¯ll listen to you—we absolutely must finish the new south wing for the hospital before winter, and the price of medicine has risen recently as well.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll see what I can do about it before I leave,¡± said Leiyun.  ¡°I¡¯m sure you¡¯ve already heard that I have undertaken a new mission. I¡¯ll be away from Hong Kong for an undetermined amount of time.¡±

 

¡°I have heard,¡± replied Jingmei coolly. ¡°Not that it is of my concern what mission you are dispatched for.¡±

 

¡°Well, it is your business now. You have been selected as a member of my delegation,¡± stated Leiyun.

 

Jingmei¡¯s jaws dropped—she had watched numerous cousins, uncles and aunts been dispatched to various parts of the world on myriads of missions ranging from business negotiations and study abroad programs to deadly, top-secret excursions. Never had she been selected for these missions. ¡°Why include me?¡± she asked. ¡°I¡¯m not a fighter, nor a magician, nor very brave. I doubt I can be of much use to what ever your mission is. Besides, I need to look after Syaoran still, and I am employed at the Li Hospital.¡±

 

¡°I have already received approval from Uncle Ganliu for your temporary leave of absence,¡± replied Leiyun. ¡°It is just your consent we need now.¡±

 

Long ago, she had been taught that individual choice was not an option in the Clan. When summoned for a mission, a Li must gladly accept. Jingmei blinked. She had been spared because she had taken the Healer route, like her father and brothers. Her cousin¡¯s face was unreadable as he merely smiled a reassuring smile. The Leiyun of old days was trustworthy and a favorite amongst the cousins of her generation, not only because he was talented and well-mannered, but because he was generous and kind, modest yet accomplished. It was less than a decade ago that she and all her female cousins had dreamy crushes on their then teenage cousin. Now, he had returned as a man, someone who seemed to have risen from the dead, someone to be reckoned with. Did he hold any grudges against the Clan for leaving him for dead? No one spoke of the unnatural circumstance of Leiyun¡¯s sudden appearance by the side of the Elders. If the Elders accepted him, so be it. Besides, under current tides, it seemed most likely that Leiyun would be elected as the new Chosen One. ¡°I have no particular desire to leave Hong Kong,¡± she finally answered.

 

¡°I will make sure my father does not cut financing towards Li Hospital. You have nothing to worry about here. Do you agree to come to Japan with me, Jingmei?¡± Leiyun asked.

 

Dumbfounded, Jingmei stammered, ¡°I—I guess.¡± What could Leiyun possibly want from her?

 

Leiyun smiled brightly at her, and Jingmei smiled back nervously. She nodded her head and hurried her way.

 

The smile dropped from his face as Leiyun turned around and left his cousin. He entered in the sliding door and shut it behind him. Inside, Jinyu was waiting.

 

Leiyun said, ¡°Well, Jin, time to begin preparations.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The taxi ride to the Hong Kong International Airport was the longest ride that Meilin had ever endured. Everything minute prolonged in rush hour added another beat to Meilin¡¯s pounding heart. She stared at the birdcage seated next to her.

 

¡°Are you mad at Kai for leaving you behind? You should be,¡± Meilin told the bird.

 

Perro-chan tilted his hand questioningly at his hot-tempered mistress.

 

¡°Perro-chan, even if I get there, I won¡¯t be able to find him. I don¡¯t have magical powers like Syaoran, nor do I have an electronic tracking devise like Kai. I don¡¯t even have sharp instincts like Tomoyo or good luck like Sakura.¡± Meilin swallowed hard. Kai¡¯s last words to her haunted her.

 

¡°Just don¡¯t reproach me later when I¡¯m gone because I ran away with my tail between my legs. I offered you a place by my side. Remember, you turned me down.¡± His eyes had been so sad then, she had almost relented, had it not been for her wretched pride.

 

The parakeet chirped merrily as if to reassure her, ¡°I love you. I love you.¡±

 

¡°Oh shut up, Perro-chan.¡±

 

¡°Shaddup! Shaddup!¡± the bird repeated after her cheerfully.

 

 

 

Summer season was always a busy travel time, and the Hong Kong International Airport was crowded with people from every corner of the world with businessmen and tourists, children screaming and running about and students lined up. Meilin ran into the Japan Airlines luggage check-in area. Where could he be? What if he had already entered the gates? What if she never saw him again? She hugged the bird cage to her chest.

 

¡°Kaitou! Kaitou!¡± squeaked Perro-chan, fluttering around the cage.

 

¡°Shush, Perro-chan,¡± said Meilin wearily. It was a busy hour at the airport and people shot her nasty glances for blocking their path. He had left her. He really left her.

 

¡°Voir! Voir!¡± insisted Perro-chan, pecking at Meilin¡¯s bare legs through the bars.

 

Slowly, Meilin looked up through the crowd. Her eyes blurred. There he was, as easy to spot as ever in his black leather jacket and hair spiked up jaggedly. A black duffel back was swung over one shoulder. His fang earrings flashed even from the distance across the airport. A fire took hold of her lungs. ¡°MIZUKI KAI!¡± She ran across the distance separating them, ignoring cries of annoyance from those she bumped into and the squawking from the cage from an indignant Perro-chan.

 

Kai turned around, dropping his duffel bag by his feet with a look of disbelief as he took off his sunglasses. ¡°Meilin? What are you doing here?¡± Then, he saw that tears were freely flowing down her cheeks. ¡°Why in the world are you crying?¡±

 

¡°You idiot. How dare you try to just sneak away?¡± sniffled Meilin. It wasn¡¯t too late. It was really him. She gently set the cage at her feet. ¡°And how dare you try to leave Perro-chan?¡±

 

Perro-chan stated, ¡°Traitor!¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, I—¡± Kai was cut off.

 

Meilin flung her arms around Kai, so tightly that he winced. ¡°Don¡¯t you dare think of leaving without me,¡± she whispered. ¡°Where you go, I¡¯ll follow too.¡± She tilted her chin up and let him give her the deepest kiss yet.

 

When they finally had a moment to breathe, Kai whispered, holding her in a tight embrace, unable to release her, ¡°Ah, I thought this only happens in movies. In the middle of the airport—even I admit this is rather embarrassing.¡± He kissed a drop of tear off her nose.

 

Meilin realized that they had created a spectacle and people were staring at the two. ¡°Since when have you felt any shame?¡± she accused.

 

¡°Since I have returned to being an honest civilian,¡± was his saucy reply.

 

¡°Sure,¡± Meilin snickered. ¡°So, where are we going? Paris? Honolulu? Buenos Aires?¡±

 

¡°Oh, didn¡¯t I tell you?¡± Kai grinned. ¡°We¡¯re going back to Japan.¡±

 

¡°EHHHH? Sapporo, maybe? Or Kyoto? Onsen would be good for your body¡¯s recovery,¡± Meilin rambled.

 

¡°If you insist, we can stop by,¡± said Kai, picking up his duffel bag and holding out two plane tickets, one-way, to Narita Airport. ¡°For now, we¡¯re going back to Tokyo.¡±

 

¡°Wait a minute, why do you have two tickets?¡± asked Meilin, picking up Perro-chan¡¯s cage.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. Maybe I had a hunch,¡± replied Kai, slinging an arm around Meilin¡¯s waist.

 

¡°And why did you leave me Perro-chan?¡± she asked, a scowl deepening on her brows.

 

¡°To help you find me of course.¡± Kai grinned.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Dealing with angst-ridden teenage boys proved more trying to Doctor Li Jingmei than dealing with any other type of patient. One was gone but one still remained as her charge.

 

¡°Did the acupuncture treatment change anything?¡± asked Jingmei to her glum ward.

 

Syaoran had a far-off look on his face as he glanced out the window. When Jingmei cleared her throat, Syaoran turned back to her. ¡°Sorry, what did you say?¡±

 

¡°Never mind. I think we¡¯re just going to halt all treatment,¡± stated Jingmei.

 

¡°So even the doctors have given up hope,¡± Syaoran said ruefully at his limp right arm.

 

¡°Not given up. We have done everything that we could do. Now, the rest is all up to you.¡± Glancing back at the door where Jinyu was guarding, Jingmei lowered her voice. ¡°By the way, your friend has checked out of the hospital.¡±

 

¡°Where did he go?¡± asked Syaoran. It didn¡¯t surprise him that Kai had bolted—it was surprising he even lasted for all these months.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. Meilin went with him. I heard Aunt Yinling threw a fit.¡± Jingmei almost smiled. ¡°Our little cousin has made quite a troublesome boyfriend? I always thought she was going to marry you.¡± Then she frowned a little. ¡°Are you okay with it?¡±

 

¡°Okay with what?¡± repeated Syaoran.

 

¡°With your¡¦¡± Jingmei made a little pinky-swear gesture, ¡°Running off with your cousin instead of you.¡±

 

A scowl came over Syaoran¡¯s face, as he replicated the pinky-swear gesture. ¡°What are you talking about?¡±

 

Jingmei patted her younger cousin¡¯s shoulder sympathetically. ¡°It¡¯s all right. Kai told me all about it. Don¡¯t worry, I won¡¯t tell anyone about you two.¡±

 

¡°EHHH? You think him and me¡¦¡± Syaoran buried his head in his hands and groaned. ¡°You wait, Mizuki Kai—I¡¯m going to kill you the next time I see you.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s the spirit, Syaoran!¡± exclaimed Jingmei, blushing happily.

 

¡°No, that¡¯s not how it sounded—¡± protested Syaoran. He buried his head between his knees in defeat. ¡°Just don¡¯t tell my sisters¡¦¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry! Of course I¡¯ll keep your secret!¡± replied Jingmei with a huge grin.

 

¡°You already told Fanren-jiejie, didn¡¯t you?¡± Syaoran moaned. He would never hear the end of this, once he got of house arrest.

 

Jingmei cackled mischievously. It was good to see despite all the negative conditions, Syaoran was still spirited. Perhaps¡¦ Perhaps this boy could be the Li Clan¡¯s last hope. ¡°Syaoran, starting from next week, Doctor Li Wanliu will be taking over for checking up on you.¡±

 

¡°Why, you gave up on my case?¡± Syaoran asked. He sighed. And Jingmei was the one person who talked to him normally in the Clan.

 

Jingmei paused, her dark eyes grave. ¡°We¡¯ve begun preparations, so I¡¯ll be busy for the next couple weeks, and it¡¯ll be better for Wanliu to be able to take over while I can still train him before I leave.¡±

 

¡°Leave? Where to?¡± Syaoran raised an eyebrow. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me you¡¯re finally getting married?¡±

 

¡°I guess you haven¡¯t heard already.¡±

 

¡°You know they always hush up around me.¡± Syaoran sighed.

 

Jingmei said lowly, ¡°I¡¯ll be on the delegation to go to Japan. The delegation lead by Li Leiyun.¡±

 

Syaoran turned around to face Jingmei with widened amber eyes. ¡°Japan? Leiyun¡¯s returning to Japan? When?¡±

 

¡°In a month or so,¡± replied Jingmei. She saw that her younger cousin¡¯s brows were furrowed down, and he looked fiercer and more animated than he had been since he had returned to Hong Kong. ¡°The orders have been just approved by the Council of Elders.¡±

 

He was not listening anymore, and Jingmei sighed as Syaoran bolted out of the room. Young Syaoran was even more impatient than her dear Uncle Ryuuren ever had been.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

¡°Leiyun!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, panting.

 

¡°My cousin, why the rush?¡± Leiyun asked, turning around in the hallway. He nodded, and the servants hurried.

 

It took a moment for Syaoran to catch his breath. ¡°Leiyun—you¡¯ll be dispatched on a mission to Japan. Take me with you!¡± Syaoran gripped Leiyun¡¯s arms tightly.

 

¡°Ah, so I see you¡¯ve heard.¡± Leiyun¡¯s lips curled into a smile. ¡°Then I am sure you are aware of what my mission in Japan is also.¡±

 

Syaoran nodded. ¡°I am aware.¡± He sank down on his knees. ¡°Please, I beg you. Take me with you to Japan. I¡¯ll do what ever you ask me to. I won¡¯t do anything that the Clan would not disapprove of—in fact, I won¡¯t do anything without your permission. Just let me go with you.¡±

 

¡°I doubt the Elders would approve.¡± When Leiyun saw Syaoran¡¯s stricken face, he added, ¡°Well, I¡¯ll speak with the Inner Council and see if I can convince them to let you tag along. It¡¯ll be useful to have a guide.¡±

 

¡°Thank you. Thank you,¡± said Syaoran bending down his head. He was trembling, trembling in anticipation. One day, he swore he would go back. Never had he imagined the opportunity would befall him so soon.

 

 

 

The next day, Syaoran was once again called forth to the Elders conference room. He no longer felt nervous standing in the Great Hall, but was relieved to find that the entire Inner Council had not been summoned. Instead, the nine Elders sat around the mahogany wood conference table with Li Wutai at the head seat. Behind him stood Leiyun. Taking a deep breath, he walked forward and bowed down on his knees.

 

¡°Li Syaoran, you have been called before the Council of Elders concerning a query you have made,¡± Li Wutai stated on behalf of the Elders. ¡°I hear that you have requested to return to Japan, accompanying Leiyun and Jinyu on their mission. I am sure you are aware of what that mission is.¡±

 

¡°Yes, I am,¡± replied Syaoran staidly.

 

Li Wutai stated loudly to the other eight Elders. ¡°Leiyun, at the previous judgment before the Court of Elders, stated that we should give traitor Li Syaoran one last chance to prove his allegiance to the Clan. Leiyun, how do you propose that Li Syaoran prove his loyalty to the Clan?¡±

 

¡°Well, it¡¯s quite simple, actually.¡± Leiyun smiled. ¡°Li Syaoran has committed three wrongs. Let him correct each wrong, and he can get his title back and have full-hearted forgiveness from the Council.¡±

 

¡°Impossible,¡± scoffed Li Daifu, Chairman of the Li Corporation and third in command in the hierarchy of Elders, only just below the Great Elder and the Head.

 

Leiyun interjected, ¡°Syaoran already has a start—he¡¯s back in Hong Kong, ready to obey the Clan¡¯s orders for instance.¡±

 

Wutai frowned. ¡°Doctor Li Jingmei has consulted with me that Syaoran has not responded to any treatment and healing procedures over the past five months. He is still currently powerless and has not recovered the use of one arm.¡±

 

¡°How did the boy so carelessly lose his powers and the use of his sword arm in the first place?¡± asked Daifu callously, stroking his black moustache.

 

Leiyun cleared his throat. ¡°He did not say exactly, but it was supposedly through battling against the Plague.¡±

 

There was a deep murmur amongst the Elders. They knew the number of lives of Li¡¯s the dark force had claimed in the past.

 

Gazing at the boy kneeling in front of the nine elders, Leiyun continued, ¡°Besides, Doctor Li Jingmei has stated that Syaoran has not responded to treatment—that does not mean that there is no possibility that his powers would return. And even without the use of his left arm, like our great ancestor Li Shulin, Syaoran has always been ambidextrous and remains one of the strongest, if not the strongest swordsman of our generation.¡±

 

¡°So, Li Leiyun,¡± Fenjian interjected. ¡°You are proposing that Li Syaoran, upon returning to Japan, capture back the Clow Book from the current mistress, something that was already on our agenda anyway. And that should sufficiently prove his loyalty to the Clan.¡±

 

¡°That is correct,¡± Leiyun responded.

 

¡°An interesting and fair proposal,¡± declared Fenjian. ¡°What think you, Elder Wutai?¡±

 

¡°After your previous misdemeanors while you were there, what makes you think that the Council can trust you out of our jurisdiction?¡± questioned Wutai to Syaoran.

 

¡°I—¡± stammered Syaoran.

 

¡°Syaoran will be accompanying Jinyu and I,¡± spoke up Leiyun. ¡°While in Japan, he will be under my supervision and serve as part of my mission. He will be a valuable resource to us as he is more familiar with the dark forces than anyone else. Furthermore, this will be his chance to prove his loyalty to the Clan. If we complete our mission successfully, then it can be concluded that Li Syaoran duly repents for his prior errors, and he can be reinstated as the Chosen One.¡±

 

¡°And if he does not complete his mission successfully?¡± asked Wutai wryly.

 

¡°I will see to it that he is punished, and his life will be forfeit to the Clan thereafter,¡± replied Leiyun.

 

¡°Do you agree to those terms?¡± Wutai asked Syaoran.

 

¡°I do, Elder Wutai,¡± stated Syaoran in a level voice. ¡°I beg of you, please grant me this one chance to prove my utmost allegiance to the Clan.¡±

 

After a moment of brief counseling with the other Elders, Wutai declared, ¡°Very well. After conferring with the Elders, we have concluded that it is only just to give traitor Li Syaoran one last chance to prove his loyalty to the Clan. Thus, Li Syaoran, do you accept Leiyun¡¯s proposal?¡±

 

¡°I do,¡± was Syaoran¡¯s firm response.

 

¡°Very well. You will be under supervision of Leiyun and the Clan Protector Jinyu at all times. While in Japan, you will follow Leiyun¡¯s orders, and we will periodically be hearing reports back from Leiyun.¡± Wutai stated. ¡°Beware of the consequences if you do not meet our expectations, Li Syaoran. You are now dismissed.¡±

 

Syaoran replied lowly, ¡°I shall not disappoint the Clan again.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Japan¡¦

 

 

 

¡°Sakura-chan, what are you doing for summer vacation?¡± Chiharu asked. The class was jittery in anticipation for the last day of school before break finally commenced. Their first semester as high-schoolers had flown by.

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan and I were invited by our great-grandfather to stay at his house in the mountainside,¡± replied Sakura.

 

¡°That¡¯s right—I keep forgetting you two are cousins,¡± Naoko remarked. She sighed. ¡°So, no one will be doing anything particularly interesting, like entering the Best Couple Contest this time round?¡±

 

Chiharu groaned. ¡°Don¡¯t remind me of that stunt. Whose idea was it, anyway?¡±

 

¡°Seijou Junior High did pretty well with you two the winner and Sakura-chan and Li-kun as the honorary mention couple,¡± Naoko trailed off, glancing at Sakura.

 

¡°The what?¡± Sakura blinked at Naoko.

 

¡°The Best Couple Contest. You and Li-kun¡¦¡± Naoko trialed off because Chiharu nudged her hard on the side.

 

¡°Remember, we¡¯re not supposed to talk about Li-kun in front of Sakura. Tomoyo told us not to,¡± Chiharu hissed to her friend.

 

¡°Oh, right,¡± Naoko stammered. ¡°Well, I heard that you and Yamazaki-kun were called back to hand over the crown to the next couple this year.¡±

 

¡°Well, it¡¯s being held in Tokyo Tower this year, so we couldn¡¯t realize refuse,¡± Chiharu muttered. ¡°They even provided for me a pretty new dress.¡±

 

¡°I swear, you two won because I was such an excellent manager,¡± stated Naoko smugly. ¡°How come I wasn¡¯t invited?¡±

 

¡°Humph, I could have won if I had a better partner,¡± declared Aki, who overheard, glaring at Erika. Erika shrugged, brushing out her hair. She cast a curious glance towards Sakura who was chuckling over a comment Eron had made. It sure was dull without Syaoran around. But her own brother seemed to be having a blast at least.

 

Yutaka Ichiro turned to his quiet deskmate. ¡°S-sasaki-san!¡±

 

¡°Yes, Yutaka-kun?¡± Rika asked, looking up from her pocket organizer.

 

¡°Are you doing anywhere for summer break? If not, maybe we can meet up, sometime, perhaps¡¦¡± Yutaka stammered.

 

Rika smiled. She ripped off a piece of paper from her organizer. ¡°This is my cell phone number.¡±

 

¡°T-thank you!¡± Ichiro exclaimed, taking the piece of paper as if it was a sheet of gold.

 

Sakura glanced over and smiled. Perhaps Yutaka-kun hadn¡¯t told the whole story to Rika yet. But someday, he might gain enough courage to tell her the complete truth. ¡°By the way, Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura said, as she packed her book bag with all the material she would need for summer vacation homework.

 

¡°Yes?¡± Tomoyo looked up from her desk.

 

¡°Who is this ¡®Syaoran¡¯ that everyone keeps talking about?¡± asked Sakura to her best friend.

 

Tomoyo stared up at her friend with pain-filled eyes. ¡°Just an exchange student back in elementary school days.¡±

 

¡°Oh.¡± Sakura glanced away.

 

Eron glanced sideways at his deskmate. Why was the Sakura beside him, the Sakura clean of Syaoran, not any happier than before? She had forgotten Li Syaoran. Yet his presence still lurked in the air. Why?

 

Mizuki Kaho arranged the assignment sheets on her desk. ¡°Well class, don¡¯t put off summer vacation homework till the last moment. Otherwise, have a great break!¡±

 

The class cheered—they had survived their first semester of high school. As the afternoon bell rang, the students eagerly scrambled out to freedom.

 

¡°Have a great summer break, Tomoyo-san, Sakura-san,¡± said Eriol, slinging his bag over his shoulder and walking ahead.

 

¡°You too, Eriol-kun!¡± Sakura called out. Tomoyo just gave a half-smile and a wave.

 

¡°You won¡¯t be able to see Eriol-kun all summer long at this rate,¡± Sakura stated, nudging her friend with a mischievous grin.

 

¡°Well, you see¡¦¡± Tomoyo stared down at her feet. The two best friends walked out of school, side by side.

 

¡°We can invite him to the swimming pool. We still have a week before we head off the great-grandfather¡¯s summer estate. Should I go tell him?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°No, it¡¯s really okay,¡± protested Tomoyo.

 

¡°But it¡¯s for Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura stated indignantly. ¡°You barely talk to him anymore at school, and you sit right next to him.¡± The she frowned. ¡°Did something happen between you and Eriol-kun?¡±

 

Tomoyo shook her head rapidly. ¡°No, it¡¯s just me.¡±

 

Sakura halted in her step, taken aback, taking a second look at her friend. ¡°Something is wrong. What is it?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s too silly,¡± said Tomoyo.

 

¡°Nothing can be too silly when it involves you,¡± Sakura insisted. ¡°I¡¯m your friend—that¡¯s why I¡¯m here. You¡¯ve always been there listening to all my problems. Why can¡¯t you tell me about it?¡±

 

Tomoyo just shook her head again. The two walked outside the gate, pushing through the crowds of students in their white and black summer uniforms, flocking out.

 

¡°There¡¯s Mizuki-sensei. I¡¯m going to wish her a good break,¡± Sakura said, about to catch up with her homeroom teacher who walked ahead of them, her beige cotton skirt billowing out behind her. Sakura couldn¡¯t help thinking she had the prettiest teacher ever. Mizuki-sensei always exuded a sort of elegance yet warmness.

 

Then, Sakura saw that someone else had already walked up to their teacher. It was Eriol. The two made a striking pair, walking side by side. Eriol¡¯s head reached a couple inches above Mizuki Kaho¡¯s now. And the aura around them was of a time-old familiarity.

 

¡°Let me take that,¡± Eriol said, taking Kaho¡¯s bag full of books.

 

¡°It¡¯s not that heavy,¡± she protested, but Eriol took it nonetheless.

 

¡°What did you put in here? Rocks? It is heavy,¡± Eriol stated as he held up the straw-weave bag with scrutiny.

 

¡°What are your plans for the summer, Eriol?¡± asked Kaho as they walked out of the school gates. Her long, unbound auburn hair blew back gently as she moved. 

 

¡°The same as yours, perhaps,¡± replied Eriol. He smiled warmly at his teacher and friend of many years. ¡°You¡¯re going in the wrong direction again. Come this way.¡±

 

Footsteps synchronized as they walked down the path, the two walked off in quiet chatter as they headed in their own direction.

 

¡°I¡¯ve never seen Eriol-kun smile like that,¡± murmured Sakura, taking a glance at her friend. She was taken aback by the pensive expression on Tomoyo¡¯s face.

 

¡°Me neither,¡± replied Tomoyo quietly.

 

Sakura¡¯s face crumpled. Of course¡¦ how could she not have seen earlier? ¡°I¡¯m sorry Tomoyo-chan, for being so inconsiderate,¡± said Sakura, wrapping an arm around her friend¡¯s shoulder. ¡°I¡¯m sorry for not noticing sooner that you were in pain.¡±

 

¡°I know it¡¯s been hard for you over the past several months—I can¡¯t bother you with something so trivial.¡± Tomoyo put on a smile for Sakura. ¡°It¡¯s all right. I understand. I¡¯ll get over it.¡±

 

Sakura shook her head. ¡°You can¡¯t give up without even trying. Nothing is certain now, so there is no reason for you to be dejected, Tomoyo-chan.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re right, Sakura-chan.¡± Tomoyo looked at her dearest friend fondly. ¡°You¡¯re right. There¡¯s no reason for me to be dejected.¡± She looked up with a teasing smile. ¡°So, I heard Eron-kun telling you to stay in touch over summer vacation? What is happening between you two?¡±

 

Sakura hesitated. ¡°Eron-kun told me he liked me, back when we were preparing for the cultural fair.¡±

 

Tomoyo did not look completely surprised. ¡°And how did you respond?¡±

 

¡°I told him that his most important person is someone else.¡±

 

¡°I see. And he was all right?¡± Tomoyo asked.

 

Sakura nodded. ¡°We¡¯re friends now. I feel comfortable talking with him.¡±

 

Tomoyo raised a slender eyebrow. ¡°That¡¯s good. I¡¯m impressed that he grew so tolerant—he didn¡¯t seem hurt?¡±

 

¡°Well, I told him my most important person is you, Tomoyo-chan.¡±

 

At this, Tomoyo¡¯s eyes glistened. ¡°At least for now, Sakura-chan.¡±

 

¡°No, you have always supported me through my ups and downs, what ever decision I made, what ever hardships I faced. It¡¯s my turn to be there for Tomoyo-chan.¡±

 

Tomoyo gave Sakura a tight hug. ¡°Thank you, Sakura-chan. But because we are best friends, we¡¯ll wish the best for each other. I¡¯ll be happier than anyone else when your true most important person comes for you.¡±

 

¡°Will such a person come to me?¡± Sakura asked sardonically. Suddenly, even in the summer-heat, she felt a chill deep within her heart.

 

¡°And you will be happiest for me when I find someone that I can love as much as you love that person,¡± Tomoyo continued.

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan, things will work out. They have to with you and Eriol-kun. He¡¯s a difficult person to get to know. You¡¯ll just have to try harder to reach him, however long it may take. In the meantime, you have me. Maybe someday we will find other people who become very important in our lives. But our relationship won¡¯t change. We will laugh, cry, and support each other until we marry and grow old, and our children would also grow up to be the best of friends,¡± said Sakura, misty-eyed.

 

Taking Sakura¡¯s hands, Tomoyo nodded, blinking back silent tears. ¡°It¡¯s a promise.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Before setting off for summer vacation, Sakura had one place to visit.

 

¡°Su-chan, it¡¯s already summer,¡± said Sakura, setting down a bouquet of fresh lilies at the tombstone marked Shirose Subaru. ¡°I won¡¯t be able to visit you for a little while. I¡¯ll be at ojii-chan¡¯s house. It¡¯s a very beautiful house, up in the mountains. My mother grew up there when she was a little girl.¡±

 

Slowly, she got up and took her second bouquet of Nadeshiko flowers and walked further down the graveyard to the older plot. Another bouquet of fresh flowers was set at the head of the tombstone. Her father must have stopped by earlier. ¡°Okaa-san, I¡¯m going to visit ojii-chan. I love my great-grandfather very much, and I¡¯m glad that he¡¯s invited me to go visit him. It¡¯s the first time he¡¯s done that. I thought otou-san would say no, but he gave me permission to go. Okaa-san, I¡¯ve been trying to be strong, and it¡¯s so hard, so very hard. But, I¡¯m still trying, okaa-san.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-senpai,¡± Miho exclaimed.

 

¡°Miho-chan, why are you here?¡± Sakura asked, walking up to the younger girl.

 

Miho glanced at the nameless tombstone.

 

¡°May I ask whose¡¦¡± Sakura wondered if the gravestone was Miho¡¯s father¡¯s.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. Mizuki-senpai tried to convince me that this was my brother¡¯s grave initially,¡± Miho replied, glancing over the tombstone. ¡°But obviously that was a cover up. I thought it was my father¡¯s, but he was buried in Hong Kong, where he passed away. Either way, this must have been an important person to onii-chan. I come here sometimes to clear my head. Did you hear anything from Mizuki-senpai?¡±

 

¡°No¡¦¡± said Sakura slowly. Considering she knew Kai for a year, she barely had learned anything about him.

 

¡°Everything comes down to this,¡± Miho said, staring at the slab of stone. ¡°I feel like this unmarked grave is an important key. Maybe this person is somehow linked with my father¡¯s death.¡±

 

¡°Is it that important for you to uncover everything?¡± Sakura asked softly. ¡°Sometimes, secrets are better left alone.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t care. I¡¯m in this too deep. I must find out the truth,¡± stated Miho. ¡°What ever it takes me.¡±

 

The two girls silently walked out of the graveyard, heading out to the main road.

 

¡°What are your plans for summer vacation?¡± asked Sakura, feeling the breeze through her short hair. It was warm and not too humid, and the air was sweet.

 

¡°Full-time investigating,¡± replied Miho. ¡°And editing okaa-san¡¯s novel.¡±

 

¡°Investigating what?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°About otou-san¡¯s murder and Kaitou Magician and the mystery of the Mirror of Truth,¡± stated Miho. ¡°Since no one¡¯s cooperating with me, I¡¯m going to find out on my own.¡±

 

¡°When did you figure out Mizuki-kun was Kaitou Magician?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°Some time ago,¡± replied Miho. ¡°Why did he try to hide that from me? Did he think I would lose respect for him because he¡¯s some flamboyant, law-breaker?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sure Kai-kun had his reasons,¡± said Sakura softly. ¡°And none of them were to deliberately hurt you and your mother.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re too easy on people,¡± said Miho coldly. ¡°I don¡¯t care how you try to justify his actions. There shouldn¡¯t be exceptions to the law. He¡¯s a thief. He has to answer to justice. If it calls upon him serving time in jail, I do not feel sorry for him at all.¡±

 

Sakura frowned. ¡°Miho-chan, don¡¯t think Kai-kun hasn¡¯t suffered all this time too.¡±

 

¡°I too wouldn¡¯t have a clean conscience if I had abandoned my sister and mother and gone on to becoming some criminal,¡± said Miho. ¡°I don¡¯t care about the reasons. A criminal is a criminal.¡±

 

Sighing, Sakura couldn¡¯t help thinking perhaps this was why Kai never could muster the courage to tell his little sister the truth.

 

The two girls now came upon a path very familiar to Miho. First, they passed by Eitoukou High School and slowly, they turned a corner, up a slope.

 

¡°Miho-chan, isn¡¯t this where you grew up?¡± Sakura asked. Trees lush with leaves curtained the clearing from the main road.

 

¡°Yes,¡± Miho said, in a far-off voice. She walked ahead, to the picket fence, yet to be painted. Behind the fence stood a white Victorian-style three-story mansion, with the round windows and the blue shingles.

 

¡°Wait, Miho-chan, this is where your house was¡¦¡± Sakura trialed off, blinking up at the fully constructed, freshly painted house. Last time she had been in this area, this area had been under construction. Maybe somebody had finally moved in.

 

¡°Our property was seized by the Kinomoto Group to pay my father¡¯s debts,¡± murmured Miho. ¡°The house and everything in it burned down when I lost control of my powers.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry about that,¡± said Sakura quietly. She could not even begin to imagine how traumatizing it would be to lose your home and all your belongings in one day.  

 

¡°But It¡¯s exactly the same,¡± whispered Miho, opening the fence and walking onto the mowed lawn.

 

¡°What¡¯s exactly the same?¡±

 

¡°The new house—it¡¯s exactly the same as my old house that burned down,¡± replied Miho, a lump forming in her throat.

 

Stunned, Sakura stared at the beautiful white architecture, a dream-house that came out only in storybooks. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me Kai¡¦¡±

 

¡°You wanted to know what the package he sent me for my birthday was, right? He didn¡¯t even send me a card.¡± Miho¡¯s eyes blurred. Even the swing set in the front yard had been replicated to perfection, as was the rose garden that her mother had loved. ¡°Instead, he sent me the deeds to our old house. It¡¯s under my mother¡¯s name.¡±

 

Sakura had always thought that Kai was so unreliable. Yet, he somehow had planned everything out for Miho-chan. She smoothed Miho¡¯s back as she murmured, ¡°Kai-kun—how in the world did manage to attain rights to this house?¡±

 

¡°Baka ¡®nii-chan,¡± Miho stated, turning her back to Sakura as she wiped the flowing tears from her eyes. ¡°As if the house will make me forgive him. Probably got it with stolen money. I still won¡¯t forgive him. I won¡¯t.¡±

 

Sakura took another glance at the house. If it had burned down completely, Kai must have somehow recollected exactly how it had looked and sketched it out—she knew that Kai had enough talent to do so much. But when did he earn so much money to buy the land and contract construction workers and arrange things so seamlessly? What exactly did he have in mind?

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

¡°E-ri-ol~¡± whined Nakuru, switching the channels to the TV in the living room. ¡°Let¡¯s do something over the summer vacation. We can go to the beach. Or the onsen. Or out of country. I¡¯m bored.¡±

 

¡°Hmm?¡± Eriol pushed his glasses up over the bridge of his nose and looked up from the novel he was reading.

 

¡°Miho, did I align the paragraph¡¯s right?¡± Mayura asked, turning her laptop towards Miho¡¯s direction.

 

Miho was sprawled on the living room floor, drawing a timeline of Kaitou Magician¡¯s activities. Glancing up, she glanced over Word Document on Mayura¡¯s laptop. ¡°Yes. I¡¯ll go over the spelling errors later on, okaa-san, you just finish your 200-page mark.¡±

 

Yawning, Suppi-chan stated, ¡°Kaho, you assigned your high schoolers too much homework for summer vacation.¡± He flipped through Eriol¡¯s journal entries. ¡°It¡¯s hard to come up with original entries for someone who¡¯s done absolutely nothing over summer vacation.¡±

 

Kaho, who had been dozing off curled up on the sofa, blinked. ¡°Suppi-chan, you shouldn¡¯t be doing Eriol¡¯s homework for him. It¡¯s his assignment.¡±

 

¡°I have nothing better to do,¡± replied Suppi-chan. ¡°And the reading is sort of interesting.¡±

 

Nakuru gave a little yelp as she dropped the remote control and pointed at the TV set. ¡°It¡¯s the Best Couple of Japan Contest, broadcast live!¡±

 

Everybody looked up from what they were doing.

 

¡°Welcome back to the 25th Annual Best Couple of Japan Contest, broadcast live on NHK from Tokyo Tower!¡± stated the flamboyant MC. ¡°After last years colorful events at Kousokou beach, did this year live up to expectations? Now, the moment has arrived. The judges are choosing the pair worthy of being called the Best Couple of Japan. Last year winners, Yamazaki Takashi-kun and Mihara Chiharu-chan have been invited back by popular demand to give a special performance¡¦¡±

 

¡°Oh, I see Akagi Arima-san in the judging panel,¡± said Miho. ¡°She¡¯s pretty as ever—but she looks a little tired. And Shing-san¡¯s there too. I guess he¡¯s back in Japan again.¡±

 

¡°Shing-san?¡± Mayura asked.

 

¡°Yes, that famous Hong Kong artist known for his portraits and capture of color,¡± replied Miho absentmindedly, doodling on the side of her timeline. Her brother had left when he was twelve and she had barely turned ten. Kaitou Magician had begun to appear around two years ago. What had he done in that time in between then?

 

¡°I would have liked to see his pieces,¡± said Mayura wistfully.

 

Miho couldn¡¯t mention that they had a priceless painting by Shing hanging in their house that very moment. How in the world could she come up with a plausible excuse when she returned the painting to its owner?

 

¡°Look, they¡¯re announcing the results,¡± said Nakuru, tugging on Eriol¡¯s sleeve.

 

The MC cleared his throat. ¡°And the winner of the 25th Annual Best Couple of Japan Contest is¡¦ Contestant #15, Mizuki Kai and Li Meilin!¡±

 

¡°EH?¡± Everybody in Eriol¡¯s living room dropped what they were doing and gaped at the television set. There was Mizuki Kai, sun-glassed and hair spiked as usual, beaming and waving at the screaming girls in the audience. Meilin did not look happy to be standing there and scowled at Kai until Arima handed them a check to their prize money.

 

¡°Yes, the dark horse pair that popped out of nowhere!¡± the MC said over the legions of screaming fan-girls. ¡°The mysterious Mizuki Kai and the lovely Li Meilin from Hong Kong, cousin to none other than last year¡¯s runner-up contestant Li Syaoran! Give a round of applause for these fiery, passionate young couple. Mizuki-kun, do you have any last words to say to Japan?¡± The MC handed the mike to Mizuki Kai.

 

Kai grabbed the microphone and cleared his throat. ¡°Miho, if you¡¯re watching this program somewhere out there! Onii-chan is back! Did you get my birthday present? I love you Miho-chan~¡±

 

¡°Who the heck is Miho-chan?¡± muttered the shocked audience members. ¡°Right after winning the Best Couple Contest, why is he professing his love on national television for another girl?¡±

 

At this point, Meilin was fuming. ¡°Idiot!¡± Grabbing the microphone out of Kai¡¯s hands, Meilin bonked him on the head with it. ¡°I told you I didn¡¯t want to do this!¡±

 

¡°Miho-chan! Wait for me!¡± cried out Kai towards the camera.

 

¡°This is not what I had in mind when I told you that you need to apologize to your little sister,¡± snapped Meilin.

 

¡°Now, we will be cutting to commercial break—thank you for joining us in the 25th Annual Best Couple of Japan Contest. We will see you next year!¡± stammered the flustered MC. 

 

Miho stood up and switched off the television set, brows twitching in irritation. She shouted at the black TV screen, ¡°Baka ¡®nii-chan!¡±

 

¡°Was that Mikai-kun, just now?¡± Mayura asked, looking up from her laptop. ¡°It sounded like his voice.¡±

 

¡°No, it was just some idiotic imposter,¡± replied Miho, glaring at Suppi-chan and Nakuru who were tittering.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Up at the Amamiya Estate, Sakura and Tomoyo turned from the television set and glanced at each other as the commercial tuned in.

 

Their great-grandfather shook his head in disapproval. ¡°Youngsters these days. How can a boy have all those holes in his ears, and how did this ¡®Mizuki-kun¡¯ get his hair to defy gravity like that?¡± He was clearly indicating Kai¡¯s piercings and gelled hair.

 

¡°That was just Kai-kun and Meilin-chan, wasn¡¯t it?¡± Sakura said, rubbing her eyes in disbelief.

 

¡°Well, looks like Kai-kun is healthier than ever,¡± Tomoyo stated, not knowing whether to laugh or cry for Miho.

 

¡°And they¡¯re both back in Japan,¡± Sakura pointed out. ¡°Well, I guess it¡¯s just like Kai to use the flashiest manner possible to apologize to Miho-chan.¡±

 

¡°Ho ho ho¡¦ It won¡¯t be easy to win over Miho-chan like that,¡± remarked Tomoyo. Meilin was back in Japan though. Perhaps she would have some news of Syaoran. ¡°Wait, you remember Meilin-chan?¡±

 

¡°Of course,¡± replied Sakura indignantly. ¡°I wish people stop treating me as if I have some horrible memory loss problem.¡±

 

¡°But you don¡¯t remember his cousin?¡± Tomoyo asked softly.

 

Squinting her eyes, Sakura replied, ¡°I vaguely recollect her always talking about her fiancé. I missed Meilin-chan. I wonder if she¡¯s just visiting for summer vacation. And Kai-kun too—I¡¯m surprised he¡¯s moving so soon about after his surgery.¡±

 

¡°Goodness, how can youths these days put themselves on such display like in that Best Couple Contest or whatever,¡± Amamiya Masaki remarked, shaking his head at the TV. ¡°Sakura-san and Tomoyo-san, you must never expose yourself to those horrendous sort of boys—they¡¯re nothing but wolves, waiting to take advantage of proper young girls like you two. You must wait for respectable young men to come court you properly. ¡±

 

Tomoyo smiled. Too late, ojii-san.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

 

 

Li Jinyu, Li Clan Protector, walked into the large, dimly lit hall inside a corporate building, headquarters for the Hong Kong triads. When the men in the room caught sight of who had just entered, they quickly scrambled to their feet and formed a line, bowing a deep 90 degree bow as Jinyu walked up to the head of the hall, towards the end conference. He was followed by Kara, who had difficulty matching her pace with his in her high-heels. Two guards in black suits and sunglasses shut the door. Inside the conference room was only the handpicked Li¡¯s who were part of Jinyu¡¯s innermost circle in the triads. These men were the best fighters of Clan, those who had caused trouble or had been incriminated more than once and could not be incorporated into the main councils. Jinyu had organized the troublemaking youths and restructured the triads after taking control.

 

Kara, taking off the black cap which had shielded her face, smirked as she found that everyone in the room, and outside, were terrified of the ¡°Black Dragon¡± Jinyu, head of the Hong Kong triads. Back within the confines of the Clan walls it was easy to forget the power the silent Jinyu wielded in the Hong Kong underworld. ¡°They¡¯ll all think the boss has found himself a new girl,¡± remarked Kara, taking a seat in the large black leather sofa. Jinyu ignored her as he reviewed the monthly reports organized by his subordinates. Whilst Jinyu had reached his position through sheer force, he maintained it with keen foresight and iron control. Since he kept the various triads busy in their own districts, there was less likelihood of inter-triad disputes. Kara could not help thinking that part of Jinyu¡¯s success was that he spoke so little, that when he did speak, his words were taken as law. Most of the men in the room were older than Jinyu, but they were all intimidated by him. They also undoubtedly respected him if the decrease in crime rate in Hong Kong had any reflection upon Jinyu¡¯s rule over the triads.

 

¡°Is it okay for the boss to leave his place for so long?¡± asked Kara. ¡°We don¡¯t know how long this mission will take.¡±

 

Jinyu stamped his final form before looking up with slanted red-amber eyes. ¡°They all know the consequences of disobeying the covenant,¡± he replied in a low voice.

 

Kara shuddered—no wonder nobody dared disobey the Black Dragon—little meant more with Jinyu. ¡°Well, for my part, I¡¯m glad that I don¡¯t have to keep watch alone anymore. It was getting boring.¡± She shuffled a deck of tarot cards that she kept in her bag. ¡°Do you want me to tell your fortune, Jin?¡±

 

¡°He doesn¡¯t believe in that stuff, do you Jin,¡± remarked Leiyun, joining them in the basement conference room.

 

¡°Well, at least you do, Leiyun,¡± stated Kara, spreading out the cards. ¡°Hey, do you really plan on taking the boy with us?¡±

 

¡°Why not?¡± Leiyun raised an eyebrow. ¡°He¡¯ll be useful to us.¡±

 

¡°He¡¯s powerless. What can he do?¡± replied Kara.

 

¡°He¡¯s still spent the better part of six years battling against the Clow Cards and various dark forces. What ever physical and emotional state he is in these days, he¡¯s still a smart boy.¡±

 

¡°Humph.¡± Kara folded her arms across her chest skeptically. ¡°What makes you think he¡¯ll be on task and not return back to his little Card Mistress?¡±

 

Leiyun stared at Kara and smiled mysteriously. ¡°I have faith in him.¡±

 

¡°Why, because he¡¯s your precious cousin?¡± asked Kara.

 

¡°No, because he¡¯s a Li,¡± replied Leiyun.

 

¡°And why is that annoying woman-doctor coming as well?¡± Kara shuffled her Tarot deck and flipped over a card. The Prince of Wands.

 

¡°We need to have her look after my poor little cousin¡¯s crumbling state of health—the sooner he regains the use of his arm, the better for all of us,¡± said Leiyun. ¡°And Jingmei, despite her nagging ways, is the best healer of our generation, probably second only to Uncle Ganliu.¡±

 

Kara rolled her eyes. ¡°Why did you even bringing him back to Hong Kong in the first place if you planned on taking him back?¡±

 

¡°Why do you think, Kara?¡± Leiyun smiled. ¡°Before, he was a runaway truant and betrayer to the Clan.¡±

 

¡°And now, he¡¯s a dog of the Clan and under your control,¡± concluded Kara, smiling. ¡°Yet, you try to convince me you have his best interest at heart.¡±

 

¡°I do, dear Kara,¡± said Leiyun. ¡°Like I have all of our best interests at heart.¡±

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The gold-gilded Great Hall was empty except for the Head¡¯s chair. Leiyun walked up and bowed grandly. ¡°You called for me, most esteemed Father.¡±

 

¡°Leiyun, I wish you do not have to leave so soon,¡± stated Wutai stiffly.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, Father.¡± Leiyun smiled thinly. ¡°I¡¯ll be back in no time.¡±

 

¡°Is it really necessary to take that boy with you?¡± Wutai asked.

 

Leiyun replied shortly, ¡°Yes it is.¡±

 

¡°I really do not know what you¡¯re thinking anymore,¡± said Wutai. ¡°You know very well that the Great Elder favors Syaoran as his next successor. If by chance the boy¡¯s powers suddenly returns, or—¡°

 

¡°Dear Father, do you have so little faith in me?¡± asked Leiyun. He lowered his voice. ¡°Or perhaps, you do not trust me?¡±

¡°I just wish you would understand that everything I¡¯ve done till now, I¡¯ve done for you. I have fought to make you the Chosen One, I am fighting now to make sure you take back what is rightfully yours,¡± said Wutai.

 

The corner of Leiyun¡¯s eyes crinkled. ¡°I am sure you always had my best interest at heart. Now, leave the rest to me. I¡¯m no longer a foolish sixteen-year-old boy. I know what I am doing.¡±

 

¡°Very well. The Elders have agreed to loan to you the Five Force Sword for this mission,¡± said Wutai, taking out of its leather case the long jien with the red tassel.

 

Leiyun gripped the sword by the hilt and unsheathed it. The blade glimmered in the light.

 

¡°It will soon become yours, when you become Chosen One,¡± said Wutai, black eyes gleaming.

 

¡°Or Syaoran¡¯s, when he¡¯s reinstated,¡± replied Leiyun blandly, slipping the sword back into the sheath.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Li Syaoran walked towards the white villa, where the Great Elder was residing. That was his one regret, that he would not be able to visit his Uncle Renshu once he returned to Japan. But he was finally returning. Leiyun once told him, ¡°Syaoran, don¡¯t you ever give up and waste your opportunity. You¡¯ve got to keep on going and overcome your struggles. Or else, if you become passive and give in to your troubles, and give in to your enemies, you¡¯ll just become a puppet of the Fates... Be strong, and listen to your true self. Your true self¡¯s not the person you see in the mirror. Your true self will only come out when you learn to open your mind and heart.¡±

 

As Syaoran waited in the hallway for the Great Elder to call for him, he stared at the large, ornate mirror on the wall. He was greeted by his own reflection, which startled him. It might have been several months since he saw his own reflection, a paler, wilder, older version of his former self. He smoothed a hand over his hair, knowing that the Great Elder valued a tidy appearance. 

 

Once called, Syaoran knelt by the Great Elder¡¯s beside, expressionless but with a burning fervor behind his eyes as he stated, ¡°Great Elder, I will be returning to Japan with Cousin Leiyun.¡± He knew that everyone in the Clan knew by now that a not-so-secret Li delegation was being sent to Japan.

 

¡°I see.¡± Li Renshu turned his head to his favorite nephew¡¯s son. ¡°And your objective?¡±

 

¡°If I complete the mission successfully, I will be reinstated as the Chosen One. Then, I will accept your nomination for the seat of the Great Elder,¡± said Syaoran.

 

¡°That¡¯s what I like to see—determination in your eyes, not the listless eyes of the dead fish you¡¯ve been for the past months. You come from a line of very fine, top-class warrior. You have the determination of Li Shulin, the nobility of Li Shenji, the courage of Ryuuren, the perseverance of Ielan, and my own sense of stubbornness. Do not disappoint me, Li Syaoran. I have higher expectations from you than I¡¯ve had from the former Chosen One.¡±

 

¡°I will try my best, Great Elder,¡± said Syaoran bowing down low.

 

¡°I give you my blessing then, my child,¡± said Li Renshu with a warm smile. Hopefully he would live long enough to see the boy, Ryuuren¡¯s boy, become the greatest Li of all time.

 

 

*            *            *

 

 

 

 

Sometimes I dream that you would turn around and hold me in your arms, telling me, ¡°Everything¡¯s going to be all right, Sakura.¡± But that is never going to happen, is it? You¡¯re not coming back to me.

 

Like a seed buried deep within the snow despite the storm raging outside, my love for you will stay here, untouched and forgotten. Someday, will this seed be allowed to bloom?

 

 

 

***************************************************************************************************

 

 

Wish-chan: (June, 2008) So, I guess next chapter is where Arc 4 actually starts to pick. Up till now was just the transition period, and I¡¯m glad to get over with that chore. If you can¡¯t tell, I¡¯m obsessed with tea. I love all different sorts of tea. Black, green tea, barley tea¡¦ Mmm¡¦ I didn¡¯t even like tea that much before college. : ) I have half of the next chapter done, so I¡¯ll add more comments to there. Can¡¯t say much at this point. So, the clichéd amnesia plot-devise has finally come into play. : ) Well, you all knew it was coming with all the foreshadowing and me stating outright before it was coming. Memory plays such an important them in CLAMP¡¯s works, and I¡¯ve waited so long for this arc to finally begin. This chapter is such a mish-mesh¡¦ Bleh¡¦ Miho¡¯s Birthday should have been a separate special but it was too relevant to the plot aka¡¦

 

Check out the New Trials OST list that I made when I was bored. If New Trials was an anime and it had a soundtrack, what would it have on it? Oh, and thank you for the best CCS Fanfic of the Month nomination at ff.net. http://www.fanfiction.net/forum/CCS_Fanfics_of_The_Month/47049/THANK%20YOU I am very flattered. : )

 

It is only all of your consistent support that has brought me thus far and never forget I am always foremost grateful to all my readers and those who have emailed me or commented on fanfiction.net or in the Yahoo Groups. Please email me at hopeluvpeace@hotmail.com with any comments. I am currently catching up on replies. : ) If you haven¡¯t already, check out the Yahoo New Trials Ring at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/newtrialsring/ for the best discussion of New Trials, CCS and other CLAMP related stuff with the most fabulous group of people. ^o^

 

And of course, visit my website at http://www.wishluv.com/ and check out the latest arc 4 fanart at http://wishluv.deviantart.com/

 

Thank you for reading and please continue supporting New Trials through the final run!