New Trials Christmas Special 2003

 

 

******

 

There is nothing as serene yet wistful and lonely as watching white snowflakes quietly fall from the gray, overcast sky and blanket the world in a sheet of icy beauty, a perpetual whiteness.

Someone once told me that though those millions of tiny white snowflakes all seem to be the same, each one of them is different, no two exactly the same as another. No wonder the Inuit have dozens of different words for snow. Even though they all look the same, each individual flake is made up of its own unique crystal formation, just like each person is different, though we are all same in the superficial level. After all, it¡¯s only a fraction of us that makes us different from the person standing next to us.

It was over a year ago that I watched the person who told me this melt into the blur of a snowstorm leaving me to stand, feet planted on the ground, heart torn and body like lead, bitter cold snow melting on contact with my skin. That scene has haunted my dreams for months afterwards, him walking away from me, and me, chasing after him like always. 

Snow is so pretty, yet intangible. When I was little, I used to be fascinated by the little snow fairies falling from the sky, wanting to catch one in my hand and treasure it. But as soon as I caught one, it melted into a water droplet.   

In my dream, every time I reach out for him, he melts away in my hand, like a snowflake. Recently with the familiar cold of winter, this recurrent dream has returned to my sleep, only this time in the overclouded, stormy sky, I see a pair of ice blue eyes watching me, paralyzing me. And I can¡¯t chase after him, only watch him drift away into the snow.

 

If humans were snowflakes, identical on the surface, what makes each of us so different? Is it chance or fate or biological rendering of genes? What makes him different from everyone else for me? I think if he were a snowflake amidst millions of other snowflakes, I would still be able to spot him.

 

Then again, maybe he isn¡¯t so different from everyone else, and it¡¯s neither chance nor fate nor biology. Maybe it¡¯s just my heart.

 

******   

 

¡°Christmas is coming soon!¡± Sakura exclaimed, clapping her hands together. The students of class 3-2 were more energetic and there was a lighter atmosphere around them that day.

 

¡°Really, Tomoeda deserves some brightening of spirits,¡± Chiharu stated. ¡°After all the chaos with the earthquakes and the case of flu epidemic going around these days, I¡¯m more excited than usual for Christmas.¡±

 

¡°Even the patients in the Kinhoshi Hospital seem to be in a better mood these days,¡± Naoko commented. ¡°I¡¯ve noticed as we worked there over the past week. Up till last week, with the increasing number of people falling sick because of the exceptionally cold weather and the flu virus going around, people were tense and touchy, but this week, they smile a lot more and even say thank you when I bring them dinner.¡±

 

¡°I know, the doctors and the nurses too,¡± Chiharu said.

 

¡°I feel sorry for all those children who have to stay in the hospital during the holidays, though,¡± Sakura said with morose. ¡°Hey, do you think the journalism class could do something special for them? For example, we could dress up like elves and give them little gifts, or do a little skit for them.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s like a good idea.¡± Naoko called out, ¡°Hey, Aki-kun, how does that sound?¡±

 

¡°Yeah, it sounds like a good idea,¡± Aki replied. ¡°We can discuss it during the journalism meeting later on.

 

Rolling her eyes, Erika stated, ¡°Personally, I¡¯m looking forward to the Winter Wonderland this year on Christmas Eve.¡±

 

¡°Winter Wonderland?¡± Sakura wrinkled her nose; last year¡¯s did not leave a pleasant memory.

 

¡°Didn¡¯t you hear? This year is going to be really special; Aki-kun is hosting it at his house—it¡¯s going to be gorgeous,¡± Tomoyo said. She glanced over at Eriol¡¯s seat then blushed. Could it be possible?  

 

¡°The murderous partner-search begins again,¡± Syaoran muttered, sighing. He turned to his right side, where Kai sat who sat slouched in his chair, bored out of his mind. ¡°Don¡¯t shake your head like that Kai, thinking, ¡®these little, tiresome junior high students.¡¯¡±

 

Twirling a pen around his finger, Kai said, ¡°Well, should I get into the holiday spirit and think, ¡®Aww, what an adorable bunch of kids. Maybe I should join in with the merry-making!¡¯¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re just cranky because Meilin already returned to Hong Kong so you can¡¯t ask her to the party,¡± Syaoran said straight-faced. ¡°Not that she would have agreed to go with you.¡±

 

¡°Humph. How about you?¡± Kai nodded his head towards Sakura, sitting in front of Syaoran¡¯s seat, busily chattering with her friends. ¡°Competition for her will be fierce this time ¡®round.¡± He eyed Eron, cocky as usual, his indecipherable eyes on Sakura, and Aki, who was nonchalantly scanning over all the pretty girls in the class from the back of the classroom. ¡°How about pretty, foxy Erika?¡±

 

¡°Certainly not; one time was enough,¡± Syaoran replied.

 

Raising his eyebrow, Kai whistled. ¡°You actually went with her before?¡±

 

¡°Last year. Don¡¯t remind me.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t tell me you asked her?¡± Kai asked. ¡°Syao-kun, you never fail to surprise me.¡±

 

¡°Shuddup,¡± Syaoran muttered, sinking into his chair. ¡°I didn¡¯t have a choice. It was my fault but¡¦¡± He sighed again. It was all his fault hurting Sakura like that, saying those words, leaving her standing there in the snow, bewildered, hating him. But she did not understand his situation then. But he was different now. He could live for himself.

 

¡°Who did your little angel go with? The fox¡¯s twin?¡±

 

¡°No, Eron went with Tomoyo. And she went alone,¡± Syaoran replied, sinking further into his chair. Perfect opportunity missed and missed again.

 

¡°He he, you little ones never fail to amuse me,¡± Kai said, chuckling to himself. This year might prove amusing as well.

 

¡°Ahem. Excuse me, Mizuki Kai, the old and the wise. Who would think you¡¯re only a year older than us?¡± Syaoran commented dryly. ¡°Though in mentality, even I¡¯m older than you.¡±

 

¡°Oh yes, revered Syaoran of the awe-inspiring Li Clan,¡± Kai retorted. ¡°I forgot for a second that you are so high and mighty, the cream of the crop and above us lowly folk because you are the Chosen One—oops, Chosen One no longer, but still more venerable because you are now a freelancer, completely solo and independent.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re asking for getting sorely beaten yet again,¡± Syaoran said warningly, cracking his knuckles.

 

¡°Ah, okay, Syao-kun, truce!¡± Kai grinned, raising his arms. ¡°I can easily beat you in a game of words, but when it comes to fists, you definitely have an advantage.¡±

 

At this, Syaoran relented, glad to feel carefree after a depressing month in general. It was heartening to see Kai in a good mood, evident because he was joking around once more after sulking and brooding for so long, especially after Meilin¡¯s departure several weeks ago. 

 

******

 

¡°Your Christmas Project idea is a really good one, Sakura-san,¡± Aki stated during the journalism club meeting. ¡°We can advertise about in the school newspaper, and this will make a good holiday special edition news item. I¡¯ll have to get permission from the head of the children¡¯s department, but I¡¯m sure they¡¯ll appreciate our efforts, and the children would love it. However there will be quite a lot of preparation need in making this project successful, the first problem being that we only have two weeks to prepare a program, raise money, and shop for presents. And find partners for the Winter Wonderland.¡±

 

Everyone groaned.

 

¡°I don¡¯t think the limited amount of time would pose to be a problem,¡± Sakura said. ¡°If we start right away, we have plenty of time. Oh, I talked with Tomoyo-chan, and she said that she and a couple of girls from choir are interested in caroling in the hospital.¡±

 

¡°That would be great,¡± Aki said. ¡°So, that¡¯s one part of the program. And we need to start fund-raisers right away so that we can raise money for the presents. Hmm¡¦ I think I can get my dad to give me a donation.¡±

 

¡°Lucky to have such a rich father,¡± one of the students grumbled.

 

¡°We can ask for student donations also,¡± Miho said. ¡°People feel more generous around this time of the year.¡±

 

¡°And we can hold bake-sales and sell handmade Christmas cards,¡± Naoko added.

 

A bunch of journalism students groaned again. More work! The journalism club was getting to be known as the hardest working, most time-consuming activity around rivaled only by the Boys¡¯ Soccer Team.

 

******

 

Fundraising was an easier task than expected since the Seijou Junior High Select Choir and the journalism club joined hands. Tomoyo¡¯s mother had agreed to donate boxes of toys.

 

¡°Takashi-kun, that card looks hideous,¡± Chiharu stated, since a bunch of them had stayed after school to make Christmas cards to sell the next day. She added a final sprinkle of glitter on the Christmas tree she had cut out of green construction paper.

 

¡°It¡¯s a piece of art,¡± Takashi stated, holding up a malformed card, falling apart, oozing with glue and bits of shiny paper dangling off the edges. ¡°You see, art is not determined simply by what is ascetically pleasing to the majority, but in fact is the child born from the creativity and innovation of a budding, explosive young mind, familiar with the ancient notions of myth and gone-by-days but practicing new-fangled methods condemned as insane and unheard of to many in modern society.¡±

 

¡°I never appreciated modern art much,¡± Chiharu muttered.

 

¡°Mizuki-sempai, I think it¡¯s cheap that you are printing cards using computer graphics. What happened to good old scissors and paper?¡± Miho stated, wincing as she snipped a little too much off her Santa Claus who looked more like an overblown red balloon.

 

Examining one of the cards that Kai had color printed and admiring the professional-looking graphics, Naoko commented, ¡°But then again, these cards look like the only ones fit to sell.¡±

 

¡°Look, the ones that Tomoyo-chan is making are nice,¡± Sakura said, looking down at the mess she had created. If she squinted hard enough, the brown glop with a red hat might pass for a Santa Teddy Bear.

 

¡°Wow, they are nice!¡± Miho exclaimed, holding up a sparkling card from the stack that Tomoyo had made, with a Christmas tree in the center, each ornament on it carefully cut out and decorated. She picked up one of Eriol¡¯s. ¡°Eriol¡¯s is pretty good too.¡±

 

¡°It is good!¡± Sakura exclaimed, peering over his shoulder. ¡°But Eriol-kun has always been good at art.

 

Scowling, Syaoran bent over his card and started snipping away ferociously.

 

Giggling, Miho commented, ¡°What have you been working on for the past several hours, refusing to show anyone?¡±

 

Everyone stopped their scissor-work and looked over to Syaoran, who had been working mainly with paper and watercolor.

 

¡°Come on, show us,¡± Sakura said, trying to pry the cards out of Syaoran¡¯s grasp.

 

¡°Ha ha! What is that?¡± Miho laughed.

 

Shaking his head, Aki said, ¡°We¡¯re making Christmas cards. What part of ¡®Christmas¡¯ don¡¯t you understand, Li-kun?¡±

 

¡°The word ¡®holiday¡¯ is not registered in his dictionary,¡± Sakura commented, giggling.

 

¡°Yeah, it¡¯s not really befitting,¡± Chiharu commented.

 

¡°But it¡¯s still really nice,¡± Sakura reassured, peering at the cards with beautiful watercolor paintings of trees—pink and white sakura trees of spring, red and orange of the autumn foliage, verdant green of high summer, and silvery white of winter.

 

Syaoran looked up gratefully at Sakura, whose eyes were a more radiant, deeper green than any of the paint colors. His lips began to work before his mind did. ¡°Sakura, do you want to¡¦¡±

 

¡°Do I want to?¡± Sakura repeated.

 

¡°Do you want to¡¦ want to help me put these cards on the drying rack?¡± Syaoran continued helplessly. Too many people, wrong moment.

 

¡°Sure,¡± Sakura said, unsuspectingly taking the cards carefully and laying them out on the drying rack. Some of them were ruined because Syaoran had been too hasty in trying to conceal.

 

¡°Syaoran¡¯s cards are very pretty,¡± Tomoyo refuted, catching Syaoran¡¯s eyes and smiling sympathetically. She mouthed to him, ¡®Next time.¡¯ He nodded. 

 

¡°Just make more of the winter-themed cards,¡± Aki relented, staring at his own poor attempt to draw a snowman. ¡°I guess it¡¯s not that bad.¡±

 

¡°Yeah, better than yours,¡± Miho said. ¡°No one would take them even if they were given out for free, let out buy them.¡±  

 

¡°Humph. Someone won¡¯t be able to find a partner for the Winter Wonderland,¡± Aki muttered. Then he sighed dramatically. ¡°Ah, so many beautiful girls, and they¡¯ll be so heartbroken if I don¡¯t ask them. Who should I ask?¡±

 

 

They all had a better time making cookies and cakes for the bake sale since Syaoran, Eriol and Tomoyo were all experts in cooking and Sakura too had improved dramatically. Aki was wise enough to get his cook to bake things instead of trying his hand in the kitchen.

 

¡°Tomoyo-san¡¯s cookies look delicious,¡± Eriol commented, peeking at the cookies in the basket.

 

¡°Ah, thank you, Eriol-kun. Yours look good too,¡± Tomoyo said.

 

¡°Oh, stop it, you two. Are you trying to make the rest of us, untalented people feel bad?¡± Kai grumbled, staring at his own scorched batch. He picked up an ash black, dried up lemon scone and popped it into his mouth. ¡°Hmm¡¦ Not bad.¡±

 

¡°How can you eat those?¡± Syaoran asked, aghast. Then again, Kai could each anything.

 

¡°Good thing Tomoyo-chan made an extra batch,¡± Aki sighed, shaking his head.

 

¡°Shut up; at least I tried rather than asking my cook to do it for me,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°Miho-chan, I didn¡¯t know you were so good at making cookies,¡± Sakura commented.

 

¡°Ha ha¡¦ actually, I got Eriol to bake me another batch while he was at it,¡± Miho admitted sheepishly.

 

¡°Your batch looks really good too,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°That¡¯s because you helped me out with this new recipe,¡± Sakura replied, smiling. ¡°Thank you.¡±

 

¡°Right¡¦¡± Syaoran sighed.

 

 

The previous day¡¦

 

Holding up Wolfie-chan in the air, Syaoran flopped down on his back onto his bed, and told the patient listener, ¡°Life is so hard these days. Christmas and dances always makes things so complicated.¡± Wolfie-chan tilted his head and whimpered sympathetically.

 

Syaoran continued, ¡°At this rate, she might be taken even before I get the chance to ask. It¡¯s impossible to find a moment alone with her, with all this stupid club activities, and I simply cannot ask her in front of everyone—I tried to, and I couldn¡¯t. What should I do, Wolfie-chan?¡± The puppy stared back with earnest amber eyes. ¡°I should call her? Okay, I¡¯ll do that.¡±

 

With trembling fingers, he dialed her house, praying that her brother was not home.

 

¡°Hello, Kinomoto residence,¡± Sakura said on the phone. From the back, there was an exploding sound. ¡°HOEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! FIRE! HELP!!!¡± Then, there was the beeping of the tone.

 

¡°Sakura? Sakura?¡± Syaoran said frantically. ¡°Are you okay?¡± Without wasting another minute, he grabbed a jacket and ran over to Sakura¡¯s

 

When he got there, he found Sakura in disarray, flour on her cheek, apron sliding off one shoulder, half in tears.

 

¡°Syaoran! What are you doing here. ACHOO!¡± Sakura sneezed. ¡°The house is a mess right now.¡±

 

¡°I heard something exploding, and you shouted help¡¦¡± Syaoran trailed off as he saw the state of the kitchen. ¡°I thought you were good at cooking.¡±

 

¡°Was that you on the phone earlier? Sorry, I hung up by mistake. I thought I improved in cooking, but I think I overheated the oven because I was in a hurry,¡± Sakura said. ¡°Or maybe I forgot to put in an ingredient, or¡¦ I¡¯m never going to bake the cookies in time—it¡¯s my turn to make dinner tonight, also. And the kitchen¡¯s a mess; ¡®nii-chan¡¯s going to kill me.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s okay, we¡¯ll get everything done,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Let¡¯s clean up the kitchen first, and I¡¯ll help you make the cookies.¡±

 

In half an hour, the cookies were safely cooking the oven, and Syaoran was slicing vegetables to put into the curry.

 

¡°Thank you so much, Syaoran,¡± Sakura said. ¡°You¡¯re like my guardian angel, appearing at the spur of the moment. I don¡¯t know what I would have done without you today. I¡¯d like to invite you to stay for dinner but¡¦¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s okay, your brother won¡¯t like it,¡± Syaoran said, smiling. Ah, perfect opportunity. Even the meddlesome stuffed animal is upstairs, playing video games. ¡°Sakura, for the Winter Won—¡±

 

¡°Kaijou!!! I¡¯m home! Mmmm¡¦ I smell curry; I¡¯m starving, having spent the entire day at the hospital.¡±

 

¡°Oh no, onii-chan¡¯s home,¡± Sakura exclaimed. ¡°Quick, out the window! Oh, I¡¯m so sorry, Syaoran.¡±

 

¡°No, no problem.¡± Syaoran forced a smile as he landed in the backyard. Then he sighed.

 

¡°Wolfie-chan, plan is unsuccessful,¡± Syaoran said, subdued, to the little wolf-like puppy who had dutifully waited outside the house, giving his master some privacy. The puppy rubbed his head against Syaoran¡¯s ankle in reassurance.

 

~~~~~~

 

Either way, the card sale and the bake sale was a great success. They sold out so quickly that they regretted not making more cookies and cards. Some students were generous enough to make extra donations.

 

Therefore, the journalism club raised a nice sum of money by the end of the week, along with the donations by Aki¡¯s father and Tomoyo¡¯s mother. The collaboration between the choir club and the journalism club definitely had maximized the profit, and no one guessed the real reason why Sakura had suggested for Tomoyo, president of the choir club, to help out the journalism club.

 

¡°Eriol-kun said that my cookies tasted the best, Sakura-chan,¡± Tomoyo squealed after the bake sale.

 

¡°Of course, since you made them,¡± Sakura said, smiling warmly at her best friend.

 

Sakura¡¯s Love-Love Action Plan #1: Give them opportunities to work together to develop their friendship. Successful!

 

******

 

¡°It¡¯s a really nice idea, Kaijou, preparing a Christmas event for the children stuck in the hospital over the holiday,¡± Touya commented to Sakura on one of the journalism club members¡¯ working days at the hospital. ¡°They¡¯re all looking forward to it.¡±

 

Secretly, Sakura rejoiced. Wow, one of the rare times that onii-chan ever complimented me!

 

¡°Touya and  I have shifts on Christmas Eve too, so we¡¯ll stop in and watch if we can,¡± Yukito said, as he tied up files. ¡°It¡¯s very generous of you guys to give up Christmas Eve to do this. Don¡¯t you guys have the Winter Wonderland in the evening also?¡±

 

Sakura nodded.

 

¡°Do you have a date this year?¡± Yukito asked. ¡°I heard you went single last year.¡±

 

¡°Ah¡¦ No. Not yet,¡± Sakura stammered, blushing.

 

¡°Who would want to take that clumsy monster to a dance?¡± Touya said, scowling, looking around to see if the Brat was sauntering around the office again.

 

¡°I thought you would definitely be going with Li-kun,¡± Yukito said blandly. ¡°Aren¡¯t you two going out?¡±

 

¡°W-what? N-no!¡± Sakura stammered even more, turning redder in front of Yukito.

 

Simultaneously, Touya demanded, ¡°WHAT? Why haven¡¯t I heard of this before? Sakura, tell me truthfully, don¡¯t even think of lying to your brother. When did this happen?¡±

 

¡°I told you we¡¯re not!¡± Sakura replied, panicking and looking around to see if anyone was around.

 

¡°Now, now, Touya, it¡¯s perfectly healthy for girls Sakura age to be dating. And Syaoran is a fine boy—he¡¯s honorable too,¡± Yukito said.

 

¡°Yuki—I¡¯m warning you. It won¡¯t be a pretty sight if I lose my temper in the hospital,¡± Touya said.

 

Good-natured Yukito merely laughed. ¡°Sister complex coming into play, To-ya? I might end up having to take poor Sakura to the Winter Wonderland for at this rate, no one would be able to ask her in fear of her older brother.¡±

 

¡°Do me a favor and take her, if she has to go,¡± Touya muttered. ¡°Before some intolerable Brat gets too full of himself.¡±

 

Hehe¡¦ Some five years ago, that would have been the greatest Christmas present imaginable, going to a dance with Yukito-san, Sakura thought. But really, at this rate, I might have to go to the Winter Wonderland single again. Not that I mind, but¡¦ Yes, it really did hurt when Syaoran went with Erika last year. Will he ask her again this year? She ignored the fact that it had been Erika who had asked Syaoran last year, not vice versa.

 

 

 

Exactly how am I supposed to ask Sakura to that stupid ball? Syaoran wondered as he carried a stack of new storybooks to the children¡¯s play room during his shift at the hospital. Do I just tell her, ¡®Uh, sorry I didn¡¯t get to ask you last year, but I was obsessed with pushing you out of my life, but I¡¯ve realized that¡¯s impossible, after all?¡¯ Will she even want to go with me, after what I did to her then?

 

¡°It¡¯s okay, just go for it.¡±

 

¡°Right, that¡¯s what I should do,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°I should just go for it, no hesitation, be strong. Eh?¡± He looked around him, to see who had spoken. There was no one.

 

Someone tugged his pants. Finally, Syaoran looked down, over the large stack of picture books. There was a little boy with large brown eyes, staring up at him.

 

¡°Gah!¡± Syaoran jumped.

 

¡°Kaijou-nee-chan¡¯s boyfriend,¡± the five-year-older stated.

 

¡°Subaru. What are you doing here?¡± Syaoran asked, gulping.

 

¡°Need to wait around for the MRA scan results,¡± Subaru replied scowling. ¡°Some fool of a doctor told me I have to wait around for a week in this stupid hospital. Anyway, what are you so worried about, Kaijou-nee-chan¡¯s boyfriend? Were you dumped?¡±

 

¡°No—that would mean that we were actually going out in the first place,¡± Syaoran sighed. ¡°Nope, our relationship is purely platonic at the moment.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Subaru tilted his head. ¡°Anyway, that means I have a chance too then. Yay!¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t need any more contenders in the way,¡± Syaoran said. A brief image of Sakura and Yukito laughing in the intern office came to mind. ¡°What I have is already more than I can handle.¡±

 

¡°But I still think Kaijou-nee-chan likes you best,¡± Subaru commented.

 

¡°Really?¡± Syaoran brightened. ¡°Do you really think so?¡±

 

¡°Humph. Grown ups are all so stupid,¡± Subaru stated. ¡°You¡¯ll never get her that way.¡±

 

Then, from a distant room, they heard a nurse shriek, ¡°That wretched little boy is not in his bed! Search for him instantly!¡±

 

¡°Oops! Time to run,¡± Subaru said, dodging behind an open door towards the end of the hall.

 

Shaking his head, Syaoran muttered, ¡°Sheesh, what have I come to, asking five-year-olds for advice?¡± Forgetting he had to deliver the books, he headed back towards the office. Sakura was there.

 

He heard the nurse shout hysterically, ¡°The boy is not in the playroom. Where can he be?¡± Then he chuckled. Subaru sure did get around. A confined boy who would take all means to escape, though freedom lasted only five minutes.

 

 

 

Panting, Subaru shut the door behind him and looked up. He stared at a little girl, his age, with golden curls tied into pigtails at each side of her head, propped up on pink heart cushions adorning her hospital bed. Unlike the other children in the hospital, she was wearing a frilly pink nightgown and had a whole hospital suite to herself, complete with her own TV, chest full of toys and a button to call nurses.

 

Frowning, the girl demanded, ¡°Who are you?¡±

 

¡°Doesn¡¯t matter to you, does it?¡± Subaru replied, scowling back.

 

¡°What did you say?¡± Nina replied, bolting up. She was not used to being spoken in that manner. ¡°Dirty, spoiled boy. Get out of my room. Now!¡±

 

At that moment, Subaru heard the nurses¡¯ voices outside. ¡°Check the waiting room. He might be there.¡±

 

¡°Hush, you¡¯ll get me caught, then I¡¯ll get really mad,¡± Subaru said, peeping out the door then shutting it again.

 

¡°Who do you think you are to tell me what to do?¡± Nina asked, hotly. ¡°Do you know who I am? I¡¯m Nina, the daughter of¡¦¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t care who you are,¡± Subaru cut her off. ¡°Just shut your mouth—you¡¯re making too much noise.¡±

 

¡°Why you¡¦ you¡¦¡± the five-year-old girl was at loss of words for a change. Then she hopped off her bed and slipped her feet into tiny furry slippers with lace and stomped up to Subaru, hands on hips. ¡°I¡¯m going to scream.¡±

 

¡°Fine, go ahead and scream.¡± Face was expressionless.

 

This infuriated Nina more. ¡°You¡¯ll get in trouble with the nurses.¡±

 

¡°So will you,¡± Subaru said.

 

At this, Nina replied smugly, ¡°No I won¡¯t. Because I¡¯m special.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re special all right,¡± Subaru said. ¡°A special, spoiled brat.¡±

 

¡°Your shoes have holes in them. You¡¯re the most disgusting boy I¡¯ve ever seen in my life,¡± Nina said, shaking her pretty head distastefully.

 

¡°Thank you,¡± Subaru replied. ¡°I hear that all the time.¡±

 

¡°So, who are you?¡± Nina demanded again. ¡°What does your father do?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m no one,¡± Subaru replied. ¡°I don¡¯t have a father. Nor a mother, as a matter of fact.¡±

 

¡°You don¡¯t have parents?¡± Nina asked, shocked. ¡°How can you not have parents?¡±

 

¡°I dropped down from the sky,¡± Subaru said, smiling wickedly.

 

¡°Liar! How can you be born from the sky?¡± Nina said.

 

¡°I¡¯m not lying,¡± Subaru replied.

 

¡°Where do you live?¡±

 

¡°At the orphanage,¡± Subaru said, glaring at Nina in a challenging way.

 

At this, Nina tilted her head up. ¡°Ha—you don¡¯t even have a home. You¡¯re a beggar. And you think you¡¯re better than me? You don¡¯t have parents!¡±

 

¡°Oh, are you so much better than me, Miss Priss?¡± Subaru demanded. ¡°If you have such great parents, where are they? Why are you even here? You don¡¯t even look sick to me.¡±

 

¡°I-I am sick,¡± Nina replied, flustered. ¡°I have a weak body and it¡¯s not healthy for me to breathe in cold air. What are you doing here, anyway? You don¡¯t look sick, either.¡±

 

¡°I have brain tumor,¡± Subaru said coolly.

 

¡°W-what¡¯s that?¡± Nina asked.

 

¡°My brain¡¯s rotting,¡± Subaru replied. ¡°And I¡¯m going to die.¡±

 

¡°Liar!¡± Nina said. ¡°You¡¯re lying again. And you can¡¯t die. You¡¯re too young.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not lying,¡± Subaru returned. ¡°God hates me. That¡¯s why I¡¯m going to hell when I die.¡±

 

¡°I said you¡¯re not going to die!¡± Nina said, voice rising higher. ¡°Stop saying stuff like that in front of me! You homeless, parentless, dirty thing!¡±

 

¡°I¡¯d rather be me, homeless, parentless, sickness, all, than be a stupid frill-covered doll stuck in this stupid room forever—how is this any better than having no parents?¡± Subaru said, losing his famous temper, once and for all. ¡°You¡¯re the ugliest, fattest, most spoiled, stupidest girl I¡¯ve ever seen in my life!¡±

 

By this time, Nina had already blocked her ears as Subaru continued to rant and began to scream with all her might; it was astounding how powerful a shriek came from such a small lung capacity.

 

¡°YOU IDIOT! WHAT ARE YOU SCREAMING FOR?¡± Subaru shouted back. ¡°GGRRAHHHHHHH!!!¡±

 

¡°AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!¡± Nina returned.

 

 

 

¡°What¡¯s going on?¡± Sakura asked Miho, who shrugged in return. They rushed towards the sound of the noise. Ever since Kai had finally taken reign over the children¡¯s room after weeks of neglect, there had been peace and tranquility in the children¡¯s section of the hospital.

 

All the nurses came rushing towards Nina¡¯s room, to find the two children screaming and thrashing and clawing each other.

 

Blinking, Miho whispered, ¡°Wow¡¦ Nina has finally met her match.¡±

 

¡°Sure seems like it,¡± Sakura replied, gulping. Could two children be any fiercer?

 

¡°Subaru!¡± the head nurse shouted over the shrieking, hands on hips. ¡°Silence at once.¡±

 

¡°NO!¡± Subaru replied, sticking his tongue out at her.

 

¡°Miserable boy! Wait till I get to talk to the head of your orphanage,¡± the nurse replied.

 

¡°Subaru, please behave,¡± Sakura pleaded.

 

¡°Make her stop, and I¡¯ll stop,¡± Subaru replied, grabbing Nina¡¯s pigtail.

 

¡°OOOOWWWWWWWWWW!!! STOP IT! LET GO! I SAID, LET GO!¡± Nina shrieked, kicking at Subaru.

 

¡°Let go!¡± Miho said, trying to intervene. Nina was ten times worse with Subaru than with any other kid in the hospital.

 

¡°Get out of the way, witch!¡± the two shouted simultaneously, shoving Miho out of the way.

 

Rubbing her side from the impact of being pushed on her bottom, Miho muttered, ¡°What an unmatchable nightmare pair. Who can stop this?¡± An idea occurred to her. Quickly, she ran down the hall to the children¡¯s playroom.

 

 

 

Soon, a crowd had gathered around outside of Nina¡¯s suite room and the nurses held up their arms in despair as the little boy and girl proceeded to tear at each other¡¯s clothes, without ceasing to shout. They showed no sign of wearing out, and in fact, they seemed to be louder and more vigorous than before.

 

¡°You two, stop it this instant,¡± Kai said in a firmly commanding voice that surprised all of them as he pushed through the crowd, followed by Miho, who gave a thumbs up signal to Sakura, who sighed in relief. It surprised the nurses more when Nina and Subaru actually stopped and stared at tall, grave-faced Kai, round-eyed.

 

¡°Kai-nii-chan!¡± Nina wailed, bursting into tears. She pointed at Subaru. ¡°He started it.¡±

 

¡°Did not!¡±

 

¡°Did too.¡± Nina stuck out her tongue at him. ¡°I¡¯m not talking to people like you! You¡¯re poor and homeless. Father said people like you don¡¯t deserve to ¡®ssociate with me.¡±

 

¡°Why, you¡¦¡± Subaru began, ready to pull Nina¡¯s hair again, but Sakura pulled him back.

 

¡°Nina, apologize to the boy this instant,¡± Kai said coldly.

 

¡°But¡¦¡± Nina trailed off, looking up at Kai, half in indignation and half with intimidation. She had expected Kai to back her up like he always did—he had never been so stern with her before.

 

¡°Now, Nina, or else I¡¯m never going to tell you stories or bring you candies again,¡± Kai continued firmly, without any shred of sympathy.

 

¡°K-Kai-nii-chan is so m-mean.¡± Sniffling, Nina muttered quickly, without looking at Subaru, ¡°Sorry.¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t hear you,¡± Kai said. ¡°What did you say? Repeat it so that we can all hear.¡±

 

Looking up, lips trembling, Nina replied louder, ¡°I-I¡¯m sorry.¡±

 

¡°Better.¡± Then Kai turned to Subaru. ¡°Now what do you say?¡±

 

¡°What, why do I have to say sorry¡¦¡± Subaru began to protest, but when he caught a glimpse of Kai¡¯s scary expression, he hastened to reply, ¡°I¡¯m sorry too.¡±

 

¡°Good,¡± Kai said, giving him a light pat in the back. ¡°Now go back with the nurses and behave.¡±

 

Obediently, Subaru followed the nurse who ushered him away, back to the general children¡¯s hospital rooms.

 

¡°Who would have thought that Mizuki Kai would be able to take control of a situation in which every one else is helpless in?¡± Touya murmured.

 

¡°That boy is a surprising character in all aspects,¡± Yukito said.

 

¡°As are all Mizuki¡¯s,¡± Touya replied, as the two returned to the office, convinced that the showdown was over.

 

¡°So strict,¡± Miho muttered, staring hard at Kai.

 

¡°Scary,¡± Sakura agreed.

 

Nina cowered under her bedcovers. ¡°Kai-nii-chan?¡±

 

¡°Yes Nina?¡± Kai walked to the little girl¡¯s bed and brushed her blonde bangs out of her puffy red eyes.

 

Then, Nina flung her chubby arms around Kai¡¯s neck and began sobbing again. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Kai-nii-chan, I¡¯m sorry. Nina was a bad girl. Nina won¡¯t say those kind of things again, so don¡¯t be mad at me. Please don¡¯t hate Nina.¡±

 

Patting Nina¡¯s head, Kai smiled warmly. ¡°That¡¯s my little princess.¡±

 

Miho closed the suite¡¯s door and started walking away.

 

¡°Everything¡¯s okay?¡± Sakura asked, catching up to her and watched her queerly.

 

¡°I guess,¡± Miho replied, clenching her fist tighter. 

 

******

 

¡°Sakura-chan will wear the dress I made to the Winter Wonderland, won¡¯t you?¡± Tomoyo asked, holding up the dress she was adorning to the light. The old bunch of friends—Chiharu, Rika, Naoko, Sakura, with an addition of Miho—were having a traditional girls¡¯ sleepover at Tomoyo¡¯s.

 

¡°Of course,¡± Sakura replied, twiddling with Kero-chan¡¯s tail, who was pretending to be a stuffed animal in front of her classmates; he had insisted on coming over to Tomoyo¡¯s because he knew that sleepovers always meant good food.

 

¡°Oooh, speaking of dresses, I¡¯m going to kill Takashi-kun if he doesn¡¯t ask me to the Winter Wonderland soon,¡± Chiharu said, strangling a cushion from Tomoyo¡¯s couch. ¡°I got the prettiest dress for the ball, but he still hasn¡¯t asked me.¡±

 

¡°Haha¡¦ How like Takashi-kun,¡± Naoko laughed.

 

¡°He waited till the last moment, last year, didn¡¯t he?¡± Rika asked, brushing Miho¡¯s short auburn hair. ¡°At the ice-skating rink.¡±

 

¡°True,¡± Chiharu said, scowling. ¡°He just likes to see me in anguish. I practically had to force him to ask me last year and in return had to listen to two hours of his stupid stories.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t stress over it,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°The rest of us don¡¯t have dates either.¡±

 

¡°Seriously?¡± Chiharu exclaimed. ¡°Aren¡¯t you going with Eron-kun again this year? You guys were the best-looking couple last year.¡±

 

Tomoyo shook her head.

 

¡°Then do you have someone else you want to go with?¡± Rika asked.

 

Blushing, Tomoyo stammered, ¡°Ahh¡¦ I¡¦¡±

 

¡°Really? You do?¡± Chiharu asked, bolting up, round-eyed. ¡°The chaste and heartless Tomoyo finally found a guy to like?¡±

 

¡°Is that what you guys always thought of me?¡± Tomoyo asked. ¡°I just never found the right person.¡±

 

¡°But you did now?¡± Naoko demanded. ¡°Who can it be? Do we know him? Sakura, do you know?¡±

 

¡°Hoe-e¡¦¡± Sakura sweat-dropped, exchanging looks with Tomoyo.

 

¡°You don¡¯t look very surprised, Rika-sempai,¡± Miho commented, turning around.

 

Rika smiled. ¡°I always thought it was kind of obvious. There has only been one guy that matches up to Tomoyo¡¯s standards, hasn¡¯t there? In terms of maturity, talent, personal disposition. And I¡¯m really glad he came back to Tomoeda.¡±

 

¡°You can¡¯t mean Eriol-kun!¡± Naoko exclaimed.

 

¡°Yes, that makes sense,¡± Chiharu reflected. ¡°They match each other perfectly. I can¡¯t believe I missed it before.¡±

 

¡°Did he ask you yet?¡± Miho asked slyly.

 

¡°Ah, of course not!¡± Tomoyo said, blushing furiously.

 

¡°I always thought that Eriol-kun liked Sakura-chan,¡± Naoko commented.

 

¡°Shush, what are you saying?¡± Chiharu nudged her friend hard. ¡°Sakura-chan has Li-kun.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re going with Li-kun this year, aren¡¯t you Sakura-chan? Personally, I was very surprised when he went with Erika-chan last year,¡± Naoko said.

 

¡°Hoe-e¡¦¡± Sakura looked down at her lap.

 

¡°What, he hasn¡¯t asked you yet?¡± Chiharu asked, appalled. ¡°What¡¯s with Seijou guys being so inactive. At this rate, we¡¯ll all end up dateless! What about you Rika-chan?¡±

 

¡°Oh, I¡¯m not going to the Winter Wonderland,¡± Rika replied.

 

¡°Why not?¡± Sakura exclaimed.

 

¡°I have another engagement that day,¡± Rika said.

 

¡°Ah, you have a date with Terada-sensei!¡± Sakura said, smiling.

 

¡°H-how did you know?¡± Rika asked, blushing.

 

¡°Come on, Rika-chan, we¡¯re not grade-schoolers anymore,¡± Chiharu said, patting her friend¡¯s back. ¡°You can tell us those kind of things and expect us to keep silent. I mean, we all like and respect Terada-sensei too. More importantly, you¡¯re our close friend, and we want your relationship to work out.¡±

 

Rika smiled blithely. ¡°Thank you, guys.¡±

 

¡°Well then, Naoko, you probably don¡¯t have a date either,¡± Chiharu said.

 

¡°Actually, I do have a date,¡± Naoko replied.

 

¡°WHAT?¡± All the girls turned to face Naoko, taken back in surprise. ¡°Who?¡±

 

¡°You know. Matsumi-kun from journalism club,¡± Naoko replied casually, as if it was not a big deal.

 

¡°And you kept this a secret?¡± Chiharu exclaimed.

 

¡°Well, you guys were all in anguish so I didn¡¯t want to pour oil over fire,¡± Naoko said, smiling. ¡°Besides, I asked him.¡±

 

¡°WHAT?¡± The girls exclaimed again.

 

¡°Ah, at this rate, us girls will have to take action ourselves,¡± Chiharu lamented. ¡°Rika-chan, you¡¯re lucky you have a mature, grown-up man.¡±

 

Shaking her head and smiling ruefully, Rika said, ¡°I asked sensei out on Christmas Eve—I had to convince him that everyone else would be at the ball, so we wouldn¡¯t be caught.¡±

 

¡°Well, if Yamazaki Takashi doesn¡¯t ask me to that wretched party within 24 hours, I¡¯m going to go ahead and ask¡¦hmm¡¦ Mizuki-kun,¡± Chiharu said with flames in her eyes.

 

¡°That¡¯s not a good idea,¡± Naoko said, sweat-dropping.

 

¡°I know,¡± Chiharu replied, head-drooped.

 

¡°No, not in that way. I mean, I asked him first, before I asked Matsumi-kun, and he rejected me—nicely, but all the same, I think he¡¯s not planning on going,¡± Naoko said.

 

Patting Sakura and Tomoyo¡¯s back, Chiharu sobbed, ¡°Poor us three beautiful girls, faithful to one man, yet scorned and abused.¡±

 

¡°Hehe¡¦ That¡¯s an exaggeration, Chiharu-chan,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°You¡¯re right. You¡¯re an exception. If Syaoran doesn¡¯t ask you, go with Eron-kun. He¡¯s good-looking and vice-captain of the soccer team,¡± Chiharu said.

 

¡°But Li-kun is captain of the soccer team, top 10% in terms of grades, Romeo, and even better-looking,¡± Naoko said.

 

¡°Eron-kun is more handsome,¡± Chiharu argued, though personally she liked Syaoran better. Maybe she felt bitter because Syaoran and Takashi were friends. 

 

¡°Eron has a prettier face,¡± Naoko conceded. ¡°But I think Sakura likes Syaoran better.¡±

 

¡°No she doesn¡¯t!¡± Chiharu said. ¡°She should like the guy who¡¯s more faithful to her better.¡±

 

¡°Well, that will be Eriol-kun then,¡± Naoko said.

 

¡°No, he¡¯s Tomoyo-chan¡¯s!¡±

 

Tomoyo and Sakura exchanged looks and smiled. They had such interesting, passionate friends.

 

Shaking her head, Miho said, ¡°I can¡¯t believe they¡¯re all older than me.¡±

 

Kero-chan, unnoticed, agreed.

 

******

 

¡°Whew, that math test today was really hard, wasn¡¯t it?¡± Sakura said after class. ¡°Hoe-e—I really needed to do well.¡±

 

¡°Forget math tests,¡± Chiharu said, fuming. ¡°Takashi-kun still hasn¡¯t asked me. And the dance is in four days. Four!¡±

 

¡°Chiharu!¡± Takashi called.

 

¡°What?¡± Chiharu snapped. ¡°Can¡¯t you see I¡¯m busy right now?¡±

 

¡°Let¡¯s go to the Winter Wonderland together,¡± Takashi said.

 

¡°No! Why should I go with you?¡± Chiharu said, crossing her arms. Everyone shook their heads. Sheer stubbornness.

 

¡°Chi-ha-ru!¡± Takashi goaded. ¡°Will you go with me if I get down on my knees again?¡±

 

¡°Maybe,¡± Chiharu replied, turning her head away, pretending to be disinterested.

 

Overdramatically, Takashi kneeled down and said, ¡°My darling Chiharu, may I have the honor to ask you to the Winter Wonderland once again this year?¡±

 

¡°Oh fine,¡± Chiharu relented, dragging Takashi back to his feet. A little audience had gathered to watch them. ¡°You¡¯re embarrassing me.¡±

 

¡°All¡¯s well that ends well,¡± Kai said, smiling. ¡°I didn¡¯t know teenagers could be so cute when it comes to silly Christmastime. How did Syao-kun ask you, Sakura-chan?¡± He imitated Syaoran¡¯s pose, hands in pockets, head stooped, and stammered, ¡°Umm¡¦ uh¡¦ S-s-s-sakura¡¦ c-c-can you¡¦ umm¡¦ can you¡¦ OUCH!¡± Kai rubbed his head and turned around.

 

¡°I heard that,¡± Syaoran said, cooling off his knuckles.

 

¡°Oops,¡± Kai said. ¡°Au revoir! I¡¯m off before Syao-kun blows up.¡± He turned to the girls and winked. ¡°My ladies, if your men ever need to take etiquette lessons, send them straight to me and Kai Magician-sama will set things straight.¡±

 

¡°Good to see Kai in such a good mood these days,¡± Sakura said, smiling.

 

¡°Really, that¡¯s a rarity,¡± Syaoran replied.

 

¡°You¡¯re the person to be saying that?¡± Sakura exclaimed.

 

¡°True,¡± Syaoran reflected. Okay, now¡¯s the perfect time; we¡¯re alone. ¡°Sakura¡¦¡±

 

¡°Oy, Sakura-chan!¡± Aki called out. ¡°You know for the Children¡¯s Hospital Christmas Project...¡±

 

¡°Talk to you later,¡± Sakura said, before heading over to Aki.

 

Slapping his forehead, Syaoran sighed. When would he ever find the right moment?

 

¡°At least it¡¯s a definite yes for you,¡± Tomoyo said.

 

Syaoran turned to his long-time supporter. He was taken back for he had never seen Tomoyo so subdued before. ¡°Hey, what are you talking about? There is no guy out there who wouldn¡¯t fall for you if they thought they had a chance.¡±

 

Shaking her head, Tomoyo replied, ¡°No, I know that he would not have taken a second glance at me if I weren¡¯t Sakura-chan¡¯s friend. But it¡¯s okay. I¡¯m still happy, having him so close by.¡±

 

¡°Eriol doesn¡¯t have a date yet, either. If you ask him to the Winter Wonderland, he would definitely not refuse you,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°This is a funny conversation we¡¯re having, isn¡¯t it?¡± Tomoyo asked, smiling. ¡°Syaoran-kun, when did you become such a good listener?¡±

 

¡°Ha ha¡¦ It is ironic, me trying to reassure you when you are the most composed person ever,¡± Syaoran commented. ¡°But either way, though I think you can do better than that creepy freak, if you ever need any support or just a sympathetic ear—I¡¯m here. You¡¯ve done more for me than I can every repay, back when I was a foolish little boy. Which I still am, but¡¦¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re a good person, Syaoran-kun, you really are,¡± Tomoyo said, looking up at Syaoran, tall and more mature looking than she recalled. Yes, even over the past several month he had grown, both physically and mentally. He was no longer the confused and awkward boy that had sought her for consolation back in elementary school. Sakura was really lucky to have him. But she kept this to herself. Here she was experiencing all the things he might have been feeling five years ago. Back then, she could empathize fully, yet even then, she did not understand fully. ¡°Syaoran-kun, you¡¯re going to ask her soon, aren¡¯t you?¡±

 

¡°Ah, yes,¡± Syaoran said sheepishly.

 

¡°Good luck!¡±

 

¡°You too, Tomoyo.¡± Syaoran smiled encouragingly.

 

******

 

Now is the chance, after school, no club meeting—I¡¯ll walk her home and ask her then, Syaoran thought, as he buttoned his coat and grabbed his book-bag. He took a deep breath. Then he looked around. Empty. The classroom was empty! Sakura had already gone home. He slammed his hand on his desk. ¡°NOOOO!!!¡± Quickly, he ran out of the classroom, to the school gates. Where was Sakura? How could she leave so quickly, when his efforts to isolate her was so painstakingly obvious?

 

¡°BOOO!!¡± Someone shoved him from behind.

 

¡°GAH!!!¡± Syaoran swung around. And there was Sakura, her cheeks flushed from the cold, her school hat slightly askew, her strands of her golden brown hair sticking out from her two braids. His heart thumped, and he gulped.

 

¡°Scared you!¡± Sakura laughed gleefully. ¡°Syaoran is a scaredy-cat!¡±

 

¡°Ahem. Sakura¡¦¡± Syaoran began.

 

¡°Oh, I have a big favor to ask you,¡± Sakura said. ¡°Sakura¡¯s Love-Love Action Plan #2: Create a perfect, isolated moment together.¡±

 

Raising up his hands in gratitude, Syaoran said, ¡°Yes, yes, exactly my point!¡± 

 

Grabbing his hands, Sakura exclaimed, ¡°I¡¯m so glad that you understand, Syaoran-kun. I was afraid that you might refuse.¡±

 

¡°No, no, of course I can¡¯t refuse,¡± Syaoran replied.

 

¡°Thanks so much. So, can you go Christmas shopping with Eriol-kun? I¡¯ll be going with Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura explained rapidly.

 

¡°Eh?¡±

 

¡°And at the Piffle Princess store, you guys can pretend to bump into us,¡± Sakura said. ¡°And then, we¡¯ll leave, making up some kind of excuse, so that Eriol-kun and Tomoyo-chan can have a moment alone together.¡±

 

¡°EH?¡± Syaoran¡¯s eyes grew larger. What kind of an idiot of a girl was this? Here he was, in agony because he couldn¡¯t create a moment alone with her, and she was worrying about someone else¡¯s date problems? ¡°Why do I have to go shopping with that bastard? That is about the worst way I can spend an afternoon without club activities.¡±

 

¡°Y-you don¡¯t want to do it?¡± Sakura asked, hanging her head down. ¡°Poor Tomoyo-chan¡¦ This is the least I can do for her, yet if Syaoran doesn¡¯t want to¡¦¡± She turned her head away.

 

¡°Oh fine, I¡¯ll do it. I¡¯ll suffer for one afternoon for Tomoyo¡¯s sake. I owe her this much, too, though I must admit I do not know where she gets such eccentric taste in guys,¡± Syaoran said, shifting his foot, embarrassed.

 

¡°Really? Syaoran is the best!¡± Sakura squealed, throwing her arms around Syaoran¡¯s neck. He turned bright red. ¡°Okay then, give an hour, and I¡¯ll see you at Piffle Princess!¡±

 

¡°Sure¡¦¡± Syaoran replied, doubtfully. He saw Eriol walk out of the school. Scowling, he walked up to Eriol. ¡°Yo.¡±

 

¡°Hello, Li-kun,¡± Eriol said, amused. Since when did Li Syaoran come up to him and greet him? Maybe he was feeling the Christmas spirit also?

 

¡°Uh¡¦ Have you done Christmas shopping yet?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Actually, I haven¡¯t,¡± Eriol replied, even more baffled, but still smiling.

 

¡°Then¡¦ do you want to go do some last-minute Christmas shopping?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Sure, Li-kun,¡± Eriol said.

 

 

 

Thinking about it, I still didn¡¯t buy Sakura¡¯s Christmas present this year, Syaoran thought, carefully dodging people on the bustling streets. Last year was easy because it was obvious that the crystal star necklace was made for her. But this year, he had no clue what to get her.

 

Funny boy, Eriol mused, following behind Syaoran. He invited me to tag along, but he¡¯s completely wrapped up in his own thoughts and is completely ignoring my existence. ¡°Li-kun.¡±

 

 Geez, how much longer do I have to stick around with Eriol? My plan has gone all wrong. I was supposed to walk Sakura home, on the way, stop by the King Penguin Park and then ask her. What is this, spending a perfectly fine day in the company of this glass-eyed creep?

 

¡°Li-kun. Did you buy Sakura-san a present yet?¡± Eriol tried again.

 

¡°Eh? You were talking to me?¡± Syaoran asked. ¡°Sorry. No, I didn¡¯t. I don¡¯t know what to get her.¡±

 

¡°Get her something that she could remember you by,¡± Eriol said, smiling.

 

¡°Sure,¡± Syaoran replied, dubiously.

 

¡°Did you ask her to the Winter Wonderland yet?¡± Eriol asked.

 

Syaoran glared at Eriol. ¡°That¡¯s none of your business, is it?¡±

 

¡°Oh, if you haven¡¯t, maybe I should ask her,¡± Eriol said. ¡°She said that she went alone last year, and such a nice girl as Sakura-san shouldn¡¯t have to go to parties alone, especially the last one of junior high.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t even think about it,¡± Syaoran said flatly. ¡°I really don¡¯t appreciate your sense of humor. If you don¡¯t have a date, do ask Tomoyo. I don¡¯t want her to have to with that prince-syndrome, two-faced viper Eron again.¡± He pictured Sakura making a V sign with her fingers and exclaiming, ¡°Sakura¡¯s Love-Love Action Plan #3: Friends give hints and encouragement to the clueless being.¡±

 

¡°If Li-kun gives leave, I will gladly ask Tomoyo-san,¡± Eriol said. ¡°I¡¯m glad that I¡¯m still higher up on your list of favorable people than Chang Eron.¡±

 

Thank goodness¡¦ It¡¯s been an hour. Ignoring Eriol¡¯s comment, because it might not necessarily be true, Syaoran said, ¡°Let¡¯s go to that store!¡± He pointed to the pink store with the Piffle Princess crown logo on the front.

 

¡°Piffle Princess store? How Sakura-san-like,¡± Eriol said, smiling.

 

¡°Ah yeah,¡± Syaoran sweat-dropped. Did Eriol guess already and was he playing along?

 

¡°Syaoran!¡± Sakura exclaimed when he and Eriol entered the store. ¡°What a coincidence? Are you doing Christmas shopping too?¡±

 

¡°Uh¡¦ Yeah,¡± Syaoran muttered.

 

¡°Us too!¡± Sakura exclaimed, overenthusiastically.

 

Tomoyo looked up surprised to see Eriol walk up. ¡°Good afternoon, Sakura-san, Tomoyo-san.¡±

 

¡°Eriol-kun!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed. She stared at Sakura suspiciously. Sakura winked.

 

¡°Oh, Syaoran-kun, can you help me choose some ski equipment?¡± Sakura said. ¡°The sports store is near by.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t ski¡¦¡± Syaoran began, but Sakura kicked him in the shin. ¡°Ah, yes, sure!¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan¡¦ I¡¯ve been skiing for ten years now¡¦¡± Tomoyo trailed off. ¡°I could have helped you.¡±

 

¡°No, no. Didn¡¯t you have to buy something here?¡± Sakura said, sending eye signals.

 

But Tomoyo was still lost. ¡°You said let¡¯s come to Piffle Princess, Sakura-chan.¡±

 

Ah, this would never do. Sakura is even worse at acting than I am. Syaoran took Sakura¡¯s hand and turned his head back, raising his eyebrows to send a signal to Tomoyo. ¡°I need some time alone with Sakura.¡± He turned to Eriol. ¡°I¡¯m sorry to leave you in the middle. I¡¯ll take Sakura home, so if you can take Tomoyo¡¦¡±

 

¡°Sure, leave that to me,¡± Eriol replied, catching on.

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura turned to look up at Syaoran. His large hands were so warm that she could feel it through her wool gloves. Her heart thumped.

 

¡°Hurry, just follow me.¡± Syaoran dragged Sakura out of the store.

 

Videotaping the two melt into the street, hand in hand, Tomoyo exclaimed, ¡°Why, Sakura-chan should have just told me that she needed some time alone with Syaoran-kun, so that he could ask her to the Winter Wonderland. How clever of Syaoran-kun—he¡¯s really come a long way.¡±

 

¡°So, do you have someone you¡¯re going to the dance with?¡± Eriol asked walking towards Tomoyo and fingering the stuffed dolls on the shelves.

 

¡°N-no,¡± Tomoyo stammered, realizing that she was alone with Eriol now. Little she did know that Sakura¡¯s Love-Love Action Plan #3 was: Once the isolated situation is created, let the well-mannered Eriol take care of the rest.

 

Turning to Tomoyo with glimmering midnight blue eyes, Eriol said, ¡°Then may I have the honor of escorting you to the Winter Wonderland, Tomoyo-san?¡±

 

Taken back, Tomoyo blinked her large violet eyes. Then, warmth flooded to her cheeks. ¡°Yes, Eriol-kun!¡±

 

 

 

¡°Whew, things better work out fine for Tomoyo,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°That¡¯s the worst kind of torture imaginable, trying to converse cordially with the glass-eyed freak. He¡¯s a little better than the pony-tailed, effeminate twin number one. So now, should we check out the ski equipment?¡±

 

¡°Hoe? That was just an excuse, Syaoran!¡± Sakura exclaimed. She blushed. He was still holding her hand. Walking together, holding hands, on a winter day. How unbelievable yet undeniably pleasant. ¡°Uh—did you need time alone with me?¡±

 

¡°Eh? Oh, that was and excuse too,¡± Syaoran replied hastily.

 

¡°Oh.¡± Sakura looked down at her boots, disappointed. ¡°Really. Well, thank you for playing along—I know you¡¯re not that fond of Eriol-kun. I would have asked Kai-kun, but he likes Eriol-kun about as much as you do, or less if that¡¯s possible.¡±

 

This time, it was Syaoran¡¯s turn to say, ¡°Oh.¡± So she asked him as a replacement, not because he was any more special than any other guy. Wasn¡¯t he the first in line to turn to if she needed help?

 

¡°Well, then, Syaoran, I¡¯ll see you at school tomorrow,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Huh? I¡¯ll walk you home,¡± Syaoran said quickly. She was not leaving already? When he finally had her isolated.

 

¡°No, it¡¯s okay. I can go by myself—you¡¯re apartment is in the opposite direction, anyway,¡± Sakura replied curtly. She turned around then halted.

 

¡°Changed your mind? Really, it¡¯s no problem, I¡¯ll walk you home¡¦¡± Syaoran paused. No. It wasn¡¯t a change of mind on her part. It was him. He was still holding her hand, so she could not leave. Blushing, he let go hastily.

 

¡°Good evening, Syaoran,¡± Sakura said, walking off, drawing her red coat around her tighter. The left hand she held to her pounding chest still tingled with warmth from his.

 

Shoot, I forgot to ask her!  Syaoran realized. ¡°Sakura!¡± His voice was drowned by the Christmas carols blasting out from the speakers. Well, this is for the better, having her leave. Now I can look for her Christmas present. Or so he tried to comfort himself.

 

Hmm¡¦ Something Sakura could remember me by? Why do I have to listen to that person¡¯s advise? But what can I get for her? It was so much easier last year when I knew what she wanted.

 

The streetlamps and the Christmas lights decorating the stores lighted the streets as the sun set. Something special for my one and only special Sakura.

 

TICK TOCK TICK TOCK¡¦

 

What is this steady sound? It¡¯s somewhat soothing, somewhat rhythmic.  Following the ticking sound of clocks, Syaoran entered a clock store, embedded at the end of the street, almost unnoticeable amidst all the flashiness of the other stores. As he looked around, his eyes widened—never had he seen more clocks stored in one place. Grandfather clocks with pendulums, cuckoo clocks with cuckoos that popped out on the chime, cat-shaped clocks, owl-shaped clocks, large standing clocks, small hanging clocks, all sorts of clocks imaginable. In a corner, he saw various watches on display in a glass case. One small watch caught his eyes—the straps were made of thin elongated stainless steel wires twisted in an elegant vine like fashion, and the face of the watch was tinted pale pink shaped like a five-leaved flower, the clock handles like thin, frail flower stamens with crystals at the points. It was very pretty, something Sakura would like.

 

¡°I¡¯ll like to take that,¡± Syaoran said to the old saleslady.

 

¡°Good choice,¡± the old woman said, holding out her left wrist to show him her watch. ¡°Very beautiful, elegantly fashioned by hand. See, my son got it for me, because I liked the design so much—reminded me of the watches in the olden days, not the mass-produced, ugly, plastic things they produce these days. Whoever you¡¯re getting it for will be very happy.¡±

 

Smiling, Syaoran said, ¡°I hope so too. Can you gift-wrap it please?¡±

 

 

 

Syaoran doesn¡¯t want to go to the Winter Wonderland with me. Sakura sighed, sending a mist of warm air from her mouth in the chill winter night air as she shuffled down the streets, rubbing her hands together. She knew he did not like social events, but he went with Erika last year. Anyway, I need to find Syaoran a Christmas present. I didn¡¯t have the time to make him anything this year. And the things I make are so poor in quality, anyway. He got me such an expensive gift last year¡¦ I felt bad because all I gave him was an embroidery—I spent many hours and put lots of effort into it, but still¡¦

 

Automatically, her hand when to her neckline. The crystal pendant was not there anymore; Kaitou Magician had stolen it. He better give it back one of these days.  

 

TICK TOCK TICK TOCK¡¦

 

Where is the sound coming from? The sound makes me nostalgic for some reason. A store at the end of the street caught her eye. She entered the quaint, antiquely decorated store and was greeted with the sight of all sorts of clocks in different sizes and shapes, all ticking merrily. ¡°What a wonderful store!¡± she gasped.

 

¡°It is, isn¡¯t it?¡± an old lady with silvery hair said, tottering out from the counter. ¡°Come in and look around, pretty young lady.¡± She raised her left hand and waved it around, beckoning at the clocks around her.

 

¡°Wow, that¡¯s such a pretty watch,¡± Sakura said, when she saw the strange, olden style and elegant watch glint from the woman¡¯s wrist.

 

¡°Yes, it¡¯s from this store too,¡± the woman said.

 

¡°Do you have more of them?¡± Sakura asked, feeling a little selfish for asking.

 

¡°No, I¡¯m sorry, miss. I just sold the last one a little while ago,¡± the lady said. Sakura looked so disappointed that she added, ¡°But there¡¯s a men¡¯s version, also, which is slightly larger and leaf-themed instead of flower-themed.¡±

 

Sakura brightened. ¡°Can I see that?¡±

 

******

 

¡°Really? He asked you? That¡¯s great!¡± Sakura squealed at school the next day.

 

Tomoyo looked around embarrassed. ¡°It was really unexpected. But thank you Sakura. For yesterday.¡±

 

¡°No, it¡¯s thanks to Syaoran. If he hadn¡¯t play along¡¦¡± Sakura smiled wistfully.

 

¡°And you? He still didn¡¯t ask you yesterday, when you had a moment alone together?¡± Tomoyo questioned.

 

¡°No¡¦¡± Sakura said. Then again, maybe it was her fault for not giving him the opportunity? No, he probably didn¡¯t want to go with her, that¡¯s all. But that was no big surprise.

 

At that moment, Eron tapped her shoulder. ¡°Sakura, do you have a moment?¡±

 

¡°Huh?¡± Sakura followed Eron outside the classroom, warily. ¡°What is it Eron-kun?¡±

 

It seemed for a split second that Eron actually was nervous because he shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, and he was staring at the ground instead of gazing at her self-assuredly like usual. Finally, he said, ¡°You probably hate me, but still, all the same, do you want to go to the Winter Wonderland with me?¡±

 

Taken back, Sakura stammered, ¡°Ah, I-I don¡¯t hate you.¡±

 

¡°Not even after all that I did?¡± Eron questioned skeptically.

 

¡°Not even after all that you did,¡± Sakura replied forthrightly.

 

¡°Then you will go to the Winter Wonderland with me, won¡¯t you?¡± Eron repeated.

 

¡°Uh, that, I—I¡¦¡± Sakura struggled helplessly. How could she reject Eron without hurting his feelings? How could she convey that there was only one person, ever since last year that she wanted to go to the Winter Wonderland with, but he didn¡¯t want her? Yet, she could not refuse him, and she was in no position to refuse one of the most popular, sought-out guys in Seijou Junior High when she, herself, was dateless. Besides, she did not want Eron to think that she held a grudge against him.

 

¡°Well?¡± Eron prodded impatiently. ¡°I won¡¯t be disappointed or surprised if you say no. If you don¡¯t want to, I¡¯m fine. But if you do, that would make this the best Christmas ever.¡±

 

¡°I¡¦¡± Sakura gulped. Why not? Why not? It would make her Christmas Eve miserable, but if it would make Eron that happy.

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry Chang Eron, but Sakura¡¯s going to the Winter Wonderland with me,¡± Syaoran interrupted, stepping out of the doorway and standing next to Sakura.

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura swerved around to bump into Syaoran, who steadied her.

 

¡°Humph. Figured,¡± Eron said, disgusted. ¡°Well, next time. Next time we¡¯ll see.¡± He reentered the classroom.

 

¡°Whew,¡± Sakura sighed in relief as Eron left.

 

¡°You idiot, why can¡¯t you ever say no to people?¡± Syaoran berated, turning around to face Sakura. Sakura¡¯s heart jumped at Syaoran¡¯s sudden outburst.

 

¡°B-but,¡± Sakura looked down at her feet and said honestly, ¡°I think I almost said yes.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t say yes to people out of pity,¡± Syaoran said, frowning. ¡°At this rate, you¡¯ll end up going to the ball with someone like Aki, who always takes advantage of girls.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t want to go with Aki,¡± Sakura refuted. Yes, it¡¯s true. I was saying yes out of pity¡¦And that¡¯s not benefiting anyone, not even Eron-kun.

 

¡°That¡¯s why I¡¯ll have to take you to the Winter Wonderland myself,¡± Syaoran sighed.

 

It finally registered in Sakura¡¯s mind how Syaoran had gotten rid of Eron. ¡°Huh?¡±

 

¡°Why, if you would rather go with Eron¡¦¡± Syaoran looked away. You idiot, he scolded himself. Just tell her honestly that you want her and only her.

 

¡°No, no, it¡¯s not that,¡± Sakura corrected quickly, blushing. Then she demanded accusingly, ¡°And it¡¯s not out of pity?¡±

 

¡°Do I have to explain everything out in plain words, or do you know me well enough to take things as they are?¡± Syaoran asked, flustered. His words were joking, but Sakura saw that his amber eyes were earnest.

 

¡°Hoe-e¡¦¡± Sakura stepped back, shifting nervously.

 

It looked like Syaoran was going to scold her more but at that moment Aki, flipping his long bleached bangs back from his eyes, sauntered up to Sakura and said, ¡°Sakura-chan, do you want to¡¦¡±

 

¡°No, she does not.¡± Syaoran cut him off.

 

¡°Shucks. How can it be that the great Aki-sama does not have a date yet?¡± Aki lamented as he continued to walk down the hall. ¡°Maybe it¡¯s safer to be steady with one girl, after all, to save me from all this trouble.¡±

 

Syaoran and Sakura glanced at each other and laughed. Clearly, Aki had no clue what he was talking about.

 

******

 

¡°Okay, tomorrow¡¯s Christmas Eve, and we¡¯ll head over to the Kinhoshi Hospital in a van nine in the morning—gather in the school back gates,¡± Aki said. ¡°Here, we¡¯ll run through the check list. Gifts?¡±

 

¡°Check,¡± Miho replied.

 

¡°Candies and cookies?¡± Aki continued, reading off the list.

 

¡°Check,¡± Sakura replied.

 

¡°Decorations?¡±

 

¡°Check,¡± Naoko replied.

 

¡°Choir?¡±

 

¡°Check,¡± Tomoyo replied.

 

¡°Act 1: Magic Show,¡± Aki continued. There was no response. ¡°Mizuki Kai? Where is Mizuki-kun?¡±

 

¡°Umm¡¦ I don¡¯t think he came to school today,¡± Sakura said. It was rather surprising since Kai had been pretty diligent in school attendance lately.

 

¡°Ooh¡¦ if does not show up tomorrow, I would really get mad at him,¡± Aki said, scowling. Ever since the first day, Kai had been a nuisance to him.

 

******

 

Hong Kong¡¦

 

Time in Japan always seemed to pass by in a flurry. In comparison, life in Hong Kong was very bland and boring. Sighing, Meilin stared out the window from her second floor classroom. She had missed so much schoolwork while she was away that it was impossible to catch up, and her winter vacation was looking very grim in deed. Yet, she could not concentrate, she could not study. Not after all that had happened in Japan. Actually, home was not that peaceful anymore. Ever since the Li council heard that Syaoran refused to return home, that he would indeed give up his title of Chosen One to stay in Japan, they had been furious beyond imagination. And currently, they were working on some hushed up secret project that someone as unimportant as herself had no right to inquire about. Yes, she was useless in the Li Clan, in Japan, and anywhere she went.

 

A white bird flew on top of a branch, outside the window. Thinking about it, the bird looked quite familiar. Meilin sighed again. Yes, she was lonely in Hong Kong. She missed Sakura, Tomoyo, Miho, Syaoran—everyone. Even him. The exasperating, crooked, perverted, lying fool with the insolent grin and the constantly shaded eyes. She missed his ever-carefree attitude that contrasted with the serious, almost intimidating expression he wore when he was alone, the way the corner of his lips curved into a whimsical smile, the sinuous hands that were always in constant motion when he talked, the faint smell of his cologne, and his lonely, lonely grey-blue eyes on a rainy day. Something told her that someone still his age shouldn¡¯t have such eyes, eyes that seemed to be weary of the world, weary of living, though at first glance one would only catch the cold, bitter flicker set under strong, slanted brows.

 

Stupid! Why am I thinking of him? Meilin shook her head, trying to get rid of his image. She could almost hear his shrill, melodic whistle which he used to call his doves to him. Why him? I hate him, I really do. No, I don¡¯t, but I have no respect for him, whatsoever.  

 

So rapt in her thought, Meilin did not even realize that it was already lunch break. There was a bunch of girls gathered by the window, gossiping loudly.

 

¡°Oh my god, that guy standing by the school gates is so hot!¡± one of Meilin¡¯s classmates said. ¡°I don¡¯t think he goes to our school—he¡¯s not wearing our uniform.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. He looks kind of scary,¡± another girl with glasses said. ¡°Kind of like a delinquent. Or Hong Kong mafia.¡±

 

¡°But he¡¯s still hot. Humph. Wish there¡¯s someone like him in our school.¡±

 

The girls glared at the guys in their class.

 

¡°Ever since Li Syaoran left, coming to school¡¯s been a bore,¡± the first girl stated. ¡°He was the hottest guy in all of Hong Kong, I declare. Though he was rather an introvert.¡±

 

¡°Yeah, I wonder how he has such a cousin,¡± another girl whispered, glancing quickly at Meilin, who tilted her chin up and pretended to be absorbed in gathering her school books.

 

¡°I know; she thinks she¡¯s so great because she¡¯s Li Syaoran¡¯s cousin—but she¡¯s not good at anything. Syaoran was good-looking, athletic, smart, and talented in every aspect in contrast,¡± the glass-girl said.

 

¡°And did you see how sulky she is these days because Syaoran transferred to Japan? It¡¯s totally unfair how she also gets to skip more than a month of school like that, and the teacher doesn¡¯t say anything, just because she¡¯s a Li.¡±

 

Setting her lips in a firm line, Meilin gathered up her books and shoved them in her book-bag, pushed her chair back loudly, got up and swept by the girls, glaring at them before passing by. They ignored her and snickered amongst themselves.

 

¡°Hey look, the hot guy is still standing there,¡± the original girl stated. ¡°Maybe he¡¯s waiting for someone.¡±

 

¡°Really? Lucky girl. He¡¯s just my ideal! Spiked hair, sunglasses, tall, muscular¡¦¡± a classmate sighed.

 

¡°Eh?¡± Ears perking, Meilin peeked out the window. There stood a dismayingly familiar figure, all in black as usual, with a white parrot perched on his shoulder. Never did he fail to surprise her. She slid the window open and stuck her head outside and demanded, ¡°Mizuki Kai, what are you doing here?¡±

 

Catching sight of her, Kai waved flashily and shouted, ¡°Ni hao Mei-chan!¡±

 

All the students who had been sauntering outside during break stared up at the open second floor window.

 

¡°Do you know him, Li Meilin?¡± someone asked.

 

¡°Ah¡¦ he¡¯s kind of an old acquaintance of mine,¡± Meilin stammered.

 

¡°Meilin! Are you going to keep me waiting? Or do you want me to go up to fetch you?¡± Kai called out.

 

Meilin blushed. ¡°You wait down there, Mizuki Kai!¡± she called back, before shutting the window again and running down the stairs, out the building, to the front gate. Her classmates were left gaping.

 

As Meilin approached, panting, Kai ran up to her and squeezed her into a tight hug, which surprised her so much that she dropped her book-bag. ¡°Move away from me,¡± she snapped, pushing Kai back and picking up her bag, turning red because everyone was still staring at her through the classroom windows.

 

¡°Mei-chan always gives me the warmest welcomes,¡± Kai proclaimed. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me I don¡¯t even get a kiss for all my troubles coming here?¡±

 

¡°In your dreams,¡± Meilin said, nose pointed to the air. ¡°What are you doing here, anyway?¡±

 

¡°I came to see you,¡± Kai replied flirtatiously wrapping his arm around her shoulder.

 

She shoved his hand away. ¡°Well, I¡¯m sorry to disappoint you, but I¡¯m busy today.¡±

 

¡°Really? That¡¯s too bad.¡± From the air, he drew out two tickets and dangled it in front of Meilin¡¯s face.

 

¡°What¡¯s that?¡± Meilin asked, snatching it from him and examining it. Her eyes rounded.

 

¡°Roundtrip airplane tickets to Japan, departing this afternoon, and late evening on the 25th, so you can spend Christmas Eve and Day in Japan,¡± Kai stated. ¡°I¡¯m sure you would love to see everyone for Christmas instead of being stuck here with all those old, stuffy honor-abiding buffoons.¡±

 

Meilin looked up at Kai, lower lips quivering.

 

¡°You don¡¯t have to look at me so lovingly all of a sudden,¡± Kai said, looking away embarrassed. ¡°It¡¯s my early Christmas present for you.¡±

 

¡°But—this is such an expensive gift,¡± Meilin said. ¡°I don¡¯t know what to say. I-I didn¡¯t even get you a present.¡±

 

Winking over his sunglasses, Kai said, ¡°They say that a present that can create a lasting memory is more precious than an item. Besides, I didn¡¯t say the ticket was for free.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡±

 

¡°In return, I want you to be my partner for the Winter Wonderland tomorrow tonight.¡±

 

¡°EHHHH?¡±

 

¡°Well then, let¡¯s go,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°Where?¡± Meilin said, recovering. ¡°I¡¯m in the middle of school.¡±

 

¡°Come on, it¡¯s almost Christmas and you have a guest. Aren¡¯t you going to show me around Hong Kong?¡± Kai asked, dragging Meilin outside.

 

¡°You probably know it better than I do,¡± Meilin muttered, following him reluctantly.

 

¡°True true,¡± Kai conceded. He had memorized the entire map of Hong Kong, not only all the roads but all the underground routes, plus the train schedule, plane schedule, ship schedule, and security areas.

 

¡°You¡¯re turning me into a delinquent student also,¡± Meilin continued reproachfully.

 

¡°Good,¡± Kai chuckled.

 

 

 

¡°Ah, I¡¯m hungry,¡± Kai said, as they walked down the docks, breathing in the salty, cold winter sea breeze.

 

¡°Oh, I have my bento—I didn¡¯t get a chance to eat lunch,¡± Meilin said. They sat down on one of the wooden benches, and she fished out her lunchbox.

 

¡°Mmmm! I missed Mei-chan¡¯s cooking,¡± Kai said, opening the bento eagerly.

 

Watching the rate in which Kai shoveled down the food into his mouth, Meilin said, ¡°Slow down; you¡¯re going to choke.¡± She took out her thermos and poured hot tea into the cup and handed it to Kai, who gulped it down eagerly. ¡°Hasn¡¯t Syaoran been feeding you lately?¡±

 

Wrinkling his nose, Kai replied after swallowing, ¡°He¡¯s been too busy making Christmas cards and stuff to cook dinner these days. I think the last meal I had was yesterday lunch.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not even going to bother scolding you anymore,¡± Meilin said, shaking her head. Then she smiled slightly. ¡°Even so, you¡¯re hands are pretty when you hold chopsticks. You can hold it correctly. I can¡¯t but Syaoran holds chopsticks prettily too—Aunt Ieran is strict about table manners.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran, Syaoran, it¡¯s always darling Syaoran,¡± Kai muttered, draining the water bottle. ¡°Aren¡¯t you eating?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not hungry,¡± Meilin replied. ¡°I had a big breakfast.¡±

 

¡°Well then, what do you want to do—we have a couple hours till departure time,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°Ah, I have some last-minute Christmas shopping to do,¡± Meilin replied.

 

¡°So, what are we waiting for? Let¡¯s go!¡± Kai said, leaping to his feet.

 

 

 

Walking next to Kai down the bustling streets of the Hong Kong market places, amidst all the glittering lights of Christmas decorations and the brimming of excitement present in all the people out on the streets, allowed Meilin to feel the Christmas spirit for the first time.

 

¡°Don¡¯t get that,¡± Kai said when Meilin picked out a flower shaped bracelet. ¡°The gold gilt will peel off in one week.¡± The salesperson made a nasty face at Kai.

 

¡°Look, that¡¯s perfect for Sakura-chan!¡± Meilin pointed to a warm tan-colored teddy bear key-chan with a red Santa hat.

 

¡°Haha¡¦ Yeah, she¡¯s silly for stuffed animals,¡± Kai said. ¡°Hey, you should get this hat.¡± He plunked a huge pom-pom ended knit hat over Meilin¡¯s head, regardless of mussing up her hair carefully pinned into buns.

 

¡°Hey!¡± Meilin squealed. She grabbed another Santa-hat and pulled it on Kai¡¯s head.

 

Adjusting the Santa-hat in a rakish angle, Kai bowed elegantly. ¡°Kaitou Santa at your service.¡±

 

Humph. He¡¯s probably the sexiest Santa around. Why does he look good in everything? But Meilin couldn¡¯t help laughing as Kai pretended to draw candy canes out of thin air and handed them out to the little children passing by, who squealed, ¡°Sunglass Santa!!!¡±

 

¡°Brrr¡¦ It¡¯s cold,¡± Meilin said. ¡°Let¡¯s go into the department store.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s cold here?¡± Kai asked, astounded. ¡°This is really nothing compared to Japan, you know that right? And Japan¡¯s winter is nothing compared to New York winter.¡±

 

¡°I hate being cold though,¡± Meilin grumbled, wishing she had worn a thicker coat. ¡°Aren¡¯t you cold, in that thin leather jacket? Don¡¯t tell me you¡¯re wearing a sleeveless shirt underneath again.¡±

 

¡°Seriously, it¡¯s not cold at all,¡± Kai replied. ¡°You don¡¯t know what it¡¯s like to be truly cold.¡±

 

¡°Still. You never dress warmly enough, always running around without a jacket, always half-dressed at home. You¡¯ll catch a cold.¡±

 

¡°Aww¡¦ Are you worried for me?¡± Kai pinched Meilin¡¯s red cheeks. ¡°I¡¯m so touched.¡±

 

 

 

From a store across the street, Li Fanren said, peering down the street, ¡°Fuutie, isn¡¯t cousin Meilin over there? She¡¯s with a hot guy—do we know him?¡±

 

¡°My, our little Meilin is all grown-up, dating with a boy before Christmas,¡± Fuutie said.

 

¡°Sigh, while we¡¯re still single? Ah, even our baby brother should have a girlfriend by now.¡±

 

¡°I say Syaoran scores for standing up to Uncle for once,¡± Fanren said. ¡°Though Mother¡¯s not too happy about it.¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ That guys¡¯ pretty good-looking—I wish I can see him without those shades,¡± Fuutie said, craning her neck. ¡°He doesn¡¯t seem to be from around here, does he?¡±

 

¡°But he kind of looks familiar—I think I¡¯ve seen him around before,¡± Fanren replied. Their cousin and the mysterious boy disappeared into the department. They sighed. It was going to bet another lonely Christmas without their baby brother to boss around.

 

 

 

Walking down the isles in the department store, Meilin said, ¡°I still didn¡¯t get Syaoran a Christmas present. What should I get him?¡±

 

Kai replied shortly, ¡°I don¡¯t know. You know him best.¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ Let¡¯s look at the coats over there.¡± Meilin walked over to the clothes racks and picked through the various coats. She picked out a thick, wool black long coat. ¡°What about this? Don¡¯t you think it will look good on Syaoran?¡±

 

¡°If it¡¯s from Meilin, he would love it,¡± Kai said quietly, looking around him at all the blissful faces of the shoppers. Little children holding their parents¡¯ hands, laughing heartily and carrying bulging shopping bags, couples flushed and smiling into each other¡¯s eyes, groups of friends bickering and giggling. Then, he stared at Meilin¡¯s face. She was rapt holding up the coat to the light, examining the seams, then turned to him.

 

¡°I can¡¯t get a sense of the size. You and Syaoran have the same built, right? Can you try it on to see if it fits? I bet it¡¯ll fit Syaoran if it fits you.¡±

 

¡°Huh?¡±

 

Meilin had already peeled off his leather jacket and straightened the long coat on him.

 

¡°Turn around,¡± she said. ¡°Let me see it in different angles.¡±

 

Obediently, Kai circled around, feeling very foolish.

 

¡°How does it fit?¡± Meilin asked, fingering the fabric. ¡°I think it looks good. And this is fine-combed wool—soft, thick and warm. I hope Syaoran will like it.¡±

 

¡°Of course,¡± Kai said smiling at Meilin, ever so caring of Syaoran. This was the first time in years that he would be spending Christmastime with someone. Last Christmas, he had been all alone in the basement of a rundown building somewhere in New York, without heat, eating a piece of stale bread with cold, diluted coffee.

 

¡°You can take it off now,¡± Meilin said. She took the coat to the counter and said as she waited for the salesperson to fold the coat into a box and gift-wrap it, ¡°Syaoran hates the cold too.¡±

 

¡°No surprise,¡± Kai said, pulling on his black leather jacket again, feeling a lot colder than he had wearing the coat. ¡°Well, one last thing to do.¡±

 

¡°What? I finished Christmas shopping,¡± Meilin said, shifting her shopping bags to her other hand.

 

¡°We have to find you a nice dress to wear to the Winter Wonderland,¡± Kai said, taking the heavy shopping bags from Meilin¡¯s hands and carrying them for her.

 

¡°Do I have to go?¡± Meilin asked. She sighed as Kai picked various dresses off the racks for her to try on in the dressing room. Then again, he did have superb taste, though it differed slightly from Syaoran¡¯s.

 

¡°This dress is too low-cut,¡± Meilin said, as she turned around in the scarlet dress. ¡°And the slit¡¯s too high.¡±

 

¡°I like it,¡± Kai said, scanning her up and down.

 

¡°Pervert,¡± Meilin muttered.

 

******

 

Christmas Eve¡¦

 

The Seijou Junior High students in the journalism club and the choir, who got to skip school for the day, filed into the children¡¯s wing of the Kinhoshi Hospital, which was decorated with gold and silver streamers and bright Christmas decorations. The children who were really sick remained in bed, while others gathered around in wheelchairs, crutches, and the healthier ones sat on chairs and cushions on the ground. Some elderly patients had gathered to watch as well, as well as the parents of the children who were free for the day.

 

¡°The decorations are set, Aki-kun,¡± Sakura reported, standing back and speculating.

 

¡°Where is that wretched Mizuki Kai; we have to begin soon—he¡¯s first up,¡± Aki said, tapping his foot impatiently. ¡°If he doesn¡¯t show up in five minutes—¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m here, I¡¯m here, don¡¯t shoot me,¡± Kai said, popping up from behind the door, hiding that he was out of breath—he had slept in that morning and had sped all the way to the hospital in his car. The evening flight from Hong Kong had arrived very late last night, and Meilin and he had stayed up even later at his apartment, talking. She was still sleeping on his bed and probably wouldn¡¯t wake up until past noon. Well, she deserved her beauty sleep, especially if she was to have energy for the Winter Wonderland that evening; she had seemed quite down and lifeless compared to before.

 

¡°Good,¡± Aki said, gritting his teeth. ¡°Now get ready—we¡¯re all waiting.¡±

 

 

First up was Kai, with an especially extraordinary Christmas-themed magic show despite his lack of preparation. For a change, he seemed quite into the holiday spirit, with green tinted shades and led a performance ranging from his usual dove routine—his doves had red ribbons with golden bells around their necks today, to juggling with up to ten toys until they were all a blur, then an act handcuffing Sakura and Syaoran together, pretending to have forgotten how to unlock the handcuff to the glee of the children, and finally unlocking them, much to their relief. Neither Sakura nor Syaoran could ever quite forget their first experience of being handcuffed together and being stuck with each other 24/7. The finale involved Kai drawing little socks full of candies and tiny toys out of his Santa hat (instead of his usual top hat.) If anyone noticed that Kai was a lot more enthusiastic than usual, nobody commented upon it or questioned why.

 

Everyone was much delighted by the magic show, which could easily rival that of any professional magician, and the children eagerly peeked into their socks and began munching on candy canes, caramel chocolates, and candied apples, little presents that were only a precursor to what was to come. Kai¡¯s charisma and stage magnetism had launched the event right into play, and the children keenly awaited the next performance, which was a comedic skit involving Takashi, the red-nosed reindeer.

 

¡°I was wondering why Mizuki-kun insisted on going first, but I think it proved to be a good idea,¡± Aki said, sucking on a candy corn and nodding his head in approval for a change.

 

¡°Things are going smoothly so far; it¡¯s amazing how Mizuki-sempai, the horror and dread of the children got so popular among them,¡± Miho commented, peeking into her sock full of candy and finding it was full of lemon drops. Popping a couple into her mouth at once and munching on it, finding the crunch and the burst of the sour flavor in her mouth satisfactory, Miho looked up to see Kai having taken a seat beside Nina, who climbed onto his lap and began telling him about something. Kai laughed and nodded, patting Nina¡¯s curly golden head.

 

¡°Humph. It¡¯s that bratty girl again,¡± Subaru said sticking his tongue out towards Nina¡¯s direction. She did not notice since Subaru was sitting off in the corner by himself, and she was rapt playing with jacks, something she had never done before. Her parents always thought the most expensive, high-tech and elaborate toys were the best, when in fact playing with the toy, rolling on the floor, rather than looking at a porcelain doll too fancily clad to actually play with, was so much more fun.

 

¡°Subaru-chan, come sit with us,¡± Sakura beckoned, walking over to him.

 

¡°It¡¯s all right. I¡¯d rather stay here,¡± Subaru replied, hugging his knees. ¡°Stupid Christmas; I hate being stuck in the hospital.¡±

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you having fun?¡± Sakura asked, disappointed.

 

¡°Yeah, the magic show and the candy¡¯s cool,¡± Subaru conceded. ¡°But Eitoukou students are coming to the orphanage today and they¡¯re taking the others ice-skating, while I¡¯m in this stupid place.¡±

 

The skit was followed by a series of games such as pin the red nose on the reindeer and Santa Jeopardy, with plenty of prizes handed out, followed by the choir caroling, the highlight of the day. Eriol played the keyboard, Syaoran the violin and various others accompanied with percussion instruments such as bells and triangles. The children joined in on choruses, heartily. However, they all listened spellbound when Tomoyo sang ¡°Silent Night¡± acapella, her sweet voice carrying the holy tune across the hospital. 

 

Afterwards, they were hungry from all the singing and thick slices of Christmas bread with all sorts of nuts and dried fruits in it with icing dripping over the top, rich chocolate cake, and mugs of hot chocolate were was passed around, all homemade, and for those who could not eat sweets, sugar-free but still very tasty cakes were substituted.

 

Then came the most awaited moment—present opening. Everyone shrieked in excitement as they tore open the flashy wrapping papers and pretty ribbons, all excited at the new dolls and robots and trucks and games that they received. There were plenty of toys, all donated by Tomoyo¡¯s mother, and it was easy to exchange a gift for something else, without any need to squabble.

 

¡°Kai-nii-chan! Look! I got a Mermaid Princess doll!¡± Nina exclaimed. Then she looked around. ¡°Kai-nii-chan?¡±

 

¡°Where did Kai-kun go?¡± Sakura asked Syaoran.

 

Shrugging, he replied, ¡°I don¡¯t know. He¡¯s always prone to disappear. I haven¡¯t seen him since the first act.¡±

 

¡°Well, I think today was a success, don¡¯t you think?¡± Sakura asked, watching all the faces brimming with delight and enthusiasm.

 

¡°Yeah.¡± Syaoran¡¯s face softened. ¡°I¡¯ve never felt so much merit on Christmas before. To think I can make others happy, when all my life I¡¯ve made myself miserable on holidays.¡±

 

¡°What are you doing? You look sort of in a daze,¡± Eron said, stepping up beside his sister.

 

¡°This is so stupid,¡± Erika replied, absentmindedly shredding a piece of wrapping paper. ¡°Why do we have to do this? It¡¯s counteractive to all that we do, isn¡¯t it?¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦¡± Eron was distracted by Sakura and Syaoran bursting out in laughter together over something Subaru did. That little boy from the orphanage. What was he doing here?

 

There Eron goes again. He¡¯s always watching her. His mind is full of her. It¡¯s so obvious, but he thinks that I don¡¯t notice.  Someone timidly tugged on her sleeve. ¡°What?¡± Erika snapped, turning around.

 

She was greeted by a young girl with large, soulful eyes and an arm in a cast. The soft-spoken girl asked, ¡°Onee-san, can you help me open this please?¡±

 

Erika took the box and untied the ribbon that the little girl had been struggling to open with one hand.

 

Opening the box, the girl squealed, ¡°A blinking doll!¡± She took it out of the container and hugged it to her chest. ¡°I¡¯ve always wanted a blinking doll!¡± Proudly, she stroked the doll¡¯s golden hair. ¡°Onee-san, isn¡¯t she pretty?¡±

 

¡°Yes, it¡¯s pretty,¡± Erika replied shortly.

 

¡°Her eyes close if you lie her down and open when she stands up again,¡± the girl continued, rocking the doll like a baby.

Shutting her eyes, Erika recalled those tedious days in the hospital, awaiting for the visiting hour in which her twin brother came to visit her. That was the brightest moment of the day. She remembered the wintry day, shortly before their entire lives turned upside down, when they were normal children and her twin had brought her the best present ever.

~~~~~~

¡°Onii-chan! You came! I was waiting for you the whole day. What did the doctor say? Can I go back home?¡± Erika, age seven, asked.

With that ever-dependable warm smile of his, Eron replied, ¡°Of course I came, Erika! I tried to come as fast as I can. See onii-chan brought you a doll! You always wanted a doll to play with, right?¡±

Walking over to the bedside, Eron kneeled in front of it and handed Erika a pretty golden haired doll. How had Eron known that she always wanted the princess-dolls that blinked? And where in the world did he find the money to buy her the doll? Excited, Erika held it up and squealed excitedly, grasping it in a tight hug. ¡°Thank you, onii-chan!!!¡± She caught the sad glimmer in her twin¡¯s eyes, however. Setting the doll down on her bed, she said, ¡°But I¡¯d rather have onii-chan than a doll. I love my onii-chan the best.¡±

¡°Of course, Erika. I love you best, too,¡± Eron replied, trying to smile again at his identical twin.

In a timid, almost hesitant voice, Erika said, ¡°Me and Eron¡¦ We¡¯ll always be together, right?¡± She grasped her twin¡¯s hand with her icy cold ones.

Eron¡¯s eyes turned round as he gazed at her hands. Then, squeezing his twin sister into a tight hug, Eron murmured, ¡°Silly, of course we¡¯ll always be together. We¡¯ll always be by each other¡¯s side.¡±

¡°Promise?¡± Erika asked.

¡°Silly, of course I promise.¡± He whispered in a strained, yet calm voice, ¡°I, Eron, solemnly promise my twin, Erika, that we¡¯ll always be together through whatever hardships we go through; through the good times and the bad times.¡±

~~~~~~

 

Shaking her head, Erika got up. See, silly holidays merely did strange things to your heart, making you feel more vulnerable and sentimental.

 

¡°Thank you onee-san!¡± the girl exclaimed, hugging the doll close to her.

 

¡°Huh? Yeah. No problem.¡± Erika managed a half-smile.

 

The initial excitement had started to die down now, and the students began to help clean up the mess that had been made. Considering they had only two weeks to prepare for the event, their Christmas project had run smoothly, without any problems, and everyone had enjoyed their time.

 

¡°Kai-nii-chan?¡± Nina called out. ¡°Where are you?¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ I do wonder where Kai-kun disappeared to,¡± Sakura commented, as she picked up all the pieces of wrapping paper, ribbons, streamers, and candy wrappers off the ground.

 

¡°Who knows?¡± Syaoran shrugged, helping Sakura with the trash. ¡°I¡¯m surprised he even showed up today. I¡¯m even more surprised that he lasted this long. In fact, I can swear that he¡¯s been improving.¡±

 

¡°He¡¯s been trying hard,¡± Sakura said. ¡°I admire him for that.¡±

 

Staring at Sakura¡¯s slender wrist, Syaoran wondered if she would like the watch. Yes, she definitely would. It was amazing that he would be taking her to the Winter Wonderland tonight. It was even more amazing that he was able to spend another Christmas Eve with her in Tomoeda, like this, beside her side. Yet, sometimes he felt as if her eyes were always set on some distant star, when all she had to do was turn around and find him standing right behind her.

 

¡°Wah¡¦ Where did my jack go?¡± Nina demanded, frantically searching around for her lost treasure.

 

Something shiny rolled to Subaru¡¯s feet. He picked it up.

 

¡°Ah, thank you!¡± Nina exclaimed, running toward him. Then, she saw who it was.

 

Subaru made a face as he handed her the jack.

 

For a second, Nina¡¯s pink lips were pouted. Then, she smiled. ¡°Su-kun!¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Subaru jumped.

 

¡°Here!¡± From her pocket, she took out a porcelain angel, carefully hand-blown and hand-painted with gilt. If her father knew how easily she was giving away his Christmas gift imported from Italy, he would have been heartbroken. ¡°For you. Merry Christmas Eve!¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Subaru took the porcelain angel and stared at it. ¡°What is this for?¡±

 

¡°Isn¡¯t it pretty? Daddy gave it to me, but I¡¯m giving it to you. It¡¯s a beautiful angel. So you believe heaven. I don¡¯t want you to die and go to hell,¡± Nina said in her simple, child-like manner.

 

Looking up the golden-haired little girl clad in the most expensive kid¡¯s lace gown, custom-made in Paris, Subaru gulped. Then he scowled. ¡°You¡¯re so stupid. Don¡¯t you know that boys don¡¯t play with angels and stuff?¡±

 

¡°Fine then! Do whatever you want with it. Throw it away!¡± Nina said, sticking out her tongue and stomping off to her private suite.

 

Staring at the pretty angel with a serene expression, Subaru, after a second thought, carefully wrapped it up in tissue and stored it in the drawer next to his hospital bed, with the very few material possession he had.

 

 

All the children waved enthusiastically when the Seijou Junior High students left shortly before dinner time, calling out, ¡°Thank you! Thank you! Merry Christmas!¡±

 

¡°That was great, wasn¡¯t it,¡± Naoko stated.

 

¡°We really made it a memorable Christmas for them, I think,¡± Chiharu said, grinning at Takashi, who groaned because so many children had climbed on his back, pretending he was a reindeer.

 

¡°Ah, I¡¯m aching all over—do you think there would be enough time to get a massage before the dance?¡± Aki asked.

 

The journalism/chorus crew groaned.

 

¡°Great, I forgot all about the Winter Wonderland tonight,¡± Miho said.

 

¡°How are we ever going to get ready for it in time?¡± All the girls lamented.

 

******

 

¡°Ooh, my arms are aching—what a waste of a day,¡± Erika groaned, flopping down on the burgundy couch in the living room. ¡°I feel disgusting—I probably won¡¯t be able to get ready for the party in time.¡±

 

Sighing, Eron said. ¡°You¡¯re always whining.¡±

 

¡°So did you ever get around to finding a date for the Winter Wonderland?¡± Erika asked. She smiled maliciously. ¡°Precious Sakura-chan refused to go with you?¡±

 

¡°None of your business,¡± Eron replied shortly. How did her twin find out that he had asked Sakura?

 

¡°Guess who I¡¯m going with,¡± Erika stated, flipping her rippling curls back. ¡°He goes to Eitoukou High and he¡¯s the lead vocalist for the new, popular band Falcon¡¦¡±

 

¡°For heaven¡¯s sake Erika, what happened to that large corporation heir you were dating a couple weeks ago?¡± Eron asked.

 

¡°I got tired of him—this guy is more charismatic,¡± Erika continued.

 

¡°The way you jump from guy to guy is disgusting, Erika, even if you are my sister,¡± Eron said.

 

Rolling her eyes, Erika replied, ¡°Come on, we¡¯ve had this conversation before. Why are you always on my case about it? It¡¯s boring to be bound to one person for too long.¡±

 

¡°If you¡¯re not interested in the guy, why do you bother going out with him?¡± Eron asked.

 

¡°Because the guy usually buys me nice gifts and pays me compliments of course,¡± Erika said. ¡°What kind of dumb question is that? Why don¡¯t you go out with anyone then, onii-chan? It¡¯s stupid for someone your age to be single still. Oh—wait, I forgot, the one girl you have your eyes on thinks you¡¯re a jerk and is interested in someone else. What a pity.¡±

 

¡°Your tongue has become very sharp, hasn¡¯t it, Erika?¡± Eron asked quietly. ¡°But you¡¯re just displaying your lack of maturity.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m so sorry great onii-sama, who is so much more mature than me. I¡¯ll really laugh it I turned out to be the older twin.¡± Erika crossed her arms and glared at her replica.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, you will never have to gloat over that untruth,¡± Eron replied.

 

¡°Like we would ever know. Which one of us was born first,¡± Erika commented. ¡°Though we¡¯ve always assumed it¡¯s you.¡±

 

¡°It is me,¡± Eron said, smiling wryly. It was abnormal, he knew, but his memory dated back to before birth, when he was in his mother¡¯s womb with his twin, warm, snug, sheltered. Mother, father, he could not remember, but Erika he did. And he knew he was first out, because it was his duty to always look out for his twin. That was the reason of his existence, if there was any reason he was born.

 

¡°Whatever,¡± Erika replied, rolling her eyes. ¡°I¡¯m taking a bath.¡±

 

¡°Erika.¡±

 

Turning around Erika asked, annoyed, ¡°What now?¡±

 

¡°Umm¡¦ This is your Christmas present. It¡¯s kind of early, but I thought you might want to wear this to the party,¡± Eron awkwardly handed her a small velvet case.

 

¡°What is this?¡± Erika asked, taking the case, bewildered. She swung the lid open and gasped. It was a golden pendant shaped in the two vertical parallel lines of the Gemini sign with a small, round, rose-tinted cultured pearl dangling from the end of each edge.

 

¡°I know you probably receive lavish gifts from all your extravagant suitors,¡± Eron said. ¡°But I realized that it¡¯s been a while since I¡¯ve given you a gift.¡±

 

Speechless, Erika stroked the pearls with trembling fingers.

 

¡°Pearl is our birthstone, and we¡¯re Gemini,¡± Eron explained.

 

¡°I know¡¦ the sign of the twins,¡± Erika finished off.  ¡°But why¡¦ It¡¯s not necessary¡¦¡± She swallowed.

 

¡°I¡¯ve always wanted to get you nice things if I ever got the chance to,¡± Eron replied, shrugging. ¡°If you don¡¯t like it, you don¡¯t have to wear it.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s not that, I¡¦¡± Erika frowned, remembering Eron searching through the department stores, searching for a fragrance for Sakura for her birthday. Nasty words fell out of her mouth without a reign, though in fact she was touched beyond speech. ¡°Though I have to say your efforts are wasted on me. I¡¯m sure Sakura would be touched if you gave her such a pretty trinket. But I¡¯m sure Syaoran also has that in mind.¡±

 

¡°What are you saying, Erika?¡± Eron demanded, teeth clenched. ¡°Stop bringing her up with every sentence; you¡¯re getting on my nerves.¡±

 

Her twin had never said such cruel words to her before. ¡°It¡¯s your fault. It¡¯s because you like her that you¡¯re just watching her like this, letting them party away happily in holiday season, when they are the most vulnerable, isn¡¯t it?¡± Erika continued. ¡°It¡¯s pathetic what she had done to you!¡±

 

¡°Stop it Erika!¡± Eron said, raising his voice for the first time, then continuing in his quiet, deadly cool voice. ¡°You¡¯re my sister, but that doesn¡¯t mean that I will listen to all the nonsense that you come up with. I too can lose my patience.¡± He yanked the necklace from Erika¡¯s hands and crumpled it in his hand. There was a crack, and he flung it onto the ground. ¡°I¡¯m going to pick up my date for the Winter Wonderland. I trust your date is picking you up here, right? I¡¯ll see you there then. Later.¡±

 

His blue-violet pony-tail swished as he left the living room. As he disappeared from sight, Erika crumpled onto the ground, her knees giving away completely. Though their relationship had been especially tense lately, this was by far the worst argument they had ever had. She had finally done it, made Eron so angry that he reproached her.

 

Unexpected tears flooding her eyes, as she gathered the shattered pearl pendant, which Eron had cracked into half, and clasped it to her aching chest. When was the last time she had cried? Not since she was very little. Her twin had always been patient with her, listened to all her impetuous demands, soothed her, listened to her. Yet what had she ever done for him? Why couldn¡¯t she be more truthful and admit to him that she loved the pendant so much, that she was so grateful, that she was just jealous of Kinomoto Sakura? Why did she have to say such harsh things to him?

 

She heard the front door slam; Eron had left. She ran up to her room and shut the door behind her, gasping, still clutching the broken pendant. Then she dragged a battered trunk, the only worn item in the door and swung it open, There were piles of junk stashed away and she dug through, creating mountains of mess around her. Where is it? I must still have it. It should be here. I kept it all this while¡¦

 

The childish voice sounded in her ear. ¡°See onii-chan brought you a doll! You always wanted a doll to play with, right?¡±

 

¡°Found it,¡± Erika whispered, pulling out a tattered golden-haired doll from the bottom of the trunk with blue eyes that blinked. The paint of the eyebrow had peeled off, the cheek was dirt smudged, the golden hair was tangled beyond combing remedy, and all that remained of her pretty lacy frock was gray rags. ¡°I knew you were still here.¡±

 

Despite her distaste for shabby goods, she tightly hugged the dirty doll, the doll she couldn¡¯t sleep without for years. ¡°Did I tell you? Thank you onii-chan. Thank you. I¡¯m sorry, onii-chan, I¡¯m sorry.¡± Crouching over the floor, her head buried in the doll¡¯s hair, Erika sobbed out loud for the first time since she was seven, with an aching in her heart that she thought had departed when she had received her new powers.

 

******

 

Christmas Eve evening¡¦

 

Though the students who participated in the Children¡¯s Hospital Project were exhausted and pressed for time to prepare, they were still ready in time for the Winter Wonderland tat night, held in Aki¡¯s huge estate.

 

¡°Wow, this place is decorated gorgeously,¡± Sakura exclaimed, taking off her fur-collared coat and revealing her party dress of deep crimson with a flared skirt coming to ankle-length. ¡°Aki-kun¡¯s house is so nice—it¡¯s even larger than Tomoyo-chan¡¯s.¡±

 

¡°No wonder he¡¯s so spoilt,¡± Syaoran said, taking Sakura¡¯s coat along with his. A maid came in a flurry to hang them in the cloakroom. Eriol, Syaoran, Sakura, and Tomoyo had arrived by Tomoyo¡¯s car instead of the pick-up rides arranged by Aki¡¯s chauffeur for those who did not have parents or chauffeurs to drive them to the Akagi estate. More were arriving, crowding the entrance.

 

¡°We¡¯ll go in first,¡± Eriol said, taking Tomoyo¡¯s hand and leading her in.

 

They look so perfect together, Sakura rejoiced. As usual, Tomoyo looked stunning in a deep violet satin dress, her long hair gathered up at the top of her head in bunches of curls held up with clusters of lavender flowers. What guy wouldn¡¯t think Tomoyo-chan isn¡¯t beautiful? Eriol should be enamored by her.

 

¡°Should we go in too?¡± Syaoran asked, holding out his arm. He too looked stunning in a silky dark wine red collared shirt under a black vest with flashes of intricate scarlet embroidery in the edges, and black pants of the same material. It had helped that Tomoyo dropped the hint that Sakura¡¯s dress was red beforehand, however.

 

Taken back, Sakura took a deep breath before placing her hand on Syaoran¡¯s arm, unused to the sudden formality, and they proceed to walk into the ballroom. With each step, Sakura was afraid she might trip over her red Mary Jane high heels.

 

People were already milling around and taking seats at the round dinner tables set to one of the ballroom. On the tables were dark green placards with names written in silver script, indicating where each couple was supposed to sit.

 

¡°Look, we¡¯re there,¡± Sakura pointed to a table covered in red tablecloth and lighted with candles near the center of the ballroom. ¡°Sakura Kinomoto and Syaoran Li,¡± was written in fancy English letters. They took their seats, next to Tomoyo and Eriol who were already settled in.

 

¡°Welcome all of you, to the Winter Wonderland,¡± Aki greeted, stunning in his tuxedo. ¡°Have you met my date yet?¡±

 

They all looked. Bashfully, a petite girl with velvet ribbons in her short auburn hair matching with a soft pale grayish dress that looked like soft snow and matched with her eyes, stepped up from behind Aki.

 

¡°Miho-chan!¡± Sakura exclaimed.

 

¡°Goodness, how did you end up going with him?¡± Syaoran asked. ¡°As far as I¡¯m concerned, he was dateless a few days ago.¡±

 

¡°I took pity on him,¡± Miho shrugged, thought the looks of several third-year girls, glaring at Miho, a mere second-grader who got such a fabulous date and host, said otherwise about Aki¡¯s status. Aki and she took their respective seats at Sakura¡¯s table.

 

¡°Well, who¡¯s the remaining couple to sit at our table?¡± Sakura asked, leaning over to see the name placard.

 

¡°Mizuki Kai and his partner—he didn¡¯t specify who,¡± Aki replied.

 

¡°Ah, that wicked heart-breaker,¡± Naoko exclaimed—she had just arrived with her date. ¡°He told me that he was not coming—ah, no Matsumi-kun, I¡¯m glad to have you as my date.¡±

 

Naoko and her date took their seats at a near-by table, where Chiharu and Takashi were already seated.

 

¡°Who else is at our table?¡± Chiharu asked Naoko.

 

¡°The twins and their dates,¡± Naoko replied, looking over the placards.

 

¡°I wonder who Eron-kun¡¯s date is,¡± Sakura pondered.

 

¡°Who cares,¡± Syaoran replied, crossly, as if remembering that Sakura had almost ended up as Eron¡¯s date if he had not intervened.

 

¡°Eron-kun is quite popular among the girls,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°I¡¯m sure many girls were dying to be his date.¡±

 

¡°Oooh!!! Who is that girl? How did she get to be Chang-kun¡¯s date?¡± some girls at another table whispered loudly. ¡°She¡¯s not even that pretty! Quite plain, I declare.¡±

 

Sakura turned around to recognize the slight, mouse-like girl who walked nervously beside Eron, charming in a navy blue suit. And the girl¡¯s eyes were shining like diamond stars.

 

In pleasant surprise, Sakura exclaimed, ¡°Yuri-chan! You were Eron-kun¡¯s date! That¡¯s wonderful!¡±

 

Nodding blithely, Yuri mouthed, ¡°I didn¡¯t even dream he would ask me.¡±

 

Sakura smiled warmly at Eron. He must be a nice guy after all, to make Yuri so happy. As if embarrassed, Eron nodded his head in greeting and then busied himself pushing the chair back for Yuri to sit in.

 

¡°That¡¯s the girl from the orphanage he used to be in, isn¡¯t it?¡± Syaoran asked her.

 

¡°Wow, were you listening back then?¡± Sakura replied. ¡°You always get angry whenever I talk of Eron, so I didn¡¯t realize you actually paid attention to what I said.¡±

 

¡°Humph. Hold out your left wrist,¡± Syaoran said, ignoring her.

 

¡°Why?¡± Sakura held out her hand. She was surprised once again when Syaoran tied a beautiful corsage of fresh red roses and sprays of tiny white flowers that gave out a fragrant sent. The red ribbon of the band matched perfectly with the shade of her dress.

 

¡°There!¡± Syaoran said, watching Sakura¡¯s expression change to delight.

 

¡°It¡¯s so pretty!¡± she exclaimed, holding up her left wrist. It was her very first corsage.

 

¡°I know. You like pretty things,¡± Syaoran said, smiling dreamily.

 

¡°Syaoran-kun can¡¯t take his eyes off Sakura-chan,¡± Tomoyo whispered to Eriol, who smiled amusedly.

 

¡°Seems like Li-kun¡¯s manners have improved dramatically,¡± Eriol replied. ¡°He¡¯s really changed. But those two never fail to surprise me.¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ Wonder if Mizuki-sempai is coming,¡± Miho commented, nibbling at the rolls set in the center of the table. ¡°I¡¯m hungry; are they serving the food soon?¡±

 

¡°Ah, yes, almost everyone¡¯s here,¡± Aki said, looking around. He stared at Miho then proclaimed, ¡°Hmm¡¦ Miho-chan; you look very cute today.¡±

 

¡°Shut up Aki-sempai,¡± Miho replied flatly. ¡°You¡¯re not getting my first kiss by merely flattering me.¡±

 

¡°Ouch, Assistant Editor. Be nicer to your host and Editor-in-Chief,¡± Aki said, grinning good-naturedly. Miho¡¯s spunk did impress him—no other girl was so blunt with him, besides his sister, that was. Then he got up to the podium and cleared his throat. The butler rang a bell and the background music volume was lowered. Aki proceeded. ¡°Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the Winter Wonderland hosted by your one and only Akagi Aki this year. Firstly, I would like to thank all of you wonderful Seijou Junior High students for being here, and I will declare that this would be the best ball ever—better than the one held at Eitoukou. Ahem. I would also like to dedicate this ball to all the wonderful members of the journalism club and choir who worked hard on a Christmas project at the children¡¯s hospital—we spent the entire day at the hospital, but we¡¯re here now, tired in body we are, but still with plenty of energy left to party! Well then, let us make this the best Christmas Eve ever! Everyone, enjoy yourselves and let us have fun!  Without further ado, dinner shall be served!¡±

 

Everyone clapped heartily, and Aki took his seat again. Almost immediately, the servers came in with the steaming cream soup.

 

 

 

¡°Brrr¡¦ It¡¯s freezing outside,¡± Meilin said, shivering as they entered the Akagi estate after Kai parked. Despite Kai¡¯s speed-driving, they were late nonetheless.

 

¡°Should I warm you with my body?¡± Kai asked, holding out his arms. He had for once broken his all black code by wearing a shimmery wine red colored tie in the Christmas spirit, matching with red tinted glasses. 

 

¡°No thank you,¡± Meilin replied shortly, placing her hand in the middle of his chest and pushing him back. ¡°Wow—I can¡¯t believe I slept for the entire day. I must haven been really tired, though that airplane ride was so nice—you got us first class seats.¡±

 

¡°Well, I didn¡¯t want your legs to be cramped on the way over, because I wanted you to be fresh and pretty as always,¡± Kai replied. ¡°See, I even parked my car at the airport so I could drive you straight over to Tomoeda—good thing because you fell asleep in the car yesterday.¡±

 

¡°It must be convenient being able to drive,¡± Meilin said enviously. ¡°To be able to anywhere you want, anytime you want to.¡±

 

¡°But I can be your driver, your wings, anything, and take you anywhere you want, anytime,¡± Kai replied, fastening a golden bracelet on Meilin¡¯s wrist, next to the silver one with the microchip, instead of a corsage.

 

Do not fall for this person¡¯s sweet-talking, Meilin reminded herself. ¡°Don¡¯t I get a corsage?¡±

 

Kai¡¯s reasoning for gold instead of flowers was ¡°Because corsages are cheap and tacky.¡±

 

¡°But I never got a corsage before¡¦¡± Meilin protested. Her last year date didn¡¯t have the sense to get her one.

 

From thin air he drew out a single flawless white rose. With a twist of his fingers, he somehow wove the rose into a thin white ribbon, then tied it around Meilin¡¯s wrist with an intricate bow. ¡°Satisfied, mademoiselle?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s beautiful, but it doesn¡¯t match with my dress,¡± Meilin said.

 

¡°White matches with all beautiful girls. Because white is for purity,¡± Kai replied.

 

Sometimes Kai left Meilin flabbergasted and speechless, and this was one of those times.

 

As they entered the ballroom, they found everyone already had started dinner, and all heads turned their way. Mostly because they were curious to see who Kai, the flirty but untouchable, had brought.

 

¡°Figured. It¡¯s Li Meilin—but isn¡¯t she supposed to be in Hong Kong?¡± Naoko commented. 

 

¡°Kai-kun! Over here!¡± Sakura waved, recognizing the spiked golden orange hair immediately.

 

¡°He finally showed up,¡± Syaoran said. Then his mouth dropped to see who Kai had brought. ¡°Meilin!¡±

 

¡°Syaoran! Did you miss me?¡± Meilin exclaimed, running up to him. She had flied in from Hong Kong too late last night, so she had just slept at Kai¡¯s, not wanting to wake Syaoran up.

 

¡°It hasn¡¯t been that long¡¦ a couple weeks,¡± Syaoran replied, befuddled.

 

¡°Ah, I¡¯m hurt. Syaoran didn¡¯t even miss me,¡± Meilin said, hanging her head down.

 

¡°No, no, I missed you; I¡¯m just¡¦ surprised, that¡¯s all,¡± Syaoran refuted rapidly. ¡°When you get here?¡±

 

¡°Late last night,¡± Meilin replied.

 

¡°So that¡¯s where Kai-kun disappeared off to yesterday, missing out on school again,¡± Sakura said, shaking her head. But she was pretty impressed to see the extents Kai took for his party date.

 

¡°I say it¡¯s amazing that he showed up to the hospital project today,¡± Syaoran commented.

 

 

The five-course dinner, including cream soup, mixed green salad, seafood pasta, t-bone steak, and desert of apple pie a la mode kept everyone busy for the next hour. Afterwards, the tables and chairs were cleared and pushed to one corner to make room on the dance floor.

 

¡°Wah, I¡¯m so full my stomach is bulging out from my dress,¡± Miho said, leaning back on her chair.

 

¡°Not bad, not bad,¡± Kai commented. ¡°Not as good as my Mei-chan¡¯s cooking though.¡±

 

¡°Who do you think is your ¡®Mei-chan¡¯?¡± Meilin demanded.

 

The dance music drifted on and couples moved on to the dance floor.

 

¡°Don¡¯t tell me you expect me to dance with you in this dress,¡± Meilin said as Kai led her to the dance floor.

 

¡°Of course I do. I did not fetch you all the way from Hong Kong to watch you pig out,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°Ha.¡± Meilin pouted. This guy was so pushy, it was impossible to get her way around him, conflicting with her bossy personality. The problem was he knew her too well, and he knew how to get what he wanted out of her, even against her will. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me you are a superb dancer also.¡±

 

It turned out that Kai, as expected, was a superb dancer on top of all his other accomplishments. ¡°You are surprisingly like a stick when you dance,¡± Kai commented as Meilin stepped on his foot once again.

 

¡°So sorry,¡± Meilin replied defensively but clearly embarrassed. ¡°Told you that you shouldn¡¯t have asked me to dance. I¡¯ve been training with the sharp movements in martial arts, so I¡¯m not good at swaying and moving to music, that¡¯s all.¡± It didn¡¯t help that being with Kai made her more nervous than usual, so she blundered more than ever.

 

¡°It¡¯s all right,¡± Kai said, placing a hand on her waist. ¡°Loosen up, sway your hips more. Don¡¯t be so tense, I¡¯m not going to bite you. You¡¯re getting the hang of it.¡±

 

Oooh, I hate this guy when he does his sexy talk, Meilin thought. It¡¯s better when he teases me or makes me angry. When he¡¯s in his charming mode, I know he¡¯ll end up making me feel really stupid or silly, and it scares me when he¡¯s so suave—I feel like he wants something from me, as if he is using me, and I don¡¯t even mind because I am charmed by him.

 

¡°Where did you learn your dancing, in the midst of all your thieving and escapades?¡± Meilin asked sarcastically. ¡°In a strip bar?¡±

 

With a straight face, Kai replied, ¡°How did you know?¡± When he saw Meilin freeze into stone, he chuckled. ¡°Just kidding, just kidding.¡±

 

¡°I never know when you are jesting and when you are sincere,¡± Meilin said, scowling.

 

¡°Don¡¯t you know how fun it is to tease you?¡± Kai said, winding her long ebony hair around his finger. ¡°But don¡¯t scowl, Mei-chan, or else Santa won¡¯t come.¡±

 

He¡¯s always playing with me. I think he is amused by me. But even if he thinks of me as a toy, as a pastime, I can¡¯t say I mind all that much. Meilin placed a hand on his shoulder to his surprise, and tip-toed to whisper in his ear, ¡°But he already came.¡±

 

 

 

Most of the couples were on the dance floor, while a few sat around in the dining tables, watching. Sakura and Syaoran just sat side-by-side, watching, talking to each other in low voices.

 

¡°You know, I think Meilin-chan and Kai-kun are a lot closer than we ever suspected,¡± Sakura commented, watching the two and realizing for the first time how good they looked together, in an odd, striking sort of way, for they were the opposite from each other in terms of coloring and personality. Yet her dark hair against his dark hair, her edginess to his suaveness, her bluntness to his indirect nature somehow complemented each other.

 

Sipping the ice water, Syaoran replied, ¡°I¡¯ve never seen her get so comfortable with someone outside the family, either. Besides with you and Tomoyo.¡±

 

¡°Envious? How does Mizuki-kun always get all the hot girls, huh?¡± Aki commented, leaning over their chairs. ¡°Come on, you two, why aren¡¯t you dancing? Romeo and Juliet, the waltzing couple wasting away the evening merely sitting and watching others? That¡¯s unheard of! Come on to the dance floor; we¡¯ll have the next song dedicated to you too.¡± Aki grabbed Syaoran and Sakura¡¯s arm.

 

Fellow Star-Crossed cast-members on the dance floor looked over their way and whistled. ¡°Go Romeo-kun! Show your waltzing abilities. Hahaha¡¦¡±

 

¡°Here, everyone¡¯s waiting,¡± Aki said, tugging once more.

 

Sakura and Syaoran exchanged glances and nodded. They slipped from Aki¡¯s grasp and grabbed each other¡¯s hands and ran out of the ballroom, avoiding various friends calling for them.

 

¡°Hey wait, where are you guys going?¡± Aki called out. ¡°If you don¡¯t want to dance with Li-kun, Sakura-chan, I¡¯ll dance with¡¦¡± He was cut off by Miho bonking him on the head and storming off.

 

Heedless of Aki and almost running into the butler, they ran up the grand staircase and down the first hallway. When they reached a secluded parlor in the grand estate, Sakura and Syaoran stopped to catch their breaths.

 

¡°Whew, that guy is so nagging and persistent,¡± Syaoran said, leaning against the wall for support.

 

¡°Gosh, this house is huge—I¡¯m so out of breath,¡± Sakura panted.

 

Chuckling, Syaoran commented, ¡°Funny how we are always running off in the middle of parties. Have we ever made it through an entire party yet?¡±

 

¡°Hmm¡¦¡± Sakura began to tick off on her fingers. ¡°Last Winter Wonderland, we had to fight off the Twister, the New Year¡¯s Eve Party in New York, we were involved in some climatic confrontation of the Stalker, the Invisible, and¡¦¡±

 

¡°The Explosive.¡±

 

¡°Right, the Explosive,¡± Sakura continued. ¡°Oh, the fireworks at the Times Square Countdown were amazing, I remember. Anyway, and then the after-party of the Best Couple Contest—¡°

 

¡°Oh yeah, the yacht had a leak in it,¡± Syaoran recalled.

 

¡°Whew, that gave me quite a fright—remember how you were standing there sticking your finger in through the hole? As if that would help.¡± Sakura giggled.

 

¡°Shut up—it was an emergency situation,¡± Syaoran grumbled, ears turning red.

 

¡°All the same, I hope this holiday won¡¯t be interrupted with anything,¡± Sakura said, peering out the window at the great fountain in the shape of a fish in the lush Akagi gardens twinkling with Christmas lights. ¡°I really wish for peace for once. And I¡¯m exhausted from all the preparation for the Christmas Project over the past two weeks.¡±

 

¡°Well, high-and-mighty Chang Eron seems to have the same thought going through his mind for once,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°He wasn¡¯t smiling maliciously for a change. Though I can¡¯t be too sure what his wicked twin has up her sleeve—she didn¡¯t show up today, and she never misses parties.¡±

 

¡°Who knows,¡± Sakura replied, fiddling with her corsage. Erika puzzled her. The fox-like girl was well admired by the guys and despised by most of the girls. Yet, most of the girls were merely jealous of Erika¡¯s prettiness and the charm she could display when she desired something from someone. Unlike Eron who was always observant an on guard, Erika seemed ambivalent to all that happened around her. The only person who seemed to have any influence over her, or she truly paid any heed to was definitely her twin brother. Though she did seem to care more about Syaoran than she let on. Probably because Syaoran saw her for who she really was. Even though this didn¡¯t always please her, she still seemed to have some sort of grudging respect for Syaoran. Which was why Sakura was secretly very glad that Erika did not ask Syaoran to the Winter Wonderland this year. Despite herself, she yet held a grudge in her heart, for the image of Erika dancing in Syaoran¡¯s arm with a triumphant smile had left a permanent scar.

 

They stood silently for a while, listening to the slow rhythm of the music faintly drifting up from downstairs.

 

¡°Do you want to go back now?¡± Syaoran asked, though personally he was not too crazy about over-crowded places.

 

¡°Let¡¯s stay here a little longer. It¡¯s nicer up here,¡± Sakura said. It would have been too embarrassing to dance with Syaoran in front of everyone. Doing it during rehearsals was a different matter. ¡°Quieter. Less people.¡± 

 

¡°Yeah. And by the way, I would certainly not want Erika as my date.¡±

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Oh yeah¡¦ Stupid, unreliable telepathic communication. It never works when I want to use it, but he always seems to know what my thoughts are. Sakura pouted; she knew she was being petty, but she couldn¡¯t help it. ¡°But you went with her last year.¡±

 

Sighing in exasperation, Syaoran said, ¡°She asked me, and I had no choice. Besides¡¦ well, it¡¯s a long story. But really, believe me, you¡¯re the only person that I ever wanted to ask to anywhere.¡± As if embarrassed by his sudden burst of earnestness, he smoothed his hair and stammered, ¡°Ah, well, I¡¯m not really into social gatherings anyway, but¡¦¡±

 

Ears turning red, Sakura pretended to be preoccupied with something else. Thinking about it, this was the first time Syaoran had asked her to a formal dance. Placing her hand on the glass doors leading to a balcony, Sakura looked up at the misty sky and gasped, ¡°Look, it¡¯s snowing!¡± She swung the glass panes open and stepped out. The frosty bite of the winter night sent a shiver down her spine, and her scarlet dress billowed. The dance music from the floor beneath could be heard even more distinctly.

 

¡°Silly, it¡¯s freezing outside—you don¡¯t even have a coat on,¡± Syaoran said, stepping up behind her and rubbing her arms.

 

Doesn¡¯t he know that his touch makes me tingle more than the cold? Sakura looked over her shoulder to see Syaoran, head turned up to the sky intently.

 

¡°Where do you see snow?¡± Syaoran asked, squinting. ¡°The sky is clear for all I can see.¡±

 

¡°I swear I saw a snowflake fall from the sky!¡± Sakura exclaimed.

 

¡°Ha ha¡¦ Maybe it was a speck in your eye,¡± Syaoran chuckled.

 

¡°Fine, don¡¯t believe me. But I saw it!¡± Sakura huffed waving her arms around wildly, pointing to the sky.

 

¡°I believe you,¡± Syaoran murmured, grabbing hold of her wrists then spinning her around to his chest.

 

¡°Huh?¡± Sakura held her breath, gazing up at Syaoran¡¯s face, flushed from the cold, his amber eyes glimmering like the thousands of Christmas lights decorating the house.

 

He took a step back and held out a hand. ¡°May I have the honor of a dance?¡±

 

Heart, stop pounding like an idiot, Sakura prayed, as she nodded. He¡¯ll hear and laugh at me. But then, this is the first time Syaoran has ever asked me to dance outside of school play context; those don¡¯t count.

 

Blushing, Sakura placed one tentative hand on Syaoran¡¯s shoulder, the other entwined in his. His hand on her waist burned like coals and a thrilling warmth spread through her body as they swayed slowly to the music which filtered through the silent night in the Eve of Christmas, the chill of the winter air betrayed only by the misty puffs of their breaths and the sparse sugary flakes lazily drifting down onto the marble balcony.

 

The song seemed to last forever, the pleasant forever, the kind where one wishes it really would never end, for they were oblivious to all else except eachother. Finally, Syaoran blinked, gazing up at the sky. ¡°Why, it¡¯s snowing.¡±

 

¡°I told you,¡± Sakura said, blinking the snowflakes from her lashes. ¡°And you didn¡¯t believe me.¡±

 

¡°And I told you I believe you, silly,¡± Syaoran said, wiping a wet droplet from Sakura¡¯s lips. ¡°Your lips are turning blue. You must be cold. I wonder how long we¡¯ve been standing out here.¡± He took her hands and rubbed them with his, blowing on them.

 

¡°I love the snow though. It¡¯s so pretty. I remember how you told me last Christmas how you like watching snowflakes because though they all seem to be alike but each one of them is different,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Did I?¡± Syaoran asked absentmindedly watching the snow grow broader.

 

¡°I wonder what time it is,¡± Sakura commented.

 

¡°That¡¯s why you¡¯re always late for everything,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°You never wear a watch.¡±

 

¡°Yes I do,¡± Sakura said. ¡°Only not today, because it didn¡¯t go with my dress. Besides, I¡¯ve had it for five years and it¡¯s rather battered.¡±

 

¡°Is it the one Yukito-san gave you back in elementary?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Huh¡¦ Yeah. How did you know?¡±

 

Smiling ruefully, he said, ¡°Don¡¯t you remember what a fuss you made when you lost it when we were capturing the Snow card?¡± It broke my heart to see you cry because you lost it. But it broke my heart more because it meant so much to you because of the person who gave it to you.

 

¡°Why do you have such a good memory?¡± Sakura grumbled. The childish side of her that she would rather choose to forget. Syaoran remembered them all.

 

¡°What are you doing tomorrow?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Umm¡¦ Nothing much¡¦ Just the annual Christmas dinner at Tomoyo-chan¡¯s house as usual.¡±

 

¡°Good¡¦ Then, uh¡¦ do you want to go to the amusement park tomorrow?¡±

 

¡°Amusement park? Really?¡± Sakura exclaimed. ¡°Can the others come too or¡¦¡±

 

¡°Just the two of us,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°And don¡¯t you dare be late. In fact, I don¡¯t trust you. I¡¯ll just have to give you your Christmas present early.¡±

 

¡°Christmas present?¡±

 

¡°This is for you,¡± Syaoran said, taking out a long rectangular case from his pocket.

 

¡°Wait, I have your present for you too. You better not be late tomorrow,¡± Sakura replied, taking out a slightly larger rectangular case.

 

They stared at the two almost identical cases with skepticism.

 

¡°Can I open it?¡± Sakura asked, fingering the lid.

 

¡°Go on ahead,¡± Syaoran said, weighing his present on his hands.

 

¡°Let¡¯s open it at the same time,¡± Sakura proposed.

 

¡°Sure.¡±

 

¡°One, two, three!¡±

 

They flung the lids open, stared at the matching watches, then eyed each other. Simultaneously, they clasped it on their left wrists and held up their hands against each other¡¯s. Their lips twitched then they burst out laughing.

 

¡°How did you know I wanted this watch?¡± Sakura demanded, stroking the elegant flower petal-shaped watch face with its dainty wristband. ¡°But they were all sold out.¡±

 

¡°I knew you would like it,¡± Syaoran said, grinning crookedly. He had not noticed the male version of the watch, leaf-faced pattern, at the store. Matching watches with Sakura. ¡°Talk about coincidence.¡±

 

¡°Seriously. Thank you Syaoran—I don¡¯t know how you can read my mind sometimes, but you do. Really, such nice gifts are not necessary at all. But I love it so much, anyway.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m really glad,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Thank you also. I really will treasure this watch and honor punctuality. Though I¡¯ve never stood anyone up for a day.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s just once, compared to the million times you kept me waiting,¡± Sakura retorted. ¡°You¡¯re just holding a grudge.¡±

 

¡°I am,¡± Syaoran replied frankly. He muttered beneath his breath, ¡°But this means so much more than that stupid mirror you bought me for my last birthday.¡±

 

¡°Did you say something?¡± Sakura asked, tilting her head.

 

¡°Ah, nothing,¡± Syaoran stammered quickly. ¡°Well then, it¡¯s almost midnight. Do you want to go back in?¡±

 

¡°Good idea,¡± Sakura giggled, brushing the snow off Syaoran¡¯s shirt. ¡°Cold!¡±

 

¡°Silly, whose idea was it to go out on the balcony in this freezing weather without a coat?¡±

 

The Akagi gardener who had been fixing the Christmas lights on the bushes outside chuckled, watching the two fade into the light of the parlor, bickering good-naturedly, forgetting to close the glass doors of the balcony and letting the draft of cold air in.

 

 

 

¡°Where have you two been?¡± Meilin demanded when Sakura and Syaoran took their seats at the dinner table, faces flushed, clothes splattered in wetness and laughter twinkling in their eyes. ¡°It¡¯s very suspicious.¡±

 

¡°Not as suspicious as you being here when you¡¯re supposed to be in Hong Kong,¡± Syaoran muttered. ¡°What¡¯s going on now? Is the dance over?¡±

 

¡°Shh¡¦ Aki-sempai is announcing the Snow King and Queen,¡± Miho said.

 

Clearing his throat at the microphone, Aki announced, ¡°And the winner of the Annual Winter Wonderland Snow King and Queen title this year is¡¦¡± He slowly unfolded the envelope holding the name of the couple with the most number of votes. ¡°Hiirogizawa Eriol as the Snow King and Daidouji Tomoyo as his beautiful Snow Queen.¡±

 

Tomoyo blinked her large violet eyes.

 

¡°Oh my gosh, congratulations Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura squealed, hugging her best friend who looked completely lost in another world. ¡°Go up on the platform and receive your tiara.¡±

 

¡°Come now, Tomoyo-san,¡± Eriol said, offering his arm to Tomoyo.

 

Her cheeks rosy pink and her eyes shining like amethysts, Tomoyo followed Eriol onto the front of the ballroom where they both received crowns. All the girls gazed up at Tomoyo, who had the poise of the greatest queens of earth, in envy.

 

¡°I wonder what the prize is,¡± Syaoran commented. He turned to Sakura. ¡°Why don¡¯t be ever win these kind of things?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t be ridiculous, I think Eriol-kun and Tomoyo-chan are perfect as Snow King and Queen,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Tomoyo, I agree with you, but I don¡¯t see about the glass-eyed freak,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°You two might have gotten it if you didn¡¯t run off in the middle of the dance,¡± Miho pointed out. ¡°We were all disappointed that Romeo and Juliet didn¡¯t lead the dance.¡±

 

Tapping a knife on the wineglass for attention, Aki continued. ¡°And the prize is ten tickets to the amusement park for tomorrow, Christmas day. Have a pleasant date, invite friends along.¡±

 

A butler came up and handed an envelope with the tickets to Tomoyo.

 

¡°What?¡± Syaoran and Sakura had an aghast expression on their faces. Why out of all places did it have to be the amusement park?

 

¡°Well then, it¡¯s a minute to midnight. Thank you everyone for coming and making this the best Winter Wonderland ever, and I hope you enjoyed yourselves. Now, there are ten seconds left till midnight. Let us countdown!¡±

 

¡°Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two!...

 

¡¦ And ONE!!! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!¡±

 

 

******

 

Christmas day¡¦

 

¡°We¡¯re both on time today!¡± Sakura exclaimed the next day, standing at the gates of the amusement park. The jingling of the parade music, the whirling of the engines, the bright colored lights, the shouts of exhilaration—there was no place quite like an amusement park.

 

¡°We all came together, that¡¯s why,¡± Syaoran grumbled, glaring at the people streaming out of Tomoyo¡¯s van behind him. How did this happen? It¡¯s just my luck.

 

Tomoyo had dutifully distributed the tickets to her friends. The ten were taken by her and Eriol, Sakura and Syaoran, Kai and Meilin, Aki and Miho, and Eron and Erika because all the others had previous plans.

 

¡°It¡¯s like Christmas back at home,¡± Meilin exclaimed, patting Syaoran on the shoulder. ¡°Remember those good old days when we with your sisters to the amusement park in Hong Kong?¡±

 

¡°Wow, I haven¡¯t been in an amusement park in ages,¡± Kai commented, looking around at the long lines for the rides.

 

¡°That would be in your pre-kaitou days, I presume,¡± Meilin said.

 

Shrugging, Kai took Meilin¡¯s arm and stated, ¡°Well, let¡¯s head along this way.¡±

 

¡°Why?¡± Meilin wailed as Kai dragged her to the long line to the Freefall ride.

 

¡°Silly, Syao-kun probably wants some time alone with Sakura-chan, right?¡± Kai winked.

 

¡°Oh¡¦ That¡¯s right! This will be their first Christmas date then!¡± Meilin turned around. ¡°Miho-chan, come with us! We¡¯re riding the Freefall ride!¡±

 

¡°Eh? It looks scary!¡± Miho squealed.

 

¡°No, no, it¡¯s not scary at all!¡± Meilin reassured. ¡°Hurry, let¡¯s get into line before more people show up.¡±

 

¡°Miho-chan, where are you going?¡± Aki called out, chasing after Miho. ¡°Remember, we¡¯re supposed to do a joint article on ¡®Christmas Spirit.¡¯¡±

 

¡°Ha! Joint article? I¡¯ll be the one writing it anyway,¡± Miho stated.

 

¡°Why are you talking about work on a holiday?¡± Kai groaned, glaring at Meilin. He was more aiming for time alone together.

 

Sakura, Syaoran, Eriol, and Tomoyo watched the four fade off into the crowd.

 

¡°Which ride do you guys want to ride first?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°I want to go on the water ride!¡±

 

¡°Okay, let¡¯s go!¡± Tomoyo stated, camcorder in record mode.

 

Shaking his head, Syaoran followed; Eriol merely smiled.

 

¡°Hurry up, Eron-kun!¡± Sakura called out at Eron, who was still standing at the entrance, staring off into space.

 

¡°Huh?¡± Eron looked up.

 

¡°Wait a second, where¡¯s Erika-chan?¡± Tomoyo asked. ¡°Didn¡¯t she come with us?¡±

 

¡°You guys go ahead. I¡¯ll find her and catch up,¡± Eron said, frowning. That wretched Erika. She¡¯s still sulking from yesterday! And I took the trouble of bringing her here.

 

Watching Eron run off to a different direction, Sakura murmured, ¡°He seems sort of different today. Did something happen between him and Erika?¡±

 

¡°Who knows?¡± Syaoran said. ¡°It¡¯s their problem.¡±

 

 

 

Slowly trudging down a path, Erika breathed in the deep scent of buttery popcorn, sweet cotton candy and cinnamon sticks. The shrieks of the children made her headache, and it was far too overcrowded for her liking. She hadn¡¯t wanted to come at all; Eron had made her. So this is what an amusement park is like. It¡¯s not that big of a deal at all.

 

She looked up and around her; she could feel her twin approaching. So, he noticed that I was missing? I thought his eyes were glued only on Sakura. Tossing her hair back, she took a turn and headed the opposite direction. The rollercoaster was about to take off. She jumped on.

 

 

 

¡°Wah! I got all wet because of the ride!¡± Sakura exclaimed, brushing off the water droplets from her white wool coat.

 

¡°Silly, you¡¯re the one who wanted to sit in the front,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Come here.¡± He dragged her behind the lavatories where there was no one, and swept out a wind ofuda, blowing her dry in five seconds.

 

¡°Ah, thanks!¡± Sakura exclaimed, readjusting the beret on her head.

 

¡°Shouldn¡¯t you exercise more precaution when you¡¯re using your magic?¡± Eriol commented.

 

¡°But we didn¡¯t want Sakura to catch a cold in her wet clothes,¡± Tomoyo said in Syaoran¡¯s defense.

 

¡°That¡¯s right,¡± Eriol said. ¡°Where next? How about the haunted house?¡±

 

¡°Hoe-e¡¦ No!¡± Sakura squealed.

 

¡°Hoe-e, yes!¡± Eriol replied, smiling extra sweetly. ¡°It¡¯s right over there.¡± He pointed to a creepy, run-down wood house.

 

¡°Sadist,¡± Syaoran muttered.

 

¡°In, in,¡± Eriol said, moving everyone into the haunted house.

 

¡°Come on, I¡¯ll be by your side; you won¡¯t have to be afraid,¡± Syaoran reassured.

 

¡°O-okay,¡± Sakura said, taking a tentative step in.¡±

 

¡°Welcome to the house of horrors,¡± the deep, creepy voice of Frankenstein enounced at the entrance.

 

¡°HOE-E!!!¡±

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you going in?¡± Tomoyo asked Eriol, who had an evil smile. ¡°What do you plan on doing?¡±

 

¡°Nothing much,¡± Eriol replied blandly. ¡°Just have a little bit of fun.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s not very nice; you know how scared of ghosts Sakura is,¡± Tomoyo stated. 

 

¡°But it will give Syaoran a chance to have her run to his arms,¡± Eriol pointed out.

 

¡°That¡¯s true,¡± Tomoyo agreed. ¡°It will be kind of funny, I guess.¡±

 

 

 

¡°Why does the floor creak so much?¡± Sakura asked, looking around the pitch darkness, a path lit dimly by greenish torches.

 

Her hand brushed against something soft and sticky. Spiderwebs.

 

¡°AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!¡± Sakura stepped back, stumbling on a loose board on the floor.

 

¡°Silly, nothing in here is for real,¡± Syaoran said, catching her from falling. ¡°You¡¯re so brave in all manners, I don¡¯t know why you¡¯re so scared of ghosts.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s not my fault; onii-chan always told me such horrible stories about ghosts waiting around the corners when I was little, that even now, I can¡¯t help being a little paranoid, though I know half of them were not true,¡± Sakura said, continuing to walk. ¡°You would be too if you were brainwashed from such an early age.¡±

 

¡°I wonder if his attempt to protect you from going to dangerous places when you were little has backfired on you now that you are older,¡± Syaoran commented. After all, he knew that Touya had scared his younger sister in the best interest for her, to protect her from harm¡¯s way.

 

Shaking her head, Sakura replied, ¡°Still, I don¡¯t blame ¡®nii-chan. It¡¯s my own fault that I¡¯m such a coward now.¡± 

 

 

 

From outside the haunted house, Eriol murmured, striking down his sun staff, ¡°Now let the show begin!¡±

 

¡°How sinister,¡± Tomoyo sighed. ¡°I wish I was in there so I could videotape.¡±

 

¡°Not a good idea,¡± Eriol replied, smiling.

 

Looking up at Eriol, Tomoyo wondered, how she ended up liking someone even more eccentric than herself. 

 

 

 

¡°Ooh¡¦ What¡¯s this noise?¡± Sakura asked, turning around to Syaoran. ¡°Where¡¯s the end? I can¡¯t wait to get out of here. It¡¯s so creepy.¡± Then she looked back again. ¡°Syaoran? Are you there? Syaoran?¡± Great. Now I got separated. Taking a deep breath, she continued forward. There was no point in losing composure. After all, I¡¯m not a little kid anymore. This is only a man-made haunted house in an amusement park. I¡¯m not going to get scared. But it¡¯s so dark and eery¡¦

 

At that moment, a slimy cold hand grasped her ankle. Sakura froze. She looked up to see a malformed greenish monster with one eye on its forehead drop from the ceiling.

 

¡°AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!¡±

 

 

 

¡°See, that wasn¡¯t so bad, wasn¡¯t it?¡± Syaoran asked as he exited on the other side of the haunted house. He turned around. To his dismay, Sakura was not there. ¡°Sakura?¡± He looked around. ¡°Sakura? Shoot.¡±

 

 

 

A banshee in a white robe and silver hair chased after her this time. The haunted house seemed much larger inside than it did from outside. A never-ending labyrinth, the worst torture possible. 

 

¡°NOOOO!!!¡± Sakura ran blindly, stumbling over skeletons scattered on the ground. Tell me this is a nightmare. Is the haunted house supposed to be this realistic?

 

A headless mummy grabbed her wrist.

 

¡°LET GO! LET GO OF ME!¡± Sakura shrieked; the mummy¡¯s grip was iron tight. With all her might, she kicked the mummy hard, and it evaporated.

 

¡°Woohoooooo¡¦ Sakuraaa~ We¡¯re here to get you,¡± a ghost wailed.

 

¡°Go away! All of you!¡± Sakura stated. She took a deep breath and repeated to herself, I¡¯m not scared of ghosts. I¡¯m not afraid of ghosts. I¡¯m not afraid of ghosts. ¡°It¡¯s all right. Syaoran¡¯s waiting at the other side for me. If I reach him, it will be all right.¡±

 

Disregarding the ghost blocking her path, Sakura walked on, head tilted up, steps steady.

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you scared? Don¡¯t you want your mommy?¡± a vampire asked, wiping blood off his chin.

 

¡°N-no,¡± Sakura replied, refusing to look.

 

¡°You¡¯re lying,¡± the vampire scoffed.

 

¡°So what if I am?¡± There, she could see faint light. It must be the exit! Yes, there she saw it. And there was a familiar silhouette of a tall boy in a long coat waiting by the doorway. ¡°Syaoran!¡± She dashed out and emerged in bright daylight again.

 

¡°Sakura!¡± Syaoran ran up to Sakura, who was panting. ¡°Where were you? Weren¡¯t you following me? Why are you sweating? Are you okay?¡±

 

Nodding, Sakura said, ¡°I wasn¡¯t scared by myself. I don¡¯t think I¡¯ll be scared of ghosts anymore. Aren¡¯t you proud of me?¡±

 

¡°Yes, I¡¯m proud of you,¡± Syaoran chuckled. ¡°Your brother is going to be disappointed though.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan! How was the haunted house?¡± Tomoyo asked, running up to them from the other side of the house.

 

¡°Ha ha¡¦¡± Sakura laughed weakly, then sighed. ¡°Horrifying.¡±

 

¡°Wonderful,¡± Eriol said.

 

 

 

¡°I want to ride the merry-go-round!¡± Miho stated, pointing to the carousal with the ornate white, black, brown, and spotted horses.

 

¡°How old are you?¡± Aki asked, rolling his eyes. ¡°That¡¯s so childish; who rides merry-go-rounds at our age?¡±

 

¡°But I want to ride it,¡± Miho said, lower lips trembling.

 

¡°Come, I¡¯ll ride with you,¡± Meilin said.

 

¡°Yay!¡± Miho cheered.

 

¡°Miho-chan is so cute,¡± Meilin laughed, as Miho eagerly chose a white horse with roses decorating it and tried to climb up despite her short skirt.

 

¡°It¡¯s so slippery!¡± Miho said, grasping the poles and trying to heave herself up again. To her surprise, Kai lifted her up and set her on the horse.

 

¡°There you go, Hime-sama who can¡¯t ride a horse for her life,¡± Kai said, chuckling.

 

¡°Ah, thank you, Kai-sempai,¡± Miho stammered.

 

¡°Are you going to ride too?¡± Meilin asked from her black horse.

 

¡°Nah, I¡¯ll keep Aki-kun company,¡± Kai replied. The carrousel music started again and the girls bobbed up and down and turned round and round.

 

¡°Miho-chan¡¯s a cute girl,¡± Aki said, leaning against the railings surrounding the carrousel, watching Miho¡¯s laughing face as she waved at them. ¡°There are many guys who¡¯ll like her when she¡¯s a little older.¡±

 

¡°Oh?¡± Kai twisted the rings on his fingers absentmindedly.

 

¡°She doesn¡¯t seem to be interested in guys though,¡± Aki continued. ¡°Pity because she¡¯s such a cute thing. But she seems to be more intent in finding that idiotic missing brother of hers.¡±

 

¡°Good thing that idiotic brother of hers is missing because I don¡¯t think he will approve of such a lecherous guy praying on her,¡± Kai remarked dryly.

 

¡°Meilin-chan is very attractive too,¡± Aki said. ¡°If it weren¡¯t for her fiery temper, I would¡¦¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t even think of it,¡± Kai threatened in a low voice, cracking his knuckles.

 

¡°Ha ha¡¦ You¡¯re such a scary guy Mizuki-kun,¡± Aki laughed. ¡°I was joking.¡±

 

 

 

It¡¯s kind of like a double date, with me and Syaoran, Tomoyo and Eriol, Sakura thought. ¡°What should we ride next?¡±

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you exhausted yet?¡± Syaoran asked in dismay.

 

¡°But there are so many rides left!¡± Sakura exclaimed.

 

¡°Eriol-kun and I actually want to go see the souvenir shops over there,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°You two can go on more rides. We can meet at the front entrance at five.¡±

 

¡°Hoe-e? I¡¯d like to see the souvenirs too,¡± Sakura stated, following Tomoyo and Eriol.

 

¡°I thought you wanted to go on more rides,¡± Syaoran said, pulling Sakura¡¯s arm.

 

¡°But Syaoran is tired. We can take a break,¡± Sakura said, on her part being considerate because Syaoran looked kind of green after going on the Mad Hatter Tea Party three times in a row.

 

¡°No, I¡¯m fine,¡± Syaoran said firmly. He dragged Sakura along and whispered in Sakura¡¯s ears, ¡°Don¡¯t you see Tomoyo wants to spend some time along with the creep?¡±

 

¡°Oh, that¡¯s right! We were interfering,¡± Sakura exclaimed, following Syaoran docilely. ¡°See you later Tomoyo-chan, Eriol-kun!¡± She waved, then smiled blithely. Tomoyo and Eriol could have a date together for the first time! Perfect opportunity for Tomoyo to confess to Eriol.

 

Over Sakura¡¯s head, who was lost in her own dream world anyway, Syaoran sent a thumbs up signal to Tomoyo, who was walking off with Eriol and reciprocated the sign, winking.

 

 

 

¡°Oww, my feet hurts,¡± Erika grumbled out loud. Her stupid high-heeled boots hurt her toes. How long had she been wondering around in this huge park? What was the point? She slumped down on a bench, sighing. All the while she was wondering around on her own, as she watched all the families, couples, and friends flocking around her. She looked up. Yes, in the distance she could see Eron approaching. Standing up again, she looked around for a place to escape; she spotted the haunted house. Good, he won¡¯t find me in there.

 

Walking through the dimly lit corridors, Erika muttered, ¡°How tacky. Who falls for this kind of thing? It¡¯s so childish¡± Something glinted on the floor and she picked it up. It was a pretty watch in the shape of a flower.

 

¡°Erika, I know you¡¯re in here. Aren¡¯t you tired of playing such childish games? Come out now,¡± Eron called from the entrance.

 

Shoot, he found me. Without much thought, Erika slipped the watch in her suede jacket pocket and ignoring her blistered toes, ran out the side exit. A little way off, she spotted that the Ferris wheel was about to start. Quickly, she entered the carriage and shut the door. Good. He wouldn¡¯t be able to find her for a little longer. Heaving a sigh, she watched the entire amusement park come into view as she rotated higher up around the Ferris wheel.

 

******

 

¡°Are you sure you want to do this?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Yes,¡± Sakura replied, then gulped. They were seated side-by-side on the scariest rollercoaster in the entire museum, the one which had two complete 360 degree revolutions.

 

From a couple cars behind them, Miho wailed, ¡°Wah~ I don¡¯t won¡¯t to ride it anymore. It looks too scary!¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re the one who said you wanted to ride it,¡± Aki grumbled. Be a man, he told himself. He simply could not let out how frightened he was. ¡°Of course if you¡¯re too scared, we can go ride something else¡¦¡± Just then, the safety harness came down over their heads and secured them to their seats.

 

¡°Too late.¡± Kai smirked, from the seat behind them. ¡°If you¡¯re too scared to ride a rollercoaster, don¡¯t blame it on Miho because you are too ashamed to admit it.¡±

 

¡°Shut up! Who said I was afraid?¡± Aki retorted quickly. ¡°As if I would be afraid of a mere amusement park ride.¡±

 

¡°Good to see you¡¯re so self-assured,¡± Kai replied.

 

¡°Isn¡¯t that Syaoran and Sakura-chan there, a couple seats in front of us?¡± Meilin asked, tugging at Kai¡¯s sleeve. ¡°We haven¡¯t seen them for a couple of hours. I wonder where Tomoyo-chan and Eriol-kun are.¡±

 

¡°How cute! They¡¯re having a nice little date together,¡± Kai said. ¡°We would be too, if it weren¡¯t for those tagalongs.¡± He indicated Aki and Miho with a nod of his head.

 

¡°In you dreams, Mizuki Kai,¡± Meilin retorted. Quieter, she murmured, ¡°You idiot.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t call me an idiot, idiot,¡± Kai said, smiling softly as he gazed ahead of him at the auburn-haired girl.

 

Miho turned her head back and stated, ¡°Kai-sempai, don¡¯t you ever call me a coward again if I to through this ride without screaming.¡±

 

¡°I promise on my crooked honor, Miho-hime,¡± Kai replied, the corners of his eyes crinkled, an expression only Meilin glimpsed through the side of his glasses.

 

There was a rumble. Miho took a deep breath. ¡°Well, here we go¡¦¡± The rollercoaster blasted off.

 

¡°AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!¡± Meilin, Miho, and Aki screamed simultaneously, grasping onto their safety harnesses for dear life.

 

Aki looked positively green at the first spin. ¡°T-there¡¯s another one of these?¡± he managed to utter on a steep fall.

 

¡°I-it¡¯s coming ahead.¡± Miho gulped, her short hair completely blown back from her forehead.

 

Then, as they were in the middle of the second revolution, there was a horrible screech as the emergency breaks of the rollercoaster activated, and the cars completely halted.

 

¡°W-what¡¯s happening?¡± Meilin asked in a strained voice, her pigtails flopped over her face. They were suspended completely upside down from the track. The only thing keeping them in tact with their seats was their safety harnesses. Looking down made her feel dizzy because the ground was so far away and looking up made her dizzier, because all she could see was the sky.

 

There were shouts from all over the amusement park as other rides halted. People standing in line stared up at the rollercoaster and pointed, gossiping loudly in horror.

 

¡°Seems like there¡¯s a power outage,¡± Kai replied, looking quite comfortable in his upside position, like a bat in its den.

 

¡°Wah! Get me out of here!¡± Miho wailed. ¡°Get me out here now! It¡¯s scary! I don¡¯t like it!¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t shake the car; what if the entire thing drops to the ground?¡± Aki snapped.

 

¡°Noo!!! Don¡¯t say such things,¡± Miho sniffed, clenching her eyes shut. ¡°I feel like throwing up!¡±

 

¡°I told you not to eat three hot dogs, popcorn, cotton candy and pretzels,¡± Aki chided.

 

¡°Kai, what are you doing?¡± Meilin demanded as Kai somehow released his harness. ¡°That¡¯s dangerous! Stay in your seat!¡±

 

With the ease of a thief, Kai slipped out of his seat and swung his body over to the side of the car, dangling mid-air for a second. Winking, he told them, ¡°Hang on for a second, okay?¡±

 

The trapped passengers pointed at the figure which nimbly half-ran and half-slid down the rollercoaster track to the ground. From the ground, the guards panicked, calling out, ¡°No, please! Stay still! The rescue squad will come soon! Technicians are working at the back-up generator right now!¡±

 

¡°There¡¯s nothing wrong with the generator!¡± a technician called out.

 

Leaping to the ground, Kai said, ¡°Move out of the way; let me take a look at it!¡±

 

¡°Unlicensed people are not allowed¡¦¡± the guard was cut off.

 

Fumbling in his pockets, Kai took out a technician license card and stopped the guard short.

 

******

 

From the Ferris wheel, Erika looked up. Did the ride suddenly halt? She looked out the window. Yes, all the lighting in the entire park had switched off, and she spotted that other rides had also halted. Great. Just great.

 

There was a thud on the side of the carriage. Startled, Erika looked up.

 

¡°Finally found you.¡± Eron, having climbed up from the carriage below, settled in the seat across from Erika. ¡°Now you can¡¯t escape.¡±

 

Erika stared at her knees. Why did Eron have to be so persistent? Why could he never leave her alone?

 

Looking out the window, Eron said in that warm, gentle voice he only used towards her, ¡°Thinking about it, this is our first time in an amusement park, isn¡¯t it? I remember you always dreamed of going to the amusement park when we were at the orphanage. Even on those rare times we had a fieldtrip to the amusement park, you couldn¡¯t go because of your heart. And remember, we promised to go together, someday, when your heart was better?¡±

 

Slowly, Erika looked up to see Eron¡¯s pleasantly smiling face. It was so rare he talked about their childhood. Yes, Eron had stayed behind at the orphanage with her every time there was a fieldtrip, to keep her company.

 

¡°Here we are now, though this isn¡¯t exactly how I planned it to be,¡± Eron said. ¡°I¡¯m sorry. We should have come much sooner. Thinking about it, even after we escaped from there, we¡¯ve been so wrapped up in revenge that we barely spent any time for ourselves. But say, I don¡¯t know about you, but I must say I got a full day¡¯s worth out of the amusement park. Because of you, I had to go on a coaster, into a haunted house, on a Ferris wheel¡¦¡± 

 

It was always like this. Every time she hid, Eron always found her. Every time they fought, he apologized first to her and continued as if nothing had happened. Every time she acted childish, he smiled and accepted all of her immaturity. How did he always manage to find her like this?

 

¡°Thinking about it, you used to hide a lot back in the orphanage, behind the staircase,¡± Eron commented with a lopsided smile. ¡°When the little brats were bullying you.¡±

 

¡°But you always came and took me by the hand and brought me out. And defended me,¡± Erika said quietly. ¡°You always stayed behind in all the fieldtrips, though you probably wanted to go to all those fun places too. I¡¯m sorry.¡± The words hardest to say. She finally said them.

 

Taken back, Eron asked, ¡°What are you sorry for? I wanted to stay back with you. It would have been no fun without you there with me.¡±

 

¡°No, I¡¯m just sorry for everything,¡± Erika burst out, tears overwhelming her eyes as she threw her arm around her twin¡¯s neck. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, onii-chan, I¡¯m sorry. I was really happy yesterday. But I couldn¡¯t just say thank you. I¡¯m sorry.¡±    

 

Stroking her hair like he always used to when they were children, Eron murmured, ¡°It¡¯s all right. I¡¯m sorry too for losing my temper. It¡¯s my fault; I shouldn¡¯t have yelled at you.¡±

 

Sniffling, Erika asked, ¡°Did you stop all the electricity in the amusement park just to trap me in here?¡±

 

¡°Huh? Oh yeah.¡± Eron replied nonchalantly.

 

¡°Are we stuck here?¡± Erika continued, scowling. ¡°Thought at least we are in a pretty comfortable place. I can see some people are suspended upside down over there, in the rollercoaster.¡±

 

¡°Oh! I completely forgot,¡± Eron answered, looking slightly alarmed. He realized that the emergency sirens had gone off and patrol guards were streaming into the park. ¡°Looks quite chaotic down there, doesn¡¯t it?¡±

 

¡°Hurry up and reverse the spell,¡± Erika said. ¡°I want to get out.¡±

 

******

 

¡°Let¡¯s go help Kai-kun,¡± Sakura said, fumbling with her safety harness back in the rollercoaster.

 

¡°Don¡¯t do that, it¡¯s dangerous!¡± Syaoran said, swinging out of his seat and hoisting himself onto the track with his upper-body strength. ¡°I¡¯ll go check on him; you remain here and don¡¯t move, okay?¡±

 

¡°Hyaa!¡± Sakura had already crawled out her seat and was dangerously hanging onto the side of the car. 

 

¡°I told you to stay in your seat!¡± Syaoran said, helping Sakura up.

 

¡°Whew.¡± Sakura looked down over the side of the track at the far-off ground. The spectators seemed like mere ants. ¡°How are we going to get down? I can¡¯t use the Fly card because there are too many people¡¦¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t look down; here, come.¡± Syaoran took her hand.

 

¡°I don¡¯t think it¡¯s a natural power outage,¡± Sakura commented. The Dark One¡¯s aura infiltrated the air.

 

¡°Thinking about it, the twins have been missing for quite a while now,¡± Syaoran commented dryly. ¡°Wonder what kind of mischief they¡¯re up to now.¡±

 

Just then, the rollercoaster began to creak. All around them, the lights switched back on again and various rides rumbled as they switched back on. Sakura and Syaoran glanced at each other, feet planted on the track, horrified.

 

¡°KAI! YOU IDIOT! WHY DID YOU SWITCH IT BACK ON RIGHT NOW?¡± Syaoran shouted to the ground.

 

Coming out of the technical room, Kai shouted back, ¡°I DIDN¡¯T DO ANYTHING! IT JUST WENT BACK ON BY ITSELF!¡±

 

¡°Oh no,¡± Syaoran muttered, as the rollercoaster released its emergency breaks.

 

¡°Wait, there are people on the track!¡± onlookers shouted, pointing.

 

¡°What do we do?¡± Sakura looked up at Syaoran, pallid.

 

¡°RUN!¡± Syaoran called out, and they began leaping down from track to track. His grip on her hand was of iron, practically cutting off her circulation. But all she had to do was jump when he did, and she felt a queer sense that she was levitating slightly, falling slightly, running slightly. With her magical eyes, she looked closer. Now she could see the wind beneath Syaoran¡¯s feet, supporting his weight. Now, the rollercoaster was quickly regaining momentum and it was directly behind them. But Syaoran was quicker. With a final leap, a good 20 feet from the ground, Syaoran and Sakura both jumped off the track.

 

Syaoran landed first and caught Sakura in his arms to ease the impact.

 

¡°Hoe!¡± she squealed, eyes clenched, arms around Syaoran¡¯s neck, not realizing they were finally safe on the ground. With a screech, the rollercoaster came to a halt also, safely reaching the end.

 

¡°Not bad, not bad,¡± Kai clapped, walking up to them. ¡°9.5 on the landing.¡±

 

¡°Shut up Kai. And you¡¯re choking me,¡± Syaoran said to Sakura.

 

¡°Ah, I¡¯m sorry!¡± Sakura opened her eyes and released her arms, blushing furiously.

 

Sighing, Syaoran said, ¡°Once again, please remind me not to follow the footsteps of an ex-thief. It¡¯s just too nerve-wrecking for me.¡±

 

Chuckling, Sakura replied, ¡°Thinking about it, we got into so much trouble together because of Kaitou-kun. At the museum with the Mirror of Truth, being chased by the police in the summer, at the museum again with Shing-san¡¯s Thief of the Night painting¡¦¡±

 

Running up to them from the crowd of spectators, Tomoyo exclaimed, ¡°I¡¯m so glad I didn¡¯t miss anything! I knew it was a good idea to bring my camcorder! That was spectacular!¡±

 

¡°That girl has some scary second instinct for knowing when special events involving Sakura occur,¡± Eriol murmured, following shortly behind her.

 

Wobbly-kneed, Miho, Meilin and Aki stepped out of the rollercoaster and walked towards them.

 

¡°Never again,¡± Aki muttered, face green.

 

¡°Are you feeling okay?¡± Kai asked Miho, who was leaning against Meilin for support.

 

¡°I¡¯m fine, I¡¯m fine,¡± Miho replied, even as she staggered. Yet, she brushed off Kai¡¯s hand when he tried to help her up. ¡°I¡¯m really fine. I wasn¡¯t scared, a bit!¡±

 

¡°Liar,¡± Aki said. ¡°You were screaming in my ear the whole time.¡±

 

¡°So were you, Aki-sempai!¡± Miho retorted, chin tilted up.

 

¡°You really were brave, Miho,¡± Kai said, smiling.

 

¡°I was, wasn¡¯t I?¡± Miho grinned.

 

¡°Well that was enough excitement for one day, wasn¡¯t it?¡± Meilin asked, trying to pin her buns into place again.

 

¡°I agree, why don¡¯t we head back now? It¡¯s time for the Christmas dinner soon,¡± Tomoyo said.

 

¡°Good idea,¡± everyone agreed.

 

¡°Umm¡¦ Syaoran?¡± Sakura asked timidly.

 

¡°What?¡±

 

¡°You can put me down now,¡± Sakura said, turning redder. He had been holding her since they jumped off the rollercoaster tracks.

 

¡°No,¡± Syaoran replied, straight-faced but with amber eyes twinkling in amusement.

 

¡°Hoe? Let me down!¡± Sakura exclaimed pounding on Sakura¡¯s chest. Then she came to sudden realization as she stared at her left wrist. ¡°My watch is gone!¡±

 

¡°Your watch? Do you usually wear one?¡± Meilin asked.

 

¡°I lost my watch! I have to find it!¡± Sakura said frantically. ¡°Where could I have lost it? How would I ever be able to find it in this huge amusement park.¡±

 

¡°Come on, let¡¯s split up and look for it,¡± Tomoyo said, levelheaded as usual. ¡°Tell us what it looks like and where you¡¯ve went to today. I¡¯ve been videotaping you most of the day so we¡¯ll probably be able to figure out where you last had it.¡±

 

Reviewing the camcorder, they found that Sakura had the flower-shaped watch on until at least before the haunted house.

 

¡°Thinking about it, I think it might have slipped off my wrist when one of the creepy creatures in the haunted house grabbed my arm,¡± Sakura commented.

 

¡°Good, you and Syaoran search there,¡± Tomoyo said. ¡°The others will search the other places you went to, just in case, okay!¡±

 

 

 

¡°It¡¯s not anywhere!¡± Sakura cried in despair, sinking to her knees in the haunted house after having searched every corner of it three times. She didn¡¯t even notice the creepy surrounding anymore.

 

Syaoran set down the ofuda with light on the floor and crouched down next to her. ¡°Hey, we¡¯ve been searching for it for almost an hour now. Why don¡¯t we just give it up and go back? Everyone will be waiting, and we have a Christmas dinner to get to.¡±

 

Shaking her head furiously, Sakura replied, ¡°B-but you got me that watch.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right; I¡¯ll get you another watch, okay?¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Now let¡¯s go back.¡±

 

¡°No, it¡¯s the watch that Syaoran got for me,¡± Sakura sniffed. She crawled around on her knees, groping the ground. ¡°It must be here somewhere.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan, did you find it?¡± Meilin asked, coming into the haunted house. ¡°It¡¯s closing hours—they¡¯re shutting down the park early because it¡¯s Christmas day.¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t it yet; I have to find it,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Come on Sakura, it¡¯s only a watch,¡± Meilin said. ¡°We¡¯ll all be late for the Christmas dinner.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan, are you still in there?¡± Tomoyo called from the entrance. ¡°I¡¯m sorry but the chauffeur said we have to hurry. My mother called—all the guests have gathered already. And your brother is waiting, too.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not going back until I find it,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°I¡¯m sorry. You guys go on ahead without me.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan!¡± Meilin cried out in dismay.

 

¡°No, Sakura, go back with them; I¡¯ll stay behind and look for it, okay?¡± Syaoran said, pulling Sakura to her feet and pushing her towards the exit door.

 

¡°If you stay back, I¡¯ll stay back too,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°I have to find the watch.¡±

 

¡°No, didn¡¯t you hear? Your brother would get suspicious if you and I both disappear together,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°And it¡¯s too dangerous for you to stay back all by yourself in a place like this, in the nighttime. So go back. It¡¯s Christmas. You have to spend it with your family—your brother, father, aunt, great-grandfather, they¡¯re all waiting for you. I¡¯ll catch up in and hour, okay? I¡¯ll definitely find your watch for you.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s a good idea,¡± Tomoyo said, dragging Sakura towards the van. She certainly did not want to face Touya¡¯s wrath when he realized that they had left Sakura back at the amusement park.

 

¡°No, I¡¯m staying back too,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Didn¡¯t you hear?¡± Meilin asked. ¡°Your brother will throw a fit if you¡¯re missing. Syaoran¡¯s a big boy. He¡¯ll find you watch for you.¡±

 

With the help of Kai, she seat-belted Sakura down to the seat.

 

Turning to Eriol, Tomoyo said, ¡°You do know this is mostly your fault, don¡¯t you? That she lost her watch in the haunted house.¡±

 

¡°Yes, I realize it,¡± Eriol replied sheepishly. ¡°Oh well.¡±

 

¡°Oh well?¡± Tomoyo raised an eyebrow.

 

Through the car window, Syaoran smiled encouragingly. ¡°Don¡¯t worry; I¡¯ll find it and be back, okay?¡±

 

Then van took off.

 

¡°Wah! The van took off without us!¡± Erika exclaimed, panting as she reached the parking lot.

 

¡°I guess we¡¯ll just have to catch a taxi,¡± Eron said.

 

¡°Hey, isn¡¯t that Syaoran-kun over there?¡± Erika asked. ¡°Syaoran-kun! What are you doing here?¡±

 

¡°Eh? Oh, are you guys still here?¡± Syaoran looked up, surprised. He had completely forgotten about the twins. To see them walking together like that was almost like seeing normal siblings instead of his archenemies.

 

¡°We¡¯re going off to dinner in town,¡± Eron said. ¡°Let¡¯s go, Erika.¡±

 

¡°Did the others leave you here?¡± Erika asked Syaoran.

 

¡°No¡¦ Sakura lost her watch so I¡¯m searching for it,¡± Syaoran replied.

 

¡°A watch?¡± Erika fingered the silvery pink watch she had picked up in the haunted house.

 

¡°You¡¯re quite devoted to her, aren¡¯t you?¡± Eron commented dryly.

 

With a crooked smile, Syaoran replied, ¡°I just don¡¯t want to see her cry.¡±

 

¡°Come on—they¡¯re shutting the place down,¡± Eron said, dragging Erika along.

 

¡°Merry Christmas you two,¡± Syaoran said after a second thought.

 

Taken back, Eron nodded. ¡°You too.¡±

 

Watching the twins hail a taxi, Syaoran returned into the park; the lights were all off now, and he slipped in through the gates when the guards weren¡¯t looking. He retraced their steps, checked the lost and found and underneath all the ride seats, but he still couldn¡¯t find it. Then he felt a cold drop on his cheek. He wiped it off with a finger. Snow. How much time had passed? But he couldn¡¯t go back. He had to find the watch.

 

******

 

¡°Kaijou. Kaijou. Sakura!¡± Touya called again.

 

¡°Huh?¡± Sakura returned her gaze to her brother. ¡°Sorry onii-chan. What did you say again?¡±

 

¡°Why are you constantly staring out the window?¡± Touya sighed. ¡°You¡¯ve been out of it the entire dinner.¡±

 

The usual crowd was gathered at the annual Christmas dinner at Tomoyo¡¯s house—Sonomi, her grandfather, Fujitaka, Touya and Yukito, the usual family and friends, with new additions such as Eriol and Miho. For Christmas day, Miho¡¯s mother had been released from the hospital so that she could spend it with Miho, and Miara sat on a comfortable armchair next to the fireplace, laughing brightly with Miho kneeled in front of her, telling her about the great rollercoaster adventure.

 

¡°It was sooo scary!¡± Miho exclaimed. ¡°We were hanging upside down, only supported by the safety harnesses. Then Kai-sempai—remember from my journalism club—jumped out of the seat and went to talk with the technicians.¡±

 

¡°Where is Mizuki-kun?¡± Aki asked, looking around.

 

¡°That¡¯s quite a newsworthy event,¡± Miara, former journalist commented. She smiled at her daughter. It was a blessing that her health had been better lately so that she could leave the hospital for the first time in five years to spend Christmas with her daughter. Every morning for the past few weeks, she received a fresh bouquet of her favorite violets in her hospital room from an anonymous person. This morning, she had received a hundred yellow roses, her favorite, along with the violets and the wonderful scent she had awaken to left her in a pleasant spirit for the entire day. And now she was spending Christmas evening with her daughter who was so animated and excited today.

 

¡°Eriol-kun, play some carols on the piano for us,¡± Tomoyo said as the desert of Christmas cake was passed around.

 

¡°Only if you sing along,¡± Eriol replied, smiling, as he walked over to the grand piano and looked up expectantly at Tomoyo.

 

It¡¯s been well over an hour, Sakura thought as she watched the grandfather clock chime eight times, over the pleasant sound of piano and singing. Where is Syaoran? He should be back by now.

 

Quietly, she slipped away from the crowd, only noticed by Touya and Tomoyo. Standing at the Daidouji estate front gates, Sakura stared at the pitch black road ahead. It had begun to snow again. Usually, she loved snow. But now, it seemed like any icy enemy; had Syaoran dressed warmly enough today? Why did she ever let him go back on his own? It was all her fault, for being so careless and losing the precious watch. Syaoran, please come back.

 

¡°Sakura-chan,¡± Tomoyo, having followed Sakura, called out, putting a coat over Sakura¡¯s shoulders. ¡°You¡¯ll catch a cold if you stand out there in the snow like that. Come back inside. We can wait for him inside.¡±

 

Shaking her head, Sakura replied, ¡°He must be colder right now—I want to wait for him here.¡±

 

¡°Okay then¡¦ I¡¯ll be inside. Come back in soon,¡± Tomoyo said.

 

¡°I will, as soon as Syaoran returns,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°Thank you for the coat, Tomoyo-chan.¡±

 

¡°No problem.¡± Tomoyo smiled encouragingly.

 

******

 

Great, out of all things now I¡¯m caught in a Christmas evening traffic jam. Though he had searched high and low in the amusement, there was no trace of the watch. There was no choice but to find the same one again at the store.

 

When Syaoran reached the store, he pounded on the front door, even though he knew it was futile. There was no light inside. Shoot, the store¡¯s closed. He rang the bell.

 

¡°Who is it?¡± a voice came from inside. Syaoran¡¯s heart leaped.

 

¡°Ah, you¡¯re the young man who bought a watch from me a couple of days ago,¡± the old lady from the store exclaimed. ¡°What brings you here on Christmas day?¡±

 

Syaoran bowed. ¡°I¡¯m sorry for knocking at such a late hour. But I was wondering if you had another one of the same watch I bought last time.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry—it was the last one. There was a girl who asked for the same one after you left, but I sold her the men¡¯s version because they were all sold out,¡± the old lady replied.

 

Smiling wryly, Syaoran commented, ¡°That must have been Sakura.¡±

 

¡°Do you know her? How ironic!¡± the old lady exclaimed. ¡°So I guess that the watch was for that young lady?¡±

 

¡°Yes¡¦ but it¡¯s lost so¡¦¡±

 

Syaoran must have had such a heart fallen expression that the lady quickly said, ¡°I remember. Will this do?¡± She pointed to her own watch. ¡°You can take this one; it¡¯s still in new condition. For your girlfriend.¡±

 

¡°Ah, she¡¯s not my girlfriend. Well, not exactly,¡± Syaoran stammered.

 

¡°But you love her?¡±

 

¡°Yes,¡± he replied, sighing. ¡°Though I never seem to do anything right.¡±

 

¡°Please take this,¡± the old lady said. ¡°Give this to her.¡±

 

Shaking his head, Syaoran said, ¡°No, that¡¯s not possible. You¡¯re son gave that to you. I can¡¯t possibly take it.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right,¡± she replied. ¡°It¡¯ll befit a pretty young girl¡¯s wrist far more than an old, faded woman like me.¡±

 

¡°Please, considering your son¡¯s meaning behind the gift, I cannot possible take your watch,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Thank you very much though. I really appreciate your consideration.¡±

 

¡°Well then¡¦¡± The old lady blinked at the handsome young man with hair damp from the snow melted on his head and earnest eyes uncommon in youths these days.

 

Managing a smile, Syaoran bowed again. ¡°Thank you for your troubles. Merry Christmas!¡±

 

¡°You too, young man.¡± The old lady¡¯s eyes widened. ¡°Ah, that watch! It¡¯s the one I sold to the young lady. Ironic. Ironic¡¦¡± She watched Syaoran run off down the road as she muttered, ¡°A couple¡¯s watch.¡±

 

Catching his breath, Syaoran slowed down, walking down the lantern lit street, slushy snow beneath his feet. ¡°Whew, it¡¯s cold,¡± he said out loud. ¡°I¡¯m stupid. Now what am I going to do? I can¡¯t go back, empty-handed.¡±

 

 

 

Glancing outside the restaurant window at the town street, Erika exclaimed, ¡°Hey, isn¡¯t that Syaoran?¡±

 

¡°Li Syaoran? What is he doing by himself?¡± Eron asked. ¡°I thought he would be with Sakura.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t tell me he¡¯s still looking for that stupid watch,¡± Erika said. She slipped her hand into her pocket, feeling the coolness of the metal. Then, she bit her lips. ¡°Wait here for a second.¡±

 

Quickly, she ran out the restaurant and called out, ¡°Syaoran-kun!¡±

 

Slowly, Syaoran turned around warily. ¡°Erika?¡±

 

With trembling hands, Erika held out the watch. ¡°I-is this what you are looking for?¡±

 

He stared at her with hard eyes. ¡°How did you¡¦ Where did you¡¦¡± He took the watch and examined it carefully.¡± Then he smiled widely. ¡°Thank you Erika.¡±

 

She had expected Syaoran to be angry at her or reproach her for taking it, but instead, he said thank you with a smile. Even when she had been planning to smash it with her heels. Even when he had been searching for it for hours in the snow.

 

¡°What are you doing around here?¡± Syaoran asked, slipping the watch into his pocket, sighing in relief, feeling warmer towards Erika than he had ever before.

 

¡°I¡¯m eating dinner with Eron at the restaurant over there.¡± Erika pointed.

 

¡°And why¡¦¡± Syaoran paused, searching for the right words, trying not to sound too skeptical.

 

¡°No, I didn¡¯t poison the watch anything,¡± Erika replied with a dry laugh. ¡°Though truthfully I was tempted to smash it when I figured out whose it was.¡±

 

¡°No surprise,¡± Syaoran chuckled.

 

¡°Hey, why not do a good deed once in a while, though it took all of my good conscience, if I have any, to stop from throwing it into the river,¡± Erika said, shrugging her shoulders. ¡°After all, thanks to you my brother realizes he¡¯s no competition for Sakura.¡±

 

¡°I see.¡± Syaoran looked a little puzzled.

 

¡°Besides, I do owe you one. I don¡¯t know if you remember, but enemy or not, I was really thankful to you back when you bandaged my knees when I fell. Back in the camping trip. You¡¯re the first person who ever showed concern for me, besides Eron. Though I know it means nothing.¡± Erika smiled wistfully. ¡°Well then, go to go back. Eron¡¯s waiting. Merry Christmas, Li Syaoran! Next time, I won¡¯t be so nice.¡±

 

¡°Merry Christmas, Erika. Thanks again,¡± Syaoran called out, rather befuddled, watching Erika slip back into the restaurant. Most people, you got to know better as time passed by, but this queer girl, the more he knew her, the less he found he did.

 

What time was it now? He hoped he wasn¡¯t too late. He had to get back to Sakura now.

 

 

 

¡°What was that about?¡± Eron asked, when Erika slipped back into her seat, face flushed.

 

¡°Nothing,¡± Erika replied. Then she fumbled in her bag and took out a tissue wrapped object. ¡°Here—this side of the pendant is for you.¡±

 

Carefully, Eron unwrapped the tissue and found a gold ¡°I¡± shaped pendant with a tiny pearl attached in the bottom, the pendant he had broken in half yesterday. Half of the Gemini sign.

 

¡°I¡¯m wearing the other half,¡± Erika said quietly, slipping her pendant out from underneath her blouse. ¡°We can have one side each, and only when we put the two pendants together will it make the Gemini sign, the symbol of the twins.¡±

 

Smiling crookedly, Eron commented, ¡°Don¡¯t tell me this is just a cheap way of compensating for the fact that you have no Christmas present prepared for me. Splitting my gift in half.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s not it!¡± Erika squealed in indignation. All the same, Eron put the pendant on, so that it lay next to the red-black eye-shaped crystal.

 

¡°Thanks Erika,¡± Eron said, softly. ¡°Sometimes, I think we do need more moments like this, to just sit and reflect.¡±

 

¡°Yes, as Sakura would put it, ¡®a time for peace in heart and happiness, to set aside all worries,¡¯¡± Erika relied, smiling as she gazed at her pendant. Their zodiac sign and birthstone. ¡°She says such corny, sentimental things.¡±

 

¡°Yet, such corny sentimental things sometimes make so much sense,¡± Eron said, smiling back at his one and only twin and family.

 

******

 

¡°Why didn¡¯t you go to Tomoyo¡¯s dinner party?¡± Meilin asked Kai, following him into the kitchen.

 

¡°Why did you follow me home?¡± Kai questioned back, gathering up the junk on the kitchen counter and throwing it into the trashcan.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± Meilin replied. ¡°You have no food and you always pick on fights with me.¡±

 

¡°Maybe it¡¯s a sign you love me,¡± Kai said flippantly.

 

¡°Don¡¯t play around with the word ¡®love¡¯ so carelessly,¡± Meilin said scornfully. ¡°Love your family. You know you can¡¯t avoid your past for the rest of your life, Kai.¡±

 

¡°But I have to for as long as I can,¡± Kai replied. ¡°But either way, it¡¯s been the best holiday I had in the longest time. Well then, your plane will depart in a couple of hours. I need to drive you to the airport. Did you pack everything?¡±

 

¡°Oh, that reminds me.¡± Meilin ran over to her suitcase and took out a large wrapped box.

 

¡°What¡¯s this?¡± Kai asked, looking up confused when Meilin shoved the box into his hands.

 

¡°Just open it,¡± Meilin said, without meeting his eyes because she knew she was turning red.

 

Tentatively, Kai peeled off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Inside was a thick black wool coat. He looked up confused. ¡°Wait¡¦ Wasn¡¯t this¡¦ Isn¡¯t this for Syaoran?¡±

 

Shuffling uncomfortably on her feet, Meilin muttered, ¡°Don¡¯t be silly, Syaoran has more coats than he can wear in one winter. I thought you would laugh if I asked you for your size.¡± Getting all defensive as usual, she retorted, ¡°Besides, you never dress warm enough; you¡¯ll catch a cold one of these days. And this coat is black, so you have no excuse not to wear it.¡±

 

¡°Hush, Meilin.¡± Kai drew the coat to his chest and shut his eyes. ¡°Let me savor this moment.¡±

 

¡°Then you like it?¡± Meilin asked, round-eyed.

 

¡°Of course I do,¡± Kai replied. ¡°I love it. Thank you Meilin.¡±

 

Smiling, Meilin realized that Kai had an awfully sweet, boyish side to him.

 

******

 

¡°It must be really inconvenient to have an actress girlfriend, Tamemura-san,¡± Yukito commented as dinner was cleared away and the guests milled around, relaxing and chatting with each other. ¡°Is Akagi-san at another shooting today?¡±

 

Setting down his, cocktail glass, Tamemura Asuma replied, ¡°Yes, she¡¯s in Osaka right now for her next movie shooting. I rarely get to see Arima even on holidays. And the times that she¡¯s free, I¡¯m away at races, so we barely get to see each other these days. But still, that makes the moments that we can see each other more precious.¡±

 

¡°You two really defy my philosophy that long-term relationships don¡¯t last,¡± Touya said dryly.

 

¡°But it worked between us, Touya-kun!¡± Nakuru said, throwing her arms around Touya¡¯s neck.

 

¡°Get off me. And where in the world is Sakura?¡± Touya demanded, looking around suspiciously.

 

 

 

Please stop snowing, Sakura prayed. She blew on her fingers which were turning numb. Syaoran¡¦Where are you? You promised you would be back in an hour. It¡¯s been hours. You never keep promises. You always keep me waiting. I don¡¯t care about the watch or anything, I just want you back. I¡¯m so afraid, so afraid that one day you will not come back. Like in my nightmares.

 

Then, in the winding road leading to Tomoyo¡¯s house, she saw a faint figure approaching the gates. Was she imagining things? No, of course not. There was no mistake. She would recognize Syaoran from any distance, through any distortion in vision, amongst any crowd. Her legs began moving automatically and she ran towards Syaoran who was running towards her. The road was icy and several times she slipped, but she kept moving forward.

 

¡°Syaoran!¡± She reached out for him. ¡°Is that you?¡±

 

Taken back, Syaoran squeezed Sakura in a tight hug. ¡°What are you doing out here? Why is your body so cold? How long were you standing out here?¡±

 

¡°Syaoran, you¡¯re late,¡± Sakura whispered through chattering teeth.

 

¡°Hold out your left hand,¡± Syaoran said. He carefully fastened the watch on her wrist.

 

¡°You found it?¡± Sakura asked in disbelief, eyes brimming with tears. The flower-petal shaped face of the watch glimmered in the moonlight.

 

 ¡°Now don¡¯t you dare lose it again. Ah, so cold.¡± He cradled her hands in his for warmth.

 

¡°My hands or your hands?¡± The blood rushed back to her fingers.

 

¡°Both,¡± Syaoran replied, blowing on their hands. ¡°Silly, why didn¡¯t you wait inside?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry,¡± Sakura said, leaning against Syaoran¡¯s chest. She could hear his heart beating rapidly. He had been running. Then she whispered, eyes closed, ¡°Thank you.¡±

 

Syaoran grinned crookedly. ¡°I guess I should be flattered that you were so distraught when you lost the watch that I gave you. As distraught as you were when you lost Yukito-san¡¯s.¡±

 

¡°How can you even compare?¡± Sakura demanded, sniffling. Reaching, she brushed the snow off Syaoran¡¯s coat shoulders and hair. ¡°Let¡¯s go inside now. Everyone¡¯s waiting.¡±

 

¡°I wonder if there¡¯s any food left for me. I¡¯m starving,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°You promised you¡¯ll be back in and hour—you¡¯re so late, there¡¯s probably no food left,¡± Sakura said. ¡°It completely defeats the purpose of giving you a watch for Christmas.¡±

 

¡°Actually, I completely forgot that I was wearing it. Anyway, nothing beats ten hours in the playground,¡± Syaoran retorted, flicking Sakura in the forehead. ¡°And at least I didn¡¯t lose my watch.¡±

 

¡°Ouch, that hurts!¡± And so they squabbled as they trudged through the piled snow back to the house.

 

 

 

¡°Now we¡¯re finally gathered!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed as Syaoran and Sakura came in shaking off the snow from their coats. ¡°You guys came back just in time for the Christmas cake cutting.¡±

 

¡°Pretty impressed, Syaoran,¡± Asuma commented, pounding Syaoran on the back. ¡°Your girlfriend waited out there in the snow for you since dinner.¡±

 

¡°Sakura¡¯s not really my ¡®girlfriend¡¯ yet,¡± Syaoran said.

 

¡°You mean you still haven¡¯t asked her out?¡± Asuma demanded. ¡°You¡¯re going to lose your chance, Syaoran.¡±

 

¡°Well, it¡¯s been kind of complicated these days,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°And I don¡¯t want to hear that from someone who got a girlfriend in his senior year of college.¡±

 

¡°Ouch, that hurts coming from you, Syaoran.¡±

 

¡°Is Akagi-san not here today?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

¡°Yeah, she¡¯s in Osaka for her new movie. She was trying to make it tonight, but with the snow blizzard, it¡¯s pretty impossible.¡± Asuma smiled wistfully. ¡°As you grow older, you learn love is less about passion and impulses, but patience and waiting.¡±

 

At that moment, they heard the screeching of brakes outside the house. The door swung open. Everyone turned out to face a beautiful tall and slender young woman rush inside, throwing her snow covered fur coat and hat at the front door. Her usually carefully curled flaxen hair was flattened by the dampness and her face was flushed from the cold.

 

Asuma sat up, eyes wide. ¡°Arima.¡±

 

¡°Asuma!¡± Akagi Arima ran up to him and threw her arms around him, almost knocking him off balance. ¡°Oh my gosh, I thought I wasn¡¯t going to make it.¡± 

 

After a long kiss, Asuma asked, feeling her face, touching her limp, wet hair to check if she was real, ¡°Arima, is it really you? I thought you were in Osaka? How did you catch a flight in this snowstorm?¡±

 

Lightly kissing Asuma on the lips again, Arima replied, ¡°I thought I wasn¡¯t going to make it. They cancelled regular flights, but I was able to ride my private jet. It was horrible because we were circling in the air for an hour to find a place to land. But I had to see you, Asuma. I missed you so much.¡±

 

 ¡°I missed you too, Arima; I can¡¯t believe you¡¯re back,¡± Asuma replied, refusing to let go of his longtime friend and current girlfriend, the currently popular actress and former fellow horse racer.

 

¡°How wonderful,¡± Tomoyo sighed, videotaping as usual. For a brief second, she wondered if she ever be able to have such a passionate romance, a thought that had never crossed her mind before because she had always been wrapped up in other people¡¯s romances.

 

¡°Bleh, they¡¯re always so lovey-dovey when they see each other,¡± Aki grumbled, yet with a glance of envy at his older sister and boyfriend.

 

¡°Now that everyone is gathered, we can really cut the Christmas cake,¡± Sonomi stated, glaring at Fujitaka who had baked the cake.

 

¡°I feel like we¡¯ve been upstaged by those two,¡± Syaoran muttered.

 

¡°I wish such happy times will last,¡± Sakura said, running her finger over her watch strap.

 

¡°Why not?¡± Syaoran replied with a grim smile. ¡°We all deserve some happiness, don¡¯t we?¡±

 

¡°Oh dear, I need to save a slice of the cake for Kero-chan—he must be throwing a fit right now,¡± Sakura remembered.

 

 

 

Now that they were all gathered, they all lifted their wine glasses of grape juices for the minor and champagnes for the adults and shouted one last time that day, ¡°MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!¡±

 

******

 

Back at the Kinomoto residence¡¦

 

¡°HOW DARE THEY EAT CHRISTMAS CAKE WITHOUT ME!!!¡± Kero-chan howled.

 

******

 

 

~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~

 

The New Trials Cast Wishes readers:

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS 2003

&

A HAPPY NEW YEAR 2004

 

~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~

 

 

Wish-chan: (2/29/04) Yes, I know it¡¯s well past Christmas. However, I¡¯m one of those odd people who never gets in Christmas spirit during holiday season. Actually, this was supposed to be out last Christmas, but I didn¡¯t get to finish it until recently. Yeah, this chapter is pretty long considering it¡¯s only a special. It¡¯s hard to juggle so many characters and subplots all at once, but then again, this chapter has been something I wanted to write for a long time. It¡¯s also a diversion from the main plot, which I must say will become a bit darker and more angsty as the first major climax approaches. In the current timeline, there are one or two chapters missing before this chapter¡¦ Haven¡¯t finished writing Chapters 48 and 49 yet. And everything will start happening after this chapter.

 

I¡¯ve been horrible at checking e-mail lately. But thank you so much for all the reviews, all the e-mails, all the encouragement. This chapter is dedicated to all those who e-mailed me over the past half year I was in college, because even with my busy schedule, even with no privacy to write (yes, it¡¯s so hard for me to write in college because I¡¯m used to the privacy in my room, but here, my roommate, bless her she¡¯s a great person, is always there, and people are constantly walking in and out of the room), even with more homework (or is it dormwork?) than I can hope to ever finish, my mind is still working on New Trials. I really hope I can keep up with my readers expectations because truthfully, the interesting stuff is just about to begin, but I don¡¯t have time to write. AHHH!!!

 

So, comments are always, always cherished at hopeluvpeace@hotmail.com. Please visit my site at wishluv.com. Thank you, all of you, for being so patient and understanding. It¡¯ll get better, I guarantee. Hehe¡¦

 

Check out the new New Trials Yahoo Ring at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/newtrialsring. Thank you Kireiblossom for creating it.

 

Once more, the author wishes: Happy New Year 2004 and Happy Leap Year!!!

 

Download a new  wallpaper I made from one of my Sakura and Syaoran fanarts.