Stripped: Coming Out with the Truth
“So, care to tell us the truth?” I asked, leaning back lazily in my armchair.
Kinomoto-san looked at me suspiciously. “Why do you want to know? You're not friends with my sister. None of you are, except for Meiling here.”
Tomoyo looked at him angrily. “Yes we are! We may have not known Sakura-chan as long as Meiling-chan has but we care about her! Kinomoto-san, please tell us. We want to help heal Sakura-chan, to help her become the person I know she really is inside.”
“It's not a pretty story,” Kinomoto-san said grimly.
“And we're ready to hear a tragic fairytale,” I answered back.
-Flashback: Seven Years Ago-
“Wahhh!! Meiling-chan, why do you have to leave?” Seven-year-old Kinomoto Sakura wailed, clutching on to her Chinese friend's arm.
Rae Meiling choked back her tears. “The Elders want me to. They want me to work as a gymnast professionally.”
“Calling all passengers on Flight 294 with service to Hong Kong. Repeat, all passengers on Flight 294 with service to Hong Kong, you are boarding the plane now.”
“Write to me, Meiling-chan! Promise me we'll be friends forever!” Sakura said, holding out her pinky.
Meiling stared at her friend in shock but then smiled and locked her pinkie with Sakura's.
-Three Years Later-
“My name is Amai Kaorin and I’m a new student here. It’s nice to meet all of you. Please take good care of me.” A girl with dark brown hair bowed in front of the class.
Sakura regarded her passively before returning to staring out the window.
“Hey, can I sit here?”
Sakura looked down from her perch high in the branches and saw Amai-san underneath her cherry tree, waiting for a response from the silent girl.
“I don't care,” she answered indifferently and continued to eat her onigiri.
“Say, you don't talk much or hang out with the other kids, do you?”
Sakura jumped down and mockingly applauded the girl. “Thank you, Captain Obvious. If you'll excuse me, I have something to do in the music room.”
A week later, the friendship was born.
A year later, the tyranny began.
-One Year Later-
“Did you see him, Sakura-chan? The new Chinese exchange student? He's so hot!”
Sakura stiffened at the mention of 'Chinese exchange student.' “No, Kaorin, I didn't. What's so special about him?”
“Li Syaoran, Sakura-chan! Li-kun is so hot!” Kaorin squealed.
The two 'friends' reached their lockers. “By the way, Sakura-chan, did you finish my essay?”
Sakura rolled her eyes. “Hell no. Do your own homework for once. What if we go to different high schools? I’m not going to be around forever.”
Kaorin froze and regarded her coldly. “Do as I say, Sakura-chan. One thousand word essay—is that so hard? After all, you should be grateful to me for all that I've done for you, kaijuu. One slip of my mouth and all your darkest secrets would be spilled to those who abhor your existence.”
Sakura glared at her with an equally cold stare. “We're in the eighth grade, Amai Kaorin. Don't threaten me with your empty threats.”
Before Sakura even registered what was going on, Kaorin pulled a pocketknife out of her pocket, grabbed Sakura's slim wrist and made a cut, drawing blood. The girl gasped at the sudden pain from her wrist and clutched it tightly, hoping to stem the blood flow.
“Maybe this will teach you not to mess with me, Kinomoto Sakura.”
“That, that, bitch cut her?!” Meiling screamed horrified.
Kinomoto-san nodded. “Not just cut, but Kaorin also physically beat Sakura up without giving her a chance to fight back. My sister was usually held down by jocks who were three times her weight. You could possibly guess the rest seeing as how quickly I know gossip spreads around Seijuu.”
“I do remember hearing that Sakura-chan cuts herself,” I said. “Even the outcasts, rebels, and nerds feared her because we thought she was dangerous and volatile.”
“They say Amai Kaorin was wrongfully expelled by Sakura-chan because Sakura-chan lied to the administration and claimed that Amai-san was abusing her. I suppose that while everyone thinks that Amai-san was unfairly punished, I think that it was rightfully deserved now that I know the real story,” Tomoyo added.
Nakuru took a step forward and spoke up for the first time since Kinomoto-san started telling Sakura-san's story. “Do you realize that you're now sworn to protect Sakura at all costs?”
We jolted in shock. “What do you mean?” I demanded. Is this some kind of sick induction into a secret cult?
“Kinomoto Sakura cannot reveal her identity to the general public, as she promised her father and grandfather. Can you imagine the consequences behind that, especially since Sakura has a death threat hanging over her head? Kaorin would be ten times more famous if she managed to murder a seventeen-year-old multi-platinum recording artist. She'd get even more publicity for murdering Sakura than she would if she had ruled as Seijuu Prep's queen,” Mizuki-sensei answered.
“We also know that Amai Kaorin is more volatile and unstable than my sister. Did you know that Kaorin ordered her older brother Masahiro to rape Sakura last year? Masahiro, being a jackass, was only too happy to comply. He lusted after Sakura and if I hadn't walked in the room when he was about to do it...” Kinomoto-san shook his head ruefully. I wondered if that was the catalyst to Amai’s expulsion.
“Don't worry, Toya-san. We'll protect Sakura. After all, I think we've been doing that since we met her,” Meiling reassured the man.
I turned away and stared out the window. With such a gruesome and dark past like that, I couldn't have blamed Sakura-san for turning cold.
I couldn't, even if I tried, understand the pain she was going through just living each and every day. What else was left unsaid?
What other scars is she hiding?
I walked through the hallways in a daze, my mind totally focused on the events that transpired the other night. I woke up in an unfamiliar room, wearing someone else's clothes, and to Li Syaoran's face.
Do you have any idea how discomforting and scary that is?
Yeah, sure, my scream woke him up from his nap. It also warranted a visit from Meiling next door who had heard me scream. I was so embarrassed, and come to think of it, I'm still embarrassed.
I jumped slightly, my body tensing at the sound of the tenor voice. “What?” I asked, hoping my indifference covered up the anxiety I felt inside.
Li regarded me oddly. “Are you all right? You look pale and distracted.”
Speechless that he was able to read me so easily, I brushed away his concern and answered, “I'm fine.”
He followed me all the way to class. I forgot we had Morality together.
“Sakura-chan! Li-kun! Over here!” Tomoyo waved me over to the table where Meiling, Eriol, and she were sitting. We walked over towards our group and sat down, waiting for Kenji-sensei to start class.
“Okay class! Today's marks the final week in which our friendship project will come to a close on a daily basis in the classroom. We will be doing some wrap-up class work and yes, there will be an essay!”
“Essays? Why?” One of the jocks, I think it was that dumbass Riku, yelled. “That screws with soccer practice! Isn't that right. Captain?”
All eyes focused on the teen beside me. “Well, that depends on the essays that Kenji-sensei gives us,” Li answered evasively.
Kenji-sensei grinned at the soccer team captain’s favorable response. “You heard him, Yamato Riku. Li-taichou says that homework comes first.”
He cleared his throat and addressed the rest of the class. “Anyways, your essay will be private and personal thoughts regarding the people that you have befriended and learned about these past nine weeks. I know I said that at the beginning of this project that the due date would be at the end of the school year. Yes, this due date still holds true, but this week concludes the Morality portion of the project.”
“You may be wondering why you're taking Morality to begin with. Morality is often associated with religion, right? But what we’re studying is essentially religion, not in the Shinto, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, etc. sense, but in the core principals of world religions. The moral values that help to shape and either better or worsen the declining morality of modern society. The school dearly hopes that by the time you graduate and enter the real world, you would have had instilled in you by your families and by the school some basic moral values that will help to better our society. Friendship is one of these moral values, but so many of you have so many friends! How are we to differentiate between our true friends, the ones who will lift us up and support us, and those who call themselves our friends for mere convenience? We can't. How are we to make new friends among all classes of society when we are too afraid to extend a kind hand for fear of our reputation? This is the true purpose of this project.”
I quietly listened to Kenji-sensei's explanation. His words rang true in my mind and I stored this lecture in my memory, hoping to use it in a song later on.
“Your essay will consist of an introduction, three or four body paragraphs, depending on the number of people in your group, and a conclusion. Proper MLA format will be required. You are also required to use the twelve sentence structure that you use in your English class.” Kenji-sensei explained. “This essay is due two weeks before the end of the school year. Which, by the way people, is in four weeks and that's not a lot of time. The faculty will know if you are 'bull-shitting' your essay and you will fail this required class. Do I make myself clear?”
The class mumbled a sort of "Hai, Kenji-sensei" before he let us have the rest of the class time to talk amongst ourselves.
"So, Sakura-san, why did you cut your hair?" Eriol asked me, suddenly switching topics.
Beside me, Meiling fingered the short honey-brown tresses clipped away from my face. "I think it's cute, Eriol."
"I needed a change," I answered. "Long hair is too troublesome when everyone in the junior class wants to skin you alive."
"We don't want to skin you alive,” Li muttered from my other side.
I glared at the teen. “Well, you seem to be the exception to every rule created,” I answered scathingly.
Li flashed me a lazy smile. “Damn straight I am.”
“So, what're your plans for the summer?” Tomoyo asked, quickly changing the subject to maintain peace.
Meiling groaned. “Gym, gym, gym, and oh, did I mention gym?” She moaned, fixing her cousins with a pointed glare.
“Hey—not my fault. For me, it was either compete in martial arts like you are with gym or play soccer for Seijuu and college.” Li shrugged.
“I'm not doing anything,” Eriol answered. “What about you, Tomoyo-san?”
Tomoyo beamed. “I'm publically launching my clothing designs this summer. Right now, I'm working on a deal to have Sakura Athene be my first promotional star. I might get to go on tour with her!”
I raised an eyebrow, trying to remember if Ayame mentioned anything of the sort to me before. Gritting my teeth, it hit me then that my cousin-turned-manager was cutting deals with Tomoyo behind my back. Some cousin she is.
Astonished, Meiling said, “I didn’t know you designed clothes, Tomoyo-chan. Do you work for a fashion house?”
“Nope!” Tomoyo said. “My mom suggested I start my own when I wouldn’t quit sketching so I launched my own company with her help freshman year. Nobody really knows that I head it, so it’s kind of a big secret. I’ve been doing commission work up until now.”
“I need to get a job,” Li mentioned off-handedly. “What about you, Kinomoto-san?”
Coming from Li, the question caught me completely off guard. “Umm... I think I'm touring all summer with Sakura Athene. She's doing a tour all over Japan and needs help backstage,” I lied promptly. Well, it wasn't technically a lie—I was touring all summer but not as a backstage hand.
“Really? Maybe Syaoran could get a job with Sakura Athene. That would be cool,” Meiling piqued.
I could feel Li's gaze on me. “You'd have to talk to Tsukishiro Ayame then. She's Sakura's manager and in charge of all the backstage hires,” I answered coolly.
“Really then?” Li said flatly. “Then I'll go talk to her after school.”
Something in his words made a chill run up my spine. The bell rang and I escaped the room as fast as I could possibly go.
Tugging my hair with frustration, I looked at the essay I had written for Daidouji—er, Tomoyo. I had already written my paragraphs over Eriol and Meiling but those were easy. I knew them well enough to rattle off their entire life's story for a large audience.
Daidouji Tomoyo is a true friend. She is a caring individual, willing to give others a chance at friendship. To me, she best embodies the qualities of a true friend. Tomoyo-san taught me many things since we started this project. One of them is that despite all appearances...
“People sometimes aren't who they seem. Tomoyo-san taught me that there are some people who are more beautiful and deserving of friendship than others make them to be,” I muttered to myself.
Looking at my paragraph again, I highlighted the entire thing and deleted it with the touch of a button. It was crap—I didn't need to be a literary genius to figure that out.
Deciding a breath of fresh air was needed to refocus myself, I stepped outside onto the balcony. A familiar figure grabbed my attention at the edge of my vision and I couldn't resist calling out.
Sakura Athene looked up from the street to see me waving frantically at her from my balcony. She casually waved back.
“Why don't you come up here for a while?” I invited. I honestly don't know what possessed me to do such a thing, but whatever.
She hesitated. “I can’t. It’s late and I’m sure you have things to do. I’m not even supposed to be out.”
That admission only fueled my resolve. “Come up here and hide if you don’t want to be seen.”
She grimaced. “Would you keep your voice down?”
“Then meet me halfway,” I insisted. “I’ll be in the lobby. You can hide there and I can ask you something.”
Without waiting for a response, I grabbed a box of chocolate chip cookies and headed to the lobby. To my pleasure, Sakura Athene stood uncomfortably in the bright lights of the lobby.
“I’m here,” she announced. “What is it that you want?”
I ushered her to one of the cushioned benches by the elevator and offered her a cookie. She declined. “Straight to the point are we? Let's converse awhile: what were you doing out so late?” I smirked.
She caught on to my subtle sarcasm. “Meeting with my managers at a nearby cafe. We're planning on doing a charity tour throughout coastal Japan. Ayame wanted to get started and organize the whole thing.”
I was startled that my opportunity had come so immediately into our conversation. “Really? I heard from a certain somebody that you were looking for backstage help with that tour. Any chance I could join the crew?”
Sakura gave me an unreadable look. “Who told you that?”
“Kinomoto Sakura. Know her by any chance?”
Although it seemed wrong to me at first, looking back on it, I'm glad I took this opportunity to observe. Sakura Athene's eyes widened for a fraction of a second before settling into one of recognition.
“Oh yeah. Kinomoto-kun's sister. She doesn't talk much but she's a great help to Ayame backstage. Kinomoto-chan is kind of like Ayame's personal assistant.”
“Huh, is that so? What else do you know about her?”
She flashed me a wry smile, emerald eyes bright with curiosity. “Why so interested? You know her or something? Or do you have a secret crush on her?”
I flushed, unsure of how to react. Yet again that same comment appeared. How unnerving.
“I sort of know her. We have a class together and she's the one who told me about the tour and the backstage help.”
“What do you think of her, Li-san?”
I was caught off-guard by the question. What do I think of Kinomoto? She's interesting enough, shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Kinomoto possess a kind of charisma that draws people to her.
“She's not at all the person people claim her to be. If it weren't for my stupidity, I think we would've been friends by now.”
Sakura Athene studied me for a moment. After what seemed like an eternity, she glanced at the clock and took note of the time.
“I better go before Kinomoto-kun sends the Army and the Navy after me and turns Tomoeda upside down searching for me. Thanks for hiding me.” She quietly excused herself.
I walked her to the door. “Thanks for keeping me company for a while,” I said, in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Want me to walk you back?”
She shook her head absentmindedly before stepping out the door. I turned to walk back up to my apartment when I heard her call my name.
I stopped in front of the stairs. “Yeah?”
“Just for the record,” she said, drawing in a deep breath. “You're not at all who people claim you to be either.”
I stared at in shock but I flashed her a lazy smile. “Thanks.”
Sakura Athene casually waved goodbye before disappearing down the street. A sense of premonition struck me as I watched her leave.
It almost seemed as if this wouldn't be the last time Sakura Athene would leave my apartment like this.
The phone rang in my room. I checked the caller I.D. but did not immediately recognize the name 'Tsukishiro Ayame' or the phone number. Finally, I recalled the name and seized the phone off its cradle.
“Moshi moshi, Daidouji Tomoyo speaking.”
“Ah, Daidouji-san. This is Tsukishiro Ayame, manager for Sakura Athene. How are you today?”
Ah, the formalities of keigo. Being born into the upper class forces one to learn it and exercise it when the occasion rose. I, of course, was a master at it.
But then again, Tsukishiro-san would also be a master of keigo by virtue of her position.
“Fine, thank you, Tsukishiro-san. And you?”
The woman on the other end sighed but answered in a cheerful voice, “Excellent. Is now a good time to talk to you?”
“About our arrangement?” I clarified, sitting down at my desk and pulling out a marked manila folder from the nearby file cabinet.
“Yes. If you're available this evening, I would like to sit down with you for dinner, along with a few of my colleagues and Sakura herself to discuss the issue. You are, of course, welcome to bring anyone along with you.”
Glancing swiftly at my desk planner, I noticed the evening's slot was empty. “Sure, that's fine with me. Time and venue?”
“Does six o'clock at the Hanabi work for you? How many people are in your party?”
“Yes it does. I’m bringing three to four others with me. See you there, Tsukishiro-san.” I made a motion to hang up when the manager's voice floated through the speakers.
“Oh, Daidouji-san? There's no need to dress formally—just something comfortable but classy.”
I smiled in spite of myself. “Of course.”
I stepped out of the shower from my afternoon workout, freshly cleaned and more awake than I had been all day. Wrapping my hair up in a towel, I quickly entered my darkened room and picked up the clothes I laid out earlier that afternoon.
Tomoyo called earlier and invited me to dinner at the Hanabi along with Syaoran, Eriol, and Sakura. She was having a dinner meeting with Sakura Athene and her manager about the modeling arrangement Tomoyo spoke of earlier in the week.
I was excited to say the least. I hadn't been to one of these business dinners in so long, not one between a teenager and an adult at least. The last one was when Syaoran was convincing the Elders to let him move to Japan on a rare visit home.
“Meiling? You done dressing up yet?”
Speak of the Devil, my cousin himself.
“Yeah,” I called through the closed door. “Just give me a minute to do my hair.”
Pulling the raven locks into my usual pigtails, I secured each of them with a long, blood red ribbon. I slid the gold bracelet my mother gave me for my birthday last year and fastened the heart-shaped ruby necklace Sakura gave me years ago around my neck.
“Are you done yet?” I could hear the impatience in Syaoran's voice.
Sighing impatiently, I yanked my door open and stormed out. “I'm dressed. Let's go,” I snapped back. Hey, if he was going to give me lip, there's no way I'd go down without a fight.
It was one of those rare occasions that Syaoran allowed Wei to drive us anywhere in Tomoeda. The imported British Bentley, air-lifted all the way from Hong Kong, was waiting for us in front of the apartment complex. Wei opened the door for us and we slid in.
“The Hanabi,” Syaoran said in a cool, clipped voice.
Wei, used to this formality, smiled in spite of himself. “Of course, Young Master.”
Upon entering the high-class restaurant, a familiar head of raven caught my eye, escorted by yet another head of raven shot with midnight blue. I smirked upon hearing her voice; Tomoyo sounded exactly like one of those rich snobs that you see on TV all the time.
The maître d, also used to this treatment, scanned the seating chart quickly. “Ah, if you will wait a moment, Miss, Kira will escort you to your table.”
Eriol nodded and they scooted off to the side to get out of the way for the next person in line. I practically dragged Syaoran over towards them.
“Hey! I'm so glad you could make it!” Tomoyo said with a hint of a smile.
“Tomoyo-chan, if I had known you were bringing Eriol along as your date, I would have found someone other than Syaoran to bring me,” I teased.
Tomoyo colored faintly and shook her head. “That’s not it, Meiling-chan. There's no need to have a date. Besides, Li-kun is always welcome to join us. I invited him too.”
“Tsukishiro party? If you'll follow me, I will bring you to your table,” a waiter said.
We followed him to the back of the restaurant, to the tables overlooking the garden in the back. The other members of the party were already seated; I noticed that Mizuki-sensei, Akizuki-san, Tsukishiro Yukito-san and Kinomoto-san were all there along with some other girl sitting at the opposite end of the table from them. She looked familiar but I could not immediately place her.
However, I did not count on Kinomoto Sakura being there, sitting next to that other girl.
I gave Tomoyo a glance, but she gave me a look that clearly read, “Act natural.” Sakura-chan did not know that we knew her secret.
More importantly, neither did Syaoran.
“Ah, Daidouji-san, I'm glad you brought some friends with you. It would have been boring if it was just us three teens among these old people,” the familiar-yet-not-familiar girl spoke, ushering Tomoyo to the empty seat across her.
I gently pushed Eriol into the chair besides Tomoyo and sat next to him. Across from me, Syaoran took a seat next to Sakura. Her emerald green eyes flashed for a moment before settling into a pleasant look.
Damn, she was a good actress.
Syaoran showed no sign of discomfort sitting next to the singer. He greeted her politely and with one of his infamous smiles before accepting the menu the waiter handed him.
I was floored. Since when did my cousin do that? To Kinomoto Sakura, of all people?
Then I remembered that the teen in front of me was not my rebellious, outcast best friend, but a multi-million dollar recording artist. She was the same Sakura, but at the same time, she wasn't.
“I believe some introductions are needed,” the girl said, giving each of us a calculating look. “After all, I can't call you guys 'you with the hair' all night long.”
Sakura sighed and gave the girl a look. “Ayame, that was a lame attempt at sarcasm.”
She sounded just like the Sakura I knew. I worried for a moment that Syaoran would figure out her identity by the end of the evening.
“Sakura, not everyone has your gift of instantaneous sarcastic comments. Those of us without must make every attempt to build their own skill,” the Ayame girl answered with a flippant toss of her ash blonde hair.
“Tsukishiro Ayame, at your service. I'm the manager for Sakura Athene over here on my left. As you can see, we get along very well.”
I was shocked—so was everyone else, I think. I couldn’t believe I didn’t recognize Sakura’s cousin right away. Ayame was only three years older than us and I saw her often during my childhood. The last time we had seen Sakura Athene’s manager, it was when she judged the performing arts competition. She seemed so much older than her twenty years then.
“We don't get along at all,” Sakura grumbled.
Ayame reached over to clamp a hand over the girl's mouth. “Ignore her; she doesn't know what's good for her. After all, that's why I'm her manager and she's the singer.”
Eriol, amused by her bluntness, offered her a hand. “Hiiragizawa Eriol, Tsukishiro-san. It was kind of you to invite us.”
“Tsukishiro-san is someone else. Please, call me Ayame. After all, my brother is here as well and he's also Tsukishiro-san.”
Eriol nodded and gave her one of his unreadable smiles. “To my right is Daidouji Tomoyo, but you already know her. And to my left is my cousin, Rae Meiling. Meiling once told me she met you before.”
I silently damned Eriol’s excellent memory. Reaching over Eriol to shake her hand, I gave him a dirty look before flashing her a smile. Ayame took it and said, “Rae Meiling? You're the gymnast my grandfather sponsors, right?”
“Your grandfather?” I echoed tonelessly. What was she talking about? Wasn’t it Sakura’s grandfather who sponsored me?
“Yes, he's the owner and CEO of Amamiya Corp, your primary sponsor. He's related to me through my mother's side,” Ayame answered.
She turned to Syaoran and asked, “And who might you be, fine... young... gentleman who... refuses to give me his name?”
“Ayame you're being ridiculous,” Sakura muttered, hiding behind her menu.
I eyed Syaoran, prompting him with my eyes to answer.
“Li Syaoran, Ayame-san. I'm no one important,” he said at last, shaking her hand.
“No one important, my ass. I'll bet you five grand you’re related to Rae over here and that you're the heir to Li Publishing.”
I was stunned—so was everyone else around our side of the table. She knew exactly who we were. Someone had done her homework.
“My uncle publishes with you guys in your archaeology journal,” Ayame explained to answer the silence.
Syaoran nodded and his eyes strayed to Eriol's and mine. I gave him a look, one that clearly reminded him to be careful of what he said. Mentioning the Li publishing house was equivalent to initiating a business deal. Anything that Syaoran and I did that night would leave an impression and impact future publishing deals.
“But enough of that!” Ayame waved her hand. “Let's enjoy dinner first!”
It was the dessert and coffee course of dinner. By now, it was about eight o'clock and the main seating area of the restaurant was completely filled with people.
“To business, Tomoyo-san?”
I smiled to myself. Ayame was good. By addressing me by my first name, Ayame established an equal connection between the two of us. We were now business partners; with any luck, by the end of the night, that connection would be legally binding and without a doubt.
I pulled out the manila folder from the bag I brought with me. I handed her a copy of the packet I made, complete with full color sketches, materials list, and even a schedule of dates when each outfit could be worn during the summer tour.
“That's a lot of work you've done, Tomoyo-san. I only expected rough sketches but you've exceeded my expectations,” Ayame commented after scanning the packet.
I handed a pile of papers to Eriol and quietly instructed for him to pass them out to everyone around the table.
“That's a lot of outfits, Tomoyo-chan,” Kaho remarked as she thumbed through her copy of the file.
“Of course there're a lot of outfits, Kaho. You know I make more than I actually use.”
My cousin laughed. “How could I forget? Daidouji Designs would be nowhere without you. Daidouji Designs is you.”
I then launched into an explanation for my side of the table. Each design was based on the music genre of Sakura Athene's music. Since the girl sang for the alternative rock style, a unique blend of skater punk and symphonic electronica, her clothes must also reflect that style.
“You seem well-versed in different music styles to be able to pick that out,” Sakura commented.
“She's a musician—Tomoyo-san will never tell you, but she's the soloist state champion for our prefecture. And she's the first soprano of Seijuu's choir,” Eriol answered, earning himself an elbow to his ribs. I hissed his name to shut him up, blushing furiously.
“I own a few of your CDs and listened to them as I was designing the clothes,” I explained my inspiration for the design.
The two nodded and Ayame prompted me to explain the use of the silver sakura petals as music notes on a faded staff splashed onto a black background that appeared so frequently in all the designs
“It's neat. Don't you think we could use that for the next CD cover, Sakura-chan?”
The said girl shrugged. “The tour is called “Faded Sakura” to tease that album so why not? Ask Tomoyo-san.”
I nodded my consent and promised to send the pattern files via email as soon as I could. We went on, picking out different designs, altering a few here and there to make them more tolerable to the summer heat. We went on, talking for an hour and a half. By the time we finished and closed the deal with a handshake, it was ten o'clock and the late night diners were on their main entrees.
“Ayame?” Li asked as we stood up to leave the table.
“I heard you were looking for backstage help and I coincidentally need a summer job to occupy my time. Any chance I could...”
Ayame bounced over to him and seized his hand eagerly. “Oh my God, you are heaven sent. Yes we really need backstage hands... good God, how'd you know? I haven't even given the ads to Nakuru to run in Tomoeda Talks or the newspapers.”
Li chuckled nervously. “I heard it from a reliable source.”
“No one in particular.”
“Right.” Ayame rolled her eyes. “Tell me, damn it, so I can give him Hell and an extra-long break.”
“Er... Kinomoto Sakura.”
I held my breath. I didn't think Li would actually blurt out Sakura’s name. While things have gotten better between them, I wouldn’t call them friends. The entire party seemed to hold its breath as we waited anxiously for Ayame's reaction.
“Kinomoto Sakura?” Ayame repeated calmly. She glanced at Sakura-chan before saying, “Oh, I see.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Li-kun asked, now anxious.
“No, not really. It's just... I didn't expect you to hear that from Kinomoto-chan of all people. Quiet as a mouse, no offense, Toya.”
The man grunted. “Well, it's not my fault the kaijuu—I mean Sakura—is the way she is. Blame that stupid what's-her-name, Kaorin.”
“Now, now Toya, these young adults might be friends with her so watch what you say,” Kaho lightly scolded her boyfriend.
Kinomoto Toya snorted. “I doubt that.”
Tsukishiro Yukito laughed. “That's just like you, Toya. But Ayame-chan, Li-san is waiting for your answer. You should give it to him before you leave.”
The girl colored faintly. “Right. Erm... Li-san, you can work for us. I'll let you know the details later, but you get paid quite nicely for this kind of job. Normally, I would make you hand in a resume and interview you but tonight's enough. Just talk to me sometime after school gets out. Kinomoto-chan would know how to contact me.”
I nodded in response and turned to greet Akizuki Nakuru. We were seated at opposite ends of the table and she spent the evening conversing with those seated near her. I was surprised to see her at this meeting. As a member of the press, I didn't think she would be invited to a private dinner party.
“Li-san! We meet again coincidentally! I didn't realize you knew Daidouji-chan,” Akizuki greeted me enthusiastically.
“I'm surprised that you're working at this late hour,” I answered back.
Akizuki laughed and held Tsukishiro's arm tighter. “Working? Oh no, not me. Tonight, I'm here with my boyfriend, Yukito. I've known Sakura forever, so of course she would include me, if she knows what good for her.”
I looked at her. “So that's how you were able to get an interview with her,” I mused aloud.
Akizuki gave me a mischievous look. “It's all about the connections, Li-san. It's all about the connections.”
Indeed, it really was.