As she packed her new clothes that evening in Mr. Trung's borrowed second-hand suitcase, Hikaru sprawled on her queen-sized bed in their uptown Japanese home, frowning.
"Why do you have to go away?" he muttered, his little face dark and sullen. "You're always going away. You're never here."
She felt a twinge of guilt. Her son was right. But she couldn't afford to give in to that stubborn determination of his. Hikaru was as formidable in his young way as she was.
"Business, my darling," she replied, smiling. She stared at him lovingly. He looked nothing like her. He was his father, from his messy brown hair to his deep amber eyes. He was going to be tall like Syaoran, too, she guessed.
Syaoran. Sakura signed heavily and turned away. She'd loved him so much, with all the passion of her young life. He'd taken her chastity and her heart, and in return he'd given her grief and shame. His mother had done her part to break up what might have been an honest love affair.
God knew, he'd always felt guilty about her. Probably he'd have felt even more guilt if he'd known that she was only eighteen to his twenty-six. She'd lied and told him she was twenty. He'd said even then that it was like robbing the cradle. But his passion for her had been a helpless, deeply resented one that had cost him his stoic self-control time and time again. She often thought that he'd hated her for that, for making him vulnerable.
His mother had hated her, certainly. The fact that Sakura had been living with her great-aunt and uncle on the seedy section of Hong Kong who were of Mongolian descent – had been a scandalous shock to Mrs. Li Yelan. Yelan belonged to the social set and made no secret of her snobbery. That her son had dared to embarrass her by dating the niece of one of his employees had haunted her, especially when she'd already hand-picked a wife for him – Wang Mei-ling, a local debutante whose people had high standing in Beijing and Shanghai as well as property there and could trace their roots back to the Song Dynasty and also a distant cousin to Syaoran. Yelan had never even bothered to ask Sakura about her and her family. She had taken it for granted when Sakura was only related to Uncle Chao by marriage.
Hiraku would someday have to be told the truth of his parentage, Sakura thought to herself. For now, he accepted that the tall, fair man who used to laugh and bring him things was real father. In most senses, he was. Takao had spoiled Sakura shamefully, attended Lamaze classes with her, treated her like a fragile treasure and treated her like he was responsible for the pregnancy and showered her with luxuries when Hikaru came into the world. He stayed with her during the whole thing and cried when he held Hikaru in his arms. In almost every way, Takao was Hikaru's father. He'd earned the right.
But she never told Takao about the dreams she had filled with Syaoran, about the fierce pleasure he'd taught to share with hi, or compared to Syaoran. It wouldn't have been fair. Takao was a gentle, skillful lover, but she'd never attained the heights with him that Syaoran took her to so effortlessly.
"Isn't Barry the Alligator great? Hikaru asked, cuddling his plush alligator. "Mr. Trung let me pet Tiny and play with Lulu. He says you should get me an iguana too or a capuchin monkey. They make very nice pets."
She laughed gently at Hikaru's adult-sounding speech. He was almost six, and he already had a tremendous grasp of both Japanese and Chinese language as well as Vietnamese; courtesy of Mr. Trung. He would be ready to start first grade next year. This year he attended private kindergarten until one each afternoon and he was an avid and fast learner.
Sakura knew that Syaoran never married. She allowed herself to wonder for one long instant what Li Yelan would think of her grandson. It was unlikely that the elderly woman would covet him, of course, since he was Sakura's. And a grandchild would tarnish the youthful image she tried so hard to project.
"Can't I have an iguana?" Hiraku asked.
"You can pet Dano, when Mr. Trung lets you."
"How about a monkey like Lulu?" he persisted.
"Lulu is a possessive little thing. She wouldn't like a monkey coming on her territory. Ask Mr. Trung yourself."
"Doesn't Mr. Trung have a first name?" he asked, frowning.
She laughed. "Nobody has the nerve to ask," she whispered.
He laughed, too, his young voice delightfully carefree. Had she ever been that happy, she wondered, even as a child? Her mother died when she was four, leaving her with her father and older brother. Her father was archeologist and anthropologist and she was his princess. Her brother was very protective of her, died on the job when his dig site went wrong. A little more than a year later, Touya was killed arresting a gang member. Thank God there was Aunt Soyaki and Uncle Eiji to look after her. They'd loved her, even if nobody else ever had.
Hiraku sighed. "I wish I could come with you."
"One day soon," she promised. "Then I'll take you to your Mongolian cousins up north.
The thunderous voice echoed through the upstairs floor.
"In here, Mr. Trung!"
Heavy footsteps were heard echoing down the hall and a tall hair cropped hulk of a man walked into the room. Mr. Trung had a Marine Corp tattoo on one brawny arm, and he wore khaki slacks with an olive drab T-shirt. He was the ugliest, and the kindest, man Sakura had ever known. He had to be in his middle or late forties, but no one knew for sure. He had a spotless and impressive service record and had come from a successful career in the Vietnamese Marine Force with some co-work from the CIA of US to work for Kobayashi Takao.
After Takao's death, Sakura inherited him as her bodyguard. Everything from his big nose to his green eyes that were resembled a deep forest green, he was a treasure. He aborted the kidnapping attempt on Hiraku. And no one with a shred of common sense bothered Sakura when he was with her. Every year she raises his salary, even though he never asks. Next to Hiraku, Mr. Trung was the most cherished person in her private life.
"It's bedtime for you, mister," Mr. Trung told Hikaru without cracking a smile. "Front and center."
"Yes, sir!" Hiraku saluted, laughing, and ran to the big man, to be swung up on his shoulders.
"I'll settle him for night, Karumera," he told Sakura. His eyes narrowed. "You need another week in bed."
"Don't fuss at me," she said gently, and smiled at him. "I'm all right. I have to do something with Aunt Soyaki's things you know. And it's a dandy opportunity to reconnoiter the opposition."
"Recon what?" Hiraku asked.
"Never mind," she told him. She learned forward and kissed his rosy cheek. "Sleep tight, baby. I'll be along to tuck you in."
"Mr. Trung is going to tell me all about Vietnam!" Hiraku told her with excitement.
Sakura grimaced. Vietnam War stories hardly seemed the proper bedtime tales for a young boy. She didn't have the heart to let him go to bed with those stories in his head . . .
"I want to hear about the snake again."
She frowned at Hiraku. "The what?"
"The snake. M. Trung is teaching me about all the animals and stuff in Vietnam," he explained.
She flushed. She'd thought the stories were entirely about something else.
Mr. Trung saw the flush and almost smiled. "Fooled you, huh?" he asked smugly. "That's what you get for misjudging innocent people."
"You are not innocent people," she pointed out.
"I'm innocent of a few things," he argued. "I never shot anybody twice."
She looked up at the ceiling. "My bodyguard, the saint."
"Keep that up and I'll go back to the government," he promised. "They treat a guy right."
"I'll bet they never bought you kidskin moccasins and your very own Jacuzzi," she said haughtily.
"And they don't give you three weeks' paid vacation and offer you free hotel rooms and carte blanche at restaurants," she continued.
"Well . . ."
"And they don't hug like I do," Hiraku exclaimed, throwing his arms around Mr. Smith's think neck as hard as he could.
Mr. Trung chuckled, returning the hug. "Got me there," he admitted. "Nobody in the government ever hugged me."
"See?" Sakura asked smugly. "You're well off and don't know it."
"Oh, I know it," he said. "I just like watching you squirm."
"One of these days," she began, pointing a finger at him.
"That's our cur to leave, Hiraku," Mr. Trung said turning with the boy in his arms to head for the door. "She's good for an hour on that subject."
Sakura hid a smile and went back to her packing.
Two days later she arrived in Hong Kong on the bus. She could have flown all the way to Hong Kong, but that was an indication that she had money. A bus ticket was considerably cheaper so she purchase a bus ticket from a station after landing Shanghai. Besides, the bus station was located a few doors down from the office of Li Corporations.
She waited for her suitcase; her hair was loose and falling down her back, wearing a pair of jeans and a faded denim jacket over a T-shirt. She wore a pair of scuffed boots she'd used for riding back home, and she'd left off her makeup. She looked very much as she had the day she'd taken the bus out of Hong Kong six years ago. Except she had a different secret now, one she was going to enjoy keeping until the proper time.
In an office building just a little down the street, high up, a man sitting at a desk happened to notice the movement from the unloading of passengers disembarking. He got out of his swivel chair and moved to the one-way window, staring down with dark eyes that seemed to burst with mingled emotions.
"What is it, Mai?" he asked without turning.
"Your letter . . . ."
He had to force himself to turn away from the window. Surely not, he thought. That couldn't be her, not after all these years. He'd seen her in crowds before, only to get closer and find another face, the wrong face. But he felt as if it were Sakura. His heart began to beat with the fierce rhythm she'd taught it. He felt alive for the first time in six years.
He sat down; his tall, fit body in a dark blue suit so striking that even his senior secretary of many years stared at him. He was thirty-two now, but sometimes his lean, slightly tanned face seemed older than its years. There were lines around his eyes, too.
"Forget the letter," he said abruptly. "Find the address of Soyaki. Her husband was a Mongol – Eiji
"Yes, sir." Mai left to find the address for him.
Syaoran continued to sit, turning to read some new contracts and an inquiry from one of his directors about a few mining leases he'd refused to cede from Kobayashi International. He looked at the papers without seeing them as memories flooded back, memories six years old of a woman who'd betrayed him and left town under a cloud of suspicion.
"Sir, there's an obituary here," Mai said as she returned thumbing through the local paper. "I saw it last week and meant to mention it. Well, I remembered, you know, about that Kinomoto girl who was involved in the theft six years ago."
Syaoran bristled. "Her part in it was never proved," he corrected sternly.
Her eyes arched as she moved a step back. "Yes, here it is. Mrs. Soyaki, and here's the address – they print it, you know. She was buried two days ago. No family listed at all. I suppose they didn't know about Miss Kinomoto at the newspaper . . . ."
"Give me that." He took the paper and pored over it. Soyaki was dead. He remembered her from their old neighborhood where she and Eiji had lived until the old gentleman's death two years ago. Soyaki had moved closer into town. God only knew how she managed to afford a house on her Social Security. Syaoran hadn't seen the house but knew about it because he'd seen her one day when he was out. He'd questioned her harshly about Sakura, but she wouldn't tell him anything.
She was frankly evasive and even a little frightened. He grimaced, remembering his desperation to find Sakura. The old lady had practically run to get away from him. He hadn't followed her, but he'd been tempted to follow her. Then he realized that it would accomplish nothing. He'd only upset her more. Besides, the past was dead. Sakura was probably married by now, with a house full of kids.
The thought hurt him and angered him even. He sighed irately. Well, she'd be coming back, surely. In fact, that could have been Sakura he'd just seen. Someone would have to tie up all the loose ends that Soyaki's death created. He knew that Sakura was Soyaki's closest living relative.
He sat back in his chair, scowling. Sakura was here. He knew she was. He didn't know whether he was sorry or glad about it. He only knew that his life was about to be disrupted once again.