JOKER gives Tomoyo a dream that makes her fear her own power, and the effect it might have on Sakura.
Tomoyo had changed into her pajamas in record time that night, looking forward to a good night's sleep more than ever after the day-and-a-half long adventure she'd just been through. However, she might as well not have bothered, as her overactive nerves were threatening to keep her awake all night. In the few hours since she'd arrived at home, she'd downed so many glasses of warm milk that her mother was beginning to worry, yet her hands were still shaking. Every thought that popped into her head had to be brutally beaten down before it turned into a desire. During the awkward silences while the servants were in the room and Kero had to play the stuffed animal, she'd passed the time mentally reciting the alphabet and multiplication tables until her mind began to run the letters and numbers together. Seven times F equals thirty-Q.... She wanted to scream.
"Hey, kid, what's on your mind?" Kero called from the bed. "You look kinda spaced out."
Tomoyo blushed. "I'm sorry," she said. "My thoughts are so confused right now. I'm worried about what JOKER will do next."
"I wouldn't worry about it too much," said Kero. "You've got me and Sakura on your side. And the kid," he added with a show of reluctance. "We know what we're dealing with, and that's usually the hardest part of fighting a Clow Card. All we need is a plan of attack, and that's just a matter of time." He grabbed the last of the slice of cake that Tomoyo hadn't been hungry enough to eat and shoved it into his mouth. "Sho jumf tenk en eefy em rumack."
Tomoyo giggled despite herself. "You're right," she agreed. "I should just take it easy and relax."
Kero swallowed. "There ya go! There's the Tomoyo I know!"
Tomoyo climbed into bed and slid under the covers. Kero curled up at her shoulder and yawned. "Man, it's later than I thought," he said through the yawn. "Time for some serious shut-eye."
"Do you miss Sakura?" Tomoyo asked suddenly.
Kero poked his head up sleepily. "Huh? It's only been a few hours."
Tomoyo turned to face away from Kero. "I just thought that you always get to sleep with Sakura. Isn't this the first time you've been away from her?"
"Well, not really. There was the time I ran away and ended up finding the FLOAT card, and the time I switched bodies with the kid thanks to the CHANGE card. Compared to those times, this is downright cozy. After all, I get to spend the night with a good friend tonight."
Tomoyo smiled. "I wish I could spend the night with Sakura."
"Careful!" warned Kero. "Talk like that, and JOKER might just try to grant that wish."
"I wouldn't mind dealing with JOKER, if Sakura were here with me," said Tomoyo dreamily.
Kero returned to his fully curled position. "You'll be whistling a different tune if it actually happens," he mumbled sleepily. "Never a good idea... bringing trouble on yourself...."
But Tomoyo was already fast asleep.
Tomoyo opened her eyes at the sound of the voice, but saw nothing. She was surrounded by darkness so deep that she couldn't even see her own body. There was no light at all in this place, wherever it was. Nor could she smell anything, and the air had no taste at all. There was no evidence that anything existed at all, except for herself. She was afraid to move for fear of losing contact with whatever was beneath her feet forever.
Yet, there was the voice. It had to mean that she wasn't alone, but it had been a mere echo on the edge of hearing, so she hadn't been able to determine whose voice it was. "Hello?" she called out tentatively, but her words were swallowed by the darkness. She couldn't even hear the sound of her own voice. It wasn't cold - even that would have been a welcome sensation - but she shivered all the same.
"Tomoyo?" the voice called again. This time, she caught a familiar tone of friendship; a soft, gentle lilt that told her exactly whose voice it was. The one most welcome in her time of need.
"Sakura!" she shouted excitedly. "I'm here!"
Sakura appeared in front of her, wearing the costume that Tomoyo had been working on for the past three days, complete with the flower brooch from the jewelry store. She was leaning slightly forward with her hands behind her back. But something was strange about her, although Tomoyo couldn't quite put her finger on it. "Is something wrong?" she asked, still unable to hear herself.
"Nothing's wrong," replied Sakura, her mouth not quite moving in synch with her words. "Everything is perfect, isn't it?"
Tomoyo stared at Sakura in a way that normally would have caused the older girl to cringe with embarrassment, but Sakura seemed completely unfazed by it. In fact, except for blinking occasionally, she didn't move at all. Not so much as a twitch. And as Tomoyo looked more closely, Sakura's image had no depth at all, as if she were a mere cardboard cutout.
Sakura suddenly changed positions, standing up straight with a disappointed look on her face. "You don't look happy, Tomoyo."
"This is a dream," said Tomoyo, backing away from the fake Sakura.
Sakura's smile returned. "That's right. Don't you want to have fun?"
A pair of words appeared in front of Sakura: "YES" and "NO" in floating white characters.
"Yes?" Tomoyo guessed, genuinely confused.
The word "YES" flashed, and both words vanished. A second later, Sakura flickered into an excited pose. "All right!" she cheered. "We're going to have so much fun!"
"Is this some kind of game?" Tomoyo wondered aloud. "Like those dating games that the boys are always talking about? I think I saw Hayashi playing one like this last year."
"Where should we go?" Sakura was asking. Tomoyo looked up to see the three choices - "AMUSEMENT PARK", "ZOO", "PARK" - floating in the air and realized that her comment had been ignored. She considered the three choices and made her selection.
"Let's go to the park," she said, getting into character.
The cutout of Sakura leapt enthusiastically forward, and suddenly came to life. "Great!" said the much more lifelike Sakura, threading her arm through Tomoyo's elbow. The darkness became Penguin Park, and the girls were standing in the middle of the playground, in front of the giant penguin slide that was the park's namesake.
"What should we do first, Tomoyo?" asked Sakura, snapping Tomoyo out of her admiring reverie.
Tomoyo waited a few moments for the answer choices to appear, but quickly realized that the rules had changed now that they had progressed to another part of the dream. "Shall we play on the slide?" she suggested.
"Sure! I'll go first!" said Sakura. She ran to the base of the slide and began to climb the ladder while Tomoyo watched, enjoying herself despite the uneasy feeling the dream was giving her. There was just something about watching Sakura have a good time that made her heart flutter, no matter what the circumstances were.
Sakura reached the top of the slide and waved to Tomoyo. Tomoyo waved back with a wide smile, but something in the air set her spine on edge. There was a hint of laughter echoing through the park, even though Sakura and Tomoyo were the only living souls in sight. It was probably just an artifact of the dream - the park wasn't usually this empty, and laughter was usually prominent in the background noise.
"Here I go!" shouted Sakura as she sat down and slid the length of the smooth incline. As soon as her feet hit the ground, she stood up and posed with her arms straight out.
Tomoyo applauded. "That was wonderful!"
Sakura wiped her brow with the back of her arm and smiled. "Would you like a turn?" she asked.
Tomoyo nodded and stepped forward, but stopped in her tracks when she noticed that the slide was vibrating. She tried to warn Sakura, but couldn't find her voice.
Sakura's eyes narrowed. "Tomoyo, what's wrong?" she asked.
Tomoyo could do no more than point, slack-jawed, at the slide as it slowly rose into the air. She gasped a few times before a word finally reached her lips. "SAKURA!"
Sakura finally turned around to see the slide hovering over her head, just in time to scream as it fell down and crushed her.
"NO! SAKURA!" screamed Tomoyo as she ran to the side of the fallen penguin. She tried to push the monstrosity off of her friend, but was far too weak to budge it. Not that it would have mattered if she could - not even Sakura could survive such an impact. The first traces of blood were already beginning to seep out from under the slide. Tomoyo sank to her knees and cried. "Sakura...."
"There you are, Tomoyo!" said a friendly voice from behind her.
Tomoyo whirled around and found herself facing Sakura, alive and completely unharmed. She screamed and backed up right into the fallen slide. "Sakura! How - you're dead!"
Sakura smiled and shook her head. "I'm not dead. I'm right here."
Tomoyo raised a hand to her forehead and leaned heavily against the slide. "This can't be! What's going on?"
Sakura giggled. "This is a dream, remember? Nothing here can really hurt me."
Tomoyo heaved a relieved sigh. "This is a horrible dream. I was really scared!"
"Don't worry," Sakura assured her. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
Tomoyo ran to give her friend a hug. "Oh, Sakura! I'm so glad you're -"
Suddenly, Sakura's entire body burst into flame. Tomoyo backed away, shielding herself from the heat with her arms and screaming Sakura's name. Sakura's screams of pain didn't last long before she crumpled to the ground, still burning.
"What's going on?" Tomoyo asked aloud, turning away from the sight of her twice-dead friend. "I don't care if this is a dream; I don't want to see Sakura die!"
"I'm not going to die," replied Sakura's voice. Tomoyo looked up to see Sakura standing in front of her, once again unaffected by her earlier death.
"What kind of dream is this?" asked Tomoyo, hesitant to keep her eyes on Sakura for fear of having to watch her die again. "Why is this happening?"
"A dream brings out your innermost thoughts for you to see," Sakura explained as a lime green mist swirled around her feet. "This must be what you're thinking about."
"Why would I be thinking about Sakura dying over and over?" demanded Tomoyo.
"Maybe it's because you don't want it to happen in real life?" Sakura suggested. The mist rose to form a dense column around her, thickening until she could no longer be seen. Seconds later, she began to scream as the mist took on a dark red hue.
Tomoyo gasped. "That's... MIST! Sakura's being attacked by the Clow Cards!"
Sakura's screams quickly fell silent, and the acidic mist vanished, leaving behind nothing but bones. Tomoyo turned away, wondering how much more she would be able to stand before she felt sick. This was wrong. Everything about this dream was wrong.
"Tomoyo!" Sakura called from the sandbox at the far end of the park. "Remember how we used to build sandcastles together?"
Tomoyo started toward the sandbox at a trot. "Sakura, be careful! The powers of the Clow Cards are trying to kill you!"
Sakura stood up and brushed the sand from her dress. "That's impossible!" she protested calmly. "I'm the Master of the Clow. The Clow Cards would never hurt me."
Sand.... "Get out of the sandbox!" shouted Tomoyo, breaking into a run. "The SAND card!"
Sakura's expression turned to concern as she tried to step out of the sandbox. "My feet are stuck!" she shouted. "I'm sinking!"
Tomoyo ran even faster. "Hang on, Sakura! I won't let you die again!"
"Hurry!" shouted Sakura as she sank to her waist. She grabbed at the edge of the sandbox, but it was too far away to support her.
"I'm almost there!" She could see the sand itself now, a swirling, churning pool with Sakura at its center. In a few more steps, she'd be able to reach Sakura and save her from at least one death - and with her next step, Tomoyo found herself at the far side of the park again. "What happened?" she asked. "How did I get so far away?"
"Tomo-!" Sakura gasped as her head went under.
Tomoyo could only watch helplessly as the sand swallowed Sakura's frantically flailing arms. She fell to her knees and pounded the ground with a fist. "I couldn't save her...."
"It's all right, Tomoyo," said Sakura, resting a hand on Tomoyo's shoulder. "I can be strong. I'll keep you safe."
Tomoyo looked up at her friend through tear-streaked eyes. "You're the one who's in danger, Sakura. This is my dream, but I can't stop it."
"Everything will be fine," Sakura assured her.
"No, it won't," said Tomoyo. "You're going to die again."
"And I'll come back to life again, won't I?" asked Sakura. "So it all works out in the end."
"Doesn't it hurt?" asked Tomoyo.
"I don't know," replied Sakura. "After all, this is only a dream."
"I want to wake up," Tomoyo insisted. "I don't want to have to watch you die again!"
Sakura started to reply, but her words turned into a scream as her feet lifted from the ground and she floated into the air. Tomoyo leapt up to grab her before she could fly away, but missed. She stared up into the sky and watched Sakura until she had vanished from sight, then turned and ran so that she wouldn't have to see the result when Sakura fell from that height and smashed into the ground.
She bumped right into yet another Sakura. "Tomoyo, what's wrong?" asked the new Sakura. "Why are you running?"
"NO MORE!" shouted Tomoyo as she shoved Sakura out of her path and kept running. "I can't take it any more!" She didn't turn around as a bolt of lightning flashed from the sky and struck Sakura, nor when the next Sakura was enveloped by darkness, speared with thousands of arrows of light, suffocated by flowers blooming on every inch of her skin, prematurely aged until nothing was left of her but dust....
Tomoyo woke up with a start and sat up, sweat dripping from her bangs. "Sakura!" she shouted.
"Whoa, whoa!" said Kero, fluttering to a safe distance. "You were having a nightmare!"
Tomoyo shuddered at the memory. "It was horrible, Kero. Sakura and I were in the park, and the Clow Cards were attacking her. They killed her over and over again, and I couldn't stop them."
It was Kero's turn to shudder. "Man, that's a real doozy. Good thing it was just a dream."
"It scared me, Kero. It felt too real to be a dream."
"It was probably the work of JOKER again," said Kero. "You wished Sakura could be with you all night, remember? JOKER probably used the power of DREAM to make you dream about Sakura."
"But why would it give me such a horrible dream?" asked Tomoyo.
"The DREAM card is pretty peculiar," Kero explained. "It always gives you a dream with a meaning of some kind, and it's usually not pleasant." He smiled smugly. "I tried to warn you not to make that wish, but did you listen to me? No...."
Tomoyo leapt out of bed and ran to her clothes drawers. "I have to get to Sakura right away!"
"No need to panic," said Kero. "It was just a dream."
"I think I know what it meant," said Tomoyo as she pulled off her pajamas, forgetting to ask Kero to turn away. "The power of JOKER is going to hurt Sakura if I don't find a way to stop it quickly!" She pulled a drawer open, grabbed whatever was at the top, and put it on without looking at it, only to find herself wearing a shirt around her waist. Blushing, she removed it and started to pay more attention to what she was doing.
Kero scratched his chin. "That is a good point," he agreed. "But like I said before, Sakura's the Master of the Clow, the one true Card Captor. It's her job to figure out how to deal with rogue Clow Cards. Yue wouldn't have accepted her if he didn't think she could do the job."
"Sakura can't use the Clow Cards anymore," Tomoyo reminded him. "The only one with any magical power left is me, and I can't control it."
"Well, maybe you can learn to control it," Kero suggested. "Then you wouldn't have to worry."
Tomoyo finished her outfit by pulling on her socks and grabbed Kero. "We're going to Sakura's house," she announced. "I have to see her right away!"
"What about breakfast?" moaned Kero as she carried him downstairs.
In the end, Tomoyo had to take the time to eat breakfast before her mother would let her go anywhere, but the entire ten minutes that it took her to wolf down the meal were focused on the real reason that she had to see Sakura so urgently. Her dream had shaken her and left her with a horrible ache in her heart. She wanted to hold Sakura in her arms and feel her warmth, and know that everything would be all right; but it would be enough just to see her safe and sound. Spending time with Sakura and not having to watch her die would be heavenly. As long as she never had to watch Sakura die for real...!
The meal passed even more quickly thanks to Kero surreptitiously munching on it whenever Mrs. Daidouji's back was turned. "Ah, that's good stuff," he whispered quietly. "You're lucky to get such great food, kid."
"Did you say something, dear?" asked Mrs. Daidouji.
"No, mother," replied Tomoyo, her voice wavering slightly due to her overactive nerves. "May I go to Sakura's house?"
"Right now?" asked her mother. "You spent most of yesterday evening with her, and you were very tired when you came home. Perhaps it would be better if you rested today...."
"No!" shouted Tomoyo. "It's important!"
Her mother recoiled. "Tomoyo, what's gotten into you? Are you feeling well? You look pale."
Mrs. Daidouji put her hand on Tomoyo's forehead, but Tomoyo lightly pushed it away. "I'm fine," she assured her mother. "I just had a horrible nightmare last night, and I really want to see Sakura."
"Oh, honey, I'm sorry!" Mrs. Daidouji wrapped her arms around Tomoyo in a hug. "Of course you can go. I'll call ahead and let her know that you're on your way."
"Thank you!" Tomoyo returned the hug quickly, then scooped Kero up and ran to the garage. A brief limo ride later, she was standing out front of Sakura's house. She paused at the end of the walk and stroked Kero nervously.
"Hey that feels pretty good," Kero cooed. "But why are you stopping here?"
"I'm not sure I should go," replied Tomoyo.
"What, after you came all this way?"
"What if I make a bad wish and hurt Sakura?" asked Tomoyo. "It's too dangerous!"
"Nothing bad's gonna happen," Kero assured her. "Just go tell her how you feel and let her worry about dangerous Clow Cards."
"How I feel..." Tomoyo repeated slowly.
"Yeah, you know. The whole nightmare thing that was the reason you rushed over here."
"But I can't put her in danger!" Tomoyo protested again.
Kero sighed. "Look, forget about the danger for a moment. You want to see Sakura, right?"
Tomoyo nodded, feeling a tear run down her cheek.
"Then go ring the doorbell!" he commanded her. "This is something you need to do, so stop thinking about it and do it before JOKER decides to do something about it for you."
That did the trick. Tomoyo set her jaw and walked up to the front door. Her finger paused on the doorbell, and she had to remind herself why she was here. She was going to tell Sakura how she felt. Well, not the whole truth, anyway: she couldn't tell Sakura her deepest feelings, no matter how much she wanted to. The near-disaster with LIBRA had shown her that just blurting out her feelings was far too embarrassing. If there was a subtler yet direct way to express that feeling, she'd leap on the opportunity in a second, but for now -
Sakura opened the door, surprising her. "Tomoyo, good mor- are those for me?"
"Are what for you?" asked Tomoyo, adjusting her grip on the bouquet of roses and box of chocolates in her hands.
"You brought me flowers?" Sakura reached out and took the bouquet from Tomoyo. "They're beautiful. But what are they for?"
Still confused by the presence of the gifts, Tomoyo blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "They're because I love you."
Sakura's face turned a deep red. "Um... thank you," she said, toeing the floor.
Tomoyo's face felt like it was on fire. What had she done? She'd just spoiled her most precious and beautiful secret and treated Sakura like... a boyfriend! She could have died from embarrassment. She wanted the ground to open under her feet and swallow her so she wouldn't have to look at Sakura any -
The flowers hit the ground as Sakura grabbed Tomoyo by the elbows, knocking the chocolates from her hand. "Tomoyo, hang on!"
Tomoyo started to ask what was wrong, but the feeling of something cold and hard pressing on her
ankles stopped her. She reflexively looked down to see herself standing knee-deep in a whirling pit of sand. The box of chocolates that had landed beside her submerged quickly as she watched, and in a horrifying instant, she realized that she would be next. She shrieked in terror and grabbed Sakura's sleeves for support. "Sakura, help me!"
Kero grabbed Tomoyo's collar and lent what little strength he had to the effort. "I dunno what you wished for this time, kid, but you're really going to be in over your head in a few minutes!"
What she wished for.... The blush returned to Tomoyo's face. This had been her wish exactly. She'd been so concerned about Sakura's life, but now she was the one in danger because of her stupid desires.
Tomoyo continued to sink into the sand despite Sakura's best effort. "It's too strong!" Sakura groaned. "I can't pull you out!"
Tomoyo hung her head. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "This is all my fault."
"It's not your fault!" Sakura shot back forcefully. "JOKER is the one using its magic!"
Touya's voice cut in from the top of the stairs before Tomoyo could reply. "Hey, what's going on down there?"
"Nothing!" Sakura replied hastily.
"It's awfully loud for nothing," he called down. "Sounded like a scream."
Sakura glanced worriedly over her shoulder. "Touya's coming downstairs! What are we going to do? We can't let him see this!"
"Step outside and close the door!" urged Kero.
"If I do that, I'll have to let go of Tomoyo!"
Waist deep in the sand, Tomoyo closed her eyes. "JOKER," she whispered. "I know you want to help me. Make Sakura strong enough to pull me out of here!"
Sakura fell on her back with a cry of surprise as Tomoyo popped instantly free of the pit and landed on top of her. Kero leapt for the front door and slammed it shut, landing on the floor just as Touya rounded the corner. He eyed the girls suspiciously. "What kind of game are you playing, anyway?"
"It's a girl game," Sakura replied with a nervous chuckle. "You wouldn't like it."
Touya snorted and looked at Kero, who was lying on his back in the middle of the scattered bouquet. "Better clean that mess up," he said. "Yukito's coming over in a few minutes."
Hearts danced in Sakura's eyes. "Yukito's coming over?"
"We're starting a new part-time job this afternoon, so we decided to meet here and get ready together," he explained. "So you two had better move your 'girl game' upstairs to your room." With that, he shook his head and moved on to the kitchen.
Sakura swooned. "Yukito's coming over...." She sighed happily.
Kero sat up, pushing aside a crushed rose, and cleared his throat. "I think we may have a problem," he announced.
Tomoyo stood up and helped Sakura to her feet. "What is it?" she asked.
Kero fluttered up to the doorknob and pulled the door open. "This," he said, pointing to the swirling pit of sand on the front step.
Sakura gasped. "We have to cover it up before he comes!"
"I wouldn't advise that," said Kero. "What if he DOESN'T see it and steps into it?"
Sakura choked back a scream. "Oh no! He'd die!"
"We should direct him to the back door," advised Tomoyo. "That way, there's no risk of him stepping into the sand."
"It could still be a problem if he sees it, though," Kero noted. "It could blow the secret of the Clow Cards wide open."
Sakura stepped carefully around the pit to investigate it from outside. "How will we hide it from him?" she asked. "It's easy to see even from here."
"Hide what from whom?" Yukito innocently asked as he rounded the corner at the far end of the walk.
Sakura cried excitedly as she ran to Yukito and leapt into his arms, placing her head right in front of his eyes. "Yukito! What a surprise!"
Yukito chuckled and tried to put Sakura down, but she shifted in his grip and hung on doggedly. "Didn't Touya tell you I was coming over?" he asked.
Sakura shook her head.
"Well, you seemed to be expecting someone," he said, leaning down to deposit Sakura on the ground. "Would you mind letting go of me? You've grown so big that I can hardly hold you up!"
"But it's been so long since I've seen you!" Sakura protested, clinging tightly to his neck.
Meanwhile, Kero attached himself to Tomoyo's back to avoid being seen. "Can you think of any way to hide this pit before he spots it?" he asked.
Tomoyo shook her head. "I wish I had an idea, but I can't think of anything," she whispered.
"What about JOKER's power?" asked Kero. "You could cover it with an illusion."
"I think that power's already used up," replied Tomoyo.
Yukito's smile diminished only slightly as he reached up to pry Sakura's arms from around him. "You're hurting me," he said quietly.
Losing her grip and still no closer to coming up with a way to keep him from seeing the sandpit, Sakura switched mental tacks. "Um, Touya asked me to tell you to go in through the back door today."
Yukito finally succeeded in dislodging her, but knelt to remain at her level and didn't take his eyes off her. "I thought Touya didn't tell you that I was coming over."
"Well, he said IF you came over," she filled in quickly. "Tomoyo and I made a bit of a mess in the hallway and haven't had time to clean it up yet."
"Well, okay," he relented at last, ruffling Sakura's hair affectionately. "If Touya said so, I guess I'd better." He stood up and took one look at the house. "My, that's odd."
Sakura's heart skipped a beat. "What's odd?" she asked nervously.
"There's a shadow on the front of the house," he replied.
"A shadow?" Sakura repeated, turning to confirm his assertion visually.
Tomoyo tried to smile casually as she felt the twin gazes on her, but as she looked up at the two people, she realized that they couldn't see her at all. It was then that she noticed that the area around her had become very dark, likely obscuring both herself and the sandpit.
Yukito shrugged. "It must be a sunspot or a cloud, or something like that."
Sakura tittered with nervous relief. "Yeah, that's pretty strange," she agreed. "Anyway, you should probably go around to the back if Touya's expecting you."
"Yeah, I'll do that." Yukito headed to the back of the house without acknowledging Tomoyo's presence.
"Whew, that was close," Kero sighed quietly. "It's too bad he can't become Yue. That would have made this whole thing a lot easier to deal with, not to mention the advice he could give us about JOKER."
Sakura waited until Yukito had rounded the corner of the house before calling to Tomoyo. "Tomoyo, are you there?"
Tomoyo carefully stepped to solid ground outside, pulling the front door closed behind her. "I'm here," she replied. "It's just very dark."
"I guess JOKER found a way to hide the pit after all," said Kero as Tomoyo stepped into the light. She looked back to see that the entire area around the door was shrouded in such a deep darkness that nothing within could be seen. "This looks like the work of SHADOW," Kero assessed.
"It worked pretty well," said Sakura. "Nobody will be able to see anything in that shadow."
"But the pit is still there," Tomoyo reminded her. "Anyone could step into it, now that it can't be seen."
Sakura considered the situation carefully. "When Li and I fought the SAND card before, I used WATERY to get the sand wet, and then Li froze it with FREEZE. Do you think that would work?"
"But you can't use the Clow Cards," Tomoyo pointed out.
"You can, Tomoyo," returned Kero. "Try to get JOKER to use those powers."
Tomoyo hesitated, but the possible consequences of leaving the pit as it was far outweighed the risks of using JOKER again. "JOKER, use the powers of WATERY and FREEZE to freeze this sand," she commanded.
"I sure hope it listens to you," said Kero. "There's no guarantee that JOKER follows direct orders, even from you."
As they watched, a ball of water appeared over the sand and then poured down upon the swirling pit. The sibilant hiss of the shifting sand fell silent as the water froze, halting the sand's movement.
"Then again, it could work just fine," Kero continued. He floated into the shadow and landed next to the slight conical depression that was all that remained of the pit, carefully testing its surface with a paw before placing his entire weight upon it. "Yep, it's completely solid," he assessed.
"Won't the summer heat eventually melt it again?" asked Sakura.
"Not very hot in this shadow," replied Kero as he emerged from the darkness. "Besides, it takes a lot more than plain old heat to melt FREEZE. Nothing short of magical fire will break this spell. And I don't think we'll see any of that as long as JOKER's blocking all the magic in the area and it's already used the power of FIREY."
"Then you think it's safe?" asked Tomoyo.
"The worst that's going to happen is that someone twists their ankle on the uneven ground," affirmed Kero. "And considering the alternative, that's not such a bad outcome."
Tomoyo sighed gratefully. "Then it's over. Nobody got hurt this time."
"But you nearly died!" cried Sakura. "I thought you said that JOKER wasn't going to hurt you!"
"That was what Kero said during the reading," Tomoyo recalled.
Kero shrugged. "The sand probably wouldn't have actually killed you, even if it had swallowed you," he said. "Maybe it would have spit you out, or maybe it was counting on the fact that Sakura was going to rescue you using POWER."
"But there's no guarantee?" asked Sakura.
"Who knows what JOKER's really thinking?" Kero replied. "It could very well be that if it thought Tomoyo truly wanted to die, it would kill her."
"Why did you wish for SAND to swallow you anyway, Tomoyo?" Sakura asked curiously.
Tomoyo felt the blush return to her face. "It was an accident," she replied softly.
Kero picked up on Tomoyo's discomfort and diplomatically changed the subject. "Well, one thing is for sure: Tomoyo's not as safe as we thought before. And if JOKER's magic can target her directly like this, then nobody's safe. If she so much as loses her temper with someone, they might end up dead. Including herself."
"No way!" Sakura protested. "Tomoyo wouldn't do that!"
"It's true," Tomoyo put in. "Last night, I felt so bad that I almost wished I was dead. And just now...."
"The important thing," Kero interrupted, saving her from an embarrassing revelation, "is that JOKER is more dangerous than we gave it credit for, and Tomoyo can't control its effects well enough to prevent it from hurting anyone."
"I want to find a way to stop it," Tomoyo said determinedly. "I don't want to wait until it uses up its power. Who knows who might be hurt next?"
"Maybe you could order it to use the rest of its powers right now," Kero suggested.
"That's too risky," Sakura countered. "Anything could go wrong. And some of the powers are too dangerous to use, even if they're controlled. SHOT and ARROW could kill someone!"
Kero scratched his chin. "That's a good point," he agreed. "We'll need to find a way to fight JOKER directly, then. We'll have to drag it out and capture it before it can use any more of its powers."
"But we don't know how to do that," Tomoyo added glumly.
The front door opened, and Touya and Yukito emerged from the house wearing matching striped uniforms and aprons. Kero quickly ducked out of sight behind Tomoyo.
Touya's eyes focused on Sakura as he walked across the frozen sand and exited the shadow. "So, I told Yuki to come in through the back door, did I?" he asked with the necessary good-natured malice toward his sister.
"Well, that was part of our game," Sakura inaccurately explained.
Touya crossed his arms, not buying the story, but Yukito chuckled. "Kids will be kids," he said jovially. "Good morning, Tomoyo," he added, favoring her with a smile. "I didn't see you when I arrived."
"I was inside the house," Tomoyo explained.
Touya rolled his eyes. "I'll be back before dinner," he announced. "Yuki's coming back with me, and there's enough for your friend if she wants to stay too. If you need me before then, I'll be at the box lunch shop just on the far side of the Mizuki Shrine. You know the one I'm talking about?"
Sakura nodded. "Have fun at work! Bye, Yukito!"
Yukito waved as he and Touya made their way to the street. "Enjoy your game!" he called back.
Sakura sighed happily. "Yukito...."
Kero floated in front of Sakura's face and groaned. "She's forgotten all about JOKER."
"I didn't forget!" Sakura protested. "I was just really happy that I got to see him!"
"Um..." said Tomoyo, hoping to get their attention. "I had a thought when your brother mentioned the Mizuki Shrine. Perhaps Miss Mizuki would be able to figure out a way to fight JOKER."
Realization dawned on Kero's face. "Of course! That woman's got some kind of power over the Clow Cards, and JOKER should be no exception."
"It's on the way to the park," added Sakura. "Since we're going there to watch Yamazaki's model plane anyway, it can't hurt to stop and ask about JOKER while we're out."
"I suppose we can take a little time for a detour," agreed Kero.
"I'm sorry you have to go out of your way for me," Tomoyo apologized, hanging her head.
"It's not out of our way," Sakura insisted. "Besides, I meant to go see Miss Mizuki before she leaves anyway, and I just kept forgetting. So this is the chance I've been waiting for."
"Are you sure?" asked Tomoyo. "I feel...." There were no words for it. How could she describe the sudden heaviness in her heart? It couldn't be guilt, but the feeling was similar....
"What? What is it?" Sakura asked with concern.
Once again, Kero picked up on Tomoyo's discomfort and intervened. "I think it's about something that happened last night," he said, lying for Sakura's benefit. "Why don't you go get ready to leave, while I talk to her about it?"
Sakura hesitated, wondering what was wrong with her best friend and knowing that if she left, she'd never have the chance to find out. But she, too, could sense Tomoyo's need. "All right," she relented. "I'll go get the Clow Cards and change into my sundress." She stepped through the shadow and into the house, obliviously trampling the scattered flowers in the front hall as she went.
Tomoyo shuddered as if it had truly been her love crushed under Sakura's feet. Kero landed on her shoulder and sighed. "Come on, kid. This new outlook just isn't your style. Where's that smile I've never seen you without?"
"I don't know," replied Tomoyo. "I just feel so bad about all the trouble that I'm putting you and Sakura through. I can't help it."
"There's nothing to feel bad about," Kero reassured her. "Remember, JOKER is the one causing all the trouble. It's just using you as its tool. And as for Sakura and myself, we're standing by you because we're your friends. We're not going to let you face this problem by yourself."
She didn't feel much better for all that, but Kero's concern was real, and she would feel even worse if she kept pushing her emotional problems on him as well as the magical one. She forced a smile. "Thank you," she said.
Kero's eyes narrowed. Tomoyo could tell that her act hadn't convinced him, but he was letting it go for her sake. She was grateful for that, but it still didn't lift the weight from her heart. What he had said was probably true, but she would have to hear the words directly from Sakura's mouth.
Just then, Sakura emerged from the house wearing a light summer outfit and her backpack. "I made us all some sandwiches earlier this morning," she announced. "Kero, you can eat yours in the pack if you want, but leave some for me and Tomoyo, okay?"
"Yay! Sandwiches!" cheered Kero, diving into the backpack headfirst. "Hey! You've got lemonade in here too!"
"Don't be a pig, Kero," she warned him. "That has to be enough for all three of us!"
Tomoyo couldn't help laughing as Kero and Sakura got back to their normal routines, instantly forgetting about her troubles. It wouldn't last long, but it was a good feeling all the same. The question she had been about to ask Sakura died on her lips, and her smile returned, far more genuine than before. Kero popped his head up just long enough to see that smile and return it warmly before returning to his feast.
Sakura extended her arm to Tomoyo. "Are you ready to go?"
Tomoyo sighed happily as she took Sakura's hand. She had to keep a smile on her face, if only to prevent her friends from worrying about her. "Let's go," she said, dispelling the emotion from her voice. She would just have to trust in the strength of their friendship - at least until they got to the Mizuki Shrine and all the trouble was behind them.