There was someone in his house.
It wasn't so much a feeling, really, like when he sensed the power of another magician or the special humming of magic at work. Li Syaoran simply knew, as he shut the door behind him and stomped the snow off his boots, that he was not alone.
He also knew that his visitor wasn't a natural being. Or, at the very least, wasn't alive.
Syaoran sighed. He really didn't need this right now.
Half an hour earlier, the young man had been in the mall, wandering aimlessly to collect his thoughts. He'd only entered a single store, and while there had made only a single purchase. The deceptively small box that now rested in his pocket would, one way or the other, change his life forever.
In less then an hour, Syaoran was supposed to be meeting Sakura, his long-time girlfriend, for dinner. It was their anniversary, an important night at any time, and this year he planned to make it a night to remember. He didn't want to be late, couldn't be late, and dealing with whomever it was could potentially take enough time so as to delay him.
He might even have to cancel.
He blanched at this thought. Not tonight. Good gods, not tonight.
Amber eyes closed in thought, Syaoran considered his options. He could stay and take care of his guest, at the risk of being late for his Very Important Date, or he could leave, let them solve their own problems, and whittle away the time between now and six o'clock outside in the cold.
With another sigh, Syaoran opened his eyes and brushed his bangs, damp from melted snow, away from his face. His decision was, unfortunately, an obvious one.
After all, he'd only come home because he'd had nowhere else to go.
Moving slowly, he shrugged off his coat and hung it up on the hook by the door. He didn't bother to take off his boots; he hoped to be leaving shortly, after all. He did pull off his gloves and jam them in his pockets, shivering as his fingers brushed that tiny, life-changing box.
"Hello?" His call was tentative and a little wary, for not all such visitors were friendly. There was no response, but then, Syaoran hadn't expected one.
Hand hovering over the sword-pendant that hung, as ever, around his neck, the young man cautiously stepped farther into his home. His footsteps were silent as he passed through the dark kitchen and into his living room.
She was sitting by the window, gazing out at the falling snow. The red rays of the dying sun, barely visible through the swirling white, shone through her transparent form and highlighted the wings upon her back, creating an eerie effect that was both terribly disconcerting and awe-strikingly beautiful.
The woman turned to face him, and for the first time Syaoran caught sight of her face. He caught his breath. There was something about her, something so tantalizingly familiar . . .
And then she smiled, a smile that he had seen a thousand times since he'd first come to Japan, and Syaoran was left with little doubt as to his visitor's identity. He relaxed, letting his hand stray away from his sword. He wouldn't need it here.
"Hello," he repeated, tilting his head by way of greeting. "You must be . . .
". . . her mother." Syaoran hesitated for the briefest of moments, then gave her a deep bow.
Kinomoto Nadeshiko's smile grew as she returned his bow, lighting up her face in a way that looked so like her daughter's that Syaoran felt himself immediately taking a liking to her, something which was a rare occurrence for the young heir to the Li Clan.
"Yes," the ghost-woman confirmed, her voice warm, comforting, and devoid of the haunting tones that had become standard in so many bad horror flicks. The only difference between the living and the dead, after all, was that the dead had already died. "It's nice to finally get a chance to speak to you."
"Yeah, you too." Stepping further into the room, Syaoran studied his guest curiously. He could understand how Kinomoto Fujitaka had fallen so easily for her, with her kind eyes and lively smile, traits she had passed down to her daughter. He would even go so far as to say that she was the second most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, topped only by her daughter, his Sakura, whom Syaoran considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Of course, Syaoran was, perhaps, a little biased.
He pondered her choice of words for a moment. Nice to speak to you, she had said. Not nice to meet you. She'd watched him before, then, unobserved, probably many times over the passing years. Of course, she was Sakura's mother, after all, and it was her job to take care of her daughter. He didn't detect any dislike or anger directed toward him, so he supposed he must have passed whatever tests she'd set in place for him. He could only hope that she hadn't seen them . . .
He tried, with only partial success, to fight down a blush, and steered his mind away from that area with a clear of his throat.
Nadeshiko giggled, a sound like silver bells and a babbling brook. "Don't worry," she assured him. "I just wanted to talk to you for a bit. And I won't keep you long, either; I know you have somewhere important you need to be tonight."
Syaoran's blush deepened, his hand unconsciously straying to the velvet box in his pocket. Awkwardly, he shuffled his feet and shoved his damp bangs farther off his forehead. "Oh, you, um, know about that, huh?"
"Yes. I know you've already spoken to Fujitaka-san," she explained, "but I wanted to talk to you myself."
Still smiling softly, she rose from her seat and drifted closer. Syaoran tried, unsuccessfully, to determine whether she was walking or floating, but found this only made him dizzy. He concentrated on her face instead.
"Are you very nervous?" she asked.
"Er." He glanced away from her, aware that his face was still an uncomfortable shade of red, and swallowed. "I, um . . ."
"Now, Syaoran-kun," she began, then blinked. "Oh! May I call you Syaoran-kun?"
She seemed anxious at this, and he nodded quickly. "Yeah, sure . . . whatever."
Nadeshiko beamed at him, then continued. "Oh, good! Now, Syaoran-kun, how are you going to ask her like that?"
His stomach clenched. Was she trying to make him more nervous? "I hadn't . . . gotten that far yet," he mumbled.
"I'm sure you'll do fine," she assured him, then grinned mischievously. "Maybe it'd be easier if you practiced first?"
He shook his head hastily, stammering, "Uh, n-no, no thank you." Yes, she was definitely teasing him, and he resisted the urge to scowl.
The ghost seemed to pick up on his discomfort. "I'm sorry, I know this is hard enough for you as it is." Gently, she continued, "Did your family give you much trouble?"
The Li Clan heir glanced at her, saw understanding in her dark eyes, and sighed. "Only a little. Mother was very supportive, the Elders less so, but we swung them around. They don't like the idea of me marrying a foreigner, but . . ." He trailed off, and his eyes narrowed seriously. "She's very powerful, you know. Your daughter."
"I know." Her tone matched his for solemnity. She understood the dangers, the shadows that would stalk her little girl until they were reunited in the afterlife. "You will take care of her, won't you?"
Syaoran answered without hesitation; it wasn't something he needed to spend time considering. "Yes," he said, his voice firm, and then shrugged, adding, "I love her."
"I know." She beamed again. "Well, consider my blessings given, Syaoran-kun. I can't think of anyone who deserves her more than you."
"I . . . Thank you." He swallowed, looked away. "I don't deserve her," he said, more to himself than to the ghost. "She's a better person than I am."
"A better person than you were, perhaps," Nadeshiko corrected gently. "But you've changed a lot since you first came to Japan, haven't you?"
He nodded slowly. "Yes." That was more Sakura's fault than his own, really, though she would never truly understand how instrumental she had been to melting the ice around his heart.
He'd been so cold, when he'd first come to this country so long ago, a little boy in search of great power in order to please his ever ambitious family, so cold and he hadn't even known it. Other people were weak, he'd decided, with their smiles and their kindness. She had been weak, all sunshine and soft lines. Only long exposure to her warmth had made him finally realize how wrong he'd been.
Sakura's might was quieter than his own fierce pride and fighting prowess, but in many ways she was much stronger than he; her magical abilities certainly made his own look like a fool child playing at card tricks. It had taken him a long time not to resent her for that, and he'd finally forgiven her only to discover that he'd fallen in love with her seemingly eons before without even knowing it.
Realizing that had been the first true step Syaoran had taken toward reaching manhood.
The best part, he knew, was that Sakura still had many things to teach him, many gifts to give, even after all these years, and that there were still things he could teach her, too. Their future, he hoped, would hold long hours of such instruction, of laughter and ice cream, playful banter and the soothing of wounds, warm love and hot passion.
He was startled out of his reverie when his guest giggled. He blinked at her, startled, as she teased, "Going all floaty on me, Syaoran-kun?"
Syaoran realized that his expression had turned to the dreamy-eyed gaze of a schoolboy pondering his crush, and he blushed again, mumbling apologies. "Sorry, I was just . . . thinking."
"Uh . . ." He swallowed, embarrassed. "Yeah."
She beamed at him. "Then I shouldn't keep you from her too much longer, should I?"
He grinned sheepishly in reply. "Guess not."
They studied each other for a long moment, their silence far from awkward. Then Nadeshiko leaned forward, brushing a dark strand of hair out of her eyes with one white hand.
"Good luck, Syaoran-kun," she said warmly. "I'm sure she'll say yes."
Syaoran's smile wobbled a bit as his nerves caught up with him. "Think so?" he managed to ask as doubts flooded his mined. Sakura loved him, he knew, but what if that wasn't enough? They'd been dating for years, but still, they were both very young. What if she wasn't ready? What if she wanted to wait? What if he blew it? What if, what if, what if . . . ?
Nadeshiko beamed at him, an act which had an immediate calming effect on the young man. "Yes," she said, and eyes filled with affection. "In fact, I'm sure of it."
For the first time that night, Syaoran's smile was steady as he replied, "Thanks, Kinomoto-san."
She nodded in reply. "You'd better be going. You're meeting her at six, aren't you? You don't want to be late."
He flashed her a crooked grin, not bothering to ask how she knew what time the date was. "You're right." He couldn't be late. Not tonight. Knowing Sakura, she'd probably be running behind schedule, but that didn't matter. Tonight had to be perfect.
Nadeshiko hesitated, then took a step toward him and placed her hand on his cheek. Her palm, insubstantial and yet somehow very real, was cool to the touch, but Syaoran didn't mind. No more words passed between them; they weren't needed.
And then she was gone, leaving Syaoran alone with his damp bangs, his nerves, and the small velvet box in his pocket.
Swallowing, Syaoran drew in a gulp of air, pulled his gloves out of his pockets, and turned toward the front door. "Right," he said. "I can do this."
As he opened the door, to be greeted by the gently falling snow, he turned to look back at the spot by the window where she'd been standing. Taking deep breath, he smiled again. "Here goes nothing."
He stepped out the door.