Notes and disclaimers:  The story you are about to read is my own creation.  The characters, however, stem from the brilliant work of Tachiwaka Megumi and are owned by Kodansha and TMS, whom I would like to thank.

Praise rewarded with praise...         Stirling Twilight

 

Escape Artist

"Meimi!"

The voice was that of her mother and as the young redhead rose from her homework to answer the call it was repeated.

"Meimi! Telephone!"

Meimi, heralding her arrival, ran down the stairs, but slowed as her mother covered the receiver and beckoned her closer.

"It’s Asuka Jr.," she whispered, "and he sounds very upset."

Meimi nodded and took the phone. "Hello?" she said brightly. The following pause was so long she was afraid he had hung up while waiting. "Asuka Jr.?" she ventured. Again silence. Making the assumption he had indeed found the wait too long she was about to hang up when Meimi felt a sudden chill up her spine. "Where are you?"

"At the hospital," was the whispered reply.

"I’m on my way." Placing the phone down, she turned to find her mother beside her, a concerned look on her face. "He’s at the hospital," Meimi said, "I told him I would meet him."

Her mother nodded gravely. "Should I drive you?"

Meimi considered, and accepted the offer.

 

Not ten minutes later, Meimi was frantically searching the hospital lobby for her classmate. When she found him, leaning against a distant wall, she rushed to him. As she neared, Asuka Jr. turned to face her, and Meimi to stop in her tracks. Their eyes locked for one long minute and then, without a word on either side, they met in an embrace. Meimi couldn’t have said what made her do it and certainly Asuka Jr. didn’t push her away. His arms went around her, wrapping her close with inexpressible urgency. They stood, neither one moving, neither speaking, for a long moment until the young man stiffened, as if suddenly remembering himself and he released her.

"I’m sorry," his voice was thick and he was unable to meet her eyes. "I’m not really sure why I called… I mean, I didn’t know who to call… I wanted to see you, but…"

"What’s happened?" Meimi interrupted him, bending to meet his eyes. He looked at her, blushed, and looked away. Meimi took his hand, which felt limp and clammy, in her own. Glancing around she pulled him toward an empty seat. He moved where she directed and didn’t protest as she pushed him down onto the bench.

"It’s your father? It is, isn’t it?" Meimi asked, placing herself next to him. "Is he alright? What happened?"

Asuka Jr. leaned forward, covering his face with his hands, but in the next second sat up and with a deep breath began speaking. "He was brought in, about an hour ago, with multiple gunshot wounds."

Meimi’s gasp went unnoticed.

"He’s still in surgery." Asuka Jr. paused and raked a hand through his hair. "The doctor said he’ll be fine, nothing major was hit."

Meimi’s eyes sank closed in relief. "Thank heavens."

"That’s why I’m sorry I called," he went on. "You see, there’s no real emergency…."

Meimi moved closer to him, grabbing his hand in protest. "You’re wrong! There was!" She spoke with a passion that came from the love of her own parents. "I’m glad you called!"

Asuka Jr. stared for a second, startled by her sudden out burst. His eyes then fell on her slim hand, tenderly placed on his own. "I just didn’t know what to do," he moaned, defeated. His voice fell to a mere whisper. "I felt so alone…."

Suddenly rising, Asuka Jr. placed his back to her. "I’m sorry I called you Haneoka," he announced over his shoulder, "dragging you out here on a school night wasn’t fair. I’m sorry. Thank you for coming, but there’s no need for you to stay."

Meimi felt her anger growing as he strove to dismiss her, but in the next second she realized his indifference was born of fear and her heart went out to her classmate. Reaching out, she wound her fingers in his jacket. Surprised, he twisted to face her.

"If something happened to my parents," she began softly, staring at her hand, "I don’t know what I would do, but I do know I would be scared. Very scared. It’s ok for me to say that because I’m a girl and I’m supposed to be weak and frail, but you know I’m neither of those things. Just like I know you’re neither of them." She raised her eyes to meet his, which were wide and intense. "I came, Asuka Jr., because you asked me to, because you wanted company, and I’ll stay for the same reason."

"Haneoka," was the whispered reply, and there was a touch of gratitude in his tone.

Rising with a bright smile, she pushed him back down onto the bench. "Wait here and I’ll get us some juice."

Without another word she turned in a swirl of skirts and was gone. Asuka Jr. was left alone with his thoughts, and for the briefest second felt that things weren’t so bad.

 

It was close to midnight when the doctor approached them. Asuka Jr. rose to meet him, anxiety once again hitting him like a freight train. Meimi also rose, but lingered back a step or two, waiting. When Asuka Jr. turned towards her there was the slightest smile on his lips, and she felt herself smiling back. Without a word Asuka Jr. extended his hand to her and together they went to the recovery room.

Asuka Keiji was coming out of the anesthesia as they entered the room. He looked frail and small in the paper-white bedding that covered him. Meimi felt herself drawing back; the smells and harshness of the room gripping her heart. But for Asuka Jr.’s sake she tried to not let anything show and smiled at his father as the wounded man turned glazed eyes on them.

"Oy, son," he whispered and smiled weakly. Asuka Jr. smiled back and went to his father’s side. "What did the doctor tell you?" the older man went on slowly.

"That you’re pig headed, made of iron, and he hates having to do this once a decade," Asuka Jr. replied smiling.

Asuka Keiji managed a soft laugh; "He would say that." And then he was asleep.

Asuka Jr. stood looking at his father for a long moment until he realized he had a death grip on Meimi’s hand. Glancing at her he smiled sadly and together they left the room.

Once in the hall, he dropped her hand and drawing himself up straight looked down at her. "I want to thank you again for coming, it was very kind of you. Can I walk you home?"

Meimi felt there were many things she wanted to shout at her classmate but contented herself with nodding her assent.

The night air was chilled and Meimi was sorry she was in a skirt. Asuka Jr. retrieved his bike from the rack and together they began toward Meimi’s house. Very little was said as they went and Meimi concluded that it was best for her friend to be alone with his thoughts. But as they neared her house she began to try and reassure him, letting him know that he was welcome to call her at any time, for anything. Asuka Jr. allowed her to finish, thanked her yet again for her company, and bid her goodnight. Meimi watched him ride away and waited until he was out of sight before she went into the house. Her mother met her at the door, listened to the story and, with great warmth, kissed her daughter goodnight.

Alone in her room, Meimi opened the window, laced her fingers together and permitted Saint Tail to trail her classmate. His gloomy silence worried her and Saint Tail could follow him faster, and more stealthily, than Meimi could.

Saint Tail found Asuka Jr. seated at his father’s desk, rifling through piles of papers. As she watched, he extracted some, cast off others, and gradually made a pile that he tucked under his arm and took to his bedroom. She could guess what he was doing, and even as she thought it, her mind tried to think of a way of stopping him. She was sure he meant to go after the people who shot his father, and she knew he could do it.

***

Meimi stopped by Asuka Jr.’s desk and glanced down at the paper he was furiously writing on. The paper was covered with nothing she expected to see. It was covered with math problems. Lots of them. He seemed to be doodling long division. Her involuntary gasp was enough to attract his attention and he quickly began gathering the papers into a pile, which he placed in his bag. All this was done without his looking at her.

They actually hadn’t spoken much. He had approached her as soon as she arrived and he had been very formal in his thanks. Haneoka smiled at him reassuringly, asked after his father, and allowed him to slip away. Seira had been solicitous of the situation and after a time it seemed that the whole class knew and was looking at Asuka Jr. with a great deal of pity. Everyone but Meimi.

Knowing-or at least guessing-what he had in mind, Meimi was careful to watch his every move. And yet he did nothing unusual. So Meimi continued to watch him during the day, and Saint Tail watched him at night.

It was almost a week later that Meimi asked him about the math problems he had been writing since their meeting at the hospital. She had lingered after class and managed to catch him alone.

"These?" he asked, lifting some paper off the desk.

"Umm," she agreed, sinking down into the chair next to him.

"It helps me think," he said with an unconvincing laugh.

Meimi couldn’t think of what to say to this and the following silence was uncomfortable. She longed for something to say, to keep him here and talking, but all power of speech seemed to have deserted her. The silence between them stretched out and Meimi felt uneasy, but was unable to tear herself away. Marshalling herself, she turned toward him, a bright smile on her face, but then stopped in surprise. As she watched his hands balled into fists, crumpling the papers on the desk as they did. She could see his arms were shaking with tension.

"Why are you here?" he demanded, rounding on her, scattering paper is every direction. Meimi gasped, rising to her feet, but as she did, so did Asuka Jr. "Why?" he demanded, pushing the desk between them aside and stepping closer to her. "Why have you been watching me like a hawk this past week? Do you think I’m going to kill myself or something? You’re acting like I’m a baby that needs constant care!" He took another step toward her and Meimi backed up, bumping into the desk behind her. For a fleeting second she was afraid of him, and then her own anger raged.

"Why are you acting like you are perfectly fine? You’re not!" she shot back.

"What? And having you and Saint Tail watching me day and night is going to do what? What?!"

Meimi gasped and drew back. "Saint Tail?" she whispered in awe.

Asuka Jr. locked eyes with her and the madness left him. "I’m sorry, Haneoka, excuse me," he said, gathered his things and hurried from the room. Meimi watched him go, her own shock keeping her from saying more. After a few minutes the silence of the room finally captured her attention. She bent and collected the papers, straightened the desks and wondered what she should do next.

***

"He’s… he’s seen you?" Seira stammered incredulously. She turned and looked at the cross over the altar, her hands clasped to her breast.

Meimi nodded without looking up. "Umm. He can’t have said it to me, thinking I would tell Saint Tail," she mused to herself. "And even if he did think I could tell Saint Tail, it wouldn’t make her stay away."

Seira turned to her friend in disbelief. "Meimi-chan?"

Meimi looked at her and blushed. "Well, I’m not!" she whined.

Seira giggled behind her hand, got control of herself and joined Meimi in the pew. "What will you do?"

Meimi grew quiet, considering. "I think that if he hasn’t already, he will soon figure out who those people are. I have to be there." Meimi scooped up Seira’s hands and squeezed them tightly. "I have to."

***

Saint Tail watched from the protection of a tree as Asuka Jr. closed and locked the front door. He stood for a moment and then gravely folded his arms across his chest.

"I know you’re there Saint Tail," he said loudly, "and I know you’ve been there every night." He dropped his voice to a more menacing level. "Don’t try to stop me."

Saint Tail smiled down at him and thought, "I believe in you Asuka Jr., I’ll do my best to be your backup tonight."

As he rode his bike into the night, Saint Tail ran along the rooftops beside him.

The warehouse that Asuka Jr. stopped in front of was dark and looked abandoned. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, check something and left his bike next to the door.

"I don’t know if you can hear me," he said softly, "But I don’t think you should come any further."

"I’m sorry," was the equally as soft reply, "but I am."

Asuka Jr. shrugged, placed his hand on the door and rolled it open.

The first bullet hit him square in the chest.

Saint Tail screamed his name as he flew backward from the impact, but she didn’t stop running for the dark opening. Her wand before her, she began counting aloud as she raced past Asuka Jr.’s prone figure. There was the sound of more gunshots but suddenly there were more Saint Tails than bullets. A collective cry of surprise went up from those within. The Saint Tails that came in contact with the bullets exploded like the blow-up dolls they were, sending pounds of confetti skywards. Conjuring her hat, Saint Tail passed the wand over it several times and a blinding light blazed from it, filling the warehouse. Flipping backward onto a tall stack of boxes, she quickly counted as many men as she could see. With a self-satisfied smile the petit magician reached into her hat and pulled out four small balls.

"Did you see?" she yelled toward the door, without looking, trusting him to be there.

And he was.

Leaning heavily against the wall, a small burn mark on his chest, Asuka Jr. stood, slingshot in hand.

One after another she tossed the balls to him and he shot them around the warehouse. As the last one left his hand he spun out the door, yelling at her to leave as well. Saint Tail smiled and reached into her hat again, this time pulling out a small gas mask. At the snap of her fingers, the balls exploded in billowing clouds of sleeping gas. As the men around her coughed and spiraled to the ground, Saint Tail ran further into the warehouse. She needed to find the men behind all this… before Asuka Jr. did.

 

The small office was typical of a warehouse office in that it had one door and a large window. Crouched below the window, Saint Tail could hear the men inside collecting their things, obviously preparing to flee. The silence that filled the warehouse was enough warning for these men and they were taking no chances. As Saint Tail listened, she heard them saying the boat was ready, the guns were loaded, and then the sounds of someone making for the door. She slipped into the shadows and watched as five men filed out of the office. After a second, she followed them.

 

The boat was larger than she would have guessed and as the men hurried toward it, she could make out the sounds of a struggle. The men also heard it and slowed, sinking into the shadows. Saint Tail felt she could guess the source and looked for a way past the thugs, hoping to come to Asuka Jr.’s aid. A sudden sound behind her gripped her heart. Conjuring her hat she pulled out several balls which she hastily tossed, filling the wharf with thick fog, but she wasn’t fast enough.

 

Asuka Jr. had just finished disconnecting what he hoped was the fuel line when the man left to guard the boat returned. He had stopped, shrinking lower, waiting for the man to stroll back the way he had come… but the man didn’t. The young detective felt himself beginning to sweat as the man leaned against the engine casing, lit a cigarette and relaxed. After a minute or two the man suddenly leapt up and grabbed Asuka Jr.’s collar, pulling him up from his hiding place. The young man’s momentary surprise was enough for the thug to drag him into the light before he gathered his wits enough to fight back. The man was taller than him by over a foot and was able to subdue him with sheer mass. As the man clamped a hand over his mouth, a fog seemed to expand from the dock to the water. Asuka Jr. felt his heart soar with thoughts of Saint Tail, and then plummet with the embarrassment of being caught. His fears were boundless however, for as he was carried unceremoniously to the front of the boat, he saw the still form of Saint Tail lying face down on the dock. The men that knelt around her were laughing and binding her with thick ropes. Asuka Jr. quickly learned that they meant to test her escape skills by throwing her into the water. In a blind rage he renewed his struggles, flailing and twisting as hard as he could.

"Don’t fight it kid, your next," the man holding him hissed. "And besides, she might get away." He barked a laugh at this, crushing Asuka Jr. even harder. Asuka Jr. managed to bite down on the man’s hand and had the satisfaction of having the man withdraw the member with a curse.

Sucking in air, Asuka Jr. felt his brain explode as he screamed for Saint Tail. But the little thief showed no signs of life as one of the men lifted the piece of machinery that weighted her feet and another lifted her. As limp as cloth she hung in the man’s arms, looking tiny against his broad chest. With a heave, they tossed her into the brine and after a second there was no trace of her passage. Asuka Jr. felt himself screaming her name, but he wasn’t sure if he was actually making any sound. He thrashed against the man holding him, desperate to free himself, to save Saint Tail, to save them both. When the expected blow to his head came Asuka Jr. quickly fell into the darkness that accompanied the act.

 

The shock of the freezing water was enough to bring his mind back into his pounding head. He felt the water rushing rapidly around him and could hear the bubbles that raced past his ears. His weakened brain realized they had indeed followed through with their plan of drowning him and he was even now sinking to the ocean floor. His arms were pinned to his sides and he could feel a weight attached to his ankles. The Kevlar jacket was suddenly working to his disadvantage, he thought with an ironic groan. Twisted as best he could, he strove to free himself, hoping that somehow the bindings would loosen in the water.

When the weight reached the ocean’s floor his momentum carried him down enough that he could push off the bottom, but the weight was more than he could manage without the use of hands or feet. His mind flashed to Saint Tail and he wondered if she was, even now, beside him or if she had indeed managed to break free. He could feel the salt water in the new cuts on his wrists as he struggled against the ropes and tried to imagine what tricks she would use to escape.

The touch of something warm on his wrist made him pause. In the next instant his brain realized it was help and he grew still, allowing her to do what she needed to. His lungs began to burn as he felt her fingers fighting with the thick cords. There wasn’t much more time for him he knew and he wished to let her know that he appreciated what she was doing but he couldn’t think of a way to express this to her.

 

Saint Tail felt him beginning to slip away even as she worked the last knot free. Wrapping her arms around his chest she pushed off the sandy bottom. He was dead weight in her arms when they broke the surface she could feel he wasn’t breathing. Moving as quickly as she could, Saint Tail pulled Asuka Jr. toward the beach, praying that her first aid training would actually work.

Dropping to her knees beside him, Saint Tail began to administer mouth to mouth. Her hands shook from the cold and from fear. For a fleeting moment she was sure she was doing it wrong, but then he rolled to his side and began to cough up water. She reached around him, pulling his tie off and ripping the front of his shirt open, hoping it would help him breath easier, and exposed the bulletproof vest below.

Openly crying from relief, she knelt beside him until seemingly the worst was over. He drew a long painful breath and lay still, just breathing and coughing. Above her, Saint Tail could hear the cursing of the men trying to fix the engine, the shouts of policemen and random gun shots.

Asuka Jr. reached out, blindly groping and she quickly caught his hand and hugged it to her chest.

"Cold" he whispered and coughed again. With a sympathetic smile Saint Tail faded to Haneoka Meimi, who threw her arms around her shivering classmate and hugged him to her chest, doing her best to warm him. He seemed dimly aware of his surroundings, for she was sure she heard him whisper her name. Dropping her head onto his shoulder, Meimi hugged him as hard as she could, grateful that he was all right.

Several minutes later she looked up at the sounds of Asuka Keiji slowly walked down the beach towards them.

"Haneoka-san?’ he began in surprise, but stopped as he realized what was going on. Turning he called to an officer for a stretcher and some blankets.

***

Two hours later Meimi stood wrapped in blankets in a dimly lit room beside the sleeping form of Asuka Jr. He had been treated, given a clean bill of health and a bed to sleep in until his father was actually ready to go home. Her eyes once again strayed to the rope burns on his wrists and she felt herself sinking. If she had been faster this wouldn’t have happened….

Asuka Keiji entered the room, hot tea in hand. Holding out a cup to Meimi, he urged her to sit and relax. The look on his faced said he had many questions and as Meimi felt the tea warming her insides, she turned to him and began her explanation.

"I had a note from Saint Tail," she began. "It was in my bedroom and told me to go to the dock to help Asuka Jr. It was very specific about the time and when I arrived I caught a glimpse of her on the beach, giving Asuka Jr. mouth to mouth." She blushed and dropped her eyes, drinking some more tea. Asuka Keiji looked surprised but didn’t comment, patiently waiting for her to continue.

"As I approached she darted away and I heard Asuka Jr. say he was cold. He was coughing a lot. I didn’t know if I should go for help, or try and take care of him first." Again she blushed and he spared her from having to go on.

"I really can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done. I’d thank Saint Tail if she was here," he added with a chuckle.

A change in topic was in order! "What about you?" Meimi asked, finishing her tea. "How did you know to go to the wharf?"

A crooked smile creased his face. "We got a note from her as well." He sat back with a laugh. "She was a busy lady tonight. But," he went on in a more sober tone, "I sorta figured what he was up to and planned my release from the hospital to stop him, but," he sat back with a sigh, "I guess I wasn’t fast enough."

"He really loves you," Meimi whispered, glancing at the sleeping man across the room. "He’s been pushing himself so hard to figure out this case." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "He dropped this," she said, passing it to the detective. "It fell out of his pocket, when… when I was trying to warm him."

Asuka Keiji peered at the paper with a frown, turned it over, and glanced at Meimi with a puzzled expression. Looking across the room, she smiled fondly at her classmate. "He says it helps him think."

 

Meimi glanced at the headline of the paper her father was reading. It announced that a ring of art smugglers had been captured in a huge shoot out at the port the night before. Smiling at the memory, Meimi finished her breakfast as her mother returned to the room.

"Meimi," she began with a sly smile, "Asuka Jr. is here and asked to walk you to school."

Sputtering coffee, her father sat forward, but all words were forestalled as Meimi quickly kissed him goodbye. Snatching her lunch from her mother’s hands, she was out the door in the next minute.

Smiling his greeting, Asuka Jr. turned toward the school and began walking slowly, allowing her to catch her breath.

"I’m sorry for coming unannounced," he began as she struggled with her jacket. Dropping his book bag, he moved to help her. She thanked him, sliding her arm into the coat he held for her. As she adjusted her belongings, Asuka Jr. retrieved his books and they resumed walking.

"I wanted to thank you for coming to the hospital, and to the wharf last night," he went on, not looking at her.

"Did your father tell you what he saw?" she asked, blushing.

He glanced at her, puzzled, but then laughed. "I guess not!"

Meimi smiled at him, and then a giggle escaped her. "Better you shouldn’t know."

"You’re probably right, but there is something I want to ask you about," he went on, moving so that he was looking at her, walking backwards, "Your father’s a magician, and well, I thought you might have some pointers on escape tricks."

Meimi looked surprised. "Thinking of changing professions?" she asked with a silvery laugh. Asuka Jr. blushed and looked annoyed, but then Meimi leaned toward him and winked. "Rule number one!" she cried with a flourish of hands. "Don’t get caught!"

 

 

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