Notes and disclaimers: The characters of Asuka Jr., Kaitou Saint Tail, et al., are the property of Kodansha, Tachiwaka Megumi and TMS.

This story is rated G, and will offend no-one unless you are unreasonably puritanical. But you might need to brush your teeth after reading it. :-)

I'd like to dedicate this story to my editor, beta-reader, foot massager and general all-around most important person. (I just want to ask you one question - do you like my story?)

 

Puzzle Box Treasure

   by Stirling Twilight

 

Part 1

Seira looked up smiling, but then inwardly gasped in surprise. Asuka Jr. stood beside her, eyes downcast, fidgeting, and generally looking uncomfortable. Rising, the nun-in-training gestured him toward a pew. Her classmate hesitated, but then seemed to win some internal battle and sank into the offered seat.

Seira sat next to him and began; "Sometimes the things that are hardest for us to talk about are the things closest to our hearts."

"Do you believe that?"

Seira’s smile grew warmer. "I feel I know you very well, and not at all. Isn’t that funny? Your passion for Saint Tail is legend, but you're still a classmate; a classmate who has something on his mind..."

Her voice trailed up as she finished this sentence, suggesting a question. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, balled his fists together and pressed his lips to them.

"Yes, I do."

Seira also leaned forward, her hands clasped in an attitude suggesting prayer, but she didn’t pray; she watched him out of the corner of her eye. He didn’t move for several long moments and Seira was afraid that his courage had deserted him when suddenly the detective drew in a deep breath and began.

"I have lost something," he said in an emotionless tone.

Seira turned toward him. "What have you lost?"

Asuka Jr.’s head drooped even lower. "It’s wrong to say I lost it, it’s more accurate to say something was stolen from my house." He turned toward her, a wry smile on his face; "Stolen from a policeman’s house, how ironic is that?"

"A house like any other," Seira said shaking her head, hoping to defend him from himself. "Both you and your father are seldom home, so why not your house?"

He looked up at her and smiled. "Thanks."

Once again they lapsed into silence and Seira allowed the time to pass uninterrupted, hoping he would become more comfortable and open up. He certainly wasn’t a trusting soul!

"Sister Seira...the thing that's missing," he suddenly blurted out, "belonged to my mother. It’s the only thing I have that was hers. She was very insistent that I have it. It’s worthless to anyone but me, which is why I can’t understand why anyone would want it."

Seira drew her clasped hands to her chin and sighed. "I can’t imagine a greater loss Asuka Jr. Maybe you should tell me everything."

He looked surprised and unsure, but then began slowly to unfold.

"When my mother died I was 5. I really don’t remember her, but I have some photographs that my grandparents sent me. My father took it very hard; he removed everything from the house that was hers. It’s like she never existed.

"She left me a locket, and inside it is a picture of the three of us. It’s a large heart-shaped locket, so the picture is easy to see. I keep it on my dresser, and I think I look at it every day. Well, I did I mean. About a week ago I noticed it was missing. I know I didn’t move it and I know my father wouldn’t have. I checked around and found the outside of my window had been forced open. Whoever it was came in the bedroom window, re-locked the window behind them and went out through the back door."

He paused and looked at his fists. Slowly he opened one and turned toward Seira. In his palm lay a small, golden key.

"This was in the locket too; behind the picture."

Seira gasped and looked from the key to his face. She tilted her head in question.

"I played with the locket growing up and found the key years ago. I took it out because it was damaging the picture and had it in a box in my desk. No one knows about it as far as I know, just you and I."

Seira bent over the key and studied it more closely. "It looks like the sort of key that comes from a puzzle box."

Asuka Jr. nodded. "I asked my grandparents if my mother had owned a box like that and they said she had. They said that it was a great treasure of hers." He looked gloomy as he concluded; "They also said that it was thrown away with all her other things by my father."

"You think someone is after the key?"

"I’m sure of it. I think someone has remembered my mother had it and is hoping to find it and the key. The locket itself isn’t valuable enough to risk stealing."

"Have you told your father about this?"

Asuka Jr. looked hurt. "I think he would rather not involve himself. I’m sure he hated my keeping the locket, and would be happy that it was gone." He shook his head. "No, I’m sure he wouldn’t care."

"Asuka Jr." Seira whispered in sympathy.

He clutched the key to his chest; "I don’t blame him!" he quickly interjected. "He was crushed, he was only trying to move on and take care of me. I guess he felt that if her things were still around it would be like she was away visiting someone and would be back." He blushed and looked at the key. "He really loves me, and takes good care of me, but on this one thing we can’t agree."

"What will you do?" Seira asked, gently laying a hand on his arm.

The young detective dropped the key into his breast pocket, stood up and turned to face her. "I’ll try and solve the case myself." He paused and looked up that the cross over the altar. "Thank you for listening to me," he said to them both, one here on earth and one in heaven.

Seira rose and looked up at him, "Asuka Jr., I’ll pray for your success."

He smiled weakly and strode from the church. Seira watched him go. When she heard the thump of the church door closing, she raised her voice. "Did you hear?"

Meimi leapt from the gallery with the agility of Saint Tail. There was a smile on her face as she approached her friend. "How did you know I was there?"

Seira blushed and dropped her eyes. "When you’re in this church as much as I am, you come to know every noise it makes…and recognize the ones it doesn’t."

Meimi laughed before answering the question. "I heard enough, what should I do?"

"I would suggest you get the key before the thief does, and then I would find out who, on his mother’s side, would be after it, and why."

 

Part 2

Meimi put a hand out to steady herself. She felt the wall beneath her palm, and took another labored step. Her breathing was becoming more painful with each step. When she heard him approaching, her free hand clutched at her chest and she stumbled, falling to her knees.

"Haneoka!" came the longed for cry.

She raised her head, displaying swimming, unfocused eyes. He called her name again as he knelt next to her, pulled her arm over his shoulders and lifted her onto her feet. Limply, she sagged against him. He was asking questions, dragging her forward, and she was dead weight on his shoulder. He seemed to come to a decision, stopped, and turning toward her, scooped her up into his arms.

He was instantly surprised at how light she was. Her head lolled onto his shoulder and she pressed her hand against his chest. Meimi protested weakly as he hurried up the walkway to his house and gently set her on the nearest porch chair. He unlocked the door and, picking her up again, carried her into the house.

Asuka Jr. carefully deposited his classmate on the sofa, arranging the pillows, and covering her with a blanket. He placed a hand on her forehead, feeling for fever, felt none, and said he would get her some water to drink.

Meimi listened for the sounds of him in the kitchen before allowing herself to smile. She freed her hand from the blanket and held the key up to eye level. Her pick-pocketing skills would make her father proud, and her sick performance, well, what could she say? Talent she had, no doubt about it. She tucked her arm back into the cover of the blanket and slipped the key into her pocket with a self-satisfied sigh.

Her plan had been easily put together, and just as easily executed. Wait for him, get as close as possible and switch the key in his breast pocket, from where he had dropped it earlier, with a key Seira had provided. What could be simpler?

Asuka Jr. returned carrying a glass of iced water with a straw sticking out of it. She turned toward him, "Asuka Jr.?"

"Haneoka, what happened?" he whispered, concern written all over his face. His free hand reached up, almost unconsciously, and brushed her hair from her cheek. Meimi suddenly felt like a heel. She shifted herself into a more upright position and drew in a deep breath trying to look more alert.

"I’m not sure, but I think maybe I got too much sun. I was taking a long walk, and I guess it was too much. I’m feeling much better now." She accepted the glass and sipped. Looking up she smiled. "Thank you so much for taking care of me. I’m sorry to have bothered you like this."

Asuka Jr. sat down on the table across from her and seemed to be studying her, his head cocked to one side. Finally he laughed, shaking his head. He rose off the table and turned to leave. "I’ll call your parents, they can come and get you."

She thanked him but pleaded with him not to, saying it would worry them greatly.

"You can’t walk!" he yelled in surprise. "Look at yourself, I had to carry you in here!"

Meimi dropped her eyes and blushed. "You’re right, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking."

Asuka Jr. stopped and sat back down. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you. Let me call, it’ll be alright, I promise." Again his hand reached for her, as if his will to touch her was stronger than formality, but then he remembered himself and went to place the call.

It wasn’t long before Meimi was in the car and on her way home. She had explained to her mother that Asuka Jr. was really over reacting and that she was fine. Her mother accepted this explanation and no more was said about it.

Once home, Meimi went to her room to examine the key more closely. Ruby met her at the door and a joyful reunion took place. Meimi happily hugged her little friend before carrying her to the desk where they could both see the key. As she explained the story to Ruby, she studied the key through a magnifying glass. Unfortunately there was nothing remarkable about the key, but then she hadn’t expected there to be. Sitting back, she regarded the hedgehog.

"How am I going to find out about his family?" she mused. This afternoon’s performance taught her that she didn’t care to deceive him again; it hurt somehow. Her mind turned to Seira, and her seemingly endless well of information. "Ruby-chan," she said, making up her mind, "I think Seira is going to have to help us with the next part."

***

Sister Seira regarded her handiwork before returning to the church. She had come to this remote part of the garden and when she was certain no one could see her she removed a piece of chalk from her pocket. The place she marked on the tree was clean of any pervious marks, which always surprised her. Someone would need a stiff brush and water to remove the small sign she drew on the ruff bark, and yet every time she did this it was as if it were the first time. With a sigh she pocketed the chalk and turned back to the church. She would position herself in the second to last pew, on the far wall until he arrived. He wanted the deep shadow in case he needed to fade away quickly. He always sat behind her so she couldn’t see his face, and she had never tried to look. The arrangement suited her fine. What she didn’t know, she couldn’t tell. He had been coming to her for years and he always had the answers she needed. Once inside the church, Seira settled herself, joined her hands together and prayed while she waited.

It was past midnight when he arrived. Seira had almost nodded off when she heard the telltale sounds. She became instantly alert and drew herself more erect so as to hear him better.

"What did you need?" No greeting, no preamble. There never was one. He spent as little time as possible there and she respected that and didn’t mince words. She had done favors for him in the past, but the scales hung heavy on her side for owing him so she got right to the point.

"I need information on Asuka Keiji’s deceased wife’s family."

His intake of breath startled her. Her eyes flew open at the sound. He had never shown any emotion before. Occasionally he hesitated, but it was usually to marshal his thoughts. This was different, and totally unexpected.

"Why?" was the rough reply.

Sister Seira stiffened, but was able to croak out, "It seems someone in her family is after a puzzle box that belonged to her. I need to know who it could be and what they could want with it."

The silence that followed was profound. Seira closed her eyes to better listen to him, but there was nothing. For several long moments all she heard was her own breathing. Finally she began to hold her breath, blocking out even that noise.

"Tomorrow, the same time," he whispered hoarsely.

And he was gone.

Sister Seira sagged in the pew, gasping for air. After a moment of soul searching, she sank to her knees and began praying in earnest.

 

Part 3

Before school the next day Meimi stood on the path watching for Asuka Jr. His obvious concern for her yesterday afternoon had weighed more heavily on her than she could explain. In an effort to make it up to him she had baked cookies. She knew he would take them, he ate anything, but how much of a fuss he would cause made her nervous. Looking down at the small package in her hand, she suffered, again, from a desire to forget the whole thing. He had a way of picking on her that always made her fight back. But, she reminded herself, he had been worried, genuinely worried. Shaking her head, she once again resolved to carry it through.

He was alone as he approached and she had time to study him. One hand was in his pocket and the other held his book bag swung over shoulder. His eyes were on his feet so he didn’t see her waiting.

"Good morning Asuka Jr." she said brightly as she stepped up to him. He looked up and smiled, "Good morning Haneoka." When she made no move to walk with him, Asuka Jr. stopped and turned to her. Meimi felt her resolve falter in the warmth of his smile and she dropped her eyes. Speaking was suddenly out of the question as her voice failed her and she felt herself blushing hotly. But then her body took over and her hand came up. The peace offering was on the flat of her palm as she presented it to him. His hand automatically came up to take the prettily wrapped gift. He looked from it to her face. Her eyes, still downcast, were veiled behind her hair.

With a slight hesitation she began, "I’d like to thank you for taking care of--"

Suddenly Sawatari was between them, clutching her now empty hand.

"Haneoka-san! Good morning," he cried cheerfully, placing himself before her and pulling her toward the school. He was talking rapidly about last night’s homework and how it interfered with his photography. He didn’t wait for an answer and Meimi felt momentarily bemused. She looked back at Asuka Jr., a silent plea in her eyes. Asuka Jr. looked annoyed for a second and then angry.

"Wait!" he yelled.

Meimi planted her feet and Sawatari was forced to stop. Turning, he looked at Meimi and then followed her gaze to Asuka Jr.

"Ah, good morning Asuka Jr. I didn’t see you there."

Asuka Jr. walked up to him and lifted his hand off of Meimi’s. "You didn’t see me because you didn’t want to. Haneoka and I are having a private conversation, so you’ll excuse us." Taking her hand, Asuka Jr. began leading her away and she happily went with him. Sawatari, however, was not so easily gotten rid of and caught her other hand, taking her bag out of her startled grasp. For a moment Meimi was stretched out between the two young men that held her.

"I’m sure she’s had enough of you for one morning," Sawatari laughed while fixing his hair. He turned to her and smiled. "I’ll just take your books along with us to homeroom."

"Sawatari-san!" Meimi interjected, extracting her hand from his and reaching for her satchel, "I want to talk to Asuka Jr., please give me my bag."

Asuka Jr. put himself in front of Meimi and took the bag back. "You heard her, leave us alone," he said in a soft yet threatening voice. Sawatari looked over his head at Meimi. She moved closer to Asuka Jr., unconsciously clutching his hand tighter.

Sawatari took the hint and turning waved to them over his shoulder as he jogged away. "See you later."

Meimi sighed, feeling weak for some reason. Asuka Jr. watched him go for a minute and then, letting go of her hand, turned toward her, a broad smile on his face. "You were saying?"

Meimi laughed in spite of herself and felt herself blushing again. "I’m sorry for causing you any trouble?"

Asuka Jr. laughed and began walking toward the school, carrying her books with his own, thrown over his shoulder. Meimi watched him for a moment out of the corner of her eye. She longed to say something, anything! but couldn’t think of a thing that didn’t sound stupid.

"Did you bake them for me?" he suddenly asked without looking at her.

Meimi glanced at him and then away. "They’re chocolate, I hope you like them."

"I’m sure I will, chocolate’s my favorite. And Haneoka," he said softly, staring straight ahead, "you’re no trouble."

Meimi found herself light-headed and panting softly after his compliments. As they neared the school, she was sorry to have to end the conversation, such as it was. When they reached homeroom, he handed over her books and held the door for her. Within the room, Seira stood at Meimi’s desk, obviously waiting, so she thanked him again and they parted.

 

"Good morning Meimi," the young nun said cheerfully.

Meimi locked eyes with her friend and smiled, "Good morning, Seira."

Just then, in a shower of confetti, Sawatari sat down heavily at his desk. Startled exclamations came from everyone in the room. Asuka Jr. was at Sawatari’s side in an instant, there to catch the challenge as it fluttered toward the ground.

Tonight I will steal the tea shipment from pier 46.  St Tail

Meimi sat at her desk and smiled up at Seira. "We’ll talk after school."

***

Standing beside the pond, Meimi and Sister Seira were both watching the ripples made by the pebbles Meimi levitated, as far as she could, over the water.

"When did you get to plant the challenge on Sawatari-san?" Seira asked after a loud plunk.

"This morning," Meimi laughed, thinking of how easily she had slipped the trick into his jacket. "He was trying to walk me to homeroom…" she trailed off, thinking of Asuka Jr.

Seira looked at her and smiled. "But I notice he didn’t have the pleasure..."

Meimi tried to shrug off her implications. "Did you learn anything last night?" she asked trying to change the subject. Seira allowed herself to be lead.

"No, but I should have an answer for you tomorrow. Why did you pick the challenge that you did?"

Meimi looked into the distance. "I can’t challenge him openly in this, it’s too private a case. I just want to talk to him, explain that I’m trying to help."

"Do you think that’s wise?" Seira looked at Meimi’s profile with a frown. "How do you think he’ll react? He’ll have to know you were either in the church or in contact with whoever took the locket."

Meimi pursed her lips. "I can never tell what he’s going to do from one second to the next," she groused. "But don’t worry," she added with a laugh, "I won’t give you away. I do think I should tell him that I have the key so he knows it’s safe. Maybe that will be my saving grace."

Seira looked skeptical at this but said nothing.

***

Asuka Jr. stood in the relative darkness looking around himself. The soft sound of water on the pier was the only sign of life. She would be here, he knew that, but why here he had no idea. He pushed his hands into his pockets and began to pace before the warehouse. He kept one eye on the sky, knowing she favored heights for her entrances.

Saint Tail sat on the only lit street light on the pier and watched his agitated pacing. She smiled in sympathy and decided he had suffered long enough. Rising, she pulled two fans of cards from thin air and flung them toward him. The cards landed in a sort of path leading toward the lamp she stood on. At the snap of her fingers they began to explode in a line, closer to her with each flash.

Asuka Jr. spun in her direction and began running toward the lamp. Even as he did, he realized he should have known she would be there, using the light to block his vision.

"Good evening Asuka Jr.!" she called as he slowed below her. She sat down again, dangling her legs over the light’s edge. He raised a hand to block the light, but couldn’t make out her face, as always.

"Saint Tail! Why are you stealing the tea shipment?!"

"I’m not."

He lowered his arm in surprise. "What?"

"Asuka Jr. I asked you here tonight because I know something you might not, and I wanted to warn you about it."

He took several steps back as if to see her better and waited.

"Several evenings ago I saw someone break into your room."

Asuka Jr.’s gasp could be heard on the top of the street light.

"I know something was taken, but I don’t know what." She paused, allowing this to sink in. "The thief dropped this." With a flourish she produced a thin gold chain with the key hanging on it. It sparkled in the lamplight.

His cry of dismay cut her like a knife but she continued to hold the key where he could see it. He immediately reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the key she had switched the day before. He looked at it in the dim light and with an angry howl threw it to the ground. Looking up he turned angry eyes on her.

"Give it to me! Give it to me! This has nothing to do with you!"

Dropping her eyes, she lowered her hand. "Don’t you think it would be safer with me? Somewhere where only you know where it is?"

"But I don’t know do I? Who are you? How would I get it back if I need to? How do I know you aren’t the thief?"

Saint Tail almost became angry, "Stop! Stop and think! He must know he’s missing this by now and he may come back for it. You have no idea how dangerous he might be! I’m not your enemy, I hope I’m your friend--"

"No! You’re not! You’re a thief! A thief! A friend would give me what I asked for!"

The chain flashed in the light of the street lamp as is slid from her hand. He watched it fall, and heard the tinkling chime it made when it landed on the pavement. It lay where it fell, a tiny pool of gold between them. He made no move toward it, his eyes locked on her. She could see he was breathing hard, his hands balled into fists at his side. A pang shot through her heart and she felt tears threatening.

"I’m sorry Asuka Jr.," she said gently. "I'm so sorry to have upset you." Slowly Saint Tail rose to her feet, her head turned away from him. "I’m happy to have returned the key to you. Please forgive me." She produced her top hat and made as if to leave.

"Wait!" he yelled taking a step forward. She paused and turned toward him. Asuka Jr. raked a hand through his hair and she saw his shoulders sag. "Please don’t go."

Slowly the young man walked over to the chain and picked it up. He smiled down at it in his palm and then walked back to where he could see her. "Catch!" he yelled and threw it toward her. Both the throw and the catch were perfect.

"Would you do me the favor of keeping this until I can catch the thief, Saint Tail? I don’t know who else I can trust."

Saint Tail regarding the tiny gift before she opened the clasp and put the chain around her neck. "Thank you." She felt tears threatening again, but for a different reason. "Do you forgive me?"

"There’s no reason for me to forgive you and every reason for you to forgive me." His head drooped. "I’m sorry I yelled. I know you’re my friend and you’re trying to help." He looked up at her, his hand on the back of his head. "What did you have in mind?" he asked with a chuckle.

***

Sister Seira knelt in the same pew she had been in the night before, only this time she was nervous. She tried to relax and focus on her prayers, but her mind kept coming back to the previous night’s events. She thought she had figured out the cause of her discomfort, but even this knowledge didn’t help. With a sigh she gave up trying and sat in the pew. Instantly she was aware of his presence.

"I have asked you a question you do not want to answer," she said in a whisper.

"The man you were asking about is no relation," he began without replying. "He understood only part of the story told to him and believed that he had enough information to make his fortune. The puzzle box is still in the Asuka home and its treasure is unknown to its future owner. The man who took the locket has been caught, but the locket was not recovered."

Seira’s mind raced as she strove to understand the implications. The box was in the house? Obviously Asuka Jr. had no knowledge of this, and the thief caught? That almost didn’t make sense. How could the thief’s identity have been found out without Asuka Jr. telling the police? Had he told them, and not his father? That also didn’t make sense. Had he been caught stealing something else and admitted to breaking into Asuka Keiji’s house? Did he pawn the locket? Was that how he was caught? Asuka Jr. had said it had little to no value…

"What do you mean?" Seira asked in a conversational tone that was as loud as a shout in the silent church. She tempered her voice in the next question, but she felt angry, as if he was playing with her. "What do you mean?"

"The box is in the house, what more did you need?"

And he was gone.

Seira allowed her anger to drain out of her. Yes, he had been toying with her…with all of them. She joined her hands in prayer and tried to decide what to do next.

 

Part 4

This time it was Asuka Jr. who waited for Meimi. He drew himself up, straining to see her over the heads of the advancing student body, but she was nowhere to be seen. He had come early to be sure he didn’t miss her, but now he was becoming afraid she would be late in general. He had purposefully chosen the same spot she had met in at the day before and had hoped she would somehow read his mind and been there…

"Good morning Asuka Jr."

Startled he looked up and into Meimi’s eyes. She stood, hands clasped behind her back, smiling at him, a mischievous gleam in her eye. He colored and felt annoyed that he had somehow managed to miss her approach.

"Good morning Haneoka," he stammered, but then recovered himself. He smiled back and turned to walk with her. "I wanted to thank you for the cookies, they were wonderful."

"Really?" she beamed, turning her sunny smile on him. "I’m so glad."

They continued in silence for a few minutes, both of them walking slowly. Asuka Jr. turned toward her to say something and noticed a thin gold chain on her neck. He gasped in surprise and stopped in his tracks. She paused, turning toward him, "What is it? Are you alright?" her hand gently touching his arm.

He stared, as if unsure, and then pointed to her neck. "You have a necklace on."

She smiled at him and began to draw out the chain from within her blouse, "Seira gave it to me," she began but as the charm came into the morning light there was a puff of pink smoke which made her cry out in alarm. Asuka Jr. reached forward and steadied her as she recoiled from surprise. They both leaned forward to see the charm, which turned out to be the key to the puzzle box. Asuka Jr. gasped and Meimi cried out, "Where’s my cross?!"

Asuka Jr. held the key for a moment before realizing just how close he was to her. Taking a step back, he looked her in the eyes. "I gave Saint Tail this key to hold until I needed it."

Meimi’s brow furrowed in disbelief, but then she removed the necklace and pressed it into his hand. "I guess you need it then."

He opened the chain and slid the key off it. "I’m sorry your cross is missing, if you don’t find it, I’ll replace it," he said dropping the key into his breast pocket. He took the two ends of the chain and spread them apart, extending his arms. Meimi stepped toward him and turned her back. Asuka Jr. reached around her and closed the chain over her hair. Meimi blushed as she pulled her hair through. They turned to the school but Asuka Jr. made no move to go with her.

"Haneoka," he said softly, "would you please come to my house this afternoon? There is something I’d like to tell you."

Meimi tried very hard to act casual. "If you’d like."

He smiled. "Yes, I would."

 

At lunch, Seira passed Meimi’s cross back to her. "How did it go?"

Meimi removed the chain from her neck and put the cross back on it. "He offered to replace this if it didn’t turn up."

"He’s very thoughtful, isn’t he?"

Meimi smiled and returned to her lunch. "He wants me to come over after school to tell me something."

Seira choked on her drink "He what?"

Meimi chuckled and continued eating.

 

Asuka Jr. was waiting for her at the same spot as she left the school. He smiled as she approached and fell in beside her. They walked in silence until they were off the campus and well on their way.

"What did you want to tell me Asuka Jr.?" she asked once she felt it was safe to do so.

He turned toward her, a broad grin on his face. "It’s a secret."

She felt puzzled, but saw he meant to tell her when he was ready and not before. She began chatting about the day, the homework, and anything else that came to mind. He answered amiably, smiled often and was as agreeable as she had ever seen him.

It worried her.

When they arrived at his house, he held the door for her and led her into the living room. She smiled as she thought of him carrying her in. He dropped his books, said he would get them tea and disappeared into the kitchen. Meimi looked around herself, noticing the knick-knacks on the shelves and tables. There were pictures of Asuka Jr., and some of him with his father, but she found none of his mother, just as he said.

Asuka Jr. returned carrying a tray that he set on the table and then busied himself setting a place for her. Meimi watched him, pleased with what she saw. She felt, in many ways, that he was her own property and to see him fussing over her made her heart warm. So intent was she at looking at the mental images she was seeing she didn’t realize he had stopped and was watching her. She smiled in embarassment and joined him at the table. They sipped tea and ate cookies for several minutes before she turned to him, her face clearly indicating that she was ready to hear what he had to tell her.

"There is something strange going on in my house and I need to tell someone who I think would understand. Well, maybe not understand, but at least not make fun of me about it."

Meimi smiled, a little disappointed. This was not what she had hoped to hear! She twisted to face him more squarely, giving him her undivided attention. The whole world seemed to pause.

The sound of breaking glass made them both jump to their feet. Meimi stifled an alarmed scream. Asuka Jr. turned to her, his hands on her shoulders. "Leave, now!" he hissed.

Shaking her head in protest, she pushed his hands away. "I can’t just leave you," she whispered fiercely. "You should come too!"

The sounds of someone searching for something caused them both to hold their breath. Asuka Jr. motioned for her to remain silent and he moved toward the stairs. Meimi was right on his heels. He turned toward the sofa, where he expected her to be, only to find her at his back.

Without a word he grabbed her and pulled her into the kitchen.

"Wha…" he began.

Meimi quickly cut off his question by placing her hand over his mouth. For a heartbeat there was no sound, and then they both heard the footfalls of someone on the stairs. Meimi felt herself dragged to her knees.

Crouching on the floor they regarded each other. Asuka Jr. looked concerned, but in the same way he had looked after carrying her into the house. He was not worried about himself, but about her! Meimi slowly drew her hand away from his mouth. She leaned closer, placed her cheek against his and whispered in his ear, "Back door." As she rocked back his saw him staring at her oddly, his face scarlet.

Meimi rose and turned on tiptoes toward the door. Asuka Jr. hesitated for a second before joining her. When she reached the door he reached past her to open it and with one swift motion unlocked it and pushed her out. She turned back, indignation on her face, in time to see him locking the door behind her. He put a finger to his lips, gestured for her to stay where she was and turned back toward the living room. Meimi snorted in anger and began searching for a way inside. She ran into the yard and turned back to look at the house. There was a tree that gave access to the second floor and she could see the broken window from where she stood. Without another thought she leapt into the tree with a practiced ease and was back in the house in the next minute.

 

The broken window seemed to be in Asuka Keiji’s room. There were drawers thrown everywhere, and the closest were open and practically empty. Whoever was searching wasn’t using their head! If Asuka Keiji wanted to keep the puzzle box his actions had shown that he wouldn’t keep it near him. But then, the thief might not know that. Meimi stood for a moment and considered. She now had the perfect opportunity to look for the box herself. So she did.

Moving through the house she made no noise what so ever. Ever since Seira had told her that the box was still in the house she had been wondering where Asuka Keiji would hide such an item. Several logical places came to mind, and so she discarded them. If she thought of them then certainly a thief would too. She next thought of illogical places, and these were numerous. In an attempt to use real brainpower she limited the places to illogical, where a box would blend in.

A cry from the first floor broke her out of her musing. In a blind rush she ran to the stairs, her only thought being Asuka Jr. As she pounded down the stairs the sounds of a struggle brought her up short. Looking over the banister she saw Asuka Jr. fighting a man dressed in black on the living room floor. Beside them, where it had obviously fallen in the struggle, lay the puzzle box! With a cry she jumped the railing and snatched up the box.

"Stop!" she screamed with no effect. She took a step closer and tried again.

"STOP!"

Both men did and looked up at her.

"Take it!" she commanded, holding out the box. "Let him go and take the box!"

Asuka Jr. made angry noises, struggling under his assailant. The thief, who was holding him down, looked at her, and then down at Asuka Jr.

"Please Asuka Jr.! Just let him have it," she said softly, "it can’t be worth it."

Asuka Jr. howled in rage and resumed his fight.

"Please!" she cried again, "Please, Asuka Jr. I don’t want you to get hurt! Please," she sobbed, "please...for me."

Asuka Jr. dropped his head and she saw him relax. The thief jumped up, grabbed the box out of her hand and ran. Meimi saw none of it. Dropping to her knees, she knelt over Asuka Jr. who hadn’t moved from where he lay. She reached toward him.

"Don’t."

Startled, her hand was arrested in mid air.

"Don’t touch me."

Meimi sat down hard, tears flooding her eyes.

"I stopped fighting for you, now you can do something for me."

"Mmm?" she managed.

"Leave."

Stunned, she sat for a moment. It felt as if he had kicked her in the chest. Slowly, in a daze, Meimi rose and moved toward the open door. She felt numb and nauseous. The front door was ajar and she moved blindly into the open air. Stepping onto the porch, she gasped in surprise.

Several police cars crowded the small street and Asuka Keiji stood before one, talking to an officer, holding the puzzle box. Meimi ran up to him. He looked startled to see her, and then frowned, "What are you doing here?"

"Asuka Jr. asked me over after school..." she began, and saw him grab his head in disbelief. Taking her by the hand, he pulled her between two cars and glanced quickly around before he began.

"I’m very sorry you had to be involved with any of this. Are you alright?"

Meimi smiled through her tears and tried to laugh. "I know what you were trying to do Asuka Keiji, and I believe he does too."

Asuka Keiji sucked in his breath, staring at her in surprise. "How?"

"Because of your character."

He looked shocked but then he suddenly barked a laugh. "I have to make a quick call but would you please to come in? I think he would want you there."

Meimi blushed. "He is very upset."

"And I know you can cheer him up," Asuka Keiji said leaning toward her and winking. He handed her the box, made his call and began to walk toward the house.

"Asuka Keiji?" Meimi called before following. He stopped and turned to her. "Who was the thief?"

"An officer from another town who owed me a favor." He smiled at the house, "He thinks I threw out all his mothers things but he’s wrong. Everything is in storage. I knew he’d want to see it all eventually so I put it in a safe place and hid the key to the storage room in the puzzle box."

"Are you a movie buff?" Meimi asked smiling.

"The Maltese Falcon?"

Meimi smiled broadly at him and together they entered the house.

 

Asuka Jr. sat on the sofa in the dark room. His head hung despondently. The only light in the room was the flashing red police lights outside. Asuka Keiji walked in, purposefully blocking Meimi from sight. He crossed to his son and stood smiling down at him.

"Was it a good birthday present?"

Asuka Jr. seemed to be considering. "It might have been if Haneoka hadn’t been here. She could have gotten hurt," but then he stopped. "No. I hurt her." He looked up at his father, "I hurt her dad...I hurt her." He sagged where he sat. "I told her to leave."

Asuka Keiji smiled. "I think she’d forgive you if you apologized."

"But would she understand?"

Meimi moved into his line of vision, the box before her. "Happy birthday, Asuka Jr." she said with a shy smile.

He gasped and involuntarily rose to his feet. "Haneoka!"

"Happy birthday," she repeated, presenting the box to him. She couldn’t meet his eyes for a moment. He lifted the box from her hands, shock evident on his face.

"I…" he began.

Meimi smiled up at him. "It was an exciting present, wasn’t it?"

He mutely regarded her for a minute and then smiled back. "Yes. Yes it was."

They all three sat together, the puzzle box on the table before them. As they began to relax there came a knock on the still open door. Asuka Keiji looked up and smiled. He quickly went to the door and, in returning lead, Seira into the room. She looked confused but then smiled upon seeing Meimi and Asuka Jr.

"I received a call," she began softly.

"That was from me," Asuka Keiji said from behind her. Seira’s eyes grew wide at the sound and she spun around and looked at him hard. He smiled disarmingly and gestured her to the sofa. "Please, join us."

"We’re having an impromptu birthday party," Meimi explained smiling up at her friend. Seira smiled weakly and sank into the seat offered.

Asuka Jr. picked up the puzzle box, pulled the key from his pocket and unlocked the first drawer. His soft gasp of pleasure drew the on lookers closer. Inside was not only the locket but also a note, addressed to him. He removed it and turned to Meimi. "I’m no good at these things," he laughed, embarrassed. "Do you think you could…?"

Seira laughed lightly. "A magician’s daughter who couldn’t open a puzzle box would have no right to call herself daughter!"

Meimi shot her friend a look and took the box. "Will you time me?" she asked archly.

Seira gave her a wry smile. "Should I?"

Meimi handed her the now open box. Seven drawers jutted from the box that was placed in Seira’s startled hands. Seira looked at it, her mouth hanging open, and then at Meimi. Meimi had the grace to blush.

Asuka Keiji whistled in admiration, "You missed one," he said with a chuckle. Meimi looked at him and winked. "He should open that one himself."

Asuka Jr. looked up from his letter, displaying moist eyes. "It's from my mom."

He took the box from Seira and inspected each drawer. As he pulled things from the box he explained the contents as described in the letter. He found a braid of hair, two black strands and one a light brown, in the first drawer.

"She made this from my first hair cut; mine, dad’s and mom’s."

Meimi cooed in pleasure and leaned over it to get a better look. She lifted the tiny charm off his palm and gently stroked it. Seira also looked at it, a smile on her lips. "That’s quite a gift," she whispered.

Asuka Keiji nodded, smiling, "She was like that."

A tiny gold ring from his first birthday, seashells he had collected on his first family vacation; seven small treasures were carefully revealed and examined. Asuka Jr. glowed with each discovery and Meimi sent a silent prayer to heaven, thankful that she was able to share his joy. When all seven had been removed, exclaimed over, and replaced, Meimi took the box back and carefully turned it over, "There’s one more drawer, Asuka Jr." she said pointing.

He bent over the box, "I don’t see…"

Meimi touched a spring that produced a soft click. Asuka Jr. took the box back and pulled the tiny drawer open. Inside was a key. Asuka Jr. looked up at his father. "This wasn’t in the letter."

Asuka Keiji smiled sadly. "When your mother died I put her things in storage," he explained. "That key opens the lock on the door. It’s all yours now, to do with what you’d like."

Seira looked at Meimi, both girls were crying silently, "Truly a treasure," the nun whispered with a great deal of emotion.

Meimi smiled through her tears, nodding at her friend, "Priceless."

 

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