A/N: Thank you so much for your awesome reviews! I'm so glad that you all—all three of you anyway :p—liked it. I was so sure that no one was going to read this. Since I am now definitely going to continue, I'm using this chapter as somewhat of an experiment, still playing around with their feelings about the past, but also testing Luke's nurturing skills. He says he probably won't be much of a dad, but I beg to differ ;)
Safe in Small Numbers
When Mei finally emerged from her room, Luke was sitting at the kitchen table, an empty bowl of cereal still in front of him, his eyes glued to the newspaper. Having heard her walk in, he glanced at his watch, wondering why it had taken her so long to get ready for school.
"You have to eat something before we leave." He said, getting up and putting the newspaper down on the table. "We're going to be late anyway."
She didn't verbally respond. Instead, she strode into the kitchen, back pack still slung over her shoulder, opened a cabinet and grabbed a granola bar. She looked back expectantly, still not talking. Luke narrowed his eyes at her, highly suspicious. Testing an incomplete theory, he sat down slowly, picking up the newspaper again and pretended to read it. Silent moments passed, forcing Mei to speak.
"Come on, we're going to be late!" She said, her voice completely distorted by whatever sickness she'd caught. She knew then by seeing the look on his face that he wasn't going to let her go to school.
He took her back pack and granola bar. "We're not going anywhere. Go back to your room and lie down."
"But I don't feel sick." She protested, trying her best to clear her throat, but to no avail.
"Well, you are, and you could give it to other kids."
For a moment, they were silent, both unshakable in their determination to win this small argument. This was something Luke had predicted would happen eventually, knowing how stubborn she could be, but it still didn't quite make sense to him. Usually, they were harmonious in their decision making, and if compromises needed to be made, they'd make them. He'd yet to use his adult authority over her because of her highly advanced logic—for an eleven year old—and because of it, she usually assumed that he knew best when it came to most things thus far.
Looking at her as she crossed her arms, he changed his tone, not wanting to start to fight. "It's best you stay here today. Don't want anything getting worse." At that thought, he wondered if it was merely a cold or something more serious, like strep. He could see in her eyes that she understood, but didn't like it. She twisted in the direction of her room.
He tried to console her. "It's only a Friday. It'll be like having a three day weekend. I mean, you may be in bed for most of it—"
But before he could finish, her door was closed. He shook his head, somehow knowing that she wasn't mad at him. A part of him thought that her reaction to being sick was another one of her stubborn responses to looking weak. But he knew better than that, it was much more psychological. Mei was much more complicated than she looked.
He turned back to the kitchen table and shrugged off his jacket, he wouldn't be needing it today. Eyes glancing back to the newspaper, his highlighted markings sharply stood out to him among the black and grey of ink and newsprint. Originally, he had been planning to go job hunting while Mei was at school, but clearly, he was needed here, even if she didn't want to be looked after.
Mei sat in bed, wishing she were in the living room watching TV. That had been another minor disagreement between them, owning more than one television so that she could have one in her room. She'd settled for the idea of getting a laptop when the need arose, which might be soon based on all the school work she was now required to do.
Nevertheless—although she hated to admit it—she did feel sick, and it felt nice to be lying down in her pajamas again, though she was getting a bit peckish.
Just then, her door opened and Luke came in holding a steaming bowl in an oven-mitted hand.
"I made soup for breakfast." He said, suppressing a smile as he walked in. She was surprisingly adorable when irritable, or was it just this rare moment, her hair messily strewn across her pillow, her small arms crossed in a slightly childish way. Either way, he couldn't quite explain the feeling.
Less than fond memories of making and eating endless gallons of soup crossed her mind at the very word, making her face contort in distaste. "I don't like soup."
"It's good for you." Luke said, no hesitation, more encouraging than reprimanding. "The heat will help your throat."
Ever so reluctantly, she sat up and took the bowl he was offering her. Seeing that she didn't burn herself, he left to get her some water. When he came back, she was slowly eating. She looked up at him.
"Are you still going out today? To look for a job?"
"That can wait until tomorrow." He said, placing the glass on the nightstand and turning with the intension of leaving her be.
"You don't have to look after me. I'll be fine." She said after swallowing a spoonful of the surprisingly good soup. She looked at it, never having tried this kind before.
It was then that it hit him. She'd taken care of her sick mother for years before this, therefore hating being sick and thinking she could take care of herself. It all made too much sense. Having figured that out, he felt sorry for her, wanting nothing more now then to show her that she didn't need to take care of herself; that he could relieve her of some notion that she had to be anything more than a child—A TV watching, sarcastic, genius child, years away from adulthood.
"Yes, Mei, I do." Luke replied, turning back to her.
"No you don't, I'll be fine if you lock the door. No one knows we're here, no one's after us—"
"It's not that." Luke interrupted, though it was still a possibility.
"Than what is it?" She asked.
Luke sighed, unable to really think of a real reason other than the fact that he wanted to and knew it was the right thing to do. Having enough knowledge as to how she was raised, he didn't know how to explain to her that children her age were nowhere near as self-reliant as she was, or as self-contained, or as exposed to the amount of violence she had been…
"I just want to be here for you. Is that such a crime?" He finally said.
Mei stared at her soup for a moment, thinking. A memory of Quan came and went. She hadn't thought about him in a while and was still unsure of her feelings about his death. She looked up, remembering what had happened the day before. "I made friends at school yesterday."
Taking the change in subject as an invitation to stay and talk, Luke sat down on the edge of the bed to hear what she had to say.
"I said I'd meet them in the cafeteria today so that we could have lunch together."
Luke nodded, happy that she was willing to share her thoughts. "I'll call the school so they know you're staying home sick. Your friends can wait, they'll be there next week."
But what if they aren't? She stopped herself from saying. She knew that Luke was probably right, but how could they know for sure? She was so used to sudden death; the uncertainty of knowing whether someone you saw one day would be there the next. What if her gifted friends were targets too?
"Ok." She said, settling for agreement. She looked back at her bowl of soup, unable to finish.
"I can save that for later." Luke said, taking the bowl from her as she nodded. When he left the room, she felt a sudden tiredness that she did not resist. Closing her eyes, her thoughts drifted to just yesterday…
She and Manisha had been talking after class, heading for the cafeteria. Mei had been given chemistry, the one science class that integrated more math than labs into the curriculum. Manisha had been quick to make her acquaintance, both around the same age. They surprisingly got along well and Mei had been immediately happy for it, having missed actually having friends her same age more than she had initially thought. It made her a bit home sick, knowing that her old friends didn't know where she was or what had happened to her.
"I've never really liked science, but you make it sound fun." Mei said while they were waiting in line. Manisha's excitement for the sciences was all too inspiring.
"Well, it is fun, but at the same time, it's really important." Manisha said, her Indian accent strong, though she'd lived in America most of her life. "In just five years, scientists say that the cure for cancer is possible! If we can do that, there's no limit to what else we might be able to do!"
"There goes Mani, talking about the greater good of mankind again."
Both girls turned their heads to see a boy just behind them in line. Looking at Manisha, Mei assumed that she knew this blonde haired boy with the very slight French accent.
"Says you, Gustave, who has no desire to help the world with his gifts at all."
"I don't even have any gifts." He retorted. "Not like you, anyway." He looked down at Mei, a little less than a foot taller than her. "Hi, I'm Gustave, as Mani so rudely pointed out." He extended his hand and she took it. "Are you new around here?"
"Yes, I just moved here."
"From New York! I'm not that new here." She replied sassily.
Gustave raised his hands in mock surrender, smiling through his apology. "Sorry about that, assuming is bad. I really should've learned with Mani."
The comment earned him a familiar elbow to the ribs. And with that, they got their food and sat together. Manisha explained that Gustave was her older brother's best friend, Gustave attending two different schools at the same time.
"Yeah, they made me take some art classes here once they found out about my photographic memory. I feel like a lab rat sometimes." Gustave said in between bites of his sandwich.
"They told me that I have something like that." Mei said, choosing to omit some details about how she's used that memory.
"Yeah, but can you record everything exactly how you saw it?"
"Like, drawing?" She asked. He nodded vigorously. "I can't draw."
"Well, I can't do math. Numbers don't like me and I don't like numbers. But details…" He rummaged through his back pack to get a pencil and sketchbook. "I'm good with details." At that, he turned around and started drawing. Manisha rolled her eyes, apparently having seen him do this before. By the time they were done eating, Gustave had drawn a portrait of Mei. He ripped it out of his sketch book and gave it to her.
Her half dreams slipping away from being pleasant at that moment, melting into a scene of Uncle Han handing her a piece of paper with that long, boring number on it. His words floated around her head, telling her to memorize the number, telling her that her mother's life depended on it. The flame that burned the paper then sent smoke into her next memory of Quan telling her that there was no one in the world that loved her more. Blood then replaced his image, her hands covered in it.
She woke up screaming. She stopped herself, hoping that Luke had not heard, but her hopes failed her when she heard his footsteps approaching. He entered swiftly, his eyes searching her room before they fell back on her.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Nothing." She said, rubbing her hands together, stopping herself after a second. "When did I fall asleep?"
"About an hour ago." Luke replied, sighing somewhat out of relief. He pegged it down to a nightmare, which was easy to fix. "Are you alright?"
She nodded. "Can I watch TV?"
She was still a bit tired, but walking was easy enough. Her head was clogged, but she didn't let a little dizziness get in her way. Luke took a pillow and a blanket from her bed and followed her out of the room.
She sat on the couch and he tucked her in, reaching for the remote. "Luke," Mei spoke, unsure of what exactly she was about to say. "You knew Quan?"
Luke froze, her question catching him off guard. His memories of Quan were not good ones, but he guessed that hers weren't too good either.
"Yeah. Had a few bouts with him. Had to keep an eye on him when I was on the force. Why?"
She hesitated. She trusted Luke like no one else, but a part of her didn't want to talk about Quan. That part of her wanted to forget about him, to forget about the murders he'd made her endure with eyes open; the business he'd made her a part of. But another part of her wouldn't let go, not until she knew whether or not he was truly a liar.
"He was a bad man, like all of them, but he was still loyal, and he didn't lie. It was bad business to lie, but good business to scare people. He was good at that, even though he didn't scare me."
Luke nodded, wanting her to continue.
She sighed heavily, slightly annoyed with her own insecurities. She just wanted this off of her chest now. "Before he was killed, he said that no one in the world loved me more than he did. He doesn't lie, so I believed him. But," she turned away then. "If he loved me, he wouldn't have tried to kill me when the Russians stopped us." She looked up again. "Right?"
Luke was momentarily at a loss for words. He knew some criminals could be deceiving, and he couldn't see Quan having very strong feelings for Mei—not like he did at least. But at the same time, it wasn't impossible. He tried his best to reassure Mei.
"Right. If he really loved you, he wouldn't have let any of this happen. You'd be in China right now and…" he stopped himself from saying what was on his mind, but they could read each other.
"My mother would still be alive?" she finished. He nodded. She did too. She suddenly felt indebted to this man again for taking her in and caring for her. She hadn't been shown such kindness in a very long time. But she knew, he would do so much more for her then Quan ever could. She was life to him, as he'd articulated while held at gun point, so she supposed that entailed some form of love, which was why she felt so safe around him; why she could open up to him like this.
Their eyes met again briefly, a moment of understand passing between them once again. They had both been wronged, broken, and beaten by the world, but in each other, there was hope for the future.
They found a movie to watch eventually, but Mei fell asleep before it ended. Luke paused the movie once he noticed, wondering whether or not he should take her to her room or leave her where she was on the couch. In watching her sleep, he wondered about her dreams. He still woke from nightmares, Annie's blood in his hands. Hopefully, she would be able to find solace faster than he could, maybe she could even erase it from her brilliant mind. She was still young; she might be able to move on at this rate. But if she couldn't—if there were some scars that he could simply not help to heal—he would always be there for her, like he was now, whether she wanted him to be or not.