Title: step from the road (to the sea to the sky)
Author: Perri Smith
Feedback: is very comforting (perri at neon-hummingbird dot com)
Distribution: Please do not distribute or archive without permission
Thanks to: Helsinkibaby for the beta. I still blame Dad. Cookies to whomever spots the stealth crossover.
step from the road (to the sea to the sky)
Mei is a quiet, undemanding passenger, which doesn't surprise Luke at all. They make it out of New York before sunrise, in the forgettable gray sedan they buy with cash. Luke gets the maximum cash advances on all of the credit cards he lifted from the Russian guy in the trunk... what was his name? He's already forgotten and it doesn't bother him.
Anyway, they've got enough cash to keep going for a while; Seattle still sounds good to two people hellbent on "anywhere but here".
He pulls over a little after dawn, in a small gas station with a tiny diner attached. Mei takes one look at the menu and refuses to order anything; Luke studies her for a second, then orders pancakes and bacon for both of them. Mei pokes at hers suspiciously a few times, then cleans her plate in less than 10 minutes. The waitress thinks she's cute, and Mei gives her an bright, innocent smile that wins her a piece of apple pie.
Luke can see the calculation behind that smile, but it doesn't bother him. Mei is a survivor, and if those skills get her free pie now and then, she's earned the bonus.
Luke still needs a shower, and he doesn't get any pie. Mei studies him for a second, then offers him the last bite of hers. He takes it.
Mei continues to stare quietly out the window as they drive. When they find a town large enough to have a Target, Luke nudges her out of the car and inside. They stand at the entrance, both a little lost - Mei is a city girl and has never been inside a store this bright, shiny and huge, and it hasn't been a big part of Luke's life, either. When a red-shirted staff member starts towards them, they head in the opposite direction.
Mei figures out the layout quickly enough, and heads for the girls department. Luke reminds her to get shoes and underwear; she gives him an impatient look and chooses a couple of dresses, two sweaters, jeans and t-shirts before steering him towards the mens department. He grabs jeans and sweatpants, t-shirts and a jacket; his new suit is probably salvageable, but not until they stay in one place long enough to hit a dry cleaner.
They raid the grocery side for snacks, and Luke tries to interest Mei in the toy and book departments; she looks tempted, then shakes her head decisively.
They keep driving.
Mei is so quiet that Luke doesn't realize she's asleep until the latest radio station goes out of range, and she doesn't start looking for another one. He glances over and sees her slumped against the door, her mouth open a little and her body limp. It's the first time since he met her that she looks like a child.
Suddenly, he's so tired he can barely keep his eyes open. They've gone several hundred miles, far enough to risk stopping for a while. He finds a cheap motel at the next rest stop, and stands with his body angled so that he can watch the car through the window as he checks in.
Mei doesn't twitch when he lifts her out of her seat, her frail body draping bonelessly over his arm and shoulder, or when he lays her on one of the double beds, takes off her shoes, and carefully pulls the covers over her. He feels terrifyingly like a father.
A hot shower is an almost forgotten luxury, but Luke only stays in for a few minutes, leaving the bathroom door half open, and sticking his head outside the curtain constantly to listen for nightmares or trouble. Mei is still asleep when he comes out, and she stays asleep for almost twelve hours.
He sleeps for ten, on the bed between Mei and the door.
Halfway across the country, and Mei's willingness to do nothing but stare out the window for hours on end is starting to bother Luke. He's not sure what to do about it until he spots a bookstore, one of the little independent ones that are dying out, and pulls over.
"What are we doing here?" Mei demands.
"It's a bookstore," Luke tells her. "I want to talk to someone about stuff for you to do."
"I'm fine," she insists; Luke ignores her and goes inside. She follows after a minute, feet dragging.
The clerk is happy to talk to Luke about his orphaned niece, new to the country, and what Mei needs to know to start school with the kids her age. She supplies Luke with a set of evaluation manuals written for home-schooled kids, a few workbooks (Luke doesn't bother with the ones for math), and the first four Harry Potter books. She doesn't have anything written in Chinese, and Luke promises Mei they'll find some.
Mei ignores him, and refuses to open the books. Luke doesn't push it; enough people have told Mei what to do with her mind, he's not going to join the crowd.
After another two days, Mei is finally bored enough to look at the workbooks. Luke's suspicions are pretty much confirmed when she stared blankly at one page for a while, then pronounces them dumb and goes to watch TV.
He finishes eating his dinner before he sits next to her on the end of the motel bed. "We could look at the evaluation stuff," he offers casually, without quite looking at her. "We can pretend it's a game show - I'll read you the questions and you see how many you can answer."
Mei thinks about that for a long minute, then turns down the television.
She scores above her age group in science, and pretty well on the social studies portions, but her Chinese education disagrees with the American school system on several points, and Mei is confused and annoyed by that. American history isn't something she's ever studied, obviously, and they don't bother with math. Her English is as good as Luke's, although her vocabulary is almost entirely culled from television, and her written English is almost non-existent.
Apparently Uncle Han hadn't been interested in teaching his human computer anything she didn't need to know for "business".
Mei looks unhappy, defensive and even ashamed when she realizes Luke has figured out there's something she's not immediately excellent at. Luke counters with pointing out that he can't read Mandarin; it doesn't impress her, since she's already formed an unfavorable opinion of his intelligence. Which would be annoying if Luke hadn't already accepted that Mei is a lot smarter than he is - but she still needs him to take care of her, so they're even.
They stop at another bookstore the next day, and spend the rest of the trip racing through Doctor Seuss. Mei is reading at a third-grade level, and is halfway through the first Harry Potter book, by the time they reach Seattle.
It takes a week and a half to cross the country, using back roads and avoiding the interstates. Luke and Mei both think they've neutralized Wolf and Uncle Han, and the Russkaya mafiya has other things to think about right now. But Luke and Mei also agree that leaving a trail is bad business. Mei getting to see more of her new home than just the highways is a bonus.
Seattle is... different. Not bad, but different, close enough to New York and Beijing to be almost familiar, but strange enough to weird both of them out a little. They spend a few days half-heartedly looking for apartments, and they drive by the school Luke heard about a few times. Mei doesn't like it, isn't willing to explain her reasons, and decides Seattle is too big.
Honestly, the crowds are making Luke twitch, too, so they get in the car and start driving again. It's hard to go further north without crossing the border, so they go south; Luke breaks his rule about interstates because the 5 keeps them beside the ocean for long stretches.
Mei's only encounters with the ocean have been an unwilling transatlantic flight, and a few visits to Uncle Han's holdings in Jersey. She regards the beach dubiously until Luke talks her into taking off her shoes; minutes later, she's running around like a normal kid, looking for shells and letting the wet sand squish between her toes. Luke watches her, breathing fresh sea air and feeling cleaner and lighter than he has in years.
They don't discuss living near the ocean; it's just decided that they will.
They end up in a town called Astoria - it's on the northern edge of a Oregon peninsula, small and historic. Mei stands out in the largely white population more than Luke likes, but it doesn't seem to bother her.
The real estate agent who shows them apartments is amused that Luke treats Mei as an equal - her opinions override his several times, and the realtor obviously thinks it's cute that he "indulges" her. Luke ignores her and lets Mei keep looking for someplace she likes - it's all the same to him, as long as there are beds and showers.
When they finally find a place that satisfies her (two blocks from the ocean, two bedroom, one bathroom and lots of windows), Luke stands back as Mei negotiates the rent. She saves them $75 a month and the realtor doesn't think she's so cute any more.
They settle in slowly and carefully, neither of them quite sure how to live this life. Luke doesn't try to enforce anything like rules, and Mei doesn't trust him to do the bookkeeping. Neither of them can cook, but there aren't too many disasters while they learn. They go to the beach almost every day, and slowly stop looking over their shoulders at every stranger. Luke is good enough with his hands to find some construction work, and Mei starts school.
The elementary school principal is what Luke's grandmother would have called a tough cookie - tiny and terrifying, controlling a school full of kids with intelligence and willpower. Barely a month ago, Luke and Mei faced down corrupt cops, the Russian mob and a Triad boss, but both of them stare at their feet and avoid the principal's all-knowing eyes. Their cover is paper thin, the documents Luke was able to get in Seattle barely passable. But whatever she sees satisfies her, and Mei Carter, niece of Luke Carter, is allowed to start at Astoria Elementary.
It's rocky at first. Mei's test scores come up all over the place, though she's reading at her age level now, and there are a couple of meetings before they place her in sixth grade with the kids her age. There are more meetings to talk about much trouble Mei has "relating to her peer group" - Mei points out later that, intelligence and experience wise, they're mostly not her peers; Luke tells her she had her chance at the gifted school and turned it down, and can you at least pretend to enjoy kickball, you might actually like it.
Mei looks at him like she's worried he might have gone crazy, and goes off to watch something on TV that he hates. But she plays kickball, and talks a few of her classmates into becoming her study minions, and when Luke drives by the school during recess every day, she waves at him from on top of the monkey bars and actually looks happy.
"I don't want to do math anymore."
They're back in the principal's office, Luke standing next to Mei's chair, and Mei has made her decision. She's not going to fight about it, she's not going to defend it. She's just not going to do what they want.
The math teacher is about three seconds from tearing what's left of his hair out. "But you're brilliant at math, Mei! It's a gift! You can't just-"
"I don't want to do math," she repeats, and probably only Luke can see the way she sinks a little in her chair and sets her chin, prepared for whatever consequences are about to happen. But the math teacher just looks over her at Luke, clearly expecting Mei's "uncle" to be on his side.
Luke mostly ignores him to look down at Mei. "It's up to you," he says. "If you want to do math, do math. If you don't want to, don't."
She sits up a little bit straighter, reminded that Luke is always, always on her side. "I don't want to," she repeats for a third time
Luke nods. "Okay."
"She can't just not take math!" the math teacher protests, and Luke ignores him again, looking at the principal this time.
"She tested higher than the rest of her class, right?" he asks, knowing the answer.
The principal purses her lips and studies them. "She tested higher than most of the high school," she acknowledges.
"So, she doesn't need math class. She can go to the library or something."
The math teacher tries again, "Mr. Carter, that's not -!" and Luke gets it, where the teacher's coming from, he does. The guy wants Mei to use her gift, because he's a teacher and that's what the good ones do.
But Mei controls her own gifts now, and this is her call. "She's not going to do math," he repeats.
The principal leans back in her chair, still looking at them and into them like she does. Luke has no idea what she sees, but all that matters is what she decides.
He doesn't want to uproot Mei, start over again someplace new. But if they have to pull her out of this school and find somewhere else, they will.
Finally, the principal nods. "All right, Mei. Instead of going to math, you'll go to the library." Mei starts to smile and the principal holds up her hand. "By the end of the school year, I will expect a 20-page report on the history of mathematics; you may choose any subtopic you like. Your grade on that paper will be your math grade for the year. Are we agreed?"
Mei sneaks a glance up at Luke and he shrugs: your call. Her forehead scrunches in thought, looking for hidden catches, before she says "Okay," like she's closing a deal. "But I won't do any math in the report."
"Fine." They actually shake hands on it. Mei picks up her backpack and leaves for her social studies class, where she's making solid Bs, and both fascinating and annoying her teacher on a regular basis by offering the Chinese view of world history. (The internet has become Mei's best friend when she's right, and her worst enemy when she's wrong.)
Luke figures that's settled, but the principal calls him back before he can leave. "Mr. Carter," she starts, and suddenly he's back in sixth grade himself. He doesn't shuffle his feet, but it's close. "I don't pretend to understand the relationship you have with Mei-" Luke starts to run out the "orphaned niece" story again, and she cuts him off with a raised hand, "-but I am quite certain that relationship is beneficial for you both. If I wasn't, I would have taken steps already."
Weirdly, it comes out like more of a reassurance than a threat. "Yeah?" he says warily, not willing to admit anything.
"Yes," she returns calmly. "I only want to know if you are quite certain Mei is safe here."
That rocks him back a little, then sends him to his toes, weight distributed, ready to grab Mei and run. "Why wouldn't she be?"
She sighs and shakes her head, sitting back in her chair. "My apologies, Mr. Carter, that was badly phrased. Let me assure you, I have some experience with children who have been in... unfortunate situations. I recognize the signs, you see, and Mei shows them quite clearly."
"Mei's doing fine," Luke says automatically, visions of therapists and social workers looming.
"She is," the principal agrees, "and that impresses me. But I am also aware that you drop Mei off in the morning, pick her up in the evening, and drive by the school at lunch and recess. Your devotion is commendable, but, forgive me, a bit unsettling." She leans forward again, steepling her hands in front of her face. "Mr. Carter, I am quite prepared to do anything and everything necessary to protect the children in my care. But in order to protect them, I must know what I am protecting them from."
Luke thinks about that, thinks about it hard. It's never occurred to him to trust anyone else with Mei; he drives by more often than at lunch and recess, there's an illegal nine-mil in an ankle holster on his right leg, and he never quite turns his back on anyone.
But he can't watch Mei every second, and he honestly feels a little sorry for anyone who tries to get past this woman. "Triad," he finally admits. "Mainland Chinese, probably in pairs. Maybe Russians. And some New York cops, but I'm pretty sure they're done." He thinks about it a second more, then figures he may as well go all in. "They wanted her for the math, for that computer in her head."
"I suspected as much." The principal sighs again, sounding weary with disappointment at the world, and stands up. "Thank you for your honesty, Mr. Carter," she says sincerely, coming out from behind her desk. "Security will be informed, and obviously Mei will never be allowed to leave school grounds with anyone but you."
Luke nods once, shoves his hands in his pockets, and gets the hell out.
Luke keeps picking Mei up at school every afternoon, an hour later on the days she has soccer practice. (She still doesn't like kickball.) Mei does her homework before dinner if Luke cooks, and after dinner if she does.
Then they walk down to the beach, still barefoot on the sand even though it's gotten too cold, and watch the sunset. They're both worlds away from everything they used to know, but they can sit in silence on the rocks and watch the waves roll in, and be happy enough just knowing they're not alone.
Some nights, Mei cries in her sleep, calling for her mother or running from dead enemies, and Luke will carefully rub her back until she calms down into happier dreams. Some nights, Luke stays up too late, rerunning ancient history in his mind as if he can find a way to bring Annie back, until Mei comes out in her flannel PJs and sternly orders him to go to bed.
They're not a family, really, but they are a team. And somehow, it's working.
When they leave the beach, just before the last of the sunlight fades away, sometimes Mei tucks her hand into Luke's, and he wraps his fingers around hers, and they hold on to each other as they walk home.
Author's Note: If the principal bears a strong resemblance to Linda Hunt, that is not an accident. You're lucky I didn't throw in a certain kindergarten teacher...
Title is taken from "Snow [Hey-Oh]", Red Hot Chili Peppers.