Thankfully, the trio of travelers made it to the station with moments to spare. A kindly station guard found it in his heart to stall the departure of the train for a few seconds longer when he saw Phoenix with an armful of luggage and Maya with an armful of Pearl running towards him. Phoenix smiled and thanked him as they boarded the train. He tipped his hat in response and the train lurched into motion as the three of them made their way to their seats.
Phoenix sat closest to the window, with Maya next to him. Pearl settled herself on Maya’s lap, pulling out a picture book from her little back pack. Phoenix peered over at the title, hoping desperately that it wasn’t one of Elise Deauxnim’s books. They had been Pearl’s favorite. Pearl probably wouldn’t even realize, but Phoenix worried that something like that might strike a bit close to home for Maya right now. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it wasn’t one of Misty’s books.
The sun had set a while ago, and the last traces of orange and purple filled the sky as an evening chill started to set in. He was glad Maya and Pearl had both thought to wear coats, otherwise they would have been freezing. The train stopped to allow new passengers to join, and a sweet looking elderly woman boarded their carriage. She took the seat directly facing Phoenix and Maya, nodding politely at Phoenix, before pulling out some knitting.
Phoenix leaned his back against the window, shifting his body slightly so he was half facing Maya and Pearl. He smiled as he watched Maya trying to teach Pearl how to sound out words. Maya was so patient with her. Pearl’s little face was a picture of concentration as she attempted to read the book in front of her. She frowned as the broken syllables came from her mouth, immediately looking up hopefully at Maya for some sort of indication that she was correct. Maya would either congratulate her on her answer, or gently sound the word out the correct way. More often than not, Pearl was getting the words right. Her reading was improving drastically. Maya spent a lot of time with her.
Phoenix was touched by the expression of pride on Maya’s face when she looked down at that little girl, trying her hardest with that book. Phoenix shared her feelings. The two of them had become her makeshift parents, in a way. Strangely enough, that really didn’t bother him. Their little family might look strange, but he knew he could depend on it.
It wasn’t long before Pearl started to yawn and rub at her eyes. She didn’t protest too much when Maya told her it was time to put the book away. She settled herself comfortably against Maya’s shoulder, and was asleep within minutes.
Phoenix watched Maya as she stared ahead peacefully. She didn’t look like she was thinking about anything in particular. He racked his brain for a way to broach the subject of Andre, and Maya’s meeting, without spoiling the peaceful mood that had surrounded them on the journey so far.
Maya turned, noticing Phoenix watching her. She must have been able to read the expression on his face, knowing somehow that a question she wouldn’t want to answer was seconds away from leaving his lips. Quickly, she thought of the first thing that came to mind.
“Nick, can you take Pearl for a minute? I need to use the bathroom.” She asked.
“We’re on a train, Maya.” He said, puzzled.
“Long distance trains always have bathrooms, Nick.” She said, matter-of-factly. “It’s bound to be up near the lunch car somewhere.”
Phoenix shrugged in agreement and helped Maya shift Pearl from her lap to his. He settled the girl comfortably, peering down at her angelic little face. Nothing would wake her right now.
“I’ll just be a few minutes.” Maya said, before heading towards the door that connected the carriages. Phoenix nodded as she left. The minutes ticked by. The steady movement of the train was almost lulling Phoenix to sleep. He stretched and yawned lightly, looking down at Pearl to make sure his movements hadn’t woken her. He glanced over at the elderly woman across from him. She was watching Pearl with a wistful smile. She looked up at Phoenix and smiled once she felt his eyes on her, putting her knitting down on her lap.
“I’m off to visit my granddaughter.” She said. Phoenix nodded politely and smiled. “Your little one looks just like my Abbey.” She finished, smiling sweetly at the sleeping girl.
“Oh no, she’s not…” Phoenix said, correcting the woman.
“Oh dear,” she said, bringing a hand to her heart in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I just assumed… You look like such a lovely little family.”
Phoenix nodded understandingly.
“I guess we would appear that way.” He sighed. The woman smiled. The train pulled gently to a stop and the woman began gathering her things.
“Well, this is my stop.” She said, standing. “You have a safe trip, young man.”
“Thanks,” Phoenix said. “You too. I hope your granddaughter is well.”
The woman beamed. It was obvious that the little girl that Pearl had reminded her of was the light of her life.
“You take care of those two beautiful ladies.” She said with a wink. Phoenix chuckled. The woman turned and headed for the door.“I plan to. You can count on that.”
Phoenix thought to himself as the doors closed and the train began moving once more.
About ten minutes passed after the old woman had left when Maya returned, handing Phoenix a small bottle of juice as she sat down.
“I passed the lunch carriage on my way through.” She explained. “They were still open! Thought you might be thirsty.”
Phoenix opened the bottle and took a sip as Maya settled herself back in her seat. She reached down to the travel bag by her feet and took out a book and a notepad, flipping it open to a page she had bookmarked. Phoenix read the title.
‘The Principles of the Spirit Connection’.
He shot Maya a disapproving look.
“Oh, sorry Nick.” She said apologetically. “Did you want me to take Pearl off you? She can get pretty heavy after a while…”
Phoenix shook his head.
“Pearl is fine.” He said, slightly annoyed. “But are you going to study for the rest of the trip as well?”
Maya bit her lip. Phoenix’s glare made her nervous.
“You assume I’m studying, but I could just be reading it to pass the time, you know. I am
interested in this stuff. It’s not all work.” She said quietly.
“If you were just reading, you wouldn’t be taking notes.” He said, motioning to the notepad that sat on her lap. “Besides, aren’t I entertaining enough to talk to? You need to pass the time with a book…” Phoenix finished huffily.
“Nick, I didn’t mean…” Maya trailed off.
“So you are
studying then.” Phoenix stated.
Maya sighed. She didn’t have an answer that he would like. Her eyes pleaded with him to drop it, but he wasn’t going to this time.
“Maya, can I ask you something?”
“If I said no, you’d ask anyway, right?” she countered.
“Probably.” He agreed.
“Then go ahead.” Maya urged, dreading the questions that were coming.
“Did Andre say anything to you? When he came to pick up Pearl, I mean…” Phoenix asked, watching Maya’s expression carefully.
“What makes you think that?” she replied, a little too quickly.
“Well… He had a few rather interesting opinions on what was required of the Kurain Master that he chose to share with me today. I know you saw him last week… and the very next day you went to the library, borrowed out their entire spiritual section and haven’t stopped working since. Just putting two and two together…” he explained.
Maya looked away, finding something uninteresting to stare at on the floor.
“You know how I feel about him.” Maya said with a fake sounding laugh. She still wouldn’t look Phoenix in the eye. “Why would I care what he thinks?"
“Because everything he’s saying sounds just like what Morgan would say.”
The mention of her aunt’s name caught Maya by surprise and she snapped her head around to look at Phoenix.
“Come to think of it,” Phoenix continued, “doesn’t he remind you a lot of Morgan? In a lot of ways?”
Maya’s eyes widened as she realized what he was getting at.
“You don’t think…?” she gasped, bringing a hand to her lips in disbelief. “It couldn’t be…”
“Just a theory.” Phoenix said casually. “But that’s not important. We’re talking about you here. No changing the subject.”
Maya was silent once more. She chewed on her lip nervously.“Damn!”
Maya thought to herself. “So close to veering him off topic…”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Phoenix said, more to himself than Maya. “I knew I should have punched him.”
“You nearly punched him?” Maya asked, surprised.
“I gave him a little shove.” Phoenix shrugged. “You can’t tell me he didn’t deserve it."
Maya nodded, absorbing the information. Phoenix wasn’t done with his questions yet.
“What happened in the meeting?”
Maya’s shoulders slumped.
“Nick, I really don’t want to talk about it.” She said softly, once again avoiding his gaze.
“Tough luck, kiddo.” Phoenix said resolutely. “We are.”
She turned to face him, exasperated.
“What do you want to hear, Nick? How is me telling you about it going to make me feel better. How is it going to change what they said?” she said seriously.
Phoenix remained stoic.
“It’s got to be a lot healthier than bottling everything up and convincing yourself that you
are the problem and not their stupid ideals.” He said.
“Those ‘stupid ideals’ are my family traditions, Nick.” Maya argued.
“Well, they’re stupid family traditions.” He argued back. “Let me guess. The Elders told you that you weren’t doing a good enough job and that you had to come back to Kurain.”
Maya sighed with frustration. Phoenix was infuriating when he was right.
“And you,” he continued. “Listened to every word they said, apologized profusely and planned to work harder to please them.”
“My Magatama must sure come in handy…” Maya remarked off-handedly.
Phoenix scoffed lightly.
“You read like a book, Maya.” He said. “I wouldn’t even need to get it out.”
His expression softened and his tone of voice changed as he shook his head lightly.
“I’d never use the Magatama on you anyway, Maya.”
Maya wasn’t sure what it was, the tone of his voice, the expression on his face or the admission of trust, but that sentence sent shivers down her spine. She felt a blush creep across her cheeks and quickly looked away.
“You’re stronger than that, Maya. You’re letting yourself get pushed around. I know who you really are, and this version of you is… well… disappointing to see.”
“You don’t understand.” She whispered.
“Then help me understand.” He whispered back, urging her to meet his gaze.
“I can’t.” she said quietly.
Phoenix let out a large sigh, sounding irritated. Maya flinched at the sound. She said nothing as she looked down at her book, reluctantly closing it and putting it back in her bag.
“Happy?” she croaked, trying her best to hold back tears that were threatening to fall.
“No.” Phoenix said simply. “Are you?”
She looked away, knowing that she would indeed start to cry if she looked at his intense expression a moment longer. He looked away too, turning towards the window, staring out into the darkness as the train sped through.“Not at all…”
she thought to herself, sadly.
The rest of the trip was spent in silence.