It was late in the evening by the time the weary trio reached Hazakurain. Regardless, both Sister Bikini and Iris were eagerly awaiting their arrival, braving the cold weather down by the main gate.
Maya watched Iris greet Phoenix with an emotional hug and dazzling smile. Phoenix smiled back sheepishly, placing a hand at the back of his head as he often did when he was embarrassed. She studied Iris’s face as she batted her long lashes.“How could I ever compete with someone like that? She’s gorgeous...”
Maya thought sadly to herself, trudging along behind the pair who were now chatting happily.
An audible growl from Maya’s stomach made everyone stop and giggle.“Awesome, Maya.”
She thought sarcastically. “Could you be any more sophisticated right now?”
Embarrassment aside, she was relieved to hear that her hosts had prepared a hot meal of beef stew in expectation of their guests being hungry and tired after making the long trip. After taking their luggage to their rooms, they were led to the main hall where dinner awaited them.
They ate in silence. Pearl was far too exhausted for her usual chit chat, and Maya still wanted to avoid any more of Phoenix’s questions. She decided keeping quiet was probably the best way to make sure they didn’t repeat the exchange from the train trip. Maybe if he thought she was tired, he would let things be.
Pearl and Maya both finished their food quickly, while a distracted Phoenix appeared to be picking at his food. Maya excused herself in order to put Pearl to bed, while Phoenix remained at the small table.
Before long, Bikini entered the room and began cleaning up the plates.
“Mr Wright,” she said happily. “I really can’t thank you enough for everything you have done for my Iris.”
“It was nothing.” Phoenix said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Just doing my job.”
“Nonsense! You went above and beyond the call of duty if you ask me.” Bikini said as she continued to gather up Maya and Pearl’s empty plates. “I must say, I was surprised that you wanted to visit again so soon. But I am glad. It’s so nice to have visitors here.” She chirped happily.
Phoenix nodded. She wasn’t the only one. He felt pretty clueless about the whole deal as well. He frowned, wondering again why Maya was so insistent on their trip. The faint sounds of a bell could be heard, ringing off in the distance.
“My goodness! Is that the time!” Bikini exclaimed. If you’ll excuse me, Mr Wright, I have much to do! I still have many things to prepare seeing as Mystic Maya has requested to take the Special Course again during her visit! Ho ho!”
“She what?” Phoenix said, slamming his hand down on the table, a lot harder than either of them were expecting. Bikini immediately ceased her signature chuckle and looked a little startled. Despite the rather intimidating glare on his face, Phoenix was a little startled himself.
“Well...” Bikini started, nervously bringing a hand up to fidget with her hood. “She phoned a few days ago...I didn’t think it would be a problem...I...”
Phoenix closed his eyes and took a deep breath as she spoke.
“It’s fine, Sister Bikini.” Phoenix interrupted. “I’m very sorry for scaring you. I just... wasn’t aware of Maya’s plans.”
Bikini nodded and wasted no time scurrying out of the room, leaving Phoenix behind. He felt terrible for glaring at her like he did; he had once again reacted without thinking. He could admit that he did that a lot when it came to Maya. He stood and made his way to the door, taking a left and heading down the corridor to where the guest rooms were. He needed to have words with a certain spirit medium.
Maya quietly slid the screen door to her room open, stepping through before closing it behind her. She had passed Phoenix’s room on her way back after putting Pearl to bed, and saw no light coming from inside. She assumed he was either still at the main hall, or had already gone to sleep. If he had indeed gone to bed, then that meant he was still mad at her.
She turned around, only to find a familiar figure sitting in the window seat across the room, chin resting on his hands as his elbows rested on his knees. The pensive expression on his face only completed the picture; telling Maya he was not in a good mood.
“Jeez Nick!” she said, bringing a hand to her heart. “You scared the daylights out of me. What are you doing here?”
Phoenix sat up straight, bringing his hands to his knees.
“Bikini told me you’re doing the special course.” He said coolly.
Maya nodded slowly. Busted. “I figured since I’m here, why waste the opportunity?” she said nonchalantly, hoping her flippant attitude would rub off on Phoenix. No such luck.
Phoenix’s jaw tensed. He looked away from her, glowering.
“Any reason why you chose not to tell me?” he asked bitterly. Maya placed a hand on her hip. She was beginning to feel slightly affronted by the way he was speaking to her.
“I’m so sorry Nick!” She said sarcastically. “I completely forgot I have to clear everything with you first.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous Maya,” Phoenix responded, shaking his head at her immature response. “Why don’t you see that it’s too much? The piles of books, the constant studying, the meeting at Kurain and now this. It’s got to stop Maya.”
Maya crossed her arms, looking away indignantly.
“What’s so wrong with me taking a little responsibility? Kurain Master isn’t exactly an easy job, Nick. I had to grow up sometime and I have a lot to learn. A lot of people are going to rely on me you know.” She said sternly.
“There’s nothing wrong with that.” Phoenix said. “But there IS something wrong with you pushing yourself so hard like this!” he finished, raising his voice.
“I know what I can handle, Nick. And I’m doing just fine!” Maya countered. Phoenix stood, raking a hand through his spikes in exasperation.
“No, you aren’t.” he stated. He stared at her disapprovingly. Maya threw her hands in the air. She was getting tired of this conversation.
“You don’t know the first thing about how I’m feeling. You don’t get it. I know you have this insatiable need to save everybody all the time, but we don’t all need saving, Nick. I said I’m fine and I meant I am. Now drop it. Please!” Maya snapped.
Phoenix felt himself getting angry.
“So this is how you’re dealing with it?” he snapped back. Maya grimaced. She knew what he was referring to. “She wouldn’t want to see you like this, you know.”
Maya sighed heavily. She was tired. She didn’t want to fight anymore. Tears started to well up in her eyes.
“She was so great, Nick…” she said, blinking away some tears. “They all expect me to be just like her. To be better than her.”
Phoenix sighed; this was the first time Maya had given him any indication of what was really going on.
“So you’re just going to let them order you around?” he asked her. “You’re going to agree with everything they say?”
“What else can I do?” she asked, annoyed. Phoenix shook his head.
“You’re the Master of Kurain, Maya. Not the slave.”
“My mother died protecting my future, Nick. The future of Kurain.” She argued.
“No, Maya. Your mother died protecting YOU. Her daughter.” Phoenix stated. “You’re not ready for what they are pushing you into, and you know that.”
“None of that matters, Nick. This is my burden. Whether I had years to prepare or not doesn’t matter at all. You can’t always argue your way out of things. Life isn’t a courtroom, you know.” She looked away from his piercing gaze.
“It’s not always fair.” Maya finished dejectedly, looking at the floor.
“So what, you’re just giving up your life? Just because they said you have to?” Phoenix cried. He couldn’t believe that Maya was resigning herself to what seemed like a lifetime of servitude. Maya huffed angrily. She just couldn’t make him understand.
“Nick, just leave it okay? I don’t get why you care so much! Why don’t you trust me when I say I’ll handle it?” she said resentfully. All Phoenix could do was stare at her.
“You don’t get why I care?” he asked incredulously. “What kind of friend do you think I am?”
Maya said nothing, refusing to meet his eyes. “Please.” She said quietly. “Just let me deal with it.”
Phoenix was hurt. Angry and hurt.
“Why am I even bothering…?” he said, striding towards the door.
“Nick…wait…” Maya cried out weakly. She didn’t want him to be mad at her anymore. But it was too late. Phoenix was gone.
Phoenix trudged briskly through the snow, his anger seeming to cool off with the help of the frigid air, but his frustration remaining. He couldn’t understand how she would allow herself to be used in such a way, especially by her own family. He growled in annoyance as his steps took a familiar path. It wasn’t long before he reached the rickety suspension bridge that led to the Inner Temple. He stood for a moment, eyeing Dusky Bridge warily as one would if they came across an old adversary. An overturned log sat close by, forming a bench of sorts about a metre and a half from the edge of the ravine. A torch burned brightly next to the bridge. Phoenix decided to sit for a while, and try to gather his thoughts.
He breathed out with a small huff, his breath visible against the cold Hazakurain night. But despite the chill factor and his lack of a jacket, he wasn’t ready to go back to his room yet.
Maya sat for a while after Phoenix had stormed out with her knees drawn up to her chest, crying softly.“It’s all my fault.”
She thought dismally. “I shouldn’t have yelled at him. He’s just trying to protect me.”
“He’s always trying to protect me.” She admitted aloud to herself, her voice tinged with sadness.
She stood up and wiped the tears from her eyes, eyes scanning the room before she located her large jacket. Slipping it on, she quietly slid the screen door open, and headed out into the night. Phoenix couldn’t have walked far. She would find him and apologise.
It wasn’t long before Phoenix heard light footsteps crunching in the snow, getting progressively louder as their owner headed in his direction. He stared straight ahead, looking out over the bridge, as the person approaching him finally reached their destination, taking a seat beside him on the log. Phoenix turned, expecting to see Maya, but was surprised to discover someone completely different.
“Iris...?” Phoenix stared.
The woman in question gave him a small smile as she pulled her hood back, revealing her dark hair underneath.
“I heard you yelling before. I wanted to make sure you were alright.” She said softly.
“You’re not going to push me into the river, are you?” he said, eyeing her with fake suspicion. She shook her head and looked at the ground, a small smile on her lips.
“I can assure you. I am
Phoenix shook his head, chuckling lightly.
“I know that.” He said motioning to the hood she was wearing. She had told him that it protected her from evil spirits. Dahlia was a prime candidate for that title. “I’m sorry; it was a bad joke.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “I seem to be really good at saying the wrong thing lately.”
“I understand.” Iris said. The pair sat in silence for a while, before Iris spoke again.
“Did you want to talk about it?” she asked.
“Not much to talk about.” He shrugged, kicking idly at some snow near his foot. Iris seemed to accept his answer, and the quiet night surrounded them once more.
“Iris?” he asked eventually.
“Have you ever wished things were completely different?”
She looked down, almost bitterly. His words struck a chord with her.
“Sometimes.” She admitted.
Phoenix continued to stare out into the darkness.
“We’ve both been through a lot, haven’t we?” he said, exhaling a breath he had been holding.
“We have.” She agreed, although she knew the question was rhetorical. The flickering light from the nearby lantern cast Phoenix’s face in shadows, making his expression unreadable.
“Who knows, Iris?” He murmured distantly. ” In a different world, we might have actually had a shot, you and I.”
Iris smiled sadly and let out a small sigh. She took one of his hands in hers, gently stroking her thumb over the back.
“Feenie...” she said softly.
He turned sharply to look at her, eyes wide. Her use of his old nickname made his heart lurch... although not in the way it used to. The name reminded him of things he no longer wanted to remember.
“...I’m flattered you would even consider that after everything I have done to you.”
Phoenix turned his attention forward once more, as Iris’s hold on his hand remained.
“You never asked to be born a twin, Iris.”
“Regardless,” she said, “I was.”
“Besides,” she added.” I know I am not the one who holds your heart in their hands.”
Phoenix scowled lightly. Just how badly did he wear his heart on his sleeve?
“So everyone keeps telling me...”
Iris brought her free hand up to pat Phoenix reassuringly on the back.
“I knew the moment I found out that you had tried to cross this bridge...”
Phoenix glared at the bridge. That large, unforgiving, inanimate object was proving to be his undoing.
“Forgive me,” Iris said with a slight pause, unsure whether to continue or not.”But I am afraid I did happen to overhear some of your argument with Mystic Maya...” Her voice was nervous. She hoped he wouldn’t think that she had been eavesdropping.
“I’m not surprised.” Phoenix said. “It did get kind of heated in there.”
Iris’s expression changed to one of concentration, and she blinked a few times before figuring out how to phrase what she wanted to say.
“I know...a lot about obligation...and a lot about how it feels to be manipulated...” she said painfully.
“Mystic Maya...she feels like she needs to sacrifice herself for her position, in the same way that her mother sacrificed her life. The Kurain Elders... they must realise she can be controlled right now...given everything that she has been through…” Iris continued.
“Mystic Maya is hurting because what she wants to do and what she has to do are two completely different things.”
Phoenix looked down at Iris, his heart wrenching at the sad expression on her face. He knew that a similar experience had left what would be a lifelong scar on the young woman.
“She doesn’t need you to protect her right now. She just needs someone to understand.” Iris said her voice barely above a whisper.
Phoenix said nothing, allowing himself a few moments to take in what Iris had said. She was probably one of the only people who were in a position to understand what Maya was going through. Letting go of his hand, Iris stood, and stepped over the log, pulling her hood back over her head.
“You should go back now, you’ll catch a cold.” She said, pausing as she took a few steps backward. She went to leave, but turned back to speak to Phoenix once more.
“You were always destined to be tangled up with the Fey women, Phoenix. I don’t think that will ever change.” She finished, turning and heading towards the main hall. Phoenix was once again left alone. He sat for a few moments longer before standing up and preparing to head back. As he walked the short distance to the main hall, he realised that Iris was right. And not just about the possibility of him catching a cold.
As the path Maya took turned towards Dusky Bridge she realised she had succeeded in locating Phoenix. But it appeared he wasn’t alone. In the distance she could see Phoenix sitting on a log near the bridge, as Iris held his hand and stroked his back.
Tears started to well up in her eyes all over again, and her heart lurched painfully in her chest. She tried to ignore it, squeezing her eyes shut and repeating over and over in her head that it didn’t bother her and that she was happy for them, but each time she did, she believed it less and less.
With a small cry she spun on her heels and ran back past the main hall, not slowing down until she was back inside her room. She closed the screen behind her, throwing off her jacket before moving towards the window seat that Phoenix had sat in earlier. Extinguishing the lantern on the small table as she walked by and grabbing a blanket from her futon, she sat in the darkness, watching the moon as its eerie blue light streamed through the window. She wrapped herself in the blanket and began to cry openly, no longer having the energy to hold back her tears.
Phoenix walked down the corridor that led to his room, pausing in from of Maya’s door. He could see through the screen that the lantern inside the room had been extinguished. Maya was probably asleep. He turned to leave again, but his feet felt as if they were glued to the spot. He sighed. As much as he didn’t want to wake her, he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep if he didn’t apologise. Slowly, he nudged the screen open and slipped inside.
Maya, he discovered, wasn’t asleep at all. She sat in the window seat, wrapped in a large blanket, staring out into the night. She turned sharply when she heard the floorboard creak as he walked, surprised to see him. Her lashes glinted in the moonlight; he could see she had been crying. But then her expression changed. Phoenix could have sworn his heart stopped beating.
He couldn’t explain what he saw in her eyes then. He saw relief. He saw fear. He saw sadness mixed with happiness. He saw the last three years of his life and everything they had been through. But most of all, he could see how much she needed him.
He could see how much he needed her.
That look… He would remember it for the rest of his life. She had never looked so beautiful.
Transfixed by the beautiful creature before him, he walked silently to the window and sat next to her. A single tear trickled slowly down her face. Boldly, Phoenix lifted a hand to cup her cheek, wiping the tear away with his thumb. They stared at each other. He said nothing and neither did she. Words didn’t seem like they fit. Maya’s lip trembled, and finally, she let go of the anguish she had been bottling up inside.
This time, he was there for her.
He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close as she cried. Her head rested in the crook of his neck, and he could feel the moisture of her tears through the thin fabric of his shirt. They stayed that way for a long time, as Maya cried all the tears she needed to. Phoenix stroked her back as her sobs subsided, and before long she was silent. Thinking she had fallen asleep, Phoenix shifted slightly. He would carry her over to her futon so she could get some rest.
As Phoenix went to move, Maya looked up at him, their noses grazing each other. She clutched lightly at his shirt.
“Stay.” She breathed. Phoenix nodded gently, a silent agreement, their foreheads touching. He didn’t even need to think. He would have done anything she had asked.
He slid off his shoes and leaned back against the frame of the window seat, pulling Maya across his lap. He arranged the blanket so it covered the both of them and wrapped his arms around her waist as she rested her head on his shoulder. He would sleep here tonight.
It was then that the truth became abundantly clear. What he had felt for Dahlia Hawthorne was nothing more than a childish crush. Infatuation. But now he knew, and would finally admit to himself, that he was in love with Maya Fey.