Author's Note: This was written for the Ace Attorney holiday exchange, for BeneaththeOperaHouse, who wanted to see Nick, Pearls, and Maya building a snowman and then being cute and fluffy. Set post Trials and Tribulations, with spoilers for events from Apollo Justice.

Flurries and Phoenixes

Maya doesn't meet them at the train station.

Phoenix shouldn't have expected it, really. Maya's an important person now. She has duties and responsibilities and expectations riding on her shoulders. The fact that she managed to cajole him into bringing Trucy up to have some fun in the snow doesn't change anything about who and what Maya has become.

He had still expected her to meet them at the station, as she has every time since his first disastrous trip to Kurain Village. He had subconsciously assumed when they pulled into the station it would be Maya and Pearls waiting for them, Maya smiling and waving in her usual cheerful way.

He was half right, at least. Pearls is there, the girl practically jumping up and down as she enthusiastically waves them over to her. It's an older aunt who stands at her side, though—someone that Phoenix should know, but he's honestly more familiar with the names of Maya's older relatives than their faces. Is this Aunt Matilda, the strict but fair one? Aunt Mirabelle, the one who likes to gossip? Aunt Margo, who is a fantastic channeler but often forgets which foot her shoes are supposed to go on?

"Mister Nick! Mister Nick!" Pearls grabs onto the edge of his sweater as he and Trucy make their way over to where she and the aunt are standing. "You made it! I'm so happy!"

"I'm happy, too." Reaching out to pat Pearls on the top of the head, Phoenix finds himself honestly smiling. There's something infectious about the girl's enthusiasm and joy. "Pearl, this is my daughter Trucy; Trucy, this is Pearl Fey, Maya's little cousin."

"Nice to meet you." Trucy gives a brief little curtsy, tipping her top hat as she does. Her smile is slightly hesitant. Though she is usually eager and energetic with new people, treating them as she does those who come to her shows, Phoenix has found that introducing her to people he's obviously close to tends to make her a little shy. "I've heard lots about you."

"I've heard lots about you, too." Pearl studies Trucy with frank curiosity, which is at least better than open hostility. He hadn't thought Pearl would reject Trucy on general principle, but one thing five months of being a father has taught Phoenix is that you never know how children are going to react, and Pearls can be very possessive. "So Mister Nick's your new dad, huh?"

Trucy's hand finds his, squeezes tight, and her smile becomes a bit more certain. "Uh huh. He's the best daddy I could ever have asked for."

Pearls' gaze turns from Trucy to Phoenix, and now it is her smile that becomes shy. "He is a pretty good daddy, isn't he?"

Trucy looks between Phoenix and Pearls and smiles more gently. "The best."

Phoenix is missing something that is passing between the two girls. For the first two months or so after he acquired Trucy this would send Phoenix into a near-panic, certainty that Trucy was going to do something dangerous or that Trucy knew something about the case overriding reason. Thankfully he's calmed down since then, because dying of a heart-attack at twenty-seven would just be sad. "Hey, Pearls, where's Maya?"

The unknown aunt, whom Phoenix dubs Aunt M for the moment due to statistical likelihood, clears her throat. "The Master is currently seeing to her duties. I have been assigned to help Mystic Pearl get you settled in for the night. Master Maya will see you when she is free."

"Right." Phoenix finds himself looking away from the woman's too-direct gaze, from the clear disdain that is fast approaching anger in her eyes as she studies him. Her gaze moves from the patches on the elbows of his blue sweater to his beanie to his battered jeans, frown deepening with each move, and finally settles on his chin. Raising a hand to rub at the stubble growing there, Phoenix regrets not taking the ten minutes needed to shave this morning. It had just seemed like too much work when he was already struggling to ensure he and Trucy had everything packed in time that they would need for the long weekend. "We look forward to seeing her, then."

"Mystic Maya will be so happy to see you, Mister Nick." Pearls takes the hand that Trucy isn't currently hanging off, and Phoenix is glad that he didn't set down the backpack containing their clothes. In order to get it on or off now he'll have to disengage from one of the girls, and he doesn't really want to try to decide which one will be least insulted by it. "She's been so happy that you finally agreed to come up! We've got so many things planned for tomorrow. If it snows like it's supposed to, we're going to make a snowman, and we're going to make snow-animals, and we're going to make snow-angels, and then we can go up into the mountains and we can meditate!"

"Most of that sounds at least somewhat appealing." Phoenix smiles as Pearls mulls over his words, a frown growing steadily on her face. "You know I'm not big on cold, Pearls."

"But you can't have warm snow!" Indignation fills the girl's voice. "Tell him, Trucy."

Trucy puts a finger to her bottom lip, considering. "I've never really played in the snow before, but it certainly looks cold in all the photos and videos I've seen."

"Just wait, you'll love it!" Pearls continues chattering as she leads them through Kurain Village, towards the guest rooms where they'll be staying for the next two nights.

Phoenix listens to her as best he can, though he can feel the disapproving stare of Aunt M on him, even when the woman is walking in front of them with her head held high.

XXX

Maya joins them for a very late dinner that evening.

Not that Phoenix and Trucy mind the hour. Though Phoenix tries to give Trucy a relatively stable schedule, between her shows and his work at the Borscht Bowl Club they sometimes have dinner at strange times, and Trucy has probably seen midnight far more often than a girl her age should have.

Phoenix consoles himself with the thought that he is still a better father than Zak Gramarye, since he hasn't involved Trucy in any murder trials and he hasn't abandoned her, but he still feels guilty about that sometimes.

"Trucy!" Maya sweeps into the room, still decked out in her full ceremonial robes, and grabs Trucy in a fierce embrace. "How're you doing, partner?"

For a moment Phoenix can only blink at the tableau. He knows that Maya is the Master of Kurain now; she has sent him pictures of herself in her full Master outfit, expression dour, asking if she looks properly authoritarian. It just... hadn't quite sunk in that it was more than cosplay, that this is who and what Maya is now.

She looks fantastic. The outfit has clearly been tailored to fit the new Master, and someone has used just a hint of make-up to give her face a serene authority that it never had before.

Or perhaps that expression is just Maya now, at home and in control of her life.

Setting a giggling Trucy down on the ground, Maya turns to him, and her grin is the same as it always has been, honest and true. "Nick. I'm glad the two of you could come."

"I'm glad, too." He is, really. He has missed Maya fiercely over the last few months. Though they both knew that she would have to spend a great deal more time in Kurain Village than she had before—though Phoenix had helped her decide that this is what she wants, in the precious weeks granted them between Maya's mother dying and his own life falling apart—it's been hard not having her there at his side. Hard having to speak about things she would know, if she were still living in town.

Hard listening to her grow up, grow into her role, when everything he worked towards for so long keeps slipping further and further out of his grasp despite his best efforts to reclaim it.

"You don't look very glad." Maya places her hands on her hips, a familiar gesture made strange by the beautiful robes she's in.

"Just a little tired." Just being maudlin, which isn't something he can afford to do. He has Trucy to look out for; he has Maya and Pearls to look out for, even if they seem to be doing quite well for themselves right now. Self-pity and self-doubt won't help him with any of that. "Not as tired as you must be, though. It sounds like you had a busy day...?"

"Oh man, Nick, the things I have had to put up with over the last week..."

Maya launches into a series of tales about her clients while they eat. Becoming the Master of Kurain certainly hasn't put a dent in Maya's appetite; if anything, she seems even more exuberant about eating than she'd been before, which is impressive. She doesn't name any of her clients, preserving their anonymity, but she doesn't need to. The arrogant disregard for anyone beneath their station that haunts the wealthy and the powerful is a familiar story, one they have all watched play out time and again in corruption scandals, and Maya has no sympathy for those who display such traits when coming to her for help.

By the time the meal is cleared away, both Trucy and Pearls are yawning widely, and it's only a quick catch by Maya that keeps Trucy's hat from falling off into the punch when the girl almost nods off.

Settling the hat down firmly on Trucy's head, Maya gives an impressively loud, large yawn. "I think it's time for bed. Otherwise I might turn into a ghost."

"That's not how it works, Mystic Maya!" Pearls' protest is cut off by a yawn that distorts Maya's name almost beyond recognition. "You can't turn into a ghost because you're tired."

"I'd prefer not to find out." Maya stretches her arms up above her head. "Besides, the sooner we go to sleep, the sooner the snow comes and the sooner we get to play in it. Hear that wind picking up?"

Everyone is silent for a second, and Phoenix finds himself shivering as he hears the wind howling hungrily around the building. For a moment he thinks he can smell burning wood, taste a mixture of ice and ash on his tongue, and he has to shake his head to drive away the memories.

He is very, very glad to be inside right now. "Maya's right. Time for all good young women to be heading to bed."

Trucy rubs at her eyes, watching him with suspicion. "Does that mean you're going to be staying up for a while still?"

Placing a hand to his heart, Phoenix affects a wounded expression. "Are you implying that I'm not good?"

Giggling, Trucy shakes her head. "You're not a girl, silly. You're a daddy."

"That's a very important gender designation. But I'll let you in on a secret." Moving to Trucy's side, Phoenix leans down and stage-whispers, so that everyone else at the table can also hear. "Daddies need even more sleep than girls."

"All right, you win." Trucy allows him to take her hand and haul her to her feet. "Goodnight, Pearly. Goodnight, Mystic Maya. Tomorrow's going to be lots of fun!"

"Definitely, Trucy." Maya waves at them, covering a true yawn of her own with her hand for a moment before continuing. "Sleep well, everyone."

Taking that as his cue to get them both ready for bed, Phoenix leads Trucy out into the hall, trying not to be too disappointed that the day's already over.

XXX

Nick looks fine.

Maya turns onto her right side, hoping that staring out into her room will bring sleep faster than staring at her wall had.

Nick looks absolutely fine.

Okay, so he looks a little bit... scruffy. Maya had expected that. This isn't the first time she's seen him since his disbarring, and though he stubbornly insisted on wearing his suit for the first two weeks, Maya hasn't seen it since. She's fairly certain he didn't burn it, but she also wouldn't be surprised to hear that he did.

It wasn't supposed to take this long. It never takes this long for them to find the bad guy, for them to right the wrongs.

Except sometimes it does. Sometimes it takes fifteen years for them to find the true murderer, and at least both she and Mr. Edgeworth are here to help Nick.

Not that anything she does seems to actually help. She tried channeling Magnifi Gramarye as soon as she got her hands on the court record of the trial. The first two times she attempted it she wasn't able to catch his spirit, the ghost refusing to cooperate with her. When she finally did manage to channel him for a few minutes...

He laughed at me, Mystic Maya. Pearly's voice had been shaky, and tears stood out in her eyes. He laughed and said that he wasn't going to ruin the show his proteges were putting on.

Thalassa Gramarye had been impossible for Maya to contact, the ghost either gone on to whatever followed or too disconnected from her name to answer the summons, and that had been the end of what Maya could think to do with her powers.

Not the end of what she could do with herself, of course. She's been in almost-daily contact with Nick since his last trial—honestly, since her mother died, the focus just having switched from Nick making sure she's all right to both of them tentatively trying to reassure the other to Maya desperately hoping Nick is all right, that he isn't using humor to hide something darker.

Such a disappointment, she had heard Aunt Mavis whispering to Aunt Mirabelle after Mavis returned from showing Nick and Trucy to their rooms.

It had taken all her will to keep silent, to keep her gaze fixed ahead instead of instantly starting in on both of them for gossiping about the man who has saved her multiple times over the last three years—saved her in more ways than one. She has found that if she keeps quiet, if she allows them to speak and then acts only when she is ready, when she has her objections in order, she is more likely to effect true change in opinions among her relatives, rather than just ensuring they are careful of voicing their true opinions around her.

Another useless man. Mirabelle had tutted, shaking her head. At least he's showing his true colors before she decided to marry him. Though the children would have been good-looking, at the least...

Maya hadn't been able to be silent after that, though she kept her questions cool and calm. How had Mister Wright settled in? Wasn't it good to see the man who saved her life back in the village? Didn't Pearl seem happy? Wasn't it good that Mister Wright felt he could relax around them?

Maya's hands fist in her blanket, and she turns back to the wall. She has learned, over the last months, how to handle her extended family. She has learned how to use her words to maximum effect—learned how to be Nick at his best in court, certain or at least presenting a front of certainty. But it galls her, the way they accept what the papers say about Nick, when they know how sensationalist and blood-hungry the press can be.

When they have seen what the press did to their clan, to their village, to her mother, how can they so readily believe it about someone else?

Most of them are expecting Nick to be awful, though. Most of them have had terrible experiences with men who seemed well-meaning and ended up anything but, and Maya understands it but she hates it.

Just like she understands but hates the way people have treated Nick, during the three times she's actually managed to get down and see him since the incident. Child Protective Services had no problem giving Miles Edgeworth as a child to a man who hated his father, but they hesitate and hem and haw over Phoenix—a man who has been a hero repeatedly—taking in a child he wants to protect.

Hem and haw because they believe, now, that he's a monster, but Maya hates the fact that she had to spend precious political favors making sure Nick got Trucy when it's clear to anyone who knows Nick that the whole Misham affair must have been a set-up.

Not that she has any idea who might have set it up or why—other than because they're evil, terrible people, and given everything else she has seen that is a sadly plausible explanation—and not having any leads to go on makes it hard to investigate.

Just like being the Master of Kurain, though it gives her access to a great many resources, also makes it far harder for her to do what she would desperately like to do, which is move in with Nick and protect him from everything that has happened to him in the last few months.

"Arrrrgh." Maya turns onto her right side again, squinting until she can make out the vague outline of her Steel Samurai poster on the opposite wall. "What am I supposed to do?"

There's no answer, of course. Just the same dramatic pose, the Steel Samurai prepared to do battle, and that's really all the answer she ever needs.

What she's supposed to do is keep fighting. Keep going.

Move forward, and if that means getting up in her pajamas and going to check on Nick because she's worried, then so be it.

She doesn't make any noise as she tip-toes down the halls of the house that she and Pearly are sharing. She learned early on that Pearly is a light sleeper, and if she thinks that Maya is having a sleepless night (or nightmares) the younger girl is immediately there at her side. Sometimes it's what Maya wants and needs; sometimes it's not, and thus Maya learned to be extra quiet when creeping through the house at night.

There isn't a light on in Nick's room, and Maya considers turning back. If he's sleeping, she doesn't want to wake him.

If he's sleeping, though, she almost certainly won't wake him. The doors are all carefully maintained, so that on the off chance the Master decides to entertain in her own house she'll be able to sneak up on guests with the proper poise and sense of mystery.

Sliding the door open, Maya puts her face to the crack and sees Nick, sitting up in bed. His head is turned to the window, where a low moon hangs picture-perfect, providing illumination for the room.

Maya freezes, just for a second, no longer certain what she's going to say if she enters the room. Asking Nick if he's all right would be like asking someone who's lost an arm if they're all right. They might be. They probably will be, eventually. But if they're not, and they look toward where the arm was... where the badge was...

Then Nick turns his head, his dark blue eyes black in the low light, and stares straight at her.

So much for retreat. Heroes don't retreat, anyway. Forward, to death or glory—to justice or at least the pursuit thereof.

Only once she's in the room does Maya realize that Phoenix isn't alone in the bed. Trucy is curled up against the wall, her head resting in Nick's lap, her breathing the slow, even cadence of deep sleep. Nick's left hand rests on her back, his right hand propping himself up as he watches Maya with a quizzical expression.

"Hey, Nick." Maya whispers the words as quietly as she can.

"Hey yourself." Nick replies in the same voice, his eyes dropping to Trucy. "Don't worry; as long as we stay quiet, she won't wake up. Survival skills learned while traveling with a magic troupe all your life."

"Hey, being able to sleep in strange places is a good skill for anyone to have. You never know what crazy circumstances you'll end up in." Maya offers a tentative grin.

"True." Nick smiles, though it seems... different than his smile used to be. Forced? Bitter? Unsure? Maybe she's reading too much into it, though. Maybe she's just seeing what she's afraid she will see. "What brings you here at this time of night?"

"Oh, just checking on all the resident ghosts." Waggling her fingers to indicate ghosts, Maya grins more honestly. "A very important part of the Master's job, you know."

"Oh really? Guess that's a fair enough description of me." Again that smile, and it seems to come easily to Nick now, more easily than his smile used to come. "Consider this ghost accounted for."

"Nick..." Maya's hands drop to her side, and she struggles to find words to put to the heavy lump of frustration and pain sitting in her chest.

"Sorry, Maya. That was unfair of me." Nick's left hand moves, stroking over Trucy's hair, and his smile shifts as he looks down at his daughter. Becomes more open, more honest, and Maya knows that she did the right thing, helping Nick take in the girl, despite all the people who cautioned her against it. "I'm all right."

"That's good. I'm glad." Maya chews for a moment on her bottom lip. "Just... it's all right if you're not, too. It's all right if you want to... to talk about something with me. Anything. It's kind of what I do now, you know. Help people with grief. With moving on, or finding closure with the past."

"I know what I need to do to find closure. To find peace." Nick's hand pauses, his eyes moving again to the moon outside the window, and his expression is all grim determination. "And I'll do it, no matter how long it takes or how many bridges I have to burn in the process."

Tell me, she wants to scream at him. Let me help. Let me in.

He is, though. Talking to her like he does on the phone; writing letters to both her and Pearly; coming here, bringing Trucy to see them, these are all Nick reaching out to her for help. The fact that he is holding some cards so close to his chest she only knows they exist from little hints like this... she can learn to live with that, as long as he continues to reach out to her in other ways.

Deciding that there's no point in pressing Nick further, Maya points down at Trucy's sleeping form. "Did she not like the room we arranged for her?"

"She likes it well enough." Nick studies his daughter for a moment, and then raises his eyes to meet Maya's again. "She doesn't sleep well in new environments if she can't see me. For some reason being abandoned has given her abandonment issues. Who would think?"

Maya restrains herself from whimpering, the combination of anger and acceptance in Nick's voice cutting like a knife.

"Don't tell Pearls, though. Trucy doesn't like anyone knowing." Phoenix's hand strokes once, incredibly gently, over Trucy's hair. "Hopefully it'll be better by the time she's old enough for sleep-overs."

"She's already old enough for sleep-overs. As soon as a kid's old enough to talk, they're old enough to want sleep-overs. With movie marathons!" Maya pokes Nick's upper arm. "Have you shown her the Steel Samurai yet?"

Nick rolls his eyes and gives a dramatic groan. "Why are all my best friends eight-year-olds at heart?"

"Takes one to know one." Maya sticks her tongue out, liking the way Nick smiles when she does—more of his old good humor in the expression. "Are you going to be able to sleep with her in here?"

"Definitely." Nick's emphatic nod turns into a sheepish sigh as he glances back at the window. "I just... I stay up late, a lot of nights. With work. Sometimes I find it hard to get to sleep early, even if I want to."

"I know that feeling." Maya pulls a face. "The number of people who prefer having their channelings done at night, to get a more genuine experience, is ridiculous."

Nick raises one eyebrow. "Do you give them the genuine experience of the Master of Kurain in footsie Steel Samurai pajamas?"

"Nope, that's reserved just for close friends and family." Maya runs her hands over the soft, comfortable fabric. The pajamas had definitely been a point of contention after she became the Master, but they're warm, they're never seen by anyone outside the family, and they're hers, a gift from Nick and Prosecutor Edgeworth following the Engarde case. She wasn't going to back down, and eventually her relatives realized it wasn't a battle worth fighting.

"Consider me properly honored, then." Nick's smile fades, his expression becoming almost grave as he studies her. "Though even if you were wearing those, anyone with half a mind should figure out pretty quickly that they can't get anything more genuine than you."

There is honest pride in Nick's eyes as he looks up at her, and Maya has to turn away, blushing. She is proud of what she has done and who she is becoming; it still strikes her as incredibly strange when others are proud of her. Not knowing what to say, she decides to change the subject instead. "Do you think it would help Trucy sleep better if she was with someone?"

Nick hesitates. "I... don't know."

"Assuming that she and Pearly continue to get along well tomorrow, we can always see if they want to have a little sleep-over." Maya shrugs. "I think Pearly would love it, at least."

"We could certainly try." Nick runs a hand over Trucy's hair again. "Assuming, like you said, that they keep getting along."

"I'm sure they will. They're both great kids." Catching sight of the window out of the corner of her eye, Maya turns to it fully and gives a silent clap. "Look, Nick! It's starting!"

"Well, so it is."

Fat flakes of snow are drifting down outside the window, a slow and steady fall. The wind gusts, a low howl, and a cluster flatten themselves against the window. They last only for a few seconds, lacy bodies pressed tight to the glass, before they melt and flow down the window like teardrops.

This is why she wanted Nick and Trucy to come up this weekend. The storm is supposed to be fierce but brief, and by the end of it tomorrow afternoon Kurain should have several inches of packable snow for Trucy to learn how to play winter games in.

"It's gorgeous." Nick grins, a flash of white teeth in the night. "Thanks, Maya. For inviting us."

"Any time you need." Anything you need, she thinks but doesn't say, because it's not true. The thing he most wants and needs right now is something she can't give him—something even Miles can't give him, and Miles is in a far better position of authority with regards to the legal system than she is. "Well, I should probably let you get to bed."

"You should probably get some sleep yourself. We don't need you being overworked." Nick's eyes stay locked on the window, on the steadily-thickening fall of snow. "Sleep well, Maya."

"Sleep well, Nick." Backing up to the door, Maya lets herself out.

She can't give Nick what he most needs, but she can give both Nick and Trucy somewhere safe, somewhere they can just be themselves and leave all the baggage that has collected over the last six months behind.

It's what Nick did for her, and it's the absolute least that she can do for him.

XXX

"It's everywhere!" Trucy runs from window to window, jumping as high as she can to watch the snow stretch out to the horizon. "Daddy, look!"

"I see it." Phoenix is less thrilled by the white fluffy blanket. Honestly, he could do without ever encountering temperatures lower than sixty degrees or higher than seventy-five again. It's nice to watch Trucy's excitement, though, and even more fun when Pearl joins in a few minutes later, taking Trucy to the windows with the best views.

"And you see those?" Pearls points to where there are two-foot-long death needles hanging from the eaves across the snow-filled street. "If you hit them just right with a snowball, they come down and then you can eat them!"

Trucy whirls around, cape flapping. "We've got to do that, Daddy!"

"Sure. Why not? I always like my snacks with a risk of death by impalement or dysentery."

"This isn't the Oregon Trail video game, you can't get dysentery by eating an icicle." Maya breezes into the room, dressed in her old acolyte robes, grinning just as widely as the two younger girls. "Doesn't it look awesome outside?"

"Yes!" Trucy and Pearl seem to be trying to outdo one another in the volume department.

"For definitions of awesome that include frigid and freezing, definitely." Phoenix can't keep a straight face as Maya pouts at him. "Are we heading out first, or...?"

"Of course not! We haven't had breakfast." Maya rolls her eyes as though he's just made the silliest statement in the world. "Who wants oatmeal?"

Phoenix is pretty certain he's going to lose some of his hearing by the time this trip is over, but it's worth it to see Trucy and Pearls giggling together, any shyness the girls had yesterday wiped away by anticipation of what's to come for the rest of the day.

Breakfast is good if simple. There's brown sugar and milk for the oatmeal, and thick slices of wheat toast. The aunts who bring the food don't stay for long, Maya dismissing them with a few terse words before their gazes can linger too long in disapproval on Phoenix.

Then it's time to get ready to go outside, and Phoenix discovers that it's harder to put snow pants on over a skirt than he had expected. Especially when the child in the skirt is fairly determined that she doesn't need them.

"Pearl isn't wearing any." Trucy doesn't whine often, but this is definitely an exception to the rule. "Why do I have to?"

"Pearl is part of a cult that believes freezing in an ice cave or under a waterfall for hours will improve your abilities to commune with the dead." Something soft bounces off his head, and Phoenix reaches down to gather up the Steel Samurai stamped red mitten and toss it back in the direction it came. A suspicious skittering sound and a disgruntled meep leads him to believe he may have inadvertently sent it toward the fish tank, but he doesn't turn away from Trucy to find out. "This is actually true—for them, it means they call ghosts better; for me and you, it would mean we become ghosts and thus commune very well with the dead."

Trucy sighs, rolling her eyes. "I wouldn't get that cold."

"No, you won't, because you're wearing the snow pants."

Eventually he has Trucy bundled up in snow pants, boots, a jacket, a hat, a scarf, and mittens, all of them in shades of blue-and-black that match her magician's outfit. (He still owes Miles a good meal and fifty dollars for helping him find something that's warm in colors and a style that Trucy likes, so she won't be teased at school more than she already is if the winter clothes end up being needed.)

Sullen eyes glare out at him from between the hat and the scarf, and a jumble of sounds emerges that he eventually translates as, "You're not wearing snow pants."

"They don't make snow pants in Daddy sizes." Not that aren't ridiculously overpriced, at least. "I'm just going to wear some extra layers. Plus I always wear my hat, yeah? I am prepared for snowfall at any moment."

Trucy rolls her eyes, turning from him to Maya and Pearls. "Can we go out now?"

Pearls is wearing a fluffy pink jacket and purple mittens; Maya has added some kind of complicated throw over her robes, something that still matches the Kurain color scheme but looks much warmer than her usual outfit. Throwing the door open, she bows low, gesturing for them to precede her with one red-gloved hand. "The winter awaits you."

The two girls charge out, yelping a war cry that would have frightened the snow away if it had any sense of self-preservation.

Phoenix follows more slowly, wondering if he'll be able to get away with spending most of the play-time on the shoveled walkway in front of the house.

"It's cold!" Trucy's shriek carries clearly to him. "Daddy, snow is really cold!"

"Imagine that! It's almost like I don't lie to you!" Phoenix shakes his head, unable to resist a chuckle as Trucy takes step after flailing step through the snow that is over knee-high on her.

"Trucy!" Pearls chases after his daughter, moving much faster and with a bit more grace, obviously more comfortable in the snow. Knee-high, fur-lined boots compact the snow nicely beneath her. "Watch this!"

Coming up beside Trucy, Pearls grins at the other girl, turns ninety degrees so that she's facing perpendicular to the path, and somehow launches herself into the air. She comes down on her back in a flurry of white ice crystals, the path that Trucy had forged a good six inches from the soles of her boots. Her arms flail out to the side, and it's only her giggling that lets Phoenix know she's enjoying herself and not hurt.

Rolling carefully to her feet, Pearl points at the impression of a winged human that has been embedded in the snow behind her. "Ta-da! A snow angel!"

"Cool!" Trucy claps her hands, the sound muted by her mittens. "Though it doesn't have a halo."

"Hmm." Pearls turns to glare at the top of the snow angel, her hands on her hips. Dropping down on her knees, she inches forward until she can reach up and pat the snow above the head down. "How does that look?"

"Awesome!" Clapping again, Trucy stares down at the image Pearls made.

Shuffling his feet in an attempt to keep circulation moving, Phoenix wades a few yards out along the path the girls broke. "I bet you couldn't do that, Trucy."

Stomping one foot, Trucy turns to glare at him, the movement made more awkward than usual by her winter clothing. "Of course I could!"

"Nope, no possible way you could make an angel. Too much devil running through you."

Trucy sticks her tongue out at him, then flings herself down into a snowbank and begins scissoring her arms and legs, carving out an angel. When she's satisfied, she reaches up above her head, mouth screwed into an expression of perfect concentration, and pats out a roughly-circular halo in the snow above her. Then she stares up at him triumphantly. "There. What do you say to that, Daddy?"

"I'd say that's my little angel." Leaning over, Phoenix offers Trucy his hands, glad that she's still small enough he can haul her upright easily, preserving her very first snow angel. "Guess it is possible to be a devil and an angel at the same time."

"Daddy." Trucy pouts up at him, but it's not a genuine expression of distrust or anger.

(He had to be careful teasing her, the first three months. He had to learn to watch his tongue, because she would believe him if he told her she was a demon, she was a burden, she was trouble. The first time he realized why she became so quiet and withdrawn, it was like a mule kicked him in the stomach, and he spent almost an hour trying to explain to her that he was just joking, that he hadn't meant anything. Now he can tease her, if he's careful—now she'll get angry, if she thinks he's treating her differently than he does his other friends, than Maya and Miles and Gumshoe and the rest, and that is much better.)

"Hey, Nick!"

Phoenix turns towards Maya's excited call.

A snowball catches him square in the face, freezing white powder exploding across both cheeks, and he tumbles down onto his rear end in the drift behind him. Thankfully the drift is to the left of Trucy's snow angel, he confirms as he scrubs at his face and blinks his eyes to try to clear his vision.

"Are you okay, Nick?" Maya has trudged out to meet them, her voice the strangled tones of someone waiting to ensure no one has actually been badly injured before giving themselves permission to laugh hysterically. "I didn't think I had that much force behind it!"

"It doesn't take much force to knock Daddy down." Trucy stands at his feet, watching him with solemn eyes. "That's okay, though. Now he can make a snow angel, too!"

"I don't know." Maya is smiling, a chuckle in her voice still, but there are tension lines around her eyes as she watches him, a wary expression that Phoenix recognizes. He has worn it when teasing Trucy, when he was trying to figure out exactly where the line is between something she will enjoy and something that will really hurt her. "If you're not an angel, your daddy's definitely not an angel."

"We'll see about that." Donning a grin of his own, Phoenix plants all his limbs more firmly in the snow and begins creating his own vaguely humanoid shape. When he's done, he reaches up above his head.

Trucy claps her hands together, her cheeks flushed from a combination of cold and excitement. "Now for the halo!"

Instead of a halo, Phoenix draws two curling horns spiraling up from his head.

Maya reaches down, offering him a hand so that he can climb up with the least amount of damage to his creation. "I like it. The demon dad and the angel daughter."

"I'm pretty sure most of your village would like it. It is their standard story." Scooping Trucy up unexpectedly earns him a high-pitched squeal from his little girl. "I prefer to think of it as demon dad protects angelic daughter."

Smiling back at him, Maya nods eagerly. "That's a much more likely story."

(He is not broken. He is bent, perhaps irreparably, but he is not broken, and he won't do anything to make Maya think he is.)

Trucy kicks her legs. "Put me down, Daddy."

"Only if you promise me something." Actually, gravity is going to win out in a minute or so and Trucy is going down whether Phoenix wants her to or not, but he doesn't have to let her know that. "When I let you down, join my battalion and help me fight off the evil Kurain mystics. Deal?"

Giving a decisive nod, Trucy pats him on the shoulder. "Deal."

XXX

The war goes badly from the outset.

Phoenix has to spend a good three minutes teaching his new recruit how to roll a snowball. Since it's been almost a decade since he last attempted to make any serious snowballs, this doesn't go very well. They end up retreating back behind the fluffy white hill that used to be the tool shed, and after a brief exchange of barbs and calls for surrender, they manage to craft enough ammunition to join in an actual skirmish.

A skirmish Phoenix is convinced he would have won, too, if not for the fact that Pearls manages to coerce Trucy into joining her in a coup against the adults.

"Run, Nick!" Maya calls back over her shoulder. "Faster than that! Come on, their arms are only so long. Physics says that they can't throw past a certain distance! So run!"

"I am..." Phoenix waves his arms wildly, trying to keep himself on his feet despite not having much traction from his shoes. "Running. This is... me running. And you... don't get to talk about physics! Those shows you love... take physics out behind the shed weekly and—"

A snowball connects firmly with the back of his head, and Phoenix allows himself to fall forward into the snow, panting as he attempts to catch his breath.

Trucy jumps onto his back a moment later, her knees thankfully cushioned by her snow pants. "Do you yield, tyrant?"

A snowball is held firmly in Trucy's right hand, ready to be brought down as punishment if he gives the wrong answer. "I throw myself on the mercy of the rebellion."

"I think we've got lots of that." Trucy turns to where Pearl is exchanging fire with Maya. "Pearl, do we have mercy?"

"Yes." Pearl chirps out the answer, neatly dodging a snowball from Maya that is almost as big as Pearl's head. "If the tyrants want to turn back to the light side of the force, we are very merciful."

"Maya, you've been letting her watch Star Wars, haven't you?"

"Awww, c'mon, Nick, those twelve movies are classic pop culture!" Maya has reached the cover of a large tree. "You've been loving them, right, Pearly?"

"Uh huh!"

Phoenix's toes are starting to go numb, and his cheek is freezing where it's resting against a steadily-growing puddle of slush. "I don't suppose the rebellion's mercy extends to letting me up and choosing a different game?"

"I want to say that's what you get for being a lily-livered coward who surrenders!" Coming out from behind her cover, Maya lobs a snowball at Phoenix's prostrate form. It falls short, exploding in a shower of icy particles. "Though if Pearl and Trucy wanted to make a snowman instead..."

"Yes!" Trucy jumps up, probably doing a decade or so worth of damage to Phoenix's kidneys as she does.

Phoenix climbs to his feet more slowly, wincing as he shakes feeling into his hand and stomps it into his feet again. "A snowman sounds good. Then we should probably go warm up."

"No!" Trucy shakes her head in vehement denial. "I'm not cold!"

"Snowman first." Maya gathers the remnants of the huge snowball she had hurled at Pearls back together, packing them more solidly. "Nick, you do the bottom. Make it big. Pearl, you're going to do the middle piece. Trucy, you'll make the head, all right?"

Kneeling down to start his own piece, Phoenix stares suspiciously at Maya. "And what are you going to do?"

"Go gather up the finishing touches!" Maya beams innocently at him, an expression that Phoenix has learned not to trust over the years. "Best get rolling, Nick, or it'll be a very funny-shaped snowman."

XXX

It's a funny-shaped snowman anyway. The head is more oval than circular, though that means when set long-side perpendicular to the ground it sits better on the slender cone that Pearls created. The base that Phoenix rolled is also kind of a mess, and attempts to fracture while they're stacking the pieces, but with a little bit of packed snow closing the gap Phoenix is able to claim that it's just the snowman's two legs.

Which makes it Maya's turn. She had spent the first two or three minutes they were working scouring the treeline, apparently looking for a very particular branch, which she has tucked under her left arm at the moment. Then she had ducked into the house, emerging with a small blue knit bag filled with accoutrements.

"All right." Maya pulls two midnight blue buttons from the bag. "Who wants to do the eyes?"

Phoenix lifts the girls up so that they can each place one. The left eye droops slightly lower than the right, but they're in roughly the appropriate locations.

"Then the nose." Maya grinds the end of a baby carrot into the center of the snowman's face until it sticks. "And now buttons. Here we go, three buttons each. That's right, just down the center."

"Like he's wearing a suit!" Pearls etches out the ghost of a pocket on the left side of the snowman's chest. "He's a very classy snowman."

"He is indeed." Maya studies the snowman carefully. "Would the two of you mind if I did the mouth? I've got a particular expression I'd like to make."

Both girls give their assent, and Maya arranges baby tomatoes in an oval on the snowman's face so that it looks like he's screaming.

"Nice." Phoenix studies the snowman with what he's sure is a nonplussed expression. "I hope I can't see this from my room. I'll be having nightmares about it."

"Oh, just wait." Pulling the stick out from under her arm, Maya positions it carefully against the snowman's left side. "You girls want to help me push it in?"

They do, a little too eagerly, and Phoenix has to grab the snowman and keep it from toppling over. On the plus side, he's fairly certain the stick arm isn't going anywhere in the near future.

The stick that has a knot on the end with one lone twig pointing straight out, and Phoenix abruptly understands what Maya's been doing.

The bag that she carried everything out of house in turns out to be a knit hat, and Maya fixes it firmly on the snowman's head. "So, what does everyone think?"

"It's Daddy!" Trucy seems to teleport to his side, pointing eagerly up at the snowman. "Do you see it?"

"Objection!" Pearls stands next to the snowman and throws her arm out. "What do you think, Mr. Nick? A pretty good likeness?"

Patting Pearls on the head, Phoenix smiles at the girl. "I think you'd be an absolutely terrifying lawyer."

Pearls giggles, clasping her mittened hands behind her back. "I couldn't be a lawyer, silly. I'm going to be a spirit medium."

"You're going to be whatever you want to be." Maya throws her arm around her cousin's shoulders, pulling the girl into a tight embrace. "Whether that's a spirit medium or a lawyer or a rebel fighter pilot, I'll make sure it happens."

Phoenix's hand has moved without his permission, finding Trucy's shoulder and pulling her close to him. "Maya's right, Pearls. Whatever you want to do, we'll help you make it happen. Same for you, Trucy."

"I'm already what I most want to be." Trucy strikes her traditional end-of-show pose, the effect dramatically lessened by her winter gear. "I'm Daddy's little magician."

Phoenix's eyes flick over their small group, over the snowman that they built together, and for a moment it's all he can do to breathe, love and joy and fierce protectiveness choking his throat. Then he licks chapped lips that are starting to go numb, hears Trucy sniffling, and knows what to say. "If you don't want two snow Phoenixes, I think it might be time for us to go inside."

He knows the girls are cold because they don't fight, allowing him and Maya to herd them inside, and the warmth of the house enveloping them all is one of the nicest things he has ever felt.

XXX

Maya shrugs out of her snowy outer robe as quickly as possible, leaving the fabric on the floor in a puddle. She'll come claim it in a few minutes and hang it up to dry in her room.

First, she has to make sure she isn't in the process of burning her house down.

She isn't. The mixture of milk and water that she left over a low heat when she came in to fetch snowman paraphernalia hasn't even started boiling, though it does steam slightly, and Maya holds her hands up over the pot, glad for the tingling, pricking sensation of proper circulation returning. Turning up the heat slightly, she turns to the ingredients on the counter and the laminated, hand-written recipe beside it.

(It wasn't laminated when she found it. It was stuck between two recipe books in Mia's kitchen, in the apartment that Nick helped her clean out three years that seem like a lifetime ago. The original handwriting is her mother's; Mia's notes on potential substitutions are in the only familiar hand. It was one of the few things Maya immediately knew she was going to keep, and preserve, and hopefully pass on to someone else, someday.)

"Maya?" Nick's voice calls from the foyer, where he's most likely helping the girls out of their snow gear. "Everything all right?"

"Everything's perfect!" Maya calls back the answer. "Just making some hot chocolate for all of us. Who's going to want marshmallows?"

Three eager sounds of agreement come from the foyer, though Nick amends his with an anything warm that Maya suspects is the real reason for his joy.

"Pearly, why don't you get a movie set up?" Maya yells the words as she carefully counts out scoops of cinnamon.

"The Steel Samurai movie?"

Pearly's voice comes from just behind her, and Maya jumps, giving a brief shriek that is unbecoming of the Master of Kurain.

"Sorry!" Pearly clasps her hands together in front of her chest, clearly contrite. Her cheeks are a bright rosy red, her fingers and toes the same color. "I didn't mean to surprise you, Mystic Maya. Ooooh, that looks like really complicated hot chocolate!"

"It is a bit fancier than we usually go." To be fair, Maya's idea of hot chocolate is usually throwing water in the microwave and pouring a packet of mix in. It tastes fairly decent, it's fast, and it doesn't take much concentration or effort when she's exhausted, which is most of the time since her mother died. "Special hot chocolate for a special occasion."

Pearly raises her head, a sly grin in place. "For a fantastic occasion with your special someone?"

"Pearl."

That's all Maya has to say, and Pearly's grin vanishes, her shoulders hunching down. "Sorry, Mystic Maya."

"It's all right." Maya fixes her eyes on the liquid she's stirring in the pot. She really shouldn't have snapped at Pearly, but they've had a variation on this conversation three times already, before Nick and Trucy arrived here. During one of those times she had almost reduced Pearly to tears, though, and that's not what Maya wants, either. "I just—not right now, okay? It's not what Nick needs right now."

"I know. I've been very good." Pearly's expression becomes less subdued, more defensive. "I think everyone's been having a really good time."

"You have been good. I really appreciate it. And I think Nick and Trucy're having a fantastic time." Grinning at her little cousin and giving her a poke with her free hand, Maya smiles hopefully. "What about you? Are you having a good time?"

"I am. Trucy's actually a lot of fun." Biting down on her bottom lip, Pearly looks up at Maya hopefully. "If I promise to keep being good and to not do anything that would upset Mr. Nick, could I go down into town and see Trucy sometimes?"

For a moment Maya feels as though she's lighter than air, giddy relief and ecstasy replacing blood in her veins. She hasn't let Pearly go down by herself—the trip is long, but if Maya puts her on the train and Nick picks her up there isn't really any risk. If Pearl and Trucy hadn't liked each other, though, Maya had wanted to be there to help Nick patch things up and figure out what to do. "Definitely, Pearly. We'll just have to ask Nick what his schedule is, and we can get some times arranged."

"Yes!" Pearly throws her arms around Maya's waist, hugging her. "Do you need help with anything here, Mystic Maya?"

Maya shakes her head. "Nope. If you want to get everything set with the movie—and I agree, the Steel Samurai Christmas special would be great—I'll be in with our drinks in just a few minutes."

The typical Kurain mugs are in the front of the cupboard, and though they're beautiful, Maya shoves them aside, looking for where her relatives have surreptitiously hidden the ones she wants. She finds them on a low shelf, behind the pans, and sighs. She'll have to have a talk, again, about how she's intelligent enough to know when to use things just for friends and when to allow guests to see them.

Nick she gives the Steel Samurai mug to. Pearly and Trucy both get Samurai Infant mugs—Trucy the Samurai Infant in his usual guise, Trucy the special-edition version where he's aged up and fighting beside his father. Maya takes the Pink Princess cup for herself.

It's only fitting, after all, since the Pink Princess is based on her idea. Maybe she should have charged them royalties somehow?

Her robe isn't in the foyer anymore, and Maya smiles, reminding herself to thank Pearl later. The living room is austere, designed to impress, but Pearl has grabbed two blankets from Maya's room, giving it a cozier, more lived-in atmosphere. She and Trucy are under one on the floor; Nick is under one on the couch.

"Here we go." Setting the tray on an end table, Maya takes the mugs for the two girls. Kneeling down by where they're curled up in front of the couch under a Jammin' Ninja blanket, she hands one to each of them. "Careful, they're hot."

"Thanks, Mystic Maya." Trucy accepts the mug, frowning in obvious disapproval at her fingers, the still-red digits clutching gracelessly at the mug.

"Don't worry, feeling will come back quick." Pearl accepts her own mug, blowing on the hot chocolate and snuggling down closer to Trucy under the blanket. "Thanks, Mystic Maya!"

"Don't mention it." Maya ruffles Trucy's hair, careful to avoid causing any spills. "Especially since you took care of my clothes."

Phoenix shakes his head from his position on the couch. "The two of you care way too much about neatness."

"Or some of us don't care enough." Maya sticks out her tongue at him before offering him his mug of hot chocolate.

"You and Mr. Nick get to share a blanket." Pearly pipes the suggestion cheerfully, though her eyes are fixed on her hot chocolate, avoiding Maya's gaze. "Me and Trucy share; you and Mr. Nick share; and then everyone's warm faster."

A soft sigh escapes her as Maya studies her little cousin. Still, for Pearly, this is being discreet. Rolling her eyes, she studies Nick where he's curled under a bright Pink Princess blanket. "Would you mind, Nick?"

"If it got feeling back into my toes sometime before tomorrow morning, I would share a blanket with the judge." Nick lifts one edge of the blanket. "Assuming he has some concept of what blankets are. But I'm pretty sure we developed those even before we developed fire, so we should be safe."

Maya can't help but laugh, though she hears the strain in her own voice. Still, it's a good sign that Nick's willing to talk about and joke about the legal system still, right?

Nick's body has already warmed the space under the blanket, and Maya settles into it with a contented sigh. He must have taken the time that she was working on the hot chocolate to change his pants, because these jeans, though just as faded and worn as the last pair, are dry.

"So." Nick raises his hot chocolate and takes a sip before saluting the television. "Are you two going to show Trucy and I what this whole superhero shindig is all about, or do we have to hire Trucy as our entertainment?"

"Mr. Nick, someone can't be both the guest and the entertainment." The look Pearly turns on Nick is equal parts exasperation and horror. "Don't worry, Trucy, you're going to love the movie. So the Steel Samurai protects Neo Olde Tokyo from the minions of the Evil Magistrate, that's the basic premise of the show, and..."

Maya listens fondly as Pearly gives Trucy a meandering, exhaustive run-down of the Steel Samurai franchise while the previews play. She could tell Pearl to hit the menu button and take them right to the movie, but she likes hearing what parts have stood out to her little cousin.

She likes seeing Pearly so excited and invested and aware of things outside the village and channeling. It wasn't that long ago that Pearly couldn't even use the DVD player without assistance. If she does nothing else good in her time as Master of Kurain, Maya will at least have done this. She will at least have made sure that none of the Kurain children grow up cut off from the world that they will be serving and surviving in, more tied to ghosts than to the current living generation.

When she's wended her way up to the point where the movie takes place in chronology, Pearly takes a deep breath and looks at Maya. "Anything I missed, Mystic Maya?"

"If you did, I'm not sure how anyone possibly keeps the continuity on these things straight." Nick puts his mug to his lips, saving him from a slap. Maya doesn't want to have to figure out if Mia left any tips on getting hot chocolate stains out of collectible blankets.

"I understand!" Trucy grins, looking between the screen and her father. "Don't worry, if Daddy gets too confused we'll just fill him in."

Nick nods, his expression deadpan. "I have no doubt that will happen. If I ever end up in the hospital, when I wake up I'm sure one of the first things I'll be told is what the current season is like. Probably before I'm told about any changes in presidents or the presence of confirmed extraterrestrials on Earth."

That does earn him a poke in the side, though Maya hides it with the blanket, not certain the girls understand they're being teased and not wanting to let them know if they don't. "Let's get this movie on the road!"

Pearl frowns. "But the road's blocked with snow right now, Mystic Maya."

Maya opens her mouth to explain the turn of phrase, and Pearly's expression becomes a self-satisfied grin as she triggers the start of the movie.

Maya turns to share a look with Nick. "We're going to be in trouble if she ever decides to take over the world."

Nick nods, his body warm and solid and real beside her. "Definitely."

The movie begins playing, and Maya finds herself grinning like an idiot as Trucy and Pearl become more and more invested in it.

She's needed this.

She hasn't thought about it in those terms. She knew that Nick needed this—that he needed to get away from familiar faces and places that have become more painful with each passing month. She knew that Nick needed somewhere he could be free from prying eyes and dagger questions, and she knew she could provide it, at least for a few days.

But she has desperately needed this, too. A chance to put aside the robes of the Master of Kurain, to wear the simpler acolyte robes and completely immerse herself in things other than her family and politics. To be Maya, not Master; friend, not leader; cousin, not mystic.

She doesn't know when her head came to rest against Nick's shoulder. Probably during the exposition segment between the Evil Magistrate and Garren, the minion who will do a heel-face-turn when he realizes exactly what his boss is up to. It's an important scene, but the cinematography is kind of weak, and having seen the movie three hundred and twenty-two times before, it doesn't really hold her interest.

Trucy and Pearl are both watching in fascination, though, and that means it's a good time to whisper something into the ear sitting tantalizingly close. "Thank you, Nick. For everything."

Nick turns to study her. "I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be my line, Maya."

"So tell me later." Maya grins.

Before Nick can reply, both girls shriek in terror as the evil version of Santa tricks the Samurai Infant into a nightmare dimension filled with pretty legitimate nightmare fuel.

That's all right. Maya's pretty sure she knows everything he would have wanted to say.

Taking his hand, she squeezes it, confident that between the two of them things are going to be all right.

XXX

The snowman they made melts overnight.

Well, not quite. Most of the rest of the snow melts, and the snow-Phoenix kind of collapses in on itself, becoming an icy mass of mush with a stick pointing stubbornly skyward in defiant objection.

Maya finds him in his room, staring out the window at the sight. She is in the basic robe of the Master of Kurain, though she hasn't tied her hair up yet or put on any make-up. "Trucy and Pearl both slept well last night. For definitions of sleep that involve talking late into the evening and probably running around the house while you and I were asleep."

"That's good." Phoenix forces his mouth to smile, trying to dredge up some of the feeling of yesterday. Playing in the snow; sitting on the couch with Maya; watching a combination of superhero movies and early Christmas specials with the girls; it had been a beautiful day. A day of stolen peace, and he knew that today would come, knew that he would have to get packed and take Trucy back to their little apartment and school and a life that is nothing like the one he wants for her, but still...

"They're already plotting out when they can get together around the holidays. They're going to be terrors for us, I think." Maya's gaze follows his out the window, and her voice trails off.

Phoenix shrugs. "We knew it was going to get warm again. It's better, really. Safer travel for the train."

"It is." Maya's hand finds his again, squeezes gently. "And the snow will come again. And when it does, we'll rebuild our snowman."

"I suspect the vegetables have been eaten by small woodland creatures, that the buttons will be hard to find, and that the hat's going to need a thorough wash before it'll be good for much of anything." The smile stays on his mouth, though Phoenix can feel how stretched and thin it is.

"We don't mind feeding small woodland creatures. There's always more vegetables. And the hat will wash. As for the buttons..." Maya's fingers clasp his, a sudden vice-grip. "Even if we lose one or two, we can always find other buttons to fill in the holes. It may look a little different, but the snowman will be good as new each time a cold wind blows."

The words sound vaguely familiar, and Phoenix searches his memory before giving a soft laugh. "Like Frosty?"

"Yeah. Frosty the Phoenix-Snowman. That's really what he is, you know. Rising from his own puddle time and again." Maya's fist collides ever-so-gently with his shoulder. "And people say television doesn't teach kids anything. Frosty teaches them classical mythology."

"Uh huh." Phoenix nods, keeping his expression deadpan. "And what's the Steel Samurai teach them?"

Any trace of teasing vanishes from Maya's expression. "To keep fighting. That even if it seems everything's fallen into dystopian disrepair, a hero will rise, and through perseverance he will fix it."

Phoenix rubs at the stubble on his jaw. "He's a guy in a rubber suit who yells his catchphrases before beating up the enemy."

"Sometimes all the world needs is a very loud guy in a suit." Maya smiles before turning to the door. "Come on, Nick. Let's get breakfast for the girls before they try to make it for us and burn down the house."

Recognizing the legitimate possibility of that happening, Phoenix hastens after Maya, the melted snowman left forgotten behind them.

XXX

Maya sees them off at the station.

She is in full Master of Kurain regalia, and she looks fantastic. She looks respectable. Responsible. Older than she is, something of her mother and her sister in her quiet certainty, but also still Maya in the way her eyes twinkle as she looks between him, still with stubble on his face, and her clearly-disapproving aunts.

"You're doing really good here, Maya." He's told her this before, on the phone, but he can't help saying it again as he and Trucy wait for the train to come to a complete stop so that they can board. "Mia would be proud of you."

Maya blinks, and her eyes are suspiciously moist as she looks up at him. "Really, Nick?"

"Really." A single lock of hair has escaped her careful styling, and Phoenix shoves it back behind her right ear. "Who wouldn't be proud of you? You've grown into a fantastic, responsible adult."

"Mia'd be proud of you, too." Maya inclines her head towards Trucy. "Of everything you've done. Of everything you're trying to do."

"Yeah?" Phoenix rubs at the back of his neck. "I hope so."

"I know she would be." Leaning forward and up, Maya places a chaste kiss on his cheek, earning a flurry of disapproving mumbles and shifts from her family. "Take care of yourself, Nick. I'll be talking to you tomorrow, and most likely shipping you Pearl in two weeks."

"Sounds great. You take care, too." Phoenix glances up and down the platform, finding Trucy and Pearl jumping at the last of the lingering icicles. "Trucy! Come on, let's go before you drop one of those in your eye."

"I wouldn't do that! It would be silly and it would hurt!" Throwing her arms around Pearl, Trucy gives the other girl a fierce hug before running to Phoenix's side with a wave. "Bye, Pearl! See you soon!"

Maya and Pearls both wave as the train pulls out, and Phoenix and Trucy wave back before settling down in their seats for the journey.

Mia would be proud of him.

It's not something he would have thought on his own. He isn't proud of himself very often, these days. Just like he doesn't feel like much of a responsible adult these days, taking his child's paycheck to help cover bills.

But he's still fighting for justice, despite all the roadblocks thrown in his path. He's still doing what he thinks is right over what others think is right, taking care of Trucy, investigating as well as he can on his own.

Maybe no one ever feels like an adult. Maybe being an adult is just learning to deal with the unexpected without sacrificing all that you are.

Maybe one of the best adults he knows currently takes her morality cues from a show aimed at five-year-olds.

And maybe the world would be better if everyone else did, too.

"You're smiling." Trucy takes his hand, her own smile shining brightly up at him. "That's a good smile, Daddy."

"Yeah?" Phoenix knocks a finger under Trucy's chin, turning her face up to his a little more. "You've got a pretty good smile, too."

Trucy's grin widens.

Phoenix's widens in turn. "So tell me more about what you and Pearls have planned for two weeks from now."

Trucy talks eagerly, and if she had ever been wary or shy of Pearl, it's hard to tell now. Phoenix listens, trying to decide if he needs to adjust the budget for the next few weeks to do what the girls want.

Even if he does, he'll make it work.

He has Trucy.

He has Miles.

He has Maya and Pearls.

It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of him. As long as he has these people, he'll be able to keep getting up and fighting for as long as it takes to see justice done.