A/N: Right after Phoenix and Maya's relationship, Phoenix and Pearl's is my absolute favourite. I just love the father/daughter bond they have so much. So I decided to write this instead of working on my other story. Enjoy!
Phoenix poured himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen of his small apartment, yawning into the open air. The morning sunlight was still being held at bay by the heavy curtains over the window, and he wasn't inclined to open them anytime soon. He still had a few hours to kill before he expected Maya to show up with Pearl. They didn't have anything specific planned for the day, but this was their routine now. Maya assisted him during the week with cases, and on days off she would bring Pearl into the city so they could all spend time together outside of work.
He slowly made his way into the living room to turn on the morning news. The weather girl made it clear that the day would be sweltering, like most other days in the middle of summer in California. If they did decide to go somewhere today, he hoped it was somewhere indoors and air conditioned. His apartment didn't have it and he could already feel the temperature inside rising the further the sun got into the sky. She was continuing into the next few days of the week when his Steel Samurai ringtone filled the air. He found the phone in the pocket of his suit jacket, which was hanging over the back of the couch. Maya's name scrolled across the screen.
He pressed the answer button, and lifted it to his ear. "Hello?"
"What's up, Maya? Are you and Pearls on your way yet?" he said, taking another sip of his coffee.
Maya heaved a long, tired sigh. "Well, about that."
"Uh oh, what happened?"
She groaned, and he could hear the creaking of her mattress springs as she fell backwards onto her bed. "I can't come today. There's some sort of special training going on for some of the acolytes and the Village Elders are practically begging me to attend it. I can't really say no, since I need to set a good example for the younger girls if I'm going to be the Master of this place someday, or so the Elders say. They just like bossing me around."
"Oh, that's too bad." He tried not to let the disappointment show in his voice. He didn't really have that many friends, and he truly did enjoy his time with Maya and Pearl, but he didn't want to make her feel guilty. "Well, I guess I'll see you next week then?" He could always call up Edgeworth (but he was usually busy, and wasn't ever much fun anyway), or Larry (who was sometimes too much fun for Phoenix to handle). Neither option was that appealing, so he resigned himself to a day of sitting on the couch and watching TV. Alone.
"Actually," Maya said, making him perk up right away. "I was wondering if you could still take Pearly for the day? She's a little too young for the training we'll be doing, not that she would need it even if she was old enough. She was really looking forward to seeing you, and she'll just be bored here all day while I'm gone. It's okay if you don't want to though, I don't want you to feel like I'm sticking you with babysitting duty or anything!"
"It's no problem," he said quickly. "You know I love Pearls, Maya. It's not like spending time with her is a chore or anything. I'd love to. She'll probably be disappointed you're not coming though."
"She's already been complaining that I won't get to spend any time with my special someone." Maya sighed. "I swear, Nick… This girl."
"I know, I know. She'll grow out of it someday…" he said hesitantly.
"You don't sound so sure!"
"Ah, don't worry about it. I'm used to it now anyway."
"Yeah. Me too." She sighed yet again, almost longingly, before clearing her throat. "Anyway! I'll be coming on the train with her to drop her off, but I'll have to head straight back. Luckily the training doesn't start until the afternoon so I'll have lots of time. Would you bring her home?"
"Great. Thanks again, Nick."
"No problem, Maya. See you in a bit."
After breakfast, a quick shower, and change of clothes, Phoenix took a cab down to the train station to wait for Pearl and Maya. Running late as usual, he arrived with minutes to spare. As he made it out onto the platform, he could already see the train off in the distance, making its way into the city. He looked around, trying to find somewhere to sit and wait the few more minutes it would take to slow down and stop before allowing its passengers to depart. Most of the benches were taken, but he did spot one place available beside an older woman, and he gingerly took a seat beside her.
"Waiting for someone?" she asked almost as soon as his backside had touched the seat.
He groaned inwardly. Why did so many strangers feel the need to strike up conversation? "Yeah, I am," he said politely enough.
"No." He didn't offer anything further and was glad when the woman turned back around.
The train pulled into the station only a few minutes later. He stayed in his spot until he saw the unmistakable bob of Maya's top knot coming through the doors, which was all that was visible behind the woman walking in front of her. The woman ahead turned in another direction, and Maya appeared with Pearl in tow. He stood up, stretched, and made his way over to them. Pearl caught sight of him first.
"Mr. Nick!" she cried, running to him and wrapping her arms around his waist in a crushing hug.
He bent down to her height and ruffled her brown hair. "Hey Pearls. How was the train ride?"
She shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed. "I slept most of the way."
"I always fall asleep on long train rides too, and watching trees gets boring after a while," he said.
Maya approached, smiling at the two of them. "Don't you look spiffy today, Nick," she said, casting an appreciative eye over him.
He stood back up to his full height and looked down at himself. He didn't think khaki shorts and a blue button up was really 'spiffy', but Maya, who wore the same thing every day, wasn't much into fashion. It was a scorcher of a day, so he wasn't about to wear his suit if he didn't have to.
"Uh, thanks." He looked back down to Pearl. "So it's just you and me today, huh?"
Pearl bounced on her heels. "It'll be fun! But…" She frowned. "Mystic Maya won't get to spend the day with you." She looked up at Maya expectantly, and Phoenix followed her gaze to his friend.
Maya put her hands up. "Hey, you know I would love to stay here and shirk my duties at home, but I have to do at least some of the things those old ladies ask."
"But you won't get to spend any time with your special someone! Those mean old ladies should realize that love comes first! Not that any of them would know, since no one likes them!"
Maya blushed furiously. "Pearly! How many times do I have to tell you-!"
"I know, I know," Pearl interrupted. "Blah blah blah."
Phoenix quirked an eyebrow at Maya. He rarely heard Pearl talk back like that. Maybe she was finally starting to go through a rebellious stage. It was hard to picture Pearl that way though, she was always so well behaved and polite, especially to Maya, whom she looked up to so much. She normally saved that for him when she thought he was doing something to disrespect Maya, like so much as talk to any other young woman.
Maya took him by the sleeve and turned their backs to Pearl, pulling him closer to whisper to him without her overhearing. "Don't mind her, Nick. She's been grumpy lately, but I'm not sure why. Maybe we've just been spending too much time together at the manor. I'm sure she won't be any problem for you, and getting away from Kurain Village for a bit is hopefully just what she needs."
He nodded seriously, and they both turned back to Pearl, who was standing with her arms crossed. "Well, Pearls, Maya needs to head back now. Say goodbye to her."
Pearl gave Maya a quick hug. "Try not to miss me too much, you two," she said, waving as she headed to the next platform where another train was heading in the opposite direction, back towards Kurain Village. Pearl looked saddened as she watched her go.
Phoenix bent down again, taking Pearl's hand. "Hey, we'll have fun today, okay? Don't worry about Maya."
She looked at the ground, lip trembling. He had no idea what was wrong or why she was so distraught. He squeezed her hand. "Pearls, what's wrong? This isn't the first time you've been away from her. What's going on?"
"Those old ladies are so mean to Mystic Maya," she blurted. "They always talk bad about her, even if they know she can hear them. Especially if they know she can hear them! They don't have any faith in her, they just like bossing her around because she's not officially the Master yet." She looked at him finally, her eyes glistening with unshed tears, and Phoenix felt a flash of anger beneath his calm exterior.
Maya complained about these so called Elders before, but she made them sound more like a bunch of gossipy but otherwise harmless old ladies. It seemed like it was worse than she let on. And if they were talking badly about Maya so Pearl could hear it too, which in turn was affecting her mood and making her worry about her cousin so much that she could hardly bear being away from her for the day? That made his blood boil.
He enveloped her tiny body in a hug, and she buried her face in his shoulder. "Pearls… Maya will be okay. She's doing what they want today, so they should be nicer to her." He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back so he could look at her. "Besides, just wait until Maya is the Master. Then she'll be able to boss them around as much as she wants." Pearl sniffed and nodded, wiping at her eyes with her small hands.
Memories of Morgan Fey surfaced in his mind as he watched Pearl attempt to wipe away the tears that had finally spilled out. He wondered if any of these Village Elders were on Morgan's side, or if there were any that wished she'd finished the job. The thought scared him. He squeezed Pearl's shoulder to get her attention again. "Pearls. If you or Maya ever need to get out of there, if they ever say or do something that makes you think they might hurt her or put her in danger, make sure you come to me right away, okay?"
"Thank you, Mr. Nick, I will. I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for. Now how about we head back to the office and then decide what to do for the day? Anything you want."
She smiled. "Sure."
They passed by the old woman sitting on her bench as they headed towards the building. She smiled as they walked by. "Aah. You've got the daughter for the weekend, huh?"
He smiled tightly at her. Did he really look old enough to be married, separated (as this woman seemed to be assuming), and have a nine year old daughter already? "No, actually, she's not my daughter," he corrected. "I'm just a friend of the family."
"Oh, excuse me," she said, her cheeks colouring a little as she realized her assumption was wrong.
He nodded curtly at her and hurried away with Pearl behind him.
After a quick cab ride across town, they entered Wright and Co. Law Offices together. It was practically Pearl's second home, and she made herself comfortable on the red leather couch where clients would normally sit. He sat down beside her.
"Well, what do you want to do today?" he asked, turning to her.
She looked shy about being the one to choose. Maya was usually the one who insisted on going places and was almost always the one to make suggestions, which Phoenix and Pearl usually just went along with. She put her thumb to her mouth. "What is there to do?" she asked him.
"Hm. Lots of things. There's parks, museums, the movies, the beach, the zoo-"
"The zoo!" she cried suddenly. "Oh, I'd love to go to the zoo! I love watching those nature documentaries on TV about wild animals but I've never really seen any in real life."
"Alright, the zoo it is then." If Maya had been the one to suggest it, he would have complained. It was hot out, and the zoo entailed a lot of walking and being outside in the sun, plus animals. He wasn't fond of animals, even caged ones. But with Pearl it was different. He felt no desire to attempt to sway her to something else, and he had been the one to suggest it in the first place, not really thinking she'd actually choose it. Besides, after her confession at the train station he would have done anything she wanted.
She grinned. "I'm so excited! Will there be lions?! I love lions!"
"I'm sure they have lions, and tigers, and bears."
"Oh my!" she said, hands flying to her mouth.
He grinned. "Lots of other things too. Do you need to bring anything with you? Do you want to eat first? We can eat later if you had breakfast already."
"Mystic Maya makes sure I never skip breakfast, so I'm still pretty full from earlier. Let's wait until after lunch to eat." She looked around the office. "Do you have any sunscreen, Mr. Nick?"
"Oh, uh, yeah, I think so. Just a minute." He went into the bathroom, hoping there was still a bottle somewhere. He found it underneath the sink and brought it back to Pearl. "It's the spray on kind. Make sure you use a lot since it doesn't work as well as the cream kind."
She went about spraying herself, not taking his advice lightly. When she was finished he took the bottle from her and sprayed it down her back where she couldn't reach, and then did himself.
"I think we're nice and protected now, Pearls. Good thinking."
She beamed. "I remember the last time you took us to the beach, Mr. Nick. Weren't you in some pain for the next few days?"
He grimaced. Right. That had been a nightmare. He was pretty sure he had actually shed some tears the first time he got into a hot shower without thinking of the burn on his back and shoulders. "Yeah, thanks for remembering. I wasn't able to sleep on my back for a week." She giggled, and he put a hand on his hip. "Don't laugh at my pain, missy."
She tried to stifle her giggling, but it only got worse. "S-sorry Mr. Nick, I know it hurt. I was just thinking about how Mystic Maya tapped you on the shoulder the next day and you almost screamed. I'm sorry."
He pursed his lips, trying to look serious and hide his smile. In hindsight it did sound funny. Pearl took a deep breath, finally able to stop her laughter. "I think we should bring some water bottles too, so we don't get dehydrated. Then we'll be set!"
He had to admire how she thought ahead. He would have left without water or sunscreen, despite the lesson he thought he learned last time. After Pearl found an old backpack somewhere in his closet – probably from his college days – and filled it with water bottles and the sunscreen, along with some smaller snacks, she had thrown it over her back and insisted on carrying it herself, and they finally departed for the local zoo.
Phoenix enjoyed the last little bit of air conditioning the cab provided before they stepped out into the blazing sun at the Los Angeles Zoo. At the entrance stood a large statue of a giraffe, the zoo's mascot, and Pearl stared up at it, enraptured already.
"Wow," she breathed. "It's so tall."
Phoenix stopped to look up as well. "They'll have real ones inside."
"Have you been here before, Mr. Nick?" she asked.
He started making his way to the window to buy their tickets. "A few times when I was a kid, but Maya and I came here last year, too."
Pearl's eyes took on a sly expression. "Ooh, really?"
"Yes. She insisted on coming to see a baby tiger that had just been born. I'm sure it's full grown now though."
He was thankful that they reached the window at that moment, so Pearl couldn't start on a tangent about special someones again. The woman in the window looked down at Pearl. "Is it just you and your daughter today, sir?"
"Oh, she's not my daughter; I'm just looking after her for a friend today. But yes, just two please."
"One adult and one child, that'll be $35 please." He handed over the cash and received two bracelets. "Make sure you keep those on if you need re-entry," the woman told him.
He nodded his understanding and helped Pearl wrap hers around her wrist before putting his own on. They headed through the gate together into the park. "What do you want to see first, Pearls? There's a map here." They stopped in front of a large map displayed behind glass. He pointed to a spot with a red dot. "We're here. There's a petting zoo down the path a little, with farm animals. Goats, pigs, ponies, stuff like that. You can buy food to give them. Or if you want to get to the big animals right away, there's a path through the forested area where all the big cats are, to start off with."
"Petting zoo please," she said quietly. He glanced down at her, noting her tone of voice was suddenly a lot less excited than it had been. He decided not to push it. If she wasn't feeling better after the petting zoo, which he was sure she would love, he would ask.
The petting zoo was a small building shaped like a barn, with enclosed fences outside housing goats and other farm animals. The goats were climbing onto rocks in their enclosure, and then jumping off of them and practically mowing down anyone that decided to buy food from the little vending machines in a race to be the first to get a treat.
Pearl giggled at the sight of them, and he was relieved to hear it. "Here," he said, handing her a dollar. "You can get a cupful of food from this machine, just stick the dollar in and hold the cup under the funnel, then turn the knob. Just be careful they don't run you down when they hear the food falling into the cup. They've learned what that means."
She nodded, taking the dollar from him. "Mr. Nick, will you come in with me?"
"Oh… Sure." He wasn't thrilled at the prospect of being surrounded by ten hungry goats, but Pearl looked nervous. She hadn't even seen animals like this up close before.
"Okay." She stuck her cup under the machine and turned the knob, letting the pellets fill up the small cup. As soon as they entered the gated area, the goats were surrounding her. Phoenix was thankful they largely ignored him, knowing he had no food to offer, but he watched Pearl carefully in case she got scared. She held out her hand after pouring some of the pellets into it, and laughed as the animals cleaned them off of her hand. The small cup didn't last long, and when it was empty they wandered away from her and to other people. One smaller goat, possibly a baby, stayed by her side, and she let out a gasp when she noticed it had half the sleeve of her outfit in its mouth.
"Give me that back, you bad boy!" she said, pulling on it. The fabric slipped out of the goat's mouth intact, but wet with slobber. "Eew! Mr. Nick, that one tried to eat me!" she said, heading back over to him and away from the smaller goat, who made its way back to its group.
He laughed. "Yeah, they do that sometimes."
"Hmph. I think it was rude!"
"Aw, it didn't know any better. It was just a young one."
"Well, I hope its parents teach it some manners." She looked around, catching sight of another enclosure. "Ponies! Let's go over there next!"
She ran ahead, and he followed her to the ponies. They were in a circular enclosure that resembled a carousel, and a young woman in a stereotypical cowgirl outfit was standing beside a chestnut brown pony and brushing it. She looked up when Pearl and Phoenix approached the fence. "Hello, little lady! Did you want to ride one of these?"
Pearl gasped. "Can I?!"
"Of course! These guys and gals just love giving rides to young'uns like you." She looked at Phoenix then, at first to get his consent, but then she couldn't look away as she noticed just how easy on the eyes he was. His rolled up sleeves showed off amazing forearms, and the top three buttons on his shirt were undone, giving her a nice glimpse of the tanned skin of his chest, which she could tell was perfectly muscled. She would have liked to have given him a different kind of ride instead.
"Give me your backpack, Pearls," he was saying, completely oblivious to the young cowgirl eyeing him up. Pearl took off the backpack and handed it to him, looking up just in time to notice the pony wrangler practically salivating as she stared at Phoenix. Pearl approached quickly, and the woman finally tore her eyes off of Phoenix long enough to open the fence to allow Pearl inside.
"Let's get you on up here then," the woman said, helping lift Pearl into the saddle where she sat side saddle. She seemed like a nice enough lady, but Pearl hated the way she kept glancing back at Phoenix. He was Mystic Maya's special someone! "I'm Melissa, and this guy here is called Marty," she gestured to the pony, which swung its head back and forth slowly.
"I'm Pearl," Pearl told her curtly.
"Nice to meet you, Pearl. Now just hold onto the horn here," she instructed, moving Pearl's hands to the correct place on the saddle. "I'll keep hold of the reigns, so you just enjoy the ride!" She began moving forward slowly, and the pony followed her steps.
"Why is his name Marty?" Pearl inquired as they made their way around the circle.
Melissa chuckled. "He's named after an old movie character my boss likes. All the ponies have names from old movies you've probably never even heard of."
"Well, I think it's cute," Pearl replied, uncurling one of her hands from the saddle to gently rub Marty's mane.
Melissa smiled. "You're pretty cute yourself, young lady! I love your necklace."
Pearl blushed. Maybe she was being a bit hard on the lady. After all, Mystic Maya liked Mr. Nick well enough; it was just natural other women would want to look at him too, right? "Thank you."
They were halfway around the circle, well out of earshot from Phoenix, who was leaning backwards against the fence and examining his nails, not paying much attention. Melissa glanced back at him again, and then to Pearl. "You here with your dad for the day? Where's your mom?"
Pearl's face changed quickly from a look of enjoyment to a frown. "My mother is in jail," she said, completely straight faced.
Melissa almost thought that Pearl was making fun of her for asking, but when her expression stayed steely, she decided she must have been telling the truth. "Oh. I'm very sorry to hear that."
Pearl's expression didn't change, but she did cast her eyes back down to Marty, where she watched the tips of his ears flick.
"You know who else I noticed is cute though?" Melissa continued. "Your dad."
Pearl's eyes moved back to the woman's face to glare at her, but she was turned around and facing forward now, so she missed the look to kill that Pearl was giving her. Even for a nine-year-old, Pearl knew how tactless she was being. What a thing to mention to a child, after just being told her mother was in prison, especially since that didn't automatically mean that her "dad" was on the market.
"He already has a special someone," Pearl snapped. "Who isn't in jail."
Melissa whipped her head back to Pearl, surprised at the venom in the young girl's voice. "I'm sorry, Pearl. That was inappropriate of me," she said, shamefaced. They were heading back into Phoenix's earshot now, so the rest of the ride was silent. Pearl distracted herself by stroking Marty's mane and his ears until Melissa prompted him to stop and helped her down from the saddle.
Phoenix had turned back around at some point to watch Pearl climb down, and noticed that yet again Pearl's expression was not one of joy at all, but possibly anger this time? Pearl thanked Melissa quietly and trudged back out the gate.
"You have a lovely daughter, sir!" Melissa called, waving at him from her side of the fence.
"She's not-" He couldn't finish, as Pearl grabbed his hand and started dragging him away.
"Let's go, Mr. Nick. I want to go see the lions now."
He stumbled after her, always surprised at the amount of strength the tiny Pearl had. "Okay, slow down, Pearls. What's up? Didn't you like the ponies?"
"The pony was fine. I didn't like that lady, though."
"Did she say something to you? You have to let me know if she did, people like that interact with kids every day, and we don't want her being inappropriate to other children."
Pearl slowed her strides when she deemed that they were far enough away. "Sorry, Mr. Nick. It's nothing, she was fine. I'm just a little hot, I guess. Can I have a water bottle?"
"Yeah, of course," he said, taking off the backpack and digging through it. He unscrewed the lid when he found it and handed it to her, watching as she took a large swig.
She wiped her mouth when she was finished and handed the bottle back to him. She put on her best smile again. "Alright. I feel better now. Let's head to the forest to see all the lions and stuff!"
The winding path through the trees was much cooler than the rest of the zoo, thanks to all the shade. This at least meant that the animals were out and about for the most part. Some of the big cats were sleeping on rocks or large tree branches, but they were still visible, and Pearl loved each and every one of them.
Phoenix stood patiently by while she took her time inspecting each animal, staring at them with wide eyes. If she took a particular liking to any of them, she would ask him to read her the information that was on the plaque in front of each enclosure, which he gladly did. She would then go back to staring at the animal while processing the new information. It was adorable to watch her little face light up at each ear flick or tail swish the animal she was watching would do, and he briefly wondered why he and Maya hadn't taken her to the zoo before. She was so sheltered, and a zoo was the perfect place to see new things while also being educational.
He supposed they were always so caught up with murders, which half the time also included Fey family drama that Pearl was always in the middle of, that normal things like visiting a zoo took a backseat in all of their lives. It wasn't fair that she had already been through so much turmoil in her life, and she was just a little kid. She deserved to have normal, fun childhood moments too.
They approached the lion enclosure last, and Pearl was beaming as the male lion stood up to stretch. His fluffy mane made him look majestic, and a large yawn escaped his mouth, giving everyone a glimpse at his huge teeth. As he yawned, a loud rumble came from his throat. It wasn't an outright roar, but it was still loud enough to make everyone watching gasp a little. Pearl's hands flew to her mouth in surprise, but then a grin stretched across her face as she watched in awe.
Phoenix couldn't have cared less about the lion in that moment. He felt a surge of love course through him as he watched Pearl's face light up. It was strange. He hadn't thought much about having his own children in his short 26 years so far, but he really did love Pearl like she was his own daughter. He knew all about the high percentage of men that left Kurain Village and their children behind, Pearl's father included, so he did realize he was the closest thing to a father figure Pearl had, and he took that seriously. Maya had even surprised him once after one of their outings with Pearl by thanking him sincerely for being so nice to her little cousin, and never looking at her as some sort of burden he was stuck with.
He didn't quite know how Pearl felt about him or how people always mistook them for father and daughter. She did have a real father out there somewhere, after all, though Maya did tell him that Pearl had never met him, and that he left before she was even born. Phoenix hoped it didn't bother her, but he always made sure to correct people who did make that mistake, just in case.
She looked up at him, still smiling from the lion. "Mr. Nick, wasn't that great?!"
"Hm? Oh yeah. I've never seen that before."
"It was amazing! I never thought I'd get to see a real lion roar like that either!" She took his hand as they emerged from the forested area, leaving the big cats behind. "Let's go to the giraffes now, and then the monkeys!"
"Lead the way, Pearls."
After walking through the rest of the zoo, past the giraffes and hippos and rhinos and the screaming monkeys - which were, in Phoenix's opinion, terrifying - both Phoenix and Pearl were getting hot and tired. They took a seat at a picnic table near a playground for the kids and finished the rest of their water bottles. He could tell Pearl was tired, but she didn't seem to want to leave yet. She kept glancing at the playground where other children were playing, and fiddling with the paper label of her water bottle.
"Pearls, did you want to go play? You can, if you want. I could use a break right now, so I can watch you from here."
She was quiet for a moment. "I want to, Mr. Nick… but I've never really met any other kids my age."
He supposed it was normal that she was shy, since she lived in Kurain Village where everything was so traditional, and he didn't remember seeing many other kids whenever he visited (which probably had a direct correlation with the lack of men in the village). Pearl spent most of her time with Maya as far as he knew.
"Ah, it's easy to make friends when you're young. Go ahead, there's a boy over there, he's all alone," he said, discreetly pointing to a little boy around Pearl's age, playing by himself in a sandbox area. "Maybe you'll meet your special someone, Pearls," he teased.
Her face turned bright red. "B-Boys are gross," she stammered.
He raised his hands. "Whatever you say. Go on, he looks lonely."
She took a nervous breath, then nodded more to herself than to Phoenix, and made her way over to the sandbox. The little boy didn't even look up as she approached, and she kneeled down in front of him. "Um… Hello. Do you mind if I play here?"
The boy glanced up quickly, shrugged, and went back to his shovel. She watched him for a minute as he dug into the sand. He seemed to be digging a big hole, Pearl couldn't understand why, so she reached for a bucket and began her own project. She kept glancing at the boy as she filled her bucket and dumped it, working on a sandcastle version of Fey Manor. It didn't really look at all like the manor, but she couldn't think of anything else to do. He was still ignoring her, working hard at whatever it was he was doing.
She bit her thumb, wanting to try to make small talk but not sure what to say. She glanced back to Phoenix, who was looking down at the picnic table and examining a map of the zoo they had picked up during their walk through. She turned back to the boy. "Excuse me; can I use your shovel for a minute?"
Finally the boy looked up, and looked her over. "What's your name?" he asked, making no move to give her the shovel.
"I'm Pearl Fey," she answered quickly, glad that he was finally talking to her. "What's yours?"
"Brandon," he answered. "What are you building?"
She looked down at her sand and blushed. "I was trying to build my house out of the sand, but I'm not very good."
"I'll say," Brandon said, smirking.
Pearl furrowed her eyebrows. She knew she was bad at art, but he didn't need to make her feel worse about it! She knew she should be polite though, so she decided to ignore it. "Well, yours looks good." Whatever it is, she thought.
"Thanks," he mumbled, then looked over in the direction of Phoenix. "Are you here with your dad?"
She thought about it for a moment. She didn't know how to explain her relationship with Phoenix aside from calling him a friend, and that sounded weird, so she nodded. After all, she didn't know her real father. Phoenix was all she had.
The boy pointed his chin towards the picnic table. "That him?"
Back at the picnic table, Phoenix had switched from the map to fiddling with his phone, attempting to change that Steel Samurai ringtone Maya had put on it for the umpteenth time, but he still wasn't able to figure out how. As he was holding it, it started to ring that very tone, and her name scrolled across the screen.
"Hey Nick!" Maya's excited voice said after he hit the answer button. "I just wanted to check in. How is everything?"
"Fine. Why, are you worried I can't take care of her on my own?"
"No, I trust you completely! I'm just making sure you haven't suddenly been dragged into a murder case or something. Pearly likes helping you but I think she needs to do some things other than go around crime scenes with you."
"For your information, we're at the zoo right now. No crime scenes so far."
Maya gasped. "The zoo! Aw, Nick, you couldn't wait to do that on a day I could come?"
"We came here last year, and not much has changed. And Pearls really wanted to come. I couldn't say no to her."
"Well, I'm glad she's having fun at least."
"How is your day so far?" he asked, remembering what Pearl had told him at the train station about the Village Elders.
She let out a long suffering sigh. "Oh, you know. The Elders are pushing me hard, but if I'm going to be the master someday I have to do this!"
"Right. Maya, I need to talk to you about something Pearls said-"
"YES HE COULD!" A screech cut through the air and Phoenix lifted his eyes again to the playground where Pearl was playing just in time to see the little boy with her fling a handful of sand at her. She put her arms up to cover her face just in time.
"Oh crap," he mumbled into the phone. "Maya, I gotta go. I'llcallyoulaterbye!"
He pressed the end button and got up, running over to Pearl who was now flinching as the little boy smacked her over and over with the flat part of the shovel he was using.
"Hey! Stop it!" he yelled, reaching her and picking her up around the waist to get her away from the other child. She turned in his arms to bury her face in his neck. Another man was running across the playground too, and the boy turned around.
"Brandon! What do you think you're doing?!" he yelled. The little boy dropped the shovel in the sand as his father grabbed him by the wrist.
Pearl was crying, loudly, and Phoenix patted her back comfortingly. He shot a look at the other man. "You need to teach your kid not to hit girls, or anyone," he said.
"She started it!" the boy shouted.
The other man looked embarrassed, and he knelt down in front of his son. "Brandon, you apologize right this minute!"
Brandon shook his head furiously. "No! She started it!"
Pearl finally turned around. "I did not!" she cried tearfully. "He kept talking about how his dad looked stronger than you, Mr. Nick!"
Phoenix furrowed his eyebrows, looking at the other man, who looked just as confused.
Brandon stuck his tongue out. "My dad could beat up your dad!"
"No he could not!" Pearl screamed.
"Pearl!" Phoenix snapped, more out of surprise at her outburst than out of anger. She looked at him with wide eyes, surprised at his use of her regular name. She sniffed, tears welling in her eyes again. "Nobody is beating anybody up."
"That's right!" the other man spluttered. He looked even more embarrassed now, his face beet red. "I am so sorry for my son's behaviour, sir," he said. "We'll be going home right this instant and I promise to have a nice long chat with him about hitting others, especially little girls! Is your daughter okay?"
Pearl prepared herself to hear Phoenix yet again deny being her father, but he didn't. Instead he shook her slightly to get her attention. "Pearls, are you okay?" She nodded wordlessly. "Good. She's okay," he told the other man.
"Thank you for being so understanding," he said. "Truth be told, my son has a bit of an obsession with wrestling and likes to compare me of all people to any other man he sees. I think we'll need to cut back on that, won't we Brandon?" he said, looking down as his son clung to his leg. The little boy pouted, but didn't say anything.
Phoenix couldn't help smiling. Of all things to fight about, it had been because this kid was obsessed with wrestling?
"Please, I hope you two have a good rest of your day," the man said, beginning to walk away, pulling his son by the hand. "Again, I'm so sorry."
Phoenix nodded to him, and walked back over to the picnic table where he set Pearl down and then sat beside her. She stared at the table in front of her, not meeting his eyes.
"Pearls, are you really okay?"
"Mhm. It was only plastic." Another minute of silence, and then she spoke up again. "I'm really sorry, Mr. Nick."
"It's alright. It sounds like he really did start it."
"He kept saying his daddy could beat you up, and I didn't know why he kept saying that, I didn't care, I just wanted to make my sandcastle! But the more he said it the madder I got… and the more I denied it the madder he got. It was like he wanted me to admit that his daddy was better than… mine… Better than you, I mean…" She trailed off, and put her head down in her arms so he couldn't see her blush at her slip up. "No one is better than you," she mumbled into the table top. There was silence from Phoenix, and she looked up, worried that he was unhappy with her. Instead she noticed a small smile playing on his lips. "Mr. Nick, can I ask you a question?"
She blushed again and turned her face away from him. "Why do you always correct people who think you're my daddy?"
His smile faded, and he suddenly felt terrible for all the times he had ever denied it in front of Pearl. Just today he'd corrected three different people, telling them that he wasn't her father, never taking into consideration how Pearl might have felt hearing that. It had to hurt constantly being reminded that you didn't have a dad at all. He put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to his side. "Pearls, I'm so sorry. The reason I always tell people you're not my daughter is because I didn't know how you felt about it. I didn't want you to be uncomfortable. I should have asked you."
She chewed on her bottom lip. "I like it, Mr. Nick. I don't know my real father. He left before I was born and my mother always talked badly about him. And now that she's in jail, you and Mystic Maya are all I have. And you're amazing," she said, smiling at him. "You help people all the time, and you've never let Mystic Maya or me down when we've needed you. You would never abandon us like my real father did…"
"Of course not." He turned her so he could face her properly, and put his hands on her shoulders. "You are so important to me, Pearls. I love you and I do think of you as a daughter, and if you don't mind, I'll never correct anyone who assumes that again."
She beamed at him then, and grabbed him in a hug. "Thank you, Mr. Nick. I love you too."
He pressed his face into the top of her silky hair and returned the hug, unable to help getting a bit misty-eyed. She pulled away first, and he saw her wipe away some of her own unshed tears.
"Do you want to head home now, Pearls? We've seen everything here, I checked the map."
She nodded, and a yawn escaped her mouth as if on cue. "Yeah… I'm getting kind of tired."
"Me too. We can order a pizza when we get back to my apartment, and call Maya to see if you can go home tomorrow, alright?"
He held his arms out, offering to carry her, and she obliged. She was asleep in his arms almost as soon as she rested her head against his shoulder.
He stopped at the gift shop near the exit before leaving and bought a small stuffed lion, since she seemed to like that the most. An attendant waved at them on their way through the exit gates. "I hope you and your daughter had a good day! Please come back any time!"
"Thank you," Phoenix replied. "We did."
Pearl slept in the cab all the way back to Phoenix's apartment, and he carried her inside when they arrived and laid her down on the couch, grabbing an extra blanket and gently covering her with it. He headed into the kitchen when he was finished, taking out his phone to call Maya again. He'd hung up on her earlier, and he was sure she was probably worried.
When she answered, she did sound annoyed. "Nick! What happened earlier? You hung up on me!"
"Sorry," he said, sitting down at the table. "Pearls got into a bit of a fight with another kid on the playground."
"Oh no! Is she okay?"
"Yeah, she's fine. Apparently this kid kept betting her that his dad could beat me up, and she got understandably upset," he said, chuckling. "According to his dad, the kid likes wrestling a lot. Kids are weird."
"Tell me about it. You should hear some of the things that come out of Pearly's mouth when you're not around. If you think she's strange when you're with us, she saves the best for when you're not here. When will you be bringing her home?"
"She's asleep right now. Is it okay if she stays the night here? I can bring her back in the morning."
"Yeah, that's fine. Thanks again for taking her for the day."
"Thanks Nick. By the way, what did you need to talk to me about? You said earlier that Pearly said something to you, but then you hung up."
"Oh yeah. Pearls is worried about you, Maya."
"She says your Village Elders are mean to you. Really mean. And it bothers her. She didn't want you to leave this morning because she knew you'd be there alone with them."
"Oh. I didn't realize she understood what they were saying…"
"Maya, are you okay down there? She was really worried. It makes me worry too; especially knowing what Morgan was willing to do to you."
"I'm okay, Nick," she said, though she sounded sad. "They are hard on me, and I know they talk badly about me behind my back. I'm not deaf, but they act like I am. They don't think that I'll be a good Master, and they really hate that I spend so much time in the city with you."
"Yes…" she cleared her throat awkwardly. "They're all a bunch of traditional old hags who think that I should be married and producing heirs already even though I'm only 20, so you know…"
"Ah. I see."
"Yeah. But don't worry. None of them want to kill me! At least I don't think so," she said, and he could almost see her stroking her chin as she pondered.
"Maya, that does not help my nerves."
She laughed. "Thanks for worrying, but it's really okay! I can handle the bad mouthing; I know that I'll prove them wrong someday. But if it's making Pearly worry too, I'll have to have a word with them. I am still their Master after all."
He liked hearing that in charge attitude from her. "Please do. And Maya, if you ever get a bad feeling or hear anything that makes you worry for your wellbeing-"
"I'll be on the first train to see you, I know."
"I mean it, Maya."
"I know! Sheesh." He heard a muffled voice in the background, and Maya huffed. "I have to get back to training now."
"You're still not done?"
"Nope! This'll go well into the night. I'll see you in the morning when you bring Pearly home."
"Good night, Nick!"
He hung up and went back into the living room. Pearl was awake now, sitting up on the couch and hugging the stuffed lion he'd bought. "Thank you for this, Mr. Nick," she said earnestly. Then she looked up at him with starry eyes. "Were you talking to Mystic Maya?" she asked.
"Yeah, she said you could stay here for the night and go home tomorrow morning."
"Okay," she said, then covered her face with her hands. "Did she miss you, Mr. Nick? Did you miss her? It must have been hard going the whole day without your special someone!"
He sighed and flopped down onto the couch beside her. At least he knew now that Pearls was back to her regular, happy self. He decided to indulge her this one time.
"Fine, you got me. I did miss her." It wasn't like it wasn't true.
Pearl squealed, and lifted the blanket to cover her face. "How romantic!"
He knew that for the rest of the night until Pearl went to bed, and probably well into the morning, he wasn't going to hear the end of it.
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