"I think my favorite part was the dance. Or, you know, totally acing that song from memory. Either or." Phoenix grinned as he took a drink of his cheap brandy. It wasn't fancy or expensive, but he liked it better than the swill they were serving at the Rosegarden.
"My favorite part was when we left," Maya said as she took a sip of her own drink, a plain old vodka martini. Mr. Vasili's were some of the best in the city, or so Maya told him. Phoenix had never been a fan of vodka.
They sat next to each other at the bar, on the farthest stools from the door. It was eleven fifteen, almost closing time at the Borscht Bowl Bar and Restaurant. They were all alone, save for Mr. Vasili, who always stayed behind to close up. He stood at the opposite end, cleaning one of the many glasses that hung above the bar.
"Hey, I noticed that display of self control on the way out," said Phoenix.
"Yeah, did you see how I was not hitting her? I think I've grown. Y'know, as a person." She managed a weak smile. It didn't last long. "Elders'll probably chew me out for leaving early or not talking up enough of the rich and famous." She leaned back in her barstool. "I swear, this is my least favorite part of this whole Master business. I don't know how my mom dealt with it."
Phoenix figured there wouldn't be a better time to ask than right now. "You said something earlier, about being glad when you didn't have to do this any longer. What exactly did you mean by that?"
"Aside from the obvious?" Maya shot back. He just stared at her. She quickly realized she wasn't going to be able to distract him this time.
She leaned forward, elbows on the bar. Another sigh, wearier than the last. "Can't you just pretend you never heard that, Nick? It'd make things so much easier."
He said nothing. Just stared down at his drink and took another sip. The alcohol burned as it flowed down his throat. When he looked over again, she'd brought a hand up to rest her head in. He saw her steal a glance at the other end of the bar where Mr. Vasili was cleaning his beer mugs, then turn back to him.
"What I say, you can't tell anyone. And I mean no one, Nick. Not even Trucy. I can't let this get out until the proper time or it'll make things even more difficult for me than they already are."
He nodded slowly.
Maya turned back to her now nearly empty glass. "I'm going to give it another year, then I'm going to announce Pearl as my successor and step down from my position as Master."
Phoenix blinked. "Really?"
She nodded, her shoulders sagging. She looked more tired than Phoenix had ever seen her. "I just can't deal with it anymore. I know my mom was the Master and my grandma and my great grandma and all that, but I don't know how they managed it. The channelings are stressful enough, but then there's the hobnobbing with the rich and famous and always having to do and say things just so, never being able to relax, really relax. Not to mention the bickering and infighting among the branch families. Pearl is ten times the medium I ever was, and that's not all - when she makes a suggestion, the Elders actually listen. They don't question it like they do all my decisions. They like her more because they liked Morgan more and they didn't like my mom or my sister so they don't like me."
She drank the last of her martini. "Pearl can institute real change, eliminate all this branch family business, stop the fighting and constant power struggles. I mean, I've made headway, but there's still quite a few who won't listen to a word I say. Pearl won't have those problems. And she's enthusiastic. She wants this more than I do, more than I ever did. Probably because it was never thrust on her."
She looked up past the counter at the myriad bottles arranged before the mirror on the wall. "So that's that. Now you know."
Phoenix empathized. Maya had never really wanted the position of Master in the first place. It was simply all she had ever known, all she had ever thought she could have. It was only after spending time away, helping the naive rookie attorney at his fledgling law firm that she got an idea of what she was missing. But she couldn't abandon her family. Pearls was only eight years old, and even if she was a gifted medium, she couldn't assume so much responsibility.
"So what'll you do after that?" He asked.
She turned towards him a little, but didn't meet his eyes. "I hadn't really thought about it," she replied.
Phoenix wasn't fooled. He had a feeling Maya had thought about it, had an idea of where she wanted to be, but was too afraid to tell him for fear of learning a truth she didn't want to face.
But she didn't have to face it.
"You know," he said, fiddling with a button on his cuff, "I've been thinking of retaking the bar. Being a lawyer again."
Now she looked at him with widened eyes. He continued. "After all that's happened, I wasn't really sure I wanted to. I thought I should just give up the dream of returning to the good old days. Just ride off into the sunset and let it all be over. But after what you've told me . . . well, I wasn't going to do it if we couldn't work together again." He shifted on his stool, turning to face her fully. She looked ready to burst into tears. He just smiled at her. "No one could ever really replace you, Maya."
She threw herself at him, nearly propelling him off his seat. She hugged him tightly and he felt tears hit his shoulder. "Thank you," was all she said, whispered into his neck. Phoenix got the impression she wasn't really talking to him.
They stayed like that for a minute, Maya practically on Phoenix's lap as he she embraced him. He hugged back, unwilling to break the moment. He glanced at Mr. Vasili over her shoulder and caught him staring at them. The old Russian quickly averted his gaze, turning around to give them some semblance of privacy.
"The sunset's for suckers, Nick," Maya said with a giggle. Phoenix chuckled dryly and pulled away for a moment to look her in the eyes. They were still wet, but she was beaming at him. She had never looked happier.
"Eloquent as always, Ms. Fey," he said, wiping her cheek with his thumb. As she stepped off the stool, he stood up as well, calling to his boss.
"Mr. Vasili?" He turned around, thin eyebrows raised. "Can you pump anything but Russian folk music through these speakers?"
He blinked slowly. Then he walked towards them, past them, to the sound system terminal underneath the bar. After a moment's fiddling, he stood up again. The speakers cut out in the middle of a strange guitar piece and then started playing a slow ballad.
"Russian love song," he said as he stood, not meeting their gaze as he strode right back down the bar and resumed cleaning the already spotless glass.
Phoenix just grinned. He had long suspected, and now he knew - behind that cold, uncaring exterior, Mr. Vasili was really a total softy.
He turned back to Maya, taking her hand in his. "Might thee trouble milady for a dance?" He asked.
"Thou might-est, for 'tis no trouble. Um, to thee. Or thou." She huffed, still smiling. "Yeah sure, whatever."
Phoenix led her to roughly the middle of the restaurant (the Borscht didn't really have a dance floor) and wrapped one arm around her waist, leading her in a slow circular dance.
Maya sighed contentedly, resting her head on his shoulder again. "Why is it that I'm happier dancing in a cold little Russian bar than I am dancing in one of the fanciest, most exclusive places in the city?"
"Maybe it's the Russian love song," he mumbled.
She laughed and he felt her convulse against him. Then they fell silent, quietly dancing in the middle of an empty restaurant. As Phoenix closed his eyes to enjoy the moment, he caught a brief glimpse of Mr. Vasili smiling wistfully as he stared into the glass he was cleaning, mouthing along to the Russian lyrics.