So on her sixteenth birthday, which was maybe a year and a quarter ago, right, her big sister had taken her out to this fancy restaurant in LA with a French name which all the friends she'd met in law school had gone to, apparently her old boyfriend had taken her there before - yeah, Maya remembered that. And her big sis had said 'you're growing up, kid. Order anything you want, my treat, I won't even tell Aunt Morgan.' Maya had looked at the menu and it had blurred in front of her eyes and there were words like 'bisque' and 'boullabaisse' and 'braised' and the prices were down the side in a neatly printed column, without the dollar signs, presumably so you wouldn't have an aneurysm and stagger out the door as soon as you saw them and would hopefully get fooled into sacrificing your mortgage for a really good plate of fries. (Hand cut, seared in Italian olive oil, rock salt from the Mediterranean.) When the waiter'd come around and Mia was pursing her lips like maybe she'd picked the wrong place, should've just gone to a Japanese restaurant like they had at home, maybe thinking Maya was still too much of a kid, really to come here, Maya realised she just. Didn't really want that. So she put down the menu and she said, "Burger."
"A...burger?" the waiter said like he'd never heard of one and c'mon that was kinda funny, so Maya had laughed, and when she'd looked around Mia was stifling a snort too, not at her but at the waiter. So Maya grinned her biggest grin and said "yeah, a burger! Extra onions, please."
"There's no burger on the kids' menu," the waiter said.
"Oh," Maya said, "great! Well, good thing then I'm sixteen years old."
The waiter grinned nervously. "Oh, I - I'm sorry ma'am, it's just -"
"Burger," Maya said. "You can serve those to grownups, right?"
When it came it was missing the onions but it had damn good beef and Maya had to open her mouth really, really wide to fit it in. She chomped down and juice dribbled down her chin. She'd flickered her eyes sideways and Mia was watching her with a big grin on her face, not mocking, no - they'd played their fair share of pranks but that was a while ago and Mia was a lot older than her. Mia had always taken care of her, looked out for her, even when no one else could. It had been tough when she'd left for Stanford – which apparently was a really, really damn good school, but what would Maya know - to do law, find their mother, get revenge on White but you know. Maya still had the elders, Pearly, everyone.
Mia slipped her a twenty when she was done.
"What's this for?"
"Tip for the guy," her sister said. "You have to tip them even at places like these where they actually get paid."
"...Waiters don't get paid?"
"Huh," Mia said. "Maybe I should take you out more."
Maya had silently agreed but Mia was pretty busy and she didn't want to bother her. Must suck to have her kid sister tagging everywhere. But Maya couldn't regret the night because that burger had been really, really nice.
They'd gone to see a movie. Something mainstream, not the samurai flicks that took ages to download with Kurain's ancient broadband from like 2010 or something but were always worth it. But this movie was worth it too; it had this nice music, even if she felt kind of strange and lost when she saw the two leads kissing at the end. And Mia had given her a piece of evidence from her latest case to hold onto, which made her feel useful. So there was that.
Maya was thinking of that night a year and a quarter ago as she listened to the last of her loose change clattering in the vending machine. Her bottle of pineapple ice tea wobbled but didn't budge.
"Oh, for - " Maya kicked it and it fell through but got stuck. "Damn it!" she said loudly, and immediately felt guilty, like there was going to be Aunt Morgan hovering over her shoulder with a cane to rap on her knuckles the second she said anything worse than 'gosh dang it to heck'. She had to grow out of that. She was an independent girl and she could say whatever the - the hell she wanted.
Seventeen years old and she had her own place in the city, and she wasn't even going to school. She'd always felt kind of smug whenever she watched the kids with their bags and their books and their tired expressions filing into the local high school but lately it'd been kinda different - not like she'd ever been good at that school stuff, but it kind of felt weird to know she'd never have the chance for a career like her big sis. No. She had something better. More honourable. Passing down the tradition that ran in her blood that Mia had abandoned when she'd left her family, left the tradition that could kill her and Mia had just put on her shoulders like she deserved that burden-
Maya instantly felt terrible. She couldn't think like that. She was the only one left. Mia was –
Mia was gone, her sister was dead. She'd left her again. There was – she didn't even know.
She ended up just filling a chipped Fey & Co. mug with water from the faucet. She sat down on her old couch, which was from Fey & Co. before Mia'd gotten hold of that leather slice of heaven, and she looked at the cupboard which was full of instant noodles and seaweed and rice that she'd rather starve than eat right now, and out the window, which faced onto a brick wall which had an inexplicable yellow smiley face graffitied onto it.
She stared out the window for a long time and thought about crying. It didn't happen. She just felt kind of. She didn't know. Empty? Lonely. Well, she didn't know what to do. There was something wrong in her life now. Everything was – different.
Her sister was dead. She mouthed the fact like that would make it not be real, maybe.
She put down the mug after a while and laced her fingers together. Okay. There was something. Mia's guy. Nick. That had been pretty cool. He'd saved her, like she was worth saving. Maya Fey, who here in this city was a high school dropout with no family and no money and a murder charge under her belt.
Maybe she should just go home. Aunt Morgan kept saying she should.
She ended up heading to Fey & Co. instead, not worrying about opening hours. Phoenix would probably still be there.
When she got to the door she realised she'd been thinking about it wrong. Wright and Co. It was Wright's place now. And apparently she was the co. Whatever that stood for. Codifier? Cowriter? Conwoman?
She tried the handle and it opened easily. The place had the lights on but reception was empty. With a sickening sense of déjà vu she went through to the main office but that was empty too. Apparently the drycleaners hadn't come yet because there were still water and blood stains on the carpet. There was a bright blue suit jacket lying crumpled on the desk. Phoenix's.
She remembered then that the place had a mini kitchen in the back where clients didn't go. Maya had spent a bit of time in there, had a couple of frozen pizzas in the freezer for emergencies. She went in. Phoenix was there with a dubious expression on his face, slumped in a chair pushed up to the bench, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows, his tie loose and his collar unbuttoned. He was fiddling with a very small glass. There was a saltshaker and a tall bottle full of clear liquid next to him. Water? For some inexplicable reason he was also surrounded by sliced up limes.
"Nick?" she said tentatively, and he jerked, spilling salt everywhere.
"Maya!" he said, jumping up. "Maya I – I wasn't expecting you –"
She stepped into the kitchen and wow, he was big. Tall, broad shoulders, strong forearms. She'd never had any guys around in the village growing up and it was embarrassing to admit but really, she'd never been this close to…
"What's all this?" she said.
"Um," he said, blushing, "uh, it's, Larry's – I mean, it's mine, but. Larry's idea. He said I needed a coping mechanism. 'Cause my hot boss died and all." He blushed even more at that. "Not that I thought she was hot, that I'm only upset because she was hot, I mean, those were his words –"
"You don't think my sister was – hot?" Maya said almost defensively.
"Of course I –" His mouth snapped shut.
Maya started to laugh. After a minute so did he.
"Yeah," he said, chuckling, gesturing at the stuff on the bench, "all this crap is just stuff Larry brought over to cheer me up or something. He's a bit of a jerk and thinks cheap tequila is just the thing to make me feel better. And yeah, he genuinely only thinks I'm upset because I, um, never got to sleep with your sister. There's a reason I don't hang out with him much. Anyway, rest assured that he's right about one thing." He shrugged. "I'm not even sure what the limes are for."
Alcohol? Of course. Right. Phoenix was, what, twenty-four? Of course he drank. She hadn't even thought of that. In Kurain she'd had sips of ceremonial sake but she wasn't allowed actual drinking 'til she was like twenty-one and that was, well, ages away.
"Has Larry taken you drinking before?" she said, still standing there.
"Couple of times," Phoenix said. "Um. It wasn't much fun." He looked at his shoes. "Involved a lot of puking. I'm a total lightweight."
"Right," Maya said. "Oh. I've…I never –"
"Uh, it's okay," he said awkwardly, sticking his hands in his pockets. "What are you, eighteen?"
"Seventeen," she said.
"Yeah, that's right. That's what I wrote in the profiles." He opened his mouth, blushed again and looked away. "Seventeen, yeah."
Somehow she ended up sitting with him at the bench, chewing on a slice of lime while Nick tipped the bottle of tequila back and forth, apparently still contemplating getting drunk. Getting drunk honestly sounded terrifying to Maya and she didn't think it would make her feel better at all, but maybe it was worth a try.
"Can I have some of that?" she asked on impulse, making Phoenix turn and look at her with wide eyes.
"Oh my god, no," he said weakly, shoving the bottle as far away as possible. "I – sorry, but. No?"
"But," she said, feeling her eyes go wide, and then she remembered, she wasn't even legal and he'd just gotten off a murder charge and probably wasn't feeling up to a fine right now or even the guilt of breaking the law, and she remembered her sister, how she stuck by the law, the right thing to do, which probably didn't involve being underage and asking your probably-technically-boss for alcohol, and felt horribly awkward and embarrassed all of a sudden.
"Sorry," she said, voice cracking slightly.
"Uh, that's fine," Phoenix said. They sat in silence for a bit. Then he shrugged and poured himself a small glass.
"Shouldn't you find out what to do with the limes f-"
"Probably," he muttered, and knocked it back. It was fine for a few seconds until he choked, face turning bright red, and ended up spraying his mouthful all over the sink. He resurfaced with his blush firmly in place, and his breath smelling really weird, which Maya discovered when she went to run the faucet.
"Ouch," he gasped, sculling the glass over water she brought him. "That killed. Oh, that's good." He ran to the sink and refilled it.
Maya was getting hungry. She went to look in the freezer, took out one of the pizzas and stuck it in the microwave. She watched it go round and round, watched the numbers tick down, and when she heard Phoenix running his third glass of water for some reason she was suddenly and achingly aware of her position – seventeen years old and she'd never been to school, with an allowance that barely allowed her to buy burgers after she'd covered rent, wardrobe full of evidence she'd been holding onto that had never been picked up, with a job in a noodle shop nobody came to (and what did you know, apparently serving staff really didn't get paid a whole lot), wearing clothes that made people stare like she was some kind of freak, constantly fielding phone calls from her hometown telling her to just come train at home Mia's gone there's nothing there for you in that city, and right now she was standing in her dead sister's office heating pizza for this guy, this guy with broad shoulders and dumb hair smelling of alcohol, who was pretty damn tall and strong-looking and he might be getting drunk and she didn't really know him and she hadn't brought her pepper spray –
-this guy who'd saved her.
"What are you doing?"
"Nick," she said, grinning brilliantly, "we're gonna have a movie night. Do we have any soda?"
The microwave beeped and she hauled out a plate to put the pizza on.
"A…movie night?" Phoenix said.
"Yeah. It's Friday, there's always something on in the evening! C'mon, get moving. You turn on the TV and I'll get the drinks." She handed him the pizza and went to the fridge, feeling Phoenix's eyes on her back. Then he silently went out of the kitchen.
In the fridge was a sticky note stuck on the milk in Mia's handwriting saying 'THIS EXPIRES SOON! PLEASE DRINK!' There were some cans of beer and a large half-empty bottle of Coke. She looked at the beer and had a momentary panic attack – would Phoenix want her to bring it to him or just want the Coke? Eventually, after tipping the milk down the sink and violently crumpling the carton, she just shrugged and grabbed everything.
Phoenix had found some movie about kids in high school, wearing colourful clothes, all in cliques with their blondes and brunettes and petty boyfriend troubles. It was like observing aliens from another planet. She wondered if he really wanted to watch this, but mentally shrugged as she plonked down next to him. He'd picked it, he could deal. The pizza plate was on his lap and he was taking small bites from a small slice. Well, more for her. She grabbed the biggest piece and chomped. He looked over and a smile tugged the corners of his mouth.
Icebreakers, she thought. For, like, conversation, not actual ice of course. She racked her brains and came up blank.
"So…what's your favourite food?" she asked, getting out the Coke and drinking straight from the bottle. Phoenix eyed the beer warily when she gave to him but after a minute he cracked it open anyway.
"I dunno, um…right now, grilled chicken sandwich with balsamic vinegar and garden salad," he said, eyes on the TV. Maya choked on her drink.
"Are you serious? C'mon Nick, you don't look like a rabbit food kinda guy!"
"What – but - rabbits don't eat chicken," he said, brow furrowed slightly. That made her giggle.
"A chicken-eating rabbit. Even worse. Balsamic vinegar? What is that, some kind of –"
"It's healthy!" he protested.
"Yeah, right. Sounds downright lethal to me." She took a long swallow and pointed at the screen. "Hey, why's she so upset?"
"Looks to me," Phoenix said, "like she just found out her boyfriend betrayed her."
"Huh," said Maya, who'd never had a boyfriend or even really spoken to a guy, not even a dad or brother, and whose first possibly significant male relationship was with the guy eating pizza right next to her. "She looks pretty upset about it." Oh god, she thought, I am so out of my depth here.
"Yeah," he said, voice suddenly tight, "she would be."
So, so out of my depth. She decided not to ask further. This was not awkward. She would make this not awkward. Sheer force of will.
Surprisingly, it wasn't that hard. He was pretty easy to talk to and his dry sense of humour made her stomach ache with how much it reminded her of Mia. They sat there comfortably, making jokes about the cheesy drama of the movie, which really did not have enough samurai fights in it. After a while Nick finished his beer and reached unconsciously for another one, which Maya passed to him, proudly casual about it.
Maya was finishing off the Coke when she noticed he was watching her instead of the movie.
"Cut it out," she said jokingly, which made him jump and grin sheepishly.
"Y'know," he said, "I was just thinking you look kinda like her. Not the hair, and the…" He gestured vaguely at her middle. "But you're... I don't know."
Oh, right. Beer.
"Are you drunk?" she said curiously, trying to act like she'd seen someone drunk before.
"No," he said, very seriously, "just buzzed. I didn't have the tequila and beer's not enough." But he put the can down.
"Okay," Maya said. "So, I. I look like my sis? Is that what you're saying?" Privately she thinks she doesn't at all. And she's nowhere near as beautiful, polished, grown-up. Could never be.
"Yeah, kinda," Nick said. He had his arm over the back of the couch, behind Maya's neck. She was acutely aware of this as it dropped down further, seemingly without him realising.
"Well, so do you," she said, then realised that didn't even make any sense. "I mean, I don't know, you're like her in court."
He shrugged. "You were too. Literally."
Oh, right. Oh. Maya blinked. So that's what he's seeing.
"It was pretty awesome," he continued. "I've never seen anyone do something like that. Never believed in magic."
"It's not magic," Maya said. "It's spiritual power. For harnessing spirits. And their power."
"Ah," said Nick, "gotcha."
She looked at him, licked her lips nervously and shifted closer.
"I," Nick said when she grabbed his hand. "Maya."
She looked down, fringe shading her eyes, and then looked back up, and saw he'd turned his whole body to face her, and his eyes were sort of dark blue and there was a bead of sweat rolling down his collarbone and he smelled of alcohol and some kind of cologne or aftershave or whatever it was that men wore. Men, Maya thought, this is a man, he is seven years older than me – and then his arms, sleeves still rolled to the elbow, were bracketing her sides, and he was kneeling in close, and her stomach felt like it was actually full of literal butterflies, and she didn't know if they were the good kind –
"Maya," he said and came in really really close, oh my god and she hadn't thought this would actually happen, not seriously, he was twenty-four and now it was, she was equal parts flattered and terrified and - what would he think if she pushed him back? Would he hate her? Some guys were like that, Mia had said, Mia who knew everything, Mia who Nick thought was beautiful, Mia her sister who Nick was probably seeing right now.
She pushed at his arm experimentally but she was very small and he didn't seem to notice - and then, suddenly, he was kissing her. It was…weird. She felt hot all over and opened her mouth a little in surprise, but she also felt like maybe she wanted to push him away. Is that what beer tastes like? she thought nonsensically and then, this isn't real, he's seeing her - and she decided that this really shouldn't happen right now for a number of reasons and she slapped his arm, praying he'd notice. He froze, and jerked back off her.
"Oh," he said, and went completely red. He scrambled backwards. "I'm. I'm really sorry, I. Just. More drunk than I, um. That was completely out of line, I didn't mean to, I'm really…"
She took deep breaths and drew her knees up. "It's okay," she said.
"You don't – I'm sorry, I shouldn't have." He ran a hand through his hair and slumped back on the couch. "Jesus Christ. I'm sorry." More quietly he mumbled to himself, seventeen and she could almost hear him thinking not Mia.
"It's fine, don't worry," she said, a smile curling the corner of her mouth. "Never happened. We shall never speak of this again."
Nick nodded gratefully and she grinned, and they settled back into their spots on the couch. Not awkward, Maya thought fiercely, not awkward. After a minute they had a fight over the last slice of pizza and if they were a little over the top, maybe trying to compensate, that was okay. It was gonna be okay. Start of a beautiful friendship.
The movie was reaching its climax. There was some crazy chick with a – was that a gun?
"Taser," Nick said, "it's a taser. They're controversial electroshock weapons for police use." He shrugged. "I did a paper on their representation in the media or something in college. The things you remember, huh?"
That sounds really smart, Maya thought and wondered what it was like to have the chance to go there, to college, and to learn about electroshock weapons and things like that, that weren't hundreds of years old and covered in musty calligraphy.
Out loud, she said, "that's too many big words, Nick. Speak English like a normal person." He laughed and she felt a warm feeling rising in her belly like happiness.
On screen the girl with the taser was threatening the boyfriend dude and then there was another girl – the main character? She couldn't tell the difference, they were both blonde – jumping in the line of fire and ouch. That had to hurt.
"Aww, that's sweet," Nick said. "You'd do that for me, right Maya?"
"Are you kidding me? Hope you like being electrocuted," she said jokingly, and he laughed again, and yeah, maybe things were okay. Maybe now they could be, even if Mia was – even if her sister was gone now, because she had something else for the first time. This could besomething.
"Seriously? You wound me!" he said, clutching his chest.
"Oh, fine," Maya said, and poked him in the chest, and grinned. "Maybe one day, once I get to know you better."
"I'm counting on it," Nick said.