foxysquidalso: (waiting for)
[personal profile] foxysquidalso
Title: Sleepers Wake
Pairings, Characters: Phoenix/Diego, Maya, Pearl, Trucy, references to Mia/Diego
Rating: PG
Warnings: spoilers for T&T [summary and notes contain spoilers too!]
Word count: 9,148
Summary: When taking Trucy to Kurain Village for their annual summer vacation, Phoenix is wary. Diego was released from prison earlier in the year and has been living in the valley with Maya and Pearls. Phoenix doesn't know what to expect, and the man he finds in that small mountain town is not the man he remembers from the courtroom. But then, Phoenix is a different person, too.
Notes: Written for [livejournal.com profile] gyaku_flash for [livejournal.com profile] euphonious_glow. (I really hope you like it!) Set before the events of AJ (by maybe a year or two). Assumes (as I so often do) that Diego was convicted of manslaughter and not murder. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] plutokitty for reading this through for me. All remaining mistakes are mine alone.



The sound of the train and the sound of the rain lulled Phoenix into a hazy trance that wasn't quite sleep. There was something melancholy about the sound of a train, as it sped through the countryside on its fixed path, swift and solitary. It reminded him of his childhood, vacations taken with his own parents. Holidays long past.

Now he was the parent. Trucy had fallen asleep. She had no long ago memories to keep her awake. She was curled up on the seat beside him with her head on his shoulder. It made him smile. He was sure to keep still so as not to disturb her, not that he felt much desire to move in his current state of mind.

Sometimes he wished he could afford to take her somewhere more distant and dramatic, maybe to Europe or South America, but he knew he was being foolish. Trucy loved Kurain Village. She probably wouldn't have exchanged their summer trip to the mountains for any far-off spot on the map, because those other places might have had many charms, but they didn't have her friends. She preferred to be where her friends were. She took after him in that respect. So they visited Kurain every year.

This year would be different. Not for Trucy, necessarily, but Phoenix found the change hard to ignore, though he hadn't experienced it yet. He glanced out the window at the world rushing past and wondered if he would find it difficult to adapt to the changed dynamic. He was so used to them spending their summer vacation in the company of Maya, Pearls, and the nuns, in a sort of private universe, but that too had become a memory.

Diego Armando had been released from prison, months ago, and he was living in Kurain. He would be there. There would be no way to avoid him. Not that Phoenix wanted to avoid Diego--did he? No, he was fairly sure that he didn't.

He had gone to visit Diego once, in prison. It had been a brief visit, and an awkward one. He'd gone because he'd thought it would be a nice gesture. Mia would have wanted him to go. He'd filled out the necessary forms, waited in line, walked through the metal detector.

The man's visor made him easy to pick out in a crowd. "Hi, Godot," he'd said, sitting down across from him at one of the many tables that filled the visiting area. The place had reminded him of his high school cafeteria. He hadn't been sure if that had reflected well on the prison or reflected poorly on his high school.

"You don't have to call me that anymore."

"Right. Diego. It feels weird to call you that."

"It feels weird to hear it. It's been a while."

"Right." He hadn't known what to say next. You're looking good! or How've you been? might have been accepted small talk when visiting someone you didn't know well, but small talk didn't do him any good in that particular situation. "I just wanted to see--you know, how you are. And say hi."

"You did a fine job of saying hi."

"Yeah, but I used the wrong name."

"You'll do better next time."

There hadn't been a next time. That had been before his disbarment. After he'd lost his license, things had gotten so messy, and his life so complicated, that he hadn't gone back. He'd had that one awkward but amiable conversation with the man, then nothing. Maya had gone to visit him, whenever she'd been able to spare time away from her studies and duties, and when she'd mentioned that she was going to see him, he'd told her to give him his regards, but he hadn't spoken to the man himself. Maybe that had been a lapse on his part.

He'd never known Diego well. For all he knew, Diego had been glad he'd kept away. He hadn't exactly been Diego's favorite person in the time they'd known each other, and it was possible Diego didn't want reminders of that time, or of whatever else Phoenix might have reminded him of.

Memories were funny things. They could be happy and sad all at once. Like the way the sound of the train reminded him of, not only his childhood, but, in some way, brought back all the train rides he'd taken in his life. All the trips he'd ever taken to Kurain Village, the good ones and the not-so-good ones, returned to him, even as his eyelids slowly drifted shut, and he joined Trucy in sleep, dreaming dreams of the past.

***


Trucy shook him awake. "Daddy, we're here."

"Oh, good." He wiped his eyes and yawned. "Thanks for waking up your old man."

The rain had stopped, or else the train had passed beyond it. He stepped off the train and looked up into a clear sky. The sky seemed bigger in Kurain, but it was probably the city's pollution that made the sky back home seem smaller. Maya and Pearls were waiting for them at the station, armed with hugs. Phoenix smiled to see Trucy with them. She looked so happy. In a way, this was like coming home. He loved his biological family, but this was his family, too. Blood was only the smallest part of what made a family.

Caught up in the reunion and still a little bleary from his nap, Phoenix forgot about Diego until they were almost at the manor. Diego wasn't there, and Maya, busy chatting with Trucy, hadn't mentioned him. Phoenix wondered where he was.

"What are you frowning about, Nick?" Maya asked, sidling over to him with a grin.

His mouth had hardly moved. Maya was more perceptive every time he saw her.

"Oh, nothing."

She poked him in the cheek. "Good. Frowning is not allowed here. I've outlawed it."

"Yes, Ma'am." He saluted her.

"That's Master, to you."

"Yes, Master," said Phoenix, shaking his head.

He didn't ask about Diego, figuring that Maya would mention him or that he would appear shortly. There was no reason to rush things. He saw no sign of Diego until Maya lead them into the manor's kitchen and began to orchestrate snacks. Even then, the man himself wasn't there, but it was hard to miss the fact that half the kitchen had been converted into a coffee shop--or at least, something that looked like one. Much of the counter space was taken up by coffee containers, coffee machines, and coffee paraphernalia.

Maya noted the direction of his gaze. "Oh, that's Diego's stuff. He doesn't have room for it in his cottage, so we keep it here."

"I always make coffee with Uncle Diego," Pearls announced proudly.

Uncle. She called him that. Phoenix couldn't help but wonder how it made Diego feel. They said something else about him, but he wasn't listening, and the conversation moved on quickly while he was still thinking. He was surprised to find himself so taken aback. Diego was living there. It made sense that Pearl would call him by a familiar name.

But why not "Mr. Diego"? "Mr. Nick" had always been good enough for Phoenix.

Maya was studying him again, suspicious. "Nick?" He knew that look of hers too well. His very dear friend.

"Nothing." He gave her what he felt was a convincing grin. She wasn't buying it, but they had an understanding: not in front of the kids.

***


The rest of the day passed without a glimpse of Diego Armando. He started to wonder if the man was avoiding him.

When it finally happened, it was not what he thought it would be: their meeting. There was nothing monumental about it. He had woken up early to go on a walk. Early to bed, early to rise was not his usual thing, which was why he'd never been healthy, wealthy, or wise, but there was something about the air of Kurain Village. It woke him up. Suddenly, he became the kind of man who would go on a morning hike.

He walked very carefully through the woods of Medium Valley. He was terrified of the famous Kurain bears. After all this time, he hadn't seen one, and he was starting to think the tourist board had made them up, but that didn't make him fear them any less, sadly enough.

When the leaves rustled behind him, he turned with his heart rising up into part of his body where it didn't belong, expecting to see a bear looming over him.

It was Diego.

Phoenix's first and surprising thought was, He looks incredible. Not for aesthetic reasons, but like he was someone not to be believed. He resembled a character in a folk tale. His hair had grown longer and somehow whiter. His face was thinner, his body leaner, but this didn't make him look any smaller. Instead, he seemed to stand taller than in Phoenix's memory, and he had stood tall then, too. He wore a pale, rumpled dress shirt and faded jeans, and there was a leaf in his hair. He hadn't been walking on the trail; he had emerged from the forest itself. The red of his visor was a warm glow in the midst of cool green.

"Hello, Wright," he said, as if they met every day in the middle of the woods.

"Hi," Phoenix said, trying not to sound flustered, because he was flustered. "Diego."

"Ah, you got it right this time."

Phoenix got the reference immediately. Diego hadn't forgotten their conversation on the day of that brief prison visit. The way he spoke about it, it might have been a few weeks ago instead of years.

"Yeah, I've been practicing."

"It shows." He inclined his head. "Would you like to come with me?"

"Where are you going?"

Diego nodded in the direction the ground rose in, toward the mountain's peak. "Up."

"Up sounds good."

Diego had long legs and made long strides, and Phoenix struggled to keep up with him as he made his way up the steep slope. Diego didn't slow down or accommodate him in any visible way. He didn't so much as glance over his shoulder to see if Phoenix was keeping up. Phoenix wondered if he would have slowed down for anyone. Maya and Pearls, yes, but probably no one else.

By the time they reached the top, Phoenix was all but panting. Leaning forward, resting his hands on his knees, he paused to catch his breath, sorry that it had run away from him a little more quickly than it used to.

"Not bad," said Diego.

"Was that--a test?" asked Phoenix.

"Does it matter?" asked Diego. "If it was, you passed it. If it wasn't, there was no way to fail."

Phoenix tried to decide if this was a friendly gesture or a display of alpha male dominance. Maybe it was both. "Thanks, I think."

Diego grunted, but it was an amused grunt. He wasn't looking at Phoenix. He had turned to gaze down at the valley below. Not that Phoenix could tell for certain, because with the way his head was turned, he could have watched Phoenix with a hidden sidelong glance, not that Phoenix was sure how much peripheral vision he had.

The sun had cleared the horizon, the morning progressing toward noon as it continued to rise. The sky was clear that day. Diego might have been thinking about anything as he studied the valley. His expression was half a mystery, his eyes always hidden.

Phoenix wondered how long they were going to stand up there. He could have headed back on his own, but he'd said he would go with Diego, so he'd wait with him, too. He wasn't in any hurry. He was on vacation, and the view was nice from where they were standing. The small village looked even smaller from up there. He picked out Fey Manor and the Kurain Boulder. The other, smaller houses looked more or less the same, and all the buildings were nearly swallowed by the land around them, golden and green and mostly growing wild.

When he tired of the view, he glanced at Diego. The man had changed, and it was not only that the years had made him older and leaner. Phoenix couldn't sense the old agitation in him. Instead, he felt a sense of calm emanating the tall, oddly quiet man. What Phoenix couldn't decide was whether it was the anticipatory calm before a storm, or the softer one, after the rains were gone.

Whatever Diego was waiting for, standing on the mountaintop, it must have come to pass, although Phoenix saw no discernible catalyst for Diego turning to him and saying lightly, "We'd better go, or we'll miss lunch." He didn't speak on the way down any more than he had on the way up, but Phoenix had an easier time keeping up him as they descended. Gravity was on his side.

Lunch was a haphazard affair at Fey Manor. Everyone made a little something, and then all the little somethings came together into one big meal. Phoenix hadn't been sure how Diego would fit in, but there was nothing jarring about his presence in the kitchen. His manner toward Maya and Pearls was nothing like it had been up on the mountain. He was open with them, his mouth one bright smile. He told jokes, laughed at the girls' jokes, and he knew a lot more about cooking than Phoenix did. Phoenix could see why Pearls called him "Uncle". He seemed like one of the family. Trucy took to Diego at once, but then, she took to most people. By the meal's end, she had introduced him to Mr. Hat, and they--Trucy, Diego, and Mr. Hat--were chatting like old friends.

After lunch, Diego conscientiously helped with the cleaning up, but before Phoenix had a chance to talk to him again, he had disappeared. Which sounded dramatic, but really he had left in a perfectly ordinary way while Phoenix was washing his hands in the bathroom. He left, and he remained absent for the rest of the day. His absence wasn't discussed beyond the mere mention of it, but Phoenix was a bit puzzled by it. The man was like a ghost, flickering in and out without warning. That was a slightly unsettling comparison to make in the context of Kurain Village, but fortunately, he was a metaphorical ghost and literally alive.

Phoenix saw Diego again the next morning, when he left the manor to go on his morning walk. This time, Diego was waiting for him within the village rather than wandering through the woods like a mysterious mountain man.

"Morning, Nick," he said. He was seated atop a low stone wall, holding a cup of coffee.

"Morning," said Phoenix. A couple hours of listening to Maya and her constant flow of Nicks had apparently altered Diego's vocabulary.

Diego took what seemed to be the last sip from his cup, then set the cup down on the wall and rose to his feet. "Let's go."

"Wait, we're going somewhere?" This was news to him.

"Yes, on a hike."

"Right." He wasn't exactly looking forward to another swift and forceful march up the mountain, as he preferred to take his time, but he didn't feel he should refuse, either. If this was how Diego wished to socialize with him, then he'd try it out a few times and see how it went. "I sure do love a good hike."

It could have been his imagination, but he thought Diego walked more slowly this morning, for which he was grateful. He did take the same path, and they ended up in the same place. The weather was cooler than yesterday's had been, a difference that the higher altitude emphasized. There was more wind, and there were more clouds, skating across the sky in whatever direction the wind blew them.

Not unlike the weather, Diego was in a more talkative mood. "I like the hat," he said.

"Thanks." Phoenix touched a hand to his beanie. "Trucy made it for me."

This earned him a smile. "She's a great kid."

"Yeah, she is," Phoenix agreed. "The best." That was what all parents said, but that was because they were all right, he'd learned.

"You're different," said Diego.

"So are you," Phoenix returned.

"Not as different as I seem."

Phoenix shrugged. "Maybe I'm not, either."

"That could be," Diego admitted. "Seeming only takes you so far toward the truth."

"So how do you get the rest of the way?"

Diego laughed. "Ah, if I knew that--I would be a different man."

There was a bitterness in this laughter, unlike the way he'd laughed at lunch the day before. Which laughter was real? Was it both? Phoenix thought he understood the bitterness better than he had when they'd first met. There were things that made a man bitter, things you could only know by experiencing them yourself.

"I'd be a better man, then," said Diego.

"Who wouldn't?" asked Phoenix, and it was the first time he'd felt a sense of what could be called commiseration with Diego, because they laughed together then, and the note of bitterness that sounded between them was shared, even if it wasn't the finest thing they could have had in common.

***


It was surprising how quickly a chance event, after a single repetition, became a habit. After four or five days, their early hike had become a tradition, as venerable and inviolable as Christmas. Even Maya, Pearls, and Trucy began to refer to it as "their morning walk", in a tone that was both teasing and respectful. They didn't ask to go along, as if it were a special ritual that Daddies and Uncles were meant to do on their own, or maybe they wanted to have fun on their own in the mornings, without a couple old men hanging around.

Their tradition was little more than a week old, and Phoenix was still settling into it, when its existence was first threatened. The world didn't often give you enough time to enjoy what you had before it was taken away.

It happened quickly. They were standing on the mountaintop, their weirdly manly destination, and Phoenix asked Diego a question he probably shouldn't have asked. He didn't mean to. They were talking about an insignificant part of village life, the selection in the shops or the slowness of the post, and Phoenix forgot that he was supposed to be careful. It only took a moment to make a mistake. "Are you happy here?"

Such a little question, but so big.

"What kind of a question is that? Of course I am, Nick. This is where I want to be."

Phoenix felt cold. The sky darkened, and he heard a familiar, but unexpected sound. There was no other sound like it. He told himself afterward that it was the dragging and clanging sound of metal on metal, but there was nothing physical or metallic about it. He froze as he saw the locks. He'd forgotten about the magatama in his pocket. It didn't activate for just any lie. Someone could tell you they liked your bad haircut or that your girlfriend was perfect for you all day without a single disturbance appearing in the air around them. No, it took a significant secret.

Diego frowned, as if he felt something, too. He shuddered. The half of his expression that Phoenix could see shut itself off, like a door closing.

Diego knew more than most about the Fey Clan. He most likely knew all about magatamas. He faced Phoenix, and Phoenix felt the full force of his visor's gaze. Diego sensed--maybe not exactly what had happened, but he was aware enough to know that Phoenix had seen through his deception. Was he angry? If so, he didn't express it. He turned away.

"Diego, come back," said Phoenix, but Diego was already leaving him behind.

Phoenix sighed. He was at fault here. The magatama was useful in an investigation, but it wasn't fair to use it in personal conversations. He had brought it to Kurain Village so Pearls could do whatever it was she did to it, but he hadn't been carrying it around with the intention of using it. He liked the feel of it in his pocket. Its smooth, solid shape and familiar weight were reassuring. Unfortunately, it wasn't something that should be used as a lucky charm or worry stone. It was powerful, in its way. It saw through secrets. Murder investigations were one thing--in everyday life, people should be allowed to keep their secrets. He'd have to keep it in the suitcase for the rest of the trip. This was his vacation.

He made his way back down the mountain alone.

He didn't see Diego in the village. The living ghost had disappeared again. He returned to the manor, instead. Maya was alone in the manor, which wasn't unusual. Trucy and Pearls often ran off to play somewhere outside together. They were almost the same age and best friends, a thought that made him smile, even though he wasn't in the best mood currently. "You're back early," said Maya, peering at him suspiciously when she saw he was by himself. "What happened? Is everything all right?"

For the past week, they had been regularly walking up to the peak together and returning in time for lunch. Lunch was at least an hour away. "I don't know. I think I rubbed Diego the wrong way."

"What did you do, Nick?"

"What did I do? How come it's suddenly my fault?" It was his fault, true, but it had been an accident, not an insult.

"You can tell me. I won't be mad."

"I asked him if he was happy."

"Nick!" Maya scowled at him. With a huff of annoyance, she rolled up her sleeves forcefully, as if planning to give him a mighty punch.

He took a step back, though he knew she wouldn't hit him. He thought she'd appreciate the show of fear. "You said you wouldn't be mad."

"I'm not mad," she said, lowering her hand, and he believed her. Her moment of annoyance had passed. Now she seemed more sad than anything else, which made Phoenix feel worse. "It's not the best question you could have asked him."

"I see that now," said Phoenix. "It slipped out."

She patted him on the arm. "Don't worry about it too much. You didn't mean it, and I'm sure he knows that."

"Is he really that unhappy?" Phoenix asked.

"Of course he is, Nick. What do you think?"

Diego was too good at seeming to be what he wasn't. It was slightly maddening. Phoenix had to admire that about him.

"I told him he can stay here as long as he wants, but I don't know if it's what's best for him. It's hard to say what's best for other people."

"Did--" He still faltered before bringing it up, after all this time. "Did Mia say anything about it?"

"She did. She said she couldn't talk to him again. They already said goodbye." Maya frowned, glancing toward the window, toward where Diego's cottage stood. "I don't know. I think it might be nice, but she says he'll just keep holding on to her if she lets him, and that can't be good for anyone." Maya paused. Sadness flickered in her eyes, and maybe something else, which belonged to someone else. "I think he'll do that anyway."

"You're probably right about that." Diego was a stubborn man.

Fortunately--or perhaps unfortunately--they were both stubborn men. Phoenix looked for Diego the next morning, to see if he was ready to resume their habit of walks, but he couldn't find the other man anywhere. He knocked on the door of Diego's cottage, but there was no answer.

Because he was stubborn, and because he was annoyed, Phoenix climbed the damn mountain by himself that day. He stood on the top of it, defiantly, but it wasn't the same, being up there by himself.

Are you happy? Looking down on the rest of the world, he asked himself the same question, to see how it felt.

No, he wasn't happy. He was glad about some things, but overall, he would describe himself as discontent. Yet things could have been worse, in many ways. He was glad to be a father, and he was glad that he had his work. As secret as that work was, he was quietly making a difference for people. If not for those two things, he might have recoiled from the question of his happiness as well.

For the first time, he thought to wonder why Diego came up here every morning. Until now, Phoenix had simply gone along with him, unquestioning. From the peak, you could see a long way. Maybe the man was looking for something. Phoenix stood there and looked for it too, but he didn't find it. He didn't know what it was.

Another morning brought another noticeable absence. Phoenix decided that he'd had enough. He knocked on Diego's door again. When there was no answer, he knocked harder. "I'm not going away," he said, loudly enough for Diego to hopefully hear him inside. "I'm going to stand right here until you open the door. So I hope you're actually here and haven't gone somewhere else, or I'm going to be incredibly bored waiting and talking to myself."

That did the trick. The door opened, and a weary Diego appeared. "What is it, Wright?"

He'd been demoted to "Wright", if not all the way down to "Trite". Phoenix waved hello. "So you are there."

"I am."

"Can I come in?"

"If you must."

"I must," Phoenix insisted.

Diego stepped aside for him.

You've been busy?" Phoenix asked.

"That's right."

"Doing what?"

Diego shrugged.

"About the other day--I didn't mean to ask you about that. Or have my magatama on me when I asked. I should probably apologize."

Diego laughed. "That's fine, Nick. I lied. You caught me. That's fair."

This wasn't the response that Phoenix had been anticipating. "Then what's wrong?"

Diego took his time answering. A silence blossomed and grew. Phoenix wasn't sure if Diego was going to answer, until he did. "I saw something in your face when you asked me that question," Diego said.

Diego had the advantage over him there. He could see more of Phoenix's face than Phoenix could see of his. "What do you mean?"

"You asked me if I was happy."

"That's right."

Diego smiled at him, but there was no sense of commiseration between the two of them now, and the smile was a sharp one, bitter. "You didn't want me to say yes."

"That's ridiculous. Why wouldn't I want that?"

"You tell me."

Phoenix faced him. A strange feeling came over him. It had nothing to do with the magatama this time, because the object was safely tucked away in his luggage. It had to do with the fact that Diego was right. It had been easy for him to tell himself that he'd slipped up, that he'd spoken out of concern, but when he looked back, honestly, at that moment on the mountaintop, he saw it differently. Are you happy here? It had been a cruel question, a question he'd already known the answer to, and a thrill had gone through him when he'd received his answer.

He wasn't a good man. He didn't do the right thing. How could he admit that to himself? He'd hadn't always been that way. It wasn't what he wanted to be, but this time, it was Diego who had seen through to the truth.

"Go ahead, Nick," said Diego. "Tell me how you feel."

It was tempting. He felt a strong urge to do as the man said, to unleash all his anger and frustration, but he held back. "No. I won't. What good would it do? It's not going to change anything. It won't make me feel better. It'll only make you feel worse."

Diego was silent. So unlike he used to be. He had no angry words, no protestations. He listened.

It was Phoenix who was angry. "That's what you want, isn't it? For me to tell you that it's your fault. For me to make you feel like shit. I'm not going to do that. I'm not here to punish you."

Diego continued to watch him quietly, his visor a frustrating cipher. Phoenix did want to hurt him, but he resisted the urge. He didn't want to be the kind of person who would do that--even if he was. "It's not your fault," said Phoenix. It was when he said the words that he realized how little he meant them. Hiding behind them were his true words, the ones he didn't say. It is your fault. Someone died, and so many people were hurt, because you were foolish and you were proud and you were weak.

Those words had been inside him all this time, hanging between the two of them, a shadow over all they said and did. "It's not your fault," said Phoenix again, perversely, because he wanted to believe it. To believe he meant it. Anyone could be foolish, proud, and weak. He had made mistakes for the same reasons. Diego had been sick. He had been grieving. He should be forgiven.

Diego remained still. Quiet. Waiting for something, as expectant as he'd been while standing on the mountaintop. Was this what he'd been looking for?

Phoenix forgave him, then, as well as he could. It wasn't the best forgiveness, forced and incomplete and more than a little broken, but it was what he had to give. "Let's go," he said.

"Go?"

"On our walk."

Diego laughed, and the tension between them eased.

"The mountain's up there waiting for us," Phoenix said. "You don't want to disappoint a mountain, do you? Nothing's sadder than a sad mountain." He shook his head.

"No, I can't let the mountain down."

"A down mountain isn't much of a mountain," Phoenix agreed. "In fact, it's more of a depression."

"What kind of a man would depress a mountain?" asked Diego.

Phoenix had an answer ready. "A monster."

Diego nodded, gravely. "I don't want to be a monster, so it looks like I don't have any choice."

"I'm glad you saw the logic in my argument."

"It was the most logical argument I've heard in a while."

"You know me." Phoenix put his hands his hoodie pockets, giving his best smug look. "I'm a font of logic."

"Really? I thought you were more the emotional type."

"No, you're the emotional one. I'm the calm, rational one, remember?"

"Apparently, I forgot. Thanks for setting me straight on that."

"Anytime, Diego."

The mountain wasn't depressed that day. Phoenix felt a bit better himself. He saw how strained their relationship had been, how they'd been holding back. The strain had eased. They could actually talk to each other. Phoenix found himself cracking jokes, which made him realize that he hadn't felt as free to do that before. For the first time, he was free to like Diego.

Their tradition of morning hikes resumed. He caught Maya grinning about it, more than once.

Diego continued his own personal tradition of disappearing after lunch and not reappearing until the next day. Phoenix finally broke down and asked Maya about it. "Where does he go, anyway?"

"To the shrine, probably."

"What shrine?"

"The Shrine of the Masters, remember?" Maya asked. "I took you there once before, Nick."

This conjured up a vague memory of a building in the woods, stone walls and wooden arches. "Oh, right," he said, although that had been a few summers ago.

"The nuns say he goes there a lot."

"What does he do there?"

"Meditates. Prays. It's a shrine, Nick."

"Yeah. Right. That's what you do at shrines, isn't it?"

"Usually."

"Where is that shrine again?" he asked.

Maya shook her head. "Don't you go bothering Diego."

"Bother him? Me? I've never bothered anyone in my life," Phoenix said, his tone earnest, if not his words. Secretly, he thought to himself that it was only fair that he have his turn bothering Diego, after everything Diego had done to bother him in the past. He was sure Diego would agree with him on that--not that he intended to ask his permission.

The shrine was slightly difficult to find, as it was in the middle of the woods, and one had to leave the path to reach it. Phoenix remembered that he had decided not to visit it again because of his worries about bears. Diego must have been coming from the shrine when they'd first met on the trail. That day seemed so long ago. Vacation had a way of stretching out time, as well as making the rest of the world seem far away.

Silence as well as leaves cloaked the shrine. It was even further removed from the outside world than the village. Phoenix glanced around nervously as the leaves crunched beneath his feet, but there seemed to be no bears in the vicinity, no animals of any kind except the birds calling from the trees. There were no nuns around either, not that he could see. He wasn't sure if Diego was there, but even if he wasn't, his trip wouldn't be a wasted one.

He'd been wrong to avoid the shrine. A soft wind blew there, and a slender stream ran by it, talking in a sweet, low voice. Phoenix felt--welcomed, in an odd way. He entered through the gate set in the low stone wall surrounding the enclosure. The path from the gate inward lead him beneath a broad, red arch, then between rows of stone lanterns and up to a wooden building with a peaked roof.

Phoenix entered quietly, stepping softly across the weathered wooden boards. Then he saw him: kneeling before the shrine's simple, rustic altar. The man might have been a statue, for all he moved. He remained motionless as Phoenix knelt beside him.

Phoenix studied Diego, not the altar. The man's breathing was shallow, and Phoenix might have thought he'd fallen asleep, if not for the fact that he didn't believe anyone could sleep on their knees, with such perfect posture. Phoenix let time pass, until it became clear to him that Diego was not going to speak first. Then he took the initiative, moving closer, his posture no match for the other man's. "Can I ask you a question?"

Diego's body did not stir, but his mouth moved, and he answered at once. "I like to think I'm open to any honest question."

"Why are you here," Phoenix asked, "if you're not happy here?"

This question earned a pause before a reply came. "This is where I belong."

Phoenix shook his head. It was funny, once he'd seen the truth about himself, everything else looked a little clearer, too. Including the weird, obstinate, troublesome man kneeling beside him. "I know you love Pearls and Maya. But you're like me. You need your work." This was the man who had woken up from a coma and wasted no time getting a job as a prosecutor. He'd been half-mad and in need of therapy--physical and otherwise, but he'd gone right back to being a lawyer without a moment's hesitation.

Phoenix had to admire that. Even though it had been completely stupid.

"You're wrong, Nick. I'm done with that now."

"You want to spend the rest of your life here."

"That's right."

"You don't want to help people or do legal work of any kind."

Diego didn't precisely answer this question. He grunted.

"I don't believe you," said Phoenix.

"Leave me alone. That's what I want. To be left alone. To stay here. I want some peace, for once. I'm tired. Just let me rest, Nick. All right?"

Once, Phoenix might have said all right. He might have said that people made their own choices and you had to let them do it, but that was only partly true. He was only partly the same man he used to be. "Is that what she'd want you to do?"

Diego, who had remained admirably still except for the most basic movements that were needed to speak, flinched, and Phoenix was aware that he was being cruel again. He told himself that he was right, this time, and he didn't stop himself. Cruelty came easier with practice. That was a lesson he'd never thought he'd learn. "I think she'd tell you to grow up and stop feeling sorry for yourself, Armando."

"Wright," he said.

Phoenix instantly felt guilty. The man's voice had changed. It was shot through with pain, almost broken. Yet he didn't stop, and maybe he wasn't right this time. Maybe he was only cruel. "I didn't think the great Diego Armando was a coward."

"There is no such person. I'm not great. I'm only myself."

Phoenix hadn't allowed himself to become angry when they'd had their talk the other day, but here was something he could get angry about. "Do you think I didn't want to give up, after what happened? Of course I did. I'd have loved to just come here and never leave again. But I can't do that. Do you know why? Because people need me. People are dying because they're not being protected by the justice system that's meant to serve them, and I'm not going to let that happen. They can take a thousand badges from me, hurt my friends, take everything I have, but I'm not going to stop. I thought you were like that, too."

Was Diego looking at him or at the altar? He couldn't tell. The man said nothing.

Phoenix was surprised to find himself becoming so shaky, so expressive. This wasn't who he was used to being, not lately. Diego's absence was frustrating. Maddening. He found himself wanting to shake him up. It wasn't calm. It wasn't peace. It was more like a state of torpor. "Aren't you going to say something? Do something? Come on. Wake up!"

Diego stirred--finally, quickly. Phoenix didn't have time to react. The space between them was closed. Diego's hand sped toward him, and he flinched before he realized that Diego wasn't moving to strike him, only to seize him. He had but one bewildered instant to understand what was happening before Diego had taken hold of his shoulder, pulled him roughly close, and kissed his mouth.

It was a hard, fierce kiss. It was like being punched very gently in the mouth. Phoenix didn't resist. He didn't know what to do. He'd thought he'd gotten the better of Diego for once, but the man hadn't lost the ability to surprise him. Diego's kiss literally knocked him over. He found himself lying on the floor, the wood boards cool and firm beneath his head. Phoenix had heard of things like this happening, but he'd never thought to find himself in such a situation. He closed his eyes. The light from Diego's visor was too bright, so close to his face.

He had thought of kissing a man before, but in his thoughts, it hadn't been this man. It hadn't been anything like this. The man tasted like coffee. What else would he taste like? He tasted like coffee and cinnamon, and he smelled like the mountain, all wind and rainwater and leaves. He kissed like--someone who was great at kissing. Phoenix could only kiss back, hungrily, forgetting what it meant to breathe. Who needed breathing at a time like this?

It was Diego who broke the kiss. He pulled away, and Phoenix became dimly aware of the truth of the matter: he was lying on the floor in a shrine, straddled by Diego Armando. Diego was looking down at him, probably studying his face. Phoenix wondered what he saw. He wanted to ask, but he didn't ask. He didn't say anything. Part of him wanted Diego to leave, but for the most part, he wanted him to stay.

"I never asked for you to help me," said Diego.

"You never ask for anything. Maybe you should."

Diego touched his face. There was a tenderness in the touch, and it felt more intimate than the kiss had. "What if there's nothing I want that you could give me?"

Phoenix shrugged, a slightly awkward gesture when he was lying on his back. "That's a distinct possibility. I don't have much to give."

Diego's weight shifted, and Phoenix could tell he was about to rise to his feet. "Don't go."

"You know why I have to go, Wright."

"You always walk away," Phoenix said.

"Could be that's all I remember how to do," he said, as he stood.

"I'm not going to leave you alone, Armando. That's a promise."

Diego was leaving again. The floorboards creaked beneath his feet. He put his hands in his pockets and headed for the door. The sunshine spilling in through the doorway gave his white hair a crown of light.

"I'm hard to get rid of," said Phoenix, sitting up.

"I know," said Diego, his voice barely loud enough for Phoenix to hear him say it as he left.

Phoenix was left alone at the shrine. He turned toward the altar. He wasn't much for meditating, himself. "Mia," he said, "that man is trouble." Pot, kettle, was what he knew she'd say if he could hear her voice. "Yeah, you're probably right," he agreed. "I hope you don't mind that whole--kissing thing there. I swear, I didn't mean for that to happen."

Lightning didn't strike him down, and the sense of welcome in the shrine felt as warm as it had when he'd arrived, so he figured he was probably safe. He stayed there for a little while longer, enjoying that warmth, feeling at home.

As he'd promised, he was hard to get rid of. He made sure Diego didn't miss any of their morning walks. He made sure Diego stuck around after lunch. He tried not to let him walk away so much. It was good to see him happy. Trucy adored him almost as much as Pearls did. He let them brush his hair and tie ribbons in it, a pastime they seemed to find endlessly entertaining. He let Trucy conjure coins from his visor and pull silk scarves from his coffee cups. When Pearls called him Uncle, the word no longer sounded strange, and Phoenix couldn't imagine her calling him anything else.

He didn't mention the kiss, and neither did Diego.

Summer vacation was a time outside of time, but time caught up to it at last. Phoenix had a job to do--more than one of them. He couldn't stay away forever, although sometimes he wished he could. It would be simpler.

On the night before he left, he couldn't sleep. One thought kept him awake: there would be no morning hike the next day. There wouldn't be time. The young but time-honored tradition was dying out. Was it ending forever? Would it return to life next year? It was hard to say what would happen, between one year and the next. Whenever Phoenix tried to predict what the future would bring, he invariably ended up missing the mark by a mile. Better not to try and look ahead. Better to keep an eye on the world around and see what you could do, right then.

Phoenix looked around. He saw what he could do.

He found himself knocking on Diego's door in the middle of the night.

"What is it, Nick?"

Phoenix could tell from the fact that Diego was still dressed and from the quickness with which he'd opened the door that he hadn't been sleeping either. "I've got a crazy idea," Phoenix said.

"You? Come up with something crazy? Surely not."

"I know. You'd never expect that from me." He grinned up at Diego. This man was his friend. He could knock on his door in the middle of the night, propose something ridiculous, and it felt as natural as breathing. "Let's take our walk now."

"Now? It's pitch dark in the woods."

In reply, Phoenix switched on one of the flashlights he'd brought with him.

Diego's visor seemed to glow even more brightly in the dark. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"Deadly serious."

"Then let's go."

"You didn't take as much convincing as I expected," said Phoenix, as they headed through the village, toward their usual trail.

"Let's just say I like a good crazy idea."

It was, perhaps, a crazier idea than Phoenix had realized. The trail at night had mysteriously grown steeper and more treacherous. Even with the flashlight, it was harder to see where he was putting his feet. He fell, more than once--and Diego fell too, if not as many times. They should have turned back, but they didn't turn back. They laughed, like they were drunk, although they hadn't had a drop to drink.

"We're going to die out here," gasped Phoenix, pausing for hysterics after he'd nearly taken another dive.

"It's not the worst way to die."

"Thanks for cheering me up."

"If there's one thing you can rely on me to do, it's cheer you up."

Phoenix knew he was kidding, but the man had a great deadpan delivery. Phoenix could still learn a few things from him.

By some miracle, they didn't die. They made it to the top of the mountain, and Phoenix could see how full of stars the sky was. The sight made him sorry he was going home so soon. He could never get enough stars, and they were so hard to see, back in the city. "We conquered the mountain," said Phoenix, feeling absolutely foolish and completely alive--not to mention winded and bruised.

"So we did."

"But I just realized something."

"What's that, Nick?"

"Now we have to go back down."

"That's right, Nick."

"We're really gonna die out here, aren't we?"

"Don't worry," said Diego. "I'll save you from the mountain."

He was a man of his word. They made it back with only one incident. At roughly the midway point, where the mountain joined the valley and the trail began to level off, Diego hissed through his teeth and stopped Phoenix with a hand against his chest. "Look at that," he whispered.

Phoenix looked and froze. There, ahead of them, was one of the famous bears of Kurain Village. It was walking calmly across the trail, and as he watched, it turned its head and paused to regard them curiously. "Diego," whispered Phoenix, "what should we do?"

"Just wait right there. It's fine. None of us want any trouble."

The bear watched them for another moment or two, then grunted and continued on its way. The bushes rustled around it, then it disappeared into the darkness. Diego started forward, then paused. "You coming with me?"

"Are you sure it's okay?"

"I promise."

Phoenix decided to trust him. "You know," he said after they'd walked for several minutes and he'd noticed no angry bears pursuing them, "I'd been beginning to think that the village tourist board made them up."

"You thought they invented bears?"

"Ha ha. Very funny, Diego."

"The bears are out there, but they like keeping to themselves. They don't want to hurt anyone. You were lucky to see one."

When he looked at it in that light, he felt better about it.

"That was one of the most exciting nights I've had recently," said Phoenix as he walked Diego back to his cottage. He was already feeling the effects of their night journey. He knew he'd feel worse in the morning, and that the train ride home would be exceptionally long and painful, but he couldn't bring himself to regret it.

At the cottage door, they paused. Diego would see them off the next day, Phoenix was sure, but that would be more for Trucy's sake than his. This was their real good bye. "I'm glad I got to know you better," said Phoenix. He'd never been much good at goodbyes.

Diego was better at them. He leaned in and kissed Phoenix again. This kiss was gentler than the first kiss. It didn't knock him over. Not to say that it wasn't good. Not to say that his legs didn't weaken.

"What are we doing?" Phoenix asked, when they paused for breath.

"I don't know," said Diego, and kissed him again. "Something we shouldn't do," he murmured, as they stumbled inside.

"Yeah, I think--it's a bad idea," Phoenix agreed.

It was a terrible idea, but the kisses grew fiercer, and Phoenix didn't object. Diego was warm and hungry, all but biting at his lips. They fell onto the couch together, clumsy with the late hour and maybe a touch of hysteria. Phoenix grabbed on to Diego's shoulders, and their heads collided. Kissing Diego was a tricky business, because the visor got in the way, as it did now. Phoenix's nose struck the hard surface, and the object was--not knocked off, but knocked askew.

"Sorry about that."

"It's fine, Nick. It does get in the way." He put his hands up to his face, but instead of straightening the visor, he removed it.

Phoenix looked into his eyes for the first time, since--no, it was the first time he ever had seen his full face in person. Diego's eyes didn't focus on him. Their gaze flickered, not settling on any one point. Diego smiled at him.

Phoenix touched his face. Diego let him. Phoenix touched his cheek, and then the pale scar, years old, that cut across the bridge of his nose. Diego didn't flinch. He remained motionless as Phoenix's fingers traced the slightly raised line of scar tissue. A thought came to Phoenix: he trusts me, and this meant more than the kisses had.

They'd grown calmer. They sat on the couch together, breath and pulses slowing. The hot, desperate moment had passed. Whatever they'd been going to do, they weren't going to do it now. That was probably for the best.

"I'll miss you," said Phoenix.

"I'll miss you, too."

"It's been a good summer."

"I think so," Diego said. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

There were more words they could have said, but they didn't speak them. Phoenix thought he knew what those words were, the ones Diego left unsaid. He hoped Diego understood as well: the things he might have said. "I should go. Got an early morning ahead of me."

"Night, Nick."

The morning was gray. Sometimes the weather behaved itself and matched its mood. It was time to go back: to his seemingly endless, mostly thankless work; to long nights at the Borscht Bowl; to dinners with Kristoph Gavin, which were always a delight.

Diego, Maya, and Pearls waited with them at the station. When the train came, he and Trucy said their goodbyes. Maya hugged him tight. "You'd better behave yourself. And don't forget to call!"

"Have I ever forgotten?"

"No. But probably because I always remind you."

He was happy to let her take the credit.

"You look tired," said Trucy, as the train took them away.

"I feel it, too."

"You should probably take a nap."

He saluted her. "Yes, ma'am. I'll take a nap in a minute." He didn't want to sleep yet. He watched the countryside through the window, rolling steadily past. When he looked back, he could still see the mountain in the distance. "How are you feeling?"

"It's sad to leave," said Trucy. "But it's good to go back."

He nodded. "Well put." There were things he loved in the city, too. That was where life was waiting for them. "I've got an idea. How about we get noodles for dinner tonight?"

"And then ice cream?" asked Trucy, hopefully.

"And then ice cream."

Phoenix gave a start when Trucy tapped him on the shoulder, a few minutes later. He'd been staring out the window, not thinking. "Don't worry, Daddy," she said. "We'll go back next year."

He could no longer trust that the next year would be the same as this one, that things wouldn't be utterly changed, but Trucy had more faith in continuity. He decided to agree with her version of the future, until it was proven untrue. "I'm already looking forward to it."

***


It took a week or so for everyday life to sink into his skin and turn him into his usual self. It was easy to slip back into the old routine, to leave forests and stars behind.

He woke up early every school day for Trucy's sake, no matter how late he was up the night before. It was what he did. He was her father, however stumbling and bleary-eyed a father he might have been. He could make breakfast, even if it was cold cereal and juice. He could be there to tell her to have a good day. On certain days--bad days--he felt like he couldn't do much, but he could do that. Little actions mattered, if only a little.

After one of those bleary breakfasts, he was about to go back to bed when he heard a knock on the door. He ignored it. It couldn't be Trucy, since she had a key, and it was unlikely to be a client for the talent agency. Anyone else would have called ahead. His friends knew not to bother him in the mornings. He wasn't a morning person.

At a second knock, he sighed. There was the chance that it was someone who needed his help, so he shuffled over to the door.

"Good morning, Nick."

Phoenix blinked at the vision before him: a tall man with a cup of coffee in each hand. His vest was crisp, and his tie was white. "Morning, Diego," said Phoenix. He reached out to take one of the cups as Diego offered it to him. It felt warm in his hand. He took a sip from it, and he wasn't surprised to find that Diego had remembered how he took his coffee: two sugars, one cream. It was touching that the man had willingly adulterated the purity of coffee for his sake.

"You ready to go?" asked Diego.

"Sure am," said Phoenix. He didn't need to ask what Diego meant. He understood. It was time for their walk.
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