Stephen grit his teeth and he lowered himself again into the half-squat position while extending one of his permanently trembling hands before him as he drew the other back near his waist. Letting out a deep breath, he concentrated… and nothing.
Stephen repeated the action to no avail.
"Look." Stephen interrupted irritably as he straightened up. "I get it - you don't want to teach me. But I am trying, the least you could do is try resp-"
"You think I'm showing you special treatment?" Maya asked, raising a brow. "How cocky of you to think you are being treated differently from any other new recruit."
"How is this not being treated differently?" Stephen demanded. Maya crossed her arms.
"Do you think Pangborn learnt to walk again because I babysat him and held his hand?" Maya queried. "The Mystic Arts takes patience and great willpower to learn. I do not do any more than the minimum basics with any student who has arrived here either because they want to learn a few parlour tricks or out of sheer desperation to fix the hand life has 'unfairly' dealt to them."
"You thought you were the only one to come here, crying his sad story? I've seen plenty come and go, but very few stay enough to learn as Pangborn did. As Mordo did. I am hard on you, doctor Strange," Stephen absolutely started at the sarcastic use of his title, "because, amongst other things, I am waiting to see if you will break and give up as countless before you have."
"I won't give up." Stephen replied. Maya simply raised a brow.
"They all say that in the first week." She informed him. "We'll see if you're still here in three. Now - again."
Stephen bent his legs, this time refraining from grimacing either from exhaustion or from irritation. For the first time he pondered the possibility that her rather hardcore approach at drills and exercises wasn't related to her apparent dislike of him as a person. To be fair, he had noticed that she was strict but she had not been cruel - yet. But Stephen had never really thought about how many people must have failed to complete what he was just starting to attempt. It had never crossed his mind to give up once he'd realized just what the Mystic Arts offered but he now realized that to someone like Maya, who had lived her entire life at Kamar-Taj, his determination could easily appear superficial. She had no idea what he was really like, just as he didn't really know her. Who knew, maybe she was really a sweet woman who liked My Little Pony, or something?
'Okay, maybe not that far.' He thought as he failed yet again to produce even a spark.
Although he did gauge that this didn't mean he was a failure from the way Maya simply told him to repeat the movement. He had no doubt she would have said something by now if he was learning slower than the average person for, while she didn't seem cruel, Maya definitely didn't like him for reasons yet unclear to him. Which was fine by him as long as she taught him in the end - and he had no doubt she would keep her word and do that if he just proved he was here to stay and learn.
'I'll just have to show her.'
Maya grinned as she walked down the corridors of the temple after an interesting conversation with Wong, the new Guardian of the Library.
It had been two months since Stephen's arrival, two months in which he had shown enormous progress in his theoretical knowledge even if his practical application had yet to be successful. Two months in which he'd worked hard but had shown neither proof that he was a good man like Mordo claimed or a weak one in the face of power like Maya believed.
With neither of their opinions as yet proven right, Maya was still grudgingly giving Stephen a fair chance to show his true colours, whatever they may be. Their lessons had soon moved on from the drills and exercises (which, to Maya's disgruntled acknowledgement he completed without a word of protest after the first and only one) and onto spellwork and dueling practice (sans magic for the moment given that Stephen had yet to produce anything more than sparks).
Her Ama seemed to be inclined toward Mordo's belief the longer Stephen remained with them, which served to set Maya further on edge. Her fear that they were just setting themselves up for heartache and danger never dimmed although she didn't take it out on Stephen as she had that first lesson together. She instead took it out on the study in the Mirror Dimension where she practiced when meditation didn't always work - and on amusing stories such as the one Wong had provided.
It appeared Stephen had attempted his odd sense of humour (that had so far failed with Maya - at least, to his knowledge and she would kill before she admitted she had bit back a smile more than once) with the librarian who had found him genuinely less than amusing. Although the fact that Stephen had managed to clear all the foundational theory books in a record time that they had not seen since… well, ever was an impressive feat, Wong was as wary as Maya of the bright but formerly conceited physician the Ancient One had accepted into their midst. This was furthered when Stephen had shown a curiosity in the book of Cagliostro but Wong had recounted to Maya how his story about Kaecilius's actions and Wong's promise to punish anyone who dared to repeat Kaecilius's transgressions had been met by a spooked reaction from Stephen. It seemed the former surgeon was more innocent than she'd attributed him to be - she had expected him to rather take offense.
Either way, it was still an amusing story and she was still laughing to herself at Wong's description of Stephen's face as she walked toward the training courtyard where Stephen was probably training now.
Speaking of his training… despite Stephen's leaps and bounds in the theoretical knowledge, he had shown great struggles in the practical applications. He had yet to conjure up more than sparks of energy despite his body having grown much more flexible and agile since he had begun training with her. The reports from Mordo and other Masters who led Stephen and the rest of the students in training had stated the same: that, despite clear frustrations, Stephen had yet to conjure up even a gateway with the sling ring.
Maya knew what the problem was. Stephen's trauma regarding his lost reputation and the way he had lost everything he had worked so hard to achieve throughout his life in the blink of an eye, was something that plagued him whenever he saw his permanently shaking hands. That they continued to shake was a reminder of his failures, something he couldn't forgive. And given that the Mystic Arts relied on the movements of the hand as a channel for energy, Stephen had no escape from the constant reminders. It disrupted his concentration and held back his progress.
She still remembered the conversation - if it could be called that - they had had in his last training with her the day before.
"Stop." Maya sighed at last.
Stephen lowered his arms, frustration written all over his face as he glared at his trembling hands.
Stephen looked up, startled at the use - however reluctant it had been on Maya's part - of his first name. Maya shook her head at him as she admonished, "It is not your hands."
"How is it not my hands?" Stephen demanded, irritation flaring again. He had grown increasingly frustrated over the past two months as his mind soaked in the new knowledge around him but his body just would not listen, insisted on continuing to betray him. "Look at them, they, they-"
"Think of it this way," Maya interrupted, tired of the rants he always fell into whenever his hands were brought up. "When a sailor sets out at sea, does he try to control the water or the wind when he charts his course?"
"... No." Stephen replied grouchily. Maya gave him a pointed look.
"So why do you try to do exactly that?" She questioned. "You continue not to accept that you cannot will the Mystic Arts to do your bidding yet you accept the 'logical' fact that a sailor who yells and attempts to beat the sea into submission is doomed to fail."
Stephen remained silent and Maya said heavily, "The Mystic Arts are like forces of nature that encompass all of reality. Like the forces of nature, they cannot be forced to match our whims. We can only change the direction of our sails, bend ourselves to the current and direct our course to our desired destination. That is how we harness the energy; that is the only way we can, for lack of a better word, control it."
Stephen hadn't said anything after that, even when she wrapped up their lesson. She knew he wasn't convinced, that in his head he still cursed his hands for his failure to master even the simplest of spells.
It was all in his mind, however. Stephen was still too used to a world where the limits of the physical body dictated what could or could not be accomplished - fueled again by the way his career had been cut mercilessly short after his accident left his hands permanently unable to steadily hold a scalpel let alone place it to a brain.
But the state of one's physical body was not important for the actual spellwork beyond the simplest and basest requirements. Physicality was important for anyone who wished to learn the Mystic Arts to endure the hours of training, which was why she had emphasized it so heavily in his first training (in addition to intending to knock his ego down a peg or two).
And then there was the danger. With power came dangerous adversaries, and danger was not far on the horizon with Kaecilius still loose somewhere outside of their little sanctuary. That said, with the progress Stephen was making, he would be in no position to fight an inflatable duck let alone Kaecilius unless he learnt to calm his mind and his emotions. And, despite herself, this worried Maya. No matter how much she disliked Stephen's inherent arrogance, she had no wish to see him killed. He was now her student, for better or for worse (and until she kicked him out, if or when it happened), and she felt responsible to protect him.
It was ironic that it was as this thought crossed her mind that she reached the training courtyard, only to find Mordo and the Ancient One the only ones left standing in the open area. Maya frowned.
'Where is everyone?' She wondered. Surely training had not ended already - she would have thought that at least Stephen would be doing some final exercises to try stimulate his powers and encourage him to let go of his irrational fears, fears that his so-called logic unwittingly encouraged.
It was only when she saw the way Mordo seemed to anxiously bounce on his feet as he and the Ancient One stared intently into thin air while the youthful elder absently turned a fan over and over in her hands behind her back, that Maya realized what was going on. She paled.
"You didn't." She gasped as she came up beside the other two, addressing her words to her mother.
Mordos's expression was worried as he glanced at her while the Ancient One didn't even look away from where she was watching the air expectantly. Maya groaned.
"By Agamotto, I hope you're right about him, Ama." She muttered as she also waited.
Two seconds passed before Maya asked tensely, "How long has it been?"
"One minute." Mordo replied equally tersely. "Since I found her waiting."
So Stephen had been gone over a minute; he'd have less than one and a half to get back somewhat alive. Maya tensed and the Ancient One asked calmly, "Are you concerned about him, Maya?"
"He is my student." Maya replied curtly but unable to keep the concern from her voice. "He may be an asshole with an over-inflated ego but that doesn't mean I wish him death."
"He will not die." The Ancient One replied but there was now a hint of urgency in her tone as Stephen continued to not appear. "Any second now… any second..."
Five more seconds passed and Maya broke in, "Ama-"
Her mother's grip tightened on the fan and Maya was about to conjure up a gateway to the top of Mount bloody Everest where her mother had trapped Stephen, when suddenly the air before them sparked. Maya watched stoically, hiding her relief, as an orange circle of sparks appeared in the air before them and a freezing cold wind abruptly blew their way.
Stephen tumbled through the gateway almost immediately after it fully materialized. He was exceedingly pale, covered in icicles with a matching snow-tipped shaggy beard, and there was a worrying tinge of blue to his extremities from his exposure to the freezing temperatures atop the mighty Himalayan mountain in only his gray training robes. But he was alive as he lay shivering on the ground before them.
Mordo relaxed visibly in relief and the Ancient One smiled, before she lifted her head and gave Maya a knowing look. Her daughter pursed her lips and turned on her heel.
"He's still an asshole." Maya muttered as she walked away to fetch thick blankets and a hot pot of tea.
As the Ancient One had hoped, his brief trip atop Mt. Everest was the turning point for Stephen's training.
After shivering his way to recovery under the layers of blankets and cups of hot tea that Maya all but forced on him, Stephen had retired for the night. He arrived for training the next morning with a clearer head and confident determination; two days later, he was cleanly shaven and his hair trimmed and styled neatly back for the first time since probably his car accident almost a year ago. It was impressive not the least because his goatee was actually straight and even, not to mention closely cropped, but because of what the trust in his own hands to cut at hair near his face represented.
Maya didn't say anything but she caught the Ancient One's eye as she began her training with Stephen once more. His healing has begun.
And what healing it turned out to be. Maya was shocked by how quickly Stephen improved over the months following his trip to Everest, his knowledge soon catching up to not just the most advanced of all the students at Kamar-Taj but even the Masters. Even herself. His skills still needed heavy work but even there his progress was astounding, as Maya found herself telling the Ancient One in surprise more than once.
His spars with her had shifted from sessions of entertainment on her end to actual enjoyable exercise. Yes, she still kicked his ass every time but he resisted a little bit longer each time and his Eldritch whips were forming well under her tutelage.
It was the first spell that he mastered fairly quickly, to his delight and Maya's grudging approval.
"Now, summon it like this."
Maya showed Stephen the motions to pull an Eldritch wand before her body. Stephen copied her movements, drawing a long and stiff line of yellow energy before him. Maya nodded in approval.
"Now, let it go on the top."
She released the tip of the wand so that she was now holding the line of yellow energy in just her right hand. She expected the energy to peter out when he let go, and Maya was preparing to repeat her actions for him as Stephen paused with his brows furrowed just slightly.
But he surprised her as, with a flourish that was probably not necessary but which likely had helped him to maintain his control, Stephen released his Eldritch wand and held it before his face.
"Like this?" He asked, briefly enjoying the way Maya briefly ogled at him. It was only to be the beginning of many similar instances as Maya tried to learn to mask her reactions but she wasn't very good at hiding her honest opinions. And even months later, Stephen would enjoy the way she would often gape - if only briefly - at his impressive progress.
For now, he was elated by the reaction, the first positive one he had received from Maya since his training had begun. It had Stephen grinning from ear to ear as Maya recovered and showed him how to crack the wand in his hand.
"Now, use it like this."
She moved her hand in a very specific movement, causing the tip of the energy stick to extend and crack like a whip. With the right movement Maya was soon easily throwing the whip about, curling it and using it to wrap around the nearby tree branch though she was careful not to break it.
Getting the Eldritch spell into a whip form, Stephen mastered with impressive speed although learning to use the Eldritch whip effectively turned out to be a little more of a challenge. Stephen wasn't used to wielding anything besides a scalpel and despite his sparring with Maya, this was a different type of dueling that his body wasn't used to.
He kept wiggling the whip around rather than having it crack sharply, let alone curl around the tree branch effectively. But under Maya's close tutelage and after working on it for nearly an hour, he soon had the action mastered. By the time they reached the end of their lesson, he was whipping the length of yellow energy back and forth quite comfortably. Maya shook her head.
"I'll give it to you, Strange." She told him in her usual stern, no-nonsense voice although her lips were twitching. "You're not as hopeless as I thought."
Stephen grinned, knowing the deeper compliment that lay behind Maya's far from sweet words. And somehow, it made it more worth it, knowing how difficult it was to elicit praise from the strict master. It was therefore a much more satisfied Stephen who went to bed that day, feeling stronger and more like himself than he had in months.
Unfortunately, with his improvements returned the old arrogance that had been dimmed since his first day at the temple. As the months passed and the season changed, Maya found herself arguing with her latest pupil far more than even she had expected, to both her and Stephen's growing frustrations.
"That is not how it's done, Strange." She snapped, glaring at the tall man who was now usually dressed in dark blue robes. He'd advanced through the classes faster than anyone before, even herself - something that rekindled the worry inside her which had never really disappeared.
"For the millionth time, it's Stephen." Stephen shot back. "And why not? What difference does it make if I turn my hand left and then right, instead of right and then left? It makes the movement faster, the spell stronger-"
"It's a question of discipline and patience. Lessons that you seem to have never studied let alone applied - and that includes the lesson on respect." Maya said irritably. "For once, would you just do as you're told, bevakupha?"
"What does that mean?" He demanded. "And don't say 'newcomer', you're really a horrible liar, it's quite entertaining."
"Does it matter?" Maya snapped to shut him up. "Now move!"
She punctuated her remark with a kick Stephen wasn't fast enough to avoid. And he swore at her internally for the duration of their sparring training, calling her every bad word he could think of as she beat him to a student pulp just to show him how far he still had to go before his questions would be taken seriously.