"I don't see why you're so nervous. It's just your neighbours, having a friendly barbecue, like neighbours do..."
"I will kill you." Mal glared at her friend.
"You look nice. Very suburban." Mal threw a cushion at Di which narrowly missed his face. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "It's true! Aurora will love it."
"Di, she's the same age as my students."
"And you were always the most popular for more than your teaching style."
She threw him another glare with a barely concealed grin on her lips; it was true. She'd seen the looks on the faces of some of her students. Something about her bright green eyes and high cheekbones, along with the way she dressed and painted her lips bright red, drew people to her. Even when she was in her worst moods, some of them still stared at her with fire in their eyes.
"Come on Di. We should go." She murmured, hearing conversations and music from next door.
"Sure. Just admit that you like her."
"Not like that. She's sweet. But she's... she's so young and innocent and..."
"And you don't really know that; you're just guessing and trying to find a way out of the fact that I have NEVER seen you behave like that with anyone before. You were almost... sweet." He pretended to cringe until she punched his arm.
"Shut up fool."
"Alright alright. Let's just go and be civilised. Remember, you want them to like you, not chase you out with pitchforks."
"The only one in danger of that is you."
Finally outside, Di offered Mal his arm and they both walked down the gravel drive and across the pavement to the gate of Rory's house. Mal was nervous; in the cities she had lived before, meeting neighbours was rare, especially for something so intimate and civilised. Phillip was sweet, and Aurora was the single sweetest adult she had ever met, but Diaval's teasing had made her anxious. She had just accepted them, in a moment of peace, and they seemed to have always been a part of her new house. Perhaps that is why she allowed Phillip to hide in the garden, and Aurora to constantly come looking for him. It had been a week since that first meeting, but Mal felt like she had been this way forever. She was almost dreading going back to work where people feared her and moved out of her way when she walked.
"Mal, you've gone all distant." Di nudged her. "What's wrong? Scared of the civilised?"
"Worried that maybe I don't fit here after all." She murmured in response. Diaval stopped them outside the house, the noise from the party coming from the back. He looked at her sternly and took her by the shoulders.
"Mal, this place is you. I know I'm teasing you but you deserve a little peace. Somewhere you can come after a hectic day and just relax. This is the place. So buck up and put on a smiling face." Mal nodded and took a deep breath. "Christ woman, you're not preparing yourself for battle."
"Shut up you idiot." She smiled fondly at him.
"Ooh okay that was weak. I take it back. We need your fire to get through this." She hissed at him and he chuckled. "That's more like it." Linking arms again they made their way around the back of the house.
The smell of cooking meat filled the air and the pair were met with an incredible amount of colour and light. The sun was still out but was low in the sky, a true late summer evening, and there were fairy lights strung up through trees and to the house. Everyone seemed to be wearing summer colours, and both Mal and Diaval felt out of place in their darker clothes. Mal wore her skinny jeans and black shirt; casual smart since she hadn't know what to expect. All the women appeared to be in summer dresses or skirts; Mal felt nervous creeping up on her again.
A man with brown hair that was swept out of his face, and sunglasses over his eyes, walked over. He was holding a bottle of beer and seemed to be very sure of himself. Cocky, almost.
"Stephen Thayer." He didn't offer a hand to shake, just swigged his beer. "And you are?"
"Mal Moore. This is Diaval."
"Not meaning to be rude Mrs Moore-"
"My apologies." He didn't look like he cared. "Ms Moore, but this is my party, and I don't know you."
"We were invited by Aurora." Diaval threw in before Mal could back out.
"Aurora?" Stephen frowned and then his eyes cleared with understanding. "Ah. You're the neighbour she's been talking about."
Mal felt her cheeks warm a little and internally berated herself as she nodded.
"Well then. Neighbours are welcome!" His entire approach had changed, and now he smiled. "Come, eat and drink." Then just as quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared back to his friends.
"Well. He's a bundle of laughs." Diaval murmured under his breath. Mal giggled and felt the tension leave her body. She and Diaval headed over to the table to fetch drinks, because she decided that she would not be getting through this without alcohol. She'd never been... sociable. Diaval set down one of her wine bottles that they'd brought, and grabbed himself a glass for it. Mal settled for a beer. "Oooh, beer huh?"
"I'm blending. Besides I like it."
"I remember. Weirdo." He chuckled. "Wonder where Aurora is?"
"Do not start that again or-" Mal was cut off as her legs got tackled by Phillip on a sugar high.
"Hi Miss Mal!" He squeaked in an excitable voice.
"Phillip. Are you behaving yourself?"
The young boy nodded and produced a wooden sword from behind his back.
"I play with Tommy!"
"Is that your friend?"
Phillip nodded his head again, and pulled on her trouser leg.
"I think you're supposed to follow." Diaval chuckled. "Please, go ahead. I'm going to explore the food."
"Behave!" Mal called after him as Phillip pulled her in the other direction. They went around the side of the house where a puppy was sitting. It leapt up and yelped at the sight of them, it's tongue lolling happily. "Is this Tommy?" Mal asked Phillip who nodded happily and hugged the puppy.
"Rora got him for me." Phillip smiled. "Wanna play?"
"Erm..." Mal said, suddenly looking for a way out. "I think-"
"I the prince, an Tommy is my house."
"Yes. Horse." He repeated carefully.
"Well that sounds lovely but I-"
"You can be the pwincess we have to... to..." he paused, confused.
"Rescue?" She finished for him. He nodded. "I'm not really the princess type little prince."
"Oh." He looked so sad, she felt bad for him. "But I... I could be a villain?" She offered hesitantly.
"Okay!" He laughed, happy again. She sighed, smiling, and nodded.
"Right. So what do I do?"
"You evil. Do magic an...." He paused for thought. "You die."
"Right." Sounds simple, she thought. She could be a baddie. Everyone thought that's what she was anyway. Drawing herself up, and hoping Diaval didn't see this because he'd mock her for weeks, she put on her terrifying voice that she used when students misbehaved. "Prince Phillip! You have trespassed on my lands, and now you shall pay!"
Prince Phillip stared at her and she wondered if she's been too scary. Then he laughed, and brandished his sword. Tommy yapped 'ferociously'.
"Evil...." He stopped. "Was your name?"
"I don't know... what should it be?" She smiled at him.
"Ummm... you just be evil qween?"
"Evil qween, I come to kill you!" He waved his sword in her direction. Mal tired to keep a straight and stern face, but the kid was adorable.
"Then I will... turn you in to a..." She looked around for inspiration and spotted a little pond. "A frog!"
"Nooooo!" Phillip cried and leapt forward with his sword. He poked Mal in the stomach with it and she clutched the spot. There might be a bruise because ow. Kid did not know how to be gentle. She sank to her knees.
"Oh no! I am dying!"
Phillip chuckled as she 'keeled over' lying on the floor. She died dramatically, trying not to chuckle and Phillip cheered. Then Mal heard clapping from behind her. Diaval, sarcastic bastard, she thought, and rolled over to scowl at him.
"Well done Prince Phillip. But maybe the evil queen could be turned good instead of dying?" Aurora stood there smiling, looking down at Mal with a fondness in her eyes that the older woman had not often seen directed at her.
"How?" Phillip asked. Mal raised an eyebrow at Aurora who chuckled and knelt down.
"Maybe you kiss her?"
"Ewwwwwwww." Phillip said. " I hate that part!" Mal chuckled and then resumed playing dead.
"Okay... what about Tommy?" Mal's eyes flew open and she gave Aurora a half glare that sent the young woman in to peals of beautiful laughter. Before the 'evil witch' could rise from the dead to prevent it, the puppy was on her chest and licking her.
"Ugh, ew get him off!" She laughed, picking the dog from her stomach and placing him to the side before she sat up, wiping her face on her hand. Aurora laughed as did Phillip, before he ran after Tommy to the back of the house.
"I'm sorry, but you did look funny." Aurora said as she offered Mal a hand. She helped her up, and Mal brushed grass from her jeans and shirt gently. "Do you want to wash your face?"
"Yes. I'll just run home and-"
"Don't be silly. You can use our water you know. We're not opposed to reformed evil queens here." Aurora laughed. Mal was going to protest, but she allowed herself to be led away by Aurora instead, without being entirely sure why. "Here, you can use this towel too." Aurora handed her a towel as she stared around the quaint little kitchen. This at least looked like what it could have been originally. Mostly wood surfaces, beautifully carved; it was very like her own new kitchen.
"Thank you." She murmured, and washed her chin free of any surviving dog saliva.
"You don't seem like the type to play." Aurora said. She was leaning on the worktop, eyeing Mal curiously. The older woman let her hair fall back around her face from where she'd tucked it out of the way of the water, and shrugged.
"Phillip is quite persuasive."
"But he couldn't manage to make you a 'pwincess?'" Aurora teased, laughing lightly.
"How long were you there?" Mal narrowed her eyes playfully.
"I've been trying to get him to say 'horse' properly for months. You did it once and suddenly he's a pro. The horse whisperer." She giggled again. Mal couldn't help but laugh with her. There was something contagious about her good mood.
"Well perhaps it's the teacher in me."
"You're a teacher?" Aurora's eyes shone.
"Yes I-" Mal began but they were interrupted by Stephan Thayer, who opened the door and barged in to the kitchen, a fresh beer in hand.
"There you are!" He glared at Aurora, and then noticed Mal standing there. "Ah, our neighbour!" Once again his attitude changed and he was smiling. "I hope she's not been boring you? She likes to talk this one."
Mal noticed Aurora was looking at her feet and frowned.
"No, actually. Aurora has been lovely." She cast the girl a kind smile when she saw blue eyes looking up at her gratefully.
"Well, to each their own. Come, you should meet your other neighbours. Your boyfriend is giving them a lot to talk about."
"Oh, he's not my boyfriend." She said, but Stephan was already leaving. Mal glanced at Aurora, who smiled at her.
"Go. I can't monopolise you." Aurora went to the door and held it open. "I have to get desserts ready anyway."
"I-" Mal wanted to know why the girl no longer looked as happy as before, but she didn't feel like she knew her well enough to pry. "I'll see you later?"
"Unless you try and sneak out without trying my chocolate cake." Aurora raised an eyebrow, and Mal bit her lip.
"I would never." She smiled, and Aurora's smile widened, returning to it's usual state.
"Good." She murmured as Mal went past her and back out in to the garden.