Mal had to admit to feeling more relaxed than she had in a long time. She tried to tell herself that it had nothing to do with the way Aurora smiled every time she looked up and met her eyes, but it was definitely helping. Diaval was laughing next to her, talking to a woman from down the road. Mal had been talking to one of Stephen's employees, who told her that his boss was ruthless and had a taste for blood when it came to business. She couldn't say that she was surprised from her brief encounters with him, but she hoped that he was a little nicer than he appeared. Aurora and Phillip didn't look unhappy, but Aurora's reaction to her step father earlier had left a little to be desired in warmth.
Blue eyes met hers again and the smile was back, although Aurora was wrestling with a tired but determined Phillip.
"It's time for bed young man!" She said sternly, but fondly. "Say goodnight to everyone."
"No! Don't want to go! Tommy's not tired!" It was true; the puppy was enjoying the attention and fuss of the party guests and prancing around with his tongue hanging out. Mal had narrowly avoided getting slobbered on again just ten minutes ago, and had caught Aurora, with a mischievous glint in her eye, rewarding the puppy soon afterwards. So perhaps she wasn't so innocent after all, Mal mused.
"Tommy doesn't have to get used to a bed time because of school starting in a few days."
Phillip managed to break free and start to run. He headed straight for the hedge, to go and hide in Mal's garden, but she was seated nearby and caught him, swinging him up in to her arms. He looked at her surprised and then frowned.
"Miss Mal, don't let her take me."
"Now now Prince Phillip, if you don't get to bed, the Evil Queen might not come and play again. And she might never let you play on her land either." Mal flashed him a smile and he giggled.
"So.... if I go to bed... we can play again?"
Mal glanced at Aurora, who had arrived next to her with an incredulous expression on her face.
"Yes little Prince... if the Evil Queen wants to." She managed to blurt out, looking at Mal for confirmation.
"Of course." Mal gave her a smile and went to hand Phillip over. Phillip lunged for his sister.
"Yay! And Rory can play too, yes Rora?"
"If the Evil Queen will allow me. I would not want to trespass on her land; I hear she can turn in to a dragon!" Aurora mock whispered to the boy, sneaking a peek at Mal, who was chuckling.
"And dragons always eat little boys who stay up past their bedtime." Mal finished.
"Bed time. Now." Phillip demanded and Aurora threw a mouthed 'thank you' over his shoulder at Mal before taking him inside.
"You have a wonderful way with children. But none yourself?" Mal turned to find the group of people she had been sitting with staring at her, Stephan and Diaval included. The woman Di had been talking to had been the one to speak, but Stephan looked intrigued to hear the answer.
"I usually frighten children. It is rare to find one that doesn't find me intimidating."
"Her students call her all sorts of terrible names." Diaval smirked.
"Like what?" Stephan asked.
"Dragon, evil witch, evil b-"
"Yes thank you Diaval. I won't repeat any of the names they give you." Mal said pointedly, and Diaval grinned.
"At least mine are mostly complimentary dear. Although I've heard a few of those for you as well."
"Well how could you not? She's beautiful!" The woman exclaimed and Mal blushed a little.
"Thank you. But I don't think-"
"Ah of course you are. Don't bother pretending to be modest. Sit, have another beer." Stephan dismissed the conversation, but not before raking his eyes down Mal's body. She frowned but sat anyway. Now that Aurora had gone, she felt out of place once more, but Diaval was still chatting animatedly. He was a chameleon in personality, and could blend pretty much anywhere. Mal had always struggled to blend well in to any situations where she did not know a few of the people.
"So Mal, you're a teacher?" Stephan asked, off handedly and without much real interest. That was concentrating on his beer. She disliked that about him too.
"Lecturer. PhD." She replied.
"Lots of school." He said.
"Well, yes." She replied. Arrogant son of a-
"Never much liked school." He said. "Built the company up without much of an education, through my own sweat and toil."
"How... determined of you." She replied politely. Stephan's eyes narrowed momentarily, and returned to their mask so quickly she assumed she must have imagined it.
"Yeah well. Different sorts do different things I guess."
"Quite." She smiled. She felt Diaval shaking a little next to her, attempting not to laugh. Everyone was watching them.
"It must be so rewarding, teaching." Interrupted Diaval's lady friend. "And interesting!"
"Yes well... we're expected to do our own research and publish papers while we work there, so really I'm still learning. I love that about it." Mal smiled at the woman, who seemed genuine. She believed her name was Bella?
"I would have loved to teach."
"Why didn't you?" Diaval asked.
"Oh... well I... something happened and I had to give up on school. I guess things happen for a reason. Maybe I wouldn't be as content as I am today if I'd continued. Who knows?" She smiled. Diaval grinned at her. Mal rolled her eyes internally. Get a room.
Aurora reappeared, and Mal watched her discreetly as she walked across the grass. She pretended not to have noticed her approach, and turned to Stephan again.
"So Stephan, the garden looks wonderful. So pretty with all the lights. Did you put them up?" She said, looking at the fairy lights that flew above their heads attached to a willow tree.
"Did I heck. That's the girl. She wanted it to look 'beautiful'." Mal watched Aurora falter and cursed herself for bringing it up.
"Well I think it succeeds." She hurried to say. "And how nice to have the garden looking beautiful for all your guests. She must really care about how your party went."
Aurora arrived at the group, and everyone looked at her.
"Oh Aurora dear, Mal was just praising your decoration. It really is beautiful!" Bella said, clearly having noticed Stephan's stony face. Mal couldn't tell if it was because of the amount of alcohol he had consumed but he didn't appear to care about showing any love for his step daughter, not like at the beginning of the party. Perhaps it was because most of his business associates had gone by now, and the others were no where near the group.
"Thank you." Aurora smiled a small smile, but Mal could tell she was hurt by her step father's words. "I thought you might all want to stay a little later and I didn't want you to have to sit in the dark on such a beautiful evening."
"Well I think that's wonderful." Bella smiled.
"And the cake!" Diaval said, grinning at Rory. "Perfection! Don't you think Mal?"
"The best I've ever had." Mal smiled. "I'm jealous Mr. Thayer," She directed at Stephan again, even though she knew she shouldn't goad him. "Getting to eat food like that all the time? It must be heavenly!"
"Don't like cake." Stephan grunted, before standing. "If you don't mind, I have to go and speak to my colleague; he's just leaving." With that he was gone, and after a few moments of awkward silence, Aurora sat down and gave everyone a small smile.
"Since you all liked the cake, would you like to take some home?"
"It's not gone? Fools!" Diaval said dramatically. "Their loss, our gain hey guys?" Bella nodded and Mal smiled.
"I would love some Aurora." She said. "I should be getting back; I have a delivery coming tomorrow; I can finally finish unpacking."
"All your things hadn't arrived?" Bella asked.
"No, I brought only what I needed. It's pretty sparse in there at the moment, isn't it Aurora?" She turned to the blonde, who shook her head. Her hair cascaded around her and Mal got momentarily distracted by it.
"I think it looks nice. But I'm sure whatever comes will make it even better." She grinned.
"Right, Mal's a genius with decor, blah blah," Diaval teased. "Where's this cake?"
Aurora laughed as Mal elbowed her friend and stood up.
"I'll get you both some now, if you're leaving?"
"I should. If you want to stay longer Di...?" She asked, realising that Bella had his attention.
"No, I have to drive back to the city." Di looked disappointed. "But I could pop back tomorrow, help you unpack?"
"You will just get in the way." She scolded and then saw her friend giving her the signal; he wanted an excuse to see Bella. "But I could do with some help carrying some furniture upstairs. So yes. Come. Thank you."
"No problem, always there to help a lady... even if she is a dragon." He winked.
"Two slices for the Queen and her bird." Aurora teased. Diaval had told her about his tattoo earlier. Now he stared after her with a smirk and Mal had to chuckle in to her hand.
As Di said goodbye to Bella and wondered, out-loud, if she'd be around tomorrow, Mal went and said goodbye to Stephan. he might not be her cup of tea, but she still had manners. Which he did not, judging by the short goodbye he gave her in response. Then Aurora appeared, holding two large bits of cake wrapped in foil.
"Goodness, what a lot!"
"I made two cakes; they won't get eaten fast enough here." Aurora explained, smiling. She handed Mal one of them, and gestured that she'd walk with her. "I'm glad you came."
"Well, I had to see what garden was inferior to mine for hiding places. I have to say, yours is definitely prettier; the lighting." Mal gestured, embarrassed.
"Thank you. For earlier as well. I know... he's not used to giving compliments you see and... well I think I remind him of mother so..." She stuttered and Mal stopped her, gently touching her arm to bring her to a halt.
"You have nothing to explain to me." She smiled gently. Aurora glanced gratefully at her, that smile returning fully, like it hadn't reached since she had come across Mal playing make believe.
"Cake!" Diaval cried, descending on them. "Thank you Princess Aurora!"
"Oh... I am not a Princess. Phillip is the only royalty around here... except for the new Queen next door of course." She cast Mal a fleeting mischievous look again. Mal felt her new nickname.... or fonder use of what she was sure was an old nickname from many of her students... would be sticking. She found she didn't mind being Phillip and Aurora's Evil Queen so much. They could see past the fake.
"But if your brother is Prince, then you have to be a Princess!" Diaval laughed.
"More like nanny and scullery maid." Aurora chuckled. "But he's too cute to overthrow."
"I'd noticed." Mal said dryly. "As, I'm sure, has my garden." She threw a grin at Aurora, who giggled. "Well, thank you again for the invite Aurora. I'm sure I will see you again soon, the next time Phillip decides to invade the Evil Queen's castle."
"I'll be right over when he does." Aurora smiled. There was a pause between the two, until Diaval coughed, and both looked at him.
"Not to be rude, but I have to get to the city sometime before morning and my keys are at your house dear."
"Right. Yes. Well... Goodnight Aurora."