Despite the fact that Aurora Fae is pure sunlight personified, Mal has had to deal with her adoptive daughter’s bullies for pretty much every single year since Aurora began attending school. Aurora is now in the second grade, and Mal doesn’t know what it is that draws the cruel and cowardly to play children’s mind games with her little girl, but frankly, she doesn’t care. She’s going to put a stop to it if she has to educate Aurora herself, which is why she’s going to this farce of a “discussion” with Aurora’s teacher, one Mr. Bran, who only began teaching at the school at the beginning of the semester. Mal highly doubts he has what it takes to deal with Aurora’s bullies. All of the other teachers have been useless thus far, wanting to placate the other parents and baby the little brats who make Aurora cry.
As she rushes through the school corridors with murder on her face, Mal feels distantly guilty at being late for this after school meeting. The note that Mr. Bran had sent home with Aurora had specified that meeting begin at 4 p.m., but it was difficult for Mal to get away from work at that time – a CEO is not supposed to duck out early. Well, a competent CEO. Mal can't speak for the men in other companies she’s had dealings with.
When Mal finally reaches her daughter’s classroom, childish drawings and brightly coloured posters decorating the windows and walls, she pauses to take a few deep breaths and not reveal what a hurry she’s been in. She can’t afford to give Aurora’s teachers any ammo against her. It’s bad enough that she’s a single working mother and Aurora is adopted, they’ll look for any excuse to blame her for Aurora’s trouble fitting in.
She risks a glance into the classroom through the open door, poking her head around the corner, and is … a little surprised at what she discovers.
Aurora is sitting on the floor, calmly drawing a detailed picture of what is probably a fairy, if her current obsession is anything to go by. There is nothing unusual in that. But before is a man, sitting cross-legged and colouring along with her. This must be Mr. Bran. Mal can’t see his face at this angle, but he wears rather a lot of black for a teacher, and has dark hair to match.
Mr. Bran and Aurora are speaking, and if Mal concentrates, she can hear what they’re saying. She leans a little closer, edging around the doorframe.
“Aurora, you know what those boys said today wasn’t your fault,” Mr. Bran is saying.
Mal raises an eyebrow. Well. That’s more than Aurora’s other teachers have offered.
Aurora bites her lip and slows her colouring. “I know. I mean, I think I know. Mama says it’s not my fault either.”
“Your mother is a clever woman, then, Rory.”
Rory? Mal can’t remember that nickname ever coming up at home.
“But if it’s not my fault, I don’t understand …”
“Understand what?” Mr. Bran asks, softly. His hands are folded in his lap now, and he’s leaning forward with a serious expression on his face, making sure Aurora feels listened to.
Aurora scribbles a little harder than before. “I don’t understand why they would do it then. If I didn’t do anything wrong. It hurts my feelings, I don’t understand why they would do it if I didn’t do something bad.”
Mal’s heart aches in her chest at her words. Oh, Aurora. They’d discussed it hundreds of times, but Aurora never seemed to understand the pointless cruelty of other children … Too good-hearted for her own good.
Mr. Bran, to Mal’s surprise, appears to be thinking the same thing, because his expression turns pained.
“Ah, Rory. It’s not that simple. Sometimes people, even kids, are cruel for no reason. Or sometimes there is a reason, but it’s nothing to do with you, and it’s not an excuse for being mean. But I promise you one thing, Rory.”
Aurora looks up from her drawing. “What?”
“I won’t let anyone bully you anymore, as long as you’re in my class. And even next year too, ok? We’ll find you some friends to play with. I promise.”
“Okay, Mr. Bran,” Aurora says. Mal takes that as her cue.
She clears her throat from the doorway, and Aurora and Mr. Bran look up, seemingly unaware that she was listening.
Oh dear. Mr. Bran is … younger than Mal was expecting. And, well … There really is no other way to say he’s gorgeous without sounding like a completely trashy person, is there?
“Mr. Bran, I presume?” Mal asks, coolly, not betraying in the slightest the mild maelstrom of undignified shrieking going off in her head.
“That’d be me! Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Fae,” he says, swinging to his feet and holding out a hand to shake.
“Mama!” Aurora cries, brushing past Mr. Bran and running up to greet her. Mal smiles warmly at her daughter and leans down to hug her, whispering that she missed her today, before standing to face Mr. Bran.
“Just Ms Fae, Mr. Bran,” Mal says, before second-guessing herself to see if that counts as flirting. She’s pretty sure it doesn’t.
He shakes her hand with a smile. “Well, Ms Fae, feel free to call me Diaval. You’re not one of the students, after all. I’m glad you came, Aurora and I have just been practising colouring – she’s quite a talented artist, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I know,” Mal says. Of course she knows – Aurora’s been drawing like mad since she was a toddler. Mal couldn’t possibly be prouder.
“Glad to hear it,” Mr. Br – Diaval says. He turns to Aurora. “Well, little one, how about you keep colouring for a few minutes while I talk to your mother?”
“Okay,” Aurora says, beaming at him. She seems a lot cheerier now than she was a few minutes ago, and Mal wonders whether her daughter is that happy to see her or just wants to hide her pain – the thought sends a pang into her heart. “Be nice to Mr. Bran, please, mama,” Aurora whispers to Mal before she goes.
“I’m always nice,” Mal replies, and Aurora scampers off. Diaval tries to hide a smile as she leaves, her stage whisper having carried.
“If you don’t mind – in the hallway?” Diaval asks, gesturing out the door. Mal nods and leads the way. Outside, Diaval settles himself against the wall and crosses his arms, the picture of casualness. Mal stands straight, her crossed arms mirroring his.
“So. I understand Aurora’s still been having trouble with her bullies,” Mal begins, before Diaval can open his mouth.
“Yes, unfortunately. I imagine you were both hoping the new semester would put an end to it,” Diaval says apologetically.
“Aurora was. I’m not optimistic enough to believe in the innate kindness of children,” Mal says.
Diaval chuckles. “Yes, well. Despite my occupation, neither am I. But I just wanted to check in with you and see how Rory’s coping at home, and touch base about some potential plans for the future.”
“Aurora’s a good girl. I did consider taking her out of school and home-schooling her, but with my job it’s hard to make time for that at the moment. She does find the bullying … upsetting, but she’s still a bright and cheerful little thing most of the time, especially when she doesn’t have school that day.”
“I’m glad to hear that. About her cheeriness, I mean – she’s an absolute ray of sunshine in class. If we can help it, I’m hoping she’ll stay that way.”
“We?” Mal asks, with an arched eyebrow mistrustingly.
Diaval nods, earnestly. “Oh, sure. I would definitely want your input here, you know your daughter better than anyone.”
Mal feels a little mollified at the obvious attempt to curry her favour, and tries not to. “Well. What did you have in mind?”
“The first thing is to make sure Rory’s not so lonely as she has been. We’ve a new student starting next week, a young lad by the name of Phillip. It’s hard for kids starting a little bit after everyone else, so I thought I’d seat them together and hope for the best. Can’t force a friendship, but it’s a start,” Diaval says, shrugging.
“A start, yes. But what about the bullies?” Mal asks, lip curling at the thought of the little brats.
“I was hoping that if all goes well with Phillip, Rory might be less of an easy target for the kids. But barring that, it’s school policy to have zero tolerance for bullying. In practise, that’s hard to maintain – I’m thinking it might be best for Rory to identify the worst bullies and make up a list with you or me, and I’ll attempt to keep them separate from her in the classroom. This semester we’re also opening up a program for budding artists to be able to draw during lunch inside the classrooms, so that’ll get her out of the firing line at least a couple of times a week.”
Mal considers his suggestions. They don’t exactly focus on punishing the aggressors as much as she would have hoped … But he’s clearly taken Aurora’s interests and personality into consideration, which is good.
“That sounds … fine. But I’m concerned that the perpetrators are going to get away with their behaviour. In the past, Aurora’s bullies’ parents tended to get their way more often than not, and the children never faced any consequences.”
Diaval gives a sad smile. “Such is the way of things with parents, sadly. Always assuming their little angel could never be so cruel. Or worse, encouraging the cruelty. You’re right that it’s difficult to get the bullies to face up to the consequences of their behaviour.”
“So, what do you intend to do about it?” Mal asks, staring him down. She doesn’t let herself think about the fact that he has a very pretty set of dark eyes.
He stares right back at her, something steely in his gaze, and waits for a beat before speaking. “If Rory comes to me and names a name, it’s detention. No questions asked.”
“Isn’t that a little biased?” Mal challenges.
Diaval glances back into the classroom, where Aurora is putting the finishing touches on her drawing, frowning in concentration. He’s still looking at her as he answers.
“Ms Fae, I don’t believe your daughter has a lying bone in her body. If she says someone is bullying her, I believe her. And while I believe in all my kids, the fact is that the kids who learn that they can get away with bullying now will never learn otherwise. Better a detention now than worse consequences when they grow up.”
Mal watches her daughter with him for a moment more before replying. “That’s a … surprisingly fair way to think. For a teacher.”
“For a teacher,” Diaval responds, and when she looks back at him there’s a knowing smile on his face that she doesn’t care to consider.
“Well. I’ll want to know how things proceed then,” Mal says, pretending that the sight of his smile is not arresting.
“Of course. How about in a couple of weeks we touch base again? Phillip will be settled in by then. Hopefully we should know whether it’s worth continuing to sit him and Rory together.”
“Rory. Your nickname for her?” Mal says, unable to resist asking any longer.
Diaval does look a little embarrassed now. “Ah, well … Most of the kids have one. It’s become a bit of a fad. I didn’t want her to feel left out.”
“Hm,” Mal says, neutrally.
“Erm, so. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, then?” Diaval asks, looking a little flustered.
Mal nods, and re-enters the classroom, calling for Aurora. She picks up her schoolbag and runs to grab Mal’s hand. As they walk past Diaval, Aurora waves goodbye.
“Bye, Mr. Bran!”
“Bye, Rory. Remember your homework!”
“She will,” Mal answers for Aurora when she groans.
Mal walks away with her daughter’s hand in hers, and doesn’t look back.
Two weeks later, Mal comes back.
Unfortunately, today Diaval is wearing a shirt which borders on scandalous for a primary school teacher. It’s black, and ridiculously low-cut for a man, and Mal hates it on sight. She greets Diaval stiffly, nodding and sitting primly on the chair next to his desk in the classroom. Aurora is … Aurora is actually outside, playing with a friend, for once.
Because Diaval’s plan actually seems to be working.
“Well. I’d say that Phillip and Aurora are getting along very nicely!” Diaval says enthusiastically. Mal fights to keep from letting a smile through at the thought of her daughter being happy.
“Yes. For now, anyway. She’s invited him over twice after school already,” Mal says.
Diaval’s grin is blinding. “That’s wonderful news! I’m telling you, the first day they sat together, I knew they would be thick as thieves. They just adore each other. It’s love,” he says.
Mal can’t help a tiny smile at that, despite his last statement. “I don’t know about love. But yes. They do adore each other. Anyone can see it.”
Both of them glance towards the door as Aurora runs past, shrieking as Phillip chases her. Playing tag, no doubt. Mal’s heart swells.
“You know, I used to think love didn’t exist until that little girl came into my life,” Mal says, before she can think not to. When she turns back to look at Diaval, there is an expression on his face that she cannot decipher.
“Yes, well. Children often have that effect, I’ve noticed,” Diaval says, still gazing at her with a strange intensity.
Mal clears her throat, and keeps the rest of the meeting strictly on task. Aurora’s bullies have started to back off a little since she and Phillip teamed up, each willing to defend the other with their fists. “Not that we encourage that, of course,” Diaval says, with a twinkle in his eye. Mal accidentally lets out a laugh at that. Damnit. She just can’t quite keep up her usually determinedly icy persona around Diaval, for reasons she doesn’t care to examine.
They both agree to talk once more at the parent-teacher conference that’s happening in a month’s time. Before Mal leaves, she pauses in the doorway, biting her lip and struggling against the instinct to act reserved, as always, with her emotions. But Aurora is worth a bit of vulnerability, she’s found.
“Yes, Ms Fae?” He looks up from some paperwork he’s pulled out in the time since Mal left his desk, attentive.
“I think it’s quite possible that you’re the only teacher who’s actually managed to make a difference for Aurora. Thank you,” Mal says, swallowing her pride. It feels easier than she thought it would be.
Diaval nods. “You’re quite welcome,” he says, voice softer than Mal expects.
“And call me Mal,” she says.
“Mal,” he repeats. Like some silly girl, her heart skips a beat.
She takes that as her cue to leave, taking her daughter’s hand and allowing young Phillip to walk them both back to her car.
“Mama? You don’t have to dress up so much. It’s just parent-teacher night.”
Mal jumps, not having heard Aurora walk into the en suite. “Aurora! I’m not – I’m not dressed up,” she says, though a second glance in the mirror confirms that perhaps the pearls were a tad too much. She winces and unclasps them from around her neck.
“You seem pretty dressed up to me, mama,” Aurora says doubtfully. “But it’s okay. You look really pretty.”
Mal smiles down at Aurora and scoops her up, setting her on the bench connecting to the sink with a groan. “You’re getting too big to be picked up, beastie,” she says.
“Noooo,” Aurora whines.
“Can’t be helped. You’re getting so big!”
Aurora pouts. “Am not.”
Mal laughs. “Whatever you say, Aurora. Or are we still going by Rory these days?”
“Aurora’s fine. Rory’s just for Mr. Bran and Phillip.”
“Oh, I see. Only the best friends.”
“Mama! Phillip is my best friend, and Mr. Bran and you are only my second best friends, because it would be weird to have your best friend be your mama or your teacher.”
“That makes sense,” Mal says absent-mindedly, pursing her lips as she looks at her reflection. She looks far too business-y. The other parents will certainly think she’s just some career-woman who doesn’t care about her daughter. And Diaval has never seen her in anything casual. She needs to prove … She’s not sure what. But she needs to prove something.
“All right, Aurora. I have a job for you. We need to find mama a nice outfit for parent-teacher night.”
“Yay!” Aurora cries, jumping down from the counter and running into the closet to find something suitable for her mama. Mal grins at the sight and follows her daughter.
Mal’s instincts about the parent-teacher night turn out to be entirely correct. Whispers follow her wherever she goes as she paces through the assembly hall, many regarding the enormous tattoo of a set of wings on her back that can just be seen poking out of the sides of her sleeveless shirt. Aurora picked it out, and Mal hadn’t the heart to say no. That, alongside what she’d once heard a PTA mother describe as her ‘raging bisexuality’, make her an outcast from her peers, mostly married and certainly heterosexual.
But there are other rumours, worse ones than any suggestions of a rowdy past. Gossip about whether Aurora really ought to be raised by a woman who clearly puts her career first, a woman who everyone knows had an affair with Aurora’s father before his and his wife’s deaths. It’s just inappropriate, that’s what it is – and poor little Aurora, left with the homewrecker herself.
None of that is true, of course. Aurora is Mal’s number one priority. It’s not Mal’s fault she manages her time better than them, enough to have a career and be a good parent at the same time. And it’s not Mal’s fault that she happens to have a penchant for not giving a fuck what tiny minds think about her sexual orientation or her tattoos. It only bothers her that they think she’s not a good mother. She’s done everything for Aurora from the moment the girl came into her life.
Besides, she never had an affair with Stephan. They’d had a fling long before he met Leah, and it had ended badly. Why he chose her to look after Aurora in his will, she will never know, and she’s made peace with that. Still, being reminded that by all rights Aurora ought never have ended up with her is not pleasant.
And by the parents of her daughter’s bullies, no less.
She spots Diaval sitting behind a desk, talking earnestly with a man and a woman, a couple judging by the way they coordinate to stop a squirming toddler from running away while another older child stands by, looking bored. Mal’s appointment is in about five minutes, so she waits patiently, leaning against the wall on the far side of the room, for the couple to finish.
When the time comes, she walks across the room, ignoring the stares, to sit in one of the cheap plastic chairs provided before Diaval. He grins to see her. She lets herself smile back, just a little.
“Hello, Ms. Fae,” he says. “And how are you this fine evening? Is Rory all right?”
“Very well, thank you. Aurora is at a basketball game, I’m afraid. We would have cancelled but the team is down a couple of players already, and Aurora insisted that she had to be there for them.”
“Of course she did,” Diaval says, eyes warm. Mal is eternally grateful that someone else can see – really see – what a pure heart her daughter contains.
“So it’s just me tonight, I’m afraid,” Mal continues, trying to distract herself from the way the corners of Diaval’s eyes are crinkling.
“Oh, believe me, that’s not a problem,” Diaval says eagerly, and Mal’s breath catches for just a moment. Was that … flirting?
She clears her throat. “How is Aurora doing, then? She’s still playing with Phillip every other day, I assume it’s the same in class.”
“Oh, yes, absolutely. They’re very close. It’s a very sweet friendship. And the bullies have certainly backed off in response. Rory hasn’t come to me once in the last month about it.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Mal replies, noticing that she has subconsciously begun to lean towards him. She forces herself to straighten up. “And her grades?”
“Excellent, as always. Her reading comprehension is very high for her age group. Maths and science perfectly within the parameters for her age group, which is good. But I think if you encourage her to write, you could have a budding author on your hands. Art, too – but you knew that.”
“I did. She keeps stealing all of Phillip’s pencils. But he lets her,” Mal says. It’s sickeningly sweet.
“Ah, puppy love,” Diaval chuckles.
“I doubt it,” Mal snorts. “Romantic love is a total fraud. I hope they stay friends. If that little boy ever broke Aurora’s heart, I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions.”
Diaval looks surprised. “But surely you …”
Mal tenses, gritting her teeth without meaning to. “Surely I what?”
Diaval gapes at her for a minute, before seeming to come to a decision. “What I meant is … Surely Aurora has a father?”
He doesn’t know, is the first thought that crosses Mal’s dumbfounded mind.
A deathly silence falls between the two of them. Mal suspects several ears in the room have become attuned to the conversation now.
“It seems no one has told you. I must say, I’m a little surprised that the rumour mill didn’t warn you about me.” Mal pauses to take in the confused and not a little frightened look on his face. “Aurora’s father is dead. As is her birth mother. I can’t say I know why he named me in his will as Aurora’s guardian, as he was always a terrible person, even when we were together. But I have raised that little girl in the only true form of love there is: the love of a parent. So I’ll thank you not to make assumptions about my current relationship status, Mr. Bran, or whatever relationship I had with Aurora’s father. It has nothing to do with you.”
With that, she rises, her right hand trembling a little where she cannot stop it, and walks away from Diaval’s stunned face. Other faces turn to follow her as she walks, whispers rising in the assembly hall. She doesn’t look at any of them. They are all beneath her.
Only, when she gets to the door, she turns to slam it behind her for good measure – and she cannot help but glance back, then – and she sees Diaval, the expression on his face one of shame. It almost makes her hesitate.
“Mama,” Aurora says, and from her stern tone Mal knows that she must have done something very wrong in her daughter’s eyes.
Looking up from her laptop, Mal takes off her glasses and rubs at her tired eyes. “Yes, beastie?”
“What did you do to Mr. Bran?”
Mal freezes. “What – what do you mean by that?” She swallows nervously. Unfortunately, being vulnerable around children means that they can always see straight through her where adults cannot.
“He was sad in class. No one else noticed, but I did. And Phillip said that he saw you yelling at him when he was at parent-teacher night. I’m not stupid, Mama,” Aurora says, frowning at Mal. As a guilting technique, it is devastating.
“Well, you see … Mr. Bran was … Mama got a bit upset,” Mal says lamely.
Aurora frowns even more deeply and crosses her arms. “You always say when I get upset that I have to apologise if I hurt someone’s feeling afterwards.”
It’s all Mal can do to stop from groaning. She hates it when children throw words right back at adults. She remembers doing it herself with her own parents.
“… That’s true,” she begrudgingly admits.
“Well, did you hurt Mr. Bran’s feelings?” Aurora asks.
“He hurt mine first,” Mal mutters, before thinking to stop herself from ranting to her child. Oops.
Aurora’s eyes widen. “Mr. Bran hurt your feelings? On purpose?” She looks like she’s about to cry, and Mal hastens to correct her assumption.
“No, no, darling. By accident. He didn’t mean to,” Mal says. And only then does the reality of the situation hit her.
He didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. He couldn’t possibly have known.
He didn’t mean to. He couldn’t have known.
And she’d yelled at him, insulted his intelligence, and left.
“... And … And because he didn’t mean to, Mama is definitely going to apologise. Because that’s what grown-ups do.”
“Good,” Aurora says, sounding satisfied. “Up, please.”
“Aurora Fae, you are getting much too big for this,” Mal grumbles, nevertheless reaching over and pulling Aurora onto her lap.
“No, I’m not,” Aurora insists, and begins to giggle as Mal tickles her.
Mal has to have another meeting with Diaval.
She comes to that conclusion, however, only after sending him a gift basket in the mail, because apparently she’s on a mission to totally humiliate herself. She wonders if it might have been a tad overboard, but resolves to stop overthinking things when it comes to the man that she – well, when it comes to Diaval Bran.
This time, she doesn’t dress up. She doesn’t try to make herself look like anything other than a harried working mother, because that’s exactly what she is and he can take it or leave it. But she has an awful feeling that he’s a nice enough person to take it in stride and never question it either, which is terrible because Mal is not nice like that, not nice at all most of the time. Which means that she can only hope he’ll do more than forgive her, only hope that he might – that she hasn’t ruined her chances entirely.
It’s four-thirty after school on a Thursday. Mal has already dropped Aurora off at Phillip’s house, intending to meet Diaval by herself. She’s almost beginning to regret that decision, though, as she paces in the hallway outside his office, much in the same way as she’s sure hundreds of students have done before her.
Oh, get a grip, she thinks.
She turns to the door, and knocks. Diaval’s voice calls for her to enter.
When she opens the door, Diaval cannot disguise the look of surprise on his face at the sight of her. It makes her feel defensive.
“Well, I suppose it would have been too much to hope for a warm welcome,” she says.
Diaval jumps up, looking flustered. “Oh! Er, no, I wasn’t – I mean, I didn’t –”
Mal takes pity on him. “It’s all right. I was just ... teasing. Badly, it would seem.”
“Never that,” Diaval says, with that stupidly charming smile of his. But he still looks nervous as he comes around to the front of the desk.
Mal shuts the door behind her, and steps closer.
“I actually – I came here to apologise. For losing my temper. At the parent-teacher night.”
Diaval’s eyebrows rise sky-high, and Mal tries not to take offence. “Well … I mean, there’s no need. I was … rude.”
Mal shakes her head. “No, you weren’t. You didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, because somehow you’re too damn pure for the gossip-mill that is the PTA. I was the one who was rude. I took out all of my frustrations on you. And I … I apologise,” Mal says in a rush, determinedly looking at him straight-on.
That soft smile of his is back. “Well, in that case. Apology accepted. A thousand times over.”
Mal’s heart skips a beat.
Now or never, she thinks, taking another step towards him.
“I was hoping to make it up to you,” she says.
“Oh?” Diaval says, his voice cracking. He clears his throat hastily. “I mean, the gift basket was – more than enough, really.” He doesn’t move away as Mal steps ever closer.
“Well, you see, there was something I wanted to ask you, but – it’s a little selfish, too,” Mal says, her heart beginning to beat a little faster.
Diaval looks at her steadily, something vulnerable in his eyes. “Go on,” he says, leaning imperceptibly forwards.
“I was just wondering if – if I could take you out to dinner,” Mal says, letting out a breath she’s been holding for the past minute.
“An apology dinner?” Diaval asks, eyes searching hers as he steps forward, finally.
“No,” Mal says, becoming aware that they have become very close indeed. She notices for the first time that he is taller than her. “A date. If you would like it to be.”
“That would be … I mean, yes. Yes. Absolutely,” Diaval stutters out.
It’s very, very endearing, and that may explain why Mal does what she does next. She leans forward, letting her eyes slip shut and raising one hand to cup his cheek, his stubble rough under her hand. And then she kisses him, lightly, a soft brush of her lips against his. She could swear that she can feel the tension bleed out of him even with only her hand and her lips touching him.
She pulls back. “I’ll, erm. Call you then,” she says awkwardly, heart still stuttering from the kiss.
“All right,” he says, looking dazed.
“I have to go now. But I’ll call. I mean – I’ll call,” she repeats, before stepping back and turning towards the door, feeling herself blushing for the first time in many years.
“All right,” he repeats as well.
Well, at least she knows that he’s as affected as she is.
She shuts the door and begins the walk back to her car in a stupor. She feels as if she’s sixteen years old again, dazzled by her first kiss and innocent enough to believe it will last. But before she can fall down that rabbit hole of bitterness, her phone alerts her that she has a text.
From: Diaval Bran.
I didn’t just completely fabricate that with my imagination, did I?
Mal stares at the text for a moment. And then a smile spreads over her face, and she begins to laugh freely for the first time in a very long time.