Regina entered City Hall over twenty minutes late, frequently checking her phone and speeding up her walking pace upon the time it displayed.
'Councilor Mills! I'm surprised seeing you at the office again!' the desk manager chirped from behind the counter.
'Hi, Mary.' Regina offered her a brief nod, and put her handbag down with a sigh. 'I'm here regarding TBP, but I might've ran a little late. Would you mind checking if my client is still here?'
'They're waiting for you in 18C,' Mary replied immediately, flashing her a smile.
Regina looked up, frowning. 'They?'
Mary nodded. 'Your Buddy and her interpreter.'
At Regina's confused expression, Mary gestured towards the hall that lead to the offices. 'Just go already!' she said happily. 'They've been waiting for you for 30 minutes. Have a nice day, miss Mills.'
'You too,' Regina replied shortly, lifting her handbag, and walking off.
While the heels of the councilor clicked towards room 18C, Regina wondered whether her so-called 'Buddy' would be a foreigner, a refugee maybe, since she apparently was in need of an interpreter.
Regina had agreed on 'The Buddy Project', knowing that she'd never become mayor if she wouldn't. All the other councilors who could possibly be the next mayor, were spending hours upon hours volunteering for all kinds of charities in town. Regina was not much of an animal saver or a candle-seller, so she had agreed on The Buddy Project. The project was about people with steady lives and jobs being assigned to people who socially struggled in society, to give them a 'Buddy' with whom they could spend some time, or who could introduce them to other places or people.
Regina had found herself signing up unwillingly. She thought volunteering was overrated, or at least for her – her job was stressful enough without working unpaid hours. Besides, she was kind of allergic to people who were in need of help. She was a politician, yes, but her job mostly consisted of helping people indirectly by making phone calls, sending emails, or speaking publicly. Feeding old people or teaching someone proper English was definitely something else.
The door to room 18C was open, but Regina still knocked briefly before entering. Her eyebrows raised in surprise when she saw two young women sitting behind the desk. There was a beautiful blonde girl with long hair that curled slightly at the ends, and the other girl was a brunette with a high ponytail and ditto cheekbones.
'Councilor Mills! Such an honor,' the brunette spoke when she got off her chair. She offered Regina her hand: 'I'm Lily, Emma's interpreter. Have you ever had a conversation through an interpreter?' she asked patiently.
Regina hesitantly shook the offered hand, eyeing the mesmerizing blonde who had stayed seated and was gazing the ceiling with her arms folded, obviously trying hard to look severely unimpressed.
'Depends, what language?' Regina answered mumbling, turning towards the blonde and offering her hand to shake. 'I'm Regina,' she spoke, clearly over-articulating, when the blonde's eyes had shot towards her own. The blonde said nothing, but shook her hand and frowned.
'ASL. Sign Language,' Lily explained, while she took her seat again. 'Emma is deaf. Do you, by any chance, know how to sign?'
Regina pursed her lips together and chuckled. 'I'm a bit rusty. But I know some signs.'
'All right, that's great! When Emma signs, I'll interpret what she's saying in first person. So you can just pretend I'm not here.'
'I see,' Regina nodded slowly, offering Emma a small smile.
'Do you… read… lips?' Regina asked the blonde, while simultaneously signing, though somewhat hesitantly.
Apparently she could, because Emma's frown deepened for a second, then her hands started moving rapidly, and she ended with a sigh. Regina hadn't understood one sign - Emma was way too quick -, but she definitely got that the blonde wasn't happy.
When the room stayed silent, Regina's gaze shifted slowly towards Lily. The latter was staring at Emma and shaking her head, as if correcting her.
'Well? What did she say?' Regina asked impatiently.
Lily took a breath before answering: 'Do you excuse yourself when you're half an hour late?'
Regina immediately went into defense mode and wanted to explain to Lily that it wasn't her fault that she was this late, but stopped herself when she remembered that it was Emma who'd accused her, and not Lily.
While considering what she should answer, she watched Lily tapping Emma's shoulder to get her attention. Lily started signing and seemed to be slightly angry with the blonde. Emma's response was like watching a child being punished; she rolled her eyes and leaned a little more into her chair.
Regina finally took her seat as well, and turned her attention towards Emma once again. She made a circle over her heart with her fist, remembering that being the sign for 'I'm sorry'. Emma wasn't watching when she did that, so Lily nudged her, and Regina repeated the sign.
Now, Emma's eyebrows shot up, and she started moving her hands again.
'I'm impressed. I would be even more impressed if you wouldn't need to be sorry. Don't think you can run late every time just because you're such an important person. You wouldn't guess, since I'm here; but I have a life too, you know.'
Lily clearly sounded apologetic in her translation, wanting Regina to know that she didn't agree with Emma's boldness.
'Why… are you… so angry?' Regina still tried to sign and speak, but she couldn't remember the rest of the signs very well, and decided to let Lily do the translation.
Emma rolled her eyes again and answered:
'I'm going to tell you once. I do not want to be here. I'm not some cripple. And I do not need your help, councilor Mills.'
'Then why are you here?' Regina asked confused. Emma made a clicking sound with her tongue and gestured wildly towards Lily.
'Emma is a college student, but she's always been home schooled. She never had much of a social life. Her parents, - her foster parents, agreed to pay for some of her classes if she agreed to The Buddy Project,' Lily explained.
'So why is she so angry with you?' Regina asked Lily, still not getting the picture completely.
'I'm her foster sister,' Lily explained, carefully watching Emma. 'My parents are her foster parents. And I agreed with them. She should see people. Other people.'
Regina let that sink in for a bit. Then she inhaled deeply and moved a little closer towards Emma. When she spoke, it was almost a whisper.
'Then let me tell you a secret, Emma,' Regina started slowly, while checking if Lily would translate what she was saying, 'you and me, we share a problem. I do not want to be here either, but I have to. So, what do you say, let's pretend we're getting along nicely – you'll get your tuition paid for and I will become mayor.'
When Lily had finished signing, Emma watched Regina again. Her expression softened, as if she hadn't expected this from the uptight woman in front of her.
'Crude,' Emma responded after a long silence, making a quick gesture.
'As are you, dear. Which is why I think we can pull this Buddy-nonsense off perfectly. We'll show everybody what a perfect match we are and afterwards we never have to see each other again.'
'You'll be honored for companying a disabled person, I'll receive all the pity. I don't like that,' Emma signed, still looking pretty reserved.
Regina thought about that for a moment, before responding: 'Then show me why you need to be honored, Emma. The better you're doing in the project, the more you might satisfy your foster parents.'
Emma rolled her eyes again, though somewhat less offensive this time.
'I doubt they'll pay anything more than they intended to. They can't afford all my classes.'
Regina shared a look with Lily, who nodded in sad agreement after she finished translating.
'What career is it you wish to pursue, Emma?'
Suddenly, Emma looked away shyly. Her signing went smaller and, if possible, quicker.
'I want to work for the government, too. The system is fucked up. I want to be able to change it.'
When Emma finished, she put her hands on the table, still avoiding Regina's eyes. Regina however, awkwardly placed her hand on top of Emma's.
'That's wonderful, I think you should definitely give it a try, Emma. I'll tell you what; if I become mayor due to your benefit from this project, I'll pay for the rest of your classes.'
Emma's face lit up and shifted her eyes from Lily to Regina and back, not sure if she'd understood well. Lily gave her a small reassuring nod. Then, Emma's expression hardened again.
'I'm not taking any money from you. I'll work for my own money,' Emma signed, looking even more vulnerable with her mask back on.
When Regina let out a disappointed sigh, Emma shrugged and continued: 'but I'll work along with you.'
Now it was Regina's face that lit up. 'You're making the right choice, dear,' she beamed.
Emma offered her first smile: 'I'm not saying that I'll look forward to our shared afternoons.'
'I don't bite,' Regina replied.
'But I do.'
'Oh, I got that much already dear, I did,' Regina winked. 'So let's go through some practical stuff, shall we?'
They had agreed on taking a walk in the park the week after their first appointment. The three of them also decided on giving Lily the hours Emma would spend with Regina off – for their privacy, because she didn't want to keep depending on her, because Lily deserved some free time, and because Emma had to learn to do stuff without her interpreter.
Going to the park was Regina's idea; she didn't want to force Emma into social activities without knowing a little bit about her. While she still was opposed to the idea of The Buddy Project, the way the blonde had sat there during their first meeting, had touched something within Regina.
Emma arrived with a look of surprise when she saw Regina already sitting down on a park bench. She pointed at the brunette, and then at her wrist. She was simplifying her signing for Regina to understand her.
'Yes, dear, it seems I am capable of being on time,' Regina chuckled. Emma bit her lip to hide a smile, and then pointed at Regina again, followed by pushing both of her hands down very slowly.
'You want me to speak more slowly?' Regina asked. Emma nodded. 'Of course, I'm sorry. Please, come sit with me.'
Regina gestured at the empty spot beside her, but the blonde didn't move. Instead, she pointed at both of them, and then hovered two fingers of her right hand over the palm of her left. She wiggled her fingers as if they were walking over her palm. Then she shot a questioning look towards Regina.
'Sure, we'll take a walk. That's what I invited you to do anyway, wasn't it?'
Regina got up and gestured for Emma to lead the way. For the first few minutes, they were silently walking next to each other. Regina enjoyed the sounds of birds and the wind, and she could also hear the faint screams and laughter of children in the distance. She thought about what it would be like to lose her hearing, and if Emma was 100% deaf, and if she'd always been or if she'd become deaf later on.
Instead of asking about Emma's disability, she asked:
'What's your name sign?'
When Emma didn't respond, Regina rolled her eyes at herself and tapped Emma on her shoulder. The blonde looked at her lips immediately and Regina repeated the question.
Emma stopped walking and looked at the brunette for a moment, before slowly making the sign. She made two fists, and motioned them downwards, as if they were nodding. Regina repeated the sign. 'Emma,' she said out loud, and the blonde nodded.
'What does it mean?'
Now Emma repeated the sign she'd just made, only with her index fingers crossed over each other, instead of inside her fists.
'I don't know what that means, sorry.'
Now, Emma held up one hand, and started making smaller gestures with it.
'Are you spelling it out?' Regina asked, at which Emma nodded. 'Can you please slow down?'
Emma repeated her gestures, but it was still too quick for Regina to follow. The blonde noticed, and started to spell one by one.
'R-e-l-i-a-b-l-e,' Regina read out loud. 'Reliable? That's what your name sign means?'
Emma nodded once again.
'That's nice. I guess it suits you,' Regina said with a polite smile. Then, Emma held up two fingers.
'You have a second name sign?'
Now Emma held up her hand next to her head, and closed it into a fist. 'Emma,' she mouthed, and Regina repeated the sign once again. Next, the blonde touched both her index fingers with her thumbs, and made a circle.
'I know that one,' Regina said happily, repeating the sign. 'That's "family", right?'
Emma nodded, her eyebrows up as if asking whether Regina understood.
'So… this,' Regina made a fist next to her head, 'is the sign that your family uses for you? And the other one is formal?'
At Emma's approving smile, she asked, 'well, what does that one mean?' and as Emma started to spell out, she read out loud: 'S-t-u-bb-o-r-n. Stubborn. Yes, I guess that one suits you better.'
Emma rolled her eyes and poked out her tongue.
'Or maybe "childish" is even better! What's the sign for that?' Regina joked.
Emma tapped her nose with her pinky finger.
'I like that one,' Regina chuckled, repeating the sign. Then, she tried to remember and repeat Emma's formal sign and her family sign.
'So, Emma, which one do I use for you? I don't feel very formal around you.'
Emma's eyes raked over the brunette once again. Then her lips turned into a playful smirk as she made a fist again, stuck out her pinky finger and tapped her nose. 'Emma,' the blonde mouthed.
Regina let out a low chuckle. 'I'm honored I get to use my very own sign for you.'
Emma smiled brightly and gestured for them to sit down in the grass. Regina hesitated for a bit, but when Emma let herself fall down, she decided to surrender a bit of her dignity, scrunched up her tight skirt, and sat down next to the blonde.
Suddenly, Emma frowned. She motioned at Regina, and then at her head, shrugging, as if saying that she didn't understand.
'What's wrong?' Regina asked, worried at the sudden change in their conversation.
Emma slowly pointed at Regina, then at her head. The sign that followed, - her right index and middle finger tapping on top of her left ones -, Regina knew as the sign for "name". Then Emma spelled out: 'h-o-w?'
'Are you asking how I know your name? You just told me!' Regina answered, still confused. But Emma shook her head and repeated her signs, simplifying them as much as possible.
'How… do I know… about your name? I don't understand, Emma. You literally just explained it to me. Can you… uhm… use your voice, so I'll know what you mean? Did you ever learn how to speak?' she asked, watching the blonde's reaction carefully.
Emma clenched her teeth together at Regina's question and frowned. Then she shook her head, signing: 'No speaking. Hearing people speak.'
'All right, I'm sorry. Maybe write it down?' Regina suggested, already reaching for her phone, but the blonde stopped her by placing her hand on Regina's wrist.
'Writing… no,' Regina tried to translate out loud. 'Signing… your l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e… We b-u-d-d-i-e-s… I l-e-a-r-n ASL.'
Emma nodded and seemed slightly out of breath by her intention to let Regina understand the importance of what she was saying.
'Okay, no speaking, no writing. ASL is your language and if I want to be your Buddy, I'll have to learn it,' Regina repeated. Now Emma shook her head, but a smirk was beginning to show. She pointed at herself, then at Regina, and then spelled: 'b-u-d-d-y.'
'You're my Buddy?' Regina laughed understandingly. Emma nodded happily, and hooked her index fingers together. 'Buddy,' she mouthed.
'You're right, apparently I am the one who needs the other's help the most,' Regina admitted. She pursed her lips and looked away, as if deep in thought. Then she inhaled deeply and looked back to Emma again. 'So will you be my… Buddy, Emma?' The last two words she had signed instead of spoken.
When the blonde made a fist and nodded it, that being the sign for "yes", nothing could have prepared Regina for the warmth that was suddenly spreading through her body. The fact that this beautiful girl, who had disliked her from the start, was capable of the tiniest form of affection for her, made her stomach squirm. Apparently, she had done something right for her, too. It made her happy and frustrated at the same time; she didn't know what the feeling was.
'So, can you please try again to tell me what confused you when you were telling me your name sign?' Regina said, wanting to distract herself from her thoughts.
Emma shot her a smile that radiated patience, and did the sign for "name" again. Then she pointed at Regina, signing: "hearing", "signing", and spelling out "how" again.
Regina took a deep breath, thinking she finally understood: "are you asking me how I know about name signs? How I know how to spell?"
Emma threw her hands up in the air, looking relieved, and beamed at her once again. She watched Regina, eager for an answer, when the brunette looked away.
'I, uh… I took a few classes in high school,' she said. 'It was about the Deaf culture, we learned some signing and some manners. It just… it was a long time ago,' Regina added mumbling.
Emma narrowed her eyes and tilted her head. Regina could tell that Emma didn't buy her story, but was too unfamiliar with the brunette to ask her to elaborate.
Instead, Emma asked Regina what her name sign was.
'I don't have one yet,' Regina shrugged. 'Would you give me a name sign?'
Emma bit her lip and gazed mischievously at the councilor.
'Uh-oh… Will I regret this?' Regina laughed at Emma's expression. Emma nodded and Regina felt her stomach squirm once again at the twinkle in her eyes.
'Regina,' Emma mouthed, crossing her index and middle finger downwards, while waving them next to her own waist.
Regina hummed in surprise: 'That looks quite elegant. I guess it suits me!' But when she repeated the sign, Emma burst out laughing. There was no sound of her voice, but she doubled over, clapped her hand over her mouth and snorted.
'Emma… What's the original sign?' Regina asked suspiciously. Emma answered by waving her hand next to her waist, without crossing her fingers.
'Do I even want to know what it means?' The older woman squinted her eyes at Emma, who raised an eyebrow and shook her head.
'Emma,' Regina said in a fake-stern voice, but when she figured that wouldn't affect the blonde, she leaned into her and doubled the effort of her haughty look. Emma only snorted again, and made a gesture as if she locked her lips.
'Emma, you tell me right now, or I…'
But at the blonde's next move, Regina's jaw dropped. Emma had simply closed her eyes, which made communication impossible, and Regina was totally dumb-struck. She saw the victorious smile on Emma's lips which made the warm feeling in her body return, but decided to ignore it. She had to win this game.
Regina's first impulse was to tap Emma's shoulder, but those bright green eyes of course stayed shut when she tried. Next, Regina nudged her, calling her name out loud, even though she knew that that would be pointless. Then, she grabbed her hands and squeezing them tightly, while still calling her name.
Slowly, Emma opened her eyes, the smirk never leaving her face.
'Will you answer me now?'
Emma shrugged, her smile even widening. She gazed down to where her hands were clasped firmly in Regina's, and wriggled her fingers. Regina realized she was practically gagging the beautiful girl, and released her hands immediately.
'You can't fight me. I always win,' Emma signed slowly, her mouthing articulated well, so that Regina understood. When she was sure that the message was received, she closed her eyes again, and sat down on top of her own hands.
'I guess "childish" does suit you perfectly,' Regina chuckled, completely surprised that Emma had outsmarted her again.
While thinking of another tactic, she noticed Emma was shivering briefly upon a light breeze. The shivering made her wonder if the blonde was ticklish, and she decided to pinch the spot just beneath her ribs. Immediately Emma shot up, gasping for air, and swatting Regina's hand away.
Regina went for her ribs again, but Emma saw her coming this time, and swatted her hand away again. The two women found themselves briefly in a hand-swatting fight, until finally Regina got hold of one of Emma's hands, the other one still hovering in the air.
'I say we call it even,' Regina spoke slowly, now copying Emma's playful smirk. 'I give you one hand. How about you spell out what my name sign means?'
Emma let out a breath and rolled her eyes, reminding Regina of a bratty teenager who finally got caught.
With her free hand, Emma made an 'L'-shape. She watched Regina carefully before continuing, building up the tension. The letter 'A' followed up next.
'L-A… Yes, Emma, continue…' Regina spoke dangerously, but when Emma refused to do so immediately, Regina reached for her ribs again with her free hand.
The squeal that left Emma's lips was so soft and so short that Regina wondered if she'd imagined it, but when Emma bit down on her free hand to stop herself from making any more sound, she chuckled at Emma's embarrassment.
'It seems I have something to negotiate with,' Regina stated confidently. 'Continue, Emma.'
After narrowing her eyes at the councilor once more, Emma finally spelled it out.
'L-A-T-E. Late? You connected my name to the word 'late' forever?' Regina said with a deep, angry frown.
At Emma's shy nod, Regina let out a low, guttural laugh that would be considered beautiful and irresistible, one that Emma would never get the privilege to listen to.
'You know what, Emma,' Regina said smiling, shifting a little closer to her, 'I'll guess from now on, I have a few months to prove to you that I won't ever live up to that name again. And when this stupid project ends, I surely hope that you'll provide me with a new one.'
Author's note: a name sign is a sign that usually a deaf person makes up for you. It consists of the sign of one of your traits, applied with the sign of the first letter of your name. Hence "late" is waving your hand, fingers facing down, next to your waist; and "Regina" (in this case), is doing so, but with your index and middle fingers intertwined (which stands for the letter "R").