Hey guys! Back at it again with another chapter to fuel your outrage. ;)

Let's get started with reviews, shall we? As always, look out for the **WARNINGS** in the Author's Notes!

Guest 1:

I'm glad you enjoyed the chapter, haha! I hope you'll enjoy this one too.

Nyehhhh:

Thank you for the kind words! Even if it takes me awhile, I'm glad you still look forward to and enjoy what I put out. :) Hope this next chapter is just as satisfying!

Kry Chi:

I'm glad you appreciated the reference, haha. ;) And yes, I know my warnings are pretty much essays now. Maybe a bit overboard, but better safe than sorry, lol. And thank you as well for your kind words. My writing has definitely evolved over the course of this story, but I was specifically trying something new with the last chapter, sort of for fun but also to see what affect that sort of tone would have given the POV. Hopefully it wasn't too weird for you!

EvietoyourMal:

Thank you for the review and the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the chapter, and my usage of therapy. I was a bit nervous how it would all come across, but I'm glad you liked it! And yes, it definitely is easy to forget just where the VKs came from, but at least now they're getting the chance to address it and recover and heal. I hope you'll continue to read and enjoy!

Guest 2:

I'm not sure yet actually. I haven't watched D3 yet, but even well before that I had a couple headcanons for who Mal's dad might be, and Hades did in fact happen to be one of them. Was kinda pleased and thought it was funny that they ended up doing that for D3 canon. But we still have some time before the issue of parentage will be a thing, so I'm sure I'll figure Hades out plot-wise. ;) Hope you continue to enjoy!

Guest 3:

Well, I can't reveal too much without spoiling, but I will say that while Daisha is definitely one of my favorites to write, and their relationship is fun to explore, it is definitely not an entirely healthy one. So it's complicated. But there will be some kind of resolution, I'll say that much. In the mean time, I hope you'll continue to read and enjoy!

Time Turner:

Thank you for the kind words and the review! I'm glad you liked all the developments. I was definitely excited for the character developments of Carlos and the other VKs, finally finding connections and starting to heal in Auradon. It's gonna be rough, but it's definitely going to be worth it, and things will start turning around for the others, too. I hope you'll continue to follow along and enjoy! :)

Guestz6426:

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed my little reference. ;) I hope you'll keep reading and enjoying!

ScarletAssasin:

Thank you for the review and the kind words! I'm really glad you enjoyed the chapter and the developments. The AKs will eventually learn more about the VKs and their pasts, but probably not everything or at least not all at once. As for Evie and her magic, I have been dropping hints…. ;)

A2:

Aw, thank you so much for your kind words! It really means a lot that you think I'm handling the characters well, and it's just the best I could hope to hear that you think my OC is well written, as it's always tough when throwing in new faces into the regular crowd like that. But I'm super glad you're enjoying Daisha, and I will never not have fun with writing Chad, haha. Just subverting all the tropey bull they pulled with him in the movies is all the reward I need. ;P

I definitely wanted the Cricket's take on the VKs, especially. Kept going in circles with that scene trying to figure out which of the 4 to showcase their thoughts, then realized that his perspective would be the best to get an entirely new view on things, especially as they're entering into a whole new aspect of things. Really glad you liked that, and I hope you'll continue to read and enjoy! :D

Bex:

Haha, honestly, I had the same reaction when creating her in the first place. It went something along the lines of

*Reader Brain* Look at this amazing OC I made!

*Writer Brain* Yeah, that's a great OC ya got there, Raven. It'd be a shame if something…happened…to it….

*Reader Brain* ...why

And thus, that scene, among many other, yet unpublished scenes, was born. Ironically enough, there were/are hints to Daisha's nature scattered throughout each other her encounters with Mal, though both Mal and many readers didn't quite catch it the first time 'round. Regardless, I hope you'll continue to follow along and enjoy!

Nix:

I'm glad you enjoyed it! There will definitely be other VKs, don't you worry! I plan to follow the course of D2 and D3 (once I watch D3, of course…), though they will most likely be their own stories, separate/sequel to this one. :)

That pool guest:

Not gonna lie, laughed out loud at your handle, haha. Might be starting to get too cold for the pool soon, depending on your geography, though I'm glad you're still reading and enjoying this story, despite the angst. ;P Hopefully you'll continue to read and enjoy!

Cyra:

I'm really glad you're enjoying this story and thank you for leaving a review! There will be Bal in this story, I've just been taking my time getting into relationships with the VKs because their main focus is really to grow and heal from all their traumas first. But eventually, yes, there will be Bal, though I am going to play with it a bit, just like I've done with other aspects of the movie. But I do hope you'll stick around and continue to read and enjoy!

Guest 4:

Thanks! :)

35:

Thank you for the kind words, and not to worry, I understood you perfectly! :) I'm glad you're enjoying the story and I hope you'll continue to read and enjoy!

ally1762:

Welcome to the story and thank you for leaving a review! (Several, actually, lol)

I'm glad you're enjoying this story and the dynamics and developments I've created. Well, most of them...a lot of people were a bit thrown by that last Daisha flashback. Although there were hints in prior flashbacks to her nature and the nature of their relationship, but that, combined with the Isle viewpoint of 'well if you have a power dynamic to exploit, do it' led to a pretty bad time of things. But regardless, I do hope I haven't scared you off and that you'll continue to read and enjoy! :)

FaeryMage:

Hello and welcome to the story, and thank you for leaving a review! I'm glad you're enjoying my story so much, and think my writing is realistic. I haven't finished reading the books so I wouldn't honestly be able to say, although from the few chapters I've read, there does seem to be a similar feel to the movies. Although the movies do cut out a lot of the world-building for the Isle and don't dwell on it as much as the book does (probably to avoid having to deal with the repercussions of such a place existing in the first place...which is where I and this story come in!)

As for the barrier, my personal headcanon is that it keeps the villains from dying. Since if something like the Isle were built to be a punishment for the villains, and Auradon resurrected the ones who had died at the end of their just to lock them away, they wouldn't very well want them to get out of punishment by dying again due to neglect. So in my story I'm headcanoning that the barrier keeps the villains from dying, though there will be more in depth and spoiler related discussing of it in the story as well. Though fear not, the Persian is most definitely dead, and not coming back, though it would be a fitting punishment if he did just get murdered over and over.

Anyway, I hope you will continue to follow along and enjoy! :)

Naenae30:

Thank you for the kind words! I'm glad you're enjoying this story and I hope you'll continue to read and enjoy!


Ok now for the fun part, Author's Notes and WARNINGS!

**Do be warned that this chapter does contain some frank discussions of child abuse and neglect, as well as child molestation and assault. Nothing too graphic/explicit, but the dialogue is there, so do be careful.**

That being said this chapter also contains violence, language, some more references to child abuse, as well as some mild descriptions of self-harm, and implied and referenced homophobia/internalized homophobia.

That being said, I hope you guys will read safely, and I look forward to hearing what you think!

- Raven


Author's Note 2:

The songs that inspired this chapter are:

'In the house, in a heartbeat,' from the 28 Days/Weeks Later soundtrack, 'I'll be good,' by Jaymes Young, 'Neptune' by Sleeping at Last, 'Haunt (demo)' by Bastille, 'Demons' by Starset, and 'Do I wanna know?' by Arctic Monkeys (title).


Mal

They're sitting in the hideout, Carlos tucked into a corner fiddling with an invention. He'd promised that it was something explosive, and Mal had growled each time he put a piece together that if he blows them all up, she'd kill him. Evie was stitching a fabric from the sofa, and Mal could feel the other girl's eyes piercing into her back as she paced around the room. Jay was near the open wall of windows, back pressed tight against the crumbling drywall and keeping watch, a sullen frown on his face at the conversation taking place.

"Why can't you send Evie?"

"Because I want the plan to work," Mal snarled.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Evie snapped behind her, and Mal growled, eyes lighting violent green.

"It means we need this plan to work, and Layton's of a certain taste, so you're going Jay, and I don't want to hear another word of it."

"If we're just going to kill him anyway, why not send Carlos?" Jay grumbled, and Carlos' head snapped up sharply, eyes wide, his fingers twitching against the wires in his hands.

"Because Carlos wouldn't be subtle about it, and we'd have the whole place on our heads, which would defeat the point."

Jay pressed his back even further to the wall and crossed his arms, his jaw clenching so tight Mal could see the bones of his cheek even clearer against his skin.

"The whole plan defeats the point," he complained after a moment, but she could tell by the flicker in his eyes that he was wearing down.

"It's really very simple, Jay," Mal said lowly, pacing another slow arc around the confined space. "Right now, Layton and his family holds the largest section of territory near the docks, including the tower. If we topple him and claim the section for us, we'll have better access for when the barge drops, with the added bonus of being able to keep an eye on the members of the gang who reside on that side of the Isle."

"It's bullshit, is what it is," Jay mumbled again, unfolding his arms and shoving his cap further down his head. "The brats can take care of themselves, I don't get what the big deal is."

"The big deal is that at least some of those brats are Tremaine's," Mal hissed, and the venom in her voice made even Jay twitch. "And as we now have access to her place as a safe house, I'd like to not jeopardize that by losing sight of any more of them. Bad enough we barely know what Antoine is doing these days."

She cast a dark glare in Evie's direction at that, and the other girl averted her gaze but bared her teeth in a grimace in response.

"But we still have Dizzy, and with Antoine to look out for, that makes two Tremaine's I need to worry about and so this plan can't fail."

"Four," Carlos chirped from the corner, halting whatever Jay might have said to that.

"Two." Mal snapped her head over and levelled the smaller boy with a glare, and he shrunk back but didn't lower his eyes.

"Four," he repeated, fingers twisting a copper wire around his fingers. "New kids. L-a-last I counted. Twins. From some ssailor."

"Great," Mal muttered, and Carlos dropped his head and continued to fiddle with his device. "So four, then. Even more of a reason not to screw things up."

"Do you know their names, Carlos?" Evie asked quietly, and Carlos hummed and nodded, not looking up as he connected the wire and the device clicked in his hands.

"Pierce and R-r-river," he mumbled, clicking something else into place. "Boys."

"Some sailor," Mal repeated, her expression wrinkling with distaste. "Means they're probably sewer rats and therefore will be even harder to find."

Carlos didn't offer anything further, just continued to hum softly in satisfaction as his device began to click in earnest, twisting a few more wires in. Mal sighed, and decided one problem at a time. She'd deal with finding the new boys later.

"Jay!" She turned to him and he groaned, but shoved himself away from the wall, yanking his hat from his head and twisting his hair up into a messy bun.

"I'm gone," he mumbled as he crossed the room and shoved the barricade aside from the door, wriggling through before slamming it shut behind him.

Mal rolled her eyes and glanced back over her shoulder. "Carlos?"

Carlos looked up at her and lifted his knife, dark eyes a reflection of the dark blade.

Mal chuckled shortly, her lips curling into a smirk. "Good boy," she murmured, and he bared his teeth in a vicious grin before scrambling up and darting out the shattered window, disappearing over the railing.

"So now what?" Evie spoke up in the silence of their departure. "If you were just going to send Carlos anyway, why…?"

"Now," Mal cut in sharply, turning and leveling the other girl with a venomous glare. "You are going to go to Tremaine's and secure the spot for us for the night."

Evie scoffed, but there was doubt in her eyes that wouldn't quite meet Mal's. "And how do you expect me to do that? You know how the Lady gets about losing slots for appointments."

"But she'd make accommodations if it involved Antoine," Mal purred darkly, and Evie flinched slightly. "You are going to do your job, and make sure we are accommodated."

"After what happened last time, I would have thought you-"

"But that was due to error on your part, wasn't it, Eve?" she cut in coldly, and Evie flinched again, harder than before. "And it's not going to happen again because you'll make sure of it, right?"

"Right," Evie whispered shakily, standing stiffly from her seat. Mal smiled, satisfied, and grabbed the barricade Jay had slammed and shifted it aside. She ducked out and into the alleyway beyond, holding the barrier for Evie, who tensed as she ducked under Mal's arm before slipping out after her into the dark.

"We'll be back before midnight so make sure the brat remembers to leave her door unlocked," Mal said, and Evie nodded silently.

Mal frowned, but decided to let it go and continued on. "This is important, Evie, ok? Things will get better from here but we've all got to sacrifice to make this work."

"And you?" Evie said quietly, but there was a curl to her lip that made it harsh and bitter, a skeptical glint in her eyes.

Mal snarled, and straightened sharply, and Evie stiffened as some of the bite went out of her expression. "I'll meet you back at Tremaine's."

And with that she slipped out of the alley and back down the shadowed streets. Anger boiled in her blood and made her fidgety, but she refused to give into the urge to start shooting sparks and instead fueled it into keeping her fast pace and avoiding the sections of town that were even shadier than the typical shadiness of the Isle. She knew she didn't need to fear any true mutiny from the other girl, but the constant lack of compliance was beginning to irritate her. Maybe her mother was right that trying to find an ally in the Evil Queen and her daughter would be a mistake. But that thought just stung worse at Mal's anger as she crossed to threshold into her yard and dove down into the basement. If she was going to have any hope of earning her own place in this fucked up system she couldn't be thinking like her mother.

Mal crept through the damp of the basement, forcing herself to ignore the chains that hung and rattled as she passed them, though cold still stabbed into the pit of her stomach. She climbed the ladder and pushed against the trap door, letting it scrape against her body as a buffer before maneuvering it gently back into place. She straightened in the kitchen now, and slowly let out her breath as she counted silently in her head. After a solid minute of no sound she deemed it safe to breathe again, and moved across the battered wood floor and into the room that functioned as a parlor beyond. It was dark here, and even quieter than the kitchen, expect for a soft, rhythmic, rasping noise that took Mal a second too long to identify.

"Mal."

Shit.

She straightened sharply as a light flickered on, and her mother came into view, lounging in her throne- a plush, cushioned monstrosity that Jay had only reluctantly hauled in after Jafar had finished beating him half to death- and filing her nails with half of a nail file Mal had stolen from Evie. There was a lazy look of disdain on her mother's face, and Mal felt her own disdain for her mother grow at the sight of it. The woman hardly moved from that chair except to beat Mal into submission or to burn the surrounding villages, and yet she still had the nerve to criticize Mal, who was actually doing something to secure a future and not just wallowing in the past.

"How many times have I told you to stop trying to be subtle? You're not subtle, dear, and it's only laughable that you continue to attempt it."

Mal snarled to herself but remained silent, intent on just storming through and continuing what she needed to do. A sharp snap of her mother's fingers had her stopping mid-step, however, and she turned to see the woman lift a beckoning hand. Stifling her sigh but not her eye roll, Mal stalked closer, climbing up to stand on the bottom stair leading to the small balcony her mother reclined upon.

"What are you up to now, Mal?" her mother sighed wearily, and Mal rolled her eyes again and crossed her arms, not bothering to hide her own disdain now.

"As if you care," she snapped, and her mother's eyes lifted sharply from her nails, bright green and piercing.

"I asked you a question," Maleficent said smoothly, voice dark. "And I expect an answer."

Mal stiffened as the compulsion took root in her mind, and she grit her jaw and fought the twisting pain as it wormed its way through her thoughts, fighting the urge to tell her mother everything. Her own eyes lit up as she fought, and her mother sat up slowly, legs uncrossing as she rested her nail file on the arm of her chair. Mal felt a particularly sharp stab and winced, losing some of her focus, and her mother grinned and the pain dug even deeper, rooting through and stirring up the idea of 'Words, Mal.' Mal clenched her jaw tighter against it, trying, but then pain stabbed deeper behind her eyes and through her skull and her mouth fell open and

"I need to borrow some of the goblins."

The words tore out of her in a rush, and the pain lessened as her mother sat back in her throne, a satisfied smirk on her face even as her eyes froze over with disappointment.

"That wasn't so hard, was it?" she cooed, and Mal clenched her jaw shut against the snarl that wanted to come out. "What on earth do you want the goblins for?"

"Reclaiming some territory," Mal bit out, the most she would allow herself to say with the compulsion still digging at the back of her mind.

The trick with that, she'd learned, was only giving up the barest of information, and hiding away what she didn't want revealed. It was easier said than done, and Mal had the marks on her body from the times she'd been found out and Maleficent had punished her for fighting and hiding the truth from her. But it had worked this time, and Mal grinned inwardly even as she scowled at her mother.

"Pitiful," Maleficent sneered, resuming filing her nails and fully releasing Mal from the weight of her glare. "You could be toppling kingdoms and yet you still insist on playing in the mud. I will not give up my sworn allies for your worthless attempt at war."

Mal swallowed hard and fixed a cunning look on her face, ignoring the way the words stung. "You can burn what's left of the Layton territory when we're done," she promised, and Maleficent scoffed, lips twisting cruelly as she lifted her eyes to Mal's once more.

"I already burn what's left of the territories," she spat, and Mal lifted her chin and forced herself not to grin.

"Then what more do you have to lose?"

Maleficent's sneer grew, but Mal could see the considering look in her eyes that had sprung up at the mention of Layton. Finally her mother returned her gaze, a dark growl coloring her words as she spoke.

"You may have two of the goblins for your scheme."

"Four," Mal challenged, lifting her chin further and letting her grin slip across her face.

"Two," Maleficent repeated with a guttural snarl. "And be grateful I don't burn you where you stand for your insolence."

Mal resisted the urge to flinch, but a cold shudder made its way down her back regardless. She knew that wasn't an idle threat, either, her body already marked from her mother's draconic anger. She shoved those thoughts aside and returned her mother's glare, her jaw twitching to the left as she muttered out:

"Fine."

Let her think she'd yielded. Let her think she'd won, Mal thought, as her mother curled her lip and dismissed her with another wave. But Mal now had access to the goblins, which was more than what she'd planned on leaving with. Moreover, she had access to the very power structure that Maleficent had used to aptly, topple kingdoms, handed over by the woman herself. Mal felt her grin grow even wider as she began to run, heading through the winding streets and into the broken heart of the town. Just imagine the surprise then, when she used it topple the dragon queen herself. Child's play indeed. It was only a matter of time.

And it all started with the Rusted Duckling tavern. Nestled into the back half of the town and notorious for hosting the unsavory sort of people who didn't mix with the sort of unsavory people known to lurk at Gaston's. Gaston's was for the more notorious sort of villain folk. The Rusted Duckling was for…everyone (and everything) else. Mal strode up to the entrance, adjusted her knife on her belt, and walked through the door.

The relative noise of the street was peaceful in comparison to the boisterous, bawdy upheaval that was the interior of this particular tavern. Consisting of one room jammed full of booths and tables, with the booths partitioned off by moth eaten curtains and once-valuable tapestries, lending some semblance of privacy to those seated within. Half of a bar took up the center of the back wall, the other half smashed to pieces from one too many bodies crashing through it, and at the bar, a hulking figure sat hunched over a glass, another hulking figure of similar proportions wiping the bar with a rag and glaring at her.

Mal crossed the room ignored by the rowdy patrons, though the figure stiffened, and hunched further over his glass with each step she took until she could hardly see his features, not that she cared to. She knew what she would see anyway: a short, pudgy face and squashed nose, a head that turned almost conical at the top, thin lips and blunted, over long teeth that could have been tusks at one point in time but had been filed down in exile so they no longer bore any resemblance to the prideful thing they might have been.

"I'll have what he's having, but stronger," Mal told the goblin behind the bar, who grunted at her and glared, and made no move to do as she asked.

The goblin beside her uncurled long enough to level her with a similar glare, and she sighed, and drew her knife from her belt and slammed it into the table. It stuck, and she toyed with the hilt while eyeing the display of alcohol behind the barkeep, who grunted something vulgar under his breath in Goblin but shuffled to fill her a glass. She didn't much speak the language, but she'd picked up enough of context over time to know that it was something vulgar, at least, and she contemplated throwing the knife at the barkeep's turned back. She didn't, but it was the principle of the thing that counted.

The barkeep returned with a murky glass filled with an even murkier liquid, though he didn't set it in front of her. Instead he gripped it tightly in his fist, and leaned forward so he loomed just over her, his breath a rancid puff in her face as he growled.

"What do you want, maggot?"

Mal titled her head to peer at the goblin beside her, who had been glaring just as fiercely but faltered at the look in her eyes.

"I don't suppose any of your boys would be interested in meeting up for a drink elsewhere?" she said slowly, letting the weight of her words settle. "The Wooden Bear, perhaps?"

"Piss off, Mal," the goblin beside her grunted, but his eyes sparkled intently, and the barkeep placed her glass down before her.

"Just how much of a drink are we talking?" he rumbled, and Mal smirked but didn't look up at him.

"Half a pint," she murmured, taking a sip of her own drink and shuddering at the taste. Just as awful as she remembered, but the burn settled nicely in the back of her throat and in the pit of her stomach, and she took another careful sip before setting it down again and meeting the barkeep's eyes. "Layton is paying."

The goblin beside her jerked, and the barkeep turned his glare to him before peering at her closely.

"And is the larger, slimier maggot not concerned if we up and moved taverns?" he growled, and Mal's grin widened.

"She's footing the bill," she whispered, and the barkeep froze before giving her an equally revolting smile.

"Horace and Sludge," she continued, a bit louder. "If you can spare them, and they're thirsty enough."

"Oh I think they will be," the barkeep rumbled, scratching his chin and still grinning widely. "Perhaps you ought to take Wretch and Droop as well, since the missus is being so good as to pay for it."

Mal felt a thrill run through her at his words, eyeing the goblin beside her, who looked excited at the prospect she was offering and yet disappointed as the names did not, apparently, match him.

"You're being too generous," Mal simpered, finishing off her drink before shoving it back across the counter hard enough that it toppled and smashed on the other side. "I was only given budget enough for two."

"Consider it a tip," the barkeep returned, not even flinching at the mess she'd made. "For the coming change of management."

And Mal knew she was grinning perhaps too widely now, knew that if her mother caught on it would be more than just a beating. But this was exactly what she'd been working towards and so she grinned, and the goblin grinned, and the world turned.


Ten minutes later found Mal on the roof of the Wooden Bear next to Carlos, peering down through the glass overhang and into the rooms below. The Wooden Bear was not, in fact, a tavern for drinks so much as a run-down hostel for illicit goods and materials, and at times illicit pleasures. The place was owned by the once renowned hunter Clayton, and run by his oldest son Layton, who had gone by Clay when he was younger in a foolhardy attempt to imitate his father. The hunter had been driven out of the main town by Gaston, who had said that there was only room for one great hunter and that was him, not that the Isle offered much in terms of things to hunt.

But where Gaston had adapted and taken to hunting people, (more specifically, his son Gil) Clayton had returned to his roots and began a smuggling trade, which in turn had caused problems with Jafar, who was already struggling in his own smuggling ring. Not that any of that really mattered to Mal- unless Jafar decided to take his anger out on Jay, in which case it still didn't matter but certainly meant that she found ways to hex Jafar where she could. Regardless, Layton was the one who actually ran the place, and was therefore their main target of the evening.

"How's it going, 'Los?" she whispered, as she crept up closer to where Carlos perched in shadow, his features just barely illuminated by the dim light coming up from below.

He made a face and wavered his hand back and forth uncertainly. Mal scowled sharply and glanced back down into the scene below. It was hard to make out much detail, and she couldn't see Jay from where she sat, but Layton was swaying shirtless across the room and he certainly looked pleased about something, so she couldn't understand the look on Carlos' face.

"What's wrong?" she snapped, a little harsher than intended. Carlos frowned at her, then dropped his eyes back to the glass below them, biting his lip.

"Jay," he said shortly, and Mal growled at the cryptic nature of his answers, cursing her poor view.

"Gonna need more than just one word, Carlos," she snapped, and this time she did meant it. "What the fuck is wrong?"

Carlos bared his teeth at her, but shuffled along the roof and waved his hand at her to move. She did, shuffling until she crouched where he had a moment ago, but she stopped from immediately looking into the room again. Instead, she glared at Carlos, and he chewed at his lip while his fingers fidgeted the gears of the explosive in his hand.

"If you blow us up," she warned, but it was only half-hearted compared to the worry that was clenching at her gut now.

He stuck his tongue out at her and twisted the gear tighter, but then he shifted his weight again and frowned.

"Jay," he said again, carefully, and Mal tensed, waiting. "Froze."

She looked down then, and saw what she couldn't before. Jay, pressed in the space between Layton and the wall, body curled inwards and trembling, a slack look on his face that filled Mal will terror because she'd only seen that look on Jay's face once before but fuck if she hadn't thought that this would be a problem.

"Fuck, I should have sent you," she hissed and Carlos looked up at her, brow furrowed. "This would have been over by now."

Carlos shrugged his shoulders, but held up his knife dutifully, and Mal shook her head and snarled, wanting to pace but couldn't without giving up their position and fully screwing this up.

"We have to get him out of there, though," she muttered, eyeing the explosive. "How long do we have when you twist that final gear?"

Carlos lifted a brow and held up five fingers, and Mal cursed because that was nowhere near enough time and Jay needed to get out if his head and the goblins weren't due for at least another five minutes. But she needed to do something now and so she shoved Carlos further aside and ignored his whine of protest, taking up a spot so she had full view of the room and Jay. Ignored the scene playing out below because she really didn't need to add more to her guilt than was already there, and tried to focus the churning in her gut into something productive. Felt for the lingering sparks of her magic and pulled at it, tugging it up and pushing it out as far as she could before settling it into her fingers and into a sharp snap.

A moment passed with nothing, and Mal cursed before trying again, focusing her intent on Jay. Her fingers twitched and her magic thrummed faintly, and she lifted her hand and snapped again sharply, the sound echoing in her ears and overtaking her pounding heart. This time, a dark showering of green sparks danced against the wall in the room, and Jay blinked, his eyes focusing on them over Layton's shoulder, and Mal watched the awareness filter back into his face, along with a heavy dose of panic. But he was aware, and moving, prodding against the other boy and this was where things were going to go to shit, and Mal turned to Carlos and fixed him with a sharp look.

"As soon as we're clear, you throw that," she commanded, and he swallowed, but nodded, eyes wide and fingers continuing to tighten the gear.

Before she bring herself to regret it, because she was already regretting so much about this situation, she reeled back and kicked through the glass roof, dropping down into the hole she created. There was a sharp pain through her ankles and knees as she landed haphazardly, but that didn't matter because Layton was there and Jay was right there, and she grabbed Jay and ignored the way he shook and ignored the swearing from Layton. Slammed her blade into his shoulder when he tried to grab Jay back from her, and dove down beneath the bed, kicking a table down with them and jamming it up like a barricade.

In the span of one desperate breath, the world rocked, bent, and twisted open as Carlos' explosive went off. Jay howled. She thinks she might have too. Then everything realigned itself as the world came back together, but it came together wrong and it took her a moment to realize she couldn't hear anything. She kicked the table aside and pulled at Jay, tugging and shoving until he scraped his way up beside her, doubled over and body heaving. Coughing, she thought, and only because she was, hacking until her lungs burned and then breathing in and that burned too but they were alive.

Layton was most decidedly not.

Carlos was climbing over a panel of the wall towards them, and he might have been screaming at them, or at least, there was a high ringing in Mal's ears now that she thought might have been a scream. Then she realized it was just a ringing, and the world continued to come together slowly until words began to make sense again.

"—hhhave to go!" Carlos was screaming, and pulling at Jay and pulling at Mal and they stumbled through the wreckage and into the cool street beyond.

"They-they're coming!" Carlos yelped again, and Mal blinked and realized, right. There was still a job to do.

"Get Jay to Tremaine's," she said, her voice sounding disjointed for a moment before reasserting itself. "Evie will be waiting and I'll be right behind."

Carlos gave her an incredulous look, heightened by the terror in his eyes as he struggled to support Jay's weight as she shoved the older boy at him. "Wh-wh-what about you?!"

"Me?" she said, grinning through the fire in her lungs and turning it into fire in her eyes as she caught sight of the goblins approaching through the smoke. "I'll be fine. It's my turn to have some fun now."


Several hours later found Mal bloodied and beaten and stumbling through the streets and up the shady looking entrance to Lady Tremaine's salon. The sign above proudly proclaimed 'Curl Up and Dye,' though the 'e' in 'dye' had started to fall off over time. Every time Mal stood under it she wondered if this would be when it fell and killed her, and thought how pleased the Lady would be that her pun had come to fruition. Now, though, Mal barely paused as she approached the door, ignoring the sign indicating hours and began banging on the metal doors.

"Dizzy!" she bellowed as she banged, her fist pounding hollow echoes against the door. "Let me in, brat, I know you're open!"

The door creaked, and then flung wide, and Dizzy wedged her tiny body into the frame and peered up at her with frantic eyes.

"Mal!" she hissed, a small frown pinching at her lips. "You know I told you to stop doing that!"

"Yeah, but it's fun to tick you off, brat," she replied, grinning through the pain as she shoved past the smaller girl and into the messy parlor beyond. "Where's the rest of my crew?"

"In the back," Dizzy mumbled, and Mal could hear the pout in her voice as she shoved the door shut behind her. "Granny's upstairs but we should be fine."

Something hitched in the girl's voice, and Mal stopped surveying the newest splashes of paint on the wall and turned, eyeing the tiny girl out of the corner of her eyes. Dizzy was securing the bolts in the door, but her movements were stiff and slow, and Mal felt her lips curling as the girl turned back to her.

"Evie?" Mal called over her shoulder, not taking her eyes off the other girl, who looked panicked at Mal's shout. "Come out here and take care of your kid!"

Dizzy's face twisted in further panic, and she rushed across the room towards Mal, hands coming up in a pleading gesture and glasses slipping down her face.

"No no no no, Mal!" she cried, voice pinched and desperate. "I'm fine, really. You don't have to-"

"You are not fine," Mal growled, leveling the girl with a glare and silencing her whimpers. "And I thought I talked with Tremaine about this."

Dizzy winced, but stepped back as Evie ran into the room, eyes wide and worried as they glanced back and forth between them.

"What is it?" Evie blurted, and Dizzy frowned and squirmed, and Mal growled a curse through her own pain.

"Tend to the brat," she instructed, crossing around the paint-stained leather sofa and towards the smaller salon in the back. "I'm going to ask Jay what the fuck happened tonight."

"Oh before you do," Dizzy piped up, voice still small and slightly pinched. "He's not quite…ok? I mean he's kind of…shaky, so just…just don't…don't make it any worse, ok?"

Mal softened, and offered the tiny girl a gentle smile. "I'll be careful, I promise. Now sit and let Evie look at you."

Dizzy squirmed a bit more but nodded, and Mal slipped through the entrance to Dizzy's salon and blinked at the overwhelming flood of color that met her eyes. She swore every time she came here the paint just spread on its own, but she knew from having witnessed it that it was just the whirlwind energy of the eleven-year old in the other room, splattering the paint in patterns that only she found appealing. In this room, a few cracked leather reclining chairs lined the front wall, all doused in a healthy splatter of neon paint. A bathtub bubbled in the very back of the room, overflowing with hoses and tubes that attached to a shelf of containers perched just above the tub, which hissed and spilled paint in methodical drips into the tub below.

An inhumanely large portrait of Lady Tremaine's late cat, Lucifer, hung on the wall to her left, somehow untouched by the mess of paint. Beyond that, more shelves and cubbies hung, crammed full of bottles of paint and hair dye and brushes and combs and even more paint and a few shattered mirrors. And beyond the salon, a small beaded curtain hung, and Mal strode to this curtain and shoved it aside, and Carlos blinked sleepily up at her from a paint-stained bed, Jay springing up from the floor and staring at her wide eyed.

"Well?" he prompted, and there was guilt and fear in his voice and his face that only served to stir at Mal's own.

But she still managed a grin as she shoved Carlos aside and plopped down onto the bed beside him, ignoring the way her ribs twinged at the movement.

"Nothing to it," she boasted through her grin, well aware that she was still covered in dust from the fallen building and probably no small amount of blood that was not, in fact, her own.

Jay nodded, however, and sank slowly back to the floor, seemingly satisfied with her response. Carlos curled up closer to her and poked questingly at her torso. She winced as he jabbed at a particularly bad bruise and slapped his hand away.

"I'm fine, 'Los. Chill," she scolded, and he lifted a shoulder and gave her a sheepish look as if to say 'just making sure,' before curling back up on the bed and resting his head on her hip.

She ran her fingers easily through his curls and hummed thoughtfully as she stared at Jay, who had settled back on the floor but still looked unsettled, and she had to resist the urge to shove Carlos aside and embrace Jay, instead.

"So, what the fuck happened, Jay?" she asked, keeping her voice low. Despite that, he still flinched, and his eyes flickered.

"I dunno," he mumbled, not lifting his head. Carlos stiffened against her but didn't move, and Mal idly continued to twist his hair around her fingers.

"You 'dunno?'" she repeated, and she knew her voice was cracking too sharp but this was a liability she wasn't about to risk right now.

"Yeah," Jay snapped back, but his eyes were on the wall behind her head, that same hollow look in them he'd had before. "I dunno, Mal. I don't know what happened! I don't know what he…what he did to me. I don't know!"

Mal straightened sharply on the bed at that, and Carlos made a displeased noise and poked at her ribs again. She slapped his hand harder than she had earlier and he grumbled and pulled himself into a tighter ball away from her.

"He who?" Mal asked slowly, and Jay scowled, eyes flashing indignantly at her tone. Then he faltered, lips pressed tightly together and shoulders hunching inwards. "Jay."

"I don't," he muttered, and he sounded small. He sounded weak. "I'm not sure. I don't…I don't remember."

"This night, Jay," Mal continued, insistent now as cold began to settle in her gut. "Earlier this night, Jay. When you were with Layton, do you remember that?"

Jay's expression wrinkled at that, confusion and disgust plain on his face. "What? No, he…I didn't let him do anything. Not like…not like before."

And he trailed off again, eyes flicking away from her face and Mal cursed her stupidity because of fucking course and she should have known…. She hissed a few more curses under her breath and shoved Carlos off the bed, shifting closer to Jay.

"Right," she said, ignoring Carlos as he sprung up from floor whining protests at her. "So, I fucked up and that's on me, and I'm gonna do what I can to fix it, alright?"

Jay shrugged and remained silent, though Carlos did not, and Mal sighed, snapping her eyes over to the other boy.

"Shut up, Carlos," she deadpanned. "Go and sleep in one of the parlor chairs in the other room."

Carlos grumbled under his breath and glared sideways at her, but slunk away to do as she commanded. Jay barely blinked, and Mal had to fight to keep her irritation out of her voice when she spoke again.

"I need a name, Jay."

He did blink at that, frowning up at her gripping his ankles tightly. "What?"

"A name, Jay," she growled, and his frown deepened at her tone. "I know…I know it's been ages but whatever happened is still giving you shit now so I need to know a name so I can go and deal with the problem."

"What?" he said again, but it wasn't quite a question directed at her. He stared into his knees, mystified. "Why would you…?"

"Because, asshole," she snapped, prodding him with her foot until he looked up at her again. "It's making you all ineffective and I need to make sure…." She paused, softened. "I need to make you're ok."

"I'm fine," Jay spat, fingers trembling around his ankles.

"No you're not," Mal spat back. "And it's my fault, but mostly it's his fault and it's Jafar's. But I can't kill Jafar, at least not yet, so I need you to give me a name, Jay."

Jay twitched at that, and at first she was afraid he was upset she'd threatened to kill Jafar, which was a privilege that really, Jay should have. But then she realized it was something else as he shook his head slightly and ran his fingers through his hair, tugging at the curls at the back of his neck before wincing.

"I don't have a name," he muttered, finally. "They never…I didn't have anything to…use for him. Only," he paused, bit his lip and trembled. "I only heard him called 'the Persian.'"

"That's all I need," she said, standing from the bed and grabbing the beaten pillow Carlos had been sleeping on before crossing to the curtain.

"Mal?" Jay called softly, and she paused with her fingers trailing through the beads, turning back. He hesitated, and she watched a variety of emotions flash across his face before it settled back into something like resignation. "Be careful?"

"Please," she scoffed, offering an easy smile. "When have I ever been careful?"

She slipped through the curtain before he could say anything to stop her, striding through the parlor and pausing only long enough to carefully slip the pillow behind Carlos' head. The leather chair creaked and groaned as he shifted, but didn't wake, simply sighed softly and curled himself around the soft material. Mal shook her head and stepped back into the dividing room where Dizzy and Evie sat, speaking softly in rushed voices. They both stopped when Mal entered, Dizzy jumping up to her feet and peering up at her with worried eyes.

"Are you leaving?" she asked, as Mal passed a hand over her paint-stained hair and made for the door. "But you just got here!"

Evie gave her a look that seemed to echo the smaller girl's sentiment, but she pressed her lips tightly together and remained silent. Mal gripped the hilt of her dagger and met Evie's look with a sharp one of her own.

"If I'm not back before morning, rally the kids and we'll meet at the hideout around eleven like always."

Evie chewed at her lip, but nodded, and Mal felt at least some of the strain leave her at the relief that at least that was take care of.

"Where are you going?" Dizzy asked, and Mal grinned, eyes flashing green.

"I've still got the goblins for another few hours or so," she quipped, flinging open the metal door and letting it slam against the alley wall beyond. "I'm going to go have some more fun."


Jane

For as long as Jane could recall, she'd always been a compassionate person. She even had a 'reward' from when she was five and had been deemed 'The Most Compassionate' of her class. As she grew older, that compassion hadn't faded so much as evolved, and with the development of her magic it became something like a built in distress radar. She could always tell when someone or something was 'off,' and she had no choice but to try and do what she could to put things right again.

It was part of why she'd been so nervous about Ben's decree to bring over kids from the Isle. There was no telling just what sort of distress they might be in or cause, and Jane would of course be able to feel it, and of course she'd have to do something about it. The VKs would be dangerous, she'd thought. Wild and unpredictable and with who knows what sorts of magics and abilities and feelings that Jane would have to sort through.

It's no surprise to her how easily she'd managed to engage with the VKs- or, two of them at least. Just in the ways in which she's always encountering them.

"You know," Jane says calmly, wincing at the sharp snap of magic that meets her words. "There really needs to be some better ways in which we can interact with each other, cuz this is getting ridiculous."

Mal jerks sharply, eyes flashing boldly up to meet hers even as her hands shake where they clutch at her arms.

"Jane," she gasps, and Jane doesn't miss the way the girl straightens too stiffly, or the burn marks across her arms that she can't quite shove her sleeves over fast enough. "Hi."

"Hi," Jane says back, and her own magic pangs sympathetically even as she flinches at the flash of Mal's flames. "You ok?"

"Please, why would I not be?" Mal scoffs, but her eyes don't meet hers and she turns away towards the sinks so all Jane gets is the barest imitation of a sneer. "I'm in Auradon, what more could I ask for?"

"I don't know," Jane answers honestly, fidgeting with the ribbon tied to her skirt and trying to stifle her own magic. "What more could you ask for?"

Mal freezes at that, then whips around so sharply Jane stumbles back with a cry.

"How about five minutes where I'm not being looked at like a freak or something about to explode? How about some peace; so I'm not looking over my shoulder waiting for the next thing to go wrong?"

"Mal, I-"

"How about you take away the knowledge you have of all the fucked up things we've gone through? Or my mother's voice in my head? Or her magic from my veins, that I can't even use without-"

Mal cuts off abruptly with a vicious noise of anger, eyes bright green and hand frozen, outstretched as though she were about to lash out at Jane. She instead stiffens, the growl in her throat turning bitter and pained, as she lifts her hand to grip tightly at the exposed skin of her shoulder. Jane watches, helpless and horrified, as the skin there blisters and cracks before Mal pulls her hand away, leaving bright red welts in the shape of her fingers imprinted on her skin.

"Please," Jane tries, voice cracking. "Please don't do that."

"Or what?" Mal challenges, but her voice is too thick and the flicker in her eyes is too sharp. "Are my coping mechanisms not good enough for you?"

"It's just." Jane swallows and fidgets and hates how her magic pulses pain through her in response. "It's just…there are better ways-"

"Not where I'm from," Mal interjects with a twisted smile, and Jane blinks, not liking the sound of that.

"Did…did you…do that a lot? On the Isle?" she manages, and Mal surveys the welts along her wrists with a morbid thoughtfulness.

"This?" she murmurs, twisting her arm so Jane can see a particularly deep welt along her forearm before her sleeve falls in the way again. "No, this is new. I couldn't exactly create much more than sparks there. But I will say, it's much better than what I had before."

Jane does not want to think about what that might mean, but she's not entirely ignorant to that sort of thing. Too much compassion and empathy and magic and not enough of a focus, plus hormonal teenagers and the general pressures to be absolutely 'perfect'…yeah, Jane was well aware of how that worked.

"Still," she says, taking a careful step forward and trying to catch Mal's eyes again through the mirror. "You really shouldn't do that."

"Right," Mal snaps, and her eyes are hard as they lift to glare at Jane's reflection. "Come back to me when you've got a better solution."

"I mean," Jane says, and steps a bit closer, hands wavering by her sides. "I mean I can…."

And before she has time to think about it, she lifts her hand and places it on Mal's shoulder, right over the glaring welt. Mal goes completely still beneath her fingers, breath escaping through her teeth in a sharp, startled hiss, eyes widening in what Jane doesn't want to think of as fear. She feels the bubble of her magic in the pit of her stomach and pulls it forward on instinct, and within a few more moments, the burn on Mal's shoulder is gone. Mal blinks as Jane steps back with a shy grin of satisfaction, then scowls as she pokes at the spot where the burn used to be.

"That's cheating," she mutters darkly. "They fade on their own anyway, after a while, there was no need for you to…"

"But I wanted to," Jane says, and Mal's lips curl again as she turns back around to face her.

"Why?" she demands. "Why do you want anything to do with us?"

With me, goes unspoken, but not quite unheard, and Jane tries for a casual shrug and then decides that casual wasn't what was needed in this situation.

"Because I know what you're feeling," she says, softly. Honestly. "I might not have any of the experiences to go with it, but my magic has always been good about letting me know when people need help and…and I mean, no offense. But it's been screaming at me non-stop since you guys got here."

"The last thing I want from you of all people is your pity," Mal spits, and sparks pop dangerously along the backs of her hands. "And I don't need any more useless attempts at 'help,' either."

"Useless?" Jane repeats, taking another careful step closer and wondering if she could actually defuse the situation like she'd hoped. "But I thought…"

"What? You thought the Cricket would help?" Mal finishes scathingly, eyes lighting with flame even as her hand inches threateningly close to her shoulder again. "As if digging into the past is going to change what's happened. What's going to happen. And I…I can't protect them from that! I don't know how. I…."

"Oh," Jane whispers, realizing. "You're afraid. Of course you are, you…oh."

"Shut up," Mal snaps harshly, gritting her teeth in a snarl that is diminished by the tremble in her hands. "And get that fucking look off your face, Jane."

Jane starts, and sneaks a peek of her expression in the bathroom mirror. She looks just as plain and weak as always. But there is a weird sort of something in her eyes that she can't figure out. She blinks a few times in an attempt to clear it, and Mal snorts and rolls her own, fire-lit eyes.

"You know, I'm not the Cricket," Jane continues after a moment. "But if you ever do feel the need to…um…do that again." She indicates the now-actually-fading burns on Mal's wrists. "If you start getting all self-destructive you can always come and find me."

"Yeah?" Mal replies, and her voice is all harsh and mocking despite the defensive curl of her shoulders. "And you'll what? Bippidy-boppidy it all better?"

Jane shrugs and grins self-consciously, picking at her skirt again. "That was more an instinct thing than actual magic," she mutters sheepishly. "I barely know the basics and haven't really gotten much of a chance to practice outside of that with the whole, uh. Ban. So."

"The basics," Mal repeats, skeptically. "So like, how to fuel your intent to hex your enemies even without a proper spell, and the correct way to pronounce the Fae letter 'ð'?"

"I meant more like how to not accidentally hex people with my intent, and how to conceal my wings in the odd chance they show up."

"Huh," Mal coughs a short laugh even as her eyes darken. "Yeah I never had that problem…suppressing barrier and all. Plus also, not enough fae blood apparently. My mom was never not in a mood to point that out."

"Hm," Jane hums shortly, slightly stunned, and Mal's lips quirk upwards just a bit more genuinely.

"How about this, then?" she says, and Jane blinks and lifts her brows curiously. "I'll come find you whenever I feel all self-destructive, as you call it, if you come to me to teach you the proper basics of magic."

"That sounds doable," Jane blurts, and Mal throws her head back and laughs.

Jane chuckles a bit too, relieved, but also unable to ignore the still insistent tugging in her gut. Can't ignore the tingling sense in the back of her head of 'not ok.'


Carlos

(He remembers in pieces.)

He knows something big was happening today. He knew because Isaac was there, and Isaac was only ever there when big things were happening. Or maybe he made big things happen, but Carlos didn't care because he was there and maybe this time he would stay this time. Or take Carlos with him like he kept promising he would.

The big thinks happen like this:

Cruella getting mad at something Isaac said.

Cruella throwing something that breaks and shatters and hurts as it digs into Isaac's skin and in Carlos' skin where Isaac scoops him up and holds him tight in his arms.

Carlos crying as they leave the smoky interior of the apartment. Isaac hushing him and promising that it would be fine as soon as they got to the boat.

Carlos screaming at the light, at the noise at the hands that try and grab him away. But Isaac holding tight and whispering words that make the crowding people recoil.

And then suddenly there's a shift and a blur and pain. And other voices who are not Isaac saying things. And Isaac screaming no, no he's mine! He's mine he's mine you can't you can't!

And he's in someone else's arms and hands pinch at him and tell him stop that barking now, pup and Isaac is being pulled away and there are other people screaming too, crying and pleading things just like he had and it's all no, I'm making my claim. No, she's my daughter! Mine, you hear?

And he turns his head in time to see a little girl with fire for hair kicking at the hands that try to pull her away from a woman with similarly bright hair.

The little girl gets a slap for her trouble, and she goes still on the ground and silent while the woman continues to cry.

But all that matters to him is Isaac, who fights through the crowd and his face is blurring above him and no, he can't he has to be able to see his face!

"Carlos," Isaac says, and his voice is gasping and desperate and powerful as it rumbles through Carlos' chest. "Carlos no matter what, don't forget that I love you, ok?"

Then there's another push, and everything blurs for a moment.

Then a voice through the crowd, and a face, tear streaked and desperate as he fought against the hands shoving him towards a boat.

"Carlos! I—ddy loves you. I-ve you, Carlos!"

And then there's one last push and the voice was gone. And then it was just him, and Cruella.


Carlos sits up so fast in bed he feels sick. Then he realizes it's an actual feeling in his stomach and he bolts, barely making it to the bathroom before he's heaving desperately on the tile, sobbing so hard he can't breathe. Jay's voice drifts to him in the midst of it, but his words don't make any sense and it's so close to what he'd just dreamed he almost throws up again.

"Carlos it's….'reathe. I'm…getting Mal, ok?"

Carlos wants to say, no, don't leave! But Jay is already gone, and he cries desperately on the floor until he feels a hand on his back and warmth pulsing through him, and Mal's voice, rough with sleep but no less firm.

"Tawelan, Carlos. Calm down."

He breathes, the pressure in his chest easing but not the pain, and he hiccups roughly a few times as he catches his breath. He can feel the others around him, hear the worried murmur of their voices and he knows he should try and say something, but all that comes out is a whine.

"It was just a dream, dude," Jay mutters, and his voice is worried and awkward. "It's not real, whatever it was…"

"It w-w-was real," he blurts, shakily, blinking back his tears and shuddering in Mal's arms. "He was rreal, he was real and I…I…."

"'Los? You're not making any sense," Evie whispers above him somewhere, and he wants to tell them but he can't. He can't because then it would make it really real…that he'd had…someone. That someone who wasn't Cruella and who had cared about him was on the Isle with him and Carlos had forgotten him.

"He who?" Mal rumbles, and her voice is dangerous. "Do I have to go and kill someone else?"

And Carlos almost laughs but it's a weak bubble in his chest, and he settles for shaking his head into the crook of her neck.

"Nno," he mumbles, finally. "Just a...just a bad memory. I'mmm ok."

Mal hedges a moment and he can feel her desire to say something like a physical force. Finally she stands and lifts him with her, fingers tangling gently in his hair as she murmurs 'Tawel' again under her breath.

"The Cricket says we shouldn't ignore flashbacks when they come," she continues once he's steady again. "But what's say we forget this one for now and go back to bed?"

He nods jerkily, drained of the energy to protest. He wonders idly if that's what she'd intended with her words, but it's a peaceful sort of drain in his body. Like he's tired. Which, now that he's thinking about it, he is.

He climbs back into bed, and Mal slips beneath the covers with him and Evie crawls in and then Jay piles in somewhere. And they tangle together perfectly, Mal carding her fingers through his hair and murmuring 'Tawel, tawel,' until he falls into darkness again.

By the time morning comes, Carlos is exhausted and no calmer, for all Mal's renewed effort. It's all he can manage to get breakfast down, and he's on edge and restless and snaps at Evie's attempts to rouse him. He very nearly throws his butter knife at Ben when the other boy approaches their table, and instead digs it into his tray and growls with each step closer Bent takes.

"No," Mal snarls, before Ben has the chance to open his mouth.

Carlos feels his lips twitch ever so slightly at Ben's expression, but his amusement sours again as Ben plows on regardless.

"You don't even know what I'm going to say," he chokes out through a weak laugh, and Mal narrows her eyes and Carlos continues to growl.

"You're either going to tell us that yet another thing from our past had been dug up and everyone wants to poke at it, or you want us to meet with the Council again. And the answer is still no."

She punctuates it with a sharp spark of flame, and Carlos somehow vaguely knows that that won't stop Ben.

He's right.

"Well, yes, the new Council I've made wants to meet with you guys and see how things have been going. And also, the ambassador from Arandelle has a message from Queen Elsa, and since she had pretty strong opinions about the Isle and you guys to begin with, it's kind of a big deal."

Carlos blinks at that, and Jay and Mal exchange skeptical looks. He's not sure what Evie does, but no one is telling Ben no again, and that's all that he really wants.

[No!] He signs sharply, his hands shaking. [I'm not going.] And Ben looks at him, stunned.

"Carlos is in a mood today," Mal explains shortly. "But honestly it's justified, and the last thing we need is judgement from yet another royal."

"Mm…see the thing is," Ben mumbles, shuffling his feet and not making eye contact. "It's kind of really important."


Isaac

He's standing in front of the shell shocked rulers and it's so hard not to be smug.

"I'm sorry, you want to what?"

He grins, and he knows it's too wide and too tight and too delighted but he doesn't give a damn because he was winning.

"It is fully within Queen Elsa's rights within this realm, and as she is still a standing monarch of Arandelle and not a tied sovereign with the United Kingdoms of Auradon..."

"I don't need all the fancy terms, I understand the legality of it. I do not understand the audacity of it."

A small part of Isaac misses Rumplestiltskin. Sure the man was creepy and unnerving at the best of times, and conniving and twisted at the worst, but he understood a good deal when he saw one, and respected those who could collaborate at his level, even if it meant they wound up with the better bargain. This Beast, who is not golden or scaled, or talented in weaving magical contracts, is entirely too dull for his liking.

"The heart of the matter is the well-being of the children," Isaac says shortly, and if his grin was still a bit too sharp well tough. "Since their arrival here in Auradon there has been nothing done to truly aid them or serve their best interests. If anything it has been the exact opposite. Queen Elsa is offering an alternative that benefits all involved, and if you truly wanted a 'chance' for these children as you claim, you wouldn't be so ignorant as to deny it."

"'Amnesty and what?'" Mal's voice is sharper than even his own, eyes calculating as she glares at him over the paper. "What are these words? What are they supposed to mean to me?"

"Full pardon from all accused crimes and sentences of your parents," Isaac gladly elaborates, lifting his voice just a tad as the assembled rulers begin to grumble. "The kingdom of Auradon would have you under the penalty of villainy simply for your existence, and even though you are here in Auradon you are still essentially serving for those crimes. If you accept Queen Elsa's offer you will be welcomed freely into Arendelle with no attachments or restrictions, and granted full citizenship with all the rights and privileges that come with it."

"We're citizens of Auradon now," Evie says slowly, her voice lifting at the end as she glances over to the young prince Ben.

"You are not," Isaac quips, and he knows he's being too glib he knows he shouldn't be this thrilled but Carlos is right there he's almost his again he just has to... "You may reside here currently but under Auradon you are still registered as belonging to the Isle of the Lost, and your stay only covers the school terms."

"Which means they can send us back when school is over and they don't technically have to invite us back for another school year," Mal finishes lowly, voice dropping almost to monotone as she realizes.

"Precisely," he concurs with a short nod.

There's a murmuring rush of sound from the gathered royals and Isaac almost starts to squirm as he tries to block the noise from coming together in his head. Mal is the one who stops it, raising a hand and snapping, and the sound echoes with the sharp pop of fire and the bright flash of green.

"So let me get this straight," she says quietly. Deliberately. "Right now we're living in Auradon but we're still registered or whatever as citizens of the Isle."

"Correct."

"And so we can still be sent back regardless of decree because it only covers the school and we're still under the penalty of our parents' crimes."

"Yes."

"And this...Elsa? She's offering, what? An alternative? How is that possible...isn't she a part of Auradon too?"

And Isaac can't help it. He laughs, throwing his head back and cackling because really, really it was just too much!

"No," he finally manages between gasps, shaking his head and ignoring the furious snarling coming from the Beast. "No, no one would even dare suggest such a thing."

"Because she's so terrible?" Jay tosses out with a lift of his brow and a challenge on his lips.

That depends on what day it is, Isaac thinks wryly. On if she's feeling more Snow Queen than heartfelt and saccharine. And even that was really only contingent on him, and on how his mind decided to perceive her; how his Curse warped her behavior.

"Because she clashes with all that Auradon stands for," some faceless royal who will remain faceless calls out, because Isaac can't keep expending energy on anything that isn't getting Carlos.

"Queen Elsa's offer is open to all the children of the Isle, not just the four of you," Isaac continues, because he has to, he has to. "Though I do hope you'll at least consider it. Accepting means freedom and full citizenship; the honor and respect of being part of the kingdom, the chance to learn and work and live however you want. You would receive land and support and opportunities to decide for yourselves what's best for you, and not simply leave it in the hands of those who see you as criminals."

"It all sounds very political," Evie says, and Isaac blinks because what was that look in her eyes? "Are we really meant to believe she's doing this simply out of the kindness of her heart?"

"Are you certain about this?" Isaac asks impatiently to Elsa's back, the room around him dropping temperature with each word. "It just sounds too…political. Will they really believe you're doing this out of the goodness of your frozen heart?"

And it's the Snow Queen who turns, and Isaac stiffens…freezing. His feet stick to the floor and his tongue sticks to the roof of his gaping mouth. He chokes on his next words and tastes iron in the back of his throat and then the deep, lancing pain and cold that follows and he doesn't want to look he shouldn't look doesn't need to look to know.

Huh. His vision blurs, but he can still clearly see the icicle growing from the pool at his feet, see and feel and taste it embedded in his throat. Would you look at that. I've been impaled.

'You of all people should know better than to question me, Isaac.' The Snow Queen purrs, and the pain spikes sharply and the world goes white so fast he doesn't have time to realize it's also gone dark.

"That's not your place to question, Isaac," Elsa says smoothly, and Isaac flinches hard because how did she always do that? How did she always see right through…always know just what to say to sound like her counterpart and the nightmare that version of her had been.

"I'm sorry," he says, and means it, even if he does still sound impatient. "I just…you know how important this is to me."

"As you know how important this is to me," Elsa retorts, and her eyes flash but his feet remain unfrozen to the floor. "Don't worry, I don't intend to jeopardize any part of this. It's up to you how well you'll be received."

"She's doing it to piss us all off, just like she's done with all her decisions about Arandelle. Just like she has since the beginning. I swear she's lucky she even got to keep that crown on her head after the kingdom thawed."

And Isaac is back and he nearly freezes over himself, very nearly avoids losing his words entirely at that. Loses his words but not his memory and he has the very distinct impression of icicles burrowing beneath his skin and through his bones and muscles and blood.

"And what does that mean?" Mal asks, but it's not sarcastic it's genuine, and Isaac has a much harder time pulling himself up from the freezing water.

"They are referring," he says stiffly, and he has to bite his tongue that is not frozen he is still alive "to the fact that Queen Elsa is a talented and incredibly powerful Ice Mage, who unfortunately did not always have the control over her power as she does today, resulting in the accidental freezing over of the town of Arandelle towards the beginning of her reign."

Mal blinks, and he braces himself for it.

"How long ago was that?"

(it's a bad question, it's such a bad question for him because he has weeks, years, days. Months, centuries. Millennia. Because it's been so long but he swears it was yesterday because he can still feel the ice in his skin from when the Snow Queen killed him the first time. And even that isn't right because she'd drowned him the first time, the ice had been the second and even that was not the truth because the Snow Queen had happened centuries ago and he'd written that one had finished that one the Snow Queen was a finished story and Elsa had only been years. Elsa had been years yes and she was how old now yes and that had been the beginning of the reign. He remembered that. It had only been the one town not the whole Fjord. Not his blood on her hands. Not that time. Because he'd had Carlos then because Elsa was helping him get Carlos now which meant that it had only been)

"Ten years ago," Isaac says, and both of Mal's eyebrows go up.

"That's soon," she says. "That's...that's not that long at all."

And then.

"So wait hang on she's like us then?"

Isaac blinks. "Like you?"

"Villain-y and stuff? I mean she gets what we've been...what we're...she's gets us. That's why she's doing it. Cuz she's us."

Isaac isn't entirely certain of that train of thought but he thinks the gist is there somewhere and so he nods silently, and something in Mal's expression clears.

"Do we have a time for when to accept?"

"That is entirely up to you. The invitation is open and extends to the whole children of the Isle, though I do hope you will consider it."

Please consider it please please. He almost takes out his Pen right there, almost makes the decision for her, but no that would be cheating and he hasn't done that since Carlos. Carlos who is there he's right there he's right….

"We'll think about it," Mal promises, and Isaac feels the relief like…like he'd felt when he'd been pulled out of the ice. Thawing…melting…almost burning with intensity.

"That's all I could ask for," he says, bowing to her, and then less deeply to the assembled court.

And he's all set to leave, has to get back now before the crowds and the faces and the names start to overwhelm him, but then he feels a tug at his arm and he stops.

Turns. Slow, so slow. Knows he should probably turn quicker because if it were a threat…

It is not a threat.

It's Carlos.

It's Carlos it's him it's his boy it's….

Isaac grits his jaw tight against the onslaught and Carlos shrinks and fuck, no he's already ruined it and…

"Carlos," he bursts out, and the boy stops in his retreat and turns, something glinting in his eyes that Isaac, for all his knowledge and grasp of words, can't identify.

[You know my name.] Carlos' hands shake as he signs; pointing first to Isaac, then tapping the side of his head with a flat 'B' handshape; placing a flat palm against his own chest before bringing his hands together in two 'H' handshapes and tapping one against the other.

[I do.] Isaac affirms, no less shaky as he brings his own hand up and signs a 'yes.'

"How?" Carlos blurts, and his voice is sharp and rough and yet it's familiar it's the same it's different because he's older but it's still… "Who…who are yyou?"

"You know my name," he says, and Carlos shakes his head but his eyes are shining with…oh he's crying no that's not…don't. Don't do that.

He brings his hand up without thinking, wipes the tears from Carlos' eyes. It's only when his hand is gripped in a much tighter grasp and a pair of sharp, green eyes pierce into his own that he realizes his mistake.

"Carlos," Mal (dragon, forest green, purple hair and flames) says icily, and it's so wrong coming from her. But it is the correct term because Isaac is frozen in place, held tightly in Jay's (sand, viper, poisonous, treacherous) grip. "Are you ok? Who the fuck do you think you are?"


Carlos

Carlos hadn't thought the meeting was as important as Ben insisted it was. He'd sat hunched in his seat between Evie and Jay and hadn't made eye contact with anyone in the room, even though he could hear the whispers and the muttering and feel the shock of the people around him. His mind kept replaying the images from his dream, warping details until he wasn't even sure of them anymore, filling in blanks and leaving more behind. He'd been about to give up the whole façade and just run from the room, until he'd risked a glance and come face to face with the representative from Arandelle.

And then his brain had exploded.

Not literally, although he was almost certain he'd died or that something had happened because right there in front of him…right there in front of him was….

He'd been the first one out of his chair, ignoring the surprised noises and the frustrated ones as he shoves his way expertly through the figures larger than him. And the man's back was to him as he approached and suddenly Carlos felt so small…he was a child again and watching him walk through the door for the first time…uncertain if this would be another thing to hurt him. He almost hadn't reached out, but then he was, gripping at the soft sleeve and tugging.

And he turns and…and…

"Carlos."

And he shouldn't be surprised, shouldn't be afraid, that he knows, but it comes out regardless; his terror, his uncertainty. His tears.

He doesn't even realize he's crying until the man's hand is reaching out, but there's no contact with his skin as within seconds, his group is there, Jay restraining the reaching hand and Mal snapping sparks and threats and Evie's hands on Carlos' shoulders and no…no…no…don't!

"Are you ok?" Mal asks, eyes sharp and cold all at once as they glare over his head to the gaping man. "Who the fuck do you think you are?"

"It's…." Carlos starts, then falters, and he bring his hand up to sign again, because it's easier, because the fragments of memory grip his fingers as they move fluidly through the letters. Like he'd been doing it his whole life. Like it's instinct.

[I.]

He's barely two and he's sitting across from a man with curly hair and dark eyes, learning how to sign his name for the first time.

[S.]

He's around ten and he finds Cruella burning pieces of paper. He gets her cigarette pressed to his skin for his curiosity, but he does manage to snag one when she loses interest in her task. He barely makes out hints at words, but it's his name at the top that catches his gaze; 'Mr. Oscar de Vil,' and 'Dear Carlos,' and 'Love, I…' at the bottom. He frowns and throws it back into the flames.

[A.]

He's eight and he uses his brand new knife to ward off the larger boy with long dark hair attempting to steal his cigarettes from him. Catches a gleam of something equally sharp and finds himself at the end of an even sharper knife and a wicked grin and a 'not bad, pup.' And his cigarettes are gone in the space of his shock that other boy hadn't killed him. He finds a book of sign language for his trouble instead, and has to hide it from Cruella so she doesn't burn it like the other ones he'd found. Unlike the other ones, this one has his name written in it, and a dedication that sounds way too personal and knowing. He throws it away.

[A.]

He's fourteen and a letter comes from Auradon. In the scrawl of the margins of the invitation is a list of ambassadors and fancy royal people who had approved or vouched or whatever so he could go. One of the names seems familiar, somehow. He dismisses it and tries to figure out how he's gonna convince Cruella to let him go. (Maleficent ends up making the decision for her, and he's never once liked Mal's mom, but now he's immensely grateful for the woman.)

[C.]

He's fourteen, and the name comes to him unbidden, at the sight of the man before him now. Isaac. Isaac. Isaac.

"Isaac," he whispers, hoarsely, and a part of him is grateful for Evie's hands steady on his shoulders. He thinks he might have fallen over otherwise. "My…my…."

And he brings his hand up in a 'five' handshape, tapping the tip of his thumb to his forehead. And he's so stupid, really, because he'd known the sign for 'mother,' well enough, but had never bothered to learn the sign for:

"Fa-father."

Turns out he'd always known it.


Aziz

He's not entirely sure why he follows Jay, if he's being honest. But then again, if he's being honest, he's got some idea. It's not just the panic in the Carlos' eyes; the helplessness and terror with which the smaller boy watches the Coach pull Jay aside- although that's part of it. And it's not quite because of the way Jay goes stiff for a whole five seconds before following, with this wary, resigned look in his eyes- although that's definitely another part of it.

He thinks it's mostly because he's curious. He'd seen the excitement in Coach's eyes as they'd run through drills, and he'd been excited too, and no small parts pleased that his idea had paid off. But really, he's following because he's selfish. It had been a week now since that night on the Tourney field, but every time he'd tried to approach Jay or even Carlos, they'd find some reason to wiggle away, or else they'd shut down entirely, and wouldn't speak a word. And Aziz was sick of it; sick of being avoided, and of always somehow being a source of conflict to the VKs.

And so he follows Jay and Coach, and puts all his stealth training into use and wedges himself under the metal bleachers that they sit on. Tilting his head he can just see the edges of Coach's sneakers; the tips of his fingers and the side of Jay's face. Jay, who is sitting entirely still on the bench, jaw tight and eyes not quite looking at Coach, now that Aziz is thinking about it. Jay's eyes are entirely focused on Coach's hands, and while Aziz doesn't want to think about all that that might mean, he can't seem to do anything but.

"Listen, Jay, what you did out there was nothing short of spectacular, and I could really use a tough guy like you on this team. They're a great team, don't get me wrong, but sometimes they can just be…a bunch of Princes, know what I mean?"

Hey, Aziz thinks, reeling silently beneath the bleachers. I take offense to that, Coach.

Jay snorts, just a little, then seems to realize he'd shown amusement and stills, brows lifting cautiously.

"I uh…I know what you mean," he offers finally, when Coach remains silent a moment longer. "Sort of all, 'oh excuse me, did I hit you too hard?' and 'wait, after you, old friend.'"

Fuck he's got jokes, Aziz thinks, and even Coach chuckles a bit, shaking his head and bringing a hand up to adjust his cap. Jay doesn't flinch, but his eyes do watch the moment intently. He seems to relax just a bit when Coach makes no other moves, and Jay shifts his weight back and adopts a faux-aggressive posture.

"Yeah, well, back home it's 'prepare to die, fucker!' As Jafar always used to say, "the only way to win is to make sure everyone else loses. You rip-"

"Jay! Jay! Jay!" Coach interrupts, reaching a hand out to grip Jay's shoulder. Aziz is grateful but also disappointed, because he'd been morbidly curious as to the rest of Jafar's so-called wisdom.

Jay instantly stops and sits again, eyes wide and wary again, and Coach seems to realize his position and drops his hand from Jay's shoulder, instead sweeping it out to gesture…somewhere. Aziz thinks it might be towards the Tourney field, and his hunch is seemingly confirmed with Coach's next words.

"Let me explain a team to you. You know how the body has a lot of different parts? Eyes, legs, arms…but they all need each other to form one whole. Does that make sense?"

Aziz shifts his weight against the metal beam he's leaning on and he can make out the confusion on Jay's face that much better. Well, it's not quite confusion…almost like Jay's getting the information, but it's coming through a thick filter. Jay's brow furrows, and he nods, but distantly.

"So you're saying, I'm like the fist?"

Coach sighs, then perks up again, leaning forward as the enthusiasm strikes him again. "How 'bout this way. A team is like a family, ok? Everyone working together and supporting each other. Looking out for each other and making sure that no one person is left unprotected."

It's not a bad metaphor, if Aziz is saying so himself. But he's not really, Coach is, and Jay blinks, eyes lifting to meet the man's gaze.

"But…I already have that. A team…Mal, Evie, Carlos. We're already a family."

Well shit. That was news. And also adorable as fuck, Jay, what the crap?

Coach seems just as taken aback, though he recovers faster than Aziz does, nodding and grinning ever so slightly.

"It's great the way you rush ahead Jay, and that fire you put into playing. But you also need to make sure you're not burning the rest of your team, right? The rest of your family."

"Oh," Jay says slowly, nodding along. "Yeah that makes sense."

"I know you said you already have a family, and I wouldn't want to take away from that in any way. But do you think you could try letting this team become another family?"

"I…I can try."

"Then welcome to the family, Jay. Welcome to the team."

Damn it, Aziz hisses to himself, swallowing hard and adamantly refusing to let the pricking at the back of his eyes become anything more than that. It's like we're in some sappy movie or something.

He very nearly misses Coach's departure, but he manages to slip out from beneath the bleachers in time to match Jay's, remembering his mission. To talk. Right. Ok. Real simple. Just gotta do it. Just gotta open your mouth, Aziz. Hey can we talk? Can we talk?

"Heycanwetalk?"

"Son of a fuck!"

Jay jumps about a foot, and it would be funny expect in the next moment Aziz finds himself about to be pinned to the bleachers. He manages to shift out of the grip, reversing his position so he's once again at Jay's side. He makes a show of adjusting the cuffs of his shirt to give Jay a chance to recover. The other boy does so quickly, and glares sharply at Aziz, who fixes a carefully neutral look on his own face.

"Were you following me? Listening in?"

"No," he answers immediately. "…Yes."

"You know you keep coming so close and then you go right back into Auradon," Jay mumbles, but he's not quite glaring anymore, so Aziz takes it as a good sign and plunges ahead.

"Well if everything you guys have shown in any indicator, I might not last as long as you think," he quips recklessly, and Jay's eyes flicker away from his and something in his posture tightens.

Crap.

"Sorry, bad joke. I shouldn't have…"

"I mean, you're not wrong, but. For different reasons than you think," Jay replies, and his lips twist sideways into a smirk despite his continued lack of eye contact.

"Hey, you never know," Aziz retorts, letting his own relief color his own grin. "I'm full of surprises."

"Uh huh, sure," Jay mumbles through a scoff, and Aziz almost shoves him, then aborts the thought, uncertain as to how that would be received.

"You know, what coach said wasn't wrong," he says after a moment, turning so he was level with Jay and hopefully in a less confrontational position. "If we're gonna be on the same team, we have to learn to support each other…and it's kinda hard to do that if you keep avoiding me."

"I'm not avoiding you now, am I?" Jay challenges, and the smirk on his face twists further sideways into something like a grimace.

"Then let's fucking talk," Aziz snaps back, straightening sharply and leveling Jay with a look that isn't quite returned.

"Fucking talk about what?" Jay growls, but he shifts his weight restlessly back, and Aziz doesn't know whether to brace for a blow or for him to run.

"You've been ignoring it since it happened, and Carlos tried to tell me not to say anything when it did...but I'm tired of holding my breath and waiting for you to come around so-"

"So then just say it," Jay snarls, and his eyes snap up like a challenge of itself, but there's something heavy in them, and hollow. "Just…fucking say it, Aziz."

"Those scars on your back…the…the things that happened to you…."

"It's past stuff," Jay cuts in where Aziz falters, and his voice is just as heavy and resigned, no longer sharp and violent. "It's not…I was hoping that if I just pretended like nothing happened, you would too and things could just go back to like before. But then you kept…giving all these looks like…like you wanted to make a big deal of it."

"It's not a big deal to you?" Aziz can't help but ask, and Jay gives him a look and he remembers who he's talking to. The place he had come from. "What…I mean, if it's something you don't want to talk about that's fine it's just…things like that…aren't supposed to happen."

Jay shrugs, but Aziz can see right through the unaffected air he's trying to put on. "It's just how things went on the Isle," he says stiffly. "There's always some kind of a cost for failure and some shit's bigger than others."

"Meaning?" Aziz presses carefully, and Jay huffs an impatient noise and casts his eyes out and over Aziz's shoulder.

"Jafar runs a pawn shop on the Isle, and it was my job to keep his shelves stocked…and to look for any…lamp-shaped things in particular."

Oh. Oh no. He was starting to get a picture now and he didn't like where this was going.

"I take it there wasn't much luck in that department, huh?" he offers weakly, and Jay scoffs, lips twitching upwards.

"More than you're thinking, but none of the magical variety. For obvious reasons."

"Shame," Aziz mutters, in his usual, albeit pitiful attempt to continue the banter.

"Yeah," Jay mutters back, and Aziz almost has hope until he continues. "I wouldn't be allowed in the house until I'd collected enough junk to satisfy whatever quota he decided on for the day, and I'd never know until I went back and dumped everything I'd found. Most of the time I'd end up just going to Mal's…or Evie's to sleep."

"And the other times?" he asks, bracing for it.

Jay shrugs again, but the movement is a bit more pointed, his eyes intent as they flicker over to Aziz's.

"I mean, you saw, so. Pretty obvious where things stood the majority of the time."

"Jafar did that to you?"

He's not quite incredulous, because he'd known of course the capacity for evil that the man had. He just still couldn't quite process the thought of a parent intentionally hurting their child in such a way.

"Well I mean. He had a whip so um, what else was he supposed to do with it, right?"

Aziz feels distinctly sick to his stomach.

"Sorry," Jay blurts quickly, hands digging deep in his pockets. "Thought it was my turn to make a bad joke. Guess not."

"I just…I can't believe that this whole time, we've been over here in luxury, and meanwhile stuff like this had been happening on the Isle."

"I mean," Jay says, shifting his weight and frowning over at him. "It's pretty normal."

"But it's not!" Aziz cries, and Jay blinks. "It's really not normal, and it's not ok, and I'm so sorry that you had to through everything that you did thinking that, and I know that me saying that I'm sorry doesn't mean anything to you but I'm sorry and if there was something I could do to change it happening I would. But I can't and so I'm just…I'm sorry."

There's silence for a moment, that's only punctuated by Aziz's borderline frantic breathing, and the idle skrtch-skrtch sound of Jay scratching his head.

"That's….that's a lot of words, Aziz," Jay says finally, and Aziz laughs weakly.

"Yeah, well. I meant them. All of them."

"Y-yeah, I can tell," Jay sort of chuckles back, but there's a strange look on his face that Aziz can't figure out. "Look, I get that you want to make things ok between us but…there's nothing you can do about that. No, shit, wait that came out wrong!"

Aziz pauses mid-recoil and tries to catch his breath, and Jay clenches and unclenches his fists and looks like he wants to scream. Beyond them, Aziz can make out the shapes of the rest of the team, running through drills it looked like. Blissfully unaware of the tumultuous conversation happening right behind them.

"I meant," Jay finally manages slowly. "That as far as I'm concerned, we're already ok. Been ok. Fuck. You don't have to apologize or be weird or anything, is all I'm trying to say."

"We're…we're good then?" Aziz repeats cautiously, just to be sure.

"Fuck. Yes, Aziz," Jay drawls, rolling his eyes and offering the barest hint of a grin. "We're good, ok? I'm sorry for avoiding you or making you think otherwise, but we're really fine. And…and I'm working on being fine with everything in my past and how 'bout we leave it at that for now, ok?"

"Ok!" he agrees enthusiastically, and he gives in to his earlier impulse and reaches over to grip Jay's shoulder tightly.

Jay narrows his eyes at him but doesn't pull away, and he takes it as a good sign and laughs, but doesn't push his luck and drops his hand. Jay scoffs and shakes his head, but he's definitely grinning now and Aziz is just relieved that things had gone according to plan, for once. That he hadn't screwed things up again.

"Ok, so now that that's finally settled, we have to start going over plays for the team, because if we lose to the Sherwood Falcons again, someone is going to die and it's not gonna be me."

"I don't know, you've kinda been pushing our buttons a lot lately, Mal just might do you in."

"See, you said we were ok but now you're threatening to sic Mal on me?" Aziz protests through a laugh.

Jay shrugs, but he's smirking through a laugh, and he shoves Aziz's shoulder back as they continue across the field. "Just don't push any more of her buttons and I think you'll be fine," he says, and Aziz pastes a wounded look on his face.

"You think?" he repeats. "So basically, I'm a goner. I should tell Nikki I love him, then, before it's too late."

Jay's smirk falters, his lips tightening and eyes going dark. "You're just gonna…keep doing that, then," he says, half-question and half-something like scorn. Or is it disappointment?

"Do what?" Aziz replies, forcing his tone to remain even, to not narrow his eyes and instead focus on the school up ahead. "Not be ashamed to talk about who I am or my boyfriend? Yeah, I'm going to 'keep doing that, then.'"

He regrets his harshness just a bit, but he'd thought they'd just gotten through with this, dammnit!

Jay stops dead in the courtyard, his glower almost a perfect copy of the Beast's statue above them.

"So then tell me what the fuck the difference is!" he spits out, just as harsh. "Tell me that there is one so I can stop freaking out over nothing! Tell me you aren't going to turn out the exact same way, that…that I'm not going to turn out like that because of it."

It's Aziz's turn to stop dead at Jay's outburst, and several heads and eyes turn their way, anxious whispering starting up at the sight of Jay's anger. But he ignores them all because, really, really Aziz, you should have known this was coming next. He spins on his heel to find Jay on the edge of hyperventilating, fists clenched so tightly he can see the red welts forming in his palms. His eyes are on the ground, shoulders shaking and hunched defensively, as though he's bracing for some kind of outburst in turn, and a violent one at that.

Aziz draws a shaky breath that Jay mirrors without seeming to think about it, and he takes a few uncertain steps forward to close the gap, angling himself so that he and the statue block any unwanted gazes.

"Jay, hey. Hey, look at me?"

Jay does, eyes lifting cautiously and fists clenching tighter.

"Wow, hey cool," Aziz rambles breathlessly. "I did a thing. Ok, ok I should have realized it wouldn't be so easy and I'm sorry for making light of…gods of everything. I shouldn't have done that to you and I'm sorry."

Jay's shoulders uncurl ever so slightly, but the guarded look is still there in his eyes. "Stop fucking apologizing and give me some answers, Aziz," he demands, almost as breathless as Aziz feels.

"Right," he says, nodding his head even as his stomach stages a revolt because he never would have thought…not that he didn't realize the necessity of this conversation. He just hadn't thought he'd be the one doing it.

"Right," he says again, taking another step forward, and Jay's eyes harden again, his clenched hands lifting ever so slightly in warning. Aziz stops where he is and lifts his own hands, palms up. There's a brief moment where he wonders if he had gone about this all wrong, if there was even hope for the reconciliation he'd wanted, if Jay was just going to beat him bloody like he'd done to Nikhil.

Then Jay's gaze shifts, fractures slightly, and he can see the fear underneath, and he realizes that everything the others had been trying to tell him was true. The VKs really were acting entirely out of fear because, right now, he's convinced that Jay is more terrified of Aziz than he is of Jay. It's that that makes up his mind and drives his words, and he draws another steadying breath before sitting on the edge of the brick surrounding the Beast's statue. Jay falters, fixing him with an odd look before carefully mirroring him, his fists still clenched, although he simply places them on his knees, and stares as Aziz begins to talk.

"Jay, what happened to you should never have happened, and it's not at all how any of this is supposed to work. The person who did that to you- and I use that term so lightly- he is sick in the head, and took what's supposed to be something good and…and perverted it. He's perverted, Jay, and-"

"Was," Jay says abruptly, cutting him off, and Aziz falters.

"What?"

"Was a pervert," Jay says again, eyes still hard despite the way his voice shakes with a touch of desperation. "He's dead. Mal killed him. He's dead."

"Good," Aziz says, and means it with everything he's got and then some. "He deserves no less than to rot in-"

"What do you feel for Nikki?" Jay blurts before he can finish, and Aziz blinks a moment before catching up.

"It's not the same," he's quick to respond, but Jay just scowls.

"What do you feel for him?" he repeats, insistent, and Aziz almost scowls back before he remembers the point of all this.

"I love him," he answers honestly, sincerely. "He's my best friend, my partner. If he's hurting, I hurt. He's always got a smile or a song or something inside him and he's never afraid to share it. And never afraid to just be who he is and to encourage everyone else to do the same, all with this carefree way about him. But he does care. He cares so much and he puts up my shit all the time which is really, the best part."

Jay's got another weird look on his face, which is the only thing that stops him from continuing. It's like he can't decide how he feels about the feelings Aziz has spilled to him, and Aziz waits a moment to let him process, to let himself process before starting up again.

"What we have, is a relationship," he says slowly. "It's equal, Jay. We're both in total control of ourselves and our attraction to each other, and neither one of us ever has more power over the other. Plus we're the same age, which is really the most important distinction there."

Jay scoffs, then blinks, like he hadn't meant to be anything other than terrified or vindictive. "Another bad attempt at a joke?" he mumbles, and Aziz would have hissed except he suddenly had no air.

"No," he says, so firmly it halts Jay mid-laugh. "No, Jay, that literally is the most important distinction here."

"Oh," Jay says, stunned, and Aziz almost wants to cry, but he knows that if he does, he'll lose whatever credibility he's built up.

He lets Jay make connections for a bit, watches the various realizations lining up in his head. He knows at least that some of it has processed when Jay looks over at him, eyes a bit less traumatized as he asks:

"And…that whole attraction thing? Will I…I won't...how is that any different?"

"Being attracted to people isn't a bad thing," Aziz tries, recognizing what Jay is actually asking and hating that he was. "It's when you have people like him, that have terrible attractions and act on them and hurt others…hurt people like you…that's when we have a problem. But you shouldn't think that just because you…."

"But I still…!" Jay bursts out, eyes wide and frantic. Then he stops, and immediately drops his eyes to the ground, and Aziz has to work to catch his gaze again.

"You still…what?" he asks cautiously, and Jay lifts his eyes just long enough to glare at him, lips pulling back in a pained grimace before a terrified sort of vulnerability creeps in.

"I still…I feel…things…." He mumbles, so faintly Aziz can barely hear. But hear he does, and he blinks a bit as his brain attempts to buffer.

"Things?" he repeats dumbly. "You mean…attractions? To people?"

Jay makes that snarling face again, but there's no bite to it and Aziz can easily see through to the terror underneath.

"That's fucked up, right?" Jay asks. "I mean…I mean I shouldn't I…I shouldn't be able to feel these things, right?"

"Jay, finding people attractive and being attracted to them is normal," Aziz says meekly, feeling like he's in way over his head here but desperate to at least get something right.

"It's a regular, normal part of life and it just so happens that your views on things have been colored by some fucked up shit. But you're not a bad person for finding people attractive."

Jay looks like he wants to say something more, but then thinks better of it and shakes his head.

"Yeah, ok," he says instead, and Aziz wishes he could offer so much more than his shitty words, but he just hopes he was able to help at least a little.

"It's a lot to process, I know," Aziz manages, when it's clear that Jay isn't going to offer anything more up. "Most of it I'm sure the Cricket will be much better equipped than me to help you with. But uh, I'm here for you, ok?"

"Hm?" Jay hums distractedly, brows lifting cautiously.

"I'm still your friend, Jay, regardless of…anything and everything. And I'm here for you."

And the look on Jay's face, at least, makes Aziz glad he'd hid under the bleachers after all.