Yes, you read that story status correctly! I am so sorry for the delay, and for not responding to reviews. I hope this makes up for it!
Mal flew for hours, high over the clouds so no one would see her if they chanced to look up. She liked being a dragon - her priorities had shifted, and now she really only cared about three things: hunting, sleeping, and hoarding treasure. The other problems were there, in the back of her mind, but she could control their influence over her. She could refuse to care.
Flying was unlike anything she'd ever experienced. She was sleek and aerodynamic so she shot through the wind like a bullet. Her scales pressed down into her body so the cracks wouldn't catch air and slow her down. Her wings were powerful - they had to be, she was the size of a truck - and at their full extension they created menacing shadows on the clouds below her that made her feel even bigger than she was.
But eventually, even gliding along became too much for her. Dragons, as it turned out, required much more fuel than petite teenage girls did. Hungry and tired, Mal spotted a mountain range in the distance and decided to alight there, on the highest peak.
An unlucky mountain goat met its demise at her claws. She'd eaten worse on the Isle, and besides, the prospect of raw meat was almost exciting for the dragon side of her. She lumbered around with her freshly killed prey in her jaws until she found a cave sufficiently large to contain her entire bulk. The cavern was annoyingly devoid of gold, and Mal felt a sudden urge to go rummaging through the nearest town for shiny trinkets. Her human side quickly shut that thought process down.
After the goat was picked clean, Mal found herself feeling quite sleepy. She breathed fire all along the walls to warm them up, and a few pitiful mountain weeds caught fire as well. Then she curled up, tucking her tail under her head as a pillow and covering her eyes with one of her wings to block out the afternoon sunlight, and fell asleep.
She was rudely awakened by her lungs screaming for air.
It was pitch black outside - and inside, for that matter. The air was too thin for her. She gasped and gasped, and upon hearing the sounds her struggling throat made, she realized she was human again.
At some point the spell must have worn off, just like it had when she lost the fight against Maleficent. Her human anatomy was not cut out for these high altitudes, and already her head was buzzing. Her vision was probably blurred, but she couldn't see anything to begin with.
Turn back, turn back, turn back, turn back! She fumbled through the words, relieved when she felt her body changing.
Within seconds, her powerful dragon lungs were able to right the oxygen imbalance. She gulped in air, shamefully recalling the first time she'd nearly killed Ben. She was a danger to everyone around her, even herself. It was a good thing she -
Shit. Mal lit the cave with fire, and slithered out the entrance once she saw it. The night sky was cloudy, and only when the cloud cover broke did she see the full moon. Shit!
She was missing it. Her spell book and all of her preparations were in Auradon, and she was at least four hours away by flight. What time was it? Would she make it? What direction was she supposed to fly in? If she didn't get back to Auradon before morning, she would be stuck for another twenty eight days. That was not an option.
Mal thought back. The sun had been on her right during the last leg of her flight - so she'd been going south. Thinking even further back, her dragon heart felt a dull pang as she realized that thanks to Ben and his explanation during their last date, she knew which star was the North Star. She found it twinkling brightly in the direction of Auradon, and took off.
Despite flying as fast as physics would allow, the sky turned gray and then a light blue on her way. She dipped below the clouds occasionally to see if she recognized any landmarks, but in vain. Of course she hadn't flown directly south, so being off by a few degrees sent her miles in the wrong direction. It didn't help that she'd only seen about ten square miles of the mainland before.
The water. She reached the ocean, and flew along the shore until she saw a familiar eyesore. Auradon Prep wasn't far from the Isle of the Lost, and within minutes of sighting her old home, she was hovering over the forest behind the school.
It's too late, she lamented, diving into the trees. The sun was well over the horizon. More importantly, the full moon was gone. Despairing, she concentrated on the counter-spell to the dragon morph, hardly waiting for her transformation to finish before rushing towards the dorms. Maybe there was still time. Maybe she could still get away with it.
Then she saw Jay cautiously approaching her, and she knew something was terribly wrong. "Mal," he greeted, much more meekly than she'd ever heard him sound before. "We've been looking for you."
She brushed a few leaves out of her hair. "I was just...um..." There were other students wandering around the grounds. "Who's 'we'?"
"Everyone." Jay relaxed a little bit. "Wait, are you...have you..." He tapped his chest, but seemed reluctant to elaborate further.
"Have I what?" He couldn't possibly be asking what Mal thought he was asking.
Uncomfortably, Jay continued, "Where is your heart?"
So he knew. "Right where it's always been. Don't worry." She sighed. "When did you find out?"
To her shock, Jay had suddenly grabbed her in a very one-sided hug. "Dammit, Mal. Why didn't you tell us what was going on? Why did you give up?"
Mal extricated herself. "I don't want to talk about this."
"Seriously?" said Jay angrily. He was much less timid now. "You just go off, leave the least helpful letter ever, tell us you're going to remove your own heart, and you don't want to talk about it?!"
"Look - you won't understand! Because...because I don't understand." How could she explain that she was no longer herself, that suddenly she was half the person she wanted to be, that her other half wasn't hers anymore?
"Well, you better figure it out fast. Fairy Godmother's been waiting for someone to find you. You know I have to take you to her, right?"
Mal shrugged, and followed him without resistance. He kept looking over his shoulder at her, clearly still worried, but she was too preoccupied with whatever fresh hell Fairy Godmother would have in store for her after this episode.
When they entered the headmistress's office, Mal was unpleasantly surprised to see a disheveled-looking Ben in the middle of a conversation with Fairy Godmother. Their eyes met before she could look away.
"She's okay," Jay announced. "She didn't go through with that spell."
"Thank goodness." Fairy Godmother had had her wand in hand, but set it down on her desk now that the imminent danger had disappeared. Even Ben looked relieved. "Where have you been?"
Mal didn't answer. It was bad enough that she was expected to explain herself, but in front of Ben?
A few seconds passed in silence, and the king's expression darkened considerably. "Fairy Godmother asked you a question," he said tersely. "Where. Have. You. Been?"
"I don't know," Mal shot back. "I don't know where I went. I just...went."
"Why?" Ben exploded. Mal had seen his anger before, but it had never, ever been directed at her. Not even when she deserved it. The force of his fury armed all of her defenses. "How could you just go off like that?"
The portion of her mind that still listened to reason told her that he'd probably spent the past day worried sick about his kingdom after Jay or whoever had found her note. A much, much larger part of her remembered him walking away at the orphanage. "Didn't think you would notice," she spat.
"You did this for attention?!"
"That's quite enough!" Fairy Godmother interrupted. Mal and Ben were glaring daggers at each other. She knew the look in his eye well - it was hatred. "Jay, please take His Majesty somewhere he can calm down before returning to this room. Mal, sit down. Don't argue, either of you."
It was obvious that the very last thing Jay wanted to do at the moment was order Ben around, but he didn't have to. Ben stormed out, slamming the door behind him. Jay had to open it again so he could leave in a quieter fashion.
Now that Ben was gone, Mal's anger melted into despondency. She didn't want another twenty eight days of Ben hating her. She didn't want another second of it.
She flopped into a nearby chair, ready to tune out everything Fairy Godmother was about to tell her, just as she had tuned out most of her professors in the past week. However, Fairy Godmother had other plans. She took a seat behind her desk and folded her hands. "Mal, I understand why you want to leave."
Mal doubted that very much.
"Let me tell you something you may not know. A long, long time ago, a woman dabbled in some very dark magic. The kind that requires you to sacrifice something important. In her case, she sacrificed not only a part of herself, but a part of every descendant she would ever have. That woman was Morgan La Fey, and she made this bargain in order to be the only human who could turn into a dragon at will."
She was right; Mal did not know this. As interesting as it was, she could hardly see how it related at all to the situation at hand.
"And so she did. She used this power to wreak havoc on Camelot and King Arthur. She took over kingdoms and created an empire and had all the power she ever dreamed of having - and then she died. But not before leaving a daughter, just as evil, who also possessed that unique ability. Her daughter after her, and her daughter after her...you see my point. All evil, all dragonmorphs - until you."
"I'm related to her." Mal said slowly, putting the pieces together. "And I'm under some kind of curse because of her? What makes me different, the fact that I don't have a daughter? Is that what you want to tell me - 'Don't have kids'?"
"No, Mal. You are different because you did not choose evil. Evil quite literally runs in your blood, thanks to that curse from all those centuries ago. But somehow you broke it, that day at the coronation. For the first time in over a thousand years, we saw a dragon that was good. You released one of the tightest holds evil has had on humans in the history of magic."
"So Ben's wrong," Mal said slowly. "I was never supposed to choose good. I was born to be evil."
"No! You see? You proved him right. Most people choose, but you - even I never thought you would change. How could you, with black magic woven into the fabric of your being? But Ben believed all along, because he never forgot that things more powerful than that magic exist."
"Did he know about this?" demanded Mal. There were no limits to that boy's optimism.
"Yes. He insisted that curse did not matter in the face of friendship. But that's beside the point. What I wanted to talk about is what comes next." She examined her charge with no small amount of pity. "The adrenaline and excitement is over. What are you left with? An empty space where that curse used to be? Evil has always been a part of you, Mal, and now it isn't. You are lost, you are confused, and you want to go back to the last time you felt sure of yourself."
Mal couldn't help her jaw dropping just a little. Of all people, Fairy Godmother had come the closest to putting words to the feelings she couldn't explain.
"So I see why you thought the Isle was a viable solution. But you cannot regress, Mal, even if it is the easiest path. Even after this fairly quick explanation, you may not know how significant your decision was. Auradon needs you to stay on the side of good, because you are proof that everyone deserves a chance. Otherwise...your children and your children after you, the families of everyone on the Isle, would never have been integrated back into society. That is why we are asking you to stay, to try, to not give up. Going forwards will be difficult. Figuring out who you are now will test you. You must learn to ask for help, to lean on the many people around you who care for you and want to see you succeed."
So she didn't entirely understand. Mal stood up, hopeless again. "You can't help me."
"Mal - "
"I'm tired," she lied. "Can I go back to my room?"
"You can," the headmistress allowed. "But you should know that your spell book has been moved to a safer location."
Mal left anyway. She had a lot to think about - was she a project? A mascot? Why was she being put through all of this? Fairy godmother didn't have to feel this emptiness inside, this desperate but fruitless desire to fill with love what had once been filled with darkness. She wondered how the older woman would like it. She'd quite like to show her.
The evil thoughts did make her feel better - she needed to be careful. If what Fairy Godmother said was true, it would be all too easy to fall back into the grip of dark magic again. How was she supposed to avoid it, when the person who'd really broken the curse - the person who was supposed to take the place of the hatred inside her - wanted nothing to do with her?
Mal pushed through her door, ready to tell Evie that she really didn't want to answer questions, but was yet again surprised to find Ben there. He was pacing, ranting to a seated Evie about " - there are rules, and they exist for a reason, and there's no - " He stopped when the door closed behind Mal.
"Mal!" Evie rushed to hug her - this one, Mal let slide. "We were so afraid we'd never see you the same again." She pulled away. "Why'd you resort to that, Mal? Did you feel like you couldn't talk to me about what was going on?"
"It's not that." Mal was speaking to her roommate, but exchanging glares with the king. Between despair and anger, she'd chose anger every time.
Evie glanced between the two of them. "Do you...do you guys want to speak privately?"
"No," said Mal, at the same time that Ben answered, "Yes."
Now he wanted to talk to her. "Fine," snarled Mal. "Give us a minute, Evie."
The other girl muttered a barely audible, "Please don't kill each other," as she exited the room.
"What?" Mal snapped at him.
"What were you thinking?" His voice was dangerously low. "Why would you even attempt a spell like that?"
"It would've been fine. I would've been back on the Isle with plenty of time to spare. Your precious kingdom would never have been under any threat."
"It's not about the kingdom!" Ben thundered. Again, he was furious with her, and she closed herself off in protection. "Did it ever occur to you that the minute you crossed that barrier, the magic would cut out and you'd be dead without your heart in your body?"
Actually...that had not occurred to her. She gaped stupidly for a moment, and then countered, "What does it matter to you, anyway? If you hate me so much, then either way one of your problems would be solved!"
It was Ben's turn to be rendered speechless. His whole body went slack, he'd had the wind knocked out of him. "Hate you? Mal, I could never hate you." His tone had returned to normal, even a little softer than that. "I've been worried about you."
"Could've fooled me," Mal said, not quite ready to stop being angry.
Worn out all of a sudden, Ben sank into the couch and covered his face, running his hands all the way up through his hair before staring at an unremarkable spot on the wall. "I know I haven't been around...okay, I know I've been avoiding you. But I do want to be friends again, eventually. Really, I do...I just...can't right now. I need some time."
Her voice had turned shaky. "Time for what?"
He shrugged. "Time to just...get over you, I guess." Ben caught her confused gaze. "I said I loved you, Mal, and I meant it."
Oh no. Oh no no no no...Mal thought she would be overjoyed if she ever heard him say that - she had never anticipated all of this guilt. She stumbled back a step, slapping her own forehead. "Shit...Ben...you're under a love spell. I thought I gave you an antidote but it must not have - "
"Your spell washed off when I fell in the lake," Ben said dismissively. "It's enchanted. Magic doesn't work under the surface." He went on to talk about how he needed time away from her to figure things out, and that he wasn't accusing her of anything but simply asking for space. Mal heard none of it. Her mind was racing, her heart was racing - like they were in some sort of sprinting competition. They'd kissed after he'd fallen in the lake. After the spell broke. She'd thought the love spell had supplied the other 'half' required for true love's kiss, but in reality...
"...I thought it might be real," Ben was admitting to the floor beneath his feet when she tuned back in, "that maybe you didn't know how to tell me how you felt, but that it didn't matter how the relationship started as long as we'd gotten to where we were supposed to be. I believed that, right up until the wand flew out of Fairy Godmother's hand." His shoulders sagged. "I get that it was just part of the plan - that I was just part of the plan - so I'm not angry. You were doing what you thought you had to, and you made the right decision in the end - "
What had she done to him? Mal couldn't help but notice his defeated posture, the dark circles under his eyes, his wrinkled clothes, his pale skin. He looked a lot like she felt - and she had not just let this happen to the person she loved most in the world, she'd caused it. And he still doesn't blame me - he loves me despite everything. Mal barely registered walking over to him.
" - And I never, ever want you to feel like I expect you to love me, because that's not - what are you doing?!"
She'd intended to sit next to him, but that just didn't feel close enough. She swung her legs over his lap so she could hug him tightly. The scent of his cologne, his chest pressed against hers, his continued attempts to force some sort of coherent noise out of his mouth - it all made her smile for the first time in so, so long.
"Of course I love you, Ben," she whispered to him, letting those giant words out of her heart for the first time, "I've always loved you."
Ben's arms froze mid-flail. A couple of seconds passed, and he regained enough control of them to gently push her away by the shoulders. He searched her face for answers. "You do?"
"Yes." She had to suppress the urge to laugh giddily at the look on his face - or really, at anything. The relief that came with getting rid of that burdensome sadness nearly had her trembling. Her smile only grew as what she'd said dawned on Ben, and in the end a laugh did escape her when she realized, this moron still thinks I don't want him to kiss me.
Mal pressed her lips to his and was visited by the same euphoria she'd felt on their first date. Everything made sense for the first time - he loved her, and she loved him, and this was where they were supposed to be. Her heart felt whole again at last. But before he could respond, she pulled back. "Did you not know that was true love's kiss, back at the lake?"
He shrugged, his eyes wide and still locked on her lips. "I thought it was more magic," he murmured.
"It was. But not mine." She gently touched his cheek. Ben slowly smiled, and she kissed him again. One of his arms encircled her waist, and she felt his other hand under her thigh, pulling her legs closer. Surprised by the intimacy but rather pleased, Mal cradled the sides of his face and rested her forehead on his when they broke apart.
"I missed you." Ben brushed her hair away from their faces. "I know we have so much that we still need to talk about, but for right now, can we just stay like this?"
Mal thoroughly agreed, which earned her another kiss from him. She savored it, kissing the corner of his mouth, and then his jaw. Ben nuzzled her cheek, his fingers brushing her neck. Startled, Mal nearly jumped off of him.
Instead of immediately apologizing, as was his wont, a smirk spread across Ben's face. "Don't tell me...Mal, daughter of Maleficent, Princess of the Isle, the last of the dragons...is ticklish?"
She really did jump off of him, and took a few steps back, hiding a smile. "Stay away from me."
Ben was in no rush. That terrifying smirk was still there as he got up and matched her step for step. She eventually reached a wall and could move no further. His hands slammed down on either side of her, trapping her there.
"Don't do this, Ben," Mal warned.
He leaned close, until his lips were mere millimeters from hers. "Maybe I'll show mercy...just this once." Mal's heart thudded in her chest; her body temperature must have gone up several degrees. Unwilling to be teased any longer, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him hard. Ben drew her in by the hips. With her body pressed against his, Mal could tell she wasn't the only one feeling the sudden heat. He dared to taste her bottom lip, and she encouraged him, tangling her fingers in his hair.
They were so engrossed in each other, they didn't notice Evie return until she exclaimed, "What the actual fu - "
Evie could hardly believe everything she'd heard in the past fifteen minutes. She'd forced Ben and Mal to sit down - an appropriate distance away from each other - and explain themselves. Apparently, this was something they'd been planning to do anyway because despite their newfound friendliness, they were not entirely on the same page.
"So that's why you've been so sulky?" Evie asked incredulously.
Mal glowered. "I have not been sulky." Ben bumped his knee against hers, giving her a reassuring smile, and her expression softened.
"God, Mal, why didn't you just tell somebody? This could've been fixed ages ago! Or Ben, for that matter - both of you are literally the dumbest people on the planet!" She didn't really think so, and in hindsight it was probably not a great idea to say that to a king or a sorceress, but Evie was just blabbering at that point. She couldn't wrap her mind around the fact that they were in love with each other - that they had been all this time. Seeing them now, there was no denying it, but she still didn't understand how this could have happened.
"Sorry." They were still in too blissful of a haze to register the insult. They clearly wanted to be left alone to finish whatever they had started - where had Mal learned to kiss like that, anyway? - but Evie was not done.
"So what now? Are you going to date? Are you seriously dating someone, Mal?"
Ben and Mal exchanged looks. "Well, yeah."
"This is crazy," muttered Evie. "You know what it is, is I'm hallucinating from the lack of sleep."
"Evie," Mal began, standing up. "I'm sorry for worrying you guys like that, and keeping you up all night. I shouldn't have done it. I should've come to you for help. I just didn't think that it would matter."
"Well it does, Mal. We came here together. We're sticking together. Remember?" Evie sighed. "You're not alone anymore, okay? So if this one - " She raised an eyebrow at Ben, " - does anything stupid, you tell me. Because I'm here for you, just like you were there for me."
"'This one'? I am still king, you know," Ben pointed out.
"I swear I'm not."
Carlos just stared at Evie with his jaw hanging open. "She says she loves him?"
"Yeah. I even made her repeat it a few times to make sure."
"Geez," breathed Jay. "It's like the world's flipped upside-down."
"At least you have some warning," Evie told them, a little snappishly. "I walked in on them making out. Do you have any idea how trippy that was? I was about to get myself an ambulance." She rubbed her temples. "Anyway, can I nap in here? I really don't want to be in the same room as them right now."
Carlos couldn't even snigger at that, which he would have, had it been Evie. But Mal? That was nuts. And with Ben? That was even nuttier. He petted Dude absentmindedly. "Remember when life made sense?"
"Vividly." Evie took their lack of response to mean 'yes', and climbed onto Carlos's bed. "But you know what? I think she's actually happy. She looks a million times better than she did on Friday. Or ever. She keeps smiling, which is still throwing me off." Evie snuggled into the pillow. "I hope it lasts a long time."
Jay knew he shouldn't stare, but he couldn't help it - and he wasn't the only one. He and Carlos had invited everyone over for a movie, purely out of curiosity. Ben and Mal had settled into one side of the couch. Ben's arm had not left Mal's shoulders since they'd walked in. Evie and Doug took the remaining space, and Jay pulled out three chairs for himself, Carlos, and Lonnie. Lonnie had excitedly claimed to anyone who would listen that she had 'called it'. While Jay wasn't sure what exactly she was referring to, it embarrassed Mal, so he let Lonnie tell him several times.
They'd put on an action movie, but hardly anyone was watching. Jay, at least, was sneaking surreptitious glances at the new couple, trying to figure out how Ben was getting away with holding Mal that closely. The king would whisper something in her ear every so often, resulting in a smile or a response, but always making her face light up.
Their obvious affection made him think. If Mal could do it, why couldn't he? Carlos was sitting next to him, also pretending to watch the movie while working through the scene in front of him. Jay reached for his boyfriend's hand and held it, suppressing his instinctual reaction of letting go, of hiding. Carlos turned to him with a questioning look, and Jay just shrugged, letting their entwined fingers hang in the air between their chairs.
Ben was reluctant to say goodbye, even just for the night. He could tell Mal was hesitating too - their final kiss in front of his door lasted a while. Ultimately, though, Ben broke it, and took her hands in his. "Goodnight, Mal. I love you."
"I love you, too." She'd developed a smile he'd never seen before - soft and sweet and just for him. She made to leave, but his grip on her hands didn't loosen. She raised an eyebrow.
"Mal, listen..." Ben struggled to form a sentence that wouldn't sound highly inappropriate. Their relationship was, for all intents and purposes, brand new. What he wanted to ask was a little forward. But worse, he realized, was starting off a statement like that and trailing off, leaving Mal to expect some kind of bombshell - which she was clearly doing now. So he told her everything, beginning from the moment Maleficent had burst through the glass window. "...And I was completely frozen. I couldn't even blink or look away, much less help you. I had to watch you die without being able to do a thing about it. That moment that I knew she was going to kill you..." He shuddered, and felt her hand on his shoulder.
"She's gone now, Ben."
"I know. But whenever I try to sleep, I see it again and again and...again." It was torture, and it probably showed. He saw whatever she was about to say catch in her throat, and her hold on him tightened. "Can you stay for a little while...just until I go to sleep? I'm sorry to ask this, Mal, but if I knew you were there...if I could hear your voice..."
"Of course." Her response was immediate. She slid her hand down to hold his, and motioned for him to open the door.
He'd been putting off coming back to his room for the past week, choosing instead to work for hours past dusk in an office put aside for him by the library. Being by himself had not gone well - when he'd found the ring Mal had given back, he'd just stared at it, motionless, for over ten minutes. At night, the shadows took on Maleficent's form and promised to rip Mal to shreds if ever given the chance again. All of this seemed irrelevant with her standing right next to him.
Ben left her alone for a moment while he changed in his bathroom. As elated as he was to finally be with the girl he loved, it was the prospect of getting a good night's sleep that excited him at the moment. When he emerged, he saw Mal examining a photo of him with his parents hanging on the back wall.
Ben still carried some residual anger about the life she'd been denied, but that was one thing she would never have had - a happy memory with her mother. He approached her and rubbed her back. "That was from the opening of an animal shelter last year. You ever thought about having a pet?"
"Anything but a lizard." She leaned into his chest, sighing contentedly. "You're a lot like your mother, you know."
"Yeah?" Ben smiled and held her. "How's that?"
Mal shrieked as Ben tickled her in revenge. Despite her dodging, he did eventually catch her. He loved the way her bright green eyes sparkled when she looked at him. He loved that fiery, cheeky personality. And he loved being hers, loved that she was his. She'd never know how incredibly alone he'd felt without her.
He carried a chair over to his preferred side of the bed and turned off the lights. Manners dictated that he let Mal sit before he climbed under the covers. It was an awkward set up, no doubt, but he already noticed the lack of pre-nightmare memories.
Mal casually took his hand in both of her own. "So...feeling sleepy?"
"Sleepy is an understatement," he answered, yawning. "Are you okay with this?"
"I am," she confirmed quickly, brushing her lips along the back of his fingers, "but I just don't know what to do."
"Say anything. Any stories?"
She thought for a moment. "Once upon a time..." Ben smiled and closed his eyes. "There was this girl, and she hated dancing. With a passion." He chuckled before yawning again. "Just really despised it. Until she met someone she didn't mind dancing with." Her hand caressed his cheek, and he opened his eyes to look up at her one more time. "And this is the story of their happily ever after."
I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who reviewed this story! It was so wonderful being part of a community like this again. Admittedly I hesitated posting this for a little while because I'm really sad to leave, but unfortunately, I have no plans for a sequel. If I have any one-shots, I'll probably add it on to here. Here's hoping Descendants 3 is great!