And the Walls Kept Tumbling Down
Later, Mal would realize that only Ben's strength had kept her from collapsing to the ground in her shock and impending anguish. Her entire body seemed to have gone boneless and only one word whispered through her lips. "…Addie."
She heard the mutters of people as they were unceremoniously shoved aside, felt her friends slide into place beside her and Ben, heard the swift inhalations of astonishment and alarm.
Not a single person in their group held an ounce of love for the Center; they would have loved nothing more than to tear it down brick by brick with their own two hands, but this…
"What happened?" Evie breathed, horror threaded through every word as they gazed upon the absolute destruction before them as the building smoldered in the pale morning light.
"Some kind of explosion," a woman on their right answered as she gazed at the smoldering ruins with trepidation. "And after that explosion yesterday…" She turned to her companion. "Do you think Auradon is under attack?"
"Who would be trying to invade?" Her companion murmured back, equally shocked.
"Let's not jump to conclusions," Ben interjected, his voice full of a quiet authority that made the two women glance over in shock to see the young heir beside them. "There will be an investigation into exactly what happened and who might have been involved. I'm sure no one is trying to invade our kingdom."
"Yes, Your Highness," both women dropped into a hasty curtsey before glancing at each other with wide, meaningful eyes. Startled murmurs rose up around them as the surrounding crowd realized the crown prince with in their midst and they tried to shuffle forward to ask questions.
Blaring sirens made many wince – Willa, Wyatt and Wynter all slammed their palms over their ears with a grimace – as emergency teams arrived. With a firm arm around Mal he guided her over to the various crews, motioning for them to cut off their sirens.
With an assurance that left Mal in more than a little bit of awe, Ben quickly filled the arriving emergency crews in on what he had seen and heard, asking questions and debating plans with a confidence that left none in doubt of his capabilities as a future leader. Only Mal could feel the fine tremor in his body where she remained tucked into his side, drawing strength and reassurance from her as much as she was from him. His heart pounded behind his ribcage and Mal closed her eyes for a brief moment, centering herself on that one vital sign of life before exhaling in a long, slow breath.
Now was not the time to fall apart. There was too much to do. Too much that was unknown. And she'd be damned if she would curl up in a corner crying while her boyfriend took charge.
"We believe our friends might have been here," Mal cut into the conversation, startling the rescue team leaders whose eyes widened at the sight of green and gold eyes holding theirs so steadily. They'd nearly forgotten she was there, quiet as she had been in her shock.
Mal straightened her spine in Ben's hold, letting his arm slip from holding her so tight to his side to rest easily at the center of her back, offering support without smothering her need to stand on her own two feet.
"A boy and a girl," Mal continued, meeting the others' eyes with a steady gaze of her own. "The girl is sixteen, petite, white-haired. Her name is Addison –"
"The Guard Chief's daughter?" One of the men blurted out in shock and it sent a ripple of stunned surprise around them.
Mal cringed, swallowing hard against the information Addison had revealed to her mere hours ago. Sweet, stale banana pudding, had it only been a handful of hours? She felt Ben's hand slide to her hip and give her a discreet hug in support. She swallowed against the lump of emotions building up in her throat. "Yes," she continued, though her voice was a bit raspy.
"Why in Auradon would the Chief's daughter be at the Center so early in the morning?"
"She," Mal hesitated. Addison's secret wasn't hers to tell, least of all to these people who were now looking at her with suspicion in their eyes. "She was here with her boyfriend – with Zed. He's a Zombie. At least, we think they were here. They were headed this way."
"Ah," one of the others nodded their head in understanding. Mal bit back a scowl, knowing the conclusions they'd draw even though she had more-or-less on purpose guided them in that direction. Ben gave her hip a squeeze in caution and understanding.
"Don't worry," another consoled, misreading the troubled look on Mal's face. "If they're here we'll find them." They looked out over the smoking destruction of cement and iron and glass. "At least," they continued more honestly. "We'll try to." They looked back at Mal and Ben. "Have you tried contacting them?"
Mal started in Ben's grasp. He gave her another gentle squeeze, his fingers soothing up her arm. "Zed doesn't have a cellphone." He winced. "Most Zombies don't." The others nodded at this, unsurprised. He turned, rustled in his pockets for something for a moment before handing it over to Mal. She let the warm piece of glass and plastic land into her numb fingers without comprehending it at first.
"Try to message her," he urged in a soft voice.
"I don't know if she had her phone on her."
"If Addison doesn't answer…" he paused, swallowing hard against the unfinished sentence. "Try Bree."
Mal nodded, stepping aside to let Ben help coordinate with some for search and rescue as others worked to douse the fires eating up whatever they could that was left of the building. She felt more than saw her friends crowding around her.
Glancing at the screen Mal saw a number of messages lighting up his screen, more than a few coming from his increasingly frantic parents. With more than a touch of reluctance sprinkled with a pinch of envy, Mal opened the one from his mother first.
New Message, Mom:
Ben? Where are you? Please, answer me as soon as you get this. We've been told there's been another explosion.
Hi, Your Majesty.
Mal paused. Was this the right way to address the queen of Auradon through a text message on her son's phone? She shrugged the question off and proceeded. Protocol probably didn't matter as much when it came to how Queen Belle felt about her son's safety and well-being.
This is Mal, Ben's…. Ben's fine. He's right here beside me. We weren't near the Center when it happened. He's helping coordinate fire and rescue at the moment. He's okay.
She sent the message before realizing she'd repeated herself, but decided the reiteration wouldn't hurt. She paused over the new message from his father, the king, but reasoned that his wife would relay the message. She felt guilty and awkward enough about reading Ben's messages and talking to his parents as it was.
Just as she'd made the decision to switch to a new screen and find Addison's contact Ben's phone pinged with a reply.
New Message, Mom:
Oh! Mal, thank you so much for letting us know our son is alright. He's really okay, then? He's right there with you?
Yes, he's alright. Not a scratch on him, I promise. Would you like to speak with him?
No, that's okay. His father and I are on our way now. Tell him we'll see him soon.
Okay, I will.
Figuring her duty was done, Mal scrolled through Ben's contacts to find Addison's. Opening a new screen she shot off a message.
Hey, Cheerleader. It's Mal. Where are you? Are you near the Center? Did Zed catch up with you? The Center is a mess – completely leveled. Were you nearby when it happened? Did you see what happened? Are you alright? Message us back IMMEDIATELY. As in NOW.
Sending off the message she moved to the one with Bree, finding it a little weird to be seeing the exact same conversation from last night from a different phone.
Bree. It's Mal. Have you heard from Addison? Do you know where she is? There's been an…incident down at the Center. We don't know what happened yet, but we think Addison and Zed were headed here. And we can't find them. Message us as soon as you get this.
Mal sent off the message and was rewarded with a ping almost immediately. Mal felt her heart lurch in her chest but it was only from Bree. Feeling both disappointed and hopeful she opened the message.
New Message, Bree:
I haven't seen Addison since last night at your place. I haven't heard from her yet this morning. What happened? Is everyone alright? Is Addison okay? What happened to Zed? Why are you at the Center?
Mal sent off her response with a sinking heart.
I think you'd better get here as fast as you can.
"You're going to give the poor girl a heart attack," Wyatt commented off-handedly, his eyes sharp as he read the message from a bit of a ways away.
Mal eyed him. "How would you have preferred I sent off the message? Dear Bree," she shot back. "There's been a terrible accident. I don't know if your best friend is alive or dead?"
Wyatt cringed. "Point taken."
"Tell her to get Bonzo," Eliza cut in, her jaw clenched tight and coiled energy trembling through her from the tips of her curls to her orthopedic boots. Mal nodded, typing out the message and sending it off without comment. Eliza was as strung tight about her friends as the rest of them, perhaps more so. Mal hoped Zed was alright as much for Eliza's sake as everyone else's.
"Anything?" Ben asked as he rejoined the group, concern etched into his every line of his body.
Mal shook her head. "Bree hasn't heard or seen Addison since last night. Oh, and your parents are on their way."
This took Ben by surprise. "You talked to my parents?"
She lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "They were worried about you."
Something in Ben's eyes softened as he looked at her and Mal fought back a blush. "Here." She handed him his phone back. "You might want to message them yourself. They're probably half-convinced I kidnapped you and am holding you for ransom."
A small smile tugged at Ben's lips, despite everything. "I doubt they think that, Mal."
"I dunno," Jay said with a valiant attempt at a grin. He shoved his maroon beanie back off his forehead a bit and eyed Ben with an appraisal. "Royalty'd probably fetch a few solid coins on the market." He slapped a congenial hand against Ben's back in reassurance as the latter only shook his head in amusement.
"Guys…what do we do?" Carlos's timid, quiet voice broke through. They turned to see him eyeing the fire squads putting out flames and rescue teams coordinating groups to search the remains of the building. He cringed as one of the rescuers sent up a cry that they'd found someone.
Everyone's nerves drew tight but slackened when they saw the rescuers pulling out an adult in a gray uniform that was now covered in white dust and gravel. At least he appeared to be alive.
"All we can do is stay out of their way," Ben admitted, his voice soft. "They know what they're doing. We'd be more hindrance than help." Eliza gave a scoff in retort but didn't argue. Ben glanced at her, his face shining with empathy. "I know it's hard."
This time Eliza sent him a mild glare. "Right." She marched a few feet away from the group, brushing off Wyatt and Evie's attempts to console her. Despite the brush offs the two stayed close at hand but gave her the space she needed.
"Is there anyone else we can contact?" Ben was asking, though he eyed Eliza with a worried frown.
"I doubt Addison went home after yesterday," Mal muttered. "She wasn't exactly eager to see her family after what happened." They all glanced at her and she realized with a start and a heap of guilt how much her friends didn't know yet, and how very much she didn't want to be the one to tell them.
"Did something happen at the Competition?" Wynter asked, all curiosity and wound-up energy.
"Besides Addison's powers going crazy?" Jay asked, sarcasm in every word though it carried no heat.
"What do you know?" Willa asked, her eyes narrowing. "Something happened this morning."
"Obviously." Mal returned.
"If you know anything about what happened with Zed and Addison, Mal –" Eliza burst in, her small frame all but trembling, her Z-band buzzing faintly.
Mal scowled back, ready to lay into the shorter girl with a scathing retort but froze upon seeing the desperation in the younger girl's eyes, the grief she was battling so hard against. With a deep sigh Mal motioned them all closer, dropping her voice to a faint murmur so that her voice wouldn't carry outside the group. She filled the group in quickly and succinctly, watching the play of emotions that crossed their faces as she told them what Addison had revealed to her in the dead of night.
By the end Eliza was all but bursting with fiery rage. "I'm going to strangle that prissy pink princess with her own hair," she seethed. "Right after I knock every single one of Bucky's shiny teeth out."
"We'll worry about that later," Ben said, trying to keep everyone focused on the matter at hand. "At least now we know what set Addison off; why her emotions and magic were so…volatile." He glanced over at the rubble of the former Center, contemplative. "Maybe Addison was here after all."
"Have you tried contacting one of these cousins?" Willa asked. "To see if Addison decided to visit them instead?"
Mal sputtered a laugh. "What? You think she might have gone after them in some kind of revenge?" Willa gave a non-committal shrug in answer that Mal could only roll her eyes at. "She was devastated, Willa. Not homicidal. She didn't want to hurt us. That's why she took off for the Center in the first place."
"Doesn't mean her uncontrolled, volatile magic isn't going to respond," Willa pointed out, and Ben winced at hearing his own words used against him. "Hard to know how those unpredictable, pesky things will react."
"What things?" Wynter asked.
"Emotions," Wyatt deadpanned with a level look at his sister. "You know, those things Willa pretends she doesn't have sometimes."
"Oh, right, those things." Wynter nodded her head sagely as Willa threw a glare at her brother and friend. Wyatt coughed to hide a laugh, saying it was just the smoke when Willa stared hard at her brother.
"I can get ahold of Audrey," Ben interjected, trying to placate the rough and tumbled emotions batting about their group. Mal cringed and he caught her hand in his, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "I'll see if she's heard anything from Bucky while I'm at it." He looked at Mal as if both asking her permission and trying to reassure her at the same time. Feeling embarrassed at being read so easily, Mal gave a discreet, short nod before shooing her boyfriend away to make his calls.
"Mal! Eliza!" A shout made them turn to see Bree rushing over, her hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail and looking like she'd dressed in a hurry. Evie winced to see that Bree had pulled on not only two different socks but two different tennis shoes in her rush to get out the door. Bonzo was jogging easily at Bree's side, his long strides matching her quick ones with little effort. His face was etched in the same lines of concern that bordered on panic. They watched as he shot a look of barely restrained fear at the handful of fires that still danced about the ruins of the Center, and Mal felt a certain amount of humbled awe that the tall Zombie would brave his greatest fear for the deeper fear of his friends being hurt…or worse.
"What happened? Have you heard from Addie and Zed? Are they alright? Are they hurt? Were they even here? What's going on? What can we do? We got here as fast as we could, but we stopped by Zed's house just in case, but his dad said he hadn't seen or heard from either Zed or Addie since yesterday, and now he and Zoey are super worried but they can't cross the barrier to help, and –"
"Take a deep breath," Eliza advised as Bree came to a stumbling halt at the edge of their group. The former cheerleader nodded, bracing herself on her knees and took several deep breaths while Bonzo rubbed a tentative hand against her back. After a couple minutes Bree stood back up, pushing her glasses further up her nose and throwing him a grateful smile before turning back to the group expectantly.
They all looked at Mal and Mal felt a moment of panic bud behind her ribcage, wondering how she'd been placed in charge. Sensing her burgeoning panic, Ben stepped back into the group, hanging up his phone and sliding it back into his pocket.
"Let's catch you up," he started, filling Bree and Bonzo in on everything they knew, including the new information that neither Audrey nor Bucky had heard from their younger cousin since yesterday afternoon. He looked disappointed that Bree and Bonzo hadn't uncovered their two missing friends at the Necrodopolis home, and increasingly distressed that Zed's family was stuck behind the barrier, helpless, while their son and brother was missing.
A commotion pulled their attention away toward a large, sleek vehicle that had just pulled up with the royal flags waving merrily from the front of the car. Without waiting for someone to open it for her, Queen Belle burst out of the door the instant the vehicle came to a halt. Her gaze raked over the crowd, searching wildly for her son, despite the reassurances.
"Mom!" Ben hailed as Belle spotted her only child tucked amongst a large crowd of young Others off to the side of the action taking place before her.
With a quiet sound of relief and distress that only her husband heard, Belle raced across the street to throw her arms around her son, holding him tight as his arms came reassuringly around her. She pulled back after a long moment to push her son's hair out of his face, eyes scanning everything. "You're alright? You're okay? You're really not hurt?"
"Mom, I'm fine, really," Ben reassured her with a grim smile. He glanced at his father who gave him a long once over before his shoulders sagged in relief. He stepped forward and gently pulled his wife away from their son, tucking her against his side and rubbing a soothing hand up and down her arm, trying to calm her.
"What happened?" King Adam asked as he scanned the destruction around them, his face tight and his eyes alert.
Ben sighed. "We don't really know," he began. With a reassuring nod towards his friends, Ben directed his parents over to those coordinating the search and rescue, filling them in on the simple facts as he knew them, leaving out as much as he could without lying. He didn't want to upset anyone unnecessarily, and definitely didn't want to start rumors or scandal for Addison and her family. They were going to be upset enough as it was with her possibly being missing.
Mal watched Ben with his parents, feeling a stab of envy at the open love and concern they showed for one another. She thought over her relationship with her own parents and knew it could never compare. Her mother had been a lizard for a decade (the size of the love in her heart hadn't grown any). And her father, well, she scoffed, the less said the better.
Instead she watched as Queen Belle and King Adam spoke to those in charge and Prince Ben did his best to answer questions for the surrounding crowd and media who had gathered. Mal and her friends and their allies stood a safe distance away, unwilling to get caught up in the controlled chaos, their eyes darting constantly to the rescuers who uncovered several more bodies in the mess. Each body they stumbled upon was a mess of blood, grit and gravel, but so far each had been alive. And so far none had been Zed or Addison.
The wait was killing them. The uncertainty, being corralled to the sidelines, and unable to do much of anything was driving them all a little mad.
Bree's phone was constantly going off – she was being bombarded by messages and calls from members of her former squad and classmates as the news spread. Bree reported back each time new information came in – mostly a never ending line of 'such-and-so hasn't seen either of them.' Mal was distantly amazed Bree hadn't thrown her phone to the ground in frustration yet. Mal certainly would have.
Perhaps the most surprising thing of the morning though was when one fantastically narcissistic cheerleading captain showed up on the scene, his wheels screeching to a stop hard enough to burn rubber.
Bucky flew out of a pink and green van with his face plastered all over it with a white, pinched face that didn't quite match the grinning one on his van. He scrambled over to Ben with no qualms about royal protocol as he asked about his missing cousin.
They couldn't hear the conversation from where they waited under the shade of a few large trees, having been shooed back by search and rescue as a line of blue and yellow caution tape had gone up around the scene, but the crash of emotions of Bucky and Ben's faces were telling enough.
"Perhaps the Tin Man has a heart after all," Mal muttered, arms crossed over her chest. She was still standing, too antsy to sit down beside Evie who'd eventually settled in the cool grass, offering support to Bree and taking over communications when it became too much for the other girl. Jay and Carlos had jogged off to find some food for them all with Wynter promising to hunt them down should anything happen while they were gone. Bonzo was sitting on Bree's other side, his eyes all but glued to the scene of the accident, muscles rigid as he eyed the smoking rubble. Eliza paced nearby, determined to wear a path in the grass. Wyatt watched her anxiously but kept quiet. Willa and Wynter had their ears pricked for any news they could pick up from the activity.
People stopped by as the morning wore on, Lonnie and Jane having arrived at some point. Lonnie bounced in place, trying to see what was going on, her fingers itching to do something. Jane marched over to Ben's side to ask what she or their classmates could do, if anything.
Doug arrived not long after with lunch provisions for everyone. Lonnie, Jane and Evie helped pass everything out. Doug gave Evie's hands a tight squeeze along with a bolstering smile that she tried to return though she, as everyone, felt their anxiety growing with each passing hour with no word or sight of their friends.
A couple more bodies had been discovered since then, all alive though some were critically injured. None of them were Zed or Addison.
As morning tripped over into the afternoon, clouds gathered in the sky. Great big fluffy things that formed into wonderful shapes if one studied them long enough. But no one was paying attention to the sky. All eyes were riveted on the ground.
By mid-afternoon the fires had all been put out, and Ben came over to inform them that all of the workers scheduled at the Center at the time of the incident had been accounted for.
There was still no sign of their friends.
Bonzo and Bree made a quick trip to Zombietown at one point to update Zed's dad and Zoey about what was going on.
Ben got roped into a couple interviews with the media shortly thereafter to give them an update. King Adam and Queen Belle had gone to the hospital to look in on the injured workers and speak to the worried families personally. People were scouring both the Human and Other side for the two missing teenagers.
A couple of media types had made motions about interviewing Mal who had been the last to see Addison, but one look at Mal's stony face had convinced them to try Evie's much more open and friendly façade first. Jane had joined Evie in the interview to implore their classmates to contact anyone who might know where Addison or Zed was. Lonnie stood beside Mal like a sentry, daring anyone to come closer and disturb their group.
Mal felt a desire to thank the girl standing so stalwartly at her side but couldn't find the muscles necessary to do so. It felt like everything had been locked into a rigid stance for hours.
She still hadn't sat down. Didn't know if she could. The worry and the guilt were eating her alive inside.
Some movement near the ruins of the Center caught their attention, and they watched with attentive gazes at what was occurring now as a couple of sweat-soaked and dirty search and rescue people approached Ben to give a report.
They watched in vague surprise as Bucky trotted over to hear the latest news.
The cheerleader captain hadn't joined them at any point during the day, but he hadn't left the scene either. Mal had watched with numb curiosity as he'd scowled and blustered at the edge of the scene, badgering anyone he could, and coming to attention each time a new body was discovered. He'd deflated just as fast when it wasn't whom he was waiting for.
Mal watched now as Ben's features sagged and she felt her heart fall with it. She suddenly wanted to be anywhere but here. Anywhere but where the awful news would find her. Even knowing that it wouldn't matter how far she fled, the quiet voice inside her mind was already telling her what she had begun to suspect several hours ago.
Still, she steeled herself for it. Braced herself against the storm that was coming.
She'd survived a lot in her life. She'd get through this too. Probably.
Standing rigid at the edge of the shade, Mal watched as Ben glanced toward her with a look she couldn't, or more aptly didn't want, to read. He turned and moved toward the media first, as if hoping to put off sharing the news with his friends for as long as he could.
She felt everyone behind her still in anticipation at the lone figure that broke away from the crowd and moved toward them.
It was with wary, muted astonishment that they realized it was Bucky who bothered to come over to them, his expression shell-shocked. He came to a halt in front of Mal, still some feet away, not quite meeting their eyes, all vanity and ego and self-pretentiousness gone.
"Bucky?" Bree prompted when the silence stretched on and on, no one willing to speak first.
The cheerleading captain finally looked up, meeting each of their eyes one by one to rest lastly upon Eliza and Bonzo, and there he held. "…I'm sorry," he said, his voice quiet and genuine.
Eliza whirled around but not before they all caught the tears that had filled her eyes. Bonzo gathered her close to his side, silent tears beginning to stream down his face as he murmured quietly in Zombie to her.
"Sorry, nothing," Mal snapped, stepping forward and grabbing fistfuls of Bucky's shirt, dragging him nearer. She felt her friends reaching out to hold her back but her heart was pounding too fast, adrenaline and power rushing through her veins. She didn't want to believe it – refused to believe it. "What happened?" She hissed, her eyes a vibrant, verdant green that made Bucky flinch but he didn't struggle in her grasp. "Where are they?" She demanded. "Where's Addison and Zed?"
At the mention of their names Bucky's face paled further. He looked lost. As if he couldn't quite understand what was happening. "Zed and Addie," his voice cracked on her name and Mal's heart stilled. "They're saying they're…gone."
Evie gave a sharp cry, burying her face in her hands. Carlos's arms went around her tight, looking like he was fighting back tears.
A muscle in Jay's jaw twitched, the look on his face said he wanted to slam his fist into a wall.
"Mal." It was Ben, easing close to her side, gently trying to alert her to her tightening grip on the cheer captain's uniform. She let go abruptly, feeling like if she ever saw that stupid pink and green uniform again she'd be sick – or punch someone. She swallowed convulsively, her stomach churning as her mind tried to wrap around what was happening.
"I'm sorry," Bucky whispered, tears in his eyes and in his voice.
"Yeah." Her voice was rough as she battled with her emotions, her green eyes flashing as she looked out over the scene of destruction. The pain from her band wasn't enough to numb what she was feeling. "Me too."
Mal stared out over the smoldering building, the fires now out but the air still hazy with the smell of smoke and ashes and heartbreak as she heard the news spread behind her. Her hands clenched into tight fists as each sob, each cry of disbelief imbedded itself into her heart like the prick of dragon talons.
Fury and guilt welled up inside her until it crested over into movement. She had never been the type of girl who sat around and waited, who accepted her fate. Mal wasn't some pampered princess shut in a tower, helpless and crying. Only she determined her own fate. And she'd be damned if she was going to stand around another second longer waiting for what others told her, watching others do what she should have been doing from the moment she arrived.
This was not the end of the story. This once upon a time wasn't over; no weaver of fate had ever tried to contend with Mal before. This was just another chapter in what would be a long, long story if she had any say in it. And she did. Mal refused to accept anything less.
She marched over to the scene, shoved the cautionary tape up and slid underneath without a glance back. The Humans might be giving up, but she wasn't Human and had decided long ago not to play by their rules. They wanted to call it quits? They wanted to give up? Fine. But she wasn't ready to tack on 'The End' just yet.
"Mal?" Jay called as she stumbled over chunks of cement and other bits of detritus. "What are you –?"
"I don't believe it," she said, her jaw set in a stubborn line. "I won't believe it. Not until I see…" She swallowed against the acid that threatened in her stomach. "I don't believe it." She repeated. "There has to be…something. Something to find." She climbed over a rather large section of building, ignoring her friends' stares. "What if they're just buried under all of," she waved her hand at the scene, "this?"
"Mal," Carlos tried, his voice wobbly. "It's not our job to –"
"She's our friend." Mal whirled, pinning the younger boy with a look that could cut glass. Carlos gulped and Evie's grasp tightened on him in reflex. They all knew Mal was fierce but they forgot at times just how much she looked like her mother when riled. "I'm not giving up." She turned back, her eyes scanning over the area with an obstinate set to her shoulders. "I'm not giving up," she whispered to herself.
She started at the feel of a warm hand on her shoulder. She glanced over at Ben, blinking in surprise as he gave her a grim smile and began pulling his arms from the sleeves of his jacket. "Let's see what we can do," he said as he loosened his tie and threw it down to rest upon his fine-cut navy blue jacket. Mal blinked at the innocuous objects dropped so casually upon the ground. She looked up, fiercely blinking back tears at the determined look in his blue eyes and nodded, not trusting her voice.
There was no way she was going to do something so stupid right now like cry, not when she needed to keep her emotions in check, her eyes open, and her senses alert.
She felt more than heard her friends give each other assessing looks before they grimly trudged forward, spanning out no more than an arms-length apart to begin shifting through the debris. Their voices soon joined others as they begin calling out for those who had been or were presumed to have been in the building.
Even Eliza and Bonzo began digging through the debris field, their expressions just as set, dirt soon sticking to the tear-tracks on their pale gray faces.
If the situation hadn't been so bleak Mal knew she would have felt some grim satisfaction in seeing the Center in pieces no one could fit back together. It was more of a mess than Humpty Dumpty could ever get into.
An hour into their painstaking, grimy work they all whipped around with tensed apprehension as one of the werewolves froze.
"What?" Willa asked, moving nimbly to join her friend at her side. "What is it, Wynter?"
Wynter's eyes narrowed as her nose scrunched. She sniffed, trying to sort through the variety of scents present. It was so frustratingly difficult without her full were-powers, but – there it was again! Something other than the woodsy smells of her pack or the scented lotions and potions of her other friends. It was…earthier than that, something almost familiar. She turned her nose in the direction of Eliza and Bonzo and sniffed, sorting through the distinct flavor of each Zombie – what was similar between them and yet unique to each.
Satisfied that she had the scent memory fixed in her mind she turned back in the direction she thought she'd – there! That one. It was loamy like most Zombies but had an almost herbal spice to it that made her nose twitch. It was one she'd smelled before, a scent she knew. It clung to the pair of them most days – the girl and her Zombie.
She crept forward, her eyes scanning the area but letting her nose lead her, trusting her instincts. "I've got something," she told them.
"What?" Someone asked. She didn't bother to look to see who.
"I'm not sure yet." She shifted forward carefully, blocking out everything else around her in order to concentrate on the scent that was teasing at her nose. She was vaguely aware of Wyatt and Willa trailing close behind. Had she had the space to open her senses further she would have been surprised to note that Prince Ben too was close on her heels, but her world was narrowed down to that one elusive scent like a lifeline, knowing in her heart that it just might be.
As Wynter moved through the rubble, further and further back, she tried not to get her hopes up. It could turn out to be nothing. Or it could turn out to be a scrap of clothing. Or a splash of blood. Or… She shoved the images away with a shudder. "Focus, Wynter, focus," she muttered to herself.
Moving like a single unit the quartet almost stumbled upon two slabs of cement resting just so upon the ground that they had been overlooked the first time around. There was hardly room to fit an arm beneath, but maybe further back in… Wynter paused, closed her eyes and breathed deep, tasting all the flavors on the wind. She stilled as something stronger wafted through her memories and her eyes flew open.
"Here!" She dashed forward and gripped the edge of the top piece of walling, her packmates and Ben on either side. They struggled to lift it, but it barely budged.
"Guys, over here!" Ben called out, looking over his shoulder at their friends. Heads snapped up, hope and trepidation written into every furrowed brow and dusty cheek as they scrambled over rubble to join the group.
"What?" Lonnie asked. "What is it?"
"I think I found something," Wynter answered with a grunt as she continued to struggle to pull the heavy slab up.
"Hold on," Wyatt cautioned. "Just wait a moment." They paused as Ben directed everyone where to stand and how to lift.
"On three," Jay called out as everyone found their grip. "Ready?" After getting a collection of nods Jay began his count. "One, two…three!"
Lifting and shoving with all their might the group pulled against the weight of gravity, feeling a jolt of accomplishment when it started to ease upwards ever so slowly.
"Hang on. Don't let it slip."
"We can't hold it up indefinitely."
"We need to slide it over; shift it aside."
With pants and groans of effort they shifted to the side, easing the heavy chunk of wall over to create a larger space beneath. Wynter caught the scent – stronger this time and felt excitement thrum through her.
"It's here. Whatever it is – it's definitely here!"
With a gasp, and mindful of toes, they let go of their burden and took a moment to shake out gritty, stinging fingers and muscles, wiping brows coated in a fine sheen of sweat and smearing them with more dirt and ash.
With a mild sigh of relief, Mal stood back to catch her breath and was startled to hear the sound echoed so close beside her from an unexpected source. She stared openly at Bucky who was trying to brush grit off his hands on his pants with what looked like genuine concern on his face. She shook her head in disbelief, never would she have believed it if she hadn't seen it for herself.
Looking back at the larger gap they'd made between the two slabs, Mal's brows furrowed. It was definitely bigger, but how in Auradon were they going to find out who – or what – had been buried underneath?
"I'll go," Carlos immediately volunteered. "Tight spaces don't bother me and I'm small enough to wiggle in."
Ben nodded. "Be careful."
Carlos gave him a tight smile in return before getting on his hands and knees to peer into the hole. He squinted into the murky darkness – the cloudy sky wasn't providing much light. "Anyone got a flashlight or something?"
"Here!" Jane rushed forward, pulling out her phone and fiddling with something on the screen. An instant later a small but powerful light shone out from the top left corner on the back. She flushed a little when Carlos's fingers brushed hers in the exchange. "Be careful," she murmured. The smile Carlos gave her in return was more heartfelt than before and she felt herself blush harder before backing up a few steps to give him room.
Lying flat on his chest Carlos shuffled forward into the gap they'd made, careful to keep Jane's phone tight in one hand to illuminate the way. As he wiggled out of sight everyone held their collective breaths, attuned to any signs of distress from their friend and almost daring to hope.
Suddenly there was a gasp of alarm.
"Carlos!" Evie cried. "What is it? Are you okay?"
"Fine," they heard Carlos's voice echo out strangely from between the thick walls. "But I think I found – it's – it is! Guys! I found him! It's Zed!"
"Zed!" Eliza cried out, scrambling forward but Bonzo caught her in a tight grip and held her back.
"Gar grizella, Elizka. Gur kronklie."
"I don't want to wait," Eliza snapped back. "That's our friend in there!"
"He's our friend, too." Ben told her, empathy in his voice and Eliza grit her teeth but didn't argue.
Jay and Wyatt dropped to their heels beside the gap. "Carlos! Do you need help?" The sound of shuffling met their ears for a few seconds before Carlos's voice sounded back.
"I think I can grab him, but I might need some help getting back out." There was the sound of a strained grunt. "He's heavy – complete deadweight."
"What do you mean deadweight?" Eliza's voice shot through an octave. "Is he alright?" Silence met her question that stretched out for a long tense minute.
"I don't know," Carlos finally answered. "I think he's breathing but he's pretty banged up. What's a Zombie's heartrate supposed to be?"
Mal just barely resisted rolling her eyes. "Worry about that later. Let's get him out first."
"Right," Carlos's voice answered. There was the sound of shuffling and a lot of panting and grunting as Carlos tried to wiggle backwards out of the gap and drag Zed along with him.
"He needs help," Wyatt commented, his eyes piercing the shadows and seeing the grimy white patches of Carlos's clothing and hair moving about. He looked at Jay but the two of them were too big to fit.
"I'll go," Doug volunteered without hesitation. Pushing his glasses up further on his nose he gave Evie a small smile. "The benefits of being a music geek instead of a sports jock means a smaller physique." She gave him a tight smile and a chaste kiss on his cheek before he moved forward to drop to his knees and wiggle forward through the gap.
"Carlos," he called. "You grab ahold of Zed. I'm going to grab you." He looked back at Jay and Wyatt with a grin. "You guys can pull us back out, yeah?"
"Of course," Jay grinned back and watched intently as the dwarf's son scuttled inside. He exchanged a nod with Wyatt and they waited.
"Got him," Carlos's voice called, echoed a moment later by Doug. Wyatt and Jay lay out flat on the ground and reached into the gap with an arm, grabbing onto Doug's ankles.
"You ready?" Jay asked, knowing this wasn't going to be pleasant for the other boy.
"Heigh-ho and heavy-ho!" Doug called back. With a grunt of effort Wyatt and Jay pulled, impressed despite themselves, when Doug didn't make a peep in discomfort. Inch by inch they pulled Doug out until he emerged hanging onto Carlos's ankles. As Doug's body reappeared, more hands reached out to help and with another round of team effort Carlos appeared quickly with Zed's limp body clasped tightly in his grip.
Evie stifled a cry of surprise at the bruised and bloody Zombie teen, her heart in her throat. But Eliza and Bonzo rushed past her to Zed's side to check his pulse, his breathing, ensuring that everything was intact. There was a long tense moment before Bonzo cried out, "Gre zalize!"
"He's alive," Eliza repeated, a few stray tears mixing with the ash on her cheeks as she stared down, aghast, at one of her closest friends. "I don't know how, but he's alive."
The cry went up and emergency personnel swarmed the scene to take over, quickly ascertaining the teens' claims before carefully shifting Zed onto a stretcher and strapping him in tight. Covering him in a thick blanket and affixing an oxygen mask over his face they lifted him in a single practiced motion and began picking their way carefully back through the rubble towards the awaiting emergency vehicle standing by.
Eliza and Bonzo stood to the side, watching their friend being carried away, looking torn.
They turned to see Mal watching them with a firm expression. "Go with him," she urged. "We'll stay here and continue looking for Addison…if she was even here."
Eliza gave the purple-haired teen a tight nod as Bree stumbled over and pressed her phone into the Zombie girl's hand with insistence. "I'll keep you updated," Eliza promised as Bonzo hustled off after their friend. "Tell us the instant you know anything about Addie. Anything," she repeated with a tone that said she could handle the news, whatever it was.
"My phone will be with me at all times," Ben swore in return. Eliza nodded again once more before stalking off after her friends, Bree's phone held tight in one hand, her face saying she was ready to battle the paramedics if they tried to argue against her riding along with Zed.
The group watched the Zombie trio leave with a mix of hope and trepidation, their minds torn evenly between praying Zed would be alright and wondering what had become of Addison.
"Was there anything…was Addie down there?" Bucky asked in the silence.
Carlos shook his head in answer. "Just Zed as far as I could see."
"Maybe we should get the experts over here to check?" Jane asked with more than a little bit of hesitancy. With a glance at each other everyone agreed and Ben hailed a few rescue team members over to thoroughly inspect the area as Ben and his friends stepped back to watch in tense silence. After forty-five minutes the rescue team gave the all clear – there were no signs of another person buried in that part of the rubble.
"Where is she?" Mal muttered, feeling her irritation and frustration growing in tandem with each passing hour in which the white-haired pixie failed to surface. She felt hands clasp her shoulders and give them a comforting squeeze.
"We'll find her, Mal," Ben murmured with all the reassurance he could offer. "It's not like she disappeared into thin air. We'll find something."
"It's the something-part that worries me," she admitted in a voice too quiet for the others to hear. He gave her a tight smile in return before they moved to join the others in their continued search. Despite Addison not being found with Zed the rest of their group still felt a renewed sense of energy and optimism as they fanned out once more, senses pricked for anything.
After another half hour of searching, Ben's phone dinged and he paused to pull it out of his pocket. He scanned the message quickly, a small smile pulling at his lips before he chuckled.
Curiosity getting the better of her, Mal looked over. "What does it say?"
"Here." He handed over his phone and Mal read the bubble of text from Eliza with concern that melted into a sliver of amusement.
New Message, Bree:
Doctors are looking over Zed now. He's getting a CT scan; they found a head injury and are concerned. Looks like we'll find out once and for all if he's got a brain.
Mal typed out quick response.
Don't be surprised when the Scarecrow comes up empty. – Mal
There was an almost instantaneous reply of 'Beware of falling houses' that made Mal's lip twitch in an almost smile before she handed the phone back to Ben who had relayed the news to everyone. Most of the group nodded with mixed looks of concern but soldiered on. Only Bucky seemed not to have heard Eliza's news, but then he had thrown himself into searching with a focus he usually only reserved for one of his infamous back tucks.
They searched until twilight came and it was too dark to see. Adults and authority figures ordered the teens home to get some rest as search lights were mounted and switched on to continue looking. There was a variety of protests, but as everyone was exhausted from the long, strenuous day the protests were quiet and half-hearted at best.
"She's got to be somewhere," Carlos argued. "People don't just vanish."
But with no new clues or leads they were forced to give up for the night with plans to meet again early in the morning and continue anew, promising to keep each other informed of any news or rumors.
They found nothing the following day.
Or the next. Or the next.
As the immediate site was cleared the search expanded to the woods where groups of volunteers combed over the trees, meadows, and hills of the Human Side, and the wolves volunteered to search the Forbidden Forest of the Other Side for signs of the missing ex-cheerleader.
Both groups came up empty.
Traces of Addison were found (or smelt) throughout Auradon during the search but all expert noses agreed that the trail was old or elusive – most likely leftover from before the destruction of the Rehabilitation Center. Those who had been at the scene at the time of the incident were either still unconscious or had never seen her and thus couldn't provide any helpful information.
Another week went by. Then a third, before most began to presume that Addison had died in the explosion. That perhaps she'd been too close to the blast – whatever it was since no one could seem to agree on what or how it had happened – and was, quite simply, gone.
Not long after, a funeral was announced for one Addison Wells, the single casualty in a horrific accident.
A few days later one of the workers, a guard who had been found unconscious in the remains of the Center finally awoke and was able to shed some more light on the issue, creating a stir. He claimed that everything had been proceeding as normal, that Addison had indeed come into the Center looking distraught but determined, "the Zombie" (as he termed Zed) not far behind. The petite girl had come in asking for a banding procedure and wouldn't be deterred.
The guard claimed all was quiet that early dawn morning when suddenly he heard screaming followed by a bright blue light and then the world imploded. He remembered nothing after that until awakening in the hospital.
The news that Addison had been an Enchanted sent out ripples of shock and disbelief throughout Auradon. Addison had shown no outward signs of it while she'd been growing up as far as anyone knew, and Addison's family closed themselves off and away from the media hype, refusing to answer questions and their door so there was no confirmation of the rumors and speculation that floated about.
Life plodded on as the day of the funeral came and went in a small, quiet ceremony that all Others were excluded from.
Evie was crushed at the news. Bree refused to attend on the grounds that Addison would have wanted everyone there, Human and Other alike.
In compromise, Ben and Jane worked with Fairy Godmother to convince Principal Lee to hold a memorial at the school – "to give the student body a chance to grieve." In a surprise move, an unusually subdued Principal Lee offered up no resistance to the idea.
The only one opposed to the idea at all seemed to come from Mal who was unable to accept that Addison was gone, steadfastly refusing to give into tears or wear a black ribbon in grief. She stomped around with a mulish expression, and glared at anyone who tried to offer their sympathies with a look of such fire that most stumbled back in haste.
When Ben asked his mother what he could to help his girlfriend as she began to avoid people – including him – Queen Belle had simply sighed and gathered her son close. "She's already lost so much, the poor girl," Belle consoled. "It might take her a long while to move past her denial and anger.
"Just have patience, my son, and be there for her when she's ready. She needs to know – to feel – that she's not alone. That she's not going to lose everything, everyone she gives a part of her heart to."
Ben took his mother's advice to heart, but as the day of the memorial dawned, he worried what Addison's loss had cost Mal – had cost them all.