i love you, doug tells her, and evie doesn’t blink twice. she leans forward and pecks him on the lips, and he watches her with something like wariness shining in his eyes. do you love me? evie tilts her head, kisses him again. of course i do, she laughs, and doesn’t have to ponder about it. doug relaxes and smiles against her lips and evie will not think further about any of this.
ben will tell her, much later, that saying i-love-you is something sacred, something special, something important. in this moment, though, evie’s boyfriend wants something from her and she has never been told she’s entitled to declining a romantic partner anything. don’t let them leave you, her mother used to scold. don’t you ever give them anything to doubt. don’t give them a reason.
evie does love doug, and given time she may have said those words to him on her own terms, but that’s not the problem. the problem is that evie is living on the island of happy endings but somehow she still treats doug like she treated any of the boys on the island, the problem is that she doesn’t know what’s expected of her here so she has to fall back onto the ramblings of a mad queen, the problem is that one day evie will wink at doug and remember doing the same thing to harry only a lifetime ago, and she will realise she doesn’t feel any different than she did then, not in regards to what love is supposed to mean to her, what it’s supposed to feel like. (what a letdown, what a betrayal, that love is not the cure-all she was promised.) the problem is that evie will not (does not) know if she’s lying (if she means it) when she says of-course-i-love-you.
(the problem is that love to evie is: mal, dozing off with her head on evie’s shoulder with her lips slightly parted and letting herself be vulnerable, and mal, snarling and spitting at the charming-boy who burnt evie first with fire-rage burning bright all because someone hurt evie and together they are indestructible. carlos, grinning crookedly and showing evie the bejewelled hairclip he found for her with eyes soft when she slips it into her curls immediately, and carlos, shoulder-to-shoulder and arms-crossed and face-blank with evie just the same as him and together they are immovable. jay, teaching her how to throw a knife and flinging his arm over her shoulders when she hits every bulls-eye with a smile brighter than the sun, and jay, walking with her side-by-side in an alley or in a school hall and they are powerful and beautiful and she could not fear for anything with this boy by her side and together they are untouchable.
the problem is that love to evie is immovable-indestructible-untouchable-unstoppable but she knows that is not what her mother meant and it is not what her mother wanted and who is evie but her mother’s daughter?)
tourney is good, jay guesses. it helps, sometimes. evie says it’s because it provides an outlet in a format that auradon can accept. the problem is that sometimes, it’s not enough, sometimes jay can’t accept it, even if auradon is trying to, and it just isn’t enough. he runs through the drills on the bad days, over and over for hours and hours, and usually it gets bearable when the blisters on his hands bleed and his knuckles bruise and he hasn’t slept in too-long-for-auradon-spawn but at least he can hear himself think, even if it isn’t enough.
it’s in the little things, usually, because this isn’t the isle of the lost so the only evil they encounter these days is always little in every way but one. (one: the effect it has on them, the instincts drilled into them since birth, the everything-they’ve-ever-been-taught suddenly being wrong and not allowed.)
it’s in chad unthinkingly saying something that hits too close to home and jay’s fists curl and his blood pounds and he has to try and remind himself that in auradon it’s not allowed to retaliate with fists, even though where jay comes from it’s nothing but expected. it’s when fairy godmother treats them like useless-naïve children, patronizing and condescending and so much worse than jay ever could have imagined because on the isle children were nothing but smaller adults and pretending to be better than someone would lead to lying facedown in an alleyway but here—here he grits his jaw and breathes through his nose until the blazing red clouding his vision subsides to a throbbing pink. it’s in seeing something and thinking oh, i should grab that for jafar, and then thinking wait no, it’s in seeing something shiny and grabbing it without even realising, it’s in clenching and unclenching his fists and trying to calm his heartrate because even after all this time he still feels the flare of white-hot panic when he comes home empty-handed.
the problem is that tourney isn’t always enough and his knuckles are still covered in blood but now it’s only his own and sometimes he thinks what’s the point this will never work i will never belong i will never get over this i will never be able to change because this is what i am and i cannot change and this is too hard.
the teachers are so different here, carlos thinks. they all are, every adult, every child, but the teachers are jarring in ways carlos knows they shouldn’t be. here they teach remedial goodness (and what a joke that is, what an insult,) and they teach kindness class (and he tries to forget that on the isle the only kindness class they’d have would be to teach them that to be kind is to be killed) and they teach plain-and-simple chemistry (and it’s so easy it’s almost difficult, homework on periodic tables and never a single poison) and carlos was never the best at school but it was a constant, at least, and he doesn’t know how to adapt to this. they didn’t go to school very day, they skipped classes and missed weeks at a time but—he knew that. here? he doesn’t know anything.
the teachers don’t raise their voices. it takes him a couple days to move on from that. (on the isle-of-the-lost-and-left-behind, if a teacher was being quiet you’d run for your life. silence, they all know, silky smooth and dangerous, is much worse than the noise.) he flinches back from them when they circle the room, (vultures all of them) and they stare at him with harmless confusion. they start looking at him funny and asking a lot of questions and he begins to sit closest to the door and with an extra butter knife in his sock until ben tells him, (almost with— is that pride?) that the teachers want to give him advanced work.
he’s never had advanced work before. back home, no one cares about school, not really. you learnt how to spike someone’s drink and how to manipulate and lie and how to scheme and plot and carlos was never the best at school (never malicious, never scheming, never intimidating, never fearless or brawny or sly enough. never enough.) but now they are telling him that he is and he is good (and being malicious and being sly and being intimidating don’t matter).
the problem is that carlos hears advanced and thinks oh, no, i don’t have time for more work, mother will kill me, before he remembers. he hears please stay behind after class and he almost runs away right then and there, remembering too-vividly what happened after-class in isle school. hears praise and all he can think of are cruella’s words, cruel and cold and maniacal, and he instinctively says no, there must be a mistake, i’m not that. (smart, capable, good at anything but surviving.) the problem is that when ben decided to bring rotten children into his squeaky-clean life, he never even expected school to be a problem.
rebellion isn’t something we encourage, here, says the fairy godmother, and mal wants to spit in her face. She wants to ask why she’d need to rebel if everything was so goddam great here and she wants to slit her throat and she wants to destroy this useless woman but—sorry, says mal, and the word burns as is claws its way up her throat.
it’s just that ben is different and he is good and school is hard and people are infuriating and there are days she wants to cry for hours and there are days she wants to burn the school to the ground and there are days she wants nothing more than a backstreet brawl with blood and guts like it used to be. there are a lot of days.
she wants to tell fairy godmother that rebellion is in her blood, is all she knows, is all she’s ever been taught, but no. she can’t. sorry, says mal, and doesn’t mean it in the slightest. she has apologised more in auradon than she ever did on the isle of the lost. scare a first-year, sorry. disrespect a teacher, sorry. hurt someone’s feelings, sorry. almost betray the kingdom, sorry. (fae and fire, she hates it.) her mother’s voice still screams in her head some days, weakweakweakweakweak! the others are struggling, too, mal knows this as she knows them, but they’ve all adjusted in ways she hasn’t, adapted without feeling like they’re betraying who they are.
fae, in the ancient stories, were neither good nor evil. they protected their own (from the moors; the fae are from the moors and mal has never even seen a proper forest) and maleficent used to curse the human part of mal (spit words like weak and useless and half-fae-not-fae human weakness love is weakness feelings are weakness) and say that if she were only a proper fae she could rule the world. (just another way you disappoint me, she’d sneer.) and this feels like the biggest betrayal of all, clinging to ben’s arm but not too tight, smiling for the cameras, swallowing the urge to snarl instead of smile. (sometimes mal thinks: i am not good but i am not evil either. sometimes mal thinks: why do I have to choose? can I not just exist?)
and this is the problem: mal doesn’t fit in. it’s hard here and it’s exhausting playing this part and there are nights where the doubt and the misery and the loneliness threaten to overwhelm her. ben asks if she’s okay, and she bites her tongue until she tastes the tang of blood (familiar, comforting,) because what can she say, without being sent back? this is the life she chose, but the problem is that sometimes, it is not the life she wants.
here are more problems: mal and ben have a fight and jay's first instinct is to go and smash someone's face in but he has to settle for punching bags. evie flirts with three boys in front of doug and doesn't understand why he gets angry. carlos slips his knives further down his sleeve when handing assignments to his teachers, just-in-case. mal wears the dresses ben asks her to and smiles for the camera and feels as though she is fading, fading, fading.
here are more problems: evie and mal talk about everything except their confusion, their loneliness, their isolation. feelings, they have always been told, are weakness. allies, they have always been told, will betray you eventually. (they love each other and they trust each other but this is different. this is years and years of pain compared to a few months of auradon shoving propaganda down their throats, and what is left is two girls more confused, more lost than when they began.)
here are more problems: jay turns to tourney to distract, and carlos avoids it to forget, and when they fight they fight dirty and fast and violent and they will forgive each other, they always do, they always will, but they haven't used their fists against each other in so long, and there has never been something like a second team in between them before, and it feels different.
here are more problems: mal isn't used to having her orders questioned and it feels too much like forgetting, too much like betrayal, too much like abandonment, so scared to lose them, and she lashes out and shrinks back in equal measure. evie isn't used to playing nice because here is the reality of it: she has always, always been more than a pretty face, but in auradon she feels useless because poison isn't allowed and neither is flirting to get better access to a weak spot. jay tries to balance everything but he worries that they'll slip away from him, that he'll screw up, that one day he'll lose the control he has over his anger and when he snaps out of it he'll have lost everything. carlos had only just learned confidence and now they're in an entirely new environment and sharp edges aren't much use when everyone here is as soft as the apples they used to eat.
here are more problems: they're a family but they're still learning how to be friends, and auradon is nothing like the isle.
and this is the biggest problem of them all: the isle of the lost still lies on the horizon and no matter where they turn they cannot outrun its shadow.