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Stronger Together

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Loving a villain’s kid (VK) was unlike anything the heroes’ kids (HKs) had ever experienced. Problems couldn’t be easily solved with a platitude, an apology, or even a sword. Triggers were embedded deeper than anyone, even the VKs, knew and often exploded in painful, unexpected ways.

The VKs had each other—a bond formed years ago, soldered and forged in the flames of the Isle of the Lost to be nigh unbreakable. The HKs who loved them knew each other before, but they didn’t know each other. Not truly. However, the HKs who loved VKs needed support, too, and who better to find it with than each other?

The first meeting happened quite on accident. Ben sat in the far corner of the school coffee shop, nursing an espresso and wondering how things had gone so wrong yet again.

[He’d only asked Mal about her birthday to make sure he had time to plan out the perfect gift. He hadn’t expected Mal to shut down and pick a fight until he left.]

[Years later, Mal finally told him how Maleficent had warped her birthday. With his arms tight around her in their bed, he promised that she would never have to so much as think of that day again.]

When Doug came into the cafe, ordered a hot chocolate, and slumped down in a chair without touching the whipped cream, Ben recognized a kindred spirit.

Doug, for his part, was a bit shocked when the king himself flopped down at the table across from him. After all, Ben was part of the royal set—leagues above dwarves, fairies, and other non-royals in Auradon Prep hierarchy. Compared to Chad and some of the others, Ben had always been kind—said hello in the halls, complimented Doug on his halftime solo, etc.—but the term friends was a stretch.

It turned out, what they had in common transcended all that.

As they talked, Ben realized Doug was a great resource. He’d actually taken the psychology elective, and he knew about things like triggers.

[It takes people time to work through them. Sometimes they never get over them. Just be there for her on her terms.]

Doug, it turned out, was upset for a different reason. He’d caught Evie throwing up her lunch in the bathroom, but when he asked her about it, Evie blew him off, claiming a touch of the stomach bug.

[But you just can’t have that every day!]

Everyone had noticed the VKs’ reaction to food. They jostled for places in the front of the cafeteria line, and even months later, if it looked like someone was going to reach for their plate, the VKs glared as if they wanted to knife them.

Mal didn’t talk about the Isle, like deeply or on command, but Ben had gathered from comments here and there that Evie’s upbringing had been different from the other three. Jay, Mal, and Carlos scrambled up as best they could. Evie had been groomed for a throne.

[No one wants a tubby princess. Mal rolled her eyes. Perfect hair, perfect body, perfect wife, perfect life.]

Evie had been the only one with any modicum of table manners that first day. Audrey remarked at the time that Evie was the only VK with any potential. Ben had been surprised to hear such an uncharitable thing out of his then-girlfriend’s mouth.

[He’d started recognizing Audrey’s superficiality that day. Maybe that was one reason he hadn’t been too upset by Mal’s love spell. It got him out of a relationship that would’ve been difficult for a nice guy to end in a nice way.]

Ben didn’t know anything about eating disorders, but he’d been privy to enough public service announcements that he agreed with Doug’s suspicions. Ben refused to let that bright and vibrant girl fade away, so he tipped of Fairy Godmother, ordering her to take care that no suspicion was dropped on Doug.

[The day Evie realized she could no longer see her ribs, Doug held her while she cried tears that had the chemical properties of both happiness and sorrow.]

Having someone who was going through something similar to talk about these issues with was so helpful that Ben and Doug found themselves getting together for coffee on a regular basis. Usually on Thursdays.

[The VKs dubbed Thursday nights family night, sequestering themselves away in Carlos and Jay’s room for movies or girl talk or spell casting. They never said exactly what family night entailed, so Doug and Ben had to imagine it for themselves.]

A few weeks later, Ben found Jane crying under the weeping willow tree. When he asked her what was wrong, the only thing she said was Carlos’s name. Ben called Doug immediately.

No one had been super surprised when Carlos and Jane started dating. They’d made goo-goo eyes for each other for weeks before cotillion. Jane had been a little worried about what to expect from boy from the Isle.

[Things over there are much less proper. I need boundaries.]

However, Carlos was a perfect gentleman (like he’d been taught in Remedial Etiquette class). He opened doors, carried books, and never pressed her physically. The problem came when Jane took it upon herself to kiss Carlos. He jerked away, like he’d been burned, and run.

Doug and Ben, too, had noticed a certain reticence for kissing in their relationships. Mal avoided kissing Ben until the night of cotillion, and while Evie would kiss Doug, she didn’t seem to enjoy it unless she initiated.

[Except when he kissed her hand—that made Evie squeal.]

[After cotillion, on the other hand, Mal had completely embraced kissing like they were making up for years of lost time instead of months.]

Ben took the kissing query to Evie this time—hoping that discussing it with someone she wasn’t in a romantic relationship with would be easier—and reported back to an emergency session of the support group the next afternoon. Kisses, she’d said, meant something different on the Isle: a mark of dominion—something to be taken, not cherished.

[Carlos was always small. He never kissed anyone else, but he surely been kissed. By how many, Evie didn’t know, though she’d done her part to help fend them off once Carlos joined their gang.]

Jane had always thought any boy she dated would have to slow things down to her level. With Carlos, she had to slow things down to his. Consent with both ways.

She was the one who brought Li Lonnie into the group. Lonnie had it rougher than the other three, they decided. After she became captain of the fencing team, she and Jay got very close. He confided in her, and when they were together, sometimes, he’d let down his façade of bravado and give her a glimpse of the real boy inside.

Lonnie had been the first HK to get an inkling of what life had been like on the Isle of the Lost. The lack of parental care and comforting chocolate chip cookies had just been the tip of the iceberg.

Sometimes, Jay told her stories about being locked out because he hadn’t stolen enough stuff to meet his father’s quota that day.

[One reason I grew my hair long was to keep my head warm outside. Perpetual cloud cover means perpetual chill.]

There were also stories of gang fights and the fierceness with which one had to protect one’s territory. The scar that stretched from his left shoulder to his abdomen came from the point of Harry’s hook.

The worst stories were the ones about failing to protect his pack. Jay remembered every single time Mal or Evie or Carlos got hurt and the myriad of ways he could’ve stopped it. Sometimes, he let Lonnie hold his hand.

Despite all this sharing, Jay never actually dated Lonnie. Instead, he dated pretty much every girl in school but Lonnie.

[Was it truly dating if he only saw each girl once?]

Girls ogled him at tourney practice and giggled around him at lunch. Lonnie knew he’d slept with more than one of them. When it came to Jay, Auradonian propriety seemed to fade away.

[Those girls are nothing more than long hair, perky breasts, and a promising smile. I get what I need from them, but they aren’t real—not like you.]

Despite Ben’s suggestion that they drop Jay on his head, common wisdom was that they had to give him time. Jay obviously got something out of the adulation of all those girls; until he didn’t need that any more, pressing him wouldn’t help.

Over the years, the support group compared notes on many issues. How to react when your significant other attacked you in that gray zone between nightmare and waking. The best methods for waking someone up from night terrors. Conversational methods to encourage a VK to open up about their past without feeling pressured. How the HKs could manage their own anger before it flared up at a VK.

[Spats were normal among couples of any age, but anger sent all the VKs spiraling in different and sometimes dangerous ways. Jay and Mal tended more toward belligerence and benders. Evie retreated into her own reflection, blocking out everything else as she hummed and brushed her hair. Carlos trembled and made himself small, much more difficult after the Auradon food triggered his growth spurt.]

[Ben saw the Fairy Godmother for strategies to stop himself from going all beasty when Mal pushed his buttons. Generally, when she pushed buttons there was an underlying cause.]

A common discussion was the tight-knit bond between Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos. This thing between the four of them was permanent. No lover or friend would ever be more important than the family they’d made with each other.

[As important, perhaps, but never more important.]

Sometimes, the degree to which the four VKs relied on each other was met with jealousy. Other times, with gladness if only for the fact that they’d had each other to make their time on the Isle slightly more bearable.

As other kids trickled into Auradon two, three, and four at a time, they learned that not all VKs had found such a support system. The ones who did—like Harry and Uma—were better able to adapt to life outside simply because they knew some people could be relied on. Those who didn’t—like Jack Heart—sometimes didn’t make it.

Eventually, they all graduated from Auradon Prep. Most went on to Auradon University. Ben studied political science; Doug physics. Lonnie and Jay both got athletic scholarships. Carlos studied to become a vet. Jane and Evie both majored in business—Jane to go into event planning; Evie to run her own boutique or maybe even a fashion label. Mal elected to forego college to pursue her art, but she stayed in the city, unwilling to be far from her family or Ben.

Not all the couples made it—how many high school relationships do? Ben and Mal did get married, and Mal was crowned queen of Auradon. Evie and Doug imploded their sophomore year, but found their way back to each other after graduation. Jane and Carlos realized their quiet love had faded into friendship almost without them knowing it. Lonnie and Jay finally got together for one night, but Jay couldn’t handle the explosion.

The support group was there for each other through it all.

Things had come a long way from those first, historic cups of espresso and hot cocoa, and from tears under the weeping willow or the clang of frustrated sword practice. Over the years, members of the support group became true friends in their own right. They went to Ben’s proclamations, Lonnie’s fencing matches, Jane’s teas, and Doug’s concerts. They spent Thursday night playing Trivial Pursuit or chess or watching movies.

They might never be bonded as strongly as the VKs themselves, but they’d gone through more than other Auradonians their age. Like the VKs, these four HKs understood each other.

On the day of his daughter’s coronation (Mal insisted they wait until Beatrix was 21 instead of 16), Ben smiled at all the familiar faces. There’d been challenges along the way, but he would never change his first proclamation—the one that brought Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos into their lives—not for a million wishes or his own enchanted castle.

Auradon needed the VKs, and the VKs needed Auradon. The Auradonians needed each other, too—they needed each other to be real. Auradon was stronger together, but it took work to make that happen. No one could do it alone.