The sunlight seeping in through the window wakes Jay from a deep sleep, and he groans in frustration. Pulling his pillow over his head, he grumbles, “Carlos, close the curtains, will you? ’s too early.”
“It’s noon,” Carlos retorts from their desks.
Jay is certain he’s already starting their weekend homework. On a Saturday, who the hell does that?
“Like I said. Too early,” Jay half-whines into his bed. “Come on, Carlos, it’s like the law you can’t do anything on a Saturday. Lemme sleep.”
“We have an extra practice at one, remember?” Carlos reminds him. “And you promised to come walk Dude with me before it starts. You have to get up, Jay.” Pouting, he says, “I’ve barely gotten any real time with you since midterms started!”
“I’ll get up at noon-thirty,” Jay says, whining again and rolling over. “Dude doesn’t need two of us to walk him.”
Carlos sighs in defeat, the disappointment clear in his voice. “Fine. I’ll bring Dude and then come back,” he says. Jay can practically hear his eyes rolling. “If you don’t get up then, I’m telling Coach exactly why you didn’t bother showing up for scrimmage.”
“Fine,” Jay says, far too grumpy to play along. “Just close the damn curtains!”
Carlos huffs, slamming the curtains closed- at least, as much as one can slam curtains. Jay wouldn’t be surprised if Carlos figures out the secret one day.
As the door closes, Jay yawns and stretches lazily, closing his eyes. He enjoys tourney, and is excited to practice, he truly is. He just can’t function before noon on weekends. He figures it’s a more than reasonable rule considering how hard he works the rest of the time. School is hard work, especially for people lacking Carlos’s brain.
A half hour more, and he’ll be ready to face the day, he decides, closing his eyes.
Some time later Jay wakes up to the sound of fists rapidly, frantically banging on his door. Immediately his heart starts pounding, remembering Jafar and his rude awakenings. He’s already halfway out of bed, about to apologize desperately to Jafar for not having gotten any scores yet, when he looks around and registers his surroundings.
“Come in, Carlos, I’m decent,” he calls, groaning in frustration. He’d been sleeping so well and now he’s wound up, anxious, instead of feeling peacefully rested.
The voice that replies isn’t Carlos’s, it’s Ben’s, and he sounds terrified as he demands, “Jay, you have to come with me right now!”
Jay’s heart immediately starts pounding again. “I’m coming!” He doesn’t even bother changing out of his pajamas or brushing his hair, just sliding on his shoes and throwing the door open. “What happened? Is Carlos- is he?-“
Ben is already running down the hall. “He’s not hurt, but- you need to hurry,” he calls over his shoulder.
Jay isn’t sure whether that makes him feel better, or worse. It somehow manages to be both at once. The what-ifs running through his mind make him freeze until Ben is already halfway down the hall, at which point Jay snaps back to his senses and charges after him, making up the lost ground right away.
The dread he feels makes his stomach cramp with terror. If Carlos isn’t hurt, what could be causing the pure panic in Ben’s eyes and voice? What else could possibly be this bad? His mind conjures a million scenarios that cause his body to soak itself with sweat. Could Carlos have had some kind of mental breakdown? Is he trying to return to the evil ways they’d sworn off? Is he sick? Sick, after all, isn’t the same as hurt.
Ben leads them past the tourney field, to the woods, and Jay swears his heart stops when a wail pierces his ears.
He’s not hurt, Ben had said, but what else could be causing the agony in Carlos’s voice? Jay has only hear a noise like that once in his life- when he was five, and Jafar had discovered Jay’s mother’s lifeless body in their bedroom.
Suddenly it clicks into place, and time seems to slow even as Jay’s body speeds up. Carlos’s voice sounds miles away, and Jay feels as though he’ll never reach Carlos. The selfish part of him almost doesn’t want to, because for all he’d experienced on the Isle, he knows none of it will compare to the agony of his lover screaming with a pain that can rent apart without leaving a mark.
Already he begins pleading with whatever entity may exist. Hurt me instead, he begs, don’t make him go through this.
But there’s no undoing what’s just happened, and Jay knows it. He has no choice but to face the horrible reality.
Still in slow-motion, he hurries to Carlos’s voice, blood rushing to his ears, heart racing so fast his chest aches like a bruise.
“CARLOS!” he roars, charging into a clearing and finally finding Carlos in his line of sight. “CARLOS! I’M HERE!”
“J-Jay?” Carlos’s voice is so broken already, so hoarse and pained, like his very soul has been tortured. Like all the good has been torn out of his world.
God, how Jay wishes there were a physical wound instead. It wouldn’t hurt half as badly as looking at Carlos’s stricken expression.
“Carlos. What happened?” Finally, at last, he’s beside Carlos, and he wants to cry at the sight: Carlos’s eyes already bloodshot, tears streaming down his cheeks. Carlos is shuddering with every whimpering breath, cradling a tiny, bloody, forlorn figure to his chest.
Jay’s heart breaks, no, shatters.
“Carlos,” he whispers, wrapping his arms around his boyfriend. “Carlos…” He can’t seem to say anything but the boy’s name.
Carlos lets out an utterly broken sob, burying his face in Jay’s chest. “H-He- h-he’s g-g-gone…“ The sobs get somehow still harder, Carlos gasping for breath and shaking violently. “H-He’s g-gone…”
“What happened?” Jay asks, trying to make his voice comforting instead of demanding; he isn’t sure if he succeeds.
“T-There was… s-something…” Carlos whimpers. “S-some kind of b-beast… it charged at us…” He lets out another gasp, and starts to gag, getting sick from the exertion of crying so violently. “D-Dude p-protected m-m-me!”
Carlos cries still harder, and clearly can’t continue, but Jay doesn’t need him to. He already has the picture in his mind, one he doesn’t want at all. But if Carlos has to have it in his head, then so should Jay. After all, his mind is already growling that it’s all his fault for not going on that walk.
“I’m so sorry…” Jay whispers, his voice softer and more full of sympathy than it’s ever been before. “Oh, Carlos, come here…” He sits on the ground, uncaring of the dirt, and pulls Carlos into his lap. Carlos gasps and bawls against Jay’s chest, fists balling up his shirt, and it’s all Jay can do to not to start crying himself. “Shh… shh…”
God, he wishes he knew what the hell he was supposed to do. He grew up on the Isle, for heaven’s sake; he knows nothing about comforting, not even his boyfriend. Surely he’s failing every which way. Why had Fairy Godmother never covered this in her stupid Remedial Goodness class?
Jay hopelessly looks to the sky, and sees that Ben is in the distance, watching them. After a moment Coach arrives behind him, face full of worry.
“Son, let’s get you back on school grounds,” Coach says softly, stepping towards them, but Carlos just whimpers and pulls closer to Jay.
“S-She d-d-did t-th-this,” Carlos manages through his tears.
Ben and Coach look at Jay in utter confusion, but Jay knows precisely what Carlos means, and immediately clarifies.
“Cruella,” Jay says, voice turning dark. “She did this to punish him for making friends with a dog and embarrassing her on family day.” He looks down at the boy in his arms. “She did something. I don’t know how, but she did.”
“You don’t know that,” Ben tries to reason, but Jay cuts him off with a glare.
“You’re telling me you just have wild animals roving around here ready to attack anyone who wanders off campus?” he spits with far more venom than he would if anyone else had been the injured party instead. He likes Ben, considers him a friend. But Carlos always comes first, and he can’t bring himself to care who else’s feelings get hurt if he’s protecting the smaller boy. All his life, Jay had been the only one Carlos could count on for protection, and Jay isn’t about to let him down for the second time in one day.
“No,” Ben says slowly, shifting his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “We haven’t had a bear or wolf sighting in at least ten years.” He looks to Coach for affirmation, and receives a silent nod.
Jay’s eyes darken dangerously. “It was her. Maleficent too, probably.” He looks down at Carlos and can’t help but whisper, too quietly for the others to hear, “why him?”
Carlos’s tears finally take their toll on him, and his slight gagging and coughing turns into vomiting. Jay winces and rubs his back through the fit, soothing words escaping him.
Carlos falls back against Jay when he’s finally done, panting weakly, and Jay steadies him with his strong arms. “Carlos,” he murmurs into his boyfriend’s ear, tenderly brushing Carlos’s hair out of his face. “We need to get back to our room so you can rest. Can I carry you?”
Shakily Carlos nods, wrapping one arm around Jay’s neck, the other still firmly clutching Dude’s body. Coach steps forward, ready to take it from Carlos’s arms, but Carlos lets out a faint cry of protest and wraps his arms tighter around his best friend’s lifeless form.
“I c-c-can’t l-l-l-eave h-h-hiiim,” the boy bawls, hiding his face. “H-He g-gave his l-l-l-l-life for meeee!…” As the last word escapes him Carlos lets out an agonized wail, once again letting his tears fall onto Jay’s shirt.
“O-Okay,” Jay says helplessly. What is he supposed to do, let Carlos carry Dude’s body around all day? “Okay. You don’t have to yet.” He looks sadly at the empty shell that had just an hour ago been so full of life and energy, that had given so much joy to Carlos. Tears finally forming in his own eyes, Jay reaches a hand out to pet Dude’s blood-soaked fur, confused when he feels that it’s still warm. Aren’t dead things supposed to be cold? That’s what he’s always heard.
Swallowing thickly, Jay forces himself to withdraw his hand, and looks down at Carlos. Again he wishes that the problem was anything else. He can fix anything else- sometimes it just takes a new gadget, or a stupid joke, or a kiss, or a plate of cookies. Other times it takes a reminder that he’ll never let Cruella near him again (which, of course, isn’t a promise he can keep anymore) or talking him through a panic attack. He can provide those things. But this… there’s nothing he can do.
He’s utterly helpless, and Jay hadn’t spent his entire life working to be the strongest so he could be helpless to protect Carlos when he needed Jay most.
Gritting his teeth, Jay decides to do the only thing he can for now. And so he stands with Carlos still in his arms, softly saying, “come on.”
“W-Where are we g-going?” Carlos asks, hiccuping as the tears finally start to slow.
Jay starts to reply with the obvious- back to campus- before realizing Carlos wants a more specific answer. “Our room. I’ll have the girls come meet us, okay?” He glances at Ben, who understands the unspoken command and races off.
“Okay,” Carlos whispers, before breaking into a fresh round of tears when he sees the puddle of blood on the ground. “I-I w-want Dude back! I-I didn’t- I- I tried to-”
“I know.” It’s all Jay can say. There are no words of comfort, no reassurances he can give.
“It was my fault! It should have been me!” Carlos wails into Jay’s shoulder, grip tightening on the broken bundle in his arms. “I was the one Cruella was mad at! Dude never did anything wrong!”
Jay bites his lip, vision starting to get blurry from his own tears of mingled sorrow and fury. They slide down his face, landing on Carlos’s hair, matching the tears Carlos has shed on his shirt.
Guilt starts to eat at Jay like an acid. It’s his fault, not Carlos’s, because Jay should have been there. Carlos could never have fought off a beast, but Jay could have. He could have ordered Carlos to carry Dude to safety while he headed the threat off.
But instead, he’d decided his sleep was more important than spending time with his boyfriend, and now Carlos and Dude have paid the price.
Because of him, Carlos’s best friend is dead. He’s caused Carlos more hurt than Cruella ever did.
No more coherent words are spoken on the trek to the dorms. Carlos is too distraught to say anything more, and Jay forces himself to be silent. He knows if he opens his mouth, he’ll spill all his guilty thoughts, and then Carlos will be more focused on assuaging Jay’s guilt than his own grief. Jay’s selfishness has already cost Carlos too damn much; the least he can do is not add to Carlos’s troubles.
The only small blessing is that Carlos stops protesting when Coach tries to take Dude from him. He lets Coach take the pathetic ball from his arms, and then tightens his grip on Jay, the tears coming as hard and fast as ever.
Mal and Evie are waiting in their room when Jay swings the door open. He meets the girls’ horrified eyes, his own expression dull and blank, while Carlos doesn’t seem to register them at all.
“Carlos,” Evie whispers, rushing over to them and cupping his face, looking into his eyes. “Oh my god Carlos, I’m so so sorry!”
Carlos lets out a tiny half-sob and presses still closer to Jay, and Jay looks between the girls and Carlos before making his way to Carlos’s bed and lying them both down, covering his boyfriend with the blanket.
He knows when he feels ill, nothing feels better than the soft warmth of a blanket- a warmth he only knows in the first place because Carlos had stolen one from Cruella long ago and given it to him- and though Carlos isn’t sick exactly, grief and shock may as well be the same thing. They’re both exhausting and fill a person up with emptiness and cold and misery.
A warm blanket is the best cure for both, in Jay’s opinion. So he spoons up behind Carlos, arms wrapped warmly and securely around him. “I’m not going anywhere,” he promises as the girls settle in front of Carlos, Evie openly weeping and Mal pretending not to care, but with clear cracks in her facade. The girls rub their friend’s shoulders, Evie whispering soft words of comfort that Jay knows Carlos won’t listen to.
Mal makes her way to Jay’s side of the bed, leaning forward to whisper in his ear urgently. “What happened?”
“Later,” Jay whispers. “I wanna get him calm.”
Mal nods her acceptance and goes back to Evie, and Jay returns to the task of calming Carlos down. Jay secretly tries to lull him to sleep, stroking his forehead the way he knows Carlos can barely resist, whispering soft nothings, and letting Carlos exhaust himself with tears. Even as Carlos fights it, Jay can see him sinking deeper, and he redoubles his efforts. He settles Carlos to lie half on top of him, head on Jay’s chest so Carlos can hear his fast but strong and steady heartbeat.
Carlos half-laughs as he says, “Oh, now you’re playing dirty…”
Jay too lets out a mirthless laugh, smiling without it reaching his eyes. “Do I play any other way? Now get some rest before I have Mal spray her sleeping potion on you.”
Carlos lets out a sound that’s more a sob than a chuckle, and falls asleep in Jay’s arms.
Then Jay looks up at the girls, and says lowly, “we have a problem. I don’t know how, but… Maleficent and Cruella are behind this. There hadn’t been a creature to attack anyone for ten years before this… and then it just happens to attack Carlos and Dude. It’s not a coincidence.”
Evie’s eyes widen, while Mal’s glow green, and Jay feels his stomach drop as he realizes this will only be the beginning for Carlos. His poor boyfriend will hardly be allowed a chance to grieve his friend, as instead they will have to find and fight this returning threat.
The very thought makes Jay’s arms tighten protectively around Carlos, and he gives a silent vow, on everything he holds important, that this time he will be there. It may be too late to save Dude, but he can help Carlos.
Jay watches Evie pull out her magic mirror and Mal pull out her spellbook. Mal’s jaw is set as she starts planning aloud, thinking of ways to find and chase leads.
He’ll make Cruella pay for hurting Carlos. For hurting him before they arrived in Auradon, and for coming back just when Carlos has finally started to recover from her abuse. She’ll regret all of it by the time Jay is done.
He’ll avenge both Carlos and Dude.