Most days, life in Auradon was good. The four were adjusting slowly but surely to the bubbly, shiny kingdom, but some days didn't quite make the cut. Some days it felt like their progress was one step forward, two steps back.
Some days they just needed to hit something.
While there were plenty of little things, subtle differences between Auradon and the Isle, the thing Jay thought about the most was the freedom. Auradon was a new kind of freedom - freedom from his father and his heavy hands, freedom from hunger and constantly being alert - but he was more tied down than ever in a different way. On the Isle, power reigned. Power was gained through action, not useless titles, and action was usually violence. In Auradon, Jay had to clench his fists and glare at the other kids instead of putting them in their place the only way he knew how.
Apparently, beating people up was a one-way ticket to detention at Auradon Prep. He'd done it once, and the fear of being sent back to the Isle for misbehaving was too strong for him to do it a second time. There was very little that he wouldn't do to never have to live on that island again, but he knew that it was still a part of him regardless. No matter how much he had improved and how much better his life was in Auradon, he would always be an Isle kid, born and raised.
And so, sometimes he just needed to hit something. Beating people up meant detention in Auradon - but not if the person was willing, and not if nobody else knew about it.
On bad days - days where he felt a little too Isle to be around all of the princes and princesses - Jay sought out Mal. Some days she came to him instead, but today it was Jay that needed the fairy.
Mal was sitting under one of the trees with a strawberry in hand, laughing at whatever dumb joke Ben had just made when Jay approached them. She didn't see him until he was right in front of them, turning around at the sound of her name.
Jay's face was stony, his expression dark. Mal immediately sat up straight and asked, "What do you need?"
"No weapons," Jay replied, already turning on his heel and heading towards the dorms.
"No weapons?" Ben questioned as he scrambled to help Mal rapidly collect their things. He jogged a little to catch up with her, but she merely shook her head.
By the time the two reached Mal's room, Jay was waiting outside in his full Isle leather, boots and all. He didn't speak as Mal slipped into her room to change into her Isle clothes as well and Ben stood in the hallway awkwardly. He opened his mouth to ask what was going on, but thought better of it once he caught sight of Jay's expression.
Ben was spared further discomfort as the door to Mal's room opened and a water bottle came flying out, which Jay caught without a second glance. The girl slipped out and glanced at Ben before tilting her head at Jay.
"I don't care," the thief said as he once again walked off. Mal followed immediately, looking back at Ben expectantly until he followed along as well.
Ben was perplexed before, but his confusion grew as the two kept walking all the past the tourney field and into the forest. They passed all of the familiar clearings in silence, Mal's arm brushing Jay's every so often, until they reached a section that Ben had never seen before. He'd never traveled this far out into the woods.
Jay and Mal tied up their hair and put down their water bottles by one of the trees, and Mal instructed Ben to sit as Jay started to stretch. Once Ben got settled and Mal placed a little bag next to him, she joined Jay in the middle of the clearing until the thief stood up.
"Hurry up," he snapped. Mal rose from her stretches, smirking back at him. "Oh so that's how we're going to play it today, huh? Somebody's impatient."
"Shut up." Jay stepped into a crouch and the two began to circle each other once Mal copied his pose.
"For someone who couldn't wait to get started, you sure are taking your time, lover boy," Mal taunted with a glint in her eye. "You know the rules, whoever calls it throws the first punch."
"Oh, I'll throw the first punch alright. I'm just trying to decide where to hit you first, your stomach or your stupid fucking mouth," the thief snarled as he started to circle faster. Ben stared at him in shock - he'd heard the Isle kids tease each other before, but never with such a biting tone.
"Aw that's cute, trying to cover up your hesitation. Has Auradon made you too soft to take a hit or are you still scared of me?" Mal responded with a vicious smirk.
"You better stop projecting your issues on to me, dragon breath," Jay shot back as he took a step closer. "I think that you don't want your little boyfriend to see you get your hands dirty."
Mal gritted her teeth at Jay's taunt. "Just hit me already you fucking coward, and I'll show you getting my hands dirty."
One side of Jay's mouth curled up into a cruel grin as he finally took a swing at his opponent. Mal blocked him with ease and threw a punch of her own that missed by a couple inches.
"Come on, babe, that's all you got? I told you that the mainland's made you soft," Mal taunted again before Jay lunged for her once more. This time, his hit landed, right on her mouth like he'd promised. Ben watched as she moved lightening quick, spitting out blood and catching Jay in the jaw with the same movement.
Their fighting quickly become more vicious, their bodies twisting and turning to avoid hits and deal out ones of their own. Neither seemed to have an advantage - Jay had more brute force, but Mal was faster. The two continued to sling harsh insults, provoking each other to fight dirty. Jay had Mal pinned to the ground until she brought her knee up to his groin and shoved him off of her. Before she could get all the way up, Jay reached out and dragged her back down to the ground by her ponytail.
"Oh you're going to pay for that one, fucker," Mal seethed as they continued to struggle with each other on the ground.
"It's called karma, bitch. Ever heard of it?" Jay managed to stand, yanking Mal up by one arm and slamming her into the tree nearest to them. Ben cried out, thinking that the pair had gone too far, but the Isle kids didn't pay him any attention. Mal grabbed onto two of the lower branches and pulled herself up enough to aim a kick at Jay's chest.
The thief fell to ground with a shout of anger, and his expression darkened even further when Mal brought her foot down on his stomach. He grabbed her foot and pulled, not able to roll out of the way fast enough to avoid her crashing down on top of him. One of the spikes on Mal's jacket caught him on his arm and he cursed as Mal quickly got back up into a crouch and pressed her fingers into the cut.
Ben had known, in the back of his mind, that all of the Isle kids were able to fight. They had to. He'd just never realized how brutal they could be; this was no friendly play fight like the ones between Jay and Carlos when they were all studying together. Those fights were a headlock and a shove. This was a fight of kids who learned to fight on the streets, who learned how to fight to survive. This was something that could only be a product of the Isle.
Their wrestling continued until they were both back on their feet, and Ben could see they were both showing signs of exhaustion. He knew that Mal was stubborn, she hated losing and hated being proved a fool even worse. Jay could be just as stubborn, though, and it seemed like today he had an extra fire. Mal had realized this too, and finally surrendered the next time he had her pinned to the forest floor.
Jay lifted his hands into the air to show the truce even though he was still sitting on her hips; he swung off of her and offered his hand. Mal took it and after Jay pulled her off the ground, she yanked him closer.
Ben had felt like an outsider ever since Jay had first walked up to them under the tree, but now he felt like he was intruding. Jay leaned down to rest his forehead against Mal's, and the two kept their hands clasped as their ragged breathing slowly evened out. Neither spoke as they drew apart and walked back to where Ben was sitting.
Jay was the one to throw the water bottle to Mal this time, chugging his own as soon as he got it open. Mal mirrored him and sat down across from Ben once she finished. Jay joined the two on the ground as Mal avoided Ben's eyes and reached around to him to grab the small bag instead.
"Give it over, Mal. You know the deal," Jay grinned as he echoed Mal's previous statement, "loser goes first."
She stuck her tongue out at him as she reluctantly tossed the bag at his chest. Jay began to unpack its contents onto the ground, and Ben realized that it was a makeshift first aid kit. Jay looked up when he was done and asked, "Okay, immediate injuries?"
"You broke my toe, you bastard," Mal pouted as she pulled off her heavy leather boots.
"You what?" Ben gasped, alarmed by Mal's casual tone. "Oh my goodness, we have to get you to the nurse. Can you walk?"
Mal snorted as she placed her foot in Jay's lap. "I finished the fight, didn't I? It broke like halfway through."
Ben could only gape at her as she pointed to the one next to her left pinky toe and Jay started to tape it up. "You-you're just going to bandage it right here?" he stammered.
"Well, it's not like there's much else to do. You usually just tape the broken toe to the one next to it and try not to walk on it as much, and we don't want the nurse to ask questions," Jay replied.
"Usually?" Ben asked.
"What, you've never broken a toe?" Mal questioned. She pulled her leg off of Jay's lap and back towards her.
"I - I've only broken one bone. My arm," Ben said, looking down at his lap. "I was eight and fell out of a tree."
Mal and Jay stared at him for a few seconds before throwing their heads back and laughing hard. "That's the most Auradonian thing I've ever heard," Jay almost snorted as Mal failed to quiet down.
"Aw Jay, don't make fun him. I'm sure that falling out of a tree was a very traumatic event for eight-year-old Ben," Mal grinned.
Ben couldn't help but grin a little himself at the two, knowing that his once broken arm was, in fact, a very Auradonian thing. He sobered quickly as he thought about how nonchalant they both were about Mal breaking a toe. How many bones had they broken on the Isle?
Jay cleared his throat, still smiling. "Now that we've got that out of the way, let's continue. Strip, dragon breath."
Mal just rolled her eyes as she stood up with a small wince of pain and reached for the zipper on her jacket. She glanced once at Ben and then pointedly looked elsewhere as she pulled off her clothes, with no hesitation or explanation.
Jay stood as well once she was fully nude, and he swept his eyes clinically across her body. He took her arms in his hands and turned them over as he scanned them, clearly not finding what he was looking for. He spun her around and tutted when he took in the sight of her back.
"Emerald eyes, this didn't make the list of immediate injuries?" Jay asked. Ben had been carefully looking away as Jay inspected Mal for wounds, but he glanced up at his words. His breath stuck in his throat as he caught sight of a gash across one of her shoulder blades. It was long and red, the skin angry and bleeding, but Mal just shrugged her shoulders.
"You would've seen it in a minute anyways. I'm more worried about my jacket, Evie is going to rip my throat out when she realizes she's gonna have to repair it again," Mal sighed.
"Tell her that you'll stop tearing up her outfits once you get good enough to beat me. She knows that won't happen," Jay winked, turning around to the supplies.
"Get off your high horse," Mal snorted.
"Can't here you down there," Jay replied as he grabbed a metal rectangle. Ben leaned in to look at the object only to sit up in surprise.
"Is that a flask?" Ben asked. Both Mal and Jay turned to him with wicked grins on their faces. Jay dangled the flask in front of his face. "Not all students here are goody two shoes, Ben. Everyone has their vices."
Ben couldn't think of a response to that, instead making the other two pause once more. "You're gonna let someone take care of that, right? If you don't let the nurse look at your toe, at least let her clean that for you."
"I am going to let someone take care of it," Mal said looking over her shoulder at him. Jay stepped up to her and unscrewed the flask, handing her the cap and gripping her unharmed shoulder with one hand. He poured some of the liquid onto the wound as Mal hissed, clearly trying not to move. Passing her the flask, Jay grabbed the towel he'd laid at his feet, wiping off the alcohol that had run down her back. He pressed the towel gently into the cut before applying what looked like Auradonian antiseptic cream and setting both down. Ben could only watch in fascination as Jay moved with the unparalleled ease of muscle memory, cutting a bandage strip and placing it over the wound.
Jay stepped back and scanned the rest of Mal's back, taking the flask from her hand and picking up the other supplies when he didn't find any other injuries he deemed worth cleaning. "All clear."
Mal turned back around to the two boys and caught sight of Ben obviously trying to glance away. Something strange fluttered inside of her and she said softly, "You're allowed to look, you know."
Surprise colored Ben's face as he raised his eyes to meet hers, and it struck him that this was the first time that he'd ever seen her fully naked. Somehow, this moment, in the middle of the far-out forest, was a million times more intimate than any time they'd kissed back in his dorm. He blushed, but slowly looked down, and his gaze stopped right at her breasts.
He paled, any thoughts of accidentally being a creep vanishing from his mind as he stared at a scar over what was unmistakably her heart. He turned his face to Jay instead when he said, so softly that Ben almost missed it, "The magic of the barrier prevents murder on the Isle, you know."
Ben swallowed. "I know." He did know. He'd known for a few years, had read it when he was poking around for any information he could find about the Isle. He had known, but he hadn't stopped to think what that actually meant. He'd thought that it was a good idea, that no one could kill each other. He didn't realize that it also meant that people could suffer even more.
He flinched when Jay locked eyes with him. Sometimes he had trouble reading the other boy, but right now his eyes were as clear as day. He heard his unspoken words: when people can't kill you, they get creative.
Ben looked back up at Mal, startled to see her moving towards him. She kneeled in front of him and grabbed his hand, placing it over the scar. Up close, he could tell that the mangled skin was scar tissue overlapping from multiple wounds. She didn't look away as his eyes traveled down again, past their joined hands and taking in the other marks on her torso. The most notable was a long horizontal line a couple inches below her belly button, and after a while Mal rose slowly as she said, "Those are stories for another time."
Ben nodded, his voice gone, and watched silently as Mal got dressed. She turned to Jay and gestured. "Immediate injuries?"
Jay cleared his throat, snapping them all out of the trance they were in. "Just the cut on my arm. You know, the one you dug your dirty fingernails into?"
Mal smirked, "You should've been faster, little thief," grabbing his arm gently to look at the wound. Her expression quickly changed as she cursed, "Shit. This is going to need stitches."
"Ugh. Fuck! Of course I need stitches when I'm stuck with you," Jay complained. "Just look me over first and come back to it."
Mal complied, raking her eyes down his body the same way he had. She spun him around and searched him quickly, clearly trying to shove some emotion down. She pressed her hands against his shoulder blades and leaned the side of her face on his back.
"Mal," Jay said softly.
Jay didn't move. "We're going to kill them."
"I know," Mal breathed out.
Ben shuddered. He'd never heard someone utter such a deadly sentence with that kind of conviction before. It was a promise.
The two stood there in silence, breathing in sync, for several more minutes until Mal finally pressed a gentle kiss to Jay's back and removed her hands. Without Mal blocking him, Ben could see what she had been leaning against. Rows upon rows of raised stripes littered Jay's back, and Ben froze. His heart clutched with such a strong need to comfort, such a strong need to seek revenge, to hurt whoever did that to Jay.
"We're going to kill them," Mal said this time.
Ben's expression darkened as he echoed her. "I know."
He did know. He knew in that instant that there was nothing more that the four wanted, that he wanted, than for their parents to be dead. He also knew that no matter how much he prided himself on his moral compass and his goodness, he would let them kill them without blinking an eye.
Ben sat, lost in his thoughts, as the heavy mood settled around them. Mal handed Jay his pants, and sat down once more on the forest floor without a sound. Once Jay had put everything back on except his shirt, he offered his arm up to Mal, his knees touching hers.
"Seriously though, I can't believe that I need stitches when the other two aren't here. Mal truly is the worst at sewing," Jay grinned halfheartedly, trying to lighten the tone.
"Oh, hush. I've stitched you up before." Mal rolled her eyes and held out her hand for the flask.
"Yeah, and your girlfriend had to restitch it the next day," Jay shot back. Mal turned the flask over his wound and he sucked in a sharp breath, trying to smirk through the pain. "I should've grabbed her or Carlos on the way here." He held the towel over the cut as Mal searched for something amongst the supplies. She sat back, a spool of thread and needle in her hands, and a sudden realization hit Ben.
"You're going to...sew him up?" Ben asked unsurely.
Mal tilted her head. "How else do you think stitches work?"
"Well, done by a medical professional. And certainly not with a needle and thread," he replied.
"Again, how else do you think stitches work?" Jay asked.
Ben paused. "There's a proper needle for them."
"This is a proper needle," Mal gestured.
"No, that's for sewing. That's not made for skin," Ben said slowly. "There are special needles and a special kind of thread that are meant to go in the human body."
"That's dumb. These go in the human body perfectly fine." Mal held up the needle and thread to prove her point.
"But you could get an infection if they're not cleaned properly. And again, that kind of thread shouldn't be inside your skin," Ben tried to argue.
"Look, Ben. It's fine. I've done more stitches than I can count just like this," Mal said as she dipped the needle into the flask.
"No, I've done more stitches than I can count. You're barely allowed to do stitches at all," Jay teased. He twisted and grabbed what looked like a lighter, holding it up to Mal and flicking it open.
She pinched the needle at the very edge, holding the rest of it over the flame. Once she was satisfied, she gingerly threaded the needle, cutting the string and tying it off in little knots. "Shut up, asshole. Drink."
Jay took a swig of the flask as he held out his arm to her. He cried out softly when Mal pierced his skin, and quickly took another sip.
"Please, why don't you just wait until we get back? Let the nurse do it in a clean environment," Ben asked one more time.
Mal looked up from her work, studying his face. "That's just not how we do things." She looked back down, made a couple more stitches, and paused again. "We don't want any questions, like we said, and we come out here when we feel more Isle than Auradon. This is part of it," she said softly.
Ben nodded and swallowed, despite the fact that the knot in his stomach still hadn't untied itself. This was just another thing that he took for granted - needles and stitches rarely crossed his mind. How was he to know that they were different on the Isle? He watched as Mal continued her stitching, as Jay screwed up his face in pain. How could he ever have assumed that they weren't different on the Isle?
They sat in silence as Mal made the final stitch and Jay poured a tiny amount from the flask over the sewed-up wound, wincing again. He shrugged on the shirt that Mal handed to him and held out the medical supplies in return for her to pack up.
"Alright," Mal announced, brushing off her pants as she stood. "The brains of the group await, gentlemen."
They left the same way they came, Ben trailing behind the two Isle kids. As the pair walked a little too close together, Jay matched Mal's slightly slowed-down pace and barely noticeable limp.
It wasn't until they got back to the dorms that any of them spoke up. "Pup or princess?" Mal asked Jay.
"Pup," he replied after a moment of thought, and started towards his room instead of Mal's. He opened the door to reveal Evie and Carlos reading on the bed, which was actually the two small beds pushed together. Carlos's head was in Evie's lap and she was carding her fingers through his hair as she turned a page in her novel, looking up as the three entered the room.
"The forest?" she asked before catching sight of Ben and snapping her mouth shut.
Mal sighed and made her way over to the combined beds, shaking her head as she said, "It's fine. We let him watch."
Carlos sat up at that, expression curious. "Oh?"
Ben continued to stand awkwardly by the door as Jay joined the other three Isle kids on the bed. The thief stretched out flat on his back and smirked, "Yeah, what a lucky guy. Today was even a no-weapons day too."
"Ah," Carlos hummed. "Injuries?"
Mal put on her best fake doe eyes, turning her face up to Carlos and pouting, "Your boyfriend broke my toe."
Both Evie and Carlos snorted, the former pulling Mal against her. "Aww, did the big bad thief hurt your foot, my little dragon?" Evie cooed.
It was Jay's turn to snort as he punched Mal in the shoulder. "You know what she did? Cut me open and dug her nails in," he lamented. "And you know what's worse? She stitched me up."
"Oh shit," Carlos murmured at the same time that Evie demanded to see the wound. She grabbed Jay's arm and inspected it the same way Mal originally had, and pulled a face. "This is...surprisingly alright. I don't actually need to redo them. I mean, if I do it'll heal faster and scar less, but then you'd have to put up with being stitched twice."
Jay shrugged as Mal grinned triumphantly and finally glanced back over at Ben. "See? I'm not as awful at stitches as he made me out to be."
Ben smiled hesitantly as the attention in the room shifted to him. He cleared his throat and let his smile grow bigger as he said, "No comment."
"You're supposed to be on my side!" Mal rolled her eyes and smacked Evie's arm when the princess laughed a little too hard. "Come over here, you traitor." She patted the bed beside her.
Ben did as she asked and sat down on the bed as the others rearranged themselves to accommodate him. Carlos backed up next to Evie as Jay lay between his legs and the girls mirrored them - Mal's head on Evie's chest. Ben sat there, as awkwardly as he had been standing in the room this entire time, until Mal pulled him down to her just like how she was leaning on Evie.
He felt like he was holding his breath, waiting for some kind of catch. He was so much closer to the Isle kids as a group than he had ever been before, but this whole day felt different. Today, they had let him into their world. They had let him truly see their Isle selves and now they were letting him...just be.
The five teenagers sat in comfortable silence, and Mal ran her fingers through Ben's hair. His eyes were just starting to close when he heard a very soft, "It was some stupid kids."
Ben turned his head to look at Jay. The other boy was staring up at the ceiling, and no one prompted him. He continued, "They were saying some dumb shit about you, princess, right to my face. I would've never let that slide back on the Isle."
Evie reached down and entwined her fingers with Jay's, replying just as softly, "I know, baby. But here they're not really threats."
"I know that," Jay turned his face up to her, "But what good is it if I can't protect you? Even from some dumbass Auradon kids?"
"Did you do something about it? Talk back to them?" Evie asked.
Jay scoffed. "Of course. I couldn't do much else."
"Then you did protect me, Jay. Just in an Auradon way," Evie said. She brushed a kiss across their joined hands. "That's all I expect here."
Ben watched as Jay closed his eyes and leaned his head all the way back against Carlos. "Ugh. I miss the Isle methods," the thief complained.
"Me too," Mal said. "Shut people up a lot faster. No one messed with what is mine back there."
Ben couldn't help but feel like an outsider once more. He knew that they were referring to more...violent methods of dealing with people, but his gut told him to stay silent. This was part of their past, and a part of them. He wasn't going to breach the tentative trust that the Isle kids had extended.
Mal cleared her throat. "You've still been telling me when someone gives you shit, right?" she directed at the other three. "Because I'm going to be pissed if you've been hiding stuff from me even if it's just people talking. I don't allow any of that to happen."
There was silence for a few moments. "Right?" Mal asked again.
Carlos was the first to speak up. "Yeah. There's some comments here and there but they're small enough that it's not even worth it," he said.
Evie and Jay agreed, but Mal was clearly unhappy about it. "Ugh. You're right, Jay. If we were back on Isle, people wouldn't even be making comments. They'd know their fucking place," Mal said darkly, shifting beneath Ben.
"I...don't know if this is overstepping," Ben began hesitantly, "Because you can all fend for yourselves just fine, but I'm here if you need me."
Ben felt all of the eyes shift to him once again, but he kept his gaze in his lap. He was debating opening his mouth again when Mal grabbed his chin and forced him to twist around and look at her. Her eyes were intense, and some emotion he couldn't place danced across her face.
"Thank you," she said. Her words were slow, and Ben could sense the hesitation that came from a lifetime of believing that admitting gratitude was a weakness, but he felt their genuine weight settle between them.
He smiled, a little shyly, and pressed a kiss to her cheek. "Actually, thank you. All four of you. Thank you for trusting me," he replied. He turned around and settled back into the curve of Mal, and felt, in that moment, more grateful than he'd ever been for the day that royal limo had arrived at Auradon Prep.