Actions

Work Header

Life is a Masquerade

Chapter Text

It took Chad what would probably be considered way too long to realize that his time had passed.

The time for charming princes who were all about the look of royalty – strong posture and a dazzling smile with not much consideration for personality – that was over.  People wanted substance now.  They wanted feelings and compassion and more than a two-dimensional representation of what they thought they wanted. 

Which was unfortunate for Chad, because he’d spent a lot of time perfecting his image while allowing his ‘personality’ to fall to the wayside because he honestly only had so much time, so much energy, and his father was called prince charming for goodness sake, how would it look if Chad couldn’t live up to that?

So… sacrifices had been made.  He’d adhered to the status quo and learned how to swordfight and followed all the rules and tried to do all the things that his grandfather let him know were expected of him, because his father was busy running a kingdom and he didn’t have time for Chad’s failures. 

But Chad had failed.  He’d given his love and support to a princess who – admittedly – had never really liked him, but she was strong.  His grandfather had been pleased when Audrey had taken an interest in Chad (to make her ex-boyfriend jealous but whatever, it counted), though less pleased when she had turned evil, and then when she returned to normal it was sort of a relief when she broke up with Chad because it kept him from having to do it himself.  There were lines to these things, and Audrey had sort of let the entirety of Auradon know that she was still into Ben, and Chad would have looked like a laughing stock if he stayed with her.  Well, more of one, so… it worked out for both of them.

That brought Chad to that moment, staring at the gilded invitation in his hands.  It seemed like Ben was hosting a masquerade ball.  No, he was hosting a masquerade festival, which would include several masquerade balls over the course of a week and then some other masquerade events and the entire thing seemed ludicrous but deep down Chad knew it was so the king could get the people who had lived on the Isle a chance to integrate with the public.  If everyone was in masks then everyone was equal, and who knew who you’d end up rubbing elbows with. 

It was a stupidly thoughtful and dramatic idea that was probably Evie’s, because Evie was smart.  Sometimes Chad wished he hadn’t listened to his grandfather’s advice about avoiding her.  Using her had seemed like a fun compromise because Chad had been failing chemistry in an effort to keep up his sword mastery and riding mastery and designing a new batch of clothing for his mother’s fashion line and hey then maybe he could make grandpa come around because Evie was cute.  And as long as Snow White continued to not have kids Evie was technically next in line for Hanover’s throne so…

But that, of course, didn’t work out.  Despite being quite charming, things didn’t tend to work out for Chad.  He wasn’t Ben, okay? 

So there was going to be a festival.  And for once, Chad’s artistic side was excited about it because he felt inspired, ready to design costumes instead of high end commercial ware (Chad had commissioned Evie to make his Cotillion cloak because he just- hadn’t had time to do so himself, and he thought maybe contributing to her business was sort of like apologizing?).  He could get behind this mystery thing.  Have a little fun with it.

Maybe he’d even…

Since Ben and Mal had lifted the ban on magic in Auradon, Fairy Godmother’s wand had returned to Sardinia, safely nestled in the depths of the castle.  Fairy Godmother was comfortable living a life without magic and Jane had insisted on creating her own wand, which left one of the most powerful magical artifacts basically just sitting in Chad’s basement.

And, okay, so maybe he shouldn’t have taken Aunt Anastasia’s story about anyone being able to use the magic wand to heart because now that it was there… well, it was his duty as future protector of Sardinia and all its inhabitants (which included the wand) to learn how to use it.  So he could protect it.

There was the slightest chance that maybe Chad had just wanted to be special for a bit.  And he wasn’t bad with the wand.  Granted, he was only levitating objects and casting basic transformations (that did not have a time limit, take that Fairy Godmother), but that was like, more than Jane had done when she’d tried to grab it at Coronation.  And she was made of magic. 

Chad might not have time but he had a wand and a plan, and if anyone could Bibbidi Bobbidi their way into a new outfit, it was him.  That was like, written in the stars.

He had this.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Chad couldn’t change his facial features but he could change his coloring.  In the end he made his curls a dark black that shined in the light, made his blue eyes a deep brown and his skin as pale and fair as Snow White’s.  He kept his outfit simple, black and white with dashes of red to make things pop, and chose a simple white mask to stand out against his borrowed black curls.  The end result was a nobody who could maybe pass for Snow White’s kid which Chad was fine with, because he’d always admired the queen.  He imagined if his mother was still alive the two would have been great friends, as they were both champions for kindness.

The evening started off well enough.  Chad walked the festival, glamoured and sporting his new clothes and was completely unrecognized.  Pedestrians graced him with smiles not out of obligation or envy, but because it was a joyous occasion and Chad was sharing that second with them, that moment. 

There may have been a few appreciative stares but that was to be expected (he was cursed with a natural bone structure of the forever enchanting, there was no changing that), and soon Chad found himself giggling away, strolling the fair without the expectation of being perfect or blasting social media with selfies or worrying about accidentally causing a diplomatic incident.  This was his best idea ever.  He should have them more often.

The cheerful tunes of a rustic band drew Chad towards the city square – a large expanse of stone tiles forming a dancefloor from back in the olden days of Auradon, before cars became the predominant mode of transportation.  The dancing seemed to be going in full swing and Chad was excited, because here he could ask someone to dance as not Chad, and maybe they’d say yes and maybe they’d say no but whichever way it turned out, it wouldn’t be because he was Chad.  He searched the outskirts of the crowd for a target and paused when he recognized Jane in a fluffy pale gown from his most recent formal collection, her mask a complimenting blue with light pink accents. 

This was perfect.  If anyone could call him out, it would be Jane.  She’d recognize him and give honest feedback on his plan and maybe he’d have to change his image tomorrow but it seemed like a good plan because what if she didn’t recognize him? 

There was only one way to find out.

Chad strode forward, not with the confidence of a king but a more careful step, shoulders hunched a little in on himself, shying away from contact instead of demanding room.  Wow, this was fun.  Different and so deliciously wrong, but fun.

He stopped right beside her, sparing a quick moment to wonder where Carlos was.  Maybe she was waiting for him?

“Excuse me, miss,” Chad said, pitching his voice a little higher than he normally would have just to go the extra mile.  He bowed awkwardly, like he hadn’t since he was a small child. “May I have this dance?”

Jane was smiling at him when he looked back up, though she still seemed kind of nervous. “I have a boyfriend,” she replied, which gave Chad the feeling she had been turning down advances from more insistent suitors already this evening.  It was bold and so refreshingly not like the Jane he knew, and it left Chad a little distracted.

“I know,” Chad said before his brain could think to do otherwise. “I mean- that wasn’t a ‘I know and I’m going to steal you from him’ because like, I don’t think that lowly of either of you, that was more of a ‘I know but you look like you wanted to dance and I know I wanted to dance and if you asked me to walk away right now I wouldn’t be offended’.” What the hell was wrong with his mouth? “Seriously, no judgement.  In fact, I might just do that anyway.”

“No wait-” Jane was laughing now, small crinkles forming at the edge of her eyes that just might have been the cutest thing he’d ever seen. “You’re right, I do want to dance.  And if you’re okay with um-”

“You having a boyfriend?” Chad asked. “I am in fact okay with this, because I’m not an asshole.”

At this moment.

She giggled. “Okay then,” she said, taking his arm. “Lead the way.”

Chad was pretty sure she didn’t recognize him because Jane never indulged him like this anymore.  Maybe when they were children, but too much time had passed for them to be considered close, and again, normal Chad was kind of an asshole so she rightfully avoided him.

It was kind of nice to have her near again, though.  Nice to have her smile and not have it be one of mockery. 

Chad did his best to keep his dancing average, and it wasn’t hard because they were too busy laughing, Chad pointing out the more um- excessive masquerade masks and Jane tittering about hair choices that were, well, choices

“At least they’re having fun,” Chad said as the dance came to a close. “Which is the point, I guess.”

“It is,” Jane laughed, tugging him back towards the edge of the crowd. “Thanks, that was really great.”

“Thanks for humoring me,” Chad replied.  At least this indulgence didn’t come with the sickly tinge of patronization. “I’ll just get out of your hair now.”  

“Wait.” Her grip stayed firm on his arm. “I didn’t catch your name.”

If this was his mother’s story, the clock would have struck midnight and he would have had to run through the crowds like a mad person to keep from transforming back into rags. 

Unfortunately, this was not his mother’s story, because Jane certainly wouldn’t chase after him, which left Chad with a conundrum.

For lack of better phrasing, Chad panicked, because he honestly hadn’t expected his ruse to be any kind of successful, and either Jane was a phenomenal actress or she really didn’t know it was Chad and Chad hadn’t come up with any kind of plan – which was not like him, that was not a thing he did, so in a rush of adrenaline he latched onto his favorite of his father’s many names – the one synonymous with the bravest knight of King Author’s court, and blurted-

“Lance.” Yeah, he was- that was a good name. “I’m Lance.” 

“Hey, Lance.” He felt the arm hook around his neck half a second before the words were murmured into his ear, and it took Chad a moment to realize it was Jay being all predatory and weird. “You bothering Jane?”

Jay,” Jane tutted.  Was she pouting?  That seemed like a pout on her lips. “Knock it off.  If anything, I’m bothering him.”

“I don’t think you could do that if you tried,” Chad noted, because it was true, and then he panicked again because Jay’s gaze got a little scary. “That’s just a general observation, I am not flirting.  That was not a flirt.”

“Damn straight, it wasn’t,” Jay purred? Dragging Chad away from Jane and closer to his side. “Because that was just weak, man.”

“He already knows I have a boyfriend.” Jane was definitely pouting now.

“Who I was going to leave her to meet,” Chad said. “So I’ll just like- go.”

He got it.  Honestly, of the VKs close friend group, Jane and Doug were the easy targets if one wanted to dabble in sabotage.  This was the first big event since the villains on the Ilse had been set free, so of course there were security concerns.  Chad wouldn’t say Jane and Doug were weak links, exactly, just that they would appear to be, so it made sense for Jay to be lurking in the young fairy’s shadow looking for potential problems.

Jay raised a brow at him.  He was- really close.  Closer than they’d ever been for Tourney. “Leaving so soon?  But Jane looked like she was having such a good time.  I think I want a go.”

“What?” Chad blinked, and then Jay was dragging him out onto the dancefloor, whirling him through the crowds like a deadly tornado.  This time Chad’s clumsiness was organic because he didn’t dance with guys, hadn’t since he and Ben had tried to practice with each other when they were younger and his grandfather had caught wind of that and stopped it real quick.  Chad’s grandfather was a traditionalist and didn’t let things like ‘play dancing’ persist even if they were ultimately harmless.  Better to be safe than sorry.

It was weird because Chad was the one following, Jay taking the lead and holding him way closer than propriety would allow.

“Hey,” Chad could feel his cheeks flush with exertion. “Leave room for um- Hades.”

“What?” Jay’s look of confident uh… seduction faded into confusion.

“Or, you know.” In Auradon it was usually ‘Leave room for Hera’ because the idea of using Zeus was just- hysterical.  Guy got around too much.

“No.” Jay’s brows furrowed. “I don’t know.”

“I guess it doesn’t work anyway,” Chad huffed. “Since the Isle’s…” He decided to quit while he was ahead and focus on his feet.

“You,” Jay decided after a few seconds. “Are weird.”

“I was homeschooled, okay?” Yes, that was a plausible backstory, and not even entirely wrong, with all the additional tutoring required of ‘a person of his status’.

Jay laughed, and he definitely held Chad closer, arm sliding to rest on his lower back until they were essentially chest-to-chest. “That explains the lack of swag,” he mused.

“Excuse you,” Chad did not sputter because even as not-Chad that was beneath him. “I have just the right amount of swag.  And I don’t need to use swag on Jane, she’s-” He motioned towards where she and Carlos were now chatting, gazing at each other like they were the only two people in the universe. “Happy.  You don’t mess with happy.”

“Don’t you?” Jay asked, back to saying low, gravely things in Chad’s ear.  He supposed if he didn’t know Jay, this would have been- attractive?  He didn’t know.  “How do you know Jane, anyway?”

Ah-ha, so there was the real question.

“Um…” Chad allowed an honest blink of confusion.  He was so talented. “She’s dating one of the Core Four?  Everyone knows her.  And that Doug guy.” Chad actually hadn’t seen him yet so he assumed Lance’s uncertainty would be fine. “I really don’t have any nefarious plans here, okay?  I asked her to dance, we danced, and now I’m going to check out the rest of the festival.”

“Alone?” Jay asked.  He was- really all about eradicating all traces of personal space. “Not meeting anybody?”

“I already told you I was home schooled,” Chad muttered. “And I am a strong, independent um… human being.” Not a prince. “I can handle a festival.”

“You probably could,” Jay agreed, hand sliding just below Chad’s waist to rest on the upper curve of his ass.

“Okay!” The only reason Chad was likely able to pull away was because the other teen hadn’t been expecting it, but Chad could be wily when he wanted to. “Thanks for the dance, I’m going now,” he said in a rush, stalking towards the edge of the dancefloor. 

After a second, he could hear Jay scrambling behind him, and then a hand settled on his elbow.  “Hey-”

“No.” Chad shook him off, or more accurately, Jay allowed Chad to shake him off. “I’m not a um- floozy.  Or-” He flapped his hand angrily. “There’s an order to these things.  Within five minutes of meeting you is not part of that order.”

“Did you learn that in home school?” Jay asked, maybe trying to be flirtatious as a recovery but Chad had used that tactic too many times to be swayed by it.

“You don’t want to know where I learned it,” Chad muttered, deciding to be dark and foreboding and prompt some guilt so maybe Jay would leave him alone.  Ugh.  He hadn’t considered the VK’s flirtatious nature when he’d approached Jane, but then again, he hadn’t been expected to see Jay at all. “Look, this doesn’t have to be a thing, we can just-” He let his gaze go wide as he stared over Jay’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s Mal!”

Jay, continuing to underestimate Chad, looked over his shoulder immediately, but Mal wasn’t there because Chad was a liar who used momentary distractions to duck into crowds and run away as stealthily as possible.  It only took a few seconds before he heard Jay’s cry of deceit, but Chad was already speeding into an alley and down another staircase, thoroughly done with the exchange. 

Maybe he should change his outfit and try being someone else.  Someone who could watch the maypole dance in peace who definitely didn’t ask Jane to dance like a foolish fool.  What, Chad had wanted to test his skills at deception?  Great, he’d passed with flying colors.  Problem solved.

“Hey!” He heard Jay’s cry from behind him about the time he had thought it would be safe to slow down and- yes, that was Jay, jumping across crates and shit to get to Chad’s position. “Stop!”

“Um, no!” Chad ducked down another alleyway, because Jay might be good at parkour but Chad knew the city better and also why the hell was he even chasing Chad?  It wasn’t like his honor had been insulted.  This entire situation was a net loss to him. 

They were beginning to attract stares, so Chad ducked into the rarely-used back streets, twisting between buildings and trying to map a course back to his car, all the while keeping an eye out for Jay who probably wasn’t still chasing him?  Like, there had to be a limit.  Eventually he had to get bored.

This was the thought process going through Chad’s mind when he was bodily tackled from the side, both him and his attacker skidding into an abandoned fountain boxed in by buildings.

Chad was too surprised by the sudden barrage of wet that he bypassed his instinctual reaction to fight back, which was fortunate because the lunatic that had tackled into the fountain in the first place was Jay, who seemed just as confused as he was to be suddenly soaked.

What-” Chad seethed, staring down at his ruined outfit. “Is wrong with you?!”

“Um…” Jay brushed wet hair out of his eyes, moving to crouch in the clear water. “I… why did you run?”

“Why did you chase me?” Chad shot back, floundering towards his feet.  His clothes were completely waterlogged and his curls were plastered to his head and his shoes were wet. “Why did you tackle me into a fountain?”

“Okay, the fountain thing was an accident,” Jay allowed as Chad began to crawl out of the pool, dripping water everywhere. “I uh… just didn’t want you to think I was just dancing with you because of- you know, that.”

Because he wanted to get some, he meant.

“No,” Chad snarled, ringing excess water out of his coat helplessly and knowing there would be no saving it. “You wanted to interrogate me about Jane because you think I’m a villain when between the two of us you have done way worse stuff like tackling people into fountains!

He combed a hand through his hair and gave up on it as a loss, stepping away from the fountain to give him some space from Jay as the other teen got onto dry ground.

“Okay,” Jay allowed, holding out both hands as though he were approaching a wounded animal. “I can see why you’d be upset-”

“Because this is upsetting!” Ugh, was this what it was like for other people to hang around Chad?  It was awful, he hated it.

“But let me make it up to you,” Jay continued. “My friend Evie has a fashion line; I can hook you up with some new clothes-”

“I don’t want your pity clothes,” Chad snapped, fingering his waterlogged vest.  He’d been really proud of this outfit.  Subtle but rugged, constructed from scraps, like his mother would have done.  And now it was ruined. “Just- go find someone else to harass, okay?  I got the message.  Don’t talk to Jane.  Goodbye.”

He turned on his heel and hated the way he slid a little on the stone, but he ignored it, marching determinately into the distance with as much respect as his soaking clothes would allow.  He could only hope Jay wouldn’t follow him this time. 

If this was his mother’s story, she probably would have punched Jay in the face and stolen one of his shoes. 

But this wasn’t a fairytale.  And now Chad had to walk all the way to his car with wet socks.

Ugh.  

Chapter Text

Due to ‘Lance’s’ disastrous first evening at the festival Chad strongly considered not going to the second, or maybe avoiding the deal entirely.  But his mother hadn’t given up after Lady Tremaine had destroyed her first creation (okay, maybe she had a little, but Chad didn’t have a fairy godmother so he had to pick himself up by his own two bootstraps) so he refused to either, putting together a new outfit out of more durable fabric.  Fabric that would dry quickly in the event that he was pushed into a fountain.

It would be easier to go as someone else, but Chad had come to like Lance, the awkward homeschooled kid, and he refused to let Jay of all people scare him away from the festival.  Chad still had performances to watch and food to taste and he could cheer and eat as much as he wanted because it couldn’t possibly reflect badly on his kingdom.

Plus, tonight Ben had opened the doors to his palace to host a ball for any and every one, which meant the festivities outside the castle were likely to be Jay-free.  It was brilliant.

Chad started on the food stalls first, because he hadn’t gotten to them yesterday and he was drawn in the by the delicious smell of meat pies (frequently forbidden by his grandfather for being ‘peasant food’, anything that could be eaten with your hands like an uncultured heathen wasn’t good enough for their family).  He stifled giggles of anticipation as he paid for the treat, warm and steaming and so good as he bit into it, already moving off to find his next score.  There was a stand of flaky apple tarts nearby, and the idea of ignoring proper order of cuisine spoke to Chad on a spiritual level.  Here, he could have dessert first if he wanted to, and didn’t have to politely bow out after a few bites – he could have as much as he could pay for and no one would care.  Yes, this was definitely worth it.

At least, until he heard a familiar voice.

“Hey, it’s you.”

Chad blinked when he realized he was being spoken to, turning to see Carlos staring at him with a look of interest, Doug lingering behind him.

“Yeah,” Carlos continued when he got a good look at Chad’s (masked) face. “You’re the guy Jay pushed into the fountain.”

“My name’s Lance,” Chad sniffed, wiping beef juice off his chin.  He didn’t want to become known as Jay’s victim, no matter how temporary this persona was. “And your friend’s a lunatic.”

“He’s really sorry,” Doug offered.

“And he’s not a lunatic,” Carlos cut back in. “He’s… passionate.  And bad at spontaneous planning.  Which led to you getting pushed into a fountain.”

“Yes, thank you - I was there,” Chad snapped, taking a vindictive bite of his meat pie because he wanted to eat it while it was still hot and it was so good. “Why aren’t you inside?” he asked, waving at the castle.

Carlos’ smile grew. “We were looking for you, actually.”

Doug sighed.  It was a familiar kind of sigh, as though the world’s issues had been put upon his shoulders. “Jay would like to apologize,” he explained. “And by extension, Mal and Ben wanted to apologize in Jay’s behalf.”

“Awful lot of trouble to go through,” Chad drawled, narrowing his eyes. “I’m still not a floozy.”

“Um…” Doug blinked. “Noted?”

Carlos’ smile was so wide it threatened to split his face. “Dude, you really want Jay to suffer?  Come to the ball and then don’t give him the time of day.”

“Um.” Doug looked alarmed by this, but Chad nodded to show he was listening.

“You can’t lose,” Carlos continued. “There’s food and dancing and you can make Jay grovel on his knees.  It’s a win-win-win.”

Chad sighed.  He did like winning.

“Fine,” he said, because he didn’t want to see what would happen if he tried to decline.  Assuming Carlos actually had been looking for him. “I’ll come.  Just- don’t push me into anymore fountains.”

“I think I can manage that,” Carlos chirped, offering Chad his arm like the obnoxious little shit that he was.

Well, it was still better than Carlos being perpetually annoyed by Chad.  He’d take it. 

Chad accepted the arm, ignoring Carlos’ smirk as he popped the last of his pie in his mouth, walking towards the castle with what he refused to acknowledge as anticipation in his stomach.

“Well,” Doug murmured, taking up Chad’s other side. “This will be interesting.”

Pretty much the best way to put it.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Despite being a ball open to all levels of the public, Ben and Mal had spared no expense on decorations.  Garlands of fresh ivy trailed from the ceiling, and the marble columns were shined to gleaming.  There was, as Carlos had said, a bevy of food and drink and dancing, and beyond the large glass doors Chad could see the gardens had received a similar treatment of fairytale lights and silk draperies.  It was very posh and very lovely and Chad couldn’t help but think of how his mother would have adored this.  Chad’s mother was all about equality among the classes, of cherishing the workers by whom the kingdom was carried.  Chad tried to keep that mindset himself, though his commitments had to be out of the public eye due to his grandfather’s differing opinion.  It was one of the matters where discretion was the better part of valor.

“Like it?” Carlos asked when he saw Chad eyeing the décor. “It’s mostly Jane’s handiwork.”

Wow.” Chad let out a low whistle of approval. “Your girlfriend is skilled.  The flowers are…” Chad felt himself get flustered, for some reason feeling tongue tied under Carlos’ expectant stare.  Likely because the other teen was usually waiting to criticize him. “It’s very lovely.”

“Yeah,” Carlos mused, but it didn’t seem derisive.  If anything it was dreamy, as though basking in pride at his girlfriend’s work. “There’s a lot of greenery here.”

“I like it.” Chad always would, though he rarely got a chance to work in the gardens.  Such things were beneath him. “It makes things feel… fresh.”

“Which is one of the few things you get in spades in Auradon.” Carlos pulled them to a stop, grabbing both of Chad’s hands. “Can I have this dance?”

“What?” Chad blinked, felt a nervous sort of flutter in his stomach.

“This dance,” Carlos pressed. “You know, to add to the not-giving-Jay-the-time-of-day plan.”

Beside them, Doug sighed. “Here we go.”                 

“So?” Carlos wagged his eyebrows. “Wanna dance?”

When it was put like that…

“Sure,” Chad allowed with a shrug. “But I want to check out the food tables later.”

As his normal princely self there was a strict limit on what Chad could actually partake in at public events, so most of the time he just pretended not to stare longingly at Ben’s table of hors d'oeuvres.  Mrs. Potts was a master at coordinating her kitchens, and Chad had been longing to taste her delicate finger foods for years.  He was pretty sure he’d had some of her cooking back when Ben would still invite him to sleepovers, but he couldn’t remember it. 

Carlos’ gaze flashed in something like appreciation. “Fair enough,” he said, and then they were off.

Unlike Jay, Carlos let Chad lead, which made it feel like they were working together to achieve a goal of fluid dancing rather than Chad being bodily dragged around the dancefloor.  It was nice.  Carlos was a pretty good dancer. 

“You,” Chad huffed between spins. “Have got some moves, Mr. De Vil.”

“Back at you,” Carlos laughed. “How’d you get so good?”

“Practice.” Chad shrugged. “It’s different doing it with another person, though.”

Who wanted to be there, and wasn’t just his instructor or a friend of the family or royal connection that had to dance with Chad.  Granted, Carlos was only dancing with him to annoy Jay (though Chad still wasn’t quite sure how that could be annoying), but he’d still asked and looked like he wanted to be there.

Carlos’ gaze got a little speculative. “I suppose it is.  So, how are you liking Auradon?”

It was at this point that Chad realized, through no real effort of his own, that Carlos must have come to the conclusion that Chad – or, ‘Lance’ – was an Isle kid.  It was the only thing that made sense with his line of enquiry, and Chad supposed he could correct him, but it wouldn’t really matter in the end anyway, so what was the point?

He took the topic change in stride. “What’s not to like about Auradon?” Chad countered. “Granted, any kingdom going through diplomatic reforms is going to have its share of troubles, but overall the political climate seems very positive, which bodes well for any changes King Ben would like to make.”  Upon seeing Carlos’ blinked confusion, Chad shrugged. “I um… read a lot.”

“Because you’re homeschooled.”

“Right.” Great, that just confirmed that Jay was a roving gossip. “Does Jay share everything with you?”

What greeted him was a look of surprised contemplation, like Carlos hadn’t expected him to connect those very basic dots. “We try to,” he replied with a shrug. “You know how it is.”

No.  Not really.  Not at all.

Chad made himself look away, as per proper waltzing etiquette, and cleared his throat. “Sure do.”

Carlos was perceptive, so he probably already saw through Chad.  Or Lance.  Whoever.  Chad didn’t have anyone close enough to him to consider sharing his secrets because most of them couldn’t stand him, or what was left of his persona, and the only one who actively sought him out was Audrey because she still kind of had bad press from the whole ‘excessive bout of evil’ thing.

Before Carlos could reply, the music seemed to wind down to a slower tempo, one of the more modern, romantic couple songs humming through the air.  Chad cleared his throat, ready to make a break for the food tables, but Carlos held onto him.

“One more?” he asked, as though he was not a person with a girlfriend. “It will make Jay really annoyed.”

At this point, Chad hadn’t even seen Jay, so he wasn’t sure that was actually true, but this was the first time someone had earnestly asked him to dance in a while, so he relented with a shrug.  He settled Carlos back in his arms and then blinked when the other teen just, kept moving forward, until he was resting his head on Chad’s shoulder and had an arm around his waist and they were chest-to-chest and his eyes were closed in something like contentment-

Chad hoped the other teen couldn’t hear the way his heart was beginning to pound in his chest, hoped that the heat building under his collar was just in his mind and that he wasn’t a sweaty mess. Carlos seemed so… happy, there, relaxing like he felt safe in Chad’s arms, and that was a humbling thing.  That he would be that trusted. 

And it was stupid, because Carlos had already declared that they were doing this to mess with Jay, and if Chad read anything into this it was his fault.  So he wouldn’t, because this was Carlos who was dating perfect Jane and Chad was literally a nobody.  So it was fine.  It was fine.

When the music changed again, Chad made an effort to detangle from Carlos slowly, to not pull away as though he’d get burned (though in a way it felt like he already had).  He was just about to suggest relocating when a perfectly manicured hand settled on his elbow.

Chad knew those nails anywhere, as he spent far too long staring at them, pondering their owner, and hating himself because of it.

So he couldn’t quite hide his trepidation when he turned to face Evie, regal and poised and lovely, staring at the two of them in a fond sort of amusement that made Chad ache inside. “Having fun?” she asked, aiming the question at Carlos.

A red sort of flush spread across the other teen’s cheeks, likely from exertion. “I’ve got a great dance partner,” he mumbled. “What’s not to like?”

Chad… really didn’t know what was happening, but Evie laughed, the sound like twinkling glass. “I don’t believe we’ve met.  I’m Evie.” 

She held out a hand for him and on instinct, Chad took it, offering her an awkward bow that was a hundred percent organic. “It’s an honor to meet you, your highness.  I’m Lance.”

As little as Chad’s grandfather liked it, Evie did possess a legitimate claim to the Hanover throne, as Queen Snow White and King Florian hadn’t had any children, and Queen Grimhilde’s royal pedigree went back for centuries.  Honestly, if Evie hadn’t been trapped on the Isle, she would have a much more valid claim to the throne, but as it was, she’d have to wait until Aunt Snow stepped down before she could take her place.

None of this Chad could say under normal circumstances, but now that he was someone else, he thought it was only right to give Evie the credit she deserved.

When he looked up, Evie was staring at him with a wide gaze that melted into fondness, her smile so warm that Chad could bask in it. 

Would have, if Carlos wasn’t grinning so weird. “You two should dance,” the inventor declared, stepping away from their huddle with barely concealed excitement. “That would annoy Jay a lot.”

“What’s this about annoying Jay?” Evie asked, forever concerned for her friends. “Wait, are you the fountain guy?”

“I would rather that not be my new nickname,” Chad sighed. “But there was an unfortunate incident with a fountain that I’d rather forget.”

“In that case, I think I owe you a dance,” Evie decided, shifting gracefully into place. “If I may?”

Something in Chad’s chest twisted in a funny little patter. “I’d be honored.”

Dancing with Evie was everything Chad suspected his parents’ first dance had been like.  His Aunt Anastasia said that his mother had danced like she was floating on air, every move effortless, and Evie was much the same, so much so that Chad felt dull in comparison, even if he tried to step up his game to slightly more Lance-polished levels.  Evie was just- effortless, and it was odd having her so close when the last time Chad had seen her she only had eyes of pity for him.

“So,” Evie began part of the way through the dance, when it became obvious that other people were staring at them and Chad was nervous. “What are you doing in Auradon?”

“I… make clothes, actually,” Chad settled on. “That’s one of the reasons I might have been a um… bit harder on your friend than I should have.”

“You made this?” Evie asked, thumb brushing against his coat. “It’s brilliant.”

Chad felt his cheeks flushing. “I’m pretty happy with how it came out.”

“Do you need a job?” Evie pressed and whoa, right, he was just- some rando so what did she know. “I’ve been looking to branch into menswear-”

“That’s very kind,” Chad forced himself to say, because who was he, to Evie?  Just another lost child trying to find their way, and Evie was incapable of turning her back to them. “But I… I need to do this on my own.”

This legacy he had created had originally been for his mother, but over time it had really grown into Chad’s own passion, and he wanted to hold onto that.  It was one of the few things he had in his life that his grandfather didn’t control.  It was his.

“I respect that.” Evie’s voice was uncharacteristically soft when she said it, a thoughtful sort of praise that made Chad feel unbalanced inside.    

He cleared his throat in an effort to center himself. “However, if you ever want to do a collaboration…”

He could create a label for Lance on the side.  A niche market for more alternative clothing, stuff that wouldn’t sell in his usual stores.

Evie’s smile was blinding. “I’d like that.”

Chad found himself matching it.  He’d never thought he’d get the chance to discuss fashion with someone else, someone who had an actual passion for it, and the prospect of – sharing ideas and building something together was so very tempting.

“Another?” Evie asked as the song drew to a halt. “Since Carlos got two.”

“That um, only seems fair-” Chad began to say, but was cut off by the ominous rumble of his stomach. “S-sorry.  Ignore that-”

“Nonsense,” Evie soothed, hooking her arm through his elbow and tugging him towards the food. “I’ve monopolized your time without even seeing to your needs like a good host.”

“Technically, King Ben and Lady Mal are the hosts,” Chad pointed out. “And it’s kind of unfair to expect them to look after each guest’s individual desires.”

He focused on the explanation to keep the embarrassment at bay, because as delicious as the meat pie had been it wasn’t exactly large, and Chad hadn’t been able to eat anything else since breakfast.

“That,” Evie mused. “Is quitter’s talk.  Here.” She drew them close to the table. “Let’s load up some plates, shall we?”

“Okay,” Chad said, because it was nice to follow someone else’s lead, especially if that person was Evie. “Okay.”

Chad grabbed a little of everything because Mrs. Potts was a wizard and he was sure it was all good.  There was all manner of food available, though Chad stuck to the less fancy stuff, as it was what he got less often.  There were also desserts and Evie got a full plate of them, lemon madeleines and mini eclairs and dainty tea cakes, calissons and macarons and flower-topped petit fours.  They took their haul out to the garden, splaying it on a stone bench that was still warm from the sun. 

“Oh wow,” Chad hummed around a mouthful of food – the fish and chips were greasy but salty and hot, and it was sort of bizarre but filling in a good way. “Why haven’t I tried this before?”

“I know what you mean,” Evie laughed. “When we first came over, Carlos would eat sweets for every meal.  It’s so easy to get lost in the flavor.”

“I don’t blame him,” Chad said, taking a bite of one of the caramel macarons. “I would eat these all the time if I could.”

“You should see Mal with strawberries,” Evie mused, taking another dainty bite of her petite fours. “She’s an actual monster.  And don’t get me started on chocolate fountains.”

Chad perked up. “Are those good?” He had only been able to look at them, though conceptually he counted them as a win.  Like, melted chocolate you can dump anything in?  How could that not be amazing?

Evie’s smile broadened. “They’re great.  Ben got one for Carlos’ birthday, which was both brilliant and a catastrophe.”

“Did he go too far?” Chad asked cheekily. “Did he reach beyond the natural bounds of man and come back scorned?  Much like Icarus, doomed by his own hubris?”

Evie was giggling now. “Let’s just say there were a lot of sugar comas all around,” Evie decided, making neat work of her mini quiche. “Do you read a lot?”

“Not like his majesty, I’m sure.” Chad stared at his plate and settled on one of the cheddar gougères. “But books can be… good friends.” It was a way to gain knowledge when his grandfather was trying to act as a gatekeeper to what his world entailed, and they kept Chad company in the long summers, when the loneliness became too much for him.

Evie’s smile dimmed ever so slightly. “I never thought of it like that.”

She’d never had to, but Chad was glad for that.

“I’ve been told I’m weird, so I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said, recalling Jay’s declaration.

It looked like Evie was going to make some kind of consolatory reply, but she was interrupted by the arrival of a sweaty Carlos - Doug and a giggling Jane in-tow.

“Hello,” the young De Vil cheered, snatching up one of Evie’s little onion tarts and popping it into his mouth. “What’s the hap’s, people?”

“You would know if you’d stuck around,” Evie chided, offering out her dessert plate to Jane who gladly took one of the calissons and grinning when Doug slid onto the bench beside her.

“Sorry, couldn’t-” Carlos said around a mouthful of tart. “Had to keep Ben and Mal company on the dancefloor.  Keep the snobs from monopolizing their time.”

“Those snobs are our allies.”

“Who keep trying to monopolize our future king and queen on the dancefloor,” Carlos summarized. “But we saved them, so it’s all good.”

“Doug,” Evie sighed, turning to one of the voices of reason of their group for comfort.

Her boyfriend grinned. “It really is all good, Evie.”

“In that case,” she began, eyes half-lidded and sultry. “May I have this dance?”

Doug rose to his feet in a fluid motion, offering her a bow. “I’d be delighted.”

They made their way back inside with a couple of waves, and Jane claimed Evie’s vacant seat, Carlos choosing to throw himself on the ground before them, snacking off each of the plates.

“Hey, Lance,” Jane greeted with a shy flutter of her fingers.  She was wearing a new gown today, not from Chad’s collection, so it was probably Evie’s handiwork. “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

“You couldn’t have known the limits of Jay’s… excessiveness,” Chad decided on. “I mean, I couldn’t have known either.  I didn’t actually expect him to chase me.”

Carlos muttered something like, “As though he could have ignored that” but then Jane was making fluttery motions with her hand, drawing Chad’s attention.

“Jay gets-” She fumbled for the right words. “Excited, when um- presented with a challenge.”

“I don’t think I was that much of a challenge for him.” Seeing as he had little trouble keeping up with Chad.  Or tackling him into a fountain. “Or if I was, he definitely failed.”

“I’ll say,” Carlos grumbled, and this time Jane actually shot him a look of annoyance.

“So,” she began brightly. “What do you think of Evie?”

“And her boyfriend?” Carlos pressed, looking up with innocent eyes.

Chad blinked at the sudden change of topic. “Well, I haven’t had much of a chance to speak to Doug, but… I think they’re both pretty kind.” He knew Doug was kind, was generous with his time with those who needed help tutoring, in either academics or music, and he was always lending a hand to help run Evie’s business and related charities.  There were no alternative motives there, it was just- who Doug was.

“And I think,” he continued. “That um… kindness is a severely underrated quality.” 

“Here, here,” Carlos said, holding up a mini croque-monsieur in a mock toast, though his eyes seemed to soften, like he meant it. 

Jane held up one of the macarons to mimic him, about to say something else, when an annoyed voice broke into the party.

“What the hell, Carlos?” There Jay was, people scrambling over themselves to get out of his way as he stomped through the garden. “Has he been here the whole time?  You knew I was looking for him!”

“Did I?” Carlos asked, eyes opened wide in a show of innocence. “Dear me, I must have forgotten to text you.”

Ah, so Carlos had been pranking Jay by getting Chad where he knew Jay wouldn’t look – though all of that was confusing in the first place because it begged the question, why was Jay looking for him?  Was this a pride thing?  Chad bet it was a stupid pride thing.

Chad narrowed his eyes at Jay, who had apparently been searching for him because Chad had besmirched the other teen’s honor.  And Jay thought Chad was a tool.

“Jane,” he said suddenly, remembering Carlos’ plan. “Would you like to dance?”

He could practically feel Jay’s confused stare.

Jane was also confused but she recovered quickly, taking his proffered hand. “Of course.  I’d be delighted.”

“Hear that, Jay?” Carlos giggled as they began to move away. “She’s delighted.”

“Shut up,” the other teen huffed, sounding appropriately annoyed.

“Are they always like this?” Chad asked when he got Jane to the dancefloor, the two of them falling into an easy two-step.

Jane smiled. “It depends.  Sometimes they can be at each other’s throats and sometimes you can’t get them apart if you tried.  They’ve been together a long time.”

“I wonder what that’s like,” Chad mused before he could think better of it.  The closest he had to that had been Audrey, and that was, well, Audrey.  

“You know,” Jane began, tone somewhat dreamy. “I kind of feel the same.  But I’ve got Carlos now, and- well, once you get one of them, you sort of get all of them.”

“Share and share alike?” Chad asked, pondering the delicate flush that dusted Jane’s cheeks.  She really was quite pretty.

“Sort of,” she replied. “There wasn’t a lot of good on the Isle, so when they got something that was-

“I get it.” You had to savor the special things.  And it was admirable, that they would share these friendships with each other.  Chad certainly never had anyone be that generous to him.

“Right.” Jane nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Chad wasn’t sure what brought that on.

Jane’s flush darkened. “You must have been lonely.”

It took a lot of effort for Chad not to stop still, right then.  Effort to keep moving as though nothing was wrong, as though he hadn’t been ruthlessly gutted.

His tongue felt thick and clumsy and he wasn’t sure what to say, because there was no past tense about it, but somehow he muddled through. “N-not your fault,” he decided on, eventually. “But I appreciate the sentiment.”

Fuck, she must have been talking to Carlos.  Of course she’d been talking to Carlos, she was dating him and Carlos had already established that they shared everything with each other.

They spent the rest of the dance in silence, Jane likely feeling awkward where Chad was rattled, that his fake life and real life were so similar to each other.  He wondered if he was going in too deep, but the festival was only a week long anyway.  After this, the magic would be done. 

There was no going too deep.

-:-:-:-:-:-

He spent the rest of the evening taking turns with anyone who wasn’t Jay around the dancefloor.  After Jane was a bashful Doug who allowed Chad to lead him in circles, and then he was claimed by Carlos again for a quick polka that ended with both of them falling into helpless laughter.  He was stolen by Lonnie at one point, the young warrior sticking her tongue out at Jay as though claiming a prize before she disappeared into the crowd, and then there was Evie’s shining elegance and aching poise and everything was so good and so much that Chad thought he would be sick with it.

And then he actually was sick, because he had eaten too many rich things too quickly and long story short he ended up in some guest bathroom off the beaten path with Evie holding back his hair, Doug offering a wet compress for the back of his neck while Chad hurled his guts out into the toilet. 

It was horrifying and humiliating and Chad wanted nothing more than for the floor to swallow him whole, to spare him this misery, but maybe this was just- karma.  Chad had used Evie once upon a time, and now Evie got to watch a version of Chad at his lowest point, tears burning at the corners of his eyes as he hocked up an assortment of fancy appetizers.

“It’s okay,” Evie soothed, which was sort of the worst part because she was consoling this pitiful creature, comforting him like a lost child. “It’s okay.  This happened to us when we first came to Auradon too.  It’s just too much of a good thing too fast, is all.”

Chad, who was accustomed to living off of protein shakes and a variety of very healthy but very bland salads sort of understood why his body was revolting against what he had subjected it to so furiously.  Auradon food was cooked heavily with butter and cheese and- everything he wasn’t used to.  

“Sorry,” Chad coughed, hiding behind his manners out of reflex. “You don’t h-have to-” He wretched again.

“This isn’t your fault.” That was Doug, and it was weird to feel his hand on Chad’s shoulder, weird to have his comfort when for so long he’d had his derision, and it wasn’t like it was unjustified but still, it hurt. “And we’re not leaving you, Lance.  You’re our friend.”

Such simple words so easily given, and it was stupid that it made Chad want to cry because they had known him for what, a few hours?  That was nothing.  And still, they wanted to befriend him, despite the fact that he had dragged them away from a very nice party because he couldn’t keep his food down.

The door creaked open before Evie could add on to that, the sound of booted feet scuffing across the tile easy for them to hear. “Is he okay?” Shit, it was Jay, though at least he sounded worried.  That was… something. “I brought Ginger Ale, and Carlos is gonna see if he can find a doctor-”

Don’t,” Chad croaked, shoving a hand in front of his eyes.  Maybe if he couldn’t see them they would all disappear and he could be miserable in peace.

“Maybe we don’t need a doctor.” Evie’s suggestion was sweet but was definitely, well, not a suggestion, and Chad could just picture Jay’s rushed nod to obey her. “Thanks for the Ginger Ale, though.”

“Right.” Jay seemed distracted. “Okay, I’ll just…”

Evie’s tone melted into one of fondness. “We’ll see you soon, Jay.”

“Bye, Jay,” Doug offered, equally kind, and where did they keep finding all of his generosity and why did they spare it on people like Chad who they had maybe just met?  It wasn’t fair.

When he was down to a few pitiful dry heaves, Evie guided him back from the toilet, offering him a glass of water to clear his mouth.  Chad took it without meeting her eyes, without looking at either of them, really, because two people so smartly dressed shouldn’t be crouched on the floor of a bathroom, regardless of whether it was a fancy castle bathroom or not.  There were just- lines.  

“It’s okay,” Evie repeated, kept repeating even as they guided Chad from the bathroom, into a bedroom that could only be described as chic and… frilly.  Everything was an assortment of whites and pinks and warm browns, giving it a cozy but fashionable sort of feel.  

Evie sat him down on a white couch and handed him a bottle of Ginger Ale. “This will help settle your stomach.”

It also had a lot of sugar, so Chad had never tried it.  But she seemed confident; despite the fact that Jay was the one who had delivered it, so Chad decided to trust her and cracked open the bottle.

“Do you know whose room this is?” Chad asked, sincerely hoping the answer would be ‘no’.

“It’s Evie’s,” Doug replied, crushing his pathetic dream.

Now that he’d said as much though, Chad could see her design area in the corner, a dress form clad in a half-finished gown next to her sewing machine.  There was a desk covered in fabric swatches that had a bulletin board liberally covered with designs fixed above it.  All in all, it looked wonderful, and Chad was amazed she didn’t have more stray threads floating about.  He just about always did.

“I’m really sorry about this,” Evie repeated, though it was still unnecessary. “I should have warned you this could happen.”

“You didn’t make me eat anything,” Chad said, taking a sip of his drink.  It was cool and refreshing and sweet, but somehow it settled his stomach, which he had already given up on. “I am responsible for my own bad decisions, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Doesn’t mean we can’t feel bad about it,” Doug pointed out pragmatically and of course he would say that because he was stupidly fair and stupidly nice and Chad wanted to hate him but couldn’t.

Instead, he turned his attention to Evie’s design area. “Are those your designs for Mal’s wedding dress?”

“Yes.” It was nice to see Evie preen, because honestly, she deserved it. “And her bridesmaid’s dresses.  Would you like to see?”

“If I may,” Chad replied, forcing himself to contain his enthusiasm when he really wanted to make grabby hands at the drawings and analyze them until the end of time.

Unsurprisingly, the base sketches were brilliant.  Sometimes Chad wanted to hate Evie for how talented she was, but that felt petty even for him.

Wow,” he said, marveling at the design. “If you just-” He cut himself off when he realized what he was doing. “Change absolutely nothing because this is perfect.”

“No, I want to hear it.” Evie’s grin seemed to share a bit of his excitement. “What are your suggestions?”

“I mean, if you drape the top like- Do you have another dress form?  I could just show you.  It requires hand sewing but since it’s just one dress-”

“Got it,” Evie said, and Doug was already rolling out a fresh dress form from the closet, offering Chad a wrist holder for sewing pins.  He strapped it on. 

“So if you start by draping it here…”

-:-:-:-:-:-

Time became meaningless, in that there was another very talented, enthusiastic human collaborating with him so he didn’t care about it anyway.  They were working on what was slowly becoming an elegant fusion of Isle edge and royal tradition, and Chad loved it so much he didn’t even care that he wasn’t going to technically get credit for it, because Mal was going to look amazing and he got to help.

He wasn’t sure if Doug had stayed with them the entire time or not, it was easy to get lost in their work, but he always seemed to be there when they needed him.  Either handing off tools or getting new reams of fabric or reminding Chad to finish his ginger ale, and then later forcing him to take a break to eat some crackers just so he wouldn’t be working on an empty stomach (which was sweet, too sweet, and Chad wouldn’t be able to register that generosity until later, because he was so consumed with design work). 

Currently, Chad was in the process of pinning the layers of petal shaped ruffles that would form the skirt in place, the rest of his treated fabric splayed across Evie’s cutting table.  Evie was working on the corset and cap sleeves – they decided to go for a more simplistic top to compensate for the dramatic skirt, and Chad knew the process would be tedious to finish it but he was so excited to see what that final product would be.  Obviously, it would be stunning; he just hoped Mal liked it.

He was just stepping back to admire his handiwork when the door to the room flew open, revealing a slightly bedraggled Mal who immediately flopped onto Evie’s bed.

Evieeeee,” she groaned, tossing the pair of heels she had carried in with her onto the floor. “You left me.”

“In a second, Mal,” Evie replied, distracted.  She was in the middle of sewing the boning into the corset, which meant she had little focus to spare for non-dress related issues.

Ugh,” Mal groaned, her narrowed gaze sliding over to half-finished skirt pinned to the dress form. “You guys are lucky that’s so cute.  You have been in here for hours.  You got so in the groove that you missed the ball and left me alone.” 

“Um.” Chad blinked at her, torn between grabbing another one of the skirt layers and checking what time it was.  Well, he could fit in one more. “Sorry?”

UGH,” Mal repeated, louder, obviously trying to get Evie’s attention.  When she realized the futility of her plight, she collapsed back onto the bed. “Don’t even know why I tried.  You’re Lance, right?”

Chad, who was unprepared for the non-sequitur, almost fumbled his skirt petal.  Almost.  “Yep,” he said, and knew by Mal’s coy grin that he hadn’t been as smooth as he’d hoped. “Um- hi.”

“Hi.” Mal offered him a lazy wave. “Carlos was right, you are cute.”

“Excuse me?” Chad could feel his face heating, though hopefully it was hidden safely behind his mask.

“You,” Mal repeated, committing to the whole weird compliment thing. “Super cute.  I’m Mal, by the way.”

“Definitely knew that,” Chad said, then realized what he said and decided to go back to pinning the skirt petals in place. “Your ladyship,” he hastily added.

Mal was laughing at him.  “Okay, I’m not as upset about Evie bailing, now,” she decided. “If you want to catch the fireworks, you’re gonna have to get going though.”

“Sorry?”

“You probably didn’t see them yesterday,” Mal explained. “Since you were…”

“Right.” Dripping water everywhere and cursing the world. “Thanks, but um…”

Mal waved him off. “The skirt will be there later.  Go.  The others are in the garden; Doug can show you the way.”

Well, it was her castle.  Or at least, it was going to be.  Chad decided to take the order for what it was.

“Thanks,” he murmured, taking off the wrist pin holder and setting it beside the rest of his fabric pieces.  He spared one last glance to Evie, but she was still absorbed with her task, brows furrowed in concentration.  “Could you…”

“I’ll give her your regards if she doesn’t make it back out,” Mal assured him. “Now, be gone.  Please.”

Couldn’t get a clearer dismissal than that.  Chad supposed after an evening of schmoozing, Mal was owed a certain amount of privacy with her friends, so he didn’t mind.

He offered her an awkward bow before leaving to the sound of her giggles, and found Doug lingering outside the door with a smile on his face.

“I see you met Mal,” he noted, guiding Chad back down the maze of hallways.  Now that he wasn’t frantically trying to hold down his stomach, Chad realized they were much deeper in the castle than he had previously thought.  He wondered if all the VKs had rooms here.  It seemed likely.

“Yeah.” Chad rubbed the back of his head in a tell of nerves he wouldn’t normally indulge. “She’s um… something. A good something, though,” he rushed to say. “She’s going to be a great queen.”

“You think so?”

“She set the Isle free, didn’t she?” After what had been furious deliberation. “She and Ben are working to put proper aid programs into place.  She’s already got a good start and she hasn’t been crowned yet.”    

“There are some that don’t share that opinion,” Doug mused.

Chad rolled his eyes. “Traditionalists, maybe.  Change can be scary, and some respond to fear… drastically.” People like his grandfather, who had been enraged at the idea of four VKs ‘poisoning’ the reputation of Auradon Prep.  His temper had only worsened when the barrier was taken down for good, and Chad had spent the majority of his summer playing damage control to his mood swings. “But we can’t let fear dictate our movements.  Progress requires innovation and this-” He offered Doug a smile. “This is a good innovation.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Doug said, though it wasn’t like he’d expected Chad to disagree.  Which made Chad wonder why he had asked in the first place. “Here we are.”

They used a different back door to lead into the gardens which were now deserted, save for a couple lingering on the first stone terrace.

“Hey!” Carlos waved as soon as he caught sight of them. “If it isn’t the worker bee!  You okay?”

“Yep.” Chad hoped his embarrassment wasn’t too obvious, though he knew it was likely a fleeting hope. “Sorry about, um-”

“Definitely not your fault, dude,” Carlos said, clapping him on the shoulder as soon as he drew close enough.

“We’re just glad you’re feeling better,” Jane added.  And this- it wasn’t just the necessary pleasantries for the sake of being polite, she meant it. 

It was sort of nice, to have her mean it.  To have them care.

“Mal stayed with Evie,” Doug said, thankfully taking over the conversation so Chad wouldn’t have to stutter over himself. “They’ll probably stay there for the rest of the night.”

“Mal was pretty wiped,” Carlos replied. “I don’t know how Ben does it, actually.”

“Lots of practice,” a new voice said, and then Ben was joining them on the patio, Jay half a step behind him. “Hey, you must be-”

“Lance!” Between one moment and the next, Jay was in front of him. “I mean-” He did this weird thing where he seemed to shrink in on himself, putting on his usual air of charm Chad saw him try and fail to use on ladies. “How you doing, hot stuff?”

“Better, weirdo,” Chad replied, unable to hide his confusion. “Thanks for the Ginger Ale.”

Chad’s eyes must have been more tired than he’d estimated, because he thought Jay’s cheeks got a little red. “You’re welcome.  Ben introduced us to that stuff when we first came over.”

“It was a real life saver,” Carlos noted, though for some reason he was sniggering. “Also, this is Ben.”

“Yes.” Chad flushed. “Hello, your majesty,” he said, bobbing in another quick bow.

“Oh uh- that isn’t necessary,” Ben assured him.  Though it kind of sort of was because Chad was supposedly no one to him. “We’re all friends here.”

“We literally just met,” Chad pointed out, feeling his brows furrow.

“I mean-” Ben continued in that way that meant he was course correcting without being flustered, because he had been put through too much training to surrender to such trivial things. “Any friend of Mal’s-”

“Who I also just met.”

Carlos was full-on laughing now.  Jay just seemed kind of pained.

“You’re friends with Evie,” Doug offered.

Ben seemed to latch onto that. “Any friend of Evie’s is a friend of mine!”

Okay there, captain enthusiasm.  No need to get all… weird.

“Alright,” Chad relented, because he didn’t know how else to proceed. “That doesn’t seem like the best tactical decision, but it’s your call.”

Tactical decision,” Carlos crooned into his elbow and Chad just- he got it.  He was dumb.  It had been cool for the ten minutes Carlos had been nice to him, but now he was getting back to Chad-treatment, and he didn’t need that.

“Actually, I’m just gonna- go,” Chad said, because retreat was the best option in the face of a mostly negative outcome. “Thank you, for everything.”

“Wait!” It was Jane who rushed forward, nudging her boyfriend into Jay’s side. “Ignore him.  He just- had too much sugar.”

“The fireworks are about to start,” Ben said. “Would you watch them with us?”

It had been so long since Chad had been met with Ben’s expression of earnest kindness that his resolve crumbled almost immediately.  Because Ben used to be his closest friend when they were children, but that had changed when Ben was made for bigger and better things and Chad was just- the last option available, the one that was expected to be great but being too brave or kind or charming would upstage his father, so a… persona had been created.

And unfortunately, Ben hadn’t really liked that persona which- Chad didn’t like it all that much either, but it was all he had.  It was his only weapon against his grandfather’s expectations.

So he’d lost a friend.  Or all of them.

He still had Audrey.  That was something.

Chad sighed. “Okay,” he relented, following Jane to lean against the railing, the others falling in line beside them.  He thought he heard Jay and Carlos have a terse whispered conversation, but he decided he didn’t care enough to try and eavesdrop.  The evening had already surpassed every expectation he had.  He didn’t know what else could happen. 

It had been a long time since he had watched fireworks outside the safety of his room.  The first few festivals after his mother’s death, his father had made the security detail have Chad back home before sundown, unwilling to risk the hazards of the night.  And then for a while celebrating the festivals became a duty more than an indulgence, with brief public appearances before Chad was locked away again, stuck staring out his window, wondering if his mother could see the lights wherever she was.

Watching them with company was almost like coming home, almost like having father smile again and his mother’s kind laughter ringing in his ears.  It wasn’t the same, because these people weren’t his, not really.  He was, essentially, a stranger to them, but there was still a measure of comfort there, and Chad relished it.

Halfway through the firework display, Carlos caught his eyes with a few small hand movements.  When he saw he had Chad’s attention, he nodded down below them, towards the next garden level.  

When Chad’s gaze shifted down he saw that, low and behold, there was a fountain right beneath them.

He felt his inner pettiness preen.

Without having to coordinate, Carlos and Chad moved as one, unceremoniously shoving Jay over the railing and into the fountain below.  He landed with a tremendous splash that was drowned out by the fireworks, not that Carlos or Chad would have heard it anyway, because they were too busy laughing.

What?!” Came Jay’s outraged cry from below. “Carlos, you little shit!

“Yes, yes, blame me,” Carlos hissed between laughs. “Oh, wow.  Jane, did you get that?”

“Yep.” Jane offered him a thumbs up, and it was then that Chad noticed the phone in her hands, likely aimed to capture the entire affair. “Wave at the camera, Jay!”

Don’t think you’re safe, Jane!” Was the responding shout. “I’m gonna give you such a wet hug when I get up there, your head will spin!

“And that,” Chad said, wanting nothing to do with Jay’s revenge. “Is my cue to leave.”

“Wait.” Carlos grabbed at his shoulder before he could pull away. “What’s your phone number?  Maybe we could meet up tomorrow?”

Um. “I don’t have one,” Chad said, and for once that was actually believable, because the influx of new Auradon residents were so behind technologically it was laughable. “But hey, maybe I’ll see you at the games!”

He left when he heard Jay charging up the stairs, trying to forget the look of what might have been frustration on Carlos’ face when he found a familiar spot in the garden wall to climb over.  It was a security concern, but one Chad had exploited too many times to worry about someone else discovering it.

Day two of the festival had been exceedingly more successful than the first one.

He wondered what day three would bring him.

Chapter Text

The next day of festivities was intended to be a celebration of sporting events.  Competitions for all of the kingdoms’ most popular games were planned to be held, along with ceremonial ring jousting that was more for entertainment’s sake than anything else.  Chad had considered entering himself in the sword fighting competition before he realized his skill would definitely give him away, contemplated knife throwing instead on the way to the tournament area when he was waylaid by a couple of servants from Ben’s castle.

“Sir Lance?” The page boy was likely the son of one of Ben’s senior staff, and he looked between his phone and Chad’s face a couple of times before his uncertainty gave way to bold determination. “Sir Lance,” he said, this time with conviction. “Your presence is required at the palace.”

For a moment, Chad was too confused that this exchange was even occurring to properly respond to it. “What?”

“The palace,” the page boy repeated, sharing a look with his backup. “Lady Mal has requested your presence.”

“Could you come with us, please?” the other page added, tentative but polite, an indication that the other one had likely been put in charge. “We’ve been tasked to follow you if you don’t.”

Well, that was… one way to get around the whole phone issue.    

Chad blinked, but neither of the servants disappeared.  He bet they would follow him too.

“Fine,” he sighed, but he would have words with Mal about abusing her authority.  It wasn’t fair to these kids to have them scouring the crowds on the off-hand chance they might find Chad. “Lead the way.”

As it turned out ‘at the palace’ was really code for ‘outside the palace’ where the royal procession was waiting to begin the parade to the tournament fields.  Chad’s entourage brought him past the ceremonial dancers and banner holders all the way down to Ben’s carriage, four handlers milling about in front of it with white, purebred horses, designated for single riders. 

The determined page boy ran ahead of them, sharing some brief hand signals with the footmen before he spoke through the window of the carriage, gesturing at Chad.

A second later, Mal’s head popped out the window, her face splitting in a large smile.  “There you are!” she cheered as though they’d made plans for this the day before and she hadn’t, in fact, hunted him down. “Get in here!”

On one hand, Mal technically outranked him.  Or, outranked Lance.  Disobeying her wasn’t an option, but a contrary part of him felt tempted to do so anyway out of spite. 

On the other hand, Chad had always wanted to ride in the king’s carriage, so he only hesitated for a second before climbing into the ornately lavish insides.

It was so pretty it was unfair.  Velvet blue cushions embroidered with stunning thread gold that wove patterns of roses along the edges.  Horribly impractical satin curtains of a deep blue and there was even carpet and magical air conditioning probably and stealthily hidden cupholders and Chad bet Ben didn’t appreciate any of this stuff. 

It wasn’t like Chad hadn’t ever ridden in a carriage before.  It was just that usually he was chaperoned by his grandfather and was therefore guaranteed an evening of judgement, which took the fun out of the experience.  Here though, Chad was no one, so he could trace his fingers through the velvet and try to ignore the fact that Mal was just- staring at him.  Like they were friends.

Chad knew for a fact that they were not friends.

“Hey, Lance.” She offered him a lazy wave and then shoved what seemed to be a meat pie into his hands.  He had no choice but to take it for fear of it falling on the gorgeous carpet, and in that time, Mal had summoned a pie of her own. “Gotta load up now before everything kicks off.  Once we get into leader mode it’s hard to sneak snacks.”

“I would like to point out that I’m not a leader,” Chad said, tempted to ignore his treat but he’d always wanted to try one made from Mrs. Potts’ kitchen and it smelled really good.  And who was he to waste food? “Why’d you send servants after me?”

“Because you don’t have a phone,” Mal explained, leaving the ‘duh’ unspoken. “Granted, we didn’t have phones when we came over either, but they are super handy.  Helps keep you in contact with people.”

“That hasn’t been much of an issue for me before,” Chad said, thinking of the mild network of assistants he had low-key on retainer.  He took a bite out of his pie and was immediately rewarded, the delicious swirl of flavors congregating on his tongue making him moan. “Oh fuck, that’s amazing.” He reveled in the taste for all of a second before he realized what he said, then stammered. “I mean- I’m so sorry-”

Mal was laughing at him behind her own half-finished pastry. “You said a no-no word.  Ben will be so disappointed,” she chortled. “Jay, on the other hand-”

“Is he um-” Chad interrupted the weird eyebrow waggle thing she was doing. “Still mad about yesterday?”

“Eh, it’s fine,” she decided with a wave of her hand. “Guy totes deserved it.  He knows it.  We all know it, and if he tries to get back at you for it there will be hell to pay, so don’t worry.”

“Um…” Chad took another tentative bite of the pie, hoping that minimizing his exposure to its flavors might keep his stupid tongue in check. “Some would say he’d be well within his rights to retaliate.”

“Well, I wouldn’t.” And Mal was the boss, so what she said, went. “And it was definitely more Carlos’ idea than yours.  So if anyone was going to get comeuppance, it’d be him, and no one’s dumb enough to prank Carlos.”

“…because he’s crafty?” Chad asked, unable to help but ponder the implications of her statement.

Mal’s gaze was something like approving. “Exactly.  On the Isle people always underestimated Carlos because he’s small.  What they don’t realize is that what he lacks in strength, he makes up for in brains, which in my opinion can be way more vicious.”  

Chad swallowed, though it had nothing to do with his food.  He was familiar with Carlos’ malicious streak.  There was a reason Chad had played up his lack of intelligence near the young De Vil.  If Carlos had considered him a more worthwhile quarry, there would have been hell to pay for the way Chad had treated Evie.  He honestly didn’t want to dwell on what the other teen was capable of, only that it likely be subtle and long lasting.

Chad shuddered. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I’d take a less intelligent enemy over a genius any day.”

People driven by their emotions were easier to break down, because their responses were generally reactionary and not well thought out.  Compared to someone who applied logic over passion, who could look at the big picture and plot out a long-term strategy – they were substantially less terrifying. 

Sometimes, Chad wished his grandfather wasn’t a bit of both.

“Lance?”

With a jolt, Chad realized he had gotten lost in his thoughts.  He wasn’t sure how many times Mal had tried to get his attention, only that she seemed concerned now, which was an open expression than he wasn’t used to seeing on her.

Before she could continue her line of questioning, the carriage door opened, and then Ben made his entrance, settling in beside Mal.  “Hey, Lance,” he said, louder than necessary, and then Chad realized it was for the benefit of someone following behind him, which was-

Jay.  Tall and frozen with confusion, his body paused halfway into the carriage. “Hey, it’s you-”

“Fountain guy,” Chad muttered, taking another bite of his treat in an effort to regain his bearings.

Jay blinked, then got back in motion, closing the door behind him and sliding in next to Chad. “I thought you were against that nickname.”

In the next second, the carriage jolted, and then they were on the move, a slow procession that confirmed they’d been waiting on Ben and Jay.  Chad was still sort of confused about the latter of the two, but whatever.  It wasn’t his parade.

“It doesn’t bring up fond memories, I’ll admit,” Chad sniffed.  He turned his attention to Ben, who was smiling at them like the big dope he was. “Good afternoon, your majesty.” 

“Good afternoon, Lance.” There was something soothing about the exchange, because they’d had it a million times before using different names, though it had been a long time since Ben’s gaze had been anywhere close to this fond, and Chad wasn’t sure what he did to deserve it now. “Thank you for coming.  I’ll admit our request was a selfish one.  Neither Mal nor I got much of a chance to speak with you yesterday, and we were hoping to make up for that today.”

“To apologize,” Mal clarified, popping the last of her pastry into her mouth. “For Jay being a Neanderthal we can’t take anywhere.”

Hey,” Jay muttered, but the other two ignored him, seeming content to focus on Chad.

“Please accept our deepest apologies,” Ben said, so stupidly sincere it made Chad’s cold heart twitch.

“We’re still socializing him,” Mal muttered, likely for the annoyed outcry this inspired from Jay.

“I,” the former thief muttered. “-did not come here to be attacked.”

“No, you came here because we ordered you to,” Mal sniped. “Hey, maybe you should also consider apologizing since you haven’t done that yet.”

Jay paused halfway through what was probably a sarcastic remark, likely realizing that Mal’s statement was a hundred percent true. “Um…” He flushed upon realizing his error, which Chad guessed was sort of sweet, but was mostly just an indicator that Jay’s character wasn’t complete garbage. “I’m sorry for tackling you into a fountain.”

“And for chasing me?”

The flush darkened. “That too.”

“And the-” Chad cut himself off because he didn’t want to explicitly mention the groping in front of Ben (he was pretty sure Mal would get a kick out of it), so he settled for a really meaningful look.

Jay was a tomato.  A tomato with unfairly defined cheekbones. “I um… might not be sorry about that.”

“You’re such a shit,” Chad muttered, giving up on Jay and returning to his meat pie.  It was still steaming.  What a nice little pocket of goodness it was.

“Sorry about what?” Mal asked, eyes burning with curiosity as she watched the exchange.

It was nice to see Jay flustered. “About the- hey, why does he get food?”

“You had food,” Mal muttered. “And don’t try and distract me.”

“This isn’t a distraction,” Jay said with the forced cheer of someone who was being distracting. “Can I have a bite?”

“What?” Chad clutched the pastry close to his chest. “No.”

“Just a taste?”

No,” Chad repeated. 

“What about a taste without a bite?” Jay tried, lifting his eyebrows suggestively.

“And what,” Chad began, waving Jay off with his free hand. “-exactly would that-?

As though it were nothing, Jay plucked his hand out of the air, bringing Chad’s juice covered fingers up to his lips and- taking them in his mouth.

This was.  Not a thing Chad had intended for his life.  Granted, he had not intended to have his fingers in anyone’s mouth but least of all Jay’s, whose tongue kept lapping at his fingers with a firm warmth that was- weird.  It was definitely weird.  It was worse when he hollowed his cheeks to suck, eyes falling closed like-

Chad yanked his hand back when he remembered Ben and Mal were right there, Ben watching with an unreadable sort of concern on his face while Mal – predictably – had her phone out.  Chad hoped it was pictures and not video.  He did not want to watch this again later.

When he looked back at Jay, the other teen was beaming.  Because he’d won.

He’d won, Chad realized, because he’d made Chad flustered and successfully distracted Mal and if there was one thing Chad didn’t want in this world, it was for Jay to be victorious.   

So he set aside his pride and snagged Jay’s hand, a wonderful look of confusion crossing the other teen’s face before Chad grabbed three of Jay’s fingers and shoved them in his mouth.

Which, in hindsight, was not a great idea.  He honestly had no clue where Jay’s hand had been, but now he was committed and if he backed down things would only get worse so he stared the other teen down and sucked, daring him to- break?  Chad didn’t even know.  He sort of hoped he felt uncomfortable.  Chad certainly did.

When a horrific five seconds had passed, Chad released his fingers with a wet pop.

There was a pause, and then Mal crowed with laughter.

Jay was less appreciative. “W-what?” He was all hot and bothered which made Chad having mystery fingers in his mouth all the worth it.

“Take that, fool,” Chad muttered, turning back to his pastry. “I can also do power moves.”

“Power-” Jay blinked. “Dude, you don’t tell me it’s a power move.”

“I think we’re all intelligent enough to register it as a power move, you freak.” Chad rolled his eyes. “Also, Jay groped me.”

“What?” Ben said faintly, all the while Mal collapsed against his side, laughing helplessly. “Jay-

“To be fair-” Jay began, still staring down at his fingers.

“He was very hopeful,” Chad finished for him. “It was a misplaced hope, but resilient nonetheless.”

“Can I grope you?” Mal asked, though it was hard to tell around the laughter.

“Why would you even want to?” Spiting Jay aside. “You can grope Ben.  That is a major improvement.”

“Depends on what I’m aiming for,” she said with a wink. “Jay, you hoe, you pushed him into a fountain after getting fresh?  No wonder he wouldn’t talk to you.”

“That was Carlos’ idea,” Chad noted, popping the last of his snack into his mouth. “Don’t you know that?  I thought you guys told each other everything.”

“I’m telling you, man,” Mal calmed herself to a few chuckles. “Carlos is vicious when he pranks.”  

“I didn’t think Evie would help him,” Chad muttered.  She seemed sort of above that thing.

“And that is where you’re wrong,” Mal said, all while Jay let out a pained noise of betrayal. “Because Evie also has a poetic sense of justice.”

“Moral of the story,” Ben broke in, likely trying to get them on the right path. “Is that no one’s going to grope each other without express permission, Jay is actually sorry, and it looks like we’re here.”

“Hallelujah!” Mal threw her hands up. “Time to go sit in some fancy stands and smile at people for hours.”

“The burdens of being royalty,” Ben said, offering her his arm.

She took it with a grin. “You know what would make it more bearable?”

“No, you cannot grope anyone.”

“Spoilsport.”

“Um.” Chad shared a look with Jay as the other two exited the carriage. “So, is this where we part ways, or-?”

“Oh no.” Jay tugged him forward, out into view of the cheering crowd. “You get to smile for hours too.  It’s great!”

“You’re making this sound substantially more fun than it likely is.”

“Oh, I am definitely doing that,” Jay replied.

And with that, they entered the grandstands.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Realest of talks – much like the king’s carriage – Chad had also always wanted to sit in the king’s private box overlooking the rest of the events, likely because as a young child he understood that he would be King one day, though he didn’t quite grasp the distinction between King of Sardinia and King of Auradon.  And then he figured he’d be in the box anyway because he was best friends with Ben and that’s what best friends did, which was a belief he had when he was much younger and full of naïve hope.  It didn’t seem like an unfair idea because Ben always invited Audrey – but that was back before Chad realized that Audrey was slated to be the future queen of Auradon which was also why she couldn’t hang out with Chad as much.  Chad’s grandfather had tried to make similar arrangements with Westerly, but even from a young age it was obvious Princess Melody was more interested in the sea than she’d ever be in Chad.  That had been one of his early failures. 

So when he followed the others up to the box (they had rode ahead of the carriage, waving and smiling for the paparazzi), Chad couldn’t help but feel a twist of jealousy in his stomach.  Because how dare they be invited so easily when Chad had been yearning for years?  Mal was future queen but the rest were just- company, Lance was company, and as far as Ben was concerned Chad was somewhere out there doing he didn’t know what, and he didn’t even care. 

Chad wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much, Ben hadn’t cared for years.  Just- the way they all seemed to take it for granted made experiencing the private box sort of bittersweet.

“Hey.” Evie’s voice was gentle when she broke him out of his reverie, her smile patient as she guided him towards their cushioned seats – more embroidered velvet. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Chad had long since trained letting his emotions be easily recognized out of himself, there was no reason he should do so as Lance, though he couldn’t seem to help it. “It’s just um… very public.”

“Ashamed to be seen with us?” she joked, when she knew very well that Chad was referring to the camera flashes and roaring crowd that looked towards the private box to initiate the first round of riding competitions. 

It was funny; he had yearned for this so long as Chad, but had only gotten there by being Lance.  Lance, who didn’t by right deserve to be there.

“Hey.” Evie’s gloved hand curled over his, giving his fingers a soft squeeze. “It’s okay.  We’re all in masks, right?”

Fortunate, because without them Chad would fear his grandfather’s discovery, even with the wand changing his coloring, Chad’s facial features were pretty much the same.  His grandfather already suspected Chad of sneaking out, though he never thought Chad capable of making his way here, even though he’d always sworn he would do just that.

It was an empty promise, and would likely remain that way to the prince of Sardinia.

Chad forced himself to nod.  No point in dwelling on what he could not have. “Right.  How um- did construction of the top go?”

“Oh!” Evie’s grin split wide when she realized he was talking about the dress. “Brilliantly!  You were right about-”

They made pleasant small talk until Ben took his place at the front of the stand, calling the games into order.  Immediately, the crowd roared, and then the first set of time trials were off.

“We’ll have the finals, tomorrow,” Doug explained.  At some point he had appeared on Chad’s other side rather than Evie’s, and he passed over a bowl of grapes as though it were popcorn.  Apparently, he also had popcorn.  Chad ate both. “The ring jousting will be finished today, but they’ll host the finals to all the other competitions tomorrow, before the fireworks.”

The smaller competitions – weapons fighting, knife throwing, archery, javelin throwing – were all hosting preliminaries off-site in different venues.  Tomorrow, they’d be in the main arena, where the best of the best in all of Auradon could display their skills.      

“You could join us again,” Evie said, gaze fixed on the action below. “If you’d like.”

“No pressure,” Doug added.

Chad… didn’t understand it, and couldn’t keep that confusion off his face. “Why?” he asked eventually, when he knew he’d have to. “You just met me yesterday.  I mean, the reason Jay even met me in the first place was because he thought I was a security concern.”

Evie’s gaze flicked to him, completely serious. “We’ve established you’re not a security concern,” she explained, though that couldn’t be true, because Chad was literally masquerading as a different person.  Lance wasn’t even real.  They could ask for documentation and he’d have nothing.  None of it made sense for them to trust him this easily. “And we like you.”

“Liking me shouldn’t warrant this level of- involvement so quickly,” Chad didn’t know how else to phrase it, and couldn’t allay his concern when he had to constantly worry about his own personal security being breeched. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy your company-”

“Then it’s settled,” Evie chirped. “You’ll join us tomorrow.”

“But-”

“And you can come back to the castle tonight,” Doug added, because they were terribly efficient as a team. “After Ben and Mal crown the winners.  We’re going to make s’mores.”

“Doug has a badge,” Evie said with a wink, though Chad was painfully aware of this because he had been there during the weeks Doug had spent perfecting his s’mores skills, and had to turn down every tasty creation because if he didn’t his grandfather would somehow know and there would be consequences.

It had sucked, because Doug looked increasingly more disappointed every time Chad had to turn him away until he stopped asking entirely, and Chad didn’t want to turn down that olive branch but he also couldn’t talk to Doug.

Except he could now.

What the hell was he doing?  He may as well enjoy this while he could.

“So,” he began carefully, offering Evie a grape. “What else do you have badges in?”

Doug’s responding smile was so brilliant it warmed the spot in Chad’s chest that may have once held his heart.

-:-:-:-:-:-

After assuring Doug that yes, Chad did want to hear all of his camping stories and Hanover stories and stories about his uncles and Aunt Snow White, he spent a majority of the trials commentating on Doug’s life and learning about his exploits, bypassing all brief mentions of his roommate Chad in favor of hearing about the band, whereupon he ‘learned’ that before Jane was a cheerleader she was the one stuck in that hot mascot costume (he’d already known this because Audrey had thought it was hilarious, until Chad had to blackmail her into letting Jane onto the squad because Cinders and their fairies stuck together).  At some point, Mal complained enough to make them sit closer so she could hear too, and in the end all of them were letting Doug have his moment, which he seemed to shyly relish in, blushing when Carlos punched his arm or Jay ruffled his hair. 

“Oh, man,” Mal huffed between giggles. “This is genius.  We should have started inviting you guys to this stuff months ago.”

“Take that, royal tradition,” Ben drawled, confirming that this was, in fact, the first deviation in basic code, though Chad supposed with the barrier coming down and magic running free again no one was really going to bother them for having like, six extra people in the viewing box. “Though maybe we should look a little more invested in the games?”

Fine,” Mal groaned, but she was smiling, a brilliant thing that would be captured by the newscasters and touted for weeks to come.

They parted ways when Ben’s security detail ushered him and Mal towards the fields, the rest of them being herded towards a limousine that awaited them outside. 

“There’s a tv in the limo,” Jane was explaining, the two of them lingering towards the back of their procession. “We can watch them give out the awards on that.  Mal hates to watch herself on tv but she’s just about always perfect-”

There was no excuse for Chad’s lapse in awareness, because such things could be costly to a prince and he’d learned that lesson years ago.  Still, he was so enchanted by Jane’s easy cheer and being free of the weight of not representing his kingdom that Chad didn’t see the hand until it grabbed him, yanking him away from Jane until he was swallowed by the crowd. 

Immediately, he was on the defensive, trying to keep his eyes open for where his attackers could be coming from, but they seemed to be everywhere, leering faces surrounding him in a small circle.

Isle scum!” Someone shouted from his side, and he barely managed to get his arms up in time to protect his face from a barrage of liquid.  The smell of chemicals followed later, by then he realized it was paint- black and oppressive, but that wasn’t the only color coming his way.

Go home!” Came another heated cry, and more paint, red- then an ugly brown, until Chad was soaked in different, putrid colors. “You’re not wanted here!

“Hey!” Jay barged into the circle like the wrecking ball he was, Ben’s security team hot on his heels as they rounded up everyone armed with paint cans. “Back off!”

He curled an arm around Chad’s shoulders despite the fact that he was smearing paint everywhere, dragging him back towards the limo even though he’d ruin that too- he’d make a mess and Chad wasn’t supposed to make messes and this was- it didn’t matter.  It had certainly been the first time he’d experienced a hate crime but he wasn’t actually an Isle citizen and this was- his due.  Maybe his grandfather had figured him out.  This seemed like a very grandfather move to make.

“D-don’t-” Chad muttered when they got closer to the car and it became obvious Jay was going to herd him inside. “I’ll just-”

“What, walk?” Jay asked, throwing angry looks over his shoulder. “Find another fountain?”

Chad snapped his mouth shut.

They didn’t talk again until they were inside the limo.

Jane greeted him first. “Oh my gosh,” she breathed, her perfect, lace gloves ruined when she patted down his arms for injuries, her dewy eyes wide and frantic. “I’m so sorry; I didn’t even see them-”

“To be fair,” Chad said quietly, trying to nudge her gloves out of the way without tarnishing them further. “I didn’t see them either, and I should have been looking for them.”  

“Why?” Carlos asked. “Have people been giving the Isle residents a hard time?”

Chad shrugged, because he couldn’t really answer that, though the reports he had been getting back from his sources did allude to minor harassments. “People don’t like change.”

He shivered, feeling sticky and small.  His outfit was ruined more than the first one would ever be, and while he refused to cry over it, he knew he’d have to get another mask.  His perfect white domino was marred with paint. 

Ugh, it was in his hair, too.  He’d have to get it out of his hair

“They’ll be punished,” the way Carlos said it was like a promise, with an absolute conviction that could not be denied. “They will be tried and they will be punished, and that will never happen to anyone again.”

“You know as well as I do that it’s going to happen again.” Chad tried not to sound resigned when he said it, but he felt like he and Carlos could at least level with each other at this point, even if he couldn’t as his normal self. “Change takes time.  We just- can’t let it break us.”

Beside him, Jay stayed suspiciously silent, likely ruminating in the fury of a battle that didn’t happen.  It wasn’t that Chad thought Jay mindlessly liked to hurt people (anymore), but the guy had gotten by surviving on his fists alone for too long to ever be satisfied by deftly avoiding a battle. 

The door opened before Evie could say something that was likely horribly consoling, and a furious Mal climbed into the limo, moving until she could shove her way in between Chad and Jay. “Those fucks,” she hissed, following Jane’s similar pat down procedure and ignoring Chad’s distressed noises when he stained the dress Evie had worked so hard on. “I’d burn them if we didn’t have to follow basic civic procedures.”

“Believe me,” Ben said, closing the door behind him and taking Chad’s other side, ruining his suit- the king’s suit, for him. “I’m not happy about it either, but we can’t win over the people’s hearts if we stoop to their level.”

“Who cares about their hearts,” Carlos snapped, referring to the paint throwers in particular. “They’re shitheads.”

“Carlos,” Doug sighed.

“Every vote counts,” Evie muttered. “Even the shitheads.”

“They will be punished,” Ben promised, and he looked so pained and he kept- touching Chad, checking on him, but he was getting paint on his suit and Chad was getting paint on the leather and on Mal and-

He didn’t realize he was shaking until Ben had both hands braced on his shoulders. “Lance?”

“S-stop,” he managed. “I’ll g-get you dirty.  You can’t-” Chad squeezed his eyes closed, exhaling hard through his nose.  Princes weren’t supposed to be dirty.  They weren’t supposed to crawl through the mud or roll in the dirt or get grass stains on their knees.  Princes were supposed to be collected and poised and clean, and not covered in flour, or digging through the garden-

“Lance,” Ben repeated, sounding farther away. “I need you to breathe, okay?  Match my breaths.  Just- feel that?  Match me.  Match me.”

It was hard, coming down from what he realized was a panic attack.  Chad hadn’t had one in a long time, but with the strong chemical smell building in his nose and the paint making his hair cling to his head and everyone just- staring like he was something to be pitied.  He couldn’t-

He came back slowly to Ben cradling one of Chad’s hands against his chest, Mal’s arm wrapped around his shoulder in a sort of half hug.  The king’s expression was pained but collected, and that was devastating enough that Chad didn’t want to know what the others looked like, didn’t think he’d be able to bear it.  When his breathing finally settled, he drew his arm back, unable to tear his eyes away from the brown handprint splattered against Ben’s chest.  Fuck.

“It’s just clothes, Lance,” Ben’s voice was so gentle, but somehow it hurt as much as any of his grandfather’s casual criticisms. “Clothes can be replaced.  It’s okay.  You didn’t ruin anything.  You didn’t get anything dirty.”

“Yes, I-” Chad squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m dirty.  I’m not supposed to be- dirty.  I can’t-” His fingers scrubbed at half-dried paint, but it was useless. “I can’t.”

“We’re almost back to the castle,” Mal soothed. “You can get cleaned off there, okay?  It’ll be fine.”

It wouldn’t be, but he’d be clean and that was close.

The rest of the car ride he tried to steady his breathing, painfully aware of the paint clinging to him.  It was fine.  It’d be fine.

Chapter Text

They pulled into the back driveway, which Chad was grateful about.  He said nothing when they were herded towards the castle, though he tried to linger near the back.  It didn’t work of course, because Evie and Carlos were there, stubborn as always, but the others were kind enough to give him some space. 

Jay still hadn’t said anything. 

He paused when they passed what must be the gardener’s area, moving to break away from the others.

“Lance?” Carlos had a hand on his arm but didn’t apply any pressure; he seemed more confused than anything else. “I thought you wanted to get clean?”

“I do.” Chad thought his little breakdown had made that obvious. “I see a hose over there.”

Hoses were for ‘wild little ruffians’ who thought playing in the woods was more important than following up on their studies.  Hoses were also for princes who had been locked outside due to their inability to tell time but that joke was on grandfather because it allowed Chad to be free, until he was ‘accidentally’ missing his curfew so often that a new, actual punishment had to be instilled.

He felt Carlos’ grip tighten. “There are bathrooms inside.”

“Carlos,” Chad sighed. “I’m covered in paint.  We are at a net loss, here.  I’ll just hose off and we can call it a night.”

“Have you done this before?” Evie asked, seeming legitimately curious.

Chad shrugged. “Who hasn’t?  Just-”

“No,” Carlos said, and then he was- dragging Chad towards the backdoor. “We’ll take you to the closest bathroom if you’re worried about spreading paint, but there are people who are literally paid to take care of that stuff-”

“This isn’t really that big a deal, Carlos.” Chad wasn’t sure why he was acting like it was. “The hose is right there.”

“No,” this time, it was Evie who said it, and with that, Chad found himself dragged into the castle.

Fine.

Whatever.  Not like he was going to object to some hot water anyway.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Also they lied about the closest bathroom thing because once Carlos started marching he didn’t stop until they were at the door to Evie’s room and Chad had to put in a hard stop because he had already gotten muddled footsteps down the hallways and he wasn’t going to tarnish the delicate sanctity of her room, or worse, her bathroom

“Lance,” Carlos sighed, like he was the one being pained here.

No.” Chad knew how nice that space was.  He’d been in there.  He’d worked in there.  Evie had designs in there, what if he accidentally stepped on one?  He could ruin her rug.  It was a nice rug, he liked it.  It felt especially appropriate to her sensibilities. “No way.  I’ll just- go back to the hose.  Or literally anywhere else.”  At this point he was willing to take another fountain if only to get the itchy feeling off his skin. 

“Lance,” Evie was kinder, because Evie was always kind, and until this point hadn’t touched him with her stylish gloves because she knew he didn’t want to tarnish them. “It’s okay, I promise.  What’s a little paint between friends?”

They weren’t friends and he wasn’t going to get paint in her room and that was final.  It had to be final.

“What if I got a tarp for you to walk on?” Carlos said, like that was the next logical solution. “So you wouldn’t have to worry about the floor-”

Further arguments were interrupted when Jay marched up behind them, bodily sweeping Chad off his feet before carrying him down the hall.

Jay’s clothes were already ruined and also Chad was pretty sure he couldn’t dirty Jay much so the contact thing wasn’t an issue, though he was concerned for where they were actually going.

“Jay!” Evie followed behind them. “Where are you-?”

The question was answered by way of the other teen shouldering his way into another room, and upon further inspection Chad realized that it must be Jay’s space – warm reds and golds combined with Tourney gear thrown in the corner, a definite Agrabah feel to it and then they were in a bathroom – Jay’s bathroom, and Chad didn’t know what was worse. 

“Jay,” Chad hissed, the sounds of running water hitting his ears. “Put me down.”

“Certainly,” Jay said and then he was carrying Chad into a large glassed-in shower, setting him down so that the blasting water caught both of them. 

Chad was so thrown by this that he barely registered Jay reaching for his mask until he was pulling it off, and Chad reached forward on reflex because he’d know, he’d see it was Chad-

With an amount of care Chad hadn’t thought Jay capable of, the other teen brushed two fingers against the bridge of Chad’s nose, their path trailing downward to under his eye. “Lovely,” he said, somehow choosing now, of all times, to fall back on his default inclination to flirt. 

The shit.

Chad was grateful that he’d decided to give Lance a birthmark after the first day in the fountain – just a distraction in the instance that he’d ever lose his mask.  It curled around his left eye before ending at this nose, and while that alone wouldn’t have been enough to keep him from being – Chad, he realized that the remnants of paint splattered across his chin and the liberal mess that was his hair had kept him safe.

He was distantly aware of the watery colors spilling off his body where the shower drenched him, pooling at their feet – wet shoes, again – though Jay didn’t seem to care, too busy staring at Chad’s unmasked face.

“You should go, Evie,” Carlos said – reminding Chad that there were, in fact, other people present, and it startled him enough to have him pull away from Jay and his weird probing hands. “Get changed.  We can take care of this.”

“You guys don’t need to- to ‘take care’ of anything,” Chad snapped, struggling out of his paint-ruined and waterlogged coat. “I can manage a shower.”

“Not saying you can’t,” Carlos easily countered, and with one last look of concern, Evie walked out of the room, leaving them to their standoff. “But you’re going to need help getting it out of your hair.  Then we’ll go.”

His hair.  As Lance it wasn’t as bad (still bad, just, not as much), but when Chad turned back his blond locks would likely be ruined, or horribly stained, at least.  He’d have to glamour his hair until he could dye it back, but that was all a later problem.    

Carlos took his silence as a yes, shrugging out of his coat and kicking off his shoes before joining them under the spray.  He ducked behind Chad, helping him with the coat.  “Here,” he said, tossing the garment to a useless Jay.  He was likely enjoying watching Chad suffer. 

Underneath his coat, the majority of Chad’s shirt had been kept safe, though it clung to him now, going transparent in some places.  He was grateful for the vest that covered it, though even that seemed ruined, the buttons that had once shined in the light now marred and sad. 

He flinched when Jay reached for them. “Just the hair,” he snapped. “I can handle clothes.”

He tried not to think about the scars on his back, the ones accumulated from failures that were deemed too inexcusable, and lesson that needed to be learned.  Chad wasn’t happy about it, exactly, but he understood where his grandfather was coming from, and ultimately it did make him think twice before moving forward.

They weren’t something he needed to share, though.

“Okay,” Jay said, tone unreadable, but he redirected to what Chad guessed were bottles of shampoo.

Clever fingers brushed against his neck, urging Chad’s head back into the spray.  He followed the prompt, a bit put off by Carlos’ careful gestures, and then there were two hands curling through his hair, lathering the soaked locks into a fine foam. 

Chad would blame the cold for his shivers, even though the water was hot. “You’re getting wet.”

“Little water won’t kill us,” Carlos said lightly.  And Jay was being weird, in that he was still present, his nimble fingers working into Chad’s scalp and fuck, he forgot how good this felt.  His stylist knew better than to get too engaged with shampooing his hair, because Chad’s body was dumb on a good day, but these two had no such compunctions and there were two of them, dragging rough, dedicated circles into Chad’s scalp. 

He was grateful for the fake birthmark and the paint, if only because it kept he heat pooling in his cheeks safely hidden.  He bit his lip to keep any unsavory sounds from spilling out of his mouth and tasted the bitter chemicals of paint, but he would rather focus on that than his body’s natural response to this torturous stimulation because it was- a lot.  And inappropriate.  Neither Jay nor Carlos were a princess, but Chad’s body didn’t seem to care, allowing a familiar heat to curl through him, making him tremble with want. 

The way Jay tilted his head back to rinse the shampoo out didn’t help, his gaze heavy and grip firm, cradling Chad’s head with a sort of expert care.  It made Chad wonder if Jay had done this before, if he’d brought a girl back to this exact room and held her close, carefully tilting her head back-

He saw Carlos hand off the shampoo bottle to Jay. “Again,” he ordered, making Chad’s stomach sink. “In case we missed anything.”

Chad was actually going to die. 

By the time they were halfway done with the second wash Chad couldn’t stop his body from shaking.  He wished he still had his coat to hide behind, to protect him from the water that seemed to taunt him because there was a minor psychological conditioning Chad possessed that let him know the shower was safe, to um- explore any carnal pleasures that had decided to plague his hormone-ridden body and then move on with his life and being in one with two people who were definitely not prospects for him was messing Chad up. 

“Dude,” Jay’s fingers stilled on his scalp and Chard both loved and hated him for it. “What’s wrong?”

Jay was what was wrong.  Staring at Chad and standing there in soaked clothing that clung to his body and flirting with anything that breathed and his hands were so firm.

“Just-” Chad gasped, it was breathless but definitely not a moan, so he counted it as a win. “Could you- leave?”

At least Carlos wasn’t staring at him, but Jay was- honestly Chad didn’t even know why he was helping.

So it was a bit of a relief when the other teen stepped away. “Yeah,” he said, tone oddly devoid of any emotion. “I can leave you guys to it.  Just- dump your stuff on the floor, okay?”

And with that, he left, for once not being spiteful on purpose.

It was really weird.

“O-kayyyy.” Carlos ducked back around Chad and looked at him, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Now what is actually wrong?”

“Um.” Chad really didn’t want to have to explain this, at all, ever, which he supposed made it both a blessing and a curse when Carlos’ gaze dropped below his waist.  Thin eyebrows raised high.

“Oh.” He blinked, redirecting his focus to Chad’s hair, and then curled his fingers in between dark locks, scratching.

Chad trembled helplessly in his hold. “Um.”

“Huh,” Carlos said, and that was all the warning Chad got before a firm palm ground hard against his groin.

His legs went weak with the force of his release, a desperate cry spilling from Chad’s throat when he fell to his knees.  Fuck that was- that had been nothing and it’d just been Carlos- not that he’d done anything special-

“Wow.” Carlos kneeled down with him, stabilizing Chad as he suffered through the aftershocks. “Okay, so that was the problem.”

“D-don’t tell.” Chad was clutched by a sudden panic. “Please.  I know you tell each other everything, but don’t-”

“Hey,” Carlos shushed him, carding a hand through soapy hair but distinctly avoiding his scalp. “No.  Don’t worry; I’m not going to do that.  That is what we call a dick move, and I am not a dick.”

Fuck,” Chad muttered, hating how his composure seemed to be completely shattered for the day.  He hid against Carlos’ shoulder, bony and slight but still present.  The other teen hadn’t jerked away; he didn’t even seem disgusted even though Chad had- just there.  No, Carlos didn’t seem surprised at all.  If anything, he seemed content to hold Chad while he regained his bearings, breath slowly regulating to less-pained gasps.

It was nice and so very strange because it was Carlos, who frequently mocked Chad’s… everything.   

“It’s okay,” Carlos murmured, rubbing small circles on Chad’s back. “It’s okay.  You’re okay.”

This time, Chad felt inclined to believe him, his body losing some of its tension and falling into a predictable laxness that made it easier to breathe. 

They stayed like that for a few minutes before Carlos eventually titled Chad’s head back to allow the last of the suds to clear from his hair.  Still so careful, except now his body was close and Chad felt so hot and ugh. “First time?”

First time with a guy involved in any capacity?  Yes, but that was not a thing that needed to be discussed.

“I’d um… rather not talk about it.” Because he was still leaning against Carlos who was still acting like everything was fine despite the fact that Chad had definitely come in his pants right in front of him after what was essentially very little foreplay.  That actually wasn’t foreplay.

Carlos’ smirked broadened.  “Fair enough.  Think we got most of the paint out too, so I’ll leave you to it.” He pulled away from Chad when he was sure the other teen could stabilize himself, offering a broad wink that did little for Chad’s nerves. “I’ll grab you some clothes and then be out of your hair.”

“Boo,” Chad sighed. “Negative ten points.”

“Maybe not the best choice of words to the guy getting your clothes,” Carlos laughed. “Catch you later, Lance.”

And with that, he ducked back out of the shower, trailing water in his wake.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Carlos continued his vicious streak because the clothes he got Chad were Jay’s, but like, stretched out so that they swallowed Chad, which wasn’t an accurate representation of their size comparison at all.  Jay was not that much bigger than him.  The neck of the sweater hung cockeyed, showing Chad’s collarbone, and the sleeves bunched around his knuckles, half-hiding his hands.  The sweatpants and socks, at least, were comfortable and soft and nothing like the casual clothes Chad wore because even those had to be ‘up to snuff’, but these were well-worn and actually comfy even if they were a bit big.

Chad decided to keep his mask on even if it didn’t match his new outfit because it was his, damn it, and if they asked maybe Jay would explain the fake birthmark. 

He was dry and clean by the time he padded out of Jay’s bedroom (still weird) and he followed the sound of laughter down the hall to what he guessed was some sort of lounge.  In the time he had been gone it seemed like the others had decided to comfy up as well, all of them changed out of their masquerade outfits and into various pajama wear.  Evie was holding court in a dark blue nightgown covered by a long, flowing robe, looking every bit the princess she was.  Doug was in a familiar set of long sleeve button-up pjs, something Chad had watched him slip into every night at school, looking effortlessly adorable as he cuddled into his sheets.  Now the dwarf kin was following Evie as she seemed to be setting up a large sectional couch, plumping pillows and scattering blankets that also looked soft. 

Mal was, of course, no help to them, having flopped onto the couch and refused to move.  She wore a large t-shirt that was probably Ben’s along with blaringly purple sleep pants, a pair of obnoxious fluffy socks covering her feet.  She had Carlos’ head in her lap, and was alternating between scratching him and Dude, who was resting on his chest.     

On a different couch Jane was attempting to braid Jay’s hair, her nose scrunched in concentration as her guinea pig shifted restlessly in place.  Jay must have cleaned up somewhere else because he had given Chad his bathroom, for whatever reason, but he looked… fine, though his shirt was notably tight and short sleeved and fit him appropriately, and his pants weren’t dumb and long. 

“Hey, you got the paint off,” Mal drawled in a lazy monotone, as though Chad hadn’t sort of had a breakdown over it. “Awesome.  Nice threads, by the way.”

“Carlos got them,” Chad muttered, hoping she was referring to the clothes and not his mask, because that was staying.

“Yeah,” she snorted. “That’s something he’d do.”

“What’d he do now?” Jay grumbled, finally looking towards the doorway.  “Did he-”

He stopped.  Opened his mouth.  Closed it.

“Shut up,” Chad hissed, feeling attacked.  And hungry.

Mal cackled. “Yeah, Jay – shut up.  And you-” She motioned to the free spot beside her. “Get over here.  You’re owed royal reparations.”

“Are you this bossy with everyone?” Chad asked, half curious but mostly strung out because Jay was still staring at him and the clothes were stretched, damn it, Chad was not small.

“Yes,” Carlos muttered without opening his eyes.  Mal flicked his head lightly, but didn’t refute him.  If anything, she seemed pleased. “Mal is the boss, after all.  Also, this is Dude.” He motioned to the dog on his chest who perked up at Chad’s advancement, ears doing that weird thing that dogs did sometimes?  Chad didn’t actually know, he wasn’t supposed to interact with Dude.  He was a mutt

The dog looked at Chad curiously before hopping off of Carlos’ chest, scrambling into Chad’s lap when he settled down. “You smell like Jay!”

It was Chad’s turn to freeze, because he was pretty sure the dog had talked.  The dog had talked, and continued to talk as he began licking Chad’s chin. “Are you that Lance guy?  They talk about you all the time.  Lance this, Lance that-

“Okay, Dude,” Carlos was scrambling to sit up, though markedly not freaking out about the talking dog. “That’s enough-”

“I can barely get any scratches for all the talking!” Dude insisted, tail wagging eagerly and- being a weird talking dog what even was this? “You owe me belly rubs!”

“Your dog is talking,” Chad said finally, because that was all his mind could dwell on.

“Yeah, my name’s Dude,” the small… fluffy creature said.  Apparently this was a regular thing.  It was a thing.  “And you’re Lance.  You can take the mask off; by the way, Jay was just talking about your cute-”

“Okay!” Carlos snatched Dude out of Chad’s lap. “I think someone needs to go for a walk.”

“He was really worried about the shower stuff!” Dude- shouted? Over Carlos’ shoulder when he was dragged from the room. “Got all pouty when you sent him away-”

It was a relief when the door shut behind them.  Chad would be concerned he had suffered another mental breakdown, though this seemed like kind of a far-fetched scenario for his mind to invent on its own.  A bit too spontaneous. 

He turned to Mal, still feeling a bit shell-shocked. “Your dog talks.”

“Truth gummy,” she offered in a shrug. “Apparently it works on dogs.”

“You have a truth serum in gummy form?” That was… horrifying.  Sort of a violation of basic rights if pressed onto an unwilling subject, but- “Do you use that for interrogations?”

“We don’t really have to interrogate here,” she said that as though the fact displeased her. “Though that is a good idea.”

“If it wasn’t intended for interrogations why would you have it?”

“Carlos had trouble asking Jane out,” Evie supplied with a grin. “He thought that would be the best route.”

“But then Dude ate it,” Doug said. “And here we are.”

Chad could ask more questions, because that implied that the gummy had given Dude the ability to speak the truth but also the intelligence to do the same - which sort of made him wonder about the application of the gummy against other animals or individuals of lesser intellect – but then there was also the part where they had apparently talked about Chad – well, Lance a lot.  And he could ask about it, but then they might ask why he’d freaked out in the bathroom and also in the car and also this was- a lot.

“Is this what hanging out with you guys is like?” Chad asked finally.

“A bit of a whirlwind?” Doug asked. “Pretty much, yeah.”

Before Chad could reply, the door opened and in came the King of Auradon with a tray of steaming mugs, clad in bright blue and yellow Auradon pajamas that looked both comfortable and befitting of his status.  So unfair. 

“Is Dude okay?” Ben asked as he set the tray down on the coffee table, further inspection revealing that they held some kind of chicken and vegetable soup. “I saw Carlos getting him out of here in a rush.”

“Just Dude being Dude,” Mal said. “Got anything to report?”

“Everyone involved in the assault has been apprehended,” Ben replied easily, and it was there Chad realized they had changed subjects to talk about his- thing. “There are enough witnesses that you won’t be required to testify, Lance.”

“Oh… thanks.” Which was good, because Chad hadn’t planned on doing that anyway. “So um… soup?”

Ben gave him a look that clearly said he wasn’t impressed with the clumsy transition before he generously decided to go along with it. “Since we didn’t really get to eat.  It’s filling, but not too heavy.”

Which was thoughtful but not very if they remembered the fact that Chad had spent a lot of time throwing up in Evie’s toilet the day before. 

Then it was just practical.

Chad was contemplating this when Ben sat down on Chad’s other side, instead of next to Mal, draping an arm around his shoulders.  Chad stared at it. 

What.

Mal took the momentary distraction to slide herself under Chad’s arm, cuddling into his side as though she owned it and apparently she did because she was the boss.  “Everyone, gather round,” she ordered, further proving this point. “We’ve got royal highlights to pretend to care about.”

Everyone settled on the couch around them as instructed, Evie sliding in next to Ben but Doug taking Mal’s other side.  After a moment of deliberation, Jay settled next to Doug and Jane curled against Evie, grabbing a blanket for the two of them to share like this was a… thing. 

Carlos meandered into the room a few seconds later and decided to settle at Chad’s feet, letting his back rest against the prince’s legs.  He was the one who started handing out steaming mugs as Doug turned on the television, and then they were treated to an array of highlights from the competitions they hadn’t been able to see, cheering and laughing in turn.

Halfway through his mug of soup, Chad finally felt warm inside.  This ease, he decided, would attributed to the food, though a dangerous part of him wanted to contribute it to the company he kept.  

But that couldn’t be true. 

Because that he couldn’t keep.

-:-:-:-:-:-

They ended up outside on a large stone balcony curled in cushioned seats around a fire pit, staring up at the night sky as the evening’s fireworks went off in the distance.  There were four loungers and the couples all sat together, leaving Chad to sit with Jay who was still acting shifty, but at least they had perfectly created s’mores to distract from the behavior. 

Chad decided then and there that he didn’t care what his grandfather said, if on the slightest chance Doug ever offered him another s’more he was taking that bad boy because these things were delicious.  Melted chocolate and gooey marshmallow with the sweet crunch of graham cracker – sign him up.  Chad resigned himself to only consume two in order to avoid repeating last night’s debacle, but he savored those two, making no effort to hide his appreciative hums because they were just.  That.  Good.

Agh.  Where had this been all his life?

“You um…” Jay was doing that thing where his gaze couldn’t decide if it wanted to look at Chad or not. “Got some…” He motioned to Chad’s chin.

“Huh?” Chad furrowed his brows, sticking out his tongue to see if he could lick up any stray marshmallow.

Jay tensed.  Likely because Chad had missed spectacularly. “It’s still um, there-”

He tried to reach forward, but Chad waved his hand away, using his free hand to scrub at his lips.  “I’m not actually a child.  I can get-” In his other hand, he felt some of his molten s’more inside drip out onto his hand. “Rats.”

“Doug could make you another one?” Jay tried, and Chad had to give him points for that, because he actually was trying to be helpful.  Chad should cut him some slack.  It wasn’t Jay’s fault he’d gotten attacked by paint.  And honestly it was better that it happened to ‘Lance’ rather than any of the others, because Lance was a nobody.

“Nah.” Chad shook his head, transferring his s’more to his non-gooey hand before lifting his chocolate smeared fingers to his mouth.  He sucked at them carefully, savoring the smooth sugary goodness, before licking up whatever had strayed to the back of his hand. “I um- have this.”

The problem with eating s’mores was that by the time he finished cleaning off one hand, the other was a mess. 

Chad sighed. “It’s fine,” he said, taking another bite out of his cracker even as it threatened to fall apart.  He cradled what remained of his creation in his now-clean hand before sucking at the freshly dirty one, ignoring the way Jay seemed to have frozen beside him.  Chad sure as hell wasn’t going to apologize for violating whatever the procedure for consuming s’mores was, so he decided to ignore him. 

He heard Mal giggle from the chair beside them, but when Chad looked her way she seemed to be reacting to something Ben had said, which- made sense.  Not everything was about Chad

He managed to eat the remainder of his s’more without dropping it all over himself, though he took his time cleaning off his fingers, the overlarge sleeves of Jay’s stretched out sweater sliding down his forearms. 

“Do you want another?” Jay asked, gazing purposefully at the fire.  Maybe he was afraid of it dying out, or something.

Chad narrowed his eyes. “You just want to see me throw up again, don’t you?”

“What?  No.” That got Jay to look at him. “That is- I mean, because you like them.”

“I do,” Chad sighed, because they were so very tasty. “I like them less when they’re coming back up, though.”

“How about half of one?” Jay tried. “You could have the rest of mine?” He held up the treat that was mostly intact, chocolate oozing out the side like a victory.  It taunted him. “I um- get these a lot.  So it’s not like I’m missing out.”

Chad considered his offer.

“…think of it as an apology?” Jay tried.

That would work.

“Alright,” Chad agreed, not making grabby hands because that was undignified but definitely approaching the proffered treat with excitement. “I’ll just-.”

Perhaps he was a little too excited, because the treat seemed to fracture in their hands, the two of them awkwardly holding it together. 

Chad sighed. “That was my bad.”

“I think that was just- physics, man.” It was kind of Jay to try and give him an out.  Maybe Chad should have breakdowns in front of him more often. “Here, we can still-”

He guided the remainder of the treat to Chad’s lips, and it was so awkward but it was an awkwardness that came from a place that wanted to be genuinely helpful so for once, Chad gave him the benefit of the doubt and went along with it, eating what he could from their joined hands until only gooey marshmallow remained.

“Whoever invented marshmallows is a genius,” Chad decided, licking the remnants off his fingers while Jay carefully wiped his off on his appropriately-sized pants. “They deserve an award.  I mean, I guess all the money they made for patenting it is probably an award in itself, but I feel the point remains.”

“Gotta agree with you on that one,” Jay said, though he was looking away again, back towards the fire. “Marshmallows are a win.”

“Like our win over Audrey?” Mal broke in with a generous wag of her eyebrows. “That was… a stressful day.  A stressful, horrifying day.”

“That eventually got good,” Ben said, looking down at Mal like she was the center of his universe.  Which.  She probably was, and that should probably sting less, but whatever.

Chad pushed away his inefficient feelings.  “What actually happened with that?” When he realized he had accidentally gained the attention of the others, he continued, “I saw the press release, but you were there.  What happened with Audrey?  And Cotillion?  Also,” he added belatedly, because he’d had to miss Cotillion for important reasons that still made him ache inside. “-what is Cotillion?”

Carlos perked up. “Sounds like it’s story time.”

“Alright,” Mal laughed. “Okay, we’ll start at the beginning.  On VK day.”

“Shouldn’t we start at Cotillion?” Doug pressed.

“We’ll get there,” Mal said, waving him off. “But first, VK day.” 

Chad lost track of time after that, because it didn’t matter.  He enjoyed hearing the VKs’ stories from their perspective, enjoyed getting to know the side of them that Ben, Doug, and Jane seemed to so openly enjoy.

It was a good way to spend the evening.

Chapter Text

When Chad roused himself from his sleep there was a crick in his neck, indicative that his head had been resting at an odd angle for far too long.  Sunlight stung against his eyes but the heat wasn’t muted, unlike it was in his room.  No, for some reason the sound of bugs and rustling leaves seemed that much closer, like when Chad was exploring the woods outside his castle to get a good idea for possible escape routes, should they be needed.

Whatever he was leaning against was firm but distinctly warm, a weird sort of softness that seemed to radiate heat.  It distracted Chad from the uneven ground his legs rested against, cushions that gave way to hard stone, and with a few blinks he realized he was outside.

Outside.  Ben’s balcony, they had- he could see the remnants of the fire, pitiful coals that had long since burned out.  The others were still splayed around the fire pit in various states of sleep, collapsed against each other like a pile of puppies.  It was then Chad realized that his pillow – and the reason for the crick in his neck – was Jay’s shoulder. 

Ugh.  Way to give off the wrong idea.

Chad tried to rub the sleep out of his eye, cataloguing his various aches and pains.  Staying up with them had been fun but next time they needed to relocate before passing out, because sleeping outside all night-

Sleeping outside.  All night.

Shit.  Shit.  It was morning.  It was- based on how high the sun was, far too late into the day for Chad to be dawdling around in his other persona.  This may be the week of the festival but he still had responsibilities to attend to, and his mind frantically worked to calculate changes to his schedule that might allow him to keep everything in order. 

“Hey.” Over the panic, a sleepy Carlos greeted him, the other teen rubbing at his eyes. “Wow.  That was not one of our better ideas.”

“Yeah.” Chad’s reply was distracted at best. “Hey um- I have to go.  I’ll see you-” He had no idea when. “Bye.”

With that, Chad pushed himself to his feet, ducking back into the castle as fast as his confused legs would allow him.  He felt stupid wearing his mask in broad daylight, sweaty and hot in his borrowed clothing, but he wouldn’t have a chance to change until he got back to his car.  And even then it was more of a divestment than an actual change.

Hey.” Chad blinked and found Carlos jogging to catch up with him, both of them making a bit of a spectacle as they wove through servants going about their midmorning routine. “What’s the rush?  We can at least get you breakfast.”

“Can’t.” Chad jerked his head to the negative as he ducked down another hallway. “No time.  I um- had a curfew, and it’s safe to say I blew it.” By a lot

The servants would report his absence back to his grandfather for sure, but if he could loop around and make it look like he was coming from Auroria instead of Auradon his grandfather may give him some leeway.  He always liked it when he thought Chad was ‘wooing’ Audrey.

“So?” Carlos pressed, for whatever reason still following Chad, even as they sprinted out the front doors of the castle and down the public pathway.  Which reminded Chad that he wasn’t wearing shoes, and Jay’s borrowed socks only provided so much protection. “What happens when you violate your curfew?”

“Oh.  You know,” Chad said as they made their way down the street, trying to ignore the stares they were attracting. “There will be a um… stern talking to.  Some punishment.”

If grandfather did think he stayed the night in Auradon, Chad was likely in for a day of restricted food and an evening of the most boring law books his grandfather’s secretary could find.  Maybe he’d arrange one of those creepy baths where the female servants attended to him to show Chad how to appreciate the ‘feminine form’ because for whatever reason his grandfather thought Chad had a huge crush on Ben.  The fashion design didn’t really help counter that belief, but Chad sure as hell wasn’t going to give that up.

“What kind of punishment?” It was beginning to be obvious that no matter how many alleyways Chad charged into, Carlos was going to follow him.

“The unpleasant kind,” Chad snapped. “Just- leave me alone.  I’ll see you… whenever I can see you.”  If he wanted.  Would he want to?  Chad had a difficult time telling.

“No.” The declaration was accompanied by a hand wrapping around his wrist, and all at once Chad found himself jerked to a halt, his shoulder jarred by the abrupt change in momentum.  While he struggled to rebalance himself, Carlos charged on. “I’m not sending you off just so you can get hurt.”  

What?

Chad felt himself floundering. “I’m not going to get hurt.  It’s not that bad and-” He yanked his hand away, and was mostly surprised when Carlos let him go. “You’re not ‘sending’ me anywhere.  I’m leaving because I’m my own person who controls what they do.  Now,” he began, chest still heaving with exertion from the run and the building anger and the lingering confusion. “Goodbye.”

“Lance-” Carlos followed after him, stubborn as a dog, his expression apologetic. “Sorry.  You’re right, I don’t control you.  That wasn’t my intention, but if someone’s hurting you-”

“I’m not getting hurt,” Chad lied, but it wasn’t a big one, just- a selective truth, really.  It did hurt, his stomach and his social life and his pride, and sometimes his back if his grandfather was particularly angry, but these were all hurts Chad was used to bearing.  And none of them could have been worse than what Carlos had been put through.

“Lance.” Carlos grabbed at his shoulder this time, but he didn’t pull Chad to a halt.  Instead, he let the other teen slow to a stop, because he just- wasn’t leaving. “Tell me you’re not scared.  Tell me you’re going home, and you’re not scared.”    

It was just another small lie.

But.

Carlos was asking him.  And while Chad had lied to Carlos many times, he had never done so outright as Lance, and he found he didn’t want to.

He pressed his lips together, jaw clenched tight enough to grind his teeth. “I have to go.”

This time when he ran away, Carlos didn’t follow him.

Chad took the long route back to his car just in case, doubling back more times than he’d like to when he caught a blur in the corner of his eye.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Chad spent the rest of the day suffering through his punishments with as much grace as he could muster.

His grandfather was, of course, disappointed, as he always was when he felt Chad was straying to the ‘poisonous’ side of attraction.  He spent a great deal of time belittling Chad for giving into his temptations – not that he would ever think Chad capable of wooing Ben away from Mal, no, his grandfather just thought he stalked the king to ‘feed his interest’ and sure, while Chad had technically broken into Ben’s castle on multiple occasions, it was always for practical purposes.

But explaining that to his grandfather was a fool’s errand, so instead he got to flush in shame while his grandfather went on about how Chad was debasing himself with such vile pursuits and if he wanted to be a king who was taken seriously, he needed to get rid of his pathetic attraction.

The affair ended with a growing headache and next to no food, and instead of going to the festival that evening Chad spent his time paying the high-end escort his grandfather had hired double in order to avoid having to copulate with a stranger.  It was a familiar song and dance at this point, though one Chad took little pleasure in.  Sometimes he wished he actually was attracted to Ben to justify his grandfather’s ire, but unfortunately even Chad’s arousal couldn’t be that naively hopeful.  It, like Chad, tried to be realistic.

Sometimes, reality sucked.  

-:-:-:-:-:-

Chad considered bypassing the next festival day completely, but couldn’t help but dwell on Carlos’ expression of concern when they had parted.  If the VK actually was worried, Chad could at least assuage his fears by showing up unharmed.  He felt like he owed the young De Vil that much.

That particular day at the festival was dedicated to beach activities, which meant that the droves of people making their way to the sandy shores were mostly clad in comfortable beachwear and a simple mask to meet the ‘masquerade’ standards.  Chad decided to keep things simple with black, white, and red swim trunks, a white undershirt coupled with a lightweight black button up with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, his signature white domino mask in place.  He followed the sounds of Westerly music towards a live band, crowds of people already taking to the sandy dancefloor, and started scanning the area for Mal’s crew.  Worst came to worst, he’d wait for Ben to give his big opening speech and then follow the king to at least one of his friends.  That should allow Chad to give them a status update should they want one.

“Lance?” It was Doug, Doug who was… wearing sandals and for some reason Chad’s mind decided to fixate on that, and not the fact that these people always managed to find him in a crowd of hundreds before he even saw them. “Are you okay?”

Chad slid into his signature smile but dimmed it to that of a shy book nerd. “I’m great,” he offered, stepping back to give them some privacy. “I was actually looking for you guys.”

Or Carlos, to be specific, but if you found one you had the others.

He probably imagined it but Doug seemed a little relieved when he heard this. “I’m glad to hear that.  When the others couldn’t find you yesterday- well.” He shrugged. “It was hard to celebrate.”

“It wasn’t their fault,” Chad assured, though knew he would have to do so again because this group was so- good that of course they would have taken on guilt over his situation. “I’m the one who lost track of time.  Got a little grounded as a result.”

Technically, Chad was still grounded, but sneaking out against his grandfather’s orders had become a battle of wits between the two of them years ago.  This was just another one of Chad’s triumphs.   

“And that’s it?” Doug asked, guiding him away from the crowd.  They followed a sandy path towards an area of tents jutting out over the water, bypassing some Royal Guards who offered brief nods before they proceeded to what was likely Ben’s private cabana. “Just the grounding?”

Doug cared because Doug was kind, and Evie liked Lance, and not because he was Chad.  Not because they were actually friends.

So Chad only felt a little terrible about lying to him. “Yep,” he hummed.

In a feat of poetic timing, his stomach rumbled.  Well, roared.  The damn traitor.

Chad did not flush, he was too busy looking anywhere but Doug. 

“Okay then,” Doug said, and there, that was his ‘Sure, whatever you say, Chad voice.  The one he used when he didn’t actually believe Chad but he wanted the prince to stop talking. “Jane packed a picnic.  She’s spreading it out now.”

“I didn’t actually come to mooch off your food,” Chad muttered, hating his stomach and his grandfather’s stupid food rules in one efficient blow.

“It’s not mooching when you’re friends.” Doug was patient when he said it, like he’d had this argument a hundred times before.  With the VKs, he likely had. “It’s a gift, and we want to share it with you.”

“I-”

“A gift,” Doug pressed, and his gaze was so relentless that it made Chad quiver (what the literal fuck) inside, because Doug was rarely this… authoritative.  It was sexy.  Unfairly sexy, the nerd. “That requires no repayment.”

“But-” Chad scowled, trying to cover his embarrassed revelation and low key blaming his grandfather for planting the seeds of the gay thing in his head. “I’m really not bringing anything to the table.”

Literally.  Figuratively.  The hell.

Doug’s gaze melted into something soft that made Chad’s stomach flip for different but equally stupid reasons. “That is where we must disagree.  I would consider your presence a gift in itself.”

Fucking.

Chad had always known Doug was smart, but he hadn’t realized the dwarf kin was smooth to boot.  Which in hindsight made sense because he’d snagged a princess, but still.  This wasn’t fair.  Doug was supposed to be a nerd who disliked Chad at best, he wasn’t supposed to say really nice things that made Chad want to do he didn’t even know what, only that he probably should not do whatever they were.

Stop,” Chad groaned, burying his face in his hands.  They pulled to a stop right outside an isolated cabana draped in the yellow and blue of Auradon, and Chad sort of wanted to sprint back down the path. “Don’t say stuff like that, you nerd.”

I’m the nerd?” Doug laughed – with him, not at him, how could he be this charming?

“Okay, fine,” Chad huffed. “We’re both nerds.  Just-” Too restless to stay still, Chad ducked inside the cabana. “I’ll eat your food if you stop talking like that.”

If Doug had a witty (or heart melting) response, Chad did not hear it, because he was immediately overwhelmed by a beaming Jane.

“Lance!” she cheered, hopping up from her picnic blanket.  She was clad in whimsical summer dress that made her look unfairly cute. “I’m glad to see you!”

“Back at you, Jane.” He hated the way her smile widened, because it was so little and so false- she wouldn’t be this happy for Chad, and that ached him.  He scanned the rest of the cabana and saw that it was empty. “Is it just you guys?”

“Ben and Mal have to make an appearance before they can join us,” Doug explained, nudging Chad to settle onto the blanket. “The others were searching for you, but I already sent them a text.”

“Thanks for that,” Jane said, distracting Chad from pondering that statement by shoving a dainty sandwich into his hands. “Taste test this for me?”

“Um.” Well, since she’d asked so nicely. “Sure.” 

He was in the middle of ‘testing’ his third macaron (pretty sure these were Mrs. Potts’ handiwork, but he wasn’t going to say anything) when Carlos barged into the cabana, chest heaving and face flushed.  There was some commotion behind him where it looked like Jay was scrambling to catch up, but Chad didn’t get a chance to process that because he found himself with an armful of Carlos.

This was- he was-

“It’s a hug,” Carlos explained, as though Chad were some kind of caveman.

“Yes, I know.” Chad flushed, painfully aware of how awkwardly his hands were hovering. “I’ve seen them before.”

He hadn’t experienced one since a time he carefully did not think about.  His grandfather was not one for hugging, and his father had drifted away from Chad after his mother’s passing and never really returned.  From time to time there was his Aunt Anastasia and Uncle Baker – but visiting always brought trouble from his grandfather down on them, so Chad tried to avoid prolonged contact. 

When they’d been dating he’d managed to coerce Audrey into a few hugs, but they were always brief and for the sake of appearances.  They were never out of concern or a will to give any comfort.

After going so long without, it seemed grossly unfair for Chad be given this gift now, even as he melted into it.  A dangerous heat built behind his eyes, so he squeezed them shut, pretending to savor the moment as he collected himself, running the familiar mantra of ‘be a man, be a man, be a man’ – in his brain.  Fierce as a coursing river.  Strength of a great typhoon.  Neither had room for unprompted tears. 

When the fear of fracturing his composure had passed, Chad opened his eyes, and found that Evie had joined Jay at the entrance of the tent, and both were staring at him with unreadable expressions.  It was Evie who moved first, sitting down beside him before curling an arm around his shoulders, like it was- a thing they did.  Carlos took the hint and collapsed on Chad’s free side, letting his arm rest around his waist.  And then they just… started picking at food. 

None of this made sense.

“We’re glad you’re okay,” Evie said, carding a hand through his curls, scratching a particular spot that made Chad shiver. “We were worried.”

“My apologies, your highness.” This may have been more charismatically delivered if Evie didn’t seem intent on provoking that reaction from Chad again, massaging his scalp in wicked circles that were so- very unfair.  If it weren’t for the fact that Carlos had promised to keep their shower mishaps a secret, he would have thought the young De Vil had told Evie about Chad’s weakness.  Ugh.

They spent the rest of their meal like that, sharing anecdotes from the day before and passing food around, all while doting Chad with these casual displays of physical affection that were so constant that it felt like he was going to shake out of his skin.  It left him unbalanced, and yet he yearned for more.  Evie toying with his scalp left him a flushing mess, and then Carlos was lacing their fingers together, animatedly talking to his girlfriend who just- didn’t act like it was weird at all.  And then Jay, apparently, got fed up with being left out and sat behind Chad, hugging him with one arm while sprawling across his back, like Chad was his own personal pillow.  He couldn’t even pretend to be annoyed because he felt so- safe, he guessed.  Or just, trusted, because no one did this with Chad.  No contact was this easy or carefully intended. 

It was wonderful.  It was also hell.  He was glad he had gotten to eat before they had arrived because it was difficult to focus with the three of them harassing him with their easy concern, to the point where Evie had started feeding him things and Chad thought he actually was going to blush so hard he’d die.

He was pretty sure Doug was taking pictures, too.  The asshole.  The smug, sexy asshole.

It was so unfair.

By the time Ben and Mal came around, Jane and Doug had switched spots with Carlos and Evie, and Chad was on his way to being miserably pampered, because Jane’s hand was so dainty and Doug took food duties seriously and sometimes his fingers kept brushing against Chad’s lips and there was no justice in the world.    

“Move it, people,” Mal ordered with a wave of her hand, rolling her eyes when Jay seemed to grumble.  “That means you, greedy.” She swatted at the back of his head, and Jay moved, which Chad would have paid more attention to if Mal hadn’t just- sat herself in his lap. 

Chad panicked, for many reasons, the first of which relating to natural physical responses as a result of rare stimuli that he sincerely hoped Mal did not feel and the other because of Ben, who was right there, and-

Sitting down, like nothing was wrong, and wrapping an arm around Chad’s waist.

What.

“Gimme snacks,” Mal whined, making grabby hands at a bowl of strawberries.

“Sure thing, your crankiness,” Jay muttered, but he passed the bowl over anyway.

Mal released a triumphant sigh. “This is what you get,” she declared, leveling a finger at him. “Sending all those pictures.”

“That wasn’t me-” Jay sputtered, and Chad would have been concerned, with this, or at least embarrassed, but his focus was pulled by a grinning Ben, who offered up a tiny puffed pastry that he must have brought with him.

“It’s a beignet,” he said, as though Chad was unfamiliar with the small morsel covered in powdered sugar, but that seemed to be entirely irrelevant because then Ben was feeding it to him, and maybe grandfather did have a small point about Chad having a crush but he was only human, and there was so little he could do in the wake of Ben’s generosity except… eat the beignet. 

He flushed, harder (somehow) when he felt powdered sugar smear across his bottom lip.  He reached up to clear it and froze when he felt Ben carefully slide his thumb against his lip, gathering the sugar in one easy movement that left Chad breathless. 

And then he offered that to Chad, like he wanted him to- suck it, and Mal continued to act like absolutely nothing was wrong with this picture even though there were very many things wrong with it.

“Go on,” Mal muttered around a strawberry, watching him with careful eyes. “It’s good.”

As Mal was still kind enough to ignore how this situation seemed to be affecting Chad, he went ahead and decided to follow the order, because otherwise that meant Ben would walk around with a thumb sullied by Chad’s misspent sugar and that seemed like a terrible fate.

He tried not to shiver when he wrapped his lips around Ben’s thumb, letting his tongue swirl around the nub before letting go, horribly embarrassed and unlawfully- attacked.  He was so attacked right now he didn’t have words for it. 

Fuck,” Jay muttered, because he had all the maturity of a five-year-old, and then Chad was saved by one of Ben’s many assistants poking her head into the cabana.

“Pardon me, your majesty, but the sandcastle competition is slated to begin in a few minutes.”

“Of course,” Ben dismissed her with a wave of his hand (thumb still covered in spit, ugh), and Chad likely imagined the way his voice seemed a little more rough. 

Ugh.” Mal flopped back against Chad’s shoulder, safely conveying how he felt. “Fine.  Let’s go.”

“To do fun things,” Carlos reminded her, smile wide.

She flicked her strawberry stem at his head.

The walk down to the beach calmed Chad’s nerves somewhat, though not completely because Jay had an arm hooked around his neck and Jane had her fingers tangled in his and maybe he should have just pretended he got hugged all the time because this was torture.  Jane stole him for sandcastle building along with Evie, leaving Jay, Carlos, and Doug to defend Mal’s artistic honor because the future queen wasn’t allowed to participate. 

None of them were particularly good sculptors, so it became a battle of tossing wet sand at each other when they inevitably gave up.  By the end of the one-hour time limit, Chad’s team was a giggling mess with sand spattered everywhere, and while they weren’t even close to winning, Mal couldn’t seem prouder. 

“I didn’t know we were allowed to play in the sand,” Jay complained as they took their ‘victory’ lap around the private cabana thrusting out onto the water, getting a taste of fresh air. 

“Technically, you weren’t,” Ben mused, watching the way Jane skipped before them looking like a wild child, her hair flapping wildly in the breeze.  “At least, not like that.”

“Points for creativity!” Mal decided, clinging to the king’s arm with a wicked grin. “I’d motion for sand battles next year, but I fear for the poor children who’d get caught in the crossfire of your competitive spirit.”

“We all must make sacrifices for greatness,” Evie said, wearing her sand like an expensive couture gown.  Even though it clung to her face and arms she looked perfectly poised, not a hair out of place.  Doug looked on her with an expression of total awe that couldn’t be more justified, likely marveling at how someone so wonderful could exist. 

“To victory,” Doug cheered, gaze entirely adoring.

“To messes!” Carlos added, slinging an arm around his sand-besmirched girlfriend.

“You guys are a mess,” Mal mused, as though it had taken her this long to notice that fact.  “You know what can fix that?”

“Mal,” Evie warned as a spike of concern ripped through Chad’s stomach. “Don’t you dare-”

It was Ben that picked Evie up.  Ben that tossed her in the water with a cheerful wave.  Chad got all of a second to process that before Carlos followed after her, a screeching Jane held in his arms. 

Chad then realized with a jolt that he was the last dry man standing from his team, and then Jay was bodily grabbing him from behind, hurling both of them into the waves below.

“Mal!” He heard Evie laughing when he resurfaced, spitting out salt water. “You’d better get in here!”

“Can’t!” Mal cheered. “Gotta wait twenty minutes after eating.  You guys have fun, though!”

Mal!” Evie repeated, this time more vindictive as she swam back to the cabana, moving to climb out of the water.

“Ah, young love,” Jay mused, paddling closer to Chad. “Gotta love it, right?”

“Um.” Chad flushed, trying to scrub salt from his eyes. “You mean sisterly love, right?”

He was pretty sure Jay did not mean sisterly love, and Chad did not know what that meant.

“Nope,” Jay laughed, a stupid not-sexy smirk tugging at this lips. “That is a hundred percent, red-blooded attraction.”

A hand curled around Chad’s hip, fingers toying with the skin above his waistband because his shirt had slid up, clinging to his chest in the water.

“Do you like the idea of that?” Jay asked, fingers pausing a moment before drifting higher, caressing Chad’s lower back. “Does it get you hot knowing–”

He paused, his fingers likely processing the scars half a second before Chad remembered them – remembered the ‘pain of failure’ – and a murderous look overtook Jay’s features. 

Who?” Jay growled, hand splaying against Chad’s lower back before moving higher, cataloguing the wounds. “Who did this?”

“It’s none of your business,” Chad snapped, yanking the other teen’s arm away from him, feeling the tell-tale marks of shame clinging to his heart.

“Guys?” Jane drifted close to them, the skirt of her dress floating around her like some kind of deranged jellyfish. “Is everything okay?”

No,” Jay snapped, and Chad was grateful for the sting of salt that clung to his eyes because then he could blame the redness on that, even when the ache of his own ineptitude felt like it could crush him. “Someone’s hurting Lance.”

“No one’s hurting me,” Chad snapped, deciding that now was the optimal time to climb out of the water, following in Evie’s wake.  Of course, the princess had chased Mal back into the water on the other side of the cabana, where Doug and Ben were gleefully filming them, so at least they didn’t bear witness to Jay’s outcry.

“Don’t-” Jay followed him, climbing up beside him until they squared off against each other, both dripping salt water. “Lance, no one has the right to do this to you-”

Maybe if Chad were normal, that would be true, but Chad had never been normal and that wasn’t going to start now.

Stop,” Chad managed through clenched teeth, his shoulders tensing when he realized they had caught Ben’s attention, that Carlos and Jane were climbing out of the water behind them. “I already told you no one’s hurting me.”

“What, did you do that to yourself?” Jay asked.

Chad flinched, felt his shoulders begin to shake from the cold that gripped him.

“Guys.” Ben drew closer to them.  Perfect, poised Ben with parents who loved him and a will to maintain the peace even in the greatest of conflicts. “Let’s just take a second to calm down, okay?  Give each other some space.”

It was such a reasonable, Ben thing to say.

Chad hated it.

So he squared his jaw, because Jay wouldn’t back down, because Jay was a tool that had to be the hero in every story, the one that flirted with anything and everything that lived.

“Sure,” Chad said, and he wasn’t sure if he interrupted someone else because Jay was looking at him with concern now, but Chad kept going, “Yes.  I did it myself.”

Because in a way, he had.  If he hadn’t failed, it never would have needed to happen.  It was simple logic.  The total magnitude of his failures was evident on his back.  Every blow of that switch carved into his skin from decades of coming up short.

No one said anything.  And then-

“Is that what they told you?” Evie asked.  She had climbed out of the sea at some point, Mal following behind her, and it was a deceptively simple question and Chad hated it, had to clench his eyes shut because it was too much.

Evie,” Doug tried, but she must have brushed him off because she continued.

“Did they say it would stop if you were better?  That they only do it because they love you?” She was drawing closer to him, still so painfully calm, and Chad just- hated. “Lance, if they loved you-”

“He loves me!” Chad snapped, because that wasn’t even a question.  Of course his grandfather loved him.  And what would they know?  The only frame of reference they had was abuse; they didn’t know what it was like to grow up as a royal outside the Isle.  The expectation.  The stakes.  His grandfather was hard on him because he had so much to lose, but if his grandfather hadn’t been tough on him, Chad wouldn’t be half the royal he was today.

“Don’t you-” He shuddered, felt tears burn at the corner of his eyes but ignored them. “Don’t talk about what you don’t know.  You don’t-” Chad shuddered, staring down at the ground in frustration. “You don’t know.”  

Before his nerve could leave him – the nerve he had built defying his grandfather, the skill he had kindled when he realized he had to be more in a different way – Chad shouldered past Jay, past all of them, stalking off down the path before he could do something foolish like glance behind. 

He didn’t need their pity.  He never would.

-:-:-:-:-:-

He made it about a third of the way back to civilization before he heard the patter of footsteps behind him, and after bracing himself for the oncoming battle, it was an unspeakable relief to see Doug and Jane charging around the corner.  Still soaking wet, Jane lunged, wrapping herself firmly around him, like she was afraid he would disappear if she didn’t.  Despite his dry and unblemished clothing Doug joined in, seeming not to care that his clothes were getting wet, and Chad just collapsed against them, because he missed them so very much.

“Lance,” she was chanting, murmuring against his shoulder. “Lance.  Lance.  Lance, it’s okay.”

“No.” Chad shuddered. “It’s not.”

“You’re okay,” Doug tried, and Chad wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. “No one’s upset at you.  You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Chad had done plenty of things wrong.  One of the most prominent being the act of adopting a fake persona and using it to befriend people who had already dismissed him as a human being.  That was a wrong thing.  This entire affair was wrong. 

He couldn’t do this anymore.  He knew it, deep in his bones.  Even if they could bypass this, he couldn’t go another day of Ben feeding him or Doug’s commanding force or Jane’s bubbling brightness.  It would only make it that much more painful when it would never be his again because there was no future for this.  There wasn’t.  He couldn’t be Lance full time, Lance didn’t exist

He’d been a fool, thinking he couldn’t go too deep, and then they had started hugging him and holding his hand and he had thought what the hell, why not enjoy it while he had it?  Why not use them and their freely given affections?  He was even doing it right now.

Stop,” Chad croaked, managing to shake out of their hold before he could completely fall apart. “You think- you don’t know me.  None of you know me.  If you did, you wouldn’t like me-” That was already proven true. “So don’t- stand there and think I am in some way without blame, because I earned every mark on my back.”  

Lance,” Jane gasped, her eyes shining with moisture, lower lip trembling with barely concealed pain. 

Contrary to her, Doug was calculating, expression unreadable as he held his hands wide in a show of surrender. “Okay,” he allowed. “Let’s say you’re right.  We can agree to disagree.  Just-” He reached forward, and Chad took an immediate step back. “You don’t have to end things over this.”

“No um-” Chad never wanted to have to explain it, but he’d already been rotten enough, he owed them this much. “Trust me, it’ll be better.  I just need you to trust okay?”

“Immediate proximity to an issue has a tendency to warp our understanding of it,” Jane said quietly, her voice only giving a slight hitch. “You can’t see it-”

“I understand this better than you ever could.” Chad wanted to list all the things he found amazing about Jane, all the things he marveled at in Doug.  How he was grateful they had been a part of his existence, but at this point he had not earned such a lofty impact on their lives. “Thank you, for the dance,” he said, managing a smile. “I’m very grateful for it.”

It had been a lovely night, as his mother once said.  A finer night he knew he’d never see.

And unlike his mother, he’d almost gotten a full week.

“Are you leaving?” Chad didn’t flinch at Evie’s cool tone but he wasn’t at ease either, the princess marching with a dedicated purpose as Carlos followed on her heels. “Who said you could go?”

“I don’t require permission.” That was the point, wasn’t it?  That Chad was free.

“Don’t you?” she challenged. “You owe me.”

It was such a non-sequitur that Chad gave into the confusion that claimed him. “How so?”

“Mal’s wedding dress,” she explained. “It isn’t finished.  You can’t abandon me halfway through a project.  You owe me.”  

Fuck.  She was right.  Chad didn’t want her to be right, but he was the one that had insisted on inserting himself into her creative process.  He couldn’t back away now, even if he wanted to.  He may be garbage as a human but he still had some integrity as a designer.  It was probably all he had left. 

Chad felt his jaw tense. “And how shall I repay you?”

“Come to the castle in the morning,” she said without hesitation, which meant this had been the plan all along. “We’ll finish it then and our obligation will be done with each other.”

“Evie-” Doug tried, not understanding the transaction, but they both ignored him.

“Fine,” Chad relented. “We’ll finish it tomorrow.”

“And then you can join us for the festival.”

Chad scowled. “Don’t-”

“Consider it interest.” Her gaze dared him to argue, though Chad knew at this rate he would never get his way.  He hated it, because it offered him another day of their affections which was all that he wanted, but he knew that he shouldn’t.  If he cared for them, he’d stop.

But.

A deal was a deal.

“Fine,” he said.  He moved to shake on it, then realized here, they weren’t equals, and hastily bowed. “I accept your terms, your highness.”

“Then you’re dismissed,” Evie said, and with that, Chad left them, knowing the strands of his composure were holding on by bare threads.

He didn’t say goodbye, simply committed to his initial walk of shame through the celebrating crowds, marveling at his ability to ruin the things he most cherished.

It was an unfortunate skill. 

Chapter Text

That night was not.  Great. 

He kept thinking about Ben’s thumb sliding into his mouth, imagining his gaze as heavy and lustful when it was likely amused at worst, an easy sort of kindness most certainly.  Chad wondered how often Ben did that with the others, if he ever thumbed the corner of Jay’s mouth for stray frosting, if he ever had Evie suck his fingers clean.

Whatever Jay had said- obviously that was meant to rile Chad.  He’d been teasing because that was what he did, then furious that someone had damaged his new toy before he could have a chance to do so himself.  Or maybe that was too cruel an assumption, but it was so easy to get shaken up by Jay, who ran hot and cold, invested to disinterested.  Chad didn’t know what to do with him.

He was glad Jay hadn’t been there in the end, that Ben’s familiar face and Mal’s fierce anger had stayed behind.  Chad would have likely given into tears if Ben had shown up to complete his humiliation, and that was a weakness he had tried to train himself out of years ago.  Tears gave him nothing - no sympathy, no edge, no help.  They were a burden.

And yet that evening he found himself so very close to giving into the temptation.

He dwelled on Carlos silent behind the others, his gaze knowing and pained.  Like he had been there before.  He thought about Jane who seemed so broken up about letting him go, and Chad was selfish, he knew, because if he just undid the glamour they would easily let him go.  It wouldn’t even be a question. 

But instead he ached for their attention so he tried to plead with them, to make them see without giving them the most certifiable proof he could offer.  He wanted it both ways, and in the end it made him suffer.

It was such a classic Chad move that he wanted to laugh over it.

Instead, he worked. 

It was all he could do.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Rearranging his schedule was a feat and a half, but Chad managed it.  The early evening had given him time to finish whatever lingering projects he had on the table for the next day.  He worked straight through the night and hard through early morning, and by the time 9 AM rolled around he was ready to approach Ben’s castle.

Chad kept his clothes simple, things he could work in without much trouble.  A lightweight shirt, sturdy pants, a long jacket made of thin material and his mask.  He brought no gear though he was tempted to if only to enter on a level playing field, designer-to-designer, but he didn’t have time to find second-hand goods and he didn’t want Jane’s pitying stares anyway, especially when they weren’t warranted.

It was Mrs. Potts who showed him in, gifting him a kind smile that Chad hadn’t earned in ages.  It added salt onto the festering wound, but Chad was determined to see this through without pitching anymore fits, so he mustered a smile of his own.  He was so adamant about maintaining a cool disposition that he didn’t realize the Head of Kitchens hadn’t brought him towards Evie’s bedroom at all, but instead had taken him to the library until they were already there.

The library was, and always would be, a wondrous sight for Chad.  Even when he had been too young to appreciate the words they provided it was difficult not to be awed by the sheer size of Queen Belle’s collection.  It had been too long since he had been allowed into its depths, and his fingers itched to pull a few volumes from the walls – history or political dissertations or perhaps an indulgent fantasy where the prince and princess lived happily ever after.  He always had a soft spot for those, but his grandfather considered them foolish wastes of time.  He wondered if Queen Belle still had the fictional recreation of his parents’ story.  He had always wanted to read that.

“Hi, Lance.” Ben drifted into view with gentle footsteps, devoid of any of his ceremonial wear, leaving him in a simple button up and slacks that still seemed unfairly regal. “Sorry for the confusion.  Evie got caught up in a dress emergency across the city.  She’ll be back as soon as she can, but until then I asked Mrs. Potts to bring you here.”

Chad stood his ground, aching to leave even though Ben was in no way threatening.  It felt like he could fall apart from the simple kindness of normality and it wasn’t fair, that Chad had been hoping for nothing and gotten nothing and still felt mixed up.         

“Would you like some tea?” Ben asked, perfectly courteous, and for lack of any other response, Chad nodded.

“Yes, thank you.” It had been awhile since he’d enjoyed tea with someone else simply for the sake of it. 

Ben led him towards a cozy nook by a fireplace, a full tea service already arranged on a low coffee table.

“It’s chamomile,” Ben explained as he poured it, though Chad could already tell as much by the faint smell – chamomile, of course, suited to soothing nerves.  How appropriate. “Cream?  Sugar?”

“I can get it,” Chad said, and it was a relief when the king didn’t fight him on it, simply passed over the cup so Chad could fix his own tea.  He noted with a slight twist in his chest that there was also a selection of small treats that he had shown an appreciation for, including a new tart that seemed to be s’mores-based in flavor.  It soothed as much as it ached him, and despite the fact that he hadn’t gotten a chance to eat that day, he ignored them, his stomach twisting in knots.  It was hard enough to manage the tea.

“I heard that you like books,” Ben offered after a brief but companionable silence.

Chad started, not having expected the comment.  He remembered, now, that his exact words to Evie had been that they were ‘good friends’.  It seemed stupid, in hindsight.

Though at least books only demanded what you could give, and never more.

“I do,” Chad settled on after a pause.  Normally he was the master of small talk, he could go on about nothing for hours at a time if needed, but it all seemed so- forced, now.  And he didn’t want that, with Ben.  He didn’t want to have the king’s attention obviously somewhere else, making noncommittal sounds every once and awhile just to be polite. 

Now, Chad had his attention.  And he- shouldn’t.  Shouldn’t even be here.  Shouldn’t indulge, like those books his grandfather threw away.  But.

He was here.  Which was probably the point, but if Ben was willing not to talk about the kerfuffle from the day before, then Chad could at least get some questions answered before they parted ways.  

“Do you?” he asked suddenly, even though he knew the answer to that question.

Ben stared at him, obviously surprised, though he recovered quickly. “You could say I love them,” he said with a chuckle. “I must have gotten it from my mom.”

Chad flushed. “Right. I-” He pressed his lips together. “What’s your favorite?”

“What?”

“Your favorite?” Chad tried again. “Or- favorites.  I know I can’t pick just one.” There were too many genres.  Too many different occasions.

“I um…” Ben grinned, somewhat deprecatingly. “This might be silly, but I really enjoy the Redwall series.”

“You do?” Chad perked up.  That had been one of the few young adult fantasy novels he had managed to sneak past his grandfather before he’d realized they weren’t actually animal science books. “I’ve read some of those!  Just the early ones, but I love them.”

The feasting.  The heroes.  Everyone working together towards good.  Happy endings for everyone who deserved it.

Obviously the ‘evil’ characters were a very blunt allusion to the residents of the Isle of the Lost but if you ignored the stupid ‘predisposition to evil based on species’ thing they were pretty good books.  

Ben’s face lit up. “You’re in luck, I’ve got the complete collection.  Come on-” He grabbed Chad’s hand, as easy as he was yesterday before everything went south, but he didn’t seem to care, too excited to share in this thing he loved so much. 

With that kind of enthusiasm it was easy to follow, something like hope building in Chad’s chest. 

-:-:-:-:-:-

Chad wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but eventually he found himself hanging halfway off a ladder, gesturing at Ben with a book because they’d somehow gone from fantasy to Agrabah literature to foreign languages and Chad had some points to prove.

“I told you,” he said, sliding down the ladder and thrusting the selected text in Ben’s face. “Ithildin are Dwarven runes that can be seen only by the light of the full moon.  Which would make them remarkably impractical for passing coded messages, unless you didn’t really care how expeditiously those messages were delivered.”

“Okay, okay,” Ben held his hands up in mock surrender. “I’m sorry for doubting you.  From now on I shall only turn to you for my stealth needs.”

“You should,” Chad sniffed.  He already did it for his kingdom by necessity but- he wouldn’t be talking to Ben like this for much longer. 

He felt his shoulders slump.

“Hey.” Ben’s hand curled around his forearm, taking the book Chad held loosely in his hands and setting it aside. “About yesterday-”

“Please, don’t.” Chad squeezed his eyes shut, as though that could brace him from the influx of pity.

“I just wanted to say that if you don’t want to talk about it, then we won’t talk about it.  None of us will talk about it.” He pressed the last point, though Chad wasn’t sure how much sway Ben had with this group, with all of them so commanding and passionate and somehow he was expected to reign them all in. “Just know that everything that happened yesterday – it’s because we care about you.  And they – we – tend to be protective of the things we care about.”

“Ben…” Chad didn’t know what to say, hated how simply Ben stated these things because it left no room for misinterpretation.

“Lance,” Ben said quietly. “We’re friends.  And if you’d let us, we’d like to hang out with you again.  We’d like for things to return exactly as they were, unless you’d like to talk about them, okay?”

Chad felt like he was going to shake apart.

“…can I hug you?” Ben asked, like he wanted to, and how could Chad do anything but nod in the wake of that?

Ben folded his arms around Chad carefully, drawing him to his chest like he was- like he was Jane, like he was someone who deserved his care – and Chad could feel himself trembling, because no one was this nice to him.  No one hugged him, or hashed out frankly bad deals just to get him to stick around. 

“It’ll be okay,” Ben whispered, even though it wouldn’t, because soon Lance would be gone. “It’ll be okay.  It’s okay.”

Chad wasn’t sure how long they stood like that, only that Ben didn’t pull away, didn’t leave him, until Chad was ready.  Truth be told, Chad held on much longer than propriety would allow, but he was pretty sure Ben wouldn’t judge him for it. 

Ben was kind enough to ignore the way he wiped at his eyes when he pulled apart, settling back into a disposition that was closer to their exchange of casual book debates.

“How about we take a break and go grab some lunch?” he asked, already threading his fingers through Chad’s. “We can come back to the books later.”

“Okay.” Chad’s voice was shaky, but he felt better.  Or, closer to better.  That was something.

It had to be, when he followed Ben, who was so difficult to turn away from.   

-:-:-:-:-:-

Ben dragged them by the kitchen to pilfer some snacks before bringing Chad back to the lounge they had commandeered a few nights previous.  This time they laid claim to a large table and covered it with scribbles and theories, pouring over old maps because Atlantis was real – they had enough historic markings and unexplored ocean territory for it to totally exist.  It burned Chad that he couldn’t cumulate enough funds to employ an expedition himself, but he settled on explaining his reasoning to Ben, who cheerfully played the devil’s advocate through their meal of simple sandwiches (and a s’mores cookie creation that was just- brilliant). 

The debate was fun and fast paced like all of their other discussions, but between the food and the stress Chad found himself yawning.  A lot, much to his embarrassment.  He tried to hide it as best he could, though he knew after the fifth one that he wasn’t fooling anybody, least of all Ben.

The king offered him a kind smile. “Why don’t you go ahead and take a nap?  Just a quick one.  I can wake you when Evie gets here.”

Chad was still kind of surprised that she hadn’t shown up yet, but he supposed Ben had a point.  Chad wouldn’t be much use to her if he couldn’t keep his eyes open.  A small power nap would get him pretty far.

“Okay,” Chad relented, rubbing at his eyes. “I’ll um, just-”

He was already motioning over to the sectional when Ben grabbed his hand, gently pulling him out of the room and down the hall.

“So it’ll be quiet,” Ben explained as he pulled Chad into a new bedroom – except this was totally Ben’s room, the room he shared with Mal.  It was the king’s bedroom-

Chad was at the point of very exhaustedly freaking out.

Which Ben didn’t pay attention to, cheerfully guiding Chad over to the large bed he likely shared with Mal. “Here you go.  I’ll be back later.”

“Ben-”

“I like it,” the king said abruptly, causing Chad to blink because that didn’t make sense. “When you say my name.”

Heat flooded Chad’s cheeks. “Oh,” he said, voice small. 

Super witty of him.  Great job.

“So…” Ben seemed to realize how awkward the moment was. “Rest here, and I’ll come get you later.”

He left before Chad could attempt another protest which was- fine.  It was fine.  It was just a bed, anyway. 

Chad was officially too tired to have this argument with himself.  He collapsed on the bed and buried himself under one of Mal’s stray blankets, letting darkness claim him with a few uneasy breaths.  

-:-:-:-:-:-

Chad drifted to awareness slowly, feeling more rested than he had in days, meaning he’d somehow escaped the anxiety of his mind to find some peace for just a moment.  He didn’t know how he’d managed such a thing, but he was grateful for it. 

He felt warmer than he usually did, the pillow beneath his head firmer than the one he’d fallen asleep on.  He was curled around something that seemed to rhythmically shift up and down, matching the tempo of his breathing, like-

Chad cracked his eyes open and realized his head was resting on someone’s chest, his arm curled around this person’s waist.  In equally important news, he seemed to be sharing his pillow with Jane, who was still pleasantly sleeping as they curled around the same unknown human.  After a few seconds, he realized that Doug was slumped around her back, using her as a sort of pillow, and Chad wanted to panic but he also didn’t want the moment to end because it was so nice. 

Unfortunately, he was not meant for nice things.

Chad looked up.

It seemed that Jay was surprised to find him awake.  And he was- they were- Jay.

The weird, protective, guy who tried to be nice but didn’t really succeed at it.  Chad didn’t know what to do with him, knew even less when he registered Jay’s relief and th small grin that followed. “We were waiting for you to wake up,” he offered. “But then Jane fell asleep.”

“Oh.” Chad guessed that made sense.  Though it would make more sense if they had waited like, off of the bed. “Is Evie still gone?”

“No.” Chad was grateful for the honest reply, even if it made his stomach drop. “She got back hours ago but we decided not to wake you.  You seemed exhausted.”

Chad had been exhausted because he had spent the entire night working through today’s schedule so he could finish their project. “But, the dress-”

“Will still be there,” Jay- soothed?  Echoing Mal’s words from a few days ago. “I know Evie seemed really upset yesterday but she… her mom didn’t treat her well.  She wanted Evie to be perfect, and while Evie is pretty much as close to perfect as you can get, it was still never enough.”

“I don’t…” Chad squeezed his eyes closed.  He didn’t want to think about the gross injustices that had been done against a kind soul who did not deserve them, because then he’d have to think about the gross injustices he had done to that same soul, and how she wanted to protect him despite this, simply through her ignorance. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay.” And then the subject was dropped, like it was that easy.

Belatedly, Chad realized Jay was rubbing small circles into his back.

He pushed on. “Where are the others?”

“Royal engagements,” Jay replied, keeping his voice low. “The festivities already started.  We’ve been taking turns staying with you.”

He’d slept through half of the day.  At this rate, his internal clock was going to be entirely messed up.  Chad needed to get up, but he wasn’t sure what to do after.  Should he go finish the dress? 

Jay did him a favor and decided the next course of action on his own. “We can go meet up with them.  Maybe get some food on the way there," he said, moving to wake the others.  “Jane, Doug.”

Mm- five minutes,” Jane grumbled, but Doug seemed more cooperative, gifting Chad a sleepy grin when he noticed him.

“You look better,” he said, not even as an insult, like Chad had looked terrible before (those were Audrey’s favorites).  It was legitimately pleased that Chad had managed this improvement, and it stung in its honesty.   

“Thanks,” Chad managed. “You look sleepy.”

“That’s because… sleepy,” Jane murmured, cracking her eyes open slowly. “Oh, hi Lance.”  She stretched her arms up, mouth stretching wide in a yawn. “What are we doing?”

“Food,” Jay supplied.

Yes,” Jane hissed. “I like that plan.”

It was these moments that Chad was determined to hold onto.  These little things that he knew he wouldn’t be able to recreate with all the freedom in the world.  The comfort of being relaxed in another’s presence.  The simple prospect of food.

Yes, he would miss this.

-:-:-:-:-:-

For the record, what happened next was not Chad’s fault.  He wouldn’t blame anyone who thought it was his fault, because sporadic instances of chaos coming into existence generally were his fault one way or the other, but this time- this was not his fault. 

They’d been walking to the food stalls, talking and carefree and easy like they were friends (and Chad loved and hated that, the way Jay would smile at him and there wasn’t any derision or mean sort of amusement- just appreciation).  One moment they were in the hustle and bustle of the crowd and then the next Chad was getting dragged into a darkened alleyway, pulled through narrow backstreets until eventually he was pressed against a wall and this was it, Jay had known it was him all along and Chad was going to get punched now, this had actually been a trap-

And then Jay was kissing him.

For a moment Chad was too shocked to respond because almost all of his instances of making out where instigated by him, controlled by him, but this was Jay’s firm lips pressing steadily against Chad’s, shifting slightly to urge a response that Chad gave into on reflex, Jay releasing some kind of hungry growl from his throat when his efforts redoubled.  He had a hand braced against Chad’s jaw, angling him so their kisses could deepen and his other hand was braced against Chad’s hip like- like he was the lady, and the thigh that worked between his legs let Chad know how um- interested his body was despite the fact that this was definitely a guy kissing him and Chad was definitely a guy who shouldn’t be enjoying this.  It wasn’t like the shower; this was intentional, and sort of terrifying in how good it felt.  

“W-wait-” Chad managed when Jay pulled back for air, the hand on his jaw dropping to um- pet his chest and Chad shivered, his bones feeling like putty. “W-why are you-?”

“Because you’re cute,” Jay said, reading between the lines as he swooped in for another kiss. “Because I can’t stop staring at your lips.  Because you’re funny and nice and if I had to go a second longer without kissing you I was going to go mad.” He started mouthing at Chad’s neck, gentle sucks mixed with licks that had the prince shuddering helplessly, a whine spilling from his throat. “Because you’re stronger than you know and kinder than we deserve and I thought you’d like it too, and it seems like I was right.”

“I um-” Chad flushed, hands coming to rest of Jay’s muscular sides for lack of anywhere else to put them. “I thought you were, um- joking, with all the-”

“You’re killing me,” Jay groaned, nipping at the curve of Chad’s neck. “I have been flirting with you for days and you’ve been ignoring it and it’s been killing me.” He ground his thigh against Chad’s groin suggestively, the prince letting out a surprised yip at the immense feeling of pleasure that shot up his chest. 

“Wait, I’m not-” Chad didn’t know what to say, what to think.  He shouldn’t have tolerated this for as long as he had but his body liked it.  It wasn’t nearly as disgusting as his grandfather thought it was, and maybe now was not the time to think about that old man when Jay was making a dedicated effort to eat his neck as though it were a snack. “I already told you I’m not- loose?  Or easy.  See, I don’t even know which one I’m not, that’s how- um- not that I ammm-” He cut off with a groan when Jay began sucking a dark mark on the underside of his jaw. “Jay.”

“That’s it,” the other teen urged, a wicked grin tugging at his lips. “Keep saying my name, just like that.”

 “I-” Chad gasped when the hand on his hip urged him forward, had him grind hard against Jay in a steady tempo. “Jay.  Um- Jay.  Jay-Jay-Jay.”

“Like music to my ears.” His eyes were half lidded when he said it, like he was hungry for Chad.  For Chad. “Sing for me, baby.”

“I’m gonna-” Chad was lost to the swell of arousal, feeling hot and overwhelmed and listless in a way he’d never been before, like everything was much more intense, like he would shatter if he moved the wrong way, like he was being held at the edge of the cliff and was about to be shoved off. “Jay.”

“Come for me,” Jay soothed, he just- he said that.  He wanted Chad to- right here. “I want to see your face.  See those pretty lips parted just for me.”

The praise was too much, so genuine and passionate that Chad lost himself.  He came grinding against Jay’s thigh, painfully aware of how the other teen was watching him, of the needy sounds that had to be spilling from his throat. 

Jay was on him when the worst of it had passed, licking into Chad’s mouth while he guided him down from his high, feeling everywhere, Chad lost to the sensation.

Chad’s chest was heaving by the time they parted, and he sort of wanted to find a pile of boxes to hide behind because what was that?

“So pretty,” Jay said, giving him one last kiss. “Thanks, Lance.”

Right.  Chad felt a spike in his breathing even though Jay didn’t seem to notice it, digging through his pocket for something.  He was Lance right now.  That was why Jay had taken him aside.  He wasn’t actually Chad.

“Here.” Jay pulled out a handkerchief as though that explained anything and then just- undid Chad’s pants.  The prince was too shocked to stop him, too thrown by the recent revelation to do more than gasp when Jay reached into his underwear and cleaned him off, his fingers large and firm and terrifyingly effective and Chad was pretty sure he was about to have a panic attack.

“There,” Jay said when he was finished; the handkerchief vanished with a flick of his wrist.  Right, sorcerer-in-training. “Mal would kill me if I didn’t take care of you.  Not that I wouldn’t do it on my own-”

“N-no, I get it.” Those long fingers were redoing his fly and combing through his hair and Chad wasn’t meant to be touched by people like Jay who already hated him. “Mal’s the boss.”

“See?” Jay grinned. “You get it.”  He leaned forward again, and this time the kiss wasn’t even weird, just- a natural exchange.  He pulled away, twining his fingers through Chad’s before he guided them back towards the food stalls. “Evie’s going to be so jealous.”

A hysterical laugh bubbled from Chad’s throat. “I seriously doubt that.”

“Hey.” Jay stopped, and he looked serious now, like this was a real problem deserving of his attention. “You’re worthy of any of us.  You do know that, don’t you?”

Chad tried to look… anywhere but Jay.  Because as a prince, sure, he was worthy of them, he was just- a really bad prince.  And it wasn’t like he could complain about that because Ben was king and he handled it with grace and kindness and parents that probably loved him.

Lance.”

“Let’s just agree to disagree,” Chad muttered.  Because he’d already had one shot at Evie and blown it spectacularly, and he certainly didn’t deserve her attention now.  “The others are probably wondering where we are.”

“This isn’t over,” Jay warned.

But it was.

He just didn’t know it yet.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Jay didn’t release his hand when they rejoined the others.  There were some knowing looks and pleased smiles that Chad did not know how to interpret, but Mal had patted him on the head like he was some kind of dog (which drew flashbacks to Audrey and closets and darkness) but that seemed to be her way of giving open approval which Chad guessed was good.  The rest of the night Jay kept him by his side, through the games and new foods, taking Chad on a spin around the dance floor.  When they weren’t dancing he had an arm around Chad’s waist, cradling him against his side and it felt- nice.  To be protected.  Like he was cared for, in a way. 

They were strolling towards that evening’s fireworks display when Evie spoke up. “Look, there’s Audrey.”

“So she’s been hanging out with Lonnie,” Mal noted. “I’m surprised Chad isn’t with them.”

Oh.  This was it.  They had just been waiting to reveal his identity as a group.

Eck,” Carlos- sighed?  Chad couldn’t really identify the noise, but it wasn’t positive, based on the way Jane batted his arm. “Poor guy.”

“Leave Chad alone,” Ben chuckled. “He’s had a rough time, lately.”

“Sure,” Jay snorted. “He’s had a rough time.”

This close, Jay couldn’t miss the sudden tension that gripped Chad’s frame, and he shot the prince a curious look.

The blond panicked. “…who’s Chad?”

“Cinderella’s son,” Evie replied, Jay seeming to relax. “Unfortunately, he’s not much like her.”

Chad was overwhelmed by an immediate onslaught of conflicting responses.  Like how he wished he wasn’t like her because maybe then his dad would be willing to look at him, and what the hell did Evie know anyway, it wasn’t like she’d ever met his mom and why wasn’t Ben saying anything because Ben was Chad’s friend, wasn’t he?

“Lights are on but nobody’s home,” Doug offered, prompting a round of laughter that Chad forced himself to join in.  Right.  He’d already known his low grades were no secret, and he was overwhelmed with so many things at school that it was easy for him to lose focus of- well, everything.

“That guy’s a tool,” Mal declared, talking over Ben’s attempts to shush her. “I mean, he’s harmless, but still a tool.”

“I pity whoever he convinces to date him next,” Jay drawled, wrapping an arm around Chad’s shoulders. “He’s all looks but no substance.”

“I swear,” Evie laughed.  “He could stare at himself in the mirror longer than I could.”

“And did you see the way he ran out of Audrey’s cabin?” Carlos piped up. “That guy wouldn’t last two minutes on the Isle.”

“Two minutes?” Mal laughed. “He wouldn’t last thirty seconds.” 

They all chuckled while Chad tried to push away thoughts of unyielding darkness that stole all sound and sensation until it was like he didn’t exist at all, until he was going to get lost there forever and he wanted to die, wanted to see his mom again and listen to her say it would all be alright but he couldn’t even sing the Lavender’s Blue song because his voice wouldn’t make any sound.

“You know,” Jane cut in. “-before Audrey showed up at my party, he tried to convince me that Carlos had forgotten my birthday.”

He remembered how Jane had been all by herself and Chad didn’t know what else to say because he wasn’t supposed to be friends with her and that was the first thing he had come up with because he was at least ninety percent sure Carlos wouldn’t miss her party so when he showed up it would be that much better?  Chad wasn’t really sure what the line of reasoning had been on that one, he had been running on two hours of sleep at the time.

Boo,” Mal cheered, accompanied by Evie’s sweet giggles. “Chad’s the worst.”

“I’m glad Audrey dumped him,” Evie declared. “She deserves better.”

The misguided person who had attempted to turn most of the kingdom into stone had- deserved better than Chad.  Somehow Chad was more offensive than the person that sought to actively destroy the kingdom.

He guessed that was what happened when you were consistently terrible.  Audrey had made a couple of bad decisions, but Chad’s bad decisions lasted a lifetime, and it showed.

“Come on, guys,” Ben said, though it seemed to be more out of obligation than anything else. “Don’t waste time thinking about Chad.”

Oh.  Wow, that wasn’t even a defense.  Yeah, that actually hurt more than anything the others had said.

“Fireworks are starting,” Doug piped up, like Chad’s own personally Fairy Godmother, and everyone stopped talking, choosing instead to enjoy the display. 

-:-:-:-:-:-

Chad made it through the fireworks by measure of not needing to talk, allowing Jay to pull him into his lap as a sendoff more than anything else because he knew this would be his last night as Lance.  He’d been stupid to think that he could somehow transfer his success here to something else, which he guessed wasn’t that big a surprise because Chad himself was pretty stupid.  

So he let Jay cuddle him and share brief kisses and he wondered if that was what having a boyfriend was like.  And he posed for pictures with Jane with a shy grin that was nothing like Chad would wear, and he laughed until he thought his heart would break because it already had. 

There was always a mass exit from the fireworks hills and Chad used it to his advantage, allowing himself to get lost in the crowds as the group moved towards the castle, where Ben had invited them for late night snacks and maybe a movie and everyone had seemed so happy about Lance joining them.

The last he saw of Jay was the other teen searching around with narrowed eyes, obviously trying to locate Chad, and then he ducked safely into the shadows, down the alley and deeper into the city, back towards his hidden car.

It was kind of funny.  The clock hadn’t rung for midnight, but Chad knew that the magic was over.  That there was no fairy tale ending for him. 

Wouldn’t Mal be proud.

Chapter Text

He didn’t go back to the Masquerade Festival.  Not as Chad.  Not as Lance.  Not at all.

Instead, he spent that time prepping for the new school year.  With summer drawing to an end he needed to set up his notification system for new diplomatic proposals going through his father’s office.  He had a working understanding with the secretaries to conveniently ‘lose’ the necessary paperwork until Chad had a chance to review it, and then make updates or ‘misfile’ them as needed depending on how much his grandfather had been able to sway his father at the time of writing.  There were councilmen to check in with, get an idea of how they felt about the political climate, see who could be useful and who needed to be offered generous severance packages.  There were a few from his grandfather’s hay day that Chad hadn’t quite been able to shake but the majority of the council was supportive of VKs rights, which would be the newest trial in the upcoming years. 

There were public appearances to make around Sardinia, outside the capital to give the people a sense of stability, and he needed stock up his design studio for the year.  He had managed to sweet talk one of the accountants in his family’s financial firm to help him set aside funds for an account his grandfather wouldn’t be able to trace, so he needed to check in on that, then get as much design work out of the way as he could before the school year started.  He should probably set up a meeting with the secretaries to keep an eye out for any incoming documents from Auradon as well so he could be the one to give it to his father instead of his grandpa, try to give it a positive spin before his grandfather could go on about tradition and ‘the foolishness of youth’.

Of course, with all this he was still expected to be at family dinners, to shadow his grandfather to ‘learn’ the kingdom and train with the guards and work with his tutors because he may have done okay in history and literature but math and science were still the bane of his existence, and princes weren’t allowed to have banes. 

So overall, he was very busy.

Somehow, through the chaos of it all, he still found himself talking on the phone to Audrey, who had much more free time now that she’d tried her hand at villainy.

Get this,” she said by way of greeting, because they were past the point of social niceties for each other. “The VKs are going crazy.”

“How so?” Chad frowned at his sketchpad, half tempted to tear the picture out entirely because he’d ended up with another Lance jacket instead of the women’s sweater he’d intended.

Apparently they met this Isle kid during the Masquerade festival.  Jay was all over him – the gossip sites were buzzing over it – and anyway, you’ll get a kick out of this-” Chad wasn’t sure why. “Because it’s like, totally your parents’ story, right?  Because this kid, they’ve never seen him before, no one else remembers him from the Isle despite the fact that he’s been buddy-buddy with them for like, the entire festival.  And then suddenly – poof – the guy vanishes, and no one can find him.

“That doesn’t sound like my mom’s story,” Chad forced himself to sound distracted, deciding to go ahead and tear the page out and toss it in the fireplace to be burned later. “He would have left a shoe, or something.  Did he leave a shoe?”

No, Chad,” Somehow, she always managed to make his name sound like an insult. “He didn’t leave anything behind.  Just a name and some broken hearts.” She giggled.  Chad was pretty sure she was at least still like, eighty percent evil. “So now they’re going crazy looking for him, but again, no one knows who he is.”

“Maybe he was a spy,” Chad offered, because that would have been his natural conclusion. “Taking advantage of the whole masquerade deal.”

They don’t think he’s that crafty.” And the way she said this implied she had first-hand information, which was weird, because last Chad checked he was the closest person to Audrey despite being her ex, likely due to the fact that he still answered her phone calls in a desperate move to stave off loneliness. “Mal asked me to keep an eye out,” she explained. “Since I’ve got nothing else to do, but can you imagine?

Imagine that Mal was desperate enough to turn to Audrey for help?  No, Chad really couldn’t.  In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that Audrey hadn’t started mocking him yet Chad would have thought the young princess was aware of his deception and was yanking his chain around.

“Can’t say I can.”

Of course you can’t,” Audrey sighed – Chad forever a disappointment to her. “Did you see anything? I haven’t caught any photos of you at the festival, but I figured you were doing your weird fashion Avant Garde thing and then got all pouty when no one recognized you.”

“First of all, my fashion isn’t Avant Garde, it’s high end.” Nothing but the best for his mother’s memory. “And second of all I didn’t go to the festival because I couldn’t pick out an outfit.”

But there were like, eight days.  That’s eight different outfits.”

“Well I had more than that.” Why couldn’t she just buy the ditzy thing for once and move on?  She never had trouble doing it before. “If I can’t guarantee that I’m perfectly charming what’s even the point of attending?”

So you didn’t just bail because you thought people would make fun of you?” Audrey replied, forever cutting to the point with ruthless efficiency.  “Even I was there, Chad, and I’m on house arrest.”

“Beauty requires sacrifices,” Chad parroted one of Audrey’s favorite adages back to her. “You know how it is.”

Sureee,” she drew the word out, then seemed to decide to immediately abandon her interest in Chad’s weirdness because there was no point. “Look, just let me know if you see anything about this Lance guy.  If I bring them any information they might reduce my sentence.”

Audrey didn’t need a reduced sentence, she needed therapy.  And that was coming from Chad.

But still, she’d called because she knew Chad wouldn’t say no to her, because she knew Chad didn’t have any friends.

“I’ll keep you posted,” he lied. “You can count on me.”

And then they both laughed because they knew it wasn’t true.   

-:-:-:-:-:-

“Hey, Doug.” Normally, Chad wouldn’t speak to the Dwarf kin in public, but he had happened upon his roommate by chance, and Doug seemed so legitimately distraught that Chad felt compelled to say something.

Doug blinked at him, seeming confused when he realized who had addressed him in the first place. “Chad, hey.  I um- don’t really have time right now-”

“Sure thing,” Chad said, trying to determine some way he could shift the conversation to addressing emotional issues without being too obvious about it. “Hey um, are you okay?”

“Fine.  I’m great, I’ve got to-” Doug was already walking away, shoulders hunched and eyes tired. “Bye.”

“Okay,” Chad said, mostly to himself, wishing he didn’t feel so choked up inside.

He would get over it.

-:-:-:-:-:-

“Chad, I need your help,” Carlos said the bulk of this in a rush, charging into Chad’s dorm room that he had been ‘prepping’ for the school year (i.e. – escaping his grandfather’s judgmental clutches) with a determination that could not be stopped.

It had been so long since Chad had laid eyes on the teen that he didn’t immediately respond, because Carlos seeking out Lance had turned into a no brainer, but it was rare that he would visit Chad.  In fact, it was never.  Never was the answer.

“Chad!” Carlos shouted when it became obvious he wasn’t going to reply.

Guess that meant he probably wasn’t a mirage.  Despite his exhaustion, Chad managed to slip into his vague smile of charming confusion, blinking his eyes with extra befuddlement. “Excuse me?”

That seemed to be all the confirmation Carlos needed to jump halfway through a conversation they hadn’t actually had yet. “Look, I just need your access codes,” he said, opening up the laptop he had tucked under his arm and sliding it onto Chad’s bed, where Chad had been doodling summer dresses that might have looked good on Jane. 

He nudged his sketchbook under one of his pillows. “For… what?

Carlos sighed. “I know you’ve heard the gossip, Chad.  We’re trying to track down a VK.”

“No, that part I get,” Chad slowly drawled. “What I don’t get is why you need my access codes.  Or why you know I have access codes.”

They were specific to Sardinia’s security system for information management.  His grandfather had developed them when he’d grown tired of Chad’s interference in public policy, though of course Chad had taken the hurdle as an opportunity to become stronger and granted himself his own set of codes that let him look into whatever his grandfather felt was some grand vital secret at the time.  Their existence was known only by the royal family and a few high-ranking officials in the Sardinian government.

And now, apparently Carlos.  Which meant the rest of the VKs knew.

Carlos looked at him like he was stupid. 

So basically he just looked at Chad.

“We’ve managed to confirm Lance’s movement patterns and travel times based on the few public cameras he’d been caught on.” Chad had managed to avoid a lot of them out of habit, so he understood Carlos’ frustration. “It’s most likely that he was commuting from Sardinia.  We need access to your records for Isle refugees and your public transport records in order to track him down.  So.” He pushed the laptop towards Chad. “Access codes.”

“Um.” Chad pushed the laptop back. “I can’t actually do that since it’d be, you know, illegal but uh… hey, maybe if the guy isn’t showing up, he doesn’t want to be found?”

“You’re an idiot, Chad,” Carlos snapped, just- coming right out and being obvious with his distaste. “You wouldn’t know a good thing if it bit you in the face.” Oh-ho, the irony. “He wants to be with us, he just doesn’t think he deserves it.”

“Then shouldn’t he, I don’t know, come to figure that out on his own?”

“Not everyone can, Chad.” Carlos slammed the laptop shut when he realized the blond wasn’t going to help him. “You’re so self-absorbed.  Not everyone can run on your unending and frankly unjustified well of confidence.”

“It was nice to see you too!” Chad yelled at his retreating back, taking a moment to be proud of the exchange because otherwise he might start crying again. 

And he just- didn’t want to do that anymore.

-:-:-:-:-:-

“Hi, Chad.” The smile Evie greeted him with was extra wide and extra perfect and so wonderfully strained it couldn’t be anywhere close to genuine, though Chad wouldn’t have known had he not spent so much time with her as someone she’d actually liked. “I heard Carlos paid you a visit yesterday.”

Chad paused from where he’d been pretending to stare at his reflection in the hallway mirror (he was really using it to check the route of the man loitering outside the window that his grandfather had sent to drag him back home for some last minute ‘preparations’ before school started). “Oh.” He blinked. “Yeah, I guess he did.”

Her smile became a little more tense.  Chad realized, for all Carlos’ determination, he likely hadn’t told the others about his idea, or they would have sent Evie first. “I just wanted to apologize for his behavior,” she soothed, linking her arm through the crook of Chad’s elbow with such deftness that he almost didn’t notice it. “He was completely out of line.”

“You know that Carlos,” Chad chirped, allowing Evie to tug him out into the gardens for a stroll.  “Always such a rascal.  He didn’t mean anything by it.”

“That’s… kind of you.” Wow.  It actually sounded like it hurt Evie to say that. “And while I know that technically giving out your access codes might be considered a violation of Sardinia’s security measures-”

“A big one,” Chad pressed, because even if his persona was dumb as dirt, he felt his grandfather would have stressed the importance of that onto dumb-Chad enough for it to shine through.

“We were hoping for just- a little favor.  Between friends,” she added, dazzling him with a lovely smile. “I was feeling inspired to make that peacock cloak you had been talking about.” Had he?  Was that for Cotillion?  Chad had slept so little during that time. “And maybe Ben could reduce Audrey’s house arrest sentence – but we’re so busy looking for Lance that it-” She sighed.  It was very dramatic and wistful and Chad would have applauded her if he’d had both hands. “There’s just no time.” She looked to him, eyes full of hope. “Could you just- maybe, lose your access codes?  For me?  It would be a big help.”

Boy didn’t Chad know it.

He met her depressed sigh with an excessive one of his own. “I can’t,” he whined. “But if you need feathers for that cloak-”

“I will ask you for them,” she managed, smile tight. “It was good talking to you, Chad.”

“Of course,” Chad agreed, and with that she left him, and he went back to- to whatever he’d been doing.  Moping.

Ah yes, that was it.   

-:-:-:-:-:-

Chad eavesdropped on the VKs strategy huddle by happenstance, seeing as he’d been going out of his way to avoid them, stumbling upon one of their whispered sessions while he was making yet another secret supplies run hadn’t exactly been at the top of his list.  He’d managed to duck into a shadowy nook to try and plot out a new course that would get him successfully to his car when their frantic murmurs rose to emphatic conversational levels.

“It has to be Sardinia,” Carlos was saying, so beautifully certain he was right that nothing could shake him. “I’ve already checked all the other neighboring kingdoms; it’s the only option that makes sense.  And I would just hack the system but their security is miles above everyone else’s.”

That was mostly due to the little private war between Chad and his grandfather, though he supposed the kingdom’s security got to benefit from it so it wasn’t a huge loss.

“Figures,” Mal muttered. “The one place we need to get into and Chad fucking Charming is standing in the way.”

“I’ve already checked his rooms,” Jay muttered. “Hoped he might have had it written down but that must have been the one thing that stuck in that dumb brain of his.”

“Of all the times to be practical,” Evie muttered, her voice dripping with bitterness. “What about the castle?”

“Jane tried to stall with Chad’s grandfather long enough for me to search Chad’s rooms, but there wasn’t anything there either,” Jay sighed. “At this rate, asking the King Christopher might be the better route, cuz Chad’s grandpa certainly wasn’t biting.”

Chad’s heart clenched in his chest at the thought of Jane inhabiting the same room as his grandfather – who was not at all impressed by works of magic which was, sort of, entirely what Jane was.  He’d have to go home to do damage control, stress that Chad had no interest in Jane, that there were no romantic possibilities there.  He didn’t want her to land in the same troubles grandfather tried to give Aunt Anastasia.

“He won’t give us access,” Evie sighed. “He doesn’t have any reason to.”

“I’ll keep searching the place on foot,” Jay muttered. “They can’t hide him away forever.”

“I’m pulling the records for all underground structures this evening,” Carlos said. “In case they literally went underground.”

“Okay,” Mal said. “Keep searching.  We’ll find him.”

They wouldn’t, though.

Chad wondered how long it would take before their hope would finally die.

-:-:-:-:-:-

It’s gotten better,” Audrey cackled, ruminating in the misery of others the same way one might savor sunshine after being trapped inside all day. “Now, Jay has gone crazy.  Lonnie said that he’s been running all over town with a white domino mask, like that will help him find his mystery man.

“Gotta give him points for commitment,” Chad said, keeping his tone disinterested, as though he didn’t have an alert setup on his phone for every time someone posted a picture of Jay on his search.

It really is your parents’ story,” Audrey mused dreamily, because underneath all that anger was a girl looking for her own fairytale ending. “At this rate, I’m rooting for him.  He’s certainly put in the ground work for it.”

It was likely one of the nicest things Audrey had ever said, and it was for someone she didn’t even care all that much about.  She certainly hadn’t apologized to Chad for the way she’d treated him during her reign as ‘Queen of Mean’.

“Too true,” Chad forced himself to agree. “He should consider selling the movie rights when he finds the guy.”

If he finds the guy,” Audrey corrected, reasserting her image as the princess with the coldest heart. “Otherwise he’ll have to stick with a tragic romance novel.”

“He could write a song about it,” Chad offered. “People love that sort of stuff.”

I doubt Jay would capitalize on his disappointment like that, but I like the way you think,” Audrey laughed. “Maybe we could do it for him.  I mean, maybe I could do it for him.”

“It would give you something to do.”

Now you’re speaking my language.”

And with that, she hung up, because if Jay wasn’t going to take advantage of his tragedy then someone else may as well.

-:-:-:-:-:-

While Chad had been expecting a visit from Ben eventually, he still wasn’t prepared for it when the moment came one dark and stormy night, the perfect foreshadowing for how terrible this conversation would go.  Chad was reorganizing his closet, because that was what he did when he couldn’t eat and he couldn’t sleep and he couldn’t focus on his reports long enough to string two sentences together.  He had already removed everything for a deep cleaning and was in the process of replacing it by color because even if it wasn’t functional it was pretty and sometimes it was nice waking up and having at least one lovely thing he could depend on. 

Ben must have used his master key because Chad hadn’t heard him knock, merely came out for another load of clothes to find Ben standing pitifully in the middle of his room, slightly damp as though he’d gotten caught in the rain but couldn’t exert the effort to care about it because he looked so… lost.  It was a painful kind of listlessness that made Chad want to hug him, but Chad and Ben didn’t do that, hadn’t in years, and that wasn’t what this conversation was going to be about.

“Chad.” Ben’s voice was broken, like he had come to his lowest point except he still looked perfectly regal and had a stupidly large support group. “I know… I know I shouldn’t be asking you this-”

“You really shouldn’t,” Chad said, trying to keep the frown off his face, the panic out of his voice, because if Ben actually asked him, it would be a breach of power for the king.  He didn’t have any right to ask for private Sardinian information unless it was a national threat, and they both knew this wasn’t.  It was why they had been so crafty asking Chad before this point, but if Chad’s grandfather caught wind of this he could put in a formal complaint to the council, and if they thought Ben was compromised enough, they could consider nominations for a new ruler. 

“Chad.” Ben stepped forward on unsteady legs until he was in front of the blond and then he kneeled – or fell to his knees, more like it, hands scrambling for Chad’s own in a desperate plea. “I know I shouldn’t ask you, Chad.  I know it isn’t fair to do this to you, I know it’s not your problem but-” He squeezed Chad’s fingers, and they had held hands so many times how could he not recognize Chad as Lance?  Except of course he wouldn’t, because Chad would never be what he was looking for.

Chad.” There was moisture in his eyes, a building heat that broke Chad’s heart. “Please, I need your help.  There’s this kid, and he-”

“Ben.” Chad kept his voice steady through years of practice, and he was grateful that Ben was lost to his grief if only because he couldn’t notice the way Chad was shaking. “I can’t help you.  I can’t help you like this.  I’m sorry-”

“We think he’s being abused,” Ben pressed, getting back on his feet but still holding onto Chad’s hands. “Please.  If he’s one of your citizens he needs your help.”

“And he’ll get it,” Chad said. “Any reports of nefarious activity-”

“That’s just it, Chad, you don’t know everything!” This must be what Mal meant by Ben ‘going beast’ because his eyes were wild, expression twisted in a murderous rage that made Chad tremble in place, even when Ben began to pace the room with a snarl. “None of them are comfortable with reporting to authorities so he’s just going to keep getting hurt-”

“We have programs in place,” Chad managed, composure hanging by a thread because this was his grandfather at his greatest level of disappointment.  In a minute Ben would start grabbing things and throwing them, and Chad needed to be ready to duck. “People to help facilitate the transition who will report-”

“But they haven’t been reporting!” Ben snapped. “Jane went through your public jail records-”

“The refugee information is classified.” Because they were transitioning and so many people were scared of change. “You know that, Ben, it was one of your edicts-”

“Chad.” It was frightening, how quickly Ben made it across the room to grab onto Chad’s shoulders, to march him back until he was pinned against the wall. “Forget edicts, forget rules – I am asking you, as a friend, to help me find this kid.  Help me give him a better life.  I need you to do that.”

Throughout the monologue his grip had gotten tighter and tighter, until Chad was sure his shoulders would be riddled with bruises the following day. “Ben,” he said quietly, exhaustion and sorrow and pain lingering in his chest, his throat, behind his eyes. “You’re scaring me, Ben.”

If there was anything to put the king in his place, it was his effect on other people. His people.

Ben’s disposition changed immediately, faster than Chad’s grandfather ever would, anger melting into apology and horror as he released Chad, backing away to give him space. “Chad.” His eyes were watery and Chad hated it. “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have-”

“I um…” Chad forced his eyes closed, forced himself to try to breathe even when he wanted to break. “I think I’m going to forget we had this conversation.  I think- I think I’ve already forgotten it.  Right now.”

It was the only olive branch he could offer Ben.

When he opened his eyes, the king was collected enough to take it. “Of course,” Ben said, offering a regal nod. “Thank you for your time, Chad.  I appreciate it.”

“Always a pleasure,” Chad managed, and it wasn’t a croak. 

His body didn’t relax until Ben had vacated the room, and then it was like his legs couldn’t hold him anymore.  He collapsed under the weight of his stress and heartache, using the wall to hold his weight because Ben wanted Lance so badly but he didn’t want Chad at all, couldn’t control himself from yelling at Chad or hurting him, and Chad had known that all along but it was so much worse being faced with it.

So he cried, silent tears that he could hide behind his hands, minimal fuss to attract minimal attention – just as he’d trained himself to do. 

-:-:-:-:-:-

He hadn’t expected to receive company.

He hadn’t expected a lot of things, it seemed.  But when Chad finally looked up, trying to gather the wandering tendrils of his thoughts to strategize a new plan going forward, it was to see Doug. 

To be fair to Chad, Doug rarely visited their dorm room before school started.  In fact, Chad had been banking on the dwarf kin staying with Evie at her cottage, or with Ben and Mal at Auradon Castle, or with his parents who loved him – there was no reason for him to seek out the space he shared with an annoyance willingly.  It wasn’t like he needed an escape

But here he was, staring at Chad with an open expression of pity, and it made him want to break down again.  Instead, Chad scrubbed hastily at his cheeks, shifting to his feet so he could retreat to the bathroom.

“Chad…” his roommate began quietly, because he just couldn’t let things be.

“Hey, Doug,” Chad’s voice was rough and not nearly close to charming. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Did Ben…?” He didn’t seem capable of finishing the sentence.

“You just missed him.” Chad turned his back as soon as he was able to, making his steps measured and even, his posture confident even though the rest of him was not. “You could probably catch up to him if you tried.”

Doug wasn’t nearly as bad at reading social cues as some gave him credit for, so it was a surprise when Chad heard him follow the prince towards the bathroom, hovering in the doorway while Chad began soaking a washcloth. “…what did he say?”

“You know what he said,” Chad kept his voice quiet when he replied, keeping his focus set on the next order of tasks.  Wringing out the cloth, dabbing his cheeks, repeat until princely once more.

Chad,” Doug just- sounded pained, and Chad hated it, hated how he couldn’t help and how he couldn’t sleep and how his stomach refused to hold anything anymore.

“I’m not-” Chad swallowed, wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m not doing this on purpose, you know.  I want to help you.” Maybe he wouldn’t help them find ‘Lance’ because he wasn’t really, but Chad would never intentionally harm them like this if he could help it. “I’m glad they found… something good, but…” He shrugged. “Treason is treason, and I do have a duty to perform, even if I’m not very good at it.”

Or at least, didn’t seem to be.

“I’m sorry, Chad,” Doug said after a strained pause, his roommate seeming unable to think of an appropriate response.

“You know…” Chad began quietly, couldn’t fathom what gripped him to say as much but he had to share it, this one note they all seemed to disregard. “I do have feelings, too.”

Maybe they should think of that, before they made fun of him behind his back.  Or inadvertently in front of his face.

“I’m sorry, Chad,” Doug simply repeated.

It was a hollow offering, Chad wondered if Doug realized that.

He couldn’t reply. “You should go catch up with Ben, make sure he doesn’t get the flu, or something.”

“R-right.” Doug nodded, seeming relieved at the opportunity to bow out before hastily making his escape.  Hastily getting away from Chad.

It was fine.  Everything was fine.

Everything had to be fine.

-:-:-:-:-:-

The next time the VKs interrupted Chad’s life, it was with a deceptively gentle knock on his door.  A knock that waited for his attention, that wasn’t immediately proceeded by someone barging into the room after they had catered to what they considered was a superfluous societal standard.

For a moment, Chad thought he was hallucinating, and then the knock sounded again.

When he cracked the door open, Carlos was standing on the other side.  He seemed remarkably composed compared to the last few times Chad had seen him.

“Hey.” The young De Ville offered Chad a wave, his gaze assessing but… careful?  He seemed tired, and not- disgusted as he usually was with Chad’s presence. “I um… wanted to apologize.”

Chad swallowed, but didn’t move. “Evie already did that.”

“Yeah,” Carlos agreed. “In an effort to get what we wanted.  But that’s… kind of bullshit so.” His gaze was very intense. “I wanted to actually apologize.  And not ask for anything.”

There was a pause.

“This is not a trick.”

“Oh.” Chad had sort of been expecting one. “Thank you, then.”

A concerned expression shifted on Carlos’ face before melting away to stoic indifference. “I haven’t actually done it yet.”

“Oh,” Chad repeated.  What a stunning conversation.  No wonder Carlos hated him.

“Can I come in?” He seemed to really want this for some reason, and Chad didn’t have any cause to deny him other than to be a dick, so he stepped aside and allowed Carlos into the safety of his room, until the two of them could awkwardly huddle near the doorway.

“I’m sorry,” Carlos said carefully, maintaining eye contact as though he wanted to ensure Chad knew he was serious. “I’m sorry for yelling at you.  I’m sorry for trying to get you to commit treason.  I’m sorry we’ve been such shitty friends.”

“We’re friends?” Chad asked before he could help it, then immediately tried to recover. “I mean, obviously we’re-”

But Carlos cut off his bumbling with ruthless sincerity. “Yeah, dude,” he said, drawing closer to Chad. “I’m sorry that we’ve done such a bad job of it that you didn’t even know.”

“To be fair,” Chad sniffed, trying to regain some sort of equilibrium. “Lots of people want to be friends with me.  It’s hard to keep track.”

It was all a blatant lie and even Carlos’ basic observational skills could call him out on it if he really wanted to.

Carlos was kind enough to ignore it. “Want to hang out?” he said instead, which- was not where Chad thought this was heading. “We could play video games, if you want.  I’ve gotten pretty good at Castle Crasher.”

Chad considered this, his heart clenching in his chest because he wanted this to mean something, even if it really was just a basic demonstration of kindness. “Only if I get to be the pink one.”

Carlos laughed. “You’re lucky Jane’s not here, then.”

It was never good luck to be without Jane but Chad laughed anyway because what did he know.

It was strained when they first sat down at the couch.  Chad was desperate not to make any mistakes, desperate not to give any ammunition to Carlos’ anger, but they got a few levels in and Carlos didn’t say anything negative, and eventually they could share cheesy jokes without Chad almost flinching anytime Carlos opened his mouth.

Despite how… odd it was, it was likely the easiest transaction he’d had in a long time.   

Like everything else, Chad savored it.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Like all things do, things eventually reached a breaking point.

It just didn’t arrive in the capacity that Chad had been expecting.

As was required by him by royal tradition, Ben hosted a fantastical garden party for all the royals that were slated to be attending Auradon Prep in the upcoming year.  It was a way to reconnect and solidify old alliances without the pressure of a ball or formal dinner, so the afternoon was filled with the light aroma of flowers and a sea of pastel clothing as everyone politely intermingled, an elegant four-string quartet playing up on a dais. 

As was the way of these things, Chad found himself by Audrey’s side, the young princess gossiping adamantly with Lonnie and Aziz while Chad did his best to pay attention, pretending his focus wasn’t split between the conversation and Ben’s slightly strained smile as he suffered through small talk half a garden away.  Doug, Jane, and Evie, at least, seemed to be putting forth an effort to mingle and be sociable, but Mal’s smile had more bite to it than cheer, and Jay was an impassive statue at best.  Only Carlos seemed fairly normal, offering Chad a small wave when he caught the blond’s eye, saluting him with a teacup and a wink that seemed friendlier than their past year of interactions.  

“Also,” Audrey was saying with a flourish of her hand. “I’ve decided to take you back, Chad.  I realize now that my brush with evil was really a cry for help after struggling under the pressures put on me by my family, so while I thought I wanted Ben, I really just wanted my family’s approval.”

“Your cry for help turned half the kingdom into statues,” Aziz pointed out with a raised brow.

Audrey, of course, waved him off. “They got better.  My point is, while our wedding can’t outshine Ben and Mal’s, I was thinking we could still have quite a sizeable affair – considering four kingdoms are involved between Auroria, Ulstead, Sardinia, and the Moors – and Aunt Snow loves you anyway so Hanover will probably make a showing.  It won’t be as big but there’s no reason we can’t sparkle.”

Chad tried to process all of this carefully, though for the life of him he couldn’t remember how they’d gotten from point A to point marrying Audrey, and the only thing he could think of after his firm brush with heartbreak was, “I’m not marrying you.”

Audrey paused, blinking at Chad for having the audacity to interrupt her, then paused again when she realized what he said. “Chad.”

He needed to defuse this quickly, because Aziz and Lonnie looked like they were a few seconds from getting out their phones. “You are… not very nice to me,” he settled on, because that was true. “So maybe you should try someone else.  Like Aziz.”

“Hey man.” Aziz paused halfway to digging into his pocket. “Leave me out of this.”

Chad,” Audrey said again. “I know I went on about Ben a lot, but it’s always been you and me.  You’ve always been there for me, and I need you.”

Needed someone who was easy to control that had a nice kingdom for her to exploit was what she did not say, but it was what she meant, actually.

“Besides,” she continued. “Sardinia hasn’t had a queen in a long time.  It needs someone… right to step in and fill those glass slippers, if you know what I mean.”

Audrey knew it was a low blow to bring Chad’s mom into things, and was likely banking on his desire not to make a scene to keep him from reacting.  Which it did, but only just barely.

“Audrey,” he began carefully, because he couldn’t actually yell at her. “You need more help than I can give you.  There are plenty of princes who…” Had basic survival instincts and wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole. “Well, maybe you’ll find a commoner from Auroria – have your own fairytale.”   

“Oh shit,” Aziz muttered, before Chad realized the error of his ways.

“Excuse me?” Audrey scowled, the teacup and saucer clutched between her hands trembling with her rage. “I could have anyone I want.” Except for Ben.  And now, Chad. “Any prince would be lucky to have me, and who are you holding out for, anyway?  Do you think there is anyone here-” She motioned around them, gaining attention of a few of the groups that were unfortunate enough to be lingering nearby. “Who is desperate for you?  Even Evie set her sights up after talking to you!  I mean we get it, your mom’s dead and you don’t want to replace her, but you’ve got to grow up, Chad!”

“I’m not going to marry you,” Chad repeated, keeping his voice level because he didn’t know what else to do when Audrey got like this.  “Yelling isn’t going to make me change my mind.”

Audrey glared at him, prepping her cup as though she was going to throw it at Chad, but Lonnie intercepted her, letting it splash on the ground. “Now, now – let’s not assault our ex-boyfriend, okay?”

“Ex-loser is more like it!” Audrey snapped, and that was- probably the end of their friendship, which was fine.  Audrey was kind of toxic anyway. 

It just sort of left Chad at a loss for how to proceed, because everyone was staring and everyone was whispering and even Ben looked concerned for once and wasn’t that something?

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to find Carlos. “Hey, you wanna get out of here?”

“Um- sure,” Chad said, following Carlos’ lead out of the garden.

-:-:-:-:-:-

When Carlos had mentioned ‘getting out of here’ Chad had assumed that was a polite way of saying he was being escorted from the premises for upsetting Audrey.  Instead, he found himself in Ben’s library, settled onto one of the couches near a large open window.

“Sorry about that,” Carlos said, as though what happened was in any way his fault. “I told Ben not to invite Audrey, but he didn’t want to snub her after what’d happened.”

“For someone under house arrest, she sure gets out a lot,” Chad muttered, and it was sort of nice when Carlos laughed, like it was actually funny.

“Still,” Carlos began. “She shouldn’t have done that.  You didn’t deserve it.”

Chad knew at least six people who would disagree with that – well, seven if you included Audrey – but he decided not to mention that. “Thanks,” he said quietly. “She was just- upset.”

“No reason to take it out on you,” Carlos replied. “You were right.  She is mean to you.”

Chad blinked, realizing that Carlos must have caught more of the conversation than he’d expected, and he felt a well of shame build in his stomach, because it didn’t seem fair.

“And she was wrong,” Carlos continued. “You’re a catch, Chad.  Anyone would be lucky to have you.”

“I mean.” Chad blinked away the sudden heat in his eyes, staring resolutely at his feet. “Of course.  I’m Chad Charming, that’s-” He forced a smile. “Audrey’s just jealous, is all.  That she can’t have this anymore.”

The smile Carlos gave him was small, but it seemed genuine.  Not mocking, like it would be in the past. “That’s the spirit,” he chirped, squeezing his arm. “Do you wanna try the next level of Castle Crashers?”

“Yeah,” Chad nodded, even though he knew he should probably get back out there and do damage control.  He just wanted some more of this- ease that he had with Carlos.  Wanted something kind to take with him, as though he were Lance again.

He just needed a little bit.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Everything was going as beautifully numb as it was always destined to until his grandfather decided to shatter his world by way of a passive aggressive email.

It seemed that the royal couple had been invited to Sardinia to prove that their loyalties were still intact – which was his grandfather’s way of saying that Chad had better schmooze the royal hell out of them or else his near future was going to be riddled with pain.  He had decided to inform Chad of this dinner meeting the day before because the prince was just ‘so busy with his duties’ and he ‘didn’t want to further distract him’ so instead of having a week to strategize, Chad had a few hours to panic and sulk and then maybe break into his private liquor stash.

It wasn’t a good idea.  He was past the point of good ideas. 

So when he woke up the next morning, light burning in his eyes from a sun that was far too high in the sky, Chad knew he was doubly screwed.  He’d missed his breakfast meeting, and a few other tedious but necessary checkups and oh, also, lunch with his grandfather to review Chad’s capabilities for the dinner (they would be lacking, they were always lacking, sometimes Chad wondered what the point of those meetings were).

It was a terrible start to the day.

And it only got worse.